What Side Are You On, Anyway?

Do you prefer Coke or Pepsi?

Do you like cats or dogs?

Are you Democrat of Republican?

Do you believe in God or are you an atheist?

We have built ourselves a culture that is deeply rooted in a necessity for polarity. We love to dichotomize things. It’s this or that. Maybe that’s because it’s a clean, seemingly easy way to think about things. Or maybe it’s because we like an idea of tribalism that allows us to pit ourselves in different camps knowing that we have a clear identity that way. Whatever the reason, we have been doing ourselves a great disservice in doing so.

Now, let me say, this is not a post about how the answer always lies somewhere in the middle. That is often a problematically simplistic way of approaching various topics and experiences that renders an unfair analysis of the situation at hand. However, this is to say that we could do a much better job of complexifying the way we engage with the situations and ideas that work to construct the experience of our lives on a daily basis.

One such issue that many of us often wrestle with, even without thinking about it, comes through in our faith experience. We now live in a digital age where we have quick and easy access to an unthinkable amount of resources and information (the merits of which are a whole other debatable topic entirely). The reality of that is that we are taking in such a rapid amount of information in an incredibly short period of time, and find ourselves gravitating towards perspectives and experiences that we can draw connection with, that we often agree with. That is true in our lives of faith as well as anything else; we turn on TVs, tablets, phones, enter a quick search to find an inspirational message about God that falls in line with a way of thinking we may agree with and repeat that process day in and day out. Easy enough.

However, we’ve got ourselves a dichotomy here even if we don’t realize it. Our lives of faith seem to be becoming more and more divided into what might be considered individually oriented or communally oriented expressions and experiences of faithful living.

For instance, all it takes is a quick google search to find pastors of mega churches preaching to massive congregations of people, each time presenting a message of all the ways God can provide for people in their individual lives, how God has been working and how God can be working if only people give themselves up in name and witness before God. The messages talk directly to people in a way that makes people feel as though the preacher is speaking directly at them, to them, about their life and about their experiences.

On the other hand, we can look around and find preachers who’s sole purpose is to highlight concerns of social injustice, wrong doing, ways we are coming up short, and who want to pound the pulpit until people listen or open their eyes and see the social damage being done, and want to do something about it.

Now, both camps have plenty to offer and are valid in some elements of their approach. Both camps also have their areas of concern and in need of being addressed, the largest arguably being their commitment to that one polarity only.

We would probably be hard pressed to find faith communities that found a perfect balance between the two. In our current social climate, we continue to ask people to choose, one or the other. Do you submit to an individual relationship with Jesus Christ as the holy Lord and Savior, or do you look to Jesus as a social prophet who’s life and ministry provides a profound road map for how we can live our lives in order to bring about social transformation?

My question would be, why not both?

I will admit – I have fallen victim to this dichotomy. It is hard not to. And I have found myself to be on the social end, finding individual expressions of faith to often be selfish and limiting. With that being said, I have had to face my own shortcomings with this belief system to realize that individual expressions of faith are not only important, but they are necessary to a healthy life of faithful discipleship.

This is what I mean by complexifying the issues. It is not so much about finding a “middle” ground, but find how two seemingly contradictory or opposing views can actually be in conversation with one another, if not occasionally working together.

Our individual relationships are important. They fulfill us, help us through the tough times that are hindering us in our journey, give us reason to believe in the hope of tomorrow. On the other hand, if our faith stops there we are not living out the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus came for the sake of the people, communally. Jesus lived a ministry that sought out others AND embraced the value of developing a meaningful and personal relationship with God. For those of us who believe ourselves to be on the “social side” of our constructed dichotomy, we must soon accept the importance of a the need for personal growth, development, and peace. For those of us who understand ourselves to be in the “individual” camp, we must soon realize that such peace and growth means very little if we cannot become excited about living in ministry with others.

 

 

Life in the Fast Lane

I love burgers. I do. And, sometimes, there is just nothing that will satisfy a hunger craving quite like a burger for me.

I remember one year in college when all I wanted for dinner one Friday night was a burger. I had plans to get dinner with a couple of friends, and I quickly suggested a burger joint we all enjoyed often. Most of us agreed, but two people spoke up in opposition saying “Sorry man, can’t have meat tonight. It’s Lent.”

