Friday, April 8, 2016

Things I've Learned So Far this Year Part 1: Picking Fights

I have heard this type of story before and probably told of few of my own. "How I defeated the door knocking evangelist" "How I used my wrist watch to ruin the life of  an evolutionist" "How I made that lady cry for daring to disagree with me in Sunday school". People either don't know what to say when the Mormon missionaries and Jehovahs Witnesses come calling or they choose to fight and humiliate these nice folks and then brag later in the men's locker room we call the church fellowship hall. 

Mine is a story of neither.

Well maybe part of the former but none of the latter.

Ok maybe I recently exhibited some of both, but the point is I’m learning from it instead of hiding behind it.

Each year some really super nice folks from the local Kingdom Hall come around inviting us to their commemoration of the death of Jesus. I normally don't engage frankly because I can't keep all those apologetic arguments straight in my head. I know that the essential difference always comes down to how we identify the person and work of Jesus Christ, but I can’t remember which group says what. I don't improvise. I preach from a manuscript that is prepared from research. I would die in an extemporaneous debate. 

However I was working on our house, and I saw two women pass the window. As I answered the door I thought "What on earth am I going to say?" 

They extended their invitation and what poured out from my mouth was something like, "No thanks, but here let me pray for you because it is my hope that you will truly understand who Jesus is instead of who your group has made him out to be."

I prayed. I prayed a prayer of thanks for the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was almost more a confession of faith than anything. A presentation of the Gospel through prayer. I prayed for these nice ladies to learn the truth. When I opened my eyes they were gone. 

Obviously my prayer had been too powerful and had caused both of them to be raptured on the spot. That was a reasonable assumption right? Alas I looked up the block and they had moved on to my neighbor's house. I prayed for them again silently because if they knocked on his door they were likely in for the quintessential old man on porch with shotgun. 

This is not a tale of my victory over Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is a tale of my defeat. All I did was scare these women away. They didn't listen to me one bit. All I had at the end of this encounter was a good joke about the rapture, nothing more. 

The Sunday School argument would be "You planted a seed Thomas! Don't despair! The Gospel offends people you can't be surprised by that."

Ok so best case scenario is that I planted a seed. But there is a good chance that seed fell on the path or among rocks or may grow and be choked by the weeds around it. I'm not trying to be negative just honest with the way I was received. I am sure I wasn’t the first person to question the veracity of their faith system. Could God use this experience to help these women? Yes. But it will be despite me, not because of me.

As to the second part of that Sunday School argument: I am more and more coming around you the conclusion that yes, the Gospel does offend, but that doesn't mean God wants His people to be offensive. 

As Christians, we seem to relish bad behavior as long as it is in the proper context. There was a time when I would have worn this story as a badge of honor. And I'm not ashamed of it, just aware that I acted out of panic and not compassion. 

But does God command us to be abrasive or to be bold? There are many places in scripture to see an answer but here is the one I have repeatedly come back to since high school:

2 Timothy 2:22-26 22 Flee from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23 But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they breed quarrels. 24 The Lord’s slave must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, 25 instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth. 26 Then they may come to their senses and escape the Devil’s trap, having been captured by him to do his will.

I don’t think this passage needs a lot of exposition here. The point is fairly clear. There are youthful, immature reactions—quarreling, ignorant disputes—that do nothing for the cause of Christ. But Paul instructs young Timothy to be mature, to be gentle to all pursuing righteousness, faith, love and peace. Paul does not fail to impart the absolute importance of the message to be taught. There is nothing here to suggest that we can’t or shouldn’t speak truth with confidence and boldness when we share our faith with others.

But there is a line between effective witness and belligerent intolerance. It is easy to fall prey to emotions when having a friendly debate about beliefs. But we have to separate it out and remember that the only emotion we should feel in a presentation of the Gospel is love. And it may be tough love, but even a parent who has to discipline their child doesn’t rejoice in that child’s humiliation.

Love is bold to be sure. If we love others as Christ has instructed we will not back down in a moment to share and educate about our faith. But there is this perception that God somehow needs us to defend him from the dissenting opinion. Here is the long and the short of the dissenting opinion: it changes nothing. If what we hold as biblical truth is in fact biblical truth then God doesn’t need us to fight off attacks on His character. Rather He has commanded us to instruct and teach in gentleness and love.

