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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Gimme That Old Time Religion--Part 4...Testimony Service

I think, looking back, that maybe my favorite memory of "Old Time Religion"...and maybe one of the things I most wish we'd the Testimony Meeting.
There were two types. The planned and the spontaneous. The planned usually occurred on or around Thanksgiving. My church used to have a Thanksgiving morning service and it was essentially one or two hymns and then open floor for testimonies. Those were sort of rehearsed and geared more at what you were thankful for over the past year. They had lots of value, but it wasn't a personal story.
Or you might be a teen, just home from summer camp and getting up in front of the church on Sunday night to share what happened to you at Camp Overlook.
Those were the planned testimony meetings and they were great in themselves. But the really special ones were the spontaneous Testimony Services that occasionally broke out. Pastor E.L. would open the floor to whomever wished to give a word of thanks or tell their story. (This was always during the Sunday Evening service) One person would stand up...then another...then another. Sometimes the emotion and the sweetness of recounting what God had been doing in the hearts of some of these folks was so full that it became the service. There wasn't much to add after some of these Saints told their stories and so sometimes the Pastor simply closed us in prayer.
There were a few folks who I simply loved to hear talk about God. When the floor would open, I would be sitting in the pew hoping one...or all...of them would stand up and tell us the latest events in their life of faith. One of them was my best friend's aunt Debbie. She was an insulin dependent diabetic and had gone blind at a fairly young age. She had a beautiful singing voice and sang often in church. She never seemed to be down, despite the loss of her eyesight. She would give testimonies of sharing her faith on a bus or in the grocery store or at many of the places she had been asked to sing. She was a sweet, beautiful soul and as I got to know her more, she became something of a hero to me. I admired how she never complained and how she seemed so vibrant and excited about telling anyone who would listen, about Jesus.
I remember hearing one man, whose daughters were dear friends of mine, talking about his life before Christ. How he'd been a drinker and a bit of a ruffian. It was shocking to me. I had only known him long after he'd met Jesus and I only saw him as one of the Godliest men I'd ever know. To know that, prior to Jesus, he'd been something far less than the man I admired so much was amazing. It was hard to comprehend. But years later, when I had become and adult and had slipped up a few times, it did me well to remember his story, and how God had never given up on him, and how a praying wife won him over.
I particularly loved when the Pastor gave his testimony. He had been a hard-living lumberjack in the U.P. area of Michigan. He was a big, physical man and in his youth even more so. He refused the earnest pleading of a neighbor over and over. But one day, this man who refused to quit finally found him at his moment of surrender and lead him to Jesus. This pastor was one of the most devout, godly men I have ever known...and still is today at 91. Knowing that he too had a dark past and was a scalawag once in his life was and is a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ on even the most stubborn hearts. But I only know this about him...and was only able to take comfort in his redemption story...because he shared it with us.
Our high school principal, who now serves as the pastor at that church, was a former heroin addict who got saved as the result of a cousin he worked for who had become a believer and who took him in when he had nowhere else to go. He set the conditions very strict and they included church attendance. It wasn't very many services into this agreement before he had come to the altar on a Sunday night and began what is still an ongoing adventure in service and ministry.
Oddly enough, one of the testimonies I remember almost verbatim was from a man who I always genuinely liked. His name is Mike and he is the father of three daughters I grew up with. One Sunday evening, Mike was asked to give his testimony about how God had been providing for him in some amazing ways, since he decided to get consistent in his tithing. He told a lot of neat, completely credible stories of little "miracles" and one great story of coming home from the beach and looking like he was going to run out of gas. He made it home and it was an exercise in seeing God honor his faithfulness.
Now, there were those who abused this tradition as well. Some who padded the stat sheet and added greatly to their sinful past. The Church can be guilty of making heroes out of those with horrid histories and that sort of recognition can be intoxicating for someone seeking attention. A few "testimonies" raised some eyebrows now and again. Sometimes a testimony would morph into a sermon, because the person had a desire to be a "preachah" and eventually we'd be clearing our throats and rolling our eyes. But those folks tended to disappear after a while anyway.
For the most part, hearing what God had done, was doing, and what we'd hoped He would do, was a seminal influence in my life. I was a young boy when I first started hearing these eyewitness accounts of God being God. I came to know His character through the testimonies of men and women who had been walking with Him for far more years than I had even been alive. In bits and pieces gleaned from the stories of these folks, I began to develop my understanding of Faith, consistency, forgiveness, Grace, Mercy, and most of all I learned that God had a plan. It wasn't like a flight-plan, filed with the control tower before takeoff and then followed, without mishap or detour, to it's destination. rather, it was like riding a roller-coaster in the dark. Sometimes it was like groping along the back wall of a pitch-black cave knowing only that there was a passageway here somewhere. All you really knew was that God was in control...and that He loved us madly. He often took us through things we wished we'd never seen or experienced. But He never sent us there alone, rather, He lead us there by hand. I learned this...this became part of my life...before I was 12 years old. Because that church believed in a Testimony Service. I soaked those stories up as a boy. And when I had grown to adulthood, I recalled hearing how God had provided time and again, how He healed, how He changed someone, how a marriage was restored or a sickness cured, or a lost soul, adrift on the seas of life, found it's way home. When I was that wayward soul, I remembered others who had told their stories of redemption and I knew I could come home too.
I remembered, as I got older, that the great men I admired in that church had at one time, lead far less than exemplary lives. I had known them long enough to have seen the effect that a relationship with Jesus had wrought. It encouraged me. Up until Christmas, I attended a church that had grown to almost 5500 people. I went there 9 years. And I could not tell you how ONE person in that congregation came to Jesus. Not one. My former church was around 400 in membership and I would bet I could tell you how almost half of them experienced Salvation. That made a difference. That made us part of each other's lives.
I understand how this can be uncomfortable for some. But it's another tradition with such a personal impact on me that I wish it were still popular. These days we have pastors so afraid of someone saying something "uncool" that they all but eliminated the Testimony Meeting. I have even sat through sermons that were actually about what you should say in your testimony. How much time is too long, what not to discuss, etc. To me the Testimony is as individual as the individual himself. Structuring it and filtering it only quenches the Holy Spirit. And to be's arrogant and megalomaniacal, and maybe a slap in God's face.
I miss the Testimony meeting. I miss those voices and those quivering lips and those tears as godly, loving folks who I had known most of my life, were overwhelmed by recounting the goodness of God in their lives. They challenged me to reach something they had reached. Something special. A walk with God that had become an adventure and gave birth to stories of provision, of rescue, of forgiveness, of strength in times of weakness, of Faith, of healing for sickness, or grace when no healing would come. People telling other people about how their walk with God was going. That was something I loved then, and miss today.
Until tomorrow...

