Archives For culture

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….?”

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.

 

O for a thousand tongues to sing. My dear Redeemer’s praise! The glories of my God and King, The triumphs of His grace. -Charles Wesley

Leadership with education

A couple of Sundays ago at Highland Church, we showed this video of one of our missionaries in Thailand. They spent the first year of their time there just researching they symbols and practices that people used to talk about God and the Sacred in Pheyao. And then they did this very interesting thing.

They wrote down hundreds of different words on 3×5 cards, gave them to the Thai people they were interviewing, and asked them to put them in categories. The words were about things like love/service/honor/sacrifice. They wanted to see what ideas the words they were using where linked to.

Because there’s no such thing as a 1-1 equivalency for language, something is lost when we translate, but something can also be gained.

Bowing Before Kings

There is something powerful about watching Thai people bow down before Jesus. But only if you know the Thai culture. When Eden and I first got to Thailand, in our hotel, there was a warning for all foreign visitors not to speak poorly of the royal family. The King of Thailand is dearly loved, and respected, and that’s a good thing.

But what our missionaries in Thailand discovered when they were studying the language is that the King of Thailand was more than respected, the same words and gestures they would use to talk about God they would use to talk about him…sometime even more so.

They asked a new convert to Christianity what she would do if the King walked into the room. A visible change of expression came over her and she said excitedly, “I would fall flat on my face and bow before him.”

So that’s when they knew how to worship Jesus in Thailand.

And that’s when I knew that they had tapped into something many Western Christians hadn’t realized just yet.

Because they at least knew how to link certain emotions and words to other ones. The Thai people knew that all the reverence they had for their king, the anxiety they had when he got ill, or the anger they felt when he was disrespected, was actually something that belonged in the category of worship.

And I’m not trying to be hard on the Thai culture, I’m trying to point out something that I thought was profound for American culture. 

If you were to suddenly lose the ability to speak english, and you had to gauge people’s meaning and intent based on tone and body language and what kind of events would draw crowds together…what would you assume was our sacred spaces? What would you assume we worshipped?

If you had to discern just by seeing what people got angry at, or what made them extremely happy, what would you assume we worship?

And do our churches worship like that?

Kings Bowing Down

There’s an interesting passage in Isaiah that has captured my imagination recently. It’s Isaiah’s picture of the New Heavens and the New Earth. In Isaiah’s vision, the kings of the earth come marching in to the new Jerusalem, each bringing some of the cultural artifacts that their nation was famous for, and then they lay them down at the feet of the LORD.

In fact, the way Isaiah ends is with what he calls the “Glory of the Nations” coming in on horses and chariots and wagons and mules and camels (all distinct cultural forms of war and travel) and God makes people from all over the earth His priests.

They lay the best parts of their world, their culture, down at his feet, and it becomes a part of the Kingdom of God.

So back to Thailand, I went there last summer to speak to missionaries all over Asia, and at one point I talked about this. How God’s redeeming purposes weren’t just for individual souls but also for all of His creation, and some of the things that people have created. 

Then I asked the missionaries to just shout out what kinds of things they saw in the respective countries they represented that was in tune with God’s good world. They shouted out everything from food to ways of honoring the elderly to certain kinds of music.

I think they were exactly right.

That’s one of the great parts about being a missionary. It’s not just that missionaries go to share the Gospel, it’s that missionaries also get to see just how big the Gospel is. Jesus is already there, working through and in people, we just get to point Him out. And with eyes that are Gospel trained we get to see the world ablaze with the glory of God.

This is why translation is so important, and our approach to it must be generous. After all, no one culture can fully capture the Kingdom of God, no one worship style, no one language, and each time the story of God gets translated, it just gets bigger and better.

God’s priests are everywhere, some of them are still waiting to be called, and some of us need to go, and others of us need them to minister to us.

We need new priests to teach us how to worship and what to bow down for.

This is why Revelation ends with people from every tribe and every tongue singing to God.

Because this song is so good and God is so big, we need a thousand tongues to sing it.

On February 6, 2014

Translation: Sitz Em Laben

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

Leadership with education

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is so funny on so many levels.

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

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

Throwing Keys and Telling Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latter Day Saints

Founding of the LDS

Founding of the LDS

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

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

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

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

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

Doest thou concur?

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

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

I asked him what he thought about the police.

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

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

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

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

The Church and the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Good Jesus People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On January 23, 2014

Translation: Holier Than Thou

Leadership with education

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

The Patron Saint of Translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And ultimately it got him killed.

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

But…

william tyndale

William Tyndale

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

All Too Common

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

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

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

Now I respect the impulses here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words…Christianity is Holier than Thou.

On January 20, 2014

Civil Religion: Civil Fights

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

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

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

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

The Dream on Tape


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagination and Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because justice, by itself, can be quite ugly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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