Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Vikings ... no, not those Vikings!

Just finished watching the Vikings beat up on the Philadelphia Eagles. Boy, was THAT fun! But this post has nothing to do with that game, or even with football.

On Christmas Day, I won the my-side-of-the-family white elephant gift exchange. That is, if you don't count my sister, who walked away with a gross of contraband bottle rockets. But I got the decorative viking ship -- well, half a viking ship, designed to hang on the wall as a symbol of all things Scandinavian, or all things medieval, or all things daring and courageous. Or something. The ship is about three feet long. Standing in the prow is the leader of the company of adventurers. He bears a spear and sports a beard and looks past the prow into the future. In the stern is the steersman, responding to the directions of the leader and using his brawny arms to shift the rudder back and forth. With these subtle changes, slowly, he turns the ship. In the bottom of the ship are the oarsmen, each bending his back to move the ship forward with long oars. These oars are striking the blades to the waves in perfect tandem, directed by the rhythm of a song or a drumbeat. One of the miraculous facets of this cheesy piece of mass produced Scandinavian wall decor is that each of these oarsmen has an individual face. Some are clean-shaven, others bearded, others with long sideburns. Some have long hair, others short, some with hats and others bare-headed. Some are old and grim, others young and smiling. Each one also has a unique shield. This viking ship is a tawdry tribute to my ancestors of a millennium ago who went a-viking across Europe as raiders, traders, explorers, and adventurers.

I'm going to hang it on the wall of my office.

One of the earliest metaphors for the Christian church is a ship. In fact, the name for the main part of a church -- the "nave" -- comes from a Latin word for ship, the same word we get "navy" from. Why a ship? Lots of reasons. It's a rich metaphor, and it grows richer as you dig into it. A ship contains a crew all united toward a common goal. The crew shares a common mission, but each person has their own diverse role to play. The ship is buffeted by adverse weather, often in danger of being overcome.

I think of those viking mariners from a thousand years ago and I think we need to rediscover a bit of their spirit in the church of Jesus Christ. What would it mean for us to be willing to take risks, to accept challenges, to go beyond the carefully charted shorelines into vast unknown waters? What would that mean for us as a church?

One of the sacred duties of any ship throughout history has been to aid those who have been shipwrecked or who are in danger on the sea. So we in the church have a sacred duty to help those who are adrift, foundering, lost.

If you see a ship in port or at anchor, there's no turbulence in the waters around it. But as soon as that ship starts to move, the water around it begins to swirl and rage. So those in leadership in the church would do well to remember that if you're going to get your ship out of port, it's going to encounter some turbulence.

These are just a few of the parallels between ships and the church. Can you think of others?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Calm before the silent night

It is a quiet morning here, December 23rd, and soon I will go into work. I was up late last night, a gift from my eldest daughter who was spending the evening (translation: for college students, "evening" starts about 9 pm and means anything up to and including 1 am) at a friend's house. Between icy roads, last minute changes in plans, and a schedule that allows me to go in to work a little later today (translation: for adults, "a little later" means anything after 6 am and up to 9 am, a time period that for college students is referred to as "some ungodly hour of the morning") I ended up waiting up for her. I trust my daughter, and I am glad she gets to spend some time with her friend, and she was very good about checking in with us to let us know what she was doing. So this "waiting up" business is my problem, not hers.

I received an email this morning from a young woman, Kristina, whose work I have posted on this blog in the past. She just emailed a retrospective piece about her recent three weeks in Thailand working with children's homes and agricultural missionaries and volunteering at a ministry that helps women avoid or escape from sex trafficking. Now she is back in Singapore at her school with a very few other students who will remain over the Christmas break.

She has me thinking today. What does it mean to be radically committed to Jesus?

Kristina challenges me in this way. Her obvious sacrifices -- leaving home and family and traveling literally to the other side of the world, not being home for Christmas, giving of herself and her time and her energy to go serve people whose language she does not know -- these obvious sacrifices make me wonder about my own heart. When Jesus says, "Sell all that you have, give money to the poor, and come, follow me," how do I respond? I live in an enormous house. My income goes largely to my stomach, my family's stomachs, and the stomachs of my two dogs, hamster, and thirteen runner ducks. I own a riding lawn mower, for crying out loud. It's a long way from the days when, somewhat like Kristina, I could load everything in the back of my '70 Impala and travel halfway across the country because I was convinced God told me to.

Truth is, I'm middle aged, firmly rooted, and well established in one place. Does that let me off the hook?

I don't think so.

A poster that I saw in college, one that I think of frequently, read like this: "The secret of life is this: to be ready at any moment to give up all that you are for the sake of all that you may become." It haunts me a bit, but it also reminds me to hold these things -- including my riding lawn mower -- loosely. The challenge for me right now is to live here, to live now, in the full knowledge that "for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain," as Paul wrote to the Philippians. So how do I let Christ live in and through me here and now? Jesus calls people different directions at different times, and sometimes he calls people to give themselves away in one grand sweeping gesture. Sometimes he calls people to put down roots, to lose their lives in one community, in one family, in one ever-growing tangle of Spirit-driven relationships. Truth is, you are most able to make a difference when you choose to invest your life -- not just a moment, but your life -- in a place for Jesus' sake. Am I willing to die here if that is Jesus' call? Absolutely. In the meantime I invest in things that matter -- people of all shapes and sizes. I invest in my daughters, yes, and in my wife (who I see growing day by day into her callings from God ... why is it easier to see Jesus working in her life sometimes than it is in my own?) but I also invest in friendships and ministry relationships and mentoring people. I am invested in the lives of three different orphans in Njombe, Tanzania.

For those of us called to follow Jesus into America, complacency is a constant battle. It is too easy to forget that this life is about him, not about me, and that I am no less a missionary here -- not because I am a pastor but because I belong to Jesus -- than Kristina has been one in Thailand for the last three weeks.

I'm quite sure God has called me here and now. As tempting as it is sometimes to ditch it all and make some grand commitment to Jesus by haring off to Azerbaijan, here is where he's called me. Of course, there may yet be places in my life he wants to change -- things he wants to add or take away, places in my heart that need to be killed or resurrected. So I struggle to stay close to him, to give him access to every part of my life and my soul so that he can shape me as he wants. I struggle to see my life and the culture in which I live through his eyes. I come back again and again to the manger, to the cross, so that I keep my eyes focused on Jesus and not on myself. And as I fall over and over and over again and get caught up in selfishness, in complacency, I return again and again to be broken and redirected by Jesus.

That is, after all, what it means to call him "Lord."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Alpha Celebration

Had an Alpha Celebration Supper tonight at Central. For those who haven't been a part of it, Alpha is a ten-week introduction to the Christian faith. People share a meal, hear a talk that is humorous, interesting, and informative, helping them to understand what the Bible teaches about a particular topic -- who is Jesus, maybe, or what about prayer? After the talk they get together in groups where they have the opportunity to say, "Here's what the speaker said -- but this is what I think!" As they share their opinions and questions over a ten week period, a couple things happen. One, people develop significant friendships. Two, in many cases people come to know Jesus in a personal way as they investigate what the Bible says about him.

At the end of the ten weeks, we have a meal together and tell stories about what God has done over the last several weeks. It is always an amazing time to hear how God has been working and to recognize that all the work, all the setting up tables and washing dishes and leading small groups and preparing meals and caring for kids and all the rest was worth it. Tonight was no exception.

