Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Culture shift

I recently ran across this quote on the 3dm website. I bolded one sentence to make sure you see it:

In our travels we’ve spoken to hundreds, if not thousands of pastors. And time and time again they tell us these are the questions that keep them up at night:
  • What does the church of the future look like?
  • How do we disciple people?
  • How do we reach the unchurched/dechurched?
What 3DM does is take 30 years of learning from a very post-Christian England context, as well as penetrating Biblical insights, and come alongside churches and organizations who are finding the North American mission field more post-Christian with each passing day.

In his book The Bridger Generation, Thomas Rainer has these statistics on weekly church attendance in the United States:
-Builder Generation: 65% will be in church this Sunday -Boomer Generation: 35% -Gen X: 15% -Gen Y: 4%

For 3DM, these are very prophetic statistics as much of what we have learned comes from a country where only 8% of the entire country is in church on Sunday. The three questions every pastor asks are the questions the European church was asking 30 years ago. What we do is take all of the things we’ve learned in those 30 years and work with churches and individuals facing similar challenges
I was struck by this train of thought (sounds painful, I know, and often it is). Let me tell you a story.

When I first graduated college and went into the world of professional ministry, I spent seven years doing youth ministry near Seattle. The culture in the Pacific Northwest is as unchurched as anywhere in the U.S. I got used to seeing my Christian identity as a minority thing in that culture, got used to going to parties where it was a rarity to meet another Christian, got used to Christian kids every day having to live out their faith in a non-Christian -- and often anti-Christian -- environment. At first it was a shock for me, because I grew up in a community where the church was the center of the community in social, spiritual, physical, and emotional terms. Now in the Northwest, I was confronted by the fact that the church was very much out on the margins.

Then I noticed something. I noticed that there were really two kinds of churches. Some churches were refugee churches, really trying to hold onto their power and the way things used to be while the culture went to hell around them. Others were engaged churches, churches that got involved in the community, churches that delighted in the fact that they were rubbing shoulders all the time with those who didn't know Jesus. The two kinds of churches really boiled down to churches that retreated and churches that advanced. The advancing churches were vibrant, strong, and healthy.

When we moved back to the Twin Cities in 1995, I was overwhelmed by a few trivial experiences that reminded me that my cultural context had changed. I remember vividly standing in the checkout at a local grocery store listening to two teenage girls talk about their plans to go to Confirmation that evening. In seven years of youth ministry in Seattle, I'd never had that experience. I was back in a place where the church was much more integrated with daily life for a large portion of the population.

I also noticed, though, that the churches in the midwest were full of complacent people. They valued their churches, but they didn't get too excited about faith. It was just part of life. This attitude permeated the churches, from the preschools to the pastors. Church was just one of those institutions. The church held a privileged position, and everyone -- more or less -- recognized its importance.

But change was coming. Having recently lived in an environment where the church was losing the culture wars in a big way, I recognized the symptoms. Right here in the Twin Cities, community soccer teams practiced on Sunday mornings. Cable television provided more and better entertainment than any church. Social networks revolved more and more around shared activities (bike clubs, rock climbing groups, dance classes, athletic teams, gyms, neighborhood block parties) rather than around church activities. The church was slowly, almost imperceptibly, drifting to the margins of the culture.

In the last fifteen years, I've watched that process continue. Churches struggle to compete with travel basketball and Facebook and the lake cabin, and most of the time churches are losing that battle. Complacent members see less and less need to attend worship regularly, or they attend when there's nothing else going on. Confirmations and baptisms and weddings happen in the church more often as a nod toward a previous generation's tradition rather than as the outgrowth of a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

So I think these guys at 3dm are onto something. They're looking at what works in Europe, recognizing that the same trends are at work in the United States.

The church will not hold back the tide of cultural drift. We've lost that battle already. It's time to change tactics, to adopt a new strategy. Churches need to become subversive groups within a non-Christian culture. We need to worry more about passionate faith in ourselves rather than trying to lobby for policies within the wider culture. Disciples will be made through individual and small group relationships rather than through legislative action.

