Wednesday, December 29, 2010

love & marriage

I had some folks ask me about the story I told of meeting my wife Anita; they told me they wished so-and-so had been there to hear it. Hmmm. Sounds suspicious. Anyway, as Gilly says, “Sorry.” But here it is if you want to pass it on.

Way back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I had only been following Jesus for less than two years when I first met Anita. I had come to Christ in what was called the Jesus Movement back in the day: loads of musicians, druggies, hippies and other people from the Island of Misfit Toys were getting blasted by the Holy Spirit and stumbling into traditional churches that didn’t know what to do with these long-haired, confused but spectacularly saved young people.

I was one of them, playing in a bar band and trying to stay alive as a musician, living with a group here in Cincinnati. After I met Jesus, I found myself wanting to tell other people about Him. To me, He was like the best-kept secret that old people had. How come no one had told me about this “born again”-thing before…or about the infilling experience of this mysterious Holy Spirit?

In our culture, if we had drugs, we shared them.

So how come you all kept this for yourselves and made it so inaccessible in social-club churches playing the same music for seventy years that sounded like a funeral service and dressed up like you were going to a job interview when most of us only owned clip-on ties? We were as confused with you as you were with us.

That’s what it seemed like to me as a young twenty-something.

And so because I felt like I needed to tell others about Jesus, my new friend Paul Niehaus and I began playing in coffeehouses and church basements telling other confused young people about what Jesus could do. We figured if He could do that with us, He could do it with anybody. There was a coffeehouse near downtown Covington that was sponsored by a Baptist church who, by the way, enforced a strict no-smoking rule inside the house…so these urban kids—and they happened to mostly be girls—would stand outside and hang in the windows and listen while they smoked. There’s always a way to get around legalism.

After playing a few times there, we decided we needed to diversify and include a girl to sing a little bit and tell her life-transformation story about Jesus. Paul said, “I have a friend who has a friend…”

A little skinny girl with long blond hair showed up and we worked up a few songs with her. Her name was Anita.

Sometime later I began to wonder if she was The One. You know what that means, right? The One. But I had terrific fears about relationships. It seemed to me that the cavalier attitude of my peers and, in my experience, musicians, was unhealthy. This was the time of very few boundaries. All my previous short-lived relationships had been a mix of sentimentality and selfishness. And now I was understanding that relationships were serious to God; you just couldn’t try on someone like a coat and throw it off if you didn’t like it.

What’s more, I didn’t know anyone who had a good marriage. And so for a while I convinced myself that I was made for the Kingdom only and had the gift of singleness. When I told that to Anita, she just laughed and said, “Uh, right.”

Not long afterward, she took off for Europe and lived there for five months. We wrote dozens of letters way back in the day when people used paper and stamps. The next summer I decided to really pursue God and find out if Anita was The One. At this time I was working downtown. It’s hard to find a quiet place in the city to pursue God on your lunch break until I found a great place: Saint Louis Catholic Church on 8th and Walnut.

It was open and so I’d go in several times a week and ask God one simple question: “Is this who I should marry?” I’d sit there and listen and listen…and get nothing. I would say to my Father, “If you’ll just tell me yes or no, that’s all I need. If you say ‘yes’, I’ll ask her tomorrow. If you say ‘no’, I’ll turn around and not look back. Just yes or no.”

And still I’d get nothing.

This routine went on for months. I was getting desperate. By this time, I’m dipping holy water…I’m crossing myself…I’m lighting candles…I’m genuflecting before I slip into the pew. I’ve got to hear God.

One day I’m sitting there, saying the same thing—“God, just tell me ‘yes’ or ‘no’”—and that still, small voice popped into my head. I heard the Lord whisper, “Do you think she’d be a good wife?”
I was taken aback and thought, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure she’d be a great wife. I know her personality, I’ve met her family, I’ve done my homework.”

Then I heard the Spirit impress on my heart, “Do you love her?”

I thought, “Yeah, as best as I understand love, I think I really love her.”

And then—I kid you not—I heard: “Then what’s the problem, Dave?”

I remember thinking, “That’s it? That’s all there is to this? Really? I’m allowed to choose just like that?” And then it hit me: if God had said, “This is The One” and things went south, I could blame Him…just like Adam did in Genesis 3: “The woman You gave me. She’s the one that caused me to sin,” instead of me doing the hard work of making a relationship healthy and owning up to my own crap and what I needed to let God change in me. Many years later—after I became a pastor—I don’t know how many failed marriages I witnessed where the starry-eyed, brain-dead couple had told me, “God told us to get married.”

But honestly, what I was most worried about was my own ability to maintain love. Anyone can fall in love. It’s how you stay in love that seemed to be the issue. It drives me crazy in chick-flicks when a couple meets, their eyes sparkle, we hear some clever repartee, they hit it off…and in the next scene they’re in bed. Anyone can fall in love. Anyone can do that. And anything can have sex when you meet. Just watch your dog.

My problem was: I simply didn’t believe I could love anyone for an extended period of time—and I knew that God took marriage seriously. It was His idea. Everyone I knew seemed to run out of gas after awhile. To me, marriage was like a long road trip on a single tank of love. When the gas runs out, you’re finished. Marriage actually scared me. And as I said, I didn’t know anyone who had a good one.

The problem was, I didn’t understand God’s power…I didn’t understand His kingdom…that His Kingdom would never end. And if Jesus is the King of this Kingdom, and He is in us, or as Paul says, Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)…then there can be no shortage of love.

I was shortchanging God’s ability in me, His fuel. I had imagined love being some quantity that eventually runs out. I was operating with a scarcity mentality. But God never runs out of anything.

Isn’t that the story of Israel in the wilderness and the manna that appeared every morning? Of Elijah and the widow’s jars of flour and oil that never ran empty? Isn’t that the story of the loaves and fishes? Or six jars of water into wine? Even more, the Bible says that God is Love. He cannot run out of Himself. He’s God.

I’m a slow learner.

