Help My Unbelief

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.

–Mark 9:24

When I was a child, Christmas was probably my favorite time of year.  I’ll admit it: For me it was more about receiving than giving.  The anticipation was almost too much to bear.  I didn’t mind waiting until Christmas Day to receive my presents, but I hated not knowing what I was getting.  In fact, I would sometimes peel away the tape from wrapped gifts to have a peek at what was underneath, and then I would tape them back up.

My desire to have the answers hasn’t changed much now that I am rapidly approaching my 38th birthday.  Very rarely do I have time for personal reading anymore (my reading time is consumed with ministry training and development), but when I do, I tend to skim a book, even to the point of being “spoiled”, before I actually read it through.  Likewise, I often go into movies having a good idea of what to expect.

When it comes to life, there are no easy answers.  Though we may have an idea of what we are going to do at some point in the future, circumstances (sometimes in our control, but often not) can and will rapidly change things up on us.  It reminds me of a line from the John Lennon song Beautiful Boy: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  I know that some find these uncertainties adventurous, and they enjoy the unveiling of the mysteries as life unfolds.  Not me, though.  I hate not having a good idea of what I will be doing a few months down the road, or a couple of years.  I don’t need to know too far in advance.  I’ve never been one to develop even a strict five-year plan, knowing that the variables of life will undoubtedly render it obsolete.  And I do not need specifics, but I like having a general sense of direction.

When I find myself in situations of uncertainty, I am reminded of the man with the demon-possessed son, who’s story is told in Mark 9.  Jesus tells this man that anything is possible for those who believe.  The man responds, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

What contradictory creatures we are!  We can be fully assured of something in our minds, but when it comes to committing that to our hearts, we easily fail.  My life is built upon the assurance that as long as I faithfully live out my calling to represent Christ and fulfill the mission given to me to bring restoration to brokenness in all the situations I find myself in, God will see me through all things.  However, in the face of imminent uncertainty, it is easy to find myself like Peter walking on the water but looking at the wind and the waves around me.

Of course, as soon as we take our eyes off Jesus, we begin to sink under all that assaults us.  In my case, this usually means that I am overcome with anxiety, apprehension, and despair.  I am so overcome that it is difficult for me to do much of anything.  What, then, is the solution?  As always, it is to fix our eyes on Jesus.  It is to be like Peter, sinking beneath the waves, when he calls out to the Lord to save him.  It is to be like the father of the demon-possessed boy, and exclaim, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

In the long run, it doesn’t really matter what we will be doing five years, five months, or even five minutes from now.  What matters is that wherever we find ourselves, and in whatever situations we find ourselves, we are faithful to our calling.  We do not even need to be successful at what we are doing, as long as we are faithful.  When we are faithful, God will see us through.  After all, we are only called upon to play one small part in the tapestry of human existence.  Someone else will come along and weave their threads into the tapestry where we left off, and the completed work will be better for it.

After all, what is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants who helped you to believe. Each one had a role given to them by the Lord: I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.

–1 Corinthians 3:5-6

The Way Forward

One of my dear friends attended the inauguration of President Trump.  He posted a Facebook Live video of President and Michelle Obama leaving the inauguration.  As they stepped into the helicopter and it lifted, I could hear a few people say things like, “Good riddance!”  This is not the way forward.

Immediately after the inauguration, I saw several people post countdown clocks until the next inauguration, implying that they cannot wait until President Trump is replaced, which will take place, in their minds, in four years.  (Four and eight years ago, I saw republicans post similar things, waiting until the end of President Obama’s term.)  This is not the way forward.

Prior to and since the election of President Trump, I have seen post after post from republicans, mocking those who see things differently than themselves, calling them things like “snowflakes”, and ridiculing their hurt and pain.  At the same time, I have seen democrats accuse all republicans of being racist, misogynistic homophobes.  This is not the way forward.

Our country is sharply divided.  Nothing illustrates this better than the recent presidential election.  President Trump solidly won the election with 304 electoral votes (the only thing that matters), 30 states, and a red blanket across the individual counties of the nation.  When we look at the actual numbers, though, they are not all in the new POTUS’s favor.  Secretary Clinton received over 2.8 million more individual votes than President Trump did, and just a few thousand votes in a handful of states would have swung the electoral college to her favor.  So, though President Trump solidly won the election, it was far from a landslide.  Our nation remains sharply divided.

