Tag Archives: Church

God is For Love: A Better Conversation For Homosexuality & the Church

So last week the openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson and the Well-Spoken Evangelical Gabe Lyons had a different kind of conversation about the Church and Homosexuality. It happened at Stanford University, and it exemplifies the kind of cultural engagement that I believe needs to happen more. This week I watched this whole video, and after seeing it, I wish everyone could carve out time to watch it.

What’s different about this conversation is how both men approach this issue so differently, but both are so conciliatory. Notice how many times they find ways to say “I agree with that part of what you are saying.”

A few observations for those who don’t have time to watch it all:

1. Gabe Lyons (who long time readers of this blog may recall I sat down with to interview earlier this year) talked about orthodox Christian values about sexuality in a humble and Christlike way. He never went ad hominem on Bishop Robinson and in fact helped to reframe much of the conversation. For example, when Lyons quoted the conservative Presbeteryian pastor Tim Keller “Homosexuality doesn’t send anyone to Hell anymore than being Heterosexual sends someone to Heaven. The largest sins of pride and smug self-righteousness sit at a deeper place in the human heart.”

2. Bishop Robinson is incredibly gracious and conciliatory about something that isn’t just an issue to him. This is his life experiences they are talking about. And Bishop Robinson is incredibly pro-marriage. One of the places that he and Gabe (and I) agree on is that the LGBT conversation has forced the Christian community to have a more robust (and better) theology of marriage.

3. Gabe is on to something about the dehumanizing nature of allowing ourselves to be identified by our sexuality. For those readers who are at Highland Church, Gabe actually laid out the very reason that I did our Fall series “The Sequels: A new Perspective on Love, Sex, Romance and Dating” I think that the deeper sin of our day is the idolatrous way we think about relationships and sexuality. Anything that we say, “I cannot be a complete person unless I have that” is taking the place of God in our lives. And no relationship or sexual encounter can bear the weight of worship. images

Notice that Gabe actually talked about how the Church has been guilty of idolizing marriage and sexuality. This is exactly the reason that we talked about this at Highland. In the words of Bishop Robinson, “To deny yourself and climb up on your own cross is self-sacrifice, to make someone else do it is murder.” I get the push-back to that statement, but what he’s saying is touching on the Achilles heel of any honest conversation for Christian sexual ethics. If the Church assumes that the marred life is the best or only way to be fully human, than we have to honestly look in the mirror and ask ourselves if this is really the “Kingdom of God” we are preaching or just a baptized American dream. I know a lot of Christian Singles who don’t want to mingle, and they would like to belong to a Church that realized that singleness is a valid way to follow Jesus (A Single Man!)

If we re-affirm the celibate single life as a robust and valid calling for following Jesus, than suddenly the Christian faith has something to call people toward, not just something to call people away from.

4. Both Bishop Robinson and Gabe said that basic human rights should be acknowledged and supported for every human being. This is vital to being Christian. I affirm the classic Christian view of sexuality, but even deeper than that I affirm that what it means to be Christian is to love our neighbor. And there is not a single label in the world that makes someone not my neighbor. Christians should be the people who are the most against bullying and ostracizing people who are sexual minorities, not because they are affirming any sexual orientation, but because they know that the image of God is present in every human being.

5. Pay attention to how Gabe puts all his cards on the table. He acknowledges that nobody wants to be known as being “against love.” And when this is presented as a progressive-justice kind of issue it becomes really hard to present a dissenting view, but then he appeals to our better instincts of being able to disagree and still respect and love each other. And then he redefines what it means to think of progressive views and the Bible.

Much of the time when we talk about Christianity and Homosexuality, we also say things about slavery and women and how the Scriptures and Christian tradition has slowly but surely progressed to a more just and humane view of the world God wants for everyone. However, in the Scripture, the sexual ethic gets more restrictive as it progresses. People used to be married to more than one spouse, people used to divorce for any reason they wanted to…but Jesus and the New Testament actually call us forward toward monogamy, fidelity and  celibacy (a huge idea for early Christianity). In fact, historically speaking, the idea that sexuality was a gift from God that was meant for a man and a woman only in a covenant, that’s the new idea. 

