The Holiday Slow Down

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“I think [you] need [to do] a sermon or blog on HOW TO SLOW DOWN for Advent.  I heard you describe Advent as the time we slow down to remember Jesus’s first coming and I feel a smirk form on my face.  Because it is ironic that the holidays and December is THE busiest time of year!  SLOW DOWN??? Ha!”

I got this text message from a friend of mine this morning. Not only did it make me bust up laughing, it also got me thinking – this is the busiest time of year for most of us, and sometimes the most depressing. We always have such high hopes for spending time with our family, savoring the candlelight and special moments… and by the time Christmas is over we’re saying “Thank God that is done with for another year!” Most of us want to slow down for the Holidays, but life rarely accommodates those desires. In this post I’ll offer a few thoughts on the matter.

Life will never slow down, you have to make the time

First, and most important, is the realization that there will never be an opportune time to slow down. Sure, back in the day when everyone was dependent upon daylight and warm temperatures to work we were able to take the Winter off for the most part, but that is no longer the case. While we, as humans, were designed to thrive in seasonal ebb and flow, that is not the world we live in, unless we choose to. Just like working out, or any other Important But Not Urgent activity, slowing down is something you have to schedule in. It is a huge pain in the butt to start, but once you’re in the routine it is hard to imagine how you ever functioned without it.

Silence is Sacred

If you really want to slow down your life enough to savor the season and become a new person, you are going to have to find time for silence – alone or as a family. As the father to a toddler who likes to be up early, I have two options if I want Silence. I can either turn on Daniel Tiger and take a 20 minute break in the dining room or I can wait until after he is in bed. Most recently, the late in the evening quiet time is working for me.

Silence, for me, is reminiscent of Genesis 1. The world was formless, silent, void – and into that silence God spoke a new creation. If we want to hear God’s voice, and if we want to be continuously remade, we need to be silent, there isn’t another way around it.

Intentional Disruptions

The whole point of the Liturgical calendar is to intentionally disrupt our day-to-day lives and restructure our worldview around the Truths of God’s Word. Advent is the time where we remember Jesus’s first coming and anticipate his return. It is the time where we meditate on deep and somber Truths – that humanity was (and still is) enslaved to sin and unable to free itself, therefore God had to send his Son Jesus to die our death so that we could live his life. We remember that the religious and political structures of the day were opposed to this Christ child and wanted to murder him to protect their power. We exult in God’s love expressed in Jesus and we take time to ponder Jesus’s return.

Advent and the other Church seasons are intended to help us understand our lives through the lens of Redemptive History, rather than through the lens of human progress. (Indeed, most saints throughout history are appalled at how little humans have changed – our external circumstances have certainly progressed, but our hearts have not.) Included in the process of disrupting our lives and reinterpreting our history is the use of ritual and symbol.

Create Rituals for your family

I was tempted to write that heading as “Create meaningful rituals for your family,” but rituals are, by their very nature, meaningful and symbolic. Perhaps the most common ritual in Advent is the Advent wreath. It can be a beautiful ritual for your family, or for your own devotion. Simply light the designated number of candles, read some Scripture out loud and spend time thinking about it or talking about it as you watch the flames dance. It is amazing how Holy Spirit brings things to our attention when we let our minds wander during devotions. You might be reminded of a broken relationship and feel prompted to fix it, you might think of someone you haven’t talked to for awhile and feel prompted to reach out… or you might remember that the laundry is in the wash and you’d better flip it or else it will start stinking.

Don’t be afraid to start rituals by yourself. Remember my toddler who I sent away to watch Daniel Tiger? What if he came out to the dining room while I had my candles lit and my Bible out? Well, I’m sure he’d ask me what I was doing and then I’d have the opportunity to tell him about Jesus and what the Advent season is really about. I’m sure he wouldn’t get it and that I’d have to let him blow out the candles, but I think it is powerfully formative for our kids to “catch us” doing our own private devotions. The more meaningful, enjoyable and symbolic we can make our rituals the better.

Your attention is precious

While I firmly believe that our time is our most precious resource, having time without attention is pretty worthless. Ever been at work and know you have projects to do, but you just can’t get your brain to click into gear? I have! And the thing that gets my brain back into gear? Cleaning my office. When I have crap all over my desk, piles of papers and receipts and all manner of coffee cups, I can’t focus – but as soon as everything is cleared off my brain unlocks and I can move on with my day.

The same is true in our homes – there are so many things we want to do, but we get so distracted that we can’t really focus. I’m definitely an advocate for a minimalist lifestyle, but I know that isn’t for anyone. Just know that the more stuff you have around you, the more potential for distractions. So if your true intent is to get closer to God this Advent season, it may be worthwhile to put some of the “stuff” in the garage. Who knows, you may even find that you function just as well without it.

The whole point of this section on attention is to highlight the fact that we have a limited ability to focus. This means that we need to prioritize what gets our attention. A dinging phone is expertly designed to grab your attention, which is probably why it needs to be put on silent and in another room if you want to really read, focus and think.

Revamping your lifestyle

Prioritizing friendship with God has caused me to redesign my lifestyle. For instance, my wife and I don’t have the internet in our home, we also don’t have cable or satellite television. We try to limit our son’s screen time as well as our own. We have one day a week where we try to take a tech sabbath, turning off our phones and even leaving them at home. We build into our weekly and monthly schedules time to be with God.

I need those kinds of disciplines, I also want them. Because I only have one kid, I don’t really know the pressure that comes with having more, so please take that into consideration, but please don’t make it an excuse.

Well, there you have it. If you really want to slow down, you have to acknowledge that life isn’t going to slow down for you, you have to make it happen by cutting out other things. And, once you’ve made the time, the strategic use of silence, meditation, ritual and decluttering will go a long way towards slowing down your life. Prioritizing a friendship with Jesus has a pretty big spillover effect, so don’t be surprised if you want to stay in this lower gear even after the Holidays have ended. And that brings me to my last point…

Our tendency as human beings is to complicate and over commit. It takes work to keep things simple and provide ample margins in our day for the things we deem most important. But as much work as it is to declutter and have firm boundaries, it is even more work to go without that kind of structure. You are going to have stress, you are going to have to exert effort, so do you want to do it in a proactive way that puts you in control of your schedule and relationships or do you want to experience life in a reactive way where it seems like you are never in control and always at the mercy of other people’s schedules? What I have found is that when I own the responsibility to manage my time and I schedule in my Important But Not Urgent activities I have more time and compassion to help other people.

I hope this helps you slow down this Holiday season. Let me know if you put anything into practice and how it helps. I’d also love to hear what you do to slow down for the Holidays.

As always, thanks for reading!

Ben

Thoughts on Sex

I attended a meeting last week with a group of fellow Vineyard Pastors and one of the things we discussed was singleness — particularly how to honor that in our churches. After all, Jesus was single, so one can clearly be Godly even if one isn’t married. Same thing with Paul. In fact, the Church has a pretty great history of championing singleness as a viable, even desirable, lifestyle. But that is a topic for another day.

What I want to talk about today is sex. Particularly, I want to meditate on some passages in Genesis and point out how those passages can apply to our sexuality in the Church today. I want to put two texts (Genesis 1 and Genesis 4) side by side and observe a few things. Just so we are all on the same page, here are the texts in question.

Genesis 1:27-28

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Genesis 4:1

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain

If you’ll allow a slightly crass paraphrase, right after God creates humanity, he tells them to have sex. Why, then, does Adam not have sex with Eve until after the Fall? Genesis 4 starts with the word “now” as in “now, after all these things”. What the heck? Adam is married to the most beautiful woman on the planet, the most beautiful woman who has ever lived (who also happens to be completely naked), and they don’t get frisky for three chapters? What gives? I feel like we are missing some pretty important pieces of the puzzle. I also think that sex may not be as important/essential as we all seem to think it is.

Does anyone else think it strange that the biological desire to reproduce is the last function to develop in human beings and the first to go? For instance, take our other biological desires/necessities — air, water, food, sleep. Those things are with us for life. Indeed, if deprived of them for an extended period of time we die. Not true with sex. One can live a long, happy and fulfilled life without ever having sex though our Western culture would scream to the contrary.

Let’s circle back to our story in Genesis. First, how cool is it that God’s first command to Adam and Eve was to have sex? I don’t know about you, but my experience in church has been that sex shouldn’t be talked about much and that it is kind of dirty, taboo. We know people do it, but we don’t want to think about it, hear about it or see any evidence of it until there is a baby bump. I don’t think the Puritans did us any favors in this department. But the Truth is that we have a God who loves, even celebrates, sex (see the end of Song of Solomon if you’d like additional biblical evidence). Sex isn’t dirty or taboo, it isn’t even an uncomfortable subject in the Bible. I think that can free us to talk differently about sex in our churches.

