Sunday, March 29, 2009

“i’m going to church…”

Sorry this so long. Okay, not really.

I liked my cohort Joe’s setup for describing how absurd it is to say, “I’m going to church”. Comparing nineties grunge culture to how we talk about church was more than clever. When the New Testament declares that we are Christ’s body, Joe’s descriptions of what Jesus did with His body in Luke’s account was rich. Check it out here.

Now let me revert and use that term the way Christians typically do.

For some of us, we grew up in “churches” that were as dry and dusty as a stack of National Geographics in your Uncle Ned’s basement. I lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone. Each Sunday we shuffled in quietly with the other half-smiling dysfunctional families and slid into the pew and drew pictures to keep our little hands busy while a man in the front droned in monotone about things in the afterlife that didn’t seem any more interesting than what was going on at the moment. As a kid, church had a stifling silence about it, like walking into the school library where a stern-faced woman could rap your knuckles and knock the Dewey-Decimal-daylights out of you if you even thought about whispering.

That’s how going to church felt. God was mysterious…and up there somewhere. And generally a little ticked off.

One day, after missing my fourth grade Sunday school class for several weeks, a card came in the mail with a little picture of a church with a steeple. Written under it were big letters and spaces that spelled “C H _ _ C H”. Below that it read, “What’s missing here? U-R!” That form letter filled me with shame, like I’d been caught by my elementary principal for skipping school. “Church” triggered two primal feelings as a child: I have done something terribly wrong and I might do something terribly wrong.

By the sixth grade I was out of there and never returned until I met Jesus in my twenties. And was convinced in my newfound agnosticism that if God did exist, He had left that place as well out of sheer boredom.

That all changed when I experienced Jesus as savior and master. And what made that powerful was the enlightened understanding that the One who died an excruciating death by one of the more morbid forms of execution the Romans could invent was God. Jesus was God. It wasn’t because someone crammed a doctrine down the mouth of my soul, but simply because some other soul-beggar who had found the messiah told me that Jesus had given His life as a sacrifice for me as well. And so I thought if He was just another man giving his life for another cause, that’s nice, but it doesn’t do anything for the human condition, certainly not the condition I was in. It had to be bigger than a cause.

And the only thing bigger than a righteous cause is Love itself. Or Himself.

God becoming Man and laying His life down for His own creation, initiating the Kingdom, and restoring severed relationships captured my heart. It made me want to thank Him, to worship Him, to live my life in worship to Him, to do whatever He said.

And then as I walked further on, I found out things that I could actually do for Jesus.

One day I discovered that He didn’t love me for what I could do for Him, He just loved me. I began to see how abusive my relationships were with others. They were typically reciprocal, based on what someone could do for me. I then fell in love with Jesus even more, because He was changing they way I saw everything.

Then one day I learned that love was a powerful force placed in me by the Holy Spirit that was only released as I chose. I found myself in hard situations, sometimes because of my own dysfunction, sometimes I was in the crosshairs of spiritual warfare, sometimes the target of someone else’s woundedness and pain and sometimes God was simply saying no to my requests. It was then I discovered the greater power of worship: Would I love God and tell Him so only when things were going the way I want them to?

And then I fell more deeply in love.

So what does that have to do with “church”?

An old Bible commentator and English lit scholar from the turn of the twentieth century that I’ve enjoyed is an author named W. J. Dawson. Dawson once wrote that many churches are “social clubs, united by moral ideals, rather than spiritual communities quick with divine fire.”

I think that’s certainly a picture of much of the contemporary church, and especially the worst version of us: moral police for our culture.

The church is not a group of people gathered around an ideal, it is a people who share a common revelation of Jesus Christ, a true spiritual community because it’s not founded on any other foundation but a spiritual one. Do they agree on everything? Of course not. They are at different levels of maturity and growth. They are like a family—there’s a big difference between the family baby and grandfather: a world of experience. But they are bound by the same genetic code.

