Monthly Archives: September 2013

Good and Evil: The Road To Hell

“I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition of who I am. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” -Pope Francis

“Anyone who says ‘I love God more than people.’ Watch out, that person is going to hurt somebody.” -Richard Beck

good-evil-verse-slide-copy.jpgLately I’ve been reading our kids the Bible. The actual, real Bible, not the Children’s ones. I’ve tried to translate it to where they can understand it, but not edit it. Which means that they are hearing all the stories, Tamar sleeping with her Father-in-Law, God giving the Philistines hemorrhoids, and how David chops off giants heads, not just throwing stones.

Like I said, all of it.

I’m not sure that this is a good idea just yet, but I am sure of one thing, they are much more interested in story time.

Unintended Consequences

One of the things I appreciate the most about the Bible is that the people in it are real human beings. They are deeply flawed 3 dimensional characters who can’t quite fit in our categories of good or bad…which really describes all of us.

So I started writing this Good and Evil series as a way to think through the show “Breaking Bad.” I wondered why this show was so incredibly popular across so many different demographics. And I think it’s because it helps each one of us explain ourselves to ourselves.

One of the more tragic parts of this show, is how Walt starts out to provide money for his family. He begins doing evil things for noble purposes. But the more the show progresses the more he destroys the thing he loves. Family members are killed and now he lives in a shed in New Hampshire and his son, who idolized him, now yells at him when he calls home.

The Road to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but it still leads to the same place.

In the past decade of doing ministry I’ve been blessed to do is work alongside a lot of different non-profits, run by amazing and passionate people who want to make a difference for God, just like I do. But I’ve also noticed something…

Sometimes those of us who are the most driven to make a difference for Jesus, are the least like Jesus in the way they treat the people around them. 

From ministers to NGO leaders to board members, we’re just as much a part of the problem as we are a part of the solution.

Tyler Wigg Stevenson is a founder of a large non-profit, and he says it this way:

“I frequently see…men and women whose good intentions and grand ambitions blind them to the terrible ways they interact with real human beings, including their coworkers and family. You’ll find leaders who love a concept-peace, community, flourishing and so on-but don’t seem to like people very much…[There are plenty of] activists who almost seem to wish that everyone would just get out of the way so they can get on with building a good society.”

In other words, one of the worst parts about developing a Messiah complex is that we stop caring so much about the people that we are trying to save. We just want them to get out of the way so we can save them.

A Sinners Prayer

Let me confess a bit here: I struggle with this everyday. I am pretty driven, and I have a lot of hope for the local Church and what kind of difference she can make in the world. So much so that I can get frustrated easily, I can be short-tempered when people disagree or don’t see the world the way I do.

And that brings me back to reading the Bible. Worked into the Bible, are thousands of stories very similar to Breaking Bad, and if read in their original context, just as tragic and gruesome. Including this powerful idea, that we can’t save the world, because we are a part of it, we are also a part of it’s problems.

Think about the first time Jesus meets a demon in the Gospels. It’s in the Synagogue. The first time Jesus is confronted by evil…it’s in church. And if you’ve spent much time around religious people, it probably doesn’t take much imagination to get this story. But it’s not just religious people, at least in the way we use the word, it’s anybody who is out to make a difference for good in the world.pope1_0

Because the people who fall in love with their ideas about God or serving the world, are often the ones who hurt the people around them the most.

And maybe that’s why the Pope’s interview last week stunned the world so much. Because the most influential person, historically the most powerful person, in Christianity…defined himself not as God’s representative on earth, but as primarily a sinner. He captured the world’s attention, by using the most radical of Christian virtues: humility.

He was honest about Himself, so he could be honest about the Grace of God.

The truth is, all prayers are sinners prayers. And all ministry is broken and flawed. We cannot save the world, we aren’t the heroes we’ve dreamed we were. There is good and it’s worth fighting for, but there is evil and it tends to be what we use to fight with.

