Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sports, Winning, and Love


Image result for clemson tigers

Congratulations to the Clemson Tigers for winning the National Championship last night. It was a game for the ages! And is was worth staying up for (since I was pulling for the Tigers). After the game, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said something powerful. He said that the key ingredient in his program was love. He made similar remarks after his team beat Ohio State on New Year's Eve.


I've been watching football all my life, and I've never heard a coach claim love as his winning formula before. It just sounds hokey... until you win a national title, especially against the Crimson Tide. Love and football seem so incompatible. But love and teamwork are very compatible.

Some teams may be motivated by fear--of failure, of letting down teammates, of disappointing coaches, of showing weakness. And fear is a powerful motivator. Fear has kept the masses in check in every oppressive regime. Fear often keeps dysfunctional systems functioning. Fear does work. That's why it is used so often. It seems like an obvious tool to use. The external motivation of negative consequences shapes our behavior all the time. Why else obey the speed limit? But fear is driven by self-interest.

Love, on the other hand, has an entirely different kind of motivation. It springs from the heart. It is driven by concern for others and it is fueled by others' concern for us. Love is reciprocal, and it spirals upward. When someone fails in a loving relationship, he or she is picked up and restored. When someone fails in a system based on fear, the offending party is castigated and punished. That person may even be rejected entirely. There are others to step in and take that role.

Now I'm probably reading way too much into the program of Coach Swinney. I know nothing about the team's graduation rate or even the success of his players at the professional level. And I know even less about the Alabama program. I'm not implying that their team is fear-driven.

But I do know that love is more powerful than fear. It is much more difficult to operate with love, because love demands selflessness and humility. It demands listening and understanding. It demands sacrifice. Love is more difficult than fear, but it builds people up internally for all the right reasons.

Would I have been writing this blog if Clemson had lost? Who knows? But I would rather be on a team like Swinney's and lose than be on any team with less heart.

After all, the ultimate winning really has nothing to do with football.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Why Worship Together?

In a first (as far as I know) in Stokesdale, we are having a multicultural, bilingual worship service on Friday, January 13, 2017. Oak Springs Baptist Church, a predominantly black church, will host this event in cooperation with Iglesia Luz de Jesuscristo, a Hispanic church, and Crossroads Community Church, which is mostly white. I've known the pastor of Oak Springs for years, and recently met the pastor of Iglesia. I count both of these men as friends.

Why is this worship time a big deal? Maybe it's just a big deal for me. God has shown me how limited my perspective is. I am beginning to see how much Christians need each other, especially those from different cultures.

For too long I have seen my ways and perspectives as normative. That is, I'm normal, and everything else is a deviation from "normal." I felt like God saw me as normal, and saw everyone else as, well, different, but OK. Yeah, that's kind of sad. It's like the universe would need to be measured according to me as the standard. How much more egocentric can you get?

Now I see that God loves all kinds of people, and I'm just one flavor. But here's the big insight. I need other people who are different from me. I need to see how they worship. And I need to have some of what they have.

I'm grew up with dignified worship, where people are fully in control of every facet of expression: standing, sitting, unison, solo, loud, quiet. All of this is carefully scripted in the order of service. We don't want people getting too excited about God, you know. Just keep it under control. And with us in control, we have predictable, manageable worship. We keep God on a leash and arrange everything for him.

But I believe God does want us to become carried away with him. He wants us lost in his mystery, begging for his intervention, caught up in his glory. This is where cultures besides mine have it right. We can call out to God from the depths of our souls. We can sing our hearts out. We can get excited about the One who loves us and walks with us and gave Himself up for us!

So I need to be around people who get this. I need to see how inhibited my own worship is. I need to approach God with abandon. Now, it is possible that others can gain something from observing my worship, too. I'm not sure what it is, though.

Worshipping with people different from myself is only a start. I want to develop deep friendships. Jesus gave his life to break down the barriers that separated people. Over the centuries, we have carefully built them back up. We do need each other. We can serve together, do life together, enjoy social occasions together, build the kingdom together.

We are all created in the image of God. To understand God better and love him more, we need to appreciate the diversity of the people he has made.

Come, be a part of something new. Let God stretch you as we approach his throne together. We all have something to learn. And we all need to give glory to God.

Stokesdale Multicultural Worship Service
7 p.m. Friday, January 13, 2017
Oak Springs Missionary Baptist Church
9070 US Highway 158
Stokesdale, NC  27357

Thursday, December 29, 2016

My Bible Reading Trap

This time of year I love making lists. I have a list of lists, in fact. Just moments ago, I created a file called, "Life Lists 2017." And reviewing my list of lists from 2016 is actually kind of fun. *pats self on back*

But this check-it-off mentality gets tricky in real life. I mean the real, eternal perspective. Does God even care about my lists? Part of my spiritual check list is reading the Bible through every year. That works together very well with my goal of reading the Bible every day. Those are important items to check off the list.

