Friday, August 23, 2013

Hitchhikers, Trust, and the Gospel

So I had a heck of an experience. One that honestly has taught me a crap ton in such a short period of time (As I write this now, it's only been 5 hours). I picked up a hitchhiker. 

Now, that might seem smaller to some and larger to some. For me it's huge. I've never done it before. Now, it's important to understand that whatever I write on here is not the result of me having attained this level of sainthood and thus I'm writing to change all your minds about it. EVERY SINGLE post I've ever put up is something I am learning to do better and might honestly tank at, but that's why I write, I am constantly seeking to grow. So as much as I write about loving others, for some reason hitchhikers have always been a group that I've come up with excuses about and not actually done anything about when I see that thumb go up on the side of the road. 

Today was in part no excuse to that. I still struggled to do it greatly. Let me explain. 

I stopped at a gas station to fill up and as I was leaving the store the cashier asked me if I was traveling (I was purchasing an energy drink, apparently that's a giveaway). I said yes and that I was going to Abilene. She proceeded to tell me that a girl with pink hair was recently in the store and was heading to Abilene herself (apparently this cashier is just Chatty Kathy with all of the store patrons). The cashier expressed concern that this girl may be hit by a car because she was hitchhiking. Immediately I could tell God was up to no good (JK) and was trying to get something across to me. I left the store saying that perhaps I would see her and be able to offer a lift since I was going in that direction. Now, as I said this I was reminded that I'm moving to Abilene and so my car is rather full of all kinds of stuff, including my front seat; there was not readily available space in my car. You can see me forming excuse number one. 

I hit the road and honestly expected it to be a few minutes before I came upon this girl. Almost as soon as I pulled out I caught a glimpse of pink hair as I drove past her, quite accidentally. I just wasn't expecting it to be so soon and so I passed her before I had the ability to register it was her. Satan was working. The old trickster continued to work for the next 14 MILES as I came up with every excuse why I didn't have to go back and pick her up. Normally, I'm very successful in this and do not go back. Today I was not so lucky and so 14 miles down the road I pulled a U-turn and headed back the other way. 

I pulled off and moved all the stuff out of my front seat so that she could sit there but very much so retained the information that I had actually passed her up. I essentially made it appear as if I had seen her and stopped. 

Over the next hour, I got one of the craziest stories I had heard in quite some time. Apparently she was actually going past Abilene but was just taking the trip in increments. After inquiring why she was so far from home, she proceeded to tell me a slightly disjointed story of how she was drunk, cut her arm somehow rather severely and had been admitted to the hospital in Wichita Falls. I don't know how that happened, but it did. After more inquiring I was told that she was only 18. Obviously there is a little disconnect between being drunk and 18 at the same time, but it didn't shock me.

I continued to inquire about her life story, which was no less of a crazy ride. From an early age she had been in Child Protective Services for various reasons, gotten addicted to meth but cleaned up 7 months prior to our conversation, and cut herself to the day and showed me hundreds of scars on her arms to prove it. 

I immediately went into counselor mode and started asking questions as to why she cut, how she got clean from meth, and the like. The answers varied but she was incredibly open and honest with me the entire time. It was apparent that she held nothing back. I offered some positive statements like any good counselor, but the conversation died down eventually and we went back to talking about normal yet random things like how bad she wanted spicy chips and a soda. 

I crafted a plan to somehow witness to this girl when we were about 25 miles out from where we would part ways. My basic approach was to make my talk the price of admission for the ride, explaining that she got to do with the talk whatever she wanted. I had let her chain smoke in my car to try and meet her where she was at, so listening to my spill seemed like a pretty low price. 

