Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sacred or Secular?

It is a question as old as people. Where is the division between what is secular and what is sacred? Is there a difference? If something, someone or some activity is not devoted wholly to God is it somehow not holy at all?

Here is my answer: Everything is holy. Everything is sacred. God is the creator of all that is and therefore, all that is is holy. Before you get too worked up, I believe that there are limits, but only because of our sin. You see, the creation of God has been corrupted because of our willingness to take all that is good and change it. We have screwed everything up.

Let's just consider the world of the arts for a moment. First of all, there is music. Music was invented by God so that we could have a way to praise him using all of our faculties, mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. I believe that this means that the lyrics to our songs do not have to be explicitly Christian or even religious, but that all music should and can glorify God. We run into difficulty when we change our music so that it does not glorify God, but it defies him. Our music is sacred until it becomes alien to God, his nature and his purposes.

Drama, film and television all work the same way. It is holy until it violates the nature and purpose of God.

In fact, this same criteria can be used for nearly every situation in your life. Should you attend that party? Yes, as long is the party, or your participation in it, do not violate the purpose and nature of God. Can you eat in a tavern? Yes, if you do not defy God in doing so. Can you associate with people who are not Christian, not Godly and not at all holy? Again, does it glorify God.

One more note of caution. Although there is relatively little that is prohibited in this way of thinking, all of these activities should be considered in realistic terms. Can you associate with ungodly people? Yes. Could those persons cause you to compromise your faith? Definitely. Always remember that this is not a license to do whatever you want. It ought to be considered in two ways.
  • It is the beginning of reclaiming the world for the glory of God. It is time that we stopped allowing the persistent violation of all that God has made. Enjoy the arts. Enjoy the world. Revel in nature. Feel the presence of God in fellowship with all mankind.
  • This is also the start of a revolution calling all persons to faith in Christ. The prechurched, ungodly, non-religious, secular people in your life need a godly influence. Do not be afraid of the world. Get into it and change it.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Planting and Praying

Here is something that I have noticed: Christians and other church people fall into two categories. Some of them are always planting seeds. They have taken the words of Jesus very seriously. They are scattering seeds everywhere. They give to good causes. They live a godly life as an example to others. They use Christian products, read Christian books and listen Christian music. They serve in social ministry agencies such as food banks, crisis pregnancy centers and clothing distribution locations. These people are building relationships with men and women who do not know Jesus.

There is another category of Christians; those who spend their time praying. They have also taken Jesus' words very seriously. They pray about everything. They pray that people will come to know Jesus and that more people will become evangelists. These Christians read about prayer. They sing about prayer. They pray, pray, pray.

But both groups have some serious problems. To begin with, the planters have no follow-through. They plant seeds everywhere they go, but they often neglect the important tasks of cultivating, weeding, feeding and reaping. Those who plant often have an attitude that hopes someone else will come along and do those other important tasks.

In addition, planters often feel so good about their sowing that they neglect prayer. It is easy to get so caught up in the busyness of going, and doing, and sharing, and caring that the important spiritual issues get taken for granted. Planters, the active people in the church, need to be sure to be consistent in follow through, and to keep on track spiritually.

On the other hand, the people who pray too often do nothing else. They tend to spiritualize every issue and every part of life. Prayer becomes an end for them. These pray-ers love the time they spend with Jesus, but sometimes at the expense of doing what Jesus commands. You remember the expression, "He is so heavenly minded he is no earthly good." That expression was about this group of people.

Not only that, but people who focus so much on prayer often have a problem with perceptions that others have about them. Here it is in brutally honest terms: Sometimes very spiritual people seem weird. Christians are even put off by these spiritual 'giants' sometimes.

Here is my suggestion. Planters need to realize that there is more to evangelization than throwing out some seed and hoping for the best. There is some hard spiritual work involved. Pray-ers need to know that they also have a responsibility to do some of the day to day work of planting. A good solution might be for planters and pray-ers to form a partnership. By working together the best of both tendencies can be brought to bear on the weaknesses of each.

