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On April 21, 2014

Seeing Noah

Russell Crowe in Noah

Last week, the Abilene Reporter News asked me and another area pastor (and one of my good friends) Cliff Stewart to review the movie Noah. But since I wrote this blog a few weeks ago, I’ve had quite a few conversations and several emails asking what I thought about it.

And since I’ve written publicly about why I think Christians should give the movie Noah a fair shake, I thought it would be appropriate to share just what I thought about it now that I’ve seen it. Here’s an expanded version of what I wrote for the ARN:

When they asked Cliff and I to tell us what we thought about the movie Noah we figured that meant we had better go see it first. I’m in the season of life with 3 young kids where the DVD release is when the movie comes out for my wife and me.

But we made a date. We saw the movie. We liked it.

So we’re no Siskel and Ebert, but here’s our best shot at telling what we liked about it and why…

It’s tough being a Bible character.

Sometimes I think we forget that. We romanticize people in the lion den’s or rainbow colored coats and lose the ability to hear the story the way it was first heard by the people who were originally telling it.

I’ll never forget watching Noah in this movie sit in the Ark hearing the people outside. When we read that story in a coffee shop during our quiet time, or in a sermon safely in some church building we forget just how disturbing some of the Bible stories really are.

Turns out the story of Noah is darker than most of us who grew up in religious settings remember. It’s a story of a God who takes evil very seriously. In a time when we replace words like “sin” with softer words like “mistakes” it’s important to remember that God thinks what we do in His good world has consequences.

I didn’t expect to like Noah as much as I did. I thought it was visually stunning and it did the one thing that I needed. It made the familiar story strange to me again. I’ve grown up hearing this story, I’ve read/preached/and heard this story a thousand times, and last night I felt like I was hearing it for the first time again.

I didn’t expect I would find the movie Noah as wonderful as I did.. I use that word intentionally. This movie was full of something that our world seems to be sorely lacking…Wonder. There were several scenes that were just breathtaking. Like the way Creation was pictured or how the animals seemed to be almost magically drawn to the Ark.

What I loved about this movie was that it portrayed the world as enchanted…and anything seemed possible.

It would be easy to argue about the interpretation that the director took, and I could find plenty to critique, but It’s an imaginative retelling of the story of Noah, sure a lot of it very imaginative, but the story of Noah is definitely in there.

The Failure of the Flood

But…God feels distant in Noah, He comes in dreams and not very often. It would be easy to walk out of this movie and complain that God doesn’t have a starring role, but that misses the point of the original story of Noah.

The point of the flood in Noah is that it doesn’t work. God purges the world of evil…only to find Noah a few days later drunk, naked and passed out. As if the ark washed up on the Jersey Shore.

The point of the Noah story in Genesis is that this kind of force doesn’t work. That’s why a few chapters later God calls Abraham, creates a people and tells them He wants them to be a blessing to the world.

That’s how God is going to deal with evil now.

If you’ve ever watched the news, and wondered where God is, why he doesn’t act. If you’ve ever wondered where God was in the Holocaust or when tragedies happen like the school stabbing last week, or the systemic poverty you see around you. Noah is a movie for you.

If you’ve ever wished we could just vote the right legislation in to force everyone to act right, if you’ve ever wished we could get rid of the bad people and purge the world of evil…Noah’s story is a story for you. Because ultimately God’s way of dealing with evil here doesn’t work.

Turns out evil is even in the people on the boat, and they bring it into the new world with them.

So God’s not going to flood the world again. But he’s still just as concerned about evil, and still wanting to do something about it. Turns out God is very present these days. He just might be wearing your shoes and trying to bless people through you.Russell Crowe as Noah in Darren Aranofsky's biblical epic

I’m glad I went to see Noah, it reminded me of how seriously God takes His creation and just how God plans to deal with evil these days. Through His people.

Stained Glass Theaters

It’s important to remember that historically the Church around the world has embraced this kind of cultural translation. Stained Glass windows were the original movies, and throughout Christian history, Noah has always been a story that our artists have been drawn to. Whether it’s Noah being portrayed as a Cucumber in Veggietales, or Eugene Peterson translation of the story into the Message, when we translate a story into a different format there is something that happens. You don’t have to agree with it, but if you are a Christian I think you’d be well served to see the movie.

I think that the first people who heard this story would have had more questions than answers. I think this movie does that well. If you’d like to talk to someone drop by a church somewhere, or meet up with a friend, and start a conversation.

You may not think the movie was as Biblical as it should have been, or you may not even care, but we hope you appreciate that we, at least went to see it a Biblical way…two by two.

I just wish Brother Cliff wouldn’t have hogged all the popcorn.

*The section Failure of the Flood did not appear in the newspaper for brevity’s sake

On April 15, 2014

So…I Wrote A Book

Well, turns out that they’re letting just about anybody write books these days, and in a little over a week, my first book How to Start a Riot will be released.

How to Start A Riot is not a manual on promoting anarchy or 7 steps to making a Molotov cocktail (although we are hoping for accidental purchases from very surprised people) it’s a book about the early moments of the Jesus movement, and more specifically the book of Acts.

Here’s what people are saying about the book so far:

From Scot Mcknight, New Testament Scholar and Author of 18 books, including The Jesus Creed and Blue Parakeet:

The only way to read and preach the Book of Acts is by telling stories shaped by its stories. The Book of Acts tells stories of God’s grace breaking in day to day in new ways in surprising ways, sometimes in ways that turned the Roman world upside down. How to Start a Riot takes us back into the 1st Century so we can turn our world upside down the Spirit through Peter and Paul did in their time. I can hear Jonathan preach in these chapters but more importantly I can hear God speaking to our world — and if we listen we’ll hear the rumblings of a riot.

