g-k-chesterton

G.K Chesterton pictured writing and looking just a little bit grumpy

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d like to do a short blog series on one of the most important books most of us have probably never read.

Recently, I read G.K. Chesterton’s magical book “Orthodoxy” I’ve heard Chesterton quoted at length my entire life, but I had no idea how wonderful I’d find this book.

After all, Orthodoxy isn’t exactly the sexiest marketing title, and considering that it’s 80 years old, you’d think it would be beyond crusty. Reading it, it was as if he was responding to the latest blogs. And reading him, I get the impression he would be responding to all the latest blogs, with a cheeky defiant joy that makes us realize not just that we are arguing about the wrong things, but we might just be arguing about the in the wrong ways. 

Defiant Joy

Chesterton, names names and calls out people’s positions, but a cursory reading of his life, you find out that these are people he’s friends with, and who he loves. He seems to have the rare gift of disagreeing agreeably, and you can’t help reading him without having a sense of his great and defiant joy.

And the reason that Chesterton writes Orthodoxy, or defends it, is because of the radical nature of it all.  Here’s how he says it:

Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion. The man from the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.

The context of this book, is a world very much like the one I find myself in. He’s writing in early Post-Christian England and he’s trying to explain the history of the Church, the reason She’s done and thought the things she does.

He’s trying to explain the Gospel in a world where moral relativism and secularism is slowing chipping away at the way people view their world.

And he’s not trying to stop it, he’s trying to re-enchant us…by reminding us of just how enchanting the Jesus story has always been.

And then it dawned on me. This is a word that must be brought back to the Christian vocabulary. In a time when Conservative and Progressive are the easiest ink to write someone off with, orthodoxy reaches for a metaphor past politics. It reaches for the metaphor of the wisdom of the ages.

There was something so enchanting about reading Chesterton’s gospel-soaked view of the world. A world where sunrises happen not by some natural law, but by a joy filled God who says each morning “do it again!” There was something disarming about reading someone who doesn’t have an agenda for any of today’s controversies’, but has a whole new light to shed on all of them.

He writes about how the Church has always had to fight to define boundaries and a strong center, against ways of making the Gospel either too worldly or too other-worldly. She’s always working out ways to bring orthodoxy to bear on the day she’s in.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.

Which sounds like a hard claim to back up. Not a lot of people sign up for a lecture on Orthodoxy, but only because they don’t know what Chesterton does.

Christianity: the Lion Tamer

Joy brackets Jesus’s life on earth.

Lion-tamer1At the beginning of his life when Mary goes to Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaps for joy as a baby, and Mary sings, When Jesus has been raised from the dead, the Prodigal Peter sees him from a boat and leaps into the water for joy.

And this is orthodoxy…It is, in the words of Chesterton, “creating boundaries so that good things may run wild.”

Here’s how he describes it:

Let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious…Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs.

Did you catch that? The Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas…she was a lion tamer! But God and the Church went in anyway. The purpose of Orthodoxy, isn’t to restrict and bind, but for human happiness…not the trivial kinds of happiness that we think of today, but the deep seated kinds of ways we have to find our place in the universe and to find that our place is good.

We live in a time and place that values individual freedom above all, but freedom must not just be from something, it must be for something. And for that to happen we must find the limits of freedom and the purposes of the God who gave them to us.

This is the joy of Orthodoxy. It is finding the walls, so that God’s good things may run wild.

It was you who split open the sea by your power;
you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.

-Psalms 74

Pepperdine picture

I’m spending this week in Malibu. It’s a bit like Heaven, and not because of the view or the weather. I always love coming to the Pepperdine Lectureships, and this year has been exceptionally great. My friend Mike Cope has done a great job putting together a program of incredible people talking about things that are right in their wheelhouse. There’s lots of long meals with good friends and worship…that’s how it’s like Heaven.

But not because of the ocean. Because in Heaven there will be no more sea.

After all, that’s where the monsters are.

Monsters of the Deep

One of the more surprising themes in ancient Jewish mythology was the idea of Leviathan. The Monster of the Sea. Leviathan was kind of the Lock-Ness Monster of the ancient world. It was the sea monster of the ocean. In fact, when after the Old Testament character of Job loses everything, he curses the day he was born and invites others to do so as well:

May those who curse days curse that day,
those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.

