Monthly Archives: September 2009

Church Politics

I still remember the church service where my dad got into a fight.

Okay, he only kind of got into a fight. It was a business meeting and dad had mentioned an idea he had for a ministry opportunity. Now dad didn’t know that his idea involved messing with a sacred cow that one of the other men of the church had. And this man was wealthier. He’d been going to that church for years, and so when he said no everybody listened.

I found out later that this was called church politics.

And I didn’t like it. Continue reading Church Politics

Causality

Sorry for the delay in blogging. For this semester I’m attempting to blog, once, maybe twice a week. I have a Grad Class on church history that requires quite a bit of reading and writing and by the time I sit down to write a blog I’m tapped out. So for the next couple of posts I’m going to write about some interesting, less talked about stuff from church History.

Like Julian the Apostate.

He was an emperor after Constantine (who’ll I talk about next week) who reacted to Christianity’s growing influence by trying to destroy the Christian religion.

Now he did this in a few fronts, but perhaps the most well-known stunt he pulled was his attempt to rebuild the Jewish Temple. Before you start thinking how philanthropic Julian was, you need to know the main reason he did this was because the Christian Scriptures quoted Jesus as saying, “This temple will not be re-built until I return.”

Julian’s entire reason for spending a whole lot of Roman money was to discredit the Christian story. But here’s where it gets interesting.

Because at some point during the rebuilding process there was an explosion. This is how one of his friends reported the event:

Julian thought to rebuild at an extravagant expense the proud Temple once
at Jerusalem, and committed this task to Alypius of Antioch. They set vigorously
to work, and were seconded by the governor of this province; when fearful
balls of fire, breaking out near the foundations, continued their attacks, till the
workmen, after repeated scorchings, could approach no more: and he gave up
the attempt.

Now what’s interesting is how historians talk about this even. Immediately afterwards Christians began to look back on this event and saw it as a Divine Intervention. The hand of God prevented Julian’s attempt to spread paganism. But other people saw it another way.

The general take on it from Rome was that it was an earthquake. The more recent historians believe that it was a natural gas pocket that was struck by construction workers, resulting in a huge explosion that can be naturally explained.

But what if both of these are true?

There is a modern assumption that if we can just explain how something happened that we have understood why it happened. But I don’t think that’s true. Just because we can trace back how something happened doesn’t mean that we have effectively written off providence.

Donald Miller makes a profound observation in Blue like Jazz. He says:

“My most recent struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore.
Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in
God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe
in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being
about god a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly
I don’t care.”

I think that’s pretty indicative about the conversations that we have about faith vs. science. We talk over ourselves so much that the conversations no longer are about what we say they are about. They’re about which one of us is smarter.

But the truth is that these two sides, at least much of the time, are talking about different things. What if God used a pocket of natural gas to stop the rebuilding of that Temple. Just because we can explain what happened doesn’t mean we have the answers to what all is going on behind it.

The truth is when these two sides of interpreting history are in conversation that they both have faith. People with faith that everything can be explained by what is seen will probably gravitate to a worldview that sees God as either non-existent, or very distant and unconcerned with this world.

People who see a fireball from Heaven will probably gravitate toward a worldview that says God is intimately involved, or at least was, in human history and will tend to be religious.

But neither side is addressing the thing they think they are. Proof, Science, Evidence, Apologetics, these words talk about what happened, but nobody can explain causality, or why things happen with any certainty.

Because what they are really talking about is faith.

A Spiritual Discipline

So when I was in high school my best friend Bub and I made a pact never to watch rated R movies again. We weren’t supposed to be watching them anyway, so it really wasn’t that hard of a sacrifice, but it was one that we stuck to for years. We thought that was part of what it meant to be a Christian. When the movie “The Passion of the Christ” came out, it kind of threw us for a loop. Jesus himself was starring in a rated R movie. So what was an honest legalist to do?

Looking back on it I think we had a pretty narrow view of what following Jesus was. We defined it primarily by what we did not do. And we didn’t do it well.

It wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I watched another rated R movie again (at least one that Jesus didn’t star in). And my immediate reaction was guilt. I had broken a promise. And I had probably ticked God off.

I know this probably sounds silly, movie ratings really no longer say a lot about the content of a movie. PG-13 can be worst than plenty of R movies. But I’m telling you this because in my junior year I discovered something that changed the way I thought about what I watched.

Grace.

I found that God was good, and that Jesus wasn’t just waiting on me to mess up so he could deep-fry me. I started to get a larger perspective on the purposes of God in my life and in the world, and suddenly what I watched started to seem pretty insignificant.

But I’m starting to change my mind.

For a while, I watched whatever I wanted. No restrictions. I was free after all. And if you were to call me on it (Mom) I had a well-thought out theological explanation for why you were an idiot Pharisee. But I noticed after a while that I didn’t like who I was becoming, how I was responding to people, or how I was thinking.

When I watched movies devoid of hope, I became more cynical. When I watched movies that were excessively violent, I got angry easier. When I watched movies that exploited or demeaned women, I looked at women differently.

Now we actually have a set discipline about what kind of movies we will watch (it normally has nothing to do with ratings, but content, story etc.). I know this makes me sound antique. I kind of feel like my parents even writing this. But I’m not Amish,* and what I think is acceptable is certainly going to be considered unacceptable by others. And what doesn’t work for me, maybe fine for others. There’s no hard and fast rule for this. But I’ve learned to think about this in different terms.

What if it’s not about angering a God who’s already kind of mad? But what if it’s about who God is wanting you to become?

In First Peter, Peter is talking about this strange way of relating to God that frees a person up from sweating bullets. And Peter should know. He’s had plenty of opportunities to learn. He knows now that it doesn’t matter how well you wash your hands before you eat, God isn’t concerned about the outside, but the inside. That may sound like common sense, but let me assure you it wasn’t. Religion always veers toward the externals, and black and white rules are great at keeping people in step.

There’s a time where Peter is chilling on a roof and he has a dream. God shows him in this dream a bunch of pigs and tablecloths. And tells him to eat. Now Pork chops have not caught on with Jewish people and Peter knows better, despite what some Pigs in a Blanket dream is telling him. So Peter refuses, eventually God convinces him, and Peter learns what many of us have known for years. Pork is also from God.

For Peter, grace tastes an awful lot like bacon.

But Peter also knows the dark side of freedom. So he writes to a group of people like us, and reminds us of this: “Live as free People, but do not use your freedom to cover up evil.” I think Peter knows exactly what he’s saying. He’s soaked in grace long enough to know that there are some deeper truths it has to offer.

See the subtle temptation of freedom is to think there are no consequences to your behavior. But I’m learning more and more this isn’t true.

For the past few weeks I have been in a Church History class with ACU, studying and learning from the earliest followers of Jesus. And if there is a word to describe them it’s this: different. They weren’t like everyone else, in a good way. They had learned how to be holy.

Have you ever met people like this? People who seemed to just have a different demeanor or spirit? Maybe it’s that they are patient or kind, or filled with joy. Or better yet, have you ever tried to be like those people? Just set your jaw and try to will-power better behavior? And failed?

The basic human truth about our nature is that you will become like the person you practice being. That is, the way we spend our days, the habits we develop over time, shape the core of how we act for a lifetime.

This is why I have been trying to discipline my life more lately. I have learned that the behaviors I try to control typical are just symptoms of a deeper issue. Richard Foster says this is the gift of Spiritual Disciplines. It allows you to If you battle with addictions or over-indulgence…fast habitually. If you battle with materialism, try the discipline of generosity.

The historic, Spiritual disciplines help to put the finger on the real issue.

This is not a way of transforming yourself. It’s about opening yourself up to the Spirit of God in a way that makes your habits more accessible. If the Spirit is the wind, than think of Spiritual disciplines as a way of setting up sails.

In case you are wondering this really isn’t a blog about what movies you watch or don’t watch.

It’s about laying down cheaper freedom to find a deeper version of it.

It’s about allowing God to form you into who you were always meant to be.

