Thursday, December 19, 2013

5 Reasons I'm Impressed with Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty

It was inevitable: A&E network kicked Phil Robertson off the Duck Dynasty Show. We shouldn't be surprised. After all, this is the same network that coached the Robertson family to cuss, begin fights, and talk less about Jesus. The producers of the show even cut out portions of the family's prayers when Phil would say "in Jesus name." And despite all this pressure, Phil and his family stayed true to their faith.

The "controversy" that got Phil kicked off the show was an interview he gave recently to GQ magazine. During the interview Phil would say things like, "You put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off." When asked about sin, Phil paraphrased Scripture and responded, "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."

Oh, and by the way, Phil adds himself to the list: he recognizes that God saved him from a life of sin. When he talks about sin, he always talks about God's redemptive love. When he mentions the word judgment, he always adds that he has no desire/intention to judge because that is left up to "the Almighty."

If Phil were sitting across from you now, his desire wouldn't be to judge and make you feel bad, it would be to evangelize and invite you into the incredible experience of God's love.

A&E's agenda is the same as the LGBT community's so Phil's comments caused a stir. Time will tell if the show will continue or, as a sign of solidarity, the family kicks the dust off their sandals and moves on. Here are 5 reasons I'm deeply impressed with Phil:

1. He talks about Jesus: Regardless of what happens with the Duck Dynasty tv show, Phil will use his influence to take glory away from himself and give glory to God. No amount of pressure could water down his witness. Just check out his testimony on the website 'I Am Second':

2. He keeps perspective: In countless interviews Phil pointed out that the tv show was not going to last forever and he knew it. Phil felt blessed to get the spotlight for a short time because it allowed him to share about God's love, as seen in the person of Jesus Christ.

3. He quotes Scripture: When a person quotes Scripture it shows that they are letting God's truths speak for themselves. And those truths are living and active. When a person is seeking out whether God is really who He claims to be, the Holy Spirit will help that person see the invitation is real.

4. He is quoted in full: I don't fully get it. Whenever I hear there is controversy over something Phil said, I expect him to be misquoted. After all, we live in a sound-byte-driven culture of gossip and mixed messages. But because Phil speaks in such a colloquial, down-to-earth way, he is often quoted in full. Whether you like or dislike what he's saying, what you see is what you get.

5. He doesn't judge: LGBT advocacy groups are slinging a lot of mud in his direction right now. They're claiming he likes to hate-monger and would love to see the destruction of all homosexuals. I don't see that in his words (or in the way he lives his life). Phil is not a man driven by hate, he is a man driven by hope.

And it's this last point that has me really thinking... no matter your background, lifestyle, or religious beliefs, doesn't it seem like Phil has been pretty straightforward with his beliefs? Do you get the sense he is a man driven by hate? Do you think the media is being fair to him right now?

I would love to hear your thoughts on the situation. ((Bonus reason 6: the Middle Schoolers in my youth group LOVE Duck Dynasty. There's something about the show that appeals to that age group))

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Resisting Evil

[I have not been posting on this blog much lately because I am guest posting over at Here is an example of the kinds of posts I'm making over there, feel free to check it out!]

snake and apple

Ephesians 6:11-12, "Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."
You don't have to look far to see examples of evil in our world. Turn on the evening news or search the internet and you will find countless stories of pain and suffering. Praise God that in the face of such brokenness, He gives us a reason to hope, by giving us new life and inviting us into a restored relationship with Him.
So how do we resist evil in the world? First, realize that the devil does exist and will try to tempt you. The Bible describes the devil, demons, and demonic forces. We don't need to get obsessed over this fact, just aware of it. As C.S. Lewis shares, "There are two equal and opposite errors into which we can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence; the other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors."
Second, remember that no amount of effort by the demons will ever, or can ever, take away your salvation. If you have placed your trust in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ then your sins are forgiven for all eternity. So while spiritual warfare most certainly exists, we can feel secure in our salvation and confidently proclaim the protections of our King.
Third, we have the support of our Christian brothers and sisters. When our friends share about their experiences we hear evidence of the devil's accusations but we also hear how God strengthens us against those temptations. Fellow believers speak truth, offer encouragement, and lovingly provide well-timed rebukes.
Allow your prayer today to recognize the realities of spiritual warfare. Is there a part of your life that the devil is trying to attack, perhaps? Do you feel comfortable mocking the devil when you consider how God is our perfect strength and protection? What steps could you take to equipping more spiritual armor, as described in Ephesians 6?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hidden Acres Camp in Dayton, Iowa

