if a man die…

If a man die, shall he live again?
Job 14:14, KJV

Funerals are always interesting to me. Almost a week ago, one of our family friends, age 31, died unexpectedly. The day I got back from Africa, we drove to Little Rock for their wedding – my father officiated, and I was in it. Yesterday at the funeral, they played footage from that day just over six years ago.

It is a somewhat eerie feeling to see yourself in video footage at someone else’s funeral.

“Can the dead live again?” Job asks. “If so, this would give me hope through all my years of struggle, and I would eagerly await the release of death.”

I am the resurrection and the life,
says the Lord.

He who believes in me,
even though he dies,
he will live again;

and whoever
lives and believes in me
shall never die.

None of us live to ourselves
and none of us die to ourselves.
If we live,
we live to the Lord.
And if we die,
we die to the Lord.
Whether we live, therefore
or die,
we are the Lord’s.

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,
for they rest from their labors.

not only to be thankful…

As we take time today to reflect on our blessings, my hope is that we would go beyond that. Often when we consider all the ways we’ve been blessed, we forget that so many around us haven’t enjoyed the same blessings we do.

Last year, I posted links contrasting our lives with the lives of many in America Statistics regarding poverty are always humbling to me, but I often forget that wealth is not the only area in which many people around us are impoverished.

There are dozens of statistics available regarding the state of mental health in America, but I don’t think too many of us would find it surprising that people we know suffer from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and feelings of hopelessness. On Monday we talked about people who we see on a daily basis who say, “I’m fine,” who we know aren’t. We each know people who feel lost, and in a very real way we each know what it feels like to be that person.

My prayer for each of us is that we would not only be thankful, but allow that thankfulness to be transformed into compassion, not only for those in physical need this holiday season, but for those whose daily struggle is internal, who are struggling valiantly to “hold it together”, but who aren’t always sure they can make it through the day. I hope and pray that we would seek these people out and attempt to provide a safe place – a place where they are able to be honest and share their concerns without judgment or fear, a place where they are welcomed and cared for.

May we remember that this time of year, which seems as though it should be the happiest, is for many people the most lonely and hopeless of times. As we interact with others, may we each give not only of our possessions, but of ourselves – thankful for what we have, but caring and compassionate toward those who do not.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

I mentioned this passage yesterday, and sort of left the question open of how we live it out. I’d like us to also consider a second passage:

John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”

Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

When Jesus begins his ministry in his home town, the things he mentions are striking: captives will be freed, the blind see, and the downtrodden will be freed. I think even more striking than that, however, is his response to John’s disciples. When they ask if he’s the Messiah, his answer is very pointed: “Go back and tell John what you see…” I think Jesus’ words have some critical implications for us today – if we claim to be followers of Christ, our actions will attest, or not, to that label. Jesus doesn’t answer with a theological statement, or a scriptural exegesis of why he is the Messiah – rather he answers simply to observe what is going on around him – the blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.

As we walk through life, I think it’s important for us to hear the description of Jesus’ ministry that he gives in the synagogue that morning. It is important for us to be concerned with the poor, and not just in a trickle-down economics sense. Jesus, importantly, doesn’t tell us to “fix” the poor – but rather to preach the Good News. “Fixing” someone or “helping” them in our context generally means that we give money to some organization or church which then sends others to help the poor, effectively outsourcing our need to do anything. I think Jesus, on the other hand, calls us to personal contact.

Before we are able to do that, however, I think it’s important that we actually have Good News to preach. I think it’s essential that we formulate a message that doesn’t simply promise a good life after you die, but a valuable, significant life in the present.

Paul writes:

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

It’s interesting to note what how the word “saved” is used here. In the past, I’ve tended to read this on the plane of “Jesus came so I could go to heaven”, but I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind here. Once we were foolish, we lived in malice and envy – but then God’s love and kindness saved us. He saved us out of that life and brought us into a better one where we don’t have to spend our days hating everyone and being envious of everything.

