Religion is Dead

It seems like many (if not most) of us, like to take refuge in religious activities. SpellPeaceWe feel like we’re better people if we’re doing something pious.  If we can just follow the right rules, pray the right formula, or chant the right words, we’ll be okay with God.

Unfortunately, as I understand Scripture, it seems the Lord is not very interested in religion.  In fact, it seems as though the more religious people get, the less He likes it.

All the man-made rules may make us feel better about ourselves, but it’s the heart of the matter that makes the difference.  Yet even after all these years, I continually catch myself setting up new rules to follow (at least I hope I catch myself).  You’d think I’d learn to follow Jesus instead of a bunch of rules.

Rules are a little easier, though.  They don’t move around like Jesus does. But then, why follow things that aren’t moving.  They can’t take you anywhere.

Long ago, people approached the prophet Zechariah with a question for the Lord. They wanted to know if they should “mourn and fast in the fifth month” as they had for many years. The Lord answered with a couple questions of his own:

“When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?  And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?”

The implication was that the people were basically doing these things merely to make themselves feel better. We somehow think we’ll be better off if we “pay our dues.” Follow the rules, give a nice offering, and go about business as usual.

The Lord then told Zechariah to pass on these words to the good folks:

“Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.”

Someone could say, “Well, those are just more rules!” Maybe. But there is a stark difference between going down a checklist of dos and don’ts as opposed to being a merciful, compassionate, and just person. In fact, one might sum it up as “doing versus being.”

It Becomes Personal

When we follow Christ, it becomes a very personal thing. We are transformed into what the apostle Paul calls “living sacrifices.” That, my friends, is a far cry from enumerating a heavenly spreadsheet of religious activities.

JESUS OF NAZARETH -- Pictured: Robert Powell as Jesus -- Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

If we grow to become compassionate, we don’t have to be told what to do. Life will happen, and we will find ourselves doing benevolent activities. We will do them because they have become part of our nature.

An agenda of rules quickly becomes a dead religion. It’s very impersonal. Your relationship is with a worksheet rather than with people. I know from personal experience.

Having done both, I highly recommend Jesus. He’s a lot more fun than a spreadsheet.

Nose Rings: An Old Testament Hangover

bull-with-nose-ringWhen I was young, all the nose rings I saw were attached to bulls.  Heavy rings were inserted into their noses for obvious reasons.  A chain or rope was hooked to them in order to lead them around. If you think about how tender your nose can be, you can imagine how it would feel. Try going in a different direction from the one in which you’re being pulled.

I always felt badly for bulls because of this. At least I did until I stood next to one. Those babies are huge! I wouldn’t want to try riding one for sure. Leading one around wouldn’t be a picnic either.

In the Old Testament, we read how victors led losing kings around by nose rings. It was a definite sign of forced submission. It also had to be more than a little painful. The piercing alone must have been brutal (I doubt they took them to a tattoo parlor to get it done).

Today we see lots of people with nose rings. I guess they think it’s cool or distinctive.  Regardless of how fashionable it is, it definitely sets them apart. Every time I see someone with a nose ring, I think of those Old Testament kings being led away by their enemies. I’ll never get one. (Why make it any easier on my enemies than they already have it.)

THERMAL, CA - APRIL 13:  Kendall Jenner attends Day 2 of the LACOSTE Beautiful Desert Pool Party on April 13, 2014 in Thermal, California.  (Photo by Chris Weeks/Getty Images for LACOSTE)
Kendall Jenner (Photo by Chris Weeks)

Today, we get them of our own volition. No one forces us. Being stylish can cause us to do unusual things. We all know plenty of women who wear shoes that kill their feet. As long as they look good, that’s all that matters. I suppose a few guys do that as well.

I have to hand it to them. Comfort is usually paramount. But if you’re willing to bear the pain to look different, that’s commitment.

I think the church could take a lesson from these hardy folks. If there’s one drawback to the American church today, it’s our insistence on being permanently comfortable. We don’t much care how it looks. We don’t even care much how little ministry is done. As long as we are comfortable, that’s what matters.

I’m certainly no exception to the comfort seekers, and I’m a pastor. I want the place of worship to be heated in winter and air conditioned in summer. I even want any actual ministry we do to be under good conditions. Even as I write this, I’m sitting in a very comfortable study in extremely comfortable surroundings.

Jesus told the early church to be his witness Body-Piercing“to the ends of the earth.” Then they promptly hunkered down in Jerusalem for the next few years. It wasn’t until the church fell under heavy persecution that they began taking the Gospel elsewhere.

