Friday, June 26, 2015

Prayer IS Faith in Action

"'Faith' is an action word."

Saturday morning, just about 8:30, and I'm getting ready to pack up my things and head home. That's when my co-worker gently speaks this from across the room.

"Huh?" Oh, no, not now, John. Really? I'm trying to get out of here. John loves to talk about God. And so do I, obviously. There's no laying blame here; when one of us gets the other one started... My auto-start could drain my gas tank. His 10:30 doubles match could come up one short.

"'Faith' is an action word," he repeated. And so it began.

We talked about some of the times we found ourselves, or encouraged others who've found themselves in God's waiting room. But -- especially in today's multi-tasking American culture -- even in the waiting room you do something. John gave the example of a guy who was being held back at his job. John had suggested further education, and honing other skills that might be necessary for the job or promotion God was, in His time, going to provide.

"And even when there's nothing to be done, you've gotta stay in prayer and stay in the Word," I said.

"Oh, no. There's always something you can be doing," he countered. I didn't argue; I was trying to get home, remember?

But I have seen situations where there is nothing "earthly" to be done. A parent on hospice: arrangements are made; it's only a matter of time. Test results pending: you know what you've got, or don't; you know your options; you've read every piece of literature your eyes will tolerate, and you've solicited opinions form every person who will tolerate you; the waiting has begun. Your child is missing: you've gone every place she goes -- more than once; you've called everyone she knows -- more than twice; the police have been notified and they've asked you -- hurt of all hurts -- not to interfere at all in their investigation. God's Waiting Room.

Why do we need to be here? Why can't we just get our answers and go? Even if it's not what we want to hear, at least we can change course and keep going. Isn't the Bible always telling us how short life is? how we're supposed to refrain from being lazy, and work hard for the kingdom? Why must we be stuck here just praying or whatever?

"Just praying." It's that phrase that got me as I thought about these things. I've heard people say, "When all else fails, pray." I know people that wouldn't consider closing their eyes for a moment of quiet, that will fall on their faces when things get tough. Look at the response after 9/11: prayer vigils, patriotism and packed churches. It was all about praying. But now the intensity is gone for most, and there's plenty of things we can do, rather than sit quietly with eyes closed.

Can somebody tell me when it became a good idea to use as a last resort, the God who set all of this in motion, the God who knows each of us inside and out, the God who ransomed each and everyone of us, the God whose love, power and wisdom are beyond measure? Can somebody tell me who decided to try every resource available to us in a finite, corrupt, dying, self-serving world to solve our problems before we take them to God? That's right: Never, and we did. How does that even make sense?

Prayer needs to be our first choice. Our automatic response. Before we make the first phone call. Before we write the check. Before we say one word to that cashier. We need to make God our first resort if we really want to see "faith" in action.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

I Ain't Lyin'

Doug is a crossing guard in my neighborhood. Doug is pretty old. I'm not sure how old, but one only has to look at his cloudy, misty eyes to know. He is thin and a bit hunched over. When he speaks he curls his lower lip in as though he is missing his teeth or trying to hold them in. But Doug is as full of spunk as ever an old man was. He loves to tell stories, and not so long ago he was telling me how his father would braid the switch just before he put it to him -- a young, no doubt impish, Doug being the "put-ee." He said his father would tell him, "This is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you." Doug, his cloudy eyes narrowing, says, "I always wanted to tell him: You a lie!" But of course, he wouldn't dare.

The truth is, punishment when done in love, usually does hurt the person giving more than the one receiving. Steven, my oldest, has always had my heart. He was four before Christine came along, and we were inseparable. Christine is and always will be my Midge, my Teenie-Weenie. Blue eyes and blond ringlets -- a spitfire in disguise. Steven was about as low-maintenance as it got, until he hit his teens. Then it was a constant cycle of problems and punishment, disappearance and delimitation. Christine, on the other hand, was petulance in a Pamper. "Don't touch," was something I said only as a precursor to smacking her hands; she never listened, and it never failed. Even now, as I think about the steps I had to take over the years to protect my children from harming themselves or harming others, I get a knot in my stomach. It did indeed, hurt me.

