In the Present Tense

May 14, 2010

Among the Tares

Filed under: Surviving in Church — edoutlook @ 2:40 pm

Recently a young friend of mine asked, “What do you do when you discover your congregation is pretty much all tares?” This, of course, a reference to the parable of “The Wheat and the Tares.”

This question may shock us, but it shouldn’t. We always assume that the  wheat outnumbers the tares by a large margin– but why should that be so? We know that Satan works his hardest within the church, since that is his greatest enemy on Earth. Given human weakness, and ou propensity to pride, it shouldn’t be surprising if, over time, the tares population  increase and the wheat population decreases, perhaps, nearly to the point of extinction within a given congregation.

Over the last 40 years, I have belonged to several tare-dominant congregations. What does one do in that situation? First of all, it depends upon whether God has called you to that congregation, something which is between the individual and God. If you have a spiritual mentor you can trust, you can discuss it with them, but in the end it will be between you and God.

Until you have a definitive answer, you simply have to do the best you can under the circumstances. Here’s what I have learned in tare-land.

One day, when our older daughter was just a toddler, we took her to the grocery store. No sooner had we placed her in the infant seat in the cart, than she called out “Unnnh?” And almost immediately we heard another toddler reply “Unnh!” somewhere out in the grocery aisles. It was a fascinating display of toddler communication. Shana said “Unnh?” meaning, “Any other toddlers in here?” And quickly came the reply, “Yup, over here!”

When living among the tares, that’s our first duty, and our first opportunity– to discover other kindred spirits. Not to sit around and deplore the leadership of the church, or the condition of the believers, but to find another who shares our experience, and whom we can encourage. Over and over again I have used this technique.

Now, we can’t simply go into the sanctuary and say, “Anybody else think this congregation is full of hypocrites?” even if that’s our opinion. Although you’ll certainly have takers, it’s not the opportunity for a rewarding relationship. Instead of highlighting the shortcomings of others, be open about your own struggles. Don’t share all your deepest secrets in such a setting– hypocrites will savage you. But do be willing to say, “You know, I just don’t see things the way most others do here. I don’t think (for example) the evangelistic approaches we use actually do what we want them to.” And be ready to share what you do think.

Yes, you will be criticized. Don’t let that bother you. In a tare congregaation, you’re being criticized anyway. But the upside is that some other kindred spirit will say– perhaps privately, because they’ve been too afraid to reveal their true sentiments in public– “You know, I’ve been thinking the same thing.” In other words, it’s a signal to kindred spirits that you exist.

And then you have an opportunity to help the wheat grow, not just frustrate the schemes of the tares. That’s the first suggestion I have. Seek kindred spirits. Next time I’ll give some other options.

May 3, 2010

The Dry Times

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 11:27 am

I have been going through a time of fairly intense anxiety lately. Its source matters little, but it has made me almost lose hope at times.

In such times, I wonder how it can be that I trust God so little.  Oh, I understand faith– I write and speak of faith. But there are times when it is hard to exercise it.

A number of years ago, one of my best friends was going through a time such as this. Like me, he handled the Word every day. At the time, he was doing his dissertation. But he had come to a time when his relationship with God seemed distant and dry. God seemed far away. Sad to say, I had no advice for him at that time.

Of course, I could have said, “If God seems far away, who do you think moved?” But I find bumper-sticker religion not only not helpful, but annoying. So the Golden Rule prevented me from saying it.

However, this morning, years later, in my own dry time, I have found the answer–for me, for this dry time. I began again the systematic reading of Psalms. You alll probably know of it. Read the psalm for the day– today is May 3, so psalm 3– and every 30th psalm after that: 33, 63, 93, 123. In a month, you will read all of the 150 psalms.

I began reading teh psalms this morning, and immediately hy heart felt hope.  That’s the great thing about the Psalms. They cover the spectrum of human emotions and experience. Are you angry? The Psalmist knows anger. Are you fearful? The Psalmist experienced fear? Are you on the point of despair? There are despairing psalms, too. But the Psalmisst takes every one of these emotions to God. They are not all pretty. Some are almost barbaric. But they are all authentic.

And that is where the hope comes in. When we join in with the psalmist, we realize what he realized: that God loves and accepts us, even at our worst. Scripture describes David as a man after God’s own heart. And the psalms confirm that it was not David’s perfect conduct that made him so; it was in his bringing himself, even the ugly parts, to God.

When we do that, and experience God’s love in spite of our ugliness, it is truly like springs in the desert.

May 1, 2010

Resident Evil*

Filed under: Present Truth, The Incarnation — edoutlook @ 12:41 am

I nearly fell as I sat down on the sagging stained couch, and immediately a strong smell of urine filled the air. The blue-eyed six-year-old with curly blonde locks who could easily pass for a cherub in some medieval painting sat transfixed, killing one on-screen zombie after another . When he ran out of ammunition, a particularly sadistic chainsaw-wielding zombie would rush at his on-screen character and behead him in vivid color. I had to swallow hard, and try not to let my feelings show.

His mother is rarely present when I am there. I am told that she hangs out at the local bars, hoping to find a man to replace the one that fathered the angelic looking boy.  Like many of the homes I visit, it’s difficult to tell exactly how many people live there– a constant traffic of siblings, friends, and neighbors come and go. Some actually spend the nights there.

As the youngest, he lacks the ability and the skill to make him interesting for the older kids, and when he asks an older male– brother, maybe, I do not know– for help with this grisly video game, he is told to go away.

This little guy really needs someone to spend time with him, someone to teach him right from wrong, good from bad. Someone to care. Right now, I am that someone. And I cannot simply tell him to quit playing his gruesome game, cannot lecture him on what it means to be a responsible and caring man. Oh, I could say those words.

But the last thing he needs is another person telling him what is wrong with him. If I have any hopes of helping him, he has to trust me, has to believe I am different, that I really care about him. Telling him his couch stinks, and his entertainment is deplorable– why should he care what I think? So somehow, I have to endure the stench, and the gory game, and win his confidence. I have to convince him that I am on his side. More than that, I have to be on his side.

And so I sit there, steeling myself against the hideous images on the screen, and begin to coach him.  Coach him on how better to slay zombies, and how to accrue points, and how to escape the monster with the chainsaw. When my coaching helps him dispatch a particularly malevolent adversary, he looks at me directly for the first time that day, and flashes a smile. “That worked!” he said.

It is a small thing. Perhaps an unworthy thing, you think. And perhaps you are correct. But I see it as a small beginning, a first step, the first tender shoot of what may become trust. If I help him kill zombies in the video game, he may let me help him learn to live better. Someday, maybe, we can graduate from zombies altogether. Perhaps he will let me share great literature with him. But that is a very long way off. When that green shoot of trust has become a strong tree of friendship.

Sitting there, with the smell of urine in the air, the sadistic laughter of zombies on the screen, next to that little cherub, I get perhaps a taste of the Incarnation.

I get a taste–just a taste, mind you–  of what it must have been like for Jesus to leave the purity and harmony of heaven, and be thrust among human beings. He put up with the filth– both physical and spiritual– for more than thirty years. And then we crucified him. And he still saw us as cherubs, worth dying for.

No wonder it will take eternity to understand divine love. The merest taste of it here fills us with wonder. What will it be like to spend endless time with One who loves us that much!

*some details have been altered to protect confidentiality.

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