Easter Is Not About You

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crosslambAs we finish out this Lenten season with the hope of Resurrection Sunday, I have been reflecting on some of the verbiage that I know will be used on Easter Sunday. Many evangelical churches gear up their services for this weekend (albeit, we do not do much remembering up until that weekend — in fact, many churches neglect the entire Lenten season and instead only focus on Easter Sunday, which I have written about before). They add extra “elements” to attract those who have not been at church in a while. They make sure that everything sounds and looks great. They will add extra services to make sure that people will attend.

We do all of this in hopes that the Gospel message of Easter is heard by many.

I am not here to discuss the effectiveness of these techniques, although I do have my opinions. What amazes me even more is the language that many pastors will use this coming weekend.

“God loves YOU so much…”
“On the cross, Christ thought about YOU…”
“He rose so YOU wouldn’t have to go through…”

Much of our language around Easter centers around individuals. Whereas this might be true, I believe it does a great disservice to the heart of the Gospel message. The Easter message has digressed into a selfish plea.

This shouldn’t come as too much of a shock considering that even when reading the Bible, many of us ask the question, “What does this mean for me?” We have taken God’s grand story and dwindled it down to a personal application. Our lens for reading Scripture is, “How can this help me in my life?” When this represents many in the evangelical church culture, of course our message on Easter Sunday will contain verbiage focusing on individuals.

As a kid, I remember someone telling me that if “I was the only person in the world, God would’ve still sent His Son for me.” It was a nice sentiment, but I think it does a great injustice to the nature of God. In trying to express God’s love, we have, instead, romanticized God’s love.

You are not the single affection of God.

Easter is about a reconciliation of ALL things. Easter is about ALL of creation being reconciled to God. Easter is about God.

It is true that Easter is hope for you. That because of what Christ did, we no longer have to fear death. That resurrection of all will occur. That death has no victory over you.

But it isn’t just about you.

If we continue to dilute the Gospel message, we will continue to perpetuate a selfish society. Instead, we need to take the complete Gospel message and penetrate a selfish society. It is like we are trying to preach Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John without preaching the entire Old Testament.

This is the difficulty of Easter. In order to understand the significance of what Christ did, we need to understand the story of Israel and the story of God…we need to understand the Old Testament.

The story of Easter is larger than you. It is larger than me. It needs to be. It has to be.

Let us move away from speaking the Gospel message to individuals and instead move toward inviting individuals to be a part of the Gospel message. This is one of the things I love about liturgical/high church services. I never walk away with a little fortune cookie saying of God’s love for me. I always walk away with a better understanding of God’s relationship with the world and what that means for creation.

May we not try to look at the Easter message in a new, fresh, or relevant (horrible word) way, but in the way it was meant to be viewed. This Easter, let us focus on what it means for everything…not just what it means for you.

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Sabbath For Yourself

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IMG_3159I usually know when I need to sabbath (or rest). My personality is usually a bit more cynical and I am easily angered. Stress seems to be all around me. It becomes difficult to remember my daily schedule. God is likely a distant thought for me.

Unfortunately, when I know I need a sabbath, it is usually too little too late. When your body tells you to rest, it’s usually because you should’ve rested long ago and now you are running on fumes. Is it any wonder why we see so many health issues among people who are young? They feel like if they stop, then they will fail.

For those in the church world, we tend to ignore the Sabbath because we are “doing God’s work and God never takes a break.” This thought is utter nonsense. Of course God takes a break.

Some equate their love for God with how much work they do for Him. This is disheartening because it loses sight of the Gospel message.

Some believe that the eternity of mankind rests on their shoulders. It must be hard to play God like that…which is why it is probably better that we let God play God.

Most that I know in ministry will say, “I rely on God.” However, that statement proves false unless sabbath happens. Our reliance on God is directly connected to how we sabbath.

We need to get rid of the image that working late from home is a good thing.

We need to get rid of the mindset that turning off our phones could be disastrous.

We need to stop fostering a culture that enables people to become solely dependent upon someone other than God.

We need to stop thinking that the eternal fate of humanity lies on the shoulders of those who work in a church.

We need to learn that it is okay to say no.

We need to learn that the same email will be there tomorrow.

We need to learn that work was never meant to destroy.

