I’m not sure I like being THIS honest

HonestyI went to a program at a wealthy, suburban mega-church tonight.  It took me back to my younger days in youth ministry back in SoCal.  Beautiful, over-the-top, multi-functional facilities.  State of the art sound, lighting and video.  Incredible, in-house graphics all over the building.  Expansive parking and a perfectly manicured landscape.

And don’t forget the hip coffee bar in the lobby.  Yikes.

Even though the past 25 years have taken meministry, theology, Kingdom priorities, all of it…in a completely different direction, there is still a little residue of jealousy in my soul.  There.  I said it.

The truth is, there are certain kinds of churches and certain kinds of pastors  that have stuff that’s pretty easy to envy:  CEO-level salaries, expense accounts, health insurance, big staffs, open checkbook conference expenses (including travel) and healthy program budgets.  Add to that, top-of-the-line technology and ministry related equipment, expanding facilities, and all the other incredible tools that can make ministry easier, more effective, and wildly influential.

Not to mention the professional credibility and notoriety that comes from our culture’s infatuation with bigger and betterand the opportunities that come to those who lead these churches of influence and example.

*moment of transparency*

There is something about all of that can still appeal to my base nature, when I forget who I am and what God has led me to be.   Ego can be such a slimy bedfellow, sometimes.

But I would never go back there.  My life and heart have been captured by a completely different way of living out my commitment to Christ and his Kingdom.  I get up each day with different priorities than my fraternity on the other side of the table.

This week, our church family is facing the very real possibility of having to pay for the repair of a plumbing problem in our not-so-state-of-the-art facility that will completely deplete our savings accountthe one that we’ve worked diligently to replenish after the recession his us hard back in 2008.  (Those were the days we pretty much existed on whatever came in the offering plate the previous Sunday.  Fun times, they were…).

But we will be deeper because of the experience.  And better equipped to connect with a whole part of our culture that is neither financially independent nor comfortable in the presence of those who are.

Yeah.  It would be nice to have financial options.  It would be great to simply write checks and not have to be concerned about what significant areas of ministry are going to have to be cut.  It would be awesome to have the freedom that comes with financial flexibility.

But that is not who we are.

And YOU should be jealous of me.

Maybe you’ve seen this

Stomach acheI hate posting this.

I really do.

But I have a good reason.

This is a tape of an episode of Inside Edition that has been making the rounds on Facebook over the past month or so.  I actually saw it when it first appeared on television a few years ago.  You can watch it here, if you want.  It’s getting a lot of play and it’s stirred up a lot of fan fur.  And it’s not pretty.

It’s a fairly condemning expose of the lifestyles and ministries of some big-time pastor-televangelists.  I probably shouldn’t care, but this is my fraternitythe fraternity of people who draw a salary from the generosity of people who drop money in an offering box every week.

And if you know me, it’s generally a fraternity I try really hard to keep from admitting I’m a part of.

The fraternity of paid pastors no longer enjoys favored status in our culture.  The club has pretty much taken it on the chin ever since their shenanigans started to go viral back in the 70’s.  This video is just another in the long line of Cousin Eddie stuff that, even though we all know it exists, needs to stay in the closet.

I wish people these days didn’t have to sift through this stuff to experience the love of God.  I wish celebrity pastors and out-of-control church leaders and the over-focus on money and edifices and pastoral authority and theological snobbery and slick production were not the filters people had to use to interpret the incarnation.

Truth?  It’s part of our landscape and it won’t be going away.

So dig in.  Be faithful.  Act normal.  Live simply.  Give generously.  Expect nothing in return.  Extend mercy.  Bring hope.  Point only to Jesus.

It will all work out fine.  I’ve read the end of the book.

If you haven’t seen it yetand you have a bottle of antacids nearbyhere’s the video:

Marriage Tuesday

Los Angeles Lakeres at Dallas MavericksI was watching the end of the Mavricks-Bobcats basketball game tonight and it reminded me how much of a huge Dirk Nowitzki fan I am.

Since moving to the great state eighteen years ago, I’ve struggled to get behind the local teams.  First, the obvious.  I’m a San Diego homer.  100%…through and through…and that leaves little room for loyalty to other teams.  That’s just the way it is.

Second, the local teams have huge strikes against them in my world.  The Rangers play “Beer League Softball” in a 147 degree sauna.  Can’t do it.  The Cowboys are run by Jerruh Jones.  Can’t do it.  The Stars play hockey.  Other than dropping the gloves for an all-out slugfest, I don’t get it.

