Tag Archives: culture

God at Work: Common Grace

Jesus at the office

In 2001, Perry Falwell (not to be confused with Jerry) flew into the Sudan with members of the Christian Solidarity International to negotiate the release of over 2000 Sudanese slaves. In order to fund their redemption Perry paid for it, through his work. He was the lead singer of Jane’s Addiction, and his band donated the proceeds from one full concert to save the lives of these people.

Meanwhile, my parents did not allow me to listen to their music….and I was in college.

A Thin View of Sin

Now I don’t want to get into what kind of music we should listen to. I say this because one of the chief problems I see facing churches as we move forward is our thin view of sin. This comes out in a thousand ways, but I hear about it most with the way we talk about work.

Ever since I’ve been in ministry, I’ve had people complain about how hard it is to be at work, at the water cooler and hear someone use a foul word, or to have a co-worker talk about something immoral. We say it a hundred different ways but what we are trying to say is, “It’s so hard to work around sinners.”

This comes primarily from a view of sin that has been the most popular for the past several decades. It’s sin as a list of things that you should avoid, and the best way to respond to this is by not being around sinners, or places where these sins happen.

I normally turn around and assure people, that as someone who has worked most of my life in church, it is just as hard.

Because sin is more deceitful that that. As soon as we think that we’ve got our sin problem licked, we discover (at least hopefully) that we have made pride our new sin. If we are honest we realize that our heart is an idol factory and that often we haven’t removed the sin, we’ve just replaced it with a more religious version of it.

This is why some of the worst people that you know are Christians, it doesn’t have to go with the territory, but it does sometimes. If you can get God to agree with your definition of sin, and then just stick within it, it’s very possible to never be confronted with your own selfishness.

If I’m the one that gets to define righteousness than I will certainly be righteous.

I may not be helping to free the slaves in Sudan but at least I don’t watch rated R movies.

The Tim Tebow Problem

One of the most surprising things about the Bible is the kinds of people God works through. If you are a church person you’ve probably heard a hundred sermons about Ruth or Rahab, but on a broader level God works in the Scriptures through pagan kings and armies and rulers and centuries as a way of blessing the world. And he does this often, without “saving” them and making them a part of his people.

I like Tim Tebow…really!  I think he’s a stellar guy a great athlete and a mediocre NFL quarterback. I’m glad that he’s a Jesus follower, and that he gives young men a role model to look up to. But Tebow has revealed a problem with Christianity.

What do you do when there are better quarterbacks out there who don’t believe in Jesus?

We love it in our Christian sub-culture, whenever a star or celebrity makes it to a public forum or becomes a star. But the flip side to this is that God is working through all kinds of people to make the world a better place.

Tim Keller pastors a church in Manhatten, and one of the things he repeatedly pushes his church to do is to partner with the other civic organizations and affirm them and their service in New York. So Keller, a conservative Presbyterian ministry, is constantly affirming the homosexual community for the way that they have renovated so many inner city neighborhoods and helped the crime rate, or his Jewish neighbors who have worked hard to create human flourishing in New York City. And here’s what Keller says that I think is so important:

In The Christian story the antagonist is not non-Christians but the reality of sin, which (as the gospel tells us) lies within us as well as within them. And so we are likely to be on firm footing if we make common ground with non-Christians to do work to serve the world. Christians’ work with others should be marked by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation.”

Did you catch that? The bad guy in the Christian story isn’t someone, it’s the broken reality that Jesus calls sin. And because of common grace we can see God working through people outside of our tribe, our immediate community, or our faith. We can see the image of God in everyone. Keller goes on…

This means, ironically that Christians who understand biblical doctrine ought to be the ones who appreciate the work of non-Christians the most. We know we are saved by grace alone, and therefore we are not better fathers or mothers, better artists and businesspeople, than those who do not believe as we do. Our gospel-trained eyes can see the world ablaze with the glory of God’s work through the people he has created and called.

Tim-Tebow-032112We don’t like working with people who don’t hold the same beliefs and values as we do, which ultimately makes our beliefs and values less influential in the rest of the world. And what’s worst we can’t see the glory of God in the work of the people all around us that he created.

And this matters so much because it comes out in a hundred different ways.

It’s how Donald Miller suggested yesterday that the Christian pro-life movement could do better.

I would rather have a good dentist than a bad Christian dentist. And that’s actually a Christian idea, not to mention a good way to avoid cavities.

It is to recognize that the whole world is filled with the grace of God.  That’s really our problem, not Tim Tebow.

