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On March 31, 2015

How to Die

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

howtodie2015

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

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

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

The Denial of Death

Remember this prayer?

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

Did you know there was another verse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actress Frances McDormand

Actress Frances McDormand

The Art of Dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restoring Restoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially when we don’t agree.

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

The Autonomy of A Local Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sara Barton, missionary to Africa & Pepperdine Chaplain

Sara Barton, missionary to Africa &Pepperdine chaplain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown

This is a true story.

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

So he decided to kidnap Frank Sinatra Jr.

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

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

You know, your classic win-win scenario.

Comedy of Errors

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

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

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

Photo of the Texaco Ransom site from FBI.gov

Photo of the Texaco Ransom site from FBI.gov

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

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

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

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

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

This is a Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe it still does.

On March 11, 2015

Uncool: A Work In Progress

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

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

Un-Cool Desktop

 

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

But it never happened…Why?

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

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

Most Revolutions go nowhere because they have nowhere to go.

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

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

The Best Religions Don’t Need Batteries

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

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

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

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

selma_1965

Image from WhiteHouse.gov

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

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

Changing the Future Lies in the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are a work in progress.

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

Un-Cool Desktop

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

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

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

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

Every Age Has a Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

UnCool: The Church Is For God

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

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

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

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

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

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

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

Getting Hugged by Strangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is the Church For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On February 17, 2015

Ash Wednesday: Dirty Words

Writing in dirt

There’s a scene in the Gospel of John where Jesus stoops down and writes the only thing we have any record of him ever writing.

It’s in the middle of an incredible tense moment, where the religious, self-righteous leaders of his day, drag a naked woman into the Temple grounds and announce loudly, “This woman was just caught in adultery!”

The whole scene is done for theater, the religious leaders aren’t just trying to shame her, she’s the bait and Jesus is the target. They want to see if He’s going to try and do that whole compassion thing in front of everyone when it’s obvious that there’s no room to look the other way.

And Jesus does the last thing they expect, He bends down and starts writing in the dirt.

Introduction to Lent

So this is the beginning of Lent, it’s a season that Christians have practiced for over a thousand years. For those of you who grew up like me, Lent was something that we didn’t practice because we thought it was something that Catholics did. But Lent was something that Christians were doing long before the Reformation, and it’s something that most Protestant’s kept observing.

Because they knew how much we need it.

Lent is about self-reflection, and asking ourselves the question “How do I stand before God” We spend most of our lives asking that question from other people, we ask each to rate us 1-10, or we try to get likes or favorites, but Lent starts with allowing the gaze of God to search us.

Lent starts tomorrow with Ash Wednesday, where people gather together and wipe ashes on each other’s foreheads and say something like, “From dirt you came and to dirt you will return.”

When we say this, we aren’t saying some ancient Church invention, we are quoting God. When God talks to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, He tells them, “From dirt you came, and to dirt you will return.” (Adam actually is the Hebrew word for dirt)

That sounds really morbid, but only because we don’t hear it nearly as much as we need. Ash Wednesday is the one day a year that the Church remembers the one thing that’s true every day of every year.

We will surely die.

Did you ever wonder why the cosmetic surgery business is making around $20 Billion a year? Did you ever wonder why grandparents are starting to want to not be called Grandma/Pa? Or why that new grey hair bothers you so much? Or why some of our churches rarely have older people leading worship?

It’s because of this new social contract that we’ve all implicitly started to agree to, we’ve agreed to pretend to be “deathless.” We’ve agreed not to remind each other that it is from dirt we came from and to dirt that we will return.

Until that’s not an option anymore, until the stroke or the arthritis leaves us with limited mobility, or our spouse dies, and now suddenly everywhere we go our very presence is a reminder that the social contract is a lie.

Writing a Resume vs. Writing an Obituary

Ash Wednesday is when we do the exact opposite of what we do every other day, men and women look each other in the eye, and they say the most true thing they will say all year to one another, “You will die.”

And this, all of this, is a gift.

This is not to say that death is a gift, in Christian theology, Death is the last enemy to be defeated, but the awareness of death can be a gift.

Which brings me back to Jesus writing in the dirt.

Millions of sermons have been preached on this story, What did Jesus write? Why did he do it? What was the point? Why did no one record his writing?

But maybe this is the point.

Jesus is writing in dirt, God is once again picking up the dirt from which he made all of us, and he’s writes something that will ultimately not survive the day.

No one’s life stands the test of time, and time is a test.

Last week I read an article on Vulture.com about a new documentary on the 90’s boy band documentary The Backstreet Boys (didn’t see this transition coming did you?) The article had some fascinating observations about their life after fame, but this line was the one that stood out to me the most.

