Getting Past the Grade

I was recently with a group of friends talking about some things surrounding the subjects of worship, God, and the Bible. Instead of engaging fully in the conversation, I found myself getting distracted by an irritating underlying question:

“Can I trust what these people are saying?”

Even though it was a group of people that I am very close with, talking about things that were very important to me, the question still loomed in my mind.
Has that ever happened to you?

Maybe it’s just me. I have a very technical, evaluating and systematic mind that loves to mull over details like a fiend. This is good sometimes, bad other times. It’s a great quality when critical thinking is involved, but it does come back to bite me on occasion. I have a tendency to over think things unnecessarily.
The trick to not going crazy is learning to use this strength correctly.

Our pastor Kevin Myers preached a sermon not too long ago about the difference between a critical spirit and a critical eye. It was a very helpful clarification to see that a critical spirit puts negativity into every situation by finding everything that is wrong in what you see. A critical eye, however, looks at a situation and sees how things can get better. One focuses only on the problem, the other on the solution. Which do you think is more helpful?

I worked with a great friend and mentor of mine for years doing specialty repair work on windows and doors. We would go into all kinds of houses, churches and businesses and assess the damage to some very expensive pieces of glass. Every time we had the choice to focus only on the problem (how terrible the damage was), or to focus on finding the solution (how we could fix it).
I was mostly negative, but in his patience and wisdom my mentor drilled into my brain what became our motto: We are problem solvers.” That mantra has made a huge difference in my life.

During the meeting I was telling you about, I suddenly realized what was going through my mind. In that moment it was as if God whispered to me:

“If you could just get beyond trying to grade EVERYTHING everyone is saying, you just might be able to hear me speak to you through them.”

Yeah. Got my attention too.

God moves in mysterious ways, and oftentimes my biggest problem is not that he isn’t speaking, it’s that I’m not listening. He can use anyone or anything to whisper to my longing heart, all I have to do is have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Don’t let a critical spirit, often disguised as a confident assertion that you have the right answers, stop you from hearing what he would say to you.

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The System Is Broken

Earlier this year my wife and I drove down to a part of Atlanta on a Saturday morning. When we arrived at our destination I saw that we would have to pay for parking, even though it was a weekend. So I went to the corner meter, punched in my space number, paid for the time and we went about our business.

As the morning went by, I realized we were getting close to the expiry time on the meter so I went out to the car to move it. I had a little surprise waiting for me under my windshield wiper. Aghast, I looked at the ticket and double checked my meter receipt to make sure I wasn’t mistaken on how much time had gone by since we arrived. Sure enough, I was well within the paid limit. But as I looked a little closer I solved the mystery: I had punched in the wrong number on the meter when paying. I was parked in an unpaid spot.

I looked around for the person who had issued the ticket but they were nowhere to be found. I thought to myself, “surely this won’t be a problem. I paid for the spot, I just paid for the one next to my car.” Boy was I wrong. In the next few days I followed the procedure to the “T.” I sent in my appeal, copies of my receipts, the whole nine yards. I even called and explained my situation to a very unsympathetic employee. Nothing. Despite my efforts, I received a notice to appear in Atlanta Traffic Court on September 19th. That was yesterday.

If you’ve ever had to go through the experience of traffic court, you know that it ranks somewhere close to having jury duty and getting a root canal. This was not a fun experience. After fighting morning traffic, talking to several unhappy people, finding the
room I was supposed to be in and sitting in a busy courtroom for almost three hours, I was not in the best of moods while sitting in my seat. And to think it all could have been avoided if someone would have just listened to me!

I kept going over a single phrase in my mind during this experience:

“The system is broken.”

We have all seen it. Get on a plane and you can see that the system in place for trying to keep people safe is broken. How many people actually watch that safety announcement? The reason why we all hate going to the DMV is because the system in place to make things go faster actually slows everything down. Bills that need to be passed on a government level don’t go through because the interest groups and lobbyists won’t make money from them. It’s all mixed up and messed up. Isn’t the point of these things to help people? Doesn’t anybody see this?

It makes me think of Jesus’ words to the religious leaders of his day in Mark chapter 7: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” The whole problem that these guys had was that they failed to see that God was right in front of them in the person of Christ. They could not see him for who he was because they were too in love with the religious system they put in place to get to God. Sounds a little backwards. Sounds a lot like us.

So before going on a hate spree toward the systems put in place by governments and corporations, I have to ask myself how much I rely on my systems and miss the point. If I’m honest, I often feel good about myself when I have “done the right thing” by serving, reading God’s word, or helping someone else. I followed the system so I win. But the system is just there as a vehicle, and God is the destination. If I don’t get to him in my heart, I didn’t actually do anything.

The judge threw out my case as I knew he would. I started to tell him that I tried to avoid all this, to save him some time and the taxpayers some money. But at that point he was too busy getting on the next case, the next step in the system. So I went home, with more reasons to be grateful.

The Difference Between “stories” and “THE Story”

I believe that it is a universal human trait to be drawn to stories. If you look across the span of history, you can see that the spoken word tradition, theater, and film all revolve around the concept of stories being told. Whether the story is real or made up, the truths conveyed in a story capture the imagination like nothing else can.

Stories seem to be at the very heart of who we are. Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite writers, said, “There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” If you’re around anyone long enough, you are sure to hear something that starts with “There was this one time…” or “When I was your age…” And so it goes.

I believe that this wiring for story has been given to us by God. Our creator certainly knew what he was doing when he made our minds with the capacity to dream of things we have never seen before. But not all stories are equal.

While we are made to love stories, let’s not forget that the bible itself is a story. In fact, the bible is THE Story, the one that matters most of all. This is important to remember when we try to use our love for stories as an avenue to explore other stories in search for God. Don’t get me wrong, finding God in a story is not a worthless pursuit. Many stories can tell us much about ourselves and about the world that God has made. But these stories must remain peripheral to THE Story, to God’s Story. I may love Hemingway’s novels, and they are certainly entertaining and intriguing. But I would be wrong to chase God in Hemingway’s stories to the neglect of the Story revealed to me in God’s word.

I understand the tension. If you grew up in church like me, you can probably recite the stories told to you from a very young age. In time they can seem like reruns on a local cable channel. “Oh I’ve seen this episode before” we mutter as we flip to the next station.

But beware of passing too quickly by the words that we hold to be “living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword.” They are not stories just like the rest of them. They are words straight from the mouth of God.

 

Celebrate stories. Tell stories. Be captivated by stories that take your imagination on a journey. But never forget that God has given you an imagination first so that you can understand the images, climaxes and drama found in his word, not in Stephen King thrillers. The best part about it is that you will never be missing out on “good stories.” The stories in the pages of scripture would stand up against any novel of all time ever. And win.