But tonight we did something extra. After the supper and the celebrating was all done, many of us moved into the church sanctuary and sat around the Christmas tree. We sang carols, many that the kids requested (including "The First Noel," "Winter Wonderland," "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer," and "Silent Night," all of which were requested by the kids) and just enjoyed some good tradition building time.

Not a bad way to spend the Saturday evening before Christmas!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Got quoted

My good friend and partner-in-heresy quotes an email exchange we had a couple years ago, on a topic we haven't touched in a long time on this blog. Check out Curt's blog here.

A Good Word

I haven't had much time or energy to post on this blog lately so I'm sharing another excellent devotional by my colleague Leon Stier. Find more of his meditations at www.emailmeditations.com


Bill had lived a blessed life. In high school he was a good student and star athlete, and he then did well in college. He enlisted and went to Vietnam where he served with distinction. He returned to his small town a hero. He took over his dad’s farm, the biggest in the area, and made it even larger and more successful. He had a wonderful wife and three healthy children. He had a nice new house and money to travel. At age 42 he was envied by all. Yet, he was hopelessly depressed. He did not understand it. He had everything he ever wanted, everything he had worked so hard for. He had always been happy and loved to work, but now he had no ambition and no desire to live.

Bill had always been a member of the church, and he went when he felt like it. He had been confirmed and knew the basics of the faith. If you were to ask Bill questions about the Christian faith, he would give all the right answers; Believe in God? Yes. Believe in Jesus? Yes. Believe Jesus rose from the dead? Yes. Believe God is with you always? Yes. Believe God forgives your sins? Yes-- and so on. Bill would know all the right answers and believe all the right things. But Bill had paid little attention to God or his Word, and now those words gave him no hope or strength. They were as ‘idle words’ to him.

Our grasp of God’s promises is always incomplete and we all fail to take hold of all the hope and joy that is our to have. And we know that despair can overwhelm anyone, even people of great faith like Jeremiah or Elijah or Luther. They all went through times of deep despair, but they were sustained in their despair by God’s Word. But Bill, who had always paid little attention to that Word, now found it to be of little comfort in his affliction. Bill’s salvation may not be lost. That is another question. He does believe in Jesus. But it is clear that he is getting no comfort from God’s Word right now. He is not like the Roman centurion, ready to take Jesus at his word. Bill has God’s word on so many things, but it is to him only an ‘idle word,’ giving him no strength or hope.

Ruth, on the other hand, though she had much to be depressed about, was not depressed at all. Ruth was 62 years old and dying of cancer. She did not like talking about her illness. People could see she was not well and they had heard it was cancer. But Ruth evaded their questions and just talked about everyday things. People said of Ruth, “She is in denial and not facing up to the truth about her condition. She is dying, but she will not admit it.”

I didn’t think that was true, but I wasn’t sure. I was Ruth’s pastor, but she did not talk to me about her illness either. Then one day she called for an appointment. Ruth came to my office with her well worn Bible in hand and said, “Pastor, I want to discuss with you some things about my funeral. I don’t have much time left and I wanted to do this while I am still able.” Ruth then gave me a list of hymns she wanted sung at her funeral, telling me why each one meant so much to her. She then listed several Bible verses she wanted read, and she had something to say about each of them. Then Ruth said she had an idea for a sermon text if I would want to use it. She opened her Bible to Joshua 23:14 where Joshua was speaking to the people one last time before his death. He said to them, “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”

That is a wonderful verse, but someone could have argued with Ruth about the selection of that verse. No promise has ever failed her? Ruth had much to be disappointed about. Her death would mean that her many fervent prayers for healing would go unanswered, and she would be dead before her 63rd birthday. Her husband had just retired after many years with the railroad, many hard years when he would be gone all week every week. Now they had the money and the time to enjoy life together, but now, her life would soon be ending. They had always wanted a family, but they were not blessed with children. They had lived in poverty for so many years and had endured so many disappointments. Now, finally, all was in order, but now their life together would soon be over. Yet, to summarize her life, Ruth chose these words from God’s Word: “Every promise has been fulfilled.” Ruth had already listed some of those promises when she told me the Bible verses she wanted read at her funeral; promises like, “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord...these slight and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory, for what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal...Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for though are with me...” These and other verses just flowed from within Ruth’s heart and soul. These were not ‘idle words’ to her, they were her hope and strength and joy even in that most hopeless and sad situation. It is a great blessing to see someone die well like that, able to face death not with fear and self-pity, but with gratitude for the life she did receive, with courage to face the uncertainty and the coming pain, and with an eternal hope that not even death could destroy.

The Roman centurion said to Jesus, “Just give the word” (yesterday's meditation). That was all he needed. He would trust in the power of that word. In the end, all Ruth had was that word, but it was enough. It was enough because after a lifetime of looking to that word every day, she had learned to depend on it. And that word did not desert her. “These are not idle words; they are your life.”

Bill, you remember, had everything-- everything, that is, except that Word-- and he was sad and without hope. Ruth, on the other hand, had nothing left-- but she did have God’s Word, and with that Word she was strong, confident, and full of hope.


Deuteronomy 32:46-47 -- Moses said, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day...They are not just idle words for you, they are your life.” (NIV)

Joshua 23:14 -- (Joshua said), "Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed." (NIV)

Romans 10:17 -- ...Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (NIV)


Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. --Book of Common Prayer

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lessons learned

I learned something yesterday.

Never use a blowtorch in the living room.

You'd think this would be obvious, but it never occurred to me that superheating things -- specifically a glass bottle that then exploded in spectacular ways -- over the coffee table and the living room carpet could turn out badly. Duh.

So, lesson learned, I'm (hopefully) doing two things today. First, I'm trying to figure out how to fix stuff so my wife doesn't have to live with a damaged domicile. Second, I'm trying to figure out how to remember this lesson and even apply it in other areas of life so I don't make the same kind of mistakes again.

One thing that has occurred to me as I'm living with the aftermath. How often do we do things like this in other areas of life? Figuratively speaking, many of us carry an emotional blowtorch into the living rooms of our lives and we end up doing lots of damage in the relationships most important to us. Why not figure out an appropriate setting to use that emotional blowtorch, and find ways to protect those close relationships? The people around us get used to our emotional blowtorch going off and when it starts to heat up, they either strike first (preemptive vengeance?) or they avoid us in order to avoid the explosion.

Some of us do the same thing on a spiritual level. When God starts to work in our lives, we find ways to create a crisis rather than let him do his work. The crisis is distracting and prevents us from having to face difficult truths about our selves.

So I'm still debriefing, but here's a question: What's your equivalent of a blowtorch in the living room? Can you choose to deal with that blowtorch -- whether it's explosive emotions, spiritual avoidance, or whatever -- in a way that's appropriate, that respects the people around you, and that gives God freedom to work in your life?

I've got to go plan a coffee table refinishing project.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Eternal Hope

I subscribe to a series of email meditations written by Leon Stier, our visitation pastor at Central. Leon has a deep faith and a great sense of the communion of saints that have gone before us, and the gift they leave us in their legacy of prayers and devotional writings. Here is his meditation from yesterday. You can find more of his writings here.

