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

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

A Question

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

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

Narcissism and Facebook

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

Privatization

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

What About the Church?

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

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

The Rub

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

Selah

As It Turns Out, Freedom Is Not Actually Free: On Flags, Freedom, and Racism in America

Dedicated to Paul, John and The brother from Another Mother

I typically shy away from hot button issues, first of all because they are “hot”, and secondly, because I mostly only wanted to write about The Narrow Path and the few that find it; and how the one leading us on that path is oftentimes found immeasurably missing in America.  Nonetheless, a friend of mine encouraged me to reconsider after reading my blog from last year titled: https://marknealprince.com/2017/06/09/trump-vs-everyfrickingbody-our-new-mascot-for-sticking-it-to-the-man/  He’s a black man (don’t you hate that we have to make that distinction), who is my brother from another mother, but who happened to think that particular blog struck a cord and was funny, and that I should reconsider writing more along those lines.  So here goes an experiment.  Who knows where the wind will take us, but at the very least, you will get a piece of my mind on the matter for whatever it’s worth.

Oh, and last but not least, this blog is a tribute to my two new friends (Paul and John), who reminded me just yesterday that gentleman can disagree agreeably, and that white boys can talk about the race issue too, and have something equally to say to add to the conversation as long as we are willing also to actively listen.  This is of course something that I did not realize I could do in the public square given my particular shade of melanin.  Thanks Paul and John for the reminder, and for the olive branch to take part.

First of all, my other friend I mentioned truly is a brother from another mother, and he has come to the conclusion that I would make a great black guy, or that perhaps I actually am one and just haven’t come out of the closet yet.  However, I must say that my friend and l and I differ politically, about as far as the Cleveland Browns are from a Super bowl win.  He lives in the Bronx, and probably secretly attends Farrakhan rallies, believes all black conservatives are “Uncle Tom’s”, and though I didn’t know it until I experienced it recently, has a hard time holding back his anger due to some of the racism he has both seen and experienced growing up in this country.  After emphatic listening, I still then chide him on the fact that the left already has his vote without any effort, just for the hair on his neck to raise up a little bitJ.  And after we piss each other off real good, we part with “I Love You Man” and we pray for each other.  And for the record, if I were in a foxhole, he’s exactly who I would want with me without reservation.  You see the thing is, it’s the Christian flag that binds us together and not an American one, yet it has some faint similarities at least in theory that we should talk about.

My Battle Against Racism

I’ve never experienced the kind of racism that many blacks have by a long shot, but I have experienced it nonetheless.  You see I wasn’t raised a racist.  My family didn’t talk about it.  We never heard or used colorful language to describe black people, and quite frankly, in my heart of hearts I’ve always despised those who take part in it. Likewise in my own family, I never spoke of it, never talked about it, walked away from family and friends who participated in it, and starved it’s folly from ever gaining a foothold of any kind! And so primarily the racism I experience is one of looking at my black brothers and sisters with my “I love black people” heart, and them refusing to engage me with eye contact, talking behind my back, and refusing to let me get too close. That’s about the extent of the racism as I have experienced it, and I’m not looking for a trophy, a history month, or my own channel as a result.  But it’s racism just the same.  A fact many of us I believe fail to miss.

In fact, I often talk to my friend and I ask him why we all have to draw identity flags in the first place. Why can’t we as Christians just be for “people” and not black or white?  It seems that’s the first step to fighting it to me.  We stop racism by not being a racist ourselves.  A novel idea I suppose.  He says I just don’t understand, but then as I seek to understand, though I get it, as a Christian with a broken halo I really do believe this is where the rubber meets the road.  I would even be so bold as to say as I have shared with my brother, the fact that years ago when racism was “systemic” (a loaded word for sure), it’s a damn miracle black people didn’t rise up and decrease the surplus white population!  Thank God, they found a leader who knew better and had the secret love sauce, and I pray his message continues to resonate, because I believe it has been long forgotten.  And the fact that black people have used restraint for the most part is a testament to them, yet I really believe it is by and large due to the God that they serve, whom they know is the only one who can cure the sickness that is the individual human heart. You see racism isn’t just found in America.  It’s found in humanity, and it has been so since man first put his foot on the floor.

