Thursday, January 14, 2016

Counting the Cost of American Christianity

A Sacramento attorney representing forty-one plaintiffs, has filed a lawsuit demanding the removal of the phrase "In God We Trust," from all United States currency.

Go ahead, suck your teeth, shake your head, post an American flag on Facebook; do all those things we do when we hear or read of our nation's "Christian foundation" eroding. Moment over? Good. Let's begin.

I don't mean to make light of our evaporating Christianity in this country, but I want each of us to get past that moment. That moment when we feel some sort of contempt for atheists exercising their civil rights. That moment when we mumble to ourselves some quaint idiom about hell and hand baskets. I want us to see this for what it is.

First of all, our founding fathers... blah, blah, blah. We all know they "founded our country on biblical principles." Or did they? You know, they made a lot of mistakes if that was the case. If this country was meant to embrace only biblical principles, why did we allow every Tom, Dick and Harry seeking religious and political asylum, to cross our borders? My family would not be here today if they had not found safety from exile on the other side of America's open doors. That is the biblical principle our founding fathers embraced: Charity. Up to and including people who did not think as they did, did not speak as they did, did not worship as they did.

Secondly, 2 Chronicles 7:14. C'mon, you know the verse. It was the battle cry of many a church and Christian foundation in 1976, and has been sufficiently resurrected since a "liberal, illegal, Muslim" Democrat entered office almost eight years ago. Let me try to make this as simple as possible: If I told Olivia, "If you will bring up your grades and help around the house, I will buy you a new pair of Converse." To whom would that conditional promise apply? Olivia, right? Now, one could argue it should, or even could apply to any of my daughters. But in no way would it apply to my neighbor's daughters. And if Olivia did not perform as my promise required, Olivia would not receive my blessing (Converse). 2 Chronicles 7:14 was a conditional promise to Israel, not the United States or any other nation. But it says, "my people," and as Christians, we are grafted into the kingdom of God, His church; we are His people. As Christians; not as Americans. So, if God's people will humble themselves and pray, and seek His face, and turn from -- Wait! Turn from our wicked ways! What wicked ways? Let me suggest a few: complacency, selfishness, laziness, disobedience. Had enough? Brothers and Sisters, if we had spent the last two hundred+ years talking to those who do not know Jesus -- whom God has brought right to our workplaces and schools and neighborhoods, instead of bellyaching like a bunch of five year-olds who've had their playground "invaded" by toddlers; if we'd been praying as faithfully and as many times a day as our Muslim citizens, instead of eliminating stuffy old prayer meetings and luring "the world" into our churches with uber-cool coffee houses; if we'd been reaching out to the poor and loving justice instead of looking to Uncle Sam to do what we've been commanded; if we'd been running for public office and filling the polls on election day, instead of twisting up the separation of church and state as badly as we believe the Supreme Court has...well, we'd have as "healed" o' land as we could get in this lifetime.

Believers, the responsibility falls on us. The charity of our founding fathers has brought the masses to our front door. How many pastors do you know dream of this sort of thing on a Sunday morning? Like shootin' fish in a barrel, right? So how have the fish gotten away?! Think back to the days before you walked with the Lord. Did the four words printed on the bills in your wallet mean anything to you? Tradition? Patriotism? Maybe you didn't even notice them. Why do they mean so much to you now? Because they are an affirmation of what you believe now. And as passionately as you identify with those words, others reject them. They have no idea what it means to serve a God who is perfect and righteous, infinitely loving and sovereign. They have no idea what it's like to trust Someone you can.

Have you told them? Have they seen Him in you?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Anger, Stress, and a Cure for the Common Headache

It was the fourth day in a row, my eye was twitching and my head was pounding. Sinuses, I rationalized. By the time my headache and I celebrated our first week anniversary, I had realized my neck and shoulders were in knots, my left arm was throbbing, and I'd worn at least a year's worth of enamel off my back teeth. Stress, I admitted. But why?

Well, Scott and I contend with the same things as most Americans: bills, family, work. But that wasn't it. After several years of hard lessons -- and much crying and whining on my part -- God convinced me He's got it when it comes to money matters. Things were status quo on the kids. Marriage as good as ever. No health issues. Even work was a breeze. Everything was all good, good, good. So what on earth was I worried about?

I don't know about you, but in my case, worry and stress are two different animals, with two different siren songs. When I worry, my stomach churns; my silence and distraction compete for first place in the Anxiety Olympics. Worry stems from a specific problem or event, and I know it when I see it. But stress seems to sneak up on me. Little things that clutter my path or tug at me as I go about my day: the check that bounces, the order that arrives too late, the impolite sales rep, the phone that never stops ringing, the dog that pukes on the carpet -- on and on it goes. Irritated for just a moment, I go on. But before the day is over, twitch, pound, throb, grind -- stress and I are reunited.

As I thought about it some more, I began to realize what causes stress most often -- at least, for me -- is anger. I'm a pretty angry person. A couple years back, a pastor said to me, "You know, sarcasm is just a form of anger." I brushed it off, but it got me to thinking. I realized how bitter and arrogant I sound when I'm always sarcastic; I wondered just how frustrating that was for Scott. Why would he even want to ask me anything? So, I vowed to be less sarcastic. And it worked. I was less sarcastic, but just as angry. And now, apparently, my anger was looking for a new place to hang out.
Cue physical manifestations!

You know, maybe God has corrected my fretfulness over finances, and He has changed me in so many other ways, but I sometimes wish He had an anti-idiot fix for me. Despite everything He's done in my life and the lives of others I know, I still thought I could fix this myself.

"I'll stop ___."

"From now on I'll ___."

