Archive for the ‘Christianity’ category

Religious Suspicionists

February 26, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       February 26, 2017

                                     

A tragic event happened this past week that traumatized a local high school. A student took his life. Teen suicide has happened way to often in recent times. For the high school effected it was their sixth student suicide in the past year or so.

Half of the suicide victims at this high school had been involved in some way with the Young Life club of their campus. The local newspaper had a headline article featuring that point. A couple of the people that were interviewed more than hinted that there might be a connection between students killing themselves and what they were experiencing at Young Life.

When suicides happen, especially amongst adolescents, people search for answers…they long for understanding. Like common threads in a TV police detective episode, they look for connections between the victims. Young Life was a common thread half of the time. That led to comments by those being interviewed that perhaps the theology…the belief system of Young Life had been a contributing factor in the deaths.

A tragic situation followed by tragic assumptions. Religions, not just Christianity, are viewed with more and more suspicion these days. There are radical Muslims, radical Jews, and radical Christians…and a growing number of people can not differentiate between the radicals and those of us who see our spiritual faith as a motivator for positive results. And, quite frankly, there are a number of religious folk who look with suspicion on anything that they are uncomfortable with! That’s been true for centuries. Remember? Rock music was of the devil, tattoos are of the devil, movies are of the devil, Harry Potter was of the devil…the list was, and still is, long!

A number of conspiracy theorists have taken up residence in the Church!

There’s a growing number of suspicionists who WERE a part of the church. They were burned in some way, mistreated by the people of grace, and exited congregations never to return. A burned Baptist is like a parent whose daughter just got stood up by her prom date. Hell knows no greater fury. Anger has been planted deep inside.

So perhaps the suspicions about Young Life are understandable, although untrue. Perhaps we should expect doubts about our faith to become more prominent, and more reservations about our calling and purpose to rise to the surface.

If I remember right the first followers of Jesus had the same challenge. Their language was misinterpreted, as they took the bread and cup and referred to them as the body and blood of Christ! Their citizenship was questioned, as they talked about following Christ the King. Their theology was concerning, as they experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and expressed belief in someone who had been crucified and then was said to be raised form the dead.

Suspicion is not new to followers of Christ. We sometimes forget that we were gifted with “good news”, and that good news contains hope, love, peace, and grace that needs to trumpeted in a refresher course for Christ-followers.

One last hopeful point that the newspaper article made was that in the midst of the school tragedy the leaders of Young Life were coming alongside students and helping them cope with the loss, praying with the grieving, and listening to the confused. I guess you would call that the ministry of presence.

Church Covenants

February 23, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            February 23, 2017

                                        

Churches are weird places! I know, I know…that’s a hard thing for a person who pastored for 37 years to say, but I’m owning up to it. Weird…strange…loving, but disapproving…like the free offer you get in the mail, but then find out there’s strings attached.

And the thing is, churches don’t intend to be that way, they just kind of warp into that!

One of those weird things about churches is a document that is called “the church covenant.” Depending on the congregation, the church covenant can be very affirming and loving, or it can be more like Ivy League entrance requirements.

I remember the covenant of a church I was on staff for that included restrictions on partaking of alcohol and participating in gambling. Everyone knew that there were a number of church members who included those two activities in their lives, but didn’t talk about it at church.

No church covenant has “abstaining from gluttony” as a part of their membership requirements!

Church covenants get glued on to the last page in the hymnal, like they were an afterthought, but they get trumpeted at hastily called church business meetings to support someone who has an axe to grind!

They are documents that create a “who’s in and who’s out” atmosphere.

The interesting aspect of church covenants to me is that they come out of communities of believers who are saved by grace, and yet operate out of rules and restrictions. Very rarely does a church covenant include procedures on how to restore someone who has screwed up, and yet grace is often referred to like it’s the holy grail of beliefs.

Churches rarely read their covenants. They are like the fine print that Apple puts on their products that read on for infinity. Click the “I agree” button and head to lunch! That’s why the covenants are in the back of the hymnal instead of the front, like the shed in the backyard that you rarely enter because you hate spider webs.