NFL and the Flag

As I got into a somewhat political conversation on Facebook yesterday (never advisable), I was reminded by some of my new black friends that the racism issue is somehow behind this whole NFL and the flag thing, something I guess us white boys miss.  Though admittedly I think it shouldn’t be about that, I guess I’m starting to see why.  However, there is one thing I’ve learned in my almost 54 years of life sometimes the frickin hard way, and it is that people reject what they don’t understand.  And thus the genius of communication always lies in making sure people have been communicated to properly about what all the fuss is about. Until then, we’re just throwing pearls to swine.

And so my personal perspective is that kneeling on a field doesn’t actually protest anything that accomplishes whatever end game is envisioned.  It’s kind of like trying to get someone to do something you want and then you start talking about his or her mama!  The gloves then come off, and there’s not much anybody can do but pick up the broken men pieces.  Case in point.  Wearing a t-shirt saying, “I can’t breathe” is easy.  Kneeling is also easy and sexy, but it does nothing but tick off the very (majority) of people (right or wrong), who equate Americanism not too awfully shy of the Holy Grail, and of whose flags and blood of their black and white fathers also runs deep into the sinew of their bones.  As a result, I think the strategy misses the mark, and I also refuse to buy into the “systemic” narrative as an overarching belief system. What I do believe however is that there are people who are racist (shocker), and there are systems than can have racism as an overarching demon as it’s marionette, pulling long term belief system strings that now run on autopilot.  When and where those systems are exposed, after peeling back the layers of that complex onion (a rarity), it is at the apex of the matter that protests and communicative voices have their most dramatic effect.  And believe it or not, that core is found in our very constitution that cries out, even when not always practiced, that “All men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”and that “among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  Now to deny that America has been grossly hypocritical in holding up that standard at times would be uncritical (in a Republic, not a democracy), yet it is still those very laws that a wise Atlanta bred and born turned Alabama preacher once used to push a new narrative to replace an old one. And he was descriptive of the biblical dictum, as one who was “wise as a serpent, and gentle as a dove”.  Where may I ask are his descendants?

Now to Really Piss You Off

On a very sensitive note, if I really wanted to piss my friend off, all I needed to say (however guarded and thoughtful) was that I didn’t think Obama was a really great President.  I said I believed that he is a good man, one of the greatest orators of our time, is a faithful husband and father, but quite frankly was a liberal ideologue that did not deliver “hope and change”.  In fact, I believe that by his tone deafness or subtle racist innuendo, he pushed the narrative away from what seemed to white people at least, to be a country having for a couple of decades gone in the right direction, back to where racism was again all up in our grill. He would then get on to me and say, “Mark, what is it about you white boys?  Can’t we have just one damn black President and be proud, when yall have had so many crackers”?  And to that I’d say, “Well, we’ve had a ton of terrible white ones, why can’t you have one bad black one”?  And perhaps we need to be reminded again that the same people that voted Donald Trump into office, were those that voted for the hope and the change twice!  That seemed to tell us that at least individual people and a good majority of the collective whole were starting to look past that dark period of our history and actually vote as thinking people on issues instead of skin color.  However, I’ve been informed that this is now no longer the case across the board.  Perhaps I’ve been sleeping under a rock, or so it seems.

Freedom Is Not Actually Free

The truth of the matter is, that freedom is not actually free; something I’m afraid that we have long disregarded.  It wasn’t free for Martin Luther, for MLK, or for Rosa Parks.  Our founders knew this as well as they risked their own lives from threat of the crown should they have failed.  And so they gave us a Republic and not a democracy, with limited government accept to protect its citizenry, and to uphold laws that would ensure their initial vision, where all men would be given the freedom to equally be able to live as they so wished without oligarchies, dictators or the sole will of majority rule.  And though the experiment was not perfect by a country mile, as an anomaly that it was in terms of nations, it created correctives and checks and balances so that the people would sense when it ran amuck (assuming the people are good), and would challenge the laws that were to be upheld to reform itself, and as such as a nation always reforming.  But in a Republic, we cannot legislate people into being non-racists, as much as you and I might wish that we could.  In fact, this can only be accomplished at around the same time that pigs start to fly, or when politicians want anything more than another vote!  Because you see, individual sin-sick hearts are free also to be bigots, yet all the while you and I are free to ignore and not concede to their intolerance, and equally to collectively call it out when we see it; while in the meantime “refusing” to be the racists looking in our mirrors reflection.

