The Middle

TruthI started writing this morning and it started to sound familiar.  Like I had written this once before.  I went back into my archives and, sure enough, I had written some really similar thoughts about five years ago.  So I’ll repeat them today.  

I don’t think I’ve ever written anything I believe stronger or that I’m more convicted about.  Read on…

The world we live in is more complicated than it used to be fifty years ago.  No doubt.  For crying out loud, it’s more complicated today than it was last year.

I don’t think the world is more sick and twisted and evil than it’s ever been.  I don’t think sin is more prevalent or humanity is any darker than it was during the days of Noah or the reign of Nero or the crusades of the middle ages or the tyranny of Hitler.  Sin is sin.

But what I do think is different today is access.  Information…any and all kinds of information…information with no filter for the voices and opinions and ideas that speak into our minds and hearts…all of it with unlimited access.

For all the good that technological advancement has brought, it has come with a price.  The internet…with instant and unlimited access…and the satellite…with the capability of bringing world events live to our recliners…have changed everything.

No longer are values or information or “truth” given in controlled doses by people we trust.  It is sensory overload and every man…and every “truth” for himself.  And may the loudest or most powerful or most manipulative win.

And it’s just the way it is.

One of the problems I see is christians these days are fighting themselves into a corner.  Running scared.  There is a paranoia and fear that we are losing the battle.  Especially here in the United States.  They say we are losing the battle for the minds of our young people.  They say we are losing the battle for the morality of a nation.  They say we are losing the battle for orthodox doctrine.  They say we are losing the battle for right against wrong.

Many followers of Christ are drawing lines between “us” and “them”.   As some try to bridge the gap with love and generosity, the Body of Christ has begun to turn on itself.  And because powerful and influential voices are heard loud and clear and instanteneously…and without filters…people are forced, or even coerced, into choosing sides.

And that’s inside the doors of the church.

My fear?  As the church becomes more militant and combative in our fight for truth, justice and the American way, the more our commitment to expanding the Kingdom will be compromised.

Come on.  Is our highest calling to preach the gospel to all nations and reach the lost with the message of hope and grace and healing revealed in the life and words of Jesus or not?  Are we called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus or not?  Are we to do what he did…say the things he said…treat people the way he did…and live by giving value to the things he valued or not?

You may say that Jesus was an extremist.  Some say he polarized people and drew lines and caused his followers to choose sides.  And in a way he did.  But he also did something else.

He navigated the middle.

He rubbed elbows with everyone.  He was as comfortable with the prostitute as he was with the aristocrat.  He saw the good, or at least the potential for good, in all.  He partied at the wedding feast and he taught in the temple.  He loved the saint and the sinner.  How about you?

He was a living bridge and not a wall.  He was a window and not a barricade.  He was always the safe middle ground where all were accepted.  All were welcome.  All were loved.   Such a far cry from so many of his followers today.

Are you safe?  Are you welcoming?  Do you listen?  Do you try to walk in the shoes of the other…to see what they see and feel what they feel and understand why they may think and act the way they do?  Without judgment and rejection?  Do you still have more to learn…even from people with whom you have differences of opinion or conviction?

Do you draw people in or do you push them away?  Are you known more for you love or your rhetoric?

Can I offer a suggestion?  The more people are defined by right and left…liberal and conservative…pro this and con that…the greater the need for some people who can navigate from the middle.  Followers of Christ who can understand and articulate and sympathize with both sides of the fence.   Any fence.

We desperately need a new generation of believers who will not be bullied by anybody.  Who will not be intimidated by new ideas or run scared by change.   Who will not be frightened by people who are different…philosophies that are different…and even ideas that challenge our orthodox understandings of the church and doctrine.

The world we live in has changed.  Technology has changed.  The flow of information has changed.  The rate of change has changed.  But people still need to meet jesus.

And if that’s going to happen in the world as we know it now, we need to have people who can navigate the middle.  The middle is where peace is forged, where compromise is found, where surprising friendships and new alliances are born.  The middle is where people are drawn in, not alienated.  

Will that be you?  Will you be a person who navigates the middle?

(If you think this is a call for people to have no convictions and to take no stands, you have missed my point.  Wholesale.  I will always study to show myself approved by God and contend for the truth as I understand it with passion and determination.  But I refuse to be a stumbling block to those who see things differently than I do.  For me, living as Jesus lived and treating people the way he did must take priority.)