There is the covenantal language of the Bible…and there is church covenantal language. Church covenants say things like “It shall be the duty of members to familiarize themselves with the church covenant…to endeavor with all earnestness to practice the same (Huh?)…to attend habitually the services of this church.”

My suspicion is that most church covenants were “sacredly stolen” from some other congregation. Why reinvent the wheel? So most covenants are like on-line wills that someone has done all the work for already.

Should we have church covenants? Yes, but make them simple! Create them out of mindsets of grace to help people in their walk, not afflict them in their struggles.

I wonder…yes, I wonder how the covenants of new church plants shape up compared with the documents of long established congregations? What is the language like? Or, better yet, do newer congregations even have church covenants? Do they come to a point…like ten years into their journey…when they decide in their warping…they need one?

Or do they simply covenant to journey together, normal people and weird ones, in their pursuit of being the people of God?

Ground-Daughter

February 19, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  February 19, 2017

                                 

It had been one of those weeks! You know the kind…where you go a thousand miles a minute and never seem to get anywhere. It had been a week filled with always getting behind the person driving twenty miles under the speed limit; a week of dealing with a cold, and speaking of that, a week of dealing with snotty-nosed middle school students who seemed to think Valentine’s Day entitled them to hallway intimate embraces; a week of dealing with belligerent basketball coaches and fans; a week of neck pain, backaches, and throbbing knees.

And then our granddaughter got sick Friday night!

Both Carol and I were free on Friday, and I was looking forward to some early morning writing time perched on my Starbucks stool, but our daughter and granddaughter needed us. Admittedly, I agreed to come over early in the morning and sit with Reagan, who just turned six the week before, but I was muttering to myself!

I arrived at 7:40 so our oldest daughter, Kecia, could head to school, where she would face a full day of fourth grade parent-teacher conferences. Reagan was half laying and half sitting on the couch watching TV. We greeted one another and then I sat down at the kitchen table to do an evaluation for a friend. I thought it might take an hour, but, instead, took only about ten minutes. I went over to the couch and sat down by my oldest granddaughter.

On the TV was a kid’s show called Mia and Me. I started watching it with her, not realizing that it was a Netflix season series! After the first episode, seeing that the next episode would start in twenty seconds, I asked a few questions to the recovering sick one.

“So is that lady the bad guy?”

“Yes, she’s trying to get the unicorns.”

“Why does she want the unicorns?”
“To take their horns so that Queen Panthea can stay young.”

To myself. “Huh?”

“Who are the two kids flying around in the air?”

“Those are elves. They are trying to keep the unicorns safe.”

“Oh!”

We sat there for a couple of hours watching six episodes. Reagan leaned into me, like I used to do with my dad in church when I was her age. She settled into my side as Mia faced another riddle to solve in Episode 4.

We journeyed through the land of Centopia together that morning, the old guy asking questions and the young one providing the answers.

It was a morning that we both needed. A morning where a six year old got me grounded again, with some moments of quiet and togetherness. Sitting on the couch with my granddaughter was without a doubt the most meaningful experience I had all week.

Sometimes the inconveniences of life lead us to the moments that God most desires for us. They are moments that won’t make headlines, but are moments that plant the treasure of life within our hearts.

Church Going To the Dogs

February 13, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    February 13, 2017

                     

A few decades ago I remember being on the front steps of our church, First Baptist Church of Ironton, Ohio. An elderly man was coming up the steps just as a dog bounded up the steps past him. The man stopped for a moment and I heard him mutt-er “Dogs going to church!” He climbed a couple more steps and paused once again, and with a grin on his face he said, “Church going to the dogs!”

Recently we discovered a church where people can bring their dogs. The worship service is transmitted on an AM radio station to the cars parked in the parking lot. Some of the cars are occupied with people who have difficulties with crowds or allergic reactions to perfume scents. But many of them are occupied with canines brought to church by their owners. Attenders never have to get out of their car, unless Fido has to relieve himself!

Unique, yes! It’s not my cup of tea, but for some people it obviously works. After all, there was a film a few years ago entitled “All Dogs Go to Heaven!” So, perhaps, going to church is the prequel!