When Anita later became pregnant with our first child, I worried again that I wouldn’t have enough love for both a wife and a new addition. But when Rachel came out, love simply flowed like a fountain…and has never stopped. And likewise with the next baby, Katie. How crazy of me to limit God based on my own limitations.

Love isn’t science. It really isn’t art. And it’s actually more than a choice. It’s the supernuclear power that drives the universe, that flows from the heart of God toward the crown of His creation—you and me—and is poured inside any who will receive. I just have to tap into it.

Let’s take the limitations off.

And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:5 .

Sunday, November 28, 2010

the problem with thankfulness

Thinking about thankfulness seems to be the right thing to do at this time of year. But I’m not sure how to balance that in terms of the resources I have. I wrestle with this each time I come back from Nigeria; it’s a little difficult to process the two worlds…I’m so deep into my culture of comfort. I want to be thankful for what I have and I don’t want to feel guilty about what I believe God has given me, but I think there is a third way to look at my resources.

Back in 2005 when I went on the first reconnaissance trip to Nigeria with my friend Emmanuel, one afternoon we drove outside of Jos to a rural village with a tiny church and an even tinier house. Emman wanted me to meet the first pastor he worked under many years earlier. I’ve forgotten his name, but he was quite old. When I asked Emman how old, he could only guess because the pastor himself didn’t know. I found that to be not-so-uncommon among older people there; Emman’s own mother doesn’t know when she was born, day or year. In my hyper-time-sensitive and age-conscious world (as in: “That was so ten-minutes ago…”), I have a hard time wrapping my cerebrum around that.

The pastor was thin as a reed and wore thick black-rimmed glasses. He was so gracious and excited to show me his office and library outside behind the house. It was not much more than a small henhouse, stacked with old dusty magazines and a hanging bare light bulb. I don’t recall seeing many books, if any. These were his references for study.

Back inside his dark and barely furnished house of three simple rooms was a home-made inscription hanging on a wall. I took a picture with his permission.

My head was spinning thinking of my dvd players, my office jammed with books, my house with central air, a two-car garage, a gas fireplace and carpet under my feet.

When I return from Nigeria each time, I find myself thankful to be home for so many of the right reasons: I miss my wife and my kids, the Vineyard, my friends. And then there are the creature comforts: I don’t have to worry about the water or eating anything that’s uncooked. I can take a shower and not a bucket bath. I don’t have to worry about traffic jams on roads with no painted lines (which doesn’t seem to matter anyway) and potholes big enough to swallow VWs and hundreds of motorbike taxis carrying three people and a goat zipping by clipping your car mirrors. I can stop anywhere and get a Diet Pepsi that’s cold and with ice. I don’t think twice about basic infrastructures: I know that there will be electricity all day and not just a few hours; the National Electric Power Authority, or NEPA, was cleverly renamed “Never Enough Power Anytime” by the locals. Recently, it’s become the Power Holding Company of Nigeria—PHCN, now known as “Problem Has Changed Names”. Nigerians have a great sense of humor.

But all those things are really just comforts.

On this trip we went back to visit the pastor’s widow. He died a few years after that first trip. Emman gave her a thousand naira, about seven dollars, and you would have thought it was a lottery win. Most days Emman would leave early in the morning to visit extended family and friends and often come home late at night. And many of those, I’m sure, are similar to the visit to the pastor’s widow.

Which brings me back to an angle of thankfulness that I think I’ve overlooked. I’m embarrassed to reach this point in my life and to have missed the obvious: perhaps the point of gratitude is that we’re thankful we have resources…to give. The early church encouraged fasting so they could give to the poor what they would normally eat. Fasts were centered on thankfulness for the opportunity serve Jesus a la Matthew 25:40.

As Augustine put it: “Let the hungry Christ receive what the fasting Christian receives less of. Let the self-denial of one who undertakes it willingly become the support of the one who has nothing. Let the voluntary want of the person who has plenty become the needed plenty of the person in want.”

When Jesus healed the ten lepers and they walked away to show themselves to the priests, one, a Samaritan, came back crying and gratefully threw himself at Jesus’ feet. Jesus posed three rhetorical questions: “Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine? Does only this foreigner return to give glory to God?”

There is always an end in mind with the works of Jesus: to bring glory to the Father.

When it comes to the apparent “blessings” of my culture, of course I should be thankful. But the question the Spirit is asking me is: to what end?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


Only have a couple of minutes to post here in Nigeria with limited internet access...

Been speaking a lot: today was a 2½ hour class at the Jos Evangelical Church of West Africa seminary with churchplanters and pastors. The class was “The Church, Society and Ethics”. Whoa. Spoke the day before about missional churches and will speak tomorrow at the chapel. It’s been very interactive along with Kande Wilson (our outreach and missions pastor) and Emmanuel Itapson (our connection with Self-Sustaining Enterprises/Nigeria). We also drove out to see the Paramount Chief of the Rukuba tribe; from his throne (no kidding) he again expressed how grateful his people are and reemphasized how there has been no infant mortality from waterborne diseases in all the villages that have boreholes. The drilling team has drilled about 90 wells in the area. Amazing.

The Global Leadership Summit that we sponsor in Jos has gone amazingly well; over 300 pastors and leaders here. Thursday we’ll tack on a training session and we’ll talk about outward-focused churches. We’ve met so many people; they are like sponges, soaking in leadership development resources. What’s amazing is the unity that it’s brought to the different denominations.

Friday we’ll go to the well commissioning and then leave at 6am on Saturday to drive a few hours northwest to Kaduna to sponsor and help with the summit there. Sunday morning I’ll speak at a church there and then head back down to Jos. Last, a three hour drive back to Abuja to fly home.

The rest of the team has been doing great grunt work…painting, moving concrete blocks, working with the drilling team. Yeah, I know—my stuff sounds like a wuss compared to them. They’re doing great and fully enjoying the experience. I think a few are getting their world rocked…and it’s all good. They all served the pastors at the summit here in Jos. Very cool.

