Playing Jesus

I spent hours last week pretending to be Jesus.

If you grew up in an evangelical tradition of the Church like I did, particularly one that unfolded in or around the so-called “Bible Belt,” you probably remember a little thing called Vacation Bible School. Granted, it is an understatement to call this old standard of summer children’s ministry a little thing; anyone who has worked the VBS of even a small-to-moderate-sized church knows it often commands the attention of dozens, if not hundreds, of church members. Even before the actual event arrives, it’s all-hands-on-deck. There are materials to organize, rosters to assemble, costumes to distribute, sets to build, and a plethora of decorations to plaster in every nook and cranny of the church campus.

I was volunteering with Vacation Bible Schools  – whether willingly or compulsorily – well before I ever chose to enter the ministry. Over the years, I’ve contributed in a variety of areas: registration clerk, recreation leader, classroom helper, recreation leader, drama team member, recreation leader, and storyteller. Oh, and recreation leader. If you work in VBS long enough, you will find yourself donning a variety of hats. I mean that literally. You will end up sporting some of the most ridiculous and unnecessary headgear you’ve ever seen, all in service of the event’s exuberant, almost manic atmosphere.

jester's hat

VBS: the only week of the year a senior pastor can wear shorts, sandals, and a jester’s hat and nobody complains.

This year, though, it was determined my headgear should emulate none other than Jesus of Nazareth, or as stereotyped a version of our risen Savior one might expect to find within a suburban Baptist church’s Vacation Bible School. Now, having spent years in silly period costumes – playing everybody from Noah to St. Peter to a Roman centurion to a wise, old Bedouin shepherd I ignorantly named Apu Nihasapiddananajada – I wasn’t immediately phased by the thought of putting on a fake beard and long-haired wig and, four times each day, portraying Jesus to an auditorium full of elementary-aged children. After all, I hammed my way through countless Bible dramas throughout high school and college, and, as a twenty-something youth pastor, directed just as many groan-worthy yet well-intentioned productions. So, I was no stranger to playing the Son of God.

bedouin

Seriously, guys, I really do apologize for that name. I was 25, lazy, and I’d never traveled anywhere farther than southern Québec.

It wasn’t until I’d struggled through the first day of VBS that I realized I may have finally taken on a role that was over my head. I had never portrayed Jesus to children, let alone in such a wide-eyed, jovial, and interactive manner. I’d never had to go sans script and improvise my way through an entire performance, all the while happily acknowledging eagerly raised hands and the astonishingly perceptive questions that followed.

Why do your sandals look like my daddy’s flip-flops?

How did you get here from heaven? Did you fly?

If you were nailed to a cross, why aren’t there holes in your hands?

Do you know my grandmother? She lives in heaven, too.

I never thought I would envy the people who wrap themselves in long underwear and furry red and white coats every December to play Santa Claus. At least the people portraying Kris Kringle are working with an easily malleable mythology; when your backstory includes a fabled home at the North Pole and a perpetually efficient labor force of elves, what harm is there in adding the occasional fabrication?

Elf_039Pyxurz

Like the fact that, for some reason, the guy who knows every address in the world doesn’t even attempt to find baby Will Ferrell’s correct residence…

But when you’re playing Jesus to children (and you also hold a masters degree in biblical theology), the last thing you want to do is stretch the truth about God’s Son, or satiate them with a spurious answer. I didn’t want some unbiblical exagerration imbedding itself in their brains for years to come. By the same token, I didn’t want to be dismissive of their questions, either. I knew these kids weren’t asking merely to humor me. They weren’t simply playing along. Each concern was genuine; each child expected an answer.

I remember having several conversations during my years in seminary regarding the alleged “age of accountability.” The essential question went like this: At what age is it appropriate to encourage a personal response to the gospel message? Few of my fellow grad students debated whether it was all right to teach kids the story of Jesus, even the grisly and mysterious details of his death, burial, and resurrection. After all, most of them had heard the story themselves since before they were even out of diapers. However, plenty of them differed on what age children must reach before they can genuinely respond to the inherent truth of that story – when they can be expected to actually understand what it really means to “admit, believe, and confess.” Five years old? Seven? Ten? How about a wise-beyond-their-years six? How about an eight-year-old who always makes the Honor Roll?

I had my own opinions. When I became a father, those ideas didn’t change all at once, but the older my children get, the more sheepish I feel about how uncompromising I used to be. I used to answer decisively to the age of accountability question.

Lately? Not so much.

Plenty of people who reject the teachings of Christianity are quick to label things like Vacation Bible School nothing more than manipulative indoctrination of the young. And I will abashedly acknowledge there is plenty of misguided and even damaging manipulation alive and well in our churches today (and not just with the young). However, as I struggled through four days of Good Shepherd performances, inundated each day with questions upon questions, one thing became clear to me. It is a fool’s errand to definitively apply, across the board, an age of accountability for children hearing, and reacting to, the gospel.

While Christians may disagree on what exact moment in a person’s salvation experience the Holy Spirit spurs his insight, even more mysterious is the vast array of ages that receive his prodding. It can take a lifetime for the truth part of The Way and The Truth and The Life to resonate in some folk’s minds. And yet, sometimes the Spirit will choose to illumine the path of salvation to a child who hasn’t yet mastered the “loop-it-swoop-it-pull” method on their sneakers.

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Who’s got time for laces when you could be reading the collected works of Kierkegaard?

Throughout this past week, I was regularly reminded of the moment I awkwardly stepped onto the trailhead of my own spiritual journey. I was only eight years old when, one dark night beneath the bed covers, I whispered the Sinner’s Prayer. My sister had died less than a year earlier, in a freak accident on a church youth group outing. Prior to that moment, I hadn’t given much thought to death – the how or the why of it – or what exactly the afterlife might be, if there even was such a thing. I was just a kid who liked marshmallow cereal, Saturday morning cartoons, and Voltron. My acquaintance with Jesus was through the handsome, white-robed depictions on Sunday School room posters and storybook Bible covers. I knew he was the guy all that Sunday morning stuff revolved around, and that he somehow related to the Sandy Patti and Amy Grant songs my mother listened to on our car’s cassette player, but I couldn’t have articulated that connection in any coherent way. Still, I believed in God because I was told he was real, and because we bowed our heads before every meal, and because there were at least a dozen churches in my tiny, bucolic town and how could every single one of them be wrong? It just made sense to believe in God.

