Monday, July 26, 2010

Why worry?

I know what worry can do. A couple of years ago I had a heart attack. After clogged arteries and other physical things were ruled out it didn’t take a genius to figure out that stress had been wreaking havoc on my life. I had made some tough ministry calls, made enemies of the wrong people, doubted my judgment in a few areas, and made some relational and leadership missteps. It wore on me. And instead of seeking the kingdom of God where everything was still AOK …I decided to worry. And worry took it’s toll. The doc said “It’s a shot over the bow of your ship.” Don’t ignore it.

And so I had a choice. I could go back to what got me into trouble in the first place …the worry that led to my stress that effected my body or ….seek first the kingdom of God.

There’s a cultural narrative that many of us buy into. It goes like this.

If I keep my nose relatively clean, work hard, go to church, pay my taxes, contribute to charity and involve myself in the community I deserve a good life. In other words if I keep the rules I like to keep then I should get rewarded for keeping them. I bet you buy into it in one way, shape or form.

The problem is that life gets rather discouraging when someone gets a bad medical diagnosis, denied a promotion, or don’t make the A list or A team That’s not the payoff we’re looking for. We feel entitled to a smooth road. And when we don’t get that smooth road we get ticked, angry at times. We point fingers, worry a lot and decide not to trust a God we really don’t know very well.

This is an entitlement narrative that clashes with an even cursory reading of Scripture. The biblical narrative shows us rather conclusively that bad things, do indeed, happen to good people and that God’s ways aren’t our ways. When push comes to shove the ‘entitlement narrative’ can’t help us in both the tough and eternal places of life.

The apostle Paul points to a biblical perspective that can shape our lives in helpful ways. It’s a theology of the kingdom of God. Paul was able to withstand much because He knew who is was and what kingdom was shaping him. And it wasn’t the kingdom of the Roman culture. Nope it was the kingdom of God. He says in Corinthians 2. We will be afflicted, perplexed, struck down and even persecuted in this life but affliction doesn’t have to crush us, being perplexed doesn’t have to lead to despair, being persecuted and struck down doesn’t mean that we’re forsaken or destroyed.

Paul can say this because who he is and where he lives his life isn’t rooted in self-serving personal philosophy.

Paul had his identity as a child of God. He knew Christ dwelt within him and that he was living in the unshakeable kingdom of God where God is good all the time and all the time God is good.

If, like Paul, we can live in the reality of God’s kingdom knowing we are loved and cared for by a good and gracious God then life begins to make sense and many of the things that occupy our thoughts and dreams and cause us stress, strain, and hour after hour after hour after hour of worry begin to get smaller, even go away.

In this world of ours recessions will come and go, illness strikes, grades go bad, promotions are denied. basements flood and people die. These things challenge our deep seated sense of entitlement. Life doesn’t feel safe or secure. It’s easy to become testy, frazzled, stressed and worried.

The more I think, pray, and read none of these things can harm those who live in the kingdom of God for their identity and residence is secure. In God’s kingdom, there is a sense of security even in the midst of the most difficult things. That’s why Paul was able to say. “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” There’s a way of looking at life that is from God’s perspective not our own. It requires us to seek the kingdom of God in all things. If we die, we step into the arms of God and our destiny. If we miss a promotion we can learn how to trust God for something better, perhaps different. If our basement floods we can see it for what it is …an inconvenience and a pain. It's not the end of the world. In all things we seek the kingdom of God. In all things. All things.

How many times have we heard of people living in the kingdom who serve as an inspiration as they faced inevitable tough times? We wonder why they are not angry with God and testy with us. I think it’s because they are linking their story to the bigger narrative. They know who they are and where they are. They are God’s child, with Christ at their center, and they live in the unshakeable kingdom of God.

And that’s why throughout Scripture God says ‘don’t worry about anything’. And it only makes sense if we are rooted and nurtured by the kingdom.

My spiritual director tells me often to live in the present moment, in the presence of God. He tells me that this is the key to the Christian life. Nothing more. Nothing less. He urges me to stop worrying and to start trusting and to live righteously, doing the right things in the right way with the right attitude. Now. He's right. Worry doesn’t add a single hour to my life or to my satisfaction. In fact, it diminishes it.

