On January 27, 2015

Uncool: Losing Your Cool

“There comes a time when we must show that we disagree…We must show our Christian colours, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ…We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.”-C.S. Lewis

Un-Cool Desktop

Last month all the Cardinals of the Catholic Church came together for their yearly Christmas gathering to hear an Advent message from Pope Francis. From the outside looking in, Pope Francis appears to be one of the most kind and compassionate people in the world. He’s incredibly popular in much of the world, recapturing outsiders imagination for why the way of Jesus is still so beautiful.

But from the inside it’s a different story.

Francis stood in front of a room full of men who had given their lives and made great sacrifices for Jesus and the Church, and he gave them a list of 15 things that they as leaders were doing wrong.

And you thought your office Christmas party was awkward.

Seriously, read the speech, he accused these priests of having a Messiah Complex, of making efficiency an idol, of having “funeral face” and losing the joy of the LORD in their life, of being exclusive of loving money too much, of gossiping and worshipping prestige.

Merry Christmas guys.

Love Does…Weird Stuff

I spent last weekend at a men’s conference listening to Bob Goff, the author of the tremendous book Love Does, at one point during the conference Bob told the story about meeting with the Imam in the local Mosque where he lives in San Diego. Bob had started to work in several Muslim countries and he wanted to get more acquainted with the Muslim faith, and so he befriended a local Muslim leader, At one point in the conversation, Bob asked the Imam what the scariest day of his life was and the Imam told him, “That’s easy. It was September 12th, 2011”

Turns out that two of the terrorists who flew planes into the buildings on that dreadful Tuesday morning were members of this Imam’s mosque and after America was sucker punched, we were ready to punch back and we were looking for a target. So on the 12th, the Imam drove up to his Mosque early Wednesday morning to find over 300 cars parked in his parking lot. There was a group of people who had heard that this mosque had connections to the terrorism in New York and they were ready for some mob justice. And that’s when Bob said something happened that I find close to miraculous.

A group of Jesus followers surrounded the Mosque and linked arms and began to sing worship songs while they used their bodies as human shields to protect their Muslim friends entering the Mosque.

When I heard that story I found myself swelling with the best kinds of pride for these Christians. Not just because they were brave and sacrificial, but because they were faithful when it would have been easy to not be.

As soon as Bob told that story, I thought about my life on September 12th. My friends and I were scared, my parents were terrified (confident that Searcy Arkansas was next on the Taliban hit list) and everyone I knew was confused, sad and angry. I remember the world of September 12th like it was yesterday, and I can’t imagine the bravery it took for a group of Christian men and women to to stand in a California mosque parking lot and lock arms against an angry crowd.

I don’t think they were particularly courageous in regards to violence. I doubt that anyone would hurt a group of middle-class Christians singing, I think their courage took a different stripe all together. It was the courage to be uncool.

Remember the momentum culture had during the weeks following September 11th? Every news channel, every politician, every public figure seemed to be able to put aside their differences and focus their collective voices on comforting each other and confronting and making sense of the evil we had just witnessed. Unfortunately, it was also a terrifying time to be a Muslim, it was easy to lump the terrorist in with the Muslim faith, (which would be like lumping all Christians in with the KKK).  And in the middle of all that, a group of Christians stood against their peers, friends and neighbors and did what was in the moment the most uncool thing imaginable.

The Courage to Be Different

Last week some of the Highland Church leadership met with a hospital chaplain for a time of equipping. The chaplain was a middle class white guy who had spent the last 25 years in the hospital around people in crisis. And toward the end of our time with him, the chaplain told us this story:

Many years ago, a young gang leader in our city was shot in the head. He was immediately brought to the hospital where he would eventually die. The gang leaders family was obviously in shock and grieving, and to make matters worse his entire gang was hanging around outside the ICU ward discussing plans of retaliation. They were (not too subtly) coming up with a plan of action for their righteous anger.Canonization_2014-_The_Canonization_of_Saint_John_XXIII_and_Saint_John_Paul_II_(14036966125)

And that’s when the chaplain (not a large or intimidating man) went out to the waiting room and asked the entire gang to follow him to the chapel. He stood in front of this group of young men and told them that he understood they were angry, sad and scared, but that what they were planning was wrong and would ruin and perhaps end their lives and the lives of other people.

He told a room full of boys filled with bloodlust and rage and fear that they were wrong and that there was a better way to live, and then he bowed his head and prayed for God to give them comfort and peace and the ability to forgive and turn the other cheek.

And that’s exactly what they did.

As the years have gone by, many of those boys and their families have returned to quietly say thank you to the chaplain. They thank him for telling them something that is so obvious now but which no one was saying then. They thanked him for saying the uncool things to them when they needed to hear it.

That brings me back to Pope Francis, I think the reasons he’s so popular with most people is not because he’s chasing popularity but because he’s choosing who he’s okay not being popular with wisely. He knows that the world is going to be the world, but the Church is called to be different and so he’s able to say the most gracious things to people who are different than him, and the most prophetic things to those who are called to be different but aren’t.

Pope Francis doesn’t just go around kissing puppies, he’s told mafia leaders they are going to Hell if they don’t change their ways, that they have blood on their hands. He’s courageously rebuked a variety of military leaders, presidents, dictators and especially his own priests.

We so badly want to be popular, we want so badly to be seen as cool. But just a cursory observation of the way the world works reminds us, Whoever wants to save their cool will lose it, but whoever is willing to lose it just might save it.

On January 19, 2015

There is a Promised Land

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

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On the Thursday morning that Dr. King was assassinated he also was attacked by one of his own friends….with a pillow. On the day of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. got in a pillow fight in his own hotel room.

I don’t know about you, but that fact makes me smile in some deeper parts of my soul. The realization that even though hate might kill this good man, it couldn’t kill the goodness and joy in the man. I smile at the realization that during Dr. King’s final moments alive he was able to smile.

