I tend to obsess over things. Some of my obsessions are of the short lived variety. I obsessed over soccer during the “FIFA” (pronounced “fee-fah” rather than “f-eye-fah” much to my disappointment for some odd reason) World Cup this year. I’ve never liked soccer and I have never watched soccer, but for those few weeks I was watching whenever I could and really getting into it. I even listened to the final match on the radio and came very close to being able to identify an “off sides” without instant replay. Now that it’s over I could care less. I’ve tried to watch “Man-U” and “The Arsenal” on my big screen TV but I wind up just staring out the window during most of the match or changing it to the Tennis Channel. I obsessed over keeping my Nissan Pathfinder spotless when they opened up a seriously cool car wash near my home. You can sit in your car while it goes through this big machine and it comes out looking like you just drove it off the showroom floor, even the tires look like new. This was a big deal to me; the car MUST BE CLEAN at ALL TIMES. Now I could care less and it shows; my SUV has actually changed colors due to dirt, grime, and other such things.
When my obsessions begin, I have a built in mechanism that usually lets me know that this one is going to be short lived. I kind of knew that I wouldn't be ordering replica soccer jerseys from British Premier teams and I knew that going through a car wash 4 times a week would get old; not to mention expensive. At other key moments in my life the voice tells me something different. I knew that my obsession for tennis would stick. I am certain that my new favorite college football team obsession will stick. More than anything else I am certain that I will obsess over something else in the very near future and that I will (if I am being smart) pay really close attention to the voice that tells me that it’s only a temporary, fleeting thing; or not. Often, it’s the voice of my wife who grew tired of watching FIFA World Cup Soccer and who did not like it when the garage always smelled like Armor All and car wash wax.
Thing is, once I pass the “initial obsession stage” I am sort of done with the things that don’t stick. This quirk in my personality greatly worried my wife when we were first married. It’s not that I will never watch soccer again and I know I’ll go through the car wash; it’s just that the obsession, or maybe the better word is the “passion” will begin to wane to the point of greatly reduced interest so that something that stayed on my mind quite regularly has now become a passing thought at best. I don’t do it on purpose, it just happens. And, as I have already mentioned, I seem to get an early indication as to what I’ll stick with, or remain passionate about, and what I will not. Ellen and I are 22 years and counting, just to clear that part up.
This happens more often than you might think when it comes to the things of the faith. Something happens in us, or maybe something happens in our lives and we are ready to go full bore into the God stuff. We pledge to read the “Bible in 90 Days” and at first we are really thinking about it a lot; “can’t wait to sink my teeth into Leviticus!” It’s that feeling of obsession/passion. Prayer all day every day. Church twice on Sunday every week and even on Wednesday. Checking Amazon for the best deal on the 6-DVD Box set of the Bible TV Series that debuted last year. One bible for everyone in the house. This is good stuff for sure. Until the passion wanes. It’s not done on purpose, it just happens, Leviticus can do that to a person you know. You miss one day, or one Sunday and it turns into four. Leviticus drones on forever. Then you start over. Then it wanes. Start over. Wanes. Passion. Obsession. Wanes. I care, but, why is it so hard to keep going?
I have a hunch. I've written about this in other places but it’s still on my heart so if you read my stuff on a regular basis then please bear with me. I think that it’s important to ask the WHY question whenever it comes to our passion for our faith. Why do I want this so badly? Why do I want to read the bible in 90 days and why do I feel so compelled to be in church? Why do I want this for myself and for my family? Sometimes we do it because we feel a sense of duty. That almost guarantees waning passion. We do it because we feel like we are “supposed to” or because now we have kids of our own and we've always been told to get the kids baptized and then to raise the family in church. Guess what can so often happen when the kids move out?
I want to suggest something that will indeed sound crazy. If you have made it all the way to this paragraph then first, thank you, and second, promise you’ll think about this. The right word would be “pray”, promise you’ll pray about this. Say this to yourself out loud so that you hear it with your own voice: “I want my faith in Jesus Christ to be the defining principle in my life”. Say that to yourself. Now say it again. Notice you did not say that you want it to be “A” defining principle as in “one of the many”. No, you said “the” as in there would be no other. Say it one more time just for kicks and giggles. How did it sound? How did it feel? Feels kind of good doesn't it, like, there’s some resolve? Where there is resolve, my friend, there is always passion. B-I-N-G-O.
Before you go, do something else. Pick up the bible again and even if you read just 2 verses a day, do so with the mindset that you are looking for clues as to how to make your faith the defining principle. Same for church. Same for prayer. Do this and watch what happens.
Spoiler alert! Your passion will not wane because you will see God doing some awfully incredible, and surprising things in your life. Don’t believe me? Try it for 30 days. Obsess over it. Be passionate. Be resolved. Nothing gets in your way. My life with Jesus Christ will be the defining principle in my life.
Do this and maybe one day you and I will be able to report: faith as the defining principle in my life? 22 years and counting… \
I have had it!