This is a tribute to Paul and John who also believe in my right to disagree, and to my brother from another Mother; and to those who died for our freedom to equally protest the motive and sacrifice they made.  But it is more so a tribute to all my black brothers and sisters, to let you know some of us crackers are really listening, and we hate racist bastards right along with you. But if it’s OK, we’d really like to talk about it with you, and not at you.

Selah

Rainy Days and Mondays

I Don’t Do Mondays

There have been many songs, quotes, sayings and general universal disgruntlement lamenting the fate that is the “Monday” certainty in all of our lives.  And of course once Monday’s tedium comes to it’s stark reality by around 10:00 AM, we’re already drifting off into dreams of “hump day” (yeah), and then quickly on to “weekend getaways” and excursions filled with addictive overscheduling of massive doses of a blissfully long weekend, which by design is meant to delay the ever so punctual and “matter-of-factness” of, well…Monday.  In fact I’m sure most of us would vote to take Monday out of the 7-day week all together, but then of course we’d have a new nemesis by the name of “Tuesday” in short order.  This should serve to remind us that the issue we have is not Monday at all, but rather the humdrum characteristic that it has come to represent driven by our own brand of the “tyranny of the urgent” that comes with it, and of that which baptizes us rather quickly into the dreaded ordinary that comprises most of our lives.

Dreams

And the truth is, that if you add to this global phenomenon a big dose of the American Dream relentlessly interwoven into the tapestry of our lives, well then Monday is synonymous with “messing with our mojo”, or better yet, something akin to yet another brutal awakening to a dream that we surmise has somehow passed us by altogether yet again.  And the more we numb it’s “un”-accomplishment in our lives with toys; cocktails; action-packed weekends; and another self-help book sure to get us to our dream, the more Monday comes in like a freight train inviting us “all aboard” of which we are powerless to not simply fall in line.  And of course, the devil for each of us is in the myriad of Monday details.

I’m a big dreamer too, and always have been.  In fact, if ADHD meds had been available to me in my school days, I’d already have reached my American Dream, because I’d be the “poster child” for whatever drug company had the best bang for the buck!  By the time I got to middle school however, Mary Jane would take it’s place, and my entrance to class was an open invitation to “yours truly” to lay my head on the desk and drift to wherever my rock and roll dreams would take me.  Which at the age of 16, usually consisted of some Island full of beautiful girls, where I was of course the only guy, and where (you guessed it), a limitless supply of more Mary Jane; and well…more girls, etc., etc., etc.

Now fast forward then to the age of 27, when I finally quit running from the hound of heaven, my dreams started to mature somewhat.  They now were God-sized dreams, but I found out rather quickly, that Christendom has it’s own subculture of the American “Christian” Dream, which for someone on the way to seminary was filled with becoming the next Billy Graham, or the Apostle Paul if it wasn’t too much to ask; or perhaps somewhere in between.  Little did I know, that was not the path I was to take, at least for such a time as this.

There were some accomplishments though I suppose.  A high-school dropout made good on gaining a couple of degrees, but after a short period, walked away from the climb up the ecclesiastical ladder already full of hairy priestly butts above me, and into the sales world of “coffee is for closers”, where at least some aspect of an economic dream started to take shape and put my family slightly higher on the food chain.

