Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Plucking Vices, Planting Virtues

Aside from being a bit warm, yesterday was the perfect day.
We got a lot of long-overdue weeding done along the back of the house, where a healthy stand of Canada Thistle had risen up against a small clump of vulnerable Irises, stealing their sun and stunting their growth.
With oven-mitt-thick leather gloves and sweat dripping off the end of my nose, I meticulously plucked out the thick-stemmed thistles by the roots one by one, smoothing the loose dirt behind me.
Then Joy came in behind and planted some Hostas in the exposed bare spots, which she had transplanted from another bed. We’ve learned by now that if we leave the empty spots empty, the thorns will come back thicker than before.
Have you ever noticed how nature rushes in to fill a vacuum with all that is unsightly in the world?
A naked spot in the yard will never fill itself in with a soft nap of Kentucky Rye. Instead, the cursed earth pushes up all kinds of despicable plant life—crab grass, crawling vines and Canadian Thistle—to quickly fill the void.
Emptiness gets plenty of help from nature to fill it. But the result is anything but favorable. In order to surround ourselves with Kentucky Rye, Lilacs, Roses and Rhododendrons, we have to manually override what would naturally grow there. It requires sweat and toil to pluck briars and plant beauty in empty places that would otherwise be overgrown with unwanted things.
Such is the human heart. In the New Testament, we see commands like these: 
But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” - Ephesians 4:20-24

“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledgeafter the image of its creator.” - Colossians 3:9-10

'Hosta' photo (c) 2007, Morgaine - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Paul knew that plucking vices is not enough. We have to come in behind and replace them with a virtue of a pure variety—a Hosta, Hyacinth, or Kentucky Rye—lest thistles rush back in to fill the void once again.
Sanctification is as much about the beauty we plant as the briars we pluck. This is much easier said than done. It’s twice the toil of weeding a garden. But the rewards far exceed that of a full and finished flower bed.
I'm always seeing life lessons in everyday chores. What are some you have discovered in recent days?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Church Search Chronicles

'Church' photo (c) 2010, Chris Lexow - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
My mind changes at least every 5 minutes. The URLs all start to run together.

Conversations with Joy sound like, “Wait. Was that the one where the pastor’s sermon video was total slapstick?”

Or, “Was that the one that had the Starbucks kiosk?”

Or, “Was that dot com or dot org? Dot org is pulling up a convalescent center in Grapevine, Texas.”

Yes, we’re in the throes of our first-ever church search.

Well, sort of first-ever. We’ve been part of 3 churches in our 13-year marriage. But the church changes in our past were all organic moves that didn’t require a lot of hard work to discern. They were all blinking neon lights that the Lord graciously made crystal clear to us at the time.

This time, though, things are much different. We’ve jumped off a ledge, and are still dazed and confused. Square one. The slate is clear. No big phone calls asking us to fill a huge ministry gap for a fledgling congregation. No exciting merges with a body that needs a building. No blinking neon lights. It’s just me, Joy, 3 confused weepy kids … and good ole’ Google.

We’re taking this very seriously. We have a short list, a long list, and a longer list. We’re weighing many variables, in multiples of 5. It’s complex, and painstaking.

No one is ever good at church searches, because you’re never the same people you were for the last switch. You come at it with one more piece of baggage, which changes your strategy and approach altogether. So we need prayer.

I’ve already resolved that this not be a search for the perfect church. Such an organism doesn’t exist, for one thing. And secondly, we’ve made that naïve assumption before, and been sorely disappointed. This time, the going-in strategy is what can we live with, and what can we live without? For instance:

  • We’re prepared to overlook doctrinal differences on non-essentials if there’s a strong external bent to reach the community, and the world. We can’t do inside baseball.
  • We’re turned off by intellectual acrobatics, and turned on by action-oriented hearts who are living out their faith in manifold ways of love. We’ve spent years in the seminary simulator, and it has some definite drawbacks.
  • We’re open to any size, as long as we can open up to the same few families on a frequent basis. We hate being anonymous.
  • We’re fine with high church liturgy, contemporary, or anything in between—as long as the worship doesn’t have a candy-coated veneer. We don’t wear masks, and have a hard time relating to people who do.
  • We’re OK with less formal sermons as long as the Bible is preached accurately, and given its proper weight and authority. Slapstick sermons spontaneously trigger our gag reflex.
  • We can't live with a church that is a mucked up cocktail of politics and patriotism, with a side of Bible. Period.