But what really fascinates me is the fact that Adam and Eve waited so long to get together. Now, we don’t know how much time elapsed between the end of Genesis 1 and the beginning of Genesis 4, but I think we can assume there were at least two or three days — long enough in  my book! So what’s the deal? Adam and Eve are in paradise, naked, they have no obligations except to tend to the Garden and exercise their dominion over creation, and they take a walk with God every evening — sounds like an ideal setting. I think that is the point. Adam and Eve were doing what they were created to do and were in right relationship with God and one another. They were intimate and loving in nonsexual ways so sex wasn’t really on their minds all that much. It was only after the Fall, after they felt the chasm of relational distance between themselves and God and between one another that they finally turned to sex as a means of trying to bridge the gap. Quite literally, Adam got inside Eve and he still wasn’t as close to her as when they were working side by side in the Garden. That breaks my heart. I’ve always taken the verse “It’s not good for man to be alone” to mean that a man needs a wife (i.e. someone to have sex with). I’m not sure that is what it means at all. I think that verse means we need companions, people to help us in our pilgrimage through life, not sex buddies or friends with benefits.

My heart really gravitates towards this idea of companionship, of friendship between men and women that is intimate and nonsexual. I also know that, historically, this hasn’t worked out well in general society. And so I’m caught in the “now and not yet” of God’s Kingdom.

A few closing thoughts:

  1. This story of Adam and Eve challenges my beliefs about modesty and holiness, especially taking every thought captive. Adam was able to behold a beautiful woman totally naked in paradise and his first thought wasn’t to jump her bones — that same ability is in my DNA. Are we as men really so far gone, really so fragile, that we need to clothe women head to toe in burkas in order to control our sexual desires? If so, what does that say about us as men? What does that say about our relationship with God?
  2. The intimacy I long for comes primarily from nonsexual sources.
  3. Multiplying ourselves is a biblical command, and for Adam and Eve it certainly meant having sex. That isn’t true today. Jesus is arguably the most “multiplied” person on the planet and it had nothing to do with having sex and everything to do with investing his life in others.
  4. Single people may have the potential to influence greater numbers of people than married people. They may be especially suited for work in ministry.
  5. Being married is great. Being single is great. There isn’t any need to push people one way or another. Single people aren’t deficient in any way (it may be that married people are).

Well, I think I’ll wrap things up here. Thanks for reading friends and, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ben

Navigating Love and Holiness

I’ve been thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan lately. I’m sure you’re familiar with it, but in case you need a refresher, here it is.

Jesus tells a story of a Jewish man who is on his way down the mountain from Jerusalem when he is ambushed by a band of thieves. They beat him, steal his goods and leave him for dead. Sometime later, a priest comes by and seeing the body from a distance, crosses over to the other side. So to a Levite (one of the workers in the Temple) comes along, sees the man’s body lying alongside the road, and crosses over to the other side. Lastly, a Samaritan, comes along, takes pity on the man and cares for him. He provides first aid to the injured man, transports him to the hospital and even agrees to pay for his hospital bill.  Jesus points out that the Samaritan was the neighbor while the religious people were not.

Here is an interesting piece, according to the Law found in Leviticus 21:1, The Lord commanded Moses to “Speak to the priests…and say to them, ‘A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die…'” (emphasis mine). Also, in Numbers 19:11 it reads, “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days.” I bring this up because it adds some really interesting complexity to Jesus’s otherwise straightforward parable.

If the priest and the Levite suspected the man lying alongside the road was dead, then they were required, by Law, to pass by. The priest was forbidden from defiling himself for anyone who wasn’t family and the Levite, assuming he had to work in the Temple the next day, couldn’t defile himself and still be allowed in the Temple. So this begs the question, “why did Jesus choose these two people as the characters in his story?”

The context to this parable is Jesus being questioned by an expert in the Law. This expert wants to know what he needs to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what the most important commands are. The expert replies, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” This is, of course, the correct answer — the man knows his stuff. But theory is one thing, practical application is another, so the man asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the parable above and then asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert agrees — it was the Samaritan.

Jesus’s parable puts the expert in a double bind by pitting the Law against itself. On one hand is the command to love, on the other is the command to be holy. In order to fulfill the most important commands of Scripture (to love) the expert would have to break lesser commands (holiness). He would need to break the Law in order to fulfill the Law. Either way he plays it, he is still a lawbreaker. On one hand he breaks the Law to love if he does not help someone in need. On the other hand, he breaks the laws of holiness if he embraces the radical notions of Neighbor Jesus puts forth in his parable. If what Jesus says is true, then he is a lawbreaker no matter what he does and that means he is disqualified from inheriting (earning) eternal life. I find that to be a fascinating predicament Jesus puts the expert in. I find it fascinating because it has such direct import to our current political situation in the United States.

One side of our political system leans heavy on loving people, sometimes at the expense of moral standards (Biblically speaking). The other side leans more towards holiness and morality, sometimes at the expense of helping people who really need it. Which side is correct?

If the parable of the Good Samaritan were all we had to work with, I think it would be easy — err on the side of love. Mercy triumphs over judgement. But this isn’t the only teaching of Jesus we have. We also have the time when Jesus was brought a woman caught in the act of adultery. In this instance, Jesus does indeed break the Law in order to fulfill the Law. By Law he was required to stone an adulteress and by Law he required to love that woman as he loved himself. Jesus chose to show mercy and not stone the woman to death, but he doesn’t leave the issue of holiness unaddressed. His parting words are “Go and sin no more.”

Holiness is important to God, we are to be holy because He is holy. We can’t get rid of the commands to be holy, to have high moral standards, and neither can we fail to love. So what do we do? The following three principles help me to navigate this complex issue.

  1. I try to continually expand my definition of neighbor. The Parable of the Good Samaritan shows me that my neighbors are people who don’t look like me, don’t talk like me, believe differently than I do, don’t live in my geographic area, are from different socio-economic backgrounds and might otherwise hate me in another circumstance. In other words, there is no one on this planet I am not called to love. I must use that Truth to constantly fight my own fear, prejudice, ignorance and indifference. Unless I am continually growing in my love for humanity I am not fulfilling the royal Law of Love.
  2. Lead with Kindness and Mercy. We are all in process and it is OK to admit that. Because of Holy Spirit’s work in us, we are being transformed into the image and likeness of God. God willing, the things which entangled me yesterday will have less power over me today and no power tomorrow. No one needs to be perfect before I extend to them the love, mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. I wasn’t perfect when he first offered those things to me and I’m still not perfect even though I’ve been saturated with them every day for the last 20 years. But I trust that God will finish what he started — in me and in you. He isn’t a God of half measures, He won’t give up until we are glorious and Good.
  3. The Doctor’s Orders are for our benefit. God is not a buzzkill who enjoys rules for their own sake. Everything God commands us to do is for our benefit. Because I believe that Jesus really does want what is best for me and those around me, I have no problems trying to follow those orders and convincing others to do the same. Holiness is not a constraining and joyless pursuit — on the contrary — it is a necessary ingredient for abundant, overflowing and joyful living. Whenever possible I think we should advocate for people to live according to the Book. It isn’t necessary to understand, it is only necessary to believe it will work for our good.

We’re not going to do this perfectly, this dance of obedience. But fortunately for us we don’t have to. Unlike the expert in the Law who was trying to do everything perfectly so that God was obligated to save him, our salvation is a gift. It wasn’t given because we were deserving and it won’t be taken away because we are undeserving. The gift of our salvation gives us freedom to learn, grow, make mistakes and learn to do better. We are learning to love and follow the lead of our Savior — we’ll be clunky at first and will get better over time. Very rarely will we ever encounter a situation where we have to choose either love or holiness because Jesus, through the power of the Spirit and in accordance with the heart of our Father, creates a new option — that loving people is what brings them to holiness and purifies us as well.

My Critique of Christian Republicanism

The History of this Article

I began writing this piece shortly after the Primary races began. It started as a piece I hoped would spark dialogue between my Republican friends and I, but because I am slow to marshall thoughts, and even slower to share them, this article quickly lost relevance to the event which first inspired it. I kept it in the queue, thinking I’d roll it out in four years as a timely piece before the next round of circus.

Then I read this article by Wayne Grudem and it suddenly became relevant again. Now, you have to understand, Mr. Grudem has been highly influential in my life. His book, Systematic Theology, has been informative and inspirational and almost convinced me to pursue a Doctorate in Systematic Theology. So my first inclination, after reading an article which sickened and angered me, was to check myself. Was I mistaken? Would Hilary really be as bad as he prophesys? Can we really make the leap to saying that voting for any Democrat in any election is an immoral choice?

