On February 6, 2014

Translation: Sitz Em Laben

The church has plenty of leaders who can tell us what the bible said. What we need are leaders who can tell us what the bible is saying.-Skye Jethani

Leadership with education

 

One of the things I love about living in Abilene is getting to work with college students who are wanting to preach. At Highland, we have a group of young people who are training to be preachers,  they volunteer in different ministries serving throughout the church, and a few times a year they each get to a chance to preach on Wednesday nights.

Most of them are studying the Bible in depth for the first time, and they want to share some of the cool new things they are learning about, and often after I hear them preach I ask them this question:

Are you trying to teach the Bible to people, or are you wanting to teach people the Bible?

I’ve learned there is a big difference between those two things.

I was taught the importance of this question by Rick Atchley. He’s one of my best friends and mentor, not to mention a great preacher. For several years I was his associate (to the) preacher, and the entire time I was working with him, I was also in grad school. And one day he told me this story.

When he first started as the preacher at Southern Hills he was just out of college, and one day while he was teaching a Ladies Bible Class he was trying to talk about context and why we have to pay attention to the Context that each book of the Bible was written in.

Then he turned around and wrote on the Chalkboard the words, “Sitz im Leben”

Which is so funny on so many levels.

Because that’s a German phrase that just means “Situation in Life” if you’ve ever gone through Seminary or Theological studies, you’ve probably heard the phrase a lot, but if you are a member of an Abilene quilting club you probably think it’s something you are supposed to say after someone sneezes.

It’s a phrase about taking context seriously, and Rick wrote it down unaware of the irony of him writing a German word in Abilene Texas to little old West Texas ladies.

Throwing Keys and Telling Stories

I grew up in a church where the only Bible that we used was the KJV. Which is a beautiful, poetic translation of the Scriptures that makes ever verb end with -eth. But I also grew up with a preacher who was a former missionary. He paid attention to whether or not we were paying attention, and Bro. Foy would bend over backwards to make the Bible engaging to a teenager who was working his hardest to feign disinterest.

If Bro. Foy was talking about the Keys to the Kingdom and we weren’t making eye contact, he would reach in his pocket and throw his keys at us (true story), or he would tell the craziest stories about that time that he was in jail in Germany, or when he got food poisoning in India, or about his mother catching him stealing when he was a boy. And then when we were leaning in closer, he’d tell us about Jesus.

Remember in the book of Acts, when Philip is caught up by the Spirit of God? He’s whisked away where he finds a neutered man from Ethiopia who is trying to read the book of Isaiah. It’s a very relatable story, obviously lots of us have been led by the Spirit to have a Bible study with a Eunuch.

But for those of us who haven’t had this happen yet, notice that Philip’s first question to him is, “Do you understand what it is you are reading?”

Which is a totally normal question to ask. Isaiah’s got cherubim’s and public nudity and warnings and symbols and suffering servants, and if you aren’t familiar with the story of the Bible, Isaiah can be pretty confusing, no matter what language you read it in. And that’s why the Ethopian man responds the way he does, “How can I unless someone helps me out?”

In other words, the task of any Christian trying to tell the story of God is to help bring the story to bear on the life of the person trying to understand it.

Latter Day Saints

Founding of the LDS

Founding of the LDS

I think it’s interesting to see what happens historically when we don’t do this well. Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in the early 1800′s in response to the question that everyone was asking but not many were answering. “What does this mean today?” No matter what you think about Mormonism, one of the genius’ of the movement was it’s ability to reach for the idea of “Continued Revelation.”

So Mormons have books like “Pearl of Great Price” and “Doctrines and Covenants” in addition to the Bible, but they also believe that if the Holy Spirit falls on someone they will be able to speak with the authority of Scripture. And the reason why is because in the words of Joseph Smith:

“God said, ‘Thou shalt not murder’ at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted–by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.”

Obviously, I disagree with Mormonism and their view of inspiration, but not with their view of why they did it. Joseph Smith was tapping into a deep tradition of bringing the story of God to bear on the times and places we find ourselves in. In fact, Smith created a new story, because Christians at the time, weren’t doing a good job of telling their story for their time.

Truth needs to speak in a language that is accessible, and if it’s not than it doesn’t matter how loud you shout it or how powerful it is.

Doest thou concur?

“We somehow think that the church is here for us, we forget that we are the church and we are here for the world.” -Erwin McManus

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A few weeks ago, I was giving a new friend a ride home. My friend is a new Christian who happens to be African American, who normally walks everywhere he goes, and has a life that is much different than mine. Which is why I asked him as many questions as possible about what life is like for him in Abilene. Then I asked a question that I learned to ask during my days of jail ministry.

I asked him what he thought about the police.

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book “David and Goliath” than you may recall a story in there about how a police chief in Harlem bought Christmas turkeys for entire “at-risk” neighborhoods. In his usual quirky and interesting way Gladwell weaves together several different stories that all came together at the end with a single point:

The problem, Gladwell says, with many of our social institutions today is that they are no longer seen as legitimate.

And this is the reason I asked my friend what he thought about the police. It’s not because I question the Abilene PD, I’ve gone on ride-alongs with them, I worship with several of our police officers and the Chief of Police is a friend of mine.

