Monday, December 31, 2012

A Steward's Journey (yesterday's sermon notes)

"The kingdom of heaven is like a cruise ship"...said Jesus never.

Or did he? He did say it was like a banquet, a wedding feast, a party. And what better designation of party is there today than a cruise ship? Remember "The Love Boat"? Captain Stubing, Julie and Gopher working to "set a course for adventure, your mind on a new romance." If you had to pick someone to be on a cruise ship, who would you pick?

I see no one chose steward.

There is a great story about a steward in Genesis 24. Abraham has just lost his wife, Sarah, and in his old age he's worried about his son Isaac's choice of a wife. He calls in his most trusted servant, the steward of his household, and sends him on a journey to find a wife for Isaac among Abe's ancestors. Here are 5 thoughts from that journey that can help us understand our own stewardship better.

1. A steward takes an oath to fulfill his master's goals (Ge 24.1-9)

Um, you want me to put my hand where??? This oath is like a blood oath on steroids. It is an intimate covenant between Abraham and the steward that the steward will act in full faith to accomplish Abe's goals, not his own.

It's so easy to allow our goals to jump in front of our master's. Even being the people of God won't guarantee that we can miss out on what he is trying to do. In Mt 21.33-44 Jesus tells a parable about a man who built a vineyard and leased it out to tenants to farm. They did all the day-to-day stuff that is required of a vineyard. But when it came time for the harvest of grapes, the tenants decided they wanted to own the property, and were willing to go to great lengths to try and get it.

In our own lives, we may not not beat and kill our master's servants, but we are too easily forgetful that it is God's goals we're supposed to be after. How do we determine whether or not we're after God's goals? How do we know what God's will is? Romans 12.1-2 gives us the pattern: we offer ourselves as living sacrifices. Daily. We avoid being squeezed into the world's mold, and instead allow our minds to be renewed by the Spirit and the Word. Then we'll be able to know and approve what is the will of God.

2. A steward lays out a plan that includes both faith and common sense (Ge 24.10-14)

The steward takes 10 camels, a bunch of swag, some other servants, and travels the miles to Mesopotamia. He stations himself by the local well (common sense) then prays that the right woman would come along (faith). And when he asked for a drink of water, she would say she'd also water his camels (10 camels drink a lot of water, so this is BOTH faith and common sense!).

How do we know if our plan includes faith? In Lk 12.13-21, Jesus gives us the clue: our decisions need to be made in a way that is "rich toward God" and not just about our own needs. Nothing wrong with success in life, but as stewards our faithful/common sense approach to that success demands investment in God's kingdom.

3. A steward treats his master's things like they were NOT his own (Ge 24.15-31)

The steward had lots of things with him--gold, fancy clothes, camels and other servants. I wonder if he was ever tempted to just pretend to be the owner here. He could have rolled into town and just pretended all the stuff was his. But instead he's keeping in mind he's a steward, not an owner.

I used to have a ton of books. My wife would say I still have too many. Back when I had a much larger library, I was always loaning books out. I would cringe though when people would say "I'll treat it like it was my own." Actually, I prefer that they remember it's mine and treat it accordingly!

In what ways are we tempted to treat "our" stuff as really ours? The reality is that God is the giver of every good thing we have (Ja 1.17). Like the parable of the talents (Mt 25.14-30), we've been given charge of many things that don't belong to us. One day we'll give an account to the owner about how we handled his stuff. And I'm hopeful that we'll all hear "well done" on that day. I'm really looking forward to exploring what it means to "enter into [my master's] fullness of joy."

4. A steward takes care of his master's business first (Ge 24.32-61)

Long journey, really tired. Do you get to the end of your busy day/week and just want to think about your own needs for awhile? But the steward won't eat until he's accomplished his task, fulfilled his oath to his master.

Jesus knows that the stuff of life will constantly tempt us to advance our own kingdom first. We spend vast amounts of time and energy on anxiety about our own kingdom. But if our stuff truly belongs to him, we let him worry about it. Take a look again at Mt 6.25-34. Maybe read it every day this new year.

5. Summary: A steward is someone whose life purpose is no longer his own.

The steward now makes haste to get Rebekah back to his master and to Isaac. His only purpose seems to be to fulfill his oath.

The call to stewardship is a call to live life differently, to live life in a kingdom ruled by God, not by us. This is, in fact, the gospel--the call to be a steward in the kingdom of heaven. We tend to think of the gospel message as Jesus dying for us. That is not the message of the gospel, but the means by which the gospel was attained. The message of the gospel, as Jesus so often articulated it, was that the kingdom of heaven was now at hand and available for us to dwell in. There is a new king, and the way to find true life and joy is to forfeit our own throne, take up our cross, and follow Jesus into death (Mk 8.34-37). There we will truly find life.

So if you're thinking about a year-end gift to your church or ministry today, by all means make it. But remember that that stewardship is not a 10% "tip" to God for his service to us. God is not the steward of this ship. That's our role.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

I wonder...

"I can see the whole world!"  - 4 year old boy as the plane took off

Why am I so jaded?

Where has the sense of wonder gone in our world? We tell each other to stop and smell the roses, but there are now 130 species of roses in the world--which ones am I smelling? Right now I'm in a tube 147' and 8" long, with a tail almost 30' tall and a wingspan of 107' 8". And I'm 30,000+ feet above sea level. And I'm yawning as I write that, because it's just so...well...normal.

We live in a world where the what was once the extraordinary stuff of Jules Verne sci-fi is now "normal." How in the world do we NOT become jaded in such a world?

