27 November 2013

Traveling Companions & Destinations for Blockheads

Tara and I have officially been in the process of house-hunting for a month.  In other words, we've been in the game not quite long enough to fully understand the depth of the plight which afflicts many would-be home-owners in the state of New Jersey, but certainly long enough to taste just how frustrating the process can be.  In fact, it's easy when facing inspection fees, renovation costs, and other up-front buyer expenses, to lose heart at the base of what can seem like an insurmountable mountain.

As we stand in this place -- uncertain yet determined travelers with our necks craning to see the peak, invisible behind a layer of fog -- another hiker comes up beside us.  His name is Anxiety, and the task we face is the kind for which he likes to invite himself -- even though we have not asked for his company.  His face is careworn, the kind that cries victim while surreptitiously demanding sympathy, but beneath this martyr's skin is a darker nature.  Jesus would equate Anxiety with Pride -- a perfectionistic type of legalism that doggedly insists, "I must make the perfect decision because this is all on my shoulders" -- all while He, shaking His head, reminds us yet again that worrying doesn't add any extra hours to the length of our lives.

Anxiety has taken it upon himself to bring along another partner in crime, if only to entrench us in a protective layer of justification when things inevitably go downhill.  This second traveler's name is Expectations.  His face is young, naive and angular, with scrupulous eyes full of eager demands for the road -- dreams that will be easily crushed.  Anxiety plays the pessimistic uncle to this opportunistic nephew.  Being the more experienced, Anxiety wants to introduce Expectations to the cruel, ever-present governess known Reality, but Expectations doesn't see the need for instruction.  Because of his jaded nature, Anxiety steels himself for what's around the corner, fearing the potential, while Expectations prepares for the great things he is certain are forthcoming.

Forgive me for waxing allegorical, but I think we can all insert ourselves into that place.  We've all reached (or will inevitably reach) the fork in the road where the stakes have never been higher, and all our other traveling buddies -- Reason, Faith, Good Humor, and the rest -- have disappeared, leaving behind the less desirable companions.

When we find ourselves there, looking up at the mountain, arm-in-arm with our overwhelming anxieties on one side and our unfair expectations on the other, we begin to behave a lot like Peppermint Patty in the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special.  We are inevitably disappointed when we come to the table of life and find that God has placed a plate of jellybeans, popcorn, and toast in front of us.  We are taken aback by this dish, because we came across town with Marcy expecting turkey with all the trimmings, but Charlie Brown had something else in mind.  In our eyes, this alternative is degrading.  Tears of frustration well up in Expectations' eyes, and Anxiety begins fretting about how he will fix this situation.

Instead of recognizing that God is all-wise, all-knowing, and all-benevolent, we post our fists on our hips and allow ourselves the indignant pleasure of thinking that we know best.  Being offended is so delicious when we are so very righteous.

"What kind of Thanksgiving dinner is this?" we demand, because our expectations have not been met, and - furthermore - have not been surpassed.  Why is this mountain here?  We want to know where the turkey is, because in order for life to be reasonable and fair, we have to have mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce on the side, and pumpkin pie for dessert.  We want flat roads and plateaus, not valleys and foothills.

"Don't you know anything about Thanksgiving dinners?" we demand of our Father, forgetting the fact that not only does He completely sustain all life, but that He also knows how to give good and perfect gifts to His children - the gravy on top of it all.

And yet, we remain unsatisfied.

Tara and I have barely begun our journey up the mountain, but we are choosing to reflect on God's goodness to us in the past and to place our trust anew in His perfect provision for the future.  With that perspective in mind, I find myself so immensely grateful for the fact that, even if we find the perfect home tomorrow that fits into our narrow mortgage window and meets all of the needs we think must be met, we will still not yet be home.  Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we are sojourners in a land that will never be anything but a tent, a rental.  This world is just the less-than-adequate bed & breakfast on the way to our final destination.

Through this process, Tara and I are learning anew to trust that our Good Shepherd will continue to lead us in the same patient and instructive way in which He has always lead His people -- through the waters and through the flames.  We are trusting that He will lead us to the perfect living situation by the end of February when our current lease expires, and ultimately that He will lead us all the way to our final home in His very presence.

