“Everywhere I looked people were standing in two’s. It was like Noah’s west-side, rent-controlled Ark.” -Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City

love-days

So unfortunately this year Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday.

I say unfortunately because in most of the churches I’ve seen in life make a really big deal about marriage and families and romance and kids and happily ever after, and rightfully so. Those are good gifts from God in many people’s lives.

But what is so unfortunate about Feb 14th falling on a Sunday this year, is that many (most) churches have gone beyond celebrating marriage and family.

For the past several decades we’ve all but idolized it.

Christians Who Don’t Want to Mingle

A few days ago, I saw an advertisement from Christian Mingle that starts by saying:

“Single Christians: Good News!

ChristianMingle.com has over 13 million people registered online

So join today and find God’s match for you.”

I can’t tell you how frustrated that silly ad makes me. After all, I thought Christians meant something bigger and better when they’re talking about good news. But the ad also frustrates me because it assumes that God has a match for everyone, and if you haven’t found your match you must be on the outside of God’s will just looking in at all the normal Christians.  christianmingle-com-find-gods-match-for-you-large-7

I understand this as a marketing strategy, I just don’t like it as a from a “Christian” one.

Maybe we should give grace to Christian Mingle, they actually aren’t run by theologians, they are run by Spark Networks, the some company that also runs Mormon mingle, Adventist mingle, J-Date,  Black Singles.com, deaf singles, plus-sized singles and many, many more.

But all this raises the question, What’s the deal with singleness? 

Because from a historical perspective, the church used to have a place for single people, We used to know what a gift that single people were to a Church.

Stanley Hauerwas points out that when Christianity first was introduced to the pagan world it changed the way they viewed marriage because it de-idolized it. After all, there was no more radical act in that day than to live a life without producing heirs.

Children were the way to achieve significance for an adult, because they would remember you. Children gave you security, because they would take care of you in your old age. And it was in that culture, that a large percentage of Christians chose to remain single, making the statement that their future was not guaranteed by the family… but by God.

In the 1st Century, Augustus Caesar ordered that widows be fined if they didn’t remarry within two years. But in Christianity, widowhood was highly respected and remarriage was, if anything, mildly discouraged. The church stood ready to sustain poor widows, allowing them a choice as to whether or not to remarry. It praised them, as though they were a special treasure.

Or at least it used to.

A Single Advantage

A few weeks ago in the New York Times, Jessica Crispin wrote a fascinating article entitled “St. Teresa and the Single Ladies” about how challenging being single in American culture is, and how she (though not a Catholic) is drawn to the only religion she knows of that values singleness.

Here’s how she said it:

I can’t remember the last time I saw a television show or a film about a single woman, unless her single status was a problem to be solved or an illustration of how deeply damaged she was…

I’ve been single for the most part going on 11 years now, and so I have heard every derogatory, patronizing, demeaning thing said about single women. “There has to be someone for you,” a married woman friend once said exasperatedly after I recounted another bad date. Implying, unconsciously, that there must be one man somewhere on the planet who could stand to be around me for more than a few days at a time.

I can’t help but think that we lose something when we couple up, and maybe that thing is worth preserving. I pointed out to a different friend that it was the nuns who were the most socially engaged, working with the world’s most vulnerable.

Image from CodeCarvings Picard

Image from CodeCarvings Picard

Remember what the word mono means? (not the kissing disease) It means “one.” as in, “solitary” or “focused.”

Historically Christianity has had a tradition called Monasticism, a way of living out a singular focus on the Kingdom of God.

 

Now Monasticism isn’t really part of my heritage, but I wish it was. Because at its core, monasticism is just about a single-minded pursuit of Jesus. It’s about people who have chosen to devote their singleness to the Kingdom of God.

And these are the people who are teaching Jesus’ parable to the rest of us: when you find the pearl of great price, you leave everything else to go after it.

According to Jesus, a life of singleness devoted to the Lord is some people’s calling, and it is a high calling; and even if yours is a temporary singleness, there’s more to being single in Jesus, than waiting around for romantic love. There are things your singleness allows you to do that a married couple cannot.

In the words of the Times article, “We lose something when we couple up, and maybe that thing is worth preserving.”

Becoming Eunuchs and Other High Callings

There’s a time in Matthew 19, when Jesus talks about the dangers of marriage, and how painful it can be when it goes wrong, and his words were so strong that his disciples actually respond by saying, “Maybe it’s better not to marry!”

And I think it’s fascinating that Jesus doesn’t respond, “Oh no, sorry, you’ve got me all wrong! You must have misunderstood. Marriage is the greatest. Everyone ought to try it.”

No. What Jesus actually says is, “Not everyone can accept this word… some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by people; and others have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven.”

When Jesus talks about eunuchs, I don’t think He’s talking about surgery, He’s talking about people renouncing marriage. This is Jesus putting a very high value on singleness.

And then He says, “The one who can accept this should.”

If you were getting acquainted with the Jesus story for the first time, one of the most shocking parts about Jesus life would be the fact that Jesus is single, stays single, even fulfills God’s purposes as a single!

We forget what a scandal it was in 1st Century Judaism that Jesus was not married. As a Jewish man, (especially a rabbi) You had a duty to God, your ancestors, and to your family to marry and make babies.

Later rabbis would even say: “Seven things are condemned in heaven, and the first of these is a man without a woman.”

Marriage was so taken for granted that Biblical Hebrew has no term for bachelor. It was considered necessary in order to be part of society. You had to be a part of a family, and those who weren’t were seen as an outcast (particularly true for women).

But Jesus did not focus on the family, at least not like that. Instead Jesus created a new family. He stayed single, and created and claimed instead a family that included all kinds of people from all walks of life.

Including single people.

No…especially single people.

Do you realize how risky it is to be single? Do you realize how much faith it takes to not have heirs?

I like the way Rodney Clapp says it:

The single Christian ultimately must trust in the resurrection…. Singles mount the high wire of faith without the net of children and their memory. If singles live on, it will be because there is a resurrection. And if they are remembered, they will be remembered by the family called church.

So I’m writing this 2 weeks ahead of Valentine’s Day, because this year it falls on a Sunday, and I know that there are a lot of preachers who really love people, and want to care for everyone, but this just isn’t on their radar. You need to know, chances are there are a lot of people in your church who have seen this day coming for weeks, and they might even be dreading it.

So If you are a preacher or church leader think carefully about how you talk about what really matters. And if you are a Christian be careful not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Because after all, Valentines day is only about romantic love.

But Sunday is always about something better than that.

It’s about Resurrection.

Yes it’s true that it’s not good for a person to be alone, but that doesn’t have to mean marriage, That’s what the church is for.

And contrary to what Christian Mingle says, that’s what Good news for Single Christians really looks like.

On January 26, 2016

How to Happy: Lottery Fever

“It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains, that all people desire to be happy.” -St. Augustine

how to happyI’d like to start an series today called “How to Happy”  that will run occasionally over the next several months, it’s a series that’s based on a conversation I’ve found myself having over and over with friends and church members and other pastors. And it’s basically all around this one really big idea;

Everyone wants to be happy, very few people actually are.

