Sometimes I’m Sad

… that I can’t be the kind of Christian everyone expects. You know?

The kind with a contemporary Christian hymn in their hearts all the time. The kind who is always eager to tell someone about Jesus at the first excuse. The kind who goes to church faithfully, every time the door is open. The kind who gives generously every week he attends. The kind that can vote a certain way with no qualms in their conscience. The kind who believe God is in control of every minute detail all the time because He chooses to be. The kind whose kids turn out the way everyone expected them to. The kind who doesn’t question the traditions. The kind who gets along.

But that’s just not me. Some of those things were never me; I just didn’t make a big deal about them.

The fact is, I can’t be that kind of Christian. And I won’t pretend.

I’d rather be genuinely me than someone who says and does what must be done to fit in.

The contemporary Christian hymns — frankly, all the songs sung at church — are not the comfort they once were. They remind me of my departed Angi, who loved them and had them in her heart all the time and listened to them in the car and on her iPhone in the office. And that just raises difficult questions for me about God’s goodness that nobody actually has answers for, so it makes the faith and the trust in Him that I still have even more difficult.

My eagerness to share a gospel message is not what it was. For one thing, people find it off-putting and self-righteous and often not credible from people who can’t live up to it, and I am one of those far-from-perfect people. I’ll be glad to tell anyone who asks about the reason for the hope that lies within me (to put it in scriptural language), but most of the time it’s all I can do to try to be like Jesus of Nazareth. I used to preach. Now it’s just a matter of practice. In this case, practice won’t make perfect. He has to do that. I get that. I grasp the concept of grace, even if I can’t fathom the depths of it.

And I haven’t been to church but a couple of times in the past two years and more. I have questions and concerns about what church is and should be and how it’s done and what its purpose and expectations are that far exceed the word count of a readable post.

Giving to support some of those things I’m not sure I can believe in … well, that’s just not an option right now. I can give to support people I know who are in genuine need; I can give in other ways in total anonymity; I can give to the kinds of things that Jesus of Nazareth talks about giving to support. Did you ever notice He never once talked about giving to His church in scripture?

Frankly, I am horrified at the political tack that churches have taken to support a particular party and even economic/social ideology that I often find antithetical to the life that He lived and the way He loved and the extent to which He gave … even to His own life. For people who never earned it, never worked for it, never could, never will.

Because I can’t believe God shows favoritism, to rich or poor, one skin color over another, one ethnicity over another, one set of life choices over another, one religion over another, one soul over another. If He loves the whole world, then the Son He gave is for everyone. But God as micro-manager? Undoing everything in some karmic cosmic way that intentionally harms some people to the benefit of others; that’s one thing. But to undo the real-world consequences of it as if that doesn’t matter in this world at all? No. I can’t vote that way or believe that way because He doesn’t operate that way. Whether you take the story of Eden literally or not, the gist of it is that He gave us choice in the very beginning and He doesn’t interfere with the consequences and rewards of what we have chosen. Others might, but not Him. Evil still exists in this world because we still choose it; we choose self instead of others and Him. And that’s why there’s still death in the world, why there’s still suffering in the world, why there’s still inequity and hatred and greed and poverty and illness and crime and murder and bigotry and ….

Well, you get the idea. I don’t have all the answers. But that much seems obvious.

I choose. You choose. Our kids choose. Their kids choose. And we’re responsible for our own choices; no one else’s. I’m glad and proud that my kids are into adulthood, still forming their own spirituality just like their dad is. I’m proud that Angi and I helped instill and nurture a yearning for a deep spirituality in them. I can hope it leads them into good lives that care deeply about others. So far, it’s looking that way to me. What they do for a living, as far as I’m concerned, is relatively inconsequential compared to how they live their lives.

If they turn out anything like me, they’ll never accept tradition for the sake of tradition; never choose to go along just to get along; never be solely what someone else expects of them.

But sometimes I’m sad I can’t.

Rarely. But sometimes.

