Archives For Justice

On December 15, 2015

Cave God: Christmas Crusades

“God’s glory was that he laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside her respactablilty and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts.” -Charles Spurgeon

Cave GodSo I’m guessing that bringing up the word Crusades is probably not the best image for most Western people when we think of Christmas. After all, the Crusades were part of a pretty dark time in Christian history, heck, it was a dark time in history.

The Crusades were a time when Christians went to a physical war with Muslim soldiers to take back the Holy Lands. It was a war fought presumably for the honor of God, in the name of God. But it certainly wasn’t fought with the spirit of God.

Last week, I wrote about how Christmas really is God’s way of waging war on the principalities and powers of the world.

And this is where you probably expect me to start talking about how the Christmas story really was something more like a metaphor for war. But it’s really not just a metaphor, after all Herod wasn’t metaphorically killing babies.

Worked into the very story we are celebrating in this season is a subversive element of how the Kingdom of God is breaking into the Kingdoms all over earth, Kingdoms that are very investing in keeping the status quo and protecting their own power and interests.

This isn’t just an isolated side note of the Christmas story. Both Matthew and Luke, (the only two Gospels that tell the Christmas story) tell the story of Jesus’ birth in terms of a war.

But since we’re not looking for it, we just read right past it.

King Baby Jesus

In the Gospel of Luke, the Christmas story starts off with Caesar Augustus taking a census. To most of us, that just sounds like the beginning of every Christmas pageant we’ve ever seen. But in reality, it means Caesar is flexing his power. To take a census means that you can tax your people and draft soldiers more efficiently. So far, this story begins like every other kind of ancient epic. The strong ruler is being strong and decisive and getting stronger.

But then the Gospel of Luke does something odd, Luke leaves his focus on Caesar and instead begins to tell us about this young unmarried, pregnant couple who have been forced to comply with Caesar’s edict. Even though she’s very pregnant, they’ve got to obey, because Caesar’s got the biggest army. Right?

Angels announcing Christ's birth to the shepherds by Govert Flinck in 1639

Angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds by Govert Flinck in 1639

Except, the way Luke tells the story is interesting. Because after Jesus is born in a cave in some nothing of a town named Bethlehem, this little family is visited not by royalty but by shepherds. Shepherds in the ancient world had the reputation something like homeless people have in today’s world. They have very little status. This is a detail that you should leave out if you are trying to convince people of a new world movement.

Unless, their presence in the story is a fundamental part of the new world movement.

And apparently God thought it was, because it was to these shepherds that the Angels appeared! Here’s the scene:

 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Now when you picture this scene, don’t get sentimental and imagine some scene from Charlie Brown. The Catholic priest Robert Barron points out that in the Bible when Angels appear to people, those people are always terrified.

Angels in the Scripture are warriors. And the word Luke uses to describe the Angels is Straitia, which means “multitude” or more literally it is a word that means an Army!

The reason Caesar is able to rule the world is because he’s got the biggest army, but the Gospel of Luke opens up by saying that this tiny baby King has a bigger army, and it is one that fights, not like the world fights, but with the power of Heaven, and this army fights for all those that the other Kingdoms have written off.

That’s the point of this war, it’s why God comes to the shepherds first. God is fighting for the people who don’t have anyone fighting for them. Jesus was born in a cave, on the margins of society.

But that was not a setback for God, it was the strategy of God.

God coming through the oppressed and poor isn’t just part of the story, it many ways, it is the point of the story.

A Way In A Manger

John Ortberg says that you might say there was an idea lying there in the cave along with this Baby. An idea that had mostly been confined to a little country called Israel, but was waiting for the right time to crawl out into the wider world—an idea which that wider world would be unable to wholly resist.

finger_of_godSee, in the ancient world people had hierarchal gods. At the top of creation was the gods, then the king. Under the king were members of the court, priests, then artisans, merchants, craftspeople, and then peasants and slaves. The king was seen as divine (or semi-divine) and everyone knew that he was made in the image of the god, but that was something reserved only for the king.

Everyone knew that peasants and slaves were not made in the image of the god. They were created by inferior gods. But all this was challenged by that idea that lay there in the manger,  an idea that had been guarded by Israel for centuries: There is only one God and He is good.

