Saturday, August 29, 2009

Struggling with God

The following is a partial response to the question in the comments section of the last entry. I’ll have more later. Feel free to add your own comments.

I think God especially admires the quality of perseverance.

Jacob of the Old Testament did not exhibit many noble traits like his grandfather Abraham. In fact, it’s hard for me to like the guy because he lied, cheated, and bargained unfairly. But God favored him because he was persistent. He kept coming back to God for a blessing. The story is told that he wrestled all night with an angel and would not stop, even after he was crippled, until he received a blessing. In the end, he got one and his name was changed to Israel, which means, “He Who Struggles with God.”

If we look back at the prophets of the Old Testament, we see that they often argued with God, sometimes quite bitterly. They challenged God, accused him of being unfair, showed anger that God had left them so alone. When things didn’t make sense they didn’t shy away. They asked the hard questions

God did not respond harshly. He honored them for their persistence. They are on record in scripture as being the greatest of God’s servants.

Now consider the challenge that JeezFreaked wrote in the comments section of the last entry:

Jesus has not kept any of his "promises" to me. For years, he has closed every window on my hands, slammed every door in my face…. I keep asking, seeking, and knocking until my knuckles are bloody. He knows where I am. I have no idea where he is. I've about had it with him. So I'm doing as you suggested, asking the difficult question, which is this: What do you say to people like me? You've already eliminated the stupid cliche answers, which I appreciate. But what's left? ---JeezFreaked---

Jesus made a bold promise to us when he said that when we seek, we shall find. Like JeezFreaked, I have felt a frustration because this promise has not always come true. I gave JF a short answer at the time, but I’ve been considering it since then.

Is it wrong to say I haven’t always found God’s promises to be fulfilled? Even if it is, I am in good company with Abraham, Elijah, Elisha, Samuel, and many of the psalmists. There’s also Nathaniel, whom Jesus called the “man in whom there is no guile.”

Some of those guys got their answers relatively quickly. Some had to wait all their lives to receive their answers. And some never got their answers during their lifetimes. But they are honored in history. Hebrews 11:39-40 says:

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

How do I answer JeezFreaked? Should I say that it’s a matter of patience and faith? Or I could give the more honest answer, which is that I don’t know.

What I do know is that there is honor and nobility in the perseverance.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Afraid to Ask

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8 NIV).

Have you ever noticed how much time and energy we spend discussing what this passage does not mean? And we’re always ready to answer the big question that might come up:

If this passage is true, why didn’t God give me what I asked for?

Well you didn’t ask in the right way.

There are some things you shouldn’t be asking for.

Perhaps God answered and you just didn’t recognize it.

Maybe God just hasn’t given it to you yet. You’re not ready for it. It’s not time.

God is going to give you something better than what you asked for.

Besides, you better be careful what you ask for, because you might get it.

All of these answers make me think of the fine print we use to get out of honoring a contract.

Some of us would rather figure out what we’re doing wrong than entertain the idea that Jesus made a promise he doesn’t keep. That kind of thinking gives us a tepid spirit.

Jesus made bold statements to inspire us to be bold, not timid. He likes the Peters and the Pauls of the kingdom—people who could be reckless at times, even make mistakes, but ended up doing big things because they weren’t afraid to ask, seek, and knock.

Why not ask the tough questions? Why not risk some disappointment or confusion? And why not get very specific in asking for what we want?

Are we afraid Jesus won’t keep his promises?

More later.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Room for Mercy

The guy had been hassling me for two years. By the eighth grade I had had enough of his name calling, stealing my stuff, and general threats. I was full of testosterone and righteous indignation and it was time to stand up to the bully.

It was going to be a one on one, no holds barred, kill or be killed West Texas brawl of gruesome brutality.

It was over in two seconds. I walked away with a black eye and busted glasses. He walked away with a smirk.

I was told that the reason he hated me so was because I thought I was better than he was. I denied it. I tried not to think about him at all if I could help it. I can see now that he probably thought I was better than him, which no doubt fueled his rage.

I was angry and embarrassed over that moment. But something happened about seven years later that gave me a different perspective.

I no longer lived in that town, but I was passing through with friends when we stopped for gas. I handed some bills to the attendant without really looking at him. But I recognized his voice when he said, “Sure do thank you, sir.”

It was the guy.

