A family friend passed away a few weeks ago. We went to his funeral recently, which was held at a traditional Lutheran church. It was a formal, pleasant, and moving ceremony. The organ played, a choir sang, the congregation and pastor did responsive readings, and the pastor preached about the deceased man’s hope in Christ. That evening we went to a Winter Jam concert featuring several famous Christian bands and artists. The music was so loud I could feel the thump, thump, thump, of drums and bass in my chest. Thousands of people attended, though it was predominantly a young audience. Fans danced, sang, swayed, stomped their feet, lifted their hands, prayed, took pictures with their mobile phones, and lit up the arena with thousands of lights from smartphone aps.
I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between the funeral services that morning and the concert that night. And yet both events provided followers of Christ a means to worship God. This raises the question: are some church format’s overly dry while others are uncomfortably glitzy? Absolutely! But I must admit I felt God move my heart in both venues that day. Solemn AND lively expressions of faith have tremendous poignancy when you see that coffin in front of the church altar. Solemn churches show us how to have reverence for the God who defeated death (the most serious subject of all) on our behalf. Lively church venues show us how to celebrate the God who defeated death on our behalf.
If you only experience God’s presence through one style, I encourage you to try new styles now and then. It will enrich your faith and expand your encounters with God. It will empower you to move between diverse expressions of faith without feeling dry or out of place. It will broaden your community of fellow believers. Warning: You may find yourself occasionally visiting a church with an unhealthy style. (If they break out a box of poisonous snakes during worship, well, LEAVE!) I believe the Holy Spirit warns us when we are in an unhealthy style of worship. But we have to be listening to the Spirit’s promptings. On the other hand, it is too easy to let our preferences stifle the Spirit’s attempts at touching our hearts. When we set limits on how we allow God to communicate, well, that’s extreme . . . extremely limiting and unfulfilling.
In autumn, the cottonwood trees in my neck of the woods drop their leaves. They aren’t especially pretty leaves in the fall, but they do have a pleasant fragrance: it is a faint smell like blackberries. Cottonwood trees grow fast, especially when they have access to an abundant source of water, such as my lawn’s sprinkler system. In the wild, they usually flourish along creeks and rivers. A few years back, I noticed that a cottonwood sapling had spring up in the corner of our front yard. I knew I should cut it down, but I liked the appearance of cottonwood trees and so I let it grow. Each passing year I looked at the tree and said to myself, I should cut that tree down before it becomes a problem. But procrastination always reared its ugly head.
Years later, I would get annoyed at the cottonwood tree for dispensing leaves and twigs on my front lawn. I already had enough ornamental trees shedding leaves on my lawn (not to mention the mysterious dog that periodically deposited a mountain, transforming my yard into a compost pile). But then spring and summer would roll around and I would find myself allured by the bright greenery and shade of the cottonwood tree.
Eventually I noticed the roots of the cottonwood tree were pushing through the surface of my lawn and seemed to be working their way towards the front steps and foundation of our house. The cottonwood tree was now over twenty inches wide at the base and many feet higher than the crown of our roof. It was time for the tree to come down. I could no longer favor the beauty of the tree over the threat it imposed on our dwelling. I cut it down last Saturday. What a mess! It took Cindy and me all day to get it down and reduced to manageable pieces.
Is there a spiritual lesson here about allowing unhealthy relationships, sins, or addictions into our lives? Sure! But what jumped out at me about the cottonwood tree was the response of a neighbor. As Cindy and I finished cutting up the tree, one of our neighbors approached and said, “Thank you for cutting down that tree. Each summer that tree shed thousands of those cotton-like seed puffs. That stuff would get all over the interior of my convertible.”
Wow! I had suspected some of my neighbors might not be thrilled with the tree, but I didn’t realize it was causing real headaches and extra work for other people. In other words, the tree was more than an eyesore. I think this is the lesson of the cottonwood tree: We often let unhealthy things enter our lives without realizing how those things affect other people, or we know but ignore it. I knew when I first spotted that cottonwood sapling that it would likely become a problem. But I was willing to endure the problem because I thought it would mostly affect me. I’m glad the threat of the cottonwood tree has been eliminated, but it is probably more important to God that I endeavor to be on good terms with my neighbors.
Deer season ended a couple weeks ago in northern California. Early in the season, I shot at a buck and missed. My marksman fail educated that buck. He will now grow up to be an old buck and will help multiply his species. I like to think of it as my ministry to educate deer in the name of conservation. Sure, some hunters with quick reflexes and keen eyesight can bag bucks. But if it were not for dedicated hunters like me, those guys would have no bucks to bag.