Perhaps when we hear the doorbell and find theological opposition at our door it is simply a natural reaction to feel as if we are at risk.

But when has this faith been about reacting naturally to what life throws at us?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Big Reveal and Public Confession

All right, this is a hard one. Almost more difficult than talking about PTSD in the last post. Understand that while the home I grew up in was by no means oppressive there were certain social mores to which one was expected to live up to. These tended to come more from the world around me and less from my parents, but the one tended to affect the other.

You are a Southern Baptist pastor’s son…there are expectations.

I carried these expectations with me through life. Even if no one had them for me anymore, they remained attached. As an adult entering ministry I continued to impose them on myself even though I got the feeling my congregation didn’t much care as long as I did my duties and stayed faithful to God.

You see when I was in the Navy I gave most of the “forbidden” things a try. I played some blackjack (not my thing) drank some alcohol (a little bit goes a long way) and at one point had a plan for how I was going to go to Amsterdam and sample marijuana when I left the service (decided that never trying drugs was an acceptable choice). I was thrilled to learn that I did not have addictive tendencies for these things and could leave them behind me as easily as I partook.

Then on a trip to London I decided to try something new. I walked into a shop on Oxford street.

“May I help you sir?”

“You know I think I’d like to own a pipe.”

“Are you a smoker?”

“Nope, not at all.”

“Then why do you want a pipe?”

“I don’t know. Just curious. Seems...British.”

The man came around the counter and reached into a basket and handed me a simple piece of brier. Straight and smooth. A shape I would later come to understand as a classic billiard.

“This is a nice simple straight pipe, cheap too. If you decide to smoke it you should get a good idea of whether or not it’s for you.”

He gave me a sample of some mild tobacco and some written instructions for packing and smoking and sent me on my way. Thus began a hobby that has stayed with me in some form even to the present.

Yes my friends, this is my confession: I am a pipe smoker.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising. I mean my profile pic on the blog is me on the beach in Jacksonville smoking the very pipe I mentioned in this story.

I’m not going to get into a huge defense of the hobby except to say that it is just that: a hobby, not a habit. A heavy smoking week for me is three bowls of tobacco and I once decided to take a week off of smoking and didn’t light a pipe again for three years.

I might also mention the lack of added chemicals in pipe tobacco, the fact that pipe smokers do not inhale into their lungs and a myriad of other arguments we in the pipe community make to try to ease the current stigma of tobacco usage and distance ourselves from cigarettes.

We might recall that such modern heroes of the faith as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Spurgeon were smokers. Alternatively, perhaps we could devise an argument akin to those who insist that wine in the Bible was grape juice that C.S. Lewis was just hanging onto a bubble pipe while drinking his root beer in a local church owned restaurant…

Anyway, I know tobacco is controversial. And that this is a very “un-baptist” hobby to enjoy. But if feels good to get it out there so I can now publicly go smoke privately in my back yard...if I feel like it…in a day or two.

I leave you with this: "A pipe gives a wise man time to think and a fool something to stick in his mouth." - C.S. Lewis

Why I Haven't Been Writing

Of course I don't have to explain an absence or delay in posting if I have no reason to suspect that I have any current readership. Then that one guy has to randomly say "I thought you were blogging" and the wave of guilt crashes over you as if you've robbed the world of something. As inconsequential, as my blog has been even back when I wrote more frequently, I can tell you that for the majority of my time away the reason for my slack has been quite simply a busy schedule with too much to focus on. 

Study ceased to be the primary focus of my work and ministry and so writing took the same hit. From 2013 to 2015 I wrote two or three new sermons out of necessity. I was too caught up in the work of ministry to study and contemplate Scripture on the level I would prefer. If I'm not pondering God's word and the mysteries of life, not making observations on the world around me, then I've not the time nor material to write as I would like either. 

But for the last year I have had all the time on the world to think and write. So what was the issue? I have been overcome by fear. Pure unadulterated fear. 

Many who know me also know that I rose quickly through the ranks of a large Christian nonprofit in my area only to have the rug pulled out from under me with no warning or reason given. I call it a coup, but to be fair I am ignorant of anything that went on behind the scenes and nothing was explained to me. I went from CEO to mall security guard to substitute teacher to stay at home dad. I had time to think, and time to write. 

