Friday, September 19, 2014

do people hate me enough?

There are many things that Christians are doing in the postmodern era that are exemplary, often ignored by the media. For instance, the renewed call to global, faith-fueled activism spurred by the overwhelming number of texts in scripture regarding God’s heart for the poor and marginalized is hopefully helping to change the stereotypical negative way the world views the Church. It was the Roman Emperor Julian who violently hated Christians and irritatingly wrote: “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their (love-feasts), they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes. Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity…”

But as a Jesus-follower, I’ve noticed something a little troubling. In a culture that places a premium on tolerance and acceptance (a justified reaction to hate-crime violence and shrill web voices), it’s natural to assume that we, as Christians, want to be loved and viewed as tolerant, accepting people. And especially as The Church, that fountainhead of grace. After all, if acceptance is how the culture defines love, we need to speak in a language that is understandable. That’s what good missionaries do. And who wants to be viewed as intolerant and unwelcoming? Certainly not followers of the One derogatorily described as a “friend of sinners.”

Besides, weren’t the people who argued the most with Jesus the “religious types”? Those were the ones who put God in a box, right? Those were the ones Jesus said traveled far and wide for one proselyte and made them more of a child of hell than themselves. Jesus declares seven “woes” over the religious fundamentalists of His day in Matthew 23. Imagine the Pharisee hashtags if Twitter existed then—#killthegalileanhillbilly, #woebackatyou, #fundiesunite, #whatthehades?...

But before we look down our noses at “religious people” and “church folks” (an easy target since it’s always the people other than us), it might be circumspect to consider passages where the “culture” or the “world” is clearly viewed as no friend of the Body of Christ.

•    It was an adulterous woman embarrassingly dragged before Jesus (where was the guy, right?) to whom Jesus expressed compassion and zero-condemnation. But He added a postscript: “From now on don’t sin.”
•    It was Gentile Roman military men who mocked Jesus’ “supposed” kingship and who drove in the nails and divided up His clothes at the cross.
•    It was the businessmen and profiteers who wanted to kill Paul in Ephesus. They did it under the guise of pagan religion, but the bottom line was their bottom line (Acts 19:23, 27).
•    It was Jesus who reminded His followers, “When the world hates you, remember it hated me before it hated you. The world would love you if you belonged to it, but you don’t. I chose you to come out of the world, and so it hates you.” (John 15:18–19) The values and behaviors of pagans were not to be emulated (Luke 12:30).
•    It was an exiled John who reminded Jesus freaks: Don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. (1 John 3:13)
•    It’s the nations of the world who despise God in the apocalypse: “The nations were angry with you, but now the time of your wrath has come.” (Revelation 11:18a)
•    Before the brother of Jesus was martyred, he penned this reminder: Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
•    Paul was beheaded at the hands of Gentiles. Previously he wrote:  Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. (Romans 12:2 Message Version)
•    It was the Gentile intellectuals and poets at the ground zero of Western philosophy—Athens, Greece—who sneered at Paul’s discourse on the resurrection.

The obvious balance is to not become some paranoid, exclusive sect that develops a persecution-complex at the drop of an editorial. Sometimes the “Defend-Our-Religious-Liberties” groups wield ressentiment like a sword against the mongol hordes, perhaps forgetting that our kingdom is not of this world.

Nevertheless, the Church must guard against becoming lap dogs of the culture, as my friend Phil Strout says. It’s way too easy and trendy for Christian bloggers to take potshots at the Church, as if to justify oneself by implying, “I’m one of those but I’m not like that”…distancing ourselves from it and avoiding guilt by association.

Former atheist C. S. Lewis described his abhorrence of and reluctance to attend the local church:

I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

Believe me, it’s easy to take clever shots at religious people; I’ve done it with well-aimed superiority. But in so doing, perhaps I’m morphing into the person to whom Jesus delivered His woes: those who think they’re better than others without saying it in so many words. I could easily teach Justification 101 when I get in touch with my inner-Pharisee. Comfortability with the culture can be a slippery-slope for those of us with missional, evangelistic hearts.

In times of war, nation-states adopt the maxim: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Perhaps in this era of spiritual warfare, I should question whose bed I’ve crawled into. Or at the very least, what lap I’ve hopped up on.

I don't think I have a spiritually-masochistic personality; I like comfort as much as the next guy. But when I’m embraced and affirmed by the culture, it might serve me well to at least periodically ponder why.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the emotional demands of leadership

After posing a question on Facebook, I got a total barrage of interesting answers and comments. The post asked simply: if you’ve ever had a boss or manager that you enjoyed working long, hard hours for, what made him or her worth working that hard for?

Certain themes emerged, but one stood out to me. Generalized, it was: They noticed me. My work, my contribution, my hours. There was genuine appreciation. And it was stated over and over that they felt their boss was “in the trenches with me.” That means at an emotional level as well.

Which reminded me of the need for bosses to often subjugate their own needs to the service and needs of their people in order to accomplish a higher mission. Which then caused me to recall an intriguing story of a fascinating leader in history.

It’s a telling story about King David in the Old Testament. And as an aside, it inadvertently contributes to the street cred of the historicity of the Bible because it exposes its heroes as real, vulnerable and, at times, messy leaders. If I had written it, I would have made the heroes look better. Peter really should have fired his publicist.

David’s family is a case study in dysfunction. After one particularly ugly family matter, David wouldn’t speak to his own son Absalom for two years even though they lived in the same town. Matter of fact, David wouldn’t even look at him. It wasn’t a Focus On The Family success story.

Years later, Absalom staged a coup against his own father. It began simply: with a huge entourage in front of him, Absalom would get up early and stage himself along the street to the courthouse. While people came for their court case, he would stop them and ask about their troubles. Listening with feigned concern and empathy, he would respond, “Wow. You know, if I were the king, I’d make sure you had good representation and were treated fairly. There’s no justice in this freakin’ city.”

And when people approached him and bowed before him—after all, he was the king’s son—he would lift them up and kiss them, offering a sign of friendship and trust. In short order, it reads that “he stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”

Absalom ultimately overtakes Jerusalem and the mighty King David—the giant-killer, the warrior-poet who had songs written about his exploits, who defended Israel in countless wars with attacking nations, the one anointed king by the great prophet Samuel—was forced to run like a scared dog from his own son. Absalom even sexed it up with his father’s servants on the top of the house so all Israel could see. It was an utter slam against his dad. The whole story is filled with spiritual and psychological intrigue and revenge.

But eventually there was an intense battle between David’s army (the loyalists) and Absalom’s followers (the insurgents). Over twenty-thousand men were killed in an bloody civil war, but David’s army prevailed. David had asked the general of his army, Joab, to be careful to capture his son Absalom alive, but it doesn’t pan out well. Joab was so angry that Absalom had created such havoc and loss of lives that he killed Absalom. David’s men won at a high cost in an exhausting victory.

But when news got back to David about the victory, he was only concerned for his son. When he heard that Absalom had been killed, he was shaken and wept publically: “My son, my son. If only I had died instead of you!”

How emotionally debilitating that would have been for the national psyche of Israel and the returning vets. What should have been celebrated as a victory and Jerusalem spared from a self-consumed, narcissistic leader, instead the beloved King David was overwhelmed with grief and had lost his “leadership objectivity”. The effect was so destructive that it reads in 2 Samuel 19:2, “And for the whole army the victory that day was turned into mourning…”

But I love what Joab did. He had just led a huge military victory at great risk to himself and his men, but what he did next could have certainly guaranteed his death at the hand of the king.

Joab went into the house to the king and said, “Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the lives of your wives and concubines. You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall. This will be worse for you than all the calamities that have come upon you from your youth till now. So the king got up and took his seat in the gateway. When the men were told, “The king is sitting in the gateway,” they all came before him… (2 Samuel 19:5-8a)

“They all came before him…”

They needed to be, they wanted to be, encouraged and inspired by their leader. Noticed. They needed to know that their sacrifice was recognized by him. They wanted to know that he was still passionate for the kingdom, their kingdom. They needed his leadership.

Frankly, there are times when leaders are required to compartmentalize things. Good leaders are especially aware of this. And by leaders, I mean anyone who has some responsibility for someone else at some level. A parent. A manager. An older brother. A committee chair. A teacher. Everyone has someone who is watching them.

