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If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ve heard me talk about growing up in a little 10 person church. I talk about it so often because it is the filter that I view the majority of my life through. A down-syndrome boy who led worship, a mentally unstable preacher, senior saints and racial diversity, communion served by ex-convincts, we had it all.

But one of the more formative parts of our church, is something I’ve never really talked about before. That was that while we had plenty of characters in our church, we almost never had a plan.

There was never really an order of worship, although a regular routine did evolve (3 songs, prayer, 2 songs, communion, sermon etc) there was a lot of moving pieces. After all, when your worship is led by anyone who showed up it’s hard to plan until they get there.

Room for the Spirit

And here is where one of the more charming memories about my little church happened. At least a couple of times a month, Bro. Foy would turn around in his pew and loudly remind all of us about the Quakers:

“You know our Quaker brothers and sisters will sit in silence and just wait on the LORD to give them a word”

And when Bro. Foy did this we knew what was coming next…nothing. No one would speak, as we tried out this little Quaker experiment.

There was lots of silence, heavy breathing, a cough or two and finally someone would stand up and say something that they thought God had moved them to say.

Let me remind you, we were an anti-Sunday School Church of Christ, we were against Bible Classes because the New Testament didn’t specifically authorize them, but worked into our semi-regular liturgy was this idea that the world was inhabited by God and that God could speak anytime and through anyone.

And over the course of my childhood I began to believe it.

One of the more interesting stories in the Bible, is the story of Elijah going up against the prophets of Ba’al. Israel has been flirting with other gods, and now God has sent Elijah to make them choose between Ba’al the idol and the living LORD. So Elijah has a kind of Wild West showdown with over 400 prophets, they carve up a couple of bulls (of course), and put them on their respective altars and they are going to have a god-off to see whose god will send down fire from Heaven.

Elijah lets the prophets of Ba’al pray to their “god” first. So the prophets of Ba’al pray and weep and wail for hours, they take to cutting themselves to get Ba’als attention and the whole time they are banging on drums. I imagine it was a pretty noisy, messy affair. But at the end of the day, there was no fire from Ba’al, because the Bible is insinuating, there is no Ba’al.

But then when Elijah steps up to pray, there’s no dog and pony show, he simply prays for God to send down fire from Heaven and show Israel what a real God looks like. And that’s exactly what happens.

There’s a verse in the book of Habbakuk that has always intrigued me, and it’s a verse related to this story:

“The LORD is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silent before Him.”

This is not a verse against drums or musical instruments or a Scriptural mandate not to talk (but it might be wise to use less words), it’s a polemic against the very thing that the prophets of Ba’al were doing. God isn’t like Ba’al, He’s alive, he doesn’t need your drums or your shouting to prop up the appearance that He’s really there. He really is there, and so be silent, because God might just have something to say.

The Quakers were right.

The Journal of John Woolman

So back to the Quakers, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them (they are awfully quiet) but if you live in America your life has been radically shaped by them.

A few weeks ago, I read the journal by an 16th century Quaker named John Woolman, Woolman was a entrepreneurial businessman who probably did as much as anyone in America to bring to an end slavery…and chances are you’ve never heard of him.

The Radical Quaker John Woolman

The Radical Quaker John Woolman

At the beginning of his journal, Woolman realized that he had fallen away from meetings and he recommitted himself to gathering with the other Quakers. Because he realized that he was becoming a kind of person he didn’t like. He knew that he was gathering with/spending time with the wrong people, and if he wanted to hear the voice of God he needed to be with people who knew how to hear Him.

So he went, and heard from God in more ways than he’d hoped for.

He noticed that some of his fellow Quakers held slaves, and that bothered him…a lot. So he started privately taking these brothers and sisters aside and sharing his concerns. I want you to think about the courage this took, back in the day, many in the abolitionist movement were very harsh and judgmental, they would shout their angry condemnation of slavery from a distance, but not Woolman. Which is why he was so effective.

He didn’t believe you could love people in theory, but only the actual people in front of you, and out of concern for them, and for the people they thought they owned, Woolman spoke for God.

Seriously, he heard the voice of God over and over again say the same thing in different places. Because that’s the thing about Woolman, God sent him all over the country, and everytime he’d go to the Quaker meeting house, they’d all sit for hour(s) of silence, and then when God would give Woolman a word he’d say it.

And it worked.

Here’s something that Woolman said repeatedly:

These are souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct toward them we must answer before that Almighty Being who is no respecter of persons…I have been under a concern for some time on account of the great number of slaves which are imported into this colony.  I am aware that it is a tender point to speak to, but apprehend I am not clear in the sight of heaven without speaking to it.

Eventually, the 1780 Slavery Abolition act become official, and it comes from the tiny little Quaker colony called Pennsylvania, that was shaped by a business man who was moved by the voice of God.

Just because someone says that they hear from God doesn’t mean that they do. They may even hear something, but that doesn’t mean it’s from God. A real test of whether something is from the God of Jesus is whether or not it costs you something, if it challenges the status quo that leads to greater justice to self-sacrifice and toward reconciliation with other people.

God still speaks and moves.

So thank God for those movers who are Quakers.

“What killed your husband?-Don Draper

“He was thirsty. He died of thirst” -a woman Don had met on an airplane

“You are the one the greatest of good, you made us to love and to long. You’re the fulfillment of all our truest desires, the righting of all wrongs.” -Julian of Norwich

Mad Men and Bad Men If you’ve watched more than a few minutes of the AMC show Mad Men you’ve noticed that everyone drinks copious amounts of alcohol. But no one drinks more than the lead character Don Draper. Actual studies have been done on how much Don drinks on camera, but the show Mad Men isn’t glorifying this because the consequences have been devastating to his life.

Over the course of the past 6 season, Don has vomited at a funeral, gone through two divorces, punched a minister (my personal favorite), been thrown in jail, and has developed a nasty habit of shaking when he’s not able to have a drink. The majority of time Don drinks alone, and without saying a judgmental word about it, Mad Men is letting us know that Don Draper is drinking, not out of enjoyment, but because he’s very, very thirsty.