I think Bishop Robinson makes several great points in this conversation, and I hope we can appreciate and respect the life that has lead him to tell his story. I hesitate to write about homosexuality because it is such a polarizing topic, but I believe the only way forward is to start having different kinds of conversations about it. And if two very different kinds of Christians can talk about it in front of thousands of people at Stanford University, than I figure it’s worth the risk to talk about it here.

Because after all, God is for Love.

And love looks a lot like the conversation in this video.

Strange Fire and Churches of Christ

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“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.

Good and Evil: When Bad is Broken

“The Doctrine of (no Hell) can only be born in the quiet of the suburbs.” -Miroslav Volf

“Vengeance is Mine says the LORD.” -St. Paul

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Last week, I started a Bible study with a young Muslim man from West Africa. A few of us are reading through the Gospel of Mark together talking about the life of Jesus.

When we came to the part of Mark where Jesus exorcises the demon from the man in the synagogue, I told our African friend that most of us around that table had never seen this kind of evil, and I asked him if he had anything to say.

Turns out he did.

Today I’d like to finish this little blog series on Evil, with one more final, and I think timely observation. I started this series because Vince Gilligan had captured America’s imagination with the story of a High School Chemistry teacher turned Meth Cook, drug kingpin, and murderer. Little by little, Walter White broke bad. And I’d like to remind you one more time of the Creator’s philosophy of this story:

“If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something…I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”

What an interesting way to say that.

The Hell of It

As fans of the show watched the unraveling of the character we’d grown to love to hate or hate to love, we noticed that there was also another character to Breaking Bad. Karma. Underwriting every scene was this idea that the other shoe was going to drop and evil people would get their comeuppance in proportion to their crimes against humanity.

But this is where I think Breaking Bad is more naive and hopeful than almost any fairy tale that has gone before it. Because the world doesn’t work as cleanly as that…and in some ways that is the point of the whole show. This is how Vince Gilligan wished the world worked.

And it’s why I believe in Hell.

But not the way you might think.

I’m not sure how God’s final judgment is going to work, I’m pretty sure it’s different than what most of us think of when we think of Hell and Satan with pitchforks. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it isn’t what most of my American friends think of when they bring it up. Because when the Bible talks about God’s final judgment it seems to always assume that this is a good thing.

In fact, the doctrine that God will judge the entire world was always seen by God’s people, not as a condemnation, but as a comfort. And it was also seen as a great resource for how to respond to evil in the here an now.

In the jarring words of the great theologian Miroslav Volf:

The practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance…My thesis will be unpopular with man in the West…But imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit…Your point to them–we should not retaliate? Why not? I say–the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God…Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword…It takes the quiet of a suburb for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence is a result of a God who refuses to judge. In a scorched land–soaked in the blood of the innocent, the idea will invariably die, like other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind…if God were NOT angry at injustice and deception and did NOT make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.

Is God a Pacifist?Mark Driscoll

Over the past week, it seems that there has been a resurgence of people claiming that the idea of non-violence is un-manly. Controversial Pastor Mark Driscoll is once again is being controversial, and once again the argument seems to be something like, to be a man means that you need to own a gun and be willing to take up arms against evil.

Now I own a gun, and understand the God-given instinct to protect the weak, but I don’t like this conversation at all.

It seems to me that the people who talk the most about Hell understand it’s implications the least. Because the good news about the coming judgment of God is that God will set the world right, And that His judgment works differently.

Think about how Jesus deals with those demon possessed. Whatever Jesus says, the demons obey. there’s no arguing with the Son of God for them. In Mark 5, Jesus kicks a whole legion of demons out of a person, and the person is still standing. Jesus’ judgment is for the person, and against evil.

Think about one of the few times that Jesus talks about the eternal fire of judgment. Look at what he actually says In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and His angels” 

Hell wasn’t made for people. Hell was made to judge the evil of the world. Hell was made because God cares about all the ways we’ve hurt each other. It is God’s final way to break bad.

Which brings me back to my friend from West Africa. He told us about Witch Doctors and goat sacrifices, about voodoo spells that drove a friend crazy, and ultimately about the civil war that ravaged his country and killed his father. He had seen men light other men on fire, behead one another and he saw dark forces at work behind it all.