Advertisements

Ok. That was not expected.

throwing stonesI went to bed last night with righteous indignation.

I thought.

My stomach was sick. I couldn’t control my thinking. My mind was pinballing all over the inside of my skull as I played and replayed the events of our days…and the dissonance of the cultural commentary (both verbally and in action) that often accompanies those who carry the image of Christ in their hearts.

It just seems like the task of being God’s ambassadors of peace and healing in an obviously hurting and broken world, continues to be made more difficult by some, even many, claiming to be His people.

They just sound and act so different from how I think Jesus would be, if he were here, in person.

As a matter of fact, one of my deepest frustrations comes from knowing that, according to his promises, he IS here. In person. In the hearts and minds of each of his own. Yeesh.

Why’s he not doing a better job?

Anyway, fueled with my morally and spiritually superior attitude, and determined to wake up this morning and let my keystrokes dole out verbal discipline, in the same manner of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple courtyard, a funny thing happened.

I woke up with the weight of my own miserable failings. Instead of the story of Jesus overturning the tables, my morning music was a different tune. The one where Jesus knelt in the dirt.

You remember it. The story about when the Pharisees (the ones with the morally and spiritually superior attitude) drug the whore into temple courtyard, hoping for Jesus to condemn her the same way they were condemning her.

Talk about turning the tables upside down! After drawing something in the dirt, Jesus spoke words of truth that have moved real disciples to near hyper-ventilation for 2000 years.

“Which ever one of you is without sin, you throw the first stone.”

One by one, each one of the Pharisees (the religious smug) walked away, because at least they had enough self-awareness to know their lives were not without sin. They knew who they were.

Last night, I lost sight of who I am. This morning I remembered.

Pointing out the sins of those who ride righteous high-horses should never be done by one who is also riding a righteous high-horse. I woke up ready to do the very thing I was going to call out others for doing. Whoa. Talk about a contradiction!

I know we are to call out sin. I know we are to be light in darkness. I know we are to warn people of the dangers of the path they are traveling.  But none of us will truly ever be without sin.  All of us are Pharisees of one kind or another.  None of us is “good” enough to pass judgment on another.  And maybe that’s a good thing.

The only way to “cast a stone” (render judgment, throw criticism, project superiority, communicate my way is better than your way, etc…) is by being armed with the awareness that my sin, my weakness, my hypocrisy, my pride, my lack of love, my moral and spiritual superiority, is just as bad as yours.

And that changes everything.  At least it should.

It keeps the playing field level.  It keeps my criticism from ever going overboard.  It keeps my heart from growing hard.  It keeps me from ever thinking I’m better than you.  It keeps humility in the forefront and pride pushed to the rear.  It puts me in a position to be part of the solution, instead of perpetuating another problem.  It communicates grace, love, mercy, and hope…instead of judgment, fear, and exclusion.

It helps tear down walls, instead adding more bricks and more mortar.

Funny.  It’s pretty much impossible to cast stones at Pharisees, without becoming one.

Divided

DividedWhile doing some reading yesterday, I had an interesting thought about differences of opinion. People in our country are divided in their support of the president and our government.  Divided over war.  Divided over the economy. Divided over issues of race and poverty and education.  There is hostility.  People on opposite sides of the divisions look at their opponents with smug superiority.  “You’d have to be a complete idiot to think that…”, they say.

It saddens me, but Christians are no different.  In spite of what Jesus commanded (and modeled), we struggle at unity. We are divided.  Divided over politics and war and race and education and the economy.  We are also divided over denominations.  Divided over social issues.  Divided over theology. Divided over lifestyle.  Believers on opposite sides of the divisions look at their opponents with smug superiority. “You’d have to be a complete idiot to believe that…”, they say.

Could it be that none of us are as smart as we think we are?  Maybe we don’t have a “deed of ownership” on the truth. Maybe… just maybe… there are people who have totally different positionstotally different interpretations   totally different opinions than we doand they are using their brains also!

Truth is, I have changed my opinion on lots of things over the years.  Politics.  Theology.  Marriage. Parenting. Church leadership.  Social issues.  End times.  Music.  Tithing.  Barbeque.   However, I haven’t changed my mind on the essential wrongness of coffee, the designated hitter, and short-shorts (for menand women).