Why is that? We have more resources, more money, more toys, better living conditions than any generation in the history of humanity.

We’ve got it all, but we don’t have happiness.

I’m doing this as an occasional series, because I’m in the process of reading a lot of St. Augustine who lived a long time ago, and dedicated a lot of his life to asking this specific question: How does a person find happiness, and from what I’ve read so far, all his answers will surprise you.

The Affluenza Disease

I’m writing this post on the Wednesday morning of the Powerball Lottery pick. It’s up to 1.5 Billion dollars and almost everyone I know is talking about. Lots of my friends have a bought a ticket, made bargains with God about what good they would do with the money, and some have even asked me to pray for them to win it.

But I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

In 1978 there was a study done that interviewed 22 different lottery winners and 29 different people who had been paralyzed by tragic accident. And this study found that 6 months after both of these life changing events the paralyzed people (many now quadriplegics!) were happier than the lottery winners!

When Jack Whittaker won $315 million dollars 14 years ago, he thought that his life was set, and that he would be able to sit back and enjoy it. And at first, he did what everyone says their going to do with their winnings. He gave millions to different charities, he started his own foundation. But then when people started stealing from him, when his house was broken into, he began to questions all of his relationships, and he began to become much more protective of what was his.

Image from Bloomberg.com

Image from Bloomberg.com

5 years after he had won over a quarter of a Billion dollars, he told reporters “I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”

There are so many stories about this, and I’m sure that almost everyone knows them, but for some reason we ignore it.

On writing this, something like $400 million dollars worth of lottery tickets are being sold a day in the USA, every gas station you go into is filled with people (the clerks I’ve talked to say this is the busiest they’ve ever been), despite the next to impossible chance that you can win, and the near certainty of the destructive nature of what winning would do to your actual life.

We live in a time and culture where it is becoming more and more obvious that our wealth has some extremely negative side effects. From the judge who recognizes that a teen who grew up with excessive privilege had an “affluenza disease” to the rampant rise of heroin use among well to do suburban kids, we should be noticing that the American dream isn’t just not all it’s cracked up to be, it’s deeply cracked.

The Good Life

Jesus says two things that I don’t think Christians believe anymore. And they both have everything to do with your money.

At one point Jesus is approached by a man who is in a tug of war of greed with his brother. They’re fighting over their inheritance and maybe it’s because the guy has heard Jesus talk so much about money, he asks Jesus in front of everyone to talk to his brother about why he should share his money.

I think this is so funny. This guy wants Jesus to preach about generosity…to his brother. As a preacher I get this, most of the time when we hear sermons, we say to ourselves, “I wish my wife/husband/friend could hear this, she’s the one who really needs it.”

But Jesus sees through this guys request and he immediately replies,

“Watch Out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed. a person’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of their possessions.”

The word Jesus uses there is the Greek word “Zoe” It means the life that is true life, the life of joy and peace, the kind of life that everyone is after. And Jesus says that kind of life doesn’t come from having more stuff.

But Jesus uses stronger words than that, When He hears this guys requests, He basically shouts out “Watch Out!” It’s a warning Jesus uses 6 other times in the Gospels, and every other time it’s when He’s warning people about religious false teachers.

I think He’s doing the same thing here. Because that’s how money works, it’s a false teacher. It makes promises it can’t keep, and it sets us on a life trajectory that slowly squeezes the life out of us.

The other thing Jesus says is something I’ll bet everyone in America has heard, it’s become cliche, a truism that we pay homage to in our culture but rarely in our wallets.

Jesus says “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.”

Did you know that the word blessed is really the Greek word for happiness? Does that change this idea for you at all? Does it make better sense of your life experience?

Jesus isn’t just referring to random acts of kindness (but those are great!) Jesus is talking about there are two ways to organize your life, you can organize your life around receiving or you can order your life around generosity. And while everyone thinks happiness comes from getting more and more, according to Jesus happiness comes from giving what you have away.

No less that 3 articles were in the New York Times last year confirming this radical idea. That people who give generously, regularly and sacrificially are much happier people. That giving generously is good for every part of your well-being.

Compare that with the fact that the average American will spend 35% of their life’s income on interest, and currently is at least $10,000 deep in consumer debt.

These are people like you and me, people searching for happiness. And chances are a good percentage of these people believe in Jesus, but apparently don’t believe like Jesus.

Churches make the mistake of throwing Dave Ramsey at this problem, trying to help get people out of debt, but that’s like putting a bandaid on cancer, because the real problem is that we are fighting against our own happiness. We are like a dehydrated person drinking buckets after buckets of Coke.

The real question is Jesus right or not, and only someone who has given his ideas a try can answer that.

So as the dust settles from the Lottery fever this time around, as some person finds themselves with more money than they can imagine, and the rest of us find ourselves with worthless losing tickets, here the question to really wrestle with.

Is the thing that’s missing in your life really a thing? According to Augustine what makes us happy really isn’t a what, it’s a Who.

In Augustine’s words “Jesus is the Bread of Life awaiting our hunger.”

What that means is that God is not fighting against your happiness, God is the very source of your desire for it.

And St. Augustine found this out by dedicating his life to finding out how to happy, and then finding his happiness was really a pathway back to God.

But before we go there, ask yourself this question.

Are you happy?

Don’t you want to be?

On January 18, 2016

Dr. King The Preacher

An actual billboard that is posted in a small town in Arkansas

Just a few weeks ago, I was driving from Branson Missouri to Fayevettville Arkansas to preach, and along the way I saw this sign, posted on the road as if it was a totally normal billboard.

There were other signs as well, saying things like “Loving your own people isn’t a crime” (implying loving only your own people) and I was extremely disappointed in my home state. Thankfully a lot of other Arkansans are too. 

But It does raise the question. Why do we really think this is wrong? Those billboards are statements that a thousand years ago, in pagan cultures would make perfect sense, your people, the people who are like you, are the ones you are supposed to love and protect and privilege above all others.

These days we hear people say that we shouldn’t be racist. But why? We live in a secular age, an age that fiercely resists any kind of overarching storyline and yet we still have these impulses that things should be a certain way. So here’s a question, what do you say to these billboards?

People have been racists for thosands of years, and no one really thought it was a problem. We hear people say that all people should be treated equal, but why? Nobody ever considered that for thousands of years, that ideas was anything but self-evident, it was nonsense.

The problem is that we have these dangerous ideas and we don’t know where we got them from, we don’t know where they came from and so we don’t know how to really live them out.

The truth is, those billboards are right. It’s not a crime to only love your own people.

But it is a sin.

Bus Ride to Justice

This past year I had one of the great privileges of my life in getting to go with 20 other preachers (10 black & 10 white) to tour historic Civil Rights cites across the South. We called it “The Bus Ride to Justice” and I’ve never had an experience like this before. We laughed and cried together, we shared our stories we prayed together and we forgave each other.

It was in a word simply what the church is supposed to be.CY0GK3bUAAAFSG_.jpg-large

So today is Martin Luther King Jr. day, ironically the same Federal government that declared Dr. King to be one of the most dangerous men in America during his life, now celebrates his birth with a Federal holiday. Today Dr. King is recognized as one of the greatest people in history for his commitment to human rights and non-violence while pursuing justice.