My African friend has no problem with the idea that God has some judging to do.

The good news about the judgment of God is that there is such a thing as justice for us to work toward, but we must also recognize we will never be able to fully bring it because we are a part of the problem too. None of us know exactly what people deserve, and if we are honest none of us are qualified to dispense the judgment of justice toward others because we are deeply broken ourselves.

If there is a judgement day, then we don’t have to take the burden of justice all on ourselves. If God will set the world right, we don’t have to worry about trying to fix it all by ourselves. And we don’t have to take up the means of evil to defeat it.

Is God a pacifist? In a word: No

But that doesn’t mean that God’s people can’t be.

Because vengeance is His. One day God will make every sad thing come untrue. At the restoration of all things, when death itself is dead, when bad is fully broken.

Ephesians: A Gospel Mystery

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. –Ephesians 3:6

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I was reading this morning in the book of Ephesians, and something stood out to me that I’ve never noticed before.

Paul was a single man, and Paul really, really appreciates marriage. And our churches need to notice constantly both of these things.

For the longest time we’ve mis-read Paul. We’ve thought that Paul was trying to get all the churches that he planted to think that the Jewish law was a bad thing. We got this idea from Martin Luther, that the Law was a burden that was given to break the Israelites into realizing that they can’t keep all of those rules.

But that’s not true at all.

Remember that God gave the Israelites the Torah after He gave them Himself. They had just come out of centuries of slavery in Egypt, and they don’t know how to live. You don’t want to just drop off a bunch of slaves into a foreign country and let them figure out how to live on their own. That’s how we got Australia.

See Paul is a good Jewish Rabbi who knows that the law was a gift from God, so why does Paul talk so much about Jewish regulations in his letters? Because Paul is trying to create communities that transcend Jewish and Gentile labels.

He’s trying to create church.

See back in the day, one of the main indicators of a ruler’s power was His ability to create unity in diverse places. This was one of the ways that Caesar “proved” he was Lord. By being able to bring peace, or the Pax Ramona (Peace of Rome) to the world. But the way Rome brought peace was not by forcing unity at the end of a sword.

And Paul is trying to create unity at the foot of the cross.

A Unity Movement

This is what Paul’s ultimate ministry is about. Creating communities of people who have different backgrounds, genders, races, and perspectives but who all can come together to worship the God of Jesus.

And it’s interesting that Paul uses the word “Mystery” to describe this.

Go back and look at Ephesians 1:9, and then go read Paul unpack this idea in Ephesians 2:11-17. The whole goal is to reconcile very different people groups in the name of Jesus for the glory of God. And the way Paul has to do this, is by stripping these different clichés of their ways they used to separate and justify themselves.

See back in that day, people used to try to one-up each other. So people would come to church thinking that there was the “enlightened” and the “primitive-minded” or the “rich” and the “lazy” or the “poor” and the “greedy” or the “religious” and the “Spirit-Filled” or the “intelligent, thoughtful person” and the “charismatic” The single, the single again, and the married…the Jew and the Gentile.

I know it’s hard to imagine, but that was the kind of church Paul was addressing.

That’s the mystery. That somehow people could get over defining themselves over and against another group, and how they were better than someone else, and just define themselves as people who were united and loved by God.

So over and over again in Ephesians, Paul refers to this as a Mystery.

And then He gets to marriage.

And we love to focus on the part of Ephesians 5 that talks about power and submission. We’ve even created camps about who takes what position and how wrong “they” are and how right “we” are.

But that goes against the very spirit of the marriages that Paul is talking about, because it goes against the mystery of the Gospel.

Mega-Mysterion

In Ephesians 5, Paul actually calls marriage a profound mystery. In the Greek, he says this is a Mega-Mysterion. It’s something that is hard to explain, even harder to live, but easy to understand when you see it. the-sacrament-of-marriage

Because when a Christian marriage is on, when he’s giving himself fully to her, and she’s giving herself fully to him…they aren’t trying to define themselves as better than the other, or justify their own behavior, they are trying to, in spite all of their differences, reconcile together for the sake of the Gospel.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen this time and time again. I’ve preached so many funerals where the husband or wife was saying goodbye to their spouse, and the whole church was moved. I’ve seen what can only be described as a tangible change in the atmosphere when the church gathers to mourn a spouse losing another spouse, and celebrate their faithfulness to one another. There is a holiness that is hard to put into words. It’s is a mystery.

