I’m Not “A Pretty Good Person”

I'm Not "A Pretty Good Person"

Last Sunday morning, while on family vacation in Sacramento, I decided to get up “early” and go to the little old Presbyterian church there in my mother-in-law’s neighborhood.

For the 8 years I’ve been coming here each summer, I was always curious about that place. So I showed up in shorts, loafers, and a checkered button down shirt.

I appreciate how I can just arrive at a church filled with strangers, yet we all have an understanding of what we have in common; even though they’ve never seen me before.

Something I’ve gained a better understanding of over the years is that my current place in life typically illustrates the words of the Bible and the pastor’s sermon.

While he spoke about Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son, the main theme I took away was this:

We are all sinners in need of God’s grace. We are not good enough on our own.

This is actually a boldly countercultural statement. I’ve learned that most people who are not Christians will typically and quickly summarize why they don’t need to believe in Jesus as the Son of God:

“I’m a pretty good person. I’m not an ax murderer or anything.”

But Christianity teaches the opposite:

I am not a pretty good person. My pride and selfish thoughts alone are enough to keep me from being a “good person”, as they serve as evidence I was born with a sinful nature. Therefore, I need God’s salvation from myself, if nothing else; because my nature creates spiritual distance between God and myself.

But “the church of mainstream secular America”, by default, believes that if you’re a “pretty good person” then you don’t really need God.

So for a person to quickly and openly admit they’re not a “pretty good person,” it’s definitely countercultural.

The irony is that a stereotype of Christians is that they are “holier than though”; in other words, self-righteous and judgmental.

For the record, let me be clear. I am completely aware that I am not perfect. I am corrupted.

How can I judge anyone else when I am too distracted with the plank in my own eye?

I am not better than anyone; and if I ever think I am, then I am living in open rebellion against everything Jesus taught His followers.

Christianity is definitely offensive, though. If for no other reason, because it casts all of us in the same boat:

None of us are “pretty good people”. It’s only by setting aside our prideful thoughts of “I’m a pretty good person” that we can begin to learn what Jesus came to teach us.

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My Christian Faith in a “Social Media Fearing” Society

If I ever ended up on a reality TV show, one where they had me living in a house with people of opposing beliefs and lifestyles and habits, I’m not sure there would be enough drama from me to make the episode controversial enough to be considered modern entertainment.

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There are 2 main reasons for this:

Here’s the 1st reason.

Despite me being concrete on what I believe in and stand for, as my Christian faith is the basis of my existence, my role is not to “convert” anyone who is close-minded to what I believe.

I will gladly share my faith with anyone who I believe is searching for hope; which is what I believe Jesus and His followers demonstrated in the New Testament.

But Jesus didn’t seem to argue with nonbelievers and skeptics.

The people He seemed to really have an issue with were the people of His day who believed they already had their golden ticket into Heaven, but who weren’t willing to truly surrender their hearts to God’s will for their lives; which typically involved simply loving their neighbors as themselves.

(Apparently though, it’s not that simple; otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this today.)

Therefore, I feel I have no business in arguing with a “non-believer” of Christ, the Messiah; whether it’s a person of a different religion, or a skeptic of religion, or someone who simply doesn’t participate in religion whatsoever.

I feel that if my faith is not evident through my attitude and actions, words alone definitely won’t help the situation.

From a secular (and marketing) perspective, what good is a professing Christian on a reality TV show if he or she isn’t willing to argue, lose their cool, and demonstrate the opposite of Jesus’s mentality? The hypocrisy of Christians sells.

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But if a Christian is actually helping others overseas to get access to clean water, that’s apparently not worth prime time advertising dollars.

I feel the media is quick to give pedestals to the most opinionated and argumentative professing Christians, which helps make the rest of us appear as fools.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I fully accept my title as “fool for Christ’s sake,” as the Apostle Paul puts it.

But what if there were more examples of… I guess I could simply say… level-headed, nonjudgmental Christians in the media?

I don’t think America is really accustomed to that.