I don’t want to put any ideas in God’s head, but maybe we could use a few nose rings (figuratively speaking, of course). Or maybe we could actually go to the ends of the earth of our own volition.

There is Someone that I Love

“There is someone that I love, even though I don’t approve of what he does. There is someone I accept, though some of his thoughts and actions revolt me. There is someone I forgive, though he hurts the people I love the most. That person is me.” ~C. S. Lewis~

CS-LewisC.S. Lewis was one of a kind. He’s one of those guys that seem to have garnered everyone’s respect. On top of that, he was a gifted writer. Consequently, he is about as quotable as they come.

This particular quote reveals his humility. It’s certainly self-deprecating. Apparently, he didn’t think more of himself than he ought.

With his accomplishments and the acclaim he received, he certainly could have had an ego bigger than the sky. Yet, he appears to have been well grounded. He also appears to have understood his own shortcomings and sin.

We usually look up to people because of their talent, their abilities, and/or their achievements. Seldom do we know these people intimately. When we do get a look at them behind the scenes, we often find a skeleton in their closet that knocks them off the pedestal we erected for them.

Cop an attitude…

With people like Lewis, however, there is an openness that precludes any idol worship. It’s an attitude that says, “I’m an imperfect sinner. I’m not crazy about it, but here I am. Help me get better.”

Any of us would do well to cop that kind of attitude. For most of us, however, it’s highly likely that we would try to hide any chinks in our armor. We want to put our best foot forward and leave it there. Our failings can remain in the shadows.

However, we best serve the human race that surrounds us by being a little vulnerable. When someone seems a little too perfect, they don’t seem human. If they aren’t human, they become an unfeeling robot destined for obscurity. No one looks up to a façade without wondering what’s behind it. Eventually, we get tired (even suspicious) of someone who never fails.

Lewis not only had a healthy view of who he was, he admittedly loved himself. Sometimes we get the feeling that’s wrong—that we shouldn’t love ourselves. We need to realize, that’s how God made us.Self-Love

We have to have some self-love in order to be everything we can be. We need it for self-preservation. We need it to reach our potential. It’s when we don’t care about ourselves that we become less than productive or worse.

Without self-love, we can actually become self-loathing. It’s then that we fall prey to self-destructive habits. These can place us in the position of becoming burdens on society rather than blessings.

Like Lewis, there is someone that I love. It’s me. As messed up as I am, I think I have potential and can get better every day. I love me because God loves me. I’ve read in his book that he loves you too.

Growing Corn: A Lesson in Life


I recently ran across this post on Facebook:

“There was a farmer who grew excellent quality corn. Every year he won the award for the best-grown corn. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned something interesting about how he grew it.

The reporter discovered that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors. “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked.

‘Why sir,” said the farmer, “Didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.’

So is with our lives… Those who want to live meaningfully and well must help enrich the lives of others, for the value of a life is measured by the lives it touches. And those who choose to be happy must help others find happiness, for the welfare of each is bound up with the welfare of all…”

I certainly couldn’t have said it better myself. What a great example of what it means to make everyone around you better than they were.

Each year, as a baseball fan, I hear about players who make all their teammates better. They do that by taking some of the pressure off them and carrying it on their own shoulders. When they’re in the line-up, the rest of the batting order hits better. It’s a ripple effect.Roberto

It’s much like the farmer sharing his good seed. He reaps the benefit of his own benevolence. Ball players reap the reward of a winning team. We could do the same in our day-to-day lives.

Unfortunately, the opposite is often the case. Too often we want less for our neighbors so we will look better by comparison. It’s the reverse of “a rising tide raises all boats.” If we can just drag those around us down to our level, maybe we can outshine them.

That’s a really sad commentary on the way many of us live. There’s no victory in someone else’s demise. There’s no joy in someone else’s degradation. There’s no moral achievement when someone else falls below our standards.

We would do well to take a page from the life of Jesus. Look at some of the folks he chose to befriend. The Pharisees of his day thought he was terrible because he ate with sinners. On the other hand, everyone else thought he was pretty special.

He didn’t hang out with them so he would look better by comparison. He hung out with them to lift them up. He gave them encouragement to be better than they were. He gave them nuggets to build their lives upon.

Maybe it’s time we did the same. Any hand up you can give will be a rising tide…for everyone.rising-tide-lifts-all-the-boats


Wet Floors & Slippery Slopes

Two policemen call the police station on the radio.

“Hello. Is that you Sarge?”


“We have a case here. A woman has shot her husband for stepping on the floor she had just mopped clean.”

