Resistant, Stubborn, Pouty Evangelists

Reading through the Minor Prophets section will certainly give you some perspective on life. Some might see it as a lot of doom and gloom, but, remember, when God warns about coming punishment, there is always the implied, “You can always turn and this could be avoided.” Many times, though, people were set in their ways and refused to turn, to repent, and be saved the hassle of the coming trouble.

We get this idea when we read Obadiah, who comes right before Jonah. Obadiah, besides being the shortest book in the Old Testament, also comes across as fairly harsh. There seems to be very little room to maneuver for the people on the receiving end of judgment. It would seem their hearts had become so enmeshed in their way of life that the possibility of repenting had all but disappeared. Which is where Jonah comes in to challenge that idea.

See, Jonah was called to preach judgment to the Ninevites. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, a historically notorious country for violence, cruelty, and harsh treatment of its own people and conquered peoples. Assyria had also been the nation to conquer and capture the northern kingdom of Israel – so Judah would be right to fear Assyria, especially later when Assyria showed up on their doorstep. Anyway, Jonah received his call and promptly “noped” right out to the coast to catch a boat to Tarshish. The Bible is almost comical in its threefold repetition of Jonah’s destination, as if to say, “No really, Jonah is dead-set on removing himself from this whole going to Nineveh thing, and don’t try to stop him.” There are times when people can choose to not go with God’s calling… this was not one of those times. God was not taking “no” for an answer.

So a storm comes up, some plot devices happen, and Jonah is tossed overboard and sits inside a sea creature for three days praying. While it is a lovely prayer, it is odd that the idea of an apology or acknowledgment of wrongdoing never come up. It’s as if Jonah recognizes God’s power, but is continuing to hold his heart just out of reach of being softened or changed. God gives Jonah a second chance, and Jonah is vomited out onto shore. Vomited, ya’ll… Ugh.

Jonah walks the length of the city, and the entire city, nay the nation, begins fasting and mourning their behavior and repents. And, well, God relents. See, Jonah’s message wasn’t “turn or burn.” Jonah’s message was, “This place is gonna be toast in a month or so. Good luck!” The Ninevites turned on the off chance that God would relent – and God did.

So why tell this story? Well, there are groups here in America that you probably see as Ninevites: Republicans, Democrats, Northerners, Southerners, Liberals, Conservatives, etc. Are they in need of God’s love and message? Or do you really just want to watch them wallow in whatever destruction you see coming?

At the end of the story, Jonah was mad at God. He was angry because God had relented from allowing destruction to fall on the Ninevites. Jonah was angry at God’s character, revealed at Sinai and in Jesus: “For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.

How would you react if you found out your “enemies,” or those you see as doomed to destruction had received God’s forgiveness? What would you do if you found out your scope of God’s grace was too narrow? Would you pout like Jonah? Would you refuse to celebrate like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son?

I wonder sometimes if the American church, in particular, really wants to go out and reach the lost. I don’t wonder if it doesn’t secretly revel in its “special” status while watching the world continue on its path. I don’t wonder if that’s a similar attitude the Israelites held before the exile…

How does the way you speak about others model to your children the values of evangelism, grace, mercy, and forgiveness? How does your lifestyle set you apart from the world without removing you from the world? What may you need to repent of in order to extend grace to others?

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Your Kid Is A Theologian

While I was praying the other day, I was struck with deeper meaning to a verse I had read over and over again, but something new rose out of the old. The verse was Genesis 1:27 “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This is going to come as a shocker, I know, but kids are made in God’s image, too. (I’ll wait while you pick your jaw up off the floor.) It seems obvious, but what didn’t seem obvious to me was the implication that kids have the ability to teach us about God as much as we have the ability to teach them. (I would argue, though, that perhaps they have much more to teach us.)

My first example is an elementary-age girl in my children’s ministry, whom I will call Lana for the sake of safety. Lana is so full of love, energy, and enthusiasm, that she cannot help but throw her entire body at the objects of her love in a kind of linebacker-style tackle that, if you’re not ready, could easily knock a fully grown man to the ground. Her boundless love, and preferred method of showing it, reminded me of the story of the prodigal son, when the young man’s father runs at full tilt, crashing into his son with all the force of longing and love built up from sorrow and expectation. I expect God is like this whenever any of his children turn back to Him – smothering them in a love that has all the force of hurricane-strength winds.

