Monday, March 24, 2008

AMAZING CONVERSION: Anne Rice's return to her faith, ten years past

A number of years ago I was startled to read that best-selling author Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles, The Lives of the Mayfair Witches) had returned to Christianity—having apparently abandon it much earlier—and refocused her enormous creative energies on writing for the Lord. My first thought after reading it was, "Wow. I wonder what her fan base is going to do?" Here was a woman who'd inspired a very devoted multitude of occult and supernatural-obsessed fans, and now turned her back on the very subject that had made her famous...and quite wealthy.

But when I thought more about it, I realized she hadn't abandoned the supernatural at all...she'd simply discovered that there was only one supernatural force worth giving her all for, and that force was God.

I don't know what has happened to her fan base as a whole since 1998. Has she made believers out of some? Have many abandon her? Has she inspired an entirely new group of fans? I'm curious enough to start doing to research to find out.

In the meantime, it's worth reading this Easter editorial she wrote for The Washington Post. It's inspiring and beautiful and shows the full extent of her commitment. For a woman who made her name and built her career exploring the darker side of the supernatural world, it's hugely inspiring to read how thoroughly she's turned from it to now embrace the light of Christ.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

THE POWER OF REFLECTION: Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to change themselves

I went through a crisis of faith recently, and now that it’s over, I can look back at it and see God’s firm but gentle hands at work in my life. Once again, I prayed for guidance and God replied with something I didn’t necessarily want to consider, but that I knew was the truth. Once again, as I prayed for help, God forced me to look at myself and reconsider what I was asking for. Once again, I felt shamed and petty for my actions, yet God has allowed me to learn and grow from the experience.

God’s way is always perfect, and that’s why I’ll always listen, even if I’m slow about it and even if I struggle against it in the beginning. I know He’s right, and the only thing that’s keeping me from doing the right thing are the vestiges of my worldliness. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely free of them, and maybe that’s a blessing as well. Stumbling blocks make great teachers if we’re paying attention.

The issue was one dealing with service, and how best to serve God. In an effort to become more involved in my church, I joined the vestry in my first year, and more recently asked to become a lay eucharistic minister. Over the past year, while attending vestry meetings, I felt out of place and out of my league. Other vestry members seemed like solid decision makers and good administrators, while I felt like a spectator. I’m also embarrassed to admit that I had a hard time staying focused. The work is important, but my mind just doesn’t follow fixed agendas very well, and so I struggled in the role of an administrator.

As for being a lay eucharistic minister, I also felt that I was moving in the wrong direction. I wanted to serve, but I felt pulled very strongly in another direction, and simply couldn’t get myself excited about being a lay minister. Over the past year I’ve literally had a hard time sleeping because of another issue pressing on my mind and heart. The issue that kept me awake was oppressive poverty and starvation around the world. I often wonder how anyone else can find peace knowing that just over 28,000 people are dying every 24 hours from starvation...a rate of roughly one every three seconds. It’s a horrifying thought, and not an easy one to grasp. And I must be careful here...before I judge any else’s lack of compassion, I first need to remind myself that I spent most of my adult life blissfully unaware of the problem.

But after becoming aware of it, a fire has burned inside me ever since. I cannot get through a single day without thinking about it. The sheer scope of the problem is almost overwhelming, especially when we begin to look for ways to combat it as individuals. I very much wanted my church to get involved, to meet the goals set for it by the Episcopal Church, which set specific goals for itself and its members. I was frustrated that there seemed to be little effort to act on this commitment to combating oppressive hunger and poverty, to doing what God so strongly calls us to do on His behalf.

What I failed to notice was that the movers and shakers within the church already had their hands full as leaders and administrators, and were looking for people to step forward in other areas. I, on the other hand, was wondering why they didn’t seem too concerned about the issue. Rather than sit down and voice my concerns, I allowed myself to grow frustrated and eventually stopped attending in January of this year. I started thinking about joining a new church that already had these programs in place, but something continued to weigh heavily on my heart. I began to realize that the problem wasn’t the church or anyone in it. The problem was with me, and the problem needed to be fixed. What I thought was righteousness was exposed as self-righteousness, and I needed to come to terms with my failing. Changing churches would only move the problem to another location, not solve it.

In my entire churchgoing life—and I didn’t even attend church at all for almost 35 years—I distinctly recall the messages of only a few sermons, but those messages have stuck with me for some reason and I've never forgotten them. One of those special sermons was delivered at the First United Methodist Church in 1974 in Lubbock, Texas, where I was attending college. It was a simple message about getting to work wherever you are, and not waiting for the perfect situation, or for the right job, or for the right people to be around you. Just get to work doing God’s work wherever you are. To do any less is to duck responsibility by blaming external problems. The title of the sermon was “Bloom Where You’re Planted.” It struck a chord with me and stuck with me for all these years, and I finally learned why just recently, when the message itself took finally bloom within me.

