Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Connectivity Doesn’t Stop Loneliness

March 26, 2019

An interesting essay challenging our concepts of success and suggesting that a robust community should be one of our top goals in life.

While I struggle with some of the language towards the end of the essay, it’s a good case study in the importance of people around us.  Not just bumping against each other on separate trajectories but rather walking with one another in and out of the various situations we can find ourselves in.  I don’t know that I would describe community as an “insurance policy”.  While there are elements of accuracy there, it strikes me as too calculated, too transactional.  Yes, community can support us in amazing ways, but it goes beyond just what happens when things fall apart.  Community shapes us, strengthens us for everyday life together as well.

Nor is community an “immunity”, some sort of vaccination that keeps us from suffering “loss and disappointment and rage”.  But it is true that community helps us deal with these things in healthier, more constructive, less destructive (whether internally or externally) ways.  Community is not a means of  “future-proofing”.  Community is a way of shaping today and therefore shaping tomorrow.  In the process today is richer, and we can look forward to a richer tomorrow.

And of course ultimately community in and of itself, with nothing greater within it or behind it or ahead of it is as pointless as any other isolated human experience or endeavor.  What gives community it’s real power is being grounded in the ultimate, eternal community, a God who in his very essence is communal as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is this reality that gives meaning and purpose to our communal experiences here and now, knowing they are preparations for an eternal communion not simply with one another but with Him.

Sad But Not Surprised

March 13, 2019

So scandal has broken loose again.  The rich and famous have been found using their status and money to set their children up with admissions to top universities.  People have been paid to take tests.  Lies have been told.  Money has been paid.  And former starlets have been arrested.

Most of the people I’ve heard talking about this are shocked and outraged.  I can understand the outrage, but shock?  Really?  Are we that naive?  Or are we that convinced that our sinful human natures have been sufficiently remedied by our rule of law?  C’mon, people!  You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, and you should assume that somewhere, in some manner, money is talking and people are listening and systems are compromised.

This is how it’s always been.  Money buys influence.  The rich have access to myriad options that the rest of us don’t.  It’s not fair or right, it just is.  It can and should be illegal but people will still find ways around it.

This is not justifying the behavior and saying we shouldn’t care.  Sure, go ahead and care.  Allow justice to do its work when it gets the chance.  But don’t imagine it has solved the problem or eliminated the practice.  Some people got caught.  Others haven’t and won’t.

Nor is this another argument for redistributing the wealth.  Fiery politicians seem to think they can just take money away from rich people and end all of our problems that way.  This won’t work either.  Corruption conducts business in all sorts of currency, whether monetary or  related to prestige, influence, beauty, etc.  Once again the sinful human temptation won’t be erased, you just change what it looks like and how it plays itself. out.

It’s a shame.  It’s unfair.  But, despite the insistence of some folks, life isn’t fair.  Hasn’t been since Adam and Eve got booted from the garden for pilfering fruit.  It won’t be fair again until God restores it to that status.   In the meantime, be outraged, but don’t be surprised.

Standing Firm

March 4, 2019

We live in a squishy culture.  Nothing is firm and set.  People and ideas and beliefs and practices are expected to be equally squishy.  Like jello or marshmallow, like sponge cake you can poke and push and it will bend and form to the shape of your finger or fist, allowing you to pass through or pass on before it begins to take shape again.

When you listen to people talk this is readily apparent.  I hate that I catch it in my writing and speaking as well, though I try to ferret it out.  You know what I mean, the constant prefacing or concluding of any statement with in my opinion or it seems to me, or  in my experience.  The kind of statements that devalue whatever follows or precedes, even though the speaker or writer believes those statements.  It is the assumption that nothing can be stated absolutely, that everything is up for question and grabs, and that any opinion is ultimately as good as another, even if we don’t treat them that way.

Squishy.

It is shocking to people to run into non-squishiness.  It is painful.  But it is necessary.

Last night we had a deep conversation with some of the core people in that community.  People who have been coming every Sunday night  literally for years.  They come because they know us and trust us and love us to some degree.  All things that evolved because in our home they found love and acceptance and respect.  They know we don’t necessarily agree with them about everything they think or say or do.  They know that we’re Christian, even if they aren’t sure what they are at the moment.

