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.

On October 30, 2014

Hallow-Tide: A Haunted World

Nightmares Fear Factory

Nightmares Fear Factory

Maybe you saw this article last year, it was a series of pictures taken at the scariest moment in a Haunted House, and they are hilarious. It’s always fun watching grown men make faces like this.

I don’t get our fascination with horror and fake fear, but I’m starting to believe the reason we pay to see these haunted attractions is not just because we want to be scared but maybe because we want it to be true.

Haunt-ology

I go to church with a great teacher and thinker named Richard Beck. A few years ago he wrote a blog about how Scooby Doo is a great parable for our modern world. In every episode, the dog and his deceptive friends start off terrified of some supernatural demon that is out to get them and destroy the world, but by the end of the episode the demon is always some grumpy old man who is unmasked and upset, because “he would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.”

Here’s how Beck talks about it:

it struck me how Scooby-Doo is a perfect parable of disenchantment…over the last 500 years, the world moved from enchantment to disenchantment. Five hundred years ago the world was full of supernatural forces, witchcraft, and ghosts. A world full of thin places, where the border between this world and the Other world was porous and leaky. Five hundred years ago people could be demon possessed or afflicted by witches. The night was full of occult menace and magic. Black cats were bad luck. Things are much different today…There’s no room for monsters. Medicine and psychiatry have pushed witchcraft and demon possession offstage. Worrying about black cats is just superstitious and irrational. And ghost stories are just that–fictional tales to scare the kids around the campfire.

This past month, a few preacher friends and I spent the day with the author and church(ish) planter Peter Rollins. You may have heard of Rollins work before, he’s written books like How (not) to Speak of God, and Insurrection, and he’s writing one now that has something to do with haunted houses.

About an hour into talking to us, Rollins brought up something that I had never heard of. Apparently there is a real scientific field of study called “Hauntology”

Immediately I started thinking about Ghostbuster’s, and Peter Vankman, but it’s nothing like that. Hauntology is the very real study of the way we are all affected by the lingering presence of what or who is not there.

The example Rollins gave was that for every person there is someone (living or dead) who could walk into a room and their mere presence would immediately make us angry or anxious. These people, Rollins say, haunt us. Their absence is profound but in our modern, dis-enchanted world, we don’t have a way to talk about ghosts so we just pretend that we aren’t haunted.

All Saints Day

And that brings us, obviously to Halloween.

Growing up, Halloween was something that my family had a awkward relationship with. My first 10 years, my parents allowed me to go Trick or Treating, sometimes we’d even get to dress up as we went to church events. After all Scooby Doo had unmasked the ghost’s and the demons were just something Christians dealt with in the book of Acts.

This part of my life ended when my Mom read the book, “Devil in the Toy Box” I’m not sure what was in that book, but it was the sole reason I stopped getting candy on October 31st (and why for some reason I could never watch the Smurfs again)

For years I hated that book. But today I’m somewhat grateful for it. Because suddenly, for my family the world was enchanted again. It was haunted.

The last year I was allowed to go Trick or Treating, my friends and I walked a solid mile, hitting every house on River Ridge Rd, most of them gave us O-Henry’s and Tootsie Rolls, but there was one house that didn’t give us any candy, and I’ll never forget it.

The man answered the doors with bags under his eyes and a sad look in his gaze. He looked through us as he talked to the 3 little boys dressed like Superheroes and I had the distinct impression he didn’t know what time of day it was. He certainly didn’t know what day it was.

“Trick or Treat!” we yelled.

“Huh? Oh, is that today.” he mumbled groggily,”Wait one second” and then he closed the door and came back a few seconds later with some pocket change to put in our little plastic orange Jack-o-latern buckets.

Later we found out that he had lost his young son that month in an automobile accident.

I had knocked on the door of a truly haunted house.

This was one of the most disturbing memories of childhood, but looking back on it it’s also one of my most profound moments for understanding Halloween.

