Monday, January 26, 2015

Train Up A Child

Yesterday at church I made reference to Proverbs 22:6, a classic verse that states: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

I chose to talk about this verse because at school, my kids are now at an age that they get commended when they succeed and behave themselves, and well…not so much when they do something wrong. It’s times like these that make a parent look at this verse and realize how much work they have to do. The King James Version says, “Train up a child…” Don’t just steer them, train them. While I would love for this to be an intense one-day training, I realize that’s just not possible. Training takes a long time and is filled with moments of victory and moments of feeling completely defeated (for both the person being trained and the trainer). However, no matter what challenges you face, you press on knowing that the outcome will be worth it.

Now I will be the first to admit that it is difficult when your child is not heading in the direction you anticipated. In fact it can be downright deflating when you, as the parent, get lectured by a teacher because of your child’s behavior. And there is no doubt that it can be twice as defeating when the “ADD talk” begins. As a Christian, a father, and the head of my household I have to make choices to better my family. God has to direct change in our homes. It cannot come from any teacher, doctor, or any other authority figure in your child’s life. It starts at the top. When problems arise, as a parent you officially switch into “Coach of the Year” mode because you realize there is some intense training that needs to take place. May I share a few steps from my playbook with you?  My hope is that through my transparency, you will be able to take away a few things and apply them to your families. 

First, we simply need to pray more. It goes without saying that we need to pray often. We should pray together with our families around the dinner table but we must, as husbands and fathers, take the lead and pray for our families on our own. Just the other night I was frustrated and stayed up until midnight just walking up and down the hallway of my house praying over my kids and my wife. I have faced enough attacks from the enemy to know what needed to be done and let me say, the next morning my intense praying had paid off. We began to see things change for the good and knew that we had turned the corner. This cannot be overstated: we must be people of prayer.

Second, stop playing the “I’m too busy” game. What is so important that you cannot take a little time away to just be goofy with your kids or go out with your spouse on a “date night”? I realize life comes at us hard but the fact is that we can and must make time for what we really want to do. Even if they can be challenging, our kids need us. And spouses need each other too! Those dirty dishes can wait. We must take time for each other. 

Most importantly, we must have times of prayer and reading together. I guess you could say the old church would call this “Family Altar.” It has gotten to the point that if we do not pray before a meal or before going to bed, my kids call us out on it! I love that. We have always prayed with our kids each night and I think that sets a good standard. I am so thankful that my wife comes alongside me and makes this happen. We take it a step further and read to our kids 98% of the time before they go to bed. Occasionally it is something that won't directly help their spiritual walk, but it is important to stay up on Curious George and his antics! The love, time, and thought behind the act of reading with our children is what matters. That is what they will remember as they grow older and eventually raise families of their own. Recently, I came across a family devotional entitled “Grace For the Moment For Kids” by Max Lucado. It is a 365 day devotional for the whole family that is easy to read and great to discuss. We now read the devotional, talk about the questions or thoughts posed at the end of each message, and pray for each other. It is vitally important to do these things each and every day to promote the development and health of our families. 

Going back to the original Scripture from Proverbs, I have noticed an assumption that needs to be addressed. As parents we cannot train a child in the way he/she should go unless we know which way he/she should go. Many of the things we do to train our children must also come with understanding of our own. We must start from the ground up and lay a strong foundation of the basics before we can expect our children to be like mature believers. We fail our children when we try to make youngsters think and act like adults. Remember, God delights in small beginnings (Zechariah 4:10).

