Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hats Off to Freedom in Worship (And My Friend Russell)

My friend Russell Martin just posted one of my favorite blog posts I've read in a long time about the issue of kids wearing their hats in worship at church camp and the bad taste it leaves with a student when he is reprimanded, or corrected at the beginning of a service for wearing a hat. I really encourage you to read his post. As he was asking for our thoughts on the issue, mine were more than I could contain in a comment, so I am commenting in the form of a blog post of my own.

Russell makes the following quote in his post, "The biggest change in my life happened when I stopped doing the good things I was doing because that was what I was “supposed to do” as a Christian, and started doing some of the same things because I wanted to please God." I can really relate to this because I had the same change of heart in my own life.

The Scripture I discovered a long time ago was in I Corinthians 8 regarding food sacrificed to idols. The Apostle Paul was dealing with a church that was located in a pretty godless city-Corinth. Corinth was a port city and was a "what happens in Corinth stays in Corinth" kind of place. There were many temples to pagan deities, many offering encounters with temple prostitutes as an act of worship to the fertility gods. Many foods offered in the local markets were foods that had been offered to many of these pagan deities and then sold in the streets after the worship services were over. Paul is giving the Corinthian believers freedom to eat these foods as long as brothers and sisters of weaker conscience or who are less mature in their faith are not witness to this. In other words, if it causes someone to think you are sinning by eating it, don't do it. Your witness is more important than your personal freedom.

I grew up learning that we didn't pray with our hats on and that we didn't wear hats in church. Wearing a hat in the house was not a big deal like it was when my parents were younger. But it stands to reason that as culture has changed since my childhood, the issue of hats in worship is often lost on younger believers but may still be a bigger issue to those of my generation and older.

I think Paul's advice about food used in idol worship applies here. I think for a mature believer who is aware that wearing a hat in a worship service may be a distraction, he should remove his hat rather than practicing his freedom in worship. But to the 7th grader at camp who is pouring out his heart in meaningful worship with his head tucked beneath his Texas Rangers ball cap, who are we to interrupt his communion with God so we can force him to remove his hat? I think we are grieving the Spirit to make the student feel uncomfortable (and hinder his worship of God) over what is really not that big of a deal.

I've had some great worship experiences indoors and out with a hat on. I've had some great prayer times indoors and out both hatted and sans hat. But when I am with my youth group, I always try to set the example of removing my hat during worship times because I know there are people that will be distracted by it and if I don't set that example for the students, then they may become a distraction later for someone else. But I think it is equally absurd to teach them a legalistic mentality that if they worship or pray with their hat on that somehow their prayers never make it past the bill of the cap.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Establishing Boundaries with Technology

I don't remember how many years ago it was that I was introduced to social media. After email, Instant Messaging was the first thing I guess that was considered social media. I can remember thinking, "You mean, my friends can know when I'm online and they can type things to me right then?" This blew my mind. Then I was introduced to a thing called Myspace, then Facebook, then Twitter, and who knows what's next.
And the more available this stuff becomes, the more it seems to suck us into its vortex. Because all these portals are feeding us information...information that seems very important. This apparent need for this information is just plain addictive. I mean who would want to miss the fact that Aunt Sally's dog in Pennsylvania just had puppies and the pictures are on Facebook. I am usually behind the technology curve. A lot of tech toys that break sales records on their release days don't wind up in my hands until a few months or years have gone by and they have released a newer better version. You can also understand that it took me a while before I made the move to open a Twitter account. After I began tweeting and following some of my favorite friends and organizations, I can remember watching the feed in fear that I was going to miss something. Without realizing it, I was becoming addicted to watching that news stream and for the first couple of weeks, I realized I was not very productive. Fortunately, the newness wore off and I could maintain a Twitter account and still resume the normal functions of my life.

So what I have had to do is establish some boundaries with when, where, and how I utilize technology. Since I am in ministry, tech toys and gadgets are legitimate tools of the trade to get information out there. But I don't want to end up like one of my students who posted on Facebook that she wished people would quit texting her cell phone so she could get some sleep, to which I had to reply "You can turn it off, you know! LOL" So here are the things I have done to be able to have what I hope is a healthy lifestyle,and still be connected to the information world.

1. I don't have a smartphone. There are several reasons why I don't have an iphone, Blackberry, or Droid (man, I want one bad). One is the financial commitment of the data plan. Cindy and I are in Dave Ramsey's Baby Step 2, so we are trying to be really conservative with our money. Also, this allows me to be a husband and father when I'm at home, instead of constantly checking office emails on my cell phone. I am not condemning smart phones or people who use them. I just think there is a danger to having that much connectivity all the time and sooner or later it starts to interfere with our lives. I hope that when I do get a smart phone, it does not become something that is an absolute lifeline for my well-being.

