Archives For Church

photo-1So this past week, I did another podcast with my good friend Luke Norsworthy (I’m a glutton for punishment) Luke’s podcast has recently cracked the top 100 in religion podcasts on ITunes, so he’s obviously doing something right.

During this podcast, Luke shares his love for Mariah Carey, and how he lacks the ability to encourage, but loves to receive encouragement.

We talk about the great lineup of interviews he had on the show in the month of September, and how it applies to our lives of ministry, and our lives as Jesus followers. This interview spans everything from the way we’ve carved up the world into conservative/liberal to the challenges being parents has brought to our theology.

We talked about Dr. Amy Levine new book on the parables and how her interpretations are difficult to preach, but important for Christians to listen to. In the words of one of my preacher friends, Levine serves as a good speed bump for anyone who is tempted to say, “In the first century this is what Jewish people believed” as if anyone could summarize what all Christians believed 2000 years from now.

We talked about Peter Enns new, and somewhat controversial book about the Bible, and I try to hold Luke’s evasive little feet to the fire for a change.

One of the reasons that I appreciate this particular interview, was because I ask myself the question all the time, “Who gets to be conservative?” I believe that in many ways the people who consider themselves the most conservative are the ones who have added the most recent things to the Christian tradition. But to understand that more, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.

We talked about Richard Rohr, and his ability to encourage the least of these, and his challenge to Christians who grew up in more rigid Christian homes to not become cynical about their background but learn to appreciate the way you were raised.

And then finally we talked about Scot McKnight’s wonderful new book “Kingdom Conspiracy” (a book I highly recommend) and why the way we talk about the Kingdom of God matters, and how it might not be what we thought it was.

Anyway, Luke’s podcast is one of the best ones out there right now, and one I listen to every week. It’s challenging and funny and one of the best ways to get to know some of our best Christian leaders and thinkers out in the broader Christian world, and if you’d like to subscribe to it, you can find his podcast here.

earthed

 

Drayton Naybers has watched a lot of young guys win the Heisman trophy.

And he says you can tell a lot about a guy’s character by his acceptance speech.

Sometimes they will just credit their hard work and weightlifting, or natural talent. But Naybers will ask, who taught you to work hard? Or bought the equipment? Who built the university, or recruited your teammates?

Who gave you the DNA in the first place?

“If this player has humility, he will express nothing but over-flowing gratitude when he wins-to his parents, to his teachers and coachers, to all the players on his team, and to everyone who helped him along the way…Humility actually is a form of wisdom. It is thinking clearly. It is simply being realistic. It is knowing who really deserves the credit and the glory for what we do

I like that, it’s not humility, it’s actually just being realistic.

The Church That Raised Me2012_04_26_11_04_19.pdf000

For every sermon I write, this picture is the background of the computer desktop. It’s a picture of my friend, Brian leading singing at the little 10 member church I grew up in. I write with this picture in mind, because this is who I write for, most of the people in this picture are dead, but it is when the saints gather for church that I feel they are the most present.

They say that preachers help form churches, but the reverse is true as well. Churches form preachers.

On an average Sunday morning, our congregation consisted of Bro. Foy, the patriarch of the church, who was more than a little mentally unstable. I’m not joking, and he is the reason I’m a preacher, because mentally unstable makes very interesting sermons, and passionate preaching. There aren’t many memories from my church childhood that don’t involve Bro. Foy.

The first funeral I ever did (I was 14), he wrote for me. I remember sitting up behind the pulpit with him, and him telling me that I was going to do just fine.

Words like liberal and conservative couldn’t be used to describe us, and we never used them ourselves. We argued, like any human community, and there were tense times (like when Foy started preaching against women wearing pants), but we apologized and forgave quickly.

We had too, after all we took communion together.

I saw the beautiful thing that is a community of reconciliation, and you’ll never convince me that this is not something worth giving my life for. But this kind of experience is rarely the case anymore. The common assumption is that for a church to grow they must specialize in one slice of the human pie.

From Generation to Generation

Over the past few years, I’ve read and heard some church consultants giving the advice that, in order to grow numerically, a church needs to pick between targeting people of under 40, or over 40. I hate that suggestion. I think it works against the very nature of Church, I think it helps us lean into our own selfishness and away from the people who we need to be frustrated by.