Yesterday my wife and I crashed the first day of a pastors and wives retreat at Hidden Acres Camp in Dayton, Iowa. At Hidden Acres there is a special cabin (called the 'Wester Cabin') which is available, for free, for any full-time ministry worker looking for some rest and relaxation.

We had such a wonderful stay. I think we drove down imagining we would be staying in the kind of camp cabins we've seen at other locations, with a few bunk-beds and a simple bathroom, no kitchen. We were not expecting king-size bed, full kitchen, fireplace, bath-tub with spa jets, etc.

Plus, the cabin is tucked away from the main buildings of camp which gives it a peaceful, secluded feel. I kept daydreaming about taking a writer's retreat there for an extended period, either a few days or a full week. Oh, that would be incredible.

But this stay was just a quick overnight, to visit with my grandparents, get a tour of the Wester cabin (and the rest of camp), and sit-in on what ended up being the best sermon on the feeding of the 5000 that I have ever heard, yeah-ah.

Another big highlight was learning the game Qwirkle. Have you heard of this game? It is like Scrabble but there are 6 shapes and 6 colors, and you fill a grid with sudoku-style strategy. When you get a full row of six (a complete set), you get bonus points. My wife got a triple-set at one point, which must be a big deal because my grandma excitedly grabbed the camera to document the occassion:

If you work in ministry, remember to give yourself a break. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we need to be in all places for all people. That's God's job; and we are most effective when we take our Sabbath rest, trusting Him to provide strength, and seeking His will. So be blessed, be a blessing.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Free Bible Curriculum

We live in strange times. It used to be that if something was labeled "free" then it was either terrible quality or there was some catch somewhere. For many of us, we still think in that mode and we are cynical of any offer that seems too good to be true.

Yet right now I am using a free curriculum for my Middle School and High School youth groups and I have to say, it is one of the most engaging video series I have ever seen.

How is that possible? The short answer is that a pastor, Craig Groeschel, used to be a stingy, greedy individual. As he grew in his relationship with Jesus, he realized that God could help turn his weakness into a strength. Now he steps out of his comfort zone, giving generously and depending on God for sustenance.

His church offers a wealth of free resources. I recommend you give his church a quick look or check out this library of resources I mentioned. Here is a youtube of one of these free Bible lessons I'm using.

And what I love about Jon Acuff [author of Stuff Christians Like] is that this is really who he is, a guy who uses phrases like "that was my jam." The humor keeps the students engaged, which helps me bridge the gap between their lives and the Gospel, which ultimately brings God glory.

Update: Jon recently resigned from the Dave Ramsay team. His resignation letter can be found online. It will be interesting to see where he ends up next.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Youtube Study Bible

Photo Credit: tartanpodcast via Flickr

When I was young we walked uphill to school, both ways, and we liked it. Oh, and we also read the Bible from a physical book. Yes, like actual paper that you could hold in your hands.

Nowadays the idea of "text" has shifted. We watch movies on our phones, television on our computers, and satellite broadcast one-time events on our movie screens.

Online text is patched together between video clips and images. We have no problem going through a text in a nonlinear way, clicking hyperlinks and traveling in and out of textual jumps. Or reading a text layered upon another text [one screen in sync with another].

And in all of these cultural shifts, we haven't stopped reading. If anything, we're reading more. We have no problems switching genres or mediums, we just want to read good narrative in whatever form it comes.

So while believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition will always be "people of the book," is it so wrong for our biblical commentaries to evolve? I have seen e-reader Bibles (or Bible apps) where I can add my personal commentary. Or read scholarly commentaries. That's a start.

