Why I Care About the Islamic Center in NYC

Lately I’ve been posting a lot of links to articles about the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I’ve decided to take a little break from doing that, not because my convictions have changed, but because I’m afraid that if I post too many people will quit reading the articles. In case you haven’t seen the links, let me state my position clearly (in a bold font): I am strongly in favor of allowing Muslims in the United States to build Islamic centers, mosques, and any other meeting spaces they want to have. Why? Why as a Christian would I support building structures that will be used for Muslim worship services? Why do I even care about this issue enough to keep posting links and arguing in the comments section?

1. I have always been very sensitive to oppression in any form.

It’s always been easy for me to identify with the the little guy who’s being bullied by the ones with the power. As a teenager, I read Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King Jr. and even though I was a white guy living in a predominately white small town in the South, I began to care about civil rights. I recently read about the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of the Europeans and was horrified by the blood I see on my own hands. I hear about Christians in China and Indonesia having to hide for fear of being killed and I hurt along with them as members of the same body.

And now I see Muslims in the United States – not terrorists, not supporters of terror, but peaceful Muslims who simply want to live their lives and practice their religion – being told by potbellied rednecks on TV that “our laws don’t apply to you.” I see victims of the terrorists in New York (many Muslims died that day too and all were profoundly wounded by the attacks) being told that they sponsored the very terrorists that stole their family members away. I see politicians and pundits attempting to deny Muslims one of the fundamental rights that our country was founded on – the right to practice your religion without government interference. I don’t care if you agree with the Muslims or not, but to deny them basic civil rights goes against everything our country stands for. It’s oppression of a minority group in what is supposed to be the most freedom loving country on earth and it’s wrong.

2. I can’t stand it when I see people use lies and fear to manipulate people’s emotions.

Muslims have become the new boogeyman in America, the people it’s socially acceptable to hate, and politicians and commentators have been quick to use this collective hatred to rally their supporters. They do this by lying and stirring up fear. The very name “Ground Zero Mosque” is an example of this tactic. There’s no mosque and it’s not being built at Ground Zero. Heck, when I first heard about the project I was against it and I think any rational person would be against building a mosque (or any worship center) in the hole left behind when the WTC fell. (Incidentally, there is a plan is to build something in that hole – a mall. Go capitalism!) So why do the opponents of this building call it the Ground Zero Mosque? Because it stirs up an immediate visceral emotional response and stirs up people’s fears of an imminent Muslim invasion.

Fear is a powerful emotion and people know how to use it to get the desired results. The guy who tells his girlfriend that he’s going to leave if she doesn’t have sex with him is using fear. Church-sponsored “judgment houses” at Halloween attempt to scare  people into a relationship with Jesus. Tea Party leaders say our nation is being taken away from us by socialists, communists, Muslims, etc. and if we don’t do something about it the hammer and sickle will be flown at the White House, the Constitution will be replaced by Sharia law, and we’ll all be forced to have computer chips implanted inside of us to buy or sell goods. Combine fear with lies and you can pretty much convince people of anything. People who oppose building mosques across the country regularly accuse the builders of supporting terrorists (even if they’ve publicly denounced terrorism and worked to fight against it). Supporters of these projects are called un-American, deluded, naive, insensitive, and a host of other names.

As a Tennessean, I’m particularly embarrassed by false statements that have been made by politicians in the primary elections. Ron Ramsey declared Islam “a cult,” while Lou Ann Zelenik said that a proposed Islamic center in Murfreesboro (the town I live in) would be a “terrorist training center.” I wasn’t aware that terrorist training centers had swimming pools and basketball courts. I guess even radicals need a little breaks from planning world domination. Thankfully both these politicians were voted down, but their statements still rile up their constituents and fuel the flames of fear against Muslims. If you have to resort to lies and manipulation to support your position, your position must be pretty shaky in the first place.

3. Most importantly, if we deny Muslims the right to practice their religion peacefully, we  act unlovingly  and drive people away from the Gospel.

As Christian, my first response to any person should be one of love. That includes people I disagree with. To act differently is to directly disobey what Jesus called the greatest commandment: love God and love people. To quote Dr. David Gushee,  Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University:

For those mainly conservative Christians who are responding to this and other mosque projects with open expressions of anti-Muslim hatred, and open rejections of the principles of religious liberty from which Christians themselves daily benefit, shame on you! As a fellow Christian, I say that you bring dishonor to the name of Jesus Christ, you directly disobey his command that we love our neighbors, and you drive the watching world even further away from any interest in the Gospel message!

