Tag Archives: religion

Fair is Fair

A familiar image popped up on my Facebook feed, shared by a reasonable conservative friend, sourced from a page of patriots dedicated to opposing “Jihad.”

So I wasn’t surprised to find a misleading story:

Post whatever you like on a political issue. You're practically guaranteed no one will look it up.
Post whatever you like on a political issue. You’re practically guaranteed no one will look it up.

I knew I’d seen this image before, and had even responded to the panicked fear-mongering, the dire sense of impending doom, the overwrought feeling of “what has our country come to?”

Yet here it was again.

Out of a foolhardy need to correct people on the Internet, I clicked “Show all comments” on the thread. The reactions were explosive. A few, in bold, are presented below, along with my thoughts on their points:

Anyone who didn’t walk out is a traitor to the oath they swore when they were elected.

Actually, they’re upholding the importance of pluralism and diversity, and ensuring that our government isn’t misunderstood to be promoting or respecting a particular religion over all others. By supporting this, they’re doing exactly what they swore to do. And to be fair, selection of pray-ers is probably pretty transparent and unrelated to almost everyone in either body of Congress.

How can they say separation of church and state about schools and government offices when they’re forcing the Islamic ideology on the House of Representatives?

Because the prayer fits that gray area where no religion is being forced or pushed upon any individual, no one is being forced to participate in a religious act, and no implication of government respect or disrespect is shown for a particular religion in relation to all others.

If Obama wants them to have an Islamic prayer, then he has to let them have Christian prayers too. He never will, but he should. Fair is fair. 

If fair is fair, then we probably owe Islamic clerics far more opportunities to conduct the prayers, not less. 

The timing seems highly suspect, coming right off the heels of the tragedy in Orlando. It’s pretty obvious what Obama’s trying to say here.

Well, the video is actually from late 2014–note the presence of John Boehner as Speaker of the House, which, by the way, is a Legislative body controlled by Republicans at that point, and not part of President Obama’s Executive branch.  So the President had nothing to do with it now, nor did he back then. But for whatever reason this page decided to post it like it happened yesterday. You’re right, the timing is suspect… but not in the way you think.

This post highlights a level of ignorance many Americans may have about what happens every time our representatives meet. I didn’t know all this until looking into a similar post a few months back, so I assume maybe others also don’t know.

The House of Representatives has a chaplain who conducts an invocation or prayer at the start of every session, and this practice has taken place since 1789. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of prayers offered are Christian in nature.

The first Islamic invocation was conducted in 1991, and several have occurred since then, once every couple years or on some occasions twice in one year.

Other religions have also been represented, but sparsely. Jewish prayers account for 2.7% of all invocations in the last fifteen years. Hindus have occasionally offered prayers (once every six years or so since 2000, near as I can tell).  Islam and Hinduism are tied at about 0.5% of the invocations in that 15 year period.

That data came from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who pointed out that 97% of prayers in Congress in the last 15 years  are Christian in nature. And yet no form of atheism, secularism or humanism has been given a chance to conduct anything resembling an invocation. “Of course not,” one might say, “they’re not a religion.” But there are values which most atheists or humanists espouse, and there are options that would permit inclusion and participation of a group that is currently excluded, without putting down religious beliefs or pushing a non-faith ideology on anyone–in the same way that Christian prayers can be offered without violating the separation of church and state. (But when someone tried to nominate a secular person to perform the invocation, that request was denied.)

Back to the original point.

The problem is, a page with an agenda can depict this subject in a frightening or conspiratorial light. President Obama is blamed for this as though he directly scheduled this cleric to pray and as if he has banned any other forms of prayer–neither of which are true.

Simply put, a little bit of research goes a long way to defusing tensions, enlightening minds, broadening perspectives, and understanding differences. Taking the time to dig a little deeper and discover the truth keeps us from going off the deep end or responding in fear toward someone we don’t agree with. It helps unite us in a time when our culture and country is starkly divided.