We have big plans, but we are called to be little Christ’s. And to be like Jesus, we have to remember that Jesus refused to separate what it meant to love God from what it meant to love and serve the person right in front of you.

And anything else, no matter how good the intentions may be, leads to a place none of us wants to go.

For All The Single Ladies (And Men)

“If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” -Beyonce

Single and Calm

Once upon a time, a bride was about to give herself to her groom. All the Christian community had gathered to have watch a couple make sacred promises to each other.

But it never happened.

Because Thomas, as in Thomas the Apostle, the one who had touched Jesus nail scarred hands after the Resurrection, busted in during the wedding ceremony and talked them out of getting married so that they could devote themselves more fully toward the Kingdom of God. If you had been attending the wedding ceremony that day, I’ll bet you would have thought, “Sheesh Thomas! Do you have to doubt everything?!!

Now this story probably sounds crazy to most of you, but Christian tradition says that Thomas actually did this exact thing. And if he didn’t than at least we know that enough of the earliest Christians thought like this to keep telling this story.

Because they knew what we have forgotten.

Jesus was single.

The Single Most Forgotten

At Highland Church, we are in a series called The Sequels, and yesterday Jeff Childers and I did a sermon together, and I’ve never had so many people come up and say something like, “We’ve never heard that before.”

So I wanted to share a bit of what we talked about on here too.

I’ve been in full time ministry for over a decade, and for several years I served as a Singles minister, and what I’ve learned is that most American churches don’t know what to do with Single adults. Which is crazy, because for the first time in American history, more people are Single than married. When we train missionaries to go to another culture, they are expected to learn the language and how they think. But Churches in America haven’t done that well at all.

Instead it is incredibly difficult for a single to feel like they belong to a local church. The on ramp seems to be something like, attend this new member’s class, sign up to volunteer in a ministry, wait a few years to get married and then belong.

And all of this makes me wonder, how did a movement that was started by a Single man and advanced by another (Paul) become a community that didn’t have a place for people who were in a season of life just like them? And if you doubt what I’m saying, here’s a well written take on it from someone else. 

And by the way, I get it. I understand how we got here.

When the Sexual Revolution happened, the Church realized that the way we had been talking about sex was very wrong. We realized that sex was really not something to be ashamed of, but was a gift from God given to people who had made promises and covenant to each other.

But then we bought into the idea that if God gives a gift, than everyone must have it.

Did you know, historically speaking, that people used to live Celibate lives and they didn’t blow up or die? We lost our imagination for what it meant to be human, and we started listening to the story that without someone else a person was incomplete, and then we started telling that story ourselves.

Henri Nouwen once said that the task of a minister is to keep people from suffering for the wrong reasons. Here’s what he says:

“Many people suffer because of the false suppositions on which they have built their lives…Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. it does not allow people to live with illusions of immorality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberating starts.”

Every kind of relationship status is going to have suffering, married people let each other down, and single people sometimes wonder if life is better if you are married.

But more than just not creating a space for people, do we realize what a gift to the Church a Single person is?

Stay Where You Are

There’s a reason that Paul was able to go all over the world planting churches. It was because He was fully committed to the Kingdom of God. In fact, that’s what he wanted people in all of the churches he planted to be! Look at what Paul says:

 I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is.Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned;and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this… I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord.  But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided.

Paul wants people to be able to be fully devoted to the Kingdom of God, so much so that he has to say, “Don’t worry you haven’t sinned if you’ve gotten married.”

Well that’s comforting.

This is not a new idea. It’s not a Catholic idea, it’s a Jesus one. Some people are called to be single, to show radical trust in God and His family. Some people are called to singleness and some of us are called to show God’s love for the world by how we love our spouse.

And we need each other.

Jesus doesn’t need you to get married to belong to His Church. And any church or Christian Institution that makes you think that way, or makes you feel like a 2nd class citizen probably isn’t communicating the Gospel as much as they are an American dream.

By all means, if you meet someone who you want to pledge your life to, do it! Show the world what God is like by making a promise and keep it.

