Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Changing My Mind

I'm a lot less dogmatic than I used to be.

I suppose some of this comes from maturity. When I was younger, especially in my teen years, 
I knew everything. If I didn't know it, I could fake it or else dismiss it as unimportant. As a result, 
I wasn't very teachable. And a lot of the doctrine I acquired then became firmly entrenched in my mind as truth, whether or not there was much Scripture to back it up.

As I've grown older, I've learned to occasionally admit when I'm wrong. (And it's never easy.) I have been examining theological concepts I learned decades ago, and it turns out they frequently aren't true, even though many of them are commonly accepted among evangelical Christians. This brings up some valid questions: Is it possible that good, sincere, Bible-believing followers of Christ can be deceived en masse? Can wrong doctrine be repeated often enough that it becomes a tradition and is generally accepted as truth?

I am convinced that this happened in Bible times, and it happens today. For hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the Jewish people were anxiously awaiting their Messiah. They studied the Scriptures to figure out when and where He'd appear, and what He would do upon His arrival. They especially liked the "conquering King" passages such as Daniel 7 and Jeremiah 23. Rabbis taught that when Messiah appeared, He would overthrow the oppressive foreign rulers (Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, Romans - whoever was currently in power.) The Israelites expected the Son of David to set up His physical kingdom on earth, with Israel as the ruler of the world and Jerusalem as its capital.

That's why everyone was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Messiah. And it explains why the disciples were willing to leave their families and their businesses and follow an itinerant preacher around on the backside of the wilderness for 3 years. Oh sure, Jesus was an amazing teacher and worker of miracles. It was fun going along for the ride. But the disciples were convinced that He was more than a great prophet, that He was actually the long-awaited Messiah. And they wanted in on the ground floor of the coming kingdom.

When they argued about who would be the greatest in the kingdom, who would be at Christ's right hand (see Mark 9:33-34; Mark 10:35-41), they weren't thinking of pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. They were looking for an earthly kingdom, and expected to have an important role in it.

But Jesus didn't come as the expected conquering King. Instead, He fulfilled Messianic prophecies of a suffering Servant. (see Isaiah 53) Jesus kept trying to get His disciples to comprehend that He didn't come to rule, but to serve and to lay down His life as a ransom. (Matthew 20:28)

Even after Jesus died on the cross, rose from the grave, and appeared to them numerous
times, they still didn't understand that He had come to establish a spiritual kingdom. They had been so indoctrinated with conventional wisdom and years of tradition, they couldn't even imagine that Christ had no intention of ascending a physical throne on the earth. The very last question they asked Him before His ascension demonstrates this.

"So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  (Acts 1:6) They still didn't understand! Jesus brought gentle correction one last time: "He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you." (Acts 1:7-8)
Then He ascended into heaven as they watched. And on the day of Pentecost, when they were filled with the Holy Spirit, they finally began to understand that the Kingdom of God is not physical but spiritual.

So what's the point? An entire nation was deceived by wishful thinking and hopeful tradition. They missed the very event they so longed for, the coming of their Messiah, because He didn't come the way they thought He would. I contend that 21st century Christians are no better. We have our own dearly held beliefs which don't really hold up in the light of Scripture. And we frequently miss God because He's not lining up with our preconceived notions.

My conclusion? Western Christians need to examine our beliefs carefully. A good deal of false doctrine, even heresy has crept in, just as the apostle Paul warned. (1 Timothy 4:1-2) Rather than simply clinging to our traditions, we must consider them in the light of the Word of God, asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate our minds. And we must be willing to admit error and revise our thinking, even if it means giving up cherished beliefs.

As I noted at the beginning of this essay, a lot of my theology has changed in the past few years, sometimes in radical ways. I've given up on the "I'm right, so you must be wrong" mentality, especially concerning things that don't really matter. Some areas where I have been wrong (and still may not be right - but I'm learning...) include: prosperity gospel, the rapture, how we can tell if others are truly saved, the role of the Holy Spirit, the fivefold ministry, gender differences, and oh, so many more.