Obey Your Thirst

One of my favorite stories in Scripture is in John 4. Jesus takes his disciples to a Samaritan village (the Jewish people’s enemies) and sits down at a water well with a woman who’s there alone. This story is profound on several levels, but what I want to point out today is that Jesus starts a conversation with her by asking her if she will give him a drink. She points out that they shouldn’t be talking, because he’s a Jewish man, and she’s a Samaritan woman, and what will the neighbors think, and Jesus just ignores her concern and keeps talking about water.

But not just any water.

Jesus starts telling her that He can give her living water, that He can quench her thirst in places that she didn’t even know she had. And she responds with, “Yeah, that sounds good, give me some of that.”

So Jesus says, “Go get your husband.”

When you first read this, it seems like a jerk move by Jesus, because this woman is a social outcast. She’s going to immediately tell Jesus that she doesn’t have a husband, and Jesus replies “You’re right, you’ve had five husbands and the man you live with now is not your husband.”

Does it surprise you how quickly Jesus gets into her sex life? Not just to fix her, but because Jesus is going to go directly to the parts of our life where our heart is. Jesus is going directly to her greatest disappointments and her greatest desires.

I like the way Pastor Tim Keller says this:

Why does Jesus seem to suddenly change the subject from seeking living water to her history with men? the answer is-he isn’t changing the subject. He’s nudging her, saying “If you want to understand the nature of this living water I offer, you need to first understand how you’ve been seeking it in your own life. You’ve been trying to get it through men, and it’s not working is it? Your need for me is eating you alive, and it will never stop.

Jesus has just revealed what the woman is thirsty for and how her particular drink of choice keeps her thirsty for more.

The Morning After

Theologians have a phrase about this “post coitum omne animal tristes est”  It means: “After sex, there’s still more wanted.”

I think that phrase is so profound, especially in light of what Mad Men is trying to do. The world of advertising in the 1960’s tried successfully to attach almost every product to humanity’s most primal desires. “If you buy this dishwashing detergent you’ll have more time for…” “If you smell like this cologne, she’ll want to do this to you…”

And it’s worked, slowly brands have worked their way into our hearts, attaching themselves to our desires. But from the beginning Christianity has said, “After sex, more is wanted.”

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again.

Don Draper Passed Out on Floor

Don Draper Passed Out on Floor

And this is one the most counter-cultural things that Mad Men has done. It has shown Don Draper live out the darkest fantasy any guy could have. Don has slept with more women than Hugh Hefner, he’s had hundreds of affairs with very attractive women, every sexual dalliance you could fantasize Don Draper has had.

And he’s the most tragic, sad character on television.

Because after sex, more is wanted.

There are really two ways that religion talks about desire. One is the way of Buddha, which is to say that desire is bad and leads to suffering. And that’s not without truth. Buddhism knows that everything will eventually let you down, and if you just can train your body to not desire things you can eliminate much suffering in life.

But that’s not how Jesus does it. Jesus doesn’t call the woman away from her thirst, He calls her deeper into it. Jesus doesn’t renounce God’s good world, He just knows that after sex, after any good thing, more is wanted. God made the goodness in the world, and everything in it points back to Him.

Here’s the way Shane Hipps says it in his book Selling Water by the River:

The objects of our pursuits present one problem. Whatever feeling they evoke, whatever thirst they quench, whatever joy they create, it never seems to last. Eventually, our husband’s gaze returns to his favorite glowing screen, our wife becomes cold and critical, our body fails us, the pay doesn’t match the hours, the sex ends, a loved one leaves, children act out, the bowl of ice cream is empty, and the buzz wears off. Soon the hunger returns and the quest begins again. The Problem isn’t the pursuit of these things. They are meant to be enjoyed. The problem is the nature of these things. They are temporary, and therefore so is their effect. Our joy will share the fate of the thing we bind it to

The problem comes when we confuse the gifts with the Giver.

Before St. Augustine was a saint, he was the Don Draper of the 3rd century, and I’ve fallen in love with how he talks about this. He says that the great problem we all have is that our loves are out of order.

Aft first I thought that meant something like we love food too much, or we love our spouse, or our children, or sex too much. But that’s not what Augustine meant, He meant that our real problem is that we love God too little. Our loves are out of order, because only God can satisfy, only God can teach what satisfaction actually feels like.

When we forget that we become thirsty people trying to drink sand.

We chase so hard after everything, only to catch it and realize that we are thirsty for more.

If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation. -Don Draper

Mad Men and Bad Men

 

The most theological channel on cable television is not TBN, it, by far, is AMC.

Not that there is anything wrong with TBN (he said to not lose readers), TBN talks a lot about God, they talk a lot about Jesus, but they rarely talk like Jesus. Because Jesus talked in parables, he told stories that captured people’s imaginations, stories that were intriguing and confusing and layered and filled with possibility.

There’s a reason that my friends talk so much about the AMC shows like Breaking Bad or Walking Dead or Mad Men.  Each one of these shows, while not moralizing life, has some form of moral compass and, much like the Bible, present complex characters that are hard to place in a category. Is Don Draper noble or a womanizer? Does he inspire or repulse you?

I’ve wondered for a while about why Mad Men is so popular with our culture, it’s overtly racist, misogynistic and incredibly sad. It’s also saying some pretty profound things about the human condition and a specific era of American culture that has shaped how Americans feel today more than any other time in the 20th century.

And so I’d like to do a little series about Mad Men as this show comes to it’s end. I’m convinced that the most Theological events in culture are happening right in front of us, and we don’t have eyes to see it.

Speaking in Tongues

Because Christians, at least Protestant Christians, rarely understand art and how art works. There’s a reason that someone like Martin Scorsese starting making movies after going to seminary to be a Catholic Priest. All art is speaking in tongues because art says something that mere words cannot.

I remember a few years ago, I was sitting at a table of friends and we were talking about sexism and chauvinism and what it meant to be a good man in today’s world, and one of my friends asked the question “What do you think the most pro-feminist television show on today is?”

You might think “New Girl” or “Ellen” or if you are of more the TBN variety, you might think of “Joyce Meyers Hour of Power” but my friend said, “It’s easy. Hand’s down it’s Mad Men”

The show that shows unapologetically how poorly women were treated in the 1960’s.

Mad Men has functioned as one of the most powerful social commentaries for social issues from sexism to racism or anti-semitism for the past 7 years, precisely by working like a parable showing us a familiar, but strange world, and letting us realize that this world was and is our own.