But what I have yet to see is a digital Bible that links to quality multimedia. How amazing if I could click on a verse and see youtube clips of artistic expressions inspired by that passage? How encouraging if I could share a link of an amazing sermon clip with a friend who is currently reading through that same passage?

In a way, a multimedia commentary would draw us back to the oral cultures of ancient times. Those first century listeners heard Scripture read out loud. We could too.

I know the multimedia exists out there. I know the technology exists. Yet we don't have an aesthetically pleasing, easy-to-use platform that would appeal to an average High Schooler. I just think it would be amazing if a platform like that existed. Maybe those who waste time surfing Youtube would be persuaded to spend time surfing the Bible.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Front Page News

A month ago I started submitting a column to our local paper, the Algona Upper Des Moines newspaper. It's been a thrill to share with my community this way and I'm thankful for the opportunity. The column gives spiritual encouragement and if I can help even a single person to take a step closer to God in faith, then the column is worth it.

So I'm grateful for the column space and it really is an excellent newspaper. But there are times I'm strongly reminded that I don't live in a big city anymore. Consider this: here are the stories that made it to the front page of today's paper:

Sump pump inspections coming

The article gives a detailed account of our waste water treatment facility after a heavy rain, the public meetings held on the issue, and some quotes from city administrators. It's a well written article but I can't imagine NYC, Chicago, or Phoenix making their sump pumps the leading story.

Not the McD's you grew up with

Our McDonalds in town is closed for construction right now. If you work somewhere in Algona, you've had at least a dozen conversations about this with a dozen different people. It's been a big deal. Seriously.

What will the visiting marching bands eat on band day? Will the McDonalds or the KMart fix the large pothole in the parking lot? Will the construction be done before Christmas?

I told someone the other day that in Phoenix my nearby McDonald's was closed for a week, during which a crew ripped the whole building down, and built a new structure to accommodate more drive-thru lanes. The person thought I was lying.

Sports Section

The great thing about a "small town newspaper" is that I have yet to flip open to the sports section without seeing one of the church High School students featured. Whether it's track, volleyball, or the prom king/queen candidates, there are always stats on local achievements.

There's something profoundly nice about purchasing a newspaper, knowing that somewhere in there is going to be someone I know; whether they wrote an article or are featured in one. For all those who live in a bigger city -- you should really move to a town of 10K or less sometime in your life, it's a different way of living.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pressing the Button

I work for a church in small town Iowa and part of my job is to make regular visits to our members in local nursing homes. I wish I could say that every one of these visits was an uplifting experience but the truth is that there are tough moments, when someone is failing in health or in memory.

So why do I go? I go to simply be present and listen, knowing that my presence is a reflection of Christ's presence. And for that reason, I always walk away from the experience feeling blessed.

Blessed? Hmm. It's funny, blessing doesn't always mean happiness. Blessing can come in the midst of brokenness or heartache. And with so many of these residents, there is a common struggle that surfaces, at different moments and in different ways, "What am I doing here?"

In other words, they don't think they need the help they're getting. They express a desire to drive around town, to live at home, to be off medications. It seems unfair to lay in bed all day alongside those who are weak.

And because I form such good friendships with some of these individuals, I find myself silently agreeing and cheering them on, "Yeah! Why can't this person be off on their own? They seem clear-headed and capable to me!"

Whenever I start to fall into this mode of thinking, there is an image that keeps me grounded and anchored to the truth. That image is the button next to the exit door of the nursing home. As a guest leaves a plaque instructs, "Please press the button before you leave or alarms will sound."

Stop and think about that for a moment. The only thing preventing these desperate individuals from escaping is the ability to push a button before they exit. What a poignant reminder of their need for assistance.

I heard of one nursing home (specifically for those with memory issues) that wanted to avoid alarms at the nursing station. Instead they placed a fake bus stop outside the building. The staff would occasionally walk out to the bus stop to retrieve those who were waiting for a bus that was never going to come.

