Thursday, June 30, 2011

Advice for the atheist and Christian.

I had a great conversation with a friend of mine yesterday that reminded me that we are all in process and none of us have arrived at the finish line of figuring everything out.  Let us look at it two ways:

Atheism:  It would be refreshing for people who have come to the conclusion that there is no God to discover that conclusions are usually overstatements.  We think we have arrived at this new 'destination' as if all that we have been looking at is now finally answered in this one discovery.  

It is sort of like a set of scales and evidence keeps accumulating to the one side and it tips the scales so that forever onward I am an atheist.  The problem of course is that we are always learning.  Life is like being in a giant coal mine.  There are days we drill and only get dirt.  Sometimes we hit the mother lode.  Sometimes we find coal, sometimes we find granite, perhaps we might hit gold or diamond - but we are always discovering new things.  Perhaps even things that are contrary to the stuff we have reached a conclusion about.  

When we come to a conclusion that there is no God, it is like shutting the machines down and no longer asking the question.  We should never conclude anything - we are all digging in the dark, and we should be open to whatever today's dig results in.  There is a chance you might find things that screw up our hypotheses of today - but that is the fun in digging!  The key to honest living?  Never stop digging!

Christianity:  Oh brother.  If only Christians would adopt the same method - never stop digging.  Hold loosely your ideas and let your honest search for answers bring you new revelations about yourself, people, the world and God.  

Too often believers hear others speak and create a worldview that is based on 'orthodoxy' or 'theology.'  As you dig through life, ask God how to sift through things.  Theologians are smart diggers, they can certainly point you in a good direction, but they are in the same mine as everyone else.  Let the Words of Jesus inform your life and go live it.  Be open to being wrong.  Change when you know you are wrong.  Be humble.  Ask questions.  Keep digging - it is almost assured that the idea of God you have right now will need correcting in heaven, so don't sweat being wrong.

Get used to the phrase, "I am not sure, but this is what I think about . . ."

Listen to other's thoughts and treasure learning from people NOT like you.  They help you grow.

Okay - enough writing.  I gotta go live this now.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The D Word

There is a word that is profane to most Eagles fans . . . it is the word "Dallas."

It is profane because whereas Dallas gets the moniker "America's Team" and Dallas has the billion dollar stadium and Dallas has numerous superbowl trophies, the Eagles have nothing close to it.  Actually we did win the superbowl the year before it was called the superbowl, but that only accentuates the pain that Eagles fans live with.

So what could make an Eagles fan blog about the D word?  Another D word - Dirk . . . as in Dirk Nowitzki.  A few weeks ago I watched this lanky guy grab the ball in the fourth quarter and routinely get points when his team needed it the most.  While on the other side of the court the man dubbed "King James" could only watch and weep.  It was pure enjoyment to see the guy who has no real style or 'coolness' rely solely on determination and strength of character to win the game.  In an age of flashiness and highlight slam dunks, it was so gratifying to see heart win out.

But what was behind the scenes was even more gratifying - his shooting coach.  Sitting on the sidelines during all the games was a little known guy named Holger Geschwindne who helped develop this giant into the man that he is today.  His effort to develop Dirk in his younger years had turned into a relationship of mutual strength that proved itself beyond the game of basketball.

In the end, that is what makes the difference - people that take an interest in us and help us develop our talents and then root from the sidelines when we succeed.  What a great story of substance over style.

With that in mind, it was the reason I could root for a team from Texas.  With that in mind I could pull for a team from Dallas.  This is a major sin to Eagles fans.  Major sin.  But even that gets nullified by the great story of a lanky basketball player who runs off the court at the end of a game because he doesn't want people to see him cry.  The shooting coach who follows his student to the championship series and has a tear in his eye while his prodigy hoists the trophy over his head.  

I just wish it happened in Philadelphia!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Making Change.

I work with High School Students and part of every summer I send out gobs of them to go see the world and try to make a difference in the name of Christ.  At the moment about 150 students and leaders are either on or getting ready for a trip to Philadelphia, New York City, Guatemala, Czech Republic or Haiti.

So on a visit to one of these teams recently, I was confronted with how much I need to learn.

See, I spent the day with a team who was in the city for a week and I was getting ready to come home.  I was walking down a street and I saw a guy up ahead with a cup asking for money.  I had pretty much resolved to "give  to whoever asks of you" (Jesus) when I come into situations like this, but this was a little weird.

