A Theology of Expression

Some people have a problem with being thankful. I am not one of those people.

I thank God for things all the time. But I am not one of those irrational people who thanks God for everything – like inventing cars, or soda, or diabetic socks, or bacon. God didn’t invent those things, stupid people. But I usually pray a prayer of thanksgiving every time I eat a peanut butter sandwich that goes something like this: “God, thank you for creating the man who invented peanut butter.” Now, you might say that is George Washington Carver, but you’d be doubly wrong. So, maybe I have to retract my statement about bacon, but the rest still stands.

I’m so glad that God has inspired so many men and women to think, invent, and create.

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can cause a person to paint a picture, write a song, develop an invention, or pen Scripture. All forms of expression come from some form of inspiration. The key to discovering a great form of expression is to look at the inspiration. God is the highest form of inspiration there is. He is the Creator of the whole universe – from the stars in the sky to the fleas on a dog. Every night when I walk into my house, I look up at those stars and am continually reminded at how inspiring God is.

Just like you can look at a great painting and see the heart of the artist, you can look at the heart of mankind and see the hand of God. You can look at Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and see the love of God. You can see the conquest of Joshua and see the wrath of God. You read the Psalms and see how God inspires man. The Bible itself is another example of God inspiring man – in more ways than one.

Expression is only as good as the inspiration behind it. If your inspiration is temporary, if it is fleeting, if it can fail you, your expression loses significance. People who don’t live in an area where there are peanuts probably don’t care for the inspiration behind peanut butter. People who write songs about sex or drugs or money don’t create inspiration. But songs and paintings can be temporary or about current situations in time and still hold eternal significance depending on the inspiration. Great expression always inspires. It’s contagious.

My pastor said a few weeks ago that the gospel isn’t centered on expressing oneself but denying oneself. This is one of those statements though with a paradoxical twist – it is only when denying themselves that people can truly express themselves. If God is the highest form of inspiration, the highest form of expression comes through Him. This can be heard in Handel’s Messiah, seen in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or experienced while walking through a park on a nice day.

A great thing about expression is it speaks about and to its inspiration regardless of how explicit that mention might be. There are some great worship songs out there that are glorifying and directly speak to God’s character. Then there are those songs that speak through metaphor or situations to point to spiritual and godly truths. I think one of the disasters today of the Christian music industry is its forcefulness of the inclusion of God. People love NEEDTOBREATHE and Switchfoot because their expression isn’t forced; it is fluid and it is natural.

One of my favorite songs of all-time is called “John Wayne Gacy Jr” by Sufjan Stevens. In the song, Stevens talks about one of the most prolific serial killers to ever live. The song is disgusting and it leaves the listener feeling sickened as the song progresses. In the heart, the listener feels how wretched this killer was. Then in the last line of the song, Stevens says: “In reality, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”

There it is.

What a phenomenal song to express the fallen nature of mankind and to show the morality engraved in the hearts of man to feel sickened by evil. It is something I loved about the show Breaking Bad. No show in the history of television has painted such a vivid picture of right and wrong. This is the key to great expression. This is a key that opens many doors and leads the artist down many corridors. This is the key that allows one to think outside the box, outside of themselves, and potentially outside their present reality.

What inspires you?

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The Highest Hypocrite – Galatians 2:11-14

“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” – Galatians 2:11-14

It isn’t easy being a pastor. I haven’t been doing it long, but I now understand why many young college graduates don’t stay in it for long. Don’t get me wrong I love what I do. There are just a lot of things I didn’t expect about being a pastor. Many people don’t understand the work put into ministry. A pastor never truly has a day off. Statistically it is one of the lowest paying professions. Not to mention the toll it takes mentally and spiritually to look over and disciple a church.

The hardest thing I have faced since starting in ministry has been my appearance to those in church. In a sense, many pastors are seen as the prime example of Christlikeness. Many expect the pastor to be perfect, which makes sense since the pastor should have the characteristics of Christ. Unfortunately, pastors, like all people, are fallible. They may get life mostly right, but they will still mess up. They will get angry for unjustifiable reasons. They might hold false opinions that they think are in line with Christ. But people don’t expect a pastor to be human. They don’t think of him or her as a person who needs time on their own. They don’t think of them as someone in need of a friend.

My biggest struggle is wrestling with this balance of being seen as the closest representative to Christ to my congregants while dealing with my own humanity.

It is rather scary.

Peter was the person in Acts whom God revealed the revelation to about eating animals. Peter was the one who shared with the other Christians that God had repealed the food laws of the Torah. While this revelation to the apostles opened up the realization of the Gentiles’ inclusion into the faith, it also freed the Jews up from the Law as well. Even Peter broke these old food rules and started eating like the rest of the world.

