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On November 20, 2014

The Cult of Contentment

But godliness with contentment is great gain. –St. Paul

Contentment makes poor men rich, but discontentment makes rich men poor. – Ben Franklin

Ecards

I’m tired of the “War on Christmas” It’s my least favorite holiday tradition, and frankly I think it has become one of the more polarizing parts of our culture.

So I have a modest proposal, instead of fighting to “keep Christ in Christmas” what if we fought to keep the Friday in Black Friday?

I remember when the day before Black Friday was the only day that our culture had set aside to actually be aware of what we already have instead of focusing what we don’t. I remember when they used to call the day before Black Friday, “Thanksgiving.” But each year it seems like the monster of materialism is inching closer and closer, enveloping our gratitude by increasing our greed.

But there is another way.

A Better Way to Live

A few months ago, I heard a preacher talking about the life of the apostle Paul. Specifically his sermon was on all the jail time Paul served…and what he did with his jail time. During his prison time, Paul wrote letters to the churches that he started. Now Paul had no idea that these letters would be the defining moment of his life. He had no idea that by doing this he would shape Western civilization more than anything else until the printing press. He had no idea that the words he was writing would shape what we think of about marriage, about human rights and equality, and about the need for self-less self-sacrifice. He was just in prison and so he did the only thing he could do, he wrote some letters.

In one of the letters Paul writes to a church he planted in Philippi, he writes thanking him for a care package that they sent him, and he lets them know how much they encouraged him, but he doesn’t passively-aggressively guilt them into sending him more stuff. It will take hundreds of years before preachers learned that trick. Instead, Paul does the opposite. He actually tells them, I’m thanking you not because I was in need, I’m thanking you because it did my heart good to know you were thinking about me.

And then Paul tells them words that would shape Christian Theology for thousands of years:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want

Paul’s talking to them about how he learned contentment.

There is actually a kind of life that allows us internal peace no matter what is happening around you. There is a way to live life that isn’t frantic and envious and filled with fear and anxiety.

And the word for secret here is actually a word that doesn’t come from Christian Theology, it’s nowhere else in the New Testament, it’s actually a word that Paul grabbed from the culture, specifically from the cults.

It’s a word that was only used for people who were being initiated into one of the many secret mystery cults.

Back in the day that Paul lived, there were all kinds of mystery cults that existed. They basically thrived on being elite and exclusive, they each had some mysterious secret that separated them from the insiders/outsiders. Each cult promoted that they knew the secret to the afterlife or the good life or how to become like the gods. For some it was a secret word, or story, or handshake (ok, I’m not sure if that one’s true), but the thing that all the cults had in common was that it was secret.

And that’s the word Paul reaches for.

The Mega Mystery

There is a secret that can allow us to be content no matter what is going on outside of us. No matter what our circumstances or lot in life. We can be content.

He knows the secret, and then he shares it:

I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

I grew up with this verse on my wall, with a picture of a High School football player scoring a touchdown, but before this was was reduced to being a cliché on a teenage boy posters it was a secret to a better way of life.

The secret of Paul, the Mega Mystery is that the Spirit of God can actually be enough for you.

Remember this isn’t written from some academic desk, or a couch in luxury. It was written in a jail cell to real live people. And Paul says to them, the secret is to know that the One who lives inside of you can give you strength to be content.

Black Friday

Maybe the reason we rush to Best Buy on Thursday is because we don’t ask God for this one thing on Sunday. and there’s nothing we buy can wash away the dull ache in our soul for it, But it’s possible…I’ve seen it time and time again in surprising ways and surprising people.

Last week, I was spending time with a young woman at our church named Nichole. Nichole is 28 years old, and has spent her entire life in a wheelchair, unable to move much of her body. She has Cerebral Palsy, and basic things like getting out of the house require a team of people to help, but every Wednesday night Nichole is at church, and in fact serves on a team of people who pray for Highland and me.

And at one point I was asking Nichole about her life, and she was describing the difficulty she has in being so dependent on others, and not being understood, she often asks questions like, “Why?” and “How long?”

But then she started pointing out that she was aware that her very life was in many ways a gift to people around her. She had a different relationship to time, she wasn’t constantly stressed, she wasn’t able to hide her need for community the way most Americans have learned to, she hears from the LORD often, and He tells her that she was made and loved by God.

I asked her what her favorite Bible story was, and she said it wasn’t a story it was a verse. One that Paul had written thousands of years ago in a prison cell, that had changed the way that Nichole experience life today.

“I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”

I started crying and knew that she knew the secret. She had been initiated in a way that I hope to be one day.

She is in the cult of contentment.

May we all be.

On November 13, 2014

In the Flesh: Wish I Was Here

In the Flesh Blog

I recently heard about a survey done by the Yellow Pages that asked a large sample of people when they use their cell-phones. They discovered that, for most people surveyed, the first thing that they do in the morning is check their phone, and it is also the thing we do last before we go to bed. In a twist, only 3% of people said they used their phone in the restroom…because we are all liars.

The Yellow Pages surveys also found out that the average person spends 8.5 hours on Facebook. Think about that stat for a second, that’s over a day a week that we are working for Mark Zuckerberg.

When I heard about that survey I had one overwhelming thought:

I’m tired of not being where I am.

