A Recovering @$$?&#€

“You’re an @$$?&#€,” my counselor calmly informed me.

“I am not an @$$?&#€,” I shot back.

“Yes. You are an @$$?&#€—and I’m an @$$?%#€, too.”

Believe it or not, it was one of the most formative moments in my life when I realized how messed up I really am.

And you are too.

There’s Actually An Upside To Being An @$$?%#€

Coming from a long line of believers can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because our Christian heritage means we have developed a culture that challenges and expects every person to follow Jesus. Living a remotely evil life is foreign to me.

It can also be a curse, because people like me can easily assume we’re automatically “in.” We also tend to insulate ourselves from the outside world around us. And, as much as I hate to admit it, we can easily become judgmental of people who struggle with sins that our Christian culture has deemed worse than others. To put it bluntly, we have a hard time admitting that we’re @$$?&#€s.

The apostle Paul addressed people like me in Romans chapter 2:

So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? (Verse 3)

I can imagine these words ruffled the feathers of quite a few of Paul’s readers. A sinner?? Me?? God’s judgment?

Paul even accuses his Christian readers of committing the same sins as the Gentiles. In the previous chapter (1:29-31), Paul names the sins of those wicked @$$?&#€s:

They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

From a publishing standpoint, no editor would have let this appear in print because Paul has effectively alienated his readers.

Were Paul’s readers actually committing these acts? Based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:21-30, the answer is yes. According to Jesus, when you’re angry at someone, you’re guilty of murder. Ever lusted after someone? Then you’re guilty of adultery.

Paul reinforces this by reminding his readers that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Being Good Isn’t Enough

But the gist of Paul’s point is this: Going to church isn’t enough. Reading the Neighborhood Café blog isn’t enough. Growing up in a Christian family isn’t enough. We simply can’t do enough to be saved from God’s wrath. We’re all @$$?&#€s. We may not commit heinous crimes, but we commit sins of the heart–sins like envy, murder, strife, gossip, arrogance…the list goes on and on.

How then can anyone be saved??

Paul answers the question later in Romans, but rather than point to the antidote, I encourage you to meditate on this reality. We can’t do enough to satisfy God’s wrath against sin. We cannot be good enough to save ourselves.

The psalmist in Psalm 10 offers us a window into resolving this dilemma:

You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry (Psalm 10:17).

God responds to the cry of the afflicted. When we see ourselves as we really are—people created in the image of God who have become infected and afflicted by sin—then we can begin our recovery.

Michael co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado with Eugene Scott. His family fully knows that he’s an @$$?&#€.

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In our Hearts Grief and Grace often Ride Side by Side

By Eugene C. Scott

“Red Rocks is one of the finest places on the planet to perform,” James Taylor said near the end of his show last night.*

He’s right.

Towering above us ancient and unmovable were Ship Rock on the left and Creation Rock on the right. Taylor’s smooth, ageless voice filling the space between. Rock and wind and sky surrounded us while song and poetry and story filled us. The lights of Denver danced in the night sky above the back wall of the amphitheater. It was remarkable.

“There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range,” Taylor sang his famous lullaby. I closed my eyes and imagined that cowboy and sang along to myself, “deep greens and blues are the colors I choose, won’t you let me go down in my dreams?” I breathed deep.

But Taylor was painting a different picture of life than the one many Coloradans had lived out in the last four days. I opened my eyes and saw Alameda Boulevard stretched out west to east in a straight line of lights from the foothills to Aurora. There on the far horizon I imagined one of the lights was the theater. There still lurking was the pain and heart ache of twelve innocent people dying and many more being wounded physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Guilt buffeted against my peace. Should I be enjoying myself? How can this beauty, my sense of well-being, co-exist with that?

Still they seemed to. Drawing my eyes and heart back to the stage–to the here and now, to what I can be and do–Taylor sang, “Shower the people you love with love.”

And I could see, on the screen, in his now creased 64 year-old face, his alive but tired eyes, that he too has known pain. Yet he still believed what he was singing.

Maybe JT, right there on stage, without knowing it, was living out a truth: that in our hearts grief and grace often ride side by side.

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his famous poem “Christmas Bells:”

“And in despair I bowed my head

‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;

‘For hate is strong

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth good-will to men!’

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Maybe that’s the thing. Song, poetry–art in general–remind us of this dichotomy of life. In the midst of horrific pain and evil, beauty is undiminished. Grace prevails. Maybe it’s even made more beautiful. James Taylor put on one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. In a stunning setting. The clarity and sweetness of his voice matched the clarity and power of the message I heard God whisper in my heart. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

*July 23, 2012. This may be a slight paraphrase since I did not write his quote down word for word.

