Cracker Jacks Theology May 18, 2018 No Comments

I confess that I am both a theological nerd and a theological cynic. I have no problem with people that think differently than I do and while I love a good theological dialogue, I never feel the need to get into a fight over theology. The diversity of thought within Christianity is a gift, especially when the theology is formed based on scripture. Believe it or not, its possible for two opposing theologies being both formed utilizing scripture. None of this bothers me, even though I have my own, often times strong opinions. I try not to get caught up in the small things, but the things that really matter than that we can all agree on.

The thing that concerns me greatly about theology is what I call cracker jacks theology. These are things that sound theological ideas and even Biblical, but are not in any way. These pithy sayings that mask as theology send a terrible message about God. They can be found on bumper stickers, posters and t-shirts. They are used by people in the midst of difficult and painful situations for which we have no response, yet they cause more damage than simply saying nothing. 

Cracker Jacks theology is dangerous. It is not Biblical and it sends a message about God that is inconsistent, untrue and often portrays God in anything but a loving way. People often mean well and do not know better, but that does not take away the danger or challenge that comes with this kind of thinking about God. The best test for whether or not something is cracker jacks theology is the scripture. If there is not clarity there, it is also wise the play the theology out. What does this thought ultimately say about God and humanity? What does this particular idea or though mean when it comes to other situations and circumstances?

Beware of cracker jacks theology. What we believe and say about God matters.

The Theology of Change April 24, 2018 No Comments

I do not know a single person who always loves change of all types. Sure, I say I enjoy change, but the truth is that I really only enjoy change I create, see coming, like, control, or benefit from. Its hard to enjoy change that is unexpected, painful, disrupting and full of conflict. The church, the holders of the theology of Jesus in the world today struggles more so with change than perhaps any institution, organization or group in history.  Its ironic, because the nature of life, faith, the world, being a Christian, following Jesus and being a disciple is riddled with constant change. 

As followers of Jesus, we are called to become more like Jesus. This is the essence of discipleship. To become more like Jesus, we have to change. To be a church that reaches the world, we must change. Change is not ideal, but it is not optional, especially for Christians and the Christian church. They say the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. I suppose there are probably even people, few of them, who have been able to avoid taxes. I would actually add a third item to that list, change. Change is a guarantee. It is a part of life. It is a part of discipleship. 

The hope and prayer I offer is that we can experience, lead and embrace change at a pace that stretches us, but does not break us. 

Above all else, we must remember who is in charge and we must look to the one that never changes, God.

The Theology Around Suicide February 26, 2018 No Comments

Recently I have been in a situation where I have had to talk a lot about suicide and the theology around it. Its not something we should have to be talking about, but the world is not as it should be. There is a theological view within Christianity that claims that anyone who commits suicide goes to hell no matter what. It is a view that rose in part out of the catholic church and gets little discussion today even though many teach and hold this view.

The basis for this view is in the incorrect interpretation of two different passages, one that appears in three of the four gospels and one that appears in Pauls letters. The Gospel passage talks about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Of course this is not a word that we know much about, but at its core, it is a direct affront, accusation and rejection of God. It is to claim that God is not real or to embrace satan instead of God. Some have decided that rather than take this view and interpretation, to view suicide as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. There is no real textual or scholarly basis to this however.

The other passage talks about grieving the Holy Spirit. Again, this is interpreted by some as suicide being the ultimate act against God, the way to grieve the Holy Spirit. While this is less of a stretch, it is a stretch nonetheless. What this does refer to however, is the rejection of God when we come face to face with God whether in life, death or both. This is the only way we can end up spending eternity without God. Now, CS Lewis notes that he could not understand how someone could come face to face with God in death and reject the power and love of God, but that some clearly do.

The idea that God would abandon any of his children in the midst of the darkest moment of their life, regardless of their belief, lifestyle or church attendance is contrary to the whole of scripture and the life, teaching, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is in our moments of deepest pain that God is with us.

The truth is that we can never be sure of anyones salvation but our own. The only thing we can do is life in hope, trust of God and live in love, sharing the good news of Gods unconditional love and grace with everyone we encounter in word and deed.

As for suicide, any idea that engaging in this act of desperation warrants the automatic and eternal rejection of God in every case is pure rubbish.

Theology of People September 19, 2017 No Comments

People and the relationships we have with them are one of the greatest gifts that God will ever give us. I have shared this at almost every funeral that I have performed for more than a decade. We often lose sight of that and neglect that in the midst of busyness, conflict, fear, and a focus on what is not going right or what we do not have rather than focusing on what is going well and what we do have.