The guy looked totally strung out and as I was approaching he got pretty close to my ear and was talking at conversation level in the midst of a noisy city.  It was all pretty unsettling - kinda creepy.  It was the same feeling you get when a gnat flies in your ear and you instinctively jerk your head and get all defensive.  I moved on, annoyed.  It wasn't until halfway down the block that I was able to analyze what he said.  He said, "I need a dollar for some pizza."  I then put it together - he was standing outside a $1 pizza joint.  He was hungry for a slice.

My first reaction was to push through it.  "There will be others" I said.  "How annoying that he would invade my personal space with his zombie-like request" I thought.  I think I settled on something like, "That's just what the city is like."

Ha!  That is all I needed.  That kind of thinking is what take the humanness from us.  "We become the monster so the monster won't break us."  (U2 . . . paraphrased).

Anyhow, a little revolution took place in my soul.  No way I am going to become cold to move through the city.  And so what if he is strung out - it means he needs more from me rather than less!

So in an effort to bypass the self-congratulatory ending, I will let you figure out what happened next.  Or better - why don't you finish it for me the next time you pass someone that needs something.  Give out of the principle that giving is in itself the good act.  If enough of us do, we will all change.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Walk on the right side

This is so simple.  When you are at the shore, walk on the right side of the boardwalk.  I'm not kidding - I am completely serious.  And it is so easy - you don't even have to memorize what the 'right' side is - it is ON THE RIGHT.  This is what it looks like . . .

I can't tell you how many times when we were at the shore recently that I would have a showdown with some family or group that was walking the wrong way on the boardwalk.  It goes like this: I am walking on the right minding my own business and I happen to see a group of people walking toward me on the left, consumed with their ice cream cones and Johnson's Popcorn (most likely feeding it to the seagulls - another no-no).  They aren't paying attention to the fact that EVERY OTHER HUMAN ON THE PLANET IS ABOUT TO WALK INTO THEM GOING THE PROPER DIRECTION.

So my passive/aggressive side kicks in and I pretend to not notice that they are completely disregarding the natural flow of the universe.  I look away and fake whistle.  In fact I start to swing my arms a little bit and increase my pace to help them realize that continuing in this direction is not a good idea.  I'm not even sure why I get so annoyed by it.  I am usually a pretty laid back person.  This, however, is something that really gets me.  I mean really, if you were walking somewhere and thousands of people are walking the complete opposite direction, don't you think you would get the hint?

One night I was walking with my family and I was feeling especially larky, so when I saw a rather large family walking the wrong way I tried to disregard it.  Perhaps they were just coming out of a store and were going into another one?  In Ocean City NJ, the stores are on one side of the boardwalk with the Ocean side on the other.  So perhaps they were just perusing the stores and didn't get a chance to make it over to the ocean side.  I was feeling charitable that night.

But then it happened.  Later that same evening the same family was transgressing the traffic on the ocean side.  There was absolutely no other reason for them to be walking on the left!  It was a family of like 10 people - a small army - and my wife remarked that they were walking the wrong way earlier.  Again, I was rather impish that night so I started singing "you are walking on the wrong side of the booard waaaalk" in a sing-songy way.  My kids just laughed.  It felt so good to point out such an egregious error.

The family looked strangely at me and then at the ARROWS PAINTED ON THE BOARDWALK that indicated they were walking the wrong way and perhaps the light of illumination entered their life and they changed their ways.

Yes, walking on the right side of the boardwalk means that much to me . . .

But you know what?  The bigger thing that I learned from all of this is that I need to change before I get to heaven.  I can't be a stickler for the right way to walk and think that I am entering an eternal place of grace.  Honestly, sometimes this worries me.  That has to change - and if I can't change it, God is going to.  And if He changes it, how will I be the same John I am right now?

So maybe I should get to work changing sooner rather than later.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Teen jobs?

Since I work primarily with students and their families, I thought I would share something that comes up often - teenagers and work.

Often parents will proudly assert that their child is going to learn responsibility and hard work and the value of money with their new-found job.  I'll be honest, the chances are more likely that they are going to learn what life looks like through the eyes of a twenty-something crew chief whose chief ambition in life is to get  the high score in some violent video game . . . while high on drugs.

I hate to say it, but jobs are much different animals these days.  The kinds of people that your children will be spending 6-8 hours a day with are not exactly life coaches.  I remember when I was a kid and the guy who was over me spent 45 minutes talking about really deviant things that I don't want to mention here . . . and that was him quoting the boss!