“Have you arrested the woman?”

“No sir. The floor is still wet.”

mopladyI love that story.

Caution is the better part of valor, is it not? Sometimes it makes no sense to rush into a situation.

Today, it seems like all of us are in a rush. We flit around, always in a hurry. We’ve convinced ourselves we can accomplish lots of things. Hence, we cram our schedules.

Consequently, we’re often late for important things (if not for everything). We rush because we can. We’re late because we can get away with it.

That’s especially true where I live. Anytime someone’s late, they have a built-in excuse—traffic. Traffic around here is always horrific. So, the answer to being late is often a simple, “Traffic was backed up.” It almost always works.

Truth be told, that’s usually a lame excuse. We know traffic is bad. All we have to do is leave a few minutes early to make up for it. We can’t, however, because we’re in a rush to do other stuff as well.

Our two policemen friends had to make an arrest. They weren’t in a big hurry to do so. They didn’t rush in. They took their time, and waited for the floor to dry.

“Fools rush in…”

While it’s true they were in danger if they hurried, their example is a good one. There are a lot of hidden dangers lurking in life. We cause ourselves loads of problems by being in a hurry.

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Like a lot of old sayings, this one has a solid reason for its existence. The two policemen in our story feared to tread on the wet floor. We would do well to slow down a little, take our time, survey the landscape of our lives, and proceed with caution. The old Poor Richard adage also comes to mind here. “Haste makes waste.”

Unfortunately, we have also accumulated lots of opposite bits of wisdom. How Policeabout this one? “He who hesitates is lost.” Well, I don’t like being lost (but I hesitate a lot). What are we to do?

Many would tell us to simply use our common sense. However, a wise man may have been right when he said, “Common sense is neither common nor sensical.” Hmmm…

For those of us in the church, there’s a principal that is often helpful when used. It’s called community.

Being surrounded by a gathering of believers gives us a support group in which there exists a common sense of reality. Too many of us fail to use that means of discerning our situation. We’re too private, I guess.

The two officers in our story had each other. One of them by himself may have rushed in. Communal wisdom prevails again.

Spoiler Alert!

WarningI have a friend who always seems to know who the killer is about ten seconds into the movie. Man, do I hate that! I hate that on several levels.

I hate it because I’m jealous–jealous that I don’t have anywhere near the level of analysis or insight he does. I hate it because he’s so aware and I’m so naïve. I hate it because he always spoiled the ending for me. No matter how obvious it is to everyone else, I’m always surprised (unless he’s around).

Christians seem to be like that. Our attention seems to be drawn to the back of the book—the end of the movie—the sum total of all things. I get that, but there’s something to be said for the journey.

Is it good to know the end of the story?

One of the things that originally drew me to Christ was my newfound knowledge that he was returning. I was twenty, in college, and rebellious. Hearing that Jesus was coming back was a startling revelation for me. I couldn’t remember ever hearing that before.

So it was good for me to know the end of the story. Unfortunately, our tendency seems to major in the last chapter. We should know about end times, but dwelling on them gets in the way of everything else.

Because I was drawn in by eschatology (the study of end times), I spent my first year as a committed Christian looking to the skies (not literally, but I think you know what I mean). That was a year I could have been getting immersed in the rest of Scripture. As it was, I could list all the signs of the times. I didn’t do much for the Kingdom of God, however.

That was forty-six years ago. Fortunately, at some point I realized I had to be about my Father’s business. Time was a-wasting! I turned it around pretty quickly, but some people never do.

“We’re on a pilgrimage.”

I do believe we are in the end times. However, we have been in the end times for two thousand years. Since it’s not given to us to know these things, maybe we should be about the things we DO know.

We’re on a pilgrimage. We might know the ending and the outcome of our travels. But the journey is important. What we do between the beginning and the end has consequences. It’s reassuring to know who wins, but that doesn’t negate our responsibilities. While the ends are important, the means are important as well. Let’s not be so “heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good.” I don’t know who said that, but it comes in handy from time to time.

As I write this, I’m preparing to head out to the cinema on a date with my wife. I end_is_nearknow she won’t spoil the ending for me (at least she hasn’t over the past twenty years). But even if she does take a guess, she won’t hound me with her theory of who-dunnit and how. Thanks be to God.

The Day the Manna Stopped

Years ago when I was a rookie pastor, I preached a sermon entitled, “The Day the Manna Stopped.” It was based upon a passage of Scripture in Joshua.  The passage mentioned a day in the history of the Children of Israel when the manna was no longer supplied.

