Monday, March 22, 2010

Winners & Losers

The recent health care legislation was a defeat for a certain number of people. Many of those folks are both conservative and Christian. Good people. They try to do the right thing in the right way with the right attitude. And yet a lot of my conservative Christian friends are in a foul mood today. They’re angry. They feel threatened and a healthy number are convinced we’re firmly on the slippery slope leading to socialism. They’re also angry because they lost the fight. Who likes to lose?

And they may be angry with God. After all when you do the right thing in the right way with the right attitude shouldn’t God be on your side and shouldn’t you end up winning?

And for my Christian friends on the other side …well, they are almost giddy with delight. After all, they won.

Winners and losers. Hmmmm.

First, to the winners. Please listen to your more conservative brothers and sisters. Sift through the anger and rhetoric and hear some very clear messages about their worry over too much government, fiscal irresponsibility, and moral ambiguity. Really hear it. Listen. Fear is driving some of this. It may not appear logical and sensible to you but there is real fear disguised by the anger. And underneath it all is a deep concern for the moorings of our country. That can’t be discounted.

When you listen, really listen, you will need to dig deep enough to look at your own personal moorings of faith and how it informs your civic responsibility. Your conservative brothers and sisters are concerned that, at first blush, that you believe in everything and ultimately believe in nothing.

They know you're good at talking about the social dimensions of the gospel but don't think you can speak with any surety about your personal relationship with the Lord. And so that makes your 'liberal' leanings suspect in their eyes.

And to the losers. Will you open your eyes to the possibility that when you open the Scriptures that you’re reading it through the eyes of your political conservatism and not seeing God’s true intent and purpose? Does it ever bother you that some of the most strident voices in our culture belong to people you emulate?

Christians all around the country are happy that health care legislation has been passed. I know you might not believe it because your Christian community only includes those you agree with and keeps out those who think differently (even though they still think biblically). Does that concern you at all?

And now that you’ve lost this battle have you learned anything about how to engage in the next brouhaha …probably immigration?

To both winners and losers.

Social issues are not going away. The bible contains over 2,000 verses dealing with justice, poverty, and marginalization issues. What once was still is.

We are going to be engaged in great battles for the heart and soul of our culture I think. It’s inevitable. Social issues stir people’s hearts. The pocketbook gets involved. Passions explode.

From my vantage point we are citizens of a great country. I’m proud to be an American. Really am. I’m prouder, though, of being a citizen in the kingdom of God. And I believe the Kingdom of God is here and is yet to come (part of the mystery of faith). And as long as it’s here my allegiance is that Kingdom and to that King. That trumps anything else. It’s more important than being on the left or the right or firmly in the center. It supersedes such things.

As I’ve watched our public debates over the past few years I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that we are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God which calls us to live differently. The principles guiding the Kingdom of God go beyond political, social, and economic philosophy. They are radical in design and application.

All great earthly kingdoms have come and gone away. Whether it be the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Aztecs or the Romans …whether it’s been the great tribes of Africa or the fiefdoms of the middle ages …greatness has worn thin and faded.

How long will America be great? For a long time I hope. But if history and the biblical narrative is any example some day America will fade. If anything, we’ll be eaten from within by the bickering and hate that is so much at the forefront these days.

In the in between time we, as Kingdom People, need to live, to serve, to lead, to listen and build bridges. In the company of Jesus we need to be involved in the great civic discussions, advancing noble principles, bringing light to dark places and all the while doing it with dignity, civility, and purposefulness. I don’t think we’ve done that well in recent days. We’ve looked undignified, lacked focus, and behaved with only hints of civility. We can do better than that. We must.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Good and Beautiful Life

I’ve been reading an interesting book called The Good and Beautiful Life by James Bryan Smith. On the back cover Smith writes – “I have never met a person whose goal was to ruin his or her life. We all want to be happy and we want it all the time.” Smith asserts that we have bought into counterfeit notions of what leads and to happiness and success. “These self-centered decisions lead us further into the vices that cause ruin: lust, lying, worry and judging. Eventually we find ourselves living a beautifully packaged life of self-destruction.”

Here’s what I’m learning. Instead of trusting God I trust my fear. And when I begin to fear I default into wanting more control. When I start to control and take things into my own hands I turn, functionally, into an atheist. Maybe some of you can relate to this.

Here’s the fundamental question for me. Do I really believe God is with me, protecting me, and fighting for my well being? The truthful answer is that all too often I live as if God is in his heavens and is only passively involved with my well being.