We’re decidedly not church consumers. So when we visit new churches, we’re looking for oars lying around. What looks like a place where we can put our gifts to good use—encourage, and be encouraged?

I’ll try to keep you all updated on this interesting journey. This is only the beginning. And who knows—maybe something I’ll say will be helpful to you in your current or future church search. You can also hear Joy’s side of the story over on her blog.

A word to local readers: I won’t name any names, for two reasons. One, I don’t reveal our location on the blog. I will delete all comments that reveal our location. If you have a suggestion or question, please email me instead of commenting on the blog. Also, I don’t want to hurt or offend anyone who attends and loves XYZ Church by saying “I didn’t like XYZ Church.”

My purpose here is not to engage in church bashing. I want to keep the atmosphere constructive and positive wherever possible. I also will not write about the church we left. Many dear friends remain there, and we are working hard to maintain those friendships. I do not want anything I say or write to hurt them or our relationship.

If you pray for us, please ask God to give us the wisdom to discern the very best place for us as a family—where He can use us as a family for His glory. That’s our prayer.

Back to searching. What was that URL again, honey?

How about you? What advice do you have for us? Have you ever looked for a new church? How did you go about it? How long did it take to find a new home church?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

People are Pendulums, and Truth is the Center of Gravity

'foucault pendulum' photo (c) 2009, jenly - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
My head so often spins when I read the feed. I ask myself, “Scott, why do you put yourself through this?”

One tweet condemns what the next one commends. One post shuns a sinner that the other embraces, denying that they’re even sinning at all.

Both posts have the very best intentions, yet both bypass basic biblical truths to get there. Both have great points, but both have massive blind spots.

I willingly bring it on myself. I’ve chosen to follow writers with a broad diversity of theological perspectives. I’ve chosen to not insulate myself from people with whom I disagree.

I live and work in the real world, and the blogosphere is a great way for me to crawl inside the heads of people who can clearly articulate different world views than mine (which are also flawed). It helps me exercise grace and love when I actually meet people with those views. It helps me rehearse how I might dialogue with them in a spirit of love and gentleness. It also shows me where I need to change my views in view of Scripture—and I have.

But there’s one unfortunate observation I’ve made in reading so many of the perspectives out there:

People are pendulums.

We are trend-reversers. We are in-kinders. We are master over-correctors. We set our sights on the equal and opposite amplitude of whatever we despise, zooming right past the center of gravity.

Joy and I have talked a lot about this, both swingers in our own right. We both have a drive deep within us to grab that pendulum (whatever it is) with both hands and launch it in the opposite direction. Let’s combat authoritarianism with anarchy. Let’s combat legalism with lackadaisicalism. Let’s combat total refusal with total acceptance. Let’s combat ultra-this with ultra-that.

In all of this, we zoom past the middle. We don’t consider a third way.

Years ago, we had a pastor who structured many of his sermons in this way. In expounding a text, he would describe the opposite extremes to which people have applied it, with the best intentions of obeying it. Then he would call us toward what he called a “third way.” This third way considered the text against the backdrop of the whole Bible, and was careful not to over- or under-emphasize the passage, both in its narrower and broader contexts. I found this to be so refreshing, so counter-intuitive. So grounded in the center of gravity.

Will you join me in this self-examination? Is what I am passionately calling for an equal and opposite reaction to an injustice, error or extreme that has angered me? And could it be that I am committing the same error by pushing past the middle to an equal and opposite extreme that is also outside of what Scripture promises or permits?

Or, to put it simply, is there a third way here?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Tug of More

My business trip to New York City last week awakened all sorts of sleeping memories.

From June 1996 to August 1998, I worked for a small graphic design firm right in midtown, at the corner of 42nd Street and 3rd Avenue.

On so many levels, I remember feeling like I was at a huge disadvantage during that time in my life. It was my first job out of college. I was earning an entry-level salary that didn’t quite pay the bills. I had moved there from rural Ohio, which was about like moving from Earth to Mars. I had never lived on my own, much less in one of the world’s largest cities. Having been born and raised in the sticks, I had no concept of the simplest urban conventions—which would take me by surprise almost daily.

But in contrast, I was surrounded by people who were lifetime residents of this strange place. They had learned things as children that were now so foreign to me at 23. They owned homes and nice cars which, in that environment, was inconceivable to me.

I remember constantly asking myself, “How in the world am I ever going to get my head above water and have More—like them?”

