Monday, December 19, 2011

a Christmas miracle

True story: During a cold Christmas Eve night in 1914, on one side of a bleak barbed-wire-laced stretch of hell called No Man’s Land, a German soldier began singing a hymn. When the opposing Scottish and French soldiers slowly started singing along, peace broke out for a few brief hours during the first world war as soldiers crossed enemy lines to share photos and exchange stories and liquor.

Now let your imagination get crazy: Jim Wallis and James Dobson have dinner with each other on Christmas Eve night in a restaurant a few blocks from the Washington D.C. mall…

“What can I get you gentlemen to drink?” Their server sported a closely cropped beard framing a gentle smile. He’d been serving for years; too much ‘teeth’ comes off like a salesman and that’s the last thing anyone wants in a restaurant.

James ordered an unsweetened iced tea with limes. Jim asked for a Riesling.

“You know, Jim, if you’re having alcohol, a red would’ve been better for your heart,” James offered. “There’s not much more than sugars and calories with yours.”

“Thanks, doc. But at my age, I have bigger things to worry about than that. Appreciate your concern, though.”

“Hey, the least I can do for a fellow believer! At least, you still are, right?” grinned James slyly.

“Whoa, big guy. Slow down. I have fond remembrances of you. I used to listen to you on the radio when I was young…”

“Ouch, ” winced James.

“…and I have a lot of respect for your parenting advice to young couples,” Jim continued. “I think stats show that dads are more involved in parenting than ever before. You may have had something to do with that. I’m an old guy myself…but with two boys in little league, that’s still pretty good stuff you wrote!”

James smiled. “It was my genuine concern for families—which I still think is the bedrock of society—that led me into questioning government policy.”

Jim practiced a little reflective listening. “So what you’re saying is that a particular ‘concern’ led to your involvement in politics. That’s exactly what happened to me! I felt God was very interested in that, but God’s politics were overwhelmingly concerned for the poor and marginalized, at least in my Bible. When the wealthiest country in the world, who consumes the most resources, has one of the lowest percentages of global giving toward the poor, I knew we Christians had a responsibility to challenge the policies that affect our national budget…let alone our personal consumerism.”

“That may be true, Jim. But the stats also show that the healthiest, most economically stable and generous relational unit is the family…so what better income-generator for a country? Wallerstein’s research showed that where a family has both a mom and dad in the household, children are more emotionally secure, have more potential, are less dependent on government money, and generally more productive. It’s the building block of society. So when the historic concept of marriage is turned on its head, some fracture is inevitable. And if we’re aborting every third baby, we’ve not only devalued God’s word—remember? He said that children were a blessing, even a heritage from Him—but what’s more, we’re devaluing human life itself. No society can flourish like that.”

“Ditto, as your buddy Limbaugh says,” grinned Jim.

“Low blow. But he’s not all wrong. Just, uh, shrill,” laughed James.

The server returned with drinks, recommended the special, and took both orders. “One check or two?” he asked, tossing a glance at both equally, being careful not to assume any power positioning at the table.

Almost on cue, both men pointed at the other and said, “His!” and chuckled. The server smiled again, and set a warm, sliced baguette wrapped in cloth between them. With butter knives in hand, Jim continued where they stopped.

“But James, when you aligned yourself and your ministry so clearly with one political party, it’s assumed you also signed on to all they stand for.”

“I can’t help it if they were the only ones standing up for family values,” said James. “And how is that any different from what you’ve done with your friends on the other side of the aisle?”

Jim gently retorted, “Do you really believe they’re the only ones standing up for family values? Let’s talk about Sanford, Ensign, Pickering, Giuliani…”

(*cough*) Edwards, Clinton, Spitzer (*cough*),” mugged James.

“Okay, I get it. But my guys were the only ones speaking out against economic disparity,” continued Jim. “Your hyper-individualistic approach to the gospel ignores passages about God’s heart for systemic justice. I mean, what could level the playing field more than Israel’s jubilee mandate?”

“Well, it’s one thing to talk about systems, but get real: data shows that conservatives are personally more generous when it comes to charitable giving,” James said.

“Yeah, but that still doesn’t alleviate a ‘systems’ issue. For heaven’s sake, James, you have to admit that in general conservatives were the drivers of Jim Crow laws. There’s been no greater instigator of economic injustices than racism,” Jim countered.

“Go back a little further in your history, Jim: Lincoln was a Republican,” James responded with a smile.

“But a very different party in the mid-1800’s, don’t you think?” said Jim.


“The point is,” commented Jim, “that when the church is only known for two issues, we lose our ability to reach into certain cultures in our society. We’ve got to be bigger than that. And what’s bigger than caring for the poor, speaking out against oppression and corporate colonialism and questioning how much wealth is too much? It’s hard to read the book of James and not feel prophetic in our day.”

“You’re narrowing it down as well, Jim,” said James, sipping his tea. “How do you avoid the sexual ethos of scripture? How do we turn a blind eye to eighty babies aborted every minute in the world? How did we come to label human life so disposable? If ever ‘slippery slopes’ exist, this is one. Or two.”

“Agreed. But on the other hand, how come ‘conservative Christians’ seem to be the first ones to shout for war…or support the death penalty? Doesn’t that strike you as, er, odd?” probed Jim. “Seems to me that doesn’t jibe with ‘Sermon on the Mount’-stuff to me.”

“Is it ‘jibe’ or ‘jive’? I’m never quite sure. And isn’t that really outdated slang?” questioned James, injecting a bit of humor to lower the room temperature. “Look, Jim, it’s an old argument, but I’m pretty sure you’d pick up a baseball bat and defend your wife if a serial rapist broke into your house. There are rational arguments for extrapolating that out nationalistically; Augustine wrestled with ‘just war’ theories just a few centuries after Jesus. My involvement in politics had less to do with which party and more to do with the policies promoted in each party. And eventually, I became convinced it was less the executive or legislative branches that was the problem, and more the judicial powers appointed—not voted, mind you—into lifetime appointments by the party in power. Hey, I practically coined the phrase ‘activist judges’.”

Jim squinted and smiled. “That sword cuts both ways, friend. ‘Activist judges’ in a conservative court essentially reinforced the idea recently that ‘corporations are persons’ and have the same rights as a person. How about that for setting the stage for new levels of corporate political abuse and greed under the guise of personal rights? If a corporation is considered a person, would you have wanted your daughter to marry Lehman Brothers? Ha! Talk about a philosophical ‘slippery slope’! And what’s the bugaboo?—government has always had to regulate Wall Street and corporate overreach and indulgence. You know the scripture: the love of money is the root of all evil.”

“Okay, Jim, maybe we have a different prioritization of values,” James offered. “And certainly different philosophies when it comes to how to play out our scriptural views. I wondered what we could gain if we could find common ground?”

Jim stared at his plate for a moment before speaking. “I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “James Davison Hunter has something to say about how cultures are changed. I have to admit that I like his ‘faithful presence’ concept and tend to agree with him that nowadays the ‘public witness’ of the church has become only a ‘political witness’…and not always for the better. Though even that’s part of my rationale for voicing a different view than yours: so we weren’t branded a one-trick pony. But we’ve been at odds with each other for so long it’s created factions in the Church. And scripture is clear that disunity is disastrous, the whole ‘I’m of Apollos, I’m of Paul’-type thing. How is one more spiritual than the other? I wish we could somehow…”

“I don’t think I can buy Hunter’s slant,” interrupted James. “But I found his caution about power intriguing. His view of ressentiment—the anger, rage or revenge that motivates so much political activism today—as being grounded in a ‘narrative of injury’ or the perception that ‘our side has been wronged’ is truer than I want to admit. It certainly shapes a group’s identity. You hear it when one is attacking the opposition and the response is, ‘Yes, but don’t forget when you were in power, you did…’. All of a sudden, it’s a case of the Hatfields (and I don’t mean Mark!) and McCoys. You hit my guy…I hit yours. It’s kind of like a political Crips and Bloods.”

“Or an East coast - West coast rappers, thing,” suggested Jim.

“Huh?” queried James.

“And I utterly hate how we must appear to ‘outsiders’ of the faith,” Jim added. “For a while, the ‘unsaved’ person with a similar political slant loves us, but the one with differing politics thinks we’re absolutely the devil.”

A folding tray appeared along with their waiter and a younger helper deftly setting steaming food on the table.

“Is there anything else I can get you?” asked the bearded waiter as the other server scurried off. Assured all was well, he began to turn away and suddenly stopped. He leaned into the table slightly and with a whisper asked, “I couldn’t help overhearing part of your conversation. Uh, I’m not really into the whole church-thing, but I wondered: would Jesus fit in this town—D.C.—in any way?”

James and Jim glanced across the table at each other and smiled. Jim answered, “Oh, undoubtedly. He’s well known as a ‘friend of sinners’. What better place than Washington for that?”

“He found me,” laughed James.

