Friday, September 21, 2012

The Hardest Command

Most of us probably know about the most important commandment in scripture.  Jesus was asked which one was the most important and he answered like this:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.”  Matthew 22:38
I’ve contemplated that message many times over the years.  It has been a driving influence on me since my childhood.
But, have you ever considered what might be the most DIFFICULT command in scripture?
I’ve been thinking about that this week since writing my post about “Poisoned Church.”  Sometimes, I think it might be the command to maintain a pure mind…especially in today’s world of rampant sexual messages.  Or, maybe it’s the idea of serving others…since most people seem intent on tooting their own horns most of the time.  Could it be something along the lines of being faithful?  After all, it is awfully easy to be distracted into any number of other interests these days.  Hmmmm.
I think…after much consideration…that it just might be….
Forgiving others.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.   Ephesians 4:32
One thing that is overwhelmingly true about people is that they are going to hurt us.  Some of the hurts are little.  Some of the hurts are huge.  Some slip away quickly, but others hang around, and around, and around.
Another thing that is true about forgiveness is that we all expect others to forgive us, but we often don’t feel quite compelled to be forgiving ourselves.
I’ve had a couple of occasions in my lifetime where the pain of the hurt lingered.  I wrote extensively about one in a previous blog post and I have mentioned the other in the Poisoned Church entry. 
The first one happened to me in 8th grade where a boy named Jimmy bullied me continually for about three months.  As a Christian, I tried over and over to let that go.  To not hold a grudge.  To forgive.  But, the pain and the shame would always return.  The second happened when  I was serving as a young volunteer leader in a church.  As part of a leadership meeting, I was severely berated by the ministry leader and subjected to intense “discipling” for nearly an hour where all of the other members of the group were expected to pick me apart.  Again, the pain of that event lingered for years afterward despite my attempts to “let it go.”
It is hard, so very hard to forgive.
In each of the examples I’ve mentioned, I was able to finally forgive.  I ended up running into the former bully in a restaurant as a middle-aged man.  He shared with me how he had lived a rough life but that he was changing because of his relationship with God.  I told him that he had been pretty tough on me when we were kids, to which he replied: “I’m really sorry about that.”  That was all I needed.  A sense of forgiveness swept over me.   It was over...finally.
As for the church leader, eventually I found myself in a setting where I told him how much he had hurt me.  Again, he looked at me and said: “I’m very sorry, Mike.”  Boom!  Pain was relieved.  The sense of forgiveness swept over me.
It is nice that those instances of forgiveness happened to me.  It relieved a great deal of internal tension.  What bothers me though is that it took apologies to get my heart to really forgive.
Jesus expects us to forgive:
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.  Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”  Luke 17:3b-4
I can get that.  That matches my model above.  They sinned against me.  They said they were sorry.  I forgave.
And it’s not really optional….we MUST forgive:
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”      Matthew 6:14-15
Here’s where it gets hard for me….where I am truly challenged….Oh, God, please lend me more grace as I try to embody this….
Jesus on the cross!!!!  Blood draining from wounds on his head, his hands, his feet.  The flesh of his back torn to shreds and sticking to the rough wood as he pushes himself up to breathe.   “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Luke 23:34
There is no record of someone looking up to say they were sorry.  They were busy casting lots for his clothes.  No one was yet feeling any sense of remorse.  The mocking comments were still echoing in the wind.  His blood was still pooling at the foot of the cross.
“Father, forgive them.”
Based on Jesus’ example, I MUST learn to forgive BEFORE anyone ever apologizes.
Now, that truly is a hard command modeled for me in an even more difficult example.  Jesus forgave not just before they apologized, but WHILE they were hurting him.
I must raise my personal level of expectation.  I must learn to follow the leadership and example of my savior.  I must learn to forgive…before they even realize what they have done (or are doing) to me.
May the Lord give me the strength.  May I be willing to accept the challenge.  Will you join me?
May we all reflect HIS spirit and rely on THE SPIRIT as we deal with one another in this world of conflict.
Finally, may His peace that passes understanding rest on you.  Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Poisoned Church

Poisoned Church

My friend, Rick Anderson died suddenly of a heart attack a few years ago.  I think of him often and wish that we could have another dinner together.  You see, Rick and I became friends at church way back in the early 1980’s, but in later years he lived in Boston and then Evansville and I lived in South Carolina and then Indianapolis.  We fell out of touch a couple of times and it wasn’t until my career took a turn that brought me to Evansville for work from time to time in 1998 that we began to “hang out” again.  I would show up.  He would pick me up at my hotel.  We’d have dinner…and we’d talk.  Often, the conversation turned to church and he wanted to talk about that, but it was difficult.  It was difficult because to my friend, church was poisoned.

