Thursday, October 16, 2014

the mark driscoll controversy

Mark Driscoll’s recent decision to step down from leadership at Mars Hill Church triggered a feeding frenzy on the interweb. I have no connection with the people involved (except a friend and former Vineyard staff member who’s been quoted frequently in the press as one of Mark’s protestors!), so it’s not fair to comment based solely on press releases and bloggers. Pastoring—whether you’re the lead pastor or the elders—is difficult enough without me dogpiling on.

But of course we all have opinions, don’t we? I personally don’t subscribe to Mark’s reformed theological views (consider me a Wesleyan Spirit-filled egalitarian of sorts) or what’s been referred to as his “frat boy” speaking style or his alleged domineering—some would say bullying—leadership approach, but I have appreciated his passion for the Kingdom from afar.

I was admittedly surprised, though, by a leaked internal memo about the way finances were handled in respect to what was called the Mars Hill Global Fund. By all appearances, this was a designated fund for international missions outreach, but according to Warren Throckmorton’s obsessive reporting, only about 6% was actually going out to world missions concerns; the rest was simply filtered into the general fund. Earlier it was disclosed that Mars Hill paid a publicity firm a couple hundred thousand dollars to get his book on the New York Times bestseller list. Aggressive-marketing campaigns are not uncommon for pop authors but certainly ethically questionable for a church.

That’s not smart. John Wimber used to warn churchplanters that money and sexual impropriety can absolutely ensnare and bring down leaders and churches. Never touch the money and keep your office door open. Though the Global Fund memo seemingly didn’t come from Driscoll himself, the danger is that pastors can get so busy in traveling or promoting their latest book that they lose their eye on the flock. Or in Jim Collins language: when CEOs start showing up on talk shows, it’s all over for the organization.

Scott Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, articulates the danger of creeping entitlement and how leaders can begin to feel arrogantly bulletproof in their decisions. In describing true leadership, he writes:

(Leaders) are often willing to sacrifice their own comfort for ours, even when they disagree with us. . . . Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last. . . . The leaders of organizations who rise through the ranks not because they want it, but because the tribe keeps offering higher status out of gratitude for their willingness to sacrifice, are the true leaders worthy of our trust and loyalty. All leaders, even the good ones, can sometimes lose their way and become selfish and power hungry, however. . . . What makes a good leader is that they eschew the spotlight in favor of spending time and energy to do what they need to do to support and protect their people.

I’m not implying that Driscoll falls into any negative leadership category; again, I’m not close enough to any of the parties involved to know nor have any real responsibility to comment on Mars Hill polity and accountability. But when calls your church “the Enron of American Churches”, you have a p.r. problem of the first degree.

And one final thought: this has nothing to do with the size of churches. I’ve known very small ones with spiritually abusive leaders and a controlling culture with little transparency.

It simply has everything to do with leadership. Period.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

imagination and leadership

I’m working my way through writing a new book…this one is based on my observations and experience of leadership and the necessary elements it takes to lead well, whether it’s your family, team, department or organization. One of the key elements I’m currently working on is: imagination.

I’m convinced that the power of imagination and creativity is way too often overlooked in management and leadership circles. Many times we relegate imagination to the exclusive domain of artists and creatives, forgetting that we are all made in the image of a God to whom we are introduced in the opening pages of scripture via an explosive flurry of creativity. We have the same spiritual DNA, regardless of how artistically-challenged we may consider ourselves. If your best doodles are stick people and the only poetry you recall is “There once was a girl from…”, fear not: your true creativity is not limited to sketches and poems.

Ed Catmull, the president of the creative powerhouse Pixar, began his leadership life in front of a computer with a single dream: to somehow create animation with a computer. His boyhood had been shaped by two heroes—Walt Disney and Albert Einstein. Even though he worked his way through the comic-book-advertised Jon Gnagy’s Learn To Draw art kit (which I remember buying as a kid myself!), he sadly discovered that he would never reach the talent arc of Disney’s animators. So eventually he turned his attention to computer science and graphics.

Twenty-five or so years later he would help lead and manage the creative team that developed the industry-changing movie Toy Story. But he writes tellingly that after they had finally released the movie, he “felt adrift”. Is this really what he wanted to do—manage a complex, messy company mixed with insanely creative people, bean-counters, bottom-line investors and now skyrocketing expectations? Would he miss personally using his own artistic, creative abilities?

Catmull would ultimately make a paradigm shift in his thinking: he could use his restless creativity to think imaginatively about how an organization could develop a “culture of creativity” and how structures, processes and values could be creatively designed to bring the best out of their employees while satisfying their audience with stories and characters of incredible emotional depth brought to life from zeroes-and-ones.

In other words, he could shift his creative juices from graphic programming to thinking innovatively about organizational structures, systems and culture. Management didn’t have to just be about maintenance and metrics; he began to see a much larger picture for his creativity-starved leadership role. In his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, he writes tellingly:

. . . Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture—one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became—wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job. . . . My hope was to make this culture so vigorous that it would survive when Pixar’s founding members were long gone, enabling the company to continue producing original films that made money, yes, but also contributed positively to the world. . . . That was the job I assigned myself—and the one that still animates me to this day.

How is your imagination being used in leadership? What kind of “what if?” questions are you mulling and tackling with your team? How much time do you allot for creative thinking?

“Best way—bar none—to stay creative is to manage ‘hang out.’ Religiously. Hang out with weirdos (on any and all dimensions) rather than ‘same old, same old’ and you automatically win.”                 ~Tom Peters

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

the withness factor

Years ago when our oldest daughter was thirteen, we moved into a new school district. Since Rachel was typically an internal processor and often learned through quiet observance, it was sometimes difficult to know what she was wrestling with in her inner world, particularly since she tended to be even-tempered and optimistic.

One night my wife came out of Rachel’s room and said, “I’m not sure what’s wrong. She’s just being very quiet.” It was a hot August night—almost midnight and she was still up. All the Workmans tend to be late-nighters, especially during the summer.

We had moved to the new district over the Easter break but were driving our girls to the old school for the remaining couple of months so they wouldn’t have to switch mid-stream. Now five months later, we had settled into a new neighborhood over the summer and Rachel had kept her friends at church. But after eight years in a small school, she would be attending a very large one where she knew no one. To us at the time it didn’t seem like a major issue, particular since she was so involved in the youth group at church.

But she was clearly down. And the reality is, any problem is big when it’s big to you. I knocked on her door, walked in and sat on the edge of her bed.

“You okay?” I asked.

Without looking up, she responded, “Yeah.”

“What’s wrong?”

A pause, then, “I don’t know.”

You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that from here on out it’s going to be short answers. We sat there in silence for a few moments, then I asked, “Have you ever gone on a bike ride at midnight?” She looked at me quizzically.

When I was a little boy, I idolized my big brother. He was five years older than me and the coolest guy on the planet. Or at least in Augusta, Kentucky, population twelve-hundred. One summer night when we were kids, he invited me to go bike riding after our parents had long gone to sleep. He didn’t seem to be embarrassed to be seen with his little skinny baby brother, but then again maybe that’s why we went out at midnight.