In my immaturity as a Christian, I looked outward for the answers and didn’t find them. I felt that moving on was something I had to do to grow in my faith. I was very, very wrong. If we really pay attention to our hearts and conscience, we discover that God won’t allow us the guilty pleasure of pointing the finger elsewhere or running from our problems. He always asks us to look at our problems, and first consider our role in creating them. Because we don’t like to see ourselves in a negative light, we often continue to turn away, hoping to postpone the inevitable. But if you truly love God, you’ll keep listening and follow His lead. One thing that surprised me when I finally started wrestling with this problem is that when I prayed for guidance and leadership, God kept holding up a mirror and saying, “Take a good hard look. Recognize him? He’s the guy who's going do it. Now please stop whining, trust Me, and get back to work.”

Ouch! But thank you, Lord. You’ve shown me that although I was the problem, I can also become the solution to it, and that’s the beauty of Your amazing grace.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM: Why the faithless continue to test God, and why it fails

My father—shown in this recent photograph in his beloved 4-wheeler—is a real character and a great storyteller. Throughout our young lives, my brother and sisters and I always enjoyed hearing his stories about growing up. He only seemed to remember the funniest and the most entertaining, rarely the bad things and the hard times, even though I know he had many. He was born roughly in the middle of a family of 13 children, and the son of a coal miner who somehow managed to raise his brood on a few dollars a day in the midst of the Great Depression.

One of his favorite stories about his father, my “Grandpa Buff,” was the one he told about a cousin of his who suddenly decided he didn’t want to work anymore, and would put God's promises to the test. He quit his job and started showing up at the homes of relatives right about mealtime. Very early in his new endeavor, this cousin arrived at Dad’s house for supper. He knocked on the door right around dinner time, was welcomed in, and when it was time for the family to sit down for supper, he headed for the table as well.

Now it’s important to understand that my grandfather (shown in the photo with my grandmother) was a fairly devout man, and married to an extremely devout wife. Both fully appreciated and understood the message of the Gospels. But my grandfather was also a very hardworking man who had little time for foolishness, and wasted no time in pointing it out whenever he encountered it. They also knew what this cousin had been up to...using his laziness as an excuse to bend Scripture and essentially blackmail his devout Christian relatives into feeding him. His shenanigans were about to come to an end.

As his cousin was helping himself to a seat at the table, my grandfather asked him what he was doing.

The cousin replied, “The Lord said He would provide for my needs, and He sent me here. You believe the words of the Lord, don’t you?”

“I sure do,” said my grandfather. “But you might want to pray a bit harder for better directions. I believe the Lord just sent you to the wrong house.” And he showed his cousin to the door. The other relatives caught wind of my grandfather's actions and soon followed suit.

On a pure laugh-out-loud level, this wasn’t the funniest story my father ever told us, but it did strike a chord with us and left us with a lesson to ponder. We understood that while God is faithful in His promises, we must never foolishly test Him. God does promise to take care of a believer’s daily needs, but it comes with the caveat “Seek first His Kingdom and righteousness,” and only then would those daily needs “ added to you.”

I had other intentions for this post when I first decided to write it, but as I thought about it, I realized that it was simply a follow-up to the post below, the one dealing with cheap grace. The example of my grandfather’s cousin makes the point very clear, and is yet another example of cheap grace, and a most dangerous one at that. We often claim to believe in God, but without faith...just a simple claim of belief...and then expect God to “prove” Himself to us. Nowhere is this more evident than in some of the skewed ministries we see on television, shows that tell us that God is bound by spiritual laws to deliver on these promises, no matter who the person is, believer or not.

This isn’t an exaggeration, by the way. There are many very prominent and financially-successful TV ministries that operate on this very principle, and they state it regularly in their programs—TV minister Kenneth Copeland being a prime example. The core message of Copeland's show says that we can essentially control God’s power by calling upon these spiritual laws—laws that are higher than God, and therefore He’s bound to honor them, regardless of who’s making the request. This is outrageous, of course, and is nothing short of blasphemous and heretical. And it fails because God will not be mocked or tested.

In the final analysis, there’s only one way to ensure that we don’t fall victim to flawed interpretations and false teachers. Only by studying and knowing the Scriptures, and studying with good, sound teachers, can we come to fully understand and grasp the true will of God. Once we begin moving in the right direction, under the guidance of the Spirit, we free ourselves from the destructive and selfish motives of the flesh, those warped and dangerous ideas that drive us to foolishly test God.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

CHEAP GRACE: Disengaging from the Church of Personal Peace and Prosperity

A sad fact about modern day Christian faith is the general lack of interest in those disciples throughout modern history who gave so much of themselves and yet remain so little known. A perfect example is the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who defied the Nazi regime during World War II and paid for it with his life. Yet even on the day of his hanging, he was comforting other prisoners with little or no faith, providing faithful witness to the very end. He had opportunities to escape from Germany, and was often urged by friends and family to do so, yet he remained, fully aware of the possible fate that awaited him. There was nothing weak or uncertain about his faith or how he practiced it.

