Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Forgiveness to the "Nth" Degree

Forgiveness. Such an interesting subject. We talk about God’s unlimited resources to forgive our worst wrongs, provided we simply and earnestly seek it. Is it really so easy? Well yes... and no.

It is easy in the sense that God’s grace and love for us is just begging to be received. All we must do is confess our wrongs and receive! There is no scorecard, no limit to this. But... does require an attitude in our hearts that may not be so easy. We are called to forgive others as a result; in fact, scripture tells us something that might not sit too well with us: we must forgive in order to be forgiven. A couple years back, I heard a sermon using text from Matthew 18. Jesus tells an inquiring person that we are to forgive “seventy times seven times” (basically, there is no end to how much we are to forgive). At the end of chapter 18, Jesus then warns that if we treat others without mercy and forgiveness (while expecting God’s forgiveness in return), we deserve punishment.

My old pal C.S. Lewis puts it this way, while discussing a part of the Lord’s Prayer that we know so well: We believe that God forgives our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us... He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don’t, we shall be forgiven none of our own.” –from “On Forgiveness” (The Weight of Glory)

I have to ask myself, “Self, am I expecting God’s forgiveness, but neglecting to forgive others?” It is a good question to ask daily. Seek God’s help in forgiving. We may never be “best friends” with those who wrong us (we don’t have to be!), but we must seek to truly forgive others. We certainly don’t deserve God’s forgiveness, but he offers it anyway.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

There's a Box? (uno)

(The "intro" to this series is in the prior post...)

Of Boxes…

So I was at a staff retreat for a church in Houston, Texas, I was serving. I am not sure today if it was an “all-staff” retreat or just a youth-staff retreat, but it doesn’t matter. We were talking about the various ways each staff member approached their life in ministry, and the time came to describe mine. Several fellow staffers had their say, all well-meaning words, but one person, Lori Anderson, said something like this: “Ben, some folks live inside the box, some folks live outside the box, but you say, ‘Wait, there’s a box?’”
It was almost as if I had been validated, freed. You see, in the world I live in (the “West”, America, and even more specifically, Texas as of 2006), you likely have one of two ways to approach your life:

a) You do everything you can to live “in” the box, or
b) You do everything you can to live “outside” the box

There is little wiggle room. You are either Hank Hill, or you are John Redcorn (watch the show “King of the Hill” to see what I mean). You are either Lisa Simpson, or you are Bart (“The Simpsons”). You either live every aspect of your life (ministering to others, your work, your family, etc.) within an unswerving box of rules that simply cannot be changed or shaken, or you live every aspect of your life doing all you can to not live within a set of boxed life-rules. There are surely exceptions to this “either-or” approach, but our “default” is usually one or the other.

Why use the term “box” to describe these things? Well, let’s look at the various things boxes do:

They are used to keep things safe and unbroken
They hide valuables
They keep things secret
They store things away, where they are often forgotten
They are usually brown, flimsy cardboard

In our lives, we, too, have boxes, whether we like it or not. We are very good at compartmentalizing our life into many different areas that each have a specific set of rules. We may have a faith life, where we are a part of a certain denomination (and, let’s be honest: even “non-denominational” seems like a denomination these days…but that is another discussion altogether), and within that denomination are certain “ways” of faith, certain theological bents, and structures. As sub-group of denomination could even be your local church. Anyone ever hear that fun phrase, “We don’t do it that way, here”? We all have our traditions, our “sacred cows” that we are slaves to without thinking, even in the local congregation. We have a family life, with its’ own set of rules and traditions, and they only get more complex when families collide in marriage. How often have conflicts in a marriage come about because, despite our best efforts to “leave our parents and cleave to your spouse”, you just struggle with a certain thing because, “you weren’t raised that way”? We have a work-life. How many times have I heard from people, claiming to be believers, tell me in regards to unethical practices they may be involved in, that, “…it’s just how you have to do business”, or “That’s just the rules of (insert occupation here).”
The list can go on-and-on. Sports and competition. Friend groups (be honest: you sometimes act different around different friends because “the rules are different with them”). Even stuff as mundane as how you drive your car (ever seen someone with road rage who has Christian stickers on the car? Hmmm?). The bottom line is this: the world has placed all things into boxes, and most of us either do all we can to fit into the expectations of a given box, or we do all we can to avoid the rules of a box. The challenge I propose in this book is this: why even see boxes in the first place?

As I have (and will) say: this is a risky proposition. I do think it is worth it, however, and can totally change the way you approach your entire life, not just any one part. To truly begin, you need to hear how I came to this point...which I will do in a later post...

Monday, January 22, 2007

There's a Box? (intro)

Preface: This is part of something I started writing last summer. It may become something else (who knows), but I decided to share bits and pieces of it here and there... Some content may be edited to fit "blog form" better, but in essence this series will be in it's original form...enjoy!