Then one Saturday a few weeks ago, I sensed God challenging my pride about my spiritual check list. Could I go for a day without reading the Bible? My Bible reading had become a source of my sense of spiritual worthiness. God needed to show me that my status before him was not contingent upon my effort. I'm still learning that lesson.

Here's my current dilemma. I'm on track to finish the Bible in 2016 (following the devotional guide, Dare to Summit: Read It Thru, by my friend Guy Andrews). I could actually finish the Bible today or tomorrow, which would put me ahead of the game. But if I finish the Bible on Dec. 30, then what Bible reading will I do on Dec. 31? Of course I could read any random passage on Dec. 31. But if I start the Bible over again this year, then it could mean that I don't read the whole Bible in 2017--the first day's reading would have been done in 2016. 

OK, as I write this, I realize how stupid it is. But it shows how weak and fallen my faith is. Do I need to brag that I read the Bible through in 2017? What if I don't quite finish it? What if I miss some days of reading the Bible? It's ridiculous that I put such stock in my own performance.

What does God really want from me? Is he really going to say, "Well done, thou good and faithful list checker?" He really wants my heart, not my check boxes.

More often than not, giving him my heart has nothing to do with my lists. He doesn't love me because I perform. He just loves me. That's what has to sink in to me.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Getting Christmas

It's been a long time coming, but maybe, perhaps, I am finally getting Christmas. For some reason, it has been a life-long struggle for me to embrace this winter holiday, celebrating the birth of Jesus. I have been a scrooge before. I have often found Christmas music annoying. I have watched in amazement as others get so amazed at Christmas. Really?

Today, on the day after Christmas, I don't feel any let down at all. I believe this is a first. And I hope I feel this way because I finally, to some small degree, get Christmas. I'm certain that getting older has helped me. And perhaps being forced (by virtue of my vocation) to be all up in Christmas has allowed God to get through to me.

There are a lot of different ways to view Christmas.

Some ignore it entirely, but that's extremely hard to do in America.

Some tolerate it as an excuse for people to celebrate. The gift giving, excessive partying, ugly sweater wearing, song singing, overeating, and family visiting are bound to happen. It's just what people do. Calling it a celebration of Jesus' birthday works just fine.

Some despise Christmas with all its phony, sentimental claims of magic and seasonal happiness. Everyone knows that Christmas is fake, and only a rare, honest person will actually admit it. But the truth tellers have to be very careful not to express this discovery in the wrong company. The willfully deceived can't stand to have their bubble burst.

Some people persuade themselves that they experience the peace and joy of Christmas, but deep down they realize that they have to suspend their disbelief to get there. It's like a journey to Middle Earth: the magical feeling can only come when you tell yourself that hobbits, elves, and dwarves are real. For them "believing" equals make-believe. But it's worth it, because you can really enjoy the holiday.

Some have tried to experience peace and joy at Christmas, but they never quite get there. They tell themselves that they have not tried hard enough to do Christmas right. They approach Christmas with a deep longing every year, and always find themselves disappointed. Maybe next year.

Some have given up on Christmas. They go through the motions of the holiday, but secretly they can't wait for January. They put on a happy face and pretend to enjoy it all. They wonder if it is really real to all those Christmas lovers, but they doubt it. So Christmas becomes a grand interruption of normal life. You just smile and nod, knowing that it will eventually be all over.

And some people get Christmas.

Christmas is about believing. And there are different levels of believing. Some believe in the shallow aspects of Christmas: the glitz, the stuff. They believe they will have fun, and so they do.  Some believe a little more deeply in the relationship aspects of Christmas: family, sharing, volunteering. They believe that they will love people, and they do. Some believe in the depth of God's love, intimately revealed in the birth of his Son. They believe that God reveals himself, changes hearts, and restores this broken world. And he does.

So how am I finally beginning to get Christmas?

Well, God is doing this work in my heart. I can't take credit for it. But here's what I am realizing more and more.

I am loved. Jesus loves me and that changes everything. The world looks different to me when I remember that I am loved.

I am blessed. God speaks good things over me. He doesn't keep me from struggle or all harm, but he constantly reveals his goodness to me. I can trust him.

He is with me. Whatever I face, whatever mistakes I make, whatever evil is aimed at me . . . he is walking with me. Not only is he for me, he is with me.

When I am secure in Christ, I have real freedom. I can smile. I don't have to fix people. I can let his goodness flow through me to others.

I'm not expecting magic at Christmas. I'm learning to receive what God pours out in my life, every day, including the Christmas season. So Christmas doesn't annoy me so much anymore. My attitude is better. On the day after Christmas, I still feel his joy. Maybe, just maybe, I'm getting Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Welcome, Jesus!

As we enter the night of Christmas Eve, we remember that Jesus broke through from heaven to earth. He came helpless, vulnerable, humble, and powerless. Yet this powerless baby was and is the most powerful person ever to walk this earth. We often fail to recognize this real sort of power.

He calls everyone of us to participate in his goodness, live the truth, and see his beauty. Here, in Jesus, God pierces the veil between heaven and earth. He is now God with Us, Immanuel. He has not forgotten us.