Monday, February 25, 2013

Gimme That Old Time Religion--Part 3...The Altar

Another memory from my early days as a believer. Another seeming relic that has all but been mothballed in contemporary church services these days. The Altar Service.
Now, a common complaint about altar services...and one that bears great that they can be abused and forced. I agree. I have seen some of the most over-the-top drama and emotionalism occur at the end of a sermon, when the "altar is open" and the preacher waits for verse after verse of the invitation hymn to coax any straggler from his pew.
Sometimes the traveling evangelist would stop in the middle of the altar service and over dramatize some story (which likely wasn't even true) about some poor stooge who was visibly wrestling with God but who resisted the prompting of the Spirit and dropped dead of a heart attack on his way out the door. Or hit a tree head-on inexplicably the next morning on his way to work.
Again, the church I grew up in wasn't given to such nonsense. Although the invited evangelists did quite frequently. I vividly remember a "revival service" at a nearby Christian School in Elkton MD. Our administration decided we needed to go hear this guy so we took buses down the road to Elkton and listened to this guy preach.
...and preach
...and preach.
He started at 9 AM. He wrapped up his sermon at 11 AM. And then he began his altar service.
At 12:45 we were finally saying "Amen" and getting on the buses to return back to our school.
I, for one, was happy. We had a test that day in one of my classes, and by the time we got back, it was too late.
An hour and forty five minutes worth of altar pleading.
That was nuts.
But again...the church I attended wasn't like that. But they did have an altar service. They never failed.
Because they believed--and I agree--that a person who has had his "head-on collision" moment with Jesus, needs the opportunity to do his business on bended knee, with a mature believer's hand on his shoulder. A new convert needs to let the folks know. A prodigal heart needs a chance to come home.
It doesn't need to be protracted or dramatic. But I like knowing that if I want to kneel and get some things straight with God, or just kneel in thanks...that I have a place I can go and maybe share my burden with a Christian brother.
They didn't take a head count at the end to see how many "decisions" were made. They never turned it into a sideshow. Nor did they use phrases that made you feel guilty or ostracized if you happened to stay in your seat. They just let you know that if you needed a meeting with Jesus this was a pretty good place to do it.
I seldom see churches doing this anymore. Not contemporary churches anyway. I understand it a bit. It has been overworked in the past. But meeting with God in your moment of conviction should never be forgotten.
I wish more churches had those moments at the end of a service. I wish we could see someone making a public profession, or making a change, or surrendering to God's plan or simply kneeling in front of their church family to talk with God.
I watched a lot of transformations take place at the altar at that church I grew up in. A few didn't "stick". Most did and those folks went on to become valuable, vibrant members of the community of believers.
I wonder if we'll someday look back through the lens of time and see a few souls who almost made a decision for eternity. Someone who almost found their way to Jesus. Who would have doubtless made the final step in His direction, had there been an invitation hymn...and an old fashioned altar service.

Gimme That Old Time Religion--Part 2. "He Who Wins Souls is Wise"