And every human being has been made in his image.

We have no idea how revolutionary this idea was…and is.

Here’s how G.K. Chesterton says this:

There is in that idea alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.

The War of Christmas is a real thing. It’s a war on any idea that would reduce any living person to anything less than someone made in the image of God. It’s a war that was waged by a God who would be born with the outcasts in a cave

The problem with the Crusades, is the same problem with our culture wars today. We love the story of God, but not the strategy of God.

God wages war against war, by laying down his life, making himself vulnerable. He is the Lion who fights like a lamb…and wins.

That’s a Christian Crusade.

We call it Christmas.

“I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into Heaven who can stand it. But standing it may be a more difficult matter than those who take their view of heaven from popular movies may think.

I often wonder how happy and useful some of the fearful, bitter, lust-ridden, hate-filled Christians I have seen involved in church or family or political battles would be if they were forced to live forever in the unrestrained fullness of God.

The fires in Heaven may be hotter than those in the other place.    -Dallas Willard


For the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a blog series, revisiting the Christian doctrine of Hell, and today I’d like to bring that series to an end. I’d like to thank everyone for the incredibly positive feedback I’ve gotten from this series, and if you’re just seeing this series for the first time, you can start here to catch up.

Now I’d like to close this series by addressing the one question people ask the most about Hell.

Who’s going…and Who’s not?

Heaven Isn’t An Elitist Country Club

I think it’s interesting that this is what we want to know the most about the age to come. We really want to know who’s in and who’s out.

And the people who get the most attention are the ones who talk with the most certainty with the answers to those questions. As in ‘Bob’s out, Susie’s in” kind of certainty. We even developed an evangelistic campaign on it “If you died tonight, are you certain that you’d go to Heaven? Are you really sure?”

To be sure, I’m all for people viewing their life through the lens of eternity, but too often I think we forget who God is, and what Heaven is really going to be like.

Over the past few years I’ve started to have this hunch that being in Heaven in age to come, is not going to so much of a pass/fail test as it is revealing what we really desire.

A few years ago, I was leading a Bible Study with a several unchurched people and one family who were already Christians. We were going through the Gospel of Matthew and we got to the story of the Parable of the Day Laborers.

It’s a story Jesus tells that emphasized the radical unfairness of the grace of God, and to illustrate I talked about how the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, just before he was murdered in prison had given his life to Jesus and been baptized.

And that’s when the Bible study took an unexpected turn.

The only other Christian there was immediately disturbed. He said, “You mean to tell me that Dahmer, the guy who did all those horrible things is going to be in Heaven?”

And I said, “Yes, I think so, and I think that’s what this parable means.”

And he said, “I don’t want to be in Heaven with Jeffrey Dahmer. I won’t go in if he’s there”

To which I said something like, “Okay…suit yourself I guess.”

So now the Bible study had one less Christian than we had started with, which was not the direction I think evangelism is supposed to go.

Jeffrey Dahmer, Brother in Christ

Jeffrey Dahmer, Brother in Christ

But this is very much the way Christian theology talks about Heaven and Hell. God gives everyone what they want. And I have a hunch that if we spend our lives developing a Christianish version of morality and self-righteous pride we aren’t going to like Heaven, in fact we might even choose to avoid it.

East and West

One of the times that Jesus talks about Hell comes immediately after he heals a Roman centurion’s servant. That sounds fine to us, but in Jesus’ day it would have infuriated the religious people around Him.

Remember, Rome were the bad guys, they were the ones who had oppressed, killed, tortured and destroyed the Jewish people, and Jesus treats one of the bad guys like a human being.

He even does a favor for him, but from the oppressed Jew’s perspective it gets worse.

After Jesus heals the Centurions servant, he is amazed by the Centurion’s faith and says this to the very uncomfortable crowd:

“Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Notice that Jesus seems to think that God’s judgment is going to be first for the people of God, the ones who are sure that they are the good guys, and others are the bad guys.

Notice that Jesus also says, Many will come.

Everytime you hear people mention Jesus words about the Narrow Way to Heaven, you should also remember that Jesus thinks that the narrow way is going to jam-packed with people coming.