I’m realizing that I can waste this moment with worry or I can seek God and His kingdom. The truth of the matter is that we have to learn to deal with whatever the present moment gives us. Satan wants us to avoid the sacrament of the present moment. And so worry becomes one of his tools keeping us from entering into whatever the present moment has for us. The present moment is where God beckons us. And He says: ‘Don’t worry. Trust me. I’m good. All the time. All the time I’m good.'

P.S. Read the three books by James Bryan Smith called
The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life and The Good and Beautiful Community. Excellent.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Years ago I read a book called “The Cost of Discipleship”. It argued against notions of cheap grace. The book was written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, who was killed by the Nazis at the very end of World War II. Bonhoeffer was safely ensconced in the United States and could have very easily chosen to ‘ride out’ the war but instead chose a much costlier road by deciding to return to Germany. He became part of the conspiracy to kill Hitler. That involvement led to his death by hanging.

Eric Metaxas has written a biography of this pastor, martyr, prophet and spy. It’s simply entitled Bonhoeffer. Read it. Grapple with it. Be challenged by it.

Throughout the book I wondered how I would act and react in the face of great tyranny. If evil has a face it must be that of Hitler and his cronies. Cruel and unmeasured the Third Reich marched headlong into acts of cruelty that when spoken of today still stun our sensibilities. And yet men and women stood up against that evil conspiring to encourage the downtrodden and to bring evil to its knees. So unspeakable were the crimes against humanity that men like Bonhoeffer struggled mightily with how to be a person of faith in the midst of it all. Many realized that it would take the power of God to combat the denizens of hell that draped themselves in Nazi brown.

The essence of Bonhoeffer’s theology could be summed up by two words. Only God. And, thus,those who believed in Jesus were called to follow a path of complete and total surrender to His cause no matter what the cost. Christians were those did the will of God. Radically. Courageously.Joyfully. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived that kind of discipleship life and it is the reason we remember him.

In today’s world we rant and rave against anything that inconveniences us. All we need to do is open the paper or click to a website and discover what we’re for or against on this day or the next. We bicker and scuffle about a variety of issues. Christians are in the fray staking out residence on both the right and left and in the safe middle. When push comes to shove our blustering, much of the time, is just that …bluster. We will slap a bumper sticker on the car and send an occasional e-mail to congress but that’s about it. It’s too easy to go along and get along. Our commitments are neither radical nor courageous and thus rarely joyful.

We have become tame here in the west I think. Nothing seems to challenge our resolve and our faith in such a way that makes us want to change, challenge or rise up. We know little of costly faith but live magnificently well with the adornments of cheap grace. And we pay the price for all of that. I have to chuckle whenever I think of missionaries from developing countries arriving on our shores to deliver us from our soft notions of discipleship.

Of course, there are exceptions. Many of them. Maybe even you (just don't assume it). We know them because they often give up security and privilege in order to live more simply and differently emboldened by a gospel agenda. Their example challenges our thinking and lifestyle. There are those who have discovered a ‘holy discontent’ and move with determination to remedy wrongs and to heal the broken often going to battle against the current faces of evil. We are encouraged by their witness for it stirs something in our napping souls.

So, as I finished Bonhoeffer today I wondered about myself. I’ll let you wonder about you. Am I someone who lives in such a way that is bold, courageous, radical and joyful? Or have I settled for slip-sliding down the slide of cultural contentment and cheap grace Christianity? Has my faith become all about ‘me’, my lifestyle, my dreams, and my hopes? Have I become so inwardly focused that I can’t see ‘Jesus in a distressing disguise’? Do I accommodate evil instead of warring against it? Have I bought into a message of the gospel that allows me to stand pat? Pretty nifty questions I think. Harder answers.

