You Can’t Depend on Church People

 

An old photo of the first church I ever attended back in our little country community. It was razed nearly 40 years ago. I was christened there.

An old photo of the first church I ever attended back in our little country community. It was razed nearly 40 years ago. I was christened there.

For most of last year, and up until just a few weeks ago this year, Dana and I attended a small, denominational church just two blocks down the road from our home. We stopped going there about six weeks ago, and returned to the church where we’d attended before.

As I rounded the corner in the Wal-Mart deli yesterday, I ran smack-dab into the preacher whose church we’d been absent from for nearly two months. It was the first time I’d seen or talked to him since we were there.

After a minute or two of awkward small talk, he said they sure had missed us there.

It put me in an uneasy position in a public place. If they’d missed us so much, why were we having this conversation in Wal-Mart instead of a phone call four weeks ago? Why was I now getting put on the spot feeling like the bad guy? If you really missed me wouldn’t you have let me know a long time ago?

I’m not mad about it. But it just wasn’t true.

***

I had another random encounter with a different church friend a few weeks after returning from the Camino de Santiago. We exchanged a few fairly impersonal pleasantries before he said how much he enjoyed following my pilgrimage and how he “couldn’t wait” to get together and hear more about it. Haven’t heard from him since. Don’t expect to. I don’t think he really meant it.

***

Two years ago we attended an Easter church service with a family member when just before the service began an older gentleman was walking around shaking hands with people. You could tell he was especially looking for those who hadn’t been there before. When he came to me, he offered this warm greeting:

“It’s my job to go around and shake people’s hands this week. We’re really glad you’re here.” So heartfelt. So genuine.

***

Four years ago my father lay dying in a hospital bed just as he’d experienced one of the most genuine Christian experiences/conversions/revelations (choose whatever word you like) I’d ever seen. And for the first time in 71 years asked to be baptized. When the church pastor of another family member arrived supposedly to lead the tradition representing my dad’s decision, he soon called my mom and me out in the hall to tell us the very last thing I ever expected.

Because my dad was bedfast, it would be impossible to “fully immerse” him in water. Anything less violated the pastor’s personal baptism doctrine. He was sorry. He couldn’t help us. And so he left.

I could share dozens more stories like this, and as you can imagine, have had a volatile relationship with church (little c) over the years. But never with the Church (big C). So this probably isn’t going where you might think. I love the Big C Church.

***

I had conversations with many people last year, especially along the Camino, who because of experiences just like this, have separated from the church. People said more than once “the church has a lot to answer for.” I’ve learned it’s SO not true. Jesus already answered for the Church in a big way. We celebrate and recognize His answer in our behalf through the coming week.

So much of my church philosophy changed when I changed the way I looked at church itself. As I grew and matured, I viewed it not so much as a place I go to receive, but much more as a place to give and serve. It’s more outward than inward. More about Him than about me.

This side of Heaven, the church is made up of people. We’re all imperfect. We’re going to let one another down on a regular basis. It’s no different than anything else we experience every day, and we have to look past the small stuff.  The church isn’t bad. Its people just aren’t that great at fully living out its mission. It’s been that way from the beginning of time, and will be that way to the end.

We try. We fail. It doesn’t mean we stop trying.

There were periods in recent years when I stayed out and away from church. I let the small distractions get in the way of the bigger reality, and after a time realized how much I missed being part of Church – not the traditions or the regal recitations or even the cheerleader messages or multi-media entertainment so much of the “church” now emanates – but the genuine worship that happens only in a collective group. I missed that.

Dana and I joined a church last week. After five years of not being on “church membership roll” whatever that means, it was kind of a big deal for us. We’re happy about it.

I had to learn you can’t depend on church people.

But the Church will never let you down. It’s perfect.

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Let it Rain

 

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They’re calling it the Maya Express.

Everything has to have a name today. We assign personalities to the most intangible stuff now. But I actually like this one.

Whatever they call it, it spells a lot of rain for where I live over the next few days. It began raining last night and will continue through most of the weekend.

This isn’t just your average, every-day rain. We’re in for a lot of rain. The Maya Express lives when weather patterns from deep in the Gulf of Mexico and the western Pacific combine and push tropical moisture northward through parts of the Deep South. Prognosticators say we may receive as much as nine inches. In Arkansas, we’re in the bullseye.

I say, “Let it Rain.”