The way we do church has to change. In fact, it has changed. Those who gather on Sunday mornings as a nod to the church of the 1950's have missed Jesus as he goes out to seek and save the lost. They may be wonderful social clubs, even Christian social clubs, but they are not churches. The church that is led and enlivened by the Holy Spirit is a church that is struggling every day to keep up with Jesus, to figure out how to leave behind more and more of our baggage and travel light with him.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

A day to remember. As children we didn't understand -- it was about meeting down at the church at noon, standing around outside waiting for the soldiers to show up. They got out of their cars when they came, grim men in various uniforms, carrying flags and rifles. We all stood on the northwest corner of the church, looking out over the headstones, and the soldiers lined up with their rifles. One man spoke orders in a voice just under a shout, a voice you knew could be heard through chaos and fear. Three times the rifles fired; three times we covered our ears at the report. A bugler played taps while the soldiers stood at attention, and when the final order was given and the men went back to their cars, we kids scrambled in the grass for the shell casings. Then everyone turned back to the church doors, and we went downstairs for the potluck. The soldiers came down, too, but now they were smiling and talking as though they were real people, as though they were neighbors and friends and farmers and fathers. Outside in the late May wind the headstones remained impassive.

One of them, my uncle's, was inscribed,

Earl Richard Krogstad
Cpl, 743rd Tank Battalion
May 26, 1919-June 6, 1944

Here is the last letter he wrote home from England.

[The following was included in Earl’s scrapbook with the caption “Last letter”. It was in a blue envelope labeled “Soldier’s Letter” and the envelope was preprinted with the following statement: “United States Army. This letter must not be used for money or valuables, cannot be registered, and will not be censored by company or regimental censors, but by the Base Censor. I certify that the inclosed letter or letters were written by me, refer only to personal or family matters, and do not refer to military or other matters forbidden by censorship regulations.”]


May 30, 1944

My dear Mother,

I was so glad to get your letter last night. I’ve been trying to write home quite often. I hope you get them. I don’t know when I will get a chance to write again. Don’t worry about me if it is awhile before you hear from me. The years I’ve been in the Army have been pretty rough but I’ve managed. All along I’ve felt the power of the prayers of my dear mother. And I feel that God will be with me in the battles to come. I’ve been training to fight and fight I will. It is my business. I am unafraid to go into combat. Two years ago the thought would have scared me. In fact I’m quite anxious to meet the enemy, but I will want to come home some day, get married and enjoy a quiet peaceful life. The thoughts of home are indeed pleasant. They are fond memories. One of the biggest things the Army has done for me is to appreciate my home, my parents and brothers and sister. Everybody made it pleasant for the other person and that’s what a home should be. I’ll write next chance I get and if I can, I will send a cable gram. Tell Alberts hello, also Louise and the other folks down there. It would sure be fun to see them all again.

I’m going to write a letter to Elsie too tonight. I’ll have to forget about writing to the other people that I owe letters to.

Keep writing.

All my love,


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Good advice!

I recently started reading Michael Hyatt's blog, for a variety of reasons. The more I read, the more I enjoy his perspectives and ideas. Mostly, he writes for writers and helps them be better writers. But this post applies to anyone who is married, especially to men who are married. It is excellent advice.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bonhoeffer on grace

From the introduction to Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing....

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian 'conception' of God. Anintellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.... In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. 'All for sin could not atone.'Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin....

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

On two separate occasions Peter received the call, “Follow me.” It was the first and last word Jesus spoke to his disciple (Mark 1.17; John 21.22). A whole life lies between these two calls. The first occasion was by the lake of Gennesareth, when Peter left his nets and his craft and followed Jesus at his word. The second occasion is when the Risen Lord finds him back again at his old trade. Once again it is by the lake of Gennesareth, and once again the call is: “Follow me.” Between the two calls lay a whole life of discipleship in the following of Christ. Half-way between them comes Peter's confession, when he acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God....

