Archives For Christianity

RacismThis past Wednesday night Churches all over Abilene held a prayer vigil for our Christian brothers and sisters in Charleston, trying to stand in solidarity with a people who were hurting and remind ourselves that, in the words of the Apostle Paul “When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer along with it.”

It was a great evening filled with preachers/elders and pastors from several different churches singing hymns and praying for our city, churches, country and even Dylan Roof, the perpetrator of these evil acts.

For my part of the evening, I stood up to a crowd of racially diverse people and said the most counter-intuitive, most terrifying thing I could think to say.

I told them I was a racist.

Racism and Me

Whenever racism becomes a topic of media coverage, I cringe. It seems like the talking points are already solidified and many of us rush toward postures of defense and blame.

So let me get this out there. I am a racist.

I grew up in rural Arkansas in the 80s, not that it was my parents’ fault, they were incredibly hospitable and open to other people, not that it was my state’s fault, there were plenty of people who were doing lots of good work for reconciliation, but racism was in the air.

I grew up with the flag that everyone is talking about hanging on my wall.

As a tangent, I like the way that the conservative Southern Baptist Convention president Russell Moore talked about this,

“The Cross and the Confederate flag can co-exist for only so long before one of them sets the other on fire.”

That was true in my own life.

And I’m so grateful that the Cross won that battle.7595927876_56f66e7446_o

I grew up in a church of ten people. Most people would call that a small group, but it was my entire church, and I love the people from that church.

When I went to college, I would come back a few times a year to preach, and I would try to bring some friends with me to encourage my church family. One of those Sundays we had brought about forty people with us, and right before it was time for me to preach, Brother Foy, the patriarch of the church, stood up to introduce me.

This is funny in itself, because I was the only person there who knew everyone. This was the church I grew up in, and these were my friends who came home with me. But tradition is tradition, and if someone other than Foy was preaching, he was going to say something.

So Foy stood up and the first words out of his mouth were, “I can’t help but notice that all of our guests are white.”  Immediately I was worried about where this was going, because Foy was crazy. He was crazy for Jesus, but he was crazy. If he felt like something was true, he would say it without regard for how you felt about it, and I could tell this was about to be one of those occasions.

“We have forty extra people with us this morning, and every one of them is a white person.” Then Foy pointed at the African-American teenage boy sitting on the second row and said, “I brought an African-American this morning. Why didn’t you?” (Obviously, political correctness was not Foy’s strong suit.)

“Now Brother Jonathan, come preach the word to us.”

Then I had to stand up and preach to a group of people who were just made to feel like they just stumbled in from their Klan meeting.

But to be honest, looking back, I’m glad Brother Foy asked that question. I wish all our churches had someone asking questions like that.

Whenever I get frustrated with church, this is the story that brings me back. It is a story that reminds me of why I need the church, even when I don’t want her…maybe especially when I don’t want her.

Elegant Racism

In his great little book, I Told Me So Gregg A. Ten Elshof talks about the pervasive nature of self-deception. This book is about how intelligent, self-reflective people often lie to themselves, oblivious that they are doing so.

Then Elshof says this:

We assume that each person is the unquestionable authority on the question of which beliefs he or she has.

In other words, none of us really knows clearly what we believe.

That is the nature of self-deceit. We need each other to help us see the blind spots we have. I think this is the reason that we Christians aren’t able to move very well on issues of race.

We have made this into the unforgivable, and therefore an un-confessable sin, and when the topic rears its ugly head we rush to prove how innocent we are, we scapegoat public figures and point out our own “squeaky clean” record instead of asking the dangerous but Gospel-bringing question…”Where is this in me?”

We are often guilty of what last year, an article in the Atlantic calls, “Elegant Racism” the kind or racism that has learned to be polite about its indifference. But the Gospel can help us here. Because when we are aware of the love of God we are able to be suspicious of our own virtues.

The well-known Social Psychologist Brene Brown points out that shame’s survival depends on not being able to talk about it. We’ve done that with racism. Everyone is so afraid to be “that person” who says or does something stupid and offensive that we just remain silent.

We clam up and ignore the sin we see right in front of us, and in the mirror. And sure it might be a bit racist, but at least it’s a more elegant form of it.

I believe that when churches don’t allow or create spaces to openly confess and receive forgiveness for sins like this, is dangerously close to believing that racism is a sin stronger than the Grace of God.

And that is a lie.

My generation quotes the verse “Do not judge” often. But the point of that verse isn’t that Christians can’t call each other out, the point is that we call each other out cautiously…confront others the way you would like to be confronted, and make sure that you have dealt with the beam in your own eye first.

Around thirty years earlier, when Foy had already been a Christian for a decade or two, he also became convicted that he was a racist. And for Foy that was unacceptable. So he moved to a predominately African-American town and spent the rest of his career teaching at a predominately African-American school.

He lived out the word repentance, and now he could call others to it as well.

He often took me and other young people to African-American churches, just so we could rub shoulders with people we weren’t familiar with, and help us to see how much we had in common.

From the time when I met Foy, he had African-Americans (and people from several different ethnicities) living in his house with him. He was Shane Claiborne before it was cool. And from the time I was a kid we were a racially integrated church in a racially segregated world.

I am a racist, I have prejudices and discriminations that I’m not proud of. But praise God that the church helped me know it, she taught me that it was wrong, and showed me how to repent.

I am a racist, but I don’t want to be, I don’t have to be, anymore.

This blog is a re-purposed version of something that I originally posted on Patheos

It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

– Martin Luther King Jr. 

Photo from Miami Herald

Photo from Miami Herald

On the night before he was assassinated, Dr. King stood up and preached the Gospel.