I don’t think so. In fact, in his article, Mr. Grudem exemplifies the sort of Nationalistic Christianity that caused me to write this article initially. I’m heartened by the number of responses to Mr. Grudem’s article by people of my generation (Millennials) because they have been kind, considerate and respectfully defiant. We are carving out new ways of understanding how our faith interacts with politics — and I’m thrilled. This will likely put us at odds with older generations of Believers, but that doesn’t mean we love Jesus (or our moms and dads) any less. We are just insisting that loving Jesus does not also mean we need to love Republicanism.

The Purpose of this Article

I wrote this article with the hope of making people think about their faith in God, their understanding of the Bible and how those two things interact with their political inclinations and the issues in our world. I’m troubled at how easily people on either side of the aisle claim to follow Christ and yet their opinions and legislative decisions rarely align with the Christian faith. More troublesome is the commingling of the words Christian and Republican, as though the two were one and the same. Therefore, into the cess pool of political opinion on the Internet, I respectfully submit my thoughts.

The Political Nature of the Gospel

The Gospel is political, there is no getting around it. When Mark the Evangelist first penned the words, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ,” there was already a Gospel in circulation, the Gospel of Tiberius Caesar, son of the gods. Mark’s assertion was that there was a new Emperor who actually was the Son of God and Mark wrote about his exploits. This Good News was a direct threat to the existing government and much of the persecution of early Christians was due to the political nature of their message. If the Gospel no longer threatens, critiques or corrects the worldly political system, then it is no longer the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In many ways we find ourselves in the place of Joshua in Joshua 5. Joshua has just finished praying and he looks up to see an angel standing before him with his sword drawn. Joshua gets up, goes to the angel and says, “Are you for us or our enemies?” The angel replies, “Neither. I am the commander of the armies of the Lord.” In essence, the angel asked Joshua, “Who’s side are YOU on?” Oftentimes we think there are only two sides to an issue and we are relatively certain God sides with us. Yet it is often the case that God has his own side and we must make the choice to align with him.

My goal in this article is to explore that third way of God, the one that is greater and more comprehensive than either the Republicans or Democrats can understand. I will fall far short of doing it proper justice, but if I can start a respectful and thoughtful discussion than all of the labor that went into the writing of this piece will be worth it.

My Background

I was raised in a Republican home. I think I’ve maintained a good portion of my conservative values while still being able to acknowledge that there are important things besides fiscal responsibility and the sanctity of life. Because of my upbringing, I have a fondness for the Republican party that I don’t have for the Democratic one. In an interesting emotional and theological twist, that fondness compels me to be a fierce critic of the GOP, especially the wing that identifies itself as Conservative, Evangelical Christian. Because I am more familiar with the Republican mindset and ideals, the bulk of this article will be addressed to them. It is my hope that a more Democratically aligned Christian will offer a similar critique of that party. I do hope that you will be patient and at least attempt to understand my arguments wherever you fall along the political spectrum. Additionally, I’d love for you to leave your corrections and comments below.

The Issues

  • Abortion – I think the basic thinking on this issue is solid. Life is precious, sacred. According to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptizer was able to recognize the life of Jesus (who was little more than a zygote at the time) when he was 6 months in the womb. It is amazing that a child, 6 months in utero, would have that kind of discernment. Even more amazing is that he was able to recognize the personhood and divine nature of Jesus who was less than 3 weeks old. To be “Pro Life” is to be “for life” in all of its stages. Republicans need to up their game dramatically when it comes to caring for teenage moms, single parents, foster parents and children, adoptive families and families with lots of kids. It is unethical and immoral to guilt someone into carrying a child full term and then effectively abandon them once the child is born.
  • Death Penalty – Again, to be “Pro Life” is to be “for life” in every regard. State sanctioned murder is still murder. Furthermore, the sentence over some of these people is questionable at best. Can we really claim to represent the One who said, “the Son of Man did not come to destroy life, but to bring life to the earth” (Luke 9:55) and kill the innocent? Isn’t it better to leave that level of judgment in the hands of God? Do we need violent criminals off the streets? Absolutely. But it is best to remember that “an eye for an eye” makes the whole world blind.
  • The Environment – This is also an issue of life – the life of the planet. We claim that God created the air we breath, the water we drink and the ground we stand upon. Doesn’t that make those things sacred? Can we really claim to love God and desire to be good stewards of all he has given us and defile the planet at the same time? I’m not even going to touch the issue of climate change because it is a tertiary issue. I think many of us are living in denial about what really happens to the junk we put in the trash can — where do we think that goes? As we continue to uncover how harmful plastics are to human health, do we not think that those same chemicals will harm the lives of other things on this planet or the planet itself? Yes, we believe in a new creation – a new heaven and new earth – but there is also the principle of being faithful with what you’ve been given so that you can be entrusted with more and better things. After all, doesn’t the Bible say that the Earth waits in eager expectation  for the children of God to be revealed so that it will be liberated from its bondage to decay? (It does, see Romans 8:19-21) That means your status as a child of God will, in part, be measured by the amount of freedom and health you bring to this planet.
  • Guns and the Second Amendment – I get it — guns don’t kill people, people kill people and guns are just a tool. And yet this tool has one intended purpose, to fling a piece of lead at high velocity into flesh, be it human or animal, in order to injure or kill. The purpose of this tool is to kill and the only time it does “good” is when it kills bad people. Killing bad people is still killing. Jesus did command his disciples to arm themselves in Luke 22:36-38, but when they tried to use their swords, Jesus rebuked them and undid the damage they caused. Jesus never taught his disciples when it was appropriate to use violence and we don’t see the Apostles carrying weapons at any other point in the New Testament. In fact, they quite readily offered themselves up to be beaten, even martyred. Throughout the world, unarmed and powerless Christians are changing the world in the face of great persecution and yet the Church thrives. They walk in a level of authority we can’t comprehend in the West and they do it through pacifism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor committed to pacifism in Nazi Germany. After much internal struggle, Bonhoeffer eventually decided to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He failed, however, and the surge of confidence this failed attempt gave to Hitler had catastrophic results. I do think there are times when bad men need to die, but I’m not certain any of us have the wisdom to know when that is and what the repercussions may be. The best we can do is act on what seems best to us and trust in a Merciful God. On the whole, however, guns seem quite unnecessary for civilians.
  • Sanctity of Marriage – What are we really trying to protect in our legislative efforts to define marriage as “between one man and one woman”? Are we really trying to protect the sanctity of marriage or are we trying to protect our right to file taxes jointly and be privy to our partner’s medical information? If we were really trying to protect the sanctity of marriage, shouldn’t we also limit people to just being married once? We would probably be best served by rewriting our nation’s laws concerning marriage. Marriage is a religious institution with intense spiritual repercussions — it isn’t an issue the government has any jurisdiction over (remember Braveheart?). If two people choose to merge their lives through a governmental procedure so that they can file taxes together and get some other benefits, can we really say no to that? What Christians insist on is a spiritual truth — that marriage is sacred and strictly defined and that anyone who doesn’t treat it that was hurts themselves in the short term and long term, but can we really legislate that? Just as the government should have no say in who can get married in a church, the church should not have a say in who gets married in the government. (Separation of church and state is kind of our big idea in America.)
  • Caring for the hungry, thirsty, immigrants, the poor, the sick and those in prison – Sorry for the giant, run on category, but these things all fit together in God’s Book. Take the case of Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The Sheep are those who will enter into Life in the Kingdom of God and the Goats are those who will be punished for eternity – what distinguishes the two groups? How they treated the people mentioned above. Look, Biblically speaking, to reject immigrants is to reject Christ. To deny the sick access to healthcare is to make Jesus suffer. To refuse to care for the hungry, the thirsty and the poor is to refuse to care for Christ. Not devoting time, energy and resources to rehabilitate and free those in prison means that God won’t do that for you (“forgive us as we forgive…”). As individuals, it is impossible to do all those things, but not for a group. Until the Conservative Evangelical wing of the Republican party pushes for these things to be major agenda items, the Republican party cannot claim to have the moral high ground and cannot claim to represent Christ.
  • Taxes – Flat taxes across the board seem to be the standard Biblical procedure. The Temple Tax was the same fee for every person, no matter their income and the tithe is 10% wether you make $50,000 or $500,000. However, Jesus also says that “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.” God expects those who have been blessed with wealth will use it to bless others.
  • Military Spending – I get that we, as a nation, need an army. But can we Christians at least acknowledge our hypocrisy? It is hard to justify a national army when Jesus said to turn the other cheek. We spend an enormous amount of money on our military, almost beyond comprehension. Why? The majority of the nations that could potentially pose a threat to us are already allies and we have plenty of guns. Can we cut back on some of that spending and use some of it to help the people that hate us? Then, maybe, they wouldn’t hate us so much and we could cut back some more in a few years. Also, can we redirect that funding to take better care of our soldiers and their families? If someone is going to put their life on the line for me, whether I want them to or not, they deserve to be well taken care of.
  • America is a Christian Nation – Can we please drop this rhetoric? America is not a Christian nation and never has been. At least, I pray to God it isn’t and has never been. The United States was indeed founded by many Christians, but were we representing Christ when we massacred indigenous peoples and stole their land? Or were we living out the command to love our neighbor as ourselves when we forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of people from their countries and forced them into slave labor and subjected them to humiliating forms of abuse and poverty? What about when we repressed and belittled women even though there is clear and compelling Biblical evidence of women in leadership in the Bible? What about when we prohibited the sale of alcohol in this country in clear contradiction of Scripture? Jesus blessed the drinking of wine, he made it a Sacrament for crying out loud. It is our uncomfortable reality that the times of greatest church attendance in our nation have coincided with the greatest amounts of racism, sexism, bigotry, violence and hypocrisy. If that is what it means to be a Christian nation then I want none of it.

