Not too terribly long ago I experienced my first bit of "online controversy". I suppose that's par for the course for most people and seems to be a rite of passage for most bloggers, but personally I don't care for it.
My personality type tends to avoid conflict, it stresses me out. Besides I actually like most people and see no point in getting bent out of shape because of words on a screen.
My personal adage has always been the only way to win an argument online is to not engage.
About a month ago I tweeted something I thought was innocuous. Something that basically said "We should stop calling people that are different from us "Sinners". Instead we should reach out with love." Something to that effect and I included a Link to a blog I like.
I had pressed send and actually completely forgot that I tweeted anything, when suddenly my phone started buzzing incessantly. People were calling me a heretic, others were defending me by calling that person a moron.
The hatred and name calling escalated and I tried to cool people off by extending grace, Tweeting things like "Calling people a moron doesn't help, show him grace, I was once angry too." or "I'm sorry you disagree with me, I still like you though." but these soft spoken words were lost in the anger and indignation. I turned off my phone remembering the only way to win an online argument is to not engage.
When I read the bible I notice that the devil is called "the accuser of the brethren." Most everyone will agree with me on this. What upsets me most is that he seems to be having allot of help with his job by people who call themselves Christians.
When we accuse each other we are doing Satan's job for him.
When I read someone say Mark Driscoll is a bully and an uncultured moron, that person is accusing one of the brethren.
When I hear someone denounce Rob Bell as a heretic, that person is accusing one of the brethren.
Christians are doing the devil's job for him and it breaks my heart. On Social media sites people get so angry, so quick to denounce a human being. One of God's own children. The name calling grows far toovicious for me. Especially when politics are involved.
It reinforces an "Us versus them" mentality.
I honestly believe we were never meant to live this "Us vs. Them" lifestyle. But people feel so justified in their own righteous indignation.
There is nothing righteous about indignation.
The worst person in the world can say things are terrible. It takes a prophetic people to look at the bad in society and see the good. It takes a prophetic person to see the gold in another human being.
It takes faith to find hope in a hopeless situation.
Instead we fall back to accusing, hiding behind our own labels: republican, democrat, liberal, libertarian, gay, straight, black, white, us, them.
The bible calls Jesus our advocate.
Satan accuses. Jesus advocates. When we stand up for someone we are being like Jesus. When we accuse each other we are being like Satan.
It really is that simple.
Look to build instead of destroy. Please. In that way we are most like Christ.
Sometimes we get stuck. We run a hundred miles an hour doing everything and anything we can for God. We work our fingers to the bone, trying our best to please Him knowing that "faith without works is dead". We read the book, we follow the rules, we share with others when suddenly...
We get stuck...
Suddenly there's no big event on the horizon to work towards, there's no conference to plan, no mountain top experience on the horizon. Nothing.
And we hear that still small voice in our souls tell us It's time to slow down, not work so hard, be patient. We hate it.
God, how we hate it.
As I'm getting older and questionably wiser I am becoming more convinced that God is more interested in the person we are becoming rather than what we are doing.
He is attempting to prepare us for eternity, make us into the kind of people that would enjoy it in Heaven.
An example is tithing:
I honestly think He cares less about the fact that we would give ten percent to the church and more about making us into generous people. The kind of people that would gladly give money to a need because we are accustomed to giving away a whole ten percent and we have never gone hungry.
When we fight the "ten percent rule" looking for ways around it, we are missing the point.
When we ask "yeah, but gross income or net income?" we are missing the point.
The point is God wants His people to give generously, to meet needs where we find them. Not follow arbitrary rules.
When God makes us slow down it isn't because we're useless or because we are terrible sinners. It's because He wants to make us into the type of people that are completely comfortable in our own skins. The kind of people that are satisfied no matter what life throws their way. The kind of people ready in season and out.
When I read the gospels this is what impresses me most about Christ. He seems so comfortable in his own skin. Not shaken or thrown to tantrums (I know the whole temple thing, but that was ONE time and it was because poor people were being taken advantage of.) He doesn't seem anxious or needy.
It's because he knows who he is. And he knows that he is the "beloved son in whom God is well pleased".
If we could get a glimpse of our own belovedness this anxiety and posturing would disappear. We could love others unconditionally, not worrying if there would be enough for us. We would stop fighting and striving to be better, to be more like someone else because God seems to love them and bless them more.
This is how we become more like Christ. Understand that God loves us just the exact way we are. Not some idealistic future version of ourselves. But the people we are....right now.