1. Think like a kid. As we took off a little while ago, the small boy in front of me yelled "I can see the whole world!" When we think like children, joy comes naturally. Awe is a common experience. Rolly-pollies are worth closer inspection. Seeing a magician do a French drop with a quarter still takes your breath away. You can spend an hour chasing your brother pulling a string.

Jesus told us to have child-like faith. One aspect off that has to be a sense of joy at even the smallest of creations.

My good friend Ronne Rock often blogs about "kitchen-therapy" (you can see her work at the Christ-Stumbler blog linked below). She takes pure joy in creating bite-sized explosions of rapture (and just about everything else she does in life!). She knows about childlike wonder.

2. Turn off fake life. Anyone who knows me knows that I've not ever been (or at least haven't been for the past 25 years) one of those religious people that gets rid of TVs and only listens to K-LOVE. But the advancement of CGI technology in today's media adds to the jadedness we feel in day-to-day living. We find more and more intense experiences of pseudo-awe in our movies and games, but that only serves to minimize the experience of true beauty. So I'm saying it--turn it off, at least for awhile. Embark on a Bilbo Baggins style adventure, with the Spirit of the Living God as your Gandalf. You can and will be amazed again by the smallest of things.

3. Forget what you know. Okay, so that's harder to do than say, but it's got to happen. Forget what you know about God, and ask the Spirit to show you something fresh. Forget what you know about the Bible, and read it like you just received your first copy. Forget what you know about how the church service is going to go this Sunday, and let some piece of music or some other soul's worship bring joy to your heart. Forget what you know about tomorrow, and live for today.

One of my favorite movies is Hook, with Robin Williams as a grown Peter "Pan" Banning, who must rediscover his Pan identity to rescue his children from Captain Hook. Early in the movie, Peter Banning misses his son's ball games, his daughter's play, and chastises them both for not being serious enough. And at the end he's climbing drainpipes and chasing dogs into doghouses, understanding that life is truly the greatest adventure.

I need that kind of conversion this Christmas.

Monday, December 17, 2012

I hope...

"Hope can drive a man insane." Otis Redding, The Shawshank Redemption

 In the midst of tragedy I have little to add that so many haven't said over the past few days. I have anger. I have grief. Sadness.

I wonder about our treatment of those with mental health issues. I wonder about environments and signs and behaviors. I ask myself questions about the role guns play in our society. I wonder if demonic forces were involved.

I hope it will go away. Not because I trust in mankind to start behaving better. People--all people--are capable of the greatest of good and lowest of evil.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

But there is hope in God. There is hope that the One who was born into the suffering of the world, the One whose foretold coming so brought paranoia into Herod that many innocents also suffered then, that One will one day destroy evil and make all things good. He can, and he will. Maranatha.

Until then, I will pray that evil does not win the day. I will pray for those whose loss is more than I can imagine. I pray for the divine peace that is beyond all understanding to guard their (and our) hearts and minds.

And I hope.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Choosing Your Heroes

How do we choose our heroes?

WIWAK (when I was a kid) a couple of my sports heroes were Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. How does a small-town Texas kid choose to cheer for the Pittsburgh Steelers? I've been asked that question hundreds of times over the years, and other than the undisputed fact I've been a contrarian pretty much from birth, I have no idea.

Rocky Bleier's story is the stuff of movies (and they did one, starring Robert Urich). Grew up in Appleton, WI, college football at Notre Dame, drafted by the Steelers...and also drafted by the US government. Bleier went to Viet Nam, where a "chi-chom" grenade exploded at his feet and caused severe damage. But Rocky didn't let that stop him. While doctors told him he would have to work hard just to learn to walk correctly, his goals were much higher. He wanted to play in the NFL. He worked hard, in the weight room and on the field. And he made it. Successfully. With Harris, they became the first NFL backfield to have 2 thousand-yard rushers. He's got multiple Super Bowl rings.

Now that's a hero. At least the way we choose them. Hard-working, hard-charging, successful-against-all-odds kinds of heroes.

God, though, seems to choose differently. His choices don't seem to be based much at all on hard work, values, morality, character, perseverance and the like--all the things we look for in heroes.

God's choices are on the margins of society. They have questionable moral fiber. They lie. They cheat. They steal. They murder. And to Jesus' point in Matthew 5, we're guilty of these things too.

God chooses heroes who are poor and meek. He has special favor for those hungry and thirsty, sick, naked, imprisoned.

In short, God's heroes are almost always the disenfranchised. The younger brother. The woman. The immigrant. God chooses those who have no power, because in them is where his power is most excellently proclaimed.

Why should God choose you? Why should he choose me? What do we do that earns the favor of God?

There is no other reason than this: he's just good that way. I'm chosen because of the chooser, not the choosee.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What color is my hat?

Do you walk out of an action movie--Bourne, Bond, whatever--and have this secret desire for someone to try to mug you on the sidewalk so you can kick some butt like the movie hero just did? Or is it just me?

I've been thinking a lot about heroes lately, and their place in our lives. Who we hero-ize both reveals and shapes our own worldview.

When I was a kid, the mainstream heroes were almost always "good guys", the guys wearing the (literal and figurative) white hats. Our entertainment in the 60s, 70s and early 80s reflected the idea that heroes were not meant to be flawed. There weren't supposed to be chinks in their armor. Our heroes always got the bad guy and always got the good girl.

This image of heroes in white hats--and conversely bad guys in black hats--has greatly impacted our views of Jesus, the Bible, and living the Christian life today. We're convinced that the people God uses wear white hats and do heroic things. We're like Peter in Luke 22.33: "Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death."

