Monday, April 14, 2014

Why I Don't Wave Palm Branches

Another Palm Sunday has come and gone and once again, I didn't spend much time talking about it in my message. To be honest, not too many Assembly of God churches focus on the events leading up to Holy Week. There is no major doctrinal reason for this other than it always seemed these things were better left for the Lutherans and Catholics. Not sure why - it's simply what has been quietly taught and accepted. 

However, Palm Sunday raises a bunch of questions in my mind. Why would a group of people be so excited about this Messiah only to crucify him the very next week? Even more so, why would Christians today want to re-enact that parade each year? It almost seems a bit morbid to want to celebrate the events leading up to Jesus’ public execution. I understand in order to grasp historical events we must embrace the whole story, including the parts that make us uncomfortable. That fact carries over into our individual lives today: we must embrace our whole story too.

So what is the story of Palm Sunday? Jesus lived and taught as a Jewish rabbi, presenting his message amidst a mixing pot of competing ideas. Jesus' message differed greatly from that of the Zealots. The Zealots were the people who waved the palm branches as Jesus made his way through Jerusalem and cried out, “Hosanna,” which was actually their war cry. Sadly we have transformed this war cry into a cheesy worship music record label. Jesus offered freedom, but not in the earthly or political way that the people expected. Instead, Jesus offered spiritual freedom and lived a humble lifestyle with little earthly power.

Jesus conducted his ministry as a Jewish rabbi in the region of Galilee, an area consisting of often conflicting worldviews. In one city secular Jews cooperated with Rome while in another, passionate Zealots encouraged revolt. Jesus presented his own message amidst this chaos. Because he spoke with God's authority, many people recognized Jesus as a rabbi with something more powerful than the others they had heard from: the authority to teach his own interpretation of the Text. As Matthew 7 records, "The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority." Jesus had a passion for the Text. He had probably memorized the entire Hebrew Testament. And as a master storyteller, he often wove biblical concepts together in ways his audiences had never heard before.

The Zealots (the ones waving the palm branches while shouting “Hosanna!”) anticipating that the coming Messiah would use military power to bring freedom from the Romans. Jesus was greeted with jubilant war cries and the laying down of palm branches to signify the Zealots’ acceptance of him as their Messiah as he entered Jerusalem during his final days. With their hearts set on earthly freedom, the Zealots expected Jesus to overthrow Rome. Sadly, they completely misunderstood Jesus' message of spiritual freedom and couldn’t see that he was offering them so much more than a simple earthly coup d’├ętat.

Jesus wept as he saw the Zealots' palm branches, knowing that their quest for political freedom would come to a gruesome end. He spoke to the crowd, saying, "If you only had known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes." (Luke 19:42)
When the Jewish Revolts began around AD 66, Rome sent her army to crush the Zealot movement. At Gamla, the arrival of the Roman army created mass panic. More than five thousand people lost their lives as they jumped or fell off Gamla's northern cliff.

After reading this brief history of Palm Sunday, maybe you can begin to understand why I do not want to line myself up with the Zealots. This dark time in history lead to our Savior's torture, death, and Resurrection. It’s an essential part of our story, but it’s just not a chapter I want to dwell on. To me Palm Sunday highlights the “build them up so we can tear them down” mentality that is all too prevalent in society even today. The Zealots’ immediate acceptance of Jesus was followed by a quick and vicious betrayal when he didn’t fit their mold. That’s just not a celebration I want to be a part of. To stay consistent in the Christian walk and live this Resurrection message out all the time is my desire…not just on one particular day for my own personal gain. Perhaps we should have bit more "zealot" in us; we ought to be passionate and relentless in our thirst for Jesus – but the real Jesus, not our preconceived notions of him or who we want him to be.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ryan Braun...Bearded Duck Men and Jesus.

As someone who grew up in Milwaukee I have always had an interest in the Brewers. Probably not as much as I should have, but since my friend’s dad had season tickets, I quickly became a fair weather fan. As a little boy I attended many games at the old County Stadium. Soon before the stadium was torn down, I worked in the concessions stand for a fundraiser with the youth group I pastored. Once the new stadium was built a team of volunteers and I began to work concessions there too. I have a ton of great memories from those times. I remember the night the new stadium opened and President Bush threw the first pitch. And every time we worked the concessions I got to ride in the elevator with Mr. Baseball himself, Bob Uecker.

Needless to say I have seen a lot of good and bad times in Brewers history: from the team’s win of the World Series in 1982 to the devastating crane collapse while building the new stadium, Miller Park. There are countless tales to tell and stories to remember but one that has stood out to many of us recently is the situation revolving around Ryan Braun and everyone’s attitude toward his return to baseball this season. 

On opening day at Miller Park, right fielder Ryan Braun took to the field amongst 40,000+ cheering fans giving him a standing ovation. I was sad to hear about all of the events of last season regarding his use of drugs and treatments that have been banned by the MLB. Despite the suspension that followed, he made a comeback and received a warm welcome this year. However, as I was listening to another game on my car radio soon after that, I heard the sound of boos and taunts being hurled at him whenever he would go up to bat. Bob Uecker solemnly stated, "Though Ryan Braun has paid his dues...he will be met with this reaction at every away game for some time." 