So, where do we go from here?  Certainly, some will want President Trump and the republican congress to quickly push through whatever changes they want, and others will want the democrats in congress to obstruct whatever they can.  I would like to suggest, however, that there is a better way forward.  Rather than working against one another, we should work together.  Rather than engaging in name-calling, ridicule, accusations, and other things that divide, we should learn how to have a charitable discourse with one another.

In his book A Charitable Discourse, Dr. Dan Boone writes, “If the holy conversation, a generous discourse, is to occur, the labeling must cease.  We are not dealing with labels, we are talking to people.  Forget their political party and economic status, that they beat you in the last board election, that they are different—and remember that Jesus removes labels.  So can we.  Then we might be able to talk” (Location 270).  Have you ever tried to think fondly of someone else who labels you in hurtful ways?  Do you like being mocked for the things that distress you?  Newsflash: Nobody else likes it, either.  If we are to move forward, we need to stop with the name-calling.  As long as this continues, we will not be able to work together, and we will always be opposed to one another.  Power will shift from left to right, and then back again, as the unending struggle for dominance continues.  And we will not have improved at all as a nation.

If you were on the winning side this election season, you may ask, “Why should I listen to them?  We won.  We now have the authority to do whatever we want.”  Well . . . good luck with that.  The pendulum always shifts, and somewhere down the road, the other side will once again control the government.  Would not a better approach be to learn to work together now?  And if you were on the side the lost, you may be filled with anger, fear, and/or despair.  You may not want to have anything to do with those who won.  But is this really the best way to live life?  Protest is fine, and the right to protest is part of what has made America great all along (no, it did not suddenly become great with the inauguration of President Trump), but ultimately real, positive change comes when we learn to work together.  Dr. Boone writes, “When we declare someone an enemy, we unleash something in that person’s direction for which we become responsible . . . By cursing the enemy, we unleash upon him or her the wish for harm to be done, not the desire for good.  This is not the way of Jesus” (Location 380).  Let us not continue as enemies.  Rather, let us learn to listen to one another, understanding that each and every person’s opinion is valid, and figure out a way to work together for the common good.

The best way to come to understand the perspective of others is to spend some time looking at the world from their perspective.  If you won this year, great!  Try to remember how you felt eight years ago when President Obama was elected and inaugurated.  And treat others how you would have like to have been treated.  And if you lost this year, bummer.  Try to remember your excitement eight and four years ago, and be happy for those who won.  And remember, there are more elections in the future.  The peaceful transfer of power is another thing that has made America great all along.

Friends, if we are to continue as a nation, we must learn how to rise above the division.  Let us love one another unconditionally.  Let us try to imagine what it is like to live the lives of others.  Let us stop using our words to harm and demean others.  And let us treat all people with dignity and respect.  We can do better than what we have been doing.  We must do better than what we have been doing.  God, help us.

Boone, Dan.  A Charitable Discourse.  Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2010.  Kindle.

Reflections on the Eve of the Presidential Inauguration

For the last several weeks, I have been pondering what I might write on the eve of the inauguration of a new President of the United States.  Those who know me know that I am no fan of the soon-to-be POTUS.  Neither was I a fan of his primary opponent in the campaign.  Nor am I a fan of the outgoing POTUS.  I guess I just dislike a lot of people.  (Not really, but it sure feels like it sometimes.)  There is not much that I can write that will not alienate me from, well, just about everyone.  Still, I encourage you to assess my words based on the person that you know me to be.

I have a good friend and fellow pastor who is in the District of Columbia right now, eagerly awaiting the inauguration of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States.  He has been a fan of Mr. Trump since the beginning of the campaign.  I don’t get it.  I understand the “But Hillary . . .” argument, but there were quite a few better choices.  It should never have come down to a choice between these two.  But it did, and the States chose Mr. Trump.  Regardless of how flawed I think the President-elect is, I know my friend, and other friends, who are people of good character.  I see very little worthwhile in Mr. Trump, but because I know quite a few people, who are good people, that voted for him, I presume that I am missing something.  I hope that I am proven wrong in my concerns about the President-elect, and I hope that his time in office is a prosperous time for all Americans.