I learned about the simplicity and effectiveness of prayer from a little girl named Michelle (again, name changed for safety.) Even at around 2 years old, she got the concept of praying. She would pick up her toy phone and say, “Hello God? Kissy, Alex, Baby Re-re. Bye.” (Let’s take a moment to collect ourselves after that level of depth and adorableness on display.) This little girl understands that God hears us – and that God cares about what we care about. We had so many people praying for us the week my daughter was born, but I was absolutely humbled by the prayers of this little one. Luke encourages us, often with pictures of nagging neighbors and widows, to continually pray and to not let things go. Regardless if I have the words to say, I know that even a two-year-old’s prayer can be more effective than hours of prepared words.

I see Jesus’ compassion in one of our young men, named Jeffrey. Jeffrey is the kind of kid who can be crazy, bold, and exude more energy than several kids his age at a time. And yet, I have seen him put others first in more than one occasion. I watched him help every other child obtain a candy bar before he attempted to reach his own. (I had taped them just out of jumping reach to get them to help one another, and he did so without prompting.) I’ve watched Jeffrey tip his own Easter egg basket to let eggs fall out behind him when he saw little ones show up late to our church Easter egg hunt. Paul, in Philippians, says that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself humble, taking on the very nature of a servant. He became obedient, even to death on the cross. Jeffrey reminds me, often, of what it means to show Jesus’ compassion, humility, and servanthood to others.

Finally, my daughter has taught me vulnerability. She depends on her mother and I for everything in life – safety, food, cleanliness (because diapers don’t change themselves.) Little Bit is a perfect example of how we live before God, vulnerable, dependent on Him for all of our needs – as we pray “give us today our daily bread.” Our dependence on God is no weakness, as the Israelites knew, and often forgot, but rather our greatest strength.

What have your kids taught you about God? I, for one, am looking forward to learning so much from my daughter as she continues to grow with each day.

On Celebrating A Divorce

This month, Christians all over the world, but especially in the West, will be remembering the Reformation which took place 500 years ago this month. Regardless of which side you find yourself on today, the Reformation (of the 1500s) continues to impact the way church is experienced for all Christians for good and bad. Roman Catholic believers will say that the Reformation created a rift that separated people from the One True Church, while Reformation congregations will be celebrating the birth of a movement.(Greek Orthodox will probably be rolling their eyes at the whole thing, having been the target of the first great Christian Schism.)  However, I find the Roman response to the whole thing more in line with Jesus’ personality – mourning a divorce within the church’s body.

Maybe divorce is the wrong term – it’s almost as if the church continues to cut parts of itself off to see if one part can do the role of the whole body. Suddenly, we’ve got a grotesque mental image of the body of Christ in pieces on an operating table, each part twitching ineffectively. I must be honest as say that the disunity and this mental image haunt me. Perhaps this feeling comes from growing up part of a movement within the church that began by valuing unity under Scripture. (Spoiler alert, it broke off and became it’s own thing separate from other Christian groups.)

I wonder what we Protestants have lost. I know that growing up, we rarely heard from the church fathers or mothers – even in passing. The word “saint” almost became a dirty word, a holdover from the “dark times,” or whatever we were supposed to consider them. Every once in a while Augustine would pop up, but only in regards to Calvinism. What about Origen, Athanasius, Iranaeus, Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, Hildegard of Bingen, and others? What are we supposed to do with nearly 1200 years of Christian history between the 4th Century and the 16th? These are questions I’ve had to consider over the past few years as I have begun digging into historic Christianity.

All of Christian history is full of people who seem to “get it” and also those who want to take advantage of it. There are those willing to give up power, and those willing to take it up. There are those willing to give generously, and those who want only to hoard. There are those who zealously guard orthodoxy, and those who don’t see the point.  All we need to is look at the way the apostles themselves reacted to Jesus to see that.