The early years of my Christian life were spent learning that God wanted to ‘get me’. Sin and you’ll pay the price. As I matured I learned about ‘grace’ but never really bought into the idea that God loves me like crazy. Because I’m so adept at spotting my own flaws (and being disgusted by them) I struggle with accepting the fact that God and others can really love me.

And so, at times, my mouth speak words of faith but functionally I operate apart from the knowledge and protection of God. Even though I know that I can never flee from God I often act as though I have.

In my quiet time this morning I had a glimpse of living in a medieval kingdom. It was a good life. The King knew my name. He stopped to speak to me. He inquired of my well-being. I felt like I was important to him. I sensed I was. I also knew that when the kingdom was assaulted that my job was to rely on the King to set up defenses and protect all that was his. That wasn’t my job.

And so I wonder why I make it my job to allow my fear, my anger, and my sense of inadequacy to edge me to the point of ‘control’. That’s where I truly lose sight of my position and role in the true kingdom of God in the here and now. I create my own kingdom, becoming one of those ‘trinket’ gods the Scripture talks about.

So what’s the antidote? How does one undo a lifetime of habit?

I’m going to start by doing some study about the kingdom of God. This book is a starting place. It reminds me that the stories that shape the shadow side of my thinking and being can be replaced with Jesus stories about what the kingdom of God is truly meant to be. I know so little about what the kingdom of God truly means and yet it’s at the forefront of much of the teaching of Jesus.

And I’m going to pray and journal about fear and anger and a nagging sense of inadequacy. These are the things that drive me towards the shadow side of myself instead of into the light. In the shadows I am a functional atheist. In the light I learn about trust and the life of faith.

It’s interesting isn’t it. Almost 60 years old. A life time of experience and teaching and still so much to learn about allowing God to transform my life. The good news is that the desire for transformation still surges through me.

How about you. Ever function as an atheist even though you profess faith? Ever lose sight of your position and role in the Kingdom of God? Ever allow fear and anger to move you from a position of trust and into control?

Pick up The Good and Beautiful Life. It might be helpful.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Brackets and St. Pat's Day

Well, I filled out my brackets for the NCAA tournament. One for our office pool at Breakthrough. One for the pool John, Anita and I have for our home competition in Villa Park.

Rumor is that the winner of our Breakthrough pool (where no money changes hands by the way) will win something quite extravagant. Sounds like an empty promise to me. Hope not. Because I think I've done it this year. Yep. At home the winner is taken to dinner by the two losers.

This whole filling out the brackets thing is kind of interesting. It’s something everyone talks about and pays attention to. It’s an interesting diversion. Lots of money is wagered but the bulk of it is $5-$20 office pool kind of betting. For the legalists in our midst …yes, it’s still gambling but just shut your eyes, ignore it, and maybe have some fun.

You see, I think this is kind of fun. This is a shared activity that’s actually cuts across all the divides in our culture. And it’s fun because it really doesn’t matter. It’s not health care, or the environment. It’s not life and death. It’s something that focuses our national attention on something other than all the ‘junk’ floating around. I’m all for it.

What also makes it fun is that just about anyone can win. The most ardent student of basketball can lose to someone who picks winners just because they like the school nickname. It’s neither art nor science. Everyone can get in on the action.

And if you happen to be an alum of one of the schools in the tourney there’s bragging rights until they lose. Pretty cool. I’m not an alum of any of the schools playing. Undergrad at a DIII school and grad school at an underachieving mid-major keeps my ego in check. I did, however, watch players from K State, Kansas, and Duke play in high school. Doesn’t count does it?

I’ve got Kansas going all the way, playing Duke in the finals. And I’ve got Syracuse being ousted by Gonzaga early on. Watch out for Northern Iowa. I'm predicting at least one win for the Valley champs.

However I’m tempted, on this glorious of all days (St. Pat’s Day for those unlucky enough not to be born Irish) to pick Notre Dame to go all the way. Do the Fighting Irish have what it takes? I think not but they wouldn’t be the worse choice.

Speaking of St. Pat’s Day. The Irish are noted for many things. Ruddy good looks and steely intellect come quickly to mind along with deep seated humility. But the Irish are also known to be people of some faith (with a mischievous twist).

May those who love us, love us; and those who don't love us, may God turn their hearts; and if He doesn't turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we'll know them by their limping.”

Happy St. Pat’s Day.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


In the 20th chapter of Matthew a mother comes before Jesus and she makes a bold and reverent request. “When the kingdom comes will you please, Jesus, place one of my boys at your right and one on your left?" Her sons are grown men and she’s still helicoptering around them angling for the best spot, the most prestigious position.

Somewhere on the road with Jesus, James and John and mom hatch a plot to establish themselves firmly at the top of the pecking order in Jesus’ kingdom. They were angling for corner offices. Actually, we understand their motivation. We’re ambitious people too.