But after Katy died, it stopped being enough for me that God’s existence made sense, that Jesus was a nice guy who wanted you and me to be nice, too. In the void left by the passing of my only sibling, I was curious for more than logic. I didn’t realize it until much later, but what I was really interested in was hope. So, I responded to the gospel because, alone in the dark beneath the dubiously protective shroud of my covers, I decided there must be more to Jesus than niceness. Something about the combination of his cross and his empty tomb offered possibility, a semblance of hope beyond the dark finality of death. I didn’t have the whole equation worked out yet, but what I did have was the memory of a simple prayer our pastor had taught a sanctuary full of wiggling grade-schoolers a few weeks earlier at the annual Vacation Bible School.

That patchwork prayer was the first meager offering I brought before the God of the Universe.

There are some who could no doubt point to that moment as yet another example of indoctrination – the actions of a child who had been subtly brainwashed to interpret a recent tragedy, and his own connection to that tragedy, all according to something that amounted, ultimately, to little more than a fairy tale. If I consider things from their perspective, I can understand where they’re coming from.

Bernie_Sanders_2014

I don’t blame you, Bernie. If I were you, I’d probably think it sounded crazy, too.

And, of course, there is much more to salvation than the articulation of a prayer. More than human cognition and abstract thinking. Because just like the kids at last week’s VBS who prayed such a prayer to God for the first time, eight-year-old me didn’t understand everything about what I was praying. I couldn’t fully comprehend the ramifications of what I was saying to God. But, oftentimes, understanding comes later. If we Christians are honest, and we certainly should be, we will admit that genuine understanding takes longer than even a lifetime allows. As Rich Mullins once said, “We never understand what we’re praying, but God, in his mercy, does not answer our prayers according to our understanding of them, but according to his wisdom.”

All I know is what I have become. All I know is that from time to time I have found another couple of crumbs scattered along this path. Not every day, of course, but every season. If I keep my eyes peeled, eventually I spy yet another modest clue that leads me onward. Perhaps one day I’ll discover that they were all incidental, and this path I have chosen has lead me only to a dead-end. Or, perhaps I’ll come to the termination point, push back the undergrowth of weeds, and behold a wide and magnificent river.

Several times during their handful of years spent together, Jesus’ disciples would ask him what it really took to be considered “great” in the heavenly kingdom. On one of those occasions, Scripture says Jesus called a little child over and had him stand in front of the disciples. “Unless you become like this little guy,” he told them, “you’ll never even get a look at the kingdom. And whomever makes room in his life for children just like this one is the one who makes room for me.”

I don’t know if the children who encountered this freckled, fake-bearded Caucasian Jesus last week received from him any great truth. Then again, maybe they weren’t the only ones the Spirit was interested in teaching.

coach jesus

I know, I know. Look, it was a sports theme, OK. So, yes, I was “Coach” Jesus, and, yes, I wore a whistle and I had … oh, never mind.

It Shakes You

Earlier today a man called the church. He claimed he had viewed our website and was interested in joining our community and finding out if the people here would be his brothers and sisters. But first he wanted to pose a question.

“What does it mean to bear your cross and follow Jesus?”

As a pastor, I’ve had many opportunities to explain the meaning of Jesus’ well known statement, but I have never before been asked what it means by someone who, it seems, already knows the answer. In this case, I quickly learned that the man on the phone did not consider my response completely satisfactory.

My response to his question was something along these lines: “To take up one’s cross is to live sacrificially – to surrender my own will in favor of the will of God. And to follow Jesus is to recognize him not only as the example of how to live for God, but also as the atoning sacrifice that makes it possible for me to experience a relationship with God.”

The man seemed pleased with my answer initially. However, before I could really respond again, he began to accuse me, and by extension the entire church leadership, of forsaking the true meaning of “bearing the cross.” Apparently, this man interprets that passage as the relinquishment of all worldly possessions, everything from houses to material items to, as he said, “everything you got up there in that bank.” This man believes Jesus was promoting complete asceticism when he said his followers must take up their crosses. (I’m not sure where the use of a phone, or the Internet, falls in that extreme expectation.)

There was little I could say at that point. It was clear this man’s mind was made up, that he had a predetermined agenda and this question was just a setup – a test for me to fail so I could receive his rebuke. What is more, as his correction quickly morphed into impassioned rant and then into fever-pitch screaming, he would not have been able to hear me even if I had wanted to repent right then and there.

“Sir,” I said beneath his tirade, “I cannot talk with you if you won’t listen to anything I say. I’m going to have to hang up.”

The last words I heard as I placed the phone back into its cradle was, “You see, you’re running! That’s all you people do when I call, just run away from-”

Click.

In the silence that followed, I could feel my beating heart, quickened with the adrenaline that washes over you when you’re being screamed at. I could hear my shuddering exhale under stress. And I could feel the rush of my racing mind, immediately turning inward, awakening the inevitable personal reflection that comes from any kind of rebuke, whether unwarranted or wholly deserved.

Have I interpreted that verse of Scripture incorrectly? Was the man on the phone right? Have I strayed from the true meaning of discipleship?

I do not believe so. However, this man unknowingly exposed the scars I bear from my own upbringing. For years, I worried I was getting it all wrong. During my adolescence, I walked many a confessional aisle, prayed many salvation prayers (which we so often referred to as “prayers of rededication”), made many recommitments to Jesus, most of which basically boiled down to a white-knuckled, teeth-clenched, self-actualizing vow that this time I would get things right. This time I would really be a Christian.

I have come to accept and even embrace the ambiguity of biblical interpretation. I realize that I have many brothers and sisters in Christ who understand and apply certain passages and verses differently than I do, and unlike the man who called me, I do not think all of them are wrong and I am right. I believe God is bigger than our finite understanding of him. I believe he is bigger than our interpretive capacities. I believe he is bigger even than this testimony about him that we call the Bible.