This grace was certainly not self-bestowed. It was the grace of Christ himself, now prevailing upon the disciple to leave all and follow him, now working in him that confession which to the world must sound like the ultimate blasphemy, now inviting Peter to the supreme fellowship of martyrdom for the Lord he had denied, and thereby forgiving him all his sins. In the life of Peter grace and discipleship are inseparable. He had received the grace which costs.

As Christianity spread, and the Church became more secularized, this realization of the costliness of grace gradually faded. The world was Christianized, and grace became its common property. It was to be had at low cost.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


If you read the last post here and wondered about the difference between "eisegesis" and "exegesis," click on the link to the right that says, "Iron sharpens iron." This is an old column from 2009 that talks about how to get started reading the Bible for what it says rather than what we want it to say.

The day after

What do you do when the world doesn't end?

It's been more than a little sad to watch the run-up to the latest version of "I know when the world will end." Just out of curiosity I went to Harold Camping's website today to see what they had to say about their non-event. They hadn't changed it since yesterday, so it still looks like this:

May 21, 2011: the Apocalypse
My favorite part, of course, is "The Bible guarantees it!" There are a great many things the Bible does, in fact, guarantee. One of them is that you cannot know the timing of Jesus' second coming. Yet interpreter after interpreter comes up with some hare-brained scheme for identifying when Jesus is returning, in spite of the fact that he said we couldn't know. One well-meaning friend of mine said in all sincerity, "Jesus said we can't know the day or the hour. I do think if we are paying attention, though, we can know the year." Talk about missing the point!

Nearly every time the New Testament talks about Jesus coming again, the very next idea in the text is, "Okay, so given that Jesus is coming back without warning, what kind of lives should we be living here and now?" THAT is the Bible's point when it comes to Jesus' second coming. We are specifically told NOT to pay attention to those who claim to have a corner on the Rapture or any other ingredient of some end-of-the-world-apocalyptic event. So when Harold Camping came up with all this stuff, I read through his reasoning -- mostly because I knew somewhere along the way someone would ask me what his reasoning was. Here's the basic summary, though there was certainly a lot more to it, none of it more enlightening or believable than this:

1. HC believes he has identified with great precision when Noah's flood occured.
2. The Bible says that once Noah and his family had gone into the ark, "After seven days the flood waters came on the earth." (Genesis 7)
3. In 2 Peter 3:8 the Bible says that "with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day."
4. So, in a great leap of reasoning, HC says that the seven days Noah's family waited in the Ark should be multiplied times one thousand years to predict the end of the world.
5. May 21, 2011, is (according to HC) 7,000 years to the day after the flood waters started pouring down on the earth.

See? It all makes sense. NOT.

Camping dealt with the whole idea that Jesus said we couldn't know. He said that applied only up until 1988, when the era of the church came to an end. I could find no reasonable explanation why he thought this to be the case.

What this sad ordeal all comes down to is this. When you read the Bible, don't read your own desires and interpretations into it. Scholars call this "eisegesis" which means, literally, that you read your own truth into the text. Responsible Bible interpretation is called "exegesis" and this means reading out of the text what it means. So what does the Bible repeatedly say about trying to predict the end of the world? DON'T DO IT.

This applies to many other areas as well. What does the Bible repeatedly say about, for example, debt? It's dangerous and will get you into trouble. Yet we think our credit card or our home equity line of credit is a gift from the bank to us. Why don't we read our Bibles and say, "Oh, God already spoke to this. His word clearly says this 'gift' of debt is going to get me in trouble. I'll trust him on this one."

There are so many questions these days where we choose to make our own decisions because it makes sense to us rather than submitting to what God says is true. Sometimes this is just ignorance, like the guy who told me the other day he's a pretty good person and has done his best to live in a way that pleases God, so he thinks if this rapture thing really does happen that God will be good to him. I don't think he knew how unbiblical his position was.