But at one point, a group came to Peter while Peter was in Antioch, and they roused Peter into eating with the Jews again. Even though Peter didn’t follow the food laws, he broke away from his mixed Christian group of Jews and Gentiles, and he went back to the non-Christian Jews of the Temple. This caused a huge divide between the Jews and Gentiles as many of the Jewish Christians started excluding their brothers in Christ for their former brothers of the Jewish faith.

When Paul got to the area he couldn’t believe what had happened. In Galatians, Paul writes that Peter stood condemned before God! This is a heavy accusation to put on this pillar of faith. But Paul was right. Peter had not only gone to the former way of living, but he had also caused a rift between the People of God. Paul was not pleased! He called Peter out for his hypocrisy. He called Peter out for his humanity.

This passage is a good reminder to me that even the greatest pastors fail. Not only so, but if you follow Acts, it seems like Peter repented and that all was right in Acts 15 and throughout the rest of the book. Paul was willing to write about this pillars disobedience. Peter was willing to change.

It is a great picture of love, of accountability, of humanity, and of repentance.

Are there areas in your life where you are hypocritical? Do you have a higher standard for others than you do for yourself? Do you love some more than others? Do you have grace on some while condemning others? Or are you like Peter, and exclude people who don’t fit into your circle?

Remember that it is okay to fail. It is okay to mess up. Even Peter had faults. I know I need to be reminded of that sometimes. But don’t use your humanity as an excuse to sin and act hypocritically. Find accountability. Change your ways. Love God and love people.

Abstracting the Abstract into Application

I love to read. Whenever I get the chance, I love to find a good, inspiring, book. I sit down, grab some coffee, and usually don’t stop until the book is complete. Books are usually pretty easy to read. Chapters and ideas blend together as they collide in my cranium. They cascade into knowledge, and I feel a sense of enlightenment, peace, and utter tranquility.

Reading is definitely an acquired taste. I hated to read before I got to college. I would read every now and then books that sounded interesting or ones that were ascending in pop culture. I still have trouble finishing books actually. Most of the books I read are inspirational or informational, so the bulk of the book is spent on exposition with the end on application.

I HATE APPLICATION!

It’s not that I only like abstract thoughts that have no concrete ideas… I mean, just ignore the fact that my ministry is called, “The Abstract.” As much as my brain enjoys the endorphin rush of existential bliss, I have a hearty realization that life must be lived. To learn is to live. There is no way around it. But I hate when authors try to apply information for me. I feel like it is belittling, a crutch, helping me hobble along when I can walk fine without it.

Facts are concrete. Application is fluid.

Applying what is known is different for every person. It’s like the “Five Love Languages.” One person might express their love by taking out the trash. Another person might buy someone flowers. Another even might work magic with their words. The application of love, or anything, is left in the hands of the acquired.

Just make sure you have a balance. Don’t be “all upstairs.” If you can’t walk your ideas and passions out the door, then you won’t be able to excel to your fullest. Greatness can only be achieved by doing. Live and learn. Every person that has ever excelled in anything has brought his or her ideas to the realm known as reality.

It is one for us to tell people we love them. It is another to go out and feed the homeless, or to take care of widows. It is one thing for us to tell people we are for peace. It is another for us to allow our peace to be disturbed so that others might have peace. It is another to use love to bring peace.

It is one thing for me to talk about application in a blog. It is another to actually go out and start living what I write.

“… Don’t just talk about love as an idea or a theory. Make it your true way of life, and live in the pattern of gracious love.” – 1 John 3:18 (The Voice)

The Convict’s Confession

I was surprised.

It wasn’t because I got caught. It wasn’t because of the punishment I was going to face, or the disappointment coming from those who expected more from me. I was surprised because I didn’t realize what I did was wrong until after I was found out.

August 30, 2003 started out like any other day. My parents allowed me to have some friends over for my birthday, and we spent the night testing the myth of adolescent metabolic function. We pigged out, joked around, and did everything that you would expect budding teenagers to do. We ended the night by going out for a stroll in my neighborhood.

We knew the kid down the street’s parents weren’t home, and that he and his friend were out toilet-papering houses. One of the boys with us used to house sit for them, so he knew where the key was. It didn’t matter anyway. We lived in the type of neighborhood where people didn’t lock their doors. They had no need to, or so they thought.

The next day when the kid returned to his home, he knew that something was awry. After some minor investigative work, one of the kids in our group (the one who used to house sit for them) confessed that we went in the house. We didn’t trash anything. We didn’t steal anything. But you could imagine the insecurity that the family felt knowing that their sanctuary had been marauded.

It is crazy how God can use the most miserable and bleak situations and turn them into celebrations.