We must remember that people are created in the image of God, all of them. Christian and not. One of the implications of this is that every human being, in one way or another bears the image of Jesus to others and to the world. It also means that all people have great value, that to be created in the image of God is a high honor and a unique aspect of being human. Another application is that we are all children of God. Those who have embraced this identity, or come to know Jesus or have been baptized have fully accepted and live in this identity. All this to say, that human beings are the most valuable creatures in all of creation.

This means that how we look at and treat people matters. We cannot perfect this, but we often fail to even try or notice how we see and treat others. We often focus on their flaws and judge them while ignoring our own. Our primary goal should be to see people as God sees them, beautiful, important, loved yet imperfect. Our ideal approach is to seek to understand people rather than to judge them or be understood by them. We must assume a positive, or as one of my mentors said, ‘assume a yes in everyone.’ We must assume the best in people if we really want to see and value them, if we really want to treat them with the love that God calls us to.

It also turns out that we can disagree with people, dislike things about them and still value and love them. It turns out that we can have different personalities, views, strengths and weaknesses and still love and value each other, better yet, have a healthy deep relationship with one another.

That is the ideal that God seeks in us and the only way it becomes a reality is if we take that seriously and let it begin with me.

Theology of Fear August 19, 2017 No Comments

We live in a fear based culture without question. The church has become a fear based organization much like the culture. Fear is not a Biblical value. It may seem like one, but the number of times the Bible (and Jesus) tell us not to fear is hard to count. Sure, the Bible references the fear of the Lord (and that is primarily meant to say respect), but that is not what I am talking about nor is that the issue.

It seems we can take one of two paths and as Christians, the path we are called to is narrow, hard and counter cultural. It is the path of following and imitating Jesus.

The first path is the path of fear. Fear motivates us to worry, to criticize, to judge, to hate and so much more. Fear is often rooted in lack of knowledge, whether of self or something external. Ironically, fear and ignorance together often lead to arrogance. This path often leads to judgement and hatred. You combine this with a focus on being religious and it is downright toxic and contradictory to what Jesus has for us.

The Jesus path is the path of trust. Trust of God. Trust allows us to grow, to see the best, to be a people of hope rather than a people of fear. It allows us to focus on understanding rather than being understood. The path of trust creates a sense of teachability and often increases self-knowledge, eventually blotting out ignorance. This path leads to a perspective of grace and love rather than judgment and criticism. This perspective is rooted not in religion, but in relationship with Jesus, it is truly the path of faith.

We each have a choice as to which path we will choose in our lives as we approach our own life, our family, the church and the world. Its not an easy choice and the path of Jesus is not easy. Narrow is the gate…

As for me, I pray that by the grace and help of God that I will always choose the Jesus path.

Temptation to be Relevant July 20, 2017 No Comments

In 1989, Henri Nouwen penned the book, In the Name of Jesus. It was a book on Christian leadership, one that was relevant before, when and after it was written. It is quite relevant today. Nouwen works through three temptations that Christian leaders face. They are also temptations that Jesus faced. Nouwen offers a response for each temptation. It is a short, but powerful and rich book that every Christian leader, pastor or even follower of Jesus should read. I once had one of my doctoral professors tell me that he reads this book once a year. A good and important discipline that I have tried to practice myself. The first of the three temptations that Nouwen raises is the temptation to be relevant.

This temptation is one of the most challenge and real temptations facing pastors and leaders in the Christian church in North American today. Churches as a whole in North America struggle with this temptation as well. To assume, however, that relevance is all bad is not accurate. While it is in fact a very real temptation, it is not in of itself evil. That said, relevance should not be our primary focus or priority. The truth is always relevant, it does not need our help. The Scriptures will always be relevant, they do not need us. Jesus is relevant to all people, all cultures and all situations, he does not need us to be relevant. Not everyone in the world sees these things as relevant, and as such we as Christians do have an opportunity and call to help others see their relevancy. We can do so without compromising the identity and value of any of these things.

We also recognize that Jesus communicated the Gospel in a way that was understandable, relational and relevant to the people of that culture and of that day. As a church, we also have the obligation to bring the Gospel to our culture and contexts in a relevant and understandable way without changing the content or intent of the Gospel.

At face value, it all seems fairly simple. In reality, it is deeply complicated. So often, churches do not at all consider relevance. On the other side of the spectrum, churches work so hard to be relevant that they are no longer churches. Its a practical theology question that churches and their leaders must have.

Theology of Giving June 20, 2017 No Comments

It has been interesting over the years to see the various theologies of giving that exist in the church. So often, giving is done out of habit, tradition or worse yet emotion instead of a careful, thought out philosophy or theology of giving. I have seen several theologies of giving at play:

Giving out of Obligation: simply put, you give because you feel you have to give. There is no joy, it is simply another obligation.