But I wouldn’t send St. Thomas an invitation.

Question: If you are Single, what has your status allowed you to do with your life that you wouldn’t be able to if you were Married?

Good and Evil: Speaking of the Devil

“[Hitler] is a man who is obviously possessed, and has infected a whole nation…a god has taken possession of the Germans.” -Carl Jung

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One of our mentors in college was a missionary family from Africa, and sometimes they would tell us stories about the different things that they had experienced while serving there.

Like this one time that they had gone to a village where the witch doctor was the most influential person there. My missionary friends basically told them that Jesus was more powerful than any “magic” the witch doctor could conjure up…because they were from the Western, modern world, and they knew that the witch doctor really had no magic at all.

But they were wrong.

At one point during this village, the witch doctor set down with our missionary friends and said, “See that chicken over there? Watch this.”

And then he pointed at the chicken several feet away.

And the chicken died.

The Mystery of Evil

One of the more interesting things about Western Christianity is that we don’t really talk about the world the way the Bible does. In the Bible, the world seems to be enchanted. Anything is possible, because it is God’s world and He’s still involved in it.

But the way we talk seems to reflect this idea that, sure God made the universe, but He’s not really present in it.

It is in a word, Deism.

And I get why we talk like this. We like the idea of control and certainty that comes from understanding the natural laws of the universe and how they will respond to us. It’s a good thing to know that gravity is what makes us fall and how to leverage the ways thing work to our advantage. But there is a danger to this certain approach to the world. We just might think that we know very, very much more than we actually do (because after all 96% of the universe is mystery).

And it also fails to fully explain the evil in the world. We can fool ourselves into thinking that if we just get enough medicine and education or the right laws in place (all of which are good, but insufficient, things) we can fix the problems of the human condition.

But the ancient world knew evil was a problem that ran deeper than that.

And deep down, so do we.

We find out that our own soldiers and citizens are capable of doing the same kinds of horrific things that we are at war at in other countries.

And sometimes we see evil that is so raw that we have to reach for words like Satanic or demonic. This is why Carl Jung, a secular psychologist, when he was trying to describe the evil he saw in Nazi Germany, reached for words like “Possessed” and “a god has taken over.”

Sure we live in a world of iPods and Xboxes, and in the words of Walter Wink, believing in “Principalities and Powers is as to believe in Dragons or a Flat World.”

But the stories that we have told ourselves to explain the world aren’t big enough to explain all the bad things that happen in it.

We think that we have everything figured out, and then a guy points at a chicken and kills it.

God at War

Is it possible that these Principalities and Powers are still around…we’ve just given them new names? Like Greed or addiction or self-desctrutive behavior?

For the longest time, Christians have talked about “Spiritual Warfare” and I get why we’re hesitant to talk too much about that anymore. You have one Crusade and suddenly a war metaphor is pretty delicate.

But just because we’ve misapplied the metaphor doesn’t change the story of Scriptures.

It seems like God is in a kind of cosmological battle between the forces that oppose His good creation project. God is at war.

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This is at the heart of the way Jesus seemed to work in the Gospel’s. He went face to face with evil personified. Who the Bible called Satan and who we’ve been battling ever since. This is the story that the Bible is trying to tell about evil.

And if the people of God are unable to talk about it, than the rocks will cry out, or maybe the rock stars.

This is how Alice Cooper talks about it:

I was pretty much convinced all my life that there was just one God, and…You couldn’t believe in God without believing in the devil.The devil… is a real character that’s trying his hardest to tear your life apart. If you believe that this is just mythology, you’re a prime target, because you know that’s exactly what Satan wants: to be a myth. But he’s not a myth, of this I’m totally convinced of that. So here we are. We have God pulling us one way and the devil pulling us another, and we’re in the middle. We have to make a choice. And everyone, at some point in their life, has to make that choice. When people say, “How do you believe this? Why do you believe this? I just say nothing else speaks to my heart. This doesn’t speak to my intellect, it doesn’t speak to my logic-it speaks right to my heart and right to my soul, deeper than anything I’ve ever thought of. And I totally believe it.

