Archives For culture

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

g-k-chesterton-900x670

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.

39a

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

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

Until…

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

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

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

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

The Compromise of Context

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

Like circumcision.

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you say….?”

On April 1, 2014

Am I Leading a Rebellion?

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

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

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

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

Here’s what he said:

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

In my experience, this observation is spot on.

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

Working With Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Live in Protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how Douthat points it out:

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

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

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

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One of the more interesting things about the Bible is what happens when God reveals Himself to people. They are always terrified, they say things like “Go away…or I will die.” And then they say something  peculiar like”Who am I?” When God reveals Himself to people, the people always become acutely aware of how broken they are.

They become in a word…modest.

When we talk about modesty, immediately what probably comes to our minds is cleavage or short skirts…I notice we rarely apply it to shirtless, or provocatively dressed men. As a person who struggles with self-delusion, I’ve made the personal commitment to never wear tight clothes or short shorts, you know, just to keep others from stumbling.

But when the Bible talks about modesty, much of the time it’s not talking about the same things we talk about. For example, go back and read Paul’s letter to Timothy, or Peter’s letter to the church of his day.

Most of the time, when they are talking about modesty (in a world very much like ours) they are talking about economic modesty. The word they have for the women of their day is not to feel the need to showcase how much you have…in other words, because of God, you shouldn’t dress to show how well off you are.

But modesty also has another meaning in Bible, and by this meaning, Christians today are rarely modest.

Which is not a new thing.

I Know You Are, But What Am I

In the 17th century, the Quakers and the Puritans were locked in a pretty intense debate. One of the most famous Puritan preachers, a guy named Richard Baxter, wrote a pamphlet where he called those Quakers “ drunkards, swearers, whore mongers, and sensual wretches…miserable creatures .” And then, just in case they didn’t get how serious their theological error was, he said they were no better than “Papists.”

Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter aka “Child of the Devil”

So a Quaker preacher, James Naylor, responded to these harsh accusations and names…with more accusations and names. Naylor called Baxter “a Serpent,” a “Liar,” a “Child of the Devil,” a “Cursed Hypocrite,” and a “Dumb Dog .”

Naylor actually said he was responding because he had been compelled by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, which may be true. But he most certainly wasn’t responding with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 

The problem with these arguments is that they do the opposite of what they are hoping to accomplish. When we demonize the other, we rarely have healthy conversations about the issue of disagreement. We divide up the world into right and wrong, and lose the ability to learn and grow from each other.

Last year, on NPR, I heard about a city where the Pro-Life leaders and the Pro-Choice leaders had started secretly meeting for lunch once a week. They had to keep it a secret because the war had already been clearly defined by talking points and hostile speech, but these women still wanted to learn where the other was coming from.

Have you ever noticed how we talk about war? Pascifists argue against all war, Just war people argue that there are some wars that are justifiable. But both sides are starting with the assumption that violence has to be held in check by some moral-limits. They don’t believe most wars are justified. 

But they rarely talk about what those limits are, because they can’t talk about much past what defines them in their opposition.

It seems like every day there is another conflict that has broken out between another faction of people. Politics, Corporations, Churches, Atheist Groups.

Language as Dress

Growing up, modesty was something that the Christians around me talked about a lot. It was always assumed that even though it wasn’t in the ten commandments that girls should dress modestly, it was at least a footnote.

We understood that it was important to not dress in a way that dehumanized yourself.

I think it’s time we learned to speak that way too.

Think about the way the Bible refers to dress, it often isn’t talking about specific clothing instructions, it’s speaking more with a putting on of a certain kind of character.

Like in 1st Peter:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self,the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

The early Christians cared a lot living a quiet, gentle lives, even while having passionate convictions.

I wish we talked about that when we talk about modesty.

Modesty basically means to not over-estimate ourselves, it is the virtue of knowing and embracing our limitations. We don’t know everything, we don’t know for certain what’s best for the world, and no human should find themselves so certain that they can dehumanize another because they disagree with them.