The waiter paused, pulled out their check in his apron pocket, and said quietly, “This one’s on the house. Merry Christmas.”

After dinner, James and Jim found themselves on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. A light snow was starting to fall, forming halos around the streetlights. They hugged, exchanging the proverbial three manly pats on the back. After a quick update on their respective families and final goodbyes, they walked off in opposite directions into the night.

And oddly enough, they both began whistling the same hymn.

Monday, December 12, 2011

do people hate me?

There are many things that Christians are doing in this postmodern era that are exemplary. 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 changing the stereotypical negative views of the Church. It was the Roman Emperor Julian who violently hated Christians and irritatingly wrote in a letter that, “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 I’ve noticed something that slightly troubles me, though. In a culture that places a premium value on tolerance and acceptance (a just reaction to hate-crime violence and shrill web voices), it’s natural to assume that we, as Christians, want to be loved, experienced and viewed as tolerant and accepting people, especially as The Church, the fountainhead of grace. After all, if that’s how the culture defines love, we need to speak in a language they understand. That’s what good missionaries do. And who wants to be experienced as intolerant and unaccepting? Certainly not followers of the Friend of sinners.

Besides, weren’t the people that 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 travelled over land and sea to find one convert and make him more of a child of hell than themselves. Can you imagine Pharisee hashtags if Twitter existed then?—#killthecultleader.

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 and our little circle of enlightened bloggers and friends), it might be circumspect to consider passages where the “culture” or the “world” is clearly viewed as no friend of the Church...

When an adulterous woman is misogynistically dragged before Jesus (where was the loverboy?), Jesus expressed compassion and zero-condemnation. But He added a postscript: “From now on don’t sin.”

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)

To the self-professed sinner—Peter—who was part of Jesus’ inner circle, Jesus snapped, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me.”

It was Gentile Roman military men who mocked Jesus’ kingship and drove 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).

After a new age-type psychic lost her ability to tell fortunes because of an on-the-spot exorcism by Paul, her infuriated Gentile business managers have Paul and Silas arrested, beaten mercilessly and thrown in jail. Follow the money.

Before the brother of Jesus is martyred, he penned this reminder: Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

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)

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. (Romans 12:2a Message Version)

In Athens, Greece—ground zero of Western philosophy—it was the Gentile intellectuals and poets who sneered at Paul’s discourse on the resurrection.

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)

...In other words, it’s not just the “religious/legalists/fundamentalists” that we may be at odds with.

Here’s the problem: I’m finding myself becoming uncomfortable with how little I’m disliked by people outside of the faith. Okay, I realize I may have some deep interpersonal issues to work out here. And I’m not into creating self-righteous confrontational situations by which I can claim persecution…like your average run-of-the-mill American cult. It’s way too easy to slip into a messianic/persecution complex. Been there, got the t-shirt. Seriously.

But I’m wondering: is my life a fragrance that demands a reaction from different people à la 2 Corinthians 2?—or am I just a nice guy who people generally don’t mind being with? There was a reason that Paul said he was not ashamed of the gospel; it implied that it was something to be scoffed at, to be derided as intellectually silly, as a weakness rather than a position of philosophical strength.

There is a reason why Paul wrote the following words at the risk of appearing super-spiritual or attempting to justify himself: I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the stormy seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be Christians but are not. I have lived with weariness and pain and sleepless nights. Often I have been hungry and thirsty and have gone without food. Often I have shivered with cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. (2 Corinthians 11:26b–27 NLT)

Am I so cozy with my life or the culture and so careful to not come off as one of “those kind-of-Christians” that I’m safe as milk? Why am I not disliked by some? I expect to not be liked by some believers for being, well, whatever. Grace feels threatening to some. But where is my interaction with people outside of the Church that causes them to scoff, derisively laugh, or actively oppose the message of the Cross and resurrection? I made fun of people who believed in God before I became a Christian. Where are those who are making fun of me? I’m afraid I’m too insulated and safe in the current zeitgeist of tolerance and acceptance.

The power of the gospel is the Cross…where mercy and judgment meet in space and time. But there is no sense of mercy without a realization of judgment. And somehow, mysteriously, the Cross shouts a more-than-subliminal message of both.

Why don’t people hate me? At least some? It's got me thinking.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

the tree of life: movie of the year?

Okay, something off the beaten blog path for me. This has nothing to do with the weekend.

I can’t quite describe the effect the movie The Tree of Life had on me. I’ve been waiting for it to come out on DVD since it came—and went—fairly quickly at select theatres. I have to admit I was a little reticent; I was afraid it was going to be the millennial generation’s version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sorry, Kubrick fans, but as visually striking as it was in its day, the story and its subliminal themes just didn’t do it for this guy. I find his films too nihilistic, or at least pessimistic, even though 2001 and its closing starchild scene was supposed to be some sort of rebirth. I think. He simply lost me on that one; it felt a little pretentious to me. Still, The Tree of Life seems to be a nod to 2001, borrowing the cinematic feel, philosophical meaning of life questions, a classical music score, and even the same special effects designer.

Here’s the disclaimer: yes, I know the arts are übersubjective and we carbon-based bipeds process them through a complex mix of emotions and tastes at any one moment. At the Cannes Film Festival, the premier drew both applause and boos. A New York Times reviewer gushed: “The sheer beauty of this film is almost overwhelming, but as with other works of religiously minded art, its aesthetic glories are tethered to a humble and exalted purpose, which is to shine the light of the sacred on secular reality.” Others weren’t nearly as kind; Salon dismissed it as “a crazy religious allegory.” It certainly was polarizing.

This one grabbed me in some inexplicable way.

Writer-director and notoriously publicity-shy Terrence Malick is a bit of an acquired taste. His movies are a mashup of philosophical and theological themes. But for me, this one was one of the most insightful presentations of the Bible’s Romans chapter seven sin-struggle I’ve seen…or read.

The movie opens with a quote from Job, the point in the biblical narrative in which God challenges Job’s assumptions of His intentions and character: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together?” (Job 38:4,7). The main character deals with a similar Job-like struggle…and I’m sure it wasn’t a screenplay coincidence that his name is Jack OBrien.

The story is life seen through the eyes of eleven-year-old Jack in a series of flashback memories (Sean Penn plays the grownup version) and life-moment vignettes focusing on the complicated relationship he has with his father (Brad Pitt). His mother represents grace with a quiet authority; the father is the way of nature…the embodiment of Tennyson’s, “…Nature, red in tooth and claw…”.

In the opening scenes, the mother, played by a transcendent Jessica Chastain, narrates in a voice-over, “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.” (yes, I'm Wesleyan). This establishes the storyline and moral tug-of-war.

Malick even throws in a visually-overwhelming creation narrative that puts the characters' lives in perspective, reflecting the opening verse from Job. It includes a powerful metaphorical depiction of Jack’s birth. Very moving.

But what made the film fascinating and unique for me was the running internal dialogue Jack has with God. Jack is confused and troubled by his father’s strict parenting and dog-eat-dog view of life and argues with God. There is a gradual awakening of his ability to choose the way of grace or of nature…and Jack seems to feel he is becoming trapped like his own father, in a struggle with good and evil.

Years later, he and his parents receive the news that his younger brother has died. We’re not told how (in director Malick’s real life his younger classical guitar-playing brother—as in the movie—committed suicide). As an adult, Jack appears to be a successful but lost soul. Did he choose his father’s way?

Spoiler alert (though the movie is such a discombobulating visual feast, I’m not sure this matters a whole lot):

At the end of the movie, adult Jack has a sudden vision of being in an arid, desert-like place and sees his younger self in the distance calling for him to follow him (become like a child?). He steps through a standalone doorway (Christ?) and begins to walk toward an endless beach seeing all his family members. His mother, seemingly comforted by two young women (symbolic angels?), narrates, “I give you my son.” In what seems to be a reconciling and redemptive moment, Jack snaps out of it and is back in his current architecture job, with a slight smile.

Prior to this scene, as the family is forced to move from their home, packed into their car looking back at the house they’ve always known, Jack’s mother voice-overs: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

Though some found it confusing and meandering at nearly two-and-a-half-hours, there were moments in the movie where I felt strangely connected to Jack and deeply empathetic. I don’t normally experience empathy at that level (my wife Anita jokes that I’m missing the empathy gene).

I found the movie drenched in Christian symbolism, even not-so-subtly quoting from Romans and Job.

Maybe it’s just me, but it was the movie of the year for my money. Uh, all of a $1.49 at Drug Mart. But don’t blame me if you hate it and find yourself scratching your head at the end of it, muttering, “Wha...?”

I loved it.

