Tag Archives: culture

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.

The Gospel According to Youtube: All The Lonely People

The Gospel According to Youtube

“The tragedy of modern man is not that he [or she] knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” -Vaclav Havel

“In the beginning was the Word, but in the end, it appears will be the image.” John Seel

Once upon a time, Leslie and I were on a mission team. We were trained by missionaries to think about why people do what they do, what they hope to get out of it, and whether or not they feel it is working.

We were taught to approach culture asking questions like “What way of looking at the world makes someone create/do/hope for something like this?

And that all starts with asking the first question. What kind of world are we in?  What is the nature of ultimate reality?

And to answer that for the world that I live in, I think we have to turn to YouTube. Obviously.

Do You Believe in Magic?

Now the way most philosophy works is that it just works. It’s not something we talk about, when a philosophy is working well it’s like our health…we only pay attention to it when something starts going wrong.

For some reason we humans try to protect ourselves from asking questions about “life’s deeper meaning.”

Maybe it’s because we think we wouldn’t like the answers we’d get back.

But when it’s not working, we start to poke around with questions like “Why do we do this?” “How did we get this way?” and of course “Why do we put all those cat videos on the internet?”

And that’s why I’d like to start a short blog series on the Gospel of YouTube, because there is a reason that over 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute! There’s a reason that around 20% of the world’s population regularly visit this website. But what is it?

And the answer sounds a bit like magic.

Now Magic isn’t what you see at shows in Vegas or at a little kid’s birthday party, Magic for thousands of years was the way that you controlled the world around you.

And sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. But eventually we stopped using it…or at least we thought we did.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this well in The Abolition of Man when he says:

“I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power…The fact [is] that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed [so] You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better…There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”

Did you catch that last part? Instead of trying to conform our soul to reality we are now able to conform reality to our wishes, and to do that we will do almost anything…Which at least explains this part of YouTube.

Lewis is right about us. We live in a world of technology that is so advanced we’ve actually been allowed to control the reality around us. We no longer have to suffer the ways our ancestors did. We don’t get hot or cold or hungry or lonely without an immediate solution to our problem. Reality is no longer dependent on our surroundings or our community because reality now has a thermostat and a button.

And this creates a reality that says if you peel away the layers of the Cosmos, at the center of the universe you will find… yourself.

And so we better make ourselves as presentable or provocative as possible.

“The Shiny Surface Of Our Own Devising”

Now to be clear, I like technology and YouTube and Social Media, and I’m going to write more on the good ways that it’s influenced us. But the reason I am wanting to write on this is because I believe in thinking like a missionary. And there’s not many things on the planet that have influenced the way more people think than the way we use our internet and the way we let the internet use us.

Dimaggio

If you have ever cared about baseball, chances are you know about Joe DiMaggio. He was labeled the greatest living baseball player of the 20th century. Everywhere he went people applauded him, he was praised by the sport reporters as if he were a god. On top of his extraordinary talent, Joe also married Marilyn Monroe. He was living the dream.

And then he died, and it turned out that it was a dream.

When they released a biography of Joe’s life, everyone was suddenly shocked that Joe wasn’t who they thought he was.  The author said that Joe lived “a flat life.” Because he was so committed to “show nothing but the shiny surface of his own devising.”

Joe as it turns out, was famous, well-loved, wealthy and absolutely miserable.

In their book “Reading Scripture Through Western Eyes” two seminary professors talk about their years as missionaries in SouthEast Asia. In their first few years on the mission field, they could never get any alone time. They kept trying to communicate to their village that they needed some privacy, but the culture that they were in didn’t even have a word for private. When they asked their language teachers what the closest word was for “Private” they told them:

“Lonely”

That’s the problem with the reality we believe in, we are at the center of the universe and we are incredibly lonely.

Turns out you can be alone with millions of people.

Just ask Joe DiMagio…or get on YouTube.

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.

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.

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: Breaking Bad

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

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

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

He starts making meth.

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

The Parables Around Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grace of Sin

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

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

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

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

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

God at Work: There is a Tree

Jesus at the office

So today I’m finishing a blog series that has meant a lot to me. And I’ll do it with one of the best stories I’ve ever heard.

J.R.R. Tolkien had worked on Lord of The Rings for almost a decade when it dawned on him that he was getting old. He had spent the past ten years working on this epic story, and he hadn’t even written a page down. Instead, he had been creating entire worlds and cultures and languages so that the story would have a universe to live in.

But then he realized he had been so obsessed with the details that he had not been writing any of the actual story down. He began to think that he was going to die before he was able to complete his dream of writing these epic novels.

He thought that he was going to die and they would come in and find his body and all the scribblings of Middle Earth, and they would just write him off as a crazy old man. Kind of like he was the worlds first Star Trek fan.

Leaf by Niggle

Now you probably already know that Tolkien did indeed finish his book. But before he sat down and actually wrote it, he wrote a short story called Leaf By Niggle. It’s about a little man named Niggle who’s life mission is to make a painting of a tree.

