Church: The Ultimate Spectator Sport

Spring is getting close. I can feel it. My bones are getting stirred with the vibrations of new life, sunshine, and spring training baseball.BeimelJersey

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ve probably picked up the fact that I’m somewhat of a baseball nut. I love the sport. If I wasn’t old and decrepit, I might still be playing some version of it. I can no longer play, so I watch. I even bought the MLB package so I could see my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates every evening during the summer. I know, I know…I’m a hopeless case.

It’s worse than that, though. I’m not relegated to the major leagues alone. I enjoy baseball at any level. I’ve been know to stop and enjoy a couple innings of Little League games as well. I’m hooked on watching people hit a little round ball with a long stick. What can I tell you?

There’s no shame in being a spectator.

I’m not alone, of course. And baseball isn’t the only spectator sport rivaling for peoples’ time. By way of explanation, you may want to listen to the song, ESPN. Even the most athletic among us seem to spend a lot of time as spectators.

Being a spectator of sporting events is no shame in and of itself (at least, I don’t think so). Those games, matches, and meets were, seemingly, created to be viewed. The real problem, however, arises when spectator-ism bleeds over into other areas of life. This is particularly true when it happens in the church.

The church now has a raft of television networks. People watch their favorite TV preachers ad nauseam. It doesn’t matter if half of them spew heresies and shallow theologies; they’re entertaining (at least many folks find them to be so). What’s worse, Sunday morning worship has often been reduced to the same entertaining production we see on TV.

Front Row

People gather in “houses of worship” to be entertained, thrilled, and to have “feel good” experiences. This would not be at all bad if what happened next was kosher. Unfortunately, what happens next is that many people leave the confines of the sanctuary, never to process what just happened, what was just said, or what the inspiration should lead them to do. We end up with the false confidence that what we did for an hour on Sunday suffices for a life of following Jesus.

Does Jesus live outside our santuary walls?

Please allow me to remind you that Jesus lives outside your sanctuary as well as in it. If we’re going to follow him, it has to be out the church door and into the world. It’s not a once a week deal. It’s 24/7/365 (this year it’s 366).

If we’re living our Christian lives vicariously through our pastors, priests, Sunday School teachers, or even our televangelists, the church is in deep do-do. We’re called to BE disciples and to MAKE disciples. Is that what you’re doing every day? I can tell you this: none of us is getting it done in an hour on Sunday.

The Sinful Aroma of Big Box Pizza

I went shopping today in one of those big box stores. I was basically in and out (or, at least, that was the plan). As I was winding up my foray into the final aisle, it hit me. I was hungry.

To quote an overused (and misused) phrase, “I was starving.” In fact, I wasn’t starving. I’m sure I could go for three days without food and not be starving. But that’s a story for another day.

I suppose the real trigger for my hunger was the aroma of hot pizza wafting in the air of that warehouse. The closer I got to the source of the scent (which, naturally, was near the checkout counter), the more my pangs of malnutrition began to haunt me.

“All I wanted was one small slice…”pizza slice

In my defense, I hadn’t eaten any lunch. It was well past noon and getting harder by the minute to withstand the draw of the inevitable.

I took a quick glance at my phone and realized I had enough time for a bite before my upcoming appointment. What can I say? I succumbed.

All I wanted was one small slice of pizza. That would more than have satisfied my growing yen to get something bad into my digestive system. And that’s all I ordered. The problem, of course, was not in my numerical choice. Like everything else in these big box stores, there’s no such thing as small. They gave me what amounted to a quarter of a pie.

My mother taught me to clean my plate. I’m not blaming her, but it’s a habit I need to learn to break. Today was no exception.

The pizza, which looked and smelled like an epicurean delight, was neither epicurean nor delightful. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It tasted great—for a while. Then my body, which has been getting used to eating in a somewhat healthier style, turned on me.

How can the same body, which had been crying out for this stuff only minutes earlier, betray me like this? I knew better, but I couldn’t help myself.