Earlier in the ride she had contacted her grandma to tell her she was on her way there and was hitchhiking. Her grandma told her to not get in any cars with men, something she told me about as she laughed. I proceeded to tell her in my talk that her grandma had a point, and normally doing such would not be a good idea. But from there I explained that the reason I had stopped was because I was a Christian and I was trying to show God's love to her. I explained the whole story about how I had learned about her travels but had accidentally passed her up and fought the urge to just keep driving. I told her that there was truly nothing about me that made me stop, for I am simply not that compassionate nor caring. But, because Christ has been generous to me, that changes everything about how I seek to be generous with others, but have to strive for that diligently or else my flesh will fail and my human weakness take over. I then explained how it was the love of Christ that compelled me to look out for her well being and pleaded with her to seek ways to avoid dangerous situations in the future like being drunk and cutting her arm open (especially as it is illegal). I told her I did not judge her for these things, for my past was also filled with darkness, but that I wanted her to take seriously her own well being and seek to stay clean from meth and if possible, seek to end the cutting for her own sake as well as for the sake of those she loved and who loved her. 

Her response to all of this was so encouraging. As I was saying all these things she was constantly pointing out things of a "Christian" nature such as a neon sign on a church that said "Jesus Saves" and a picture she had taken of the sunset on our trip in which an electrical pole looked like a cross. It was obvious that she was taking what I said to heart in some capacity or another. However, even if she had thrown all of this back in my face, I would have felt a million times better than if I had just kept driving. Those 14 miles had eaten me up and I would be in such a different place right now had I not stopped and turned around. Thankfully I get to tell a rather happy story. But if I had been rejected, my story would still have been so much more positive than the story of how Spenser saw a need but passed it by out of doubt, fear, and a sense of inconvenience. 

The last few weeks have really taught me about trust. Ultimately one of the underlying reasons behind why I don't normally pick up hitchhikers (besides my human compassion being lacking without Christ's power and love) is essentially a lack of trust. This is something I have been trying to better about myself, and try to lean on God for strength to do these tough things. Moving to Abilene has really seemed to have this theme overall. From the actual trip down to Abilene to the preparation in coming here, God has been trying to acquire my trust. For those of you who don't know, I don't actually have a permanent residence down here yet. I have several offers from amazing people to house me for a week or two while I find somewhere, but no actual residence yet. I also do not have a job of any kind lined up so that I can be sure to eat and pay the rent of the apartment I do not yet possess. Thankfully, God has made several things happen that really show Him working in this situation, even if they are not yet fully resolved. So I am quite literally going on nothing but trust that God's gonna do what needs to be done and will provide the path for me to get there. 

So, I am currently overwhelmed with the presence of God in my life and can see Him working and moving to my aid. I have not yet attained this in perfection, for I nearly passed up the opportunity to trust and reach out with the gospel today, but I am working towards better things. 

And so my question for anyone reading is what might God be asking you to do in order to put yourself out on the line for Him? In what ways and areas is He trying to gain your trust? And an even more crazy question, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are you willing to say "God can deliver me from this, but even if He doesn't, I will put my faith in God and not bow to the low expectations and doubts of this world." 

And my next question is this, who needs to be reached with God's love in your life and what might be your part in that? Who do you need to witness to? I'll be honest, I blog and talk about this kind of stuff all day but when it comes to witnessing to perfect strangers and even those groups I know sometimes, I come up wanting a good portion of the time. But brothers and sisters, I don't want it to be this way, for me...or for you. God has been so loving and gracious to us, who in our lives need us to illustrate that to them?

We are but weak vessels who are only made strong through the power of God. But through that power I challenge you to share the gospel and fully trust the God that we serve in order to better do so. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Discipleship and the Beastie Boys

There's a common theme in most music that has a teen focus audience (Adults, don't look too smug, your music did the same thing when you were a teen). 70's rock talked about it, The Beastie Boys said you have to fight for your right to do it, Ke$ha is known for nothing else, Owl City botched a "Christian" version of it, and Miley Cyrus attempted to do it (note key word "attempted"). What I speak of is...The Party Song. Each song essentially says that you're young, footloose, and free, and you have the right to party because you are those things. The message is "Forget the world, I have the right to do this, I'm gonna do what I want because I want to."