And they’re coming from the East and the West, which is the direction of Israel’s enemies’ (East was Babylon and Rome was to the West) in another Gospel Jesus mentions people coming from the North and South (the North was Assyria and the South was Egypt).

Jesus seems to think that Heaven is going to have multitudes of people streaming in from all directions.

Isaiah sees a day when the Kings of the nations come streaming into God’s holy city. Revelation pictures a Heaven filled with people from every tribe speaking every language.

Jesus is wide open to anyone coming into God’s holy city, and not everyone likes that, they (we) want a better gatekeeper than Jesus.

Now that’s not to say that Jesus is saying that anyone and anything can come into God’s new Creation. Remember that’s the point of Hell, God gives us our wish, and for those who would perpetuate the evil that Creation has grown tired of God will say “Not here you won’t.”

Still Heaven is wide open to the entire world, and it’s going to have many streaming in.

But there is a catch.

The Gates of Heaven

Because this City is built on Jesus, and His presence is the center of it all, not everyone will want it.

In the helpful words of Joshua Ryan Butler:

The gates of God’s kingdom are wide open for the person in Hinduism, but in order to enter the party, something significant must be left at the door. God’s party is a place where the outcast are given the best seats in the house, where the hungry are welcomed to the head of the dining table, where the last become first and the first become last…God is for the Hindu. Jesus welcomes them into his city. The Great Physician extends his embrace with the healing the cross has made possible. But there are idols that must be left at the door.”

Heaven is wide open to the Christian moralist, but if you are unwilling to see the grace of God given to someone like Jeffery Dahmer than something significant must be left at the door.

Heaven is wide open to Muslim, but at the center of Heaven is a Crucified God who shows the world His power through His weakness and death, and so to enter something significant must be left at the gate.

The Gates of Paradise, by Lorenzo Ghiberti. (note the Roman Centurion ushering people in!) © 2004 -- Ron Reznick [#Beginning of Shooting Data Section] Nikon D2H Focal Length: 28mm Optimize Image: Color Mode: Mode II (Adobe RGB) Noise Reduction: OFF 2004/10/27 08:46:54.7 Exposure Mode: Aperture Priority White Balance: Color Temp. (6300 K) Tone Comp: Less Contrast RAW (12-bit) Metering Mode: Multi-Pattern AF Mode: AF-C Hue Adjustment: 0° Image Size: Large (2464 x 1632) 1/100 sec - F/2 Flash Sync Mode: Not Attached Saturation: Exposure Comp.: -1.0 EV Sharpening: Normal Lens: 28mm F/1.4 D Sensitivity: ISO 200 Image Comment: [#End of Shooting Data Section]

The famous Gates of Paradise, by Lorenzo Ghiberti. (note the Roman Centurion ushering people in!)
© 2004 – Ron Reznick

Heaven is wide open to the Nationalist American, but because Heaven will be filled with people from every nation and every tribe, something significant is going to have to be left at the gate.

Heaven is wide open to the materialistic consumer, but after spending a lifetime consuming advertisements that place you at the center of reality, something significant must be left at the gate.

Carol Zaleski once quipped, “Our ancestors were afraid of Hell; we are afraid of Heaven.  We think it will be boring.”

I think we’re afraid of Heaven in lots of ways. And the point of the age to Come in Christian theology is to become the kinds of people who belong there and then, here and now.

It’s easy to slide into talking about Heaven and Hell by threatening others and marking off our Naughty and Nice list, but the point of Jesus’ teaching on Hell almost always  is that God is very, very good.

Too much of Christian history has been religious leaders using Heaven as a tool of terror instead of the great source of hope that it actually is for God’s good future. It is a future without sex trafficking or poverty or slavery or greed filled with the presence of God and the Reign of King Jesus.

It is a future that is open for all who want it.

So take heart, If you want God more than you want to be right, if you want to be with Jesus more than you want to avoid those you consider to be the wrong kinds of people than well done, good and faithful servant…

You will get just what you want.