Staying in the car with the pooch has a downside and an upside. The downside is that the attender never enters into “community.” Church is about much more than an order of worship to go through, message to hear, and the offering plate to pass. Being the community of believers is the oft-forgotten part of it. It’s the meshing of lives in the progression of the journey.

The upside is that the dog-loving attender can escape the drama of church that often focuses on the petty and ridiculous. Stay in the car and get spared from the stupid! Let’s face it! Some church folk are more concerned about keeping the carpet clean than they are about people being cleansed!

So…I’m not sold on the dogs-going-to-church idea, but, of course, I don’t have a dog! I might feel differently if Lassie came home to live with me.

What do you think?

Seventh Grade Cynicism

February 12, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      February 1, 2017

                                 

I’m becoming a seventh grade substitute teaching fixture. Two more days this past week to follow closely on the heels of the three weeks of seventh social studies. I’m starting to begin sentences with “Dude!”, and trash-talk with seventh grade athletes about sports teams.

Dude! It is making me see things in new ways!

One of those “new views” is the unmistakable seasoning of cynicism amongst the young audience. Although they are not proficient in understanding politics they are cynical about politics. They’ve picked up on the unrest of the nation from the recent political campaign, and wrestle with the confusion of the allegations hurled from each side of the arena. Perhaps part of their misgivings grow out of a statement that they’ve been hearing for a long time; that we live in the best country in the entire world, and have the best governmental structure. They’ve been hearing that, but are wondering why the citizens of this best country spout so much venom at one another over politics?

In fact, much of seventh grade cynicism emerges in questions that begin with the word “Why?” They don’t quite get it! Of course, neither do I! I just try to look like I understand!

Their cynicism is a foggy picture that reflects their parents beliefs and unbeliefs. They’ve heard the resistance towards immigrants, the absurdness of building walls, the plight of the poor, the dangers of terrorism, and the 4,000 piece puzzle that’s a picture of health care and insurance.

Seventh graders have become cynical about the world so they turn their attention to their immediate situation and environment. Yes, they heard that the unemployment rate went up, but there’s a school sock hop this Friday night that needs their attention. They heard about a school shooting in Oklahoma, but the new Chick-Fil-A opened up down the street. The President is coming through town for a speaking engagement, but the seventh grader just realized that he forgot to put a pudding cup in his lunch bag!

Schools stress an understanding of what is going on in the world…and rightfully so…but thirteen year olds yield to what their friends think. Their cynicism makes them skeptical of pure motives. They live in a world of hidden agendas. If I cut my neighbor’s lawn because he’s out of town these newly-arrived teens are wondering why I did it? What am I getting out of it?

In essence, we have made them who they are. They are the “Mini-Me’s” of our lives!

Sounds hopeless. And yet, there are certain people that have the distinct privilege and opportunity to ground our young people in social responsibility, compassion, and lives rooted in principles and purpose. For example, as a middle school coach for close to twenty years I understand that my players look to me for guidance, but also what my life conveys is truly important. Last week I told my 8th Grade basketball team that any detentions or behavior problems that require school administration involvement will automatically carry at least a one game suspension for the player. I told them that character is more important than athletic ability. I expect them to act responsibly and make wise decisions. I realize, on the other hand, that they are looking at me to make sure I’m acting responsibly and making wise decisions.

A few years ago I was camp pastor for a middle school church camp. One night we washed each other’s feet. It was a silent act. No words were said and it was strictly voluntary. For about thirty minutes, after I and another leader began the humble act, students would invite one another to the front and serve one another in a way that humbled the washer and honored the one whose feet were being washed.

In some ways that’s where we need to take seventh graders more often…to a place of service and humility. Dude! Wouldn’t that be awesome?

Being the Listening Church

February 5, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                             February 5, 2017

                                    

In the New Testament letter of James he writes, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19, NIV) The church has, quite often, stuttered its way into deafness. Our loudness has clouded our hearing!

It’s a balance beam position to be in. On one hand the church is called to be the prophetic voice of God, speaking of hope and singing of God’s unwavering promises. And yet, like someone with a box of chocolates, the church has a hard time understanding that there is still a need for moderation, and we blabber all over ourselves.

