Don’t Waste Your Wounds

Erik Cooper —  October 21, 2014 — 2 Comments

Last week, I found myself in yet another pain-filled conversation with a former pastor transitioning from a dysfunctional church position. What he shared of his story wasn’t all that unique: big dreams morphed into misaligned expectations leading to an ugly ending at the hands of a controlling and insecure leader.

There are two sides to every story, but regardless of where fault actually lies on the blame-spectrum, the fact is that a very broken man and his family of 5 were sent reeling into the devastating spiral of joblessness, moving do a new city, and wrestling with their identity. And through this incredibly difficult season, a vital decision awaits.

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Wounds.

We’ve all got them. Some are obviously much deeper and more gut-wrenching than others, but if your life still feels relatively “wound-free” it’s probably because you just haven’t lived long enough yet.

Broken relationships.

Failed businesses.

Marriage infidelity.

Lost loved-ones.

Bankruptcy.

Rebellious children.

Life-threatening illness.

(Sin has undoubtedly broken God’s perfect world).

Suffering doesn’t’ have to make a good Dateline special to be a devastating reality. In it’s simplest form, suffering occurs when our desires and our circumstances have a gap. When our circumstances don’t match our desires, we suffer (Keller).

So if suffering is inevitable for us all (Jesus himself promised it), then what we do with this pain is by far the most important question.

Disclaimer: there are levels of grief and loss with which I am completely unacquainted. This is not to make light of those who have tragically lost a spouse or stared down a medical death sentence. The lasting ramifications of these experiences may never be fully overcome.

But let’s be honest, a lot of us gleefully ride our scars into a cesspool of distrust, skepticism, and apathy. We move away from relationships. We condemn institutions. We discard people. We become smug and self-righteous. And that’s a shame.

Cynicism and bitterness are a waste of life’s wounds. Suffering wants to birth much more beautiful things in our lives than that.

Every trouble carries with it the chance for change. It points at the arrogance in me, the self-worship, the things I’m looking to in life for security, identity, and happiness outside of Jesus Christ. And in that way, life’s difficulties can actually be quite a gift. Never enjoyable, desired, or sought after (those people are weird), yet eternally rich with potential beauty and goodness.

Are you wasting your wounds on cheap, cynical counterfeits? Bitterness is easy, but those scars are much too valuable to spend on junk.

Last night I was helping my 4th grade son study for a big science test. There were moments I became frustrated with him, partially because he just wasn’t grasping some of the concepts, and partially because I was afraid of what his teacher would think of my parenting skills if he struggled on another test.

Yesterday morning, I sat across the table from two bankers our company has done business with in the past. I found myself striving to engage them in intelligent conversation, partially because I’m genuinely curious about the commercial real estate market here in Indianapolis, and partially because I wanted to prove to them I wasn’t ignorant in my new position here at CRF.

Today, I sit at my computer screen writing this post, partially because I believe I have something of value to share with you, and partially because I long for clicks, likes, and shares to validate my perspectives and fragile ego as a writer.

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The message of the Gospel is clear: everything I truly need in Jesus I already have. Yet every single day, multiple times and in multiple ways, I revert back to my old identity-shaping faux pas. I try to earn my way. I try to prove my worth. I strive to do, instead of resting in what’s already been done.

I try to be my own savior.

And instead of doing things from love, I do things for love.

This is our constant battle, and the greatest challenge of the Christian life. Our identity and value are not goals out there yet to be achieved. They’re a gift that is given. Do you want to live a more powerful, meaningful, loving, selfless, fulfilling life? Take the gift.

As believers, “It is finished” is our starting line.

The Fear Economy

Erik Cooper —  September 24, 2014 — Leave a comment

There are plenty of genuinely scary things in this world. Radical militants committed to death and destruction. The fragility of the global economy. The spread of deadly diseases. The rise in violent crime. Planes flying into the sides of skyscrapers. Wars, and bombings, and sickness, and political infighting, and money, and corrupt leaders, and dating NFL running backs.

One quick glance at today’s news headlines and there’s enough fear to script a whole new franchise of horror films. And while we undeniably live in a broken world with broken people who do broken things, it also seems that savvy minds have learned a scary truth (pun intended):

Fear sells.

If I can awaken your fear gene, trip your fear wire, make you afraid something bad will happen, that you’ll lose something of value, fall behind the masses, miss out on a big opportunity, damage the growth and development of your children (pick a category, any category), I can control you. Fear makes you take action (or paralyzes you from taking action). So if I can scare you enough in just the right places, I can get you to do exactly what I want. That is scary.

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Here are just a few messages I’ve noted lately where someone was trying to play my fears for their own purposes:

Civilization as we know it will be in jeopardy if Republicans win the senate in November.”

For centuries, politicians have attached doomsday predictions to the possible election of their opponents, scaring potential voters into taking action in order to keep them in power.

“Did Jesus reveal Barack Obama as the antichrist?”

This ridiculous YouTube video is making its rounds in conservative christian circles. Fundamentalists of this stripe know they can raise up an army against of biblically illiterate followers by scaring them with “prophecy.”

“The world is moving to solar power! Don’t be the only one of your neighbors to miss out on this groundbreaking opportunity!”

This commercial plays ad-nauseum on satellite radio, stirring my subconscious fear of falling behind what everyone else is doing. What if I miss my chance!?!?

“Don’t put your money in the Wall Street casino! Earn guaranteed, safe returns that won’t be impacted by the next inevitable market crash. Just call this number…”

I’ve read about the Great Depression. I remember the 2008 financial crisis. That’s scary stuff! Maybe they’re right? Or maybe they’re just selling something.

