Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

Fire: Getting it and Keeping it

by , on
Jul 6, 2017

Since moving to the mountains it seems my wife and I are always thinking about wood and fire.  From the start of fall until at least halfway through spring, we’re hauling wood up from storage and burning it for heat.

Before burning season is over, though, we’re already on the prowl for new wood for the next season.  It must be found, cut into pieces small enough for hauling, hauled, unloaded, cut, split, stacked to dry,.  All this is as good as, maybe better than, a cross fit workout.  Then, once the holzhausens are in the shadows, the wood will be moved  under the house to await its contribution as family warmth while the snow falls.

Meanwhile in the middle of the summer, we light a fire in a marvelous home made bbq, using sticks from the forest, in preparation for a grand 4th of July party at our house.  Primal fire, with friends gathering from the neighborhood to bid goodbye to a dear couple who are moving east after twenty years living at the pass.

Fire in the mountains has a beautiful rhythm, all by itself, but the more I gather, cut, split, stack, haul, and burn wood, the more I find profound meaning in it as well.   My reasons have to do with the ribbon of fire that flows through the Bible.

Worship and fire have always been linked.  From the days of Noah, who offered burnt offerings, to the tabernacle, which provided an altar for burnt offerings, and perpetual light from lit lamps, fire and light were necessary to worship.  The light represented God’s capacity to overcome darkness, a theme that would culminate in Jesus presenting himself as “the light of the world”.

But fire?  It, too, is about hope.  The fire on the altar of burnt offering was a divine gift, having been lit originally by God Himself (Leviticus 9:24). God charged the priests with keeping His fire lit (Leviticus 6:13) and made it clear that fire from any other source was unacceptable (Leviticus 10:1-2).

There’s enough here, in this little section of Leviticus, to see that in a cold world, God invites us to be people exuding the warmth of God’s fire.  Here’s what I mean.

God IS our fire.  God is the source of a holy fire as seen above, but more.  We’re told that during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, God WAS a fire by night, and that the fire was there precisely to offer guidance.  We’re also told that God IS a consuming fire, in two places in the Bible.   Fire brings light, warmth, protection, and yes, fire consumes too.  But be careful.  It’s those of us who are certain God’s going to consume our enemies that are most likely in a for a big surprise; the realization that we who love God have boatloads of stuff in our own lives that need consuming.   When the fire begins to expose and then burn away the lust, greed, self-pity, complacency, rush to violence, and so much more that is in us, then the best answer is: burn baby burn.  Our God is fire.

God’s fire is now ours to keep lit.   The priests of old were charged with keeping the fire lit.  Today its all of us who claim to follow Christ, because he’s called all of us priests!  So fire keeping is a thing for us, a responsibility.  But what does this mean?

We get a hint when we come to see that the Holy Spirit shows up for these people as fire, and falls on them.  This Spirit becomes a vital source of Christ followers, granting them direction, conviction when they’re wandering off the path, a power beyond their human capacity, in words, in the power to heal, in and wisdom.

The hope, it seems, is that such empowered people, lit on fire by God himself, will bring warmth to the world, and point everyone they meet to its source.

So there you have it.  If you claim to follow Christ, you’re invited to tend the inner fire, so that the power, beauty, love, wisdom of Christ will be seen like light in darkness, and felt like warmth in the cold.

But be careful.  Any old fire won’t do.

There are fires of religion, which are nothing more than legalistic performance, whereby the liberty found in Christ is strangled by long lists of forbidden activities and required activities.

There are fires of nationalism, uniting gun laws, low taxes, and a deregulated environment with Jesus, making him out to be American, the tea-party’s finest advocate.  Liberals mustn’t throw stones because, in spite of what the leftist Christians believe, Jesus isn’t the poster child for liberalism either.  Jesus’ kingdom is neither unfettered capitalism, nor social/economic liberalism.  It’s wholly other, embodying peace, generosity, hospitality, courage, love for enemies, pre-emptive forgiveness, and much more.

There are fires of upward mobility and health, but I’m glad Peter, Paul, and Timothy (all suffering at various times with poverty, persecution, and illness) weren’t depending on those fires.  They’d have flamed out.

No, the only real fire, the one with the power to heal and liberate anywhere in the world, won’t be confined by health, economics, politics, or denomination.

This fire wants you as fuel, hence God’s invitation that you be “filled with the Holy Spirit” – and this means allowing your whole self to be offered as fuel, a “living sacrifice” is what God calls it.  The reason it’s living is because of God’s mysterious ways with fire.  God’s fire was, for example, in the burning bush, a fire Moses saw as mystery because though the bush was burning, it was never consumed!

Imagine never being consumed?

I’m convinced we undersell the adventure that awaits us when we follow Christ wholeheartedly.  Then, holding back our money, our time, our politics, our geographical or vocational preferences, we’re making our own fires.  Religious?  Perhaps.  But they literally can’t hold a candle to God’s beautiful fire, the fire that could be, that should be, when a life is lived wholly – with a pre-emptive answer of “yes!” whenever God calls.

One author says “the Christian life hasn’t been tried and found  wanting; it’s been untried at all, and it’s judged because it’s religious imposter turned out so ugly”.

So Lord… light my fire!  All of me.  Consume my garbage, that the diamonds of hope, generosity, joy, and peace might thrive, be lit as everlasting offerings, and bless our cold dark world.