Whether you have a big red beard and absolutely jam out to these songs (did I just describe myself? Maybe) or you're appalled at both the music quality and lyrics of these songs and wish music would go back to the days of Elvis, most people are really into their rights. We demand the right to be heard, the right to vote, the right to bear arms, the right to arm bears, and the right to express ourselves however we wish. We feel like we have alot of rights and get rather fussy when anyone tries to take those rights from us. 

I wonder Christians have rights? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that "the followers of Jesus for his sake renounce every personal right...If after giving up everything else for His sake they still wanted to cling to their own rights, they would then have ceased to follow Him." (140) When I first read this it kind of melted my face. It's a pretty hefty statement. In context, Bonhoeffer is speaking of revenge and retaliation (the "turning the other cheek, giving up your cloak, and not resisting the evil one" section of The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:38-42).

Think about this: The church is a countercultural force that does not submit to "the world's standards" but instead has a completely different set of ethics due to the fact that Christ came not to set up an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly one. Our way of doing this is absolute foolishness to the world according to Paul (1 Corinthians 1:18). Now, if that's the case, why on earth do we get so baffled and confounded when schools take out prayer and the ten commandments and there is talk of taking "under God" out of the pledge. I'm not saying these are good things, but they shouldn't shock us in the least. 

If there is something unfortunate about being an American Christian, it's that it is so darn easy to at least appear to be following Christ. Ask yourself this question: if Christianity were made illegal and we had that "right" taken away from us, what would the size of our churches be? Would they go down? Most certainly. How much would they go down, maybe significantly. If you go to countries where Christianity is either frowned upon or illegal, there are significantly less people...but they are usually very dedicated followers. These people don't find joy in their "right" to follow Christ, for they have none, they find joy in following Christ even at potentially great costs. 

Jesus doesn't want just a piece of you, He wants every aspect and fiber of you. Luke 14:25-35 is one of my favorite...and least favorite passages in the entire Bible because Jesus says that following Him will cost you everything and so you need to sit down and consider whether you're willing to pay up before you make a decision to follow. I don't think we do a very good job of this. Why do I think this? We have aLOT of re-dedications, re-baptisms, and the like. Not that it is unhealthy to be awakened and have your fire renewed by any means, but for some reason there are many people who end up saying "I didn't know what I was doing the first time around" and now want to truly dedicate. 

We all fall into this kind of thinking. It is not JUST the teen/college aged adolescents that feel they have the right to express their youth however they see fit and it is NOT just the more aged adults who argue all day long about constitutional rights, we ALL have these things we feel entitled to. Everyone has a mindset of "you can't tell me what to do", it is most assuredly not adolescent angst. I wonder though, what might it look like if we sold out completely to Christ and put every bit of faith in Him?

Christ says some pretty weird stuff in Matthew 7:6 when He says "Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you". He follows this thought up with His whole "Ask and it will be given to you" section. I had no earthly idea what Jesus meant by this until recent when I read Living Jesus by Randy Harris. Although not universally agreed upon, Harris's opinion is that Jesus is referring to the Roman government and saying to His audience that the government is not where His followers are supposed to put their trust (119). Instead, Jesus desires faith to be put in Him to provide what is needed, and ask for it from Him. We do not derive our rights from government, we're asked to put our faith in God alone and put our rights to the side. 

Jesus is our prime example of someone who abandoned His own rights in order to benefit those He loved. Lee Camp illustrated this with a literary punch in the face when he wrote - "On that cross at Golgotha was nailed the One who was unjustly abused, tried, and murdered - and in His dying words He prayed that the Father would forgive those who killed Him. But instead, imagine the result if Jesus had lived in Kentucky, and just before they nailed Him to a cross, He claimed his rights as a citizen and pulled out a .38." (44) Jesus gave no mind to personal property rights, for He owned nothing of significance and had nowhere to lay His head permanently. He gave no mind to self defense rights, for He absorbed the violence of the world into Himself. And He gave no mind to His own will, for He said "not MY will, but YOURS be done."

So what rights are you fighting for? The right to party? The right to property and possessions? The right to retaliate? I challenge you to only accept what Christ gives, for His way is better. The way of discipleship starts with denial of self (Matthew 16:24); we are entitled to nothing because we have died to ourselves and have instead clothed ourselves with Christ.