We taped flashlights on our handlebars and took off down Bracken Street. We made our way to a pitch-black country road heading out of town along a marshy field bordering the river. My eyes suddenly widened: the field was littered with what seemed to be thousands upon thousands of fireflies. It seemed as if we had somehow coasted our Huffys beyond the rings of Saturn into a sea of twinkling stars.

I can close my eyes and still see it to this day. It’s a wonderful memory; I owe my big brother for that one.

Still sitting on the edge of Rachel’s bed, I looked down at her and said, “Let’s go for a bike ride.” She flashed a puzzled grin.

We pulled our bikes out of the garage after I duct taped a flashlight on my handlebars.  We rode past the massive eighty-year-old WLW diamond-shaped radio tower, once powerful enough to broadcast on children’s braces. Seriously. A few cars slowed to look at the white-haired man on a bike with a flashlight and a blond thirteen-year-old. We didn’t talk much as we rode across the moonlit blacktop, past darkened houses, sneaking glances voyeuristically at the windows with a slight blue glow from televisions. We simply gulped in the warm midnight air. How often do you get to do that in life with your thirteen-year-old?

We eventually made our way home. Rachel smiled, gave me a hug, and went off to bed. Sometimes we just need someone to be there, to be with. What words, rational explanations and clever justifications don’t do, withness does.

In C. S. Lewis’ poignant journal kept after the death of his wife, he writes:

“There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anybody says, or, perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet, I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

Lewis, former atheist and one time confirmed bachelor who became the greatest apologist for Christianity in the 20th century, found he simply needed people…people to be with.

We were wired for this mysterious thing called community, for withness. I struggle with it, but understand more and more as I age how critically vital it is. It doesn’t take much for any of us to feel valued, to feel loved, to feel accepted. The inevitable changes and losses of life are much more manageable in the withness of others.

Are you experiencing the withness factor in your life?

“...And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” ~Jesus (Matthew 28:20)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

in it to schwinn it...

Two years ago I finally broke down and bought what’s called a comfort bike. It’s a clever marketing name for bicycles for old people. For nearly thirty years I had a yellow Schwinn 12-speed that I pedaled everywhere…the kind with the super thin tires made for racing though you never did. And a microscopic seat that after a mile on the bike trail made you feel like you’d gone down the twenty-story Wedgie-O-Matic waterslide at the local water park. Plus, you’re hunched over like Quasimodo.

Hence, the comfort bike.

Some years ago I was riding my trusty old Schwinn when I came upon a subdivision under construction. At the bottom of a hill some kids on BMX-style bikes had placed a sheet of plywood on some concrete blocks and made a ramp that they were flying off. Naively, I thought, “That looks like fun. I bet I could do that.”—momentarily forgetting that I was no longer a kid and had a bike that should have been in a museum.

After watching several jumps from a distance, they were finally sitting on their bikes off to the side so I thought I’d be cool, zoom down the hill, jump the ramp and then ride off into the sunset while their mouths were still open. I took off down the hill, pedaling full speed and just as I hit the ramp I suddenly had a rational thought: “This may not have been a good idea.” In a panic I squeezed my brake…but the wrong one: I hit my front brake, which made the bike flip over head-first. As if in slow motion I shot off the ramp upside down and landed flat on my back on the asphalt, still holding on to the handlebars with the Schwinn straight above me.

I landed so hard on my back it knocked the wind out of me. If you’ve never had the wind knocked out of you, don’t. It’s a terrible feeling. You have no air in your lungs and you can’t get enough in fast enough. It’s like dry drowning.

And of course all the kids circled me on their bikes and in between uncontrollable laughter managed to get out, “Are you okay?”

Sometimes things happen to us that knock the spiritual breath out of us. A death. A divorce. A pink slip. An accident. A loss of some sort. It may have been your fault or it may not have. Regardless, you’re gasping for spiritual air…and you can’t seem to get any in.  Where are you, God? And quickly the temptation becomes seeing God as other than good. Doubts flood in faster than air: “Maybe He’s not good.” Or “Maybe He doesn’t love me.”

Tread carefully, friends.

Someday you may have kids and there will be times when, believe it or not, they’ll think you don’t love them because of something that happened…or didn’t happen. But of course it’s not true; it’s just hard for them to understand that.

So do you really think you’re more loving than God? Seriously?

In the end you simply have to get back on the bike again. Maybe you failed at something critical. Maybe you’re in deep need of forgiveness, or deep need to forgive. Perhaps the unthinkable happened. But faith by its very nature always involves some level of relational risk. And you may even respond like Peter: “To whom else would we go?”—caught between a spiritual rock and a hard place.

Never forget: you have a lot of road yet to travel. However mysterious and hidden the Kingdom of God may seem in those moments (à la Matthew 13:24-30), it really is advancing and needs you.

So get back on the bike. Ask God to give you a push. Trust me: you’ll soon find your balance. Chances are you’ll glance back and notice He was there all along.

Friday, September 19, 2014

do people hate me enough?

There are many things that Christians are doing in the postmodern era that are exemplary, often ignored by the media. For instance, 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 helping to change the stereotypical negative way the world views the Church. It was the Roman Emperor Julian who violently hated Christians and irritatingly wrote: “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 as a Jesus-follower, I’ve noticed something a little troubling. In a culture that places a premium on tolerance and acceptance (a justified reaction to hate-crime violence and shrill web voices), it’s natural to assume that we, as Christians, want to be loved and viewed as tolerant, accepting people. And especially as The Church, that fountainhead of grace. After all, if acceptance is how the culture defines love, we need to speak in a language that is understandable. That’s what good missionaries do. And who wants to be viewed as intolerant and unwelcoming? Certainly not followers of the One derogatorily described as a “friend of sinners.”

Besides, weren’t the people who 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 traveled far and wide for one proselyte and made them more of a child of hell than themselves. Jesus declares seven “woes” over the religious fundamentalists of His day in Matthew 23. Imagine the Pharisee hashtags if Twitter existed then—#killthegalileanhillbilly, #woebackatyou, #fundiesunite, #whatthehades?...

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), it might be circumspect to consider passages where the “culture” or the “world” is clearly viewed as no friend of the Body of Christ.

•    It was an adulterous woman embarrassingly dragged before Jesus (where was the guy, right?) to whom Jesus expressed compassion and zero-condemnation. But He added a postscript: “From now on don’t sin.”
•    It was Gentile Roman military men who mocked Jesus’ “supposed” kingship and who drove in 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).
•    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) The values and behaviors of pagans were not to be emulated (Luke 12:30).
•    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)
•    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)
•    Before the brother of Jesus was martyred, he penned this reminder: Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
•    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. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. (Romans 12:2 Message Version)
•    It was the Gentile intellectuals and poets at the ground zero of Western philosophy—Athens, Greece—who sneered at Paul’s discourse on the resurrection.

The obvious balance is to not become some paranoid, exclusive sect that develops a persecution-complex at the drop of an editorial. Sometimes the “Defend-Our-Religious-Liberties” groups wield ressentiment like a sword against the mongol hordes, perhaps forgetting that our kingdom is not of this world.

Nevertheless, the Church must guard against becoming lap dogs of the culture, as my friend Phil Strout says. It’s way too easy and trendy for Christian bloggers to take potshots at the Church, as if to justify oneself by implying, “I’m one of those but I’m not like that”…distancing ourselves from it and avoiding guilt by association.

