Sometimes it isn’t about comparison

Last Wednesday was a strange, surreal day for me.  The day started normally, though an afternoon appointment would, I knew, feel strange.  A member of our church was dying of cancer, but had insisted I come and take some things from his house that he wanted to give to the church.

Then, around 11, I got a call from my mom that my dad wasn’t doing well – that he was, the words I remember, “failing fast.”  I went into son mode and took off toward Arlington, making phone calls as I went.  Dad had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Parkinson’s related dementia, several years ago, and the decline has been, well, long and uncomfortable.

It turns out dad was not as close to death’s door as we thought, but he was having a difficult day.  He had, perhaps, had a small stroke the previous weekend, and was less responsive and not interested in food or drink.  While I was there they got him to take some food.  The immediacy of the situation lessened, I went back to work.

I went back to work but probably wasn’t worth much.  Apparently thinking one’s parent is about to die is rather more distracting than I would like it to be.

Later that afternoon, I made it to visit with my dying church member.  After sharing communion and visiting with him and the friends who were gathered, I began carrying things to the truck I had borrowed for the occasion.

One the way out, I caught myself thinking, “this hasn’t been a very good day for me.”

I stopped those words and played with them in my head.  On a day that I visit with two men who were both likely not to live out the year – perhaps the month – I was feeling like I wasn’t having a good day?

I have not shared this for you to feel sorry for me, to join the piling-on over feeling sorry for myself.

I decided to share this because sometimes in the midst of a challenging time, or despair or sadness, we lose perspective by comparing ourselves with others.

My realization that I was having a bad day was NOT AT ALL about, or to be compared with, the situations of the two men I visited that day.

I have my ups and downs, and you have yours.  That yours are worse today than mine, or that mine were worse last summer than yours is only relevant if being human were a contest, but it isn’t.

In the presence of either my father, or the other man I visited that day, my own situation or challenges appropriately paled in comparison.  But my life is not well lived in comparison to the lives of others.  Neither is yours.

Here’s to knowing when to compare, and when not to.

Idiocy or Arrogance?

I’ve been studying for a message on self-denial by looking at the way various religions approach the topic.  It is a topic most religions hold central.

I have found not a few websites dedicated to the preference of the Christian version of self-denial over that of other religions. One drew my attention so I read through it until I got to this line:

Biblical self-denial must cost us something.

Not kidding. Not making it up.

One of the differences between a biblical account of self-denial and that of any other religion, according to this writer, is that it must cost us something.

I am trying to imagine an account of self-denial that does not cost the self anything.

Ok; honestly, what I am really trying to imagine is a world where people who follow Jesus don’t make up stuff about other religions. Like how their self denial doesn’t cost anything.

Are there valid differences between a Christian account of self denial and those of other religions?  Yes, there are. Some make for very interesting discussion.  As I look around the allegedly Christian culture in which I live, my first thought is that we could learn something from someone else’s understanding of self denial.


balloon analogyEvery Wednesday I get a few minutes with the children of our Preschool and Kindergarten. Today I shared about helium and a lesson about God that it can help us understand.  I got this idea from our Children’s Minister.

It is a simple object lesson: we cannot see the helium, but we can see what what the helium does, like we can see and experience things God does though we cannot see God.  Simple, right?

Not so simple if I have enough time to think about it.  The polka-dot balloon is the one I bought this morning to illustrate my point.  the solid red balloon is the one that provided the same illustration yesterday.

Whatever affects the helium had on that balloon yesterday are all but gone today.

So, just how much like helium is God?

As it turns out, not all that much.

This does not make it a bad object lesson for children.  This merely is a clear, straightforward illustration of what happens with every analogy we use to understand, explain, illustrate, etc., God.

While I do not make nearly as many absolute statements as I used to, I will make and stand by this one: EVERY analogy we use for God is limited.

This is true not only for the analogies we use to try to explain God to children (or youth, or adults, or people from another culture), but also of every single thought we think or word we use referring to God.

Let’s face it: if God could indeed be captured by your words or my thoughts, that God would not be much of a God, now would he?

Don’t worry; I did not lay all of this discussion of the limits of analogy on those 3-5 year old children.