I’ve hunted with the same guys for decades. They don’t always appreciate my efforts at deer population management, but I love those guys nonetheless. One of the men I hunt with, Don, is eighty-seven years old. Don told us that this would be his last year hunting. Time marches on, as they say. While sitting at his breakfast table in the pre-dawn hours before a hunt, Don told me about some of his ailments. He concluded by saying, “I’m an old man.” (Heck, Don has been an old man for some time now.) Don then said, “I’m not ready to be old.” Those words haunt me. They remind me of 1 Peter 1:24 where it says:
“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
There is inevitability to our human life under the sun. We age. Youth, vigor, accomplishments, purpose . . . it all fades. Eventually it can feel as if there is not much to look forward to. We get to an age where we can no longer do the things we have always enjoyed. Many folks linger in that place of limbo for years before this life ends and the next begins. That place of limbo can be weary and discouraging.
Fortunately the last part of the verse above contains a beautiful, albeit mysterious, encouragement: “but the word of the Lord endures forever.” God’s word includes many truths about eternity and how He will take care of us. For instance, in John 14:1-4, Christ promises that he has gone to prepare a place for us. We really don’t know what God’s place for us in heaven will look like or what we will do there. But his eternal word strongly implies that we have something to look forward to, even if we are not ready for old age in this life. Whatever he is preparing for us, it will be good because He knows us better than anyone.
My medicine cabinet contains something shocking–medicine. Despite the fact that millions of Americans consume pharmaceuticals worth billions of dollars, we have developed a strange cultural tendency to decry the use of medication as somehow morally inferior. After a lifetime among fellow Christians, I can honestly say believers often share the same aversion to medicine. We might even be worse than the general population in our attitude about the use of medicine for healing.
Recently I listened to a Catholic priest being interviewed on the radio about the many confessions he had heard during his lengthy career. The priest said that a number of Christians he met for confession could not accept forgiveness because they had tethered their sins to clinical maladies. For instance, if John Smith has obsessive compulsive disorder that he believes is somehow connected to the sins in his life, it will be almost impossible for Smith to accept that he has been forgiven. Tragic! Even more shocking was the priest’s revelation that the vast majority of believers with a psychological disorder refused to pursue treatment. He said only 2 out of 20 would ever follow-up on his suggestion that they needed professional clinical help that might include counseling and/or medication. Many of these folks were convinced that their suffering was related to sin rather than something clinical. They refused to get the help they desperately needed. They resigned themselves to the belief that suffering was part of God’s plan for their lives and it was just their cross to bear. To this I say bull$&!#.
Back in my day (stop rolling your eyes, millennials), the medical profession was beginning to explode with new drugs and ways of treating diseases. Many of those diseases had formerly meant an automatic death sentence for people. We called them miracle drugs and we viewed doctors and surgeons with awe. These days I know people who argue with their doctor about almost everything. I am not suggesting that we idolize fallible medical professionals. And certainly the pharmaceutical companies have made grave (no pun intended) errors. But should we default to stigmatizing all medicines and their use?
In Luke 10:30-35, we read the story of the Good Samaritan. Recall that the Samaritan bandaged the victim’s wounds, pouring on oil and wine.
In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul tells some sick people in the church to stop drinking only water and start using a little wine for their stomach and frequent illnesses. Back then, wine was used like a medicine (today it seems to turn people into snobs). They didn’t have the water purification systems we have today. In essence, Paul was dispensing medical advice for their digestive health.
Here is my point: It is OK to take appropriate medicine for a legitimate injury or illness. We get no moral or heavenly kudos for going the natural route at the expense of our health. There is no glory in needless suffering. Of course it is best to eat right, exercise, and embrace healthy lifestyles. But using medicine does not make us worse Christians. At worst, denial about our ailments and refusing medicine can put us at risk of faulty thinking about sin, suffering, and forgiveness. God’s forgiveness does not require that we choose to suffer. Choosing to suffer needlessly is just obtuse, not noble.
What should I do if my Border Collie assures me that he will stop stealing bags of potato chips from the kitchen counter when I am out of the house . . . besides ask my doctor to adjust my medication? Should I blindly trust my innocent-looking quadruped? Sure, Border Collies have a reputation as an intelligent breed, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be shifty. In this case, blind faith in my canine friend’s self-control would probably lead to disappointment.
