I hear birds singing their chirpy little songs through my open window. Outside I see finally lush grass. The perennials have faithfully pushed themselves up out of the earth and made their presence known. The trees are not quite fully leafed out yet, but it is enough for me to feel hopeful about summer, about life.
Patty and I enjoyed a late breakfast on our patio and walked around talking over plans for further improvements to the yard. We didn’t have to go anywhere to enjoy this day. We simply soaked in the beauty, the pleasure, and the peacefulness of the moment.
Finding pleasure in the moment has been as illusive challenge for me. Obviously, it is pretty easy sometime, like when you are on vacation fascinated by new sights and you unleashed from your daily grind. Other times, it’s really hard, like when your world stops when you first hear of some horrible, unexpected thing that has happened that may affect you the rest of your life.
But perhaps the most challenging times are those vast spans of life when the adrenalin is not raging through your blood stream. These times can be very hard for me. Maybe, I am just another adrenalin junkie. A lot of times thing are not going bad, but nothing exciting is happening either, just the same ol’ same ol’.
I think our familiarity with those times really does breed a little contempt and we miss out on the little simple pleasures of an unexciting day. If our expectations were lowered and our awareness heightened, if we forgot our plans and our regrets, if our schedule and to-do-list washed out of our mind for a while, we would discover some beautiful wonders on a daily basis.
I wish Peter Faulk were still living and wearing his crumbled Colombo trench coat. I would love to hear him approach some church leaders at a convention and say, “Excuse me, sir. Just one more question. Did Jesus come to start a religion?”
Good question, detective.
Religions have their sets of beliefs to cling to and that is their condensed version of truth, it’s how they make sense of things. If you believe them, you’re in and if you don’t, you’re out. The religious disparage those who don’t hold their beliefs. Historically, and even currently, some religions persecute, torture, or kill those who differ.
Religions have their buildings as a place for the faithful to gather. They are led by their ordained and trained leaders. They have rituals they perform that generally only have meaning to the initiated. Religions have all of these things and more which they regard as sanctified, separate from the rest of the world and sacrosanct, above criticism.
I just don’t see Jesus in this! These are things all religions have in common, including Christianity.
My problem with the religion of Christianity is that it is set apart from the rest of life. When I say the word Christianity, you immediately think of church buildings, pastors, offerings, sermons, and worship services, all of which are detached from regular life. Did Jesus die for that?
Jesus was a rebel! The church is producing mild-mannered clones.
Jesus went after the religious big shots with guns a blazing because they took advantage of people in the name of religion and they heaped guilt and expectations upon them, while continuing their piteous act.
He didn’t complain about the government, which was horribly cruel and corrupt. He focused his scathing comments on his own (religious) house.
He went everywhere he wasn’t supposed to go and hung out with everyone he wasn’t supposed to associate with. He had compassion upon those who were pushed to the fringes of society and focused on those who others ignored. He broke barriers.
He never preached an expository sermon in his life. He told stories. People learned the ways of Jesus by traveling with him.
He loved children. He went to parties. I think he probably told jokes, danced, and drank wine.
He spoke of freedom and practiced forgiveness. He set people free! That’s what I want. Sheesh! What a contrast between Jesus and the religion of Christianity! Here is what drives me nuts about our understanding of Christianity. It is separate from life!
Jesus didn’t come to begin another religion! He came to restore our relationship with God and show us how to live! The way of Jesus is something woven and integrated into the very fabric of life. It is not a Sunday thing! It is a 24-7 thing! It is not high and mighty, sanctified and sacrosanct. It is down and dirty.
“I don’t follow Jesus because I think Christianity is the best religion. I follow Jesus because he leads me into ultimate reality. He teaches me how to live in tune with how reality really is.” ( Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, p. 83)
Somehow, I don’t think our magnificent church structures, auditoriums, state of the art sound and projection systems, slick, packaged programs, impressive speakers and musicians are what Jesus had in mind for his followers. I look at all of that stuff and ask myself, is that what he died for? I believe he has something far more personal and transformational in mind.
