Monday, July 28, 2008

i sold my soul on ebay

I finally got around to reading Hemant Mehta’s book, I Sold My Soul on eBay. Hemant is an atheist who is still curiously questioning the possibility of God’s existence. He was raised a Jainist primarily by his mother in his childhood, but jettisoned his beliefs when he hit the teenage years. The story of how he felt freer after losing his religion makes the book intriguing. His comments and impressions of Christians on college campuses are worth the price of the book. Though, uh, it was only $4.99 in a discount bookstore in Myrtle Beach.

And then he came up with the idea of agreeing to attend any church for one year for whatever anyone was willing to pay him on eBay…and to honestly listen and learn. Turns out my friend Jim Henderson (who was on staff here several years ago and never short a creative idea!) beat the bids and came up with an alternative idea for Hemant: visit lots of different churches and give your no-holds-barred impression of Christians, church methodologies, styles and traditions. Be honest and don’t hold back. Journal what connected with you and what left you scratching your head. It’s your basic “pay-a-friendly-atheist-to-go-to-church” deal.

The results were a fascinating quick read for us “churchologists”.

Turns out Hement is extremely respectful and an engaging writer. Understanding where he’s coming from, his age, his background and his personality (which shines through easily) make his “reviews” easier to process. The churches that he felt spoke a clear engaging message may surprise you…and make for great questions. I heard one of his interviews on NPR some months back along with Jim and was captivated by the story.

Here’s the bottom line for me: if a church’s mission statement defines weekend services to be focused on believers, the sacraments and “family business”, then one can skip this book. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, as long as there are other methods of evangelism taking place. But if a church claims their weekend services are one of their primary ways of reaching not-yet-believers, then this book holds invaluable insights for a particular demographic.

And be careful, you Joel Osteen-bashers; that chapter alone will bend your gray matter. Yeah, there’s the obvious: did Hement hear a clear call of sacrificial surrender or did he simply respond positively to a “feel-good” message? Interestingly, he says he heard the gospel message, both obvious and between the lines. But the package was enough to pique his heart…and even get his Jainist mom reading Your Best Life Now and watching Lakewood on TV each week!

Atheists and Jainists watching Joel Osteen? Wow. Different strokes for different folks.

But it got me thinking…

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

why does God get offended?

Have you ever wondered why certain things offend God? I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately. Why do some particular things appear to bother Him and others don’t?

According to apologists, we should know the things that offend God even if we don’t have “The List”. They argue the case for an imbedded code, a moral law that is hardwired in our psyches. The apostle Paul makes the argument himself in the opening chapter of his Roman letter. For instance, we know that taking things from other people is wrong; it’s built in; we simply know it. If there’s a common thread in the ethics of the world’s great religions, it’s the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, treat people the way you would like to be treated in life. Even as I write that I’m reminded that the Church, myself included, has failed miserably in this simple chief moral imperative. Think respect.

But is that how God did it? Did He choose the things that offend Him because they hurt other people? If that’s the case, then the primal moral code of our brave new world is true: “It doesn’t matter what you do in the privacy of your own home as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” But that’s oddly devoid of the supernatural. What if things we do in our privacy—that seemingly don’t hurt others—hurt God somehow?

The question is: Why? Why would it bother God?

Let me start with an extreme example. Stop here if you’re easily offended. But extremes force us to stretch out thought-boundaries.

Suppose there was a man who enjoyed having sex with a sheep. He lives in the country; the nearest house is a quarter mile down the road. He takes good care of the sheep; feeds it well, grazes it, grooms it. The sheep is well-loved. Periodically, he brings the sheep inside and has sex with it. The sheep doesn’t seem to mind. And the man seems truly happy and never abuses his sheep.

No one knows about his fetish. He lives alone. He’s well-liked, has a disarming sense of humor and volunteers with food drives and charities. He’s a good neighbor.

So what’s the problem?

Though bestiality is condemned by the world’s religions and shunned in society, why? As long as it’s done privately and doesn’t hurt anyone else, why should it matter?

