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Strange Fire and Churches of Christ


“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” -C.S. Lewis

Maybe you’ve noticed that over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of talk around charismatic vs. not charismatic protestant Christians. Some people held a conference, and John MacArthur wrote a book about it. Mark Driscoll even showed up at the conference and started giving away his newest book and just confused everyone.

But what caught my eye is what these non-Charismatics called the conference.

They called it, “Strange Fire”

Which may not mean much to you, but it means a lot to me. Because growing up in the Restoration Movement, that is a reference to an obscure little story in Leviticus that no other branch in Christian tradition really paid attention to.

It’s the story of Nadab and Abihu, some of the first priests in the Torah. It’s 10 little verses that end with God smiting Nadab and Abihu because they offered “Strange” or “Unauthorized Fire.”

When I heard the name of the conference it felt…reassuring. I thought, “Hey, we’re not the only ones who misread the Bible after all!”

And let’s call that’s what it is.

To name this conference that, is a way of misreading the Bible. I don’t care where you go from there, but if you start with that story as your metaphor, you will have a  bad view of God when you’re reading the Bible.[1]

Trust me on this.

But when I saw in Christianity Today, that Mark Noll actually compares this new anti-charismatic movement to Restorationist I had two thoughts, “Christianity Today knows about us?” and then as I read the comparison I realized “Yes, they know us well.”

Here’s what they said:

“Perhaps the major flaw of the book is more attitudinal than methodological. In claiming to see things so clearly–so black and white–MacArthur falls into a restorationist mindset, identified by historian Mark Noll as “intellectual overconfidence, sectarian delusion, and a stunningly naive confidence in the power of humans to extract themselves from the influences of history…”

Apparently Mark grew up in my church.

Now I love Churches of Christ, and the Restoration Movement, I’m not just saying that. I  really do. And I’m glad to be a part of Protestant Christianity…except for this one tiny slice of it. We protest…a lot…and often.

We love to argue and parse words and ideas, and I love the idea about Sola-Scriptura, but like Mark Noll hinted at, Sola Scriptura is naïve if you don’t acknowledge that you are a person culturally conditioned to read the Bible in certain ways and ask certain questions (one that the Bible might not be trying to address) and not ask the questions the Bible is trying to answer.

I get the Cessasionist argument, and I really respect John McArthur, his writings and ministry have blessed me. I love Joni Erickson Tada (who spoke at the conference) and I very much understand why someone who has endured the suffering of both physical limitations, and the suffering of spiritual bullies who might say, “If you just had enough faith…”

But I believe I’ve heard the voice of God, and I’ve prayed for people who I believe have been healed, and several who haven’t.  But I didn’t always think this way.

The problem for me started about 9 years ago, when I went to Sri Lanka to do Tsunami relief. We were with a small gathering of Christians there, and a blind woman came up to get prayed for, and God opened her eyes.

I’ve got a bachelors and a graduate degree in Bible, and I immediately said to myself, “I know seven reasons why that cant happen.”

But as I started to think about it, I realized that the reasons I knew that this couldn’t happen had nothing to do with the Bible. It had everything to do with the philosophy and ideology I was reading the Bible through.

The problem was I had been using the Bible, to be right, to make a living. I was standing on it, but the Bible is telling about a world that we are supposed to inhabit.

And in that world anything can happen.

Because God is in it.

As an aside, there is a reason that Charismatic Chrsitianity is spreading all through the third world. Last week, a few Christians and I were having a bible study with a Muslim man from Sierre Leon when we got to one of the excoricisms in the Gospel of Mark. I told him, that none of us at the table had ever seen anything like a demon possession, and maybe he could speak more to the issue.

So he started talking about the Witch doctor in his village. How he could point at a goat and kill it with his voodoo, and about how he put spells on people making them go crazy.

When my friend read the Gospel of Mark, he was glad to see that demons obeyed Jesus. Because he knew what a demon was in a way that we don’t.

My friend sure hopes God hasn’t ceased working in the world, because he knows first hand that evil hasn’t.

Anytime we start having a conversation about God that only works in certain parts of the world (the wealthiest, most educated and the most access to medicinal resources) we are going to miss large parts of the Gospel.

Love and Elitism

The real problem that I believe MacArthur is trying to address is the division that has happened around the way we talk about the Holy Spirit and God’s activity in the world. I spend a lot of time with some Charismatic brothers and sisters, and I understand the critique.

It’s very possible to think that you’ve arrived at a place superior than others because of your spiritual experience, or what you’ve sensed God work through you to heal or prophesy. It’s very easy to fall in love with the gifts more than the Giver.