He is with me when I am loving writing this book and when I wonder why the hell I am spending all of these lonely hours on a project when I have no way of knowing what will become of it. He is with me when my wife and I realize we are deeply in love after 38 years of marriage and when we are ticked off with each other. He is with me when I talk with my Calvinist, but wonderfully congenial neighbor or my other neighbor who has a terminal lung disease. He is the reason I care, because I tend to be too damn selfish and focused on my personal to-do-list to care much about others. He is with me when I sat in a funeral crying with my wife when each of her parents died. He is the reason I want to get it right as my parents are in their later years and have lots of needs and issues.
My whole journey has been to find something real, something that works. It is something that has led me down a rabbit hole that I didn’t want to look in. It caused me to question almost every spiritual thought and belief I have ever had. It caused me to turn away from anything I thought was less than solid and authentic and find that God was right there in the midst of this crazy search because he was everywhere.
How does the church shift toward a faith that is stripped down, integrated into all of life, down and dirty, rebellious and real? Well, there is a lot of work to be done.
I believe that honesty and the Holy Spirit are traveling companions. So, honesty is an excellent place to begin. Someone needs to stand up and say, we don’t have it all figured out. We value you and living in the way of Jesus more than trying to build an organization. If you don’t believe like the rest of us and have a lot of questions, that’s cool. You’re safe here. Fire away with your questions. We are going to simplify our schedule so you have time to live out the Gospel with the people in your own world. Let’s learn how to live and love in the way of Jesus. We are going to starve religion and feed life.
- An excerpt from my soon to be published book, Irreligious: Living Life Loving Jesus
This month’s synchroblog focuses on helping Christians know what to do (or not do) and what to say (or not say) when others are going through times of personal tragedy. Links to the other writer’s contributions are listed at the end of the post. You will want to check them out.
Ironically, on Good Friday, I had the memorial service for the 31-year-old son of one of my best friends. He left behind a beautiful 4-year-old daughter, a sister, a twin brother, a heartbroken mother, and a host of loved ones. Apparently, there is irony even in death because a few years ago Andy’s dad died the same way in a one car accident in which he hit a tree.
My wife and I dropped in on the family shortly after they got the news while they were still in the dark cloud of raw, surreal grief. I had nothing to say. Anything I could think of would have been trite or uncaring. Calling the room full of family members to order for prayer in a deep pastoral sounding voice seemed like a stupid thing to do. I sat in silence for a long while. Finally, we hugged, reassured our friend of our love, and gently steered the conversation away from the immediate trauma to stories about Andy and one another.
I was a pastor for over twenty years, but have been out of the “business” for about twelve years now. There were things I loved and hated about being a pastor. I loved be the go-to-guy, it fit my ego needs. I loved the idea of creative communication and the theater-with-a-purpose, called the Sunday morning service. But funerals were one of my least favorite things because I have no magic words and because I needed to grieve along with the other mourners. It is not a time in which I want to perform or to be “on” in some formal clerical capacity.
Over the years, I have had funerals for people who died in lots of different ways. There was college kid who hanged himself with the cord of his dorm room window blinds. There was wife and son of my wife’s cousin who were hit by a semi while parked on the side of the highway. There was the thirty-three-year-old guy that dropped dead on the loading dock at work. In every one of the countless funerals where I was the officiating clergy, there was at least a moment in which the gravity of what had happened hit me. Even in the ones where I was not well acquainted with the deceased or the family, it would happen.
The weight of the grief, the reason that death is part of the human experience, and the spiritual narrative behind it; all of this would hit me at once. Usually, I would quickly recover and no one would know of my near emotional meltdown. Since it is more than a little unseemly if the guy in charge of comforting the loved ones loses it, I would suck it up and cry when I wasn’t on the clock.