And today, Dr. King’s name is used by everyone to endorse a thousand different agendas from conservatives to progressives. He supposedly endorses every new candidate and any new social program but we forget who Dr. King really was. A preacher of the Gospel.

Seriously, that was what he wanted to be known as, Here’s how Dr. King said it:

“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.”

Dr. King was a preacher of the Gospel, the problem is, that for many of us we’ve forgotten how big that really is.

One of the most inspiring things to me about the Civil Rights Movement is watching those videos of the March on Washington. The day that MLK stood up and told everyone about a dream he had, a dream that was bathed in the prophets of yesterday and a hope in a better tomorrow.

Thousands of people came from all over the country, rode buses and drove cars, they planned out their trips for where they could stop and eat or sleep in a segregated country where most restaurants and hotels wouldn’t serve them.

They did all that, just to be there that day.

But the most inspiring part of that day to me, isn’t just the speech, it’s the people, specifically what they were wearing. Go back and watch some of that old grainy black and white footage, you’ll see that the women were wearing their finest dresses and the men are wearing their ties.

You know why? Because they had to be, it was a Sunday morning and they had just left church.

The Dream Comes from Church

They came pouring out of church, worshipping a God who says that in Christ there is no segregation or separation and then they came together and told the world about their dream.

On our Civil Rights tour, we stopped at a few museums and only one political building. The majority of our stops were at Churches. Why? Because this is the vision that Jesus gave the world, a world that didn’t have to be divided by classism or racism or sexism, a community of reconciliation for the good of the world and the Glory of God.
A picture of Dr. King's office I took this August

A picture of Dr. King’s office I took this August

That why Dr. King kept saying he was a preacher first, because he knew what the Gospel was and what it could do.

One of the great ironies of today’s world is that we are so secular, insisting on flattening out all religious distinctions as if they didn’t matter. But we don’t really know what to do with Dr. King. Because in all the social good that he did, Dr. King was deeply Christian and driven by a Christian imagination. He fought for civil rights not in spite of his faith, but because of it.

This past August, I got to to go to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the church that Dr. King pastored for several years, and I got to spend 30 minutes in there just wondering around. It was amazing holy ground.

We walked into an office, and I immediately knew it was Dr. King’s office, there were no plaques, no protective cases or rope preventing you from walking in. But I knew it was is office because I knew it was a preachers office, it felt like a preachers office, and it had his books, but it also had regular preacher books. And it was still used every week. Museums have asked to put Dr. King’s old pulpit on display, and Dexter Avenue has told them “No, we use that every Sunday”

The View from Dr. King's Pulpit

The View from Dr. King’s Pulpit

At one point on our racial reconciliation trip this year, I was overwhelmed with how many times white racists bombed and set fire to and attacked black churches. We all wept at the site where the four little black girls lost their lives when the 16th Ave. Church was bombed in Birmingham, We wept when Dr. King’s eulogy was read ending with him saying “Sleep on, sweet princesses.”

We wept at the evil that human beings are capable of inflicting on each other, but we never asked the question, “Why were they bombing churches? Why were they trying to kill people while they worshipping?” Because we knew the answer.

As dark as it may sound, we all knew that the KKK members had chose the right targets. They knew what they were doing, if you want to stop this vision for equality and dignity for all people, you must go to the source.

This vision for a world where people are not judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character comes from a cave in Bethlehem and seeds of this dream are planted in almost ever street corner of every city across the world.

The Church is the dream, because the Church is the body of Christ.

Thank you Dr. King for being her preacher.

On January 12, 2016

2015 In Review

So before I started a new series of blogs in this new year, I wanted to take a week to look back at what we did in 2015, and in particular what blog posts resonated the most with people. I try to write primarily for people worshiping and serving in the local church, and one of the great joys of having a blog like this is hearing from people who use some of what is written here in places like their local church bulletin or using a story or point for a sermon in their own congregation.

I know the Christian story isn’t primarily about words, it’s about words becoming flesh, so I’ve always seen this blog as just a small piece of service to what really matters, people living out the way of Jesus in their own lives.

So thanks for reading in 2015 and for trying to put some flesh on these ideas.

And, with that said, here are the top blogs from JonathanStorment.com this last year.

Photo taken from Gawker.com

Photo taken from Gawker.com

1. Isis and the “Nation of the Cross”

By far the number one most read blog last year was a post I wrote addressing ISiS after they beheaded 21 Christians.  Most of the time, I write blog posts a few weeks out, but this one I sat down and wrote as soon as I saw this tragic story about these courageous men and the evil that was done to them.

Here’s what my response to Isis was that day:

If you want to talk to America than call it by it’s proper name, if you want to talk to the Church than this is our response for over 2000 years…You can’t kill people who have already died. That’s who you are talking about and who you are talking to when you address “the people of the Cross”

The people of God have faced worse things than this before and we actually have a bit of historical perspective on what God does with our spilled blood. “The blood of Christians is the seed of Christianity” one early Jesus follower wrote during a much scarier time than this. And he was right, you have no idea the sleeping giant that you are waking with this challenge, and it’s not the West. It’s the power of the redeemed suffering of the people of God.

Unknown2. 3 Big Reasons to Sing in Church

The next most popular blog was on why we need to sing in church. This one wasn’t read as much as the ISIS one, but was shared a ton more (understandably it’s lot easier to share a blog about singing than beheadings). I loved writing this post, and have probably had more feedback and requests to use this content in a local church than anything else I wrote last year.

Before this was a blog post, it was a sermon at Highland and before it was a sermon it was a realization in my own life. I discovered that I had started to “delegate” some of my worship to what people did on stage. If that’s something that sounds familiar to you, I hope this blog post helps you reconsider that.

3. An Invitation to the Pepperdine Bible Lectureships

This one doesn’t have a flashy title to make it sound like it should’ve been the 3rd most read blog of the year, but it was because of something that everyone in my particular tribe (Churches of Christ) were talking about.

Last year, Sara Barton was the first woman to give a keynote at one of our lectureships, and I wrote this inviting everyone to come hear a good friend (and great preacher). Turns out Sara didn’t need any help, one of the best keynotes ever. If you’d like to watch her sermon, I’d highly encourage you to check it out here.

Unknown4. Why You Need to Volunteer at Church

The popularity of this blog and the singing one made me realize that the most practical posts are the ones that seem to connect the best to people. Normally I love writing and thinking about big ideas about God or what I see happening in the world, but I’ve started to realize the need to write more about the “so what” about the Kingdom of God.

I’ve learned recently that ideas that don’t work in real life aren’t good ideas no matter how exciting they might seem, and I wrote this blog because I was seeing that people who believe all the right things, but don’t carve out time in their lives to embody them miss out on far more than they know.

5. Ash Wednesday: Dirty Words

One of the most surprising things on this blog is that for the past few years, I’ve started writing a special post for Ash Wednesday, and every year this is one of the most read posts of the year. I think it goes to show that there is a real hunger these days for understanding the rich history of the Church Calendar.

