“Don’t Make Me Come Down There!” – God, also my mom, and every parent ever

As a child, I was a little wild. Most of it was not malicious, but I had an energy and curiosity that often got me in trouble. The few times I was blatantly defiant, my parents were often standing right there with me and saw the whole thing. I wasn’t much for sneaking around. That said, I’ve seen my share of punishment and discipline over the years. And, honestly, I’ve just now come to know the difference.

I think this may have been the reason I was always a little averse to the idea of Spiritual Disciplines – I had equated the word discipline and punishment. Punishment might be an aspect of discipline, but it’s not the whole package.

Discipline comes from the Latin discipulus,  which means “pupil, or learner.” A disciple was one who learned, either as a pupil under a teacher, or as an apprentice under a master craftsman. So a discipline is a course of learning or training, a way to attain mastery in a field or craft.  Discipline, then, is a way to learn that encompasses all the ways people learn, by positive and negative reinforcement, reward and punishment, and internal drive.

Spiritual Disciplines are not punishments meant to harm us or whip us into submission. the Spiritual Disciplines are a training course in humility, God’s character, and submission to His will. Fasting isn’t a painful beating, it’s a practice that reminds us that God sustains us even in periods of hunger or want. Fasting helps us clear our minds so that we can better hear God’s calling.

Silence isn’t a time out from God. Silence is (come to find out) a necessary aspect of our lives for mental health, but also for spiritual health. It’s hard to hear God if we’ve got sound and information bombarding us 24/7. Silence gives us a chance to stop, listen, and reorient to God’s way of life.

Sabbath (rest) is a spiritual discipline! It isn’t a red card to get out of the game of life. It’s a reminder that worrying and trying to do everything ourselves is pointless, because God doesn’t need to rest and will continue sustaining the world even while we sleep. We rest because we have trust in God’s compassion, love, and care.

Those that surrounded Jesus received the honor of being called his Disciples. We still call them that today. How many of us are disciples? How many of us have truly submitted to the discipline of Jesus by living and walking with him every day? In the case of those twelve men who were called by name, their discipleship training never stopped. It just changed, became different since they were no longer able to reach over and tap Jesus on the shoulder. You can bet they continued praying, seeking one another’s advice, sharing meals together, and sharing in that renewed life that Jesus brought through his death and resurrection. Many of them showed their devotion through martyrdom and suffering, facing the challenges that the world threw against them.

In the case of children, you are discipling them whether you realize it or not. When you choose church over sports, or choose kindness over revenge you lay out a discipline for those in your life, children or adult, who look to you for guidance. Do your choices, the discipline of your life, lead others in Jesus’ path, or another?

May your discipline be that of Jesus’, and may you lay out that same path for others.

 

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Is Violence Really Not the Answer?

As a child, I was often told the phrase, “Violence is not the answer,” to one conflict or another I might be having with my brother, or a friend, or a classmate. It seemed so wise at the time, that we, as children, were being entrusted with learning how to use diplomacy, develop trust, and become peacemakers. I can tell that the teaching had a great and lasting effect on me, especially when the phrase, “Well, if you’re gonna bomb them, go ahead and annihilate several cities so that we don’t drag this stupid war on for years,” vomits out of my mouth.

Violence has been in the news a ton recently. We have more mass shootings today than ever before, with very little constructive deliberation on how to curb it. (Notice I said “constructive.” No end of debate.) We’re hearing more threats of nuclear action now than we have since the slow decline of the Cold War back in the late 80s. Depictions of violence continue to find more and better ways to show the realism of what happens to a human body when it encounters knives, guns, bombs, fire, drowning, etc. And from what I can see… we all (American Christians, in general) seem ok with all of this…

I’ve been wrestling with violence and Christianity’s relationship with it a lot lately. To tip my hand, I have been working through the immense “Crucifixion of the Warrior God” by Greg Boyd, which seeks to lay out a hermeneutic (interpretive method) for dealing with the violent passages of Scripture. It’s challenged me to go back and really give a good, long, hard look at those passages that do depict violence and ask the questions, “How does this reflect God? What does this say about God’s story?”