It's easy to think of ourselves as being "different" from these nursing home residents. They are weak but we are strong. But is that really true? If I'm being honest with myself, I'm far less capable than I like to pretend. I mean well but I hurt people unintentionally, I argue with my wife, I give in to temptations.

If I'm to confront my denial head-on then I have to finally admit: I need help. I need another to be my strength. I need another to take my place upon that cross. Thank you, God, that you chose to love me even in my weakest moments, and you will lift me up on wings like eagles. Amen.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

5 Reasons we Live in the Greatest Age for Bible Distribution

While it is tempting to get depressed about the decline of the North American church in recent years, we have to remember that God is still in control. His kingdom will thrive. So while we wait for revival here, we can be encouraged by vibrant church communities in South America and parts of Africa. Here are 5 reasons why we live in the greatest age for Bible distribution that the world has ever seen:

Photo Credit: Stephen Cuyos on Flickr

1. Apps

Craig Groeschel's church, lifechurch, decided 5 years ago to put out a free Bible app. Has there been any interest? Well, recently the YouVersion app passed the 100 million downloads mark and that number grows larger every day.
The app comes equipped not only with a wide range of English translations but also Bibles in an expanding list of other languages, Bible reading plans, and study tools (such as expert commentaries). Plus, there are ways to bookmark, highlight, and share verses with your friends.
I have no doubt these kinds of apps are getting the Word of God in front of individuals who would otherwise never step into a church or open a traditional Bible. After all, it only takes a whim of curiosity and a couple clicks of phone keys to access this great resource. We should praise God for the ways new technologies bring Him glory.
2. Infrastructure
In the United States we struggle with our infrastructure because we have to deconstruct, replace, and upgrade some old and broken systems. Whether it's the Internet or travel methods, we're stuck with what was once innovative. Third world countries don't have that same problem; they start with a clean slate.
No wonder we are seeing poor, hungry villagers with more advanced phones than we have! No wonder there are struggling countries who now do most of their commerce in phone-to-phone digital transactions. What this means is that the needy of the world are suddenly thrust into a new position of opportunity.
Consider this: there are individuals in this world who could more easily access a digital Bible than a physical copy. Isn't that crazy? If a digital Bible is offered at no charge, it makes sense that more people would read it.
3. Linguistics
When I was in my Senior year of college  (less than a decade ago), we dreamed of the day that software could accurately record someone's spoken voice. Most of my peers in linguistics (the study of languages) thought there would be great job security in working on these software programs the rest of their lives.
Well, technology has increased at a rapid pace. Now we have algorithms that write books, software that decodes languages, and finely-tuned programs for recording and reading language.
My recent distraction has been a site called LiveMocha where users are rewarded points for grading assignments in their native language. With those points a user can then purchase lessons in another language, which native speakers of that language will grade. So I'm teaching English to help me learn German, and vice-versa. Pretty cool, huh?
All of these advances in linguistics help us to bridge cultures and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
4. Causes
Postmodernism has spiraled our nation into a deep skepticism of metanarratives. Okay, whatever, that's fine. So young people are less likely to become members of institutions [or any source that claims to be a bastion of timeless truth] and more likely to become participants in causes. It's about meaning, not truth.
Fortunately, along with that shift has come a renewed passion for making a difference in the world (praise God we're not all like Gen-X!). Instead of lamenting paradigm shifts, we should pray that young people rediscover God. And if we're to be honest, that's how it's been since the dawn of time; every generation needs to discover Christ for themselves.
5. God
God sees the whole picture and He promises that His church will not falter. Which means God will continue to reach people, transform lives, to demonstrate mercy and justice.
If the institution of church gets too off-track, He may send a monastic order to revitalize passion for the truth. If we decide to stay well within our comfort zone, God may choose to reach our neighbors and friends with different methods.
There's no stopping it; God loves people too much, He is going to keep extending His offer of salvation to everyone who seeks Him. So that's why this age is the greatest age for Bible distribution. And I'm guessing the next age will be even better. Can't wait.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Problem with Metaphors

My pastor shared a powerful metaphor yesterday during worship service. It is taken from Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth, where the rich members of the community were mistreating the poorer members during shared Eucharist meals. Paul encouraged that group to remain united and filled with God's love:

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.

