Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Confessions of a recovering Christian fatalist

fa-ta-lism (n.)
1. the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable.
2. a submissive attitude toward events resulting from such a belief.
As a child, one of the first truths about God I actually grasped is simply, God is God and I am not.  For some reason, this just clicked with me.  As such, I've prided myself on not really ever wrestling with doubt or asking the ever popular "Why?" question of God.

"Why did God allow this to happen?"
Who cares?!  He's God, he knows everything.  He can do whatever the heck he wants to do!

My theme passage was:
Romans 9:20-2120Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into?
If there was any concept I got well, it was "Let go, and let God!"  For me, Christian maturity meant that whatever comes to you in life, you suck it up, take it and move on.  Maturity was practically equal to emotional numbness.  Don't question, don't regret, don't let it hurt.  Like the great hymn says, "whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, 'it is well with my soul.'"

And let me tell you, this picture of God and spirituality worked great for me.  I was stable, unwavering in faith, and well-suited to deal with whatever life would throw at me.

But one thing still struck me as weird.  While I dismissed as immature those who were highly emotional in their pursuit of God, I secretly desired to be stirred in that way.  I had little feeling of personal connection to God whatsoever.

After all, for the Christian fatalist, prayer isn't really conversation.  I believe that God's will is best for me.  I obviously don't exactly know God's will for me in each situation.  So why would I want to risk asking something from God, if it might actually be asking for something that would make my life worse?!  So my prayer life pretty much consisted of: "God may your will be done in my life and our world."

Not exactly soul-stirring, relationship building stuff. (imagine if that was the extent of my conversation with Robin!)

Was this really the goal for Christian maturity?  Was this all God desired for me?

No.  Of course not.

At some point, God began to reveal to me that there was more.  The story of David and Bathsheba stuck out to me once again. Bathsheba was pregnant with a child David fathered during their affair, the one that took place as David was having her husband killed.  As a result, David was told the child would die.

What did he do?  Did he say, "It is well?"
No.  Instead we see him pray like hell.

For seven days, David does nothing but pray and cry before God on behalf of his child.  Nothing.  Not even eat.  This wasn't just giving in.  There was no sucking it up and taking the hand he was dealt.  No, David showed God everything that was in his heart.  He prayed, begging for God to change his mind.  He was so aggressive that his advisers were scared to tell him when the child died 7 days later.

But when they did, a strange thing happened.  David got up from his prayers, washed up, went and worshiped God in the (church), and then had dinner.  When asked about this change, his attitude was, "This situation is over.  Why should I not move on?"

As David was called, "a man after Gods' own heart," it seems that we can learn a lot about what God desires for us from looking at his life.  David believed that life was supposed to be lived with God, not simply deferring to Him.

He talked to God.  Plead with him.  Listened to him.  This is Christian maturity.  This is what we should strive toward.

But after the situation found its sad conclusion, he looked back on things with humble submission to God.  Though he walked with God toward the resolution of life's challenges, he ultimately trusted Him with the final outcomes.

For David, there was still, "It is well," just not before "pray like hell".

God, teach me to both walk with you and submit to you.  Let me share my heart and desires with you, while listening to yours.  Challenge me to hold to the promises you have placed in my heart and fight for them, until you show me differently.  And when you do (and not before) give me the peace to step back and accept your resolution.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Raise them in the 'hood

I love my neighborhood.

But let's be honest.  It has...issues.

In the eight years since Robin and I moved here, we've seen and experienced all kinds of chaos.  We've seen women getting punched in the street outside our house and had men come to our house in the middle of the night to try to get money to pay off drug dealers who are waiting in their car by the curb.  We've seen our friends have their homes invaded and burglarized (and one eighty year old man beaten), ministry partners robbed at gunpoint, gunfights between feuding neighbors, and more vandalism and domestic violence than you can shake a non-emergency police call at.

I suppose this is why many who love us were so concerned when we decided to have children and raise them here:

"Do you know the dangers they'll face?!"
"Do you know the things they'll hear from other kids?!"
"Do you realize what the chaos is like in the South Bend Public Schools?!"
"Get them out of there!"

