Faith, Life, Ministry, Uncategorized, writings

Manure and Church Bells

The US is not the only country with a “cultural Christianity” problem…

From Christianity Today news article:

The French government has passed a law protecting the “sensory heritage” of the nation’s countryside. Vacationers and tourists will no longer be allowed to file official complaints or sue over crowing roosters, manure smells, or early-morning church bells. In 2018 a visitor to the village of Jettingen complained about a 5:40 a.m. bell. The villagers voted 427-73 to continue ringing it, though mass no longer takes place at that time. In 2019, someone sued Saint-Chartres in Vienne over the volume of the 7 a.m. bell. An estimated 5 percent of French people attend church regularly.”

Christianity Today, April 2021 Issue

Okay, so several things are going through my mind as I read this gleaning of worldwide religious news. First off, who goes on vacation to the French countryside and does not want to smell manure, hear the roosters, and wake up to church bells. That is the whole point of escaping there in the first place, n’est pas?

Who goes on vacation to the French countryside and does not want to smell manure, hear the roosters, and wake up to church bells. That is the whole point of escaping there in the first place n’est pas?

But the main thing that gets me is the last sentence. “An estimated 5 percent of French people attend church regularly.” Now, taken by itself, that is not such a surprising statistic if you know much about the religious habits of Western Europe. It is increasingly secular in most aspects, though it retains a good deal of religious customs and traditions. Western Europe in many ways has what I would call a “secular Christian” culture, but little “Christian” practice. What’s amazing to me is that the government, from the national level all the way down to the ity-bity villages, would pass laws to protect this religious heritage when many fail to practice that religion.

In the US, we have some similar trends. The percentage of those who observance of religious traditions, particularly Christian ones, has been declining gradually for the last several decades. It began accelerating before COVID and early indications are that church attendance will decline by around 15% nationwide as we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic.

But there remains a cultural tug, especially for those of us of white European ancestry to keep certain cultural aspects in place. Especially in rural, white America, there is a religious element to much of what we do, even on a secular level. Folks who have never darkened the door of a local church building complain about sporting events on Sunday, even as those events are often led by otherwise church-attending people. There is the drumming up of support for the “culture wars” every major holiday season over whether the local municipality should be allowed to have a manger scene or not.

And my question, as a Christian Minister, is, “Why?”

I think there are several reasons, and to each their own, but what I have noticed over the years is how people are satisfied with a Christian veneer to culture if it makes no significant demands on their lives or challenges their choices. We will endure, even cherish, the 5:40 a.m. church bells if it means we are not actually expected to attend an early morning church service.

It reminds me of the religious Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Now while these Pharisees would be the ones who got up for the early service, they would also neglect matters of the heart. Jesus compared them to beautiful tombs; they seem great, but inside there is spiritual death. That is what happens when we settle for a veneer, an outer appearance, rather than the real deal.

So as a history buff I say, “Good for France!” But as a follower of Jesus, I say “Get your butt to Church!”

Faith, Life, Uncategorized, writings

Surviving

Note: This is a bit darker than some of the things I normally write or share. It’s not a happy piece. But it’s not supposed to be.

This past week I had to submit some annual reports for my church. Yes, I know, it’s late.

Anyways, one of the questions for me personally was along the lines of “What is something that you are celebrating from 2020. My answer? We survived.

I mean, think about it: Since the COVID Pandemic began more than 500,000 people in the USA have died from the virus. And yes, many may have been older or have had underlying health conditions, the fact is that some of those people would surely not have died if they didn’t contract the virus. I think of the people that I know who have passed away from either COVID or COVID complications. Some of them were older, several were residents of long-term care facilities where others passed away. Some, however, were relatively young and would have otherwise been considered healthy people.

In what was considered a few weeks ago, a study came out that showed the average life expectancy in the US declined by a full year. A full year! And it is three times that bad for people of color. It’s not just the novel coronavirus that has been killing us though.

In the middle of the COVID outbreak, the US had experienced the highest number of drug overdose deaths in a 12 month period, with some jurisdictions seeing a 98% increase in synthetic drug overdoses. Suicide statistics normally lag by 2-3 years, but modeling has suggested the suicide rate in Western European and North American countries could rise as much as 14% or more because of the effects of the pandemic. And on top of this is the valid concern of many that some mitigation efforts and lockdowns may have done more harm to emotional, developmental, and economic health than we can track.

