Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dear Amos

Dear Amos,

Let me respond by telling you a parable.

Once upon a time there were two brothers building a clubhouse.  They were getting along marvelously until the younger brother suggested, "Hey, we should have a window in our clubhouse."

"Clubhouses don't have windows," said the older brother.

"How strange," said the younger brother, "they really should."

"No, they shouldn't!" said the older brother, and punched his younger brother in the mouth.

After several minutes, the younger brother decided to join in the building project again.  He asked, "What makes you think clubhouses shouldn't have windows?"

The older brother handed him a book titled:  Being a Kid.  He opened it and pointed to a page that read, "Every kid ought to enjoy the experience of building a clubhouse." Beside this was a picture of a clubhouse with no windows.  "See!" said the larger boy and then promptly punched the other brother in the mouth.

Wiping a tear from his eye, the younger brother asked, "I see the picture, but that doesn't mean that every clubhouse has to be built without windows does it?"

"Yes it does."  Blam!  This time he drew blood.

The younger brother felt like giving up, but instead he flipped through the pages of the book and found another picture from an earlier chapter that showed a house with windows.  Gingerly, he showed this picture to his older brother and said, "Here's a house with windows."

Thwak!  The older brother smacked him with the back of his hand and blood splattered on the floor from his busted lip.  "That's not a clubhouse! And it's not even in the same chapter!"  He threw a towel to his brother, "Use this to clean yourself up, that lip looks like it hurts.  I probably shouldn't have hit you so hard."

That evening, the younger brother stayed up all night reading the book his brother had shown him.  He couldn't understand why his brother was so determined that clubhouses couldn't have windows.  It didn't make any sense.  He stared at the picture of the clubhouse and noticed that it had a door.  Doors were a lot like windows.  Surely that would make sense to his brother.  He went to slip with an ice pack on his lip.

The next  morning he showed his brother the picture of the door.  He explained how doors are a lot like windows, even if they're not exactly the same.  Both windows and doors can let air in, let sunshine in, keep things from getting so musty and dank and depressing.  Both allowed entry and exit.  Both could be opened and closed.  The spirit of the ideas was the same.  He looked up smiling, sure that his beloved older brother would finally understand that he was trying to help.

His smile was not returned.  The older brother grabbed him and hurled him to the ground.  "They are NOT the same!" the older brother shouted as he landed a kick to the younger brother's kidneys.  "Doors are doors and windows are windows!  If they were the same, they would look exactly the same, work exactly the same and have the same name."  Kick!  "But they don't do they?"  Kick!  "Nobody else in this neighborhood builds clubhouses with windows, do they?"  Kick!  "Mom and Dad's clubhouses didn't have windows, did they?"  Kick!  "The book says we're supposed to build that clubhouse and there's the picture, so that's how we're going to build it!"  Kick, kick!  "And if you don't like it, you can just keep your stupid opinion to yourself!"  The older brother punctuated his final statement with three sharp kicks to the back, before returning breathlessly to his work

The younger brother lay there stunned.  He couldn't think for a long time, all he could think about was how bad everything hurt and why his brother would act like this.  Finally, after several long minutes, he groaned as he spoke.

"A clubhouse."

His older brother looked at him and snarled, "What did you say?"

"It says, 'Every kid should enjoy the experience of building a clubhouse not that clubhouse.'"  He groaned as he spoke, "There's nothing that says we have to build it exactly like that."

A moment of silence hung in the air like a thunder cloud.  Then the older brother was running at the younger, shouting with each stride.

"Why... can't... you... just... shut... UP!"

Concluding his sentence, he launched a kick square in the younger boy's face.  He walked away with blood on his white sneakers.

The younger brother spat out one of his baby teeth and lay quiet for a long time.  With resolve, he finally stood to his feet and faced his brother.  "Now you listen," he said, "this is my back yard as much as it is yours.  You may insist on building this tree house your way, but I don't have to."  The missing tooth gave him a lisp.  "I'm going to build a tree house the way I believe it was meant to be, and I don't care if you like it or not!"

The older boy was on him instantly.  But as he was about to swing, the younger boy raised a piece of lumber from the unfinished tree house to defend himself from his brother's blow.  There was a crunch as his brother's knuckles slammed against the wood.  Shortly following came tears and shouting.

"Why did you do that!?"  The older boy was screaming as tears gathered in the corners of his eyes.  "What kind of a person does that to their own brother?  I'm going to tell!"

Head hung low, the younger brother picked up a hammer and some nails and left his brother's clubhouse.