I’ve also been around Cessationalists enough to know that this isn’t just a “Charismatic problem” Knowledge, after all, does puff up.

And it is ironic, that the main verse in the Bible that Cessationalist and Charismatics argue about is in Paul’s magnificent chapter of what Christian love looks like.

And that context matters just as much as anything else in this conversation. Christian love defers to one other, it esteems one another, it doesn’t accumulate priviledge and status when God gives you gifts like healing or preaching or the gift of knowledge.

Christian love shouldn’t crash someone’s conference or take away someone’s books and then tweet about it.

In fact, I believe that for these two groups to be able to reconcile and apologize and humble themselves before the other, that would be a miracle. Perhaps the best kind of miracle.

I Can’t Only Imagine

It seems to me that the way most Christians talk about God in the world today is either that God is something like magic (good for the occasional miracle, if you just pray the right prayers, believe the right way etc.) or we are Deist’s (the idea that God created the Universe, wound it up like a top, and stepped away.) The universe is either empty of God, or God is someone we can control.

This is a problem.

I was talking to an Anglican priest friend last week about this, and his answer was so good I think it might be helpful here.

He said something like, the main problem really isn’t what we think it is. The real problem is that we’ve lost our imagination.

There is a fundamental difference between a Catholic Christian’s imagination and a Protestant Christian’s imagination.  In Catholicism, the whole world in enchanted, God is closer than we are to ourselves, and the entire Creation is dripping with the Glory of God.

So back to us Protestants, both the Charismatics and the Cessationists are basically talking with the same limited imagination. We believe that either God punches a whole in the roof of the world and tinkers in from time to time in order to heal our Aunt’s cancer or give me a better parking space…or we believe that He doesn’t do that.

But both are operating from a posture that fundamentally believes God is somewhere else.aslan3

This is why we use language like, “And then God showed up.” As if there are places in the world where God wasn’t!

And don’t think for a second I’m trying to ignore the Bible. I’m just trying to start reading it better. Think about how the Psalms talk about Creation, the mountains clap for joy, and the rivers sing!

According to the Bible the whole earth is enchanted!

And the danger of having conversations like this, is that we strip God out of the world He made and we do it, not by using the Bible, but coming from an “Enlightenment Worldview” that has very little to do with imagination, and very much to do with scientific reductionism of the Good world that God created and still inhabits.

Think about the words we use in this argument. It’s words like Natural vs. Supernatural. Where did we get those words from? It’s not Scripture, so if we are going to have this conversation then lets at least admit that it’s not Sola Scriptura we are arguing with.

We are humans, located in certain places and ideologies.

And God help us if we make boxes so tight that God can’t help us.

The Catholic (think Pre-Enlightenment) imagination is rich and filled with different ways of talking about reality. It is what Tolkien and Lewis drew from to tell about the Enchanted world of God.

I’ve spoken in tongues, because all Art is speaking in tongues, I’ve seen God heal people, and I see God sustain the Billion miracles everyday that hold our intricate hearts beating just because of His creative word. I’ve seen babies born and people sacrifice their lives, I’ve seen people healed in “normal” ways like through doctors at hospitals and people healed in unusual ones.

Am I a Charismatic or a Cessasionist? Neither. Because I think both of those stories are two small to contain God.

I believe Aslan is on the move.

The Fire of God is real, the world is ablaze with it.

And when Christians are unable to see that, I think that’s strange.

[1] Rabbinical tradition teaches that this story in Leviticus isn’t about them disobeying or misunderstanding God, it’s about them not revering Him. The very next verse after this story is a prohibition against drinking while performing priestly duties, so the Rabbi’s have said that was Nadab and Abihu’s sin.

God at Work: Mission Work

Jesus at the officeA few months ago I had a friend ask me when I was going to be going on a mission trip again.  She had gone with us on several international mission trips, and had really come alive while serving in different parts in the world. And now years later she and her husband owned a restaurant in another state, and they missed missions. Their business was successful and thriving. She loved her job, but she felt guilty about serving chicken fried steak to customers but not orphans in another country.

Sometimes I hear people say something along the lines of “No one ever thinks on their death bed, I wish I would have spent more time at the office.” And I get what I think they’re trying to say with that. I think they are trying to say that there are unhealthy work-a-holic like patterns that we need to veer away from.

But I know a lot of people who are glad that they are doing what they do with their lives, and feel like their work is one very important reason why God put them on this earth. And they’re right.


The Myths of Retirement


In the world that the Bible was written it was extremely countercultural. Specifically, it’s view of work.