Giving out of Habit: you have always given, your parents gave, so you give too.

Giving to get Something: this is a bit of the prosperity Gospel. You give to get something in return from the church or from God.

Giving to Feel Good: you give to be able to feel good about yourself and to pat yourself not eh back.

Giving to Avoid Guilt: much like obligation giving, you give because you feel guilty if you do not give. This guilt may come from within or could come from the church.

Giving to Avoid Punishment: in this case, people give so that God will not punish them as if we have to pay the church for God’s love…

Giving to Get God’s Favor: this is almost identical to getting something, but less tangible. Here it is all about having God see you as good because you give.

Giving to gain Power: I have seen this a lot. As a pastor, 90% of the people who tell me what they give, do so for a reason. They want me to know. They are used to their money giving them power.

Giving as a way of Voting: in churches, people vote with their feet and their wallet, so in this case, giving is used as a weapon of sorts to vote your pleasure or displeasure with staff, programs, mission or direction

Giving to be Generous: those who give to be generous simply want to bless others and express love and thankfulness. It is not a call, obligation or tool, it is a gift.

Giving because God calls us to Give: the scripture is clear, we are called to give part of what we have back to God and his church. All we have after all comes from God.

Karma April 20, 2017 No Comments

Below is a sermon I wrote and delivered over a year ago about Karma….

This week, this new year we begin a new sermon series that we will be in until Lent. The series is called ‘lies we believe.’ We will look at things that we as a people, culture and Christians that we often believe that seem truthful, helpful and even Biblical that are not so. Each week we will look at a lie and a corresponding truth and will look at our scripture in doing so. The lie for today is Karma. The corresponding truth is redemption.

Several years ago, a television show came out that has since run its course called My Name is Earl. The show was about a man who won the lottery and as a result felt that fate, or Karma, required him to make up for every bad thing that he had done in his life. The show shared a variety of stories that affirmed this line of thinking. The basic gist of Karma is that if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. If you do good things, good things will happen to you. When we, as followers of Christ think about this, we readily recognize that this is a false line of thinking, especially the preposterous way that this show often depicted Karma. Karma is the New Age, postmodern version of a works theology. If we are to be honest, however, we at times hold a view incredibly similar to Karma. When something bad happens we wonder why God is doing this bad thing to us, or why God is allowing it to happen. We wonder what we have done wrong. We feel and live in tremendous guilt when we sin and often look for ways to make up for our sin, while living in our mistakes instead of grace. I am not suggesting we not have remorse for our sin, nor am I suggesting we not engage in authentic repentance. What I am suggesting is that often times we allow suffering and sin to have more power in our lives than grace and we often fail to see that there is a possibility for redemption. On the other side of the coin, when something good happens to us or to someone else we think we have earned that or Karma, the universe or God has paid us back. When someone does something bad or experiences pain, we secretly are thankful that God, the universe, justice or Karma paid them back. While this may feel good and right and there in cases may be truth in light of the nature of action and consequences, it is not God’s truth, not the whole picture and embraces Karma.

Job certainly had a right to complain about his circumstances and his questions were often legitimate, especially as he went through very difficult things at the hands of the evil one. As we see in our reading today at the end of this part of his life journey and his story as it is recorded in the Scriptures, Job comes to terms with everything that he has experienced. He admits that God can do anything and that he in the midst of his complaints could never fully understand it.

As our reading from 2 Corinthians reminds us, Jesus died for us all and we are all in this together – all included, all in the same boat. We cannot simply see things from a worldly point of view. We are a new creation, and we are reconciled with God. God is not counting our sins against us. We do not have to earn God’s favor, nor is God out to punish us when we are good and reward us when we are bad. There are natural consequences in the world, sin is real and the world is not as it should be. We will face challenges and suffering, but we must be willing to recognize that even in the midst of challenges (as well as the good) God is at work and God is making all things new. The word for this is redeeming or redemption. It’s this concept that God can and will take anything and make it new. God is able to take broken situations, relationships and suffering and not only walk through them with us, offering us healing and hope, but turning those things around and creating a new thing, something that demonstrates his love for us and for the world, something that changes us as well as changing others. What is simply amazing is that God is able to take any situation and make good out of it, to make all things new.