Since my family and I have been living into the Christian calendar the past 4 years, I’ve been blown away by what a difference it makes in how I view the world. And Ash Wednesday is one of the most important parts of that. We live in a culture of death denial, and the wisdom of the Christian tradition is to remind us that before resurrection we must each face death. I’ve found that far from being morbid, leaning into this every year leads to great and surprising joy.

 If you would’ve told me earlier last year that I was going to write a series on Hell, I would’ve laughed. If you were to tell me that it would’ve been the most popular blog series of the year, I’d have been certain that my blog demographics had changed dramatically. But that’s what this series was, I tried to give a robust and serious defense and explanation on the why the Christian doctrine of Hell has traditionally been seen as Good News.

I can’t tell you how much good feedback I got on this series, and if you found it interesting this past year, I’d highly recommend you pick up Joshua Ryan Butlers wonderful book “Skeletons in God’s Closet”

The fifth most popular blog of the year, was indicative of so much of 2015 for me. I spent this fall preaching on how central condemning racism is to the Gospel story. In fact, I’d go so far as to say, without the Gospel, it’s impossible to truly condemn racism, and with the Gospel it’s impossible to make peace with it.

This piece is something that I wrote as a way of trying to lead out in showing what it means to let the Gospel change you when it comes to racial reconciliation.

I meant every word.

Next there are close runner ups with the series on Wonder toward the end of the year, and one of my favorite posts was this post on why our churches need to work hard to be Intergenerational that came in the top 10.

And that’s it. Those are the blogs that brought the most people here in 2015.  I’m very grateful for the opportunity I am given by the Highland church to read and prepare and write sermons each week, and let a lot of that research spill out here. For every sermon/blog I write, there’s a team of people who serve behind the scenes in conversation, ideas and creative planning, and always an intern who is tirelessly researching and taking notes for things that might be interesting.

This year that intern is my friend Zane Witcher, and I’m very grateful for his help. And to you for reading, sharing and all your feedback encouragement and critique as we share and sharpen ideas together.

Thanks for reading this past year

Grace and Peace,

Jonathan

On January 5, 2016

May I Recommend 2015

imagesimages-1One 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.

So here it is, my annual list of book suggestions. There are lots of good books that I read this year, but 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 any of us who are looking for some new reads in 2016, here they are, in no particular order, here are some of my favorite books from this year :

Fellowship of Differents by Scot McKnight

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. Accessible, hopeful and a book that every church leader (and member) ought to read. If you want to regain an appreciation for what the local church can do and should be doing in a deeply divided world, get this book and read it.

Glittering Vices by Rebecca De Young

I know it’s a great book, if I read it more than once. I’ve read this book 3 different times. I took several of our ministers at Highland through this book. I found it incredibly helpful into understanding myself and the nature of how sin works in my life to keep me from being the person God made me to be. There’s not been a book that has impacted my life as much as this one this year.

Malestrom by Carolyn Custis James

One of the most surprising books I read in 2015. James follow up book to “Half the Church” is about why the way we talk about gender roles in church is not helpful to both women and the men of our churches…and how it’s also not faithful to how the Scriptures talk about men and women. This book is amazing, filled with Biblical insights that I had never seen before, and frankly changed my mind a few times. I recommend it highly.41Y-ZjIgs0L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

How Not To Kill A Muslim By Josh Graves

Full Disclaimer, Josh is a good friend and I wrote an endorsement for this book years ago. But with all the global events going on in the world and the anti-Muslim rhetoric floating around, I think this book is a must read for 2016.

Preaching by Tim Keller

So this one is probably not for everyone. But if you are a preacher or if you ever preach, this is a great book for you. I wrote a few blogs reviewing this book earlier this year, but in a nutshell Keller’s genius is that he thinks like a missionary, reads culture well, and knows how to communicate effectively to it.

Jesus Outside the Lines by Scott Sauls

images-2This book was a breath of fresh air. Scott Sauls takes on the most polarizing topics today from politics to abortion and does so in a way that helps build bridges and understanding between Jesus people without sacrificing convictions. After I read this book, I started recommending it often. I didn’t realize how much the church needed a book like this until I’d read it.

Mission Drift by Peter Greer and Chris Horst

This book is different than others on here. It’s not for everyone, and I never would have thought I’d be recommending a book like this at the end of the year. I’ve just found myself recommending it so much throughout the year, and I think it might be helpful for some people now. It’s a book about the powerful pull that secularization has on every institution, and why Christian organizations need to consider fighting to be distinctively different and Christian.

A Glorious Dark by A.J. Swaboda

This is one of my top 5 books of the year. Swaboda is a great writer and this book is incredible. Swaboda’s big idea is that the Christian experience mirrors the final three days of Jesus’ life. Every disciple’s life is filled with places of death, waiting and resurrection. God is found in all three days, and each are important.

All the Places To Go by John Ortberg

Ortberg is one of my favorite preachers and writers, and this book is his best since Who is this Man. If you’ve got a transition in life coming up, or just wondering what comes next for you, this is a great little book to read.

Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden51RugsIINDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

If you heard any of the series I preached at Highland this past fall, than chances are you heard me talk about this book. Ruden is a classical literature scholar as well as a Christian. And in this book she turned her attention and expertise toward challenging some of the misconceptions the Western world has about the Apostle Paul. This book is brilliant, and worth the price for her chapter on Paul and women alone.

The Slavery of Death by Richard Beck

I’m biased here because I go to church with Richard and love the Becks. But this is an excellent book. Beck is a psychology professor at ACU, and he’s also a good thinker and a great church person. This book is in his wheelhouse of connecting psychology (fear and denial of death) with the Christian faith. I loved it.

Simply Good News by N.T. Wright

The good Bishop does it again! I actually got to meet Bro. Tom this year to talk to him about this book #humblebrag and I told him that I’ve begun praying for his health. Everytime he writes a new book, I get a new sermon idea.

New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton

I’m not a contemplative, but I really want to be. And I know for many of you, I’m very late to the party with this book, but for others of you who have never heard of Merton, or never picked up any of his stuff, this is a great place to start…especially if you’re interested in prayer. Merton’s writing is poetic and his content is inspiring. I described this book to a friend as one of the most peace-filled books I had read in a long time. This is a great book from one of the best Christian authors ever.

Come Be My Light The Private Writings of Mother Teresa

This one is a bit different than the others. Like the title says it’s a book made from private letters from Mother Teresa. This was an incredibly inspiring and insightful read. It humanizes Mother Teresa and helps you appreciate her ministry even more. On a year where she is about to become beautified and recognized as a Saint, this book would be a great place to start to help understand what a difficult, wonderful life she lead.

More or Less by Jeff Shinabarger

This book is both wonderful and convicting. Filled with stories of generous people doing incredible things in the world, Shinabarger does the hard work of getting us to consider the question that just about all of us never ask ourselves: Do we really need more, or is it possible that life could be better with less?

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith

This is a harder, more philosophical read than others on here, but it’s worth it. Smith is a great thinker and writer, and this book is a few years old, but incredible relevant to today. I wish every church leader would read this book and ask the question about how do our church assemblies and church life together help us desire the Kingdom of God more?