As Joe pointed out, the word church that Jesus used is the Greek word ekklesia (ἐκκλησία) meaning “the called out ones.”

I like to think of it as people who have been called out of the sleep of this world, who have been awakened to something far greater than they were dreaming of. A greater reality. Life in God. The God who breaks through routine, the God who smashes through addictions, the God who brings clarity, the God who fills with purpose, and the only thing in life worth worshipping crashing through our doldrums, or crises, our bewilderments. There is none like Him, the psalmist said. And there is nothing that can overpower the community He is building because it is built on something more solid than what has ever been experienced in the history of man.

It’s good to remind ourselves periodically who and what the Church actually is.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

more cowbell

Hopefully I'll never Twitter. Or is that Tweet? No offense intended if you do, but it creeps me out.

But I have to admit that Christopher Walken's is addicting. Total proof he's an alien.

Oddly, that doesn't creep me out. Go figure.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

jesus reset prayer

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1 NIV)

“I’ve come to change everything, turn everything rightside up—how I long for it to be finished!” Luke 12:50 (The Message)

Wow. I loved—no, LOVED—the twenty-minute guided experience this past weekend that our creative team put together for the Reset message on prayer. It was clever in that it felt personal yet communal at the same time. If you didn’t catch it, it’s really worth your time; check it out here and walk through it. It follows our worship time and lasts about twenty minutes.

If time wasn’t an issue, I would have unwrapped one idea more thoroughly. Context is everything. Usually when we teach through “The Lord’s Prayer” (or the “Our Father” in some circles), we typically interpret it line-by-line. But in Luke’s abbreviated version in chapter 11, the key to understanding this prayer is the context offered in verse one. Jesus was upending everything (or turning them rightside up) in terms of how people viewed God as a father, how they imagined the messiah, how they saw spirituality and how they thought about intimacy with God. Jesus was great at this: “You have heard that it was said _______, but I say to you, _______.” He wasn’t throwing out the first, He was simply offering 3-D glasses to see it with more depth. “The Lord’s Prayer” was more about resetting how they (and we) interact with God.

When Jesus’ guys asked, “Teach us to pray, just as John the Baptizer teaches his followers”, they were thinking of a particular paradigm of spirituality embodied in John. It’s apparent that John had very pronounced spiritual disciplines, perhaps similar to the Essenes, the religious order that produced the Dead Sea scrolls. Very structured times for extended fasting and prayer. Ascetic, holiness-oriented, prophetic and mystical. This isn’t a “John-the-Baptist” slam: remember, Jesus said that there was no one greater than John except, paradoxically, the least in the kingdom.

Keep in mind that by this point Jesus had already been accused of being the polar opposite of John the Baptist in both Luke chapter five and seven—hanging out with the wrong crowd, going to parties, eating (as opposed to fasting), drinking alcohol, doing “ministry work” on the Sabbath—all the stuff that didn’t seem “spiritual” to the religious leaders.

And so for us, this routine, overly familiar prayer would have seemed shocking to religious first-century ears. Short, simple, bold and intimate. That’s why Jesus told those stories afterwards, to help them (and us) understand how much God longs to relate to them and give them what they need based solely on His love for them. It didn’t have to be fancy, long or super-spiritual-sounding.

And not just prayer; He was resetting definitions of spirituality and the way we relate to our Father.


Monday, March 16, 2009

love, enemies...and evil

The problem with a message about the boundary-breaking love-of-God is that it really demands an acknowledgement of evil. And that’s where things get tricky, especially when God says to love your enemies (Luke 6:35).

Some years back I was having lunch with a man who wasn’t completely clear what he believed about Christianity—there was a mix of new age ideas and pointed questions regarding Jesus Christ. He seemed to be uncomfortable with any authoritarian view of right and wrong; rather, determine for yourself your own moral code. He appeared to have difficulty with simple social protocol, sometimes coming to weekend celebrations dressed in sexually provocative clothes—very tight and extremely short shorts. In the course of our conversation, he disclosed what appeared to me to be an awfully painful memory of his childhood, but he shrugged it off as, “That’s life…I’ve moved on.” He told me that growing up, he couldn’t remember a day his dad did not beat him. Worse, his dad was an overtly religious man who read his Bible regularly and immersed himself in church activities. He vividly recalled being taken to the garage with his brother and beaten with a belt until his dad was literally exhausted.