On September 1, 2015

The Good News of Hell: Curtains Up

“Hell is paved with the skulls of Priests.” -an old French saying


Two weeks ago, I was shocked with the rest of the world to see the NY Times special report on the theology that ISIS had built around rape. The report detailed how ISIS leaders had encouraged their men to pray to God before sexually assaulting their female slaves, and how they would even say things like “By forcing myself on her, I’m getting closer to God.”

It’s no secret that religion can make people worse people just as often as it makes them better. For every Dr. King or William Wilberforce there is also a KKK Grand Dragon or a Fred Phelps, people who are certain that God hates all the same people they do.

And that’s why I’m wanting to do this short blog series on Hell.

I believe much of the problems in the world, and almost all of the problems in the church could be solved if people took time to silently consider their lives before God. I’m talking now about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the idolatrous gods that we construct for ourselves, those gods who happen to like puppies and private jets and everything we do.

I believe that If we let the piercing gaze of God cut through all of our pretenses and defenses, if we stood still and let ourselves feel the grace and judgment of God our lives would change.

Love and Judgement

Now being judged by God might not sound fun, but I’m convinced it what every person in the world is hungry for.

Buried in the same report about ISIS raping women in the name of God there was a small YouTube clip recorded at one of the slave auctions, where ISIS fighters were buying women with their guns. Saying things like “Today is distribution day.” or “Where is my Yiziti girl?” They even candidly admit they’re buying female sex slaves as if that was a perfectly normal part of what it means to be a man. isis-slave-market_video

I don’t care who you are or what you believe, I’ll bet that makes you angry. I’ll bet that if you thought about it long enough you might find yourself longing for a way to make the ISIS men be punished for their evil in some way that corresponded to the evil they were inflicting on others.

You might even find yourself praying for God to give them a new kind of Distribution Day.

Because we all have a sense that the world is off kilter, has gone off track and needs to be set right.

But it’s not just the evil in ISIS or political institutions for large corporations. All of us have a sense that something is off inside of us too, and while our culture has abandoned the ancient categories of sin and salvation we’re searching for the same thing we always have. The Love of God.

And that’s the thing about God’s judgment, it’s never divorced from God’s great love.

Think about it, when we accept grace we are also accepting judgment of the wrongdoing. Grace before it’s anything is an indictment, it’s saying that I’ve fallen short and need mercy.

The problem is that Christians reflect the judgment of God often without reflecting the love that the judgment is based in. We draw lines of who’s in and who’s out without regard to the many passages in the Bible that talk about God’s judgment in surprising ways.

Think about the most famous time Jesus talks about the judgment and specifically who God will sentence to Hell.

It’s in Matthew 25, in the parable of the Sheep and Goats, God judges humanity, and he separates them into two groups, the Sheep and the Goats. This parable is one of the most famous stories that Jesus ever told. I can make an argument that this parable has been the very basis for things like human rights, for our idea that there should be human equality. It’s been the impulse behind creating justice and mercy ministries, prison ministry and caring for the sick and homeless.

But the point of this story isn’t just that we should be doing certain things, it is that the things that we have done with our lives will one day be fully revealed.

When the Curtain Comes Up

Joshua Ryan Butler points out that Jesus isn’t performing a magic trick here. He’s not turning people into sheep or goats, he’s only revealing to themselves, often to their surprise, what kind of people they already are.

In the eyes of the community, the preacher may be a fine upstanding citizen (and maybe they see themselves as such) but in the Day of Judgment God will reveal all, and some will be surprised by how they stand before God.

There will be a day when people will have to ask the surprising question “LORD when did I rape you?” “LORD when did I lynch you?” or “LORD when did I picket your funeral?”

There will be a day when the lies we willingly tell ourselves won’t work anymore, one day the curtain comes up.

I know Christians often come across as judgmental toward the world, but that’s often only because they haven’t spent time allowing God to search their own hearts. It’s interesting to me how often we refer to God’s judgment as something toward outsiders, when the overwhelming majority of the time in Scripture it is toward the people of God.

Think about that famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” you’ve probably heard of this sermon before. It’s an awful sermon. I hate it. I’ve never read it…but I hate it, because I already think I know what it means.