Sometimes when faced with tragedy or trouble we comfort ourselves by saying, “Oh well, it could have been worse;” or, “At least it is not as bad as what happened to that family down the street;” or, we may say, “Being in the hospital was tough, but I saw there a lot of people with far more troubles than I.” It is good to remember that others also suffer, and, these kinds of comparisons can give some comfort. But in Romans 8:35 Paul goes beyond that kind of comparative comfort. He first describes some of the very worst things that can happen, and then he says, ‘Not even these things can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’ Look at the troubles Paul lists-- persecution, famine, nakedness, the sword, and more. It doesn’t get much worse than that; no food, no clothes, danger on every side-- and Paul endured those hardships much of the time. But even so, Paul was filled with confident hope and could proclaim, “Not even all this can separate us from God, but in all those things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us.” And in verse 38 he says not even death will separate us from God. In fact, it is death that brings us into God’s home. As an old hymn attributed to St. Francis expresses it, “And you, most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our final breath; you lead to heaven the child of God, where Christ our Lord the way has trod."
We are all on a journey to God, and on the earthly part of that journey God is with us providing comfort and strength and assurance amidst all our troubles. But when the very worst does come, death ends only the earthly part of our journey, and we then continue on in God’s heavenly home. So, Paul says, we will never be separated from God’s love.
Sometimes we limit our trust in God to this time and place. Once is a while we hear things like, “Just trust God, he’ll make sure you get better;” or, “just trust God, he will make sure you get what you are praying for.” But I don’t think Paul would say that. Yes, we must certainly trust God in and for all things. But it is an immature faith that thinks trusting God means that God will always give you everything on your list, as if your will was always perfectly in line with his. God’s will for us may be very different from our own wishes, and a more mature faith will trust in God even when it seems he is not there at all; even when it seems God contradicts our personal preferences. God will, as it says in Romans 8:28, work out all things for the good of those that love him, but we must remember that God has all eternity to work things out, and not just the 70 or 80 years of your life here.
Antonio Parr, the narrator in Frederick Buechner’s novel
Lion Country, must watch his sister die of a rare disease that leaves her bones brittle and breaking with even the slightest pressure. As she is dying, and as more bones break, her pain becomes unbearable. Antonio must watch her suffer, and also see his two little nephews lose their mother at such a young age. His faith is shaken as he begins to question the truth of all those Bible verses about God’s love and care. But Antonio does continue to trust in this God that he cannot understand. He says, “I didn’t like the thought of God being the one who had broken Miriam’s bones, but... I decided that he had always been one to play rough, and if the last word was really going to be one of rejoicing, I could forgive him almost anything.”
Why God plays so rough, and whether God causes the troubles or simply allows them to happen, are other topics for other times. The Bible does have some things to say about that, too. As we read the stories of the great men and women of the Bible we see that yes indeed, God does allow much trouble to come into their lives. But we also see that God does get the last word, and he has promised that it will be a word of rejoicing for all who have believed in Him. As the German preacher Helmut Thielicke said in several of his sermons during World War II, sermons often interrupted by air raids and bombs: “He who possesses the last hour, need not fear the next minute.”
Before going into combat a soldier asked the chaplain if his prayers for safety would guarantee that he would not be harmed by bombs or bullets. The chaplain replied that faith in God made a man sure and certain of the most important thing, which is that even if his body was shattered, his soul would be untouched and safe. We know that many soldiers in every war have prayed for protection, but many of them did not make it home. We know that every day many prayers in many hospitals are not answered with health and recovery. But our trust is in a God who is bigger than life itself. Death for God is nothing more than one of the many problems that he will one day put an end to forever. On that day, death itself will die.
There is the old saying, ‘Where there is life, there is hope,’ but with faith in Jesus we can say, ‘Where there is death, there is hope there, too.’


Romans 8:35, 37 -- Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Romans 14:7-8 -- For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. (NIV)

Hebrews 13:6 -- So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (NIV)


Let no riches or poverty make me ever forget you, Lord: let no hope or fear, no pleasure or pain, no accident without, no weakness within; hinder my duty, or turn me from the ways of your commandments. O let your Spirit dwell with me forever, and make my soul just and charitable, full of honesty, full of religion, resolute and constant in holy purposes, but inflexible to evil. Make me humble and obedient, peaceable and pious: let me never envy any man’s good, nor deserve to be despised myself: and if I am despised, teach me to bear it with meekness and charity. Amen.
--Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)

Monday, December 6, 2010


Molasses in wintertime. When people used to use molasses and homes weren't heated to seventy degrees year round, "molasses in wintertime" was an expression meaning slow, ponderous, lethargic.

It's how I've been feeling lately. (That's probably why regular followers of this blog have been finding nothing new for several days!) Seems like I hit this every year in early December. Maybe it's the decreasing light, but I don't think so. Winter nights are great times for Scrabble and for reading and for watching good movies -- three of my favorite activities. I've noticed, too, that I have a great deal of energy for getting out in the snow (what a great year this is turning out to be for snow!) to get in an afternoon of late-season bowhunting.

I think I'm having a Very Hard Time the first week in December as the world launches headlong into "Deck the Halls" and every possible Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas Hit. (I like TSO, by the way) ... I just can't keep up with this mad dash to Santa Claus. And I really don't want to. I'm not ready for tinsel and garlands and presents under the tree. I don't want to think nostalgically about being home for Christmas. I get ready for Christmas right around December 20th. I'm not a Scrooge -- I really do enjoy Christmas, but I wish it started around the third week in December (instead of November or in the case of Retail, the god of self-indulgent consumerism, October) and lasted through the first couple days of the New Year. Like the Twelve Days of Christmas was originally supposed to be -- December 25th through Epiphany, January 6th.

I used to be evangelical about these beliefs, trying to persuade people that they shouldn't do Christmas stuff until the holiday was actually close. I've given that up. I don't even try to squash my own family's early season enthusiasm, though occasionally I do feel the need to grunt and walk out of the room when people are talking about shopping, or to insist on Driver's Privilege and turn the radio off the "All Christmas, All the Time" stations. My internal clock won't hit Christmas for about two weeks yet. And I think that's okay.

We are putting up the tree tonight, though if I get my way it will remain a stately evergreen standing watch over our living room and we'll put up the actual decorations this weekend. We'll see. I might get outvoted, or maybe my family will indulge me for a day or two. About this time in December I usually surrender a little easier. It's a slow process of giving in to a holiday that storms through our culture like a fast-moving freight train.

What a contrast to a poverty-born baby, delivered in the press of a Roman census, unremarked except by his parents and a few shepherds.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Two sides of a coin

When John the Baptist appeared along the Jordan River, he came proclaiming, according to Mark and Luke, a baptism of "repentance and the forgiveness of sins." It strikes me that these two things -- repentance and forgiveness -- are the essential framework of the Christian message. In fact, when Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection at the end of Luke's gospel, he tells them that repentance and forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed through all the world. And when Peter is preaching a few weeks later on the day of Pentecost, he tells his hearers to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.

Baptism is an important ingredient here, too, but for the moment let's look at repentance and forgiveness.

Many Christian traditions, and many individual Christians, choose to focus on one or the other of these. Some people are repentance-focused: "I'm so bad. I did wrong. Please forgive me, Jesus. I failed. I am a sinner." There is a hopelessness to this expression. There's little if any joy involved. This "faith" is more like chronic depression.

Other people jump right to forgiveness without doing any repenting. "I'm free! I'm victorious! I'm joyful! Jesus loves me and he wants me to be happy!" There's a joy not only without sorrow but without seriousness, like a perpetual sugar high.

When Jesus calls people to follow him, he calls us to both repentance and forgiveness. In fact, repentance becomes the entrance to the Christian experience, and forgiveness becomes the experience of unimpeded fellowship with God.

