August 29, 2008

The Candyland Gospel

There are few things that really "irk" me when I hear them. To be "irked" is the kind of feeling where you seem to fidget in your seat and become consumed with the sentence or sentences that make up an idea you can't agree with. It also begins to discredit the speaker in your own mind and puts an asterisk on everything else he or she might say.

The thing that's been irking me lately is what I like to call the Candyland presentation of the Gospel. What is the Candyland presentation of the Gospel? It is the presentation of the Christian faith as the easiest, most happy-go-lucky, and narcissistic journey you could choose. There are no true risks in Candyland. I mean, seriously, it's Candyland. The worst thing that could happen is that you fall into a mudpit of chocolate. There is no daring, on-the-edge-of-your-seat moment.

The fact of the matter is that the Bible very clearly articulates the Christian faith is not the easiest path to take. Yes, it is the absolutely best path you can take that will lead you to your God-given purpose and eternal life. But no, it is not about making you as comfortable as possible until you die. It's not about hitting cruise-control and gliding safely into eternal life. My dog back home will often find a blanket on a bed and pull the cloth and spin around several times before finding or creating the most comfortable spot possible. This, unfortunately, is how many Christians are approaching their faith. They're pulling and pushing the blanket of support around them, spinning in circles, trying to find the most comfortable spot they can be in until this life ends.

I don't know how we got here. I have a theory that it has a lot to do with the Americanization of Christianity. We're taught to hedonistically find our comfort and safety and look out for ourselves. Only in rare moments of compassion do we hand out $5 to the homeless man on the corner or clean up a street (and yes, I am very guilty of this as well). The Gospel should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. If there comes a point in our faith journey that we would describe as comfortable, something is wrong. We don't truly understand that discipleship unto Christ is a call to revolution.

In John 21:18, Jesus says to Peter, "Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." In verse 19 it says, "Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!"" In other words, Peter would be martyred for his faith. Tradition says that Peter was actually crucified upside-down. Something about that doesn't make me too comfortable.

The greatest part of that exchange between Jesus and Peter is how quickly Jesus tells Peter to follow Him after describing the death Peter would experience for following Him. It's almost as if Jesus was testing Peter's devotion. Just before this conversation, Jesus had asked Peter three times if he loved Him. And now he's telling Peter he will surely be martyred for his faith if Peter really does love Him and follow Him. Let's just say - Jesus doesn't mess around. He doesn't coat a Candyland picture of faith for Peter. He lets him know straight off that discipleship will cost him. And it won't be comfortable, either.

I could show example after example from the Bible of the Gospel's call to live beyond our comfort level. But I don't think it is that necessary. Instead of tuning into Joel Osteen's health-and-wealth message, we should be reading the Bible for what it actually says. While thinking about this heavy topic, I was pleased to run across a paragraph in a book I'm reading by Leonard Sweet called the Gospel According to Starbucks:
"Maybe we should warn spiritual seekers in advance that Jesus is not for the faint of heart, instead of "cooling down" the gospel so we can all sip religion comfortably on cushioned, suburban pews. The gospel was not meant to be comfortable or safe. Jesus does not invite lukewarm faith, the brand practiced by the Church of Laodicea. Instead, God promises to spit the lukewarm out of God's mouth" (33).

Yes, exactly! In evangelism we can often fall into the trap of persuasion that waters down the gospel in order to "close the deal" or obtain the conversion. This is not what God calls us to in the Great Commission. We are to make disciples, and not converts. And Jesus makes it very clear what the cost of discipleship is in Luke 9 and Luke 14. Please familiarize yourself with these passages if you don't know what it says. It'll revitalize your view of comfortable Christianity.

Last week I was at a Hillsong United worship concert in Indianapolis. One of the best parts of the night was in between songs when Joel Houston spoke to the crowd. He proclaimed that our worship cannot be contained within these walls, the walls of the church. If we come to a concert like that one and leave our worship there, we are living out a selfish faith. Our worship needs to expand beyond the walls of the church into the community. He exclaimed that we have so many resources and opportunities to bless and love other people, and we need to take hold of them. (They then did a plug for Compassion International, and hundreds of people signed up to sponsor a child in poverty somewhere in the world for $32 per month. I love that they didn't just talk in theory, but accompanied it with a challenge to act. 1 John 3:18 - "Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.")

We have to take risks as disciples! We need to get out of our safety zone and embrace the call of the gospel. Sometimes this will mean doing things that don't make much sense rationally. Risk is sometimes defined by unrationality. That's what makes Christianity exciting! How exciting can it truly be when we're comfortable? Let's stop tailoring Jesus to our own interests and accept the cost of discipleship. The reward will far outweigh everything else we think we want. And God will smile on us as we reach out to the homeless, the oppressed, the lost, the downtrodden, and the outcasts. We'll run in answer to the call into Samaria where no one else will go. There is a huge need for disciples who will give up their own comfort to spread the Good News. Will we answer?

Leave Candyland to the board game creators. It is much more suited as a toy for a child than as an interpretation of the Christian faith.