I have lived a charmed life, but I’ve also had to deal with more death than most of my peers. I did my first funeral when I was 14, and several of my best childhood friends died before I finished college. I don’t know how I would have been able to deal with it if I hadn’t believed the world was still haunted.All-Saints Painting

The Church calendar has for over a thousand years insisted that we don’t forget the people who have died, the saints who have gone before us. It has insisted that we don’t gloss over death, or give death more power than it is due. It calls us to remember the lives of those who have died, and acknowledge that in some mysterious way they are with God, and we will be with them again.

So during this season, all over the world, Christians take flowers to tombs, clean graves, tell stories about their departed family and friends, and for a short season they allow the absences that haunt them to come into focus.

The Church calls this season “Hallow Tide” as if the material world is being washed in the hallowed, unknown mystery of the age to come.

This may sound creepy, but I believe our modern world need’s to embrace this tradition, because I’ve done enough funerals to know that it’s only when we think about death that we honestly answer the question, “What is a good life?” Nobody talks about what great hair they had at a funeral, or what a nice car they drove, it’s here that we remember how we want to be remembered.

Halloween and All Saints Day are more than just remembering death. It’s a way of remembering the Christian Hope, that God has not abandoned us or the ones we love. The saints departed are with God, and in some strange way still with us. It’s a way we remember that the world is haunted with the saints of God.

So this week, I will spend some time thinking about Foy and Ruby and Richard and Shirley and Hayes and Frank and Jeramie and all the cloud of witnesses that are still cheering me on.

May their souls rest in peace, may their bodies rise in glory.

On October 21, 2014

In the Flesh: Body Matters

Jesus is the Word made flesh, the truth narrated in bone and bowel, space and time. That is the story He is.” Frederick Buechner

In the Flesh Blog

 

It’s hard to have a newborn baby and a subscription to the New York Times…but sometimes it helps.

Over the past few weeks, it’s begun to seem like a pretty bad timing to bring a baby into the world, I don’t know what you’re take is on the news but I’m overwhelmed by the onslaught of wars and rumors of wars, plagues and politics and riots and racism.

It seems like my newsfeed varies between tragic and hysteria.

I’m also struck by the great irony of the way we live in the world compared to the way we talk about it.

We talk about the color of someone’s skin as if it is irrelevant to their experience in the world, and we talk about Ebola and Isis as if they were the plot points in a chapter of a Tim LaHaye novel.

Body Language

We’re rightfully outraged at ISIS beheading people but have a hard time finding the words to describe why we we find it so disturbing. Christians are rightfully concerned about stopping Ebola (after all there is a reason that so many hospitals were started by or named after Christian Saints)..but why?

Christians today, often come across as quaint and antique, a throwback to another era. In the public spheres we often get hemmed into talking about the Christian view of sexuality as if that was all (or even the main part) of following Jesus. But the only way to understand a Christian view of sexuality is to understand the deeper logic of Christian theology toward the world and our bodies.

Christians have believed for thousands of years that this world matters, which means matter matters. God created the world and thinks it is good, including our bodies. Christian theology believes that our bodies are gifts from a good God. We didn’t make them, we don’t sustain them and ultimately we won’t raise them.

The past few days, I’ve been struck by the beauty of holding a new baby, a tiny little body, complete with all the necessary equipment of fingers, toes and lungs. I’m struck by the realization that in the maternity ward we are aware of something that we pretend isn’t true in the funeral home.

Often at funerals, we hear language about people leaving the “shell” that is their body. That language is fine for someone who is just trying to make sense of death and give people some kind of hope for an afterlife, but it is not Christian language.

Because our bodies matter, and that is a very ancient idea.

Flesh and Faith

A few weeks ago, in the Times. Op-ed pundit David Brooks points out that when secular society talks about life and the physical body, we are forced to reach for words like “sacred” to talk about it:

Well, the human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli.