But the Mavs have grown on me.  Especially Dirk.

So here’s a test for those of you that spend too much time following your favorite sports teams:

What do Dirk, Larry Bird, Jerry West, Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripkin, Troy Aikman, and John Elway…have in common with Alex Rodriguez, Lebron, Nolan Ryan, Albert Pujols, Shaq, and Josh Hamilton?

A lot of things.  They are/were all some of the greatest athletes in the world.  The absolute best in their games…commanding huge salaries and enormous fan bases.  But the two groups are deeply different in one huge way.

The first group played their entire careers with the same team.  They signed contracts and honored them.  They were as motivated by loyalty to the team and ownership that made the commitment, both financial and emotional, to them when they were young and unproven.

So they stayed.  Even when other teams tried to lure them away with bigger contracts and promises of better teams and careers.

The second group?  They left their original teams for greener pastures…more money…and the potential of greater recognition and success.  They left because they could.  They left because loyalty doesn’t factor into the world of sports much anymore.

Sheesh…loyalty doesn’t factor into much of anything anymore.  I guess that’s why I like Dirk so much.  His loyalty to the Mavs…to his owner, Mark Cuban…to the greater Dallas community…is simply amazing and almost unheard of in these days of  broken promises and jaded, shallow loyalty.

When Josh Hamilton left the Rangers last year for the promised land of SoCal, his wife made a really profound statement about the whole process:

Katie Hamilton compared the relationship between her husband and the Rangers to dating. She said the club should have quickly moved to prevent Josh Hamilton from hitting the free-agent market.

“They let us go out and date other people and kind of give our hearts away.”  link

Here’s the marriage lesson:  We live in a culture that has fundamentally redefined the meaning of contracts and promises over the course of my lifetime.  I’m not saying people didn’t go back on their word back in the day.  Far from it.  People have always struggled with promise-keeping and loyalty.

It’s just that we live in a culture now that not only makes it easy to move out and move on from our first love…we actually reward it and disrespect people for not continually looking for something better.

Now that may make sense in the world of baseball and basketball contracts and any other kind of job-related move up the ladder of financial and professional success.  But that mentality is devastating in human relationships.

So when it comes to the marriage contract, are you more like Dirk or Lebron?  Do you find contentment and purpose in loyalty… or are you open to the possibility of something better…no matter the cost?

Your answer says everything about your understanding of God’s faithfulness to you.

Josh Hamilton…and Kanye West?

JoshKanyeLast year, high-profile baseball superstar Josh Hamilton really torqued me.  Not for the same reason all the jilted Ranger fans felt torqued, tho.  Most (tho not all) Rangers fans talked as if Josh had turn-coated the home team, to sign with the hated North Orange County Angels.  My take was that the Rangers clearly didn’t want him anymore (in spite of all the political posturing in the media)…and he knew it.  No problem here for me.  Going to a team that wanted him made perfect sense.

My problem was with his choice of words to the media, the day he actually signed his new contract.  Phrases like, “I just want to be where God wants me to be” and “I just want to provide for my family the best I can” felt cheap and condescending to me.

Apparently, signing for $25mil per year in California looked like the place where God wanted Josh to provide for his family.  Why did this have to get all theological?  Why did it have to be about provision?  Why couldn’t he have just said, “They’re going to pay me like a Shah and I can live in a mini-mansion that overlooks the Pacific Ocean if I want to.”  Way more honest and a lot less confusing to a world that struggles to understand God.

Now comes Kanye.

Just recently, Kanye left his lucrative contract with Nike to sign a long-term deal with Adidas (hey…those hip-hop megastars need good kicks for all the moves they bust every night on the road, ya know…).  Again, more power to the dude.  Just like our sports superstar entertainers, musical arena-fillers are free to make titanic-loads of money, if the sheep are willing to pay.  God bless America.

No.  Just like with Josh, my problem was with his choice of words to the media.  Check this out and see if it sounds familiar:

“I took the Adidas deal because I have royalties and I have to provide for my family…I’m gonna be the first hip-hop designer and because of that, I’m gonna be bigger than Wal-Mart.”

Wow.  Looks like the Adidas deal includes the same kind of royalties incentive the great Michael Jordan gets with Nike…like $50-100mil per year…just for the privilege of having Kanye’s mug on cardboard shoe boxes and hip ESPN commercials.