And then I wonder…how did he do that?

Standing on Promises

This past summer I went to Israel with a group of people For the most part, we were your usual group of Christians touring the Holy Lands, retired doctors and lawyers and teachers on a pilgrimage to see where all the stories that had saturated their imagination had happened.

For the most part we were white and southern. But that doesn’t quite account for all of us. There were several African-American women from Memphis, and I spent the majority of the first few days seeing the Holy Lands with them. Mainly because they were so nice and kind, but also because I didn’t want to just see the Holy Lands, I wanted to see it through their eyes.

See, I’ve learned just enough about the Bible to remember that the Bible is harder for me to read than others. The Bible is hard for me to read, not because of a lack of training or my ability to never quite get above a B in Greek. It’s hard for me to read because or where I read the Bible from, and where I don’t.

People who have known systematic oppression and marginalization were the ones who wrote the Bible, it is as it were, a history written by the losers. And so when my new friends were seeing these stories of the land of liberated slaves I wanted to know how they saw it.

And that brings me to Mrs. Shirley.

Mrs. Shirley was a senior saint who also happened to be African American. She had lived her entire life in Memphis and she had seen a lot. She told me about her family’s struggle to rise out of poverty and her concern for her children and grandchildren to do well in a system that seemed stacked against them
And then she told me a story that became one of my favorite memories from the trip.

When when she was only 14 years old, and she got to walk with Dr. King when the Civil Rights movement came to Memphis. In order to go on one of these marches she had to go through all the training about how to keep the protest non-violent in the face of other people’s great anger, she was trained how to respond if people spit on her, or how to react if she or someone she cared about were beaten.

But the advice that really stuck with her was when the civil right protest organizers told her that if that the police released the dogs that they should try to remain calm and keep walking hand in hand. As she was telling me this story, Mrs. Shirley remained calm, as if she was still following the instructions, but she had a fire in her eyes as she was remembering.

I didn’t know how to respond to her story so I asked her if she was scared during all of this and she said, “No, not really.” Then a few minutes later she came back and said, “I can’t lie. I’m embarrassed now, but I was scared. What I really afraid of was the idea that those dogs might bite me.”1183155006_08b1215aeb

Protests and Pillow Fights

I don’t know what you did over this holiday weekend, but I joined the crowds watching Selma. The movie about Dr. King and the civil rights stand off that ultimately past sweeping Federal Voting reform. During that movie I wept on more than one occasion. But the scene that touched me the deepest was watching little African-American girls march with dignity into the angry crowd armed with billy clubs and attack dogs.

I wept because I now knew who that little girl was, and I knew that even thought she might not look it, she was afraid.

But Mrs. Shirley, like so many of my black brothers and sisters who lived through the civil rights movement, wasn’t angry. She wasn’t angry at other white people, and incredibly enough she wasn’t angry even at the people who had unleashed the dogs on her. She had every right to be furious but she had chosen another path.

So eventually I asked Mrs. Shirley how she did it. I wondered what could move someone to refuse to harbor bitterness against those who wish you evil. And that’s when Mrs. Shirley told me the most profound gospel-like things. She said something to me that made me realize how Dr. King could get into a pillow fight on the day of his assignation, even after saying the night before that he knew his life was in danger.

Mrs. Shirley said she wasn’t angry because, “There is a Promised Land”

And suddenly it all clicked for me. Mrs. Shirley wasn’t just there to see the Holy Lands, Mrs. Shirley was there because her entire life had been oriented around a God who makes promises that the future will be better than the past.

There is a Promised Land.

The civil rights movement succeeded because tens of thousands of men and women trusted that what God had promised would one day become a reality, and they were able to refrain from violence or anger because that God would one day keep his promises.

If we want justice, if we want to keep from getting angry in the face of injustice, we must remember this. There is such a thing as a perfect justice and one day it will roll down like a river. There is such a thing as a perfect righteousness and one day it will flow like a never-ending stream. If we want mercy than we must remember that there is such a thing as a good and compassionate God.

That’s how you do it. There is a Promised Land, it’s not quite here yet but it is coming and it changes everything.

The final public words of Dr. King were spoken in a church in Memphis and as we look back on a year of racial tension, injustice and peace, his words are just as hopeful and calming as they were on the day he spoke them:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I’m happy tonight.

I’ll die tomorrow.

I think I’ll have a pillow fight in between.

Because there is a promised land.

On January 13, 2015

UnCool: More Than Cool

Un-Cool Desktop

The year was 1936, and it wasn’t just another rally for German superiority that had become more and more common lately. No, this one had Adolf Hitler himself there. And everyone was almost falling over themselves to show their support for their Fuhrer, well almost everyone.

You can see him in the picture above, he certainly sticks out, because he’s the only one who’s not drinking the Kool-aid. He’s obviously uncomfortable and doesn’t want to be there, and for me, the most interesting part of the story is where he wants to be, or more precisely who he wants to be with.

Forbidden Love

His name is August, he joined the Nazi party a few years earlier for the same reason that young, ambitious young men do most things. He wanted to climb the ladder of success and since the Nazi party was gaining momentum he figured that would be the best way to make some connections, get a well-paying job and start making a life. And it was working for August. Being associated with the Nazi party during the 30’s was the only way to get somewhere in Germany. August was doing fine…until he met Irma, a woman who just happened to be a Jew.

When August and Irma tried to get married, the German government refused, Apparently, they frowned on Nazi’s marrying Jews (in 1951, long after their death, the German government recognized their marriage) but no government was going to stop them from making promises to each other. Eventually, August and Irma had children together and then did the one thing that just couldn’t have made sense at the time.