Who doesn’t want power, influence and access? Not bad things to have on your side. I remember moving to Chicago. We were in the midst of adopting our youngest son and the bureaucracy of state and county were killing us. A friend a well known lawyer, asked how it was going. “Slow and painful” I said. He replied, “I’ll take care of it.’. Within an hour every obstacle was removed from our path. The person who was blocking our progress called with a whole new attitude and perspective about our case. We learned about ‘clout’. And rather liked it.

James, John and their mother wanted clout. And the only problem they were running into was Jesus’ intention. He was preparing James and John for a life of discipleship not privilege. And they were overestimating their own importance and underestimating the cost of following Him.

And even when Jesus asks them “Can you drink my cup?” They quickly answer ‘yes’. Sometimes the downside of ambition is a quick ‘yes’ without counting the cost. James and John were saying ‘yes’ even though Jesus has already stated emphatically that his road was leading to betrayal, mockery, flogging, and crucifixion. Sometimes we hear only what we want to hear.

But Jesus doesn’t turn them down and he doesn’t put them down. He doesn’t say, “Forget about it. You’ll never have a place of honor at my table.” Not at all. He looks at this as a teaching moment. And so Jesus gathers all his people together and lays on another layer of training. “ …whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Jesus is saying “You want to sit next to me? Fine. Here’s what it will cost you.” James and John and the rest maybe were assuming their suffering was over and their work was done. They were wrong on both counts. Their suffering was still ahead of them and their work was just starting.

I love Jesus in this passage. He says in effect …”There is a place for you at my table. Those who will be at the table will have to turn notions of greatness upside down. I want the first to become servants. And I’ll show you to what extent. Watch me give my life. And then tell me you still want to drink of my cup?"

It’s interesting that a few days later Jesus is on the cross. There are two people with him. One on his left. One on his right. I wonder if James and John and mom thought long and hard about their request and wondered aloud if they really wanted a place in that type of kingdom.

Interesting enough both James and Johns signed on to drink the cup of suffering and a different type of influence. James was the first apostle to die at the hands of Herod Agrippa. John ended up in exile on the island of Patmos.

So let me ask you?

What are you ambitious about? Remember ambition itself is not evil. But Jesus is pointing to a different sort of upward mobility. Does your ambition include being last, a servant to many? Is your ambition wrapped up in walking the road with Jesus, drinking from the cup He offers?

Here we come to the bottom line of the life of faith. Is your agenda for yourself, for your kids, for your future something you’d be willing to sacrifice in order to follow Christ? Is your notion of being on the road with Jesus a life with unbridled ambition? Are you willing to serve instead of being served? Are you willing to step down in order to step up? Are you willing to be the caddy and not the golfer? Are you willing to be the waitress and not the customer? Are you willing to wash the truck of those who mow your grass? Are you willing to wait when you know you could be first? Are you willing to drink from the cup that Jesus offers?

As we head into Holy Week remember the road to the resurrection goes through the garden and onto the cross.

The good news in all of this is that James and John’s mom was right. There is a kingdom. We have an opportunity to live in the upside down kingdom of God now, work towards its increasing influence and can look forward to the fulfillment of it when Jesus comes again. And who doesn’t want to be there? I sure do. And in the kingdom of God every table is a good table. Every table is near Jesus. You’ll see James and John there. And their mom.

And our ticket in is Jesus Himself and the ambition to serve identifies us as one of His.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


I believe.

So what, huh? For me it’s important to say it, to write it, and to share my belief. I’m not always sure people want to hear or read about it but that’s another issue entirely.

I know what I believe.

I’m not trying to be arrogant and there’s certainly a whole lot I don’t know. Those who know me well can attest to that. But when push comes to shove I can articulate my beliefs. I have some good foundations.

Early on the good Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration forced me to memorize catechism questions. One or two actually taught me to think about them. Although some of what I memorized I forgot quickly much has stayed with me especially some of the basics of faith. Things about the Trinity. The life of Christ. The conduct of a person of faith. The nature of personhood. Life in the Spirit. The church. Such things matured in my heart and mind as I grew and learned more. When I started more serious scripture study it didn’t surprise me that my early doctrinal foundations found new life and meaning. The learnings of my youth still inform my life today.

I’m borrowing a term here but there’s a ‘generous orthodoxy’ I ascribe to that starts with some basic creedal beliefs. Being orthodox doesn’t mean one has to be narrow and short-sided. No, not at all. It brings a compass and a map to a life like mine that has tendencies to wander.

I’m not sure you know what you believe.