I'll talk more about these various topics in future posts. for now, let me just say I'm following Christ as best I can, striving to demonstrate His love in my daily life. And He's refining me more each day. Trust me, there's a long way to go - but I'm getting there.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Old Enough

I turn 55 this year. The old double-nickel...
I don't feel old. Well, sometimes I do.

I can do pretty much everything I always did - it just takes me longer to recuperate. I don't bounce back as quickly after working all night. Bumps and bruises and aches and pains often take longer to heal. My balance and reflexes are less reliable, too. Consequently, I'm a little more cautious than I used to be (Well, sometimes I am) - knowing a bad decision may cost me dearly.

My metabolism has slowed down. When I was younger, I burned calories so fast it was pretty much impossible for me to gain weight. I took pride in my ability to consume thousands of calories with impunity. It was easy to tend towards gluttony, since there was no apparent consequence. 
I weighed around 130 when I got married, and maybe 140 or so 15 years later. But about the time 
I turned 40 years of age, that train came to a screeching halt.

Suddenly I started putting on the pounds. My job is fairly sedentary, a lot of sitting in front of computer screens. My high octane metabolism was no longer in top gear. And it took me a few years to come to terms with the change. (Denial isn't just a river in Egypt.) Finally, I figured out that I could no longer eat the way I did when I was 20 or 30. My body just doesn't need the same amount of fuel to function. And I'm happy if I weigh less than 200 pounds, but it takes a lot of work to stay there.

This turn of events has caused me to recognize and begin to change some of my bad habits, such as a tendency to lust for food. I don't need that second helping, but it tastes so good! I know I need to exercise more, but I don't really want to, because it's hard and boring and so not fun. Like the apostle Paul, I find that I have to bring my body into subjection every day. (1 Corinthians 9:27)

For a good part of my life, I thought I'd never be old enough. I wanted to be taken seriously, to garner respect, to be able to operate freely in God-given gifts. Somehow I thought being older would magically fix my insecurities and lack of self-confidence. Suddenly, I was there - older, but still not old enough. I had to find my security in Christ alone, not in myself or what I could do. 

I'm constantly learning that lesson. When I trust in my own strength and abilities, it's not too long before I fall short. When I tap into the power of God resident within me, I make better choices and have much more success. The problem is, I WANT to trust in myself. "I can do this, I can handle this one, God." Sadly, I usually cannot. I wish to be independent, but every success in life comes from being connected to Christ, drawing life from Him. That's why He said, "Apart from Me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)

Older, not old enough. My friends are becoming grandparents and dealing with their own aging parents. My daughters are getting married and planning their families. Kids I taught in children's church now have their own children. The music of my childhood is being pushed off the oldies stations by stuff that's too new for me to remember.* I attend too many funerals. I haven't had hair in my eyes for at least a decade, probably longer. The majority of my co-workers are young enough to be my children. Their cultural references usually mystify me. And when I mention something from my youth, they have no idea what the geezer is talking about.**

Success in life has a lot to do with attitude. I'm determined to make the most of my time on earth. I'm here to serve Jesus Christ, to live my life as a testament to His glory. I used to have youthful zeal and boundless energy. Those items are now in short supply, but at least they've been replaced by wisdom and experience. If only I'd known then what I've learned through the years, I'd have made much wiser decisions and be a whole lot better off. But that isn't the way it works. Now, I hope that when I share with young people, they catch a little of what I'm trying to say. Maybe I can save them some grief if they will learn from my mistakes.