Former atheist C. S. Lewis described his abhorrence of and reluctance to attend the local church:

I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

Believe me, it’s easy to take clever shots at religious people; I’ve done it with well-aimed superiority. But in so doing, perhaps I’m morphing into the person to whom Jesus delivered His woes: those who think they’re better than others without saying it in so many words. I could easily teach Justification 101 when I get in touch with my inner-Pharisee. Comfortability with the culture can be a slippery-slope for those of us with missional, evangelistic hearts.

In times of war, nation-states adopt the maxim: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Perhaps in this era of spiritual warfare, I should question whose bed I’ve crawled into. Or at the very least, what lap I’ve hopped up on.

I don't think I have a spiritually-masochistic personality; I like comfort as much as the next guy. But when I’m embraced and affirmed by the culture, it might serve me well to at least periodically ponder why.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the emotional demands of leadership

After posing a question on Facebook, I got a total barrage of interesting answers and comments. The post asked simply: if you’ve ever had a boss or manager that you enjoyed working long, hard hours for, what made him or her worth working that hard for?

Certain themes emerged, but one stood out to me. Generalized, it was: They noticed me. My work, my contribution, my hours. There was genuine appreciation. And it was stated over and over that they felt their boss was “in the trenches with me.” That means at an emotional level as well.

Which reminded me of the need for bosses to often subjugate their own needs to the service and needs of their people in order to accomplish a higher mission. Which then caused me to recall an intriguing story of a fascinating leader in history.

It’s a telling story about King David in the Old Testament. And as an aside, it inadvertently contributes to the street cred of the historicity of the Bible because it exposes its heroes as real, vulnerable and, at times, messy leaders. If I had written it, I would have made the heroes look better. Peter really should have fired his publicist.

David’s family is a case study in dysfunction. After one particularly ugly family matter, David wouldn’t speak to his own son Absalom for two years even though they lived in the same town. Matter of fact, David wouldn’t even look at him. It wasn’t a Focus On The Family success story.

Years later, Absalom staged a coup against his own father. It began simply: with a huge entourage in front of him, Absalom would get up early and stage himself along the street to the courthouse. While people came for their court case, he would stop them and ask about their troubles. Listening with feigned concern and empathy, he would respond, “Wow. You know, if I were the king, I’d make sure you had good representation and were treated fairly. There’s no justice in this freakin’ city.”

And when people approached him and bowed before him—after all, he was the king’s son—he would lift them up and kiss them, offering a sign of friendship and trust. In short order, it reads that “he stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”

Absalom ultimately overtakes Jerusalem and the mighty King David—the giant-killer, the warrior-poet who had songs written about his exploits, who defended Israel in countless wars with attacking nations, the one anointed king by the great prophet Samuel—was forced to run like a scared dog from his own son. Absalom even sexed it up with his father’s servants on the top of the house so all Israel could see. It was an utter slam against his dad. The whole story is filled with spiritual and psychological intrigue and revenge.

But eventually there was an intense battle between David’s army (the loyalists) and Absalom’s followers (the insurgents). Over twenty-thousand men were killed in an bloody civil war, but David’s army prevailed. David had asked the general of his army, Joab, to be careful to capture his son Absalom alive, but it doesn’t pan out well. Joab was so angry that Absalom had created such havoc and loss of lives that he killed Absalom. David’s men won at a high cost in an exhausting victory.

But when news got back to David about the victory, he was only concerned for his son. When he heard that Absalom had been killed, he was shaken and wept publically: “My son, my son. If only I had died instead of you!”

How emotionally debilitating that would have been for the national psyche of Israel and the returning vets. What should have been celebrated as a victory and Jerusalem spared from a self-consumed, narcissistic leader, instead the beloved King David was overwhelmed with grief and had lost his “leadership objectivity”. The effect was so destructive that it reads in 2 Samuel 19:2, “And for the whole army the victory that day was turned into mourning…”

But I love what Joab did. He had just led a huge military victory at great risk to himself and his men, but what he did next could have certainly guaranteed his death at the hand of the king.

Joab went into the house to the king and said, “Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the lives of your wives and concubines. You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall. This will be worse for you than all the calamities that have come upon you from your youth till now. So the king got up and took his seat in the gateway. When the men were told, “The king is sitting in the gateway,” they all came before him… (2 Samuel 19:5-8a)

“They all came before him…”

They needed to be, they wanted to be, encouraged and inspired by their leader. Noticed. They needed to know that their sacrifice was recognized by him. They wanted to know that he was still passionate for the kingdom, their kingdom. They needed his leadership.

Frankly, there are times when leaders are required to compartmentalize things. Good leaders are especially aware of this. And by leaders, I mean anyone who has some responsibility for someone else at some level. A parent. A manager. An older brother. A committee chair. A teacher. Everyone has someone who is watching them.

Joab is leading up now. He reminded David that something bigger was at work here. That David, as a leader of the kingdom in this critical time, had to compartmentalize his grief and his needs and deal with that at another time. But it was necessary in that moment to submit his personal pain to a passion for something bigger than himself—the kingdom, for the good of others.

A leader has personal issues and mission issues that have to be reconciled on a regular basis, and both have to be given space and dealt with appropriately. But passion—that inner suffering for something—has to be about something more than our personal needs and wants. This is a “dying to self” that all healthy leaders understand. You can read it in Jesus’ words and Paul’s writings.

Please hear me: this is not just about “public platform” leaders. Parents, friends, schoolmates, co-workers, are all people that from time-to-time we lead, whether by influence or position. What’s more, if you are a follower of Christ, you are a de facto leader, because you are called by your Master to lead others to His soul-healing touch.

If you don’t have a passion for a mission that’s bigger than yourself, I can almost guarantee that when life slams you with something that seems overwhelming, you will be overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter how big your career is, what your personal wealth is, how important you are to the company, how well you’re liked, what kind of car you drive, and the size of your personal kingdom…it’s all wood, hay and stubble when the fire comes. And the only kingdom that can’t be shaken and can’t be consumed is the Kingdom of God, because our God is the Consuming Fire.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy revisited

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. ~Jesus

In Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a computer named Deep Thought (you had to grow up during the Nixon/Watergate era to catch the reference) was built to find the answer to the meaning of life. Deep Thought was the size of a planet and after seven million or so algorithmic years, the answer was discovered: 42. There followed a collective, head-scratching “Huh?”

Problem was, everyone had forgotten the question by then.

But the original question was basically this: why do we suck air?

Or, what gives our lives meaning?

I believe that the heart of life—the challenge, frustration and joy of it—is the search for something valuable, something of worth, worth more than your own life.

That’s why when you first fell in love—that “head-over-heels-crazy-can’t-think-straight-lovesick-talk-till-4am-in-the-morning-get-up-at-6:30-for-work-kind of love”—your pursuit of that person was worth more than your own health, your job, your own thoughts about yourself, your friends, your everything. It was all-consuming.

The way you measure what is valuable is by asking: what is worth giving up everything for? Or go crazy: what is The One Thing worth giving up my very life for? That helps to remove selfishness as a motivational factor. When you have the answer, you are beginning to discover the meaning of life.