     Yesterday I wrote about the Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting. Today I think we'll talk about what went on the next evening. Thursday Evening Visitation.
Now, there are a lot of churches who put some pretty ridiculous emphasis on this activity. They make it about numbers and they make heroes out of those who "hit big quotas" of people they talked to and people they got to say the "sinners prayer". (This is not an argument about the veracity of the tradition of the "sinners prayer". For the record...I believe in the prayer. It's a good model from which someone could build their personal plea for Salvation. But merely repeating it without understanding it is like going to a French Restaurant and spitting out a lot of French-sounding words. You'll likely get a plate full of plastic army men and a fondue pot of cheese before you'll get a meal. Knowing words and comprehending what you are saying are two different things.) These churches make "Stars" out of people who did little more than learn high-pressure sales tactics and repeated bible verses rapid-fire until they wore down the poor victim and he prayed just to make them go away.
     The church I attended was not like that. Yes, they had a regular visitation program. It was on Thursday nights. Yes we had...for a actual bible memorization program we used as a base from which to communicate the Gospel. But that's where the similarities end as far as the horror stories I've heard about other IFB churches.
     First of all...attendance was not mandatory. I think it was if you were a full-time staff member but the average church members were not imposed upon to be there for visitation each week. In fact, the pastor was careful about letting new believers, or those with a reputation as rogues, or those who couldn't shut up and might very well stand there in someones doorway until midnight, go out unattended, if at all. It was expected that you'd walked with the Lord for a while. You were to have a working knowledge of the basic doctrines of Salvation, Heaven and Hell, sin, etc. Mostly though, you had to have a compassionate heart. You had to want to see people come to know this Savior who had done so much in your life. You had to want to pray with the sick, take on their concerns, ask if you could help, become their friend. In hindsight, most of the visits weren't just knocking on the doors uninvited. Most of the people we visited were people who attended the church at some point and we were following up to see if they would come back. Could we help them somehow? Could we pray for them? In the course of the conversation we might find ourselves introducing the "Plan of Salvation" to them or we might not. It wasn't a contest. We didn't go back to the church that night and write our names down on a poster with a "body count" next to it. Mostly we went straight home. On Sunday, we'd let someone know about a salvation decision, or a need to pray for, or a request for a follow-up visit.
     I know there are churches who abused this practice. They treated this like a used-car sales event where the highest selling salesman got a trip to Cancun. (This in the form of being publicly lauded from the pulpit.) But this church did not. If you gained the reputation of a soul winner it was usually mentioned in conversation when someone was praising your character. Not in front of the congregation like an Amway convention.
     The church grew in the community because of this. And it grew as a community because of this. Most everyone there could point to someone else in the church as the reason they ended up going there. "Brother So-and-So knocked on my door one night." "Sister ___ came to my home and prayed with me after my husband had gotten hurt at work and was in the hospital." It grew the church in the way the early church grew. One on one. Telling someone else what had happened to you at the Cross.
     The other fruit that was born from this tradition was that it made us all aware of sharing our faith. Eventually it became a lifestyle. Some got ridiculous with it...laying "tracts" at every phone booth and gas station men's room on the East Coast. But for most of us it simply became part of our fabric. How can I carefully, tactfully introduce Jesus into this conversation with my co-worker, my classmate, my doctor...?
     A lot of churches have abandoned this exercise now. I suppose there is merit to the claim that society is different and a stranger knocking on your door at 7 PM might be grounds for a 9-1-1 call. People are wary, private, and too busy to be bothered. We seldom talk to our neighbors anymore, much less some guy from the local church who knocks on our door to invite us to the Easter service. I get that. But I miss the way we all became "soul winners". The way it was something that burned in our hearts. Does this person know Jesus? Is there some good way for me to make that introduction before I leave their presence...likely forever?
     These days we seldom hear about soul winning. We hear empty words like "engage" "equip" and the ever-popular "disciple". But to disciple someone, you have to first make sure they are a disciple. You have to make a clear introduction to Jesus. There has to be a salvation moment. We have all but abandoned that.
     I miss the thrill of going out to the highways and hedges and compelling them to come in. I miss the immeasurable joy of seeing the change in the eyes of someone who didn't know Jesus 30 minutes before I knocked on their door, or saw them on the basketball court. I miss seeing a new face in church and knowing there was an amazing story attached to their presence there.
I miss a lot of what I once thought I'd gladly never return to.
     Until tomorrow.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Gimme That Old-Time Religion..."

So it's Sunday, Feb 24th. Again I'm guilty of "forsaking the assembling of ourselves together". This is the end of my second month of my Church-fast. I will go back to Church one day...probably one day soon. But for now I'm sort of resting and licking some wounds. My problem is finding a church around here I even want to attend. I have promised myself I will never ever attend a Mega-Church again. At least not as a member.
That's my personal preference and this isn't a rant against churches so that's about all I'll say about that.
But this is a post about Church. Not the building...not a denomination. Not even the body of Christ in General. This is about Church. More specifically, it's about the way Church looks and sounds and feels now, as opposed to when I was a kid and a young adult.
I attended what was affectionately known as an "Independent Baptist Church".  Now, that very term can bring shivers to many, and twitches and nervous tics to some. It was a rule-driven, legalistic, sometimes Pharisaical local body back then. But to be had a couple of things going for it that the stereotypical IBF church didn't have. The rules got crazy for a was the trend back then. But it was different from most other IBF churches in that:
(A) the pastor wasn't a poorly qualified, part-time truck driver from Lizard Lick Louisiana. He was a very intelligent man with a Bachelors in Bible and a minor in Education from a real college. He taught school in the public school system for a few years. He was articulate, thorough and seldom used the devices of "Proof Texting" or extravagant pulpit storytelling to make his point. (although he had many guest evangelists who could guild a lily like a pro)
(B) The Pastor genuinely loved his people. Really, deeply, loved them and knew them individually. In retrospect I think this was what made him become a "Fundy" for such a long period of time. He didn't start out that way, and they have since moved far more toward the middle and away from legalism. But I think the years spent in overzealous rule-making were because he loved us and was worried about our lives here. It is that very reason that I long ago moved from anger and bitterness I felt toward these folks, to genuine love and appreciation for them. They messed many parents do. But they did it in the course of trying to love us and wanting the best for us.
(C) The other major difference was that--as I alluded to before--they left this mindset years ago. This is rare because usually individual members will leave the legalism but whole churches seldom do. But this group did. Maybe they aren't what you'd consider "contemporary" now, but they sure aren't what they once were.
     I left this church in 1990 never to return, save for an occasional visit. It took years to undo the damage the legalism had done, more years to develop my own Theological beliefs, more still to find the confidence in those beliefs to stand on them unapologetically and finally...a lot of time just to understand those folks and to forgive. Once I got to that point...many years ago now...I find that I miss them. And while I could not become a member of that church, simply because I worship in a slightly different fashion, I could attend services there and really enjoy myself, and further...I could appreciate the differences and relish the rich history of that place.
     I find myself lately really missing certain aspects of that church above others. Some things that really shaped me and left indelible marks on my soul as a boy of 9 when I first started going there, then as a teenager, and finally as an adult. There are things I remember of that place that I wish I saw at work in The Church today. Things that were beloved traditions, and looking back over 40 years that have come and gone since I first attended that church, they were things that I wish we still held dear.
     There are those among modern churches who decry some of these things as hokey, or embarrassing, or old-school. Some traditions, they even maintain, are unbiblical. Sometimes I think the people making these claims and accusations are simply still so burned by the practitioners that they just haven't forgiven yet and as long as they are wounded, they can't see the beauty and forgive the ugliness. And there was ugliness. And you don't have to forgive until you are don't read this as a rebuke.
     Nevertheless there were some aspects of "Old Time Religion" that I find myself longing for as I approach the half-century mark. Here--in no particular order--is my list.