When we understand our own belovedness then those other fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control, all those come much more naturally to us.
In this my hope lies: I am the beloved son of God. Warts and all. And in this hope I can change my world.
March on Washington. August 28, 1963
"I dunno, man, I mean what's the point?" my friend said to me as he took a long drag on his cigarette.
"What do you mean?" I asked him as he mindlessly flicked the smoldering butt away and reached for a fresh one.
"Well, you say try to do good, try to make a difference. But there's too many problems in the world to solve. There's too big of a gap between poor folk and rich folk. There's too many people sleepin' on the street goin' hungry and nobody gives a *blank* because there's not *blank* we can do about it. If we were super rich or crazy famous then maybe we could start feeding kids in Cambodia or where the *blank* ever. But just regular Joe's like you n me? We can't make any kinda difference in this craphole world so why even try?"
I thought about his words for moment before responding. I let silence hang in the air, the pause pregnant and heavy with his despair. Finally I said to him "You're right, there's no point trying to fix the world. That's too big, one man can't bear the weight of the entire world. You can't control others and the way that they behave. But you can look to your own sphere of influence. You can look at the people around you and ask 'Is there any need that I can meet right now that makes a bad situation better?' Make things better as best you can and hopefully inspire others to do the same."
He looked at me for awhile and said "You're right. We can't expect the world to be a more positive place if we do nothing but make it more negative."
* * *
Yesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's march on Washington DC.
They were facing down injustice on a grand scale. They faced hatred and looked the evils of bigotry in the eye. What amazes me about Dr. King's legacy is that he called people to return hatred and injustice with love.
He could have said these problems are far too big to ever change, so what's the point? Instead he attacked hatred with love. Which is exactly what Christ has called each and everyone one of us to do. Christ said of his followers that we would be known by our love.
He looked at people that were denying his people rights, even attacking and killing them. He said people that were treating others as less than human and noticed that in doing so they were losing their own humanity. He was trying to save the racist white people from themselves as well as gain social equality for his own.
Things aren't perfect now, but I was talking to one of my friends yesterday about the march on Washington. He told me he was trying to explain it to his children and they couldn't understand it. The idea of segregation didn't make sense to them. It's a beautiful story that proves that children are born to love and not hate, and I never would have heard it if not for Dr. King because my friend is black and I am white. Because of the sacrifice of Dr. King and his peers my life is richer, my humanity more intact.
How do we respond to great sacrifice like that? We try to make the world a better place.
How is that possible when the evil is so great? We start with what's in front of us.
"And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we're free at last!'"
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I've recently been reading the book of Leviticus.Can I be honest for a moment? Will you promise not to judge me?
I hate reading the book of Leviticus. I know as a Christian I'm supposed to love every last page of the Bible. I'm supposed to say "ah what I great love letter that God has written to us." But this book...I understand that I'm supposed to love it and glean wisdom from every word... But c'mon.
As I read these words written thousands of years ago it seems that nearly everything made you "unclean". And the rituals involved in making you clean again were long and bloody. Seriously bloody. Also no trimming your sideburns guys.
But here's where this gets interesting for me. As I read the gospels it seems that Jesus is breaking the levitical law all over the place.
Let me be clear: Jesus said he came to not to do away with the law, but to fulfill it. The book says he was sinless. I believe it. Otherwise I am wasting my time.
But Jesus didn't avoid touching the people that would make a person unclean under the levitical law. He touched the twelve year old girl that died and raised her to life when you are never supposed to touch a dead body. He allowed the woman with the "issue of blood" to touch him and she was healed when you not to go near a woman during the "issue of blood". He laid his hands on the lepers (big no no) and spit in the dirt as rubbed it on blind men's eyes.
These are all actions that make you unclean.
But the thing is Jesus never caught the disease. He spread life. He wasn't made unclean by touching these people, but rather he made them clean. He spread the good infection.
It was almost as if he considered these people more important that following the rules. Like it was more important to him to spread life rather than fear death.
I don't know...
When I was younger one of my Christian friends would joke that as Christians "we don't smoke, don't chew, don't hang out with those that do." Meaning that we don't hang around with "those" people. They are unclean. We are clean. Christians are afraid to spend time and be real with "those" people because by hanging around with "them", we will be dragged down. Made unclean.
But Christ is our leader. Our head. We should do what he did, right? I want to believe that because of the Christ life in me I spread life to them that need it. Not that they bring me down.