They started dating publicly, as in where everyone could see them together. This mixed family of a Nazi and a Jew were standing out in the open as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Despite the fact that he had been arrested before for breaking the racial purity laws of the Nazi, despite the fact that he had been warned that the next time they were caught together he would go to prison for years, despite the fact that she would be (and eventually was) killed as Jewish woman in Germany, they appeared in public in a time when the social momentum was against them.

And that’s why I love this story so much.

Captivated by Cool

I’m starting a new blog series today that’s going to run for the next few weeks based on this simple idea that’s haunted me for the past few years. I run in a group, and identify primarily with Christians of a more progressive stripe. I embrace my Christian brothers and sisters from all kinds of traditions and backgrounds, and have learned the hard way not to write any Jesus-follower off because they don’t see the world the way I do. But I enjoy talking with progressive Christians a lot, they seem more open to new ideas or ways of thinking about God and less afraid to push the envelope. I like that.

But I’m starting to have some concerns.

I’m worried that behind my pursuit of the next new way of talking about God is not just a relentless pursuit of the truth, when I get silent before God I’m starting to think what I’m really chasing after is a desire to be seen a certain way. In my more honest moments, I’m able to admit that what I really want to be seen as is cool.

After World War II was over, and people were trying to figure out how in the world a nation that was so civilized, so theologically sophisticated, become so dark?

Nazi Troops Celebrating Christmas

Nazi Troops Celebrating Christmas

Brett McCracken writes in his book “Hipster Christianity” about the way that culture around Nazi Germany developed. He cites Antonio Gramsci who studied the Nazi culture and made a very profound observation. It wasn’t that Hitler was some lone evil, it was bigger than that. Here’s McCracken:

In Nazi Germany control was exerted not simply by a fascist ruler but holistically throughout the entire culture—even the most free and democratic of cultures like America. In our most apparently benign institutions—churches, elementary schools, pop music, films, Boy Scouts—the hegemony extended its reach and reinforced dominant values. Ideology was subtle propaganda, and it thrived in mass culture.

It wasn’t just Hilter that made the Nazi’s evil. They weren’t trying to be evil, they were trying to be cool.

Which brings me back to August, this guy with his arms crossed refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler on that sunny day. This guy had no idea the way that the world history would play out, he has no way of knowing that their vision of world domination is going to fail. He has no way of knowing that for generations to come the Nazi symbol is going to become an obscene gesture.

He could’ve just raised his arm insincerely, but he doesn’t play along, he dares to stand against the crowd, and he’s not doing it to be cool later. Which by the way, he is. Turns out what’s uncool a few years ago, tends to be the very stuff that people are drawn to later, but he doesn’t do it for that.

He does it because he has seen the face of the enemy in his children and he knows they are not the enemy at all. He doesn’t need you to think he’s cool, and I think that’s the kind of guy I’d like to be. That’s the kind of community I’d like to be a part of, one that values love over ratings, and self-sacrifice over reputation.

August is going to eventually die for crossing his arms on this cool spring day, but by now everyone else in this picture is dead as well, and he’s got a better story to leave behind.

He’s not just trying to be uncool. He’s not trying to be indifferent to the popular culture, He does it for the very best reason of all. He does it because he loves his wife and his family and he doesn’t care how much others hate them, or how much they can and will hurt him because he doesn’t. So what you think about him isn’t very important to him because something else is.

There are many reasons to be uncool, but the greatest of these is love.

On January 6, 2015

May I Recommend From 2014

Unknown4151TNPFEMLOne of the things that I love about my job is how the Church gives me time to study and prepare. It’s a real blessing, I get paid to go off every year to pray and study, and it’s not just to write sermons, it’s to equip the priesthood of all believers for ministry. So when people ask me if there are any books I recommend I’d like to be as helpful as possible.

For the past several years I’ve tried to avoid what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery” with his prescription for reading an old book for every three new ones I read. I’ve done this for a while now, but I’ve never recommended any of the older ones at the end of the year. It feels pretentious in a “Well, look who can read the King’s English” kind of way.

But this year I’ve read several that I just couldn’t shake. If they’ve made this list it’s because I’ve found myself recommending them to friends over lunches or coffee on multiple occasions.

So for those of us who are looking for new(ish) reads in 2014, here are some of my favorite resources from this year :

Kingdom Conspiracy by Scot McKnight

I can’t tell you how much I loved and appreciated this book. There’s something about doing full time local church ministry that can wear you thin over time, and it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. This was one of the highlights of my year. It’s inspiring and in places breathtaking vision for why a group of people getting together in Jesus’ name is how to save the world.

Seeing Through Cynicism by Dick Keyes

Earlier in this year I blogged a few times about this book. But I haven’t stopped talking about it. I’ve felt somewhat lighter ever since reading this. If you struggle with cynicism, or if you think that’s just a fancy word that preachers came up with to take away your money, please do yourself a favor and read this book.

The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton

This book is a hundred years old, and I wish every college freshman had to read this. Heck, I wish every professor and preacher would! So much of our modern notions of progress and common sense come tumbling down with a closer look through Chesterton’s eyes. This is the book that first made C.S. Lewis re-examine his abandonment of God and Christianity, and even if you aren’t a Christian it will change how you see the world, and probably how you see Christianity.

Skeletons in God’s Closet by Joshua Ryan Butler61q3xi7LblL

It’s a book about the Hope of Holy War, the Good News of Hell and the Surprise of God’s judgment. That’s seriously the subtitle that they snuck past the marketing team, and it’s one of the most surprising, mind-changing books I read this year.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankyl

This is another classic, and probably old-hat for many of you. But I had never read it, and now I feel like I should read it every year. Frankyl was a Jewish Holocaust camp survivor who really did learn the secret to life, and wrote about it well.

FutureVille by Skye Jethani

I like Skye Jethani, All three of his books have been packed with cultural insight, and prophetic critique of contemporary Christianity. FutureVille is about lack of Christian Hope in the world today (at least in the West) and why “The future isn’t what it used to be” and why that matters.