Sometime in the mid 90’s I signed on to the internet and I’m not sure I ever really logged off. I spend much of my day typing symbols of letters that are digitally translated on to a screen that I’m staring at. I read many of my books on a Kindle, today I will Skype into a conference where it will appear that I’m there while actually being hundreds of miles away.

I spend way too much of my life going from one screen to another, looking at projections of reality, mistaking the shadow for the substance. And irony of ironies, most of the time I’m talking/writing/reading about a God who became flesh.

YOLO

One of  the stranger things about the way Westerners view time is that we are all think of ourselves as “Time Poor”. Which is probably not a phrase you use often. You probably think in terms of being stressed or exhausted, but underneath this way of life is the idea that there isn’t enough time in the world.

Driving our assumptions about how we spend our life isa  view of time that goes absolutely against the Christian faith, mainly the idea that you only live once. So prove yourself, exhaust the moment, squeeze all the life that you can out of the moment, because it’s not going to come again.

Ironically the idea that You Only Live Once has lead to not really being able to live well.

The preacher John Ortberg once asked the great theologian Dallas Willard what one word was that he would use to describe Jesus, and he gave a word that I thought was surprising.

Willard said “relaxed”

What an interesting way to think about Jesus.

Most of the people reading this probably wish they had more time, but Jesus’ relationship with time was one of the greatest gifts He gave his disciples, one that I think He still wants to give.

Chances are you have a clock on your wrist or wall, you have a calendar close by and a way to organize your life. But birds are never late, the animals of the field don’t keep time, they aren’t worried about growing old, and Jesus repeatedly refers to them as if he wishes his followers could be more like that.

I like the way the graffiti artist Banksy recently said:

Man alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.

Life of Panic

In the day Jesus was born, there was a Roman god named Pan, who was worshipped in certain places even in Israel. Just a few days walk away from where Jesus did most of his ministry, and one day Jesus took his disciples down to the very area where people worshipped Pan to teach them about the Kingdom of God.

He told them that the kind of movement that He was starting was going not going to withdraw from these types of places but invade them. Pan was a half-goat/half-man god, and the place where he was worshipped (Caesarea Philippi) was cave that they thought was bottomless, they considered it a Gate to the underworld.

And the reason people worshipped Pan was because they were terrified of him, they were always worried that Pan might come out and get you at any time, which is where we get the word panic from.

The site of Pan worship at Caesarea Philippi

The site of Pan worship at Caesarea Philippi

 

And Jesus marches to this place and says, I’m going to start a movement of people that are different than this, but they are going to be among places like this.

Jesus says things like “don’t worry about tomorrow” and calls our attention to the way God cares for the flowers. Jesus repeatedly tells us in a variety of ways that to follow him is a light burden.

Which raises the question, who am I becoming more like Jesus…or Pan.

In my life I have seen the Sistine Chapel, I know what Michaengelo’s painted room smells like, I’ve seen the Gas Chambers of Auscwitz and the Catacombs of Rome, I’ve walked Mars Hill and seen the Parthenon and the Pyramids, I’ve felt the wind on my face from Pike Peak and I’ve felt the tears running down my cheeks in room full of girls rescued from sexual slavery, I’ve ridden an elephant in Thailand, a camel in Egypt and a horse in Jordan.

I’ve had more opportunities than I ever thought possible, and I look back on these memories with great gratitude and not a small amount of student loans, but I’m starting to hit a point in my life where I no longer wish I was there. I’m realizing that what I really want is to be present here, in the same way I was there.

I’m tired of my children reflexively repeating themselves 3-4 times because they know that their daddy isn’t really listening. I’m tired of catching my mind wondering from the person who is right in front of me to wondering about what interesting news might be scrolling through my Twitter feed.

So as a kind of Public Service Announcement, Leslie and I are attempting to simplify our life. I realize that as a preacher I can’t invite people into a good life that I don’t have myself.

Over the past month, I’ve made some adjustments to my life. My iPhone is now really a glorified flip phone, I have no way of doing much beside calling and texting, and contrary to the advertisement I always hear, I feel like now I’m more connected.

This may seem too much for some people, but I’d love to invite you to try it. Because I’m tired of wishing I could be somewhere else with someone else.

I wish I was 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)

On September 4, 2014

In the Flesh: TMZ

In the Flesh Blog

So maybe you’ve heard of the famous gossip website/tv show TMZ, they take all the trashy pictures and news from Hollywood celebrities and make or break the stars. But did you know that TMZ just stands for Thirty Mile Zone? It’s the 30 miles around Hollywood where famous people are known to hang out.

I think that’s ironic that the whole world knows about these 30 miles of land. I’ve been in huts in Africa and seen posters of celebrities pictures taken within this 30 miles tract of land. We stare at our cell phones while on dates with our spouse to read about the latest news from these 30 miles, we don’t have to be anywhere,  We’ve developed a world where we are everywhere and nowhere all at once.

A World We Can’t Touch

Did you know that 41% of teens describe themselves as addicted to their cell phones? 43% of teen say that they don’t know how to unplug from the digital world. The majority of teens feel frustrated that their friends are on their mobile devices while they are trying to hang out, and a third feel that their parents pay more attention to their iPads than them.