We ought to always do our best as parents to lead our families well. Is Proverbs 22:6 a promise? No. It is what theologians would call “wisdom literature.” If we are willing to put our selfishness aside, things ought to turn out well as we honor God. We cannot control what will happen in the future, but if we do our best to give our children solid ground on which to stand, they have a much better chance at succeeding as they grow older.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Michael Moore And Death Threats On MLK Day From a Pastors Perspective

Documentarian Michael Moore tweeted the other day “My uncle killed by sniper in WW2…We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren't heroes. And invaders r worse.” This one tweet ignited a firestorm of debate from both the liberal and democratic side of politics. People who really gave no thought to snipers two months ago are now weighing in with their opinions. While I will not even pretend to know what Michael Moore was trying to get at, I can tell you that this is a classic case of attitude reflecting leadership. Life's situations have a way of making someone lean a certain way on hard topics. I had a very close friend who's dad was mugged by some black people in their neighborhood. You can imagine how those little white kids were raised. Black kids that were raised during the LA riots may have a different view of white people because of what happened on their streets. Some Native Americans have stories to tell their children about what happened to them throughout their lives as well stories from their peoples’ history with the US government. This undoubtedly changes the way they look at society. It is odd that Mr. Moore received so many death threats on a day we celebrate a man who was all about non-violence. 

In 2012 my family ventured out to the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota and we heard an interesting story. Many times the US government has offered to spend millions of dollars to complete this awe inspiring sculpture of the legendary Crazy House but they have been repeatedly turned down by the Native Americans living in that area because of the history between them. Once again, attitude reflects leadership

But what about for the rest of us? For those in society who have no dramatic stories of neglect or social cause to fight for because of what happened to a loved one? I would submit that regardless of our personal involvement, we all feel it is our right to offer our opinions on these matters. Because of who I am and what I do as a pastor I encounter every kind of person from every walk of life you can imagine. Sadly, I find that hatred is alive and well in the world today. It used to boggle my mind when I would hear of an eighty year old saint in the church still having a problem with a fellow eighty year old saint because of what they said fifteen years ago at a church potluck. Now that I am half way to eighty (scary, isn't it?) I totally get where they are coming from. How many times have I had people attend the church I pastor with hesitancy? A LOT. A bad church experience can change you. And as you share what you went through with your loved ones, it changes them too. I hear stories of how this person’s grandparents were kicked out of a church across town because they did not use their pre-printed offering envelopes or they never volunteered. Needless to say that kind of petty junk can turn a person off from being a part of a church. Recently a friend told me of a time they were in the hospital. They attended a church in the area so the hospital called the pastor early in the morning to tell them that my friend was there. The pastor responded, “They have not been faithful with their tithes so we will not be able to come.” It shouldn’t surprise you that this family has not gone back to church. If you hear stories like this often enough, it’s easy to understand why your view of churches in general would be negative. How is that different from Michael Moore's story regarding snipers? His grandfather was killed by one and he has an opinion on the matter based on the hurt it has caused his family. When someone's relatives are hurt by the institutional church, they have an opinion on the matter because the leadership they had in their life is reflected in what they now believe. Experiences matter. They shape our thinking and can mold us into the people we are today.

As a Christian and pastor I can tell you that I have enjoyed some of Michael Moore's works. I have disagreed with some of his statements too. I can honestly say it would be an honor to sit down and talk with the man. I would be interested to  talk to him about church and religion. There is a show called Bull$&!* on cable. The hosts are illusionists Penn and Teller. They had a fascinating episode on religion. For that matter, even Bill Maher (a political commentator and talk show host) is very outspoken regarding his thoughts on religion. I look at all of these people and rather than be repulsed and run away, I would love to sit down and talk to them about my love for God and what I do for a living as a pastor. Would I try and convince them to change their opinions? No. That is not my job. To hear their stories and maybe rationalize with them would be a delight. From what I have seen and read, these men make more sense than some of the people on my side of the fence on a lot of issues. They know how to debate and I think we would even enjoy a nice dinner together after it was over. I wish I could say the same for some Christians, who when pigeonholed resort to personal attacks and name calling.