Amen…

Words Matter: It’s high time we believe that!

by , on
Jun 30, 2017

I was about to enter 4th grade when our family moved about two miles in Fresno, out of what would today be called a ‘tiny house’ and into a ‘real house’ complete with a bedroom for both my sister and me. The move put me in a new elementary school and I was terrified that I’d make no friends.  It was my cinnamon roll baking grandmother who, just a few weeks before the school year began in September, told me about a favorite Bible verse of hers.  “This” she said as she slipped a piece of paper into my hand, “should help you” and she hugged me as I stuffed the little note card into my pocket.  After she left the room I read it.  She’d written a Bible reference: James 1:19.  It read: My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”  

I wrote it out on an index card and put it in my pocket.  It served me well during those tumultuous days, when I was feeling socially awkward and at times, tempted to respond to unkind words with angry verbal retribution.  Instead, I’d walk away, usually saying nothing at all, amazed at the power of silence as a means of killing the momentum of escalation that so often happens in so many places:

peer groups in school 

Work place gossip 

Social media rants 

Political parties with all their posturing 

Christian leaders who shoot each other over doctrinal differences of opinion 

The White House and Oval Office are the newest members of “club mud”, though none should be surprised by it.  Accuse one of your political competitor’s family members of conspiring to kill President Kennedy; attach childishly insulting adjectives in front of their names, (“Lyin’ Ted.  Crooked Hillary.  Little Marco.”) Insult debate moderators by talking about their “blood coming out of wherever”; When exposed for shallow and deceptive egotism, respond by ranting that the political commentator was “bleeding badly from a facelift”; Respond to charges from multiple women that you were guilty of sexual misconduct by declaring that they aren’t “pretty enough” to be worthy of your advances.”  

Of course you’ll be elected president.  

Of course boatloads of Evangelical Christians will be at the front of the demographic pack cheering you to victory, getting out the vote, and praising God for your win, turning a blind eye, not to character flaws, which we all have, but to your utter blindness to your character flaws, and your comfort level with that blindness.  

Of course you’ll continue your childish rants, rooted in ego, deception, and insecurity, three qualities wholly unbecoming of any leader of anything, let alone the leader of the free world. 

What’s wrong with this picture? 

My answer has nothing to do with the politics of health care, global warming, or the fact that I’m both pro-life and pro-environment (and thus a person without a political homeland).  My answer also has nothing to do with the purely speculative conjecture of whether Hillary would have been less scandalous, or more, or less effective.   We need at least two parties, and robust differences and dialogue if this democracy is going to work.  

I’m writing to say that I’m grieved over the cavalier nature with which we Americans have grown to accept this man’s childish rants as normative for leaders.  Yes, perhaps lips service has been given (finally) to the inappropriate nature of our president’s stream of consciousness calloused and degrading rhetoric.  Tragically though, our collective failure to hold this man, and others, responsible for the countless lies and (with apologies to sophomores everywhere) sophomoric ‘trash talking’ has led to a loss of civility in dialogue, and a dramatic increase in polarization and division in both our churches and our culture at large.  

In an attempt to raise our awareness on why we should work hard to not become hardened to this crass and demeaning repartee, I offer the following three observations: 

1. Words Matter.  One author writes: “Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6). The writer of Proverb tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Are we using words to build up people or destroy them? Are they filled with hate or love, bitterness or blessing, complaining or compliments, lust or love, victory or defeat? Like tools they can be used to help us reach our goals or to send us spiraling into a deep depression.  Furthermore, our words not only have the power to bring us death or life in this world, but in the next as well. Jesus said, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37). Words are so important, that we are going to give an account of what we say when we stand before the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

That same book of James, which contained the verse given my by grandma when I was nine years old also says:  “…if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well…Look at ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.  So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.  See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!  And the tongue is fire…” (James 3:2-6)

I could go on and on, sharing about Jesus’ teaching that angry words are tantamount to murder, and how the qualities of leader are ultimately confirmed or denied by the way they use their words.  There’s not time for the many teachings from the Bible on the importance of words.  

2. A leader’s character matters.  Though many see the Old Testament as boring and, at times, eliciting more questions than answers, one principle is certain when reading through the books of Kings and Chronicles:  As goes the king, so go the people.  I teach this to my staff as well, telling them over and over again that the main principle of leadership is that the people we lead will, at least in some measure, “become who we are”.  Two concerns are cogent at this point. 

I’m concerned that people like this stuff. If you disagreed with the previous administration, fine.  Our country is built on vast philosophical differences and our capacity to work together to find some common ground.  The current level of discourse, however, doesn’t lead us toward that kind of bilateral end.  People seem to relish the name calling, to cheer the demeaning sarcasm, to celebrate sound bytes and ignore lies.  The result is an escalation in hateful rhetoric and violence. 

I’m concerned when people say that policy trumps character.  No.  No.  No.  Ask the Bible.  Ask anyone building a business from the ground up.  Ask coaches.  They’ll both tell you the same thing. Yes.  Policies matter.  Yes, other candidates might have been, who knows, just as bad.  But make no mistake: Character matters just as much as policy or skill, maybe more.  

By our passive silence, we’re telling each other that words don’t matter, that character doesn’t matter.  As a result, Christians send hate mail or make hate calls to a Christian ministry because of disagreements over a policy decision.  A man opens fire on a group of republicans playing baseball.  And people no longer trust each other’s words.  No surprise really – all of it is the fruit of our passively accepting insults and lies as normative.  We can’t control our president or other politicians.  We can be disgusted by his words and purpose to swim in a different ocean.  Please join me in living by James 1:19,20 and by calling our churches, our children, and our Facebook feeds to do the same.

