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Archive for October, 2014

Skeletons in my Closet 

Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

Ezekiel 18:30b-32

When my daughter was young, I enjoyed hiding in her room as she got ready for bed. While she was in the bathroom, I would go into her closet, turn off the light, close the door, and wait. I never jumped out to scare her, however; it was much more fun to sit quietly and wait for her to muster the courage to open the door to see if I was there. For me, it was a fun daddy-daughter moment I enjoyed immensely. In retrospect, she probably enjoyed the game much less than I did, and my nighttime ritual is probably one of the many fatherly faults that will haunt me on Judgment Day.

In truth, I have a closet full of scary things. It is not a typical closet, for there are no piles of clothes, monsters, or dust bunnies lurking behind its closed door. The skeletons residing in the deep, dark recesses of my consciousness are demons of my own making – hurtful decisions, selfish actions, and cruel words I have uttered over the course of my life. I would like to say the many piles of bones residing therein are old and dusty, but they are not. I add to the pile with discouraging regularity. Whenever I do or say something I know is beneath the expectation for a child of God, I throw it into my private closet and slam the door shut, hoping no one else notices. Perhaps it is an affront to my fragile ego to admit that I am less than perfect, or that I might be the cause of another person’s pain. Of course, such disappointment is a weakness I share with the rest of humanity.

Halloween is the time of year when we pull skeletons and other scary things out of storage and put them on display. Somehow, when that which scares us is brought into the light – such as when my daughter opened the door and turned on her closet light – things are not nearly so frightening. My faith tells me God will forgive me of my skeletons – every one of them. However, I must first let them go. I need to bring them out, own and acknowledge them, and turn them over to God. That is repentance, and God relieves us of the burdens we repent. No one, including God, can forgive that which we will not release.

Come home to church this Sunday. Leave the skeletons in your closet at the cross.

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Third Things 

All this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all… Ecclesiastes 9:1-2

A typical western way to handle a problem is to face it head-on. Identify where the issue is and tackle it. Find out who is at fault and confront them. Discover the failing part and replace it. Seek out the weakest link and get rid of it. We are instructed to have courage in facing problems, and courage is born of and manifests in action. The proactive Golden Rule of the day is to do unto others before they do unto you – or so it sometimes seems.

Certainly, there are times when it is best to confront an issue directly and immediately – when a young child is running toward a busy intersection, for example. There are other times – arguably, the majority of the time – when a problem is not nearly as urgent as our emotions make us believe. Sometimes, a direct confrontation does more harm than good. Confrontation usually results in defensiveness, and when one or more people become defensive, effective problem solving becomes harder. For males, in particular, face-to-face confrontations are especially threatening. One technique to help minimize the threat is to initiate the discussion while driving in a car, for example, when both persons are facing forward and not at each other.

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer discusses utilizing third things as a way to arrive at difficult truths. He writes, “If soul truth is to be spoken and heard, it must be approached ‘on the slant.’ Soul truth is so powerful that we must allow ourselves to approach it, and it to approach us, indirectly.” While Palmer is writing primarily about drawing out truth internally, the principle is equally true in interpersonal interaction. Sometimes we are better off to seek our peace with another on the slant, or indirectly.

Utilizing third things in potentially emotionally charged situations is a strategic way to utilize a neutral thing or environment to help arrive at a mutually beneficial solution. Most of us learn best when we discover truth on our own, as opposed to being told. By using third things, you and I may both find our own truths, although my truth may manifest differently than yours, even when it reveals itself from the same source. None of us has the right to name another person’s truth; but none of us who loves another will deprive them of finding their truth in ways most effective for them.

The use of power and authority is common in confrontation, but these are not necessarily the most effective tools to influence another, particularly when the desire is for a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. Gentler and less threatening ways to handle difficult issues are often found in third things – deflecting attention or blame away from individuals and creating an environment where creative solutions can arise. If, as the writer of Ecclesiastes hints, everything we confront is vanity, then how we handle our confrontations is of equal or greater importance than the actual solutions we generate.

Come home to church this Sunday. You may find God in the third things of worship.

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The You God Sees 

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Psalm 139:13-14a

What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them only a little lower than the angels. Hebrews 2:6b-7a

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Genesis 1:26a

mirrorOne of today’s great tragedies is the lack of an accurate and reliable self-image. The increasing numbers of human beings who are uncertain about their standing as a family member, co-worker, life-partner, friend, and – most heart breaking of all – as a child of God, is troubling. Poor self-esteem, along with a self-image that rises and falls as far and as fast as a roller coaster, is at the root of many of today’s problems. We do violence to others and ourselves when we do not honor and acknowledge our inherent worth.

The problems of poor self-image are most pervasive in women – especially with teenage girls – but both genders and all ages fall prey to unrealistic, societal expectations. In a recent TED Talk (www.ted.com), Meaghan Ramsey discusses why thinking you are ugly is bad for you. She explains that about 10,000 people per month Google the phrase, “Am I ugly?” It is truly heart breaking, and she mentions research indicating that uncertainty about one’s image negatively affects test scores, initiative, and relationships. How have we descended into such an uncertain and inaccurate identity crisis?

The Bible is very clear about our image: fearfully and wonderfully made; a little lower than the angels; made in the image of God. Unfortunately, the voice of Scripture cannot easily drown out the unrelenting images on television, the constant pressures of social media, or the intense scrutiny of a typical schoolyard. The Information Age brings much that is good for society, but it also peppers us with a constant barrage of misinformation about how we should look, act, speak, and perform. We never know who actually sets those unrealistic standards, but we do know – most of us, anyway – that they are unattainable, unsustainable, and unhealthy. Still, we persist in our belief that we must mimic these airbrushed, carefully scripted, heavily edited, and overly sexualized images in order to be successful, to be loved, or to be worthy. Ms. Ramsey tells the story of a teenage girl who recorded and posted a video, asking, “Am I pretty?”  Predictably, she received thousands of replies, many of which were vulgar, hurtful, and blatantly untrue.