I believe that I will never be able to get it all right, and that is essentially the reason God sent his son to die on a cross. And I believe that what brings the Son of God glory is when I try to get it right – when I make a genuine, honest effort. As Thomas Merton famously wrote, “The fact that I think that I am following your will doesn’t mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Nevertheless, a confrontation such as the one I had with this man may cut more deeply than you expect it will. It halts you. It shakes you. It gives you the kind of uncomfortable, self-searching pause that few of us ever seek out on our own.

Holy Spirit, sustain me. Abide in me, and teach me your ways. When I am wrong, rebuke me with gentleness and wisdom. When I am right, bless me with humble assurance. Holy Lord, I thank you that, ultimately, I must answer to no one else but you. Amen.

Slave

It must have been incredibly shocking.

I have to wonder if at first they even noticed what exactly was happening. The way people dined back then, there is at least a chance these men were used to not paying attention to whomever was behind them performing this task. The way they sat – reclining on their elbows, their legs stretched out behind them, focused on the food in front of them, holding conversation, seeing only the other faces at the table – it could very well have been that their master had made it halfway around the table before anyone even noticed he was the one washing their feet.

When Jesus got up from the table, perhaps they didn’t pay him much mind. Maybe they thought he was just excusing himself to the privy. Maybe in their periphery they noticed him messing with the wash basin and assumed he was performing a thorough wash before the main course began. And since the act of foot-washing was typically performed by the lowest of slaves – Gentiles, girls, or Gentile girls – it probably wasn’t customary to pay much attention to the one cleaning the dust of Judaea roads from your feet.

John doesn’t record who first noticed what Jesus was up to. He does, however, put the audible reaction in Peter’s mouth, one of the more outspoken members of the group (a trait that would soon bring him to his lowest point, and not long after raise him to his highest). The way Peter speaks when a stripped-down Jesus draws near to him with the water basin and soiled towel, you would think he is not merely scandalized by this role-reversal but is going so far as to swear an oath; he insists he will never permit his esteemed rabbi to persist in the humiliation of touching another man’s dirt-ridden feet. Granted, Peter had a habit of refusing Jesus of things, though his intentions were usually noble.

“I have to do this,” Jesus tells him. “Otherwise, you will have no share in what is coming.” It’s a puzzling statement to our modern ears, but not to a first-century Jew following a man they believe to be the promised Messiah. Being included in Jesus’ “share” no doubt evoked images of glory and affluence, of being a part of the newly crowned king’s inner circle. Peter wasn’t the only one interested in this future. The Gospel writers occasionally point out that debates regarding rank and status came up now and again. James and John thought about it often. It is very likely Judas Iscariot was just as interested in this outcome, and when he didn’t see it going the way he envisioned, he either sold-out to the establishment, or he arranged a plan with the establishment in hopes of provoking his master to finally, at long last, take the bull by the horns. One way or another, to have a “share” with Jesus was a chief concern of the Twelve.

“Then wash everything!” says Peter. “Do my head and hands. Do it all.” Translation: I want a share more than anybody else; I’d like a share greater than everyone else; include me in your plans more integrally than anyone else.

You have to wonder if Jesus smiled at that point. Or maybe he even laughed. It was a night in which he was no doubt experiencing a creeping melancholy because of what he had perceived was coming, but this moment of intimacy among men with which he had spent so much time over the past several years was something he had been looking forward to for a long while. Maybe he chuckled before he said to Peter, “That won’t be necessary. Now give me the other foot.”

And so the disciples watched their rabbi – the one they called Messiah, Savior, Lord, etc., and the one who called himself the eschatological “Son of Man,” divinely related to the one true God, whom he called Father – wipe away the gunk and grime from their well-traveled feet. They felt his hands guide the towel between their toes, scraping them clean. They saw beads of sweat form on his forehead and temples because he was not pretending to wash their feet, he was actually washing them, scrubbing them back to a presentable, hygienic purity.

James and John watched him, and they thought about how Jesus had responded to one of their recent arguments: “Whoever wishes to be the best among the group must act as the slave of everyone else.”

Peter watched him, and thought about the time Jesus had spoken about being watchful for the master’s return: “Blessed are the slaves the master finds still waiting up for him; the master will be so happy that he’ll cook dinner for them.

Judas watched him and struggled. He remembered the day Jesus had sat down on the hilltop and taught a gathered throng: “No one can be a slave of two different masters. It’s only natural that he’ll refuse one and obey the other.”

They all struggled. It was a shocking illustration, and even though they were used to their rabbi shirking propriety for the sake of making his point, to feel his hands on their feet – hands that had touched unseeing eyes, held leprous hands, lifted up lame bodies – was a sensation difficult to appreciate. It was also, of course, a sensation that would remain vividly in memory for many years to come.

So there they sat, around the table, feeling their master wash their feet.

Watching him do the work of a slave on their behalf.

Letting the Son of Man serve them.

 

5 Reminders for Christians Worried About Same-Sex Marriage

In my last post, I wrote about the inherent tension that comes from pursuing a holy life. I believe this tension has become as evident as ever within American churches in light of the recent Supreme Court decision. Many, many Christians are struggling to reconcile orthopraxy with orthodoxy – that is, correct conduct with correct belief.

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How are Christians supposed to maintain genuine attitudes of hospitality and compassion to people they believe are openly engaging in sinful practices? And, now that same-sex marriage has been federally legalized, does this mark the beginning of the end for any form of biblical morality within government legislation?

If we are going to adequately and correctly address questions such as these, there are several important truths Christians in this country need to bear in mind…

#1 – Christians in America still enjoy unprecedented levels of religious liberty.

When it comes to our place in American society, it is difficult for the modern-day Church to find any similarities to the Christian Church of the first century. For hundreds of years, followers of the Way (Acts 9:2, 22:4) were the weird and suspicious cult members of the neighborhood. Their worship practices were misunderstood, and their theology was considered heretical by some and ludicrous by others. In those first few centuries, persecution was an integral part of their reality; sometimes it was localized to a particular region because a local governor didn’t like them, and other times the Roman Emperor himself sanctioned the oppression empire-wide. And so we’re clear, the Church didn’t define persecution merely as unkind words or unfair stereotyping of their faith. That, they believed, was just the nature of a worldly society desiring to malign them. No, persecution was more significant than that. It was shocking, often violent. From vicious slander to the stripping of business ownership. From treatment as social pariahs to imprisonment, forced apostasy and even execution.