It might sound strange to Americans living in 2015 that Dr. King didn’t see himself first as a catalyst for political change, but that he thought talking about Jesus and the Kingdom of God was his highest calling.

In his own words:

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.”

Dr. King knows what many Christians today have forgotten. The Gospel is the best news the world has ever heard, and the reason someone like Dr. King would devote himself to achieving excellence in Christian ministry is because he knows the Church isn’t just supposed to tell good news, She’s supposed to be good news.

And last week, in the middle of all the tragic, bad news, She was again.

Bullet Proof

Last Wednesday night Dylann Roof walked into the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in

Roof entering the Church

Roof entering the Church

Charleston and murdered 9 devoted disciples of Jesus in cold blood. Roof would later say he was hoping to make a symbolic statement to spread his hate, and bring division. He wanted to start a race war.

In many ways, Roof got what he wanted, but he has no idea how foolish his actions were.

Roof gave the world a symbol, but not the one he was hoping for. He started a war, but not the one he was expecting.

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

In the Bible, war isn’t murdering people, according to the New Testament God’s kind of war operates at a level of attack on the principalities and powers of our world.

Reverend Goff, a pastor at Emmanuel Church, said that by how the Christians respond to these evil acts will “serve as a witness to every demon in Hell and on earth,” I think he’s exactly right.

For the past few days, every news source has been flooded with stories of family members going to Dylann Roof’s arraignment and confronting him by saying the most radical things, things like “We forgive you”

That’s a holy war according to Jesus.

That’s the war that Dylann Roof started and lost.

In the words of the Charleston Mayor:

“This hateful person came to this community with some crazy idea that he would be able to divide, And all he did was make us more united, and love each other even more.”

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the Church shines in moments like these. This is when we put the Gospel on display. And so the Emmanuel Church  re-opened it doors on Sunday with both tears and laughter. They began their service with a standing ovation as the pastor read “This is the day the LORD has made let us Rejoice and be glad in it.’

They clapped and celebrated as a way of protest in the face of death… because that’s what Jesus people do.

A Baptized People

On the night before he was assassinated, Dr King said that the one mistake Bull Conner made when he released the water hoses on those unarmed church members marching in Selma was that he forgot that he was spraying people who had been baptized.

“We were people who weren’t afraid of water, because we know water is something you pass through…we know that there is a certain kind of fire that no water hoses can put out.”

There is a certain kind of love, a Gospel kind of love, that no hate can put out. There is a certain kind of person who you just can’t kill, because they’ve already died. There is a certain kind of community that you can’t divide with a race war because they belong to a New Humanity.

And on some days we forget that, to be sure there are days that the Church forgets the Gospel.

But not today and not now.

Today we are reminded that we are a baptized people, and so there is neither Jew nor Gentile, Slave or free, Male or Female, Black or White, Southern or Northern, we are all a part of the body of Christ.

And when one part of the body is hurting, we all hurt with them.

You know what I find so inspiring about all this? Last Wednesday night, when these Christians were gunned down, they had gathered around to study Mark 4:16-20, the parable of the Sower. The story where Jesus talks about the God the Farmer, who generously is planting seeds everywhere.

And some of those seeds fall on concrete, some of them fall on shallow soil, and some of them fall on ground that produces a harvest of 30, or 60, or 100 times.

The Garden of Flowers Outside the Church (courtesy of Ron Allen)

The Garden of Flowers Outside the Church (courtesy of Ron Allen)

I wonder if as these faithful Christians were dying, if it crossed their mind  how much they were acting like the God they had just read about?

I wonder if they realized that by inviting this disturbed young man into their fellowship and praying and spending time with him they were being exactly what Jesus pictures God like…throwing seed carelessly even on the concrete, even in places that look hopeless.

I wonder if as these faithful Christians were dying, if it crossed their mind that they were the seed? That what Satan would use for evil, God was going to use for good.

I wonder if they had any idea that people all over the world were going to revisit the Gospel because of them. I wonder if they had any idea how many people would be blessed by their faithful lives, and deaths?

I wonder if they knew that their blood, like the martyr’s before them would be once again the seed of Christianity.

I wonder if they knew that in the very place where evil would do it’s worst to them, hope would begin it’s good work.

I have no idea how God is going to use the tragic events of last week, but I don’t doubt that He will, I believe He is already using them.

I believe wholeheartedly that God calls us to be people who are not overcome with evil, but who overcome evil with good.

I mourn the victims of evil attack. but I don’t pity them. I greatly admire them. They followed a man who called them to pick up a Cross and they followed Him well.

So this Wednesday night, at the Highland Church of Christ, we, along with the Southern Hills Church of Christ and several other churches in town are hosting a city wide prayer meeting for the Christian brothers and sisters who have suffered loss in Charleston.

We will be praying for the exact opposite of what Dylann Roof was trying to accomplish. We will pray for God to bring racial reconciliation to the world, specifically by bringing it to His Church. We will be praying for the Church to live out the Gospel and to be the good news in the world and for the world.

If you are in Abilene, we invite to join with us, on Wednesday from 7:30-8:30 (the time of the attack last week) as we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters across this city, country and world.

Because their story is our story. And it’s a good story.

“Busy is a drug that a lot of people are addicted to.” -Rob Bell

“The only really happy people are those who have learned how to serve others.” -Albert Schweitzer

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I get it. You’re busy. You probably don’t have time to read this, much less give a few hours a week to the homeless ministry at your local church. Life is speeding by, you’ve got deadlines and mouths to feed, and between your job and family and kids sports leagues there’s just not enough hours in the day.

If that describes you, I’d like to invite you to reconsider for just a moment something crucial.

What if our hectic lives aren’t a product of a lack of time but a lack of wisdom?