I do find beauty in the great variety of worship patterns (liturgies), locations, language, and ways of relating to God within the Christian Church. However, I do mourn our lack of unity. I mourn the good change that comes so slowly because the Church refuses at act as one body.

As we mark 500 years past the moment of decision – may we stop and consider where we find ourselves. May we stop and contemplate how the church can begin to come together again and work as one body, instead of each congregation or denomination acting like a finger twitching, separated from the rest of the body.

None of This Matters

Before this starts to sound existential or like the end of a Queen song, let me explain what I mean by nothing mattering. See, last week I had a blog post all laid out. I was going to discuss a topic (the NFL and what I see as a overreaction to something [the anthem] that is inherently there to grab your attention and earn more money being used as a moment of confrontation of what we believe America is ideally and what others experience as reality) when I received word that my wife and I would need to report to the hospital because our baby needed to come out – and soon. Our medical caretakers were very careful to stay even-keeled and speak in calm tones about what we would learn later was a fairly worrying scenario. The next day, my wife was wheeled into an operating room for an unplanned (though not “emergency”) C-section and our daughter was born.

The moment she was placed into my arms, ya’ll… I cried. I cried for this beautiful little life that had been placed into my care – her eyes open wide, soaking in the wide world around her. Our eyes met and I fell apart, filling up with love for this little girl who could do and has done nothing to earn my love, except exist. Two days later we would hear the words most parents wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies, “We’ll have to take her to the NICU.” Suddenly, our rapture was slammed into a harsh fear as I followed a nurse and my baby through back hallways into the NICU, where my baby was cared for efficiently and quickly by the nursing staff there. Two sleepless, stressful days later, we brought our little girl home.

So what really matters? For the past week, the safety of my wife and daughter. I listened to political news for the first time yesterday since being out of touch for a week and was struck by how petty, trashy, and foolish the dialogue has become. Honestly, take the leaders out of the conversation and we might be able to get somewhere, because we all have priorities and the things that really matter: family, friends, and making sure they are healthy, content, and safe. We really seem to forget that everyone else, for the most part, have these same priorities – even though they have a different idea of how to achieve them.

As far as application goes this week… just… hold your family and friends close. Remember that we all have limited time together. I have 964 Saturdays left until my little girl is college age… It seems like a lot, but last week I had 965. Focus on what really matters, and go into conversations assuming others have that same focus. Be present with your family and friends. Enjoy the quiet moments with your little one asleep on your lap listening to quiet music as she breathes gently.

Don’t let the world shift your focus.

Happiness Is a Pile of Cheez-Its

I have before me a (rapidly) diminishing pile of white cheddar Cheez-Its. I say this with no shame. As far as snack foods go, these are the perfection of years of scientific research into the taste palate of human beings. They are crunchy, but not overly so, dusted with the nearly explosive umami flavor of a white cheddar cheese, with the correct amount of salt in each glorious cracker. There is a bliss in placing one on the tongue and letting the cheese dust dissolve for just a wondrous second before allowing the still-crisp cracker to be crushed tenderly between molars.

Do you savor things? Do you enjoy your food, or do you wolf it down as fuel alone? Do you enjoy your reading, or are you so eager to start the next one that words blur together? Do you notice the trees, plants, sunrise or sunset as you drive to and from work, or is that guy in front of you just driving too. darn. slowly…

As I pop another cracker into my mouth, I cannot help but wonder how many meals I missed savoring due to feeling the need to hurry. Savoring actually takes some work in today’s culture. We all feel so busy that taking any time to enjoy something as simple as a Cheez-It or the newly bloomed flowers makes us feel guilty. What is that kind of busy-ness doing to our kids?

I think it’s developing generations that are afraid of boredom. Our phones save us regularly from the tedium of boredom. How did we function before such entertainment was readily available out our fingertips? Well, I guess we used our imaginations. We developed ideas. We reflected on life. We thought through our stories, days, and legacies while staring at the back of the coupon guy’s head in the checkout line.

