Confessions of a Political Skeptic

I have a Facebook page. I know. I know. It’s a bit juvenile to have one at my age, but I enjoy keeping up with old friends from high school and college on it. In order to set up your Facebook page, you have to create a personal profile, and one of the things that you’re asked to do is summarize your political views in one word. They give you several options like conservative, liberal, moderate, and so on. I was really struggling with what to choose until I saw the one word that best summarizes my political views: skeptic. And that’s what I chose.

Why am I such a skeptic? I’m not sure, but I do know that the current presidential race is only serving to feed my skepticism of the American political system. Michelle and I watched some of the Democratic National Convention this past week, and I felt several times like I was going to puke. And just to be fair, I’ll watch the Republican National Convention next week with a barf bag in hand. It’s the posturing, positioning, and promising that I can’t handle. The sophisticated term for this is rhetoric, and it really turns me off.

The dictionary defines rhetoric as the undue use of exaggeration or display; to bombast. And this is exactly what we are being fed in large doses as the November election approaches. I nauseatingly listened to Barack Obama and Joe Biden make promises I know they can’t keep and say things that I know are not true.

For instance, I love how Obama tells stories like the one about the “single mom from Michigan I talked to last week who has been laid off from her automotive job and now can’t afford college for her daughter.” He says that this is the fault of the Bush administration because George W. doesn’t care, but he – Barack O. – does. And if he’s elected president, because he cares a whole lot more for this woman that George W. does, he’ll make sure things like this will never happen again to anyone. Cut to camera 2 and pan the row where all the Obama-lovers are weeping and cheering at the same time. Yuk!

Then there’s Joe Biden unabashedly blaming the deaths of 1,800 people in New Orleans back in 2005 NOT on the natural disaster known as Katrina, but on the commander-in-chief known as Bush. No kidding. He stood before 80,000 people in Denver – and millions of viewers all across the world – and with no shame at all, blamed Hurricane Katrina on President Bush. Cut to camera 3 and zoom in on Hillary clapping firmly and nodding her head in agreement.

Is it any wonder that I – and millions of other Gen Xers just like me – think our political process (that our forefathers bravely risked it all to establish) has turned into a joke? Is it any wonder that millions of Americans won’t even vote this November because they don’t know who in the world to even believe? Is it any wonder that more and more people are choosing the word skeptic to describe their political views on Facebook?

I know that this is not a popular position to hold as a conservative Christian…much less a pastor of a conservative baptist church, but it’s just where I’m at (and where I’ve been for a long time.) And just to ease some of your concern (godly as it may be), I will vote this November, and I might even wear the “I Voted” sticker on my shirt that day as well. However, I’m not sure who I’ll vote for.

A couple of nights ago, Michelle and I caught John McCain on The Tonight Show. He was quite funny and quite quick for a fossil. We quite enjoyed Jay’s interview with him, and I actually got kinda excited about the prospect of possibly voting for him. However, he’ll get his chance to spew forth his rhetoric this week at the Republican National Convention, and I’ll be watching. If he blames Barack Obama for global warming and Hurricane Gustav, I think I’ll pack up the family and move to China. I hear deciding who to vote for there is much easier.

Church Membership: I Hate the Idea But Know I Shouldn’t

The whole idea of being a member of an organization or club rubs me the wrong way, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m a Gen X’er, and we are known for our cynicism and skepticism.

Or maybe it has something to do with my past membership in the Columbia Record Club and the fact that I seemed to always end up paying for Cd’s I didn’t want because I forgot to send the reply form back in on time. I’m just not sure, but for some reason, I don’t like the idea of “joining” or “becoming a member” of something. But here’s the problem: I’m a pastor of a church, and I’m supposed to encourage people to “join” in order to “become members.” Thus the dilemma.

I became a member of my home church when I was 12 years old after completing a “membership class” with my pastor. His wife would come pick me up each week and take me to the church where I would be ushered into his dark paneled inner sanctum for an hour-long meeting. That was a long time ago, and the only thing I really remember is that the dark paneling and pea green carpet in his office didn’t look very good together.

Anyway, fast forward 22 years. I moved back to my hometown after being away from it for my entire adult life. One of my first Sundays back, I visited my home church. When I got there, I was handed an official ballot and told that – because I was a member – I could cast my vote for the next year’s church officers. I didn’t know two-thirds of the names on the ballot and had not been active in the church for almost 20 years. But I voted anyway. I voted for the people I thought had the coolest names and wrote in several names like “Bart Simpson” and “Hugh Hefner.” Those two didn’t get elected to any official church positions, but a few people whose morals rival theirs did. (I’ll write a blog someday about the horrors of congregational rule, but I digress.) Obviously, this only served to feed my cynicism regarding church membership.

