Thursday, February 26, 2015

Last Night: My Kind of Town

I'm from Columbia, Missouri.

It doesn't take long for people to learn I'm from Columbia, or to learn that I'm proud to be from Columbia.

I talk about Columbia. It doesn't take much prompting for me to jump into a conversation about CoMo, as the locals call our town. Having lived in and around Columbia for most of my life since I was 8 years old, I know this city inside and out. I can go on and on, until someone changes the subject out of desperation.

I cheer for Columbia. Yes, I cheer for the hometown Missouri Tigers, even though I never took a class at Mizzou. But I also cheer for all the local high schools, I celebrate when yet another publication lists Columbia among their top cities, and I take pride in the city's uniqueness.

I act like a Columbian. I drive like Columbia people drive, which can change depending on whether or not the students are in town. I know to stay away from campus on football Saturdays, unless I'm going to the game. Like a good Columbian, I love to check out a new restaurant within its first weeks of business - and then I drop it like a stone if it doesn't measure up.

I even cheerfully revel in the ways Columbia and Columbians are a bit odd. CoMo loves its roundabouts, even if a lot of its residents still haven't figured out how to drive in one. Columbia has a love/hate relationship with is bicyclists, altering streets and building trails to accommodate them, all the while we grumble about them. I love to hang out downtown, browsing through the specialty shops, enjoying the ambience of The District, even though, like most Columbians, I don't actually spend a lot of money there.

Yes, I'm proud to be from Columbia, and I wear that pride on my sleeve.
My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. John 15:8
Our life with Christ should be the same. People should be able to easily see how much we love Christ. They should know we are Christians by our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

If I love being a Christian, it won't take much to prompt me to talk about it. If I love Jesus, I'll cheer heartily for His church. If I love Jesus, I'll act like a friend of Jesus.

And if I love Christ, love being a Christian, love His church, I'll be cheerfully honest about the oddball ways of the church.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Last Night: Learning to Love, Loving to Learn

Bud & Bert, circa 1976-77
We had a rule when we first started going together. Either of us could ask any question and the other had to answer. No ducking topics. No avoiding sharing the truth.

We were trying to get to know each other. As she said, "You lived nineteen years of life before I ever met you. How am I supposed to know you if I don't know everything about those 19 years?"

So the Q&A sessions became our dates. We'd sit out by the fake well on the front lawn, or on the steps of the dorm, or in the library, or wherever we could get some sort of privacy on the campus of Central Christian College. And we'd learn to love everything about each other.

It was in those sessions I learned she loves Tom Sawyer and yellow flowers and pigs. She learned I don't like lima beans, but I do like baseball and Superman.

Somewhere along the process, we learned to go beyond liking each other and actually begin to be like each other. We've spent a lifetime doing that.

It took me a long time to write those two short sentences listing some of what we learned about each other because we've long since become so blended in our interests and tastes as to make it hard to remember the beginning of it all. Learning to love what you learn about the one you love - it changes you.

Every couple goes through this process. If they don't, the relationship neither thrives nor survives. We've counseled a long list of couples over the years, and one of the fatal flaws to any relationship is a failure to continue to learn what the other love. Loving to learn about the other is part and parcel of learning to love for the long haul. Otherwise they settle into being two people inhabiting the same house, sleeping in the same bed, going about separate lives. And, for many, going their separate ways.

A believer's relationship with Jesus follows a similar path.
Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.  If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.  These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.  John 15:9-11
Under the Law, as practiced by the keepers of the Jewish religion, keeping His commandments was the requirement that stood on its own as the centerpiece of the covenant relationship. Jesus turned that perspective inside out. Learning to love Him and loving to learn what He loves is the core of the relationship. Keeping His commandments is what will happen naturally when I move beyond learning to like Him and begin to be like Him.