Joab is leading up now. He reminded David that something bigger was at work here. That David, as a leader of the kingdom in this critical time, had to compartmentalize his grief and his needs and deal with that at another time. But it was necessary in that moment to submit his personal pain to a passion for something bigger than himself—the kingdom, for the good of others.

A leader has personal issues and mission issues that have to be reconciled on a regular basis, and both have to be given space and dealt with appropriately. But passion—that inner suffering for something—has to be about something more than our personal needs and wants. This is a “dying to self” that all healthy leaders understand. You can read it in Jesus’ words and Paul’s writings.

Please hear me: this is not just about “public platform” leaders. Parents, friends, schoolmates, co-workers, are all people that from time-to-time we lead, whether by influence or position. What’s more, if you are a follower of Christ, you are a de facto leader, because you are called by your Master to lead others to His soul-healing touch.

If you don’t have a passion for a mission that’s bigger than yourself, I can almost guarantee that when life slams you with something that seems overwhelming, you will be overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter how big your career is, what your personal wealth is, how important you are to the company, how well you’re liked, what kind of car you drive, and the size of your personal kingdom…it’s all wood, hay and stubble when the fire comes. And the only kingdom that can’t be shaken and can’t be consumed is the Kingdom of God, because our God is the Consuming Fire.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy revisited


“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. ~Jesus

In Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a computer named Deep Thought (you had to grow up during the Nixon/Watergate era to catch the reference) was built to find the answer to the meaning of life. Deep Thought was the size of a planet and after seven million or so algorithmic years, the answer was discovered: 42. There followed a collective, head-scratching “Huh?”

Problem was, everyone had forgotten the question by then.

But the original question was basically this: why do we suck air?

Or, what gives our lives meaning?

I believe that the heart of life—the challenge, frustration and joy of it—is the search for something valuable, something of worth, worth more than your own life.

That’s why when you first fell in love—that “head-over-heels-crazy-can’t-think-straight-lovesick-talk-till-4am-in-the-morning-get-up-at-6:30-for-work-kind of love”—your pursuit of that person was worth more than your own health, your job, your own thoughts about yourself, your friends, your everything. It was all-consuming.

The way you measure what is valuable is by asking: what is worth giving up everything for? Or go crazy: what is The One Thing worth giving up my very life for? That helps to remove selfishness as a motivational factor. When you have the answer, you are beginning to discover the meaning of life.

That’s why Jesus told those spectacular parables about the Kingdom of God as something that is both discovered and overtakes us. It overtakes us in the sense that it woos us like some siren. We walk around disenchanted with life until we discover Whose Voice it is that is calling us.

God has designed our souls so that we are the most fulfilled when that which we value is actually something of real value. Here’s our common experience: often what we think is valuable actually isn’t—like Fool’s Gold. Pyrite looks just like the real shiny and sparkly thing, but it isn’t. And when prospectors in the 1800’s first dug it up and bartered with it, they discovered it wasn’t worth its weight in pennies.

We find ourselves unfulfilled when we think we have gold and discover it’s actually pyrite. For some of us, fool’s gold might be material success. For others it can be sexual in nature. For some of us it may be power and the need to control. Or a relationship. We can be obsessive about this pyrite…and hurt each other to get it because it looks so good. The zeitgeist of this world has a way of masquerading value—its expertise is drawing our attention to valueless things for us to invest our time, money and energy into.

Madison Avenue is extremely skilled at this. There’s a reason why there’s nearly an hour of commercials during the Superbowl. I now buy pants that are called “relaxed fit.” That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Relaxed. You know what they should be called?—Pants-For-Old-Fat-Guys-In Denial. But that wouldn’t sell because you wouldn’t go into the Gap and ask, “Hey, could you show me where the ‘Pants-For-Old-Fat-Guys-In Denial’ section is?”

Look at the flip side: for those of you with a child, you fondly remember the day of birth or adoption. In that tiny bundle of life you witnessed the spark of worth, and you made a promise that you would lay down your life for this little miracle, a promise that you would do anything. There was a sense of fulfillment because you placed value on something that actually has real value.

We go through life discovering all kinds of different things worth giving up parts of ourselves for. And when those things actually have true value, our lives begin to carry a sense of meaning.

Now imagine the object of Ultimate, Infinite Value. That’s what Jesus is trying to describe. And that would therefore mean that our lives would begin to carry the ultimate sense of meaning.

Maybe it’s time to rediscover the value of the pearl. But here’s the kicker: even though life in the Kingdom of God is the treasure we are to discover, for God, you are the pearl of great value.

And worth enough to give His own life.


Thursday, September 04, 2014

a new leash on life

Imagine an eighty-year-old man—skin weathered like leather and tatted with scars from beatings since his twenties—living in a large buzzing metropolis on the bright turquoise coast of the Aegean sea in Turkey, sitting down at the request of his students to dictate an intimate account of his years with Jesus.

That’s the apostle John, the only disciple traditionally thought to have not been martyred. In the very first chapter of his historical account, John writes this neuron-blasting passage that absolutely changes the way we think about God:

…To all who received him (Jesus), he gave the right to become children of God. All they needed to do was to trust him to save them. All those who believe this are reborn!—not a physical rebirth resulting from human passion or plan—but from the will of God. (John 1:12 Living Bible)

What a beautiful paraphrase: All they needed to do was to trust him. Trusting in God is choosing to serve and obey Him by your words, actions and decisions because you believe He has a directive for your life, the best intentions for you, and ultimately the only One who can rescue you from the hell of a self-centered life. In exchange, you surrender your little fiefdom to His kingship.

Let me clarify something here: there is a big difference between growing in a simple authentic trust in Jesus Christ—and religion and religious activity.

A few years ago as I was driving home and noticed a man walking across a field with a big labrador retriever running circles around him. The dog looked like he was having the time of his life, thoroughly happy to be there with his owner, and—to my total surprise—no leash. No matter: the dog seemed to be finding so much pleasure in being close to his master.

Back in those days, we had a little shih-tzu dog named Lucy (don’t judge me…). Unlike the labrador in the field, Lucy would never see outdoor life beyond her leash.

Here’s why. One day after we had moved to the suburbs (that’s where they cut the trees down and name the streets after them), I took Lucy for a walk around the little pond at the front of our subdivision. Suddenly I naively thought, “I bet if I take her off the leash, we’ll have a bonding moment and sit by the pond together and watch the geese fertilize the lawn.” I took her leash off. She walked a few feet ahead, looked back at me, then peered ahead at the street, and took off like a bullet.

I started running after her, with no possible way of catching up, while trying all the stupid human tricks I could think of, like yelling, “Here, Lucy…do you want a treat?” Forget the Snausages—she was headed for the next county. She ran through a busy intersection and down the highway, leaving me in her shih-tzu dust.

By this time I’d resorted to calling her every name possible within the legal parameters of being a pastor. Resigned, I figured I’d see her picture on a milk carton some day. But a couple from the next subdivision saw her and were able to grab her.

By the time I got to them, Lucy’s eyes were wild with freedom. But it’s a freedom that could have killed her because she had no clue of the danger of two-ton SUV’s…or no one to feed her…or the dog pound. The leash was for her safety because she would not listen to the voice of her master.

That’s the difference between a trust-based relationship with Jesus and religion. The Law is a leash designed to keep us safe, protected. But true childlike trust is found in the leash-lessness of grace, when we find ourselves satisfied with the voice of our Master, romping the fields of the Kingdom with Him, fetching what He throws to us, and simply enjoying being in His presence. We trust Him to keep us safe, and take pleasure in His calling us by name, calling us near. It is the depth of soul Paul describes in Romans 15:13:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13 NIV)

Not a bad deal: joy and peace…as you trust in him.

You’d think by my age I’d totally get this trust-thing. But I’m still learning to be leashless.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the beauty—and problem—of the church: part 1

When I was a little boy in Augusta, Kentucky, one summer my mom sent me to a church on Fourth Street to something called “Vacation Bible School.” No one in my family was a Christian, but we didn’t know that. We thought we were Christians because we were Americans, and sometimes we went to church, and we weren’t Catholic. Catholics were, well, Catholics. If you’re Roman Catholic, please don’t misunderstand me: you were probably taught that people like me weren’t going to heaven because we weren’t Catholic. Yep, we were all pretty dysfunctional.

Today if you walked up graveyard hill in Augusta, you’d find a Protestant cemetery and a Catholic cemetery divided by a single-lane blacktop road. We didn’t talk about religion when we were alive and we certainly didn’t mix things up when we weren’t.