I like the way Richard Mouw talks about this:

Our efforts at public righteousness must be modest ones. Now this is a dangerous point to emphasize . The call to modesty can easily be interpreted as giving Christians permission to be unconcerned about the issues of public life . “Poverty is always with us, so why worry about injustices?” “You’re never really going to do away with prejudice and conflict—at least not until Jesus returns! No compromise is acceptable. Those who adopt our variety of Christianity are possessors of the truth, and everyone else is caught up in error!” We may hear statements like these when we start encouraging modesty . But the risk is necessary, especially in the light of the immodesty that has often characterized Christian forays into the public arena.

I know that modesty can sound quaint and the ways that we’ve talked about it have been sexist. Still, as  parents of three children, Leslie and I are going to talk about modesty with them….and it is going to involve more than clothes.

Underneath modesty is the virtue of humility. You don’t have to prove yourself or justify your existence with your looks, or your clothes or your ideas or your words. God has justified you.

So let’s talk like it.

“Christian practices are always the practices of others made odd.” – Kathryn Tanner

“The most effective way to change someone’s mind requires grasping the minds they already have.’ -Leonard Sweet

Leadership with education

Jonathan Martin tells about a missionary friend of his who trekked for a few days to get to a specific unreached tribe, and when he finally reached them he discovered that they didn’t have a word for heart. And being a good Baptist, he invited them to ask Jesus into their hearts, and that’s when his translator told him that they didn’t have a word for hearts. Actually, they didn’t even know what that was. (It’s not like there are a lot of cardiologists up in mountain tribes.)

Which raised the question for this Western Christian, “How do you get people to invite Jesus into their heart, when they don’t even know they’ve got a heart?”

And this is not just a “Christian” problem.

When the company Microsoft first began to break into Chinese markets, they knew that they needed to rebrand from their English name. So they just did a literal transliteration of their name into Chinese. They became “Wieran” the problem is that they didn’t take the culture they were attempting to serve seriously enough to learn it.

Their new company’s name was literally “Flaccid and small”

Heaven Talking to Earth

When I was in college, one of the most disturbing things for me was learning about the context that the Bible was written in. As a Bible major, I learned about how similar things in the Old Testament were to the surrounding countries. The Old Testament covenants and speeches that we hear from God are strikingly similar to the religions of other Mesopotamian texts around that time.

To be sure, they are also strikingly different, in say their treatment of women, or their inclusion of foreigners, but so much of the Old Testament is written like other ancient religious documents.

And this really bothered me. Until…

After about a week of showing us the similarities between the Hebrew Scriptures and the surrounding culture, Dr. Fortner showed a classroom full of future ministers a clip from Apollo 13. It’s the part where the air filter on their return shuttle has malfunctioned and they have a very small window to fix the filter or the astronauts will die of asphyxiation.

The Austronauts don’t have enough air, and Houston has a problem.

And then some genius in Houston goes to a table full of engineers and dumps a box of random parts on the table, and tells them ‘You’ve got 30 minutes to fix this filter, using nothing but the parts in this box.”

And then Dr. Fortner asked us, “Why could they only use what was in the box?”

Because what was in the box was the only thing the people in the command module had to work with.

If God is going to communicate to people, how else is He going to do it? For God to effectively communicate to people He’s going to have to use the words/sybols/ideas that we have, and go from there.

So of course, when God comes to Israel, He’s going to have to use the ideas and structures from surrounding society, He’s not trying to give us a new language, He’s trying to create a new people.

Livers and Pigs

This is why missionaries fascinate me, because they get this. They are having to go to a new culture and tell a story in a language that is unfamiliar. They are trying to remain faithful to the story and relevant to their culture.

Leonard Sweet talks about a missionary who went to a country where they didn’t have a Bible, he was trying to tell the story of John the Baptist and Jesus, but as he began to get to know the culture, he realized that there was a problem. Lamb’s in this country were seen as dirty and impure. They were regarded as filthy. And so as the missionaries began to understand the way people saw the way their new country saw the world, they told the same story in a slightly different way.

Their new translation told about how John the Baptist introduced the world to Jesus by saying, “Behold the Pig of God”

So back to that missionary on the tribal mountain. The translator told him that they didn’t know what a heart was, but he also told him that “for them the seat of emotions is the liver.” So a few minutes later, he led them all in a prayer to invite Jesus into their livers.

Houston fixed their problem, and God promised the Israelites to be their God in a language and metaphor they could understand.

This is the way God works, then and now.

So invite Jesus into your Liver, and behold the Pig of God.

On 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.