I’ve also been thinking historically about Christianity’s relationship to violence. In its earliest days, violence was not something particularly loved by the church… mainly because it was the victim of a good deal of it. The early church had no say in the government’s use of violence, and so peaceful solutions seemed to be the choice of the day. However, once Christians got the reins of power and had some say, the view seemed to shift. (As usual, this is a broad oversimplification of a process of transition that took place over centuries and had multiple stages in its evolution.)

Today’s church looks like it has some choices to make in regards to violence. The question lingers, though: what happens when the church loses its influence on the American government? (Or any government for that matter.) How will the church view violence then?

I’m going to be honest and say I’m not sure where I fall anymore on the use of violence. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going through a period of examination and thinking through each aspect of the argument. Is there a time when violence is justified? If so, what are the criteria? Who gets to make the call? How do we wrestle with the depictions of violence in Scripture?

For families, it is worth thinking about how you talk about violence with your children. Talk through the shows and media that take in: “What other options could the characters have chosen to solve this problem?” Ask questions to get kids thinking critically and creatively on how to solve problems. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be the generation that finds a way to solve these problems we’re still working through today.

Gun Violence

Often times this blog is more of a place to allow me to air some thoughts that I feel are worth at least thinking about. I understand that not everyone will agree with all the thoughts, and, truly, that’s fine with me. As long as we can have a civil discussion (which I have had with several of you), I welcome disagreements and counter-thoughts that help me better understand the world around me. The news has been quite full lately of some pretty serious issues, and I’d like to write out some thoughts briefly. Also, I do not put the authority of ministry behind these thoughts, only the weight of a human, who like Israel, is constantly wrestling with God and what it means to be human, made in God’s image, and rescued by Jesus.

We are all, with regularity, terribly saddened by the deaths of so many at the hands of firearms – in schools, in homes, homicides, suicides. Before you start contacting me, hear me out. It may not be a regulation issue, even though we can do a much better job of that. It may not be a mental health issue, although we certainly need to do a better job at handling that. It is a sin issue… and that’s where the issue gets muddy. Is there sin in the hearts of those who would cause violence to innocents? Yes. Is there sin the hearts of some who look the other way when there are ways to stem the violence? Also, yes. Sin is the problem, and lies both in those that commit violence and in the idolatry of some who uphold their own rights and money instead of looking for ways to protect the vulnerable. I do believe in self-defense. I do believe there is merit to the second amendment and the heart with which the Framers wrote it.

Can I do anything to change things? Not really. I can meditate and prepare myself on how to survive situations. I can continue to train myself to use the firearms I do own. I can make sure my daughter understands firearm safety and gains a healthy respect for guns, the same as with knives, heavy machinery, and anything else that can end a life. I can prepare my children’s ministry for the possibility of an attack. I can pray for those who suffer loss. I can donate to support those who have lost loved ones. I can do all of these things, same as you.

If nothing else, use this as a moment to think about how you approach this issue. You may come out at a different position than I do, and that’s OK. What’s important is that you think, evaluate, pray, and have a rational and Scriptural foundation to your transformed, renewed mind that should be that of Jesus.

Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit?

Over my years as a minister and as a minister in training, I have come across the sense that a large portion of the church is afraid of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps rightly? When the Holy Spirit moves there is power, there is transformation, there is growth. When the Holy Spirit bursts out on someone, sometimes they seem like a different person. When the Holy Spirit enters the picture, suddenly all of our carefully constructed categories seem to fall apart as we find ourselves in the presence of something both familiar and strange, mysterious and known.

Growing up in the Southern Baptist branch of the church as well as the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (comment if you need some background on that one) the topic of the Holy Spirit was often kept to the book of Acts. Outside of that, we kind of danced around the topic unless a teacher was particularly passionate about the work of the Spirit, and then we’d get some extra meat, which was exciting. (Sorry vegans for the meat metaphor… it is biblical, though?)

Some background on myself: I am in so many ways a product of the Enlightenment (via Modernity.) Honestly, Post-Modernism (or however many “posts” are in that by now) gives me headaches and exasperation, but I will not deny it’s had its own impact on my thinking. That said, I like evidence. In a lot of ways I wholeheartedly relate to Thomas when he states he needs to see the wounds or he won’t believe. I would be right there with him. You have to show me. So I tend to be very skeptical about the supernatural in general – along with what seems like a majority of Protestants. Maybe the Enlightenment hit Protestants harder than we realized. (No “maybe” about it, but benefit of the doubt and all that.) Perhaps we reacted too strongly to a Catholic mentality of miracles. Perhaps we’re scared of what it means that the Holy Spirit is still at work today.