So that’s my list for 2015. One of my favorite parts of blogging is finding out and reading what other people suggest, so what did I miss? What needs to be on my list for 2016?

On December 22, 2015

Cave God: The Gossip of the Gods

Cave God

I grew up not really celebrating Christmas.

I loved the Church I grew up in, but truth be told, we did more than just not celebrate Christmas, we attacked it! One Sunday, the preacher at the church told my visiting 9 year old niece that there was no Santa Clause…during his sermon!

And you haven’t lived until you’ve had to sit through that kind of awkwardness.

It wasn’t just my little church that resisted celebrating Christmas. At the church I preach at today, only 50 years ago the preacher from Highland wrote an article arguing that Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. He said, and I quote, “We shouldn’t try to put Christ back into Christmas, because it is impossible to put Christ back into something He was never in in the first place.”

IMG_4858This probably sounds odd to most of you, a Church not believing in Christmas, but I understood it then, and I understand it now.

Here’s why we used to think that, and here’s why I changed my mind.

A Very Pagan Christmas

Did you know that in ancient Babylon, there was a feast for the son of Isis (the goddess of nature) that was celebrated on December 25th. They would give gifts and throw a party for the entire nation. Did you know that in ancient Rome, they celebrated Saturnalia, honoring Saturn (the god of agriculture). During this season, a group of entertainers would go from house to house singing festive songs (I assume they too demanded foggy pudding).

Did you know that the pagans of northern Europe celebrated the birth of the sun god Mithras? They celebrated it on December 25th, the winter solstice, which they called Yule. Yule means wheel, and that’s the symbol they had for the sun. These pagans had a huge festival celebrating the rebirth of the Sun because they knew that December 25th was the day of the year when the days started getting longer again.

For these people, Mistletoe was a sacred plant, and kissing under the mistletoe began here as a fertility ritual. As someone who was born in September I”m grateful for this tradition (and creeped out if I think too much about it). It was during these celebrations in the Winters of pagan Europe that people began to bring evergreen trees into their homes as a reminder to each family that the crops would soon grow again. These people developed the custom of lighting candles to encourage the sun god to be reborn.

Does any of that sound familiar?

A few years ago, I read one of my favorite books of all times. It was written by G.K. Chesterton 100 years ago to a largely post-Christian England.

Chesterton was writing in a time when anthropologist had discovered the pagan roots of Christian practices, and all of Europe was shocked to hear that most of their parties were older than Jesus.

Chesterton was writing just a few decades after Evolution had become popularized, and people had started to connect their ideas about evolution to religion.  Suddenly, people started thinking that Christianity was really just an evolved version of pagan faiths, nothing more than a re-purposed ancient myth that’s no more plausible than worshipping Mithras or Saturn.

Does that sound familiar?

But in this great book, Chesterton points out that we don’t understand ancient pagan religions because our world has been so changed by Jesus.

Both Chesterton and C.S. Lewis point out that Judaism has always been different than Pagan religions in a couple of ways. The most obvious one is that Judaism has always been fiercely mono-theistic, but the most interesting one is that Judaism was always so historical.

Think about it, in the Jewish story God doesn’t so much give them a bunch of myths, he gives them a history, with details about land and Kings and prophets and so, so many genealogies.

Scholars of ancient literature have pointed out that Jews don’t have the great myths of ancient religions, their Scriptures read differently than stories about Zeus or Prometheus. They lack the prose, even the miracles are mundane, they lack the over-the-top imagery of a Greek Pantheon. To put it bluntly, Judaism in comparison to Pagan religions was kind of boring.

Because Jews were doing something entirely different than any other ancient religion.

So what were the ancient religions trying to do?

Great question, I’m glad I asked it.

When Fact Meets Myth

Have you ever had your life changed by a book or movie, even though you knew it was fiction? Have you ever found your heart swelling by a story that was entirely made up? Judging from the half a Billion dollars the new Star Wars movie took in during it’s premier weekend, it seems most of the world still knows what it means to be captivated by an imaginary story.

Picture of Star Wars Premiers from CNBC.com

Picture of Star Wars Premiers from CNBC.com

That’s the power of a well-told myth.

People who have studied the power of stories, have pointed out that every story/myth that has stood the test of time, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to Homer’s Odyssey all share a same basic storyline, and that this story line was the basis of almost every ancient religion.

So Chesterton points out that the ancient religions were not stupid people who believed stupid things.  They were not saying that this is how things are, they were saying “Why can’t these things be?”

Ancient religions were about the universal hope that people have always had for things like redemption and wonder and reconciliation and sacrifice. They were about the deep hope we have for our lives to matter and for the world to have meaning.

Here’s how Chesterton says it:

Some myths are very crude and queer like the early drawings of children; but the child is trying to draw. It is none the less an error to treat his drawing as if it were a diagram, or intended to be a diagram. The student cannot make a scientific statement about the savage, because the savage is not making a scientific statement about the world. He is saying something quite different; what might be called the gossip of the gods.

The ancients didn’t believe their ancient religions in any way that is familiar to people who grew up with Christianity because Christianity is different in this one way.We believe these things really happened in actual history.

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, His was the body that God inhabited. He was the God become man, the King become carpenter. Jesus was and is, the dream, the echo of eternity that’s haunted humans since the very beginning, and who steps into the calendar, around 4 A.D

And that brings me back to our pagan Christmas.

Do you know why you celebrate Christmas with pagan traditions? Because whenever the earliest missionaries went to new lands to tell people the story of Jesus, contrary to popular opinion, these early missionaries didn’t just tell them about Jesus, they also listened to what they already believed.

And when they heard about their pagan religions and the deepest hopes that they had, these early Christian missionaries discovered that they weren’t just bringing God to different parts of the world. God was already there working, they were just telling people His name.

And so it was in 350 A.D. Pope Julius declared that Jesus’s birth would be celebrated on December 25th, because Jesus was the true Sun, who really did die and really was reborn. Jesus was the true God of the universe, the real thing of whom all the pagan gods were only shadows.

He was the rumor of Heaven, Jesus is the Gossip of the Gods.

Merry Christmas
On December 15, 2015

Cave God: Christmas Crusades

“God’s 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

Cave GodSo I’m guessing that bringing up the word Crusades is probably not the best image for most Western people when we think of Christmas. After all, the Crusades were part of a pretty dark time in Christian history, heck, it was a dark time in history.

The Crusades were a time when Christians went to a physical war with Muslim soldiers to take back the Holy Lands. It was a war fought presumably for the honor of God, in the name of God. But it certainly wasn’t fought with the spirit of God.

Last week, I wrote about how Christmas really is God’s way of waging war on the principalities and powers of the world.

And this is where you probably expect me to start talking about how the Christmas story really was something more like a metaphor for war. But it’s really not just a metaphor, after all Herod wasn’t metaphorically killing babies.

Worked into the very story we are celebrating in this season is a subversive element of how the Kingdom of God is breaking into the Kingdoms all over earth, Kingdoms that are very investing in keeping the status quo and protecting their own power and interests.

