Thursday, July 28, 2005

What is Petty to you may be a NASCAR legend to someone else

Ok, the play on words in the heading is not really where this piece is going. The other day some of us were discussing relationships. It came up that some people end friendships over petty issues. Some examples were offered. Yes, it seemed undeniable that some people do indeed end deep, significant friendships over incredibly small issues.

In our discussion, however, we realized that none of us would end a relationship over a petty disagreement, so why would other people. Perhaps the issue wasn't as petty to them as to us.

Here is what I think. I don't think people walk away from friendships over petty disagreements. one of two things is at work in such cases, or maybe even a combination of both.

First, by definition, if something is worth ending a relationship, it is not petty. The person for whom the issue at hand seems petty needs to do all he or she can to see things from the other person's perspective.

What may well happen from this first point is that the person will discovery that there is more going on that just the apparent issue. Thus, not only is the issue at hand less petty than the individual thinks, but it may well also be only the straw that finally broke the camels back of the relationship.

If you have been in a relationship that someone else chose to end for seemingly petty reasons, look deeper. Try to see it from his or her perspective. Consider that that petty issue may have been just the last in a series of issues.

Of course, if you have no desire to heal the relationship, forget that last paragraph and go on with your life. But don't be surprised if the same thing happens again.

Monday, July 25, 2005

When all you can do is pray...

The phone call woke me this morning. The First United Methodist Church of Pittsburg, where my older brother is the pastor, was on fire. More specifically, the youth building, a converted feed store, caught fire in the early hours of the morning. The fire was threatening several nearby buildings. His wife called to let me know, and invite me to pray.

I did all I knew how to do. I prayed. After I woke up some more, I shared the news with my email list of church folk, inviting them to pray too.

The thought crossed my mind to drive to Pittsburg and offer to help. Help with what I did not know, but the idea seemed fruitful for a minute. I think we are wired that way; when a loved one has a need we want to do something. I actually found myself thinking, “I guess all I can do is pray.”

What kind of thought is that? Prayer is communication with the Creator of all that is, the God who loves us and desires our best for us even more than we do. How can prayer be a last act of desperation when nothing else can be done.

Someone told me about a year ago that “if all you can do is pray, prayer is enough; if you do everything but don’t pray, it is never enough.”

Many times prayer is not all we can do. Many times in prayer God will nudge
us into action. When we pray we must pay attention to what God might be calling us to do.

I called my brother around noon. The fire had been confined to the youth building; other buildings were spared and no one was hurt. I did all I could, as did many of you who joined us in prayer.

When all you can do is pray, pray.

What kind of light are you?

One of my favorite metaphors for the Gospel in all of the Scripture is light. Jesus said he was the Light of the world. John refers to Him as the Light shining into the darkness. Isaiah describes God’s people as those “who sat in darkness.” But the light is here, and has shone on us.

Light is such a wonderful creation. The light of just one little candle can fill a room. The better the light, the more clearly one can see. The more clearly one can see, the better able we are to make good choices.

Several years ago I realized that we might have lost some of the beauty of the Light of the world metaphor to technology. When Jesus told his disciples to let their lights shine, I’m sure he had a candle or oil lamp in mind. Today, we would tend to think in terms of flashlights.

While a flashlight can be mighty handy, especially with the power coming and going with no rhyme or reason, there is an important difference between a flashlight and a lamp. A flashlight can be shined directly into eyes, and thus have the opposite effect from what light ought to do; it can blind.

It strikes me that too often the light of the Gospel is used as a flashlight, shined into someone’s face, and thus blinding them instead of helping them to see.

The light that Jesus brought into the world doesn’t blind people; let’s not use it that way. It helps them to see. It helps them to make good decisions. Let’s let that light shine in and through us.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

One of my favorite things about computers is multi-tasking. Multi-tasking means I can type this column, check my email, work on the church web page, and layout this week’s block in the church directory all at once.

But multi-tasking is not a new thing; it certainly didn’t just come along with the advent of computers. In fact, Christians, have been multi-tasking for years, even centuries.

Christians can, at precisely the same moment in time, both grovel before God about what miserable sinners we are, and look down our noses at others. Talk about talent! Without pausing for breath, the same Christian can tell you what a terrible person he is and explain to you why so-and-so is worse. Ignoring the irony, a Christian can lament how unworthy she is to be in the family of God, and at the same time give thanks to God for those she doesn’t want in that same family.

Christians aren’t the only ones who do this. We do not have a monopoly on oxymoronic mindsets. Christians are the ones about whom I am concerned. Our Lord taught us better.
The sin of those who built the tower of Babel was in acting on their misguided perception that they could get to God if they could only build a tower high enough.