Remember the story? To keep them from starving in the wilderness, God supplied manna—a sort of heavenly bread. When they woke up each morning, they found it on the ground along with the dew. It was their daily sustenance.

mannaI’ll never forget the first time I preached on that passage. One of my parishioners came to me after the sermon and said, “That was exceptional.”  I don’t think I had ever heard someone say that about any of my sermons (before or since).  I wish I had a recording of that message so I could figure out what I did right.

After I preached a similar sermon more recently, one of my parishioners noted that it really spoke to him about his relationship with his children.  During the sermon, I had suggested that the manna stopped because it was time for the Children of Israel to start providing for themselves.  This particular parishioner decided that his adult children needed to provide for themselves from that point on instead of relying on him so much.

The Children of Israel had no choice…”

Sometimes the line between being served and earning our own way is a tough one to cross. When does the time arrive for us to do it on our own? How do we discern when that time arrives?

In the wilderness, the Children of Israel had no choice. The line of demarcation was clear. One day, there was no more manna. They had to fend for themselves.

That doesn’t mean God had abandoned them. On the contrary, God was leading them into a more mature way of living. Sometimes the baby birds need to be pushed out of the nest.

On the other hand, there are times when that line is blurry. The birds have to begin flapping their wings and sense for themselves when it’s time to take off. That’s when it can get a little scary.


We face these sorts of challenges often in life. We are being led by the hand (so to speak). Then one day, the hand lets go. Occasionally, it’s us who do the letting go. We decide it’s time, and we strike out on our own.

You may be facing one of those situations right now. You think it might be time to fend for yourself. Or maybe you have no choice. It’s scary, and you don’t want to even try.

“Do what I do.”

You can either a) step out in faith and give it a shot, or b) you can shut down and do nothing. Letter “b” is usually a lousy option.

My best advice is to do what I do. Pray for wisdom, protection, and grace. Then spread your wings. The Wind of God will be there to lift you up.

Postpartum: Scrooge Returns to Work

By the time you read this, much of your Christmas celebration will probably be over. The presents are stacked under the tree, awaiting storage in their newfound niche. Christmas dinner has been eaten and the leftovers are cramming the refrigerator.

You may have just returned from the theater where you got your Star Wars fix. Others of you have just awoken from a food-induced nap.

It’s all over…merry christmas banner

In short, it’s over. Christmas is over. It’s over and some of you have this empty, disappointed feeling in the pit of your stomach.

It’s not that it wasn’t a good holiday. For most of you, it was quite possibly a Christmas to remember. Yet it was so fleeting. It left you wanting more.

If you didn’t take vacation days, you’ll be headed back to work after the weekend. That thought alone will put a damper on your celebratory mood. Oh, the humanity!

There are no more presents to open. The decorations have to come down all too soon. The kids and grandchildren will be off doing their own thing, and you’ll be left to your own devices (if you have any). TV just isn’t a good substitute.

You even miss the hubbub—the hustle-and-bustle of your holiday preparations. Buying groceries, wrapping gifts, and mailing cards didn’t seem all that joyful at the time. Now you even miss the stress of losing your gift list. How can it be?

XmasCandlelightIt can be because we usually forget what Christmas is about. The reminders used to be everywhere, but they’ve been pushed to the side and marginalized.

Our society and culture have all but forgotten why we celebrate this day. In case you too have forgotten, please allow me to remind you. As some like to blithely say, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” (Christ-Mass…get it?)

“You just missed Christmas”

We used to celebrate the birth of the Savior on December 25 (as arbitrary as that date might be). Now we celebrate crass commercialism. We used to celebrate the incarnation of God Almighty—a baby born in a lonely place within a desolate region of the world. Now we glorify Santa. We used to celebrate the change, hope and promise the Christ-child brought into the world with his arrival. Now we celebrate “good tidings to all” for no particular reason (other than it seems like a good thing to do at least once a year).

If we are feeling that emptiness in the pit of our stomachs, it may well be we’ve left out the very reason all this began. Presents are important because they remind us of the gifts of the magi. Dinners are important because they remind us that Jesus ate with (and accepted) sinners. Family gatherings are important because they remind us of the covenant relationships we have through (and because of) the Messiah.Scrooge

If you’ve forgotten all that, you just missed Christmas Mr. Scrooge. Before you go back to work, you might want to kneel and give thanks to the one who has given you everything.

Christmas in the Trenches

Christmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News.I’ve never served in the armed forces. I can only read and imagine what it’s like.