Let me remind you that I never addressed you directly.  I simply described the character of the comments I observed.  But if you feel I'm speaking to you, let me respond as best and lovingly as I am able.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 10:  I refer you to the story above.  My words are remarkably kind in comparison to those of the people I responded to.  In your own response, you called the missional mindset "false teaching."  How should a missionally minded person respond to being called a heretic?  I believe in roughly the same standards as you for judging truth (scripture, tradition, reason and experience), and yet we come to clearly different conclusions.  You call people with views like mine false teachers (heretics) and audaciously claim that we are "exchanging the truth of God for trendy lies."  Then you get defensive if we respond with anything other than a grateful hug and repentance for our "unfaithful ways".  That's not the way things work.  If you don't like confrontation, don't be confrontational.

7, 8:  If more people took the time to read the scriptures in context, they would discover that the "Word" or "Word of God" in the New Testament refers almost exclusively (the argument could be made that it is absolutely exclusive) to Jesus and his gospel, not the scriptures in general.  I agree, if we used Jesus (the Word) and his gospel as our standard (which I believe the rest of the New Testament support when understood correctly) more often, we would be in much better shape.  However, in all kindness, who ordained you (or your particular doctrinal adherents) to the position of chief arbiter and judge of all scriptural interpretation?  Especially considering that, historically, you would almost certainly find that significant portions of your "orthodoxy" have been labeled heterodox or heretical by the "church" at previous points in history?

I don't expect you to agree with me.  I really don't.  Six years ago, I might have responded in much the same way.  All I ask is that you afford "missional people" the same rights and respect that you demand for yourself.  That you engage in discussion rather than immediately playing the "false teaching" card.  That you take the time to understand what missional leaders are saying (that means more than simply reading Joe Blatherall's twenty page article on "Why Missional Thinking Is Destroying the Church") before making your judgment.  If you ultimately disagree, I will love you no less.  But don't expect me to be silent.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Why I Just Want to Smack Some Jesus Into Mark Driscoll

Here are a few quotes from the magnificently charming Marky Mark Driscoll.  All of these except the last two are from an article in Relevant Magazine (2007-ish) which I was reading on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.  I wish I could say I've seen some progress in his attitude... but I haven't.  I honestly think his greatest need is for someone to take him down a notch... or twenty.  It worked for me.  But given his ego and deep-seated sense of self-importance, it would take God himself to do it.

I’ll be happy when we have more than just prom songs to Jesus sung by some effeminate guy on an acoustic guitar offered as mainstream worship music.

This generation can be a whiny bunch of idealists getting together in small groups to complain about megachurches and the religious right rather than doing something.

There is a strong drift toward the hard theological left. Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up. I fear some are becoming more cultural than Christian, and without a big Jesus who has authority and hates sin as revealed in the Bible, we will have less and less Christians, and more and more confused, spiritually self-righteous blogger critics of Christianity.

You have been told that God is a loving, gracious, merciful, kind, compassionate, wonderful, and good sky fairy who runs a day care in the sky and has a bucket of suckers for everyone because we’re all good people. That is a lie… God looks down and says ‘I hate you, you are my enemy, and I will crush you,’ and we say that is deserved, right and just, and then God says ‘Because of Jesus I will love you and forgive you.

So I decided to start a church, for three reasons. First, I hated going to church and wanted one I liked, so I thought I would just start my own. Second, God had spoken to me in one of those weird charismatic moments and told me to start a church. Third, I am scared of God and try to do what he says.  (Confessions of a Reformission Pastor)

All I can hope is that my friends in church leadership consider following in someone else's example.  But if this is what you consider a Christ-like example... by all means, follow at will.

Bait and Switch Jesus

A week or two ago, a young friend and I were having a chat about life, faith and everything (shout out to Douglas Adams!).  In that discussion, the question of interpretations of the book of Revelation came up.  I have some serious difficulties with many of the "literal" interpretations of this book (I put it in quotes because even the "literal" interpretations resort to symbolism for most of their interpretation, dragonflies become helicopters, a beast is Satan, bowls are metaphors for judgment).

The two biggest problems I have are:

1.)  Such interpretations neglect the genre of literature to which Revelation belongs and the purpose for which apocalyptic literature is used - to communicate a message in vibrant, shocking metaphor.  Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart's How to Read the Bible Book by Book observes that, "the imagery of apocalyptic is primarily that of fantasy" (p. 429).  Think Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

2.)  Such interpretations present a bait-and-switch Jesus who gave us a good show during his incarnation of loving and caring for all people; forgiving and reconciling us with God, but then becomes an entirely different Jesus at "the end of time"in the book of Revelation.  A genocidal, mass-murdering Jesus.  A schizophrenic Jesus.  A Jesus who cannot be trusted because he has one too many faces.