I don’t really fit anywhere.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I aspire to be some sort-of rebel or revolutionary. Or “freak” (although some may argue that, ha ha). I just mean that over the years, no matter how hard I’ve tried (or had others try for me), I have never truly felt like I fit into a certain mold. I may seem normal enough, but often times (and usually within the walls of the “Christian/church world”), no matter how hard I have tried, I always end up feeling like I don’t fit into the mold others would like me to be in.
Whether it is on the issue of “doing ministry”, or theology, or music in church, or prayer, or even something as seemingly mundane as certain subjects of conversation, I tend to just “let whatever happen” (and let God be God).
This is not a popular thing, I have often discovered.
You see, sometimes letting God be God is too mysterious. Too risky. Too “other”.
Isn’t that who God is? “Other”? Someone that, despite all the revelations of scripture, we can never truly have all figured out?
So, this series is the result of a continuing journey to discover who God has made me to be, and a feeble attempt to invite others to join in the great freedom I have (usually) found by not worrying about the “boxes” of life.
This series is not designed to shatter the notion of “boundaries” in the sense that the book, “Boundaries”, speaks of. I just wanted to clear that up from the get-go. I certainly affirm (and will address this later) that it is very beneficial to one’s sanity to set up some boundaries in terms of family time, personal time, God time, etc., or else all can get out-of-whack and your focus on your life’s purpose can be quickly lost. Those kind of boundaries are not my main focus.
Instead, I hope to lead a discussion on the various ways we tend to look at the things of life as a Christian, follower of Jesus, etc., as it relates to a life of ministry (which, as you will see, I believe does not have a box, either). For those interested in pondering these issues further, either alone or with others, some “pondering points” will be included at the end of some posts.
So, let’s dive right in, shall we? Just be open to what God might be (or might have already been) speaking to you…

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Winter Weather Update

Well, I woke up yesterday with a surprise: SNOW!!! about 1-to-2 inches worth (I know...small potatoes to northern folks...but alot for down here!). Jax and I had MUCH fun buildint three snowmen, having snowfights, etc. I think that the two snow days this winter may have been some of our most fun "father-son time" yet!

Oh yeah: and it might ice again tonight and tomorrow night...

A Rant (or, "Oooh...Controversy!")

Ok, time for one of those, "someone might get mad at me" posts.

So, a bit of background: I did graduate studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Tx, from 1998-2001, getting degrees in counseling and Christian Education. It was a mostly positive experience, even though I am not a Baptist. It is a respected school, and there are many great folks there simply serving the Lord the best they can. That said...

...I was quite concerned by an article in last month's "Southwestern News" that can be read here: If you scroll down to paragraphs 8-10, you will see the part that most concerns me. The author, Malcolm Yarnell III, esentially discusses his concern that some Baptists are trying to "make nice" with other denominations (specifically mentioning the Presbyterians), that some are trying to be what he calls "baptistic" (basically, trying to hold to the "spirit" of being Baptist if not stamping the name on their chest), etc. He then goes on to say this statement: "There are two fundamental theological reasons for these distressing trends: first, there is the errant assumption that “Baptists” are simply one among many equally viable options in the broader Christian tradition. Second, there is little awareness that calling oneself “Baptist” is really just another way of saying “thoroughly biblical disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Recognizing the truthfulness of their Baptist heritage, and the inadequacies of alternative Christian traditions, Southwestern has reinvigorated its curriculum and instituted multiple efforts to remind others outside the seminary of Baptists’ faith and message. These efforts, discussed below and in subsequent articles, include a web site, conferences, library archives, overseas programs, academic requirements, and study centers."

I guess I just think that NONE of the Christian denominations are "right" (and those that claim so need to be careful...), even the Baptists. His statements, to me, reek a bit of arrogance. Unfortunately, it does not surprise me: Christian arrogance is something I have experienced first hand (it was a similar arrogance that led me to choose SWBTS over another well-known attendee of that seminary basically acted like I wasn't serious about ministry if I chose a different school than his...and this was a common theme from others there I met...). But, to quote Andy Stanley at the 2006 Catalyst Conference I attended, "Why aren't Christians known for their humility? ...there is no room for arrogance in spiritual, church leadership..." I agree, and this article seems to go there for me with it's arrogant proclomations. The Church has seen too many splits and splinters over 2,000 years to have one proclaim that they are "most like Jesus". We are ALL broken, sinful people...and Christians are the ones who must realize the grace offered to them is a profound mystery, along with much of the issues in faith. Can we explore? Ponder? Theorize? YES! But, it must be done with humilty...and with a willingness to allow that we might not have it all figured out.