The word discipline comes directly from the Latin disciplina, meaning "instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge." Punish (Lat., "punire") means "correct, chastise; take vengeance for; inflict a penalty on, cause pain for some offense." Assuming I was punishing my children with the intent of correcting a bad or dangerous behavior, and not as "payback," it becomes discipline: the giving of instruction, teaching. And when it comes to teaching a fixated three-year old not to touch the ice skating bears, a power point presentation or saccharine-sweet "mommy" voice isn't gonna cut it.

Discipline works on adults, too -- usually without the punitive part. Our lives are riddled with discipline when you think about it. "Keep Off the Grass." "No Food Or Drink Beyond This Point." Dress codes at work. Traffic signals. All in place to teach, to give instruction regarding the boundaries.

So why have churches gotten away from disciplining the ranks? We preach that the Bible is "God's love letter to His people," and yet, He includes ten pretty noteworthy rules. Jesus even takes them up a notch in the New Testament. Do our church leaders not love us as much as our Heavenly Father does? Or are they not really leaders, but people-pleasers: afraid to tell people what they might not want to hear? Or are they afraid people might disagree and leave the church, taking their donations with them? That makes The Shepherd's sheep nothing more than dollar bills to them.

If I'm going to join your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, I'm going to want the leadership of your chapter to show me how things are done throughout the organization. Even though we are simply a local branch, I'm not going to expect you to tell me that AA as a whole, forbids the serving of alcohol at its meetings, but your local chapter does things a little differently. Then we're not really Alcoholics Anonymous, are we? And I'd certainly expect you to take corrective action if I appeared with a fifth of Southern every week. Kick me out if necessary. Isn't local leadership merely a representation of organizational leadership? If you don't care enough to abide by the laws, or hold me to them, why are we here?

I don't want my sin to become a habit, a way of life (or of death) before someone brings it to my attention. I don't want to walk around offending people, living contrary to the Word of God, or spreading heresies because I've gone astray and "my brothers and sisters" are too comfortable turning a blind eye, to confront me. How is that love? I thank God we have found a church family that loves us enough to call us out when we are off the mark. I know they will take whatever action they believe necessary to keep up from hurting ourselves. And I know it will hurt them more than it hurts us.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Finding Christ in Today's Christianity

I think I've had it with Christianity. It's been a lovely ride, but I'm not really sure anyone knows where this thing is actually going. One church talks about looking like a "regular person," making connections with "the world" and being "an authentic Christian." This group thinks it's all about standing out: Who gets noticed? The guy dressed in camel hair and food shopping at the insectarium. This denomination abhors showiness and thinks modesty is most honoring to God; stiff wooden benches, Birkenstocks and acapella hymns predating electricity. This church preaches love; this one, judgment. And if you ask them, they're the only ones who are right. How does anyone "on the inside" make sense of all this, much less the folks with whom we are trying to connect?

Frankly -- and sadly, Christianity in some American churches today is a farce, and it goes from one bad extreme to the next. One church wants to cherry-pick which parts of the Bible they will obey, believe, or preach. Another wants to beat folks over the head with every square inch of the Bible. We -- meaning followers of Christ (at large) -- look as though either we don't even believe what God says, or we maniacally, rigidly, literally use every word from Genesis to Revelation to judge and enslave others.

The bottom line is that all of it is wrong if Christ is not in it. 1 John 4:8 tells us, "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." God is love. 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 tells us the things we do must be done out of love (in Christ) or they are worthless:
"If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."
You wanna know why there are so many divisions in churches, why they can't seem to agree, why their differences seem to cause problems with one another? Because people are leading the church -- not Christ! Go back and read 1 Corinthians 13 again, but this time substitute "Christ" for the word "love." Wow! If Christ is patient, if Christ is kind, if Christ does not envy, and so forth and so on, what does that mean for those of us who claim to be His followers? Seems to me we should be treating people -- and one another -- a little differently.

I read a meme the other day that said: "Perfection is hard in an imperfect world." Hello! Perfection is impossible in this imperfect world!  So, for that matter, is love -- at least love without the One who is love. John 15: says: "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." Apart from God, we can do nothing. Especially love! Because He is love! Loving others is the evidence of a lover of God.