We are, for all intents and purposes, addicted to the devices that were supposed to bring us together. A new development is that young adults often have something called “Nomophobia” which is a fear of being without our cell phones, and a majority of students surveyed repotted felling anxiety when they didn’t have their mobile device with them (some are even taking it into the shower with them)

And yet, nearly half of teens wish they could go back to a world before Facebook.

But then how would we show our outrage?

In his book, Incarnate, Michael Frost points out that it’s not just our relationships that are suffering from our increasingly digitized world, we’re also losing the ability to live into our passions in the place we actually live. Here’s how Frost says it:

We drive our SUV’s across town to churches in neighborhoods we don’t actually live in (and don’t want to). We send SMSs and check Twitter during the sermon, and then we download our favorite celebrity preachers sermon as a podcast to listen to during the week. We engage in online discussions by posting smug and condescending remarks about those unseen, unknown folks with whom we disagree. We sign petitions and change our Facebook profile picture to show our support for various causes without any thought of getting involved personally. We are outraged by those who manipulate child soldiers or who traffic sex workers from Central Europe, but we don’t open our homes to our own neighbors, let alone those with no home at all.”

Thirty Mile Zone

One of the things that I never knew about having a book published is that I would get to talk to radio stations all over the country. Each week, I’ve been interviewed by Christian radio stations to talk about How to Start a Riot. I’ve run into a lot of different accents, and they all make fun of mine. It’s like a little tour across the nation, all while I’m sitting in my office. Most of those interviews have gone fine, but a few of them have taken some left turns and even gotten cut short.

And it’s always because of this:

The host will ask me questions about politics, or Ferguson (the book title leads to talking about riots), and I’ll tell them about the story of growing up in the 10 person church, and how once when I came home from college with a big group of friends, Brother Foy asked us all (in the middle of worship) “Where are the black people? Don’t you have any black friends at your school?”

That’s when the radio station tends to cut to commercial.

Church sign in Ferguson

Church sign in Ferguson

I know that’s an incredibly awkward story, trust me I was there, but in hindsight, I’m glad Brother Foy did that. I think it’s important that someone is asking that question, and that church is the most appropriate place to ask it.

I think the best thing we can do is to stop keeping this abstract. If you’re a Christian than remember the Word became flesh, it didn’t become more words or an idea. So if we really care about what’s happening in Ferguson, than let’s go through our cell phone and look and see how many contacts you have that are people of different races. If you really care about racial reconciliation than look at your calendar and find out when the last time you sat at a table with someone who wasn’t from the same background as you.

One more thing about the Thirty Mile Zone, I think it’s interesting that 30 miles is just about the exact amount of land that Jesus would have probably spent his life on. Jesus never travelled the world, he probably didn’t know much about what was happening in other parts of the world, He never wrote a book.

But book after book has been written about Him.

Because the one thing Jesus did was relentlessly love the person right in front of Him, and teach a group of people to do the same. He poured His life into where He was, and that has changed the entire world. It still can.

Because chances are what’s happening in Ferguson is also something that’s happening in our town, we just don’t know it because we don’t know “them”.

One of the things that grieves me the most about the American church is that we have divided ourselves into such homogenous groups that the Church is no longer an alternative society to the world. We often are just carbon copies of it with Jesus’ name slapped on it. And I get it. It’s a lot easier to like people who are like us. In the words of Christina Cleveland “If a community is really diverse, expect to be offended 100% of the time.”

Life seems to go easier when we spend time with people who see the world the way we do, who were raised with our values and background, there’s almost no reason to even consider challenging it…except for one: The Church is supposed to be doing the work of Jesus in the world.

When incendiary moments happen in our culture, we don’t assume the best about each other because we don’t spend time hearing each others stories, we haven’t had the opportunity to develop empathy for life in each other’s shoes, and so the Church is strangely silent or polarized when it could be, no, it must be, the place where healing happens.

An ancient Church father once said, “What the soul is for the body, the church is for the world.”

Like many white churches, like the world itself…

We need some soul.

And the only way to get that is to start reaching out in the flesh. Because when we don’t know real people, when we spend all our time in front of the screen, eventually we will be a parody of the Gospel…The story of God who came in the Flesh, and never failed to see and love the person who was right in front of Him.

On August 12, 2014

The Adventure Of Life

Tinkerbell: “So… your adventures are over?”

“Oh, no. To live… to live would be an awfully big adventure.” -Peter Pan/Robin Williams from the movie “Hook”

Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

 

Almost everything I needed to know in life I learned in a Robin Williams movie.

Every role he played carried a certain kind of pathos with it that made you think that this person was really alive, and somehow the world was better for it. Williams gave me a glimpse into what it meant to be a good husband (Good Will Hunting) and showed me what it looked like to be a good dad (Mrs. Doubtfire/Hook) He showed us what it looked like to love our neighbor (Patch Adams) and how to love our life. (Dead Poet’s Society)

And so it was a bit like being kicked in the gut when I heard the news last night that Robin Williams had died….presumably by taking his own life.

I know from personal experience, that often comedy originates from a place of pain. After all, those who know death are often the best at really knowing the value of life. But so much of Williams work actually dealt with the very tragic kind of story that his own ended with. I’m thinking of the Dead Poets Society, and those scenes in the movie when Williams helps his students deal with the tragic suicide of one of their friends. Or the scenes in the movie, What Things May Come, watching Williams deal with his wife committing suicide and him going to Hell and back to save her.