He looked exactly as he did in the eighth grade, right down to his ratty tee shirt and oil stained jeans with worn knees. Only he wasn’t really quite the same. He may have hit me a couple of times in the past, but I could see in his eyes that life had dealt him many blows since the eighth grade.

I was in better circumstances. I was two inches taller and a lot more confident. I was in college and married to a woman who could have been a model.

I was not better than him, but I certainly had it better. And I always had: A loving family, nice home, enough to eat, and a future. I don’t think he had any of that.

We didn't acknowledge each other. I don't know if he recognized me. This time when I walked away, he was not smirking. But neither was I. In fact, I couldn't figure out what I felt.

Without excusing his behavior, I now see that life was much harder for him. And I realize that my successes have occurred in the framework of the many advantages I was born into.

So there’s no room for pride or superiority. But perhaps there should be room for a little mercy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Wild Girl

Rhonda tried to be a rebel even as early as the fourth grade. She was a loner, wore daring clothes, and didn't give a flip about school rules. She was the only girl I knew who got taken to the office to be paddled, just like the boys.

She may have been wild, but Rhonda had a sense of pride and dignity and she lent it to others if she was able.

One time during P.E. the class was playing softball. A little girl named Trina was appointed captain of the team by the coach that day. The rule was if you were the captain, you could choose yourself to be the pitcher. Actually, there was no choice—convention demanded that you be the pitcher if you were the captain.

But Trina was truly unsuited to the job. She threw too high or too low and sometimes she didn't even get it across the plate. She walked every one of the opposing team, which I happened to be on. I have to admit that I enjoyed the nice leisurely stroll around the bases with the assurance of an easy victory.

However, Rhonda refused to be walked. She swung wildly at the first pitch that actually made it over the plate.

“Hey!” we yelled in alarm. “Don't mess it up!"

If she struck out we'd be a little closer to having to field the ball. And heavens, if she got a hit, there was no telling how many of us who were on base would be thrown out before the ball was out of play! (We weren’t that good either).

"Don't do that again!" we admonished.

But she stared us all down and swung again, reaching high above her head in an attempt to connect. In the dugout we stomped our feet and gnashed our teeth. The score was eighty-seven to nothing, but we knew once we got out in the field, the tide of misfortune could quickly turn and take us down.

Another pitch. Rhonda stepped over the home plate to swing, and this time she connected. With a sigh of relief, we watched her make it to first base and no one was thrown out, and so we continued the leisurely slaughter.

Now that I am grown, I think I understand what happened.

Rhonda felt embarrassed for Trina. The little pitcher who couldn't was probably miserable, but she was trapped by convention. For a brief moment, Rhonda turned it into a competitive game with doubt as to the outcome. She may have been batting against Trina, but she was really offering her a shred of dignity while the rest of us hooted with celebration and/or derision.

As Rhonda grew into her teen years, she continued to get in trouble for not doing what people thought she should do. She wore tight, ragged jeans, and went out with equally restless boys.

One day she was riding on the back of a motorcycle with some fellow. I'm sure she wasn't being careful. She fell off, hit her unprotected head on the asphalt, and was dead in an instant. I didn't know about it until I saw her picture in the paper.

I really don't know much about her--only the things I've just written. I don't know where she lived, who her folks were, or even where she was buried.

I hope somebody still remembers her, though. Her defiance may have gotten her in trouble, but that's what made her stand alone against the crowd. It's what led her to be nice to young humiliated girls.

I like to imagine that her defiance would have sparked a fire in her to become something wonderful as an adult. Actually, she was something wonderful anyway.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Children's Christian Education: a Job Poorly Done

When it comes to teaching our children in church, we’re not getting the job done.

O, some churches are popular with the kids, where plenty of money is spent on safe, fun activities. But are we preparing our children? Are we making them strong so they can stand up to the trials that will come their way?

Not that I can tell. And I’m more than frustrated. I’m outraged

For one thing, we’re not teaching the right things in the right way.

Any professional educator will tell you that little children don’t think in metaphors and analogies. Their brains are not developed to handle that stuff yet. We start with information and rules because that’s what they can process. When they get a little older in middle school and high school they can perform some of the higher processing. So perhaps we should lighten up on the cute stories that illustrate a point and focus on actual scriptural content, where there are plenty of cool stories.