When I run into fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who have had a spiritual experience different from my own, can I dismiss their experience out of hand? Can I state without a hint of humility that what they attribute to the Holy Spirit is all in their head?

The few spiritually charged moments I have had in my life I can count on one hand. Maybe I’m just thick-headed, or maybe I’m not open enough to the possibilities? Despite this, I have a hard time looking at a brother or sister in Christ who has had a spiritual experience and thinking they’ve made it all up. Now, there are some interesting discussions we can all have about what it means to have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the signs of that, and maybe discuss baptism in depth to really get to the heart of the Holy Spirit’s work there, too.

The Holy Spirit is our guide into the truth and toward Jesus. The Spirit is our comforter and advocate when we don’t know what to say. The Spirit is our prompter when we are called to give an answer, and the very presence of God that resides in us and in the church like God’s presence was in the Temple.

Are we willing to let the Spirit do its work? Are we willing to listen when the Spirit speaks? Are we willing to live in the mysterious familiarity the Spirit brings?

Naive White Male Makes Discovery in Foreign Land

Several times in my life I have found myself in a position of making a purchase in a market in a foreign country. In one of these countries I knew a smattering of the language, and the other, I found myself at a severe disadvantage knowing almost nothing about the language and less than I’d like about the culture at large. However, in both countries I found myself expecting everything to be cheap. I found myself valuing things as less than they would be at home. In some cases this was true, based on basic exchange rates, but in others I found myself surprised. (Now, some of this is my inherently trusting nature that renders me hopelessly naive at times.)

Today I wondered about that. What caused me to value someone else’s artwork or handiwork as less? Was it simple cultural familiarity bias where I assumed other countries were further behind? Was it pride? Was it relying on hearsay and assumptions built up over a lifetime? Was it a combination of all of these? Regardless, I was humbled and realized how much more I needed to grow in my understanding and appreciation for other cultures outside my own.

I wonder if this is how the disciples felt whenever Jesus raised up someone who, in that culture, was valued less. How did the disciples feel when they came back to find Jesus chatting with a divorced, unmarried, Samaritan woman? (What judgments are you unconsciously passing on her yourself?) How did the disciples react when Jesus touched a man with a skin disease – an unclean person? What did the disciples say when Jesus said that a Roman centurion, one of the hated, oppressive gentiles, had more faith than anyone in Israel? The disciples suddenly found themselves in a seemingly foreign land realizing that people had way more value than they thought.

We struggle with this ourselves today in America. How much to we value the immigrant, the foreigner God commanded his people to respect and care for? How much do we value women, and all of the struggles they face? How much do we value those with a different skin color, with all of the present and historical abuse they’ve suffered?

In our families, how much do we value our children? Do we show it by our actions, by our forethought, by our considering their dreams, hopes, and fears? Jesus raised children to a new level when he said, “Let the little children come to me.” He made them a priority, much like God did in the Old Testament – funny how that works, right? God taught his people that children are blessings, gifts that don’t belong to us as parents, but are gifted to us to raise, guide, disciple, and protect. Children are more than children, they are human beings, too. I know this sounds cliche, but a reminder of the value of children is needed on occasion.

How do your actions show what and who you value? How do your actions teach your kids who you choose not to value? What might you change about your habits to show your children to value all people?

What if you could dash it all to pieces… and start over?

There’s been a lot of anger surrounding ideas concerning immigration, racism, sexual assault, consent, abuse, and so many other issues I’m having a hard time remembering which one of them has priority at the moment. It can get difficult to trek through all of these issues, but I had a thought the other day to help deal with some of these. It’s an exercise even kids can do.

Have you ever asked yourself what a perfect society would look like? Have you ever gone through the exercise of deciding how you would build America if you could do it all over again? What would you keep? What would you scrap? What do you think your kids would say in response to that question?

Now, there are some people who would say that America is fine, as is. I wonder about those people. Seriously? There are absolutely no problems that need fixing either present or historically speaking?