Vicarious vs. Experience: Not Even Close

by , on
Jun 9, 2017

There’s a line at the end of Song of Solomon in the 6th chapter that speaks of an old problem.  “Come back!  Come back, O beautiful woman, that we may admire you!”  It appears that some onlookers are enchanted by the beauty of the woman in this love story.  She strong, lovely, confident.  And she’s courageously in a relationship of real love with her man, a shepherd.  Note that in this particular scene, when she’s heading away with her lover, they call her back.  Why?  “So that we may admire you!”

They would, in other words, rather look on a relationship from the outside, experiencing the hollow thrill of being an observer, rather than jumping into the deep end of real intimacy in their own lives.  This is a sort of primitive pornography, not in the sense that they’re viewing explicit love making but in the more critical sense that they’re voyouristic and vicarious rather than involved and intimate.  Apparently the escapist fantasy route has always been an option.  Today it’s more than just “an option” – it’s become so ubiquitous as to be considered normal.  The popularity of video games, fantasy sports league, and pornography have created a destructive trifecta.  There’s an entire virtual world now available to emerging generations and both genders, but especially men, are living there in increasing numbers, with increasing regularity.  The pathologies arising from this sort of behavior present as everything from academic failure and arrested social skill development (especially with the opposite sex), to erectile dysfunction.  Much of this is cataloged here.

Yourbrainonporn.com provides the compelling science behind why the prevalence of porn is so destructive for cultures, for those who value science.  The short summary is that you can now encounter more lovers in an hour of the dungeon that is pornography than you would have encountered in one, two, maybe even ten lifetimes, one hundred years ago.  You are not physiologically designed for the continual stimulation and variety offered in this fantasy world.  What’s worse though, is that it can quickly become an “arousal addiction”, meaning that the addict doesn’t just want more of the same.  He/she wants “different”.  If this isn’t a recipe for marital disaster, I don’t know what is.

What’s more, porn is only one alternate reality inviting the investment of our time and attention.  Why play sports when you can join fantasy leagues and watch sports, no exercise or risk of injury to body or ego required?  You could play games demanding social interaction, eye contact, laughter, risk, courage, and wisdom, all of which combine to aid in the both the building of friendships and the development of social skills.  But why not play a video game instead?  Alone.  With no risk of rejection or failure.

In a word: safety.  Is this alternate world real? No.  Life giving? No. Contributing to a person’s sense of mission? No.  Capable of filling the intimacy void we all feel?  No.  But its safe, and in a world where there’s fear at every turn, safety is appealing.

What’s the way forward?

1. A strong core.  If a person sees themselves as capable, having gifts to share with the world, forgiven, called, and empowered, its much more difficult to enjoy disengagement from reality.  When people with a strong sense of self retreat into a tiny fantasy world for comfort, the dissonance is often just too much, and they refuse to stay there, in spite of the short term pleasures gained from escaping.  You build a strong core by beginning to believe that what God says about you is true – that you’re loved, forgiven, blessed, gifted, and invited, even called, to be a blessing in this world.  Keep learning what God says about you and believing it!

2. A sense of call.  When it became clear that I wasn’t ever going to win the Alpine Skiing World Cup, or write a symphony, skiing and music took back seats to other things, like preaching, parenting, marriage, church leadership, teaching university students, writing, and helping create outdoor environments and experiences where people can encounter Christ.  When I’m at my best, the use of my time, whether exercising, reading, or praying, feeds my sense of call and core identity and, to be blunt, there’s little time left for virtual escapes.

3. A high view of marriage and sexuality.  The erectile dysfunction that’s hijacking healthy sexuality among increasingly younger men is happening precisely because the safer fantasy world, which over-promises and under-delivers, is so appealing. In contrast, Song of Solomon shows us that radical monogamy is better.  It requires all kinds of things that are wildly beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps the main thing is a foundational belief that the best sexual expressions are mutual rather than one party giving in to the other out of a sense of obligation.  They both respect the boundaries of the other, and at times this creates an intensifying of the longings because there’s a confidence in the underlying love, and an obvious playfulness sexually, whether or not it ends in the land of O.  All this, of course, requires self-control and the belief that an unfulfilled sexual appetite won’t damage your body or soul, a message rare in our culture.

4. An internal bias toward reality rather than fantasy escapes.  Whether porn, Netflix, Facebook, or Ben & Jerry – a chronic preference for these easily accessible and easily stimulating options creates an increasing bias towards the safety, predictability, and risk free nature of the virtual world (or in the case of ben & jerry – the high glycemic world).  Such worlds feel good in the moment, but the ensuing crash leaves an emptiness and ache.

The good news is that movement away from all of that can happen!  Here are a few resources for your consideration.

Celebrate Recovery

Homecoming

Pure Desire

There’s a class at Bethany Community Church beginning at the end of summer that helps people move out of destructive behavior patterns and into God’s better story.   Contact us for details.  Here’s a testimony from someone who took the “spiritual journey” class.

The best resource, however, and the most important, is your life with God.  You have a calling, a journey yet ahead.  Don’t miss it by getting stuck in some fake world, when a real world of adventure awaits you.  Yesterday’s gone, and there’s no point wallowing in guilt or shame over failures that are common, when God’s inviting you to move on, into freedom and real intimacy.

37 Years married and Still Enjoying Eros: Here’s How

by , on
May 31, 2017

Preaching the Song of Solomon this spring has reminded me of a few critical truths that are mostly lost among Christ followers.  In our fear of abusing the gifts of sexuality God has given humankind, we’ve unwittingly taught that our sexuality is a liability to be scorned and controlled, rather than a gift to be celebrated.  The Bible tells us otherwise:

  1. God affirms eros.
  2. Healthy eros requires a cocktail of practices on a regular basis, including affirmation, invitation, respecting each other’s boundaries, and a commitment to serving the other.
  3. These ingredients aren’t possible in casual hook-ups, let alone pornographic stimulation via a fabricated fantasy world.
  4. There’s a book in the Bible about sexual love, because God affirms it.  There’s only one book in the Bible about sexual love because it is a part of life, but isn’t the whole of it.

