Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Hole In Our Gospel

Richard Stearns was the C.E.O. of a major fine dining silverware company called Lenox. He went to church, gave toward missions, lived in a ten bedroom mansion on several acres, and drove a Porsche XS-T. He was the successful Christian business man.

And then one day he got a call from World Vision, a Christian non-profit organization, and everything changed.

World Vision works to eliminate the most desperate poverty from the world. And they were asking for Richard to come be their President. As you might imagine the job would pay considerably less, their family would have to relocate, and he would be forced to travel the world spending time with the “least of these.”

The irony of going from selling fine dinner ware to working for people who couldn’t even eat was not lost on Richard. And he bills himself as anything but a saint. He told the people at World Vision no several times but eventually the question that won him over was “what if there are hungry children who would be able to live because you accept this job?”

The Hole in Our Gospel is one of the most convicting books I have ever read. It’s written with us in mind. Americans who are rich, but don’t think they are. It’s not a manifesto of guilt. Repeatedly Stearns points out that guilt isn’t productive. He refers to a modern phenomenon called, compassion fatigue. So instead he paints a picture of what the world could look like if the people of God started to recognize the implications of their own gospel.

The book is filled with great stories of the power of the gospel juxtaposed against some pretty prophetic stuff about the danger of riches being used only for the wealthy. For Example:

“The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not,
as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of
a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the
rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied…but
written off as trash.” -John Berger

“We can be the generation that no longer accepts that an
accident of latitude determines whether a child lives or
dies–But will we be that generation? Fifteen thousand
people dying needlessly every day from AIDS, TB, and
malaria. Mother, father, teachers, nurses, mechanics,
children. This is Africa’s crisis. That it’s not on the nightly
news, that we do not treat this as an emergency–that’s
our crisis.” -Bono

I am thankful to be at a church that 60% of her income goes to outside of herself. That is to serve the community. I think it’s why I love RHCC so much. But Stearns has a pretty great point in this book about the typical American church. Pastors bellyache that the average parishioner only gives 2.5% of their income to tithes. But did you know that the average church only gives 2-5% of her income to outside of herself? That is that 2% of 2% of American Christians wealth goes to the people who need it! That’s less that 6 pennies a day from the average American Christian.

We can do better than that.

We have to do better than that.

And this, Stearns points out, is the hole in our gospel.

The gospel isn’t about just getting people into Heaven, it is, and always has been about God’s reign coming here on earth. And any gospel that misses that, has a gaping hole in it.

So Richard Stearns takes the job. And in the first couple of months he’s climbing up a tiny mountain in Argentina, where a lone house in built. As soon as he enters the house a woman starts hysterically crying and smiling. She begins to speak to him in a language he doesn’t understand. After the translator catches up, Richard realizes that this woman just lost her husband. She has five kids and their husband, just before his death, had incurred $300 of debt to buy some sheep.

Now $300 is a lot of money for this woman. And to make matters worse a mysterious livestock illness has started taking her sheep, her only income, one at a time.

And with every sheep this woman buries, she knows she is also burying her little family.

And then Richard Stearns, the former C.E.O. of a silverware company shows up. Once the woman has caught him up to speed on her story, she tells him something interesting. She says that for the past year she has been praying for God to send her someone. Someone who can help her family not to die.

And in that moment, God speaks to Richard Stearns. He tells him this is why I brought you to World Vision. You could have said no, but you didn’t.

And now you are the answer to this woman’s prayers.

Doesn’t that sound like a gospel you could live for?

The Day The Music Died

I still remember the day that the doors opened of the back of the church building, Leslie walked down in a white dress with her father, our friends and family stood beside me watching her draw toward me.

And she did it all to a Michael Jackson song.

Seriously. The song was Speechless, the cello came in at just the right moment, Jackson’s voice ran the spectrum, and the whole moment was…thrilling.

I’ve spent the last few hours writing a funeral for Saturday, a very good man passed away this last week, and his funeral seemed to write itself. So it’s personally ironic on a day that I am very focused on death both Farrah Fawcett and the king of pop have passed away. I’m watching CNN’s take on this whole thing and listening to how different fans are reacting. Some seem hysterical, some of them are nostalgic, and some are moonwalking.