So next week, I’m going to talk about it. If you’re in Abilene, I’d like to invite you to come to the ACU Summit (Lectureships). For three days next week I want to talk about the biggest crisis I think the Church is facing. I want to talk about the ways we are trying to address it, and I’d also like to find out how other churches are dealing with it.

Again, this is not a crisis of morality or lack of fidelity to the gospel, or anything that stirs up controversy. The problem is that it is really hard to be a church of five different generations.  More to the point, we are not able to get older people and younger people to hang out together anymore. 

So much of the Scriptures are trying to create ways for one generation to pass on faith from one generation to the other., worked into the first five books of the Bible is the idea that this is the story that you tell your kids, for them to tell their kids. Paul even dedicates major portions of his pastoral letters giving practical ideas for how the churches he planted could do this.

And since we no longer live in the age of potlucks and bunko…how do we prioritize this at the local church level? How do we emphasize generational generosity and create atmospheres conducive for our senior saints to rub shoulders with our younger adults? How do we help each generation see how much they need the wisdom and perspective of the people around them?

These aren’t just rhetorical teasing questions…I’d love to hear your ideas, especially if you won’t be able to make it to Abilene. I hope to get some new ideas on how to implement this, and I may share some of your ideas in the class.

I’ve been greatly blessed in my life with godly mentors who have been willing to sacrifice to pass on the Gospel to some chump kid who they decided to invest their life in. I’m convinced the best thing I can do with my life, is to try and stand on the people’s shoulder who have gone before me, and leave something for the person who are coming after me.

In a world that tries to get me to believe that the universe spins on a top with me at the center, it’s good to be reminded that I am a tree in a story about a forest.

And the story of the forest is way better than the story about the tree

That’s what being part of a church is, we’re not doing that, that’s our crisis, and it’s time to talk about it.

(The class is meeting in Hart Auditorium 1:15-2:05)

Newsworthy

So I’m away for the next couple of weeks on study break, and wouldn’t have time to write for a few days. So this past week, I sat down with my friend Luke Norsworthy for his podcast to talk about this blog series. Luke is a great interviewer and I highly recommend subscribing to his podcast. He has interviewed Scot Mcknight,  Francis Spufford, John Ortberg, Barbara Brown Taylor, Ian Cron, and me (I obviously belong in such an elite list of authors).

Seriously, every week Luke has a great new podcast, and I highly recommend it.

Anyway, this last week Luke and I talked about my new book How to Start a Riot, along with several other things that are close to our heart, like why we think the local church matters so much and why.

In this podcast, you’ll hear the story about my friend with down syndrome leading singing and praying for communion. It’s the story that best summarizes why I care about the local Church so much.

We also talk about all the interviews I’ve been doing with Christian Radio stations and the one time I kind of got hung up on in an interview. You’ll have to listen to the podcast for the explanation to that one, it’s hard to describe. {fbbcdd6b-e396-4b47-a8fa-8b5d6e015ef3}Img400

And finally we talk about one of the things that both of us have been wrestling with lately (and something I plan to write more about). It’s just this question: Who is the church for? For churched people? For unchurched people? I’ve said repeatedly that I believe the Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the people who don’t belong to her, and while I still believe that, I’ve changed my mind on what I mean.

 

 

P.S. All the proceeds for How to Start a Riot go to the Highland Church of Christ and her vision for “A Restoration Movement”

On April 1, 2014

Am I Leading a Rebellion?

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

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

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

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

Here’s what he said:

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

In my experience, this observation is spot on.

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

Working With Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Live in Protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how Douthat points it out:

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

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

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

On February 25, 2014

Civil Religion: Better Than You

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

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

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

Us and Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The League of the GuiltyCathedral

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

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

And then he turns against them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not a rhetorical move, it is reality.

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

We call it Church.

 

“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 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

So last week the openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson and the Well-Spoken Evangelical Gabe Lyons had a different kind of conversation about the Church and Homosexuality. It happened at Stanford University, and it exemplifies the kind of cultural engagement that I believe needs to happen more. This week I watched this whole video, and after seeing it, I wish everyone could carve out time to watch it.