***

When I was on pilgrimage in Spain last year, I had kind of a “walking prayer” that I meditated on almost constantly. Sometimes I thought about it quite consciously. Other times, it was a prayer that was deep in the back of my mind. It’s the kind of prayer Paul described that we can pray “without ceasing.” It was simple and uncomplicated. I prayed this:

“Show me your Glory, Lord. Let it Rain.”

I was surrounded by lots of people from around the world on pilgrimage, but it was also very much a solo experience. I love my family, truly I do, but I’m much better for them, and me, when I have some time alone. They would vouch for that. I wanted the Camino for selfish, alone time with God, and I prayed that He would demonstrate His magnificent glory for me on a daily basis. I wanted Him to show it to me in such a way that it literally poured down on me like rain. I didn’t care how wet I got. I prayed for a flood.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 8.34.37 AMHe answered the prayer, not in the way I expected, but according to His own purpose. Over 500 miles God showed me His glorious creation, the decency of His people and the resilience of our spirit made in His image. He showered His glory down on me each day there, and He hasn’t stopped yet. He’s raining down on me in a way now like never before. I’ve never experienced such peace. The flood keeps coming.

Over the last few months, Dana and I have had tax scares, unexpected bills, things have gone awry literally all across our house, and we’ve lost some of our closest friends and mentors. And it’s funny how it hasn’t rattled us one bit. Honestly, everything’s fine.

The Maya Express doesn’t phase me. I say, “Open the Floodgates. Let it Rain.” I’m still praying that prayer today, and I’m not gonna stop.

 

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Trump, the Bible & Fear

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I’d like to write a catchy cutline here, but honestly, I don’t know what to say.

These are three thoughts, any of which could be a valid post on its own. Unfortunately, I’m already behind today, so I’m taking the quick route out.

With the current tone in the U.S. presidential election, I’m surprised the Bible hasn’t played a bigger role, but it makes the occasional appearance. Donald Trump showed us his childhood Bible in Iowa, and cited some key scripture from Two Corinthians at Liberty University when he picked up their endorsement.

Yesterday, there was a rift over what Marco Rubio may or may not have said about the Bible in passing to a Ted Cruz staffer who was looking at one.

Substantive stuff, all.

In the competitive race for who’s the “greater” Christian, which most of the country doesn’t give a rip about, here’s the thing about the Bible … and some who hold themselves up as the purest of the pure (which isn’t Christian BTW) get this VERY wrong:

The Bible was never intended to make another person feel bad, and it was certainly never intended as a tool for one person to shame another. Its message is grace, not disgrace. If you see someone citing a Bible verse in a way that ridicules another person’s actions, their faith is most likely at beginner’s level. It’s a beginner’s mistake, but it’s a mistake, and we shouldn’t do it.

The Bible was written as a simple tool: as a source of instruction for truth and growth, and as an encouragement to spread the good news of the gospel. It’s God’s written revelation of himself. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

As Christians (or those who still use that label) we can’t even agree about that. A growing number of Christians will tell you the Bible is, in several places, in error, fallible, wrong. They will tell you it doesn’t say what it says. That you can’t read it and understand it. I’m not in that camp. Count me as “all in” for biblical truth. Mark me down as pro-Bible.

***

I heard a local friend on the radio this morning who was speaking about fear. He has a unique understanding  of the vested interests so many institutions have in herding us toward a fearful mentality, and he understands the world is a much better place than what we’re told.  He proposed an idea I really liked:

“What if faith, not fear, were our default reaction to the way we walk through life?”

It’s something good to think about.

***

Finally, I’m not overly concerned about the route we’re taking to elect the next U.S., president, but it’s difficult for any of us to ignore. I think about it mostly in terms of what it means for my place in the world, how I work my way through that new world in doing what I’m called to do, and especially what it means for the future generations of my family. It’s really hard to imagine.

But coming to terms with a character as Trump portrays himself isn’t easy when you think that he may actually come to represent us all, by default or otherwise.

Something about our heritage has always encouraged us to bathe ourselves in the idea that we’re the greatest nation that leads the world, and that the world looks to us for great leadership.

I’m no longer sure about the first part, but the last part is true enough. The World is watching. We need to think about what we’re showing them.

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2015: Rejecting Invictus

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I wanted to learn about myself this year, and so I did.

And I don’t regret the time I spent in doing so.