Uncommon Decency by Richard Mouw

Earlier this year, I did a blog series on Civil Religion inspired by this book. I had no idea it would be as insightful and convicting as it was. Tired of angry people everywhere? Tired of the shrill nature of the public sphere? Read this book.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

This is a bit of a left turn from my normal recommendations, but if I had to make a single recommendation to the parents out there…read this to your kids. It is not an overstatement to say that reading this to my 6 year old every night this year changed my life, and I hope hers. I saw different angles through her eyes, and loved it so much I went back and read lots about C.S. Lewis, including everything else he wrote during this time of his life.

Date Your Wife by Justin Buzzard

This book isn’t here for it’s artistic merit, or because I agree with Justin on everything about what it means to be a man in a marriage. It’s here because I’m a better husband because I read it (I took Leslie to dancing classes because of this book) and because I know a lot of guys out there want to love their wives better in 2015 and just don’t know what that should look like. This book is a good place to start.

God Behaving Badly by David Lamb

I’d like to take this guy to lunch. Lamb is an Old Testament Professor who wrote a book that quotes Montgomery Burns, Beyoncé and Leviticus. I’d love to recommend this to any casual reader who wants to dismiss the Old Testament based on the caricatures of God that they’ve heard.

Hipster Christianity by Brett McCracken

This books been out a few years, but really, really good. McCracken simply asks the question, “Why are Christians so embarrassed of being different?” And then gives some really insightful answers, and a few hnull.jpg_9673opeful alternatives.

Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey

I pray that Yancey lives to be 100. Everytime he comes out with a book I have dozens of new sermon illustrations and insights. If you go to Highland don’t read this book, it will come to you.

Beauty Will Save the World by Brian Zahnd

Ever since reading Unapologetic (a beautiful Christian book) last year, I’ve struggled to explain to my older brothers and sisters how talking about faith in Jesus to my generation (or at least people like me) has to be different than the analytical, Spock like approach we’ve used for hundreds of years. This book is written by a local church pastor and does it for me.

Patrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Weber grew up in Churches of Christ and is in fact speaking at the Pepperdine Bible Lectureships this year. What I love about Nadia is that she’s a local church person through and through, she’s a great story-teller and she’s got some great stories, but she gets the Gospel and all of it’s implications. By the way, this book is PG-13.

Speaking of PG-13

2017697992Religion for Atheists by Alain De Bottom

This book is written by someone who is religious but not spiritual. This is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time h/t to Jen Rogers for the recommendation. De Bottom (French for “Of the Bottom”) grew up with atheist parents and is an atheist himself. But I’ve never read an atheist like him. He’s not against institutional religion, he just doesn’t believe in the God they organize around. When so many Christians are asking why should we belong to a church, there’s a whole group of atheist who are starting ones. De Bottom leads the way, and this book explains why.

 

So those are my top reads from 2013, What did I miss? Any suggestions for 2014?

Christmas PictureA few weeks ago, on Black Friday, I joined the crowds getting on Amazon to see what their Christmas deals were. And I was fascinated by one thing in particular. In the Lightening Deals Amazon has three categories 1) All Available 2) Upcoming 3) Missed Deals

We have a section for missed deals!. Does it strike anyone else as particularly disturbing that we have a section of a website set aside just to shop for regret? Amazon gets to show us how great of deals they’ve had, and we get to mope about the things that we missed.

Joy Beyond The Walls of the World

A few years ago, I read Mark Sayers terrific little book The Trouble With Paris, where he observed the disconnect between our materialism and our the way we use things to try and medicate our pain:

“I recently watched a reality makeover show. The woman who had been selected for a makeover had being trying to have a baby for several years, only to suffer a number of miscarriages. The woman had finally successfully given birth to a healthy child, only for that child to tragically die in its first year of life. The show lavished the woman with various makeovers. They remodeled her house and her garden, taught her how to cook gourmet dishes, helped her lose weight, and gave her a new wardrobe of the latest fashions, along with a European vacation. The show ended in an almost awkward fashion as it become apparent that the world of makeovers could never heal this woman’s grief. He problems were internal, not external, and our culture had no solution for her pain.”

There’s not enough makeovers that can heal the ache.

In his great memoir, Surprised by Joy, writes about his conversion from Atheism to Theism and then to Christianity, and what ultimately convinced him that Jesus was the Son of God.

One of the most surprising things about C.S. Lewis life was what he meant when he said Joy.

Joy, for Lewis, isn’t extreme happiness or even a very positive emotion. Joy for Lewis, is The Longing.

It was what haunted him as a child when he read the folk stories and myths of the Celtic and Greeks, it was what he felt when he looked out over the England countryside and imagined Kingdoms and Castles and Kings and Queens.

Joy for Lewis was the stabbing pain of desire, it was a wish for things that were not attainable.

This would lead Lewis to say things like

“[Humans] remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread. But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating, and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. So too the craving for myths (hearing them, reading them, making them) suggests the presence of a need that they satisfy–or, more accurately, try to satisfy. Because they reach something deep within us, we return to them repeatedly, but because they do not and cannot meet the need they invoke, our experience with them is characterized by longing.”

Joy is Waiting

So it’s Christmas, and by now most of the people reading this have already done quite a bit of shopping. The Tree is up, the lights are on, and the Visa bill is growing. And, on Christmas morning, if you’re lucky for a few brief moments the ache in your soul will be covered over with laughter and smiles as you watch the people you love tear through wrapping paper and try out or try on their shiny new things.Time Hourglass

All of this is fine, and I don’t mean to diminish it.

But that ache comes back.

And that is a very good thing.

It is what C.S. Lewis called Joy, and it’s what the Christian Calendar calls Advent

Advent is just the Latin word for longing, or waiting, and it actually the way Christians for well over a thousand years have prepared for Christmas, and one that I think we need today more than ever.