That’s why Jesus told those spectacular parables about the Kingdom of God as something that is both discovered and overtakes us. It overtakes us in the sense that it woos us like some siren. We walk around disenchanted with life until we discover Whose Voice it is that is calling us.

God has designed our souls so that we are the most fulfilled when that which we value is actually something of real value. Here’s our common experience: often what we think is valuable actually isn’t—like Fool’s Gold. Pyrite looks just like the real shiny and sparkly thing, but it isn’t. And when prospectors in the 1800’s first dug it up and bartered with it, they discovered it wasn’t worth its weight in pennies.

We find ourselves unfulfilled when we think we have gold and discover it’s actually pyrite. For some of us, fool’s gold might be material success. For others it can be sexual in nature. For some of us it may be power and the need to control. Or a relationship. We can be obsessive about this pyrite…and hurt each other to get it because it looks so good. The zeitgeist of this world has a way of masquerading value—its expertise is drawing our attention to valueless things for us to invest our time, money and energy into.

Madison Avenue is extremely skilled at this. There’s a reason why there’s nearly an hour of commercials during the Superbowl. I now buy pants that are called “relaxed fit.” That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Relaxed. You know what they should be called?—Pants-For-Old-Fat-Guys-In Denial. But that wouldn’t sell because you wouldn’t go into the Gap and ask, “Hey, could you show me where the ‘Pants-For-Old-Fat-Guys-In Denial’ section is?”

Look at the flip side: for those of you with a child, you fondly remember the day of birth or adoption. In that tiny bundle of life you witnessed the spark of worth, and you made a promise that you would lay down your life for this little miracle, a promise that you would do anything. There was a sense of fulfillment because you placed value on something that actually has real value.

We go through life discovering all kinds of different things worth giving up parts of ourselves for. And when those things actually have true value, our lives begin to carry a sense of meaning.

Now imagine the object of Ultimate, Infinite Value. That’s what Jesus is trying to describe. And that would therefore mean that our lives would begin to carry the ultimate sense of meaning.

Maybe it’s time to rediscover the value of the pearl. But here’s the kicker: even though life in the Kingdom of God is the treasure we are to discover, for God, you are the pearl of great value.

And worth enough to give His own life.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

a new leash on life

Imagine an eighty-year-old man—skin weathered like leather and tatted with scars from beatings since his twenties—living in a large buzzing metropolis on the bright turquoise coast of the Aegean sea in Turkey, sitting down at the request of his students to dictate an intimate account of his years with Jesus.

That’s the apostle John, the only disciple traditionally thought to have not been martyred. In the very first chapter of his historical account, John writes this neuron-blasting passage that absolutely changes the way we think about God:

…To all who received him (Jesus), he gave the right to become children of God. All they needed to do was to trust him to save them. All those who believe this are reborn!—not a physical rebirth resulting from human passion or plan—but from the will of God. (John 1:12 Living Bible)

What a beautiful paraphrase: All they needed to do was to trust him. Trusting in God is choosing to serve and obey Him by your words, actions and decisions because you believe He has a directive for your life, the best intentions for you, and ultimately the only One who can rescue you from the hell of a self-centered life. In exchange, you surrender your little fiefdom to His kingship.

Let me clarify something here: there is a big difference between growing in a simple authentic trust in Jesus Christ—and religion and religious activity.

A few years ago as I was driving home and noticed a man walking across a field with a big labrador retriever running circles around him. The dog looked like he was having the time of his life, thoroughly happy to be there with his owner, and—to my total surprise—no leash. No matter: the dog seemed to be finding so much pleasure in being close to his master.

Back in those days, we had a little shih-tzu dog named Lucy (don’t judge me…). Unlike the labrador in the field, Lucy would never see outdoor life beyond her leash.

Here’s why. One day after we had moved to the suburbs (that’s where they cut the trees down and name the streets after them), I took Lucy for a walk around the little pond at the front of our subdivision. Suddenly I naively thought, “I bet if I take her off the leash, we’ll have a bonding moment and sit by the pond together and watch the geese fertilize the lawn.” I took her leash off. She walked a few feet ahead, looked back at me, then peered ahead at the street, and took off like a bullet.

I started running after her, with no possible way of catching up, while trying all the stupid human tricks I could think of, like yelling, “Here, Lucy…do you want a treat?” Forget the Snausages—she was headed for the next county. She ran through a busy intersection and down the highway, leaving me in her shih-tzu dust.

By this time I’d resorted to calling her every name possible within the legal parameters of being a pastor. Resigned, I figured I’d see her picture on a milk carton some day. But a couple from the next subdivision saw her and were able to grab her.

By the time I got to them, Lucy’s eyes were wild with freedom. But it’s a freedom that could have killed her because she had no clue of the danger of two-ton SUV’s…or no one to feed her…or the dog pound. The leash was for her safety because she would not listen to the voice of her master.

That’s the difference between a trust-based relationship with Jesus and religion. The Law is a leash designed to keep us safe, protected. But true childlike trust is found in the leash-lessness of grace, when we find ourselves satisfied with the voice of our Master, romping the fields of the Kingdom with Him, fetching what He throws to us, and simply enjoying being in His presence. We trust Him to keep us safe, and take pleasure in His calling us by name, calling us near. It is the depth of soul Paul describes in Romans 15:13:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13 NIV)

Not a bad deal: joy and peace…as you trust in him.

You’d think by my age I’d totally get this trust-thing. But I’m still learning to be leashless.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the beauty—and problem—of the church: part 1

When I was a little boy in Augusta, Kentucky, one summer my mom sent me to a church on Fourth Street to something called “Vacation Bible School.” No one in my family was a Christian, but 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 Roman Catholic, please don’t misunderstand me: you were probably taught that people like me weren’t going to heaven because we weren’t Catholic. Yep, we were all pretty dysfunctional.

Today if you walked up graveyard hill in Augusta, you’d find a Protestant cemetery and a Catholic cemetery divided by a single-lane blacktop road. We didn’t talk about religion when we were alive and we certainly didn’t mix things up when we weren’t.

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

But I went. Once. We outlined little pictures of stained glass and then colored them with Crayolas. 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 street to find my buddies and play army instead.

Church held zero interest for me. By the sixth grade, they no longer made me go. I guess it wasn’t worth the hassle for my parents…and I was set free. Church, to my little brain, had nothing to offer but monotone talks, nothing that had any relevance to me, and a waste of good free time on a weekend. That’s how I felt through high school and my early college (and dropout) experience as well. Thanks, but no thanks.

But a funny thing happened on my way to hell: I met Jesus. Everything changed. I found myself being transformed and challenged and empowered and suddenly the Bible came alive. And the Jesus I read about there was nothing like how I remembered him in those boring sermons: He was radically different and made the religious people mad and challenged the status quo and even ticked off His own disciples at times. What’s more, He talked with an authority like no one else I’d ever heard. And He somehow mixed power and authority with servanthood in a way that was eye-opening. And that whole “getting-crucified-and-coming-back-to-life-again”-thing. Whoa. He became real to me in ways I couldn’t understand. And I began to change in subtle and radical ways as well. My friends were puzzled and didn’t know what to say to me.

