Wednesday, May 23, 2012

So you think theology is for pastors?

(warning: ranting ahead)

Imagine for a moment a school.  Now narrow down this picture to one specific class.  Now visualize the teacher.  Imagine that this teacher has studied very carefully for several years to be qualified to teach this class.  It's Monday morning and the teacher gets up to present the first lesson for the week.  The students halfheartedly take notes and attempt to look a little interested, but for the most part they do not understand the concepts and have no real desire to know any material that isn't going to be on the next test.  The lesson is over now, and as much as the teacher has tried to make it interesting, none of the students are taking anything with them as they leave for their next class.  But wait, you may think.  That's what the homework is for, right?  The homework is to help the students personalize these concepts and be able to complete these tasks on their own without a teacher walking them through the process each time.  But you see, this teacher is very kind and understanding.  This teacher realizes that the students really don't need to understand these concepts in real life.  They only need a passing grade in the class.  So, this kind and understanding teacher goes home each night and in addition to studying the material for the next lecture, the teacher also does all the assigned homework for each student individually.  After all, it is not the students who need to bother themselves with learning new concepts or internalizing these ideas.  They absorb enough material in the class lectures each day to fill their requirements.  The students come to class haphazardly since they will never be tested on any of the lecture material.  It's really a personal matter whether or not the students are learning anything.  The teacher wouldn't dare to question a student in front of anyone else.  It is enough for the teacher to know the material and the students to sit patiently each class period and listen.  Surely this is a successful class.

Reading this has probably left you wondering what kind of school this is.  I will tell you.  This school is run like many churches are today.  Somewhere along the history of the church we have decided that knowing God should be relegated to the pastor.  We have churches full of congregations with the pastor doing the homework for them.  They sit politely through the sermon each week, and pretend to like preaching, but the reality is that most American Christians have little to no understanding of the very God they claim to worship.  We need pastors that will preach the Word, not their own words.  We need Christians who will hold their pastors accountable to the Bible.  We need everyday Christians who are willing to spend time actually studying their Bible individually and not just accept what they are told at church.  It takes a lot more work to spend time reading passages of Scripture and meditating on them than to pick and choose verses at random and quote them at the top of your lungs.

One of the most common reactions I can think of is the classic "Theology is dry and boring."  Really?  Theology is the study of God, so excuse me for being blunt, but let's face the truth--if studying God is boring to you, what on earth makes you think you're a Christian?  You prayed a prayer when you were 4? You made a "decision" at a revival meeting or a camp chapel?  You felt bad for doing bad things? You were scared of going to hell?  You were pressured by well-meaning adults in junior church?  No really, what makes you think you're a Christian?  If you don't want to know God, then what Scriptural basis can you give for your faith?  If you are a true child of God and a follower of Jesus Christ, then getting to know the Creator of the Universe will not be a burden for you.  Studying the Word and delving into the deep things of God will not be tedious and dull.  If you do find that deep down you really don't have any desire to know God beyond the superficial sound bites, then I would seriously re-evaluate your "Christianity" because a child of God will have a hunger for God.

It is ridiculous that the one most important aspect of our lives is treated so carelessly.  We are careful about everything else.  We go to ridiculous lengths to regulate what our children are taught in schools and how they are taught.  We want to know what the belief system of each political candidate is down to the details.  We want to know that our banks are holding our money with integrity.  We want to know the health risks of any kind of food we put in our bodies.  We want to know that our cars are repaired by people who know their business and do honest work.  We run our businesses with our eyes and ears open.  We think so carefully about so much of the rest of our lives, it is absolutely ridiculous that we leave our precious faith open to whoever comes up with 3 catchy alliterated points and a quote from a celebrity.  We would not run a business that way, we would not conduct our parenting that way, we would not maintain our family vehicles or health or insurance policies that way.  Yet we treat our faith as something that isn't really all that important.  We are like freshmen in high school algebra class.  We cannot wait to let our "teacher" do all our "homework" for us because "we're never going to use this in real life..."  A school full of well-educated teachers and poorly-educated students is no school at all.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Love and the Gospel

I have just started reading a book by the founder of GFA entitled Revolution in World Missions.  There is a marked tone in his work that I can't easily dismiss.  In fact, it is rare for me to become so unsettled so quickly from any book, much less on a day when I've got a headache and feel like whining more than usual.  However, this was such the case as I started reading his book.  He describes his early days as a street-preacher in largely unreached villages in North India.  He refers to getting beaten and stoned for his preaching, as well as sleeping in ditches by the side of the road rather than risk staying in the homes of unbelievers.  It is very similar experience to that recorded in Acts, including casting out demons, preaching to the masses on the streets, shaking the dust off of their feet in villages unwilling to hear, etc.  This section of the book is the most exciting narrative I could imagine.  It is the life I have only ever dreamed of.  But the excitement soon fades as I reach the next chapters--those which describe his first years in the United States in seminary.  He recalls being horrified at the state of Christianity and the Church in the US.  Expecting to find a bastion of faith he instead finds fat, lazy, wasteful Christians with weak faith and no little to no concern for the rest of the Church scattered around the world.  He must have suffered from horrible culture shock, and that I can relate to at least to a small degree.  It is difficult, even having grown up here, to come home from the majority world Church, only to finally see the amount of waste and excess we surround ourselves in.  It is truly sickening when viewed through the eyes of someone walking barefoot from village to village to spread the Word.  He points out very adeptly that even the poor within our own borders we care nothing about.  We insulate ourselves from having to interact with or intervene in the lives of the poor and addicted and legally compromised.  There has to be something better that God has for us.  Ignoring the poor and hoarding our resources is NOT taking up our cross daily...