2. I do most of my internet work at the office. Since we both have cell phones, we never had phone lines installed at our home. Since we don't have home phone service, we don't get the bundle rate on home internet, nor do we have the lines that the high-speed internet service uses. So, you can see where this is going. And we're doing just fine. Not having internet at home gives me more time to spend with my wife and family and for stuff I love like tending my garden, taking care of my chickens, or helping my dad with his cows. If I need to know something right away, I can usually find it somewhere or pick up the phone.

3. Realize that written/electronic communication is different than spoken language. While I occasionally might have a conversation with someone through 15 text messages rather than 1 phone call, I still try to pick up the phone now and then. Also, while textual language-whether on a cell phone, email, Facebook, or Twitter-is verbal, it is not auditory. So the nonverbal cues that accompany those words (voice inflection. a chuckle, etc.) are not. Yes, we have LOL and :( to denote how we are feeling, but the bottom line is that print communication is just different. Another thing that we must be aware of is that we often say things in chat or email that we might never say in person because we are too embarrassed or because these things are inappropriate. More than once have I hurt someone's feelings or gave someone a wrong impression because they interpreted something I had typed in a way that was different from the way I meant it.

What things do you do in your life to establish balance and boundaries with technology and information addiction?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tales From A Jesus Theme Park-A Different Kind of Faith

Last month, my wife Cindy and I got a chance to go to Orlando for a ministry conference. While we were at the hotel for 3 nights with the conference, we didn't want to let a trip to Orlando go to waste, so we decided to go out a day early and take in some of the city.
We went out there on a tight budget and had looked at hundreds of different attractions in that area online prior to our visit-everything from the typical Disney stuff, to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios, and plenty of other smaller family places like water parks and miniature golf establishments. The fact was almost everything out there was way more than what we could afford and with our renewed commitment to being better with our finances, we were determined to find something in our budget.

So after much consideration, we settled on "The Holy Land Experience"-a sort of biblical theme park whose $30 admission price was very appealing compared with almost $100 at the Disney or Universal parks. Having been in ministry for a while, I must say, I've grown somewhat cynical to a lot of things that are done in "the name of Jesus." I tend to agree with Rob Bell's statement in his book Velvet Elvis, "'Christian'-great noun, horrible adjective." What he means is that sometimes we put things in a box by labeling them Christian-Christian band, Christian T-shirt, Christian business, Christian jewelry, (there are even Christian breath mints) you get the idea. So while Cindy was more excited than I was, I went more out of curiosity than anything.

As we drove up, the sign read "TBN's Holy Land Experience" and I began to formulate all these ideas in my head of big-haired TV evangelists, Benny Hinn pushing people over in the Spirit, and of ladies with make-up running late at night asking people to call the prayer line at the bottom of the screen. There were life-sized 3D depictions all over the entrance area of scenes from the life of Christ-almost like a live nativity without the life and with more scenes. As we entered, we were greeted by people in biblical attire and were handed a schedule of shows and performances. The one that caught my eye was "Communion with Jesus" at 12:30 in the Qumran caves.

The first show we went to was a presentation about the Tabernacle, the Old Testament mobile tent of meeting that preceded the Temple for Israel's worship. A "descendant of Aaron" shared about the importance of the tabernacle and through a well-done light/sound production, they recreated what the Bible describes in worship at the Tabernacle. My cynicism was dying, and the educational aspect of this place was getting to me. As we walked around, we saw a children's exhibit telling the story of Jonah where we walked into the mouth of this whale and listen to an automated Jonah tell his story along with some crazy sea creatures, including an octopus with a thick redneck accent! We also saw a 3D miniature model of the city of Jerusalem at the time of Christ based on the actual layout of the city and historical records. It was fascinating to see where everything was and how it was laid out. Then we went to the Scriptorium-a museum containing one of the largest collections of biblical manuscripts in existence. There were Egyptian papyrus scrolls from the era before Christ, and Greek manuscripts from the 3rd and 4th centuries. They also had hand-written manuscripts from great church figures including Charles Spurgeon and John Wycliffe. As we walked through the tour guided by our automated narrator, I was beginning to really grasp what this place was all about.

