Is God not mad… just disappointed?

How do you think God reacts when we do wrong?

I asked this question to a group of 7-12 grade students from our student ministry last night. As always, I told them that there were no wrong answers. If the question asks what you think, and you say what you think, then you get the answer right. While they couldn’t possibly answer the question incorrectly – unless they were lying – I was hoping against hope that they wouldn’t answer, “I think God gets mad at us.”

And they didn’t say, “God gets mad at us when we mess up.” Hooray! Youth ministry win.

They gave the answer that I think a lot of people (including sometimes me) would, “I don’t think God gets mad at us when we mess up… It’s probably more like when we do something wrong and we get caught by our parents. Then they say something like, ‘We’re not mad. We’re just disappointed that you did this.‘ Like I don’t think God gets mad when we mess up, just disappointed.”


 

We’ve come a long way since the Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God theology. Most of us are passing on a view of God that isn’t this powerfully vengeful being watching over us who punishes us when we mess up. We’ve come a long way from our hell-fire and brimstone God who will throw someone into eternal damnation for swearing too much or having sex. We have replaced this angry, vengeful view of God with a view of God that is far more tame and human. In this view, God doesn’t want to punish us, God’s feelings just get hurt a lot. With this outlook, God is a friend who we didn’t sit with at lunch or a good parent that caught us in a lie.

At my private Christian middle school (circa  2007) we often unironically sang a song in chapel time called, Can He Still Feel the Nails. It goes like this:

Can He still feel the nails every time I fail?

Can He hear the crowd cry “crucify” again?

Am I causing Him pain, when I know I’ve got to change?

Because I just can’t bear the thought of hurting Him.

Yeah I know. A song that I think many would fairly deem manipulative.

While myself and many in my thought sphere have – in adulthood – laughed at the vast fallacy of that song and other sayings like it, I think we’re still walking around with much of the residue from those views. We’ve abandoned a view of God who hurts us because of our imperfection, and we have adopted a view of God who is hurt by our imperfection. So while we’ve been so right to run from this vengeful view of God, we may have sat down someplace that we need not stay.


 

This may get fairly philosophical for a bit. Roll with it.

I also just want to say, at a certain point, theology and theological arguments are in some sense broken and unhelpful because we cannot – though we may try – divorce ourselves from our different perspectives. So many people have different ideas and views on the Divine, and perhaps God is big enough to hold all of them. That said, I’ll try and make an argument that may be helpful.

So is God disappointed in us when we fail? Or when we don’t do our best?

A key underlying assumption to even asking this question is God cares about my own personal thoughts and actions. If God does not, then how could we disappoint God? We of course, cannot disappoint someone who does not care. So for the sake of argument, let’s say that God is concerned with me as an individual (my thoughts, actions, being).

Our view of God as a father or parental figure seems to really play into this view of a disappointed God. If growing up, my mom always told me, “Don’t smoke,” and she never saw or became suspicious of me smoking, she would likely expect that I don’t smoke. At that point, if she expects that I haven’t ever smoked, and she catches me smoking, she would be disappointed. Her expectations for me as her son were not met.

Our view of God as a friend can lead to this disappointed view of God too. If every week my friends and I play trivia on Tuesday night, it becomes an expectation of the friends in the group that I will go play trivia with them every Tuesday. At that point, if I bail on trivia, they could be disappointed with me. If I’ve never gone to trivia with them before, and hanging out with them every week is not an expectation, then how could they be disappointed?

Disappointment is a result of unmet expectations.

If we believe God is an omniscient, omnipotent being who is continually creating the universe, it seems unlikely to me that God would be anything less than fully aware of our past, current, and future pitfalls. Does God expect that we will be perfect or close to perfect? Does God even expect that we will give our best effort?

When I truly think about the bigness of God, quippy phrases like “Jesus expects our best” don’t hold up. It may make for a best selling keychain at LifeWay, but upon further examination, where do we even get that? An easy response would be to point me towards literally any of the commands of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. Good. But have you ever told someone to do something and not expected them to do it? Have you ever pointed someone in the right direction knowing it’s in their best interest, and still expected them to go their own way? I have, and I would argue that this is could be how Jesus felt.

Throughout the stories of Jesus that we have in the Bible, I have a hard time finding one that describes Jesus as disappointed. (Disclaimer: I could be wrong, and that’s the fun part about putting stuff on the internet.) However, I find a lot of times when people come to Jesus with expectations and leave disappointed. When the rich young ruler comes to Jesus explaining his goodness, expecting a warm embrace and pat on the back, Jesus asks for what he knows the man won’t give, obedience at the cost of his stuff. The man left disappointed. The religious leaders often came to Jesus with questions expecting to be affirmed as correct or to entangle Jesus, but they always left disappointed or even angry.

I would argue that disappointment is much more a human emotion that we feel towards God than the way God feels towards us. God lavishes love and grace upon us expecting nothing in return. No conditions. We don’t really get that because even in the purest forms of human connection, we expect some form of reciprocation. Even the best, most loving parents feel hurt when their children turn their backs on them. God is simply not this way.