So what is repentance? In Greek the word is metanoia, and it literally means to turn around. So what we described earlier as repentance -- feeling bad, emotionally beating one's self up -- is not really repentance at all, because it doesn't involve any turning. Repentance recognizes my error, and then turns away from it. When I recognize the place I have fallen short, I bring that sin to the foot of Jesus' cross in prayer. In that encounter with Jesus I receive a clear word of forgiveness, a costly forgiveness that buys my freedom at the price of Jesus' blood. At times I am tempted, because forgiveness is so costly, to want to cling to my sins, not to burden God with them. But this is foolish, for even the smallest sins are a burden too great for me to bear. And the love of Jesus that put him on the cross is limitless. So his desire for me, and the best thing for me to do, is to go freely and often to the cross in repentance, confessing my shortcomings, laying my faults at the foot of the cross, and as best I can turning from those faults and surrendering to Jesus, asking God to change me when I cannot change myself.

When I rise up from the cross, I turn to the risen Jesus, victorious over death and hell, who gives me the free gift of forgiveness, life and salvation. Because, as Luther said, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. Coming in humility to the cross opens to me the life that Jesus longs to give me. This is why he paid the price of giving his life -- not so I can squeak into heaven, hanging my head at the entrance and hoping to just get through the closing doors -- but so that I can come to him in confidence, knowing his love, and freely receiving from him the greatest gift I can imagine, the gift he longs to give more than anything.

It is this new life God longs to pour into our hearts by his Spirit, but our sin prevents us from receiving. We are like empty corked bottles longing to be filled. Our sin is the cork that needs to be removed by the corkscrew of the cross so that God's Spirit can be poured into us. And the trouble with us is, we keep re-corking ourselves! This is why repentance is not a one-time event but a returning, morning after morning, day after day, to the cross. And repeatedly we rise up forgiven, renewed, enlivened.

You can't have new life (forgiveness) without repentance; you can't live in real repentance for any length of time without rising up renewed. They're like two sides of a coin that rotates through our lives.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Advent Meditations

Have you found a way to focus yet? A way to bring your heart and your mind into Advent, the time when we prepare for Jesus' coming?

For those of you who are looking for a way to do just that, here is a series of twelve reflections on the Christmas story from Luke 2 that I wrote on this blog last year. I won't repost them, but they're printed as a unit, all twelve in one document, in the "pages" section of this blog. Feel free to read them all at once or (better yet) come back to the page every couple days as a way to keep your heart and mind turning toward Jesus' arrival at Christmas.

A parable, sort of

Whether you're Norwegian or not, bear with me for a minute.

Some of us, at family gatherings, argue about lefse. Not just how to spell it ("lefsa" or "lefse" -- my spell check doesn't recognize either version) but how to eat it. White sugar and butter? Brown sugar? White sugar and cinnamon? Heated or cold? Ask people how they like to eat lefse and you'll get a startling variety of responses.

In some families, however, you'll find a whole different level of questions. Ask the question, "How do you like to eat lefse?" and some family members will respond, "What's lefse?" In the Scandinavian ghetto where I grew up, everyone knew what lefse was and everyone ate it the right way -- with butter and white sugar, of course. But as I moved out into the world, I found that not only were there people who ate lefse differently, but there were people who didn't even know what it was. (Me, in the bakery at the local grocery store in Port Orchard, Washington: "It's sort of like a tortilla made out of potatoes ..." Grocery store guy: "You're kidding.")

I was recently at a gathering with several other pastors. Since one of my hobbies is listening in on other people's conversations, I spent a good deal of time comparing things. I noticed that there were two kinds of conversations happening around me. In one set of conversations, we discussed Holden Evening Prayer vs. Taize, albs vs. no vestments, the Heidelberg Disputations vs. the Augsburg Confession. The other set of conversations revolved around one simple question: How do we connect a dying world to Jesus, the giver of Life?

Often Christians are guilty of majoring in the minors. Contemporary vs. traditional worship? NIV vs. NRSV vs. KJV vs. ESV? Arminianism vs. Calvinism? Predestination vs. Open Theism? Seven Day Creation vs. Theistic Evolution? Wooden pulpits vs. Plexiglass? Hymnals vs. projected words? Transubstantiation vs. Real Presence vs. Meal of Remembrance?

I know, I know, I'm going to get angry emails from people telling me that these things are Really Important. And in some sense, they are. But they are important in the sense that it's important to know the difference between a dogpaddle and an Australian Crawl if you're going to compete in the Olympics. If all you need to do is get to the riverbank so you don't drown, it's not an important question. Christians need to realize that our main job is to introduce people to Jesus, what the Bible calls "making disciples." It is not our primary task to teach these disciples the difference between the Council of Chalcedon and the Council of Trent.

So, for example, one of the arguments that rages this time of year between Christians is this: How soon is it appropriate to start using Christmas carols in worship? Some will say December 24th is as early as it should happen. Until then we sing "O Come O Come Emmanuel" and "On Jordan's Banks the Baptist's Cry" and such. Others say that once Thanksgiving is over, it's fair to sing "O Come All Ye Faithful" and all the rest. What if we quit arguing about such trivia and asked instead, how can I best invite those who don't know Jesus this Advent to know him?

Such a question might rock our churches. But then, they might need to be rocked.

Pass the lefse.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Biblical Thanksgiving

So it's the day after, and your turkey is digesting, or digested. So let's talk about giving thanks.

So often in our culture thanksgiving comes down to me thanking God for making my life more comfortable. Thank you, God, for my house, family, food, cars, bank account, freedom, church, safety. Thank you that the lady in the VW pulled out just as I wheeled into the parking lot so I got that choice parking spot. It's about me and what I define as good in my life.

What if we gave thanks instead for God and what he defines as good?

This would quickly become a much more biblical view of giving thanks. In the Bible, especially in the book of Acts which is a template for Jesus-followers both individually and corporately, you will almost never find people thanking God for (or making a priority of) their own comfort. They are caught up in God's priorities and viewing reality from God's perspective. What is God's priority? Getting the word out about Jesus' resurrection and the new era that has dawned because of his victory over sin, death, and hell. So Peter, Paul and the rest see that which serves to get the good news of Jesus out as good, and that which hinders the spreading of that word as bad. So, for example, in Acts 5 Peter and John rejoice that they have been counted worthy to receive wounds for the name of Jesus. They pray not for protection but for boldness to continue speaking in the face of danger.

I don't think there's anything wrong with praying for protection, just like I don't think there's anything wrong with a three year old praying that there will be ice cream for dessert. For an immature child, that is an appropriate prayer. For a mature adult to pray for ice cream, however, would be pathetic and self-centered. If I pray for protection, it says that I believe God has nothing more important going on than keeping the four wheels of my vehicle in the proper lane, on dry pavement. If I am caught up in the purposes of God and sold out for his goals, it's his job to protect me if that best serves his interests. We may indeed come to the place as we grow in maturity where we recognize that my suffering, or the frustration of my own desires, may well serve God's agenda better than my comfort.

This is how we come to biblical thanksgiving, in which it is entirely appropriate for James, Paul, and the rest of the Bible's writers to encourage us to give thanks for our sufferings. These writers had lived through enough trials to recognize that God works in our suffering for both our good and for the advancement of his goals. As I suffer as a follower of Jesus, my character is formed and shaped to be more like him, and my suffering becomes a tool God uses -- both short term and long term, to spread the news about Jesus to others.