Monday, October 31, 2011

desperation, rich mullins...and a million years ago

My friend Beth Lutz sent me a couple of photos from what seems like a million years ago. Beth was Beth Snell before she married my buddy and co-pastor Mark. She sang with an acoustic Christian group way back in the late seventies/early eighties (sorry, Beth) named Zion. Zion was centered around an unknown, piano-hammering young singer-songwriter named Rich Mullins. I was working a minimum wage job downtown in the catacombs of the Public Library and Rich worked a few blocks away in the ticket booth in the Shillito’s parking garage. We’d get together and argue theology—neither one of us really knew much—and wonder why the church had a problem with long hair at the time. He was raised in a conservative religious home, I was raised in a pagan home. Rich was slightly wacky. Maybe that’s what religion does to you, I don’t know. But I think that’s why I liked him.

I had just become a Christian, gotten a civilian job, and had started playing guitar more seriously after being a drummer in bar bands from the time I was fourteen. Remind me to tell you the story sometime of an expletive-ranting bar owner in Kentucky that kept a beer-guzzling live bear in a cage that bit his finger off one night between sets. At the time it seemed, uh, justified somehow. But I digress.

I met another Christian named Paul Niehaus who had a TEAC four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder (I told you this was a long time ago) in his basement with an old upright piano. He and I played guitars together and had started gigging in local coffeehouses in the mid-seventies. At night Rich would come to Paul’s basement and bang furiously on the upright, I’d play my black-oyster pearl Ludwig drums and Paul thumped bass. Paul and I eventually formed an acoustic group with a female singer and female violinist. And then married them. Is music great or what?

Rich formed Zion and then a relative loaned him the money to go to 5th Floor Studios in Cincinnati and record a self-produced album. Rich called and asked if I would play drums on the sessions and of course I said yes. A friend named Tony Ross played bass. Greg McNeilly engineered and went on to engineer all three albums for a band called Prodigal that I had the pleasure of playing with in the early-to-mid-eighties (for some of that retro-80's-blast-from-the-past-rock-goodness, click below...)

Anyway, it was a song from that Zion session called Sing Your Praise to the Lord that made its way to the ears of rising CCM pop star Amy Grant. The rest is early Christian music history.

Rich was signed as songwriter, moved to Nashville and eventually released his own music, later forming and traveling with A Ragamuffin Band. By the early nineties, his songs were picked up by other artists by the boatloads. Awesome God became a signature worship chorus. Rich could have been fairly wealthy, but instead he arranged for a small church he had attended to receive all his money and had them pay him whatever the average income was in America—about $25,000 then. The church gave the rest of the money out to various ministries and needs. Rich never married and started a quasi-monastic order called the “Kid Brothers of St. Frank.” He said he would have been a Catholic monk but was too much of a wimp. When an executive from a record label once asked him if he knew how much money was pouring in from royalties, he simply said, “No…it would just make it that much harder to give away.”

Like most of us, Rich was a complex personality. Deeply desperate for God, a strong sense of justice, more than a little quirky, critically honest and opinionated. Years passed before I saw him again. The last couple of times were at a Bruce Cockburn concert at Bogart’s and then bringing him in to play at the Vineyard on a weekend in the mid-nineties. He died shortly afterward in a tragic car accident on the way to a benefit concert.

In the end, I think it works like this: the more we’re aware of how screwed up we really are, the more desperate we become for Jesus. Maybe it’s the implied message when Jesus forgave the prostitute who washed his feet with her tears: the one who is forgiven much loves much. It certainly creates a desperation for God. We really, really need Him. I mean, who do we think we’re kidding? Perhaps that’s why the Bible says, “The fool has said in his heart: there is no God.” (Ps 14:1)

I think that’s why I absolutely loved Joe Boyd’s message this weekend in the Strong Challenge series. The angle he took with the “Strong Training” segment was the desperation factor: it’s only when we’re really desperate that we get serious about doing anything we can to be near Jesus.

I could use some more of that in my bones.

And I hope there’s a funky old upright piano in the Kingdom Come; it would be good to hear Rich again. He was a desperate man.

Monday, October 17, 2011

occupy protests

I’m mesmerized by the Occupy protests, perhaps oddly in the same way I was fascinated by the Tea Party movement, or for that matter, the Arab Spring. It doesn’t help to watch a particularly crazy person snag the media interview on your polarized news source of choice, or to buy into the short-sighted categories and simple labels like communists, ultraconservatives, fundamentalists, socialists, or whatever depending on the movement. But it’s more than sociologically interesting when groups of people begin leveraging social media to tap into a simmering discontent. And then the tipping point comes.

Even apart from the politics and economics (let alone the moral implications), the blending of human nature, discontent and movements is intriguing. The fact is, any protest movement has to be listened to by the sheer fact that it reflects a repository of frustration. Although the voice of Occupy is light-years from being monolithic and seemingly still in a deconstructive phase, it is reflecting one thing clearly: a frustration with economic inequities reflected by the widening gap between the rich and poor.

Tread carefully here: greed and coveting are equally creepy, whether you’re the 99 or the 1 percenter.

We may agree or disagree with the movement’s aims (if they become clarified) or what the solution is—or even whether it elicits a solution (a la “let a free market settle it”)—but the movement is certainly reflecting a perception. And you know the connection between perception and reality.

I came across this fascinating response by a blogger/commentator named Josh Brown featured on APM’s Marketplace website and radio show. Josh is part of the Evil Empire, the “one-percenters”, those being vilified by the Occupy folks: Wall Street traders, bankers and stockbrokers who have been accused of controlling one-third of America’s wealth. He’s an investment advisor at Fusion Analytics in Manhattan. He wrote under the heading of Dear Wall Street, this is why the people are angry:

“In 2008, the American people were told that if they didn't bail out the banks, their way of life would never be the same. In no uncertain terms, our leaders told us anything short of saving these insolvent banks would result in a depression to the American public. We had to do it!

“At our darkest hour we gave these banks every single thing they asked for. We allowed investment banks to borrow money at zero percent interest rate, directly from the Fed. We gave them taxpayer cash right onto their balance sheets. We allowed them to suspend account rules and pretend that the toxic sludge they were carrying was worth 100 cents on the dollar. Anything to stave off insolvency. We left thousands of executives in place at these firms. Nobody went to jail, not a single perp walk. I can't even think of a single example of someone being fired. People resigned with full benefits and pensions, as though it were a job well done.

“The American taxpayer kicked in over a trillion dollars to help make all of this happen. But the banks didn't hold up their end of the bargain. The banks didn't seize this opportunity, this second chance to re-enter society as a constructive agent of commerce. Instead, they went back to business as usual. With $20 billion in bonuses paid during 2009. Another $20 billion in bonuses paid in 2010. And they did this with the profits they earned from zero percent interest rates that actually acted as a tax on the rest of the economy.

“Instead of coming back and working with this economy to get back on its feet, they hired lobbyists by the dozen to fight tooth and nail against any efforts whatsoever to bring common sense regulation to the financial industry. Instead of coming back and working with the people, they hired an army of robosigners to process millions of foreclosures. In many cases, without even having the proper paperwork to evict the homeowners. Instead, the banks announced layoffs in the tens of thousands, so that executives at the top of the pile could maintain their outrageous levels of compensation.

“We bailed out Wall Street to avoid Depression, but three years later, millions of Americans are in a living hell. This is why they're enraged, this why they're assembling, this is why they hate you. Why for the first time in 50 years, the people are coming out in the streets and they're saying, ‘Enough.’”


No matter which side of the fence you were on regarding TARP and the bailout, one thing is for sure: when leaders, whether they be political, economic, cultural or spiritual leaders, become so tone deaf that they can’t hear the pop song, there’s dissonance a’coming. I have to agree with Josh on this one. What were the trustees and boards-of-directors thinking when they karaoked to “Executives Gone Wild”…especially when those at the top were the ones ultimately responsible for tanking their own companies, save for the taxpayer bailout? Of course companies can do whatever they want to with their own money…that’s part of how capitalism works. But how do you miss the obvious PR meta-message? Really?

Miguel De La Torre, associate professor of social ethics at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, writes, “During the booming economy (1990 to 1995) when most corporations reported profit increases of up to 50 percent, the average CEO's pay rose from $1.9 million to $3.2 million, while the average worker, during that same time period, experienced a pay drop from $22,976 to $22,838.”

One of the purposes of the prophets in the Old Testament was to force the people with power and privilege to face the music. It shouldn’t surprise us that there is an over-abundance of warnings given regarding the abuse of power and money. Over and over.

Jeremiah prophesied with the word of God:

“Doom to him who builds palaces but bullies people, who makes a fine house but destroys lives, who cheats his workers and won’t pay them for their work, who says, ‘I’ll build me an elaborate mansion with spacious rooms and fancy windows. I’ll bring in rare and expensive woods and the latest in interior decor.’” Jeremiah 22:13–14 (Message Version)

Through Ezekiel, the Father cried:

“The sin of your sister Sodom was this: She lived with her daughters in the lap of luxury—proud, gluttonous, and lazy. They ignored the oppressed and the poor. They put on airs and lived obscene lives. And you know what happened: I did away with them.” Ezekiel 16:49–50 (Message Version)

This really isn’t a rip on the rich. Let’s be honest: compared to most of the world, all of us are pretty wealthy. If you’re reading this on your own computer, you’re among the estimated 6-7% elite of the world. But it seems to me that when a sizable group of people begin questioning the gap, someone needs to listen. Perhaps there is something to a “populous prophetic” voice.