Seriously, like, the "up to my neck" kind of had it. For those who know me, it is no secret that I am sort of into social media. OK, who am I kidding; I am really into social media. I leave my Facebook page on all day and I troll it with regularity. And, I have had it. I'm not going to fool you or myself; I know that I will continue to make regular use of Facebook until they do something ridiculous like, start charging for it. Who am I kidding? I'd find a way to work it into my budget, so, outside of learning that the NSA is watching me through my Facebook wall, I'm all in. But, I have had it. I have had it with people finding fault in everything and then letting us all know what it is that's "wrong" with whatever or whoever it is they are choosing to target. Just this past week:
Someone I know very well suggested that, because some of us mentioned our sadness over the death of Robin Williams and had not yet made mention of the atrocities going on in Iraq, that it meant that we didn't care about the people in Iraq and we care much more for some sensationalized celebrity who chose to take his own life. This was further exacerbated by one of the comments to his post that suggested that Robin Williams did not believe in any kind of God because she had read somewhere that he "was Church of Christ and Episcopalian". I was all over it. To my friend's credit, he did edit his post, but those comments in response? Squarely in the "let's find fault in everything" category.
By now you know about this "ice bucket challenge" that I believe actually started on Facebook. The idea is that you make a video of yourself and you challenge 3 people to either pour a bucket of ice-cold water over themselves OR give $100.00 to the ALS foundation. Once you have been challenged by someone then you have 24 hours to do whatever it is you will do and then you make a video of yourself and challenge 3 more people to do the same. Some chose to douse themselves in ice-cold water AND give money too. According to what I read, this has raised millions of dollars and has greatly raised awareness about ALS, or "Lou Gehrig's Disease". On Facebook this week, I have read remarks from people finding fault with this. "It's a sad statement of our times when people have to make themselves feel good by videoing themselves and then broadcasting it on social media in order to draw attention to themselves." "What about all of that water we are wasting; how sad that we just toss it aside when it could be used for something more productive." OK, really? I suppose that the "water wasting" crowd has never taken an extra long shower, bathed their dog, or washed their car, right? At least that's the point I made in response.
Have you ever heard this? "These people are grumblers and fault finders." Yep, comes right straight from the NT book of "Jude". I like this one too (from 1st Corinthians); "...do not grumble as some did, and were killed by the destroying angel". I'll just leave it at that.
Here's the deal Lucille. I'm guilty of this "fault finding" so the finger pointing begins at myself. Having now confessed it, I must also say that I am into this positive energy thing these days. When I can actually control it, I am focusing on surrounding myself with positive energy. I know, "so what are you doing on Facebook then?" Glutton for punishment I guess. Surrounding myself with positive energy; this is a big deal for me right now. People will complain and they will find fault with things. As I have already confessed, I do it. And, one of the more popular books these days is called "Finding the fault in our stars" so finding fault in things is seriously part of the human condition (what could be wrong with stars?). What I mean by this "positive energy" thing is that I try to balance negativity with "positivity" and I am being real intentional about it. I get positive energy when I am at church. Yes, I am the pastor so I'm going to be there every week regardless but there is such positive energy in a place that's been called a "house of God" isn't there? I'd go every week even if I wasn't the preacher. When I watch my 7-year old sleep, there's some positive energy. And no, not just because he's quiet. It's that look when he sleeps, that peaceful innocent look that gives me chill bumps and leaves me knowing that all is right in my world. That's positive energy. When I sneak up behind my wife and give her a hug while she's cooking dinner she gets this particular smile that works the same magic as the boy asleep in his bed, so I give that hug as often as I can because it's positive energy for both of us. Prayer gives me positive energy, even when I am mostly complaining and finding fault in things. Jesus doesn't seem to mind, and if he does, he ain't sayin'. But, just having the conversation with Jesus Christ feels good to me, especially since I live in a world where they have to make movies called "God is not dead" to convince us that he's not. I know he's alive, so we talk (I do most of the talking). It's positive energy.
Consider this thing I'm talking about. You know good and well that there's negative energy out there and negative people and negative vibes all over the place. Balance it out with positive energy. Find ways to surround yourself with it. I'd like to suggest starting out with daily talks with God, church every now and again, an act of kindness, spending chunks of time with people who have an optimistic outlook on things and that seem to soak up all that's good in the world. Maybe (I cannot believe I am suggesting this) be more careful with who you "friend" on Facebook or Twitter. If every post they put forward has something to do with finding fault and complaining about everything and pointing fingers; maybe do a little creative "un-friending". Or by gosh just blast right back at them if it makes you feel good! "Wasting water? Don't let anyone see you washing your car; how ridiculous!" Yep, that was me.
Positive energy. Start with the things of Jesus Christ and work yourself outward in concentric circles from there. Maybe even think about giving off a little "+" energy yourself?
Or I guess you can just pray for the "destroying angel".