I’m not trying to paint a bleak picture. The picture is bleak enough, it doesn’t need any embellishments or exaggerations. 2020 and 2021 have brought a season of life that 95% of us have never experienced. We weren’t prepared for it and everyone has made mistakes in responding to the multifaceted crises we’ve faced.

That’s why I am serious when I say that something to celebrate is survival. We’ve been spoiled in the United States in that for a long time we haven’t had to face a deadly pandemic. We’ve taken for granted that if we die before normal life expectancy it’s due to diet, cancer, or accidents. But this? This has threatened our sense of invincibility. It has forced us, quite violently, to realize that we’re not in control as much as we think we are. I think that is why some reacted so negatively to mask mandates because it was at least some measure of control they could maintain in a world that was looking very quickly different than the world we thought we had understood or even conquered.

Education has been a challenge for EVERYONE. Work looks different for many people. Nothing is the same right now. I’ll leave it for the clairvoyants to predict how much of it will ever go back to the same. But all of the mental health professionals I’ve talked to and those who work in social work and related professions are identifying 2020-2021 as a traumatic event. I don’t think we have come to grasp with that yet. A good deal of the people I interact with are like a person still in shock at the scene of an accident. They almost seem in denial of the pain they have experienced or are still experiencing.

We are hurting. We are traumatized. Jobs lost. Friends dead. Loved ones separated. Marriages broken up. Addictions on the rise. The sooner we come to grips with the pain, the better. And part of that is realizing all the difficulties we’ve been through. And then remembering, we’re getting through them. You may have heard this quote by Winston Churchill or maybe not, but it’s a great reminder for where we find ourselves—

“If you’re going through hell, keep going!”

Obviously, the point is here, we keep going until we get through it. So let’s keep going.

Acknowledge the pain. It may mean crying. It might mean a long drive on back-country roads with the radio on blast, or it might just mean looking into a flickering candle, remembering what we’ve lost and yet observing that we’ve survived.

And that is worth celebrating.

Life, Uncategorized, writings

What’s Best?

Perhaps one of the most important questions we can ask in our life consists of two simple words: What’s Best?

Every day through our 5 senses we receive thousands of stimuli, each ding of our cell phone or flashing light or sensation competing for our attention. But what if in amongst all those competitors for our focus we lose sight of what’s most important?

Here’s a pill that’s difficult for most of us to swallow: Everything is not equally important.

Now, that’s a statement that seems on its face to be obvious. Most people would agree with it, in theory at least. Surely breathing is more important than locating that missing sock. Eating a balanced diet is more important that what time of the day you check your email. Reading the Bible must be of greater need than scrolling social media for the 4th time today.

But even though we would nod our heads that there are things that are more important than others, many people struggle to move from agreement to alignment. In other words, we’re nodding out heads but we’re not adjusting our schedules or routines. It’s a lot simpler to agree that I need to spend more time in prayer than it is to buckle down and work on a discipline that I’ve neglected.

If we’re going to do what God has called us to do, we must recognize that we can’t do everything and we can’t possibly give everything equal attention or equal importance. To do so would make everything of equal value, regardless of what we may say otherwise. Dr. David Jeremiah, in his new book Forward says, “We become so distracted by molehills that we can’t charge up the mountain.” That sentence stuck out to me and has kept churning through my mind.

In the classic Spanish novel Don Quixote, the aged hero has imagined every windmill to be a giant, and so he mounts his stead and charges the windmill, in a vain attempt to rid the world of these would-be giants. His squire tried to help him realize that he was imagining a battle when it was just a windmill. I wonder if too often we aren’t preoccupied with the windmills, the molehills, if you will, that we miss the real battle, that we miss our dream, our calling.

So when we come to something, we need to ask, is this best? Is this what I need to give my time and attention to? Do I need to see the photo’s of Brenda’s quarantine vacation or should I spend time with my kids? What is best? What has God called me to do? Has God called me to catch the game on TV or to play with my grandkids? Do I need to finish binge watching the latest season of my favorite show or should I spend some time getting to know God better through His Word and prayer? What is best?

So for the next few days, let’s try an experiment. Let’s ask ourselves when evaluating our day, “What’s best?”