Everyday Idolatry: Amused Apathy

“Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” -Archbishop William Temple

“Are you not entertained?” -Russell Crowe in The Gladiator

Temple in Chennai, India

One of the more famous stories in the Bible is the story of the Ten Plagues. It’s where God sends plagues to the people of Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let his people go. But one of the little known parts of that story, is that each plague that God sent had a corresponding god.

There was a God of the Nile River, so God turns the Nile into blood, there was an Egyptian god for the Sun (Ra) and so God makes all of Egypt dark.

In the Bible, one of the interesting things about how God deals with idolatry is that he takes away the thing that people thought they were getting from it. So Ba’al is the rain god, and when people worship Ba’al, God sends a drought. The story of the Ten Plagues is a story of God revealing the idols as not being able to deliver on their promises.

Bored to Death

A few years ago, Leslie and I were in Sri Lanka doing Tsunami relief. One night we left our station, and got to spend an evening with one of the relief workers who lived there. We went to his home, met his family and ate with them. But the thing that surprised us was the arrangement of his small living room.

The chairs and couch, as well as the design of the room, was all facing the center where one of the Hindu statues stood prominently.

And I remember thinking how ridiculous and primitive it was.

Then we flew home, sat down on our couch and turned on the television n the center of our living room, and stared at it for hours.

One of the more interesting phenomenon’s of our current time is the word boredom. It’s interesting because it’s a relatively new word. Previously we didn’t have a word for boredom. In fact, much of the world still doesn’t. If you were to go to many cultures in the world and use that word, translators won’t be able to replace it.

The closest word for boredom in many cultures is something like tired.

Isn’t it interesting that this is where we, of all cultures, are? The average American home has the television playing for more than eight hours a day. We have entertained ourselves into a stupor, and yet we’re still bored.

Did you know that the word amusement actually comes from the world of worship? A muse was a goddess that was said to inspire or give a new thought. But amusement, that’s a word that means without God.

It means to escape the divine.

Bread and Circus

Back in the first century, the Roman Empire had expanded beyond the size of any previous empire. They had taken over the entire known world, and in order to keep their army funded, they had to tax their territories heavily. Many of the people Rome ruled had to live in sub-standard conditions. And Rome knew that if they revolted they wouldn’t have the resources to maintain control.

So they started the gladiator games, where they would entertain large crowds and throw free bread to some lucky fans.

It was called “Bread and circus” it was designed to pacify the world.Gladiator image

And it worked…It still does.

In her book, Between Two Worlds, Raxani Saberi talks about being a prisoner in Iran for 6 months. One of the things that she learned was that there the main function of entertainment was to keep people from pursuing information elsewhere. It was used to keep the people ignorant of their current situation

The social critic Noam Chomsky would agree.

“There are forms of media whose basic social role is quite different: it’s diversion… This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them.”

If you want to know who or what you really worship (anybody can claim a faith system, or a lack of one) but if you really want to know what you worship look at where you spend money…and look at where you spend your “free” time.

I think we would name many of our problems as apathy but the Bible would call it misplaced worship.

Leonard Sweet says it this way: “When all is said and done, when the ancient gods reign, nothing is said and done.”

Living the Life in Front of Us

We don’t know all the details, but one of my heroes is the man who stood up to this idol. His name was St. Telemachus (we assume he is the patron saint for telemarketers)

Sometime in the 4th century A.D. Rome was holding another one of it’s gladiator games. Once again the gladiators came out to the thundering applause of the masses. They fought each other, or the frail prisoners, or whoever. It didn’t matter because all the crowd wanted was blood.

And when Telemachus saw them murdering one another, he stood up and yelled “No!”

He ran down to the ground that the Gladiators were fighting on, and cried out, “no more killing, please, no more killing.”

But a gladiator has to do what a gladiator has to do, and so there in front of thousands of rabid, amused fans, they slaughtered St. Telemockus.

And then it happened.

Somebody stood up and walked out of an arena, and then another, and then another, and another, until the entire arena was empty. And they never held a Gladiator game again.

Someone had broken through the world of staring at others living life, and forced people to deal with the God very present in this one.

And it cost Telemachus his life, but at least he was fully living his and not someone else’s.

May we all be so lucky.

Everyday Idolatry: The gods Behaving Badly

“I think everyone should get rich and famous and do everything that they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.’  -Jim Carrey

“As we bow to the golden statue called Oscar… joining in rituals of exaltation, and reading our sacred gossip columns…[we see from the stories] The desire for some kind of redemption pulses through human life.” -S. Brent Plate

Temple in Chennai, India

I’m in California this weekend speaking at a conference, and they asked me to do my series “Extras.” And since I’ve been writing lately on the kind of insidious idolatry we are all guilty of this got me thinking….