This past Sunday’s teaching, “Eros Affirmed” might provide some insight into what I’m talking about.  Steep a pot of tea, a carafe of French Press, or a glass of “something”, and have a look and listen – and maybe consider sharing with someone who’d benefit from it.  One woman told me on Sunday she’s planning on sharing it with a few folks who’d benefit from it.

(audio or video)

http://churchbcc.sermon.net/main/main/20940294

I welcome your thoughts!

The Subtle Seduction of Letting Ourselves be Bent

by , on
May 24, 2017

My present study of The Song of Solomon for the preaching series at the church I lead has collided with my reading of “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit”.  The result has led me to believe that we need to rethink our notions of “sin”, because our wrong understanding has often led to lives of fear rather than confidence, legalism rather liberty, and anxiety rather than joy.  Here’s what I mean:

I. Our typical notion of sin has do with obvious dark behaviors.  Murdering another human is sin.  Drinking yourself silly is sin. Hating, or even ignoring, people who are different than you is sin.  Profligate sexual indulgence, outlandish greed – all these things are seen as sin, and rightly so.  It’s the realm of darkness, and we rightly point out that: “this is the judgement – light has come into the world but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…”

The trouble comes when we begin to vilify the activity that is at the source of the sin and call it dark, simply because of the risk of indulging the sin.

We’re afraid of anger because we’re afraid of murder.  We’re afraid of alcohol because we’re afraid of drunkenness.  We’re afraid of challenging someone of a different race because we’re afraid of racism.  We’re afraid of sex because we’re afraid of all that happens when sex is misused.  You get the picture; and the picture isn’t pretty.  It’s a picture tantamount to that of the climber whose only goal is to not fall.  This fear-based approach will no only suck the joy out of living, but fill the soul with an aversion to failure and worse, avoidance of much that God calls good.

This is a far cry from what Jesus appeared to have in mind when he said, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly“.  Wrong notions of sin can strangle the new life Christ has in mind.

II.  a Truer Notion of Sin: Sin is light twisted.  In “Out of the Silent Planet“, the first book in my favorite science fiction space trilogy, CS Lewis describes sinful humanity as “bent ones”, a perfect description because it describes a species still capable of creativity, majesty, beauty, and generosity – but who have been “bent” by sin, so that all the glorious qualities inherent in human nature have been corrupted.

The gift of sex becomes pornography, disease, dehumanizing abuse of power, and sexual slavery.

The gifts of food and drink become obesity, eating disorders, body image issues, and drunkenness.

The gift of human diversity becomes racism, oppression, and slavery.

The gift of work becomes industrialization, child labor, environmental degradation, and economic oppression.

You get the picture.  God gives humanity gifts and we find ways to bend and twist them so that they destroy both ourselves and others.

This is an important distinction though, because the way forward is not to smash the original thing, but to recover the meaning of the original thing.  This is what Song of Solomon is trying to say through its poetry, which exalts covenant love, and contrasts that with the usury and oppression so typical, not only in pornography and prostitution, but also in many marriages that have lost any sense of intimacy.  The book doesn’t trash sex.  It declares that in a setting of vulnerability and commitment, of affirmation and playfulness – full arousal, full pursuit, and ultimately full indulgence, is a thing to be celebrated.  Recover the thing (sex in this case), rather than blaming the thing as the source of the sin.  Sin is a good thing bent!

III.  Bending our desires back to their Original Design is what Christ does!   

This is what I love about the new book I’m reading.  It declares:

“…discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all…Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves.”

To the extent that we allow Christ to realign our lives, there’s a sort of spiritual chiropractic thing that happens.

Whereas before, sex was an appetite, now its an artful expression of intimacy.

Whereas before anger was a thing to be avoided, now there’s a realization that, before there’s a move towards advocacy, or repentance, or justice, there must often be anger.

Whereas before the ever expanding GDP was a sign of progress, a discipleship paradigm considers not just national financial wealth, but a nation’s capacity to care for its children, its poor, its vulnerable, its sick, its children living in the womb.

Before it was either “live to eat” (food addiction) or “eat to live” (utilitarian ‘food as fuel’), now its “food as sacrament”, invoking gratitude and pleasure for the gifts of sustenance.

God is aligning our loves and longings, as “You Are What You Love” declares.  And alignment leads to greater joy, strength, capacity for service, and ultimately a greater life.

Don’t begin with a massive NO!, either in your own discipleship or in your articulation of your faith to others.

Begin with the glorious YES!, that the life for which we were created is still available, and the seeds of that good life are found in uniting with Christ, who will align us so that we might “run and not be weary…walk and not faint

 

 

 

The Cultural Faith Crises of Burnt/Raw pancakes

by , on
Apr 20, 2017

What does the pornography problem in the Bible belt, and the appalling lack of generosity among democrats have to do with a burnt/raw pancake?  Plenty….

“Ephraim is a cake not turned…”. Hosea 7:8.   That’s Hosea’s description of a nation gone wrong, and it’s terribly applicable today.

a cake not turned:  Burnt to a coal at the bottom, raw dough at the top: an apt emblem of a character full of inconsistencies (Bishop Horsley).

The prophets were good at painting word pictures, and word pictures are good because, rather than listing specific problems unique to a time and place, they portray a principle.  The principle then becomes widely applicable to other cultures, eras, and situations.  This is part of what makes the Bible so incredibly relevant, if only we’d take the time to read and ponder. 

