Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Ok, let's have it out right now: are leggings pants or aren't they?

In my sermon last Sunday, I asked the congregation what question they would ask Jesus if they had the chance.  After hearing a few questions (including "Why did mosquitoes make it on the ark?"), I said something like, "No doubt many of you would want to ask Jesus, 'Are leggings pants?'  Let me take this one, Jesus.  No, leggings aren't pants."  Within 24 hours, an angry mob showed up at my Facebook wall with pitchforks and leggings.  I knew I was in trouble.  An argument ensued.  It was about as serious an argument as you can have when you're talking about leggings.

Ryan Gosling got in on the fight via meme (actually arguing both sides, which is pretty disappointing):

     

Someone else suggested that leggings aren't pants and hotdogs aren't sandwiches.  Things reached a fever pitch as one person added, "You can have my leggings when you pry them from my cold dead hands."  (Leaving us to wonder the obvious: why aren't they on your legs?)  In what may be the most curious moment of the raging debate, one person began considering her wardrobe for the next year of choir rehearsals...all leggings, all the time.

I said it, and I'll stand by it: I don't believe leggings are pants.
Sky And Golden Egyptian Pharaoh Tight Sexy Leggings
Not. Pants.
Maybe I shouldn't have taken away Jesus' opportunity to add His voice to this debate when I answered for Him on Sunday morning.  What would Jesus say?  Are leggings pants?  Let's go to the scriptures.

Matthew 7: "Do not judge so that you may not be judged."
Jesus says you can call them pants if you want.  You may be right, and you may be wrong, but nobody should judge you for your opinion.

John 8: "Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Your decision to wear leggings to your cousin's formal wedding may be questionable, but most of us have, if at no other time than our birth, made questionable choices with respect to our clothing.  So go on your way...and do not wear leggings to your cousin's formal wedding again.

John 21: That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea."
If we consider what clothing the disciples are likely to have worn during this period, we can conclude that when Peter put on some clothes, he was likely putting on neither pants nor leggings but more likely a tunic of some kind.  Regardless of whether leggings are pants, one would have to conclude that we should not, when anticipating encountering Jesus, wear leggings or pants.

No, none of these actually answer the question.  See, this putting words into Jesus' mouth (or also Ryan Gosling's) is tricky business.  If we were to ask Jesus if leggings are pants, he would most likely say, "What are leggings?"

But this is exactly what we do a good bit of the time.  We imagine Jesus saying all kinds of things, usually in support of our own opinion.  We start with a sincere effort to apply His stories and sermons to our lives.  But so frequently we wind up giving in to our human desires for status and simple answers--and as a result we wind up twisting Jesus' words to say exactly what we want them to say.  We're in.  They're out.  We win.  They lose.  We're right.  They're wrong.

Jesus didn't say any of that.  He boiled it down this way: love God, love neighbor, love self.  We don't need to concern ourselves with anything else.  Jesus wouldn't have an opinion on leggings...unless it is that we should not judge people who choose to wear them...or choose not to (or of course those who erroneously maintain that leggings are pants when they clearly aren't).

Part way down the argument, one person said this, "I'm just grateful that as people of faith who are divided on the most controversial issue of our afternoon, we are able to keep this conversation civil and kind. Well done, friends."  Yes.  That would be Jesus' opinion on leggings.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"Jesus stands ready to take care of us now." What?!

I wrote a rant once about vague theological language.  I think it was on Facebook.  I had just seen one too many posts that talked about being "on fire for God."  What does that mean anyway?  There is a seemingly endless list of these religious-y phrases that I'm certain mean something to someone but leave me scratching my head.  "Give it over to God."  "It's all part of God's plan."  "Everything happens for a reason."  "I'm blessed."

At best these phrases are not very helpful.  If I'm concerned about where my next meal is going to come from, giving that concern over to God doesn't seem like it will do me much good.  At worst, these phrases present bad theology, and as a former pastor of mine used to say, bad theology hurts.  "Everything happens for a reason," and "It's all part of God's plan," imply that God has decided whatever pain I am feeling at the moment is necessary and required.  If God is love, then God would not plan to hurt people.

To be clear, if we tease some of these phrases out and really consider them, I might be able to get on board with some of them...you know, when I understand what someone really means when they say them.  For example, if someone says, "Give it over to God," and they mean that it is not very helpful or productive for us to worry ourselves with things that are beyond our control, I get it--and I agree.  Unfortunately most of the time these phrases are simply well-intentioned platitudes that don't ultimately hold up.