The reason I asked was because I wanted to know how he viewed the police. Did he think that they were good for the world or not? More specifically, did he think that they were good for his world?

The Church and the World

It’s been said that over the past hundred years the debate between liberal and conservative Christians has really been about trying to save the world (liberals) or save people from the world (conservatives). I think that’s a good way of framing this. Mainline Christians have tried to address all the social evil in the world, and Fundamentalist’s worked to address the individual evil that is in each one of us. Both of those things are really needed, but unfortunately we could never really work out how to care about both.

But if we are going to put an end to our bloody social media debates and our endless name calling we must learn to.

A question that I’ve heard a lot lately from people, and one I see in the public discourse for our culture wars and conversations about things from gay marriage to abortion is the unspoken question: “Is the Church really good for the world?”

Now, obviously I’m biased toward that question…actually biased isn’t a strong enough word.

I am very hopeful in the God of the Church. Even a cursory look at Christian history will show that the Jesus movement has blessed the world in a million ways. From our ideas of human rights, to women’s suffrage, to slavery abolition to way Americans work. All of this has been influenced and blessed and shaped by the Church.

But while our grandparents may have known that, this age does not. And since perception is reality, I think we have to begin answering the question again, “is the church good for the world…still?”

Common Good Jesus People

16231004_BG1Here’s what that means for our public conversations…Christians need to keep in mind that we are drinking from wells that we did not dig. The Irish monks who saved civilization, the Churches who started Universities and Hospitals and Leprosoriums and Shelters and Ministries to the Poor they did that as a way to serve God in their age. We need to keep reminding people of the Churches (tainted, but also very positive) history of what serving God for us has looked like.

But people don’t need just a history lesson, they need to see what serving God looks like for us today too.

Outside of the political debates, which I’m not advocating we entirely withdraw from, but that we keep in proportion to our other acts of service for God.

This is why Mother Theresea was able to say things about Abortion that people were able to hear. Who can argue with a saint? People disagreed with her, but they never doubted that she was good for the world, or that the God she believed in was good for the world.

It’s why at Highland, we talk about adoption ten times more than we mention abortion. We don’t have a Pro-life Sunday, if Sunday is when God raised Jesus from the dead than every Sunday means God is for life. The church I work at started Christian Homes because we believe that this is the best way to help life flourish.

I understand the push back here. Maybe you are thinking, “but we have to take a stand or fight for truth.”

That’s right. We do, when we have a platform do speak about things that are important to God for the sake of human flourishing we do.

Here’s my problem, we don’t have to fight for that platform. We have to earn it. 

And we do that by serving God who cares for the world.

The Church is a legitimate force for good in the world. I’d bet my life that you wouldn’t like the world if Jesus hadn’t been born. I have a front row seat to how God is using Christians to bless people all over my city and this country. I just wish that everyone could see what I see.

I see people serving all over the city to make it better. From the mayor to the nurses to the teachers and lawyers, restaurant owners and non-profit ministries of charity. I see people fighting sexual trafficking and adopting babies. I see them voluntarily entering jails to minister and mentoring fatherless children, or adopting refugee families.

I see people pouring their life out in service to God and their neighbor. But you see their Facebook status.

And if you didn’t see both, you’d have a legitimate complaint.

On January 23, 2014

Translation: Holier Than Thou

Leadership with education

One of the more interesting bits about Church history is how many people are killed by the Church and later made into saints. There are lots of people who the church made martyrs one day and heroes the next. But the really fascinating part is why they were killed by the Church. 

The Patron Saint of Translation

When Wiliam Tyndale was 34 years old, he was working on translating the first English translation of the Bible. He was a British preacher, and this probably sounds like exactly the kind of work you’d expect a British preacher to do. But it made him an outlaw.

Up until this time in history, the only Scripture were copies that were made in the original languages, or from St. Jerome’s Latin translation. But now William was working to make the Bible accessible to every man, woman and child, in the language that they spoke.

This sounds like a reasonable life’s goal, but it was going to be the death of him. Because we should never underestimate how revolutionary the idea of translating the Bible, really translating into the common language of the day, actually is.

When the Catholic Church found out about what Tyndale was trying to do, they immediately made him a wanted man. One of his Catholic friends tried to warn him off this foolish mission, and Tyndale said:

“If God will spare for many more years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to  know more of the Scripture than you do.”

Not a good way to keep you head attached to you body.

Eventually the Church began hunting William vigorously, If the FBI had been around, William Tyndale would have been at the top of the Most Wanted List, If there had been Post Offices back in his day, his picture would have been in every one. When William finally finished his translation, he couldn’t find a printer in all of Britian who would publish it. So eventually he had to take a ship to cross the Chanel, where he found someone to print it…almost.

When the printer found out the implications about what he was about to do, he turned William in, and Tyndale barely got out with his manuscript.  The Church was furious. They posted officers at every port, and police were searching from town to town. If William had cared about staying alive, this should have been the time he took a lesson out of Osama Bin Laden’s playbook.

But he cared more about printing this story than he did for his own life.

And ultimately it got him killed.