Death, no matter how natural it’s causes, always feels unnatural.

The very moment I heard about Michael Jackson’s death I was reading this quote by N.T. Wright, and since it’s so appropriate I’ll pass it on in it’s entirety here.

“1 Corinthians 15:58 says, ‘What you do in the Lord is not in vain.’ You are not
oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not
restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are
not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You
are- strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection
itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new
world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music
inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every
minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or walk; every act
of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and
for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer,
all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church,
embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of
Jesus honored in all the world—all of this will find its way, through the
resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.
That is the logic of the mission of God.”

Or in other words, whatever is beautiful, creative, in line with the way that God intended for the world to be that stuff is going to last forever.

Now I am not saying that everything that MJ did will last forever (just the stuff from the 80’s) but I think this is really central to understanding how big what God did through Jesus actually is. That there is not a single particle of creation that God is going to allow to be lost. And the things that we do while we are here that is inline with His New Creation project goes on forever.

That the songs that we sing that are in harmony with what God is up to last forever.

This has to change the way not just the way we think about death, but how we think about life. What we spend our days on, the work that we busy ourselves with, the relationships that we cultivate, and the songs that we sing.

Michael Jackson made a difference in this world. I grew up listening to his music as did most of my peers. And yeah, he did some weird stuff, and yeah he had some shady moments, but maybe, hopefully, some of his stuff will last forever.

Because I really like Beat It.

The Middle of Marriage

So about a year ago, Leslie started watching that show, “John and Kate plus 8.” She doesn’t like to watch T.V. that much, but that show became like crack for her. Now, I am assuming that the less estrogen-prone among us probably don’t watch the show, but whether you watch the show or not, chances are you’ve probably heard about the drama surrounding that family.

Last night they announced their pending divorce, and the fans of the nation felt a sense of collective disappointment. At least the ones I am Facebook friends with did. Maybe it was because they had fallen in love with that little family, maybe it was because it brought back memories from their own family history, or maybe it was because there is a sense that divorce, no matter who is to blame, is always a tragedy.

I was trying to count the other day how many weddings I have done in my five years of ministry. I couldn’t recall, but a couple dozens times I have stood in front of a couple and led them through vows they said to each other, to God, and to their friends and family. I couldn’t remember the number of weddings, but I had no problem remembering how many were divorced.

I always wonder, where did I fail them, what counseling did we miss, how could I have equipped them for the bumps of sharing life with someone better. It’s made my pre-marital counseling more intense. I am now the Nazi version of Dr. Phil.

I was listening to NPR last week, when a guy came on who had just written a book on marriage in America. He said that a child who is raised by two non-married parents in Sweden is more likely to be raised by those same parents through adulthood than a baby born to married parents in the U.S.

Disturbing, I know.

When he was asked why divorce was so prevalent in America, he gave an interesting answer. He said it’s because there are two philosophies of marriage that are bouncing around in the average citizens head. When someone is asked, “Should a couple ever be divorced for any reason, outside of infidelity, physical or sexual abuse?” The overwhelming majority of them said never.

But when that same person was asked, later on in the interview, using a different wording, “If a person was unhappy in a given marriage should they get a divorce?” They said yes.

So never, under any circumstances, get a divorce. Unless you are sad.

Now, I am not belittling the pain that comes with some marriages, or the hurt that comes with divorce.* I know the church has hurt a lot of people by their unwillingness to forgive divorced people, and I hope I don’t sound like I am adding my voice to that mix. If you are divorced and reading this, than I hope that you grasp just how forgiven you are, and I hope you do not sense a spirit of condemnation in this post. But the statistics of Christians divorcing more than non-Christians, all while following a man who says we shouldn’t divorce, says that something is badly wrong.

Leslie and I have our problems, mainly my problems that I give her to deal with. And Lord knows that there are times that she would like for the “death do us part” to come soon. But we have never thought that this was a temporary gig. Now I know we have a long way to go before we are a success story, but I think will get there.