Kind of puts our fussing about the

Kind of puts our fussing about the “rights” of florists and caterers in perspective.

When we stop and consider the social conditions within which the first and second-century Church operated, believers in America should be thoroughly humbled by how good we’ve got it. We should also be embarrassed that while recent Pew Research reports indicate a decline in church membership today, in contrast the early Church grew at an extraordinary rate despite being seen as much more counter-cultural. We may lament the recent decision by the Supreme Court, but we should also remember that both the judge writing for the majority and the President of the United States himself included statements acknowledging and calling for respect of those in the country who hold dissenting views due to religious reasons in particular. This, along with the First Amendment itself, would have bewildered Christians in the first century.

And, concurrently, they certainly would have reminded us that…

#2 – Christians are not called to infringe on another person’s civil rights.

Some Christians may refuse to admit it, but there is simply no basis in Scripture for preventing a citizen of a democratic country from enjoying his or her civil rights. What is more, Christians were never called to enforce their belief system – or the behavioral standards incumbent – on the public at large. Sure, they could and did argue for the value of it. Boldly even. But when the powers that be rejected their theological, moral and ethical viewpoints, neither did the Christians take their dolls and go home to pout. They recognized that what they believed in – the new reality to which they had sworn allegiance – was much bigger than mere civic responsibility. Jesus did not spend his last hours accusing the Sanhedrin of corruption and unfair treatment, but rather looked into the eyes of skeptical Pilate and said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Of course, there are many Christians who would argue that America was founded as a Christian nation and that means it should uphold Christian morality. The problem with this, besides the fact that the foundation of the United States was more a product of Enlightenment principles than biblical ones, is that it assumes the measure of a good society is found in its laws rather than the ideas that inspired them. But what does it mean to be American? Is it to be a biblically moral person, or to be a person liberated from tyranny and oppression? This Saturday is Independence Day. What will that celebration look like: Reveling in the satisfaction that comes from being law-abiding citizens, or gratefully extolling our country’s commitment to equality and personal freedom? At some point, Christians must recognize that for other people to live unto the standards we hold ourselves to, they must be inspired toward them, not forced into them. In the meantime, we mustn’t degrade people who fail to uphold a standard they don’t even believe in.

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And speaking of forcing people into something, we should remember that…

#3 – A Christian is called to live a holy life, not to legislate for one.

The fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage reveals that a lot of Christians are deeply confused about the inherent difference between an authentic life of faith and civil responsibility. The Bible never claims that trusting in God will bring about a socially comfortable life. The story of Scripture finds true believers constantly at odds with the world around them, with no legislation to ease that antagonism. Those who seek to live a righteous life according to the will of God will, at some point, find themselves in conflict with the prevailing moral and ethical standards of the day. As that point, the committed follower must choose whether he or she will continue to think, speak or act contrary to that worldly standard, or assimilate to it.

The Book of Leviticus was an incredibly progressive work, defining a sacrificial system and a code of moral/ethical conduct far more advanced than any of the prevailing polytheistic societies that surrounded the ancient Israelites. Thus, we read time and again phrases like, “be holy,” “consecrate yourselves,” and “I am the Lord.” It is clear that the purpose of the book was not simply to establish a detailed code of law for the Israelites to live by. No, it was first and foremost a call to live a holy life – to be different, distinct from all the other neighboring cultures and their hazardous influences. To be a people set apart and belonging to a loving, almighty God.

Yeah, I tried to read that one. I really did, but then my eyelids got all heavy...

Yeah, I really tried to read that one, but then my eyelids got all heavy…

In the New Testament, we find Jesus upholding this same call despite living under a different law – the Law of Rome – which had politically subjugated the Jewish code. But for Jesus, holiness need not be government sanctioned. It was a question of open-handed devotion to God, not fist-clenched obedience to the law. He embraced the moral and ethical code, claiming in his most famous sermon that he had not come to abolish this call but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20), but he continually pointed to inner motivation as the key to outward behavior. Christians today need to understand that even if we are unsuccessful in passing legislation that upholds our behavioral ideals, that failure in no way affects our unique call to live a holy life unto the Lord within this country.

Which brings us to the biggest spot of tension, namely that…

#4 – Christians are called to resist idolatry, not simply to uphold biblical morality.

Historically, Christians have been called not to pull back from a society that contains unbiblical laws, but rather to abide within it. Peter’s first letter acknowledged the tension of living in a culture that rejected what they saw as an unpatriotic, upstart Messiah cult. Nonetheless, while encouraging Christians to pursue holy living, he also instructed them to submit to, and even honor, human authorities. Any Christian who would seek to justify his or her disrespectful or ill talk against the government or its leaders would do well to contemplate 1 Peter 2:11-17. Those words pull no punches.

The New Testament never assumes society would affirm the principles and standards of God’s kingdom, or even that it could. Rather, Christians are expected to resist the spiritual, political or social idols that offered only false identity and fleeting provision. The problem is, we often forget what idolatry really is. When we place our trust in a worldly institution or individual (for security, provision, identity, recognition, and/or pleasure), that is idolatry. It has always come in many forms, from natural elements to graven images to political figures. And we find a variety of manifestations of idolatry in our world today, but one Christians often overlook is American individualism. A side-effect to living in a country founded on Enlightenment ideals and upholding democratic principles is that we place quite a bit of importance on individual freedom – that “pursuit of happiness” part of our Declaration of Independence. Thus, when some Christians rage against American courts that choose not to uphold their moral standards, they are reacting less from a commitment to spiritual holiness and more from an innate sense that their personal liberties are being challenged. In reality, they have made idols out of state and federal laws. They have placed in them their sense of security and personal worth, and when that law changes, they feel vulnerable, insecure, and threatened.