Anyway, I didn’t like the sound of “Vacation Bible School.” That’s an oxymoron if ever there was one. I knew “vacation” didn’t have anything to do with “school”. And then you throw the “Bible”-word in the middle of it and you have all the excitement of watching Mr. Rogers drone about dental hygiene.

But I went. Once. We outlined little pictures of stained glass and then colored them with Crayolas. And that was the last time I went. So each day mom sent me to Vacation Bible School, I would leave the house to walk to the church and then promptly head down a side street to find my buddies and play army instead.

Church held zero interest for me. By the sixth grade, they no longer made me go. I guess it wasn’t worth the hassle for my parents…and I was set free. Church, to my little brain, had nothing to offer but monotone talks, nothing that had any relevance to me, and a waste of good free time on a weekend. That’s how I felt through high school and my early college (and dropout) experience as well. Thanks, but no thanks.

But a funny thing happened on my way to hell: I met Jesus. Everything changed. I found myself being transformed and challenged and empowered and suddenly the Bible came alive. And the Jesus I read about there was nothing like how I remembered him in those boring sermons: He was radically different and made the religious people mad and challenged the status quo and even ticked off His own disciples at times. What’s more, He talked with an authority like no one else I’d ever heard. And He somehow mixed power and authority with servanthood in a way that was eye-opening. And that whole “getting-crucified-and-coming-back-to-life-again”-thing. Whoa. He became real to me in ways I couldn’t understand. And I began to change in subtle and radical ways as well. My friends were puzzled and didn’t know what to say to me.

I liked Jesus. But I still had some problems with His people…this thing called The Church. At times it seemed so small, so focused on trivialities, inward and self-righteous. Sometimes it seemed that Christians could be incredibly charitable and then turn around and say something ridiculously racist or insensitive. And why were they so strange on TV with really big hair and several pounds of makeup and exchanged plastic glow-in-dark crosses for “your love gift of $25”? Sometimes I wondered why there were churches on every corner…and why they argued over things that seemed inconsequential and petty.

Then one day I had an epiphany. An actual revelation from God Himself: I was one of them. The Church. I was no longer an outsider and could take potshots at what I thought were those hypocritical, judgmental, small-thinking Christians: now I was one of them and attending a local expression. I didn’t see that one coming.

As my literary-spiritual mentor once wrote, “When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”  ~C. S. Lewis; God in the Dock

Truth was: my understanding of the “Capital ‘C’ Church was very, very small.

Let’s take a bigger look in part 2…

the beauty—and problem—of the church: part 2

Today Christianity has exploded in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In his classic book, The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins writes: “…the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America.”

He goes on to say that “by 2050, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Whites.’”

China has become a hotbed for Christianity, particularly house churches. It’s believed there may be as many as eighty-million Christians in unregistered churches. According to Operation World, independent Christian congregations, mostly evangelical and charismatic, are growing at a rate of 9 percent annually. That’s a huge growth rate since China’s overall population (1.3 billion) is growing at only about 0.6 percent annually.

What’s more, Christianity has radically changed the culture in ways that I think most of us are unaware. At least I was. Again, my view, my understanding, of the Church was very, very small and provincial.

For instance, it was Christianity that changed the world’s view of women. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote that only males are “created directly by the gods and are given souls.” His now-revered pupil Aristotle said that women were no more than birth defects. In the footsteps of Greece, the Roman Empire simply didn’t want baby girls. Not long ago, archaeologists found one hundred skeletons of infants less than a week old in the sewers of the Roman baths. They had been literally flushed down the drain.

In his book Reasons for God, Tim Keller writes, “It was extremely common in the Greco-Roman world to throw out new female infants to die from exposure, because of the low status of women in society. The church forbade its members to do so. Greco-Roman society saw no value in an unmarried woman, and therefore it was illegal for a widow to go more than two years without remarrying. But Christianity was the first religion to not force widows to marry. They were supported financially and honored within the community so that they were not under great pressure to remarry if they didn't want to.”

He continues: “. . . the pagan double standard of allowing married men to have extramarital sex and mistresses was forbidden. In all these ways Christian women enjoyed far greater security and equality than did women in the surrounding culture.”

The fact that Jesus had women who followed Him and were included in His expanded circle of disciples and teaching times—as in the Mary and Martha account—was incredibly shocking to both the Roman and Jewish cultures of His day.

Even more, Christianity was first to methodically argue against slavery. In the early Church, Christians would buy slaves to set them free. It came from the revolutionary notion that all were made equal in Christ; or as the apostle Paul writes in Galatians: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus . . . There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:26, 28 (New International Version).

That was an extremely radical idea for that culture, and sadly, the Church hasn’t always lived up to it.

The story of the Good Samaritan that raised the question of who is my neighbor was shocking to say the least. And the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount created a servant culture in the early Church that was absolutely breathtaking. Love your enemies?—you’ve got to be kidding: we’re talking about an oppressive Roman government, the one that persecutes us.

When decimating diseases and plagues struck towns and cities, it was the early Christians who stayed in the towns so they could take care of the sick…even when the doctors would flee for their lives. In the fourth century, the Roman emperor Julian—who hated Christianity and wanted to rub it out—wrote angrily to a friend that the Christians “feed not only their poor but ours also.”

Our ways of viewing people and their intrinsic value has been so shaped by Christianity that we don’t even realize it…it’s such a part of our culture. When all the stories of the pagan gods were about them creating people so that they—the gods—may be served, the story of a God who comes to earth in the form of a servant in order to “serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” was shocking.

So many of the ways we think about life have been deeply affected and influenced by this movement called the Church. We’re not aware of it any more than a fish is aware of water. We just don’t realize it because Christian ethics are so submerged in our culture.

So again, my picture of the Church and its influence was way too small. And if that’s where you are, it only means that we have to go back one step with this simple but basic idea: God is big. I mean, Really Big.

He’s not the Man Upstairs. He’s not your Good Buddy. And He’s certainly not your co-pilot in your little Honda looking for a parking space. He’s God…there is No Other. That’s why the Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of real knowledge. It just means that we really have to get that He’s a Big God.

I find it amusing when people say things like, “When I get to heaven, I’ve got some questions God needs to answer…”

Really?

If you’re not sure if you even believe in God or you got burned by some church experience, play along with me for a minute and use your imagination: if a twenty-something artist named Michelangelo could create something as spectacular as the Pieta five-hundred years ago, think of the
Ultimate Artist, one who’s imagination spans the gazillion light years of a universe we can’t even fathom to the sub-atomic world of quarks and neutrinos. Just give Him the benefit of the doubt for a moment. If God exists…and if He had an investment in His incredibly complex piece of art called the human being…and if He wanted to use those human beings to bring about His overarching purposes for a world that’s gone haywire…and if He created an organization—a movement—that would be made up of these creatures to do that, wouldn’t it be a pretty amazing thing?

That’s a Big Idea. That’s the Church.

Let’s talk about how He might do that in Part 3…

the beauty—and problem—of the church: part 3 (final)

Imagine with me if Big God decided to enter our world to communicate that with us about this idea of healing an extremely sickly world through an antibody called The Church. How would He do that?

Suppose we wanted to communicate with a colony of ants in a giant anthill on the Serengeti. It seems it would make the most sense to become an ant ourselves and communicate to them in ant-language and ant-movement they could relate to…otherwise our overwhelmingly powerful human bodies would do nothing but scare the daylights out of them.

In our universe, that’s called the Incarnation: Big God becoming a humble human being. Paul the apostle—the man who once hated Christians and had them jailed and executed—tried to help the early Church understand how powerful this Big Idea is. It’s at the center of Christian theology. For instance, to his friends in Rome he writes about the role of Israel and his own Jewish heritage and then clearly states the real identity of Jesus:

Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. (Romans 9:5 NIV).

Paul picks this up even more when he describes Jesus and His purpose in a letter to the Colossian church. He writes:

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:13–20 NIV)

Did you catch what He said in the middle? He’s going on and on about how big this God-Man Jesus is—Creator of all things, visible and invisible, the One who establishes power and authority. And then Paul points out this organization—this organism—that is actually directly connected to God. Writing about Jesus, he says:

…And he is the head of the body, the church… (Colossians 1:18 NIV)

Paul is establishing a big thought here. Not only is Jesus God, but He is also the Head—the strategic-thinking authoritative leader and brains—of a movement on earth called The Church, which is actually functioning as His Body. In other words, what Jesus wants to do on earth today is going to be done through the Church. Ordinary people like you and me.