The French Revolution is derided or cheered depending on your historical politics. It eventually produced Napoleon. Sheesh—what a megalomaniac. Yet it was the self-consumed French aristocracy and the wealthy, powerful Church clergy who really missed it, and paid dearly with their heads. Literally. Though it’s a dubious Marie Antoinette quote, “Let them eat cake” reflected the tone-deaf response to the populous when, among a barrage of other things, bread prices increased fifty-percent.

All I’m saying is that those at the top have a responsibility to be aware and respond wisely. If I were asked (uh, doubtful) to give a little pastoral advice to CEO’s and execs, it would be this: don’t ignore the rumble; a little self-restraint and self-discipline could go a long, long way.

And we should all reread James—he should get some credit if just for being the brother of Jesus.

I’m just saying.

Monday, September 26, 2011

the prom

I wish I could say we came up with the idea, but we didn’t. But we sure have enjoyed putting our spin on it. For years the Prom has been a seriously big party for adults with special needs. It’s that simple. And it all happens this Friday.

It’s a funny thing about us Christians: we may talk about being outcasts. Aliens. Sojourners. Peculiar people. Strangers. Those are all Biblical and theological metaphors for those who have taken the advice of Saint Peter in Acts 2: “Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture!” (Acts 2:40 Message Version). The man certainly had a way with words.

And by the way, notice in this account that the prescriptive admonition wasn’t a “fire escape”; it wasn’t about hell. It was about escaping from the pathetically miniscule and inward-focused philosophical approaches of this world, the me-first, performance-based, dog-eat-dog ways of thinking about life…the cultural mandates that shape us into narcissistic social-capital consumers, far and away from God’s design. As C. S. Lewis famously remarked:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”

It reads in Acts that about three thousand people got baptized and joined this new little sect of Judaism that claimed to have found the messiah. And about seventy generations later, there are still people claiming to escape their cultural malaise by following the Risen God-Man, Jesus.

And so we’re labeled outcasts. Aliens. Strangers in a strange land. We relate to that because of the light-year distance of our ethics, ideals, motivations and beliefs from the average carbon-based biped caught up in the current zeitgeist. We become different. We think and react differently. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

But what if you were marked in ways that signaled obvious physical and social differences from the norm?

At our original Prom event, one woman told me it was the first time in her life to go somewhere where people didn’t stare at her. Can you imagine a lifetime of that? It’s one thing to feel different; it’s another to know you are recognizably different in ways that others tend to react with pity…or indifference…or condescension…or with a clumsy discomfort. For us spiritual and moral sojourners, marked differently because of the infusion of the Holy Spirit, it should be the most supernaturally natural thing to love and create space for those who must feel like disaffected strangers because of physical and social limitations. It expresses the God who longs for a community, the Father who “sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6).

It’s never too late to volunteer, from simple cleanup duties…to pre-event being an escort for someone to help make sure they experience everything the Prom has to offer. Just click here...

Come join the party Friday night. It could seriously change your life.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Big God|Big Church

A bit of a recap…and then a question or two.

One summer when I was a little boy in Augusta, Kentucky (population 1500), my mom sent me to a church on Fourth Street for something called Vacation Bible School. No one in my family was really a Christian. 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 Catholic, don’t get upset. You were probably taught that people like me weren’t going to heaven because we weren’t Catholic. Yes, we were all spiritually dysfunctional; it didn’t matter what label you pasted on it.

If you drive up graveyard hill in Augusta, you’ll find a Protestant cemetery and a Catholic cemetery divided by a single-lane blacktop road. We didn’t talk about religion when we were sucking air…and we certainly didn’t mix things up when we weren’t.

Anyway, mom sent me to this church for Vacation Bible School. I didn’t like the sound of it. I knew that vacation didn’t have anything remotely to do with school. That’s an oxymoron if ever there was one. And then you throw the Bible-word in the middle of it and you have all the excitement of watching Mr. Rogers talk about dental hygiene.

But I went. Once. We colored little mimeographed (don’t ask) drawings of stained glass with waxy Crayola-wannabe crayons. 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 alley to find my buddies and play army all day instead.

Church held zero interest for me. By the sixth grade, my parents no longer made me go. I suppose it wasn’t worth the hassle for them and I’m not so sure they even liked going themselves. But I was set free. To me, church had nothing to offer but sleepy monotone sermons, nothing that had any real connection with my life, and a waste of perfectly good free time on a weekend. And that’s how I felt through high school and my early college experience. Thanks, but no thanks. If it works for you, go for it. But keep it away from me.

And then something otherworldly happened: I met Jesus. Not in a blinding vision, but in the simple personal stories of some fellow musicians—people who looked like me—who had become part of the Jesus Movement back in the day.

Everything changed. I found myself being transformed, challenged and empowered. Suddenly the Bible came alive. And the Jesus I read about there was nothing like how I remembered him in my limited church experience: He was radically different. He upset the religious people, challenged the status quo and even ticked off His own disciples at times. What’s more, He spoke with an authority like no one else I’d ever heard. And He somehow mixed that power and authority with servanthood in a way that was neuron-bending. And what about that apparent “crucifixion-and-coming-back-to-life-again”-thing?—whoa. Could that be true? He became so real to me in ways I couldn’t fully understand. I began changing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. My friends were puzzled and didn’t know what to say to me. I really didn’t talk about it that much (uh, I think), but in the house I was living with the other musicians in the band, the keyboardist suddenly said, “I’m not living in a house with a Jesus-freak” and moved out.

Truth was: I really liked Jesus. A lot. But I still had some problems with His followers…and this thing called church. At times it seemed so small, so focused on little things and inward. Sometimes it seemed that Christians could be beautifully 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 makeup applied with a trowel, exchanging plastic crosses for “your love gift of $25”?

And sometimes I wondered why there were churches on every corner…and why did they argue over things that seemed—at least to me—inconsequential and petty?

Then one day I had an epiphany. A revelation from God.

I was one of them.

I was part of this thing called The Church. I was no longer an outsider who could take potshots at those hypocritical, judgmental Christians. Now I was one of them…and attending a church. I didn’t see that coming.

Truth was: my picture of the Big ‘C’ Church was very, very small. And Christianity had vastly changed the culture in ways I was largely unaware. I had a very narrow and plebeian view.

For instance, it was Christianity that helped change the world’s view of women. Greek philosopher Plato wrote that only men are “created directly by the gods and are given souls.” His 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 and freely practiced infanticide. At an archaeological dig at Ashkelon, archaeologists found one hundred skeletons of week-old infants in the sewers under a Roman bath. They had been flushed in the drains and drowned.

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 goes on: “...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 extended circle of disciples and teaching sessions 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 save their money to buy slaves in order 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). Before we misapply Paul’s writings and accuse him of misogyny, understand the cultural and specific context.

All in all, it was an extremely radical idea for that world, 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 head-tilting. Love your enemies?—you’ve got to be kidding: we’re talking about an oppressive Roman government, right?

And it was the early Christians who stayed in the towns when decimating diseases and plagues struck so they could take care of the sick who were left behind, even when the local physicians would flee. 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 is so much 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 give his life as a ransom for many” was shocking.

My picture of the Church and its influence was way too small.

But one question still bothered the skeptic in me: What happened?

How did a self-sacrificing passionate movement end up doing crazy things throughout the subsequent centuries? How could it morph into an organizational system that produced factions and sects, an Inquisition, Crusades or Elmer Gantry-styled preachers?

One day Jesus told an unnerving story. He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

Jesus would later say that in the end He Himself would separate the true from the false, the legit from the play-actors…and 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. There was never a connection, a truly humbled and surrendered dependence on Jesus. I find in exceptionally unnerving that Jesus would say He never knew someone.

Or 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? In a mirror-image statement of His response to those on the right, He says to them, I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father.”

That is a chilling statement. Now ask yourself:

Are you like me in that I didn’t really see this Big Idea called The Church? And how can we take something as spectacular as the Body of Christ and miniaturize it? The good news is that anyone can join this movement—the phenomenal Church that is bringing the Kingdom to earth—but the only way in is to humble yourself under the Lordship of Jesus.

At least, that’s what the earliest Christians would give up life itself for.