“As it is in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the main character (or perhaps villain) in the new documentary about the Backstreet Boys is time.”

These former legends now have bad knees, worn out vocal chords, and struggle with a life without fame after being defined for years as celebrities. The documentary shows them being introduced to 15 year old girls (their target demographic back in the 90’s) with the girls saying, “Who are the Backstreet Boys?” while one of them makes the painful observation that they weren’t born during their brief spark of fame.

James_Rebhorn_at_the_2009_Tribeca_Film_Festival

Recently deceased actor James Rebhorn

All of our lives, at their best, are only writing in dirt. Time washes away even the greatest of accomplishments, and the wise among us know that this changes how we approach life and how we approach what we write.

Last year when the famous actor James Rebhorn (Homeland, White Collar) learned that he would not survive his battle with skin cancer, he had the foresight to write his own obituary. I think it was telling what he chose to write.

He wrote about the gift of life, his gratitude for his parents instilling faith and hospitality at an early age, about the pride he had in his children, and his appreciation for being able to do a job he loved. He never mentioned his fame, how much money he’d made, or the well known movies he starred in.

He wasn’t writing a resume, he was writing his obituary.

The truth is we are all writing our obituaries, day by day we are writing the lines that will one day be read over our dead body. With each decision we make we are writing our life’s story that will one day be told.

This is the truth of Ash Wednesday, we are writing our obituary with every day-planner we fill out.

We are dirt and to dirt we will return.

Photo from Gawker.com

Photo taken from Gawker.com

This Sunday afternoon, I read along with the rest of the world about the brutal beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians by ISIS. Another horrific, intentionally symbolic and strategic bloodbath by a group of terrorists who are attempting to strike fear into the heart of everyone with an internet connection and a heart.

This latest feat is incredibly tactical and shrewd and evil.

As soon as I read the tragic news, I immediately thought of my Coptic Christian friends in Egypt, and specifically I thought of Jasar.

When Leslie and I were in college we spent a couple of weeks travelling across Egypt, the Coptic Christian community was already feeling somewhat persecuted by an predominately Muslim community and so they were cautious to identify themselves publically as Christians but several times we had people whisper things to us like “I follow Jesus too” but sometimes they didn’t have to say anything, like Jasar.

The Real Christian Nation

We met Jasar when we stopped at a local kiosk to get a snack, he was sitting in his chair with a Arabic Bible open in his lap. When we saw the Bible, I asked him what his favorite Bible verse was and Jasar said “Romans”

Maybe the Arabic version doesn’t come with verses.

He told me about how all around us were Jesus followers, trying to live at peace with people who don’t believe like they do. He told me about how often people are confused by Christianity and American culture.

I soon understood what he meant. It was from one of these types ofLetter From Egypt people that I received this letter a few days later. An Egyptian Muslim man handed me this letter, and I’ve kept it for over 13 years Here it is:

Dear Americans: Please tell your film censor board not to release any pop albums which are of bad scenes. This will affect our children in bad manner. Thank you for your presence. Bye George Bush & Condalessa Rice

To be clear, I wasn’t pretending to be George Bush, he just thought that this letter was probably going to get to him. You know because all Americans know him.

This was a serious letter given to me a 21 year old college student to make sure I got it back to the “film board of America.” And the sitting President of the United States. The man who gave it to me told me that he could never be a Christian because he believed that sex was meant only for marriage and shouldn’t be degraded the way he saw on the imported television shows and songs from the West.

I’m telling this story because in the land of the free, we are often unaware of how the rest of the religious world perceives us, when we refer to America as a “Christian Nation” that actually hurts the Church’s credibility across the world. Because they see what kind of stories and music and movies that America produces.

Notice that ISIS says, “this letter is signed in blood to the nation of the Cross” Before others weigh in on the “nation” part, I’d like to speak about the Cross part. Don’t make the same mistake ISIS has assuming that the way of Jesus is embodied by American culture/politics/territory.

The People of the Cross

I’m a part of this “Nation of the Cross” and it doesn’t have a nation, it is an international, world-wide community of people who believe that this is actually not the worst thing you can do to us. Terrorism and acts that are designed as symbolic fear-driven aggressive acts of bullying only strengthen our resolve to lay down our lives. You may denounce some of our culture, and there are plenty of us that wish that the Christians in America didn’t participate as readily in consuming some of the same culture you denounce, but you have woefully misunderstood who you are talking to.

If you want to talk to America than call it by it’s proper name, if you want to talk to the Church than this is our response for over 2000 years.

