Category Archives: Archive

The Sequels: Adam and Eve

Jonathan Storment and Richard Beck – Adam and Eve from Highland Church on Vimeo.

This week I’m at a conference for preachers and haven’t had time to write. So I wanted to share this sermon that Richard Beck and I did this past Sunday. The sermon came out an observation. We noticed that much of the discussion between and about men and women in marriage lacks very much imagination, and even less generosity. And so we wanted to ask what does it mean to try and live out the cross in our marriages?

Here are my favorite points of the sermon:

  • The problem isn’t just the war between the sexes (women vs. men) it is the war within the sexes (men judging other men, women judging other women).
  • This isn’t a new problem, blame and shame started in the Garden, and marriage was the context for the first sin.
  • Mary and Joseph are an example of a reverse Adam and Eve.
  • We ask the question what is a man like, what is a woman like? But the better question is What is God like? (This point was Beck’s idea, but he let me say it).

We were trying to cast a vision for Mutual Submission that everyone could buy into, and Beck brilliantly came up with the parable of Duck Dynasty. (You’ll just have to watch)

One of the best parts about being at Highland is having so many gifted people who care deeply about the local church and living out the Gospel. This series has been a great example of that. From Jeff Childers, to Sally Gary, to Richard Beck, (and in a few weeks the one and only Leslie Storment will be talking with me!)

If you are interested in more about this series, or for a free accompanying E-book go to www.thesequels.org

Leading With Kindness

021313-kindness-quote-612x339In his book The Good and Beautiful CommunityJames Bryan Smith talks about how William Penn became a Christian. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, had baptized Penn. And two of the major distinctive’s about the Quakers are their pacifism and their refusal to accept class distinctions.

It was common in William’s day for the men to wear swords, not so much for violence as a class distinction. And since William Penn was from an upper-class family he had grown up wearing one. Until he was baptized. Then he began to wrestle with the question, “Can I still wear this?” After all, the Quakers were very much against war and status, both things that the sword represented.

And so finally, William asked George Fox, “Can I still wear the sword?”

Cost of Discipleship

After this past Sunday’s sermon, and the subsequent conversations, one thing I’ve realized is how important it is for American Churches to relearn discipleship.

We have very little idea about what discipleship is or how it takes place. We like the word, and we know it has something to do with Jesus-y things but we don’t know much more than that. So here’s my take in a nutshell: Discipleship is learning how to live like Jesus would if Jesus was living your life.

Sally and I talked Sunday about the idolatry of sexuality (I’m actually pretty conservative about Christian sexual ethics) and about how we can’t put the weight of worship on sex. But our sexuality is only Christian because it is connected to being like Jesus.

And here’s a starting point.

Jesus didn’t live life by Himself.

We don’t do this well. We have such an individualistic society that the idea that anyone, anywhere could tell me how to live is seen as oppressive. So we accrue debt, and fly through relationships and fill our lives with trivial things to numb the fact that we are dully aware of: we are doing life all alone.

And sometimes we even try to use church to numb that fact. But church, real church, can’t numb it, it must confront it, and say “To sign up to be Jesus’ body, you have to sign up for a certain way of life…with others…just like Jesus did.”

But that leads me to my second observation.

Christian living is for Christians

We can’t expect to enforce a Christian ethic on people who don’t believe in or like Jesus about the world, their bodies, what it means to be human etc. We can work for the common good (which I hope we do) and for human flourishing (which has been traditionally been what Churches were known for in the world) but we can’t impose Christian values on non-Christian people.

They didn’t sign up for following Jesus. We did.

Repentance and Kindness

There are two main ethics in the Bible. The ethic of purity, and the ethic of compassion. Think about the stories of the Prodigal Son or Jonah or Hosea to get an idea of the ethic of compassion in it’s clearest form. And for the ethic of purity, we have things like Paul’s letters to churches, or Jesus turning over the tables in the Temples, or most of the Hebrew Prophets.