I decided to share it here, though, because I believe we are all better off realizing that there are limits to our understanding and expression of said understanding, of God.  I believe also that the more aware we are of our own limitations, the more open we can be in learning from the analogies other people use.


A Reason for Hope?

I’ve just finished my latest read for the SpeakEasy Blogger review network.  The book is Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined: an unconventional spiritual journey. It was a very enjoyable read; I recommend it.  Because Christian Apologetics is one of the main topics dealt with in this novel, I want to deal with this before posting my actual review.

For the uninitiated, apologetics is not about saying one is sorry, but about defending one’s faith. The word apologia, from which apologetics is derived, means to give “words about;” to answer or explain something.

Many Christian Apologists root their apologetics in 1 Peter 3:15 which says

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect[.]

Many of the debates that Christians enter into with atheists or evolutionists or people of other religions are understood and described by the Christian invovled as being apologetic.  They tend to be logical, rational, or at least rhetorical presentations of evidence and philosophical points.

Here is my question:  how are rhetorical skills and debate tactics equated with giving a reason for  “hope that you have”?  The hope I have as a follower of Jesus cannot begin to be grasped by eloquent arguments or well framed premises and conclusions.  The hope I have, the hope that is “in me” )in the King James version of the 1 Peter passage) is a living, ongoing relationship with God that I have found available through Jesus Christ.

Arguments don’t offer hope.  They may (or may not) offer answers.  Answers are not hope!

Good Coffee, Part 1

coffee (2)

I like coffee.  I like making coffee.

So maybe you can  imagine how difficult it was for me to learn last Saturday that I don’t make very good coffee.

I’m sure the young man to told me so has a different version of this story.  I expect he would say he was merely trying to be helpful.  In fact, the course he teaches in how to make good coffee is free, so he was not trying to make any money off of me

I think I can get a couple of posts out of this, but, for now, here’s what happened:

I was at a local coffee shop, getting beans for home use.  When asked if I would like them ground, I replied, “No, thanks, I have a grinder and grind them as I need them.”

The very helpful young man serving me responded with an invitation to come to his class where he would teach me how to make better coffee.

As I was sharing this story with my brother Rob, with whom I share a deep appreciation for coffee, I went on a little rant about “who was he to insult my coffee and/or my coffee-making abilities?”

Then I made what I’m going to call the “Jesus leap.”  I reversed positions with the coffee shop employee when I realized, aloud, that my job could be described as doing with other people’s souls what he had done with my coffee-making ability.

Who am I to tell you I can help you take better care of your soul?

Near to the Heart of God

I watched a video presentation the other day by a pastor whose name you would recognize if I shared it.  I won’t.

I will share, though, that his gracious term for referring to the unchurched or non-Christian is “far from God.” To be sure I am clear, there are two categories of people; Christians and those who are “far from God.”

This strikes me as the height of arrogance.  Perhaps this is better, or friendlier, or kinder and gentler than referring to them as “lost,” “sinners” or “those on the highway to hell.”

I am concerned with this characterization from both directions.  It is unbiblical to say that all those whoa re not God’s people are far from God.  It is certainly not far to scripture to characterize all of God’s people as near to God.

Most of the Old Testament is, in fact, about God’s people wandering from (in the direction of far) God and God’s regular, faithful drawing of them back near to God.

Then there’s the Centurion in Matthew and Luke of whom Jesus said, “I say to you with all seriousness that even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.” (8:10)  In that passage Jesus goes on to say this:

I say to you that there are many who will come from east and west and sit down to eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the children of the kingdom will be thrown outside into the darkness.

Just who is it that is “far from God”?

But my favorite story is Paul’s sermon in the Areopagus (Acts 17).  Upon finding that the locals have an altar to “the unknown god,” Paul explains to them who God is.  In doing so, he draws them towards himself AND God by sharing the ways they are near – or seeking – God, though they have not yet heard the story that makes this God real and evident.

How about, as we approach and prepare for celebrating the birth of God Incarnate, we all agree to take stock in our own proximity to God rather than making presumptions and the proximity to God of others?

Where Grace Ends

I was at a gathering the other day of people from several different churches. We were meeting together to plan a Christmas time event in the public elementary schools in our area.  Because the event is outside normal school hours and completely voluntary, we are not required to make these religion-neutral events.  For this particular meeting, many were excited because this means we had the opportunity to “share the gospel.”

