Do you give the benefit of the doubt? Do you love?

God often serendipitously exposes my faulty wiring while I’m busy finding faults in others. Yesterday was no exception. I thought I’d surprise my wife by showing up at the office and taking her out for ice cream. She works at one of the largest hospitals in the country, and cell phone signals have a tendency to fade in and out under the heaps of concrete and medical devices. I arrived on the sixth floor ten minutes before her intended clock out. I called her cell phone. Nothing. I paged her (yes, the medical field still uses the preferred technology of drug dealers circa 1997). Nothing. I waited…nothing. Exchanging pleasantries with those walking out of the office, I began to stir. Where was my wife? Had she left early and was already sitting in our living room? Was she purposely ignoring my calls? I paged a few more times. Nothing. An hour passed me by as I searched my contacts for someone to text so I would appear as busy as everyone else in the lobby. Finally, my phone rang. I coiled to pounce. But it wasn’t the sweet voice of my wife on the other end but that of a man. “Hello, Jimmy? This is nurse so-and-so. Amber’s still scrubbed in and working overtime on a really tough procedure. What is it you need?” I shriveled into the bench. “Just tell her I’m waiting in the office.”

Why am I hesitant to give the benefit of the doubt to the love of my life? She’s busy working overtime, saving someone’s life, and I’m thinking she’s loafing about and absent-mindedly avoiding her phone? Who’s in the wrong here?

Has a variation of this scene played out in your marriage as many times as us? What about in your church? When Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, he showed them the most excellent way they were to behave. And he told them about a patient love, a kind love. A love that keeps no records of wrongs. I imagine 1 Corinthians 13 is read at the majority of weddings in America, but its original audience was a gathering of Christians -not a couple. Those people who sit across the auditorium from you, down the pew from you. Those who get into lengthy political debates in the foyer. Those who dump their children off at the nursery and then head out for coffee. Those who reek of smoke. Those who updated their status from the pub Friday night. Those who question your fundamental beliefs in the classroom. Yes, all those people and everyone in between. Paul says love them.

And part of loving people is giving those same people the benefit of the doubt. That means, when they say something that could be perceived as sarcastic or a dig at your personality, regard it as sarcasm. When they do something in ministry that affects your toes, don’t think they’re deliberately trying to step on them. And when they combat your comment in class, it’s more about something they’re trying to work through than shoot down your thoughts.

A church that doesn’t extend grace to herself isn’t able to extend grace to the world.

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Got 3 Minutes?

Could you help me out and answer this quick, 10 question, multiple choice survey anonymously? It focuses on your prayer life and how you use prayer. As a preacher, I love to tackle big ideology and concepts. I believe the more we know (not just facts, but how it pertains to the Big Picture), the more we can discern and adapt our faith. Where I find my preaching lacking is in the application stage. I just often assume that as a given. 

Thankfully, I am a part of a church that is gracious with her young preacher, and my brothers and sisters gently nudge instead of kick. I would like to help her by focusing on the application of faith on a day to day basis, and I can’t think of a better place to start than prayer.

So please take this survey and help me out. And thank you for your patience!

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Are Biblical Metaphors Still Making the Point?

(This week’s random meanderings)
Last Sunday our Church had a powerful service focusing on the betrothal between Christ and the Church. Connecting communion to an ancient wedding engagement asks us to accept the cup of marriage as we wait for our bridegroom to return. I’ve never looked at the Lord’s Supper that way before.
But this week has me chasing rabbits concerning Biblical metaphors. Do they pack the same spiritual punch for us as the first readers, and do we have the liberty to tweak those metaphors for current days so they still relay the original point?
In the first century, an engagement/wedding was much different than your typical American wedding of today. The bride and groom didn’t walk down the aisle as equals. Money probably changed hands between families, and I’m curious if the ceremony consisted of a time when the woman stated her vows. Because back then her promises just didn’t mean much. She was entering a covenant where her husband would be the decision maker. It was a patriarchal society. So, when the Church was referred to as the “Bride of Christ,” it was an acknowledgement that Jesus was calling the shots. There was a covenant bond, but not between equal partners. To mix my metaphors, Paul refers to Jesus as the “Head of the Body.”
Yet our society is significantly more egalitarian than back then, with the pants being shared between partners. Many more couples see their marriage as a 50/50 split -sometimes he steps up and leads, other times she steps up and leads. In this culture, how does the “Bride of Christ” metaphor get altered? Jesus becomes a foot soldier, another face in the crowd, my homeboy, instead of his rightful place in salvation history.
And speaking of foot soldiers, we could look at the “spiritual warfare” metaphor. When Paul tells the Galatians to put on the full armor of God, Roman soldiers were on every street corner. Everyone was aware of Rome’s boot on their throats thanks to the overwhelming presence of Caesar’s minions. So Paul’s metaphor was extremely political and contemporary. And in a violent-heavy culture like ours, where wars happen over oceans, should we be dressing up our children in Roman soldier outfits so they memorize a metaphor that no longer applies?
What do you think? Do we keep the metaphors we’ve known through the ages or do we alter them to fit the times? And what do you replace Biblical metaphors with?

