Saturday, September 18, 2010


A little over ten years ago, vampire-best-seller author (fifty-million plus) Anne Rice returned to her Catholic roots and announced she was a Christian. She followed with several Christian novels. Then this past July, she made headlines when she posted on Facebook:

“Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten ...years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

The next day she posted thoughts about the new $139 Kindle. And then this:

“My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

There are well-publicized moral issues and doctrinal stances she disagrees with. I understand. And there are difficulties she has with her particular strain of Christianity. I hope, though, she is having some conversations of pastoral depth with someone who cares for her that will challenge her spiritually…because all of us struggle from time to time. C. S. Lewis once wrote:

“Now that I am a Christian, I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked very probable.”

A fellow blogger and friend has similarly been openly posting some of his questions with Christians and Christianity. After my post on “whose god is my god?”, Steve Fuller wrote an “open letter” in response. Since our exchanges have been public, I’m sure he won’t mind it reprinted here. His questions caused me to reflect on subjectivity, authority and each person’s dance with God. Here it is in its entirety except for the link to my original post:

Dave Workman is a good dude. He has been my pastor and boss, and although we don't really hang out, I have always considered him a friend. We don't always agree, but I respect his opinion. I trust that he loves God and wants to help others experience a relationship with Jesus.

Dave is the real deal.

A couple of days ago, Dave wrote a very interesting blog post that got the wheels in my brain turning. I started writing a comment, but I realized my comment was almost as long as his original post. I always feel awkward hijacking someone else's blog, so I decided to link his original message and write my response here…

…Good thoughts. My central issue with God and religion always comes back to this: Who gets to define God?

Everything human beings experience is viewed through unique lenses. You and I can read the exact same Bible and experience God very differently.

So, you would likely answer, "God gets to define God." But how I experience God is different from every other person on this planet because I filter everything through my unique lifetime of experiences.

My point is that we all create our own personal gods. Me, you, Tim Keller, Pat Robertson, etc. God is not the exact same being to any of us. He couldn’t possibly be unless we shared a brain and had identical experiences from birth to death.

For example, there is a pastor in Florida organizing a Koran burning. You and I probably agree that isn't God's will, but that pastor thinks it is. Who is right? My God would never approve. His God does. If I claim to be perfectly in tune with God’s every thought and feeling, wouldn’t that also make me a god?

The Vineyard places women in central leadership positions. There are lots of churches that don’t appoint female elders/leaders because their interpretation of God and the Bible is different than yours. Who is right? We always seem to find a way to explain away the verses that don’t align with our personal values, but defend the verses that do. That’s convenient.

Many wise, loving Christians (who read the same Bible) support gay marriage. Others do not. Who is right?

Is there such a thing as "right," or are we all just using our limited knowledge and experiences to give it our best shot?

It frightens me when people claim to have discovered THE God (knowing his exact will, knowing his stance on social issues, etc). That's pretty bold. Even if God walked into this room, people would still experience him differently based on personal lenses. Heck, people were all over the place on who Jesus was and what he had come to do two thousand years ago … and they were able to have daily conversations with a flesh and blood human being. We have whispers and a book. (I don’t mean that to sound condescending, but literally, we have voices in our head and a highly contextualized, oft-translated book to help understand God’s heart.)

So, I would say my God is the same as your God. He's the God we have both created to line up with our lifetime of experiences; the God who magically aligns with our personal ideologies; the God who allows us to sleep better at night.

But is either of our Gods THE God. Is anyone's? Rather than saying yes or no, I think the better question is, "How could they be without putting ourselves in the position of God?"

Not trying to give answers here. Or cause problems. Or be a jerk. Simply walking through a season of questioning/doubt that dominates my thinking, and so it helps to process out loud.

Thanks for the thought-provoking dialogue.

Big wonderments. I know Steve has friends that he’s been wrestling these questions with whom he loves…and who love him. A few days later I responded in a comment on his blog:

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the kind words. I hope I’m “the real deal”; I have my moments. I started to put a smiley face after that sentence, then I thought, “Should I guy in his fifties use an emoticon?”…after which I decided I wouldn’t if I were actually “the real deal”. From there I stumbled into a self-conscious black hole. Squirrel!

Let me try to respond to a couple of questions you’ve raised. I’m not an apologist or a particularly smart guy. And, further disclaimer, not a theologian by any stretch. I’m a drummer who reluctantly became a shepherd. The older I get, the less I think I know.