The genius of this show, is that it reveals to us, in a very historically accurate manner, what the world was like in the 1960’s in a way that allows us to see a glimpse into what people did and why they did it.

Mad Men doesn’t have villains and hero’s, each character is complex and filled with great sin and sometimes virtue. And in that way it is art that reminds me of the Bible.

Outside of Jesus, it is impossible to find one developed character in the Bible who the Scriptures present only their good side. It’s like God knows the tendency we have to whitewash over people after their death and the Bible refuses to let us forget that Rahab had an occupation before “hero” or that Elijah was emotionally unhealthy, or that even men after God’s own heart commit affairs…and murder.

The beauty of the Bible is that it’s not a bunch of polished characters. But real flesh and blood people with junk in their lives that could make anyone blush.

The Bible is filled with Mad Men.

But the Bible has more than flawed characters, it has a direction.

The Power of the Ought

Max Kampelman was a Jewish conscientious objector of World War II. When drafted, he chose to sign up for a year long Starvation military experiment instead of going to war. Later in life, he was a U.S. Ambassador and spoke to Presidents and Prime Ministers, and he told them all the same thing. He said the greatest human power is to ask the question “How things ought to be?”

Max Kampelman speaking at the White House

Max Kampelman speaking at the White House

Max pointed out that the Declaration of Independence is filled with oughts, such as “All men are created equal.” But if you think about it, how many years after the Declaration did it take to end slavery, or grant voting rights to everyone? But Max argued that the ought was the engine that kept it all moving forward.

The Declaration of Independence became our “ought”…it didn’t reflect the “is” it reflected what ought to be.

That’s what Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner, is trying to do.

Matthew Weiner has created a show that is unlike any other, but it does have some parallels. Namely the book of Revelation in the Bible. Interestingly enough, the actual name of Revelation is Apocalypse, and that word doesn’t mean future prophecy, it means “Unveiling”

Revelation is the story about what happens when God pulls back the curtain and reveals it all.

In an interview a few years ago Matthew Weiner was described as being a gentle creator when it comes to the individual characters on Mad Men, but when he talks about society at large, Weiner is “a god of vengeance, who doesn’t hesitate to condemn” Here’s what Weiner said in the interview:

 “[During the 60’s} I was 18 years old, watching the world being run by a bunch of hypocrites…And at the same time, they were telling us how they had invented sex, how great it was to do all those drugs, they had no responsibilities, they really believed in stuff, they were super-individuals. Then along comes [these people who were] incredibly repressive, selfish, racist, money-grubbing …”

This is not a show I’d recommend to the faint of heart, there’s nothing G-rated about it, it’s easy to think that Mad Men is glorifying all the things that Hollywood commonly glorifies, sex, violence and selfishness. But here is the secret of Mad Men. It is an incredibly judgmental show, judging these things and finding them wanting.

It is a show that exposes idolatry without ever using that word.

It is a show that shows us our history, and calls us to a better future.

It’s a show that looks at all the ways we lie to ourselves and to each other and pulls back the curtains on our hypocrisies.

It’s a Revelation.

“In those days, the Word of the LORD was rare, there were not many visions.” -1st Samuel 3:1

It would be nice if people saw that the world cannot be disenchanted, and that the choice before us is really a choice of enchantments. -Francis Spufford

“I don’t believe in God. I believe in Science.” -Nacho Libre

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After the 2011 Tsunami hit Japan, the London Review of Books reviewed an essay on the recurring problem that people in the coastal regions of Japan called “Hungry Ghosts” The review is filled with fascinating stories of everyday, ordinary Japanese people stumbling into a world that was haunted – a world they really wished didn’t exist.

One story was about a guy named Takeshi Ono, who, two weeks after the Tsunami, drove to the coast with his wife and mother, and within a few hours of being there began acting like a possessed man, rolling in the mud, having to be forcibly held down by his wife and mother while shouting at them “You must all die! Everyone must die and everything be lost!.” And then pointing toward the ocean screaming, “There, over there! They’re all over there – look!”

For three days, every night as the sun went down, Takeshi would see people walking past him who weren’t there. Parents with their children, a group of young friends, a grandfather with his grandson and they would all just stare at him, dressed in their dirty, Tsunami-battered clothes and covered in mud.

Finally, under the threat of a divorce, his wife forced him to go see a Japanese priest who performed an exorcism of sorts, and he’s been back to his normal, not-seeing-ghosts-anymore, ever since.

I think it’s important to remember that this is taking place in Japan. The same place that gave the world Sony and Nintendo and sushi. This is not some Tibetan monastery where people spend their days praying, this is Japan and Ono is a construction worker who’s main flaw according to the LBR was that he was so “open and innocent (he was described as a Japanese kind of Mr. Bean) that the spirits were able to possess him.”

Open to Anything

In his watershed work, A Secular Age, The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor opens his book with this haunting question: “How is it possible for people to not believe in God anymore?”

One of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in amuch less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

[The] process of disenchantment involves a change in sensibility; one is open to different things. One has lost a way in which people used to experience the world.

One of the common distinctions in a Secular Age is not that we no longer have ghosts and demons and angels and God, it’s that we are no longer open to them.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible comes from 1st Samuel, it’s a story of a young boy who grows up in the Temple with a priest. And the story begins by telling us that Samuel was growing up in a time when “The word of the LORD was rare”

Samuel is born in a time where people want to hear from God, but don’t.

And the turning point in Samuel’s life, really all of Israel’s history, is an old, overweight priest named Eli with bad eyesight and a dysfunctional family. Samuel wakes up one night to the sound of someone calling him, it’s just him and Eli in the Temple, so he does the math and goes to his boss and asks him what he wants.

Eli tells Samuel that he didn’t call him and that he should get back in bed (side note: I’ve got 4 kids under the age of 6 right now, you can’t tell me that Eli wasn’t thinking this was some ploy to stay up). This happens 2 more times before it dawns on Eli that this might be more than that late night hummus, and Eli says to Samuel the best advice I know for someone who wants to hear from God.”

Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

I know religious leaders well, I know the humility and courage this small act of ministry must have taken. If I was Eli, I would be tempted to say, “Tell God that He got the wrong room. The older, mature servant is listening in the next room.” But Eli doesn’t, instead he has the awareness that God will speak to whom God will speak, and that the only control anyone has over the voice of God is our ability to be present and listen.