So, now I’m a pastor of a church, and I’m recognizing that I need to address the issue of membership here. The main problem in most churches is that membership privileges have been reduced merely to voting privileges. “If you want a say in how things are run around here, then you’d better become a member.” Church membership has been reduced more to a business position than to a spiritual position, and if we’re going to do membership right at The Foothills, then we have to infuse new meaning and a renewed spiritual significance into it.

So, how does a church membership skeptic lead the charge? Well, as the Lord often does, He directed my attention to a resource that has proven to be helpful. I regularly read a blog from a man known as The Internet Monk. His name is Michael Spencer, and he has one of the most widely read Christian blogs on the web. Recently, he interviewed Dr. Nathan Finn, the assistant professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr Finn had this to say about church membership:

Church membership is about more than mere affinity. If it was about like-mindedness alone there would be many viable alternatives to membership. I am like-minded with European Baptists. If affinity alone was the basis of church membership I could become a part of a chat-room with some Croatian Baptists and forget about my local church in Durham.

But church membership is about more than affinity. It is about authentic community, which I still believe primarily occurs in a face-to-face context. How can you covenant with, hold accountable, and share in the everyday lives of people you never see in person? There is a geographic component to church membership.

Church membership is also about more than a particular preacher or teacher. I listen to my share of sermons online, but only my pastors regularly preach to me. Only they understand the particularly needs of our congregation because they are part of our congregation. There is a contextual component to church membership that comes out especially in preaching and teaching.

Online communities and sermons are wonderful aids in our Christian walk, but they do not and cannot take the place of real community as embodied in local church membership.

Obviously, Dr. Finn was talking about why local church membership should be pursued rather than just sitting at your computer and “fellowshipping” with other believers online, but his words about “authentic community” struck a cord with me. If we can help church people understand that becoming members of a church is not about “joining the church” as much as it is about “locking arms” with other fellow believers and creating an authentic community of Christ-following worshippers, then I may be interested.

I’m all for entering into covenantal relationships with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and sharing in their faith journey as they share in mine. I’m all for developing “David and Jonathan-like” relationships with some of the men in my church. And I’m all for being held accountable (in love) and holding others accountable. I need it and so do they.

If we could somehow capture the essence of this when we talk about church membership, then I think the skepticism of many like me would fade away. And if we could show that the privileges of church membership are not about casting a “yea or nea” vote but about enjoying purposeful and meaningful spiritual relationships with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, then I think this church membership thing may have a chance with my generation and with the ones to come.

Resolving Conflict with Your Teen

“Conflict is unavoidable in any relationship. However, nowhere is conflict more frustrating or magnified than in the relationship between parents and teens.” I wrote these words five years ago before I had any teens in my home, and now that I have three teens under my roof, I have to pat myself on the back. I was right! If our home is fairly typical (which I think it is), then random acts of conflict are breaking out in homes everywhere where teens are present.

Rodney Gage is the founding pastor of Fellowship Orlando and the author of the book, We Can Work It Out: Creative Conflict Resolution with Your Teen. In it, he offers valuable insight into the cause and effect of parent/teen conflict and offers creative, Christ-centered approaches to effective conflict resolution. Back in my Parenting Teenagers days, I interviewed him about the book, and here’s a sample of that conversation.

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Conflict is going to happen between parents and teens, so parents need to know that they are not alone when they encounter conflict with their teen. It’s normal, isn’t it?

It is, and I think it’s very important to reassure and reaffirm parents that if they are in the process of raising a son or daughter who is a teenager, then whatever challenges that they’re facing are absolutely normal. There are some situations obviously where parents feel that things maybe aren’t quite as normal as it should be, and that’s where I hope that some of the more specifics that we’ll be talking about will give some direction and guidance on how to overcome that.

What are some key ways for parents to take a more proactive approach in resolving conflict with their teens?

One of the things that is really important for parents to do is to remain cool, calm, and collected. Don’t rush to judgment on certain things. Admit your anger. This goes back to speaking the truth in love and admitting when you have been hurt. There are basic things that parents must do in order to get a true grip or handle on the conflict at hand. It’s important for parents to understand that the conflict may seem overwhelming and uncontrollable, but at the same time they can get a handle on it if they’re willing to do certain things to diffuse the conflict.