The real difficulty is that Christianity was never intended to be a ruling religion. We have always been at our best under the pressure of persecution, exerting our influence and the Kingdom of God as salt, light and leaven. When Constantine made Christianity an official religion in the Roman Empire it was hailed as a major victory by the Church. But only because they were deceived into thinking they could make the kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of Our God by political maneuvering and military might. Until Jesus returns there can and will be no Christian nation. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to make the world better. It just means we do what we can to represent God well and that we shouldn’t overstep our bounds and go beyond what is written in the Word about the Kingdom of God on the Earth. Last time I checked, Israel was the only nation God had covenanted with in the Bible. He agreed to preserve them and he has, but they are the only ones who can claim divine support.

  • Israel – Speaking of Israel, let’s not confuse our support of the Jewish people with the support of the Israeli government – they are not the same. The Israeli government has some real problems they need to answer for. We must creatively support the Jewish people and God’s intentions while also holding the Israeli government to high moral standards, or at least the ones we read in the Bible.
  • Racism –  When I first wrote this article I had thought the tide was turning, that white Christians were beginning to see how racist our systems, structures and institutions were. I no longer think that. Instead I hope and pray that God will soften our hearts and allow us to bear the burden our black brothers and sisters have carried for so long.  As a white male, I could very easily ignore this issue and carry on with my life with no problems. But as a Christian, racism is a forced issue. Jesus is a Jew and the Lamb that was Slain purchased people for God from every nation, tribe and tongue. Our Father has decided that he wants a large, ethnically diverse family and he paid a high price to secure it. Now he commands us to “love one another”. As long as walls of hostility and racism stand we can never represent the heart of God in its fullness.

Closing Thoughts

As long as this article is, it represents just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to be said on each item I addressed and far more items besides those listed here. My hope is that my thoughts sparked something within you and I would love to know what it is. I hardly believe this is the final word on each of these topics and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you felt it was helpful, please consider sharing it with others who might appreciate it.

Ben

Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter

The first rule of Fight Club is “you don’t talk about fight club.”

However, the first rule of Debate Team is “you must talk about your opponents ideas — you must talk about them so much you understand them inside out and can make their points better than they do.” Because it is only after close listening and careful understanding that two people (or more) can explore the merits and drawbacks of particular ideas. A debate is supposed to be a single conversation about a single idea, not two monologues happening in tandem. [/end rant]

As I continue to think about what is going on in our country, read articles and survey my Facebook feed, there seems to be a lot of talking past one another. Each group insists on its own point, but these two points aren’t mutually exclusive.

I’ll freely admit that I am a newcomer to this conversation, so please keep that in mind.

Black Lives Matter

The “Black Lives Matter” Campaign came into being after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin. The campaign highlighted that a civilian killed another civilian for “looking suspicious”and also drew attention to racial profiling. The campaign gained national attention when it mobilized to protest the way Michael Brown’s body was treated after he was killed in August 2014. Brown’s body lay uncovered in the street for hours after the event while police officers chatted nearby. Was the area an active crime scene where investigation was needed? Absolutely. But it was hard to shake the image of a young man’s body being treated as nothing more than road kill.

As I understand it, the Black Lives Matter Campaign is the advocacy of basic human rights for black people. They want to be treated with the same level of dignity that people of other backgrounds are treated with. Essentially, they want to be treated as human beings, not as something less than that. The Black Lives Matter Campaign insists that black people should be treated equally and that will require an overhaul of our political justice system (policing, sentencing, enforcement and more). Black Lives Matter is not an attempt to say that black people are better or deserve special treatment, it is an assertion that black lives matter as much as white lives, asian lives — really any human life.

The Black Lives matter campaign believes that all lives matter. The reason they are drawing attention to how the Black community is treated is because they can document how the black community is being treated differently that other communities in terms of surveillance, arrests, sentencing and profiling. In other words, they are drawing attention to the fact that, in American today, black lives don’t seem to matter as much as other lives.

All Lives Matter

The All Lives Matter Movement started as a protest to the Black Lives Matter Campaign. Those who started the All Lives Matter movement felt like the folks at Black Lives Matter were campaigning for special treatment for black people. They felt the statement “Black Lives Matter” insinuated that other lives did not matter and that BLM was using media coverage to heighten racial tension for the purpose of anarchy and discord.

Those in the All Live Matter movement believe that all lives matter, that people should be treated the same regardless of race. They believe that drawing attention to someone’s race  only fuels racism and division. Those who are a part of All Lives Matter want people to love one another regardless of race or background. In fact, they don’t even want to talk about race or background, they just want to love people.

In other words

In other words, the All Lives Matter camp says “Black lives don’t matter more than other lives” while the Black Lives Matter camp says “Black lives don’t matter less than other lives”. So if we’re all saying the same thing then what is the big deal?

The Real Issue

The real issue is about the importance of race in human interactions. The All Lives Matter camp says that race and background don’t matter, that we should treat people as people and love them the best we can. While I believe most people in the Black Lives Matter camp would say they agree with that idea in theory, they can’t help but look at the inequality of the political justice system.

If we truly believe that people are the same — that white people are just as likely to obey or break the law as black people — then our prisons should represent that. There should be a breakdown in prison population that is roughly equivalent to the population breakdown of the country, but there isn’t. While blacks account for roughly 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 24% of the prison population. Is that because black people are more prone to lawbreaking and rebellion? No. It is because they are more likely to be sentenced for it.  Additionally, when we compare the severity of sentencing for similar crimes we find out that black people are penalized more for doing the same things as white people.

Then there is the whole issue of classifications for crimes. Why is it that the drugs prevalent in the black community are considered worse offenses than the drugs most typically found in the white community?

Lastly, the Black Lives Matter Campaign is helping us to see how deeply embedded racism still is in our culture. As individuals we may not be racist, but we support structures and systems that are. For instance, who decided that “nude” was peach colored instead of plum colored — whose nude body are we talking about? Also, why do bandaids disappear on my skin rather than stand out? They could literally be any color — the adhesive works just the same — so why choose tan? Also, why is “tan” tan? My friend Quovadis’s tanned skin looks very different than mine.

I very much believe that all lives matter and I want to love people equally, without prejudice or distinction — but I know I don’t. I live in a world that assumes “white” is normal, the baseline against which everything and everyone else is compared. So the only way I feel like I can really love people equally is by acknowledging that their lives are different than mine, in part because of their decisions, but mostly because of how people perceive them based on their race. I wish it weren’t so, and one Day it won’t be, but Today it is.

The important thing to remember, though, is that while we may start in different places, we are moving in the same direction. We are companions on the journey towards equality and love. The narrow road is wide enough for us to walk side by side if we are willing. But that willingness can only come from careful listening and the desire to understand. We differ on methods, not the goal — it is good to remember that.

As always, thanks for reading friends.

Ben

Overcoming Indifference

I’m finding it very difficult to be a happy Pastor this morning.

Last night a friend asked me, “Are you going to be talking about what happened this week on Sunday?” Since I’ve been on a media fast this week I had to ask him, “What’s going on?” He then proceeded to tell me about the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas. I came in to my office this morning to look up the stories and try to wrap my head around them. I haven’t been able to so far.

