Saturday, June 5, 2010

Sometimes God Scares Me Spitless

After I first started following Christ, circa 1972, I devoured the Bible. I loved it; I needed it. The stories about Jesus especially gave me hope. He was so self-assured, kind, smart, unflappable--all the things I didn’t feel I was. The way he treated the underdogs with respect, dignity, and love let me know he would treat me likewise.

Not to mention the miracles and all the other amazing stuff he did and said. Jesus made me feel good. I couldn’t get enough and toted my Bible everywhere I went.

But after a time certain parts bothered me. For example the story of Ananias and Sapphira dying after lying to Peter and God about how much of their money they donated from the sale their property scared me spitless. I mean I was--and still am--far from perfect. What would stop God from just taking me out? I probably deserved it.

How do we deal with the Bible stories about God we are uncomfortable with, don’t like, or that scare us spitless?

For a time I ignored them and only paid attention to the sections that made me feel good.

In seminary, though, I had to face these ugly pictures of God and humans. It is in seminary also, however, I learned to reason the difficult passages away.

One branch of scholarship simply decided that the parts of the Bible they were uncomfortable with were not inspired by God but made up by humans. The trouble with this, as you probably know, is that more of the Bible is harsh than sweet and, in the end, this group began to call the whole book myth.

The opposite branch cried foul to that but developed a whole series of complicated systematic theologies to explain many of these problem passages. Some of these explanations made sense, some did not. I agree with many of them. But they are often convoluted and too complex.

Slowly I’ve come to see that maybe the problem is not with God or the Bible, but with me. My view of God is askew. And coming up with ways to validate my perspective on life and God only puts more distance between God and me. I have begun to believe maybe God holds more in his hand for me (and all of creation) than me feeling good.

If God’s top priority is other than making me feel good or be happy, then maybe it’s okay to be uncomfortable, not like, and be scared spitless by certain parts of the Bible and God. Maybe I’m supposed to feel that way and not know all the answers.

It seems to me God does not view pain, death, and even life the same way we do. Are they to God as splinters and knee scrapes are to parents of young children? We care but know they are not the end of the world.

Somehow I’m beginning to see how God, with his vast view of eternity, knows that seventy to eighty years (more or less) of life containing a mixed bag of pain and joy that ends in death is only a blink of his eternal eye. Beyond that blink lies much more than we can think or imagine.

Should I be scared that God let Ananias and Sapphira die because of their lies? Sure enough. God is not safe. But God is so good that he will not let what happens to us in this broken world to define him or us, because there is so much more in store.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Presto Chango

When I re-introduced myself at my twenty year high school reunion, most of my classmates simply gaped. I was unrecognizable to them. Not just because I had grown older, but because I had become someone entirely different. One long-lost friend said, “Eugene, we voted you most likely to be dead.”

In a way he was right. I had died. All most of them could remember about me was that I was a good [sic] source for drugs and that I had flunked my sophomore year and had disappeared (dropped out) in the fall of my junior year. There are no pictures of me in the yearbooks, even my name was expunged for what would have been my junior and senior years.

I had died. At least that angst driven, drug addicted, confused, human IED I was back then had.

Robert McKee, in his book Story, writes that we humans don’t “take any risks we don’t have to, change if we don’t have to. Why should we? Why do anything the hard way if we can get what we want the easy way?”

How is it then that I had changed (again not gray hair, wrinkles, and a bit of a gut) so in twenty years? McKee was right. It was not easy and it came at the cost of two lives.

Every story has a turning point. Robert McKee calls it the “negation of the negation.” This is the point in a story where the worst that could possibly happen does--and then gets worse. Nothing changes, truly changes, in our stories until this point.

For Jesus’ friends nothing could get worse than Jesus’ awful death. They are grief stricken, deflated, finished. Every dream, hope, and plan for their world to get better was nailed to the cross and drained of life.