This incident was the “light bulb” I needed. It showed me my own depravity and the depravity of the world, knowing that even “good kids” were subject to actions I thought were only capable of those at the world’s underbelly. Kids of the suburbs need Jesus just as much as the men on death row. I was now proof of that. I experienced it first hand. I might have broken into a house, but through this situation, God had broken into my heart. He chiseled away the mess I was in. And I would never be the same.

When we went to court to plea our case, many of the parents had lawyers advising them to plea, “innocent.” If you know anything of the court system, even if you are guilty it is better to plea innocent, so your lawyer has the chance to work a deal with the judge. Regardless, the idea didn’t sit right with me. I knew I was responsible, and I wanted to show the judge and God that I was willing to pay the earthly consequence despite my heavenly verdict. Sometimes we still have to face consequences on earth that God has pardoned. It is just another portrait of our frailty – pointing to a future hope of reconciliation.

The judge took kindness on us. We got the minimal sentence – no jail time, no community service. I got the incident wiped from my record. People who do a background check on me don’t even know this story. We had to pay a small fine and had to pay a few visits to a probation officer… who was also a pastor.

I remember having to tell my wrestling coach about the incident. Half of the guys who got arrested were on the wrestling team, and we knew that our getting in trouble would affect the team. After we told him what we did, he paused, and then he singled-me-out and rebuked me in front of the whole group. It was my second year being wrestling captain of our middle school team. He told me that by doing what I did, I didn’t do what a leader was supposed to do. I was a follower – doing what I knew was wrong but following regardless. It was a lesson that I have never and will never let myself forget.

Have you ever done something so horrific that you surprised yourself? Have you ever been a follower in a situation where you were supposed to lead the people out of the mess? Have you ever let down the people you cared about most? Are you paying the earthly consequences of actions that have already been forgiven in heaven?

Remember that God is for you. If you seek him, you will find Him. He has His hand outstretched in your direction. He is offering you a gift of reconciliation and grace. You just need to accept it by faith. God is about reconciliation. He is in the healing business… and business is good. If you are in a situation with no visible horizon, know that God loves to make those situations beautiful – just like the sun at dawn.

He will make it beautiful, because He alone gets the glory when He does something we can’t do on our own.

Seek Him. Discover Him. Embrace Him.

The Passion. The Plan. The Purpose.

Pray Hard, Love Hard, Work Hard.

That is Jeanne Mayo’s three-point plan to a successful ministry.

I had the pleasure of seeing Jeanne Mayo work her magic at Oklahoma A/G youth camp this past month. She is an internationally known youth evangelist. But more specifically she is known for her electrifying sermons, her incredible love and compassion, and her sometimes off-putting candor. And fortunately for the people at the youth camp, this was the first camp she spoke at in over 30 years!

It was at one of our staff meetings where Jeanne said her “three-point plan” for ministry. Among a myriad of youth pastors, leaders, and lay people, this very successful pastor, leader, and speaker shared that she didn’t really have a laid out plan of leadership. Her plan was based on passion. It was her passion for God and her passion for people that drove her to success in ministry.

Through the past few months, God has been reminding me that people don’t gravitate towards plans, but they gravitate towards a passion. This idea isn’t my own. I read it first in John Acuff’s book, “Quitter.” In his book on how to achieve one’s dream, Acuff explains that it is easier to sell people to your passion rather than try to sell people to a plan.

I am reminded this even more when I read the bible: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, the words of Jesus himself).

Many times in my own life I start on a plan, and I get so focused on that plan that I end up forcing things and settling. If I start with a passion though, the plan seems to easily flow from what is in my heart. This is true when I organize lessons for my small group, when I evangelize to people, and even when I write new songs for the album I want to record. It is easier to plan with a purpose and passion than find passion and purpose from a plan.

Plain and simple.

What do you have a passion in? Can you use it for God in an innovative or creative way? Many times God uses our passions and natural talents, and with them, He uses them to further expand His kingdom. Don’t be afraid to live passionately, pursue the extraordinary, and from it to plan purposefully. Love Hard, Pray Hard, Work Hard.

Integrity Intact

From the balcony, it was as though the whole kingdom could be seen. The scenery was not only a proclamation of what God had done for the people, but it also laid testament to the character of the man.

Every sermon I’ve ever heard on David has taught me that he was a “man of integrity” – “a man after God’s own heart.” But this day, peering out with parched lips and pinched brows, David’s countenance resembled a madman. Through his adulterous acts, treacherous lies, and the inevitable taking of another’s life, David’s own life speaks truth to what it ACTUALLY means…

To be a man of integrity.