We don’t build such towers these days, but too many Christians are more than willing to step on, climb over, and shove out of the way others in the name of “being close to God.” When we put others down, we are not drawing ourselves closer to God. When we criticize and condemn others or when we thank God that we are better or better off than others or when we climb on our spiritual high horse we turn away from God. If we could see clearly at those moments, we would find that our Lord and Savior is down among those on whom we are stepping.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Excess Baggage

Some time ago the city of Waco was selling compost this past Saturday. Having recently become the owner of a truck, I was looking forward to getting a load for my yard.

They told me that my truck could probably not carry more than half a yard. Since I didn’t know otherwise, I figured I could take their word for it. They were right. It weighed my truck down enough that the mud flaps dragged the ground sometimes. It was almost more than the truck could take.

I took my time getting home from Waco, and as soon as I got here I did exactly what my truck needed; I unloaded it. There was no sense carrying that compost around for the rest of the day. The truck ran better and easier without the load. It was that easy.

Then I got to thinking about carrying loads. As people, we tend to carry hurts and failures around with us like a load of compost. These things weigh us down so much that we cannot go as well as we could otherwise. Yet, instead of unloading them, we often carry them for years.

Over the years, if you continue to add to the load, it gets to be too much. People suffer breakdowns. At best, many people give up any hope of knowing joy in their lives.

It is time to dump the load. Get rid of the burden that keeps you dragging
through life. Find a friend. Friends are glad to share the burden and lighten your load. True friends won’t pass it on, won’t spread your stuff, and won’t break your confidence. If you need some of these, I have a church full of them. We share the weight and lighten one another’s load.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Proving God's Existence

“Prove God’s existence to me” is the request, even the demand, of many unbelievers. Many Christians have tried over the years to do exactly that. The great Thomas Aquinas offered five proofs for God’s existence. I don’t.

When challenged to prove God’s existence, I respond by asking what the challenger accepts as evidence. Miracle stories, of course, are out. “Stories” and “myths” from the Bible they will not accept as proof. As it usually turns out, the only acceptable evidence would be on the level of calling down fire from heaven. Not that hurts anyone, of course, but that puts on a really good show.

While I have no doubt that my God could easily send down fire from heaven that doesn’t damage a thing, I have never felt the call to ask God for this. Neither do I think God is interested in being treated like a dog that does tricks.

What I offer as proof is this: I am part of a body of people whose lives are based in finding hope and peace and forgiveness in God. These people live their lives in response to God’s love. Were it not for the love of God, we would be without hope, without peace, and without joy. We would know moments of happiness. We would know times of laughter and light-heartedness. We would not, however, know the deep-seated joy that comes from knowing and living in the love of God.

They would, and they have, then challenged me to “prove” to them how this group of people, the church, is better than other groups of people who worship other Gods. They want me to prove to them why my God is the right one.

The only proof I can offer is the proof some are unwilling to accept. “Come and join us,” I say, “and you will find all the proof you need.”

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Heaven is not about you and me!

I was discussing heaven the other night with a friend. For over twenty years I have thought of heaven as a place of Mrs. Johnson’s doughnuts and flag football. Mrs. Johnson’s was a bakery in Austin that we frequented while I was at Southwestern. The doughnuts were incredible; so incredible I figured they must be available for eternity.

My friend mentioned that there must be cats in heaven. I tried to be polite, but I had to admit that my vision of heaven had no place for cats. Well, on second thought, heaven will be a big place; so maybe cats can live on the other side.

That’s when the theological light went on in my head. For years I’ve thought of heaven as made up of things I love and that bring me peace, comfort, and happiness. But what happens when things that bring me peace, comfort, and happiness don’t get along with what brings others these same feelings? How could heaven me full of mutually exclusive things?

All of a sudden I realized how selfish it is to think that heaven is made up entirely of things I love. The motivation behind this theology is honorable. There will be no pain, suffering, or sadness in heaven. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4).

But I have had it backwards for two decades! The reason for the ultimate peace and joy of heaven is not that it will be filled with what I want or what you want; the reason is that we will be entirely in the presence of God!

I may be able to play touch football and eat doughnuts there. You may have cats with
you. Whether or not we do, we will have the very presence of God, and, by comparison, football, doughnuts, cats, or anything else, will pale by comparison.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Called to be More

“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” reads a popular bumper sticker. What a travesty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to summarize it this way! I think the bumper sticker is correct, but it goes about it all the wrong way. Take it from someone who is good at saying the right things the wrong way.

The truth of the statement is solid. Christians do not rely on achieving perfection but rather on the grace and mercy of God. We do not live by a list of do’s and don’ts, but by knowing from day to day that God has forgiven the sins of the past, and that God offers his people the power to resist and overcome temptation.