When we look again at Jesus’ call, I think it’s easy to see that in a very real sense, each of the things he says applies to me – I was captive to my hollow ways of thinking, blinded to the truth of God, and oppressed by a system that I’ve been born into that constantly tells me, essentially, that I’m not good enough.

But into that world comes Jesus, proclaiming that the time of the Lord’s favor has come – now. “Today,” Jesus says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

my journey – part 40

Why are we here?
What’s the meaning to all of this?

A lot of people look for things to give their lives meaning. They search high and low and in all sorts of funny places, looking for something that can give some reason and order and meaning to their lives.

Some search for meaning through success. They work and work. They struggle and claw their way to the top, thinking that if they can finally be the best at something, maybe their life will be fulfilled.

Some search for meaning through knowledge. They learn and learn. They embrace the ideals of the student, always seeking and questioning, turning over every hidden stone, hoping that in their studies, maybe their life will be fulfilled.

Some search for meaning through clubs and positions. They meet and meet. They go to great lengths to meet people and greet people and make sure that they know the right people hoping that through their titles and connections, maybe their life will be fulfilled.

Paul writes

“Christ’s love compels us . . .

he died for all,
that those who live
should no longer live for themselves
but for him who died for them
and was raised again.”

It’s somewhat ironic this particular entry came up right now, so I’ve decided to go ahead and comment on it.

Tomorrow night, our group is going to discuss our purpose and goals for ourselves and the church. While I’ve thought about it some this week, I think what the answer really comes down to is that our purpose is to be about our Master’s business. In other words, though “What Would Jesus Do?” is a phrase that became a buzzword for the evangelical-youth-group culture of the late 90’s, it really does, I think, encompass what we’re called to. Our disagreements, primarily, are about what Jesus would do, as opposed to whether or not we should follow Him.

As a quick note, I think this way of taking things is strikingly different from someone who would say that our mission is to “Go unto all the world…” First, I would submit that there are very few people who actually do “Go unto all the world…” on a regular basis – in other words our purpose and mission can’t be simply about the ideals we set up for ourselves, but rather what we actually do. It would be nice if each of us really embodied “The Great Commission”, but in reality I don’t think most of us could say with any degree of honesty that we’re about that idea in our daily lives. Second, however, and more importantly, I think “Go unto all the world…” really falls short of speaking to the vast majority of situations in our lives. “Preaching the Good News and teaching others to obey all I’ve commanded you” is something that can be done with a microphone and a clever marketing campaign – it doesn’t necessarily require anything of us in our daily lives. It doesn’t say how we treat people we don’t like, or how we interact with others – it only deals with us preaching and teaching others. It doesn’t specify how to do that, and frankly doesn’t rule out force, bribes, or any other method. I think, perhaps, the “Go unto all the world…” way of looking at things is the root of our fascination with legislating our morality on others – after all, if we can just make them do the right things … Unfortunately, I don’t think that from the world the message we offer in this manner is really all that “good” – I’ve very rarely met non-believers who feel like mainstream Christianity has any “good news” to offer at all – much less *the* Good News.

I think Jesus speaks well to what his mission is as he speaks for the first time in his home town:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

How we live that is an open question, but I feel if we truly live like Jesus, the Great Commission will follow.

my journey – part 39

i decided to pick these up again… at least for now

Does the way we sit in church say anything about us?

We come in to every meeting and face up toward the front.
We turn neither to the right or the left to see those around us.
We sing to the walls and the back of people’s heads.

We do so much in the name of “order.”

I don’t see Jesus as being so fixed forward that he couldn’t see the cares of those around him.
I don’t see Jesus as being so ordered that he missed the opportunity to meet with God and express freely his thoughts.

I see Jesus as being someone who did whatever it took to get close to God, and Close to other people.
I see Jesus as someone who challenged the order of the rules that men had set up – the religion that people had made for themselves.