If you’re looking for a parable for the human condition, Robin Williams has given us more than his share.

Throughout his personal life, Williams struggled with his own relationships and demons, addicted to cocaine (which he said was God’s way of saying “You’re making too much money”) He checked himself into rehab more than once for alcoholism. All of this was public knowledge, and maybe it was what made us relate to his characters so well. Robin Williams brought all of his humanity into his work.

But why am I writing about this?

We’re Not Alone

A few months ago, we had a prayer and response time at Highland (the church I serve) where we invited people to go to the tables that were placed around the worship space and write down different things that they were dealing with as a way of prayer and confession. Later that week, I heard something from a friend of mine that broke my heart. My friend is a recovering alcoholic and to say he has lead a difficult life would be an understatement. He was in the worship service on that day we all wrote prayers down and he told me that later he snuck back in our auditorium to read the cards…he wanted to see what people had written down.

Because he said, “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t alone.”

In my experience, most of the people who come to church are “fine.” Williams himself was a member of the Episcopal church (he called it “Catholic Lite: All the rites, half the guilt”) And as someone who has done the funerals of friends who have taken their own lives, I happen to know that suicide is not something that religious people are exempt from.

The love of God will not keep us from mental illness or depression.

But that’s not to say nothing can help.

Did you know that Robin Williams and Christopher Reeves were old friends from college? And while it’s easy to be friends with Superman, it’s another story to be friends with a quadriplegic washed-up actor. Williams was both. After Reeve’s tragic horse-riding accident, Robin went to visit him several times, pretending to be a zanier version of Patch Adams just to cheer him up.

For my money, one of the best scenes of any movie that’s ever been made, is in Good Will Hunting. Will Hunting is this abused, orphan genius, who’s good at everything but apparently good for nothing. He pushes people away before they can get too close and when the psychologist played by Robin Williams starts to get at the source of the real pain in Will’s life, Will begins to push back. Literally. He becomes violent, yelling swear words at Williams character, and finally Robin Williams just says “It’s not your fault”Good Will Hunting

All the abuse, all the pain, all the secrets…”It’s not your fault” He just says that over and over and over.

When I heard the news last night about Robin Williams, one of the first thoughts to come to me was I wish he would have had someone like that to hug him and hold onto him, and just keep saying “It’s not your fault”

Sick With Secrets

My alcoholic friends in recovery often tell me that “We’re only as sick as our secrets” and Jesus keeps persisting to me throughout the Gospel that it’s possible to have all our junk in order on the outside and still just be a shell of a person. The word Jesus uses for this is “Hypocrite” or actor. And it’s a word that’s so captivated the world’s imagination that even people who don’t believe in Jesus use it as a critique of those who follow him (and those who don’t).

The goal of Jesus seems to be to get us all to realize that each of us have both an outside and an inside and what we do with our inside matters just as much, if not more, than what we show on the outside.

Which leads me, in a rambling kind of way, to say this. I’ve had to go through counseling several times throughout the past few years. Sometimes for my own addictions, sometimes to work through my own pain, and always to work through my own sin and idols. I  imagine I’ll always need counseling in some form, and I realize as I type this that I don’t talk about that piece of my life that much. I’ve never tried to hide it, but I haven’t been broadcasting it as much as other parts of my life.

But this is not the way of Jesus, and if each of us start trying to live out what’s going on inside of us with a bit more integrity, it might just be one last gift that Williams gives the world.

In a statement released yesterday, Robin’s wife said

On behalf of Robin’s family, we are asking for privacy during our time of profound grief. As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

And so I hope we can. Because in the words of Peter Pan, “To die will be a great adventure, but to live…to live would be the greatest adventure of all.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and if you live in Abilene, or belong to the Highland Church we have a licensed counseling center that I highly recommend (from personal experience) that can be reached at 325-201-3030.

On July 10, 2014

Translation: Getting Closer

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” -Nelson Mandela

The people stood at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” -Exodus 19

Translation Picture

Did you ever wonder why Paul in 1st Corinthians makes such a big deal about speaking in tongues? The rest of the New Testament mentions tongues about 6 times, in just 2 chapters of 1st Corinthians Paul talks about “tongues” over a dozen times.

Why does Paul, this early Church planter, care so much about what people in the church say and how they say it?

Our Moral Tongue

A couple of weeks ago I read a fascinating article in the New York Times about an unusual thing scientist have recently discovered in researching ethics. That is, how people decide what is right and wrong.

Turns out people don’t just decide what is right and wrong in a vacuum, and so what they decide is based on who they are, how they’ve been taught and in what language they think in. 

The classic example used to introduce people to the world of Ethics is a story that goes like this. Imagine you are a railroad conductor and you see a train coming fast down the tracks that has five people on it. The five people will be killed, but you happen to be standing next to a lever that will divert the track in another direction.

The problem is that there is one person on the other track and by saving the five, you will now have made yourself responsible for the death of one. What do you do?

If you say you’ll pull the lever, the line of questioning goes on, finally it winds up not being a lever, but a fat man who’s hanging over the tracks, and if you just give him a push it will save the five and kill the one.This is called the “Utilitarian Ethics” argument (sacrificing the one for the many) and it’s a great ice-breaker for parties.

