God isn’t interested

Just when you think you’re doing a good job it seems like things come crashing down on you. Just when you think you’re doing a decent job keeping up with the culture and fighting the power and letting the light shine, you realize the odds are literally a million to one. It’s a war we’re losing. Yet we squabble over the stupidest little details. While we bicker, souls are lost.

God isn’t interested in our hymnal. He’s not interested in the check we write when the offering plate is coming. He doesn’t care if we’re inside the church building three times a week. He could care less if our cars are decked out with shiny metal fishes or bumper stickers about abortion. He’s not impressed if we pray before meals, or if we read our Bibles in public. God won’t give you bonus points for wearing a tie or a fancy dress on Sunday morning.

God doesn’t give a rip about all the religious trappings. What he does care about is our heart. Do we truly love him and does that truly show in our lives? Countless times in the Old Testament God cried out that he didn’t want the burnt offerings. The smell of sacrifices made God sick. Why? Because the hearts and lives behind those sacrifices weren’t following God’s commands. They were ignoring the alien, the fatherless and the widow. The oppressed were not being uplifted, neighbors were not being loved, and righteousness was not seen across the land.

Sin stinks. Don’t think you can fool God with a Christian t-shirt or a quick prayer in McDonald’s. God doesn’t care. He cares when you toss your half-eaten Big Mac in the trash and walk past the homeless guy. God cares when you break the speedlimit and sing your favorite praise song at the top of your lungs. God cares when you ignore the hurting girl in class who needs something as simple as a smile. Don’t think you’re in like flint just because you follow the man-made rules. God doesn’t care about our religious expecations. He cares about your heart. And that’s something you can’t fake.

What Can I Give Back to God?

What can I give back to God
for the blessings he’s poured out on me?
I’ll lift high the cup of salvation – a toast to God!
I’ll pray in the name of God;
I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do
And I’ll do it together with his people.
(Psalms 116:12-14, The Message)
(Quoted by Bono before “Where the Streets Have No Name”)

The blessings of God are a tremendous burden and weight. Who am I to deserve what I have? Who am I to squander my wealth while so many die hungry? Growing up you never quite realize.

It hits home on a crisp Fall evening after Daylight savings time, when the night sky is unusually dark, and you realize the darkness has set in for a season. You walk a little faster, and steal a glimpse inside an apartment window as you pass by. That first-floor dwelling looks shabby and crowded. You spot several children on the floor, crammed into what must pass for a bedroom. A window is broken, covered for what seems like years with plywood. The security door usually hangs open, blowing in the wind.

And I walk on by. I only notice in the first place because I’m on foot, impoverished enough to take the bus to work, but rich enough to not know what life is like at the bottom of the rung.

I am one of the elite. I was raised in one of the richest counties in America. I grew up in a loving family with plenty of money. I shouldn’t sugarcoat things; we weren’t perfect. For many years my parents’ marriage was a facade, until the kids were old enough and to let it crumble to pieces. A few years later it was patched together again with the grace of God.

But we didn’t lack anything growing up. There was food on the table, we were healthy and had access to doctors. We had braces and glasses when we need them, even if we didn’t want them. We had a yard to play in, and yard to work in. I had my own bedroom, bigger than my brothers, with my own desk and dresser. I had toys, I had a bike, I had my assorted collections from over the years. We went out to eat on Friday nights, and my brother and I each got two quarters for two arcade games, to pass the time while we waited for our food.

My schools had everything you could ask for. In fourth and fifth grade I entered a magnet program. I took accelerated classes. My teachers had the materials they needed, every child in every class had a copy of the book they needed. Many kids even had the resources to go buy their own copy if they wanted.

When it came time to drive, my parents had the resources to provide me with a car. A job came with the car, to help pay the insurance. But gas and many of the repairs were covered by the bank of Dad. Even when I managed to screw up I was forgiven and life went on.

I received the higher education of my choice, and although I’m still paying for it, strapped with the middle-class luxury of debt, half of it was covered by my parents. My wife and I were married in a church with all the trimmings, thanks to the generosity of our parents. My college wheels turned into the down payment for my first car when my parents bought back the truck they gave me for school.

I live in a modest apartment, fully furnished, heated and air-conditioned. Water flows from the faucet, hot or cold. My wife and I drive a 2002 model car. We both have jobs we enjoy, not exactly making the big bucks, but making money enough to cover our expenses and save a little for the future.