And what of same-sex marriage itself? In our time, one of the most deceptive idols has turned out to be human sexuality. Our conditioning within American individualism only furthers the misguided belief that sexual expression is key to defining oneself. More and more people, whether they are heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, etc., have been fed his lie. And so, the search for individual identity trumps submission to divine relationship, let alone biblical morality. However, even committed Christians have just as often fallen prey to this particular form of idolatry. For instance, young Christians who believe that a “true-love-waiting” soul mate will finally complete their existence are just as misguided as homosexual couples who believe they will find true fulfillment through government-sanctioned marriage.

Because of course God wants me to get married.

Because of course God wants me to get married.

So, given the above four truths, how do we as Christians move forward, particularly in relationship with those who do not share our commitment to holy living?

#5 – Christians should be ever-mindful of their approach as much as their attitude.

The whole story of Scripture – Old Testament and New – is of God calling people to anticipate and participate in His work of redemption and restoration. The first two chapters of Genesis paint us a vivid picture of God’s perfect intentions, and it is immediately followed by a story of how the whole thing was thrown out of sorts by our selfishness. (Adam and Eve’s response to the serpent’s lie that they could become “like gods” is indicative of the idolatrous thinking discussed above.) Everything after that is the account of God seeking to restore what has been broken. And at the exact right time, God’s son appeared to not only provide atonement for that inherent selfishness, but also to show us what it looks like when we truly live within God’s redemptive plan.

One of the most impressive things about Jesus’ life is how he was able to uphold a moral standard while simultaneously showing sincere empathy and genuine compassion to people whose lives had become idolatrous messes. Jesus’ attitude about sin never faltered. He was both grieved and angered by it, particularly the way it prevented people from recognizing what God was up to in their midst. Nevertheless, he also maintained an intimate and understanding approach toward sinful people. He did not keep people at arm’s length, but instead showed them incredible patience. And he never once complained that the government should better regulate faithful living. As one writer has put it, his position on sin never overshadowed his posture toward those lost in it. So, when it came to instructing his disciples in holy living, he did not say, “Let your light be so legislated among all people that they may be legally held to your moral standards and glorify your Father in heaven.” Nope. He wasn’t interested in seeing a world that knew nothing of holiness forced to conform to that standard.

“Listen, before I take off, did everyone add their names to the petition that was passed around?”

Instead, Jesus asked his followers to live in such a way that here and there in a lost and bewildered world, we might stand out as those rare individuals who know where true identity comes from. That we might be those peculiar folks who, as it turns out, have learned what real freedom is all about.

Do You Have Time for a Quiet Time?

This is the final post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.” Click herehere, here and here to read the previous installments.

I have not written on this blog in quite a while. I blame the world, but I know it is my own fault.

The thing about living in a world that everyday seems to spin a little quicker on its axis is that unless we’re willing to be mindful of our time, time will pay us no mind at all. I can blame the world, but that means I must also blame myself, because seeing myself as the center of the world is my default setting. And, like the world, my life is pitched forward into a swirling sea of stress, hurry and expediency. Sometimes I feel like I’m plunging down the slope of a ravine – not so much running as barreling headlong, with a point of collision racing to meet me.

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The older I get, the more I seem to feel this way. Now, five days shy of thirty-five, I feel as if I would do anything to slow my pace, to reach out and grab hold of something stationary in a desperate attempt to slow my rate of descent.

The previous four posts were born out of a lingering, nagging concern that I have spent too many years going about this whole “quiet time with God” thing all wrong. As I’ve already mentioned, I grew up in a church culture that placed an incredible amount of emphasis on keeping a personal devotional time with God; unfortunately, though, it did not produce many leaders and teachers who knew how to properly shepherd a young person in such a commitment. As I got older, I found that some of these leaders were dealing with their own quiet-time struggles, others weren’t sure how to go about expressing their own methods, and still others never really practiced any of the disciplines they preached. When I first stepped into the life of a minister (specifically, the life of a youth minister), there were times when I typified each of these lifestyles.

And now, despite still being referred to often as a “young man” by many a member of my church, I recognize that I am a full-fledged adult. And I have had to declare false the assumption I and so many other kids had throughout our childhoods that once we crossed that ill-defined developmental Rubicon into actual adulthood we would understand all those mysteries that so irked our younger selves. There is no instantaneous “I know Kung Fu” moment for us. Very little of the why’s and how’s in this life are received fully realized. We must learn them. And if we are to truly retain what we learn, we must practice them.

The world is our dojo.

The world is our dojo.

I was talking to a gentleman in a bookstore the other day who was telling me about teaching his thirteen-year-old son how to build a simple pair of shelves. He wanted his boy to learn some of the same skills that had been handed down to him from his own father. As they worked, the man asked his son if he agreed that it was important to learn skills like building shelves and basic construction. His son replied, “Isn’t that what Google is for?”

We are all moving so fast, faster than fifty years ago and faster even than fifty days ago. And rather than inventing things that might slow us back down even a little, instead we improve on tools that can keep pace with us. We microwave our food, order coffee from drive-thrus, and pay an annual fee to Amazon.com just so we can receive our purchases a couple of days sooner. We text more than we call, and we call more than we sit down together. We have multiple e-mail addresses, but haven’t sent a handwritten letter in decades. Why? Because we have little, if any, time to spare.

My dearest Helga, I would have thrilled to send you this humble correspondence, but you wouldn't believe how much stamps cost these days!

My dearest Helga, I would have thrilled to send you this humble correspondence, but you wouldn’t believe how much stamps cost these days!

In an age of convenience the likes of which we have never seen before, we are more rushed, more stressed, more frazzled, more impatient, and more inattentive than we have ever been.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate quite a few of these conveniences. I like that I can get an answer to a question from Google that used to be reserved for the reference section of my library. I’m embarrassed, though, that I cannot tell you what any section of my neighborhood library looks like. I appreciate that I don’t have to wait until 7 PM to find out the latest news of the world. I’m wearied, though, by how long I can stare at CNN despite knowing in thirty seconds they have no new information worth reporting. I love having thousands of movies and television shows available at the click of a button. I’m mortified that sometimes, when a somewhat long-winded person is talking to me, I feel an unmistakable desire to fast-forward, as if the conversation was stored in my cable’s DVR.