Because there is something so powerful about a marriage that has gone the distance. But it’s more than some kind of Nicolas Sparks romance, according to Paul it is a glimpse of the Gospel.

In a marriage, we are forced to reconcile what previously had been separated.

And this is why I believe marriages in the American church matter for the single person, and the divorced person. Because marriages are a way God reminds his people of the kind of community He is creating. And in this community, you aren’t better than someone else because you aren’t divorced, and you aren’t better than someone else because you happened to get married. You are all being reconciled to the same God, and so we each have to make room for one another.

This is why Paul ends his letter to the Ephesians by saying this:

Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains.

What Paul is doing in his chains, he thinks Christian couples are doing in their marriages.

Paul, a single man, appreciates marriage as a symbol of the way to unify everyone. 

Divorced people, single people, married people, rich people, poor people, tall people and smart people. Now all people can come together because of the Gospel.

That’s the mystery

Making it Home

So this coming Sunday is Homecoming for ACU, and at the Highland Church that means a lot of friends and family that we haven’t seen in a while are back in town for worship. This video is a promo that we shot for this weekend back in July. It’s about the series we are going through this Fall, but for me it’s a lot more special than just some promotional video.

It’s the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, the place were Elvis was married, where Sinead O’ Conner was married, where Brittany Spears got married….twice. But for me it was Holy Ground, because I got to make this video in the very room my parents got married in 50 years ago.

They eloped to Las Vegas, and were married in the middle of the night by a Church of Christ “Reverend”. Their only witness was a woman in a Chanel House coat (who I actually got to meet back in July!) It was holy ground not because of the place, but because of the promises made there. My parents had promised to give their lives to each other, and for the past 33 years I’ve watched them do just that.

So Mom and Dad, thanks for making that promise. Because of that promise you didn’t just give me a house to grow up in, that promise was how you made it home.

And If you are in Abilene this weekend, we’d love to see you at Highland. I’ve never seen somebody do what we are going to try and do this weekend, and I’ve been dreaming about it for years. But you’ll have to come to see! Services are at 8:15 and 11:00 and our Instrumental service is at 5:00 P.M. at our Grace Campus (N. 9th and Cypress St.)

So if you happen to make it to Abilene this weekend, we hope you can make it home!

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

Tradition: Breaking Tradition

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

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

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

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

Learning Division

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

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

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

They were, we were, a unity movement.

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

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

And to our shame, we exported these traditions.

The Mission of Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Song?

Just As I Am. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred: Leave the Labels at the Door

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So every July the Shepherds at Highland give me a month to get away and study and plan and pray for the coming year. It’s always a great gift, but it makes me miss Highland and the regular routine. So while I won’t be blogging as regularly for this month, I want to try and stay connected with what is going on at Highland.

This past Sunday, Jerry Taylor preached for our Summer Series Sacred. Jerry talked about how the communion table is the open table of the Lord. One of my favorite lines was “Jesus will not preside over any table that anyone is left out of.” This is extremely important for we religious folk to hear, because we have a real tendency to make our tribe an idol, and make God “Our God”

If you get a chance to listen to Jerry’s sermon, I highly recommend it. He’s one of my favorite preachers, and this was an incredible sermon, you can find it here.

The Margins are the Center

A few years ago, I read an author who was serving in a Christian ministry for sex workers in America. It’s a ministry that was trying to help people get out of an industry that is very hard to leave. At one point, the author was sitting in a circle of former and current sex-workers, and he asked them, “Why do you think that Jesus was so intentional about reaching out to prostitutes?”

And then there was an awkward silence…until one of the working girls said, “Because that meant Everyone…. if He would love and care for people doing what we do, than that means anyone can belong to what He is doing.”

And she is exactly right.

In most societies, we focus on the majority, or how to cast the widest net for the most people. We try to hold the center, even though that inevitably leaves people out….It leaves some on the margins.