Let me cash a reality-check here. Every one of us has an unspoken struggle with God. Some point where we won’t forgive, some place that we won’t leave, some wound we won’t let God near, some surrender we don’t want to make, some spiritual discipline we don’t want to do, some sin we don’t want to turn away from. If we bury it deep enough, perhaps we won’t have to deal with it. And so we numb ourselves with superficialities, false intimacies, pharmaceuticals or religious activities. This man’s unspoken struggle with God was obvious. As with many of us, it’s usually not an intellectual difficulty we have with God but a moral one. In this case: How can I be expected to honor my parents? Don’t tell me to love my enemy until you know what it’s like to have an Adolph Hitler for your father. Is God crazy?

And that’s a great question: Is God crazy?

Talking about loving your enemy requires talking about evil. Evil can best be described as total and complete self-absorption. Christians call it pride. Psychiatrists may term it malignant narcissism. While God says, “You must surrender your will to me”, evil says “Surrender to no one. It’s better to be your own boss in your own private hell than to submit to anything else.” The perversity of this is obvious: evil invalidates its own philosophy because it demands its way and its own rights, requiring someone to submit to it. Bow to me. When we think life exists to serve us, we have slipped into a dark world.

Scripture implies that we are all in that place to some degree. And yet we are commanded to love one another, even our enemies.

In his classic book, The People of the Lie, author and psychiatrist Scott Peck tells a chilling story of evil as he counseled a young fifteen year-old boy named Bobby who was suffering from depression, particularly since Christmas. His grades in school had plummeted sharply and in a totally uncharacteristic act, Bobby stole a car. The parents seemed very concerned—solid, church-going, blue-collar workers. Less than a year earlier his older brother had committed suicide by shooting himself. While counseling this quiet, depressed boy, Peck was surprised to find out that for Christmas his parents had oddly given Bobby a gun only six months after their oldest son committed suicide. And not just any gun, but the very same one his brother had used to kill himself, wrapped up again in a box. It was a disturbing act of evil, and they seemed totally nonchalant about it. Peck’s problem was not so much what he could do for the boy, but rather the deep need Bobby’s parents had for psychological help. This boy was sleeping with the enemy.

I’m certainly not saying that loving your enemies is easy, simple or quick. My personal experience has been one of process. I’m flabbergasted at how Stephen collapses to his knees and cries out, “Lord, don’t hold this against them!” as religious zealots in Acts 7 are stoning him to death. I’ve got a long way to go.

Keep in mind that there is a purpose to loving your enemies. The primary purpose is in understanding that kindness is destructive to evil. It is exactly what Jesus did when He was incarnated into this planet. First John 3:8 states, “…The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work”. He came healing, forgiving, loving and correcting. We are to do nothing less if we identify ourselves with Jesus Christ. The goal is creating a context where repentance is possible. Darkness hates light. Evil attempts to slink into dark corners, but the light that comes from the kindness of God leads to repentance, as Paul says in Romans 2:4.

There is a secondary purpose as well: we are healed and transformed dramatically in the process of loving our enemies—we allow our souls to become more Spirit-filled, more like the Father who sends the rain of refreshment on good and bad alike. We don’t “practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty”; this is guerilla warfare, strategic divine love aimed at darkened hearts. Jesus was intensely purposeful and strategic in His command to love your enemy.

One last thing.

Often when I talk about this, I’ll have newer believers ask me if we’re supposed to love the enemy of our soul: Satan, as in, “Are we supposed to pray for him if he’s our enemy?” God doesn’t offer us that grace. For whatever reason, fallen angels are not offered repentance. What’s more, we are clearly told his ending: he is destroyed in a fiery finish. The personification of evil is done away with in a sweeping vision of a new heaven and a new earth. The Kingdom comes.

