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.)


I’m tired.

TruthNot physically.  I get enough sleep.  My muscles get stronger every day.  No.  I’m tired in a different way altogether.

I’m tired of working so hard to find out if people are speaking the truth or not.

Years ago, I took most everything at face value.  Honesty was a value I was raised with and came to expect from others.  It was especially a value I expected from people in positions of power and influence.

Unfortunately, those days are long gone.

These days, I now know I can’t really trust anybody that I don’t know personally.

I can’t trust any news outlet.  I don’t believe that any of them are fair or balanced.  They say what their audience wants them to say, otherwise they would lose their audience. They may believe what they are saying is the truth, but anymore, even a casual fact-check will call their reporting into question.

(I realize that fact-checking sites and watch-dog blogs are equally subject to bias and need to be carefully researched and cross-checked for truth.  And I have developed the habit of doing this. Thus…the reason I am tired.)

I cannot…no, will not trust a politician.  Things have changed.  I cannot consistently believe the words that come out of their mouths.  Maybe they truly believe what they are saying.  Maybe not.  Either way, they are saying what they feel they need to say to get…or stay…elected.  They say what their constituency wants to hear.  Whether it is 100% accurate (or a complete fabrication) is completely irrelevant.

There was a time when coaches, ministers, teachers, police officers, military brass, counselors, social service officials and others, could be trusted to tell the truth, simply because of the honesty and integrity associated with their position.  Well, that’s a piece of distant history.

And let’s not even go down the road of the collective wisdom that is flippantly (and carelessly) traded on the world wide interweb.

But this isn’t all bad.

There was a time I was leading a high school Bible study and for the whole time I was teaching, I told lies and half-truths.  I made everything sound really spiritual.  I taught with deep conviction.  I made sure my facial expressions and body language were sincere and convincing.

After 20 or 30 minutes of teaching (complete with questions and answers), I came clean. And then proceeded to teach them the truth I really wanted them to grasp.  Don’t believe something just because someone in an influential position says it.  God gave us brains and we are to use them.  Think.  Ask questions.  Don’t trust a religious “expert”, just because they have a title or a following.  Study.  Research.  Use the gifts God has given you.  Diligently seek the truth.  Above all, take responsibility for your own spiritual journey.

Honestly, I think we may now be living in an era where truth and honesty in the social setting is gone.  The ends justifying the means is now the standard we have come to accept in almost all areas of public life.  Yeah.  I believe the bar is that low.

But it doesn’t have to be that way for the seeker of God’s truth.

A matter of influence

TruthWe don’t form our positions on important issues independently.  We don’t come to our opinions in a vacuum.

We just don’t.

Oh, we can determine our favorite food or who we think is the best lead guitar player of all-time or even our take on the top movie of the year.  Those are arrived at subjectively and, in the big picture, aren’t really all that important.  Sorry.

I’m talking about something altogether different.

Take politics.  You don’t just sit in your recliner and manufacture your opinions on issues like immigration reform or affordable health care or the national budget.  If you’re smart, you research.  You study.  You listen.  You fact check.  But to do that, you have to rely on sources of input to inform you and educate you.

And there’s the struggle.  You have to determine which source of information is worthy of your trust.  Which news channel?  Which talking head? Which politician? Which blogger? Which social scientist?  Which website? Which publications?  Which family member?

Whose “truth” is more reliable?  Whose opinion do you give the most weight?

Take matters of health care.  You don’t just daydream yourself into opinions on vaccinations.  On alternative medicines.  On weight loss plans.  On childbirth alternatives. On heart care.  On physician and hospital choices.  If you’re smart, you research.  Just like you should on politics.

And at some point, you may say “no” to conventional methods and traditional approaches to medicine.  And you will do that because you have chosen a source of truth to trust, over and above others.  You may choose a friend or family member’s opinion over a medical doctor…or an internet source over a face-to-face professional consultation.

No matter what, you have allowed yourself to be influenced by someone or something.