Now that’s a Big Idea. And that changes everything about how I see the Church. And if we don’t get that revelation, we’ll tend to see this little thing that happens on the weekend as “going to church” and our little divisions and squabbles and Christian subculture as what the Church is all about. That’s bigger than denominations and factions and Protestants and Catholics and church suppers and potlucks.

Why do we take a big, God-sized idea and miniaturize it?

That’s why Paul later writes to a dysfunctional church in Corinth that was arguing with each other and divisive and says to them: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s house and that His Spirit actually lives in you now?”

He’s so upset when he hears that they're dragging each other into court and filing lawsuits against each other that he angrily says, “Don’t you know you will actually judge the world in the end times? Don’t you know that you’ll judge angels and spiritual powers?—and you can’t settle little arguments among yourselves now? You’ve got to be kidding?—You’re the Body of Christ on this earth!”

When the Holy Spirit was poured out in Acts Chapter 2 and birthed this movement called the Church, it transformed these scared men who had been hiding behind locked doors after the crucifixion into men and women who would lay their lives down for this one message: Jesus is the Resurrected Lord—so change the way you think and let Him save you!

That message alone was radical to the monotheistic Jewish mind: only God could save. Therefore, the implication was huge. And so they could only talk about one thing: Jesus…and His resurrection. And they were martyred by the thousands.

It was Jesus Himself who said, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13–19 NIV)

The obvious question is this: what happened? How did that self-sacrificing passion end up doing ridiculous things throughout the subsequent centuries? How could a movement like that produce an Inquisition or Crusades or denominational wars?

Keep this in mind: Jesus said that in the end He Himself will separate the real from the unreal, the legit from the play-actors…and that there would be many who come to Him and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.”

Or that there will be some who say, “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

He said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father.”

This revolutionary movement of surrendered and transformed servants is God’s Big Idea to usher in His rule and reign: the Kingdom of Heaven. To stand on the periphery and take potshots at the Church is hardly helpful; a critique is only effective as much as one is a lively part of her. The former atheist turned prayer-and-social-activist Dorothy Day once poignantly wrote:

“As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”

Amen.



Monday, January 20, 2014

racism, the evangelical church...and the idol that divides us

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here’s something to consider: I believe the evangelical church in America has an idol to tear down that keeps us from being healed along racial lines…and it could be argued that our racial brokenness is one of the biggest barriers in Jesus’ prayer that we would be one. But first, let’s begin this story some twenty-six-hundred years ago…

“King Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their fathers.” (2 Chronicles 34:33)

Some Hebrew scholars translate the Hebrew word for Josiah—Yoshiyahu—as Healed by Jehovah. Josiah is famous in Israel for tearing down the idols Israel had created, for bringing restoration and healing, even though his father and his grandfather were wickedly violent.

In the next verses it reads that, “Josiah celebrated the Passover to the Lord in Jerusalem, and the Passover lamb was slaughtered on the fourteenth day of the first month.” (2 Chronicles 35:1)

A few verses later: “The Passover (that’s the celebration of redemption, of freedom, from slavery) had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel (that’s nearly 400 years earlier!); and none of the kings of Israel had ever celebrated such a Passover as did Josiah…” (2 Chronicles 35:18a)

When idols are torn down, the healing can start…and the Real Party begins.

I believe there’s an unspoken idol in the American evangelical church that divides us along racial lines. This idol is so deeply imbedded in the white evangelical church culture that we aren’t even aware of it. It’s American Christian Nationalism.

Nationalism could be described as an excessive patriotism toward a person’s country. But the big problem is when it’s mixed up with Christianity and what that does to black-and-white relations.

I’ve been in churches where there are American flags on the podium and heard messages on how America was chosen by God, about Manifest Destiny, about our Christian-nation roots and heard choirs sing “God Bless America”. It was the American evangelist Billy Sunday who said, “Christianity and patriotism are synonymous terms…and hell and traitors are synonymous.”

I’ve also been in churches where there were rants against America along the “come-out-from-among-them” slant. That is, America was disqualified from God’s favor and His judgment was upon us. In right-leaning churches it was because of abortion, pornography, and threats against religious freedom; in left-leaning churches it was because of environmental exploitation, systemic injustice, and disregard for the poor.

In the book of Exodus, Joshua was chosen to lead the nation after Moses’ death into the land that had been promised to them by God. There was one major problem: the path was blocked by the heavily fortified city of Jericho…and Jericho wasn’t excited about Israel’s tour through their personal space.

Joshua wasn’t sure what to do and has a Twilight Zone encounter that leaves him shaken. He comes upon a soldier with his weapon drawn and asks him whose side he’s on. The man cryptically replies, “Neither. I’ve come as the commander of God’s armies.” Joshua hit the bricks face down and worshiped.

God cannot be invoked to join our side. Rather, He has a plan for His planet. The question is: will we join His purposes?

Here’s how it works. The Church has a primary purpose: to turn lost people into lovers of Jesus. Jesus’ last words were “Go! Go make disciples of all nations.” That phrase “of all nations” is important; it’s the primary thing the Church is called to do here on earth…and the Church will be held accountable for its faithfulness to that purpose. Jesus said, “You’re my associates if you do what I say.” You and I will be held accountable for our faithfulness to that purpose of bringing lost children to their heavenly Father, turning them into lovers of God.

Therefore, anything that compromises that mission is dangerous. It’s an idol. What could keep us from making followers of Jesus in every ethnicity, every nationality, every political persuasion? Are we exporting American Religion…or the Kingdom of God?

In less than fifty years, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be Caucasian. Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom writes that soon “the phrase ‘a White Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist.’”

And so often when I see the American version of Christianity being beamed around the world via T.V., it breaks my heart. Here’s the New Reality: Followers of Jesus are citizens of a different kind of nation. Our citizenship is singular. Peter understood that when he wrote: …You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9) That’s a “called-out people with a mission”—to declare the awesome grace of God. When Paul wrote that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, he was crossing tough boundaries and scaring the daylights out of people.

I have a philosophical and scriptural problem with talking about America “returning to its Christian heritage.” For Caucasian baby-boomers it often implies the syndicated world of Leave It To Beaver (after all, it was in 1954 that the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance). For most white boomers, that sounds appealing. But let me make a crazy guess…if you’re an African-American, I’m pretty confident you don’t want to go back. Going back to that so-called “Christian heritage” is not appealing to African-Americans…and yet the evangelical church has idealized it and idolized it.

Only a few short centuries ago, in the formation of this nation, it’s estimated over ten million men, women and children were taken from the west coasts of Africa, chained, sometimes marched for miles, shoehorned into boats where several million died of starvation and disease in the four month journey across the ocean to a foreign country. Over ten million. Sold and traded like farm animals. For over two hundred years this was the systematic oppression of a single race for a new country’s economy. That’s why the Bible says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

In 1774, John Wesley described the slave trade like this: “When the vessels arrive at their destined port, the Negroes are again exposed naked to the eyes of all that flock together and the examination of their purchasers. Then they are separated to the plantations of their several masters, to see each other no more. Here you may see mothers hanging over their daughters . . . and daughters clinging to their parents, till the whipper soon obliges them to part. And what can be more wretched than the condition they then enter upon? Banished from their country, from their friends and relations for ever, from every comfort of life, they are reduced to a state scarce anyway preferable to that of beasts of burden.. . . . Did the Creator intend that the noblest creatures in the visible world should live such a life as this?”

In a letter to William Wilberforce (the driver behind outlawing slave trade in England), Wesley called American slavery, “the vilest that ever saw the sun”

Slave-owner William Byrd—a gentleman from high-society circles in London who settled in Virginia—wrote in his diary this chilling “Christian” account:

“February 8, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock this morning and read a chapter in Hebrew and 200 verses in Homer’s Odyssey. I ate milk for breakfast. I said my prayers. Jenny and Eugene were whipped. I danced my dance…

“June 10, 1709.  …In the evening I took a walk about the plantation.  Eugene was whipped for running away and had the bit put on him.  I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.

“December 3, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Cassius. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. Eugene pissed in bed again for which I made him drink a pint of piss…”


In talking about his slaves, Thomas Jefferson said that “…blacks are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” That’s an embarrassment to America. Let’s call it what it is: sin.