There is evil in the world and pulsing in each one of us. And until we name the real war we will continue to think that evil is a war that is out there…in some Axis of Evil..or Syria…or Russia. Because in the words of Pope Francis, “The only war that we must all fight is the one against evil.”

And he’s right.

Just ask Alice Cooper. Or that chicken.

Good and Evil: Wearing Hitler

 Nobody  panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! – The Joker in The Dark Knight
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Stanley Milgram was a Jewish psychologist born in 1933 in New York City. He became a social scientist that is famous for giving the world ideas like the 6 degrees of separation (also known as the Kevin Bacon movie game). But his most famous work came as Milgram was trying to wrap his mind around the evil of the Holocaust. He had grown up he watching the Jewish people get systemically murdered.

And Milgram didn’t just want to know who was responsible…He wanted to understand evil.

So Milgram asked the question, “Would I have obeyed Hitler?”

See he had watched the smoke clear from World War II, and these seemingly normal people were waking up to the reality of what they had allowed to happen.

While most of us were content to just carve up the world into categories of good and evil, Milgram knew the world was more complex than that and that most of us had both sin and saintliness running through our veins.

So Milgram performed an experiment.

It involved a “Learner” and a “teacher” and a Professional overseer.

The Learner was always played by an actor, but the teacher didn’t know that. The teacher was the mark, and so they would be instructed that they were going to try and teach the learner to learn things more quickly by administering electric shock. And as the experiment went along the amount of electricity would just get higher and higher. Until it would become dangerous. Or at least the “teacher” thought it was dangerous.

And the premise of the experiment was this: “If the teacher had someone in authority giving them commands, would they ignore the obvious suffering of the learner in order to follow the person in charge? In other words, “Would a normal person obey a ‘Hitler?'”

And repeatedly the answer came back: Yes. milgram

The “learner” on the other side of the wall would be yelling in (pretend) pain about how the shock was hurting them, sometimes they would say things about having a pace maker or a medical condition. But as long as the Professional kept saying push the button, the Teacher kept on, no matter how loud the other person shouted.

 

Christians and Communists

One of the most disturbing things about growing up is the recognition that life is so much more difficult to categorize than I had thought. I grew up playing a game that was basically like “Capture the Flag” it was fun, all the homeschoolers would get together to play it a few times a year. Except we didn’t call it Capture the Flag.

We called it Christians and Communist.

Think about that way of labeling the world, there are good guys and bad guys

I’ll bet you can guess which ones where which.

In Richard Beck’s book Uncleanhe asks the reader to imagine that he shows you some of his grandfathers’ old possessions. He takes you to the closet and pulls out an old ratty sweater. It turns out that it’s from World War II, and that it belonged to and had been worn by Hitler himself.

When the Nazi’s finally realized that they had lost, many of them had stolen items from Hitler’s life for memories. And now there was a thriving black-market of Hitler’s things, including this sweater. It was unwashed and had been worn by Hitler. It must be extremely valuable. And then Beck asks, “Would you like to wear it?”

And the research has shown that consistently people say “no.” But what is fascinating is why they say no. Here’s Beck’s own words:

“People report discomfort being near or in the same room with the sweater. A wicked fog surrounds the object and we want to avoid contact with it. What studies like this reveal is that people tend to think about evil as if it were a virus, a disease, or a contagion. Evil is an object that can seep out of Hitler, into the sweater, and, by implication, into you if you try the sweater on. Evil is sticky and contagious. So we stay away.”

As We Forgive Our Debtors

 

Augustine once said that we must not treat evil as something that exists outside of us. And he’s right.

We think we have corralled evil to somewhere else, somewhere where “they” live, but then we hear evidence that suggests that if someone just puts on a white coat and pretends to be in charge we will push whatever button they tell us to.

