Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Waxing and Waning

National Public Radio aired a story about a minister who decided to try atheism after being kicked out of his church for struggling with his faith openly. I shared the article with friends while invoking the spirit of Chris Rock: I ain’t saying it’s right, but I understand.

One friend chided me saying he was “not sure how you can put on and take off your faith like a pair of shoes. It’s not about the ‘church’ it’s about the relationship with the Creator.” We cannot have a relationship with the creator without relating rightly to the creation and its inhabitants.

Humans have been struggling with their strained relationship with the divine since the beginning. Prophets hid, absconded, and cursed the day God called them. This confirms my call because I have done all three. After quitting my job, moving to a strange city, assuming massive student loans, and coming home without ordination papers from being blackballed in the church, I was through with my heavenly Father.

Another friend responded “God is still with him while he is ‘trying out’ atheism.” That is absolutely correct. Our response to an existential crisis does not change the character of God. Psalm 139 says:
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee (v. 7-12).
Try as we might, there is no hiding from God’s presence. As the old spiritual goes. “There’s No Hiding Place Down There.”

God will show up and reveal Himself to be accountable for our plights for His sake. None of our questions, confrontations, or challenges intimidates Him. The psalmist continues:
For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee (v. 13-18).
Who can withstand a direct encounter with the Lord unchanged?

The cost of discipleship is high, psychologically and otherwise. It is intensified given that we forsake that which we can see for that we cannot see.
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26-27).
Kierkegaard said it best: It takes a purely human courage to renounce the whole temporal realm in order to gain eternity.

Religious organizations seem like such a godless place sometimes and the faith walk can be quite lonely. However, restoration is not beyond the reach of God. The problem is most churches do not equip members for the time of trial or respect the process itself. More people fall away from the false certainty of religious doctrine than from the overwhelmingly otherness of our unsearchable God. Sounds like the minister in question was punished for wrestling with his faith openly, which is neither forbidden nor unique.

Jesus’ first cousin, John the Baptizer, jumped with joy in the womb whenever their mothers came together during pregnancy. Yet, while he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel and awaiting execution, he sent a message to Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). If someone so intimately acquainted with our Savior experienced such angst, how much more will it be for those of us far removed from his presence?
Jesus responded to the gathered crowds:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces!” (Matthew 11:7b-8).
And so it is with discipleship. Every day will not be Sunday. At times, God will seem nowhere to be found in our circumstances. John was beheaded. He could have sold out his calling for a cozy perch. By remaining true to Jesus, he gained something greater than this world could ever offer. Nonetheless, he did not have sight of his reward while being tortured, humiliated, and rebuked.

The few times God shows up and shows out on our account with help us to withstand our personal 
storms. We can keep the faith because our plight pales in comparison saints of old. We are not losing our lives literally to exercise faith. The early church was deprived of property, persecuted, and executed for merely believing. Our struggle is mostly metaphorical, but still crisis-inducing. I’m clinging for dear life as I write this. Like John, the thief on the cross, and a great cloud of witnesses, we each can be great in the Kingdom now and forever. But first we have to kiss and make up with God.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

All the Wrong Places

There is an old country song whose refrain repeats the line “looking for love in all the wrong places, looking for love in all the wrong faces.” That seems to be the story of my life personally and spiritually. We can leave my love life out of this for now. But the place where I, and like-minded individuals, have a reasonable expectation that we would find love is often the last place we encounter it.

When I think about how going to church has made me feel, loved is one of the last words to come to mind. My early years were spent crashing the party, so to speak. Bourgeois families came from around the DC metropolitan area to gather in the edifice where parents in my neighborhood sent their children for a few hours of free childcare. Not only were we not under the watchful eyes of our mothers and fathers, we were free from decorum and theological commitments.

Much to the chagrin of our Sunday School teachers, we came more often than we did not. It did not take long for hostilities and rivalries to arise. By the grace of God, some of my peers there are among my most cherished friends today and the teachers are too senile to recollect the ruckus when they see me.

Several churches later, I can say I still have not found that deep, benevolent, abiding love that characterizes God. It’s not an unreasonable expectation to find love in God’s house. I John 4:7 says:   Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.  
This begs the question of whether most church people really know God or just like dropping His name. Faking it is easy and often expedient to fill the pews and separate you from your money. The following verse presents the converse: He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love (I John 4:8). It’s as simple as that. Jesus said himself: So then, you will know them by their fruits (Mark 7:20).