And here’s why.

Movies always show us the beginning of love stories. The puppy love stage. You know, he meets her in an antique book store, they’re browsing for the same book and then “it” happens. They may let us see the initial stages of the relationship, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. And then the story fades to black.

And sometimes movies show us the end of the relationship. The elderly couple die in each other arms, or she cares for him as he passes on. And we cry and dream about how that’s going to be us one day with our significant other.

But what is absent from our mass-produced story telling is the middle of the relationship.

Because life isn’t made up of puppy love, and reality doesn’t end walking on a beach holding hands.

Life is made up of a series of Tuesday’s and Veteran’s days and March 12ths.

Life is made up of millions of opportunities to take out the trash, and wash the dishes, to not say that one clever thing you know will hurt her, or to wash his car because you know he’ll appreciate it.

Marriage is an agreement to live all those days together, to let someone matter to you, even if they don’t to anyone else, and to make those days count for each other.

That’s what’s behind those stories of the older couple dying together. It’s so powerful because we know the sacrifice that went into those years. These people for decades chose repeatedly to serve one another, and now when their story comes to an end it matters.

I think that’s what is missing in our collective idea of marriage. We have forgotten that the bedrock of marriage is habitual sacrifice. It’s not flashy, and you won’t always feel like doing it, so you go to counseling (which we have) when you need help, you work on your sharp edges (which I am doing), and you re-learn how to love each other year after year.

Because behind the end, is decades of the middle.

*Did you know that a person who is divorced is more likely to die of early age than a person who has smoked for 30 years? Did you know that surveys show that people who divorced, 5 years later are less happy than when they were married? I think it’s indicative about how deeply divorce affects us, it’s not just a simple legal proceeding. It’s in a very real sense more like an amputation.

Abortion


I’ll talk about this video in a second, but first.

Last night on the daily show, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was on doing yet another interview. Here’s the link for that clip. This time he was given the opportunity to choose the topic and he went with something slightly less controversial.

Abortion.

Now his timing is pretty apt. Once more this has taken center stage in our country, as just last week, George Tiller, one of the nation’s only late term abortion doctors was shot dead while attending his church.

Now, I know this won’t be popular with my democrat friends, but I like Mike Huckabee. I always have, and not just because his stance on abortion. He’s always been able to disagree and talk about complex issues while being civil. A fact that I think is proved by his willingness to go on the Daily Show repeatedly. I also appreciated Jon Stewart’s side of this discussion. At the end he admitted being dead-certain about the rightness of most left-wing ideas, but as a father who’s seen his own kids ultra-sounds, this one bothers him too.

If you know me you know that I am pretty a-political. But I think this discussion is deeper than politics. It’s indicative of our collective sense of morality, and how humans look at life in general. And as anyone who lived before Roe vs. Wade can attest, abortion (while on a much smaller basis) was going on long before it was legalized.

I remember my mom when I was a kid, going to abortion clinics and “pretending” to be a woman needing an abortion, while really putting pro-life material in their magazines. And while I hope that saved some babies, I kind of doubt it did. But my parents were also foster parents for more kids than I can count, I also have an adopted sister, and one of the things I have noticed is that the foster kids they kept were not going out and getting abortions later in life.

That is to say that they saw that even with life not being ideal, it was still okay. There were still people out there who loved and fought for them. And it made all the difference.

This is just one more example of the unique mission of the church. We can cut past the political rhetoric of the day. We don’t wait on laws to be passed. Though I would love for abortion to be illegal (not because I think politics are the way to change things, but because I think that would be more in line with the collective conscience that dignifies everyone).

Mr. Huckabee brought out a point that I think is not talked about much in our culture. He mentioned that while he was a minister he dealt with dozens of cases of ladies who had an abortion early in life and then went through life with unresolved guilt because of it. Freud might say that’s religiously imposed guilt, but I have had conversations with several girls without a religious bone in their body, who still suffer from this.