One of the most disturbing things I learned  when I was in Hollywood was how cutthroat the entertainment industry is. I was working on a show, in a rather scandalous scene, when one of my female extra friends whispered to me, “This is the part that I hate.”

Apparently,what often happens is that the director needs some more eye candy for a scene, and he needs to pick a girl or two out of a lineup. So this girl told me that it was common for them to tell a room of several girls to undress so the director could pick one based on their bodies.

And if you wanted the job, a more prominent scene, maybe even a recurring part, you would do it.

We bleed for our gods.

Now I hesitated to tell that story, because of the anti-Hollywood bias that Christians gravitate toward. We need more Jesus-followers living and serving in that industry. In fact, that same girl who told me she hates being in a line up to see if her body is good enough is a Christian. She was a Jesus follower who had been in rooms like that before.

And before we get all high and mighty, just realize there’s a good chance you put her there.

Celebrity Worship

Pete Ward teaches at a seminary in London, and he wrote a book about our culture of celebrity worship. He starts off by asking “Have you ever wondered why we mourn so much when a celebrity dies?” Think about it, when Michael Jackson died the entire news world ground to a halt.

We were in the middle of two wars, an economic melt down, and now we are listening to what meal MJ had the last time he was at Burger King. And Ward points out the reason this is such a big deal isn’t because of the their talent, but the collective “us” we’ve allowed each celebrity to represent.

It is, in other words, a religion.

But did you know that celebrity worship is consistently associated with poor mental health, like worry, anxiety, and depression?

Among women specifically, most body image related mental health issues are, on some level, tied to the way we view celebrities and ourselves. And that should disturb all of us, because almost all of us participate in celebrity worship. And most of the time it’s so subtle, we don’t even know we are doing it.

So we think that it’s stupid all the fuss that people make over Brittany Spears or Paris Hilton, but for some reason we know a lot of details of her life.

Christina Kelly, an editor for Sassy magazine, says the reason that we worship celebrities is because, “We know that to be human is to feel inconsequential.”

Think about how profound that statement is. Here’s someone who works in the industry, and she says we “worship” not because of who they are, but because of our awareness of who we aren’t. There is this deep awareness that we have that something is off-kilter with our heart. Part of the reason that we are drawn to and participate in this crazed celebrity culture, is because something deep within us tells us that we are broken.

So why do we put our hope in fame to fix it?

Arrested Development

To Know and be Known

This past week, Donald Miller interviewed Tony Hale (Buster Bluth from the incredibly funny show Arrested Development) and he asked him, “Why do you think people are obsessed with fame? What do you think this says about us as a culture?”

And here’s what Tony/Buster said:

I think that it’s grounded in the fact that everybody desperately wants to be known, and they think that fame is kind of the ultimate of being known—“If that many people know me…then it’s going to satisfy that. The thing is, when you get to that place, you’re only going to find true satisfaction if you’re known in an eternal, spiritual sense by Somebody greater than yourself. I think a lot of people have gotten to that place where they have been known by a lot of people, and it still doesn’t satisfy….If you don’t find something greater than yourself who knows you—knows truly who you are—and you feel known by them, then you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to be known by a ton of other people.  You’re only going to find true satisfaction if you’re known in an eternal, spiritual sense by Somebody greater than yourself.”

I think this is incredibly profound. We want to be known by Someone greater than ourselves. That’s what our hearts our hungry for, and our pursuit of fame is only a reflection of a dim reality.

This is what Buster is getting at, it’s what Jim Carrey is trying to explain…the thing we think we want is really not able to fulfill us.

It’s an idol that can never deliver on it’s promise.

Do you know what the final stage of Christian Theology is? Gloria.

In other words Fame: It is the applause of God.

Save your worship for that.

God at Work: Nunc Dimittus

“There are two great days in our lives- The day we are born and the day we discover why.” -William Barclay

“The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”- Frederick Buechner

Jesus at the office

In 1957, John Coltrane’s life was unraveling fast. Because of an escalating alcohol and drug addiction, the famous jazz musician lost one of the best jobs in jazz. He had hit rock bottom, when he had a spiritual experienced that changed everything.

It was the beginning of a whole new way of life. He had a profound encounter with Jesus, that changed him deeply. He was still a Jazz musician.  but he began to play the same music, in a very different way.