Sometimes we accept this power given by God, we resist temptation, and we do not sin. Sometimes we ignore the power and free gift of God and give in to the fleeting pleasure of sin.
Unfortunately the phrase sticker too often becomes a cop-out for Christians to ignore the power God offers us to turn our backs on behaviors we know we ought not be involved in. Even if we are not perfect yet, that is the direction God is calling us (Matthew 5:48).

John Wesley gave us a phrase that captures the way Christians ought to look at perfection. “Are you going on to perfection?” he would ask disciples. If we are not moving toward perfection; if we are not living more Christ-like lives now than last year, then we are forsaking the power of God.

The more we tell ourselves that we are not perfect, the more convinced we will be that we will not be, either. On the other hand, the more we remind ourselves and one another of the power and victory over sin that God has for us, the more joyful we will find our lives. God calls us to be more than we were when He found us!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Afraid to Die? Afraid to Live?

I’m not afraid to die.
I’m not afraid to live,
and when I’m flat on my back
I hope to feel like I did
—U2, “Kite”

The thought of being afraid to live seems odd, even laughable, at first glance. But how many of us feel like we are just getting by, just making it, just holding on?

Jesus told his disciples that he came that they might have life and have it to the fullest. This promise counts for his disciples today as well as two thousand years ago. Do we live life to the fullest?

I fear that too many Christians have bought the argument that living as a Christian is boring and dry; that you may as well be dead. These Christians see God first and foremost as a judge who sternly watches his people and who is usually frowning or even angry with their failures to live up to His standards.

Many of these people long ago quit coming to church. Why be reminded of an angry God? Many others come to church to assuage their consciences, and offer up prayers that God may be too busy in New York and Afghanistan to bother checking up on their behavior.

But is God first and foremost a stern judge who cannot wait to get his hands of punishment on us? The best image of God we have is the closest one to us—Jesus. Jesus took on human flesh and became human to show us the character and love of God. Jesus spent far more time helping people learn how to live than he did making them afraid to live.

Go and do likewise.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Sometimes Nothing Is Best

Let me pass on to you all some of the best advice I ever received. It was given to me in the context of counseling hurting people; but I have found it useful in many situations. The advice is simple. When you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything.

Whether sitting in the ICU waiting room with a mother whose daughter just died, or comforting young parents after a stillbirth, to listening to someone pour out the unfairness of life to them, our tendency is to try to offer answers. We want to calm, to soothe, to comfort. Too often we try to counsel so with words that pass blame to others. We offer up explanations for things we cannot and never will understand.

Instead of offering answers, hear beyond the questions. Instead of placing blame, share the hurt. Don’t think that some words must be better than none. Being willing just to listen. It is ok not to have answers.

Let us learn this lesson with Job: God is not at all offended by our questions and doubts, but we may not get answers. Humanity may have advanced over the centuries, but there is and always will be much we do not understand. Let us also learn with Job that God’s presence and blessing do not depend on our understanding.

You don’t have to have answers to listen to questions. You do not have to have solutions to share the weight of problems. Listen. Be there. Many times, this is enough. The one who listens never ends up with one’s own foot in one’s mouth!

Does Spirituality come easy to you?

Do you wonder why it seems some people have more of a spiritual connection than others? I don’t mean that other people are more religious than you are, but that some, it seems, are more comfortable and confident with the things of God.

I have a couple of fruitless mulberry trees in my yard. They are fast growing trees that provide quite a bit of shade. I’ve already had to trim them twice this year they are so fast growing.

There are two traits of fruitless mulberry trees that stand out for me, one of which is relevant to the question I opened with. The other is that they tend to grow with quite a bit of their root structure exposed.

The significant trait for now, though, is the variety of leaf sizes. The leaves on the top and outer reaches of the limbs are relatively small compared with the leaves underneath the canopy of the tree. Lower leaves may be twice the size of outer and upper leaves.

My guess is this is because the purpose of leaves is to soak up sun, and by the process of photosynthesis, turn it into energy for the tree to grow. Lower leaves do not get as much direct sunlight, thus to accomplish the same task, they must be larger.

Paul writes in Romans that each of us is given a measure of faith. Our God would not leave anyone without enough faith, so while each person’s measure is different, everyone has enough.

Some of us are like the lower leaves on fruitless mulberry trees, though. Some of us spiritually are the upper leaves, easily accepting the Son’s energy, while others are like the lower leaves, taking more effort, and perhaps more time, but nevertheless accepting what the Son has to offer.

