Thursday, May 21, 2015

david letterman goes to church

 
Last night I watched the final episode of David Letterman’s thirty-three year run on the Late Show. Comedians have been paying homage for the last several weeks, sometimes tearfully. Jimmy Kimmel’s article in Time magazine about the impact Letterman had on comedy and the talk show format is worth a year’s subscription. As Kimmel summed up, “None of us who discovered Dave on our own and claimed him as our own will ever be able to satisfactorily explain to younger people what he did, what he meant and what he means.” Talk shows had become the Vegas-slick status-quo; Letterman was the garage band turned up to eleven.

It’s hard to put into context in this current millennium how revolutionary and seditious Letterman’s comedy was. His slyly snarky delivery was underscored by a midwestern self-deprecating persona that subversively upended the corporate protocol. He let everyone in on his obvious dysfunctions while remaining intensely private. Monday through Friday his feigned gap-toothed smile let his audience in on the most cerebral jokes. And who else would throw stuff off buildings to see what would happen, drive a steamroller over anything, dip himself in an Alka-Seltzer suit, make a Velcro leap, cut through Hollywood phoniness while calling his studio a dump? It was as if the inmates had taken over.

Baby boomers knew they had a rebel coup on the airwaves at 12:30am each night after Johnny Carson’s menthol-smooth delivery but tired format. Then he moved to the coveted 11:30 time slot on CBS opposite Jay Leno’s Tonight Show…who was given the show over Carson’s wishes. After his retirement, Carson would secretly send jokes to Letterman.

And during that same era, Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati was birthed. We knew that humor was critical for tearing down the walls between churched and unchurched people. We knew that if people who were far from God would trust us to deliver the dangerous message of Jesus, it would take some cultural touch-points…poking fun at ourselves and laughing together. As C. S. Lewis penned in The Four Loves, “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself.’”  When people laugh together, a unique bond is created. We knew that the Church, as it was, seemed hopelessly locked in a culture war that created a barrier before a conversation could even begin.

But there was more to it. Vineyards had a mantra: Everyone gets to play. That meant that ministry was not relegated to professional ministers…and that God wanted everyone to extend the Kingdom with the unique gifts He had given. The line between clergy and laity had to be blurred if we were to be effective with a “priesthood of all believers” approach. We took advantage of that by poking fun at our pastors and letting people see that pastors were just regular people with their own dysfunctions. We felt it was necessary to pull pastors down from pedestals. It was a tricky wire to walk; and as I told our “crack staff” of volunteers who shaped our celebrations, “Theology is easy. Comedy is hard.” But we knew it was important.

And so we cribbed from Letterman mercilessly. We winked our eye and brought everyone in on the joke that church people can be pretty ridiculous. We referenced “The World’s Most Dangerous Worship Band.” We created our own Top Ten lists with titles like:

Top 10 Ways You Know You’re In A Bad Church (#8 “The church bus has gun racks”. . .  #6 “Services are B.Y.O.S.—”Bring Your Own Snake” . . . #3 “Doctrine includes story of Xenu, a galactic ruler who brought billions of people to earth 75 million years ago, stacked them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs…oh wait, that’s Scientology.”)

Top 10 New Year’s Eve Predictions for 1997 that included: “Rapture happens. Vineyard cuts back to three services.”

Or on Mother’s Day, the Top Ten Worst Mother’s Day Gifts included “Clairol Unibrow Waxer”.

And sometimes we got shut down and had a Top 10 pulled after a Saturday night celebration, as in Top 10 Things The Disciples Said After The Resurrection (#7 “Hey Pete, cock-a-doodle-do!”. . . #1 “Jesus Christ!”). There was uncomfortable laughter after that last one. I thought it was theologically perfect...pretty much what Thomas said. Oh well.
We followed our list of Favorite Christian Guys’ Pick-Up Lines (“Before tonight, I never believed in predestination...”) with Favorite Lines Christian Women Use To Break Up With Jerks Who Talk Like That (“God loves me and must have a better plan for my life.”)