“If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?”

Some of you may disagree, but this method of “evangelism” has always bothered me. It may scare people into making a decision that looks good on church statistical forms, but I’ve seen very few life-long christians who were “terrified into the Kingdom.”

Listen, I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture of a perfect world where nothing bad ever happens. Disasters are real. Tragedy happens. Suffering is an undeniable part of the human journey. But as followers Christ, I pray we grasp the scripture my mom often quoted to an 8-year-old me when I was scared to go to bed at night:

“For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
–2 Timothy 1:7

A lot of people will be selling fear today. Do yourself a favor and don’t buy.

My Biggest Regret as a Pastor

Erik Cooper —  September 3, 2014 — 13 Comments

It’s been two years since I stepped away from full-time church ministry and into my new leadership role with a missions-based non-profit here in Indianapolis. Time almost always yields perspective, and as the months have quietly ticked by, I’ve been able to look back on my dozen-year pastoral journey with a clear sense of joy, pride (the good kind), and appreciation. Those were incredibly fruitful years I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But there’s one giant regret that I just can’t seem to shake. Something I think young pastors and leaders might want to take time to ponder. Let me explain.

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Like most young leaders, my sincere zeal to launch the church into the 21st century focused my energies squarely on all the things that were wrong, broken, or ridiculous about the way we did ministry. (And let’s be honest, there are some large targets to aim at).

Empty tradition was my main enemy. And so began the long, arduous task of unraveling all the “religious” irrelevancy that was most certainly reducing christianity’s impact in today’s progressive culture. Everything “Church” was parsed, questioned, and unwound until most conversations took on the forlorn overtones of the opening lines of Ecclesiastes:

“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”
–Ecclesiastes 1:2

(In my opinion, this is a classic sign of over-analysis).

So I cast off, threw out, and abandoned the “absurd ways” of my predecessors. After all, we’d progressed. I knew better. I could see it all so much clearer. Yet after all the unwinding was complete, it started to feel like there wasn’t much of anything left.

Many of you are probably quietly arguing that this kind of critique is a vital part of a healthy rebirthing process. And you (might) be right. I don’t regret challenging the status quo. But if I had it to do all over again…

…I would be less consumed with tearing down rote tradition, and more obsessed with restoring rich meaning.

Focusing on the restoration of meaning will ultimately neutralize many rote traditions, but fixating on the destruction of tradition won’t get you meaning. (It may get you some things you didn’t want). There’s a not-so-subtle difference between meticulously restoring the beauty of an historic house, and zealously disassembling it and tearing it to the ground.

The generation behind me craves meaning. They want substance. Something bigger than themselves. Something rich with foundation and significance. The Church has been around for two-thousand years. Some of the best answers to “institutional irrelevancy” might actually be found by looking backward. (And I’m not talking about back to the 1950s).

Maybe I’m just getting old and losing my edge. Or maybe there’s something worthwhile here to ponder. I’ll let you decide.

The Sin of Being Good

Erik Cooper —  August 20, 2014 — 8 Comments

I’m a church kid. I admit it. Let all Petra listening, Michael W. Smith dressing, Amy Grant secular crossover questioning 40-somethings stand up and be counted! I’m not ashamed.

OK, maybe I’m a little ashamed (mostly of the Petra Praise phenomenon, but alas).

I was a good kid. I had a sensitive heart. I didn’t like to disappoint my parents, my teachers, my youth pastors, and most of all…God. And so I embraced the quintessential good kid persona. I went to church, abstained from sex, didn’t swear, never drank alcohol, avoided rated R movies, parties on the weekends, and hanging Metallica posters on my wall.

And I don’t regret any of it. In fact, if I had it to do over again I would attempt to play all my cards exactly the same way. Being good solves a whole lot of problems, rest assured.

But it doesn’t make you righteous.

And that’s where I fear many of us (myself included) often stumble. We’ve defined sin and righteousness as behaviors, actions, and outward tangibles we can measure and see.

  • Going to a rated R movie = Sin
  • Going to a church youth group = Righteousness
  • Partying on the weekend = Sin
  • Avoiding cuss words = Righteousness

(The list could go endlessly on).

And that’s no small mistake. Why? You may have some difficulty believing this, but our desire to be rebellious pleasure seekers and our discipline to be squeaky-clean rule-followers actually originate in the same place…

…our insatiable desire to be our own savior.

Yeah, I know. It was a hard one for me to swallow, too. But sin isn’t rooted in our actions, it’s rooted in where we find our identity. In whom we place our trust.

It’s easy to see the sin in pleasure-seeking and self-obsession. It’s harder to convince yourself it’s just as present in your line-towing and self-righteousness. But be honest, our motivation in “being good” originates in our insatiable longing to secure our identity in our works. We want to be in control. We want to prove we’re “better than them.” We want to save ourselves.

  • If I obey, God will approve of me.
  • If I follow the rules, God will do what I want Him to do.
  • If I do good, God will do good things to me.

I am the source, my actions are the trigger, and God responds to me. I find my identity in my work for Him instead of His work for me. I begin to trust in my “goodness” and not His.

And that, my friends, is sin. The sin of “being good.”

So what am I suggesting? Should we throw out our attempts to be good right along with those old CCM CD’s? Of course not (some of those albums will be collector’s items soon). Being good is good. It’s wise. I highly recommend it.

But it’s not righteousness. That can only come from one place, and it’s not you. The Gospel is for “good people,” too.