After 49 years and change you’d really think a man would know himself, and what he’s about, and have a certain comfort within his own skin. You’d think he’d be mostly focused on things like the ebb and flow of his 401k, the future prospect for grandchildren, and a better way to grow vine-ripe garden tomatoes next season.

You’d think he would have long since moved past such fundamental questions as:

“Who am I?”

“What do I believe?” … and

“What am I supposed to do with all that information?”

But such simple questions are more complex than they once were.  It’s because some unfortunate societal trends took foothold in 2015. I doubt they disappear soon.

First, the world’s thrown us a deceivingly effective curve ball that makes the pursuit of, and answer to, those questions more elusive than during any other time.

New capacities to shape ourselves with countless filters and applications make us nothing more than an edited, superficial, enhanced version of who we truly are.

Just the right angle makes us look 15 pounds lighter; a carefully maneuvered color filter creates a beautiful blue in your otherwise dull, grey eyes; and if you time it just right, that photo of you leaning up against the guy you haven’t seen any time before, or since, the company Christmas party can go a long way to make the guy you’re really interested in painfully jealous.

And tomorrow, you might as well throw up that Cancun photo from four years ago that proves you’re enjoying the time of your life as you actually sit alone on the couch, scoop the next spoonful of Bluebell, and switch the remote to the Lifetime channel. Yes, we’re a completely contrived manipulation of ourselves.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if it just stopped there with the physical and situational. The greater danger is how the new age of self-deceit goes beyond these arguably less important views from the exterior, and causes us to lose touch with our own reality – the very essence of who we are.

It’s a simple matter of accidental conditioning really. I can only spend so much time at a keyboard sharing with you my meaningless convictions about the social justice issues of our time (pick one: poverty, hunger, abortion, any issue of equality et al) before I begin actually begin believing the expression of that conviction somehow made a contribution to the greater good.

We’ve led ourselves to believe our expressions (completely void of any action whatsoever) are, in fact, action. And we desperately need to stop believing that lie.

Here’s a typical example (at right) you might see on any given day where someone has placed a sign in an elderly person’s lap with the idea that your “like,” whatever thatScreen Shot 2015-12-31 at 8.12.25 AM means, is going to brighten the elderly woman’s day. The truth is she doesn’t even know what a “like” is. The further truth is that a “like” isn’t anything at all. But we’ve somehow come to believe it’s actionable, and that our “like” has made a difference. And, thus, we move along quite self-satisfied with our good work.

This trend toward “inactionable action” isn’t the greatest emergency, but one of the greatest emergencies of our present day. I’m gradually working you toward the greatest emergency of our time, so read on, if you will.

It was an especially difficult revelation for me, because as a part of my own livelihood, I’ve spent years manipulating perceptions with words and images. Sometimes it was for good. Other times, it was a disastrous moral failure and with subsequent regret. Oftentimes, I fell prey to the belief of my own manipulated reality.

And then some time during the last 18 months (I can’t put my finger on exactly when) I grew exceedingly weary of lieing to myself, and began having some self-conversation with the real me. As a starting point, I acknowledged things as they really are, not as the polished creation I could so easily invent.

Acknowledgement #1: I’ve had some amazing experiences, and things in life I’d even consider great successes. And all those things are directly attributed to help from others. In 49 years I can’t think of a single significant thing I did, or experienced, void of support from someone else.

Acknowledgement #2: I’ve failed at certain things and they’re beyond my wildest, conceivable imagination of failure. Certain failures sometimes result in collateral damage. That’s not divine punishment, but rather the world in motion. You can deal with such things, if you face them for what they are, with humility, and without excuse. I call it repentance, because that’s what it really is.

Acknowledgement #3: There is absolutely no good that comes from living in a false reality of yourself. In fact, it’s the focus on myself, reality-based or not, that’s my worst distraction and enemy.

Acknowledgement #4: I am not, as William Ernest Henley so famously wrote in the poem, Invictus, “…the master of my fate” nor “…the captain of my soul.”

These things were the building block in the truthful search for myself in 2015.

***

To aid the mental/soulful processing of these acknowledgements, and to seek further understanding, I did certain things with intention such as:

1. Spent a fair amount of time alone.

2. Engaged in a lot of physical labor.

3. Spent nearly 13 weeks traveling, nine of which were outside the United States.

4. Went on pilgrimage, and walked a very long way in a fair amount of discomfort.

5. Read the Bible more than at any other time during my life.

6. Dumped my CNN addiction cold turkey.

7. Spent a lot of time with people who view the world differently than me.

8. Avoided every conceivable big decision/idea that crossed my mind.

***

In the course of these things, this is what I learned about myself, and this time in my life:

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1. Life is hopelessly unnavigable in the undefined boundaries of subjective truth.