I was visiting with a member of our church the other day in his home. Since it was a fairly nice day, we sat out on the back porch to talk, and while there, we were treated to something extraordinary. In one corner of his back patio was a bird’s nest. The nest was filled with baby birds that sat very patiently waiting for mom to show up with a little something to eat. Every few minutes she would fly in to feed the kids and their little mouths would open wide and they would go to chirping. Then she’d fly off and they would be still and quiet. We watched this over the course of an hour or so when I noticed something about it all. I noticed that most of the time, the little birds would open their mouths and chirp before their mom got to them with the food. I found this unusual because, at least from my vantage point, it looked like the little bird’s eyes were closed. It was like they could sense the near presence of mom just seconds before she showed up with a worm or a bug or whatever it is that little birds eat. I’m not one to over analyze things, but this got my mind to working. How do they know when mom is near? Can they hear her coming? Are their eyes open a little and I can’t tell it from where I am? Can they smell her coming? Do her wings make a faint breeze that little baby birds can feel? Could it be that, because of that whole “mother-child bonding” thing, that they can just sense her presence when she is near? I don’t have the answer, but I know that it was really cool to watch.
This is something that we all crave. We may not be conscious of it at all times, but we crave it just the same. We want to feel the nearer presence of God don’t we? God seemed so near and present long ago. God would appear and he would speak and he would say, “I am going to do this for you” and then it would happen and everyone would know that God was near. Jesus came and walked among the people and they knew that God was near. After his death and resurrection he appeared to them and was known to show up at dinner time to break bread with them. Just before his final departure, he promised to be “with them to the end of the ages” and they had no trouble believing this because, after all, they had eaten dinner with a man who was supposed to be dead. If he looked like Jesus and sounded like Jesus and felt like Jesus, then, it must be Jesus. They would know the nearer presence of God from that time forward.
I haven’t welcomed Jesus to my dinner table (as in, he sat there with me and I talked to him) lately, have you? I haven’t taken a walk down the beach and had the occasion to shake hands with the Lord, have you (given what happened last time Jesus walked the beach and shook hands with people, I’m not sure I am ready for that anyway)? I have even asked Jesus to be present with me in a way that I could know it without doubt and I have been somewhat disappointed that he didn’t show up and put his arm around me and tell me very clearly what to do. I’m not asking for much am I? I just want to know he’s here. I just want to know he is present. I just want to know he is alive in me.
And yet I know. I can’t explain it really. I just know. Sometimes I really do sense his presence in a way that I don’t sense it every day, like on Easter Sunday or at the church retreat. When I speak to God I know he is listening. I don’t know what he will do with my words but I go to rambling on just the same; I know he is listening, otherwise I am a crazy man who likes to talk to the air with the unrealistic hope that “someone” up in the clouds can hear me. When we are in church, I am certain that God is near because I’ve always been told that it is God’s “house” and I have always taken that concept very seriously. I know God doesn’t live there, but I know that when I am in church that he feels like he is closer to me there than he is in my garage. Or, maybe it is true; maybe God does live there. Maybe God lives everywhere. Maybe God lives in me. Maybe this is how I know he is around, or near, even when I cannot see him. Even when my eyes are closed. Maybe I have been given the ability, through my senses, to “feel” that God is here. Like, maybe I, maybe we have been wired to know it and to feel it.
So, like the baby birds, we wait. We wait silently and patiently for God to come. We know it when he does. We may have to wait a while, or maybe we have to wait mere seconds. He is near. We know it. We can sense it. If you have ever felt his presence in any way, shape, or form then you know what I mean. The thing to remember about that is this. God didn’t just show up that one time only to fly away and never return leaving you hungry for more. He comes back again and again. We just have to be still and quiet so we will know it when it comes. Oh, and it helps to keep your eyes open.
Maybe that’s what he meant when he said, “be still and know that I am God”.
I am going to try something new today and I am afraid. There is a new gym in my area that offers something unique; you go and you wrap your hands with something that looks like an Ace Bandage with velcro and then you put on your boxing gloves and then you get to punch and kick the calories away for a solid hour. The website says that I can burn up to 1,000 calories in just 60 minutes; that's like running about 8 miles. Punching a big bag like Mike Tyson while someone named "Karen" blasts the music and keeps us all motivated sounds like a whole lot more fun than running. I am afraid. I am afraid because I have never wrapped my hands with that "hand wrapping stuff" so they will have to show me how. I've never worn boxing gloves and I know myself well enough to know that I am susceptible to putting them on the wrong hands out of nerves or not securing them properly so that they would fly off my hands right towards "Karen" when I attempt my first uppercut. I am susceptible to looking like the idiot in the room. The website assures me that the gym is a place that is "non judgemental", where newbies like me are welcome with open arms and where "Karen" will just pick up the glove that flew off my hand and say, "don't worry, it happens all the time." My optimism is tempered by the realization that I have been going to gyms for well over half my life and try as they might, they will snicker at the new guy who can't keep up because I have seen it too many times. In fact, it will be just my luck that I will be the only new person in the group so now I will become the court jester whose missteps are fodder for entertainment. I am afraid.
With wars being fought around the world and lunch ladies swiping food out of the mouths of babes because their parents had outstanding school lunch balances, my fear about working out in a new gym seems highly irrelevant, so bear with me. My fear about the gym speaks to the human condition. Sometimes I am shocked when it occurs to me how much of my very good life is driven by fear. I shudder just a bit when I think about how often I am waiting for the "ball to drop". Things might be going pretty well with my adopted son right now, but I know his biological history so it won't be long before______. I know that I have missed opportunities in life out of fear. "I would love to do that but, what if ________?" I have thought about skipping the workout today out of fear. I seriously considered dispensing with the idea of adopting a child from CPS because of fear. I know that some of the decisions that I have made in my vocational life have been driven by fear. Fear of what exactly?
