Freedom (yeah, right)

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Some friends and I were talking about worship this week. Some of them are in a season where they don’t want to go to church. They experience God more closely in nature than by going through the motions every Sunday. Most of us know that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a refrigerator makes you a stick of butter. My friends were supportive of one another and cheered them on for taking a hike instead of going to church. But the conversation, which started as leaning away from legalism, soon begins to lean towards “anything goes.”

The anything goes mindset goes like this: Whatever you feel like you should do, that’s what you should do, because God made you that way. Like you, I can quickly come up with a list that starts with “yeah, but…” Yeah, but, what if I want to kill someone? Yeah, but, what I don’t feel like being generous? Yeah, but, what it feels good to gossip?

The intention is to offer freedom. But does it actually work? Eventually, we will find out that “anything goes” is actually all about me. Shouldn’t worship be all about God?

Maybe we need to step away from the legalism we’ve inherited from generations of Christians who handed off religion rather than Jesus (religion, after all, is easier). The great irony is that we might walk away from one form of legalism into another.

Legalism isn’t just creating and following old rules, it’s defining religion so that you can control it. You can be legalistic (in control) by claiming that you experience God in the woods because, just like in religion, it is something you can control.

Maybe real freedom comes through doing something where we’re not in control: obeying. I suspect that worshipping God means putting him first. It’s about submission. Now I’m all for re-examining what Jesus actually wanted us to do. I’m just wondering, maybe we can find freedom, not by looking inward, but by doing what God says.

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Spiritually Ignoring Good Ideas

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I’m reading a fabulous book called “The Power of Habit.” It’s interesting, powerful, insightful, helpful and I suspect it will be largely ignored by the people who could do the most with it: Christ followers.

This book has insights about community, disciplines, free will, and even forgiveness.

You should read “The Power of Habit.” It helps us understand ourselves and others. As I often do when I read great books I think about how powerful it could be if the local church would leverage these insights.

Of course, there are plenty of Christians who will read this (among other great) books. But we will subconsciously assume it is separate from our faith and from the Great Commission. We will read The Screwtape Letters for our ‘devotion’ and The Tipping Point for pleasure, when the latter might actually contain more practical and helpful insight into our calling than the former.

Maybe we’ve never connected the dots. Maybe Sunday comes too quickly and our pastors can’t handle new information. Maybe we disregard Stephen Covey and Jim Collins because they don’t quote Jesus. Maybe we think our current models are working or if we could just get people to read Mere Christianity things would change.

I think God is at work. I think there are tools to help people be free. An author doesn’t have to cite the Bible for their thoughts to be Biblical. Solomon says: get wisdom, and whatever else you can get, get insight. If the next great secret to healing, growth, and redemption isn’t in the Christian book section – are you willing to go find it?

Survey

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Imagine you were able to peer into the minds of non-Christians and see what they know about Jesus. You might be able to uncover something that could be corrected, a misunderstanding, or simple clarification. It might influence how Christians talk about Jesus, or how our language confuses people. On an individual basis, it would be helpful as we try to tell the story of Jesus.

This is exactly the opportunity I had this week. I teach a class on spirituality. It is not a required class, and the roster is incredibly diverse. Buddhists, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and a few Christians circle the room. This week I gave them a 20 question short-answer religious literacy quiz designed to teach the class a basic understanding of what college students believe and reveal our ignorance about major world religions. Most people get about 4-5 of the questions right. Every single person knew the answer to this question:

Why, according to Christians, did Jesus die?

Paul writes in Romans 10 that everyone who calls on Jesus name will be saved – but how can people call on his name if they haven’t heard about him? And how will people hear if nobody is preaching? The natural application is – preach! We need to preach more!

But what if the people you are preaching to already know what you are preaching?

This must be exactly what Paul had experienced, for in the next few verses he describes this same phenomenon – “of course they have heard!” Over the next chapter Paul clarifies that we ought to approach this with humility, not being arrogant of what faith we have. Instead we look to the celebration when those far from God accept him.

Paul circles back around to, “so what should we do?” Should we preach? Should we stop people and tell them that God died for them? Should we take every opportunity to share “salt” and “seed?”

His answer begins with “Therefore…” in which he explains a few applications of what it means to offer not just your words (i.e. truth), but your whole life. It’s one of my favorite chapters, it was in our wedding vows, and I know I need to re-read it about once a week. If people have already heard the words, they need to see it in real life.

If you survey your friends, I bet they know why Jesus died. But they might not have seen one of his followers live.

A different approach

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After writing the last blog (Getting in our own way) I realized I offered generous amounts of critique and was stingy on the solutions. There are dozens of ways to study scripture, many of which are beneficial and insightful. I’ll simply offer three:

First, dig for Jesus. The best example of this I know is The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd Jones. In her book, Sally goes through scripture and always connects the story to God’s redemptive plan through Jesus. Reading scripture with Jesus’ story in mind will point us to him, we won’t just read about Noah and think about a flood, but about God’s plan of rescue. This will also give us practice for how to recognize God’s story in the stories around us.

Then, dig for application. I tell our small group just about every week that we’re not interested in information, we’re interested in transformation. We don’t want to learn things that are interesting, but things that invade us. This gets easier when we’ve seen Jesus in the story we’ve seen. Noah might become an application about courage, faith, and not being captive to worry of how we’re viewed by the world.