Ya? So?

“I don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent.”

Okay, fair enough. I know this was a common tradition that many people engaged with. I was disappointed, but wasn’t going to make any sort fuss about it. Before we could go any further with the conversation someone else asked “Well, why not?”

“Because, it’s Lent. You just aren’t supposed to eat meat on Friday’s during Lent.”

When I thought about it, that whole phrase seemed strangely specific, and my friend didn’t seem to have any understanding of exactly why he was abstaining from this specific food item on this specific day during this specific liturgical season. It just was what it was. It was just what you did, because that’s what his parents did, and probably what their parents did. It was just tradition.

Before we go any further, let me make myself clear: I by no means think abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent is a bad thing. I don’t think any form of fasting is a bad thing. I do, however, think that if we are going to engage with some practice or idea, we should absolutely be able to articulate why it is that we are choosing to do it. I do believe that everything we do, especially as people of faith, should be done with intention and purpose, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant that purpose may be.

Fasting has been a common practice in cultures and societies for millennia. Rituals of fasting historically have both religious/spiritual and nonreligious ceremonial purposes. In a religious/faith/spiritual context, fasting is widely practiced in many major communities of faith (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, in some cases Buddhism, and many more).

While looking to understand the context of our ritual of fasting from a Christian perspective, we share our historical interest with Judaism and Islam in the Hebrew scriptures. Kent Burghuis provides an in depth analysis of the various Hebrew scriptures that discuss the practice of fasting in the ancient communities, and cites one of, if not the, main purpose as a way to deny and humble oneself before God. (Burghuis)

The analysis continues, and you can find the link to the full article at the bottom of this post. But at the heart of fasting is a desire to come before God with humility and openness; to challenge ourselves to be vulnerable, repentant, and dependent on God.

Of course, that begs the question: What does fasting look like today? Or, perhaps more importantly, what SHOULD fasting look like today?

By definition, fasting is about food. Giving up food for ancient communities was the thing that would make them most vulnerable, most dependent on God. And, in the right context, that could still be a powerful practice. For those of us who do not ever go hungry, who do not know the true pangs of hunger, who do not know the struggles of wondering where our next meal is coming from, fasting from food may provide us an important insight needed to be in solidarity with the millions of people across the world who are not as fortunate every single day. That seems like the epitome of denying ourselves before God.

But, are there other things that we could fast from that might also bring us before God in self-denial, repentance, dependence? In other words, are there habits and practices that we engage in every day that contribute to the hindering of realizing God’s kin-dom of peace and justice throughout the world? Are there habits and practices that not only deter us from but actively separate us from God?

All I have to do is scroll through Facebook, sit in a committee meeting, walk through a crowded grocery store, or drive up route 15 to know that there are, just to highlight a few.

We are not perfect, and that is okay. The beauty of God is that God isn’t waiting for us to be perfect to have relationship. That is the nature of grace – freely forgiveness and affirmation has been offered, and freely it may be received if we so choose. It’s on us, now. Will we receive that grace in a way that demonstrates repentance and a willingness to grow in faith? Will we choose to fast from those things that are hindering us from doing so? Will we fast to deny ourselves and trust in God?

Whatever we do, let us do it with intention, with purpose. God is waiting.

Livin’ On A Prayer

I love bible studies. The conversations have such a tendency to become so authentic, so open and inquisitive, so vulnerable. The best part about that is, it’s the things that in our heads we may consider to be so excruciatingly simple that provide the most profound opportunity for reflection.

I remember sitting in a bible study once when the conversation drifted toward relationships with God which eventually evolved into a question about prayer. One very established member of the group, a wonderful woman with an incredible amount of experience and wisdom, looked up so earnestly and simply said, “What is prayer?”

Woah.

For many of us, I’m sure when you first hear that, it sounds a bit silly. Of course we all know what prayer is, right? But go ahead – think about it for a minute. What exactly is prayer?

I would guess that you could ask one hundred people that question, and you would get about three hundred different answers. Honestly, a comprehensive assessment of prayer likely requires many volumes of books, but for today, let’s keep it accessible.