Or so I’ve been told, for some reason I don’t get invited to very many parties.

The interesting thing about this question, is that the closer people get to the consequences of their decision the more it changes what their decision is. Turns out that people are more likely to pull the lever than actually push a person, even though both bring out the exact same consequences, because pushing a person makes it less abstract.

But what was interesting about this Times article is that apparently research has recently uncovered that when you pose this question to people who are bi-lingual, their answer changes based on what language you ask them in.

If you ask people from Mexico whether or not they would push the fat man onto the tracks, they say “yes” if you ask them in English, and “No” if you ask them in Spanish.

Speaking in Tongues

I had the privilege of spending the better part of last month traveling around Israel and Jordan, It’s an incredible experience that I highly recommend.* You can’t throw a rock in Israel without hitting a Bible story…also you’re not supposed to throw rocks, they could be a part of a Bible story.

But, for me, one of the best parts of the trip came when we worshipped with a small church in Nazareth. Because they are a church that often have tourists come through, and such a high percentage of the church comes from different backgrounds and has different first languages (Hebrew and Aramaic) they often will try to speak and worship throughout the service in several different languages.The Garden Tomb

During this same trip our group took a trip to the Garden Tomb and we heard a Korean group singing “Rock of Ages” in Korean, and I immediately knew that this was an indication of shoddy mission work. Not to critique the Korean group, but I was taught to think like a missionary, and I knew that someone, somewhere had planted a church that shared the Gospel as an idea, instead of sharing the Gospel the way the Gospel shares itself. 

Worshipping with that church in Nazareth, passages in 1st Corinthians started making so much more sense. Remember, most of the time when the New Testament talks about speaking in Tongues, it’s not referring to a personal prayer language (sometimes it is), it’s referring to the actual language people spoke.

This might be hard for us, chances are if you live in America, you probably are only fluent in one language and rarely are put in situations where you can’t communicate with people around you, but in that world it was incredibly common, and actually language was a good way to reinforce the socio-economic systems of the day. (Poor people didn’t have the access to education that wealthier people did, this is also why Paul, a highly educated world-travelling male is able to say “I speak in tongues more than all of you”).

But what do you do when the Gospel creates a new humanity, and you find yourself in a church with people who you would previously not be caught dead with? Before you called them an enemy or foreigner or beneath you, and now you call them brother.

This is what I think Paul is getting at in 1st Corinthians, he’s trying to deal with this incredibly complex situation where all these different cultures/backgrounds are coming together, he’s trying to speak into the spirit of elitism and condescension and his biggest request is just this:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.

Chances are, most of these people could’ve picked up on what was going on. Corinth was a metropolitan city, and they would’ve grown up hearing different languages spoken, but Paul knows what we don’t, it’s not enough to talk about the Gospel, we’ve got to talk like the Gospel. 

When most Christians talk about Orthodox Christian doctrine, we talk about abstract ideas, but if the Gospel is that God entered the world, in a specific time, culture and place, and then told his disciples to go all over the world doing the same, then is it really orthodox Christian theology if it doesn’t look like the culture it’s in?

This is what that Times article is getting at, it’s what drives Paul in 1st Corinthians, each of us have a heart language, a “moral tongue” and the closer we get to that, the closer we reach the heart.

When the little church in Nazareth would sing in English for us visiting tourists, our group would light up, and when we sang the songs in Aramaic they would come alive, and even though we had no idea what we were singing, but we tried to sing along because we learned our worship was helping them worship in their native heart language.

Because the Gospel means God is not abstract, He’s getting closer.

*If you’re interested in going to Israel, I highly recommend Dr. Evrett Huffard’s annual tour. Dr. Huffard grew up in Nazareth as a missionary kid, and was an archeologist there for several years.

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” -St. Paul

Screen-shot-2011-01-25-at-7.52.40-AMRecently I was having a conversation with Brad McCoy, he and his wife are members at Highland, and all around good people. He’s also the dad of Case and Colt McCoy, and if you live in Texas or care about football (those two things overlap significantly) you know that’s a big deal. Both of his sons have been the starting quarterbacks for the University of Texas, and in all those years Brad only missed one of their games. He loved to watch them play, but that’s not to say it was always fun.

Many of the games Brad went to, he was around fans for the opposing teams, and it turns out when you want a team to lose, you talk trash to their most visible player. So over the years, there has been a few times where Brad has had to turn around and say something like, “Hey, I know this is a game, and I’m fine with you booing, but that QB down there is a 19 year old boy who happens to be my son, could you please be a bit more respectful about how you route for your team?”

Turns out they can.

Everyone’s Got a Story

A couple of weeks ago, on The This American Life podcast, a reporter told the story about getting a phone call from the U.S. Senator Alan Simpson. It had nothing to do with the national debt, or anything else he was known for in politics. He wanted to talk to her about her ex-boyfriend.

Turns out she had broken up her boyfriend last month because she lived in New York, and he was a wildlife researcher for the state of Wyoming. The distance was too stressful for their relationship and they called it off. But her boyfriend couldn’t let her go, he was a mess, and he knew that he couldn’t convince her to give it another try…so he wrote a Hail Mary kind of letter to the Senator of Wyoming and asked him to give his girlfriend a call.