Because that would be easy.

I am apostate

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

Or at least abstained from gathering with the saints.

It has been six months, two weeks and two days since I have been to church.

I have forsaken the assembly.

Well, not totally. I still pray for my church family. I still pray for people who are not in my church family, but who feel like family. Surely they need Your help as much.

You see, that’s where I’m having this problem. I haven’t lost faith in You, Father; nor your Son; nor your Holy Spirit. I’ve lost faith in your church. The Bride of Christ. At least, I’ve lost faith in the way we’ve conducted ourselves.

As if we’re just married one or two hours of one day every week.

But that’s not all, either. I also feel like when we gathered to worship, it’s all about us. The songs we like to sing. The scriptures we like to read. The prayers we like to repeat. The sermons we like to hear. The gifts we like to put in the collection plate. The potlucks and activities we like to participate in. All in the building we like to have around us with the pews we like to sit in.

I’m just not at all sure that’s what You meant by “church” or “assembly.” I’m not convinced You intended for it to happen once or twice a week, every week, with the same rituals played out over and over with the same words spoken and sung and prayed. I’m not positive that the gifts we give should be largely funding a building and its expenses or even a ministry staff. I’m not certain any of that equates to worship.

Because it feels like, if that’s what worship is, we can only do it then and there and when we’re all together, and I don’t find that to be the case in scripture.

And I have to wonder if the time of worship in a specific place at a specific time with everyone gathered was supposed to end when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed just as Jesus of Nazareth, your Son, predicted. That worship was to be constant, and prayer was to be constant, and singing was to be constant in our hearts — whether we’re alone or together in our homes or a borrowed place or on a seashore or a mountainside or a plain or wherever.

I get the picture that our gifts should be blessing the hungry and sick and poor and homeless. That there wouldn’t be as many of them and the destitution wouldn’t be so extreme if we weren’t spending our gifts otherwise. Mostly on ourselves.

I’m just not comfortable with the way we’ve been conducting ourselves as your family and the Bride of your Son.

I don’t preach anymore because it feels that my life should be the sermon seen and heard by those who aren’t familiar with You, or have had an awful experience with people like me who preached You but didn’t live You or love like You or bless others like You do.

I can’t see myself doing it the old way anymore. I’m spending more time, I think, with people who don’t really know You; people who feel like family whom You would love to hear calling you “Father,” and trying to drop hints to them that they’re loved and You’re listening and that You care.

I feel more at home among my fellow sinners, Father; You know I do.

And I don’t even know whether to be sorry about that.

I know that your family still gathering will be fine without me there. They don’t need to see my doubt and hear my lack of faith in church as they love it. I still love them, and I miss them, and I just can’t be there for them the way I used to be any longer. It’s not their fault or your fault or anyone’s fault, as near as I can tell — not even mine.

I’m just different in my doubt now.

I still believe in them, too; and that they will do much good and their hearts will worship You and people will be blessed.

That’s what I needed to confess. I will never forget what your Son said or did or gave for us, nor cease to be grateful for it, nor will I ever give up on church altogether.

I’m just with a different church now. The one that doesn’t really know You yet. The one willing to shake any preconception of the way church is or must be in order for You to be pleased and worshiped.

I want to hang with them, and be less of myself and more like You. Loving. Accepting. Gracious. Forgiving. The nonconformist who fishes for men and shepherds people and shares meals and tries to help heal brokenness.

That’s my confession, Father. I may be totally wrong and off-base, and if so, I’m doubly triply sorry. But I can’t believe in church as church is done right now, and I have to try something else.

Lord, help my unbelief.

Following – 4

It’s been a while since I could write a post for this blog. You think the emptiness will diminish, but it doesn’t. You think the confidence will return, but it won’t. You think the words will be there, but they aren’t.

This installment is especially hard to write. Because, to be credible at what you’re writing, you have to be perceived as being knowledgeable about it and good about doing it. I am neither.