Our final admonition: Plant the seeds and pray for the soil.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

How to Survive

It is interesting to me how many fears and phobias have been identified in recent years. People are afraid of everything. I suppose to some degree everyone is afraid of something. People are afraid of the dark, of spiders, of heights, of water, of being outdoors, of snakes, of mice, of small places, of large places, of crowds, of loneliness, of fire, of sharks, of the elderly, of young people, of cities, of trying something new, of God, of tradition, of the unfamiliar, of the quiet, of guns, of motorcycles, of the Amish, of clowns, of ________ (you can fill in your own fear.

Although we know that most of our fears are unfounded and silly, we harbor them nonetheless. We support our fears and even encourage them. Often we seem to be proud of our fears. We brag about how foolish they are. And yet we keep on fearing.

Our vocabulary is filled with cliches about fear and the lack of fear.
  • Have no fear
  • Be bold
  • Carpe diem
  • Live the adventure
  • Have fun all the time
  • Do not worry about what other people say, think, gossip, or do where you are concerned
  • Live to be happy and for no other human

The Christian faith is based on two things, fear and faith. Both of these have been somewhat misused through the years. We have tended to encourage people to be afraid of the wrath of God at the expense of a clear and fair picture of God's love and grace. We also want to chastise each other (and ourselves) for our lack of faith.

Here is what I think. Faith in itself is a gift from God. You cannot manufacture it yourself. Faith in God does two things. First of all, it eliminates most of the fears in your life. The Bible teaches that fear does not come from God. It is opposed to God. Faith in God will keep you from fears and phobias that paralyze and trouble you.

The second thing that faith does is to help you to have a healthy fear of God. Fear of God, in this context at least, should be interpreted as an awesome respect, or a submissive and complete love for God. We should not be living in terror that God is going to wreak havoc on our lives. But rather, that our love is a response to the power and love that God has for us.

So, the bottom line is this: Fear God and nothing else!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Saul's Stumbles

The story of King Saul in the Bible is fascinating and terrible. It is fascinating in much the same way a television soap opera is. The story is filled with beautiful people who have lots of advantages. But it is terrible in that those beautiful people keep making mistakes. Saul's mistakes cost him is family, his throne and his life.

You need to know, first of all, that Saul was the first King of Israel. The people had clamored for a king, and God finally obliged them with Saul. King Saul's reign was initially marked with success, growth and faithfulness to God. But ultimately, paranoia, power and distraction caused Saul to lose sight of the God who put him on the throne to begin with. There are at least eight mistakes that Saul made.
  • Saul made an unlawful sacrifice (1 Samuel 13.9-10). Saul grew impatient waiting for Samuel, who was the priest, to arrive to make a sacrifice. It is an instance of Saul believing himself above God's established leadership in the priesthood.
  • Saul did not kill the Amalekite King, Agag (1 Samuel 15.9). Although God had given explicit orders to destroy the people and possessions of Amalek completely, Saul did not. This is a certain sign of disobedience to the law of God.
  • Saul made a rash order for his people (1 Samuel 14.24ff). The story is long and a little complicated, but the basics are this; Saul ordered his people to fast until they gained victory over the Philistines. Jonathan, his beloved son, was not aware of the command and ate. In this instance, Saul showed a lack of reason and a self-will that was unacceptable to God.
  • Saul made a monument to himself (1 Samuel 15.12). Saul was so full of himself that he did what so many other kings before and after have done. He began to believe that he was invincible. As such he built himself a monument so that he would be remembered. This is anathema to the God of the humble.
  • Saul opened himself to various kinds of spirits (1 Samuel 16.14). It may be a natural consequence of disobedience and self-exaltation, but when a person rejects God, he opens himself up to other powers. Saul became oppressed (maybe possessed?) by demons.
  • Saul lost his faith in God (1 Samuel 17.11). In the story of David and Goliath we often focus on the faith of the young boy. David believed that God had called him and would deliver himself and all Israel from the giant. The contrast that is often overlooked is that Saul, the King, the chosen one of God, was filled with fear. 2 Timothy 1.7 reminds us that fear cannot come from God.
  • Saul became jealous of David (1 Samuel 18.7-9). Rather than celebrate the fact that God was working in David's life, Saul chose to be jealous and bitter. How sad for him that he could not enjoy and be blessed by God's obvious blessing on another.
  • Saul was left by the Lord (1 Samuel 18.12). One of the saddest thoughts of any life is that God could leave. Saul had been disobedient for too long, he had neglected his faith too many times. The blessing of God was gone forever.

