Sand Flounder: The Official Fish of Today’s Church

Have you ever heard of a Sand Flounder? I remember reading an article about them. They’re fascinating creatures. They begin their lives looking like ordinary fish. But as time goes on and Mother Nature beats them into submission, they become quite grotesque looking.

Apparently they go through larval type SandFlounderstages and do it quite rapidly. They end up becoming very flat and lay on the ocean floor. Their right eye migrates to their left side so both are looking up as it lies there.

One description I read said they are “left handed” (a term I find rather ridiculous for a fish). Some of them become really ugly–even for a fish.

When I read about these misshapen creatures, I immediately thought of today’s church. I suppose that’s insulting to some, but I can’t help it. I’ve been a part of the church most of my life. Frankly, it’s not always pretty.

Interestingly enough, a simple, two-line fish drawing was the clandestine symbol for the early church. It’s the early church from which we’ve evolved to become what we are today—a little grotesque and somewhat deformed.

I don’t say these things lightly.

I realize we live in a different era that demands different strategies and twenty-first century know-how. Yet I often wonder if we need to take somewhat of a U-turn to the first century in our attitudes and actions.

Take a good look at what was happening in the early church. Look at the Book of Acts. Check out the letters of Paul, John, and Peter. How did we get from there to here?

Acts chapter two describes a church that looked out for each other (as well as their neighbors). Their love and compassion for people was so prevalent that they enjoyed “the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

jesus fishI realize it was all new and exciting then, but shouldn’t it still be new and exciting? Every day is new, and serving others is exciting. It seems to me we’ve lost our fervor.

I know we’ve come a long way and we’ve gotten quite large. I just read the following group of statistics:

“World Christianity consists of 6 major ecclesiastico-cultural blocs, divided into 300 major ecclesiastical traditions, composed of over 33,000 distinct denominations in 238 countries, these denominations themselves being composed of over 3,400,000 worship centers, churches or congregations.”

With that kind of weight, we’re bound to get a little bogged down in trivia, dogma, and tradition (as well as a myriad of other things we could all mention).

If we actually are like the sand flounder and barely resemble what we started out to be, I believe there is still good news.

  1. God seems to love us still.
  2. God’s grace is sufficient.
  3. Even if we begin taking baby steps back to where we should be, God will bless each of those steps.

Amen?

Restrooms and the State of the Church

Locker Room SignThis is the sign I see every time I walk into the men’s locker room at my neighborhood gym (please stop laughing—I work out every chance I get, spare tire not withstanding). I don’t know about any of you, but I find this policy a tad disconcerting.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m “old school.” It could be I’m a bit self-conscious. Is it possible I’m a prude? Or maybe I’m just “a guy.” In any case, I’m always bothered by what it says. I don’t want ANY females in my locker room. I don’t care how old!

It always reminds me of an old Bill Cosby routine. A guy takes his two-year-old girl into a men’s restroom, and all the other guys are embarrassed and mumble about a female’s presence. A woman takes her son into a restroom, and all the women make a fuss over him. When asked how old he is now, she replies, “Thirty-seven.”

Much to my relief, no females have yet to enter the locker room while I was in there. The closest I’ve ever come was when a young boy’s mother stood at the door and yelled for him to come out. I got a little tense when he refused. I thought for sure she was going to barge in on my less than modest state of dress.

No Females Allowed

It didn’t happen. Yet, I was definitely panicking as I quickly plotted my route of escape. I’m not sure if I’d fit into one of those lockers. I should probably practice that one, just in case. One never knows when these fire drills will pay off.

This is, of course, a minor thing. Who cares if some loving father brings in his four year old daughter (well, I guess I do)? It’s not an earth-shattering thing.

In our society, signs like this are everywhere. They invite people in, and they keep people out. The church is no different.

With the church, however, it seems that our IMG_1038signs are invisible. We say things to “outsiders” that are as loud and as visible as any printed sign. Because of that, a lot of those folks remain outside.