I see the Jesus who overturned the tables.
I see the Jesus who told the Pharisees their righteousness didn’t quite cut it.

I see the Jesus who looked at people whose lives were mired
in sin
and death
and pain –
the people who sat outside the rows of Church-Goers
and said
“They won’t let me in…”

I see that Jesus come up to them,
and almost with a sad sort of smile say,

“It’s ok. They won’t let me in either.”

I meet with a group of guys on Monday nights, and a couple of weeks ago our topic centered on the things that bring us close to God. There were tons of answers – fishing, playing the guitar, singing – but out of 6 of us, none of us said church.

It wasn’t an angry response or one that says we want to throw the whole thing out, but I think in many ways it was an honest evaluation. I believe there are many reasons why the six of us don’t really feel spiritually connected during church, and I would be lying to say that none of them involve us and our personalities.

But in a larger sense, I think we need to begin to ask ourselves some real questions about how many people really do connect to God in our services. I’m not suggesting purely a change in methodology – I think that’s much more a change in marketing than it is in product substance – but rather a shift in purpose and intent. What is the purpose we have for our church, and for ourselves?

all i have to do is look in the mirror…

Another excerpt from my conversations with Brian, this time regarding how we actually generate the changes that this “new kind of Christianity” talks about.

I think you’ve actually answered the question as well as it can be answered – I think the problem begins and ends with us. It is my responsibility to help the poor, to see the needs around me, and to act on them. On the other hand, it’s the responsibility of people who don’t view all people with equal esteem in the sight of God to change their way of thinking. The hidden point I think we don’t often realize is that in our state of becoming, we are told that we have “one who walks alongside” – a guide, counselor, etc. I think all too often we feel like change is *all* about us, when I think in some measure change is about releasing ourselves to God. I think when we give up the idea that our career is “important” and that our popularity is “important” and that our ________ is “important” – when we release those things, our actions no longer because about driving the career, popularity, and ________ – rather our actions become available to be used by God. Instead, we (and specifically I) all too often adopt the attitude that change is all about my force of will… “I will be more loving. I will be more loving. I WILL be more loving. I WILL BE MORE LOVING…” It doesn’t work very well.

Exactly *how* that process occurs in our lives, and how the Spirit works to effect those changes I really think varies from person to person. I know in my own life I could probably use a lot more prayer asking for change, and reflection daily on what opportunities I passed by, along with what I can do tomorrow.

I don’t think we’ll ever be comfortable “out of our comfort zones”, by definition, but I think, much as you brought up on Monday a couple of weeks ago, that we are never called to be comfortable. I think in many ways for us today, the discomfort we’re called to in many ways may be more intellectual and social than physical – it is highly unlikely that we will ever be “poor”, or unable to put food on the table, or probably even buy whatever we want. It *is* highly likely that we will be uncomfortable when we interact with people of different social status, or give up our time, energy, and effort to go the extra mile and help people even within our own social groups.

I think the final point on service is that we need to be very careful when we “rank” what problems we need to solve. While I certainly believe that Jesus was about elevating the lowest and least, I think there are so many people in all walks of life and all socioeconomic statuses that fit that definition. I believe the “lowest and least” is just as much the 17 year old princess suffering from anorexia as it is the 60 year old Vietnam vet who’s living on the street – I believe each of them needs our help, and while it’s very sexy to focus on the second one, it doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t focus on the first either. Taken farther, I am certain that there are many “lowest and least” people within our own groups, and perhaps even within our own circles of friends – they are no less worthy or deserving of our help – we just assume that because they’re close to us and appear to be all put together that everything is ok.

