Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In your face

So there's been some buzz this week about an SNL sketch about Tim Tebow and an exchange he had with Jesus while in the locker room discussing his team's recent six-game winning streak.  I've seen some headlines screaming that Christians are very offended by this sketch.  And I'm sure that some are.

But what if, instead of being defensive about the doctrinal issues, we took this as an opportunity to listen to what people are saying about Christians and Christianity?  What if we take this very clearly characaturized sketch of something that's going on in our world and see what nuggets of truth we might be able to find about how what we say and do looks and feels like to people who don't believe in Jesus?

So Tim is portrayed as a person who's overeager to please Jesus, and as someone who is really over the top in how he talks about his faith.  In fact "in your face" is used to described the way that he prays to Jesus about everything.

So my question is, what is it that SNL is highlighting here, and how does that reflect the feelings and beliefs of many people who have Christians in their lives?  What is it that we are doing that is annoying or frustrating to people?  Is any of that legitimate--does it highlight places where even Jesus would not be pleased?

In the sketch, even Jesus thinks that Tim's worship and prayer is over the top.  But if you look at the stories of Jesus in the New Testament, stories where Peter and Martha declare him to be the Messiah, or the place where the blind man falls on his face to worship Jesus, I don't think you can conclude that Tim's worship and prayer are too far over the top for someone who recognizes who Jesus is and wants to honor him.

But what about the question of the balance between public and private worship?  There are tons of stories that Jesus told about the pharisees vs. regular people--about people who do their acts of worship before God alone vs. those who worship in order to be seen.

And that's really a question of heart, right?  Of intentions.  And looking at other people, we can't know what their purpose is.  We can't really know what Tim is thinking.  Maybe he is really just thankful for the gifts he's been given, and maybe his prayers are all about praying that God will help him to honor Jesus in everything he says and does while the spotlight is on him.  Only God knows his heart.

But we can certainly take this opportunity to question our own motives.  Why do we pray in public before meals?  Why do we talk about church and the Bible?  Why do we share those stories about who Jesus is and what he has done for us?  How do we approach it--from a position of power or a position of humility?  What are we communicating about Jesus, about God, and about ourselves by the way in which we engage in worship?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas giving and the barrier of grace

I've noticed a strange phenomenon around Christmas time this year.  For the past couple of years, my roommates and I have tried to be "good neighbors" in the most old fashioned and traditional sense of the word by caroling and giving away baked Christmas goodies to those around us.  Sometimes it's hard to get people to answer the door (I live in kind of a rough neighborhood).  But the ones who live closest to us now gladly accept our cookies.

What I've noticed this year is that, without fail, those neighbors come to our door a couple of days later with Christmas goodies of their own.  And one of the neighbors even bought candy from a local shop because they don't really bake, but they didn't want our kindness to go unreturned.

What do you think makes people feel like they have to respond in kind when you do something nice for them?  I'm not sure that this is always true, but it seems like part of the desire to respond in kind is so that we don't owe anyone anything.  Because if you give me a gift and I don't respond, I am now in your debt until I can repay it.  It's the same with getting a Christmas gift that is worth way more than I spent on you.  It makes me uncomfortable because there's this money sign hanging over our heads, showing how uneven the relationship seems.

I would suggest that this discomfort is rooted in our desire to be self-sufficient.  It takes great humility to accept gifts from others, and we want to somehow believe that we earn those things or deserve them in some way.  And if we didn't do anything to deserve them, at the very least we want to repay someone.

Grace is hard to accept.  It's hard to accept that today, I might need you to love me because I'm in pain and I can't be nice to you.  It's hard to accept that I might need help shoveling my sidewalk because I have the flu, and maybe I'll never be able to respond in kind.  It's hard to accept that, when I look at my relationship with God, I'm really bringing nothing to the table.  He gives me grace, he chooses to love me.  I can respond in gratitude, but it can never really repay what he's given me.

If I was trying to identify emotional barriers to faith, this is a huge one.  I think it's a barrier that we all face, and we all have to work through.  But in times like the holidays, I think we can also be a part of bringing this barrier to the surface by seeking ways that we can pour out kindness and love on those around us--even when they have nothing to give back or have done nothing to deserve it.  You never know how your gratuitous gift might open the door to someone receiving the grace of God.

So this week, who in your life can you give to for the holidays that wouldn't expect it and can't return it?  How can you be a reflection of the love and grace of God by giving to those around you?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

one who is loved

I had the opportunity to listen to an atheist's sermon this week.  It stirred up a lot of thoughts, but one has been haunting me this whole week.  While speaking, the man kind of told the story of life from his perspective--it was atoms and molecules evolving over time to come to a place where life has meaning because we give it meaning--because we choose and emote and live, the sun has meaning, for example.  And as he painted this picture of life and how we are all connected to one another and all other natural matter, I had just a moment or two where I felt what I would feel if I did not believe in God.  For just a moment, I identified with the reality he was painting to the point where God disappeared and it was just us--the natural world--existing and moving and living.