Often, our written signs on the exterior of our buildings are welcoming. They invite people to worship. They tell folks we’re a loving congregation. They attempt to excite the senses and draw the curious.

The signs once inside are too often very different. On the inside we begin to flash signs that send a different message. With our looks, body language, tone of voice, and actions (or non-actions) we say entirely different things.

We say things like:

  • You’re different than me!
  • Who invited you to come here?
  • Couldn’t you find a place better suited for your type?

I’ve experienced this myself on occasion, so I know it’s true. It all begins with attitude. Have we developed the welcoming attitude of Christ, or are we protecting our little club?

RSVP (French for “Send Me the Bill”)

54fq5mjhiw1wzhj3_580x380There have been some recent news articles about disgruntled wedding couples charging their no-show guests. That’s right. If someone RSVPs and fails to show up for the reception, they receive a hefty bill.

At first blush, this seems a bit tacky. Yet having been the father of the bride a couple times, I guess I can have some sympathy for these couples (at least in principle).

Weddings (if you include the receptions) can cost many thousands of dollars. Where I live, the average cost of a wedding could buy you a small home (if you bought it in a different county). At the very least, it would be a nice down payment.

“IT AIN’T CHEAP!”

If someone tells you they’ll be there, you pay someone handsomely to prepare for their time with you. You want them to enjoy it, be well fed, and have great entertainment in a beautiful setting. These things aren’t cheap.

So if they don’t show up, it could be highly annoying (not to mention expensive). You’ve just laid out a few hundred bucks so someone you love (or at least someone you thought enough of to invite) could share in your celebration. Your big day arrives, but your guest does not.

It’s the old “I threw a party and no one showed up” routine. That gets old in a hurry. It’s one thing to be late. But to dis the entire day…?! Not good (or polite).

g6oi2q0ak48rpwx_580x380Taking all that into consideration, deep down inside I can’t say as I blame the angry couple for sending a bill. I certainly would advise the no-shows to take a different course of action. At least let someone know your plans have changed.

As I mentioned earlier, however, sending a bill seems a tad tasteless (even if we understand the emotion behind the gesture). You may be hurt. You may have lost some money in the process. You may even have lost a friend or two. But sending a bill? I don’t know about that.

Jesus told a story or two like this. Remember the parable about the guy who threw a wedding banquet and no one came? No bills were sent out that day. Instead, new invitations were handed out. Strangers were invited. The waiters went out and beat the bushes looking for people who wanted to party hearty.

Apparently, God sees things a bit differently than we do. When folks turn him down, he doesn’t fret over it. He moves on and gets new folks. Imagine that.

It’s not our party!

Maybe we of the church could take a lesson from him. Instead of getting torqued, insulted, hurt, or indignant, we could move on to more fertile ground. Put in the place of the guy who threw the party, we often become discouraged and give up.

There’s one big difference though. It’s not our party. We’re the waiters. Buck up, folks! It may be time to send out a few new invitations.

#PassTheSalt

When I attended the 2015 Washington Prayer Gathering, I noticed several people around with great t-shirts. One of them said #passthesalt. I loved this shirt because it was very understated and a little clandestine. More importantly, it made a significant statement.

12068467_881692215248807_477277797573105055_oSomeone asked me what it meant. While I couldn’t speak for the people wearing the shirt, my assumption was it was a reference to Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount.

In Matthew chapter five, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” He says this immediately after telling his followers they would be persecuted because of him. The implication is this: the world might hate you, but the world still needs you.

In those days (and even now), salt was used as a preservative. There weren’t a lot of refrigerators around, and even less electricity. Salt was an important commodity. When it lost its “saltiness” it was discarded.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Jesus wanted us to be the salt of the earth. That’s quite apparent. He coupled that with wanting us to be the light of the world as well. You remember—a city on a hill, and all that.