Last year, one of the most disturbing things I heard about was the increasingly popularity of a bedtime storybook for children, each story was carefully selected based on one specific criteria.

That it could be read to children in under a minute.

The 1 minute bedtime story book, is a real thing, that parents actually use. As a parent of 4, I get it, there are some nights when you’re tired and ready to be done. But as a minister, I see the other side of this. I can’t tell you how many people I know who would pay any amount of money just to go back and read their child another bedtime story.

I think that telling people “I’m so busy” is our culture’s new, acceptable way of saying “I’m important.” It’s socially unacceptable to be seen as someone who’s not constantly moving, But this constant way of life is destructive to your soul.

So today, I’d like to write to the busy people. The ones who couldn’t possibly cram something else into their life, and give you my best shot at giving a few reasons why something as simple as volunteering at your local church is more important than almost anything else you can do.

1. You aren’t that Important

I think one of the great symptoms of a bad relationship with time is that we take ourselves too seriously. We are tempted to think that we are going to change the world, that if things are going to change, if the world is going to get better, than it’s up to us.

And in the process we lose the joy of just receiving life as a gift.

I honestly have this conversation with my peers a few times a month, and it tends to be with my successful friends who are in the same season of life as me. We grew up on a diet of self-esteem and being told that we were a cause-driven generation that was going to put a dent in the universe.

We believed the hype and it’s killing us.

So I’ll often ask my friends, “What did your great-grandfather do for a living?” If you don’t know the answer to that, chances are neither will your great grandkids. You’re not as important as your cable television leads you to believe. And one of the best places you can learn that is by serving alongside people who don’t buy your hype, because they are recovering from believing their own.

I’ve seen this time and time again, the great antidote for loneliness in the church is serving alongside brothers and sisters for a common goal. And the great antidote for an overstuffed schedule is getting outside of ourselves and realizing how much of what we do isn’t as important as fool ourselves into believing.

2. Your Time Isn’t Your Time

Have you ever considered just how delicate life is? No matter how stacked your resume is, or how successful you are in your field, you’re not even in control of your own pulse.

One of the most repeated commandments in the entire Bible is “Remember The Sabbath” and it’s telling to me that most Christians never really talk about this. Chances are If you’ve heard a sermon on the Sabbath in the past year it was probably how Jesus was against it.

But that’s not true, Jesus was never against the Sabbath, he practiced it! He just didn’t idolize it.

Just like any good Jewish Rabbi, Jesus would have gone to the Synagogue every Saturday and rested to Remember that God was in control of the Universe.

When the earliest Christians began to realize that Jesus was God, they didn’t abandon the Sabbath, they just changed the day they celebrated it on. Because of the Resurrection, early Christians began to honor the first day of the week as Holy. This was the day of the week that was set aside for God  (Some of you may remember an earlier time when shops and restaurants were closed on Sunday’s)

The problem Western people have these days is exactly what you’d expect from generations raised on a philosophy of Henry Ford and the neglect of a day of rest.

We’re always busy, and we’ve forgotten that this is a vice and not a virtue.

3. It Helps Clarify What’s Important (and what’s not)

A few years ago, I stumbled across a haunting question that I started asking myself a few times a year. It’s a life changing question if you take it seriously. ‘

The question is simply this:

 “Do my commitments match my convictions?”

John Ortberg points out that most of us worry over the big decisions…like who we will marry, or what our vocations will be, or where we should live.  But it’s the routine that drive our lives. It’s those habits we develop that look so small at first, but add up over time. And if we don’t pay attention to them, we don’t notice the gap that is slowly growing between what we say matters most to us and with what we are actually doing with our actual lives.

The Bible talks about sacrifice in terms of first fruits, or giving the best to God first, not just giving God what happens to be left over after you’ve watched everything Netflix has to offer, or put in your 70 hours at the office, or taken the kids to their 10 different team practices.

The problem is that we are over-committed. We make commitments without thinking about their hidden costs. Sometimes we buy a house because it’s bigger without thinking about all the hours away from family the extra hours of work will cost. Or we start another hobby even though it means that we won’t be as regular in a ministry God called us to.Unknown-1

And those might be the right decisions, but God wants you to pay attention to them.

Because we should never underestimate the power of routine.

Routine commitments look mundane, but they have great power to shape our life and the life of those around us.

If you are already living out the mission of God in your life, than maybe you don’t need to volunteer at your local church. I’m certainly not suggesting that we take away time of serving in a soup kitchen or shelter, but I don’t think that’s most of our struggle.

I think the problem most of us have is that we don’t honestly audit our time.

Pastor Bill Hybels says that the most holy thing we can do is sit down with our calendar and a submissive spirit before God. I think he’s right.

Because some of us have unspoken commitments like watching TV, and while we’d rarely say this, what we are telling our hearts and our kids hearts is something like “I’m deeply committed to entertainment and escaping reality.”

I’ve been in ministry long enough to see the dark side of routine. I’ve sat on the couches and cried with people who wish they would’ve paid attention to this decades ago, before their kids checked out of church or stopped believing in God or before a spouse left the marriage.

It wasn’t bad parenting or an affair or anything malicious, it was just the slow erosion of a gap between what we say is important and how we fill our lives.

4. Your Time Is Your Testimony

I love my family too much to love my family too much. Leslie and I have intentionally made decisions to not let our world orbit entirely around our kids.

When I go guest preach at other churches, I take one of my kids with me, not just for the travel but for my kids to know what matters, what really matters, not something that’s just a job, but how to live.

We go to church when we are on vacation, not because God’s gonna zap us if we miss a Sunday, but because we know that our kids are not listening to what we say as much as they are learning from what we do…and just as importantly choose not to do.