Matthew 16:24-25 - Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." 

Works Cited:

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1959. Print.

Camp, Lee C. Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003. Print. 

Harris, Randy, and Greg Taylor. Living Jesus: Doing What Jesus Says in the Sermon on the Mount. Abilene, Texas: Leafwood. 2012. Print. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Us vs. Them

We tend to stick with our own tribe, people, clique, group, and so on and so forth. It seems to be very natural for us, very comfortable. We simply relate with these people better most of the time and so we're naturally just divided up based on characteristics and attributes that we possess. There is one factor about you and everyone else in the world though that is common ground and should impact you: We are all created by God and are loved by Him. 

This provokes the question of how we handle the "others" out there in our lives. XXX Church had an interesting approach to this that they put on many t-shirts, bibles, and in general was one of their mantras - Jesus Loves Porn Stars. To some, it was a very shocking statement. After all, these people are some of the leading "sin causers" in the church today, right? Firstly, never try to blame YOUR sin on someone else. Will they reap the consequences of causing others to stumble, yes, but that doesn't excuse you. Furthermore,  porn stars have more or less become equivalents to prostitutes amongst the more judgmental religious crowd. That being said, I remember how Jesus treated the prostitutes of His day, with respect, so much so that it changed them and one washed His feet with her tears and hair. You see, dehumanization of another person - porn star, prostitute, homosexual (we tend to judge sexual immorality more than those "petty" sins like gluttony and greed) - is every bit as much of a sin. 

Matthew 5:43-48 really challenges the way we think about the "others" in our lives. Loving our enemies is no easy or light task. If we are to change the way we view others and see them more like how God sees them, it's going to affect our interactions. If I view this person as a child of God, I now am looking for what I can gain from this person, not at how they are different from me. I think we get wrapped up in "defending the faith" sometimes and sacrifice ethical treatment of others and open, loving conversation. I once heard it said, and agree whole-heartedly that in order to convert someone who practices Islam, you have to be just as willing to convert to Islam if it proved to be the better religion as you want them to be to convert to Christianity. Instead of being open and loving, we tend to demonize the "others" in our lives. I tend to do this with groups like the Westboro Baptists far more than I do the "sinners" I encounter. But yet, they are but children of God, despite how misguided I think they are. 

Speaking of demonization, I'm going to take a little tangent to try and better illustrate something. I love a good devil movie. Yep, I said it. Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring, movies like that. I also enjoy movies that portray heaven, God, Jesus, afterlife, end times, any of those things, no matter how bad they do it. I'll tell you why. In a last quote from the movie The Conjuring, there is a quote that reads "The Devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges on which we decide to follow." When someone states some sort of belief in the devil or demons, they are also expressing some sort of belief in God, and that's important. I watched a movie recently called "What Dreams May Come". It was absolutely terrible (in my opinion) but gave an EXTENSIVE perspective on afterlife. As bad as the movie was and as wrong as the perspective was, I got shown THE single most important thing about somebody - what they think about God. Even when you see someone's perspective on possession, demons, or the devil, you are, in a weird kind of way, learning the most important thing about that person as well. 

Now, no matter how fascinated I am with things like demonology, I will study perspectives from afar. There's a difference between interest, and dabbling. I enjoy the Harry Potter movies for their unique perspective and entertaining qualities. You won't catch me even pretending to conjure up a spell. I may be fascinated with movies like Paranormal Activity. You'd have to get a computer chip in my brain and use a joystick to get me to go "ghost hunting" or mess with a ouija board. I write this paragraph mainly to say, know your limitations and stay safe as you attempt to widen your perspective and appreciate others. 