We need to learn that martyrdom is not spending all your time working in a church.

We need to know that we aren’t God.

I say that phrase a lot because I have to remind myself of that frequently. This is why I believe it is so important to sabbath for yourself. As a pastor, I can easily succumb to the thought that I am God. Of course, I wouldn’t come right out and say that; otherwise, I would be a heretic. But it is easy to think to yourself: “If I don’t meet with this person, what will he/she do?” Or “If I am not at every single thing this person does, then I am failing as a pastor.” Or “The more I do, the further God’s Kingdom is advanced.” Or “People need to know and I’m the only one who can say it.” Or “I am in charge of their discipleship and I have to be there for them at all times.”

When I begin to think those things, I realize that I think I am God.

If Jesus needed to get away every now and then, why do you think you don’t need it?

If God, after creating the world, decided to rest, then why do you see resting as weakness?

I fear sabbath because I fear the truth about my motivations.

Clear away all of the religious phrasing (doing it all for the Kingdom, running on Jesus, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, etc.), and I find that I refuse to rest because I fear my motivations. Pastors, just like everyone else, want to leave their mark. They want to be remembered. They want to be the next Billy Graham, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We can say that we want to impact our community for Christ…but that can often transform into, “Caleb impacted the community for Christ,” or “Caleb’s church impacted the community for Christ.”

Sabbath puts us in our place. Sabbath humbles us. Sabbath reminds us that we are not the most important person in the world. Sabbath forces us to admit that our motivations are not pure. Sabbath tells us that God does not desire a martyr who died because he/she refused to take a break. Sabbath is the truth that in my weakness, Christ is strong. Sabbath points us to community. Sabbath is part of the Kingdom. Sabbath lets God be God.

How about you?

Do you really work as hard as you do to provide a good life for your family? Or are you working as hard as you do because you want to be remembered? Because you want to be successful?

Did you really take that second job to make ends meet? Or did you take that second job because of greed?

Do you refuse to rest because you don’t have time? Or do you refuse to make time because you are fearful of what you might hear from God?

If you take a break, I’m sure the world won’t come crashing down…but if it does, at least you’ll be reminded that God is God and you are not.

Sabbath for God

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When we talk about Sabbath, we rarely think about what it means for God. Usually, we know we need a sabbath when we are exhausted and don’t think we can go much further. Sabbath usually centers around our mental and spiritual health.

We must sabbath for God.

True, God isn’t going to smite you if you refuse to take a break. He isn’t going to get jealous at all the fine work you’re doing by not stopping. God won’t curse you if you work on a Sunday. But I do believe God won’t be in our work if we don’t rest in Him.

If you are anything like me, your idea of rest consists of binge-watching House of Cards on Netflix. Some will delight in their favorite hobby. Others will go out to the golf course. These are all great things (especially House of Cards). It is important to turn your mind off every now and then. But very rarely do we focus on God in those moments. Rarely do we state that we are stopping work to rest in Him. Normally, we stop work because we need a break.

There has to be an intentional focus on God.

When I stop work and rest for God, I notice a change in my behavior.

When I Sabbath for God, I notice:

I renew my covenant with Him…

I find Him in everything I do…

I stop worrying about my job…

I quit using words like relevant, connecting, and other trendy words churches use to build relationships within their community…

When I Sabbath for God, I notice that I have taken control of my life too much and tried to stop God from doing what God wants to do. Rest can remind us that we are tired and worn out, but when we intentionally focus on God during that time, we also see how our work for Him has been far from Him.

Our constant need to control things drives us further from God. So when we rest, we draw nearer to Him. When we rest, we remember that our strength comes from Him. When we rest, we realize how little we can do on our own.

Being in ministry, sometimes the last thing I want to do on my day off is focus on God. I know, that sounds horrible. If we were all honest with ourselves, I think we would see how horrible each of us actually is. The point being, I know it is horrible. I’m not a great person. Usually on my day off, I want to watch all of the television shows I missed during the week, go see a movie, read a new book, take a drive, go to Three Floyds, or clean my apartment. Very rarely do I want to think about God in the midst of all of this. I usually have to force myself to focus on God. The human side of me says just to take a break, but the Spirit in me says to turn my thoughts toward God.