As a Christian I benefit every day from the freedoms outlined in the Constitution. How can I deny others those same rights, even if I disagree with them? I truly believe that if we hope to win over the hearts of the Muslim people we must show love and understanding, and that means stopping the needless protests, the name-calling, and the generalizing that I see so much of. I hear pundits talking about remembering the feelings of the victims’ families, but we must also remember that on 9/11 many Muslims in that neighborhood also lost loved ones. Rather than acknowledging their pain and seeing that this center is part of their emotional healing, we instead lump them in with the very people who caused so much pain in the first place. We will only win people by showing love, not fighting.

If you’re interested, here are the links I’ve been posting about the issue:
The leader of proposed Muslim center near Ground Zero defends his plan
Controversy at Ground Zero
There Is Already a Mosque Less Than a Mile From Ground Zero
Why Building the Mosque is Good for America!
Islam has long history downtown
The Shameful Mosque Controversy
Olbermann: There Is No ‘Ground Zero Mosque’
“The Mosque at Ground Zero”

How Forgiven is Forgiven? A Blog Sermon

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

I haven’t posted in over a month, so I decided I wanted my next post to be a good one. After a great discussion in Sunday School yesterday morning, I realized what I wanted to do. It’s a long one so hold on tight…

A year or so ago, I preached to the youth and after I finished one of the adults came to me and told me that he was disappointed about the sermon. I was a little disturbed by this and asked him why. He responded, “Because this sermon is something the whole church needs to hear, not just the youth.” Since I longer have a pulpit, a blog will have to do.

I think that 1 John 1:9 is possibly one of the most harmfully misused verses in the Bible. Sure lots of verses get taken out of context and cause confusion, but the way that this verse is often used cripples believers in their walk with Jesus and buries them under a pile of guilt. Many of you have been told that in order to stay right with God, when we sin, all we have to do is confess and he’ll forgive us. If we don’t confess those sins and receive that forgiveness, we end up “out of fellowship” with God and he doesn’t hear our prayers. When we sin, God still loves us and our salvation is still intact, but he’s not going to talk with us until we “get right with God” and deal with our “unconfessed sin.” Therefore, we often live lives characterized by guilt, sure that God isn’t listening to us anymore because he’s so disgusted with us.

I had a seminary professor who calls this “Protestant Penance.” Catholics to confess the priest and the priest punishes them for their sin; Protestants confess to God and punish themselves. If I had to guess, I’d say that about 95% of my prayers in high school began with “Lord please forgive me for ________.” But is this what the Bible says the Christian life is supposed to look like? Does God want us to feel guilty? I’ll get back to 1 John 1:19 in a little bit but first, let’s see what else the Bible says about sin, guilt, and forgiveness.

From Temptation to Condemnation

When Satan wants to mess with a Christian, he uses two opposite strategies. The one we’re most familiar with is temptation. He coaxes and persuades us, leading us toward sin. He wants us to sin, but once we cross that line and commit a sin, he switches gears.

“See? I knew you were no good. You’re disgusting!”

“Can you really call yourself a Christian after doing that?”

“God can never use a weak, pitiful sinner like you.”

The Hebrew word that we translate is as Satan is ha-Satan a.k.a. “the accuser.” Satan first tempts us to sin and then destroys us with guilt because of that sin. And to make it even worse, he convinces us that God is the one accusing us and beating us down. Romans 8:1-2 tells a different story:

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

No condemnation! God does not condemn those who are in Jesus. Instead or condemnation and guilt, we have freedom. This freedom is made possible because we are forgiven, our sins are no longer on us, we have the righteousness of Christ, and we are now at peace with God. But how forgiven are we really? When a person becomes a Christian, God forgives them of their sin because Jesus took their punishment on himself at the cross. Does that forgiveness only cover the sins committed prior to conversion so that a Christian must continually go back to God begging for forgiveness in order to stay in a right relationship with God?

How Forgiven Are We?