Instead of seeing the worst, we can seek and discover the best about others. Instead of presuming or pre-judging, we can come to know others as they are, just like we’d hope to be treated if the roles were reversed.

That seems pretty fair.

Tumblr Theology and Facebook Faith

I love the Internet. Practically the sum of human knowledge is available to me at any given time, delivered to my iPhone in seconds. 

…Which makes the general ignorance and indifference in our culture all the more inexcusable.

Whether it’s a ridiculous conspiracy “news” post from the Right or a ridiculous slam on a mistaken interpretation of Christianity from someone on the Left, I have no stomach for it.

Here’s a gem that crossed my feed:

 

Something is very wrong… the simplistic interpretation of Christianity. But whatevs, it sounds funny, right?

Off the top of my head, I think of the verses where Paul deals with predestination. “Jacob I have loved, and Esau I have hated” is an Old Testament quote Paul used to discuss people that God apparently created knowing their undesirable end. If we’re honest (and knowledgeable) about our Christian theology, this puts a little asterisk on the modern Evangelical “God loves everyone” sales pitch.
But we have to get on those homophobic Christians and make them realize what misguided sheeple they are. Plus it’s comedy gold. It doesn’t need to be true; it just needs to get laughs.

I am not saying God hates homosexuals. And I am saying we  (Christians) have NO right or freedom to do so. 

Or consider this one:

 

Sick burn! Clearly not what the verse is addressing in context, but hey–that burn’s so hot the Devil recoiled.

The latter portion of Galatians 3 is about belonging to the family of God based on faith. “You are all sons of God through Christ” is the verse that immediately precedes this. So Paul elaborates that in Christ we are all on equal footing, regardless of race, social status, or gender. 
If Paul really meant this verse to do away with gender and bring in some kind of enlightened spiritual gender identity, then this same Paul would not have written in several other places about the different roles of women and men in the church.

We could discuss what those passages mean, and plenty of varied interpretations exist. But it’s clear from multiple verses that Paul did not think once you become a Christian, you no longer belong to one of the two traditional concepts of gender.

Whatever. It’s making fun of transphobic Christians and their outdated, oppressive beliefs. So who cares if it’s accurate? 

Again, I’m not saying we (Christians) should hate on transgender people. In fact quite the opposite is clear. We’re not called to hate or harm, but to love and disciple others. 

Instead of defending Christians hating (which I believe is indefensible based on Scripture), the point I’m trying to make is that a theology that survived and grew over the past 1900+ years isn’t likely to be properly captured or lampooned in the few words you can put on an image on social media.

And my frustration is directed at Christians too. We love to post things about how President Obama is doing this, or some atheist is doing that. But people don’t always bother to fact check before posting. 

I saw a headline claiming President Obama said the Statue of Liberty is offensive to Muslims, so he wants to remove it. 

My rule of thumb is, “If it sounds exactly like what your political extremists want to hear, it’s probably not true.” So I looked closer.

The so-called news site didn’t have any facts or proof. And the two-line “story” was about an impending government shutdown. The President supposedly said that if the GOP doesn’t send him a funding budget that covers Obamacare, he’ll veto it. 

Which would likely lead to shutdown. 

Which would mean potentially closing national monuments like Lady Liberty temporarily, until the government is funded again.

Nothing to do with Muslims, nothing to do with removing the statue. And this is on the very website making the claims in the headline.

Why would anyone trust this? Why would anyone share it?

It’s what they want to hear. Who cares if it’s wrong?

For nonChristians and Christians alike, there’s a danger in heaping up voices that tell us exactly what we want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3).

Ignorance can be fixed with information. But moving past apathy depends on the individual. 

And I’m not convinced enough of us care to be bothered with all that effort. 

Reverse Engineered Magic

Last year, I made it my goal to get my forever-in-progress fantasy novel out the door as a finished book. Diffraction is the result of all that effort (most of it at the beginning of the year, when I set out to finish it, and at the end when I felt under the crunch to make good on the promise).

