Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Don't Forget the Purpose

There are a lot of things going around in my head this evening. Probably several that I could, and perhaps should, write about. But, I'm not there. So, an easier post. [As I re-read the post before actually putting it up, this did not end up being the easy post that I thought it was going to be when I started. I think it drew more out of me than I expected.]

I've written before about worship. What I think it is; the rules that I think apply (or don't); etc. Recently I was reading from the book of Isaiah, and found what it said about the topic to be interesting.

Isaiah was a prophet, and I have read that the New Testament quotes Isaiah more than all of the other prophets combined. Although Isaiah was close to a number of kings, it seems pretty clear that he did not pull any punches. In fact, my brief research indicates that although Isaiah outlasted four kings, the fifth had him killed.

The portion of Isaiah that I am focused on now is 1:10-20. It is too long to quote the entire passage here (I just tried it). If you are reading this, I suggest that you take a second to look it up. In fact, I will go beyond that, go to www.biblegateway.com (or a similar site) and look for the New Living Translation version of the passage. It's ok, I don't mind waiting for you to find it and read it.

Ok, now that we are all on the same page, because I know you looked it up - Wow! Sick of your burnt offerings? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts? Your celebrations are sinful and false? Remember, this is the Old Testament that we are reading. There are pages and pages and pages of the Old Testament that address nothing but the burnt offerings, the incense and the various celebrations. In fact, I think you could read most of the Old Testament and come to conclusion that offerings and gifts and celebrations and rituals is what worship is all about. After all, they are described in very fine detail.

But, I have always thought (ok, I've thought it for as long as I have thought about such things, which honestly isn't that long) that reading the Old Testament in that way is wrong. Sure, there are a lot of rules about the worship practices, but you can't separate them from the point of worship. The best analogy that I can come up with right now is music. Music can certainly be seen and studied as a series of notes, tempos and sound levels to be played by various instruments. But music, of course, is more than that. Its essence is more about expression and emotion and feeling - things that don't really translate well to the sheet music. If you tried to strip all of that away, you would end up with nothing but a complicated set of rules and directions - like you get when you strip the essence of worship from the Old Testament.

This passage from Isaiah really hits me on the head with that and not losing sight of the real point of worship. It screams to me, "Stop focusing on the rules and rituals, focus on the worship! I'm sick of you coming to me out of habit and blindly following a bunch of rules. I'm sick of you acting like you are worshiping, but really just going through the motions! Come to me and mean it. 'Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed.' [1:17a]"

Then, amazingly, despite the frustration, "Just listen and obey and I will take care of you. 'Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow.' [1:18b] But if you don't, there is nothing to be done for you - 'you will be devoured by the sword of your enemies.' [1:20]"

I try hard not to worship for worship's sake. I try not to let myself just go through the motions. I try not to take Communion without thinking about what it means and why I am doing it. I try not to lift up hands in prayer that are covered in the blood of sin. But, sometimes I admit that I probably fall into a routine. This rather pointed reminder about focusing on the purpose of my worship is helpful to me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"No Fair!"

If there is one thing that my kids say over and over it is "No fair!" Or, the slightly longer version, "That's not fair, why does she get to . . . ." They constantly compare what is going on in their life with what they see in the lives of others. Our usual response, when not completely annoyed, is to try to draw them back into their lives. Something along the lines of "Well, maybe their Mom and Dad think it is ok to let their kids (climb on the statues here in the Sculpture Garden) (run around the restaurant like crazy children) (throw things at the animals in the zoo) (you get the idea . . .), but we don't." Of course, sometimes we go with the shorter version, too - "Because I said no!"

I guess, though, it is kind of misleading to suggest that only the kids do it. Sometimes I do it, too. Often, though, when I think like that, it is more value laden. "It's just not fair that that person gets recognition when they didn't really do very much." "It's not fair that they treat people so poorly and still get treated so well." "It's not fair that they do not have to work as many hours and they still make that much money." Whatever it is. Sometimes I just don't think that people get what they deserve. And, of course, implicit in that is the idea that I am getting something less than I deserve.

Recently, I have been reading the book of Job. Most people are familiar with the general facts. I apologize in advance for this very simplistic overview, I recognize that this summary does not really do justice to the Book. Job has been incredibly good - he is described as "blameless and upright." Job 1:1 (NIV) He leads a good life and gives praise to God. Satan gets into a discussion with God and basically says something along the lines of - of course Job loves you, look at everything you have done for him. If you take everything away, he will curse you. God allows Satan to take away everything Job has, and inflict him with illness, but not kill him. During the period that Job has nothing and has gone off by himself, he is visited by friends who essentially tell him multiple versions of "you must have done something wrong." Job argues with them and cries out about his unfair treatment. Ultimately, God himself comes and rebukes them all. Job does not curse God to His face as Satan had predicted, instead he essentially apologizes for questioning and repents. God makes him "prosperous again" and gives him "twice as much as he had before." Job 42:10 (NIV)