Before I let you go, I need to warn you. Asking this question will cause you to question things, and that’ a good thing. But it may also lead others to question to. Thinking like this isn’t normal. But I don’t know abut you but I don’t want normal. Normal isn’t what God has called us to. He’s called us to the best. After all, He is the best.

Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

Uncategorized, writings

Defiantly Joyful II

As I sit on the couch the kids are (slowly) settling down.
My youngest snoozes beside me while my older two fight rest, though they have had such a full day.
I have Christmas music playing on my TV and a small tree is lit up in the corner of the far room.
The roast didn’t get done in time for dinner so it we had PB&J.
The neighbor dog knocked over our trash.
And here I sit, frustrated and smiling at once:
Still defiantly joyful.

Many friends are fretting that they either will miss or modify family plans.
Still others complain of government orders
While some pretend we aren’t in a worldwide pandemic.
But here I sit.
Taking in deep breaths, not knowing how to help others.
Breathing out my anxieties and remembering that Jesus is still King.
And so that is why
I am still defiantly joyful.

This year has brought a lot to so many friends and loves ones.
Death, divorce, diabetes, despair.
Job loss, education loss, and I’m sure lots of hair loss.
I’m not without scratches, dents or bruises.
But I reflect, defiantly joyful.

You see, the wonder of Christmas,
That I celebrate all year-round
Is that Jesus became one of us
To move into our community
To live, to die, and to live again.
He loved us so much he came.
And some day, he will come again.
How, no one really knows though some think they do.
But when he comes, or if I go to him first,
I’ll meet him defiantly joyful, as all melts into the worship and the rule of my King.

So I don’t know what’s racing through your mind
As you scroll through tweets and posts and pics.
It’s easy, almost certain, that you’ll get riled or miffed or peeved.
Instead, remember the one who came, lived, died, and rose again.
And that in you, oh Christ-follower, he lives as well.
And then, you too, in defiance of this broken world, may be joyful.

Uncategorized

The Rock is Real

I read recently on social media a story of a couple with small children, getting divorced. Without giving away too many identifying details, the opening of the post said this:

“They told us we built our house on a rock. They didn’t tell us the rock wasn’t real. How can a house stand on an imaginary foundation? The walls cracked. The floor buckled. The entire house groaned. So we’re leaving the house before it collapses and kills us all. Leaving is painful and hard. We were told that divorce is wrong, that it’s the ultimate failure. But it’s not. It’s an act of love.

Poetic, isn’t it? It’s a shame that it’s riddled with so many things contradictory to the Christian world view.

My issue here is not to address the couple getting divorced or anything specific to their situation—I wish them both well, and that God would work in their situation for their good and His glory.

My hope here is to address some of the commonly held misconceptions that I see in that post. And yes, I know people will disagree and the disagreement ultimately comes down to conflicting worldviews.

I’m going to start with a few presuppositions: There is a God who has made this universe and everything in it, and He has revealed Himself to us through nature and conscience, and though we may deny it, it is something we all at onetime believed until we suppressed that knowledge (see Romans 1 and Hebrews 1).

“They told us we built our house on a rock. They didn’t tell us the rock wasn’t real. How can a house stand on an imaginary foundation?

I could be misreading the intentions of the author here, but to me, this is a clear reference to the idea of Jesus Christ as the Rock. Some of you may remember the song from Vacation Bible School or Sunday School, “The wise man built his house upon the rock” and it is now stuck in your head. You are welcome.

In Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus uses the story of two men building houses to illustrate how important it is to follow his teaching. Verse 24 & 25 say “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.”

Contrast this with the foolish man in verses 26 & 27: “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

There is a Rock. It does exist. The variable here isn’t if the house stood or fell. The root of the difference between these two houses is the choice made by the builder. You see, both men heard the words of Jesus, they both knew there was a rock to build on. One dug down and laid a foundation upon solid stone. The other decided to build on the constantly shifting sand of man’s own inclinations.

What particularly grieves me about society today isn’t so much the fact that people who have never heard of Christ build their lives upon the sand. Yes, of course it burdens me, and saddens me, and our call is to reach those people for Christ. But what really makes me angry and sorrowful at the same time is when I see people who have heard the words of Christ, and simply allow them to go in one ear and out the other.