     Wednesday Evening Prayer Meeting. Now first of all, nothing was more beloved among my friends growing up than Wednesday night prayer meeting. Why? Because it started at 7PM on a school night. That means you got there at 6:45. Which means you left your house at 6:15. Which means by the time you got home from baseball practice at 5:30, you barely had time for a shower and dinner before you left for church. Since I attended the Christian School at the same church, eventually the administration did away with Wednesday night homework. So we had an evening off. Plus, my mother sang in the choir...which practiced after the service on Wednesday night. So I didn't get home before 9:30. All that free time! If only they had laptops and cell phones back then.
     That was the kid-friendly part. And it's funny. But what I really remember about Wednesday night prayer meeting were the prayers. The Pastor would bring a brief lesson and then he would review the prayer list. A real printed prayer list that you got when you came in. He would go down through each one of them and update us on the condition of every person. Because he knew the condition of every person. He was a shepherd. He knew his sheep, not just his flock. There is a difference.
     After that, he would open the floor to anyone with a prayer request. Some of them were the same ones we'd heard for years. A lady asking for her husband to be saved. A dad praying for a wayward kid. A job need. A car accident and some hurting neighbors. An elderly man in the hospital. Our President, Our Nation, Our Church. There was always the mysterious "unspoken" request. Too important or embarrassing to ask public prayer for specifically. But a plea for the body to simply "pray for me". I know some question the theological soundness of this, and I get it. But it was a part of the picture...
     Then the Pastor would ask one of the men in the Church to open us in prayer, and after that he would say, "Anyone who is lead may pray...and I will close as the Spirit prompts." (This was as close to a Pentecostal leading of the Spirit as we would ever experience)  And then it began.
     As a young boy, and then a teen-aged young man, this next time affected me in ways I never even understood until much later in life. I sat there with head bowed, eyes closed...most of the time...and I listened intently to the prayers of great and godly men who I had grown up around and been influenced by. Usually a deacon would open us up. Maybe "Dad" Stanley, who was likely the oldest human being I ever met. Maybe Jim Riggs, or Bronard Long, or Dave Lewis. One by one, as one person ended his prayer, another would begin his or her own personal petitions. Great voices of great people who were as much a part of my life as my family were. In fact they were my family. The pastor's wife would pray, and her sweet voice...still retaining the faintest hint of her Michigan heritage...would be soothing. Then Mel Henry, who served God through great pain most of his life, and whose son was and is one of my dearest friends. Art Wilson, Mrs Tuten, Mrs. Noack, Some of them had personal requests they had been making for years. A friend on the mission field, a son in the military. Two voices always made me smile as I sat there with my head bowed and soaked up this special time. One was Harry Flohr. Mr. Flohr was perhaps the most Christ-like man I have ever met. Unselfish, serving, giving, loving, busy doing the little things that nobody would notice unless they were left undone. Plowing the parking lot if it snowed. Driving a group of teens to a Youth Group outing. Opening his home for a massive sleepover or lending his RV for a class trip. He prayed for certain missionaries, he prayed for our pastor, he prayed for our nation. He was among the first men I saw as a hero and a role model. He had hands the size of a garden shovel and a loving smile and wonderful sense of humor.
     The other voice I loved hearing was Harold Alexander. He had a drawl that gave away his North Carolina birthplace and his two youngest daughters were classmates of mine and among my best friends. We all grew up together and I spent a lot of great times at their home. When Harold prayed it was like listening to Andy Griffith in a church in Mayberry.
     I learned how to pray from these folks. How to respect God, but ask boldly. How to remember the important things to pray for. How to pray effectively. ...and how to live a life that backed up standing and praying out loud in a church service where everyone knew you and everyone knew whether these were merely empty words, or the voice of a real believer's heart. I still think of those Wednesday nights and those warm, special prayer times, and those men and women who taught me in Sunday School, cheered me at baseball games, encouraged me when I preached a 5 minute sermon on Good Friday with the other "Preacher Boys" and Meredith Stafford, my High School Creative Writing teacher, remained a part of my life even today, and still cheer my exploits.
     I miss those days and that feeling of family. I miss knowing that my pastor knew me. Really knew me and wanted the best for me. In hindsight, the good far outweighed the bad. It just takes some time to see it that way. I know not all "Fundamentalist" churches came out of that mindset and returned to sanity. But that one did. I also know the pastor cared a great deal. He wasn't the CEO of a large corporation  He wasn't running the church like a franchise with satellites popping up all over the country. He was busy tending his flock. This flock. He was imperfect, fallible, and human. But he was a pastor. A shepherd. There are a few things he could teach a contemporary pastor about doing the job.

I'll stop here. Tomorrow we'll look at another of the great traditions of my generation. See you then

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dreams and Visions...