This post is about resisting temptation. While Jesus prepared for His ministry with fasting and prayer, He was tempted.

As the last Adam, He resisted temptation in three important ways that the first Adam (and Eve) did not.

When hungry, He turned down food. He was expressing His dependence on God through His fasting, not food, not materiality, not self. Adam and Eve saw the fruit as pleasing to the eye, and consumed it.

When presented with the easy way, Jesus chose the hard way. He could have ruled the earth with Satan and a life of ease. He chose to serve the universe with a death of torture. The first man and woman chose the easy way to learn about good and evil; the quick way; the way that didn’t require walking and talking with God or learning by listening in a garden of grace.

When challenged to verify His identity for His own assurance — to choose fact over faith — Jesus chose faith. He could have thrown Himself down, confident of God’s rescue as His Father. Instead, He chose to believe when fact would have provided certainty. He chose not to tempt God’s interference to prevent a self-destructive act to satisfy a selfish curiosity. The first couple chose to test God’s resolve to introduce them to death that very day; betting that He loved them too much to make good on His word.

There are more temptations in life than these three; but they are foundational.

Will we choose our belly — our self — as our god? Or our God as our God?

Will we choose the easy way to get what we want rather than depend on God’s wisdom and providence for what we need?

Will we gamble that He loves us too much and is too merciful to actually be righteous and just — and therefore to let us see death and destruction as the consequence of what we have done?

I am no expert at resisting temptation. I’ve amassed a lifelong career of failure at the attempt.

But I have a perfect example. So do you.

We just need to understand and keep trying to live out this simple fact:

Following Him means resisting temptation.

Following – 3

Jesus fasted.

Among the gospel writers, only Matthew (4) and Luke (4) mention it.

After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

It’s one of the few places in scripture that fasting is mentioned apart from prayer.

I think that’s for the same reason that prayer — and God Himself, for that matter — are never mentioned in the book of Esther, though fasting is. If we can’t see them there, we’re not reaching the right conclusions. If Esther and her people fasted without praying, then all they did was go on a diet. If  justice for her people happened without God, then coincidence is king of the universe, because Hamaan was evil and deserved the consequences of his murderous bigotry.

Likewise, if Jesus went out into the wilderness to prepare for His ministry and fasted without praying, then He was simply on a radical weight-loss program, perhaps designed to make Him look like an ascetic shaman. If He withstood even just the temptation to create food for Himself without the strength that comes from communing with God, then prayer has no power and He was not God’s Son — only a starving mystic with extraordinary self-control.

I’ve blogged a little about fasting before. I’m no expert on it. There are right ways to do it. There are wrong ways to do it. Books have been written about it. Some are doubtless more valuable than others.

With or without reading them, I think we can draw the conclusion from scripture that God’s people fasted, and almost without exception, accompanied their fasts with prayer. Sometimes they expressed petitions and desires. Often they simply praised Him. Other times they mourned and/or repented. They expressed the depth of their need for and dependence on God by going without physical nourishment. In this way, they told Him that He was more important to them than food; that their god was not their stomachs; that they hungered and thirsted for His righteousness; that they had tasted and seen that the Lord is good; that their communication with Him was sacred and private and not for the benefit of being seen by others and regarded as somehow holy for what they had done without.

But if we think we can follow Jesus, minister as He did, resist temptation, and do the things He did while regarding this practice as optional — I believe we’re fooling ourselves.

Fasting is not simply a quaint and ancient custom or a passé commandment from a set of laws that have all served their purpose.

Fasting is a recognition of God’s providence.

It is the physical, expressing the spiritual.

It is hunger, declaring desire.

It is emptiness, seeking fulfillment.

It is the way Jesus chose to prepare for His life of ministry, and to build the strength of His character, His self-discipline before facing forty days of temptation from Satan’s seemingly undivided attention.