7 people dead and 7 people wounded in senseless acts of violence. I watched one man die in the front seat of his car and another die lying in the dirt. I watched thousands of peaceful protesters run in fear as officers were picked off one by one. Meanwhile, our political circus continues its freak show and our new President will either be a fear-monger or grossly incompetent. Hurry for ‘murica.

If I was feeling a touch more melodramatic, and if this were less serious, I could ask the silly question “What is this world coming to?” Silly because, as people of faith, we know the answer — Jesus tells us in the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30). In that parable Jesus talks about the simultaneous maturing of good and evil — the dark will get darker and the light will get lighter until the Day comes when he will put an end to wickedness. There will never be a day short of Jesus’s return where humanity will overcome wickedness, bigotry, fear, hate — where humanity overcomes Sin on a national or international scale. BUT that also means there will never be a day where evil wins and love, kindness, compassion and the desire to see others helped, healed and free will be extinguished from the earth.

If there is anything the Old Testament teaches us, it is that we can’t legislate morality. We can make all the rules we want about how people should treat one another and they won’t change our hearts. They will help curb certain behaviors (and, for the record, I am in favor of that), but that root of Sin in humanity will just find a different way to bear fruit. While I believe we need to work for reform in our government and law enforcement, I’m not delusional — if anything is going to change it is going to change because individual men and women choose to live differently, not because we elect the right officials.

As I see it, the great evil we need to overcome in our nation, particularly within the white community, is the indifference of good men and women. This video demonstrates that point admirably. Indifference is the heinous manifestation of hate and the polar opposite of love because indifference strips another person of the dignity of being human. I can be indifferent about my spot in the parking lot, I cannot be indifferent about the suffering of human beings or else I lose a portion of my humanity as a result. I believe this is what the Black Lives Matter campaign is all about. By saying “black live matter” we aren’t saying that other lives don’t matter, we are saying that black people are human, that they share in the dignity of being created in the image of God. The image of God in the black community isn’t being well honored in our society and that needs to change. When one candle lights another, the first isn’t diminished. The same is true with honor. I don’t have to devalue myself as a white man in order to fight for the honor, safety and dignity of my black friends. In fact, doing that is the only way the Light will shine in this present darkness.

Overcoming my indifference is going to require more than a blog post, more than momentary feelings of outrage and injustice. It is going to require a fundamental shift in the way I think about myself and others and how I live my life. It is going to require me to have heart-to-heart talks with the Eternal Optimist, Jesus, and to go out of my way to meet and befriend people who aren’t in my typical social circle. It is going to require me to bear another person’s burdens, to “walk a mile in their shoes” and love them like I love myself.

I have to believe that the Way of Jesus is the answer to our nation’s problems. The way we will reconnect with Father and recreate this world is through sacrificial love, compassion, justice and righteousness. We must love people where they are AND call them to a higher standard. We must realize we are where we are for very good reasons AND realize that stagnation leads to death. God didn’t stand by and watch the world roll on towards Hell, he took a stand, he got involved. That is part of the image we bear. Black lives matter, indifference is the enemy and the Way of Jesus is how we fight.

 

Some thoughts on prayer

There is an old proverb in the Levant that says, “If I student is dull, it is his fault; but if a student is bright, the teacher gets all the credit.” Charlatans babysit geniuses in order to pass off their student’s accomplishments as their own and lambast anyone who isn’t “smart enough” to follow their “advanced techniques.” The true teacher, however, makes anyone feel brilliant because he or she is able to adjust their method to suit the student’s learning style.

When I apply that idea to pastoring, particularly preaching, I am confronted with a sober truth — if someone leaves feeling confused, defeated or uninspired by what I’ve said then it is probably my fault, not theirs. The sign of a good teacher, the kind of teacher I want to be, is that they are able to take complex concepts and make them easy to understand and relate to. I don’t think I did that very well on Sunday in my message on prayer and I’m looking forward to fixing it. That said, after 12 hours of working on this piece I stand in awe of the mystery and complexity of prayer and admit that communicating cogently about prayer may well be beyond my abilities. What follows is my best attempt.

The Paradoxes of Prayer

Prayer is the art of holding multiple truths in tension with one another and finding God in the midst of them. For instance, the Gospel of Matthew teaches us that God is a Good and Gracious Father who knows what we need before we even ask, so our prayers can be short and childlike while the Gospel of Luke teaches us that prayer is more like banging on the door of a lazy friend in order to get something or heckling a judge until he rules in our favor. Do we only pray about something once, trusting that God knows what we need or do we pray repeatedly about the same issue until it happens? I would say that the answer to both of those questions is “yes”.

The Right Tool for the Right Situation

My wife frequently uses the analogy of tools in a tool belt when it comes to prayer and other ministry skills. You don’t use every tool for every job, some are for special situations, but knowing which tool to use for a particular circumstance (discernment) is the mark of a master craftsman. Some tools can perform functions they weren’t designed for (I could try to drive in a nail with the butt of a screwdriver), but it is never as easy or as pleasurable as using the tool built for the job.

The art of prayer is being able to discern which way of praying is best suited for a particular situation. Sometimes we need to pray simply, like a child asking their loving Father for what they really want or need. These kind of prayers might be as simple as “Help! I can’t do this on my own” or as loaded as “Dad, I’m leaving this in your hands. You know what is best for me and my family.” Other times we need to pray like an attorney prosecuting a criminal as is often the case with breaking soul ties or generational curses. Our enemy has a tendency to take more than what he is entitled to and we get it back by appealing to our Father, the Just Judge, in Heaven.

Defining Prayer

It occurs to me that I operate from a different understanding of prayer than some other people and that taking a step back to define prayer would be helpful. For me, prayer is about growing in intimacy with God and partnering with him to manifest his Kingdom on the earth. Depending on which stream of the Church you grew up in, it is possible you will be familiar with one idea or the other but not both, so please allow me to explain.

Prayer is a self-disclosing dialogue with God where we share the things most important to us with him, he shares the things most important to him with us, and we are transformed as a result. If that seems esoteric, it isn’t. It happens every day as people fall in love. Two people start off as total strangers, but as they share their likes, dislikes, dreams, fears, successes and failures a relationship is formed. As this relationship blossoms into a mature expression of love, neither of the two remains as they were before the relationship started because each has adjusted to the peculiarities of the other. This is the essence of prayer, self revealing love-language and Other-oriented listening that results in lives that are transformed as they are woven together.

The other essential aspect to prayer is asking for things. We ask for things for ourselves (called “petition”) and for others (called “intercession”). However, the primary thing we ask is for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven because that is how Jesus taught us to pray. I’ve come across some folks who lean heavy on the intimacy side of prayer and almost totally neglect the asking side because it seems unspiritual. I disagree. Not only did Jesus teach us to ask for things, but asking, receiving and doing what someone else asks of us are primary ways of building trust, affection and love. For instance, when I plan out my week on Sunday evening, I almost always ask my wife if there is anything I can do for her over the course of the week that would make her feel loved and cared for. When God answers our prayers and gives us what we asked for, a huge deposit is made into our relationship with him. Asking and receiving is a sure path to intimacy and connection.

The Wrong Way to Pray

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus teaches the crowd what it means to be his disciple as opposed to a disciple of the Pharisees. From Matthew 5:21 on, the sermon can be boiled down to “they do it that way, but we do it this way.” When the Pharisees gave money to the poor, they would “blow trumpets” or make a big deal about the fact they were giving, but Jesus’s disciples give in secret. Where the Pharisees wanted the respect and honor that came from the people who saw them give, the disciples of Jesus only want the respect and honor that comes from our Father who sees in secret. Similarly, when the Pharisees fasted they wouldn’t bathe and would mope about so that everyone could see they were suffering for the sake of their piety. But Jesus commands us, his disciples, to follow our normal routine when we are fasting so that no one will know but God. The Pharisee’s reward was having people see them — the disciple’s reward is having God see them.

When the Pharisees prayed, they would position themselves in places so that they would be seen by others. They would pray long, impressive sounding prayers that were ultimately devoid of meaning. Jesus instructs his disciples to do the opposite — to pray privately when possible and to approach God simply, knowing that it is our relationship with him that will get an answer, not an impressive speech.

When we examine the Sermon on the Mount through the lens of “do this, not that” a number of things come into focus. We realize that much of the Pharisees’s behavior, especially prayer, was an attempt to manipulate how people perceived them. They wanted to appear spiritual, to make it seem like there was more going on in their relationship with God than there actually was, so that the crowds would look at them in a certain way. They wanted respect, admiration and special treatment from people and used spirituality as the way of getting it. Jesus called them out on it and taught his disciples another way — the way of secrecy and sincerity that would result in a reward from God rather than people.