The answer, though, I think is simple. If I want to look at the problem with Christianity in the world, all I have to do is look in the mirror. The hope, I think, is that Jesus himself encourages us to “be made new” – a process, I think. I’m certainly not to the state of “being”, but I’m a lot farther along the way to becoming than I was 5 years ago, or even 5 months ago. My hope is that I will be able to say the same 5 months and 5 years from now.

the “buy-in”

Brian and I have been in an email dialog over the past couple of days, and I thought I would put a few thoughts from it here. This particular line of thought is in the middle of a larger discussion about the “trendiness” of churches. More, perhaps, to come.

I think perhaps the most disturbing trend to me in our current church context is our “marketing buy-in”. In many ways, we feel like we need to “market” church. If it’s not “cool” people won’t buy it. In contrast to this, I think there are two ways to sell a product – one is to make it cool, the other is to make it useful. People don’t buy motor-oil because it’s cool. They buy it because it keeps their engine from disintegrating. We’ve somehow developed the idea that people will only buy our message if it’s cool, which sort-of implies that our message isn’t all that useful. I suggest that the opposite is true. I think we need to make our message and church relevant instead of trendy, useful instead of cool. I think ultimately at the core the message of Christ is one that is practical and relevant – it’s just recognizing that instead of promoting a “feel-good” type of Gospel. I think one of the core ideas of the emergent philosophy that brings this home is the idea that the abundant life is about *now* – that Jesus didn’t just die so we could go to heaven, but that so we could have a lasting, significant life here in the present. I think that’s a message that’s resonant with many people, but that we’ve instead tried to promote that religion is “cool’ – I think the unfortunate truth is that all too often it isn’t cool, nor was it ever intended to be. The root of this, perhaps, is the mid-1900’s approach of incorporating (not literally) churches. We had groups of people who looked at church structure and said “we could make this into a corporate model, and it would work really well……..” which it did in some sense, but I think there are a lot of problems with that, not the least of which is that we’ve made our churches think like corporations, where the bottom line is what really matters.

an open letter to emergent Christians

For a few years, I have followed and hopefully participated in what has become known as the Emergent Conversation – if not at a high level at least with those around me. I feel there are many perspectives and good things the dialog brings out, and that the questions it raises are not only important, but essential to the future of how Christianity will look. I believe holistic and narrative approaches to scripture are more full and complete than overly analytical ones, and that our obligation for social involvement extends beyond homosexual marriage and abortion. I believe the face of ministry and church will change as we enter into a new age that we don’t truly understand yet, and that it won’t involve changes in methodology and doctrine as much as changes in attitude and perspective. I believe those of us who are experiencing this transition are, at best, bi-lingual, and that in many ways we will never be “native speakers” of the true underlying language of whatever Christianity will become, even as we struggle now to learn what that new language sounds like.

In some circles, “Emergent” has become a by word for trendy, cool, liberating, artsy, non-judgmental, non-traditional and intellectual, and often I encounter people who call themselves “Emergent” primarily because they want to be in, or want to create a place, or want simply to be those things – which they feel they can’t be in a traditional church environment. This is an open letter to these people: those who are more interested in being a “cool Christian” or a “trendy Christian” or a “non-traditional Christian” than they are in being a follower of Christ; those who think Emergent Christianity is about chunking one set of doctrine and dogma for another, without really understanding either one; those who feel like after reading a couple of books or listening to a couple of people talk, their newfound enlightenment somehow means they’re better than everyone else, or at least about 30 years ahead of everyone else, and suddenly treat other perspectives as inferior – if you fit or identify with any of those, this letter is for you, and for me, as I am all too often guilty of everything I’ll mention.