David Brooks is talking about the recent beheadings of American journalists by ISIS, and the moral outrage that follows. His point is that the outrage is disproportionate to the American narrative. If we are all just ‘spirits’ longing to be freed from our bodies that are prisons (what the first Christians called ‘heresy’) than why does this strike such a deep minor chord in us?

Brooks goes on to say, because this isn’t any form of the Biblical vision of the world or the God who Created it:

Ultimately, the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam. The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation. These are faiths that love the material world, especially the body. They’re faiths that understand that the high and the low yearn for each other, and that every human body has some piece of the eternal, even if you’re fighting against him.

In other words, Isis is the Muslim flavor of the gnostic Christian “this-world-is-bad” that has been floating around for the past couple of hundred years. They are willing to kill a body, but only because they don’t know it’s worth.

Catacombs of St. Callixtus

Catacombs of St. Callixtus

One of the biggest reasons that the early Christians were persecuted was that they insisted on this strange idea that the their physical bodies would be resurrected.

A little over a decade ago, I got to go explore the catacombs in Rome. It was miles and miles of underground caves dug by Christians because they believed in caring for the bodies of the dead.

Whether you are a Christian or not, you have to admit that this is pretty impressive, and some of the best evidence of an actual resurrection. They risked their lives digging these catacombs because they believed that God had started something in Jesus body that had something to do with their own.

They believed that what God had done for Jesus, would someday happen to them.

Bodies matter, and the body that you have been given is a gift, no matter how you have been taught to feel about it. It’s not a prison (though for some it may feel that way) it’s not a commodity (though others may try to use it as such), it’s a gift from God, in fact, it is even a window into the image of God.

I like the way Jonathan Martin says it:

 Spirituality is not a bad word for [Christianity], but the danger is always that we make it “something more” than the taste of brittle bread and sweet wine, the feel of wet flesh and calloused feet…This way of being human is not for people who don’t like to dance or make love”

Your body is a gift from God and He’s not done with it.

 “All babies are glorious before God.” – The Shepherd of Hermas

IMG_3603

Storment’s Party of Six

G.K. Chesterton once said that he learned more about God from watching children than from all the books in his library. And I’m starting to understand what he means by that.

That quote at the beginning is from an ancient Christian document from around 150 A.D. We hear it today and it sounds like the kind of common sense you’d read on a fortune cookie or on a Taco Bell hot sauce packet…but in it’s day it was absolutely revolutionary. In the world that it was written in people didn’t think that babies were glorious before God. Babies were a risk and if you were lucky a retirement, and while parents loved their kids back then too, nobody would have thought to make such a sweeping statement like “All babies show us something about God.”

Yesterday as I was sitting in the Hendrick Hospital room in Abilene, I kept noticing their signs saying stating their mission was to be an institution that embodies the healing ministry of Jesus, and it dawned on me once again that we’re having a baby in an environment that values children largely because of a Jewish Carpenter who never had kids of his own, but said that we should not just welcome them…but become like them.

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Hannah holding Joel for the first time

Yesterday morning, Leslie and I showed up at the hospital around 3:30 A.M. and after about 14 hours of labor she gave birth to a healthy 7 lb 10 oz baby boy we named “Joel Jefferson Storment” Actually, at the time he wasn’t named “Joel Jefferson” he didn’t have a name until late last night. We had decided to wait until we actually met the new little guy before naming him. We wanted to spend a little time with him before we named him, you know, just in case we named him Malachi and he came out looking like a Gus.

We now know that is a mistake because no one should be able to name a child after 20 hours awake and an empty stomach.

Leslie once again had a natural childbirth, each time we go through this I’m reminded how incredibly tough she is. I get lightheaded when I watch House, but when it comes to delivering kids she’s like General Patton.

Last night, after Joel was born, it kept washing over me that I’ve got a better life than I deserve, and if I killed over tomorrow I’ve already gone over the amount of joy anyone should have in a lifetime.