17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14-20, NRSV)

The Metaphorical Body:

What makes a metaphor effective? It's when the metaphor takes two well-known objects and places them beside each other, thus creating new insight or understanding. In this case, parts of the body are compared to members of a church.

I love this metaphor because we all get it; not all of us are gifted speakers, or skilled administrators, or gentle counselors. Constantly comparing ourselves to others will only lead to depression and burnout. But Paul assures us that a community contains a diversity of personalities and talents. What a relief that we don't have to excel in every possible role.

Just like body parts, every person serves a vital purpose. Think how silly it would be to have a kidney lying on the ground by itself. Body parts show their true value when they're participating in the larger system of the body.

My Sad Realization:

For most of the sermon I sat back, enjoying the artistry of Paul's writing and the eloquence of my pastor's preaching. But then, inevitably, I reached that always-dangerous moment when I apply the biblical truths I'm hearing to my own life. I know, I know, what was I thinking?

If only I had kept applying the truths to others lives. There's safety in looking away from oneself; and it's easy enough to identify the talents of others. She's an eyeball, able to discern the truth of things with a quick glance. He's a hand, always serving others with their physical needs. Surely I too am a noble and exalted body part, right?

Sadly, the realization hit me right there in my metaphorical twin. I am the gurgling stomach. On a good day I take large concepts and break them down into smaller, easier-to-understand bits that others gain sustenance from. I do almost all of my work behind the scenes (and actually prefer it that way, I shy away from the spotlight). And while there are times I try to get the body's attention about its need for more sustenance, it probably comes across as a gurgle or groan.

You know what, though? After sitting with this realization for a day, I think I'm okay being the stomach. It may not be glamorous. Its noise may be unwanted. But it's a vital role nonetheless.

Metaphors have their Limits:

God's love pours into the body and gives it energy. The body receives this energy. Eventually, the body decides to give a small portion back. The body... (I'm going to say it)... gives back its waste product in the form of our tithes and in the passion of our worship. Just saying! Oh well, God still loves us.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Playing Stupid Part 2: The Downside

Yesterday I shared some of the benefits of "playing stupid." But what about those times it blows up in your face? Here are three terrible ways that it can all go wrong:

1. People will think you're an actual idiot.

This one seems obvious, doesn't it? I mean, sure, I may get a laugh if I pretend a student's newfangled cell phone confuses my old man sensibilities. But what if someone standing there legitimately wonders if I'm behind the times?

In Iowa this happens a lot with agriculture. I exaggerate what I don't know. Here's a status I threw up on my Facebook wall, "I don't know why everyone is talking about putting in their plants this month. Carrie and I just spent the day harvesting a huge crop out of our garden. There were these yellow flowers. And white puffy ones. And prickly green plants. Must be beginner's luck -- we're excelling at this gardening thing."

Photo credit: David DeHetre via Flickr

Very kindhearted people wrote me to say, "Aw, Matt, those are actually dandelions and thistles." >-< Ouch, they really thought I was that out of it? In their defense, I have learned a lot in this past year that locals take for granted. For example, I've learned the definition of "detasseling" (which is different from detasseling in the Jewish neighborhood I grew up in).

Truly, I appear stupid enough throughout the day without the help of "playing stupid."

2. The Same Story gets Repeated Again and Again

"Playing stupid" is the kryptonite of gossip. It's true. But when someone approaches trying to pull me into a salacious story and I demurely opt to "play stupid," there is a high probability that individual is going to launch into the full story anyway.

I should be clear: I always encourage people towards uplifting, honest, two-way conversation, and to avoid talking behind other's backs. Does that change a person's desire to spill everything they know? For some reason, no.

Fortunately not everything is gossip. Sometimes I'm just respecting confidentiality and trying not to accidentally confirm what is private information. I "play stupid" by keeping quiet and the caring individual shares information I already knew.

3. People give you Free Stuff

This is a downside!? Actually, yes, it is. Because even if the item is given with 99% kindness, there is still that last 1% of pity. And like a drop of steroids in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, 1% is all it takes to spoil the batch.