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Don’t Do Life On Your Own

On July 20th I was reminded how much we all need people in our lives who care for us.  I was shocked when I woke up on Friday and found out that a madman had opened fire on the audience during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.  I am sickened that people went out for the night to see a movie and now families have been ripped apart.

That Friday morning, after leaving for work, my dad sent me a text.  He wanted to tell me he loves me and is proud of me.  My dad is over sentimental, but I don’t really mind.  I am glad I have a family that cares for me.

Having such a loving family makes me wonder what happened to the shooter.  Why was he such a loner?  I’ve heard reports from people who played soccer with him in high school or sat next to him in grad school that he never connected with anyone.  That he was just odd.

We may never know why the shooter didn’t have a community around him, that loved him and supported him.  He probably thought he was better off alone.

I think, especially after the movie massacre, that’s utterly wrong.  We need people in our lives to help us celebrate life’s joys, to help us grieve life’s sorrows, and to help us recover after we’ve been hurt.  I pray that the people directly affected by the shooting in Aurora don’t shut themselves in.  I hope that my city of Denver and state of Colorado continues to reach out to these families in the months and years to come.

Our world may be broken, but if you and I set out to show our neighbors love and respect, maybe, just maybe we will see true healing.

I try to live by what Jesus says, which is hard, because I’m not perfect, but he commands me to “Love my neighbors as I love myself.”  How can we do that if we live in seclusion or if we just rely on our own strength?

Over the last year I have found a group of friends who love and support one another.  We meet almost every Monday night for dinner and games.  It is a very fun time that often ends with us praying for one another.  I’m very thankful for each person in the group, because I know I am supported, and  I don’t have to live my life alone.

Do you have people in your life?  I’ve been talking about living spiritually in my blog a bit this year.  I’m finding the number one thing I need to do to live spiritually is to connect with God and let him connect you to a healthy community.  I can’t live my life on my own.  I hope you don’t either.  I know it can be hard to open up to other people, but the reward is worth the risk.

God will redeem this horrible tragedy.  I believe, “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Paul, the man who wrote the above quote, had seen many atrocities, but also, as an early Christian leader, he’d seen Christ work miracles.  He knew that God will take what has been broken and heal it.  The scar may never fully disappear, but if we let him, it will turn into something beautiful.  And that will happen when we connect with the people around us.

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Your Shelter In The Storm

“Don’t worry,” I reassured my friend Sandi. “We don’t get tornadoes here in Denver.”

While in high school, my friend Sandi and I were hanging out in a nearby park on a spring afternoon when the clouds turned into a downpour. We jumped into my car, but when the rain turned to golfball-size hail, I knew we needed to find shelter. Driving through the neighborhood, I spotted a vacant garage-like awning adjacent to a house, so I drove underneath it while we waited for the storm to pass.

After the storm calmed down, I dropped off Sandi at her house and then drove home. To my astonishment, when I turned on the radio I discovered that a tornado had indeed hit Denver. In fact, it had followed a nearby freeway before skipping over us and then landing about a mile away where it continued it’s destructive path.

The awning sheltered my car from serious damage. But I also encountered another shelter during that experience…

What Made King David’s Shelter So Strong?

Although people point to him as Israel’s greatest king and a man after God’s heart, David was no stranger to adversity. We don’t know the context into which David wrote Psalm 7, but it’s obvious that his life was in danger.The psalm was likely written while he was on the run from Saul—because the title says the psalm is a response to Cush, a Benjamite, and we know Saul incited the Benjamites against David (see 1 Samuel 22:7).

Regardless, while in danger David begins the psalm by writing, “O Lord my God, I take refuge in you” (verse 1). A refuge is literally a shelter in a storm.

But how did David find refuge in God? I think it resembled my experience with the hailstorm. In the same way that I trusted the awning to protect my car, David trusted God to protect him. David still encountered opposition, but he trusted in God’s goodness and power to protect him.

In addition to that, David found a way to commune with God. Writing Psalm 7 was one way that David found refuge in God. He even wrote the psalm in the present tense: “I take refuge in you.” Not “I want to take refuge in you” or  “I remember that one time when I took refuge in you.” By journaling his thoughts, David  experienced the shelter of God’s love. Many of the psalms we read are journal entries of conversations (poetry!) between David and God.

Taking refuge in God involves placing our trust in God to protect and to provide, but it also includes ways for us to “take refuge in the shelter of [his] wings,” as David writes in Psalm 61:4. It means finding reassurance that can only come from being with him.

How do you find refuge in God?

Michael co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado with Eugene Scott. Listening to the music of Jesus Culture helps him find refuge when he’s in distress. 

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Why I Love/Hate Blogging and Why You Should Too

Once upon a time I wrote a weekly email for all of my friends called “God Sightings.” This was long ago when AOL ruled the world and people ran to the store and back while their computers where “dialing up.” I’m not sure, but I think dinosaurs also went extinct during this period. By this period I mean while AOL was dialing up.