Children are at the time in their lives when they can hear the spectacular stories of the Bible and memorize powerful verses.

Don’t want them to see the Bible as superstitious? Want them to think responsibly? Fine. But let’s give them something to think about. We can’t teach children how to sift through the Bible and apply the appropriate material to their lives if they don’t first know their Bibles. AND THEY DON’T.

For nearly three decades I have worked with children who are growing up in church but are not being taught basic material from the scriptures. They don’t know the stories of David and Goliath, Noah and the flood, the plagues of Egypt, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Daniel in the Lion’s den, the life of Jesus, and Paul’s missionary journeys.

One Christmas during children’s moment in the worship service, I asked them about the Christmas story and they told me about the poem “The Night before Christmas.” They also knew about the North Pole, the red-nosed reindeer, and the elves that work in the toy factory. But they didn’t know the name of the town where Jesus was born, or about the shepherds who first heard the angels’ announcement. At the end of our time, while the church listened in, I told them that while we had been talking, I was actually teaching a lesson to the adults who needed to do a better job teaching the important stuff.

I first started writing this to complain about children’s curriculum. Some of it (a lot of it) is truly horrible, but if I look, I can find some reasonably competent material out there. The blame for our children’s ignorance lies mostly with the adults of any church.

Which brings me to this point: parents are extremely erratic about getting their kids to Sunday School. We get them to regular school every day. We get them to every extracurricular event on God’s earth because it’s important. But when it comes to Christian education, it’s too much trouble.

I’ve checked the rolls in my own churches and a majority of the children attend only once a month.

There’s the problem with finding volunteer teachers. My goodness what a bunch of chickens we are about facing a group of children. For God’s sake, as well as theirs, these kids need us to teach them.

They need us to prepare ahead of time with study and meditation, They need us to show up early on Sunday, have our materials in order, and share information with them.

Is that a lot of trouble? Sure, but aren’t they worth it?

Then there’s Vacation Bible School. For years, I’ve watched teachers wrestle to make sense out of the lame songs, silly themes, clever crafts, and O yeah, maybe a story from the Bible thrown in if there's time. These are materials we pay money for. To borrow a phrase from Philippians, “I consider them as rubbish.”

I know I’m not alone in my opinions. I also know I’m not alone in my efforts to change things. But I feel alone, like a prophet standing on a hill shouting to a sleeping city.

Since I’m yelling, I will shout as loud as I can that I have not and I never will sit idly by. One by one, in every church I have ever served I have taught the children as well as the adults. I will never stop. I will hound the parents to do their duties. When I can’t find good material, I will write it myself.

So who’s with me out there?

Friday, August 7, 2009

I had a glitch in the system last night, had to redo the following post. I ended up losing the nice comment that my friend Don left.

The Coffee Caper

It was the first crisis in my first church where I was the senior minister (okay, I was the only minister).

The woman settled into the chair on the other side of my desk and cleared her throat to talk and I braced myself to wrestle with the weighty issues of the Lord’s business.

“Where’s the coffee?” she said.

I didn’t understand. “You want a cup of coffee?” I said.

“No, I mean where did the coffee go?”

I was still confused. “Did you lose your cup?” Sometimes I misplaced mine and had to search for it. Maybe I wasn’t the only one.

“No! There was a large can of coffee in the cupboard in the kitchen, and now most of it has gone.
I want to know what happened to it.”

“Maybe somebody drank it?” I offered.

“But that’s a lot of coffee! I want to know what happened to it. Who took it?”

That was the big crisis.

An awful lot of church business has been about issues on this level. Missing coffee, crying babies, unwashed dishes, and unwashed youths.

I am amazed and dismayed at how much time and energy I have had to spend on the silly stuff. Sometimes I laugh. Other times I pull my hair.

Now that I’m older and sort of wiser, I realize that this woman was probably distressed about other things unrelated to coffee. Missing beverages are just easier to worry about.

I wish I could redo that moment and say something like Jesus might have: “Martha, Martha,” he soothed his friend, “You are worried and anxious about many things, but only one thing is necessary.”

I should have hugged the woman, told her how important she was, and asked her how things were going at home. That would have been a more Christlike response which could have resulted in real ministry.

By the way, we never caught the character who copped the coffee. So the coffee caper crisis was never cracked and remains a cold case to this day.