These moments make me thrilled to be a part of the Vineyard. I think everyone should feel that way about their respective church. I hope you do. This adventure with Jesus is never boring. Ever. I can’t think of anything in the universe better than serving the One who has a plan for this big messy world and invites us to join Him.

It’s all good. See you at the Vineyard in a week-and-a-half!

Short updates from Kande here:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

what's on the nightstand

Fairly often I’ll have someone ask me what I’m reading. It’s embarrassing that I can only remember what I’m currently slogging through. Then along came my traveling library in the form of a Kindle; I got one just about a year ago. Okay, don’t judge me: I also have an iPad…an extravagant gift some folks gave me. What’s great is the Kindle app on it: all my books transfer. So if you’re familiar with the commercials, I can read in the brightest sunlight...or pitchblack! Ain’t technology wonderful?

I also read a fair amount (okay, a lot) of pop culture websites as well as mainstream magazines from Wired to Fast Company to Time just so I can have a reasonable conversation with people about the world we live in. I also have subscriptions to Christianity Today, Leadership Journal, Relevant, Sojourners and Outreach.

The following is what’s currently on my Kindle and what I’ve read over the last year:

• The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective; Russell D. Moore. Solid book on how critical embracing a Kingdom-theology is along with a recent history of evangelicalism and a Kingdom-orientation. An evangelical, Moore seeks common ground regarding social and political hot buttons.

• Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: a Sociologist Shatters Myths Form the Secular and Christian Media; Bradley R. E. Wright, PhD. Just started reading this and thoroughly enjoying it. For instance, I’ve long been suspicious of Barna and doubted their analysis of their own stats. I think I’m just tired of fear-based messages; perhaps the sky isn’t actually falling.

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World; James Davison Hunter. Loved, loved, loved this book! I wish everyone in the Vineyard would read this one. His sharp social-theory commentary and research, particularly on the politicization of the American culture, is spot-on in my opinion. It actually makes me feel good about our particular tribe (despite some convicting moments in the book) and makes me feel that his “faithful presence” approach is in our DNA.

Mansions of the Heart: Exploring the Seven Stages of Spiritual Growth; R. Thomas Ashbrook. A retooling of Teresa of Avila’s spiritual formation thinking in “Interior Castles”. Teresa was a bit of a mentor to St. John of the Cross (of “Dark Night of the Soul”-fame). Interesting thoughts from a confessed Type-A pastor.

Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back; Frank Schaeffer. You’ll need to take a shower after this one. Frank (son of evangelical icon Francis Schaeffer) has written a gossipy tell-all that feels like an E Channel documentary filled with f-bombs and irreverent humor. He’s a troubled soul…but no wonder if half of his family history is true.

• The Power of a Whisper: Hearing God, Having the Guts to Respond; Bill Hybels. Hearing from the Holy Spirit is not the unique domain of classic charismatics! How about a Dutch Reformed pastor? As John Wimber used to say, faith is spelled r-i-s-k…and this book is filled with stories of risky obedience to the promptings of the Spirit. You have to admire the scope and influence Willow Creek has had on the Church. On a personal level, I asked Bill why he invited me to speak at Willow a couple of years ago because, as I told him, “no one knows who the heck I am.” He simply said, “I felt prompted by the Spirit.” He smokes what he sells. Plus, I like any Christian book that has the word “guts” in the title.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die; Dan & Chip Heath. Simple theory and practicals on what makes certain concepts/ideas/products memorable. It’s disposable business literature but interesting.

The Leadership Challenge; James Kouzes & Barry Posner. A true classic. I re-read it periodically. Reminds me of what I want to be when I grow up. Should be on every leader’s must-read list.

Taking Your Church to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There; Gary McIntosh. Straightforward primer for understanding how both the age and the life-cycles of church creates barriers for growth. You either like this stuff or not. Good intro into this genre.

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of The Christian Faith; Tim Keller. Keller’s got some great insights on the prodigal son story; he artfully juxtaposes the problem with running from God and manipulating His love with moral behaviors. Highly recommended for those who are burned out on religion. Love this line: “Both the worldly life of sensual pleasure and the religious life of ethical strictness fail to give the human heart what it is seeking.”

The Me I Want to Be; John Ortberg. Joe Boyd really liked this book. Just starting it.

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time; Sarah Ruden. Loved the premise: a female Quaker scholar of Greco-Roman classic literature decides to study Paul through the cultural context of Paul’s literary peers. She began the study with her personal paradigm of Paul as a misogynistic, sexually repressive egotist who perverted Jesus’ message. After her study, she did a one-eighty. Warning: her colloquial translations of some classics border on mild pornography; its an eye-opening experience into ancient culture.

• Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion; Gregory Boyle. A priest tells gritty stories of his gang-intervention ministry (Homeboy Industries) in L.A. County. Hold in tension the raw language and almost over-attempt to be relevantly hip with his incredibly selfless and difficult work with gangs—this guy has done 169 funerals since 1988. Street cred galore.

The DNA of Relationships; Gary Smalley. Hey, its a free download. Haven’t started yet.

After You Believe; N. T. Wright. This one and Surprised By Hope have been my favorites from Tom Wright. This line alone makes me want to stand up and march: “Jesus came, in fact, to launch God’s new creation, and with it a new way of being human…” (is he listening to old Switchfoot…?) and “Jesus believed and taught that humans in general, including God’s people Israel, had a sickness of heart which all attempts at self-betterment could not touch.”

The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity; Soon-Chan Rah. Oh yeah. This one will provoke and punch. His case for real cultural diversity and upsetting typical white evangelical assumptions is good for the soul. His picture of evangelical western ‘cultural captivity’ is expressed as individualism, consumerism/materialism and racism. Amen.

• Unleashing the Power of Rubber Bands; Nancy Ortberg
. Another freebie. Nice, conversational thoughts on leadership/management; reads like it was transcripted from workshops.

Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home; Richard Foster. I love Foster’s pure, personal and devotional approach to writing. He makes me want to pray without feeling guilty.

Drive; Daniel Pink. I read this before Pink spoke at the Leadership Summit and was completely intrigued. People got tired of hearing me quote from it. You can get the gist of it in this great little video:

Myth of a Christian Nation; Gregory A. Boyd. Helpful book for those struggling with (or tired of) the politics of nationalism. Nice introduction on how the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world clash. You may not agree with everything, but I think true conversion to following Christ begins with this mindset.

Prayer of the Faithful: Understanding and Creatively Leading Corporate Intercessory Prayer; W. C. Huffman. I was looking for something on corporate intercession with a bit of liturgical feel. Not all that helpful for our context, but my favorite quote is this: “When Luther cut back the enormous growth of the medieval mass, his pastoral intincts led him to simplify forms of prayer and song. In limiting the lengthy gradual to two verses, he suggested that those interested could sing the over verses at home. (Take note, all us Vineyard worships leaders!) …(Luther) wrote: ‘In church we do not want to quench the spirit of the faithful with tedium.’”

Axion: Powerful Leadership Proverbs; Bill Hybels. Always engaging and motivational, you may not agree with every short learning, but it will certainly fire your reflective jets on your own leadership.

The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church; Alan Hirsch. Just downloaded this last night after reading a few pages at Jason Scott’s house. Piqued my interest and I’m not familiar with Hirsch’s writing.

Outliers: The Story of Success; Malcolm Gladwell. Yeah, he’s ubiquitous. Regardless of what you think of his analysis, dang…he’s a good storyteller. Never boring. And I love that he touches on race issues in such a backdoor way.

The Apostle Paul and Women in the Church; Don Williams. Don’s a Vineyard scholar. If you’re egalitarian (I am), you’ll enjoy this. Good primer to the problem of women’s roles; for example, he uses the ‘life source’ rather than the ‘lordship’ interpretation of Ephesians 5:23. The cultural book references are a little dated, but the material is well written. Not sure if this would settle any argument or is the ultimate apologetic, but it will get you thinking.

Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer; Ken Wilson. Ken (our regional overseer) is the best-kept secret in the Vineyard movement. He makes tough ideas, concepts and practices accessible. His personal journey of prayer and wealth of experience in community makes “divine hours” prayer (as an example) not only practical but attractive for us ‘can’t-sit-still’ ADD-driven, prayer-guilted folks.

There you go. Not sure if these are all hearty recommendations for everyone, but it’s been interesting reading for me.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes?

Finally have a chance here to post a bit. I wrote part of this in a Belfast airport after having said goodbye to my friend Jason Scott. Jason and his wife Michelle are co-leaders of the Vineyard in Dungannon, Northern Ireland; they planted the church about six years ago and have done a brilliant job with their extremely capable leaders of creating a very cool and energized outward-focused church. My job is to simply offer a bit of encouragement from time to time.

They kindly invited me to speak at a conference called Explore58 for area churches (some from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Ireland and England), primarily on the Church’s response to poverty using Isaiah 58 as the driving text. I’ll blog a bit about that next.

I nearly didn’t get there. The day Anita and I were to drive to Dayton Airport at 3 p.m., I was working with our video guy at the office. My assistant Donna called me with a little problem: my passport was in Washington D.C. I had forgotten that over a month ago we had sent my passport to the Nigerian Embassy in D.C. to get the visa for my trip to Jos in November. The rest of the team had their passports returned but somehow mine wasn’t mailed. She felt terrible. So did I.

Time to panic. Okay, and pray. I know, I know.

We had to cancel my flights to and from Belfast and began making frantic calls to the embassy; thankfully, my Nigerian friend Emmanuel Itapson was phoning as well. In the meantime, we found a flight to D.C. from CVG/Cincinnati but I needed to leave immediately. I called Anita from my office and asked her to pack my bag while I drove home. My coworker and small group buddy Kent met me there to drive me to the airport. Anita still had to fly out of Dayton a few hours later.

We weren’t totally sure if anyone at the embassy would find my passport or if I could even get there in time. Of course, even booking a flight to D.C. with a final destination of Belfast wasn’t simple: they still wanted my passport number at the ticket counter even though that’s what I was trying to get! I nearly missed the flight out. En route, Emmanuel called me and told me he finally got through to someone at the embassy and they told him they were just fifteen minutes away from dropping it in the mail. Whoa.

When I got to D.C., I ran through the terminals to catch a taxi for a nearly one-hour drive to the embassy in hopes of catching someone there. The cabdriver had a thick accent and wore a turban. I asked him where he was from and he told me India. We talked about our families. We talked about our respective homes. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was trying to get to Belfast via the Nigerian Embassy. He drove faster and asked me why. I told him about the conference on poverty and Christians’ response to it…and then gently told him how my life had changed when I met Jesus. He was quiet and respectful. We had a really good God-conversation. We talked about the part of India he was from and I told him of my friend Jason’s work with the Dalits, India’s poorest of the poor. He was familiar with them and informed me he was a Sikh. I asked him how he had chosen to become a Sikh and he said you’re simply born one.

It reminded me of America and how so many people just assume they’re a Christian because they were Protestant or Catholic and went to church. We’re really not that different. I related that idea to him and how I believed God gives each of us the choice to surrender our hearts to Him.

We found the embassy just as it closed and came across a guard who actually had my passport in an envelope! I ran back through the gates for my cabbie friend. We continued our conversation until I had to run to the ticket counter.

I just missed my flight connection. Dang. And I won’t tell you how much the cab ride was.

Turned out I could get a flight to London at 10 p.m. And thirteen hours later, I was closer to Belfast. Then by 2:30 p.m. (BST) the next day, I finally landed at George Best Airport in lovely Northern Ireland.

Without my luggage.

Apparently, it was confused and still in D.C. Not to worry; all I really need was my Macbook, a power supply, and a bottle of contact lens solution. And that travels with me.