You can’t kill people who have already died. That’s who you are talking about and who you are talking to when you address “the people of the Cross”

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

It’s what Revelation calls “the power of the Lamb”

Now If you want to write in blood, write in your own blood, that seems like it would be a bit more congruent with the faith you baptize your blood lust with.

If you want war, you will probably get it, that’s the same tired story that has been going on for thousands of years, nations will fight and evil will be restrained, and your movement is making no pains to hide its evil.

But you have no idea how foolish what you have done is.

In the Bible, murder doesn’t silence the voices of the slain. In the Bible, the blood cries out to God, in the Bible murder only amplifies to God  the sound, and I’ll bet that God’s ears are ringing.

Your attempt as symbolically killing people can not frighten disciples of a man who died by the very kind of propaganda you are trying to create.

So back to Jasar, my Coptic Christian friend in Egypt, after visiting with him for a few minutes, I asked him to read me John 16:33 from his translation.

The verse I asked him to read is translated in English versions like this:

“In this world you will have troubles, but take heart I have overcome the world.”

But Jasar’s rough translation was this:

“This life and the world you live in will be hard, but don’t be anxious. I win.”

I feel great sorrow and solidarity with these Christians and would like to join with my Egyptian brothers and sisters as they have declared the next 7 days of mourning. May we join in the voices of the saints in Heaven looking on asking, “How long O Lord?”

May their families receive the comfort of God and may these martyrs rest in peace and rise in glory.

Come soon LORD Jesus.

On February 10, 2015

Uncool: Shame On Us

Progressive kingdom theology has become too often an emasculated kingdom of those whose theology is framed to make reparations for past injustices. As such it functions as little more than the puppeting echoes of progressive Western liberalism and politics with a thin veneer of [salvation] slathered on top of what is little more than a feeble attempt to salve a guilty conscience over a sinful history.  Many evangelicals and progressives today are steamed up about their opportunity to change the world and to be significant and do something important. For all the “good” this movement can do and is doing, I contend that far more importantly it is largely a shame-based movement masking a shallow gospel and an inept grasp of what kingdom means in the Bible.

–Scot McKnight

Un-Cool Desktop

Imagine for a second a good man, who wants to do good things with his life. Imagine that he decides to start doing good things for people around him, so he starts looking for people who are in need, he gives money to people who say they need it, he gives food to people who say they are hungry, and he volunteers at the food pantry. But to his horror he discovers that he’s been drinking coffee made from beans farmed by migrant day-laborers, so he switches to fair-trade organic coffee. Then he discovers that his clothes were all made in Sri Lankan sweat shops, so he takes up knitting. He discovers that his smart phone was made by people in Chinese factories with nets around the windows to catch all the suicide attempts, so he burns his smart phone and gets a dumb one.

Then he finds out that because of his racial background that he had certain advantages that others didn’t have, and then he learns of all the privilege that he inherited just by being born a man into the world, so he tries to redistribute wealth and opportunity to racial minorities and women, and then he hears about how Native Americans were treated by the first settlers, he learns that he stands on top of opportunity built on oppression. And at this point the man looks around him and realizes that there’s just too much injustice going on, and not enough people care, and so he starts to get angry, in part because people should care, but in a secret part of his heart he knows it’s because there’s no way to get clean.

Why are we so angry?

This is a question I’m asking a lot these days, I try to do most of it face to face with friends rather than online, but it’s one that I think most of us need to ask ourselves more often. Because we are so very angry so very often,

Sometimes it feels like the internet is akin to angry writing in the bathroom stall, it feels like a race to see who can say they’re offended first and with the most volume.

I’m saying this as someone who cares very much about justice and who’s closest relationships are with people who do as well, but I’m also saying this as the man who I described above. I’ve been on this journey for a while, and I’ve started to learn that pure justice is ugly, because we’re not just, in the words of Richard Beck, “There is no way to get clean. We can’t wash our hands enough.”

Shame is on all of us.

And here’s where classic Christian theology can help us find our way to a better place. Christianity starts with this radical idea that no one is just, given the right opportunity, and the right incentive, each one of us would do horrible things to other people, in fact we probably already have.