After only a few thousand copies were made, William Tyndale was arrested, and publicly beheaded, then his body was set on fire, just to show the world what happens to people who try to make God too accessible.

But…

william tyndale

William Tyndale

Today, William Tyndale is hailed as a saint. Dozens of schools and societies have risen up that bear his name. In the words of William Manchester, “You can’t kill a book, and that includes the Good Book.”

All Too Common

But why would people kill someone for this? Did you know that the very translation that Tyndale made, later was the basis for the King James Version? And in it’s day, the King James Version was just what the world needed. It was the story of God in the language of the people.

Before that, the translation that most people knew was Jerome’s Vulgate. But it was criticized in it’s day for being too common. That’s what Vulgar means, the language of the common folk.

Now here’s where things start getting relevant to our lives.  How many people do you know who insist that the King James Version is the “authorized and true” word of God, who won’t have anything to do with any version that was translated after people stopped being beheaded for not paying their taxes?

Now I respect the impulses here.

There is a certain reverence that we should try to approach God with, and the poetry of a more archaic language can sometimes help that. But tread carefully with this line of thinking, because Christianity is not a static faith.  This is one of the primary gifts the Protestants gave to the Church universal, one the Catholic Church began to catch up with in Vatican II.

In the Jesus story, there is an awareness that God is not too Holy to be involved in the everyday, commonness of human existence. In fact, that’s exactly what God enters into. This is why, over and against, other ways of relating to God, Christianity really is different.

It insists that the Jesus story must be translated into the common human experience.

This is why translations matter so much. Because the Gospel insists that we carry it deeper into the world. Holiness doesn’t dissipate when the story of God touches the vulgar, instead the vulgar is sanctified.

And if this sounds strange, ask yourself if it doesn’t sound a bit like the life of Jesus?

The Son of God was always hanging out with the wrong people, saying the wrong kinds of things in ways that everyone could understand. When God came in the flesh, he told stories about the everyday, because everyday matters.

There will always be religious people who grew up in a time and language that they are most adept at connecting to God through, and if we are not careful we can try to baptize how we say something, not just what we say. But the Jesus story invites us to take this message into every part of our mundane world and find words for it there.

There will always be people who push back on this. But beware of anyone who tries to make you holier than Jesus.

The Jesus story translates well, because it is a story of a God who translates.

In this story, Holiness isn’t just clean and stagnant.

In other words…Christianity is Holier than Thou.

On January 20, 2014

Civil Religion: Civil Fights

We risk engaging in idolatry, not only when we worship false gods but also when we set up false devils! God is not honored when we are unfair to people with whom we disagree” -G.K. Chesterton

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I posted this video (below) last year, but in light of what we’re talking through I wanted to show it again.

I think it exemplifies the heart of what I’m trying to get at with this blog series. I’ve been asking the question, Can a religion be civil, without being a civil religion? Can we hold convictions strongly but with kindness?

And I think that’s exactly what Dr. King does in this video.

The Dream on Tape


You’ll notice Dr. King is taking quite a bit of flack, he’s being asked some hard questions by some white reporters who seem to be feeling some anxiety associated with the spirit of that age (not to mention some poor fashion sense). And Dr. King never loses his calm, he never responds belittling or with anger.

Heck, he never even mentions that thing that the woman reporter is trying to pass off as a hat.

Now, a couple of observations here. For all the reporters logic, and sense, they seemed to be unaware that they were speaking squarely with the voice of the status quo. Their imaginations have been captured by the spirit of the age, and they could not see it.

It’s always a danger that when God sends a prophet people won’t be able to even consider the possibility that they could be wrong and he or she could be right. We build monuments and bridges for Dr. King today, but in his day, in the very circles that celebrate him now, he was about as popular as a turd in a punchbowl.

And I think that should help give all of us a bit more humility for how we talk to each other.

If we never let the question “Could we be wrong on this?” enter our mind, there’s a good chance we might persecute a prophet only so our grandchildren can celebrate their life. This kind of perspective can give us, what Randy Harris calls “epistemological humility.”

There is a real danger of not doing a fearless self-inventory when we hear someone who disagrees with us, or calls us to something beyond what we currently think.

The second thing that stands out about Dr. King in this video is how he treated these people, and how he responded to the face of some pretty insidious seeming questions. He was extremely civil. In our day, these kinds of conversations would have been filled with graphics, sound bytes taken out of context, and lots of yelling and red-faced name calling. It makes for some great entertainment and some horrible people.

But you probably don’t need me to tell you that do you?

If you’ve been around for any time, and you’ve been paying attention you’ve noticed that our culture has gotten less and less civil and our conversations have gotten more and more shrill and angry.

Imagination and Empathy

Dr. King’s life made such an impact in the world because he had the two things that the world is sorely missing right now. Imagination and empathy. He knew that the ends never justifies the means, because invariably the ends are tied up with the means. So if change is going to happen it cannot be brought about without changing how we fight for change.

This is why Dr. King’s dream was for more than justice, it was for reconciliation. And Dr. King knew what Christians today have seemingly forgotten. You can’t have one without the other.

I think Christians today have got to move past celebrating Martin Luther King, we’ve got learn something from his strategy.