Now of course your kids are going to have to encounter the real world at some point, but do you really think that 15 is the right age for background chatter to include the how-to's of hiding your 'stash?'

I put it like this - many people I know spend more time considering where to plant their rose bushes or summer tomatoes than they do considering what environment their kid will be in all summer long.  You are a parent - it is a verb - that means to prune, weed, cultivate.  You would no sooner put a tomato plant in a garbage heap.  No, you consider where the sun will be, you till the soil, you weed, and you water.  And by all means, if you found out that it was an area that had fungus or some other nasty element, you WOULD MOVE IT.

So when you hear your child interested in working somewhere, check it out.  Spend 3-4 hours, bring the laptop and the bills and listen to the conversations happening behind the counter at Taco Bell.  See who else is on the grounds crew.  Talk to parents whose children work at the clothing store.  Get to know supervisors.  If they have tattoos that say "spank it," you probably want to pass.  If they are looking at you with half-lit expressions and don't speak what you would recognize as English, I vote no.  These are people that will be your child's teacher for several hours a day.

This is coming from a person who at 13 watched his boss give another employee a hickey . . . on his back . . . in the kitchen of a restaurant.  Trust me, you don't want this for your child.

Or how about the pizza place in which the owner found out that I wanted to be a pastor.  For the rest of the time that I knew him, he kept joking about how Mary really wasn't a virgin.  The joke was kinda gross . . . I'll spare you.  By the way, he wound up being shot and killed.

That is probably why I wound up having a very lucrative landscaping business.  I was my own boss.  Maybe that is what it takes for your son or daughter - start their own business babysitting or cutting lawns.  Let them encounter the unsavory sorts when they aren't so impressionable.

So here is what I recommend:

1.  Talk with your child about what they want to work for.  Having money so they can buy gas so they can get to work so they can buy gas . . . perhaps there is something greater they can work for.  You can sponsor a child in Haiti or Guatemala for $30 a month with World Vision.  And there is always college.

2.  Come up with some ideas TOGETHER.  Veto ideas that are garbage heaps.

3.  Settle on a few and then check them out.  This is your job as a parent - see where they will be.  Hang out there for a few hours.  If it is unhealthy . . . veto.

4.  Get to know the 'boss' at work, let them know you are an involved parent.  Knowing there is a parent involved will make them reluctant when they are thinking of closing the doors early and sharing a case of beer.

5.  Talk to your kid - continue to eat dinner together and listen to the stories being shared.

In the end, it might take more effort, but you may have less to worry about when they turn 18 . . .

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Leaving behind the accuser

We are all so messed up . . .

If you think that isn't true - just look at what is going on with Anthony Wiener right now.  You cannot look at him without looking at yourself.  He is truly representative of us as humans.

We are all just as guilty of having legitimate desires that express themselves in illegitimate ways.  Some resort to manipulating gossip, fudging the numbers on tax documents, rearranging details in an argument - whatever it is, we are all guilty of doing what we want and then trying to cover it up.  So now we all look at this guy and shake our heads and say, "what a creepster."

Regardless of what you feel, HE is US.  We are all in the same boat.

Of course you might say, "I didn't cheat on my wife" or "I didn't take pictures of myself in my skivvies."  True . . . and thank you for not doing that.  But the point is still the same - we are all broken in some way.  Our desire to see our wishes fulfilled sometimes crosses the line of what is right - and whether it is small (like carrying on that conversation with the handsome man at the store a little too long)  - medium -  (like lying to the policeman that pulled you over) - or large -  (like pocketing the extra expense money from the last business trip) - make no mistake, we are all guilty of something.

Now of course that doesn't make it right - but it definitely means that we don't have a moral high ground to argue from.  Should this guy keep his job?  Don't ask me.  Should this guy be plastered all over the internet and have rude things said about him?  I can't speak to anyone else than a person who claims to follow Jesus.  For those who claim to be Christ-followers, may it never be.  May WE be the people that are great at finding the beam in our own eyes.  Let US be the ones who are authentic about our own weaknesses.  OUR job is to heal, soothe, accept, forgive, offer grace to whoever it is, whatever the political party.  In short our job is to look past sins - to never accuse.

The word for Satan can also be rendered "the accuser" in English.  Let's not follow his lead.

Monday, June 6, 2011

God the angry step-parent

Each year I take high school students to the shore (Ocean City, NJ) and we take them to the boardwalk at night to see if anyone wants to talk about God and faith and the Bible.