To be honest, I was concerned myself as well.  In one trip to the park, we heard a group of boys (who had to be 8 years old or so) talking about how they were going to get as many girls pregnant as possible someday.  Another young boy was following a little girl around with hip thrusts in her direction.  Is this the right environment for my precious angels?!

And then one day a group of friends from our community took a trip to visit an urban ministry in Chicago and had a long talk with a veteran urban ministry leader.  We asked him about his thoughts on raising kids in the city (as he has raised many of his own there).  His thoughts have stuck with me today and proved itself true already:
"I would prefer to raise my kids in the 'hood.  In the 'hood, kids can clearly see right and wrong played out before their eyes, with the consequences clear.  Violence causes problems.  Drug use ruins lives.  Mean words tear apart families.   In the rest of society, the problems and sin still exist, they're just decorated and hidden.  Those problems are harder for kids to see and easier for them to unknowingly inherit."
And he's right.

Where I grew up in the suburbs, sin was like carbon monoxide.  You couldn't see it, couldn't smell it, so you didn't know to avoid it, but it still had the same drastic consequences.  No, there wasn't rampant drug use, violence, or domestic abuse, but there was materialism, arrogance, vanity, and (worst of all) this feeling like everything would be okay with or without God.

Not so in the 'hood.  People are real.  You see the good and the bad.  It's all very clear, right there before you.  There isn't the hiding.  There isn't the makeup.

Last year, a woman burst through the front door of our home and into our entryway unannounced, fleeing an abusive boyfriend, only to see him follow her inside and beat her in our front room.  Meanwhile, our two young girls were upstairs ready for bed, anxious as they listened to the angry man and the screaming woman.  Needless to say, they asked a lot of questions that night.

We were able to tell them about sin and the pain it causes in our lives.  We told them about relying on God and how He won't ever hurt you like others might.  And we shared about trusting God to care for us when we are afraid.

My belief is that our kids will be better off for these experiences.  I want them to grow up seeing their need to depend on God daily; knowing that God is the one who gives life and keeps us from despair.

Additionally, there are so many great lessons we can learn from my neighbors that were never a part of the suburban culture.  People in my neighborhood look out for each other.  In the midst of the pain and difficulty of life, I've seen so many rise to levels of grace and kindness that I'm not used to seeing.  I've seen mothers, struggling to provide for their own children, take in another child of a friend who is hurting.  I've seen the poor offer the little money they have to a relative in need.  I've seen families living in already cramped housing take in entire other families who just needed a place to stay.

So yeah, my neighborhood has issues.  The truth is, we all do.  But in the 'hood, at least you know what they are.

And I would prefer my kids be able to see clearly the choices set before them.

I'm not sure I could raise them in the suburbs.  It's too risky.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A sheep for everyone!

2 Samuel 12:1-7
1So the Lord sent Nathan the prophet to tell (King) David this story: 
“There were two men in a certain town. One was rich, and one was poor. 2The rich man owned a great many sheep and cattle. 3The poor man owned nothing but one little lamb he had bought. He raised that little lamb, and it grew up with his children. It ate from the man’s own plate and drank from his cup. He cuddled it in his arms like a baby daughter. 4One day a guest arrived at the home of the rich man. But instead of killing an animal from his own flock or herd, he took the poor man’s lamb and killed it and prepared it for his guest.”
5David was furious. “As surely as the Lord lives,” he vowed, “any man who would do such a thing deserves to die! 6He must repay four lambs to the poor man for the one he stole and for having no pity.”

7Then Nathan said to David, “You are that man!"


This story seems so obviously damning.  It's the story from the Bible of King David (of Goliath-slaying fame).  David as the wealthiest, most powerful man in all the land, with multiple princess-wives already, saw another man's wife (Bathsheba) taking a bath and decided he wanted to had her to his collection.  He manipulated things to put her husband in danger, and when hubby died, took Bathsheba as his wife.

It's obviously wrong.  It's obviously greed and a misuse of power.  The rich get richer, the poor get poorer (or deader in this case).

It's so obviously wrong that when Nathan confronts David and tells his story using different characters (the names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent), David becomes outraged at the injustice and proclaims damnation upon the guilty.  

The obvious problem is that David was the one who was guilty...the rich who was using his power to get richer at the expense of others.  Nice one, David.