I’m not trying to be confrontive. It’s just that I wonder. We live in a world that values perception and feelings and seems to stray away from any notion of truth. And so I see people all the time who say they believe but when asked questions about their beliefs can’t articulate them. That bothers me.

Could the world be filled with people whose foundations have never been laid in something authoritative and eternal?

Could our churches be filled with people who run to escape when winds of hardship blow because there is nothing anchoring them to something bigger than their own emotions?

We struggle with other people’s beliefs.

I’m an evangelical Christian. It’s a culture I know. Some in my camp love to argue but aren’t eager to have discussions. We lob grenades and angrily defend ‘the faith’. All too often we don’t try to get inside someone else’s head. We get angry when there’s no agreement on every jot and tiddle of faith.

Others will believe differently. That’s a given. God loves them. That’s a given. So, what if I really believed that differences are opportunities for dialogue, and proximity paves the way to relationship, and that relationship opens the door to understanding and understanding gives way to caring and ….??? And what if I really believed God could use the dialogue, the relationship, the understanding and the caring to do whatever He needs to do in that other person’s life? And what if I really left the results to God and majored more in being in the moment?

Belief is about being and doing.

A scripture writer said ‘what good is faith without action’. It’s a good challenge. My favorite people do their faith and keep on informing and forming their faith.

God believes in me.

That’s my biggest struggle to be honest. I’m one of those people who’s acutely aware of my imperfection and wonder how anyone could even like me let alone love me. It’s not rational I know. And if I struggle with being liked and being loved how can I believe a good God actually believes in me? But God does. Despite my objections.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Said what?

Recently I posted a link to some comments by punditainer Glenn Beck on my Facebook page. Beck, by the way, is a conservative in his political stance and partisan to an extreme. He's part entertainer and part commentator. He has a facile intellect and an interesting communication style. His audience is growing.

Beck is urging people to peruse their church website looking for the words social and/or economic justice. He wants people to run as fast as they can away from such churches. He insinuates that social justice is just a quick turn to the left and an easy slide into Fascism and Marxism. Please. How insulting. And yet a quick look around the web and one finds many who aren't insulted but invigorated and ready to go to battle against social justice types. Against me. Against my friends and colleagues. I'm quite disturbed by his comments.

I work for two ministries which proudly align themselves with the biblical stream of social justice. For sure social justice is not the only stream that runs throughout the Scripture so I don’t want anyone accusing me or the ministries I serve with of ignoring other streams of discipleship. We don't. We won't. But social justice is a God thing we should be running to and not away from. It’s a stream that should transcend political ideology. After all Jesus Himself at the start of His ministry turned to the book of Isaiah and read:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Jesus was not afraid to align Himself with justice, with the poor, and with the marginalized. Nor should we. Again, I also believe that Jesus came to seek and save the lost (all of us). Personal sinfulness is a big deal. The cross and the resurrection mean something. But Jesus also talked often about the kingdom of God and our need to love others (even those who live outside our comfort zone) in very tangible ways. His desire is that His love takes hold in our lives in deep ways, penetrating our deepest held biases and prejudices, motivating us to be 'Jesus' in the world around us.

I'm sensing there is an alarming trend in both the church and on the airwaves to align social justice with some leftist conspiracy to bankrupt our government. It isn't a big movement but big enough. We can’t allow that trend to become a wave of insensitivity and become unjust itself. That’s why I’m writing.

Most of the people I know who are involved with social justice ministries are avowed capitalists and are quite fond of our democratic form of government. In fact, I know of no one who wants to take us down the path towards Marxism or Nazism. Who would? I think most who ride in the biblical stream of social justice are quite thankful for the freedom to discuss ideas and that we have a system in place where people can make money. Personally, I hope my friends who have been gifted with the 'art of the deal' 'make a lot of money. They will bless others with it. They love God and know all that they have is a gift from Him and needs to be stewarded well.

Those who minister with the poor do talk a fair amount about the systems that seem to block and oppress people and that leads to all kinds of interesting conversations about wealth, access, power, position and priority. These are questions that people of faith should be asking. And it is very true these are the very questions that have led to social upheavals all throughout history. Some of those upheavals have brought about important changes. Others have led to us to destructive places.. But the questions aren't bad. They are necessary. And guided by a good and gracious God much good can come of the asking and the accompanying dialogue. Guided by forces that want personal gain and power much evil can rain down on people and nations.