How does defining expectations and responsibilities help contribute to the lessening of parent/teen conflict in the home?

Rules without relationship often lead to rebellion. I think that it’s important for us to make sure that the lines of communication are consistent, clear, and open. We must have clear expectations related to everything from responsibilities that we’re wanting our children to comply with to respecting authority. I think it’s important to help our kids develop the area of responsibility on a consistent basis. They’ve got to be given enough freedom to exert that responsibility. When we can see a consistent level of trust, then the more freedom we can give our kids and the more responsibility they display, then we can affirm them and reward them.

When is it time for parents to get some help from a pastor or counselor in resolving conflict with their teens?

There should never ever be any stigma that a parent should feel that keeps them from getting the help that they greatly need. For example, a lot of parents think, “If I go talk to my pastor or youth pastor, everybody’s going to think I’m a failure.” It’s amazing how we’ll seek counsel and wisdom about a business situation. We think nothing about picking up the phone and saying, “Here’s a deal that I’m working on. What advice would you give me?” We think nothing about all of that, but when it comes to our family, why is it that they are the last ones to get the help they so deserve?

We ought to go the extra mile in getting all the help, wisdom, encouragement, and insight that we can possibly get – whether it’s reading books, listening to tapes, seeking advice from other peers we highly respect, going to the pastor or youth pastor, or going to a professional counselor.

When a son or daughter is experiencing delinquent behavior (major issues of defiance or rebellion, becoming violent in any way, or using drugs or alcohol) that’s when a parent must step in and say, “We have got to get professional help to help us with our son or daughter.”

A pastor or a youth pastor can always be an incredible resource in terms of being the first step to getting the right kind of help.

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Knowing what I know now, I think it is incredibly important for us to heed Rodney’s advice to strive to remain calm when dealing with our kids in conflict. I have not always done that, and in my kids’ eyes, I lose all effectiveness for that moment when I fly off the handle. Even if what I am telling them is right and true, if I don’t stay calm, they don’t hear my wise words…they just see my anger. When I stay calm, it goes a long way in defusing potentially volatile situations, and I’m able to communicate much more effectively the wisdom, discipline, and love my kids need to hear at the time.
So, I stand in the mirror this morning and tell you what I also need to tell myself today. Parents of teens…chill out!

God’s Not Mad At You

I told you in one of my earlier blogs that we pastors are known for stealing. My buddy, Tony, corrected me and said that we pastors don’t steal, we “appropriate.” That sounds better to me…and much more pastoral too, so I’ll go with it. Allow me then to “appropriate” a blog from Jon Bloom, the Executive Director of Desiring God Ministries. He has written an excellent blog that answers the question many of us ask when tough times come our way: “Is God punishing me?” His answer – and mine as well – to this question is a resounding “no!” Here’s how he puts it…

As a Christian, when you experience a painful providence like an illness or a rebellious child or a broken marriage or a financial hardship or persecution, do you ever wonder if God is punishing you for some sin you committed?

If you do, there is some very good news from the letter to the Hebrews. The original readers of this letter had been experiencing persecution and affliction for some time. They were tired, discouraged, and confused—why was God allowing such hardships? And some were doubting.

So after some doctrinal clarifications and some firm exhortations and a few sober warnings (so they could examine if their faith was real) the author of the letter brought home a very important point.

He wanted his readers to remember that the difficulty and pain they were experiencing was not God’s punishment for their sins or weak faith. Chapters 7-10 beautifully explain that Jesus’ sacrifice for sin was once for all believers for all time (10:14). No sacrifice of any kind for sin was ever needed again (10:18).

He followed that up in chapter 11 with example after example of how the life of faith has always been difficult for saints. And then he wrote the tender encouragement and exhortation of chapter 12 where he quoted Proverbs 3:11-12:

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,and chastises every son whom he receives.

“It is for discipline that you endure. God is treating you as sons,” he said. These saints were not to interpret their painful experiences as God’s angry punishment for their sins. That angry punishment was completely spent on Jesus—once for all—on the cross.

Rather, this was the message they were to understand from their hardships: God loves you! He has fatherly affection for you. He cares deeply for you. He is taking great pains so that you will share his holiness (12:10) because he wants you to be as happy as possible and enjoy the peaceful fruit of righteousness (12:11).

This is why as a father, whenever I discipline my children, I always try to make it clear to them that I am not paying them back for their sins. That’s why I don’t use the term “punishment.” I don’t want them to misunderstand and think I am giving them what they deserve. That’s God’s job. And if they trust in Jesus, all their punishment was taken care of on the cross.