Against traditional liberalism, Jewish-Christian morality has insisted that humanity is actually not, well, moral. In fact, some well-known atheist thinkers have started to see this as one of the greatest gifts the Christian tradition gives the world:

 The doctrine of Original Sin encourages us to inch towards moral improvement by understanding that the faults we despise in ourselves are inevitable features of the species. We can therefore admit to them candidly and attempt to rectify them in the light of day…Enlightenment thinkers believed that they were doing us a favor by declaring man to be originally and naturally good. However, being repeatedly informed of our native decency can cause us to become paralyzed with remise over our failure to measure up to impossible standards of integrity. Confessions of universal sinfulness turn out to be a better starting point from which to take our first modest steps towards virtue. –Atheist Alain De Bottom

In other words, no matter who you are there is a reason to be ashamed of something, somewhere that you have done, chances are you don’t need me to tell you this, it’s probably something that you are already keenly aware of and probably pretty driven to deal with it. We all want to get our hands clean.

But Christianity refuses to see human behavior as something related to a balance sheet. We can’t sum up all the good and evil of our lives and do some kind of calculus to see if our life has justified the next breath we take. Because Christianity, if it says anything says our cruelty cannot be canceled out by equal and opposite amounts of being kind. In the words of Francis Spufford, “The weight of sorrow is not lightened by happiness elsewhere. The bad stuff cannot be averaged. It can only be confessed.”

What Comes After Cool

This is what the Classic view of Jesus’ death on the Cross has meant, it’s why a robust Christian view of Justice must not be based in shame no matter how temporarily effective it might be, because it leads to angry, dis-enchanted people, and because Jesus death actually means that for His people there’s no more room for shame in our lives or in communities that bear His name.

But we are addicted to shame. Why? I think it’s because shame and cool are related, they are siblings.  Cool is built on the shame of some being outsiders, it must rebel against something and someone. It must shame them.

It might be helpful to remember that the Cross functioned primarily as a tool of shaming, in a culture that ran on honor and shame. Jesus’ death was a public mocking of a naked, religious weak and dying man. Mess with us, and Rome says…This is what happens. We strip you bare, we parade you through your hometown and fillet you in front of your friends and family.

That’s what everyone knew about crucifixion in the day of Jesus. But suddenly, people started telling a different story over it. Here’s Paul:

 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Rembrandt's Painting of the Crucifixion

Rembrandt’s Painting of the Crucifixion

Did you catch that? He made a public spectacle of them, he shamed the shamers, He bullied the bullies by emptying the power and changing the very definition of what justice was and taking away the very way it was fueled.

Albert Schweitzer once defined Jesus as a man who was so convinced that the gears of the universe were running the wrong way that He threw Himself into them and slowly the wheels started turning the other way.

He reverses the way the world works, he changes our very notions of justice and mercy and he does it without saying a word, he does it without any notion of needing to justify Himself. And classic Christian theology says He’s not just feeling the anger of this one crowd on one Friday morning in Jerusalem. He’s the love that made the world, to whom all times and all places are present, and He’s turning his bruised face toward the whole human condition, accepting everything we can throw at Him, everything we suspect we deserve ourselves.

In the words of Francis Spufford:

The doors of his heart are wedged open wide, and in rushes the whole pestilential flood, the vile and roiling tide of cruelties and failures and secrets. Let me take that from you, he is saying. Give that to me instead. Let me carry it. Let me be to blame instead. I am big enough. I am wide enough.

I am the shining your shame cannot extinguish.

I am the door where you thought there was only wall.

I am what comes after deserving.

Jesus deals with shame by being shamed. The cross is not cool, and neither are people who pick up ones themselves. This is what comes after cool.

On February 3, 2015

Uncool: Embarrased to Say

“The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” -The Westminster Confession

Un-Cool Desktop

Alex was pretty well off in life, he probably came from a family with a modest income, and now he was on a fast track to having a pretty good life. He was lucky enough to be put in an imperial boarding school, and in 1st century Rome that meant that he was going to get to serve in the palace of the Emperor. If Alex played his cards right he might even get to serve the emperor himself.

But that probably never happened.Alex graffiti

Because it turns out that the boarding school that Alex went to was really cruel. Today the ruins of this 1900 year old school are famous not for the education, but for it’s graffiti. The students drew all over the walls of this school, and one of them carved this picture, and along with it all we know about the student “Alex”

Alex’s peers carved a picture of a man worshipping a donkey on a cross. Then they added in crude language “Alexamenos worships [his] God”

And you thought Junior High was tough for you.

The Courage to be Different

One of the best books I read in years was a book by Francis Spufford, a British author writing on why he was still a Christian. In the U.S. Edition of his book, he wrote a preface to explain to people reading in America about what it was like to live as a Jesus follower in the U.K.