But…would it make you think twice if you realized that this famous sermon is not a sermon preached from a street corner, but from a pulpit? It’s not written to wayward sinners, it’s written to church people. It’s written to those who consider themselves fine, upstanding citizens and the preacher is asking them to consider their lives under the gaze of a God who sees all and knows all, a God who isn’t fooled by what we say we believe or how we behave only on a Sunday morning.

Think back to that Matthew 25 passage again, the criteria for how Jesus judges us isn’t on what we think about God, it’s how we treated people who were made in God’s image. Here’s how Butler says it:

Jesus identifies with the vulnerable. How we treat them is how we treat him. But this has a flip side. When a deadbeat dad walks away from his child, he walks away from Jesus. When the cheerleader overlooks the girl sitting alone at lunch, she overlooks the Savior of the world. When the rich man ignores Lazarus, he ignores the presence of God.

And in light of this kind of judgment by this kind of God, people are given a new ethic by which to live and view their lives.

Once more here’s Butler:

Jesus doctrine of hell levels the playing field. This is one of the things I have come to love about it. It does not elevate me above the world; rather, it humbles me before the world. As a man, I need to come to grips with the fact that lust is not allowed in the city where all God’s daughters are to be treated honorably, with respect, and lifted high. As an American, I need to understand that nationalist superiority will not be allowed in God’s Kingdom, where the nations are healed, where Iraqis and Afghans are at the center of the celebration, where we rejoice together in God’s presence. As a pastor, I need to accept that self-righteousness and hypocrisy will not be allowed in Jesus’ city, where religious folks seem to have a harder time getting in than most.

God is not cruel, no matter what our caricatures about him might say, but God’s judgment will reveal all the ways we’ve been cruel to each other, and condemn all the ways we’ve used his name to justify it.

God will one day reveal all, and He isn’t fooled by the masks we wear, no matter how stained glassed they might be.


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

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

As in 1 out of 5 stars.

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

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

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

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

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

An Actual 1 Star Review of Yosemite Park

An Actual 1 Star Review of Yosemite Park

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

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

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

1. Worship is For God

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

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

It’s about me.

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

Worship is, and has always been, for God.

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

Do we realize who we are singing to each week?

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

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

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

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

2. Worship Makes us Honest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside of the Durham Cathedral

Inside of the Durham Cathedral

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

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

3. Worship Changes Our Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s done for God.

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

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

On January 19, 2015

There is a Promised Land

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


On the Thursday morning that Dr. King was assassinated he also was attacked by one of his own friends….with a pillow. On the day of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. got in a pillow fight in his own hotel room.

I don’t know about you, but that fact makes me smile in some deeper parts of my soul. The realization that even though hate might kill this good man, it couldn’t kill the goodness and joy in the man. I smile at the realization that during Dr. King’s final moments alive he was able to smile.

And then I wonder…how did he do that?

Standing on Promises

This past summer I went to Israel with a group of people For the most part, we were your usual group of Christians touring the Holy Lands, retired doctors and lawyers and teachers on a pilgrimage to see where all the stories that had saturated their imagination had happened.

For the most part we were white and southern. But that doesn’t quite account for all of us. There were several African-American women from Memphis, and I spent the majority of the first few days seeing the Holy Lands with them. Mainly because they were so nice and kind, but also because I didn’t want to just see the Holy Lands, I wanted to see it through their eyes.

See, I’ve learned just enough about the Bible to remember that the Bible is harder for me to read than others. The Bible is hard for me to read, not because of a lack of training or my ability to never quite get above a B in Greek. It’s hard for me to read because or where I read the Bible from, and where I don’t.

People who have known systematic oppression and marginalization were the ones who wrote the Bible, it is as it were, a history written by the losers. And so when my new friends were seeing these stories of the land of liberated slaves I wanted to know how they saw it.

And that brings me to Mrs. Shirley.

Mrs. Shirley was a senior saint who also happened to be African American. She had lived her entire life in Memphis and she had seen a lot. She told me about her family’s struggle to rise out of poverty and her concern for her children and grandchildren to do well in a system that seemed stacked against them
And then she told me a story that became one of my favorite memories from the trip.

When when she was only 14 years old, and she got to walk with Dr. King when the Civil Rights movement came to Memphis. In order to go on one of these marches she had to go through all the training about how to keep the protest non-violent in the face of other people’s great anger, she was trained how to respond if people spit on her, or how to react if she or someone she cared about were beaten.