Ancient Christian wisdom demands that we remember that there is a desire that we have that points us North. It’s a desire that can only be experienced, and never fully satisfied on this side of Eternity.

And if you aren’t aware of this reality, no matter if you are religious or spiritual or not, it will be used by advertisers and marketing firms to make subtle, yet over-reaching promises that will only break your heart.

Because no doorbuster or gadget or Lexus can give you joy. Indulge yourself enough and you can even find a way to lower the signal on the true joy that is offered.

The only Joy that is really offered is the joy of waiting.

Which I think makes this whole season make more sense, but not the way we are celebrating it.

That emptiness that comes after the wrapping paper settles on Christmas morning. The dull ache that comes back after all the gifts have been opened, is a gift.

It’s a gift that reminds us the best is still to come.

The empty chair on Christmas Eve, the stocking you haven’t been able to hang up for years since the accident took him away, those are ways that…if we let it, can actually increase our joy.

All the longing that is welling up inside of us actually has a end desire, and Christian hope says that it’s not only true, it’s exactly what this time of year was made for.

Advent means Longing, Christmas Advent means longing for the Joy that once did enter the world, and one day will come again.

So we wait.

And this is joy.

So What are you waiting for?

He who is the issue of an illicit union [ממזרmamzerwill not enter the assembly of the Lord, even his tenth generation will in no way enter the assembly of the Lord” -Deuteronomy 23:2

His glory was that he laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside her respactablilty and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts.” -Charles Spurgeon

Christmas PictureLast year the Huffington Post ran one of my new favorite Christmas montages. It was a collection of short Nativity Pageants that had started off with such high hopes, but had crashed spectacularly. My favorite is the camel falling into the audience. I’ve worked with animals in front of a live audience before. I know it can go bad in a hurry, but this is way worse than anything I’ve ever worried about.

I imagine the people involved trying to shake that off. Maybe they’re at a nice restaurant after church trying to explain to their friends why they have camel hair all over them and smell like Egypt.

But what I loved the most about these compilation of videos is that reality comes shining through despite our best efforts at glossing over it. The world, for most of the people in it, isn’t primary shiny and sparkly and clean and happy. Maybe if you are young and fit and have enough money you can avoid this fact for a while, but eventually each of us have to face the messy bits of reality.

Sometimes Mary falls off her donkey and no matter how hard they practice, 8 year old kids discover that the 12 days of Christmas are really, really hard to memorize.

Christmas is Messy, and it has been from the beginning.

Jesus The Mamzer

In the Hebrew language, the word Mamzer is the word for a child that comes out of a forbidden relationship. The word is flexible, it can mean anything from a child born from incest to a child who was born from a Mamzer. But almost every single time the word is used it refers to a child born from parents who weren’t married.

John Ortberg points out that every culture has a word for their mamzers, and none of them are nice.

If Joseph has been Roman, Jesus would probably not have even survived. In the Roman culture, children like that were usually abandoned in a dump, or on a hill made of dung. To this day, in many places, they still are.

This is not just an incidental detail of Jesus’ life, it is something that comes up often in the Gospels.

One time in the Gospel of John, the religious leaders of the day are arguing with Jesus and apparently they aren’t doing so well so they bring it up:

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

John writes in Greek, so the word he uses isn’t Mamzer, it’s Porneia…as in the word we get pornography from. When push comes to shove, they bring up that Jesus entered the world with disgrace.

The New Testament Scholar Scot McKnight says it this way:

“Jesus was labeled by his contemporaries as a mamzer. And such a label would have carried with it socio-religious implications with a powerful significance for Jesus.”

It was a label that would have, from the very beginning made Jesus more than just a peasant carpenter, it would have made him an outcast, excluded from social circles, religious assemblies and any opportunity to marry into a “good family.”

That’s the world Jesus was born into, and the way he was born into it.

The Gospel According to Jesus

Now revisit the Gospel. Think about all those times that Jesus interacts with labeled condemned people, and the way He does it. If you’re paying attention you begin to realize that this is the trajectory of Christmas.

Jesus seems rather indifferent to grading the kind of sin that people are dealing with, only with getting them to admit it, bring it out in the open to be dealt with.

The inner rings of the elite, seem to hold no appeal for Jesus. In fact, he seems to think that with his life and ministry he maybe able to redraw the lines of who’s considered in and who is out.

Jesus healing the bleeding woman, as depicted in Roman Catacombs

Jesus healing the bleeding woman, as depicted in Roman Catacombs

Take for example, the story of Mark 5. Jesus is approached by Jarius, the Synagogue Ruler who has a dying daughter. The Synagogue ruler is a prestigious role in 1st century Judaism, and to be able to put “friends with Jarius” on a resume is good for any Rabbi. A dying daughter might be the only reason that Jarius would approach a Mamzer, Jesus ministry hasn’t really taken off yet, and this is a risky move by a prominent community leader.

But along the way, Jesus is interrupted by a woman with a bleeding disease. As far as the social scale, Jarius and this woman couldn’t be further apart. They actually had created rules and commandments to keep the apart. She couldn’t go to synagogue, she could legally even be in public. But here she was, throwing a Hail Mary, asking Jesus if He would do for her what he was planning to do for the prestigious man’s daughter…give her back a life.

And here’s the most breathtaking, yet subtle thing in the whole story. It’s a glimpse of Christmas and the messy glory of it all.

Jesus heals the bleeding woman publicly, and he heals the prestigious young daughter in secret.

And publicly, in front of the whole community, Jesus calls this woman the only word that could heal her heart, “Daughter.”

Jesus knows a mamzer when he sees one, and takes care to let everyone know that she belongs in God’s good world too.

She’s belongs, because God didn’t just become a baby, He became a Mamzer. So that the world would finally know a community of God’s people where everyone has a place, just as God intended.

Christmas Picture

I had a dream.