An article titled “Why Partisans Can’t Kick the Hypocrisy Habit,” by Alan Greenblatt, says:
“Although many people like to describe themselves as independent, partisanship has become an important aspect of identity. Some are more loyal to their partisan leanings than their own church, says University of Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell.”
Campbell’s statement about the unholy union between personal identity and partisan ideology is fascinating and disconcerting. By allowing partisanship to become too much a part of our identity we run the risk of being blind to truth. Such blind loyalty can also happen in the church. It used to be that many churchgoers were doggedly committed to their denomination. Some were committed to a particular denomination because multiple generations in their family had been members of the denomination. I’ve known Catholics who strongly identify with Catholicism because their parents and grandparents were Catholic. The same undaunted loyalty occurs in other denominations, as well. Sometimes the basis for the loyalty lies along justifiable criteria such as doctrine or statements of faith. Still, there is an interesting thing happening in the modern church: I see more and more people strongly identifying themselves with independent churches. Of course here is nothing inherently wrong with independent churches. Many of the current denominations were probably independent churches at one point. But many Christians can’t articulate WHY they identify so strongly with independent churches. The truth is there are positive and negative aspects of both independent and denominational churches. But I digress (apparently I’ve allowed ecclesiology to become part of my identity).
The point is that we have a potent, and not always healthy, tendency to let church become part of our identity. I know steadfast Christians who continue to attend ailing churches because those churches are members of their preferred denomination. If they switched to another denomination it would be akin to tearing out part of their personality. A good many Christians attend churches because they strongly identify with the city or neighborhood in which their church is embedded; this is usually a good thing, but not always as we can become shortsighted. But my question is this: At what point does our commitment to a church become blind faith?
Don’t get me wrong, most of the time commitment is a good thing, especially given the church hopping that goes on these days (guilty). But it seems wise to always retain at least a small measure of skepticism when it comes to the church structures and styles we hold dear. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming the dreaded “H” word–Hypocrites. How so? Answer: If we allow too much of our identity to become connected to our local church or denomination we run the risk of blinding ourselves to institutional fails and the flip flopping of our values. After all, church leaders come and go. Styles change. Doctrines and statements of faith can be subject to the whims of new leaders.
Here’s an example from the world of politics. I recall how multitudes of political progressives were vehemently antiwar during the Bush administration. Many of those same progressive partisans are now silent or openly supportive when President Obama gives orders to take military actions. On the other hand, many political conservatives (formerly hawkish) sound almost like antiwar protesters now that President Obama is giving the orders. If we are not on guard, this type of blind faith leading to the compromise of our values can also occur in the church. Don’t be blind. Connecting our identity to Christ is a safer way. Christ doesn’t change.
Kate Shellnutt wrote an article titled “This is Your Brain on Google” for Christianity Today in which she said: “We instinctually ask our laptops and smartphones to tell us and teach us, things we once relied on other people to do.”
A couple weeks ago I was at a friend’s house after a hunting trip. He’s 87-years-old. My elderly friend noticed that the tie-downs on my all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and trailer were in precarious positions (in other words, the tie-downs had been attached by me) creating pressure points that could fray and break. He had me pull the trailer around back to his shop where we drilled some holes in the steel frame and installed hooks for the tie-downs. This made the trailer safer to carry my ATV. Even though I knew how to drill and install hooks, I listened patiently as he walked me through the project step by step. You never know, you can learn something new even when you think you know a process inside out. I learned it is better to use a bigger eye bolt than you might need for the job at hand because you never know what you will want to haul in the future.
Anyhow, my friend was able to show me a problem and help me fix it BEFORE it actually became a problem. I don’t think Google or Youtube can do that . . . yet. But more importantly, I felt a sense of appreciation for my friend’s willingness to assist me. I thanked him with a grateful heart. He in turn felt good that his expertise was needed by someone else. This was one of those relational exchanges we applaud in the church.
Lets’ beware that we do not allow technology to replace too much of the relational element in our lives. I am not suggesting Christians become Luddites. That would be lewd (I crack me up). Technology is cool and it can, if used wisely, improve the way we live and relate. But we, the church, must love persons more than our technology. Technology provides a tempting mechanism that enables us to avoid letting people see too much of our true selves. Ironically, it is our true selves that God prefers to deal with in our relationship with Him.
I could have gone to Youtube to learn “how to” install trailer tie-down hooks. It might have taught me the functional procedures I needed to know, but it would have felt . . . impersonal. Youtube can’t fertilize my relationship with the instructor in the video, unless I post a thank you comment. Even then he might never read it. Besides, relationships are a two-way deal full of nuance that doesn’t always transfer through technology.