We could say it goes against nature, but again, why? If it’s damaging to the species (though cross-species copulation seems to have a built-in failure mechanism in terms of replication), what if the man practiced safe sex and wore protection? Of course, you could say that if everyone did that, the human species would die out. But is God simply the guardian of species, insuring that we propagate and populate the planet? And even if twenty percent of the population had their personal sheep gigolo, would that be enough to offset the balance of births and deaths? I’ll let the statisticians figure that out.

If God’s rationale for morality is simply evolutionary in scale, if He’s only the guardian of the species, then ethics have only a rational, Darwinian purpose. But what happens when technology yanks the rug out from under that? If children can be produced in a test-tube, then our sheep-loving man could have human children in a variety of ways without ever having contact with another human. Who needs a morality beyond “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else”?

If we say, “That’s just not how God designed the human machine to work”, and we don’t want to think this is all purely naturalistic, then we’re implying there are psychological and social elements to consider as well. But suppose the man was given a barrage of psychological tests and was found to be fairly content and functional, at least no more or less than the rest of his neighbors who wrestle with family dysfunctions, social interaction, personal value and worth and everything else use to measure emotional health.

So why would the man and his sheep offend God’s sensibilities?

Take a more common example: pornography. As long as it’s private, doesn’t affect others, and practiced in moderation, what’s the problem? No problem…until we bring God into the picture and we’re forced back to this question: why would a person viewing pornography offend God?

Or go even less extreme: your very own private thought life. What if you never purchased pornography, never entertained the websites, and never mentioned it to your family…but had an active fantasy life? What’s the problem with that? Apparently it’s a problem for God; Jesus said frankly you’re in trouble if you even look at a woman lustfully. Just reminding ourselves that God knows our thoughts is sobering.

But why do those things offend God?

What if our scales are all wrong…and the current standard of “happiness” is not the plumb line for God’s morality? Face it: none of us want to deny anyone else their happiness as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Right? I mean, isn’t the “pursuit of happiness” built into social fabric? Yes, but how do we define “personal happiness”? Maybe Joseph Goebbels had more happy days than unhappy ones. Ah, then we’re back to “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else” and Joe really dropped the ball on that one. But come on: is “not hurting others” the best definition we can come up with for ethics, let alone happiness?

Take any number of private issues that seemingly don’t hurt others.

What if there is more to the spiritual side of morality that goes beyond the naturalistic or emotional components? And what does that mean? I know it sounds noble to simply say, “That’s what the Bible says so I believe it”, but that won’t work as a cultural apologetic. I think we really need to dig into what a “spiritual ethic” means…and go far deeper than “the Bible says so” or conversely, “whatever makes you happy”. I think it will take some theologian smarter than me to clarify this one.

I was talking about this the other day with my oldest daughter Rachel and her boyfriend Tyler. She suggested the idea that God is like an artist, say, a painter. No artist likes someone else to paint over their creative work in whatever style, colors or technique they want; that would be offensive to the creator-artist. Imagine a graffiti artist adding a personal touch to Seurat’s Grande Jatte…perhaps “Pointillism Sucks” spray-painted across the lawn. Maybe the Ultimate Cosmic Artist has created a picture that reflects His glory and imagination, each brush stroke intentional and well placed. Perhaps it’s even a work in progress, and when we add the colors and tones we prefer, we insult the mind, personality and creativity of the artist. Or at least smudge what He considers a masterpiece.

And maybe that’s why some Christian thinkers are calling “beauty” the New Apologetic.

Monday, July 14, 2008

word up

Here's a cool site...and a revealing one. Wordle takes seemingly any amount of text you throw into it and creates a graphic picture of your most used words. The larger the font graphic, the more you used it. I suppose it axes ubiquitous connectors and less essential words (“a”, “and”, “the”, etc; think Strong’s Concordance, perhaps).

But it’s revealing to see the words you use most. I threw in the entire text of my book and this is what I got…

Uh, I suppose a book on outward-focused living should feature Jesus, God, People and Love pretty prominently. But I was almost afraid to throw in a transcript of one of my weekend messages. I couldn’t resist. This was my last message at VCC; it was on leadership and integrity…

Interesting, eh? Try it yourself. You can even simply type in your blog URL; it will track down everything you’ve written and create an original piece of art from the key words in your ramblings.

Revelatory. And scary fun.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

naked lunch theology

Taking a break for the next three weeks…blogs may be spotty.