We, as a society become too punchy when we hear things in the news. We focus on the headline and do not take the time to hear the backstory. Those who say, “It is just awful for Michael Moore to say such a thing” really ought to look at the things they personally are against. For example, I was in New York in 2008 while Tracy was at a conference in Harlem. I had won tickets to be in the audience for a taping of Saturday Night Live but I realized I had some down time before I had to be at the theater. I took advantage of it by jumping on my computer and sending a message to Jay Bakker, the son of the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Here is a kid that I knew some things about because I had many friends who went to PTL with his parents. Jay had just released a documentary on the Sundance channel called “One Punk Under God.” In it he drew a line in the sand regarding where he stands regarding churches being gay affirming. Jay was gracious enough to meet with me for dinner at a greasy spoon in Times Square so we could chat. His associate pastor came with him because Jay has many issues with the institutional church and the denomination his parents were a part of. He told me many stories that may never see the light of day due to the sensitivity of the topics and people involved. I listened and he talked. I remember asking Jay and Vince (his associate pastor), “You are gay affirming. Quite honestly I have a hard time taking that stance as a pastor but I don’t doubt you have your reasons. Reasons that I will not try and sway you from. My question is how can we make churches that are against homosexuality more loving and accepting so that, at the end of the day, even if there is not a gay affirming church where a gay person lives they know they can go there and not be bashed.” We went on to have a very engaging conversation about brotherly love. We listened to each other and when the time had come to go our own ways we were not mad at each other and actually rather respected each other. That is how discourse between people who disagree should be. You listen, you share, you find common ground, and understand that there will be areas that you will just not agree with each other about, but that it’s ok. 

There is usually a backstory of hurt behind every bold statement or firm stance. I think we would not be so quick to bash someone if we were willing to take the time to listen to their story of hurt. We would understand where they are coming from and regardless of whether we agree with them or not, seeing the person behind the opinion would make a difference. Rather than becoming a sniper behind the keyboard towards people we do not even know, take the time to engage with people and hear their backstory. Go beyond the headline and dig into the details.

Michael Moore, Jay Bakker, and others who are willing to speak out should be applauded. I take our First Amendment that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” seriously. I want them to keep on doing what they are doing. They are entitled to speak freely and I hope they find the kindness and respect that Jesus would offer to those he had differing opinions with as they interact with members of Christ’s church today. Remember: the only ones Jesus lashed out at were the Pharisees.  

As a pastor I feel obligated to throw in a Scripture to close this blog post. The Bible speaks to pretty much every topic imaginable, including this one. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1 NIV) God, help us to give a gentle answer and not offer harsh words that make Christians known for what we hate rather than what we love.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Farewell Facebook!

We all want to do things to improve our lives. Often, that desire is strongest at the coming of a new year. I’ve decided that I am going to be a better man in 2015. I love this quote from one of my favorite books, Falling Upward by Richard Rohr:

“It’s a gift to joyfully recognize and accept our own smallness and ordinariness. Then you are free with nothing to live up to, nothing to prove, and nothing to protect. Such freedom is my best description of Christian maturity, because once you know that your “I” is great and one with God, you can ironically be quite content with a small and ordinary “I.” No grandstanding is necessary. Any question of your own importance or dignity has already been resolved once and for all and forever.”

Grandstanding can take on many forms. The way many people have come to worship at church is a good example. What would happen if you chose not to stand when everyone else stood? Let’s be honest. I think we’ve all felt like sitting from time to time even though the worship leader asks everyone to stand for a specific song. Not to be rebellious, but just because you wanted to sit! Or to take it a step further, a song like “How Great Thou Art” begins and by the time the chorus hits everyone in the church is standing with their hands raised and arms pulsating with each word without even being asked…and there you are, sitting in contemplative reflection, completely detached from the theatrics. More often then not, someone will come up to you after service and ask if you are know...because you were not standing. It’s as if your maturity as a Christian is somehow measured by your desire to stand for “How Great Thou Art.” This is a an example of how legalism creeps into the church and can be destructive. No where in Scripture does it state, “Thou must standeth when ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ hits the chorus on the modulation.” This is the kind of thing that makes people burn out because they feel forced to just go through the motions to appease the people around them. Worship is no longer a bonding experience between them and God but rather a moment to perform for fellow Christians.