At the moment, I am experiencing an interesting combination of emotions.  It is part dread, part apathy, and part hope.  It is surprisingly similar to what I felt on the eve of the inauguration eight years ago.  I liked President Bush.  I thought that he did an excellent job with all of the challenges that came during his time in office.  I did not vote for him in 2000, but I happily voted for him in 2004.  I did not vote for President Obama.  I was very concerned about the direction he would take the country in.  Now, eight years later, I continue to not be particularly fond of his presidency.  However, I have grown to appreciate his character and the way that he conducts himself.  Based on the way that Mr. Trump ran his campaign, and the way he continues to use Twitter, I think that I am going to miss President Obama’s character.

And that raises an interesting question: During President Clinton’s time in office, the Christian Right opposed him for being an immoral person.  It was a relief to have a good family man like President Bush follow him up.  And after the Bushes moved out of the White House, the Obamas moved in.  What a beautiful family!  President and Mrs. Obama have done well, and I hope that as they transition to private life they will be able to continue as a wholesome family.  And now . . . the Trumps.  I do not need to elaborate.  The President-elect’s history is well-known.  What baffles me is that the very things the Christian Right condemned in President Clinton have been excused by that same group in President-elect Trump.  Yes, I know.  “But Hillary . . .”

Regardless, the States have spoken, and a new President of the United States will take office tomorrow.  Eight years ago, conservative spokesperson Rush Limbaugh very publically wished that President Obama would fail.  In recent weeks, I have seen many memes and comments expressing how all Americans should want President Trump to succeed.  Their argument has been along the lines of this: Why would anyone want the pilot of their airplane, or the captain of their ship, to fail?  I agree with this.  I want President Trump to succeed.  However, it seems a little hypocritical to me that many who agreed with Mr. Limbaugh eight years ago are now condemning those who have raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s presidency.  But . . . everyone is free to his or her opinion, and they have the freedom to voice their opinions.  That is part of what makes this country great.

Speaking of which, that reminds me of one of the things that I have found particularly annoying about the President-elect.  His slogan, “Make America great again,” implies that America is not currently great.  Hogwash.  The United States certainly isn’t without flaws.  However, it has been a great nation, it currently is a great nation, and hopefully it will continue to be a great nation.  Every time I see and hear the slogan, I want to punch . . . well, nothing, because I’m not a violent person.  But I am annoyed by it.

As Mr. Trump’s administration takes the reins of power, I will be praying for them.  I will be praying that God gives them wisdom.  I will be praying that they would learn humility.  I will be praying that they not only focus on greatness, but that they also seek to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed.  I will be praying that in all things, God’s eternal Kingdom, defined not by secular borders but rather wherever shalom reigns, is made known.

Mr. Trump, you’re up.  Mr. President, I wish you success.

A Reflection on Jim & Casper Go to Church

I wrote the following for my Missional Growth and Health class at Northwest Nazarene University.  Given the requirements of the assignment, I did not write all that I could write about this great book.  I highly recommend it.

I was born and raised in a Christian family.  I have been in a worship service almost every Sunday of my life.  Though I did not become a Christ-follower myself until I was fifteen years old, I have always accepted the validity of the Christian message.  Thus, in my most objective and honest moments, I must admit that my objectivity is, in fact, quite lacking.  In his Forward to Henderson and Casper’s book Jim and Casper Go to Church, George Barna writes, “Most churched people have been so immersed in the church world that they have completely lost touch with what it is like to come through the church door and try to fit into a place that has very distinct habits, language, goals, events, titles, architecture, traditions, expectations, and measurements” (Location 112).  Barna’s words describe my own situation well.

Henderson and Casper’s book tells the story of Jim Henderson, a Christian pastor, and Matt Casper, an atheist, as they journey together for two months to several different churches.  Henderson writes, “This is the story of what happens when two guys with polar-opposite worldviews go to church together.  As a Christian, I was overwhelmed by the experience of seeing something I took for granted, through the eyes of an atheist.  It was simply life changing” (Location 371).  People can learn a great deal about themselves when they learn to listen to those different than themselves.  Henderson’s experiences with Casper helped him to become aware of things that churches do that create barriers in connecting with the unchurched, but these experiences also revealed things that churches do that can help bring unity to people from very different backgrounds.  We can and should learn a great deal from this book to help us improve the ways in which we connect with unchurched people in our own settings.