The problem for most of us is that we can see ourselves in the mistakes that Saul made. Maybe we have decided that the way God wants us to worship doesn't 'feel' good to us. Perhaps we have been disobedient, or have thought too highly of ourselves. It could be that we are jealous of the work of God in the life of another. Whatever the situation, it is time that we wake up and return to God. Do not become the next in a long line of spiritual "Sauls."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Music is Silence??

So, I might be changing my mind. I love music. My world is filled with music. There is classical, jazz, rock n roll, obscure indie music and old country music. I love blues, instrumental, choral, organ and marching band music. (I might make an exception for accordion music.) Billy Preston wrote a song in the 70's that sums up my philosophy on it perfectly, "Music is My Life."

But we have a problem in the technological, gadget oriented west of the 21st century. We are surrounded by noise. We have radios in our cars to keep us company when we drive. We have radios, stereos, televisions in every room of our homes so that we never have to be alone. Now we put plugs in our ears so that we can hear our music without bothering anyone else. This can be a problem.

Sometimes we fill our lives with noise so that we are not reminded that we are alone. We develop pseudo-communities with tv and music personalities to hide- from ourselves usually- that we are really very lonely. Somehow we equate noise with activity, activity with production and production with value. Therefore, I am of more value if I have or make noise (including music).

Sometimes we fill our lives with noise so that we will not be afraid. When it is too quiet we hear animals, wind noises and building squeaks and groans. Everyone know that monsters only come when you are alone, and lonely, and quiet.

But sometimes, and more dangerously, we fill our lives with noise so that we do not have to listen to God's voice. We do not want to hear what God has to say. We do not want Him messing up our world. As soon as God starts talking, and when I get to listening, things will change. If things change then I will lose my comfort and security, at least for a time.

Here is what I am saying: Be quiet. Let everything around you be quiet. Embrace being alone. Learn to listen to what the world- and more importantly, God- is trying to say to you.

Enjoy your music all the time. But remember that sometimes music is silent, and silence is music.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Music is Medicine

A few years back there were several studies released about the effects of various activities on one's health and the healing process. For example, we learned that laughter really is good medicine. People in hospitals who watched I Love Lucy got well more quickly than those who did not. We learned later that it could be scientifically demonstrated that people who prayed and were prayed for progressed better than those who were without prayer.

Now, I have not study, no statistics to support what I am about to claim. I cannot verify this in my own life, or the life of others. I have read no articles, seen no reports or heard claims to corroborate this assertion. Nonetheless, I believe that music makes you feel better.

I know that there are styles of music to fit every mood, activity and emotion. But I also believe that, if given the chance, music can lift your spirits, teach you a lesson and accompany the most significant events in your life.

There is nothing like listening to the Beach Boys with your windows down while you drive with your windows down on a warm summer's evening. Try George Jones when everything is going wrong in your life. Glenn Miller will get your toes tapping. Frank Sinatra can make anyone feel a little bit 'cooler'. Josh Garrels makes me smile. Sufjan Stevens makes me feel smart and silly all at the same time.

Every human has an internal soundtrack. I believe that God put it there. We are geared for listening to music. It just makes us feel better.

I know that everyone has their own preferred style(s) of music. We get kind of snobbish about it, in fact. (My music is better than your music.) In reality, however, the kind of music you listen to is less important than the fact that you do listen. Listen now. Listen often. Listen loud. Listen quiet.

