Saturday, March 9, 2013

Why I Don't List Following Jesus as My Top Priority

Recently I was explaining to a friend some of my "priorities" in life.

I actually used the expression "my roles" and began to list my life's roles in order of importance. "I am a husband first and a father second," I said. "When God allows it again, I will be a pastor." And then I went on to list a few other roles I play in my life.

Later I wondered if I had offended him (probably not) by not listing "Christ-follower" as my first role. But as I thought about it, I was glad I hadn't. And as I think about it now, I wouldn't list that as my first role if I had it to do over again.

I know that may be a difficult acknowledgment for some to hear, but please read the rest.I don't think following Christ belongs on the list of roles I play in life. It is not something I do. It is not a hat that I wear. It is who I am.

Every role I play is temporal. Even the marriage commitment (which is "til death do us part") is not forever. Jesus said there is no marriage or giving of marriage in heaven. Following Christ is the only part of me that is forever, and for that reason it must be so much more than just a part of me.

I am a husband first. But I am a husband that follows Christ.

I am a father second. But I am a father that follows Christ.

I am a soccer coach. But I am a soccer coach that follows Christ.

Sometimes, I am a bus driver. But I am a bus driver that follows Christ.

If ever my pursuit of Jesus becomes something other than the central definitive element of my life, then I have lost my compass. To abandon that core is to return to a life of death, a life from which I was rescued long ago. To say that He is my everything is nice, but to live knowing He HAS my everything is better, and to die to everything but Him is best.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Five Years of Conversation About Race and We Still Haven't Really Moved

A few nights ago, Marianne and I had dinner with some friends. One of them shared how they had once been part of a church which split over how to handle a group of children from a different ethnic background than the majority of church members.

"Ironic", said I. "I was once in a church which saw a mass exodus over the same issue."

As I thought about this sad commentary on SOME American churches, I recalled this post I wrote many years ago. While it is certainly out of date, I still agree with the same conclusion I reached almost five years ago. Here you go:

In the interest of self-disclosure. I'm not planning to vote for Obama in the general election.

However, I've been observing this whole "bitter Pennsylvanians" thing from afar and have some thoughts.

1) Obama is trying to open the dialogue about race in this country. I don't envy him. Unfortunately, we'll never be able to have open discussions about race or any other issues as long as we have campaigns and journalists who spend all their time focusing on what people should and shouldn't say, rather than on what they actually say.

This is a great example. All we're hearing from anyone is, "Oh, he shouldn't have said that. He's going to offend people." We're hardly hearing anyone say, "He's right, and this is why..." or "He's wrong, and this is why..."

I'm inclined to say, "He's right." More on that later.

2) I'm bemused at the number of news outlets who are getting away with running only a small part of the quote. What people are seeing more than anything else is that Barak Obama said:
So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations
Very few people are seeing is the context in which he said this. Before he said anything about people being bitter, he explained why they are bitter. It isn't any surprise the Clinton campaign wants to gloss over this part of the quote:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them, And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
This selective quoting is just poor journalism and reveals that Fox isn't the only network that is "fair and balanced" in an interesting kind of way.

3) Obama is right. As someone who lives in a Midwest town where the jobs have been slipping away from 25 years or more, I can say with great certainty that a week rarely goes by where I don't hear someone talking about these very issues; blaming immigrants, minorities, or trade policies for the woes of the economy. Obama is right, people in these types of communities are bitter, and I'll go a step further than him, often this bitterness manifests itself in racist/prejudicial attitudes.

4) I'm embarrassed that the church is sometimes a hotbed for this. About a year ago, our church did a "Justice and Mercy" series that really set some people on their ears. I spent hours and hours listening to people lambaste me, our other pastors, and our church because of this series. The stated issues were a lack of Biblical preaching, and a lack of Biblical emphasis in our small group curriculum.