A while back, I spent just over two hours walking on the treadmill and digging through alpha reader feedback to figure out how to approach what seemed like a daunting task: Revision and Editing.

The good news? It wasn’t as daunting as I expected.

Even more fun, I engaged in further world-building to sort out some of the relationships and conflicts going on in the story.

To my critical eye, it felt like too much jammed into one setting–too many separate and unrelated elements all vying for a reader’s attention. 

Like many fantasy worlds, Diffraction is set in the ruins of a once-great Empire, whose scientists incorporated elemental magic with a form of technology in order to reach its heights. It’s also a world that experiences limited yet direct interaction with the Divine, whose seven Aspects bestow symbols of power upon their most worthy adherents.

As I sat back to imagine a world where gods prove their existence to men and where magic-users apply some level of scientific thought and experimentation into the use of their powers, I realized these can be complimentary elements of the setting rather than competitors. 

My religious orders gain divine power through Gracemarks: a radiant, metallic symbol on an individual’s right hand that represents which ideal or Aspect they identify with. Gracemarks often appear spontaneously, bestowed by the Divine. But the orders can also apply a Gracemark made of a blessed metal, which confers similar powers upon the marked person. 

 

A double Gracemark of Light (the horizontal line and above) and Strength (the horizontal line and below–a rudimentary figure lifting a burden overhead)
 
A world with obvious divine interaction would reflect that in the culture. If many people wear a symbol that implies something significant about their individual values, then displaying the back of the right hand like a wave would reasonably become a common form of greeting. 

If you show me a symbol of Justice and Order, I expect you to treat people fairly and uphold the law. Showing me a blank hand might not give me a stereotypical box to fit you in, but neither does it mean I assume you’re untrustworthy. Showing a hand with a scar in the shape of a Gracemark — that tells me to be on guard, because here’s an individual who once had a specific, public moral allegiance and forsook it.

On the other hand, I always meant for magic to have a technological component. Humans need a special lens to see the arcane energies they use for any magical ability. But that only allows one to see and draw on magic. So (based on some thoughtful alpha reader feedback) I added an output device to match the input of the lens – a metal etching that guides or focuses the energy the magic user sends forth.

Given human propensity to take what exists and use it in new ways, it hit me that these Arcanists would study Gracemarks used by the religious orders, then create a similar method or means to use their own abilities. Using conductive metals, touched and transformed by the magical nature of the world, Arcanists would have etchings that grant them fine control of magic power. 

Like any good reverse-engineered technology, improvements can adapt the tech to the new user’s needs. Picture a golden tattoo, placed anywhere on the body. Unlike a Gracemark that is always on the right hand, always exposed, the Arcanist’s etching can be hidden if desired. This fits their character more as well. If you want to be brazen and show off your etching, you certainly can. But if you’d rather keep your abilities hidden, a simple pair of spectacles and a covered etching prevents anyone from guessing you’re about to tap into elemental energies and unleash devastating magic.

Thus the effort to clarify how divine power and magic work in this setting becomes a means of character development and description. 

I picture a rough-and-tumble tough guy whose Ocular is a monocle secured by a leather band around his shaved head. His riftgold etching is affixed to his face in a sunburst around his eyepiece. He’s an Arcanist thug, and he doesn’t care if you know it.  That’s a very different character from the rich noble who wears the Ocular equivalent of a contact lens, practically invisible, and whose etching is hidden from view on his right shoulderblade. 

The best part is that this system of Gracemarks and Arcanist etchings is something a reader can see themselves in, much like “which house would I join in Hogwarts?” or “which faction would I belong to in Divergent?”  One of my co-workers who is also a fan gave me some feedback, and one of the first things she said was she enjoyed trying to decide which Gracemark she’d choose. 

I’m chalking it up as a successful concept.

Diffraction is available in Kindle Edition and as a paperback on Amazon. You can find it (and all my books) at my author page.

Radical Focus on Wrong Things

When does making music not involve playing actual music?

When you’re a “Radical Christian,” apparently.