How to change your undercurrent

Last week I wrote about making life’s undercurrent. For many people, no matter how good things may be at the moment, the undercurrent is sadness or anger or despair. For others, no matter how difficult life may be at any given moment, the undercurrent is positive, happy, and hopeful. Enough of you asked how one changes undercurrents that I felt led to write a follow-up column.

It was good practice for me; I had not thought very deeply about how I made the transition myself, only that I had changed in the past couple of years. I have come up with two very important steps that I’d like to share with you. If your life has an undercurrent of sorrow or frustration, if for you life is “just one dang thing after another,” try this first.

I think the most important thing you can do is to stop viewing your life as something that happens to you. Take the active perspective instead of the passive. For years I lived my life in response to my surroundings. I felt like I had no control over what I did, and sometimes even over where I went. I was a cog in someone else’s machine.

I am no longer anyone’s cog. Things still happen to me that are beyond my control, but I approach life as though my actions and decisions will make a difference. You know what? They do.

The second step to changing your undercurrent is to get really clear on who you are responsible for. You are only responsible for you. You cannot make anyone else do anything or feel any certain way. Likewise, no one else is responsible for what you do or how you feel. Take responsibility for you and your own undercurrent. No one else’s undercurrent is your fault or your responsibility.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

What is your undercurrent?

Though I wrote this at least three years ago, it is still my favorite of all I've written. Enjoy:

When was the last time you were happy? I mean really happy. I’m not talking about “call from your girlfriend” happy, “the radio just played my favorite song” happy, or even “my football team won state” happy.

I’m talking about the kind of happy that flows from a river of contentment deep in the soul that bubbles up even in the bad times and reminds you, “Everything is going to be ok.”

If it has been a while since you have known this kind of happiness, then don’t wait any longer than you have to. You deserve it, because this is the depth of happiness that God wants for all his people.

I lived for years without knowing such happiness. Like most people, I had good days and bad days, but the assumption was always that something was about to go wrong, or the other shoe was about to drop. The river running in the depth of my soul was the river of sorrows. This river bubbled up to remind me that “Life is just one dang thing after another.”

I don’t have the space here to tell you the whole story about how I changed rivers, but I will tell you this: I can read on so many faces that so many people have given up on any hope of real, deep happiness for the rest of their lives.

This just grieves my soul because I know God wants so much more for us! Jesus said that he came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. Do you want abundantly more of the life you have right now?

I understand my mission and purpose in ministry to be to life the abundant life as much as possible, and to bring others with me! I’d be glad to help you change rivers. Find the happiness that God wants you to live in. It doesn’t mean everything will suddenly go your way, but it does provide the peace and hope you may need to get beyond feeling like “Life is just one dang thing after another.”

Welcome to my blog!

Everyday Theology started as a weekly column for The Mart Texan newspaper. I have always been interested in writing a regular thought piece, and in Mart received the invitation and opportunity to do so from the publisher of the Texan, Mrs. Carolyn Potts.

I balked at the opportunity for a couple of years, mostly because I was unsure I wanted to make a regular, weekly commitment to write something. I didn’t even remember when I had started until I went through back issues to make this collection.

One of the things I enjoy about writing is coming up with titles that reach out and grab the reader and yell, “READ ME!” I realize that “Everyday Theology” is not such a title. For this regular, weekly column, I thought it more important to choose a title that was broad enough to cover every week. I wanted to give readers something easy to find.

I choose this title because so many people say they are not theologians. While this may be professionally true, we do all understand God in terms of our lives, and vice versa. For those of us who believe in God, we each face the world with what we understand of God. When we say we believe one thing about God and we act differently, our actions speak more truthfully than our words.

I want to connect God with the everyday lives of Christians. There is nothing God wants more than for his people to live everyday in his love and presence. How we deal with everyday experiences offers evidence of what we really believe about God’s presence and love for us.

I have said previously, and believe more strongly all the time; “if we say we believe in God, then God must make some difference in our lives.” Can anyone tell from how we live our lives that we believe in God? What do others see in you and me that others will find to be credible evidence that we believe in God?

Beyond mere belief in God, a belief which is about as useful as belief in air, Christians have a God worth believing in! We have a God who became human for us in the person of Jesus Christ. We believe in a God who has been where we are; He was in the midst of a human life filled with happiness, sadness, frustration, elation, betrayal, loneliness, hope, and joy.

You may be wondering why I included loneliness above. Jesus willingly took on Himself separation from the Father when he came to earth. He felt full separation from from the Father when on the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus had access to the Father in exactly the same way we do. Like us, Jesus prayed and worshipped the Father. Like us, Jesus also thrived in being surrounded by friends who shared his vision. He thrived, also, by knowing the Father was at work in the world all around him.

We ought to be able to see God’s work all around us. I hope these columns help you to do that a little more than you did before you read them.