As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)

I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more. (Isaiah 43:25)

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14) (emphasis mine)

How forgiven are we? Our sins are so far removed from us, as far as the east is from the west, and God remembers them no more. Does that mean God actually forgets? No, but he doesn’t hold our sins against us and when he looks at us he doesn’t see those sins anymore. He sees us like he sees Jesus… completely, totally, perfectly righteous! When God forgives sin, he forgives ALL our sin. That’s ALL of them – past, present, and future. The sins we committed before conversion were forgiven but so were all of the sins he hadn’t even committed yet! I know I’m going to sin in someway tomorrow, but that sin is already taken care of, forgiven, and God won’t hold it against me or pull away from me because of it. I don’t have to go back to God to confess and ask for forgiveness; instead, I can praise him for having already forgiven me!

But What About 1 John 1:9?

See, I told you I’d get back here eventually. This verse says we have to confess our sins to to receive forgiveness, right? So we need to get out our lists every day and start fessing up if we want to stay right with God, right? Wrong. Let’s look at the verse in context with the rest of the passage.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

John wrote this letter to deal with the problem of some false teachers called the Gnostics. One of the claims that these false teachers were making was that they were sinless. In the passage above, John is warning his readers that those who say that they aren’t sinners are lying to themselves. Instead, we should humble ourselves and confess our sinfulness and receive God’s forgiveness. In the Greek language, the words “forgive” and “cleanse” mean past actions that have results today and will continue to have results in the future. This is not a continual cycle of confession and forgiveness. When we come to God and confess our sinfulness, we are forgiven. Period. From ALL unrighteousness.

When we’re cleansed of our unrighteousness and clothed in the righteousness of Christ, our sins are taken care of completely. This obsession with confession keeps us focused on our selves and our sins instead of focusing on the one who has already taken those sins away. Sin doesn’t make God turn his back on us or separate us from him. He doesn’t hold our sins against us anymore.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)

So What Do We Do?

This might have shaken you up a little. If you believe what I’ve been saying here, you might be wondering what you’re supposed to do now. You know you’re going to sin and you feel like you need to do something to make up for it. After I taught this before someone told me that they still wanted to confess and ask for forgiveness because it made this feel better. I guess that’s okay, but realize that it’s really more of a psychological trick to make you feel better about what you did than anything that actually affects your relationship with God. So what do we do?

First off, realize that you don’t have to do anything to stay in favor with God. There is nothing you can possibly do that will make God love you any less or any more. You can sin in the most blatant obviously way possible and God’s not going to love you less. You can sell all of your possessions, move halfway across the world, and devote your life to spreading the gospel to sick children in a third world country and God’s not going to love you more. God doesn’t play favorites. So when you sin, realize you already have the favor of God, he still loves you as much as he ever will, he’s still committed to being in a relationship with you, and you don’t have to do anything to restore that relationship because it’s not actually broken.

Secondly, if you’re feeling guilty, check to see where that guilt is coming from. Are your feelings driving you to change for the better or are they beating you down, making you feeling hopeless and useless? Sorrow over sin that leads to repentance is a good thing, but guilt is not. God does not make you feel guilty. Instead he convicts you to spur you onward toward change. Godly sorrow makes you turn away from sin and work to be more holy; worldly guilt makes you give up.

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. (2 Corinthians 7:10-11)

Finally, when you sin, stop doing whatever it was that you were doing and go on with your life. Thank God that he loves you and that that he has forgiven you before you messed up. Remind yourself that you have freedom from sin and guilt and you cannot be accused by the one who wants to destroy you. Celebrate that God doesn’t require you to do or be anything other than who you are in order to gain his favor. Smile knowing that spiritually, you’re just as righteous as Jesus himself and that is the way that God looks at you. And live in his peace, his joy, and his freedom.

Are you excited knowing that when you say your prayers tonight, you can spend a lot more time on thanks than begging for forgiveness? Do you feel more freedom after reading this? Got your pitchforks out ready to string me up as a heretic? The comments section is your place to share.

Anybody Want to Buy My House?

For my friends who don’t go to First Baptist Lebanon and for those of you who missed the service tonight, I want to let you know that at the end of this evening’s service, I resigned from my position as Youth and Children’s Minister. I did so after talking with the pastor and the personnel team who felt that those ministries needed a fresh start. Despite the fact that I was not expecting this decision, I have no hard feelings towards anyone involved. They are simply doing what they think is best for the church and, in the end, I believe that this could be best for me and my family as well.