I would argue that part of the problem with viewing life through the modern scientific reductionist lens is that we fail to pick up on the truth that everything is connected. Sure, you could call this a fetus or a embryonic termination but what if it’s more than that?

Now I know that this is a topic that is incredibly complex. I know that there are vicious cycles of poverty that some would argue are the reason that abortion is necessary. And I hope you hear me saying that those must be dealt with as well.

I know that talking about this is extremely touchy, but that’s mainly because the left and the right love to use issues to remain in or gain power. But this is not an issue, it’s about an ethic of life.

And I hope I’m not talking to people who are primarily Democrat’s or Republicans. I hope I’m talking to the church.

This wouldn’t be the first time that God used the church to stop a social wrong by helping to raise the social conscience. From infanticide to gladiator games, to slavery to civil rights, we have a history of speaking a word into a culture that can place pragmatism over hope.

The church, when she’s at her best, gently, creatively and sacrificially speaks a word of life into the world. And I think that this commercial done by Catholics earlier in the year is a great example of what it looks like for the church to call the culture that surrounds her to re-imagine this whole topic.

So Maybe it’s time to adopt some kids.

Maybe it’s time to take in a pregnant teenager.

Because Life really does have so much potential.

The Challenger and Chernobyl

Nothing in the 80’s shook the modern world quite as much as these two events (with the possible exception of the Exxon spill). The space age born of a cold war was coming to an end and the nuclear arms race born of same cold war was starting to take a left turn.

In Genesis 11, the Tower of Babel is man’s attempt to build a tower to the heavens, to progress to the point of being divine, or at least equality with the divine. One moment they are well on their way, and the next they need to buy a copy of Rosetta Stone: Everything.

The story of the Tower of Babel reveals the myth of Progress (with a big P) thousands of years before we ever bought into the idea.

Now, I don’t think that God caused the Challenger to crash or the nuclear meltdown. But I do think that these moments effectively poked holes in the myth that we could just somehow evolve to a perfect utopia. These moments helped to pave the way for the science-fiction movies of the 90’s where technology goes bad…Total Recall, Jurassic Park, Terminator. Superman IV (my least favorite of the set) actually devotes the man of steel’s entire plot to ridding the world of nuclear warfare.

Still not convinced? Think of Spock. The ideal man of the 1960‘s Star Trek is a man who works off of logic, unbiased, and totally objective. The apex of humanity is to be, well, not human. It’s to operate purely off rational thinking. But now think of Star Trek’s Next Generation (I realize that this post is making me look like a huge dork, but just go with me for a second) Star Trek’s new Spock is a guy named Data. A robot, who wants nothing more than to feel, to have emotion.

This may seem like just a silly plot, but it’s indicative of a broader cultural change.

We no longer thought that reason and logic were what made us the best humans.

We were suddenly exposed to the realization that the very things that we were pursuing to advance us might actually be the end of us. Is it any wonder that kids that grew up around this time are more environmentally conscious than previous generations? We saw what might happen if our dreams turned into nightmares.

The implications of this are profound. The seeds of post-modernism were sowed by modernism’s failed attempts at an ideal world. And while I don’t think that the 80’s were better or worse than other decades, it has probably been one of the more influential ones in shaping our philosophy, politics and theology. And I’ll talk more about that later, but for now…

How influential was the Challenger’s crash or Chernobyl’s meltdown on you?

Do you remember where you were when it happened? What you were doing?

In order not to be a totally depressing, sci-fi post I’ll leave you with a brilliant song that my friend Blake wrote about the 80’s on a comment of a previous post, set to the tune of “We didn’t start the fire.”