“…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

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

leadership: it's obvious when it's not

Once again I’m sitting in the quonset hut-like building called Terminal 2 at CVG—Cincinnati’s international airport. The claustrophobic shotgun Terminal 2 services Continental, American Airlines and United Airlines. No kidding. CVG is like walking into an apocalyptic movie set: empty, frayed and eerily quiet. This was once a bustling, thriving airport, peaking in the late nineties. 911 obviously didn’t help, but storm clouds were on the horizon before that. The airport Delta built (Literally. They dumped millions into it—apparently a rare move for an airline) was flying high, particularly on a novel idea of short commuter flights until other nearby airports like Dayton and Indianapolis got into the same game. When Delta squeezed other low-cost carriers out of Cincinnati by temporarily lowering its fees until they left and then ramping them back up, CVG became the nation’s most expensive departure ticket. And then the Northwest merger. Northwest already had a huge hub being built in Detroit, so say goodbye to the unprofitable airport curiously built in Kentucky.

Now it just looks sad. Nowhere can you find a flight monitor in Terminal 2. Several of the gate monitors needed to be rebooted. No one from AA is in sight until right before a flight leaves. Good luck trying to find help. Thank God for smartphones. In settings like this, I don’t blame the poor employees who have to walk in and face a flock of frustrated flyers; this is a leadership issue and a supervisory breakdown, from the airlines to airport management. Someone at the top is either uninformed or apathetic. It’s always about leadership.

This morning the news reported a national survey on the “happiness index” of our fifty states. Hawaii scored the top of the happy list. Before you say, “Duh”, the next two were Alaska and North Dakota. Really. I assume some of it had to do with employment opportunities, but apparently the survey measures numerous intangibles.

But get this: the bottom four were Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia. Ohio, thank you, borders two of them.

Last week I took my friends from the U.K. who were staying with me to downtown Cincinnati on a Monday afternoon. She’s a beautiful city when viewed through the downward twisting cut in I-75 heading north from Kentucky, with a tight, shining skyline ringed with hills. But her close-up on a Monday during regular work time was sad. The city seemed abandoned. The once burgeoning Tower Place Mall creeped me out with half of the stores closed. On Race Street, the remnant of a skywalk crosses overhead and suddenly stops in mid-air above a parking lot where a former building—now leveled—once connected. Its stub is covered in warping, splintered plywood. And it’s been that way for years. As we walked up Vine north of Fifth Street in front of Brooks Brothers and Tiffany’s, the sidewalk smelled of urine. Even if we don’t know how to solve the unemployment and homeless issue, doesn’t management care enough to have someone simply hose the sidewalk in the morning? This is good business, regardless of the social issues.

Moreover, in a previous census, Cincinnati proper was listed as the third poorest large city in the country, behind Detroit and Buffalo. What happened? It’s amazing how momentum can suddenly shift and an organization, a sports team, a township, and yes, a church, begins to drift. Organizational guru and author Ichak Adizes in his classic book Corporate Lifecycles lays out organizations life-stages on a Bell curve like this:

According to Adizes, every stage has unique problems that must be solved. That’s normal. But chronic ones can obviously cause it to stall, burn out, or even rush through later lifecycles that set up an early death if not dealt with appropriately, even when everything seems to be charting up-and-to-the-right. Research lead Adizes to this discovery: the organization has a critical need to stay in a state of “Prime” and, interestingly enough, not settle in “Stable”. In his study, Prime is that delicate balance between organizational flexibility and organizational self-control. And in my mind, that’s a leadership responsibility based on good data, sharp teammates, and some intuitive smarts. For us church leaders, add the vital need to keep our prophetic ear to the ground.

As for Cincinnati, it does no good to point fingers or play politics. That’s silly. And Cincinnati’s not even the point of this post. My point is that most chronic problems in any system usually stem from a leadership breakdown somewhere. If you haven’t read Kings and Chronicles in the Old Testament, check it out: the ebb and flow of effective leadership shifts the momentum in a heartbeat. The sad history of Israel is laid out warts-and-all. It isn’t pretty.

And as an aside, some of us believe Cincinnati can thrive again. In the Old Testament, God told his people they had a job to do even in the city that had carried them off as prisoners. I would say even more so for us: “Also do good things for the city where I sent you as captives. Pray to the Lord for the city where you are living, because if good things happen in the city, good things will happen to you also.” (Jeremiah 29:7 NCV)

If I might add one more thing at the risk of sounding self-promoting: pray for your leaders. In your city…and in your local church.

I know this leader needs it.

A city without wise leaders will end up in ruin; a city with many wise leaders will be kept safe. (Proverbs 11:14 CEV)


Thursday, June 30, 2011

lady gaga is right…sort of

The latest DNA research development is fascinating. As exploration inside “Darwin’s Black Box” carries on, scientists are discovering more and more predispositions to behaviors and abilities, both good and bad. Last month it was reported that a regulating gene for obesity and diabetes was discovered at King’s College in London. Apparently, we inherit the gene from both mom and dad. The cell from our mom regulates our metabolism, while the one from dad is switched off in us at birth. The discovery could be a breakthrough in curing Type 2 diabetes. Amazing.

The so-called “fat gene” has been fodder for late-night comedians for some time. But it now seems that certain people may have a propensity for obesity based on genetics. For those of us tipping the scales on the hefty side, this brought a sort of perverse relief. It at least weighed in, no pun intended, on the nature-versus-nurture debate.

Er, sort of.

It turns out that there may be a delicate interdependent dance between environment, behavior and genes.

Last year, Time magazine did a cover story on the burgeoning field of epigenetics. In the 80’s, a Swedish scientist began studying the long-term effects that earlier famine or feast years had on succeeding generations. The article states the question that prestigious preventive-health specialist Dr. Lars Olov Bygren began asking:

“Could parents' experiences early in their lives somehow change the traits they passed to their offspring? To put it simply, the data suggested that a single winter of overeating as a youngster could initiate a biological chain of events that would lead one's grandchildren to die decades earlier than their peers did. How could this be possible?”

That study and others led to the discovery of epigenes. As the article reports,
“…Epigentics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material—the epigenome—that sits on top of the genome, just outside it (hence the prefix epi-, which means above). It is these epigenetic "marks" that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.”

Fascinating. Science seems to be saying that nature and nurture are physiologically entwined. Bad behaviors in parents prior to their children’s conception can predispose future kids to certain diseases and even early deaths. It strikes me as more than interesting that the Bible says God visits
“the sins of the fathers on the children on the third and the fourth generations…” (Exodus 20:5)

I have little doubt that future genetic—and epigenetic—studies will only reveal more and more our propensity toward certain behaviors. Who knows if kleptomania, overeating, sexual orientation, MPD and more will be uncovered in the intense research of those microscopic three-billion base pairs? So as Lady Gaga sings in her gazillion-seller hyper-catchy pop tome,
Born This Way,

“It doesn’t matter if you love him or capital H-I-M,
Just put your paws up ‘cause you were born this way, baby…
…I’m beautiful in my way ‘cause god makes no mistakes,
I’m on the right track baby: I was born this way”

Sounds like you’re destined before you’re even conceived…and to some degree, even by the mere behaviors of your back-to-the-future parents. Is Lady Gaga right?—is it true God makes no mistakes? But what if He wasn’t in the “making” in the most operational sense? Are we to blame God for our cellular predisposition, good or bad? The fact that Gaga’s vocal cords are shaped and stretched a certain way for those powerhouse ultrasonic notes, was that God? Is her self-proclaimed bisexuality from God?

Here’s the big question at the core of Christianity: What if we’re all really,
really flawed?

And flawed all the way down to our DNA? Is that a game-changer in any way? My genetics are broken and I have to wear contact lenses: should I blame that on God? But here’s an even deeper question: If
behaviors—or to some degree even motivations—are triggered by a predisposed gene and we are born that way, does that make them amoral? Because someone “can’t help it”, does that remove any sense of morality connected with the behavior? And does that mean that we’re not responsible?

I think our brokenness—all the way down to our DNA—is part of what Paul is describing as the
flesh. Think about it. Christianity claims that the Spirit of God is in conflict with our natural (genetically predisposed) nature…not because God made us that way, but because we are terrifically broken, all the way down to our genes. The Bible gives us a powerful narrative as to why we’re flawed: a desire—even in a perfect state—to be god rather than be with God. Knowing that we are deeply broken is critical to understanding Christianity; admitting we are deeply broken is the first step to experiencing Christianity.

Call it depravity, call it brokenness, call it sin, but whatever you call it, it separates us from intimately knowing God, apparently because He is perfectly
unbroken. You can’t mix oil and water. Or we’re as different as chalk and cheese, as my U.K. friends say.

Just by replacing the words “sinful nature” (or “flesh” in the King James) with “flawed genetics” gives a fresh view to the conflict that Paul expresses in this passage:

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. Romans 7:18–20 (NIV)

It may be that our “war against the flesh” is exactly that: a conflict with what may seem natural to us. But what may seem natural to us might simply be a blindness to how broken we are. All the way down to our genes. And that may mean the only way to know whether any behavior falls in the “healthy” or “unhealthy” category—sin or not sin—is not whether it simply hurts a fellow human being, but whether it hurts the heart of God and His originally perfect design.

Now that is a game-changer. And modern science may be aiding us more that we realize.