 

To explain what God’s Kingdom and grace is like, Jesus tells the story of a younger brother who didn’t want to wait till his dad died to get his stuff and get on with it. This son goes to his dad and essentially says, “I want your stuff now, I don’t want to wait.” Storyteller Jesus doesn’t then say, “And the father was disappointed.” The father does what his son asks and gives him his share, and the younger son left. The father gave of his love and treasures with no conditions. While the younger son is off burning the candle at both ends, we don’t hear that the father is up all night weeping. Instead, what we see is a father who is waiting for his son to come home. When the younger son returns home, he expects his dad to be mad, or at least disappointed, but instead what he finds when he gets home is a warm embrace and a party. The only character in the story that is disappointed is the older brother, who didn’t understand the bigness of his dad’s love.

We are loved by God without conditions. Immense, pure love, way bigger and better than we love our girlfriends or our kids. Understanding that God’s immaculate love is unphased by our screw-ups or straight up screw-overs is going to help us let go of a whole lot of shame. Believing that we’ve in some way let down the Creator of the universe is a terribly shame-inducing way to live. And shame wrecks relationship. Our fear of disappointing God has for too long kept us from total communion with God and each other. When we feel convicted that we’re in the wrong, believing that God is disappointed keeps us from running home instead of pushing us to running home faster.

When we’ve taken God’s good things and twisted them for our own devices, God isn’t mad or disappointed, God just wants us home. A warm embrace and a party awaits.

reflecting in the new year

A new year is upon us. I feel fairly indifferent about it all. I think this is the first time in my life where I’m not excited to jump into another stage. 2018 was exactly what it was: a year. There were good days, bad days, and a lot of eh days. I learned a lot, and I grew a lot in 2018. Don’t get me wrong, I made some mistakes along the way, but that’s how we learn. I made some beautiful friends in the last year. Some days I was so content that I just wished those days would stretch on forever. Some days I was so discontent that I almost dropped everything and wanted start over in something else. Throughout all the wins and losses, the year was made special by those with whom I spent it. And I’m thankful for that.

Thinking about this blog and especially it’s contents in 2018, I am fairly happy with what I wrote and how I wrote it. Oftentimes, I’m writing as much to encourage myself to use my voice as I am to share my voice with others. Many people, maybe even most, find it more difficult to speak openly to flaws of the existing social systems than they do to affect change in their own hearts. I have the opposite problem. For me, to call on churches, governments, and others to do the right thing is much easier than acknowledging, even privately, the corners of my personhood that are not seeking justice and loving mercy.

I struggle with introspection. Strangely enough, I’m more self-reflective when I’m in the presence of others than when I’m by myself. Being self-reflective in public moments at least gives me something to talk about. I’m largely afraid of being found out to be who I most fear that I am: a fraud.

My family and close friends would be able to identify me as an often fairly disagreeable person. I remember growing up my mom would say things to me like, “If I said the sky was blue, you would say it’s not.” And she was right. My parents often referred to me affectionately as a Smart Alec, which turns out to just be the church appropriate way of calling somebody a smartass. I don’t really know at what age I became someone looking to poke holes in the rulings of authority figures, but by high school, I was in full bloom. I was never in trouble, ever, but that doesn’t mean that I was always easy to get along with. Youth pastors would be able to identify my high school self as that student who could be a great leader, but could also be a pain when they wanted to be. I quickly learned that there was always a way to pretty blatantly disobey while making it look like I had good motives. One time in high school a few of my friends and I walked out of the planned youth group events to have our own unsanctioned small group. As I made sure to tell my mom later, “We had our Bibles with us and everything,”

Of course I didn’t then have the self-awareness to understand that my desire to undermine authority figures was born out of my own insecurities. I know that now, so I have less of an excuse. I was insecure that I wouldn’t be known as smart, funny, or cool, but instead I was insecure that I would be simply known. Known to be only me, and I didn’t think that would be enough. On my worst days now, that scared teen still comes through.

What I didn’t know then was that who I am, behind the bluster and pseudo confidence, is enough. I still forget that sometimes. I often have to remind myself that I don’t have to earn my worth or have my worth voted on and judged by a panel of my peers. Any affirmation that I receive when I’m overcompensating doesn’t last in my heart because it’s not really affirmation of me, it’s affirmation of the character that I play. I need to remember that it’s ok to not know what to do and ask for help. I don’t have to have all the answers, and I don’t have to give all the answers to people who didn’t ask me what the answers were in the first place.

In the Bible in the book of Genesis, God comes to this guy Jacob in the night and God wrestles with him for hours. Eventually God knocks Jacob’s hip out of place, but Jacob doesn’t disengage, saying, “I won’t let go until you bless me!” So God blesses Jacob and changes his name to Israel, which means One who wrestles with God. Author Annie F. Downs takes this away from the story: God gives us a limp and a blessing. Our limps and our blessings are tied together, and we can’t have one without the other. For me this looks like being willing to address the brokenness and injustice of our systems (blessing) but at the same time struggling to address the brokenness and injustice inside of myself (limp). Or as Jesus might say, I am quick to attend to the speck in the eyes of others, but slow to attend to the log in my own.

The more conscious we are of our limps, the more we’re able to live into our blessings. I am enough, not because of what I’ve done but because of who I am: a person. And so are you. We don’t have to keep measuring ourselves against each other because God knows us and welcomes us without a pecking order.