Enlightenment and Enchantment

The ministry of Eil was to get Samuel to be open to the possibility that more might be going on than he had previously assumed. Samuel was working with the idea that if he heard something it had to come from the only other person there, Eli invited Samuel into a story of God who speaks

I want to be like Eli.

12th Century Depiction of "Hungry Ghosts"

12th Century Depiction of “Hungry Ghosts”

So back to the Japanese Demons and Charles Taylor…

Part of the challenge that we have in discerning God’s voice today is that it is such a struggle for us to even believe the possibility that God even exists. But while this might be a challenge intellectually, our emotions are still yearning for God, nothing satisfies us. We are filled with an aching longing desire. I think Eli would say, “Listen up.”

C.S. Lewis opened up his professorship at Magdalene College in Cambridge asking a house packed full with students:

Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the God of the Mountain has been wooing me…Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. And yet it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere. When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is. Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now.

C.S. Lewis believed that the choice wasn’t between enchantment or enlightenment, we are all under a spell, we are all open to something and closed to something else. The choice is which spell to be under.

This is the ministry of Eli, it is to tell the generation that is growing up in a time when “The word of the LORD is rare” that it just might be God you’re hearing from, open yourself up to the possibility that the world is not what you thought it was and that whisper might not be limited to who is in the room with you.

The universe doesn’t fit into a test tube and the world has always been, and still is, enchanted.

So speak LORD, your servants are listening.

On March 31, 2015

How to Die

A good death depends upon a good life. -St Robert Bellarmine

howtodie2015

I’m starting a new sermon series this week at the Highland Church of Christ called “How to Die” It may sound like a strange series for Easter, but I believe this Sunday is the best day of the year to talk about what we are the most tempted to ignore.

One of my most vivid memories of my childhood was burying my grandma. I’m not talking metaphorically, like I attended her funeral, I mean my grandma’s funeral plot was dug and covered by her siblings, kids, nieces, nephews & grandkids.

My mother comes from a line of people who dug wells for a living and when it came time to dig a grave we just did it ourselves. Looking back I realize I was one of the lucky ones who was able to say goodbye to someone they loved back before we stopped doing it in a way that would get our hands dirty, back when death was more a part of life.

The Denial of Death

Remember this prayer?

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the LORD my soul to keep, but if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Did you know there was another verse?

Our days begin with trouble here, Our life is but a span, and cruel death is always near, So frail a thing is man.”

Millions of children used to pray this. Parents wanted their kids to know that life, as they know it, is not permanent, that we have a soul, and that God can be trusted with it.Prayer for Children

These days, we lean more toward the “Goodnight moon” route in our kids betime, but there was a reason that parents did this. Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago there was a NY Times Op-ed piece written by a parent lamenting the fact that it was so difficult to talk to their kids about death.

I get it, I’m a father of 4, and I don’t want to go back to the “cruel death is always near” with our 4 year old, but people of the past were on to something that I think we need to revisit.

The best kind of life starts with a deep awareness that life is a gift, and it is a gift that one day will come to an end.

In 1974, Ernest Becker wrote his watershed book The Denial of Death. That was a significant year for Becker because it was  the year that he found out that he had cancer, it was the year that he died. It was also the year that Becker turned to God.

Becker’s work has been so significant because he shined a light on all the ways that we try to avoid the most obvious truth. We will die. No matter how much money we accumulate, no matter how many Twitter followers we have, or how big our house is, we will die, and Becker’s question was, “Why does every human culture try so hard to pretend that this isn’t true?”

If that sounds a bit too philosophical for you, try this on for size. Why is  cosmetic surgery  a multi-billion dollar industry? Why have we so thoroughly removed death from our society?

Last year, the well known actress Frances McDormand noticed in an interview that this fear of death had developed a “perverse fixation on youth” in how Hollywood told stories:

There’s no desire to be an adult. Adulthood is not a goal. It’s not seen as a gift. Something happened culturally: No one is supposed to age past 45—[in terms of dress, cosmetics, or attitudes]. Everybody dresses like a teenager. Everybody dyes their hair. Everybody is concerned about a smooth face.

Actress Frances McDormand

Actress Frances McDormand

The Art of Dying

Ernest Becker saw all the ways we were marginalizing death and recognized it was a way we were lying to ourselves:

“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not control our lives, that we always rely on something [an institution, our job, our family] that transcends us.”

So we collect trophies, we put overwhelming amounts of pressure on our families, careers, and status to prove to ourselves that we matter, unaware that we aren’t even really in control of our pulse.

This is the Denial of Death, and it should be particularly troubling for people who are followers of Jesus.

Jesus talks about his death a lot. A whole lot. His death was something that his whole life was oriented around, and he had this strange notion that his death had something to do with every other persons death who would ever live. But Jesus doesn’t just talk about His death,, he forcefully insists that people who would follow Him would willing face their own mortality, as if that would help them become fully alive.

This week we celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead, but we also acknowledge that he died the worst kind of death.

Think about the life of Jesus, he never turned anyone away, he-little by little-poured out his life for the people who needed him the most and stood against the people who would diminish them, and then He asked them to do the same.

And this is, of all the world religions that Ernest Becker looked at, is the great triumph of Christianity. As he approached his own death, Ernest Becker said:

This is the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take slaves, cripples, imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the dimension called heaven. Or we might better say that Christianity took…—the thing man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism

Jesus stands in solidarity with all of us who die without getting the right headlines or obituaries, he both starts and stands in a long line of nameless, obscure saints, who when the day comes where their strength fails, when the end draws close and their time is near they go home to be with God.

For the longest time, Christians took great care to die differently than the rest of the world. In the middle ages, when the Black Plague was rampant, there were books written and church classes taught on “The Art of Dying Well” They were taught to look death in the face, primarily by looking past it and seeing God.

Interesting thing about that “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. It’s origins are unclear, but many people believe it was created precisely in these moments of disease and high death rates. And the prayer has one more verse that I think is beautiful.

Wake I morn, or wake I never. I give my soul to Christ – for ever.

That’s how to live. It’s also how to die.

“I think we’ve all got to admit that we spend most of our time talking to ourselves, with people who already agree, reading the same blogs, and possibly not listening a lot to people we disagree with…In our heritage have we not learned that being right about an issue is not somehow more important than practicing right relationships? –Jeff Childers

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you know that I regularly participate and attend several different conferences (what Churches of Christ call Lectureships) every year.

