Friday, June 24, 2011

Feeding Sheep or Picketing Wolves?

Well, we've reached the end of June, or as I like to call it, the month from crazy town! After Annual Conference, the Princess and the Pea, VBS, a wedding, the babies' birthday (complete with two parties, one involving a road trio to Tampa!), I was reasonably sure my article this month was going to be "borrowed" from the Bishop's blog again. But then I ran across this quote in an article two friends drew my attention to, that I thought was worth discussing: "When Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, and Peter responded yes, Jesus didn’t tell him to picket the wolves. He told Peter to feed and tend his sheep."

The article, written by CNN religion blogger Jason Locy, was in reference to the Church's approach to gay couples adopting, was proposing that if each church in a particular denomination would support one family adopting a child out of foster care, (instead of just protesting) and put it's money where it's mouth is, then there would be no kids getting bounced around the system without a permanent home. The article, posted by friends of mine who're also adoptive parents, argued that if we spent more time taking care of people, and less time fighting the culture (or each other), we would do much more to accomplish the goals of the Kingdom than picketing against homosexuality, abortion, or whatever.

Our church probably has a higher per-pew rate of adopted or foster kids, both children and grown-ups, than I've even seen. Or maybe I am just more aware of it here because of Bobbi's work at the Children's Home Society. So I think we are probably well invested in that form of care-giving. But I think there are, as always, deeper questions we can ask

As with many left-right polarized issues, this is an oversimplification of a much more complex issue. At the root, it's kind of a classic conservative-liberal debate...which is more important to the kingdom, the teaching of holiness, or the transformation of society? The two are not mutually exclusive, although limits on time, people, and money may make it difficult to do both at the same time. And so denominations and churches tend to specialize, or at least lean to one side of the spectrum or the other. Some are very vocal about issues of morality in terms of personal actions and choices...the aforementioned issues of abortion and homosexuality, drunkenness, drugs, all sorts of things, although deeper heart sins such as anger, rage, malice, slander, and such aren't as popular to talk about. Others are very active in social concerns such as helping the poor, civil rights, immigration reform, and of course, adoption policy, although sometimes these seem to follow cultural trends, or call on other organizations to do the care giving (such as the government). Again, these do not exclude each other, but for some reason, groups that focus on one do not often speak out about the other. Which is unfortunate, because there is much good to be done in the kingdom, and although each group, the same as each individual, has things they are better at than others, it leaves us with lopsided views of Christianity, and what is important to God.

If you take the quote one step further...Jesus told Peter to care for His sheep...but isn't part of caring for sheep defending them from wolves? Teaching our people to know what's God's will for their life, and what isn't. And showing them what is utterly dangerous for their souls and even their bodies.

Now mind you, there are a lot of sheep in wolves clothing...and no, I didn't write that wrong. It can be easy to forget that the people we are arguing with and picketing against are just as much God's creation, just as much in need of grace. It's easy to characterize them as wolves, and demonize them. It's another thing to interact with them knowing God has a plan for them too. Now yes, as another friend of mine pointed out, Jesus was rather hard on the shepherds who should have been taking care of the sheep, and on false prophets, whom He did call wolves, who would take advantage of His Sheep. But even these, though we must exercise caution around them, are still individuals whom God wants to bring into right relationship with Him.

A balanced Christianity cares for it's sheep, all of them, by providing spiritual sustenance (Scripture teaching, worship, prayer, etc), teaching them which pastures are safe to graze in and which have wolves (training in knowing true Christianity from false and understanding the life of holiness), and tending to hurt and lost sheep (evangelism, caring for the poor and orphan and widow, prison ministry, etc). Again, I probably oversimplify here. But it is so easy to narrow our focus, and to so to an extreme. To be so busy preaching outward morality that we forget that all of that must be undergirded in love. Or to be so focused on righting the wrongs of the world, and we forget to right the wrongs in our own souls.

Jesus said to care for and feed His sheep. But sheep have a lot of needs. Let us remember all of them, as we go about the business of being Christ's church.

Blessings on your journey!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Of Language, Lenten Discipline, and Lousy Attitudes

Happy Easter-tide! Now that we are on the other side of Easter, how was your experience? Was Lent a formative time for you? Or just another Spring? I'd like to share a previous Lenten experience with you, and talk with you about where we go from here with the growth we have done.

One Lent, felt a conviction to give up cussing. Yes, those of you who feel embarrassed when you "cuss in front of the preacher," I have struggled from time to time with language too. So did Martin Luther, actually. So one year, I tried giving it up cold turkey.

Hardest. Lent. Ever.

As it turned out, this was a very stressful year in my life, and apparently the vigorous release of a naughty word had been some sort of coping mechanism for me. A mechanism which I was not nearly as ready to give up as I had hoped. There is series of scenes in the movie "Airplane" where Lloyd Bridges' character realizes, under great stress, that he picked the wrong week to quit smoking, drinking, and a variety of other bad habits. I felt like I had picked the wrong Lent to quit cussing.

Honestly, that year was my worst commitment to a Lenten discipline ever. Like a good Pharisee, I could manage to keep from cussing in front of others, no problem. But when I was by myself, and stressed, or angry, or otherwise in a foul mood, the words would just start flying. I was particularly fond of stringing several together in a row, making a nonsensical sentence that would make a sailor blush. Towards the end, began to realize why I needed to give this up, and it was about much more than just my selection of vocabulary.

