Sunday, August 31, 2014

No Coincidences

Have you had days that are just plain exhausting? Days where it seems the world is conspiring to find your last nerve and do the Hokey Pokey all over it? Over these past few days life has been putting its left foot in, left foot out, left foot in and shaking it all about.

We're celebrating Labor Day with my wife's family which means we're out of our normal routine. And as parents of little ones what happens when we stray from routine? Hot mess, that's what happens. "Be nice. Walk away. Use your words. Put it down. Sit at the table. Take turns. Eat your next bite, please. Calm down." These phrases flow from my lips with thoughtless Pavlovian effort. You would think after twelve years of marriage Mrs. Collins would know these things. :-)

In all seriousness it is hard being a parent. You wonder if you're having any positive impact at all on your kids. I'm still in the thick of it so check back with me in a decade. Despite all the correcting my wife and I do we both recognize that we really do have some pretty awesome boys. And we love them to pieces.

Sometimes I wonder if we get a little too preoccupied living the expectations of life rather than life itself. We create idealized views of how the world should be and get frustrated when the actual world doesn't match. And then the blame game starts. Some will blame others. Some will blame themselves. Some will blame God.

Ultimately we all have to reconcile the idealized world with the actual world. The world is what it is. And God appears to be allowing it to exist as it is for the moment. So how can God be all-loving and all-powerful while allowing broken things to stay broken? I think the answer is wrapped up in understand God as our father. As a dad I have to allow temporary pain in my boys lives to bring about something greater than fulfilling their immediate cravings. Even as a fallible, imperfect being I can see the value in deferring immediate gratification for something more worthwhile. How much more so is this true for God, the only being who knows the entirety of all ends from beginnings?

There's a known verse from the Old Testament people frequently quote. Jeremiah 29:11 says:
I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.
I've heard this in the context of the health and wealth gospel. Some people use this verse and claim that God never allows anything bad to happen to you. Once you place your trust in Jesus you should never experience problems or sickness and if you do it's from sin or lack of faith.

In one sense this is true because all evil has its root in sin. But sin entered the world long before you and I showed up. We are daily experiencing the result of mankind's fall from innocence. So, yes, sickness, disease and death is the result of sin. It just may not be your sin.

If you read Jeremiah 29:11 in context you see that God was giving this promise to encourage the children of Israel who were in the bonds of slavery. The world they lived in was very different than the idealized world they wanted to live in. Let's back up and start at verse 4:
The Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those people whom he allowed Nebuchadnezzar to take away as prisoners from Jerusalem to Babylonia: 'Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what you grow in them. Marry and have children. Then let your children get married, so that they also may have children. You must increase and not decrease. Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too. I, the Lord, the God of Israel, warn you not to let yourselves be deceived by the prophets who live among you or by an others you claim they can predict the future. Do not pay attention to their dreams. They are telling you lies in my name. I did not send them. I, the Lord Almighty, have spoken.'
The Lord says, 'When Babylonia's seventy years are over, I will show my concern for you and keep my promise to bring you back home. I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.
The whole context of this promise is that God is walking his children through a less than ideal situation to accomplish a greater good. But even in the midst of the trial God still wants them to carry on with life. Keep on keeping on because there is a purpose to the trial.

The presence of adversity doesn't mean the absence of God's love. I like how the character Reverend Graham Hess puts it in M. Night Shyamalan's Signs when confronted with the unexpected:
People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance. I'm sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people. But there's a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they're looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever's going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?
Perhaps the next time a trial strikes rather than ask God to remove it ask him to help you understand why you're going through it. There are no coincidences with God.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Remember the Price Tag

I was on my long run this Saturday morning, the distance and pace being neither important nor impressive. Let's just say it was long enough to break out the mango slices halfway through. Out of all my workouts I enjoy the long run the best. It's a socially acceptable manner of being a recluse and ignoring the clamor of people. I usually spend the time listening to music as it helps keep my mind from playing tricks on my body to quit early.

This particular morning I was tuned to Slacker Radio's Fired Up Pop Hits channel. One song in particular captured my ears and thoughts. "Price Tag" by Jessie J is a catchy tune that speaks to the consumerism and selling out. I won't quote the whole song, but some of the lyrics are pretty profound.
Seems like everybody's got a price
I wonder how they sleep at night
When the sale come first
And the truth comes second
Why is everybody so obsessed?
Money can't buy us happiness
Can we all slow down and enjoy right now?
Guarantee we'll be feeling alright
It's not about the money
We don't need your money
We just wanna make the world dance
Forget about the price tag
I wholeheartedly agree with these words. It's interesting to me that this sentiment is coming from a non-religious artist. If I were to look around, how many churches can honestly bring the same message? How many pastors today are making the sale come first and the truth come second? How many holy organizations are too caught up with the fiscal statement and the vision statement? How many are so busy looking at the entire harvest field that they're losing sight of the individual stalks of wheat?