And he did.

If you’ve got a few minutes, I highly recommend you listen to this story, it’s poetic and sweet and romantic, and it does the one thing that I think the world could use a little more of. It made someone with a public persona a little more human.

I think that is the greatest problem facing our increasingly pluralistic society. We all have causes and concerns that we are willing to give our life for, but, if you are a Christian there is no cause that you are willing to dehumanize another person for.

Before every genocide in world history, the first thing that changes is the language. Nazi’s couldn’t kill a person, but they could kill a rat, or a pig. It’s hard to hate a person, but much easier to hate a politician, or an athlete, or a Republican, or any of the labels that we’ve invented that helps us create a gap between the person and the role they play in society.

This is what the church should do for the world, make everyone a little more human. One of the greatest gifts that the Jewish/Christian faith has given to the world is the idea that God made people in His own image.

What seems like common sense to us today, was revolutionary in the day it was written. Genesis 1 & 2 is a story about why life matters, and why humanity is something much too precious to be taken for granted.

Today this is seen as common sense. It’s commonly assumed that life matters, and the people who take it should be held responsible and punished. It’s commonly assumed that this is self-evident and only something that Captain Obvious would have to point out…That is, until we argue.

Watch Your Mouth

Whenever people in a pluralistic society argue, watch what happens, people begin to rationalize the other person’s humanity away. They aren’t just Muslims, they are terrorists, they aren’t just pro-life, they are anti-choice tyrants, they aren’t just Democrats, they are an anathema.

The strong language that we use to describe those we disagree is more than just rhetoric, it tells us what we really believe about who they really are.

When Jesus was here, he actually faced this quite a bit. People brought him “sinners” and “tax-collectors” and “prostitutes” but He always had this knack of being able to see more in them than their roles. From the religious leaders to the powerful politicians of the day, Jesus seems almost casual, dealing with them as comfortably as he does those who have no societal standing.

And at one point in the Gospel of Luke, we get a glimpse into how Jesus expects His followers to do the same.
Jesus has just sent out 72 disciples to do ministry and to serve people in the name of the Kingdom of God the way He had been doing, and when they get back Jesus tells them this:

 “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.”

And then the very next story in Luke is the story of the Good Samaritan. Probably the most humanizing story in the history of the world. It’s a story about racism and bigotry and what happens when a label becomes a human, and a “they” becomes an “us”

This is a story about the way Jesus saw the world, and how He wants His Church to as well.

Maybe you saw this video a few years ago, It’s a monologue that Craig Ferguson did on CBS “Late, Late Show” explaining why he wouldn’t be making fun at the expense of Brittany Spears, I’ve never seen anything quite like this on television before, but I’m lucky enough to work in a Church where I see it all the time.

That’s the beauty of the Church, it’s filled with Spirit giving power to see people. In fact, about 15 chapters later Luke tells us about Pentecost, the birth of the Church, about how God pours out His Spirit on all people.

And then Luke gives us the count. Before Pentecost the Bible counted crowds by how many men were there. After Pentecost were told how many women and children are there too.

In a pluralistic society, one of the greatest gifts the Church can give the world is to keep humanizing people and reminding the world that no one is exempt from being made in the image of God. From Donald Sterling to Jesse Jackson, from Rush Limbaugh to Hillary Clinton.

Jesus has taught me that the whole world is filled with neighbors, and He’s showing me how to treat them, and then he said:
“Go and do likewise.”

On June 24, 2014

Orthodoxy: A Haunted World

“A sad saint is a sad sort of saint.” —St. Frances de Sales

“I don’t believe in God, but I sure do miss Him.” -Julian Barnes

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Last month I started trying to introduce readers to one of the best books I’ve read in years. It’s by the often-quoted Chesterton, and it’s one of his best works. The book is called “Orthodoxy” and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I think Christians today are very guilty of what C.S. Lewis calls chronological snobbery, we assume that if anything was written earlier than last week it probably isn’t relevant to today, but reading this 80 year old book I found it was as if he was responding to the latest blogs.

I’ve already read 2 other Chesterton books, and have bought a few more, it’s hard for me to describe how deeply I resonate with Chesterton’s writing and specifically the way he sees the world as bathed in the glory and joy of God.

The Rush of Life

Remember Chesterton is writing in a time of great scientific revolution, and far from being anti-intellectual, Chesteton seems to embrace the pursuit of truth, but adamantly refuses one that tries to shut God out of the world He made and sustains. Chesterton prophetically looks ahead at trajectory that a secular society is leading toward and the dis-enchantment that comes when we reduce the stars to balls of gas and people to accidents.

His beef isn’t against the idea of evolution, his strongest disagreement is with the assumption that God isn’t involved in something because we think we can figure out how it works.

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance.. It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.

Chesterton’s most important word to his day needs to be repeated constantly in this one. Just because we can understand something doesn’t mean we know what causes it and sustains it. In some of Chesterton’s most famous words:

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may Daisybe that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg.

An Enchanted, Magical, Joy-Filled World

Do you see how different this way of seeing our universe is? So many of the stories and movies that we entertain ourselves with today our filled with a kind of modern malaise. God is dead, we killed him and now we are left to try and make meaning out of our lives all by ourselves.