Failure. Think of the most offensive word for you personally and that is what "failure" is to me. Failure (specific to me) connotes weakness. Not meeting expectations is failure. People thinking that I am "all that" only to learn that I am not. Not punching the bag like a pro is failure. When failure happens, people point and people laugh and they shake their heads because I do not know how to wrap my hands and secure the wrap with velcro. Everyone should know this and I don't. Loser. When I step up to preach on Sundays, I will often have the thought that it will be the Sunday where I finally say something so outrageously ridiculous that I will be standing there like the Emperor with no clothes. Or, I fear that I will so completely bore them that they will never come back. On those Sundays I wonder how I ever muster up the courage to stand up and say anything at all. Fear.
I have read that the words "do not fear" or "do not be afraid" occur 365 times in the bible; one for every day of the year. I have no idea if that's true and to be honest, I am not going to check. I like the idea though. The God inspired scriptures make it a point to identify the demon in us all, fear of ____. We need to hear "do not fear" at least once a day and maybe twice on Sundays. Fear is one of those things that you never quite overcome; you just learn how to deal with it. Unless you have a natural mechanism to "have no fear", you will use it to your advantage or you will let it rule your life. It's like making an assessment of the "best option" in any given moment. It is all in how much you are willing to risk; sort of like one of those "risk/reward" shots in golf. Is this risk worth the reward? I stand up and I preach every Sunday even though my fears will try their best to keep me planted in my seat. I am willing to risk myself because the passion to speak in that setting is so strong in me. I would rather be uncomfortable and afraid than to never step up and take the risk again because if that happened then a part of me would die. I was willing to say yes to the adoption because the reward of raising this beautiful child who, as luck would have it, looked alot like me was worth the risk of it all going south one day. I am willing to go to the gym today and say, "I have never done this before so I will need your help" because it's something that I really want to do, and because if I burn 1,000 calories in that hour I can eat so much more food for dinner! I am not willing to risk my life to skydive. I am not willing to swim with sharks. I am not willing to smoke pot, get drunk, or do both and then get behind the wheel because my inner Spirit tells me that the reward is not worth the risk. Might be for you, but not for me.
Giving in completely to fear means that I never know the power of blessing in my life. The rewards (blessings) of raising a child or preaching a sermon or for some, plummeting out of a perfectly good airplane may never be known if fear always says "don't". I will not open myself up to public humiliation or ridicule on every occasion, but sometimes I will. I will take note of the fear and then I will trudge forward anyway. The key is that, when it's important, I will have done this prayerfully. I will have partnered with the Spirit, my guide according to the bible, to give me a subtle hint of the purpose or the blessing that lies at the end of the risk that I will take. Most of the time, God will give me that little peek. Fear has kept me alive I am sure. Fear has also forced me to challenge myself and to follow on my instinct that tells me that God may have a purpose behind my willingness to "go for it". I will give in to fear when I shouldn't and I will heed its warnings when I should.
I will not let it rule my life because fear stifles the Spirit in me and it silences the blessings that comes from taking a prayerful risk.
Good God I hope I don't make a fool of myself at the gym today at 4:15. Even if I do, I will still be able to eat way past full and not gain a single pound. Risk. Reward. Go easy on this preacher 'Karen".
The age old question. Why is there evil in the world? The question as stated is usually just a nice way of asking, "why does God allow it?" or "why did God create it?" or "why do bad things happen to good people?" If you watch the news with any regularity then you are assured of seeing evil at work right there in high definition on your 50 inch screen. If you receive push notifications from news "apps" on your mobile devices then you will be notified of mass shootings and bodies being discovered in vacant lots and teachers doing highly inappropriate things with small children after school. Move beyond local news and follow things on a global scale and you will have the regular occasion to shake your head and ask the questions above. "Why is there evil in the world?"
These questions have baffled human beings ever since human beings began to believe in an all knowing, all powerful, all good Deity who "shepherds" his people. If the God of the Bible, and in particular, the Gospels, has pledged to protect his people from the "fox" who seeks to destroy them then why does the "fox" seem to be having its way with God's "sheep"? If God is watching so closely, if his "eye is on the sparrow", then how does he allow the "fox" to break in and steal children out of their homes while their parent's sleep in the room just down the hall? Why doesn't the shepherd stop it? Why doesn't the shepherd wake up the family and shout, "YOUR CHILD IS IN DANGER!". Why doesn't the shepherd do something about it? Typical answer? "God is in the healing, God is there to be a comfort when bad things happen." Typical follow up? "Healing and comfort would not be necessary has God stepped in and stopped it." Typical conclusion? God allowed it.