Before we left, though, it started pouring down rain. We needed a shelter from the rain. Where could we go? Well, Communion with Jesus was at 12:30 at the Qumran Caves. So what do you think we did? We walked into this large room of stone floors, walls, and columns and sat at a large table, not on a short coffee-table sized one like they probably used back then. A man in biblical attire, complete with sandals and a Britney Spears-style headset mic came and introduced himself as the Apostle John. He told the story of the Scriptures and how the death of Christ was important and what it meant to those first disciples. Then he introduced Jesus who came and recited the familiar passage from John's gospel, in first person. I didn't know whether I should take in the majesty of the moment, or feel like it was all a little too sacreligious...maybe even cheesy? This wasn't an Easter play at a church. This was "Communion with Jesus" at 12:30 in the Qumran Caves and if we hurried when it was over we could see the next show at 1:00. After communion was served in our authentic cups of olive wood from the Holy Land, Jesus led us all in a chorus of Alleluia with the Apostle John chiming in on harmony and "Thank you, Lord"s. Since this was so different from anything I'd experienced, I asked God what I could take from all of it.

This is what I felt like he was trying to show me. Would I have done the same things if I was going to build a park that would glorify God? No. Was I really comfortable with a lot of the things presented? No. Did I feel that having a man dressed as Jesus serving me communion was a little hokey? Yes. But then I realized something and it changed my perspective. Did these people have good intentions in what they did? I think so. Did they do what they felt was best to have a place that honored and glorified God in the largest tourist destination? Absolutely. Do I have to embrace everything they presented in order to be edified in my faith by the Holy Land Experience? No I don't. See, while it was a stretch for me and I was a bit cynical, I could have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. These were people who loved Jesus and were expressing it in a way that was real to them. I enjoyed going to the Holy Land Experience. It was a great way to spend a day in Orlando and still have some money left for some other things.

I hope in the future, when I encounter people whose faith doesn't look exactly like mine, that I am not quick to judge. I hope that I embrace the commonality of our faith and know that we are united by one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Where is God When We are Hurting?

Yesterday, I capped off an amazing afternoon in a horrible fashion. I came home to find our 13-year old Dachshund, Scooter lying dead at the end of our neighbor's driveway. The little guy who never wandered from the house had gotten too far from home and I assume was hit by some idiot teenager who thought it would be cool to run over my dog. This really brought to the surface some things I had been mulling on for the last few weeks about life's pain and victory and their relationships to God.

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting with my cousin about how sometimes it seems like God strings us along. He had a successful career as a construction foreman for a very large homebuilder in one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. When the housing market fell out a couple of years ago, he was laid off and has spent the majority of his recent months trying to begin a new career, which finally happened a few weeks ago. He asked me how I was doing, and I said I was "feasting on the riches of his grace," a line from the hymn "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Sweetest Name I Know." You see, for the last year, my wife and I had been battling health problems, and financial problems but a few weeks prior, we had a breakthrough and God opened up a door for Cindy to use her talents, abilities, and life story, to share the love of Christ to women in crisis pregnancies and to be able to get paid for it. In the wave of highs and lows that life brings, we were riding the crest of a big one.
But yesterday, when I saw our "little man" lying in the road, it all came crashing down. And I remembered my conversation with Ken. We discussed why God seems to come through in his time, not ours. What we realized is that God designed us for a relationship with Him. He is a relational God, even in relationship with himself between Father, Son, and Spirit. He extends that relationship to us. When life is fine and dandy, our human nature kicks in and while we may give lip service to our dependence on God, often times we are not truly dependent on him, because we feel like we are self sustaining. But it is in our times of tremendous need, and deep pain, that we remember there is one greater than us who loved us enough to die for us.

Philippians 4:6-7 is one of my favorite passages. This passage says that we shouldn't be anxious about anything, but through prayer, we should present our requests to God with thanksgiving. Then the peace that passes all understanding will guard our hearts. That means when we depend on God, he gives us peace that we can't understand. That is the peace I have today in spite of my hurt. Psalm 55:22 says, "Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall." I Peter 5:7 also says, "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you." Since God included this in the Old and New Testaments, maybe he was trying to tell us something.

I don't know where you are today. But if you are hurting, just know that God loves you. He hurts when you hurt. And the only thing he wants more than to make your hurt go away is for you to grow closer to him through the hurt. That's why redemption is better than healing. When Jesus healed the 10 men with leprosy in Luke 17, all of them were healed. But only one used that experience to draw closer to God. Ten were healed, but only one was redeemed. Remember that when we hurt, it's not always about healing, but about redemption.