It’s assumed that all the things that are happening to Job are somehow related to this sea monster. Which would totally have made sense to the Hebrew people reading this. God creates the world in Genesis by holding back the chaos of the sea.

And Leviathan was seen as the Monster of Chaos. As Job looks back over the life and loss he has just suffered the one word that would describe his emotional state and well-being is chaos. His world has been turned upside down and the Monsters seem to be winning.

So I think it’s interesting that when God shows up to comfort and give some perspective to the suffering Job, he mentions the Leviathan in his long list of job responsibilities that come with being God.

In fact all of Chapter 41 is God describing what the sea monster is.

Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
21 Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth.
22 Strength resides in its neck;
dismay goes before it.

Iron it treats like straw
and bronze like rotten wood.
28 Arrows do not make it flee;
slingstones are like chaff to it.
29 A club seems to it but a piece of straw;
it laughs at the rattling of the lance.

Nothing on earth is its equal—
a creature without fear.
34 It looks down on all that are haughty;
it is king over all that are proud.”

Does this sound like a Michael Bay movie waiting to happen or what?

But God’s point to Job isn’t how impressive the Leviathan is, His point is that the monster of chaos has been, or will be, subdued by God.

Ancient depiction of Leviathan

Ancient depiction of Leviathan

I know some days that’s hard to believe.

Easter-Time

So we are in a season of the church calendar called Easter-time. It’s the time of year where all God’s people celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead. But that’s not the whole point, the main point of Easter was who God raised from the dead. 

Jesus had been going all over having meals, throwing parties with all the wrong kinds of people. He had intentionally chosen the metaphor of a banquet to tell a story.

That sounds strange to most of us, we think of Christianity as a set of ideas that you believe in, or a way of looking at the world. But Jesus’ vision was of the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is not something that you just talk about. It was something that you ate.

C.S. Lewis once said that the Church doesn’t need better arguments, we need better metaphors. I think he’s right, and I think the banquet is the best one.

Apparently so did Jesus.

In throwing these kinds of parties, Jesus was tapping into something that every Jewish person would have been aware of. The idea of the Messianic banquet, a party that the prophets envisioned as being big enough for the whole world to belong to.

That’s what Jesus was doing…throwing parties and showing what God was like.

But, like Rick Warren, I want to know “what was Jesus eating?” The Gospel rarely tells us details like that, but when they do, we should pay attention.

Here’s how one scholar, Dennis Smith, talks about this:

[One} part of the messianic banquet tradition is the myth of Leviathan, one of the names given to the primordial sea monster representing the power of the sea, whose defeat in a cosmic battle is a constituent part of the combat motif in many ancient Near Eatern creation myths. In the Old Testmaent, the destruction of Leviathian by God represents God’s power over chaos. The idea that Leviathan is not only destroyed but also provided as food becomes a symbol for the provision of divine food for the righteous in the new age. The widespread fish symbolism that occurs in Jewish and Christian art as well as in the New Testament has been interpreted to signify fish as an eschatological food, an idea developed at least partially from the Leviathan myth.

My favorite chapter in the Bible, has got to be John 21. God has just raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus returns directly to the disciples who had just betrayed him a few days earlier.

They’ve gone back to their previous jobs and lost all hope. The only man who’d ever believed in them had been summarily executed on a Roman cross and there was nothing left for them to do but to despair.

But on this, the morning of the first Easter, Jesus walks up and reveals himself, by once again helping them catch fish. Peter jumps into the water (something that would have terrified the average Jew) and swims to Jesus.

The rest of the disciples catch up “dragging the net ashore. It was full of large fish”

Now John writes his Gospel the way Terrence Malick makes movies. It’s filled with symbolism and signs, darkness and light, monsters and fish.

And now John tells us that they ate fish for breakfast.

Just like the Messianic banquet they’d always dreamed about. Except this time it was no dream. Death had lost the battle. And Jesus eats pieces of fish for breakfast. The thing that has terrorized the world since the Fall, the monster, is just a meal.

Then Jesus tells Peter (who had jumped into the chaos because He had seen Jesus defeat it) to carry on doing the one thing that, in light of the resurrection, meant something totally new, yet had characterized Jesus’ entire ministry:

“Feed my sheep.”

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.

39a

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.