Prayer is important enough in our Christian tradition and in our lives that John Wesley considered it an essential spiritual discipline: one such practice that we should engage in as often as we can for the betterment and development of ourselves and our relationship with God.

Is prayer simply talking to God? Does exactly what you say have to matter for something to be considered a prayer? Are only certain people allowed to pray? Can prayer only be expressed through words and thoughts?

I believe those questions are all very open ended, and I believe they are better suited for consideration and reflection rather than to guide us toward some ultimate truth. Yet, I will suggest there is a bit of a dichotomy to one of those questions, and I would posit that there is a right answer: Anyone can pray. Jesus prayed, Jesus taught the disciples to pray so that they might continue to teach others the meaning and strength and transformative nature of prayer. It’s not only pastors, or people with training, or people who have what we might consider “the right words” that can pray: we are all in relationship with God.

With that being said, the question is still out there: What is prayer? While there is so much to consider and the likelihood of ever reaching a concrete answer may be beside the point, there are several aspects that I think must be present in order to be effectively prayerful.

  1. Intentionality

This could quite possibly be the most important element of all. At the heart of it, prayer is about wanting to enter into a space where we are recognizing and affirming our relationship with God. When we are thinking or talking about prayer, we are directing our attention to God; we are bringing ourselves forward.

Likewise, that intentionality should be our guide for exactly what it is that we are entering into that space for. Whatever it is that we do, whatever it is that we say, whatever it is that we are asking for, we should have some understanding of why it is important that we bring that thing before God.

Maybe our prayer isn’t verbal – maybe it is something we are choosing to do and act upon in order to draw us in closer relationship with God. Maybe it is verbal – maybe getting closer to God for some of us is learning to talk with God. Whatever our approach to prayer, let it be intentional.

2. Purpose

While the nature of how we pray may be different, while the things we pray about may not be the same, in some way, shape, or form, all prayer shares something in common: the purpose is to grow closer with God.

Now, granted, even that may look differently for some people. But it is an important distinction to be cognizant of. It is easy for us to find ourselves asking God for things that we perceive may make our lives easier; things that may take some stress out of the game. Yet, how often do we ask ourselves if that thing we are asking God for is actually doing the work of drawing us into closer relationship with God?

When we consider the purpose of why we are entering into a space of prayer, our prayers begin to be more centered around guidance, growth, strength of spirit, rather than taking a passive role in asking God to continually do for us.

3. Openness

Crucial.

If we can’t be open in prayer, what’s the point? The beauty of prayer is that we get to be our most authentic, true, and vulnerable selves because we are children of a God who unconditionally loves us. We are children who have been freely offered a grace that honestly, we probably don’t deserve, but there it is.

Why would we not turn our truest selves to God? In thinking about this, we come to our last point of consideration for today:

4. Transformation

We want to grow in our relationship with God, right? We want to move from this place that we are in to know an even deeper and more profound experience with God, and to do so, we have to be willing to transform.

For as important as this element is, it is probably the most challenging. I know it is for me, anyway. Because transformation means change, and who among us actually likes change? Who among us is comfortable being vulnerable to the point where we may realize our own shortcomings and flaws? Who among us finds it easy to believe that we have been forgiven anyway?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that no one has quite figured that out. That’s the beauty of faith. But, as John Wesley asserted, our charge as children of God is to insatiably pursue God and pursue a life of Christian perfection. Maybe we never quite get there in this lifetime, but every step we take in that direction is a step closer to God, and that is the most beautiful thing in the world.

It’s not about being good or bad at prayer. It’s not about knowing the right thing to say. Its about the love we have in our hearts, the passion for knowing God, the desire to grow that draws us into prayer. Prayer is beautiful, because it is the moment we enter into prayer that we have chosen to seek out God – we have begun our fulfilment of the covenant to know and serve God. In life, there is truly no greater gift, than to be able to have the opportunity to grow with God, just one little prayerful step at a time.

 

– Pastor Matt Hubbard

What Does the Lord Require of Us?