So as Jesus followers, perhaps we need to recognize that

1. the gift of freedom in this country has not only given rise to a plethora of churches and amazing creativity in ministry, but also to widespread complacency and immaturity in the church -- so maybe it's at best a mixed blessing.

2. the gift of turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and no pressing engagements after supper so we all lay on recliners in the living room is contributing to an ongoing pattern of weight gain, indolence, and self-satisfaction that may get in the way of God getting the word about Jesus out to people, so maybe we need to rethink our prayers of thanksgiving.

3. the lady pulling out of the parking place at that precise moment so I could walk less than fifty feet to the door for the amazing in-store door-buster specials the day after thanksgiving robbed me of the opportunity to stretch my legs and work off a few more calories I'd ingested the day before.

You get the picture? Maybe we're not as blessed as we think we are; maybe we're just self-indulgent so we see every consumable we receive as a blessing from God. God may want to lead us in a totally different direction, but our stomachs and our souls are so full we can't begin to sense the movement of his Spirit.

That's why fasting is a spiritual discipline, and why it's appropriate for us to give thanks when our stomach growls. Culturally it's a little weird but biblically it makes perfect sense.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Narrative Theology

I took a class in seminary called "Constructive Theology" -- the idea being that students should figure out what they believed and how to communicate it. One assignment was to write up your theology and distribute it to the class for comment and critique.

Instead of writing an intellectual discourse I wrote a narrative, a story, partly because I believe that theology is usually best in narrative form. If you click on the link "Hillside Reflections" to the right, you can read what I wrote for that class.

It's only fair to tell you that comments and critiques were widely mixed. Feel free to share your thoughts!

Saturday, November 20, 2010


This business of wounds and serving others out of our own healed wounds is critically important for anyone who is called to do any kind of ministry (therefore, all Jesus-followers). Many years ago Henri Nouwen wrote The Wounded Healer, a marvelous little book that deals specifically with this topic. This idea was also at the root of my book on the Exodus (see picture at right -- click on it to go to the Amazon site). The adventure of writing that book was a struggle with transparency. "How much of this story am I willing to tell?" Not just about the big hurts, but about the little ones that are so often much easier to sweep under the carpet. As I wrote the book, I often wondered what people would think of me when they wrote it. For example, I love hunting, especially bowhunting. But I have not been a successful bowhunter in terms of taking deer or other big game. In fact, at the time I wrote the book, I had never taken a deer with my bow. In the company of other hunters, would I be diminished if I admitted this in such a public way? It worried me. But it was true, and so I wrote it into the book.

Actually, I wrote many such details about my life into the book, and in the course of editing, most of them were cut out. I nurtured a secret hope that my editor would insist on cutting the business about bowhunting -- she was not a very outdoors person -- but for some reason she found the story poignant and meaningful and she kept it in.

In the end, the book became transformative for me, if for no one else. The process of writing down my own journey through difficulties, through pain, from the slavery of old hurts to the freedom of God's gracious love, was a powerful process for me. I faced another similar challenge the first time I taught a class on the book, because it felt like now, two years after writing it, I would end up dredging it all up again. But God knows his stuff, and healing comes not only as we reveal ourselves to others, but also as we begin to work in those wounds and give others the freedom to see who we truly are behind our masks.

By the way, I think it is a gift of God (and not without some amazing irony) that, the fall of 2008, a few months after this book was finished -- it was written in the winter of 2007-2008 -- I sat on a deer stand shaking like a leaf, working through target panic and buck fever and all the rest, to make the shot that ended in me recovering my first deer taken by archery. I received that experience as God's concrete example that transparency brings a new level of healing.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Following up the last post -- I heard an interesting speaker not long ago who talked about how Christians need to be more transparent about their wounds. He acknowledged how difficult it is to share something that's hurt you, especially if it's a situation where your own actions led to the hurt -- mistakes you made, failures, addictions are not fun things to talk about.

But consider the alternative. So often we hide our hurts and camouflage our wounds. We paste on a smiley face and answer "Fine!" when anyone asks how we're doing. Sometimes we even hide our woundedness from ourselves. We skim along on the surface, not realizing that we are mortally wounded, not letting anyone else into the deeper corners of our existence.

There's a subtle -- and not-so-subtle -- social pressure that encourages this behavior. We glorify the people who seem to have it together. We look at the ones who aren't visibly hurting, who are successful, who seem to be living victoriously over all life's circumstances, and we think that they way to be like them is to shellac the surface of our lives so everything at least looks shiny and new, even if there may be dry rot under the surface. We fill our lives with images of what we think are the beautiful people, and because living with wounds is unpleasant, we assume that being "beautiful" means they're not wounded. We willfully ignore the stories we've heard time and again of the deep brokenness in the lives of those who carry this "beautiful" image. Remember Marilyn Monroe? Remember all those like her who have made their image their stock in trade, but who deep down writhe in pain, almost unable to function. We invest so much in imitating these images. What if we invested as much effort in dealing with our wounds? What if we paid as much attention to our character as to our faces?

The way of Jesus is different. Those who follow him must learn to follow his example. Remember after Jesus was raised from the dead, when he appeared to the disciples but Thomas wasn't there? When Thomas heard about it, he said, "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe." So when Jesus showed up again, and Thomas was there, Jesus said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe." (See John 20.) Jesus invites Thomas into his wounds. Jesus shows off the scars, invites Thomas to touch the places of woundedness. It is through Jesus sharing his wounds that Thomas is healed.

Are you willing to talk to Jesus about your hurts? Are you willing to let him into those places to make changes? Are you willing to allow another person -- someone who knows Jesus, someone God's Spirit guides you to -- to know those wounds as well? What you may find surprising is that as you allow Jesus into those wounds, he brings healing -- and then, not in the middle of your misery but as he brings healing, those old scars become the touch point that allows you to have an impact in the lives of others.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

By his stripes ...

I have a bum hip. Not all the time, but now and then it hurts and I hobble just a little bit. Over the last couple years it's gotten a little worse. Early this summer it was enough to make me crabby. I felt old and decrepit. I spent more time in my recliner and coddled my bum hip whenever I absolutely had to move. My wife gently comforted me: "It's probably just arthritis." Great. I worried that our ten-day family trip to the Boundary Waters would consist of everyone else carrying packs and canoes over portages, followed by me with a cane, hobbling along the portages while everyone else built a fire and cooked s'mores at the far end while they waited. (At least that was my mental picture.)

A surprising thing happened. After about three days in the Boundary Waters, my hip didn't hurt at all. I carried packs and canoes (sometimes both at the same time), climbed rock faces and trees, paddled on calm water and in some gorgeous windstorm conditions which resulted in my daughter, my dog, and me swamping and swimming the canoe back into shore. It was a joyous trip.

When we got home, I made a mental note that if the opportunity presented itself, exercise might be good for my hip. But I didn't do much about it, and after a couple weeks of little activity my hip was back to its old unpleasant self. I hobbled along until early September when I went bear hunting. Carrying heavy loads through brush and over logs to get to our baits, walking miles upon miles -- would I be able to handle it? After a couple days, my hip quit being an issue and I promptly forgot about it. But when I got home, exercise went out the window again. I started easing up and avoiding physical activities that might hurt.

Lately I realized that if I don't get some regular exercise, old age will win sooner rather than later. I have too many more canoe trips and hunting trips I want to take to give in just yet. So I started running at the YMCA. First day was tough, but it's getting easier. And I'm able to do physical activities that would have had me wincing in pain a short time ago.