The only wrong way to pray is when we to try to control other people through our prayers. That could be trying to control their perceptions of us (as the Pharisees did) or trying to control their actual behaviors by asking God to violate their free will. This is where things got confusing yesterday, so I will take the time to elaborate on the concept and provide a few examples.

I’ll discuss three particular situations — salvation, disagreement and alcoholism — in order to demonstrate what manipulative prayer looks like and how we could approach those situations in a better way. We will move from the theological/theoretical to the practical and see how the principles of one situation apply to another.

Salvation

Paul tells us in his first letter to Timothy that “God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth”, yet Revelation 20 makes it clear that many people will not be saved. How does that work? If God wants everyone to be saved, he clearly has the ability to make that happen — a few tweaks in human mindset or DNA and BOOM, instant converts.

Instead, God has chosen to honor our free will — he honors it so much that he even allows us to make horrible decisions. God has given us as human beings unimaginable dignity, honor and respect by making us in his image and allowing us the ability to choose wether we will reflect that or not. When given the choice of creating us for absolute obedience or genuine affection, God chose to create us to love. And love requires the ability to choose to reciprocate.

For instance, it is impossible for me to love my desktop computer because it doesn’t have the capacity to respond. I could write a program that would simulate affection (Artificial Intelligence), but it could only respond with the script I gave it. Humanity could have been created as a divine version of AI, but that isn’t what God wanted. He wanted lovers, kids. And that required him to limit himself by not controlling us.

So why isn’t everyone going to be saved? Because God respects our free will. God refuses to violate our free will, even when it would keep us (and him) from immense amounts of pain and suffering. And if God refuses to do such a thing, then it is only fitting that we, his people, should refuse to do it as well. Instead of directly controlling us, God attempts to woo us, to win us over through love, sacrifice, generosity and service. He is uniquely capable of creating the perfect set of circumstances that will give us the best chance of choosing him and eternal life. That is the method I believe we should use.

Disagreement

Let’s pretend I got in a fight with my son and he said or did something that really hurt my feelings. I could choose to wallow in my pain and build up a case against him for how he wronged me or I could choose to give him the benefit of the doubt by realizing that we really do love one another and the hurt was almost certainly unintentional.

Almost any prayer that comes from a heart posture of hurt, anger or fear is going to be manipulative in some way because our default human response is to try to gain safety, security and comfort through control. We see this a lot with parents, especially parents of teenagers. As the kids grow up, they have exponentially more potential to cause physical, emotional and spiritual harm to themselves and to their parents. The typical parental response to this is control — rules and punishment. Boundaries are absolutely necessary for children, but where those boundaries come from in the parent’s hearts is critical and so is the intended purpose. If the rules were made to protect the parents from emotional trauma, they will almost certainly be broken, along with the relationship with their teen. If the boundaries were set to protect the child, they might still get broken, but there is a much higher likelihood the relationship will be preserved and the parents and child can work through the issue together.

So if I get into a fight with my son, I’m not going to ask God to change him, correct him or punish him. Instead, I’m going to ask God to bless me with wisdom, courage and compassion so that I can talk with him and discover what was really going on. Because if I stand in the truth that we really love one another and really want what is best for each other, then I know that his actions were the overflow of something else in his life and the fight we had was him giving vent to something that was bothering him. So I might ask God to arrange a time for us to talk or thank the Holy Spirit for being Emory’s counselor and comforter, but I need to be careful to respect Emory’s personhood and not treat him as a problem needing to be fixed for my own convenience.

In the above instance, would it be alright for me to ask God to take away Emory’s pain? I don’t think so. Emory could ask God to take the pain away or we could pray together for that, me vocalizing Emory’s desire, but the truth is, Emory would be the one who needs to first give up the pain in order for it to be dealt with — I can’t give it up for him. Now, it is certainly my desire as Emory’s dad to see him happy and pain free, but I can’t allow pain relief or pain management to be my primary motivating factor in prayer.

Let’s look at the ministry of Jesus. Did Jesus have compassion on people and take away the things that were oppressing and distressing them? Absolutely. But if pain relief had been his primary goal, he would have healed everyone, which was not the case. He healed everyone who came to him, but he walked past many sick people lying next to the pool of Bethesda. Again, the issue of respecting people’s free will — Jesus healed those who came to him or who the Father sent him to, but he didn’t force healing on the people en masse. An uncomfortable truth is that people are often attached to their sickness, disease or pain in unhealthy ways — they embrace it because they feel it gives them special treatment. I know of a man who chose to get around in a wheelchair rather than walk because he felt people were nicer to him. Now he has put on a bunch of weight and could hardly walk on his own even if he wanted to. Which leads us into the next topic, alcoholism.

Alcoholism

What do we do when people we love chose to embrace a lifestyle of self-destruction? How do we pray for them?

Before I get too far in on this topic, let me use another proverb — this time from American lawyers — “difficult cases make bad law.” In difficult cases, like alcoholism or 9/11, so many factors are involved that it is difficult to create good laws that apply across the board. Outliers like these need to be seen and treated as such. That said, let’s dig in.

We typically pray for alcoholics for two reasons: they are in pain and we have compassion for them or we are in pain because of them and want relief.

When praying out of compassion I have a simple metric, if an alcoholic doesn’t want to be set free from their addiction, then I don’t pray for it to be taken away. I remember the story of the blind man who heard Jesus was passing by and created a ruckus to get his attention. When the blind man finally comes face to face with Jesus, Jesus asks him a simple but profound question — “What do you want me to do for you?” Isn’t it obvious Jesus? Can’t you see that the man was blind? Why don’t you just initiate and give the poor guy what he clearly wanted?

Jesus asked the man what he wanted because Jesus treated him with dignity and realized that people are complicated. The man might have been perfectly fine being blind and maybe would have asked for some other thing. Jesus didn’t presume to know what this man wanted or needed, he didn’t view the man as incomplete or invalid, instead, he asked him what he wanted.

Some alcoholics don’t want to give up drinking — it is familiar, even comforting, to them. They don’t even want to imagine what life would be like without alcohol. They have made peace with their situation and only their change of heart can set them free. As Danny Silk often says, “If you don’t have a problem, then I can’t have a solution.” If the person doesn’t want to quit, the only thing we can do is ask God to orchestrate a set of circumstances that convince them of their need to quit.

But suppose the person does want to quit, they just can’t — they are caught up in the cycle of addiction and habit, what then? In this instance, if the person wants to quit and is asking you for help (i.e. spiritual support), then we have license to pray in every way we know how. This is much like someone hiring a lawyer to represent them in court. The individual in question may not know how a trial goes, the details of their particular case or whatever, but they do know that they have a reasonable chance of walking away free if they bring in someone who knows what they are doing. Fortunately, Jesus is the best defense attorney there ever was and he is praying along with us.

I seem to keep circling around to the idea of respecting people’s free will. I think it is desperately important to keep in mind that we as prayer warriors and intercessors are not people’s saviors. We can’t bust in Rambo style and clean house. First of all, it isn’t our house, we are trespassing if we come in without permission. Second of all, even if we did succeed in cleaning house, if the person isn’t engaged in putting their life back together, then that demon is going to come right on back and bring a bunch of friends — we could very easily make that person’s situation worse, which is why God typically prevents it from happening in the first place.

Now, what about the other scenario, the one where we want to pray because we are being harmed physically or emotionally by an alcoholic. First, never use prayer as an excuse for action — get out. You can ask God to change their heart once you are at a safe distance. Don’t stay in a bad situation asking God to change it, do what you need to do to be safe and get healthy yourself, then worry about the other person and pray for them as described above.

Heart Posture

As it usually does with me, it all comes back to heart posture. The place our prayers come from within us matters much more than the actual verbiage we use, though that is important too — “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” If we pray for someone from a place of love and have their permission to ask for God’s will to be done in their life then we are good to go. But if we are praying from a place of hurt, anger or fear we will very likely ask God to control the other person, which he is very much opposed to doing.

Confidence

Writing this article has been quite a lot of work. I’ve invested at least 12 hours into writing it and tracking down the biblical references that make me feel confident to say the things I’ve said and that doesn’t count the additional hours I’ve spent thinking about it and searching my own heart. What I’m left with is a profound thankfulness that Jesus and Holy Spirit pray with us and for us, taking our ignorance and sincerity and transforming them into something beautiful before God that he is pleased to answer. I frequently feel like I am leaning to pray all over again and am often embarrassed by my infantile understanding of prayer — something so basic and foundational, yet complex and mysterious.