Why? Reasons abound. God is punishing people. God never directly intervenes (which would then make one wonder why we would ever pray for anything). God can't do much about it. It's all our fault because Adam and Eve ate the apple and so evil is inherent in all of us. It's in our DNA. You can't change your DNA. Most any answer that we could concoct in our minds will result in a rather circular conversation because in the end we will always be forced to deal with the very basic things that we believe about our God. God is the embodiment of good. God knows everything. God is our shepherd. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that God "causing" or "allowing" evil does not jive with the "God the Good Shepherd".
Newton's third law of physics states that, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." A bird in flight pushes its wings downward which results in the bird moving upward. A downward motion results in the opposite reaction of "up". A fish moves its fins in the direction of its tail. The opposite reaction is that the fish moves forward in the direction of it's head. This same principle helps to answer the question, "why is there evil in the world"? Simply put; because there is good, there must also be evil. Evil is the equal and opposite reaction to good. If one can make a choice to "do" or to follow good, then there must be the equal, opposite choice of doing or following evil. If I can choose to pay for the bag of chips in my hand, then the other choice must exist; I can stuff it in my coat and walk away. By creating good, and then giving human beings the free will to choose, God ensured that there would be evil and that God's will may not always be done. The only way that this could have been avoided would have been to take away our ability to ever make a choice about anything. God must have asked the same question that you are asking right now. "What would be the point of that?"
Why doesn't God step in and prevent evil? If I am to have any hope in my God then I have to believe that he does, only not in the way that I might like it. If God stepped in to prevent evil then the concept of "choice", and therefore, free will, is taken away. God has stepped in without taking away our ability to choose. God has provided the equal and opposite choice. I can choose good. I can choose right. At any given moment I can make a decision to stop and to take my finger off of the trigger. I can choose the good and nothing will ever prevent me from doing so. Even when all of the mechanisms and systems were in place, Adolph Hitler could have made a choice at any time to stop the genocide of the Jews. He was not forced or compelled to do evil. He was not demon possessed. He always had the choice to stop. He followed the path of evil and the world discovered what it looks like to give yourself over to the power of that evil.
The blessing is that the equal and opposite reaction always exists, right along with genocide and child abuse there exists a path of good and right and joyful. Hope is found in the knowledge that, when a great evil is introduced into the world that Newton's law is no less true. When evil rears its ugly and shocking head; there is an equal and opposite reaction to that ugly, shocking thing.
The shepherd always shows up to pick up the pieces. Healing is the opposite of suffering. LIfe is the opposite of death. God is the opposite of evil.
By now you have seen and heard more than your share of the "sensation otherwise known as the arrest of Justin Bieber." It's all over the place; if aliens from outer space had the unfortunate privilege of landing on planet earth on the day of Bieber's arrest then they would have no other choice but to conclude that it's the most important issue of the day. It has been dissected from every possible angle, although I realize that "every possible angle" is not a true statement because within the hour some other earth shattering revelation will come forward. Social media has pounced in the usual way. Funny, off color remarks. Mug shot pictures that make him look like Miley Cyrus with no makeup. Facebook posts that include photoshopped pictures of Bieber in jail with his monkey, or with his wild hair going in a million different directions so that he looks like quite the crazy little man. We need a good laugh don't we? As I write, the market has fallen over 200 points. Gmail went down today and there was that brief moment when we thought we'd all been hacked or that the rapture was upon us. There is a winter storm wreaking havoc on our land. We need a good laugh, so let's focus on Justin's public fall from grace. If not Justin, then we can seize the opportunity to get a laugh over Governor Christie's weight or his apparent imminent fall from grace. The governor of Toronto? Fodder for a million laughs. If we are lucky enough, Lindsay Lohan will do something ridiculous and we can laugh like there's no tomorrow. And, as if we have hit the proverbial jackpot, we have 8 days to wait for that guy that plays defense for the Seattle Seahawks to pop off again on live TV so that we can forever crown him as the village idiot. They all have it coming don't they? They chose to be famous and rich and there is a price to pay for life in the fishbowl. It's not as bad as it first seems because, at the end of the day, who among us wouldn't trade a mug shot for the money that Justin Bieber has? It might cause a little embarrassment in the moment but when everyone moves on to laugh at the next fall from grace they will forget all about you. You get the last laugh. You would be justified in doing so since "John Q. Public" had such fun with you.
We love a good fall from grace don't we? The longer and harder the better. That one very sweet southern lady that we all loved so much popped the "n word" into a conversation 30 years ago and she got dropped like a hot piece of iron, laughing all the way. There was once a man that we adored to the point that we called him the "King of Pop"; did one man ever give us so much ammunition to play with? He lived in a place called "Neverland" for Pete's sake. There was another man we simply called the "King"; but he had a drug problem. He had affairs. Off with his head. There was once a woman who came along with the voice of an angel. When she sang the words, "and I will always love you", we could feel as though she was talking to us. She had her problems. Abusive husband she kept going back to. Drugs. Addiction. A very long, hard fall from grace. Late night talk show hosts made us laugh to tears at the jokes about her escalating problems. Then she died and the laughter stopped. People went right back to calling her an angel. Too bad she wasn't around to hear it.