So “pass the salt”, at least in my mind, must be a reminder that we are to be salty enough to give a little taste to the world—to help preserve it—and to do it in an overt way.

It’s interesting to me that I liked the t-shirt in question (at least in part) because it was a little clandestine. I guess I’m like a lot of people and DSC_0231don’t want to be the “in your face” type. That’s okay as long as we’re not withholding things altogether. Hiding sounds appealing because of the persecution that goes along with being out in the open about things.

Yet, that was the very point of what Jesus was telling his followers. You don’t hide a light under a bushel basket. You can’t hide a hilltop town. And if you’re supposed to be salt, pass it along before it loses its zing.

Every time I think of salt as a preservative, I think of ham. I live in Virginia. We’re famous for our hams here.

One thing that’s true of hams is the salty taste. It’s tough to eat a good ham sandwich without drinking a beer (or whatever quenches your thirstbuds).

Without the salt, the hams wouldn’t last long. They wouldn’t taste very good either. I’ve never had a saltless piece of ham, nor would I want one. It’s just not very appealing.

Believe it or not, it seems that Jesus feels that way about the world. It’s just not the same without Christians giving it some flavor. What’s worse, it probably wouldn’t last very long without us either.

DSC_0172That might sound a little arrogant on my part. I am a Christian after all. But along with the blessing of being needed comes the burden of persecution. I guess it all balances out.

Donkeys, Elephants & Sheep: An Unlikely Menagerie

DSC_0126 A couple days ago, I attended the 2015 Washington Prayer Gathering. Thousands of area Christians met that day to pray for the city, for our churches, and for revival.

I always enjoy seeing Christians of various stripes gathered together in unity. All colors, dissimilar theologies, and diverse styles of prayer and worship became an amalgam of church that day.

The entire thing lasted less than two hours. During that time there was great music, a lot of smiling, and some really inspirational prayer time.

DSC_0101One of the pastors who led in prayer that day was Steven King (no, not the famous author) of Cherrydale Baptist Church. He used a phrase that hit me and stuck with me. He said we’re not donkeys, we’re not elephants, we’re sheep.

He said that in prayer, and I laughed out loud—right there in the middle of thousands of people intent on seeking the Lord. I couldn’t help myself.

I laughed out loud…

I think I laughed because it was so clever. I also laughed (I think) because I wish it were true.

His statement was an allusion to the political proclivities of us all. He was making the point that this gathering was not a political one. It was a spiritual one.

The donkeys and elephants, of course, were a reference to the major political parties in this country. They are never quite so prevalent and present as they are where we stood (in the heart of Washington DC).

DSC_0238On that day, politics didn’t matter. On that day, there were indeed no donkeys or elephants. We who gathered there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were sheep. We were followers of Jesus Christ.

We were not there as voters. We were not there as protestors. We were not there as agitators or detractors. We were there as Christians wanting God’s best for our city and nation.

Would that were always true. But it’s far from true most of the time…or so it seems.

Political Leaners

In my limited experience, most Christians are such political leaners they can’t stand straight anymore. What I mean by that is we seem to have blinders on when it comes to our politics.

I know Christians who are Democrats and some who are Republicans. I know Christians who are political liberals and some who are conservative. Who I don’t know, (or don’t seem to meet very much) are Christians who try to be independent of politics. In other words, people who think for themselves—who act on things based on their knowledge of Scripture rather than their biases of culture or heritage.DSC_0203

I’m always amazed at the number of Christians who are Democrat or Republican because they were raised to be so. I’m sorry folks, but times and circumstances change. Maybe some of our affiliations should as well.

I’m sure a lot of you will disagree. But it seems to me, we need a few more sheep and a lot fewer donkeys and elephants in our menagerie.