It's worth noting that most of us have inherited certain eschatalogical expectations from Revelation because of it's position in the ordered canon.  The scriptures, perhaps even the canon, can be said to be inspired.  The order of presentation is NOT.  The book of Revelation is a letter (series of letters) of exhortation to the church which includes a selection of supporting imagery that points people through mind-boggling, fantastic, sci-fi quality symbolism to the ultimate victory of Jesus over evil.  We shouldn't get so caught up in the imagery that we forget this point.

If Jesus is portrayed in Revelation as the cosmic wrath bearer, mightn't it well be because people needed to know that the crucifixion and their own suffering under persecution wasn't God's last word.  Jesus was indeed the King who would ultimately return in victory.  We should keep in mind how Jesus fulfilled OT prophecy.  The victorious king came as a lowly servant instead of a victorious messianic David.  By the way, that thoroughly hacked off the prevailing Jewish sentiment about the Messiah.  Perhaps our expectations of the final coming could be similarly misplaced.

If in his life on earth (his "tabernacling" with us according to John 1) Jesus was the "image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15) and the "exact representation of His nature" (Hebrews 1:3), why in God's name (literally) would we expect him to become something at the end of time that he wasn't in time, during his roughly 33 years with us.

No amount of theologizing about Jesus' first coming being a coming of reconciliation and his second coming one of wrath can justify the kind of deception we have to attribute to God to make the theology square.  The equation just won't balance when the writers of scripture describe him as the image of God and the exact representation of God.  They couldn't have been talking about an image of God that hadn't happened yet.  They were clearly referring to the Jesus who died on the cross for his enemies and with his dying breath prayed, "Father, forgive them for they don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23:34).  And I'm sorry, Jesus driving some animals and people out of the temple with a whip just does not tip the scales enough to validate the bait-and-switch suggested by so many people's bloody interpretation of the end.

God must be true to himself.  Ironic that the letter(s) titled "revelation" (apokalupsis, "uncovering") are so habitually interpreted in contradiction to the clearest revelation God has ever given to humanity (if we rightly understand the Trinity):  himself, in Jesus.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why Church Culture Can Be Deadly...

I love the church.  But most of the time I really can't stand church culture.  There is a vast difference between the two.  Church culture consists of the baggage, language, ritual, and all the political, religious and cultural accretions which have developed around the church over time.  It's this latter that really concerns me.  In fact, it can be absolutely deadly.

In the early years of the 5th century, the church was consumed with battles over doctrinal battles on issues like how, when and to what degree Jesus was God.  It had been a hundred years since the issuance of the agreement between Licinius and Constantine, the disputed "Edict of Milan," which effectively made Christianity a legal religion; though a proclamation of tolerance had already been made by Emperor Galerius in 311 (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Volume 1, p. 124-126).  In the intervening years, Christianity became the sanctioned religion of the Empire.  As of the year 382, Emperor Gratian officially withdrew financial support for paganism and between 391 and 392, Theodosius forbade all public and private pagan worship (Gonzalez, p. 141).  From this point forward, the leadership and people of the church became increasingly belligerent and violent in its interaction both with those outside itself and those who disagreed with the approved majority (whichever side that happened to be at the time).

In 412 Cyril of Alexandria was appointed the Patriarch of Alexandria.  This same Cyril would go on to become largely responsible for our orthodox view of the Trinity and ultimately be granted sainthood in the Roman Catholic church.  However, in 415, conflict appears to have ensued between Cyril and Hypatia, the famously female mathematician and philosopher who served as librarian at the Library of Alexandria.  The conflict concluded with the brutal murder and dismembering of Hypatia by Christians from Cyril's church in Alexandria.  The account of this conflict is documented from widely different perspectives, but the most objective seems to be that found in Socrates Scholasticus' Ecclesiastical History VII, 15 (c.439):

...For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously [slanderously] reported among the Christian populace, that it was she [Hypatia] who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called C├Žsareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.

The degree of Cyril's actual involvement in Hypatia's murder has been much debated, but many acknowledge at least some responsibility on his part, given that the perpetrators of her murder were leaders and members of the Alexandrian church who had apparently witnessed his frustration with her.  Regardless of whether Cyril was innocent or guilty, in the actions of his disciples we find a tragic picture of what can happen when church culture is given free reign.