From Mike Cope, a preaching friend & mentor and Director of the Pepperdine Lectureships:

“…How to Start a Riot is deeply theological, playful, and imaginative. He insists that Acts isn’t a dusty document of antiquity; rather, it’s a compelling invitation to join God in his Jesus revolution.”

From Rick Warren*:

If you only read one book this year…this is a book you could read.

From my mom:

“You better not put that story in there about me watching that Rambo movie.”

Spoiler alert: I did.

Riot_FB Badge 1The good people over at Leafwood Press are letting me to give away an advance preview with a few chapters of the book to subscribers of this blog. So on Thursday of this week, all subscribers will receive a preview of this upcoming book. If you’d like to be a part of that, you can subscribe just below this post.

I am a white, middle-class, male. I’m acutely aware of the privilege that I have been given just by being born. But the greatest privilege in my life has been the churches that I have been blessed by being a part of. From the 10 person church I grew up in, to the Hills Church in Fort Worth, and now the Highland Church in Abilene. These people have given me a story, and this book is one way I hope to give it back to them.

All proceeds from this book go to the Highland Church of Christ, and more specifically “A Restoration Movement” the vision that God has given us to serve the city and world around us.

Behind this book, there’s a whole team of people who’ve been working hard to make it better and we’d like to ask you to help us get the word out to your friends!

You can pre-order How to Start a Riot here.

*Okay that one’s not real

On April 8, 2014

Translation: How Do You Say

“To the Jews I become a Jew, to the Greeks I become a Greek…I become all things to all people.” -St. Paul

Translation Picture

When I was in college, I took every missions class that I could. Leslie and I were on a mission team planning to go overseas to plant churches and serve, and the only culture I had ever really seen before was rural life in Arkansas. So I wound up in a lot of classes taught by Monte Cox, a great teacher, and a missionary to Kenya for over a decade. And one day I learned why.

It was right after class, and I was walking out when I heard a student make an offhanded comment about something using some kind of current cultural lingo, and Monte stopped her and said, “What do you call it?  Are people saying that now?”

That may not sound like much, but I’d had enough classes with him to know why he was doing it, language is a dynamic thing, and the words we use matter more than we think. Since Monte was trying to communicate and influence people who were younger than him,  it was important for him to know the words that they used, and why they used them.

The Name of God

A couple of weeks ago when Barack Obama made his now infamous “Between Two Ferns” video I immediately thought “That’s brilliant.” Once the 24 hour news cycles had finished analyzing every angle of it I realized how big the generational gap in our culture has become.

Not very many people were clear on why Obama had done it. He was trying to get young adults to sign up for

HeathCare, and in order to do it he had to speak directly to a group filled with cynicism toward any political leader.

So he used the language we are fluent in. Satire.

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It was an act of translation akin to President Bush wearing a Chilean Ponco when gathering for the Summit with World Leaders.Whether you agree with Obama’s strategy or not, what I appreciate is that he didn’t just ask the question, “What do I want to communicate?” but “To Whom and how do I communicate it?”That’s a question I wish our churches asked more often.

For thousands of years God’s people knew God primarily by YAHWEH, this was a name that was given to them by God Himself, they would whisper it, write it respectfully, call on Him, but the one thing they wouldn’t do is change his name. 

Until…

In the book of Acts, Paul the apostle is going all over the known world, and when Paul is trying to tell people the story of Jesus, Paul reaches for a word other than YAHWEH.

Paul calls him Theos, the ordinary Greek word for God. It was a word that carried dangerous baggage of other gods like Zeus or Jupiter, but Paul takes the risk and meets the audience where they are, and tries to reframe their language by showing how God, this Theos, isn’t like those other gods. 

And if he hadn’t have done that, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t even be reading this today.

I often hear people say something like “God is not Allah” but I’ve got plenty of missionary friends in Muslim regions of the world, and none of them would say that in their context. They wouldn’t say that God is not like Allah, what they would say is that Allah is like Jesus.

The Compromise of Context

Language is not the only thing that changes in translation. In fact, language is always an indication of all the other bits that are changing beneath the surface. So when Paul calls God Theos is only the tip of the iceberg. In the Churches he plants, we find that Paul is also throwing out large parts of the Jewish Torah that aren’t applicable or helpful to Gentile converts.

Like circumcision.

Paul came under a lot of criticism for not enforcing circumcision in his Gentile churches. Jewish leaders came behind him and tried to pick a fight with him about it. (My friend Scot Mcknight says these Jewish leaders felt like they were “a cut above the rest”) But Paul didn’t do it because he knew it wouldn’t be helpful for these churches.

Circumcision was a part of an ancient story of God promising Abraham he would bless the world through his family. But to the men being circumcised in these churches it would just be a flesh wound. Paul contextualized the whole story of the Bible for each church he was in.

I like the way Tim Keller, a pastor in Manhatten, who’s quiet familiar with contextualizing the Gospel, says this:

Contextualization is not — as is often argued — “giving people what they want to hear.” Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them. Sound contextualization means translating and adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to a particular culture without compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself. The great missionary task is to express the gospel message to a new culture in a way that avoids making the message unnecessarily alien to that culture, yet without removing or obscuring the scandal and offense of biblical truth. A contextualized gospel is marked by clarity and attractiveness, and yet it still challenges sinners’ self-sufficiency and calls them to repentance.