Well of course no one wants to talk about that stuff on the boardwalk - especially when you are checking out the opposite sex and you are 17.  If you try to walk up to a 17 year old draped 'come hither-esquely' on the railings you will get this look that says, "hey buddy, fishing for the ladies here - and you are definitely not helping the bait."

But we come armed with a secret . . . people actually do want to talk about their faith (they just don't want to fight about it).  So you know what we do?  We don't preach - we ask them what THEY believe.  With the help of a short survey, it doesn't take long before we are knee deep in some great conversations.  

Like I said, it is weird at the start.  You just have to acknowledge the awkwardness.

"Hi I am John and this is Mike, and it must seem really weird that two guys would come up to two other guys on the boardwalk and start a conversation . . ."  is usually how I start.  They usually are like, "yeah, you're right . . . so what are you selling?"

The best part is that the students are not trying to do anything other than really listen.  In fact, I would say that most people really get into it.  They wind up talking a good 20 or 30 minutes about what they believe - because no one else has ever really asked them before.  And what is most interesting is that because no one has ever really asked them, they aren't even sure about what they are saying.

Perhaps the most interesting (and saddening) result of these surveys is how they view God.  When we ask, "if Jesus were to appear to you tonight and say something, what do you think He would say?"

The overwhelming majority of responses deal with some sort of critique:

"he'd say stop smoking"
   "stop sinning"
     "stop sleeping with my girlfriend"
        " he'd say straighten up, I'm watching you!"

Most of our respondents were Catholic because of the proximity of Philadelphia and most of them would say that they are religious in some sense.  But when you get to the core of how they see God seeing them - it is usually negative.  God the angry step-parent . . . how sad.

Those voices sound so different than the Jesus that went to sinner's houses.  So different than the Jesus who defended the woman who was caught in the act of adultery.  Remember that?  "Neither do I condemn you . . ."

No, those voices sound like the critical voice of you and me - telling people to get right before God.  Stop drinking, stop smoking, stop swearing, stop sinning . . . and then God will like you.  Reality check, the order is backward.  We come to God "even while we were yet sinners" and it is the rendez-vous with God that changes us and makes us shed bad habits and sinful patterns.  We don't get right to impress God, we are impressed by God and that makes us pursue what is right.

Just think of how different our world would be if we really knew that.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The difference . . .

I was traveling West to from Fez to Rabbat in the small but beautiful country of Morocco.  It was about four in the morning and I had a crew of students and leaders in a European-styled mini-bus.  A driver had picked us up very early in the morning in order to take us back to the airport after serving with an English school there.

The small bus was quiet, all you could hear was the hum of an old engine and sleepy breathing.  I was looking out on the arid Moroccan countryside - lit by the now rising moon at  4 am.  Everyone was asleep except  the driver I and I saw that he was about to slip into dreamland as the mini-bus swerved a few times.  Thinking it was better to engage him in conversation than wind up in a ditch, I climbed over seats and began a conversation with him in French.

He was a very nice man who loved to talk.  No, he loved to teach.  I let him do most of the talking and I turned it into a little field anthropology.  I asked him everything I could about Islam, as he was a Muslim.  I learned a great deal about the life of Mohammed as well as the spiritual shortcomings of Americans.  It was obvious that he had been schooled to accept that America was the Great Satan.

Funny thing was I could understand what he as saying in a small way.  I had just spent time in a country that several times during the day break from what they are doing, walk down the street and pray at a Mosque.  There are no billboards of scantily clad women.  The TV shows are modest in every way.  Alcohol and drugs are existent but much difficult to get your hands on.  Women are afforded great respect, but also given less freedom.  It was an interesting culture that looked more 'holy' than our divorce-heavy, sex-saturated and 'endzone dancing' society.  I can at least understand why they view us as purveyors of evil.

Growing up Episcopalian and realizing that as a church-goer I had no idea what being a Christian meant, I thought it would be interesting to find out what he thought about spiritual things.  It is one thing to look at religious literature written by the experts, it is an entirely different animal to ask the rank and file.  This is where the rubber meets the road theologically.  As I had conversations with people in Fez, I came to realize that superficial knowledge is a universal thing.  Like any good Catholic in the states, most Muslim young adults couldn't tell me about Islam beyond the kitschy phrases that they learned in Catechism.

So I listened eagerly as he told me about how to get into heaven as a Muslim. My theological French is a little rusty, so I had to ask questions along the way to discover the meaning of certain words.  Essentially you can do everything right as a Muslim - hit all the five pillars of the faith (go to Mecca, give money to the poor etc) but it really is entirely up to God.  And if God doesn't like you, you (literally) don't have a prayer of making it into heaven.