I was taking another look at last week's post, and I realized I used one of these phrases.  Here's what I wrote:

I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said we should come to him as little children.  As a church we've often taken that exchange with the disciples to mean that we should allow children in church and even encourage them.  Well, that's cute.  We should make sure we let Timmy come and sit on the pastor's knee during worship, no?  But what if that's not it at all?  What if Jesus is saying we should all become like children and run to him--fearless in the face of the unknown because, like those who took care of us before we were able, Jesus stands ready to take care of us now?

On the face of it, I'm good with that.  But that's only because I know what I mean when I say, "Jesus stands ready to take care of us now."  If I'm honest with myself, that's one of those phrases.  Almost a throwaway really.

The question that comes immediately to my mind when I read it is, "Where?"  Where exactly does Jesus stand?  When is it going to happen?  Because I could use some help right now!  How can Jesus take care of me when I have yet to actually lay eyes on Him?  I can imagine people who are in dire need wonder the same thing.  Incredulous!  I think that's what Lieutenant Dan is saying in this clip (watch out...there's some language toward the end):


But the thing is I do believe that Jesus stands ready to take care of us now.  Like it says in the hymn, "Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore; Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love, and power."

Where?  Here.  When?  Now.  How?  You.  And me.  And the rest of a world full of people created in God's image.  In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that we are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.  We are His hands.  We are his feet.  We are his heart.  The body of Christ is real and present in the people we meet...and in us.  Not just in church, but in the world as well.  And when we are at our very best, when we embrace the Divine within us, when we truly function as the body of Christ, we collectively make good on the claim that Jesus stands ready to take care of us.

We, you and I, have the ability to experience the peace of Christ.  After all, Jesus himself said he left it with us!  We, you and I, have the ability to grant it to others.  I mean, if Forrest Gump can do it...


Sometimes the more difficult part is accepting the peace of Christ...but that's another article for another time.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What you fear...is the unknown.

I may have written about Star Trek V before, but being as this is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, I thought a casual mention might be in order.  Let me be clear: this is not a post about Star Trek V.  After all, it's an odd-numbered movie, which most trekies don't like.  I'll confess that while I don't particularly care for I or III, I do like V, mostly because of one line buried way in the movie (No, David Naglee, it's not "What does God need with a starship?"  That's a close second.).

I promise, promise this isn't all about Star Trek, but you need to know about this.  I'll keep it short.  Spock's brother, Sybok, has taken control of the Enterprise with one purpose in mind: to take a ship beyond the "Great Barrier."  In Star Trek world, that's crazy talk right there.  No ship or probe has ever returned from the other side.  What I'm saying is that everyone is afraid of going to the other side because nobody knows what will happen.

Sybok tries to convince Kirk this is a good idea, and he delivers these fantastic words: "What you fear...is the unknown.  The people of your planet once believed their world was flat.  Columbus proved it was round.  They said the sound barrier could never be broken.  It was broken.  They said warp speed could not be achieved.  The Great Barrier is the ultimate expression of this universal fear."  Dude, somebody tell this guy he's not supposed to explain the whole point of the movie right there in one monologue?

Now, I promised this wouldn't be about Star Trek V, and it isn't.  I buy Sybok's assertion that fear of the unknown is the most over-arching, controlling fear.  Nearly all other fears fit within it.  People fear spiders and snakes not because they are all dangerous but because they aren't sure which ones are dangerous.  People fear the dark and the ocean because they don't know what is lurking there.

This makes really good sense (even if that sentence doesn't).  Knowledge, it seems, is a pretty good antidote to fear.  For example, a good way to be less afraid of snakes is to know for certain which ones are poisonous.

So why, then, are children fearless while the older we get the more afraid it seems we become?  I'll give you an example.  When I began doing youth music missions, I had no problem letting all my kids loose with the instruction to stay in groups, eat dinner, and have fun.  Now, every time I do it I get a little twinge that says, "You're an idiot for letting them do this."  For just a moment, I'm afraid for them.  Not enough to keep me from letting them go, mind you.  But my knowledge of what could happen actually makes me more afraid, not less.

Maybe that's because of known unknowns and unknown unknowns, a concept that Donald Rumsfeld once tried to explain with disastrous result.  The idea is that there are things we know we don't know (what's around the next corner).  And there are things we don't even know we don't know.  These are just happy (or unhappy) little surprises we can't anticipate.  Thing is, the more knowledge we gain, the more we become aware that we don't know much of anything.  The more we know...the more we don't know.