But for Jesus, the people on the margins were the center of his ministry.

Acceptance Speech original

So maybe you heard about the bulletin at Our Lady Catholic Church. It’s just a normal parish in Denver, but it got all over the news last year for what it put in it’s bulletin. Here’s how they decided to welcome people to their Jesus commmunity:

“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, and no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, those who are skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you here if you just woke up or just got out of jail. We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted.

If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!

This may seem over the top, but this is exactly the kind of invitation Jesus wants his churches to offer. Jesus isn’t saying everyone and everything is okay…He is saying everyone is welcome. 

Did you know that the only visible man-made item from space is the Great Wall of China? Because that’s what we are good at doing. We build up walls, We like to know who’s in and who’s out. And then we love to pretend that God agrees with us. But that’s not the way the Gospel works.

One theologian, a guy named Miroslav Volf, points out that while most religions call exclusion a virtue, the Jesus movement calls it what it is.

A sin.

So on behalf of Church in general, and Highland Church in particular, let me welcome you to the table.

Because everybody, everywhere is included, invited, accepted and blessed.

Wherever you are, whoever you are, you are invited to participate in the grace giving, life changing Kingdom of God.

So have a seat.

P.S. I’m leaving today for Thailand with my 5 year old Daughter. Please pray for us as we go visit and try to encourage and be encouraged by all the missionaries in Asia. 

Sacred: Only the Saved

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 “Receive what you already are.”-St. Augustine presiding over Communion

So every July the Shepherds at Highland give me a month to get away and study and plan and pray for the coming year. It’s always a great gift, but it makes me miss Highland and the regular routine. So while I won’t be blogging as regularly for this month, I want to try and stay connected with what is going on at Highland.

This past Sunday, Jeff Childers preached during our Summer Series Sacred, by talking about Communion. He did a great job, and you can hear it here, but you should know, this is not a message for the faint of heart. But then again, neither is communion.

Did you know that back in the 4th century, after Constantine had converted the Roman Empire, the church had a very difficult time figuring out who they should let convert to Christianity? They had a legitimate problem. Now people wanted to belong to the church because it was the socially acceptable thing to do, Jesus was cool, and cross jewelry was just around the corner.

So now the church had a problem…how could they make sure that someone would take following Jesus seriously?

The Road to Communion

So the church developed a plan, that began with something called catechumenate, which was basically three years of hearing the “word of the Lord” and then the candidates who had done well with that, were taken on to the next round where they had their lifestyles examined and went through “daily exorcisms.”

Because let’s be honest, once a week just isn’t enough.

And then, if you went through that round successfully, then they would let you get baptized and take communion. Meaning that in the 4th century it was slightly easier to become the next American Idol than it was to convert.

Now chances are, we hear that and we think how primitive, and exclusive. communion

But then we get upset when we hear about that pastor having the affair, or the minister stealing or embezelling money. It’s all so cliche, which is a fancy word that just means, it happens so much we are tired of hearing about it.

But the sad truth is that Christians in America are very accepting and inclusive, but we aren’t that different.

A Different Kind of Discipleship

I read last year that in China, when someone becomes a Jesus follower, they are asked 7 questions:

  1. Are you willing to leave home and lose the blessing of your father?
  2. Are you willing to lose your job?
  3. Are you willing to go to your village, to those who persecute you, forgive them and share the love of Christ with them?
  4. Are you willing to give an offering to the LORD?
  5. Are you willing to be beaten rather than deny Jesus?
  6. Are you willing to go to prison?
  7. Are you willing to die for Jesus?

Now that’s a welcoming packet.

The churches that I’ve worked at, make following Jesus as easy and non-threatening as possible. And rightfully so, but never forget that the questions that Chinese Christians are asking now, are the kinds of questions that Christians have been asking for thousands of years. It’s not enough to just have a dynamic student ministry and great programming and the right facilities. When the Church gathers it is to make us into different kinds of people.

The ancient view of communion, was that through this moment God gives Himself to His people.

And in order to do that, for thousands of years, Christians have excluded those who weren’t ready to make that kind of sacrifice.