On a very personal level, Bonhoeffer is a hero of mine, and I’m a person with very, very few heroes. Bonhoeffer understood and took to heart the words of the Apostle James (1:22–25, 2:14–26) who spoke of faith without works being dead faith, a useless faith. Without action, without striving to be followers of Christ, without attempting to walk as He did, we show no faith at all. Our faith cannot be made complete without works. We can speak of Godly things and claim that our faith is strong, but if we do not follow Christ and engage in the work God so clearly calls us to do, our words are hollow and empty. We’ve accepted the gift of salvation and eternal life, yet rejected the call to put our trust in Him by doing the work He calls us to do.

I should note here that this lack of action doesn’t negate our gift of salvation, but it certainly cheapens it. This problem is never more evident than in American Christianity today, where so much of what passes for Christianity appears, at least on the surface, to be inward-looking and self-seeking. I have made it a point in my life to read and reread the Gospels and the Epistles several times a year, and I learn more and more with each reading. What concerns me is that so many Christians I know are becoming increasingly enamored with the new prosperity gospel, a gospel that is so at odds with the Gospel I’ve come to know.

Turn on any Christian TV channel these days and you’ll find a good deal of their programming devoted to preachers who tell us about giving as a means to get back, telling us to invest money in God and He’ll return it to us a hundredfold, telling us that we need to sow more money into their ministries so that God can bless us in return with material rewards. And if it doesn’t happen that way? Well, your faith just isn’t strong keep praying, and keep sending that money.

And that’s the biggest catch of all. Not a single one of these shows ever suggest that you just sow that money anywhere, to any worthy cause. No, it must come to them, so that they can bless it, pray over it, and ensure a good return on your godly cash investment. Furthermore, if what these people say is true, how can they account for devout Christians throughout the world who suffer oppression, hunger, poverty, rape and genocide? Do they suffer these things because of weak faith? Or because they don't have enough money to sow into false ministries? Apparently, people who take this self-centered approach don't consider anything outside of their own field of view.

This particularly warped view of Christian faith (among many) is what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace,” or grace without discipleship. The whole point of this warped faith is simply to confess your belief in Jesus and give as much money as you can to these online ministries, and in return God will provide you with perfect health and perfect wealth. This isn’t remotely true, of course, and isn’t to be found anywhere in Scripture without taking it wildly out of context. In fact, when we read the Gospels and the Epistles as a cohesive body of work, we're repeatedly told that we may have to endure great hardships and undergo tremendous suffering, no matter how devout our faith. Furthermore, Christ calls us to serve others first, not to seek for ourselves, and we'll find our just rewards in Heaven.

As Bonhoeffer writes in his classic The Cost of Discipleship, cheap grace “is the deadly enemy of the Church. The essence of this grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves; cheap grace is grace without discipleship.”

It is costly grace we must seek, Bonhoeffer tells us. “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. Costly grace is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. It is costly grace because it costs a man his worldly life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. And above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son, because "we were bought at a price," and what has cost God cannot be cheap for us. This grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ; yet it is still grace because Jesus tells us "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

I recently picked up Jim Wallis’s new book The Great Awakening, and read a short dust-jacket review on the back by Bono, lead singer of U2. He coined a phrase that struck a chord with me, and perfectly described a trend I see growing ever more prevalent in our American Christian society...the tendency to confess our belief in God as a means to attain personal peace and prosperity while largely turning our backs on the needs of the poor and oppressed of the world, those who Jesus calls "the least of these." That won't cut it, says Bono. His exact quote reads as follows: "I had always been a skeptic of the church of personal peace and prosperity...of righteous people standing in a holy huddle while the world rages outside the stained glass. But I’ve learned that there are many people of the cloth who are also in the world—from debt cancellation to the fight against AIDS, to human rights, they are on the march."

These people Bono speaks of (Wallis and others) take the key phrase of the Lord’s Prayer very seriously. Our salvation, our admittance to the Kingdom of God, is only part of God’s will, a will that must be done on earth as well as in Heaven. How easy it is to overlook that part. As members of the Kingdom, we’re God’s hands here on earth. We are here on this planet as flesh-and-blood human beings to do His will.

And there it is. It’s really that simple. We were bought at a price, and although the gift of salvation is free, God calls us to follow Him through the example of Christ, calls us to walk into the world and transform it, and not walk away from it and just hang around for our salvation when it's over. In Isaiah 58, God tells us to do away with the yoke of oppression, and to spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry, the naked and the poor, and He will raise us up and cover our backs. Christ repeats these commands again in the New Testament, in Matthew 25 (as noted above).

In thanking God for our salvation, we should also ask Him to best show us how to serve. I’ve heard so many Christian friends lament to me that they don’t know what God wants them to do, and they look surprised (and possibly annoyed) when I tell them that I know exactly what He wants them to do. God has a personal plan for all of us, but He also has a "group plan," and it’s spelled out very clearly. We’re called to discipleship, called to serve, and how we answer the call to do God’s will on earth as in Heaven, will determine how well we realize our faith through Godly works. We can start by stepping away from our "holy huddles" and refusing to settle for cheap grace.