My wife, Cindy, recently returned from a Christian women’s retreat and I’ve been reaping the benefits ever since. I highly recommend a women’s retreat for all husbands . . . well, not for all husbands. If you are at least a C+ husband like me, you won’t regret packing your wife off to a women’s retreat, especially if the theme of the retreat is about marriage. Why? Allow me to elaborate. After more than 25 years of marriage, I still have a few faults as a husband (Cindy can’t fix everything). Some of my faults include, but are not limited to: failing to put a new roll of toilet paper on the empty roller (my philosophy is why bother when you’re just going to use up the replacement roll in a couple of days), neglecting to hang up my shirts after washing, leaving streaks of almond butter on my knife before placing it in the sink, failing to transfer the knife (and all other dirty dishes and utensils) from the sink to the dishwasher, failing to squeegee the glass walls of the shower stall after defiling the shower with my inglorious naked presence, failing to . . . well, you get the idea.
Why was Cindy’s retreat with hundreds of Christian women good for ME? Because ever since she returned, she kisses me more often, hugs me longer, and refrains from mentioning my shortcomings listed in the previous paragraph. I have a clever theory why this is happening. Over the years, Cindy has attended several women’s retreats where I believe she heard occasional stories from other women about the nefarious deeds of their husbands. After hearing such stories, Cindy finally had an epiphany that her C+ husband is actually an A – husband when graded on a curve. Walla! I benefit from lowered expectations. Hey, I’ll take a victory any way I can get it.
Sure, wives have plenty of problems they bring to the table of marriage (I occasionally hear about them at men’s retreats). Fortunately, most Christian husbands are not married to a train wreck, though we regretfully tend to take our wives for granted.
Finally, a word of caution for men is appropriate here. If you are not at least a C+ husband, don’t encourage your wife to attend a Christian women’s retreat unless you are OK with God stepping in to fix problems in your marriage, which can often mean fixing YOU. I’m just saying.
What does it mean if you like Mumford & Sons, you drink fair trade coffee, you sleep on organic sheets, and you sip Pabst beer (gag!) after work? It means you are a hipster. What’s a hipster? Have lunch on any Sunday at Tacolicious in the Marina/Cow Hollow district of San Francisco and you’ll see plenty of young hipsters hanging out . . . most of them trying to carry on a conversation while simultaneously glued to their smart phones.
Recently, my family took me to lunch at Tacolicious (which was a bit like taking a carnie to the symphony). Afterward, I started wondering if the church has overly targeted hipsters for membership. How so? Most of the modern churches I’ve attended lately have carefully crafted an ambiance conducive to the hipster lifestyle. Sanctuaries look more like concert venues, some even equipped with hip coffee shops in the foyer (do they still call them foyers?). Worship teams are often tattooed young adults in trendy attire. Last Sunday the piano player on our church worship team was wearing a T-shirt that said, “The Devil is a pimp . . . don’t be his ho.’” (Not quite the Apostles’ Creed, but clever nonetheless.)
Sure, there are many young adults who do not aspire to the hipster style and yet manage to live in peace among them (think the Robertson’s of Duck Dynasty). But is it wise for the church to focus so much on one segment of society? Shouldn’t the church (meaning the congregation) be flexible enough to make interesting connections with all manner of folk, even folk who don’t fit the hipster lifestyle, folk who might say or do things that don’t always align with churchy manners and customs? Yes! And not just because it is the right thing to do, but because everyone is blessed when this happens. It allows people the freedom to feel comfortable being themselves, even in church. It is not primarily the ambiance of the church nor the attire of the congregation that creates an inclusive culture. It is up to the people to create a culture that’s appealing to a variety of people. If the church wants to focus on attracting mostly hipsters, pastors had better work on paring down their sermons to 140 characters. (Just kidding . . . sort of). Now if only I could find a church for the uncouth, there I might fit in.
“Don’t tell me what to do. You’re not my boss. Mind your own business, buster (or a more magical expletive).” Such words betray the uncorrectable attitude of many among us. Recently, my wife was in her car approaching an intersection. A woman stopped in front of her when there was no reason to stop. Who knows why the woman thought it necessary to stop her car; she had a clear route and the right of way. (Perhaps she was receiving an urgent text from her auto insurance company offering a safe driver discount.) Nevertheless, my wife tapped her horn to encourage the woman to proceed. The woman’s reaction was over the top. She immediately started cursing at my wife and calling her obscene names while also swerving towards her car to frighten her. The whole brouhaha occurred with two small children in the back of the woman’s car. “Nice! Classy! Papa would be proud,” I thought after my wife briefed me about the incident.