Niggle is actually an English word meaning someone “obsessed with the details.” And when we meet Niggle, he is living up to his name. While he really wants to paint the tree, he keeps obsessing over the first couple of leaves. He can’t move past them. He just keep paying attention to getting the leaves of the tree just perfectly.

But Niggle is old, and getting older.

And people keep swinging by his house and asking him to help them.

So it begins to dawn on Niggle that he may not be able to finish his life-long dream of painting the tree.

He keeps working hard on it, but sure enough, Niggle winds up being right.

He dies before he finishes his work.

Now it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to know that Tolkien is writing about his own life here. He wrote this short story right after it dawned on him that he might not live to make his own masterpiece. Tolkien, the worlds best modern story teller is telling us about the anxiety of his own work, by telling us a story.

A story about a guy who wants nothing more than to get out this dream in his head, and who ultimately fails to do so.

So back to Niggle, when they find him dead at home, someone notices the partially finished painting. It was just a basic sketch of a tree, with a leaf or two filled out on the canvas. The leaves were exquisite and very intricate, and so they put the painting in the museum, and for a while people came and saw it.

A few people were impressed by the incredible detail of the leaves, but most of them just saw a painting that wasn’t finished. Niggle’s life work blessed a few people, but ultimately was forgotten.

But…

J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t stop his story there.

Because Niggle goes to Heaven, and the first thing he sees, Is the Tree.

I can’t tell you how many times over the past year, I’ve told people that story. I can barely do it without choking up. I tell everyone I know who is frustrated with their work, or the lack of work. I tell it to people who care deeply about making the world different, about making it better.

Because even the best of us, are going to be incredibly frustrated with our lives and our work. We have a picture inside of us a better world, but at best we can only get out a leaf or two.

We will live lives of both incredible frustration and joy, but we will surely not accomplish all we wish we could. We are only human. But that vision, the one that you have for your life, for this world, is not in vain. It is in fact, from God.

Trees Of Life

In Mozambique a few years ago, there was a civil war raging. Eventually both sides called a cease-fire. But it was still a cold war, people held onto their weapons and everyone lived in deep distrust of one another.

And then along came the Christians.treeoflife.jpg

A Group called the Christian relief aid came in and tried to think of a creative way to deal with this problem.So they said to everyone, if you will bring in your weapons we will give you farm equipment in exchange.

And it worked.

But now the Christian group had a problem, they had all these weapons and not a violent bone in their body. So they did something that I think is brilliant.

They took all of the weapons, and made them into a sculpture. Of a tree.

And they called it the Tree of Life.

They literally beat their swords into plowshares. All because some Christians got a vision for the world could be like and acted accordingly.

They saw the future of God, and the lived into it now. They brought a bit of Heaven to earth.

My work is frustrating from time to time, I have so much I want to do with my life, to make the world a better place. And there are days where I feel like I’m just painting the same old leaf.

But in my better days, I know that my work, that all of our work, matters more than we could ever imagine, because there is a new day coming that won’t be like the previous ones. There is a world that is breaking into this one that is full of the glory of God, and in that world there will be no more suffering or pain or cancer. So I’ll paint the leafs of my life as well as possible, because I believe in the best parts of my heart…

There is a Tree.

Tradition: How To Stick It to the Man

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. -Jaroslav Pelikan

So I’d like to start a small series for the next few weeks about tradition. Why we need it more than we think we do, and why it probably doesn’t mean what most of us think it means. Most of my friends tend to think about tradition in the same vein as maintaining status quo. But it actually can be one of the best resources to challenge it.

Here’s what I mean.

Maybe you’ve seen this video before. It’s from a slam poet named Jeffrey Benke who wrote and produced an incredibly well done video about the downside to American Christianity.

He wrote it as a Christian who was trying to wake up the American church to how they were being perceived by his peers. He wanted the church to know that they weren’t representing Jesus very well, and so he spent days and weeks writing and creating this. And as soon it went live it also went viral.

Turns out he was giving lots of people words and art to say what they had been feeling, because somewhere around 10 million people watched it within a few days. Personally, I must have had this video emailed to me a dozen times the week it came out. And whether you agree with this video or not, you have to admit Jeffrey was tapping into something that was widely felt and he was giving these people a voice.

And then the criticism started.

Preachers and Christian professors came out of the woodworks critiquing this poet for critiquing the church. They had well thought out, articulate arguments against what he was doing.

And the slam poet folded.

He totally just gave in, and said he was sorry.

And that’s a shame. Because the problem wasn’t the traditionalists that didn’t like someone critiquing them. The real problem was that this young man didn’t have a firmer grasp on tradition.

Advice to a Young Rebel

A few weeks after this all went down, a guy named David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece about this for the New York Times called “How to Fight the Man.” And it was genius. He made the point that this kids problem wasn’t that he was standing up against tradition, it was that he didn’t know enough tradition to stand up against much of anything. Here’s what he said:

“For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea….If you go out there armed with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition. This is what happened to Jefferson Bethke.”