It's just that life refused to conform to our image. Peter denied, and so do we. So do I. What color is my hat?

Within mainstream entertainment culture I can't think of someone in my lifetime who has more obviously tried to change this way of thinking about heroes and villains than Clint Eastwood. Clint is a hero (recent rant with a chair perhaps notwithstanding), a man's man. We have all wanted to say (and probably have said) to someone "Go ahead. Make my day." Or "you’ve got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well do ya, punk?" But in later years, Clint began to make movies reflecting the more flawed nature of the hero. Movies like "A Perfect World", "Unforgiven" and "Gran Torino" showed men with hearts of gold and feet of clay--or vice versa.

Some of us in the church decried this change. We like having the clear-cut good and bad guys, and we live our Christian lives accordingly. We know and articulate who is on the nice and naughty list, with our words and our deeds (or the lack of both). We have, unfortunately, become like the people of Lystra, who when encountering Paul and Barnabas said that "the gods have come down to us in the likeness of men" (Acts 14.11), except usually in reverse. We're much better at declaring who is on the naughty list, who is wearing the black hat, who it is that God can't (or is no longer) using.

But I think Clint is actually closer to biblical truth about the nature of heroes and villains that we Christians often are. Pick any Bible hero, any man or woman God uses (outside of Jesus, of course) and tell me that they don't look more like the hero/villain of recent entertainment than they do Ozzie Nelson or Gene Autry good guys. (If you're under 40, you'll have to Google that.)

This is good news for 2 reasons: first, it means that we can and will be used by God. We are like the men and women of the Bible, and he's not looking for us to clean ourselves up a little before he works through us. Second, it means we need to reexamine our own nice/naughty lists with a eye on who God has used throughout history. Flawed men and women with hats of dirty gray.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Review: I Am A Follower by Leonard Sweet

I have long loved Len Sweet's work. On the cover of "I Am A Follower" Shane Claiborne calls Sweet "a theological poet," and I totally agree. "I Am A Follower" (I'll just refer to it as "Follower" from here on out) is a great read for our current Christian climate, given our focus on leadership. As I pulled out the book to write this review, I noticed (maybe for the first time) this quote at the bottom of the cover:

(It's never been about leading)

And Sweet makes that point very well. The Christian life is not about heroic leadership, but about servant-followership. "We don't take Jesus into the world. We discern where he's dancing and join in the dance." (p. 9) Jesus is THE leader. He is our leader. We don't lead, we follow.

First Sweet looks at the Way of a follower. Life isn't a set of rules to follow, it's a walk, a journey. "Parking-lot churches are drive-to places where people get their needs met in a minimum amount of time with a maximum of return in religious exaltation. Pedestrian churches consist of people who walk with Jesus in his journeys on earth." (p. 82) We walk along, following Jesus, casting the fruit of the Spirit into a world that is broken and thirsty.

Then there is the Truth: following Jesus does not happen at a distance. We're not some secret spy tailing someone, trying to blend into the crowd when he turns around. We're not trying to find his tracks in the dirt. We're right there with him. We follow close, so close that we smell the things Jesus smells, eat what he eats, hear what he hears. We don't follow a cause, we follow a real person, who is alive and well today. This means that instead of becoming "expert-witnesses for Christ" we are "actual-event witnesses to what we have seen and experienced in our own lives." (p. 156)

Finally there is the Life: Christ in us, the hope of glory. We move away from a Learn, Grow, Go model most prevalent in today's USAmerican churches, and instead adopt the Hear and Obey model of discipleship. "There is a vast difference between believing in God and hearing and recognizing God in diverse divine manifestations." (p. 197) Our discipleship of those around us takes on the same kind of incarnational nature that Jesus' discipleship of us did. "The relationship between leader and follower is this: leaders are over people, followers are among." (p. 209) We must leave behind the folk-heroism of today's leadership focus and turn away from those things that distract us from following.

One last quote: "There are some Christians who think that they are following Christ, when really they have simply been imprinted by a culture that calls itself Christian." (p. 240) More than anything else, this is the power of Sweet's book (and most of his writing); Jesus is not just a concept or a set of cultural values, he is our leader, and he's calling us to follow. Today. Now. No matter where we currently find ourselves--we might be accused of adultery, fishing, collecting taxes, or on our way to arrest those on the margins. His words to us are still the same.

"Follow me."

Breaking Silence...

I've been bloggishly silent for several months now. I think I've decided it was the combination of 3 factors:

1. Like many people, I've been very busy. Between being a husband and dad of 3, covering a lot of ground for World Vision, then just all the stuff of life--home-ownership, cooking, cars, broken toys, lawns, etc. etc. I've just not carved out enough time to blog.

2. I've got too much to say. It's hard for me to sit down and write a 150 word post--I end up with a short novel. My justifications have justifications.

3. What I say bothers people, at least some people. This used to not affect me, but this fall, for some reason, it did. Call it maturity (or not) or a new level sensitivity or whatever, this fall, as the election heated up, I struggled to say things that I knew many of my friends would disagree with. And the few things I did say just seemed to add to the cacophony of dissent instead of stimulating good thinking.

But I'm trying (gingerly) to get back up in the saddle. And I'm hoping some of you, at least, are okay with that.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

I wish I wrote this!

This is awesome, and well worth the read!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Which parts of the Bible do you ignore?

The Pixar animated movie "The Incredibles" made recently famous the line, spoken by the boy-Buddy-turned-evil-villain Syndrome:

"If everyone is super, nobody is."