What gets to me about this story is how quickly people throw stones at those who have made mistakes, even when they have owned up to them and worked to make amends. It is as if people are simply looking for something to get behind that they can then later turn on and shout insults at. The old, “build them up so you can tear them down” scenario. In this case it is a sports star but in other cases it can be the person across the street or your once beloved friend or family member. We simply live in a society where it is almost an extracurricular activity to jump on a bandwagon just because it is trendy at the moment. If that person makes one mistake, we flip on them like a dime. 

This happened last year when the Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame, gave a very candid interview about his stance on homosexuality. “GQ Magazine” asked him for his opinion and he gave it to them. One side hurled insults at him and the other side chose to fight his battle for him. In my opinion, this left both sides looking less than intelligent. Both blindly followed what they wanted to believe and had over-the-top reactions to half-truths and only part of the story. That really can be the flipside of this proverbial coin. 

In the case of Ryan Braun you initially had people defending him when the truth was that he was guilty. He eventually owned up to what he did and admitted that the League had to do what they had to do. Regarding Phil Robertson, it was almost humorous how many made up "memes" and arguments there were out there when in reality, Phil wasn't that upset about how the media was treating him and his family. Nonetheless there are always those stellar people that feel the need to take up someone else's battle and make a case for them. These bandwagon jumpers inevitably end up sounding like self-conflicted and confused people with no real foundation for their beliefs. More often than not, these people are simply using the situation to get themselves attention. They jump in to fight a battle that isn’t theirs with only part of the story to back up their claims. Their desire isn’t really to defend the person in question but to make themselves look important and wise; oddly enough they usually end up looking foolish and uninformed. 

In the end, these people eat their well-deserved humble pie. I know I have bellied up to the bar and eaten a few pieces in the past myself. We all do. It's because we don’t understand the full story and only focus on what we want to believe is true. In the case of Ryan Braun...well...the proof is in the pudding. Tonight, as the Brewers played the Phillies he was once again met with a less than desirable welcome. Nonetheless he hit one out of the park, which created a commanding lead and led to the Brewers winning the game. It's funny how life goes: we can be so excited, appreciative, and passionately zealous about someone until they make a mistake or even just what we perceive to be a mistake. The moment the slip up happens we turn on them and try to pretend we never really liked them at all. Perhaps we even write them off and consider them bound for failure. What I love are the times that those very people who are scoffed at and written off “step up to the plate” and show the world why people deserve second chances. It’s a special day when a tarnished hero can keep pressing on, earn back the respect of the people, and get the victory. Let’s remember those moments of returning to greatness and learn to be a little more compassionate toward those who stumble.

Hmmm....people zealously behind someone one week and crucifying him the next. Sounds like someone else I know that involved the waving of palm branches and a bloody cross.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Easter Church Service Hustle

I realize this will be a very opinionated blog but would you expect anything else? Some of you will disagree with what I have to say here. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you walk away thinking, "Well, that explains why Radiant Fellowship isn't larger." However, I believe the day we place all the responsibility on the pastor to grow the church is the day the rest of the church needs to get a clue. Churches that rise on one person’s efforts will fall when that person leaves. I believe sustained growth only happens when a church rises up as a group to do ministry together. So just what is so controversial that I would feel the need to make these statements before I offer my opinion? Easter. Yup, Easter. 

While sitting in a public establishment this week I had a conversation with a staff pastor at a large church. Seeing that Easter is just a few weeks away, many churches are putting a lot of time and effort into this one service. It is much like Christmas or even someone’s wedding! Days, weeks, and months are poured into every aspect of this one service even though it will only last an hour or so. This is something I have never really understood. Inevitably, I was asked how things are going at my church, Radiant Fellowship. I almost felt guilty about not responding with the requisite, "Very busy," but I couldn’t do it. My answer was simple: "Very good. How are you doing?" That question was quickly met with a flurry of statements like, "You know how it goes, we have not been able to breathe for a month as we get ready for our Easter know how it goes." My reply? "No, I don't." 

There is an old adage that says, "The way you win people is the way you will have to keep people." I don’t know who said it, but I do know this: whoever made that statement is right! It’s beyond my ability to understand why a church would spend weeks toiling over one service. This is usually the time when churches roll out the big choir and an over the top worship experience. Church members who are not usually on the worship team want to be a part of it for that one Sunday because their relatives will be there and they want to perform for them. Rather than throwing a message together at the last minute like many pastors commonly do, the sermon is usually one that the pastor has poured hours and perhaps even days into. All of these things make for an unforgettable Easter service and leave attendees wondering if they are in the right place the very next week when things go back to “normal.”

Putting in extra effort to make the Easter service extra special is a tradition in the church. Like it or not, there is a bit of an unspoken competition among churches on this big holiday. Why else would you see all of the ads in the local newspaper with churches promoting their Easter Sunday service(s)? This is the time of year, much like Christmas, when people are going to go where they want to go or where their relatives attend. Likewise, people who only attend church service once or twice a year often choose Easter as their “church day.” Pastors know this and want to hook as many of those travellers and stragglers as they can. Who knows, they might put a buck or two in the offering…right?

Bottom line, we need to ask God to forgive us for putting everything we have in this one single pot. We as a church invest so much time into this one service that we lock ourselves away, get stressed out, and can even cause a church split over our desire to make Easter perfect. It's good to remember the importance of’s the day we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ! What I’m saying is that rather than ending up worshipping a holiday, we ought truly celebrate the Resurrection in the way we operate in our churches and communities on a daily and weekly basis. Let’s follow in Jesus’ footsteps and honor his sacrifice by taking the time we invest into a single service and put that into outreach.