The conference went really well. God showed up, hearts were broken for the poor and practical ideas were offered. Along with others, I spoke three times and then on Sunday morning.

A few days later, we left at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday morning to briefly attend a pastors’ breakfast in Lurgan on the way to the airport. At 1 p.m. I was having another God-conversation on the flight to London with an older woman. The door opened for me to tell how Jesus had changed my life. She opened up and related all about twins she had given up for adoption and how they recently reentered her life. She was obviously struggling with it, but periodically would say, “But it doesn’t really bother me,” and then would recount the story all again. She allowed me to pray for her on the plane and teared up.

We got back at 1 a.m. on Friday morning and just in time to be home for our relationship conference with Emerson Eggerichs.

This morning, as I was in a hurry to get to our conference and backing out of the garage, I forgot my daughter Katie was parked in the driveway and sideswiped her car…effectively wrecking two family cars with ease.

Sheesh. It’s never boring…

…always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:20)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

25 years

A quarter of a century.

That’s how long the Vineyard has been doing ministry in Greater Cincinnati and beyond. Or at least that’s when we began holding Sunday morning celebrations. Prior to that, there were a few small groups and a Sunday night gathering at a house and later a Kindercare. At one point before 1985, we had a brief stint with an afternoon service in a Junior Achievement building somewhere in Blue Ash if I remember correctly.

But Sunday mornings began in the Hayloft square dance barn on Glensprings Drive off Route 4 where Perkins currently sits. The Hayloft was later relocated to Winton Woods and renamed Parky’s Barn.

We had a grand total of thirty-seven people…including the band.

I’ve only done two other things longer than twenty-five years: follow Jesus…and be married. Interesting: the three things I’ve done the longest were the best decisions I ever made. Or sometimes I think they were made for me in my most Calvinistic moments. Regardless, there wasn’t great clarity involved. I think I was actually pretty nervous making each decision. I’m not sure what that means.

Anyway, let me help you feel old. Or if you’re young, incredulous.

1985 was the year. I was still traveling and playing music in band called Prodigal. We recorded our third album that year in several locations using a 24-track mobile recording truck (hey, it was still state-of-the-art then with two-inch magnetic tape…) from Full Sail Recording in Orlando. And we were still scraping by. But on weekends when I wasn't on the road, Anita and I were at this new little church plant called the Vineyard. I left Prodigal the following year and, very reluctantly (to put it mildly), began leading worship each week as a volunteer. And for the next four years before coming on staff.

In 1985, Gorbachev became President of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Now it’s only Russia with Medvedev (*cough*-Putin-*cough*) as President.

“Back To the Future” was the big movie with groundbreaking special effects. Have you seen it lately? The effects are as bad as Star Wars.

The first Blockbuster Video store opened in Texas. Try finding one now. It was delisted on the NYSE a few months back and two weeks ago declared bankruptcy. Stocks are at six cents.

In 1985, Coke introduced New Coke. Three months later it was back to Old Coke.

Calvin and Hobbes made their first appearance. Genius. But after ten years, creator Bill Watterson put away his pens.

In 1985 I bought my first computer: a Commodore SX64. A beautiful portable computer that only weighed twenty-three pounds, had a cover that popped off and became the keyboard (complete with attached telephone-type curly cord), and an amazing 5-inch color screen (the first on a “portable”). I ran Dr. T sequencing software (rows and rows of numbers) for the new world of MIDI-controlled instruments (MIDI protocol had only been adopted two years earlier: Spec 1.0). What’s more it had a whopping 170 kilobytes of hard drive storage. Yowza!

To put this in scale, a little classic iPod can hold 167,772,160 kilobytes if my math is correct. And, as you can guess, the Commodore SX64 is no longer around.

A lot of things come and go in twenty-five years.

But the Vineyard is still here.

I don’t know totally what that means, but I’d say that servanthood, kindness, mercy, grace, Holy Spirit power, vision, forgiveness and acceptance never go out of style. Or as Paul the apostle put it: “There are three things that will endure—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.”

If we can remember that, I think the next twenty-five will go swimmingly.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave is the real deal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for the thought-provoking dialogue.

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

Hi Steve,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a good promise.

Steve responded kindly:

 I appreciate the wisdom and kindness in your response.

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

Monday, September 13, 2010


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

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

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

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

Practice with some small wins

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

Pray like crazy

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

whose god is my god?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

firestarter safety

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Dallas thinking about the weekend (Firestarters) and what I wish I could have said. Because of our quest for the elusive fifty-five minute celebration (trying to cram in three celebration start times between 9 and 11:45 on Sunday is a challenge), sometimes there simply isn’t time to unpack a particular point. I would have liked to talk a little more about the idea of safety in relationships. It wasn’t critical to the main thrust of the message, but it left some things unsaid.

I mentioned that many of us at VCC came from messy family systems with varieties of dysfunctions that make us nervous about any real depth of relationship. But in this New Family that God was forming, there should be a sense of safety. Otherwise, we can’t admit our failures or shame without fear of judgment or rejection. Without safety, there’s no real intimacy or depth of relationship.

Months ago I was both amused and sad when I got an email with “Bless me, Father…” in the subject line. It began with:

“I have a confession. I have been at the Vineyard for years. I still am not a Republican. Is there a Growth and Healing group for me? I'm being obstinate here, but I was there in the conservative church in the early to mid-60's. The MLK video triggered some flashbacks. I admit I don't understand the attraction of the right wing for evangelicals. I also know that even discussing political issues can painfully divide churches. I don't even admit my political views to my small group, who know more about my dirty secrets than anyone else. My casual friends know I voted for Obama, but my small group leader said they thought it possible that Obama is the Anti-Christ. They really said that, and they’re one of the most caring and sincere people I know.”

Obviously, some tongue-in-cheek, but between the lines is real pain. They went on to write:

“Sometimes hesitate to invite my liberal friends. I still crave acceptance from other people and I'm afraid to leave my particular ‘closet’.”