Or take matters of spirituality and theology.  You don’t simply develop your personal belief system by locking yourself in a closet and reading the Bible.  Or at least you shouldn’t.  The Bible is a complex piece of literature that demands the best of scholarship to understand. And there are hundreds and hundreds of years of interpretation at our fingertips.

Which books are you reading?  Which teachers are you listening to? Which commentaries carry more weight?  Whose interpretations do you deem more “right”?  Whose opinions are shaping what you believe?

In life, it’s not a matter of whether or not you will be influenced.  It is a matter of who you are letting influence you.  Who are you giving access to your decision-making process?  Who are you allowing to define “truth” for you?

I’m pretty convinced our research of sources is just as important as our research of the information.  The source of “truth” is as important as the truth itself.

Be careful.

studyYou know, people are free to believe all kinds of stuff.  It’s a free country.  We all have a certain amount of education.  We all have our own life experiences to confirm what we want to believe is true.  

For Christians in our country, we have as many church smorgasbord options as you can find at a Golden Corral.  We can pick and choose which preachers we like…which commentaries we want to read…which authors we consider superior…which bloggers we want to bow to.

On top of that, we all have our own copies of the Bible.  I can interpret it for myself.  I can come to my own conclusions.  I can decide which parts to emphasize and which parts to soften.  And which parts to completely ignore.  I can even use the Bible to defend my own opinions…even if the Bible doesn’t exactly say what I want it to say.

It’s almost as if I can mold the Bible in my own philosophical and ideological image.  Yikes.

And so can you.

Free will is a tough thing.  It is a sacred privilege.  It also carries massive responsibility…with eternal consequences.  We need to tread carefully.  Especially when we are studying the Bible.

One of the mistakes we are prone to make (either because of inexperience or laziness) is taking Bible statements out of context and then drawing skewed or completely wrong conclusions.  Here are a few examples:

Passage:  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  Philippians 4:13

Lazy conclusion:  Christ will give me the strength to do anything I set my mind to do.  This is a favorite verse of athletes to use as motivation in their competitive pursuits.

Context:  Because we know the secret of being content in any and every situation, we can be confident that Jesus will give us the strength to face any struggle or circumstance, no matter how difficult.  IMO.

Passage:  “You will always have the poor with you.”  Matthew 26:11

Lazy conclusion:  Since we will always have poor people, poverty will never be erased.  This passage is used to undermine efforts to prioritize the elimination of poverty by the church and humanitarian organizations.

Context:  Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy 15, and it says quite the opposite.  IMO.  “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”  Deuteronomy 15:11  

Passage:  “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”  Luke 22:36

Lazy conclusion:  For some, these words of Jesus (delivered to his disciples the night He was arrested by the Roman guards) are not just permission for Christians to own guns and other weapons for self-defense, but actually a command to do so.

Context:  In the following verse (37), Jesus explains that there was an Old Testament prophesy stating the Messiah would be “counted among the lawless and thieves”, and he wanted to make sure this prophesy came to pass by having his disciples have swords.  The passage has nothing to do with self-defense.  IMO.

Passage:  “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.”  1 Corinthians 6:19

Lazy conclusion:  Christians love to use this verse to condemn the use of drugs, poor eating habits, lack of exercise, cigarette smoking and the drinking of alcohol…and use it to promote healthy lifestyles.

Context:  Specifically, the context is about sexual sin.  The general teaching is that Christ died to redeem us back to God. Therefore, we belong to God…completely and totally…and He has taken up residence inside of us.  We are his temple, his dwelling place.  IMO.

This list could go on and on.

Be diligent in your study.  Be careful in your interpretations.  Be slow to speak.  Be quick to listen.  Be faithful to the text.

And beware of being snookered.

The Truth.

TruthSo, today after the second service, I was approached by a visitor, who, clearly, wasn’t coming to tell me what a fantastic message he had just heard, or how impressed he was with my neon orange shoe laces.  Armed with a half-smile and his leather-bound Bible, he was coming to do battle.

I welcomed him and we exchanged names.  Then he began to tell me how I had completely mishandled the text I preached from…by quoting five or six passages and then turning to a related text, he proceeded to read me an entire passage, complete with properly placed voice inflections.