I hope you all have perfect pitch...
I hope you all have perfect pitch…

A gent named Wes McAdams has a couple blogs that popped up on my Facebook feed. His site is titled “Radically Christian – 1st Century Christianity in a 21st Century World.” One post calls into question why some churches feel musical instruments are a necessary part of the worship service. The next challenges the idea that instruments have any place in today’s church at all.

It concerns me when people assume they’ve found the secret, the missing spiritual link, the one thing that every “good” or “true” Christian should be doing (or not doing) in order to show how much more Christ-like they are than everyone else.

Usually that’s the road to heresy. Because if Jesus isn’t the One Thing–if your message becomes “Jesus and (fill in the blank)” instead–then your Gospel isn’t the good news of grace anymore. It becomes all about doing something to prove your faith and earn your reward. Or it becomes yet another self-righteous way to show how much better you are than the benighted and corrupted so-called Christians in every other church.

However, since I have been a lead worshiper at times in the past, and since one of my passions is worship (to include specifically the musical part often done in church gatherings), I wanted to give Mr. McAdams’ points due consideration.

(thinking…)

At best, he’s being silly and nit-picking, but generally harmless. At worst, he’s way off Scripture, and his condemnations foist an assumed truth based on misunderstandings upon his readers.

He makes important points about what worship has become to many churches. It can be a spectacle or performance with little or no heart. It can be focused on the congregation without giving due regard to the God we’re supposedly worshiping. It can be a misguided attempt to draw more people who otherwise might not be interested in church. And it can feel like a talent show where people get attention.

Those faults are also potentially true of everything else we do in church. But we don’t stop preaching even though I’ve heard people talk about what a powerful speaker a pastor is. We don’t stop giving to the community for fear that someone might do it to be seen doing good. We don’t stop sharing the Gospel even though some Christians talk about the converts they’ve made like an ace pilot keeps track of his kills in combat.

McAdams’ post questioning whether we need instruments in worship makes so many important points that I wish I could share it for all that’s right in his assessment of modern worship. He mentions so many causes for concern that I personally share. Modern worship runs the risk of becoming a distraction, a business model, a Play-Doh fun machine churning out tepid and indistinguishable songs onto albums to create dollars instead of devotion.

But the critique goes awry when McAdams takes a logical point (you don’t need instruments to worship) and makes it a mandatory stance (churches must not use instruments to worship). He does this even while pointing to scripture that tells us to do whatever we do for the glory of God.

In so doing, he throws the grace out with the guitars.

The second post I linked is McAdams’ case for why instruments ought to be forbidden in church. He uses the example of ordering a pizza. If he orders a pizza with Canadian bacon and pineapple, those are the toppings he expects to receive, no more, no less.

The analogy is, if God in the New Testament only mentions making music with our lips and our thankful hearts, then those are the only “toppings” God wants on His praise-pie. The New Testament makes no mention of musical instruments, only psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

And McAdams argues, that silence is a prohibitive restriction in the same way that I don’t need to say “No green peppers” if I order his pizza as described earlier.

The logic is flawed.

What would 1st century hearers possibly think when told to sing psalms and hymns? Would they possibly think of the psalms of David and others recorded in scripture? Would they see it in a way appropriate to their culture? Was music with instruments forbidden as an expression of worship for the Jewish people?

Hardly.

Psalm 92:1-3 “It is good to give thanks to the LORD… with the ten-stringed lute and with the harp, with resounding music upon the lyre.”

Psalm 33:2 “Give thanks the LORD with the lyre; sing praises to Him with a harp of ten strings.”

Psalm 81:2-3 “Raise a song, strike the timbrel, the sweet sounding lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet…” (all references NASB)

That search took all of two seconds. And there’s plenty more.

McAdams makes the case that the Old Testament doesn’t apply here, just like the pizza order I made last week may not be the toppings I want today. We’re under the New Testament, so what God orders in the New is all that matters.

But the OT informs the NT, and gives us a perspective on the understanding 1st century hearers would have. Otherwise, let’s strip it out of the Bibles, because we only need what is recorded in the NT, right?