I think I learned to savor from my family. My mom and I would share a bag of Smartpop White Cheddar (!) popcorn on car trips and enjoy licking the white cheese dust off of our fingers to get that last little bit of flavor. I remember sitting in the backseat of a car and getting passed a slice from a block of cheddar cheese on a Saturday afternoon with my granddad and cousin. I remember sitting in a sushi restaurant discovering that love for the first time with my dad in Las Vegas. Or Sunday afternoon lunches where we’d walk through a grocery store and build a snack meal after church.

We may be losing the ability to savor. Because we constantly seek stimulation, we lose the ability to stop and truly think about the media, food, and other entertainment we consume. I’m not saying we have to write a full break-down of character development and plot criticism for every show or film a detailed video of our thoughts on the scrumptious dessert we found. I am saying that we can unlock a level of enjoyment and pleasure that goes beyond the scientifically designed, pre-packaged consumables that get shoveled into our mouths, eyes, and ears every day. If we’re just constantly shoveling it in, how can we be discerning about what we like, or don’t like? A simple question, “Why?” can help us make some difference. “Why do I like this?” Our answer might surprise us, like with these Cheez-Its!

My small pile of Cheez-Its is gone. But gentle piano/cello/Celtic mix is playing on my office radio, so all is not lost. A beautiful chord resolution just happened removing the well-developed tension in the choral piece, giving me a sense of peace. And what should I find at the bottom of the box? A few more!

Maybe that’s what savoring is: stopping for a moment and asking, “Why do I enjoy this?” See, God made our bodies, made us to enjoy life and the world He created.  Wait, do we savor worship? Do we savor the silence of prayer? Do we savor the rush of singing God’s praises? Do we savor the words speaking to us from the Bible?

We’re encouraged to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Do we savor those tastes, those moments when God meets us in the daily back and forth of life turning a seemingly mundane moment into something holy, and wholly wonderful? And do we model savoring to our kids? Do they see us savor worship? Or are Sunday morning and Wednesday night hassles, full of frustration and clenched-jaw whisper shouting?

Slow down and savor. Teach your kids to slow down and savor – it’s a skill, and too few people know how to do it. So train yourself. Be present. Slow down. Savor. And then teach your kids how to.

Fragile Faith and a House of Cards

I’ve been thinking about worldviews and Christianity, in particular. In all honesty, the topic fascinates me to no end, despite me being on the receiving end of a profound couple of worldview challenges over the course of my life. There is almost nothing more disorienting than realizing that your worldview is too small, or, worse still, wrong.

I had my own disorienting “valley of the shadow of death” moment back in college. Cliche, I know. “Next, you’ll be telling us the sky is blue and water’s wet.” I mean, sure, it is, but sometimes cliches are there for a reason. Anyway, being a Bible major, meant I was wrestling with theology daily – from all different traditions of Christian history. I found myself at one point staring at a metaphorical pile of cards where what I thought was my faith had been. It had, in my mind, been an unassailable fortress of belief and right doctrine. Everything had a place and answer… and then my professors walked through and plucked out or shifted the cards one by one. My reading began to shift the table under the house of cards, and new forms of worship opened up as I traveled with our choir to different churches and had devotions with an Anglican friend out of the Book of Common Prayer.

This to say I still cling to orthodoxy (“right doctrine”) and orthopraxy (“right doing”), but the object of my trust has shifted. To say that I trust God now would sound, to most of us, a little odd. But, looking back, I think that was my problem. I trusted the system I had, rather than trusting the One that system described. When my system was challenged, and my house of cards fell, what was left was a person, a God who was smiling at me like a father whose child has just realized playing cards don’t make a sturdy house. And so I began wrestling – which has a long Biblical tradition in Jacob, whose name was even changed to “God struggles with” or “struggles with God.” That wrestling took me through church history, through modern theological thoughts, back to the church fathers, and through recent discoveries and scholarship on 1st Century Jewish life.

I’ve heard of so many Christians that have a trust in God based on a list of “provable facts” and some basic apologetic work who found themselves in a dark place when confronted by a worldview or counterpoint that challenges these basic beliefs. Many overcome this by realizing that our trust is in God, not in rhetoric or some tightly-constructed system of thinking. Some, though, if challenged on one belief, begin to question other beliefs and can drift into agnosticism as their house of cards collapses around them.

