Tuesday, April 29, 2008

the wright stuff

Reverend Wright has sure stirred some things up.

I have to admit that his last speech at the National Press Club seemed poorly timed for Barack. But his interview on Bill Moyers was one of the most succinct and beautifully-expressed explanations of the African-American Christian experience and the often smacked-down “liberation theology” that I’ve heard. I wouldn’t want to put words in the mouths of the black pastors I meet with monthly in a small group, but I imagine they would say “amen” to his interview. Hey, I’m pasty white and I agreed with his observations.

Most of this isn’t about politics; it’s about the tension between nationalism and the Kingdom of God, and between the radically divergent paradigms of mainstream white evangelicals and black evangelicals. I hope it gets a conversation started. Face it—it’s the elephant in the room. And no, that wasn’t a not-so-subtle reference to the GOP. Honestly, this isn’t about politics. This is a Body of Christ problem.

One only has to hear Wright in context. Like most of us, sound bites simply don’t do justice. Can you imagine dismissing the moral, prophetic and theological relevance of the psalmists based on Psalm 137:9—“Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!” (NLT)? As a matter of fact, Wright’s interpretation of that particular verse through the eyes of the oppressed is masterful.

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t now, except to say: don’t get the Kingdom mixed up with Americanism. It’s not that America is a bad place; it’s just that America is made up of sinners. Just like England. Just like Germany. Just like Iran. Just like Israel. Otherwise, we’ll just stop planting churches and doing outreaches around here. Democracy may be the best human government; but it’s ultimately not what God has in mind. He’s building a Kingdom, and in His Kingdom, you don’t get a vote. You don’t get to decide what laws are passed. You don’t get to choose the type of judicial system you prefer. You don't get to form a lobby or PAC group. He’s the Benevolent Dictator. He has an asbestos bumpersticker on His fiery chariot that reads: My Kingdom…Love It or Leave It. And you don’t even get to agree to disagree. Get real.

What’s more, Christians are called to live incarnationally. That means we slip into the skin of the oppressed. Jesus didn’t just become like “us”…uh, like the average getting-by-okay-suburban guy. He became a slave who died a criminal’s execution. And then we’re told to have that same attitude in us, according to Philippians 2. That means the people with the power (and who ultimately has more Real Power than Christians?) must be the ones who reach out to empathize with (as Jesus did), to as best possible become one of (as Jesus did), to suffer with and for (as Jesus did)…the least, the last and the lost, as the cliché goes. It’s part of our gig, folks. And systemically, those people are typically the minority, the marginalized and those that look different from whomever has the power and money.

Anyway, watch Wright’s whole interview. And try to listen incarnationally first. Watch both part one and two; they're mind-stretching.

And be wary of the press…whether Fox or CBS. Bottom line: it’s really about ratings…and dollars.

Enough from me. This should stir the proverbial pot.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


This weekend I’m going to speak on serving. Sometimes I wonder if I speak too much about that, but then in a deep spiritual meditative state, I think, “Naaaah.”

To me it’s like asking, Can you talk about love too much?

Uh, it’s kind of the Main Thing, isn’t it? Or as Paul said, “The greatest of these…”

When we speak of the love God has for us or His commandment that we love one another, we might forget that love is a verb...there is action connected with it. No action, no real love. And so it makes me wonder: if the word love has become so misused and abused, what if we exchanged the word serve instead?

I posed that once at the Vineyard and got an interesting response from someone a few weeks later who told me he began thinking about his wife like that. What if instead of saying he loved her, he began saying he served her? He began thinking about ways he could creatively serve her. That’s love in action.

Maybe that’s why Paul wrote in Ephesians: “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men…”

Try it for a week: catch yourself and substitute the word serve for love. See what happens. Then I wonder if when you say “I serve my new laptop…”, you might stop and think, “Ouch. I wonder if I really do?”

Monday, April 14, 2008

i'm sirius now

For the past four or five months I’ve been doing a one-minute program on Sirius radio on FamilyNet channel 161. I’m really not a Christian radio kind-of-guy. I’m not saying that to be hip. I just tend to listen to NPR if I’m going to listen to the radio at all (where else can you hear Terry Gross hacked off at Gene Simmons?). But I’d rather have The Afters or Mute Math turned up really loud. I actually backed into a twenty-something’s jacked-up pickup with a serious sub in it at a Best Buy’s parking lot because I never heard their frantic honking over Spoon. Now that’s embarrassing for an old guy. But that’s another story.