You can have a vocation that isn't your calling. You can do a job each day that isn't the thing that burns hot in your heart and makes you lay awake at night, hoping the day will come when you get to do that one thing. You can go through the drudgery of the day-to-day grind while holding on to a vision for your life that God implanted and that looks nothing like the life you now lead. This is a blessing and a curse. Mostly a curse. To have a vision is to have a purpose and to be part of a plan. To have it delayed...for days, then months, then years...that becomes life-quenching.
Peter toiled on his fishing boats for all of his life. He was very good at fishing. His family was known as one of the most successful fishing families in the area. But inside his heart, he was named at birth...was crying out for more. Every day he worked in the sun and the wind and the weather, hauling nets, cutting bait, taking fish to market, and doing it all again the next day or night. And maybe every day he would let his mind wander to something different...something else. Maybe on the nights he went out to fish he lay under the stars and silently asked God to reveal a bigger plan because this throbbing in his heart was growing and making him more restless every day.
Then one day he hears Jesus on the shore as he is mending his nets after a fruitless night of fishing. Jesus asks to borrow his boat to use as a pulpit and Peter agrees. Maybe he welcomed the diversion from the monotony and maybe something in this Rabbi made him feel like he was closer to this missing piece of his soul. After the Rabbi speaks, He asks Peter to take the boat out into deeper waters. Peter does. Jesus tells him to drop his nets. Peter laughs and says "Listen...I'm a fisherman. This is what I do. We fished all night. They aren't running today. But I'll humor the preacher and drop them anyway. " He does and in an instant every fish that his nets could hold are in his possession.
Peter declares himself unworthy of such a man and bows in His presence.
And right there...right when Peter had caught more fish than he ever had before. Right when Jesus added a huge blessing to Peter's vocation as a thank-you for letting Him use his boat to minister to the people, he puts a finger in Peter's chest and gives him what he'd been looking for his whole life. Jesus simply says "Follow me Peter...and from now on you'll catch men."
Peter was faced with a moment of decision and to make it even tougher, Jesus dropped a challenge at the very moment when Peter was most successful. He had a lot to walk away from that morning. And Peter didn't flinch. He dropped his nets full of flapping fish and followed Jesus.
He walked away from his life of fishing and the business of fishing and began the journey that would lead him to where he had always wanted to be.
7 years ago I stumbled across a simple verse in Proverbs 17, I felt the nudge of Jesus' voice telling to "follow Him" someplace new and different and undefined at the moment. I said yes, despite the fact that I was coming into my own in my career, finally healing from my divorce, finally getting comfortable with the life I had built.
I said yes because I was so unhappy inside. I was successful, achieving, active in my church, faithful in the tithe and in personal time with Jesus every day. But there was something lacking and I had no idea what it was. Jesus didn't reveal it that morning either...He just asked me to follow Him. I said yes. I would come to find out...meant losing everything that had identified me up until that moment. With the exception of my fatherhood, everything I was and worked for was gone within 2 and a half years of that night. My career, my home, my possessions, even my pets. Gone. I questioned that decision a thousand times...more even.
Peter's saying "yes" began a journey and so did mine.
And now 7 1/2 years later I have experienced four years of homelessness, been utterly broken over and over. Been abandoned and forgotten by those I thought would be the most encouraging, but blessed and befriended by some who surprised me by their care and concern. I wrote three books and two blogs and graduated from college after 28 years.I started a carpentry business, two radio shows and a fledgling ministry to perhaps the most ignored and overlooked demographic in society...the divorced dad.
More than anything, I have seen God's vision for my life move from cloudy to clear...from pan to zoom. I know exactly what I am here to least for the immediate future...and it burns white-hot in my soul. Not being able to do it right now is hurting more than I can say. But having a vision is better than not.
This is why I jump on every bandwagon of any of my friends who launch out and try something. It's why I champion my friends' books and music and ministry ideas and dreams. Because these things are the core of who we are and without someone else believing in them too...they can die on the vine.
I know what it is to lose sleep because of an all-night writing frenzy. I know how long a work-day can be when your mind and your heart are someplace else altogether, doing something altogether different. I know what it feels like to question your own value, direction, and your own life.
That is why I'll support all my friends who dream. Because a lot of my dreams I dreamed alone and it is hard to keep a dream alive that way.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick. Getting behind someones dreams and visions makes you a hope-giver.
So be one.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Brothers, Sisters, and Going it Alone.