Now, I’m not trying to present myself as the perfect parent (I recently stormed out of a room on account of losing a game of Go-Fish), and this post is not for those of us who are over-involved at church. The last thing you need is to feel guilty because you only volunteer 20 hours a week. But it is a post for everyone who belongs to a church.

Because Church is not done by the professionals. It’s not done by ministers, it’s not done primarily by elders, it’s done by the people. If something is going to happen, if a church is going to bless a city, or the world, it doesn’t primarily depend on any one person. Every church rises and falls, the vision and mission of every church rises and falls, on the people who are willing to give a little of their time to serve in ordinary ways and be a part of something extraordinary.

One of the great joys of my life as a preacher is watch God transform people’s lives. I get a front row seat to things like marriages being restored, natural enemies becoming friends, fractured relationships being reconciled and people waking up to a real, meaningful, awe-filled life.

And the majority of times that this happens, it has had little to do with the sermon or the programming. People might credit those things, and to be sure, I know God uses it, but the biggest thing that I’ve seen transform people’s lives time and time again is the power of serving others for a cause bigger than yourself.

And if you are too busy for that, chances are you’re just too busy.

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A few years ago, I saw one of the funniest and disturbing things on the internet. Someone had put together a collection of different reviews of all the wonders of the world, places like the Grand Canyon, the Pyramids of Egypt, and Niagara Falls, and the reviews all had one thing in common.

They were all written by people who gave these majestic wonders only 1 star.

As in 1 out of 5 stars.

Go look at some of these reviews People left 1 star reviews for the Pyramids complaining about being inconvenienced by not being able to leave out the same gate, someone referred to Stonehenge as “just a pile of rocks” and someone gave Sequoia National Park a 1 star review because, and I quote “I lost my keys in the restroom and nobody helped me out.”

These are people who are standing in front of some of the most mysterious breathtaking wonders that we know about. They are standing in front of things that when people first discovered them they were speechless. Imagine the first time a Native American stumbled across the Grand Canyon, imagine the amount of wonder and awe that they would’ve had.

But in 2009, one Brad M. saw the Grand Canyon and said this in his Yelp review:

“as amazing as the views are it is really kind of boring. Every 500 ft a new vantage point of the same thing: a really big hole in the ground.”

The Grand Canyon is a boring, big hole in the ground?!!

An Actual 1 Star Review of Yosemite Park

An Actual 1 Star Review of Yosemite Park

I know this is funny, but it’s a sad kind of funny because this is actually something I see in our culture and in the mirror a hundred times a day.

I also believe this is happening in the way American Christians are approaching worship. I think we need to start reconsidering why we worship, and also why we don’t.

This is at the heart of why this past Sunday at the Highland Church I preached on how important it was for Christians to engage in worship, specifically by singing together, and today I’d like to follow that sermon up by giving 3 Reasons Why I think Christians need to re-discover the habit to sing in church.

1. Worship is For God

Every week I see some article that someone shares on social media on their opinion on what’s wrong with the worship in the church these days. These articles range from: “There’s not enough Hymns or Hillsong or Tomlin” to “the music is too loud” and “the men don’t sing.” Sometimes they are saying “we should do high church liturgy” to “we should definitely not do that.”

And I get all of that feedback, I honestly do. But you should know that every week, your worship leader has a thousand problems and preferences that they are having to navigate as they plan out a corporate worship. But here’s the one thing I’d like to point out about most of the conversations I’m seeing about the churches worship.

It’s about me.

I like Hillsong, and the banjo and the Book of Common Prayer (all of which are true, and would be an awesome combination for some Sunday), but sadly most of our talk about worship preferences leave out a central idea that can save our shrinking souls.

Worship is, and has always been, for God.

I think when we forget this we become like the person who went to went to Niagara Falls and left a review saying it was just a “waste of time.” They were there, but they couldn’t experience what was right in front of them.

Do we realize who we are singing to each week?

Do we realize what story we are singing about each week?

How in the world did we lose that breathtaking vision that Heaven is leaning over the rails listening to what we have to sing?

Do we honestly realize that when we sing, it actually pleases the God of the universe?

How did we start to approach this moment, as if it had anything to do with our preferences?

2. Worship Makes us Honest

I think that the real reason we don’t sing, is because singing makes us vulnerable. Where else in life do you normally sing out loud where others can hear you? Singing puts us out there in a way that can leave us feeling exposed to others, and I think that’s the reason we’re tempted not to do it..

I think we come up with all kinds of reasons after the fact, but the truth is that we don’t like feeling so uncovered. So we protect ourselves and we lose the very thing that drew us to church in the first place, the joy of feeling the pleasure of God.

This dawned on me back when I did jail ministry in Ft. Worth. Every week, I would worship with a group of 20 guys in a 10×10 room singing along with a CD, and every week these men, facing shame and years of incarceration, were singing with great joy, at the top of their lungs. We sang off key, we clapped out of time, and it was the best worship experiences of my life.

Because it was real worship done by people who had come to the end of themselves and had nothing left to hide.

There’s a reason that Paul, the earliest church planter, would write back to the churches he planted (often from jail) reminding them to sing together. Maybe that’s also the reason he had to write so much to churches to mediate arguments. Because when churches gather not everyone is going to get their way.

And not getting our way, is a really good thing for most of us to experience on a regular basis. Because I’m not sure we’re experiencing it in many other places. If you watch enough cable television and consume enough advertising, you will fool yourself into thinking that you are the center of the world.

I think corporate singing, is still a really good way to remind us of how small we really are, and where we really fit in the universe.