This is why I don’t think I’ll ever learn a better prayer than the one Jesus’ taught. Because in one sentence Jesus teaches us so much about the world. He teaches us to pray for the people who have wronged us, but he also teaches us to ask God to forgive our evil acts.

But did you notice, Jesus puts those two things together.

As if evil isn’t just “out there somewhere” floating around, attaching itself to sweaters. Evil is a reality of a broken world in which I am a part. And the answer to making the world better isn’t to gloss over the evil inside of me, or just pretend that I don’t have problems, or try to esteem myself higher.

It is to name the brokenness within me, confess it and open up my life to allow God to redeem it.

That’s why one of the first steps to a healthy relationship with other people is to be able to stop blaming and pointing fingers at the evil things other people do and think.

And the first step toward doing that is to just recognize that I have evil in me too.

It’s why Jesus taught people to pray the way he did.

So let’s forgive each other quickly, and by all means, put on the sweater.

A Better Marriage Fast

sequels-screensaverAnd really not just marriages, and really not that kind of fast.

At Highland Church of Christ we are talking right now about how the dominant stories that we hear day in and day out are so greedy. And these are our love stories!

For more information about this series, or to get a free E-book you can go to www.thesequels.org

So this past Sunday we talked about the way we are taught to consume everything including each other. We are taught to ask the most insidious question, “Are you really satisfied?” But that’s not a question that we are taught to ask to lead us to happiness, it’s much darker than that.

Always A Bridesmaid

There’s a lot more backstory to this, and if you are interested you can hear the whole sermon here. But the gist of it is that in the early 40’s and 50’s a guy named Edward Bernays changed the world. Bernays was the inventor of what we call Propaganda, he was the most effective weapons that America had in World War II. He learned (from his uncle Freud) that we have a few base desires, like fear, or to have sex.

And if you could just tap into those desires you could make people think a certain way.

And he did…and he still does.

After the war was over, Bernays learned that he discovered this new power but no longer had a purpose for it.

So he went into marketing. And now most of the way we have grown up thinking about the world has been shaped by Edward Bernays.

But we are largely unaware how much.

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Have you ever heard that saying “Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride”? Do you know where that saying comes from?

This 1950’s Listerine Ad.

It’s an ad that taps into our deepest fears of being alone and not being connected. Not so that we can connect, but so that we will buy mouthwash. Thank you Edward Bernays.

And that’s why at Highland this week, we ended the sermon by asking people to engage in the ancient Christian discipline of fasting.

Not just married people, but for people who were wanting to get married, and for people who wanted to learn how to live better in community.

Because for the past few decades we have been taught to consume. We have somewhere around 5,000 advertisements a day that raise and increase our desire.

We’ve been taught to think that the world revolves around us, and that we should get what we want. And then we approach our relationships this way.

But this ancient practice of fasting teaches us that we don’t live by bread alone. We don’t live just to consume.

And that if we really want to be happy, occasionally we need to step back and stop looking for things to consume, and start looking for things that we are grateful for.

C.S. Lewis once wrote an essay about love and Christian Marriage and he said:

People get from books the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on “being in love” for ever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change—not realizing that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one.

This is at the heart of why our marriages disappoint us. Edward Bernaise taught us to ask the question, “What does my spouse or future spouse owe me?”

But fasting helps us ask another and better question, “Why have I been given so much? Why has God been so good to me?”

I like the way Marcel Proust says this:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

This is why one of the main commands in the Bible is for us to remember, because if we don’t keep remembering how much we already have, we might just forget.

So try it out. If you want better relationships. Fast.

Good and Evil: Let The Blames Begin

“What’s wrong with the world? I am.” -G.K. Chesterton

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When I watch Breaking Bad, I almost always think of the first 3 chapters of Genesis.

There’s nothing that has ever explained the human condition for me quite like those first chapters.

God made a good world, and then put His people in charge of His Creation…with just one caveat. Don’t eat the forbidden fruit. But they do, they are tempted and eat and lie and start pointing fingers at each other.

It’s a brilliant story because it didn’t just happen, it happens every day.