I love the Christian movement I am a part of. The Restoration Movement (where Disciples of Christ, The Christian Church and Churches of Christ came from mainly) started out as a unity movement. There were SOOOOO many dividing points within Christianity at that time period, most of which were expressed in the name of a church. Some churches literally had 10 or more words in their title, each expressing a division and where the church stood on it. There were a couple of guys who essentially said that they'd had enough, and wanted to get back to "basic" Christianity, not as another dividing point, but as something to bring back those in the divisions to a common ground. It was much like the Non-Denominational movement of today. We definitely don't have a completely shining history in this, after them came men and women who wanted to look at the differences more than the similarities, eventually giving Churches of Christ a pretty bad name back in the 30s and 40s. We're still healing from some of these wounds. 

Our early church fathers were looking to break down the walls that created the Us vs Them mentality and looked for shared thoughts and common ground, rather than differences in theology. A. W. Tozer, who I've utilized in this post through the quote in my "about" section, had something else to say about one's thoughts of God. He said that "compared with our actual thoughts about Him, our creedal statements are of little consequence." (2)

Now, the thing Tozer spoke on the most was "that our idea of God [should] correspond as nearly as possible to the true being of God" and that this "is of immense importance to us." (2) One thing I'm not trying to do is create some sort of postmodern, "I'm fine, you're fine, we're all fine" type of picture. I believe with all my heart that Jesus said "I am the way" and that there is no other. But I also believe that when a Muslim talks about Allah, he or she is expressing the single more important thing about him or her, for they are expressing what comes into their mind when they think of God. Despite whether their idea is different than ours or straight up wrong, I think it deserves to be listened to and respected because it is the most important thing about them. We are to help each other think more rightly about God, but let us do so with the generosity and grace that God has shown us. 

So, let us look for more commonalities, and less differences. Let us think more rightly about God, help others do the same, but do so in love and kindness. Let us view each other as creations of a most high and awesome God. 

Let us strive to make the "Them" smaller and the "Us" larger in our lives.    

Tozer, A. W. The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God, Their Meaning in the Christian Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1961. Print. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Life Abundant

This post is going to have heavy traces of some recent stuff I've already done, but we're going to look at a few new things and it should be fun. All of this is the result of a couple of great discussions and preparing for a class I did on this subject at Green Valley Bible Camp. I'm going to start with some Greek. Now, there's a slight chance I could get scolded for how I'm about to use it, we'll see if any of my old professors read this thing. 

Ok, so first, there are two Greek words (that I know about anyway) which mean "Life". The first word is Bios, which is where we get our term Biology (the study of life) from. There are only 11 uses of it in the New Testament. Only once is it clearly used in a positive way (1 Tim. 2:4). The rest of the times it is in either neutral in tone, or more prevalently, used in a negative connotation and is connected to ideas of wealth, possessions, or what a person does. In Luke 8:14, the word is used when Jesus says "And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature." 1 John 2:16 talks about Bios when John says "For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and boasting of what a person has and does  — is not from the Father but is from the world." These two verses give us a decent picture of what citizens in the first century might have thought "life" consisted of: what you own, what you experience, and what you accomplish. Sounds pretty much like today to me. How many times have you heard it said of someone that they lived a full and rich life? Usually when someone says that about somebody else, they mean that they did alot of things, went to alot of places, accomplished alot of things, or in general, just had alot of stuff. Anybody out there got a Bucket List? I know I do, and it shows that I'm not immune to this type of thinking either. 

There is another word that get's translated as life, one you may know. It's the word Zoe (dzo-ay'). This word can mean a person's life in general, but it is also the word that is associated with some pretty positive imagery (e.g. Bread of Life, Book of Life, Eternal Life, etc.). Jesus says that "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). What's awesome to me is that when Jesus talks about life here, he disconnects and contrasts it from any idea of possessions or experiences. For this kind of life apparently cannot be stolen or even taken away by death. The thief can take your possessions and the funds so that you can have rich experiences such as vacations and the like. The thief can even take your physical existence. What Jesus has to offer, not even death can take. WHAT A THOUGHT. This life is not even truly about physically living

So we've talked about what life shouldn't be, and that Jesus came to offer something completely different. So...what is this "life" about? Let's play around with the idea of eternal life for a bit. Let me ask you this question: When does your eternal life begin? Try to imagine a reallllllllllllllllllly long rope (you can thank Francis Chan for this illustration). Now, at the end of the rope, it's burnt so that it doesn't become frayed. Your ENTIRE life here on earth is that burnt end. Kind of morbid, I realize, but think about the REST of the rope. The rest of the rope is the rest of eternity and your eternal life. Here's the thing, the whole rope is all still your life. Call it semantics, whatever, but to me, you are living your eternal life now. Since Jesus came, is death really that great of a chasm? Now, our burnt end of a life is still incredibly significant, but only because it determines how we spend the rest of our eternal life. 