The longer I lived there, the more I realized that they were asking themselves that same question. In New York, it’s the question that constantly runs through everyone’s mind. From the subway tunnels, to the tip of the tallest building, New York’s message to the world is You Need More. Whether you live on $1200 a month (like I did), or whether you live in a multi-million-dollar penthouse overlooking Central Park, you don’t have to look far to see someone with More. And every ounce of your being burns to get there.

It would be naïve and unfair of me to say that this allure only exists in New York. But I’m telling you, when you’re there, you can smell and taste the message. Every time you inhale, it’s a different smell. Everywhere you look, it’s a different billboard advertising the latest fashion, or car, or beverage. And it changes daily. The More you needed yesterday is not the More you need today. There is new More now.

Truth is, we all fall prey to this dangling carrot—even out in the sticks. We all have self-installed billboards in our lives that woo us to want More. Brands hold out lofty promises that only the Bible can make. Moth and dust corrupt what the world flies in front of our faces. Madison Avenue’s More is a fool’s More, that will have already tarnished tomorrow. Yet we go after it, as if it’s promises were true.

I don’t regret my time in New York. But I don’t miss the palpable message to want More shiny objects with a not-so-shiny tomorrow. These empty promises erode my contentment in Christ, and cause me to forget that the riches that are mine in Him are immeasurable, incorruptible and unfading. 

The problem is not that the glowing billboards shine brighter than Christ. As C.S. Lewis said, the problem is that I am far too easily pleased.

On one of those nights on my business trip, as I was crossing a busy Broadway crosswalk with my colleague, he turned to me and asked, “So do think you’ll ever move back to New York?”

And there, in the glow of the stock tickers and music of taxi horns, like a fool, I replied, “Only if I was independently wealthy.”

Clearly, I have a long way to go.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Providence Of Pushing 40

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. —2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Every morning when I look in the mirror, the Year 38 temples have gotten a little whiter, the smile wrinkles a little more pronounced.

These days, aches and pains linger a little longer. Wounds that used to take days to heal might take weeks or months. Gravity’s relentless pull is gradually getting its way. With each rising sun, it gets a little harder to get out of bed.

Yet I am probably in the best shape of my life. I regularly take 3- to 4-mile runs. My weight begins with a “1” (which, given my life-long history of battling my waistline, is amazing). I feel good. And thanks to Joy, I eat right. My bloodwork numbers are almost all smack dab in the middle of the normal range.

But this won’t always be the case. If I don’t die catastrophically, sooner or later, one of those numbers will drop—or rise—abnormally. A test will raise an eyebrow, setting the downward slide in motion. My family history of dementia might be the disease that takes me. But it might not.

These are not fun things to think about. But they help me put today in perspective. I am sitting here on a bus, with no life-sustaining lines or monitors hooked up to me. I took no medication before leaving the house this morning. I will have walked hundreds of steps to get to work today, without even giving it a thought.

My preoccupations today tend to center around that project, that meeting, that relationship, that situation—with no regard to my kidneys or my colon. Those things are all working flawlessly, involuntarily, painlessly. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

And even though my physical body is showing signs of wear, the Bible reminds me that there is an inner person that is on the upswing. When I look in THAT mirror each morning, I take joy in the directional (albeit slow) renewal. With God’s help, My hunger for Him, and for heaven, is deepening each day.

God is pulling me in a different direction than gravity. That’s the beautiful providence of pushing 40.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What Is Death, And Why Do I Fear It?

Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. —Genesis 25:8

These are the years of the life of Ishmael: 137 years. He breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people. —Genesis 25:17 

And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. —Genesis 35:29

When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people. —Genesis 49:33

'Finish Line' photo (c) 2010, jayneandd - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/For the believer, death is the moment between our last breath of air and our first glimpse of gathering.

Breathing stops; gathering begins. Death is but a sliver of time somewhere in between. It’s the flimsy finish line ribbon stretched across the track.

Yet, I dwell on death. I order my life around prolonging the plunge toward the tissue paper. I pop vitamins. I rain down my sweat drops onto public treadmills. I wear out hundred dollar sneakers. I play it sinfully safe, in ways I’m not even aware. The very thought of risk-taking is paralyzing. Death, to a degree, is dominating me when I do these things.

In my fixation on death, I am forgetting the gathering. The reunion. The culmination that comes after I breathe my last, and push my chest effortlessly through, to be welcomed by the throng of those who have gone before.

I need to change my perspective.

Believers, will you join me in dwelling on the gathering rather than the ribbon? We are foolish when we let it preoccupy us. It has been promised: death does not sting, and the gathering will be glorious.