But wait! Jesus conquers death, is resurrected! Now he’ll show those Romans and those unbelieving religious people. Now Jesus’ll set things right. Jesus’ll get ‘em.
But instead of using his power to conquer evil, he wanders around for forty days eating fish and teaching and saying cryptic things such as, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

I can imagine the folks at the back of the crowd, confused looks on their faces, asking, “Who’s this Holy Spirit guy? We’re his witnesses? What does that mean?” Then Jesus floats off into heaven.

Things just got a whole lot worse. Jesus has disappeared in a cloud and left the entire revolution up to losers like Peter and Bartholomew and you and me. This is the plan, however, the true turning point. But they don’t know that. We know the end of the story, they don’t. This is it for them. Only now are they ready for change. And change they do.

In The Message, in his introduction to Acts, Eugene Peterson writes, “The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus. It continues in the lives of those who believe in him. . . . [T]hey are in on the action of God, God acting in them, God living in them. Which also means, of course, in us.”

We only change if we have to. The easy way would have been for Jesus to bodily stick around. Jesus, it seems, never did anything the easy way.

I’m glad for that because I was dead at sixteen, out of earthly options. My transformation cost two lives: mine and Jesus'. I am so fortunate one of those “who believe in him,” two thousands years after the fact, showed me the One who had given his life for me. Then and only then was I changed!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Bible Versus Reality TV

The Bible records more murder, mayhem, sadness, and disgusting human behavior than an entire season of Desperate Housewives. Quentin Tarantino has nothing on this violent disturbing book. To me this is rather confusing. Wouldn’t more people like the Bible and maybe even believe in God if the Bible were more like those sweet, uplifting Chicken Soup for the Soul books or an episode of Barney?

Take Judges 21 for example. In the Book of Judges a bunch of guys need wives and so slaughter every person in another town except the virgins. Then in the Book of Ruth everyone but the two women die in the first paragraph. Wow.

Sometimes I just want to read the sections that tell about Jesus holding children on his lap and healing blind people.

So, why did God let all this awful stuff find its way into the Bible?

Reality TV is not real. If that spoils it for you, I apologize. Obviously there are elements of these shows that are real. The competition, the ups and downs of relationships, the tears and laughter are true elements of life. But in the name of entertainment the producers and directors carefully craft what we see, manipulating situations and splicing scenes, and therefore producing an hour of TV that is anything but real. The producers keep the show just dangerous enough to be exciting but safe enough so they don’t get sued.

Is that what we expect of God and the Bible? That he direct and produce, manipulate and splice life so that it’s safe but exciting?

Maybe that’s why we get so uncomfortable with the violent, painful sections of Scripture. They are bold, gritty, ugly, real, not sanitized. And God rarely gives a narrated voice over to explain why he would let such things happen. Just like real life.

And when I am being real, I appreciate these sometimes incomprehensible sections of the Bible more than reality TV because they let me know God will be there for me even when my heart and life is at its ugliest.

P.S. This was first written for and adapted from

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Worship: What's In Your Wallet?

What’s most important to you? I once heard a speaker who claimed if we just look at our check registers and our calendars, they will reveal what we value most. Trouble is my wife won’t let me have the check book. But seriously how we spend our time and money carries a clue to what we value.

It’s true. My calendar is full of meetings with people and time for family and writing. Gaps in my calendar also reveal that I struggle to find time for other things I value. Hiking, fishing, and hunting are very important to me. Yet I shoehorn them in. Worshiping God also. Too often God sits patiently in the lobby of my life waiting for a cancelation in my schedule. In the end I am the one who suffers for this.

Psalm 95 is an encouraging picture of what life can look like when we put worshiping God together first.
Ever wonder how many of the 2.5 billion Christians (worldwide) fit attending a worship service into their schedule this last weekend? Probably not. Only us pastors think about such things, and pollsters. And God; God thinks about such things, even though he knows the answer.

Worship seems pretty important to God, especially people doing it together.

Just look at God’s check book and calendar, so to speak. God spent a lot of time and money on worship. God appointed an entire tribe, the Levites, whose only job was to make sure Israel worshiped. God commands Moses to fund and build an elaborate Tabernacle for people to worship in. Scripture mentions worship around 250 times. And, whether the word is used or not, worship is the main theme of the Psalms.