How can we stop looking to social media, television, and movies for validation of our self-worth and begin looking to those who love us most, including God? A solid church is a good place to begin. Supportive youth gatherings, covenant fellowship, and support groups help us understand that we are not the only ones who struggle with seeming imperfection. Retaining a healthy outlook about our appearance has everything to do with whose standards we use to judge ourselves. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Who answers that question for you?

Come home to church this Sunday. Celebrate the miracle God created in you!

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Handling Rattlesnakes 

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. 1 Corinthians 6:1a

Once upon a time, a man climbed to the top of a tall mountain. As he was admiring the view in the cold, thin air, he noticed a rattlesnake shivering at his feet. The snake said, “Please, sir, carry me back down the mountain with you. I am cold-blooded and cannot move to go down myself. I will die if you leave me here.” The man replied, “You are a rattlesnake. If I touch you, you will bite me and I will die.” The rattlesnake responded, “No, I will be grateful to you for saving my life, and I will not bite you. When we get to the bottom, I will go away in peace.” The man thought about it for a time, reached down for the snake, placed it inside his jacket, and started down the mountain. Upon arriving at the bottom, he reached inside his coat for the snake, and the snake bit him. Through his pain the man cried out, “You promised you would not bite me! I saved your life, so now you take mine?” The snake replied as it slithered away, “Well, you knew I was a rattlesnake when you picked me up.”

Snake handling, as a demonstration of faith, dates back for centuries. In February of this year, Pentecostal pastor Jamie Coots, died of – you guessed it – a bite from a rattlesnake he was handling as part of a worship service. It is one thing to believe God will be with us as we go through our lives, but it is an entirely different matter to believe God will protect us from all of our precarious choices. I have no doubt God has my spirit safely in hand; but I am somewhat less assured of God’s protection over my earthly body – particularly when I use my God-given free will to take perilous chances.

Obviously, everyone makes bad decisions at times. We all have different levels of risk tolerance, and most of us engage in a number of activities that may have negative consequences. Heck, getting out of bed in the morning has some risk – as does staying in bed. We weigh our risk-tolerance against our need for a new experience, or a familiar experience, or to attempt to avoid an undesirable experience. In fact, we all have rattlesnakes of some sort we choose to live with – risky hobbies, abusive relationships, substance abuse, driving too fast. Sometimes we believe we have no better options, and that is where our lack of faith plays a key role. We grab whatever our familiar rattlesnake is and hold on for fear of the alternative, knowing the snake we hold can kill us.

The fact is that we always have options. We can exercise our free will in many different ways and with many different levels of risk. The apostle Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, noted that all things were permissible for him – meaning nothing he did would separate him from God – but not all things were beneficial to him. In a similar way, when Jesus was tempted by the devil, as recorded in Matthew 4, he was told to throw himself off a cliff because God would surely save him. Jesus’ response was that we are not to put our God to tests like that. If it was true for Jesus, how much more true is it for us today? We are to live our lives in a joyful balance between adventure and common sense. I do not believe God intends our final words on earth to be, “Watch this!”

Come home to church this Sunday. It may help keep the snakes at bay…

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The Trouble with Church 

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.” Revelation 3:1

I have issues with the church – not only the church I am a member of, but other individual churches, as well as with the church as a whole. Granted, if the church is the body of Christ on earth, it has a high standard to attain. Regardless, I find how far and how often the church falls short of its reason for existence troubling. Some churches have charismatic preachers, with congregations who attend more to be entertained by the delivery of the sermon than to be enlightened by the content of the message. Churches are always asking for money, but many churches divert so much money to facilities and staff they have little left over for missions. Some churches are not welcoming of newcomers, and others offer few opportunities for individuals to become a part of small groups for study and fellowship. I know of churches that routinely allow their children and youth to be loud and disrespectful. Like more than a few other charities, some churches seem to focus more on their own survival than on their stated purpose for existing.

Yes, I have serious issues with today’s church. I have concluded that the trouble with the church – both individually and collectively – is that it does not always serve as I believe it should. I want my church to be informative, engaging, and spiritually enlightening. I want to hear sermons that confirm my understanding of God and the world, and I want to hear the types of music I most enjoy – and I want the songs done well. I have passed along a number of great ideas to the pastor and others, only a handful of which have ever been implemented. I want to be involved in my church, but on my own terms; so I want to help with activities that are fun and that fit my schedule and that are done with people I enjoy. The trouble with church is just that: me, and what I want.

Obviously, the church does not exist solely for my purposes, so I should expect there will be times it leaves me feeling irritated, unappreciated, and even angry. Church often frustrates my desires – which is exactly the point! The church does not exist for me, except to draw me closer to God. The church is a community of believers seeking to do God’s will in community. If my life were perfectly in tune with the will of God, there would be no personal need for church or spiritual disciplines. Therefore, there is tension between what I want, what I need, and what the church provides and requires of me.

My wife and I were married in the church. Many of our closest friends are members of our church. It is our church family that reaches out to us in our times of greatest need with help and support. It is in church we have said our final goodbyes to loved ones. Our church sheltered and nourished our children. The church is not about me, but about us. I guess the trouble with church is not about the church at all, it is the trouble with me…

Come home to church this Sunday. Without you, it is only ch rch.

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