Monthly Archives: June 2013

Tradition: Guards or Gardening

“Far too much Traditional Church has been too much tradition, and not enough Church.” -N.T. Wright


I was almost an art thief. Or at least I felt like one. It was at the end of our semester abroad, we got to go to the Louvre where we saw thousands of priceless works of art.

Including the Mona Lisa.

But the Mona Lisa, was a bit disappointing. Maybe it’s because of all the hype from Dan Brown, and the fact that Da Vinci was not actually admitting to the world that he was a descendent of Jesus through this famous work of art. Or maybe it’s because the actual painting is pretty small. But I think the reason that I didn’t enjoy it was because of the guard.

Unlike so many other incredible works of art at the Louvre, there was a guard specially assigned to this one piece. Just watching you as you watched it. And I noticed that as he was especially watching me, I was acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t want to give him the impression of being a suspicious character. But that’s when he had me.

Because once you start thinking about trying to act like you are not thinking about stealing a famous work of art, you in fact start acting very shady. So much so, that I think they assigned a special guard to me for the rest of my time there.

Context Is King

This past Sunday at the Highland Church, I co-preached with Doug Foster. Doug is a Church historian who teaches at the ACU Graduate School of Theology. He’s passionate about Church history and the tradition that we have been handed down, and he’s a great story teller. (Which all historians really should be).

And we talked about how, in our particular tradition, the way we sing and worship has become codified over the past few generations. Many Churches of Christ have sang A Capella for the past few hundreds years. It’s a wonderful tradition…

But Dr. Foster and I were talking about when this became more than just a tradition.

If you want to hear the whole sermon, you can find it on ITunes or here, but the basic gist was that this became more than just a good tradition, pretty soon after the Civil War.

Because now Churches of Christ in the North had some money to spend, and some of these churches bought buildings and organs, while some of the Churches of Christ in the South were dying from hunger. And they saw their brothers and sisters dying and their northern brothers and sister buying. And they said that’s not right.

And then suddenly, what had previously been a preference or tradition became what some would call, “A Salvation Issue.”

And over time, we forgot about the context of why this became such a passionate problem for some people, and we just knew our grandparents taught us it was wrong.

In my context, I’ve learned that while this form of worship may have mattered a lot to my grandma, chances are it didn’t matter as much (or at least in the same way) to her grandmother.

And that’s the value of tradition! It doesn’t codify the way things used to be done. In fact it can help to challenge it!

Living Tradition

For the past few months, I’ve taken up gardening. That’s probably too generous of a word for it. Basically I tried to make the primary color of my front yard to not be brown. But as Leslie and I have planted shrubs and flowers, I’ve noticed how much trimming and cultivating we have to do. We have to keep something’s in and other things out.Gardening

Gardening is in some ways like Guarding.

Except for one fundamental difference.

One is about something that is alive, and the other is about something that is dead.

One of the problems with tradition is not knowing how to live with it.

So for example, in my tribe, we’ve said that we want to worship A Capella because the early Christians (some times) did. That’s an okay reason, but it’s dead by itself. It’s copying and pasting a form, without having the heartbeat behind it.

We ask the question How…but the real question to ask, to have a Living Tradition, is Why did the Early Christians sing like that?

And the answer is of course, far more fascinating and engaging, it’s because they were trying to be different than the Jewish and Roman religious around them. They were trying to be a distinct group of people in the world that they currently lived in.

And now all of a sudden, you have a tradition with some teeth in it. Not just the form that they used, but the principle behind it. Which was to be a good missionary for the culture that they were in.

In other words, maybe the best way to not break tradition, is to sometimes break tradition.

And this is why, in keeping with my last post on Tradition, I think my generation has undervalued it. Because the answer to what to do next, probably isn’t to invent something new. The way forward lays through the past, but you still must engage your present.

The early Christians didn’t have everything worked out as far as what their strategy should be for spreading the Gospel, let alone what our strategy should be today.