Despite the fact that some of Rick’s closest adult friends were cultivated at church, that was also the place where he experienced some of the worst relationships and emotional pain.  God didn’t poison church for him.  People did.  Judgments.  Accusations.  Assumptions.  Unrealistic expectations.  Manipulations.  Controlling leadership.  Pressure!

A complete deficiency of Grace.

I have felt it myself.  I remember as a young man thinking something like:  “I just can’t imagine doing this for the rest of my life.”  The “this” was the pressure I felt to meet the standards that were expected of me in the church I was a member of at the time.  Another occasion, around the time that Rick’s faith was being poisoned in Boston, I was verbally and emotionally abused by a church leader in Indianapolis in a group setting where he demanded the others participate in “discipling” me.  That spiritual assault haunted me for several years, and events like that threatened to poison the church for me as well.

Thankfully, I finally realized that I did not need to feel that way, and the church was not designed to be that way.  Church can be a beautiful thing…incredibly encouraging…a long-term support…and personally transformative.  Rather than being a source of spiritual poison, church can be our lifeline to ever-flowing spiritual nutrients, a source of calories for a successful spiritual life.  It was designed to be the Light of the World…a city set on a hill.  The voice of the Savior in the world.

Rather than a snare to trap a person in a world of spiritual enslavement, it is a trampoline to propel us into a world of spiritual growth and an ever-expanding relationship with God…the Creator of it all.

Let’s examine some scriptures...

Hebrews 10:24-25  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

This passage is often used as a hammer to enforce regular attendance at officially sanctioned church events.  To do that, you miss the point.  It wasn’t meant to be an endorsement of a checklist of church meetings that we all must attend.  Rather, it is a reminder to value the mutual encouragement and motivation that can come from being together…encouragement and motivation to love others and to do good to those around you, and a call to fulfill that responsibility we share.  If that is your priority, then you don’t need a checklist.  You’ll be there at every opportunity that you can.  It’s not about checking off the box.  It’s about the relationships!

Then again, even though the point of this scripture isn’t to structuralize a list of formal meeting times, it does indicate that we NEED to be together.  It is part of the DNA of the church that we meet together to worship…to encourage…to train…to work together.  Time alone is important too, just as Jesus went off alone at times to pray, but the church is built as a community.

Acts 2:47b  And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

People don’t add you to the church.  You don’t join the church.  When you choose HIM, He adds you.  As long as you follow HIM, you are a member of HIS church.  No man can exclude you.  No group can kick you out.  HE adds…and HE is the only one who can remove you.  Now, you can walk away from HIM, but no man can take that status from you.  It is HIS church.  It has many names.  It has many members.  In the end, HE decides who is a member.

Hebrews 12:18-24  You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom, and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.”  The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.  You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the CHURCH of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.  You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

I love this passage.  How amazing is the company we keep as members of “the church of the firstborn?”  How incredible that our names are written in heaven.  Can you see it?  Can you see the angel penning your name into the book of life at the moment that Christ added you to His church?  How special is that body?  How special is that community?

My friend Rick never regained that special sense of community.  Man poisoned his understanding of church and despite our many talks, I could never quite get him over the hump so that he could feel SAFE reinvesting himself with a body of other believers.  He wanted to.  He wanted to make that jump…to him it was a great leap…back into a spiritual community, but he just couldn’t quite do it.  It is a great sadness to me.  Not that I think he is lost, but only that he was not able to fully heal.  Remember, God added Rick to the church, and Rick never walked away from God.  Rather, he escaped from spiritual abuse and struggled mightily with the pain for the ensuing years prior to his passing.  And, if there is anything I know about God, it is that He loves those who are hurting.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Jesus.  Matthew 5:3-4

I believe Rick is being comforted.  I believe his spiritual healing has finally come.

As for those of us who are still kicking around here on Earth, we’ve all had different experiences with church.  Some good.  Some bad.  Some simply mediocre.  Some of us have been deeply hurt, perhaps poisoned.  Some of us have had nothing but positive memories.  Whichever describes you, I want to encourage you to simply reach out and embrace the community that God has given you, and embrace the grace that comes to us all through Jesus Christ.  Sometimes, mankind messes things up.  Remember though, that we will make mistakes, but God’s church is bigger than any man, and we can still be that city on the hill.  We can still be His voice to the world.