What caught my attention related to the topic of this post, though, is not the general theme of the Book of Job. Rather, I have read and re-read one of the things said to Job by Elihu. Elihu is not one of Job's three friends, but someone that had been listening to them speak with him. The Bible tells us that he is younger than the three friends and, it seems out of respect, he waits for them to stop talking before he virtually explodes with anger and launches into a long speech. His role, the themes of his speech and how he fits into the entire Book can be much discussed and debated. But, I am grabbing on to two verses. Elihu says:

"God is leading you away from danger, Job, to a place free from distress. He is setting your table with the best food. But you are obsessed with whether the godless will be judged. Don't worry, judgment and justice will be upheld."

Job 36:16-17 (NLT)

Go ahead and read it again - more slowly than the first time. Tell me that you didn't say to yourself - "wow, that is me." The only way to make this more directly apply to me is to insert Tony where it says Job. I am certainly guilty of looking past what God is doing for me and how He is caring for me and focusing on whether I think other people are getting away with something. WHO CARES?!? I know that "judgment and justice will be upheld." I also know that I don't have perfect knowledge of the situations. Still, though, as I admitted above, I find myself thinking those kind of thoughts.

I've been using this passage to try to change my outlook. To try to look at the food that God is putting before me and the places that He is leading me. I can't honestly say that I have been 100% successful, but I think it has been a good exercise. I encourage you to give it a try. Stop being obsessed with how others will be treated. Stop comparing and making a judgment that what you are getting is not fair.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Is it Hope?

I should probably preface this post by saying that I have a great relationship with my Pastor. We have been to Kenya together twice, experienced a lot of things together, and have talked about auditioning to be a team on The Amazing Race. So, if he reads this, he will not be at all surprised that I do not 100% agree with him on something.

A few weeks ago, the Senior Pastor at our church sent out a kind of midweek encouragement. In it he wrote about a local crime that had generated a lot of attention and excitement in the area (particularly for his family since apparently the perpetrator, who was on the run, came running through their back yard). He used that as a springboard to reflect that he believes that the root cause for a lot of criminal or antisocial behavior is a lack of hope. He then explained that at least part of the calling of Christians is to demonstrate and share the transformative hope of Jesus with others.

That got me thinking. Does my relationship with Jesus give me hope? I guess at some level it does, so perhaps he is correct as far as he goes. But, on a more fundamental level, it is not really about hope at all. Hope, after all, suggests that there is some doubt. I "hope" that something will happen when I recognize that there is some chance that it will not.

But, a relationship with Christ is about a whole lot more than hope. I don't "hope" that God will provide for me. I don't "hope" that He will guide me. I know He will. My religious beliefs give me a whole lot more than hope, they give me faith. I know that God has plans to prosper me and not to harm me. Jeremiah 29:11. I know that God will protect me. I know that He will provide for me.

That isn't to say that my faith is perfect and I never wonder or question - far from it. I often find myself fearful, or praying that He does address whatever concerns that I have. But is to say that I think the job of Christians is to do more than teach people to have hope in Jesus Christ. We need to help people to have faith in Jesus Christ.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"There are so many wonderful things in this world . . ."

A few months ago we had a movie night at church. The movie that they showed was The Tale of Despereaux. I was kind of wandering in and out of the movie doing other things and talking to other people, so I am not really in a position to do any sort of a movie review. But, I do remember one scene that made a big impression on me.

In the movie, the main character is a mouse. But, he doesn't really act like a mouse. He is too adventurous. He likes to read books, rather than eat them. And, this is kind of an embarrassment to his family. So, he is being trained on how to be more mouse-like. In that context he is told "There are so many wonderful things in this World to be afraid of, all you have to do is learn how."

That idea has really stuck with me. I was reminded of it not too long ago when I was walking back towards the office from getting coffee in the morning. In front of us was a mother walking with her daughter, keeping a tight hold on her hand. The little girl - probably about five - was kind of skipping along and looked very happy. As they came near the Metro station, there was a homeless woman sitting on a little ledge. The woman is in the area fairly frequently - she doesn't say anything, hold a sign, or ask for money. She just sits there. In any event, as they got closer, I noticed that the little girl looked at the woman and made eye contact and smiled. The woman looked up and smiled back. As the girl skipped past, still holding her mother's hand, she waved and the homeless woman waved back. Then everyone kind of went on about their business. Other than perhaps feeling a slight hesitation as her daughter slowed down, I don't think the mother even noticed.

I've written before about the invisibility of being homeless, and that is not where I am trying to head tonight. What I want you to see in this story is that the little girl had no reason to be afraid, or intimidated, or concerned that she would be asked for something, or anything else. She just saw a woman sitting there who smiled back at her.