Ever wonder why? After all it’s a pretty strange thing to do.

Psalm 95 gives us some answers.

Worship focuses our relationship with God and others who love God. “Come let us sing for joy to the Lord. . . Let us come before him. . . the Rock of our salvation.”

Worship fixes our priorities. “For the Lord is our great God, the great King above all gods.”

Worship gives us a real picture of who we are and who God is. “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.”

Worship communicates we matter to God. “And we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”

Worship draws us into God’s presence in a way other activities cannot. Those who don’t worship and listen to God’s voice will “never enter [his] rest.”

Unfortunately even when I go to worship, I don’t always connect with God. For me that is because, on that day, it is a duty, or a nuisance, or God doesn’t seem to meet “my needs.” On the days I do connect, however, it’s because I go to meet with God, to spend quality time with God and his people. And that is when my priorities realign. Psalm 95 communicates that worship is the open door to God’s dwelling place. Let us enter in.

Eugene first wrote this blog for

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Plight of Homeless Christians

In 1977 I was homeless. So, disgusted with city-life, I high-tailed it for the mountains and pitched my tiny orange tent in Cottonwood Lake Campground. I dropped out and spent my days hiking, trout fishing, and reading Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” Waking as the tent heated from the morning sun and falling asleep with a billion stars shining as my nightlight was freedom defined.

Occasionally my camp-mate and I drove his Plymouth Belvedere to my cousin’s house on Trout Creek. There we sat in stiff wooden chairs around her kitchen table and ate and talked and laughed with incense burning and Pink Floyd playing in the background. Inside her walls lived a different kind of freedom: the freedom of belonging. Her screen door slammed shut on a fearsome loneliness. The summer wore on. We visited my cousin’s home, our home away from homelessness, more frequently.

I was a young, immature, follower of Christ in 1977. I knew less than nothing about God and life. I had no idea that what we were doing around my cousin’s kitchen table was oddly church-like. We sang no hymns, passed no offering plate, and followed no liturgy. We broke bread; we gave thanks; we encouraged one another; we loved one another. We had a sacred fellowship. And God was there, though not invoked, yet gentle, invisible, insistent. God surfaced in nearly every conversation, hung around in every corner.

Everyone needs a place to belong: a community to talk, laugh, cry, and encounter God with.

In 2008 I became a homeless Christian, without a gathered Christian community to encounter God with. At first, like in the summer of 1977, the freedom was exhilarating. Did you know people sleep in, read the comics, and freely hang out in coffee shops on Sunday mornings? Suddenly Sundays became Sabbath, relaxed and unpressurized.

Eventually though, reading the funnies, or even the Bible, in my boxers lost its appeal. I missed the intellectual, social, and spiritual stimulation present in a gathered Christian community. I yearned for encountering God in music, sermons, ancient and modern rites, and most of all, other people. I did not miss, however, the politics, the griping, or the massive weight of trying to speak honestly for God.

While homeless, my spiritual life resembled a slowly receding tide, leaving bleached, empty shells of faith on the beach. My faith became a distant, powerless belief system rather than a vibrant way of life. Now months later, surrounded by a grace-filled Christian community, God is rebuilding my soul.

I am not the only one to experience spiritual homelessness. Disgusted with the real and perceived hypocrisy, ritual, dogma, judgementalism, and general irrelevance of what we now call church, many followers of Christ have dropped out and pitched a tent in their own backyards hoping for the best. Researchers claim only about 20% of Americans attend church. While three quarters of American adults call themselves Christian.

A sizable majority of Christians are homeless, without a gathered community to belong to. You may be one.

The problem is God designed life to be lived with-in a caring, serving, worshiping community called church. Unlike bowling, Christianity is not an individualistic sport. God most often shows up in the spaces (interactions) between people and the more distant those spaces the smaller the interaction and the easier it is to lose sight of God. God loves us as individuals but calls us to live in community. “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging one another, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on . . . .” Hebrews 10:24-25, The Message.