Inside of the Durham Cathedral

Inside of the Durham Cathedral

This is the very reason that The Church made huge Cathedrals in the Medieval ages, it wasn’t because they didn’t care about the poor, (they were the ones who taught the world to care about the poor). They made these huge Cathedrals, because they were, for most people, the largest things that they would ever walk into. They were the Grand Canyon of those people’s world.

They made the Cathedrals because the Church has always known that one of the deepest needs of the human soul is to feel appropriately small…To get outside of ourselves.

3. Worship Changes Our Heart

The Church has always known what the New York Times just stumbled across last month, that wonder and awe leads to service and justice and compassion. This is why the largest book in the Bible is the Psalms, because God knows that the Psalms can do what the Prophets cannot.

When we worship, it softens our heart and makes us more susceptible to the strange ways of the Gospel. I’ve seen this time and time again, the biggest lever to changing the human heart isn’t a sermon, it is what we hear ourselves sing.

I believe that the way Jewish/Christian ethics were woven into most of our hearts, wasn’t primarily from that Bible class, but from hearing our grandmother sing things like “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother” or our dad singing “Each day I’ll do a golden deed, by helping those who are in need.”

Our songs have shaped the way we view the world, and how we think about things like justice and mercy toward other people. They have given us courage to resist the status quo and to live in counter-cultural ways.

I like the way Richard Beck says this in his book Slavery of Death:

[Remember} how central and vital singing was to those involved in the American civil rights movement.  Singing is what drove the movement.  People would gather in churches and sing freedom songs before going out to face angry mobs ready to curse at them, spit on them, even violently beat them.  And then they sang in jail.  These civil rights activities never stopped singing.  Why?  For the same reason Paul and Silas sang.  For the same reason the early Christians sang in the catacombs. For the same reason we need to sing.  To find our courage.  Singing is a way to resisting despair and fear.  Singing is an act of resistance.

Now I don’t know what style of worship your church has, and maybe it does need to change, but I don’t think a church’s style matters as much as we think.  What really matters is that we learn to engage worship, not as an individual, but as a community, for the pleasure of God.

Corporate worship can’t be judged individually, because it can’t be done individually, and it’s never, ever done for the individual.

It’s done for God.

And while it may not look like much, and often has sounded like even less, it has changed and blessed the world.

So for God’s sake, for the sake of the Church, for the sake of the poor, for the sake of the world, let’s stop giving 1 star reviews to our church’s worship, we are the Church, let’s start singing along.

What is happiness? It’s just that moment before you need more happiness.” -Don Draper

Mad Men and Bad Men

So I’d like to end this blog series on Mad Men with what was arguably the best scene from the whole show. It’s from the end of the first season where Don Draper is giving a pitch to Kodak to sell their new product, a slide projector called “The Wheel” Here’s what Don tells them:

[There is} a deeper bond with the product [than just technology]: nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent..In Greek nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.

This device isn’t a space ship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. Takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel.’ It’s called ‘The Carousel.’

It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.

I think this scene is so powerful because it pulls back the curtain on how much psychology is in the 3,000+ advertisements we see each day. These are very talented story-tellers who are trying to tap into our most primitive desires and are doing it well.

The Divine Image

Last week, I read a fascinating article from NPR about the history of the advertisement industry. Among many things, the article repeated the truth that “Advertisements aren’t about the product, they are about the myths and generalizations you can attach to the product”

Which is just a fancy way of saying what we know of as “The brand”

I know this may sound overstated, but it’s true, the most religious people in a secular society aren’t the crazy fundamentalists. They are the Mad Men, the religious priests of our world.  And they are hiding in more than plain sight. We wear shoes with the wildly successful brand-name of the Roman god for Victory. We call women in lingerie “angels” and people who buy Apple computers the “Church of Mac” Why do we do this?

There’s an ad executive named Douglas Atkin who pointed out that a transformation has taken place in what’s expected of the typical marketing firm these days. They’re no longer just responsible for design, packaging, and promotion. These days, marketing agencies are expected “to create and maintain a whole meaning-system for people through which they get identity and an understanding of the world.”

They are asked to create a religion system around something like Sprite or Skittles.

So Atkin decided to do his job not by researching Skittles or Sprite, he started by researching cults (obviously) He went around asking “What makes people believe this stuff? He wanted to know what inspired “loyalty beyond reason” in people.Brand New Religion

He knew that people join brands for the same reasons they join cults and religions: to belong and to make meaning. They stopped just being customers and now identified themselves as disciples, as “members of the tribe,” The ads aren’t trying to give you information about their products; their trying to tell stories—imagine worlds that matter and invite us to see ourselves within them. The goal of such marketing, this (very secular) documentary concludes, is:

“to fill the empty places where non-commercial institutions like schools and churches might have once done the job…[it is] an invitation to a longed-for lifestyle.”

The Good Eye

In His most famous sermon, Jesus tells his disciples that their eye is the lamp of the body, and if their eyes are healthy their life will be good, if they are unhealthy their life will be filled with great darkness.

I know that sounds awkward, but Jesus is tapping into an ancient metaphor called “The Good Eye” that had to do with envy and greed and how we see life, or more directly what we choose to see in life. Jesus is making a point that we must pay attention to what we choose to pay attention to.

Jesus has this crazy idea that what we see is also affected by how you saw it. Jesus has this idea (that was common to His day) that the eye was thought to be directly linked to the heart, to feelings, and to the will.

He has this idea that the good life flows from having a good eye. I believe today our problem isn’t that we don’t believe Jesus, the problem is that the wrong people know Jesus was right and use it in all the wrong ways.