It’s okay to doubt, to question, to dialogue with God and others. The Bible isn’t particularly concerned about doubt – see Abraham, Job, David, etc. What the Bible seems to care about more is who is being doubted. Notice that the names listed above are still heroes celebrated for their faith, despite their moments of doubt. These people and many in the Bible like them are examples that God can take doubt, He can handle questions. God works with insecurity. One of the biggest complaints from naturalists of religion is that we believe regardless of facts. I take issue with this, a little. We believe because we trust, the other way around can lead to shaky ground.

Is your trust in a system of theology, or in the One that system describes? It can be hard to confront when we realize our theology is getting in the way of our trusting God. I may not subscribe to someone else’s theological blueprint, but I can celebrate those commonalities that we can affirm together as we worship, praise, and serve as one Body.

If you had to really think about it, where is your faith (read trust) centered: on a system of belief, or on the One that system describes? What do you model to your children? How are you introducing your children to God, and not just a system of belief?

The Nashville Statement, Injured By Lateness

Being raised in a small business family meant I heard the pithy idioms of business such as, “What are the three most important things for any business? Location, location, location.” The point being that where a business is located can make or break it – considering things like entrances, ease of vehicle traffic, easily visible, etc. To this day I will pass by businesses and even some churches and think – “does anyone even know this is here?” Or “I’d love to stop there, but I’d never be able to get back out onto the road!”

On top of those business concerns, timing is everything. When to launch an advertising campaign – or for real estate people, when to purchase property and when to sell. Buy too early, and you’re stuck paying property taxes for years before any profits are made, and buy too late and your profit margin is cut precipitously.

I say all of this to make a broader point about timing and making broad statements like the now “infamous” (in secular, and some Christian circles) “Nashville Statement.” If you haven’t read the Statement, and would like to before I spoil the ending, click here.

Personally, theologically, I agree with the statement. See this post. And also this one. I think the language could probably use some tweaking to be less… I don’t know… legal-sounding? This document is trying to come off like some new Declaration of Independence, and might have seen more widespread acceptance even five years ago.

Here’s why the timing was off on this one. Many LGBT+ individuals and those who support them are feeling pressure from the current government. They feel attacked by recent Presidential statements and orders, such as the military transgender ban, and suddenly the Evangelical branch of the church decides to release this statement that they have seen as attacking them and their way of life. I realize that it takes time to write what some may feel needs to be an ironclad statement covering every single base, but the timing feels almost as if the church is backing up the government’s efforts to push against this group. And if these groups that feel attacked already distrust the church, they will certainly not love it more now.

I realize that there are some who will come back at me with verses that talk about the world hating Jesus and the Church. I understand that there are some verses that talk about people hearing what they want to and disregarding truth and orthodoxy. I am aware of the verses that talk about contention between the Church and the world. I understand the concept of “tough love.”

I am also aware of the the commissioning from Jesus to be “fishers of men.” And a good fisherman knows you don’t fish without bait. Right now it seems like we’re trying to catch fish with dynamite – which most certainly kills the fish in the process.

I am not saying to toss out orthodoxy. I am not saying to disregard Scripture for the sake of comfort. I am not advocating that the Statement itself is wrong – just the timing. Do we, as the Church, want to be seen as colluding with the government? (I don’t think the Church is, particularly, but it may seem that way for those outside the Church.) Christians need to be very careful feeling safe under any government. Christians need to be especially careful of feeling in control of any government, which is the moment Christians tend to become targets of manipulation.

To sum up – I don’t disagree with the affirmations in the Statement, but I disagree with the timing and feel it has been put out during a time when Evangelical Christians feel safer to say things boldly, instead of during a historical moment when it would have been more costly, say, during the previous presidency. In other words, this Statement was a little late, and may have come across as tone-deaf and lacking tact.

How do you live out your affirmations in a way that is bold, grace-filled, and backed by Scripture? When have you had a situation that waited too long before being addressed and became more difficult to discuss? How did it turn out? What conversations about faith or life have you been putting off with your kids?