But sometimes those ethics mix, like in marriage. Because for me to be pure is an act of compassion for Leslie, and for her to be pure is an act of compassion for me. (Maybe this is why the marriage metaphor is used so much to describe God’s relationship with His people).

So what do you do when you are wanting to be pure and compassionate?

You try to act like Jesus.

To the people inside he slowly challenged, prodded and sometimes rebuked. To the people on the outside, Jesus took their side over the religious people of his day. Constantly.

Do you remember Jesus saying anything to Zaccheus about his unjust behavior before Zaccheus repented? What led to that kind of extravagant honesty about his own sinful life?

The only people that I know of in the Gospels that Jesus led with the message of repent, were the religious people.The sinful woman

This week I’ve heard people quote Romans 1 a lot, but not much from Romans 2, but the two have to go together, because this is where Paul does a Rabbinical Ninja move. He gets all the religious Jewish people nodding their head about how bad idolatry, and sexual immorality and breaking the Law is.

And then he tells them this:

But If you judge someone else, you have no excuse for it. When you judge another person, you are judging yourself. You do the same things you blame others for doing. We know that when God judges those who do evil things, he judges fairly. Though you are only a human being, you judge others. But you yourself do the same things. So how do you think you will escape when God judges you? Do you make fun of God’s great kindness and favor? Do you make fun of God when he is patient with you? Don’t you realize that God’s kindness is what leads to repentance?

Did you catch that? “God’s kindness leads us to repentance.”

Essentially, Paul is leveling the playing field, he’s asking people (who can easily find the sin in other people’s lives), to remember how patient God has been with them and their own sin.

Which brings me back to that sword that William Penn wore. William thought that Fox was going to tell him he had to sell it or destroy it. Because it was obviously a strong central conviction for their church.

But that’s not what Fox did.

Instead he just told him, “Where it as long as you can William, wear it as long as you can.”

If Fox would have given him a command (on something that the Bible talks much more about than almost anything else) he would have robbed him of the opportunity to listen to the Holy Spirt, and he would have just given a rule.

Fox knew what we forget. God’s kindness really does lead to repentance.

But if you lead with the demand for repentance, no matter what kind of spin you put on it, you aren’t going to be kind, and you probably won’t get heard. And from the conversations I’m seeing on the internets that might be a good thing.

Once Jesus even told the religious people, if you’re going to throw your rocks of “repentance” just do a little heart work yourself first. And make sure that there is no one, anywhere, who could throw one at you.

Eventually, Jesus would tell that woman to go and sin no more.

But not first. First He led with kindness.

The Danger and The Glory

“A person once asked me…if I approved of homosexuality, I replied with another question, ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.” -Pope Francis

“91% of American Young Adults think of the Church as Anti-Homosexual” -David Kinnamin in UnChristian

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This past Sunday at Highland Church, Sally Gary and I talked about the one thing that churches either don’t ever talk about or talk about way too much.

We talked about human sexuality, and what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus in today’s world. Sally has written about her experience with same-sex attraction in an incredible memoir “Loves God, Likes Girls” and her ministry has helped Churches and Christian Universities all over the country think through how to talk about sexuality in a more productive way…and what being a disciple means today.

And if you are a Christian, that is the question, not which side of LGBT issues do you fall on, but what does being a disciple of Jesus require of me?

Selling Sex

In their non-religious book, “Premarital Sex in America: How Young Adults Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying” the authors (research psychologists) have interviewed 10’s of thousands of young adults to find out what they think about when they think of sex. And they found that there is really 2 core themes that people in the West or inundated with:

1. Sex isn’t really that big of a deal

2. Sex is the only thing that matters

We’re constantly told that you can’t be fully human if you don’t express your sexuality in whatever venue that you feel appropriate…and that anyone who tries to constrain you is really just holding you back. But here’s a question? Who’s telling this story and why?

Yesterday Sally made the point that sex is the capitalist market best method for selling just about everything. We make fun of the  commercials with the girls in bikini’s selling some totally unrelated product…and then we go and buy that product. Maybe that’s the most damning thing about our current world, the reason that these incredibly degrading advertisements keep coming…is because they are working.