When I was young, I was a know-it-all, not very coachable. As I've aged, I keep learning how much I really don't know. And some of my dearly held ideas have proven to be wrong. My theology has changed, sometimes dramatically.*** And I'm constantly learning, updating, reformulating, just trying to understand God, this great big world He created, and my place in it. Sometimes I'm still a know-it-all. But I'm repenting of that, and seeking to develop humility. And I'm trying to shut up and listen: "Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent." (Proverbs 17:28)

So will I ever be old enough? Probably not. With God's help, I hope to continue growing in wisdom and knowledge and fear of the Lord. I pray I can live such a life that people see Christ in me. And when I pass on from this mortal existence, I intend to have no regrets and look forward to hearing those cherished words, "Well done, good and faithful servant." (Matthew 25:21)

*I remember riding a city bus in Lincoln, Nebraska in the late '70s. There were some teenage girls nearby, and I overheard their conversation. I had my first taste of geezerhood when one of them asked breathlessly, "Did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?"

**Mary Ann. Definitely Mary Ann.

***I'll share an example of my radically changed theology in my next post.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Song For Easter

I love this time of year, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.

He conquered sin and death, becoming the way to righteousness for all mankind. Because He lives, we have the promise of eternal life. My sister Janet posted an Easter poem yesterday. I suspect it's actually a song, though I haven't heard her sing it. Anyway, it's pretty cool. You can check it out here if you want.

After reading it, I got to thinking, "Hey, I've written a little Easter song that's pretty decent." So I decided to post it here. Eventually I'll record it and post it to YouTube, but for now you'll have to be satisfied with the lyrics.

High Above

God knew the whole world was lost, so He sent Jesus to man.
When He died upon the cross, it was part of God's mighty plan.

For He's the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who is high above all gods.
Yes, Jesus now is highly exalted - high above all gods.

Jesus walked out from the grave, for death could not contain Him.
Now He lives men's souls to save, and the devil cannot restrain Him.

For He's the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who is high above all gods.
Yes, Jesus now is highly exalted - high above all gods.

If you have no joy within, and your life seems empty and hopeless;
Let Jesus cleanse you from your sin, bring new life and give you a purpose.

For He's the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who is high above all gods.
Yes, Jesus now is highly exalted - high above all gods.

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Maker's Dozen

The last several posts have kind of been in serious teaching mode.
It's time for a little lighter reading, so I'll reminisce a bit.

When I went away to college, it was the first time I'd ever lived away from home. I was 17 years old when I arrived on campus, 60 miles from my hometown in Nebraska. My 18th birthday came a couple of weeks after school started. I didn't know too many people, so I was pretty depressed on that day. I really didn't feel like walking around cheerfully announcing, "Hi, my name's Dan. Today's my birthday!" I felt alone and unimportant - and cranky.

To make matters worse, an upperclassman shared my birthday. Everywhere I went all day long, "Happy Birthday Darin" was chalked on the sidewalk and posted on walls.. My mood just kept getting blacker. Thankfully, my friend Randy - whom I'd known for all of two weeks - found out it was my birthday and mobilized a group of students to cheer me up. Somebody got a cake and they had a little party for me. It seems pretty insignificant now, but it was huge to me back then. (Randy and I remain good friends all these years later.)

Like all "itty-bitty freshmen", I had to learn where to go and what to do. I did have a bit of an advantage, because my sister had been attending that college for a couple of years. The year before, I had occasionally gone to a Bible study at a house across the street from the campus, where I met a few of the students. But I still had to experience the learning curve associated with being on my own for the first time. No one else was going to make sure I got enough sleep 
(I didn't), made it to classes on time or did my homework. I was responsible for my own behavior and choices. And I had to learn some lessons the hard way. (For example, I learned to never schedule an English grammar class at 7:30 in the morning...)

One of the classes I took that first semester was choral music. I had enjoyed singing in the chorus throughout junior high and high school and looked forward to singing with a group in college. 
And this was a low risk activity - I didn't have to try out and take a chance of being rejected. If you signed up, you were in. The school had several singing groups one could try out for, but I did NOT intend to do so. I had no confidence in my abilities - I had always been the kid who was just not quite good enough, the one picked last on the team. I was comfortable being one of a hundred voices in the choir, and had no desire to move beyond that comfort zone. 
But God had different plans...