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Sundae Only Churches

Last night our Church family had a sundae social to kick-off the summer, and here is the gist of my devotional for the evening…

Part of gaining wisdom is knowing humanity eats our ice cream cones from the top down (sorry son -you’re not there yet). So I’ll start at the top. Most of our frozen delights are topped with a small piece of fruit -mere window dressing for the healthy section of the grocery store, but justification for eating the whole thing. The rationale is complex but we feel we can eat it all because, hey, it’s got fruit on it! 

The step down from there is the second scoop. The second scoop is the adventurous one. When getting a double-decker, most Americans will chose the safe flavor first, followed by the outrageous. The second scoop is where we try something new. Why not? It’s layered in between a cherry and our favorite flavor -how bad can it be? Bubble gum ice cream was made for the second scoop. 

Next is Mr. Reliable: chocolate, vanilla, rocky road. The first scoop is home base. We feel comfortable with the first scoop. We let our hair down. If the cone was going to spill, it would’ve by now. Even a 1st grader can handle the rest of the way (you’d think). I don’t have much else to say about the first scoop, except, thank you for the inventor of the ice cream cone. At the bottom we have…the cone. That wonderful creation that is the real dessert -the ice cream and fruit were confectious appetizers. Not only pleasing to the taste buds, finishing a cone without spilling is like a double victory -appealing to the competitive senses also. Watch someone devour a cone sometime -it is unattractive…and no one cares. It is that awesome.

Now take these 4 segments of an ice cream cone and compare them to questions and relationships we have in our lives. “How you feeling today?” is the cherry on top -the window dressing for relationships. I’d ask this question to anyone, anywhere. It implies our relationship is a blank slate and you’re only going to throw a dab of paint. The second scoop is where we get a little adventurous, “If you were stranded on an island, what book or CD would you wish you had -but you can’t pick the Bible” (Church version). This is digging a little deeper into someone’s interests, but it’s still safe -that’s why questions like these are used as icebreakers at youth groups and conferences. The first scoop is where we get to the good stuff -home base. When someone asks you a first scoop question they are genuinely curious about your life. “How are you dealing with that bad news you told me last week?” It implies you’ve shared information in the past, I’ve thought about it, and now I’m curious about you -not just an update of information. You are important to me. The first scoop questions make us feel human. And the cone questions forge friendships: “What’s stopping you from having a better prayer life?” Cone questions involve vulnerability, trust over fear. They are questions you wouldn’t answer a stranger -a question that wouldn’t be asked by a stranger. It is the stuff of friendship.

When we think about fellowship, Christians being together, it is easy to think about bbq’s, baby showers, or vacation Bible schools. But those are sundae only activities (cherry and 2nd scoop). Those events usually stay light and smiley (and that’s ok). Real, vulnerable fellowship takes place in 1-on-1 conversations around dinner tables, over hospital beds, or neighborhood fences. And they take time. But they are valued and encouraged. This week, let’s make sure we’re not a sundae only Church! Let’s attack those cone questions like we’re at the beach and that thing is melting fast!

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3 Terms Misused in Church

Why do you keep using that word? I do not think it means what you think it means.