Here’s the 2nd reason I don’t think I would make for a controversial enough episode in a reality TV show:

I would quickly and openly admit I am not perfect.

There’s a stereotype that Christians are the most judgmental people; that they think they are “holier than thou.”

If I was on a reality TV show, the 1st thing I would proclaim to the other people in the house was that I definitely, absolutely do not believe I am better than anyone else.

I would share with them that my understanding of the Christian faith is not that we are people who think we are perfect.

It’s quite the opposite. I know for a fact I am far from perfect and therefore have no right to judge anyone else. Instead, I depend on God’s grace not only for eternal salvation from my imperfect state of being, but also for constant salvation from my greedy, selfish mindset.

I believe we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. I’m simply in the same depraved state as everyone else.

Our society (on both sides of the fence) places so much value on the morality/immorality of homosexuality, as the controversial topic only further divides America in its own civil culture war.

I remain publicly mute on the topic, because I’d rather focus on the things listed in the Bible that I personally struggle with every day:

Like pride.

And greed.

And gossip.

(Those are items people tend to overlook in the New Testament the moment they see a reference of homosexuality; even when those things are listed together with homosexuality in the same verse.)

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Our society actually places a high value on gossip, in case you haven’t noticed.

What should be a shameful thing is instead worshiped.

Let me be clear: While our society is divided on homosexuality, we love gossip.

In actuality, gossip is condemned in the Bible; the whole way throughout the book.

But it’s easier for us to question the things in the Bible that only some people relate to, like homosexuality… while the more identifiable issues to the mainstream, like pride and greed and gossip, are virtually excused.

So if I was in a reality TV show, my role would be to help other people alongside me. For example, if I was placed in a house with self-proclaimed slobs, I would help them do their dishes every day before I would allow myself to lose my temper with them.

Granted, I would still fear my scenes could be edited to be taken out of context, packaged into bite-size morsels, so convenient to be blasted all over Twitter- making me out to be the judgmental character I most wished to disassociate myself from.

After all, I fear that in some regards, as we live in a time when the Internet has become the modern day Tower of Babel, we have learned to fear social media (and its potential backlash) more than God Himself.

At the same time, isn’t it safe to say that we as a culture even worship social media, as well?

It’s sad, but that concept helps me better understand the concept of both worshiping and fearing God; though at first it seems like a paradox.

In a reality TV show setting, I would consider myself as a “competitor” in a contest, whose agenda was to prove that Christianity is serving others; not judging them.

Christianity is about demonstrating love, by being patient and kind and understanding and forgiving.

If we dumb down Christianity to “heaven or hell” or “traditional marriage or gay marriage” or “Republican or Democrat”, then I feel we’re not talking about the same faith Jesus taught His followers.

It seems that would be a compromised and ultimately misleading version of the very Gospel we are called to share with our “neighbors”…

Now, the question is, would an American audience buy into a concept so revolutionary… that serving others, not judging them, is what faith in Jesus is all about?

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Easy Like Sunday Morning: Christianity in a Nut Shell

Ah, the good ole days of flannel boards and McGee & Me.

Flannel boards will always remain in the warmest parts of my heart and childhood memories.  Nothing brought those Biblical accounts to life more than a cloth cut-out of a generic bearded Jewish man who could play the part of Moses parting the Red Sea, then less than a minute later he could be Abraham ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, or even Noah gathering all the animals on the ark.

And when the teacher was lazy or absent, we got to watch one of thirteen McGee and Me tapes, featuring Nick Martin and his crazy cartoon sidekick.  Lesson learned- you CAN beat the bully in a skateboarding contest, if even he cheats.  Also, if you sneak out to see a scary 3-D movie with your best buddy Lewis, you’re parents are going to find out and ground you.  And of course, it’s never a good idea to try to impress your friends by telling them that your Native American Indian neighbor eats rabbits.  Because he just needs a friend.

But eventually, my faith had to be able to grow beyond the entertaining and miraculous stories I heard each Sunday morning.

I admit.  It’s not easy anymore for another human being to “challenge me” in my thinking, regarding my faith.  I can spit out a hundred cliché Sunday School answers whenever I’m asked anything Christian related.  Because for those of us who “grew up in church”, we do know all the answers.