What I want to leave you with is the confidence that however you pray is good enough because of Jesus. Father sees and hears everything about us filtered through Jesus’s sacrifice and that should comfort us greatly. I do think it is important to take times like these to dissect our prayers and ask ourselves why we pray like we do and if it is in alignment with God’s word, but at the end of the day we should still be praying, trusting that God will teach us as long as we have a listening ear.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this lengthy piece. If you have any questions or comments or wish I would clarify something further, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Ben

Working Too Hard?

Pastoring is a profession like any other. I am constantly working to hone and upgrade my skills and become a true master of my craft. This takes diligence, effort and a lot of punching the clock. Pastoring isn’t nearly as sexy as I thought it would be.

Pastoring is also a profession unlike any other. I am a midwife and surrogate parent. I am responsible for the spiritual care and well being of my spiritual family, arguably the most important part of their lives, and yet I am given little power to affect anything in their lives. I only have the influence they let me have. Hence, much of my job is persuasion… and it is wearisome.

In my more melancholy moments (like this one), I wonder about the effectiveness of the model of church we have embraced in the West. We, the church leaders and pastors, have tried to make everything so easy — we break down the teachings of Jesus into three point sermons complete with application points; we do much of the heavy lifting in prayer, intercession and service; we try to set the bar as low as possible so it is easy for people to participate; and we pour ridiculous amounts of time, energy, focus and creativity into preparing messages that are usually dismissed with little more than a “good message pastor.” This last piece has me particularly vexed.

The last time I bothered to look up the figure and poll my peers, the average pastor spent around 20 hours of their week preparing a sermon. For those whose sole purpose is preaching and teaching, that number can inflate to 35 or more. I live in a town with 20 churches, each pastor preparing a message each week. That is 400 hours and more being invested into the people of God each and every week, almost 21,000 hours in a year. With that kind of focused investment from highly trained and highly passionate people, why is 50%+ of the city still unreached and the rest of the city relatively unchanged? I’ve been noodling on that for some time and still don’t have the answers I’d like.

It does occur to me, however, that I might be working too hard. Working too hard to make the sayings of Jesus easily digestible, working too hard to apply those teachings to other people’s lives and situations. For me, sermon prep is a worship experience because it forces me to submit to a God who does not think like I do and to rework what I thought I knew in order to follow his train of thought. Perhaps more people need to be doing that each week than the 19 other pastors and I? What if the model we’ve embraced, comfortable as it is, has actually incapacitated the church and is barring us from actually doing what Jesus commanded us to do?

Like I said, I don’t have any good answers, just a lot of nagging questions. I’d love to hear from you guys though. Have sermons changed your life? Are they worthwhile? What would make them more transformative?

Ben

Equipping or Enabling

I spent a good portion of last week pondering the Kingship of Jesus in preparation for last Sunday’s message. At the most basic level, the Gospel is that Jesus came as a King to announce the arrival of his Kingdom. People could get on board with that Reality or not, but he said in no uncertain terms that failure to submit to him would result in death and/or being cast into outer darkness/ the lake of Fire (see Luke 19:27 for the clearest example). It is True that Jesus is much more than a King, that the Gospel talks about other issues besides God’s Kingdom, but even a cursory read through of the book of Acts reveals that it is the message of Jesus as King of the Earth and Judge of the Living and the Dead that provoked repentance and conversion, nothing else. To be quite blunt, the Apostles didn’t walk into a pagan city, say “Jesus loves you” and have thousands of people submit their lives to Christ. Through powerful words (and even more powerful actions) the Disciples argued and demonstrated that Jesus was indeed the one God had chosen as King by raising him from the dead and that they were Jesus’s delegated authorities on the Earth. It is True that Jesus loves us and died for our sins because of that Love. It is equally true that he is a King who demands obedience from his followers. In fact, to love him is to be obedient to him and to disobey is the same as not loving him (John 14:23-24).

The Church is an army

If Jesus has delegated the forceful advancement of his Kingdom on the earth to the Church (Matt. 11:12 and Matt. 28:16-20) then that makes the Church an army. Just as the Marine Corps is not the government of the United States, but a representative thereof, carrying out the will of our Commander in Chief and advancing the interests and ideologies of the American people throughout the world, so too the Church is the organization designed to advance the Kingdom of God and the will of our King on the Earth.

This has a number of implications for us as followers of Jesus, but I’m going to hone in on my call as a Pastor. Biblically speaking, my job is to work in conjunction with other leaders in order to “equip the saints for the work of ministry”(Eph. 4:12). To carry on with the army metaphor, I need to teach the recruits how to identify the enemy and dispatch them, stay in formation and achieve the objectives of the mission, make sure no one gets left behind and develop people’s specialities so that we have the right people for the right job. (I’m not an army man so my list is far short of what actually happens, I’m sure.)

Let’s take target practice for an example.

What were to happen if a batch of new recruits went down to the firing range and the drill instructor said, “Wait. I know this is hard, so let me do it for you.” The instructor then proceeded to fire every shot for each recruit. Sure, the targets would display the work of an expert marksman, but the instructor would be exhausted and the soldiers still untrained. What happens when they are deployed? The instructor can’t take every shot for them — they need to learn to do it for themselves. They need to be equipped or else they are done for.

Equipping not Enabling in Pastoral Ministry

As clear as that seems in the Army, when we switch domains and start talking about the Church, things get fuzzy for some reason. Broadly speaking, Pastors are trained to enable people. We are trained to take away pain, to shepherd people and care for them, to speak reassuringly and to come running when we are called to do battle with darkness. Pastors are good at this kind of work and well loved for it. Even better, by enabling people rather than empowering them, we have excellent job security.

I’ve been as guilty of enabling people as anyone I know. My desire is to care for people, but this past week of reflection has revealed that I tend to be short sighted in my approach. When people ask me a question that is in the Book, it is easier to tell them a straight answer than to suggest they take the time to find it for themselves. (After all, I’m trained and paid to know the answer, right?) But I’ve come to realize that teaching people to be Biblically literate, to teach them how to find answers for themselves is much more important than giving them the right answer.

A more difficult example would be when someone comes to me asking about divorce. What should they do? Well, the truth is, the Bible has stories on both sides. David fled from abusive authority and broken covenant while God told Hagar to return to an unhealed and abusive authority because God had more he wanted to do there. And so, the only thing I can do responsibly is to turn things back on them and, after explaining the Principles of the two stories above, ask them which Principle applies. They have to make the decision after talking it over with Papa. It isn’t compassionate or loving for me to tell them to bail if God wants them to stay. (To be gut level honest, I cringe while I write this even though I know it is the Truth, but that is due to my sin and immaturity. I’m not more compassionate than God and God definitely commanded Hagar to return to an abusive relationship.) That story and Principle may not apply to 99.9% of cases, but it does apply to someone or else it wouldn’t be in there. In cases like this, I can’t give someone a straight answer. I can only explain Principles and then point them back to Papa. For some reason, that is exceptionally difficult for me to do – I feel like I wasn’t helpful or kind, but it is the right response nonetheless.

The place I am growing into is going to require me to become much more skilled at equipping instead of enabling. I’m going to have to learn a new way of communicating and I will need an extensive overhaul of my internal belief structure. But if I am going to become the person I want to be and lead God’s people where he wants them to go, then I’m going to have to belly up to the bar and suck down some strong medicine.

Wish me luck.

Ben

 

Blessing Your Spirit

My Introduction to spirit blessing

A few years ago, Dani and I came across a book called Blessing your Spirit, written by Sylvia Gunter and Arthur Burk. We had been introduced to Arthur’s a short time before at a marriage workshop. The couple leading the workshop used Arthur’s material to do “on the spot” deliverance/inner healing and marriages that were about to end in divorce turned around almost instantly. It was quite astonishing, even miraculous.

One of the things Barry and Lori (the couple leading the workshop) did frequently was bless the spirit of the person they were ministering to. This was a new idea for me, but seeing it modeled many times a day made it normal fast. Whenever the person had a blockage in hearing God’s voice, started to bad mouth their spouse or otherwise get distracted, Barry or Lori would gently stop them, look the person in the eye, speak words of blessing and strength to their spirit and then call their spirit back to the place of authority and dominion over their soul and body. The person’s spirit seemed to responded quickly and whatever blockage had been hampering progress was dealt with and removed.

