Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Learning from Leviticus:

I have a confession. The third book of the Old Testament drives me crazy. I get bored. It has been on of the reasons why I have failed to follow through with One-Year-Through-the-Bible reading plans. 
The problem isn’t that I feel a lack of usefulness or constructiveness in the book because I know (and I hope that you - if anyone actually will read this - do too) that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness... I have just gotten bogged down with how intricately demanding the book can seem. Let’s face it... I’m admitting here and now: I get bored with Leviticus.
I find myself smack in middle of it now and every day that I pick up to read, I get this sense of walking through a stinking, sweaty bog (think Dagobah all you Star Wars fans) trying to carry around a backpack full of bricks and sand that would take Arnold in his prime to lift. It’s just too much. The temptation would be to leave the backpack and hop the nearest X-wing out of there. But today was different.
Today, I started reading some of the requirements for people in the priesthood. Priests were to be utterly blameless, set apart for God’s work - to the point of not being in an acceptable state of “set apartness” to fulfill their priestly tasks if they had a wet dream the night before duty! As I am reading this today, I initially started shaking my head and thinking: “Who could have ever lived up to this standard?”
It was then that it occurred to me that the reason why we have this confoundedly frustrating book is to show us a glimpse of the measure of God’s holiness. It shows us today how much of our world has been tainted with sin from the earliest days. Even though some of the requirements and regulations held within the book have nothing to do with things that are sinful, God’s purity, set apartness, holiness - whatever you want to call it - demands nothing but the best. And the terrible truth is that none of us will ever measure up to that standard. Which led me to my next question:
“Did God set them (and in turn, us) up for failure?”
If the story stopped there all evidence would point toward the affirmative. This book tells me that I don’t have what it takes to walk before this God without fear and that any form of righteousness I make on my own is worthless. I believe that this word is still relevant today because God is still a holy God and His holiness hasn’t, doesn’t, won’t ever diminish. That means that even as a pastor, I’m in trouble. I WILL fail because I can’t measure up to the demands of that kind of holiness on my own.
It’s a good thing that I don’t have to.
Don’t get me wrong, you and I are still accountable to God. There are no loopholes. We will all have to stand (if we can even do that) before Him and give an account of how we lived. All secrets will be laid bare and everything done in darkness exposed. But the beauty of this moment is this: If you are a follower of Jesus, you won’t be standing alone. It may seem like God has set us up, but He’s also give us a way to make up.
Hebrews tells us that in Christ, our High Priest is from a different Order than that of Aaron in Leviticus. Where Aaron’s priesthood had to cleanse themselves before performing their duties, Christ is already pure and purifies us by proxy of our closeness to Him. As we draw nearer and nearer, He strips away those layers of sin and the things that we don’t intentionally do that harm others while replacing them with traits like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control as well as all kinds of personal disciplines. 
While Aaron’s priesthood continued to offer sacrifice after sacrifice to purify themselves and their people, Christ offered once and for all. And Christ’s sacrifice makes up all of the difference of where we fall short of this weighty law. It’s this fantastic thing called grace. So, do we just do whatever we please then? Well, that’s a different discussion and a different book of the Bible. Read Romans if you’re curious.
I say all of this to simply relay what I learned from Leviticus today.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

When Faith Doesn't Make Sense or A Different Kind of Crazy

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.

- J.R.R. Tolkien

I haven't written nearly as much as I had originally intended to as I began these musings. In my defense, we have had some very difficult moments in the past several months and I felt that it was better to fully process my thoughts than post emotion-driven digital diarrhea.

We like plans. No matter how much of an easy-going phlegmatic you may be, it's always nice to have some semblance of direction or security. After all, security is one of our basic human needs. It's only natural in our humanity to present our plans to God and expect Him to follow suit with them as if He would have never thought of it that way. "By jove! That boy is on to something! Did I make a winner or what? I wonder if, in his creative genius, he could top the platypus?"

But faith is a different animal all together.

Faith is crazy. Down-right nutter, crazy. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we cannot see, right? There is no five-step, 3 "don't-stand-in-the-fire" phases, strategy with it. There is no "fake-it-until-you-make-it". Faith takes all of our hope and control and confidence and places it in the hands of an omniscient God. Which, is the best place for it to be.

But even crazier than faith is faith with follow through. Faith with follow through is dangerous. It's uncertain and unpredictable. From the outside looking in, this faith... this faith should have you committed... and this is precisely wear I find myself.

I'm not going to lie: I feel crazy. Everything that I had planned has fallen to the wayside. Gone. There is no stability or security here. And I am left with these crisis question: Were we wrong? Did we hear God wrong? Have we been looking in all the wrong places? Is it better to step out in faith and be wrong than to not step out at all?

