Monthly Archives: February 2009

Holiness

So we are leaving for Arkansas today. Can’t tell you how excited I am to get to hang out with my family. There’s a gathering of college ministries throughout the state, led by one visionary friend of mine named Seth.

College students are some of my favorite groups of people to talk to. I love them as audiences because life hasn’t taken the wind out of their sails yet, they still believe that they can make a difference. I think we can learn something from them.

Anyway, for my first talk I’ll be speaking about a different kind of holiness. That’s where this video comes in. Think about the life of Uzzah, the guy who God deep-fried in 1st Samuel 6 for touching the Ark of the Covenant. Then compare that story to the story in Luke 8 abut the woman with the bleeding disease. She was unclean, touching a Rabbi. She should be punished, but instead she was healed.

What changed?

It seems like the nature of holiness was transformed in the ministry of Jesus. It no longer was something to be protected but shared. It wasn’t to be guarded from contamination. It was contagious.

I know a lot of Christians with the mindset of this video. If this place really existed, I don’t think they would have a lack of tenants. We have developed a kind of escapist philosophy of the world. We are going to just wait unit we get beamed up (which I don’t believe in).

But I also know a lot of Jesus followers who have recognized that they need to be among the kind of people that Jesus was with. But they eventually become just like them. They fail to live out the counter-cultural, subversive call of Jesus.

Jesus was offering a different kind of being God’s people. A different way of being holy.

This idea of a different kind of holiness seemed to dominate the ministry of Jesus. He spent his time notoriously with the unclean, but somehow when he left them, they weren’t that way anymore. Craig Blomberg points out that in every meal Jesus has with “sinners” there is a call to change. It’s Jesus believing in them to be more than they are.

Probably the best part of this weekend, is that it’s not just another pep-rally. It’s done in the context of ministry to the very people Jesus spent his time with. Like I said, they are wanting to practice a different kind of holiness. One that is not defined by what we are abstain from, but by what we are for.

Anything you’d like to add to this? What does being holy mean to you?

The Colbert Report

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Turning to Religion – Jim Martin
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Did anyone else see this last night? I appreciate Stephen Colbert, while his character’s voice may not sound like a man of faith. Colbert himself is actually a devout Catholic. And his spiritiual gift is sarcastic irony.

Anyway I appreciated this segment last night. I am glad that there are voices like this in Pop-culture. He may be occasionally irreverent, but he gets people thinking about deeper things, without knowing that’s what they are doing.

Anyway, what do you think about this clip? Does anyone else think it’s cool that Colbert is sarcastically putting up what we think but don’t want to say out loud up against the claims of the gospel?

Post-Liberal and the Scriptures

There is a time where Jesus is talking to the religious people in the gospel of John. They are trying to back him into a corner and he responds by saying to them, “You dilligently study the Scriptures because you think that through them you have eternal life. But these Scriptures testify to me, yet you refuse to come to me to have this life.”

A couple of observations here. One is that Jesus seems to think the purposes of the Scriptures lays outside of itself. The other is that the Bible can be studied so closely that it’s main points are missed.

I bring this up because I think this is apt for how we talk/think about Scripture today.

Ever since Luther’s Sola Scriptura or Scripture alone as the basis of authority, we have used the Bible as foundational for the authority of God. Now Luther was speaking to the abuses of the Roman Catholic church. And this was a needed corrective for his time and his place. The Bible helped advance literacy among the masses, and it helped to inspire the invention of the Gutenberg Printing Press. But along with this invention, other things began to be published as well.

This was a time of great growth and development in almost all areas of culture. It was the beginning of the Renaissance. And it all started with the Bible.

However, these new developments in scientific, historical, and literary fields were eventually turned on the Bible itself. And if you have any religious training at all, or have ever read a commentary, chances are you have run into this. And here’s where the story picks up.

These criticism’s became the starting point for reading the Scriptures through a certain lens. The questions that we started asking the Bible began to change. We began to ask things like, “are these miracles possible?” or “How do we know what Jesus actually said?” And the last century saw the majority of conversations about the Bible centering around these kinds of questions.

But what if these questions are the wrong ones?