What’s different about this conversation is how both men approach this issue so differently, but both are so conciliatory. Notice how many times they find ways to say “I agree with that part of what you are saying.”

A few observations for those who don’t have time to watch it all:

1. Gabe Lyons (who long time readers of this blog may recall I sat down with to interview earlier this year) talked about orthodox Christian values about sexuality in a humble and Christlike way. He never went ad hominem on Bishop Robinson and in fact helped to reframe much of the conversation. For example, when Lyons quoted the conservative Presbeteryian pastor Tim Keller “Homosexuality doesn’t send anyone to Hell anymore than being Heterosexual sends someone to Heaven. The largest sins of pride and smug self-righteousness sit at a deeper place in the human heart.”

2. Bishop Robinson is incredibly gracious and conciliatory about something that isn’t just an issue to him. This is his life experiences they are talking about. And Bishop Robinson is incredibly pro-marriage. One of the places that he and Gabe (and I) agree on is that the LGBT conversation has forced the Christian community to have a more robust (and better) theology of marriage.

3. Gabe is on to something about the dehumanizing nature of allowing ourselves to be identified by our sexuality. For those readers who are at Highland Church, Gabe actually laid out the very reason that I did our Fall series “The Sequels: A new Perspective on Love, Sex, Romance and Dating” I think that the deeper sin of our day is the idolatrous way we think about relationships and sexuality. Anything that we say, “I cannot be a complete person unless I have that” is taking the place of God in our lives. And no relationship or sexual encounter can bear the weight of worship. images

Notice that Gabe actually talked about how the Church has been guilty of idolizing marriage and sexuality. This is exactly the reason that we talked about this at Highland. In the words of Bishop Robinson, “To deny yourself and climb up on your own cross is self-sacrifice, to make someone else do it is murder.” I get the push-back to that statement, but what he’s saying is touching on the Achilles heel of any honest conversation for Christian sexual ethics. If the Church assumes that the marred life is the best or only way to be fully human, than we have to honestly look in the mirror and ask ourselves if this is really the “Kingdom of God” we are preaching or just a baptized American dream. I know a lot of Christian Singles who don’t want to mingle, and they would like to belong to a Church that realized that singleness is a valid way to follow Jesus (A Single Man!)

If we re-affirm the celibate single life as a robust and valid calling for following Jesus, than suddenly the Christian faith has something to call people toward, not just something to call people away from.

4. Both Bishop Robinson and Gabe said that basic human rights should be acknowledged and supported for every human being. This is vital to being Christian. I affirm the classic Christian view of sexuality, but even deeper than that I affirm that what it means to be Christian is to love our neighbor. And there is not a single label in the world that makes someone not my neighbor. Christians should be the people who are the most against bullying and ostracizing people who are sexual minorities, not because they are affirming any sexual orientation, but because they know that the image of God is present in every human being.

5. Pay attention to how Gabe puts all his cards on the table. He acknowledges that nobody wants to be known as being “against love.” And when this is presented as a progressive-justice kind of issue it becomes really hard to present a dissenting view, but then he appeals to our better instincts of being able to disagree and still respect and love each other. And then he redefines what it means to think of progressive views and the Bible.

Much of the time when we talk about Christianity and Homosexuality, we also say things about slavery and women and how the Scriptures and Christian tradition has slowly but surely progressed to a more just and humane view of the world God wants for everyone. However, in the Scripture, the sexual ethic gets more restrictive as it progresses. People used to be married to more than one spouse, people used to divorce for any reason they wanted to…but Jesus and the New Testament actually call us forward toward monogamy, fidelity and  celibacy (a huge idea for early Christianity). In fact, historically speaking, the idea that sexuality was a gift from God that was meant for a man and a woman only in a covenant, that’s the new idea. 

I think Bishop Robinson makes several great points in this conversation, and I hope we can appreciate and respect the life that has lead him to tell his story. I hesitate to write about homosexuality because it is such a polarizing topic, but I believe the only way forward is to start having different kinds of conversations about it. And if two very different kinds of Christians can talk about it in front of thousands of people at Stanford University, than I figure it’s worth the risk to talk about it here.