The gospel lesson for this weekend, the story of the blind man, is a fascinating one, but in this translation, Jesus’ words are crystal clear. He points out to the religious folks that they have it all wrong…his blindness is not about cause and effect. We know this today and would not likely make the same error in judgment, but we also have this kind of view in other ways. God desires to heal and bless all people, to offer redemption to all as we each choose how we want to follow Him and how we want to engage in relationship with Him. As long as God is in the world, there is plenty of light, plenty of room for light and God brings this about in very mysterious ways. One of the fascinating aspects of this story is that God could have healed this blind man in a variety of ways, but he chose to spit and make a muddy clay substance with the dirt from the ground. God often brings about new life and redemption in ways we would not expect. When the blind man was asked how it was that he could now see, all he could do was to retell the story and they did not believe it. They too wanted to find this man who had done something amazing.

It can be tremendously difficult in a time of pain, grief or suffering to see the good; there is no denying that. One of the greatest tools we have in healing from these situations comes when we are able to look for the good that God is, has and wants to do in the midst of the difficulty we are facing. Every individual, family, church and community faces difficulty, but those who live in the hope and promise of God for not only healing, but also new life.  To say that God redeems all things recognizes that through His grace, God has promised to take all things, the good, the bad and the ugly, and make them new. To live a life that seeks God’s redeeming work is to look for the ways God might be redeeming every circumstance, experience and relationship. To live in the redemption is to reject Karma and believe that even in the midst of sin, suffering, grief and pain, God can write a new, better and more powerful story that not only brings healing and hope, but a new life as well. The great news is the story does not end with our desire to take on the suffering, because there is more to the story. There is the story of redemption that profoundly and mysteriously declares that God will make all things new. To live a life focused on God’s redemption means we believe with our whole being that God can take anything and not only create good from it. God can, will and desires to make all things new so we might experience healing and live in hope and so that God’s grace may be known to all the world. It’s hard to realize this when life feels like it is falling apart, but somehow, in some miraculous and mysterious way God is going to take these situations and others and make them new in a way that not only brings great joy, but proclaims his love story to anyone who is willing to watch and listen.

To reject karma and embrace God’s redeeming work is to look for and engage with the glorious, redemptive work God is doing in our lives, in our families, in our churches, our communities and the world. Living in the redemption is trusting God is going to do amazing things in our lives, our children, our families and our churches even when things seem dark and hopeless.

Karma is a heresy. Instead, as followers of Christ, as an Easter people, a people of the resurrection, may we seek God in all things: situations, events, experiences and relationships and constantly look for where God is at work, redeeming all things and making all things new. Karma is a lie, but the truth of God is redemption. Praise God!

More than we can handle February 19, 2017 No Comments

Below is a sermon I wrote and delivered over a year ago about the flawed idea that ‘God does not give us more than we can handle.’

Let’s Pray. This week we continue our new sermon series that will bring us to lent. We are looking at lies we believe, things we think are true and even maybe sound Christian or Biblical and so we choose to believe them when in all reality they are lies. Last week I shared about the lie that is Karma and the contrasting truth that is redemption. This week our lie is a phrase I hear often from Christians. It is one that sounds good, nice and very Godly, but is not actually true. Sadly, it is used without abandon and in some of the worst times with people who are in deep pain or suffering and people who are overwhelmed. Well-meaning Christians in an attempt to cheer them up and speak truth, not only hurt them, but offer them something not quite true.

It’s a simple phrase: ‘God won’t give you more than you can handle.’ Some of you have said this or had it said to you. Some of you have accepted this as truth for many, many years. It is not true. It is not Biblical. It is not Christian. There are three parts of this statement I want to point out to you that are false. The first is simple. It is one connected to some things I said in last week’s sermon. The first part of the phrase: ‘God won’t give you…’ Please know that God does not do things to us. Our pain, suffering, difficulty, the things that overwhelm and hurt us. God does not do those things to us. God is not a fairy or a genie or as one movie puts it ‘a mean kid on an ant hill with a magnifying glass waiting to watch you squirm.’ I think we know this, but like many of these lies, we do not always speak, act or live like we know it is not true. God does not sit around giving us hard things to deal with or to punish us. The fact is things that happen are a fact of life, the difficulty of relationships, the reality of natural consequences. Whether our difficulties are caused by sin, natural consequences, pain, brokenness, evil, the devil or whatever else, it is not God. Bad things happen. Bad things happen to good people. Things happen we do not deserve, we did not cause, do or even see coming. God does not give us suffering and pain. He took our suffering and pain on the cross. Ok, now that rant is over, on to rant number 2.