Translation and caring about where you are at is only an option if you don’t care about talking to actual people who don’t see the world exactly the way you do. But if you care about communicating a message to people, then it doesn’t start with talking. It starts with listening and with the question:

“How do you say….?”

On April 1, 2014

Am I Leading a Rebellion?

“The world has only seen One Christian and they killed Him.” -Nietzsche

Protest the Status QuoRecently in the New York Times, Ross Douthat asked the question that’s been haunting me for years. Honestly, it was a question that I was surprised to see asked in the NY Times, because it seems like the evidence is piling up to that it is a question that has already been answered.

Here’s the question: “Is the Church good for the world?”

Douthat, is a Christian, he’s also an articulate conservative columnist for the Times, and I appreciate the way he consistently engages with the larger ideas and questions that are floating around the Western culture. But this one struck pretty close to home.

Here’s what he said:

Here is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation. Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.

In my experience, this observation is spot on.

I see the local Church as the hope of the world. But I have so many days and weeks where I realize that we are just as much a part of the problem as we are the solution.

Working With Jesus

The past few weeks, I’ve been reading through the Gospel of Mark, studying for a future sermon series, and one of the more striking things about Mark is how often the disciples get it wrong. In ways that are eerily familiar. They struggle with power and greed and racism and fear of the stranger and violent rage toward people they don’t like.

But Jesus continually keeps correcting and rebuking and challenging their whole notion of what it means to be a people of God. Until…

Toward the end of the Gospel of Mark, Judas betrays Jesus, he comes up to Jesus with a few Roman soldiers in tow and gives him the most treacherous of betrayals. He gives Jesus a kiss, and Jesus gives him a question.

“Am I leading a rebellion? That you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?”

Jesus’ question to Judas is pretty practical. Basically, he’s asking Judas, “is this really necessary? Name one time, you’ve seen me angry…Okay, name two.”

But I think the reason Judas brought the National Guard along with him wasn’t so much because of Jesus…I think it was because he knew the other guys he’d spent the last few years with. And rightfully so, the first thing Peter does is reach for what everyone else in that day would have reached for in that situation…the hilt of a sword.

Which means that Jesus’ question to Judas is also one a question for Peter.

“Peter, am I leading a rebellion or not?”

Because make no mistake about it, no matter how rebellious Peter’s swift move to action looks, it’s not a rebellion of the status quo, just an attempt at realigning it.

It is the exact opposite of all the things that Jesus has spent the last 3 years teaching Peter and in a moment of crisis his default move is back to the place he started.

Which is why it’s a question I’ve been asking a lot lately too.

To Live in Protest

Jesus people tend to buy into the same cultural idols and values, we divorce at the same rates, we are more segregated than almost any other sector of society, we use money the same way, we think of power, prestige just as much as other people.

Nietzsche once said that the world has only seen One Christian and they killed him. I get that. It’s easy to look around and see the inconstancy between Jesus and the people who follow Him. And the question seems to raise itself more and more often. “Is the Church really good for the world?”

But Douthat’s article didn’t just raise the question, he also gave a hopeful answer.Christian Protest

Just like the way Dr. King fought the racism of Southern America in the 60′s and Bishop Tutu fought apartheid in South Africa last decade, the answer isn’t to jettison the Christian faith it is to lean more into it.

The problem, according to Douthat, is that Christianity names all the flawed attempts that we have for living a good life, it gives us a vision for what the life in the Kingdom of God looks like and then the resources in which to live into that kind of life.

But if we just take the prescription and not the medicine we are in the words of the book of James “like someone who looked in a mirror and then just walked away without making the necessary adjustments.”

This is why surveys show that people who are invested in Christian community fare much better at the expectations of what a Jesus-following person should be like in the world. But people who are raised with a Christian way of thinking (like mercy, empathy, fidelity) but become dis-enfranchised from a local Christian community, or just nominally attached to it, find themselves doing much worse than people who have no faith at all.

Here’s how Douthat points it out:

For nonbelievers inclined to look down on the alleged backwardness of the Bible Belt, it would be helpful to recognize that at least some of the problems they see at work reflect traditional religion’s growing weakness rather than its potency.

Is the Church good for the world? In a word: Yes.

But only when she is different from the world. When She rebels against the way things are, in the ways that Jesus would.

Screen-shot-2011-01-25-at-7.52.40-AM

One of the more interesting things about the Bible is what happens when God reveals Himself to people. They are always terrified, they say things like “Go away…or I will die.” And then they say something  peculiar like”Who am I?” When God reveals Himself to people, the people always become acutely aware of how broken they are.

They become in a word…modest.

When we talk about modesty, immediately what probably comes to our minds is cleavage or short skirts…I notice we rarely apply it to shirtless, or provocatively dressed men. As a person who struggles with self-delusion, I’ve made the personal commitment to never wear tight clothes or short shorts, you know, just to keep others from stumbling.

But when the Bible talks about modesty, much of the time it’s not talking about the same things we talk about. For example, go back and read Paul’s letter to Timothy, or Peter’s letter to the church of his day.

Most of the time, when they are talking about modesty (in a world very much like ours) they are talking about economic modesty. The word they have for the women of their day is not to feel the need to showcase how much you have…in other words, because of God, you shouldn’t dress to show how well off you are.