I'm not perfect. Please don't think that's what I'm saying. But what I am saying is don't be afraid of "sinners". Don't be afraid of their "dirt". Those kinds of titles just separate us from the hurting rather than us going in with the healing power of Christ.
Get your hands dirty like Christ did. Let your heart break with the heart broken like He did. After all we are his body, right?
And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.
In C.S. Lewis' literary classic The Magician's Nephew (book six in the Chronicles of Narnia series) there is an astoundingly moving scene that depicts the creation of Narnia.In this scene Aslan, who is an archetype that represents Christ roams the empty landscape and gently and beautifully sings the world into existence.
The scene begins in darkness. The land is void. I think the words of Mr. Lewis would be better than describing them:
"In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing…it seemed to come from all directions at once…Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful Digory could hardly bear it."
This representation of Christ, the God who sings over creation captures not only my imagination but also my heart. There is nothing quite like music.
There is something close to magic about music. A note layered on top of another note layered on top of another note that creates a chord. Chords move naturally into other chords. Sounds harmonizing with other sounds, rolling smoothly gently out of chaos and into harmonies. Vibrations and frequencies oscillating at just the right speed to create sound waves that echo into our ears. Electrical signals in our brains translate these vibrations into sounds and sounds into songs.
Our brains translate the vibrations but something deeper still happens. We feel something rise in our chest, our hearts begin to beat faster, falling into the rhythms. We say a song sounds sad or happy. We ascribe complex human emotion and feelings into these vibrations. The chaos becomes order.
The sounds ascend into something greater than its parts, something more than notes on top of notes. It rises into beauty. It becomes a masterpiece.
This is the magic that still exists. The wonder that appeals to the child in us all.
The Earth herself sings. Vibrating at a pitch outside of human perception. The beauty and magic and wonder leads me to believe the earth is singing to her Creator, the star themselves sing out in wonder and reverence.
Our existence is a song sung to the Heavens, with movements and majesty. Sometimes it is a slow and sad song, sometimes it is fast and happy and full of joy. Sometimes it swells and crescendos so greatly that we feel our chest will burst open with the emotion too deep for words.
And God sings back to us. Singing over His creation He loves so dearly.
Hear the music. Hear it, feel it in your own life. Hear it in the lives of others. Don't discount any movement because it's too sad or discordant because it takes every movement to create the masterpiece.
If you ask pretty much anyone what their favorite class was in school most would answer gym or recess. This was not true for me. I dreaded gym. I loathed the "free periods" in gym most of all. The source of my hatred for these classes was not hard to find. It was always towards the beginning of the class.
When it was time to pick teams.
Most everyone I know has a story about how tough it is to get picked last. How the rejection can eat at a soul. I was pretty much always picked last. Even more than twenty years later I can remember the "cool" kids arguing over who would be stuck with me on their team. "I got stuck with him last time, it's your turn!" "No way! He's the last one you HAVE to pick him!"
I would usually excuse myself to sidelines. I would offer to "sit this one out" so I wouldn't bring anyone down with my presence.
I understood why I wasn't chosen. I was never particularly athletic. I was slow and uncoordinated, I had terrible asthma that led to horrible coughing fits.
Still, understanding why I was left out didn't make it hurt less. It didn't make me feel less isolated. Less like a waste of space.
This is why I am drawn to Christ. He picks those that would be picked last, or not at all. When Christ walked the earth he picked dirty uneducated fishermen for his team. He picked those that would betray him, those that would pretend like they had never met him. He picked one that murdered Christians before being knocked from his horse. He picked the liars and the left out.
He chose to surround himself with prostitutes and tax collectors (traitors). People that were called notorious sinners. Those that the religious establishment wrote off as rejects, scum, losers, unclean.
He chose me for his team. He hasn't given me the option to sit from the sidelines and watch. He doesn't let anyone just watch. He knew my ups and downs. My shortcomings and failures, and still he chose me to be seated with him in heavenly places. He chose this uncoordinated loser to run the good race and fight the good fight.
And because he chose me I will go to my grave singing his praises.
*photo Credit Andrei Shailkhau
I believe in visions.
I don't have them personally but I believe in them. I believe God uses pictures to speak to His children. He is the consummate artist. The one true creative force. He uses images and actions to tell us stories, modern day parables to teach His children hungry for His voice.