We have to Sabbath for God. God doesn’t need us to do this (even though He did command us to do this). But I think when we Sabbath for God, it reaffirms our covenant with Him. It focuses our misdirected attention back on Him. Our works that were once done in vain are now done with purpose. Weariness is replaced with strength.

When we seek God in our rest, then we will find Him in our work.

Sabbath For Others

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Grunge benchSabbath is a term that goes against much of modern American evangelicalism. Every now and then, there is a book published or a series of blog posts that focuses on this idea. I have read sections in spiritual discipline books that deal with the importance of this practice. However, it still seems to be something that is rarely discussed from the pulpit. I have decided to write a 3-part blog over the practice of Sabbath and its importance in our lives. Today’s post will primarily focus on those in leadership in the American evangelical church. However, I believe the principle still applies to those in any work environment. Since I operate from a limited view, however, I have decided to speak into the context with which I am acquainted.

In the church ministry world, we have convinced ourselves that unless we are behind something, that endeavor will fail. We pat ourselves on the back for working 50, 60, 70+ hours a week on something because we feel we are working tirelessly for the Gospel. In our age of technological advancement, phone calls, emails, and texts are never more than a glance away. Dinners are interrupted by a “ministry crisis.” Conversations with friends are put on hold while an “important phone call” is taken. Even on days off, we feel the need to check on things. This is unhealthy for us (which I will talk about in a different post), but it is also extremely unhealthy for those with whom we work and come into contact.

When we refuse to rest…to Sabbath…others feel lazy if they take a day off, turn off their phone, and/or refuse to check their email. Our example spurs others on to an unhealthy lifestyle.

Sabbath reminds us to trust in God more than in ourselves.

It reminds us that work is not the most important thing we do.

It reminds us that greed is not good.

It reminds us that the world can function if we turn everything off.

Sabbath reminds us that we are not God.

And when we don’t Sabbath, we try to become God.

So what does this mean for others? Why should we rest for others? Because how we live influences others to live in the same way. If we learn how to rest, others around us will feel less stressed. If we turn things off, others around us will begin to understand that many things can wait.

Sabbath is not only important to us, but to others as well. In Exodus 23.12, it reads: “You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but on the seventh day you must stop working. This gives your ox and your donkey a chance to rest. It also allows your slaves and the foreigners living among you to be refreshed.” (NLT)

As leaders, if we don’t rest, then others won’t rest. The principle of this verse applies to today even if the specifics don’t. Leaders are called to Sabbath so that others will Sabbath.

How many stories of ministry burnouts do we need to read before we realize the importance of this practice?

How many heart aching tales of divorce do we need to hear before we begin putting this discipline into practice?

How many health issues do we need to have plague our lives before we understand that our bodies are not made for the stress we endure?

If people around us are showing exhaustion and stress, could it be an indicator that we have not set an example of Sabbath in our own lives? If those we know seem to become more and more needy, could it be because we have not rested as we should have? Sabbath is important for us…but it also reminds others to not look to individuals as God, but to look to God as God. It reminds others that they cannot become God.

Sabbath for others.

#blessed

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largeRecently, there has been a trend in social media using #blessed to describe something good that has happened to you. I have seen tweets describing winning the lottery, losing weight, getting a new car, winning a football game, getting into college, and even getting gifts from friends. This was a topic I spoke on with my students this past weekend, but I think it’s part of a much larger issue that is hindering our view of God.

For a long time, we have confused blessings with success. And it is true that throughout Scripture, there are prosperous blessings given to individuals. Luckily for us, we have best selling books that teach us how to pray the prayers those individuals prayed so that we may receive the same blessings. Life is all about receiving financial, health, relational, or career blessings. And when those things happen, we are all of a sudden #blessed.

Our view of God changes based upon what kind of “blessings” we are receiving at the moment. If we are experiencing financial success, God is this benevolent God who freely gives. If we aren’t experiencing financial success, God is reminding us that our trust needs to be in Him alone. Or if we are healed of a health scare, God has blessed us with life. But if we are not healed of an ailment, then God must have thought that it was “our time to go.” When we get something, God is blessing us. When we apparently aren’t getting anything, God is teaching us something. Some will argue that through the lessons, we will be blessed. But this still seems a bit off.