They were just trying to think like a missionary for their time and context.

That’s the tradition that we’ve inherited.

That’s a living breathing tradition that demands more than just someone guarding it.

It demands that we replant it in every culture and see what blooms.

*Tip of the hat to Shane Hipps for the Guardening/Guard metaphor

God at Work: There is a Tree

Jesus at the office

So today I’m finishing a blog series that has meant a lot to me. And I’ll do it with one of the best stories I’ve ever heard.

J.R.R. Tolkien had worked on Lord of The Rings for almost a decade when it dawned on him that he was getting old. He had spent the past ten years working on this epic story, and he hadn’t even written a page down. Instead, he had been creating entire worlds and cultures and languages so that the story would have a universe to live in.

But then he realized he had been so obsessed with the details that he had not been writing any of the actual story down. He began to think that he was going to die before he was able to complete his dream of writing these epic novels.

He thought that he was going to die and they would come in and find his body and all the scribblings of Middle Earth, and they would just write him off as a crazy old man. Kind of like he was the worlds first Star Trek fan.

Leaf by Niggle

Now you probably already know that Tolkien did indeed finish his book. But before he sat down and actually wrote it, he wrote a short story called Leaf By Niggle. It’s about a little man named Niggle who’s life mission is to make a painting of a tree.

Niggle is actually an English word meaning someone “obsessed with the details.” And when we meet Niggle, he is living up to his name. While he really wants to paint the tree, he keeps obsessing over the first couple of leaves. He can’t move past them. He just keep paying attention to getting the leaves of the tree just perfectly.

But Niggle is old, and getting older.

And people keep swinging by his house and asking him to help them.

So it begins to dawn on Niggle that he may not be able to finish his life-long dream of painting the tree.

He keeps working hard on it, but sure enough, Niggle winds up being right.

He dies before he finishes his work.

Now it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to know that Tolkien is writing about his own life here. He wrote this short story right after it dawned on him that he might not live to make his own masterpiece. Tolkien, the worlds best modern story teller is telling us about the anxiety of his own work, by telling us a story.

A story about a guy who wants nothing more than to get out this dream in his head, and who ultimately fails to do so.

So back to Niggle, when they find him dead at home, someone notices the partially finished painting. It was just a basic sketch of a tree, with a leaf or two filled out on the canvas. The leaves were exquisite and very intricate, and so they put the painting in the museum, and for a while people came and saw it.

A few people were impressed by the incredible detail of the leaves, but most of them just saw a painting that wasn’t finished. Niggle’s life work blessed a few people, but ultimately was forgotten.


J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t stop his story there.

Because Niggle goes to Heaven, and the first thing he sees, Is the Tree.

I can’t tell you how many times over the past year, I’ve told people that story. I can barely do it without choking up. I tell everyone I know who is frustrated with their work, or the lack of work. I tell it to people who care deeply about making the world different, about making it better.

Because even the best of us, are going to be incredibly frustrated with our lives and our work. We have a picture inside of us a better world, but at best we can only get out a leaf or two.

We will live lives of both incredible frustration and joy, but we will surely not accomplish all we wish we could. We are only human. But that vision, the one that you have for your life, for this world, is not in vain. It is in fact, from God.

Trees Of Life

In Mozambique a few years ago, there was a civil war raging. Eventually both sides called a cease-fire. But it was still a cold war, people held onto their weapons and everyone lived in deep distrust of one another.

And then along came the Christians.treeoflife.jpg

A Group called the Christian relief aid came in and tried to think of a creative way to deal with this problem.So they said to everyone, if you will bring in your weapons we will give you farm equipment in exchange.

And it worked.

But now the Christian group had a problem, they had all these weapons and not a violent bone in their body. So they did something that I think is brilliant.

They took all of the weapons, and made them into a sculpture. Of a tree.

And they called it the Tree of Life.

They literally beat their swords into plowshares. All because some Christians got a vision for the world could be like and acted accordingly.