Most of the Creation stories of the ancient world involved this idea that the world was created from warfare and violence, and the body of a dead god decayed into the creation. So the Greeks viewed work as a curse, they thought that what it meant to be really alive was to be uninvolved in this world.

The Greek view of work was that it was a necessary evil. They believed that in the beginning, the gods and people lived together in “a golden age” and that in that age there was no work. Work was something to be suffered through. It was a means to an end.

But Genesis, starts off radically differently. It involves a God who intentionally works and creates the world with care. In fact, the word that Genesis uses for God’s creative word is just the Hebrew word for everyday work.

The Bible starts off with God working. And then he creates Adam and Eve and immediately puts them to work And that’s important, because before the fall, there was work. God didn’t finish creation, he started it and then joins in a partnership with them as they create culture, name animals and pioneer…well basically everything.

God works with them.

And in the Christian story, this all happens before sin entered the world.

It’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t have this idea of retirement. Instead the Bible has the idea of Sabbath. That is you don’t just work yourself to death until you turn 65. You work with the pace of someone who knows they aren’t the Savior and creator of the world. You rest for a season and then work for a season. But you never just decide to not work again.

In fact, the closest thing in the Bible that would resemble what we call retirement is death.

Which tends to stop most people from working.

Tim Keller points out in his book, “Every Good Endeavor” that if you ask most people in nursing homes how they are doing, they will report that they miss having someway of feeling useful to others. They miss work.

Work as Mission

I like the way that Dorothy Sayers says this:

“The Christian understanding of work…is that work is not primarily a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties…the medium in which he offers himself to God.”

I think this is extremely important. Because the majority of time we tell ourselves a story that has a subtext that our work doesn’t matter. But our work can be the very way we partner with God the most in our lives.

And that brings me back to my friend who owns the restaurant. She had brought up the idea of going on another mission trip because I was telling her about how we had just gotten back from Nepal. I was telling her about the great ministry of the Red Thread Movement and rescuing girls from sex slavery. And she immediately felt guilty for not doing enough good in the world.

And then, 5 minutes later in the conversation, her husband started talking about a girl that they had recently hired from Africa. She was a refugee who had to come to America for asylum after being rescued from a brothel. They had taken her in, trained her to cook and serve food, and now she was a full time employee at a place that gave her dignity at a job that she enjoyed and flourished in.

And they didn’t see the irony. Because they had the wrong definition of mission.

We’ve carved up the world into mission (something that happens out there) and work (something we have to do to survive). And that misses the heart of the story the Bible is telling. God made this world and he made us to work and contribute to the good of it. That’s a part of the mission of God.

So don’t feel guilty about enjoying your job. God made you for serving Him and serving others. And sometimes that’s breading chicken breast to feed your neighbor, And sometimes that involves working to deliver someone from a sex-trafficking ring in Africa. And sometimes it’s giving that girl a job.

It’s mission work.

May I Recommend from 2011

One of the best benefits of being home schooled was that my mother let me read all the time growing up. My curriculum for a year or two  consisted of my parents dropping me off at the Benton Library and leaving me there all day. It was kind of a dream education. It almost outweighed the whole  being terrified of girls and social situations.

All that to say  I like reading a lot. And I thought I’d share with you some of the best books I read from 2011:

1. To Change the World by James Davidson Hunter. This book was my favorite from last year. It’s heady and a little verbose, but it is entirely worth it. Hunter takes on the way politics have infiltrated the Jesus movement in the West, and why the only way to save the Nation, is to stop Christians from talking about it the way we do. Whatever politics you hold dear, rest assured that Hunter will step on your toes. It’s seriously one of the most helpful books I’ve read in years.

2. Jesus, My Father and the CIA. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s up there with Tattoos on the Heart for me. It’s warm and profound and hilarious all at the same time. Ian Cron writes as someone who has wrestled with God and has found words to speak about it well. It’s a great memoir!

3. Simply Jesus. I have begun to pray for N.T. Wright’s health, because I am pretty sure as long as he’s alive and writing, I will never have a problem with coming up with ideas for preaching. Great book about the historical context of Jesus and what He thought he was doing in his ministry, death and resurrection.

4. The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons. This book is one of the best books I’ve read to help understand the younger Christians. I found myself resonating with every page. It would have been easier to underline what I didn’t want to remember.

5. With by Skye Jethani. I really like Jethani’s writing. Jethani addresses some of the dark sides of the missional impulses that some of the younger Christians have. It was a convicting and healing read. Continue reading May I Recommend from 2011

You’ve Got to Fight For Your Right…

So this set of blog posts kind of goes hand in hand with the previous ones I’ve written for the past few weeks. And here’s what I mean by that.