I have learned over the past few years that there are plenty of good reasons that people in both camps have for thinking what they think. They aren’t idiots.

And I have to admit that for the first couple of years of graduate school this was really disturbing. To read great minds talking about why they no longer had faith really rocked my world. I found myself at some points wondering if I believed anything.

Did I mention I was working at a church? Not a lot of job openings for an agnostic minister.

There is a guy named Paul Ricoeur who talks about what he calls a 2nd naivete. The idea, Riceour says, is that after we come to the end of criticism, we choose to believe. We choose to accept that we don’t know everything. This has blessed me immensely. This 2nd naivete is not a blind faith. I have seasons of doubt. I study and try to stay up on what other people are saying. But instead of allowing every new conclusion to rock my faith I have decided to trust.

Which brings me back to how we talk about the Bible.

Most of the time I have heard people talk about the Bible to people that they have differences with, the terms that they use are the same. The battle lines have already been clearly drawn. Someone mentions something about the infallibility or inerrancy of the Bible. And the fight is on.*

But most of my generation isn’t asking questions about the infallibility of the Bible. And if they are is because someone taught them to ask that question. They are instead asking questions that I think are more true to the Scriptures. And they are questions that I think we need to address.

I think that the way we talk about the Bible should take into consideration the beauty of the Scriptures, the epic nature of the story. And most of all, I think we need to address the call that the Bible has on people, as made in the image of God, to live outside themselves. The Bible, as it stands, seems to make some pretty radical calls to humanity, not least to those who call themselves followers of Jesus.

And part of the danger of reducing the Bible to making 19th century arguments, is losing the claim that it is making on us to be different.

Think about this. Our kids grow up hearing us talking about the Bible like it’s a text book. Defending it’s content and digging in our heels.

And they see the majority of Jesus’ followers living just like everyone else.

Is it interesting to anyone else that the attendance in most American churches are declining, while para-church organizations and social justice causes are more thriving than ever? It’s like a ton of people are being drawn to places that are embodying the Scriptures, and away from places that are teaching them.

Wouldn’t it be nice to do both?

When Jesus responded to those religious leaders he let them know that the Scriptures alone couldn’t bring life. Its purpose was to point to Him. The bent of Scripture after all is from Word to flesh. And when people looked at where Scriptures were pointing they saw a man that has captivated much of the world.

And that man of course is the Word who became flesh. Christ, the mirror of God.

* Now those arguments had a time and place. But in a post-modern world, why are we really still having them? Post-modern actually refers to the disillusionment with modernity. And these questions are about as modern as you can get.

Can you do this?

I love stuff like this.

Their tag line is, “40 Days of water, no Ark necessary.”

I assume you already know the statistics of Sub-Saharan Africa. That more than 40% of deaths could be avoided with a simple solution like clean water. I assume most of us have had those moments in hearing those kind of numbers where we thought someone ought to be doing something.

Well these people are, and they have a great idea. Drink only water in March, and give the money that you would have spent on other drinks to help develop access to clean water for others.

Think about it, you are healthier and you are making a difference. I’m thinking about doing it. Anyone else on board?

The imagination of Stetson Kennedy

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Right after World War II, America was in a pretty volatile time in it’s history. Different philosophies competed for prominence. We had just partnered with Communist Russia to defeat the Nazi’s and then had to fight communism during the Red Scare, gender roles were more vague than ever, and racial conflict was heating up.

Enter the black and white (literally) certainty of the Klu Klux Klan. The KKK was not just a marginal hate group, they were seen as a legitimate, respectable organization by many. And they were picking up steam. They boasted a couple of presidents as members during their history, and they had all the answers to the uncertain times.

To say the least it was scary.

The bigotry and hate that we fought in the Nazi’s was now rearing it’s head in the States. Some people estimate that the KKK was close to becoming the driving philosophy. And one guy was wise enough to see what was going on.

His name was Stetson Kennedy, and he did what anyone of us would have done. He joined the KKK. He started rising in the hierarchy, and eventually got to the rank of Kleagle, whatever that means. But what no one in the organization knew, was that Kennedy was funneling information, secret information, about the KKK to the outside.

And here’s where it picks up. Who could Stetson Kennedy get the KKK’s secrets to where it would really hurt them? The answer was obvious. Superman.