In “God Sightings” I usually told a story about seeing God in the everyday and mundane things of life. People really liked it. Or so they said.

Then someone suggested I write a blog. Being the faithful Lemming that I am I leaped into the blogging world.

Since that day I have had a love/hate relationship with blogging.

  • I love blogging because the written word is powerful

I have dreamed of being a writer ever since the day I read “Go, Dog. Go!” by P.D. Eastman for the first time as a child. From that day forward I drowned myself in books. The written word has rescued me from loneliness, depression, and ignorance. Words strung together to form pictures and ideas have sailed me into new worlds. From the Bible to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” the written word has changed the world.

All this reading gave me an ache to tell stories that move others the way so many books have transported and transformed me.

I love blogging because it is to writers what a blank canvas and full palette of paints is to an artist. Blogging is my invitation to tell stories on screen.

  • I hate blogging because it saps the strength of the written word

There may be as many as 164 million blogs on the internet right now. Too much information. Thus we skim.

Skimming is sliding your eyes over a piece of writing looking for interesting or relevant ideas. By definition it means to not go deep. Most “how to blog” blogs claim this is how most readers interact with your blog. Therefore, they say, write short, easy to read blogs.

But skimming naturally promotes lower comprehension in the reader and a shallow development of ideas in the writer. I may have lost you already.

Blogging may be making both writer and reader shallow says Patricia Greenfield, from UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center.

I hate blogging because the thoughts and ideas that have transformed the human race cannot be communicated in word “tags” or how to articles.

  • I love blogging for its easy access to an audience

Every writer knows, finding an audience is difficult. My wife is a faithful and honest reader of my work. But writing loses its appeal when only your mom and friends read it. There are over 2 billion internet users. That’s one heck of a potential audience. And blogging is free.

When I wrote articles for magazines or the Vail Daily my potential audience numbered only in the thousands. Plus blogging bypasses editors and query letters and–worse yet–rejection letters.

Blogging allows us to connect in ways paper communication rarely dreams of.

  • I hate blogging because the audience is an enigma 

I don’t get blogging. When I write for magazines, I know each magazine has a set and defined audience. One does not write a hunting story for a parenting magazine.

What do lurkers in the blogosphere want? I have no idea. And neither do the billions of experts blogging about writing blogs. Blogging is like fly fishing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Will the fish even see my fly?

Write short how to blogs, they say. Yet Lesley Carter writes one of the most successful blogs out there. It is often long, personal, and more of a story than a list.

And comments and the “like button” are no help. Liking may not mean the person actually likes your blog. They may actually be just fishing for followers on their own blog. Why, for example, did another blogger like my blog about God, when said blogger claims to be an atheist on their blog?  I hope it’s because of the content of the blog not just fishing.

Blogging is a daily frustration because slapping Tim Tebow’s name in my title gets me more hits than working hard on well thought out and well written prose.

I hate that.

I love/hate blogging because every time I post, I am already writing my next blog and at the same time vowing to quit blogging and write something serious. Like you, I post my blog and check my stats over and over because I love the instant feedback and responsiveness to the written word blogging provides. I respond to those who have taken my words seriously.

At the same time I castigate myself for my Lemming-like behavior and my addictive slavishness. I long for the simple days of just writing. Of taking an idea and shaping it and letting it go. But maybe that’s all blogging is anyway.

How about you? How do you love/hate this blogging world?

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In-N-Out: My Weekend In San Diego

On June 30th I experienced the best fast food burger I’d ever eaten.  I went to In-N-Out Burger for the first time.  It was as good as advertised and well worth the 28 year wait.  Plus, eating at the burger joint, which has a much deserved cult like following, capped off an extremely great weekend.

The day before, I stumbled out of bed in Colorado, a perfect state to live in, save for the lack of In-N-Out Burgers, and boarded a plane at an unhealthy hour of 6:00-am for San Diego.

The real reason for my early flight was a wedding.  My good friend RJ was to be married on the beach behind the Catamaran Resort.  RJ and I were in a men’s life group in college called Rootz (The spelling is still being argued over).  Over the years our friendship deepened over our love of sports (I have to constantly forgive him for being a Patriots fan) and adventures.  Our friendship grew stronger when I moved to Guatemala.

No, RJ didn’t ever visit, he was too busy trying to find his life’s calling here in the states, and I don’t blame him, because if he hadn’t, he never would have met his future wife.  No, RJ was one of the few from Rootz who stayed in contact with me while I was in Guatemala.  His commitment to the friendship meant a ton to me, and so when I received the invitation to his wedding in the mail, I knew I needed to be there.