According to James Hunter, the landscape of American politics have shaped and captured the identity and imagination of most of Western Christianity. We think often in terms of changing the world to ensure that it reflects our image on the culture. So we lobby and posture to gain credibility and influence in politics, meanwhile history proves that there are much more effective ways to enact change. And they’re a lot more fun. And a lot closer to the Gospel story.

Because at the heart of the Gospel is a story about a God who is reconciling all parts of Creation back to Himself. The young and old, the rich and poor, the oppressed and the oppressor are all going to be a part of the new thing that God is doing in the age to come. There is not a single sin or a single sinner who is beyond the scope of God’s grace.

And that’s why they call it good news.

In Luke 14 and 15, within the course of two chapters there are nine different parties mentioned. They are celebrating lost things being found, separated people being reconciled, they are eating and playing music and dancing, all to the tune of the Kingdom of God. But…If you were to just read the Gospel of Luke, and then walk into your average American church you might be a bit confused.

You might find yourself wondering things like where are the feasts? Or the dancing, or for that matter, the sinners?

I read about a survey recently that asked Americans what they thought when they heard the word “Chocolate Cake” or “Heavy Cream” When the average American heard Chocolate Cake, they immediately thought “guilt,” when they heard the words Heavy Cream they immediately thought “Unhealthy.”

But then the same survey was done with the French, and they had a very different take on these words.  When French people heard Heavy Cream they thought “Whipped” and when they heard Chocolate Cake they thought, “celebration.”

In other words, when Americans think of parties and celebrations they think almost immediately of guilt. They feel bad for celebrating. But that is a foreign idea to the writers of Scripture. Continue reading You’ve Got to Fight For Your Right…

Separation for Church and State

When I was young we had a nice woman come and knock on our door campaigning for herself to be the new Saline County Treasurer. She was kind and bubbly, and she asked me if I would help her win.

I was 10.

But I said yes. Actually, my friend and I went up and down both of our streets knocking on doors and handing out yard signs and bumper stickers for her. We even had learned a few of her talking points as we tried to convince others to take up our righteous cause. It was intoxicating, to say the least. In fact, she really just got us started down the road of political action.She was the gateway politician for us. 2 years later my friend and I would get out the phone book and call every single person in the Benton area to vote for George H.W. Bush’s re-election against Clinton.

On the night of the election, we gathered with in the Republican Headquarters of Benton and waited as the results came in. We were devastated when they did. Clinton had won, and Saline County had even voted for him. Who would have thought that two 12 year old boys making un-authorized phone calls for Bush wouldn’t have worked?

And that’s kind of the end of my political activity. I’ve voted and had heated conversations just like the next person, but I’ve tried to stop putting as much weight as I used to on the political system. I’m still glad that we have public servants who (hopefully) try to work hard and honestly to serve their constituents. But I am a preacher and so my concerns are now quite different than the American government. They are much smaller, and much more important, and still somewhat tied together. Continue reading Separation for Church and State

Open Theologies (or My Apologies to Harry Potter)

When I was a kid my mom read a book on Hollywood and the Occult. That might sound like an interesting read, but If I could change one thing about my childhood it would be to rid that book from the pages of history. The author, whoever they were, had painstakingly gone through every single possible allusion to anything remotely associated with paganism and had given in detail why it was Satanic.

Almost overnight, I went from having a relatively normal childhood, to being cut off to anything on television that wasn’t the Buttercream gang. The Smurfs were forbidden because the author had seen a pentagram somewhere hidden in the background. The cartoonist Jon Davis was rumored to have some kind of weird opinions on religion.

Suddenly, to watch Garfield was to be in league with the Prince of Darkness.

Mom eventually got past that stage. But it kind of affected the way I thought for a while. If something was questionable, it was better to be safe than sorry. After all, no one wants to open themselves up to dark spiritual powers (and to be honest, I’m kind of glad I don’t’ have hours of Smurfs bouncing around in my memory banks).

But, this has been the default Christian social position for quite a long time now. And it has most recently and profoundly been expressed by our 13 year long feud with J.K. Rowling and her story about a boy named Potter.

When the Harry Potter franchise first started to come out, I was cautious. It was after all how I had been raised. And I wasn’t the only one, people in the Jesus movement as high up as the Pope had condemned the series. It was polarizing and everyone had an opinion. But then I started to watch the movies. I didn’t see anything Satanic in there, the theater didn’t make me pledge my allegiance to the underworld upon leaving, and so I kept watching them.