On the dedication page of his record A Love Supreme Coltrane writes,

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. All praise to God..This album is a humble offering to him. An attempt to say ‘Thank You God’ through our work.

The Pursuit of (Others) Happiness

Did you notice exactly what Coltrane said? He asked for God to help him make others happy through music.

Which is pretty counter-cultural for most of us. We are saturated with the idea of pursuing happiness, heck, it’s written in the charter of the American government. So we work and chase after some elusive happiness, only to find it’s always a step ahead.

And we do the exact same thing with our work.

For over half my life now, I’ve consistently asked people I meet who serve at restaurants or airports or retail stores the question, “Do you like your job?” And I consistently hear people saying “no.” Sometimes it’s because of the pay, or because of the people they have to deal with. And to be sure, there is something to that, but every now and then I run across someone who tells me they love their job. And the reason is never because of the pay, it’s almost always because they’ve found themselves to be truly helpful to the world.

One of the most liberating things about the Biblical idea of vocation is the realization that we work for the sake of the other. God calls us, through another person, to serve other persons….not primarily for our own sake.

We’re called for the sake of the world.

The Joy of Work

So about that Fredrick Buechner quote above. Buechner was a famous Christian author and speaker, and at one point he was addressing a graduating class. They were about to leave the safety of formal education for the unknown certainty of a future career. And Fredrick Buechner told them this:

“The Voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness.  What can we do that makes us the gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north….? Is it making things with our hands out of wood or stone or paint or canvas? Or is it making something we hope like truth out of words? Or is it making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses their spirit? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.

In other words, happiness isn’t a bad thing for work…It’s just not the only thing for work. And if it becomes that, then it will be unattainable. A job is only a vocation, a calling, if you do it for the sake of the other. And where your joy and the world’s need meet…that is where God is calling you.

So back to John Coltrane. John Coltrane

The album he wrote that dedication for is one of the most famous works of Jazz in the history of the genre. In an article by NPR, they said that this is an album can’t be just measured by the sales, it is, in the NPR reporter’s words “A cherished, holy object.”

In his incredible book, Every Good EndeavorTim Keller tells about how, toward the end of his life, John Coltrane was performing a set from his album A Love Supreme. And everything was going well, the audience was into it, the music was coming naturally. It was an exceptional night of Jazz, and as Coltrane stepped off the stage someone heard him say, “Nunc Dimittus.”

Which is Latin.

It’s the words that the elderly Simon said after waiting his entire life to see the Messiah, It’s the words he said when he first held the baby Jesus. “Dismiss your servant in peace.”

In other words, Coltrane could die happy now.

He had made music, not for fame or money (although he achieved both), but for the sake of the music, to serve others and for the joy of God.

His gladness had met the hunger of the world.

May we all be so lucky to find a calling like that.

Nunc Dimmitus.

Everyday Idolatry: My God

“You can safely assume you’ve made God into your own image, when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” -Anne Lammott

Temple in Chennai, India

It was June 7th, 1964. They had all gathered at the local Methodist church like always. They were having another one of their get-togethers, and as usual they started with a prayer.

Of course, they prayed, they were God’s chosen people, after all, saved by Jesus to bless the world. But on this particular night, someone wrote down their opening prayer. Sam Bowers, their “preacher and leader” opened them with prayer.

Here’s what he said:

Oh God, our Heavenly Guide, as finite creatures of time and as dependent creature of Thine, we acknowledge Thee as our sovereign Lord. Permit freedom and the joys thereof to forever reign throughout our land…May the sweet cup of brotherly fraternity ever be ours to enjoy and build within us that kindred spirit which will keep us unified and tong. Engender within us that wisdom kindred to honorable decisions and the Godly work. By the power of Thy infinite spirit and the energizing virtue therein, ever keep before us our…pledges of righteousness. Bless us now in this assembly that we may honor Thee in all things, we pray in the name of Christ, our blessed Savior. Amen

And then the members of the Klu Klux Klan said Amen, got up, and started planning how to carry out “God’s goal” for white supremacy.

Taking Sides

A few years ago I was talking with a man who was a professional conflict mediator who had worked with Presidents and international government officials. He had helped nations resolve international conflicts bordering on war, but if you asked him who was the hardest assignment, he wouldn’t blink an eye before he told you,

“That’s easy…Churches”

There’s a bizarre little story in the book of Joshua where Joshua is leading the people of Israel into the land of Canaan, and he is suddenly visited by an Angel of the LORD, and Joshua has such tunnel vision that he immediately asks the angel, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

And the angel says, “No. I’m not on either, as the Commander for the LORD I have come.”

