Sandy Hook Deserves Our Honesty

Aside

It is difficult to put words to the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. As a father, I cannot imagine what these parents and families are going through. There is a thought that breaks my heart: No doubt, there are homes with presents under a tree that will never be opened. Our thoughts and our prayers rightly go out to all those affected.

I am saddened by what happened. But today I am mourning the loss of empathy in our society. I, like many, followed the events of yesterday on social media. Hours was all it took for people to climb on top of their soap boxes and feel the need to connect this tragedy to a heart felt cause. I’m not saying those issues aren’t important, I am lamenting our ability as a society to “mourn with those who mourn.”

I think our inability to enter empathetically into the suffering of another comes, not from our preoccupation with our particular causes, but from our emotional immaturity. It might be right to label it as our emotional ignorance. I wonder, in the face of so many posts about gun control, mental health, violent video games, and the media if we really know how we felt yesterday.

Did the person who posted about guns not being the real issue understand their post as an anxious response to indescribable evil?

Did the mental health advocate see their response as an effort to negate the choice of another by labeling it as a disease?

Did the media hater recognize their desire for a scapegoat?

My Facebook and Twitter feed filled with people blaming this or blaming that or making the case as to why we shouldn’t blame that, but very few (if any) stated the most common emotion we all felt: fear. Deep down I believe all of us felt fear.

Because that could have been our children.

It could have been our son.

It could have been our neighbor.

It could have been our town.

It could have been me.

I wonder how we might respond if we moved towards our fear rather than shroud it in a brazen opinion about what may or may not be the reason for evil. Evil exists. And people make evil choices. We can try and figure out what makes a person do what they do all we want but we will never eradicate evil. No amount of legislation, medication, or anything else is going to change the broken nature of a human being. My wish, is that in the face of evil, we as a society could be authentic about what we are really feeling. Because maybe if we admitted that anyone who could walk into a school and shoot children scares us, then we might be able to embrace our humanity enough to embrace another. Maybe our mourning for others would really be mourning. Maybe we would really show compassion. Maybe grace might be extended. Maybe people would feel cared for because they wouldn’t have to wonder if they are being used by some cause. Maybe our authenticity would lead to a genuine care for each other. Maybe in saying how we really felt we would see what we would really hope for.

Maybe this might happen less.

So, for the sake of authenticity, how did you feel yesterday?

Advertisements

Reframing our stories

 

Note:  This is adapted from a sermon I preached titled Reframed.

I am more convinced than ever that my life is to be about making disciples.  I believe all of us who say we follow Jesus are not just meant to be church attendees, but we are called to be people who follow so closely to Jesus that we are covered in the dust kicked up by his feet.  We are to be disciples.

As disciples, we are to make disciples.  It is the last command we were given by Jesus.  Go and make disciples.

That’s where it gets a bit hairy.  Just for fun, try this experiment.  Go into your church and start asking people how you make a disciple.  And don’t ask the pastor or a staff person.  Ask someone sitting next to you.  “How do you make a disciple?”  For even more fun, make sure you them how they specifically are making disciples.

Make sure to pass the peace after that.  They will probably need it.

For most of us the idea of making a disciple is daunting for two reasons: 1) We have never been truly discipled and so we don’t have a clue as to what it looks like and 2) We think we are disqualified.

Being disqualified could mean two things.  First, it could mean that we believe we don’t have the right certification to make disciples.  Each of us probably have some mental model about what that certification is.  It might be a seminary degree, or a Bible college degree, or at bare minimum a certification from an eight week Wednesday night class we took at church.  Whatever it might be, in order to make disciples you need this.

Or being disqualified may mean there is something in our past we believe disqualifies us from being a person who can disciple others.  I believe many of us have this belief.

In Philippians 3:13 Paul says, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  On the outset, this doesn’t seem like such a difficult passage.  In fact, if we have spent anytime in church or in the Christian subculture, we have probably won a prize playing Bibleopoly with this verse stenciled on it…or at least heard this verse dozens of times.

That doesn’t mean it is easy or simple.

After all, do you have things in your past you regret?  And when I say regret, I am not talking about the unadvised late night trip to Taco Bell that you regretted the whole next day.  I’m talking about something your truly regret.  Something you wished wasn’t there.

Do you have something in your past that you would even say was disastrous?

Ever done anything destructive in a relationship?