This one was different though. Debbie and Freddie were the first people to reach out to us when we came to what seemed to us like a God-forsaken place, called Chicagoland. We quickly became best friends. We got to know each other’s kids and parents. Now, we are at least somewhat acquainted with each other’s grandchildren.
When a lot of crusty old church members thought I was crazy (or evil), they stood by me. We shared a beautiful vision for what the church could become and commiserated through setbacks and strained relationships with cranky congregants. We shared each other’s sorrows and joys. Debbie even endured my bossiness as my volunteer administrative assistant.
In the last few years, Andy would occasionally IM me on Facebook and we would get together at a coffee shop overlooking Lake Michigan. He would always impress me with his enthusiasm for life and his desire to be a stellar father. Andy lived life with the throttle wide open, full of honesty, fueled by enthusiasm for what he was doing or what was next.
I broke down when I was telling my wife about some of the sweet things his daughter had said to her grandma about her daddy in heaven. As I was trying to recount the incident her, I had to stop, or I would have balled like a baby.
Way too often I see the dramatic public wailing of people in some faraway place when a loved one is killed by a terrorist or a drone strike. I think, get it together. What the heck? These people seem so primitive, so foreign to me. Suck it up! Get on with life!
Yet, sometimes we just need to grieve! If we don’t, that grief will affect us in other sneaky ways. I tell grieving people to cry, find a trusted friend who will listen, write, pray, express the depth of your emotion to God; be very honest. He can take it.
I tell those around the grieving to stop talking and just listen and not try to find something to say when there is no earthly way to make sense of something we don’t understand.
The death of my wife’s parent has the most painful ones I have experienced personally. I don’t remember a thing that was said at either funeral, from the podium or from loved ones, but I do remember who was there. Hence, the term, “the ministry of presence.”
We need to simply be there and weep with those who weep!
Here is another post that I wrote about the memorial service, posted on Easter Sunday.
This is a book of stuff that hardly anybody wants to talk about. That alone makes it important. We don’t like talking about death or “having our affairs in order,” and we really don’t like delving into financial and personal business matters that involve the likes of the IRS.
When Someone Dies by Scott Taylor Smith really does live up to its subtitle, “The Practical Guide to the Logistics of Death.”
My parents’ advanced age and failing health caused me to inherit a new responsibility, understanding their “affairs” so I could take of that stuff when necessary. Their procrastination in doing these things reminded me of my age and caused me to want to make this stuff as easy as possible for my family. So, a few years ago, I dove in. I typed out how to pay the bills and access accounts. Then I went over it with each family member. Just months ago, we did our Healthcare Directive, Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare, and Durable Power of Attorney for Finances. We used Legal Zoom and found it very satisfactory and saved hundreds of dollars in attorney’s fees. It cost around a $150.00 for each of us to do all three documents.
After reading, When Someone Dies, I found even more things to help out my family. Did you know that you will need to purchase several copies of the death certificate through the funeral home because you will need it for several transactions? Did you know that social security checks need to be stopped immediately or you will need to repay the money? Did you know that creditors can only collect from the estate and if those funds are exhausted, they have no legal recourse?
The author is an attorney who was neither knowledgeable nor prepared for many of the things he had to deal with after his mother’s recent death. The book is incredibly well organized with outlines, summaries and a logical progression, so that it is easy to skim and focus only on issues pertinent to your situation.
If you have elderly parents or if you need to get your act together, I highly recommend it. Actually, doing this stuff and leaving practical instructions behind is itself a legacy of love and kindness.
Even during my last few years as pastor, it seemed to me we had the wrong goal for the Christian life. My Charismatic friends seemed to think it was all about powerful manifestations of God. Speaking in tongues, prophecies, and healings were all the rage. For evangelicals, it seemed to be mostly about knowledge, believing the “right” things. Neither focus seemed to result in much positive life change or have much of an impact for good or for God upon the world. Interestingly, both approaches feed the ego by having a power or knowledge that others did not have. I came to the conclusion that neither group had God nearly as well figured out as they thought they did.