It reminds me of the teacher I once heard say "Every one of our students is above average." If our teachers don't understand basic statistical truths, then what's the hope?

But recently this thought, or some generality of it, had me thinking about the Scriptures. Are all the Scriptures equally the words of Jesus? The battle over the Bible in my tradition was more or less won out by people who would say "yes, they are." Strict inerrantists would argue (or at least some have with me) that every verse in the Bible is equal to "the Word" and has equal impact and importance on our lives. This argument is made in at least a couple of ways:

  • Every reference to some part or form of Scripture in the Bible is unilaterally applied to the book as a whole, as it exists today. Some examples of this include 2 Timothy 3.16 (all Scripture is God-breathed...), where the word "Scripture" is literally "Writings" and which was written when only the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was available. Or take Revelation 22.18-22, again written several centuries before the New Testament was collected into one volume, and seems to more clearly refer to just the "book" of Revelation itself. Or all of Psalm 119, which talks about the Law of the LORD, referring to at most the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, yet we often apply the verses to all of our Bible.
  • Mixing up the Word with our use of the religious phrase "the word." Jesus in John 1 is introduced as the eternal Word (logos) of God. There are some specific theological and philosophical reasons he does so, but since our pop Christian slang for the Bible is "the word" we've sometimes come to equate the two. I shouldn't be quite so cheeky, there are certainly places in the Bible that refer to the spoken word of God, but again, in context they don't apply to the whole collective book we have today, but to what God was speaking at the time.

Recently an acquaintance argued that the Sermon on the Mount had no application to foreign policy in the US, and that Jesus certainly never intended for us to "turn the other cheek" to a terrorist. Is this true? Can we choose to ignore what my friend started off saying was "the most elegant sermon ever preached" (something I agree with)? What other parts of the Bible can we dismiss by saying it doesn't apply to certain aspects of public or private life?

Every person I know has made a choice about which verses in the Bible are commands we need to follow and which ones are ignorable, for one reason or another. Which parts of the Bible do you ignore? And what's your reason for ignoring them?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What are our idols?

My pastor preached on Sunday a really good sermon about worship. He challenged us to think about the  things we worship instead of God. I had a few things I thought we could add to the list:

  • Power. Most of us want to feel like we influence the world, like we can change it. And while we sometimes want to change it for the better, usually we want to change it for our own benefit. We want to manipulate the system so that we come out ahead. It's so easy to justify the use of power, thinking we're going to make a positive change. But Jesus said that real power was in humility, in emptying yourself. 
  • Status. Whether it's our fanatic working out, our desire for perfect houses/lawns/children/pets or our ambition to get ahead at work, we're usually very concerned about what others think about. We worship what other people think about us.

But I think the #1 thing the average middle or upper class USAmerican worships instead of God is comfort. We go out of our way to be comfortable, in our homes, in our communities, in our churches. Rarely are we willing to sacrifice something of comfort in order to seriously follow Jesus. We want the (perceived) comfort and safety of an easy life--no suffering, no pain, no difficulty. We've come to expect it, for ourselves and for our children.

But the call of Jesus--the call of worship--is the call to come and die, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer. It is the call to the cross, to pick it up and carry it, a rather inconvenient, uncomfortable thing. It is the call to forget status, to forego power, and to serve, no matter the cost.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Showing love

The Chick-Fil-A day on Wednesday, followed by the kiss-in yesterday--whew, boy, I'm glad both sides were able to effectively show their love for chicken! Dan Cathy answered a question accurately and well, then many who disagree with what he said (or thought he said) overreacted, then many who agreed with what he said (or thought he said) overreacted in response to the first overreaction.

It's been fun, challenging and disheartening to read all of the flapping about this plucky issue. (Sorry, couldn't resist...) All in all I'm still not sure what I believe about it, other than both (or multiple?) sides in this issue got many things wrong. But this post isn't really about CFA, it's about something I read as I perused the news. One blog I read ( got a response from someone at Biola, and there was a quote the responder said that I couldn't resist giving a little bit of a rant about.

In response to Turner's statement that a bunch of Christians heading to CFA last Wednesday may say a lot of things, but it doesn't say "I love you" to someone in the gay community, the responder disagreed, hinting that it might have been "tough love", and suggested, as his first alternative way of showing love to homosexuals, to "warmly invite them to church..."

I know a lot of people who love Jesus and love his community of saints, but still wouldn't see a warm invitation to church as the first way they think of to show love to people they disagree with. I know solid believers that wouldn't necessarily feel loved if THEY got invited to someone's church, warmly or not.

How about warmly invite them to dinner?

Warmly invite them to a round of golf?

To coffee?

To your kids' birthday party?

Surely there could have been a better way to show love than invite to church. Or to have headed to Chick-Fil-A.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Free-range farm workers?

Here's a stimulating article about the plight of food-workers, particularly in the fields. Only 13% of food-workers make a living wage. I've been to the fields in Immokalee, FL, and seen the workers waiting in the mornings to be picked up for a day's work, making about $0.32/bucket of tomatoes.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Doing good

"I read in a book that a man called Christ went about doing good. It is very disconcerting to me that I am so easily satisfied with just going about."
Toyohiko Kagawa, Japanese follower of Jesus

How do you define "good"? What would be on your list of "good" things that you do?

I read this quote this morning in Common Prayer, and it strikes me that when you ask most USAmerican believers, the answers probably seem to be couched in terms of personal or societal morality. I "do good" when I don't cheat on my taxes or my spouse, when I don't lose my temper with my kids or my boss, when I vote for the pro-life or pro-democracy candidate, when I give my tithes and offerings to the church...