2. Most of the world now prefers undefined boundaries of subjective truth. This, as mentioned above, is the greatest emergency of our time. You might simply call it, chaos.

3. The expression of #1 makes causes people (many of whom I consider close friends) to view me as intolerant, judgmental, bigoted, sexist. Those things aren’t true, but they’re the reality of what many will believe.

4. In the New World of Tolerance, many important convictions I hold are not tolerated.

5. I’m more of who I truly am than I’ve ever been before.

6. I am broken, just as we all are broken. Yet, I am strong.

7. A pilgrim’s walk never ends. There’s a lot more to learn. I’m willing to keep walking.

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It’s Go Time

A PILGRIM’S PRAYER

Dear Lord,

Give us the courage to set off on pilgrimage.

May we travel unhindered by wordly possessions, simply trusting in You for all we need.

Sometimes, our hearts will be heavy as we plod along. And our feet will ache, and feel dirty.

Other times, we will rejoice as the sun shines on the footpath stretching before us.

May we ponder Truth … that the pilgrim’s journey is never finished until they reach home.

Amen.

The Way of St. James

James the Apostle: Son of Thunder

(Blogger’s Note: Taking a break from my normal format and style today to offer a few thoughts about James the Apostle. It’s appropriate here, since the Camino de Santiago’s traditional route along Camino Frances (The French Way) concludes in Compostela, Spain at a cathedral where it’s believed James’ remains are enshrined.)

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  • He is not to be confused with two other men named James who appear in the New Testament: James, the son of Alphaeus, another apostle; and James, the brother of Jesus, a leader in the Jerusalem church and author of the book of James.
  • Of the three apostles who comprised the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples (Peter, James and John), we know the least about James. We do know, however, that he was the eldest brother of John, and that their father’s name was Zebedee (their mother’s name was Salome.)
  • James possessed two natures, both of which were characterized by strong feelings. He could be particularly indignant, had a fiery temper when adequately provoked, and when the storm was over, he was inclined to justify and excuse his anger. Except for these periodic upheavals of wrath, James’s personality was much like Andrew’s. He was a superior public speaker. Next to Peter, James may have been the best public orator among the 12.
  • James, his brother John, Peter and Andrew were all partners in a fishing business prior to their calling to follow Jesus.
  • There is evidence that James was the first cousin of Jesus, and had been acquainted with Him from infancy. It is believed his mother Salome was the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary.
  • Not much is known of his ministry after Jesus’ resurrection. It is believed, however, that he lived another 14 years before his martyrdom. By order of Herod Agrippa I, James was beheaded in Jerusalem about the feast of Easter, 44 AD. It’s believed that during this 14-year period, James visited the Jewish colonist and slaves in Spain to preach the Gospel.
  • He could be quiet and thoughtful one day, and a very good talker and storyteller the next. He usually spoke freely with Jesus, but for days at a time he was the silent man. James had many spells of unaccountable silence.
  • The outstanding feature of his personality was his ability to see all sides of a proposition. Of all the 12, he perhaps, came the nearest to grasping the real import and significance of Jesus’ teaching. He, too, was slow at first to comprehend the teacher’s meaning, but once they had finished their training, he acquired a superior concept of the gospel. James was able to understand a wide range of human nature; he got along well with the versatile Andrew, the impetuous Peter, and his self-contained brother John.
  • James, John and Peter, had three experiences with Jesus witnessed by no one else. They were present for the Great Transfiguration, witnessed the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and were called aside to watch and pray with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night before His death.
  • James was the first apostle executed.
  •  He was not above mistakes. When a Samaritan village rejected Jesus, he and John wanted to call down fire from heaven. It was his fiery temper for which he and his brother earned the nickname Boanerges or “Sons of Thunder.”
  • It has been said that when the apostle James was led out to die, a man who brought false accusations against him walked with him to the place of execution. He doubtless expected to see James looking pale and frightened, but he saw him, instead, bright and joyous, like a conqueror who had won a great battle. The false witness greatly wondered at this and became convinced that the Savior in whom the prisoner by his side believed must be the true God. The man himself, therefore, became a convert to Christianity and was condemned to die with James. Both were consequently beheaded on the same day and with the same sword.Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 5.30.51 AM
  • One of the Camino de Santiago’s great traditions upon arriving at the cathedral in Compostela takes place at the Pillar of Many Hands where James’ image is carved into a pillar and surrounded by Christ and the other 11 apostles. For 10 centuries, pilgrims who complete the journey have placed their hand on the same spot and offer a prayer of thanks for protection and safe travel.