The Nerd Strap (or How I Got My Groove Back)

My First Cell Phone 

Several years ago, I finally resolved myself to the idea that I should have a cell phone (like 95% of the rest of the population). It was an easy decision. My employer told me to get one. How important was I?telephoneThe company paid for it, so it was a no-brainer. I had resisted up to that point. I didn’t want to be that connected or that reachable. Nor did I like the idea that I could be interrupted at any time by a buzz in my back pocket. The fact that I didn’t want to spend the money probably played a large part in my obstinacy as well. I’m much cheaper than I look.

With these obstacles falling by the wayside, I was feeling more and more like it was time. Besides, I liked my job (the paycheck in particular). Like I said, it was a no-brainer.

I don’t remember too much about that phone. It was rather small, black, and fit easily into my pocket. I do remember, however, being deathly afraid of losing it.

There were several reasons for this:

A) I wasn’t used to carrying one and wouldn’t miss it for a while if I misplaced it.

2) I have a tendency to leave things lying around (like my car keys). The new cell phone was a prime candidate for this proclivity.

And D), I didn’t want the hassle of having to go through the bother of replacing it (or telling my boss I lost his phone).

One feature of this device stands out in my mind, however. It had this handy dandy cord that I could attach to it. So I did. I found that if I secured one end to the phone, I could wrap the other around a belt loop. Voila! No DSC_0086more possibility of losing that phone. What won’t they think of next!

This was all well and good until I spent some time with my oldest granddaughter. One day she looked at me rather curiously and postulated the following question (which has since been emblazoned on my mind). “Papa. Why do you have a nerd strap on your phone?”

Let that one sink in for a second or two!

Why indeed? I actually had what I thought were some pretty good reasons for this darling attachment. But somehow, they all faded into oblivion with that innocent, little query. Nerd strap?

Well… I have no desire to be geeky (or even emit a hint that there is the possibility of a nerdy bone somewhere in my slightly aging body). I didn’t let on that day, but shortly after I got home, the nerd strap disappeared.

These are MY end times.

The prophet Isaiah once said, “a little child will lead them” (Is. 11:6). I’m quite sure he was speaking about end times and not my life. However, these are MY end times. And so, my granddaughter led me out of my nerdy wilderness. Oh happy day!

Furries, Bronies, and Comic-Cons: My Return to Normalcy

Furry DuoIt seems like every time I leave town and stay in a different city for a few days, I run into a convention. Now, I’m not speaking about just any convention here. I’m not talking about Shriners, politicians, or doctors.

When I run into a convention, it’s not all that conventional. The pictures you see displayed here in this blog are all ones I took with my very own Nikon. I have dozens of these pix because I keep running into these people wherever I go.

These groups are Furries, Bronies, and Comic Cons. That doesn’t count the last group I ran into when I didn’t have a camera with me. I think they were super heroes, but I’m not all that positive.

In case you haven’t had the pleasure, allow me to explain what I know about these fine specimens (which frankly isn’t much). It’s not my area of expertise, but I’ll do my best.

Furries are people who have an interest in fictional anthropomorphic animal characters with human personalities. In others words, they like animals that act like humans. They come to their conventions dressed like their favorite characters. They call them their fursonas (catchy, huh?).Bronie

Bronies seem to be a little more bizarre by general social standards. I’ve heard them described as adult, male fans of “My Little Pony.” In case you’re not up on that product, it was a toy marketed back in the early 1980’s (primarily to little girls). It became quite popular and exploded into a phenomenon that included all sexes, ages, a TV series, and a movie.

Comic-Cons (derived from Comic Book Convention, I think) are similar to the first two in some ways. This seems to be a more popular, broader genre. These folks gather at comic book conventions and dress up like comic book characters. From what I’ve seen, it’s also a good excuse for some of the young ladies to dress rather provocatively (be still my heart).

While it all seems like good-hearted fun, there are apparently some darker facets to these groups (especially at convention time). I’m not going to explore those here, but it’s all on the internet. And as we all know, if it’s on the internet, it’s got to be true.