He actually started passing on secret codes, secret meeting protocol’s, secret handshakes, (does this seem like a glorified boys club to anyone else?) to the radio show “The Adventures of Superman.” The plan was that Superman would fight the KKK every week on his radio show. And it worked. By revealing the inner workings of the KKK to the kiddo’s he helped to show them how bad they really were.

The KKK dad’s started coming home hearing their kids talking about how Superman had destroyed the KKK leaders, saying their fiercely guarded secret’s at the dinner table, and men started to drop like flies out of the previously vibrant movement.

I bring this up because I think it illustrates the power of imagination.

Greg Boyd has a great book called “Seeing is Believing” in which he talks about how Western civilization has basically written off imagination as being something for children. And we are paying the price. Too often things are framed in terms of us vs. them, black and white, Democrats or Republican.

We are losing the ability to find an imaginative third way. But deep in our bones I think we know that these are not the only options. As one Iraqi medical worker said, “Violence is for those who have lost all creativity.”

I think this is what Paul is tapping into in Romans 4, where he talks about the way God operates in the world. Paul says, “He is the God who gives life to the dead, and calls things that are not as though they are.”

The history of humanity has been changed by men and women who saw that what was really needed was not more bullets or missiles, but a deeper imagination. It’s how Gandhi got rid of British occupation without ever firing a gun, it’s how Dr. King won civil rights for African American’s without starting a war.

And it’s how Stetson Kennedy and Superman took down the KKK.

A Basket Case

Part of the problem that Christians are facing today is how we present the Bible to others. I have more to say about this next Monday, but I want to first point out what I think is the main problem. For the longest time, Christians, or at least Protestants, assumed what Luther called Sola Scriptura. That the Scriptures were the authority for us. We became known as people of the book.
One of the things that characterizes Post-modernism is a deep distrust for power or any absolute truth claims. At least that’s what the people who teach my classes say. But I’ve found that’s not always the case.

I have found that what they have distrust for is not meta-narratives or institutions but for those that have exploited, abused or excluded others. And while it’s true that the Bible has been used at points in our history to validate all these things, I think that the Christian gospel is uniquely capable of saying something to this.

Let me give you an example.

Remember before Paul was named Paul. He was actually named Saul. That’s always baffled me. Why would he change his name? Or really just one letter of his name? To the Hebrew a name was more than just a label, it was the essence of a person. That’s why if you want to know the emotional state of a woman in the Old Testament just look at what she names her kids. There are seriously kids who are named things which mean “I am depressed.”

Saul was no different. In naming their son Saul, his parents were plugging him to the story of Israel’s first king. A time when they were on top of the world, when they were well on their way of building a dynasty. David’s just around the corner, and they don’t even know what an exile is.

The name Saul was a symbol for Israel in their hay-day.

But then Saul goes to Damascus, meets the risen Jesus and everything gets turned around.

He becomes a Christian, and it says that Saul grew more and more powerful. But what kind of power is this? Because the very next part it says that some of the Jews tried to kill him, and so the other Christians lowered him down the city wall in a basket.

The great Saul of Tarsus, a prominent Rabbi, in good with the religious elite of the day is now a fugitive. He’s spent his entire life pressing up, climbing the religious ladder and now he’s headed the other direction. You wouldn’t think that this would be something you would want on your resume.

But you would be wrong.

Because one time, Paul is feeling backed into a corner by a church that he helped to plant. They heard that he’s not a super-apostle. He can’t fit into the spandex. He’s not that impressive of a speaker. And Paul goes off.

He just starts bragging on himself. But about all the wrong things. He says that if he is going to boast he’s going to boast about his weaknesses. And he does, he has an impressive pedigree of failures, persecutions and weakness. And to cap it all off he tells this story:

“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of
the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the
governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.
But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.”

It was the moment where Paul realized that at the center of the gospel is a powerful weakness.

Do you know what Saul means in Hebrew? It means the one we asked for, like the King. But Paul means something else entirely, it’s Latin.

It means small.