When you follow the (natural) desires of your (broken DNA), your lives will produce these evil results: sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19–21 (New Living Translation…with Workman-phrases in parentheses…)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

sos and the next big thing...

When I wrote this I was sitting in our darkened auditorium watching a thousand middle and high school students worshipping their hearts out with Matt McCoy and a phenomenal band of young musicians…hands raised, bouncing at times, singing at the top of their über-stretched vocal cords. Made me want to cry. A manly cry, of course.

“In my life…be lifted high. In my world…be lifted high. In our love…be lifted high…”

It’s hard to believe, but we’re hosting our 20th Summer Of Service—SOS—this year. It all began with an idea Steve Sjogren had in 1992: thirteen mostly out-of-town students spent a couple of months doing simple outreaches. We housed them in some rental apartments the whole time. We were, of course, in over our heads. Even then.

Now it’s only five days. But five days on steroids. Today I was washing cars for free with an amazing group of young people from Traverse City, Michigan. The very last car was driven by a 20-something woman with a five-year-old boy in tow. She was genuinely stunned by the free wash. As we finished, I asked her if there was anything she would like prayer for. She was suddenly even more surprised. She told us she had some big “life decisions” to make and told us her story. Turns out she was from Poland and soon to return since her au pair gig was finished. The five-year-old was in her charge. She really didn’t want to go back and was not sure what she would do when she did. We prayed. Her eyes filled up. We believed God heard us. And she thanked us again and drove off.

Once more, the wall between the Church and those outside came crashing down for a moment. The Kingdom of God slipped through a thin place and caught us all by surprise. And in a moment of servitude.

Last Saturday I spent three hours doing an outward-focused church leadership training workshop at Tryed Stone-New Beginning Church for my friend Jerry Culbreth. I’m always interested to see how outward-focused principles apply to different church cultures, this one being primarily an African-American congregation. During a Q&A time, someone asked, “Do you think that developing a servant-oriented culture with an emphasis on outreach will be the next wave in the local church?” My response was simple: if it’s not seen as a church-growth mechanism, yes. But I’m always suspicious of the silver bullet theory. We have to think more holistically.

Nevertheless, several years ago in the Outward Focused Life book, I posed a simple question in the introduction:

“There’s something new sneaking into the church, and in a few decades, it will be pervasive. Here’s my Next Big Thing prediction: That churches in America will become less known for their styles, for their tribes, for their proselytizing methods, for their politics, for their clamoring over Christian “rights”, for the things they’re against…and more known for the way they serve. Servanthood will be the defining characteristic of people who are followers of Jesus. The question I regularly ask myself as a pastor in Cincinnati is this: what if the Church (the “Big ‘C’ Church”) in our city was known more for serving than by any other thing?”

I’m more convinced than ever it’s the right question, particularly in the hyper-politicized, shrill-voiced polarized culture we live in now. The believers I spoke to recently at a couple of New Wine Leadership Conferences in the U.K. were more than ready for a servanthood fix (New Wine is a network of churches that are mostly Anglican). It’s not that they were unfamiliar with the idea; it’s that the leaders want to hear reinforcement of what I believe they inherently know. As with most conferences, it’s not so much that you’re bringing completely new information, but rather, a voice of affirmation.

Tomorrow morning at SOS I will again watch a couple dozen chartered school buses pull up to the Vineyard to take a thousand students around the city to practice the art of serving. Maybe this generation will do a better job that we have at presenting the Body of Christ to a lonely and lost world. And tomorrow night we’ll gather and worship Jesus simply, beautifully and with a thoroughly-filled servant-heart…thanking Him for the opportunity to make His name famous through acts of love. I think that’s pretty wise.

The fruit of a righteous person is a tree of life, and a winner of souls is wise. (Proverbs 11:30 God’s Word Translation)

Taken poorly with a droid. I know, I know...

Monday, June 13, 2011

the politics of power

Although politicians seem to be having a difficult time determining how to pull the U.S. out of its economic malaise, they’re having no problem creating a stimulus for comedy writers. Case in point: Take Congressman Andrew Weiner.


Apparently 51% of his own constituents think he should stay in office according to one poll. I don’t have a dog in that fight, but I can’t imagine why any voter would put their trust in someone carving out time to take pictures of their package in the House gym. Take morality out of the question: do you want someone that stupid in his or her judgment to represent your concerns? To quote Seth: Really?

This isn’t a left versus right issue. Apparently, lack of judgment plays well on both sides of the aisle. Do I really need to make a list? And this isn’t even a slam on politicians; in the halcyon days of Enron, executives threw outlandish Bacchanalian parties that rivaled the Romans, or least Hefner’s dynasty. Not to mention their execs flashing Enron-logo credit cards in Houston strip clubs, buying $500+ bottles of Cristal and traipsing off to the VIP rooms with strippers in tow. Too bad for shareholders and employees that lost all of their retirement savings in the freefall of Enron. The beat goes on: Rajaratnam, Madoff, Boesky, Milken, and on an on.

Sometimes the smartest guys in the room aren’t the smartest guys in the room.

Last month, Time magazine’s editor-at-large Nancy Gibbs nailed the cover story with her article, Sex. Lies. Arrogance. What Makes Powerful Men Act Like Pigs. The International Monetary Fund president Dominique Strauss-Kahn—and potential next president of France—was arrested after allegedly sexually assaulting a hotel maid in Manhattan. Apparently, there were past “indiscretions” that emerged as well. Gibbs writes:

“A study set to be published in Psychological Science found that the higher men—or women—rose in a business hierarchy, the more likely they were to consider committing adultery. With power comes both the opportunity and confidence . . . and with confidence comes a sense of sexual entitlement.”

I’ve already blogged about the dangers of entitlement in general, but let me touch on power. And it’s not just a problem for politicians, executives and celebrities—they’re simply in the crosshairs of the paparazzi.

People can abuse power in a non-profit organization or on a church board, around a dinner table or in a street gang. Or in a marriage. Face it: power is that mouth-watering addiction to being in charge. Power is abused when it slips into control. The greatest picture we have of power used correctly is God Himself: He created beings with free will who could choose to love and obey Him or not. Try to imagine the Chief of New York’s Finest standing by, with all his available firepower, while his son is nailed to a telephone pole in the Bronx by a petty street gang of thugs.

In Feinberg and Tarrant’s book Why Smart People do Dumb Things, they recount the story of Stew Leonard. Leonard was a smart entrepreneur in Connecticut who turned a family dairy business into a shopping theme park with a petting zoo and singing animatronic animals. Back in the day, Tom Peters, the author of the mega-seller In Search of Excellence, praised Stew for his business acumen and ethics, a model for excellence. Leonard had pictures of himself with movie stars and ex-presidents. Someone got suspicious when Leonard turned up at an airport with a suspicious amount of pocket cash—$75,000. The feds ended up raiding him and discovered a computer program in a hollowed out book that Stew had used to cheat the government out of hundreds of thousand of dollars. Arrogance—a spawn of power—answers to no one.

In the Old Testament, David understood the vanity of power. He had seen a bigger-than-life, impressive king—a head taller than his brothers—become arrogant and unresponsive to God. Saul was replaced by a shepherd boy with a slingshot. Later, David wrote in Psalm 20: Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.

Problem is: none of us is bulletproof.

Decades later, in the time of year “when kings go off to war”, David, the powerful king of Israel, didn’t. Instead he found himself voyeuristically watching a woman bathe. In an astonishing abuse of power, he had her brought to him and slept with her. He knew her husband Uriah was off fighting the King’s war. There was never any evidence Bathsheba wanted or enjoyed this. After all, how does one refuse a celebrated and powerful king, anointed by God? As a matter of fact, months later she sends a terse message to King David: I’m pregnant.

Eventually David has Uriah surreptitiously killed in battle…and Bathsheba mourns for her loss. David makes her his wife and all doesn’t end happily.

It was an abuse of power. And a generational mess.

Bathsheba was the wife who later gave birth to Solomon who would lead Israel into her glory days, but with a price. Though he humbly asks God for one thing—wisdom (and receives it supernaturally in spades)—he eventually gave in to the entitlement that power temptingly bequeaths, ends up chasing the gods of his many wives and not finishing well.

It’s taken right from the TMZ files of today.

So what’s to be learned for us commoners? Don’t kid yourself: you’re richer and more powerful than you think. You’re more-than-likely reading this on your own computer. And if you own a home and a car and get a cost-of-living increase each year, you’re among the wealthiest 15% in the entire world. If it’s two salaries and two cars, you’re in the top 5% on the blue planet.

You’re not bulletproof. Nor am I. There’s only one way into the Kingdom’s narrow door: humbly, bent over and admitting who you are to the One whom you aren’t: God. And consider the practice regularly; I’ve watched powerful preachers and people-of-God fall like lightning. They stumbled into the lie that they could handle power better than anyone else…and simply by that assessment abused it.