By definition, “psalms” and “songs” could be logically assumed to involve music with instruments. The counterpoint to his pizza analogy is that—without specifically saying so—he expects his pizza toppings to arrive placed upon a crust covered with sauce and cheese, because that’s what a pizza is.

IMG_0924.JPG
I guess you don’t want these, because you didn’t specifically ask.

The difference between his misguided focus and my rant is this: grace.

Self-righteousness likes to tell others where they’re going wrong. But Grace is big enough to say “If you worship without instruments, praise God! If you worship with instruments, praise God! Do everything for the glory of God!”

A radical thought, I know… but one that’s big enough for us all to come together.

A Chorus of Consensus

Every once in a while in my social media feeds, something pops up that falls far outside the nice, safe walls I’ve built to keep out all of those people.

You know the sort.

The ones that post all those obviously mistaken political views.

The Facebook evangelists filling your feed with combative sermons, whether they be Christian or atheist.

Unfriending or blocking are easy solutions. And cowardly ones.

Yesterday, I saw a group on social media posting about a “dress up in drag” event on a Pacific military base. The poster and the comments all spoke of how disgusting this event was, and how WW2 vets who fought to secure that particular land must be furious that such a thing is taking place.

I thought back to the lifestyles of my military counterparts when I was stationed there. About some of what is accepted as “the way it is” outside the gate on Friday or Saturday nights. And I thought, “Why are we so focused on this one topic when–if we’re honest–there are a slew of reasons to be concerned?”

Of course, I know, it’s because some sins are ewwy and super gross. And others, well, boys will be boys.

So I posted this comment:

20140304-144825.jpg

Within minutes, after a snarky comment about sex scandals going on in the Air Force, the group blocked my ability to respond and kicked me from the page.

I didn’t even disagree with them; I just called their exclusive focus into question. And that was apparently too much.

This got me thinking. If we’re going to discuss religion or politics, why silence a dissenting voice? What purpose does it serve to insulate and isolate ourselves into safe little bubbles of like thought?
Why not engage those who disagree? If a particular case or point of view is so good, then make it, and let it be compelling on its own.

When all I hear are voices of agreement, I lose sight of the bigger picture. I become blinded to problems and flaws that are easily glossed over in the chorus of consensus. Vision and creativity are stifled; there’s no need to think outside the box because everything is just fine inside it.

That’s why it’s so crucial to be willing to listen to another point of view, even if–especially if–the message isn’t what I want to hear.

This shortsightedness can happen in business, in the workplace, or in any social group. But most often, I’ve seen it take place among the religious and the political. We can be so invested in the truth and the rightness of our cause that we sometimes become willing to overlook the flaws in our logic, the missing facts in oversensationalized stories, and the nuances of navigating a stormy sea of religious and political debates.

It’s human nature to find refuge and security by surrounding ourselves with those who see things the same way. That’s the basis for societies.
But we have to be open enough to consider the views of an outsider, or to allow a second thought about whether we’re entirely correct in our viewpoint.

This is especially true of the church. While I’m not advocating picking theological positions by polling data, I’m saying we need to be aware of what is taking place outside the safe world of all things labelled ‘Christian.’

Hiding behind walls to keep out the opposition doesn’t make us right. It makes us childish. Kids holding our hands tightly over our ears, yelling, “I can’t hear you! La la la la la!”

If we only listen to those who agree with us, we’re on a path to ignorance and irrelevance, stagnant water in a swamp instead of living water flowing out to the world.

Conditional Virtues

whatthePatience is a virtue.

And so are a lot of other things, it turns out.

Ancient Greece had four cardinal virtues: temperance, prudence, courage, and justice.

The Church has three: faith, hope, and love. Alternatively, some look at “the fruit of the Spirit” Paul put down in his epistles: love, joy, peace, patience, kindess, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Buddhism has its Noble Eightfold Path, Hinduism its Dharma or moral duty, Islam has a long list derived from the Quran, and so on.