My absolutely most disastrous romantic relationship was at the hands of a lying, cheating, psychotic minister.  One of my female seminary classmates rebuked me upon hearing the story. “You know we’re not supposed to date them!” she exclaimed. I knew such to be true, but was in a weak place at the time. If you can’t trust your heart with a so-called servant of the Lord, them with whom can you? Like the Jews and the Holocaust, I invoked the mantra “Never Again.” Church is many a player’s playground.

Ironically, I have experienced some of the most loving encounters with strangers and those who are not outwardly religious. That is not unlike Jesus’ experience with the religious establishment of his day. The Samaritan woman at the well, who was victimized and marginalized, was very receptive and accommodating to him. By no coincidence, she became a great evangelist—even ahead of the twelve disciples.

In the same manner, I have experienced prolonged periods of unemployment while my fellow believers peered voyeuristicly without offering so much as a sandwich. No hard feelings because God always provides. I have also heard stories of church members departing after not receiving more than perfunctory niceties following the loss of a family member. Even in my challenges with pursuing ministry, church folks could not care any less. Meanwhile, my friends whose church attendance is as spotty as mine remain the ones who breathe new life in me to pursue God.

It’s a good thing that God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. He knows what we need, has ordered the universe to manifest His will, and is fully-capable to deliver. When the white-washed tombs fail, angels in disguise appear. Go into the world and plant your altar. Your sacrifices will not be in vain and may be better-placed than in the halls sanctuaries of indulgence and indifference. Just when you stop looking, love appears.

One of the members of my most recent church tried to chastise me for leaving by saying my salvation was in One of the members of my most recent church tried to chastise me for leaving by saying my salvation was in jeopardy. I looked at him incredulously and replied “I was saved before I joined here. As a matter of fact, there is more of God’s outside of sanctuaries everywhere than inside them.” Upon further reflection, the odds of finding love outside the church are not bad at all. If no building can hold God, then why do we spend more time looking for him there than in the world? The answer is why we often come up short.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

March Madness

This month precedes another high holy season when we celebrate the victorious resurrection of our Lord and savior. I’m not referencing Lent, but rather the NCAA tournament when millions of fans try to predict with random accuracy which men’s college basketball team will advance and be crowned champion from a crowded field of contenders. 

An incredible amount of risk is required to forecast which underdog will upset a top seed. One would have to be crazy to think a team like Duke can be upset in the first round by an unranked WhointheHellAreTheyAnyway University that was doing well just to be invited to the big dance. Yet, it happens (and it hurts).

Top seeded teams are targets for perennial giant-killers.  Only devoted alums of the underdogs or fervent haters of the favored can complete their bracket with a straight face and make the right calls with aplomb.

Such it is with faith. Who invests all their personal stock in the redeemer of the world being born of a virgin and rising from the dead over 2,000 years ago? For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (I Corinthians 1:18). There is nothing rational about the gospel, but its power is all that keeps some among us going strong.

Objective observations fly in the face of historical speculation in the same way top-ranked teams defy those with little hope of advancing in the tournament to fight for a win. Even those claiming to believe waver in the face of adversity. … you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6b).

The ante was increased for this year’s tournament as Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, offered a billion-dollar prize to anyone who completed a perfect bracket in advance. Upset after upset resulted in no perfect brackets remaining after only a couple rounds of play.  Only a lunatic, computer, or Godself could have foretold the winners with perfect accuracy. However, perfectly sane contestants were making detailed plans for spending their expected windfall.

In the same manner, theological pre-commitments prevent many from getting this faith thing right. Either we become arrogant in our individual position and those of the institutions to which we belong or we sink into despair when things do not go our way.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
    and hide your face from me?
 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
    I have borne your terrors and am in despair (Psalm 88:14-15).

God never promised every day would be Sunday. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). Even believers are subject to the effects of the human condition. Yet, we have victory in Him. Evidence of it is not readily seen. However, the power of the Holy Spirit working within and around us confirms that we are not just mad.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
For by it the elders obtained a good report (Hebrews 11:1-2).

Faith is what separates with winners from the losers. Mercer believed they could beat Duke, but faith in themselves only got them to the next round where they were defeated. 

Grasp sufficient absurdity to withstand your time of trial. (B)ut the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13). God never fails and God’s promises are true.