     Not going to make this a rant against churches or The Church. But there is one aspect of Christianity that has annoyed me for years now. Lately it's become a big stone in my shoe, so I thought I'd get it out today.
It's the practice of calling each other "Brother" or "Sister".
     Now, I am a cynic at times and sarcastic as well. I am always on the lookout for worn-out bumper sticker phrases that we keep reverting back to week after week in the Church. The "Brother / Sister" thing was not one I considered cliched or bumper sticker until recently.
     Let me give you my perspective first. I am the product of an unmarried union. My parents did not marry each other but went on to each get married years after I was born and they had other children with their spouses. As such, I'm sort of an anomaly and sort of on my own little familial island. I feel like I truly belong to neither group, (although more so to my father's family). I have a brother on my father's side that I've never met, and whom I really wish I could meet and get to know. I have a sister as well on my father's side. I have something of a relationship with her but it's awkward because our father desires no relationship with me and it creates an uncomfortableness that we both feel, but we try to work through. But it's hard to visit with your sister and brother in law and not talk about your dad.
     My sister and brother did not know about me until they were in their 30's. I didn't know about them...or my father...until I was 21. So it's a difficult situation.
     My mother also had other children. I have two brothers and a sister from her side. That situation was altogether different. We grew up together. I lived in the house with them. But there was never the bond or connection that other siblings felt. Even before finding out about my father and understanding why I was so different, we just never bonded. Part of that is how we were raised. The dysfunction was such that we were essentially trained to stay at each other's throats. The parental philosophy was "Keep the family busy fighting among themselves and you'll never be outnumbered." So my siblings and I grew into adulthood barely tolerating each other and certainly not liking each other.
     But that's not to say this was the way I wanted it or that I liked it. Far from the truth. I wished I could have had a relationship with my brothers. I tried in our adult years, reaching out to one of my brothers in particular, but we are very very different people and we just clash. And given that there was no real bond from childhood, there was no reason to try any further. We don't really like each other. Plain and simple.
     So a year or so ago I just gave up and resigned myself to the fact that of my 5 siblings, I was likely to only have a relationship with one sister and nothing more. It's sad to me because I am a family person. Family is everything and especially when the wheels have come off the wagon and your life is crashing down. Family is there when nobody else is.
     That's why I cringe when I here people calling me "Brother" in the Christian community. Because they toss the word around like it has no meaning to them. To me it means everything. I look to my church family as my family. Because I have none. When I call someone "brother" it's because I love them like my own flesh and blood and I would go to the well for them as often as they needed me to without reservation. I would give them my last dollar and share my only meal. If the car broke down at 2 am...they had better call me.
     More than that, they can be open with me. I want to help see their dreams come true and help them get where they are going. I want them to become whoever it is God has in mind for them to become. And so if someone is my brother, I will get behind their dreams and plans and the work God called them into with all my might. I'll knock on doors for them and talk them up and make sure that if their vision doesn't come to wasn't because of something I could have done but chose not to.
     I love them. I expect them to be open with me and tell me if they are hurting. They can cry in front of me. They can question and rant and vent. They can also be different. They don't have to do it my way or say what I say or like what I like. We may disagree on some things but if I see someone as my brother I will forgo that and focus on what it is I love about them.
     But the Church has hijacked this word and made it just a greeting of membership...the way people in lodges and clubs use it. "Greetings Brother Smith!" they might say. This recognizes the fact that they are both members of the Elks lodge or the Moose Lodge or the Union hall. It doesn't speak of a blood oath. It doesn't mean the kind of connection that comes from a bond that happens because you were born to the same father. That is how the Church originally defined brotherhood.
     Sadly, the church has long ago moved away from understanding the origin and meaning of this term. Now they simply use it because they've heard it used for so long. But seldom do they really consider what they are saying or why. Or what the person may expect once you call them "Brother" or "Sister". They don't understand that for some of us...the ones who have no family to speak of...this phrase means everything. Some of us take you seriously when you call us that and when we discover you don't mean breaks our hearts.
     A brother is proud of your accomplishments and encourages your endeavors. A brother walks with you through the darkest nights and never quits. Never. A brother never gets too far ahead of you and if he does, he waits for you to catch up and encourages you as you do. A brother knows your heart and know how the events of life have wounded you and what makes you happy as well. A brother doesn't need to be reminded to pray for you or to call you or email you or ask you to go grab a cup of coffee. A brother has insight into your heart because the same blood courses through his veins as courses through yours.
     And no way does this attitude show itself in most churches.
God called Himself the "Father to the Fatherless". He called His church to be the brother to the brotherless.
That special calling has been rendered meaningless. That's sad, because over the last five years I could really have used a brother.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The things Christ didn't suffer.

Colossians 1:24 "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for His body, that is, the church." (HCSB)