The same stands true for social networking, especially on Facebook. It’s a powerful promotional machine but quite honestly I am done with it. It seems to promote relationships on a superficial level and can lead to more hurt feelings and misunderstandings than it’s worth. So many people post off the cuff/knee jerk updates or comments that can really make them look like lunatics. I know this firsthand because I have fed this machine. Many things I have posted in the past were hurtful or downright crazy. While I believe many of my posts were good and thought provoking, the bad still stand out. The emotional upheaval caused by Facebook is staggering. You have the times when people post about being hurt, sick, or disappointed and if you, a close friend or family member, don't immediately offer your support through a comment you somehow appear not to care. Or if it is someone's birthday and you don’t wish them a “Happy Birthday” on their Facebook timeline it once looks like they don’t matter to you. I mean, it’s nice to post well wishes for someone on Facebook but when did it become okay to just do that instead of visiting or calling the person? This is leading towards the decay of society today. We have to stop living behind our keyboards and actually interact with people! This is true for good and positive things like wishing someone a “Happy Birthday” or offering prayers when someone is struggling as well as when we need to confront someone who hurt us or talk through a problem. People say things on the internet that they would never say to someone face-to-face. Don't get me started on the whole “he/she blocked me or unfriended me and now I am offended” thing. Honestly…are we all suddenly back in high school? Yes, chances are you will be blocked or unfriended if you act and talk like someone with the social graces of a five year old. I know I have done that to people and you probably have too. I’ve even been blocked and unfriended in the past and I probably deserved it. Okay, okay....I deserved it.

With all of that said, I am done with the drama. I’m done with knee jerk comments and updates and even the people who try to communicate deep things on “private message” that would normally deserve a visit, a phone call, or at least a text message. I am done renting out headspace to people who post encrypted messages that are meant to leave you wondering if you did something wrong. If you want to find me on a social network, follow me on Twitter. That’s where you will be able to see my blog posts and random thoughts. It’s funny, but there is something freeing about being limited to just 140 characters. It makes you (or the person talking to you) carefully choose what to say in order to make a point. My Facebook feed will only update from my Twitter account for just a short time. I’m deleting the app from my gadgetry and I’ve decided to immediately log-out from my Facebook account on my computer. It is time to take control of my life again and live blissfully ignorant of the happenings in other peoples’ lives unless I should happen to see them around or receive an email, text, or phone call. I really believe this one choice is going to help me reach my goal of becoming a better man in 2015. No more useless drama and superficial encounters. It’s time to simplify. I like that. 

“It’s a gift to joyfully recognize and accept our own smallness and ordinariness. Then you are free with nothing to live up to, nothing to prove, and nothing to protect.” 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Thrown Under the Bus

"When [Noah] drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.” (Genesis 9:21-23 NIV)

I have to be honest with you. While the entire story of Noah and the ark is simply amazing, this is the part that stands out the most to me. Noah was a man God found to be faithful. God asked Noah to save civilization by taking on the daunting task of building the ark and then guiding it through the storm as the earth was flooded. It blows me away that after all is said and done, this is how his story ends. Faithful Noah ended up drunk and naked in his tent. Noah's sons were believers and out of respect for their father, they humbly walked into the tent backwards and covered his naked body. There is a whole lot to be unpacked here. Let me share a few thoughts.

Notice what Noah's sons did not do. They could have easily confronted their Dad and say "Really? God just used you over the past however many years and this is how you show your gratitude? I wonder if you are even a Christian at all…” Thankfully that is not what they did. I like to think they respectfully covered him because they saw their own humanity in their Dad. Even though God used Noah in a mighty way there was still a human side to him. As mature Christians I think they understood that their Dad's story was their story. There is a never-ending cycle throughout human history that continues today: God creates, man sins, God redeems. On and on it goes.