Maybe instead of shaking our heads in pitiful judgment, we could listen with compassionate understanding and respect.  I’m not suggesting that there is no truth, but I am suggesting that none of us is as bright as we want to believe we are.  Seeking truth is a lifelong process.  God’s revealed word is our only concrete guide.  I just think we need to walk the path without undermining the intellectual dignity of our fellow-travelers.

Words you need to learn to say

WordsPridethe bad kindis an ugly thing.  It gets all of us some of the time.  It gets some of us a lot of the time.

One of the ways you can tell if being prideful is a big part of your daily battlefield is by the words you use.  Or, rather, the words you don’t use.  At least as part of your regular flow.

If people are not hearing these statements from you all the time, there’s a problem.  A big, fat heart problem.  But speaking them freely and graciously is how we keep spiritually balanced and close to God’s heart:

“I was wrong.”  Nobody wants to be wrong.  But we all are sometimesand we hate to admit it.  A hearty admission of wrongdoing,  especially when coupled with a genuine and you were right”, does amazing things for the soul.  Not to mention the friendship.

“Can I help?”  Looking for ways to help and serve is one of the surest ways to genuinely pursue humility.

“Help me understand.”  This is a posture of great vulnerability.  It honors the other person.  It dignifies differences.  It levels the playing field by quickly affirming the journey of another.

“Do I really need to say this?”  This is the ultimate self-talk.  This question should be asked before you ever open your mouth or post a comment for any kind of public viewing.

“I believe in you.”  Such a simple affirmation.  In a world where failure and rejection and hopelessness can attack anybody at just about any time, these four words can bring life.

“Don’t give up.”  Life is difficult.  It’s easy to be afraid.  The temptation to quit is always near.  Sometimes the only thing a person needs is encouragement and the challenge to dig deep.  Again.  Do your words inspire and give hope?

“I’m different, not better, than you.”  This is the essence of cross-cultural navigation.  These are not just wordsthey are a lifestyle.  Does your attitude and demeanor communicate honest love and acceptanceor judgment and superiority?

“I don’t know.”  We have just got to stop acting like we know everything.  The quickest way to shut down conversation is to act and talk like a know-it-all.  Sometimes, our willingness to expose our ignorance is exactly what is needed to open the door.

“I’m sorry.”  This expression of vulnerability and honesty is the ultimate in bridge-building.  These two words breathe hope and restoration.  They are the oxygen of relationship.  They speak volumes about the condition of our heart.

So what do you think?  Are there any other words you would add to the list?

People-helping

Rescue Mei’ve spent the better part of forty years helping people.

i’m no hero.  i’m just doing what god has gifted me to do.  it’s really that simple.

and as i sit here tonight thinking about it, i’m feeling incredibly humbled and grateful that people make financial sacrifices out of their weekly budget to make it possible for me to do the thing i love to do.   amazing.

in all these years of people-helping, here’s one thing i’ve learned:  we never know the whole story of why people are the way they are.

we can listen.  we can ask questions.  we can speculate.  we can try to interpret their behavior.   but it’s never the whole story.

everybody makes the decision to disclose a certain amount.  some people are open books.  some are in complete denial of who and what they are.  everybody else falls somewhere in-between.

but nobody discloses everything.

all of our stories are complicated.  people are products of their past.  family dynamics from childhood leave permanent marks on everything…self-image, confidence, fears, communication skills, beliefs, values, problem-solving, ethics.  life stories are full of successes and failures that influence how we act and respond.

and everybody has secrets.

when i try to help people, it would be great to know the whole story.  but i have to be content with what they give…and do my best with it.

when i know more of the story of why people act the way they do, it’s always easier to be patient…to withhold judgment… show love and mercy… and treat them as i would want to be treated.  i know that’s true for most of you, also.

so here’s an idea.  why not just go ahead and treat people with love and grace and mercy and patience anyway…without knowing their story?  you don’t tell all of yours…and you expect people to treat you graciously.   why do you need additional information before you withhold judgment of others?

maybe if we showed more love first, people might be more willing to trust us with more of their stories.