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Eden and Samuel with Joel

Eden, Samuel and Hannah are so great with their new brother. A camera can’t capture the wonder in their eyes as they look at him. Samuel immediately started trying to teach him about Star Wars and Legos and Eden started singing him the Razorback Fight song (a big parenting win!) Hannah just wanted to hold him and give him all those hugs and kisses that she’s been saving up for months (while practicing on her doll) .

And since one day this little guy is going to look back and wonder where he got his name, and so this is what we want to tell him:

I want to tell you about why we named you Joel. Your name means “The LORD IS God” and In the Old Testament there’s actually an entire book called Joel (you could’ve been named Obadiah) it’s from a really bad time in Israel’s history when the Israelites are losing everything from a bizarre natural disaster. The locusts are eating their crops and destroying their livelihood and God tells Joel to remind Israel that even though things are bad now, God hasn’t given up on them. Even though they didn’t plan out their future this way, God has Joel tell them not to lose heart because God plans to give back what has been taken away.

Actually here’s how God says it: “I will restore the years that the locusts have eaten.”

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Samuel pausing from telling Joel about Legos to take a picture

I love that idea. That somehow all the years that didn’t turn out exactly the way you’d hoped…God was going to restore. I don’t know how God runs the universe. I know that there is a lot of heartbreak out there that we all contribute to, and these days it feels overwhelming. You are being born into a world that is terrified and divided. Today’s newspaper was covered with news of the Ebola virus and another flare-up of violence between races…somedays it feels like the locusts are winning. But we still believe God plans to heal all harms and that the word He started and said was good he has never let go of.

So we named you Joel, he was a prophet of Restoration…because we believe that’s who God is and we believe that’s a good thing to give your life for.

I want to tell you about your second name. That’s important too: Jefferson. I know it sounds quite presidential, but that’s one of your grandad’s name (technically Cletis Jefferson is my dad’s full name but…) We gave you this name because we think that names matter, at their best they give you a kind of trajectory for what a good life might look like, and we know that there are a lot of temptations to think a good life is something shiny and expensive. But on the day you were born we wanted you to know what a very good life looks like.

As you get older, you’re going to hear and see a lot about men pursuing women as objects, as if they were something to be collected, and the person with as many as possible has the best life. We don’t believe that’s true. So we named you after a guy who has loved only one woman and loved her well, and will die 10,000 times happier than Hugh Heffner (I’ll explain who that is when you’re older) could ever dream of.

As you get older, you’re going to hear a lot from a lot of people who assume that the best life involves lots of money and prestige, but we named you after a guy who’s highest paying job was an assistant manager at Wendy’s, who’s T.V. repair business quit because he didn’t have the heart to charge the people who he served, but who laughs easier than anyone I know and sleeps well at night. We named you after a guy who’s rich where it counts.

As you get older, you’re going to see lots of people trying to position themselves for status in the world, and some of them will be good at it. We named you after an un-assuming guy who’s quietly served others with a disarming humility for 70+ years. We named you after someone who never won an award, but did win a lot of people’s hearts with the ability to make fun of himself in a way that brings joy into whatever room he’s in.

We want you to know that’s what a good life looks like.

And we want you to know how much your family already loves you. You’ve got grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins that can’t wait to meet you.

You are very loved little buddy.

Welcome to the world and welcome to the family.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I had also tried really hard to let Leslie name him “Joel Danger Storment” but apparently Leslie thinks that might make it hard for him to ever book a flight..

P.P.S.  It still might be a nickname.

photo-1So this past week, I did another podcast with my good friend Luke Norsworthy (I’m a glutton for punishment) Luke’s podcast has recently cracked the top 100 in religion podcasts on ITunes, so he’s obviously doing something right.

During this podcast, Luke shares his love for Mariah Carey, and how he lacks the ability to encourage, but loves to receive encouragement.

We talk about the great lineup of interviews he had on the show in the month of September, and how it applies to our lives of ministry, and our lives as Jesus followers. This interview spans everything from the way we’ve carved up the world into conservative/liberal to the challenges being parents has brought to our theology.