Seriously, that’s the only way I would’ve considered writing this post about Ferguson.

I read this story in the NY Times and then I had a dream. I went to bed on Monday not planning on writing anything about Ferguson, but I woke up Tuesday morning with this haunting me.

It’s a blog about Ferguson and Christmas and a story of how a good police officer in Ferguson is embodying the Christmas story whether he means to or not.

But first.

The Polite Policeman

Officer Jerry Lohr, wasn’t setting out to be the most popular policeman in a city where policeman are anything but. He wasn’t trying to make the New York Times, he’s got a reputation for getting easily annoyed with the media and the circus they’ve turned his hometown into, but despite his best efforts Lt. Lohr is becoming famous in the country the way he has been in his city.

Black residents, despite the fact that Lt. Lohr is a white man, regularly ask for him by name when they have a grievance to file. They trust him, and seem to have no problem obeying even the orders he gives. One black teenager, Joshua Williams said, “He’s the only one I feel comfortable being around “

This past week when one of the protestors was leading a group of people in the street to block traffic, Lt. Lohr walked up to her. She looked at her watch and asked him to “Give me three more minutes.” And he did.

He’s got this hunch that by actually listening to people’s complaints, even when they disagree with one another, he can help the community he serves come together. So he listens to each person…like they are a person, and he helps them if he can, but he always tries to let them see that he is human too.

I read that article in the Times, and found myself thinking, I know lots of police officers who do that too, why is this working so well for him?

Why in the world has Lt. Lohr garnered the respect of the “other side” in what is quickly becoming a racial war that could break out in any city of these United State? And what does this have to do with the Christmas story?

Great question, glad I asked it.

When I was in college, one of my professors, a guy named Monte Cox, told me a story about a friend of his who was a father of a brand new baby. They also were registered with the state of Illinois as foster parents, which meant that a child in need of some temporary parents could show up at their doorstep anytime.

And one did. A little girl came to their house who had been traumatized by events in her recent past. I don’t know the details but I know that she was almost catatonic from fear of adults and what they had done to her in the past. So coming to a new strangers house and being told to trust them was not something that was on her agenda.

And so immediately this girl began to freak out. She was terrified of the new hell she had just been introduced to, so she began to run through the house trying to find a place to hide. And she ultimately hid under the bed…for hours.

Monte’s friend tried everything to get her to come out, they talked in soft voices to her, trying to reassure her that everything was going to be fine, that they weren’t going to treat her like the adults who had gone before them. They tried just sitting patiently by the bed, but nothing was working.

Until one of them had an idea.

They took their newborn baby and gently slid him under the bed toward the frightened girl, and moments later she came out holding him.

I have a six week old baby at home right now, and I can’t imagine the courage it took to take such a risk, but it was the risk that opened this girl up to the possibility that maybe these adults aren’t like the ones I’ve met before.

It was the vulnerability of the baby that made the girl realize that she was around people who weren’t just looking to protect themselves but who were willing to open themselves up to being hurt, which is really the only true first step in love.

Photo of Lt. Lohr by NY Times

Photo of Lt. Lohr by NY Times

The Power of Vulnerability

So back to Ferguson…a few months ago I was talking with my African American brother Jerry Taylor. Bro. Jerry preaches all over the country and helps churches work toward racial reconciliation. He’s someone who loves God and loves His Church enough to help us have the hard conversations we need to have so that we can be a community of reconciliation, the very kind that Jesus’ birth initiated.

A few months ago, Jerry told me that the greatest challenge facing racial reconciliation among churches right now is black anger and white fear.

And immediately I knew he was right. We live in a world of great fear and great anger, two ingredients for a vicious cycle that has no end.

Unless Jesus story is true, and Christians decide to follow him into it.

I think this time of year has a lot to say about the events in Ferguson because the Christmas story is about a God who lays down his priviledge and makes himself vulnerable. I love the way Frederick Buechner says this:

For those who believe in God  this birth means that God is never safe from us. Maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we could turn him down, as we could crack a baby’s skull like an eggshell, or nail him up when he gets too big for that.

This is not just theological abstract ideas, the Gospel actually is good news and a good strategy. It’s at the heart of what has made Lt. Lohr so trusted and respected.

The secret that Lt. Lohr has is that he actually goes into the riots, he’s the only police officer to wade through the protestors, and he never wears riot gear.

His secret is the power of vulnerability, what Jesus would call “Laying down one’s life.”

This is what started at Bethlehem. It’s a God who became a baby, who showed us the power of vulnerability, which is of course the power of love.

On November 20, 2014

The Cult of Contentment

But godliness with contentment is great gain. –St. Paul

Contentment makes poor men rich, but discontentment makes rich men poor. – Ben Franklin

Ecards

I’m tired of the “War on Christmas” It’s my least favorite holiday tradition, and frankly I think it has become one of the more polarizing parts of our culture.

So I have a modest proposal, instead of fighting to “keep Christ in Christmas” what if we fought to keep the Friday in Black Friday?

I remember when the day before Black Friday was the only day that our culture had set aside to actually be aware of what we already have instead of focusing what we don’t. I remember when they used to call the day before Black Friday, “Thanksgiving.” But each year it seems like the monster of materialism is inching closer and closer, enveloping our gratitude by increasing our greed.

But there is another way.

A Better Way to Live

A few months ago, I heard a preacher talking about the life of the apostle Paul. Specifically his sermon was on all the jail time Paul served…and what he did with his jail time. During his prison time, Paul wrote letters to the churches that he started. Now Paul had no idea that these letters would be the defining moment of his life. He had no idea that by doing this he would shape Western civilization more than anything else until the printing press. He had no idea that the words he was writing would shape what we think of about marriage, about human rights and equality, and about the need for self-less self-sacrifice. He was just in prison and so he did the only thing he could do, he wrote some letters.