I believe that we are blessed because of who God is…not because of what God gives.

From the nature of God, flows blessings. But it is an error to base the nature of God off the content of His blessings. If we view God in this way, then His nature is ever changing based on our circumstances. Is that a God that we really want to follow? We are blessed to follow a God that is who He is. In Exodus 3.14, God declares “I am who I am.” I love this phrase because it sheds light on the nature of God.

The modern evangelical church seems to be a bit enamored with blessings. We sing for Him to pour out His blessings upon us. We praise Him when we are blessed with tangible things that help us make it through life. We pray that God “blesses” us in prosperous ways. I have heard people say that they are so blessed while others seem to not be as blessed. I have sat in meetings when people seem to think that God is pouring out His blessings on our endeavors. This view of God is based upon what He gives rather than who He is.

I know that I have said that I am blessed to have a job, a home, a car, a steady income, etc. I have said these things in the past. If I were to lose these things, I would probably say that I am blessed to have other things. But that line of thinking still focuses on what He has given rather than who He is.

Financial blessings may pour out from the heavens but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a God who is benevolent.

Forgiveness flows freely from Him but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a merciful and gracious God.

We may do a great work in this world but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a God who is focused on showing this ministry of reconciliation in this world.

We may be blessed with a spouse or a boyfriend/girlfriend but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a God who desires relationships and created us with that same desire.

Our blessing is that God is who He is.

Does this mean we shouldn’t pray for these other “blessings?” That is a great question and one that I have been pondering quite a bit lately. I honestly don’t quite know. We are told that we can ask anything of God. But are our motivations pure (we could get into a long conversation about the question of whether or not anyone can have “pure” motivations)? Or are our motivations based upon what He can give us? I would appreciate any input you are willing to give on that point.

If our view of God is based upon an idea that He has blessed us with a great day of football (yes, I saw a tweet from FOX that stated we were blessed with a great day of football last week), then I think we are missing out on what blessing really means and who God really is. We are blessed because of who God is not because of what God gives. We need to stop using the word “blessed” in substitution for living the “American Dream.” It does a great hindrance to who God is and what He is about.

I Can’t Do Anything About Racial Inequality

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This weekend, Saturday Night Live had a pretty provocative cold open. You can take a look at it here:

There are some pretty pointed statements that are made regarding racial equality and America’s struggle to achieve that. Of course, with the snub of the critically-acclaimed Selma, this sketch came at a perfect time. Personally, I was a little shocked because of the trend I have been seeing with the Academy. My expectations were that they were going to continue to move forward.

As a white guy from rural Illinois, it’s incredibly difficult to talk about racial equality. I went to school at Johnson University (formerly Johnson Bible College) in Knoxville, TN and didn’t really experience racial diversity there either. It wasn’t until I was doing my internship at Central Christian Church in Las Vegas that I began to see what racial diversity could look like. When I began working at Westbrook Christian Church in Bolingbrook, IL, I experienced my first multi-ethnic/racially diverse community — and one that was proud to talk about it.

Oftentimes, because of my skin color, I feel like I should be the last one talking about racial equality. Really, I feel like I can’t do anything about it. I haven’t lived the life that others have lived. I haven’t experienced the things that many others have experienced. I don’t notice things that others notice. So why should I lend my voice to it?

But do I keep quiet out of lack of experience (perhaps ignorance) or out of fear? I know I tell myself that because of my lack of experience in this area, I should remain quiet and let those who have experience fight. The truth is that I am motivated by fear. Fear of saying something wrong. Fear of not being able to do enough. Fear of not knowing what to do or say.

However, if there is a struggle of humanity, then we are all called to speak. Each of us must learn to take our own separate life experiences and combine them to speak against the inequality that exists. Just because I am not an African-American doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t speak out against racial inequality. Because as long as it still exists, everyone is called to speak up.

The church is at a pivotal moment to fight for the oppression that occurs each and every day. Unfortunately, I think a majority of churches feel the way I do — what can we do? We become too obsessed with making the wrong decision…so we decide not to act instead.

I recently watched the movie Pride which deals with a group of gays and lesbians that help raise funds for British miners during the strike of 1984. Many asked what the LGBT community knew about miners? It was an unlikely friendship. But the beauty is that one oppressed group came together to help another oppressed group. It showed that someone did not have to live the same life to help.