I was always struck by WWI stories of soldiers (German and British) ceasing their firing during Christmas. In the cold and snow, wafting on the smoke of their campfires arose the united singing of Silent Night and Stille Nachte. The stories are numerous and varied and happened in many places and with lots different troops. In the cessation of hostilities, one truth transcended belligerent human desires.

“I don’t like being cold.”

I don’t like being cold. Nor do it like fighting. Having to wage war in freezing weather for one’s life and country seems to be the worst of all worlds. Yet I’m sure the horrors of war are far greater than my worst dislikes or imaginings.

Being in the trenches on Christmas must be hell. Fellow Christians shooting at one another in the name of freedom and country must seem surreal. It’s almost unimaginable that two warring factions would stop, greet each other, share songs, and even exchange pleasantries. Yet we’re told that’s exactly what happened.

As I understand it, soldiers in 1914 began to sense the spirit of Christmas early—just like you and I do here. Commercials, shopping, visits, and planning for the holidays often cause ours. In the case of the troops, it probably grew out of loneliness and being home sick.

In the days leading up to Christmas, soldiersChristmas-1914-truce began to emerge from their trenches. They bravely began conversations and exchanged season’s greetings with the enemy. In some places along the front, opposing soldiers would give each other presents—valuables like food and what would amount to souvenirs from another culture.

Amazing acts of humanity occurred. I use the word amazing because these things just didn’t happen in war. Outside of the battlefield, these would be normal, everyday occurrences. But there in “no man’s land,” they were extraordinary incidences.

Mortal enemies joined together for such things as prisoner swaps and burial ceremonies. They played friendly games and sang carols.

It was a long way from home for both camps. But in those moments of cease-fire and camaraderie, home was ensconced in a belief. The belief was not in their duty to serve their country, as important as that was. The belief was in one who transcended the cold and the bullets. The belief was in one whom would one day unite them forever—far away from the battlefield, and far away from all the lesser struggles of life.

CrossOrnamentDuring this holy season, many of us will sing the carols we’ve learned. We will exchange presents with ones we love. Hopefully we will also give to others that we might never know. We will enjoy a day or two of peace, and we will pray for a peace that will last forever.As it was in the trenches of WWI, that peace will ultimately be found in Jesus. Merry Christmas.

That’s Why They Pay Me the Big Bucks

I was recently introduced to an article about the salaries of various mega-church pastors. There was really nothing surprising. Big name preachers make big bucks. There were some startling revelations as well.DollarSign

The article didn’t take sides or even editorialize. It simply presented some facts (and I’m assuming for the sake of this blog, the facts were correct). The name of the article was Mega-Church Mega-Business. It listed some interesting statistics and a few quotes. Check it out. It’s even easier reading than this blog.

One of the sections that really jumped out at me concerned Rick Warren (pastor at Saddleback Church in California). According to the article, “He made millions off his books, but in 2005, he returned 25 years worth of salary and stopped accepting new paychecks. He gives 91% of his royalties to charity, drives a 12-year-old Ford and lives in the same house he did 22 years ago.”

There was one other line included in the Warren section of the article. He is quoted as saying, “The opulent lifestyles of televangelists make me sick.” A lot of people would agree with him on that one. I have to say, however, that really fits into the category of “low hanging fruit.”

I don’t care how much money they make.

Frankly, I don’t really care how much money any of these guys (they’re all men as far as I can tell) takes in. I’ll leave that up to the IRS (although I’m not real enamored with that outfit either).

The article defines a mega-church as one which averages at least 2000 people in attendance each week (our congregation only has 1985 to go, but we’re working on it). The top ten MC’s (mega-churches) in the US average 27,250 people per week per church. Their average annual budget is $41.1 million. Not too shabby. Maybe these guys actually earn their dough.

Money aside, however, there are a few related statistics that are far more important to me than the salaries of these all-star pastors. Check these out:

  • There are currently 807 MC’s in the US.
  • They account for 10.7% of all Protestant weekly attendance.
  • The number of MC’s is growing at a rate of 8% per year.
  • Other churches are shutting down at a rate of 1% per year.
  • Six percent of all MC congregants had never attended anywhere before.

A high percentage of MC attendees merely move their loyalties from a small church to an MC (which would help to account for the 1% of others that are closing down). That is tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs.

But the fact that six percent of all MC Preacherattendees had never gone anywhere else before is pretty impressive. Most of us would love to have an increase like that every year. We don’t, however. We’re heading the other direction.

One final note… The average MC senior pastor makes $147,000. The average protestant pastor makes $40,000. I guess I’ve spent the past 35 years driving down the numbers. Who knew?