Yarnell (and others at SWBTS, I'm sure, including an old high school/college friend that is referenced in the article...still love ya, Dues!) has many good points to bring, and I know that he simply desires to challenge others to a deeper, real discipleship. And for that, I applaud him. Just watch some of that arrogance, ok?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Life's Not Fair

And this life sentence I’m serving
I admit, that I’m every bit deserving
But the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair
* From the Relient K song, “Be My Escape”

Have you ever really pondered the issue of grace? You know, the idea that God saves, forgives, etc., even though we don’t do anything to earn it? It is a question I must address every day.

I think the above lyric that is most profound is the last line: But the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair. We often think that things happen to us that are unfair, but if we are honest, God’s grace is indeed “unfair”. God said it best (through Paul), “For the wages of sin is death...” (Romans 3:23, NIV). If we get what is truly “fair”, we get death. But God’s grace displayed on the cross takes care of what we deserve...thus, “grace makes life not fair”! Praise God for an unfair life!

This is just something that has perplexed so many over the years. It seems that everything in our being wants to think that we have to "earn gold stars" with God to get enough points. Ephesians 2:8 states, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—" Then there are the "legalists", who seem to have fear that we will "take grace for granted" and use it as an excuse to just sin like crazy. While I do believe that God's grace is big enough to cover all sin, folks who I like to call "pray for forgiveness tomorrow"-Christians are showing their lack of maturity (and in some cases, faith) with this attitude. Romans 6:1-3 refutes that attitude well.

So, let's just be in awe of God's love for us, that He would give this gift to us...let's just live in gratitude as a result.

Wintry Fun

So there is just something fun about wintry weather to me. My wife thinks I am weird about it (rightly so), since I check radars, look outside for minutes at a time, look for any excuse to get out, etc. She doesn’t get it. For me, I think it is a product of growing up in a place (Houston) where it almost never ices, sleets, or snows. It is even a big deal if it gets below freezing during daylight hours at all. Where we live now (Weatherford, TX, just west of Ft. Worth) is fun, because we are good for at least one or two winter storms a year, some more intense than others. So far this fall/winter, we have had some sleet and snow (in Dec.; Jackson and I had much fun playing in it) and just this weekend we had quite an ice storm, from Friday night until now (Mon. morning). The sun is finally starting to peak out, but it is in the low-20s and last night while we slept the biggest ice/sleet event of the storm hit. The roads/sidewalks finally iced over, white on the ground, etc. Just a pretty scene. Maybe The Boy and I will get out later to play J.

Folks living south of us are likely jealous (for reasons like mine I stated above), while folks living north of us likely think I am crazy. Let’s just say I understand you northern folks; I spend about a week in Minnesota during winter in college, and there were several feet of snow on the ground, the temps never made it out of the single digits (often below zero), etc. While it was initially quite exciting, I can even admit that by the end of the trip…I was pretty “meh” about it all and ready for warmth…

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Coolest Things I Experienced This Year (in no order)

2006...another year in the record books. Why not have a fun look at the various things that were "greatness" in some way or fashion in the life of "me"?

*** Jr. High CTCYM trip to Kingsville, TX: All mission trips (in my book) have definite worth, but let's be honest: some are just more "wow" than others. This was my first experience on a Jr. High trip that qualified as WOW. Everything was just so great. The kids learned so much, served so graciously, and truly God was present. I was also pleasently surprised how well being the Center Director went...not flawless, but since the team was AWESOME, all went off without a hitch!

***Catalyst 06 in Atlanta: Ministry conferences have almost always been a highlight to me, but this was the first time I attended one that was not "youth ministry-specific". Catalyst is geared more toward general church leadership, although I must say this was MUCH cooler an event than I expected. The speakers were so outstanding. I actually have all my notes on my desk, and frequently run through them (something I have never done...). I also got to be there with one of my best friends, Scott Austin, and even ran into (randomly) a few folks from my past (Peter Couser and Rick Waters, old TCU BUX guys). Changed my life...made continue to ponder my ministry future (in a good way).

***David Phillips' Memorial Service: I know, morbid thought...but I have NEVER been to such a wonderful celebration of someone's life, and I left feeling more devoted to God than ever. David's life was truly one that existed to follow Jesus...above all else, while still having great love for people, fun, etc. (David Phillips was "Life Stage 1 Pastor" at Christ Chapel Bible Church in Ft. Worth, TX...and my friend (while in college) and boss while I interned at CCBC from 1997-2001).

***Kerrville, July (especially my good "porch time"): I LOVE going to my parents' Kerrville house, but something about this July trip was special. NO PLANS! We just relaxed, and I got to spend much time alone on the porch with books, my computer, good music, and a swing.