Anyone can see from the outside that such behavior has nothing in common with Christ.  In the remainder of the account of these events, Socrates - a rather orthodox Christian for the time - clearly recognized the shameful nature of the behavior saying, "surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort."  Yet conviction of righteousness, indignation and unmitigated reverence for the authority of the church and its leaders made cruel and vicious acts appear justified.

The church then, as often today, defined itself in opposition to the groups it perceived as having incorrect (or heretical) beliefs.  As such, there could be only two groups of people:  right people and wrong people, "us" and "them."  Much of the writing of the early church is comprised of accusations and debates about heresy.  Because of the heated nature of these arguments, "wrong" people quickly became "bad" people.  And bad people became the enemy.

Now, one of the sadder things that becomes clear from a study of church history is that the organized church has persistent amnesia when it comes to Jesus' words in Matthew 5:44, "Love your enemy."  From the crusades and inquisitions to the attitudes and propaganda of contemporary culture wars on issues like abortion, homosexuality it would seem that the more popular translation is "eliminate your enemy."  And elimination has the horrible tendency of building up a body count.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Dead Coffee

O LORD, the hope of Israel, All who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, Because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the LORD. (Jer 17:13 NAU)

I'm sitting in the middle of Panera with about 5 thousand people at lunchtime.  The smell of pastries and bread mix with the caramel and chocolate walls and I'm suddenly haunted by the feeling that I'm just another nut staring out the window of a giant Snicker's bar.  Two booths down a couple of post-soccer mom women are talking animatedly about church and just across the room a pretty young woman has been working for half an hour on a giant crossword book with "EASY" printed in large bold letters on the cover.  In the sea of white people here in Iowa, the black gentleman with the earring bussing tables sticks out and I wonder if there is something racist in the air  as I find myself thinking that he looks like the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish would look today.  Then I remember that Darius Rucker is playing the country music scene these days.

Now the church ladies and the crossword aficionado have disappeared and their booths are empty.  There is a college student with a book titled The History of Western Civilization writing a paper in the booth next to mine; she is drinking something that looks like lemonade.  I hate lemonade, but I think about striking up a conversation because of my own interest the development of Western history.  The thought lasts about a millisecond before I realize that she is almost certainly taking an introductory course at the local community college and couldn't really give two cents about Western Civilization.  More importantly, in our sex saturated culture she would probably think I'm hitting on her.

A prom king and queen walk through the door as I refill my coffee, followed by a matriarch with her daughter and two grandchildren.  What I should be thinking is how this place is an example of multi-generational appeal.  I should be thinking how awesome it would be to have a coffee shop in our church.  I ought to be appreciating the fact that so many diverse people can coexist here, even that suburban dad wearing the St. Louis Cardinals ball cap while the brightly colored flame tattoo burns up his left leg.

But I'm not thinking those things.  I'm thinking that I want to scream out something offensive.  I'm thinking that while I am sitting here politely sipping my coffee and listening to Maroon 5, that we're all stuck in some kind of post-REM sleepy haze.  I can't shake the feeling that what we desperately need is to wake up and face reality instead of whatever this is.

An Indian man and a slim black woman enter and leave while I type the last paragraph.  I'm probably wrong.  Maybe we need this.  Maybe we need a few brief diversions from our dysfunctional families, work addictions, relational problems and omens of financial disaster.

A bearded young neo-hipster with Buddy Holly glasses joins Darius Rucker in emptying the garbage cans as  a post-adolescent girl walks casually to a seat in my row carrying a salad in a bright white bowl so big she could wear it as a hat.  The clink of coffee cups and the scraping of silverware signal that the lunch hour and this brief illusion of tranquility and television quality normality are almost over.  Life has to be spent somewhere, maybe we should just cherish the moments that aren't spent in anxiety.  I just can't for the life of me figure out why this is all so appealing and at the same time offensive.

I'm just struck by the thought that maybe we're all taking sedatives instead of the antidote.  Maybe instead of coffee, we should be drinking living water.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


" thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead..." (Philippians 3:13 NAU)

I should really be writing a paper, but I'm not.  I'm sitting here listening to the new album from Smashing Pumpkins:  Oceania.  I'm not really thinking about the new album though.  I'm thinking about how much it hurts not to be who I was when I first listened to Smashing Pumpkins.  I'm wishing I could go back in time and be that guy again.