At least all the answers for the questions we are tiredly asked again and again by Christian leaders in a church setting.  You just can’t go wrong with “God”, “Jesus”, “the Holy Spirit”, “Heaven”, “good”, “bad”, “Satan”, “hell”, “pray and read the Bible”, “invite them to church”, or “tell them about Jesus”.

Typically, I don’t spend money or time on Christian marketed items.  Books that generically tell me I need to stop being “downtrodden by the world” and “stand on God’s promises” to “expand my territory”.  T-shirts that illegally parody business logos and make them “cute” by throwing in the name of Jesus.  A sticker to put on the back window of my car that arrogantly boasts “straight pride”, picks fights with atheists and Pro-Choicers, or announces that God is Republican.

Besides, I think most Christians know by now that God has switched His allegiance from the Republican Party to Ron Paul.

Just kidding.  Sort of.

But thank God, in the past two years, I have been challenged in my thinking, regarding my faith, more so than any other time in my life.

How?  1) I got married.  2) My small group from church read a book called The Hole in the Gospel.  3) I was asked an allegorical question about a bicycle.

Getting married to a faithful Christian has helped me to mature not just because of her confidence when mine is sagging, but also because marriage shows me how selfish I can be with my time and space.  Two years later, I’m much more easy-going about stuff that only mattered in The World of Me.

The Hole in Our Gospel is the book that my Wednesday night small group (Bible Study) decided to read.  Seriously, it is the most life-changing book I’ve ever read.  The Bible is the most influential.  But the Hole in Our Gospel has actually helped me to personally identify what the Bible and my purpose in my life are all about.

For me, my faith had always come down Ephesians 2:8-9 in the Bible: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, not that of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one may boast.

That Bible passage has everything a Baptist likes to hear, regarding one’s spiritual wellbeing: “grace”, “faith”, and “gift of God”.

It doesn’t say anything about helping other people, doing good works, or giving away our time, money, and energy.  Because as long as we splice in “Jesus loves you, died for you, rose from the grave, and will give you eternal life in Heaven if you say this three sentence prayer…”, then we are fulfilling our duty as a good Christian.  Get people to say a prayer and go to church.  Get them to stop cussing, drinking, and smoking- because that improvement shows their “spiritual fruits”.

As a Baptist, I had always been leery of the phrase “works”.  Because it had been engrained in my brain fibers that God’s salvation couldn’t be “earned”.  I understood from the book of James (2:20) that “works” were necessary to prove that my faith to be sincere.

The problem is that I, along with many Protestants just like me, naturally had been led to believe that “good works” means “good behavior”; and “good behavior” is a list of things Christians don’t do- including watching R-rated movies (unless they’re war-based: What Movie Rating Does Real Life Get?) and drinking anything with alcohol (both vanilla extract and Nyquil are approved, fortunately- and though participants should keep it on the down low, drinking wine is permitted for special private events like wedding anniversaries: Water into Wine).

But what really opened up my mind was reading (and eventually memorizing) the verse that directly followed my convenient “faith is all you need” Bible passage.  The next verse, verse 10, says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared behforehand so that we would walk in them.”

Created for good works?  Not good behavior?  It’s a lot more serious if I truly take the words of Christ seriously when in the Gospel of John (13:34), Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

And finally, it hit me: Oh, Jesus actually cares about people starving in poor countries, despite their “wrong religious beliefs” and “stupid civil wars” and “corrupt governments”.

As hard as it was for me to process, God cares just as much that I as a Christian do my part to physically help those people as He wants me to in some direct or indirect way (supporting missionaries) learn about Jesus.

That financially helping these random, dying, desperate people across the world actually equates in God’s eyes as me loving them as He loves me.

With that being said, I no longer believe that a person goes to Heaven just because they said “the sinner’s prayer” when they were at a Vacation Bible School when they were in the 5th grade.  I believe, like Jesus’ half-brother James wrote in his book (2:20) that faith without works is dead.