If your human, you should have answered yes.  We all do.  Some of us have more regrets.  But we all have them.  Now do this.  Those things you regret, those things you see as disastrous, just forget them.  Forget them and press on.  Get on with your life and leave it behind.  It’s a new day!  Get out and live with no more regrets!

How’s that working out for you?

Do you think Paul is really telling us to forget what is behind us?  Let me ask you this, do you think Paul forgot what was behind him?  Paul, who used to be Saul, was an early persecutor of the church.  His life mission was to find people who followed Jesus and put them in prison or kill them.  He oversaw the stoning of Stephen.  He went to the high priest and asked him to enact a law that allowed him to go into Damascus and bring back refugees who were fleeing his persecution.  He literally hunted men and women down because they believed in the Gospel of Jesus.

Do you think Paul forgot all that?

Of course not!  So how could he say what he said?  I believe Paul could say that he was forgetting what was behind him, not because of anything Paul had mastered or some self-disciplining technique he learned, but because Paul deeply believed the Gospel.

In 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace was not without effect.”  When Paul says this he is seeing his story, which includes all of his past, through the frame of the gospel.  If it wasn’t for the regrets, the horrendous, destructive things he had done then God’s grace on his life would not have been as profound.  For Paul, the things he hates about his past are the same things that make the gospel so sweet.

The gospel screams to the ends of the universe that your past does not define you, but the cross of Christ and the words, “You are my son.  You are my daughter,” define you.

So many of us have heard the words, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” but yet continually feel condemned.  Maybe the reason is we have never let our pasts be reframed by the gospel and so, every time we think of our past we heap condemnation on ourselves.  The gospel frees us of that.  Because if God can extend grace to a murderous, hateful man like Paul, he can extend grace to anyone.

This is the gospel.  It is the power to reframe our stories.  We, then, need to allow grace to reframe our regrets, foibles, disasters and screw-ups.  When we allow our stories to be reframed by the gospel is tells the world a very important message:

God is still working.

How has/is God reframing your story?  Please share, and let’s tell the world God is still working.

Living by Difficult Words

I’ve just had my first viral post. Well, it wasn’t really viral, but when you normally get 30-40 hits per post and you suddenly get 3000+, it feels viral. Admittedly, watching the numbers creep and trying to track where all the people came from has been fun. It has also been quite humbling. But what has been really fun and interesting is finally getting comments on a post. Not that I haven’t gotten them before, but the quantity and range of these comments was much greater. This is what I have wanted for this blog.

I started the blog to continue my learning. I have been learning, for a long time but especially recently, that as I follow Jesus I have more questions and more of a need for a place to sort out my thoughts. My thought in starting the blog was to create space for me, and hopefully others, to do just that.

As I have read the comments and interacted with people on this blog and other social networking sites I have become painfully aware of how intimate American Christianity has become with civil religion.

This isn’t new information. For a long time I have seen churches decide to make good, moral citizens over and above disciples of Jesus. Yes, at times those things are the colored middle portion of the Venn diagram. But at other times they are extremely different. When we say God is the God of the nations, when we say that there is neither Jew, nor Greek, barbican or Scythian, we are saying God is bigger than the nation-state. I have heard many Christians say, “Our citizenship is heaven,” but their actions have betrayed them.

During the events of the last couple of weeks, I wish I would have seen Christians await their “Savior from there” as much as they waited for a chicken sandwich.

I wish we would fight for the kingdom of God on earth as it is heaven as much as we fight for our rights to free speech.

I can’t get away from the difficult words Jesus taught us to live by. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” These words, along with the Golden Rule found in Matthew 7:12, seriously make me wonder, “What does it look like for us as Christians to stand up for our rights?

And even more thought provoking, “Should we?”

Even my gut wants to smack me up side the head and yell, “Do you know what you are saying?!” I do. Honestly I do. And it scares me. But when I read the words of Paul when he says the he counts it all joy to lose everything for Christ and that he wants to share in the sufferings of Christ to become like him I just have to ask myself, “Do I?”

Do we?

I don’t know.

What do you think? What does it look like for Christians to stand up for our rights? Should we? Let’s talk.