And that’s grace too.

*Blogging Tip: If you are going to make fun of someone on your blog, make it the Amish. They’ll never see it.

Fearless

The first time I ever met Max Lucado he was sitting in my office.

To be honest, I was caught completely off guard. I had grown up reading his books, the man who had taught me the power of words was now sitting in my chair from Staples. So I introduced myself and then he commented on my office library. He told me he liked my books.

Now I have quite a few books, but in that moment I realized that I only had 2 of his on my shelf. So I panicked, and said the first thing that popped into my mind. I said, “I have a lot more of your books at my house.”

Impressive, I know. This guys sold over 65 million books and I’m trying to assure him that I was a part of that revenue.

Lucado’s newest book “Fearless” was recently released and I just read it on our vacation in Arizona. Typical Lucado, it was great.

He has always had a poetic way with words, but this book seemed different. Maybe it was the fact that he recently had heart surgery (which he mentioned several times) or maybe it was just the more fearful culture that we live in since 9/11, or maybe it was because death has recently claimed his brother, whatever it is, you get the feeling that he’s doing more than just pumping out a quota for publishers.

On the first page, Lucado tells about his brother’s final night. He had drank for years before finally kicking the habit. But the liver doesn’t forgive easy. And so when the ambulance came Dee Lucado told his wife and son he’d meet them at the hospital.

He died on the way.

But when they went in to identify the body, they noticed something. Dee’s hand was folded into the universal sign for “I love you.” And here is Max’s own words to describe this:

“I’ve tried to envision the final moments of my brother’s earthly life: racing down a Texas highway in an ambulance through an inky night, paramedics bussing around him, his heart weakening within him. Struggling for each breath, at some point he realized only a few remained. But rather than panic, he quarried some courage.”

Told you it was a good book.

In college and most of grad school I traded Lucado’s books in for Brueggemann and Bell. Maybe that’s why only two were on my office book shelf that day. Harding and ACU have taught me well how to love God with my mind. But reading this book reminded me why I wanted to get in ministry in the first place. When I was a kid the first book I read on my own was “He Still Moves Stones.” And I will always be thankful for that book.

See I hadn’t heard too much about how good God was. And in a very real sense the Jesus I still see in the gospels today was shaped by reading those books early on.

That’s not to say that Lucado’s new book doesn’t have depth. In fact, that was one of the surprises for me. He quotes Brueggemann and N.T. Wright repeatedly, not to mention C.S. Lewis, Fredrich Buechner and Yann Martel. Not just anybody can take deep theology and make it as accessible as Lucado.

Tony Campolo once said that when he was in college he finally understood the gospel. He was angry with his home-town preacher for never having preached it before. He was so upset that he went back to his home congregation to confront him. But then he listened to his preacher again, and realized that he had been preaching the Gospel the whole time.

That’s kind of my experience with this book. Reading this book felt both new and nostalgic. He writes in a way that feeds both me head and my heart.

I have a lot to be afraid of. I could be the next victim of terrorism, in the past month I was in an almost serious car accident, I have a great daughter and wife. In other words, I have a lot lose. And I bet you do too. But above all the uncertainty and worry is a God who knows and cares about the hairs on our heads.

And we call that Gospel.

The Lion and the Lamb

So last week Leslie and I took off for Arizona. I was speaking at a church in Phoenix for the weekend and we decided to head over there early and spend the better part of the week in Flagstaff, and one day we went to see the Grand Canyon.

Eden was in rare form the day we went. Waving at everyone, pointing at everything and screaming loudly at what she could only assume was a big hole in the ground. I know I should have been looking at the Grand Canyon more, but in some ways Eden was stealing the show that day. For example, this picture. This is one of my favorite pictures we took this week because juxtaposed against the backdrop of one of the greatest scenic views in the world is Eden’s tiny blue eyes.

About a month ago, I picked up a book called, “Jesus, mean and wild.” It’s written in the vein of books like Wild at Heart or Your God is too Safe. The basic premise is that most American churches have created a kind of Mr. Rogers Jesus. A Messiah who’s goal is to create nice people who pay their taxes and say Please.

Now I get these books. I thought when I signed up for following Jesus it would be a bit more revolutionary then just being a good citizen. But I recently started thinking about another side of this.

There are plenty of people who don’t need to read books like that. They have no problem envisioning a mean Jesus. Maybe it’s the Jesus they always heard about, or the way God would be if he ever met them. I’ve met with many people in this situation, and just reading the gospel with them, when they see how gently Jesus interacted with broken people, it helps them let down their guard.

Sometimes people need to see the kinder side of Jesus.

Sometimes people need to see the Jesus turning tables over in the Temple.

And both Jesus’ are in this story. Filled with grace and truth.

The Theological word for this is God’s transcendence and immanence, which are just million dollar words for saying God is both big and near. But the Scriptures normally don’t use theological words, what they do is paint a picture.

One of my favorite pictures in the Bible is in Isaiah 65. Isaiah is telling about how the world will be one day. When war is a distant past, and no longer will infants die. It’s a world where evil has been judged and found wanting and peace is the commodity of the entire universe, and Isaiah says The Lion will lay down with the Lamb.

Which is an interesting way to say that.

He’s saying the predator will lay down with the prey. But more than that, those are two metaphors that describe the Lord repeatedly. But they are talking about different aspects of his character. His transcendence and his immanence. And in the end they come together.

That is after all the beauty of Jesus. The God who created the Grand Canyon is embodied by a God who doesn’t turn away anyone.

The lion lays down with the lamb, because in Jesus we find, the Lion is the Lamb.

Betty Dawkins

About a year ago I was doing hospital visitations and met a woman named Betty Dawkins. She was a strong, sweet, African-American lady with kind eyes and a gentle personality. She loved Jesus and cooking. I know because she talked about both of them…a lot.

She described dish after dish in detail. And promised that when she got out of there she would have Leslie and I over to prove that she could do more than talk. It’s hard to say no to someone who should have her own show on the Food Network.

Over the past few months, every time I saw Mrs. Betty she was a quite kind of bubbly. Talking with her I got the impression that she had seen some hard things in her life but she always spoke with a deep joy.

A week and a half ago I heard that Mrs. Betty was in the hospital again. I know this may sound morbid but I really enjoy doing hospital visitation. I don’t enjoy watching people being sick, but there is something about those moments where people to drop all the pretense of being okay and perfect. Plus they are a captive audience.

But Mrs. Betty was the same as she always was. She is just a deeply joy-filled lady. But this day she did say something that I had never heard her say before.

She said that she was tired.

I can only imagine what kind of things has made her so tired. What has she seen? Maybe it was that she lived through the civil rights movement, so it wasn’t long ago that her surrounding culture told her she was somehow less than fully human. Or maybe it was living through the Great Depression. But whatever it was, it was catching up with her and fast.

And then Mrs. Betty had me do something I don’t normally do in the hospital room. She asked me to preach. So at her request I read to her Psalms 27. I told her a story about Heaven, and then I decided to read to her Isaiah 40.

There is a reason that people have historically turned to this passage during tough times. It’s one of the most comforting Scriptures. It even starts off “Comfort, Comfort my people.” But where it really picks up is the end of the chapter. Isaiah tells us that “Even youths grow tired and weary, but those who hope in the Lord will run and not grow weary. They will soar on wings like eagles.”

We ended that little impromptu worship service with a prayer. Mrs. Betty asked me to pray for her to live till November 8th, so she could see her grandson born.

It was a prayer that God said no to.

I wasn’t there Sunday when they announced that Mrs. Betty had died. While cancer was claiming another victim, Leslie and I were out living our busy lives and pretending like life goes on forever. It hit me hard today when I heard. Over the past few months I can count at least 10 different people who I’ve cared about that died. Last month I did two funerals and one of them was for a 11 day old baby.

Death no matter how natural it can seem, is always unnatural. And those of us who still draw breath are left to hope in the Lord.

But not Mrs. Betty.

She is soaring on wings like eagles.