Sadly, others who really should know better choose to go with what makes sense to them rather than what God teaches in his word. This happens most often when our culture has chosen to go its own way and leave biblical truth behind. (Accumulation of goods -- homes, toys, cars, land, wealth of all kinds, is one example among many in which our culture pursues its own "truth" in opposition to the Bible. There are lots of others.) In this case, there are all kinds of sources of information and "wisdom" coming from the voices of the culture that sound reasonable, so we choose to listen to them instead of the Bible. We tell ourselves, "This is just the way life is." And because it makes sense to us, we merrily follow the culture and we bit-by-bit walk away from God's word.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

One year later

It was a year ago today we lost Amy. I say "we" because even though Weston and Peyton and Maddie bore the brunt of the loss, Amy was part of an extended family that goes beyond the Harbaugh and Foell clans. This group of people for me has been the fulfillment of Jesus' words to his disciples in Mark 10:29-30 -- "Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life." Amy lived at the heart of a family united not by the blood of human descent, but by the blood of Jesus. For many of this family, Amy's death was a first deep draught of grief, a first peering into the abyss of death. The evening of May 17th a few of us were gathered around her bed in their living room and we shared communion and prayed for her healing. Amy looked that evening like she was floating. Powerless and wracked by cancer, she closed her eyes and lay back in the gentle grasp of so many hands touching her body as we prayed for her. A few hours later, in the early morning, her body stopped working and she went to be face to face with Jesus.

I have thought many, many times about Amy since then. Members of that extended family -- as well as members of her natural family -- have told stories, shared memories and tears and laughter and hope and anger and grief. In various ways, we have tried hard to move on, to process our own grief, without losing a sense of Amy's presence, her influence, her gifts, and her humor. Grief is hard.

Many times since that day I have thought of the words of Psalm 116. One verse of this psalm -- the whole thing bears reading -- says, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.

A year and a half ago I came close to death myself. I had a "subarachnoid hemorrhage" which means that a blood vessel in my brain gave way. Many of you know this story as well -- they airlifted me to North Memorial Hospital and I spent fifteen days there staring the prospect of my own death in the face. Weston, Amy's husband, was among the many people who visited me there.

I spent a lot of that fifteen days looking headlong at the prospect of my own death, and during that time I thought again about these words from Psalm 116. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. I took that then, and I take that now, as a promise. If it worked out that I didn't survive that ordeal, I believe God counts my death precious and he will do good things through it. That's his word. That's his promise. Every fiber of my body and soul and mind rebels at the thought of being separated from those I love most. I hate that thought with all my being. But I trust that if God allows it, he will do good things through it. He will count my death precious.

I know he has counted Amy's death precious. I can't begin to tell you how many conversations, how many ponderings, how many holy tears have come from losing Amy, both for me and for many others. There are several songs since her funeral that have become immediate gateways for me into a place where my emotions are raw and I am vulnerable to deal with them instead of stuffing them away as I did for so much of my life. That is one small gift out of many her death has brought.

I am not saying, "Oh, look how great it is that Amy died." God forbid. I am saying that in the face of the tragic evil of a 32-year-old woman dying of cancer, separated from her husband and children and extended family and ministry family, that God has counted her death precious. That he has worked good out of evil. That he has brought life -- abundant life -- out of her death.

During my stint at North Memorial in the fall of 2009, I worked through the agonizing process of writing a letter to my daughters in case I didn't make it out. It is one of the hardest things I've ever done, and I will certainly not share the whole letter with you -- that is for them, for someday. But I want to share a little bit of it that is poignant today as I am thinking (and many others are thinking) about Amy.

Speaking of grieving, here’s my request: Tell stories that include me. Tell the ones about stupid stuff I did, and some of the good things too. Listen to the music that takes you back to riding in the car with me. Visit the places we loved together. Keep each other honest about who I really am, not some idealized version of me. Share those stories and experiences with your Mom, too. She is going to need a lot of help working through this, unless I am very much mistaken. Look through the photo albums -- what a gift those are! Remember.

And forget. When a day comes where you don’t cry, or don’t feel at a loss, or don’t think of me, be happy. It means you’re healing, and that’s what I want for you. But recognize that the time for crying will come again. Grief is weird. But Jesus has been there, and he knows grief from the inside out. He holds me close now.