So glad he’s now gonna have enough cash to provide for Kim Kardashian and the little hip-hopsters they produce.  I was really starting to worry they were going to end up in line down at the Union Rescue Mission.  Whew.

Enough of my sarcasm.  Don’t miss the point here.  Let this modern-day parable be a lesson from God to you, as it has been to me.  In his Word, God promises to meet every real need we have.  He promises to give us enough, so that we will be free to give to others who don’t.  That’s the promise…and that’s the command.

Josh and Kanye are just men.  Broken men in a world of twisted and upside down values.  Broken men in need of grace. They are men like me.

I would lie if I said there aren’t days I see myself as better than they are…deeper, wiser, more mature.  And definitely more humble.  Yeah…way more humble.  And then I come back to earth and realize I’m really just a spiritual midget in need of the exact same grace my wealthier and higher profile brothers are needing.

Honesty is such a brutal mirror.

The inhumanity…

FBall penaltyi just read this morning that one of the hometown’s favorite sports hero’s just got fined $7,875 for a “throat slash” gesture while he was celebrating a touchdown.  he received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during the game.

here are my knee jerk observations:

i think its ridiculous how much the NFL tries to control the behavior of the players.

NFL football is NOT the moral compass of our country.  its entertainment.  nothing more.

i’m tired of the moralists who expect professional athletes to be role models for america’s youth.  do we expect tommy lee jones to be a role model?  no.  he’s an entertainer.  do we expect eddie van halen to be a role model?  no.  he’s an entertainer.  do we expect rush limbaugh to be a role model?  no.  he’s an entertainer.  why do we expect more from pro athletes?  sheesh.

i’ve always been a charles barkley fan.  never more than when we stated on national tv,  “i’m no role model.  stop expecting me to be one just because i’m a pro athlete.  being a role model is a parent’s job.”  

it’s also a parent’s job to point their kids in the direction of people who are good role models.   good role models are in every walk of life…every occupation…every age…every personality.  some are even pro football players.

good role models are just people.  fallible.  imperfect.  we need to be really careful…especially with our children…to balance moral expectations with reality, when it comes to trusting humans.

do we really believe this player is a threat to slash somebody’s throat?  really?

speaking of celebrations, why do athletes always point to the sky after they do something good?  is it a “god thing”…or are they just acknowledging dead uncle hector who, apparently, has front row tickets?  (ok, i’m a little chippy this morning, for some reason)

if the NFL (no fun league) is really in the business of penalizing their football family for putting the reputation of their great game at risk, why aren’t they fining players for playing bad?  or coaching bad?  or owning bad?

why do entertainers get paid so much?

why do we pay so much to be entertained?

i’m guessing the $7,875 fine levied against our local sports hero produces nothing more than some good-natured ribbing in the locker room this afternoon.

if you’re really concerned about making a statement and cleaning up the league, make him sit out a game and fine him the equivalent of how much he gets paid “per game”.  that would be approximately $84,000…for anybody that’s counting.  i think that might make him (and others) sit up and pay attention…if that’s the statement the NFL wants to make.

if i was forced to give up that amount of money, i would probably cry.

there.  i feel better.

Money talk. It’s never easy.

money stackyears ago, when wanda and i were just a young couple, we were challenged to live our lives with a sense of purpose. we were taught by people we admired and respected, to be open to living our lives for something greater than our own pleasure and comfort.

i remember one of the first (of many) times we heard tony campolo speak. back in the late 70’s, he was a christian “radical”…a political activist…a pastor…a college professor…an author and speaker. he still is today. before tony came along, i had never met a church leader that lived very far outside the traditional, conservative christian box i grew up in.

tony did. and the words he spoke that day rocked us…and though we didn’t follow his footsteps exactly, we took them to heart. deep to heart.

in a humble and unassuming way, he said between his pastoring, teaching and speaking, he probably made over $80k per year. in 1979! that would be easily 5-6 times that amount today… but it wasn’t what he “made” that was so shocking. it was how he chose to use it.

he said that some years earlier, before he started to make that kind of money, he and his wife made a decision about how much they needed to live on…to pay their bills and live a happy and healthy lifestyle for them and their young family. they determined that number was about $30k.

so they made a decision. they wouldn’t change their standard of living…even if they made more money. their thinking was, “why should making more money change what we decided our standard of living to be?” wow. that seemed so counter-cultural. so different than the american dream.

everybody i knew…including my own family…instinctively lived exactly the opposite. making more money was your ticket to raising your standard of living. it was your right. it was your divine right. it was what you were supposed to do with god’s “blessing”.