Today I’m pondering the “cake not turned”.  You’ve no doubt eaten a pancake that was burnt on the bottom but raw on the top.  It’s wrong; imbalanced; filled with overemphasis and a commensurate underemphasis.  God’s complaint with Israel was that they’d lost their devotion to God as their source and their lover, choosing loyalty to surrounding pagan ideals instead.  

Israel was, in other words, selective in her loyalty to God, alternately embracing and denying the values of Jehovah based on what they wanted, what they considered to be best for them moment to moment.  The result of this was a mixture of bribery, white-collar robbery, neglect of the Sabbath, woven together with lip service given to God, and outward forms of worship often continuing in spite of glaring disobedience to God’s revelation.  Light and dark.  Burnt and raw.  Idolatry wrapped in religion.  

Sound familiar?  It should!  The mixture of political loyalties with faith has long been an example of this burnt pancake phenomenon.  Consider mainline churches, which are often largely aligned with left leaning politics and more socialist policies.  Their views are, rightly, intent on seeing to it that the poor aren’t left hungry, cold, or naked.  It’s hard to argue with those priorities if you take the Bible seriously.  

But two complaints arise immediately regarding this seemingly holy affiliation.  First, if the left is so intent on caring for the poor, why are they themselves so greedy?  The problem of meager charitable giving among liberals is well-known, as seen in this article, which posits that conservatives give 30% more to charity than democrats.  

My second complaint is that liberals are selective in their adherence to the Bible, being quick to appeal to verses on caring for the poor, but silent on Jesus’ sexual ethics, including his stringent view of divorce.  And by the way, nobody on this planet is more vulnerable than the unborn, who the left seem to regard as nothing more than tissue until they’re born.  

Conservative (and many evangelical) churches, provide an opposite, though equally alarming snapshot.  They’re all about the sexual ethics, with vocal views on premarital sex, same-sex behavior, masturbation, abortion, and in some places, divorce and remarriage too.  Most of these values are derived from the same Bible the left uses to address systemic economic sin.  

My complaint is that in the same manner the left is stingy while preaching generosity, the right is sexually dysfunctional while preaching family values.  They crucify Bill Clinton for his sexual sins, and then elect a president who is in his third marriage and whose language and behavior would get him fired in most work environments, including FOX NEWS.  They even go to some lengths to call him a Christian in spite of the appalling lack of any compelling life evidence.  

Further, the right suffers from the same hypocrisy problem as the left.  Regarding our nation’s porn addiction, the 4 out of the top 5 states are in the Bible belt (Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia), the very places where God’s sexual ethic thunders from the pulpit weekly.   Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas, are three of top four states in per capita abortion rates.  Pro Life indeed.  Similarly, these same states, so pro-life, seem intent on protecting life in the womb, but once you’re born, you’re on your own.  Policies regarding family leave and access to health care and social services for those in poverty are weak. 

Let’s summarize.  You have a party that preaches generosity, but is stingy, and they elect a man with an exemplary marriage.  You have a party that preaches sexual ethics, but elects a womanizer, and whose states are most stridently red also happen to be national leaders in porn use and abortion.  

This is the cake not turned problem, and until we see the problem and acknowledge it, we’ll continue talking past each other, advocating that “my partial view of reality is better than your partial view of reality” We can do better. 

Why am writing this?   

1. So that we can stop wedding political parties with our faith, and begin to recognize that no party has the faith 

2. So that we can recognize, all of us, that preaching values does not equal living them.  

3. So that we can recognize that it’s in the human heart to view God’s values and directives as a buffet line, where we pick what we want, and leave the rest.  

4. So that we can repent of the buffet line mentality, our divisions into self referential and self-righteous little communities, and our arrogance – instead asking God to give us ears to hear what the spirit is saying, especially through those with whom we disagree, and so move toward the unity of the faith that will better represent God’s heart.  

In a world filled with burnt/raw pancakes, it would be refreshing to find a few that are properly cooked.  Perhaps you can help cook one!  

United Airlines, Holy Week, and Missing the Forest for the trees

by , on
Apr 12, 2017

Behavior needs to match mission, right?

They did it “according to the book”.  With too many passengers and not enough seats, they asked for volunteers to give up their seats on this flight for a reward, and fly later.  You know, by now, what happened on UAL flight 3411.  Before it was over, a passenger was forcibly, violently dragged from the plane, getting bloodied in the process.  This gave birth to a viral video of the scene, leading to a public relations nightmare and an over 6% decline in UAL stock as outrage over the event filled social media.  In my own facebook feed I saw pics of cancelled UAL flight tickets, and declarations of breakup with “the friendly skies” (a breakup I made years ago because of my own encounter with “less than friendly” customer service – but I digress)

The point for the moment is simple.  By contract and policy, the airline had every right to remove the man.  The man’s refusal to leave led to a need to call security, and security did what security does: they resorted to force.  That’s how the man ended up blooodied, being dragged down the aisle while a full flight of paying customers looked on, as seen here.  The flight would, of course, end with a steward or stewardess thanking everyone for “flying the friendly skies”.  Ugh.

I don’t write to do a post event analysis.  Most of us have pondered why too many passengers were allowed to board; why they didn’t up the ante even more in hopes that eventually someone would volunteer; why the security people treated the guy with a level of force that would be the same as if he was a threat to other passengers?  We can ask these questions, but have no way of knowing the answers.

Here’s what we do know: This doesn’t look like “friendly skies.”   People who belong to a company whose mission statement and slogan elevate customer service as a central value need to be empowered to maintain that core value.  Further, if they are empowered, they need to always, always, ask the simple question:  “does this action make us look friendly?”