From the movie Garden State to the great American Novelist David Foster Wallace to Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed book “Freedom” we are telling more and more stories about what it means to live a life without God, which is to live a life without magic.

And yet there is a sense that our world is haunted with the presence of a God who is still there, and who still holds the universe together with great joy.

Chesterton makes a point that is incredibly important to me as a preacher and pastor. He points out that for well over a thousand years humanity was miserable in the small bits of life like health and comfort, while insanely happy about their general position in relationship with the Universe. But today, humanity is entirely happy (or believes they should be) with the small bits of life, while mostly in despair about the bigger things.

Then Chesterton says this:

Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.

This is what Chesterton closes his book with, and what he says haunts him, and ever since I read it, it’s haunted me too.

He closes his great book, with a picture of what orthodox Jesus is like.

Great men throughout history have thought they needed to stand above others. Great leaders have always tried to build their name by diminishing others. But not Jesus. Unlike other would be great men Jesus doesn’t try to tower over people, his pathos was casual…yet he towers over all “great” men.

Throughout history, there was the idea that truly great men don’t cry. Stoics had this idea that one should fight to conceal their tears…don’t let the world see you bleed. Jesus weeps openly, over common things like the sight of a city, or a friend who’s sick.

Throughout history we’ve been told that great men conceal their negative emotions. Diplomats, after all, must restrain their anger. Jesus doesn’t do that either. He throws furniture around in the Temple filled with religious people and then asks them how they will escape the wrath of God.

But Chesterton says there was one thing that Jesus did restrain. It was something so hard to hold back that Jesus had to go spend time alone away from the crowds. It was what drove him to spend time isolated on mountains. It was the one thing that “was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth.”

It was His Joy.

On April 21, 2014

Seeing Noah

Russell Crowe in Noah

Last week, the Abilene Reporter News asked me and another area pastor (and one of my good friends) Cliff Stewart to review the movie Noah. But since I wrote this blog a few weeks ago, I’ve had quite a few conversations and several emails asking what I thought about it.

And since I’ve written publicly about why I think Christians should give the movie Noah a fair shake, I thought it would be appropriate to share just what I thought about it now that I’ve seen it. Here’s an expanded version of what I wrote for the ARN:

When they asked Cliff and I to tell us what we thought about the movie Noah we figured that meant we had better go see it first. I’m in the season of life with 3 young kids where the DVD release is when the movie comes out for my wife and me.

But we made a date. We saw the movie. We liked it.

So we’re no Siskel and Ebert, but here’s our best shot at telling what we liked about it and why…

It’s tough being a Bible character.

Sometimes I think we forget that. We romanticize people in the lion den’s or rainbow colored coats and lose the ability to hear the story the way it was first heard by the people who were originally telling it.

I’ll never forget watching Noah in this movie sit in the Ark hearing the people outside. When we read that story in a coffee shop during our quiet time, or in a sermon safely in some church building we forget just how disturbing some of the Bible stories really are.

Turns out the story of Noah is darker than most of us who grew up in religious settings remember. It’s a story of a God who takes evil very seriously. In a time when we replace words like “sin” with softer words like “mistakes” it’s important to remember that God thinks what we do in His good world has consequences.

I didn’t expect to like Noah as much as I did. I thought it was visually stunning and it did the one thing that I needed. It made the familiar story strange to me again. I’ve grown up hearing this story, I’ve read/preached/and heard this story a thousand times, and last night I felt like I was hearing it for the first time again.

I didn’t expect I would find the movie Noah as wonderful as I did.. I use that word intentionally. This movie was full of something that our world seems to be sorely lacking…Wonder. There were several scenes that were just breathtaking. Like the way Creation was pictured or how the animals seemed to be almost magically drawn to the Ark.

What I loved about this movie was that it portrayed the world as enchanted…and anything seemed possible.

It would be easy to argue about the interpretation that the director took, and I could find plenty to critique, but It’s an imaginative retelling of the story of Noah, sure a lot of it very imaginative, but the story of Noah is definitely in there.

The Failure of the Flood

But…God feels distant in Noah, He comes in dreams and not very often. It would be easy to walk out of this movie and complain that God doesn’t have a starring role, but that misses the point of the original story of Noah.

The point of the flood in Noah is that it doesn’t work. God purges the world of evil…only to find Noah a few days later drunk, naked and passed out. As if the ark washed up on the Jersey Shore.

The point of the Noah story in Genesis is that this kind of force doesn’t work. That’s why a few chapters later God calls Abraham, creates a people and tells them He wants them to be a blessing to the world.

That’s how God is going to deal with evil now.

If you’ve ever watched the news, and wondered where God is, why he doesn’t act. If you’ve ever wondered where God was in the Holocaust or when tragedies happen like the school stabbing last week, or the systemic poverty you see around you. Noah is a movie for you.

If you’ve ever wished we could just vote the right legislation in to force everyone to act right, if you’ve ever wished we could get rid of the bad people and purge the world of evil…Noah’s story is a story for you. Because ultimately God’s way of dealing with evil here doesn’t work.

Turns out evil is even in the people on the boat, and they bring it into the new world with them.

So God’s not going to flood the world again. But he’s still just as concerned about evil, and still wanting to do something about it. Turns out God is very present these days. He just might be wearing your shoes and trying to bless people through you.Russell Crowe as Noah in Darren Aranofsky's biblical epic

I’m glad I went to see Noah, it reminded me of how seriously God takes His creation and just how God plans to deal with evil these days. Through His people.