August 11, 2008

Dealing with Death

On August 1, 2008, my grandma, Trudy Hausknecht, passed away after 83 full years of life and a brutal fight with cancer.

This is one of many factors that has contributed to my hiatus from blogging for the past couple weeks. Hopefully you understand why. I'm planning on being very vulnerable through this post, and I pray it is not too much to bear.

This was the closest family member I have ever lost to death. And, yes, I was very close with her. I don't exactly know what I can say on here in light of this event, but I have felt a need to express the experience and process it through writing.

I never realized how much her death would affect me until I arrived in Arizona. I was on a backpacking trip near Aspen when she passed, and when I got back and heard the news, I still had 4 full days left of my internship. I guess I could say I took the news in stride as I headed back to work to engage in the last pieces of internship work I would do for the rest of the summer. There was so much to do that I think I never even came to grips with what had actually happened.

Thankfully the church let me off a day early so I could fly out to Phoenix, Arizona with my mom to meet my dad and sister who had already driven there earlier in the week. I literally went straight from the end of my internship (which was a lot to process by itself) on Wednesday night at 10:00 PM to flying out for my grandma's funeral Thursday morning at 7:30 AM. It might have been one of the most difficult transitions I've ever had to make, as it seemed like everything in my life was changing within the span of 24 hours.

We met up with my dad, sister, and grandpa in Mesa (where my grandparents live) and spent a couple hours just chatting and talking about life. Then came the first true test: the 3-hour viewing at the funeral home. I was not prepared to see my grandma in an open casket, eyes-closed and lifeless in the middle of some random room at the funeral home. Until the moment we walked in, everything I knew about life and death was as simple as something you could read in a book.

The very moment I took my first step into that room and saw my grandma there I teared up and lost control. This rarely ever happens for me, and normally I'm somewhat prepared for it. As a man I often feel the pressure to keep it all together and bear through the pain even when it hurts the most. Well, that night there was nothing I could do. Everything about death that seemed so surreal prior to our arrival there became reality in a matter of seconds. Life doesn't slow down for us; it just keeps going and waits for us to catch up.

I could barely get within 5 feet of her body. I was full-out crying by then and had to find a seat, secluded from the others. I was not prepared for such an influx of emotion. Talk about a reality check... this was more like a reality tackle. With nothing else to do but grieve and reflect on my grandma's life (and life in general), I opened my Bible to find some words of comfort. (I had brought my Bible not knowing how much I would need it but in the hope that I would find some sort of encouragement from it). I turned to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (thanks, Keri), which reads:

"There is a time for everything,
and a season for activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace."

It's amazing when the Word of God becomes active and real in your life and the words become reality. I sat there amazed at that very fact that we can go from weeping to laughing, mourning to dancing, embracing to refraining, all in the matter of hours or even minutes. Wednesday night I was laughing and reflecting on a great summer with the students. Thursday night I was crying over the loss of a loved one. Talk about a myriad of emotions...

I guess that's really what makes humanity personal. God gave us emotions, feelings, and free will out of the respect He has for us. He gave us seasons and times for joy and for sorrow. But I wrestled the entire time in Arizona with the fact that I was crying and grieving when I knew full well that my grandma was dancing in heaven with Jesus. I felt that I should be overcome with joy, and yet I still cried. I've come to grips with the fact that I simply cannot truly fathom the idea of eternal life and glorification to the degree that I wish I could. Heaven is still a lofty concept for me, even after 15 or so years of being a Christian. It is a subject of hope and purpose for me, but when I try to think of it tangibly, it becomes more difficult than almost any other topic. It is just so much easier to say that we should celebrate her new life with Christ than to actually physically do it. I never realized this until I personally experienced such a close death.

Thankfully, the Word of God does say that there is a time to mourn and a time to grieve. God knew we would wrestle with these emotions, and thank God for it. He knew the personal closeness that we experience with loved ones would tear us to pieces when it was ended by physical death. God deals with this everyday as His lost children who have never given their lives to Him die and are eternally separated from Him for eternity. But by the grace of God we have hope for eternity with His glory and for reunion with our loved ones.

At the actual funeral on Friday, each of us in the family got a chance to share memories and any last thoughts. I was much more composed and comforted after a night's rest from the Thursday viewing. As I stood behind her casket I shared my memories of her and her love of the Phoenix Suns (she should have been with the team management headquarters... no joke). Before I finished I felt it was right to share from Romans 6:1-10. The Scriptures had come alive to me in new light that I couldn't have understood before my grandma's death. Verses 8-10 say: "Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God." That phrase, death no longer has mastery over him, brought tears to my eyes because of the hope it brings. My grandma was not mastered by cancer and by death; no, she was victorious in life and went back home with the Father. She beat us all to it. She finished the race marked out for her and is dancing in heaven. Christ overcame death so we would not succumb to it. It's just as the line in the song Marvelous Light: "Sin has lost its power, Death has lost its sting." Amen and amen.

In the words of my grandma at the end of every phone conversation (bless her soul):
"Is that all?"

Yes, grandma, that is all. I'll see you soon.