Friday, July 31, 2009

medium-rare grace

Before I was a music teacher, or at least a full-time paid music teacher, I used to wait tables at Outback Steakhouse.

Waiting tables is quite possibly the worst job in the world. I'm serious. I read about a study recently that claimed employees in the food service industry were the most likely group to suffer depression. I can totally believe it. It's so bad because people are so picky about their food. I mean, it's just dinner. You had one last night and you'll have one tomorrow night. That's a good thing about being in this country. I'm convinced that, besides money, people are most picky about their food.

Because of all the pickiness, servers suffer a whole lot of abuse. Many customers have a strange way of making their displeasure a personal issue. After a while, it's enough to really wear on you. At least it was for me. Some people may have an easier time dealing with it, I don't know.

Would you be surprised if I told you the absolute worst demographic to serve in a restaurant are Christians? I'm speaking in generalities, but one of the worst things for a server is to head out to take care of your tables and finding them bowing in prayer, blessing their food. You just know you're probably going to be run around like crazy, listen to lots of complaints, and at the end of the meal, these folks will find some sort of reason to tip poorly.

I'm not making this up. Talk to servers in any restaurant and they will tell you the same thing.

I'll never forget serving a big family one time that returned thanks in one breath and berated me for their steaks not being well-done in the next. I was trying to explain that what they saw was not "blood," but was juice. The lady jumped up and just short of shouting said, "Look here, boy. Blood, blood, blood!"

What can I say to that? Not much.

Sundays are absolutely the worst. Christians come in droves from God's house to the steakhouse, filling up eateries with prayers and forced evangelism. Religious tracts too often take the form of American currency.

For people who supposedly have been radically transformed by grace, they seem to have little room for its manifestation in this area of their life. I'm the customer and my faith has no bearing in this matter.

We preach salvation by grace through faith, but when it comes right down to it, we're uncomfortable with that. We would much rather it be by grace through faith and not drinking, smoking or chewing. Adding extra-biblical, pharisaical elements like these gives us some stability we feel we need. In the end, we still trust ourselves more than Christ.

Because we don't feel like grace is, or at least that it should be, sufficient, the way we treat other people is affected. The grace that has seared our beings gets lost in translation when we deal with servers or other drivers or the lady in line ahead of us at Wal-Mart who pretends not to realize we're there even though she has 3 baskets full of those individual cans of cat food and we just have a small container of sour cream.

And I've got to let grace rule how I deal with others.

I wish I had the kind of grace my poodle has. I lock her up in a kennel for hours sometimes, but she doesn't care. If I accidentally step on her foot, she still runs for my arms. She keeps no record of wrongs. She just loves me pervasively.

If you want your server to notice a difference in you, lavish them with grace. Tip twenty percent always, even if in your gut you feel they don't deserve it. Say "please" and "thank you." Don't act like tomatoes in your salad or flies on your table are the worst things that ever happened. Above all, don't leave tracts. I'll say it again: don't leave tracts.

Honestly, religious tracts are not effective evangelism tools and usually find the trash before the first page is read, but if you must leave one, don't leave it unless you have also tipped over twenty percent. That's right, overdo it. The type of Christianity that ignores physical needs and targets spiritual ones is fruitless. As far as servers are concerned, the gospel won't keep their phone connected or buy formula or fix their car.

Some years ago, CBS news anchor Dan Rather somewhat strangely ended a week of newscasts with one word: courage. If I were to use a word like that, it would be "grace." I remember when my second niece was born and I heard she was named "Grace." I remember thinking that was just the most wonderful, perfect thing to name a little child.

May I wear that name, too.


Saturday, July 18, 2009


It's Saturday night. Actually, it's Sunday morning. 12:30 a.m. to be exact. I'm sitting on a couch in my in-laws house, watching some Mel Gibson movie. I think it's "The Patriot." The revolutionary era garb should be a giveaway, but I don't know, maybe Mel Gibson was also in a movie called "White Wigs for Redheads" or "Can I Try This War Over Again: The Patrick Henry Story."

In any event, it's definitely one of those movies that came out during the black hole of my movie-viewing existence known as high school. There was a period of about three years in there when the only current movies I saw were "You've Got Mail" and the remake of "Godzilla." There may have been another one or two in there, but I can't remember what they were.

Anyway, I'm here in their house as my giving and loving wife lends her assistance to her mother and sister as they go about preparing for an upcoming road trip. I don't mind being here at all. My in-laws are gracious and generous people. Their house is one of the rare places where I feel I can truly relax, be myself and not feel like anyone is expecting some big show out of me. They are loving people like that.

Okay, here's the part where I quit rambling and get around to the point. I am wrestling with something in my life right now. I guess it's nothing new. It's probably manifested itself in various ways for the past 15 years or so. I'm just now figuring out how to express it.

I am wrestling with grief at the state of the evangelical Church in North America. I'm so tired of the hardness that seems to arise out of the grief. I so desperately want a heart of flesh for the body of Christ. There are many reasons why I feel this way.

I grieve because the Church lives and functions as if Christ died in 1963. Our Church has a rich history spanning 2000 years. Billy Graham is not a Church father.

I grieve because generations of evangelical Christians have never recited the Apostles' Creed.

I grieve because the Church has shunned its responsibility to educate believers in theology and Church history.

I grieve because the Church has done a better job of making customers than disciples.