Because after all, God is for Love.

And love looks a lot like the conversation in this video.

strange-fire-image

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” -C.S. Lewis

Maybe you’ve noticed that over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of talk around charismatic vs. not charismatic protestant Christians. Some people held a conference, and John MacArthur wrote a book about it. Mark Driscoll even showed up at the conference and started giving away his newest book and just confused everyone.

But what caught my eye is what these non-Charismatics called the conference.

They called it, “Strange Fire”

Which may not mean much to you, but it means a lot to me. Because growing up in the Restoration Movement, that is a reference to an obscure little story in Leviticus that no other branch in Christian tradition really paid attention to.

It’s the story of Nadab and Abihu, some of the first priests in the Torah. It’s 10 little verses that end with God smiting Nadab and Abihu because they offered “Strange” or “Unauthorized Fire.”

When I heard the name of the conference it felt…reassuring. I thought, “Hey, we’re not the only ones who misread the Bible after all!”

And let’s call that’s what it is.

To name this conference that, is a way of misreading the Bible. I don’t care where you go from there, but if you start with that story as your metaphor, you will have a  bad view of God when you’re reading the Bible.[1]

Trust me on this.

But when I saw in Christianity Today, that Mark Noll actually compares this new anti-charismatic movement to Restorationist I had two thoughts, “Christianity Today knows about us?” and then as I read the comparison I realized “Yes, they know us well.”

Here’s what they said:

“Perhaps the major flaw of the book is more attitudinal than methodological. In claiming to see things so clearly–so black and white–MacArthur falls into a restorationist mindset, identified by historian Mark Noll as “intellectual overconfidence, sectarian delusion, and a stunningly naive confidence in the power of humans to extract themselves from the influences of history…”

Apparently Mark grew up in my church.

Now I love Churches of Christ, and the Restoration Movement, I’m not just saying that. I  really do. And I’m glad to be a part of Protestant Christianity…except for this one tiny slice of it. We protest…a lot…and often.

We love to argue and parse words and ideas, and I love the idea about Sola-Scriptura, but like Mark Noll hinted at, Sola Scriptura is naïve if you don’t acknowledge that you are a person culturally conditioned to read the Bible in certain ways and ask certain questions (one that the Bible might not be trying to address) and not ask the questions the Bible is trying to answer.

I get the Cessasionist argument, and I really respect John McArthur, his writings and ministry have blessed me. I love Joni Erickson Tada (who spoke at the conference) and I very much understand why someone who has endured the suffering of both physical limitations, and the suffering of spiritual bullies who might say, “If you just had enough faith…”

But I believe I’ve heard the voice of God, and I’ve prayed for people who I believe have been healed, and several who haven’t.  But I didn’t always think this way.

The problem for me started about 9 years ago, when I went to Sri Lanka to do Tsunami relief. We were with a small gathering of Christians there, and a blind woman came up to get prayed for, and God opened her eyes.

I’ve got a bachelors and a graduate degree in Bible, and I immediately said to myself, “I know seven reasons why that cant happen.”

But as I started to think about it, I realized that the reasons I knew that this couldn’t happen had nothing to do with the Bible. It had everything to do with the philosophy and ideology I was reading the Bible through.

The problem was I had been using the Bible, to be right, to make a living. I was standing on it, but the Bible is telling about a world that we are supposed to inhabit.

And in that world anything can happen.

Because God is in it.

As an aside, there is a reason that Charismatic Chrsitianity is spreading all through the third world. Last week, a few Christians and I were having a bible study with a Muslim man from Sierre Leon when we got to one of the excoricisms in the Gospel of Mark. I told him, that none of us at the table had ever seen anything like a demon possession, and maybe he could speak more to the issue.

So he started talking about the Witch doctor in his village. How he could point at a goat and kill it with his voodoo, and about how he put spells on people making them go crazy.

When my friend read the Gospel of Mark, he was glad to see that demons obeyed Jesus. Because he knew what a demon was in a way that we don’t.

My friend sure hopes God hasn’t ceased working in the world, because he knows first hand that evil hasn’t.

Anytime we start having a conversation about God that only works in certain parts of the world (the wealthiest, most educated and the most access to medicinal resources) we are going to miss large parts of the Gospel.