But did you ever wonder why we say Satan was there in the Garden? Go back and read Genesis 3 again. There’s never any mention of Satan being the one that tempted Eve…it’s only a snake.

Narratives of Injury

Have you ever noticed how defensive we are now?  We are constantly talking about being persecuted. Most groups I know define themselves against another group, and how that group has hurt them.

In one of the best books I’ve read in years, James Davidson Hunter talks about how the major problem in our culture is that every movement or organization runs off of narratives of injuries. That is we’ve been taught to view the world, and make sense of the world in term of power and victims. And most all of us disagree about who those are.

Richard Beck wrote a great blog about this. He points out that the reason we have a culture where everyone is rushing to take the role of victim is because the Gospel was too effective. 

In other words, once Jesus showed up and showed us that God cared about the vulnerable and the underdog, the center of power shifted, now no one wants to be the bully and everyone wants to be victim. Because the victim is the powerful one now.

But this is really difficult to do. Because we are all guilty. If you doubt that check the tag on your shirt, where was it made? Who made it? Under what conditions? How about your lawn? Or your grocery shopping? Or the food you eat? Somewhere someone is making your life better, and you indirectly might be contributing to making their’s worse.

There’s no safe place to stand.

Saved by Sin

I started this series as a way of processing why I thought Breaking Bad has been such a smash hit in our culture. And spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the episode a few weeks back called “Confession” you might want to skip over this section.

In it, Walt gives his brother-in-law Hank a DVD confession of all his many crimes. Hank tells him it’s his only way out from all the heinous things he’s done. He must take responsibility. So Walt confesses.walter white confessing

But it’s not what you think.

It’s a DVD of Walt blaming Hank for what he did. He says that Hank forced him to do everything. In a genius move, he places himself in the role of victim and now Hank can do nothing. Because that’s what kind of power the underdog has.

But Walt isn’t saved. In fact, he just got a lot more lost.

Because blaming others only works for a while, but eventually we can’t escape the truth that we are responsible for some evil too.

Andy Stanley once told about how their family had a friend who was single and wanted to marry a certain man. He was rich and she was lonely. Everyone told her that it was going to be a mistake to marry him, but she insisted that she was in love.

5 years later she came to Andy’s office complaining about how awful the divorce had been and how much she hated this man now. He wasn’t paying his child support, he’d treated her horribly and just been a jerk in general. And that’s when Andy asked this question:

“Why did you marry him?”

And she broke down…tears started welling up in her eyes, and her lip began to shake, but then she calmed down, became indignant and left.  And here’s what Andy said:

I wanted her so bad to say it. I almost said it for her, but I didn’t want to accuse her…But I’m convinced that if she would have just said it, if she would have just blurted it out. “I married him because he was rich, and I was lonely,” If she would have just been willing to cross that line, and been willing to embrace that truth, I”m convinced  could have shaved away 50% of her rage. She was angry with herself but she couldn’t admit it.

Let me say this, as a minister who has been in many pastoral situations I understood this immediately. I’ve seen this happen so much. But where it really hit me wasn’t as a pastor. It was as a human.

Because I do this too. What starts out as anger toward myself needs another outlet. And so I reach for, we reach for a “narrative of injury.” We become a victim. And victims rarely heal.

Because you can’t heal an injury that you’re not treating properly.

I’m convinced that the opposite of a victim is not a victimizer, it is a disciple. This is the grace of sin. It is a language that names what’s wrong in us, and once we name it, once we can confess what our part of the responsibility is, then healing can begin.

You know it’s interesting…Satan is never mentioned in Genesis 3, but we’ve read him in there. We’ve made the serpent Satan. And here’s why: because we know Satan is in that story, we just couldn’t spot him.

You know what the word Satan means?

The Accuser.

Satan is in that story. Not just as the serpent, but also as Adam and Eve. And he’s in our marriages and our relationships constantly trying to protect our righteous indignation and remind us of all the ways that other people have wronged us.

Let the Blames begin.