Only a lad…

oingo-boingoso wanda and i are sitting in taco casa (a totally americanized fast-food taco joint with great green chile sauce and crack tea) up in denton the other day and in the middle of working our way through a couple of bean burritos, i’m actually listening to the muzak playing for our eating ambiance in the back ground.

somewhere in between willie nelson and brad paisley, i’m totally blown away by the song that comes on.  “only a lad”, by oingo boingo.  oingo boingo?  the socal, new wave ska band that defined my youth group in huntington beach in 1981?  right here in the heart of texas…in 2013?  you gotta be kidding me!

talk about walking down memory lane.

but it’s got me thinking about something deeper.  i really liked the sound of oingo boingo.  a lot.  i still do.  in fact, when wanda’s not in the car or if i’m traveling by myself,  loud 80’s punk or speed metal will always take a prolonged spin on my ipod.  and not just for nostalgia.

when it comes to music or sports teams or art or whatever, we like to joke and banter and enter into fake arguments about what style is superior or who’s version is better.  we do it as friends.  we do it in fun.  nobody gets hurt.  there is no deeper agenda.

but as i’m preparing to leave for our trip to mexico tomorrow, i am reminded of something more profound.  a war that simmers just below the surface in each of us.

we live in a world…both locally and globally…where people are different.  different customs and traditions.  different palates.  different interests and values.  different cultures.  different colors.  different ways of doing things.

one of the greatest joys of my life has always been to take kids into mexico for the first time.  past the tourist traps and familiarity of downtown…and into the neighborhoods and barrios where we often go to help.   it’s there where the contrast is so vivid.

looks and smells and textures and lifestyles and possessions are not what we are used to.   and the immediate internal reaction is one of superiority.  oh, there is an initial wave of pity…but that quickly gives way to “ewww.  how they live that way?  how can they eat that?  how can they stand that smell?  can you believe what they are wearing?”

and what’s subtly implied in that inner dialogue is this:  we are better.  we are smarter.  our way is superior.  there’s something wrong with them.  if they thought like us and a did things the way we do them, their lives would be better.

and we don’t have to go to mexico to have that attitude.  it can creep in anytime and anywhere.   and we have to fight it.

different cultures…different people groups…different nationalities and backgrounds are simply that:  different.  not better.  not worse.  just different.  it’s one of the first and most basic lessons we learn as followers of christ.  jews and gentiles couldn’t have been more different.  they were disgusted by their cultural differences.  they despised each other’s religious and philosophical backgrounds.  they had nothing in common.

until jesus died and rose again and leveled the playing field.  all are now equal.  all come to jesus the same way.  they learned that god is no “respecter of persons”.   they had to learn to live side by side and stop judging each other.  they had to learn to sit at the same table and drink from the same cup.

differences were no longer excuses to judge.  differences were now the distinctives of the new community.  requiring people to change (or even smugly or secretively expecting it), gave way to appreciating differences.  and that needs to be true for us today.

i like fish tacos.  i prefer to drive older vehicles and not make payments.  i like the national league.  i’ll never own a gun for my own protection because i could never kill somebody with it.  i know myself.  i like crowds.  long conversations with teenagers still energize me.  i don’t understand algebra.  i don’t like steak.  i stay awake until 1:30 almost every night.

and i like oingo boingo.   so show me some love.

and then show it to everyone else, too.

just in case you’ve never heard of oingo boingo…

Marriage Tuesday

so i’m feeling like i ought to apologize for my overreaction yesterday.  today, when i went back and read what i
wrote, i had to admit that some of it was a response to some things i had read earlier..as well as a conversation i had had after our services on sunday.

i’m not backing off my conclusions, but there was definitely a critical edge that was unnecessary.  sometimes the truth doesn’t need to be spoken.  sometimes it serves no purpose other than to flaunt spiritual superiority.  this is not a pleasant admission.

but it does make me think about a common problem in marriages.

one of my absolute favorite things about football season in texas is listening to sports talk radio…especially after a regrettable performance by the home team.   one of the local stations loves referring to the “day after” as overreaction monday.

are you an “overreactor” in your marriage?

do you have the tendency to blow things out of proportion?

are you ever guilty of exaggerating the demands or outcomes of a situation?

are you a drama queen…or the male equivalent?

do you make big deals out of small problems?

are you prone to making mountains out of mole hills?

or are you the kind of person that loves to give your partner the benefit of the doubt?  are you able to keep a sense of perspective when things go wrong…and do your reactions consistently fit the crimes?

healthy relationships have this in common:  there is room for error.  responses are seasoned with grace.  forgiveness is never earned.  hope is always present.  justice is tempered with love.

and there is absolutely no overreaction monday.