 

So it’s a new year. And with this blog and my different platforms in 2019, I hope to put forth more introspective and vulnerable content like this. As I wrap this up, I’m aware that this isn’t the most eloquent thing I’ve ever written, but it is honest, and that’s where I need to be.

Thanks for reading!

-MC

An excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address at the Fourth Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change at Bethel Baptist Church.

December 3rd, 1959

There is great need for positive leadership from the moderates of the white South in this tense period of transition. Unfortunately today, the leadership of the white South is by and large in the hands of close-minded extremists. These persons gain prominence and power by the dissemination of false ideas, and by appealing to the deepest fears and hates within the human mind. But they do not speak for the South; of that I am convinced.

There are in the white South millions of people of goodwill whose voices are yet unheard, whose course is yet unclear, and whose courageous acts are yet unseen. Such persons are in Montgomery today. These persons are often silent today because of fear of social, political, and economic reprisals. In the name of God, in the interest of human dignity, and for the cause of democracy, I appeal to these white brothers to gird their courage, to speak out, to offer the leadership that is needed. Here in Montgomery we are seeking to improve the whole community, and we call upon the whites to help us. Our little message to the white community is simply this: We who call upon you are not so-called outside agitators. We are your Negro brothers whose sweat and blood has {have} also built Dixie. We yearn for brotherhood and respect and want to join hands with you to build a freer, happier land for all. If you fail to act now, history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

Kingdom Manhood – Believing Women

But very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. So they went in, but they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes.

The women were terrified and bowed with their faces to the ground. Then the men asked, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Remember what he told you back in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and that he would rise again on the third day.”

Then they remembered that he had said this. So they rushed back from the tomb to tell his eleven disciples—and everyone else—what had happened. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several other women who told the apostles what had happened. 11 But the story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn’t believe it. 12 However, Peter jumped up and ran to the tomb to look. Stooping, he peered in and saw the empty linen wrappings; then he went home again, wondering what had happened.

Luke 24:1-12


 

Strange how God used women to share the most significant news in the history of the world. You would think God would get a man to do that, maybe a well-educated and wealthy one at that. If God had gotten a high ranking Roman official or a Jewish religious leader, perhaps that would be a more credible witness. Because this is kind of a one-time thing, you’d think God would want to put this truth in the hands of someone believable, someone whose voice mattered.

Not only did God choose a group of women, God chose some really unreliable sources. One of the women, Mary Magdalene, is believed to have had 7 demons exorcized in her life. One would think that your credibility really takes a hit after the first demon, let alone the 7th. Then one of the other women mentioned is Mary, the mother of James. Many believe her to be related to Jesus, if not Jesus’ own mother, so she certainly wouldn’t be an unbiased, credible witness. My mom is definitely not an objective third party towards me. We don’t know much about Joanna, but she’s believed by many today to also have been cured of evil spirits. So to put it plainly, one could look at the witnesses to the empty tomb and find them to be completely unbelievable.

Based on our current cultural events, it should be a surprise to no one that the men didn’t believe her. Luke tells us that their story sounded like nonsense to the men. 10 out of the 11 men didn’t even think the women had enough credibility to investigate. 1 out of 11 was at least intrigued enough to go check out their claims.

All people who believe in a physical resurrection of the Christ, are staking their belief in the original testimony of a group of highly emotional, frantic women with some serious credibility issues. To claim to be a follower of the resurrected Jesus is to base your whole faith on a he-said-she-said from 2000 years ago. No evidence, just testimony.


 

OK, so by now you probably know where this is going. If any man could see the importance of believing a woman, how could a Christian man not?

To say that a woman’s voice is in any way less credible or significant than a that of a man is counter to the good news of Christ. I know a lot of people post things on social media (on my feeds at least) about how this or that is a threat to the gospel, and for that reason, I am hesitant to use that phrase, but the good news – gospel – of the Kingdom of God is that the old has gone and the new has come. Every voice that has been downgraded or marginalized is no longer to be cast aside in the new Kingdom brought on by Jesus’ defeat of sin and death.

In this new Kingdom that we are to be living out, people of every nation, gender, and socio-economic group have equal worth and value, not because of what they’ve accomplished, what family they were born into, or what school they attended, but because they are created in the Image of God. We all stand on equal footing as people who are 100% not worthy outside of Christ and 100% worthy because of Christ.

It’s utterly ridiculous that Believe Women has become a seemingly partisan rallying cry in our overly dichotomous world. Similar to Black Lives Matter, there are those who point to someone using this phrase as being divisive. There should be nothing less divisive in our churches than stating that a people group’s life or voice has worth. At some point, we have to ask ourselves where our loyalties lie. Do we want to be devoted followers of Jesus or do we want to be devoted members of a political party? In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches that a person cannot have two masters. Naturally, we will favor one over the other. Whether our master is money, a flag, the military, a political party, or a relationship, we have to choose between being beholden to that worldly thing or living into the Kingdom of God.

Men, we have to believe women. Not because they are somebody’s sister or mother or daughter, but because they are human beings. Women are not too emotional or the weaker partner designed for purely secondary roles, they are significant embodiments of the Image of God in our world and are telling the truth. To view women as more manipulative or less credible than men is to ascribe to the old way of thinking before Christ. We can choose to hold up the systems and powers of an unredeemed world, or we can be active workers in the new creation of God that has already begun.