I love this little story, because it’s exactly what we religious people do.

There are days when I wonder if church is really good for the world. In out better moments, God’s done some incredible stuff through the church, but often church just gives religious people language to be more mad than they would normally be.

Now they’re not just angry, God is angry too. Now their not just indignant they are filled with a “righteous” indignation. All because we never question the idea that God is on our side.

We approach the Divine like Joshua, “Are you for us or for our enemy?”KKK Worship service

And I think God’s answer is still “No.”

The Faces of Jesus

A few years ago, I read a fascinating book called American Jesus: How the Son of God became a National Icon. What’s interesting is that the book doesn’t talk about the popularity of Jesus, but the diversity of Jesus. Turns out, there are lots of different Jesus’ out there. There’s Republican Jesus, Democrat Jesus, Hot Air Balloon racing Jesus, Nascar Jesus, Moralistic Jesus, Buddy Jesus, and Sweet baby Jesus among others.

Each one gives us a picture of a Jesus who knows how to take sides.

So after the KKK dismissed they left armed to the teeth with shotguns and rope, to fight the civil rights movement that was “invading their Mississippi” and within a few days 3 civil rights workers were killed….In Jesus name.

It’s easy to see, looking back how far this group was from the heart of God, how they had made Jesus into a god of their own image. But I think we do this exact same thing all the time.  At least I do.

I’ve noticed that Jesus tends to vote the same way I do. He’s never against a war that I’m for, and he’s rarely interested into calling me toward self-sacrifice or mercy to people different than me. That’s the Jesus that I am most comfortable with, and it’s most certainly an idol.

I like the way N.T. Wright talks about how to deal with letting Jesus stand on his own:

“My proposal is not that we know what the word ‘god’ means, and manage to somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest, that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple, and dying on a Roman cross–and we somehow allow our meaning for the word “god” to be re-centered around that point.”

In other words, the scandal is not that Jesus is like God. The scandal is that God is like Jesus. He’s a God who picked a certain place and time, and entered into it. He came to show us who he really was…and who he really wasn’t.

He came as a Jewish carpenter, in a particular time and place, not to speak about every little agenda we have, but for the redemption of the entire world.

I understand why in conversation or worship lyrics we sometime refer to God as “My God” but never mistake that as meaning God belongs to you.

Because God’s not on your side.You can pray in his name all you want to but you’re enemies are not his enemies.

He’s bigger than your problems, because he’s more than just your God.

Just ask Joshua.

Everyday Idolatry: A Fair God

“Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.” -Alexis de Tocqueville

Temple in Chennai, India

His name was Fred, and he was passionate about justice, he was passionate about equality and fairness. And so after Fred got his law degree, and became a civil rights lawyer. For years Fred served and fought for dis-enfranchised people who were being treated un-fairly. Eventually the NAACP gave him an award for the way he fought for the rights of African-Americans.

And then Fred Phelps left civil law and planted a church.

The Westboro Baptist Church.

The God-hates-fags-America-soldiers-and anyone-who’s-not-a-Phelps-church.

Most of us hear that and realize something went horribly wrong. But if we become what we worship, maybe it’s not that surprising. Because the end of idolatry is always bad.

Now most of the time when we think of idolatry, we think of primitive statues and ancient times. But idols are all around us, and they are in fact never bad things, just mis-ordered things. And that’s especially true with this particular idol.

More than Fair

Sometimes when I hear people talk about justice, I realize that, while we care about similar things, I find that I don’t want to be like them. Some of the people who have dedicated their lives to great endeavors, found themselves being incredibly angry. And I can understand why. Because we become like what we worship, and if you find yourself constantly bitter or angry maybe a question to ask is “What god am I worshipping?”

Back in the day of Jesus, there was actually several different gods of for fairness and justice. One was named Mazda, and he went on to develop a line of cars.The Roman’s had a Goddess for fairness named Equitas. And she was represented by a set of balanced scales.Equitas

Fred Phelps really did set out to change the world, he fought for justice. But it’s possible to be right in very wrong kinds of ways, it’s possible to serve God but worship an idol. And it will never end well.

I can’t tell you how often I hear people talk about God or Church or whatever it is, and I find myself asking, “Wait, are we talking about the God of the Bible? Do you think that God is fair? Because that is a huge American value, but not so much a description of God in the Scriptures.”

Think about the stories that Jesus tells that sit poorly with us, for example here or here.