I liked Jesus. But I still had some problems with His people…this thing called The Church. At times it seemed so small, so focused on trivialities, inward and self-righteous. Sometimes it seemed that Christians could be incredibly 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 several pounds of makeup and exchanged plastic glow-in-dark crosses for “your love gift of $25”? Sometimes I wondered why there were churches on every corner…and why they argued over things that seemed inconsequential and petty.

Then one day I had an epiphany. An actual revelation from God Himself: I was one of them. The Church. I was no longer an outsider and could take potshots at what I thought were those hypocritical, judgmental, small-thinking Christians: now I was one of them and attending a local expression. I didn’t see that one coming.

As my literary-spiritual mentor once wrote, “When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”  ~C. S. Lewis; God in the Dock

Truth was: my understanding of the “Capital ‘C’ Church was very, very small.

Let’s take a bigger look in part 2…

the beauty—and problem—of the church: part 2

Today Christianity has exploded in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In his classic book, The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins writes: “…the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America.”

He goes on to say that “by 2050, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Whites.’”

China has become a hotbed for Christianity, particularly house churches. It’s believed there may be as many as eighty-million Christians in unregistered churches. According to Operation World, independent Christian congregations, mostly evangelical and charismatic, are growing at a rate of 9 percent annually. That’s a huge growth rate since China’s overall population (1.3 billion) is growing at only about 0.6 percent annually.

What’s more, Christianity has radically changed the culture in ways that I think most of us are unaware. At least I was. Again, my view, my understanding, of the Church was very, very small and provincial.

For instance, it was Christianity that changed the world’s view of women. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote that only males are “created directly by the gods and are given souls.” His now-revered 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. Not long ago, archaeologists found one hundred skeletons of infants less than a week old in the sewers of the Roman baths. They had been literally flushed down the drain.

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 continues: “. . . 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 expanded circle of disciples and teaching times—as in the Mary and Martha account—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 buy slaves 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 (New International Version).

That was an extremely radical idea for that culture, 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 breathtaking. Love your enemies?—you’ve got to be kidding: we’re talking about an oppressive Roman government, the one that persecutes us.

When decimating diseases and plagues struck towns and cities, it was the early Christians who stayed in the towns so they could take care of the sick…even when the doctors would flee for their lives. 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’s such 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 to give his life as a ransom for many” was shocking.

So many of the ways we think about life have been deeply affected and influenced by this movement called the Church. We’re not aware of it any more than a fish is aware of water. We just don’t realize it because Christian ethics are so submerged in our culture.

So again, my picture of the Church and its influence was way too small. And if that’s where you are, it only means that we have to go back one step with this simple but basic idea: God is big. I mean, Really Big.

He’s not the Man Upstairs. He’s not your Good Buddy. And He’s certainly not your co-pilot in your little Honda looking for a parking space. He’s God…there is No Other. That’s why the Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of real knowledge. It just means that we really have to get that He’s a Big God.

I find it amusing when people say things like, “When I get to heaven, I’ve got some questions God needs to answer…”


If you’re not sure if you even believe in God or you got burned by some church experience, play along with me for a minute and use your imagination: if a twenty-something artist named Michelangelo could create something as spectacular as the Pieta five-hundred years ago, think of the
Ultimate Artist, one who’s imagination spans the gazillion light years of a universe we can’t even fathom to the sub-atomic world of quarks and neutrinos. Just give Him the benefit of the doubt for a moment. If God exists…and if He had an investment in His incredibly complex piece of art called the human being…and if He wanted to use those human beings to bring about His overarching purposes for a world that’s gone haywire…and if He created an organization—a movement—that would be made up of these creatures to do that, wouldn’t it be a pretty amazing thing?

That’s a Big Idea. That’s the Church.

Let’s talk about how He might do that in Part 3…

the beauty—and problem—of the church: part 3 (final)

Imagine with me if Big God decided to enter our world to communicate that with us about this idea of healing an extremely sickly world through an antibody called The Church. How would He do that?

Suppose we wanted to communicate with a colony of ants in a giant anthill on the Serengeti. It seems it would make the most sense to become an ant ourselves and communicate to them in ant-language and ant-movement they could relate to…otherwise our overwhelmingly powerful human bodies would do nothing but scare the daylights out of them.

In our universe, that’s called the Incarnation: Big God becoming a humble human being. Paul the apostle—the man who once hated Christians and had them jailed and executed—tried to help the early Church understand how powerful this Big Idea is. It’s at the center of Christian theology. For instance, to his friends in Rome he writes about the role of Israel and his own Jewish heritage and then clearly states the real identity of Jesus:

Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. (Romans 9:5 NIV).

Paul picks this up even more when he describes Jesus and His purpose in a letter to the Colossian church. He writes:

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:13–20 NIV)

Did you catch what He said in the middle? He’s going on and on about how big this God-Man Jesus is—Creator of all things, visible and invisible, the One who establishes power and authority. And then Paul points out this organization—this organism—that is actually directly connected to God. Writing about Jesus, he says:

…And he is the head of the body, the church… (Colossians 1:18 NIV)

Paul is establishing a big thought here. Not only is Jesus God, but He is also the Head—the strategic-thinking authoritative leader and brains—of a movement on earth called The Church, which is actually functioning as His Body. In other words, what Jesus wants to do on earth today is going to be done through the Church. Ordinary people like you and me.

Now that’s a Big Idea. And that changes everything about how I see the Church. And if we don’t get that revelation, we’ll tend to see this little thing that happens on the weekend as “going to church” and our little divisions and squabbles and Christian subculture as what the Church is all about. That’s bigger than denominations and factions and Protestants and Catholics and church suppers and potlucks.

Why do we take a big, God-sized idea and miniaturize it?

That’s why Paul later writes to a dysfunctional church in Corinth that was arguing with each other and divisive and says to them: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s house and that His Spirit actually lives in you now?”

He’s so upset when he hears that they're dragging each other into court and filing lawsuits against each other that he angrily says, “Don’t you know you will actually judge the world in the end times? Don’t you know that you’ll judge angels and spiritual powers?—and you can’t settle little arguments among yourselves now? You’ve got to be kidding?—You’re the Body of Christ on this earth!”

When the Holy Spirit was poured out in Acts Chapter 2 and birthed this movement called the Church, it transformed these scared men who had been hiding behind locked doors after the crucifixion into men and women who would lay their lives down for this one message: Jesus is the Resurrected Lord—so change the way you think and let Him save you!

That message alone was radical to the monotheistic Jewish mind: only God could save. Therefore, the implication was huge. And so they could only talk about one thing: Jesus…and His resurrection. And they were martyred by the thousands.

It was Jesus Himself who said, “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 NIV)

The obvious question is this: what happened? How did that self-sacrificing passion end up doing ridiculous things throughout the subsequent centuries? How could a movement like that produce an Inquisition or Crusades or denominational wars?

Keep this in mind: Jesus said that in the end He Himself will separate the real from the unreal, the legit from the play-actors…and that 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.”

