Monday, April 14, 2014

Seeking Understanding

Reading Psalm 90:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world,
From everlasting to everlasting, you are God. (Psalm 90:1-2)

Okay, God, we understand; all of this is yours. You are in charge; it’s your work, not ours. But You have told us to care for your children, for the least of these. So what is our role? And even more, where are You when our best efforts to touch their lives seem thwarted?

I have to admit that I get a bit frustrated with God here. These are your little ones; why do You let this world, your creation, treat them like this? Why do your children live on the streets? Why are they abandoned and abused and exploited? Why are hundreds of thousands of young girls prostituted every year?

Why isn’t doing everything we can to be obedient enough to fix the problems? Why won’t You make it all better?

The answer is not easy, and not always satisfying. This is God’s call, not ours. He sees the bigger picture, and understands how this will all work out; we just see the immediate hurt.

Our role is not to be successful, but to be obedient. As much as we would like to wipe away all the hurt, to take care of every child, to dry every tear, we don’t get to choose the results. God is in charge of results; our responsibility is to be faithful.

But let us never forget: God loves these little ones even more passionately than we. He holds them in His hands, and blesses us by inviting us to be a part of His provision for them.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
Establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.
(Psalm 90:17)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Blessings and Materialism, Part 2

Let’s be honest here. We are the wealthiest society the world has ever known. The rich young man Jesus encountered in Matthew’s gospel? That’s us. We sit in our beautiful homes, we drive nice cars, we take really cool vacations, and our churches are often monuments to materialism. Our nodding acknowledgement of the place of God in our lives is usually something along the lines of “I am so blessed” – as if God is responsible for our materialism.

But are we? Blessed, I mean. I am not so sure.

In Scripture, blessing always leads to a deepening of the relationship. Does a ski vacation make me a better Christian? Do the beautiful stained glass windows at my church enhance my faith? Or – on a more basic level – does the fact that I am not worrying about my next meal push me into a deeper, more dependent relationship?

Are all the things I call blessings in my life really blessings?

If Jesus came to bring each of us a cross, why do we attribute lack of that cross to divine provision? His description of blessing:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

No mention of a new car, or even a filling dinner. Seems Jesus defines blessing a bit differently than we do.

I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Have you ever noticed that so often when we use the term “blessing” in the present tense, we're referring to the good things happening to us? That nice house, our healthy children, a raise at work, etc. But blessing in retrospect is when we more often get it right: The great challenges in life – the financial, spiritual, relational challenges – are the places where we discover growth in relationship with God… and then look back and call them blessings.

So do we seek out these difficult moments when we find God's grace? I am afraid we don’t. It's simply not going to happen, but perhaps that is a statement of our weakness and lack of trust in His ultimate provision – but at least this will give us a different perspective when adversity does roll into our lives.

The challenges are always opportunity for the most critical things: growth and relationship.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Blessings and Materialism, Part 1

I have been following an online conversation the past few weeks about the use of the word “blessing.” I’ve pretty much sat out the discussion, but some of the comments really have me thinking. The current seems to go something like this: First-world Christians like to attribute the “good” things in life to being looked on with favor by God. We say thinks like…

“Just moved into our new house. So blessed.”

“Blessed to have healthy (or happy, athletic, attractive, intelligent, etc.) kids.”

Or during the Sunday evening mission trip report: “After spending a week with [insert specific disadvantaged group], I understand more than ever how blessed we are.”

I even had a friend post a picture from the family ski vacation a few weeks ago with the caption “so blessed.”

The primary objection that I am hearing to this language is what it says to those who are not blessed, at least by our definition of the word. More Christians in this world survive every day on less than my Dr. Pepper budget than live like we do. Ascribing our affluence to having found some special favor with God—being blessed—tells those AIDS orphans, that subsistence farmer, the child surviving on the streets, that their faith is not strong enough, their relationship with God not deep enough. Work a little harder at the righteousness thing, and you can live just like me.

That is a message we must not send.

We decry a prosperity gospel, but ascribing our financial status to God’s special providence for us buys right into it, and do I understand the conversation.

But there is another side to this that perhaps concerns me even more.

And we will get to that next week. . .

Monday, March 17, 2014

Separating the sheep from the goats (a parable along the way to revolting numbers)

Here’s a bit of Bible trivia for you: There is only one person in the parables of Jesus who is given a name. Do you know who it is? Think about for a minute.


Do you know the story of Lazarus and the rich man? Lazarus is a poor beggar who lies at the gate of the rich man’s home, hoping to grab a few “crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table.” Interestingly enough, it is not the rich man who has a name, but the poor, crippled beggar. Even more interesting, the name Lazarus means “the one who God helps.”

It seems like Jesus got the names mixed up in the story. At least at first glance, the rich man is the one that God helps, and Lazarus is the one God forgot. But then the tables get turned. Lazarus dies and “the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.” The rich man dies and winds up “in Hell, where he was in torment.”

I guess Lazarus was the one who God helped.

Here is a question though: how does Jesus know that Hell is where the rich man is going to end up? Is it just because he is rich? I certainly hope not, because if that’s the case, we’re all in trouble. If you have a computer on which to read this blog, you are almost certainly among the wealthiest 2% of all the people who have ever lived in the world. If wealth condemns to Hell, that’s where we are all headed.

Instead, I think the answer to the question comes back to the “least of these” passage that is at the top of this blog. The part of that passage not quoted goes like this: “Depart from me you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels... I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Tough words.

Do we take Jesus seriously today? When the least of these are hoping to pick up the crumbs that fall from the Church’s table, I wonder what kind of gospel we are preaching.

Are you feeling a little uncomfortable? I hope so.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Pews, Pain, and Following: Beyond Comfortable Faith

Begin with the obvious: church pews are neither comfortable nor welcoming. At their best, they are butt-numbing distractions from worship and learning. At their worst, they are the symbol of much of the critique of the American church: archaic, irrelevant, and unsuited for our times.

Historically speaking, the pew is a relative newcomer to church furnishings. The early Church met in homes, and the advent of cathedrals did not bring pews; most cathedrals and parish churches were largely devoid of seating. Congregants stood. Only with the coming of the Reformation and the sermon-focused church service did pews begin to appear. Early sermons tended to be pretty long, and hearers needed a place to sit. Hence pews.

Pews were utilitarian and uncomfortable. And – probably after the fact – a theology arose to explain the practice. Pews were uncomfortable because austere and pure faith was hard. God rejoiced in our discomfort, and a sore rear kept our hearts and minds from the easy pleasures of comfortable sin.

Besides, hard seat and straight backs allowed us to be one with the suffering of our Savior. And, yes, I was even once reminded as a complaining young teenage boy that “surely you can do this for Jesus after all he has done for you.” The Baptist version of the medieval penitents.

Really, really bad theology. But that is the faith community of my childhood.

With that said . . .

The prevalence of the pew – and then its more recent demise – may still tell us something about the Church and the rise of “comfortable” faith. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “I just want to find a church where I feel comfortable.”

I think there is a metaphor here.

Have we become too comfortable in our faith? Have we become practitioners of a sterile faith, unengaged from the world around us? How can I ask my church to make me comfortable when one child dies every three seconds from hunger-related causes? When tens of millions of little girls sold their bodies last night to survive? When I am the rich man of the parable, and Lazarus lies at my gate?

Following is not a comfortable task. Our faith in Christ and relationship to him demands that we do not take the easy path, instead choosing to stand alongside those who live in contextual pain.

Godliness really can be uncomfortable – even when we aren’t in the pew.

More next week. . . .