The reason I’m doing this series, is because I think we have to be able to employ imagination and empathy about how we engage the culture about all the hot button topics of our day, from reproductive rights to gun control to our talk of war (or rumors of wars) on Christmas.

I have met people (most of whom I agree with) who are passionate about issues of the day. Often they are people pursuing justice in the world, they care about serving God, and have dedicated their lives to affecting some change in their pocket of the universe.

But I don’t want to be anything like them.

Because justice, by itself, can be quite ugly.

It can fail to recognize the humanity in the people that you are opposing, and our pursuits of justice often fail to force us to take an inventory of the brokenness in our own heart. In fact, it can be a way of hiding it.

Imagination and Empathy were the two things that fueled Dr. King’s dream.

It was a dream shaped by the Scriptures, and carried about a church that cared about the reconciliation of all people to one another, a dream about the reversal of the tower of Babel, about brothers who set down their stones and decide to enter the party. It was about people who finally realized, because they shared the breath of God, they weren’t that different after all.

And the Civil Rights movement became one of the greatest success stories for social change and Christian involvement toward creating shalom in the world because it recognized that If the end goal was to love each other, than the means couldn’t be different.

You can’t yell and out-argue someone into loving you.

You can’t force or legislate someone to recognize your humanity,

You can only sit down at a table and love them with the severity that cannot be discounted in the face of hard questions and silly hats.

On January 16, 2014

Translation: Dirty Bibles

So, [O Muhammad], We have only made Qur’an easy in the Arabic language that you may give good tidings thereby to the righteous and warn thereby a hostile people.-the Qur’an

“Next to the blessed Sacrament (Communion) itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If they are your Christian neighbor, they are holy in almost the same way, for in them Christ, glorified Himself, is truly hidden.” -C.S. Lewis

Leadership with education

When Leslie and I were in college, we got a chance to spend a few weeks in countries that were predominately Muslim like Turkey and Egypt. At one part of the trip, I had to go to the bathroom and I took my Bible with me. That’s all I’ll say about that, other than the fact that this shocked the people around me.

The bathroom attendant was especially surprised and asked something like, “Isn’t this a sacred book to you?”

For the last several months, I (along with a few others) have been studying the Gospel of Mark with some young Muslim men from West Africa. It’s been fascinating to read the Gospels with people who grew up in a culture much closer to Jesus’ world than the one I did.

But one of the interesting things about studying with them is trying to explain all the different Bible translations. Each week, it seems like everyone brings a different version of the Bible, we’ve got some NKJV, NIV, TNIV, NRSV and every other kind of acronym.

Which is a peculiarly Christian problem.

The Gospel According To…

Because that’s the nature of the Gospel.

I like the way Andy Crouch makes this point in his book “Culture Making”

Consider the four gospels of the Bible each one a cultural product designed to introduce the good news in a culturally relevant way. Matthew begins his Gospel this way: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…Mark, while just as aware of Jesus’ Jewish heritage, seems much more engaged with the cultural heritage of Rome. He begins with “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – the Greek word euangelion, here translated “good news “but commonly galled “Gospel” (making Mark the only Gospel writer to actually call his work a “gospel”) Luke meanwhile takes on the mantel of a Greek historian, beginning his stately and rhythmic account with the epistolary preface that Greek readers expected….John takes up the Jewish philosophical tradition of a thinker like Philo.

In other words, the original story tellers for Jesus told the story in the same way that Jesus lived His life.

They translated it.

Did you know you can’t buy an English Qur’an? You can only buy an English translation of the Qur’an. According to Muslim tradition, no matter how literal the translation is, it is not the same thing. Because the word of Allah came to Mohammed in Arabic, so in order to understand it fully, you must learn Arabic.

Now I’ve studied the original languages that the Bible was written in. There’s been lots of times that I’ve discovered something that I would have missed if I wouldn’t have known the original Greek , but just as often as not, I’ve learned as much from how the Gospel translates into other cultures.

Tablets Made of Skin

Which brings me back to the Bible study we’ve got and my Bible in the Bathroom.

Martin Luther...pictured not on toilet

Martin Luther…pictured not on toilet

Did you know that the Protestant Reformation started on the potty? I kid you not.

Martin Luther was wrestling with profound feelings of condemnation and was in the bathroom reading and medicating on Romans  (like you do) when it struck him that we really are saved by Grace through Faith. And he wrote about this experience as God’s salvation for Him.

Paul got saved on a road, Luther was on the commode.

One of the more intriguing things about most religions, is their great respect for the actual book. Not just the words that are in it, but the physical manuscript.

I once was at a Sikh worship service where their sacred text was resting on a pillow and being fanned while the community prayed and listened to a teaching….The Muslim tradition says that you should not touch an actual Qur’an (the one in the Arabic language) unless you’ve gone through a cleaning, and have put your faith in Allah as revealed by Mohammed. Jewish people used to insist on cleaning your hands and purifying your heart before reading Torah.

And all of these things are fine…but distinct from Christianity.

Because Christianity loves dirty Bibles.

It insists upon it.

The assumption the Gospel makes is that Holiness, because of Jesus, now works differently than any other religion. Translating the Gospel doesn’t pollute it, it enhances it. With every culture distinction and different perspective brought to bear on the Jesus story, we don’t dilute the story, we understand it even better.