There’s lots of ways to be ugly about excluding people, in fact, I think most of us have experienced both sides of this. But the question isn’t whether or not your group excludes, every group does!

And if you doubt that, just find out how your group responds to someone who is exclusive.

The question isn’t whether or not your group excludes, it is how you treat the people that are on the outside,

That is the uniquely Christian virtue, we are not called to just love our neighbor, we are called to love our enemy.

If you want to make a difference in your town or city, than the best place to start is to commit to become a different kind of person.

It’s time to stop just talking about Jesus, it’s time to follow Jesus.

And then you can eat with Him.

Sacred: Everytime the Doors Are Open

“I really miss the songs.” -Ex Church of Christ gay man talking on HBO Documentary about Leaving Church

“Wherever Two or Three are gathered, I will be with them.” -Jesus

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I’m on study break for the month of July, but while I’m away I want to try and keep keep up with what is going on at Highland. Specifically, with the sermon series that Highland is going through.

This past Sunday Ben Siburt preached a great sermon on why church, the gathering of God’s people, is a sacred thing. Which is not something we talk about that much. Many of us grew up in homes where going to church was a given, we didn’t just go on Sunday mornings, we went every time the doors where open. In fact, that became a common saying to describe our family. It was the way we delinated between us and the pagan Sunday only crowd.

And then, we reacted to that legalistic view of checking off our God card. God didn’t care about us showing up to a particular building during a particular hour of the week, right?

_____

At the church I serve, there are several senior saints who are caring for their spouses in various stages of bad health. Some of them are dealing with some of the most tragic of diseases like Alzheimer’s, and yet these people show up every week to sing and pray and take communion with other saints and sinners who have gathered together. In a church the size of Highland, I don’t get to talk to everyone every Sunday, but I always try to talk to them.

Not just for their sake, but for mine. 

Because I knew what it took for them to get here. I know that for them Sunday morning started a few hours earlier than it did for me. In order to get there on time, they had a thousand more things to accomplish before they could head out the door. But they do it, not out of some legalistic sense of earning God’s favor.

They do it because this is one of the most tangible way’s to experience God’s favor.

One of my favorite guys at Highland is caring for his wife through a particularly painful illness. And each time he comes in late, and has to leave early, but when I asked him if he would be interested in someone bringing communion to them, he told me, “No. I need to be there to shake some Christians hands.”

Which is an interested way to say that.

The Image Of God In Others

C.S. Lewis once said it this way:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Think about what he’s saying here. the people that we rush past the rest of the week, are on their way to becoming something more or less than they are now. And this is a reality that we are mostly blind to.

Except, sometimes at Church.

Orthodox Christians have, for over a thousand years, referred to the Assembly of God’s people as a Sacrament. That means it is something that God uses to infuse the sacred into the world.

That’s why my friend comes to church. He is watching his wife slip away slowly and surely, and he needs to be reminded of the presence of God in a world where it might not feel He’s that present. He needs to shake some Christian’s hands. 

Every day, he is watching himself and his bride of many decades, become less. He needs to be reminded that ultimately they are on their way to becoming more.

I remember all throughout growing up, there would be Sunday’s where I would all of a sudden notice that Bro. Frank or Sister Ruby had suddenly gotten older. I saw them three times a week, but there was a tipping point where they moved past just “getting up there.” The seeds of death were starting to become more visible. And they still showed up.

Because for them, Church was a Spiritual discipline,  it was also a way of giving and receiving a gift. They were watching the younger people gather along side them, realizing that the Gospel was going to be just fine. I was watching them die, realizing that they were teaching me how to live.

So we gather, and we look for the Jesus hidden among us. We look for the people that we are becoming, and one day will be. And we realize that everytime we gather it’s more than just a variety of people gathering in a room. It is Sacred space.

So back to that old phrase, “Every Time the Doors Are Opened.” Since I’ve been in ministry I’ve come to appreciate the mystery that is the gathered church. Because every Sunday there is a chance that no one else shows up. Some people open some doors and turn on some lights and wait.

But every Sunday God draws people, believer and unbelievers alike, to come together to worship. We learn again to see each other, and how to see the world.

And the word for that is Sacred.