Ah, what a great read Bonhoeffer has proven to be. It’s challenged both my thinking and my heart. Can’t ask a book to do better than that. I hope you'll read it. May it mess with your head and heart the way it's messed with mine.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Free Agent Madness

The whole NBA free agent thing was a little out of whack wasn’t it? Millions of dollars were spent by the media to cover a story about sport franchises wanting to offer millions of dollars to young men who already had millions of dollars.

Now, I enjoy sports as much as the next person. I’ve played and coached just about every major sport and enjoying rooting for a whole lot of teams. I watched the World Cup final today and saw Lance get knocked out of the Tour de France. So, I’m not anti-sport. Nor am I dull about the huge economic and positive emotional impact sports teams can have on cities both large and small all across the country. But this whole feeding frenzy over LeBron, Dwayne, Chris, et. al. went a tad bit over the line. It was too much emphasis on something that shouldn’t matter all that much.

Maybe it’s a sign of the times that we play up and obsess over who signs what contract where. In some ways, it sure opened doors for discussion around water coolers all across America. Perhaps it helped take our mind off of weightier matters. But when push comes to shove it was pure overkill.

Even fan reaction to who signed who was a little crazy. I’m sorry. When a basketball player switches jerseys it shouldn’t cause pain, blame, tears or over-the-top angry letters. But in the case of LeBron it did just that. And you want to just look at those who are in tears and on the verge of dangerous anger and beg them to get a life.

Listening to sports radio is always hazardous to one’s health. I’ve always thought that some stations hire personalities who are just little hooligans who are as dangerous, in their own way, as the gang bangers who indulge in drive by shootings. The vacuous nature of the sports landscape came to full fruition this week as stations filled valuable minutes with hearsay, rumor and innuendo. Such things, however, seem to fuel the American dream and psyche these days.

I think what finally busted my chops was realizing that gazillions of dollars were being spent on not much really while real needs go unmet in communities all across America. It doesn’t seem right that we can give athletes 80 million dollars and not care about schools that are underfunded. Things really are out of whack.

There’s no real answer to any of this. I’m not advocating a boycott of anything. And if someone has good tickets to the Bulls, Bears, Fire, Sox, or even Cubs …I’ll take them off your hand. I guess this whole week just reminded me of what’s important and what’s really not. Free agency isn’t on the ‘real important’ list. And we somehow made it bigger than it ever deserves to be. Maybe that’s what saddens me. We have this amazing ability to inflate the unimportant and to keep our eyes closed to those things that really matter.

It’s a little wake up call. The only good news is that the Bulls got Carlos Boozer. He’ll help lead the Bulls to the championship next June. That will be worth fixating on …right?

Friday, July 09, 2010


Spending some time with the Sermon on the Mount recently had me thinking: “Is Jesus serious about all this?”

Specifically, I was spending time reflecting on the loving enemies and not seeking revenge passages. It’s a hard sell. Culturally, most people are acclimated to striking back, getting the upper hand, looking strong and taking no enemies. We’re taught that at every turn. “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” makes sense except, of course, when it’s our eye and our teeth someone is coming for.

Jumping into the cultural cauldron of his time Jesus tries to teach a new love language and I wonder how much people were really buying into it. He was saying that it’s important to go the extra mile and to turn the other cheek. He was trying to teach both the language and actions of the kingdom of God. And that involves often doing both the unnatural and unthinkable.

Read Matthew 5: 38-48. It’s a clear call not to root ourselves in the laws of reciprocity but instead to root ourselves in the habits of the kingdom.

At first blush it does look impractical. Who wants to get run over and taken advantage of? Who wants to be stepped on? Who wants to be seen as a second class citizen?

Then comes the ‘aha’ moment. Have I just taken a kingdom possibility and made it only about ‘me’? Isn't that what most of us do all the time? Isn't that our default position? We don't like this tax because there's 'less' for me? We don't like this company policy because it means "I" have to change?

It's not about me. It's not about you. It's about God and His Kingdom. Is it possible that God’s purposes could be better served in the midst of us being stretched, pulled, run over, cheated, manipulated, and inconvenienced? Could it be that my sense of entitlement stands in the way of God revealing Himself in rather remarkable ways in and through my life?

If we were truly Kingdom people what would others see in our response to unjust situations?