I just didn’t tell anyone. Leslie and I kept our dirty little secret to ourselves.  Continue reading Open Theologies (or My Apologies to Harry Potter)

Mere Mortals

So I spent a few hours Sunday evening at a bookstore. Which is one my favorite places to pass time at. Eventually, like always, I gravitated toward the Theology section, and passed through the Christian Living section. Now I tend to get a lot of books, and most of them come from this section. But I noticed something Sunday, that hasn’t really struck me before.

For the past couple of hundred years, Jesus followers thought about God through the lens of Deism. Basically, the view was that God wound the universe up like a top, and then stepped away. And while we could understand him through things like Scripture or Creation, all we really knew about God was that he was really, really big.

But then, like always, the pendulum swung. We started to realize the defecencies of that single perspective about God. We realized that the God that was revealed in Jesus was intensely personal. He attends the funeral of every sparrow. He knows the number of hairs on our head, and knows the number of tears that we have cried. God, in other words, is love. Ask anybody on the street today to describe God in one word and this is the one that they would choose…hopefully. And that’s a good thing. It’s much better than previous decades of thinking God was angry all the time. But it’s a short move between thinking of God primarily this way and then wearing shirts that say “Jesus is My Homeboy.”

And here is the problem. Continue reading Mere Mortals

The Finger Is a Gun

A few years ago, one of my good friends decided to take an improv class. It was in a comedy club in downtown Ft. Worth, and my friend was born for it. Everyone was cheering him on, we were wondering if he was going to pursue this professionally or not. He was really a natural comedian, he had great timing, stage presence…everything.

And when he got done with the class, the word he had to describe it was exhausting. He loved every second of it, but it was more than a class. It was something that from the moment you walked in the door you were immersed in.

Recently I read Tina Fey’s new book “BossyPants” I think she is one of the funnier people in the world, and wanted to hear about what life was like working for SNL. It’s a bit rougher around the edges than your average 30 Rock episode, but right in the middle of it is a chapter worth the price of the book. It’s all about Improv.

Fey points out that, for her, Improv is not a way of creating comedy, it is a worldview. And like every worldview it’s got rules. Here are a few of them:

1. Always agree. This is paramount. Because Improv depends on imagination, the worst thing you can do is not go along with the scene. If your partner enters the scene, points their finger at you, and says “This is a gun!” You can’t say, “That’s not a gun! That’s just your finger.” If you do than the scene is a non-starter. Now, Fey points out that in real life you obviously won’t agree with what everyone says. But that’s not the point. The Rule of Agreement means to “Respect what your partner has created.” In the words of Fey, “Start with a Yes and see where that takes you.” Continue reading The Finger Is a Gun

The Age To Come

So I’d like to go on record. I had a Love Wins bumper sticker on my car, long before it became so politically charged.I found myself last month thrust into the middle of a debate that apparently I had already decided on. At least that’s what the rear of my car says.

Also, I had pre-ordered Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” a month before it ever became so controversial. When I saw Rob’s promotional video, and subsequent Twitter mania and blogging madness, I was overwhelmed with sadness. It seems like the divide among evangelicals is just getting deeper and deeper. And now, at the center of the controversy is Hell.

Ot at least that’s what people are saying.

But I think, it’s something else, something deeper.

In his book, Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell first awoke the ire of some of his more persistent critics with this paragraph:

“What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove  that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?…What if that were seriously questioned? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian? Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart?” Continue reading The Age To Come

Mistaken Arrangements

I stumbled upon this video by Walter Brueggemann a few days ago. He’s describing the kind of prophetic vision of what Justice means in the Scriptures. And he’s doing it for a conference that is all about Justice. Which from looking at, sounds like an amazing conference. But it did get me thinking: Since when did Christians hold conferences on Justice? Since I’ve been around, most of our conferences are on preaching, or church leadership. But then it struck me, this conference isn’t for churches. Not once in the brochure did the word church show up. It’s a Christian conference for Jesus-followers, complete with worship leaders and Christian speakers talking about Biblical Justice. But it’s not for churches.

Because church leaders probably won’t show up.

Several times this week I have had significant conversations, with different people, about what Justice looks like in this time and place. Now these conversations are not new for me to stumble into. Unless someone has their head in the sand, it’s easy to recognize that God is stirring this passion up in the world again. Unfortunately, some (but not all) of our churches are the final ones to recognize this.

But I’ve been lucky. Continue reading Mistaken Arrangements