It’s true that history is written by the winners, and meta-narratives and over-arching storylines can be used as power plays over others. But the Christian message holds up as the pinnacle of history a defeated Jewish carpenter. That’s our symbol of victory. It’s a different kind of power all-together. One that doesn’t Lord it’s authority over others, but finds the deepest power of all in serving them.

I’ve found that many people who have a problem with our claims of truth, don’t really get it because they haven’t really seen it. Looking at our history post-Constantine we have managed to turn an upside down message right-side up.

Recently I was on a plane flight and I asked my seat mate what he thought of when he thought of Christians. His immediate response was to place the movement of Jesus within a certain political ideology. And he wasn’t interested in being associated with that. But I wouldn’t want to follow that Jesus either. I have found that most people who have a problem with the God of Jesus, or the Scriptures don’t really have a problem with the Bible, but with how it has been used.

What I think the world is hungry for is a glimpse into a different kind of power of a different kind of God.

One that chooses mangers over thrones, and whose followers choose baskets over crowns.

Immigration

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

You probably already know that these words from Emma Lazarus’ poem are written on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty. A statue that stands as something of a symbol for America.

So I recently finished reading the book of Deuteronomy, and one of the things that stood out to me, repeated over and over, was the command to care for the foreigner and alien among us. And the reason that God gives this newly founded community for doing this is because they too were once slaves and foreigners in Egypt.

Now by the time that people were reading this, not a single one of them had been brought out of Egypt. That was their ancestors. But God is reminding them of their heritage, how they were once strangers, needing help, in a strange land. In fact, God even commands a special ceremony in chapter 26, where people would go the the priest and declare, “My father was a wondering Aramean.” And then they would share their food and their money with the foreigners that they had among them.

I found myself reading this chapter over and over again. How could this be so prominent in the Scriptures and we never talk about this?

Immigration may not be a hot-button issue for you if you are in, you know, Topeka, but I live in Texas, and everyone has an opinion on this. And most of the opinions aren’t formed as an abstract idea, but because they, or someone they care about, lost a job to an immigrant who’s willing to do cheap labor. I have Mexican friends who have been deported, some who need health care, but can’t get it because they are not legal. I have friends who work long and hard days for next to nothing to send what little money they get back to their home country for their extended families survival.

I know there are a lot of layers to this problem.

So how does Deuteronomy speak to Fort Worth?

Because this seems like a weightier matter of the law.

One thing that struck me here was that God wants us to remember our own story. I remember finding out that my great grandfather’s great grandfather took a boat from Scotland. It seems like my father was a wandering Scotsman. So this isn’t a us vs. them issue, even though it may seem that way. When we discuss immigration, we have to realize that we are talking about a grace that was extended to our not so distant family. We too were once in Egypt.

Phyllis Tickle (whose name just has to make you smile) points out another layer to this discussion. She talks about how in the beginning of the 19th century, Chinese labor was the cheapest around. And the railroad companies exploited these immigrants, simultaneously laying off thousands of American manual workers. The backlash from this loss of jobs was so great that Congress eventually fully banned Asian immigrants. Seriously.

Our culture became devoid of Asian perspective, and the next three wars America was to fight was with Asian countries. Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

Now this isn’t to say that these wars would have been certainly avoided, or that Mexico will soon attack the States. But there is something about shutting off from others, of closing our doors, that is destructive. That needs to be factored in when we talk about this. It’s a matter of National Security for our doors to be open to others.

Immigration isn’t just for “them,” it’s for “us” too.

I hate that this is seen as right or left political issue. I hate that churches are so silent about this issue, but are so vocal about such peripheral ones, ones that Scripture doesn’t even speak to.

Like I said I recognize that there are many moving parts to this discussion. But why aren’t churches leading the charge in the conversation? The church has pioneered the majority of great human rights movements in the past. Even to their own economic detriment. (Did you know that slave labor was the majority of England’s economic intake, and that the church offered and paid almost a half of their lost national income?) If something’s just wrong, economic forces have to take a back burner.

Is there an imaginative third way here?

What does it look like to remember our own story as foreigners in the context of feared job losses and economic down-turns?

What does it look like to wade into all the different nuances and layers of this problem because of a commitment to justice and obedience over other pressures, societal and economic?

Future

Watch this video, then we’ll talk.