The whole sordid episode reminds me of other temptations. We often get led into sin the same way I got led into that gosh-awful pizza. It looks good, it has the promise of scratching some existing itch, it has a temporary satisfaction attached to it, and then it lowers the boom.

“Pizza is not sinful.”

For the most part, we know better. I knew better than to buy that slice of pizza, but I talked myself into it

We know the temporary satisfaction is going to give way to a pack of bad consequences. Yet we allow ourselves a rash of temporary amnesia. We conveniently forget what will inevitably catch up to us on the other side of our wrongful actions.

Pizza is not sinful (although my stomach is currently arguing otherwise). But avoiding the ravages of such temptation is not unlike that of avoiding the siren call of sinfulness. As my mother also used to tell me, “Use your head.”

Facebook and the Realities of Our World

Many of my Facebook Friends are what some would call “flaming liberals.” I’m not sure if they see this as a complimentary label, but I expect so.

I belong to a Christian denomination that sprung from John Wesley. He adopted the name, Methodist. It was a derisive term at the time. They were quite systematic, and their detractors began to call them Methodists as an insult. Wesley, being the contrarian he was, adopted the term, and here we are.FB

That’s why I suspect those friends don’t mind being called flaming liberals. Many of them have probably adopted the title for themselves.

I have just as many friends who have taken to calling themselves “right wing nut jobs.” (The term, Methodist, is sounding better all the time.) They do so, of course, because they are unabashedly conservative.

Facebook (as well as other social media outlets) has been swamped with snarky comments and political mudslinging. It’s a relatively safe place to do so, but not without its consequences.

“That’s not to say I never succumb to the temptation.”

As a Christian author and preacher, I try to avoid political statements on social media. It seems to detract from my ministerial focus. Worse than that, however, it keeps various people from hearing the more important, eternal message I attempt to convey.

That’s not to say I never succumb to the temptation. I’m a political animal just like most other folks. Actually, I find it entertaining more than anything else. Yet, in my weaker moments, I will post something that aligns with one side or the other and find myself in trouble with at least half my “friends.”

I understand the dynamics of this social situation, but there are some things I just can’t seem to get over. For example, I seem to have been unfriended (is that a word?—spell check doesn’t seem to think so) by at least three people who didn’t seem to appreciate my leanings. In each case, it seems to have come about because I “liked” a person or a position that I thought was quite positive.

So here’s the moral challenge.

At this point, I’m sure at least a few of you are expecting me to launch into some sort of moral challenge. I don’t want to disappoint you, so I will. Here goes…

To quote two of my favorite philosophers of all time, “Jeepers Wally!” “Can’t we all just get along?” (By the way, if you know who those two happen to be, I love you.)

Has anyone ever heard of dialogue? Is normal, intelligent conversation even possible anymore? Not when it comes to politics, apparently.

To make matters worse, some of our faith stances have been turned into political footballs, and we can’t discuss them anymore either. I guess that’s where I get into the most trouble. I believe what I believe, and sometimes I say so.fbth

For better or worse, that seems to be the reality in which we now live. Please don’t unfriend me. Politics aside, I’m actually very warm and cuddly. (I know what you’re thinking…shut up…)

Based on a True Story

AdamEveCatalogA lot of movies today begin with this opening statement: “Based on a true story.” I guess I know what that means, but the question is always this: How loosely based on that true story is it? Based on a true story could mean almost anything.

My bride and I just finished watching a flick that opened with, “Inspired by true events.” Okay. So what does that mean?

I think there’s an attraction to stories that are true to life. The attraction is even greater when the story is factual. That attraction breaks through the ceiling if the entire story really depicts events as they actually happened.

After I watch a movie that is somehow based on a true story, or at least inspired by one, I always have one question (especially if I thoroughly enjoyed it). That question is, “How close to the real thing was this storyline?” Sometimes, it irks me enough that I have to do some research to satisfy my curiosity. Other times, it just bugs me for a while.

