Monday, March 28, 2011

the power of your story

Apologetics is important.

If you’re new to this Christian-thing, apologetics is a genre of writing and speaking that has to do with defending the claims of Christianity. From day one of the launch of the Church in Acts 2, Christians have proclaimed the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and why He deserves our attention. In Peter’s breathtaking speech to his fellow Jews in Acts 2 following the otherworldly outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Peter appeals to recent events that everyone was aware of:

“People of Israel, listen! God publicly endorsed Jesus of Nazareth by doing wonderful miracles, wonders, and signs through him, as you well know. But you followed God’s prearranged plan. With the help of lawless Gentiles, you nailed him to the cross and murdered him. However, God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life again, for death could not keep him in its grip.” (Acts 2:22–24 NLT)

Peter was appealing to their remembrance of the events of the past few weeks, months and three years. Christianity is rooted in an historical occurrence, mainly, the resurrection of an itinerant preacher, prophet and miracle-worker who behaved as if he were God. Just on one point, think about how absurd it is to go around forgiving people unless it’s a personal affront to you. Otherwise, it’s none of your business, let alone no moral authority to do so. That’s like me forgiving Muammar Gaddafi for the greedy, cruel and self-serving ways he’s treated his own people. I don’t have that right; only the abused do.

Apologetics became even more critical as the resurrection was relegated to a point in history and less of “you all were witnesses to this” (Acts 2:32). And so we have to use a little detective-like, deductive reasoning on what we know as the facts. For instance, what caused the apostles to live their lives in painful loss and eventual martyrdom for what they knew was a cover-up or lie? Or to appeal to a resurrection story which could have easily been proven false? It’s true people have given their lives for what is exposed as a lie, but who gives their life for what they know is a lie? It at least deserves some thought, but I’ve been surprised over the years why Christians appeal so little to reason as a way of understanding and communicating the good news of the Kingdom of God.

Yet over the years, the classic apologetical approach became the way of talking to people about Jesus. Winning the argument was synonymous with “sharing Christ.” For a culture sliding toward a religion-less spirituality and a “your-truth-is-not-my-truth” post-absolutism, the arguments were moot. And even more, the internet created niched cyber-ghettoes that coalesce around particular points of view, often poorly, and without a rational discussion beyond 140-character comments.

My own tribe developed an approach called “power evangelism”. It was a long-lost idea and desperately needed: how can we read the gospels and Acts without a longing for this supernatural apologetic? Something was clearly missing in postmodern evangelicalism. And yet, it quickly shifted from the streets to “circle-the-wagons” conferences and revival meetings resembling sideshow events with sensationalistic healers and prophets attracting burned-out Christians who lost their missional hearts and charismatic groupies traveling from one experience to the next for their Pentecostal fix. No name calling here: I’ve traveled in those groups from time-to-time myself.

Along the way, I myself helped trumpet what we at Vineyard Cincinnati called The New Apologetic: servanthood. Part of that was reactionary. More and more the Church seemed more known for what it was against rather than what it was for. What’s more, in reaction to cultural shifts, it became theologically dangerous and evangelistically naïve to slip into the back pocket of any particular political party because they aligned with “our” values. We Christians are, if anything, “wise as doves and innocent as serpents”, to turn a phrase.

The fact is: we need all these approaches. Different personalities need different methodologies. And there are seasons of life when the people we want to share our faith with become self-aware of their spiritual void. What’s more, none of our approaches work in terms of “sealing the deal” until a person is really ready to hear. He who has ears to hear, let them hear. That’s the business of God.

But there is one more apologetic we’re specifically exploring in this current series called OPEN—it’s your story. Specifically, how did your story and God’s story intersect? That’s an apologetic that can’t be argued with…because your story is simply your story. No one can deny that. They can believe you’re deluded. They can believe you’re confused. They can disbelieve your truthfulness. But they can’t discount that it’s the story you know and you tell because, well, it’s your story.

Can you tell that story with deep personal affection, without embellishment and with reflective humility? Can you healthily describe your current need of Jesus without cliché? Is there a recent time of soul-healing you can communicate that exposes a dependency on Jesus to surprise those who assume you’re a fairly together person? Is there a simple delineation between light and darkness in your life that makes you want to gratefully express how accessible Jesus is?

If not, perhaps it’s time for a tune-up. And that begins on our knees. I’ll join you.