So I have been reading for the past couple of weeks for a series that I am co-teaching with Rick (my boss and senior preacher) next month. It’s been challenging, inspiring, depressing and exciting. We are looking at the how much the world is changing and how the way of Jesus looks and should look in a world that is moving so rapidly.

A couple of things stand out to me after a few weeks of reflection.

First, the church tends to be way behind the curve on innovation. That’s sad to me. It seems like we should be leading the charge in this. The resurrected Christ has opened to door to the re-creation of all things. And yet our communities of faith are some of the most stagnant places in culture.

Now I don’t want to be too hard on our churches, partly because the world is changing at an unprecedented rate. From globalization to the technological revolution, things aren’t like they were a hundred years ago. However, you can’t really tell that when you walk into many of our church buildings. I have been in too many churches that are one decade away from being a historical footnote.

Peter Gomes, a Harvard professor of religion, and a devout follower of Jesus, points out that churches are supposed to be engines of social and global change, instead we are bastions of conservativism. There is a kind of nostalgia that happens in a lot of churches, we develop the good ole days’ syndrome. We shut off what the younger generation is saying, while asking why they don’t want to be a part of what we are doing. Why is it that every generation seems to do to the next what they resented about the previous?

Second, this is partly the churches own fault. For the most part we have stifled or excommunicated our most creative people. It seems like, generally speaking, we have postured ourselves in a position of fear. Circle the wagons, head under the sand. One of the main problems with this is that this position is the exact opposite of faith.

We aren’t smoking what we are selling.

While this may seem harsh, I don’t mean it to be. There is plenty of despair and cynicism available today, I don’t want to add to that. I write this out of a great hope for the future of the movement of Jesus. We are in a time of open ended change and possibilities. What would it look like for the church to be herself in this time and place? The fact that many of my friends are turning to other forms of spirituality does not mean that the way of Jesus is deficient, but maybe it does reveal the poverty of how we talk about following Him.

For the next few Monday’s I am going to write about what I think it would look like to navigate the church in our changing climate. And I would like to get your input, since you have a computer, I assume that you are not oblivious to this.

So what do you think should/must change?

What must not change?

What will it look like to be the church for the coming generations? And how can we get there?

Tuesday’s With Robbie

For the past year or so, I go on Tuesday afternoon’s to minister to guys in jail. It is one of the highlights of the week for me. I love being able to spend time with these guys who are so eager to transform their lives, and I love the opportunity of helping someone choose a different path.

One of those guys, I’ll call him Robbie, has shown me the power of the Gospel.

To hear Robbie talk about who he used to be, what he used to do, is shocking. You could not find two people more different. Robbie was the kind of guy that my parents warned me about growing up. I was home schooled, he didn’t finish school, I was segregated from black people, he was segregated from white people.

We were both taught to be afraid of each other.

This last Monday myself and another minister went to court to testify on Robbie’s behalf. He had gotten off for one charge, and could have gotten off on another. But, here’s the kicker, he wouldn’t plead not guilty for something he knew he was guilty of. He wouldn’t lie, even if it meant he could go home.

I told you he was changing.

And I sat in court and heard Robbie plead guilty to a charge that they might not have got a conviction for, and then he apologized to the city of Fort Worth.

I am not naive, I know that sometimes after people are released from court they go back to living their old lives. I know that Robbie will have hard times, and even be tempted. But he won’t be doing this on his own. Leslie and I, along with a few other friends, have gotten to know his family. We have developed a support system for Robbie, and when he gets out he has a mission.

See for the past year Robbie has been telling us what he wants to do with his life. He grew up in a gang. He rose to the top and became was a leader, people always looked to him for direction. And now he is going to give it to them. Robbie’s dream for his life is to end gang violence. He knows how destructive it can be. He got in a gunfight with a childhood friend just because they were each wearing different colors. He has a PH.d. from the university of messed up. He knows firsthand what systematic evil looks like.

But he has had an encounter with the risen Jesus, and he knows the power of God for his friends and family. And I think Robbie is going to change his world. He’s been reading up on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and how he went about communicating the power of non-violence.