This isn’t just an isolated side note of the Christmas story. Both Matthew and Luke, (the only two Gospels that tell the Christmas story) tell the story of Jesus’ birth in terms of a war.

But since we’re not looking for it, we just read right past it.

King Baby Jesus

In the Gospel of Luke, the Christmas story starts off with Caesar Augustus taking a census. To most of us, that just sounds like the beginning of every Christmas pageant we’ve ever seen. But in reality, it means Caesar is flexing his power. To take a census means that you can tax your people and draft soldiers more efficiently. So far, this story begins like every other kind of ancient epic. The strong ruler is being strong and decisive and getting stronger.

But then the Gospel of Luke does something odd, Luke leaves his focus on Caesar and instead begins to tell us about this young unmarried, pregnant couple who have been forced to comply with Caesar’s edict. Even though she’s very pregnant, they’ve got to obey, because Caesar’s got the biggest army. Right?

Angels announcing Christ's birth to the shepherds by Govert Flinck in 1639

Angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds by Govert Flinck in 1639

Except, the way Luke tells the story is interesting. Because after Jesus is born in a cave in some nothing of a town named Bethlehem, this little family is visited not by royalty but by shepherds. Shepherds in the ancient world had the reputation something like homeless people have in today’s world. They have very little status. This is a detail that you should leave out if you are trying to convince people of a new world movement.

Unless, their presence in the story is a fundamental part of the new world movement.

And apparently God thought it was, because it was to these shepherds that the Angels appeared! Here’s the scene:

 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Now when you picture this scene, don’t get sentimental and imagine some scene from Charlie Brown. The Catholic priest Robert Barron points out that in the Bible when Angels appear to people, those people are always terrified.

Angels in the Scripture are warriors. And the word Luke uses to describe the Angels is Straitia, which means “multitude” or more literally it is a word that means an Army!

The reason Caesar is able to rule the world is because he’s got the biggest army, but the Gospel of Luke opens up by saying that this tiny baby King has a bigger army, and it is one that fights, not like the world fights, but with the power of Heaven, and this army fights for all those that the other Kingdoms have written off.

That’s the point of this war, it’s why God comes to the shepherds first. God is fighting for the people who don’t have anyone fighting for them. Jesus was born in a cave, on the margins of society.

But that was not a setback for God, it was the strategy of God.

God coming through the oppressed and poor isn’t just part of the story, it many ways, it is the point of the story.

A Way In A Manger

John Ortberg says that you might say there was an idea lying there in the cave along with this Baby. An idea that had mostly been confined to a little country called Israel, but was waiting for the right time to crawl out into the wider world—an idea which that wider world would be unable to wholly resist.

finger_of_godSee, in the ancient world people had hierarchal gods. At the top of creation was the gods, then the king. Under the king were members of the court, priests, then artisans, merchants, craftspeople, and then peasants and slaves. The king was seen as divine (or semi-divine) and everyone knew that he was made in the image of the god, but that was something reserved only for the king.

Everyone knew that peasants and slaves were not made in the image of the god. They were created by inferior gods. But all this was challenged by that idea that lay there in the manger,  an idea that had been guarded by Israel for centuries: There is only one God and He is good.

And every human being has been made in his image.

We have no idea how revolutionary this idea was…and is.

Here’s how G.K. Chesterton says this:

There is in that idea alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.

The War of Christmas is a real thing. It’s a war on any idea that would reduce any living person to anything less than someone made in the image of God. It’s a war that was waged by a God who would be born with the outcasts in a cave

The problem with the Crusades, is the same problem with our culture wars today. We love the story of God, but not the strategy of God.

God wages war against war, by laying down his life, making himself vulnerable. He is the Lion who fights like a lamb…and wins.

That’s a Christian Crusade.

We call it Christmas.

On December 8, 2015

Cave God: The War of Christmas

Cave God

I think it’s interesting that every year we talk about a war on Christmas, Every year, there’s some story that makes the 24 hour news cycle, and we start hearing the pundits on television talking about the war on Christmas. It’s normally about how some nativity scene in some city was forced to move away from a public park next door to some land owned by a church.

And we call that war.

If we think that moving our nativity scenes is the equivalent of war, then we should go back and read the Christmas story. Do you remember why Mary has the child in a cave? Remember why God has to send some coded message to some wise men with stars? Remember why Mary and Joseph went back to Bethlehem in the first place? Or why they had to flee as refugees to Egypt?

It’s because the Christmas story starts off with a first century Hitler on the throne. Herod is so afraid of losing his power the he’s willing to wipe out an entire generation of Jewish boys just to make sure he’s killed one of them. Joseph and Mary have to leave their home and become refugees overnight.

Herod commits infanticide on hundreds or thousands of baby boys.

This is what a war on Christmas looks like.

And what’s important to remember here, is that Herod does all of this, not because he doesn’t understand what’s going on, he does it, because he does understand Christmas.

Did you know that right now, all over the world there are people who gather together in secret to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Just by gathering together they are breaking the law, and it’s not because the national governments of the places they live in don’t understand Christmas, it’s because they do!

Because the truth is that there isn’t so much a war on Christmas as there is the War of Christmas. 

Jesus didn’t come with the title of religous figurehead. He came with the title of King. In a day and culture where that meant something. He’s the president, the Prime Minister the Supreme Leader of the World. That’s what Christmas means, and wherever a group of people gather together and celebrate that, expect for there to be people who are against it.

Christmas in the Margins

It’s ironic to me that we fight about Starbucks or Wal-Mart not saying Merry Christmas, or we argue about nativity scenes getting pushed to the margins of society. It’s ironic because that’s exactly where the first nativity scene occurred. Christmas happened in a cave, in a no-name kind of town with two parents who were peasants and moral outcasts. Christmas happened in the margins!

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Next week, I have a blog about why this matters so much, but you need to know if Christmas was true, than this was not an accident. Jesus being born in the margins of society was not a setback for God, it was the strategy of God.

God coming through the oppressed and poor isn’t just part of the story, it many ways, it is the point of the story.

Now I understand why Christians sometimes get upset up about this, Symbols matter, and when we see culture replacing language of Christmas with Happy Holidays it reminds us of the larger decline of Judeo-Christian values in society.  I really do understand that, and know that it matters.

But a lot of the rhetoric I hear about this seems based in fear. And that’s why it’s important to actually remember what the real Christmas story is about.

Did you know that the prologue for every Christmas passage in the Bible is “Do Not Be Afraid.”

Every time an angel shows up to tell anyone about Jesus they always start off with “Do Not Be Afraid.” And if you think about it that’s really the dumbest thing they could say. “Don’t be afraid Mary?” Really? She’s about to go head to head with Rome, the largest political power the world had ever seen. From her Jewish peers, she is going to be gossiped about and shamed. Her firstborn is going to be killed, and her family is going to be in danger every day from that day forward.

And the Angel has the moxie to tell her not to be afraid?

But this Angel knows exactly what he’s doing. Because, at least historically speaking, the Angel was right.