Whatever it is that turns these folks on, they seem to be everywhere I travel. Because I seem to run into them around every bend, I will occasionally engage one of them in conversation. I’ve found, on the whole, they seem to be likeable, even normal folks.

Mother GooseIt’s easy to look at these characters in full regalia and come to snap judgments about them. I’ve heard them called weird, perverted, and even sick. I choose to refrain from joining in on that bandwagon, however.

It occurs to me that a lot of the world looks at us Christians in the same light. All of a sudden, these folks are looking more and more normal to me.

Oregon: Can We Be Forgiven?

11221701_962362960506268_4206203523865959049_nThis sidebar discussion has arisen from the recent shootings in Oregon. Hypothetical: The gunman holds his firearm to my head and demands to know if I am a Christian. Fearing for my life, I say, “No.” My life is spared. Am I forgiven for my denial?

The immediate answer to this one is obvious. Jesus predicts Peter will deny him three times before the rooster crows in the morning. Peter swears this could never happen. Then it happens. Is Peter forgiven?

In the Gospel of John, chapter 21, it’s quite apparent he is indeed forgiven. Here Jesus takes Peter through a process of healing and restoration. In addition, he is urged to get back in the saddle. “Follow me.” “Feed my lambs.” “Take care of my sheep.”

Like all things Biblical, however, there is Scripture that seems to balance this out. In Matthew chapter ten, Jesus sends out his disciples to minister to “the lost sheep of Israel.” Before they go, he gives them some instructions.

“…Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown…”

Amid his words of wisdom, he says, “But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” Is this contradictory? It certainly seems to be. It certainly doesn’t sound as comforting as the restoration of Peter.

What are we to make of this? How do we handle this message? We’re not quite as quick to embrace this missive as we are the many stories of grace offered by the Savior of the world.

We can’t get around it…

We can’t get around it, however. Jesus said it. It is recorded in Scripture. We can’t (or at least, shouldn’t) ignore it. It poses a major problem for us, doesn’t it?

It poses a problem because every one of us has denied Jesus in some way, shape or form. We might not have told anyone we didn’t know him, but we’ve certainly done it in other ways.

When we refuse to feed the hungry, we deny him. When we ignore strangers, we deny him. When we fail to help the sick or visit the imprisoned, we deny him. If you think I’m exaggerating, check out Matthew 25:31-46 (his story about the sheep and goats).

So where does that leave us? Fortunately for us, that leaves us in good company—or if not good company, at least lots of company. Saint Peter is part of that company.

Jesus knows we all have and will deny him. He’s said as much. He also knows we need to be forgiven, healed, restored, and recommissioned for ministry—just like Peter. He came in the flesh, lived, suffered, died, and arose to fix us.

Come like little children…12096568_151475968534412_6291277078016278655_n

When he tells the twelve (Peter among them) not to deny him, he is obviously referring to a lifestyle of denial—a life of refusing to acknowledge his Lordship.

Jesus is not demanding perfection. He tells us to come to him in faith like children. He is cajoling us to live lives that witness to his glory—not reject who he is.

Oregon Revisited

XN DAVEIn the wake of the recent shootings in Oregon, a picture popped up on Facebook (and undoubtedly many other places as well). It was a photo of one of the current presidential hopefuls. He was holding a sign that displayed the ichthus.

In case that term is foreign to you, it’s Greek for fish. It was an early symbol used to indicate one’s Christianity. In those days, it was somewhat dangerous to be a Christian, so the simple fish sign was used clandestinely (kind of like a secret handshake).

“I am a Christian”

Printed above the ichthus were the simple words, “I am a Christian.” The point was immediately obvious to anyone who had been keeping abreast of the news in Oregon. The candidate was identifying with the victims of the shooting who had died because they admitted to their faith.

Upon seeing that image, many of us hastened to post our own such statement. I was no exception. Already on our way out the door to celebrate our eighteenth wedding anniversary, my young bride and I stopped for a few moments to post similar pictures.