In his book “Desiring the Kingdom” the philosopher James K.A. Smith points out how this works:

Consider a Saturn car commercial, voiced-over by a slightly twangy, down-home voice (like those Motel 6 commercials), inviting Saturn owners to the factory in Tennessee for a gathering akin to an old-time revival or “camp meeting.” Why? What brings them together? Why would owning the same kind of car be a reason to gather with people I’ve never met before? I don’t see Ford Escort drivers doing the same. The difference is that Saturn has invested the product with a sense of transcendence: Saturns aren’t just cars; they are also nostalgic connections to an older, communal way of life. The result? Forty-five thousand people attended the festival. Or consider the simple example of an advertisement for paper plates: It features brief glimpses of bright, cheery hostesses and hosts, surrounded by family, friends, and lots of good food, holding up paper plates on which various words are elegantly written. Against a charming soundtrack, a voice asks (with just that tinge of accusation we’ve noted): “What are you saying with your paper plates?” Because our hosts have chosen strong, durable, Chinet paper plates, theirs boldly proclaim, “Friends,” “Tradition,” “Confidence,” “You’re Special.” The paper plates are charged with values, suffused with meaning. So what does that mean you’re saying with your cheap, flimsy Dixie plates? Who would have guessed that disposable cutlery and dishware could say so much?

These days it’s popular to say that Post-modern people don’t believe in Meta-narratives (or large stories), but every ad tells a story, every sales pitch is an invitation to a new religion. And just about every one will gladly take your soul, as long as they get your credit card too.

I believe Louis C.K. is prophetically right when he says about the age of consumerism “We live in a world where everything is amazing and no one is happy.” We have more than we need, and we’re more lonely than ever.

There’s a reason Jesus goes directly from talking about “the Good Eye” to talking about being generous with our possessions. Contrary to popular belief or cable television, it’s not because Jesus cares about your money, it’s because he wants you to be able to see the world well.

He wants you to have clear eyes to see that the story that we really belong to is a story about a God who made everything, needs nothing and loves absolutely. It’s that God that our hearts, like Don Draper’s, is restless for. That is the story that every other story is really just a parody of.

It’s why your heart swells when Don gives his car keys to that kid at the end of the episode in a way it didn’t when he’s trying to sell you cereal. Because God can’t be bought, but He is constantly being given away.

Or in the final words of Bert Cooper, “The Best Things In Life Are Free.

“What you call ‘love’ was invented by guys like me. To sell Nylons.” – Don Draper

“I messed everything up. I broke all my vows, I scandalized my children. I took another man’s name and I didn’t make good on it.” -Don Draper

Mad Men and Bad Men

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched the final episode of Mad Men yet, stop reading now.

This 7 season show ended finally this past Sunday with an entirely different ending than I had expected. I was fairly certain that Don Draper was going to commit suicide, after all the show had been warning us of this from the very first opening credits.

But Don Draper didn’t commit suicide, he just created a new ad.

The Real Thing

I’ve read other people’s take on Draper’s enlightenment, many of them saw the finale with a smiling hippy Don as a happy ending. And I sincerely wish they were right, I’d love nothing more than for Don Draper to have gotten out of his vicious cycle and gone on to star in Scooby Doo.

But I think Mad Men was much too intent on being historically honest to end it with a Happily Ever After.

It’s important to remember that Matthew Weiner was trying to do something with this show, something that needed to be done. He was trying to do something that couldn’t be done in a sermon, but had to be done in a story.

Here’s an interview from Weiner about the way he was going to wrap up Mad Men:

Whatever happens to Draper will take place against the backdrop of an era Weiner clearly sees as disappointing, in which hopes are deflated, various hypocrisies are laid bare, and cynicism eventually reasserts itself. “The chickens are coming home to roost,” he says. “The revolution happens, and is defeated,” in 1968. “There is cultural change, but the tanks roll into Prague, the students go back to school.”

Weiner is writing about a time in American history that he lived through, and was extremely disappointed in.  A time when he grew up watching “the world being run by a bunch of hypocrites,[who] were telling us how they had invented sex, how great it was to do all those drugs, [and have no responsibilities. [They were] selfish, racist, money-grubbing …”

It’s important to remember the story he’s actually telling. Because it’s a story that still is happening.

The Invention of Lying

You probably have never heard of the name Edward Bernays, but he’s changed the world, more to the point, he’s changed your world.

In the early 40’s and 50’s Bernays was the inventor of what we call Propaganda. During World War II, Bernays helped the Western allies socially engineer consent. Think of posters like “Uncle Sam needs You” (America is your family) or “Loose Lips sink Ships” (fear of death)

He learned, from his uncle Freud, that everyone has a few base desires, like fear, or sex. And if you could just tap into those desires you could make people think a certain way.

But after the war was over, Bernays learned that he discovered 965E8773-DF09-4EBA-8506-02F2B4020DBBthis new power but no longer had a purpose for it. So he went into marketing. And now most of the way we have grown up thinking about the world has been shaped by Edward Bernays.

Have you ever heard that saying “Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride”? Do you know where that saying comes from?This 1950’s Listerine Ad.

It’s an ad that taps into our deepest fears of being alone and not being connected. Not so that we can connect, but so that we will buy mouthwash.

So back to Mad Men:I think Don Draper was so busy manipulating what motivated humans that he forgot he was human too.

I don’t think Don went on to live in a hippie compound. I think that Don Draper stumbled into the next season of eventual misery, he almost touched something outside of himself and that’s when it dawned on him that this was something that everyone was searching for, and so it was something that could be used as a very very powerful way to just sell stuff.

I believe that at the heart of the Gospel is that God gives us what we want, even if it destroys us, and if we want something other than God, more than we want God, it most certainly will.

But if we chase our desires deeper, like a river leads into an ocean, we will find that everything we want has always pointed us back toward God.

C.S. Lewis said this better than I could:

In speaking of this desire for our own far- off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Did you catch that? If we mistake these things for the Real Thing (God) they will turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.