As he paused to catch his breath, I wedged in a short response to let him catch a glimpse of where I was coming from in my interpretation of the text.  All that did was fuel his fire of opposition more.  He pulled out a few more passages and then challenged my theological foundation and simply made it clear I was wrong in what I was preaching.  He was not mean, but he was certainly emphatic.

All this happened while 30 or 40 people I wanted to connect with passed right by me.  I attempted to close the conversation and offer to meet with him for a coke and discussion at a better time, but before I could, he turned away and walked out the doors…probably praying for my wretched, heretical soul.

These kinds of things happen every now and then.  I’m never really offended and life is way too short to get mad at this kind of stuff.  Most people believe what they believe with great passion…and many are not afraid to tell you all about it.

I’m a little different.

There are definitely things I have come to believe with my whole heart, things that form the foundation of how I live my life and shape the messages I pass on to people when I’m given the invitation.  But years ago, I adopted a mindset that frames my pursuit of truth and always helps me measure how I interact with people…whether speaking on Sunday, posting on Facebook, or grabbing a coke with a friend after work.

I know I could be wrong.

Look.  Let’s be honest.  If knowing the truth was so easy, we wouldn’t have hundreds of different denominations.  Or different political parties.  Or differences of opinions on the national deficit and guns and immigration.  But it’s not that easy. And I prefer to see my pursuit of truth as a work in progress, rather than a destination  where I have arrived and built my permanent residence.

I believe God is the same yesterday, today and forevermore.  I believe his words are timeless and his truth is unchanging.  I also happen to believe I am not perfect.  Nor is my understanding.  So I continue to pursue truth and wisdom and understanding every day of my life…hopefully with humility in my heart and patience for those with whom I disagree.

How about you?  What if, in the end, your beliefs are found to have been wrong about the rapture or baptism or speaking in tongues or divorce or eternal security?  What if your beliefs are wrong about gun control or same-sex marriage or the death penalty or drinking alcohol?  What if you really are a bigot or an idol worshipper or an addict…and you refuse to see it?

What if.

Maybe we would all be better off if we would just admit we are not perfect, nor do we have perfect understanding.  And then give others room and respect to see things differently.

I didn’t like being treated like I was stupid, just because this guy thought he knew the truth better than I did.  God help me from ever treating someone else the way he treated me.

May God help you, too.

Overreaction Monday

Angry faceThere’s a local sports-talk radio program that had a regular bit called “Overreaction Monday” during football season.  It was always my favorite time to listen, as they gave their knee-jerk, over-the-top commentary on the home town team’s performance on the field the previous day.

I’m afraid we are living in a culture that lives in a perpetual state of “Overreaction Monday”.

Take the Whataburger fiasco of last week.  Within hours of the CBS news article going live, the story spread like wildfire on internet news sites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter.  The problem?  The local CBS news got it wrong.  If only the news had waited and let the story unfold, they could have painted an entirely different picture.

The real story?  A loved and trusted Whataburger night manager made a horrible mistake by joking that he wouldn’t serve two police officers (not local Lewisville police, but visiting police brought in to help oversee some of the late-nite highway construction mess we are living with in our neighborhood).  He immediately realized the mistake, apologized for the blunder, and began processing their order.  The officers didn’t accept the apology, left, and contacted CBS news.

And then the story broke.  At least the story that CBS wanted people to know and pass along.

I’m still waiting for the truth to be made public.  The truth that although Corporate Whataburger had to fire the employee immediately (to avoid a massive public relations nightmare), the Lewisville Police Chief has asked Whataburger to give the manager his job back.  Our local Whataburger is a favorite hangout of LV police and they know this was a situation that could have been handled much differently.  LV police have continued to show up to our Whataburger to give encouragement to the store and patrons.  It’s been pretty cool to see.

But now, outside of our little pocket that gets to know the real story, the damage is done.  I just checked the CBS article this morning (the one entitled, “Lewisville Whataburger ‘Don’t Serve Police'”, the original post from six days ago), and there are now nearly 6,500 comments…the most recent was just eight hours ago.  And they continue to be vile, hate-filled, racist and fueling the fire of divisiveness and fear in our country.