Yet in conversations – those rare, deep conversations that I live for – there is the expectation that we will converse like everyone else in their lives has conditioned them to converse.  State what you think or feel.  Couch it in the squishy terms mentioned above, but put it out there and nobody is allowed to question or disagree.  Or if they must disagree, they need to do so in the same squishy terms the original assertion was made.  Disagreement must be couched in dismissive language that softens it for the hearer and, in my opinion, assures them that they can go on feeling what they feel or thinking what they think because I’ve acknowledged that my disagreement has no stronger basis than their opinion.  It’s a self-defeating form of expression that ultimately makes any sort of progress meaningless or pointless as there is no acknowledged objective reality to strive for.  If I asked them to defend a mathematical equation they would leap to it readily and easily.  If I asked for the proper  medical treatment for a specific condition they could provide it authoritatively.  But in the biggest questions of life, of meaning and purpose, of truth and beauty and good and evil – these things are supposed to be squishy.

So there were tears last night because I wasn’t squishy.  Because I responded to assertions with simple nos and you’re wrong and that makes no sense sorts of statements.  No squishy comfort words before or after, simply confronting their statements with hard, abrupt words.  I was reprimanded for it, at which point I assume I was expected to apologize and back down and be more squishy.

And I refused.

I meant to be hard.  Not mean or cruel, but hard.  Unyielding.  Anti-squishy.  I know these people and they know me.  And I rely on that built up relationship of love and mutual respect to be able to be hard and  unyielding when I deem it necessary.  Because when everyone is talking squishy talk it’s easy to lose track of things, easy to discount things, easy to move past things.  And some things shouldn’t be moved past or through or around so easily.  Some things, like Truth, need to be run into and bounced off of.  People need to be shaken at times out of the stupor of relativism and subjectivity which now passes for intellectual discourse.

I am not squishy.  I mean, I am, personally.  But what defines me, what anchors me, what is my rock and fortress is not squishy.  I don’t stand on my own ideas – at least as much as I can avoid it.  I stand on a word I believe with all my heart and mind and experience and observation and reflection  is given by the Creator of the Universe himself.  I stand on a rock that cannot be moved no matter how much simpler life would be for some people if it did.  And it’s my job to stand firm on that rock.  To not be squishy.  To not be hesitant.  To speak with boldness and confidence as God the Holy Spirit allows and leads me to.

NOT to be unloving or uncaring, but to stand firm.  In love and care for others and refusing to allow them the misconception that I think these ideas of truth and reality are soft and squishy and malleable.  And hopefully, in standing firm in the midst of tears and shock and anger, to trust that the relationships we’ve build over the past three plus years will drive us back to these topics for explanation and clarification and discussion.

It’s not easy or pleasant, but by the grace of God, because of His infinitely greater love and care for these people than my own love and care for them, it’s getting easier.  Easier because it’s becoming so much clearer.  Such a fascinating process!  And such a blessing to know that He is at work in all of these things not simply to vindicate my point of view, but ultimately to draw these children of his back into his arms to find the peace and hope and healing they need so desperately.

 

Creating Community

February 28, 2019

Last August my wife  and family and I decided that we wanted to begin a new ministry outreach.  Some of our spiritual giftings are in the area of hospitality and helping people feel comfortable, welcome, respected, safe.  For years, I’ve been working in the recovery community locally, engaging each week with men and women committed to a year-long residential addiction recovery program.  I’ve had many joys in getting to know these people in their journey.

The difficulty is that for many of them, the relationship I build with them is viewed as part of their recovery program.  Thus, when they graduate from the program, I never see or hear from them again.  In one sense that can be good and fine.  Some are from out of town and head back to their own areas to continue their life of recovery.  Other times, I know they’re still local.  I give them my contact info, but I think there’s the idea that I was part of their recovery program and now they’ve graduated from that and moved on.  Yet the life of recovery – modeled after the life of Christian faith – is grounded in relationships and community.

So we decided to begin inviting small groups of 3-4 clients from the women’s program over to our home for dinner each week.  Over the course of two months all of the women came over.  Our  goal was simply to provide community and relationship.  To give them three hours to be in a home where there are no expectations other than being together.  They can relax.  Sometimes they help in preparing dinner or setting the table.  They help in clean up after we enjoy the meal together.  Often times there are board games or video games for them with our kids.  Each night is slightly different based on who is with us.

It was great.  We enjoyed it and the ladies enjoyed it.  Our goal was that this would be an ongoing thing.  Never an expectation or requirement but always an option for them.  But once all of them came over, the staff assumed that was the end of it.  After some further conversations  and explanations, we started up the dinners again this month, and have another one tonight.  Again, good experiences.  Not always easy, but certainly fascinating.