Henderson took Casper to a variety of different churches, including some of America’s leading mega-churches.  First up was Saddleback, the church pastored by Rick Warren.  Casper’s first critique about Saddleback was regarding the music.  He thought that the presentation was top notch, but He did not have a positive reaction to it overall.  Casper, a musician, told Henderson, “The music is too contrived, too slick, too professional, really . . . When it comes to music, I like it pure.  Too much polish and you lose the heartfelt power, you lose the soul of the music, and you’re not gonna move anyone” (Location 533).  He had a similar reaction to the music at Willow Creek: “This stuff doesn’t seem to be doing anything for anybody” (Location 1096).  In contrast, when they visited Lawndale Community Church, a church that connects directly with many people in need, Casper perceived the music differently: “I’m just enjoying the songs more here, even though the call to belief in the words is the same as we’ve seen elsewhere . . . But these folks are singing these words with abandon, real feeling” (Location 1523).  Likewise, Casper had a positive reaction to the music at Imago Dei in Portland: “There’s definitely something much less contrived about the people onstage here . . . There’s something folksy about it” (Location 1904).

Though Casper and I come from different backgrounds, his reaction to the music at these churches is similar to what mine likely would have been.  I am not fond of an overly-produced worship experience.  Music should certainly be done well, and all those involved in the technological side should do their best to keep things running smoothly, but when things are too slick, it seems to me to lose a certain amount of authenticity.  God has called us to come to God in our brokenness, not to try to perfect ourselves first.  I do think that we should desire to bring our best to God, but realistically speaking, our best is insignificant next to the glory of God.  Besides the amount of effort put into the production, though, there was something else about places like Lawndale and Imago Dei that won Casper’s favor.

As Henderson took Casper to Lawndale, Casper had a hard time locating the church at first.  He saw places labeled “Lawndale”, but he did not see what he expected of a regular church building.  Henderson wrote, “Stand on the street in front of Lawndale Community Church, and you’ll see what church growth backward looks like” (Location 1464).  The neighborhood in which the church is located contains Lawndale Health Center, which was started by the church.  Nearby, you can also find Hope House, which is a recovery place for drug addicts.  There is even a pizza restaurant that the church started to provide both a community gathering place and jobs for people that the church is helping through the recovery process.  After hearing the sermon at Lawndale, Casper said, “Too often what I’ve seen thus far is pastors being focused on one thing: saving souls . . . But this guy I get.  I mean, he’s saving people” (Location 1544).  When they visited Imago Dei, they found that the church met in the auditorium of a school building, and most those attending were young people.  In the worship service, they watched a video showing the work of a team from the church in restoring a public park.  Casper responded to the video, “That was excellent . . . They are going out there and making Sacred Spaces, and it’s not about plastering a bunch of Bible quotes or getting in people’s faces.  It’s about making a tangible, visible, practical difference.  I get that” (Location 1924).

Casper’s comments show his concern that so many churches focus on gathering funds simply to produce the church service.  Henderson writes, “But the one question that was far and away the most difficult for me to hear was this one: ‘Jim, is this what Jesus told you guys to do?’” (Location 2732).  Casper asked this question time and again while they were on their journey together.  When Casper saw the evidence of lives being transformed through the work of the church, he could see something worthwhile taking place.  However, far too often, what was most visible was the amount of money spent on production and facilities to house the production.

Casper’s concerns parallel much of what I have found myself thinking in recent years.  In the Great Commission, Jesus told His disciples, “Go . . .”  Often, though, we seem to think that the Great Commission is, “If you build it, they will come.”  I think that facilities are important, but they are not the heart of the Gospel.  We live in a broken world, and God has established the church, with Christ as its head and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to bring restoration to brokenness.  Though the regular worship gathering is important, there is much more that we are called to do.  We gather to be empowered, but then we are to take what we have received and extend it to all those around us.  Casper’s observations are important for us to take note of.  If we are to be a restorative people in the broken world, we need to be less focused on polishing ourselves and more focused on showing love and compassion to all, and especially the marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed.


Henderson, Jim & Matt Casper.  Jim & Casper Go to Church.  Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2007.  Kindle.