Jesus came to establish a Kingdom. Alot of people thought it was going to be physical, but they were wrong. He came to set up a Spiritual one. I think I've said it before, perhaps not, but one thing I read once was the most scholars think that the reason Jesus performed miracles and healed people was primarily to point forward to something else, something greater (141). Think about it; Jesus didn't physically heal the whole world, He actually traveled less in His lifetime than alot of people travel before they reach 20. His purpose was never simply to heal, His purpose was to point forward to something of far more significance: His Father's Kingdom. 

We live out this type of "Kingdom Life" whenever we do things that make this world a little bit more like heaven for people. We dig wells because we believe there will be living water for all someday. We lay concrete floors because we believe the streets of heaven will be laid with gold. We feed the hungry because one day, there will be no more hunger. We strive to be peacemakers because we get to spend eternity with the Prince of Peace. 

I've said it before and I say it now, Kingdom Life doesn't work here on earth completely. We'll probably never eradicate hunger from the world, even if it's just because most people are too stingy (including us). Wars will continue to happen. The water crisis around the world may never be fully fixed. But you know what, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try, because we're pointing forward to something greater and inviting people to come along. 

We usually feel amazingly close to God when we do these hard things that don't work. When we do service on mission trips, we're exhausted...but we're happy. These things fulfill us in ways that possessions, wealth, roller coasters, and dare I say it...climbing never truly can (even though I'm pretty certain there will be climbing in heaven). We feel happiest and closest to God when we create that thin space between heaven and earth. 

We will have to suffer in order to truly live out Kingdom Life here on this earth. Notice I didn't say may...I said will. Living out this type of lifestyle will absolutely bring about better things on this earth and bring others closer to God, because we are creating that thin space for people. But because this kind of living is SO right side up in SUCH an upside down world, it's going to feel more upside down. 2 Timothy 3:12 reads "Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted". Earlier in this letter, Paul says that from all of these things, he was rescued. The funny thing is, we think that Paul realized he was going to be executed when he was writing this letter. He saw his end as near, and yet he says that he was rescued from these earlier persecutions. I honestly wonder if he'd say that even after his execution. Resurrection saves. 

I pose this question: Did Jesus and the Apostles live full and abundant lives? Do you think that? Most feel obligated to say yes, I mean, we're talking about Jesus and the Apostles. I think that they did as well, the funny thing is, most of them had their lives ended early as martyrs (all but John we believe). They didn't have theme parks, beach vacations, or a long list of athletic accomplishments. Yet, we say that they lived abundantly. Why? Because they lived out their eternal lives out until those left alive put their bodies in the ground and then just continued on with their eternal lives. The burnt end of their rope was much smaller than the average person's, but we say they lived more in that small burnt end than most do in a long lifetime. Granted that the movie doesn't exactly give anything close to a picture of Kingdom Life, but I now cheesily quote Braveheart..."Every man dies, not every man truly lives". 

So ultimately, Life Abundant is a Life Reversed by the power of the cross. We may not solve world hunger, see world peace, or ever eradicate sin completely from our lives, but Jesus can, even if it's in the next life. In the mean time, we live like we're working towards those things, we point forward, and willfully endure the suffering that must be faced in this life, knowing that the troubles of this burnt end of a life is nothing compared to getting to live with God in a place where there is no pain, no sickness, and no tears.  

Only act in ways that you'd want the rest of the world to follow your example. Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Live Life Abundantly and point forward to something so much better. 

Root, Andrew, and Kenda C. Dean. The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011. Print