Why do we so enjoy the fall from grace? Do I really enjoy seeing lives destroyed? Do I really find it so amusing when famous people cannot handle the fame? Do I honestly believe that a child of God who gives in to an addiction is nothing more than comic relief? Maybe for some. For most, the public fall from grace gives us a sense of empowerment. We can point our fingers and we can judge and we can share the posts because if we focus our energy on the faults and falls of those who give us public witness to their own faults then we won't have to think about our own faults and falls. If we can bring the sins of others to the "front of the house" where the spotlights are, then ours praise God can move backstage. If we can have some fun with the faults of others then maybe no one will notice our own. If we can say, "SEE, look at that, here's an example of a life that's gone completely wrong", then we become the Pharisee who can gain a greater sense of our own imagined perfection because we have noted every flaw in the people around us. At least I don't do that. At least I'm not that fat. At least I know the rules. Who wears their hair like that? If my name was Justin Bieber then I would do things different. I cannot speak for you, but I am guilty as charged.
I wonder if there isn't a little envy going on here? I wonder if there is a feeling that comes from somewhere deep inside of me that loathes people who have so much more than I have. I will never have a house in the Caymans and Mr. Celebrity does. I work hard and all he does is sing and have people screaming at him and he gets on TV and says that it's "hard"? Really? You don't know HARD! So, a fall from grace brings Mr. Celebrity right back down to "my level"; down here where the real people are who work and sweat and who have wondered just recently how the mortgage will be paid. You are no better than me Mr. Bieber and all this time you thought you were. Turns out you are no better than me, and isn't that the point of the laughs and the posts and the comedy? Is it because, deep down, I don't like the feeling that you are better off than me? Is that why I wait for your fall from grace?
I wonder something else. I wonder if my reaction to the fall from grace comes from fear. Is there a place deep in my soul that imagines a fall from grace for myself when everything comes crashing down around me and I wake up to a life completely altered for good? Is my propensity to laugh at the posts and to giggle at the TV a nervous reaction to the fear that wells up within me when I see someone lose it all because I know that it could happen to me? Do I hear that still small voice that says, "if it can happen to Whitney Houston, an angel for crying out loud, could something happen to me?" When Paula Deen was found to have used a racial slur that resulted in the toppling of an empire; do I fear what can happen if I speak without thinking? Does the fall from grace serve as a sacrament to what can happen to any one of us? I may not have the life of Justin Bieber, but I do have a life that I do not want to lose. Can it all go away in the blink of an eye? Apparently it can, if I am to believe the news.
Truth be told, there is no such thing as a fall from grace in the Kingdom of God. Earthly things will pass away. The things of heaven do not. People turn their backs, they loath and they laugh. We will take the occasional opportunity to have some fun with the Lindsay Lohans of the world. Jesus will call her to do the same thing as he will call me to do. He will call her to the cross, to lay down her life and her fears and her addictions and her problems and he will promise her that if she will do that very hard thing that life will indeed be altered for good. Jesus Christ will even move in the heart of Justin Bieber. He will ask the same of him as he asks of all of us because in God's Kingdom there is no partiality. He will ask Justin and I to do the same thing; to live by him and with him and in him. He will expect Justin, Lindsay, Gov. Christie, and myself to never turn our backs on anyone who is distressed. To love not to laugh. To pray and not to point. To understand that one does not need to "have it all" for the fall from grace to be equally long and hard. If you lose it all then you lose it all, even if your version of "all" doesn't include a villa in the Caymans. Compassion is the word that must rule a day like this. Compassion is not condoning. It is healing. It is understanding. It is the recognition that we stand on equal footing in the Kingdom of God. It is the realization that we will all seek "compassion" from Jesus Christ even if our fall from grace never makes the news. Compassion is what we want most from God, for understanding comes with compassion. Compassion is one possible reaction to the suffering of others. Compassion shows our care for the human condition. We pray that God gives it to us. We have faith that he does. He, in turn, makes but one request.
Go and do likewise, good and faithful servant.
I have a voice in my head that, on my best days, I am always listening to. It could be the voice of the Holy Spirit, or it could be the voice of my conscience; it could be just plain old common sense. The voice will often warn me about things that, in the moment, sound like good ideas. I'm thinking that I will run 13 miles tomorrow. The voice says, "not such a good idea." I will write a really long email so that I can respond to someone who has said something that I take exception to; the voice says "don't you dare send it." I am thinking that I will blog about my strong views on the legalization of marijuana. The voice? "NO!" "Why would you subject yourself to the torment that will come? Why put yourself out there when, in reality, it doesn't really matter what you think? Why make enemies?" That's what my voice is saying right now as I am typing the first paragraph of this blog. Why do this? The reason? Because I am called to speak the truth as I see it; that is what God calls me to do on Sunday mornings and I think it's what God calls me to do here. I have strong feelings about this issue and (here goes risk number one) I am adamantly opposed to our President's remarks about it. One preface, I am not talking about marijuana for medicinal purposes here. Let the hatin' begin.
