Category Archives: Religion

Why Christians Don’t Matter (much) Anymore

This post appeared as a column in the religion section of the San Antonio Express-News on Nov. 2. You can find the paper online by clicking the image below.

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Christians don’t matter much anymore, because we do so little that matters.

Let’s face it. We have always been our own biggest problem. We talk the talk but so often fail to walk the walk.

Do what I say, not what I do, right? Ha! If what we say doesn’t even matter to us, why should it matter to anyone else?

Let me share a secret with you. You ready? I’m gonna whisper, so lean in close. The world doesn’t care what we say.

We have talked so much for so long that our words have lost their meaning. We say, “Jesus loves you!” And the world hears that teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoons, “Whanh-wah-whanh-whanh-whanh-waaaah.”

Maybe we should stop talking so much. You know, disciples aren’t followers who say what the master says. Disciples are followers who do what the master does.

So what did Jesus do?

He gave his life as a ransom for many. He sacrificed himself for our sake. As his church, we should do no less. Now before you send that e-mail telling me about all the things your church does, let me ask you a question.

Are we, as the church, willing to lose money for the sake of the gospel? Lose membership? Lose market share?

Here’s an idea. Spend less money on our buildings so we can build more Habitat houses.

In place of vacation Bible school, run a summer day care for the children of working, single moms.

Dismantle Sunday school so our Sunday school teachers can spend their time volunteering at public schools.

Next time you want to fill a church staff position, use volunteers and pay the salary for a staff position in a local non-profit instead.

Imagine our city if every congregation chose to partner with the public school nearest its property. This is not a separation-of-church-and-state issue. This is simple.

Call the school office. Make an appointment to see the principal. Bring a check. Ask the principal, “What can our people do to serve your school and help you carry out your mission?” Then do it. And no matter what the answer is, leave the check.

No preaching. No praying. No proselytizing. Just serving. Don’t evangelize, or leave Bibles, or wear Christian T-shirts. Shut your mouth and help out. Not for our sake, not for the church, not even for the Gospel. For the people. Jesus said something about loving our neighbors, didn’t he?

What if we opened our property to neighborhood kids? Gave them space to play soccer or basketball or tag? I know, I know – the mess, the noise, the liability, the lawyers, the insurance. So what?

Those aren’t even obstacles. They’re just problems. Solve them. Clean up the mess. Get parents to sign a waiver. Pay for the insurance rider.

Your church has land but no money? Partner with a congregation that has money and no land.

When we begin to sacrifice for the good of others, when we give without expecting return, when we can show the world we love people for their own sake, and not for our own, then — and only then — will we earn back the right to be heard.

First we love, then they will listen. So don’t tell me you love Jesus.

Show me.


Pauline Method of Household Sin Reduction

* See bottom for Author’s Note on “Pauline”

The Pauline Method for Household Sin Reduction begins with one basic fact, one simple observation and three key truths.

The basic fact is we are all sinners. All of us. Each of us. Every single last one of us. Doesn’t matter if you agree or not, doesn’t matter if you see it or not, doesn’t matter if you even believe in the idea of sin or not. You’re still a sinner. Think of it this way, being a sinner is less about being wrong than it is about being not quite. As in, not quite there. Sin is better understood as missing the mark or not quite reaching the goal. Sin is falling short. So our reality is that we all fall short. We don’t quite make it to who and what God calls and created us to be.

But think about this. If we all fall short, if we are all sinners, then we are surrounded by sinners all the time, every day. You see, you are not the problem. It’s them. They are the problem. All those sinners. Crowding ’round you at work and school and the ball field. Cutting you off in traffic. Taking 12 items into the 10 item only grocery line. There are sinners everywhere! But wait, it gets worse. You’re surrounded not only by those sinners out there, but by those sinners right here. Look around you. There are sinners – IN – YOUR – HOME! Yes. Your house is filled with sinners. Look at their beady, shifty little eyes. You can almost see the sinful thoughts rolling around in their sinful little heads. Upstairs. Downstairs. Not taking out the trash. Sassing their mom. Sinners! If you’re married, you even share a bed with one.

Thankfully, we have the Pauline Method for Household Sin Reduction.

There are three keys to the PMHSR. When utilized properly, they are 100% guaranteed to lower the number of sinners in your household. These keys are also legal and environmentally friendly. The keys to the PMHSR are safe, simple and effective.

Key 1 – YOU CAN ONLY GET RID OF ONE SINNER AT A TIME

You can’t get much safer than focusing on one task at a time. You don’t try to clean the whole house at once. You start in one room.

Key 2 – YOU DECIDE

How simple is that? You get to choose which sinner to get rid of first. That’s right. Pick one. Any one. You can start small, or go big. The choice is yours.

Key 3 – YOU HAVE TO START WITH YOU

That’s right. You can choose any sinner you want to get rid of, as long as you choose yourself first. I said it was simple, not easy. And there is no more effective means for the treatment of sin in your home than dealing with the only sinner you can really get your hands around. You.

When you accept as true the reality that you are not quite, then you create room for grace and mercy and forgiveness.