***TCU beating Texas Tech: Was at Amon Carter Stadium, going NUTS. I love sports, but I was even shocked at my emotion. The whole family was there: Missy and Jax, my folks, Aufu (my aunt), and the Castles'. Sat in the upper deck amopngst mostly obnoxious, overconfident Tech fans. Loved sticking it to ' a nice Christian way...

***Various spiritual "A ha!" moments with some of the teens in the youth group: This year I know of three kids that made some sort-of real response to God this year. One was at the Planet Wisdom conference in late February, and two were at the "Pole Vault" See You At The Pole rally in September. Things like that are why I do what I do...

***Watching Jackson (aka "Jax") transform into a little boy: This has been simply amazing to watch. His mobility and dexterity are amazing. His communication skills are now officially at "I can make sentences, and I can really communicate with people"-stage. He LOVES books. He is a true two-year old (parents know what I mean), but he is such a joy to be around. I am privileged to be his dad...

There are many other very cool things that happened this year, but for some reason, these are the ones that stick out!

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Holidays 06 Re-Cap

Well, I'm finally back in Weatherford from an at-times great, at-times not fun, at-times, well, "haphazard" holiday vacation time. The original plan was: spend the "Christmas weekend" in Mansfield at Missy's parents, come back to Wford Chrsitmas Eve for services, etc., go back to Mansfield just for Christmas Day, then back to Wford to unpack-repack, then go to Kerrville for the rest of the week/weekend. Sounded good and doable. While most of that did happen, there were some changes...

...mainly, Missy's Granny Dorothy passed away the Monday before Christmas. While she was old and quite frail, to our knowledge there was no pressing terminal illness. We have our ongoing suspicions that she was sick "secretly", but that's not important. So, our Mansfield plans got pushed up a few days due to funerals, etc. The funeral itself was outstanding. She was a Pentacostal minister, so there was a chance that the service would be, well, "interesting" due to lots of emotion, etc., but it was quite respectful all things considered. Hearing the testimonies of how she truly was Jesus to those she was around was so amazing. Age didn't matter, race didn't matter, "position in life" didn't matter, denomination didn't matter (she was always so gracious to me, and even though I come from a different Christian-faith tradition from her, I always could tell that she considered us to be on the "same side", something we could ALL learn from...).

Then back to Mansfield for the "planned" part of the trip. Fun times, albeit with the background knowledge that there was grief going on...mostly internally for the Castles. Jax had a ball, and it was nice to just get away a bit. Christmas Eve back at church in Wford was a needed time, especially for Missy. Tears often came, especially at the communion rail. She could finally grieve openly (something hard to do in front of her parents, who tend to grief more internally from what I can tell), and I was glad she had that time with God to do that. After helping in the nursery for the 8 pm service (I have a new respect for nursery workers...), back to Mansfield. Let Jax get his big "Santa gift" on the 25th (the Castles do "Christmas" on the 24th, with the exception of a cool, unwrapped gift for the kiddo), then later that evening returned to Wford. Left for Kerrville the morning of the 26th...

We always LOVE going to Kerrville, and for the most part it was fun again to get away, see my folks (and Granny/Aufu), etc. We had few plans, which always works best. We also continued our new "tradition" of doing something New Years' Eve with Scott, Shannon (and now Chase) Austin. Always a fun time.

So, here is the "Good, Bad, and Huh?" of the holiday time (fully knowing that some of the "bad" and "huh" may be "good" in the big picture):

GOOD: Being with family, the blessing that was Granny Dorothy's life, the love and giving attitude of this season, seeing Jax have a BALL over Christmas, having Jax answer (every time) "Jesus" when I asked him who Christmas was about, seeing the Austin's, my "hike" on Saturday in Kerrville, achieving my goal of staying in the 180s weight-wise til the end of the holidays (so I could really work on getting to my goal of mid-170s during 2007), reading a VERY good book ("Deception Point" by Dan Brown), having some awesome "porch time" involving good music, a swing, my laptop, and visioning for 2007 in the youth ministry I serve...

BAD: Well, I won't go in to too much detail, but "finally" getting in trouble with my boss (long story...but I had an interesting phone call with him while in Kerrville...), seeing my wife get so upset with some legitimate accidents (involving lost jewelry/personal items, all which were found, by the way...), dealing with death during the holiday time, ongoing (will they ever end?) financial struggles which seem to alway come to a head during December, finding out that the Dec. 31st Youth Sunday School (while I was away) was, well, "interesting"...some damage control now needed..., not getting to see Aaron, Becky, Madi, and Peyton Travis like we usually do during Christmas...

HUH?: Struggling to understand at times the "way" people in my life think, work, etc..., continued internal struggle with "what am I supposed to be doing" in ministry...long story...

That said, I am excited for 2007. There is much "up in the air" involving my life (and my family's life), but despite the confusion, I know that God is sovereign (and I am not) so what needs to happen WILL happen...