Every now and then you’ll hear a preacher give a message on the topic of integrity. Since we are men and women called to have integrity, this should come by no surprise. Oftentimes, you hear the preacher say that the word stems from “integer” – that having integrity ultimately means to “be whole.” And racing from the pace of general to specific, the preacher proceeds and concedes to shed more light on what he thinks “integrity” is.

At this moment I start wondering in my head what integrity really is. The preacher goes on to describe integrity synonymously with what I would call: sinlessness, divinity, Christ-likeness. By the preacher’s appeal, we are reaching for something that we say can be attained in this lifetime, but by definition can’t. So either we have a wrong idea about our human nature and sin, or we have a wrong idea about integrity. So here is my thought:

Maybe integrity is less about “if” you sin and more about “when” you sin.

I know a lot of people who I would say are persons of integrity. What makes them a person of integrity; what makes them so great, isn’t the fact that they’re perfect. What makes them a person of integrity is the way in which they react when they fail, when they fall, when they sin.

King David, after accomplishing his task and fulfilling his cover-up, was approached by the prophet Nathan. When the prophet brought to light that which David had dug so deep… the true integrity of the king is seen. David fasted and prayed and repented for what he did. You see the seriousness in which David attacked his sin. Where most kings could’ve beheaded the “arrogant” prophet, David knew that the prophet was truly sent from God to bring order to his chaotic life. David was a man of integrity.

Live to be a man or woman of integrity. Strive for holiness, but when you fail, seek repentance. Learn to live a life of David – not of one who commits atrocities, but as one who changes the world with their attitude and repentance. Keep integrity intact.

“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit in me.” –Psalm 51:10

Love Lost

What do we do when we are met with love unrequited,

When we have brothers and sisters living lives of hypocrisy,

When the face of man is seen for what it truly is?

I remember sitting in the campus pastor’s office for our weekly meeting. We went through discussing our usual “weekly” things: my life, struggles, plans, questions. And as we were ending our session, I knew I had to ask Pastor Baker this question. It had been gripping me for days now, and I wasn’t sure who else would really understand. I gritted my teeth before the question finally came out…

“How do you love people who are unloving?”

I didn’t realize how much this had really upset me until the words came out of my mouth. I remember my voice cracking by the end of the sentence, as tears began to form above my cheeks. I went on to explain the situation, the people involved, and the struggle that waged within me with my classmates – students studying for a higher calling – who were behaving worse than gossiping middle-schoolers.

After a long talk, the righteous anger that was welt up inside me subsided, and I left, still unsure of how I should feel. The situation didn’t even really involve me! I was just so stupefied to the fact that one of my friends was being treated in such a way –

As an outcast…

As though it were him who had done something wrong…

1Corinthians 13 is known as the “Love Chapter” in the Bible. No matter who you are, I am sure you’ve probably heard it, whether at a generic church service or even at a wedding. They LOVE to use this chapter at weddings (pun intended). Oftentimes this section in Corinthians is used to describe either the love we have for God or the love that God has for us. But if we treat this passage in such a way we will miss the true meaning that Paul was trying to get across to the people.

Think of being in Corinth in the first century. You have a lot of questions, a lot of different social classes, and even more beliefs on theological issues. There was division within the church, and Paul was willing to write a letter to the Corinthian people to answer their questions. He also wrote to try and bring the church together. In the midst of Paul writing about the church being a unified body and giving them further direction on how to properly edify their group in service, Paul writes 1Corinthians 13 to explain to them how they should love one another.

You should be patient to others, kind to others, you shouldn’t envy what others have, or boast and put yourself over others, or be proud… Paul ends by saying that love never “falls to the ground” (never fails, falls, end, etc). All earthly riches, even the gifts of the spirit, have their ending one day, but love for one another has eternal ramifications.

We are inept to love others. Our culture and our own human natures have forced us to focus inward, and in doing so, we have forgotten what it means to be loving despite our differences. Simple misunderstandings have turned into catastrophes where relationships are broken and friendships are lost.

Should this be how Christians behave?

There is a balance though. Several chapters earlier in the first Corinthian letter, Paul does counsel the church on how to handle a man who was in an act of sin. But there is a difference between objective matters rendering salvation, and subjective opinions such as hobbies and the like. I think the rich part of the Christian faith is that despite all of mankind’s differences, people can be united under the name of Jesus Christ. People from all nations, with a cluster of different hobbies and interests, still all fall at the feet of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

Let’s stop dividing ourselves because of our differences, and let’s learn to truly love one another. We need to take a shot to our pride and remember that we don’t always have to be right about everything. Loving means caring for something outside of ourselves.

Live a life outside of yourself.

Live a life where you realize that there is something existentially greater than you and your circumstances. Pursue selflessness.

Live a life of love.