Love and Elitism

The real problem that I believe MacArthur is trying to address is the division that has happened around the way we talk about the Holy Spirit and God’s activity in the world. I spend a lot of time with some Charismatic brothers and sisters, and I understand the critique.

It’s very possible to think that you’ve arrived at a place superior than others because of your spiritual experience, or what you’ve sensed God work through you to heal or prophesy. It’s very easy to fall in love with the gifts more than the Giver.

I’ve also been around Cessationalists enough to know that this isn’t just a “Charismatic problem” Knowledge, after all, does puff up.

And it is ironic, that the main verse in the Bible that Cessationalist and Charismatics argue about is in Paul’s magnificent chapter of what Christian love looks like.

And that context matters just as much as anything else in this conversation. Christian love defers to one other, it esteems one another, it doesn’t accumulate priviledge and status when God gives you gifts like healing or preaching or the gift of knowledge.

Christian love shouldn’t crash someone’s conference or take away someone’s books and then tweet about it.

In fact, I believe that for these two groups to be able to reconcile and apologize and humble themselves before the other, that would be a miracle. Perhaps the best kind of miracle.

I Can’t Only Imagine

It seems to me that the way most Christians talk about God in the world today is either that God is something like magic (good for the occasional miracle, if you just pray the right prayers, believe the right way etc.) or we are Deist’s (the idea that God created the Universe, wound it up like a top, and stepped away.) The universe is either empty of God, or God is someone we can control.

This is a problem.

I was talking to an Anglican priest friend last week about this, and his answer was so good I think it might be helpful here.

He said something like, the main problem really isn’t what we think it is. The real problem is that we’ve lost our imagination.

There is a fundamental difference between a Catholic Christian’s imagination and a Protestant Christian’s imagination.  In Catholicism, the whole world in enchanted, God is closer than we are to ourselves, and the entire Creation is dripping with the Glory of God.

So back to us Protestants, both the Charismatics and the Cessationists are basically talking with the same limited imagination. We believe that either God punches a whole in the roof of the world and tinkers in from time to time in order to heal our Aunt’s cancer or give me a better parking space…or we believe that He doesn’t do that.

But both are operating from a posture that fundamentally believes God is somewhere else.aslan3

This is why we use language like, “And then God showed up.” As if there are places in the world where God wasn’t!

And don’t think for a second I’m trying to ignore the Bible. I’m just trying to start reading it better. Think about how the Psalms talk about Creation, the mountains clap for joy, and the rivers sing!

According to the Bible the whole earth is enchanted!

And the danger of having conversations like this, is that we strip God out of the world He made and we do it, not by using the Bible, but coming from an “Enlightenment Worldview” that has very little to do with imagination, and very much to do with scientific reductionism of the Good world that God created and still inhabits.

Think about the words we use in this argument. It’s words like Natural vs. Supernatural. Where did we get those words from? It’s not Scripture, so if we are going to have this conversation then lets at least admit that it’s not Sola Scriptura we are arguing with.

We are humans, located in certain places and ideologies.

And God help us if we make boxes so tight that God can’t help us.

The Catholic (think Pre-Enlightenment) imagination is rich and filled with different ways of talking about reality. It is what Tolkien and Lewis drew from to tell about the Enchanted world of God.

I’ve spoken in tongues, because all Art is speaking in tongues, I’ve seen God heal people, and I see God sustain the Billion miracles everyday that hold our intricate hearts beating just because of His creative word. I’ve seen babies born and people sacrifice their lives, I’ve seen people healed in “normal” ways like through doctors at hospitals and people healed in unusual ones.

Am I a Charismatic or a Cessasionist? Neither. Because I think both of those stories are two small to contain God.

I believe Aslan is on the move.

The Fire of God is real, the world is ablaze with it.

And when Christians are unable to see that, I think that’s strange.


[1] Rabbinical tradition teaches that this story in Leviticus isn’t about them disobeying or misunderstanding God, it’s about them not revering Him. The very next verse after this story is a prohibition against drinking while performing priestly duties, so the Rabbi’s have said that was Nadab and Abihu’s sin.