Final thought. Erica, you and I shared a conversation once about what hope is all about. I don’t know if you remember. I want you both to get hold of this. The hope this world offers is a pale, diaphanous thing that is just wishful thinking dressed up in nice clothes. It is NOT the same as the hope that Christians have for those things we have been promised but do not yet see. Our hope is rooted not in wishful thinking, but rather in the experience of Jesus’ resurrection. Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, the hymn goes. It is because Jesus has already conquered death that I can trust him going into my own death. Trust and hope are inextricably linked in this. Because I have tasted his resurrection, I know his power and the truth of his promise. Because I know his promise, I can trust he will carry it out. I can let go and -- to use Chris Rice’s phrase -- “kiss the world goodbye.” I don’t know all the particulars of life after this life, but I trust the one who bought me that life, who promises to create me new, who promises that in him, we are bound, united, family not just through our blood but through his. I trust him not only for myself but for you as well, and for your Mom, and for my parents and for all those I love who know Jesus. I trust that the love we share is an overflowing of the love he bears for us. I trust that the power of his resurrected life will sweep away whatever barriers and boundaries want to separate us, and that in him we will share eternity together. I love you all so much and I can’t wait to be with you again. Take care of each other. Love each other, and hold on to that hope.

Death is hard. Grief is hard. We are right to rebel against this separation, because we are not created for this. We are created to live in perfect, uninterrupted relationship, both with God and with other people. But the reality is that sin has broken into God's original plan, and with sin comes separation and death. At the cross, Jesus himself became subject to sin, to separation, to death, in order that the power of sin might be broken and conquered. Someday, God promises, he will undo that invasion completely and defeat sin and death once and for all. Until then, he promises that the death of his holy ones is not something he takes lightly. Precious in his sight is the death of his saints.

Amy and so many others, we miss you. But we trust, and we hope.

Sloppy wet kisses

Powerful story of the song "How He Loves" by John Mark Macmillan.

Okay, so a side comment on the lyrics. Originally the lyrics in the second verse say, "Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss." I vividly remember the first time I heard this song. It was at the late service last summer at Central Lutheran Church -- well, actually, at Lions Park in Elk River, just across the street from Central, because that's where we hold the outdoor worship service in the summers, there in the big amphitheater. Kaycee Robertson was leading worship and she had lyric sheets printed up of this song and at first I thought, "I'm not sure I like this song." Then as it went on, and the chorus was "Oh, how he loves us" over and over like a hammer pounding on my heart until I actually realized that Jesus truly does love us, really, not just like we say it on Sunday mornings in the sanctuary but for real ... I started to like the song.

Then we started the second verse, which says, "We are his portion and he is our prize / drawn to redemption by the grace in his eyes / if grace is an ocean, we're all sinking / so heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss / and my heart turns violently inside of my chest / and I don't have time to maintain these regrets / when I think about the way, he loves us ..."

And I thought, "sloppy wet kiss"?! What's going on here? Then I looked at the lyric sheet and I realized, this is talking about the incarnation of Jesus. It's talking about what the prophets had foretold so many centuries before, how Jesus became flesh, and in that becoming, heaven -- the state of being in which God is sovereign over all -- truly does meet earth, and it truly is like a sloppy wet kiss. It's messy. It's intimate. It's tangible. And it does make my heart turn violently inside of my chest. Jesus becoming human to live and die and rise for me is a mess, but he did it anyway.

So when the David Crowder Band redid the song and changed the lyrics to "heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss" I was not happy. Because Jesus' incarnation was not only foreseen, it was predicted. When he was born and laid in a manger in Bethlehem, there were dozens of prophecies being fulfilled. It was NOT unforeseen.

So I prefer the original version instead of the sanitized one.

The explanation I heard (third-hand) is that the David Crowder Band didn't want a song that would stop people in their tracks and make them say, "Huh?" in the middle of worship.