One of the things about fairness, is that we rarely pull that word out when it doesn’t serve us somehow. Nobody ever says, “Oh Why God, why have you been so unfair to me? Why do I have so….much? Why do I have a roof over my head and access to food everyday, when so much of the world doesn’t?”

In his book, Whine the Beloved Country, James Glassman points out the U.S.A. is the wealthiest and whiniest civilization that the world has ever seen.:

  • The U.S. Gross Domestic Product is more than the total of the next five countries.
  • Americans work fewer hours, and have more cars, cultural institutions, and children in college than ever before.
  • And we whine more now than ever before.
  • We have aisles set aside just for dog food in our grocery stores. 1/3 of the world doesn’t have grocery stores at all.

Be careful with how you use the word fair.

Here’s the question that I never hear people ask, “Why shouldn’t we bear in the suffering of the world?”

No one gets an exemption from hardship in this world, and the Bible never minimizes suffering or unfairness. The sections like Lamentations or Job or the Psalms bear witness to that. But I like the way Philip Yancey says this, “What the Bible does (do) is simply ask us to withhold final judgment until all the evidence is in…And then it tells us that God is with us in our suffering.”

He’s more than fair. He’s good.

What’s It To You?

There’s a time toward the end of the Gospel of John where Jesus is talking with Peter. It’s after Peter has denied Jesus, and Jesus is forgiving him and calling him to serve and lay down his life…literally, Jesus tells Peter that there is day coming that he will be killed for following him. And Peter didn’t ask Jesus to take it away, or change that. Instead he looked at the other apostle John, and said, “What about him?”

I love that Peter did that. Because it’s exactly what most of us would have done. “Sure Jesus, I can be a martyr. I’ll get crucified upside down…as long as that guy over there does too.” And Jesus responds by saying,

“If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

I love that Jesus says this: “What’s it to you?” Jesus isn’t promising fair. The call of Jesus isn’t a cattle call. He’s not Mazda, he’s not Equitas. And if you begin to think he is than your world gets really, really small.

We become the religious older brother angry because we just realized who the Father was, and how unfair life is. We become the church that boycotts everything because we started out with the wrong idea of God, and then took it to it’s logical conclusion.

And the danger of worshipping this idol is that you’ll never know it.

Because you can find plenty of verse about God’s passion for justice and equity, but don’t mistake that for a God of fairness.

God that was revealed by Jesus is more than fair, He’s grace. He’s the Father that runs to a prodigal, giving us what we don’t deserve.

And to some that is news worth throwing a party for, and for others it’s news that makes us want to sulk and pout.

What’s it to you?

Everyday idolatry: Worshipping Nike

Temple in Chennai, India“No weapon formed against me will stand.” -Ray Lewis, quoting the book of Isaiah after his Superbowl win

A couple of weeks ago, when Lance Armstrong was finally forced into laying bare his secrets to a suspicious public, I was disappointed along with everyone else. Because I like Lance Armstrong. I followed his career, I read his book (turned out, it really wasn’t about the Bike), and I was thankful that there were still heroes to look up to.

Earlier in his life, Lance Armstrong has spoken out as an atheist. He doesn’t believe in God. But I think that he’s wrong, not about God, just about how he does not believe in one.

Sports Illustrated did a fascinating article on Lance last year when the world he had carefully constructed was just starting to crumble.

“Armstrong lives as he rides — surrounded by a cocoon of aides and helpers, his gimlet eyes focused on victory…. The self-described atheist has become a deity… but the inquiry’s findings may cause the Armstrong faithful to ask, Was the miracle a mirage?” —Selena Roberts and David EpsteinSports Illustrated, 2011

His eyes were focused on victory.

Victory. Which is a god of the ancient world.

Actually the god’s name was Nike.

You can’t make this stuff up.

The Sport of Idolatry

I think it’s fascinating how easily we dismiss the ancient world as superstitious. But we sacrifice and bleed for the exact same gods they did.

Now I love sports, I love playing and watching them. I’ve been in fights over them as a player on the field and a fan in the stands. (Once I was actually at a Soccer Game in Greece where my section lit the stands on fire…before the game even started!) But I want you to imagine if you weren’t so immersed in our culture, if you didn’t understand and already have categories for what you were watching.

You would see the stadiums filled with people who had painted their face and body, you would hear them cheer and moan, as they watched from a distance someone else perform some kind of act. If you didn’t know what you were seeing I imagine you would reach for religious words like Temple or Clergy or Worship.