Or that 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?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

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

This revolutionary movement of surrendered and transformed servants is God’s Big Idea to usher in His rule and reign: the Kingdom of Heaven. To stand on the periphery and take potshots at the Church is hardly helpful; a critique is only effective as much as one is a lively part of her. The former atheist turned prayer-and-social-activist Dorothy Day once poignantly wrote:

“As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”


Monday, January 20, 2014

racism, the evangelical church...and the idol that divides us

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here’s something to consider: I believe the evangelical church in America has an idol to tear down that keeps us from being healed along racial lines…and it could be argued that our racial brokenness is one of the biggest barriers in Jesus’ prayer that we would be one. But first, let’s begin this story some twenty-six-hundred years ago…

“King Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their fathers.” (2 Chronicles 34:33)

Some Hebrew scholars translate the Hebrew word for Josiah—Yoshiyahu—as Healed by Jehovah. Josiah is famous in Israel for tearing down the idols Israel had created, for bringing restoration and healing, even though his father and his grandfather were wickedly violent.

In the next verses it reads that, “Josiah celebrated the Passover to the Lord in Jerusalem, and the Passover lamb was slaughtered on the fourteenth day of the first month.” (2 Chronicles 35:1)

A few verses later: “The Passover (that’s the celebration of redemption, of freedom, from slavery) had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel (that’s nearly 400 years earlier!); and none of the kings of Israel had ever celebrated such a Passover as did Josiah…” (2 Chronicles 35:18a)

When idols are torn down, the healing can start…and the Real Party begins.

I believe there’s an unspoken idol in the American evangelical church that divides us along racial lines. This idol is so deeply imbedded in the white evangelical church culture that we aren’t even aware of it. It’s American Christian Nationalism.

Nationalism could be described as an excessive patriotism toward a person’s country. But the big problem is when it’s mixed up with Christianity and what that does to black-and-white relations.

I’ve been in churches where there are American flags on the podium and heard messages on how America was chosen by God, about Manifest Destiny, about our Christian-nation roots and heard choirs sing “God Bless America”. It was the American evangelist Billy Sunday who said, “Christianity and patriotism are synonymous terms…and hell and traitors are synonymous.”

I’ve also been in churches where there were rants against America along the “come-out-from-among-them” slant. That is, America was disqualified from God’s favor and His judgment was upon us. In right-leaning churches it was because of abortion, pornography, and threats against religious freedom; in left-leaning churches it was because of environmental exploitation, systemic injustice, and disregard for the poor.

In the book of Exodus, Joshua was chosen to lead the nation after Moses’ death into the land that had been promised to them by God. There was one major problem: the path was blocked by the heavily fortified city of Jericho…and Jericho wasn’t excited about Israel’s tour through their personal space.

Joshua wasn’t sure what to do and has a Twilight Zone encounter that leaves him shaken. He comes upon a soldier with his weapon drawn and asks him whose side he’s on. The man cryptically replies, “Neither. I’ve come as the commander of God’s armies.” Joshua hit the bricks face down and worshiped.

God cannot be invoked to join our side. Rather, He has a plan for His planet. The question is: will we join His purposes?

Here’s how it works. The Church has a primary purpose: to turn lost people into lovers of Jesus. Jesus’ last words were “Go! Go make disciples of all nations.” That phrase “of all nations” is important; it’s the primary thing the Church is called to do here on earth…and the Church will be held accountable for its faithfulness to that purpose. Jesus said, “You’re my associates if you do what I say.” You and I will be held accountable for our faithfulness to that purpose of bringing lost children to their heavenly Father, turning them into lovers of God.

Therefore, anything that compromises that mission is dangerous. It’s an idol. What could keep us from making followers of Jesus in every ethnicity, every nationality, every political persuasion? Are we exporting American Religion…or the Kingdom of God?

In less than fifty years, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be Caucasian. Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom writes that soon “the phrase ‘a White Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist.’”

And so often when I see the American version of Christianity being beamed around the world via T.V., it breaks my heart. Here’s the New Reality: Followers of Jesus are citizens of a different kind of nation. Our citizenship is singular. Peter understood that when he wrote: …You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9) That’s a “called-out people with a mission”—to declare the awesome grace of God. When Paul wrote that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, he was crossing tough boundaries and scaring the daylights out of people.

I have a philosophical and scriptural problem with talking about America “returning to its Christian heritage.” For Caucasian baby-boomers it often implies the syndicated world of Leave It To Beaver (after all, it was in 1954 that the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance). For most white boomers, that sounds appealing. But let me make a crazy guess…if you’re an African-American, I’m pretty confident you don’t want to go back. Going back to that so-called “Christian heritage” is not appealing to African-Americans…and yet the evangelical church has idealized it and idolized it.

Only a few short centuries ago, in the formation of this nation, it’s estimated over ten million men, women and children were taken from the west coasts of Africa, chained, sometimes marched for miles, shoehorned into boats where several million died of starvation and disease in the four month journey across the ocean to a foreign country. Over ten million. Sold and traded like farm animals. For over two hundred years this was the systematic oppression of a single race for a new country’s economy. That’s why the Bible says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

In 1774, John Wesley described the slave trade like this: “When the vessels arrive at their destined port, the Negroes are again exposed naked to the eyes of all that flock together and the examination of their purchasers. Then they are separated to the plantations of their several masters, to see each other no more. Here you may see mothers hanging over their daughters . . . and daughters clinging to their parents, till the whipper soon obliges them to part. And what can be more wretched than the condition they then enter upon? Banished from their country, from their friends and relations for ever, from every comfort of life, they are reduced to a state scarce anyway preferable to that of beasts of burden.. . . . Did the Creator intend that the noblest creatures in the visible world should live such a life as this?”

In a letter to William Wilberforce (the driver behind outlawing slave trade in England), Wesley called American slavery, “the vilest that ever saw the sun”

Slave-owner William Byrd—a gentleman from high-society circles in London who settled in Virginia—wrote in his diary this chilling “Christian” account:

“February 8, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock this morning and read a chapter in Hebrew and 200 verses in Homer’s Odyssey. I ate milk for breakfast. I said my prayers. Jenny and Eugene were whipped. I danced my dance…

“June 10, 1709.  …In the evening I took a walk about the plantation.  Eugene was whipped for running away and had the bit put on him.  I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.

“December 3, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Cassius. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. Eugene pissed in bed again for which I made him drink a pint of piss…”

In talking about his slaves, Thomas Jefferson said that “…blacks are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” That’s an embarrassment to America. Let’s call it what it is: sin.

One reason it’s important to give a historical context for race relations in America is because of a spiritual principle called the law of the harvest: whatever you plant, you’ll eventually harvest. In his book The Immigrant Heritage of America, Norman Coombs writes:

“One characteristic which set American slavery apart was its racial basis. In America, with only a few early and insignificant exceptions, all slaves were Africans, and almost all Africans were slaves. This placed the label of inferiority on black skin and on African culture. . . . In general, there were five steps in molding the character of a slave: strict discipline, a sense of his own inferiority, belief in the master’s superior power, acceptance of the master’s standards, and, finally, a deep sense of his own helplessness and dependence. At every point this education was built on the belief in white superiority and black inferiority.”

My mom’s alcoholic father told her throughout her childhood that she was stupid. Every week she was told she was stupid. She dropped out of high school. To this day, my 87 year-old mother—who is saved and Spirit-filled—will refer to herself as being stupid—which is far from the truth. As a matter of fact, scripture says she has the mind of Christ.