Last year, Dr. Jeff Childers gave this “performance” above at the Pepperdine Bible Lectureships and it was one of the best things I’d seen in a long time. It was Jeff Childers vs. Jeff Childers on the role of women in the church.

You may notice that Jeff does not sound like a very feminine name, and if you watch the video you may come to the conclusion that either Jeff is a man, or a very unattractive woman. But this was an intentional move by the PBL to be representative of the kinds of people who are there, in ways that those people could hear and relate to. It was an attempt for people who had sharp disagreements with each other to be able to hear one another.

If you are not native to Churches of Christ, this post might not make much sense, but there is a point here I believe is universal to every Church or Christian institution that we have. We have a really hard time fellowshipping people that we don’t have almost universal agreement with. We may say it’s about orthodoxy/heresy, but it’s not.

It’s not that we’re lying, it’s that we don’t know ourselves.

I think what is really happening is a form of radical Western individualism that is fundamentally opposed to how the New Testament talks about the way of Jesus.

Think about the people Jesus gets together in the Gospels, Tax Collectors & Pharisees & Fisherman & Prostitutes & Zealots, He gathered together people who were all natural enemies of one another and they somehow were able to gather around more than their differences.

Restoring Restoration

I’m still a member of Churches of Christ because that is, in our better moments, who we are. The Restoration Movement was started by two people who looked around Protestant Christianity and saw hundreds of denominations fighting over some very petty things. The Restoration Movement started with this one big idea, we want to be Christians Only, not the Only Christians.

The two guys who started this, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, had the kinds of differences that would split most movements. They disagreed more than they agreed, but they had this vision, and I still think they were on to something.

Everything that they did, was centered around trying to create the biggest tent for as many as possible. They were trying to not create divisions in an amply divided world. So they saw the ways that people’s worship preferences were dividing Christian fellowship and they decided to sing a capella, they saw the way people were using creeds to split fellowship with one another and they said “No Creed But Christ” They saw how people’s interpretation of Scripture was divisive and so they decided to only speak where the Bible spoke.

Now I get that these methods are often problematic and naïve. I understand that No Creed but Christ is itself a kind of creed, but I love the Spirit of what they were trying to do and it’s because of that I’m willing to write a blog like this.

Because out of the Churches of Christ I was given the radical idea that every person who believed in Jesus and was baptized was just as much a Christian as I was.

I remember in the little 10 person church I grew up in, Bro. Foy asked my Methodist friend to preach, my Baptist friend preached and led singing, and this was way before the world was post-denominational. Those things mattered everywhere else…but not at my church. And from the beginning, it was radical hospitality and Christian fellowship that I saw that captured my heart for Churches of Christ.

Since I’ve started preaching, I’ve been invited to leave Churches of Christ several times, to work at Christian Churches, Assembly of God Churches and Non-Denominational ones, but I’ve always said the same thing, “These are my people. I believe in us and love them, because they taught me to believe in and love everyone else, even when we don’t agree.”

Especially when we don’t agree.

So what does this have to do with Pepperdine?Josh Graves Preaching at Pepperdine

The Autonomy of A Local Church

Of all the things that Churches of Christ have taught me the one I appreciate the most is that each Church is autonomous. That means that every local church is able to be free to take their context seriously, and figure out how to be Jesus in their specific neighborhood.

This is one of our greatest strengths and weaknesses. It’s a great strength because we are able to be good missionaries, each church (at her best) is indigenous to the local community that she’s in. It’s a weakness because if we are doing it well, over time, we become very different from one another.

I learned when I was a Harding student leading a Spring Break campaign to San Francisco that almost everyone at the Church of Christ there believed that being gay wasn’t a choice, (this was back in the 90’s), I learned that Churches of Christ in Greece have a very different view of alchohol than brothers and sisters in say Oklahoma, Churches of Christ in L.A. have a very different perspective on Hollywood and Churches in D.C. were much more politically involved than someone like a David Lipscomb would’ve thought was possible for a Christian.  .

All that to say, when you plant a tree in different soil, you find out that you get different types of fruit.

Now imagine trying to bring all these people together, to share fellowship, and learn from each other. Here’s where it starts to get dicey, because most of these people might not know that their context has led them to different conclusions.

And here’s the point, if you try to be a unity movement, with no creeds, with autonomous churches scattered over all the different parts of the world whenever you gather together you’re going to be shocked at how different you all are. That’s a characteristic of a unity movement.

But let’s be honest, even in our own churches fellowship these days is a challenge, when we find out that the person in our pew believes that God created the world by evolution, or is a young earth Creationist we’re shocked because we had just assumed that everyone believed what we did, we thought it was basic Christian orthodoxy, until we find out that we are surrounded by heretics! So much of ministry in a local church is protecting people from themselves. As Randy Harris says, “The only thing keeping many churches together is their lack of communication.”

And so what’s happening on a local church level, all across the country from conservative to progressive churches, is that people are finding out that they disagree with some people in their church, maybe in leadership maybe just in the next pew, and so they pack their bags up and go to the church down the street, unaware that the heretics are there too, unaware of how heretical some people would see their views!

And that brings me to Lectureships, (Pepperdine and ACU are the ones I’m the most familiar with. but I don’t think this is limited to them). Right now, there is a bru-ha-ha over the Pepperdine Bible Lectureships, because there is a woman is speaking as a Keynote for the first time this year.

But this is exactly what you get when you try to be a unity movement, and it’s precisely these moments where we find out if we really are one.

Sara Barton, missionary to Africa & Pepperdine Chaplain

Sara Barton, missionary to Africa &Pepperdine chaplain

The speaker is Sara Barton, a good friend of mine, so I’m not neutral here, and I’m not going to make the case that you need to believe what I believe for women’s roles in Church. But I do know that Sara is a good preacher, and she was called to preach by small, rural Churches of Christ in Africa, not some progressive ivory tower academics. 

And here’s why I’m writing this blog, I hope to reach people who disagree with this, I don’t want to preach to the choir. I want you to consider what it means to be a part of our movement. Every year for decades, you’ve sat beside people who have read the Bible differently than you, every year dozens or hundreds of people at our conferences, and probably your church believe what lots of Christians have believed for a lot longer than America has been around about women being able to preach.