Or the time we had two guys dressed up as Wayne & Garth on the heels of their popularity on SNL with the Top 10 Christian Babes…with Amy Grant on it twice. Poking fun at the American religious subculture seemed healthy to us.

We launched into videos in the early ‘90’s when all we had were VHS tapes in an “editing suite” of two VCRs. Letterman took his audience out on the streets with him; so would we. We regularly had a running video sketch where Steve Sjogren—our senior pastor—didn’t come up to speak after the announcements. While there was a minute of uncomfortable silence, I would run frantically out the side door to find him while a pre-recorded video picked up the outside action. In the very first one we taped, I ran all the way to a Burger King up the street to find him cleaning the toilets. That was a two-fer: we lifted up the value of servant evangelism while making ourselves look a bit remedial. As a matter of fact, when we filmed it earlier we failed to get permission and simply went in the bathroom with a camera to do some guerrilla filming. Suddenly the manager flung open the restroom door and found three of us jammed in a stall: Steve with yellow rubber gloves, myself and a guy with a video camera. Right. The shocked manager yelled, “What the hell are you guys doing in here?”…and threw us out. It was difficult to explain. And when we really got into trouble, we would tell people we were from nearby Landmark Baptist Church. I’m pretty sure my friend Matt Holman who pastors there has forgiven us.

From there the bits got stranger and more outrageous while our people relaxed, laughed more and more, and church became a not-so-scary-place to invite your unbelieving friends.

One Easter in the ‘90’s we produced a video (we had bought our first digital non-linear over-priced editing program) with Steve inserted into actual scenes from the perennial “Ten Commandments” movie with Charlton Heston. Walking with the Israelites between the walls of water in the Red Sea were some of us holding “Free Car Wash” signs with snorkels. An older religious couple reamed me out afterwards for doing something so disrespectful and irreverent…even though I attempted to explain we were poking fun at a movie, not the actual ten commandments. A movie with Edward G. Robinson as the rebelling Israelite Dathan. Seriously. They were unappeased.

Or the weekend we held our services at the Convention Center downtown and couldn’t find Steve. I ran out the side door to discover him at Cincinnati Gardens (where we had met the previous year for Easter). Steve was practicing figure skating (we had a double doing spins) while waiting for the service to start. When I told him we were at a different arena, we hopped into the PastorCopter (primitive CGI), flew him downtown where he promptly jumped out of the copter and through some fake open bay doors in the ceiling of the Convention Center…where we simultaneously dropped a dummy dressed up as Steve from the catwalks of the room that landed with a dull thud behind some equipment. Steve popped up from behind the equipment smiling amid cheers. Except for a small child crying who thought it was real.

When Steve almost died from a medical procedure gone horribly wrong, there was a heaviness over the church for weeks. On the weekend he finally returned to speak from a wheelchair, we knew we needed to lighten things up. We produced a video where he admits he’s tired of nothing exciting to do in a wheelchair, so we take him out for some “stunt riding”, substituting him again with a dummy dressed as him and holding on to a rope tied to a pickup truck that “accidentally” takes off in reverse and slams into him while Steve yells “Woohoo!”…followed by a series of Jackass-type stunts (before Jackass!). At one point, we attached a bunch of bungie cords to his wheelchair and throw “him” off a bridge to disastrous results. Laughter filled the room. When Steve was wheeled live into the auditorium, people were thrilled. During the service I noticed a young boy in a wheelchair in the last row with his mom. I was mortified when she approached me after the service, held my breath to expect the worse, when she said, “My son hasn’t walked since birth…and that was the funniest thing we’ve seen! He laughed and laughed!”

Whew. I felt like I dodged a bullet.

Even as tame as all those seem now, it was ridiculously radical in those days. And created an environment that screamed, “We don’t take ourselves very seriously. But we are very serious about introducing you to the Kingdom of God.”