One reason it’s important to give a historical context for race relations in America is because of a spiritual principle called the law of the harvest: whatever you plant, you’ll eventually harvest. In his book The Immigrant Heritage of America, Norman Coombs writes:

“One characteristic which set American slavery apart was its racial basis. In America, with only a few early and insignificant exceptions, all slaves were Africans, and almost all Africans were slaves. This placed the label of inferiority on black skin and on African culture. . . . In general, there were five steps in molding the character of a slave: strict discipline, a sense of his own inferiority, belief in the master’s superior power, acceptance of the master’s standards, and, finally, a deep sense of his own helplessness and dependence. At every point this education was built on the belief in white superiority and black inferiority.”

My mom’s alcoholic father told her throughout her childhood that she was stupid. Every week she was told she was stupid. She dropped out of high school. To this day, my 87 year-old mother—who is saved and Spirit-filled—will refer to herself as being stupid—which is far from the truth. As a matter of fact, scripture says she has the mind of Christ.

Now try to imagine centuries of behavioral and psychological training of an entire race and culture.

Here are a few of the statistics of the harvest:
  • 45% of black children live below the poverty line, compared with 16% of whites.
  • While black students represent 16% of all public school students, they make up nearly 40% of those classed as learning disabled.
  • Right now, there are more black men in jail than in college. Why isn’t the evangelical church brokenhearted by that—regardless of the reason?
  • The median net worth of blacks is 8% the median net worth of whites. It’s clear who has the money.
  • Unemployment is nearly twice as high in the black community
  • Infant mortality is twice the rate among blacks than white.
  • African-American mothers are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers because of inadequate medical care in many black communities.
  • Nearly 60% of white people believe that race relations in their community are good; only 39% of blacks think so.
This is not America-bashing: I’m glad I live in America. It beats North Korea hands-down. I’m thrilled we have incredible freedom. I’m impressed that men and women died to advance an ideal of democracy.

But I’m not proud of parts of our history.

We can appreciate the sacrifices of the Founding Fathers without turning them into Christian icons. But let’s be honest: it wasn’t a Christian nation in the strictest sense. The Trail of Tears where four thousand Cherokees died in a thousand-mile forced march to Oklahoma is not a Christian nation. And it’s certainly not a theocracy. These are things that make me angry as a white American. It’s being honest with all our history.

Sometimes I wonder if the desire to “go back” to what was perceived as a Christian “Golden Age” has more to do with retaining a perception of power. The problem may be an issue of control, of power. One day a group of angry Pharisees got together and said about Jesus in John 11: “…If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” John 11:45-48 (New International Version)

Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t an issue of the evangelical Church wanting to retain power. The brilliant theologian Kierkegaard saw a huge danger in his own country with the idea that the purposes of God are met by some alliance of church and state. Historically, state-churches, or pseudo-Christian nations, quickly become watered down in their expression of Christianity…and the country’s purpose gets confused with the plan of God for this planet. The Church is not the moral policeman of the world; it’s the messenger of God’s grace.

The “Big C” Church has never been about earthly power. Never has, never will. The true Church has never desired to have political power, to control, because their kingdom is not of this world. One day Jesus will return and establish His theocracy, a world government based on His Lordship, with willing subjects who lead with love. But for now, the power of the Church is found in healing and serving…in bringing God’s shalom. When Jesus left His Father’s side, and became human like us, He gave us the ultimate picture of how the Church is to behave: just like Him.

Here’s the theological principle: Reconciliation is the responsibility of the people in power. In the Kingdom of God, African-Americans must extend forgiveness to me, their white brother. But there’s something vitally missing in that for me: If I don’t ask for forgiveness and show fruits of repentance by seeking systemic and individual justice, then I’m going to miss the transformational power of love in my life. It is always the responsibility of the people of privilege and power to seek reconciliation, not the other way around. That’s what Jesus did: left the privileges of heaven to reconcile the world to Himself, became a servant.

Reconciliation—by slipping into the skin and understanding the world of those not in power—is the core of Christianity. That’s the incarnation. Paul sums it up like this in Philippians 2: Your attitude should be the kind that was shown us by Jesus Christ, who, though he was God, did not demand and cling to his rights as God, but laid aside his mighty power and glory, taking the disguise of a slave and becoming like men. And he humbled himself even further, going so far as actually to die a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians. 2:5-8 Living Bible)

Jesus had all the power and all the privilege and rights with His Father, they were one in the same. But something remarkable happened because of love: He slipped into the skin of a slave. He knows what it’s like because He did the unthinkable: He became one of us. That’s the responsibility of the one with the power.

That’s what each one of us is called to do—to slip into the skin of someone else, so we can feel what they feel and see what they see, and so love them to the fullest. That’s real love. As Paul writes: You know how full of love and kindness our Lord Jesus was: though he was so very rich, yet to help you he became so very poor…. (2 Corinthians 8:9a Living Bible)

It’s incarnational Christianity. And it’s all about love. And when I see the “Christian Nation” philosophy—one of the biggest idols in the evangelical church—through my black brother’s eyes, then I let go of all claims, defenses and earthly power, and become one with him.

And like Josiah, we have this major idol to pull down. When the idols were torn down, Israel partied at the Passover like they hadn’t in centuries.

When our idol comes down, then we can celebrate the True Passover—the broken Body of the Sacrifice Lamb—whom Paul says in Ephesians 2:14 & 16 is “our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall . . . and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross... (Ephesians 2:14, 16)

And then perhaps we—the Church—will be like Josiah, YoshiyahuHealed by Jehovah.


My friend Ray McMillan has a great resource: Race To Unity. You can support him here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

why i belong to the vineyard movement

A gazillion years ago when I was a traveling musician, we had been touring across the country a good bit and with our second album release (vinyl, anyone?) we played a concert in our lovely hometown of Cincinnati. Through some odd circumstances that night, I ended up invited to lunch with someone named Walt, who not only was a fan of the growing Jesus-music world, but had an ulterior motive: to invite me to a new church he was a part of—the Vineyard.

It was meeting in a house in Mason Ohio, which seemed like the uttermost regions to me. I immediately went back on the road again, but my wife decided to check it out while I was touring. When I eventually got home, she said simply: I think you’re going to like this.

So on a Sunday night in 1984 we made the drive from Norwood to a house in Mason. Crammed in the living room were about twenty people and Steve Sjogren on a twelve-string guitar. As he sung some extremely laid-back unfamiliar California songs (“…change my heart, oh God, make it ever true…”), Anita and I found ourselves inexplicably crying. I don’t know if I was burned out from my then ten-year journey as a Christian—from Jesus-movement, charismatic, word-of-faith, to traveling musician—but it struck a chord in me: pared-down no-hype worship, a marriage between evangelicalism and the power of the Holy Spirit, and, as I soon discovered, a heart for the poor.

Could church be that simple? I felt like I had returned to my Jesus-people roots.

We never left. Two years later I left the band, found work at local recording studio, and began leading worship as a volunteer for the Vineyard Christian Fellowship that had now moved to a roomier hall at Scarlet Oaks Vocational School in Sharonville.

It was the transparency, honesty, the simple invitation of “Come Holy Spirit”, the laid-back approach, the lack of “religious airs”, the simple outreaches to the poor, the “kinships” (small groups), the churchplanting emphasis, the humble approach to praying for healing, and non-manipulative worship style that kept me. It was refreshingly different. Steve’s irreligious, outward-focused attitude challenged my inner cynic; he had me at hello.

And so I found my tribe.

As the years passed, while we planted dozens of Vineyard churches directly and indirectly, my understanding of our place in the larger Vineyard movement was fuzzy. We had become extremely outward-focused, struggling to maintain seven services every weekend (not to mention a midweek!) in a building that seated a little under six-hundred. The Vineyard movement seemed to have struggled through several different phases, from equipping conferences to the Kansas City prophets to the Toronto Blessing. At times it felt like we were a bit on the outs.

For various reasons, we had developed what felt to me a tenuous relationship with the movement as a whole; by 2000, I had only been to one national pastors conference in the previous sixteen years. From his Anaheim roots, Steve obviously had developed relationships with the earliest Vineyard movers-and-shakers. But whether geography or personalities or just the speed-of-life, it was sometimes an awkward bond.