(Biblepath.com was a source for some information in this post.)

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The Truth About Glory

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When you’ve written as many words as I have over the years, it’s kind of a big deal to set one aside as the favorite.

As the author of creation I’ve always believed God has a special love for, and kindred spirit with journalists, because of all the things he could have used to communicate with us, He chose the written word. Ink on paper.

Transcend is my second favorite word of all time. I love that word. The way it looks in print, the way it flows from the tongue, the profound meaning it conveys to move beyond that which is commonly known and understood. Transcendence is such an honorable pursuit in anything worth pursuing.

Discern is a word that ranks high on my list.  I love this word especially because it engages so much more than a simple understanding. Discernment comes with time, experience, lessons learned, relational context, and it’s a wonderful characteristic of wisdom.  During the later seasons of life, we can discern things in a transcendent manner, I believe.

Infinitesimal – a word I simply adore for its meaning (an indefinitely small quantity with a value approaching zero) and for the wonderful memories I associate with it, as it was a favorite of my old boss U.S. Rep. Marion Berry. He loved using it as a description for the intellectual abilities of so many colleagues who disagreed with him, and the descriptor was often exact. I catch myself using it in the same manner far more frequently than I should.

Here’s a clip of my old boss in rare form on the House floor. This is one of my top three favorite memories of moments of service to this great Southern legislator. He didn’t use his favorite word here, but I know he wanted to. This is worth watching if you want to get your day started with a laugh. It’s classicly known as the “Howdy Doody-Looking Nimrod” clip in reference to a Republican colleague. Debatable judgment here, but nevertheless … MB wasn’t a happy camper this day. Occasionally, if but rarely, I miss the good ole’ days like this.

But glory, oh what a wonderful word to exalt. Glory. It’s my favorite beyond all others.

In the Greek, glory is best translated as weight. So when we ascribe glory to something in balance to other things, we give it significance and importance. It’s especially relevant in the context of God’s own desire for His glorification. It takes a transcendent discernment to know this isn’t a selfish Godly characteristic, but one that’s for our own good, especially in our pursuit of truth.

And it it helps if we understand several other of God’s characteristics and engage some linear thinking.

In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.” It doesn’t say He admires the truth or respects the truth, but rather that He IS the truth.

Romans 11:32 offers enlightenment of God the Father as transcendent of our earthy understanding. Here’s an easy-to-read version of that verse:

“Yes, God’s riches are very great! His wisdom and knowledge have no end! No one can explain what God decides. No one can understand his ways.”

Read A.W.  Tozer’s thoughts on the pursuit and understanding of God the Father …  Tozer’s pretty deep:

“When we try to imagine what God is like, we must of necessity use that-which-is-not-of-God as the raw material for our minds to work on; hence, whatever we visualize God to be, He is not, for we have constructed that image out of that which He has made, and what He has made is not of God. If we insist on trying to imagine him, we end with an idol, not made with hands, but with thoughts; and an idol of the mind is as offensive to God as an idol of the hand.”

That’s worth a lifetime of meditation.

Yet, God clearly instructs us to pursue a holy knowledge of him, and the answer is right here.

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.” 2 Peter 3:18

It’s all about Jesus, and it’s a pursuit so beautiful in that it’s a never-ending quest. We can look forward to an eternity of developing a relationship with the Father, through Jesus the Son. Now, and forever. To Him be the glory, the weight, the relevance. The never-ending pursuit of truth is the glorious pursuit of Jesus.

It’s such a transcendent notion, my infinitesimal mind can barely discern it, but I’m trying.

How glorious.

Thank you, Jesus.

Vaya con Dios, for now.

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Video Journal #1 T-21 Days

This is my first video journal recorded last week, and published via Facebook that day. Just wanted to get it on the blog for the archives. I’ll produce a second video this afternoon and will publish it when it’s complete. From now on, each video will go directly to the blogsite. These clips help chronicle my preparation for, and the actual pilgrimage of, the Camino de Santiago beginning on October 19.