And though he’ll never know it, Letterman helped us create a context where church would no longer look like your dad’s church, that stuffy, self-righteous, boring, religious, powerless, judgmental stereotype that most unchurched and dechurched people had jettisoned for all the right and wrong reasons. His anti-establishment comedy seemed mildly reflective of the attitude Jesus expressed when He was warned not to go to Jerusalem because the religious establishment of that day—the phony religious leader Herod—was out to kill Him. Jesus simply ressponded, “Go and tell that fox I’m coming anyway…” and went on about His business of healing and setting folks free.

We owe a debt of gratitude to a clever comedian whom I hope one day finds his true value and worth in a Father who loves him deeply despite his idiosyncrasies and brokenness...just like ours.

Thank you, Mr. Letterman. It was a good run.



Thursday, March 05, 2015

vibe...and your church's culture

Okay, dear readers (and this is mostly for pastors), before perusing this, there are two assumptions you have to agree with for this post to make any sense:

Assumption number 1: your purpose in life is defined by how God rescued you.
Assumption number 2: the core of your life purpose is helping others to experience that as well and to know Jesus of Nazareth as the Rightful King of the earth.

Are we fairly agreed? Then let’s move on…

In bringing people who are estranged from God back to Him, there are two ways to accomplish that: we either attract them or we go find them. And if we do this in the context of a community of believers, we either create environments designed to attract people and/or we develop missional or incarnational communities embedded in the area that we want to reach. And frankly, both approaches are closely joined at the hip. Let’s think both/and for a few moments…

Consider your own neighborhood. When you first moved into your neighborhood, you probably didn’t knock on your neighbors’ doors to tell them they needed to repent. More than likely, you began “get-to-know-them” conversations while cutting the grass or washing your car. And then perhaps you invited them over to grill out. Maybe you took a big risk and even started an “explorers” Bible study. Regardless, you thought about your environment—probably straightened up the house, vacuumed, cleaned the bathroom, baked some great smelling brownies or picked up some decent wine and brie. Whatever. You invited them into your family’s emotional field.

In many ways, you were first wanting to win them to yourself…so they might know you’re fairly normal and to earn enough relational capital to share the most important thing in your life: your story and how it connects with God’s.

It wasn’t about making them an evangelistic project. That’s creepy. But it was all about love; you were genuinely caring for them…and motivated by the Holy Spirit to share the Best News of the Universe: that God loves them and was offering amnesty...that heaven had invaded earth.

But what never fails to baffle me is how often many pastors ever give a moment’s thought about the atmosphere of their church environments. Or their church’s culture…and how that’s expressed. We’re inviting people into our “family’s” emotional field.

It’s the vibe.

Vibe is a term jazz musicians used for years about the feel music has to have. It’s all about atmosphere…it’s what others feel as you do business. You can play the right notes with the hippest players on the best equipment, but not have any vibe. It just doesn’t feel right.


Or imagine going to two different parties in one night. Both of them have the same elements: food, friends and music. But one of them is a total drag and feels draining…while the other one is a blast and energizing. Chances are pretty good we’ll avoid the former party at that place the next time. Vibe is critical.

Every organization has a vibe. Families have a vibe. You can spend a few minutes in a home and quickly pick up that this family does not have a lot of fun together...or this family is so unstructured nothing is ever accomplished...or so structured that creativity is choked. If the atmosphere were such that I prefer not visiting that house again, I would say there is no vibe, at least a good one.

Every church has a vibe as well. Your church’s atmosphere is charged with something…or nothing. When thinking about the weekend services of your church, I would consider five essential vibe assessors: Participation, Energy, Inclusiveness, Quality and Flow.