They read the Bible differently, and for years they were frustrated because no one else saw it the way they did, and they kept showing up. Because that’s what it means to be a community of reconciliation. That’s what it means to be a Unity Movement.

When Christians want to discern God’s will in something, they argue.

Seriously, this is our tradition, from Acts 15 to the ancient Christian Councils, the Christian tradition is one that doesn’t believe any one perspective has the corner on Truth. We debate-hopefully respectfully, we share stories and testimonies-hopefully open to what each other are saying. But to do that, we have to be present.

So I hope you are there. Jeff Childers will be…both of him.

Why is it; that when we speak to God we are said to be praying but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?” – comedian Lily Tomlin

Unknown

This is a true story.

At 22 years old, Barry Keenan was the youngest Los Angeles stock exchange investor making tens of thousands of dollars a month back in the 60’s, but he got hooked on pain killers and alcohol and lost everything. His world was unraveling quickly and he knew that he had to do something drastic. He drew up a business plan, choosing the best stocks for investment, but he needed to raise some capital.

So he decided to kidnap Frank Sinatra Jr.

As a dedicated Christian, Keenan never really thought of it as kidnapping, he thought of it as more of a “borrowing” He was only wanting to get ransom money, and because he was a devout but admittedly unorthodox Catholic, he was planning on paying all the money back within 5 years.

He had a detailed 3-ring binder describing how his plan was going to improve both his life and the Sinatra’s. It would bring the father and his estranged son closer together, It would help Sinatra’s PR problems (everyone saw the famous singer as being closely associated with the Mafia), and it would get Keenan the money he needed.

You know, your classic win-win scenario.

Comedy of Errors

Unfortunately, the kidnapping worked, but their exit strategy didn’t. They forgot their gun, Keenan’s partner accidentally knocked himself out during the kidnapping by running into a tree branch, when they reached Frank Sinatra Sr. and told him they had his son, Sinatra offered them a million dollar ransom, and Barry Keenan tried talking him down to $240,000 because that was all he needed for his business plan to work.

When he called Frank Sinatra Sr., Keenan told him that if he wanted his son back he needed to go to a gas station in Carson City (30 min away) to get further instructions. Unfortunately it took Sinatra and the FBI longer to get there than 30 minutes. Keenan called the gas stations at the agreed time, and asked the mechanic if Frank Sinatra was there. The mechanic was sure that this was a joke, and so he hung up.

A few minutes later, Keenan called again, same response. Then he called again, and finally the bartender yelled, “It’s 3 in the afternoon, why in the world would the most famous entertainer in the world be at the Texaco station?!! Now stop calling!”

Photo of the Texaco Ransom site from FBI.gov

Photo of the Texaco Ransom site from FBI.gov

A few minutes later, Frank Sinatra and a swarm of federal agents bust into the bar saying to the mechanic, “I’m Frank Sinatra, has anyone called for me?!!”

After receiving the ransom, the FBI captured Keenan and his partner, he was sentenced to life in prison, and a few years later was declared legally insane at the time. And then forty years later he told the story on This American Glass with Ira Glass. Here’s why he said he did it:

Keenan: I had God’s approval, this thing was being divinely blessed. God talked to me, particularly when I would go to Church, and light a candle, and be silent. God would talk to me, and He was very definite on that nobody could be hurt, and that I had to pay the money back”

Ira Glass: As you’ve gotten older and wiser, and sobered up, does God still talk to you?

Keenan: Oh no, that went away when I got sober, and also when I got psychiatric help.

This is a Test

I’d like to start a blog series for the next few weeks on Hearing God. As a minister, this is a question I get more than almost any other, in a variety of ways. Most often it comes out like, “What is God’s Will for my life?”

I wanted to tell that Sinatra story up front to maybe to pump the brakes on those of us who don’t have a lot of discernment in our lives helping to pick out which voices in our head are coming from God.

Because God never, ever, wants you to kidnap Frank Sinatra’s son, but don’t think that means God is silent.

It’s worth noting that up until recently, one of the litmus test for whether someone was to be considered sane or not was the question, “Do you hear from God?” This was a standardized test, that medical psychiatric professionals used right alongside, “Do you enjoy setting things on fire?” and “Are you cohabiting your own body?”

I’m and aware of the legitimate challenges for people who are mentally handicapped and all for modern psychological help, but this is a test that some of history’s greatest people would’ve failed. From Mother Theresa to Moses to Augustine including the much more average examples like the Christians I grew up with, the God of the Bible is a God who promised to keep talking to us.

On the night before he was crucified, Jesus promised his small band of followers that, while He was going away, He would still, in some mysterious way be present to them.

One of the twelve disciples, was a guy named “Judas who was also known as Thaddeus” (I think for the rest of his life he introduced himself with “just call me Thad”) asked Jesus how he was going to be both gone and present with them. And Jesus told them “The Father and I will come to you and make our home with you.”

Jesus goes on to say that not only will He be present, but that through his mysterious presence He will teach us and give us peace in proportion to our ability to bear and obey it.

If you’re reading this and part of you is cringing, trust me, I get it. I’ve seen the abuses, I know the dangers, I read the newspapers and watch the same documentaries we all do, but I still believe God still speaks, and I even believe that, despite all the risks, it’s good for us to be aware of Him speaking.

In the Beginning, God speaks into the original chaos and His word creates good things, it brings order, and life and beauty to the void.

I believe it still does.

On March 11, 2015

Uncool: A Work In Progress

“I got myself into trouble, but it was the good kind of trouble, the necessary kind of trouble.” –Congressman John Lewis speaking about being beaten at Selma

“When it feels the road’s too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah:’Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.” –President Obama this weekend honoring the 50th anniversary of Selma

Un-Cool Desktop

 

In 1968, there was a rebellion in France that came closer than any other to overthrowing the government. College students were rebelling against the stringent education system and there was several riots in the street which exposed, on national television, police brutality. The people of France turned against their government and Europe turned into a tinder-box, waiting for the revolution.

But it never happened…Why?

Because summer came. The students took off for vacation. The revolution went no where, because it had no where to go. The French students were bored and had seen the anti-war protesters on television, and thought that was something that looked cool to do. In the words of Paul Grant,

“Cool makes for great street theater but doesn’t lend itself to serious activism.”