We talked about Dr. Amy Levine new book on the parables and how her interpretations are difficult to preach, but important for Christians to listen to. In the words of one of my preacher friends, Levine serves as a good speed bump for anyone who is tempted to say, “In the first century this is what Jewish people believed” as if anyone could summarize what all Christians believed 2000 years from now.

We talked about Peter Enns new, and somewhat controversial book about the Bible, and I try to hold Luke’s evasive little feet to the fire for a change.

One of the reasons that I appreciate this particular interview, was because I ask myself the question all the time, “Who gets to be conservative?” I believe that in many ways the people who consider themselves the most conservative are the ones who have added the most recent things to the Christian tradition. But to understand that more, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.

We talked about Richard Rohr, and his ability to encourage the least of these, and his challenge to Christians who grew up in more rigid Christian homes to not become cynical about their background but learn to appreciate the way you were raised.

And then finally we talked about Scot McKnight’s wonderful new book “Kingdom Conspiracy” (a book I highly recommend) and why the way we talk about the Kingdom of God matters, and how it might not be what we thought it was.

Anyway, Luke’s podcast is one of the best ones out there right now, and one I listen to every week. It’s challenging and funny and one of the best ways to get to know some of our best Christian leaders and thinkers out in the broader Christian world, and if you’d like to subscribe to it, you can find his podcast here.

earthed

 

Drayton Naybers has watched a lot of young guys win the Heisman trophy.

And he says you can tell a lot about a guy’s character by his acceptance speech.

Sometimes they will just credit their hard work and weightlifting, or natural talent. But Naybers will ask, who taught you to work hard? Or bought the equipment? Who built the university, or recruited your teammates?

Who gave you the DNA in the first place?

“If this player has humility, he will express nothing but over-flowing gratitude when he wins-to his parents, to his teachers and coachers, to all the players on his team, and to everyone who helped him along the way…Humility actually is a form of wisdom. It is thinking clearly. It is simply being realistic. It is knowing who really deserves the credit and the glory for what we do

I like that, it’s not humility, it’s actually just being realistic.

The Church That Raised Me2012_04_26_11_04_19.pdf000

For every sermon I write, this picture is the background of the computer desktop. It’s a picture of my friend, Brian leading singing at the little 10 member church I grew up in. I write with this picture in mind, because this is who I write for, most of the people in this picture are dead, but it is when the saints gather for church that I feel they are the most present.

They say that preachers help form churches, but the reverse is true as well. Churches form preachers.

On an average Sunday morning, our congregation consisted of Bro. Foy, the patriarch of the church, who was more than a little mentally unstable. I’m not joking, and he is the reason I’m a preacher, because mentally unstable makes very interesting sermons, and passionate preaching. There aren’t many memories from my church childhood that don’t involve Bro. Foy.

The first funeral I ever did (I was 14), he wrote for me. I remember sitting up behind the pulpit with him, and him telling me that I was going to do just fine.

Words like liberal and conservative couldn’t be used to describe us, and we never used them ourselves. We argued, like any human community, and there were tense times (like when Foy started preaching against women wearing pants), but we apologized and forgave quickly.

We had too, after all we took communion together.

I saw the beautiful thing that is a community of reconciliation, and you’ll never convince me that this is not something worth giving my life for. But this kind of experience is rarely the case anymore. The common assumption is that for a church to grow they must specialize in one slice of the human pie.

From Generation to Generation

Over the past few years, I’ve read and heard some church consultants giving the advice that, in order to grow numerically, a church needs to pick between targeting people of under 40, or over 40. I hate that suggestion. I think it works against the very nature of Church, I think it helps us lean into our own selfishness and away from the people who we need to be frustrated by.

So next week, I’m going to talk about it. If you’re in Abilene, I’d like to invite you to come to the ACU Summit (Lectureships). For three days next week I want to talk about the biggest crisis I think the Church is facing. I want to talk about the ways we are trying to address it, and I’d also like to find out how other churches are dealing with it.