Breakfast Club; Top Gun; Carl Lewis on the run;
Gorbacev; Berlin Wall; Chicago Cub night-ball

Just say no; Axel F; Rubik’s Cube; Carter left;
Cabbage Patch; Big Hair; We are the world; Tiananmen Square;

Chorus… (Something like.. “We didn’t start the 90’s…”)

Moon Walk;  Acid Wash; Mall rats; Arcade Games;
Trapper Keeper; Members Only; Parachute Pants;

Challenger O-ring; America hosts olympic games;
Around the world in just one flight; Rocky wants one more fight

More chorus…

Oil Spill; Disco’s Dead; Van Halen, Mr. T’s Head
Ethiopia needs food, Boy George is a dude

Mt. St. Helens e-rupts; Mr. Fusion; Delorian;
Kadafi has to talk; Michael Jackson Moon walk,

and again…

Hacky Sack, Reagan shot, Chernobyl gets real hot
Bill Cosby, Ocean Pacific, Joe Montana is Terrific

Pac-Man, Vans Shoes, Falkland Islands in the news,
Farm-Aid, Live Aid, Theisman needs a band-aid

Youth

I’ve been listening to some lectures by a guy named Fred Grey. He was the attorney for Rosa Parks, Dr. King and countless cases in Alabama during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

And he was a member of the churches of Christ.

Dr. Grey has lived a fascinating life, his stories are engaging, his observations are prophetic and he speaks with a mixture of charm and caution about current day issues. But what I found the most intriguing was a point he made toward the beginning of his lecture.

He pointed out that the civil rights movement, and many other movements of its ilk, would never have happened if it hadn’t been for the young people. While the civil rights movement had great leaders rise up among them that have become household names, Dr. Grey insists it was the young people who changed the country. They were the unsung heros who picketed, boycotted and sacrificed their bodies when necessary.

One of the recurring themes in studies about churches in the West is how we are losing our young people. The statistics show that when a young adult graduates from high school they are likely also graduating from our churches.

And I would imagine that when many churches start talking about that statistic their immediate concern might have something to do with waning church attendance. Now I get that, but I am concerned about something else.

Dr. Grey said that historically most societal changes are initiated and sustained by young people. Now these aren’t political changes, but grass-roots ones.

In 1st Timothy, Paul writes a young church planter named Timothy just giving him some advice. He tells him not to let anyone look down on him because he’s young, but to set an example in how he’s pure, how he talks, his faith, how he lives and how he loves.

Now I know that you have probably heard that verse quite a bit. And typically, I’ve heard that to mean don’t let people put you down just because your the B-team. But I think that the verse means something else.

I think Paul knows that while young people need the church, the church needs young people.

Not just as seat-fillers, waiting for their chance to be in charge, but to set an example to others right now. Now I don’t think that young people are just inherently good and older people are bad. If you know me, you know that I have a deep respect for my older mentors and value the people who have gone before me sharing their journey with those who have yet to experience life.

But It’s easy for the church to slip into “status-quo” thinking, to forget that things don’t have to be this way. And I think part of the beauty of the Scriptures is that they demand that the parents tell the story of God and His people to their children.

Because the gospel is reborn in each generation. Jesus comes again with all his implications for the world that exists in this time and this place. The danger comes when our youth are no longer told a story that seems world-changing, when they see the church as just a cold institution of indifference instead of the wild, Kingdom of God, revolution that she embodies.

Our young people are not just an investment in our future. They can be how God speaks a fresh word into the people of God now. They can hear the story of God with fresh ears, asking new questions for this world God is making new among us, and sometimes they may need to lead the way.

At least that’s what Paul thinks.

Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A

Remember this? Even if you don’t I bet you were affected by it.

It’s the Konami code. And I bet every little boy from the 80’s still knows it by heart. It was the code that you had to punch in to the Nintendo game Contra. And if you knew the above mentioned code you could get 30 lives instead of the initial 3.

In other words, it is a shortcut.

And it is the shortcut that certain pillars of our societies are built on. Don’t believe me? Well if you are reading this blog on Facebook then why don’t you just try this code out, type it in and hit enter and see what happens. But on a deeper level, this kind of shortcut mentality kind of characterizes our world today.

In Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, he talks about the men and women from my grandparents age. They were characterized by their ability to sacrifice for what they thought was right, and their willingness to stick things out in the tough situations. Granted, every generation has it’s strengths and weaknesses, but I am writing about them because their strength tends to help highlight our weakness.

Part of the reason the economy is in the tanks can be attributed to our desire to cut corners, and while I am not an economist, one of things that both Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on is this: We have forgotten as a country that a responsible work ethic is fundamental for society.

But that’s not really what concerns me.

Remember that story that kicks off Jesus’ ministry? The one where he is led out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Pay close attention to that story, because it’s interesting to me that Satan never tries to change Jesus end game. He offers Jesus power and authority over the nations of the world (he could be Caesar’s boss). Matthew’s gospel ends with Jesus receiving all authority…but he gets it in a very different way.

What Satan is getting at is not changing Jesus’ goals but offering him another way to get there. A way that doesn’t involve the cross. A shortcut.

And Jesus’ says no.

But go back and read that story. Because I think it’s interesting the things that Satan tempts Jesus with as an alternative to being the suffering servant. I won’t spoil the story for you, but it seems that the stuff that Jesus says no to, our Christian sub-culture spends much of it’s time saying yes to.

Here’s what I am getting at. The common idea of what it looks like to follow Jesus is too small. I’m not saying that we are saved by what we do, or anything even close to that, but we are saved for a purpose much larger than just us being saved. We are saved by the cross to pick up a cross. Or maybe saying it this way will help, We are saved by the sacrificial service of Jesus, so that we may sacrificially serve others.

And any gospel that forgets that part of the story we are in is too small.

It is a shortcut.

And in the words of Beverly Sills, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”

The Gospel and Systematic Good

At church last night Rick Atchley, Chris Seidman and a guy named Drew Sherman talked about their recent trip to Africa. It was a great kind of living room conversation, that was funny and insightful. But what they talked about was nothing less than amazing.

I struggle with being at an institutional church from time to time. Not because I dislike where I am at, but because the impulse to go and do something more on the front lines is something Leslie and I both face. But tonight I got to see how it’s possible to do both.

We’ve known for some time that RHCC was involved in starting a University in Uganda. But I had no idea just how big of a deal that actually was. See Uganda has the lowest median age of any country in the world. There are over 7 million children right now that in just a few years are going to be ready for a college experience. And only 100,000 kids will be able to get in.

And unless these kids hit the jackpot and has someone bankrolling them to the States, Europe or another African country, they aren’t going to get to go anywhere. That means that only 4 out of every 1000 kids will get a chance to go to school.

And so a vicious cycle of poverty and low education will continue.

And as a follower of Jesus that seems unacceptable.

So some of our church leaders have been working with the people there to help them build, teach and maintain their own university. It’s by African’s for African’s. It will produce health clinics, doctors, lawyers, and judges.

All because Jesus wants us to.

Dedricht Bonhoeffer once said that if a monster is going down the street wounding people, it’s not enough to just go behind the monster bandaging the wounds. Eventually someone has to take out the monster.

I think what he was getting at was that when you are dealing with systematic evil, you have to do more than just dealing with the effects of it, but actually go after the root of the cause. And that’s why this is so inspiring to me. We are being pro-active as a church. We are attacking a problem 4 years before anyone is going to be seeing it.

We are talking about pursuing systematic good.

And that’s what the gospel looks like in action in Africa.

The Gospel According to the 80’s

So I am thinking through a series in a few months for the Young Adults at our church. We seem to be enamored with nostalgia of the 80‘s and this will also give people a chance to dress up goofy. But as you can see from the title this is not a topic that is very black and white.

And that’s where you come in.

I’m assuming that most people who read this blog have at least a passing acquaintance with the 80’s. And I’m wondering was there a specific event/song/movie that really helped to shape you?

Was there a event/song/movie that helped to shape how you think and relate to God or to other people?

I know this seems pretty open ended, but I don’t want to hamper anyone’s creativity by giving my ideas. I’ll weigh in, and maybe blog about a few that I am thinking later, but first I want to hear what you have to say. So…Madonna, power ballads, Ronald Reagan, the Challenger and Clyde Drexler are all on the table. So what do you think? If you were teaching on finding Jesus in the 80’s what would you say?

This should be fun.