Conservative Christian: This is someone who believes the Biblical accounts actually happened and within the canon are examples, principles, and commands for how Christianity is to be practiced. When the Bible says, “Jesus said…” conservatives believe there really was a man named Jesus who walked the earth, ministered for a few years around the Sea of Galilee, was betrayed by one of his disciples, was crucified in Jerusalem, and then was resurrected. That all, and everything else in the Bible, is 100% Truth, historically accurate, and meant for present day application. Someone isn’t a conservative just because they attend a Sunday morning worship service, vote Republican, or are a little less hesitant than you to change things.

Moderate Christian: This is someone who believes the Biblical accounts happened, but those events are bound within their time and culture. The Bible is more “God revealing” than “Principle teaching,” so the examples and commands within Scripture are discerned as to whether they are to be applied today. Everything in the Bible is 100% Truth, historically limited, and meant for present day discernment. Someone isn’t a moderate just because they go to a worship service with a cool name, vote Independent, have a goatee, or are flippant when it comes to change. 

Liberal Christian: This is someone who doesn’t care if the Biblical accounts happened or not, and whether Jesus was an actual person isn’t all that important. What is important is that God left us a guide for who he is so we could understand his true nature. There are principles in the Bible, but even more importantly is the nature of God revealed in Scripture. The big overarching themes of the Bible focus on revealing who God is. The Bible is 100% Truth, perhaps historically irrelevant, and meant for present day revelation. Someone isn’t a liberal just because they wear jeans to worship, vote Democrat, or willing to make changes more quickly than you.

If you haven’t already caught on -you are not the bar by which everyone else is labeled “conservative,” “moderate,” or “liberal.” 

 

What do you think? Are these 3 definitions accurate? How have you heard these terms misused?

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The Year of Change

Funny how our minds lump seasons together to make a memory. 2007 saw the Virginia Tech shooting, the bridge collapse over I-35, and the Mitchell Report exposing the rampant use of drugs in baseball. But my mind remembers ’07 as a glorious year as I recall the experience of welcoming our daughter into the world. I remember so much of that week -and so little of the other 51. 

It’s only June, but I imagine I’ll look back on 2014 as a transition year. A year on the road, drifting in the waves, sailing through the sky. It doesn’t seem like much to you, but I put a friend on the shelf -retired after 17 years of faithful service. I’ve received two Bibles as graduation gifts. My family celebrated my exodus from seminary with a “Preacher’s Bible:” the kind you see at funerals, weddings, and in the pulpit. If I’m standing next to your bed at the hospital, chances are, I’ve got this Bible in hand. The other I received from my home church when I graduated high school. It was the newest study Bible on the market -five pounds of God’s words and man’s, ready to help me survive Harding. And when school was through, Old Faithful followed me into ministry. She journeyed with me through every teen retreat, camp session, mission trip, and countless Wednesday night classes. Sure, she took a beating over the years. The maps disappeared somewhere along the road, along with the hardback covering (not even duct tape could keep her together). Pages began falling out like Gretel’s breadcrumbs. And jokes were constantly at her expense. But she was mine. I memorized the words of God from that Bible. When I couldn’t remember where a verse was, I could close my eyes and see exactly where it was on the page. I could see the worn out highlighter marks and notes I wrote years back. She is sacred to me. She is my Wilson.

But she had ceased her purpose. Entire chunks of Scripture are missing, and believe it or not, a number of changes have occurred in the last 17 years in the field of Biblical translation. She is dated. And, because I have taken so much stock in what she says, so am I. So at the beginning of the year I went to the store and bought a new study Bible. I believe it is the first Bible I’ve bought for myself. So many choices. I went for a soft cover this time, probably reflecting some subconscious thoughts about my own journey. I also went with color (and pictures) on the pages (besides red). I like the idea of looking at artifacts that support what’s in the text. I feel awkward and out of sorts for the time being (almost guilty as Old Faithful gazes from her perch on the shelf), but I know it won’t be too long and highlighters will own this one too.

And this week we’re going car shopping. I hate car shopping. I met Dory in 2004 (affectionately named by our youth group). I had been in St. Louis less than a year and dating my future wife a few months. My friend Keith, an ex-car salesman, tagged along and essentially bought the car for me. It is the car that brought both kids home from the hospital. It’s the car that picked up a number of teens and brought to Bible study. We’ve traveled the highway of life in that car. But she has issues. The CD player broke 5 years ago. The passenger airbag could pop out any second. The transition into 3rd gear sounds like an ogre under the hood. And my poor son’s window has duct tape keeping it up. 185,000 miles -only one minor replacement. Ford made a great Escape in ’04.