But modesty also has another meaning in Bible, and by this meaning, Christians today are rarely modest.

Which is not a new thing.

I Know You Are, But What Am I

In the 17th century, the Quakers and the Puritans were locked in a pretty intense debate. One of the most famous Puritan preachers, a guy named Richard Baxter, wrote a pamphlet where he called those Quakers “ drunkards, swearers, whore mongers, and sensual wretches…miserable creatures .” And then, just in case they didn’t get how serious their theological error was, he said they were no better than “Papists.”

Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter aka “Child of the Devil”

So a Quaker preacher, James Naylor, responded to these harsh accusations and names…with more accusations and names. Naylor called Baxter “a Serpent,” a “Liar,” a “Child of the Devil,” a “Cursed Hypocrite,” and a “Dumb Dog .”

Naylor actually said he was responding because he had been compelled by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, which may be true. But he most certainly wasn’t responding with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 

The problem with these arguments is that they do the opposite of what they are hoping to accomplish. When we demonize the other, we rarely have healthy conversations about the issue of disagreement. We divide up the world into right and wrong, and lose the ability to learn and grow from each other.

Last year, on NPR, I heard about a city where the Pro-Life leaders and the Pro-Choice leaders had started secretly meeting for lunch once a week. They had to keep it a secret because the war had already been clearly defined by talking points and hostile speech, but these women still wanted to learn where the other was coming from.

Have you ever noticed how we talk about war? Pascifists argue against all war, Just war people argue that there are some wars that are justifiable. But both sides are starting with the assumption that violence has to be held in check by some moral-limits. They don’t believe most wars are justified. 

But they rarely talk about what those limits are, because they can’t talk about much past what defines them in their opposition.

It seems like every day there is another conflict that has broken out between another faction of people. Politics, Corporations, Churches, Atheist Groups.

Language as Dress

Growing up, modesty was something that the Christians around me talked about a lot. It was always assumed that even though it wasn’t in the ten commandments that girls should dress modestly, it was at least a footnote.

We understood that it was important to not dress in a way that dehumanized yourself.

I think it’s time we learned to speak that way too.

Think about the way the Bible refers to dress, it often isn’t talking about specific clothing instructions, it’s speaking more with a putting on of a certain kind of character.

Like in 1st Peter:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self,the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

The early Christians cared a lot living a quiet, gentle lives, even while having passionate convictions.

I wish we talked about that when we talk about modesty.

Modesty basically means to not over-estimate ourselves, it is the virtue of knowing and embracing our limitations. We don’t know everything, we don’t know for certain what’s best for the world, and no human should find themselves so certain that they can dehumanize another because they disagree with them.

I like the way Richard Mouw talks about this:

Our efforts at public righteousness must be modest ones. Now this is a dangerous point to emphasize . The call to modesty can easily be interpreted as giving Christians permission to be unconcerned about the issues of public life . “Poverty is always with us, so why worry about injustices?” “You’re never really going to do away with prejudice and conflict—at least not until Jesus returns! No compromise is acceptable. Those who adopt our variety of Christianity are possessors of the truth, and everyone else is caught up in error!” We may hear statements like these when we start encouraging modesty . But the risk is necessary, especially in the light of the immodesty that has often characterized Christian forays into the public arena.

I know that modesty can sound quaint and the ways that we’ve talked about it have been sexist. Still, as  parents of three children, Leslie and I are going to talk about modesty with them….and it is going to involve more than clothes.

Underneath modesty is the virtue of humility. You don’t have to prove yourself or justify your existence with your looks, or your clothes or your ideas or your words. God has justified you.

So let’s talk like it.

On March 18, 2014

God Loves Fred

““[When he heard the party] The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.” -Luke 15 in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.  -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

youngfredphelpsHis name was Fred, and he was passionate about justice, he was passionate about equality and fairness. And so after Fred got his law degree, and became a civil rights lawyer. For years Fred served and fought for dis-enfranchised people who were being treated un-fairly. Eventually the NAACP gave him an award for the way he fought for the rights of African-Americans.

And then Fred Phelps left civil law and planted a church.

The Westboro Baptist Church.

As in the God-hates-fags-American-soldiers-and anyone-who’s-not-a-Phelps-church.

For years, the WBC has been picketing the most tragic of funerals, giving the most vile television interviews, and repeatedly talking about who God hates.

I’ve actually had to deal with the aftermath of some of Fred Phelps’ messes. Back in 2003, before people knew what a hate-monger the WBC was.  I lead a spring break campaign to San Francisco, to the Castro district, right after the WBC had been there yelling about God hating gay people.

For a couple of days we just hung out and handed out free water, telling people that Fred Phelps was wrong. We heard people’s stories, saw their tears and realized that some of these people actually believed him.

It was heartbreaking.

And now Fred Phelps is dying. He’s been kicked out (by his own family members) from the very church that he  started, and the hell that he helped create has started to envelope him.

And I’d like to tell Fred the same thing that we told those people he condemned. Fred you’re wrong about God, and that’s good news for you too.

A Graceless World

One of the things that is so central to Scripture but so foreign to our church cultures, is the idea that we create with our words. The Bible starts off with the famous lines, God said “Let there be Light.” And because God gets what God wants, light had no choice but to exist.

The point Genesis wants us to pay attention to is that God creates with language. He creates a world with words. The Bible tells a story in which the words we use with each other matter a lot.