REI gets this.  Nordstrom gets this.  Starbucks gets this.  Amazon gets this.

If your actions are contradictory to what you say you’re about, then you need to rethink your actions.

This is important for every Christ follower to ponder because the Apostle Paul says that it was God’s intent to “reveal his Son in me.” We come to discover God’s intent for humankind in this verse.  In other words, our mission statement as Christ followers is to look like Jesus.  You know: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, cross social divides, be people of peace, give dignity to those suffering on the margins, don’t cling to your own personal rights, bless and forgive generously – preemptively even.   These are the means by which we fulfill our calling, the corollary statement is equally important:  any action derived from our policy manual (the Bible) that misrepresents Jesus’ heart, needs to be reconsidered!

And this means a few elements of church history would have played out differently:

The church wouldn’t have fractured again and again and again over words and secondary doctrines, because Jesus’ heart was, above all other things, for Christians to live in peaceable unity.  The east/west church schism, the multiple popes debacle, the protestant reformation, and the over twenty thousand denominations?  Poof!  They’re gone.

The sanctioning of Slavery in Jesus name?  The anti-semitic edict declared by the church, forcing all Jews to leave Spain (and leave their wealth behind, by the way) in the late 15th century?  The horrific genocide in Rwanda, even as this country was being touted as a Christian missionary success story?   All these things change dramatically if Christians stay committed to the vision and mission of their calling, which is to look like Jesus.

I’ve lived long enough to remember specific times when I had the doctrinal moral high ground, but my posture of pride, anger, and a cynical tongue, discredited my doctrine.

So the next time you win a political argument by calling the other person stupid, remember that you’ve lost.

The next time you’re debating same sex marriage, whatever your position on the matter, if your anger toward the other person means you stop listening, stop loving, stop treating them as image bearers even though you disagree, you’ve lost, even if you won.

The next time your reading of the Bible leads to behaviors of racism, or xenophobia, or leads you to withdraw from a group of people in either fear or disgust, I don’t care what the letter of the text you’re reading leads you to believe, you’re reading it wrong.

I say this with confidence, not only because of the clarity of our calling to look like Jesus, but because we’re also told, in numerous places in the Bible, that Christ is the full and final revelation of God’s character.  So instead of microscopically proof texting your way to arrogant, violent, fear based, or isolationist behavior, how about becoming obsessed with the character of Jesus instead?

You’ll likely find a gentler voice, throw a party for your neighbors, celebrate beauty more often, and choose peace, patience, and joy more consistently.  Yes, there’s a manual.  But more important, there’s a mission statement, a vision: making the real Christ visible on a day to day basis.  As we walk towards Good Friday and pondering the sacrifice of Christ, I’d suggest that is a mission worth pursuing.

O Lord Christ; 

You’ve shown us the way, but we confess that too often we’ve coopted your name and used it to create a thin religious veneer over hate, violence, greed, and fear – all the while quoting the Bible to justify it.  Have mercy on us Lord.  Grant that we might see your heart with greater clarity, and have the courage to to allow your life to find fuller expression in each of us during this Holy week, and beyond.  

Amen 

 

Fear of Falling vs Freedom to Fail: Choose Wisely

by , on
Apr 7, 2017

fear of falling is more dangerous than falling

I hope you’ve seen the ascendancy of young lives as they move from infant to toddler?  If so then you know they’re bold; unafraid of falling.  In fact, they’re confident they will fall.  They fall, assess, maybe cry a bit, and then get up again.  This confidence continues on, if they’re fortunate, into childhood too.  I was recently riding the ski lift when I saw a boy take a mighty fall as he was speeding down.  Both his skis fell off and he was moving so fast that he literally bounced, before sliding down the hill for another 100′ or so.  He was crying by the time he came to a stop, and an adult skiiing with him quickly caught up after fetching his skis.  It looked serious.  I sped off the lift and headed down to see if I needed to call ski patrol, but by the time I arrived, the boy was laughing, putting on his skis, and asking his dad when they could go on the higher, steeper slopes.  No fear of falling there!

Somewhere on our journey, though, “not falling” begins to take precedent over everything else.  We’re concerned with our reputation, and the consequences of not fitting on, so we begin living on the defensiveness.  Don’t stand out.  Don’t make waves.  Conform.  And above all – don’t fall!  It makes sense to live that way, because non-conformists, risk takers, and those who pursue authenticity more than they pursue approval are often pushed out – of families, workplaces, and churches.

This lust to conform though, is value woven deeply into the fabrics of the community Jesus’ spoke about most harshly:  the Pharisees.  They were the religious experts, perceived as the kind of holiness to which people should aspire, and Jesus tells them (and us) that their fear of falling and their punishment of those who do had missed the mark in many ways:

1. It created a culture where outward conformity was all that was asked of followers.  This culture is alive and well today, as seen in the colossal failures among faith leaders, and the reality that Christ followers statistically approximate the culture at large when it comes to things like addictive behavior, divorce, consumer debt, domestic violence, and more.  In spite of our declaration that we’re made new, we look very old behind the curtain of pious music, big bibles, and arguments about which church is closest to Jesus.

2. It cast out non-conformists like the man born blind, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who crashed a religious party, and in so doing, were rejecting the people who actually knew Messiah, while they continued to walk in darkness.

3. It created a culture where status and reputation mattered more to them than reality.  In such an environment, any evidence of brokenness or failure is quickly driven underground, where it will never see the light of day, and so never be dealt with.  That’s why Jesus said of this group that, though they cleaned the outside of the cup, the inside remained full of dead bones.