but tony pointed us to another option. another way of living. something that seemed much more biblical.

why not pick a standard of living…as low as you can, yet still enough to still live happy and comfortably…and then use the rest of your money (god’s money) on things of nobler purposes? why not live on a little less, so that more could be invested directly into god’s kingdom purposes? it made sense to us. and it’s how we’ve tried to live our lives the past 35 years.

it’s also why “tithing” doesn’t make sense to me. well…that and the fact that it was old testament taxation of the jews that is no longer required in the new covenant. here’s how it challenges my sensibilities:

if a family is living on $30k here in 2013 united states, it’s not easy. and “requiring”…or even expecting…them to give 10% of their income to the church could place a serious burden on them and their family. $250 a month is a huge amount to them!

on the other hand, if a family lives on 300k per year (what’s left over after taxes), a “tithe” of $30k per year to the church shouldn’t (i hate that word) place an undo burden on this family. they ought to be able to live comfortably on $270k, don’t you think? especially if they had made a decision to lock in their standard of living at, say…$175k per year. that would free up 125k per year…of god’s money…to be used on god’s things. amazing. why would they limit their giving to just a tithe?

how we spend most of the money we have (after taxes) is our choice. it’s nobody else’s choice. and we can always choose to spend less on ourselves and more for a greater purpose. always.

friends, i know this is not an easy discussion.

Steward…not Stewie.

Stewie

there are a number of descriptive titles for followers of christ in the bible.  actually, there are over 150 different ways believers are referred to.

disciple…alien…saint…beloved…brother and sister…chosen ones…ambassador…salt…and one of my particular favorites: scum.  (we’ll come back to that one someday, i promise!)

in luke, jesus refers to his followers in a story where he says that only faithful stewards will be prepared for his return.

And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time?  Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes.  Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions.  Luke 12:42-44  NAS

in some of the more modern translations of the bible, the word for steward is translated manager or caretaker.  the fundamental principle of life for the follower of christ that we own nothing…we are simply managers of what belongs to god.  check out these passages:

You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.  Deuteronomy 8:17-18

You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.  1 Corinthians 6:19-20

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.  Psalm 24:1

Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.  1 Corinthians 4:2

the reality?  we don’t bring anything to the table.  it’s all god’s.  all of it.  all of that stuff you say you’ve worked hard for and you deserve and you don’t want want anybody to mess with?  it’s not yours.  it’s god’s and you’re just taking care of it for him.

so how are you doing on that one?  yeah, that’s what i thought.  me too.

since god really does hold all the ownership rights…and since we only have what we’ve been allowed to have, then our role with what we have ought to look a little (maybe a lot) different than what it does.  god has entrusted us with a lot.  our talents.  our gifts.  our abilities.  our time.  our resources.  even our money.

and all of it belongs to him!  we will never get this “following jesus” down right, until we bury this basic truth deep in our hearts.  it will never effect the way we live, until we truly believe it.  all of what i have is his and i am responsible to manage it for him and his purposes, not mine…for his design and desires, not mine.

he’s the owner.  i’m the steward.  he’s the king.  i’m the caretaker.  am i missing anything?

every decision we make…whether it’s about our time or our money…is a decision of stewardship.  every decision is a kingdom decision.  there are no entirely “personal” decisions, because in every decision i make, i’m playing with house money…money that doesn’t belong to me.  how dare i play with it frivolously?

how dare i make decisions with my time and money that look simply to my own desires and my own best interests?

“but i’m taking good care of the money god has given me.  i’m making wise investments.  i’m buying important stuff.  i’m taking care of my family.  i’m turning a profit.  i’m being successful and responsible with everything god has given to me.”

“i even give god a good thank-you tip on sundays.  i even give him back a little…for his church stuff, you know…out of the abundance he’s given to me.”

sorry, friends.  if that’s the mentality, it’s missing the point.  we are not given the responsibility to decide how much to “give back to god”.  we are given the responsibility to use everything…i mean everything… for his purposes, for his glory, for what he’s all about.

the hard decision should not be how much we are going to “give back”.  it should be how much of his stuff…the stuff  i’m supposed to be taking care of…i’m going to squander on my own pleasure, to the neglect of what we are to be doing with it in the first place.

look.  i don’t think god is against us spending some of his money on our own fun…our own enjoyment…our own security…our own comfort.  he even said it:

Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.  1 Timothy 6:17

but enough is enough.  we better be about the master’s business when he comes back.

so start using his money accordingly.