People whose faith is on the rocks share a common problem: a failure to sustain the effort to get to know Him better. The more I abide in Him, the more I blend my character, my loves, my hates into His character, loves, and hates, the more obedience becomes a way of life.
But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Revelation 2:4, NLT

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Last Night: At the Corner of Branch and Vine

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.  You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
   John 15:1-5
I'm not a farmer or even a gardener. I was raised in the city, except for a few forgettable years in small towns, and never gave much thought to the source of my food beyond the grocery store.

I have a number of friends for whom the idea of a house on a piece of land way out in the middle of nowhere sounds like the perfect life. The long miles over gravel roads pose no problem for them - they don't really want to go to town that often anyway. Their goal is to be as self-sufficient as possible.

Good for them. But I like being where I can hear the big rigs barrel past on the highway. I like being close enough to a bus stop to catch a ride to or from work or to the mall.

I married a country girl, so we've never lived where I'd really like to be. I've always imagined living downtown, right on Broadway, the main drag. I'd live in one of those loft apartments above a local business. Who needs a back yard when you've got city sidewalks and the constant presence of city life just outside your door?

The other reason I don't live downtown is that the price of apartments has gone through the roof. I tell myself it just proves how great it must be to live there, since people are willing to pay exorbitant rents for the privilege.

You can't have a garden in an asphalt neighborhood, but you can't step out of your front door in the boonies and find yourself instantly immersed in the life of the city.

Jesus used a seemingly endless supply of farming and gardening metaphors in his parables and sermons. It makes sense, given He was talking to a mostly agrarian society.

I can do the research and understood the meanings behind His illustrations, but even after all the in depth study, they still don't resonate with my city-boy mind like they do for my wife's extended family, all products of the farm.

I get the point that I'm a branch off the vine. I get that the key to life in Christ is to stay attached to the vine, to depend on the vine as my source for everything I need.

But I relate a little more to the idea that I'm "abiding" at the corner of Branch & Vine.

Picture Vine as the main arterial boulevard in a bustling city. The main arteries are the broad streets designed to feed traffic from the highways to the residential streets. There's plenty happening on the side streets, like Branch Avenue. Daily life, in all its mundane variety, happens along those neighborhood roads, But everyone and everything gets to the side streets by way of the main streets. The mail carrier, the police officer, the friends who come to visit - all of them use the arterial streets to get to the neighborhood streets.

As a disciple of Christ, I live at the intersection of my life and the life of Jesus.

My life, in all its mundane faithfulness, will become like a spiritual ghost town if I remain isolated, content to pursue my own version of the Christian life. Only by abiding on the vine will I stay connected to the source of nourishment and vitality I need.

Choose to live at the intersection of Branch and Vine. The alternative is to be a homeless spiritual beggar.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Paul, Paula & the Second Choice

I Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV (YouVersion)
When I was first told the news about Paul Williams, I doubted it could be true. This obviously must be a spurious rumor, gossip of the worst kind.

Then my friend told me Williams has a blog, so I used my smart phone to quickly find it online. The current photo of Paula Williams rocked me back on my heels. My reaction was so obvious that my friend apologized later for "puncturing my balloon".

Paul Williams never knew me, but I knew him. When he was with Christ In Youth, back in the '70's, he challenged and inspired me. When he left CIY to go plant churches in New York City, I was challenged by his willingness to go to a "hostile" mission field. Over the past 35 years, his writings in Christian Standard and elsewhere helped to encourage the hesitant writer inside me.

Yes, my balloon was punctured. I was poleaxed.

But I've trained myself over the past many years to not be like the bible-thumper I once was, the kind whose default response in such situations is to jump to conclusions and grab up the tar and feathers.

Ironically, this news was delivered to me during a weekend seminar by my friend, David Sowers, entitled Re-establishing Biblical Authority in a Time of Chaos. A major point of the seminar was to warn against allowing our cultural experiences to erode our allegiance to the authority of the Bible.

Many faithful, bible-believing Christians are retreating from their devotion to the authority of the Bible in the face of cultural pressures. They discover a family member or close friend is gay or divorcing and they think they have to choose between their bible and their dear ones.