Many years ago, my sister-in-law was supernaturally healed of a terrifying, debilitating and extreme bi-polar condition. She had been in and out of psych wards, delusionally paranoid, after years of zombie-inducing drugs and steroids. I cannot describe the pain she went through and the crushing effect it had on her family. She knew full well the oppressive captivity of the enemy. Years later in a conversation she said, “When Jesus throws him into the pit, are we allowed to cheer?”

She wasn’t being sarcastic or facetious; that was the liberated joy of someone freed from a hellish dark prison, someone who has experienced precious soul-liberty. We’ve all seen old World War II newsreels of celebrations when the Allies and French resistance liberated Paris months after D-Day. Now imagine that in your soul…or picture the man of Gadarenes.

Vengeance belongs to God. But I’m pretty sure we’ll cheer at the ultimate victory over evil.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

jimmy fallon & macgyver

He’s giving it the proverbial college-try, but ouch, it’s brutal. Don’t know if you’ve caught the late night talk show wars, but Jimmy Fallon from SNL fame has the old Conan O’Brien spot and Conan’s soon to take over Leno’s Tonight Show, Leno is moving to 10pm, Jimmy Kimmel’s still smirking, Bonnie Hunt has jumped in while Craig Ferguson delivers the best monologue rant in brogue out there. Here’s the line of the week from a CBS marketing exec: “We're calling it ‘America's Entertainment Stimulus Package.’”

Puh-leeze. We’re in worse shape than I thought.

Jimmy seems like a nice guy, but he ought to fire his writers. Even though he’s finding his rhythm, the monologue punch lines couldn’t be flatter. But here’s what’s puzzling to me as someone who’s fascinated by communicators, artists, performance and production: why are talk shows still following the same tired format? It’s been the drill for decades. The host walks out to a band playing. The applause lights flash. He delivers a monologue with a few news items and jokes. He introduces the band with some hand gesture, the camera pans to a band that plays some lame fifteen second bumper, then cuts back to the host now sitting at his desk. That’s followed by some sight gags: headlines, fake book covers, top tens, etcetera. The band plays an outro, the host says “We’ll be right back with Sarah Jessica Parker right after this…” Following the commercial are the two consecutive guests and the obligatory music group at the close.

What’s with that? Isn’t it time for a talk show format change? Is that the most creativity they can muster? With millions of advertising dollars at stake, bloated talk show salaries, and teams of creatives, that’s it?—and no one has a different programming idea? Really?

I know what you’re thinking: Dave, did you take your medication today?

Here’s where I’m going with this. It got me thinking about how we “do” church services and celebrations. Every church has a format (we call it a liturgy in church-world), even the ones who say they’re “led by the Spirit”. In my charismatic roots, even the “free” church service not bound by any pesky carnal programming had an understood liturgy: music, free-style singing somewhere in there, Sister So-and-So will probably have a message in tongues, the same people will come up at the end to shake or fall down, and the message will still end up taking seventy minutes no matter how long everything else takes. Golden Corral has a booming Sunday lunch business at 3pm for Pentecostals.

It doesn’t matter what denomination, non-denomination or inter-denomination your tribe is: we all have our liturgy, our format. House church, weekend-centered, traditionalists, or whatever, we all have our program. And the program is how you deliver the message. Talk about a Reset.

Number One reality check: There are a couple of minor programming differences between church-world and network talk shows, namely beaucoup bucks (Letterman alone gets an estimated paycheck of 40 million per year) and huge production staffs. But maybe it’s time for us to think about how we tell the Story each week. To be sure, there’s a certain amount of comfort in routine…and for maximum participation, there’s a need for repetition. Still, it seems to me there’s a need to reinvent periodically, to hear the Story a bit differently. I love what my teaching buddy Joe said last week about reading the Christmas story in July; it’s good for the soul to separate the emotion and sentimentality from the December kitsch of Consumermas.