I wonder sometimes if the institution of church has anything to offer humanity other than fundamentalist dogmatism. Just last week I was speaking with a friend and he made reference to young Earth creationism and how thankful he was that the college he teaches at embraces the complete, unfiltered truthfulness of the Bible. I smiled and listened politely. But inwardly I wondered what he would think if he knew that I don't believe the Earth was created in six literal 24 Earth-hour days. That's a topic for another day. I think he reads this blog so I'll have a chance to see what he says.

I think there is an inherent danger in how church meets today. We come together every week and hear the same perspective given by the same people without bothering to hear other points of view. Sunday morning is dominated by a certain personality type with a certain denominational bend. If you happen to see things differently than your leaders, keep it to yourself or leave. Don't confuse the flock with nuance.

This balkenization of the body of Christ hurts. As followers of Jesus we need to be more comfortable with people who don't think the way we think. One of the pillars of Jesus' ministry was embracing those outside the ivory tower of institutional religion. We need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. Above all we need to listen and love. I'm convinced that all truth is God's truth regardless of the mouthpiece he is using. And it seems that he loves to use the unlikely, the weak and the overlooked.

Don't just believe what someone says because of their title, office or education. Likewise don't discount something spoken just because of the source. Take time to think for yourself and figure out what you believe. Challenge your thinking and assumptions. Be on the look out for those moments for God to speak to your heart in unlikely ways. And treat those who differ from you with grace and respect.

I admire Jessie J's talent and appreciate her artistry. She caught a truth in her song. Life really is not about money. The giver of life doesn't need your money. He wants to make the world dance. That's why he sent his son. He provides a full pardon, full acceptance of who you are, complete love without strings attached. That's what makes his creation dance. If you are ever in doubt of his affection for you, remember the price he paid. Remember the price tag.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fully Known and Fully Loved

This week we said goodbye to one of the matriarchs in the family. My aunt Kathy had a tremendous gift for making everyone feel welcomed and loved. Her cheerful manner, warm disposition and smiling blue eyes greeted you on every visit. She made sure there was plenty of food and coffee on hand while games of Hearts and Golf carried on to the wee hours of the morning. Family was at the top of her priority list, kids most of all. Along with the rest of my family and her friends I'm going to miss her a bunch.

Aunt Kathy (right) and her daughter Taunya
Death is such a roller coaster, full of all sorts of emotional mountains and valleys. Sadness over of the barrier that now separates us. Happiness that the suffering is now over. Regret over any words or actions left unspoken and undone. Hope that the comforting passages of scripture are true. Doubts that they may not be. It's exhausting.

As I grieve with my family over the passing of my aunt, I think about others I have said goodbye to. Both grandfathers, an uncle, several friends, my daughter. Especially my daughter. And the same questions I've been asking for years circle around and around in my mind. The one that lands most frequently is just two simple words: now what?

What do I do with all my questions and feelings? Where do I go to get answers? Are there even any answers at all? I feel that somehow if I can work through the crucible and fire of these trials I can somehow grasp the meaning of life and what real truth is. If I can look at, understand and even embrace the toughest parts of the journey maybe, just maybe I can see my past, present and future with more clarity and even joy.

For the past couple of years I've been reading, thinking, praying and conversing on what to do with the pain in my life. The more I examine the more I see a simple truth emerging. This seems to be the foundation upon which all of reality hangs. And it's this truth that I have to revisit over and over because it is forgotten so easily. The basic truth of all existence is:
God is love.
That's it. Simple yet profound. Easy to say but difficult to fully believe. If we are to make any progress in life we must begin with this as the foundation. Resting on anything else is like building a house on sand. Sooner or later the tide of reality will rise and wash away all we have made.

I'm currently making my way through a book by Ty Gibson called See with New Eyes: The True Beauty of God's Character. In it he starts a chapter with this line:
To be fully known and yet fully loved is the essence of our redemptive healing.
I think all the suffering we experience ultimately has its root in an issue of trust. Pain is most painful when we think God is holding out on us, has abandoned us and ultimately doesn't love us. But if we knew, really knew deep down at our core that God knows us, loves us and has nothing but our best in mind, the trials of life would lose the sting of meaninglessness and begin to take on another shape, one of purpose and care. Pain could even be embraced as a vehicle to bring about something greater than what was lost.