I don't miss everything about that guy.  He could be a real ass at times.  I guess some things never change.  But I miss his confidence.  I miss his dreams and his hopes and his conviction that the world was wide and anything could happen.  That guy could handle anything the world could throw at him.  He was fearless.

He was fearless because he had nothing to lose.  He was not responsible for raising children or their college education.  He was not responsible for aging parents in the autumn of life.  He didn't give a $#!% (that's him talking, not me) about what people thought about him.  (He really did care, by the way, he just wouldn't admit it.) 

He didn't worry about what would happen if he believed things people told him not to.  He didn't worry about asking the wrong questions or what would happen if - God forbid - he actually got the answers.  He didn't worry about whether his words could destroy people.  He didn't worry about the mess of ethical consequences for every. single. decision. he made.  He didn't lay awake at night wondering if he was committing career suicide or that someday the people he loved would hate him, or whether he would die broke and all alone.  He didn't know enough to worry.  If only I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

He was scared to death about hell.  I remember that.  I might be able to ease his mind a little there.

Paul's passage in Philippians 3 is NOT Paul's emancipation from his sordid past.  That's a wonderful sentiment, and he had probably fought that battle as well.  But Philippians 3 is about setting aside the confidence (in the flesh) he had earned by his stellar (Jewish) religious past - and cultivating a similar attitude in those to whom he was writing.  Still, I think there's something bigger in this idea of "forgetting what is behind" and "reaching for what's ahead."

The thing about time is that it only goes one way.  I am not that guy I used to be.  I think I carry him around with me sometimes, but I will never be him again.  That's not God's design.  We are moving forward.  Not backward.  The past is a door that is always closed.  We can spend all our time chopping and prying at it, but it will never open up again.  The future is always an open door, but the lights are always off in there until we can get inside and hit the switch.  The present, however, is always where we are.  Here we can look around and explore, get to know the people stuck here with us, read a book, share a few drinks and make peace with the past... before moving on.

And I think it's about time we did exactly that.  Time to be moving on.  I think I might buy this album.  Me and Billy Corgan are both going somewhere.  It's true, that door up ahead is dark and a little bit scary, but it's bound to get boring if we hang around here too long.  Oh, but, after you...

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Musings About Nothing

For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. (Rom 8:24-25 NAU)

Sometimes there's this feeling of hopelessness that settles over a person.  It's heavy and bleak and threatens to smother you like a soaking wet blanket of black nothingness.  But it's not real.  Not really.  The feeling is real.  The situations that bring the feeling are real.  But hopelessness isn't real.

Somewhere, I recall Augustine saying that evil is just the absence of good.  Like darkness is the absence of light. It's not a real thing.  It's the experience of not having present access to the thing  That's what hopelessness is, if you think about it.  It's really nothing.

That's important to remember because hope is always there.  Light is always there too, sometimes it's out of sight, or hidden from view or on the other side of a relentless, thick wall of rock or steel.  Sometimes it's a million miles away, in another galaxy even.  But it's always there, even if it's not here.  Hopelessness can't be unless hope is.

What's stranger, hope isn't really hope unless certainty is absent.  I have often heard people say that they know God is [insert pious observation here].  I've never understood it.  I've sat sweating in fear as the altar call rolled across the pews full of throbbing guilty consciences , "Do you know for certain that if you died tonight, you would go to heaven?"

Here's the thing.  Nobody knows anything for certain.  It may sound mean, but it's just a fact.  Worse still, it's scripture.  "In hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope."  You can have trust.  You can have confident assurance.  You can even have a warm fuzzy feeling way down in the depths of whatever that thing is people stubbornly and wrongly call their heart (at least there's something visceral in the KJV calling it the "bowels").  But the one thing you absolutely do not have is certainty.  No matter how many times you tell yourself or anybody else.

If you have certainty, you are hopeless.  That's a rather dismal and confusing thought.  Let it be.

But hopelessness isn't real, because hope is never not there.  Jesus is hope.  Even when it feels like the world is a black hole sucking away every bit of hope it gets close to, Jesus is that star blinking and burning in the distance.  Drawing.  Inspiring.  Calling.  Reminding us that the darkness hasn't won.  Can't win.  Can't even really be.

Sometimes I set aside all this scientific prattling that has lodged itself in my brain, and I wonder.  I wonder if maybe we could punch through that great black film of space, we might find on the other side a world of pulsing pure light and hope.  Maybe some day I'll find out.