  1. Words don’t make us Emergent. They don’t make us cool. They might make us trendy, but trendy doesn’t get us very far. At conferences and churches I visit, I increasingly tend to run into a group of people who feel like the only way they can be emergent is to use a buzzword in every sentence. While they might explain the Emerging Church by saying, “It’s not a new denomination or another set of Christian lingo”, they immediately then launch into an explanation that includes phrases like “community”, “Christian Spirituality”, and “not a denomination or non-denomination” in the next sentence – effectively doing exactly what they’ve said they won’t do, trading one set of Christian lingo for another, less well known set of Christian lingo that isn’t immediately recognized as such. At times, I feel like I’m listening to someone who stuffed a bunch of words he read into a shotgun and then pointed it at the audience and pulled the trigger – “emergent”, “missional”, “holistic”, “social justice”, “cell-church”, ”community-oriented”, “spiritual journey” – peppering us with words that he himself doesn’t seem to understand.I contrast this to ministers, speakers, and authors who are on the cutting edge and practicing this new language. Their “Emergent” vocabulary is not word based, but idea based. At a conference in 2004 where he spoke for almost 5 hours, I believe Brian McLaren used the word “Emergent” less than 5 times. Instead of trying to communicate with buzzwords, the leaders of the movement communicate their ideas through pictures, stories, and examples. The more “emergent” people I encounter, the more I’m convinced that the quickest way to tell the real article from the well intentioned but misguided newcomer is to determine how much esoteric buzzword vocabulary they use, especially if and when they use it incorrectly.The “Emerging Conversation” is not about using different, new, and cool or trendy words, nor, really, is it about different, new, and cool or trendy ideas. It is about a different way of taking not just Scripture, but the world as a whole.
  2. Talking is good; doing is better. Emergent Christianity, at its core, is not a theoretical exercise – it is extremely practical and action oriented. One group of people that tends to be attracted to the Emergent cause, however, is intellectuals who often are more interested in talking about things than in actually doing them. We cannot be content with simply talking about how much better this “new kind of Christianity” is, unless we also show how this “new kind of Christianity” works in the real world. We cannot say that it’s good without showing that it’s good, and expect to have any credibility outside our own circle.Often, I feel like our groups have become or are becoming associations of people who basically think the same thing and discuss it ad nauseam, instead of becoming what we talk about being – a group which not only welcomes outsiders but seeks and invites them; a group that not only talks about how justice and charity matter, but practices that in our own lives; a group that not only values the struggle of scripture, but embraces the struggle of holy living. As we enter further into the discovery of what it means to be a Christian in this new age, our viewpoints will only be relevant if they work, and they will only work if we go beyond conversation to action.
  3. One of the most disturbing tendencies I’ve seen is our move to isolate ourselves and talk about how everyone else “doesn’t get it”. I think our critics are right when they paint us as often-times being an intellectually snobby movement – I think we all too often adopt the attitude that somehow other groups just don’t quite have the same level of truth that we do, and that we’re somehow more enlightened than they are.I grew up in a denomination that started as a unity movement – proclaiming that we were “Christians only, but not the only Christians” – welcoming everyone to the table, and declaring that we would be people who followed Scripture and Scripture alone. It didn’t take very long, however, before that unity movement turned into a movement most well known for its exclusivity and dogmatic defense of its doctrine – to the extent that we were fairly certain that no one else would be in heaven, and made sure they knew about it.My hope is that this new movement does not fall into the same pattern. It is much easier to throw rocks at glass houses than it is to stand inside and attempt to remodel. It’s convenient to run out of the house and talk about how badly designed it was, without realizing that we’re now standing in a pouring rain storm without any shelter of our own, or sitting in a small shack we’ve constructed from various construction materials we’ve found lying around.In my own heritage, there is a great amount of soul searching now, as we realize more and more that setting ourselves up in opposition to others is harmful to everyone. There is great difficulty now, however, in trying to find a voice and purpose that is positive and relevant, instead of negative and attacking. As the Emergent movement grows, my prayer is that we will not be people who isolate ourselves and talk about how we have it “right” – but that many of us will continue to exist within the glass houses we’ve inherited, hoping to make a positive change, instead of running outside and breaking windows.
  4. The problem with Christianity is not that it isn’t cool. We don’t need to make it more attractive, or more palatable. We don’t need better marketing or better advertising. We simply need to live out the teachings of Jesus.As I look at churches in general – not just within the “Emerging church” movement – for years we have been trying to make Christianity cooler, more trendy, less… like church. We’ve tried to market Christianity, with cool commercials, flyers, and advertisements, thinking somehow that will change people’s perceptions. We feel like if we create a place where people with tattoos are welcome, and where body piercing is totally cool, somehow that will make more people want to follow Christ.At the same time, we often ignore the most important message we send – the testimony of our lives. The divorce rate among Christians is higher than it is among non-Christians – and we try to protect “the sanctity of marriage” by writing laws against homosexual unions? Six million children a year die from malnutrition, yet we claim to be “pro-life” because we picket abortion clinics? We talk about how “our church is accepting of ________” (fill in the blank with your chosen group), while refusing to admit that we ourselves are greedy, untruthful, lusting, prideful and in general sinful people – and even when we do admit it, we seldom attempt to take action in our own lives, allowing God to transform us more into the image of Christ.People aren’t fooled by clever advertising – they will believe in the message of Jesus when they see it make a difference not only in the world, but in the lives of people who claim to be Christians. There is no amount of coolness or trendiness or hype that will fool the next generation, already saturated with media and marketing. They are interested not in a good sales pitch, but in good news – news that I believe we have, but often don’t listen to in our own lives.