Our church partners with a ministry that helps rescue girls from sexual slavery in other parts of the world, because we know that we shouldn’t sell sex. It is too sacred. But the ugly truth is that we are exposed to selling sex everyday, because Madison Avenue knows what we don’t talk about.

Sex still sells.

Do you remember what Jesus says to the woman at the well in John 4? Does it surprise you how quickly Jesus gets into her sex life? Not just to fix her, but because Jesus is going to go directly to the parts of our life where our heart is.

It’s important to remember that Jesus isn’t trying to take anything away from us. He’s trying to give us the best possible way to be human. And to the woman who is struggling to find “the one” Jesus solution isn’t to try and fix her marriage(s) it is to give her Himself.

The Idolatry of the Family

Listen, I affirm the classic Christian view of sexuality, however, I don’t think that most Christians have any idea how much that view actually challenges all of lives/marriages/relationships.

And that brings me to why, I think, the American Church has had such a problem talking to the LGBT community.

Rockwell pictureThink about the way Churches talk. Think about how many sermon series, and blogs, and all the Christian books you’ve heard about how to have a “Christian Marriage” or how to have a better “Sex life in marriage.” We’ve even got Christian bookstores called “Family Christian.”

In fact, if you are a celibate, single Christian, or if your experience is as a sexual minority trying to follow Jesus, it is incredibly difficult to belong fully to a church. and from time to time you might even wonder, “If Jesus was a single man, who was known for being friends with prostitutes and friends with both men and women alike….is it really Jesus we are worshipping?”

We’ve reacted to the kind of Victorian prudish Christians we saw before us and we’ve arrived at a place of idolatry.

We’ve reached for Jesus and sometimes we’ve actually grabbed something more like Norman Rockwell’s vision of the American family.

I think one of the reasons that the American Church and the LGBT community have had such problem having productive conversations is because often what the Church has been guilty of saying is “You can’t worship the same idols we worship.”

What we really should be saying is that while sex is a good thing, and family is a gift from God, it is also a dangerous thing. Like all good things, it can be made into an idol very easily.

Part of the reason the church has responded so poorly to the Gay community is because we (along with many others) have placed the weight of worship on sex. And sex, even the best sex, can’t bear that weight.  Most churches I know, have very little problems welcoming people who wrestle with greed or a bad temper, but if you’re divorced or a sexual minority it’s hard for us to know what to do with you.

It’s why two weeks ago, Jeff Childers and I after preaching about God’s gift of singleness and celibacy found ourselves surrounded by single Brothers and Sisters saying, “We’ve never heard that sermon before.”

Because idolatry has lots of symptoms.

Now I happen to have a pretty good life, and a family, and a wife, all of whom I love very much. But, on my better days, I don’t love them as much as I love Jesus.  

And if that sounds harsh, than we really need to reconsider what it means to be Christian.

The Christian response to any and all kinds of sexuality is discipleship. If you believe in historic Christian theology than you believe that your body is not your own. You didn’t make it, you don’t sustain it, and ultimately you aren’t going to raise it.

Your body belongs to God.

And so does His Body…the Church.

And I think Jesus wants His body to look a lot more like Him.

Because reading through the Gospels, it seems like Jesus first response to everyone was always one of love and kindness.

So here’s what we challenged people to do at Highland…We believe that the Church and LGBT community overlap in certain places, and one of them is the Anti-Bullying initiative. If you are a Jesus person then you are committed, not to a position or sound byte, but to a posture of being for people.

Following Jesus means you are called to not laugh at those jokes, to not allow someone to be shamed and ridiculed, we are called to stand up for people on the margins in loving and kind ways.

And just like Jesus, we are called to honor the image of God in everyone.

Good and Evil: The Wages of Sin

“I did it for me, I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really- I was alive.” -Walter White

“For the wages of sin is death.” -St. Paul

good-evil-verse-slide-copy.jpgIf you haven’t seen the Breaking Bad finale yet, you might want to stop reading now. Sunday night, millions of people tuned in to watch the train wreck that they knew was coming. Walter White, a former chemistry teacher, father of two, and normal American society member made a decision to start cooking meth.