We grew up saying that words can never hurt us, but does anybody really believe that? Our words create, they name, they can heal and destroy.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t say certain behaviors are wrong. But If we are Jesus followers than we need to create worlds, where no matter what, whoever you are, we welcome and see the image of God in you.

We’re not going to going to label and dismiss you. When we confront you it will not be because the world we have created is too small to deal with your sin, it will be because the world we created is large enough for you still.

Maybe you heard last week, that Mark Driscoll, the controversial pastor has once again done something controversial. He used a company that unethically helped him get his book on the New York Times Best-Seller list. When the news broke that he cheated a system to gain influence, everyone took to Twitter and Facebook to talk about it.

But over the weekend, Driscoll employed the most Christian of virtues…humility. He apologized, pretty robustly, and not many people in my social networks are talking about it. I think that’s a shame. We’re loud when we disagree and we’re silent when the wrong people do the right things.

We’ve accepted a polarized, binary view of the world and we don’t know how to be in community with people we disagree with.

We progressive Christians, the ones who used to be known for emphasizing the grace of God in the places you’d least expect it, don’t know how to forgive sin, or at least specific kinds of it. Or to use the language of the Prodigal son story, we don’t know how to let Mark back into the party.

Ministry of ReconciliationFred Phelps

I’ve noticed that for all the complaints against fundamentalism these days, we haven’t moved very far beyond it. It’s just now the fundamental foundation for many of my friends is a a kind of cultural narrative of progress.

We’ve been taught to think the world is slowly getting better, and with the right politics, organization, medicine and education we will usher in a better world. And anyone who stands in the way of that objective is vilified and written off.

I’m progressive, I want to help serve the world and my neighbor, I don’t want to have some kind of nostalgia about the past, I want to deal with the time I actually live in.

But the thing that drives me isn’t progressive politics/theology it’s reconciliation.

Here’s the thing that bothers me about the inability to reconcile with people we disagree with, even people who are blatantly wrong, and have done great evil….Do we realize the question we are actually asking and answering isn’t “Does God love Fred?” or “Should we forgive Mark Driscoll?”

The question we are really asking is “How does God view me in my sin?” In those places of my life where I don’t share with others, the parts of my heart that make me aware I’m not God’s solution to the suffering of the world, I’m also a part of the problem.

I have a hunch that forgiveness is best born out of awareness of our own sin and brokenness, and the people who are the most merciful are the ones who have received mercy in their most broken places.

I have a concern for my progressive brothers and sisters that is just as deep as my concern for my more dogmatic siblings, I don’t think we have replaced the old fundamentalists’ Gospel, we’ve just changed the labels on the categories. That is we no longer think it’s orthodoxy that earns God’s love, it is our love for justice or compassion as we define it.

If the Gospel is good news it has to be good news for the KKK and the African American civil rights workers, it has to be good news for the Westboro Baptist Church and the communities they’ve condemned.

If this is shocking to you, it might be helpful to remember just who was in the early churches. Slaves and Slave owners, pacifists and Generals, Zealots and Tax collectors. It was a community of reconciliation, the kind of community only God can create.

Because the problem at the heart of all of this is sin, and how we sin against one another in a million different ways. The part the Fred got wrong wasn’t how bad sin was, the part he missed is how good God is.

Not that God is okay with the evil of the WBC or Fred Phelps, not that he’s okay with slavery or racism or sexism or any of the ways that we have carved up the world to suit our own ends. But that God, at His core, is good.

As Fred Phelps lays dying, I know plenty of people have been hurt and hated on by this man who did so much evil. I know the natural thing to do has to be to want justice. To seek out revenge. And if you are not a Christian, I can’t imagine a reason in the world why you wouldn’t want to.

But I believe Dr. King was right, to fight the monster with the monster’s game plan is to eventually become the monster. To hate Fred Phelps and to claim God does is to invoke his idea of God and just replace the villains.

The part that Fred Phelps was wrong on wasn’t that God hates sin (and not just the sin that Phelps picked out because he doesn’t deal with it) but the universal human tendency to screw up everything.  God hates the way we destroy and use each other, how we pillage the creation, sex trafficking, corporate greed, religious self-righteous sanctimony…God hates lots of stuff.

But God never hates a person. Not Mark, not Fred, not me and not you. That’s the answer to the question we’ll all be asking when we hit bottom, and we will believe the answer we give right now about someone else, to the worst of people.

What the world needs now isn’t just pure justice and retribution. That as a sole pursuit, will eventually turn ugly (just ask Fred Phelps), what the world needs now, is what is has always needed in a world of sinners.

Grace.

P.S. If you want to tell a story that’s better than who God hates here’s a Facebook page. 

“Christian practices are always the practices of others made odd.” – Kathryn Tanner

“The most effective way to change someone’s mind requires grasping the minds they already have.’ -Leonard Sweet

Leadership with education

Jonathan Martin tells about a missionary friend of his who trekked for a few days to get to a specific unreached tribe, and when he finally reached them he discovered that they didn’t have a word for heart. And being a good Baptist, he invited them to ask Jesus into their hearts, and that’s when his translator told him that they didn’t have a word for hearts. Actually, they didn’t even know what that was. (It’s not like there are a lot of cardiologists up in mountain tribes.)

Which raised the question for this Western Christian, “How do you get people to invite Jesus into their heart, when they don’t even know they’ve got a heart?”

And this is not just a “Christian” problem.