We have to be trained to be afraid. Sometimes, of course, that is good. Don't touch hot things, they burn. Don't walk up to a car if a stranger is offering you candy. Those kind of things. But, the truth is, there really are many wonderful things in the World that we learn to be afraid of. Things that may otherwise fascinate us, or intrigue us, we learn to be afraid of. Think of something that you fear. Is it bugs or spiders or sharks or lightning or heights, or what? If you could put aside that fear, I think you could see that the things on that list are really amazing (I recognize that heights doesn't really fit in, so think of the amazing view).

My daughter right now is going through a phase where, for some reason, she is afraid of being outside - particularly in the dark. A couple of weeks ago we built a fire outside at night to roast marshmallows and hang out. Less than a minute after going outside, she asked about going back in. She asked about foxes and whether they come out at night. She asked about wolves. She worried about snakes. Every sound scared her. At some point, despite the fact that I was right next to her and we were roughly twenty feet from the back deck, she was panicked and had to go back in.

I know that with little kids it is just a phase, but I wanted to use it to illustrate the point. There have been lots of times in the past where she has enjoyed the fire pit and marshmallow roasting. But, something caused her to be afraid of things. Just like the mouse that was being given lessons on how to be afraid. We teach our children. Society teaches us. Be afraid of differences. Be afraid of people that speak another language or worship a different god. Be afraid of taking a risk. Be afraid of things that are not like what we are used to.

I fall into it as much as everyone else. But I think awareness of the issue helps. I also try to think of the words of Paul in Romans - "Don't copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God's will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect." Romans 12:2 (NLT) I don't need to fear something because the ways of the world tell me to. I need to try to see it through God's eyes and let Him transform me and the way I think.

Even though we often focus on the bad, there are a lot of wonderful things in the world. Try not to be afraid when you discover them.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

"Don't Take a Vacation from God"

A few weeks ago, we were on vacation in the Outer Banks. If you are familiar with the area, you know that there are two primary roads running through Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, etc. There is the Beach Road, which, as you probably can guess, runs closer to the water. And, there is the Bypass, which, as you probably can guess, has more lanes and a higher speed limit. From time to time, we would run out to the bypass to get somewhere. Each time that we did, we passed a church with a sign out front that said "Don't Take a Vacation from God - Services 9am 11am."

I've been thinking about that sign a lot lately. I realize that I did not write here at all during the month of August. When you look at the general drop off in the number of posts each month over time, that is not very good, either. I'm not out of ideas for posts - to the contrary, I just keep writing ideas down on a little notebook. I just don't actually take the time to write them out here.

I also have now fallen weeks behind in my One Year Bible (I am on August 13). I haven't completely stopped worshiping in the morning - I still take time to pray and read a short devotional before I start working - but I am taking less time and not reading the Bible.

What does it mean? Am I Taking a Vacation from God?

I have been very busy at work, and I do have the general impression that it is going to be very important to stay busy and get as many others busy as possible, but I haven't cut out or shortened morning exercise.

I recently read something that I have heard many times before - "Show me your checkbook and what you do every day, and I will tell you where your priorities are - no matter what you say." It kind of made me angry. Does the fact that I spend too much time at the office mean that I care more about my work than my family? Does the fact that I have jumped into working earlier in the morning mean that I am putting work before God?

The thing is, I don't think it works that way. I need to keep clients and colleagues happy at work so that I can have the opportunities with my family that we are able to have. It has been said more than once that "the law is a jealous mistress . . . ." (Joseph Story 1829 lecture at Harvard Law School)

I think God understands (and of course He knows). God certainly warns us not to worship false idols and the Old Testament shows His reaction to that on multiple occasions. God definitely does not want us to turn our backs on Him, and He will do whatever it takes to try to prevent that. But, ultimately, we are called into a relationship with God and Jesus. Of course we worship and give praise, but I think it really needs to be more than that. for most of my life I never would have even dreamed of saying this, but I feel like I have such a relationship.

While it is different than a friendship and I do not want to denigrate the relationship in any way, I am still going to use the analogy. Friends love each other. Friends want to spend time together in fellowship. Friends want to hear about problems, fears, questions and successes. But, friends understand the sometimes the amount of contact fades for a while. Friends are happy when it picks back up and are not angry about the fact that phone calls and emails got shorter and less frequent for a while.

I think God feels the same way. I don't think that I have taken a vacation from God. I think of a vacation as an escape, or getting away from something. I do recognize that I have not been paying as much attention to the relationship as I should. I do recognize that I feel better when I do pay more attention to growing that relationship. But, God is not angry. While it is not an excuse to ignore Him, or to go off and do whatever I want to do, I know that God is waiting with His arms opened wide and a happy smile on His face. And I know that even when I am not noticing, He is holding my hand.

That gives me great comfort.