Time and time again in the Bible, Jesus values the people with whom he interacts, not because of who they are or what they’ve accomplished; Jesus values people because they are simply that: people. 

How would our world look different if we woke up each day and chose to not write people off? If everyone had a chance to be heard by those in power, even when it slowed us down or forced us to change our agenda, our world would be better.

Christian men, brothers, we stake our faith in the resurrection of Jesus on a group of women’s unproven frantic testimony from 2000 years ago. To do anything less than believe the women in our lives and world today is beyond backwards, illogical, and misogynistic. Let’s always be the 1 out of the 11 who trusts the source and looks to find out more. We have the power to live into God’s Kingdom here and now, let’s do that.

 

 

Kingdom Manhood – Image

So last week, I did some writing on a view of what it means to be a man, and I called it Kingdom Manhood. The more that I think about this masculinity conversation, the more I am convinced that what we–men especially–believe manhood to be, deeply informs the way that we perceive our worth, relationships, and life’s direction.

Thinking back on my upbringing, I keep coming back to this idea that being a man was about being put-together. I guess what I mean by put-together is not having need. Being a man was about having a job that could not only support myself, but could also support a family. I think I overheard a lot growing up from church and media that being the man of the house was about meeting the financial needs of others in order to meet the physical needs of others. There was a notion that a man works, and a man who doesn’t work doesn’t eat. Men should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, by their own merit.

Manhood was also about not having to ask questions. Whether it was knowing how to literally get from point A to point B or knowing how to have an important conversation with a coworker, I thought men shouldn’t have to ask questions because being a man is about being the person who has the answers, not asks the questions.

And being a man also seemed to be about not having emotional need. Man up was a phrase that I commonly used in response (in my head or with my words) to others’ tears. I thought men didn’t cry because men were supposed to be the strong emotional rock of their family. Men were supposed to keep their emotions under control, and tears are a sign of losing that control. We had what I believed to be an overly emotional preacher at our church for a few years when I was in the youth group. My friends and I would text each other about the odds of tears from the pulpit during church.

Believing that manhood was about not having needs, I got really good at pretending to not have needs. My sophomore year in high school, my grades were in free fall in my chemistry class. I had never had to ask for help in school. To add some inner conflict, my dad is a college chemistry professor. I really didn’t want to ask for his help, but man, did I need it. I had some really awkward and intense moments with my dad that year while refusing to accept and apply his help. I was embarrassed and really didn’t like the extra attention. Eventually, out of desperation, I accepted his help, and I actually got good at it.

I remember many times in my life I cried and really, really, really didn’t want to. It’s one thing to be 13 and cry at my grandfather’s memorial service, but it’s another to be 14 and have multiple tears run down my cheeks at football practice because someone hurt my feelings. My Freshman year at college, I ended up crying for 30 minutes in the dorm bathroom because one of my best friends called me out on something (he was right), and I showed up 20 minutes late for my next class.

During my senior seminar class in college was one of my more healing and vulnerable moments of public tears. We had been talking about something, and I got on one of my hobbyhorses (which it turns out I have several). As I was talking, I got going about this idea of manhood and how it shapes the men in our churches. I felt my voice begin to shake and crack (a scary feeling). As I finished speaking, my face felt full of warmth as I could no longer hold back a tear. I was really embarrassed that I had lost control. For one, I had just cried in front of 20 of my peers. Secondly, I also used the word asshole at one point. Whoops! that’s not for Bible class. It’s funny because no one really knows how to react when a normally uneventful and borderline sleepy class turns into a teary diatribe. After class, a close and trusted friend told me that maybe there was a reason that I felt so passionately… could be a calling thing. I’m thankful for that moment.

Growing up, what I knew of being a man and what I know of being vulnerable were at odds. If people ever found out that I am afraid, worried, or ignorant, what would they think? I need people to be convinced that I am strong, independent, and intelligent. That’s the image I want on display, and that’s the image that I put on display.

To make matters worse, it’s 2018, and we can make anyone in the world think anything about us that we want them to think. Personally, I am very conscious of the image of myself that I am curating on social media. If I want people to think I’m about social justice, I can make them think that. If I want people to think I read my Bible, I can make them think that. If I want people to think that I do fun things, I can make them think that. 90% of people who know me are familiar with the image that I want them to know. Do you have any idea how many things I think or say that don’t make it to Facebook? 99.9%. People love the .1% that we show, and the thing is, we love the .1% that we show too. The problem is, we don’t always love the 99.9% of ourselves that we don’t post, and we’re afraid that others might not love us either.

Since we’re talking about social media, this is relevant. Today, one of my favorite podcasters, Science Mike (Mike McHargue) from The Liturgists and Ask Science Mike tweeted this thread out:

Yesterday, I got so overwhelmed trying to meet up with @WilliamMatt22 in San Francisco that I had a meltdown. I looked distressed enough that a homeless woman stopped screaming at people walking by and asked me if I was ok. Here’s why I want you to know about this:

Society puts a lot of pressure on us to look successful, and to look like we have it together. And many of us pull off that image, even if reality isn’t quite so clean. That expectation means I felt a lot of shame yesterday–I really didn’t like myself at all.

So, the next time you feel like you can’t take it anymore, or you feel like a fraud, or you feel like a failure, I want you to think of me, sobbing on a sidewalk in San Francisco, being comforted by a woman who is absolutely rejected by our society.