My point is not to give you a run down on my physical ailments. I've made enough hospital visits to understand how uncomfortable that is on the receiving end! But I think there's a spiritual parallel here. How often do we avoid topics and activities that are painful for us on an emotional level? Our emotions are closely related, though not identical to, our spiritual lives. When we shy away from emotional pain, we most often atrophy spiritually. When we dig into the painful areas, we grow stronger by leaps and bounds.

The corollary to this truth is that it is most often the places of emotional pain that become the biggest road blocks to our spiritual growth.

So ask yourself -- what hurts? What are the places of emotional or relational pain for you? Difficult memories? Areas of insecurity? Places of fear and anxiety? What relationships, what beliefs, are at the root of those painful things? Then take those to Jesus in prayer -- lay them out before him (he already knows them better than you do, but this is important for you to do.) Ask him to help you see, to help you understand, to help you heal. Keep going back to these areas until you can begin to talk to another trusted Jesus-follower about them. Then do that. You will soon find that the things that have held you captive are not nearly so strong as they once were. But if you shy away from these areas, they will remain painful and debilitating.

Truth is, this is why so many people shy away from Jesus -- he doesn't let us off the hook of our wounds. Rather, it is through our wounds that he wants to bring healing to the world. Why should this surprise us? Doesn't the Bible say, "By his stripes we are healed?"

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Debt-free Family

Below are reflections from the blog of a friend of mine who is studying at a Bible school in Singapore. Her insights here are profound and go to the heart of much of the disease of the Christianity I grew up with. So often we avoid serving others because we are all tied up in a sense of obligation and pride. It's not that we don't want to serve others, it is just that we're so bad at accepting help from others and so we rarely know what it is to be served. If we had the grace and humility to let others do for us, we might realize how important it is to do for others. Kristina gets to the heart of this issue in her reflections.

Take this a step further -- consider how often we refuse the grace of God because we feel like we should do for ourselves, take care of ourselves, meet our own needs. We don't understand how to be on the receiving end of grace. This is directly and indirectly connected to the consumer-Christianity I've been writing about here lately.

You can find Kristina's blog here. Thanks, Kristina, for graciously allowing me to reprint your thoughts!

She writes:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Romans 13:8

One of the hardest things for me here in Singapore has been to receive. When I first arrived, I received the care and assistance of current students and, especially, student council members who were always on hand to help all of us international students settle in. As I got settled in my church, the church women started giving me things, like clothing items or sometimes groceries or sweets, for no apparent reason. I got the same kind of treatment from one of my classmates, Yit Wah, who would do the same. It was awkward and foreign and strange. I had to ask my friend Trudy about it and she said it was because I was a student far from home: they were taking care of me on behalf of my family.

Today, after church, I was invited to dinner by a church family. We dined at the British Club of Singapore, which felt far more elegant and ritzy than I am used to, and in addition to that, they even bought me a gift from the gift store. I was overwhelmed by their generosity and, again, lost as to how to respond.

In American culture, where equality is so prized and defended, it can be difficult to receive such things without feeling a sense of obligation or debt. You now owe them something, and we feel off balance and in relational deficit until we have the chance to pay them back in some way.

One thing that God has been speaking to me my entire time here is “There are no debts in the body of Christ”. Over and over again He has said it, especially as I struggle to gratefully and humbly receive love that I have not earned and cannot repay. There are no debts in the Body of Christ. We just love.

Tonight I realized this in a new way. I came home from the sumptuous dinner and placed the gifts of the evening on my bed: a new bath towel from the host family, a package of cookies from a woman at church, and a coconut beverage from one of my youth group ladies. About an hour later, a friend came in and handed me a draft of the paper she’s working on so that I could edit this. I’ve been doing this for her and a few other students throughout the semester, wielding my red pen of power against grammatical errors and smoothing out the English in places.

And it all suddenly made sense. There are no debts in the Body of Christ. I love them by editing their papers and defining words or explaining difficult textbook passages. And the people at church love me by helping meet my basic needs both for food and company. Everything is paid back into the Body of Christ. It’s like perpetual motion. The love just keeps going.

So it is true, there are no debts in the Body of Christ. We are only to give and to receive in the fabulous freedom of the family of God.

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8

Friday, November 12, 2010

Knowledge vs. obedience

I like to study. I love learning new things, figuring things out, finding solutions to complex problems. One of my great joys is to discover -- either through studying with others or through my own pondering -- a conceptual model that makes sense of the world in a new way. Once a friend described me as an "architect of ideas." I was quite taken with the phrase, because that captures one of the things I love to do.

In some ways, I think this love of mine is a reflection of the western Church. Christianity in the western world loves to spin ideas. Even our basic theology -- creation, sin, incarnation, redemption -- is simply a conceptual formula that makes sense of the world. As a theologian I can sit back and read CNN and understand the news stories I read based on this simple dogmatic formula. Of course people will act in depraved ways -- they are sinners. No surprise. Of course from time to time there will be a bright spot, a story of humanitarian goodness. God is at work to redeem creation. My conceptual model makes sense, and I like that.

But observing the world is not the essence of Christianity.

The church in the western world too often piously, passively observes while the world goes to hell. We are called not to knowledge, but to obedience.

Imagine if we were called to knowledge. The story of Jesus calling the first disciples would be very different. It might read something like this: "And as he walked along the seashore, he found Peter and his brother Andrew and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, mending their nets. And Jesus sat down with them and spoke unto them, saying, 'I am the incarnation of the third person of the trinity, one God existing in three persons. My nature is both 100% human and 100% divine. I was born of the virgin Mary through the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit. Shortly I will die at the hands of the Romans to achieve your vicarious atonement. Here's a handout summarizing these points.' "

Jesus never said anything like that. He did quite a bit of teaching, but his teaching moved people toward a choice -- either obedience to him or toward rejection of him. The simple call he extended to Peter and Andrew, James and John, was "Follow me, and I will teach you to fish for people." Their journey with Jesus started with obedience, not with knowledge. In fact, knowledge most often follows obedience -- obedience rarely follows knowledge. Fact is, far too many church-goers are caught in the trap of thinking, "If only I knew a little more ..." We excuse ourselves from obedience because of our lack of knowledge.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that action springs not from reflection but from readiness for responsibility. In other words, our lack of obedience might very well reflect a lack of maturity, and this will be remedied not by more knowledge.

Central's ministry staff recently listened to a speaker who related the story of telling his young daughter to clean her room. What if, the speaker said, she had gone away and came back saying, "Dad, my friends and I sat around and talked at great length about your command to clean my room. In fact, we made up discussion questions and had a great conversation. We translated your command into Greek and studied the meaning of each of the words." Do you suppose this father would be happy with his daughter's actions? I doubt it!

So how do you begin to obey? It starts not with the grand scheme of earth-shattering obedience, but with the simple task God has laid in front of you. What is the tiny task that God set before you that you have not yet obeyed? Is it to take out the garbage? To read your Bible? To show affection to your spouse? To pray for a few minutes a day? To lead a small group? To donate a bag of groceries to a food shelf? To give a tenth of your income to God?

If you are racking your brains and not thinking of what God has asked of you, either you are living an exemplary life or you're not paying attention. So here are a couple suggestions.