Still Restless and Crazy After All These Years

And now, as 54 is just around the corner, I’m still dreaming a bit quite honestly.  I’m still on the food chain, but hanging on by a slight tether. And my dreams now are mostly about writing a blog everyone will want to read, or finally writing that best selling book.  Yet also perhaps more simple things like being the best disciple I can be (with a very distinct limp), loving my wife in such a way that she actually misses me when I’m gone, and being a voice of reason and spiritual insight to my sons and to any other wayward soul who longs to know the method to my slight madness.  And since they typically don’t pay respect until you die, and I’m not dead yet, I still want to be all God wants me to be; don’t want to miss an opportunity that’s truly from Him; and I strive to be my best at what I do; yet all the while, like you perhaps, I’m plagued with waking up to another Monday morning on this increasingly difficult narrow path, often still very restless indeed.

For instance, I go to church and wonder why I’m so cotton-picking bored out of my mind.   I keep looking for someone to walk out of a wheelchair, or to hear a sermon that knocks me off my feet, or encounter a brother or sister in Christ who looks and smells exactly like a Christian of old, and who then actually wants to do life with me.  But then I wake up, and I realize that God and I have more work to do, on me I suppose–something akin to my spiritual Monday if you will.  After all, training in righteousness is really super-duper hard work, especially with what the Lord has to work with and everything.  And yes there are bills to pay; April 15th; deadlines looming; kids that still need braces, and well…the damn trash still needs taken out too.

The Work Still At Hand

 And then there is that time with the Lord I spend everyday, doing my best to allow more of Him to show up and a whole lot less of me.  There’s the time spent uninterested in church still; the uneventful acts of kindness done to people who will mostly forget; and forget about me as well.  There are also the good deeds that will no doubt go unpunished if I continue to live long enough.  There is the time in prayer when God seems to be playing extremely hard to get, and the times when His still small voice is clearly saying “Here is the way, walk ye in it”.  And then there are rainy days and Mondays where rather than purposeful living, I feel as if I’m that damn hamster on that blasted wheel thingy!

And then I realize, perhaps these daily practices really are the stuff of life, and are eternally worth waking up for, even on Monday.  Because as I look out the window of this rainy-Monday world, I still believe the dreams of God fulfilled in the shoe leather of His people are exactly what the world still has just too little of I’m afraid.  I guess that means I’ve got more work to do.  After all, it is Monday.

Selah

Seeing Through a Glass Darkly Among the Facebook Aristocracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are all beggars, this is true”.

the dying words of Martin Luther

 

Selah

 

 

 

Finishing Well Inside of a 50 Shades of Grey World

From Stalwart Allegiance to a Slip, Sliding Away

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

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

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

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

The World’s Definition

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

The Good and Faithful Servants of Yesteryear and Today

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

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

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

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

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

Selah

The Futile Search in Finding Christ’s One True Church

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

An Acquired Taste

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

An Angry Lad

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

Sad and Alone on the Journey

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

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

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

Put Me In Coach

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

A Recurring But Ever Evasive Dream

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

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

A Quick and Fantastic Distraction

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

A Child in Search of…

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

 

Selah

 

 

How to Build Bigger Barns, Look Out for Number One and Still Take Up Your Cross

The Dilemma

 For those of you who know me and the things I write about, you should immediately get the blatant irony and sardonicism in the above title. For those who don’t, let me spend a few extra minutes this week unpacking it for you. Drum roll please! I mean after all, my blog is called: The Narrow Path: The Daily Meanderings of a Cracked Up American Life Looking for the Jesus Missing in America. So immediately you are probably suspect given the title itself (a novel idea). But what I want to write about today is certainly some more of that, but particularly of how the Jesus I’ve been looking for is not only missing sometimes in me (crystal clear), but unfortunately, how He is missing in most of the people I bump into who eagerly and persistently claim His name, and who propose they are at least attempting this narrow path thing. And I mean this unambiguously as it regards our predisposition towards greed as our favorite doctrine (why capitalism works), that is pretty much lock, stock and barrel a carbon copy of every other Tom, Dick and Harry pagan we claim are devoid of the truth we hold so dear; or at least we have a bumper sticker or a t-shirt that says we do. The paradox in all of this is that we float along every day of our lives from one church meeting and bible study to the next, knowing the obvious and redundant sarcasm of the above statement, yet we have somehow watered down Jesus’ message so much so that the American Dream and the narrow path almost sound the same to our itching ears; even though they are very strange and polar opposite bedfellows indeed.