I’ve enjoyed my time on staff at FBC and the friendships I’ve made there, but if you’ve been reading my blog lately you know that I am not your typical youth pastor and ultimately we simply had too many differences in ministry philosophy and style. Like I said, and it’s worth saying again (in bold font), I am not upset with anyone at the church nor do I have any hard feelings towards any of the church leadership. They are all great men and it has been a privilege to work with them. Resigning this evening was hard and I’m sorry for the people who were shocked or hurt by my announcement, but I do feel that it was the right thing to do.

So what’s next for me? Honestly, I have no idea.

I do know that despite not having a job, I do have some pretty great things going for me right now. I’ve got the God who will never leave me or forsake me. I’ve got my amazing wife who has been right by my side through this whole thing. (Read all her blogs from the week leading up to this announcement here, here, here, and here… she’s awesome!) I’ve got three smiling happy kids who help me keep my perspective. I asked Ben the other day if he wanted to go live in a brand new house and said, “Yeah!” jumping up and down and laughing the whole time. For him, change, even big change, is just the start of a new adventure.

Alanna and I are looking at the possibility moving back to my hometown of Sparta. Houses cost a lot less there and we have lots of friends and family nearby to help us get going. Since graduation I have lived wherever my career has taken me, but I would like to put down some roots now, choosing where to live first and then seeing what jobs are available in the area. Thanks to a particularly crappy job market at the moment, I can’t afford to be picky with where I find my paycheck though. For now, I’m open to anything. So (again in bold font)…

If you live in or around Sparta (or anywhere else in Middle Tennessee) and you know of any available jobs, please let me know immediately.

Seriously, I am open to any and all suggestions. As far as credentials go, I’ve got a B.A. in History and English and seven years experience working with teenagers in ministry. I am skilled in digital desktop publishing and graphic design (but no coding yet). Also, I can make some pretty awesome coffee drinks that end in “cino.” For now though, I just need to find a job, so I don’t have to work in those fields if that’s not where the jobs are.

Also, another big deal coming up in the near future will be selling our current house. It’s a great little house but it’s more than we will be able to afford soon, so we really need a buyer soon. Next Saturday (March 20), we’re going to have a painting party to bring back the beige that seems to be all the rage with house hunters. If you’re in the area, we’d love to have your help. Just bring a roller and a paint tray and we will find you a wall. I’ll be cooking up a couple of awesome homemade pizzas as payment for your hard work so come out and help us get this place in shape.

It’s pretty weird to be floating freely like we are right now, not knowing where we’re going or what we’re going to do when we get there. I’ve gone through plenty of other major life transitions in the past, but in those cases we were always transitioning from one place/position/paycheck to another one that was already waiting. Now, I just have to trust that God is going to provide for our needs.

And I do trust Him. Most of the time. As the great Rich Mullins said, “Surrender don’t come natural to me.” Man, I struggle with this one sometimes, even though I know God has never let me down in the past. Sometimes I trust people too easily (like the guy who managed to get $80 out of me for his “broken car”) but I struggle to trust the one who always keeps His promises. If He cares about feeding sparrows and clothing lilies, I know He’ll take care of me.

I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches me

The Great Adventure?

“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.” – Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit

Saddle up your horses!

Life can surprise you sometimes. You can look at those surprises as nasty dark things designed to destroy you or you can look ahead and embrace the adventure that awaits. A brand new adventure coming soon…

Classic Column… um, Tuesday: I Was Born in a Small Town

Okay, so I was supposed to do these things on Sunday nights, and okay, I missed a couple of weeks. I’ve been busy, alright? Just get off my back, already!

*deep breath*

Okay, I’m better now. Anyway, this week’s randomly selected column came from my sophomore year at Union. Enjoy!

For all you in Sparta who have always dreaming of leaving our fair city and moving to the city, I want to share with you a few of the joys that I’ve discovered about our little town and other small towns in Tennessee verses what I’ve learned about city life over my last year and a half in Jackson.

First off, Superman’s boyhood town was called Smallville. That’s got to say something about the benefits of small town living.

Only in a small town can you call the bank when you have car trouble. I’m staying with a friend of mine and his family in the little town of Gadsden during this January semester to save on school expenses as well as allowing me to escape from my dorm for a month. Last week I was the only one left at the house in the morning at the time that I was supposed to leave to get to my class. Now, I take certain things for granted in my life so that I assume I have nothing to worry about. For instance, when I sit down behind the steering wheel of my truck and turn the ignition key, I expect for the engine to roar to life (and it does roar pretty loud) and take me to where I want to go. Well, you know what happens when you assume, don’t you? Since this is a family column I don’t think I can tell you outright, but basically you end up looking like a donkey of some sort. My truck didn’t even click.