All of these can truly be good things. 

But the real power of good is not morality, it is impact on the other. Good is ultimately defined in how the life of someone else is changed, not how my life is changed. I start to practice "good" when I love my neighbor as myself.

Can this definition of "good" as the impact on the other change our thinking on morality, on politics, on theology? Does "love your neighbor as yourself" have anything to say about how we treat the unborn, or how we treat their mother? Does it impact the words we use when discuss those who disagree with us? Does it impact laws we pass about the poor, the immigrant, the orphan? Does it change our views on what kinds of goods (weird choice of word for "stuff" don't you think?) we buy, or where we buy them? Does "good" have something to do with governments' choices of sponsoring violence to counteract violence?

Is the sum total of "good" really about my personal morality or about society's morality? Or is it about how my choices affect every other person, and the societal systems in which we all live?

There is no such thing as "good" in a vacuum. You cannot be good alone. Just ask the early desert fathers. Good is all about the other.

May I not be so easily satisfied with "just going about."

Monday, July 09, 2012

Tale of 2 Scientists on CT

Check out this excellent article on 2 scientists, both believers, pursuing God and truth through their craft, even though one is a theistic evolutionist and one a young-earth creationist. We would all do well to heed their thought that the "war" between the 2 camps is doing much more harm than good, and too often reflects the same "demonization" tactics that exists in today's political world. Godly people disagree on this issue, and that's okay. Let us all keep pursuing God and his truth!

Friday, July 06, 2012

Great conversation about the Bible

Wow, I love it when writers better than me articulate my thoughts...there's a great conversation about the Bible going on at Out of Ur and I wanted to link you to it here. It's got two parts...

Part 1

Part 2

Some great humor, but ultimately some good thinking.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Today's reading of the Writings was Ruth 1.1-18. A couple of things struck me about this. The first one was on the lighter side:

"But Ruth said, 'Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you." Ruth 1.16-17 ESV

The 3.5 faithful readers know one of my main pet peeves is around the the misapplication of Bible verses. I just love the irony here. This passage, used often in wedding ceremonies, was really written about someone's relationship with their mother-in-law. Jaw-dropper.

But the heavier topic that jumped off the page to me was that this story has undocumented immigration written all throughout it. Naomi and Elimelech and their 2 sons immigrated illegally into Moab, a traditional enemy of Israel. They did it for the economic reality that they couldn't provide adequately for their family in their own country.

Now I know that the geo-political nation-state of today didn't arise until well into second half of the last millenium (is there a name for that? the "teen-illenium?") so the rules don't translate directly, but this story and others give us a picture of God's view on the treatment of immigrants. We are to care for the alien and stranger among us. We ourselves are "sojourners" in a nation-state to which we are, at best, secondarily citizens of.

How does our treatment of the sojourner among us reflect on the One we claim to follow?

Are you a zombie?

"Zombies invented the lie that curiosity killed the cat."

You guys know I love Roy Williams, check out last week's Monday Morning Memo here if you want to make sure you're not a zombie.

Have a great week!

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Deciding to NOT work from a position of power

One of the common factors of USAmericans in general and many mission-minded evangelicals in particular is how we do our gospel work from a position of power and influence. We forget Jesus' teaching that it's the pagans who lead by lording (using power) and that he calls us to put a towel around our waist and wash dirty feet to follow his style.

A friend recently sent me a transcript of an interview between Andy Crouch and Dr. David Zac Niringiye, an African bishop. This is a must read for most USAmericans trying to change the world. May we all go to just with people on the margins, be with the poor, the broken, the alien (documented or not), the prisoners, the sick...just be with them. Not to fix them. Not to heal them. But to be healed ourselves, because God works from the margins, not from the centers of power.

Interview by Andy Crouch with Dr. David Zac Niringiye | An African bishop tells North American Christians the most helpful gospel-thing they can do.

How can American pastors be leaders if they haven't seen what God is doing elsewhere [in the world]? As a longtime friend and partner of North American Christians, what have you noticed about us?

One of the gravest threats to the North American church is the deception of power—the deception of being at the center. Those at the center tend to think, "The future belongs to us. We are the shapers of tomorrow. The process of gospel transmission, the process of mission—all of it is on our terms, because we are powerful, because we are established. We have a track record of success, after all."

Yet recently the Lord led me to an amazing passage, the encounter between Jesus and Nathaniel in John 1. Nathaniel has decided Jesus is a non-entity. Jesus comes from Nazareth, after all.

Nathaniel's skepticism comes from being in power, being at the center. Those at the center decide that anyone not with us is—not against us—[but] just irrelevant. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" It doesn't warrant our time. But the Messiah is from Nazareth.

Surprise, Nathaniel!

What's the problem with being at the center?
God very often is working most powerfully far from the center. Jesus is crucified outside Jerusalem—outside—with the very cynical sign over his head, "The King of the Jews." Surprise—he is the King of the Jews. "We had hoped … " say the disappointed disciples on the road to Emmaus, but he did not fulfill our criteria. In Acts, we read that the cross-cultural missionary thrust did not begin in Jerusalem. It began in Antioch, on the periphery, the margins. But Jerusalem is not ready for Antioch! In fact, even when they go to Antioch, it's just to check on what's happening.

I have come to the conclusion that the powerful, those at the center, must begin to realize that the future shape of things does not belong to them. The future shape of things is on the periphery. The future shape of things is not in Jerusalem, but outside. It is Nazareth. It is Antioch.

If you really want to understand the future of Christianity, go and see what is happening in Asia, Africa, Latin America. It's the periphery—but that's where the action is.