I made a casual, self-deprecating joke about my gardening efforts and suddenly there was a crate of homegrown tomatoes outside my front door. I exaggerated the ease of lawncare in Arizona (no mowing + no weeding = happy Matt) and now I have a donated lawnmower and weed eater sitting in my garage.

These random acts of kindness spotlight the unbelievable, extravagant, constant generosity of the people of Algona. Thank you, everyone! And if I was straightforward with my need/request, "Does anyone have a couple extra tomatoes from their garden I could try?" then no big deal.

But when the offer is made because I exaggerate my need or ignorance? Well then I just feel dirty receiving this charity. You'll see, one day a guy in a suit and sunglasses will knock on my door. All he'll say is "3rd degree lawnmower theft" and cart me off to jail. I'm truly the lamest form of con man: the accidental kind.

Conclusion: Is "playing stupid" worth it?

Yesterday I wrote the upside, today I wrote the downside. So what do you think, reader? Have you ever been caught in a situation where you pretended not to know? Have you found any notable benefits or consequences to playing stupid?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Playing Stupid: Why Not Having a Clue Ain't so Bad

Do you ever play stupid? I know I do. All the time. And I know what you're thinking, haha, but yes, I do mean intentionally playing stupid. Let me give you three examples:

Photo Credit: Ethan Lofton via Flickr

1. Conflict: Mr. Neverhappy storms into the church office, slamming the door behind him and digging his pointer finger into the surface of the desk as he shouts, "I have been in this church for 38 years and I have NEVER seen the annual potluck handled this way!"

I have a choice in this moment. I can argue the finer details with this gentleman, trying to prove to him the correctness of the committee's reasoning for the minor changes, or I can ease tension by playing stupid. I respond, "Talk to me. What have you enjoyed most about the annual potluck over the years? Help me understand."

Stupidity works here because I'm not ignoring his feelings. I am showing respect to his expertise. And once he knows he has been heard, as the conversation develops, I'll have the chance to help him see things from a new point of view.

2. Gossip: Mrs. Chatter lowers her voice and takes a step closer, "Did you hear the latest about Miss Soandso?" Hmm, obvious gossip. Or how about the sneakier version when Mrs. Chatter walks up and asks, "I would really like to pray for Miss Soandso. What's the latest?" Oh my. What to do?

If I know for a fact that information can be shared with the congregation then I will go ahead and share, encouraging Mrs. Chatter to pray for God's activity in Miss Soandso's life. But what if I'm unsure what information is meant for the public? I never lie; instead, I play stupid, "Oh, hmm, good question. Well here's what I know: she would feel really encouraged to know someone is praying for her. You should give her a call today to let her know you're thinking about her."

That's not a sidestep; it's a genuine attempt to put the focus where it belongs.

3. Humor: This is my favorite use of the stupid persona. A middle schooler pulls out their cell phone and I suddenly become an 80 year old man confused by the most basic technology, "Wait, cell phones can take pictures now!?" I'll make any stupid joke if it makes a member of the youth group laugh -- I have no shame.

Why does this work? Because people let their guard down when they know you don't take yourself too seriously. Those who understand the joke are invited to participate and when it's done in a good-natured way, everyone wins.

But I can't stress this enough -- if you're in youth ministry, never, NEVER, make the student the butt of a joke. Even if you think it's just some friendly sarcasm. Even if the student uses sarcasm themselves. Try your best to avoid it because you're the authority figure and you never know how your words are shaping the emotional lives of those who hear them.

Of course we all know there are times playing stupid can backfire. Tomorrow I'll share some events from my own life when playing stupid was definitely the wrong choice.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Questioning your Faith

[I would love to share with you an article I contributed to this week's Algona Upper Des Moines newspaper. Enjoy!]

Two years ago I took a leap of faith; I boarded a plane to come serve at Algona First United Methodist Church. Outside of childhood visits to relatives in Cherokee, this would be my first taste of Iowan living.