Also, notice how Noah's sons did not go and announce to the world what he had done. I am quite confident there were other people around at this point since Noah used grapes from his own vineyard that he himself planted to make his wine. Noah's sons could have told others. Using modern day terminology, they could have “thrown him under the bus.” Despite all of the good things their father had done, they could have very easily used this one story to discredit him. They chose instead to see their father the way God did: with mercy and understanding.

These are two very important lessons we need to learn from this story. I, like you, have many “good reasons” to throw people under the bus. Looking back on many of my blogs, I was angry and hurt by vocational ministry and many of the people I had worked with. I have to admit that I even figuratively had my arms extended, ready to give a shove if provoked…but chose not to. Why? At the end of the day what would it accomplish? Would lashing out empower me? Perhaps, depending on how you define “empower.” I have not acted that way because I realize that it would really serve no great purpose. There is but only one “accuser of the saints” and that is Satan (Revelation 12:10). If a person feels it is their role to accuse their fellow brother or sister, one has to wonder who that person is serving. I can tell you this: it ain't God.

This has happened to me on two occasions that will forever be etched into my memory. At one point I was going through a tough time and vented about how I felt in one of my blogs. A pastor in the city I used to live in called me out by name in his Sunday morning message. I was outraged and hurt by this. After thinking about it for awhile I could not help but remember the many good things this man has done for God. He is an awesome man who is devoted to his family and congregation. We have different approaches to ministry but God is using him and it was simply not my place to respond to what he said and in essence, “throw him under the bus.” People knew I was upset but I chose not to talk about it publicly. Another time was when a Christian radio program went on a week long rampage discrediting me and and my ministry because of a message series I was doing at my church, Radiant Fellowship. It was a Christmas series that went after the outcasts of society. Once again, I reminded myself that this radio station does many awesome things for God and I had to understand that it was simply a person sharing his opinions and that the radio station itself was not to blame. Again, I chose not to “throw them under the bus” by lashing out in anger or allowing myself to become resentful.

It has been said that hanging onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. How true that is! At the end of the day there is nothing good that can come from being bitter, resentful, and full of anger. We are all fallen people in need of a Savior. Truth be told, all of us have something that would make us look less than godly if it was brought to light.

Some people feel it is their spiritual gift to gossip and discredit a fellow believer because they think they are the more “mature” Christian and the one being gossiped about needs correction. Can you imagine if your pastor did this? You cannot fathom the amount of private, personal, and intimate details a pastor knows about the people he or she is ministering to. This information is meant to be kept confidential. What would happen if your pastor began to share the less than stellar details about everyone’s lives? Even if it was cloaked in the “desire to help,” it would be wrong.

We live in a society where people are ever so bold behind the keyboard of their computer but back down when confronted in person. We have to learn to use technology to build bridges rather than to burn them. A few years ago I emailed many of the people who had hurt me in the past. I sought their forgiveness and offered mine as well. Virtually all of the responses I received were very favorable and this took a huge burden off my shoulders. Not every situation should be handled this way. Sadly, there are times when reaching out would stir up more hurt and anger so it’s important to let God lead you before you make a move. There will be times that you simply make the choice in your mind to forgive a person, let go of the hurt, and trust that God will make things right.

It is truly sad when anyone hurts us, but the sting is especially harmful when the blow is delivered by a fellow Christian. In an ideal world these things would not happen, but unfortunately they do. None of us are perfect but we can choose to be like Noah’s sons who simply “[covered] their father’s naked body.” We can choose to show mercy to the merciless and forgiveness to those who don’t deserve it. We can choose to walk away knowing there will be pain in our fallen world and even though it may take a while, with God’s help we can move forward in freedom. Let the past be the past and show mercy and understanding even when it doesn’t feel fair.