Again, this is not a crisis of morality or lack of fidelity to the gospel, or anything that stirs up controversy. The problem is that it is really hard to be a church of five different generations.  More to the point, we are not able to get older people and younger people to hang out together anymore. 

So much of the Scriptures are trying to create ways for one generation to pass on faith from one generation to the other., worked into the first five books of the Bible is the idea that this is the story that you tell your kids, for them to tell their kids. Paul even dedicates major portions of his pastoral letters giving practical ideas for how the churches he planted could do this.

And since we no longer live in the age of potlucks and bunko…how do we prioritize this at the local church level? How do we emphasize generational generosity and create atmospheres conducive for our senior saints to rub shoulders with our younger adults? How do we help each generation see how much they need the wisdom and perspective of the people around them?

These aren’t just rhetorical teasing questions…I’d love to hear your ideas, especially if you won’t be able to make it to Abilene. I hope to get some new ideas on how to implement this, and I may share some of your ideas in the class.

I’ve been greatly blessed in my life with godly mentors who have been willing to sacrifice to pass on the Gospel to some chump kid who they decided to invest their life in. I’m convinced the best thing I can do with my life, is to try and stand on the people’s shoulder who have gone before me, and leave something for the person who are coming after me.

In a world that tries to get me to believe that the universe spins on a top with me at the center, it’s good to be reminded that I am a tree in a story about a forest.

And the story of the forest is way better than the story about the tree

That’s what being part of a church is, we’re not doing that, that’s our crisis, and it’s time to talk about it.

(The class is meeting in Hart Auditorium 1:15-2:05)

“On the day of judgment, God will ask only one question: ‘Did you enjoy my world?'” -Ancient Jewish saying

“Like all truly mystical things, love is rooted deeply and rightfully in this world and this flesh.” -Katherine Anne Porter

In the Flesh Blog

 

 

It’s interesting to me that Passion is a marketing buzz word these days for everything from TV shows to cologne. Most of us want passion in our lives, and more of it, but few of us make the kinds of decisions that lead to passion.

Passion after all is first defined (by the dictionary!) as the final 24 hours of Jesus’ life. It is to care about something more than yourself and to find that this care might require all of yourself…including your body.

Sex for Dummies

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a fascinating front page article about a new development in the entertainment industry…the development is people watching video games. At first, you might not think that this is a big deal, because video games have been around for years, but the Times was covering a conference where thousands of people were gathering, not to play, but to watch professionals play video games. 

It’s ironic that the Times ran this front page story, because just a few pages later, on the same day, Philosophy professor Richard Kearney wrote an op-ed piece about what our obsession with technology is doing to us.

Dr. Kearney noted that in his classes when he talks about the body and touch, sex will inevitably come up, but unlike generations in the past, today’s students aren’t having sex to be with a person, they are having sex with an anatomically correct husk.

I was a Singles minister for many years, and I grieve the hook-up culture that we’ve created. I know the kind of damage that it does to a person’s soul. But the real twist in Dr. Kearney’s observation is that he thinks it’s only a symptom of a greater problem. Today’s hook-up culture exists in large part because online dating and mating services like Match.com and Tinder allow people to share messages that signal their level of willingness to have sex, and under what conditions…all almost purely anonymously.

Sex, connecting with a real human being, in the most intimate of ways, is now mediated digitally, replacing the ancient community or the priest, Tinder doesn’t require you to pledge your life in submission to the good of the other and to fight for that person’s soul. It’s just asks you to swipe left.

But, and here is Dr. Kearney’s big observation:

What is often thought of as a “materialist” culture is arguably the most “immaterialist” culture imaginable — vicarious, by proxy, and often voyeuristic…[We] see everything at a distance but [it’s] touched by nothing. Are we perhaps entering an age of “excarnation,” where we obsess about the body in increasingly disembodied ways? For if incarnation is the image become flesh, excarnation is flesh become image. Incarnation invests flesh; excarnation divests it.