That year I stepped into the senior pastor role at Vineyard Cincinnati and Rich Nathan invited me to attend the once-a-year regional leaders meetings in Columbus (though I had no formalized role in the movement). The national Vineyard had survived the death of its founder three years earlier, was redefining itself and in the unsexy throes of developing systems and processes.

We had given very little financially to the national movement over the years, but the push was stirring for a mandatory 3% of local church income to go to Vineyard USA. This was creating an issue for many churches and feeling like the slide toward a more institutionalized, denominational approach. In the free-wheeling, baby-boomer, Kingdom-oriented Vineyards, this seemed like a disturbance in the force.

But now that I was feeling the unique frustrations of leading a growing megachurch (read: herd of cats) and the tension of trying to grow outward-focused disciples, I came upon a simple realization: I could only ultimately move forward with our Kingdom mission to “love the people of Cincinnati into relationship with Jesus” if I had a certain percentage of sold-out, skin-in-the-game disciples. And in the American me-first, consumer-driven culture, letting go of money was the most difficult thing.

I quickly discovered that the people in our church who were most demanding and criticial were typically those who invested the least. In other words, it’s way easier to be an armchair quarterback on Monday night than to actually suit up and get leveled by a two-hundred-fifty pound defensive end. Multiple times if you’re Ryan Tannehill.

But I was no different at a global level.

Truth is, I found it easy to take potshots at the Vineyard movement as a whole (phases, trends, direction, etc.) when we didn’t have a lot of skin in the game. But it was the same thing that bothered me as a pastor with non-invested parishioners. And God nailed me on it.

So years ago I came to the leaders of our region at a Columbus meeting and repented. I told them we had not been fully invested and was embarrassed by it. They responded  graciously, “No, you guys have always been a big help to lots of us and led the charge in servant evangelism. Vineyard Cincinnati has always given away resources and time to us.”

“Yeah, but on our terms,” I said. “And that’s not how real relationships work. And certainly not how to respond to leadership.”

After conversations with our trustee board, we began the process of giving the three-percent. For us at the time, it really was a difficult decision and required budget cuts in other areas to the tune of several hundred thousands of dollars. But it wasn’t the “three percent” that was the issue; it merely represented something deeper than that.

At the heart of it is this: I would have said that I was a firm believer and respecter of spiritual authority. The best leaders have at some point been good followers; there’s a holistic tempering that happens in that process. I knew that in the local church there has to be leadership structures in order to have focused impact. I fully subscribed to Hebrews 13:17—“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority…”—and expected it with healthy symbiotic relationships in the local church.

But here I had been resistant to the spiritual leaders of the tribe I said I belonged to. We were a church of cowboys; stubbornly independent, unfenced and uncorralled.

There has to be more than mere tribal identification; there is the reality of spiritual authority. And there is no real spiritual authority without spiritual followership. That’s when I questioned my investment in the movement.

So I’m personally not a fan of the independent local church. And “networks” are not the same, because truthfully there’s no real sense of accountability and buy-in to something bigger than your own fiefdom. Although there’s no overpowering hierarchy in the national Vineyard movement, there’s enough relational capital and leadership investment that demands some submissive responsibility. And for me, I think that’s a tremendous safeguard for any church, even in an internal board-empowered organization. If Jesus is the CEO of the whole Church, shouldn’t it make sense that we learn the power and beauty of submissive health through earthly relationships?

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not into entrepreneurial-strangling, institutionally-heavy, bloated bureaucracies. But how do we ask our people to be fully invested and yet we leaders of local churches are resistant to it ourselves? I’ll admit it: the current trend of people attending multiple churches and never committing to one drives me crazy as a pastor: how do you lead people missionally with that consumeristic approach and have any true sense of challenge and accountability?

The Vineyard movement is my family. Yep, the one with the crazy uncle and the second-cousin-removed that makes awkward comments at the family reunion. But it’s my family.

And the leaders of the movement have the unenviable job of making ecclesiastical decisions and giving direction for a much larger herd of cats that require me to weigh…and follow.

This is my tribe.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

the problem with power

About four-thousand years ago God spoke to a nobody; only family members and relatives would have known him. His nomadic dad was traveling to Canaan but stopped at a town in Turkey and settled. It was there God spoke to Abraham and told him: “Leave what’s familiar and I’ll make a nation out of you. And here’s the Big Deal, Abraham: you will bless the entire world.” We later discover that he would do that through Abraham’s descendent.

Which recently got me thinking: what does it mean to bless an entire planet? How would I do that? Would that mean I’d have the power to make people happy? To end all wars? To eliminate disease and pain? To introduce or enforce a global shalom?

Don’t we believe we would have to have a reasonable amount of power to bless the whole earth? But even at our altruistic best, how would we keep the peace between individuals/tribes/religions/nations who want some sort of power over another? If you’re a parent of more than one child, you know this isn’t simple. Every nation and state attempts to keep peace by wielding power, as in: Who has the bigger stick? In societies, we grant power and authority to certain people (police, lawyers, military, etc.) so that hopefully bad people bent on evil are quarantined.

And, of course, not all power-holders are the good guys. If you think Wall Street is filled with benevolent boys and girls bent on creating and managing a healthy economy for everyone to enjoy, I have a bridge for sale. From the drug lords of Juarez to politicians in high places to the pimp in the alley to the aspiring VP wanting the corner office, power is the drug of choice. As John Stuart Mill smartly observed, “Men do not desire to be rich, only to be richer than other men”. And even in our best moments, we think of power as the way to manage peace in a world of bent and broken people.

If you’re a Jesus-worshipper (and doing that presupposes him as God), then you automatically buy into the idea that he’s God-come-in-the-flesh. And it’s Jesus who shocks everyone when he says, “Come to me—all you who are tired and weighed down—and I’ll personally give you rest.” Notice he doesn’t say, “Follow my seven habits and life will be better, but simply, “Come to me.”

But then he follows that up with:  “…for I am gentle and humble in heart.” Seriously? The One with all the power?

It freshly struck me the other day that I’ve never really thought of God Himself as being humble. After all, he’s omnipotent, not to mention omniscient, omnipresent…omnieverything. If you believe in a personalized First Cause of any sort, it’s hard to not be awed.

But humble? Really?—God is humble?

If the Second Adam came in the shape of God, then He—Creator, Judge, Savior, Sustainer, Reconciler, God—says with simple, nakedly-honest self-awareness: I am humble. Think about it: no one can do that but God. Try it yourself and see where it gets you with your co-workers.

Suddenly Abraham’s promise followed by centuries of prophetic announcements regarding the “great and terrible day of the Lord” are shaded in radically different colors. Matter-of-factly, Peter confidently states on Pentecost that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is what God was really describing when He spoke of the “great day of the Lord.” In other words: it’s already happened and happening.

Translation: God looks at power very differently than we do.

It also means that the way to bless the world will never be by power. Be honest: in our most benevolent times when we dream about how we would rule the world if we were king, we still have to admit that all the power in the world can’t change the human heart. And that’s the power of Jesus.

Maybe it’s time we Christians reconsider how we think about power. In relationships. In politics. In culture. In organizations. In every way.

I’m not talking about abdication. But wouldn’t it behoove us to take some time to wrestle with this question: How did Jesus bless the world? Wouldn’t that be worth emulating? And is the servant (us) ever above the master (Jesus) in terms of practice or priority? That’s a rhetorical question.

How serious are we about blessing the whole world?

I’m not sure.


“Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD Almighty. (Zechariah 4:6b)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

why christmas is important. really.

http://www.worth1000.com/entries/83504/a-very-gothic-christmas

Each year it seems as though the Christmas Wars heat up a few more degrees: churches boycott stores advertising “happy holidays” and atheists file lawsuits about nativities creeping onto public spaces. Evangelicals launch their annual “let’s-put-Christ-back-in-Christmas” campaign (how come no group ever lobbies “Let’s put the x back in xmas”?) while the non-religious smirk at the kitschiness of plastic babies in mangers on front lawns with light bulbs up their butts. Contrarian fundamentalists remind us we don’t know the real birth date and Christmas trees are pagan while bloated malls blast “Joy to the World” in food courts to exhausted consumers. And, obligatorily, Time and Newsweek will offer a controversial cover story about Christianity to amp up December sales.

Like a long-lost Hatfield-McCoy reason to feud, what the heck are we fighting about? And maybe that just clarifies the importance of Christmas: the fact that there is, uh, fighting.