I suppose there are people who have the same reactions to the Bible. Some people wonder if it’s true. Others wonder if it’s even based on a true story. Others simply believe that it’s inspired by true events.

12715617_1017197771652240_6381528215256273326_nI don’t think about that too much while I’m preaching, but there are times I stop and wonder how people take to the Biblical events as portrayed in Scripture. Personally, I’ve always looked at things from a relatively simple perspective. I believe it’s true, so I preach it that way. I suppose people who don’t view it that way don’t come back to hear me a second time.

A lot has been made over the years about Biblical perspectives. Is the Word to be taken literally? Is it the inerrant Word of God? Does it simply contain a Word from God if you look for it? Or is it just a collection of weird fairy tales and myths that are entertaining at best?

Biblical archeology is our best friend when it comes to this debate (at least from my perspective). I’ve heard it said that the more we dig up, the more the Bible is proven to be reliable. A great (and obvious) example of this is the Dead Sea Scrolls. They proved how accurate the scribes were over the years at replicating and preserving the Word.

Of course, most of us aren’t Biblical scholars or archeologists. We have to rely on the work other people do. It doesn’t (or, at least,   shouldn’t) stop there, however. We have to do our own work to build upon their foundation.

RomansYodaThe great thing about Scripture is that it’s there for everyone. It’s not hidden away in some secret monastery somewhere. It’s not written in some secret code that only some ancient guru can interpret.

No matter how you view it, I urge you to take advantage of it. It’s life changing (and definitely inspired by true events).

Angels Don’t Eat

A friend of mine recently sent me a list entitled “Angels as Explained by Children.” These explanations were quite humorous. One kid, age six, said, “Angels don’t eat, but they drink milk from Holy Cows!!!” As they say, “Fromangelavenger the mouth of babes…”

While the things these kids had to say about angels were amusing, there is a sad reality that a lot of adults continue through life with the same types of misconceptions. They’re usually far less humorous, but also just about as meaningful.

Sometimes I wonder where people pick up their theology and Biblical facts. You know; things like “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” It’s a very nice saying, but totally unbiblical. Because of our knowledge of the advantages of being clean, we certainly wish it were in Scripture. Alas, it’s not.

“Everybody’s got it all wrong.”

Now, this is not an argument for living like a pig. I tend to be as clean as the next guy. In fact, I’ve been called a neat freak. Never the less, we need to be honest about what’s Biblical and what’s not.

One of the aforementioned children said, “Everybody’s got it all wrong. Angels don’t wear halos anymore. I forget shy, but scientists are working on it.” Indeed. Everybody’s got it all wrong. Unfortunately, the scientists are no help either.

Years ago, Billy Graham wrote a book about angels. He squeezed every last drop of angelology from Scripture to write that book. We just aren’t told that much about them. At least, he used Scripture to glean what knowledge we do have.

“God helps those who help themselves.”

Some folks, unfortunately, pick things out of thin air and buy into them. Henry, age eight, tells us this: “My guardian angel helps me with math, but he’s not much good for science.” I guess Henry needs to petition the Lord for an extra angel (one who’s good at science).

Have you ever heard this one? “God helps those who help themselves.” My guess is you have. If you ever run across it in the Bible, please let me know. I can’t seem to find it. It’s got to be in there, though, because everyone says it is.

“It’s not easy to become an angel! First, you die. Then you go to Heaven, and then there’s still the flight training to go through. And then you got to agree to wear those angel clothes.” This was written by Matthew (no, not the gospel writer—the nine-year-old kid). Matthew obviously picked up various things here and there, added them together, synthesized them, and came up with a perfectly plausible explanation. He’ll probably be doing the same thing when he’s thirty-five.

angelI have an idea. Let’s read our Bibles. Let’s see what it actually says. After all, it’s God’s Word to us. It would behoove us to get it right (at least close to right).