But many American churches are already deeply involved in missions overseas.
Of course. Yet it's so difficult to get American Christians, even those who profess to love missions and their brothers and sisters on the periphery, to actually come and see what is happening where we are. This is especially true of those in the positions of greatest power in the church. I have asked a friend, a pastor of a large church that gives half of its money to missions, to come and spend time on the fringes. But he won't. He wants to spend his study leave in Oxford, in Australia. How can American pastors be leaders if they haven't seen what God is doing elsewhere? Every search process for a senior pastor should ask, "Do you have experience in marginal places, economically deprived places, places with HIV/AIDS? Have you gone to be among them?"

What could equip us to be more countercultural, living in a nation that is very much at the center of power?
We need to begin to read the Bible differently. Americans have been preoccupied with the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the Great Commission: "Go and make." I call them go-and-make missionaries. These are the go-and-fix-it people. The go-and-make people are those who act like it's all in our power, and all we have to do is "finish the task." They love that passage! But when read from the center of power, that passage simply reinforces the illusion that it's about us, that we are in charge.

I would like to suggest a new favorite passage, the Great Invitation. It's what we find if we read from the beginning of the Gospels rather than the end. Jesus says, "Come, follow me. I will make you fishers of men." Not "Go and make," but "I will make you." It's all about Jesus. And do you know the last words of Jesus to Peter, in John 21? "Follow me." The last words of Simon Peter's encounter are the same as the first words.
Can we begin to read those passages that trouble us, that don't reinforce our cultural centeredness? Let's go back to Matthew 25 and read it in the church in America, over and over. Who are Jesus' brothers? The weak, the hungry, the immigrant workers, the economic outcasts. Let's read the passage of this woman who pours ointment over Jesus. Let's ask, who is mostly in the company of Jesus? Not bishops and pastors! The bishops and pastors are the ones who suggest he's a lunatic! Who enjoys his company? The ordinary folk, so ordinary that their characterization is simply this: "sinners." Can we begin to point to those passages?
Yet this ability to read different passages, to read the Bible differently, won't happen until people are displaced from their comfort zones. I thank the Lord for deep friendships he has given to me beyond my comfort zone, beyond my culture, beyond my language. Until that happens, we will all be tribal, all of us.

Many of us want those relationships beyond our own tribe, but how does that happen?
It is very simple. Come and be with us, with no agenda other than to be with us. One friend of mine by the name of Mark, a pastor of a large church, amazed me when he came to visit. He came for three weeks, and he said, "All I want is to come and be with you." At first, I didn't believe him.

"Zac," he said, "wherever you go, I want to go. I'm not asking what I can do—I just want to come and be with you." So he came. We went to an HIV/AIDS clinic, and they asked us to pray. I had introduced him as Rev. Dr. So-and-So—I couldn't just be praying and have him be standing there. So I said, "Mark, you start there, laying hands on all these AIDS patients, and I'll start here." I didn't ask him for permission—I just told him to do it, because that's what you do. And he did.

We went to northern Uganda, where the civil war is causing such suffering. And Mark didn't ask, "Is it safe for me?" That amazed me. If it was safe for me, then it would be safe for him. He was not unaware of his power, as a mzungu, and that people would think he has a lot of money.

He asked me, "What should I say? What would be appropriate?"

"Just bring greetings," I said.

And I tell you what. He did just that. He was so humble. Of course, there are leaders who come to Africa, who go to Asia, and they come away the same. In fact, they come away worse, with a greater sense of how they are going to change the whole world! But we lose our legitimacy as Christian leaders in an affluent country like [the U.S.] if we can't use that affluence in order to experience the situation of those on the margins. "God so loved the world"—how dare we say we identify with him in that love if we don't go there, if we don't choose the margins?

What part does racism play in all this?
You never discover how racist you are until you have the opportunity to be a racist. The genocide in Rwanda was a very challenging experience for me. I came to Washington in 1995, and some friends were asking, "What do we do in Rwanda?" They were saying, "What do we do with these Hutus, who are such killers?" As if the Hutus were created killers! "Actually," I said, "I am Hutu." I share an ethnic identity with them, as does most of southwest Uganda.

And until I got to Rwanda, I didn't realize how sympathetic I had been to the Hutu cause. Then it hit me. And I began the journey of being freed from that—freed from that history of sympathy for a cause that was just Hutu. Until the opportunity is given to you to face your own racism, you'll function under its power, under its spell. The only way to lose it is to go.

What do Americans need to understand about the main challenge facing Africa?
Africa's crisis is not poverty; it is not AIDS. Africa's crisis is confidence. What decades of colonialism and missionary enterprise eroded among us is confidence. So a "national leader" from the United States comes—he may have a good-sized congregation, but he knows nothing about Africa!—and we defer to him. We don't even tell him everything we are thinking, out of respect. We Africans must constantly repent of that sense of inferiority.

With its tremendous growth, how is African Christianity countercultural?
With all the growth of the African church, we are still facing the prospect of being a religious minority. It may be that in fifty years' time, Africa will be predominantly Muslim. One hundred years ago, Europe and America decided to take over Africa. They marshaled economic power, manpower; they transported their culture, education, and religion. Now sub-Saharan Africa is culturally Western. And Muslims today are applying the same energies to sub-Saharan Africa.