 In Britain, where I live, recent figures suggest that about 6 percent of the population goes regularly to church, and it’s a number that has drifted steadily downward over the past few decades, while the average age of churchgoers has just as steadily trended upward: presently the average worshipper is fifty-one years old. In the United States, by contrast, the equivalent figure (from 2006) is 26 percent of the population, with a youthful, rosy-cheeked age distribution. That’s not all, though. Some surveys, tellingly, reveal that a further 16 percent of Americans claim to be regular churchgoers. From the British perspective this second statistic is even more startling and alien than the first one. The idea of people pretending to be regular churchgoers because it will make them look virtuous—or respectable, or serious, or community-minded—is completely bizarre to us. Here in Britain, it is more likely that people would deny they went to church even if they actually did, on the grounds of embarrassment

These days the word persecution is thrown around a lot, generally centering around politics. But I live in a city where people often buy my meal, I get my haircut and eye exams and dental work for free just because I’m a preacher.  I’m not persecuted I’m privileged.

But with that said, I get it, things aren’t like they used to be for American Christians. The privilege is slipping a bit, however when I hear Christians talking in the media today about being persecuted I think the word they are really reaching for is embarrassed. 

And I get embarrassment. I’ve grown up in the Bible Belt, I’ve always lived in the South, I’m a preacher at a church in Texas, and when I get on a plane somewhere and someone asks me what I do, I often feel like a stereotype. I feel as if they assume I also get on television wearing tacky suits to ask for money, or maybe they think of the Religious Right or the Crusades, or the different atrocities that have been committed in Jesus’ name.

I feel in a word: uncool.

There’s lots of things to be embarrassed about, in the words of Bono “Christians are unbearable, I don’t know how Jesus does it.”

But In light of the very real and violent persecution that Christians in other parts of the world are currently facing, I’d like to recommend a passage of Scripture for all of us who live in a world that is growing more post-Christian.

The Smile of God

There is this one time in the New Testament, where Peter the disciple who followed Jesus, is writing to a church that’s facing real persecution. Slowly the Roman empire is becoming aware that they aren’t worshipping their gods, and the Roman Emperor is learning that they don’t worship him.

Rome doesn’t do nuance very well, What Rome understands is that the Cross works…Peter is trying to get the Christians to understand the same thing.

So Peter writes to these men and women and says,

It is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.

This is commendable before God?!!

In context, Peter is writing about people who are at the bottom of society, namely slaves, and Peter isn’t saying slavery is good and that slaves need to be passive toward gaining their freedom. Peter is writing at an entirely different level here, he’s assuming that certain options aren’t on the table, and he’s teaching people how to be Christian in whatever circumstances they find find themselves in.

Peter knows that to be the people of God involves suffering, and his initial advice isn’t to try and avoid it, it is to allow God to redeem it. Reading from a modern Western perspective this sounds absurd and abusive, but then it dawns on me Peter has seen this work before.

And a cursory look at Christian history says it’s been working ever since.

Brett McCracken points out that Christianity has done more to make the world a better place than any other organized movement in history. Almost every major reform movement or social-justice campaign has Christian roots. From Jesuit Priests to Wesley and Wilberforce, Christians have historically been the first and most active responders to international relief, hunger, and justice issues, and have started the largest charities from Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, to Feed the Children, and World Vision. Jesus followers were the first to establish hospitals, schools, and universities. They led the way in literacy movements, adult education, prison reform, and substance-abuse programs.

Today it’s trendy to care about these things, but Christians cared about it before it was cool, even when it was embarrassing to care about.

Now just because it can be uncool to be a Jesus follower, that doesn’t mean that if you are uncool you are necessarily being a good Christian. You might just be obnoxious. But I suspect that there is an aspect of following Jesus that will always be embarrassing and counter-cultural.

And this is my greatest concern with progressive Christianity. I believe just about everything my other progressive Christian friends believe, but sometimes I wonder if we believe it for the wrong reasons. I think the way of Jesus leads to social justice, equality and ministries of mercy, but I think the reason Christians are called to do that is to serve and honor God.

In my more cynical moments, I think that we talk about it so much so we can be seen as cool.

Think back to Alex in Jr. High, all we know about him is found by looking at what people wrote about him on the ancient world equivalent of a bathroom stall. But what we know from the rest of that period is that being a person who believed in Jesus was not just difficult, it was embarrassing.

People were shamed by their family, the rumors were floating around that Christians were cannibals, that they had deliberately started the fire that crippled the Roman economy, and that they were the worst of all people.

And Peter’s answer wasn’t to argue with them, it was for the Christians to live like Jesus did, for the pleasure of God.

We can’t justify ourselves, or offer an explanation for everything we believe in a way that is going to satisfy everyone, all we can offer is our lives of living like Jesus.