I’ll leave you with this parting word (not from Scripture, but from the hymnal). “I only know the names of two angels—Hark and Harold.” ~Gregory, age five~

Batman v. Superman: Mismatch Made in Heaven

There’s a new movie to be released entitled “Batman v. Superman.” I’m sure they’ll pull it off somehow. I’ve got to say, however, that doesn’t make much sense to me. Unless Batman starts making his bat-suit out of kryptonite, he’s toast. Superman after all is…well, Superman. They don’t call him that for nothing.

When I was a kid, I loved buying the comic books with all the heroes. Supermanbatman-vs-superman-logo-i12 and Batman were among them. I read them over and over again. There was Batman, and there was Superman. The two didn’t mix (at least not in those days). I’m going to check out that flick just to see how they square it up. I’m sure they’ll figure something out, but it’s beyond me at this point.

In my mind, it’s a tad like pitting God against Satan. People do that all the time. In their minds, God is the superhero. Satan is the super villain—equal and opposite to God.

Sorry folks. It’s just not like that. There’s no anti-God, kryptonite suit for Satan. Satan has no secret power, laser beam, or mind trick to use on the Creator. He’s just no match for the Almighty.

Yet, people still juxtapose the two like they are opposites on the same scale. They see Satan as a force to be feared, reckoned with, and outwitted. That would be true, of course, if we were the entire opposing force.

We aren’t. God created Lucifer (Satan). He was a beautiful angel. I suppose he still is. The key word there, however, is “created.” God created Lucifer (and everything else) out of nothing. He spoke everything into being. Satan can’t do anything like that—or anything even close to that!

“The enemy prowls around like a roaring lion…”

Because of this misconception, loads of folks walk around in fear of the wiles of Satan. They see him under every rock, behind every door, and lurking in every shadow. I beg of you—please don’t live that way!

It’s true Peter tells us that our “enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) But think about that. When’s the last time you were worried about being eaten by a lion…especially a roaring one? Sometimes we give Satan way too much credit.Batman

In the very next line, Peter tells us to “resist him, standing firm in the faith…” In short, if such an attack does come upon you, you have the tools to fight and win. Your faith in Christ is more than sufficient to handle the job. I guess the Devil isn’t such a big deal after all.

That’s not to say we can merely let our guard down. We still fight daily temptations, wrong decisions, and lack of discernment about life situations. Yet, we have the promise of success in Jesus. We don’t have to cower in a corner and hope that lion won’t see us. We’ve been assured the victory.

I just hope Batman fares as well against the Man of Steel.

God Really Has a Nice Guitar

“Jesus is here!”

Three of the smallest congregations in our town (one of which I pastor) have decided to do a series of combined worship services. We’re taking turns hosting each other on the first Sundays of February, March, and April. We had the initial one last week.

I arrived a little early and was sitting in a pew waiting for Sunday School to JesusThumbsUpbegin. A little tyke came in the door, looked at me, and immediately ran back out. He re-entered with his Grandfather who announced to me what his son had excitedly told him. He had exclaimed to his Grandfather, “Jesus is here!”

When I was a rookie pastor in my first appointment, I remember a similar thing occurring. I was leading worship, playing my guitar, and singing. A little guy was sitting in the front row with his mother. I later found out that he leaned over to his Mom and said, “God really has a nice guitar.”

These kinds of incidents are quite humorous when they occur. I always get a kick out the temporary promotions, but I certainly wouldn’t want the job. As we say these days, it’s way above my pay grade.

This reminds me of one of my favorite movies of all time—Bruce Almighty. In it, Bruce (Jim Carrey) is a chronic complainer. His complaints are often directed to God. Then one day, God appears to him in the form of a human (Morgan Freeman).

God bestows some heavenly powers upon Bruce and tells him to take over if he thinks he can do a better job. Bruce is more than willing, and God goes on vacation.

“I won’t ruin it for you.”

In case you’ve not seen it, I won’t ruin it for you. But, as you might imagine, Bruce screws things up royally. Any of us would.