Building Bigger Barns and Eternal Life

But let me outline the problem for us a little bit for those who like me, claim allegiance to the man from Galilee. For instance, in one particular parable entitled The Parable of the Rich Fool, we are introduced to a man who has done pretty darn well for himself. He’s a businessman extraordinaire. No harm, no foul. But before we get to the crux of the parable, a question from someone in the crowd is posed to Jesus about helping him figure out how to get his greedy brother to divide his inheritance with him. Now right there, you and I know we have a serious problem. First of all, we don’t know “Jack” about this guy; like whether or not the inheritance in question is rightfully his, or any of the other myriad of issues around that which makes splitting money with family members after a death in the family akin to wrestling with demons who have names like brother, sister and Aunt Linda Lou (fill in the blank). Secondly, I’m sure Jesus is smart enough to know that getting involved in family business as an outsider is also risky business. Perhaps we see this, as well as Jesus moving away from being merely a Biblicist with a specific chapter and verse for every problem under the sun where he says,

“Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”

Instead, Jesus uses this interaction to speak about a much greater issue, that quite frankly, he speaks about ad nauseam throughout the gospels and the whole of scripture, and that most would have to poke both of their eyes out, or simply not read it (a blog for another time) to not see it. The text reads:

And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:14-15 ESV).

Also, words such as “taking care” and “being on your guard” against a thing called “covetousness” in our lives should sound like a megaphone within us and remind us that as humans caught up in the race for whomever has the most toys wins mindset, we must constantly be aware of the power that either the acquisition or preservation of money has upon us. Like the shiny ring that has Gollum in daily torment and as mere milquetoast to its illustrious power, the love of money has the ability to produce the greatest of evils and distractions warring against the quest for the divine life we mostly give lip service to. And admittedly, in the words of the late Rich Mullins, It’s Hard to Be Like Jesus. But Jesus seems pretty clear here that our life does not (even though everything we see around us says differently) consist of, or is not complete or totally fulfilling or “abundant” in the mere consumption and stockpiling of things. Of course as I say that, we all know that we need “things” in order to live, although I’m equally sure as perceptive beings we would also equally know that the defining of the things we actually need is the real crux of the matter, and thus requires a lot of “taking care” and “being on guard” about since the devil is always at the door.

But of course Jesus doesn’t just say it here. In fact, we see it resounded in the story of the Rich Young Ruler, where even though we have danced around the demands or implications of this passage as not really applying to us, Jesus’ educational lesson for the day for the distressed man in search of eternal life he assumes he already has dibs on, is that he give up everything that he has, give it to the poor, and then follow him on the narrow path. The text then tells us that,

“when the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matt. 19:2)

And it now that you hear the mic drop! And It’s almost as if we are back in the same parable of the Rich Fool with a twist now, yet with even more clarity to the rich, young ruler; to the rich fool; and to us in America; who like it or not, share in their bewilderment like a deer in the headlights in the extraction of what Jesus is truly saying to us here. We surmise, I thought we were supposed to save our life instead of lose it. Oh, wait a minute; perhaps it’s the other way around. Ok, I’m confused. Can I get a hug? Could it be that it is plain as the nose on our face? Oh I know, I know. We have all kinds of legitimate rebuttals to the demands or application to us, in that after all, everybody knows we have to build a retirement; it takes a ton to “make it” in this world; the baby needs a new pair of shoes, and “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” kind of stuff. And I truly get it, painfully so. However, Jesus doesn’t mix words here, and he doesn’t stutter when he reminds us:

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24 ESV)

I think a further explanation of what he means is explained where he says in Matthews’ gospel that:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matt. 6:24 ESV)

Eureka!