Regardless of your personal politics, that seems sad to me that they don’t feel safe in their group. As many of you know, the Vineyard works really hard to be apolitical; the staff is a mix of backgrounds, sensitivities and politics. What’s more, because of our high value for recovery ministries and the power of redemptive, restorative and reconciliatory relationships, we deeply understand the need for safety, transparency and vulnerability in order to be whole people. I find it fascinating, though, that because of our politicized and polarized culture, someone can feel free enough to expose their deepest secrets but scared of admitting a particular political slant even in passing…for fear of rejection and reprisal.

Jesus told His disciples that people would know they belonged to Him because of their love for each other. The kicker?—they were a diverse group of personalities with extremely different political views and socio-economic backgrounds. But God’s New Family would reflect His Kingdom…and the evident power of the Holy Spirit to tear down walls that separate us—whether they are walls of ethnicity, race, politics, education, gender or whatever. Or as the apostle Paul would say, In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:28 Message Version).

And so when we invite outsiders to our gatherings, there is an obvious message that goes beyond words and slogans. Imagine a spiritual family that includes men and women, the wealthy and the under-resourced, Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, singles and married, young and old, all broken and bruised…all in the process of healing and reconciliation. What do you think that would communicate? I believe people are longing to belong to a real family.

There was a long history of racism and hostility between Jews and Gentiles in the Roman Empire. It had sociopolitical and religious roots…those are two strikes right away. In the second half of chapter two in Paul’s Ephesian letter, he doesn’t sweep any of this under the rug but fully exposes it. And at the same time, he doesn’t avoid the chosen status the Jews had in their covenant with God, and that those outside of that covenant were truly lost and apart from intimacy with God.

But Paul understands that a new covenant has been made, a covenant that makes the old one obsolete, as the author of Hebrews writes (Hebrews 8:13). God is doing something radical in the human race…and Paul outlines it further in Ephesians 2:

For Christ himself has made peace between us Jews and you Gentiles by making us all one people. He has broken down the wall of hostility that used to separate us. By his death he ended the whole system of Jewish law that excluded the Gentiles. His purpose was to make peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new person from the two groups. (Ephesians 2:14–15 New Living Translation)

Safety is critical if we really want to grow as Christ-followers. How are you on the safety scale with others? Are you a safe place, a city of refuge?

Monday, August 02, 2010


Maybe in my old age I’m getting wistful, but lately I’ve been thinking a bit about choices I’ve made over the years. And why some of them have been repetitive… good and bad. Especially in light of our series Perfect Takes Practice that Joe Boyd wrapped up this weekend.

Just prior to his death, Moses addressed the nation of Israel. They were about to enter into some real estate that God had promised years before. Moses knew that the only way they would be successful in settling it would be if they continually chose to live for God and follow His ways. Sadly, he also knew prophetically they would not. And so with a philosophical “Whatever...”, he gives them a simple encouragement regarding their choices:

“… I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Oh, that you would choose life; that you and your children might live! Choose to love the Lord your God and to obey him and to cling to him, for he is your life and the length of your days.” Deuteronomy 30:19, 20 Living Bible

A few verses earlier he put it even more succinctly. To paraphrase, “Because you are made in God’s image, you have this remarkable ability to choose between life and prosperity or death and destruction.” Living our lives for God and the resulting wholeness is a continual string of choices. Moses is simply saying that a full life is largely about choices.

C. S. Lewis made a classic comment about this in his little book Mere Christianity that has stuck with me for decades:

“…every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

With that in mind, consider the absolutely PC-less comment Jesus made to a hurting man in Jerusalem:

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda (Bethesda means “the house of kindness”) and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?" John 5:1-6.

Excuse me, but shouldn’t that have been obvious? Really? After all, wasn’t the man at the “healing waters” of the House of Kindness?

Get the picture: There could have been hundreds of people lying about this natural spring waiting to be healed. The rumor was that the water rippled ever so often when a supernatural being touched it…and the first ones in would get healed. When Jesus arrived, he headed for one person in particular, a man disabled for nearly forty years. His muscles would have atrophied to the bone. It’s obvious what’s wrong, but there was something deeper. And so Jesus gets to the core of the problem with a simple question: “Do you want to get well?” There is a flash of divine psychoanalysis. “You need to be whole. Do you want to be whole?”

As harsh as this may sound, many of us have problems that we don’t want to get rid of. There are varieties of Biblical ways to get rid of them: restitution, forgiveness, confession, repentance and so on. All of them require being painfully honest. I feel on a regular basis that God asks me, “Do you really want to get well?” There are those of us who will not—do not want—to be healed of our emotional stuff. Our identity may be wrapped up in our problem. “I have a right to feel like this…this person hurt me deeply…this employer stiffed me…” It gives us an excuse for certain behaviors. Some of us would have very little to talk about if it wasn’t for it.

When I was a little kid, if I got sick enough to stay home from school, mom had a routine. For some reason, Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and a laxative were always involved. It didn’t matter if you fell off the playground slide and your collarbone poked through your skin, you had to take laxative. For mom, it was like “digestive bloodletting”. But she also had this wonderful tradition of going to the corner drugstore and buying a comic book for me to read while she worked if I was sick at home. Sometimes I’d just act sick to get a new comic book, in spite of the laxative.

For some of us, that becomes a way of life. A pattern for identity that we carry throughout our adult lives. I’ve learned there’s always a question whispered behind the choices I make. And those questions reveal more about the Real Me and the choices I make than anything else. Further, those questions expose the depth of wholeness I actually desire with my Father.

And despite how we may want to redefine heaven and hell, it seems they still have more to do with our choices than we dare to admit.

I think many of us would find it easier to blame God.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

so why didn’t you talk about divorce?

Although this series has been an overview of the Sermon on the Mount as it relates to the kingdom of God, there are some specific lines in Jesus’s message that provoke more than a little concern. One of them is his comment about divorce. There was no way to talk about that without spending an entire weekend (at least) on the subject and that would have sidetracked the main point of this particular series.