The great thing about the movie (besides the fact that it’s very well done) is that it shows us how little we really consider what God does (and doesn’t do). We have no idea.

Yet there are adults (not just little kids) who ascribe heavenly powers to their Guitar Jesusspiritual leaders. For some reason, they think they can walk on water (or at least have the ability to bestow great works of wonder upon their congregations). What’s worse, some of these leaders begin to believe their own press.

The thing that has always impressed me about true Christianity is that it’s down to earth. By that, I mean, there’s a deep practicality to Jesus’ teachings. Sure, there are the miracles and the wonderment (the Resurrection being the foremost of these). But the everyday working out of our salvation is where the “rubber meets the road.”

“They ain’t God!”

Pastors, deacons, elders, bishops and teachers are just like everyone else. Please don’t count on them to be your all-in-all.

Hopefully they will do a good job in setting the tone and clarifying some Scriptural necessities. They might even have nice guitars. But know this—they ain’t God! If they try to be, they will screw up royally.

The Most Sensitive Nerve in the Human Body

chainwalletWhen I attended seminary, chapel services were held every day. I didn’t always go, but there were certain ones I would never miss.

One of the “must-attend” ones was the annual chapel service conducted by my church history professor. He always delivered a memorable homily. Each one was well crafted, and you could tell he probably spent the entire year molding it just the way he wanted it.

He had an extremely dry sense of humor and his delivery was impeccable. I really enjoyed sitting in for his classroom lectures. His chapels, however, were special.

“The most sensitive nerve in the human body…”

During one of his homilies, he delivered a line I’ll never forget. He said, “The most sensitive nerve in the human body is connected to the wallet.” I wish I had come up with that one. Regardless, I’ve still used it many times over the years.

Money and the church is always a difficult subject. It’s difficult to preach on, and it’s difficult to discuss. That “nerve” is quite raw, and people don’t want to deal with it.

I find it interesting how people (who are quite willing to rationally discuss almost DollarSignanything else) hit the ceiling when the subject of tithing is broached. They immediately see red (or green) when it’s suggested as a Biblical norm.

I remember a young lady coming to me after a service one day. She was a visitor, and she wanted to ask if I would be the officiant at her wedding ceremony. When I sat down to speak with her, she told me she was Roman Catholic. I asked why she didn’t want to get married in her own place of worship. Her answer really took me by surprise.

She almost shouted back saying, “They want us to contribute ten percent of our income!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that was oft considered the standard. It didn’t seem like the right time to foist that one on her.

“I tithe! I just don’t give ten percent!”

I have a pastor friend whose financial secretary was not a particularly good giver. When my friend suggested that financial secretaries (of all people) should be tithers, he was given this reply. “I tithe! I just don’t give ten percent!” [And just in case you were never made aware, the word “tithe” actually means ten percent.]

I’m well aware that we can’t buy our way into Heaven. We can’t give enough to earn our ticket to the Promised Land. Even if we could, I suspect the price would be way too high for most of us.

I’m not trying to get you to tithe.

I’m also aware that the concept of tithing is quite legalistic. But when donating money, it always seemed like a good place to start (or at least a good goal to work cashonlytowards). Consequently, I’ve always been a tither. If you start out doing that, it’s not so hard to continue.

The point of this is not to get you to tithe. I don’t care how much you give. However, you may want to rub some salve on that nerve.

Letters to Which I Cannot Respond

complainI once had a pastor who told me about receiving some anonymous letters. They were letters of complaint. He said, although they were unsigned, he knew exactly who sent them.

I thought it must be quite frustrating to get such correspondence without the opportunity to address the grievances. My guess is, however, those folks weren’t interested in a conversation—just the opportunity to gripe.

Some months later, my pastor was killed in a car accident. Shortly thereafter, I went into full time pastoral ministry. Subsequently, my picture appeared in a denominational newspaper and I promptly received an anonymous letter—a letter of complaint. I’m pretty sure it was from the same folks who had previously written my pastor.