There is a time in one of the parts of the Bible where Paul writes about the nature of the the message of the Bible. It’s not static and cut off from normal human existence, it actually sanctifies it.

Here’s what Paul tells his little church plant:

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

This is not to say the Bible shouldn’t be respected. It is a Sacred text, but it is to point out that the Bible wants to be a different kind of Sacred text. Not a book to be worshipped, but a story to be lived out.

This is what it means for the Word to become Flesh. The Bible enters into this world made of mud and dirt and blood and spit, in fact some of it’s best stories involve these things.

So by all means take your bible to the bathroom, Martin Luther did.

Because that’s sacred too.

On January 14, 2014

Civil Religion: Can We Talk?

“Love and trust, in the space that is in between what is said and what is heard in our lives, can make all the difference in the world.” -Mr. Rogers

“The only thing keeping many of our Churches together is their lack of communication.” -Randy Harris

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Against my better judgment, I’m doing a series about the way that Christians disagree with other people. I mentioned last week that this question I’ve had for years has been “Can a religion be civil, without becoming a civil religion?”But before we talk about disagreeing with other people. I think we should talk about how we disagree with ourselves.

Recently, on Reddit/Christianity, an atheist got on there and told them why he was done reading their particular sub-domain. They were very nice to him, but total jerks to each other.

Here’s what he said:

I wanted to let you know how it looks to the casual, non-believing observer who looks past the fact that you’re super-nice to non-believers, and wants to see how you actually treat each other. It tells me all I need to know, which is this: You’ll be super nice to me as long as you’re trying to recruit me, but once I join the club, I better fall in line or else…I honestly don’t care what kind of votes this post gets because I’m done with this subreddit. But I wanted you to know that people notice how you treat each other. And it’s the same in this subreddit as it is in real life: open hostility strictly because of different opinions WITHIN the ranks of Christianity.

Offending and Being Offended

Have you noticed how angry everybody seems to be these days?  Every group seems to feel and claim to be persecuted. Most groups I know define themselves against another group, and how that group has hurt them. I’d say if we want to continue to build on the angry culture we are creating, then we need to keep working to nurture the grievances we have.

But we must not use the word “love” to do so.

At least not if you are a Christian.

Almost every time I see or hear a Christian have a disagreement break out in public, it is peppered with words of “telling the truth in love.” Which is a great idea that comes from one of Paul’s letters, but it might do us well to remember Paul’s working definition of love. It’s a love that is patient and kind and works without envy and it is not easily offended.

I have a hunch that if Christians would just run our convictions through that lens, so much of the angry rhetoric on Facebook would dry up in a short time.

But here’s why it is so hard to be loving online.

Because short term, it works much better when you aren’t.

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Fight between monks at the Holy Sepulchre

From Tribes to Generosity

If you want to create a tribe, you need to be able to communicate clear distinctions between your group and the rest of the world and you need to be able to do in a passionate, compelling way. I think we’ve got this part down. The problem with creating tribes, is that eventually you have a world of tribalism. Where every things is carved up into ‘us and them.”

We say that our world is becoming post-denominational, but I’ve been sectarian before and I know what it looks like. Today we aren’t less sectarian, we are just drawing the lines in different ways. It’s now becoming carved up between personalities. Do you follow Rachel Held Evans or Mark Driscoll, Do you like Greg Boyd or John Piper?

Now to be sure, I agree with some people more than another, but no matter how much I disagree with another Christian, (even Pat Robertson or Joel Olsteen) I cannot and will not disavow them, and if I’m going to disagree with them publicly, I’d like to give them the most generous explanation.

This is the biggest challenges facing our world today, and it’s one that Christians have a unique gift to give the world.

Because think about the specific Christian story…the Gospel starts off with Jesus calling 12 radically different men to share life with. A zealot (someone concerned with moral purity) and a tax collector (someone the zealot couldn’t stand). And Jesus invited them all, not just to share life with Him, but to share life with each other.

And they did.

On our better days, we still do.

This Sunday, I looked around the Highland Church and saw people who disagreed on just about everything. I saw people who were pacifists passing communion to people who were in the Air Force, people who taught evolution took communion with people who were young earth creationist, I saw someone with AIDS give communion to an elderly married couple, a woman gave a brief communion talk to a church with plenty of people who think the Bible says she shouldn’t do that.

And they all managed to stay together to take communion at a shared table. Because when God came in the flesh that’s exactly the kind of table He created.

And before we talk about Christians going out into the broader world, I think it should start with us, with Christians being able to live together with other Christians. With cultivating the ability to listen to why people believe differently, no matter how much we disagree with it. It doesn’t start on Facebook, it starts with our “business meetings” and preachers and leaders disagreeing respectfully instead of building a brand on the back of each other. It starts with a deep commitment to Jesus and therefore His people.

When Leslie and I argue, we often find ourselves saying things that we don’t mean in the heat of the moment. But after a little bit of time, we will start to cool off and one of us will approach the other with a question that goes something like, “Can we talk?”