In one of the letters Paul writes to a church he planted in Philippi, he writes thanking him for a care package that they sent him, and he lets them know how much they encouraged him, but he doesn’t passively-aggressively guilt them into sending him more stuff. It will take hundreds of years before preachers learned that trick. Instead, Paul does the opposite. He actually tells them, I’m thanking you not because I was in need, I’m thanking you because it did my heart good to know you were thinking about me.

And then Paul tells them words that would shape Christian Theology for thousands of years:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want

Paul’s talking to them about how he learned contentment.

There is actually a kind of life that allows us internal peace no matter what is happening around you. There is a way to live life that isn’t frantic and envious and filled with fear and anxiety.

And the word for secret here is actually a word that doesn’t come from Christian Theology, it’s nowhere else in the New Testament, it’s actually a word that Paul grabbed from the culture, specifically from the cults.

It’s a word that was only used for people who were being initiated into one of the many secret mystery cults.

Back in the day that Paul lived, there were all kinds of mystery cults that existed. They basically thrived on being elite and exclusive, they each had some mysterious secret that separated them from the insiders/outsiders. Each cult promoted that they knew the secret to the afterlife or the good life or how to become like the gods. For some it was a secret word, or story, or handshake (ok, I’m not sure if that one’s true), but the thing that all the cults had in common was that it was secret.

And that’s the word Paul reaches for.

The Mega Mystery

There is a secret that can allow us to be content no matter what is going on outside of us. No matter what our circumstances or lot in life. We can be content.

He knows the secret, and then he shares it:

I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

I grew up with this verse on my wall, with a picture of a High School football player scoring a touchdown, but before this was was reduced to being a cliché on a teenage boy posters it was a secret to a better way of life.

The secret of Paul, the Mega Mystery is that the Spirit of God can actually be enough for you.

Remember this isn’t written from some academic desk, or a couch in luxury. It was written in a jail cell to real live people. And Paul says to them, the secret is to know that the One who lives inside of you can give you strength to be content.

Black Friday

Maybe the reason we rush to Best Buy on Thursday is because we don’t ask God for this one thing on Sunday. and there’s nothing we buy can wash away the dull ache in our soul for it, But it’s possible…I’ve seen it time and time again in surprising ways and surprising people.

Last week, I was spending time with a young woman at our church named Nichole. Nichole is 28 years old, and has spent her entire life in a wheelchair, unable to move much of her body. She has Cerebral Palsy, and basic things like getting out of the house require a team of people to help, but every Wednesday night Nichole is at church, and in fact serves on a team of people who pray for Highland and me.

And at one point I was asking Nichole about her life, and she was describing the difficulty she has in being so dependent on others, and not being understood, she often asks questions like, “Why?” and “How long?”

But then she started pointing out that she was aware that her very life was in many ways a gift to people around her. She had a different relationship to time, she wasn’t constantly stressed, she wasn’t able to hide her need for community the way most Americans have learned to, she hears from the LORD often, and He tells her that she was made and loved by God.

I asked her what her favorite Bible story was, and she said it wasn’t a story it was a verse. One that Paul had written thousands of years ago in a prison cell, that had changed the way that Nichole experience life today.

“I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”

I started crying and knew that she knew the secret. She had been initiated in a way that I hope to be one day.

She is in the cult of contentment.

May we all be.

On November 13, 2014

In the Flesh: Wish I Was Here

In the Flesh Blog

I recently heard about a survey done by the Yellow Pages that asked a large sample of people when they use their cell-phones. They discovered that, for most people surveyed, the first thing that they do in the morning is check their phone, and it is also the thing we do last before we go to bed. In a twist, only 3% of people said they used their phone in the restroom…because we are all liars.

The Yellow Pages surveys also found out that the average person spends 8.5 hours on Facebook. Think about that stat for a second, that’s over a day a week that we are working for Mark Zuckerberg.

When I heard about that survey I had one overwhelming thought:

I’m tired of not being where I am.

Sometime in the mid 90’s I signed on to the internet and I’m not sure I ever really logged off. I spend much of my day typing symbols of letters that are digitally translated on to a screen that I’m staring at. I read many of my books on a Kindle, today I will Skype into a conference where it will appear that I’m there while actually being hundreds of miles away.

I spend way too much of my life going from one screen to another, looking at projections of reality, mistaking the shadow for the substance. And irony of ironies, most of the time I’m talking/writing/reading about a God who became flesh.

YOLO

One of  the stranger things about the way Westerners view time is that we are all think of ourselves as “Time Poor”. Which is probably not a phrase you use often. You probably think in terms of being stressed or exhausted, but underneath this way of life is the idea that there isn’t enough time in the world.

Driving our assumptions about how we spend our life isa  view of time that goes absolutely against the Christian faith, mainly the idea that you only live once. So prove yourself, exhaust the moment, squeeze all the life that you can out of the moment, because it’s not going to come again.

Ironically the idea that You Only Live Once has lead to not really being able to live well.

The preacher John Ortberg once asked the great theologian Dallas Willard what one word was that he would use to describe Jesus, and he gave a word that I thought was surprising.

Willard said “relaxed”

What an interesting way to think about Jesus.

Most of the people reading this probably wish they had more time, but Jesus’ relationship with time was one of the greatest gifts He gave his disciples, one that I think He still wants to give.

Chances are you have a clock on your wrist or wall, you have a calendar close by and a way to organize your life. But birds are never late, the animals of the field don’t keep time, they aren’t worried about growing old, and Jesus repeatedly refers to them as if he wishes his followers could be more like that.

I like the way the graffiti artist Banksy recently said:

Man alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.

Life of Panic

In the day Jesus was born, there was a Roman god named Pan, who was worshipped in certain places even in Israel. Just a few days walk away from where Jesus did most of his ministry, and one day Jesus took his disciples down to the very area where people worshipped Pan to teach them about the Kingdom of God.