But tonight was a first.  One of the ladies who attended one of our very first dinners last year called my office up.  Normally she plays softball on Wednesday nights but due to rain, the game was cancelled.  She remembered coming for Wednesday Bible studies at our church, and I think in part because of the different kind of relationship she experienced briefly in our home, she felt comfortable reaching out.  I picked her up and brought her to our regular Wednesday night, informal pot-luck dinner at our church and then she stayed for Bible study afterwards.  She indicated she planned to start coming to our Thursday dinners at our house next week.

It  was a very affirming moment.  Building relationships is long, slow work.  Our congregation recently was blessed to have some missionaries to Turkey come by and speak with us for a bit.  He described a relationship with a couple and family, and the ups and downs of that relationship and how God the Holy Spirit brought others into the relationship as well to move it along.  Eventually the couple became Christian, which changed their lives and led now to the curiosity of their children about the faith, having seen how much happier their parents were in their new faith.  At the end of his sharing I asked him how long this relationship had been going on.  How long had he and his wife been working with this couple.  Loving them.  Caring about them.  Getting to know them and allowing themselves to be known.  Ultimately being able to share the love of Jesus Christ.  Well over 20 years, he responded.  Over 20 years for that relationship to grow and develop!

So little baby steps are a huge blessing.  To see that in opening ourselves and our homes, we can leave impressions, make impacts on people that may not be recognizable initially.  Not for weeks or months or years.  Sometimes not for decades or lifetimes!  It was a further confirmation of the direction my family and I are being drawn in through ministry.  It’s exciting and invigorating even as it’s exhausting.  But it’s nice to hope that it’s making a difference.  Slowly.  One person at a time.

The Canary in the Coal Mine

February 25, 2019

Once upon a time British miners used to take caged canaries into mines with them.  The canaries would die if there was carbon dioxide in the mine.  Because they were so sensitive, it would alert the miners to a dangerous situation before they themselves would succumb to the lack of breathable air.

The canary is still alive this week, despite some pretty life-threatening rumblings in American politics.

New York passed legislation ensuring that abortions remained legal in that state even if Roe v. Wade was overturned in the future.  Not only this, they made abortions easier to obtain, no longer requiring a licensed doctor to perform them.  And they extended thee legality of abortion to the third trimester, theoretically up until labor and possibly into labor.  A similar bill in Virginia nearly passed their legislature, while their governor opined on radio about a situation where a mother and a doctor might discuss – after giving birth, while the baby is “kept comfortable” whether or not the baby ought to live.

The term for that is infanticide.  And this governor apparently thinks it is a viable possibility.  This governor outraged many people in our country with that suggestion.  However the pressure to remove him from office is not related to that comment, as staggering as it is.  Rather, it has to do with yearbook photos from decades ago that surfaced of him in blackface.

But the canary is still alive.

The idea of infanticide has now been publicly floated in our political culture at a very high level and the canary is still alive.  It wasn’t killed by an overwhelming response in our country against it.  Now, at the national level many of  our current lawmakers have refused to vote for a bill that would have clarified even further existing laws that make infanticide a criminal act punishable by law.  Rather than vote for a bill that would have required reporting of any such actions by anyone present, and once again stating that doctors as well as parents would be held legally accountable if they knowingly or intentionally caused the death of a baby born alive after a failed abortion attempt, many lawmakers voted against it.

Some claim that this means nothing, since the bill  really didn’t add much to the existing laws.  Infanticide is already illegal in our country, and this bill would just mandate reporting of any infanticide that might happen.  Say,  in an abortion clinic.  Like, maybe, Planned Parenthood.

The takeaway from this should be crystal clear.  The Democratic Party’s commitment to abortion is not just protecting a woman’s right to her body, while hoping that there will be less and less need for such services (through better contraception, sex education, and other things – not through more responsible sexual choices!  Let’s not be radical here!).  The Democratic Party is now stating publicly that it supports the death of a baby.  They’ve pushed past their own arbitrary definition of human life beginning when a baby is viable outside the womb – definitely third trimester stuff.  It isn’t even really a life after being born – even when professionals are trying to kill it first.

So  when is that baby a human being?

Is there going to be a mass exodus from the Democratic Party for crossing the line?  Are those who deluded themselves into believing – contra science as well as Scripture – that a baby inside a woman isn’t really a human being until some sort of arbitrary timeframe – going to now desert the party for crossing the line clearly into supporting the possibility of infanticide?

Will they kill the canary of infanticide, and perhaps the canary of abortion at long last?  Will they stand up and prove that going down this path is political suicide?  Will they demand that their party protect human life in all stages and forms?

Maybe not.  Maybe they’re the canary that’s dead.