In Uganda, they are succeeding. Muslims are buying property in Uganda; they are sending their brightest young people to law school. They have established amazing charitable organizations. The mosque in Kampala will be opened soon by Libya's President Qaddafi. It occupies the most central place in the city.
The temptation will be to try to apply power, to try to overcome the incursion of Islam. But that's not the way of the Cross. That's not the way it happens. Remember when Jesus and his disciples were passing through the village in Samaria? For many Christians, the Muslims are like Samaritans—a minority that has left our faith and holds to a different faith. When the Samaritans were not hospitable to Jesus, the disciples said, "Just call fire down and blow these guys up!" Yet it's the Samaritans who listen to the woman who met Jesus at the well. Later in Acts, the same apostles go to the Samaritans.

The situation in America and Africa is not so different. Recently, an American evangelical leader said to me, "In a few years' time, it's going to be very difficult for anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus in America." But I said to him, actually, no, it is very difficult now. If you are truly a disciple of Jesus, it is very difficult. The same is true in Africa. When I speak in some countries where Islam is powerful, they shout me down. The Bible says, "When somebody strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek"—but they ask me, "What happens when there are no more cheeks to turn?"

Whether in Africa or America, the Cross is not an easy place to be—it is the symbol of our faith, but we do not love the Cross. "Come down from the Cross" is the cry not just of the Jewish leaders; it's the cry even of us Christians. We want Christ to come down from the Cross. We don't like the Cross.
Posted on July 14, 2006

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Book Review: Founding Faith by Steven Waldman

Okay, so any book that is endorsed on the back by both Jim Wallis and Bill Bennett gets my immediate respect. It's pretty tough to write a book that pleases both sides of the political aisle, especially when that book is about the sometimes mythical "founding fathers" of the United States of America. They are our gods on Mt. Olympus, invoked by political and religious leaders on multiple sides of virtually every issue at the forefront (or even middlefront) of society in the US.

I found this book at Half Price Bookstores, originally written in 2008, and I was sad that I hadn't seen it before. Let's just get this out of the way early--I give this book my coveted 5 bellybutton rating. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to see a balanced and historically accurate (not to mention relevant) rendering of some of our favorite founders, like Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Here's the premise of the book, stated well in the last sentence of the introduction:

The Founding Faith, then, was not Christianity, and it was not secularism. It was religious liberty--a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone.

Waldman does a fantastic job quoting fully from the founders, and works to outline the meanings of their writings within their context, not pulling out quotes to justify something in our context. The book is full of quotable stuff (my favorite may be this jewel from Franklin: "Our frontier people call themselves Christians! They [the Indians] would have been safer, if they had submitted to the Turks."

It's a great book, and I hope you'll find it and read it. If you live in North Texas and want my copy, just let me know and it's yours. Without giving too much away, I'm just going to share Waldman's fallacies from his last chapter, entitled "They Were Right."

Liberal Fallacy #1: Most Founding Fathers were Deists or secular.

Conservative Fallacy #1: Most Founding Fathers were serious Christians.

Liberal Fallacy #2: The Constitution demanded strict separation of church and state throughout the land.

Conservative Fallacy #2: Separation of church and state is a twentieth-century invention of the courts.

Liberal Fallacy #3: Separation of church and state was designed mostly to protect religious minorities.

Conservative Fallacy #3: Advocates of separation are anti-religion.

Common Fallacy #4: The Founders had figured this all out.

Waldman goes to great lengths to point out all of these fallacies. So the 3.5 faithful readers of this blog know why I like it so much: it works to be in a middle ground, accurately reflecting the information available, as opposed to demonizing an opponent and painting him/her into an extreme position by only quoting the favorable founders' stuff, often plucked out of context.

Great read. OOOOO 5 bellybuttons in the Phatter than O book club.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

I am not mine

"We must completely forget ourselves, so that we regard ourselves as an object which has been sold and over which we no longer have any rights." Jean-Pierre de Caussade

I have found this to be vital to my living at shalom in this world, that I am a slave to God. There is no part of my life for which I am the master. I am not in control. When I demand my rights before God, I am placing myself above him. I am declaring my divinity, at least in regards to my own life. But when I give up all rights before him, he is my advocate. I no longer have anything to worry about but remaining close to him.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Pet Peeve Summary, or why you dropping off your kid in the driveway of the house across the street from the school makes me mad

The 3.5 faithful readers know that I've published rants in the past about my pet peeves. Now I don't have many (there's probably less than 10; I was going to link to old posts, but frankly I'm being too lazy right now), but the ones that tick me off, REALLY tick me off.

But last week as I dropped my daughter off at school, and once again watched a number of parents who think that the rules of the drop-off just don't apply to them (endangering their own children and others!), it hit me.

American exceptionalism has come home to roost in the soul of individuals. And it's called entitlement.

Entitlement has become a bad word in conservative circles, as it refers to the excesses around "safety net" programs of federal assistance, meant to help those in financial crises not fall through the cracks, but have a net that protects them from free fall. These programs do a lot of good, but for some have become places of entitlement, where with everything from food stamps to social security we believe that we are guaranteed certain benefits. We manipulate the system as much as possible for our own profit. By no means do I think that this is the majority of people in these programs, nor do I necessarily think that this means the program is bad, but there's ample evidence of people who game the system.

But the type of entitlement I'm referring to here is actually something different, and while it's more subtle, it's far more insidious to our overall well-being. It's an entitlement that doesn't try to game the system, but an entitlement that says "the system doesn't apply to me, at least in these circumstances." It is a sense of individual exceptionalism that says "I don't have to follow these rules," because I'm too important, too much in a hurry, or my kid is more important than yours, or my car is more expensive than yours, etc. etc.

After all, we deserve the best, right?

Yes, this sense of entitlement is much more prevalent than the usually-discussed-by-conservatives kind. And quite frankly I see it as even more common in those who have been successful in life at one level or another.