And today I break bread for the last time with one of my best friends before he packs up his family and moves to Florida. I’ve been in the trenches with him the last decade -sitting through meetings, planning camp, running youth rallies, leading worship services. All that has been awesome. But it pales to the Monday-Friday conversations in the office -throwing ideas off one another, sharing our struggles, helping our marriages, watching our sons grow up together. I will miss my friend. 

Change is inevitable.

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Does Walter Mitty Attend Your Church?

I read a blog last week that made a great connection with Walter Mitty and the local Church. (Check it out here) The focus was on Walter Mitty’s daydreaming vs. his daring life and the way Churches and leadership make decisions. This coincided with a class I sat in on two weeks ago titled, Does the Church Support or Stifle Your Dreams? Sadly, many people felt pressure to fall in line instead of encouragement to reach for the stars. What a conundrum this puts them in!

Our society (through every known media) pushes individual creativity and adventure. With stories like Mr. Mitty, we are inspired to live. Our economic system relies on small business entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to challenge status quo. Our social media is always looking for the next myspace, Facebook, twitter, etc. -do you have the idea? And people like Steve Jobs are memorialized as saints (who else gets a movie made about their life less than 2 years after passing?). In a capitalistic society like ours, innovation is its own currency. We love to create!

And then many are a part of a local community of Christ-reflectors and they’re told creation isn’t necessary. What is really needed is monotonous task completion. This must be deflating to the dreamers! (I say this because this is an area I am learning about. I’m one that excels in routine and task completion. I’m dependable -not a dreamer. I only get a few “dreams” a year I’d like to see carried out. That’s nothing compared to some friends who have new ideas every time we talk! They are true visionaries!)

Churches, and Church leadership, must embrace and encourage innovators. Church must be a safe place to dream, to throw ideas out there on how we as a community may share the Light and be used as redeemers in his story. Will every dream become reality? No way. But a Church that creates an atmosphere of monotony is sealing its fate.

I am married to a dreamer (she said it was ok to share this part). She has ideas about ideas, and it is not uncommon for her to throw out 5 what I would call “major life changes” a day. This scared me our first few years of marriage because I thought her ideas were suggestions. What I heard was that she really did want to quit her job and join the PeaceCorps one day and then start an inner-city ministry the next. This confused and stressed me out! So I developed a strategy to combat my fear: shoot them all down. Like a WWII bomber. Every idea she threw out -from major life changes to restaurant suggestions for dinner -I walloped. (You can imagine what a successful life strategy this was) Before long, guess what happened? She stopped sharing her ideas, suggestions, opinions. Thankfully, we’re in a better place now. But it began with me understanding her need to dream and the importance of me creating an atmosphere that supports dreaming -even if that’s all it ever is. There is power in supporting and listening (Duh!)

I cannot emphasize this enough: Churches that stifle dreams are stifling the Spirit! I think the denominational lines are blurring more every year and what is popping up is a Church’s identity as a greenhouse or graveyard for ideas. Postmoderns are willing to disagree on theology if they are in a Church that loves them and encourages them. This, I believe, is becoming more important than the denominational name on the door, and this is how many people label churches now:

1. Churches that support the dreams of individuals. Perhaps through budget or volunteers. Perhaps through prayer or communication. There are churches that grow (multiply!) innovators, and then send them out into their fields. (In church terms we call this ‘discipleship.’)

2. Churches that call individuals to a bigger communal dream. Some churches are known for 1 ministry -and they excel at it. Not everyone is a visionary, but even boring monotony people like myself can play a part in the ministry. They have capitalized on a few dreams to help the multitudes!

3. Churches that stifle the dreams of individuals. Shoot down an idea enough times and soon people will stop sharing their thoughts. Before long you will have created a church stuck in a rut (and you will have run off many of the people God put in your fold to help you get out of it).

4. Churches that have no collective vision and stifle dreams. These are heartbreaking churches to attend because they are on their last breaths.

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