Stained Glass Theaters

It’s important to remember that historically the Church around the world has embraced this kind of cultural translation. Stained Glass windows were the original movies, and throughout Christian history, Noah has always been a story that our artists have been drawn to. Whether it’s Noah being portrayed as a Cucumber in Veggietales, or Eugene Peterson translation of the story into the Message, when we translate a story into a different format there is something that happens. You don’t have to agree with it, but if you are a Christian I think you’d be well served to see the movie.

I think that the first people who heard this story would have had more questions than answers. I think this movie does that well. If you’d like to talk to someone drop by a church somewhere, or meet up with a friend, and start a conversation.

You may not think the movie was as Biblical as it should have been, or you may not even care, but we hope you appreciate that we, at least went to see it a Biblical way…two by two.

I just wish Brother Cliff wouldn’t have hogged all the popcorn.

*The section Failure of the Flood did not appear in the newspaper for brevity’s sake

On April 8, 2014

Translation: How Do You Say

“To the Jews I become a Jew, to the Greeks I become a Greek…I become all things to all people.” -St. Paul

Translation Picture

When I was in college, I took every missions class that I could. Leslie and I were on a mission team planning to go overseas to plant churches and serve, and the only culture I had ever really seen before was rural life in Arkansas. So I wound up in a lot of classes taught by Monte Cox, a great teacher, and a missionary to Kenya for over a decade. And one day I learned why.

It was right after class, and I was walking out when I heard a student make an offhanded comment about something using some kind of current cultural lingo, and Monte stopped her and said, “What do you call it?  Are people saying that now?”

That may not sound like much, but I’d had enough classes with him to know why he was doing it, language is a dynamic thing, and the words we use matter more than we think. Since Monte was trying to communicate and influence people who were younger than him,  it was important for him to know the words that they used, and why they used them.

The Name of God

A couple of weeks ago when Barack Obama made his now infamous “Between Two Ferns” video I immediately thought “That’s brilliant.” Once the 24 hour news cycles had finished analyzing every angle of it I realized how big the generational gap in our culture has become.

Not very many people were clear on why Obama had done it. He was trying to get young adults to sign up for

HeathCare, and in order to do it he had to speak directly to a group filled with cynicism toward any political leader.

So he used the language we are fluent in. Satire.

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It was an act of translation akin to President Bush wearing a Chilean Ponco when gathering for the Summit with World Leaders.Whether you agree with Obama’s strategy or not, what I appreciate is that he didn’t just ask the question, “What do I want to communicate?” but “To Whom and how do I communicate it?”That’s a question I wish our churches asked more often.

For thousands of years God’s people knew God primarily by YAHWEH, this was a name that was given to them by God Himself, they would whisper it, write it respectfully, call on Him, but the one thing they wouldn’t do is change his name. 

Until…

In the book of Acts, Paul the apostle is going all over the known world, and when Paul is trying to tell people the story of Jesus, Paul reaches for a word other than YAHWEH.

Paul calls him Theos, the ordinary Greek word for God. It was a word that carried dangerous baggage of other gods like Zeus or Jupiter, but Paul takes the risk and meets the audience where they are, and tries to reframe their language by showing how God, this Theos, isn’t like those other gods. 

And if he hadn’t have done that, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t even be reading this today.

I often hear people say something like “God is not Allah” but I’ve got plenty of missionary friends in Muslim regions of the world, and none of them would say that in their context. They wouldn’t say that God is not like Allah, what they would say is that Allah is like Jesus.

The Compromise of Context

Language is not the only thing that changes in translation. In fact, language is always an indication of all the other bits that are changing beneath the surface. So when Paul calls God Theos is only the tip of the iceberg. In the Churches he plants, we find that Paul is also throwing out large parts of the Jewish Torah that aren’t applicable or helpful to Gentile converts.

Like circumcision.

Paul came under a lot of criticism for not enforcing circumcision in his Gentile churches. Jewish leaders came behind him and tried to pick a fight with him about it. (My friend Scot Mcknight says these Jewish leaders felt like they were “a cut above the rest”) But Paul didn’t do it because he knew it wouldn’t be helpful for these churches.

Circumcision was a part of an ancient story of God promising Abraham he would bless the world through his family. But to the men being circumcised in these churches it would just be a flesh wound. Paul contextualized the whole story of the Bible for each church he was in.

I like the way Tim Keller, a pastor in Manhatten, who’s quiet familiar with contextualizing the Gospel, says this:

Contextualization is not — as is often argued — “giving people what they want to hear.” Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them. Sound contextualization means translating and adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to a particular culture without compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself. The great missionary task is to express the gospel message to a new culture in a way that avoids making the message unnecessarily alien to that culture, yet without removing or obscuring the scandal and offense of biblical truth. A contextualized gospel is marked by clarity and attractiveness, and yet it still challenges sinners’ self-sufficiency and calls them to repentance.

Translation and caring about where you are at is only an option if you don’t care about talking to actual people who don’t see the world exactly the way you do. But if you care about communicating a message to people, then it doesn’t start with talking. It starts with listening and with the question:

“How do you say….?”