But sometimes I think that's exactly what we need to do in the middle of worship. We need to stop and say, "Huh?" because there's so much we take for granted. We come into the presence of the God of the universe, the Almighty and Ever-living One, and he longs for nothing so much as a personal relationship with us, and we just gloss over that and wonder how long the sermon is going to be today. We need to be jarred a little. We need to have our sensibilities shaken up and our perceptions challenged and our preconceptions shattered by the fact that Jesus got into the middle of our mess, the mess that we usually try to hide from everyone including our best friends.

To make my point, read the Bible. There is LOTS of stuff there that stops you in your tracks and makes you say, "Huh?" Here's a partial list off the top of my head.

1. Why does God want to create stuff?
2. How does God go walking in the garden in the cool of the day?
3. Why is Eve made from a rib?
4. Why does God warn Cain and then Cain kills Abel anyway?
5. Why does Cain -- exiled to wander the earth -- immediately build a city?
6. Who does Cain build a city for?
7. Skipping ahead a bit, why doesn't Noah, who was so good he pleased God, say anything in the story until he curses his grandson Canaan?
8. Why does God make a covenant with Abraham using a bunch of split carcasses?
9. Who is Melchizedek? Is it God in human flesh before the incarnation? So, God the Son who will someday become Jesus, experimenting with incarnation before it gets trendy? Or is it just some pagan king of Jerusalem?
10. Why does Jacob spoil his son Joseph so bad that all the other sons hate him? Is Jacob really so clueless?
11. How come God doesn't lose patience with this bunch? How is it possible that he's willing to put up with all their garbage?
12. Why does the book of Exodus affirm the midwives for lying to Pharaoh?
13. Why does Moses resist God to the point of making him tear his hair out, claiming that he can't speak well, and then when Moses and Aaron get in front of Pharaoh Moses does almost all the talking?
14. Why does the Exodus take place in the most well-documented civilization of the ancient world, but yet we have no secular record of the Israelites' slavery or their escape?
15. Why are the Israelites so amazingly obtuse? Why can't they just once get it right? Why do they keep grumbling, rebelling, complaining, and messing up in every conceivable way?
16. Why does Moses get banished from the Promised Land for one tiny mess up after the Israelites have been pardoned time and again?
17. Skipping way ahead, why doesn't Job ever learn about the bet between Satan and God over whether he'll curse God or not?

I'm going to stop at 17. You see, there are hundreds -- thousands -- of "Huh?" moments in scripture. If we're going to relate to God we'd better get used to them. We didn't even get halfway through the Old Testament.

Sloppy wet kisses. It's as good a phrase as any for this messy way God gets involved in the details of our lives, and how he doesn't fix stuff, he just gets into the middle of it with us. If you haven't watched the video at the top of this post, go back and click on it. It's worth your time.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Not for the faint of heart

Johnny Cash covered the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt". Recorded shortly before Johnny died, this has to be one of the most poignant Johnny Cash songs / videos ever. Images of the highlights of Cash's career, including movies, concerts, relationships, songs, paired with the words, "You could have it all / my empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt." Vivid shots of Jesus' crucifixion and some amazing symbolism. Take a look, but be warned that this is not by any means a "feel good" video and it may (I can tell you from experience) haunt you.

Friday, May 13, 2011

More on discontinuous change

A decade or so ago, a friend of mine introduced me to an excellent question. She was from a Nazarene background but had started attending our mainline Lutheran church in Williston, North Dakota. She watched us carefully for a couple years and decided there were some really good things about these Lutherans, and there were some things that fell far short. One day she was explaining some of her perceptions to me and we got to talking about communion.

She explained that in the tradition in which she was raised, communion was an afterthought. Nobody took seriously that anything spiritual happened in this bread and wine transaction; it's just something Jesus said to do, so we do it. "But you Lutherans," she said, "do it different. You take it seriously. You really believe Jesus is there, and he's as good as his word to do something when you take communion." Then she went on to introduce me to her excellent question. "Jesus said that you can evaluate preachers by the fruit they bear," she said (see Matthew 7:15-17). "Well, I think you can do the same thing with a church's doctrine. You ask, 'What fruit does this bear?' And then you see what kind of fruit that church's teaching produces." She went on to tell me that in her eyes, my church's approach to communion bore good fruit. "You can see it in people's eyes, in their faces, in their lives -- they connect with Jesus in this meal. The church I was raised in, we just wanted to get it over with because it didn't mean anything anyway. But people here take it seriously, they take their time, and God honors that. Communion done this way produces good fruit."