They say that silver has to be put through extreme heat to melt out all of the impurities, separating the precious metal from the dross. Right now, we're in the center of that fire and it hurts. It's not pleasant. But through the fires, I can say with conviction that I truly believe that we made the right decision to take that first step of faith.

Recently, a very dear friend of mine has begun to send me his musings on faith and life in Christ. In a recent excerpt, he told a parable of a young man. This young man had begun on a journey by train a while ago with a passion and fervor to help his hurting world, but as the comfort of his existence increased, his eagerness to venture beyond his comfort waned. At the end of his journey, the man penned a hasty note to those who would follow with these words: "Don't forget why you got on the train."

It's easy to forget why the first step was taken when everyone around you questions the logic of your actions based on faith. "There's no money in that! Are you sure that's safe? How will you _____ (fill in the blank - it's probably been asked)?"

This is no new phenomena. Even Job's friends tried to reason with him about his confidence in the Lord despite his circumstances - heck, Job's own wife told him to curse God and die. But at the end of it all... when the fires cool and the ashes are blown away, faith puts on the brightest shine.

So, call me crazy. I know I am - but a different kind of crazy. O don't have all the answers and I'm no expert on living triumphantly in faith - because I don't feel very triumphant at the moment. But even the people in Jesus home town scoffed at Him and thought He was nuts.

And I, for one, will gladly throw my lot in with Him.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Not a wizard... this guy! (thumbs pointed to self):

There is something that grates against the fallen nature of mankind which I have been acutely aware of in my own life. It is that knowledge that God has not given me a "yes" or "no" to my prayers for direction, but a "wait."

We had a plan. It was a perfect plan in our eyes. Wait it out a month or two and be moved on to another church, another ministry, and truth be told, I probably wouldn't be sitting here writing this blog. We would have been far from here and engaged in who knows what type of kingdom work. This was a good plan, right?

And yet, He tells us to wait. The nerve.

It's funny how many times that we (all of us, but myself, chiefly) go the the Lord with the blueprints to our plans, lay them out before Him, and say "Alright, work Your super Jesus magic!" I wonder how many times the Lord has face palmed over our finite grasp on His infinite work. It's kind of like the boy who tries to explain to his father the best way to drive a car... completely ignorant of his father's sense of direction and ability to control the speeding craft of engine and steel.

This again shows God's limitless patience with me... with us. If I were steering the vehicle, we'd be in a ditch or the car would be on fire. But God, like a patient father, gently says, "Wait. I'll show you where we're going once we get there." And you know, I've never been disappointed when we do.

I am reminded of the line J.R.R. Tolkien wrote for his wizard Gandalf: "A wizard is never late or early. He always arrives precisely when he means to." And though God is ever-present with us and His plans for us in motion around us, we seldom see just what He is up to until the time of His choosing.

Now, I realize that this may sound rather calculated, like we are simply rats in a maze, having our path directed by a hunk of cheese, but it isn't. You see, we make the choices to follow His leading or remain apathetic. And some times when bring our heart's desires before the Lord and they match up with God's desires for us, God high-fives Himself because we've actually been paying attention to His prodding. Some times, parts of the blueprints actually match up, but the timing doesn't. And God tells us to wait.

Waiting is never fun. It hasn't been for us. We're ready to move on. But you know, we have been able to experience so many blessing during this time. I'm going to write about some of those shortly.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Let the Dead...

... bury their own dead."

These words of Jesus have always puzzled me. I had always thought them insensitive and callous... that is until I received a phone call in the midst of packing and preparing to leave... two weeks before leaving Alabama.

As a youth pastor, you hope that you never have to get a phone call like that one. He was dead. Thrown from the vehicle. Didn't even make it to the hospital. He had just turned 21 less than a week before.

Michael was my first baptism as a pastor. He had a very special place in my life as a friend and someone whom I had poured endless hours of ministry into. Though he was no long technically part of the youth ministry, he always had a chair waiting for him if he decided to waltz into church.

The family had asked if I would perform the funeral. Again, one of those things you never think about doing while you're making teens eat chocolate covered onions and tomatoes or when you're playing dodgeball or when you're just simply hanging out and talking about life. I'm not sure that any class in college prepared me for that moment.

And there I was, standing in a crowded funeral home observing a mourning community over the loss of a dearly loved young man. I lost it and began to sob right along with them. My heart hurt. Though I had baptized him, I knew of decisions that he made after that which were contrary to a life renewed in Christ. Yes, we all have struggles and deal with sin in our lives, but we will all have to give an account of them before the Father. How do you tell a mourning family that you, as their son's pastor, are uncertain his eternal destination?