The word ‘more’ is one that always strikes me in this sentence. God never, ever, ever promises life will be easy. Jesus certainly does not promise that following him will be easy. In fact, he goes out of his way in many ways and on many occasions to say just the opposite. Following Jesus is hard. Sometimes when someone throws this phrase at me, and I do not have time to discuss theology, am grumpy or think they will not listen to me rant about how this is not Biblical (and not actually helpful, especially in the many moments it is used) I simply respond by saying: ‘well, then God and I are clearly not on the same page about how much I can handle!’ We are never promised it is going to be easy. Ever!

On to my third rant about this phrase and it comes in the last part of the phrase but also built into the phrase as a whole. It is not about what we can handle. It is not a test. It is not God pushing us to our limits or even giving us so much stuff it forces us to rely on him. God never forces a relationship with him on anyone. God invites everyone to relationship with him, but God never forces a relationship with him on us through suffering, pain and difficulty. God does not sit around evaluating what we can and cannot take and push us to our limits just for fun, as a test or as a lesson to teach us something. That is not who God is at all.

Our three simple Gospel verses sum it up well. In fact, we do not have to even go further than the first three words to find a key truth that contrasts this lie that is ‘God will not give you more than you can handle.’ Come to me. Come to me. Jesus offers us a direct invitation to come to him. He loves us, wants to be with us, especially in our suffering. He is our intermediary between us and the Father. Come here to me. The invitation is extended to all but is only enjoyed by those who are actually willing to go to Jesus. Come as a child. The only requirement is to recognize our need for Jesus and be willing to accept him. That is it. The lie is ‘God won’t give you more than you can handle’ and the truth is ‘you are invited to bring your burdens to Jesus.’

Jesus in this passage uses the image of a yoke. I do not know if you have ever seen one of these things; they are quite barbaric. Made for humans, others made for animals, they are meant to make a load easier to carry or pull. It is like a giant loop or harness around your neck. Some yokes just by themselves can weigh 10-50 pounds not even counting the wagon and the load on it. I put one on once. That was enough for me. The truth is so many times that is what our burdens feel like, a giant weight around our neck that pulls us down, keeps us stuck and seems impossible to move. Then comes along the well-meaning friend or family member who looks past our burden and says, ‘oh sweetie, it will be ok,ay God does not give you more than you can handle.’ Bull (get the pun?)! God does not give me suffering. And when I face suffering and burdens, it is often more than I could handle by myself. Many times it is more than we can handle with the help of others. Jessica and I were talking about how annoyed we are by this phrase and the way it is used and she spoke a lot of a childhood friend who lost her very young child to drowning. She continues to live with it and has not gotten over it. Many people said things like this to her. They meant well, but it did not help. Salt in a wound. Salt in a wound with no purpose because it is just not true. I have yet to meet a single parent who has lost a child to any circumstances at any age who looks at that and says, no problem, I can handle that. Life often gives us far more than we could ever handle, and Jesus in those moments looks to us and invites us to him, to pass the load off to him and to take on his love and grace, which is light and free, a gift that brings life instead of bringing us down.

Those who bring their burdens to Jesus trade their burdens for the yoke of Jesus, unconditional love and grace. A deep peace that comes in letting go of the things that bring us down and simply give them to God. We just need to be a little child. “Jesus had come to know his father the way a son does: not by studying books about him, but by living in his presence, listening for this voice, and learning from him as an apprentice does form a master, but watching and imitating.” As children we all wanted to grow up. As adults, most of us would give our left arm to be a kid again. The adult life is burdensome. Taking our burdens and giving them to Christ means we taken on his yoke, the life of a child, simple and free. Only Jesus can do that for us. No one else can do it. We cannot do it on our own. The demands, difficulties and uncertainness of life are simply too much for us to handle on our own and even with the help of others. We need Jesus. So does the world. I am often heartbroken as I meet people who do not know Jesus and are going through a very painful situation, because I just cannot imagine not having Jesus in my own difficult times.

Come to me you who are exhausted, hurting, burdened, scared and I will take those things from you and give you rest.

‘God won’t give you more than you can handle’ is simply a lie, but the beautiful truth is that in the midst of your burdens God has offered you an invitation to bring those burdens to Jesus. He is waiting. Introduce rock exercise.

How Many? January 20, 2017 No Comments

Last year when I visited Greece and Turkey, I was able to visit many of the sites where Paul did ministry. It was incredible to walk in much of his footsteps and learn and see what I have read so much about. Our tour guide was fantastic, but not necessarily a man of faith. When we got to Philippi, the site of Paul’s first church we were able to get a good idea of the culture, that church and his ministry there. At one point, someone in the tour group asked the age old American question ‘how many where in the church?’ The tour guide had the best response, one that I think we could adopt in North America. “It does not matter, Paul did not come here for how many came to church, he and the people came here to worship the Lord.” Puts a little perspective on how we look at things today.