But the advice that really stuck with her was when the civil right protest organizers told her that if that the police released the dogs that they should try to remain calm and keep walking hand in hand. As she was telling me this story, Mrs. Shirley remained calm, as if she was still following the instructions, but she had a fire in her eyes as she was remembering.

I didn’t know how to respond to her story so I asked her if she was scared during all of this and she said, “No, not really.” Then a few minutes later she came back and said, “I can’t lie. I’m embarrassed now, but I was scared. What I really afraid of was the idea that those dogs might bite me.”1183155006_08b1215aeb

Protests and Pillow Fights

I don’t know what you did over this holiday weekend, but I joined the crowds watching Selma. The movie about Dr. King and the civil rights stand off that ultimately past sweeping Federal Voting reform. During that movie I wept on more than one occasion. But the scene that touched me the deepest was watching little African-American girls march with dignity into the angry crowd armed with billy clubs and attack dogs.

I wept because I now knew who that little girl was, and I knew that even thought she might not look it, she was afraid.

But Mrs. Shirley, like so many of my black brothers and sisters who lived through the civil rights movement, wasn’t angry. She wasn’t angry at other white people, and incredibly enough she wasn’t angry even at the people who had unleashed the dogs on her. She had every right to be furious but she had chosen another path.

So eventually I asked Mrs. Shirley how she did it. I wondered what could move someone to refuse to harbor bitterness against those who wish you evil. And that’s when Mrs. Shirley told me the most profound gospel-like things. She said something to me that made me realize how Dr. King could get into a pillow fight on the day of his assignation, even after saying the night before that he knew his life was in danger.

Mrs. Shirley said she wasn’t angry because, “There is a Promised Land”

And suddenly it all clicked for me. Mrs. Shirley wasn’t just there to see the Holy Lands, Mrs. Shirley was there because her entire life had been oriented around a God who makes promises that the future will be better than the past.

There is a Promised Land.

The civil rights movement succeeded because tens of thousands of men and women trusted that what God had promised would one day become a reality, and they were able to refrain from violence or anger because that God would one day keep his promises.

If we want justice, if we want to keep from getting angry in the face of injustice, we must remember this. There is such a thing as a perfect justice and one day it will roll down like a river. There is such a thing as a perfect righteousness and one day it will flow like a never-ending stream. If we want mercy than we must remember that there is such a thing as a good and compassionate God.

That’s how you do it. There is a Promised Land, it’s not quite here yet but it is coming and it changes everything.

The final public words of Dr. King were spoken in a church in Memphis and as we look back on a year of racial tension, injustice and peace, his words are just as hopeful and calming as they were on the day he spoke them:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I’m happy tonight.

I’ll die tomorrow.

I think I’ll have a pillow fight in between.

Because there is a promised land.

On October 29, 2013

Good and Evil: When Bad is Broken

“The Doctrine of (no Hell) can only be born in the quiet of the suburbs.” -Miroslav Volf

“Vengeance is Mine says the LORD.” -St. Paul


Last week, I started a Bible study with a young Muslim man from West Africa. A few of us are reading through the Gospel of Mark together talking about the life of Jesus.

When we came to the part of Mark where Jesus exorcises the demon from the man in the synagogue, I told our African friend that most of us around that table had never seen this kind of evil, and I asked him if he had anything to say.

Turns out he did.

Today I’d like to finish this little blog series on Evil, with one more final, and I think timely observation. I started this series because Vince Gilligan had captured America’s imagination with the story of a High School Chemistry teacher turned Meth Cook, drug kingpin, and murderer. Little by little, Walter White broke bad. And I’d like to remind you one more time of the Creator’s philosophy of this story:

“If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something…I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”

What an interesting way to say that.

The Hell of It

As fans of the show watched the unraveling of the character we’d grown to love to hate or hate to love, we noticed that there was also another character to Breaking Bad. Karma. Underwriting every scene was this idea that the other shoe was going to drop and evil people would get their comeuppance in proportion to their crimes against humanity.