And that one decision led him to exploit, murder, lie, and destroy all the people that he loved.

One of the most disturbing things that the Old Testament prophets say about idol worship is that you will eventually become like what you worship.

Which is true of Walter White, but Breaking Bad matters because it’s so true for all of us.

Playing God

Growing up in Arkansas, I actually had several friends get hooked on Meth, and one of the reasons that it is so popular is because it makes you feel so powerful, you feel radically free and confident. You feel almost god-like.

Walter White started using people the same way that the people used his product.

So this past Sunday at Highland, we had hundreds of people (including me) come forward and write down on cards what idols were tempting us right now. And then yesterday I spent sometime praying over the different cards and what people had written down. And it’s powerful. Not because of how bad it is, but by how diverse it is. People wrote down everything from alcohol to money to toys.

And none of it is intrinsically bad, it’s just not big enough to bear the weight of worship.

In his new book Playing God” Andy Crouch points out that every idol makes at least one of 2 promises:

1. You will be like God

2. You will never die

And then Crouch says this:

“In the success phase of idolatry, you will never convince an idolater that his addiction is not working. It is working. It is rescuing him from his human vulnerability and giving him and intoxicating taste of invulnerable ecstasy.”

For those of us who watched Breaking Bad, we know how true this is. The first few seasons showed a mediocre-seeming man rise to a position of power that a normal high-school teacher could never dream of. He was a Kingpin, feared by all, loved by none. But in the words of one secular psychiatrist, “Idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing.”

Parables of Hell

I know that this show is incredibly dark, but it is also incredibly profound and even Biblical. After all that’s what the show’s creator was trying to do all along was tell a kind of Parable for our need for what he called “Biblical atonement.” He wanted to tell a story that exposed sin for what it was.

Which is actually not a new idea.Gollum

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings as a way of telling a post-Christian Europe the story of the Gospel in a way that they wouldn’t recognize at first. And one of the best examples of idolatry that I’ve ever read or seen, Tolkien tells us about a character named Gollum.

Gollum started off life as a normal Hobbit, but then he found the ring and the power (for a little while) to be like God. And over time the ring made him into a monster. He had once been somebody, and now he was a twisted version of nobody. And he did it all for what he called “His precious”

It was his idol. And if you know this story, you know it was also became his Hell.

I like the way that N.T. Wright talks about this:

Hell is actually something that happens on earth when people don’t follow God’s way of peace..the way I talk about final loss is this: People worship idols–money, whatever. Their humanness gets reshaped around the idol—you become like what you worship. [And] If someone chooses to go that route, what they are choosing is to collude with the deconstruction of their own humanness.That’s a lot of big clunky words for saying that they are in love with death. They don’t know it, but that’s what it is.God has made us in His image. And if we choose to say, “I’m going to deconstruct myself,” then, God, with great sorrow, will say, “Okay, go ahead.”

You know it’s interesting, in the last scene of Breaking Bad, as Walt is dying, he goes back to the meth lab. He puts his bloody hands on the equipment that had made his life and then ruined it.

The creator, Vince Gilligan, said this was the scene where Walt needed to die, but what Gilligan actually said, was that this was where Walt could die surrounded, “by his precious.”

The worst thing that can happen to someone in the Bible is that God gives you exactly what you want. Left to our own devices we create gods for ourself. We need to worship something. And we most certainly will.

This is why Paul writes Romans 1 and 2, the way he does. Contrary to popular belief, Paul is actually not elevating certain kinds of sin, he’s actually leveling the playing field. He lists off every kind of ways that both religious and secular ways have for worshipping gods that are not God. He talks about sexual immorality and greed and lying and then he turns to the religious to talk about their sins of exclusivity and hypocrisy.

And then Paul goes on to say that the word for all of our misplaced worship is sin.

Sin, something we all do, is falling short of the glory of God.

And sin pays, or in the more poetic words of Paul:

The wages of Sin is death.

Just ask Walter White.

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.