Here are some generic tips for listening to music.
  • Listen to music all the time. You will find that your attitude will improve.
  • Listen to different types of music. You will find that the music you hate is probably not that bad after all.
  • Listen to music from different eras. The music your parents enjoyed is probably better than you imagine.
  • Get an mp3 player. Take music everywhere you go.
  • Pay attention to the background music at your favorite restaurant, the mall, your doctor's office. You might be surprised.
  • Play music games. Challenge your friends to name a tune, remember a composer or performer.
  • Sing. Sing. Sing.
  • Learn to play an instrument. Share the joy of making music.
  • Write a song. Creating music is sometimes more fun than listening.
  • Buy a kazoo. You can take it anywhere and make music on the go.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Jerry Maguire Manifesto

A few years ago the world was filled with cries of 'Show me the money.' The film, Jerry Maguire had hit big time. And although Cuba Gooding, Jr and Tom Cruise were fun to watch, the key to the movie was Jerry Maguire's manifesto. He began the film by writing a paper that changed his life and his profession. He called all sports agents to look at their world in a different way.

I have no illusions that this 'manifesto' will change the church in any significant way. I do know, however, that it is destined to change the way that I do ministry. So here is my manifesto for working in the church in the 21st Century.
  • The church needs to be about ministry, not administration. In my denomination, the United Methodist Church, we are very good at administration. In fact, we are so good at it that we sometimes ignore ministry altogether. Currently we are considering yet another large-scale administrative re-organization in north Indiana. This will be the third time in the last five years. When we re-organize we feel as though we are doing something. This somehow salves our consciences as we realize that ministry is suffering or non-existent. When we change our administrative practices it becomes easier to overlook our ministry failures.
  • The church needs to be about church health and church growth. We seem to be in either one camp or the other. We advocate for church growth with programs, events and services. We advocate for church health with spiritual growth initiatives. And somehow we lose sight of the fact that we should be about both health and growth.
  • The church needs to be about community, rather than tradition. Overall I am a pretty traditional person. I love the history of the church in general, and my denomination in particular. I love hymns and traditional worship styles. I love worshiping in ancient cathedrals and country-side chapels. But more important than tradition, is the community of faith. As followers of Jesus we must be advocated for community. We must support and build one another. That may mean that some of our traditions must die. But if it is for the glory of God, so be it.
  • The church needs to be about relationships, rather than organizations. How interesting it is to consider that we often neglect those around us because they do not fit into our organization. Jesus did not start a church, a club or any other kind of organization. Jesus built relationships with men and women that he loved. I believe that he still desires to build relationships. It is incumbent on us to make that happen.
  • The church needs to be about worship, rather than programming or performance. I have nothing against Christian entertainment. I love Christian music, books and videos. However, in the church we need to be sure that we are insisting on worship, not performance. Let's engage God, the Creator of the universe, with our hearts, not our sense of good taste.
  • The church needs to be Christian, rather than liberal, conservative, progressive or evangelical. Labels in the church serve only to divide. In recent years that division has grown to proportions that cannot fairly be measured. All of these titles, labels. serve only as political identifiers. It is very hard to find Christians who believe that the church should be political, and yet almost all of us choose one or more political labels. If you identify yourself as an evangelical aren't you really giving testimony to all that you are against? If you are a liberal aren't you against the back-woods fundamentalists? It is time that we got over our differences and prayed together. Let's be Christians, after all.
  • The church needs to look outside for answers to its problems. My denomination has a terribly myopic problem. We believe that any problem we have can be solved by us. This is very sad. We fail to see the work of God in the lives and organizations of other churches and Christian ministries. We cling to the belief that we can figure it out ourselves. And all the while we sink into oblivion. There are answers to our problems. We just need to get rid of our egos so that we can figure out what we should do.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Faith Teams Program

The Christian life, if it is to be truly balanced and healthy, must contain three elements; fellowship, discipleship and ministry. To that end, each meeting of the faith team must include all three components. The goal of the faith team is to reach new people, but also to grow in faith those who are already reached.