Participation
Are people engaged? Are they actively listening during the teaching? Are they responding in some way during worship? Is there any attempt to assess people experiencing God in some tangible way? Was there any laughter during the teaching (Humor is a big deal: it’s a major indicator of icebreaking. I used to tell our creative team, “Theology is easy; humor is hard.”)? Were people invited in any way to receive the Good News? Are people given an opportunity to connect further with the church and are responding in some measurable way? On a scale of one-to-ten, how would you honestly rate the level of participation? Even if it’s highly produced (not my personal leaning…), it still has to have opportunity for people to feel they were engaged in some way. Of course the numbers will be higher in a small group or church than in a megachurch setting.

Energy
Were the worship songs directed to God? Did the music feel more like a dirge than a celebration (Vineyard churches must learn to balance intimate worship with up-tempo celebration songs)? Did the people on the platform (worship leader, transition person or host, speaker) appear warm, authentically energetic, and loose/informal…or cold, bored, disingenuous or cheesy (even if you personally know they’re not like that)? Was the message inspirational/challenging in some way? On a scale from (1) boring or irrelevant to (10) a call-to-action or soul-touching, where was the message? Is there some sense of the presence of God?

Inclusiveness
Were the words to songs easily accessible as well as understandable? Was the room lighting appropriate (allowing for some anonymity yet warm and inviting)? Was the language culturally-sensitive and inclusive or too “inside” and filled with buzzwords and Christianese? Were there enough descriptions and explanations of the order of the service? Was there culturally-inclusive music before and after the service? Did the graphics seem friendly and inviting? Were the announcements too much for “family insiders”? How does your hospitality team come off?—are they busy talking with each other, or targeting people like desperate used-car salespeople? Did the service come off authentically transparent?

Quality
How are the worship leader’s abilities (unprepared, distractingly poor or confident and genuinely worshipful)? How did the worship leader connect with the congregation?—did he or she have a good rapport and warmth or seem remote and weirdly spiritual? How did the worship band look: bored, like they just woke up or picked up their instrument for the first time? How was the sound? Was the message engaging and challenging or boring and irrelevant? Was it too long, rambling, redundant? (IMHO, great communicators can handle 35 to 45 minute talks, but most of us could cut the fluff and have way better messages by keeping them at no more than 25 minutes. And a little reality check: great communicators are few and far between. How many b-ballers actually make it to the NBA? There are only a few Andy Stanleys…)

Flow
Once again, how long was the message? Enough said. How long was the service (if you want to know how long it should be, ask your volunteers in the nursery—you’ll get an earful)? Did people leave wanting more (that’s a good sign)? Was the order of the service paced well? Was there a sense of continuity with each part? Did the worship leader talk between songs? (Stop it. Please.) How long were the announcements?—people automatically tune out during this part. Believe me. Why torture them? Did the service seem connected thematically (Really?—an up-tempo song after the message on crucifixion?)? Did things feel disjointed?

A final note: Of course these are subjective. But as a leader, you have to begin to benchmark them against what you want to achieve in creating invitational environments. If you don’t create and protect the vibe, believe me, someone else in your church will. I would ask an outsider to give you their honest opinion of what they experience in your service…from the time they drove into the parking lot to when they left.

What culture has your church created? Better yet, what culture do you want to create?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

andraé crouch and the jesus movement

And now for a musical journey…

Last night I was working on a little personal music project at home on Audacity. When I finally trudged off to bed in the wee hours, I checked Google news and happened to stumble across a report that Andraé Crouch had died. A flood of memories came swirling back.

To the uninitiated, Andraé will simply be eulogized as a seven-time Grammy-winning gospel singer/songwriter. More astute reporters will mention his crossover choir performances with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Elton John and others. But for my money, those all pale compared to his contribution to the unique move of the Holy Spirit in the seventies called the Jesus Movement and the accompanying charismatic outpouring that rocked churches and a disassociated generation of young people who had grown up with the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, a burgeoning drug culture and a chasm-sized generation gap.