I worry for Robbie, I worry that life as a changed man in an unchanged neighborhood might be harder than he expects. I worry that people might not accept his transformation as easily as those who love him. I worry that he’ll slip. But Jesus has transformed others in worse places than Him. It seems like God loves to choose people that others have written off, just to show how good He is.

To hear Robbie talk sounds like a contemporary version of the prophet Isaiah. He sees a day when the blood and crips are no longer enemies. A day when guns are traded in for diplomas. He’s enrolling in a seminary, and when he gets out he is going to put the gospel on display.

And one day I’ll be able to tell you his name.

* I took this picture Monday in the Courthouse at Tarrant County (I hope it’s not illegal to post it).

Why I am Still a Member of The Church of Christ

No matter what any book says.

I remember as a kid not really knowing what the sign on our church building meant. I knew that the people that were at that church, all ten of us, were kind people who cared deeply about scripture and obeying the Lord. But we did not all agree on what that looked like.

One of the men who preached would sometimes go on a tirade against women wearing pants in the church building. Ironically, this sermon was only done when there were women there wearing pants. Strangely enough, no woman ever responded to the invitation.

While I did not know much about our fellowship when I was young, my mom would tell me stories about how we started, what we were about, and why we where different. And to be honest it sounded so noble. The idea of being a part of a unity movement, where it did not matter if you disagreed on petty issues, we could unite around the reality of Jesus, that sounded really good.

Sure this was a bit more difficult in practice, people disagreed with one another, issues were raised, and women wore pants. But the idea still seemed like a good one.

Now that I have grown up, I still attend and work at a church of Christ. Sure, it’s different than the one I grew up at. For one thing it’s really, really big. It’s six flags over Jesus big. And for another thing we have a couple of services that have guitars. But we are still a church of Christ.

Or at least we thought we were.

Last week the directory of churches of Christ came out listing all churches in the U.S., and for the first time in my life I found myself in a church that was not listed in that book. This directory has always been intriguing to me. When I was young, I used to look up the ten person church that I went to just to make sure that we were in there. It gave us authority, made us legitimate.

Now a lot of talk has been going around about our exclusion from the directory, and the compilers told others that they did not mean this to be divisive, they just work for a cappella churches. There are a couple of reasons that this is crummy. First off, we still have an entirely acappella church, it’s actually around 2,350 people. It’s the biggest a cappella church in our fellowship. Second, we weren’t told about this move. No one let us know ahead of time that we were being excluded from the directory, we were not asked, nor did we want this.

Another problem is that there are plenty of disagreements within the churches listed in that directory. Lots of churches are listed that do not fellowship one another for a variety of reasons. Each of the distinct churches are marked with a special asterisks or notation.

For example, the church that I grew up in did not believe in Sunday School, a paid preacher, supporting children’s homes, and a variety of other common practices. We had more asterisks than a Barry Bonds record book.

But we were in there.

The reason that this matters, that I want to write about it all, is because of the volatile nature of the issue that is dividing us. About a hundred years ago the church of Christ fellowship divided because of this very issue. Now a hundred years later we are in the process of doing it again.

Richland Hills is not leading the charge for all churches to become instrumental. We believe that every church is autonomous. It has the freedom to make decisions for what it looks like to be the hands and feet of Jesus for that community and place. However, we also want to be a part of a broader fellowship.

In making the decision to not include us in the directory, it was not an innocent by-rule of the directory. It was a statement. They knew the crossroads that we, as a fellowship, are at. And they chose to draw a line that should not have been drawn. It would have been easy for them to denote that we, and 19 other churches, had a different worship style at a couple of services. But instead we were excluded.

Let me be clear on this, this post is not about instrumental worship. It’s about whether or not in one hundred years we have found bigger things to unite around other than the same old petty arguments. If a unity movement divides every time it is tested than the obvious conclusion is that we are not a unity movement.

There have been ugly moments in our history. We have sometimes been sectarian, sometimes legalistic, sometimes we have been known for being unkind and judgmental. I have been tempted several times over the past few years to leave the restoration movement, but I still remember mom telling me about the church of Christ movement as a beautiful thing. A movement of unity among people who did not agree on everything, but did agree on Jesus.

I still believe her.

It’s time to remember our better history.