In the same way, it’s not necessarily about us knowing the exact oppression that is occurring, but being willing to see the oppression and speak out. The hardest thing is seeing that oppression, though. Most of the time, we refuse to see it because it doesn’t happen to us. And it is hard for us to imagine it because we like to think that America has progressed past that point and anything that occurs today is purely the fault of the African-American community. We are so dismissive because we might have not intentionally done anything racially insensitive. We want to remain blind because that is far easier than seeing the confusing truth.

I don’t know where to begin with the conversation toward racial equality. But I know that a conversation needs to occur. And that might not seem like a lot, but at least it’s a step forward. The church needs to be having these conversations even though they might not see what is happening around them. They might even be dismissive at first. But at least start with a conversation and see where it goes from there. It might be a group of old white guys sitting in the church basement, but a step forward is a step forward. The only time we can’t do something about racial inequality is when we don’t talk about it at all. And we’ve been doing a pretty good job at that for some time now and it’s time to stop. Let us stop and listen. We may not be able to completely relate with the struggle, but we are still called to do something. As Christ-followers, we must.

The Art of Selling Out

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In the past few months, many online articles have crowded my Facebook newsfeed. Perhaps you have had the same articles. Mine are predominately Christian articles; but there are quite a few that are outside of the Christian circle as well. I am certain that you have seen at least a few of these topics:

4 Things to Do When You’re Single and In Your Twenties…
4 Things to Do When You’re Single and In Your Thirties…
7 Money Decisions to Make Right Now…
How to be Happy Where You Are…
What to Do Before You Get Married…
27 Ways to Be a Better Spouse…

I can go on and on but I assume you get the picture. I will be the first to admit that I have clicked on that BuzzFeed article for some cheap entertainment. But I have come to expect that level of article from them. I know that I don’t write about the deepest of topics. I don’t spend time breaking apart Greek or Hebrew. I usually just spend time trying to get people to converse about something. It usually isn’t profound. It’s usually a reminder or an observation.

It didn’t really bother me until I began seeing more and more Christian sources publish the same material. Online sources that once published thought-provoking articles submitted to the god of “click and share.” Instead of asking, “what will make people think?” we began asking, “what will make people click and share and in the process hopefully cause people to think, as well?” There are levels to the online world that I will never understand; but the thing I will always understand the least is: at what point do you sell out?

I believe that people will rise to the level to which we challenge ourselves. It seems like right now we are challenging ourselves to count anywhere from 1-30. We are also challenging ourselves to learn how to live while we are 20…or 30…or 40…or married…or single…

It seems the bar has been lowered and we are okay with that.

NEWSROOMOne of my recent favorite shows was, The Newsroom. I always find Aaron Sorkin to be a genius, but this show seemed to hit it out of the park after each episode. One of the things that struck me was how Sorkin pleaded for decency and for news to actually be news. He argued that the news shouldn’t be about what a celebrity wore to the Oscars, what recent cause a band took up, or how a dog rescued a cat from a burning car. These things are not news. They’re a form of entertainment at best (and I watch the same YouTube videos as you).

This brings me back to the idea that we (and when I say we, I am referring to the American evangelical church) have somewhat sold out. Instead of challenging people to think outside of the box, we urge them to continue thinking inside an even smaller box. We water down instead of explaining. And we would much rather do a series over how to get a spouse before you’re 30 than a series over challenging biblical issues. The evidence for this is found all over the shared stories online. We have succumbed to the idea that if we speak to the general masses, they will listen. Instead, I believe that if we specific groups, the general masses will listen. Instead of thinking about what people will want to hear, we need to think about what they need to hear. This isn’t saying to become arrogant in our language or thoughts. There is a clear line between that and challenging the art of selling out.

We in the evangelical church have been practicing the art of selling out for far too long. I think it is time we reclaimed the higher conversation and began challenging others to rise up to that. Talk about real painful issues. Explore biblical fears. Brainstorm how to move culture forward. Converse with opposing sides. Let us no longer sell out to the god of “click and share” but may we rise up to become something more. And in the process of doing so, may we challenge others in the same way.