A biblical perspective on social justice starts with asking God to see the world as He sees it And then be prepared to have your life wrecked. That's what God does to people. He wrecks them and then refocuses their attention. When we start to see the world as God sees it we will see injustice and we will want to work to correct what we see. We will also read Scripture in a totally different light. We will want to engage all that is evil in this world and with righteous indignation work hard to deal with the systems and ideologies that oppress people. Part of the battle will be on the political front where we will have to talk about priorities and resources. None of this is smooth sledding. No worthy call of God ever is.

Glenn Beck is someone I do not know. I know him by reputation. I’ve seen him on TV a few times only. He’s bright and he also exaggerates. He's representative of a type of personality that is gaining too much influence especially among people who aren't sure if they want to think for themselves or not. I also believe these personalities can be found on both extremes of the political spectrum. The problem is that these kind of personalities belittle people of all types, have low regard for authority, create fear, and mismanage information. In this case using social justice as a code for leftist conspiracy is downright irresponsible.

God knows that most people involved in social justice ministry are too tired to organize a conspiracy against anything.

I do understand what Beck is saying though. I really do. Anything good can be used for evil purposes and movements that started well have ended in extremism. I get that. We all do. And I want to pay attention to that. But please don't insinuate that the good people I know are fronts for Marxist or Nazi ideologies.

For sure, if you look hard enough you’ll find extremists in the social justice realm. I'm sure they are there. You'll find people who are angry, bitter and who aren't fond of America for one reason or another. I haven't met them personally but I'm sure they're somewhere. I guess I'd rather look at the thousands and thousands and thousands of loving, caring, Jesus following people who are trying to love the ‘least of these’ in the name of the Lord.

My biggest worry for social justice types is that the magnitude of the issues before them can, perhaps, lead to losing heart and focus. We dare not forget the call of God on our lives nor abandon our own relationship with Jesus, the Christ. Social justice finds its meaning and purpose in and through the person of Jesus. Balancing the doing of the work of God with the being in a relationship with Him isn’t easy. Any critique of social justice needs to start with a look at it’s spiritual framework and move outward from there I think. And in all honesty I think that critique happens often at least in the circles I travel in.

A colleague of mine said today that she prays for the Glenn Beck types of this world. That’s a good plan. I need to be reminded of that in the midst of personal frustration.

I also think that we do need to stand up for what is clearly God’s heart and not allow those in bully pulpits to cause more harm than they already have.

Now let the fun begin.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Calendar Woes

Yesterday I needed to go old school. I needed something more than my Blackberry and laptop. I needed to see as clearly as I could what the next four months of my life looked like in black and white. So I printed out a calendar with all my commitments and appointments listed for me to see. And I shuddered.

I am over committed. Open dates are few and far between already and I haven’t even added in preaching and teaching responsibilities. This does not look pretty.

OK. It’s to be expected I guess. After all I’m doing two part time jobs that pull for a full-time commitment. And I do have a pretty extensive web of relationships that need to be nurtured. But in all honesty I’m nervous. It’s one of those times (and there have been many throughout my life) that I wonder if I will come out of this season of life whole and healthy (cue violins please).

For sure, there are some calendaring errors on my part. That happens. But I’m kind of chuckling about this in the midst of my shuddering. How could I let this happen again?

Almost everything I’m committed to is something I like to do. Not everything. I said almost. I have far too many meetings scheduled. I don’t love meetings. However, it goes with the territory of the world called grown-up. It’s hard to get out of meetings too. I wish there was an easy way to blow them off but most of the easy ways lack integrity.

I love to speak. When I do I sense God’s pleasure. I’m not sure others do but I feel I’m in the right groove. I actually love to prepare talks and lessons. Finding the right word, the right story, the right tone, the right questions …hmmm it’s quite nice.

I love to be with people although I gain my strength from solitude. The classic introvert profile. So I wonder if I’ll fill in the calendar with enough time to retreat and regroup.

My calendar doesn’t include enough ‘waste’ time. I haven’t scheduled in my commitments to Lost, The Office, Flash Forward or March Madness. Some might suggest that I could do without my TV addiction. Don’t see it. Losing the insights and inspiration of Michael Scott might be more than I can bear.

Well, it’s not the end of the world. Some tough choices ahead. I could go with less sleep. Not a good idea though. Anita and I spend a lot of time talking maybe I could listen less. Another bad idea I think.

It’s times like these when I feel pressed by time and shaken by my inability to plan and calendar better that I need to give what I’m thinking and feeling to the Lord asking Him to help me make the best of what looks like tough sledding. He can and I believe He will. I also need to work through my calendar and see where I can cut, where I can ask for help, where I can consolidate and where I might need to bail.

Don't feel sorry for me. I'm just whining. Kickin' myself a bit. I'll get through it. Always do. Lots of good stuff in my near future. Kingdom stuff. Nothing better than that.