For instance, our knowledge of the Bible can turn into a very ugly, unkind, and inhumane thing. It was Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi who said, “People of the book risk putting the book above people.”
I would hear propositional sermons, in which the preacher declared, if you do this, God will do that for you. My personal life never seemed to bear that out, nor did it follow the patterns the preacher so boldly proclaimed. It didn’t even hold up when I thought through various people in the Bible and their life circumstances.
We have taken the mystery out of God and if anyone is mysterious, He is. How can we possibly, rationally say that we have God figured out and he always has to act “this way”? I mean, I don’t even have my wife figured out. I don’t even have me figured out! How could I possibly figure out the Creator?
If our minds and understanding have limits, and they do, there is a pretty good chance we might be wrong about something concerning our understanding of God. Church history is largely a record of how we got it wrong, but Christians were willing to fight and kill for those things, because we believed we were right. So we had inquisitions, militaristic crusades, torture, and executions over differences in beliefs.
So, did we suddenly get everything right?
There needs to be room for questions because anything true can withstand any sort of questioning we can come up with. People have some very good and very honest questions about God. The church should be their sanctuary from fear and exclusion. Their questions should be welcomed, but it is exactly at this point when people leave the church. They can tell that their questions are unwelcome, since the church already has its axioms that must be embraced to be an accepted member of the club.
- An excerpt from Irreligious: Living Life Loving Jesus
I am occasionally peaking in on the NASCAR race at Talladega Super Speedway today (Sunday) and that caused me to remember that life is full of restarts. For those of you who think that motor sports are for hicks and watching it on TV is a sure way to induce your Sunday nap, let me explain. When something happens on the track, a crash, debris on the track, etc., a caution flag comes out. That means just what you think, drive cautiously and don’t pass anyone, just hold your position. Often, pit road is opened and drivers will top off their fuel, change tires, or make adjustments to their cars.
After whatever that caused the caution is cleared up, the race resumes with a restart. Here is what I love, when the restart happens, the cars are all bunched up, and when that green flag drops, it is a new race!
You may not realize how much life is like one of these NASCAR races. These races are long, well over a hundred laps. Anything can happen. The favored driver might wind up with his car in the garage, unable to finish. The rookie might pull off a surprise win. Ten cars could be wiped out in a crash. You just never know. But the best part is, after something bad happens, there is a restart.
I wish we could remember that life is full of restarts. If we did, there would be no suicides, depression would be almost wiped out, and people wouldn’t be so frustrated, angry, or withdrawn. In short, we would begin living a little more in sync with our God-given identity and reality. Literally nothing could keep us from a grace-fueled restart, especially after something “bad” happens. That’s why we hear those stories of a person’s colossal failure being the catalyst for their finally finding success.
The only thing that can keep us out of the restart is our own stubbornness that insists on punishing ourselves, even though God refuses to. The number of restarts is limitless. We can restart every day or several times a day. We don’t have to wait until something really bad happens, but if it does, that’s a clue that restart is needed. Then it is a whole new race!
I have been involved in a labor intensive project I engage in maybe once a decade, if that often. Sometimes, I will make a special effort when a child gets married or a grandchild is born. Yes, I am referring to the dreaded changing of the photos around the house.
Our hallway is our family picture gallery and it was full of outdated, mostly individually framed pictures of family members. I have purchased a couple of fancy photo collage frames and some five lesser ones. Through the process, I have chosen fifty 4×6 prints that have that I have downloaded, optimized, printed, and inserted in the frames. This is first time that I have used my very nice photo printer, though I have it at least five years.
I still have another three collages in my office to do. Then, a few individual frames and storage of the multitude of frames and photos that will be left over. I am about seventy percent done. If I knew what a time consuming project it would be, I probably would not have begun.