When I was an agnostic, I would flail away at the weirdness of Christmas. After all, gods coming to earth and taking on human form was nothing new. Even more, gods who died and were resurrected was a common myth way before Jesus.

In Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis describes a moment when he began questioning his atheism:

“…the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.’ To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not—as I would still have put it— ‘safe,’ where could I turn? Was there then no escape?”

No sane historian discounts that someone of some influence named Jesus existed. They may throw out the supernatural elements and relegate accounts to fanciful stories, but clearly someone named Jesus created a stir. And interestingly, only after he died.

But who creates a stir for two millennia? It’s not like an artist who was ignored during a lifetime but whose paintings are later revered. This one made claims not about what he created but who he was. Who does that and is remembered? Who never wrote a word, never traveled more than a few miles from home, had their first trained mentees desert them, and yet changed the course of human philosophy, culture and future? Who changes calendars?

From Bach to Bono and Kepler to Collins and Michelangelo to Fujimura, the arts and sciences are indelibly inked with this man’s influence. Indisputably.

When barbarians overthrew the powerful Roman Empire and destroyed any evidence of literacy, it was Irish Christ-followers—monks—that carefully copied every book, scroll and manuscript they could find, both sacred and secular. Jesus freaks rescued more pagan classics than anyone on the planet, the only ones preserving knowledge in an illiterate, library-less collapsing western world.

Who else has followers that have both caused wars and founded pacifistic movements?

Who birthed Calvin and Wesley? Who has a family as diverse as Roman Catholics and Apostolic Pentecostals? Who provoked comedic movie prayers like: “Dear tiny Jesus in your golden-fleece diapers…”

Whether your list includes the good (hospitals, art, Wilberforce) or the bad (sectarianism, wars, TestaMints®), one can’t deny the massive effect. The skeptic, the cynic, the agnostic, the materialist eventually have to admit—if they’re honest—that this all deserves a bit more than a wink and a nod. Christmas—with all its reindeer, retail, and ridiculousness—is still, however disguised, a reminder that something happened. Or better, someone happened.

I remember my first Christmas as a follower of Jesus. I was working downtown and walking across Fountain Square on my lunch break when suddenly I was struck by how much brighter and colorful and more real everything looked. Including the giant Christmas tree. Oh! Now I know who this is really about. I had passed, like Dorothy, from a black-and-white Kansas to the full-color world of the Kingdom. The previous year I had wrestled nightly with this person named Jesus…and lost. That was nearly forty years ago, and He’s still pinning me.

Merry Christmas, fellow pilgrims. I hope it’s your best and brightest yet.


When we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not telling just smart stories that someone invented. But we saw the greatness of Jesus with our own eyes.  (2 Peter 1:16 New Century Version) 



Tuesday, November 26, 2013

changeup

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. Okay, a long time. It’s partially due to a crazy schedule over the past several months, and partly because I was processing so much change-management information in my little pea-brain I couldn't do much else.

But now I’m absolutely thrilled that Rob King is here and leading Vineyard Cincinnati in the senior pastor role. His initial introduction can be seen here and for the last two weeks he’s been bringing the heat! I’ll continue on staff, serving Rob in a background role, but with no leadership responsibilities here, including stepping off the trustee board. I’ll continue functioning as a regional leader for Vineyard USA.

Rob just finished up a series called Changeup designed especially for this transition. In baseball, a changeup is a unique off-speed pitch disguised as a fastball. It simply throws the batter off. And the truth is: sometimes life throws us a changeup. And you swing at it. Several times.

The series was intended to help us learn to lean into Jesus when change—invited or not—comes barreling across our home plate. But think about it: there is no growth without change…whether that’s physical, emotional or spiritual growth.

Think of your own life: you were once a comfortable little fetus forming in your mother’s womb. And then after a few months things began to get uncomfortably tight and claustrophobic. You placed a few good kicks…but no one seemed to do anything. Still, it was warm, dark, quiet, comfy and cozy, barring the occasional burrito.

But one day you’re sitting in your living womb and the landlord decides you’re getting too big for your britches (despite being naked) and muscles begin contracting and fluids shift and you suddenly find your head squished as you’re squeezed through a narrow canal and pushed out into a cold, fluorescent-lit room with people in masks slapping your bottom and cutting the cord that connects you to life…and putting a really ugly pastel cap on your head.

That’s change.

Or climbing up the steps of the big yellow bus that would take you to kindergarten and away from your family and more importantly your toys.

Or that first day of gym class.

Or the dreaded SAT test days.

Or the day you left home in a fifteen-year old Corolla with all your earthly belongings in the back seat and trunk.

And here you are today. You made it. Changed.

The Bible says in a no-nonsense voice that: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. And there are seasons for what God proposes to do on Planet Earth. It’s interesting in the Bible that in the major events God initiates to roll out His will—those “hinge points”, to quote Thomas Cahill—it always involved a human being who would make themselves available to God…Who leads them through revolutionary change.

What change might you be going through? How are you handling/managing/avoiding/embracing it? And who’s going through it with you? That may be the most important question, perhaps even more than how you’re managing it. At the risk of sounding trite and formulaic, are you inviting Jesus to walk with you during the change?

It was the Jewish prophet Isaiah who captured these words from God: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isaiah 43:2). But keep in mind that life for the prophet didn’t reflect how we would interpret those verses. Traditionally, it’s believed that under the corrupt king Manasseh, Isaiah was executed by being forced into a hollow log and sawn in two. Where was the supposed protection? What’s wrong with that picture?

It depends how sharp your vision is and how far you’re willing to look into your future. Jesus described a curious viewpoint for considering God’s “protection”. He said, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body (uh, doesn’t being killed sound just a little unprotected?); they cannot touch your soul (oh! I get it now...that's worth protecting). Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” (Matthew 10:28-29)


Meditate on the connection of those sentences for a few years. Whew!

Here’s the deal: If we’re being shaped for God's purposes, not to mention eternity, we have to adjust how we view our current contexts. Who’s helping you adjust your vision? Who’s in the change with you? Wouldn’t it make sense for that to be God, the deeply personal and protector-of-our-souls God who focuses our vision on a Distant Country?


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

leadershift

The Bible doesn’t have a whole lot to say about leadership succession. The apostle Paul describes the selection and appointment of pastors*, but the New Testament is curiously quiet about how and when pastors are succeeded.

In the Old Testament, Israeli kings would come and go by appointing their sons, or by a coup d'├ętat, or death or military defeat. In the work of the tabernacle, the Levites did ministry from age twenty-five to fifty, at which time they were to retire from the work (though they could still assist). On the other hand, David ruled for forty years, implying another question: which leadership context is tougher—government or church? Hmmm…

Like any leader, you want to be spending time thinking about the future of the organization you help lead. In one of my favorite leadership books, The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner write:

“The domain of leaders is the future. The leader’s unique legacy is the creation of valued institutions that survive over time. . . . In fact, it’s this quality of focusing on the future that most differentiates people who are seen as leaders from those who are not . . . It’s something to which every leader needs to give more time and attention.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. I want to see Vineyard Cincinnati continue to advance the mission God has given us way beyond a single generation. And I want to help be a part of shepherding that transition. For a number of years I’ve been concerned about the graying of our church. Our demographic stats are decent in terms of age brackets; you could even call us an intergenerational church. But it’s clear that our largest demographic skews older now, as shown in this graph just over the last eight years (And by the way, if you don’t periodically survey your church, you’re missing a golden opportunity to uncover truth
about who you really are; we do an all-church survey every two years. I’ll take facts over anecdotes any day of the week. If you want a copy of our questions, let me know.). And it’s easy to imagine what we would have been twenty-five years ago, when the average age of our leaders was mid-thirties.

My concern with the median age in the Vineyard isn’t about being the coolest church or the Next Big Thing. God never called any of us to be trendsetters; he called us to be faithful. Big difference.

And it’s not simply about dismissing aging Baby Boomers in our youth-obsessed culture. Everyone needs Jesus, no matter what age.

But we all know the reality: churches that don’t reach successive generations will eventually die. And because God didn’t put a time limit on our mission or call us to one generation of fruitfulness, we have to think hard about the future. So about four years ago I got a prompting from the Holy Spirit that I needed to release leadership to the next generation, to step down from my role.