Some people seem incapable of receiving the slightest correction. I don’t know if they feel overly judged or if they grew up with parents who did nothing but criticize. Some peoples’ lives are a train wreck and this fact will spill out at the slightest provocation, such as when another driver taps their horn to get them moving. This also applies in face-to-face communication.
But Proverbs 15:1 talks about how a gentle answer turns away wrath. Note that the verse does not implore us to always remain silent. This means our TONE has a lot to do with how our words are received. We often get in such a hurry to communicate that we forget about the importance of tone.
In this age of email, texts, and tweets we may be losing some of our ability to hear the tone in our own voice. This is one reason why physical human interaction is so important to maintain the health of our communication. Will a gentle answer ALWAYS calm the other person’s wrath? No, buy it will deescalate most angry encounters. May God help us use the proper tone when communicating with one another.
Speaking of yet another reason to be bitter an angry, I recently read an article in a major Christian magazine about young adults and older adults spending more time together in order to bring about healing between generations. Definitely a worthwhile endeavor, though I found myself rankled by one millennial’s assertion that she desired more transparency and authentic authenticity (not a clerical error) from us legacy Christians. Don’t get me wrong, I see much of the posing in the modern church. I’ve done some posing myself, and not for the camera. I also see it among, gasp, millennials. Posing is akin to pride and all humans struggle with it to some degree. Bot for the sake of crossing the generational divide, I will share some very authentic doubts and observations about hypocrisy that occasionally pop up in this boomer’s muddled mind.
Yes, once in a while I have doubts. Not just doubts about doctrine and interpretation of Scriptures. I have random BIG doubts, such as: what if Christ was just a man and there is no God. What if the universe is indifferent to humanity? What if the Bible was written merely from the fertile imaginations of men and, at best, is full of creative allegory? These doubts usually come upon me when reading National Geographic. You know what I mean; those articles that say the universe was formed billions and billions of years ago. Staring at those pictures from the Mars rover Curiosity showing the dry lifeless surface of planet Mars makes me feel small, alone, and incapable of comprehending the unfathomable distance in space. Such musings make me wonder if we are merely a cruel accident of chance and once we die the switch goes off and the lights go out. In other words, what if our lives have no meaning or purpose? Fortunately, hindsight helps me see the hand of God on my life and reminds me that he is real.
Need more authenticity? Why do we put so much feeling and effort into our prayers even when they feel flat and seem to go no further than the ceiling? Why do modern Christians focus more on some sins while ignoring others? Why do some congregations and clergy present a public image of caring when behind the scenes they remain unconcerned about people they wound? Why do we speak so glowingly about loving God when, at times, loving God can feel like trying to love thin air? For instance, if I tell my wife I love her, she usually smiles or gives me a hug. But if I tell God that I love him, my physical senses and my spirit do not always feel a response.
Why do many American Christians put on a front of having it all together when the truth is their life and relationships are a train wreck? Many Christian couples put forth the appearance that their marriage is healthy and good, but then one day word leaks that they are getting divorced and he has moved in with their former babysitter.
Why do we spend so much time and effort keeping up appearances? The answers are complicated. Nevertheless, I will venture one possible explanation. Do you remember when Adam and Eve screwed up in the Garden? Afterwards, one of the first things they did was to make clothes to cover their nakedness. Being completely authentic is a bit like being naked in public. Shame makes us want to cover up. We also do not feel safe when exposed. Ever since the Garden, humans have been trying to cover up. Metaphorically, the fig leafs and animal skins used by Adam and Eve have expanded to include personality and character adjustments that we cleverly create as a mask to cover our sins and flaws. We live in denial as to how we appear before God. We are always naked before God. There is nothing hidden from his eye. But we can at least hide our nakedness, wounds, sins, and flaws from each other . . . or so we think. We want to hide the ugly truth from the eyes of others.
Millennials who cry for more authenticity have a valid point. But a word of caution is appropriate: the depth of our imperfections and sins can run so deep that it can take God a lifetime to peel back our fig leafs and masks to reveal the truth that leads to healing and freedom. If God did it all at once, it might overwhelm and ruin us. That’s why we need to offer grace to each other . . . a lot of grace. Millennials might not know it, but I’d wager most of them are even now making masks and crafting fig leafs to cover the nakedness of their own flaws. And when my grandson is a young adult, he will probably call for millennials to be more . . . authentic.