I put quotes on “share the gospel,” because for this group at least, this phrase clearly meant “present a summary of the substitutionary atonement theory of Jesus’ death and invite individuals to pray to receive Jesus as Savior.”

I could write a book on that, but today I prefer to share this; during our discussion, several people talked about their expectation that, upon death, Jesus will confront them about the times they have or haven’t “shared the gospel.”  I sensed palpable guilt in the room over ever missing the chance to explain the substitutionary atonement theory and offer a prayer afterwards.

I cannot help but wonder: does this Jesus, who saves by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9)not have grace for his followers thereafter? Does grace end with a salvation experience?

What is more likely is that many at this meeting have an understanding of the gospel that is based on fear, guilt, and condemnation. To wit: when we finally come to grips with our sin and wickedness and confess the same to God, God saves us through Jesus’ death.  Now we can feel no more guilt for our sin and wickedness, but rather for the times we fail to invite others to feel so much guilt and shame for their own sins that they will, like we have, confess, repent, and get saved.

This seems to me like a vicious cycle of fear, guilt, and condemnation.  On the other hand, I find Jesus himself (and, indeed, the entire Bible) inviting us to lives that can be free of fear, guilt, and condemnation.

And if Gospel means “good news,” that seems to me to be much better news!

I don’t care if “I’ll Fly Away”

Perhaps it is the case that I theologize more than average.  I would, however, take issue with someone suggesting I theologize too much. This thought came into my head the other day, and I’d like to share it with you all.  I would be happy to receive your responses.

Like many other songs that Christians sing, “I’ll fly away” is one that raises serious concerns for me theologically.  I summarize it this way: “I hope and pray this miserable, pathetic, hopeless life ends soon so I can go to heaven where everything will be great!”

I believe this is a very un-Biblical way to see the world. We who follow Jesus are called to be a part of God’s welcoming the Kingdom of God into this world, during our lifetimes. We are invited to experience the goodness of God’s presence now, not just later.

Yet, the tune is really catchy and nostalgic.  I don’t want to sing this song because I don’t like the message. And I want to sing it because I enjoy the tune, the harmony, the memories it evokes, etc.

How closely do you analyze the messages of songs you sing?  Do you pay closer attention to the lyrics you sing in church than those you sing along with in the car or shower?

I really don’t care if “I’ll fly away.” I do care what you think.


Does shopping at a “Christian Store” help you be Christian?

I went to a Lifeway “Christian Store” earlier this week. While I realize(d) this doesn’t mean they sell Christians, I have to admit I had some intellectual fun with the concept.  Thanks to those of you who shared those exercises with me on Facebook.

I was further energized theologically when I noticed on the front door that the store offers “Biblical Solutions for Life.”

I was surprised and, admittedly, quite let down upon opening said front door and being greeted by a large area to the right full of Jesus Junk.  Jesus Junk is all that artsy- stuff that is really mass-produced anything with a verse or two of scripture laminated onto it.

The irony got deeper when I looked to my immediate left in response to a clerk at a cashier terminal offering to help me find something.  “Where can I find communion supplies?” I asked.

“They’re way in the back, over there,” she said, pointing. “Behind the VBS sign.”

Great – a store that offers Biblical Solutions to Life makes communion elements and other “church supplies” the hardest thing to find.

But you can buy this print of a painting of a really warm looking house in the woods (probably just outside Lake Woebegone) and a psalm reference printed in the lower left for ONLY $129.

THAT’S a Biblical Solution to Life if I ever saw one!

Lord, help us!

(Not) Dealing with Change.

Randall Lee Church couldn’t take life “in the free,” so he set fire to a house to get put back in prison.

He had been released from prison 96 days before, having served 26 years inside.

Compare/contrast this with the woman who approached me last Sunday following worship. She felt the need to report to me that she found gum under a pew. “Maybe it’s my Christian upbringing,” she said “but this really bothers me.”

I am deeply concerned that the thing this woman brought into adulthood from her “Christian upbringing” was a prohibition against chewing gum in church.

I don’t recall Jesus addressing chewing gum. Yet, with all the issues there are/we have working with at risk adolescents, this is her issue.

I don’t know where she’s spent the last 26 years, but perhaps she would like to go back there.