Even Ben Franklin, no particular bastion of religious devotion, had his own list of moral virtues.

The key to virtues is that, without fail, they are meant to be practiced regardless of how someone else behaves.

We treat others with love even if they are hateful. We respond with kindness when someone snaps at us. When others would be arrogant, we strive to be humble; when others prove unreliable, we demonstrate diligence and faithfulness. Self-control and temperance do not depend on how wild or disciplined someone else may be.

We practice these virtues because they help us be our best selves. They give us the tools to respond to life’s struggles and difficulties with grace, maintaining dignity in spite of opposition.

Now our society is dealing with the debate over same-sex marriage and whether to recognize it as a right in America. Pitting long-standing religious traditions against the ability to openly express love and fidelity – that’s not just a spark near the fireworks. That’s a nuclear meltdown in progress. The trouble is there’s also a lot of prejudice and ignorance on the religious side, and there’s a lot of defensive lashing out due to past hurt on the same-sex marriage side – understandably so. On top of all that, there seems to be enough hate on both sides to go around.

Which is especially sad since we’re all supposedly talking about expressions of love.

There will always be political disputes and debates, but there doesn’t have to be so much vitriol in our rhetoric.

That brings me to this popular virtue I keep hearing about, called Tolerance.

Tolerance has come to mean that we must not only accept differences in others but also approve of them. When we speak of tolerating a thing, we simply mean acknowledging it, accepting the fact of its existence. I have pain in my foot following surgery. I can tolerate the pain. That doesn’t mean I approve of it. Even the term “acceptance” gets used as if to say “endorsement.” I accept marijuana is used throughout the United States and is even legal in some states. I do not endorse its use.

Equality means treating everyone with respect.
Equality means treating everyone with respect.

Treating each other as equals means tolerance is not a one way street.

If tolerance is indeed a virtue to which we should aspire, then it cannot be limited to those with whom we agree. We cannot demonize the other side as if everyone is either Westboro Baptist Church or NAMBLA. We cannot jump to conclusions and rush to judgment about what motivates supporters or opponents of same-sex marriage.

No, I don’t believe the activists are out to destroy the families. Most of them are just trying to have a family of their own. And no, I don’t believe most of the opponents think anyone is less than human or not worthy of dignity and respect, contrary to popular belief. Yes, there are too many bad apples. We tolerate their right to speech, even ignorant speech. And we counter their ignorance with prudence, temperance, and respectful disagreement.

We cannot justify intolerance and hatred toward others because “they were intolerant first.”

That’s not how virtues work.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” 

Likewise, if we only tolerate the tolerant, then what sort of virtue is it?

We’re always going to have important discussions in America, on subjects where both sides are very passionate. We owe it to ourselves to focus our energy on the viewpoints, not the participants… on virtue, not venom.

The Mirror

For a Monday Morning Snack, here’s a short piece about mercy and judgment.

The Mirror

I looked out the window at the world, angry at all the injustice.

Then I looked in the mirror, ashamed at all of my own.

I looked out the window at two men in love, and my religious beliefs rose in offense.

I looked in the mirror, saw how little I love, and I was humbled.

Outside I saw greed ignore need and I was enraged.

Inside, I saw my own selfishness, and I was appalled.

I looked out the window at passion paraded and praised, and I stood in judgment.

I looked in the mirror at my lust and desires, and I cried for mercy.

I looked out and saw people reject God’s word, and I thought them foolish.

Then I saw my life contradict my professed beliefs, and I was disgraced.

I looked out the window at everything wrong, and asked, “God, what are You going to do about this?”

Then I heard Him respond, “I gave you a mirror.”

Always Growing

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. Ephesians 5:1 NASB

You can’t stop it from happening… or can you?

Not surprisingly, I picture my own children when reading this. I have a daughter who is very much a “Daddy’s Girl” and has adopted a lot of my sense of humor (along with some other less desirable traits). I have an 11 year old son who is picking up many of the same interests in hobbies. I have a 7 year old who is probably as frenetic and crazy as I was at his age. And I have an almost-2 year old who lights up with joy every time his mother and I play music. My keyboard is one of his favorite toys.