He reminds us that life is not about collecting toys or power; life is not about comfort or privilege; life is found in relationship to him. This life overflows to the world around us.

We celebrate the new life of the Baby Jesus at Christmas. And he brings real new life. He reconciles the world to himself. He completed this work by giving his life on the cross and rising from the dead.

God is with us. God is for us. God is in us. We celebrate this Jesus!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Christmas on Sunday: Uh oh...

Occasionally Christmas falls on a Sunday--about one-seventh of the time, I would think. I have to admit that I don't like it. It messes with our Sunday routine and our Christmas routine. This interruption forces us to make choices, and it may make us think a little more clearly.

How is a Christian to celebrate Christmas on a Sunday? Some will bag the church service entirely; some will opt for part, but not all, of the Sunday services; some will probably go all out for Christmas at church.

Of course that will depend on what their church is offering.

Some churches have cancelled services entirely on December 25.
Some churches will have streamlined services, like we will at Crossroads.
I imagine that some churches may have even more elaborate services than usual.

Christmas on Sunday brings to my mind some questions.
Isn't Christmas all about Jesus? Isn't church all about Jesus? If so, wouldn't it be twice as celebratory to have both on the same day?

Or maybe Christmas is about family, food, decorations, music, and gifts. We have to consider our stated beliefs in light of our practices.

But at the same time, there is grace and freedom in Jesus. Celebrating Christmas (which is never called for in the Bible) should not become a legalistic requirement. Even Jesus missed some weekly synagogue services. Can we skip church on Christmas, and truly celebrate the freedom we have in Christ?

Do we really celebrate Jesus in our Christmas family gatherings? Or is Christmas just a good occasion to gather family and friends?

Maybe I'm the only one to get so analytical here. Or maybe a lot of believers are thinking this, and I'm just saying it.

Here's my encouragement to you: Let Jesus break through to you as you celebrate his birth on Sunday this year. Enjoy your freedom in Christ, purchased for you on the cross. Know that he came for you and longs to enjoy your fellowship--whether that is around the fireplace, the dinner table, or in a worship service.

Receive the blessing of Jesus this Christmas!


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Stop Picking on Millennials

Please excuse all the broad brushstrokes below.

I'm getting a little tired of hearing people dump on millennials. They are depicted as spoiled, arrogant, easily offended, coddled, and idealistic. They live in their parents' basements and play video games all day, wearing pajamas.

They are searching for themselves, but don't know where to look.

I'm at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and I never felt like I really fit in that generation. Most boomers are older than I, and I always felt like the little brother. But boomers were well known for disagreeing with the older generation. I remember hearing constantly about the "generation gap." Old people just don't get the young folks.

Now the boomers are the old folks, and--shocker--the old folks don't get the young folks. But we boomers have taken on the challenge of putting millennials in their place. We ridicule the youngest adults for their participation trophies and "safe spaces." Heck, I remember getting a participation trophy for baseball in 1972, and I was glad to get it. I don't think my team won any games.

Yes, millennials have different perspectives than their elders, but that doesn't mean they are stupid. It doesn't mean that they have nothing of value to say. It means that they can see what we are blind to.

Part of what ticks off boomers, at least in church world, is that millennials point out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of typical Christians. The evangelical church is built for comfort, not justice; for big numbers, not big impact; for big budgets, not sacrifice. We have an Americanized version of Christian faith, and it is, necessarily, a distortion of the true gospel.

Boomers pointed out the hypocrisy of our parents. Anybody remember, "Don't trust anyone over 30"? The younger generation has a knack for pointing out those bothersome gaps between principles and practice. Boomers objected to the Vietnam War. What were we really fighting for? Boomers rejected arbitrary rules about guys having long hair. And I think we objected to some other equally important things.

Then boomers turned 30. Over time, boomers became the establishment. But we are not acting like our parents, just ignoring the silliness of the young. Boomers are offering open ridicule of a new generation, because they are idealistic. They want to save the planet, fight for justice, end racism, feed the hungry, cure diseases, etc.

They don't want to sit in pews to hear excellent music and inspiring sermons, and just leave their faith there. They want to make a difference. They want to head into the danger of fighting systemic injustice. They want to engage in fair trade. They want to help create sustainable economic health in developing countries. They see that Americans don't have all the answers. They see that Americanizing the world is not a desirable goal, and certainly not the role of the Church.

I think it's time for the boomer generation to stop picking on millennials and begin to listen to their hearts. Yes, they lack our experience, but that's a good thing. It helps them look at the world's issues more open-mindedly. They don't take for granted that more stuff is better. They don't really want--dare I say it?--the American Dream. Christian millennials want to see Christ's Kingdom come.

After all, this is not an "us vs. them" thing. It is us together, the Body of Christ. We really need each other: old and young, rich and poor, American and international. We can do better at making disciples of all nations. We can do better at loving orphans and widows. We can do better at using our resources. We can do better than merely counting people in pews on Sunday mornings. We can engage in this world with the power of Jesus.