What does all this have to do with spending time with God?

Simply that, despite a million little conveniences designed to save us time, we usually find ourselves unable to offer God any of it. We’re sleeping less as a society, so waking up a little earlier has become a sacrifice too great for some. Lunch breaks are often taken at our desks rather than in an office atrium or the park across the street, and the average mealtime has dwindled from one hour to fifteen minutes. And what about the end of the day? I don’t know about you, but by the time I get my two preschoolers to bed in the evening, I feel as if I’m running on fumes. Even if I were to give God that hour or so before my own bedtime, would he really be getting the best of me?

"Do you have any devotional Bibles that are shaped like pillows?"

“Do you have any devotional Bibles that are shaped like pillows?”

Should it really be this difficult to cut an hour, or even thirty minutes, out of our daily schedules so we can spend it with God?

Realizing the difficulty of this leads me to a recognition of something else. According to Scripture, what God required of his people was not thirty minutes per day, or an hour here and there during the week. Smack dab in the Ten Commandments is a decree that God’s people would devote an entire day to him. They would honor him by putting aside every effort toward productivity, and instead be present. The Sabbath wasn’t something crammed into a daily planner; it was a sacred period of time, declared “holy” because it was set apart from the rest of a week so diligently focused on labor, development and output.

The Sabbath was a time to rest, and growing up I thought that meant the Israelites had built into their weeks a day to sleep-in and take a nap, like some sort of super-siesta at the end of each week. It wasn’t until later that I realized what the Sabbath was really about. I re-read Jesus’ statement, “The Sabbath was not made for man, but man was made for the Sabbath,” and it occurred to me that the “rest” referred to in the commandment was more about being present and being still than it was about catching up on sleep. The rest God desired for his people wasn’t so much about replenishing energy from all the work that had sapped their strength as it was about taking stock of the glory that lay behind the work itself. Just as God “rested” on the seventh day of Creation, surveying all he had made and declaring it good, so also he wanted his children to avoid getting so caught up in production that they failed to marvel at their God-given ability to produce anything at all.

How else would we be able to deal with all the messes that happen on day 8?

How else would we be able to deal with all the messes that happen on day 8?

I recognize this – a decree so important it was cooked into the center of the Torah’s Ten Commandments – and I shake my head at how meager a thing it is to scrape and strive to spend a full hour with God every day. I mean, hey, if that hour is life-giving for you, and you walk away feeling in deep communion with the Holy Spirit, then more power to you. But if you have been striving for years to commit an hour – or even a half-hour – to God only to feel more wearied by, or disappointed with, your quiet time, maybe your real problem isn’t how you’re spending that hour. Maybe the problem is how you’re spending the other twenty-three.

I haven’t been able to write on this blog in more than a month not because I’ve been too busy, but because writing on this blog has unwittingly tumbled down multiple notches on my priority list. Trying to reestablish a beloved and life-giving activity to the top of your priority list – even a time for communion with the Creator of the universe – can be as difficult a thing as Baylor trying to get the College Football Playoff committee to notice them after losing to West Virginia in October.

34 points? Is that all?

You beat Oklahoma by 34 points? Is that all?

The more we pack into our lives, the harder it becomes to manage, organize, and prioritize those things. Growing up, I was warned about all the dark, ungodly temptations that lay in wait for me out in the world. What I’ve found is most of the temptations I face are not ignoble vices, but noble endeavors. Most of the things we fill our time with are good things. There is nothing wrong with productivity. There is nothing wrong with success. There is certainly nothing wrong with hard work. But like the workers in the vineyard who become incensed at receiving only a standard daily wage for their day’s worth of labor, the majority of us have lost sight of the truth that what matters even more than being productive is the ability to be present and still and thankful before a holy and generous God – a God who wants much more than mere hours of our weeks.

After many years already, I have come to realize what this means for me. It means I have to scale back. I have to simplify. Not Thoreau, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” simple, but I need to at least be more mindful of my priorities, and faithful to maintaining that list. Maybe I’m not the kind of person who can wake up at 5 AM to spend quality time with my Creator. That means I mustn’t allow the rest of that day to be so chock full of tasks and duties and responsibilities that I am either exhausted or perpetually distracted, unable to live in the present. If I constantly find myself arriving somewhere with no time to spare, or several minutes late, I should consider what tasks (or distractions) force me to depart late. If it seems I am often anxious, or unprepared for meetings, I must reflect on how many other concerns I allowed to pull and tug at me during that day. The more I have to think about, the less I can think.

If every day you blame your tardiness on traffic, that's the same as saying, "I have no short-term memory."

If every day you blame your tardiness on traffic, that’s the same as saying, “I have no short-term memory.”

It is going to take sacrifice, and tenacious attention to the undercurrent of our lives. It is going to mean severing ties with some responsibilities that don’t measure up to a revitalized priority list. It is going to mean a lessened focus on being productive in a world that demands productivity above most everything else. Until we slow ourselves down, we will never truly experience the kind of joy God desired for his people. But, once we do, quiet times become simply a happy accident of being alive.

Our hard work, ambition, and efficiency are not the problems. But our “love” of them (i.e., enslavement to them) are. The good news is Christ came to set us free from a yoke of slavery. The shackles have been broken, and the cell door stands open. The choice to walk out into a free and open world is up to us.

Has Your Quiet Time Become a Burden?

As I close in on the end of this series about daily quiet times, I feel the need to address a particular concern.

I recognize that much of what I have written in the last few posts regarding traditional quiet time methods has been primarily cautionary and negative. I haven’t written much about the benefits of keeping daily quiet times, but focused almost exclusively on the pitfalls and problems of them. The last thing I want is for my readers (meaning you) to think I am advocating for the abolishment of personal quiet times.

Because I’m not.

I am, however, troubled by what I see as rampant naiveté in many Christians’ lives when it comes to the keeping of a personal “time with God.” As my previous posts have pointed out, we often go about these times all wrong. Either we force ourselves to keep certain disciplines that our personalities, thought-processes and specific backgrounds naturally oppose, or we treat our devotional exercises like corporate grunts dutifully paying our dues in order to attain a promotion.