It’s not just you.

-@mikemchargue

We all want to be viewed as successful, competent, and strong. We feel awkward and ashamed when we aren’t living up to that. In curating our image to perfection, we have added pressure that we were never meant to bear. We have become so concerned with our own image, that we forget that we are created in God’s image.

I’ve always wanted to be viewed as a man of God, but I think a better way to identify myself is as a child of God. To me (because of cultural baggage), being a man of God implies that I am a provider or that I am measured by what I do. Identifying myself as a child of God is a flip in perspective. As a child of God I am fully dependent on God. What I will eat, what I will wear, and where I will go is dependent on my Father who knows my deep ineptitude and cares for me. To be a child of God is to understand that I am valuable not because of the image I have created for myself, but because of the image that my Father created in me.

As a child of God, it is acceptable to ask all the questions, even the ones that seem insignificant. It’s acceptable to fail, and it’s acceptable to cry. Life is too difficult to go about it pretending to be okay. Men, we are going to have questions, we’re going to fail, and we will lose control of our emotions. Do we want to curate an image of ourselves that has space for vulnerability, or do we want to fall off the wagon when we inevitably don’t live up to the expectations that we have placed on ourselves?

I’m a child of God, and you’re a child of God. Not because we’re competent or successful, but because we are created in the image of God.

Why Community

Message from New Garden Church. September 2nd, 2018.

According to an article published by Harvard in January 2017, there is something that is eating at our lifespans at the same rate as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  This thing that affects so many people is nearly as prevalent as obesity in the United States.  This factor alone, shortens the average person’s lifespan by 8 years…

This ailment is not violent video games, it’s not a regular diet of McDonalds french fries, and its not drinking too much coke…

What I’m talking about is loneliness. Loneliness affects an absurdly high amount of people in our country, in our city, and I’m sure people that are right here in this room. And no, this isn’t a message about taking care of lonely single people. We have turned marriage into this Christian cure for loneliness, but I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t married people in here who are lonely. Loneliness does not discriminate between single and married, old and young, educated and uneducated.

Ok pause. This research is just now catching up to something that we Christians have believed about life for a long time. One of the most central points of our scripture is community.  So lets hold this in our mind and zoom way out 90,000 ft.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  God was hovering over this blank slate. In Genesis, the author tells us that God created the universe.  God creates all of these things, and they are good: light, land, the sun and the moon, the fish and the birds, the animals, and finally, God says this:

“Let us make mankind (people) in our image, to be like us…

So God created human beings in his own image.

In the image of God, he created them.

Male and female he created them.”

and on the seventh day God rested.

And sometimes I think we know what’s in the Bible too well. We know this story by heart, some of you have probably grown up in church, you know the story, you were in the skit during Vacation Bible School, and you have the certificate to show it. We read it, but it no longer provokes the wonder that it could because we think we understand.

Trying to have the perspective of a first time reader, I have some questions!  We won’t get into all of them, but here’s a big one: I thought you guys believed in ONE God!  But this seems pretty clear that there’s more than just one God there!

See, we believe that not only does God want community for us and with us, but we also believe that God is community.  We believe that God the Father, the Son of God (Jesus!), and the Holy Spirit are one together.  And this is really important, please don’t miss this: God is the very nature of community.

And we have been created from the community of God to reflect the image of the community of God. So that’s chapter 1 of Genesis. So let’s look at chapter 2.

So in chapter 2, weirdly enough, we have another creation story. So what’s the deal? Did God create the world twice? I’m not here to debate anyone about the literal or non-literal nature of the Genesis creation stories.  I’m also not here to debate the how’s and when’s of everything.  There are dedicated followers of Jesus who believe God created the universe in literally 6 24-hour periods, and there are dedicated followers of Jesus who believe that God created the world using a big-bang and evolution. There’s probably people on both ends of that spectrum in this room, but guess what? That is small potatoes. I bring this all up to say this: no matter what you believe about our world’s beginnings, there is room in your views to gain insight into the beautiful nature of God, right here in the first few pages of the Bible.

So in chapter 2 this is the story we have: picking up in verse 7.

“7 Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.

This is the dream right? God and a man, together in the Garden. No sin has come into the world yet, no brokenness, no sickness, no death. Just God and a man. This is the perfect set-up, right? Now hold up, because I might make some people uncomfortable with this: I believe the full communion between God and one man was not enough, it was incomplete. It was not perfect.

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him.”

***Real quick side note: so many people abuse the second part of this verse.  This word “helper” here does not mean “assistant,” or “aid,” or “person who does what men don’t have time for.”  This is the Hebrew word “ezer” and it is the same word that is used in the Psalms when it talks about God being our help. The word ezer comes from two roots meaning “power” and “strength.” So sisters, you are powerful, strong, and competent. You are not an afterthought. Creation was incomplete with out you. Humanity is weak without your voice.

Back to what I’m trying to get at: In the creation story in Genesis chapter 2, God sees this: one human by him or herself, even a human living a sinless life with God, is not getting the full experience of life. One man or woman, in full connection with God – no sin separating – is not living the full and complete life that God has for us. The pendulum swings and we often find ourselves on one end or the other of a spectrum.  Either we are so concerned with a vertical connection between ourselves and God, that we miss out on godly connections with others, or we become so focused on pouring into others that we forget to be filled through a connection with God.

