Friday, October 23, 2009

What Are You Living For?

This past Sunday I sat in on my old Sunday school class, for the first time in months. Responsibilities in other parts of the church have effectively removed me from the class roster(although I do get the honor of teaching in there in a couple of weeks). But, I do try to make it in there when I do have the chance. Wonderful group of people, with lots of wonderful memories.

My church has been involved in a church wide study for the last several weeks. I’ll be honest and it’s no secret to most, I avoided the study like the plague. Not because there was anything inherently wrong with the study or with the good intentions I have to believe were ultimately behind it, I just had issues with the timing and the approach. The details really aren’t important and it certainly hasn’t been a divisive issue. I don’t have to agree with everything and everyone certainly doesn’t have to agree with me. And besides, that isn’t what this piece is about.

But to get at what this piece is about, I do have to share the main reason I stayed away. I had previewed the study before the church decided on the curriculum and I recognized it as one of those things where in a class setting, my personality (nice way of saying opinion) would end up dominating. As a Christian, as a person in ministry, and as person who has committed their life to ordained ministry, I’m a firm believer more is expected of us. Nominal Christianity is in fact, not Christianity at all.

So, I attended the class, which was on the final lesson of the study. I knew this going in and I went in prepared to behave myself :) And I did. I asked a couple poignant questions, intended hopefully to compel thought beyond and after the class. This class is used to me poking and prodding, always with a smile and in a good natured manner, so this was definitely muted for me.

However, it was the last five minutes of the class, the summing up of the study, which really stuck with me going away. Now, once again, I feel it important to qualify a couple of things. It was not a problem with the person teaching, the study, or anything else to do with the class. For me, it was a moment of illumination that transcended the class and the local church, to the church universal.

The teacher, passionately asked the class to consider the differences that five more minutes of prayer might make over the next year, or how doing one more good deed might make a difference, or even how attending one extra Sunday might draw you closer to God. John Wesley was invoked, by an old retired pastor, either rightly or wrongly, “Fake it, until it becomes real!” For me, it was a genuine moment of heartbreak and alien silence. The odd thing was, I couldn’t articulate it at the time, had no clue exactly why I felt the way I did, I just knew that my heart ached.

I had another responsibility to take care of at church shortly after this class, after which I immediately left to go to an urgent treatment center. For a broken heart? Nah :) I had been fighting a sinus infection for a week and a half at that point and I felt like my head was going to pop. But on the way there, it hit me with a simple question that rang out in my heart, “What are you living for?”

Five minutes. One extra act of grace. One bonus Sunday in the very house of the Lord. “What are you living for?” Is this what the Christian life has become? Compelling people to devote a minimal and I do mean minimal, amount of extra devotion over a year…and then celebrating it? I can hear it now, “Yes, you big grump! Everyone grows at a different rate, not everyone is at the same place in their walk!” I get that, and I embrace it. I love, admire, and even envy my Christian brothers and sisters beginning in their walk. It’s exciting, it’s fresh, it’s reinvigorating for me. It’s what it is about, new believers, walking with them, shepherding them. They’re pure because they haven’t been beat into submission yet. BUT, THIS IS NOT WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT.

New believers “get it” in a way that is lost on the “church” (do note those quotations). I’m talking about those folks for whom that message, those requests were made of. They’re requests not only being made in my church, but all over. Five minutes. One extra act of grace. One bonus Sunday in the very house of the Lord. Has our faith become such that this is a valid approach for “mature” Christians? Is that even faith?

Please know that I am not picking on my church, I’m picking on the culture of church. I’m picking on these "12 step program" approaches to faith. I’m talking about those approaches where Christ is not even secondary to our busy lives, but somewhere down the long laundry list of things that occupy our minds, lives, hearts, and souls…and then to be told that this is okay, that this is faith. That you are trying, that God doesn’t care. I beg to differ.

What are you living for? What gives meaning to your life? What if those requests above were made, not to be accomplished by the next year, but the end of the next day? By the end of this afternoon? By the end of the hour? “You ask too much you big grump?” Am I?

We have lost the very basis of our faith, our professed believe in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. A man died for YOU! This isn’t some far away story, that has no bearing on your life now. Blood was spilled on your behalf, so that you would have the opportunity to spend eternity in paradise. But it wasn’t just any man, or any blood. It was God incarnated in a man, Jesus Christ. Beaten and battered, mocked, spit upon, and nailed to a cross. Lifted into air, to die the despicable, shameful death of a criminal, alongside criminals. God. For you, for me, for us.

What are you living for? That you have to be asked to give a little more time, to devote a little more of yourself. Have we lost sight of what was given for us? What was endured for us? That cross is not 2000 years ago, it is right before our faces. And all too often we spit upon it, myself included, when we cannot find the motivation or need to live a life in accordance with that gift. We want a faith to be lived in increments, we don’t want to be pressed, we don’t want to be uncomfortable. Was the cross comfortable? Did God not give His all for us? Besides, since when was freedom uncomfortable?

What are you living for? I had a professor say one of the most poignant, powerful things I’ve ever heard a week or so ago. “Jesus Christ does not polish chains; he shatters them.” I’ll take it one step further. He doesn’t help us decorate them under the many guises we place upon them to hidethem, to make them easier to accept, either. He doesn’t embrace those chains along with embracing us. He does not hug us and our chains, He is repulsed by them. He stands at the ready with a big, giant hammer, begging and pleading for your to fully trust Him and to allow Him to complete His gift to you; freedom in Him. Let Him shatter those chains.