Of course, we all from time to time fail to live up to God’s standard. Christians mess up. We fall. We stumble. We sin. But Jesus said that his sheep hear his voice and they follow him (John 10:27 Hyperlink). We don’t hear his words and think, “Oh that’s nice. Nah.”

For a Christian to deliberately turn their back on the voice of Christ, there must surely be intense spiritual and emotional anguish inside their heart and mind. It is not an easy thing for a sheep to turn back from the shepherd. And so we are left with two possibilities: either they never heard the voice of the shepherd to begin with, or they have deluded themselves entirely. I’ll allow the Calvinists and Arminians to fight this one out.

But the author is right… A house cannot stand on an imaginary foundation. And yet, that is precisely what it is build on when not built on Christ.

The social climate of today is willing to disregard every standard, every norm, in the name of happiness. Where Christianity teaches finding contentment in all circumstances (Philippians 4:11) with ultimate satisfaction and joy found in Christ and eternity with God, mankind’s sinful lust still cries out for happiness.

Happiness is a feeling. “But Adam, what’s wrong with happiness?” Nothing. But it’s a really bad idea to base your existence upon a feeling that can change moment by moment. Yet sadly, for many, this is precisely what drives them. Not being good, not living out God’s purposes for them, but focused on what makes them feel good for the moment.

Doing what makes you happy means you make stupid, inconsistent decisions. It means you break your marriage vows because you want to “have some fun” with someone else. It means you leave behind your kids to follow a “dream” that means more to you than our own children. It means throwing everything away for a moment or two of fame, ecstasy, or simply to find something new.

I’ve noticed a major shift in the last few years. More and more families are breaking up because a spouse decided that they weren’t happy and wanted to try some new path. You and I both have seen an increase in marriages breaking up, not because of abuse, or even infidelity, but because someone just decided they weren’t happy, and come hell or high water they were going to get happy.

Do I want to be happy? Yes. Of course. No one goes around wanting to be unhappy. And fortunately for me, I have moments of deep happiness. Watching my children sleep snuggled in bed. The birds singing in the trees at 7 AM. My wife smiling as we somehow made it through another day. A new package from Amazon. A flower in my garden. The feel of a new book in my hands as I turn the pages. A good movie. A good steak. An evening with friends. Teaching. An afternoon in my hammock.

But my life is not always happy. I get upset. I get hurt. I get refused or rejected. I fail. I realize how out of shape I am. I have an argument. I think about something stupid or hurtful someone did or said.

But I’m not going to throw my life away because I am unhappy. For the Christian, happiness is not the goal. God’s glory is the goal.

Divorce Is An Act of Love

Look, I get that people get divorced for all sorts of reasons. My purpose here is not to litigate the merits or theology of divorce and remarriage. I recognize that some folks have gotten married who should never have even gone out on a first date. I have friends who have had unfaithful or abusive spouses and for them, they have found a new life or new sense of freedom since that failed marriage.

But let’s recognize divorce for what it is: the tearing apart of a life. When two people are married, they become one: physically, sexually, spiritually, and emotionally. Many of my friends who have gone through a divorce say that is very similar to a death. That’s because it is. It is the death of who you were during that marriage. Regardless of whether the marriage was good or bad, or the divorce justified or not, it is not easy.

No one wakes up one morning and decides “Hey, I want to get married and then go through a divorce in a couple of years.” No sane person anyway.

Here’s the mindset of the quoted post: I want to be happy. Right now I am happy with you. When I stop being happy with you, I will discard you gently and look for some other way to be happy.

That’s not Godly. It’s not mature. It’s not marriage. What it is is dating in Jr. High. That kind of mindset takes marriage from being a covenant made between two people to being a simple social status, a temporary state of being instead of a lifelong commitment.  And because we are so focused on the right now, on immediate gratification, we throw away relationships like yesterday’s trash.

So what do we do? Is this just the ramblings of an old-fashioned Bible-thumper? Maybe. But I have a suggestion:

Let’s build our lives, our metaphorical houses, on the Rock that is Jesus Christ. Let’s actually do what he says instead of doing our own thing while pretending to follow him. Then we have a foundation for not just our marriages, but for all of life.

And if you are married, if you and your spouse will both put in to practice the teachings of Jesus, it won’t be easy, but it will endure. And in the end, it will be worth it.