Balance

This past week I engaged nine people in transformational coaching/discipleship. This is quickly becoming one of the my favorite things about being a pastor. I used to say preaching, which I love, but I am finding that preaching without the one-on-one discipleship is incomplete. This is not to say preaching has lost its place in the life of the church. To the contrary, I still believe the proclamation of the Gospel has a central role in the life of the church. Preaching, when done faithfully, holds the Gospel in front of people, calls them to continued fidelity, shapes the conversation of the church, and gives hope to the hurting. But, for far too long preaching has been overemphasized. Rather than being a component of discipleship (which is the mission of the church), it has become the sole means of discipleship. Of course we would never say that. But by and large, if you ask a pastor what receives the majority of his time during the week, most would respond with sermon preparation.

If we look at the life of Jesus we see him teaching the masses and proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom of God. But we also see him sitting at the well with the Samaritan women and making his way to Zacchaeus house for dinner. He stands on the mountain teaching thousands, then retreats to a solitude place with his three closest disciples. In the life of Jesus we see a balance of preaching and one-on-one discipleship.

This is also evident in the life of Paul. In 1 Thessalonians Paul writes, “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” It is one thing to share the gospel. And that is right and good. But it is another thing to share your life as well.

The question is, “Do we?”

Do we intentionally love another and share our lives with them?

Do we intentionally love another allowing them to share their life with us?

I am convinced that preaching the gospel explicitly is absolutely necessary. I am convinced that, in the proclamation of the God who took on flesh and went to the cross and rose again, conversion can happen. But, I am also convinced that true discipleship happens in the context of relationship. Without the delicate balance of proclamation and relationship, deep, “from one degree of glory to the next,” transformation will not happen.

I am finding that balance. I’m not there yet, but I am finding it. And it gives so much more meaning to what I am doing. My preaching is better because of my relationships with those I am discipling. And my discipling is better because of my study and work in preaching.

And here is the dirty little secret…this balance is transforming me too.

Following Jesus means giving up EVERYTHING

Luke 5 records Jesus calling his first disciples. In both instances, in the calling of Simon Peter and Levi the tax collector, Luke notes they “left everything and followed him.” That jumped off the page when I read it. Jesus extends them an invitation to follow him, and they drop everything and follow. Right there, on the spot. It is recorded in another place in Luke’s gospel that others wanted to take care of their affairs before they followed Jesus and Jesus basically told them they could take care of those things or follow him. But they couldn’t do both. And they weren’t insignificant things. It wasn’t like they wanted to go check Facebook one last time. No, one person wanted to bury their father, and the other wanted to say good-bye to their family.

But Simon Peter and Levi dropped everything.

Everything.

Most of the time when we read that they dropped everything to follow Jesus we picture them leaving their boats, their nets, their tax collector booth, and their other possessions. And that’s all true. But they also left their families, their houses, and their careers. That doesn’t mean they never saw their families again. We know they stayed at Simon’s house as Jesus healed his mother-in-law. But they were willing to. Those who followed Jesus turned their lives upside down for three years to be near him and learn from him.

Those who followed Jesus gave up everything.

Everything.

They gave up their expectations, understanding, and hopes about what the Messiah would do. We see them struggle with this even after the death and resurrection. In Acts 1, after spending time with the resurrected Jesus they ask, “Are you now going to establish your kingdom?” They still believed Jesus was going to build an earthly kingdom like they had grown up believing. But they had to give this up to really follow Jesus. In order to live into the mandate they were given to make disciples, they needed to give up trying to build an earthly kingdom.

The disciples had to give up their desires for success. We see an argument between James and John about who is greater and who will sit at the right hand of Jesus. When Jesus confronts them about this conversation, he turns their understanding of recognition and privilege upside down by saying the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Over and over again the disciples had to give up their prejudices. Prejudices against the poor, the righteous, the Samaritans, children, prostitutes, religious leaders and themselves. When we follow Jesus we are called to give up everything.

Following Jesus is one of the most difficult things I have done with my life. And the reason it is so difficult is precisely this idea of giving up everything. It is one thing to give up possessions, but giving up the prominence my family gets in my life is difficult. Many in ministry make a commitment, and rightly so, to not sacrifice their families on the altar of ministry. Far too many families have suffered from being treated as second fiddle to a pastor’s ministry. But at the same time, to follow Jesus, and to be willing to leave family means that one cannot sacrifice following Jesus on the altar of family. Personally, I find this a difficult, but good, tension to live in.