But at the risk of sounding arrogant, I do know God and have a crazy assurance that He considers me a friend. And, honestly, daily that confounds me. From the time I surrendered my life to Jesus thirty-six years ago and through numerous difficult life situations and perplexities, I can say with all my being that I’ve never had a moment where I didn’t think He loved me. Sometimes years went by where He seemed silent, but I never felt unloved. Of course I’m aware that reads subjective and a good psychoanalyst could shrink the daylights out of my neural ruts, but that’s been my experience.

And so when you ask, “Who gets to define God?”, you’re right: I would answer “God”. And yes, that’s a problem.

I’m sure that there are more than a handful of celebrities who would prefer to define themselves rather than have the tabloids do it. And if a celebrity were truly humble (irony!), I’m sure during a time of hurtful rumors and p.r. disasters they would prefer that the ones who were most intimate with them would let others know what they were really like.

Truth is, if I exclude the God-factor, no one really knows me except me. That is, my inner world, my behaviors when no one’s around, my secret fears. But the next closest person would be my wife. She knows me better than anyone over these thirty-two years. Then I would suspect my kids, my mom, and so on. And, of course, they would each have a particular bias based on their life experiences and interactions with me.

And so I would say that the person who is most intimate with God would be the best “definer” of what God is really like. The question I would ask is: How does one truly find intimacy with God? For me, that’s where Christianity becomes curiously unique among world religions and spiritual experiences.

It seems to me that the only way to get near God is via humility. That idea resonates through scripture. Humility precludes performance. Humility whispers, “You don’t know jack. Come like a little child.” Prior to becoming a follower of Jesus, my older brother once said to me, “This Christian-thing would be okay if you didn’t have to humble yourself.” And I can’t think of too many things more humbling than receiving a gift when you know you least deserved it. And that’s where the beauty of grace as expressed in Jesus fills the picture for me.

You write: “I would say my God is the same as your God. He's the God we have both created to line up with our lifetime of experiences; the God who magically aligns with our personal ideologies; the God who allows us to sleep better at night.”

This is where I have to disagree. When Jesus found me playing in a bar band in Clifton and revealed Himself, He definitely did not “lineup with my lifetime of experiences” or my “personal ideologies” nor allowed me to sleep better at night. If I would have designed a god after my own image, he would have slung his cosmic arm around my shoulders, lit up a spliff, and watched some porn with me. Rather, His “ideology” crushed mine into pieces. I was miserable between those two worlds. And up until the time I finally surrendered and stumbled out of the saloon with my hands in the air like an outlaw in a western, He was nothing like I would have preferred. What I seemed to hear was: “Come and die…then perhaps you’ll really live. But let’s see how willing you are to die first.” Every ideology I had was shattered, not to mention my pride.

Intimacy with God is different from the peripheral issues, such as the example you gave of VCC and women in leadership. Conversely though, I think those who are most intimate with God probably have the best take on the issues, particularly moral ones. How you identify (and trust) those people is the issue. My understanding of scripture is best filtered through the lens of my authentic intimacy with God. And where my intimacy is in question, I lean into the most orthodox interpretation of other Jesus-followers I know and those throughout history. That’s served me well over the years.

I remember a friend of mine who followed the philosopher Krishnamurti once said to me, “Krishnamurti writes that you cannot trust anyone as a source of spiritual knowledge and authority except for your own self and your own senses.” I asked him, “So why should I believe him?” At some point we will have to lean on an outside authority; when I apprenticed as an electrician at one time in my life, I suppose I could have learned to wire a house myself, but it surely would have been through much pain and I’m not sure I would have lived in it afterwards. It helped to trust a master electrician.

But humbly attempting to “define God” (which I would prefer “pointing in the direction of”) doesn’t make me God anymore than trying to describe my wife to a stranger makes me her.

Last, my own answer to my blog post question “Whose god is my god?”, my unequivocal answer is Jesus. He’s my God. I’ll choose Him over anything I could make up in a heartbeat. Yeah, scholars can argue over whether He said this or that or how to interpret His thorny sayings, but once He became God to me, somehow my Big Questions got smaller. They didn’t always go away, but they became smaller somehow…and less important.