"Well, Mr. Bowen, you seem like a hard-worker, but we find it discouraging that you only have 5 psalms memorized. You need at least 25 to be upper management material."

“Well, Mr. Bowen, you seem like a hard-worker, but we find it discouraging that you only have 5 psalms memorized. You need at least 25 to be upper management material.”

So, before I leave behind the negative aspects, let me offer one more note of caution. While any time spent with God comes with an element of sacrifice (because, c’mon, there’s always something vying for our attention besides God), the goal of a quiet time is not to fix us up into a more presentable version of what a Christian should be. The various exercises and disciplines inherent in a daily devotional time don’t fix us at all; what they do is open us up for the Holy Spirit to enter our hearts, minds, and souls and do his work, in his way, according to his timing. It’s like taking your car for regular tune-ups. Your main role is to hand your keys over to the mechanic – he doesn’t need you rolling under there with him and giving him advice on what needs to be done.

Maybe get some newer magazines in your waiting room if you don't want me bugging you!

Maybe get some newer magazines in your waiting room if you don’t want me bugging you!

The work of the Spirit is key to grasping the purpose of a quiet time with God. As I wrote in a previous post: “A quiet time is meant to undergird one’s relationship with the Lord. We don’t do it so God is obligated to transform us. We do it so that his Spirit might find our hearts and minds opened to his guidance and provision. It is an expression of loyalty and love, not a set of daily chores.”

And yes, I’m aware I just quoted myself there. I’m as disappointed as you.

But let’s face facts. Three-weeks-younger Bo was right. God knows us better than we know ourselves. Therefore, he knows what to transform in us – and how to go about that transformation – better than we do. This being the case, when it comes to quiet times, sometimes “less is more.”

Well, not THAT much less.

Well, not THAT much less.

There came a point in my own struggle with keeping a quiet time that I began to question not just the method itself, but the individual value of each element. As I’ve stated before, the method that was promoted to me growing up consisted of a time of prayer, Bible study, Scripture verse memorization, and journaling. Time and again, this structure was referred to as the most comprehensive and beneficial method a young Christian could adopt. For me, though, the problem wasn’t only that this arrangement of specific exercises clashed with my natural inclinations and preferences for communing with God. It was also that I couldn’t help corrupting each individual exercise until they became hollow, futile and self-centered pursuits.

When it came to prayer, I quickly progressed from not being sure what to pray, to praying for just about everything and then feeling guilty later when I remembered things I had neglected to pray for. Consequently, I began keeping an extensive list of prayer concerns – friends who didn’t follow Jesus, family members in the hospital, church members who were struggling with some problem or another, friends of friends who were in need, the church leadership, the local community, the country’s leaders, world events, third-world strife, unsaved people groups… The list grew and grew and grew, until it not only morphed into a rote list of problems I wanted God to solve, but also became a terrible drain on my time and energy. I began to dread my prayer times, because after I finally spoke my “Amen,” I did not feel refreshed. I felt exhausted, empty.

"Seriously, these are natural. If you don't believe me, take a look at my prayer list."

“Seriously, these are natural. If you don’t believe me, take a look at my prayer list.”

As for Bible study, I did the best any young person unfamiliar with commentaries and Bible dictionaries could do, trying my best to understand what I was reading. Sometimes it was Psalms, Acts, or Philippians, and this was not so difficult. Other times, though, I’d try to get my mind around a passage in Ezekiel, Daniel, Hebrews or Revelation, only to end up shamefully shrugging my shoulders and assuming that I’d eventually break through to a deeper understanding that would accommodate such perplexing writing.

Besides, my goal wasn’t contextual comprehension, but rather the drawing of modern-day applications from the text. My focus was, What can this passage mean for meNo one ever told me I should concern myself with the historical context, the nuances of the language, or the original purpose of a story. There’s nothing wrong with looking into Scripture for personal direction, but if the entirety of your Bible study – both individual and in a group – is focused on personal application, you’re missing an incredibly intricate and rich tradition that carries a far greater purpose than helping you manage stress or know what kind of girl you should date.

"You're so Proverbs 31 and you don't even know it!"

“You’re so Proverbs 31 and you don’t even know it!”

And as my Bible study became more about me, so did my selection of Bible verses to memorize. I chose the ones that resonated with me, treating particular sentences with hardly more respect than fortune cookie aphorisms. To this day, I still use the little Bible I had when I was in high school, and every day I see verses highlighted in yellow – the ones I attempted to memorize a decade and a half ago. I’m not sure what motivated me to commit some of those sentences to memory. However, what bothers me more than my adolescent selectivity is that many of those verses were abducted from healthy contextual homes meant to provide sound interpretation.

For example, one of those verses I carried around with me, like a trimmed photograph inside a locket, was the second half of 2nd Corinthians 10:5, “…and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” I remember quoting that one often, always regarding the importance to think before I spoke – lest I utter a swear and “hurt my Christian witness” – or felt an urge toward angry or lustful daydreaming. Unfortunately, while that probably is good advice, it wasn’t Paul’s intention when he wrote those words. He was referring to how we deal with heresy – that we examine all spiritual teaching in light of Christ, which was something the Corinthians were failing to do with the false teachers in their midst.

"Dear Corinthians, I'll give you something to memorize..."

“Dear Corinthians, I’ll give you something to memorize…”

And I shan’t forget how efficiently I corrupted the exercise of journaling. If drawing personal applications from my Bible study bordered on self-centeredness, what found its way onto the pages of my journals was downright narcissism. Writing down thoughts doesn’t always provide perspective and guidance like we might expect. Sometimes all we end up doing is indulging in either self-pity (Why am I so incapable of __________?) or self-advancement (Realizing _________ shows how awesomely God is blessing me.) Sure, there are certain journal entries I can look back on today as documentation of major life decisions and important new shifts in understanding, but they are hidden within a sea of pages full of overwrought self-reflection, all of which serves as evidence that I refused to heed one verse in particular: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

There’s nothing wrong with journaling, setting down all your thoughts and fears on the page, as long as you have first relinquished control of those things to the Savior who reminds us that following him requires the denial of self, not the promotion of it.