This question is not whether one “can be a Christian while never ‘going’ to church.” Church is a family, if often a dysfunctional one. You may go to your family’s house, but you don’t “go to” family. You are family. You are the church. In Christ we have been adopted and are a part of a family whether we are estranged—homeless—or not. And just as being estranged from our biological families has far-reaching effects, so too, does being estranged from our spiritual families. The plight of homeless Christians is serious and debilitating to us as individuals and to us as the church.

Often it is not laziness or apostasy that keeps us homeless. Very real fear, pain, and past disappointments keep many of us from belonging to a faith family. Jesus knows our pain and estrangement. The Prodigal Son is not just a story about forgiveness, but also about coming home to God and family, pouty older brother and all. Reconnecting is a fearful prospect, I know. But know also that God is waiting for your return and will kill the fatted calf when you do. We might even put on some Pink Floyd.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Parable of The Artist

Once upon a time an Artist originated a stunning work of art. Mixing various media such as sculpture, water color, oil, ink, movement, texture, and light, the Artist created a piece the likes of which no one had before beheld. Pleased, The Artist displayed the piece prominently at a cross-roads for all to see. Travelers trekked from afar to admire the piece, which ignited in them a burning desire to create also. When this happened, The Artist, standing off unnoticed, bowed his head and smiled.

Strangely The Artist did not scribble his signature on the piece, believing his authoritative strokes, unique colors, and complex designs spoke for him. The Artist also left his work untitled hoping those drawn to it would christen it. Soon enough it became known as The Creation. The Artist took great pleasure in the joy his work brought and so scattered smaller pieces of art throughout the world. Predictably Art flourished.

After time, however, Art Critics thrived and complained that The Creation, and all of The Artist’s other works, carried no signature. Thus Controversy as to the true identity of the Creator of The Creation also flourished.

Eventually people not only Denied that the The Artist conceived The Creation but further Claimed that their artists had--artists with names such as Baal, Pan, Zeus, Mother Nature, and Chance. Rivalries bloomed. Schools of thought evolved. Many revered The Creation rather than The Artist. Others rose up and reasoned that, because no one had seen The Artist or any artist, that no Artist existed. Instead, they argued, “Our fear and ignorance invented the idea of an Artist to help us understand The Creation.” But they couldn’t explain how The Creation originated. Some argued that since no Artist exists The Creation must have Spontaneously flared into being.

This View ultimately won the day and The Creation evolved into an Object of study rather than an awe inspiring work of Art. Its paint, canvas, frame, material, and techniques were studied, tested, weighed, categorized, and controlled. Unfortunately, to those studying it, The Creation lost its Beauty and Wonder, becoming a conquered object. The Critics further erected a wall around The Creation and, to appease those still traveling to see it, made available, at a small cost, blurred prints. Consequently all of the other unique works of The Artist became objects of study as well, only valued if they served a purpose The Critics supported. Art as The Artist designed it died.

Now The Artist wept bitterly. But not because of a lack of recognition for his work. For had he wanted Fame he would have fixed his signature unmistakably on his every piece. The Artist mourned because his Original idea, for all of those who admired The Creation to become intimate with his ways as artists themselves, miscarried. Decay flourished.

Inconceivably The Artist bowed his head, smiled and returned to The Creation determined to recreate and reinspire Art. In a final, powerful, artistic stroke The Artist sculpted A Cross that blended the image of his love for all artists with the pain The Artist felt when Art in them died. A small but unstoppable revolution followed. The Artist established an Artist Colony designed to incite all to learn Art. Lesser artists then became Art teachers passing on the Wonder and Technique of The Artist to all future generations. Today that Colony of Artists stands in the Crossroads--commissioned to Declare the love and wonder of The Artist himself.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the works of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4)

We are not accidents nor are we alone. We are the works of God’s hands, drawn in love and mercy. If you haven’t spoken to The Artist of late, there is no better time than now.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Skittish Trout

It was just a wide spot in the stream where the mountain valley flattened out to pool and drink the icy water. Tall, snow-covered peaks reflected in its placid surface. Narrow shadows hung suspended in its middle: brook trout facing upstream and feeding on anything drifting through their territory. I had to crawl through the grass as I approached the pool so as not to send the trout flying for cover in the undercut banks. Even then, the shadow of my fly rod arching across the water panicked them. Skittish trout, they’re called. So attuned to hawks and fishermen and other predators are they, that any movement from above is perceived as a threat. And rightly so.