They saw the future of God, and the lived into it now. They brought a bit of Heaven to earth.

My work is frustrating from time to time, I have so much I want to do with my life, to make the world a better place. And there are days where I feel like I’m just painting the same old leaf.

But in my better days, I know that my work, that all of our work, matters more than we could ever imagine, because there is a new day coming that won’t be like the previous ones. There is a world that is breaking into this one that is full of the glory of God, and in that world there will be no more suffering or pain or cancer. So I’ll paint the leafs of my life as well as possible, because I believe in the best parts of my heart…

There is a Tree.

God At Work: Not In Vain

Jesus at the office

“If you’re a city planner, there is a New Jerusalem, If you’re a lawyer there will be a time of perfect righteousness and justice. The way we view the not yet will inevitably impact the way we respond in the here and now.” -Tim Keller

For the past few months, I’ve written on the importance of vocation and why it matters to reconsider what we do in light of what we believe. I want to conclude this series in the next week, but first I want to point out something that I think many of us familiar with the Scriptures miss.

A few years ago I was hanging out with some quilting ladies at The Hills Church (a much wilder experience than you might think) and they were telling me about what they’ve done over the years. Every week a couple of dozen ladies sit down and make blankets for the under-priviledged. They give their quilts to the mentally handicapped, the orphans, kids in the cancer wards, basically anyone who needs to keep warm. And after hearing their stories this is what I told them.

Work is Meaningless

If you’ve never read the book of Ecclesiastes, I highly recommend it. It’s not a real pick me up book, (in fact Rabbi’s used to ask people to wash their hands after they read it) but it is incredibly honest. One of the more interesting things about Ecclesiasties is how it portrays work.

Because it doesn’t seem to think to highly about anything we do with our lives. One Old Testament Scholar, Tremper Longman believes that Ecclesiasties is written in a literary form of “fictional autobiography.”

Basically what that means is that Ecclesiastes is like a parody (it’s like the Colbert Report of the Old Testament) it’s setting up the most honest way of talking about the world, but just because it’s honest doesn’t mean it tells the whole truth. Because Ecclesiasties has a pretty dark view of work.

It knows that work, no matter how great we think our job is, can never really deliver on it’s promises.

I don’t know about you, but my work keeps me up at night worrying about what I’m missing out on, Jesus seems to be able to sleep through storms. I don’t know about you but my work can easily turn into idolatry.

My ambition can seduce me into thinking that I’m working for my family and friends, when really it’s tricking me into neglecting them. Because no matter what we do, and no matter how well we do it, eventually all work is in vain…no matter how well you build the house eventually entropy sets in, no matter how well you cook or paint or create eventually it will pass…From the perspective of eternity it seems like all labor is meaningless.

Work can be very, very vain.

And anyone who’s ever lived knows that Ecclesiastes is of course right, but it isn’t telling the whole truth.

Ends and Means

It is no accident that Jesus in his first sermon he ever preaches, starts by quoting the prophetic vision of Jubilee and then suggests that this is what he is doing in the world. Jesus is bringing in of the Kingdom, involves work. Jesus sees a Kingdom of God that informs our work. A Christian definition of work will take into account where history is going in God’s hands. So In 1st Corinthians 15, Paul gives us the longest treatise on the resurrection in the whole Bible. It’s one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture. It’s about the world being set right, everything is how it should be, death is no longer a factor. But Paul chooses to end this chapter in a strange way. He says:

“Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

Which is kind of a strange way to end this chapter isn’t it? He ends by talking about our work. If the resurrection is about going to another place in the sky, than this doesn’t make sense. But if it is something else, sometime about this world being renewed, than that changes everything. Because what you do here and now matters.Heaven and Earth

So back to those quilting ladies…this is what I told them. I told them what they did would matter forever. The resurrection means that every quilt they made is going to have echoes into eternity. Look at one of my favorite quotes from N.T. Wright about our work in relation to the resurrection:

“You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that is about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on a fire…You are-strange as 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 to 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 ever 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 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.”

Did you catch that? The things we do with our life will find their way, through the resurrecting power of God, into forever.

Your work is important, not just because you can contribute to church, but because you get to partner with God! The resurrection of the world means that some of the best ministries, don’t have the word ministry in them!

There’s not some work that is spiritual and some work that is earthly, there is only work that partners with God, and work that refuses to.

So take heart plumbers and musicians, take heart teachers and doctors, take heart electricians and carpenters.

Because your Labor is in the Lord, and your work is not in Vain.

Tradition: How To Stick It to the Man

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. -Jaroslav Pelikan

So I’d like to start a small series for the next few weeks about tradition. Why we need it more than we think we do, and why it probably doesn’t mean what most of us think it means. Most of my friends tend to think about tradition in the same vein as maintaining status quo. But it actually can be one of the best resources to challenge it.

Here’s what I mean.

Maybe you’ve seen this video before. It’s from a slam poet named Jeffrey Benke who wrote and produced an incredibly well done video about the downside to American Christianity.

He wrote it as a Christian who was trying to wake up the American church to how they were being perceived by his peers. He wanted the church to know that they weren’t representing Jesus very well, and so he spent days and weeks writing and creating this. And as soon it went live it also went viral.

Turns out he was giving lots of people words and art to say what they had been feeling, because somewhere around 10 million people watched it within a few days. Personally, I must have had this video emailed to me a dozen times the week it came out. And whether you agree with this video or not, you have to admit Jeffrey was tapping into something that was widely felt and he was giving these people a voice.

And then the criticism started.

Preachers and Christian professors came out of the woodworks critiquing this poet for critiquing the church. They had well thought out, articulate arguments against what he was doing.

And the slam poet folded.

He totally just gave in, and said he was sorry.

And that’s a shame. Because the problem wasn’t the traditionalists that didn’t like someone critiquing them. The real problem was that this young man didn’t have a firmer grasp on tradition.

Advice to a Young Rebel

A few weeks after this all went down, a guy named David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece about this for the New York Times called “How to Fight the Man.” And it was genius. He made the point that this kids problem wasn’t that he was standing up against tradition, it was that he didn’t know enough tradition to stand up against much of anything. Here’s what he said:

“For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea….If you go out there armed with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition. This is what happened to Jefferson Bethke.”

In other words, the problem is that we don’t have an alternative vision. We critique but we don’t know how to construct. My generation has a lot of angst about religious institutions (and just about every other kind of institution) but we don’t know what we want to replace them with. We just know what we don’t like. David Brooks goes on in his article to say that if he could offer any advice to a young rebel, it would be to understand the world that has come before you. The answer to defying tradition is to attach yourself to what he calls a counter-tradition.

Learn about the way people have lived counter-culturally before. From Amos to Augustine, the people of God have been in pits worse than some mere blog war in the past.

See Jeffrey Renke might have benefitted from knowing that, despite what his critiques were saying, The Bible and Christian history is filled with people and prophets who God sends a fresh hard word through for his people. And they almost never like it.

In other words, Renke was standing in a tradition that was much older and stronger. And had he realized that, he might have kept standing.

All the Best Letters Come From Jail

I’ve noticed this is so true in my own life. Just knowing what’s wrong with something rarely gets anything done. In fact, it does the opposite. Without an alternative vision for what could be, people don’t change. And you can’t get an alternative vision by looking ahead, we don’t know what is to come. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s hard to predict, especially about the future.” We can’t see into the future, but you can get an alternative vision by looking backward.

Remember when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his Letters from a Birmingham Jail? It was to white clergy members who had the weight of society behind them, they were respected members in their community. And they were making sound arguments for an evil idea. If I was Dr. King, I would probably not had the moral fortitude to press on. But Dr. King, knew the Christian story didn’t go like this. And so he reached back into a counter-tradition as ancient as the prophets, and he said, “Let justice roll on like a might river.” He didn’t fight their traditional view of society with a new idea.

He fought it with an idea as old as time.

That’s one of the reasons that tradition matters.

It’s a good way to stick it to the man.

God at Work: All Work and No Play

“Someone’s going to always tell my kids that their dad was a great football player. But no one will be able to tell my kids that their dad was a great dad and a great husband, so I have to be able to show them that. And that’s what the next chapter of my career is going to be.” -NFL player Donald Driver on Retiring last year

Jesus at the office

I’ve talked before about how, growing up, my dad was the assistant manager at Wendy’s. But what I didn’t know until much later in life was that he was given plenty of chances to advance to his career. He was offered positions of store and even regional supervisor several different times. But he always turned them down.

Dad was always a hard worker. He showed up early and left late, and he loved his job. So when I found out that my dad had turned down these promotions I was confused, and asked him why?

His answer changed my view of work forever…But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Did you know that when earlier Christians listed the 7 deadly sins, they’re not re-inventing the wheel. Everyone of those sins were taken from the Greco-Roman list of vices.

Except for one.


Sloth is a uniquely Christian sin, because in the story God is telling, humans are held responsible to God for what they do with their lives. But that means more than we think it does.

Life Matters

There is an interesting tradition in the book of Proverbs that talks a lot about sloth. The Proverbs talks about the sluggard, the person who is just wasting away. Now I grew up hearing a lot about this particular tradition a lot, primarily by my mom trying to get me to do my chores, or get a job or whatever.

The book of Proverbs says things like, “Go to the ant you sluggard, consider it’s ways and be wise.” Sloth I was taught, means to be lazy and to not be working. But that’s a very small view of sloth.

In fact, I think part of the reason Americans have such a poor view of work and play is because we don’t understand what sloth really is. There is a proverb that actually says, “The sluggard says, “There’s a lion outside! I’ll be killed in the public square!” The Sluggard is borrowing trouble where there is none. He’s using excuses of danger and risk to just avoid living life. One of the definition of sloth in the Bible is not just avoiding work, it is anxious apathy.

Sloth is saying no to the endless potential and possibilities that God has given us. Sloth is reaching for any reason to not risk anything. It’s seeing a lion where there isn’t one.

But Sloth is more than just anxiety and it’s more than just laziness. There is another side to sloth that I don’t think we American Christians get. but desperately need.

The word for sloth is the word Acedia. It’s really a word that means melancholy or sadness, it is a word about someone who avoids the pain of actually being fully alive.  There are lot’s of ways to avoid life, and work can be one of those ways.

Gaining the World

So back to my dad.

I asked him why he didn’t take that job, even though it would have meant a lot more money for our family. And my dad said, “I did that for you and the family. I didn’t want to give my best energy to someone or somewhere else.”

How cool is that? Dad knew the difference between providing for a family and neglecting one. And despite the enormous amount of pressure  society puts on men to be a certain definition of successful, my dad chose to do the first, not the latter.

Dorothy Sayers wrote about sloth. And I love her definition:

“Laziness (the way we normally define sloth) is not the real nature of this condition. Really it means a life driven by mere cost-benefit analysis of “What’s in it for me…instead” It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for purpose in nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, find purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and only remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die. We have known it far too well for many years, the only thing perhaps we have not known about it is it is a mortal sin.”

American’s work more than any society in the history of the world. We don’t know how to play, we don’t really know how to party, all we know is how to work…and more often than not, it is not just a good work ethic. It’s sloth.

So we work long hours in the office, to avoid the hard work that needs to be done in the marriage, or the hard work of being a parent. Too often we use work as a way to avoid life, but God intends that we use work as a way to engage it.ray-romano

When Ray Ramona finished filming the last episode of the “Everybody Loves Raymond” show, he told the studio audience there for the live filming why he quit. The show could have gone for more seasons, the network and fans loved it. But Ramona told them that 15 years ago, when he was leaving New York to try his luck in Hollywood, his brother hugged him and then slipped a note into his suitcase.

When he got to LA, he opened it and all the note said was this: “What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?”

Then Ray told the audience over the last 10 years, he had been blessed beyond belief with his career. He felt like he has gained the world, but now it was time to work on his soul.

May we all.

Churches Shaped By Mission

NT Wright on “Church Shaped by Mission” from Fuller Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

If you lead or serve in a local church, than this post is for you. Hold off on watching the video above for a second.

Last week I was in a meeting of a group of ministers and seminary professors who were trying to figure out how churches and seminaries can work better together for training future ministers.

It was an incredible meeting, and kudos to our seminaries for caring enough to ask the question, “How can we do better?” One of the more interesting parts of the conversation came when one of the ministers was talking about the tension between the ideal and the real. The way he said it was that he was, “I learned in seminary to be suspicious of anything that worked. Because pragmatic or practical ministry involves compromise and using methods that are less than ideal.”

And immediately we all knew what he meant.

I mean can we really say that the Cross “worked?” Isn’t Christianity a faith about dying to ourselves? Should we really compromise in order to be more effective?

But the problem is that in order to lead a local church you have to compromise and learn to work pragmatically. You are dealing with real people with problems that don’t come in textbook formats. And you learn quickly in ministry that for all your preparations and theories that the local church isn’t a laboratory. And that what works in theory doesn’t always work in practice.

So back to this video. This video is from the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright teaching at Fuller Seminary a few years ago. They were asking him about this exact thing, he was talking to preachers from churches from a hundred different traditions, who were basically wanting to know how to do we hold this tension between the ideal and the real?

I love his answer.

Keep the ideal in mind. Remember that there is a new Heaven and a New Earth coming, and remember what that vision for the future looks like, because that’s more than just the Christian hope. That’s the Christian mission.

It is the mission that should inform every church.

Let’s just hopefully and pragmatically stumble toward that.

An Interview With Gabe Lyons

Last month, I had the pleasure to sit down with Gabe Lyons. Gabe co-authored the ground breaking book Unchurched. Gabe has his pulse on the culture, and is very hopeful about the future of the church and her place in the world.

Gabe is also the author of one of my favorite books, The Next Christians, to talk with him about his idea that the Next Christians are passionate about Restoration. Obviously as someone who belongs to a church that is committed to A Restoration Movement, I’ve found this language very helpful.

So when I found out that Gabe was going to be in a neighboring state last month I flew down to talk with him about how to help make his book more known to our tribe. When I sat down with Gabe I asked him 5 questions:

1. In your book, you say that you can’t understand the Next Christians if you don’t understand Restoration. What do mean by that?

2. You say in your book, We have all these Christians who think their only role in society is evangelism. You are all for evangelism, but you are passionate about helping Christians rediscover why their vocation matters. Why is that so important?

3. In contemporary Christian we often have this idea that God is best found inside the church building, but not in our daily lives. What are practical ways that you’ve seen churches help people see God in their everyday life/home/work?

4. I’ve seen a lot of churches respond to the precipitous loss of young adults attending their church by asking, “What event/service/program should we create for them to come back?” Why do you think that’s the wrong question to ask, and what is the right one?

5. It Sounds to me Like you are calling us to be more like the early Christians (which sounds familiar). Why do you think that’s important?

I’m very passionate about the ideas that Gabe talks about in his book, if you are a regular reader here you may remember that I’ve talked about Gabe’s book earlier here and here. If you are a member of Churches of Christ, or a church leader interested in Restoration, I can’t recommend reading this book enough.

The Next Christians was recently re-released with a new chapter, and you can buy it here, if you are interested in going deeper in some of the ideas that Gabe is talking then I highly recommend his conference Q Ideas: Ideas for the Common Good.

Special thanks to the Pleasant Valley Church for partnering with the Highland Church to make this video.