Not worship of the team, or the sport, but to Victory.

Back in the first century, the popular religion during Jesus time always showed God as being on the side of winners.  He was the victor for the Greeks.  He was the one who stood on the side of the powerful. He was the God who you were talking about when you wanted to intimidate your enemies. This God took sides, and he always sided with the winners.

So think about this for just a second, it’s not just saying that God loves the winners more. It’s saying to see who God loves, watch who wins.

That was the world that Jesus entered into, and it’s almost impossible to understand just how radically Jesus was changing the way they thought of God. It’s impossible because it has to change the way we think of God. It was ridiculous to the Greeks to think that God could ever lose and even be a God of the losers.

It still is.

We Are All Lance Armstrong

So this is a Nike commercial from 2001, famous for Armstrong talking about the value of hard work, and his support of anti-doping regulations. And we now know that he was filming this while creating the most elaborate system of cheating the world has seen. He sacrificed every friendship, his family, and his body. But don’t be too hard on him, because this is a god that we’ve been worshipping for a while now.

53% of Americans believe that God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success. 40% of Evangelical Christians believe that God cares about who wins the Superbowl. And as, an article I read this week points out, both the Christian Faith and the NFL make their home on Sunday, and “after 50 years of mixing the two, it isn’t all too clear that faith has come out ahead.”

So maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on Lance Armstrong or Ray Lewis, because they might actually be just revealing the bent that we all have. They are the extreme examples of the ancient assumption that Nike is god.

Now I live in West Texas so I should repeat, I love sports, especially football, and I route passionately for my teams as well. But the tale-tale sign that we’ve made a good thing into an idol, is when it cannot produce what it has promised. I wonder what the Monday after the Superbowl is like for the winners? After you’ve bled and sacrificed and given your life toward one goal. I imagine that one of the worst things of worshipping a goal like this is what happens when you achieve it. (As a 5/7 pear shaped person, I obviously wouldn’t know).

Tennis Champion Hana Mandlikova was once asked how she felt about defeating other great Tennis players and she said, “Any big win means that all the suffering, practicing, and traveling are worth it. I feel like I own the world.”

Then they asked her how long that feeling lasts, she replied, “About two minutes.”

Because winning is nice, but victory really isn’t everything.

Nike isn’t Lord, and God is actually on the side of losers.

Something Is Missing #3: The End of The World

End of the World pictureSo tomorrow is the day that the world is supposed to end. For over a thousand years, the Mayans have scheduled every day on their calendar.

And today is the last one.

I remember the first time I heard about this passive-aggressive prediction. It was eerie and freaky, and I totally believed it. I had all these images from the movies I’ve seen about the end of the world flash through my mind. There were volcanoes and lava or earthquakes and asteroids (there’s always an asteroid isn’t there?), and then finally at the last minute Will Smith comes in and saves the world.

Those are the images we’ve been handed for how to think about the end of the world.

And I think they’re wrong.

So it’s Christmas time. And for a lot of us that means shopping and parties and eggnog. But if you’re afraid of the end of the world tomorrow, than I think Christmas can really bless you today. Another word for the Christmas season is Advent. And Advent is just the Latin word for “Coming” It’s the idea that Jesus came into the world, and that he will one day soon come into the world again.

Advent is about the longing that is in every human heart, a desire, an ache that we all share for things to be different, for there to be no more cancer, or school shootings. It’s a hope for the world to be made new.

At the heart of Advent is the recognition that something is missing.

And Christmas reminds us that this something is really a someone.

I’m preaching this Sunday on a text from 1st Peter that has really captured my imagination the past few weeks. I rarely blog about what I’m about to preach on, but since enough people think that the end of the world just might happen tomorrow, I wanted to share a word of hope that might bless you this Christmas.

When Jesus first met Peter, he was a rough-around-the-edges fisherman. He was impulsive. He was a racist, he was a self-promoting, fearful bigot. In other words, he was a human. And Jesus found Peter, trained him and taught him for years. Peter betrayed, annoyed, and refused Jesus. And Jesus just kept pushing into Peter’s life. Jesus forgives again and again, he piles grace upon grace for Peter.

But when Jesus’ life comes to it’s most critical moment, when Jesus is headed to the cross, and needs a friend the most, Peter doesn’t show up for Jesus. And so after Jesus dies, Peter goes back to fishing. Then Jesus is raised from the dead, he shows up to all the disciples, and Peter just keeps on fishing. Because Peter now knows that he is a total failure.

But at least he knows how to fish.