The first and most often used argument is this one (used by our President); "there is no difference between alcohol and marijuana", or, "it is no worse". Right? Wrong. Dead wrong. I do get the reasoning; (some) people will abuse alcohol. Alcohol can get you "drunk" and it can cause you to black out and kill people on the road late at night without remembering one moment of the whole tragic thing. People use alcohol so that they can get "happy" and so that they can live in a fog that gives them a distorted sense of reality. I get the argument. It has one major, or maybe the better word is fatal flaw. The other night I was in New Orleans being treated to a wonderful meal at Besh Steakhouse. My steak, a peppercorn ribeye with a peppery gravy was savory and delicious. When I ordered it, Nelson, our waiter, suggested a Cabernet that paired nicely with my steak so I asked him to please bring me a glass with my meal. Nelson was correct; the wine enhanced my meal and the meat was more enjoyable when it was washed down with a good Napa Cab. I sipped my wine with my entree because I appreciated the flavor and it seemed to make my steak taste just a little bit better. I did not order the wine in order to get drunk. I never do that. You smoke pot for one reason; to get high. You smoke pot because it will make you feel that "fog" and it can cause you to look at all things through your happy, pot colored glasses. The reality that you see and feel is not reality at all, especially if it is accompanied by delusions of grandeur. You smoke pot to feel that "daze". It makes you want to just sit and stare and your reflexes are softened. It makes you want to say thought provoking things like "wow". It makes you crave Cool Ranch Doritos dipped in mustard. These descriptions come from the source; people who smoke pot. Question; is another mind numbing, fantasy invoking, reflex slowing substance necessary in a culture that already excels at these kinds of things? If the level of alcohol and prescription drug abuse is an indicator then it is obvious that we live in a culture that is obsessed with the "fog". I wonder why we so desperately seek the fog in the way that people long ago were so desperately seeking the things of God? Why do we have such a propensity to be "dazed and confused?"
"If we legalize pot then it can be taxed." A good argument that I'm not buying. Right now I am looking across the table at my 6-year old son while he eats his dinner. He's watching a cartoon on his little DVD player with the wonder in his eyes that only a 6-year old can show. I'm sorry to be so blunt (no pun intended) but I do not want my son to be taking drags from a bong so that my government can increase it's taxable income. I do not want my son getting high so that I can keep from paying higher taxes. There must be another way. There is another way. Nothing in my world is worth a decision on his part to live his life in a legalized state of "fog". I'll pay more taxes if I have too.
Imagine this (it's really not a stretch). Ten years from now, you can go to the Walgreens just up the road and buy a "dime bag" of pot. You have to be 21 to do this, but there are ways around all of that. Now marijuana is readily available and the supply is barely meeting demand. People are getting rich! And our children are getting high! They are getting high whenever they want! The party never ends! "Man, this stuff is addictive!" I have never tried to buy marijuana, but I know how it goes. You have to ask around. You have to have a connection. Then you make a purchase which is illegal. Get caught and there are serious legal consequences. This is a deterrent. You might say it isn't, but it was for me and for all of the people like me whose worst fear was calling mom and dad from jail, mostly because of the threat of "leaving me there". There is still that tiny bit of caution. We still hear that voice in our head, "not such a good idea." The felony charges attached to buying and smoking pot can stick for life. It can keep you out of the best schools and it can keep you from the best jobs, most especially if you have multiple offenses. If pot is readily available and legal, then there is no deterrent at all to living in the fog for life. The number of people in the fog who'll be driving 80 miles an hour next to me while I am trying to get my son to soccer goes up dramatically. How high (no pun) will the rate of addiction and abuse go up if marijuana is legal? How many more people will rob, steal, and kill to get there hands on something that they never would have risked trying before? Death? How many more people will be living in the fog? There are already millions of people wandering around in an alcohol or Xanax or Vicodin fog already. How many more will there be now? I'm pretty sure I know the answer; and I am sure that you do too.
There is a bigger question to be answered here. Why are we so obsessed with the fog? Why do we so desperately seek an altered sense of reality? Why do we want to get high? Why do we want our children to have ready access to this "high", that they can gain access to as easily as they can get a bag of Cheetos? Why would we ever say that it's alright if our children live out their days with softened senses and reflexes? Why would we say "yes, it's fine if our children become so obsessed with the fog that it's the only way that they can find their happy place?" Why would we add one more thing to the list of legal substances that can be abused?
Why are we obsessed with the fog? And, what will be next? What else will be alright? What else will be "no big deal"? It scares me. It should scare you.
Fog: "something that obscures and confuses a situation or someone's thought processes; bewilder or puzzle; make an idea or situation difficult to understand; unable to think clearly or understand something." From the dictionary on my iMac.
I seriously hope that you will read and share this blog because the subject matter is close to my heart. If my assumption is correct then I am speaking from the heart of almost every pastor of almost every church. Today, in this blog, I am speaking to the people who are thinking about leaving my/their church. I may not know who you are, but I know that at any given moment in time that there is probably at least one individual or family that is currently sitting on the fence. You love your church but you're having that feeling; "it may be time to go." I'm not judging you; I am speaking to you. I am speaking to you here because most of the people who decide to leave their church will not take the time to converse with their pastor about their impending departure unless they are really angry about something; so I would like to have the "conversation" here in this space. There are some things that you might want to know before you go away to the "other church". It will not change your decision, but it might give you something to think about before you leave.