It’s not that we are a materialistic culture, we are anything but that. Materialism is the idea that this world is all there is, but we’re not even paying attention to this world that much anymore.

Dr. Kearney goes on to state that in all actuality, pornography is, the flip side of [his interpretation of] Puritanism. Both require an alienation from flesh — one replacing it with the virtuous, the other with the virtual. Each is out of touch with the body.

I think he’s right about the pornography and wrong about the Puritans.Puritan Valentines

Hot and Holy

Because contrary to popular belief, the Christian faith doesn’t discount this world or our bodies, in fact, it takes it all the more seriously because we believe that God entered into it.

In fact, and I can’t believe I’m about to write this sentence, Puritans were incredibly sexual, passionate people who did the hard work of channelling that energy toward only one person in their life.

 One unfortunately named Puritan, Thomas Hooker wrote, “The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels and parlies with her in each place where he comes.” He adds: 

“She lies in his Bosom, and his heart trusts in her, which forceth all to confess, that the stream of his affection, like a mighty current, runs with full tide and strength.”

Hallmark eat your heart out.

The problem with our society is that we can’t imagine sex like the Puritans. We can’t imagine a world where sexuality doesn’t produce something, where it’s not useful to be turned into a commodity for our self-esteem or money like prostitution or pornography and then sold to the highest bidder. (Today’s pornography industry is larger than the revenues of the top technology companies combined: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, and Netflix).

The biggest problem with pornography is that it divorces sex from the act of giving. Sex becomes all about experiencing, receiving, trying to understand the mystery…in a word, sex becomes a commodity to consume.  But the Puritans talked about sex as benevolence to the other.

"Sexology" book by Puritan Press for a Happy Marriage

“Sexology” book by Puritan Press for a Happy Marriage

The Puritans took sex so seriously that if either spouse didn’t give “due benevolence” it could be grounds for church discipline! There is actually an example on record, where a husband was kicked out of fellowship with the church for “neglecting his wife” by not making love with her for a long period of time!  

Because the Puritans knew that sex is a gift that you give and are given.

In her memoir Grace, the preacher Mary Cartledgehayes recounts her final year with her husband as he was dying of cancer. She writes about how they decided to savor every moment of life they had left together, and ultimately how they decided to make love every day until he died. Here’s how she talks about it:

To breathe, to laugh, to curse, to praise, to weep, to sit in the midst of perfect order, to stand in the center of perfect chaos, to bread bread, to eat three strawberries, to touch a piano’s keys, to kiss a lover’s skin, to birth, to baptize, to bless, to bury, to live , to die – either it is all holy or none of it is holy”

And then she closes her book with these words:

“And this is what I know. It is all holy.

On September 4, 2014

In the Flesh: TMZ

In the Flesh Blog

So maybe you’ve heard of the famous gossip website/tv show TMZ, they take all the trashy pictures and news from Hollywood celebrities and make or break the stars. But did you know that TMZ just stands for Thirty Mile Zone? It’s the 30 miles around Hollywood where famous people are known to hang out.

I think that’s ironic that the whole world knows about these 30 miles of land. I’ve been in huts in Africa and seen posters of celebrities pictures taken within this 30 miles tract of land. We stare at our cell phones while on dates with our spouse to read about the latest news from these 30 miles, we don’t have to be anywhere,  We’ve developed a world where we are everywhere and nowhere all at once.

A World We Can’t Touch

Did you know that 41% of teens describe themselves as addicted to their cell phones? 43% of teen say that they don’t know how to unplug from the digital world. The majority of teens feel frustrated that their friends are on their mobile devices while they are trying to hang out, and a third feel that their parents pay more attention to their iPads than them.

We are, for all intents and purposes, addicted to the devices that were supposed to bring us together. A new development is that young adults often have something called “Nomophobia” which is a fear of being without our cell phones, and a majority of students surveyed repotted felling anxiety when they didn’t have their mobile device with them (some are even taking it into the shower with them)

And yet, nearly half of teens wish they could go back to a world before Facebook.