I almost felt a little weird doing it, but it seems12105703_10153619627584631_6874127550738707742_n to be the thing to do these days. These pix (accompanied on Instagram and Twitter with #IamaChristian) are akin to faces with rainbows superimposed upon them—t-shirts that say, “I can’t breathe—bumper stickers that state, “It’s a child, not a choice.”

All these examples (and myriads more) are ways for people to somehow identify with a person or cause, make a statement, or simply be provocative. As I said, it seems like the thing to do.

I felt a little weird because I don’t usually jump on the bandwagon so quickly. I tend to be a tad more cautious. I follow the bandwagon at a safe distance until I think it’s safe, then I trot along until I can find an inconspicuous moment to climb aboard (which is probably why my clothing is always one or two styles behind the current fashion—much to my spouse’s chagrin).

“I felt compelled…”

For some reason, however, I felt compelled to go whole hog on this one. I shot from the hip. Not that I regret it, but it’s a little out of character for me. I’m usually much more deliberate.

The real reason I feel somewhat strange, however, has nothing to do with that. It has more to do with the feeling that I’ve accomplished nothing. What change was I able to institute? Have I advanced society and our culture one iota by posting my little pictorial statement?

12105907_151476265201049_300647793336067879_nDo the victims in Oregon feel better now that they know I’m a Christian? No. I’ll tell you who feels better. I do. But maybe better is not the right word. Stronger is probably more accurate.

The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 10:9-10 to declare, “Jesus is Lord” with our mouth. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I guess I’ve at least said something.

Oregon Raises Old Questions

Believe

Before it becomes blurred in our minds, we should ponder what we know about the recent shootings in Oregon. Soon, it will be just another senseless crime. The memory of it will be stirred in with others of its kind in the melting pot of our consciousness.

Stand and Declare Your Religion

Early accounts indicate the shooter told his victims to stand and declare their religion. If they admitted to being Christian, he shot them in the head. If they didn’t, he shot them in the legs.

During the Cold War, I remember hearing an apocryphal story about a group of Christians gathered for worship somewhere behind the iron curtain. As the story goes, a couple soldiers burst in the back door with machine guns and announced that all the Christians were going to die.

They told anyone who was not a Christian to leave immediately. Many people got up and left, no doubt scared out of their wits. When they had fled, the soldiers put down their machine guns and announced, “Now that the posers are gone, let’s worship together brothers and sisters!”

I heard that story told different ways in several different sermons. Whether it contains any thread of truth, I don’t know. I do know that a vile version of it was reenacted in Oregon (and in many other shootings recently). Except now, people died and no one worshipped.

The politicians are already scrambling…

The politicians are already scrambling to the nearest microphones. Their intent is to pounce on this moment for the advancement of their agendas. Meanwhile, the police are trying to make sense of this tragedy. The rest of us grieve and ask ourselves what we would have done. If I was standing before that young assassin, would I have admitted my belief in Jesus?

I ask myself that question every time something like this occurs. Would I have the courage to face a bullet for my faith? Or would I lie to save my own skin? It’s an impossible question. Hopefully, we will never find out the answer.

The fact remains, however, that we face these kinds of decisions every day. We do so in much smaller ways, of course. We don’t face death for our beliefs. We do face ridicule, prejudice, and condescension on many fronts.

We’re not face to face with a crazed young man or in the clutches of ISIS. We are not about to be shot or beheaded. We do sometimes face the possibility of being humiliated, ostracized, snubbed, or overlooked. Small taters by comparison, but real none-the-less.

Where do we really stand?

While losing some of my dignity may seem trivial compared with losing my life, the urge to back down is still there. Losing my status, standing, or position is still important. Having someone laugh at my beliefs or look down their nose at me is still uncomfortable in the very least.

While we hurt and grieve over the deaths of our brothers and sisters, let’s not forget to raise our own personal awareness. Where do we really stand?