You don’t have to be a parent to get the picture of the mother duck followed closely by her ducklings. Children naturally watch and then follow the example of their parents.

Growing is something else children naturally do.

I recall holding my daughter as a newborn. She fit between my elbow and my hand. Now she’s almost as tall as me. Try as I might, I haven’t found a way to stop time and keep her or my other children in that seemingly perfect sweet innocent state of childhood.

Healthy children will grow.

12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. – Hebrews 5:12-14 NASB

The writer of Hebrews implies something here. It’s possible for us as Christians and children of God to stop growing, to stay in that infant state. If we do not exercise what God has put in us, if we do not work it out and put it into practice, we’ll remain little children, needing to be fed instead of feeding, needing to be helped instead of helping.

Though the parent in me would love to stop my kids from growing up, I know they must grow. And so must I.

Wherever I am right now, however “tall” I am by God’s measuring stick, I can’t let myself remain there. I want to keep growing, keep reaching for more. I know I don’t want to come back next year and find the mark has not moved higher on the wall.

Even Though…

Sunday Psalm – God is the One, part IV

Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4 NIV)

God is the One no matter what.

We all go through hard times and difficulties. No one is immune. Religion and spirituality are no shield from tough circumstances. It’s not even a question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Bad things happen to everybody.

But God is unchanging. The God we call worthy when the sun is shining – He’s the same God in dark clouds and driving rain. The God we praise on Sunday is the God of Monday mornings.

We all have our “Even though” moments, when everything seems to go wrong. It’s tempting at that point to yell at God and wonder where He is, but then we miss the point. Whatever your “Even though” may be, God is still God in spite of it.

God is the One who brings me through.

There is often no magic escape to the hard times in life. There’s no ejection handle, no parachute strapped to our back. David writes, “even though I walk through the valley…” not around it. We don’t get to avoid trouble in our lives. Sometimes the trouble is exactly what we need to go through in order to get to where God wants us to be.

God is the One who calms my fears.

When trouble comes, and my eyes get fixed on the storm and the winds and the waves of life, I need something bigger, something stronger, something deeper and lasting to fix my eyes on. Like the lighthouse on the shoreline, God gives us that beacon of His presence in the midst of the storm. Think of Peter, walking on the water. As his gaze turns to the violent weather, he begins to sink. As he realizes the danger of his situation, he cries out to Someone greater.

God is the One who is with me.

The arm of Jesus lifts Peter from the waters “immediately.” God is never distant in the midst of the chaos around us. We may not notice His nearness. We might be distracted by the waves and winds. But God is there, close at hand, close enough to grab us “immediately.” David thinks about this Shepherd-God who stays close by His flock. The shadows and the noises of the valley may put fear in the hearts of the sheep, but they are never forsaken, never abandoned.

God is the One who fights my enemies.

David thinks of the rod and the staff. The rod was like a club the shepherd carried to fight off any threat to the sheep. If you’re being told that the “rod” is how your spiritual leader has a position of authority to discipline the sheep, then I submit that you’re being misled. The shepherd isn’t there to beat the sheep. The rod isn’t meant to strike the flock. The rod is meant to strike anything else that would try to sink its teeth into the sheep. There’s a place for discipline in the church, no doubt. But if you feel beat by your spiritual authority, maybe you don’t have a real shepherd. The rod is a comfort to David, because David knows that his Shepherd is fighting off anything that would try to devour him.

God is the One who pulls me back.

Unlike the rod, the staff is for the sheep. The shepherd’s crook at the end is meant to catch the sheep going astray. I remember learning to swim at the local pool. The lifeguards had a long pole with a green plastic hook they called a shepherd’s crook. If someone is drowning, flailing, or-God forbid-floating in deep water, the crook is there so the lifeguard can reach in and pull them to safety. So it is with God as our Shepherd.

God is the One whose oversight comforts me.