I actually started doing “Outward-Focused Thoughts” on our local Christian radio station (WAKW) here in Cincinnati several years ago. The spots were a little over two-minutes long and done at the behest of Jim Smith, who was the morning host in those days. I’m pretty sure he suggested it (he denies it now and says it was my idea—no one wants culpability…) but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a show for Christians. And, again, I didn’t think I would be good for Christian radio audiences.

But as time passed, I thought: am I stupid? If a personal dream is to help believers become more outward-focused, less concerned about their rights and evangelical hot-button politics, and simply more servant-oriented, then sheesh, you’ve got a built-in audience. It’s ideal. I mean, really—what would happen if the church was known less for its whining and politics and clamoring for its rights, and more for the way it serves those who don’t yet know Jesus? Whoa. But again, that’s another story for another time.

The real reason I’m writing is this: the outward-focused thoughts on Sirius radio have to be sixty seconds. Actually, more like fifty seconds to get the music bumpers and tag in. Fifty seconds. Have you ever tried to say anything cogent in fifty seconds…or 150 words or less? A really short blog post for me is 500 words. My appreciation for copywriters who do fifteen second TV commercials is through the roof. But at least they get visuals.

Anyway, it got me thinking. How much fluff is in church pastors/priests/ministers/communicators’ messages? When I started writing out my messages word-for-word, I was amazed (many of you weren't...) how much was redundant, how much was overkill, how simplistic it was, how much was hackneyed and clichéd, how much were typical ways of communicating what should be the atypical message of Jesus…and how much was simply fluff.

Which took me further. If I’m a missionary in a postmodern, post-Christian, "raised-on-sound-bites-and-one-second-music-video-edits" culture, how well is my message heard? One of the biggest barriers in communication is the receptor: how do they hear? Context-wise? Culturally? And when I whine about thirty minute messages not being long enough to develop a theme, who am I kidding? All of the Sermon on the Mount fits neatly into a 13 minute time frame…and what an outward-focused punch that has.

What about you?

How well can you tell your personal God-story? How much fluff is in it? Could you explain simple Christianity in fifty seconds? And I don’t mean just the information; is there a place for a responsive hook? Is there a built-in “what about you”-factor in your message? There’s a reason why we have two ears and only one mouth.

I recently recorded this Outward Focused Thought (and in 50 seconds, thank you…):

Sometimes a lot of evangelism training focuses on knowing the answers to every possible question people might ask us. And sometimes I think that we Christians think we have to have all the answers. But doesn’t it drive you crazy when someone thinks they’re always right…and wants to make sure you know it? Even if by some miracle they were always right, if they come off as self-righteous you’d diss them. I love the Message paraphrase of Jeremiah 28: “…Don’t pretend that you know all the answers yourselves and talk like you know it all. I’m telling you: Quit the ‘God told me this... God told me that...’ kind of talk.” Wouldn’t it be interesting if we discovered listening as a major first step in evangelism?

Food for thought, that’s all. And, uh, I just hit seven hundred and twenty-seven words.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

the problem with prayer

A little pastor/communicator whining here: prayer is difficult to talk about. I’m going to ramble a good bit here…

First, it’s one of the least confident aspects of my life, as in: I’m-a-little-better-practitioner-than-you-which-makes-me-more-competent-to-talk-about-this-than-you. Talk about feelings of “pastoral inadequacy”. Second, it’s way too big a subject to cover in thirty minutes. Do I give a prayer apologetic (the purpose of prayer)…or talk about prayer practices (the mechanics of prayer)…or provide lab-time for prayer (extended prayertime in the celebration)…or laser in on a specific aspect (how to hear God’s voice, confession, prayer of faith, etc.)…or contextualize prayer (heart condition/attitudes)?