It’s an invitation, an admission that we’ve been going at this the wrong way. Blaming and pointing fingers isn’t going to get us where we want to be, so instead of seeing who can yell the loudest we need to re-establish a better conversation.

That’s what civility is, a commitment to keep the conversation going.

I think we should be curious about how other people see the world. I think we need to assume goodwill and generosity on the part of others, no matter how wrong we might thing they are. For the sake of having better conversations, and for the pursuit of truth, we have to be able to admit we don’t have it all, After all, if we want to be heard, we have to learn how to listen.

So what do you say, Can we talk?

On January 9, 2014

Translation: Drunk History

“In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word became Flesh…” -John 1

“I’m not talking altogether right, right now.” Drunk Historian describing the Kellogg brothers

Leadership with education

I’d like to start a blog series today, that will run for the next few weeks about the uniqueness of the Christian story and about the dangers that come along with it.

No other religion allows it’s story to be as flexible as the Jesus movement does. No other religion would give up so many of it’s essentials to on some level assimilate to whatever culture it is in.

And along with this comes all kinds of risk, but also great opportunity.

And so to talk about this we should  start with the show “Drunk History”…obviously

How to Pique Interest

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve told about Comedy Central’s show “Drunk History.” Not to recommend it. It’s often profane and obscene and funny. But I’ve told lots of people about it, people I respect, who I never want to watch the show, because I think it is, in its own way genius.

Here’s what they do. The show starts off with the heading:

“You should know that the events that are being described really did happen, and the details are accurate…It should be noted however that the storytellers are entirely drunk.”

And that’s the premise. They get a young P.H.D historian, they get them hammered, and then have them tell an interesting story from American history, like about how Ralph Nader was more than the guy who kept Gore from getting elected, or how Lincoln actually dealt with depression and faced multiple failures. They get a few well-known actors to lip-synch and act out exactly what they drunk historian is saying. And it is fascinating. Like watching a train wreck, but one where you learn about how the trains used to run on steam and coal.

And here’s the reason I’ve told so many people about this show.

I think it’s a great example of translation.

From the Daily Show and The Colbert Report to Drunk History, Comedy Central is raising up a whole generation of people to care about politics and history who would never have done so before. And they are doing it by asking this one simple question…how do we translate these ideas or stories in a way that will be interesting to the people who we are wanting to hear them?

The Message of Relevance

Let me quickly back up and say I’m not advocating for this in Churches. The last thing we need is “Drunk Theologians,” we probably have too much of that already. We don’t need to copy that format, as Christians we are called to be different than the culture around us, but we are also called to engage it. I’m not advocating we copy what Comedy Central is doing, but I do think we have to pay attention to why they are doing it.

Pastor Eugene was teaching his Sunday morning Bible class just the way he always did. They had been going through the book of Galatians for a couple of weeks, and Eugene was pouring on about how Paul was changing the entire course of history with this bold and saucy letter he was writing to the Churches of Galatia. He was so caught up in the risks that this brash apostle was taking as he shared the Jesus story with a world that didn’t believe in One True God. But when he looked up he noticed:

“It was just awful. They’d fill up their coffee cups and stir in sugar and cream and look at their cups and they weren’t getting it. It was just really bad. I went home after the third week and said to my wife that I was going to teach them Greek. If they could read it in Greek they would get it, they’d understand what a revolutionary text it is and couldn’t just keep living in their ruts. She agreed that would empty the class out fast.”

So Eugene Peterson decided if he couldn’t teach everyone Greek, he’d translate it in a way that they’d understand it.

And after millions of copies of the Message Bible have been sold, it turns out that Eugene Peterson was on to something.

He wrote the Message to be relevant, because he believed that part of the Message was to be relevant. 

I can’t tell you how often I think about this. I’m constantly wondering how to translate an ancient story for today. Can it be done? Does it water it down? Does it have to feel antique to still be ancient? Or can the stories and ideas and life of the Scriptures come alive right now in everyday language and in everyday ways? Can we meet people by answering the questions they are asking, in a language and style that they are familiar with?

Or is it all part and parcel? If you are a Christian do you have to speak Christianese, or does Christianity press itself into every one of the mundane part of our life and make it all holy?

So that’s what I’d like to talk about on Thursdays for the next few weeks. And to be clear these really are questions I’m asking, not absolute statements wearing the camouflage of a question mark. So I’m hoping you’ll weigh in with suggestions and ideas or stories about how this has worked in your life.

I’m really wondering how to translate the Gospel and Church and faith and hope in ways that are engaging without losing the heart of the Gospel.

Which is of course the Word that became Flesh…the best translation of all.

Up Next Week: What I learned from doing a Bible Study with a Muslim Friend

“In a pluralistic society, religions will be judged by the way they treat those who do not adhere to them.” -Dallas Willard

“Can’t we all just get along?” -Rodney King

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I’ve had a question rumbling through my mind for the past few years. It’s haunted me when I watch television, or prayed at public events, every few months the volume gets raised on this question, because it seems the whole world is asking it…even if they don’t know it.

The question is just this: Is it possible for the Christian religion to be civil without it becoming a civil religion?

Let me explain.