I know of some situations in which God's grace has covered folks who have just determined to quit smoking, or drinking, or whatever, but generally those self-sufficient attempts at lifestyle change whither and fail. And I know, in my case, it shouldn't have worked. And didn't. Otherwise I wouldn't have been sitting for days making excuses for the jackhammer resonating in my head. Stress.

I get angry when someone holds up the line because their kid is three aisles away finishing the shopping. Stress. I get angry when their kid returns with the wrong stuff and they wind up not buying it anyway. Stress. I get angry when I finally get to the register and my card has been erroneously shut off. Stress. I get angry when I call the bank and it takes them three hours to call me back with the solution. Stress. I get angry when it's now an hour after my bedtime and I can't fall asleep for another two hours because I'm so stressed out over this nonsense with the bank. But you get the idea.

It all boils down to "these people" who just won't do things the way I want them done. It boils down to "my plans" and "my timeline" being thwarted because of others. Do I really sound that self-absorbed? that arrogant? that obnoxious? Well, not if I keep it all inside and let the stress build up, but that's really what my anger is all about. My wanting things my way; my thinking that I am better, that my way is better. And I'm not getting my way.

So, here it is, my 2016 un-resolute resolution: to get rid of anger, thereby getting rid of stress, thereby getting rid of this brain tumor. "It's not a toomah." I cannot do it on my own. I know that. Anger and I have been constant companions for far too long for this to be possible, in my own strength. That's why it's an un-resolute resolution: I cannot eliminate anger by willing it away, but I can start seeking God in place of it. The next time I'm trapped behind the "Just one more thing" checkout shopper, I can understand it as God's time, not my own, and see what He wants me to do with it. The next time my shopping is sidelined by the bank, I can understand it as God's money, not my own, and wait for Him to reveal His plan for it. The next time I'm up past my bedtime, I can understand my health and my rest is in the Lord, and ask Him to take care of that for me -- like only He can.

Monday, January 11, 2016

When Christians Screw Up

At work I'm known as "The Bible Banger." Not because I go in each day preaching or wagging my finger every time someone misbehaves; but because I don't. I claim to be a Christian -- that means publicly; and I do everything in my power to follow through on that. I think they see that. The Bible Banger moniker doesn't bother me in the least; I consider it a compliment, and the person who started it, a friend. Truth is, my work environment is pretty rough. Take a small group of relatively intelligent people who get up in the middle of the night -- every night -- to go to an office illuminated no brighter than a corner bar; surround them with computers that lock up every couple of hours or so, and telephones that ring constantly with ridiculous questions, and you're bound to encounter some cynicism tempered with juvenile humor. Colorful language and busting each others' chops just seems to come with the territory. But there is one bit of ribbing that bothers me most: the idea that Christians mess up, ask forgiveness, and it's all good.

"That's not how this works. That's not how any of this works!" At least, not entirely.

I grew up in a neighborhood where the vast majority of my friends attended the same church. They had the idea that if they met all their milestones, if they didn't "do anything too bad," if they darkened the doorstep of the church for -- at least -- the major events, they were good to go. When they screwed up, they just recited a few prayers and -- Voila! Slate clean. I can't begin to tell you how left out I felt as a kid. I got in big trouble for stuff my friends' parents considered part of growing up. My parents didn't hang out drinking and smoking on weekends with the other parents. I had no hope of attending a dance at my Christian school. There were no big milestones, and no parties for big milestones, and no presents at parties for big milestones. Being a Christian was just "No. NO. NO!" I just wanted to be one of them.

Thanks be to God, I am not. My parents may have been strict, a bit old-fashioned even (they were some of the oldest parents in the neighborhood); but we attended church that taught only the Bible. And the Bible says that when Christians screw up -- yes, we ask forgiveness, and yes, it's all good -- but that desire for forgiveness must come from the heart, and a desire to repent must accompany it.
God is no fool. If your child continued to commit the same offense day after day, and asked for forgiveness day after day, and received from you forgiveness day after day, but still persisted in his way; how long would it take before you realized this child is not sincere? How much more a God who sees our hearts? Who knows what we are all about before we ever close our eyes or open our mouths to pray.

All Christians struggle with sin -- or at least, they should; there shouldn't be a Christian alive who accepts sin in their lives. But we are still human, with 100% of our free will still intact. While we may now be "in Christ" and, therefore "new creatures," we don't begin new life in Christ with blinders on or earplugs in; we still reside in, function with, and perpetually observe this fractured world. How else would we be of any use to it? Some of us are constantly tempted by the same sin in our life. Like a skunk that keeps moving back into the woodpile each time you chase him out, the temptation to ___  just keeps popping up, even when you thought you'd gotten it this time. But should we, in our discouragement, give in, ask forgiveness after the fact, and turn around only to do the same thing the next time? "Succumb. Repent. Repeat." No! As Christians, we have an obligation to do all we can to resist temptation: pray, fast, get in God's Word, distract ourselves, phone a friend... Our relationship with Jesus is not "performance based," but it's not a free ride either. We have to put something into it.

How do I know Scott loves me? Not simply because he says it, but because he backs it up with action. The same holds true for my behavior. Being a follower of Jesus Christ, and a daughter now reconciled with her Creator and Heavenly Father, is a loving relationship. But love has standards and love has boundaries. And "Bible Banger" or not, I overstep them sometimes. If I casually rely on God's love for me and Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, to cover whatever I do, as many times as I do it, with no real desire to change that pattern, well -- I guess anyone would have to ask, "Is her commitment for real?" Or maybe they'd already have their answer.

When Christians screw up, God's infinite grace is what makes things "all good." Nothing we can say or do, no matter how contrite we are, has anything to do with cleaning our slates. But our clean slates today should certainly determine how clean we endeavor to keep them in the future.

"My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth." 1 John 3:18