What I’m realizing about myself is that I can put myself right into the middle of a passage of Scripture and belligerently look Jesus in the eye and say, “You’re wrong. This won’t work.” Or I can say, “Ok, this might work but immediately start looking for the loopholes. And I have to wonder why I’m so quick to doubt Jesus and is my insatiable quest for loopholes making me the modern day equivalent of a Pharisaical theological hair splitter.

As long I’m being belligerent and seeking loopholes I won’t get it. And what I need to get is that sometimes I’m vindictive and unforgiving. I seek revenge and don’t want to walk one mile let alone two. I want to hold grudges and not pray for my enemies. It’s my lack of love that creates a bit of a living hell for those in my relational networks. And when I don’t allow Jesus to write a new kingdom language on my heart I fall dismally short of what citizenship in the kingdom of God needs to look like. And if I don't allow Jesus to script something new in me I'm admitting that I have a better way. Sure I do.

It’s been said that the way of Jesus hasn’t been tried and found wanting. Nope. More often than not it hasn’t been tried. Jesus is always about the kingdom of God and in that kingdom people think, speak, and act differently and they do so even if it is at odds with the rest of the culture. So …

Instead of striking back you allow someone to hit you again.

Instead of carrying someone else’s burden one mile you go two.

Instead of an eye for an eye for an eye you love and pray for your enemies.

We have to understand that Jesus is not whistling in the wind. Jesus is saying that this is what kingdom people do. They aim higher and live differently. And they take it so seriously that it becomes the habit of their life. And those habits will allow us to seek first the kingdom of God. That’s the goal. Of course, I’m not talking about being a chump or arguing against fleeing from abuse or not standing up to evil. Not at all. But is there a ‘kingdom response and way’ we all too easily ignore? I think so.

Years ago in South Africa the Sermon on the Mount became the means to the end of a particularly ugly chapter in that countries history. Apartheid stripped the majority non-white population of many rights. It led to corruption, false imprisonments and insane violence. In 1994 free elections were held and Nelson Mandela was elected president

Mandela ended up appointing Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a Kingdom of God way of bringing ugly truth to the light of day without exacting revenge.

The Commission allowed both victim and oppressor to meet before a tribunal. If the oppressor faced his accusers and confessed to wrongdoing he/she would not be prosecuted for crimes committed. Mandela took heat from many about the lack of justice in the process. Mandela believed that his country needed healing more than justice. He knew that any attempt to punish would only continue a deadly cycle of retribution. So, he chose the harder road.

On many occasions victims and oppressors met on this common ground. And many times you could see God visibly at work. Instead of hate, love won out. Instead of revenge, forgiveness was offered. Instead of rage, reconciliation took place.

When that happened justice was probably not served well. People didn’t get what they deserved. But when grace descended the earth became a bit more like the kingdom of God. And it gets our attention.

Nations certainly need to pursue justice and establish strong laws. There comes a point when justice and law keeping reaches a dead end. Justice helps us manage and order life but more is needed. It is the power of God welling up to go beyond hate and getting even. Ghandi said it well “Keep on with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the whole world will soon be both blind and toothless.”

Jesus set forth another way. It’s a way of grace. Paul tells us “Do not be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good.” We are called to be dispensers of God’s grace. We are never more like the Father than when we love those who don’t love us. And we’re never more thankful than when we are loved when we don’t deserve it.

The way of love, the extra effort, aiming for more than just keeping the law is the kingdom pathway.

What does this mean for you? Not sure exactly. For me, it means taking a look at those 'it's all about me' attitudes I hold. And examining my amazing ability to point fingers at anyone but myself has to be put on the to do list. Maybe even exploring any lingering roots of bitterness towards others needs to be brought to the Lord. Certainly, I have to contest for my 'heart' for it so easily buys into the easy answers the culture hands me. I'm more adept at modeling 'an eye for an eye' than praying for those who do me harm.

Tough scripture demands tough introspection. Living it out isn't a legalistic journey. I read recently that those who love God's word need to become good at improv. More on that some other time.

Let me know what you think.