God and State

In England, the Anglican Church has all the pomp and circumstance of being the Religion of the State, but England also boasts about 6% church attendance. In other words, the church now looks over the laws of the country, but is more and more ostracized from the people who abide by them. Church and State

I’ve talked before about how, when the genocide happened in Rwanda, over 90% of the people in that country were professing Christians.

Elie Wiesel said that Christianity did not come true during Aushwitz. He said that as a holocaust survivor who knew that over 20% of the Nazi SS officers were professing Christians. The problem with civil Christianity is that Christianity is never going to be a tool that any government can use to baptize their agenda (though many try and do). That is the definition of civil religion. To be better at professing a religion than practicing it.

I’m not for a civil religion, but I do want the people of God to be civil. And judging from the interviews of the people on the outside, or who have walked away from church, we aren’t doing a very good job.

91% of them think we are Homophobic. 85% of them think Christians are hypocrites, and Google apparently gets a lot of questions about why we are that way. I think I have an idea.

I’ve grown up in church, around church people, I love us, I am us. Heck, I’m the preacher at a pretty good sized church. I’m now the man that people try to stick it to. So I”m writing this series from a very inside place, and I’m writing because I have a hunch about us that is growing every day. Here it is:

We’re passionate about the things in a way that is disproportion to how important they are to God.

St. Augustine used the phrase “disordered love” to talk about the sin of idolatry. I think that’s apt. It’s not that the things we care about aren’t important, it’s that we don’t care about things in the order of their importance.

Convictions With Civility

Marin Marty is a Lutheran pastor (with a fun name) who once made the observation that the people who care the most about civility tend to be people with little conviction, and those who have the most conviction seem to have little care for civility. I think that’s a shame.

Somewhere along the way, we bought into the idea that if someone was going to be civil, they couldn’t really believe anything, not with conviction anyway. And that’s a shame, because, and I can’t speak for other religions as clearly, but the highest act of worship for a Christian is to love (really love, not just talking point kind of love) the person right in front of them.

In fact, Jesus wouldn’t separate the command for us to love God from the command for us to treat our neighbor as ourselves.

Last month, when the Duck Dynsaty-Gate was happening, there were lots of things going through my mind…and through my Facebook feed, but the one thing that I kept coming back to was this Snapshot of Google and all the questions it represented. “Why are Christians so….”

I hate that picture.

I wish that at least one of Google’s recommendations had been Why are Christians so kind? or Why are Christian so Generous? but that’s not Google’s fault. It is after all just an aggregate of the questions that they are being asked. If we want Google to have a different picture than we better start working on it.

So that’s what I’d like to do here. With my little slice of the internet, I want to try and take on some of the things we’ve been talking about, not to solve the issues behind them, but to talk about how we talk about them. 

I want to talk about how to engage our neighbors when things like Duck Dynasty happens, and how to talk during election seasons, and how to talk about abortion and immigration and war.

I want to talk about how to disagree with our neighbors with conviction, and with kindness.

This is not some kind of apologetic for the word-police, or a gag order on saying what we really believe. It is to take seriously a Scripture that starts with a God who makes the world with words. Or to take the letters of Paul seriously, letters where he repeatedly emphasizes things like, “Let your words be filled with grace and seasoned with salt.” or “Pursue peace with everyone, as far as it depends on you.” or the letter where Peter told Christians when they talked about their faith to do it with “Gentleness and reverence.”

And if that doesn’t do it for you, than consider that one Guy who said, “Blessed are the Peacemakers” You know the guy I’m talking about, the one who was so good with words and stories and people. Everyone seemed to love Him.

But when he finally got cornered by the powers that be, He didn’t say a word.

This of course is Jesus.

And I dream of a day when people ask Google Why are Christians so much like Him.

On December 30, 2013

May I Recommend from 2013

Playing God pictureBook pictureAs 2013 comes to an end and I think back over the past twelve months, I wanted to share with you some of the best books I read from this past year.

One of the things that I love about my job is how the Church gives me time to study and prepare. It’s a real blessing, I get paid to go off every year to pray and study (or maybe they just want me to get out of their hair) But I know it’s not just to write sermons, it’s to equip the priesthood of all believers for ministry, and  when people ask me if there are any books I recommend I want to be as helpful as possible.

So for those of us who are looking for new reads in 2014, here are some of my favorite resources from this year (in no particular order):

Playing God by Andy Crouch. I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. The Christian relationship to power is always strained, but we use power all the time, and we’re not always conscious about how the Jesus story should inform what we do in leadership, serving and how we think about institustions. Crouch is one of my favorite writers, and this book is one of my favorites of the year.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes I think this book is one of the most helpful ones I read this year for Bible readers, teachers or preachers. The authors grew up in the Bible Belt, and then served as missionaries on the other side of the world. This book does the one thing that most of us who have grown up in Church and with reading the Bible need, it makes the familiar strange again.