Dreams and Visions are all throughout the Bible. Both Old Testament and New and He's promised us that in the last days He is going to pour out His Spirit on all flesh.
The old men are going to dream new dreams and the young are going prophesy like those of old.
All flesh...everyone. The saved and unsaved. The beautiful and the ragged. That'll be a day worth seeing. But I'll leave that for later.
The closest thing I've ever had to a vision was not when I was praying or reading my bible. It wasn't when I was at that perfect moment of the church service when the music swells and the preacher promises new life. It was when I was riding the famous Chicago El train.
One of the things I love most about the El train is that while you are on it you will see a real cross section of humanity. Young. Old. Black. White. Latino. Yuppie moms pushing strollers. Young gangster wannabe types rapping far too loudly than to be just for themselves. Street preachers. Hedonists. Businessmen in suits. Working stiffs just trying to get home after a long exhausting day.
I was riding the Green line going in towards the loop. Going to hang out with an old friend, maybe catch a movie. I wasn't praying or straining to hear God speak. I wasn't feeling particularly holy. Just going about my day.
I was holding tightly to the railing as the train jostled over the tracks and picked up speed. Images flashed unbidden through my mind. I was still present and still looking out over the tops of houses and apartments but inside I was watching a movie. It felt like strong imaginings but nothing I was thinking about or seemed relevant to what was actually going through my mind.
In my mind's eye I saw roots shoot of the bottom of my feet. They burst through the bottom of the train, weaving themselves between the tracks and ties. Snaking themselves down the old iron girders that had held up these tracks for so long. They broke up the concrete of sidewalks and streets and dug themselves deep in the Illinois soil.
And then it was done. I was coming close to my stop and was left wondering why on earth I would be imagining roots coming out of the bottom of my feet.
That was years ago but I'm still now coming to understand what God was trying to show me that day on the train. Since I moved to Chicago I have been wanting to move back to North Carolina, the state I had known my whole life. I was living with my body in Illinois, but my heart and soul in North Carolina. I was wrong to live that way. Unless you put down roots in your community, unless you live present in where you are, where God has you, you cannot make a difference. True change comes from love. And it's hard to love a place you only want to escape.
Sometimes you have to put down roots before you can love a place.
And you have to love a place if you want to make it better.
When I read my Bible I find that one of the most compelling characters in the book is David. It could be that I'm simply narcissistic and am drawn to the one that shares my name. But I hope that it's deeper than that.
What I love most about his story is that we get everything. The highs. The lows. The times when he has killed a giant and the people sing songs about him. The times when he running for his life and pretending to be insane. When he becomes king of a nation. When he commits adultery and murder (two of the commandments in one go).
Throughout all that we know about him (and we know allot), he is remembered through history as "the man after God's own heart". The man that built an inside out temple of praise when the theology of the day said you only get go into the holy of holies once a year and even then you might die.
How did he get this understanding of God's nature? How did he become the "man after God's heart"? I honestly think it was his time alone in the fields.
Before he was famous, before he was a giant killer or the great musician that could calm Saul's murderous rage he was just a kid out in the field taking care of his father's flocks. Mostly forgotten even by his own family.
His father didn't even bring him in from the field when the prophet came to the house. He was alone out in the wilderness.
Those quiet nights under the stars. Those hot days under the middle eastern sun. All alone with a bunch of smelly sheep. These were the moments that forged his character. These were the times when he prayed to an invisible God and came to know Him like none before him.
I imagine David alone in the fields under a vast and starry sky, singing praises to an unseen God. I imagine tears streaming down his dirty shepard's cheeks as he feels God singing back over Him. David realizing that God delights in him, that God "knit him together in his mother's womb."
How else does a boy get the courage to kill a giant? To stand before kings? He knew who he was as the beloved of God.
If we all knew who we were...if we could see how God sees us. We would do great things.
But it requires time in the wilderness. Time alone that no one else sees. We shouldn't despise the days of small beginnings because these are the days that make greatness possible.
I dare you to be brave enough to ask God how he sees you. Ask Him what He thinks of you.
I bet it's allot because his own son shed his blood for you.
And once He tells you what He thinks of you...I dare you to believe Him.
...give us this day our daily bread. *photo by Denise Helms 2011
-Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray
Sometimes it's difficult to read the gospels. We are separated from the way they were originally written by two thousand years of history, culture changes and language.