Instead, I always use the terms “discipline” or “correction” and explain that I love them and my intention, even though the discipline is painful, is to correct and train them. I want them to know that their father loves them, cares for them deeply, and is taking great pains to point them toward the way of joy.

It is crucial that we remember that everything God feels toward us as Christians is gracious. When God disciplines us it is a precious form of his favor. It’s what a loving father does. He is not giving us what we deserve because he “canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands…nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). Instead, he is training us in righteousness. Because he loves us so very much.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Christian, God is not mad at you!

Thoughts on Worship After A Day Away

Yesterday, Jesse, Peter, and I went away to spend the day in prayer, reflection, reading, and meditation. We try to do this at least once a quarter, and with fall approaching, we decided to steal away for the day. The home of Dan and Kim Arnold was our meeting place, and with their gorgeous pond, beautiful large trees, and the “North Valley” ambiance, it was the perfect place to get away.

I spent most of my day finishing a book I started a while back on worship called, Proclamation and Praise: Hebrews 2:12 and the Christology of Worship by Ron Man. Ron is the director of worship resources for Greater Europe Mission, and I think this is his doctoral dissertation in book form. It was a daunting read, but the insights I gained from it about the theology of worship are proving to be invaluable. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the elders are on a quest to gain a better understanding of the biblical theology of worship so that we can better lead in this area at The Foothills, and I’m confident that this book will play a major role in our quest. Let me share a couple of insights about worship that I received from the book yesterday.

Worship is to be a true dialog between God and us. Ron refers to this as the rhythm of revelation and response. As God constantly reveals Himself to us through His Word, through the love of other believers, and through His creation, we then are to respond to His revelation. Our response to any of God’s revelations in our lives can take the form of a song, a shout, a prayer of thanksgiving, an act of obedience, an act of love, or an act of service. Regardless of the response, the most important thing is that we do in fact respond. As we respond, the dialog of worship between us and God takes place. So, the challenge is to mimic and model this dialog when we gather together on a Sunday morning for “worship.” If we are truly going to worship when we gather, then the “relevation and response” rhythm must take place.

The living Christ is present when we gather together for worship. In Hebrews 13:5 we are told that Jesus will never leave us or forsake us. Why then do we feel compelled to “invite” Him to join us for worship when we gather together? He’s already there! As a matter of fact, He’s not just there as a spectator, but He is there as the leader. Hebrews 2:12 records the words of Jesus as He leads His people in worship. He says to God, His Father, “I will proclaim Your name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation, I will sing your praise.” Jesus is our worship leader, and He is the One who leads us in worship when we gather together.

Our worship is pleasing and acceptable to God not because of its own excellence, but because of (and only because of) the excellence of His Son. God accepts and delights in our worship, not because of our efforts or artistry or even our spirituality, but because of Jesus’ continual offering of worship in our place and on our behalf. It is not the excellence of our worship (quality, quantity, or form) which makes it acceptable and pleasing to God (although those things are important and reveal our heart in the effort), but it is the excellence of His Son that is pleasing to Him. This means that regardless of what you feel or don’t feel, you can still worship God. You can still respond to His constant revelation in your life, because when you do, you are joining Christ’s worship of the Father – which is 100% pure and acceptable to Him…even if your worship is marred by sin and seems unworthy to the Father.

As long as our worship is led and mediated by Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, how we do it doesn’t matter. Whenever I sit down to talk with people about worship, within the first five minutes, the conversation inevitably plunges into talking about the style of the worship. Hands lifted, knees bent, face up, face down, hymns, praise choruses, loud, soft, with a banjo, without a banjo! In spite of a huge diversity in worship styles and practices in music and dress and architecture and forms and customs, from person to person, church to church, culture to culture, continent to continent, century to century throughout the history of the church – the fact remains that God has been, is, and will be worshipped by true worshippers in countlessly different ways. Every person brings his or her own voice, and every group brings its own voice, but no one person and no one group brings the official voice. We all must understand that style is not the issue. Engaging God in a “revelation and response” dialog through His risen Son, Jesus Christ, is.

It was a good day of reflection for the three of us yesterday, and it seems that understanding the theology of worship is something that God is placing on all of our hearts. That means that there will be more on this topic in the coming days as the three of us – along with the other five elders – continue to wrestle with understanding, believing, living, and then teaching a biblical theology of worship.