Before this, one of my other household pursuits was getting our business affairs in order. Becoming the legal guardian for my disabled brother and looking after my elderly parents (who are masters of procrastination), got me thinking that Patty and I needed to get our business affairs in order. So, I have printed instructions on how to take care of business if someone else needs to pay the bills, I have detailed similar instructions, if someone else needs to manage my brother’s business and I have listed the pertinent information if something happens to me. It is all spelled out. Finally, we engaged Legal Zoom and did our healthcare directive, durable power of attorney, and last will and testament. It was pretty easy and a fraction of what an attorney would charge. It’s not fun stuff, but it feels great having it done.
I think about history a lot more as I get older, I want to be sure the kids, grand kids, and great grand kids have some good memories to hold on to. I want them to know something about my memories of my parents and grandparents.
The George W. Bush Presidential Library opened today. You remember him, that immensely unpopular president when he left office whose approval rating has increased eleven points since then. He usually stays out of the limelight and is content to let history judge his time in office.
In last term of a president, he thinks about his legacy. As my time to make course corrections and attitude changes gets shorter and shorter, I think about my legacy, too.
Our legacy, it’s worth pondering. The awesome thing is we are still shaping it.
During those transitional years, I had a very difficult time figuring out how to do evangelism. Some of the things I have been taught seemed like they cheapened the message by making evangelism all about information and presentation. It seems like there was very little consideration for the person, my relationship with them, or the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
I remember hearing about the nineteenth century evangelist D.L. Moody sharing the Gospel with one person every day. It sounded well-meaning, but mechanical and arbitrary, as if everything God is doing is dependent upon us. I was even taught how to share the Gospel in seconds by using an illustration. It was so quick; you could use it on a grocery check-out clerk. About thirty years ago, I would go out weekly with the guys on a “soul-winning” mission as we visited the people who had visited our church.
Finally, I realized the need to transition from a ‘Come and hear.” approach to a “Go and show.” one, from presenting or sharing the Good News to being good news. I had begun to realize that God was at work with everyone, not just church folks. Therefore, it was important to care enough about people that we get to know them, so we are working together with what God is already doing, rather than doing our own thing. Honestly, the church’s credibility is so bad, we absolutely have to support the good news message with good news living and tangible love. I think it was supposed to be that way all along.
Our message is one of redemption, restoration, and relevance. We our redeemed by Christ and must repent of attempts to try to gain his acceptance, accepting that he has sacrificially made the way for us. We are restored to our original position, a special relationship with God at the pinnacle of his creation. We are not just holding on for heaven, we have a relevant, fulfilling role in his kingdom here and now.
“That message is a tad bit different from what I used to hear a few years ago. It was more “turn or burn, you’re a lowdown sinner, accept Jesus as your Savior and go to heaven, pray this prayer. In the meantime, hang on, the world stinks.”
Sign me up for that!
“The church doesn’t exist for itself; it exists to serve the world. It is not ultimately about the church; it’s about all the people God wants to bless through the church. When the church losses sight of this, it loses its heart. This is especially true today in the world we live in where so many people are hostile to the church, many for good reason. We reclaim the church as a blessing machine, not only because that is what Jesus intended from the beginning but also because serving people is the only way their perceptions of the church are ever going to change.” (Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005) 165-166).
How did Jesus evangelize? He came and lived among us. Most of the time, I don’t even go where I feel a little uncomfortable. He was a great lover of people. I have lots of room for improvement in drawing people out, hearing their stories and helping them feel loved. He shared life with them by going to their parties, and crying and laughing with them. I can get a little isolated and insulated.
I am learning that I have to be good news, not just talk about it. I need to do life with people and not try to get them to do something, like come to my church.
-An Excerpt from my forthcoming book, An Irreligious Faith: Living Life Loving Jesus
Figuring out what really pisses you off and agitates you can be very insightful because our motivations and passions flow from our deepest irritants and frustrations.
Here are a few of my least favorite things. (I can hear Julie Andrews in my head.)