Are we like David?

Is there a storyline where we are the rich ones seeking to get richer at the expense of those who have little to begin with anyway?


The truth is, this is probably more of the norm than the exception for those of us in the USA. 

On a global scale, we demand lower gas prices than the rest of the world (and use our powerful military to force the issue, if needed).  

We demand the best choice of jobs and are outraged when jobs leave the USA for other countries, where people who have far less opportunities will work for less money than we demand (and then fight to take back the jobs from those less fortunate overseas workers).  

At the same time, we demand such low prices on our shoes and clothing that those putting them together suffer through horrible working conditions and minimal wages.

Locally, the systems of our society are structured so that the privileged will continue to thrive, and the under-prepared will continue to struggle.

Frankly, we want what seems favorable for us, regardless of who loses out so that we might gain.

As far as nations go, that's what you would expect--that a nation would use any means necessary to protect its own interests.  As far as kings go, David's actions are hardly shocking.

But should Christians stand for this?  Can we actually be justified in rooting for our own interests at the expense of others?

Or should we be rooting for jobs to relocate to the nations that have no food to even feed their children?  Should we accept that our gas prices might go up, so that youth would not have to die to ensure our position of privilege?  Should we be willing to pay more for shoes, clothes, and coffee to ensure proper treatment of laborers?


Later in the conversation between Nathan and David, Nathan says that David's selfish actions have "given the enemies of the LORD great opportunity to despise and blaspheme him."

David was claiming to be a servant of God, and yet as others watched his life, he looked very little like the God he claimed to serve...and very much like your run-of-the-mill king.

As a result, there was great confusion about who God was, and what he stood for. 


People are watching the Church to see what kind of God we serve.  Every time we speak, act, or post on Facebook, people see the values that rule our hearts.  And they will either be drawn toward God, or led to despise him.

What are they seeing from the Church? 

Do we stand beside the wealthy king who seeks to benefit from his position of privilege?  

Or beside those with only a sheep to love?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Heaven: for lack of better options

As a pastor, I've been dealing with a lot of death lately.  It seems like one of those things that comes in bunches.  And understandably, when death comes, people start asking lots of questions.

The conversation I have most frequently is with people wanting certainty regarding death, which makes sense as uncertainty is the foundation for fear.  Everyone wants to make sure that they have their top priority for the afterlife locked in.  They want to make sure they've got their reservations right... (double Queen, pet-friendly, jacuzzi suite please).  And the concern I hear could be most easily summarized as this: 

"The most important thing for me in the afterlife is to be in heaven with God and not in hell."

(Now sometime, I might get into my theology regarding heaven and hell, what I believe Jesus was trying to communicate, and issues such as whether people will literally be on fire for the rest of eternity.  But right now, I just want to think about what's going on inside of us as we seek such resolution.)

I've rarely met people who truly desire to live life with God in the present who are concerned about what's going to happen when they die.  The concern comes when people realize that God isn't very high on the priority list in this life.

Which makes me ask...
Why is it that our highest priority after we die is to live with God, but it's not often the highest priority before we diewhen we are living?

Is our desire really for life with God?  or against an unpleasant alternative?

Do people really only desire heaven (and life with God) in the afterlife due to a lack of better options?

If there was a third option, would people choose it?  Heaven, hell, or the land in between, like earth is now where God's goodness is only partially seen?  

And if we're only choosing heaven for lack of better options, is that really choosing heaven?

And the church encourages this strange thinking.  For anyone to suggest that hell is not a great big ball of fire, that burns people for all of eternity, many in the church throw out this protest, "Stop!  If you water down hell, you'll lead people away from heaven!"

Here I have to take a stand.  I believe that God and his goodness is worth pursuing.  Not because it's better than the only other alternative, but because IT IS GOOD!

If there was no hell, heaven would still be worth pursuing!

Even with other choices in life, heaven is still worth pursuing!

And that, it seems, is what makes up belief in God.  Not that we believe he is powerful enough to save us from the flames, but that he is GOOD ENOUGH to PURSUE, even given an infinite number of other options.

A true desire for the heaven (and life with God) of the afterlife will be accompanied by a desire for the heaven (and life with God) in the present life...

...not just choosing heaven for lack of better options.