Everyone sooner or later has a boss that drives them nuts. Maybe it’s a personality clash, but more often than not, it’s an issue of management style. Again, I’ll point to those so-called shepherds who think they carry a rod in order to beat the sheep. Note in all these verses the servant-leadership of the Shepherd David is thinking about. This Shepherd doesn’t treat the sheep like they exist to serve Him, even if that really is the case. “The good shepherd cares for the sheep.” The Shepherd gives up His time and energy to provide for the needs and the comfort of the sheep in His care.

It seems backwards to think of a King who stoops down to help the beggar and the needy, a Lord who takes the towel from the servant and washes the dirty feet of His subjects. The God of the Universe should be worthy of our devotion and attention, our service and worship. And yet He took the form of a man, made Himself of no reputation, and let Himself be put to death on a cross like a criminal.

Even though He did nothing wrong, Jesus submitted to our whims, because He was submitted to the Father’s will. The Son of God was forsaken and abandoned by His Father, left in the valley of the shadow of death, beaten with the rod of wrath that our sins deserved, so that we could be caught up in the Shepherd’s crook of mercy and grace, and comforted in the presence of God.

God is the One who comforts me, pulls me back, protects me, stays with me, and calms my fears in the midst of everything I go through, no matter what. 

31 Million Flavors

Worship Wednesday

Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ-the Message-have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives-words, actions, whatever-be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way. (Colossians 3:15-17 MSG)

Fellowship is one of the key components of worship – both the things we do to express God’s worth, and the times of singing praise as a congregation.

Individual times of worship and devotion are important, of course. We spend time with God in a relationship. Like any relationship, there should be some intimacy, some “you and me” time. We see Jesus as our example in this: if He took time away from other people to get alone with God, then certainly we might benefit from doing the same.

But Paul points out that our worship of God is something we do together with others. Paul did not write just to individuals, like Timothy or Titus. He wrote to churches. He wrote to congregations. He wrote to groups of people and said “This is how we all do this together.”

This is part of why I love a good Bible study group. When I say “a good group” I mean a place where a bunch of different people can discuss the Scriptures and how they apply to our lives. Good groups have a strong facilitator who can allow discussion and multiple viewpoints without getting off track or derailed by a vocal opinion.

Some groups are hand-fed and led by a teacher who lectures. I’ve been in groups where the only time anyone other than the leader is allowed to speak is to read a particular verse and not one word more. I suppose that ensures that only the accepted teaching gets brought to light, but I didn’t come for a sermon. To each their own; that’s not my cup of tea.

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I scream, you scream, we all scream for theology! Wait, what?

But when a Bible study is facilitated well, you get to experience a Baskin-Robbins of theology. It’s all good ice cream, but you get a variety of flavors, some you like and some that aren’t your favorite. You test it, hold to what’s good, ignore the bad (or maybe discuss it if someone is saying something opposed to Scripture). Everyone has something to offer, and you hear perspectives you’d never expect – some of which might speak profoundly to your heart as you look at a Scripture in a new way.

And you get to build relationships with others.

The relationship we have with God is great, and we affirm that every time we sing a song about how “You are all I need.” But that’s not entirely true, nor is it biblical. We read in 2nd Peter the following statement about “all we need.”

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3 NIV)

The relationship we have with others in light of our common faith is essential. God did not make us loner Christians. He relates to us individually, but He also relates to us and calls us to relate to each other in a church Body. We all have something to offer, some part to play in the story God is telling in our local church. (See 1 Cor 12 about parts of the Body fitted together.)

Worship alone, yes. Worship together, definitely. See God and others from a different set of eyes. Discover a new perspective. Hear something new from God, through the voice of your brother or sister in Christ. Sing a song that ministers to your heart, and let it touch the need of another. Share the comfort God has given you in past times of distress with someone who is hurting right now. We were made for God, and we were made for one another.

So get a little pink-spoon taste of what all the Body has to offer. They’re free. You’ll find way more than 31 flavors of awesome God.