Therefore, each meeting of the faith team should follow this outline to some degree.
  • Fellowship. There must be an allowance for sharing, visiting, catching up in interpersonal relationships. Fellowship is what bonds the members of the faith team together. It would be good to include a meal or other refreshments. The faith team that meets at a coffee shop or restaurant is in a perfect position to fulfill this need. There should be a sense of openness during this time. Everyone should feel welcomed and free to share. The faith team is no place for judging or criticizing. Support, concern and love are all appropriate.
  • Discipleship. Roughly one third of the time in the faith team should be devoted to spiritual growth. This could include singing, Bible study, prayer, sharing of sacraments, Bible reading, meditation and more. Accountability is a big thing here. There should be an assigned Scripture reading for the meeting. Everyone should share their insights and impressions on the selected text. Although the faith team is in essence a mini-church, pains should be taken to avoid a traditional church-style worship experience. Another good resource for the discipleship segment could be video teaching. There are many excellent and thought-provoking, discussion stirring videos available.
  • Ministry. The last one third of your meeting time should be devoted to ministry. In the faith team setting ministry will primarily be devoted to prayer. Team members should pray for one another and specific needs of the group. There should be an expectancy that God will meet these needs and answer prayers. Prayers for healing and miraculous intervention should be encouraged. Use oil to anoint those who are ill. The segment of the faith team meeting can also be used to plan outreach events and programs. Missions and service projects should also be considered.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

God People

Here is something I believe: All people are basically bad. That is, we are all victims of what theologians call original sin. We are born with an attitude, a desire, a proclivity to do wrong. Now, I know that no one sets out to do bad stuff. Our situation is that we are selfish. We spend all of our time and energy thinking of ourselves. "This is what I want." "Look out for Number One." "Watch your back." "What's in it for me?"

Our selfishness is realized early in our lives. It is instinctual. How many of us have bristled at a baby's cry? After all, a baby's cry is essentially a mark of selfishness. It says, "look at me," "feed me," "change my pants," "make me warm," "I want." As we get older we refine our presentation. We stay selfish, but we dress it up a little bit now and then.

If the truth were known, we are so selfish that we deny our own selfishness. We believe that we are basically good. Surely we are not bad people. We justify our self-centeredness by pointing condescendingly to someone who is more selfish than us. It is so easy to make ourselves feel better by making others look bad.

So there it is. Although I am bad, I think I am good. At least, I want others to think that I am good.

And that is where I see the greatest need of Christians in 21st century America. We must learn how to help those people who are 'good' to become people who follow God.

I believe that my call is to help good people become God people.

This means that, like the Apostle Paul and so many others throughout history, I need to become all things to all people. It means that I must sometimes go to places where I am not comfortable. I must spend time with people who are unlike me. I must do things that I am not interested in. But all of this is for the greater good of me (a selfish motivation and a sign of my 'badness'?), my community and the world.

I will help good people become God people.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Dream Big... Big Dreams

Dreaming is a dangerous proposition. If you make to big of a deal out of your dreams, it can be embarrassing when they do not come to pass. You can also get into big trouble from those around you when you have big dreams (remember Joseph and his brothers?). If your dreams are to small they are less risky, but they are also less fun to accomplish. So how should you dream? What are some guidelines? Here are a couple of suggestions:
  • The first thing to consider in your dreaming is 'How big is your God?' Dreams are never too big if you are a child of the infinite Lord of the universe. If, however, you believe that God is small, limited or uninterested in our affairs, your dreams will need to be very small.
  • How much time are you willing to give to your dream? How much energy will you devote to it? How committed are you to your dream? If you truly desire a thing, and are willing to work hard toward it, it will come to pass.

I believe that there is nothing that cannot be accomplished by a godly person with a big God who has a big dream. Dream on.