I am going to blame myself for your departure: Preface; this is not a "if you leave you'll make your pastor feel guilty" kind of thing. It's reality. Since the pastor is, in theory, the leader of the "organization" and since leaders like me tend to internalize everything, I will inevitably believe that I did something wrong. I will believe that my sermons didn't connect or that the worship was substandard when compared to the big, loud, modern, "smoke and strobe lights" style of worship in the place that you are going. I will believe that the opportunities for your kids were inadequate and that you slowly backed out because your family was not being "fed"; and that it's my fault. When the church got bigger I couldn't call you for coffee every Wednesday anymore because there were so many other "call for coffee on Wednesday" people who wanted a small slice of my time. I will believe that I was unable to do the job in the way that I have been called to do it because if I was doing it "right", you wouldn't even think about going anywhere else and my church would be every bit as attractive as that "other place" just around the corner that IS doing everything "right". You're departure will leave me questioning everything, most especially myself. If we could have had a conversation about this when you began to get the "maybe we should go elsewhere", then things could have been different. In fact, they should have been different.
Think about being a part of the solution before you go: Did you think about the ways in which you could have used your gifts to help build up the programs that were lacking in your church before you left? When you began to sense the areas where the church was deficient, it may have been a nudge from the Spirit to utilize your gifts for ministry in that area rather than a call to leave. With so many churches to choose from these days, it's easy to go church "shopping" when your current church isn't offering the products that you are craving. It's easy to "shop" because it takes no work. You don't have to help envision new ideas, you don't have to attend planning meetings, you don't have to give any of your time. You can just "Google Map" the place that offers nacho bars, bowling alleys, and praise bands for their Sunday school kids. I'll name the elephant in the "room". This is called consumerism. This is being a part of a community as long as it is fully serving your needs. Consumerism is not what Jesus had in mind when he created the church. The church was not meant to serve, but to be served. The only "feeding" that the church was called to do was to "feed" the poor. The church was meant to be the place where it's people came with an attitude of sacrifice; the Body would come thinking first about how it could give and how it could work and how it could best do its ministry. People were called to come ready and willing to give of their time and to do whatever it would take to make their particular faith community the best place that it could possibly be so that their church could reach the max number of people for Christ. When things got tough, or when the church was lacking, they bound themselves to one another to figure out how to meet the needs of the congregation. If they received something in return then they gave thanks for the unexpected blessing. You can see this in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. Perfection in ministry takes work and it takes sacrifice. It takes your work and sacrifice. The ability to do this work is greatly diminished when you leave.
Before you talk to everyone else, please speak to your pastor: This is one that I quite frankly have never understood. Sometimes people will begin to whisper in the ears of their closest friends in the church; "we aren't happy anymore, I think that we might be leaving." Often, those "whispers" get back to me. "Father Mike, don't say anything, but ____________ called me last night and said that they are done here." I'm sure that I get the same shocked look on my face every time it happens and I am certain that I ask myself the same question on every occasion. "Why would they do that?" "Why wouldn't they talk to me?" Do you want your friends to agree with you to the point that they will leave too? Are you hoping that it will "get back to me" so that you don't have to be the one to "break the news"? I don't get it, honestly. Not that your pastor deserves some sort of special treatment, but please remember this. When you asked your pastor to pray for you, she did. She may have been praying for you even when you didn't ask; she probably named your prayer concerns before naming her own so that God would get to yours first. She openly celebrated the ministry you offered. When you brought your honey glazed ribs to the fellowship luncheon, she acted like she'd never tasted anything so good. Remember when you stopped showing up? She emailed you or wrote you a note or she called you just to check in because she was concerned about you. She embraced you at the door on Sunday both coming and going. She listened when you needed to talk. In other words, she loved you, and she will continue loving you even when she is signing your letter of transfer to the new, exciting place. Before she does so, I know that she would welcome the chance to at least say goodbye and to give you one last embrace.
Think about it this way: Imagine this. You're pastor arrived 5 years ago and things began to change. The church grew! Money in the bank! Ministries created and flourishing! You love the sermons, and the guy in the pulpit seems so genuinely glad to be with you. He's not perfect, but, you love him just the same. You've had the pastor and his wife over for dinner and you appreciate the fact that they don't put on airs and that they are down to earth people who are dedicated to the church that you have loved for so long. Then, one Sunday, you arrive and you notice that he's not there. A member of the church stands up to give a shocking announcement. Your pastor has left for a bigger church down the road. Then he sits down. No explanation. No reasons. No goodbye. Just gone. You find out later that some people knew about this. The pastor confided in them and he named some of the reasons why and when you heard those reasons it made you feel deficient because if you had known then maybe you could have made a difference. You would like to ask those people in the inner circle to clarify some things but unfortunately they have left for the bigger church as well. You feel angry. You feel betrayed. You wonder why you didn't know and why your pastor wouldn't talk to you about things. You begin to feel as though the relationship was highly conditional; as long as you and the church were offering everything your pastor needed and wanted then it was all good. If not, then the job search was going to commence. It didn't have to be that way, did it?