 

Book Review: Pollution and the Death of Man

February 18, 2019

Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology

by Dr. Francis Schaeffer

I picked up some books at the used book store a looooong time ago.  Lost them, forgot about them, and rediscovered them recently and plucked the top one up.  While I’m a big admirer of Schaeffer’s practical theology and philosophy, I had forgotten how painful he can be to read.  It isn’t that the concepts are too technical or complex, but more that writing is just not his forte.  It’s one thing to think big thoughts, but an entirely different thing to communicate them in understandable terms!

But this book, after an initial rocky start, really is far more accessible than some of Schaeffer’s other writing.  The topic hasn’t gotten any less important in the last 50 years, and while his thoughts on it are something that anyone well-versed in the Bible might piece together on their own, it doesn’t seem to be a topic or a treatment that has attracted much attention.  Some of Schaeffer’s observations in this book are fantastic in that they apply in so many areas beyond ecology, yet they apparently elude so many Christians.

Schaeffer really hits his stride in Chapters 4-6.  He grounds Christian ecology on, logically enough, the creation account in Genesis.  He argues that Christianity is unique among religions and philosophies for providing the baseline argument of why we should treat nature kindly and gently: because God created it. Most other religions and philosophies argue for a certain treatment of nature that is far more anthropocentric – we should take care of nature because it benefits us, specifically, as human beings.  Schaeffer argues powerfully that such an anthropocentric view is dangerous, as is the other extreme – pantheism.

Schaeffer goes on to offer a compelling description of man and his place in creation, separated by a gap not only between himself and his Creator, but between himself and all the rest of creation.  That, endued alone with the imago dei, man is unique in creation but not separated from creation.  He is both unique in the imago dei and not unique in that he also is a creation.  Schaeffer offers an exploration of this and how man should treat nature.  The example that stands out is that man is free to rid his home of ants.  This is a necessity (at least most people would view it as such!) and so many does this.  But when he encounters the ant on the sidewalk, he steps over it.  The ant has a right to his antness in his proper habitat, just as man does.  And man does not have the right to arbitrarily destroy nature when there is no need for doing so.  And if there is a need to do so, man can choose to limit himself (in terms of time and profit, primarily) so that nature is not unnecessarily destroyed more than needs be.

This is really helpful reading.  It prevents us  from erring in the traditional way, but claiming that as God’s highest creation the rest of creation exists only for our own use or pleasure.  No, creation has a right to exist in itself, though man has the right to utilize nature towards his needs and ends, so long as it is done without losing sight of nature as a creation of God, just like mankind itself.  And it prevents us from erring with the pantheists or the materialists.  Pantheists see all things as divine and ultimately degrade humanity in the process.  Materialists do the same thing but because they lack any sense of divinity, rather than suffering from too great a sense of it.

Finally, Schaeffer rightly asserts that Christians should be living out these truths as witness to our culture and the world around us.  That our individual and corporate lives should be governed by decisions of self-limitation in order to preserve and respect the rest of God’s creation.  Powerful thoughts for Christians and their families and congregations!

 

 

 

Unexpected Kindness

February 15, 2019

I can count the number of times I’ve run into a parishioner while I’m practicing or competing in the bar pool league – in an actual bar – on zero fingers.   I’ve invited a parishioner to join me for a beer and a game of pool, but never bumped into one.  Given the demographics of my congregation, age-wise, it just isn’t very likely, and so it hasn’t happened in the eight years I’ve been playing.

Until this past Tuesday evening.

I had just arrived at the bar we’d be competing at.  I showed up early to practice, and because it’s one of my favorite bars to play in because of the number of tables, their overall good condition, and the general ambiance of  the place.  Low-key.  I know the bartenders and they know me – or at least what my drink of choice is.  I enter, do a cursory scan of the place, find an open table, open my drink, and start setting up my gear.

She started speaking when my back was turned, and I turned around surprised to see one of my parishioners.  One I haven’t seen for a while.  Turns out, she and her husband relocated to Montana recently.  He’s been retired for a few weeks now.  She suspects she’ll follow suite in a few more weeks.  She raved about the beauty of the state, but more importantly, the culture.  Born and raised in California, she confided that she no longer feels welcome in this state.  Her faith, her values – all those things are mocked and derided by the representatives in government whether local, state, or national.  To live in a place where Christianity is more part and parcel of the atmosphere is an amazing experience she confides.

There might be, for some pastors, a moment of panic.  To be caught in a bar.  Drink in hand.  Tsk tsk.  But then again, for the past eight years my parishioners have known about my hobby.  They’ve heard a few salient stories about passing conversations and encounters with the many different folks I run into.  It’s no secret, but it’s still an environment where I don’t expect to bump into parishioners.