4. It created a vision of faith life that’s far too small.  “Not failing” isn’t the goal – never was.  We’re invited, instead, to live as people of generosity, hope, wisdom, and grace in our world, pouring out the blessings of God on a thirsty planet.

The damage done by a commitment to simply “being a good person” for the sake of one’s reputation, of calling “not falling” the pinnacle of success is huge.  There’s a better way, and it’s shown us by lots of different characters in the Bible.

Abraham is chosen by God, obeys God and leaves his homeland, exercises faith and generosity numerous times, doubts, sleeps with the maid, and lies about the identity of his wife out of fear for his life.

David is called by God to be king, creates poetic worship songs, courageously stands against the giant, sleeps with girl next door (using his own abuse of power to do so), lies to her husband, and ultimately has him killed.

Peter declares that Christ is Messiah, preaches boldly, leaves everything behind to follow Christ, denies Christ, compromises his beliefs at gathering of Jews and Gentiles, boldly preaches the first sermon in early church history (where 3000 are saved), denies Christ, argues about greatness, speaks when he should have shut up, decides to quit the ministry, and ultimately lives with such grace and courage that he dies for his faith, crucified upside down.

Paul?  Courageous and argumentative.  Humble and proud.  Content and coveting.

Jonah? Obedient preacher, and bitter xenophobic nationalist.

Solomon?  Wisdom exceeding all others on many fronts, and a crazy sort of “polygamy gone wild” with approximately 1000 women victimized by his predatory abuse of power (more on this in my upcoming “Song of Solomon” series)

Every person who is “all in” with respect to walking with God and being fully involved in the story of hope God is writing in the world falls.  Every.  Person.  But in the Bible, the ones who fall, confess, and learn from it get right back up, putting their skis on and seeking higher, steeper slopes, now that they’ve learned a thing or two through falling.  This is the husband caught in porn addiction. This is woman who loses her job.  This is the couple that faced the pain they’d caused in each other’s lives head on, and wept over it.  This is every one of us who say with Paul, “the good I want to do, I don’t do… the bad I don’t want to do, I do.”

All right then.  We’ve fallen.  We’ve named it.  We’ve seen it.  We’ve picked up our stuff and continued on.  That’s the way it should work.  That’s why Martin Luther said,  Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.

Paul said it similarly when he wrote that, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”  

These saints are both telling us that our fear of failure will squeeze us into a mold of conformity that will rob us of joy, and prevent the kind of growth that always and only comes on the far side of failure.  Since every saint failed, and since failure was the soil in which profound movement toward maturity happened, and since failure made every saint a bit more gracious, patient, and generous – then let your fear of failure die.

I’m annoyed with those who think this means “license to sin”, as all of us are sitting around searching our Bibles for excuses to indulge our destructive appetites.  Rubbish.  If I really wanted to indulge those appetites regularly, I wouldn’t be walking the faith life at all.  You are simply invited to live honestly enough to acknowledge that you’re imperfect, and humble enough to name the rough edges when they appear in the midst of your attempts to walk as a person of hope in this broken world.  Remember, it’s those who pretended they didn’t fail, either through denial or blaming others, that faced swift judgement.  Failure’s not the problem – it’s a reality.  The problem is how we view failure; and the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that we can stop pretending we’re always on the moral high ground and see ourselves on a lifelong journey of transformation instead.

Why don’t we set out to live this way? 

Doing so requires nuanced thinking, and the acknowledgement that our leaders, teachers, parents, pastors – and we ourselves, are all a blend of wisdom and folly.  We’d rather deify and vilify.  We like it black and white; in or out; right or wrong.

Doing so requires a willingness to let go of what other people think because its the people who “shoot for the moon” who also fail mightily sometimes, but they’d have never set out, were it not for the fact that they’d let go of the idol of popularity and reputation.

Doing so requires a belief in the grace of God, a belief that God really is the good dad waiting with the porch light on when we come running home.  Beneath all our songs about amazing grace, though, I fear many of us are still stuck in performance mode, afraid of being struck down the first time we fail.

Infants get this.  So do most children.  And climbers too.  Isn’t it high time the rest of us joined their ranks?

 

Idol Busting and Fire Walking – the power of right habits

by , on
Apr 4, 2017

“Nebuchadnezzar said to them: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I’ve set up? If you are now ready to do so, bow down and worship the gold statue I’ve made when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument. But if you won’t worship it, you will be thrown straight into the furnace of flaming fire. Then what god will rescue you from my power?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar: “We don’t need to answer your question. If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.””

‭‭Daniel‬ ‭3:14-18‬ ‭CEB‬‬

I know it’s not technically firewalking, but its fire – maybe “fire bathing“?  The point of the story is that there are three men who are so deeply committed to worship their God, and no other, that they’re willing to pay the ultimate price while being mindful, as well, that their God is powerful enough to protect them in the fire.

In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg helps readers see that when we determine in advance what our routine will be when certain cues occur in our lives, our response to those cues become habits.  Cue: stress   Response: nicotine.  Habit: chain-smoking.    Cue: weariness.  Routine: TV.  Habit: wasting your life!     Cue: loneliness. Routine: porn  Habit: arousal addiction (as brilliantly articulated in this book).

Our three fire bathing friends have something significant to teach us about this.  They’ve determined in advance that when the cue is worship, the routine will be to worship their own God, and no other.  It’s become so entrenched in them that they don’t seem to wrestle with it at all.  They’re all in, with no thought of turning back, even at cost of their lives.