Friday, February 17, 2012

What is Good?

How do we define what is good?  Is good what makes me happy?  Is good defined by my perspective or my experience?  Does it depend on my state of mind?  Can good ever be bad?  Is good subjective or objective?  Does it change?  "This tastes good." "He's a good basketball player." "They're good people." "I feel good."  "Way to be a good loser."  "Good guys come out last." "God is good."  These are all common uses of the English word "good" so how can this be a consistent use of the same word? How can words truly reflect the meaning in this case?  Is God's goodness on the same level with food that tastes good?

Most people agree easily that comparing God's goodness with food's tastiness is grossly inaccurate and inappropriate; however, many of those same people think nothing of unconsciously comparing their perspective of God's goodness with the concept of having a "good day" versus a "bad day."  I might consider my day good if I am on time to work, my coworkers are in a good mood, things go smoothly at work, I get off a couple minutes early, my favorite show is funny, and dinner is tasty.  I may also consider God good if He gives me a day like that or perhaps several days like that in a row.  How is that much different from comparing God's goodness with the appealing side of food?  Is God still good if I'm late to work and it's raining all day?  That sounds a bit trite, doesn't it?  How about making it a little more where reality hits us?  Is God still good if my car gets hit by a bus and I lose my arm?  Is God still good if I can't pay my bills and my house gets foreclosed on?  Is God still good if my parent or grandparent dies?  Well?  Using the earlier provided definitions I could only reach one obvious conclusion--no.  He could not possibly be good and let something that horrific and painful to be a part of my day.  This is where a lot of us get stuck in our reasoning and our feelings.  We provide our own standard of good and expect God to keep in line and stay within our guidelines.

But what if we stopped for just long enough to realize that our definition of good might be wrong?  What if good is not what we define--good is not what makes us happy, but actually there is objective good that is universally the same.  If there is really only one objective good, then who can be more worthy or responsible to set that standard of good than the only Almighty God Himself?  So the question becomes a little clearer.  God is not good because He matches my personal opinion of good.  He is good because that is Who He is, and we obtain our very concept of good from Him.  He allows what we perceive as bad to come into our lives, because from Him it is always good.  Perhaps instead of trying to bend God into our idea of what pleases us, we should accept that good only comes from God, and when our perception of situations makes God look bad, it is our perception that is skewed, not the reality of the situation.

I have attempted to keep these statements and assertions if the "what if" stage.  I have made conscious effort to do so for a few reasons.  For one thing, I don't see it as my job to tell anyone else what to think, but I do feel responsible to share what I am thinking and present it as a possibility.  On another note, truth is more life-changing when it is embraced rather than bellowed.  We will not change as the result of truth crammed down our throats.  We change when we chew on it and eventually digest it.  I am hopeful that as this truth sinks into my thinking pattern, it changes me.  That's the beauty of truth, when you actually know it--it changes you.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Blatant Answer to Prayer

Sometimes in the busyness of life our natural tendency is to gloss over a big thing, or to try to take credit for something large that is handed to us.  I hope that this is not one of those times.  Many of you are probably aware of the fact that I have been looking for a steady full-time job since graduation in May of 2011.  I thought I had found it in September when Manpower (a local temp agency) placed me at Genpact working in Data Entry.  I was assured that Genpact hired on Manpower temps all the time, and that if I just showed up for work everyday and did a good job, they would hire me relatively soon and I would be a full-time employee.

Nearly four months later, I was still a temp, coming in and doing my job everyday.  The department they had placed me in was in a hiring freeze, and was overloaded with temps who had been there longer than I had.  Working the same job as full-time employees for much less pay, no benefits, and no job security.  Then came the day when the company took the full-time employees into a large meeting and informed them that our department and a couple others were going to be effectively chopped down to a mere fraction of the original workforce, and the rest of the jobs were going to be outsourced to India in a matter of months.  This meeting cause quite a bit of understandable panic and tension among the full-time employees.  They returned to their desks chattering nervously and saying outrageous things about being unemployed and showing up at their parents' homes with boxes in hand, hungry and cold.  If that effect on the real employees was not chilling enough, imagine the effect it took on the temporary employees who were not even given the courtesy of being officially informed.