And this is the same article that thousands linked to, just hours after it originally posted.

I learned a lesson as a young pastor that has served me well in most every area of my life.  When I counsel couples through marriage difficulties, I always assume there’s more to the story than I am hearing.  Sometimes they are hiding because of embarrassment.  Other times they might be withholding, to try to influence my opinion or help.  Sometimes there are parts of the story that are simply too painful.

No matter what, there is always more, and I have learned the best way to deal with this is to give time.  Time to let the story unfold.  Time for the whole truth to come out.  Time to give both sides their due.  Time to process.  Time for cooling.  Time for silence to limit the damage.  Time for natural healing to take place, if it can.

And most of all, time for me to make sure I am not judging unfairly or reacting to something that may not be entirely the truth.

Can I offer a bit of pastorly advice?  When you hear, read or see something that hits a nerve, challenges your sensibilities, or flies in the face of your values, would you push the pause button?  Use the time to pray for wisdom.  Use the time to research and make sure you are reacting to the whole story.

And most of all, use the time to be sure that, if you are absolutely compelled to pass on the bad news, at least you are passing on the truth.  It’s truly the least you can do.

This road I travel. #3

This Road 2Many of the changes I have encountered in my life occurred years ago, when I began to step out of the cocoon of my early church upbringing.  This one, though, is relatively new.

The availability of information has changed everything.

It was gradual, at first.  Radio.  Television.  “Live”entertainment and news reporting put people in the moment. It was censored and edited in the beginning, but over the past couple of decades, it has become increasingly unfilteredwith unlimited availability.

The internet has given a voice to anybody and everybody.  24 hours a day.  An expert is anyone with a keyboard. Somebody’s opinion is just a click away.  Somebody’s perspective is always waiting for you to read it, listen to it, or watch it.

The same medium that can show you how to fix a compressor on a refrigerator or properly hang a kitchen cabinet, can also provide you with instant filth or the non-stop rants of atheists bent on making a mockery of people of faith.

In the 1970’s, about the only place my faith was ever challenged intellectually was at San Diego State University… by my philosophy professors and the campus radicals who stood up in the quad to heckle the open-air street preachers who were proclaiming the message of “turn or burn” every day to the uninterested crowds.

Nowadays, there are hundreds (probably thousands) of websites dedicated to debunking orthodox, biblical faith at our fingertips.  Granted, I probably do more searching of theology, philosophy and social issues than the average joebut if I am constantly encountering things that challenge my beliefs and cause me to dig really deep to come up with intelligent responses, I can only image there are others with the same struggles.

And many of them are part of a younger generation that seems to be rejecting the life and message of the church in such alarming numbers.

Anybody can post anything on Facebook with authority.  It’s the pulpit for the masses.  No training required.  No education required.  No consequences for plagiarism, bias, or citing sources that haven’t been properly researched.   Facebook “preachers” pontificate their version of the truth (on unlimited subjects) to listening ears with absolute conviction and authoritative certainty.

And people believe it.  And there’s no stopping it.

Watchdog bloggers are everywhere exposing the sins of churches and church leaders.  All of our dirty laundry (toxic leadership, sexual abuse of members, financial mismanagement, manipulative deception, the wack-job fringe, in-fighting, theological wars, crazy authoritarian church discipline, lack of love, harsh judgementneed I go on?) is hanging on the close line for everybody to see.   Things that only the “insiders” knew about are now part of the everyday internet landscape.

I love the accountability.  I hate the exposure.

Forty years ago, the majority of theological minds who were writing books and being published in mainstream religious circles were coming from the conservative, evangelical community.  This has blown up in recent years.  Progressive and liberal voices in the church are being heard loud and clear and they are full of well-articulated theological positions and arguments I NEVER heard when I was younger, even though they were out there.

They just didn’t have the medium.

They do now.

It’s a brave, new world.  Being a follower of Christ in the United States is no longer a privileged position.  What I believe no longer goes unchallenged.  I don’t start from the pole position anymore.

And I’m ok with that.