“To whom much is given (perhaps that’s all-inclusive to those of us who have receive His mercy), much is required.”

And get over yourself.

Friday, May 06, 2011

a personal note on another royal wedding

I’m writing this from Phoenix after speaking at the Vineyard National Leaders Conference. It’s been a whirlwind of activity recently: our youngest daughter just got married on Friday night, we left two days later for Arizona, we’ll fly home on Friday night and take off for England the next day to speak at three different conferences.

I haven’t really had time to process my feelings about last Friday night with my daughter Katie. Both our girls—if you don’t mind a little bragging—are pretty remarkable. Rachel got married two years ago and lives in Chattanooga. She and her husband Tyler are very involved in leadership at the Chattanooga Vineyard. I’m super-proud of both of them.

Katie lives here in Cincinnati and has married a great guy named James who is on staff with us at Vineyard Cincinnati. Katie has been involved with Student Ministries and currently facilitates worship for a young adult group that James leads.

Weeks ago Katie and I talked about what she wanted to do for the father/daughter dance at her wedding reception. I threw out some ideas but none really grabbed her. She said she would pick one out. As the day got closer, I wondered what she was going to do. At the rehearsal she said it would be a surprise. I wondered if it was some song she liked as a little girl. And then I remembered the N’Sync and Backstreet Boys teenage years and got worried. Oh well…it was her day. It could be a joke-song of sorts.

Then she got me.

When Katie was a little girl, she was never comfortable with sleepovers. I think some of it had to do with her fighting asthma and afraid she might not do well and have an emergency. Whatever the reason, she just didn’t feel comfortable. For her it was really a big fear to overcome. Most of us have something like that. The first few times she tried it, about 11 PM I’d get a call from a parent saying, “I think Katie really wants to come home”…and of course I’d go get her. She would fight the tears back, disappointed with herself.

One day she wanted to go with the other little kids on a two night retreat at the church. When I pulled up, there were lots of other little kids and their parents waiting in line. As we got out of the car, her eyes filled up and she said, “I don’t think I can do this.” And of course no little kid wants other little kids to see them crying. She jumped back in the car and burst into tears. She really wanted to do it but was simply anxious.

I’d been through this before and honestly I felt frustrated. She was at an age where I really thought she should handle this. I started to slip into a controlling mode to tell her I’m not going to do this again and if we turned around and drove all the way back home, that was it—I’m done—and she should be old enough to handle this. Bla bla bla...

But instead, God was merciful and shut my big mouth (which isn’t always the case). And then He gave me something else to offer.

I said, “Katie, I’ll tell you what. I can be a father to you in two ways right now: I can be ‘soft daddy’ and say, ‘Honey, you don’t have to do this. It’s not a big deal; your time will come. Let’s go home.’ Or I can be ‘tough daddy’ and say, ‘Come on, Katie, You’re a big girl; you can do this.’ I’ll be whatever you need right now.”

She looked down at the floor, took a deep breath and said, “I want you to be ‘tough daddy’…”

And so we got out of the car and walked all around the parking lot while I gave her my best Woody Hayes talk without the expletives. “You can do this, Katie! You’re going to have a blast and by the end of this you’re going to wish you could keep staying! It’s not that big of a deal; you’re not that far away. You can call me if you absolutely need to…and I’ll be there. But you can do this—I know you can!”

She hugged my neck and left…and never had another problem. I’m glad I didn’t force anything on her. Control is really not that great of a deal.

And then years later I remember the day she drove to Nashville without really knowing anyone and found a place to live with two other girls for two years and became fearless in so many areas of her life in Jesus, discovering her own faith. Six months after that she took off for Australia, Thailand and Indonesia with Youth With A Mission for nearly a half-year.

And so here we are at the wedding. It was in a one-hundred year old Catholic church that our friends at Vineyard Central bought a few years ago. The room was filled with tables, beaucoup candles, food, wine and old and new friends. After the ceremony and dinner, my buddy and co-worker Alton Alexander announced the father/daughter dance…and said it was a special song that Katie had written and recorded for this night. I was surprised, partly because I’ve always been a cheerleader for Katie’s songwriting, but she had cooled off a bit on writing in the last few years. She gave me that two-hundred watt Katie smile, held my hand, and we danced as she whispered the lyrics in my ear while we both cried…

Dance With Me | Katie Workman

Kiss my heart
Once is not enough
My dreams won’t find me
Without that last touch

I won’t forget
As I drove away
You’re so hard to leave and
I tried to be brave

So dance with me
Dance with me
This will be our song

Taught me to love
Forgive those that hurt
Gave me the freedom
To fall and to learn

Here in this dress
Where everything changed
You opened your hand and
You gave me away

So dance with me
Dance with me
This will be our song

Yeah, pretty well wiped me out.

May they have a long and Spirit-filled marriage.

Friday, April 15, 2011

what i really meant to say. really.

Well, this past weekend certainly stirred things up.

Last week I upset a number of people at the Vineyard in a talk that was scheduled months ago on compassionate action and social justice in response to living open lives before Jesus. My feeling is that social justice—or for that matter, any mercy work that we do—is confusing if it isn’t undergirded with empathy. I tend to think incarnational Christianity is rooted in that; that before we wag our fingers and pronounce judgment on individuals or groups, let’s first try slipping into their shoes. At least attempt it. Oddly, it seems way easier to spot the splinter in someone else’s eye while missing the two-by-four in our own. My own ten-year journey in a small group with pastors who are African-American has had a profound effect on how I see American culture.

Anyway, it made some folks hopping mad. In each of the four celebrations, I noticed several people walking out of the auditorium during one particular segment. There’s no way that isn’t painful when you’re speaking, no matter how thick-skinned you are.

After reading and unpacking our text from Mark 6 about the feeding of the five thousand, I returned to a particular thought about the story, specifically how the disciples had not eaten all day either. Here’s the rest of the transcript from one of the celebrations, all in blue. This isn’t a post…it’s practically a book. Sorry. A brief post-furor comment follows the transcript:

…But here’s the deal: this isn’t a story about extreme poverty. These people could return to their homes…very hungry, but they’re not going to starve. But perhaps there’s a bigger story about the heart of God. And perhaps it’s a story of what can happen when we’re hungry along with the people who need to hear Jesus…when they’re hungry, when we feel what they feel. And that’s part of the story of the incarnation. The apostle Paul says in Philippians 2: Your attitude should be the kind that was shown us by Jesus Christ, who, though he was God, did not demand and cling to his rights as God, but laid aside his mighty power and glory, taking the disguise of a slave and becoming like men. And he humbled himself even further, going so far as actually to die a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians. 2:5-8 Living Bible)

Jesus had all the power and all the privilege and rights with His Father. They were One in the same. But something remarkable happened because of love. He slipped into the skin of a slave. He knows what we feel because He did the unthinkable: He became one of us. That’s the responsibility of the one who has the power.

I believe that incarnational Christianity is what each one of us is called to do—to slip into the skin of someone else, that we might feel what they feel and see what they see, and so love them to the fullest. That’s the real thing. That’s why it says in 2 Corinthians 8: You know how full of love and kindness Jesus was: though he was so rich, for your sakes he became poor.

What I want to do is engage your sense of empathy. The beauty of what God wants to produce in us is incarnational Christianity. God slipping into the skin of humanity, into the skin of the species that would pin Him to wood like some grade-school insect experiment, that kind of love is nearly impossible to wrap your brain around. But He modeled it, and then says to us, “Just as the Father has sent me into the world, I’m sending you.”

And that’s the idea behind the Biblical concept of social justice. When you feel what someone else feels, it will cause you to set things right if they have been marginalized, discriminated, or hurt in any way by the greed, racism or any other evil in the systems of this world.

Now I’m going to get on my soapbox here, so give me some grace.

One of the things that we try really hard to do here at Vineyard Cincinnati is avoid politics. Personally, I don’t think either of the political parties neatly holds all the truth. What’s more, my job is to introduce you to another government: the Kingdom of God. It’s not a republic, it’s not a democracy, it’s not a socialist structure, or parliamentarian, nor communistic. It’s a dictatorship, or to say it more nicely, a monarchy. You don’t get a vote. What’s more, you are a servant in its governance structure, and the only way you get any power in it is by become the least and the last. My true citizenship is in that Kingdom. It comes before everything else.

As a matter of fact, Jesus said that we were to pursue that government first—and get this—above everything else in life. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have responsibilities in the country we live in and shouldn’t work for justice or be grateful for where we live, but it does mean that it is kept in perspective. We have spiritual brothers and sisters in every country on the earth, and our allegiance to them and the common Kingdom we live in is greater than any nationalism or patriotism.

In the end, my Father is the King over it all, and He’s not an American, He’s not a white European, He’s not even a “Christian”, per se. He’s God, the Creator of an entire universe for His pleasure, who gave His own Son for the redemption of every tribe and nation on the planet. And so I’m careful not to share my personal political persuasion. I’m here to help you find your way into that Kingdom.