But then how would we show our outrage?

In his book, Incarnate, Michael Frost points out that it’s not just our relationships that are suffering from our increasingly digitized world, we’re also losing the ability to live into our passions in the place we actually live. Here’s how Frost says it:

We drive our SUV’s across town to churches in neighborhoods we don’t actually live in (and don’t want to). We send SMSs and check Twitter during the sermon, and then we download our favorite celebrity preachers sermon as a podcast to listen to during the week. We engage in online discussions by posting smug and condescending remarks about those unseen, unknown folks with whom we disagree. We sign petitions and change our Facebook profile picture to show our support for various causes without any thought of getting involved personally. We are outraged by those who manipulate child soldiers or who traffic sex workers from Central Europe, but we don’t open our homes to our own neighbors, let alone those with no home at all.”

Thirty Mile Zone

One of the things that I never knew about having a book published is that I would get to talk to radio stations all over the country. Each week, I’ve been interviewed by Christian radio stations to talk about How to Start a Riot. I’ve run into a lot of different accents, and they all make fun of mine. It’s like a little tour across the nation, all while I’m sitting in my office. Most of those interviews have gone fine, but a few of them have taken some left turns and even gotten cut short.

And it’s always because of this:

The host will ask me questions about politics, or Ferguson (the book title leads to talking about riots), and I’ll tell them about the story of growing up in the 10 person church, and how once when I came home from college with a big group of friends, Brother Foy asked us all (in the middle of worship) “Where are the black people? Don’t you have any black friends at your school?”

That’s when the radio station tends to cut to commercial.

Church sign in Ferguson

Church sign in Ferguson

I know that’s an incredibly awkward story, trust me I was there, but in hindsight, I’m glad Brother Foy did that. I think it’s important that someone is asking that question, and that church is the most appropriate place to ask it.

I think the best thing we can do is to stop keeping this abstract. If you’re a Christian than remember the Word became flesh, it didn’t become more words or an idea. So if we really care about what’s happening in Ferguson, than let’s go through our cell phone and look and see how many contacts you have that are people of different races. If you really care about racial reconciliation than look at your calendar and find out when the last time you sat at a table with someone who wasn’t from the same background as you.

One more thing about the Thirty Mile Zone, I think it’s interesting that 30 miles is just about the exact amount of land that Jesus would have probably spent his life on. Jesus never travelled the world, he probably didn’t know much about what was happening in other parts of the world, He never wrote a book.

But book after book has been written about Him.

Because the one thing Jesus did was relentlessly love the person right in front of Him, and teach a group of people to do the same. He poured His life into where He was, and that has changed the entire world. It still can.

Because chances are what’s happening in Ferguson is also something that’s happening in our town, we just don’t know it because we don’t know “them”.

One of the things that grieves me the most about the American church is that we have divided ourselves into such homogenous groups that the Church is no longer an alternative society to the world. We often are just carbon copies of it with Jesus’ name slapped on it. And I get it. It’s a lot easier to like people who are like us. In the words of Christina Cleveland “If a community is really diverse, expect to be offended 100% of the time.”

Life seems to go easier when we spend time with people who see the world the way we do, who were raised with our values and background, there’s almost no reason to even consider challenging it…except for one: The Church is supposed to be doing the work of Jesus in the world.

When incendiary moments happen in our culture, we don’t assume the best about each other because we don’t spend time hearing each others stories, we haven’t had the opportunity to develop empathy for life in each other’s shoes, and so the Church is strangely silent or polarized when it could be, no, it must be, the place where healing happens.

An ancient Church father once said, “What the soul is for the body, the church is for the world.”

Like many white churches, like the world itself…

We need some soul.

And the only way to get that is to start reaching out in the flesh. Because when we don’t know real people, when we spend all our time in front of the screen, eventually we will be a parody of the Gospel…The story of God who came in the Flesh, and never failed to see and love the person who was right in front of Him.