So the one side is this, “I go to church once a week, I pray, I even listen to the Christian radio station in the car. I have checked all of the boxes, I’m good.”  And I think that’s where a lot of us may fall. We have turned what was supposed to be a relationship between 3 parties into a relationship for 2. We have falsely assumed that we will be happier and more joyful because we talk to God.  We are really good at nailing the “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” but we forget the second greatest command that is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We have a friend or neighbor that needs help, but we think “I’ve had a long week. I just need some me time,” all as we turn Reckless Love up to 11 in the car. We remember God’s pursuit of us into all of our mess of greed and lust, but we can’t remember to pursue a friend who has begun to fade away from our view. And then we feel lonely, but we don’t know why because we go to church every Sunday.

It’s easy for us to see all the barriers to community with others, but when we are focused on the barriers to community, we miss out on the benefits of community.

So, just for a second, let’s be honest about the barriers to community.

Some of us are afraid of seeking it out because we know ourselves too well. We know how we get, we know who we don’t like, we know what we did last night, we know where we went last week, and we know what we go looking for on the internet.

If we actually tried to be vulnerable and open up to somebody else about what we’re dealing with, they might be visibly uncomfortable and cringe. They might tell somebody else, or perhaps worst of all, they may not. Maybe, worst of all, they might – out of love – want to help, and we’re not ready for that because underneath it all, we actually can’t fathom the idea of facing our demons.

Some of us don’t want to seek out community because it requires commitment. Community takes time and energy that we just aren’t ready to spend. We’re too busy, too tired, too worn out. We’ve got too much going on between our job, and our kids, and our family members who are struggling with their health.

One meeting every two weeks could turn into once a week, then special occasions too, then people will call us for help when they are moving, when they’re sick, and when they get in over their head.  We just don’t have the time, our kids comes first. That strategy works until our kids are gone, and we’re just stuck with our spouse, or worse they’re gone too..

Of the lonely people in the Harvard study, the data from the older demographic showed that 35% missed having someone to share a meal with. 30% missed holding someone’s hand. 44% missed having someone to go on vacation with.

So when we are too consumed with our current time in life and “don’t have time” for community, it turns out that there will likely come a time when we have more time on our hands than we would like.

Community with others is more than a time commitment, it’s also a commitment to someone else’s mess. We all love when someone accepts us in all of our brokenness, but when it’s time for us to accept others, it can get messy. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I get in over my head? And messy situations take time.

I’m reminded of the well-known African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It’s 2018 in the U.S.. Everything is fast now. Our cars can get us places fast, our phones can quickly connect to the internet, Amazon can literally get us something the day we order it if we want it bad enough.

The Kingdom of God is not a drive-thru, and when we turn our following Jesus into a 3-hour a week pick-me-up, we are cheapening the sacrifice and gift of the Church God has for us. The community that God has intended for us is not fast, it is slow and time-consuming and messy.  We want everything to be efficient and expedient, but efficiency and expediency are not traits of a life lived by God’s design.

So those are some of the barriers that we see to this community stuff. Let’s just say that we can get past those, why do we need it?

One thing that community fosters is growth. Proverbs 27:17 says this, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” or “as iron sharpens iron, a friend sharpens a friend.”  One of the great things about a church community is this: the sharpening is the point!  We’ve all got friends that aren’t sharpening us, and probably friends that we aren’t sharpening.  We can read our Bible’s all we want and listen to worship songs, but do we ever really know who we are or where we stand until we voice that to someone else? A huge temptation in Christian culture is to not talk about hard things. There are some vital, important ideas we think are impolite to discuss because we say it is too “divisive,” or “might upset someone.” We are cheating ourselves when we do this. We are cheating others by silencing our voice, and we are cheating ourselves by silencing others’ voices. How can we possibly hold to something as truth if we are not courageous enough to voice that to others? We say that our church is a family, but here’s my question: if you can’t talk about hard stuff with your family, who can you talk about it with? To be able to not talk about your views and live comfortably is a privileged position that a lot of people out there don’t have.

Probably six months ago now, I kicked our midweek student gathering off with this question: Are there things that we can’t talk about at church?  Almost all of them, said yes, and the ones who didn’t acknowledged that there are things that we don’t talk about.  In a perfect world, we would, but we don’t because we’re scared. Scared of rejection, scared of losing a loved one. How can this be? Sometimes I wonder “Have I made church a safe space for people who look like me, think like me, and talk like me, but a dangerous place for everyone else?” We all need to ask ourselves that.

We will not and do not grow inside of our comfort zones. You know where my comfort zone is?  On the couch watching football every Saturday. Honestly, I am so excited that it’s football season again. There’s no days in the year that I love more than Saturdays in the fall when I walk out of my room and turn the TV on and there’s my four best friends, Desmond Howard, Reese Davis, Lee Corso, and Kirk Herbstreit breaking down all the days action. That’s my comfort zone: watch football, eat pizza, repeat.  Do you see how I’m not growing when I do that (except in my pants size)?