When the company Microsoft first began to break into Chinese markets, they knew that they needed to rebrand from their English name. So they just did a literal transliteration of their name into Chinese. They became “Wieran” the problem is that they didn’t take the culture they were attempting to serve seriously enough to learn it.

Their new company’s name was literally “Flaccid and small”

Heaven Talking to Earth

When I was in college, one of the most disturbing things for me was learning about the context that the Bible was written in. As a Bible major, I learned about how similar things in the Old Testament were to the surrounding countries. The Old Testament covenants and speeches that we hear from God are strikingly similar to the religions of other Mesopotamian texts around that time.

To be sure, they are also strikingly different, in say their treatment of women, or their inclusion of foreigners, but so much of the Old Testament is written like other ancient religious documents.

And this really bothered me. Until…

After about a week of showing us the similarities between the Hebrew Scriptures and the surrounding culture, Dr. Fortner showed a classroom full of future ministers a clip from Apollo 13. It’s the part where the air filter on their return shuttle has malfunctioned and they have a very small window to fix the filter or the astronauts will die of asphyxiation.

The Austronauts don’t have enough air, and Houston has a problem.

And then some genius in Houston goes to a table full of engineers and dumps a box of random parts on the table, and tells them ‘You’ve got 30 minutes to fix this filter, using nothing but the parts in this box.”

And then Dr. Fortner asked us, “Why could they only use what was in the box?”

Because what was in the box was the only thing the people in the command module had to work with.

If God is going to communicate to people, how else is He going to do it? For God to effectively communicate to people He’s going to have to use the words/sybols/ideas that we have, and go from there.

So of course, when God comes to Israel, He’s going to have to use the ideas and structures from surrounding society, He’s not trying to give us a new language, He’s trying to create a new people.

Livers and Pigs

This is why missionaries fascinate me, because they get this. They are having to go to a new culture and tell a story in a language that is unfamiliar. They are trying to remain faithful to the story and relevant to their culture.

Leonard Sweet talks about a missionary who went to a country where they didn’t have a Bible, he was trying to tell the story of John the Baptist and Jesus, but as he began to get to know the culture, he realized that there was a problem. Lamb’s in this country were seen as dirty and impure. They were regarded as filthy. And so as the missionaries began to understand the way people saw the way their new country saw the world, they told the same story in a slightly different way.

Their new translation told about how John the Baptist introduced the world to Jesus by saying, “Behold the Pig of God”

So back to that missionary on the tribal mountain. The translator told him that they didn’t know what a heart was, but he also told him that “for them the seat of emotions is the liver.” So a few minutes later, he led them all in a prayer to invite Jesus into their livers.

Houston fixed their problem, and God promised the Israelites to be their God in a language and metaphor they could understand.

This is the way God works, then and now.

So invite Jesus into your Liver, and behold the Pig of God.

On March 4, 2014

Ash Wednesday: Love Weeps

“I went back to church thinking it would be like an epidural, taking the pain away. But I realized that church is more like a midwife, standing next to me saying push…it’s supposed to hurt a little bit.” -Brene Brown

“Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah” -Leonard Cohen

Man of Sorrows Stained Glass

Ash Wednesday is tomorrow, and I know for some of the readers of this blog, this may sound like a day that is just for Catholics.

But Ash Wednesday was going on long before Protestants and Catholics ever split. It’s an annual reminder that Christians have observed  for over a thousand years, where we remember that from dust we came and to dust we will return.

It is profoundly ancient, biblical, and Christ-like.

Man of Sorrows

If you were just to pick up one of the Gospels and read it for the first time, one the of the more interesting things about that would stand out to you was how much Jesus talks about death, in particular how much he talks about his own death, what He thinks it will accomplish, and how intentional He was about not shying away from it.

And then you would probably notice that Jesus cried a lot.

Which is not something most of us are good at.

In Tim Keller’s recent book, “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” he talks about how uncomfortable most Western people are with suffering.  At one point in his book he referred to an interview the BBC had with Robert Spitzer a few years ago. Spitzer was one of the main psychologists who worked on classifying all the various mental illness and how they should be treated.

25 years later, Spitzer admitted that, in hindsight, he believed they had wrongly labeled many normal human experiences of grief, sorrow, and anxiety as mental disorders. When the interviewer asked: “So you have effectively medicalized much ordinary human sadness?” Spitzer said, “Yes, I think so, to some extent…”

In other words, what used to be just the natural response to the valleys of life has now become a disorder. We used to cry and now there’s a pill for that.*

It seems like our world has two different options for suffering, either to medicate it or to marginalize it.

And that’s all well and good, unless you are a Jesus follower. Because Jesus dealt with death and suffering much differently than that. Jesus, the Resurrection and the life, wept when he saw a friend die, a friend who he was about to raise from the dead! He wept over Jerusalem, even though He knew there would one day be a New Jerusalem.

Blood on the Floor

So this video is from Brene Brown (famous for her TED talk on vulnerability). In a world where everyone seems to be walking away from church, Brown a secular sociologist talks about her journey back toward faith.

But why she came back may surprise you. She says that she had always thought church was a way of avoiding suffering, but as she reentered the Christian faith she was surprised to find Jesus weeping.

When Brene Brown found herself back at church she said she knew that God was love, but she discovered that it wasn’t just that God is love, but that God defines love as well.  In reality, love is complicated and difficult and sacrificial. In reality, love bleeds, and love weeps.

In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. Like our expectations of how life should turn out, or how others should have treated us.