     Like most believers, I've read that verse a hundred times and hardly paid attention to what has become, for me at least, one of the most important little phrases in all the Bible. The phrase, "I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ's afflictions...".  I suppose that I simply glanced over that verse for so many years, never considering what it meant, how much it would, (and should) upset my apple cart had I paid attention to it sooner, and how much comfort it brings when life begins to bite back at our efforts to walk this world and pursue our dreams.
     Like most of us, I was taught that Christ suffered all things on the cross. That His death, being substitutionary, was a complete experience of all that was sinful and wrong with humanity. But this is not true.
Jesus death was substitutionary. There is no question about this. Jesus experienced every punishment for every sin and He bore the wrath of a Holy and Just God for the sins of humanity, on His body that dreadful Friday afternoon.
     But while Jesus experienced the wrath of sin and the punishment for sin, He did not experience all the various consequences of sin. Now, for the purpose of this article, I need to define that last statement a bit. There is almost always a distinction between punishment and consequence. Sometimes they are coexistent. But often times they are not. Pregnancy is not a punishment for illicit sex but it can sometimes be a consequence. Drunken wretchedness is not a punishment for alcoholic overindulgence, but it is a consequence of it. (Although wretchedness, it may be fairly stated, might be the cause of the drunkenness and alcoholism) Cancer is not a punishment for sin, but it is certainly a consequence of the sinful fall of man. (There was no cancer or disease of any kind in the Garden of Eden and there will be none in Heaven. This was not God's intention for us)
     So, while Jesus certainly experienced the punishment for all sin, there is much consequence, or affliction as Paul puts it here, that He never tasted. Jesus never married, so He never felt the sting of divorce. He never had a child so He never experienced the pain of a stillbirth or the knock on the door in the night and the news that a child is lost to a tragedy. He died at 33 years old, and while He experienced the death of his earthly father, Joseph, He never watched his mother disappear into senility. He never saw the crushing effects of old age as it bent her and made her life harder. 
     Jesus never lost a home to foreclosure or a business to an embezzling partner. Jesus never filed bankruptcy. Jesus never dealt with an unmarried pregnant daughter or a criminal son. Jesus...the man...never faced a mid-life crisis where He wondered if the first half of his life was meaningful and if the second half would be worth exploring. Jesus never wondered what his purpose was in this world.
     Jesus was 100% man and 100% God. It's a mystery that we struggle to grasp sometimes. But He was God in the flesh and as such, the only way that would work was if He willingly chose to limit the abilities of his deity to the restrictions of the flesh. This was done voluntarily, nobody took those powers from him. He walked among us, as one of us, for 33 1/2 years and He tasted so much of what the human experience was and is. But there were obviously many things He just never experienced first-person. Some of those I outlined above. 
     So when we read Colossians 1:24 in light of this limited experience of Jesus, it begins to make sense and it ceases to be the almost blasphemous heresy it looks like on the surface. I know that when I first read it and paid attention to it I was almost incensed. "Really Paul?" "Jesus was lacking in his afflictions?"
Once I grasped that Paul was talking about the man Jesus, and the human afflictions, not the Savior and his perfect sacrifice, I understood it. Then after understanding it, I received great joy from this verse. Let me explain.
     As I mentioned before, Jesus only lived on Earth 33 years. He never married. He never divorced. He never felt the soul-crushing bite of rejection by a spouse and the sorrow upon sorrow that comes with divorce. He never had children so He never missed them in the night. But I have.
     Jesus never lost a home and a business and a career and His life dreams. But I have. Jesus never felt the shame of financial ruin, or the fear and doubt of facing his Fiftieth year unsure of what lies ahead and with the enormity of fatherhood pressing on him to hurry and rediscover success. But I have.
     Jesus never felt those things Himself, but as He walks through them with me, as He hears my cries and weeps along with me and holds my hand in the darkness and whispers his name in my ear while I rage at him for seeming to abandon me, as He endures these afflictions with me, I fill up what was lacking in the afflictions He faced during his time on Earth. That is what Paul meant. So when I come across a man who is right now going through a divorce and I see the look in his eyes long before he ever tells me he is divorcing, I can tell him assuredly, "Jesus understands. He gets it and He will help you through it. He's been there."
When he asks me "What do you mean? When did Jesus go through a divorce? He never married." 
I can confidently tell him that Jesus went through mine with me. When Jesus brings comfort to his followers, when He shows up in the hospital room, keeping his promise to "Never leave you nor forsake you", when suddenly in the midst of a long dark night of the soul because your business is failing and you stand to lose it all and you have collapsed on your floor in anguish and all at once you sense another person there and an unseen arm on your shoulder and you know it is the very son of God...that is Jesus going through it with you. In that moment, when you accept the grace that He promised and lean on him simply for the strength to take another breath, you are filling up what was lacking in his afflictions.
     This is why Paul rejoiced in his sufferings. Because he knew that Jesus was there with him...somewhere, somehow...and that this suffering was needed because very soon now, Paul was going to meet another believer who needed to be encouraged, not in some abstract, "quote-a-Bible-verse-at-it" way but in a real, meaningful "look-you-in-the-eye-and-give-you-real-hope-because-I've-been-there" way.
     This is hard and very frequently it doesn't bring you comfort during your trials but rather after them. When enough time has passed and enough tears have been shed, and enough long sleepless nights have been spent in wrestling with a God you've often doubted and sometimes hated. But you've had just enough Faith to not give up and that got you through. Paul said that "His grace is sufficient for me..." (II Cor 12:9). Not overwhelming, not falling short. Sufficient. Sometimes sufficient is overflowing and sometimes it's barely enough to hang on. But it's never not enough.
     Take courage my friend. Don't give up even though I know you want to and it would probably be understandable if you did. You only see the value of your suffering after you've seen it yield fruit in the life of some other weary traveler. If you are in a desert, dig a well. Leave a gift behind for the next pilgrim. In doing so you make something of value come from something otherwise pointless and you fill up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions. Afflictions I am now convinced He left untouched himself so that we could have a part in his work here on Earth.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Hope and Hopelessness Together