Now try to imagine centuries of behavioral and psychological training of an entire race and culture.

Here are a few of the statistics of the harvest:
  • 45% of black children live below the poverty line, compared with 16% of whites.
  • While black students represent 16% of all public school students, they make up nearly 40% of those classed as learning disabled.
  • Right now, there are more black men in jail than in college. Why isn’t the evangelical church brokenhearted by that—regardless of the reason?
  • The median net worth of blacks is 8% the median net worth of whites. It’s clear who has the money.
  • Unemployment is nearly twice as high in the black community
  • Infant mortality is twice the rate among blacks than white.
  • African-American mothers are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers because of inadequate medical care in many black communities.
  • Nearly 60% of white people believe that race relations in their community are good; only 39% of blacks think so.
This is not America-bashing: I’m glad I live in America. It beats North Korea hands-down. I’m thrilled we have incredible freedom. I’m impressed that men and women died to advance an ideal of democracy.

But I’m not proud of parts of our history.

We can appreciate the sacrifices of the Founding Fathers without turning them into Christian icons. But let’s be honest: it wasn’t a Christian nation in the strictest sense. The Trail of Tears where four thousand Cherokees died in a thousand-mile forced march to Oklahoma is not a Christian nation. And it’s certainly not a theocracy. These are things that make me angry as a white American. It’s being honest with all our history.

Sometimes I wonder if the desire to “go back” to what was perceived as a Christian “Golden Age” has more to do with retaining a perception of power. The problem may be an issue of control, of power. One day a group of angry Pharisees got together and said about Jesus in John 11: “…If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” John 11:45-48 (New International Version)

Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t an issue of the evangelical Church wanting to retain power. The brilliant theologian Kierkegaard saw a huge danger in his own country with the idea that the purposes of God are met by some alliance of church and state. Historically, state-churches, or pseudo-Christian nations, quickly become watered down in their expression of Christianity…and the country’s purpose gets confused with the plan of God for this planet. The Church is not the moral policeman of the world; it’s the messenger of God’s grace.

The “Big C” Church has never been about earthly power. Never has, never will. The true Church has never desired to have political power, to control, because their kingdom is not of this world. One day Jesus will return and establish His theocracy, a world government based on His Lordship, with willing subjects who lead with love. But for now, the power of the Church is found in healing and serving…in bringing God’s shalom. When Jesus left His Father’s side, and became human like us, He gave us the ultimate picture of how the Church is to behave: just like Him.

Here’s the theological principle: Reconciliation is the responsibility of the people in power. In the Kingdom of God, African-Americans must extend forgiveness to me, their white brother. But there’s something vitally missing in that for me: If I don’t ask for forgiveness and show fruits of repentance by seeking systemic and individual justice, then I’m going to miss the transformational power of love in my life. It is always the responsibility of the people of privilege and power to seek reconciliation, not the other way around. That’s what Jesus did: left the privileges of heaven to reconcile the world to Himself, became a servant.

Reconciliation—by slipping into the skin and understanding the world of those not in power—is the core of Christianity. That’s the incarnation. Paul sums it up like this 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 it’s like because He did the unthinkable: He became one of us. That’s the responsibility of the one with the power.

That’s what each one of us is called to do—to slip into the skin of someone else, so we can feel what they feel and see what they see, and so love them to the fullest. That’s real love. As Paul writes: You know how full of love and kindness our Lord Jesus was: though he was so very rich, yet to help you he became so very poor…. (2 Corinthians 8:9a Living Bible)

It’s incarnational Christianity. And it’s all about love. And when I see the “Christian Nation” philosophy—one of the biggest idols in the evangelical church—through my black brother’s eyes, then I let go of all claims, defenses and earthly power, and become one with him.

And like Josiah, we have this major idol to pull down. When the idols were torn down, Israel partied at the Passover like they hadn’t in centuries.

When our idol comes down, then we can celebrate the True Passover—the broken Body of the Sacrifice Lamb—whom Paul says in Ephesians 2:14 & 16 is “our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall . . . and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross... (Ephesians 2:14, 16)

And then perhaps we—the Church—will be like Josiah, YoshiyahuHealed by Jehovah.

My friend Ray McMillan has a great resource: Race To Unity. You can support him here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

why i belong to the vineyard movement

A gazillion years ago when I was a traveling musician, we had been touring across the country a good bit and with our second album release (vinyl, anyone?) we played a concert in our lovely hometown of Cincinnati. Through some odd circumstances that night, I ended up invited to lunch with someone named Walt, who not only was a fan of the growing Jesus-music world, but had an ulterior motive: to invite me to a new church he was a part of—the Vineyard.

It was meeting in a house in Mason Ohio, which seemed like the uttermost regions to me. I immediately went back on the road again, but my wife decided to check it out while I was touring. When I eventually got home, she said simply: I think you’re going to like this.

So on a Sunday night in 1984 we made the drive from Norwood to a house in Mason. Crammed in the living room were about twenty people and Steve Sjogren on a twelve-string guitar. As he sung some extremely laid-back unfamiliar California songs (“…change my heart, oh God, make it ever true…”), Anita and I found ourselves inexplicably crying. I don’t know if I was burned out from my then ten-year journey as a Christian—from Jesus-movement, charismatic, word-of-faith, to traveling musician—but it struck a chord in me: pared-down no-hype worship, a marriage between evangelicalism and the power of the Holy Spirit, and, as I soon discovered, a heart for the poor.

Could church be that simple? I felt like I had returned to my Jesus-people roots.

We never left. Two years later I left the band, found work at local recording studio, and began leading worship as a volunteer for the Vineyard Christian Fellowship that had now moved to a roomier hall at Scarlet Oaks Vocational School in Sharonville.

It was the transparency, honesty, the simple invitation of “Come Holy Spirit”, the laid-back approach, the lack of “religious airs”, the simple outreaches to the poor, the “kinships” (small groups), the churchplanting emphasis, the humble approach to praying for healing, and non-manipulative worship style that kept me. It was refreshingly different. Steve’s irreligious, outward-focused attitude challenged my inner cynic; he had me at hello.

And so I found my tribe.

As the years passed, while we planted dozens of Vineyard churches directly and indirectly, my understanding of our place in the larger Vineyard movement was fuzzy. We had become extremely outward-focused, struggling to maintain seven services every weekend (not to mention a midweek!) in a building that seated a little under six-hundred. The Vineyard movement seemed to have struggled through several different phases, from equipping conferences to the Kansas City prophets to the Toronto Blessing. At times it felt like we were a bit on the outs.

For various reasons, we had developed what felt to me a tenuous relationship with the movement as a whole; by 2000, I had only been to one national pastors conference in the previous sixteen years. From his Anaheim roots, Steve obviously had developed relationships with the earliest Vineyard movers-and-shakers. But whether geography or personalities or just the speed-of-life, it was sometimes an awkward bond.

That year I stepped into the senior pastor role at Vineyard Cincinnati and Rich Nathan invited me to attend the once-a-year regional leaders meetings in Columbus (though I had no formalized role in the movement). The national Vineyard had survived the death of its founder three years earlier, was redefining itself and in the unsexy throes of developing systems and processes.