Give a preacher a pulpit and he will build a church around it! What begins as divine opportunity escalates into an enterprise that we mistake for a movement!

It occurs to me that there are plenty of people willing to talk; even an overabundance of congregations willing to condemn and mandate…no matter their theological leanings. I’m just wondering if the church has lost its capacity to listen? The concern seems to be that if we aren’t speaking we aren’t saying anything, but perhaps if the church recovered its ability to hear that would speak volumes.

In a time of polarized populations, who is committed to keeping their ears unplugged? In a time of verbal venom who will, as James said, “be quick to listen?”

There are people that I avoid conversation with because they seem to be more interested in sharing lengthy diatribes than they are in whether or not I might have a thought. In admitting that I’m also confessing where many of us have holed-up! We reside in the shadows of quiet avoidance, fearful of expressing our beliefs and what it is that we really value.

Can the church regain its ministry of listening? To do so it must recommit itself to the urgency of mutual respect. Can the gathered saints sometimes agree to disagree?

My friend, Greg Davis, who passed away less than four months ago at the age of 41, would often get into political conversations with a woman named Terri Inloes, the librarian at the middle school he taught at. They disagreed more often than they agreed, but they always listened to one another, and they always discussed their views based on a foundation built with mutual respect. Terri recalls the specialness of those conversations and how they deepened their friendship with one another. It is a life story that the church needs to hear and understand.

Honestly, I’ve seen more examples of the contrariness of church people than the potential for peacemaking…and that’s just in reference to how people from the same church treat each other! Being listeners is a hard thing to be for people who are set on destruction!

My recent three weeks of teaching seventh grade social studies revealed a number of things to me. One of those that applies to this area of listening is this: Listening is a commitment, and there are those who refuse to listen because their lips get in the way of their ears!

 

The End of Grace

January 28, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     January 28, 2017

                                    

All of our neighbors are familiar with a tree that has been in our front yard since before we moved there in 1999. Just to the side of the basketball hoop, it resembled a pine tree that had been on a Slim-Fast diet…for years! Each year it kept growing towards the sky, but not getting any broader at the base. Our former neighbor would always look at it and say “Um, um, um…pitiful!” We never had to worry about rabbits hiding under it, or trash accumulating around its base.

For the past several years Carol and I have looked at it and discussed whether we should chop it down and raise the property value of our house…but it became a symbolic sight for us. We named it “The Grace Tree”, for it was only by the grace of God that it had not met the blade of an axe.

Several times when I preached about grace I’d use the Grace Tree for a sermon illustration. I’d show a couple of pictures of it to the congregation and hear the sighs and facial expressions of pity.

But grace came to an end a couple of weeks ago!

High winds hit our area and we woke up one morning to discover that the Grace Tree had taken a tumble. Think of it as the end of its stay in “Arbor Hospice!” Just kind of keeled over and done with!

We’ve received no condolence notes from our neighbors, no flowers, or other things that grow out of the ground!

Grace came to an untimely end on January 9! We’ll never know now, but perhaps if it had put some firmness and width into its base over the last 20 years or so the January 9th tumbled demise would not have happened. But you know something? Trees quite often have minds of their own. It’s hard to reason with them and make them see the long-term consequences of tree anorexia! As my mom used to say, “You can talk until you’re blue in the face”, but it doesn’t make any difference.

To be honest the Grace Tree received more grace than it deserved, but it was an ongoing message to us: That the tendency in our culture, and, sadly enough, in the church, is to be the executioners of the imperfect instead of the conduits of grace. Many New Testament followers of Jesus still live by Old Testament justice!

Whereas, many of our neighbors are a bit delighted over the passing of our Grace Tree, I’m a bit grieved. Don’t get me wrong! Carol and I aren’t going to put a grace…I mean, grave marker there! It’s just that the reminder won’t be there every day as I back the car out of the garage, or every time I’m shooting baskets in the driveway. (It did act as a ball stop once in a while!) There are a few things in life that we just need reminders about. What will remind me of grace?

I do still have a “selfie pic” of the Grace Tree in the background behind me! Maybe, just maybe, I’ll make that my new screen saver! Wouldn’t that be ironic, the Grace Tree being my screen saver!