Try the exercise and ask specific questions. Start with the fun ones. What would be the national style of food? What language would your country speak? Would you have specific national clothing? What would be the most popular books or movies? Who would be the people celebrated in your country? And after you’ve got the fun stuff talk about, move on to the difficult stuff…

What style of government would you have? What responsibilities would that government have? What would you do about poverty? How would you handle immigration? How would you handle diplomacy with other nations? What would your cities look like? Who would manage the resources of your land? How would you avoid extreme inequality? How would you regulate industry? What would your justice and prison system look like? How would you treat criminals? How would you handle healthcare and illness?

It’s easy to just copy and paste whatever our current US system is doing. Often times we don’t recognize our own blind spots and weaknesses until we do an activity like this. Which is more important, infrastructure or military, freedom or order, compassion or justice? Asking ourselves what we see as priorities for life can give us insight into ourselves as individuals as well.

While I would like to sit here and go on and on about my personal beliefs and how Scripture and church tradition as well as wisdom from people I trust has guided the development of those beliefs, it wouldn’t be productive. See, I understand that a blog doesn’t have the kind of punch to change someone’s mind… but you do. Can you hold your beliefs and views under extreme scrutiny, comparing each detail to Scripture, to Jesus, and come out with all of them in tact?

I’m not going to get all cliche and ask, “How would Jesus vote?” Instead, I’ll just ask whether or not our society, our families, our churches reflect Jesus’ conception of the Kingdom? Do our lives look as though “His Kingdom [has] come?” Or do our lives look more like that other extremity?

What will you change to help your family better reflect the Kingdom? How will you act to help your community better reflect the Kingdom? How will you engage your family to serve the city around you?

Were You Expecting A Cakewalk?

What would it feel like to literally give up your life for someone? What would be your last thoughts as life left your limp body? Would you wonder whether anyone would appreciate the sacrifice? Would you wonder if anyone would even know what you had done? Would anyone remember you?

We often see laying down a life as literally dying, and that could be the case for any one of us. Jesus, though, asks us to pick up our cross daily and follow him. There is only one place that Jesus leads carrying a cross, though… Golgotha. When faced with that grotesque vision of a skull-shaped (or maybe that’s just my imagination interpreting too much) hill littered with the remains of previous executions: nails that had seen one too many uses, wood chips broken off of sturdy cross beams, drops of dried blood, what is our reaction? Does the fear and revulsion compel and convince us to turn around, drop the cross and run? Or do we hear the still small voice, barely audible saying, “Here lies victory. Keep moving forward.”

The crux, literally, of the Scripture is the cross. Jesus, on the cross, is the clearest picture of God we have. It’s terrifying and awesome all at once – the victorious God suffering humiliation and self-giving. The Great I Am feeling the pain of rejection and satisfaction of a world redeemed all wrapped up in that paradoxical moment. And in those eyes that lock onto ours, full of mercy and sorrow, there’s an invitation, “Through here lies the victory. Come. Die. Live.”

Each day is an opportunity to die. “He who loses his life will find it.” Every choice a splitting pathway between selfishness and selflessness. If the cross is the clearest picture of God, then our pathway to being more Christlike lies through a thousand moments of self-giving, pain, sorrow, but ultimately victory and celebration.

The way of the cross leads through those moments of conflict when we look into the eyes of another human being who truly wants to see us hurt and serving them wholeheartedly in self-giving love, eating our own pride as we take each motion. The way of the cross leads through the path of confession, speaking painful words that disappoint and hurt those around us, but lead to healing and reconciliation. The way of the cross leads through owning our mistakes… in front of and to our kids. The way of the cross leads through the tunnels of weakness and humiliation in order to access a different, divine sort of power that Jesus used to triumph over the darkness.

We need this sort of reminder – as many Christians have forgotten over the centuries just how painful the way of Christ is. Especially in this time where worldly power is being called out for its many abuses and injustices. The Church has always been tempted to be chummy with worldly power, and often pays dearly for its partnership. Worldly power is just that, worldly.

When is it hardest for you to model Jesus’ self-giving love? How do you model that conviction through pain to your children? How do you show your family the grace, compassion, and self-giving nature of Jesus?