“But the main question remains: We know this salvation is the gift and the work of God; but how (may one ask who is convinced he does not have it) may I attain thereto?” If you say “Believe, and thou shalt be saved!” he answers “True; but how shall I believe?” and you reply “Wait upon God.”  “Well, how am I to wait in the means of grace, or out of them Am I to wait for the grace of God which bringeth salvation, by using these means, or by laying them aside’…And, in fact, he hath not left us undetermined; he hath shown us the way wherein we should go. We have only to consult the oracles of God; to inquire what is written there; and, if we simply abide by their decision, there can no possible doubt remain.” – John Wesley, The Means of Grace

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?”

 

The first quoted passage here is one from John Wesley’s sermon about the means of Grace. The concept of grace is exceptionally important in the Methodist tradition. Wesley understands grace to be the foundation of our relationship with God, the true essence of the connection between God and humanity. In this sermon he goes on to talk about the different means of grace – that is, the different ways we experience the grace of God, more commonly thought of as spiritual disciplines. These means of grace are thought of in two distinct, yet related and equally important ways: Works of Piety and Works of Mercy. Throughout the course of this Lenten season, we will explore deeper the works of piety – those actions that are more private in nature, used to enhance our own spiritual development and connection with God. But, for today, in light of recent events, the works of mercy scream profoundly relevant and in need of faithful consideration.

Both Works of Piety and Works of Mercy can be thought of as having two components: individual and communal. Works of mercy are public expressions of faith – engaging in those things that ask us to expand our faith beyond a personal relationship and engage with all of God’s kin-dom. Individual expressions may include instances of doing good: visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, and giving generously. The communal element, on the other hand, encompasses these actions, and in more wholistic ways. Communal works of mercy are those things that require a communal effort to help this world realize the kin-dom of God, such as seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination, and addressing the needs of the poor as well as the causes of poverty.

It seems impossible to not emphasize the importance of works of mercy at a time like this; at a time where yet another shooter heinously claimed the lives of 17 people in Parkland, Florida. It seems impossible to not think about communal works of mercy when shootings like this have become so commonplace in society that we are desensitized to it. It seems impossible to not think about it because we find ourselves at a point where almost every person in American society can recite the cyclical response shootings like this have drawn out from within the American government and people.

That is what the second quote at the beginning of the post considers. The words are an excerpt from the prophet Micah, the sixth chapter. They are popular words, yet woefully underappreciated, and often minimized. The most common portion of the passage is undoubtedly the eight verse – and, to be fair, that verse does capture the overall essence of the verse. However, there is even great meaning considered in the context of the words that come before it.

Whenever we stand in the face of great trauma and tribulation, we so often find ourselves turning to one another and to God wondering, “what can we do? God this is so painful, and so disturbing, and can’t possibly be the will for your world – what can we do?” And, in recent years, the response from the faith community has overwhelmingly been “thoughts and prayers”. We find ourselves posting pictures with scriptures to different social media sites, we find ourselves changing filters on pictures to show we stand in solidarity with affected communities, and we find ourselves constantly reminding one another that our “thoughts and prayers” are with those who are mourning.

When we read the Micah passage, we can almost hear that sentiment ringing loud from the ancient community. The desires to sacrifice and offer to God are not only an expression of thanksgiving, but an effort to believe that God will change things. As the Micah passage goes on to instruct us, God isn’t always requiring our thoughts and prayers. God doesn’t always want an offering. Sometimes, God needs us to respond.

That can be a great challenge for us. It can be greatly discomforting and intimidating when we understand God to be omnipotent. But recognizing that we have a responsibility to bring about the change that will make God’s kin-dom realized is not letting go of a belief that God is omnipotent – in fact, working together to affect change in the name of God and the love and justice God seeks for the world is possibly the greatest affirmation of God we could possibly offer.

It is not easy to know what the right answer is. But it is exponentially harder to watch the lives of young children and brave teachers with promising futures and lives continually being stolen at the hands of such grave injustice. We have the ability to write legislators. We have the ability to demand more of our school systems, our government, our own moral and social code. We have the ability to affect change – to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

We have the ability to embrace one another in a spirit of love with the intent of responding to the beautiful gift of grace through works of mercy. God has put the grace in our court – what now will we do?