"Blessed are those who keep diaries, for their sparkly pink pens shall never run dry."

“Blessed are those who keep diaries, for their sparkly pink pens shall never run dry.”

So, what’s the point of all this?

Simply that there exists no magic combination of exercises or disciplines that will make you into the kind of Christian you hope to be. There is no specific pattern or method that works perfectly for everyone. As we grow, learn, and mature, our personalities and interests and abilities shift in subtle yet profound ways. The way we interact with God has to grow and shift with that.

The good news is that the God with whom we seek to commune is abundantly merciful and infinitely patient. He doesn’t keep a short list of only three or four ways to connect with and inspire us. He is always with us – his Spirit indwells us, going where we go, whispering his truth throughout our days, whether we have our Bibles open and our highlighters uncapped, or we’re waiting in line at Chick-Fil-A.

Where real Christians go to love God and waste gas.

Where real Christians go to love God and waste gas.

I still have one more thing to say about personal quiet times – specifically about an actual biblical mandate for how to spend time with God – but I’ll save that for next week, and the final installment in this series. In the meantime, I encourage you to examine the things you do to commune with God and grow in his truth. Does it keep you grounded in his will and his sovereignty, or have you made it all about you? Don’t be afraid to change things up, because God’s fervent desire for a relationship with you never changes.

Are You Doing Someone Else’s Quiet Time?

This is the second post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.”

We started doing something at my church recently that I think is incredibly important.

No, not that.

No, not that.

We enhanced our process for new members, not by adding more prerequisites to being one, but by inviting them to a carefully designed gathering in which we encourage them to recognize how their individuality should influence where and how they get involved in the church.

Some people know how to say no. But many others do not, and when ministers and lay leaders start getting desperate to fill spots in their volunteer base, we’re rarely concerned with whether or not someone is particularly gifted for those jobs.

"It's okay if you can't sing. We usually just move our lips while the tech guys play something from Hillsong."

“It’s okay if you can’t sing. We usually just move our lips while the tech guys play something from Hillsong.”

Unfortunately, that’s no way to find fulfillment as a church member. To be a disciple of Jesus means to surrender our lives in worship and service of our Savior. But it does not mean we are supposed to conform to one particular way of living out our devotion. God designed you in a unique way, with a compilation of emotions, inclinations, abilities, and interests that are all your own. Why would he want you to neglect this design plan in your relationship with him? If you want to be unhappy in your church, serve on a committee or in a ministry that does not utilize your gifts or jive with your personality.

The same is true for your method of quiet time with God.

When people come to me for advice because they feel dissatisfied or frustrated with their walk with Christ, the first question I ask is, “Are you attempting anything that isn’t you?”

"Well, Jim, for starters, it says here this translation is in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect of Romania, and you've never even traveled outside of Indiana."

“Well, Jim, for starters, it says here this translation is in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect of Romania, and you’ve never even traveled outside of Indiana.”

It took a long time for me to accept this as truth, but after years of discontent with the traditional quiet time formula handed down to me by my Sunday School teachers and youth camp counselors, I finally realized that what bothered me most was that the method didn’t stimulate my heart and mind according to the unique way God made me.

We’re all wired in a one-of-a-kind way. Sure, there are common practices and activities that the majority of us enjoy, and there are also common disciplines every Christian is expected to engage, but God is well aware that no two people are exactly alike. He designed us that way. We have differing personalities, our minds develop differently and at a variety of paces and speeds, and some things that interest you will never fascinate me. Moreover, we also grasp concepts in diverse ways, according to different stimuli, and a particular truth might not resonate with me at the same time or in the same way that it does with you, based on the variety of emotions, passions, and experiences we bring to the table.

Now, let’s take the truth about individuality to its logical conclusion. If it is true that God uniquely creates each person, then it is also true that every relationship between two people is also unique.

Checkmate.

Checkmate.

Anybody who has read a book on relationships can tell you that while some advice might have been helpful to his or her own relationship, not everything in the book was applicable. That’s because there is no perfect formula to a successful relationship. A relationship is not a binding contract; it’s a decision of intimacy between two individuals who, whether they are aware of it or not, bring their own ideas, ambitions, ideals and temptations into play. A healthy, successful relationship is an intentional and careful commitment to interact with each other’s idiosyncrasies, rather than denying their influence.

For example, my wife and I have a relationship that is unique to us. One of the things we’re still learning but know is important is not to force one another to speak or act in a way that is contrary to our designs. This doesn’t mean we don’t strive to connect with one another, nor does it mean I don’t adopt certain behaviors that support my wife and give her pleasure. However, pretending to be someone I am not is no good for Leigh, and vice versa.

How many times do I have to tell her that doing the dishes isn't my spiritual gift?

How many times do I have to tell her that doing the dishes isn’t my spiritual gift?

Now, if a quiet time is what a Christian does in order to experience a vibrant, intimate, and healthy relationship with God, then it stands to reason that conforming to a certain way of thinking, reading, and praying might not be the most beneficial way to deepen or strengthen that relationship. Just because God is a constant in the equation doesn’t mean each Christian must commune with him the exact same way. One of the most well-known statements of the late Brennan Manning’s is, “God loves you as you are, not as you should be, for no one is as they should be.” If I believe this, then the last thing I would want to do is pretend to be someone I am not in my relationship with God.

I love the looks on people’s faces when I suggest that, given their individual passions and interests, they might consider a solitary hike in the woods to be their quiet time, or gardening, writing poetry, even preparing a meal. Sure, the reading of Scripture is important and should not be neglected, but God is able to move in a million more ways than the standard methods so many of us so often conform to. Rather than slog through a formula that squelches your individuality, why not seek out the methods that stimulate your own peculiar composition?

As we continue in this series, I will cover the biggest dangers of conforming to a formula rather than creating one that works with a person’s God-given uniqueness. Above all, we should always remember that a quiet time should awake one’s soul, not burden it.