Part of the genius of the show Mad Men is that Matthew Weiner humanized Edward Bernays, but I don’t think he was ever trying to save him. I don’t know that Weiner thinks he can be saved.

I’m not sure I do either.

Not because I don’t like Don Draper, I loved him as a character. I hope that, within the universe of Mad Men, he really did find some kind of peace and that the Coke commercial ending was just a summary of the show and a way to take a jab at Pepsi.

But I’m doubtful that Don Draper can be saved because I believe the door to the human heart opens from the inside and once any son of Adam learns how to manipulate our desire for God, he can so easily forget that there is really a God to be desired.

We can so easily mistake our cravings for what we actually crave, We can find ourselves reaching for the Real Thing, and just come back with a Coke.

On May 5, 2015

Bringing Heaven to Earth

So I wrote a new book! Actually we wrote a new book. I co-wrote it with my good friend and preaching buddy Josh Ross, and it comes out today! As in you can buy it on Kindle or iPad and read it right now. And if our mothers haven’t already bought all the copies, you can actually go into your local Barnes and Noble and buy it today.

I always thought that if I was going to have a book in a Barnes & Noble it would be because I walked in there and left it. But it’s there, hiding between Joel Olsteen and The Shack is a little book that came out of how the Gospel changed and is changing both of our lives. The book is called “Bringing Heaven to Earth”

Let me tell you about it.

Heaven & Earth

This is not another book that offers Proof That Ninety Seconds in Heaven Is for Real. Enough trees have been killed to make the point that sometimes people have near-death experiences. And sometimes they see things that would confuse even the writer of Revelation.

This isn’t one of those books.

14213-Bringing Heaven to EarthRather than try to describe heaven in detail, this book looks closely at what heaven has to do with earth. The world we live in matters. And what we think about tomorrow impacts how we live today.

About 10 years ago, I was starting to become disenchanted with what it meant to be a Jesus-follower and what it meant to belong to a Church. I had too small of a view of the Gospel and what a Church could do in this world. And then, partly because I read Surprised by Hope and partly because of a series Rick Atchley did at the Hills Church, I found myself calling all my old friends and telling them something like, “The Gospel is bigger and better than we thought it was”

This book is what those phone calls were trying to say. Josh Ross and I are very excited about this. This is more than a book for both of us, it’s written from a local church and to local churches.And our hope is that local churches will engage with this and put skin on it in their own local communities.

I have a hunch that there are lots of people where I was 10 years ago and we want you to know that the Gospel is bigger and better than most of us think. We wrote this book because we think God made this good world and hasn’t given up on it and neither should God’s people.

Good News for a Change

We wrote Bringing Heaven to Earth because we are Christians who are concerned about the church’s witness. Many Christians care a lot about saving people’s souls. We care about that too. But we’ve noticed that often people who want to introduce more people to Jesus find themselves at a loss when it comes to living a robust life of discipleship.

We don’t believe the primary purpose of following Jesus is to enjoy the gift of heaven. Rather, it is to be united with Christ in His love and mission. The call to conversion in the New Testament isn’t a decision for salvation, but a decision for Jesus. It is more than a change in status; it is a shift in allegiance, passion, and calling.

Some Christians care a lot about justice and mercy ministries. They want to change the world by serving the “least of these” but often find themselves angry at those who don’t see things the way they do. There are a lot of people who set out to save the world—for a few months or even years—but oftentimes they eventually grow bitter and weary. We think they need a bigger, and far better, story to enter into.

We wrote this book because we are convinced that it’s time for some good news for a change. And we believe that the real good news leads to all kinds of change in this world.

Here’s what some people (who aren’t related to us) are saying about this book:

“Oh, the difficulty of balance in this walk of faith. We tend to lose it. At least I do. I find myself on the side of the path, entangled in small issues and controversies. This book calls us to keep our eyes up. To keep the big things the big things. The authors offer a much needed and much welcomed reminder.”

— MAX LUCADO, pastor and author

“For many Christians, heaven is just some place we fly away to. But Ross and Storment clear the clouds to reveal the ways in which heaven matters in the here and now. Earth is full of heaven, they say, but you have to know where to look and how to participate in it. Finally, a concept of heaven worth believing in!”

— JONATHAN MERRITT, author and senior columnist for Religion News Service

“It’s about time someone dismantled the view that Christianity and the church exist to be God’s waiting room until we make it to heaven. Jonathan and Josh dismantle the fairy tale of heaven being a place of naked, winged babies playing harps on clouds. They replace that with the vision that Jesus and the New Testament both expect heaven to burst forth out of the church.”

— TIM HARLOW, senior pastor of Parkview Christian Church, Chicago

“We live in a world that faces innumerable challenges, and the authors remind us that faith in Jesus gives us the power to be his holistic witnesses to the restoration and reconciliation work found only in Christ. You will be inspired and equipped by reading this book.”

— DANIEL HILL, author and senior pastor of River City Community Church, Chicago

“Christians need to get past all views of the future that do not impact the pres- ent. That is how Jonathan and Josh help us; they call us to a view of ‘then’ that matters ‘now.’ Bringing Heaven to Earth is a timely challenge to a church in need of a new way of telling time.”

—Rick Atchley, Senior Minister at The Hills Church of Christ, Fort Worth, Texas

“In Bringing Heaven to Earth, Storment and Ross show us that how we think of heaven truly matters only when we are able to see how it impacts the way we live, day in and day out. This book doesn’t disappoint.”

—Colt McCoy, NFL quarterback and coauthor of The Real Win and Growing Up Colt

“For believers and nonbelievers alike, the idea of heaven often seems sentimen- tal, escapist, and irrelevant. But in this powerful and inspiring book, Jonathan Storment and Josh Ross make heaven and earth collide. The good news is that heaven is a party already in full swing. So pull up a chair to the banquet table and be sure to bring a friend.”