I pressed on this and asked him about how that can be, "God can just reject you for no reason?"


I mused on this out loud, saying something like, "hmmm, that's different."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

Caught off guard, I just mumbled that it is very different than Christianity.

"In what way?" he asked.

Hoping to observe my place and not push things too much (it is illegal to proselytize in Morocco), I tried my best to be honest and sensitive to his background.

"Well, there is a big difference.  Christianity says that it is God's grace that invites you into heaven regardless of the sins that you have committed.  The Bible says something like, "even while we were sinners, Christ died for our sins."  It sounds like you are saying that Allah can be approached by sinners who repent, but even then Allah can reject you for any reason . . . Christ seems to be the opposite . . . you are accepted regardless of what you have done."

I am not sure the exact wording, but even as I said it, it was all becoming clear to me.  Here I was on this moonlit pre-dawn trek across the dessert, talking to a brother of mine from across the Atlantic.  Both of us having very different definitions of God and grace.  As I sat there looking out the window, it soon became apparent that the silence was growing.  He said nothing for a very long time.

As I listened to the hum of the engine and grew aware of this awkward silence, I wondered what he was thinking in his head.  Was he intrigued by my notions of God and grace?  Or was he silent because it all seemed ridiculous to him?  It is funny that again, this man from Galilee makes all the difference.  We had talked religion for over an hour and it was very interesting.  The difference was Jesus.  As soon as  I bring up the distinction of Jesus, everything changes.  So is he interested or disgusted?  I will never know.  He broke the silence in the very next moment:

"Let's change the subject."

And we did.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Illegal Tattoos . . . maybe not

I have never been and will never be a guy who sports a tat.  Nothing wrong with them . . . most of them - some are just plain ugly . . . like this one:

She's pretty, the tattoo is scary.

Some aim at creative but end up creepy, like this one:

Can you imagine being this guy's wife?  Having that stare at you all night long?

In the end, I can't help but thinking that it is all going to look like this someday:

. . . which is exactly why I will never have one.

The government of Thailand is trying to outlaw tattoos, for a different reason (and only a specific variety).  It seems that the Thai people are a little annoyed that tourists are coming into town and getting tattoos of the Buddha.  I imagine that ladies think it is cute and perhaps the guys think that it shows how well-versed or open-minded they are.  I can just imagine it now:

Guy #1: Hey, you got a new tattoo.
Guy #2: Yeah, I just got it inked.
Guy #1: You must really like Pillsbury
Guy #2: That's a Buddha you bonehead
Guy #3: Are you a Buddhist now?
Guy #1: You don't have to be Buddhist to have a Buddha tattoo . . . I just thought I would get it while I was in Thailand . . . you know, broaden my horizons a little.
Guy #3: Yeah, and as you get older, that Buddha is going to broaden too.

Well the problem with Buddha going on someone's belly or back is that the truly devout Buddhists are a little annoyed that Americans and other tourists are taking the issue so lightly.  They are worried that their religious symbol will be turned into a fashion item.

The culture minister Niphit Intharasombat issued a statement that they have received complaints from residents that visitors are putting objects of sacred worship on their skin.  This is offensive to the Thai people because the image is a way to worship - not a cute symbol or a mark of how sophisticated you are.  The crazy thing is that I can imagine Christians who would argue the same thing about the cross - that we should not allow people to use the sacred symbol of Christianity to be used as a fashion item.  

I say that it is crazy to think this way because it was God Himself who told us not to create images of God to be worshiped.  Perhaps it is okay for Buddhists to worship at images and idols, but that is not our deal.  Think about it, Jesus never told us to treat the cross as a venerable object.  Nothing is sacred in Christianity - the cup of communion, the bread, the crown of thorns, the spear in His side, pages of the Bible - all of these things are instruments that lead us to the God who is sacred - they are not sacred themselves.  So that is why you find crosses on scantily clad guys and girls in the Clubs of the city.  We don't worship the path to the divine - we worship the divine who resides outside of form.

That is a major difference between Christianity and Buddhism.

As far as I know, no one has . . . but just in case someone gets the brilliant idea to try to imitate Thailand and try to introduce legislation about the cross, the ichthus fish or the Bible or whatever - just remember, God in His good wisdom headed all of this off at the pass when He said, "don't make images to worship."  He's a pretty smart God.