The real beauty in the picture of a conversation is that it continues. It doesn’t claim to be the final word, or the ultimate embodiment. As we continue to learn and grow and explore, it is essential that we listen to the noble principles of love and understanding instead of becoming frustrated and angry. It’s important that we are truly inclusive – not just inclusive in name only; and it is imperative that we not become an intellectually snobby movement that looks down its nose at others, instead of seeking to engage and learn from everyone. Finally, it is vital that we don’t become trendy for the sake of being cool, but rather become Christ-like, and allow the Good News of Jesus to continually transform our lives.

what is our perspective of scripture?

What is our perspective of Scripture?

Do we see it as a legal document – framed in such a way as to spell out reward and punishment – a sort of code, explaining how to escape eternal judgment?

Do we see it as a plan of salvation – a step by step process that gives us eternal life but immediate oppression?

Do we see it as a fable – an outdated fairy tale written by superstitious people oh so long ago who understood so little and made up stories to fill in the gaps?

Or do we see it as a story –
a story about God,
about humanity,
about us.

I believe the words of God are living,
alive –
that this story which began as God spoke a world into existence continues today,

I believe God’s words aren’t
a list of rules
or a contract
or an irrelevant tale,
but a story of love –
a story about a relationship
between a creative God
and his creation,
a story that is

I believe in a God whose story is unfinished

In the conclusion of the account of his story of Jesus, John writes: “Jesus did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.”
John knew, I think , that each of us has a story, and that every believer in Christ could write their story about God’s impact in their lives. John essentially says, “This is my story, but everyone of us who knew Christ has a story,” and I believe that continues until today – enough so that John’s prophecy is true – the whole world could not contain the books that would be written about the unfinished story of God.

The narrative of the Bible is one which tells part of the story of God, working in the lives of plain, ordinary people who were called to do extraordinary things. But the real beauty of the story of God is that it continues to be written. While its final chapter is known and its outcome certain, each day we all participate in the story of God. We choose, in some sense, what role we will play in that story – whether a humble servant who God works through, or a proud rebel who God humbles – but each of us is a character.

I believe that God still writes stories, and that the stories he writes today are no less spectacular than the ones he wrote two thousand years ago. I believe he will continue to write, from beginning to end.

My hope and prayer is that these thoughts over the past week and a half or so have challenged you to think about your beliefs and your picture of God, and perhaps to set down some thoughts about why you believe what you do. Ultimately my prayer is that God’s story in your life is a constant work, that the image of God as author would be real and powerful, and that your story would be intertwined with the work of His hand.