In other words, the problem is that we don’t have an alternative vision. We critique but we don’t know how to construct. My generation has a lot of angst about religious institutions (and just about every other kind of institution) but we don’t know what we want to replace them with. We just know what we don’t like. David Brooks goes on in his article to say that if he could offer any advice to a young rebel, it would be to understand the world that has come before you. The answer to defying tradition is to attach yourself to what he calls a counter-tradition.

Learn about the way people have lived counter-culturally before. From Amos to Augustine, the people of God have been in pits worse than some mere blog war in the past.

See Jeffrey Renke might have benefitted from knowing that, despite what his critiques were saying, The Bible and Christian history is filled with people and prophets who God sends a fresh hard word through for his people. And they almost never like it.

In other words, Renke was standing in a tradition that was much older and stronger. And had he realized that, he might have kept standing.

All the Best Letters Come From Jail

I’ve noticed this is so true in my own life. Just knowing what’s wrong with something rarely gets anything done. In fact, it does the opposite. Without an alternative vision for what could be, people don’t change. And you can’t get an alternative vision by looking ahead, we don’t know what is to come. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s hard to predict, especially about the future.” We can’t see into the future, but you can get an alternative vision by looking backward.

Remember when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his Letters from a Birmingham Jail? It was to white clergy members who had the weight of society behind them, they were respected members in their community. And they were making sound arguments for an evil idea. If I was Dr. King, I would probably not had the moral fortitude to press on. But Dr. King, knew the Christian story didn’t go like this. And so he reached back into a counter-tradition as ancient as the prophets, and he said, “Let justice roll on like a might river.” He didn’t fight their traditional view of society with a new idea.

He fought it with an idea as old as time.

That’s one of the reasons that tradition matters.

It’s a good way to stick it to the man.

God at Work: Serving the World

“Everybody wants to change the world, nobody wants to do the dishes.” -Shane Claiborne

“It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” -Yogi Berra

Jesus at the office

One of the most notable ways that humans have changed the world in the last hundred years is the way we talk about changing the world. In the 19th century nobody was really talking like this. In the 19th century there were only four books written with a mention of “changing the world.” In the last few decades we’ve written over a million!

Confidence Monitors

Andy Crouch in his book Culture Makers gives a few examples of these books, The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention that Changed the World. Twelve Lesbians Who Changed the World, Five Speeches That Changed the World , or my favorite  Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World.

When did we start letting this get by our editors? Does anybody really think Mauve changed the world?

But under these titles and over-used language is an idea that runs deep in our bones. The world is not right, and we can change it. 

But can we? Really? My generation has a lot of confidence. We grew up on Mr. Roger’s telling us we were special and we believed him. Often we forget that we are just one of seven billion people who are alive today. And that really our lives, at their best, are just a small drop in a ocean of God’s reality.

There are 1.5 Million books that in the Harvard Library that are about Changing the world.

And not one of them was written before 1900.

Andy Crouch has a great word of caution for all us world changers though. He points out that none of us know what we are really doing. We had no idea that inventing the Freeway would create the Fast-food phenomenon and the rise of obesity, or that the invention of the phone would make also lead to children moving away from families.change-the-world

We have not come to terms with the fact that for all our best intentions the world will change us, much more than we will change it. In the words of Andy Crouch:

“Beware of world Changers, they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin.”

In the Palace, Under The Cross

Growing up one of my favorite stories was Esther. It’s a story that can rival any Disney screenplay because it’s got everything: good vs. evil, powerful vs. weak, romance and humor, and a girl who is asked to risk everything to save the people she loves.

If you’ve never heard the story, go back and read it sometime, it is brilliant. But the part I want to emphasize today is when Ester finds out that her husband the King is going to kill the Jews (without knowing she is one of them). Her uncle talks her into telling the King that she is also a Jew. Even though she could die too.

But she does it, she leverages the little bit of influence she has to serve the few people she can. Even though it could cost her her life. In fact, this is what Ester says:

Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

If I perish, I perish.

Did you know that Ester is called Queen 14 times in this book, and 13 of those times come after she lays her life on the line!

Her initial instincts are for self-preservation and safety, but when she risks her own life in service to the greater good, she suddenly becomes known as the queen.

This is the theme of the Bible, it is the undoing of the original sin of pride and hubris. We don’t know the unintended consequences for what we do…and what starts with the greatest intentions can turn into a destructive force. Unless we are willing to change the way we think about changing the world.

Because Sacrificial Service is the way of Jesus, the way God is going to change the world is going to be through this way. It will be by men and women laying down their lives in service and sacrifice for the common good.

I love the way that N.T. Wright says this:

If we are to be kingdom-announceres, modeling the new way of being human, we are also to be cross bearers. This is a strange and dark theme that is also our birthright as followers of Jesus. Shaping our world is never for a Christian a matter of going out arrogantly thinking we can just get on with the job reorganizing the world according to some model we have in mind. It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point…Because as he himself said, following him involves taking up the cross, we should expect, as the New Testament tells us repeatedly, that to build on his foundation will be to find the cross etched into the patter of our life and work over and over again.

So stop trying to change the world, serve it.