But this is where I think Breaking Bad is more naive and hopeful than almost any fairy tale that has gone before it. Because the world doesn’t work as cleanly as that…and in some ways that is the point of the whole show. This is how Vince Gilligan wished the world worked.

And it’s why I believe in Hell.

But not the way you might think.

I’m not sure how God’s final judgment is going to work, I’m pretty sure it’s different than what most of us think of when we think of Hell and Satan with pitchforks. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it isn’t what most of my American friends think of when they bring it up. Because when the Bible talks about God’s final judgment it seems to always assume that this is a good thing.

In fact, the doctrine that God will judge the entire world was always seen by God’s people, not as a condemnation, but as a comfort. And it was also seen as a great resource for how to respond to evil in the here an now.

In the jarring words of the great theologian Miroslav Volf:

The practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance…My thesis will be unpopular with man in the West…But imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit…Your point to them–we should not retaliate? Why not? I say–the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God…Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword…It takes the quiet of a suburb for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence is a result of a God who refuses to judge. In a scorched land–soaked in the blood of the innocent, the idea will invariably die, like other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind…if God were NOT angry at injustice and deception and did NOT make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.

Is God a Pacifist?Mark Driscoll

Over the past week, it seems that there has been a resurgence of people claiming that the idea of non-violence is un-manly. Controversial Pastor Mark Driscoll is once again is being controversial, and once again the argument seems to be something like, to be a man means that you need to own a gun and be willing to take up arms against evil.

Now I own a gun, and understand the God-given instinct to protect the weak, but I don’t like this conversation at all.

It seems to me that the people who talk the most about Hell understand it’s implications the least. Because the good news about the coming judgment of God is that God will set the world right, And that His judgment works differently.

Think about how Jesus deals with those demon possessed. Whatever Jesus says, the demons obey. there’s no arguing with the Son of God for them. In Mark 5, Jesus kicks a whole legion of demons out of a person, and the person is still standing. Jesus’ judgment is for the person, and against evil.

Think about one of the few times that Jesus talks about the eternal fire of judgment. Look at what he actually says In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and His angels” 

Hell wasn’t made for people. Hell was made to judge the evil of the world. Hell was made because God cares about all the ways we’ve hurt each other. It is God’s final way to break bad.

Which brings me back to my friend from West Africa. He told us about Witch Doctors and goat sacrifices, about voodoo spells that drove a friend crazy, and ultimately about the civil war that ravaged his country and killed his father. He had seen men light other men on fire, behead one another and he saw dark forces at work behind it all.

My African friend has no problem with the idea that God has some judging to do.

The good news about the judgment of God is that there is such a thing as justice for us to work toward, but we must also recognize we will never be able to fully bring it because we are a part of the problem too. None of us know exactly what people deserve, and if we are honest none of us are qualified to dispense the judgment of justice toward others because we are deeply broken ourselves.

If there is a judgement day, then we don’t have to take the burden of justice all on ourselves. If God will set the world right, we don’t have to worry about trying to fix it all by ourselves. And we don’t have to take up the means of evil to defeat it.

Is God a pacifist? In a word: No

But that doesn’t mean that God’s people can’t be.

Because vengeance is His. One day God will make every sad thing come untrue. At the restoration of all things, when death itself is dead, when bad is fully broken.

On February 23, 2013

Everyday Idolatry: A Fair God

“Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.” -Alexis de Tocqueville

Temple in Chennai, India

His name was Fred, and he was passionate about justice, he was passionate about equality and fairness. And so after Fred got his law degree, and became a civil rights lawyer. For years Fred served and fought for dis-enfranchised people who were being treated un-fairly. Eventually the NAACP gave him an award for the way he fought for the rights of African-Americans.

And then Fred Phelps left civil law and planted a church.

The Westboro Baptist Church.

The God-hates-fags-America-soldiers-and anyone-who’s-not-a-Phelps-church.

Most of us hear that and realize something went horribly wrong. But if we become what we worship, maybe it’s not that surprising. Because the end of idolatry is always bad.

Now most of the time when we think of idolatry, we think of primitive statues and ancient times. But idols are all around us, and they are in fact never bad things, just mis-ordered things. And that’s especially true with this particular idol.