Most Revolutions go nowhere because they have nowhere to go.

Over the past few decades we’ve talked more about changing the world than ever before, but this begs the question…change it to what?

it is so much easier to be against something than it is to be for anything, and I’m starting to believe that most of the rhetoric that I see online these days is image management, that is we want to be seen as rebelling against the status quo, but not enough to skip summer vacation,

The Best Religions Don’t Need Batteries

A couple of days ago, Ross Dothat, a thoughtful, conservative Catholic columnist at the New York Times wrote an article called “The Case for Old Ideas” where he disagreed with the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari who is airing a sentiment that seems to be growing more common these days. Here’s what Harari said:

It was only when people “came up with new ideas, not from the Shariah, and not from the Bible, and not from some vision,” but from studying science and technology, that answers to the industrial age’s dislocations emerged… “In terms of ideas, in terms of religions,,,the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East.” It’s in Silicon Valley that people are “creating new religions….that will take over the world.”

Ross Douthat points out that Silicon Valley is certainly changing the world, but in ways that are leading to a whole new set of rich/poor divides, a whole new slate of dehumanizing some people for the profit of others, and that this is not a new development with our relationship to progress. Here is Douthat’s point in rebuttal to Harari:

When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.

selma_1965

Image from WhiteHouse.gov

It’s unfortunate timing for Harari to say that people coming up with new technological ideas, and not the Bible or some vision are the solution to the world.

Because it was precisely a vision from a Baptist pastor that had saints marching out of their churches and over the bridge 50 years ago this week. It was a dream that was drenched in the spirit of the Prophets, and it was the Isaiah of the Bible that no less than the POTUS quoted in closing his speech in Selma this weekend.

Changing the Future Lies in the Past

I’m pushing back on progressive Christianity with this series not because I don’t believe in progress but because I do. I just don’t believe that there has been a better vision of progress that has come along in the past couple of thousand years than the one that has got us this far. Every Church in every age has to figure out how to embody it in their time and place, every generation God’s people have to reinvent how to change the world, but they don’t have to reinvent what the changed world looks like.

I don’t know of a better manifesto for the future than the prophets and apostles of the past.

And even though it may often appear that Churches and Christians are too slow to move for our own good (sometimes we are), even when it appears that we are stumbling in from one spirit of the age to another and not the Gospel (a charge sadly often true) even when it appears that we are stuck in days gone by. Please remember, on our best days we’re not primarily concerned with how we appear.

And if we are not useful to the world with criticism, than let us be useful to the world as a specimen. We may be seen as a throwback to age without wi-fi and common sense but I believe whole heartedly that we are more than that.

I believe that God’s good world is headed somewhere, and that what seems quaint and farfetched today just might be celebrated tomorrow. Because somedays those church doors swing open and we walk across bridges when it’s not cool to walk across because we have a dream from yesterday about how tomorrow ought to be.

We don’t rebel because it’s cool, that never lasts, we rebel because we hope. Not a hope in politics, not a hope in human greatness or that things are just slowly getting better with each invention, that’s not just hubris, it’s foolish. No, we are prisoners of hope in God.

Somedays we fail, somedays we are the white clergy urging patience not the Baptist Pastor in the jail cell, and on those days it’s tempting to disavow the people who share this common dream, but remember…

We are a work in progress.

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” -G.K. Chesterton

Un-Cool Desktop

For the past few weeks I’ve been writing a series on the problematic relationship that I think Christianity has with our desire to be seen as cool. And today I’d like to lay my cards on the table for my biggest problem with why I care about this, and why it concerns me.

It’s because the Church that called me to Jesus was anything but cool.

Chances are if you’ve read this blog for long, or have ever heard me preach, you’ve heard me talk about this little 10 person church before. It was for me a slice of Heaven on earth, it’s what I picture everything I hear the word church, and who I think of when I write every sermon.

Our worship leader had down syndrome, our preacher was mentally unstable, and our record attendance was 36 people. As much as I loved these people, I was still your average teenager prone to lots of insecurity and whenever we had guests I was often embarrassed by belonging to this group of people.

Every Age Has a Spirit

Often I would go to my other friends churches, and they didn’t look anything like the one I belonged to. They had people who were actually paid to preach or lead worship, they had gone to the trouble of printing bulletins and graphics for their the new sermon series and they had youth ministries, heck at my church, I was the youth ministry! And sometimes at these youth groups that I would hear the people talking about following Jesus in a way that was dismissive of the way their grandparents did.

They might talk about how Jesus was the original rebel and he certainly didn’t care about all that old crusty doctrine the way their Aunt Betty did (which ironically enough was a doctrine itself).

I learned that Jesus loved D.C Talk concerts and when true-love waited or when Christians kissed dating goodbye, He loved lock-ins and Christian athletes and could cause touchdowns for those who were confident that they could do all things through Him who gives them strength.

I know I’m being pretty sarcastic here, but I’m wanting to make a point. The great temptation of every age is to assume a level of superiority, a chronological snobbery that we’ve somehow been able to evolve past all the sin of previous generations. But today go to any church with a youth group and you’re likely to hear the very things I just mentioned as examples of how wrong we used to be in the very same dismissive spirit that people used in the generation before them. 

But the problem I had then is the one I still have today. I couldn’t write off the older generations because I was sharing life with them, I saw them wrestle with how to be faithful disciples in the world while trying to hold onto the tradition that they had passed on from the generations before them.

And this is my biggest problem with Cool Christianity…in order to exist, cool has to rebel against something, and the main way Cool Christianity thrives today is by rebelling against the Christianity of the previous generation.

In an article for the New York Times a few years ago called, “Ideas & Trends: Alt-Worship; Christian Cool and the New Generation Gap,” John Leland talked about how the the younger generations of Christians are rapidly reinventing church to be something far from what their parents’ and grandparents’ generations experienced. Leland ends his article by posing this question:

“If religion is our link to the timeless, what does it mean that young Christians replace their parents practices?”

I think that’s a great question. How does a historic faith (a faith based in things that we believe happened in history) rebel against the faith that we inherited without changing the very nature of what that faith is? Cool is rooted in the moment, the way of Jesus is rooted in a tradition passed down from generation to generation.