Finally, study it together. We need to hear the gospel from each other and need help applying what the Bible says. When we read a few pages a day by ourselves (which we should) it’s tough to dig for application – community helps us to go slow.

I’ve probably said nothing new. If only for my sake, I don’t want to critique something without offering a suggestion for a better way.

Good news

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I was sitting at an interfaith gathering this week and during the course of a conversation, a woman in her 50s asked me, “why don’t churches talk about sexual assault?”

Most statistics show that around 1/4th of all women and 1/10th of all men are victims of sexual violence . Whether or not we are aware of it, we all know a victim of sexual assault. It’s uncomfortable, it’s personal, and it’s incredibly discouraging – and we don’t spend much time talking about it. The same goes for alcoholism and drug use (about 1/3 of Americans have abused alcohol, 41% have tried marijuana) – we just don’t talk about it much outside of a passing comment about the brokenness of our world.

The above wordle (collection of words where the more common the word is, the bigger it is) is a representation of the impacts of and responses to sexual assault – do you see faith, religion, spirituality, or church mentioned anywhere? Yet, shouldn’t communities of faith be the safest and most healing places for people?

The irony is that this deep hurt, addiction, and shame is exactly what the good news of a healing, freeing, and forgiving relationship with a living God can respond to. Shallow ‘real faith will make your pain go away’ responses aren’t the answer. We should learn how to communicate grace, love, and hope with people’s real pain in mind.

I’m not sure a sermon series on the topic is the answer, but as people who follow Jesus, we should be equipped to talk about and respond to real pain. Our churches, communities, and individual relationships should be the type where people find hope, even when their pain doesn’t go away.

Tebowing

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What should we think about Tim Tebow? He finishes game winning drives and says, “it’s just a game” and talks about building hospitals in the Philippines. Although he’s not a great quarterback (his throwing motion and pocket presence need some work), so far Tim seems like a worthy role model, a better man than quarterback. He’s someone parents can tell their kids to look up to.

For a long time I’ve worried about Christian’s semi-obsession with discovering athletes and actors are ‘one of their own.’ I know some Christians are irritated with him, either as a football player or because of how he carries his faith. Here’s my question – is Tebow a good role model for Christians? Is the way he exhibits his faith something we should seek to duplicate? A few quick thoughts.

Our response to success.Tebowing” means to to get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different. After a great sale, should you get on one knee and thank God? At an awards banquet, should Jesus be the first person you thank? Couldn’t that make you appear awkward, overly religious, and out of touch? Couldn’t it also communicate, “God has given me this, so he must not love you as much as me.”

Should we thank God – yes (1 Thess 5:18, 1 Chron 29:11-13)! But we ought to be careful what we thank God for, because I’ll bet lots of people pray who lose (Matthew 5:45, see also Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address). Praising God publically for a victory may communicate the wrong message – instead, give him glory and thanks for being our savior, your freedom, our hope. Isn’t that what we want to point people to anyway? Hopefully your public words match your private work and life.

The way we work on a team. Tebow will only be around as long as he can continue to unite a locker room. Say what you will about the Broncos, they are playing like a team. Tim’s willing to be a team with non-Christians, and coached by a non-Christian. He’s willing to work on Sundays. Sometimes our desire to be “not of” the world (John 15:19) keeps us separated, aloof, and maybe keeps us from our mission (Matthew 28:18-19). Our faith may be controversial on the field, but I hope it is at least tolerated in the locker room. For Tim, I suspect this happens because of his relationship with teammates and demonstrated work ethic. If you’re going to be a vocal Christian at work, you should do your work well (Col 3:23), and your message within your team ought to always be in context of relationship (2 Thess 2:8).

Our work is the primary place we have influence. I’m not sure how long Tebow will be in the NFL. I appreciate that he isn’t waiting until it’s safe and comfortable and he has a 10 year contract to share his perspective about what matters.

People may not want to become ‘one of us’ but I hope they say, “I’m sure glad s/he is around.”

Recovery

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Last week I went to a conference session about a university that has a created a floor for college students who are in rec0very from alcoholism. This group of students all have to have been sober for 6 months, and have been in a rehab program. As I listened, I saw fascinating connections between this group (in recovery) and Christians who are in recovery from our former selves. I’ll note quotes from the session in bold, followed by a few thoughts.

“If you want change, harm reduction is more effective than no tolerance policies.” Grace is a more powerful change agent than legalism or perfectionism!

“The strongest predictor of whether someone stays sober is their community.” Alcoholics get in community to admit they have a problem, and nobody pretends to be perfect. We need a community that knows how screwed up we really are, points us to something bigger, and challenges us to live better than we normally would. We also need to be in community because we need to know our mistakes aren’t all that creative.

“The more you know about the depth of the problem of alcohol, the more you know the need to support and not lecture, to give hands on hep and not handouts.” Just replace the word ‘alcohol’ in this sentence with ‘sin.’ The more you learn about sin, the more you realize just how deep, powerful, and controlling it is.

Maybe it seems like talking about sin is depressing, unnecessary, and legalistic. But, for people who are really in tune with the pain it causes and our need for recovery – we can take a page from alcoholics anonymous.