First, Central has a partnership with two congregations in Njombe, Tanzania. Recently a member of our congregation spent a month there interviewing 384 children -- mostly orphans -- who cannot afford the cost of education. Central is seeking sponsors for each of these children. For less than the cost of a soda pop each day, we can provide a generation of one community's children with a good education. Structures have been carefully set up to avoid corruption and make sure that 100% of your dollars go to the education of these children. Central and the Southern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania are covering administrative costs. These are not the starving kids with flies on their lips you've seen on TV. Instead, these are kids who have lost parents, who spend most of their time in subsistence living, who dream of being doctors or teachers or lawyers or truck drivers but who can't afford the education that will open these doors for them.

Click on this link to Central's website and follow the sponsorship links. You can sign up right online. If you can't afford $30 a month, you can sign up to give $15, $10, or even $5 a month. We'll group you together with others who are giving so that together, you can sponsor a child.

Second, we're looking for people to commit to praying for Central at a specific time each day as a way to support the mission of Making Jesus Known. If you're willing to commit to prayer for Central at a specific time each day (I encouraged my daughter to do it while she's brushing her teeth) email me and let me know, and we'll put you on our list of pray-ers.

It's not a matter of knowing enough -- it's a matter of being ready to take responsibility. Maybe one of these two options is God's call to you, or maybe there's something else God has placed right in front of you. Will you obey?

Thursday, November 11, 2010


The wind came up this afternoon outside my office. I'm looking out my window at a bush that was transplanted late this summer. It's so new the tag from the nursery is still attached to one of the branches. As the wind gusts, the tag goes horizontal, flapping and vibrating in the wind, faster than my eye can follow.

It makes me wonder. The Bible compares the Spirit of God to the wind (see John 3, for example). In fact, in both Hebrew and Greek, the word for "spirit" and "wind" and "breath" are identical. (We do a similar thing with "respiration" and "inspiration" -- same root, both from the term for breath and spirit.) So if the wind is the Spirit, the bush is the world -- like in 1 John 2:15-17 -- and the little piece of paper is me.

Frequently I think God wants to move me from here to there, to catch me up in the wind and fly my life like a kite. The Spirit blowing around me moves me, swings me up and down, around and around, and I can almost let go -- but there are strings that tie my heart to the things of this world and keep me from flying.

John says there are three elements to this: the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride in riches.

The desire of the flesh is any self-centered impulse that keeps me rooted to myself and my desire rather than focused on Jesus and willing to fly free on the wind of his Spirit. Lately the desire of my flesh has revolved around a new shotgun. There's a place and a time when buying a shotgun could be fine, even God-pleasing, I think. But my tendency to obsess about the shotgun I have not bought, to miss God-given opportunities around me because I'm thinking modified choke or full choke, 12-or-20-gauge, synthetic or wood stock, pump or over/under, etc., etc., etc. -- this is the desire of the flesh that pushes love for God out of my life. So often we think of sexual matters when we hear a phrase like "desires of the flesh" -- and that may be accurate at times. But the desires of the flesh go far beyond sexual cravings into all kinds of self-absorbed desires.

The desire of the eyes is more momentary but equally dangerous. If you saw the movie "Up" you know what "Squirrel!" means -- it means the distracting visual that takes your focus off what it's supposed to be. It's the shiny thing, the image in the catalog or the magazine or the computer screen that, when you see it, has the power to create desire in your heart. It might be a shotgun, a beautiful house, a purse, or a less-than-fully-clothed woman. What it is isn't the point. The point is that the desire of the eyes is a quick way to get our focus off the things of God and onto our desire for self-indulgence. We are vulnerable to visual stimulation -- or else why has advertising become a multi-billion dollar color photo industry?

"Pride in riches" is maybe a narrow translation. Other translations say "the pride of life" or "being too proud of what we have" or even "wanting to appear important." Looking at the Greek, the word for pride carries the sense of arrogance -- this isn't being proud of your children's achievements, this is knowing you're better than your neighbors. And literally in Greek, it's "pride of life." William Barclay translates the phrase, "life's empty pride." He says of this man, "His conversation is a continual boasting about things which he does not possess and all his life is spent in an attempt to impress everyone he meets with his own non-existent importance."

Barclay goes on: "The man who attaches himself to the world's aims and the world's ways is giving his life to things which literally have no future. All these things are passing away and none has any permanency. But the man who has taken God as the centre of his life has given himself to the things which last forever. The man of the world is doomed to disappointment; the man of God is certain of lasting joy."

Lord Jesus, cut the strings that tie me to this world -- not the world that you love, that you came to redeem, but the world that stands opposed to your lordship in my life. Curb and kill my desires for anything other than you. Blow me away on the wind of your Spirit so that my spirit might soar with you! Then reconnect my heart to this world as your' heart is attached to it. Let me be one who loves it with your love, who serves the world in your name. Change my heart to your image, Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


One of the most thought-provoking ideas in the book Total Church is this:

The church is most effective when it does ordinary things with gospel intentionality.

Think about that. Your life as a Christian (assuming for the moment that you are one -- if you're not, just play along for the moment) is most effective when you are together with other Christians (this is after all how we define the church -- Jesus' followers together), doing ordinary things -- grocery shopping, mowing lawn, driving, baking a hotdish ("casserole" for those of you from the Twin Cities and other places out of touch with rural life), washing dishes, writing an email, playing backyard football, or whatever ordinary things you find to do -- because Jesus Christ became human, died on the cross, and rose from the dead.

Two mistakes we believe about this. First, we believe that Christian actions are somehow different than ordinary actions. So our activity has to be specifically Christian -- reading the Bible, say, or praying, or sitting in a sanctuary or working in a soup kitchen.


Second mistake we make about this is that we believe we are called to do just ordinary things, but we do them for ourselves, without any sense of gospel intentionality. So I drink my coffee by myself while I read a novel because it's kind of a self-indulgent habit that I've gotten into. Or you bake a casserole ("hotdish" for you backcountry rural types like me) because you need something to eat for supper tonight and you're kind of grumbly and upset the whole time because you resent something about the task. In short, we do ordinary things but we do them self-centeredly.

Doing ordinary things together with gospel intentionality. So sitting around with a group of people barbecuing hamburgers and soaking up the sunshine can be church if we are mindful in our get-together that we are together for one and only one reason -- we are together because of Jesus. Suddenly this self-indulgent backyard gathering becomes church, and it becomes a unique kind of church that might have the potential to change the life of some poor soul who gets invited in. (Inviting, by the way, is also a very ordinary activity that can and should and must be done with gospel intentionality.) The gathering doesn't change the person's life because you all gang up on him and ask, "Have you heard of Jesus?" Instead, as you enjoy being together in Jesus' presence with your backyard friends, he observes your care for each other and says, "See how they love one another!" and decides that he would like to be part of this community. This desire continues even after the paper plates are thrown in the garbage and one of the group gets teary when she describes a particularly challenging place in her life and the rest of the group takes a minute to pray for her, right there in the backyard. Poor Soul now is really intrigued and thinks, "These people are doing ordinary things together with gospel intentionality; I must return and investigate."

Do you see how easy -- and how hard -- being church is? It is just doing ordinary things together, but it is doing things together with gospel intentionality. It is letting Jesus and his people invade every detail of our lives, every activity of our days.

I was recently invited into the foyer of a friend's house and we stood there to visit for a while. We didn't talk about anything terribly spiritual; we compared notes on a ministry we share, but most of the conversation was catching up on what is going on in their lives, decisions they're facing, and what's going on in mine. But I walked out the door a few minutes later feeling distinctly lifted, like I had been at church. And I had.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Navigating at night

This weekend I was deer hunting at the farm where I grew up. Part of hunting deer is walking out in the woods after dark or before daylight. I love doing this.