“I decided to publish the letter…”

I was correct about the frustration part. Blind criticism is irritating. Fortunately for me, I was also attending seminary at the time and had been elected co-editor of the student newspaper.

I decided to publish their note as a letter to the editor. Consequently, I was able to answer their gripes in print (although I’m sure they never saw my response). It made me feel a lot better.

That old memory reminds me of the Israelites. They were always complaining to Moses about how Yahweh was shortchanging them. They didn’t like wandering around in the wilderness (can’t say as I blame them). They didn’t like the possibility of starving to death.

Where’s the garlic?!

When the Lord was sending manna every day, they complained they didn’t have meat to eat. They also complained they didn’t have any garlic like back in Egypt. The exact words in the Bible are, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.” (They actually sound like they had a little Italian blood in them.)

quailOf course, there was one big difference. The Lord knew exactly who was doing the complaining. He sent so much meat (in the form of quail) it made them sick. He also burned some of their encampment. I guess he showed them. I don’t suppose it made him feel much better though.

There’s an obvious lesson in here somewhere. No one likes a complainer—including the Lord, apparently. If you do complain a lot, people stop listening—giving rise to the old saying, “No sense complaining. No one listens anyway.”

How long is God’s fuse?

The Bible is really clear about the Lord having a long fuse. As they say, he is “slow to anger.” We know that, and we seem to take full advantage of it. The problem comes in the second half of that verse. In its entirety it says, “The Lord is slow to anger but great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.”

I’m really not interested in getting part of my house burned down. Nor do I want so much meat in my diet that I get sick of it. So I guess my best recourse is to quit complaining. No one here listens anyway.

Who’s Got the Anointing?

“I was mesmerized as I watched his fingers…”

Some friends and I had the opportunity to witness a rare talent recently. The guy was a wonderful guitarist and could sing like nobody’s business. As the old saying goes, “If I had as much talent in my whole body as he has in his little finger, I’d be happy.”guitarist-playing-an-acoustic-guitar

I was mesmerized as I watched his fingers fly up and down the fret board. I marveled at the lyrics he could belt out flawlessly. I was thinking of all the people I knew, wishing they were there to witness this phenom.

Then it happened. He unnecessarily spewed out a few choice words. I have to admit it. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves. When someone is in a position of entertaining in public, they have no business grossing out the audience (at least to my way of thinking). Sweet music and f-bombs just don’t go together for me.

I stewed and fumed for a few minutes and silently felt like walking out. I soon calmed down, however, and began to remember who I am—and who this young musician probably is.

“It’s not my job to get all arrogant…”

In his first epistle to the church, John reminds us that we have an anointing as believers in Christ. That anointing is real, he says, and we should walk in that anointing. We have that anointing because we’ve come to know the truth. He reminds us that we are to remain in that truth and “in Him” (Christ).

It’s not my job to get all arrogant, prideful, and insulted. My job is to love. It’s not my job to judge, but to witness to the Way that has found me.

That is not to say there won’t be those occasions and situations from which I should extricate myself. Those occurrences, however, won’t (or shouldn’t) be based on my own sense of self-importance. I should do so because the Spirit of God led me to that action.

Proverbs 16-21What I quickly came to realize is this. That young guitarist wasn’t the one who is called to follow the ways of Christ. He’s not the one of whom Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruit.” That one is me.

So I calmed down and began, once again, to enjoy his talent. I appreciated what God had given him in his life. And I appreciated those few hours I got to relax and enjoy his music.

He continued to be obnoxious from time to time, but I was reminded that I was very much like him once (not talent-wise, but mouth-wise). I was also reminded that someone loved me into the Kingdom. For all I know, the Lord is doing that for him right now. We’re all on a different timetable.

It doesn’t end there, either. I need to remind myself that I’m no better than he. Jesus scraped me off the proverbial pavement. I owe a debt of love. After all, Jesus loves those he’s created. I should too.