Into a disillusioned and fractured society came an underground, powerhouse move of God. When my own life took a 180 degree turn after meeting numbers of Christ-transformed people, I left the bar band I had been playing in and found myself as a musician searching for some sounds I could relate to. Not easy in those days. But someone loaned me Phil Keaggy’s first solo record; I remember seeing his Ohio-based band Glass Harp opening up for the Kinks and Humble Pie some years earlier at the Ludlow Garage (apparently November 15, 1969 according to the plaque embedded in the sidewalk on Ludlow Avenue) and thinking, “Wow, this guy looks and sings like a mini-McCartney, but plays guitar like a banshee.” The “What A Day” album was Beatle-ish, childlike and delightful.

I think the next cassette (remember those?) someone gave me was by a totally unknown artist to me: Andraé Crouch and the Disciples. I thought, “Really? They picked that cheesy name?” But one listen hooked me. These were serious players…and I came to find out that the nucleus of his band in that day was a little-known group called Sonlight—serious jazz/rock musicians who were Christians…and white guys (funky Bill Maxwell had me on the downbeat). That made Andraé revolutionary in those days.

But there was something different about Andraé’s music that I couldn’t put my finger on. Christians would use a nebulous word to me: anointed. To this day I’m not sure I know how that’s measured, but Andraé seemed to have it in shovelfuls. I was a skinny white drummer who nourished his musical chops as a youngster on everything from prog-rock groups like Yes to Joe Sample’s jazz/funk Crusaders (now that was an interesting name for a secular band). Andraé’s music had a personalized devotional quality that was different from everything I knew and wrapped in an infectious groove. “Live At Carnegie Hall” awakened my soul in a way that I couldn’t articulate as a brand new follower of Jesus. I needed more of that.

And so one day I found myself riding my trusty Schwinn ten-speed up a hill on Montgomery Road near Silverton when a car sped past that flashed a bumpersticker with the words “Andraé Crouch” and “Cincinnati Gardens” on it. At least, that’s all I could read on it. No way, I thought. I began pedaling as fast as I could to try to catch up. By this time it was a couple of lights ahead but I could see in the distance that the car turned into an apartment complex. I was panting like a dog when I finally biked into the parking lot filled with cars. I identified the car and was desperate to find the driver for more info. But which apartment? I did the only sensible thing—I just began knocking on doors asking if they drove a car with an Andraé Crouch bumpersticker on it. It happened that everyone who answered the door was an African-American who looked askance at the skinny, long-haired, pasty-white, out-of-breath twenty-something wanting them to identify their vehicle.

But eventually I found the driver. He was totally surprised and just laughed—“You read that on my car?” Turns out his church—James Temple Church of God in Christ—was promoting it…plus, he was selling tickets. Score!

A few weeks later I was basking in that mysterious anointing, watching the diversity on the stage making great music and singing unashamedly about Jesus, and, as a new believer, discovering the power of worship. Andraé was so influential in my life that when my friend Paul Niehaus and I formed a little acoustic duo, we attempted to translate his music for two long-haired white guys banging on tinny Ovation guitars in local coffeehouses. God forgive us.

Andraé marched at the front of the Jesus Revolution, sometimes playing for nearly all-white audiences. He was a pioneer, providing a soundtrack for a fresh wave of the Spirit, later risked being misunderstood by the Church for his forays into mainstream music, and, like all of us, had his own personal struggles.

But I, for one, am so glad he was loaned to this planet for the time we had. Thanks, God, for the job you gave Andraé to do—that anointing-thing really worked on this guy.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

the mark driscoll controversy

Mark Driscoll’s recent decision to step down from leadership at Mars Hill Church triggered a feeding frenzy on the interweb. I have no connection with the people involved (except a friend and former Vineyard staff member who’s been quoted frequently in the press as one of Mark’s protestors!), so it’s not fair to comment based solely on press releases and bloggers. Pastoring—whether you’re the lead pastor or the elders—is difficult enough without me dogpiling on.