Money as a God

Now we see the real problem here starting to surface, and it is this: Money functions very much like a god and in fact is god-like in that it gives us the ability to do amazing things that we couldn’t otherwise do without it. The Fab Four also said it can’t buy you love, but there are a lot of butt-ugly hombres with tons of money that would beg to differ! And after all, the juxtaposition is that the pursuit of Christ is about abundant life here, but the real payoff is in another one. Dissimilarly, the pursuit of money is all about life here and now.  And I’d be the first to admit that we do need some of it in the hear and now, and increasingly more of it, because we are constantly “another day older and deeper in debt” simply trying to keep the lights on, put food on the table, and find some personal tranquility and enjoyment this side of heaven in world gone buck-ass crazy! Calgon, take me away! Calgon for dudes of course.

And of course now the quest for things keeps growing exponentially over the years. It now includes internet for our homes; unlimited data for our multi-phone plans; security systems; surround sound; dance lessons; football cleats and season tickets; investments; multiple streams of income; yearly vacations, and weekends spent on pleasure and entertainment that truly knows no bounds. And if we have enough left over, we might throw a dog, or a church, or a charity a bone or two. After all, this is beneficial once the tax man cometh! But of course also, we end up finding out that the chasing after this so called “dream” is an insatiable, never-ending story and expedition; and simply never, ever enough. Like the gangsta-rich John D. Rockefeller, who was asked how much money it would take to make him happy, to which he said, “Just a little bit more”, it sounds very much like Jesus is right. Life really does not consist in building bigger barns and having abundant possessions, for the simple reason that it ends up consuming us like it’s pawn in an endeavor that is never achieved, and that really doesn’t deliver the goods in order to find the rest for the restlessness deep inside of us. We are searching, but not finding in this lonely game we play. And like the foolish quest for bigger and bigger barns in the parable, we wake up and find we never really lived; and in the end, our life is finally required of us. Is this not the quandary of fools if Jesus words are the way, the truth and the real life?  Do we believe it anymore?

Again, the apostle Peter writes,

For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of lifeis 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 2:16-17 ESV)

And isn’t this pride of life tangled up in the web of the love of money that contributes to our nose stuck up in the air towards the “have-nots” to which most of us “know not” anything about, where Paul writes, and your grandmother repeated it,

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs”. (I Timothy 6:10 ESV)

And again, from the writer of Hebrews we are told,

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have… “

(Hebrews 13:5a ESV)

Christian Compartmentalism

So the question for us is this: Are we as Christians not consumed the same as everyone else with the love of money over and above Jesus commission to have it lose it’s luster and grip in our lives in some notable fashion? Have we had compartmentalization Christianity so woven into the fabric of our feeble faith in the American church now to the point that our business life, and the life of me and my things is so detached from our life on the narrow path that the world rightly questions what our true allegiances are?

As a person who has studied the scriptures in both an academic, personal and vocational setting together for the last 26 years of my life, I have searched high and low and cannot come up with any possible way of sidestepping the fact that we are to live “openhanded” towards our brothers and sisters and those outside the faith, even at the expense of our comfortable retirement, as well as to bring the news of grace to every tribe, tongue and nation with good news and good works as the very quintessence of who we as a people are to be. And if this is so, why are we so caught up in the “pomp and circumstance” of church gatherings and so much less in the nitty-gritty of the world right outside our door begging for our change? Do we even know what it’s like (Everlast)? For goodness sakes, we have churches that span city-blocks on every corner, and yet the widow and fatherless, and the poor and needy; like Jesus, can’t find a room in our mega-church inn’s. As a result, the so-called discipleship product of people we are spitting out our church mills have bought in to the overconsumption model we’ve been selling “hook, line and sinker”, and most I encounter still look out relentlessly for # 1 at all costs, and who also have very little left for the vulnerable that got caught up in a social-Darwinian nightmare that has left them finally “high and dry”.  It is indeed the road less traveled; and the world looks, yawns, and then says, its “much ado about nothing” as I supposed.