When friends have intellectual issues regarding Christianity, I’ll ask them to at least be fair: read the other side and the people who have higher IQ’s than most of us and somehow reconciled faith and reason. At least be scientific and look at all the evidence, not just the pub-room questions. The pop apologists/Christian philosophers are helpful: Lewis, Keller, Wright, or Zacharias are good. Or go further back and check out Aquinas or Pascal or Tolstoy or Chesterton.

At times I find it’s not an issue of logic, but some moral difficulties that are being wrestled with. Sometimes that’s internalized; other times externalized. And that’s a whole other question and a much longer topic.

Please don’t read this as condescending. I’m still figuring out a lot myself. And even though I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Jesus-follower, I’m still living out Jeremiah’s revelation from God: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity…”

That’s a good promise.

Steve responded kindly:

 I appreciate the wisdom and kindness in your response.

All I can add to this epic-length post is this: I’m glad we have a Father who pursues us.

Monday, September 13, 2010


The most creative power given to the human spirit is the power to heal the wounds of a past it cannot change. ~Lewis Smedes, The Art of Forgiving

This past weekend I knew a lot of emotion would get stirred up in tackling the issue of forgiveness. I talked about a process which included five stages:

We admit our pain.
We assign true blame.
We give up our right for personal revenge.
We recover the worth of another person.
We begin to feel some compassion toward the person who hurt us.

I don’t think these are neither comprehensive or easy to do. But in the end, it’s a matter of obedience in spite of our need for justice. If I’d had more time, I would have tacked on a few of the mechanics I’ve observed about myself in struggling with forgiveness. For instance…

Practice with some small wins

Remember a few months ago when we did the series Perfect Takes Practice? The whole idea was the more we practice a particular behavior in relating to others, the better we simply get. Same with forgiveness: start small. Begin with some easy ones. Forgive the guy who flipped you off on I-75. Practice forgiving the DMV lady with the attitude. Years ago I was waiting in a long line at a bank with a friend where the teller was clearly not excited about being there and moving painfully slow. I said to my friend, “Doesn’t management here train them that they’re here to serve others?” My friend replied, “Yeah. It’s easy for us to forget that too, isn’t it?” Ouch.

Pray like crazy

Another idea is the obvious: pray, pray, pray. And then pray some more. Remember this one when you’re trying to figure out when to forgive someone who’s deeply hurt you. Timing is everything. I’m suspicious of quick forgivers; I don’t think they’re really in touch with their anger or pain. They may just be in “religious mode”. But don’t wait too long either. Don’t let anger fester into bitterness. Pray. Ask God to help you with the timing. But do something. Pray. Ask God to give you His power to do this. Forgiving a deep wound is like the layers of an onion—you forgive and peel off a layer. Later on, you discover something deeper, and forgiveness is experienced at a greater depth. It’s not really repeating as much as it is deepening.


One more thing: don’t forget the old acronym KISS: Keep It Short, Sinnerboy. When forgiving someone, don’t turn it into a big production. The less you say, the better; just do it in a truly heartfelt way. And please don’t go to someone who isn’t even aware of hurting you and forgive them; you need different kind of conversation with them first. It seems to me that forgiveness works best when we don’t demand a certain response. If the response doesn’t bring the effect or restoration we hoped to get, then we can just enjoy the personal healing and freedom for our own souls. The prison door has swung open.

In the end, forgiveness is simply the cancellation of a debt. Unforgiveness, it’s been said, is like drinking poison and expecting the other to die.

...Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13)

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

whose god is my god?

(Disclaimer: You may draw the following analogy out to other real-life moral challenges. Okay, I warned you.)

It’s only a matter of time and money until child porn is perfectly and realistically computer-generated. There will be some who will hail it as a win for free speech since no child is harmed in its production…and others will mourn it as a sign of a moral collapse.

In the end I think it all depends on who your god is.

Culturally it’s still fairly easy to say that child pornography is immoral. Most find it repugnant. But in the coming years American society will struggle with it for several reasons:

First, we have a love affair with our constitution, particularly freedom of speech. I mean, who really wants the government to define who can say what? I don’t. You don’t. The dilemma is it’s becoming easier to defend constitutional rights and more difficult to define morality. Whose morality? The majority? God’s?—or at least your interpretation of God’s moral laws? In a pluralistic society this gets more complicated. And though some will cry, “You can’t legislate morality”, you’re kidding, right? Don’t we do that everyday with laws that punish anyone who steals or drives thirty-five in a school zone? We believe laws deter bad behavior...or at the very least punishes it.