The critical question that comes into play here for me at this point in their story is:  “What’s their reward?” It’s an important question because the reality is that we’re built for rewards.  You run (or sit and eat ice cream) for the reward.  You get an education (or stop learning and growing) for the reward.  You do your job with excellence (or choose to scaresly show up) for the reward.  We do what we do, including following Christ – or abandon fidelity to Christ in pursuit of other sources, in order to receive a reward.

Our rewards are the same as these three enjoy:  confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, and power – which are all promised to us in the scriptures as fruits of faithfully looking to Christ as our source.

APPLICATION: 

Our eyes tend to glaze over when we think of idolatry these days, because the word conjures imagery of statues, altars, and visible representations of false gods.  Here in the west, though, our idols are different: less visible, and more seductive.

Our idols anything we look to in our lives as our foundational source for comfort, meaning, direction, security.  Our idols, then, are our ROUTINE RESPONSES in the cue, routine, reward loop, that we look toward as a primary means of coping with a particular state of mind and heart.

“When I’m lonely I visit chat rooms”

“When I’m stressed I drink”

“When I’m frustrated I get angry and blame”

“When I’m _________ I ________”

Especially to the extent that any unhealthy response to a cue becomes a habit – we’re enslaved, and hurtling toward idolatry, if not already there.   Idols overpromise and under-deliver – every time.

In contrast, whenever I choose cues that contribute to my fundamental identity as a child of God, or to my calling – the rewards of confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, are ignited and I’m strengthened to walk through fires – surely most of which are metaphorical, while believing that if I’m meant to walk through literal fires, the power will be granted.

TRY THIS: 

Consider an unhealthy cue, response, reward pattern in your life and change both the response the reward.  Do you believe that, over time at least, the right response will lead to the fourfold reward of confidence, courage, peace, and freeedom?  Then determine the right response to the cue, the response of faithfulness that will bring the reward:  

When I’m lonely I will call a friend to encourage, be encouraged, or both.

When I’m stressed, I will exercise and give thanks for my body

When I’m frustrated at work, I will pray for the wisdom and strength to be a person of peace, grace, and truth – and by faith thank God that I’m becoming such… little by little.

You get the picture.  Changing our habits of response to life’s cues isn’t just what the book The Power of Habit is all about – it’s what Christ followers call discipleship.

 

 

Beauty, Beast, and the Gospel of Identity

by , on
Mar 28, 2017

When Christians are outraged over a movie, it’s nearly certain that, not only will I like it, but that there will be an element of the gospel clearly presented.  It happened years ago with Avatar.  Now it’s happened again with Disney’s new version of “Beauty and Beast”.

Though I didn’t want to go because our pre-purchased tickets collided with an important basketball game on TV (yes – I’m that shallow),  it was a family event, and I was persuaded it was “the right thing to do”.  My intent was to check the score regularly, ducking under my seat and checking my phone, becoming one of those rude people in the theater who can’t seem to just sit and enjoy the movie.  I checked early, but was soon deeply drawn in and forgot about the game entirely because something better was unfolding before my eyes:  the timeless story of redemption, seen through the lens of fairy tale.

New to this version is the notion that the villagers once had a relationship with the prince, before his heart was hardened and he was ultimately placed under a curse.  Part of the curse, though, was a sort of amnesia descending on the whole village, so that they forgot their identity with the prince, and identity which was recovered only after acts of profoundly sacrificial love led to the breaking of the curse.

The loss of identity and relationship is, to my mind, why the village is trapped in xenophobia, illiteracy, fear, and a destructive patriarchy.   The cycle of darkness continues as the villagers, in this heightened state of anxiety, are prone to listen to voices that feed on fear, inciting more fear and anger.   Rational voices and truth are drowned out by the loudest voices, lies, and insults.  Sound familiar?

In Mark 6:34 we’re told that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were “like sheep without a shepherd”.  Forgetting their identity as the people of God, forgetting that they were made for peace, generosity, the confident rest that comes from receiving deep love and blessing, they lived as if they were on their own.  This led to various forms of legalism, pride, anger, and violence.

Nothing’s changed, of course.   The profound human dilemma is that we’re seeking to know who we are – in relation to each other, to creation, to eternity, and to our creator.  Until we get this right, the identity vacuum renders us vulnerable to all manner of voices inciting us to fear, hate, and violence.

The curse is broken in the movie, of course.  It’s broken in real life too.  The profound word of Christ on the cross that “it is finished” means that his act of sacrificial love has opened the way for us to live once again as free children of God, enjoying shalom, living in joy, and blessing our world.

The difference between the move and reality, though, is that we seem reticent to live without fear and hate, even though the curse has been broken.   Why is this?

The answer to that question is, perhaps, for a different day.

For now though, I’ll note that Paul had the same habit of finding gospel truth outside the Bible and building bridges between the questions/critiques offered by artists and authors and the eternal truth found in Christ.

We’d be wise to take a cue from him.  After all, when he quotes Greek poets, he’s quoting polytheists, and doing so as a means of defending and inviting people to Christ.  He doesn’t care that he doesn’t agree with polytheism.   Wherever he sees a kernel of truth, he celebrates it!

Many Christians have lost that capacity, preferring instead only to point out areas of disagreement.   So there you go.  You’ve shown where you’re right and they’re wrong.  You’ve entrenched a stereotype that Christians are haters.  You’ve built a wall.

Congratulations.  But make no mistake.  You’ll pay for your own wall.

The better way?  Paul rejoices wherever he finds a vestige of truth and so Greek poets find their way into his preaching, just like Eminem, Beyonce, Van Gogh, Disney, Billy Joel, and more find their way into mine.   Truth is truth, and wherever it’s found we should rejoice.