Re-Generation

Think about how many times early church planters like Paul tells the churches to organize themselves in a way that helps widows and senior saints pass on their way of life to younger Jesus-followers. Paul will go from these super theological statements about the God who gives grace to all people and who has loved us from the beginning of time to saying things like, “Make sure the older women are teaching the younger women how to love their families and live holy lives.”Jesus loves you Hipster

Paul has this idea that church, like Jewish synagogues before would be a place where younger people and older people would be sharing life and offering generous critiques and wisdom for how to follow Jesus well.

In every healthy church I’ve seen that’s still the case, and those churches are rarely cool.

I like the way that the pastor Jonathan Martin talked about this when he was planting his church a few years ago. He said from the beginning that the church they wanted to plant wasn’t trying to be cool, it was trying to be faithful. Here’s his words:

“We are your grandmother’s church. And your great-grandmother’s church. And your great-great-grandmother’s church. I had grown weary of the clichéd church advertising that said, ‘We aren’t your grandmother’s church.’ I understand what they mean by that. It’s a way of saying that our church has electric guitars rather than pipe organs. I didn’t grow up in churches with pipe organs, so I have no reason to be defensive about them now. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be annoyed with the careless language. The desire to cut ourselves off from those who came before us is no virtue. Even when we are flatly, and perhaps rightly, embarrassed by the behavior or the history of our churches on some level, we still exist in continuity with them. We are forever tethered to our grandmother’s church, and this is as it should be. Our grandmother’s church has given us many good gifts. But even when it has been very wrong, it still belongs to us.

This is at the heart of Christianity and the problem facing churches today, cool lives in the moment, the church lives through the centuries. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and linked to the generations who have gone before us, we must be faithful to the purposes of God for our generation, but we must also remember we belong to a tradition. We belong to the Kingdom of God and a democracy of the dead.
On February 26, 2015

UnCool: The Church Is For God

Un-Cool DesktopChristine Frost never set out to attract the attention of the entire world. The 77 year old nun had no interest in that kind of platform, she was just serving the LORD by serving the poor.

For the past forty years she had worked to get poor, disenfranchised people into better housing, she and her abbey devoted themselves to serving people in what we call “the projects.” For four decades she had served these people no matter what faith they had or didn’t.

And so when she Christine Frost saw the black flag of ISIS flying over the entry of the apartments she’d spent the better part of her life serving she did what was only natural. She took that flag down.

The flag had already been flying for two weeks, and when journalists approached to take pictures they were threatened with bodily harm, people had complained to local authorities, who were trying to figure out what to do. And that’s when Christine Frost, the nun, known for her ability to organize bingo nights and speak on behalf of the marginalized, stepped up.

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

This plucky senior saint just walked up to the building with a step-ladder and took the flag down.

At first, no one in the British press knew what to make of this act of bravery. Some assumed it was a Christian vs. Islam thing, but it wasn’t, it was woman who had been faithfully serving her community in the name of Jesus for decades and she had no idea that what she was doing would be so very cool, she just knew it was right.

Getting Hugged by Strangers

I spent this past Saturday night hanging out with Kent and Amber Brantly for a fundraising event. I had the privilege of getting to interview Kent about his experience with serving West Africa and having Ebola. They were really incredible, humble people who have given Jesus a good name. But the one thing I wasn’t expecting is how many people wanted to hug them.

We ate dinner at the Macaroni Grill before hand and total strangers just came up and hugged him and walked away without saying a word.

Amber told my wife, “This has been happening a lot lately.”

Think about that, these aren’t people who are asking for selfies or autographs, they aren’t wanting to get anything, they are just wanting to say thank you.

If you know Kent, you know that the best word to describe him isn’t cool, he’s not edgy or image-conscious, he’s the furthest thing from a hipster. He’s not cool, he’s more than that, He’s trying to be faithful.

And this brings me to the problem with the American Christian’s preoccupation with being cool. Cool is built on rebellion, and it’s easier to sell rebellion than holding on to some kind of tradition. I like the way Paul Grant puts it in his book, “Blessed are the Uncool”

Was Jesus really a rebel? Yes, but Jesus didn’t rage against some abstract machine; he called people to an old way, the way revealed in the prophets. . . . Jesus rocked the boat, and defied the status quo, modeling courageous resistance of the prevailing winds. But in our contemporary culture, rebellion is considered a good in its own right—and a thrilling one at that. We’re out to transgress. But we don’t really have any agenda beyond rebellion itself.

It’s so tempting for Churches to fall into the trap of pursuing cool, we use words like relevant or cultural engagement, we want to show the world that we “get it” and that we don’t believe in dragons or elves, but when we pursue this, it quickly becomes where we spend our best energies and resources.

David Wells makes this point well in his book “The Courage to Be Protestant”

“the miscalculation here is enormous…The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God. And the further irony is that the younger generations [are not impressed, they] often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.

Instead of battling to be relevant and cool, churches should be doing is engaging their communities and cultures by trying to be the most faithful version of themselves for God and for the world.

Our chief goal isn’t to be relevant, it is to be the people of God.

Who is the Church For?

A couple of years ago I read the great book by Andy Stanley “Deep and Wide” where he asked the insightful question, “Is the Church for members or non-members?” He’s asking the question because of the tendency that churches have to bend toward being internally focused, and Stanley very convincingly makes the point that the church exists for the people who don’t belong to her.

So I went to Jeff Childers, a member at Highland and a good friend, and I asked him that question “Who is the church for?” And in one sentence Jeff exposed a huge gap in my faith and view of Church.

He just said, “Short answer is the Church is for God.”

Immediately, I was like “Oh yeah, that’s the right answer.”

I realized that this was the missing piece in my theology, I still believe that the Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the people who don’t belong to her, but not first, She first exists for God.

Do you realize the great pleasure it gives God when we forgive people who are difficult to forgive? Do you realize when we reconcile racially/economically/politically we give God great joy because we are acting like His Son? We don’t’ do it because it’s popular, we do it because it’s who God is.

I don’t know of another reason that would cause someone to serve Ebola victims at the expense of their own health, or could cause an elderly nun to take down a flag at the cost of her own safety.

Sometimes the faithfulness of the Church catches the world’s attention and people are reminded that it is good news that Christians follow Jesus. And that may put an elderly nun on the front page of the Guardian, or it may get strangers coming up and giving you hugs at a Macaroni Grill.

But that’s not why we do it, the Church exists for the world, but not first, she first exists for God.