I’d left my lights on after a long night working at the hotel the day before and they had been on for roughly 24 hours. Needless to say my battery was deader than a doornail. (Just a side note here: Exactly how dead is a doornail? For that matter, what is a doornail?) With everyone else gone and not knowing Gadsden at all, I had no one to call and no way to get a car to jump me off. I called my girlfriend Alanna at work (too far away to drive) and she suggested I call one of the places in Gadsden. Now, as far as I can tell, the actual town of Gadsden consists of a store, a bank, and a church. Of the three, I knew the name of the bank. So, out of other options, I called the bank to report a dead car battery. I explained my problem to the very friendly teller (who laughed at me), and she told me that she would call her husband who was at home with their little boy to see if he could come jump my truck off. Within an hour, he and his little boy pulled into the driveway, got my truck started, and sent me on my way.

Where else on earth but in a small town could you call the bank when you have car trouble?
On the flipside, here in the city of Jackson things are quite a bit different. Jackson is the fifth largest city in Tennessee (which really isn’t saying a whole lot) and functions like a city. In Jackson, I have police officers come up to the front desk in the hotel showing me mug shots and asking “Have you seen this man?” I don’t know what he’s done, but if I do see him, I’ll crawl up under the desk until he’s gone.

I don’t know exactly what it is about rural living, but I know that when I’m away from it, I miss it. That’s why I love my little diversion in Gadsden this month. It’s nice to have a real house to go back to in the evenings after school or work. I like it actually being dark outside when I go to bed without the glare of street lights and flashing signs. I guess before I got to Jackson, life in the country was another one of those things I took for granted. Never again though.

I have to leave now and call the bank again. I think my stereo is going out.

25 Random Things About Me

From my Facebook notes

Rules: Once you’ve been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person/people who tagged you. If I tagged you, it’s because I want to know more about you.

(To do this, go to “Notes” in the tab section on your Profile page, paste these instructions in the body of the note, type your 25 random things, tag 25 people (in the right-hand corner), and then click publish.)

1. When I was in kindergarten, I used to tell people that I wanted to be a paleontologist, both because I thought dinosaurs were cool and because it was fun to impress people with the big word that I knew.
2. I currently have 9,276 songs on my iPod from every genre imaginable.
3. I can eat an entire bag of Doritos in one sitting and only feel a little guilty about it.
4. I’ve always been a fan of the 60s and 70s, but I’ve recently started developing a kind of nostalgic infatuation with the 1980’s, the decade of my childhood
5. I wrote a weekly op-ed column for my hometown newspaper throughout my senior year of high school and I still have most of the articles on my laptop.
6. I meet Alanna the summer before my senior year in high school and knew I was going to marry her long before graduation came.
7. I love designing graphics for the youth group. It’s the perfect mix of computer geekiness and my artsy side.
8. Being a dad is really a lot of fun.
9. Being a dad means that other people’s bodily functions frequently take center stage in my day-to-day life.
10. I really enjoy trying new foods… I actually occasionally get hungry while watching Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel.
11. I’m one of the few guys I know that likes taking personality tests. Maybe that’s part of my personality (INFP, phlegmatic).
12. I tend to overthink things… it’s taking me a long time to finish this list!
13. My wife is smarter than me, but I’ve come to accept that.
14. When I was in high school and college, most of my close friends were girls.
15. Ben makes me laugh at least a couple of hundred times a day. He loves to dance.
16. I love being a youth minister. I feel like I’m still figuring out how to do it as I go along, but I love getting to hang out with the youth and getting to know them.
17. I stay up late most nights after everyone else in the house is asleep working on stuff for church or just playing video games.
18. I like scary movies although it’s been a while since I’ve found one that actually scared me.
19. I just spent $20 on a pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee while I was in the The Bahamas and I feel like that was a great deal. I’m definitely a coffee snob.
20. I’ve worked in three different coffee shops (Bubba’s Bagels, Panera Bread, and Grounds and Sounds) and that’s what made me into a coffee snob.
21. I have a weird sense of humor that tends to come out more when I’m writing than when I’m talking.
22. Family meals at my parents’ house are big fun. Everyone’s cracking jokes and laughing so much that it takes forever to eat.
23. I was an English minor in college. I really love writing and wish I would do it more often, but I can’t spell to save my life.
24. I know nothing about sports. Seriously. Last year I forgot that the Super Bowl was happening.
25. When I was younger I wanted to be like Jim Carrey so I practiced making goofy faces in the mirror… now I’ve got Ben doing it with me!