In February 2010, Bill Hybels flew down with a team to tour the Healing Center; they were concepting a “care center” at Willow Creek and were looking at different models. In the car ride from the airport, I asked him for references of successful successions within the Willow Creek Association (10,000 churches globally) and he laughed and told me he could only think of one at that time. This was new territory…and not just for me.

For years, of course, we’ve had an emergency succession plan in place in case I got hit by a bus—and “key man” insurance in behalf of the Vineyard. But we had no real plan if the bus missed me. And so we began to think about how to identify the next senior pastor of the Vineyard. And frankly, for complex organizations, the how may be just as important as the who in terms of systemic health.

After I met with our trustees, we started having heartfelt conversations with our very-gifted teaching pastor, Joe Boyd (who was 38 at the time), about leadership succession. Together we began to work a process to help him discern his future role. After several months of conversations and prayers, Joe opted out and didn’t sense it was his calling, even as much as he loves the Vineyard and Cincinnati and feels called to be here. But being in the lead pastor role was not what he sensed that meant. We all agreed together.

We’ve ended up using a search firm—Vanderbloemen Search Group—to help surface potential candidates for the lead pastor role. We believe this is the first step of a Spirit-led process and are currently in the early stages.

This year I’ll be sixty. I want to be a part of this process and influence as much as needed and required; I want to be around to help make it a great transition. I have no intention of “abandoning the ship”. I want our next lead pastor to be incredibly successful…and to be their cheerleader and get out of the way so they can lead. My role will change: I will not have a senior leadership role, I will not be a trustee, and will serve the next senior pastor with several potential options in a background role. I have a great staff leadership team and a sharp trustee board that comprises the eldership at Vineyard Cincinnati. We’re in a healthy, vibrant place, pedal-to-the-metal on serving and bringing the Kingdom to our city and beyond. This is an ideal time to navigate a transition.

A scripture I’ve been meditating on lately is John 12:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In the end—just like you—I simply want to be obedient to what God is saying, to let go. My walk with Jesus over thirty-nine years has been a fascinating mix of invitation and letting go.

The Spirit-filled Quaker author, Hannah Whitall Smith, who wrote some simple but profound books in the late 1800’s, penned a fascinating essay late in life:

“People talk a great deal about the duties the young owe to the old, but I think it is far more important to consider the duties the old owe to the young. I do not of course say that the young owe us old people no duties, but at the age of seventy I have learned to see that the weight of preponderance is enormously on the other side, and that each generation owes to the succeeding one far more duty than the succeeding one owes to them. We brought the younger generation into the world, without consulting them, and we are bound therefore to sacrifice ourselves for their good. This is what the God who created us has done in the sacrifice of Christ, and I do not see that He could have done less. He has poured Himself out without stint for His children, and we must do the same for ours.”

Pretty sweet, eh? Lead on, Jesus.



*The terms pastor, shepherd, bishop and elder are often used/translated interchangeably, as in 1 Peter 5:1,2: To the elders (presbuteros: a senior, presbyter) among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds (poimaino: feed, tend as a shepherd, pastor) of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers (episkopeo: bishop) not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve…   (NIV) 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

is leadership a gift?

Have you ever met someone that you thought was a natural leader?

I had lunch the other day with a young man who had immigrated to America at fifteen to escape an abusive father and dysfunctional family system. He worked the orange groves of Florida—“the hardest work I’d ever done”, he said—from sunrise to sundown, paid pennies per ninety-pound boxes. He knew no one there and spoke no English. He eventually found his way to Cincinnati to work at a relative’s restaurant, married a young girl, working two jobs while his new wife went to school to finish her degree. They eventually stumbled into the Vineyard where he discovered Jesus…and she recovered a lost faith. She baptized him last year, tears mingling with the water. He now loves sharing his faith and helping others grow.

As we talked, I marveled at his poise, his articulateness, his drive tempered with a Jesus-focused humility. When he left the table at Chipotle to refill his Coke, his young wife beamed and said, “It’s hard to believe he only has a fifth-grade education, isn’t it?”

I smiled and replied, “Your husband has leadership dripping off him. One day hell lead a church.” I don’t know if it was intuition or encouragement or the Spirit’s prompting, but it seemed there was something special about this young man as it related to leadership.

But is leadership really an inherent gift, showered on us by God…and if so, does that mean there are the “haves” and the “have nots”?

Let me lay my cards on the table first: I line up with the theory that church leaders aren’t born, they’re made and developed…as long as they get good tools, skills modeled for them and are open to the whispers of God. I would find myself in agreement with leadership gurus like Bennis, Kouzes and Posner, Collins and others.

What’s more, if there are not learned leadership behaviors, then what’s the sense of discipling others? If we’re not about developing people who become reproducers of the life of Christ in others, then we’ve got to throw out any notion of the “priesthood of all believers”, because priests are by definition leaders: people who lead others into the presence of God.

But let’s be honest: the famous passage in Romans regarding leadership seems to imply the opposite.

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Romans 12:4-8 (ESV).

It reads as though we each have a specific Holy Spirit-imbued gift for a particular use in the Body. But without taking the time to unpack this and the classic chapters in 1 Corinthians, there are potential caveats. Whether you take this to mean residential or primary giftings, or Spittler’s “dancing-hand-of-God”-gracelets model connected with the “when-you-come-together”-phraseology interpretive key of 1 Corinthians (any gift could be exercised by any of us at any time when we’re together), or simply hard-wired gifts for specific purposes, it deserves a little more thought.

For instance, if I don’t have the gift of serving, does that mean I’m off the hook of having to serve others? Or if I don’t have the gift of contribution, does that imply I don’t have to give…or at least be generous? Am I exempt from showing mercy? I would think these are rhetorical questions.

At some level, we’re all called to lead, as in leading lost children back to the Father. We live in such a way to model a life that will lead others into a rich dependency in Jesus. We’re always leading in some way. Perhaps these scriptures are more about scope or range.

But what I have noticed about leaders is this: there seem to be four attributes of leadership I’ve observed over the years. Not principles. Not necessarily values. But four modes of operating that shift contextually, situationally and continually in leaders. Over decades of leading in various capacities and studying leaders as a follower, I’ve observed four critical inner qualities for successful long-range leadership:

An inner-passion that fuels inspiration and energy. They somehow bring heat to situations and people that enable things to ignite, to combust. People feel the heat around this catalytic element of leadership. Things happen. Every successful leader I’ve known has a fire in their belly for a mission that brings a sense of empowerment and a longing for accomplishment to others. That doesn’t mean they have to have a salesperson-type personality or even be extreme extroverts. But it does mean they have to be able to express that inner-passion for a particular purpose in some communicable way.

A servant-orientation that clearly connotes that this whole thing is not about them. As a matter of fact, the organization, or the mission, or the cause, or the mechanism, is more important than them. They understand innately they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. They regularly fight with and shake off any sense of entitlement, giving life rather than expecting it. They are outward-focused and feel as though they are being “poured out.” Many of these leaders grew up in the organization.

An inner-grounding. There’s something solid, rooted and founded in their character. What’s more, they long for a similar integrity in the organizations they lead. They are driven by principles and values and a deep desire for praxis in their personal lives, their teams, their organizations and their practices. They think holistically about their churches.

A creative-bent. There’s a certain amount of blue sky-ing they enjoy with their teams and leaders. They have no problem with rounding up sacred cows and grilling burgers…or questioning organizational methodologies. There’s a “what-if” factor that fires their neurons regularly and a certain amount of calculated risk that creates organizational “room-to-breathe”. In spiritual circles they are looking for their prophetic voice.

Not every leader I’ve observed is perpetually functional in all four areas, but they recognize the gaps, stir up neglected ones as well as make themselves accountable to the people they lead for all four elements to be operating. They exercise the weak muscles and make sure they have some reflection of each one within the makeup of their management teams. Highly functioning leaders learn how to balance all four in ways that feel both semi-predictable yet surprisingly instinctive and fresh to their followers. They learn to situationally and intuitively recognize why and when one of the components needs to be activated to a higher degree.

The ancients reduced the world to four elements: fire, water, earth and air. Those correspond winningly with the four attributes listed. They are basic, crucial and foundational…and what I would call elemental leadership.

Are you aware of one of these particular elements that needs to be emphasized or amped up in your church, your ministry area, your organization—for “such a time as this”?

It may be that your best leadership opportunity is simply identifying the current gap for the ministry you lead.