When you live in grace and mercy and forgiveness, you are changed. This change in you elicits change in others. They don’t change. Your perspective of them changes. Your side of the relationship changes. Their experience of you changes. Imagine if you meet hostility with patience, failure with grace, less than with more than. Picture your response to those sinners being peace instead of frustration, acceptance instead of judgement, joy instead of anger. Think that would affect the amount of sinfulness in your home? Of course it would. And you will have the Pauline Method of Household Sin Reduction to thank. Well, that, or Jesus.

* Author’s Note – It’s “Pauline” the adjectival form of the name “Paul”, not Pauline like a woman’s name. I know, it sounds pretty scholarly and impressive. I encourage you to use it in random conversations with your friends so they will think you are smarter than you actually are. That’s what I do.

 


Fast Food Fast

I know it’s not popular in our health-conscious times, but I’m just gonna’ lay it out there. I like fast food. I do. Really.  I like the grease and the salt and the cheap over-processed redundancy of it all. I know, I know, cholesterol and sodium and transfats, blah, blah, blah. I get it. I do. I’m just sayin’, give me a choice between shopping-cooking-cleaning and driving down the street to Taco Bell, I’m going with Taco Bell every time.

Which is going to make this Lent very interesting at the Casa de Jorge. Because we’ve decided our family will give up fast food for Lent. Yep, we’re going on a 40 day fast food fast.

While giving up things for Lent still carries some weight in the liturgical Churches (Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist), Fasting as a spiritual discipline has almost disappeared. Which is odd, because what do we think we’re doing when we give up something for Lent?

Fasting is not just for super-Christian weirdos. Fasting is a spiritual discipline Jesus intends us to practice. Fasting is so normative to Jesus that he never even instructs his followers to fast. He simply assumes they will. “When you fast,” he says (Mt 6:16-17). When, not if.

So what is fasting? In its most basic form, fasting means simply to refrain from food for spiritual reasons. In Scripture, fasting consists of giving up all nutrition, including food and drink, except for water. Today, we might talk of “fasting” from any number of things: a particular food or beverage, a favorite restaurant, electronics, or even social media. While some might argue that true fasting encompasses only food or drink, I think the reason for fasting is more important than the what.

Richard Foster states, in his life-altering book Celebration of Discipline, “More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us” (p 55). You see, we accumulate things and practices in our lives which shield us from the reality of spiritual situation. You think you’re a nice person? Try not eating for 24 hours and see how nice you are. You give thanks you’re not an addict? Drink nothing but water for a few days and see how you feel. Certain you, of all people, are not consumed by Facebook? Put your account on hold for a week. Go on, I dare ya’. Fasting is like stripping away layers of clothing from your soul. Good or bad, we all look different naked.

But fasting is not just about stripping away. Fasting is also about adding something. If you have a big tree stump in your backyard and you finally pull it up and haul it away, you’re left with a gaping, ugly hole. Well, that hole is going to be filled with something — rainwater, kids’ toys, weeds. Unless and until you decide to fill it with something else. The key to fasting is filling the hole with God.

If you dig a hole in your life by not eating for a day, don’t just sit there whiny and complaining. Every time you feel a hunger pang, fill that hole with prayer. Pray for people who don’t have enough food, give thanks for the food you do have, ask God to help you control your body instead of letting your body control you. If you strip away lunch each day for a week, then fill that lunch hour with Bible study. Go online, bring your Bible to work, meet with a friend. Don’t just sit at your desk feeling sorry for yourself. If you dig a hole in your life by cutting out Facebook, fill that hole with acts of service. Spend your Facebook time caring for your family, doing a favor for a friend or reaching out to a neighbor.

In many ways, it doesn’t matter what kind of fast you take. Fast from food for a day. Fast from eating lunch for a week. Fast from listening to talk radio for a month. Fast from fast food for Lent. Just fast. Dig a hole in the days of your life, and fill that hole with God.

— Foster, Richard J.. Celebration of Discipline. Harper San Francisco, 1978.


Lent is for Suckers

Lent is for suckers. I remember thinking that as a boy whenever some well-meaning adult cajoled me into giving up bubble gum or Cheetos or chocolate. Made no sense to me at all. Give up bubble gum for Jesus? During baseball season? Why, does Jesus want some gum? He made everything, right? So can’t He just make his own?

I wonder if that’s what the world thinks of Lent these days. Ashes on the forehead, giving up lattes, eating fish on Fridays. Lent? Lent is for suckers.

And of course the world is right. But right for all the wrong reasons. Lent IS for suckers. Those sucked into the whirlwind of half-truths and busy-ness that make up our lives these days. Those sucked into believing this life lasts forever and none of it is their fault. Those sucked into spending more time and energy pretending they’re right instead of admitting their wrongs. Suckers like you. And me.

So let’s talk about Lent. Lent is the 40 day season on the liturgical calendar between (the season after) Epiphany and Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday). You might notice there are 46 actual days on the calendar between Ash Wednesday and Easter. That’s because you don’t count Sundays as part of Lent. Lent is a season of fasting and penitence. And Sundays are always days of feasting and joy, Sundays are the Lord’s day, 1/52nd of Easter. So you remove the 6 Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter and end up with 40 days. Not insignificantly, these 40 days mirror the 40 days of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness (Mk 1:12-13), the 40 days Moses spent on the mountain with the Lord (Ex 24:18), the 40 days it rained on Noah (Gen 7:12) and even the 40 years Israel spent in the desert (Deut 8:2).

Lent is a season of penitence and fasting. It is a time of re-collection, when once again we remind ourselves of who our selves really are. Lent is a season of humility. Not bad-relationship, wipe-your-feet-on-me, barely hidden self-loathing kind of humility (which isn’t humility at all, but a perverse inversion of pride). But a truly biblical humility where we recognize  we are not the center of the universe, others don’t exist for our pleasure and we are not God. As the fabulous Mr. Warren has said, “It’s not about you.” Biblical humility involves knowing that we are creature, created and creating, yet not Creator. (Here’s a quick way to check and see if you are God: speak something into being from nothing. If it works, ascend immediately to your heavenly throne. If it doesn’t, get in line with the rest of us to receive your ashes.)

Ashes are a sign of mortality and penance. We are marked with a cross of ashes on Ash Wednesday to remind us of our own certain demise. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. From dust we were formed (Gen 2:7) and to dust we shall return.

Penitence is the act of recognizing our wrong-doing and working to set it right. If you cannot directly amend that which you have broken, then do something else in its place. Acts of service, or devotion, or prayer can all be penance. We’re not talking about self-flagellation, we’re talking about a sacred apology.

Fasting is the act of giving up something in order to grow spiritually. If you give up meat in order to lose weight, that’s not a fast. That’s a diet. If you give up caffeine in order to break your addiction to Diet Coke, that’s not a fast. That’s torture. Fasting is letting go of one thing in order to gain a closer relationship with God. There are all sorts of Fasts, and you can learn more about Fasting in my post “Fast food Fast”.

If Lent is for suckers, then I am a sucker indeed. Ashes–Penance–Fasting. These are tools I use to come back to God. I love Lent because of its terrible honesty, reminding me how often I choose the pretty lie instead of the ugly truth. I need Lent, as yet another way to say yes to God. Yes, I regularly put myself in God’s place. But I am not God. Yes, I too often choose the easy over the right. But I am wrong. Yes, I consume to excess in order to hide from God, others and myself. But I am not a consumer.

I’m just another sucker.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word.

(1979 Book of Common Prayer, p265)


The Christ Vaccine

“Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant gratification is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” (The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster, p1)

And the Church in America is no help at all.

In fact, I’d say the American Church doesn’t want deep people, won’t create deep people, can’t find deep people and doesn’t know what to do with them if we do.

If we wanted deep people, we would do things to serve and attract deep people. Instead, what do we do? We do things to serve and attract more people. In a complete and total turnaround from how Jesus did things, we focus on the 12,000 instead of the 12. We are so fascinated by numbers and winning in the short-term that we have leveraged the long-term efficacy of the American Church into nothingness. We keep lowering the bar on what it means to follow Jesus until your average five-year-old can skip over it, then wonder why people get bored and leave.

Instead of feeding people the meat and potatoes of discipline and obedience and faith, we fill them with cotton candy programs and sawdust rules. All you have to do to be a Christian is pray this prayer… attend worship twice a month… offer God your leftovers… and pretend to be nice. Really? This is what Jesus died for? So we could be nice? We create 40 day programs and 12 week studies and week-long missions and find our Churches filled with people who have the spiritual attention span of an eleven-year-old boy with a-d-d.

Yet when we do offer them something more, they won’t take it. Do you know how hard it is to convince your child to eat broccoli after she’s spent a week with her grandparents? Our people have been spiritually spoiled for so long they literally can’t stomach real spiritual food. It’s too difficult. Takes too much time. Requires more than they are willing to give. They spit it out of their mouths and move on to the next fast-food Church. Our Lord, the Creator of the Universe, calls his people to the banquet and we fill their plates with Big Macs and super-sized fries. Dear God in Heaven, has our Church become a spiritual McDonald’s?

I worked for a time with a ministry whose sole goal was to provide a tool for spiritual growth to Churches and the people in them. This new and exciting ministry eventually failed. Not because of the economy, though that didn’t help. Not because of internal mistakes, though it had its fair share of those, as well. No, it failed because when congregations and church communities across the country implemented this new tool they found out their people just wouldn’t use it. Oh, they might start using it. They might even finish the first round of the process. But they simply would not come back for more. Our churched people say they want to grow spiritually, but they must not really want to. Because when given the chance they don’t.

It’s as though the Church is somehow inoculating Christians against Jesus. They get a thousand tiny doses of Christ and finally build up an immunity to the effects of the Gospel. The very thing we are called to do we cannot do because our people are spiritually vaccinated. We need an epidemic, a sweeping plague of resurrection to save us from ourselves, to carry us out of the Church into the deep and abundant life in Christ.

 


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