If we got to define love it would be all about puppies and unicorns, but in reality love is complicated and difficult and sacrificial. At one point in the video Brown talks about something her new minister said that I think is fascinating. He  said, “In faith communities where forgiveness is easy and love is easy, there’s not enough blood on the floor to make sense of it.”

What an interesting way to say that.

You know, unlike other Greek heroes, or even Jewish ones, Jesus doesn’t die like some stoic hero.Unlike Bruce Willis in Armageddon or George Clooney in Gravity (I’m realizing I watch too much sci-fi as I type this) Jesus weeps, a lot. He doesn’t brave it out, or just walk it off. He cries so hard he sweats blood.

In fact, this is the one thing that sets Jesus apart about how He died.

Because Love bleeds.

Now, if you know me, you know that I am very hopeful, I’m tired of the cynicism that pervades my generation, but this isn’t cynicism. This is the other side of hope. Death isn’t right, and there will be a day when death pays back what it owes.

But that day is not today.

I like the way one Lutheran Youth Minister says this:

It appears the world has little time for the church, not because we are broken people, people seeking to be honest about our loss and yearning. The world has little time for the church because it sees it as a very dishonest place–a place where people like Ted Haggard rail against others as immoral to hide the deep (sinful or not) yearnings that live inside of them, a place where people do not see their duplicity, where people hide from reality in religion.

In other words, if the world is going to believe the Church’s Good news, they have to see us be honest about the bad news too.

Without exception in the ancient world, all the heroes faced their final hours calmly removed and dispassionate. The Jewish heroes are hot-blooded and angry and fearless, but Jesus is nothing like that. Because Jesus doesn’t want to die. He thinks that this life matters, that this world matters, and anything not in tune with God’s dream for the world is worth weeping and bleeding for.

All is not as it should be, and there aren’t enough pills in the world to make it go away, nor can you just stuff it down deep enough to ignore forever.

This is the Wisdom of Ash Wednesday. Christians for over a thousand years have recognized that we need a season to remind ourselves of the one thing we most want to ignore.

We will die.

Suffering comes to everyone, but God suffers with us.

For God so loved this world, and His Love weeps.

 *This is not to dismiss the many psychological benefits and valid causes for medication like depression.

On February 25, 2014

Civil Religion: Better Than You

“Don’t you know that sinners are the only kind of people Jesus can love?”-William Still

Screen-shot-2011-01-25-at-7.52.40-AM

 

Christina Cleveland is a social psychologist and professor at St. Catherine’s University. She’s also a relatively new Christian. And when Christina first became a Jesus follower, she says that felt an immediate connection with any other kind of Christian she met. It didn’t matter what “brand” of Christian they were, conservative, charismatic, liberal, Catholic, it didn’t matter they were family.

But over time, Cleveland noticed that something began to happen. Somehow her growth started to entail having stronger and stronger opinions about what the right ways to follow Jesus were. She started keeping people who she disagreed with or didn’t enjoy at arm’s length. And over time, Christianity for her, the story about how God was reconciling the whole world, just got smaller and smaller, until it was about reconciling the people who were like her, and who she liked.

Us and Them

In her great book, “Dis-Unity In Christ” Christina Cleveland talks about this problem. She says the real problem is how well it works.  Let her tell it:

“I know that this is a tad bit dark, but if someone approached me confessing an uncomfortable bout of low self-esteem and asking for a quick and dirty boost to their self-esteem, I would advise that person to put someone else down. The unfortunate truth is that the easiest and most effective way to boost your own image is to lower someone else’s.

I think we religious people are guilty of this so much of the time.

It seems to me we’ve gotten in the habit of defining ourselves over and against other people and their behavior. We define ourselves by not we are not, more to the point, we define ourselves as better than those who do or do not do certain things.

What those specific things are varies from group to group, but the one constant is that we our better than they are.

It’s interesting to me that the chapter that is quoted most often about Homosexuality being a sin is Romans 1. Because to quote that chapter to single out a particular sin as unique is very ironic.

See, in Romans, Paul is writing to a church community that is mixed with Jewish and Gentile Christians, and they are having a really difficult time worshipping and fellowshipping together. They have such different backgrounds and different outlooks on life. Some of them eat meat bought down at the local pagan temple, some of them think that’s blasphemy, some of them observe the pagan holidays as a cultural affair, some of them think you should only observe the Jewish ones.

And Paul’s answer is a bit of a race to the bottom.

The League of the GuiltyCathedral

He starts off in chapter one by reminding the Jews just how bad the Gentiles are. He reminds them of all the the ways they are broken, they’re sexually depraved, they gossip, they hate God, they disobey their parents, they do homosexual acts, they invent ways of doing evil. (They’re like Adolf Edison)

At the end of chapter one, the Jewish people would have been worked up.

And then he turns against them.

He starts talking to the Gentiles about the Jews. In Romans 2, he goes on to talking about how bad the religious people are. They preach against stealing…but they steal. They think just because they go to church, or do some ritual, that they are nice, squeaky, clean “good people” But they’re not, Paul talks to the Gentiles about how selfish, and self-important, and self-righteous these religious people are.

At the end of chapter two, the Gentiles would be the ones saying, “Amen!’

And then Paul says this, “There is no one righteous. No one…..For all have sinned, and fallen short of the Glory of God”

Paul’s answer to the us and them problem, to the arguments that break out in church and through Christians is to remind them why they came to this story in the first place.