CHEESE!

honoring god with our bodies

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Let’s face it, most of us need to be in better shape. I’m including myself in the “most of us.” I recently got a letter in the mail from my insurance company talking about the average health of most ministers. 76% of ministers are overweight or obese, compared to 61% of the population as a whole. According to studies most ministers:

  • Work more than 60 hours a week.
  • Exercise less than 30 minutes a week.
  • Have above average stress, weight gain, and depression.
  • Are at high risk for heart disease.
  • Experience regular gastro-intestinal problems.
  • Report low morale or exhaustion.

I think it’s a tragedy that many ministers who could have had long fruitful ministries are being cut down years too early because of preventable health problems. That, along with a recent stress related health scare*, is why I’m making a vow to do something about it. I don’t want to be a statistic, and even more, I don’t want my ministry to end suddenly just because I was too busy to spend time in the gym and I couldn’t resist that second helping.

Bad health is not just a problem for ministers though. Remember that statistic I quoted in the first paragraph. 61% percent of the population is overweight or obese. Even if that’s not you, if you honest with yourself, you probably need to work out a little more. The church is all about helping people become spiritually healthy, but we’re supposed to honor God with our whole lives and that includes honoring God with our bodies. (For more about the theology involved in physical fitness, check out this post over at The Resurgence.) That’s why I’m looking at the idea of starting some kind of program for youth and a adults to help us get in shape together. No major commitments, just some accountability and encouragement with occasional times of working on this thing together.

This idea is just in it’s infancy right now, but is it something you’d be interested in doing? Is your health something you’re even interested in at all? Answer the poll and leave me some comments to let me know whether or not this is something worth looking at.

*I don’t want to worry anybody. Nothing serious happened, I just found out the fun physical manifestations of too little sleep and too much stress.

Panic (and Rage) at the Pump

Today was an interesting day to buy gas in Middle Tennessee. Many motorists discovered that their favorite fossil fuel was simply unavailable at many of the gas stations across the state. Those who did find stations with a supply often had to wait as long as two hours for a chance to fill up. What happened? How are we suddenly without gasoline? (As a DJ I heard on the radio said, “When did the United States become a third world country?”)

A number of factors led to the “shortage.” You’ll see why I use quotation marks around that word in a moment. It’s true that Hurricane Ike did damage some of the Texas refineries that supply Middle Tennessee gas stations with their fuel. The pipeline that we get our gas from was operating at about 25% of it’s normal capacity so there was definitely less gas than usual coming our way. Along with that, though, one of the chief causes of the problem was panicked motorists who had heard rumors that we were about to be out of fuel and sucked up the fuel supply at almost double the rate of usual sales. Prices soared, tempers flared, and “panic buying” ruled the day.

I’ll admit that I was among the buyers waiting for gas, but not for two hours, just for two cars in front of me. The station I stopped at had set a twenty-five dollar cap on how much gas one person could buy at a time, possibly to keep their doors open for longer, possibly to make sure that everyone was able to get at least a little gas. The guy in front of me in line was obviously not aware of this fact as he attempted to fill up his SUV. When the pump stopped, he stormed into the gas station and began to yell at the cashiers. I couldn’t hear his words from inside my car, but I could see the anger on his face. He made threatening gestures, threw his hands in the air, turned red, and after about five minutes of screaming (probably about the same amount time that he had spent waiting), he stomped out to his car at drove off. What causes people to act like this over a few gallons of gasoline? Are we so dependent on “stuff” that when it’s taken away, or at least not given to us in the amount that we want, we fly off the handle?

What can we learn from a day like today? First, when rumors run rampant, things can get sticky. Thankfully this time, it was no real problem. Yeah, today a lot of the pumps had plastic bags covering them, but officials say the pipeline should be back at full capacity into next week. We definitely don’t need to take everything we hear at face value and react, but that doesn’t seem to be the biggest issue of the day. All the anger and rage over having what is “rightfully ours” taken away seems to me to be the bigger problem. I understand that for a lot of people that gas was necessary, but most of us could probably stand to conserve fuel more than we do and could definitely get by on less. I also understand that the inconvenience of having to wait for hours at the pump can make drivers get frustrated, but that’s no excuse to blow up. What I don’t understand at all is why having to share with others during what looks like a potential crisis would cause a presumably normal person to have a meltdown.