Christmas History

In the fourth century, there was a monk named Dionysus the Insignificant (who was a bit bummed about his last name) but this monk is the one who gave us the Calendar we still use today. And Dionysus didn’t put at the center of his calendar the story about the founding of Rome. Unlike every other calendar of his day, this monk divided up time Before Christ and After Christ. His calendar was centered around the Christmas story.

Dionysus the Insignificant as depicted by Mother Grimm

Dionysus the Insignificant as depicted by Mother Grimm

And it stuck.

Jesus lived and died and Caesar never even knew about him.

John Ortberg points out that one of the earliest titles of Jesus was the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings. They called him that  in a time when Jesus had only a handful of followers. In the day the first Christians started calling him that, it would have been unbelievable to the outside world. But the fact remains that 2000 years after his birth, when anybody, anywhere in the world opens a calendar, unfolds a newspaper, looks at a tombstone or writes a check, they are reminded that Jesus Christ has become the hinge of history.

Because Nero died in the Year of our Lord 68;  Napoleon died in the Year of our Lord 1821;   Hitler died in the Year of our Lord 1945.

They are all dated by the King of Kings.

I love the way G.K. Chesterton says this:

Philosophy still sat in the high places and even on the thrones of the kings, when Christ was born in the cave and Christianity in the catacombs…The cave in one aspect is only a hole or corner into which the outcasts are swept like rubbish; yet in the other aspect it is a hiding-place of something valuable which the tyrants are seeking like treasure. In one sense they are there because the innkeeper would not even remember them, and in another because the king can never forget them… [Christmas] was resented, because, in its own still and almost secret way, it had declared war... Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome with firebrands were slanderers; but they were at least far nearer to the nature of Christianity than those among the moderns who tell us that the Christians were a sort of ethical society, being martyred in a languid fashion for telling men they had a duty to their neighbors, and only mildly disliked because they were meek and mild.

Did you catch that? Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome were lying, but at least they were closer to the true nature of Christianity than people today. Christianity is not just some domesticated religion for suburban people to feel better about themselves, and Christmas isn’t just lights and presents. In it’s own still and secret way, it is declaring war.

So maybe you don’t believe that Jesus was the Lord of lords and the King of kings–but no matter what you believe, or where that nativity scene winds up moving to this year. The undeniable fact is that every ruler who has ever reigned, every nation that will ever rise and fall, now must be dated in reference to the life of Jesus.

After all, today we name our daughters Mary, and our dogs Caesar.

That’s what Christmas means.

God is waging a war on all wars, and God wins.

Do not Be Afraid.

On December 1, 2015

Cave God: Happy Holidays

Cave God

Today I’d like to start a short Christmas series that is a bit…unusual. But it’s unusual for a reason.

I’m tired of the annual Christmas outrage to celebrate the Prince of Peace. There are so many Christians in the West, that it sometimes makes it hard for us to realize the implications of Christmas. And why it was/is/and always will be Good news.

If we don’t realize that the very first Christmas was scandalous in it radical inclusion of people on the margins and the outsiders, we may find ourselves insisting on making Christmas a celebration that becomes known for it’s exclusion.

We have a sanitized version of the Christmas story that involves a Jesus who is born with swaddling blankets and a barn with tame animals who do more worshipping than pooping, but the real Christmas story is incredibly daring, risky and relevant.

For example…

When Jesus first arrived, before he was known as anything, he was a refugee. His family was fleeing a violent tyrant named Herod.

The first Silent Night nothing was actually calm or quiet. And if we Christians don’t realize that was actually the world that Christmas happened in, we might find ourselves saying some very fear-based, non-hospitable things about the refugees in our world.

We might find ourselves being the ones who have no room in the inn.

But this isn’t a blog about the current refugee crisis, it’s a blog about Christmas.

Last year I actually got to go to Bethlehem and see where Jesus was probably born. And to my surprise the original Christmas story didn’t happen in a barn.

The original Christmas happened in a Cave.

It was a cave where all the wrong people showed up, and they weren’t turned away.

Magicians Find the Messiah

When the original Christmas story happened, magi, or magicians came to help tell the story. Which is interesting, because the Israelites disdained magicians.

Now today Magi sounds like a very Chrismas-y word, but in the day that Christmas actually happened everyone knew that they were the outsiders. It was a word that originally meant either a Median or Zoroastrian priest. By the time the New Testament was written it could mean someone who was trained in the dark arts, things like astrology, interpreting dreams, astrology, talking to the dead. You know, just like the Wise Men in the Christmas story that you grew up hearing about.

The Magi depicted in traditional Persian clothing

The Magi depicted in traditional Persian clothing

Today, the church that stands now over the Cave where Jesus was born is called the Church of the Holy Nativity, it’s was built in 326 A.D. and on the Church there is a mosaic of these Magi. In 614 A.D. when the Persians invaded Jerusalem, they burned all the churches to the ground. But not this one.

When they saw the Magi dressed in traditional clothes of the Persians they said here is a church that respects our traditions, and they decided not to destroy it.

This little detail may sound trivial to you, but I think it’s incredibly inspiring.

The Christmas story from the very beginning calls into question all the ways we categorize the people of the world into good and bad. After all, it was no less than the King of Israel who was the terrorist in this story, and it was the supposed terrorist/devil worshippers who were the good guys.

The Gospel is very clear in this regard, Jesus is the true King of the Jews, but His rule isn’t limited to Jewish people. And since chances are you are not a Jew, that is good news for you.

A few verses earlier, Matthew has written a scandalous genealogy for this King that goes out of its’ way to include all the wrong people. Women who were prostitutes, One woman was a Gentile (in the genealogy of the King of the Jews!)  Matthew even mentions the king who had an affair and committed murder!

Compare Matthew’s introduction of Jesus to King Herod. Herod had his genealogies destroyed because he didn’t want to be judged on the basis of his ancestors. But Matthew wants you to know from the beginning, that while Jesus may be like a King, Kings are not like Him.

Jesus isn’t for all the right people. Jesus is for all the people who are looking for Him.

And so the Magi become the first visitors to the baby that will change the world. They came because they were thirsty for truth, and they came to learn they were really thirsty for God.

The Original Seekers

One of the reasons I have problems with using Christmas for a culture war, is because we become off putting to the very people who may be looking for God

Think about what had to change for these Magi, think about how much of their theology and way of life had to change. They are the first Christian converts, all because the Christian story is open and welcoming to them.

I love the way that G.K. Chesterton talks about this:

Such learned men would doubtless have come, as these learned men did come, to find themselves confirmed in much that was true in their own traditions and right in their own reasoning. Confucius would have found a new foundation for the family in the very reversal of the Holy Family; Buddha would have looked upon a new renunciation, of stars rather than jewels and divinity than royalty. These learned men would still have the right to say, or rather a new right to say, that there was truth in their old teaching. But after all these learned men would have come to learn. They would have come to complete their conceptions with something they had not yet conceived; even to balance their imperfect universe with something they might once have contradicted. Buddha would have come from his impersonal paradise to worship a person. Confucius would have come from his temples of ancestor-worship to worship a child.