Of course we’ve looked at a few verses today to try and prove a point, but I have found that most Christian people seem to like other verses better than these I’ve outlined briefly here today. For instance, we like the parable of the shrewd businessman, the book of Proverbs is our true gospel, and we’re very keen on the parable of the talents. In fact, the only other verse beyond John 3:16 we can quote is “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (II Thes. 3:10 ESV)  Ah, the Holy Grail! And though context should always be king, and the whole of scripture should speak over isolated verses; nonethless, like the candy man, we can mix them all together and make it all sound good, plausible and of course good for the self-centered palate. Oh to be sure the scriptures are not against wealth, and God calls many to excel in business; but the overarching message of the body of scriptures unanimously teaches that we are blessed in order to be a blessing. And like Spiderman’s Uncle reminds him in the movie starring Toby McGuire of some years back, “With great power comes great responsibility”.  And Paul gives us a good idea of what that responsibility might entail for those who have the great privilege of wealth God gives them the power to make where he writes,

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, [19] thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (I Timothy 6:17-19 ESV)

So evidently, life is not about bigger barns yall. This is no doubt something that the rich fool did not consider. The rich young ruler then considered it and found it wanting apparently. And for the rest of us, perhaps we feel that it simply does not apply so we lay our Hall Pass down! Meanwhile, in case you were wondering, until we do apply it, no one is really listening to our endless and all too predictable yapping. In fact, it’s rather kind like an annoying dripping faucet. Everyone can hear it, but no one can turn it off!

Selah

An Afterword for your further Contemplation:

“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?  Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose,a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness,to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 58 ESV)   

 

 

 

 

Jesus Freaks

I grew up in the zenith of the Jesus movement. In the blink of an eye, getting “saved” or “born again” became as cool as sex, drugs and rock n roll; at least in my neck of the woods–and we had Jimmy Carter and Chuck Colson to thank as well for that. Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green and the Second Chapter of Acts were crooning once die-hard rockers and hippies into becoming Jesus freaks, and the world put down their peace pipe and protests for a millisecond and stood up and paid us some serious attention. And then we got Bob Dylan. Whoa! We just knew everyone would take up ranks with us after that. Billy Graham was of course hotter than ever, and a plethora of parachurch organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ were swooning young people from everywhere. As a result, new denominations such as Calvary Chapel and Vineyard became the new instrumental leaders in helping all the tie-dyed, bellbottom hip-huggers grow up in Christ.

 

The church I grew up in was influenced very much by this movement, with less of the Pentecostal slant. My own father was a lay preacher of sorts, and had his hand and heart in just about everything that was going on both inside and outside the church. I can remember tagging along on many such meetings, as we would pick up strange hitchhikers on the way. And though it was scary at times, there was a draw that was almost magnet-like from that movement that has kept me feebly following the Lord Jesus ever since. For the first time, they made me want to put my lot in with them and give it all away no matter what, and go to the “foreign” field. However, at the time, I was a day late and a dollar short, because well…I started to like sex, drugs and rock n roll too–and my weaning would take much longer than I desired or expected.

 

Our church had its problems like any church, but it was vibrant. Pastor Bob brought the word like a “big dog “every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday; and you can bet your bottom dollar my parents had me there at all such occasion’s front and center, even when many times force was absolutely necessary. And when our Pastor wasn’t preaching, Sunday nights were filled with prophecy conferences and Hal Lindsay and The Late Great Planet Earth came second only to the Bible itself. And one was sure to have both in hand and ready, as Jesus would for sure return at any given moment. And of course to court the young people, we went to the Jesus concerts and went through our own list of sexy youth pastors with designer jeans who would woo the girls, who would then of course woo the guys, and so on. Let’s just say I was at least caught up in the lot of Jesus freaks, back when to be a Jesus freak was indeed very cool, and to get high on Jesus and follow Him with reckless abandon was for the first time since Constantine vogue once again!

 

Now back to the future. Many have chimed in on some flaws of the Jesus movement, such as a flawed eschatology and a new form of Pentecostal fundamentalism that had it’s extremes to be sure; though it’s revivalist contribution that drew people to the Savior has perhaps still been left unexplained fully both here in America, and across the world.   In many ways I would go back to those days, and in many others, I would avoid it like a root canal. But one thing that I feel confident we could use again is a comfort in being strangers and aliens again in a world we have become now far too much in love with. Perhaps longhaired Jesus people aren’t the rave anymore, but I feel confident that the willingness to be comfortable letting our Christian freak flag fly should be. And though it would go well beyond the purpose and time constraint for this blog to even make a feeble attempt to explain just how we have devolved since then, several things come to mind which have caused my own share of tears and lament as of late.