The church doesn't make the choice any easier by teaching people there is only one choice to make: stand firm in opposition to sin, based on the authority of the Bible, cave in to the culture and abandon your biblical foundation. Some will quickly abandon the Bible and their faith when face with those alternatives. Others will take another look at the scriptures and choose to stand firm.

The Second Choice

What if we taught believers there is more to it, that after choosing to remain committed to the Word, there is a second choice to be made: How shall I deal with the people involved?

I could choose to point my finger at them, treat them poorly, ostracize them, and, in my wife's words, "be mean to them."

Or I can choose to stand firm on the whole Word of God: not just the parts we think of as doctrine, but the equally authoritative teachings above love, grace, compassion, and our evangelistic mission.

Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God. The second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself. Every other commandment ranks third at best. Commandments against homosexuality, sexual immorality, or any other culturally controversial behaviors are supposed to be followed within the boundaries of loving our neighbors, even the neighbors that shock us or rock us back on our heels.

It's not 'hate the sin, love the sinner'. That puts the hating above the loving.

Instead, let's love all sinners, and remember we are all sinners.

So many Christian Churches and so many Christians fail to recognize the importance of intentionally making that second choice, the choice for love. As result, many seekers, broken by the road they've traveled, back away from a finger-pointing Bible and a mean Church.

At this point, Williams' blogs indicates a faith strong enough to continue to seek God, in spite of the mean-ness of the Church's response. I pray that resolve continues.

So, after my natural initial reaction of shock, knew I needed to make both the first and second choice.

Opinions and Choices

I decided I needed to know more. Between the conclusion of that Friday evening session and the beginning of the Saturday morning sessions, I read every word of Williams' blog, from its beginning in February, 2014, through to the most recent post in the last week of January, 2015. Every word, including the comments, the Favorite Quotes, and the About Paula Williams page.

By the end of reading through it all, I came to some conclusions.

First, my opinion about Paul Williams' decision to become Paula, in Williams' words, "integrating Paul into Paula", is irrelevant. While I've struggled with my own inner compulsions and sins, I've never walked a mile in Williams' shoes. As a stranger, I'm not in any position to act as a friend, mentor, or advisor. From the blog it's quite clear there are faithful Christians who are in a position to offer Spirit-lead wisdom.

Nowhere in scripture are we told we have to have an opinion on every current event, nor are we commanded to share any opinions we do have. That flies in the face of the current instant-opinion culture of social media, but Twitter and Facebook don't own me yet.

Second, it's vital that I learn everything I can from the writings of a person who has been a faithful Christian leader for decades, all the while (since he was three) struggling mightily with a burden he knew he had to keep secret. Someday I may encounter a seeker who is struggling with a similar burden. Given that my wife and I minister in a women's prison every Monday evening, it's quite likely.

Williams' incredibly honest and detailed chronicling of the relevant issues, scriptures, and psychological research are invaluable. They have taught me both the critical importance of meeting troubled seekers where they are and the importance of seeing them through the eyes of grace. Williams' words also showed me the difficulty of applying the clear biblical truth to the murkiness of gender dysphoria.

Even if you never knew or even heard of Paul Williams, I encourage you to read that year's worth of anguished blog posts and prepare yourself for the need before it lands on your doorstop.

For any Christian who is a learner and not lander, studying the Word and the world carefully in order to develop an informed opinion is vital to showing yourself approved as a workman. Both knowledge and wisdom are needed to properly handle the truth while unashamedly doing the work of God's mission (II Timothy 2:15).

I have little interest in being right about anything. I'd rather seek the righteousness of God in order to faithfully represent Him to any and all seekers I encounter along the way.

And so, I'm not going to tell you my opinions about Paul Williams, or even about Paula Williams. I pray for God to grant Williams the peace only He can provide, as impossible as it may seem.

Praise to Him who specializes in the impossible.