My first day in choir, a girl I'd met at the Bible study across the street made a beeline for me. Louann asked me to come and try out for the singing group she was in. I protested that I didn't think I was good enough, that I hadn't even considered trying out, and any other excuse I could come up with. She would not be dissuaded. She pretty much took me by the arm and dragged me up to the classroom to try out. She saw something in me that I couldn't see, potential I had no idea was there.

Next thing I knew, I was part of the "Maker's Dozen". (Clever name, huh?) I had no idea what I was in for. In retrospect, I believe the main reason God sent me to this particular school was to be involved in this group. I learned so much: group dynamics, how to improvise harmonies, organizational skills, and trusting God for provision. Honestly, the lessons I learned in class were insignificant compared to what I learned as part of the Maker's Dozen.

As the name implies, the group consisted of 12 college students, fairly evenly divided between male & female. We were an officially recognized college organization, student directed and led. The first couple of months were a whirlwind of activity. We spent lots of time selecting songs, developing arrangements and harmonies, learning each others' strengths and weaknesses, and rehearsing. We learned how to share our faith publicly, and how to trust each other. And we bought fabric and sewed matching costumes. Here's what we looked like:

This photo was actually from my second year in the group, so I was 19 years old. I'm in the back row, far left. Be thankful this picture is in black & white - just look at that fabric! Those shirts were vintage '70s garish. At least the vests and dresses were a solid color, kind of a sky blue. In keeping with our very modest budget, we also designed and hand-colored our promotional posters, which is where this picture came from. (Amazing that I still have one of these!) The complete poster looked like this:

Finally, around Thanksgiving, we started performing publicly. We sang in churches, schools and nursing homes, prisons and city missions. We ministered to youth groups and in senior centers. The schedule started out kind of slowly until after winter break. The second semester we traveled nearly every weekend to towns all over the Midwest, with a major trip over spring break. I was in Maker's Dozen two years, and in that time we drove through 35 states. My first year our big trip was to New Jersey and New York. The second year's trip was to Arizona and southern California. Who knows how many miles we logged in college vans?

While the school did provide vehicles, we were expected to raise support for gas and expenses through freewill offerings. We stayed with host families who fed and lodged us, and tried to study as we drove down the road. Most of all, we learned to present Christ publicly, not just with our words but with our actions. We had to really love one another, overlooking quirks and flaws as we cared about each other. Each of us had opportunity to speak publicly at times, and to demonstrate the love of Jesus by the way we behaved when we weren't on stage.

One valuable life lesson was that ministry is truly about God, not us. He's responsible for results - we simply have to be faithful and available to do our part. Here's a story to illustrate what I mean:

We were traveling through Iowa toward the end of the school year. Offerings hadn't been very good, and we were concerned that we'd end up in the red, with no money set aside for the next year's startup costs. So we prayed about it before our last concert of the trip, telling God how much we needed a good response.

The church was a mainline denomination, with mostly older people attending the service. They didn't look very happy to see us in our bright costumes, bringing (gasp) guitars into the sanctuary! Throughout the concert, they sat with arms folded, politely applauding but not too enthusiastic. And we flopped - forgetting words, harmonies not quite right, stammering and stuttering. We were embarrassed, and felt as if we'd really failed God, and at the worst possible time!

After the concert, we visited with people, prepared to apologize for our lackluster performance. And to our surprise, they were so complimentary, telling us how wonderful it had been, how they really sensed the Holy Spirit in our presentation, how much they'd enjoyed the whole concert. We were thinking, "were you even in the same room?" And this wasn't just polite talk - when the offering was counted up, it was the largest single gift we'd received the entire year! It was more than enough to pay the remaining bills, with a good amount to bank for the next year.

God really built our faith that day. We learned it wasn't about our performance - it's about Him! 
Oh, He desires excellence, that we should share our gifts freely and do our very best. But staying connected to Him is the real key. Lessons like this have stayed with me throughout my life. 
I've been involved in some sort of public ministry ever since, just doing what I do and trusting God to bring fruit from my labors. I'm so thankful that God changed my plans all those years ago.