One of my teachers in graduate school tells about this experience he had.  He had just finished earning his doctorate degree in Music.  He walked into the music library and opened a score.  Realizing that, despite all his knowledge, he didn't know this score, he opened another.  He didn't know it either.  Then it dawned on him: there was far more in this library he didn't know than he did.  This, having just earned a doctorate degree, a distinction which is supposed to mean he is completely fluent with the topic at hand.

Our experience and knowledge ensure that as we age we will become more and more aware of all that we don't know.  We will have heard story after story about the unexpected things that can happen when we are blissfully unprepared.  Put another way, one of the things we will learn the most about is how much we have to be afraid of.  This fear, left unchecked, will overtake us, even stunt our growth.  The care-free days of our youth will be long behind us, traded in for the fear of all the things that might be...all the things we know for absolute certain that we don't know.

I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said we should come to him as little children.  As a church we've often taken that exchange with the disciples to mean that we should allow children in church and even encourage them.  Well, that's cute.  We should make sure we let Timmy come and sit on the pastor's knee during worship, no?  But what if that's not it at all?  What if Jesus is saying we should all become like children and run to him--fearless in the face of the unknown because, like those who took care of us before we were able, Jesus stands ready to take care of us now?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Constructing Faith: A Lesson from Roger Purser

At our old house, where the garage was also my workshop, Lisa and I had a firm agreement that each night, no matter what I was working on, her van would be safely parked in the garage before I went to bed.  Moreover, at the conclusion of any project, my car would also be parked in the garage.  We like having a garage.  Don't judge!  So we knew from the moment we decided to buy our current house that we would convert the carport into a garage.  I'm a pretty handy guy, and I had imagined framing for the door myself, but as I discussed in a previous post, the desire to get the job done eventually eclipsed the desire to save money by doing the work myself, and we paid a guy to come do it.

Roger came to us very highly recommended by people I trust.  We had to wait a long time for him, but my friends kept saying, "Wait.  Just wait.  He's worth it."  So we waited.  He showed up the first day, and I walked him through what we wanted done.  Then I left for work while he got busy on the project.  It looked to me like he hadn't done much when I got home.  Just a few 2x6's and a partial wall.

When I called to talk to him about it, he said that he had worked very hard all day long, but our house had been a challenge because the walls weren't plumb and square.  He had done all his Tapcon work (setting the first pieces of lumber in place and securing them to the house and floor, which is concrete), but he had run out of time.  I was skeptical that it could take so long to screw down a few boards, and I was frustrated.  Then I got out my level...  Sure enough, none of our existing walls were plumb.  And I mean they were way off.  But his walls were right on the money.  Perfectly plumb and level.

When Roger showed up the next morning, he got out of his van and started to say, "Let me show you how..."  I stopped him.  "Roger, you don't have to say a thing.  Your work is perfect.  I don't even know how you did it.  I'm sorry I disturbed you last night.  Please accept my apology and continue doing an excellent job."  When I got home that day, the wall was finished.  The opening for the garage door was perfectly square and exactly the right height and width.  Given how out-of-whack our house was, this was nothing short of a miracle.  I asked Roger how he did it.

"Well, it was all that work yesterday," he said.  "Taking all that time in the beginning made the rest go pretty fast."

I finished up the inside of the walls myself, painted the garage, and got ready for the door.  Last week the installer came to hang the door.  When I walked out to meet him, he was already measuring and getting ready to work.  He spoke first.  "Wow.  This sure is clean.  Just how it's supposed to be.  This install's going to be easy.  Shouldn't take long at all."  Ultimately Roger's care back on that first day made every stage of the process go better and faster.

There's a universal truth in that.  Carefully preparing a foundation is critical to long-term success.  That's because errors tend to grow and compound over time.  Even seemingly insignificant oversights at the outset can lead to catastrophic failure in the end...or at the very least require a lot of time and effort to work around.

Our children's minister, Robin, talks about this in her ministry: never teach something the kids will have to unlearn later.  That means spending a lot of time carefully considering what she is teaching well beyond the single lesson in question.  There's really no such thing as a basic theological concept!  That's one reason I respect her ministry so much: she understands how important these first steps are, and she spends a lot of time making sure they are done right.