I live in a free society and have the freedom to do what I want, say what I want, and believe in what I want. I worship my God with no penalties or restrictions.

I live in an age of amazing technological advancements. We’re so advanced we have to find ways to burn off the extra food we consume. We invent ways to be active just to give ourselves exercise — so different from a few hundred years ago when the sweat of a man’s brow also kept him from being overweight. Everything in my life is designed to make things faster, all so I can get to playing with my myriad of toys.

I’m writing these thoughts on a top of the line computer, connected to the Internet where I can access vast stores of information and connect with people all across the planet.

I am the favored majority. I am the favored race, the favored gender, the favored religion, the favored economic class. I live in a land of vast opportunity. Resources are available, safety nets are in place, others are watching my back.

What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured out on me? This is the question of my generation, the question anyone like me must answer with our lives. I cannot, in good conscience, squander my prosperity. I cannot, in good conscience, live for myself. I am not my own. I was bought with a price, and I must repay that debt. I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do, and I’ll do it together with his people.

Thoughts on Mister Rogers

“I think children can spot a phony a mile away,” says Fred Rogers, probably the most non-phony guy on TV, the star of the show many of us watched not-so long ago: “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Okay, so you probably don’t watch it anymore, but that show was top-notch. Mister Rogers knew we could spot a fake, so he was just himself. And because he was real, we listened. That’s a lesson we could all learn. We posted a story today on passageway.org about Mister Rogers, and it was quite the nostalgic trip for me. The best part about the article is the audio clips in the sidebar. Mister Rogers has to be slowest talking man alive. Check it out. No seriously, check it out. You should also visit Mister Rogers’ Web site. You can watch the cool “Picture Picture” video where they show you how to make crayons.

We also posted this off-beat, sketch comedy video on passageway.org today, by a comedy troupe known as HappyFunTime. The video has this odd, slapstick appeal and I just think it’s funny. You should check it out, too. (it stars the legendary Blaine Howard from the band Trace.)

And just in case you think I’m only plugging my job, I do have some deeper thoughts as well.

Why are we so influenced by what other people think? Personally I don’t think I’m a big time victim of this any more, but when I was in high school it used to matter to me a lot more. It didn’t affect me as much as some people — I would sit at my desk quietly and not change based on what other people thought. But it still bothered me. It drove a lot of what I did and how I acted or didn’t act, the simple thought of what other people thought of me. Am I cool? Am I accepted? I spent so much time worrying about how I looked or if I was making a fool of myself that I probably looked like that much more of an idiot.

Our entire society seems to be focused on impressing others and the value of others’ opinions of you. Whatever happened to your own opinion of yourself? Can’t I just be liked for being me? You go through the grocery check out line and there’s all these magazine headlines telling you how to be someone else, telling you how to impress someone else, telling you how to be cool.

Since graduating college and entering the real world I’ve shed a lot of those insecurities. I’m not quite sure how I did it, but I don’t care as much anymore what other people think. If my hair’s messed up or is not the latest style (it’s not), I’m not that concerned. Sometimes I wish I could have had this attitude in high school. I would be scared to do the smallest thing, like stand outside a classroom or ask a question because I was afraid I’d look like a dork. And it had a much bigger impact on my relationships with my classmates. Starting a conversation with someone I didn’t know very well was totally out of the question. They were too cool for me, or too stuck up or too whatever. I would slip inside my own little shell and watch the world go on around me. What a waste.

Why can’t we just accept one another for who we are, the way we are? You don’t need to impress me. Geez, as Mister Rogers says, you’re special just because you’re you. And that’s not ‘special’ in any kind of diminutive sense. You’re cool because you’re you, period.

Fox in the Parking Lot

I saw a fox today, trotting behind the parking lot of my apartment. It was orange with the bushy tail, just like you see in wildlife postcards. I never imagined there would be a predator that size in the city. It’s not like it’s big or anything, but it’s something to keep the rodent population in check (one of which decided the corner of my office would be a good place to spend the evening).

Life Kicks You in the Butt

Life tends to sneak up behind you and kick you in the butt when you’re not paying attention. My wife’s youngest sister announced her engagement this past week. I’m used to people my own age getting married, but I’m not accustomed to hearing plans for holy matrimony from people younger than me. I’ve also heard pregnancy announcements from two friends a few years older than me. No big deal, that’s to be expected. But last week one of my college roommates and his wife announced that they’re expecting a baby.