I think the real source of the problem is not a gas shortage, but an overage of getting what we want too much of the time. Materialism and a sense of entitlement convince us that we “need” many things that we simply want. As Americans, most of us expect that if we have the money, we should be able to buy whatever we want, whenever we want it. When we’re not able to get something we “need,” or even worse, when we have to share with others in need, well… that’s just un-American. But maybe it’s something that Christians need to think seriously about. What are we seeking first: the kingdom of heaven or the American dream?

All the stuff we’ve been given doesn’t really belong to us in the first place and it’s all temporary anyway, so maybe we need to loosen up about it. I seem to remember a very wise man saying something about not serving two masters. Stuff isn’t bad in itself, but how we react to it can be bad. Do we seek after and hoard our stuff or do we see a chance to share? And entitlement? Just what makes us think we deserve any of the stuff we have? Let’s keep stuff in it’s proper place and thank God for the things we do have. Just something to think about next time you’re filling up.

Annoyances or Opportunities?

Yesterday as I was unloading groceries into the back of my van in Wal-Mart’s parking lot, a young man asked if he could take my cart when I finished getting everything out. I assumed he was going to use it himself and wanted to do a good deed at the same time, so I said sure. It was a hot day and that would save me the walk. That’s when I looked up and saw his dark tie, white shirt, and dark pants. He was wearing a small name tag on his lapel that said he was with the Church of Latter Day Saints.

“Great,” I thought, “he’s a Mormon. He caught me off guard while I was looking in the cart or I would have walked away. Here comes the sales pitch.”

He introduced himself and I introduced myself as Jody, the youth minister at First Baptist Church, hoping that throwing around my religious credentials would dissuade him from trying to convert me. Instead, he surprised me by saying that he hoped I didn’t have anything that would melt on the way home since it was such a hot day. He told me that he was on his two year mission and that he had just arrived in town a couple of months ago. Then he surprised me even more by saying that if I ever needed any help with anything, like mowing my yard, to feel free to ask him or any of the other Mormon missionaries. He gave me a big smile and told me to have a nice day, taking my cart and leaving it in the closest cart return spot. No sales pitch, no argument about how the Book of Mormon is just as important as the Bible, just putting up a cart for someone on a very hot day.

As I drove home, a couple of things struck me about this short exchange. The first was my own lousy attitude in assuming that talking with this guy would be a waste of my time and wanting to avoid any contact with him. I was so wrapped up in myself and what I had to do that I was going out of my way to avoid people who might be “annoyances” instead of seeing people that way that God sees them and looking for opportunities to show love.

The second thought followed quickly behind, “I know why the Mormons are getting so many converts while biblical churches are struggling.” This guy was genuinely nice and helpful. He was friendly and didn’t mind going out of his way to help others. He was spending two years of his life not pursuing an education or trying to get girls, but going to a strange city to help put grocery carts up and share a little about his faith with others.

A couple of years ago, Alanna and I went to Salt Lake City and while we were there, we went downtown to the Tabernacle, the headquarters of the LDS Church. Again, I was struck by the friendliness and the willingness to take time and talk with a stranger. How does a stranger feel when they walk into our church? Are they struck by our friendliness or do they leave without being noticed? Do people take time to genuinely talk with them, or is interacted limited to a quick handshake?

When people see Christians out in the world, the malls, the schools, the Wal-Mart parking lots, what impression do we give? I fear that many times, the only thing visibly “Christian” about us when we go out is our bumper stickers. When we witness, do we share ourselves and our God, or do we pass out tracts and read from a script?

It makes me sad when I encounter people like this young man, first because these wonderful Mormon people are being deceived by the enemy, and most Christians don’t care enough to share the truth with them. Even worse, it makes me sad to see how much more effective Mormons are in interacting with the world than most Christians. We must be willing to go out of our way to share our lives with others and show them love. It’s inconvenient. It’s uncomfortable. But for many people, our lives and our attitudes may be the first glimpse of Jesus some people ever see.