I’m happy for her and them, asking questions, glad to know why she hasn’t been around recently.

She pauses, and after a moment, says You don’t always get the chance to tell a pastor you’ve appreciated them.  But I get to now.  And she proceeded to say some very kind things.  Encouraging things.  Affirming things.  A 10-minute conversation in a bar where I never expected to bump into anyone from my vocation, only to be surprised and gifted in an unexpected way.

It was a good night.  We won.  I won.  I moved up the rankings in my division,  Poised to break into the top ten rankings if things go well the last few weeks of the season.  All nice things, but not as nice as someone going out of their way to say some good things about what I do.  I’m glad she did, and that she and her husband are happily settling into a place that appreciates who they are.

Logical Conclusions…

February 13, 2019

For those of you with kids or grandkids or great-grandkids.  Or for you, yourself.  As we try to justify doing things a way we know isn’t ultimately right or healthy, it’s always wise to see whether our justifications make sense when carried out to logical (and only somewhat tongue-in-cheek) conclusions.

For your consideration, one such extrapolation on the popular argument of living together before marriage to make sure it will work out.

You’re Not that Great

January 15, 2019

Thanks to my wife for sharing this short essay with me.

Amazing how blasphemous this sounds, that we would caution our children that they aren’t the greatest?  The brightest?  The hope of all humanity and creation?  How dare we limit them in this way?

How  dare we not?

A sense of centeredness is crucial.  It doesn’t demean gifts and abilities or potentials, but it does temper expectations.  It does prepare our children for a reality that is unpredictable to say the least, and certainly unfair at times.  It teaches them to do the best with what they are given, but to recognize that their best may not ever be valued by the world for what it is.

And what it is, is themselves.  The uniqueness of each individual not based on what they accomplish or do, but simply the reality that they are.  They are created by a God of infinite imagination – unique in all of history.  Bearers of the imago dei.  Beautiful and to be cherished simply for the fact God the Father (not just Mom and Dad!) saw fit to call them into existence, that God the Son saw fit to die for them that their existence might have a future, that God the Holy Spirit would desire to dwell within them eternally.

I pray my children know that they are loved and valued regardless of whether they ever become movie stars or Wall Street brokers.  Whether they develop the cure to cancer or die from it at any early age.  Whether they  amass a fortune to be used for the benefit of others or make a simple living by living simply.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have hopes that the world will see how extraordinary they are, but it does mean that as they see themselves as extraordinary, they should understand that this doesn’t necessarily make them exceptional.  It doesn’t necessarily entitle them to certain things in life.  But it does entitle them to a great deal both now and eternally.

Not because they’re that great, but because God is.  Because this is his story, ultimately, not theirs.  And only when we keep that in mind, only when we remind ourselves that as creative as we might be, we remain creatures eternally distinct and different from the Creator, only then are we able to navigate the twists and turns of our lives with a sense of peace, of purpose, of joy, and hope.

 

Into a New Year

January 14, 2019

I’m not sad to see 2018 go.  I have no guarantees that this year – or even today – will be any better or easier, but at least symbolically I’m not sad to see 2018 in the rear view mirror.  Writing has been difficult.  Self-disclosure has felt dangerous and pointless.

But with the passing of the year is the reminder that years are not bottomless.  We only get so many of these spans of time and none of us are certain how many are allotted to us.  I don’t say this in an attitude of despair because I am convinced that new and better things await beyond the handful of years we are given.  It’s simply a reality to live with.

Someone said something I read in the not too distant past and, while the author and the context are lost to me, the gist of it remained.  Here and now, in this handful of years we call our lifetime, we possess one thing that we will not have in the eternity that awaits those who put their faith and trust in God the Father Creator, God the Son Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit Sanctifier – the ability to live our lives out in faith.

In eternity we will know.  The mystery and uncertainty will be gone.  The Triune God will be an omnipresent reality we cannot ignore even if we are never able to fully comprehend him.  But here and now, in however long we have to live, we live by faith.  Certain of things unseen.  Hopeful in something intangible.  Not without reason, not without evidence, but still in faith.  I have the opportunity not simply to teach or dictate that faith to my children and everyone else in my life, but to demonstrate it.  To show what it looks like in the decisions I make because of my faith.  In the forgiveness I will need to ask for repeatedly because not all of my decisions are good and helpful.  And in the trust and confidence that my repentance is heard, forgiveness is already given, grace is here and now and not simply there and then.

Today, while we may still call it today, we live by faith.  Welcome, 2019.