I grieve because ministry to entire people groups have been forfeited because their sins are just too gross to talk about in polite company.

I grieve because the singing part of church services is called "worship" when it is more of a prelude to worship.

I grieve because moralism and legalism have replaced grace.

I grieve because patriotism has been made into a false, substitute gospel.

I grieve because an inch of Scripture spawns a mile of sermon.

I grieve because I believe Epiphany and Pentecost should outrank Veteran's Day.

I grieve because I desperately want my grief to be an impetus for real change, but just don't know how to take on the corporation.

I grieve because my grief often descends into anger.

God, please give me a heart of flesh for the bride of Christ. Help me to be the Church.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

if you're happy and you know it

This has got to be fast, cause I have to be at class in 30 minutes. Let's see how much ground I can cover.

I recently heard a preacher talk about depression and he said that the only true cure for it was "the spiritual antidepressants in the Word of God." He also said that studies show (not sure whose) the depression rate among Christians is about the same as non-Christians.

He just couldn't understand this at all since all we need to do as Christians is take our daily dose of spirituality and we'll be fine. Occasionally at church when I'm leading the music, I have someone from either the platform or the congregation tell me we should sing the last stanza again and, if we really love Jesus, we'll sing better or louder or faster or with a bigger smile on our faces. I'd like to say "no, I'm gonna let that stand as it is," but it's kinda hard when you're called out like that, so I just oblige.

It's a big problem, though, this feeling that we should be happy all the time if we really are saved. Part of this, I'm sure, comes from the modern pragmatic evangelical opinion that God's chief purpose in my life is to meet my needs and make me happy, although they don't usually use that word. It's not churchy enough. Fulfilled, maybe. Joyful is a big one. Anyways, while I don't have a problem with those words or people feeling that way or with a sense of fulfillment, I do resist the mentality that says there's something wrong with our salvation if we struggle with depression and grief and loss.

We just can't be happy all the time. Many of us struggle with this, actually. Some more so than others. I asked my friend, Francis, if he'd ever felt depressed one time. He said, "no, but I haven't thought about it, really." It's just a result of the fall that affects some of us more than others.

I used to agree about the spiritual antidepressants until I hit rock bottom, wallowing in my own depression. Not the kind you have when you have a bad day and get cranky. The kind I'm talking about is when you feel horrible and down for days, weeks, months and then you run out of hope and then you get sick and tired and can't sleep and stuff like that. The kind you have when you go to the doctor thinking you're anemic or need some vitamin shots or something.

Part of what brought that on was the attitude of guilt that I carried around with me all the time and the legalistic, formulaic form of Christian spirituality that I was familiar with. Trying to hold myself and other people to the same moralistic code will really wear you down.

When I began to wrestle with this toxic mindset, it was more than I could handle for a while. I experienced a deep sense of loss and shame. I had been living as if the only thing that mattered was how other people saw me. I thought they saw someone with strength and conviction. Too often, they actually saw judgment, self-righteousness, and insecurity. Growing really hurt.

Thank God for my wonderful wife. She came along at just the right time, after the depression had begun to set in. I don't know what would have happened to me if I hadn't run into her right when I did. She helped me understand some important things about grace. Actually, she taught me more about grace than anyone, before or since. Her and Martin Luther, actually. I know he was kind of a grouch, but there's a lot one can learn about grace from his work. We would have gotten along well.

Additionally, this world sucks. I mean, the grace of God is wonderful and the look in my wife's eyes is wonderful and my little dog is wonderful. There's actually a lot of good and Creation is good and we need to realize that, but there's a lot to hurt about. There's a lot we should hurt about, both in general and personally. Relationships are strained, our psyches can be tormented, the Church...oh, it's so easy to feel hurt and grief when we see the Church.

We need to feel this. We need to allow others to feel this grief. It's not an option. We must lament sometimes. We can't have feasting without fasting. True worship must incorporate every aspect of human expression.

Next time I'm asked to repeat the last stanza of "Trust and Obey," I'm going to cut right to "Abide With Me" instead.

The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

crisis of conscience

It's that time of year again. It's the time of year I dread, and not just because the Texas weather is unbearably oppressive. It's because I will be expected to devote a portion of corporate worship to patriotic celebration. Now, I know there is nothing wrong with being thankful for a country where we can worship freely, but focusing on it during corporate worship has increasingly become a crisis of conscience for me.

Of course, I didn't always feel that way.

I think I'm bothered by this mostly because of the way evangelicals have thrown out the traditional seasons of the church year. Oh, we love Christmas and Easter. But why no Pentecost? No Holy Week? Certainly no Epiphany (the last New Year sermon I heard was on the crucifixion). For some reason, it makes much more sense to evangelicals to observe secular holidays like Mother's Day and the 4th of July. For goodness sakes, enjoy fireworks as a fellowship and honor mothers with recognition and a gift.

I suppose part of it is a reminder that evangelical Christianity gave itself to a political cause at the expense of the gospel. My own political views aside, the era of the religious right brought us to a place where it was impossible to be an evangelical Christian and a democrat. This idea once made logical sense to me. I now find it loathsome.

Why is it that Christians think they deserve a culture that makes them feel comfortable? I guess that's a question for another day. For now, I pray that evangelicals will give themselves fully to the authentic gospel of Christ and remember which kingdom will pass and which will endure forever. We serve a higher throne.