More than Fair

Sometimes when I hear people talk about justice, I realize that, while we care about similar things, I find that I don’t want to be like them. Some of the people who have dedicated their lives to great endeavors, found themselves being incredibly angry. And I can understand why. Because we become like what we worship, and if you find yourself constantly bitter or angry maybe a question to ask is “What god am I worshipping?”

Back in the day of Jesus, there was actually several different gods of for fairness and justice. One was named Mazda, and he went on to develop a line of cars.The Roman’s had a Goddess for fairness named Equitas. And she was represented by a set of balanced scales.Equitas

Fred Phelps really did set out to change the world, he fought for justice. But it’s possible to be right in very wrong kinds of ways, it’s possible to serve God but worship an idol. And it will never end well.

I can’t tell you how often I hear people talk about God or Church or whatever it is, and I find myself asking, “Wait, are we talking about the God of the Bible? Do you think that God is fair? Because that is a huge American value, but not so much a description of God in the Scriptures.”

Think about the stories that Jesus tells that sit poorly with us, for example here or here.

One of the things about fairness, is that we rarely pull that word out when it doesn’t serve us somehow. Nobody ever says, “Oh Why God, why have you been so unfair to me? Why do I have so….much? Why do I have a roof over my head and access to food everyday, when so much of the world doesn’t?”

The U.S.A. is the wealthiest and whiniest civilization that the world has ever seen. We have aisles set aside just for dog food in our grocery stores. 1/3 of the world doesn’t have grocery stores at all!

Be careful with how you use the word fair.

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On July 3, 2012


So this is a short video about the trip that Matt Pinson (The Highland Director of Communications) and I just got back from. We’d like to get the word out about what is happening in Nepal and ways that Gospel centered people are trying to stop sexual trafficking in creative and significant ways, so if you have a moment please click the share button at the bottom of this page to share this story with your friends.

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On June 20, 2012

The Red Thread Movement

So I just returned from a couple of weeks in Nepal working with the ministry Eternal Threads. It’s a great ministry that I highly commend that is working to create connections between 3rd and 1st world countries, and providing fair trade opportunities for some of the most vulnerable people in the world. One part of the Eternal Threads ministry is something called the Red Thread Movement, and what it is doing for the girls in Nepal is unreal!

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On January 31, 2011

The Human Capital

By now, most of us have heard of Ted Williams. The Homeless man with the Golden Voice, who was discovered by a Good Samaritan with a video camera and the foresight to introduce Ted to the world via YouTube. You’ve probably heard about Ted’s rise to fame over the past few weeks. He voiced a Kraft Mac & Cheese commercial. He was offered the announcer job by the Cleveland Cavs (who know what it’s like to fall on hard times). Maybe you even saw him on Dr. Phil as he was confronted by his family to stop drinking.

Suddenly he is a household name and his fifteen minutes are ticking. But his story has gotten me thinking.

One of my heroes is a guy named Larry James. Larry was a preacher for many years, he has spent his life telling the Jesus story. But these days Larry doesn’t do it from a pulpit. Several years ago, he started a ministry some of you might be familiar with. It’s called Central Dallas Ministries,(Recently re-named City Square) and it exists to do something about human suffering in Dallas…specifically about homelessness and poverty.

But what is interesting to me about Larry, is that he is adamant about his approach to ministry. He refuses to do ministry for people. He wants to do it with them.

I like that. Because we have a real propensity to work out of an us/them mentality. And this is where Larry James has helped me out so much. Most of the time we think about helping other people, we tend to think in terms of charity, or tax breaks, or hand-outs. But there is a better way.

I read Jay-Z’s book DeCoded last week, and in there he quoted a Jewish Rabbi about this particular issue. (I’ll let you fill in your own joke about a rapper quoting a Rabbi). This Rabbi pointed out that in Orthodox Judaism, there are 8 different levels to giving. The 7th is to give anonymously, which is a way to give without forcing dehumanizing the other person. But the 8th, and top form of generosity, is to give in a way that makes the recipient not feel like they are dependent on another’s hand-out, but somehow self-sufficient. This way, Rabbi Jay-Z argues, does not take away a person’s dignity. Continue Reading…