But of course we all have opinions, don’t we? I personally don’t subscribe to Mark’s reformed theological views (consider me a Wesleyan Spirit-filled egalitarian of sorts) or what’s been referred to as his “frat boy” speaking style or his alleged domineering—some would say bullying—leadership approach, but I have appreciated his passion for the Kingdom from afar.

I was admittedly surprised, though, by a leaked internal memo about the way finances were handled in respect to what was called the Mars Hill Global Fund. By all appearances, this was a designated fund for international missions outreach, but according to Warren Throckmorton’s obsessive reporting, only about 6% was actually going out to world missions concerns; the rest was simply filtered into the general fund. Earlier it was disclosed that Mars Hill paid a publicity firm a couple hundred thousand dollars to get his book on the New York Times bestseller list. Aggressive-marketing campaigns are not uncommon for pop authors but certainly ethically questionable for a church.

That’s not smart. John Wimber used to warn churchplanters that money and sexual impropriety can absolutely ensnare and bring down leaders and churches. Never touch the money and keep your office door open. Though the Global Fund memo seemingly didn’t come from Driscoll himself, the danger is that pastors can get so busy in traveling or promoting their latest book that they lose their eye on the flock. Or in Jim Collins language: when CEOs start showing up on talk shows, it’s all over for the organization.

Scott Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, articulates the danger of creeping entitlement and how leaders can begin to feel arrogantly bulletproof in their decisions. In describing true leadership, he writes:

(Leaders) are often willing to sacrifice their own comfort for ours, even when they disagree with us. . . . Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last. . . . The leaders of organizations who rise through the ranks not because they want it, but because the tribe keeps offering higher status out of gratitude for their willingness to sacrifice, are the true leaders worthy of our trust and loyalty. All leaders, even the good ones, can sometimes lose their way and become selfish and power hungry, however. . . . What makes a good leader is that they eschew the spotlight in favor of spending time and energy to do what they need to do to support and protect their people.

I’m not implying that Driscoll falls into any negative leadership category; again, I’m not close enough to any of the parties involved to know nor have any real responsibility to comment on Mars Hill polity and accountability. But when Forbes.com calls your church “the Enron of American Churches”, you have a p.r. problem of the first degree.

And one final thought: this has nothing to do with the size of churches. I’ve known very small ones with spiritually abusive leaders and a controlling culture with little transparency.

It simply has everything to do with leadership. Period.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

imagination and leadership

I’m working my way through writing a new book…this one is based on my observations and experience of leadership and the necessary elements it takes to lead well, whether it’s your family, team, department or organization. One of the key elements I’m currently working on is: imagination.

I’m convinced that the power of imagination and creativity is way too often overlooked in management and leadership circles. Many times we relegate imagination to the exclusive domain of artists and creatives, forgetting that we are all made in the image of a God to whom we are introduced in the opening pages of scripture via an explosive flurry of creativity. We have the same spiritual DNA, regardless of how artistically-challenged we may consider ourselves. If your best doodles are stick people and the only poetry you recall is “There once was a girl from…”, fear not: your true creativity is not limited to sketches and poems.

Ed Catmull, the president of the creative powerhouse Pixar, began his leadership life in front of a computer with a single dream: to somehow create animation with a computer. His boyhood had been shaped by two heroes—Walt Disney and Albert Einstein. Even though he worked his way through the comic-book-advertised Jon Gnagy’s Learn To Draw art kit (which I remember buying as a kid myself!), he sadly discovered that he would never reach the talent arc of Disney’s animators. So eventually he turned his attention to computer science and graphics.

Twenty-five or so years later he would help lead and manage the creative team that developed the industry-changing movie Toy Story. But he writes tellingly that after they had finally released the movie, he “felt adrift”. Is this really what he wanted to do—manage a complex, messy company mixed with insanely creative people, bean-counters, bottom-line investors and now skyrocketing expectations? Would he miss personally using his own artistic, creative abilities?