Disunity in Christ by Christina Cleveland This book is painful in many parts as a reminder that our Churches, by and large are the most segregated places in the country. And not just in regard to race or socio-economics either. We carve the world up into such narrow categories, that we actually never have to worship with and serve along side people with disagree with. Cleveland’s question is, “Can we really call that church?”  It’s written with a hopeful and helpful tone. It’s a great resource to remember what it really means to be the church, and why every church should care about it.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller. I’m not a Calvinist and I don’t like Systematic Theologies, but I really appreciated this book. Keller is one of my favorite writers and preachers because he is so good at reading his context, and here he’s on point. The first part of his book, he reframes the whole question about the secular approach to suffering, and I think it’s brilliant. Then the last third of the book is very helpful on a pastoral level. So much of ministering to people feels like trying to disarm a bomb. You are always wondering about which wire to cut, Keller acknowledges this and points out why some people find the Calvinist views of God comforting in their suffering, and others don’t, and gives some practical advice on how to walk with people in their suffering.

The God of Old by James Kugel. If you want to believe in Jesus you should read your Bible, if you want to believe like Jesus did this is a good book. It’s a window into how people in ancient times thought of God and the stories they told about Him.

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. I want to carefully recommend this book, because it is not for everybody. I want to call Spufford irreverent, but that’s not right, he’s obscenely reverent. An atheist turned Christian, Spufford is writing to post-Christian England, and he speaks their language. If you are easily offended, skip on down to the next one. If you wrestle with faith, or are wanting to have better conversations with your friends who don’t believe in God, check this book out. Spufford is a word-surgeon and his description of the human condition is profound. unapologetic

Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley If you are an opinion leader/teacher/minister/preacher of a local church read this book. Written in an incredibly honest and vulnerable way. If you care about Churches being hospitable, welcoming places, this book helps you ask better questions about why we sometimes aren’t, and what we can do about it.

Loves God, Likes Girls by Sally Gary. Sally is a friend of mine, but I think this was one of the better memoirs I’ve read. She’s a member of the Churches of Christ who deals with same-sex attraction. She leads a ministry called CenterPeace that helps Churches create safe places for people who are wrestling with their sexuality (which really should mean all of us) In a world where we like to talk past each other throw truth bombs at one another, Sally story and ministry helps build bridges and create kinder and more loving Churches.  Earlier this year, I reviewed this book, but still want to recommend it now.

When Donkey’s Talk by Tyler Blanski. This guy has got a Masters in Medieval Church History and paints houses for a living. He writes about wizards and saints and witches and why the medieval world might make more sense than today. I love the way he writes and the tone of this book, Blanksi gave me language about how God’s world is enchanted.  This book wasn’t as good as his first one, Mud and Poetry, but still a great read.

The Crowd, the Critic and the Muse by Michael Gungor. Fans of the band Gungor may have already read this, but it’s one of the surprise books of the year for me. If you are an artist, musician or creative of any type get this book. His story about a one man band named Emo-tron is worth the price of the book.

Prototype by Jonathan Martin. Martin is the son of a Pentecostal preacher,  who became a Pentecostal Pastor himself, and then went to the Duke School of Divinity. He’s a Pentecostal mystic who loves Thomas Merton. He also planted a church called Renovatus: a Church for liars, dreamers and misfits. If he can name a church, just imagine what he can do with a book. It’s a memoir/testimony/theology book of sorts. But it’s really all about Jesus and ways Martin has seen God moving in the world.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs has always fascinated me, and this book was a great portrait of one of the most enigmatic and influential and bizarre people the world has seen. If you read this one, be sure to go back and read Playing God…they go well together.  As does this next one…

The World is Not Ours to Save by Tyler Wigg Stevenson. Only a guy with a dream as big as “Getting rid of Nuclear weapons” could write a book quite like this. For all the non-profit leaders, ministry deacons and people who want make the world a better place, this is a good book to help temper our Messiah complex, and keep us serving for the right reasons. Plus there’s an awesome story about how Patch Adams starting a parade of naked people through San Francisco.

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. If you’ve read Gladwell’s earlier stuff, you won’t be surprised…or let down. Writing this book actually led Gladwell back to being a person of faith. It’s impressive, and if you teach or preach, it’s fill with great stories that are immediately applicapble.

What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell. I think this is one of Bell’s better books, especially for the conversations I’m hearing these days. For all the grief Bell gets and gives, he is answering the questions that I think people who won’t go to Church are actually asking. I recommend this book often for parents who have kids who have started to question their faith. It won’t stop our questions, but it will get us to ask better ones, and be skeptical of our skepticism.

So those are my top reads from 2013, What did I miss? Any suggestions for 2014?

Christmas 2013 Movie

So this is what we’ve been doing for the past several days. The company says that it takes 2 “moderately skilled” workers 20 hours. It took 7 of us 36 hours. (We felt like we were being insulted by an instruction manual)

I feel a bit like that kid in the new Apple commercial who spent Christmas making a video, but this was one of the most fun presents Leslie and I have ever been able to give. And it takes a village…literally. Almost our whole street that got involved in building this.

It’s hard to believe that one year ago, Hannah was born, it was a joy, and a bit confusing, celebrating everything today, but we are so thankful that we have so much to celebrate.

We’ve never been good at planning enough to send out Christmas Cards to all the people who have blessed our lives. And honestly, we’ve been so lucky with friends we can’t afford the stamps. But here’s a way of saying thank you to all of our friends and family.

Whatever your Christmas looks like, or whoever you built something for, from our family to yours,

Merry Christmas!