But I couldn't do it. My initial problem was one of anger. It would be easy to start blogging and lambast those who had wronged me. To try to pull back the curtain on my perceptions of corruption in the system that had failed me. But would this actually help anything? Time and time again I felt an overwhelming conviction that this would take me nowhere. I would write that post or letter to the editor and while it helped to get my feelings out on paper all I could think was, "What does this serve?" 

Then came the fear. I found myself in a position of bona fide ministry failure. I had not failed morally (as is so easy a slope to find oneself on these days) and because of the way I was let go I couldn't point to any matter of my work or leadership style that had led to the problem. I had failed and I didn't know how or why or if I was even responsible. Still my voice was silenced. What could I say or do that would help anyone? What insight could I possibly bring forward? I was afraid (still am) that to express an opinion would be to open myself up to immediate criticism. From whom I do not know, but every time I would start to form a thought or opinion on paper I would hear this voice saying, “Right as if any of us should listen to a failure!”

Added to my lack of confidence was the fact that with no super stressful job to distract me, I had to now face my PTSD. Since returning from Afghanistan I had managed this demon by throwing myself into work. I would go to counseling and psychiatric appointments to get just enough help to survive. But never face the issue head on. Anxiety and self-loathing ruled over me.

I’m not here to describe my symptoms and triggers or to gain sympathy or support. Just to tell my experience. Finally at the beginning of this year I could take it no more and confessed the full breadth of my struggle to my wife. I’m not ok yet, it isn’t managed yet, but I’m getting the full scope of help I need instead of scraping by and that is what’s important. I’m taking off the mask and letting my scars show instead of keeping up the fa├žade that everything is fine and perfect. I am a good actor, it is easy to lie to the world and pretend life is good.

So that’s it. That’s why I haven’t been writing. I lost my voice so to speak but I am trying to get it back.

But what to do with the fear? In my weakness, I have found strength in God’s word. Let’s consider Jeremiah 29 in which God addresses the exiles through Jeremiah’s letter. This chapter has often been taken out of context in an effort to make ourselves feel good or help people swallow name it and claim it doctrines the most misused verse is 11 which says,

“I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

The misuse of this verse revolves around people declaring that God has a tailor made plan for their personal welfare on earth in the here and now. Tell that to the believer in the third world country. Or as a friend of mine said the other day, “Walk into a children’s cancer ward and say that you [expletive deleted]!”

The verse, the entire chapter has context. And that context still allows the believer to find hope in God, not because of a specific promise but because of His nature. Just to be clear God is not addressing me or you personally in this verse. He is addressing exiled Jews in Babylon circa 722 BC. This promise refers specifically to a promise to return Israel to their homeland in time.

I am not exiled, I’m not Jewish, I live in 2016, I have an iPhone. I have nothing in common with the addressees of this letter. I’m not looking for the type of restoration they were asking for. Why then should this verse speak to me? Because my hope is not in what God will do for me, but in God’s promises to His people. The Bible is full of those promises. In Jeremiah 29 we have a promise that was verifiably fulfilled. God did return his people to their land, and He did provide for their spiritual welfare.

I find strength knowing that I serve a God who keeps His promises.

Philippians 1:6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

God called me to faith and to service to His Kingdom. The short years I have spent in full time ministry contexts may be all I get but God will complete the work He started in me. That doesn’t mean I will absolutely be restored to ministry, it doesn’t mean that I will be a pastor or great spiritual leader in my community. It does mean that God will be glorified in all that He has allowed me to do for Him. And should I never see the completion of that work with these two eyes, I can rest in the peace and assurance that God keeps His promises.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

It's coming back!

Hey there my five followers! The blog is getting ready to come back. Excited screams and sighs of frustration equally welcome. Prepare to have my thoughts force fed into your facebook feeds!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

My candidate lost...should I move?

It has been years since I've posted. I logged in again after all this time and found a draft with the above headline and no text. So this is all I'm going to post today. Just that headline from 2012. Hopefully the sarcasm is understood. I hope I start to write and post again and that it will be of benefit to anyone.