Dani and I got the book Blessing Your Spirit shortly thereafter and started working through it. Dani did a lot more with it than I did, because the idea of speaking to your spirit, encouraging it and instructing it seemed a little “out there” to me. As is often the case, I needed time for this idea to take root in my theology while Dani sprinted with it right out of the gate. For the other slow processors out there, the rest of this article will be devoted to my understanding of the theology behind blessing your spirit or someone else’s spirit. I will say, however, that well before I had what I considered an adequate theology, the fruit of this exercise was apparent. I knew it worked, I just didn’t know why.

Foundation and Framework

It is generally understood within most Christian circles that human beings are made up of three parts — body, soul and spirit. This comes from Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” and from the study of Genesis 2:7 “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground [body] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [spirit], and the man became a living being [literally “soul”].

Within this framework, we typically say that the soul is our “mind, will and emotions” that our body is relatively inert, just a holding tank for our soul and spirit, and that our spirit is the part of us that connects with God. Truthfully, this is a really anemic understanding of all three parts of us.

Looking through all of the references to the human spirit in the Bible, it becomes apparent that our spirits have their own thoughts, desires and feelings, and even work through our bodies to inspire certain actions (though most of the time it is so underfed that it cannot exert such control).

Take for example the following passages…

  • The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” Matt. 26:41. The spirits of the disciples wanted to stay awake, pray and comfort our Lord in his moment of need, but were incapable of overriding the disciple’s bodies. This is opposed to passages like Ezra 1:5 where the spirits of certain Israelites were stirred and caused the people to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. These people had no natural reason to leave their lives in captivity, it was a spirit prompting.  Passages such as these show that our spirit has its own will and desires.
  • I, Daniel, was grieved in my spirit within my body, and the visions of my head troubled me,” Daniel 7:15. Daniel’s spirit showed the emotion of grief as it processed the vision God had shown Daniel concerning the fate of the holy people.
  • This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only of the baptism of John,” Acts 18:25. Though Apollos had only received an initial revelation of what God was doing through Jesus, his spirit was able to accurately perceive and extrapolate who Jesus was and could convincingly argue that he was the Christ even though he only knew Jesus had been baptized by John (not crucified, resurrected or ascended). This reveals that our spirits can think, perceive and communicate information that our souls don’t actually know.

We could similarly demonstrate that our bodies (flesh) are much more that inert material, but that is beyond the scope of this article. I simply mean to say that our spirits, souls and bodies all have their own thoughts, desires, emotions and will. When humans were first created, all of these entities were in harmony — thinking the same things, wanting the same things, doing the same things, etc. The Fall fractured and disintegrated our nature and our souls and bodies went into rebellion against our spirits. The spirit was designed to be the leader of our life, keeping us in alignment with the will of God. However, the human spirit is rarely the dominate force in human beings nowadays.

Who is in charge?

In most human beings, our souls are the ones calling the shots. Our souls take in the information gathered by our senses, make sense out of it and plot the course forward. They do a marvelous job considering their many limitations. For instance, they have incomplete information, they don’t always know what is important and, therefore, overlook many crucial elements and they have a severely limited understanding of what it possible because they can only include finite resources (time, energy, skills) in their calculations.

But humans are designed to have their spirit in the place of leadership and dominion.

When a person’s spirit is leading their soul and body, a number of fascinating things take place. They have better discernment — they make decisions based on supernatural elements their soul knows nothing about. They live longer and healthier because the spirit controls the regenerative capabilities of the body and mind — look up how many verses that talk about the human spirit mention it in terms of health or disease. Also, think about how long people used to live compared to now. Their lives are more in alignment with the will of God (i.e. they sin less and have less desire to sin or be in rebellion against God).

Now, the above paragraph describes someone who has a strong spirit and a strong soul.  I would like to contrast this with the rare example of someone who has a strong spirit and a weak soul. I say “rare,” but I think this describes many people in ministry.

Someone with a strong spirit and a weak soul has lots of good ideas that never happen. This person is terrible at follow through and follow up. They are unorganized and tend to live quite joyfully in crisis management mode. They live in the moment and don’t plan ahead. They think this is quite spiritual, even fun, but they leave the people around them with hurt feelings, uncertain expectations and a lot of stress because they never know what is coming next. The Senior Pastor who can never return a call in a timely manner, who is constantly changing focus after the latest conference and who leaves people feeling violated and unspiritual because they can’t “go with the flow” as well or as quickly as he can is the classic example of a strong spirit and weak soul. This person needs to beef up their soul skills and realize that spontaneous does not equal Spirit led.

Now, onto the good stuff. How do we strengthen our spirits and get them in charge?

We all recognize that we can exercise our bodies and that they will get stronger if properly fueled and given time to recover. Similarly, our mental faculties can be exercised and grow far beyond our initial skill sets as infants through systematic educational programming. Even our emotions can be trained to respond in certain ways through effort (count to 10!). But we tend to not apply this same principle to our spirits because 1) it seems weird, and 2) we don’t know how.

So, in an attempt to demystify this endeavor, I’ll offer four exercises for you to try.

Acknowledgment

This is simply acknowledging that your spirit exists, that it has a right to exist, that is is made in the image of God and that it was designed to be the leader of your soul in body. This is ideally done by another person — men in particular are especially powerful in the area of acknowledgement and validation. If this is something you pursue as a family, I highly recommend the man of the house acknowledge and validate the spirits of his spouse and children. Because so many of our spirits are used to being ignored like the ugly stepsister, this can be a powerfully emotional time. Here is how you do it:

  • Have the person doing the acknowledgement look the other person in the right eye. I can’t explain this fully right now, but I’ve found that if someone needs fathering a right eye to right eye connection seems most powerful and if someone needs mothering/nurture a left eye to left eye connection is best. For now, you are calling something up into the fullness of what it was created to be — the very essence of fathering.
  • While looking into the other person’s right eye, have the person doing the acknowledgement say something along the lines of: “(Name), I call your spirit to attention in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth and I invite you to come and take your rightful place as the leader over (Name’s) soul and body.” Wait a few moments. Having done this enough, you will notice a change in the person’s pupil I can’t quite explain. The spirit is now present.
  • Go on to legitimize and validate the spirit as a beautiful creation that reveals part of the image of God, something that is perfect because of the blood of Jesus and that is destined to powerfully expand the influence of our God and King on the earth. (The hardest part of this is getting started. As you continue to speak, your spirit and the Holy Spirit will help you know what to say.)
  • Once you run out of Identity Statements to proclaim over the individual, shift to Blessing.

Blessing

Arthur’s book is invaluable here. You don’t have to recreate the wheel — go and get it. At first the language may seem a bit strange, or it will be difficult to make significant eye contact while reading. You’ll get used to it. This is basically a warm bath for the other person’s spirit. Invite them to receive the words of blessing you speak or read over them. This is the powerhouse for the women. Blessing, nurturing and mothering are what our souls need at this step. Again, if you are doing this as a family, after Dad has finished affirming and acknowledging, have mom join in to bless at this point. Here is the step by step:

  • Look the person in their left eye.
  • Invite them to receive the words, blessings and promises of God
  • Minister to their spirit through your own words or Arthur’s blessings.
  • This is the time to exercise your prophetic gift to affirm, bless, encourage, strengthen and otherwise uplift.
  • This is not the time to try to impress someone with your fancy phrases. Simple truths are immensely profound. Don’t be embarrassed to say things that someone already knows. “You are a beloved son,” hits the spirit differently than the soul.

It isn’t unusual for the recipient to feel markedly refreshed, energized or “lighter”. This is normal. I’ve occasionally experienced a “buzzing” in my fingers after a particularly thick blessing.

Binge Read the Bible

The Word of God is food for the spirit, the Bread of Life. While this is primarily a Truth about Jesus, it also applies to the Bible. The Bible is a collection of God’s words, a testimony of his character, a light to our feet. Just as you need to eat more food than you are used to in order to gain muscle, you need to force feed your spirit in order to get it to support rapid growth. Depending on your starting point, a “binge” session may be 15 minutes or an hour. I’ve made an hour every work day my normal and I’d like to increase it to an hour every day, but my season of life hasn’t cooperated yet. Again, much like working out, it sucks at first, but then you get used to it and then you look forward to it. I’m at a point now where reading is the first thing I do — I’m anxious for it.

Don’t stress about the time, just read as much as you can.

Pray in the Spirit

For those of you who have the gift of tongues, use it. Pray consistently because it is the one Gift of the Spirit designed primarily to benefit you, not other people. It is a great way to keep infusing your spirit with light, life and truth and it can be done while doing a lot of other things.

So there you go. I know that was like drinking out of a fire hydrant, but I wanted to try and give you a solid framework for you to explore and expand at your leisure. I definitely encourage you to pursue this in more depth and detail — the rewards far outweigh the effort.

Thanks for reading,

Ben