The stickler verse is this:

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’? But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31–32) Seems obvious, right? But actually, Bible scholars are all over the map on this issue of divorce and remarriage. I think if we read some key passages in context, it makes a lot more sense. There’s no way you can walk through this minefield without making somebody mad. I’ve been accused of being too soft on this by some and too dogmatic by others.

One of the most oft-stated points made by conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists is this: God hates divorce. In a well-quoted passage in Malachi 2, it reads: “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel… “ Malachi 2:16a. Please notice He didn’t say He hated divorced people. You might say to your kids, “I hate lying! I don’t like it when you lie to me!” But that doesn’t mean you hate your kids, it simply means you hate lying.

Now let me give you a big shocker you never hear preachers talk about: God Himself is divorced. At a point in Israel’s history, He became so angry with Israel’s unfaithfulness to Him, with their lusting after other lovers, other gods, other attractions to give themselves to, that He tells Jeremiah, “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries…” Jeremiah 3:8a.

Are those scriptures at odds with each other?

Let’s start from the beginning. First, divorce and permission to remarry was not an issue under the Law of Moses—they were assumed one and the same. It reads in Deuteronomy 24: “Suppose a man marries a woman but later discovers something about her that is shameful. So he writes her a letter (or certificate) of divorce, gives it to her, and sends her away. If she then leaves and marries another man and the second husband also divorces her or dies, the former husband may not marry her again, for she has been defiled. Deuteronomy 24:1-4a (New Living Translation).

A letter of divorce meant that the marriage was a complete dissolution and remarriage was a part of the package. It was assumed there would be a remarriage. There was no forbidding of remarriage except in only one case: after marrying a second husband, a woman could not remarry her first husband if she divorced again (Uh, that’s not a problem for most divorced couples I know…). That was the only law against remarriage for divorced people. So when Paul, in a controversial passage in Romans 7, talks about a woman being bound to her husband as long as he lived, that she was not released unless he died, he was well aware of the Mosaic Law. As a matter of fact, he writes “I am speaking to those who know the law...” He was not talking about the reality of legal divorce and remarriage—he’s talking about a woman who is married and then marries another man while still married to the first. No one in Israel would call a legally divorced, remarried man or woman an adulterer; that was unheard of.

Now the tricky issue under Mosaic Law was defining the cause for divorce—ambiguously described as the wife “having found no favor in his eyes,” because he found “something unclean about her.” The interpretation of unclean could be anything from her being a bad housekeeper, to talking too loudly in her house, to the husband just finding someone prettier. This loose interpretation is the reason Jesus is cornered by some Pharisees in Matthew 19 and posed with the question “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?”

Remember, the question is not whether they can remarry; that’s not the issue--but on what grounds can they legally divorce? In Jesus’s time there were two debating schools of thought: one camp centered around Rabbi Hillel (who lived about a hundred years before Christ). He said you could divorce for any cause.

The other school was Rabbi Shammai who said only for fornication. This was a hotly debated topic...and divorce was rampant in Palestine. Remember the woman at the well who had been married five times? She was not the exception of that culture. He says to her “Go get your husband.” She says, “I don’t have one” and He prophetically responds with “Correct! Matter of fact, you’ve had five husbands and you’re not married to the guy you’re shacking up with now.” He seemed to recognized the legality of the fact that she had been married to five husbands and was now with a man who was not her husband.

When Matthew records this in chapter 5, he puts it in a context that gives us the key to understanding this. In Matthew 5 (and please read the whole chapter to get this), Jesus compares the Law of Moses to a higher calling: life in Him and the “Now-and-Not-Yet Kingdom-lifestyle”. Remember, Jesus said He didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.

He was raising the stakes of what it meant to live under a Law of Love. Jesus was speaking in a style I call comparative hyperbole. He says “You have heard that it was said…” . . . “But I say…” (Matthew 5:21 to 43). He then uses a rhetorical overstatement to make his point in comparison to the Law of Moses—which was considered the standard for righteousness. He raises what real holiness would look like—it had more to do with heart motives than behaviors.

Again, Jesus said He didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it—and the law plainly allowed for divorce and remarriage. Let’s put one other thing into this mix: for any of you who have looked at divorced and remarried people as some second-class citizens of the Kingdom, I can only hope that you have never called anyone a jerk, because you’re guilty of hell, according to Jesus just a few verses earlier in Matthew 5. Someone cuts you off the expressway and you think they’re a dipstick, dust off your Triptik to hell. Or if you’ve ever been angry with a relative, you’ve just committed murder. Or I certainly hope I that you’ve never even thought about someone in a sexual way—you’ve already committed adultery. And adulterers and murderers are put to death under the laws of Moses. Or if for any reason you’ve lusted after something, make sure you pluck your right eye out. Or if you ever have to go to court and get slapped with a lawsuit, please give them a lot more money than they sue you for.

That’s the context that Jesus speaks on divorce here.

In those passages, Jesus is raising the stakes for the ideal marriage. Again, catch the overdriven language of what He’s saying: call somebody a jerk, you go to hell. Divorce your wife, you make her and yourself commit adultery. He ends this chapter with “Be perfect, just like your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Quick reality check: by a show of hands, how many of you blog-readers are perfect? Thank you. That is why we need Jesus Christ. Jesus is saying: those who live in perfect love will never divorce. And…they will never call someone a fool, they will never even glance at someone lustfully, they will never say “yes” when they’re not sure, and they will always love their enemies. They will always be perfect.

“Dave, you’re being sarcastic; are you saying don’t pay any attention to this stuff?—it’s not possible to live like that so don’t even mess with it?” Of course not. These are the words of God in the flesh. I’d better listen to them. I must abide in Jesus to walk in love. But with the understanding that if I’m honest I will more than likely fail, and will once again fall upon the grace of the Lord Jesus. If He is not able to forgive, then I am not able to live. That’s the reality.