His wedding was at 3-pm on Friday, June 29th, the same day as my early flight.  I would’ve loved to have spent more time in San Diego, but on my meager budget I could only afford one night.  I boarded my plane in hot Colorado, leaving the horrible forest fires behind, and half a morning later I walked out of the San Diego Airport.  The clear blue sky and 70 degree temperature instantly made me love the city.

Around 2-pm I started making my way to the Catamaran Hotel with my friend Rob.  We’d decided to walk over to the wedding, only a three mile walk, which is nothing when the sky is clear blue sky and cool breeze comforts you along the way.  Walking is also a plus because Rob found a 20 dollar bill along the way.  My discovery wasn’t as cool, but when I saw that one of the wedding guests was wearing sandals I was ecstatic!  Without hesitation I peeled off my hot dress shoes and slid on my sandals.

The wedding was beautiful.  RJ and his wife, Andrea, couldn’t have asked for a better day.  Andrea was gorgeous and RJ looked stellar.  But I think the wedding could’ve been in bland Wichita (my apologies go out to Marinés, my only friend who lives in the little Kansas town) and I still would have been thrilled to be there.  Yes, it was a blast to dance the night away, to take a ferry across Mission Bay at midnight, but nothing compared to being there for my friend.

I wanted to be at the wedding to let RJ know I supported him and Andrea and that I would be praying for them as they took the next step in their lives.

I haven’t been able to attend all of the weddings that I’ve been invited to, but as I danced, ate, and spent a little time talking to RJ, I knew this was the best way I could say thank you for being my friend.

I believe strongly in staying connected with people.  Sometimes it takes only a phone call and sometimes it takes a plane ride.  I guess that’s why I went to the wedding, but it’s also why I went to In-N-Out Burger.  The day after the wedding, after a great breakfast with RJ and Andrea, I met up with another friend who lives in San Diego.   Kasey and I had worked together in Guatemala.  We hadn’t talked in almost a year, since we’d both moved back, but as we ate, our friendship felt instantly renewed.

Maybe that’s what having a Dr Pepper, animal style french fries, and a burger with special sauce will do.  Or maybe that’s what happens when you reach out to your friends.  After we ate our burgers Kasey drove me back to the airport.  I was exhausted.  My trip to San Diego truly had been in and out, but even though it was so quick, it was very much worth it.

For me, even a quick trip is worth reconnecting with friends and showing them that you care about them.  I mean if we didn’t have friends and family, who would we love and be loved by?  Or more importantly who would take us to In-N-Out Burger?

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Avoiding Shortcuts To Nowhere

Years ago, our family lived in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. After spending most of my life in Denver, where the streets run north and south in straight lines, Philadelphia threw me for a loop. Literally.

Many of the roads in Philly date back hundreds of years. One of the main roads in an outlying town is called “Cowpath Road.” Obviously, the road was a converted cow path. Cows don’t walk in straight lines. This is just one of many examples of Philadelphia’s meandering roads.

So at times, when the traffic on the two-lane roads backed up, I tried taking side streets to get ahead. On more than one occasion, my “shortcut” brought me back to my starting point. I was literally driving in circles.

That’s often the case when we take shortcuts in our lives.

Shortcuts To God Will Lead You Nowhere

Growing up in the church, I’ve witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly in church leadership. At various stages in my life as a pastor, I must admit that I’ve done my part in presenting a poor example of leadership as well. So please understand that I’m not casting stones.

Our human nature gravitates toward following charismatic individuals who speak to us on behalf of God. Often, this is the result of our laziness. Relying on someone who will “stand in” for God is like opting for the Cliff’s Notes version of a great novel. Rather than read the Bible for ourselves and seek an intimate relationship with God, we prefer that someone do it for us.

Moses, Israel’s first great leader, was concerned that after he died, they would follow false prophets who would lead them away from God. So Moses warned Israel, “It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere” (Deuteronomy 13:4).

When our walk with God is dependent upon the leaders we follow, we set ourselves up for tremendous disappointment and pain.

Pastors, TV preachers, televangelists, and authors all must be compared with the plumb line of Scripture. Just because they say something that sounds good, or they say something that we want to be true—doesn’t make it true! Many have led well-meaning believers astray. And history continues to repeat itself.

Not long ago, I witnessed a church split that affected thousands of people. Some of the people who were damaged by the fallout were devastated and vowed never again to return to church or trust a church leader. In my judgment, far too many of those people needlessly followed the Senior Pastor rather than God.

My friends, please join me in following Moses’ advice. Let’s follow God and avoid the unnecessary disappointment and pain that inevitably meets people who depend on fallible men and women for their walk with God.

Shortcuts in our walk with God lead us nowhere.

What shortcuts have you tried in your walk with God? Where did they lead you? If you were hurt from the experience, how did you recover? Have you recovered?

Why would God want us to avoid following people instead of him?

What does this tell you about God?

Michael co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado with Eugene Scott.

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