You see, the words themselves only have the power that we give them. Most "cussing" actually falls into three categories: (1) "Rude" language, (2) Swearing and invocations, and (3) Actual Cursing. The first is usually comprised of words for common things, such as bodily functions or parts, which are considered impolite or inappropriate. Many of these were once actually acceptable to a particular people group, but as invading groups came in, such as the turnovers between Celts, Anglos, Saxons, and vikings in Britain, the conquered people's version of the language was considered uneducated, rudimentary ("rude"), common (in Latin, "vulgar"), and unacceptable. So where there are polite and impolite words for a thing, such as common bathroom activities or intimate actions, this is often evidence of the layers the English language is made of.

The second group usually involves the use of the name of a deity, or some other object which is called as a helper or a witness to the truth of a matter. So using God's Name in vain would be the most obvious, but more socially acceptable words such as "gosh" (a reference to the Land of Goshen, hence also "my lands!", substituted frequently for the Name of God), or usually anything starting with "by" and a name ("by George", "for the love of Pete", and "gadzooks" also fall into this category, the former two invoking saints, the latter "God's Hooks", a term of questionable origin). These are either derived from calling on help from God, or calling on Him (or another figure) to back up that what you say is true.

The third group, cursing, would be invoking eternal damnation or other punishments on the object of your wrath, such as the sofa or cat you tripped over in the middle of the night. Again, there are suitable alternatives offered by the English language, depending on the company you are keeping.

If you think this stuff fascinating, check out Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. He's got a lot of good stuff about the English language in general.

So what is appropriate language and what isn't? Well, we could probably get Pharisaical about what words are and are not appropriate, and such thought has brought us these substitute words such as "darn" and "shoot" which seem better. But the Gospels propose a better solution I think. Perhaps not directly, but by principle. As we went through the Sermon on the Mount earlier this year, we noted that Jesus would often take a strict code of law, and challenge his listeners to get the heart of the thing, curbing lust in one's heart rather than just not fooling around with the neighbor's wife.

Back to my Lenten commitment. I began to notice certain attitudes were prevalent when I was in the mood to cuss. Anger, negativity, bitterness would prompt the aforementioned four-letter-words, all of which are repeatedly condemned in Scripture, and do not contribute to love of God or neighbor. What my Lent was revealing to me was my own bad attitude was the deeper problem underlying my vocabulary choices.

So what about your lent? My hope for you is that you were able to get at some deeper issues than just an addiction to chocolate or Youtube. Maybe you can take some time now to ponder why it was you gave that up. Perhaps it provoked some feelings over Lent that you can now take into the light of Easter-tide (the season between Easter and Pentecost). Maybe it showed you how you use food to fill another need, or the moods that inspire you to dive into Wikipedia for hours at a time (or is that just me?).

Whatever the case, journey on Easter People!

And, since language and "Airplane" both came up in this post...just for fun...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

God's Own April Fool

April Fools Day is honestly one of the best days to be on the internet. Many of the companies whose services I use are fond of elaborate pranks, which always turn out to be entertaining. Google is particularly good at this. One year, Gmail lost all it's vowels. Another, they were starting an internet service that would run cable through the sewers and up through your toilet. Google Documents promised you could upload anything you wanted to their storage servers, including your keys and furniture you needed to move across town. Youtube set all their Featured videos one year to run Rick Astley's hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” instead. Car and Driver Magazine's site one year claimed President Obama had pulled funding for NASCAR. I imagine by the time this is published, there will be some other goodies to add to the list.

April Fool's may seem an odd thing for a pastor to write about. But when you think about it, maybe it is appropriate. Scripture tells us that “The joy of the Lord is our strength,” (Neh 8:10) “A joyful heart is good medicine,” (Prov 17:22) and that “The wisdom of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” (1 Cor 1:18) And of course, my old friend Steve's favorite...”If we are out of our minds, it is for the sake of our Lord.” (2 Cor 5:13)

Philip Yancey wrote in his book The Jesus I Never Knew about a figure he called the Prozac Jesus. This is the Jesus who appears in most movies. He's calm, serene, tranquil, British (why are they always British?), and acts like He's had all emotions except peace stripped from Him somehow.

Michael Card, in his song “God's Own Fool,” paints a better picture of Christ, and I think a more accurate one:

It seems I've imagined Him all of my life

As the wisest of all of mankind

But if God's holy wisdom is foolish to man

He must of seemed out of His mind

Even His family said he was mad

And the priests said a demon's to blame

But God in the form of this angry young man

Could not have seemed perfectly sane.

The problem comes when we start to imitate the Prozac Christ, rather than the real one. We get it in our heads that true worship is calm, serene, “reverent” (meaning quiet, inexpressive). I have had some great opportunities to worship with other ethnicities than my own, and other denominations as well. I've been able to pray with Koreans, worship with Hispanics, and listen to numerous African-American preachers. One of the best worship experiences I ever had was at a concert of the Christian rock band Third Day, when they were still new enough to be playing skating rinks. I have become increasingly convinced, after these experiences, that us Northern-European-Americans just don't let our joy and exuberance out enough! Energizing songs like “Days of Elijah” become the exception, not the norm, of our worship experience. An enthusiastic youth jumping up to dance to a praise songs elicits raised eyebrows, rather than inspiring the rest of us to join in.

Jesus could not have seemed normal, mundane, ordinary, if people were making accusations of drunkenness and demon possession to explain his behavior, or that of the early apostles for that matter. So come be a fool for Christ, and let His Joy invade every bone in your body. I think you'll find your faith stronger for it.

Blessings on your journey!