To this day, none of the temps have been told, the management just expected the gossiping of the regular employees to reach the rest of us.  With the entire department on edge, the next month played out.  Many people started looking for other jobs, but times being what they are, that did not have much effect on lowering our workforce, and to make the stress levels go up several degrees, every time a temp left, it seemed that they immediately brought in 2-3 new workers to replace them.  Nobody in the entire building could seem to figure out why a department that's getting phased out was building its numbers, when the work was not sufficient to secure jobs for the original crew.  This is the scenario that was before me, throughout December.  I was working all day surrounded by many irritable, insecure co-workers and coming home each night scouring the internet job sites for a glimpse of hope in a posting.  I prayed and waited.  Applying to any job that seemed remotely possible, even those that seemed a bit of a reach.  I finally got a promising phone interview with a loan company looking for customer service reps.  That led to an in-person interview at their local branch.  I could nearly taste the better hours, better pay, full-time benefits, and smaller work environment, when I discovered they must have hired someone else because they would not return my emails.  That led to major frustration and disappointment, at hoping to be gone before the New Year, and yet having the door slammed in my face.  Still more waiting and praying, and a little less enthusiastic applying.  A month later (5 months in) I began dreading job interviews.  They were starting to feel like awkward blind dates, where you have to ask them out, and they pretend to like you the whole time you're there and then leave you sitting at home by the phone waiting for the call that never comes.  I had pretty much resigned myself to trying to fight for a spot in the shrinking department I was a temp worker in.  Job postings at work would occasionally go up on the bulletin board, but when I tried to apply, HR was less than thrilled about considering it.

I finally came to a point where I realized I could do nothing about the situation, and focusing on it was not helping me live out my faith at work or at home.  So, in some ways I "gave up."  I gave up trying to control, manipulate, or otherwise coerce God into giving me what I thought I wanted.  I gave up daydreaming of better jobs and started throwing myself into the one I sort of still had.  I begged God to make me excited about His plans for me, because even though I didn't know what they were, I knew that they were so good.  So much better than anything I could put together.  I was tired of dreading the future.  I asked Him to give me enthusiasm and excitement for whatever He was leading me up to...

Then it happened.  A friend of my mom's who works in the local judicial system gave us a tip that the Public Defender's office was looking to add an additional secretary to their office staff.  The opening had been posted on the county job site that I periodically checked, but it said something about looking for someone with previous legal secretary experience.  I figured that let me out and crossed it off the list, but my mom's friend went out of her way to tell her friend in that office that I would be a perfect candidate for the job, and then told my mom that I should apply for it because they were waiting for my application.  With a shrug and a thought that it couldn't make things worse, I filled out the application and turned it in.  The same day, I was called by the Public Defender and through a series of voicemail messages we managed to setup a time for an interview later that week.  The interview didn't leave me feeling confident or optimistic, but it had one simple effect.  It made me want that job very much.  It left me convinced that that office was one I would love to work in, and that those people were people I wanted to work with.  I started letting myself daydream again, toying with the idea of having workable hours, no more mandatory overtime, and a real employer.  Then I pulled back, like a knee-jerk reaction.  I had been in this position before, with many interviews and I was not willing to go there again.  I didn't want to desire it this much or think about it all the time.  It was just another job that I would get an interview for and then never hear from again.  Except that's not what happened.

I attempted to wait patiently for the one week that was predicted to make the decision, and a mere 5 days after my interview (on a day when the drama and tension at work escalated to ridiculous levels) I received another call from the Public Defender--offering me the job starting January 30th.  To say I was in shock would be an understatement, but you can probably imagine the feelings that started rushing in accompanied by endorphines.  I was overjoyed, over the moon, through the roof, whatever cliched expression suits the situation best.  I was going to have a real job, with a real employer, with real benefits, and it was salaried, with better hours than I had currently.  All my Northland friends will appreciate that this was a WoG worthy of Monday chapels.

I gave a very drawn out account of getting this job, but frankly, after seeing what God has been cultivating in my life for months and years, really, it doesn't feel sufficient to just post a facebook status saying "New job--Yay!"  This is not just a physical provision, and it's not just great because it's what I wanted.  This is a blatant answer to prayer, and an occasion for praising my God.  He is not great because I'm happy, and He's not good because I can see a little further ahead.  He is good, period.  He is great, and the sentence should end there.  I praise Him for the months of waiting with no job whatsoever, and I praise Him for the months spent working without the security or reward of a "real" job.  And, yes, now I praise Him also for providing yet again, but more than that I praise Him for answering prayer, not just the generic "I need a job" prayers, but the inner-yearnings, the 2am, silent weeping as you pour out your heart to God type prayers.  I praise Him more for the work He is doing within me, than the work He has provided for me.  It is too much, and I join Paul in his expression of being overwhelmed at the love and the grace of our God.  It is my hope that I will not love God because He gave me this job, but that I will love this job because it is directly from Him.  I want to be drawn closer to Him, and to be a light where He puts me.

For all of you who have been by my side in this journey, crying out to Him on my behalf, you have my sincerest gratitude.  You know the struggles and the disappointments, as well as the joys that have been strung along the way.  This is another opportunity for you to thank Him as well, for Who He is.  I thank you for your partnership in the Gospel, at home as well as on the road.  I will attempt to keep updating as things progress, and let you know where I am at in the road to the next step.  But for now, I will be watching court shows to learn some legal terminology, and praying for wisdom as I enter a brave new world...