But I think that the teachings of Jesus, when they take root in us, will destroy this sense of individual exceptionalism. When we have the mind of Christ, we begin to think of "others as more important than ourselves."  We learn to serve those around us, learn to be last instead of first, and see ourselves as stewards of God's resources, not owners of our own.

So here's my ultimate pet peeve (and there's no way around the fact that I'm all too guilty of this myself), people who ignore the system because of a sense of personal exceptionalism and entitlement.

Maybe with this I can just cut my pet peeves down to 1...

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Spot on thoughts

I've not heard of this guy but my friend Aaron Graham recommended this and it is awesome. Younger, newer breed evangelicals give me hope for the US church!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Book Review: Going Deep by Gordon MacDonald

I first read Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald while still in college in the late 80s, and I've been a fan ever since. From early pastoral success to public sin to healing and restoration, I've enjoyed his writing and been inspired by his life. I still remember a somewhat heated "discussion" I had with a now well-known pastor/evangelist at an FCA retreat about whether or not someone caught in adultery had forfeited the opportunity to pastor, and Gordon was my exhibit A for "yes, God uses broken people." (NOTE: I wanted to say God ONLY uses broken people, but that's for another post.)

Now, in his newest book, Going Deep, Gordon once again impresses me. The 3.5 consistent readers of my blog know my struggles with the modern-traditional church in the US. I teeter on the line between emergent and irreligious, while still basically staying connected to my church. My ecclesiology leads me to see many of today's US churches as too large, too unrelational, and too trapped in "where would you go if you died tonight?" programs OR so far moved away from biblical truth that they've become irrelevant. I've always wondered what it might look like for a modern-traditional church/pastor to adopt wholeheartedly a biblical view of community and discipleship and work to reform his/her local church.

Enter Going Deep. I don't know enough about MacDonald's church to know how accurate the book is on implementation, but from the standpoint of how it might look, it's right on. Written in the same semi-fictional style as Who Stole My Church? and Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian series, Going Deep tells the story of a fictional New England congregation pastored by GMac (Gordon) and his wife Gail, who he says are the only two non-fictional characters in the story. The plot revolves around Pastor GMac's engagement with his neighbors, his Bible, and his own congregants about becoming "deep" people. An overarching early theme is that teachability is important, but growability is key. Like plants, we all need to grow deep roots in order to flourish outwardly. We need to be deep people.

The congregation goes through a 1 year process that takes a group of willing believers and challenges them in weekly gatherings of community to become deeper men and women. There are difficult commitments that are asked for and made (could "take up your cross" not involve difficult commitments?). Prior to the group starting, Gordon explored what it means to be a deep person, connecting with people from various walks of life, including a Jewish rabbi and an HR leader tasked with training "up & comers" in her company. All in all, this little group becomes what in my ecclesiology IS the church--a small group of people living life together and seeking to participate in and expand the kingdom of heaven.

But the most amazing thing about the book is how Gordon puts in the context of the modern-traditional church (which I define as the prototypical late 20th century evangelical USAmerican church) and shows how this might work. I've said many times that most large churches today are NOT churches, they are weekly gatherings of many smaller churches, along with some religious people, some bystanders, some outsiders, and some lone-wolf Christians. The senior pastor is often not pastoral at all, but a gifted communicator and leader. This book codifies that thought, and works to build one deep church within the congregation (including some outsiders), and then after that first year the members of that church will start their own churches, with new members from within and without the original congregation. It's a phenomenal concept that I'd love to see more current churches try.

I highly recommend this book. I give it 5 out of 5 bellybuttons in the Phatter book club.

Next year in...Bethel

This morning's OT reading from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (which I highly recommend) was from Genesis 28. 10-22. Jacob is backpacking across Canaan, and like most of us who've been camping, uses a rock as a pillow (okay, so I've got a nice collapsible pillow I throw in my pack, but I'm sure I've used a rock before at some point). During the--I'm sure fitful--night's sleep, Jacob dreams about heaven, earth, and God's moving between the two. When he wakes up, he calls the place "the house of God (Bethel in Hebrew)" saying "Surely the LORD is in this place and I didn't know it!"

That's my prayer for me and you this year, that we have multiple experiences of seeing God in places where we didn't realize he was there. One of my favorite authors, Bob Benson, once wrote about the Beatitude that he didn't know which was the bigger miracle, having a pure heart or seeing God. Which one comes first? Either one is an amazing work that I can't accomplish on my own.

Clearly Jacob was no candidate for "purest heart" awards. Yet he saw God and realized that he was in a place where heaven and earth met. You and I--and we're no purest heart candidates ourselves--can see God in places where heaven and earth come together. Charles Foster in his book The Sacred Journey calls these "thin spaces" and makes this comment:

The sort of new eyes God gives aren't just, or even mainly, designed for seeing the buds you would previously have missed or the nuances of your relationship with a particular pile of rocks. They are designed to let you see Jesus in the world...

May the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob show up in your thin spaces today and this year.

What makes an American? More thoughts...

Back a few weeks a friend asked me to post my thoughts on what makes America unique, or what makes someone an American. Today's post from Roy Williams, aka The Wizard of Ads, makes a great point about one of our key uniquenesses. In this memo titled "America 2.0"he looks briefly at some core historical points. While I may not always agree with his conclusions, he always stimulates my thinking, whether about marketing or history or religion.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Happy New Year!

Many thanks to you who read my rambles. As always, I hope to write more and hear from you more this year. Blessings in 2012 to you!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone