Monthly Archives: August 2013

Tradition: Chronological Snobbery

churchG.B. Tennyson, was a professor of History and Victorian Literature at UCLA, and several years ago Tennyson was at a Physics lecture that was being given by a another Professor to other professors. And every time someone would bring up an idea that was older than a decade, the professor would mockingly say something like, “Remember only a few hundred years ago, people believed in dragons!” And everyone would laugh. And then the professor would make his point about how much more we knew now than then.

They whole thing bothered Tennyson so much, because it smacked of self-congratulations and pride, but it also, according to Tennyson revealed ignorance.

Tennyson observed,

“The physicist (thought himself so sophisticated) but was merely offering burnt incense at the altar of some of our twentieth-century idols.”

The Church Present

 

I grew up in a tradition that wasn’t. The idea came from some noble ideas about trying to get back to the basics. The people who started the tribe that I belong to, looked around and saw all of the church splits throughout the ages and they wanted to do some different. So Churches of Christ began saying what did the earliest Christians believe? What were they like? And How do we get back to that?

The only problem was that this was impossible.

Because the early Christians were as hard to define as Christians today. What church exactly were we wanting to restore? The Corinthians? Timothy’s church in Ephesus? But this wasn’t the biggest problem we had. In doing this, we called 1800 years of Church History “apostate” (that means bad) and tried to start over.

As if that was an option.

We started thinking that the church present was the only church. Against the Scriptures like Hebrews 11, that tells us that the Saints who have gone before us are cheering us on. We started thinking that now was the only time that mattered.

And now started to become our real church.

I’m part of a movement called Churches of Christ, and if you think back on the history of Churches of Christ or the Restoration Movement, you will see we effectively married ourselves to the Spirit of the age, only we were unaware of it at the time. This is why churches that are planted in different parts of the country and the world look so very similar to a 1970’s Texas or Oklahoma Church of Christ…even if they are in California in 2013. We tied our theology to our methodology, and kept answering the questions that people were asking back in 1970, even if no one was asking those same questions today.

And this is mostly because we didn’t allow any Church Tradition to guide us.

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I’m not saying that we should start using incense or lighting candles to Mary. But wouldn’t it be nice to at least understand why these Godly people used to do and think the ways that they did? It might just give us some insight to why we think and do the things we do.

 

When the World Was Flat

 

See the real problem with this approach to tradition or the Christian past, is that the Jewish Christian Faith is a faith that is rooted in history. Unlike several other world religions, Christianity is not primarily a philosophy or way of viewing the world. It rests on faith that something has happened in human history. That God delivered a nation of Jews from Egypt, That God became flesh in the days of Caesar Augustus.

Like it or not, if you are a Christian….you have a tradition. And that is a very good thing.

C.S. Lewis once coined the phrase “Chronological Snobbery” to talk about how arrogant we modern people are. We think that just because people believed certain things that we have later discovered to be wrong that they were  stupid, and untrustworthy. Lewis’ solution to this was to have people read an older book for every three new books they read. He was adamant that the only way to see the idols of this age was to listen to a critique from the past. And he was exactly right. Here’s what Lewis said:

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.

Think about Christianity over the past 50 years, we’ve changed the way we read Genesis through the past 70 years to fit the arguments of the day. Today our sexuality and relationships mirror the culture, the way we argue about politics is just as harsh (if not harsher) than the people around us. Because we believe the news channels and the politicians….that this is the most important election in human history. Just like every other politician in the history of the world has ever claimed.

We now know the world isn’t flat, but we still don’t know that Caesar isn’t Lord, we don’t know how to resist approaching the world as a consumer, or how to handle life when our technology outpaces our souls. We think we are so superior, but without tradition…

We have very little perspective.

We have lots of idols.

But at least they are new ones.

Good and Evil: Pride Before Fall

good-evil-verse-slide-copy.jpgA few years ago one of our good friends had a baby boy. She had been excited about becoming a mother for a while, and she decided that when she delivered that she wanted her own mother in the delivery room with her. When the baby came, and had been checked out and clothed, the nurses gave the baby to my friend to hold for the first time.

And basking in the glow of motherhood, like any new mom, she looked over and said to her own mother, “Have you ever seen anything so perfect?”

And her mom said, “Honey, don’t forget he came with a sin nature too.”

Thanks mom.

The Problem With Mr. Rogers

Like many of you I grew up watching Mr. Rogers. I’ve read books about what a great man he was, and the thousand ways that he cared for people…especially kids.

But if the rise of “You’re Not Special” graduation talks, stories and literature tell us anything it’s that Mr. Rogers did too good of a job. He was trying to let every child know that they were unique and cared for. And as true and important as that message is,  something else came along with it.

Self-Esteem.

Today the major problem most of us think we face is that we don’t have high enough self-esteem. But this is not as common sense as we might think. A few years ago, a psychologist named Lauren Slater wrote an article for the New York Times where she talked about all the social problems that our focus on a high self-esteem has caused.  In fact, she says, “people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem, and feeling bad about yourself is not the source of our country’s biggest, most expensive social problems.’

Now I get the push back. Thinking well of myself sounds pretty healthy, but we should at least be aware that this is a relatively new idea.

Historically, human beings thought that the main problem with the world was not having too low of a view of yourself. Traditionally, cultures thought the real problem was what they called Hubris. Pride. The main problem is that we esteem ourselves too highly.

Leonardo DiCaprio said it this way:

“As soon as enough people give you enough compliments and you’re wielding more power than you’ve ever had in your life, it’s not that you become … arrogant … or become rude to people, but you get a false sense of your own importance and what you’ve accomplished. You actually think you’ve altered the course of history.”

This is the reason I think that the show Breaking Bad resonates with people so much is because we are aware of what goes on inside of us. And we see in a strange way, that being reflected in Walter White.

I think this is why the Neo-Reformed movement is so strong with my Christian peers today. Because somebody is talking about what is really going on inside of me, not just what I wish was going on inside of me.

To be clear, I don’t consider myself a Calvinist but I understand why they are growing in popularity with my age bracket (despite some of the more troubling tenants of their faith) one of the most attractive ideas they have is the one that initially I hated the most.

The idea that people are deeply broken and depraved is starting to make more and more sense to me. Not because of what I read or learn but because of who I am.

Someone is naming the evil at war in my heart.

The Enemy of Hope

Andrew Delbanco was a professor of the Humanities at Columbia UNiversity. He was doing some research on the power of AA meetings and so he took a few weeks and travelled around the country visiting different AA meetings everywhere. Toward the end of his research, Delbanco stumbled into a meeting that would change everything for him.

A sharply dressed young man stood up and shared some of his problems, but unlike most AA meetings, he kept blaming his problems on someone else. They were always the result of him being mistreated or hurt by others. He was not just trying to make excuses for his behavior, he was vowing to get vengeance on all those who had put him in this place.

Every gesture and word gave, in Delbanco’s words, “the impression of grievously wounded pride.” He kept saying phrases like, “I’ve got to take control of my life,” and “I just need to believe more in myself.” And that’s when it happened.

A middle aged black man wearing sunglasses inside, leaned over and whispered to Delbanco, “I used to feel that way too, until I achieved low self-esteem.”

Later Delbanco would write a book on this very moment. He said that “This was more than just a good line. For me, it was the moment I understood in a new way the religion I had claimed to know something about… The man beside me took refuge in the old Calvanist doctrine that pride is the enemy of hope.

Did you catch that? Pride is the enemy of Hope.

The Christian story names evil better than any other story I know of. It makes sense of the good I see in Creation and in other people, as well as the capacity for each of us to do horrible things. We are made from the breath of God but also from dirt. And at our best we keep those two things in tension, at our worst we forget the dirt.

Go back and re-read Genesis 1-11 sometime, at the heart of sin, at the heart of the Fall is Pride.

We often say that Pride goes before the Fall, but in the Bible Pride is the fall. 

The Sequels: Love After First Sight

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. -Jesus

“We think good metaphors are not anything important, but I think a good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on.” –Nietzche

Sequels from Highland Church on Vimeo.

So this is what I did this summer. I went with a team of people to Las Vegas to interview people and talk about marriage to prepare for our Fall Sermon Series at Highland. But this really isn’t a series on marriage, it’s a series on idolatry and what happens when good things in our lives become the main things in our lives.

Think about it, there are over 1500 services for online dating today. We’ve invented internet dating, speed dating and even television dating. But more relationships are falling apart than ever before.

Which begs the question, why is a culture that is so focused at falling in love, so bad at staying in love? 

Nietzche is right. The most important thing about us are the metaphors or stories that we tell ourselves to interpret our reality.

And that disturbs me.

Because over the past few decades, the stories that have driven our lives have become more and more self-centered, greedy and self-absorbed.

But what really disturbs me is that these are our “love” stories.

The Romantic Comedies, cheap paperbacks and rise of adult erotic material all claim to be an expression of love. They are the stories that we breathe, they shape our decisions, our impulses and how we think about our desires.

So for the next few months at Highland we are going to be talking about a new perspective on love, sex, marriage and dating. We’d love to invite you to show up to 1 of our 3 services on 2 different campuses. 8:15 & 11 AM at 425 Highland Ave, and 5 P.M. (Instrumental service starting Sep 1st) at 945 N. Cypress St.

“The Sequels: Love After First Sight” by Jonathan Storment on Ganxy//

The link above is for a free e-book available for you to give you an idea of what this series is about, and every week we will add a new chapter so you can follow along with what we are talking about.

And because Churches are filled with married people, and single people, and re-single people who want to get married, and married people who want to get re-single. We are going to look at this together, because we have a hunch that there is a lot we can learn from each other, no matter what season or stage we are in life.

Because Marriage is a mystery. Because love is a very Christian virtue and a very misunderstood idea.

It’s time to learn a better story.

Good and Evil: Crazy Right

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Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. -St. Paul in 1st Corinthians

One of the more interesting moments in the Gospels is when Jesus is teaching and his mother and brothers interrupt Him because they think he’s gone crazy.

Now if you are new to Biblical criticism, it might surprise you to know that this is actually something that helps to prove the Bible is telling the truth about Jesus. Most scholars think that whenever the Bible includes the negative stuff that people thought about Jesus, it lends more credibility to the idea that they are telling the truth about Him in other places.

But I think this little story adds credibility in other ways as well.

The Sanity of Evil

When I was a junior in college, I toured the concentration camp Auschwitz with a few other friends. It was one of the most profound and heavy days of my life. It was looking at evil in its purest form.

Several decades ago, Thomas Merton (a Catholic Mystic from Kentucky) wrote about one of the most disturbing things I’ve read about the Holocaust. It was about Adolf Eichmann, the man who engineered the death camps and who was ultimately responsible for the efficiency of the murder of millions and millions of Jews.

But that’s not the worst part. The worst part, according to Merton, is that when Eichmann was on trial for his crimes against humanity, they did extensive psychological testing on him. They wanted to see what was broken inside of his mind to make him doing such heinous things like this. But one of the most disturbing things about his trial is that when they examined him to see just how crazy he was, they discovered….

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Eichmann was perfectly sane.

Which is so much worse isn’t it?

Because Eichmann, wasn’t just a crazy man going around killing people. He was an organized businessman/leader who had a desk job. He didn’t have trouble sleeping at night, or problems eating. He was in fact a real family man, a community oriented civic leader. He was proud of his job and loved kids. He was someone we would have considered normal. Maybe we would have even been an elder in our churches.

He wasn’t crazy, and that is the problem.

Here’s what Merton says:

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.

Which brings me back to Jesus. I would think that if Jesus is who Christians think he is, then we would constantly think he sounded crazy. Since the beginning of history, we have developed ways to justify our sin and call it normal. If the world really is upside down, than if Jesus is revealing the way God created the world to be, he is always going to sound a bit…crazy.

So back to Thomas Merton. Here’s what he says about a world that calls genocide sane:

What is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own? Evidently this is not necessary for “sanity” at all. It is a religious notion, a spiritual notion, a Christian notion What business have we to equate “sanity” with “Christianity”? None at all, obviously. The worst error is to imagine that a Christian must try to be “sane” like everybody else,”

Every culture puts immense pressure on the individuals within that culture. We are taught to think of the world in certain kinds of ways. We are constantly being tempted to think succumb to group think. The problem is just how unaware we are of this.

Have you ever noticed just how easy it is for us to think that Jesus endorses the same wars, every politician, every tax cut, or tax increase that the news shows you watch endorse. Jesus tends to care about the same things that we do.

And that Jesus is perfectly sane.

I’ve noticed over the years, that we religious people have the imagination to call anything Christian that fits with the world we need to exist.

Unless we read the Gospels. In which case we begin to have uneasy realization that Jesus is crazy.

No mater how we try to spin the story, the Bible is filled with dozens of irrational people. From Moses to David to Abraham to Mary and Paul, people who see what God sees don’t act like everyone else. They are the ones who think differently about the world. And they tell stories about talking donkeys and pregnant virgins and people raising from the dead.

They are insane, but they have a faith about the way the world will one day be.

They believe that one day their crazy will be right. 

Tradition: Breaking Tradition

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A few years ago, the Denver Zoo had a Polar Bear donated to them, under the condition that they would build it a state-of the art place for it to live.  They agreed, and accepted the bear. During the construction of his new home, they made a small cage for Mr. Polar Bear to live in. The problem was that the space was so small that the bear could only take three steps, turn around, and then take three steps.

The construction took three years. But it was worth it. The new home for the polar bear was very impressive.  It had waterfalls, and caves, and wind. The only thing it was missing was the Klondike bar.

And when the moment of truth arrived, when the bear was released into its new home, it stepped in, took three steps, turned around, took three steps, and turned around.

I’m a big fan of Christian History. I love studying it, and learning from the way saints in the past have tried to be God’s face to the world. In studying Christian tradition, one of the things that I’ve learned is that there really aren’t very many new problems. We’re dealing with the same stuff we’ve always dealt with. Including the problem of tradition.

Learning Division

When Martin Luther walked up to the Wittenburg Chapel door and nailed his 95 thesis on the wall, it was a watershed moment for Christianity. Luther really wasn’t trying to stir up the whole world, as much as just point out some things that he thought the church could do better. But a ball started rolling that would change tradition forever.

When Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone got together they decided to form a unity movement in a world divided by Christian nuances and sectarian ideas. Luther’s protest had created the unintended consequence of making ever little disagreement Christians had, something to separate over. And Campbell and Stone disagreed on a lot.

Matter of fact, the things they disagreed on would split most movements, but for them it was the foundation of one.

They were, we were, a unity movement.

Until we weren’t.Luther-posting-95-theses-560x366

Because eventually, the world of Protest caught up with the Restoration Movement with a vengeance. And we learned to protest about every little detail. In the particular tribe that I belong to “Churches of Christ” I’ve seen us have church splits on every little detail. From how we would serve communion, to if we would pay the preacher. (Maybe that’s a more valid argument to have).

And to our shame, we exported these traditions.

The Mission of Tradition

Last week I was in South East Asia talking to Church of Christ missionaries about some of the struggles that they have with serving in their context. Many of their problems came from someone, years before them, who went and taught them the same divisions that we as a tribe had started off trying to avoid.

I met people in places like Cambodia, who said they couldn’t get the other Church of Christ in the nation to talk with them or work with them, because their church clapped.

As in clapping their hands, while they were singing and worshipping…in Cambodia. Which is a much more celebratory culture, than the Scandanavian Caucasian world that this particular church was sending missionaries from.

That’s what it looks like when you export a tradition without thinking about it.

That’s what it looks like, not when you have a tradition of mission, but when your tradition is your mission. 

A few months ago, I read a letter written to a worship minister. The person who wrote it was upset about the new songs that were being introduced to the church. Specifically, one song really rubbed the guy the wrong way. Here’s what he actually said to the worship minister:

“I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it.  Last Sunday’s new hymn – if you can call it that – sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon.  If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this – in God’s house! – don’t be surpassed if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship.  The hymns we grew up with are all we need.

The Song?

Just As I Am. 

We church people don’t change well. And this, In fact,  can be one of our strengths. I get that we don’t need to marry ourselves to the spirit of the day, but I do think we need to pay deeper attention to our tradition. And we must learn how to bring it to bear on the culture and time that we are living in.

Because every tradition, at one point, was a break with the status quo. Every tradition started off with trying to do something new and fresh and compelling. And over time, what was once revolutionary becomes static and codified.

We stop paying attention to what the tradition was trying to do, and only focus on what it did.

We started off as a unity movement, and now we don’t talk to the other churches in town.

Every tradition starts off as a break in something else. That’s part of the tradition.

So maybe the best way to keep tradition, is to learn how to break it better.

In other words, it’s time to step out of the cage.

Good and Evil: Breaking Bad

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So for the next few weeks I’d like to begin a short blog series on the reality of good and evil in the world, and why it’s so important to name those two things well, and why that is so hard to do.

Like many Americans I’ve been waiting for over a year to see the final episodes of Breaking Bad. It’s a show about a 50 year old High School Chemistry Teacher who’s been a loving father and husband and a respectable person in the community. And then he (Walter White) gets cancer.

He has no savings, his wife is pregnant, and he’s got a teenage son with cerebral palsy…and now he’s realized that he has nothing to leave behind to provide for them. So Walter does what you’d expect him to do…

He starts making meth.

Now chances are,even if you’ve never watched it, you know about this show. It’s highly acclaimed, well-done, and horribly dark. What’s disturbing is how accurate it is about the human condition.

The Parables Around Us

In fact, that’s the reasoning behind the show.  The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan said that the he wanted to make this show because in all the stories he’s read and seen through the years, no matter what the subject, most of them have one thing in common. The Protaganist and the Antagonist are fairly static categories. That is, the good guy remains the good guy, and the bad guy remains the bad guy.

But Gilligan’s goal was to create a character who slowly, over time, moved from one category into an entirely different one. He wanted for the audience to have these moments where they would step back and ask themselves, “Wait, why are we rooting for this guy again?” And then realize they had no good reasons. That’s what I mean when I say that it accurately portrays the human condition…On any given day I have quite a bit of protagonist and antagonist in me. And so do you. As much as we might try to pretend, babies aren’t born with good and bad labels. And the line of good and evil runs through all of us.

But the real genius of the show is the philosophy behind it. Vince Gilligan was asked why he created this story. And what he said was so profound, I’ll just post it in it’s entirety:

If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin (portrayed in the Last King of Scotland)  living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen.

 Did you catch that? “I feel this need for some sort of Biblical atonement, or justice or something…”

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When Jesus was in the heart of his ministry, he was constantly pointing to the world that was around him, showing the disciples and crowds overlaps between their day to day lives and the Kingdom of God. When Paul was here he was quoting Pagan poets and prophets to show the glimpses into the Kingdom of God. I’d like to point to Breaking Bad.

Because it’s more than just a show. It’s an idea, a hope, that the world will one day be set right.

Gilligan went on to say that he  made Breaking Bad because he wants to believe there’s a heaven. “But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”

In the Old Testament, death was never just a one time event. It was always a process. You could choose the way of life that leads to death, or the way that leads to more life. You could be living, but really be dead. I think that’s what this show does more than anything else. Over and over again, Walter makes these choices that you know are toxic, you under his reasoning, but you know what the outcome is going to be. And then it begins to dawn on you…I do this exact same thing all the time.

The Grace of Sin

Rachel Held Evans had a fascinating post on this earlier this week where she said one of the main reasons that she is a Christian is because that Christianity names sin. I think this is what she is talking about. Certain things aren’t right in the world, and certain things aren’t right in me. And in a world of Madison Avenue spin and political posturing, it’s very easy to pretend that things that are very bad are good.

Christianity actually claims that naming the sin, not avoiding or excusing it, is the first step to accepting grace.

I doubt there is a single person who doesn’t know what it’s like to be the kind of person that you never set out to be, and wonder how we ever got there in the first place. St. Paul talks catches the heart of this. He says, the very thing we want to do we just can’t bring ourselves to do, and the thing we don’t want to do, we find that we do it over and over again. This is the human condition. In our better moments, we all know that at different points in our lives, we’ve been people that we would never want others to see.

And this is Vince Gilligan’s gift to the world, his parable is a dark show that I don’t recommend. But he’s holding up a mirror to the world about what it’s like to choose the way of death, and warn us about the consequences that we already know, but pretend will never find us. And every one of us needs that reminder.

When it comes to good and evil, we are all Breaking Bad.