Catmull would ultimately make a paradigm shift in his thinking: he could use his restless creativity to think imaginatively about how an organization could develop a “culture of creativity” and how structures, processes and values could be creatively designed to bring the best out of their employees while satisfying their audience with stories and characters of incredible emotional depth brought to life from zeroes-and-ones.

In other words, he could shift his creative juices from graphic programming to thinking innovatively about organizational structures, systems and culture. Management didn’t have to just be about maintenance and metrics; he began to see a much larger picture for his creativity-starved leadership role. In his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, he writes tellingly:

. . . Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture—one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became—wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job. . . . My hope was to make this culture so vigorous that it would survive when Pixar’s founding members were long gone, enabling the company to continue producing original films that made money, yes, but also contributed positively to the world. . . . That was the job I assigned myself—and the one that still animates me to this day.

How is your imagination being used in leadership? What kind of “what if?” questions are you mulling and tackling with your team? How much time do you allot for creative thinking?



“Best way—bar none—to stay creative is to manage ‘hang out.’ Religiously. Hang out with weirdos (on any and all dimensions) rather than ‘same old, same old’ and you automatically win.”                 ~Tom Peters

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

the withness factor

Years ago when our oldest daughter was thirteen, we moved into a new school district. Since Rachel was typically an internal processor and often learned through quiet observance, it was sometimes difficult to know what she was wrestling with in her inner world, particularly since she tended to be even-tempered and optimistic.

One night my wife came out of Rachel’s room and said, “I’m not sure what’s wrong. She’s just being very quiet.” It was a hot August night—almost midnight and she was still up. All the Workmans tend to be late-nighters, especially during the summer.

We had moved to the new district over the Easter break but were driving our girls to the old school for the remaining couple of months so they wouldn’t have to switch mid-stream. Now five months later, we had settled into a new neighborhood over the summer and Rachel had kept her friends at church. But after eight years in a small school, she would be attending a very large one where she knew no one. To us at the time it didn’t seem like a major issue, particular since she was so involved in the youth group at church.

But she was clearly down. And the reality is, any problem is big when it’s big to you. I knocked on her door, walked in and sat on the edge of her bed.

“You okay?” I asked.

Without looking up, she responded, “Yeah.”

“What’s wrong?”

A pause, then, “I don’t know.”

You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that from here on out it’s going to be short answers. We sat there in silence for a few moments, then I asked, “Have you ever gone on a bike ride at midnight?” She looked at me quizzically.

When I was a little boy, I idolized my big brother. He was five years older than me and the coolest guy on the planet. Or at least in Augusta, Kentucky, population twelve-hundred. One summer night when we were kids, he invited me to go bike riding after our parents had long gone to sleep. He didn’t seem to be embarrassed to be seen with his little skinny baby brother, but then again maybe that’s why we went out at midnight.

We taped flashlights on our handlebars and took off down Bracken Street. We made our way to a pitch-black country road heading out of town along a marshy field bordering the river. My eyes suddenly widened: the field was littered with what seemed to be thousands upon thousands of fireflies. It seemed as if we had somehow coasted our Huffys beyond the rings of Saturn into a sea of twinkling stars.

I can close my eyes and still see it to this day. It’s a wonderful memory; I owe my big brother for that one.

Still sitting on the edge of Rachel’s bed, I looked down at her and said, “Let’s go for a bike ride.” She flashed a puzzled grin.

We pulled our bikes out of the garage after I duct taped a flashlight on my handlebars.  We rode past the massive eighty-year-old WLW diamond-shaped radio tower, once powerful enough to broadcast on children’s braces. Seriously. A few cars slowed to look at the white-haired man on a bike with a flashlight and a blond thirteen-year-old. We didn’t talk much as we rode across the moonlit blacktop, past darkened houses, sneaking glances voyeuristically at the windows with a slight blue glow from televisions. We simply gulped in the warm midnight air. How often do you get to do that in life with your thirteen-year-old?