The Apologist’s Evening Prayer

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts,
even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

C.S. Lewis, Poems (1964)

Monday, March 07, 2011


Recently I had lunch with Clyde Miller. Clyde led me to Jesus nearly thirty-seven years ago. In those days he was pastoring First Christian Assembly of God in Cincinnati where I attended for my first formative four years. My friend Chris Beard is lead pastor there now. Clyde semi-retired, but is very involved in other ministries, vibrant as always and ever the consummate raconteur.

Over delicious coma-inducing giant barbecue sandwiches at Jim Dandy’s, he updated me on what he’s doing. And handed me a small stuffed envelope.

Inside was a series of discipleship booklets he had written. But what I had forgotten was he had asked me to illustrate them…and got me involved in the church as a young twenty-something. A character named Mort became the host for the series. Looking at them now, I had to laugh at Mort carrying a cassette player (and I’m sure I had a similar one that required a couple of D-cell sized batteries!) complete with gigantic headphones with a curly-cord (for those of you who remember telephones that had those).

But I was reminded how obvious it was to all of us that after you encountered Jesus, you used anything at your disposal to tell others about Him and offer the first halting steps of discipleship.

They were on the basics: how to receive Jesus, how to pray, what the Church is, how to read the Bible, and so on.

And then I remembered the cultural context that God came crashing into…way back when.

I surrendered my life to Jesus back when dinosaurs ruled the earth in what was called the Jesus Movement. It was an era when God sidestepped the typical church systems and poured out His Spirit on hippies, druggies, musicians, and countercultural misfits who didn’t fit the social and cultural norms of America in that day. An unpopular war and mandatory military draft was massively protested while tens of thousands of body bags were flown home before the U.S. pulled out as North Vietnamese forces invaded Saigon. A burgeoning Civil Rights movement forced states to face issues of systemic racism and the deep poverty in segregated ghettoes. A series of violent assassinations had rocked the nation. The scientific development of The Pill helped unleash a sexual revolution challenging societal norms and raising questions about traditional male/female roles. Then throw in a sudden influx of eastern religions along with a plethora of cult leaders and it seemed as though nothing was assumed and everything was up for grabs.

In that national cultural upheaval, the Holy Spirit suddenly blew across the country shaking every denomination. Suddenly, long-haired, blue-jeaned, tie-dyed outcasts became unlikely evangelists for the ultimate revolutionist, the One who said in reference to Himself, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? . . . He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Matthew 21:42, 44).

Broken people—the very ones that church-people avoided or rejected—were suddenly telling the story of Jesus and how He had transformed their lives. A stenciled picture of a hand with an index finger raised to the sky became the underground logo symbolizing One Way. Jesus was declared as being the Way, the Truth and the Life.

God essentially did an end-run. Anytime the church excludes those in need of grace, God will make His move. And it will come again. Believe me.

Into that backdrop, I stumbled across a few believers who looked like me and who would have had an equally difficult time fitting into the average tidy church. But they beamed the love of Jesus. And when I became a follower of the One who gave His life for me, my life began to change as well. Not overnight. But as weeks turned into months, the awareness of a newly birthed spark of life in my heart met an awakened conscience and the experienced nearness of God. More chunks of my persona were surrendered. I was becoming fully human…the fully human God originally intended.

And it became the most natural thing to tell others about Jesus. It’s simply what you did when you became a follower of Jesus.

I didn’t have all my apologetics sewn up nice and neat (although discovering C. S. Lewis’s writings was life-saving to me personally). I wasn’t the sharpest Crayola in the box. I was still working my way through the Living Bible paraphrase of the New Testament. But I was changing and it seemed right to share that. My life was becoming more real, more open. I was discovering that for those who were like me, who had no clue what the story of the Bible was about except for some clichéd patchworked barroom theology, my life was becoming an open book to be read. I was open to Jesus and others. With each passing year I became less ghostly, more solid. My different personalities that would emerge in various contexts were slowly becoming one.

I was radically changing…and becoming more open.

I want—I need—to revisit that state of mind and heart. I think that’s what excites me about the OPEN journey at the Vineyard—a six-week series designed to help us learn to tell our story, the Jesus-story, and how the two intersect. I’m praying—along with the other churches participating as well—that we have an awakening. And that in our ever-increasing cultural polarization, God would breathe His Spirit across the land…and those who have been rejected would experience the radical rebirth the Cross provides. I want to be OPEN to see, experience and tell that story.

And I don’t want to be quiet.