Do you know where is not in my comfort zone?  The gym. Though no one who works there knows my name or my face, I am a member at Planet Fitness.  I haven’t been to the gym in at least 6 months, maybe close to a year. I don’t look forward to going to the gym, it’s weird. I’ll get sweaty, there will be athletic and fit looking people there, and I always feel out of place.  I always think people are looking at me, and I know what you’re thinking “NEWS FLASH: They’re not.” I know… The gym is not in my comfort zone, but if I spent more time there, I would be a healthier person.  We grow outside of our comfort zones, and for a lot of us, reaching out to someone else is outside of our comfort zone.

Another benefit of community is also something that it requires: that openness and honesty. I spent four years in college and a lot of stuff my professors said was in one ear and out the other. Probably most things, if I’m being honest. There are a few nuggets though that I walked out with. I remember one day I was in a class and my professor said this: “Is there anyone in your life to whom nothing is a secret?”  For many of us, the answer to that question is no. Being vulnerable is hard because we live in a culture that so values success and strength, that weakness and failure is covered up.

If your answer to that question: “is there anyone in your life to whom nothing is a secret?” is no, please please please, maybe today, try and find someone to have that relationship with. There is nothing more rewarding than the mutual accountability of knowing that someone knows you. Find someone or someones who you can tell anything, but also look in that person for someone who loves you too much to leave you where you are. Who do you go to when you need to say, “I keep doing what I know I shouldn’t and I need your help?” Every person in here is struggling deeply with something. Is there anyone that you can share that with?

Another part of openness and honesty is being able to ask questions. You are not weak, stupid, or faithless because you have questions. God can handle your questions, its God. Can you voice your questions to someone? Maybe you feel something like this: “I have grown up in church my whole life, I know all of the stories, and I’ve always believed that God has my best interests at heart. But now I’ve lost this job that I thought was for me, I’ve experienced loss, I’ve been divorced, I’ve been abused, I’m experiencing trauma. Where is God?” A couple things on this: do you have a friend you could express that question to? Are you the type of person that someone can share that with? Can we as a church be the type of people who can sit and not only listen to those questions, but also be the type of people that can respond in genuine empathy and honesty? Our church and the communities within it should be safe spaces for these kind of questions.

So with community, there are barriers, but there are also benefits. Close relationships in faith communities are an integral part of God’s design for humanity. And I know that there are lonely people in here. Let me make this very clear so nobody gets it twisted: if you are lonely, it is not because you are weak, it is not because you lack faith, and it is not because you are unloved. I do hope that something that has been said this morning got your brain turning a little bit. We want every person in here to be connected. If New Garden Church is about coming in on Sunday mornings and getting our boxes checked for the week, we’re wasting our time. If you like our church because you connect with the singing or the message, I’m so happy for you, but I’m also here to tell ya that there’s more than that. God has more goodness for you.

So everyone in here has a step to take this week. I’m not a mind-reader, but here’s some ideas of what those steps may look like. Maybe you are connected in community. Maybe you are locked into a life group, or have found those few people that you are really open with. The challenge for you this week is to think of someone who needs what you have. There’s tons of people out in the world, and likely some in this room, who need you to invite them into a space where they can connect. Maybe you want to be a leader in forming a community of openness in our church. I want to talk to you about that. Maybe you’re trying to find an inroads to connection. Our groups at New Garden are a great way to do that. In a couple weeks, we’ll have our group leaders and a few folks from each group out in the lobby, and they’ll be ready to talk with you about their group. The when’s, where’s, and how’s. I know what it’s like to be fringe-level at a church. The first step towards a community is a tough one, but let us meet you there. We’re all new here, and we want to connect with you. No need for a deep dive at first, just take a baby-step towards connection.

Maybe this morning, we need to confess some wrongs. Maybe we need to confess of being closed off or exclusive. Maybe we need to confess that for too long we’ve kept to ourselves instead of giving others the gift of connecting with us.

So there’s a chance it’s going to get messy, but what family isn’t messy? There’s a chance it will be hard, but what’s worth doing that isn’t hard?

 

A Push and a Promise – A Message for Graduates

This past Sunday at New Garden Church in Nashville, we had our Graduation Sunday where we affirmed and honored the achievements of our high school grads.  As the Student Minister, I got to share a message with our awesome graduates and our church.  Here’s a manuscript of the message:

 

Let me just say that this is one of my favorite Sundays every year.  I’m so glad to be part of a church that says we want to affirm our high school grads in front of everyone.  So grads, let me start by saying, these are your people.  And church, let me start by saying, that we have a lot to be proud of with this group.

This week, in preparation for this morning, I spent some time wondering about the question:

“What does a student graduating from high school need?”

I asked my Facebook friends, and I got some good and weird answers (as Facebook does), things like:

A Cell Phone Charger, Access to transportation, A book, and A tool box. You need to know your SSN, you need someone you can talk to, A mentor. You need money management skills, Bandaids, and Laundry detergent

When I graduated high school, I thought I needed a lot of things.  I thought I needed to go to college, I thought I needed some graduation gifts, I thought I needed a new pair of shoes, and maybe most of all, I thought I needed to get a girlfriend.  Like me when I graduated, you probably don’t have all those things.