     There is a mystery to this life. A confluence of two rivers that forms the truth about our lot here on Earth. And there seems to be two camps of people who view this mystery through two very different lenses.
The mystery is how hope and hopelessness can...and intertwined in the human experience. There is a brokenness and a suffering that marks our time and it makes us who and what we are. It is what Jesus came here to experience. It's what made Him weep.
     Paul told us that he had learned in whatever situation he found himself, to just be content. (Phil 4:12)
He doesn't teach about being overcoming and prosperous here on Earth. He states quite emphatically that some Christians will be masters and some slaves. Both are equal in the body of believers. He talked in several books about his thorn in the flesh...something that nagged at him all his life. It was most certainly not a physical malady. It was a heart issue.
     Yet today, we hear teachers telling us how we need to be "overcomers". The twisted sickness of the prosperity gospel has spread into a lot of churches who outwardly claim to reject that school of thought. They might not be straight-up "Name it Claim it" but they have succumbed to the insidious lie of quoting Bible verses at your problems, Christian "Jedi Mind tricks" and affirmations. It's sad and it's damaging the body in very palpable and dangerous ways.
     When the church at large begins to embrace a school of thought that says that we are supposed to be "positive thinkers" and we should "know what the Bible says" about the situation we find ourselves in and cling to it, to the denial of the pain we feel and the hurt in our hearts, we force people to hide their tears, cover their pain, and lie to themselves, to their fellow believers, and to God. Let me say here I totally believe in positive thinking. I adored Zig Ziglar and practice his style of this daily. But the Bible...and Zig...taught honesty amidst the positivity.
     Jesus never...not once...healed anyone who denied needing healing. He didn't come upon ten lepers and standing by the side of the road in silence. When He asked them "What would you have me to do for you?" not one of them responded with "What do you mean? We don't need anything, we're already healed in Your name!" When one of them spoke up and said "Heal us of our leprosy!" the other nine didn't silence him with rebukes about "Negative confessions" and say "I reject that in Jesus name". How utterly stupid would that have been?
     No...every person whom Jesus touched, first admitted they needed His touch. They were not in denial but rather openly admitted to the illness and the pain that went along with it. Their only mental attribute discussed in the Bible was faith. And most of the time it was pathetic and weak and barely enough to get through another day with the sickness that had them coming to Jesus in the first place.
     But today we see a terrible attitude of falsehood and phony-ness at work. We are being told to stop speaking about our pain. To deny what hurts and wounds us and to instead remember "Who we are in Christ" and to recite "The Truth of the word". Well...lets look at this. Who am I in Christ? I am a redeemed, forgiven man who is becoming a new creature. I am not entirely new yet. When Paul wrote "Anyone who is in Christ is a new creature, old things have passed away and all things become new"  (II Cor 5:17)
He used a form of "become" that was future perfect tense. A better translation would be to say "...all things are becoming new." It's a process that takes a lifetime.
     However, in the church today we see a dissatisfaction with the speed at which God is moving. And since we can't ever blame God, we attack our brothers and sisters for their pain, their illness, or their immaturity. In truth, it makes us...and our fellow church miserably uncomfortable to have anyone hurting around us at all, that we turn on those in pain because of the pain itself. We don't do it with a direct attack. No...that would be rude. We do it far more subtly and in a far more sinister fashion by preaching sermons on victorious overcoming but never on feeling the depths of our pain. We talk about finding comfort in the Word but we want to tear out the pages that talk of how just being a human guarantees us suffering and how Christianity does not guarantee victory over it in this lifetime.
     "It's all in your mind" they tell us, and yet it isn't. The pain came from someplace real and it hurts in a real fashion and to deny someone the needed and necessary process of doubt, fear, hurt, anger, sadness, even the depression that accompanies the times of trial and failure and pain, is to slap them in the face again and again. And it drives people from Christ...not to Him.
     In truth, I believe the Western church cares too much about looking good to it's own membership. Pain and brokenness and wounds and hurt don't fit in the nice, clean, successful, overcoming image we want to present to ourselves. Of course, we lie to cover this. We say that it's to attract the unsaved, because they need to see victorious living if we want to draw them to Jesus. We lie to ourselves that it doesn't hurt, or that the promise of Heaven makes it hurt less and we attach a spiritual maturity to feeling this way that sends the signal;  "If you really were a mature believer, you wouldn't be doubting and questioning, and hurting, and whining about your situation. Stop your bellyaching! You bother me, ye of little faith." In truth, the promise of Heaven comforts us to know our missing loved one is with Jesus...our ultimate goal...and that there is a promise of reunion. But let's be honest...that doesn't take away the hurt of missing them down here even one little bit. Anyone telling you differently is selling you something. Or lying to themselves.
     I grow weary of the practice of bad medicine in the church these days. People are hurting. Badly. The constant obsession with "being positive" at the expense of being honest is hurting them more. If the woman at the well were alive today, our pastors would silence her testimony about her multiple husbands and failed love life and her adulterous ways. They cringe if she ran through the streets saying "Hey! I just met this preacher who told me every terrible thing I ever did in my life and loved me anyway! I think he's the real deal!"  They'd preach a sermon where they carefully outline how and what you should and shouldn't include in your "testimony" so as to not offend the upper crust of culture who attend their assembly. If that didn't work, they'd pull her aside...outnumbered so as to intimidate...and they'd tell her in no uncertain terms to stifle it. If that failed, they'd ignore her, crush her vision, openly question her authenticity and break her spirit until she finally left their midst. But they sure wouldn't love her for the uniqueness of her life and her story.
     Somehow we have gotten so spiritually arrogant as to actually demand that we have the final edit on the narrative of the salvation of individuals. If Peter were around we'd redact all those ugly vulgarities he used when he denied Christ. If Jeremiah were alive today we'd tell him to watch his language. We would have sent Magdalene to a convent for a few years before permitting her to talk of her past.
     And forget those in pain. Forget the wounded soldiers who have seen death and it haunts their dreams. Forget the alcoholic who craves the bottle every second of every day...even in church...and who more than occasionally slips up and gives in. He can't speak of this weakness and faithless condition. Forget the Christian sister who wrestles each second with her sexuality and who didn't choose this and who burns with real passion...not just some twisted sickness as we want to prescribe...for someone she is told is "abominable" and she can't even talk about it openly and get the reinforcement and comfort she needs because that sin makes us sick. Forget the divorced dad who still cries sometimes, 13 years later, because I miss the time I've lost with my daughter.
     The truth is that hope and hopelessness live side by side in the same moment and in the same life. The glory of Christianity is not that we always overcome here in this life. It's that we will overcome one day in the next. Yes there are victories here. Yes there are miraculous changes and redemptions and transformations. But there are also colossal failures. There are runners limping to the finish line with barely enough energy to make it and with scars and wounds from falling down more than standing up. There are great saints and people of prayer who will go to their grave with alcohol on their breath, or with doubt about their value to God, or with great open grief about a loved one they miss. They miss this person even thought they have the knowledge and comfort that this person is alive in Heaven and they separation is temporary. It may be temporary, but it's the separation that hurts so badly...not the destination. I know I will see my grandmother again. But I miss her now. I wish my daughter could have met her. I know my grandfather came to Jesus and died in Christ and lives in eternity. But I was barely 19 and I wish I had him around a little longer. I miss Pop and I miss Collette and I wish they were still here. The pain is real and all the dulcid "Praise and Worship" songs in the world won't make it go away. The hope of the future does not assuage the hopelessness of the present. They live side-by-side and while the former makes the latter more does not remove it altogether.
     The danger of lying to ourselves is that we suppress the pain and hide the tears. We wrestle with God and when He pops our hip out of joint and changes us in the midst of that pain, we try to hide the limp. We deny it, we curse it, we hate it and we preach sermons against it. But what we should be doing is embracing it. Because it's the limp that draws attention to the wrestling match, and it's the story of the wrestling match that allows us to tell the story of grace. The story as it happened...not the cleaned-up, polished version. Because nobody will find my testimony attractive if I take out all the parts we have in common.
     I need to speak of my hopelessness if I'm going to proclaim His hope. Otherwise I really have nothing of value to offer.