Church programs often ignore the individuals they supposedly serve. Churches have a one-size-fits-all discipleship pathway. They offer a very limited number of options they expect you to “plug-in” to. The assumption is they have the answers about what people need without even bothering to get to know individuals. I remind churches you are dealing with people, not cattle and the church is here to serve them in developing their Kingdom potential. People are pawns to build their church organization.
Charities tend to serve their funders, run people through their programs, fill out the paperwork, and hand out the money; rather than partner with people to help them achieve their goals. The Great White Hope mentality lives on. It makes me crazy because they wind up devaluing the very people they are supposedly serving. They create a symbiotic, client/provider relationship which perpetuates things staying the same in the future.
Employers who berate their employees in public create an awkward situation for everyone. The employee is needlessly embarrassed. The customer feels awkward like he walked in on a family argument. The employer reveals a total absence of professionalism and decorum. It makes me never want to go back to the extablishment.
While I am at it, employers who don’t adequately train their employees, but unreasonably expect them to be knowledgeable place them in an impossible situation. Training an employee is an investment in the success of your company! To not properly train your employees is a stupid business decision that causes needless frustration for the employee and your customers.
The common thread about these complaints is that individuals deserve a degree of dignity and grace. This fact is at the very core of God’s basic message to humanity. We find it hard to believe and difficult to replicate, but we are dying for it.
Okay, that’s a start. Now, the big question is how all of these negative discoveries are motivating me to being involved in a positive alternative.
This post is part of a synchroblog, entitled: “What If?” I will publish links to the other writers’ contributions on Wednesday. Here is a little more explanation.
This month we invite you to play the ‘what if’ game with us. Try to imagine that some or all of the Bible narrative is not necessarily true history, but is myth of one sort or another. What sort of effect would that knowledge have on your faith? What effect might it have on the larger church? How would it change you? Would it change you and how you view the world?
What the heck? That was my initial response to this month’s synchroblog topic of playing, “what if” with the Bible, i. e., what if some of the Bible is myth. It was a totally knee jerk response that probably came from decades of conservative theological indoctrination.
This writing assignment has caused me to try to figure out my current understanding of the Bible. A part of me doesn’t want to go there because my former fundamentalist beliefs were much tidier that whatever I believe now. Nonetheless, I will try to contrast my former beliefs with my current ones.
There has been an inappropriate emphasis placed on the Bible. It is not something to worship or to dissect. It is not an encyclopedic answer book for every problem and issue we encounter in life. It is not given to being synthesized and systematized into an orderly theology. Unfortunately, Christianity has done all of these things and more to the Bible.
The Bible needs to be contextualized. It needs to be regarded in the context of its history, culture, and language. But it also needs to be put in its proper place in relationship to what it means to love Jesus and our desire to live life in a way that resembles him. The big piece of that puzzle is not the foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus, nor the commentary relating to Jesus’ teaching; it is Jesus himself.
The Bible is a narrative, more like a biography or a story than a “how to” book. Conservatives have placed a lot of emphasis upon it being a divine book, but it also a very human book written with the perspective of particular authors influenced by a popular understanding of God at the time of their writing.
So, what is there is a “mythical oops” in the Bible? No big deal! Does it change who God is? Does it change who Jesus is? Does it change the fact that the law of God is written upon the human heart (Romans 2:15) and informs us about how to treat with one another with love?
Some non-religious people have more of the “law of God written on their heart” than a lot of religious people who have a lot of it in their heads, but not so much in their hearts.
This hypothetical “oops” might devastate some churches who insist that the Bible be tamed into their fitting their systematic theology, but it could also be really wonderful. If the church transitioned from their “beliefism” to living out the life of Jesus, that would be awesome. If the church quit judging sinners who are unashamed about their sins and fellow Christians who are “confused” on certain points of doctrine, that also, would be a positive step.
A biblical inaccuracy would not affect me. I know a lot of biblical teaching, but not near as much about biblical living. My more important concern is living it out and learning how to confront life in a Jesus-honoring sort of way.
Here are the links for for those participating this month: