New Year Progression

Once again we are greeted with the prospects of a new year. Most of us go into a new year hoping it will be better for us than the last one.

As humans, milestones are important to us. We celebrate the progression of things, the growth of things, the passage of time. We celebrate the beginning of things with the most joy and excitement: births, weddings, first days of school, new jobs, new relationships. We celebrate the end of things with mourning: deaths, divorces, failing grades or dying businesses, breakups. In general we humans seem to like beginnings more than endings. But all of these things represent—if nothing else—the progression of time.

Because we humans prefer beginnings over endings, the New Year represents an opportunity for us to mark a new milestone, often with what we know affectionately as New Year’s resolutions.

Much time and ink and many sermons and letters have been spent trying to unpack why, statistically speaking, people in America don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions. Just the way we talk about them can provide clues to an answer, since our language often reveals our true intentions. Perhaps the way we see “resolutions” is more akin to wishes we make.

I say I “wish” you happiness and health because I cannot actively make these things come to you given that I can’t directly control your genetics, activity, or dietary habits. I can wish that you do well in school, but it is you who has to put in the work to get good grades. Wishes are things we cannot directly make happen. In contrast, resolutions are things we resolve to do.

There is a practical reality that a lot of greetings and sermons don’t acknowledge. It is simple, but it doesn’t make us feel happy or encouraged. However, it is important to understand.

The truth is: you are the same person on New Year’s Day as you were on New Year’s Eve. You haven’t suddenly or miraculously become someone else. You are you. For better and worse. For some this could be a sobering reality. For others it’s a simple fact.

I would say that most people fail to keep their resolutions because they say they will try to without putting in any serious observable effort to make those resolutions happen.

True resolutions require action: deliberate, sustained, intentional action. Resolve is more than a wish or a nice idea. It’s a commitment to do everything in your power to make something a reality.

The truth is that you will initially (and sometimes repeatedly) fail at whatever you resolve to do. That is practically a given. Accept it. Don’t let failure stop you. Keep going. That’s how you progress forward. Don’t stop.

Resolutions are not about reaching the end. Resolutions are about progression.

This year don’t let your resolutions be so in word only, making them basically wishes. Instead, make them goals you choose deliberately to progress toward.

My hope for all of you is that you have a truly new year: not the exact same fights, not the exact same problems and failings. When you face the inevitable challenges, at least they can be different in a sense because you made progress.

Rather than repeating the past, may you press forward into a future of possibility. May you mark the milestone of a new year as an opportunity to move forward.

Politics, Identity, and Dialogue

The events of this 2016 election have left many spinning, on all sides of the political spectrum. Issues of racism, sexism, bigotry, and classism have emerged at the forefront of public conscious in America in a way that some of us have never experienced. For some this kind of tension only existed in history, not in current events. It happened somewhere else to someone else, not to us here at home. After the results of the presidential race, some of us have begun to express fear, anger, disbelief, and anxiety about what it means for our country, the world, and the issues we care about. I have all these feelings too. In fact, the events of this week have only heightened the feelings I’ve had for some time now. I’ve questioned what I believe, where I belong, and what?—?if anything?—?I can do to be a positive force.

Seminary, and the discomfort after

A year and a half ago, I graduated from seminary with a Master of Divinity degree. One week later, the United States Supreme Court made a landmark decision to grant same-sex couples the right to marry. It was also a time when racial and gender equality issues were gaining media attention and political discussion. At that time, I found myself in a professional and ideological crisis?—?a crisis that I’m still experiencing today.

On one hand I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable with some of the positions and values of my conservative Christian background. My studies in seminary had given me direct and sustained exposure to the plight of women, minorities, and LGBTQ people within Western Christianity. Some of these issues, to which I had been ignorant or indifferent to for so long, became important to me in a way that I could never have imagined. This discomfort inadvertently became a direct obstacle to my initial plans of pursuing a traditional position at a church or Christian academic institution. Most opportunities available to me required commitment to a more rigid theological statement than my conscience or pastoral sensibilities would allow. I also found that many weren’t willing to engage in dialogue with other Christians whose perspectives differed from their own.

On the other hand I didn’t feel completely comfortable with what many identify as the liberal side of the Christian faith spectrum. While I could wholeheartedly align with the positions of equality, inclusion, and social justice, I often found the expressions of these positions to be lacking. I felt there was unwillingness to engage in dialogue with other Christians who disagreed, just as there was on the other side. I saw this expressed in either subtle or overt contempt for Christians who held to more traditional views. Here there was contentment with simply being enlightened, progressive, or “woke.” Some had enough privilege they were able to live closed-off, in a more idyllic bubble, aware of some issues but ignorant or indifferent to others.

Without a home

I found myself, metaphorically-speaking, like a person without a country. I no longer fit the conservative values and positions I once had, yet I didn’t fit perfectly with the other end either. I was willing to go further with my questions than others were. I lost friends, who both overtly rejected me or passively pushed me away. The main thing I found in common among Christians was an unwillingness to see people from any other part of the spectrum as Christian. Either way, I had no home.

I spent most of my time after seminary studying as much, if not more. I had to know why I took the positions that I did, or why I could question positions I had been comfortable with in the past. For several years I had planned to write and develop content, but I found myself repeatedly delaying projects, questioning how certain ideas would be perceived in light of the shifting landscape. Sermons and stories I had written years ago could be interpreted in vastly different ways than I had initially intended. I reconsidered all of it, particularly during this election cycle.

In the past year and a half I also spent time talking to people from different backgrounds, faiths, incomes, genders, and political parties. I’ve been fortunate to know a diverse group of people for much of my life. Seeing and hearing how different people experienced and understood the social and political events of the past few years has been important for me: it showed me how much growth and learning can come from dialogue with people who see things differently. Conversely I saw how being only with like-minded individuals could create an isolated environment in which we were no longer challenged beyond our certain shared beliefs. Being “woke” or enlightened is nothing without continued substantive conversation with those who can show us other viewpoints. It is through such dialogue that we grow.

In many ways, I still feel like a person without a home. I believe this is a feeling shared by many people after this election, on all sides of the spectrum. I don’t know where my next steps will take me, but I hope that the fruit of my sustained contemplation will be to foster conversation. First, I hope to encourage Christians to engage in dialogue with other Christians who hold perspectives different from their own. Then, I hope to extend this to conversations with people of different religions, as well as people who do not regard themselves as religious. I hope we can all find something meaningful in the discussion.

Making room for dialogue

So, to those of us who identify ourselves as “Christian”: I would submit that Christian dialogue begins with a willingness to make room, to accept others who hold different theological or ideological viewpoints as also “Christian.” The Christian faith has historically been and continues to be a wide spectrum of beliefs, values, and practices. Within the context of American history, one can easily find Christians on both sides of contentious social and political issues. It is easy to declare ourselves as right and segregate ourselves. When we see more overtly negative expressions of Christian ideology, it is easy to declare that those people are not true Christians. However, in doing so, we lose the ability to own and address the issues or behaviors we wish to denounce. To those outside of Christianity, our vast number of denominational and ideological variances are either invisible or too complex to understand, and thus we are seen as one big monolithic group of “Christians.”

Making room for dialogue and grace also extends to those who practice faiths other than Christianity. The New Testament is full of the stories and struggles of a religious minority trying to live and survive in an empire that regarded them with suspicion and scorn. America may not be a “Christian” nation, but Christians are certainly the most prominent and most socially acceptable religion in America. May we be ever mindful of our origins as Christians when we consider how we interact with other faiths among us. Our desire for religious freedom must extend to them too. While what and how we believe differ, much of the psychology of how and why we believe is the same.

Common ground

Whether we are engaging with those who hold the same or different beliefs, we can find common ground with others if we want to. The question is: do we really want to find common ground? Our national elections have shown us how deeply divided our country is on numerous issues. This is not something to be taken lightly nor ignored. Meaningful dialogue doesn’t mean abandoning or disregarding our deeply held beliefs. Meaningful dialogue requires differences in perspective, but it also breaks down our ability to identify people as the “other.”

Let’s talk. Share. Keep an open mind. Try to find common ground where you can. Give grace and respect where you cannot, with the hope that grace and respect will be given in turn. Regardless of where you are along the political or religious spectrum, there are people around you who are uncertain and afraid. There are people different from you who need an ally, a friend, or just a kind response more than ever. Be kind. Be just. Reject hate. Hold to your beliefs with both conviction and humility.

Remembering Pastor Sid Harms

Last week my former colleague and friend Pastor Sid Harms passed away after a long battle with cancer.

One of my first memories of ALCF was a message Pastor Sid gave in 2008 about his ongoing cancer struggle. It moved me because it was raw, realistic, and honest. When I came on staff later that year I was not quite sure how to approach him, which is when I learned that he had a wicked sense of humor. (I don’t remember the exact exchange, but I believe it had something to do with him having fewer internal organs.)

Working with Pastor Sid was always a joy. He was always kind, gracious, and honest. It was his honesty that impacted me the most. When he was having a bad day he didn’t try to hide it. Yet even on those bad days he carried himself with grace, and remained concerned with the needs of others.  He and his wife Christine continued to diligently serve even as his condition went through peaks and valleys. Their faith was neither blind nor pessimistic, but it was always evident.

Whenever Sid or Christine had a last minute media request, I would get a phone call or email with the word “bribe” in it. However if I was not able to accommodate, they were never upset. Sid came up with lots of interesting ideas to promote his ministry events, such as his Steve Jobs impersonation or dressing up as a full-on mime. It was always fun, and I greatly appreciated how thoughtful Sid and Christine were when working with our team.

I would often pop in on them after one of the “Mom’s Time Out” events to catch up and see how they were doing, and offer a hand if I could. When I was around Sid and Christine, I could not help but learn something from them…. and/or laugh. I am grateful for their example and their friendship, and my thoughts and prayers are with Christine and their family.

A memorial service will be held Saturday March 3rd at 11am at ALCF. For more information, as well as how to provide condolences and support for Christine, visit http://abundantliving.alcf.net/2012/02/24/in-memoriam-pastor-sid-harms/

 

Wherever you are…

Jeremiah 29:11 is a frequently quoted and commonly referenced Bible verse. Often used as a generic statement of positive encouragement, many Christians consider the verse to be cliché.

Now while a Biblical cliché is not necessarily wrong, it can obscure other lessons the text has to offer. When we overuse a phrase, it can start to lose its meaning, and we naturally tend to take clichés less seriously.

Reading Jeremiah 29 in a historical, narrative context is a bit of a task. But, through a closer study of this passage, I believe there is a relevant message that can speak to us wherever we may be.

So now, let us spend a few minutes unpacking some history.

In historical context, we can identify that the letter in Jeremiah 29 was addressed to the Hebrew exiles taken from Jerusalem to Babylon some time around 597BCE. Israel’s identity was found in the covenant that God (the one true God) made with their ancestors. The book of Jeremiah identifies this exile as punishment for Israel’s disobedience to God and worship of idols. The temple in Jerusalem (which was central to their worship of God) had been pillaged, and the sacred instruments had been carried off to Babylon. The people of Israel identified themselves as God’s chosen people, who were called to be an example to the nations and to show their God was the one true God…this exile called that identity into question.

For these conquered, displaced exiles, every single day was a reminder of how far they were from where they belonged.

Earlier in the book of Jeremiah, we see several prophets arise among the exiles, speaking of God’s imminent intervention on Israel’s behalf. They prophesy the soon return of the king, sacred temple instruments, and all exiles to Jerusalem. One prophecy gives a timeframe of two years. You can imagine, to the exiles, these messages are good news.

This is the circumstance in which the letter in Jeremiah 29 speaks, as a direct response to the numerous prophets stirring the hopes of the people.

1 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.

 It said: 4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.

 10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity.  I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

Jeremiah’s message is not exactly what the exiles want to hear, particularly verse 10. These people are seeking an imminent deliverance from exile… but Jeremiah tells them they’ll have to wait 70 years. Realistically, this means most people hearing the message will die without ever returning to Jerusalem. They will die in exile. And this is supposed to be encouraging?

But look a bit closer at what this message says:

Settle down.

Build houses.

Plant gardens and farm (which is Genesis/Eden language).

Get married.

Make babies.

Have your babies make babies.

Seek (and pray for) the peace and prosperity of the land you are living in.

Think about it….

Sounds pretty good…

Sounds like a good life, doesn’t it?

Instead of stirring emotions and challenging people to wait until they can go back to Jerusalem, the message is to live where they are now. Live and thrive.

It is within this context of living that Jeremiah speaks of people seeking God “with all their heart.” God’s people, living together as God intended, will someday be restored to the land promised to their forefathers.

Jeremiah’s message to the exiles is neither to stop hoping for deliverance in the future nor to give up their covenant inheritance, but to continue living in the present.

And this is the hope of the Kingdom of God.  In Matthew’s gospel Jesus declares that the Kingdom of God is here, that it is near, that we can enter it now, in this age… and yet also look forward to the day when God restores all of creation—the age to come.

Where are you at right now?

Are you where you expected to be?

Are you where you think you deserve to be?

Or are you somewhere… else?

And if you are somewhere else, is your life on hold?

Should you wait until things change to move forward?

Sometimes when we are wronged, when hardships come, or when our own failures derail us…we may feel like our lives are on hold. What we are missing can become all we think about. That failure is constantly on our minds. The place where we were supposed to be can become an obsession, one that makes us lose sight of what is right in front of us.

I know a pastor who frequently officiates funerals. In every one of them, he reminds the audience that the traffic outside has not stopped, that businesses are still operating, and that life is still moving. He does not say this to be cruel or insensitive to the grieving, but as a reminder that regardless of our current sorrows, time continues to pass… time that cannot be replaced.

Wherever you are, whatever you are going through, may you be encouraged as the exiles were, to live life to the full wherever you may be. And remember as you live that you have a hope and a future, both in this age and the age to come.

Tips for keeping your information safe on Facebook

A few weeks ago I spent several hours texting with a concerned friend who got his Facebook account hacked. Normally he is a smart guy, but he was a real dummy when it came to protecting his account. At first he panicked and closed his Facebook completely, which of course didn’t do anything to deal with his immediate problems. In the end he was fine, but the hours he spent fixing and securing his online accounts could have been easily avoided.

Here are some helpful tips to keep your personal information secure on Facebook. Remember none of these are foolproof, but they can go a long way to keep you safe from some of the most common vulnerabilities. (These tips can also be applied to just about every other social networking site).

Don’t click on suspicious links or videos: The most common FB hacks involve links to videos that appear to be posted by a friend either on their wall or your own. The often have provocative, risqué, or shocking titles and content. When you click the link, the hack takes control of your FB account (often without your knowledge), and then spams the same link to people on your friends list. Just don’t click anything suspicious. Also consider, does the subject matter of the link match the character of the person who posted it?

Give Facebook a unique password: Most people use the same email and password combination for every online site they use. This could potentially turn a compromised Facebook account into a potentially costly situation quickly. Given how vulnerable Facebook accounts can be to simple hacks, it is a wise idea to make a unique password that you use ONLY for Facebook. This way if your account is ever compromised, you only need to worry about that one password being breached.

Keep “Security Question” answers off Facebook: Facebook can be a treasure trove for someone who wants to break into another person’s email or online accounts, since the answers to some of the most common security questions are often prominently displayed on a person’s profile (such as maiden names and hometowns). Try to keep more sensitive information off any social networking site, and whenever possible use the most obscure (or user generated) security questions and answers for any important online accounts.

Be careful what you trust your “friends” with: Be aware and careful what information you have on Facebook that is not public, but viewable by people on your friends list. Remember, if anyone of your friends accounts get compromised, all of the information you share with them is potentially compromised as well. Anything too sensitive should be kept off the web altogether.

Don’t accept just any “friend” request: For the same reasons as my last point, be careful and selective who you accept “friend” requests from. Is this someone you know? Do they have a well-established online identity (such as active blogs and twitter feeds)? Always be selective, and if you are unsure about a person you add change your privacy settings to exclude them from accessing any potential information.

Keep your phone (and laptop) off public WiFi: Ever hear of sidejacking? It’s nothing new, but thanks to some Firefox plugins practically anyone can do it. If you must use public WiFi, be sure to use the secured version (at https://www.facebook.com). You can go into your account settings and set Facebook to always connect this way. Remember your phone has the same potential vulnerabilities as any computer, so the best thing you can do is keep your WiFi turned off when using social networking sites on your phone in a public place.

Remember none of these are foolproof but a little due diligence can go a long way online.

Waiting for the end?

Growing up, my mother was caught up in dispensationalist theology regarding the rapture and tribulation. She raised me to not expect to ever live beyond my teenage years. I learned firsthand not to raise my future children in this manner.

For many people the idea of rapture and prophecy and the end of the world is completely captivating and all-consuming. Understandably so, as it gives us reason to ignore almost all practical responsibilities and cares in anticipation for something greater. It is a greater escape than any movie or novel or game could hope to be, because it encompasses many of the same elements yet has the promise of being reality. Many wait for the end… the only problem is this is not what Jesus taught his followers to do.

As Christians I think it is important that we do not follow any one person’s theology exclusively. Good meaning people can get caught up in weird ideas, and often people are all-too-eager to follow someone who speaks with confidence. People will eagerly accept a leader’s interpretation of theology and the Bible without even considering the soundness and accuracy for themselves.

In the Bible Jesus tells a parable of a master who gives three of his servants money to use while he is away. When he returns, he asks each to give an account of what they did with the money. Two of the servants put what they were given to use, but one was fearful so he buried his share and simply returned to his master with the original amount. The master harshly condemns the servant (for not even putting the money in the bank where it could incur interest), takes back what he gave (and gives it to one of the other servants), and throws him out.

You could spend your whole life waiting for the end, and ultimately not do anything meaningful with your life. What you were given will be taken from you.

Jesus told his disciples that their love for one another would prove to the world that they were his followers. He told them to love God and their neighbors, to keep His commands, and to teach His message to others. Many will point to the more apocalyptic statements Jesus made which are recorded in the bible, ignoring that many of those statements were warning Israel of the consequences of continued insurrection against Rome (which came to a head in AD 70).

Regardless of if you believe in the idea of Rapture and Tribulation, or if you believe that most of the book of Revelation was written to describe the persecution of the early Church under rulers like Nero (which was the more popular and accepted theological interpretation up until the last few hundred years in the West), that belief is not what makes you a Christian. You could also think of it this way: for every person alive now, judgment day will come sometime in the next 1-120 or so years… which is the average human lifespan. Whether or not the rest of humanity dies with you, you still die.

Jesus told his followers that those who love him keep His commandments, and when I look at the world I can’t help but notice that there are still so many poor, parentless, oppressed, and disadvantaged people whom He told us to look after. Regardless of when or how the end comes, shouldn’t we be busy doing what He asked us to? The end could come tomorrow, or YOUR end could come today.

Maybe this is why Jesus told us that no one knows the day or the hour of his return… so that we would not miss out on the life He gave us today by obsessing about an end that that may or may not come on any particular day?