It was fun coming to the Vineyard last weekend as a civilian, trying hard to not think about what’s working and what’s not. Thought the worship time was beautiful; especially when the video for “You Wait” came on the cyc. Wow. Moved to tears.

And then Joe knocked it out of the park. There was a fabulous balance of metaphor and didacticism, of self-effacement and God-confident insight. I was hooked. I left thinking, “Okay, I’m probably a little biased, but I love this church.”

I wondered what it would be like to not like your church, to not get genuinely excited about what God was doing in and through the people there. To not have your heart inexplicably and mystically woven together with others. Don’t get me wrong: of course there are things that drive me crazy. Heck, there are even people who drive me crazy (duh, yeah). But it’s like my family.

Yeah, that one; the one from Kentucky.

And then the flash of the naked lunch (as Burroughs put it: “the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”): you see how screwed up you are yourself. It suddenly becomes crystal clear: we’re all in need of Big Time Redemption. It is one thing to really see how screwed up you are; it’s another to see how passionately loved you are. And that brings us to Paul’s pointed prod: forgive as the Lord forgave you. Or, as Jesus turned it around, “He who has been forgiven little loves little” (do prophets/messiahs all drink from glasses half-empty?).

Funny how that works: the more I recognize my own need and God’s delight to fill it, the more capable I am to love others.

Do you love your church? Why?

No, really: why?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


I talked about leadership last weekend.

Sometimes people who know my background ask if I ever thought I’d be the leader of a megachurch. It seems like a funny question; I’m not sure what’s going on in my heart when I hear that. And I think I question the questioner. That’s probably not good.

Eons ago I played in a little vocal-driven acoustic group consisting of a steel-six-string guitar, a classical guitar, a violin and hand percussion. I had just become a Christian. I had been playing bar-band rock music for years before that, but as a drummer mostly. I picked up classical guitar and a little keyboards to be able to write. Anyway, some of our music was original, some was music that would be atypical for an acoustic group to do. For some reason we were asked to play at a “Night of Gospel Music”-type event. Yeah, it sounded scary to me too. I have no idea why we were invited, but there we were with our eclectic little group of freshly-saved-hippie-Jesus-freaks. Afterward, some guy from a quartet came up and said, “Thanks for coming. Your music was, uh…unique.”

Maybe that’s a little how I feel now.

It’s not like I woke up one day and thought: “I want to be the pastor of a big church.” I think I came kicking and screaming into “pastorship”. But it’s a funny thing about spiritual gifts; most of us have probably been operating in our gifts and calling for some time…before we had any official title. For instance, I realized that in group settings and after concerts I loved talking with people and watching the lights come on; there was an element of classic pastoring happening. I loved researching, prepping and delivering Bible studies as well. It seemed to me that people were engaged and responded positively. Plus, I was energized by it; it wasn’t draining to me at all. I loved seeing people think differently and having “aha” moments spiritually.

Even more, I lived for the moments of leading someone into a relationship with Jesus. In my first civilian job after I became a Christian, I had tons of ongoing conversations with people at work who didn’t know Jesus. I became the resident go-to guy for “all-things-spiritual”…and I was less than a year old as a believer! Yeah, it seemed funny to me, too. But when someone’s family member is facing surgery and maybe, just maybe, they could use some prayer…or someone is p.o.’d about the guy on Fountain Square with a bullhorn telling people they’re going to hell, guess who would have those conversations?—the hippie-Jesus-freak who loved to talk about God-stuff. Necessity trumps discomfort. And after all, they didn’t know anyone else who seemed to like talking about Jesus

You’ve probably been operating in your calling for some time. At the Vineyard, it’s always been less about titles and more about creating space for people to function in their gifting.

Everyone is different, but for me, leadership has always sneaked up on me. And honestly, the best things in my life were the things I seemed to be invited into. That’s odd because that doesn’t sound like classic leadership. But it works if the invitations are coming from God. As I said last weekend: everyone follows…and everyone leads.

By the way, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have to develop and nurture the leadership-factor. Oddly, the older I get the less assured and confident I am. That’s why it’s critical for me to find opportunities to get around people who are more adept at this leadership-thing than I am. I can’t afford to leaderslip.

And I hope my discomfort is because I’m crawling near the edges.

And listening for God’s invitations.