We had given very little financially to the national movement over the years, but the push was stirring for a mandatory 3% of local church income to go to Vineyard USA. This was creating an issue for many churches and feeling like the slide toward a more institutionalized, denominational approach. In the free-wheeling, baby-boomer, Kingdom-oriented Vineyards, this seemed like a disturbance in the force.

But now that I was feeling the unique frustrations of leading a growing megachurch (read: herd of cats) and the tension of trying to grow outward-focused disciples, I came upon a simple realization: I could only ultimately move forward with our Kingdom mission to “love the people of Cincinnati into relationship with Jesus” if I had a certain percentage of sold-out, skin-in-the-game disciples. And in the American me-first, consumer-driven culture, letting go of money was the most difficult thing.

I quickly discovered that the people in our church who were most demanding and criticial were typically those who invested the least. In other words, it’s way easier to be an armchair quarterback on Monday night than to actually suit up and get leveled by a two-hundred-fifty pound defensive end. Multiple times if you’re Ryan Tannehill.

But I was no different at a global level.

Truth is, I found it easy to take potshots at the Vineyard movement as a whole (phases, trends, direction, etc.) when we didn’t have a lot of skin in the game. But it was the same thing that bothered me as a pastor with non-invested parishioners. And God nailed me on it.

So years ago I came to the leaders of our region at a Columbus meeting and repented. I told them we had not been fully invested and was embarrassed by it. They responded  graciously, “No, you guys have always been a big help to lots of us and led the charge in servant evangelism. Vineyard Cincinnati has always given away resources and time to us.”

“Yeah, but on our terms,” I said. “And that’s not how real relationships work. And certainly not how to respond to leadership.”

After conversations with our trustee board, we began the process of giving the three-percent. For us at the time, it really was a difficult decision and required budget cuts in other areas to the tune of several hundred thousands of dollars. But it wasn’t the “three percent” that was the issue; it merely represented something deeper than that.

At the heart of it is this: I would have said that I was a firm believer and respecter of spiritual authority. The best leaders have at some point been good followers; there’s a holistic tempering that happens in that process. I knew that in the local church there has to be leadership structures in order to have focused impact. I fully subscribed to Hebrews 13:17—“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority…”—and expected it with healthy symbiotic relationships in the local church.

But here I had been resistant to the spiritual leaders of the tribe I said I belonged to. We were a church of cowboys; stubbornly independent, unfenced and uncorralled.

There has to be more than mere tribal identification; there is the reality of spiritual authority. And there is no real spiritual authority without spiritual followership. That’s when I questioned my investment in the movement.

So I’m personally not a fan of the independent local church. And “networks” are not the same, because truthfully there’s no real sense of accountability and buy-in to something bigger than your own fiefdom. Although there’s no overpowering hierarchy in the national Vineyard movement, there’s enough relational capital and leadership investment that demands some submissive responsibility. And for me, I think that’s a tremendous safeguard for any church, even in an internal board-empowered organization. If Jesus is the CEO of the whole Church, shouldn’t it make sense that we learn the power and beauty of submissive health through earthly relationships?

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not into entrepreneurial-strangling, institutionally-heavy, bloated bureaucracies. But how do we ask our people to be fully invested and yet we leaders of local churches are resistant to it ourselves? I’ll admit it: the current trend of people attending multiple churches and never committing to one drives me crazy as a pastor: how do you lead people missionally with that consumeristic approach and have any true sense of challenge and accountability?

The Vineyard movement is my family. Yep, the one with the crazy uncle and the second-cousin-removed that makes awkward comments at the family reunion. But it’s my family.

And the leaders of the movement have the unenviable job of making ecclesiastical decisions and giving direction for a much larger herd of cats that require me to weigh…and follow.

This is my tribe.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

the problem with power

About four-thousand years ago God spoke to a nobody; only family members and relatives would have known him. His nomadic dad was traveling to Canaan but stopped at a town in Turkey and settled. It was there God spoke to Abraham and told him: “Leave what’s familiar and I’ll make a nation out of you. And here’s the Big Deal, Abraham: you will bless the entire world.” We later discover that he would do that through Abraham’s descendent.

Which recently got me thinking: what does it mean to bless an entire planet? How would I do that? Would that mean I’d have the power to make people happy? To end all wars? To eliminate disease and pain? To introduce or enforce a global shalom?

Don’t we believe we would have to have a reasonable amount of power to bless the whole earth? But even at our altruistic best, how would we keep the peace between individuals/tribes/religions/nations who want some sort of power over another? If you’re a parent of more than one child, you know this isn’t simple. Every nation and state attempts to keep peace by wielding power, as in: Who has the bigger stick? In societies, we grant power and authority to certain people (police, lawyers, military, etc.) so that hopefully bad people bent on evil are quarantined.

And, of course, not all power-holders are the good guys. If you think Wall Street is filled with benevolent boys and girls bent on creating and managing a healthy economy for everyone to enjoy, I have a bridge for sale. From the drug lords of Juarez to politicians in high places to the pimp in the alley to the aspiring VP wanting the corner office, power is the drug of choice. As John Stuart Mill smartly observed, “Men do not desire to be rich, only to be richer than other men”. And even in our best moments, we think of power as the way to manage peace in a world of bent and broken people.

If you’re a Jesus-worshipper (and doing that presupposes him as God), then you automatically buy into the idea that he’s God-come-in-the-flesh. And it’s Jesus who shocks everyone when he says, “Come to me—all you who are tired and weighed down—and I’ll personally give you rest.” Notice he doesn’t say, “Follow my seven habits and life will be better, but simply, “Come to me.”

But then he follows that up with:  “…for I am gentle and humble in heart.” Seriously? The One with all the power?

It freshly struck me the other day that I’ve never really thought of God Himself as being humble. After all, he’s omnipotent, not to mention omniscient, omnipresent…omnieverything. If you believe in a personalized First Cause of any sort, it’s hard to not be awed.

But humble? Really?—God is humble?

If the Second Adam came in the shape of God, then He—Creator, Judge, Savior, Sustainer, Reconciler, God—says with simple, nakedly-honest self-awareness: I am humble. Think about it: no one can do that but God. Try it yourself and see where it gets you with your co-workers.

Suddenly Abraham’s promise followed by centuries of prophetic announcements regarding the “great and terrible day of the Lord” are shaded in radically different colors. Matter-of-factly, Peter confidently states on Pentecost that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is what God was really describing when He spoke of the “great day of the Lord.” In other words: it’s already happened and happening.

Translation: God looks at power very differently than we do.

It also means that the way to bless the world will never be by power. Be honest: in our most benevolent times when we dream about how we would rule the world if we were king, we still have to admit that all the power in the world can’t change the human heart. And that’s the power of Jesus.

Maybe it’s time we Christians reconsider how we think about power. In relationships. In politics. In culture. In organizations. In every way.

I’m not talking about abdication. But wouldn’t it behoove us to take some time to wrestle with this question: How did Jesus bless the world? Wouldn’t that be worth emulating? And is the servant (us) ever above the master (Jesus) in terms of practice or priority? That’s a rhetorical question.

How serious are we about blessing the whole world?

I’m not sure.

“Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD Almighty. (Zechariah 4:6b)