A Walk in the Clouds

I haven’t been this sore in years. Yesterday, Taylor and I went on a colossal hike in the Pecos Mountains. We went with Pat and Jake Smith. Pat grew up hiking and camping, so I don’t think this was as rough for him as it was for me, although I know that he was struggling at the end like I was! I – on the other hand – grew up playing baseball in the park and Atari in my living room. I was way out of my league on this one!

We drove up to Jack’s Creek campground north of Santa Fe Monday evening and slept in our vans over night. We were on the trail by 7AM yesterday morning with our sights set on the 12,500 feet peak of the East Pecos Baldy mountain. It’s 9 miles from the campground to the peak with a 4,100 feet incline over those 9 miles. By the time we hit the Pecos Baldy Lake – which is a natural resting place before ascending to the peak – a storm started brewing in the east. We quickly ate and began our final climb, and as we did, the thunder began to roar in the distance.

When we were about 200 feet from the top, it began to rain. The storm was moving in fast, so much so that a group of hikers who were very close to the top decided to turn back. They passed us heading down, warning us of the high winds above. Pat asked me what I thought we should do. I couldn’t tell him what I really wanted to do…die! By that time, I was hurting. The air was thin, the climb was getting steeper and steeper, and the trail was covered with jagged, shifting rocks. The thin air and steep incline forced us to stop to catch our breath about every 20-30 feet that we climbed. As exhausted as I was, we were so close to the top that I didn’t want to turn back. So, I told Pat that we should go for it…and we did.

The boys scurried on ahead (oh to be 12 again!), and Pat and I forged on. When we reached the top, we were greeted by a monstrous cloud wall heading right toward us. It was quite surreal. Knowing that we were completely exposed to the storm at 12,500 feet, we quickly slapped high fives, took a few pictures, and promptly began our ascent back down. As we raced off of the peak, the clouds roared in and enveloped us. At times, we could barely see each other. It was truly “a walk in the clouds.” Amazingly, we didn’t get very wet, and once we were off the summit, the clouds seemed to roll around us but not over us.

I wish I could tell you some deep spiritual truth that I learned while walking in the clouds, but I really can’t think of any. It was a bit frightening, but I really was fully aware that God was in control during all of it. I was actually more concerned about how bad I felt, knowing that the climax of conquering the peak meant that we were only half way done with the hike. We had nine more grueling miles to go to get back to the camp!

All in all, it was an awesome experience. Nothing like being with your son and some good friends on top of the world! However, I don’t think I’ll ever do that hike again! As I write, I’m lying in bed applying an ice / heat regiment to my left knee. I think I really messed it up yesterday, so please pray for me. I don’t know whether this is something that will get better as the rest of my sore body does or not. Please pray that it does.

I’m not opposed to trying to conquer some of New Mexico’s other mountain peaks, I just want to find some that I can park a little closer to next time!

God and Apple Pie

My buddy, Tony, is preaching a great series on God’s grace at his church. He’s the pastor of Grace Community Bible Church in Venice, Florida. Michelle and I started listening to his series while we were on vacation last month. This past weekend, Tony used a metaphor about God that really made sense to me. I’m pretty sure he stole it from someone because it’s too profound for him to come up with on his own (I owe you that, Tony!), plus stealing other people’s stuff is what we pastors do.

Anyway, he was talking about how God can not simply be just a priority in the life of a believer – even if He’s seen as number one. Instead, God must permeate every part of the life of the believer. He likened God to the apple filling inside an apple pie. No matter how you cut the pie, you’re always going to get a heaping portion of delicious apple filling inside each piece. In the same way, no matter what relationship we’re involved with or what situation we’re in, God must permeate it all.

We’re so quick to compartmentalize our lives saying, for instance, “God is first, my spouse is second, my kids are third, and my friends are fourth.” That sounds good on the surface, but because we’re so prone to compartmentalizing our relationships and life-sitautions, I’m not so sure this is really the best way of looking at things.

I like the apple pie analogy. Since there’s apple filling all throughout the pie, no matter how you slice it, you’ll get some apple in every bite you take. The same should be true when it comes to the way we see the Lord in our lives. Since He should take preminence in every area of our lives, viewing Him like apple pie filling is much better than viewing Him as number one. The Lord should permeate every relationship we’re in and every situation we come across in our lives.

So…I like the apple pie analogy. I like it so much that I may use it someday, and when I do, I’ll be sure to take credit for coming up with it myself, so don’t say anything! While it’s true that pastors are known for stealing ideas, it’s only the good ones that can do it and convince people that they came up with the ideas themselves. Mum’s the word.