Now up until this point, the Prodigal Son was just a story that Jesus had told. But in John 21 it’s a story that Jesus acts out. Jesus runs to Peter. Jesus hasn’t given up on him. And it’s here that Peter learns that no failure is too big for Jesus to overcome. Continue reading Something Is Missing #3: The End of The World

Christmas in Connecticut: Touching the Pain of the World

When the original Christmas story happened, three magi, or magicians came to help tell the story. Which is interesting, because the Israelites disdained magicians. They were evil and wrong, but God used them in ways that no one could have predicted.

And so in that spirit, I’d like you to watch the above video.

Whatever you think about Stephen Colbert, I think you should watch this clip. It was from this past Thursday night episode of the Colbert Report, Stephen is interviewing the Catholic Nun Simone Campbell…and it’s incredible.

For those of you who don’t know Stephen Colbert is actually a devout Catholic who teaches Sunday school every week at his local church. I know the character he plays can be incredibly offensive and off-putting, but he’s speaking the very specific language of satire, and satire is not for everyone.

But I don’t want to defend Mr. Colbert here, I just want to show you (in case you missed it) what aired on the cable network of Comedy Central this last week, the day before the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. This Sister is pushing against the modern conceptions of American Christmas and trying to reframe what the real Christmas story means.

And if you don’t watch the video, here is what I want you to hear her say, “Christmas is touching the pain of the world, experiencing it as real…and then choosing to have hope.”

That’s what Christmas was.

That’s what Christmas is.

So for our brothers and sisters in Connecticut trying to explain this evil to their children.

To the husband holding his wife’s hand as she slips away into the age to come.

To the senior saint who’s sitting at at a table for one this Christmas eve.

To the woman in the Sudan who prays for someone to send her children food.

Christmas doesn’t turn a blind eye to you.

Jesus entered the world in a time when Herod was committing genocide on children. Christmas doesn’t skip this tragedy, or any tragedy, it runs into it.

Christmas calls Christians everywhere to touch the pain of the world, experience it as real, and then to hope.

Or in the words of Mrs. Campbell, “Jesus invites you to the manger.”

Something is Missing #1: The War Of Christmas

Today I want to start a series for the next few weeks leading up to Christmas. We are in a season that Christians have, for over a thousand years, called “Advent.” And I’d like to start this Advent series with a blog about war.

I’m obviously way too sentimental.

I don’t know what my favorite Christmas tradition is. Maybe it’s putting up the tree with the family, or maybe it’s reading the Christmas stories to the kids at bedtime. But I know what it’s not. Every year, around this time almost like clockwork, we start hearing the pundits on television talking about the war on Christmas. It’s normally about how some nativity scene in some city was forced to move away from a public park next door to some land owned by a church.

And we call that war.

I’m tired of culture wars in general, but I’m specifically tired of this piece of it. And not for the reasons you might think. Sometimes the ways that Jesus followers get involved in the public sphere hurt the reputation of Churches. I don’t think that’s true here. I just think it hurts the Churches.

I think it hurts Christmas.

Because if we think that moving our nativity scenes is the equivalent of war, then we should go back and read the Christmas story. Do you remember why Mary has the child in a stable? Remember why God has to send some coded message to some wise men with stars? It’s because Herod, the King of the day, heard the rumors of a this new baby king, and as the sitting ruler, he didn’t like Christmas either. So he tricks some wise men to go fetch Jesus for him so that he might “worship” the baby. And when the wise men see Jesus, when they realize that God is doing something through this little baby, they sneak off and never return to Herod. And when the sitting King realizes this, we finally understand what he meant by “worship.”

Herod commits infanticide on hundreds or thousands of baby boys.

That’s what a war on Christmas looks like.

The Christmas story starts off with a first century Hitler on the throne. Who’s so afraid of losing his political power that he’s willing to wipe out an entire generation of Jewish boys just to kill one of them. Joseph and Mary and Jesus all have to flee the country, Joseph goes from this devout Jewish man, to Jack Bauer overnight.

And Herod does this all, not because he doesn’t understand what’s going on, he does it, because he does understand Christmas.

Did you know that right now, all over the world there are people who gather together in secret to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Just by gathering together they are breaking the law, and it’s not because the national governments of the places they live in don’t understand Christmas, it’s because they do! Christmas is the arrival of a King, and if you are a political leader or king of any stripe then Christmas is going to be hard to accept.

Because the truth is that there isn’t so much a war on Christmas as there is the War of Christmas.  Continue reading Something is Missing #1: The War Of Christmas