Wendell Berry wrote:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light,
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.

Sunday night we were on a difficult blood trail. We started tracking after dark and spent an hour bent over with lights, examining dry leaves, looking for tiny spots of blood. The trail curved and wandered, twisted and meandered. Fixed on the trail, we did not worry about directions or the easiest route back to the truck. Instead, we followed wherever the trail led.

When the blood ended -- just stopped -- we were far into the woods. We searched for a half hour, sometimes on hands and knees, sometimes bent double over the earth, but couldn't find another drop of blood or another distinctive track. We marked the spot, knowing we would return again the next morning.

Now, how to get out? There were no direction markers, no arrows pointing to the nearest exit, no lighted walkways. We could easily wander in circles for hours before finding the edge of the trees, and then we might find ourselves on the far side of the forest from the truck.

We turned off our artificial lights and stood for a long time in the dark. Eventually our eyes adjusted to the blackness and we could look up through the trees and puzzling among the branches, we finally made out Cassiopeia, Draco, and Ursa Minor, with brilliant Polaris on his tail. Using the North Star as our guide, we struck a straight path to the edge of the woods, walking carefully through the tangle of brush and thorns. In a very short time we emerged into the dark alfalfa field to find the world mantled with a gorgeous wrap of open sky and bright stars. We had new wounds -- cuts and scratches on hands and faces. The world is not a gentle place.

How often in this life we need to shut off the glare of our own lights, the shine of our own preoccupations, to trust the one who hovers above us, never changing, never lost. When we turn our eyes skyward we may find directions we had not known we needed. We think we need our artificial lights, but in reality the Light of the World is just overhead. Turn off your own illumination. Trust him. Follow him. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Another thought

I'm not against programs, but I think the western church has gotten WAY too dependent on them. It is a rare program that actually launches people into the Christ-following life. One of the things I love about Alpha is that people deal with each other in their small groups, and in their conversations they are ACTIVE, not passive, and they begin over the course of ten weeks to take ownership of their own faith. Some of them, at least, begin to move from passivity to action, from customer to missionary. One of the biggest challenges with leading Alpha is to help people transition from "I really like our small group" to seeing this new Jesus-centered life as exactly that -- a life, a lifestyle, a way of living. A major focus in my work right now is to develop a way for people to come out of Alpha (or other programs) and step into an active, ongoing, relational community that follows Jesus together. That's why I enjoy the book Total Church so much. It describes a life that is not just studying about Christianity, it is living it. That's exactly what we need more in the church today.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


A thought about customers vs. missionaries. This is obvious after some thought, but in the daily grind of church staffing and leadership, we often miss the obvious.

Church programs create customers.

Think about it. If I'm a pastor (that's the rumor, anyway) and I decide to lead a Bible study, or a parenting class, or any of a dozen other kinds of programmatic opportunities, I have created an opportunity for people to come consume the product I'm offering. I have knowledge and they come to receive. I have expertise and they come for education. It's only slightly different if I facilitate a course taught on video. At that point, Dave Ramsey or Rick Warren or some other phenomenal teacher has expertise. By offering this kind of program at my church, I encourage people to be customers. This breeds passivity and dependence.

The ultimate example of this kind of dependence that I've ever seen -- I accepted a call to a church once and during my first month there, discovered that a couple gifted leaders were offering the Crossways Bible Study. I was hugely excited because I know this to be excellent material that helps people develop sound biblical knowledge. I was a little taken aback when i discovered that they had taught the class six times, and the same ten people had taken the class each time. When I said, "Wow! You guys must know this material by now -- we could have ten different classes with each of you leading one!" They looked horrified and said quickly, "Oh, no -- we don't know the material nearly well enough for that! We need to learn more." They were passive customers.

Occasionally we need to offer programs to give people basic training or information. Once in a while this is appropriate. But fact is, all the programming in the world won't help people love God more or serve their neighbor better. To grow into this stuff -- to grow into what Jesus said was the most important -- we need to start doing it, preferably doing it with others who are at varying places in following Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said (and I think he hit this one out of the park) that obedience does not come from knowledge, it comes from readiness for responsibility.

So maybe the reason we've got so many customers in our churches is that

1. Our pastors have mistaken programming for leadership and attendance for obedience;
2. Church-goers, generally speaking, are not ready for responsibility in their faith;
3. We hide our fear behind the excuse of "needing to know more" before we act.

Jesus didn't act in any of these three ways. He said to the incompetent fishermen, the despised tax collector, and many others, "Come, follow me." Then he started walking. We only know the stories of the ones who left their baggage and followed.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Customer or Missionary?

Just read a thought-provoking article that has me asking hard questions.

When you come to church, do you come like a customer or like a missionary?

Customers are looking for a good deal, looking to buy a quality product for not too high an investment. They want to get something that will make their life better. The customer leaves church asking, "What did I get out of that?" Customers go church-shopping and hope to find a church with good programs for their kids, an active youth group, upbeat sermons and dynamic worship. Theology that matches their own so they don't have to be offended very often. A young (but not too young) pastor who won't bore them or challenge them too much in his (possibly her, depending on the customer) sermons, which should be about 1/3 of a 60-minute worship service. Make no mistake, these customers know what they want and they are discerning shoppers.

Missionaries don't go to church this way at all. Missionaries come in out of the storm looking for shelter. They've often been beaten up by the world a bit. They have a critical task to do in the kingdom of God, and worship for them is a respite, a breather, a huddle with others who share the kingdom but have their own tasks. Missionaries are hoping for a word and a meal that will get them the next few steps down the road that Jesus is walking with them. They know who they are and who they belong to, but they live and work and follow Jesus in a world that lies to them, so they need to come together with other believers to hear the truth, to breathe easy for a while, to be refreshed for the next leg of the journey. Missionaries rarely complain about the quality of the coffee or the color of the carpet, because they have seen God doing his best work in some places where there is neither coffee nor carpet. The missionary leaves worship saying, "Oh, thank you, Lord ... now back to work."

What would the church be like if it was a fellowship of missionaries? I think that's exactly, precisely what Jesus intended it to be. This is the church Jesus foresaw when he said, "the gates of hell will not stand against it." This is a church on offense, a church released from worship each week to wreak havoc on Satan's kingdom, a church that pulls dying people out of death and darkness, into the light. This is a church of people who volunteer at food shelves, work in public schools, bring cookies to a new neighbor, stop for the lady with the steaming radiator, help coach the football team, shovel the other guy's car out after the snowstorm, donate money to support other missionaries, sponsor the orphan, sit by the bedside of the sick and dying, have the hard conversation, pray and read the Bible with their children, help the stranger move across town, and so much more. This is a church that doesn't worry about opinion polls or personalities. It's a church that is chronically short on money because it's giving so much away. It's a church that is more effective scattered, and it gathers to enjoy fellowship and worship together.

The church the world loves to criticize, the one that is full of hypocrites, the church that is "a hiding place for weak people," as one perceptive young woman told me, is generally speaking a church full of customers. The missionary church flies under the world's radar. The missionary church is rarely caught up in theological arguments, and then only when something critical to its mission is at stake.

Sad to say, most of the churches I've ever been involved with have been mostly customer churches. But the missionaries are there, maybe ten percent of the population, like yeast in the dough, like salt in the food, just enough to make it worthwhile to stay. They give me hope.