We eventually made our way home. Rachel smiled, gave me a hug, and went off to bed. Sometimes we just need someone to be there, to be with. What words, rational explanations and clever justifications don’t do, withness does.

In C. S. Lewis’ poignant journal kept after the death of his wife, he writes:

“There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anybody says, or, perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet, I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

Lewis, former atheist and one time confirmed bachelor who became the greatest apologist for Christianity in the 20th century, found he simply needed people…people to be with.

We were wired for this mysterious thing called community, for withness. I struggle with it, but understand more and more as I age how critically vital it is. It doesn’t take much for any of us to feel valued, to feel loved, to feel accepted. The inevitable changes and losses of life are much more manageable in the withness of others.

Are you experiencing the withness factor in your life?

“...And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” ~Jesus (Matthew 28:20)


Thursday, September 25, 2014

in it to schwinn it...

Two years ago I finally broke down and bought what’s called a comfort bike. It’s a clever marketing name for bicycles for old people. For nearly thirty years I had a yellow Schwinn 12-speed that I pedaled everywhere…the kind with the super thin tires made for racing though you never did. And a microscopic seat that after a mile on the bike trail made you feel like you’d gone down the twenty-story Wedgie-O-Matic waterslide at the local water park. Plus, you’re hunched over like Quasimodo.

Hence, the comfort bike.

Some years ago I was riding my trusty old Schwinn when I came upon a subdivision under construction. At the bottom of a hill some kids on BMX-style bikes had placed a sheet of plywood on some concrete blocks and made a ramp that they were flying off. Naively, I thought, “That looks like fun. I bet I could do that.”—momentarily forgetting that I was no longer a kid and had a bike that should have been in a museum.

After watching several jumps from a distance, they were finally sitting on their bikes off to the side so I thought I’d be cool, zoom down the hill, jump the ramp and then ride off into the sunset while their mouths were still open. I took off down the hill, pedaling full speed and just as I hit the ramp I suddenly had a rational thought: “This may not have been a good idea.” In a panic I squeezed my brake…but the wrong one: I hit my front brake, which made the bike flip over head-first. As if in slow motion I shot off the ramp upside down and landed flat on my back on the asphalt, still holding on to the handlebars with the Schwinn straight above me.

I landed so hard on my back it knocked the wind out of me. If you’ve never had the wind knocked out of you, don’t. It’s a terrible feeling. You have no air in your lungs and you can’t get enough in fast enough. It’s like dry drowning.

And of course all the kids circled me on their bikes and in between uncontrollable laughter managed to get out, “Are you okay?”

Sometimes things happen to us that knock the spiritual breath out of us. A death. A divorce. A pink slip. An accident. A loss of some sort. It may have been your fault or it may not have. Regardless, you’re gasping for spiritual air…and you can’t seem to get any in.  Where are you, God? And quickly the temptation becomes seeing God as other than good. Doubts flood in faster than air: “Maybe He’s not good.” Or “Maybe He doesn’t love me.”

Tread carefully, friends.

Someday you may have kids and there will be times when, believe it or not, they’ll think you don’t love them because of something that happened…or didn’t happen. But of course it’s not true; it’s just hard for them to understand that.

So do you really think you’re more loving than God? Seriously?

In the end you simply have to get back on the bike again. Maybe you failed at something critical. Maybe you’re in deep need of forgiveness, or deep need to forgive. Perhaps the unthinkable happened. But faith by its very nature always involves some level of relational risk. And you may even respond like Peter: “To whom else would we go?”—caught between a spiritual rock and a hard place.

Never forget: you have a lot of road yet to travel. However mysterious and hidden the Kingdom of God may seem in those moments (à la Matthew 13:24-30), it really is advancing and needs you.

So get back on the bike. Ask God to give you a push. Trust me: you’ll soon find your balance. Chances are you’ll glance back and notice He was there all along.

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.