Now let me offer the flipside of that. It’s hard to talk about justice—and social justice—without mentioning this next cultural issue. And here’s where it gets dicey.

Last year there was a lot of huffing and puffing, debating and name-calling on the internet about the phrase social justice. It turns out that a popular political commentator said that if you see those words anywhere on your church’s website, “run (away) as fast as you can.” He later backtracked a bit, but largely stuck to his guns. Now let me clarify something: that religious advice came from someone who’s personal religion is founded by a man in New York who wrote an additional book of the Bible based on words he saw written on golden tablets he found that could only be read with special glasses about how Israelites came to America before Jesus and how at one time there were great civilizations with armies and chariots in North America who fought against each other even though there’s never been a single bit of archeological evidence to support it. Not a single bolt from a chariot has been found here.

What a person wants to believe is up to them and I don’t mean to demean anything—we have our own particular idiosyncrasies in Christianity—but those are frankly the factual roots of it.

So how about I as a religious leader stay away from giving you political advice and you avoid religious advice from political commentators? Whatever liberal or conservative, Democratic/Republican/libertarian commentators you want to listen to is your business…and there is definitely a wide range of opinions in this place. But please get your theology from people who are called to shepherd the Body of Christ and your political advice from whomever you want. I think you’ll understand Jesus and the Kingdom of God better. But this idea of justice being linked to societal systems is all over scripture.

In Israel, even with a king and governance structure in place, they were to hold a major event every fifty years where not only were all debts forgiven—and remember, if someone owed you $175,000 and it’s year forty-nine, you’re getting nervous—but any land that had been bought fair-and-square had to be given back to its original owner, even if the previous owner was a lazy slob, never farmed it and got himself in debt. What’s more, all people who were indentured employees because they owed their boss money were set free. Jubilee was a massive social security system—a huge act of social justice and wealth redistribution—that may not seem fair to us free market capitalists but it was vital for Israel…and it reminded them that everything actually belonged to God and He was loaning it to them. It kept them from taking an individualistic approach to their relationship with God and reminded them they—Israel—were a community. I’m not saying it’s possible to emulate that, but I am saying it reveals something about God’s heart.

This idea of community justice is all throughout the scripture. At one point, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah about how religious and moral and observant of religious rules the nation of Judah was, and how they spiritually sought after Him and were a nation that did righteousness…and then during one of their fasts, God suddenly tells them:

“Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like? “This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.” Isaiah 58:5–6 (Message Version)

Let me take you further, all throughout the Old Testament is the concept of shalom. We translate it as peace, and it’s more than the absence of war.

In his book, Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be, author and theologian Cornelius Plantinga describes shalom as “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight…(it) means universal flourishing…a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied…Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

It’s God’s justice fully manifested. It’s relational in its roots and not as individualistic in approach as we make it.

Even in the New Testament, the word we translate peace usually comes from the Greek word eirene. It’s in almost every book in the New Testament, and in most cases it refers to relationships. The word is rooted in a Greek verb that means literally to join…as in being glued together. It implies a healthy social fabric where everyone is connected…and no one falls through the cracks.

When we created the Healing Center, that was the hope. That the Kingdom of God would come to people who had no clue. People who would never step into a church because churches aren’t often seen as safe places or somewhere to get help. To them shalom would be introduced…and that broken people would be woven into the fabric of our community…our part of the Body of Christ.

A few months ago I got a remarkable email from someone named Sandra. I don’t know her at all. Apparently, she first came to the Healing Center years ago for some food and married to an undocumented immigrant. After years of physical abuse, she made the scary decision to run away from her husband while six months pregnant with her fourth child. She packed up her kids and took off. Can you imagine what that must have felt like? Can you imagine the fear and uncertainty? Can you empathize with that? Homeless and out of work, she was in a crisis.

She wrote: “Dave, “I thought you would like to know this: in the past year, many things happened: very good things, thanks to the Healing Center and the Vineyard! After being homeless for two years, I got a home for me and my four kids, I found a job, and I went to school. I will be graduating in only six weeks and have a better future for my kids. I also found out my graduation ceremony will be held at the Vineyard in May! Funny! My life makes sense…now I can see a future! I have made some sacrifices and it has not been easy, but with the help I got from the Healing Center, it’s just so much better!

“God has been very good to me and I hope soon to be able to somehow pay it back. It’s hard to volunteer, but I do try, and hope some day to have the money to give more than what I give now…but for now I can say THANKS! My life is better thanks to the people of God who have seen me and not turned their backs! God bless all you do and the hands and feet who serve at the Healing Center and the Vineyard! I am more than ready for what’s next!”

I had never read an email with so many exclamation points.

But I love it that Sandra said, “…thanks to the people of God who have seen me and not turned their backs…” She recognized more was at work than the Vineyard or the Healing Center. She saw it as the people of God who saw me and didn’t turn away. As we say, vineyard, shminyard. What counts is God getting the credit through the mechanism that He wants to redeem the world through: the people of God.

Shaina Horner, who is on our staff at the Healing Center, gave me a little back-story to this in an email:

“Sandra has worked hard to complete her GED and met with a job coach at the HC. Another worker helped her apply to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services for benefits. In the meantime, she began volunteering at the Healing Center and is a great addition. Sandra is a hard worker and a great help in the warehouse. While going to school, she found a job in a nearby daycare where her children could also attend. She worked 30-40 hours per week, and with the help of Food Stamps and Medicaid, was been able to create a fairly stable life for her kids. Last year she took Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace course to manage the little money she had. Because of that, she established a $1,000 emergency fund. She regularly tithes 10% to VCC. She also transfers $10/mo into a Savings account for Christmas. She is learning good stewardship and is beginning to make good choices.

“In July she went back to school to become a Medical assistant. With the help of financial aid and continued State benefits, she spent the last 8 months in school with and just finished her 160-hour externship at Lincoln Heights Medical Center…and just applied for a job there.

“In March she applied to Mom’s Hope, a mentoring program for single moms. The investment of a mentor will make a significant difference in her life. She needs someone who can walk alongside her, helping guide and challenge her as she grows.”

A couple of days ago I got an update from Shaina: “Good news! Sandra was offered the full time Medical Assistant job at Lincoln Heights. She starts Monday at 11.50/hr. She is coming to volunteer at the Healing Center on Saturday and will pick up a new pair of scrubs. She is very excited.”

When people come into the Healing Center, we can meet some needs. But in the end, it’s them coming in contact with the Kingdom of God and being woven into the Community of Christ that really changes lives.

Let me close with these two verses from Proverbs. Proverbs is an odd book, isn’t it? It’s contextual…meaning you can read one verse to mean one thing, and the next verse to mean the opposite, is in this classic from Proverbs 26:4 & 5:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.

It’s all context, folks.

But the book of Proverbs reads mostly along these lines: here’s what a smart person does…and here’s what an idiot does. It tends to use the terms wise man and fool, but you get the drift. It has a lot to say about the poor, and sometimes things that bring on poverty, such as decrying laziness as in Proverbs 6:10 & 11 (and oddly repeated again in 24:33 & 34): A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.

But poverty is not all individualistic. There are complex and systemic reasons as well. Proverbs addresses our response to that as well in social and theological ways:

You insult your Maker when you exploit the powerless; when you’re kind to the poor, you honor God. Proverbs 14:31 (Message version).

One of the things I like to do when I speak at other places is to invite leaders to stay with my wife and me and immerse them in another church culture, drag them around to my leadership team meetings, stay up late at night to debrief, talk shop and drink a glass of wine. I have team coming from Pennsylvania tonight, as a matter of fact. A couple of weeks ago we had a 26-year-old woman from Switzerland staying with us. She had finished her university work there and was coming to the states for a few weeks to tour around. She stayed with us for about a week. On two of the days she served at the Healing Center on our campus. That night we all sat in the living room and talked. I asked her how it went.

She said, “It was amazing. I cried.” When I asked her why, she essentially said, “When people started coming in and we began serving them, it was like I was serving Jesus Himself.”

Isn’t that interesting? We tend to think when we serve hurting people, we’re bring Jesus to them. But what if it’s the opposite? Or how about when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25, He says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Jesus then says the righteous respond with, “Jesus, when were You hungry? We didn’t see that. Or when where You ever naked? No way! And You were never in prison—what could You have possibly done?”

And that’s when He tells them, “Whatever you did to the least and the last, it was like you did it for me.” Powerful.

We’ve got it backwards. One last verse from Proverbs: The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. Proverbs 29:7 (NIV) 

They care about justice, not just charity. They care about what creates poverty, not just kindness for the sake of kindness. Justice demands action, both individualistically and systemically. Let’s pray…

That, my friends, is what made a number of people upset. And at the risk of creating another uproar, I will simply say this: when you touch a person’s idol, you make them very, very angry. Yes, I know that’s simplistic, but test it on yourself.

I’ve certainly been that way.