Just when you’re too busy with weekend commitments, overtime at work, bills to pay and supper to make, life happens. Sometimes I feel like I get too wrapped up in the details, like the fact that I need to take the car in for an oil change on Thursday and I should really look into consolidating some school loans, and don’t we need to go grocery shopping — the next thing you know I’ve lost sight of what’s really important.

Or I’m just getting old, however you want to look at it. Which must be really depressing for anyone older than 23 who’s reading this, and probably really funny for anyone under 23.

Dallas Trip for BGEA

Jars of Clay performing during the Student Night of the Metroplex Mission with Billy Graham in Texas Stadium in Dallas, Texas. 48,000 passageway.org Backstage Pass CD-ROMs were given out that evening, thus my reason for being there. 82,000 people showed up that night, a new record for Texas Stadium. Of course the record only lasted one day. Sunday night’s attendance was 83,500.

I also have a fun treat for everyone, the Bushtop. George H.W. Bush spoke at the Mission on Thursday night, and we got this great photo of Bush blinking. I thought it made a nice Max Headroom-esque desktop. So there you have it: the Bushtop.

Hello, I’m a Volunteer Youth Leader

I haven’t been a teenager for a few years. But for some reason I decided to volunteer with them. I’m a youth group leader at my church now. It’s a small combined junior and senior high group of about 30 kids, though I’m told the number varies a lot. The numbers are in favor of the junior highers, and of course I’m working with the senior highers. Tonight there were four senior high guys. We’re going to have to work on that.

I volunteered with the youth group out of guilt. Well not really. But I did go biking with the priest (I still don’t know what to call the head of the Episcopal church: priest, pastor, reverend – whatever.) and his wife and they ever so subtly encouraged me to get involved at church. But guilt isn’t the real reason I volunteered. The priest has three services and lots of parishioners to deal with so there wasn’t any guilt tripping to speak of. I wanted to get involved in the church. I wanted to get to know people, and that doesn’t happen when you only show up on Sunday morning.

I’m not sure why I chose the youth group. Maybe it’s because I think I can still relate to teens, since I’m only 23. But then the first night I realized that I’m 9 years older than the average youth group kid. Yikes. And maybe it’s because at my job I work on a youth web site and the two fit together pretty well. But I don’t like that reason. It makes it sound like I’m using the youth group to stay hip for my job. Which isn’t true. If that were the case I’d be surveying the kids about their favorite bands and trying to promote the web site like a bad radio personality. I haven’t mentioned the site yet.

The other issue in all of this is that I’m skipping town next summer. In July 2003 my wife and I will be moving to Charlotte, North Carolina. Which means I have about ten months with this group. Not a lot of time. I guess I’m hoping some investment is better than no investment. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

Some things about being a teenager never change. There are still the quiet kids who come because their parents make them. They don’t have a lot of friends in the group, and they remind me a lot of myself. Of course it’s hard to tell, some kids can be completely different at church and at school. Some teens have lots of friends at school and none at church, so they’re quiet and reserved. Trying to get a conversation going with some of these teens is like pulling teeth. I feel like such a dork asking about school and projects and homework and after school activities just to find out what these kids do. I keep telling myself they appreciate the attention and they’re not just looking behind me for an excuse to run away.

I’m working with teens because I remember what it was like. I know that doesn’t mean anything now, their experiences will be different than my experiences. But I remember high school being hard. I remember walking into the lunch room and seeing no one to eat with. I remember putting up with these two clods for an entire semester. I was the butt of every joke, the low man on the totem pole, and I put up with it because it was better than eating by myself. I remember walking the halls and feeling so weighed down by the pressure to make friends and be cool and do this or that. I remember sitting at my desk and wishing the bell would ring so I wouldn’t feel like such a dork for sitting there and not chatting it up about boyfriends or girlfriends or sex or football or whatever. I didn’t have the clothes, I didn’t have the looks, I didn’t have the personality, I didn’t have any of what it took to make it in high school. It wasn’t like I sought those things. I knew they wouldn’t make any difference. But I still cared about them. I was so incredibly withdrawn and self-conscious. I was one of those teens who acted one way in youth group and another way in school. I didn’t intend to, it’s just that the teens at church were friendly. The teens at school were, well, teens. High school is hard. Maybe in some small way I can make it easier.