The face of true Christ-following, Christ-abiding, Christ-likeness is as diverse as the people who practice it. The Bible makes a clear point of that: Mary was chill, while her sister Martha was a bit OCD. Nicodemus was a rich teacher and public figure; Matthew was a cheat and a pariah. Peter had a short fuse while Zacchaeus was a tree-climbing little person. These Christians are couponers and homeschoolers; these Christians are financiers and educators. These Christians are hunters and outdoor enthusiasts; these Christians are vegans and lobbyists. God made us as variegated as the fish in the sea, but there is one thing we can't help but have in common: love. If you can't see love in a person, chances are you've not come face to face with a true Christian.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

What Brand of Snake Oil Do You Use?

Do you ever outgrow being self-conscious? Do you ever reach a point at which you are rich enough, beautiful enough, or successful enough that you no longer care what people think or where you fit in on society's roster? When A-Listers photoshop their Instagrams, when a candid photograph requires twenty-four minutes of preparation, when the bra strap peeking from beneath your sleeveless dress is cause for a social media frenzy, when how one looks when captured by the paparazzi is paramount to actually enjoying the event itself, I think it's obvious. If you think the person sitting next to you on the subway has a better life because they are married, or thin, or successful, or rich, or popular, or young -- think again. We are being conditioned to fret over what others think of us, and to know with certainty we will never be "enough." And we are being conditioned to measure others by the self-hatred we have in our hearts.

The media, the mean girls, the brokers, the lawyers, the celebs, the stylists, the experts and gossip columnists and plastic surgeons -- are spin doctors and frauds, practiced in the art of deception and all seeking to sell you something, something they want you to believe you need: equality with their standards. They are as insecure and un-coiffed as you are, my friend -- they've just taken a different approach. Years ago, night after night, they stood alone staring into the mirror taking inventory of the way they didn't stack up, much the same way you do now; their dissatisfaction with themselves eventually married their fear of failure and gave birth to hatred and self-loathing -- a hatred and self-loathing they now project on others for their own profit.

Do you need to be thinner? "Yeah, you probably do. Because, if you're a bit too fat, and I can convince you of that, I don't have to be alone in feeling inadequate and socially unacceptable."

Or maybe you can use a few more curves. "Yeah, I know a guy who's really great for that. He's a little expensive, but if I can get you to go under his knife, I won't feel so bad about being up to my tucked little eyeballs in debt for the work I've had done. Plus, he'll cut me a break on the C-cup he recommended."

"Oh! Well, if it's debt you're worried about, just open another low-interest credit card and transfer your balances. But keep that credit score up. And save for retirement. And maybe flip a house or two for a quick profit -- anyone can be successful in real estate. And make sure you're saving for your kids to go to college -- after all, you don't want them to have to pay for their own education when they're adults, do you? Oh, and no pressure, but are you sure you have enough life insurance -- you're not getting any younger, you know? How would it look if your family couldn't afford your funeral with an expensive luncheon afterward?"

"Have you ever thought about going back to college? Successful older men look for women with degrees, who've proven themselves intelligent, go-getters; self-sufficient, who aren't scared of a pre-nup because they have just as much to lose. Then you could stop spending every Friday night with your cat, and Saturday nights with the homeless."

It never ends, folks. Perfection in this life, based on this world's standards is a myth. The Kylie Jenner pout, the belly button challenge, Powerball, double and triple college majors, contest after contest, pursuit after pursuit. And the Bible says it is all vanity:
"Vanity[a] of vanities, says the Preacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
  1. Ecclesiastes 1:2 The Hebrew term hebel, translated vanity or vain, refers concretely to a “mist,” “vapor,” or “mere breath,” and metaphorically to something that is fleeting or elusive (with different nuances depending on the context). It appears five times in this verse and in 29 other verses in Ecclesiastes. (I've included to footnote for relevance)
Chances are my life is more than half over. I can't imagine standing before My Maker wishing my bank account had been bigger or my waistline smaller. I can't imagine explaining that I would have gone to church more often if I hadn't been training for my twenty-eighth marathon, or if the women there had been a little more educated and upscale. I can't imagine explaining that I hated my neighbor because his skin was darker than mine or his religion was inferior.

Life is a vapor, and within it, perfection an illusion. There is something more beyond this wisp of an existence, and perfection is a qualification for enjoying it. May God have mercy on our souls.