Combines? I could not pick one out of a John Deere line-up. Plants? I was thrilled when plants grew in our new garden even after being told most were weeds. Sports? I quickly learned that a “Hawkeye” was more than just the name of a Marvel comic book character.

Honestly, I felt a little nervous stepping onto that plane. For reassurance I peeked into the cockpit to ensure there was a pilot. I double-checked the city listed on the ticket. I imagined what I would experience in Iowa but until I moved, I would never fully know.

Photo Credit: Kuster & Wildhaber Photography via Flickr

Think how unsatisfied I would have felt to remain in the airport, perpetually stuck collecting travel data but never departing. Or, on the other extreme, consider the absurdity of boarding a plane that is clearly missing a wing.

Is faith so different from that airplane? We can study it from a distance but until we try it out for ourselves, important answers will elude us.

For example, the Bible is silent on many issues: Should we genetically engineer our food? How many dates should a couple go on before getting married? Mac or PC?

The Bible gives us principals but it is up to us, through experimentation and faithful discernment, to transform knowledge into wisdom.

I used to be scared by these unknowns. I thought that if I worked for a church, people expected me to have an answer for every question. Then I learned to trust 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” (NRSV). I learned that there is an important difference between exhaustive knowledge and sufficient knowledge. Some mystery is okay.

This is wonderful news and honestly, it is why Christian faith is so dynamic. Since God’s goodness, mercy, and justice are infinite, we will never stop discovering aspects of His love. As theologian Oswald Chambers shares, “The meaning of prayer is that we get hold of God, not the answer.”

This “approach” to faith is bigger than trying to be good enough or guaranteeing where we will go after we die; instead it is an active, daily relationship with Jesus, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3 NRSV).

I want to encourage you today: if you are unsure whether Jesus is truly the Son of God then that is okay. Take a chance. Let God know that you have questions but are willing to take that first small step towards Him. God promises, "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7 NRSV).

If you already have a relationship with Jesus then where are you holding back? Step out of your comfort zone and lean into mystery, knowing that God will be with you every step of the way.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Power of a Cliché

Beginner's writing classes are all the same. During the first lesson the teacher will at some point, inevitably, share this one-size-fits-all mantra: "Show, don't tell." The idea is that abstract nouns are not as powerful as sensory details. So instead of vaguely saying, "I feel sad," you should give details, such as, "I could feel the warm tear run down the side of my cheek."

Hmm, okay. But consider this situation: I'm walking into the nursing home to visit an elderly man from my congregation. He is dying and not happy about it. Not. At. All. My hope is to lift his spirits but I am unsure of how this conversation will go. Should I avoid clichés as I talk with him?

Photo Credit: Tom Newby Photography via Flickr

If I'm focused on details then walking into a nursing home is almost sensory overload. The smell is what hits me first; it fills my nostrils, that institutional mix of urine and bleach. My ears catch the faint beeping of machinery [beeping is good!], as well as distant groans. Most of the residents here are past the point of caring what socially inappropriate sounds leave their bodies. I see heads lift to check whether I am a family member who has come for a visit.

I tend to catch all these details if I'm focused on myself and my experiences.

But if I'm truly focused on the individual I'm visiting then the visit takes on a different story. I see a man in need of a lifeline, who is trapped in darkness and looking for light, who is at the end of his rope. He shares, "the walls are closing in! I've run out of steam. Time is up."

When people are dying they speak in clichés. Why is that? In the context of a writing class, clichés are less effective and usually the consequence of laziness or avoidance. But is that what's going on with a dying man? Or for that matter, the young couple who has recently had their first child, or the teenager who is discovering romance for the very first time? We resort to clichés in life's most meaningful moments.

I believe people speak in clichés because it's a shared and intimate language. After all, an experience doesn't become a cliché unless it repeats throughout time and is experienced by many people. Using a cliché is a way to connect with others and feel less alone. There's no guesswork, it ensures you're instantly heard and understood. So when it comes to writing poetry then by all means, avoid clichés. But all I know is that the last thing a dying man yearns for is sensory details; his pain takes the form of clichés, and that's good enough for me.