I have a friend who calls herself a skittish trout. She grew up in a guilt-based, authoritarian religion and church. Any question, doubt, comment, or difficulty she had with her childhood faith and church was met with anger and derision. Intellectual abuse, she called it. Not that she didn’t have faith, she just wondered. As soon as she was old enough, she fled organized religion. And today anytime even a shadow of that old-time religion falls across her life she flies for the safety of the cutbank, peering out, yet still wondering.

In the process of starting a church, I’ve discovered large pools of skittish trout. Unfortunately, stories similar to my friend’s abound. Church splits, pastoral infidelity and dishonesty, harsh judgementalism, cold cliquishness, unbending dogma, rampant self-righteousness, cookie cutter lifestyles and answers, authoritarian leadership, political partisanship, powerless people, and ample—but common—human failings in what is supposed a divine institution are just a few of the shadows that the church and her people cast across the pool of modern life.

Almost all of us have, or have heard, a similar story. The scars and their impact vary. I started following Christ at age fifteen and began looking for a church to attend. Even I knew that was the way of things, but I was naive about the dress code. My hair flowed below my shoulders and my jeans were ratty. It was the 1970s. At the end of the sermon, I tramped forward in response to the “altar call.” I knelt to pray and a pastor (At least I think he was a pastor. To me he looked, acted, and smelled like one) approached and asked me if I wanted to become a Christian.

I proudly told him how just days earlier I had become a Christian at a church camp. He frowned at me and shook his head.

“You need to get your hair cut before you can become a Christian, son,” he said as if this truth saddened him deeply.

I was young and stupid and argued with him. “Jesus had long hair. Haven’t you seen those pictures of him?”

Not impressed with my theological acumen he simply offered, “I have a pair of scissors in the back. I can get them, cut your hair, and then you can pray and become a Christian.”

I decided to look for another church.

Since then I have been in three churches where the pastors have had affairs, and within most of the churches I have been a part, have seen and heard things that come straight from the gates of hell not the streets of heaven, and have made my own sad mistakes as a person and a pastor (proving the adage that if I find the perfect church I had better not join it because I’ll ruin it).

Two things:

One, apparently not being a skittish trout but maybe a stupid one, I have yet to fly for the cutbank and hide. Sometimes I feel like a singed moth circling the flame. I’m not sure why I don’t fly. Probably because God keeps blocking the escape route. Probably also because with each scar the church and I have left on one another, there are equal—and more—marks of grace and life this crazy body called the church has bestowed on me. That she has allowed me to seek my calling and share my thoughts, ideas, and life through her may be the least of them. And when I parade before my eyes the faces of friends I have made, and how they have enriched my life, in this human/divine community, I am humbled and grateful.

Two, dealing with people’s souls is dangerous and delicate. So too, I’ve discovered, is this starting and being a church, and mysterious. We’re not selling widgets or snake oil. We’re attempting to touch God and, through rugged and calloused human hands, places in ourselves God hid in our deepest reaches, places we’ve hidden even from ourselves. Hanging out a sign reading, “Got God?” does not do anyone, especially the Creator of our souls, justice. This, sharing our souls, spiritual journeys, and lives, is not marketing. It cannot be shrink wrapped into some tidy package. It’s messy, alive, sensitive, unpredictable, sometimes ugly, often beautiful. Tread softly.

I wish finding God and ourselves and living in a Christ community with truth and grace could be written up in a book or produced in a program or bulleted in a three point outline, or contained in a church building (and sometimes God even works through these things). But alas we and God and life are deeper and messier than that.

And none of this is new. Even the first two humans hid from God after they discovered their bare, naked distance from and need for Him. We have been flying from God ever since. Skittish trout indeed. Fear not, however, God is no predator, but is a patient, persistent angler.