All of which has me wondering about my role--our role--in shaping the faith of those around us.  Each interaction with another person is an opportunity to grow our faith...and theirs.  That's true whether regardless of whether you'd call yourself a believer (whatever that means!).  When we call ourselves Christian and then lash out in hate, what are we teaching those around us about being Christian?  What lessons are we teaching, just by our everyday living, that will have to be unlearned?  How will those lessons, those errors, compound over time and ultimately work counter to Christ's call to make disciples?

Most importantly, how can we engage our heart, mind, soul, and strength to consider our actions thoughtfully so that the foundations we lay will be solid and true?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

More Distractions

It's been a while since I sat down to write a blog post.  Based on the content of my last post, specifically how the minutia of ministry can distract me from the actual important part of ministry and my subsequent commitment to do better in that regard, you might imagine that I have categorized this blog as a part of the minutia--and I've been diligently ignoring it in favor of more worthy pursuits.

That's true to a certain extent.  I have on several occasions made the conscious choice to reach out or listen more and busy myself less.  The minutes evaporate, but I don't regret their loss because my promise to Bob is still fresh on my mind.  So it's good news, really.  I'm more or less successfully keeping the minutia of ministry at bay by showing clear preference to caring for and about people.  It has been refreshing, honestly.  Reinvigorating.  It has reminded me what drew me to ministry in the first place.

What I lamented before was the convergence of a thousand details conspiring to keep me from my primary purpose.  They required constant  attention on my part...or at least I thought they did.  They generated that all-too-common feeling that I was "spinning my wheels."  Always moving this way and that, like the tyranny of the urgent except that if I'm honest mostly it wasn't even urgent.  Now that I am aware of those and actively addressing them (by not addressing them much of the time), I have been introduced to a whole new kind of distraction, and it's actually the functional opposite of the minutia of ministry.  Instead of leading to hyper-motion, this distraction leads to complete paralysis.  I've decided to call this distraction the show stopper.  Don't hold me to that name.  It's lame and needs improvement.  In fact, 1000 points to the person who, in the comments below, comes up with a better name for it.

The show stopper does exactly what you'd think.  It's massive.  It gets right in the way of everything.  I can't do anything else until I deal with it, and I can't figure out how to get my mind around it either.  It's like standing at the bottom of a huge rock wall.  I know the only way to get to the top is to start climbing, but I get so bogged down thinking about what route to take and where the challenges will be and how I should get started that I just wind up standing there wondering how I'm going to do it.

Sometimes these are just really massive projects.  Like when we moved into our house two years ago.  There were so many different things that needed doing, as soon as I started thinking about which one to start with, I was overwhelmed.  There were actually days when I did absolutely nothing except walk around the house wondering what I should do.  That happens in ministry too.  Concert programs.  Beginning of year calendars and rosters.  Lengthy long-term projects.  These things are massive and complicated, and when they start to pile up, look out!  There are so many big things to do.  Show stopper.  I just get in a stare and wonder where to begin.

Sometimes, and this is really the worst, the show stoppers aren't even all that massive except in my own head.  My mind makes them bigger and more complicated than they were to begin with.  It's so frustrating, like my mind is out to get me.  Something that is admittedly a challenge can become impossible just because I load it down with layers of superfluous complexity.

This seems to run in direct opposition to human nature, which prefers to oversimplify things and boil them down to clear yes/no answers.  Why on earth would I make things more complicated when what I really want is straight-forward answers?  Maybe it's because in my heart I know the answer isn't simple...and the only other choice is to make it so complicated it can't be solved.

I'm just thinking out loud there.  I really don't have a good answer.  But I know that show stoppers are a thing.  I know if I'm not spinning my wheels I'm likely to stop my particular show.  And I know that neither one of those is good for answering my call to ministry.

There is hope!  Once I identified the minutia of ministry, I was able to address them.  Specifically, I made myself more aware of the tasks I was doing and what, as a result, I was leaving undone.  I simply made more intentional choices about how I approached my ministry.  While far from perfect, this has been helpful.

Now that I have identified show stoppers, I can address them as well.  Sometimes you just have to get started.  Start climbing.  Start working.  Later, when the job is done, I'll look back on the project and see all the things I could have done better.  Those are mistakes I won't repeat the next time!  But the important reality is this: I will be looking at those mistakes having completed the project and grown from it rather than standing in a stare wondering where to begin.

Put another way, the best way to address the distraction of show stoppers is simply to remember that the show must go on.  Make your best guess and start climbing.