I used to hate Romans 8:28. And I suppose I still do, at least to the extent that people in the church use it:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
I cannot count the number of times this verse popped up the first few months after losing my daughter. The context was never one of hope but of judgment. Rather than bringing comfort these words brought silence and hypocrisy. If I experienced the slightest bit of anger, sorrow or doubt that verse would be trotted out and I had to bury my true feelings under a mask of religion. To be honest this is one of the reasons I think most churches are not likely places to experience healing, especially if you've attended for an extended period of time. We are not allowed to be human because that doesn't fit the narrative of an ever onward and upward path of righteousness.

The sad reality is we can't handle other people's suffering because all of us to some degree don't trust God. And I don't think we can perfectly trust him on this side of heaven. We are uncomfortable with other people's pain because we aren't comfortable with our own pain. So we quote some pithy saying in hopes they will go away. Suffering is a reminder that the world is not as it should be. Suffering ultimately can and will bring out a hope that something much better is coming but it also needs to bring out the fear that God has abandoned and forgotten us. Just as the serpent in the garden told Adam and Eve that God was not to be trusted we still face the same temptation today. For those of us with some religion under our belts rather than admit to and deal with our fear we box it up and wrap it in the onion-skinned paper of scripture.

I forget where but I once heard someone say, "True faith is accepting God's acceptance." It means allowing yourself to be fully loved by God exactly as you are. Being fully known and and simultaneously fully loved is what makes God God. His perfection is how he has complete insight into who you are. His perfection is also why he loves everything about you. He knows your struggles and your suffering. There is no pretense with him. No need to be anything other than who you are at exactly where you currently are.

If you are in the fires of bitterness and anger God's love is with you in the midst of the flames. If you are in the darkness of depression and sorrow God's love is there holding you up. Don't run from where you are. Don't be anything other than what you are. For whatever reason you are walking through something and its very important to God that you let him into everything you experience. Church may reject you. Friends may reject you. Family may reject you. But God will never reject you. Allow yourself to be fully known and fully loved.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Home for the Broken-Hearted

I came across an article recently at entitled "7 Reasons You Should Invite (Some) People to Leave Your Church." You can read the entire article here for the seven reasons but the thing that caught my attention is the first sentence.
You spent a lot of time trying to grow your ministry.
Excuse me? Begging pardon? Spent a lot of time growing whose ministry? Wowie-wow-wow. I thought the church was the body of Christ, the physical representation of Jesus Christ's ministry here on earth. Seems pretty ballsy to supplant Jesus Christ with yourself as the head owner and visionary of his ministry.

Now I'm pretty sure if you asked any pastor if they agreed with this they would respond "Oh, no. This isn't my church. It's the Lord's church." And they may be sincerely convinced they believe it. But I'm going to challenge that a bit. My dear pastor, you may say it in word but do your actions show it when people meet?

Every church I've attended has the same general structure. The head of the church is a Bible-college-educated, possibly seminary-trained minister. Their occupational livelihood is to study Scripture, prepare a message and deliver it to the flock. They will surround themselves with some paid staff who probably were also Bible-college-educated. And when we gather together for Sunday worship these are the folks elected to lead from the front and address the congregation. They alone hold enough knowledge to rightly divide Scripture. They alone can be trusted to correctly hear what the Spirit says.

In other words it's the paid professionals who lead and the unpaid amateurs who follow.

Is this what church is supposed to be? I personally don't think so. The claim of Jesus Christ is that he alone is the mediator of humanity who removed the separation between us and God. It is through his death and resurrection that the veil was torn and we now have direct access to the throne room of heaven. This is the message of the gospel, that God is willing to go to any length to show us that he loves us, cares for us and ultimately has nothing but the best for each one of us.

When asked by a religious leader what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replied it is to love God and love others. Loving God is a highly personal experience. It is an intimate encounter with the Maker and Creator of all things. It is knowing that he cares about you as an individual. There is no one in the world like you and you are exactly what God wants and longs for. Right here. Right now. He doesn't want the best you. He wants the real you. Loving God is really about allowing God to love you just as you are and not as you should be.

A tangible and physical way that God loves us today is through other people. He created us to need each other, to find a place of belonging where we can be with each other on our journey to the grave and the life to come. We weren't meant to walk life just by ourselves. We were meant to be with people. We have the desire and the need to be encouraged by others and to bring encouragement to others.

This is what I think the gathering of believers should be. The intention of our meeting should be to remind each other that God loves us. That he thinks the world of us. That we matter to him and to each other. That we are important because we have a unique sparkle and perspective of God that shines in each of us and the meeting would be a little bit dimmer if we weren't there.

Church should not be about the effectiveness of the pastor and the staff. It should not be about improving attendance, increasing giving and growing vision. It should not be measuring success the way the world measures success. It should be about growing in love. Growing in the love of God and growing in love for each other. It should be a place that embraces the outcast, brings importance to the insignificant and provides a home for the broken-hearted.