What are you living for? Five minutes. One extra act of grace. One bonus Sunday in the very house of the Lord. Is this worthy? Is this honoring the sacrifice? More importantly, is this honoring the LOVE that was given for all? Those requests? Don’t let them be made of you, allow Christ to do that which He is begging you to do. Let those requests be made by you, not of others, but of God. I want five more minutes to pray. I want to be used by You. I not only want to enter your house, but I want to take it with me, in every place that I go, in every thing that I do, and in every word I speak. Let Him have those chains, get out of His way, and release yourself.

What are you living for?

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Indignation and Exasperation at the Commercilaization of Christmas or a Blog That Really Isn't About Christmas

Before I begin, I know it has been forever :) Having spent the summer preparing to go back to school and then actually doing it, has dominated most of my time...which has most certainly been a good thing. Life at Asbury Theological Seminary has been and continues to be everything that I had hoped it would be and SOOO much more. It is truly a blessing. So, while it definitely cuts into the blogging time, that is definitely not a bad thing…probably in more ways than one.

What better way to mark my return to the Cantankerous Christian than to write about one of my favorite subjects in the whole, wide world? Christmas. As I look at the counter, it’s already dropped to 70 days and seems to be picking up steam. I’m absolutely giddy with anticipation as you can probably imagine. One of the coolest things about being such a well known Christmas fanatic is that I have become the go-to guy for Christmas questions, stories, and discussions. The kids at church now demand to know how many days it is to the blessed day. Needless to say, I’m having a blast.

This morning, through Facebook, I was having one of these Christmas-centric discussions, when the question turned to the commercialization of Christmas. The discussion was centered on the observation that the stores are currently rushing to get their Christmas merchandise out. It’s a conversation that I hear year after year, after year, after year. And I always listen patiently and smile. Honestly, I usually don’t have much of a response. The points are always valid, there’s no denying that. For most people, Christmas is about everything and anything, but what it should be. I get that. Me? I get Christmas. I try to live my life in, through, and for Christ in such a way as to honor him year around. I don’t need a special day or season to do that.

The decorations, lights, trees, and all that good stuff? For me, it’s more about remembering family, friends, and good times. Nothing about those things (lights, trees, and such) evokes the images of the life of Christ and His words for me. Just the other day while perusing Christmas decorations, I smelled the distinctive smell of garland. Instantly I was transported back to Keokuk, Iowa, in the house on Williams St, decorating the tree with my mom, and watching the Mr. Magoo Christmas Carol on tv…circa 1977. And this big old grump was reduced to a big, old lump. I have so many wonderful memories tied to that time of year, that I just can’t help it. Do I take the time to remember Christ? Yup, but in those regards it is no different than any other day. I don’t need a special day, once a year to do that. Christmas to me is more about spreading joy and cheer, and just flat out having fun. My problem? I tend to try and use that as an excuse to do those things all year long :)

However, this is not what this particular blog is about; me and my Christmas illness. I’m quite happy with my illness, so leave me alone :P. When the question was raised, for maybe the first time, I really took time to ponder it and I quickly came to a conclusion…and hoo-boy is this one probably going to ruffle some feathers.

I think the once a year indignation that Christians feel at the commercialization of “their” holiday is far more tragic than the commercialization of said holiday. As Christians, we get all riled up when stores put their stuff out too early. We cluck out tongues at the “more, more, more” mentality presented in holiday commercials. We get upset when other faith groups protest the displays of our holiday. We shake our heads and our fists at the lines, the rushes, and the traffic. We feel the righteous indignation rise from deep within our innermost places when a store greeter has the audacity to bid us a “Happy Holiday”, rather than a “Merry Christmas”. I’m convinced that most of us spend the holidays angry, brooding, and heartbroken over the way the celebration of the birth of our savior is treated. Tragic stuff that is. We must defend the sanctity of such a holy day.

However, I’m left wondering about the rest of the year, which almost certainly contains the real birthday of our Lord and Savior. We get all bent out of shape over the mistreatment of a holiday, for which most experts agree, does not signify the actual birthday of Jesus. (As I joked with one friend, by counting down the days and celebrating Christmas everyday, I’m certain to nail the right one sooner or later) We grow voices and courage, we’re not afraid to speak our mind, we don’t hesitate to take a stand against such travesties as the local Wally World putting out Christmas decorations in October.

But it raises some questions for me. Where are the voices the rest of the year? Where are the stands being taken? Where is the courage? Especially when it comes to our churches, our families, and the world around us? We’ll take stands against the commercialization of Christmas, but we won’t take a stand against theologically unsound doctrines being preached from our pulpits? We’ll raise our voices against someone who gives us the incorrect greeting at a store, but we refuse to raise our voices against the injustices going on around us, even within our churches? We worry about whether or not people take the time to truly remember the birth of Christ, but we cannot concern ourselves with the souls and wars being lost within our own walls? We’ll stand tall and we’ll stand proud in defense of our holiday, yet we will not stand tall and proud for a savior that hung from a cross for us?

Does anyone else see the disconnect here? I hear more Christians during the holidays boldly defending and standing for their faith in a day and celebration, than I do the rest of the year about things for which we really should be concerning ourselves with. Me? I’m going to continue to enjoy and celebrate Christmas year around….The sleigh is big, the cookies are awesome, and the Savior worthy. I would absolutely love to have some company.