You see, that’s what the other synoptic gospel writer, Mark (1), does not fail to communicate:

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Nor was that likely the last time Satan tried:

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. ~ Luke 4:13

If fasting was a source of spiritual strength that could empower Him to journey all the way from the TransJordan to Galilee (see the next verse) … to withstand temptations to satisfy self, seize easy power, trade faith for fact … then why do we ignore, neglect or even reject it?

Following Jesus means fasting and prayer.

Following – 2

First, you do what’s right.

Then, you speak of the One who makes things right.

Jesus began his life of public ministry by listening to his prophetic cousin John encourage people to repent and submitting Himself to the waters of baptism.

See Matthew 3, Luke 3, and Mark 1.

Why?

It’s not like He needed to repent, because He did not sin (Hebrews 4:15).

I think John the Baptizer gives us one reason: to reveal Jesus to others (John 1:31) — and Jesus gives us another that is equally inarguable: it was the right thing to do (Matthew 3:15).

So among all the other extraordinary qualities communicated in baptism, here are these two reasons as foundational examples. We need to begin our lives of public ministry by revealing Jesus to others, and to do the right things because they’re the right things to do.

I’m not going to get in to a discussion of faith and works. I’m convinced that Paul and James have no argument with each other. We do what we do because we believe. We communicate Whom we believe in by what we do and say.

And you can’t separate doing and saying as powerful tools in communicating the gospel. If what you do doesn’t match what you say — or vice-versa — you have no credibility as a follower of Christ trying to live and speak His life to others.

Don’t forget that not only did John identify Jesus as his Lord; the voice of God Himself and the presence of the dove testify to Who the Christ is, and Whose Son He is, and Whom He pleases by doing the right thing, and Whose Spirit rests upon Him.

If there is a better way to begin a life of ministry to God and to others — bringing them together or even just closer together — then Jesus doesn’t communicate it to us by His words or His example.

Following Him means going with Him into the water, into death to self, into a resurrection to a new life.

Following Him means being immersed in His life.

Following – 1

I’ve come to a conclusion today. I think I’ve been building toward it for years.

We’ve done ourselves and others and our Lord a disservice by trying to categorize the Christian life.

We’ve split it into categories like good behavior, faith, spiritual discipline, discipleship, evangelism, benevolence, worship, fellowship, and on and on and on.

Convinced that we must master one area, perhaps, before we move on to the next.

Listening in Bible class a couple of weeks ago to what the apostle had to say in 2 Peter 1, I realized that wasn’t what he or his Lord had in mind at all:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. ~ 2 Peter 1:5-7

You don’t master one before you move on to the next. You keep adding them to each other in an ongoing, lifelong process. How do I know that?

None of us is going to master any of them. I mean, we’ve all read Romans 1, haven’t we?

But we can all grow in each of them:

For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. ~ 2 Peter 1:8

So we don’t grow into them for ourselves alone, nor even to glorify God alone — but to become effective and productive.

The Christian life is a life that follows Christ, in every way. Being a disciple means following Him in every way He lived His life. He is our perfect example of a life that IS ministry; He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant and became obedient even to death on a cross, serving as our example of self-sacrifice even to that extreme..

His life was one life; not a series of mastering categories and moving on, but of meeting people who sin — where they are in their sin — and helping them master it. He pointed, not to Himself, but to the Father.

So I’ve tagged this first post in a series of indefinite length with several tags that are new to this blog: “evangelism,” “ministry,” and “following Christ.” They’re new because I’ve never really written much about them before. I’ve never really written much about them before because I don’t really know very much about them.

I’m 58 years old. I may not have that many more years and opportunities to learn. Now is the best time there is.

I’m planning to learn as much as I can from studying Jesus’ life and example from the gospels, prophecy, epistles and any other sources where I can find His journey.

You’re welcome to join me on this journey. I would love to have the company, and the chance to benefit from the wisdom of others who have traveled it before (or have never been on this road) and have come (or are coming) to the same conclusion (or even a different one).

Even if it didn’t take you 58 years to get where you are.