When I read the words of Christ, I try to imagine the sand in my sandals, the hot middle Eastern sun beating down on my head. I try to imagine the smells of camels and donkeys and sweating fishermen. I try to feel that same swell in my spirit that these men and women must have felt while wondering is this the one that was promised? Will He lead us to freedom?
I imagine the bravery it took to call out to this teacher, this amazing healer, "Master, teach us how to pray!"
And then he begins, his words are simple but sweet, the prayer is short but beautiful. It is poetic and intimate and practical at the same time.
There are only a few things I pray for on a daily basis, and usually it isn't bread. I like bread and everything but not everyday. But everyday I do pray for wisdom, creativity and that God be with me throughout my day.
I am not a Calvinist. I think I want to be, but I'm not. It would be great to say "oh, this was all planned out before I walked this Earth so I don't need to worry about anything, my choices don't matter because I believe in the sovereignty of God."
Please don't get me wrong, I believe that God is sovereign and wise and powerful and above all things. But if I know myself and I know that if I threw myself into Calvinism I would do nothing. Make no choices. Rather than working to make the world better I would wash my hands and say that this is God's will.
I used to pray for God's direction in my life and abandon myself to His will.
Now I pray everyday for wisdom. I believe that, like a good Father, He has taught me how to make good choices and then gives me the opportunity to make those choices. He has taught me to learn from mistakes and failures, to pick myself up when I fall down.
At the end of all things I believe I shall stand before Him and give account of my life. If I only did what He told me then I'd have nothing to be accountable for. But instead I'll tell Him "Thank you for the wisdom you gave me...I did my best."
I believe He'll smile, and like a good dad will hug me and whisper in my ear "That's all I wanted, did you have a good time?" and we will sit and tell each other stories like I did when my parents would pick me up from camp and I couldn't wait to tell them about my week.
*photo credit http://lorenaangell.com
I walked into the bookstore and breathed deeply. There's something about the mixture of smells in a bookstore that always moves me and turns the rusty cogs in my brain. The perfect mixture of coffee and paper, ink and ideas.
I made my way to the Christian Living section and ran my eyes over the numerous titles, checking off the different criteria in my head for my next read. Read it, I'll skip it, not for me, looks cheesy, looks boring, read it, cheesy, mega cheesy, for women, for teens, cheesy.
I began to notice a pattern in the subtitles and back covers. Nearly every author had claimed to have God figured out. Many had a five step plan to getting God to answer every prayer, or was a reaction to another trend with ideas that denounced other books or movements in the bloated Christian consumer culture. Many seemed to be saying "this is why so and so is wrong and I am right." Believe this, follow me, I know the TRUE Jesus.
Every author seemed so sure of the variation of truth that they were selling and every confident proclamation was leaving me further and further behind.
Personally, I often feel like I'm treading water in a sea of self doubt. I question every thought, every idea. I look to the Heavens and wonder what exactly does it mean to be human. I felt like every confident author smiling from their perfect pictures inside their dust jacket probably wouldn't like me. They had everything figured out while I search for truth in vast mystery of God.
I don't need nine steps to effectively following God. I just need to follow...as scary and fluid and messy and beautiful and ugly as that can be.
I am a man of many flaws. And I accept that. I even think God thinks I'm beautiful in my flawed flailings. I even have come to love my flaws and can see Jesus peeking through the cracks in my less than perfect surface.
If you refuse to show vulnerability, if you try to look perfect and polished and like you've got everything about life and God completely figured out then you've already lost me. If you present a perfect image and personality claiming to have cornered the market on truth, that you and your people are right and everyone else is wrong, then I'll feel manipulated and afraid of you. Afraid you'll rip open my scars and laugh because I'm not perfect like you pretend to be.
If you invite me to search and stumble and try and maybe fail and maybe succeed. If you invite me to search the heart of a loving and mysterious creator with you then I will go with you to the ends of the Earth. Arm in arm, we will go together.
In my dreams I am a writer. In the blessed "someday" of an unknown future I've written a book. But in an honest question to myself I ask "does the world need another Christian book?"
I don't have the answer yet, but I say to all listening: let's go together, let's search the surface of this thing called belief, let's find the seams of our faith and push beyond to deeper more frightening and beautiful truth. Do I have it all figured out? Not by a long shot, but I know the Father's heart is real and burns with a fiery passion that is both terrifying and awe-inspiring.
Let's build each other up. Let's unite over what we have in common rather than what separates us. Because what a hurting and desperate world needs more than anything else is love. What a hurting and desperate person needs more than anything else is love.