Jesus is not just placing restrictions on people; Jesus takes us higher to the perfect law of love. Instead of asking “What’s the bottom line for divorce?” we should be asking “What’s the real power and significance of marriage?”

God designed marriage to be the most intimate human relationship possible. You’ve probably heard Christian teachers say, and I have said it myself, that “divorce is not in my vocabulary.” But let’s get real. The truth is, none of us went to the altar with divorce in our minds; that was an issue for other people who were “not in love like us.”

I’ve written these words before, but “God designed marriage to be the most intimate friendship imaginable. When the New Testament speaks of a man cleaving to his wife, it’s based on the same Greek word used for glue. It is the bringing together of two substances to make a new one. Jesus is saying that we need to enter this covenant with a measure of awe, a reverent fear and responsibility to God. The reason why we get married with clergy represented is because we are witnessing before God and asking Him to join us together and the heavyweight words that He speaks are ‘If I join you together, then don’t let any mere mortal tear you asunder’.”

The Apostle Paul writes: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:31-32.

Did you read between the lines there?—marriage has an incredible mission. It becomes the visible representation of the kind of intimacy and love Jesus desires for His bride—the Church. Marriage is the only thing on the planet that comes close to picturing the power, beauty and intimacy of God’s covenant with His followers. Get this and you’ll never see it the same again: Marriage is bigger than the personal fulfillment it should bring to each other. It has a task and a vision beyond that.

The world is looking for models of love and longevity and integrity. It is important to me to make sure my marriage is healthy because many people would be affected by its failure: not just me, not just my wife, not just my kids. And it’s not just so it looks good—that’s hypocritical. But whether it is good.

When you have invested your life in the Kingdom of God, when Jesus becomes the center of your life, everything takes on a higher significance. If your marriage doesn’t have a vision bigger than itself, you’re bound for trouble. That is why the Bible says it’s so critical that we marry other passionate followers of Jesus, that we’re not yoked with unbelievers. It’s saying: If you love Jesus, marry someone else who loves Him more than you do and is completely surrendered to Him. Otherwise there is no common vision other that trying to make each other happy. That’s not big enough to last.

The problem is: we live in a world of fallen creatures, with painful histories and emotional baggage, and trickiest of all, free will. But remember: God’s grace is very wide. I only know of one unforgivable sin, and this one isn’t it. We are the “not-yet-together” people. By faith we receive the catalytic and dynamic power of God, but we’re transparent about that process.

Monday, July 05, 2010

perfect takes practice

“But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” ~Jesus

In this series we began called Perfect Takes Practice, I mentioned an idea that Malcolm Gladwell posits in his fascinating book, Outliers: The Story of Success. He upsets the typical ways we think how success happens, from culture to education to race to social class. In the book, Gladwell introduces the 10,000 Hours Rule. He writes of a study done at an elite music university in Berlin by a psychologist named Ericsson.

Ericsson divided all of the violin students into three groups. The first group were the “stars”…those who had the potential to become world-class soloists. The second group was judged to be merely “good” and in the third were students who never intended to become professionals but wanted to become music teachers in the public schools.

Every student had started learning at the same age, about five years old. They all practiced around the same amount of hours. Then Gladwell writes:

“But when the students were around the age of eight, real difference started to emerge. The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen, and up and up, until by the age of twenty they were practicing—that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better—well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.”

They did the same research with pianists as well. Same result. Neurologist Daniel Levitin found the same thing with “…basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters . . . chess players, (and) master criminals.” It takes an average of 10,000 hours for the brain “to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”


Gladwell even uses the Beatles as an example. By the time they came to America back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, they had played in the gritty strip clubs of Hamburg, Germany seven days a week, eight hours a night, and two-hundred-seventy nights in just a year-and-a-half.

In an interview before he died, John Lennon said, “In Liverpool, we’d only ever done one-hour (shows), and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at every one. In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing.”

Before they became successful in America, they had been playing together for seven years and “performed live an estimated twelve hundred times.” Most bands never do that their entire careers.

They hit the 10,000 Hours Rule. Practice, practice, practice.

What we discover in the Matthew 5-7 is the practice of surrendering to the King and His Kingdom-way of living. As a follower of Jesus I’ve learned that God is way more interested in my heart than my GPS location—where I’m “supposed to be” and “supposed to be doing”. God probes my core motivations to force me to admit if I’m living by the “dog-eat-dog, me-first, power-at-all-cost, I have to be right, recognized and rewarded” way of living in this world…or if I’m riding the first wave of this ocean of faith, hope and love that is pouring over the planet from God: the Kingdom Come.

What would happen if we began to actually practice Matthew 5-7? What if we fully became citizens of this new kingdom? What would happen if after 10,000 hours of following Jesus in the way He describes, we discovered that this is more that “good advice”? Would that make us more complete, perfect in terms of what God is doing in us in the moment?

This is light years past average day-to-day living. It is here that Jesus exposes the difference between people who say they love God, and people who really love God and know Him. I'm forced once again to face how my actions reveal my heart or God's heart.

Take mercy, for instance, as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount.

Expressing mercy is the ultimate risk-taking venture—X games for the soul. C. S. Lewis wrote that “Pilate (the Roman governor who condemned Jesus to crucifixion) was merciful till it became risky.” It would be nice if Jesus would have given us a select group of people to be merciful to…but He doesn't leave us that luxury. He simply says, “Love your enemies…and do good to them.”

I believe that if we were to actually practice what Jesus says, our personalities would begin a transformation. And by the way, Jesus didn't preface this with any exceptions. He didn't say, “I know some of you have come from dysfunctional families, so just do the best you can.” He actually tells them to be “complete, or perfected, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Teleios is the Greek word meaning completeness, wholeness, perfection—like God. It's not restrictive; rather, it’s liberating…it gives us life. If we come from dysfunctional backgrounds (and who hasn’t?), it is all the more reason to live this life-giving challenge. If I want to be well, I must.

Perfect takes practice.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24)