I hope that church is not poisoned for you, but if it is…just know that God still loves you…and His book of life is written with special ink that only you or He can erase.  As long as you hang on to Him, He will hang on to you…and you are still in His church.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Muncie Boyhood-A Stingray, a Collarbone, and a Mystery

It was May 1968.  I remember that the day was sunny.  I was almost finished with my very first year of school as a kindergartener in Miss Austin’s class at Roosevelt Elementary.  (I wonder whatever happened to her.)  I was standing on the south side of our house and peeking through the basement window.  I think my friend Rex from next door had tipped me off.

“I think there’s a bike in your basement,” he said.

So, I peeked in….and spoiled my dad’s surprise. 

I couldn’t see it well because the window as dirty and the lights were off in the little oil room off our main basement, but it was there.  I could tell.  It was a bike and it had to be for me!

Sure enough, the last day of school came and my dad gave me my first bike.  It was a bright red Schwinn Stingray with a banana seat!  I was the envy of the neighborhood!  And, I loved that bike!

I wish I still had it.  Besides the fact that it would be worth a chunk of money, it would be special to have it for sentimental reasons.  Think about it…if you’re over forty years old…wouldn’t you love to have that first bike that your mom or your dad gave you?

I rode that thing all over the neighborhood.  I jumped ramps in the alley.  I even broke a bone in my very first serious bike crash.

It was August of 1970 and about a week before 3rd grade.  My buddy Jerry was over to the house on his bike.  Sometimes I rode to his place, and sometimes he rode to mine.  Have wheels, will travel.  Anyway, as boys will do, we decided it was time for a little competition.  I can’t recall if I challenged him or he challenged me, but we decided to race down the alley.  This alley had two gravel ruts with a grass median.  I had the left one; he had the right.  We were flying!  We were a blur!  Well, maybe not, but it seemed like it.  I was slightly ahead…not by much…but just enough that when I glanced over at Jerry I had to turn my head a bit toward the rear.  When I looked forward again, I was headed off track to the left and directly toward a large bush.

One of the cool things about the Schwinn Stingray was the brake system that was built into the pedals.  Push the pedal forward and you rode.  Push it backward and you braked.  Get going fast and then reverse to the brake and you could pull a neat sideways skidding slide.  It was fun when you did it on purpose, but pretty scary when you were really trying to stop in a hurry.

I was headed toward that bush so I slammed on the brake and began a slide as the rear wheel overcame the front.  What I had not seen and had pretty much not considered was the short, concrete-filled steel post that marked the property line just in front of that bush.  I slid right into it sideways and it threw me into the air.  I can remember doing a mid-air somersault before landing on my right shoulder.


I screamed in pain and stayed on the ground crying after breaking my right collarbone.  My neighbor, Emma heard me cry out and came running.  She got me home, and then I was taken to the ER at Ball Memorial so they could fix me up.

I started 3rd grade with my right arm in a sling, and had to learn to write left-handed.  That was a real struggle, but I got through it.

I had that bike until my dad repeated the process when I finished 7th grade in 1975.  He got me a bright orange AMF 10-speed when I succeeded in passing through to 8th grade at Wilson Middle School.

My 10-speed got me through high school.  Of course, it fell to second fiddle once I got my driver’s license, but still I rode it quite a bit…no helmet…no special shoes…no spandex.  Sore butt and all.  I can remember riding through the neighborhoods…to a friend’s house or to my youth minister, Neil’s house…listening to 990 WERK on the red AM radio that I bought at Radio Shack and mounted on the handlebars.  I rode it so much that the frame eventually cracked around the pedal bracket, so I had to take it to the welding shop at 20th and Monroe to see if they could fix it.  They welded it right up for me…no charge.

That bike disappeared sometime in the early 1980s.  I kept it in my dad’s basement and would carry it out to ride it, then take it back in at night.  In the winter, it would simply be stored down there until the weather broke.  On a warm spring day, I’d drag it out, clean it up, pump up the tires, and lube the chain.  Then, off down the road I’d go.  That was the system year after year until one spring when I went down to drag out the bike and it was just gone.

It’s a mystery.

I don’t know if I left it out on the back sidewalk overnight in the previous fall and someone stole it, or if someone came all the way down into my dad’s basement to swipe it.  Both seem unlikely to me…but one of them has to be true…’cause it was gone.

It would be another 15 years before I would take up cycling again.  My wife and I got some Free Spirits from Sears when we first got married, but they were terrible bikes, so we got rid of them.  Now, I ride a full-fledged road bike with all the gear…helmet, shoes, and yes….spandex.  I love the sport, but don’t do it enough.  I kind of long for those days when it was just easy and fun to jump on that Stingray and buzz down 21st Street…jumping ramps…racing friends….and pulling a cool side skid….keeping all bones intact.

Oh, those warm summer days with the wind in your hair….