He told them that the kind of movement that He was starting was going not going to withdraw from these types of places but invade them. Pan was a half-goat/half-man god, and the place where he was worshipped (Caesarea Philippi) was cave that they thought was bottomless, they considered it a Gate to the underworld.

And the reason people worshipped Pan was because they were terrified of him, they were always worried that Pan might come out and get you at any time, which is where we get the word panic from.

The site of Pan worship at Caesarea Philippi

The site of Pan worship at Caesarea Philippi

 

And Jesus marches to this place and says, I’m going to start a movement of people that are different than this, but they are going to be among places like this.

Jesus says things like “don’t worry about tomorrow” and calls our attention to the way God cares for the flowers. Jesus repeatedly tells us in a variety of ways that to follow him is a light burden.

Which raises the question, who am I becoming more like Jesus…or Pan.

In my life I have seen the Sistine Chapel, I know what Michaengelo’s painted room smells like, I’ve seen the Gas Chambers of Auscwitz and the Catacombs of Rome, I’ve walked Mars Hill and seen the Parthenon and the Pyramids, I’ve felt the wind on my face from Pike Peak and I’ve felt the tears running down my cheeks in room full of girls rescued from sexual slavery, I’ve ridden an elephant in Thailand, a camel in Egypt and a horse in Jordan.

I’ve had more opportunities than I ever thought possible, and I look back on these memories with great gratitude and not a small amount of student loans, but I’m starting to hit a point in my life where I no longer wish I was there. I’m realizing that what I really want is to be present here, in the same way I was there.

I’m tired of my children reflexively repeating themselves 3-4 times because they know that their daddy isn’t really listening. I’m tired of catching my mind wondering from the person who is right in front of me to wondering about what interesting news might be scrolling through my Twitter feed.

So as a kind of Public Service Announcement, Leslie and I are attempting to simplify our life. I realize that as a preacher I can’t invite people into a good life that I don’t have myself.

Over the past month, I’ve made some adjustments to my life. My iPhone is now really a glorified flip phone, I have no way of doing much beside calling and texting, and contrary to the advertisement I always hear, I feel like now I’m more connected.

This may seem too much for some people, but I’d love to invite you to try it. Because I’m tired of wishing I could be somewhere else with someone else.

I wish I was here.

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity either in locality or in speech or in customs. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians…the constitution of their citizenship is nevertheless quite amazing and admittedly paradoxical. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners…Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is a foreign country. -Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus from the 2nd century

gospel-of-mark-slider

At the Highland Church, we are coming to the close of our series of the Gospel of Mark. For the final three weeks of this series, we’re releasing several different videos we made earlier this year created from different locations in Jerusalem, in the places where Jesus spent His final hours.  Each week’s video will be a supplemental resource for that week’s upcoming sermon, and If you’re interested in watching the rest of these videos they’ll be posted weekly to the Highland Facebook page.

Antonia Fortress – Am I Leading a Rebellion? from Highland Church on Vimeo.

I like showing these kinds of videos because it’s important for Jesus followers to remember, this really happened, and it happened in a world much like ours.

Jesus didn’t just leave home and travel to a far county, he was born under Ceasar Augustus, and sentenced to die by Pontius Pilate. His life is the myth become fact, the God become man, the King who become a carpenter, and who steps into the calendar around 4 A.D.

This particular video is filmed in the Antonio Fortress, the place where the Praetorium Guard was assembled and where Jesus would have met Pilate. I think this video is an appropriate reminder on this election week for Christians to be reminded of this scene.

In a world where everyone seems to think they know who Jesus was and what His movement is about, but strangely seem to have lives similar to people who have no intention of following him, maybe it’s time to look again at the man who turned the world upside down.

Shooting this video here was a good reminder of how Jesus chose to serve and change the world. In his three years of ministry Jesus wasn’t very interested in politics, but after his three years of ministry the politicians sure were interested in Him.

Just a little historical background for those interested, The Antonia was a tower built by Herod for his soldiers to watch over the Jews during their festivals…especially Passover. During the entire time that Rome ruled over Israel there were six different revolts. And five of them happened during the Jewish festival of Passover.

This is why Jesus’ actions during his final week were so dangerous. When Jesus rides into town like a King, and start throwing tables around in the Temple courts, the rulers know that they have to stop this as soon as possible.

But they don’t know how.

Here’s Your King

I’ve heard people say before that the Jewish people didn’t have the authority to enforce capital punishment and kill Jesus, historically speaking that’s not true. The Jewish people were given authority by Rome to enforce justice and keep the peace (see Acts 8 where the first Christian martyr Stephen is stoned) The only hard and fast rule that Rome had given both Herod and Pilate is “no revolts”

As long as everyone just smiles and politely goes about their religion business than Rome is content to look the other way as you talk all you want about “freedom” and a “God who delivers”

But Jesus intends on being more than polite.

And so on the final day of Jesus’ life the Roman and Jewish authorities have to find a way not just to execute Jesus but to turn the people against Him. To this end, Jesus was taken to the Jewish courts and convicted of blasphemy, a charge  they didn’t kill him, instead they send Him to Pilate. But Pilate knows when someone is passing the buck, after all the business of the Jewish religion had nothing to do with him, so Pilate passes him off to Herod Agrippa, only to get him back from Agrippa a few hours later…without any sentence.

In a scene that is eerily familiar to modern day politics, nobody wanted to make themselves vulnerable by taking the blame…but Mark is writing in a way to tell us that’s exactly what Jesus was doing.

In a season of political unrest and power-grabs, Jesus is largely silent, quietly laying down his life. When He’s beaten and accused, He responds with grace and forgiveness and blood.

He may be like a King, but Kings are not like Him.

He’s leading a rebellion, it’s called the Kingdom of God and you can’t vote that in, but everyone can be a part of it.