Plus, it’s murky. Yancey talks about writing a book on the unanswered prayers of Jesus. We tend to think unanswered prayers give credence to the inefficacy of prayer and, worse, throw doubt into the mix. But put Jesus in the middle of that; did he ever doubt? If we consider real doubt as a lapse of faith and therefore a sin (Romans 14:23), then the answer is no according to Hebrews 4:15. But are we sure a lapse of faith is sin?—and what aspect of doubt? Doubt that God is a good father? Doubt that God is hearing us? Doubt in our perceptions of the nature of our relationship with God? When Jesus cried “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, was he making a statement of truth—that God had turned his back on him as he became the sin-sacrifice in our behalf? That opens up another can of theological worms on the debate regarding the nature of the atonement. Or was he prophetically echoing David’s lament from the Psalms, giving us another clue to his messianic fulfillment? That seems too cold and calculating and demeaning to his humanity. Or if he was expressing his feeling of aloneness—an emotional moment like weeping as he approached Jerusalem—can we be so sure as to make our emotions distinctive from our doubts?

Prayer takes me down winding roads. But the most troubling question is always: why doesn’t God seem to answer our prayers?

This one is complicated. Sometimes I think about the classic line from Bruce Almighty when Bruce screams at God: “The only one around here not doing his job is you!” It helps if I—and this is dangerous territory—try slipping into God’s cosmic shoes.

Try out this metaphor: suppose a man—we’ll call him Bob—comes to me and asks me to help him find a job. No problem; we begin networking together—agencies, friends, etc. But then I discover that over the years he’s had trouble keeping jobs. As I probe the issue, I find Bob has a particular addiction that has caused him to underperform at work. Now imagine that he actually admits this and allows me to work with him on this problem and we find an issue in his childhood, say, an abusive father, which caused years of shame and inferiority to fuse in his psyche. Now suppose we connect Bob with a phenomenal therapist/counselor who begins the work of unraveling the thread of ignominy woven through his life. And so we begin reweaving the fabric along with the tough work of forgiveness. But we still haven’t found Bob a job because though the job is the urgent problem, it’s not the real problem.

Now make it more complicated. Suppose before I meet Bob, his uncle in Peoria emails me and asks me to help his nephew in Cincinnati with some money from our benevolence fund. The uncle doesn’t know about the other aspects of Bob’s life; he only knows that the bank is about to foreclose on his nephew’s home and that foreclosure is the real problem.

Now make it worse. Suppose Bob isn’t really that interested in dealing with his addiction issue; he says he just needs a freakin’ job. And what if the uncle is not really emotionally invested in all this; he’s just doing his job as an uncle and asking for financial aid for Bob?

Answering the uncle’s request gets tricky.

Okay, so the metaphor isn’t clean, but imagine being God. And what if eighty-seven other people applied for the particular job that we finally found for Bob who is still struggling through his addiction? And those eighty-seven lives intersect with thousands of other lives in intricate ways that affect the course of their lives. Now imagine someone one hundred years from now who will be affected in some way if Bob gets that job and not their grandfather who therefore has to move to Cleveland but oddly enough met a man there who helped him surrender his life to God. If the butterfly effect in chaos theory has any credibility, it sure makes all of this extremely magnificently and beautifully complex.

And don’t forget to mix in the element of faith; Jesus did say that some things happened as to the degree of our faith. Can’t get around that; just can’t blame everything on it. Been there, done that. Drives you crazy.

Oh yeah, don’t forget the spiritual warfare component as well.

I’m just saying it gets very complicated in how prayers are answered. And if the best we can believe is that regardless of a prayer not being answered as we thought it should, God is good, then that’s good. And God has a job that sucks.

I had someone ask me if I leaned toward Calvinism or Arminianism. I said yes…and I wasn’t trying to be clever. I have a feeling that the truth lies outside the scope of my little IQ points. Obviously free will and predeterminism play into how we pray. Perhaps I can move my pawn freely as I see fit, but I imagine God is about a half-a-billion moves ahead on the chess board and is well-able to cause me to move a particular direction when I believe I’ve fully dreamed up and chosen the move on my own. He’s the Ultimate Cosmic Bobby Fischer. And will checkmate us all eventually.

One last thing I know about prayer: a person with poor hearing talks louder.