Why am I pointing this out in a post about Barak Obama? Because this is a typical Conservative Christian response when confronted by the sad realities of racism. The real issue that was going on for these people was that they were angry (bitter?) that we had other believers (from churches with prominent memberships of other ethnicities) come to our church and suggest that racism is still a big issue in America. They didn't like that we had two African-American pastors share our pulpit and declare that the church has not been a beacon of light in their community. They were angry (bitter?) that these pastors suggested we need to reconsider our opinions on affirmative action. (fyi, this is not conjecture, this comes from actual conversations i had)

So... instead of looking into their hearts to see if the Biblical mandates toward love, reconciliation, no favoritism, etc. should be applied in the area of race and social justice; they decided this conversation wasn't Biblical, and they left.

Why tell this story? Because this is precisely what is happening today in the media. Instead of evaluating Obama's words to see if they hold up under scrutiny, everyone is feigning offense so they won't have to deal with the possibility that he may be exposing a little darkness in our lives.

It's sad when the media does this.

It's rotten when the church does it.

We All Need a Little More Failure in Life

No long ago Pope Benedict XVI resigned his role as father of the Roman Catholic Church. Now a new "Father" is making his way as leader of the world's largest religion.

Benedict's decision was unprecedented in modern history. He is the first in over 500 years to resign as pope. While health and age certainly played into this decision. I believe Benedict chose this road out of his desire to commit one final exemplary act. He lived out his belief that men wither and glory fades.

1 Peter 1:24 says, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall" (NIV)

Little in this world is permanent. Even the blessed gifts which last our entire life (marriage), carry an expiration date ("til death do us part). Yet it is human tendency to assume and desire that all good things are permanent. Whether it is a job, a hobby, a stage of life or our children, we have a difficult time letting go. This wont be a popular statement, but I would suggest this reluctance to accept the end of things is sin.

Permanence is a lie of devil. In fact, it was one of his very first ("you shall not surely die"). He must think it is one of his best, because he still uses it today. Most people live the majority of their lives without thinking about their death. One of the most common phrases heard at a funeral is, "I can't believe he/she is gone." Death is unthinkable because Satan has convinced us of the permanence of all things.

We have bought Satan's lie. We believe not only that we will not die, but also that we will not age or wither or fade. Every year, hundreds of thousands of surgical procedures are undertaken to repair the bodily damage of middle-aged men who still think they are high school athletes. The plastic surgery is a billion dollar industry because so many women (and a few men) seek to roll back the clock via a surgeon's scalpal. Every year, corporations fail because the CEO or the President waited too long to step down. This is why Pope Benedict's resignation was so stunning. It was an admission that he was fading. It flew in the face of all we believe about ourselves.

A little over a year ago, I read a book entitled Necessary Endings. The author, Henry Cloud, uses the analogy of pruning to discuss the importance of endings in our lives. He suggests three types of pruning which are all necessary:
1. Dead branches that are taking up space needed for the healthy ones to thrive 
2. Sick branches that are not going to get well 
3. Healthy buds or branches that are not the best ones
Too often we are afraid to prune or be pruned because we think it means we failed. In our success-obsessed culture, failure is another naughty f-word. As a result, many people hold on to things or continue pursuits or avoid endings because they believe they might possible succeed.

Henry Cloud suggests that:
Failing well means ending something that is not working and choosing to do something else better.
We could all do more of that. Pope Benedict reached the pinnacle of his world. There was nothing left for him to do but fail. He chose a necessary ending. Rather than continue to lead when he realized his leadership skills had departed, he chose to be done. Perhaps, it felt to him as a personal failure; but his personal pain certainly spared the Roman Catholic Church a massive amount of pain.

Glory fades. Whether you like it or not, you will wither, fade and die. You cannot control that. You can, however, control how you fade and how you wither. Will you face your expiration with grace? Or will you scratch and claw for one more chance? Or will you cling and grasp for the glory of ages past?

Open your hands. Let go. Embrace endings.