Many of us have worldviews that are based more on political ideologies than the teachings of Jesus. Many of us live our of our self-protections rather than our trust in a sovereign God. Too many decisions are made because of idols we cling tightly to rather than making decisions out of a decision to follow Jesus with everything. But following Jesus means we give up everything. It means we give up our world views, our ideologies, our desires, our idols, our insecurities, and whatever else we give authority to in our life. If we are to become like Jesus, which is what following Jesus is all about, then we must give up everything.

Everything.

So what are you holding on to?

What have you not given up to follow Jesus more closely?

Shallow

Not long ago Christian Smith in his book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, coined the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to describe the functional faith and beliefs of American adolescents.  Smith and his team of researches outlined the basic doctrinal beliefs in the following way:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

While this is a simplified, and perhaps overly reduced, outline of the functional beliefs of American youth, it is very telling.  The central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.  In this belief system God is a being that helps us achieve this goal.  God does not require sacrifice, there is no talk of repentance, and the idea of conforming our lives to God’s intent is foreign.  God is, to be frank, or a sort of cosmic waiter who wants to make sure we have the best experience while on earth.

The role of parents must be noted.  Smith and his colleagues found that “For better or worse, most parents in fact still do profoundly influence their adolescents – often more than their peers…This influence often also includes parental influence in adolescents’ religious and spiritual lives.”  If this is true, then it would be logical to assume that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not just the faith of teens, but is the faith of adults as well.  Experience tells me this is accurate.  I can remember having a conversation with a parent who wanted their teen to come to youth group because it would help them make better decisions when it came to friends and moral issues.  While that comment seems inherently innocent, the underlying belief is that the goal of church and Christianity is to make people more moral.  Morality is not the goal of Christianity.  If morality is the goal, then why did Jesus ever need to go to the cross?  The cross becomes irrelevant because we can, through our best white-knuckled disciplined, clean up our act enough to be deemed good by God.  Isaiah 64:6 says that even our most righteous acts are considered like filthy rags before the all holy God of the universe.  That is to say, we can’t be good enough to be accepted by God outside of the cross of Christ.

Nor is the goal of Christianity about us feeling better about ourselves.  While it is true that understanding the unconditional love God has for us can make us feel better, it isn’t the goal.  Christ didn’t come so that we may have greater self-esteem going into a job interview, or a board meeting, or in our relationships.  Even the doctrine of adoption of us by God as outlined in Ephesians 1, which simply states that before the creation of the universe God chose us to be sons and daughters, is not given so we feel good about ourselves.

So what then is the goal of Christianity?  To what end are we following Jesus and seeking to be obedient to him?  Moralistic deism would have us believe the goal of following Jesus is being a good person, but isn’t there something more.  Or maybe the better question is, “Do we really need Jesus for that?”  Think for a moment of the crucifixion of Christ.  Imagine the pain, physical and emotional, he went through.  The betrayal of a close friend leading up to his arrest.  The anxiety in the garden as he pleaded with the Father to take the cup from him.  The loneliness of being abandoned by all of his friends in his greatest hour of need.  The brutal agony of having the flesh torn off his back as he is scourged.  The excruciating pain of having nails driven through his wrist.  The heartbreak of looking down and seeing his mother weeping over the torturous death of her son.  The isolation as he is separated from the Father.  The desperation as he strains to breath under the suffocating weight of his own body.  Imagine Jesus going through all this, and for what?  So you and I can be good people?  So we can feel better about ourselves?  The major beliefs of Moralistic Deism as laid out by Smith do not measure up to the price Jesus had to pay.  There has to more to it than that.

The disheartening reality is that, for many people who call themselves Christians, being a good person is the point of Christianity.  While a life of adventure and purpose is waiting for them in Christ, they reduce Christianity to playing by the rules.  You don’t need to follow Jesus to play by the rules.  You don’t have to follow Jesus to be nice.  Join the rotary club if that’s what you want.  The life that awaits us in Christ is one we could not imagine.  The life Jesus offers us is one in which we do “even greater things” by the power of the Holy Spirit.  But to share in this life, to taste it, to live it one must die to themselves.  One must be willing to sacrifice everything.  One must be willing to go where they don’t want to go, or where they don’t they can go.  One must be willing to deny themselves for the sake of another.

Which doesn’t sound much like simply being happy and being a good person.