You all have been raised in a new era.  More and more you are able to see what the world has to offer.  You’ve grown up in a world where at just the tap of a screen, you can find anything that you want, good, bad, or ugly.  You’ve grown up in a world where at just the tap of the screen, you can make someone feel good, bad, or ugly.  Some would say that the world that you’ve grown up in is a better world than some past generations, and some would say that the world you’ve grown up in is a world that is farther gone than it was before.

I think either way, you’re not ready for the world.

I don’t think you’re ready for the heartache and the conflict.  I don’t think you’re ready for the inevitable failure coming your way, and I don’t think you’re ready for those things that you can’t control.  You’re going to make mistakes, and it’s going to hurt.  And I know that on some level, you’ve already been through some stuff that you weren’t ready for.

But here’s the thing, it’s not just you that’s not ready.  Look around at all these adults, none of us were ready when we were in your position, and we’re still not ready.

And 2,000 years ago, Jesus gave his disciples a task that they weren’t ready for.

After hanging out with this group of people for three years, they surely ate over a thousand meals together, they traveled together, and they had seen many miracles done in the name of Jesus.  The sick were healed, the blind received sight, and the dead were raised back to life.  But they still weren’t ready.

After Jesus was raised back to life, he was around and appeared to different people until it was time for him to go away.  And so Jesus has these people, his friends and followers meet him on a mountain for his final words to them on earth.

We’re going to pick up there in Matthew chapter 28:

16 Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him—but some of them doubted!

Even after everything they had seen, three years of hearing Jesus teach and watching Him interact with the world, three years of miracles, and then being witnesses to the ultimate miracle, Jesus rising out of the tomb he was barricaded in, these people still doubt!  We find it easy to blame them, but I think this shows that doubting is part of the journey.  Along the way, we all doubt our faith.  It’s hard and confusing, but it’s part of following Jesus.  Having doubt is not wrong, and it is nothing to be ashamed of.  In those times of doubt, what’s important is that we don’t isolate ourselves.  Keep the conversation going. Find people who are willing to be in that with you.  If you need someone, I would suggest taking a look around this room.

Now we get to Jesus’ final words to his followers, A pep talk of sorts.:

“I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. 

He starts off letting them know He is in charge.  Jesus has authority.  What Jesus has said will come to pass.  We can trust that when Jesus says something, God’s going to back it up.  

Then Jesus gives them some parting instructions: “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.”  Now sometimes we see this and we think it means we need to move to away to find people and turn them into church people, but this is better translated “As you go” instead of simply “go.”  So as you are doing whatever comes next, make disciples, baptize, and teach.

Sounds pretty easy, right? Wrong!  These followers of Jesus were not ready!  And when we read these instructions, neither are we!  I know that you’ve grown up in church or youth group, but this is scary and confusing.  Where do we start?  What do we say?  How do we get from here to there?

Jesus doesn’t wait till we’re ready to give us a push.

But Jesus doesn’t just give his followers a command, He gives them a promise.  And that’s what I want us to be focused on today.  Jesus goes on to say:

“And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

When Jesus tells us to go out into the unknown, He doesn’t leave us.  When Jesus tells us to make disciples, baptize, and teach the world, He knows we’re not ready!  When Jesus tells us to seek justice in an unjust world, He doesn’t expect or desire that we do it alone.

When Jesus gives us a push, He also gives a promise.

There used to be a kids swimming instructor in the area who had an interesting strategy for teaching kids to swim.  If you went to her lessons and didn’t know how to swim, and refused to get in the pool, she would literally push you in.  But guess what?  To my knowledge, they didn’t let anyone drown.  The instructors were there, in the pool, for when the kid needed a hand.  There was a push, but there was also a promise, “You aren’t going to drown.”

Now I know that this season of life has a lot of potential stress involved in it.  People asking you “what’s next?” “where to?” and all those other question that you don’t have a great answer to, and even if you do have solid plans, those will likely change.  You’re not ready, but you’re not going to drown.

So today, I want to give you, and all of us, a push.  But I also want to give you a promise.

Your life is here now, and it has been here. A story has already begun to be written with your life.  As you go about what’s next, fill those pages with a life following Jesus, you won’t regret it.  And that doesn’t mean your life will be boring!  Dream big, try new things, don’t be afraid to fail!  As you transition from this stage into what’s next, keep in mind what we are called to do, share our faith with the people we encounter along the way.  There will be plenty of opportunities to fiercely love your friends and your enemies.  There will be plenty of opportunities to seek justice for those who are not treated the right way.  There will be plenty of opportunities to show humility and place the needs of others above your own.  In all of these things, I am pushing you to follow Jesus, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

With that push comes a promise.  God will be with you always.  And that will look different at different times.  Sometimes God will give you the words to say to a friend in need.  Sometimes God will give you a friend’s warmth when you feel alone.  Sometimes God will show up right when you’re ready to give up.  God will be there.

Furthermore, I want to promise that the people of God in this room today will be there for you.  I don’t know how you feel about church or church people, and I don’t know how you’ll feel about church or church people in 5 years, 20 years, or 50 years, but I can tell you that no matter where we meet, what songs we sing, or what we call ourselves, the people of God care deeply for you.  We cannot follow Jesus on our own.  And guess what, you don’t have to be perfect or even pretty good to be with us.

I always say, that there’s nothing you can ever do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can ever do to make God love you less.  And we want to have that same mindset.  You are never too far gone to find a home here with us.  Never.  Our door will always be open to you.