There is an itch you can’t scratch, a dirt you can’t rub off, a stain that won’t go away, and just because you can see it more clearly in someone else, doesn’t mean that you can ignore it. Because at the end of the day, you’re just as much a part of the problem as they are.

One of my favorite books last year, was a book by Francis Spufford, he’s an Anglican Christian writing in England to a Post-Christian culture. Spufford is trying to explain why Christianity makes good emotional sense to people who think it’s a bit like believing in fairies and wizards. And instead of turning to conventional apologetics about evidence that demands verdicts, he talks about the one thing that needs no proof. What’s wrong inside of each one of us:

So of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people. Not that can be securely designated as such. It can’t be about circling the wagons of virtue out in the suburbs and keeping the unruly inner city at bay. This, I realize, goes flat contrary to the present predominant image of it as something existing in prissy, fastidious little enclaves, far from life’s messier zones and inclined to get all “judgmental” about them. Again, of course there are Christians like that…The religion certainly can slip into being a club or a cozy affinity group or a wall against the world. But it isn’t supposed to be. What it’s supposed to be is a league of the guilty. Not all guilty of the same things, or in the same way, or to the same degree, but enough for us to recognize each other.

This is what Paul is doing in Romans, and Cleveland is getting at in her book. Christianity is not about being better than someone else, it is among many things, the recognition that we are better than no one else.

This is not a rhetorical move, it is reality.

It is to look deep into our hearts/mirrors and souls to see our own sin. And if you have, then welcome to the International League of the Guilty.

We call it Church.

 

O for a thousand tongues to sing. My dear Redeemer’s praise! The glories of my God and King, The triumphs of His grace. -Charles Wesley

Leadership with education

A couple of Sundays ago at Highland Church, we showed this video of one of our missionaries in Thailand. They spent the first year of their time there just researching they symbols and practices that people used to talk about God and the Sacred in Pheyao. And then they did this very interesting thing.

They wrote down hundreds of different words on 3×5 cards, gave them to the Thai people they were interviewing, and asked them to put them in categories. The words were about things like love/service/honor/sacrifice. They wanted to see what ideas the words they were using where linked to.

Because there’s no such thing as a 1-1 equivalency for language, something is lost when we translate, but something can also be gained.

Bowing Before Kings

There is something powerful about watching Thai people bow down before Jesus. But only if you know the Thai culture. When Eden and I first got to Thailand, in our hotel, there was a warning for all foreign visitors not to speak poorly of the royal family. The King of Thailand is dearly loved, and respected, and that’s a good thing.

But what our missionaries in Thailand discovered when they were studying the language is that the King of Thailand was more than respected, the same words and gestures they would use to talk about God they would use to talk about him…sometime even more so.

They asked a new convert to Christianity what she would do if the King walked into the room. A visible change of expression came over her and she said excitedly, “I would fall flat on my face and bow before him.”

So that’s when they knew how to worship Jesus in Thailand.

And that’s when I knew that they had tapped into something many Western Christians hadn’t realized just yet.

Because they at least knew how to link certain emotions and words to other ones. The Thai people knew that all the reverence they had for their king, the anxiety they had when he got ill, or the anger they felt when he was disrespected, was actually something that belonged in the category of worship.

And I’m not trying to be hard on the Thai culture, I’m trying to point out something that I thought was profound for American culture. 

If you were to suddenly lose the ability to speak english, and you had to gauge people’s meaning and intent based on tone and body language and what kind of events would draw crowds together…what would you assume was our sacred spaces? What would you assume we worshipped?

If you had to discern just by seeing what people got angry at, or what made them extremely happy, what would you assume we worship?

And do our churches worship like that?

Kings Bowing Down

There’s an interesting passage in Isaiah that has captured my imagination recently. It’s Isaiah’s picture of the New Heavens and the New Earth. In Isaiah’s vision, the kings of the earth come marching in to the new Jerusalem, each bringing some of the cultural artifacts that their nation was famous for, and then they lay them down at the feet of the LORD.

In fact, the way Isaiah ends is with what he calls the “Glory of the Nations” coming in on horses and chariots and wagons and mules and camels (all distinct cultural forms of war and travel) and God makes people from all over the earth His priests.

They lay the best parts of their world, their culture, down at his feet, and it becomes a part of the Kingdom of God.

So back to Thailand, I went there last summer to speak to missionaries all over Asia, and at one point I talked about this. How God’s redeeming purposes weren’t just for individual souls but also for all of His creation, and some of the things that people have created. 

Then I asked the missionaries to just shout out what kinds of things they saw in the respective countries they represented that was in tune with God’s good world. They shouted out everything from food to ways of honoring the elderly to certain kinds of music.

I think they were exactly right.

That’s one of the great parts about being a missionary. It’s not just that missionaries go to share the Gospel, it’s that missionaries also get to see just how big the Gospel is. Jesus is already there, working through and in people, we just get to point Him out. And with eyes that are Gospel trained we get to see the world ablaze with the glory of God.

This is why translation is so important, and our approach to it must be generous. After all, no one culture can fully capture the Kingdom of God, no one worship style, no one language, and each time the story of God gets translated, it just gets bigger and better.

God’s priests are everywhere, some of them are still waiting to be called, and some of us need to go, and others of us need them to minister to us.

We need new priests to teach us how to worship and what to bow down for.

This is why Revelation ends with people from every tribe and every tongue singing to God.

Because this song is so good and God is so big, we need a thousand tongues to sing it.