Second, we have some strong cultural assumptions. For example: what a person does privately—as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else—is nobody’s business, and certainly for those who feel government is infringing more and more in our “personal affairs”. Conservatives and libertarians have a conundrum when they want less government, more constitutionally-driven power, and yet have specific moral imperatives legislated. The constitution is pretty amoral…and if you think power should be decentralized (a la states rights), it’s still an argument of degree: for instance, California is a big state. Someone will still have the power. And if all politics is local, gee, L.A. is pretty humongous…and even Anaheim is no small potatoes. You can get off the grid and make your own tofu, but if there’s more that a few of you on that ponderosa in Montana, some governance structure will develop. It wasn’t pretty in Lord of the Flies.

Third, here comes the issue: what if child porn is created via someone’s graphic card? Years ago the Supreme Court determined, in effect, that child pornography wasn’t criminalized if it was virtual, that is, if no actual children were involved. Apparently, zeroes-and-ones are okay. It should be no surprise that the only moral imperative we seem to have is: “as-long-as-it-doesn’t-hurt-anybody”. Somehow we keep forgetting Somebody in that “anybody”. Uh, like God.

Two years ago, the Court upheld a federal statute criminalizing soliciting or pandering child pornography. But since it had already ruled that virtual child pornography was protected by the constitution, what became illegal two years ago was if the panderer was fraudulently passing off the virtual pornography as real. So underage Sims getting it on is illegal to post if you’re trying to pass it off as real human children. Gee, you think that’ll be a problem as CGI gets more realistic?

Two of the justices dissented. David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg felt their concerns were still not addressed. They didn’t object to making it a crime to mislead others by offering material that actually didn’t exist; that’s merely fraud. We all know that is wrong. But Souter reminded the Court that possession of pornographic images that do not depict real children is constitutionally protected, and offering them should not be a crime. He said, “If the act can effectively eliminate the real-child requirement when a proposal relates to extant material, a class of protected speech will disappear.”

Sheesh. I’ll leave that to the lawyers to parse.

But I know where I have to wrestle with this stuff. In some ways, it’s not just a moral issue for me; it’s a matter of obedience. My God sent His Son to die for me. That’s the bottom line. I was a moral mess, a lonely self-absorbed screwed-up young guy who God found facedown in a “no-one’s-going-to-tell-me-how-to-live” gutter. A myopic mix of bravado and fears. A hot mess of nurture and nature-gone-wild. As the blind man in John 9 remarked while interrogated and harassed by religious leaders, “One thing I do know: I was blind but now I see!” Or at least in the words of Forrest, “I’m not a smart man. But I know what love is.”

My love for God has to be greater than my love for my personal view of life. And oddly, it has to be greater than my love for man. We have to be cautious of turning love into god. God is love…and not the other way around. Anthropomorphizing God into an old man with a long beard is just as silly as nebulously viewing Him as some amorphous force floating around.

But mysteriously, the more I love God, the more deeply I love people. It’s funny: when I think conversely of Jesus’s statement in Luke 7:47, it would read, “He who has been forgiven much, loves much.” The more in touch I am with the extent of my Father’s love for me and the expanse of His forgiveness of me, the more I can legitimately love others. Take away His grace, and I’m left adrift to define love in silly ways.

And so regardless of where the laws waft, I know the God I serve. And I don’t argue anymore with what He describes in His book as to what offends Him, what breaks His heart. If it breaks His, I want it to break mine…regardless if it doesn’t seem to hurt others.

There are numbers of different things that our culture says shouldn’t bother me as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else and done in the privacy of a bedroom. Of course that’s true from a culture-current legal perspective; I wouldn’t want someone telling me what I should or shouldn’t do if I believed it was morally permissible for me. But now I know I have to internalize it and weigh it all with what wounds the heart of God. As I’ve said before, imagine defacing a gorgeous, centuries-old work of art because you didn’t like the way the artist painted the picture, repainting with your own flourishes, how you think it should look, and ignoring the artist’s original design. Try to imagine how the artist would feel.

Before we champion particular behaviors, it might be wise to consider what the Master Artist has to say about those who were painted in His image. I believe we need to think a little more deeply than pub theology.

And much of this will be determined by whose god is your god.