Therefore, this Thanksgiving, I am leaving Anxiety and Expectations at the wayside and am consciously choosing to be thankful instead -- not only for the fact that I know God will continue to provide, but also for the fact that He alone is our fulfillment, in this life and the next.

04 November 2013

Why Christians should stop boycotting Halloween

When I was a kid, my family exercised a number of different options each time Halloween had the audacity to roll around once again.

For several years, we tried trick-or-treating with friends and innocent costumes, each year to the increasing detriment of my mother's conscience.  After that, we tried going to Chuck-E-Cheese's with other families from our church, but the place was always filled with as many greedy, be-costumed trick-or-treaters as were the streets, which defeated the original purpose.  Every few years, there would be a harvest party or some similar gathering, and then there were the dreaded 31sts when we made no plans and simply sat in the darkness while muffled voices passed by, dangerously close to our front door.

If you grew up in a Christian home, your experience with Halloween probably falls somewhere into those brackets.  It's understandably awkward for parents who are sensitive to worldly influences upon their children, who can appreciate the innocence of going to neighbors' houses for candy, but who also know the morbid realities that surround the holiday.  Christian witch-hunts (pun intended) have made the 31st of October into a celebration of the dead, citing instances of child sacrifice and demon worship as the main reason Christians should not participate in trick-or-treating.  I'm not about to get into a discussion of the sullied history of Halloween, because you can do that research for yourself.  For this post, it's negligible.  The reality is that while such horrific things might be true, they are not the norm.  Halloween might be the night of the year where terrible horror movies make a resurgence on Netflix and stores sell out of masks and fake blood, but the general temperature of the communities in which we live is that it is a fun evening to dress up as a family and go around the neighborhood in the cold, filling old sacks with candy.

This year on October 31st, instead of finding a safe place to hide, my wife and I and several of our friends camped out on their front lawn with hot chocolate and apple cider for adults and a bowl of candy for the kids.  We didn't hand out tracts.  We didn't announce (unless asked, or the opportunity arose organically) that we were even from a church.  What we did was purely about reaching out to families in the neighborhood with kindness.  We weren't recruiting, and we weren't moving stacks of literature -- both things people hate about the church.  What we were doing was simply turning on the porch light to say, "We are also people in your community."

Some of the biggest complaints about the church is that Christians are out of touch with reality, that we are snobbish, judgmental, and detached.  Passing out tracts communicates the fact that I don't have the time or the desire to discuss what I believe with you on as an individual, or I don't fully understand my own faith.  Recruiting members tells people that all the church cares about is attendance, padding pews with bodies as well as new velvet -- thanks to the increase in monthly tithing.  While that mountain isn't one we can demolish with such a simple gesture, taking the opportunity to reach out in the midst of a holiday which Christians are particularly known to reject says something to a skeptical community.  What we did was small, insignificant on its own, but if it becomes one of many different and repeated gestures, all of a sudden that reputation which applies to the church as a whole no longer applies to us, and people begin to question whether or not their notions of God and His people are fully accurate.

I understand the sensitivity surrounding Halloween.  It's not a bad thing.  We are told to take no part in darkness, because children of light cannot have fellowship with those who are in the darkness (2 Cor 6.14).  We are told to be holy as God is holy, and to keep ourselves unsullied by affiliation with the world.  But what we communicate when we turn off the porch light and pretend not to be home on October 31st is not preserving our holiness, but imposing distance and implying superiority.  We read James 1.27 and think that somehow by participating in a worldly holiday that we are somehow staining our righteousness.  But Jesus said that the ones who need doctors aren't the healthy, and doctors are required to get their hands dirty.  Besides, "participation" in Halloween doesn't mean donning a mask and fake blood.  Participation isn't about making ourselves blend in so that we can perform some type of covert operation.  Participation looks like reaching out boldly into the community in which you live.  That's why the porch light should remain on: because we have a responsibility.

What I'm getting at is the greatest commandment (Mark 12.30).  Christ told us it was to love God first and then others -- vertical love and then horizontal love.  One naturally follows the other.  True horizontal love doesn't just apply to your family and maybe the elderly couple who sits in the same pew as you on Sunday mornings.  Horizontal love necessarily includes the community, the people on your block and the next one over.  Horizontal love means taking the initiative to love, in word and in deed, anyone who might cross our paths -- even if they're dressed like zombies, geeks, or escaped convicts.