—Richard Beck, blogger, author, and professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University

If you’d like purchase a copy, you can find it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million and wherever books are sold. If you’d like to download the first chapter for free, you can click on this link: Bringing-Heaven-to-EarthSneakpeek And if you’d like to disagree with anything you read in it, please feel free to talk to Josh.

Thanks for reading and to God the Glory!

“In those days, the Word of the LORD was rare, there were not many visions.” -1st Samuel 3:1

It would be nice if people saw that the world cannot be disenchanted, and that the choice before us is really a choice of enchantments. -Francis Spufford

“I don’t believe in God. I believe in Science.” -Nacho Libre

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After the 2011 Tsunami hit Japan, the London Review of Books reviewed an essay on the recurring problem that people in the coastal regions of Japan called “Hungry Ghosts” The review is filled with fascinating stories of everyday, ordinary Japanese people stumbling into a world that was haunted – a world they really wished didn’t exist.

One story was about a guy named Takeshi Ono, who, two weeks after the Tsunami, drove to the coast with his wife and mother, and within a few hours of being there began acting like a possessed man, rolling in the mud, having to be forcibly held down by his wife and mother while shouting at them “You must all die! Everyone must die and everything be lost!.” And then pointing toward the ocean screaming, “There, over there! They’re all over there – look!”

For three days, every night as the sun went down, Takeshi would see people walking past him who weren’t there. Parents with their children, a group of young friends, a grandfather with his grandson and they would all just stare at him, dressed in their dirty, Tsunami-battered clothes and covered in mud.

Finally, under the threat of a divorce, his wife forced him to go see a Japanese priest who performed an exorcism of sorts, and he’s been back to his normal, not-seeing-ghosts-anymore, ever since.

I think it’s important to remember that this is taking place in Japan. The same place that gave the world Sony and Nintendo and sushi. This is not some Tibetan monastery where people spend their days praying, this is Japan and Ono is a construction worker who’s main flaw according to the LBR was that he was so “open and innocent (he was described as a Japanese kind of Mr. Bean) that the spirits were able to possess him.”

Open to Anything

In his watershed work, A Secular Age, The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor opens his book with this haunting question: “How is it possible for people to not believe in God anymore?”

One of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in amuch less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

[The] process of disenchantment involves a change in sensibility; one is open to different things. One has lost a way in which people used to experience the world.

One of the common distinctions in a Secular Age is not that we no longer have ghosts and demons and angels and God, it’s that we are no longer open to them.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible comes from 1st Samuel, it’s a story of a young boy who grows up in the Temple with a priest. And the story begins by telling us that Samuel was growing up in a time when “The word of the LORD was rare”

Samuel is born in a time where people want to hear from God, but don’t.

And the turning point in Samuel’s life, really all of Israel’s history, is an old, overweight priest named Eli with bad eyesight and a dysfunctional family. Samuel wakes up one night to the sound of someone calling him, it’s just him and Eli in the Temple, so he does the math and goes to his boss and asks him what he wants.

Eli tells Samuel that he didn’t call him and that he should get back in bed (side note: I’ve got 4 kids under the age of 6 right now, you can’t tell me that Eli wasn’t thinking this was some ploy to stay up). This happens 2 more times before it dawns on Eli that this might be more than that late night hummus, and Eli says to Samuel the best advice I know for someone who wants to hear from God.”

Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

I know religious leaders well, I know the humility and courage this small act of ministry must have taken. If I was Eli, I would be tempted to say, “Tell God that He got the wrong room. The older, mature servant is listening in the next room.” But Eli doesn’t, instead he has the awareness that God will speak to whom God will speak, and that the only control anyone has over the voice of God is our ability to be present and listen.

Enlightenment and Enchantment

The ministry of Eil was to get Samuel to be open to the possibility that more might be going on than he had previously assumed. Samuel was working with the idea that if he heard something it had to come from the only other person there, Eli invited Samuel into a story of God who speaks

I want to be like Eli.

12th Century Depiction of "Hungry Ghosts"

12th Century Depiction of “Hungry Ghosts”

So back to the Japanese Demons and Charles Taylor…

Part of the challenge that we have in discerning God’s voice today is that it is such a struggle for us to even believe the possibility that God even exists. But while this might be a challenge intellectually, our emotions are still yearning for God, nothing satisfies us. We are filled with an aching longing desire. I think Eli would say, “Listen up.”

C.S. Lewis opened up his professorship at Magdalene College in Cambridge asking a house packed full with students:

Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the God of the Mountain has been wooing me…Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. And yet it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere. When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is. Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now.

C.S. Lewis believed that the choice wasn’t between enchantment or enlightenment, we are all under a spell, we are all open to something and closed to something else. The choice is which spell to be under.

This is the ministry of Eli, it is to tell the generation that is growing up in a time when “The word of the LORD is rare” that it just might be God you’re hearing from, open yourself up to the possibility that the world is not what you thought it was and that whisper might not be limited to who is in the room with you.

The universe doesn’t fit into a test tube and the world has always been, and still is, enchanted.

So speak LORD, your servants are listening.

On March 31, 2015

How to Die

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

howtodie2015

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

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

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

The Denial of Death

Remember this prayer?

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

Did you know there was another verse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actress Frances McDormand

Actress Frances McDormand

The Art of Dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restoring Restoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially when we don’t agree.

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

The Autonomy of A Local Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sara Barton, missionary to Africa & Pepperdine Chaplain

Sara Barton, missionary to Africa &Pepperdine chaplain

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

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

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

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

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

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