As all of this was going on, I began to wonder about leaving. The questions rolled through my head about each person that had been impacted by this event: his family, his friends, his girlfriend... what could I do? And then I remembered the words of Jesus:

"Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

As callous as it may sound initially, I had to remember that I am no superman. It's not my place to be people's savior, but to point them toward Him. At the end of the day, God was prodding me to move forward, pressing on toward what was ahead. There will always be opportunities to be the hero... but that's not who we are called to be.

And at that funeral, people were pointed toward Jesus - who is familiar with the pain of loss and the depths of human sorrow. This same Jesus who wept over his friend Lazarus and chose to enter into suffering with Mary and Martha was the same Jesus who was there that day entering into the sorrow of loss over Michael.

Though it is true that I miss him and still wrestle with just where he is, I trust that God is true to His word and that ultimately, His decision on the matter is the right and just one. As for me, I continue to seek His kingdom and pray that not only my words, but my actions will bring me into contact with more "Michaels" in the future... ultimately leading them to the Kingdom.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A funny thing happened about a year ago...

... though it was actually closer to September or August. I'm still a little fuzzy as to the exact date, but I remember where I was. It was a Sunday morning. I was in the media loft running sound and video the moment in which God began to stir something in me. That something was like a beckoning... a leading to move on... to leave the church I had been serving for 3 years prior.

To give a little background, I had been serving in the capacity of assistant pastor of youth ministry in a small church in southern Alabama. I had a senior pastor in whom I had (and still have to this day) a wealth of confidence in, a supportive wife and family (parents and siblings, no children), a house, and one and a half stable income in a down economy. We had stability. We had our creature comforts. Yet, something was amiss.

A few weeks had passed since that Sunday morning and I still had yet to share with my wife just what had been stirring in my heart. I had prayed that if this truly was the Lord's prodding and not my own emotional response to circumstances that He would begin this same process in my wife. What I hadn't fully understood at the moment I began to pray that prayer was how I'd actually know that she was feeling the same thing without talking to her about it! But that came later.

One Wednesday night, we had prepared ourselves for a night of youth ministry with our teens. I had spent the week planning and praying about the night and it was here. It was here and it was possibly the worst night of ministry that I had experienced up to that point. The music - which I was leading - tanked, the message was a disjointed flop, and the teens... teens whom I love dearly and had poured my heart, soul, mind, and strength into... had all stayed home that night and sent there evil dopplegangers to church - clones which recently emerged from some nether-dimension of zero interest in or love for being at church or with us that night! Needless to say, I made the long walk across the church parking lot to our house feeling like a defeated mess.

It was that fateful night that I broke down in tears and shared with my wife what I had been feeling: I was feeling as if it were time to leave. To my surprise, she shared with me that she had been feeling the same thing for a few weeks prior and just didn't know how to bring it up. We committed ourselves that night to begin praying for direction, again, making sure that we weren't just feeling this because of one bad night of ministry.

For the next couple months we prayed. We shared our thoughts, our fears, our uncertainties with one another. After all, who do you confide in when the majority of people you are in constant contact with are part of the church in whom you have committed to care for and shepherd?

It was about that time that I began to open up to a handful of friends about what was stirring in us and began to seek their advice and prayers. Considering that eventually I would need to be open about this, I approached my senior pastor. It's hard to put into words just how difficult it was to enter that office knowing just how much he and his family have poured into Baily and I. They had become and are to this day family to us. I remember sitting down across the desk as I had done many times before - usually to share a funny story or to talk about what God had been teaching us - to share a situation altering truth with him. What happened from that was not what I had expected:

It's funny how the Lord works. We never truly grasp what He's doing in our own heart, let alone someone else's until you begin sharing it. As I told him about what had been taking place in the couple of months prior, he began to share with me how he and his wife were in a similar situation. They too were feeling God's leading on from the church, but had also noticed that there was something going on in me as well. We began to pray that God would show us where He was leading.

In April, we resigned. With no leads or direction, we began the process of applying to different churches and preparing to leave southern Alabama. It was definitely difficult to share with our teens that we were leaving, but I still believe to this day that our resignation was part of us living by example everything that we shared with them about being a Christ-follower.

By the end of June, we were packed up and moved out from everything familiar to begin our journey into the desert.

This time has been trying. I have asked a lot of questions of the Lord. I have been asked a lot of questions about my direction and where I am headed.

All I can say is this: We have stepped a foot forward toward an unknown destination. We are headed somewhere that may not yet be prepared or have been revealed. I know that we have been prodded to leave and we have. We are confident and fully trusting that the same God who promised that He isn't in the business of leaving or forsaking will carry us through this arid land.

This is the story of our journey for those who may be entering, may be journeying through, and those who have journeyed through the wilderness.