And as I imagined the world of space and time swirling and moving--dancing almost--to create atoms and life, I felt a profound sense of emptiness.  The natural world felt distant and cold compared to what I'd felt a moment before.

What I realized in those moments is that my entire reality, my entire identity is built on the belief and experience that I am created and loved by the God of the universe.  I believe and live life like there is a God whose primary character is love who creates and brings order and brings life.  And even though I don't understand why horrible things happen, and even when the world seems so dark and excruciatingly painful because of all the evil that exists from day to day, I wake up in the morning and I go to bed at night knowing that God searches me and knows me, that he knit me together in my mother's womb, that he knows when every sparrow falls, and he knows the number of hairs on my head.  I am precious and valuable because he loves me--not because of what I have done, because of who I am, or because of where I have been or where I am going.  I am one who is loved.

This belief affects me profoundly.  It gives me hope and confidence and a measure of peace and purpose in life.  It gives me reason to love and to live and to care.  It motivates me to be the best kind of human being I can be.  It makes me want to give of myself and make life better.  Because I am loved and cared for, I want to be loving and care for other people.

I've mentioned my studies of stories of people who met Jesus, and how the "eternal life" that he offered people was not so much about life after death, but about life with the eternal one.  In our Sunday night meetings, we often talked about what life with the eternal one is like.  Many times people conjured up pictures of a utopian existence--palm trees and clouds and all the other icons we associate with peace and rest.  But for me, it's this sense of knowledge and relationship with a good and loving God--that's what life with the eternal one is like.  It's being one who is loved, nothing more and nothing less.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thoughts for Berkley

So I've clearly taken some time off from the blogging world.  I think I've just needed a rest for a while, and I haven't really been sure where to go with this.  But I know I need to be writing, and I do hear from people who have read or have been reading from time to time, asking me about the blog and whether I still have things to say.

I've also had a request from the church I'm now attending to send some blurbs each week about reaching out and building relationships with people outside of the church.  I'm thinking I may, at the very least, post those same things here.  Some of it will be iterations of ideas and thoughts that are already here, on different posts.  Other posts may be new.

So the question is still how to live as the disciples of Jesus in a way that we can also be the disciplers that he calls us to be.  You know by now that the passage that has called me since my earliest years is in 2 Corinthians 5--we are Christ's ambassadors in the world.  We are to live lives of integrity and love because in that way we reflect his character, but his desire has also always been that we be a part of reaching the world and inviting the world to worship and follow him.

So what I wrote for the church folks today is a much shorter and easier to digest version of the ideas that are in my book about building genuine relationships and allowing my faith to be a part of those relationships because it's a part of sharing who I am.  But I have to also admit that I choose to build friendships with people outside of the church or who are hostile toward God and the church because I have a deep sense of calling to them.  I want to be there because I believe that's where Jesus would have spent a lot of his time, and I long to see all of my friends know and follow Jesus.  I believe that my life is better because I have peace with God, and I want others to have that same peace.  So practically, I see this life of a dicipling disciple coming out of the following 6 things:

1.    Be the person God created you to be.  God made you you on purpose, and you can uniquely reach people who others can't.  When you find your identity in Christ and live out of who he's made you to be, you will have more opportunities to have significant impact than you ever would have expected.

2.    Create space and time to spend with people outside the church.  It's really easy to become comfortable and secure in our relationships within the body of Christ.  It's much harder to befriend and stay friends with people who have different values, so we actually have to work at it. 

3.    Build relationships.  This works both ways - seek out ways to love and reach out to people, but also choose to be vulnerable with people who aren't from the church.  Pursue, pursue, pursue--even when it's not comfortable and it takes a lot of energy.  But also watch how the dynamics of your relationships change as you invite people to meet some of your needs.

4.    Listen.  Listen to the hearts and needs and desires of your friends.  Seek to understand their circumstances and their point of view.

5.    Love unconditionally and extravagantlyThis is the way that Jesus loves you, and this type of love is almost impossible to find in the world apart from the Holy Spirit empowering a person to love in this way.  Love and pursue people, not because of what you can receive from them, but because of how Jesus loves you.

6.    Share your story and the stories of God.  This must be done carefully and thoughtfully.  But if you're doing all the other things I mentioned, opportunity after opportunity will pop up to share part of your story of relationship with God or stories of how God related to people in the Bible that feels totally natural and understandable within the context of the relationship.  It's not about proselytizing, it's about sharing this important part of your life with your friends.

So my church-based posts for the next month or two will extrapolate on these thoughts by giving examples or further explanation of these ideas.  But for those of you reading this week, I'd like to leave you with a couple of questions to think about and act on:  Who are 2 people in your life that you know are hostile toward God or the church or toward you because of your faith?  What do you know about the needs they have in their lives?  What kind of blessings can you be praying that God will give them this week?