And works means that I help people who are less fortunate (even if they themselves in deed got themselves in that situation), because that shows them God’s love, and I don’t necessary have to preach to them as I’m doing it.  I just need to start by helping them.

True, no one can earn God’s love or salvation.  Nor does believing in Jesus mean a person doesn’t go to hell.  Jesus himself said in the Gospel of Matthew (7:21): “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.”

So what is the will of God for us?  What does He want us to do besides obey His law, read the Bible, pray, and tell others about Jesus?  (All of which are “Sunday School answers” I referred to earlier.)

For a start, my wife and I knew it meant sponsoring a child named Gueslin in South America.  So now we have this postcard hanging on our fridge with a picture of a sad-looking 5 year-old boy who I wish I could take care of myself.  We send him money every month and pray for him and his family as we think about him.

We know that raising our own child (due in November) in our faith is what God wants.  We know that helping anyone in need is what He wants.  And we know that we can’t always wait for those opportunities to come to us.  I’m working on making it a new obsession: Finding ways to help people.  Because God likes that.

So where does the bicycle come into the picture?  A few months ago someone showed me a Xeroxed copy of a bicycle and asked me: “Which tire is faith and which tire is works?

The back tire is associated with the power while the front is associated with balance and steering.  Both are very important and necessary.  But if a bicycle would only work if one tire was faith and the other was works, which tire should be the front and which should be the back?

I was actually asked this in a group of people.  Half of us believed one way.  The rest, the other way.

My answer: The back tire is works, the front tire is faith.

Because if faith is dead with out works, so is a bike immobile with no one to actually pedal the thing.  The front tire only moves because the back one does.

And basically, if I’m actually understanding what Jesus said, loving God means loving other people the way He loves me.

I can’t rely on reading the Bible and praying to move me anywhere in my faith.  That’s what steers me.  Instead, I actually have to move my feet.

Russian Roulette with a Made in China Cap Gun

I’ve heard the phrase “we’re not promised tomorrow” enough throughout my lifetime that it’s become a cliché. And what else can I really do to truly “live my life” and “make the most of it”? My issue is that I’m too aware of how short and precious life is.

During the summer of 1998, right before my senior year of high school, I spent a few weeks at a music camp in which us kids stayed overnight in the dorms of the college at Snead State in Gadsden, AL. I wasn’t the kind of kid who looked for trouble when not supervised. So instead of sneaking out at night, one of the things us teenage boys did in that dorm was play Russian Roulette, with a toy cap gun that was made in China.

Because, what else would we do?

In other words, the seven of us staying in that hall gathered in one room around a toy gun that we loaded with its accompanying ammunition, the equivalent of Snap and Pops. It had a barrel just like a real gun and we would only place one “bullet” in at a time. Meaning that there was only a one-in-six chance that the toy gun would make a big “POP!” when the trigger was pulled.

We all took a turn, passing the toy gun to the next guy after we pressed it to our own temple and pulled the trigger. If it was just a “blank”, we stayed in the game. If it went off, we were out.

It was a very entertaining game. Actually addicting.

But at the same time, it made us nervous. Our hearts would speed up in the anticipation. All over a popping sound from a toy gun bought at a gas station.

Just a dumb game we played that summer. But for me, it brought some reality to the fact of how true that analogy is in every day life. I do everything possible to eat and drink healthy, to exercise regularly, and to reduce stress. Preventing disease and cancer is a lifestyle to me.

Yet, as people who smoke cigarettes and who regularly eat fast food and who don’t make an effort to exercise daily all tell me, “we all gotta go sometime”.

There are still car accidents. There are still those random deaths like an unexpected brain aneurisms, and I don’t even know that that is.

I am completely over-aware that every morning I wake up, it’s a game of Russian roulette. Maybe not a one-in-six chance of life ending. Maybe more like one-in-a-half-a-million.

But to me, I’m only alive another day because God let it happen. So really, it’s not a matter of any chances. Not one-in-an-anything.

And that truth is one of the most sobering, frightful, and yet grace-filled thoughts I can think of.