Number Two reality check: even if we had unlimited funds and huge creative teams, is that really what we would want? Is that what we’d want to spend our money on? Are we really able to justify that before God? It gets tricky, doesn’t it? Peter tells the handicapped panhandler in front of the temple who asked him for money, “I don’t have any. But I do have something else: in the name of Jesus, get up and walk.” Cue to miracle. No resources, but creative power.

There’s an apocryphal story from a dark time in Church history. The Church was at the height of political power and wealth in the Middle Ages. The Pope was reported to have said confidently, “Now we can no longer say `Silver and gold have we none.’ A priest responded with, “And neither can we say `Rise up and walk’.”

Maybe we have the whole assumptive format screwy.

And in the end, sometimes MacGyver is the most creative guy in the room with only a paper clip, some dental floss and a mullet.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


I’m writing this from a hotel room in Oklahoma City before speaking at a conference called “The Small Church Conference”. Craig Groeschel from and Toby Slough of Cross Timbers Community Church north of Dallas are speaking as well…all from megachurches.

There’s a little obvious irony here, eh? Israel Hogue, pastor of The Edge Church, is sponsoring the conference. As Israel puts it on the conference website, “Craig, Toby and Dave have all come from small beginnings. They know what it means to be a local church with not a lot of people, money, or resources. They didn't start "mega," they started "micro" and grew from there.”

It got me thinking about those early days with Steve Sjogren. There were a lot—and I mean a lot—of sacrifices made by him and his wife Janie to see a different kind of church launched in Cincy. When Anita and I came on board in 1984, we were meeting in Bruce and Sandy Ullrey’s living room with twenty or so people on the north side of Cincinnati. Like many starts, everyone was in their late-twenties or early-thirties, mostly bored with church as we knew it, and wondered why there couldn’t be a church that we actually liked going to. And couldn’t it be simple and just have authentic no-big-show worship and have a heart for the poor? Maybe a message that didn’t sound canned? And a service that didn’t make you feel worse than when you came in? Spirit-led…but not weird? Authenticity. Simplicity. Relevance.

I led worship for four years every weekend as a volunteer. I wrestled with coming on staff in 1990; I wasn’t sure I wanted to be paid to do something I liked doing…as if that might mess things up. We had probably grown to about 700-800 adults by then. After coming on staff (I use that term loosely), time marched on and things heated up. There were a number of years where I was gone at least four nights a week when our girls were little, eventually doing eight celebrations a week, leading worship at each of them, teaching every midweek, often on weekends, and pulling off seminars and conferences. Those were heady years. Everyone wore lots of hats; many of us easily put in 60-70 hours a week. I can remember pulling many an all-nighter for a video, print or music project. We were on a mission.

Looking back, it obviously wasn’t healthy. We were a bit crazy and addicted to our own adrenaline.

Now 25 years later, there are still formidable hurdles, mega-problems, new issues, and big challenges to conquer. I don’t think it ever gets simple…because life in a fallen world is not simple. And besides the corporate decisions, personal choices are still the most difficult (we’re in good company: Jesus sweat drops of blood wrestling with his decision in Gethsemane).

One more thing, though.

Sometimes I think when people want to return to being a “New Testament Church”, there’s an idyllic myopia. When people ask me why we can’t be more like the New Testament church, I answer “Which one? The church in Corinth was sexing it up every which way and getting drunk at the church potlucks. The Colossian church was worshiping angels and beating their bodies to prove they were holy. The Galatian gang was legalistic and racist. The Thessalonians were sitting on their hands waiting for Jesus to take them away, hoping for a Left Behind scenario. And check out the things Jesus said to the churches in Asia Minor in the Revelation. It isn’t pretty.”

Just a reality check.

I’m not sure how this works, but either Jesus views us as we shall be, or else He sees us through a lens of love that “covers a multitude of sins”. Somehow this is His plan: “to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:27 TNIV).

Big, small, messy, tidy, broken, bruised, lethargic or vital…we are the Church.