 

First of all, the sell out to the god of materialism isn’t even arguable, even to many of those submissively caught up in its web. Christians who once took the commission to sell everything they had and follow the Lord on the narrow path have now watered it’s difficult message down with admonition to give mere tips to church (should they decide to go or become), a blind-eye to rampant poverty now on our doorsteps in any given town (we keep our pocket change and a few George Washington’s in case they get to close with their sign), and the mission of the church to take the gospel to every tribe, tongue and nation is sitting on the backburner and the back row with the Baptists. Perhaps we’ll get to it one day once we get enough programs for those of us who have been sitting on the pews for eons and should know better. 90% of the tips that come in the mega church doors go to ensure we have a motivational speaker, a kicking worship band and plenty of goodies for the kiddos in order to ensure we have the best Jesus gig in town on any given Sunday. As a result, very little is left for the things that matter such as the plight of the poor and the sending out of feet who bring good news. And to be sure, the culture is going “to Hell in a hand basket”, but perhaps we have bought their ticket trying to be relevant while all along they were looking for us to be distinct and even strange in a world that no longer has any truth to sink their teeth into. As a result, they are still asking in Pilate-like fashion, “What is truth”, while we supposedly have dibs with the Master himself. We’ve woken up to realize we’ve been asleep at the wheel all along.

 

Secondly, self-fulfillment rules the day among those of us who grew up and out of being Jesus freaks, and like the rest of the world, our week is filled with longing for the freakin weekend full of concerts, dinner and a movie, and a cold beer in the sand wasting away again in our own secluded Margaritaville, while the casualties of this spiritual war in the heavenlies lie all around us as we’re just too busy being comfortably numb. I too have been caught up in it’s subtle grasp, yet my memory of once being a Jesus freak myself causes me to fight my way out from time to time, only to later slip back into a post Jesus freak coma of regretful forgetfulness.

 

And it seems that now we want a good life that keeps being qualified and quantified above our last debt ceiling, and we now need to throw in the same for our pets as well. Somehow, I woke up from the Jesus movement and dogs now really do have their day. The bible indeed encourages us to give care to our animals, but by the looks of things, they have become more important than our children and people in general. And if we looked at our checkbooks with keen analysis, for sure we’d come away with a surety of where our treasures really lie. The Jesus freaks apparently took the call of Jesus rather seriously. Today, methinks not so much. Following Jesus has never become so easy and equally tried and left wanting.

 

And Thirdly and lastly, I think this bleeds into what Ted Dekker has called The Slumber of Christianity, whereby the quest to live forever has become the Holy grail rather than the longing for our eternal home that causes us to instead always live like we are leaving at any moment. What amazes me the most is that this call from Jesus and the apostles own lips has become almost foreign to our ears. Perhaps since the natural man cannot receive spiritual things because they are folly to him, we have answered our own question as to why this no longer causes us to grapple with the difficult commands of Jesus on what he called a “narrow” path that few would find. I guess broad paths are indeed sexier.

 

And in the end, one would think that we would have gotten more fulfilled by now, with all the time and money we spend on the pursuit to achieve our happiness. Yet if the evening news is not always “fake news”, perhaps the answer is plain as the nose on our face, but our mirrors have gotten awfully foggy or the chemicals from our meds have finally kicked in. As a result, we are more restless now than ever as those who claim to have the truth right along side our lost neighbors and friends, and so we have no abundant life to offer them, so they no longer pay attention; and so we scratch our heads in church planning meetings and wonder why lost people are still…lost.

 

Perhaps the answer to our problem is found here:

 

What will people think

When they hear that I’m a Jesus freak

What will people do when they find that it’s true

I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus freak

There ain’t no disguising the truth

 

–DC Talk

 

My prayer is that we would stop caring a whole lot more. In fact, I think it’s time to get our Jesus freak back on again!

 

Selah