Think about what Chesterton is saying. The Magi come to Bethlehem because of a star. Which means God started where they were and took them to where they never would have expected.

Christmas invites all people everywhere who are searching for God, because Christmas is God searching for them.

So what does this have to do with Happy Holidays?

The “War on Christmas” started early again this year. This time with the Starbucks design change to a red cup. I don’t watch cable news, so I’m not familiar with al the nuances of this particularly silly story.

The Cup of Heresy

The Cup of Heresy

But I understand the argument because I hear it every year. Some new retailer has decided to use the term “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and some people get upset because we want to do our Black Friday shopping/greed-bonanza to some Christmas carols, the way that the early church would’ve wanted.

I want to ease your anxiety here. We Christians will always say things like “Merry Christmas” but my question is when did we decide that this was a policy that we needed to outsource to retail stores?

I think it’s important to realize that we live in a pluralistic society, where lots of people don’t believe in Christmas, and this time of year they often feel a bit like outsiders looking in. They know that all the lights and mistletoe aren’t for them. They don’t believe the story, and they don’t know why their radio stations have been taken over by the same dozen songs sang by a thousand different people covering them.

They are, in a word, outsiders.

They are the Magi.

And if Christmas becomes a buzz word in some culture war over power, it becomes less and less appealing to them because it looks like it is more against them than it is for them. It becomes something more like the way of Herod, and much less like the way of Christmas.

So in the spirit of Christmas, to everyone who doesn’t believe it, this story really is good news, even for you…especially for you.

Happy Holidays.

On November 24, 2015

OMG: Signs and Wonder

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” -Henry David Thoreau

Unknown

When I was a boy one of the Bible stories that I was the most fascinated with was also one that I found the most disturbing. It was the story of King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem.

The Ark had been captured by enemies of Israel, the Philistines years earlier. Because the Ark was known as the located presence of God on earth, it was a huge victory for the Philistines and they put the Ark in their Temple to their god Dagon. But that was a mistake.

In an amazing twist, the Philistines had to get rid of the Ark because God gave the Philistine people (and I kid you not this is in your Bible) hemorrhoids. So they send the Ark away and it winds up at a small Israelite village where it stays at a man named Abinadab’s house for years.

Finally King David decides to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem and he makes a big deal about it. He puts together a parade and King David dances as the Ark finally returns home. A happy ending to a great story right? Almost.

The Ark of the Covenant as seen in the historical documentary "Indiana Jones"

The Ark of the Covenant as seen in the historical documentary “Indiana Jones”

Because at one point the Ark starts to slip off of the ox cart that they’ve put it on, and a guy named Uzzah tries to catch it. He reaches up to grab the Ark and stop it from falling.

And God strikes him dead.

King David gets really upset because, you know, this does seem a bit of overkill. After all, Uzzah was just trying to help. And no one should get killed for that, I can understand maybe giving another bad case of hemmoroids, but death?

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

That story never made sense to me. It seems to be out of character of a good God to do something like this.

But in college I had a professor point out something to me that I thought was fascinating. It’s just this intriguing detail from 2nd Kings. Look at how the Bible introduces us to Uzzah:

They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart

Uzzah has grown up with the Ark of the Covenant hanging out in his living room. He had grown up with the Presence of God and he has lost his ability to appropriately appreciate it. Uzzah lost his awe and wonder because it’s always been right in front of him.

I’m a B.U.I.C.K., a “Brought Up in Church Kid” and I can’t tell you how relevant this story is to me. Not only did I grow up in Church  I’m also a preacher, I hang around Christians all the time, I’m always thinking about God/theology/church and I can easily fall into the trap of Uzzah.

I see this all the time with ministers, and most often in the mirror. It’s easy to become inoculated to the Gospel, and forget how much I need God, and how small I really am in the grand scheme of things.

On my worst days, I, like Uzzah, start to believe that I need to protect God. And I lose the profound reality that Dallas Willard points out, “I don’t defend the Christian faith, the Christian faith defends me.”

The sin of Uzzah wasn’t touching the Ark, it was the loss of being able to see the Ark for what it really was. 

And this is a sin that we religious people struggle with particularly.

There’s a reason that all throughout Scripture God is harder on religious people than non-religious ones. There’s a reason why Jesus is much harder on the Pharisees than all the immoral people of his day.

Because there is a way of approaching God that thinks we have figured God out, that we have mastered God. There is a way of approaching God with familiarity that makes us feel big and God seem small.

When people first realized that Jesus had raised from the dead, they were terrified. The first response to the Gospel wasn’t how can I use this? Thats the way religious people think. The first response was’s fear and trembling.

This is bigger than you, the world is now a stranger place, it’s a little bit scary, and incredibly hopeful.

This story is better than we know, but we’re too close to it to realize how wonderful it really is.

Looking Up

Remember what happened when Jesus ascended into Heaven? The first Christians stood staring up into the sky in awe for so long that Angels actually appeared and asked them “Why are you standing here looking into the sky? Jesus will return, so you know…get to it.”

The Ascension of Christ by Rembrandt

The Ascension of Christ by Rembrandt

I like that. I like that the Angels told the first Christians to start doing something about the amazing thing they’ve just seen God do. They remind us that God’s people aren’t supposed to just sit around and enjoy their goosebumps.

But these days I wonder if the angels wouldn’t encourage us to remember to Look up again and spend some more time staring in the sky.

All through the Bible, we are commanded to “Fear the Lord” but that doesn’t mean be afraid. In the original language it  means sustaining a joyful, astonished awe, and wonder before Him.

It means to look up

I don’t think it was an accident that the wise men, the first people to recognize Jesus for who He really was, were stargazers. They were people who were so used to looking up that they were in tune with the music of the cosmos. In the words of Jonathan Martin:

When they followed the stars far enough, they ultimately found themselves eyeball-to-eyeball with Jesus. I’m convinced that if we follow the wonder back to the source, if we follow the beauty all the way home, we’ll find Jesus too.

This is the heart of wonder, a sense of being overwhelmed by the universe and realize our inadequacy in the face of it all. It is to realize that there is a vast and wordless mystery that is reaching out to you. To be sure, there is a way that religion can turn into a self-reinforcing certainty where we just become an echo chamber for what we already believe. But that kind of religion is not the way of Jesus, it is the way of Uzzah

in the words of the Christian poet Christian Wiman:  

“When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life… Never? Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life.”

The Engilsh word miracle comes from the Latin words miro (to wonder) and mirus (wonderful) The early Church was known not primarily for it’s power (it was a bunch of peasants and fisherman after all) but for it’s wonder.

The early Church was not known for it’s certainty, there was a kind of humility that characterized the Christians in the book of Acts, it was known for not always knowing what to do.

In a word it was known for having faith.

These days it seems like when we talk about signs and wonders we either talk about the certainty that God works or our certainty that He no longer does. We have a box, and we expect God to fit inside of it. But the first Christians were the ones who had learned that God no longer fit inside any of the boxes they had tried to give him.

Consequently, whenever God did something they were just as surprised and filled with awe and wonder as everyone else.

Maybe that’s what it means to say the early church was known for her miracles.

She was known for her wonder.