I have come back to this excellent question over and over and over again. What fruit does it bear? When I look at a new evangelism program or a method of Bible study or a denomination's political stance or a preacher's leadership style, I often ask, "What fruit does it bear?" Very often I look at my own life and I ask about some area of my work or a habit that I'm trying to evaluate, "What fruit does it bear?"

This question goes deeper than just wondering if a thing is functional. A church may find a creative way to do evangelism that brings dozens or hundreds of people through the doors. It seems to be functional, at least in terms of numbers. But what fruit does it bear? This asks a deeper question. Does this influx of people produce disciples -- people who are following Jesus? Or do we just have a crowd assembled in one place for some other reason? We may not like this question. We would rather see ourselves as successful, but bearing fruit is often different than success. Success is so often measured in terms of numbers -- numbers of people invited, numbers of pounds lost, numbers of dollars brought in, numbers of homes built, or whatever. But fruit has more to do with long lasting change of character, change of the course of a life, change of ongoing relationships.

What fruit does it bear?

This is the question that drives us to discontinuous change, because this question so often points out that what we have been doing forever and ever, amen, is no longer producing good fruit -- if ever it did. It is possible that at one point, having a pastor lead a congregation of roughly a hundred and fifty people, gathering them once a week to preach and teach at them and receive an offering from them, provided a fruitful leadership model. Today, however, that same model tends to produce passivity. What has changed? Many things. Bottom line is, what once may have been fruitful no longer produces good fruit. This is the point at which we can keep in lockstep with tradition and The Way We've Always Done Things, or we can make strategic, discontinuous change.

Often it is not hard to imagine discontinuous change. We can envision a different future, imagine a fruitful pattern, see a better way. We are just afraid to take the leap, stick our necks out, make the required change. It is risky.

So the biggest barrier to discontinuous change is first about wisdom -- wisdom to discern the right direction to move -- but then it's mostly about courage.

Out of touch

Apologies to loyal blog readers! I have been unable to post new entries for several days. Some kind of glitch in the world of the people who make this blog possible, and unfortunately beyond my ability to control. SOON I will have new, thought provoking stuff for you to read, since I can now get back online and post again!

In the meantime, I have built a flamethrower. This is why the internet is SO necessary in our modern world -- it keeps dangerous people like me from exercising our full destructive potential. Karl Marx said that religion is "the opiate of the masses", meaning that religious practices and ideas tranquilize people and make them oblivious to the fact that they could really change their circumstances. Later, in the 1980's, the comic strip Bloom County portrayed a television quietly gloating, "Karl Marx hadn't seen anything yet!" The internet goes a step farther -- we quietly numb ourselves into oblivion with interactive entertainment, gaming, shopping, and "social networks" (think Facebook) on demand, at the click of a finger -- and we think we are doing something important.

It's May. So here's a thought: Get off the computer for a while. Find an eight year old. If you don't have an eight year old, you can borrow one. (Parents of eight year olds are almost always willing to loan them out, especially if someone else is willing to feed them in the bargain.) Take the eight year old to the hardware store. Wander the aisles looking for cool stuff. (For an eight year old, hardware stores are like treasure chests full of cool stuff.) See the store from the kid's perspective. PVC pipe is not for plumbing; it's the stuff blowguns are made of. If you buy the right size PVC pipe and cut a couple two foot lengths and go to the grocery store and buy a bag of the multi-colored miniature marshmallows, you can have all the fun of paintball with a lot less pain and mess. Or if you've got the really big PVC it's a ready-made tunnel. You could build a submarine out of the stuff. I was in Johnson's Hardware Hank in Zimmerman today -- I love that store -- and they have a whole display of rubber-band powered, wind-up balsa wood airplanes. Many eight year olds have never assembled, wound, or released a balsa wood airplane in their lives. This is a tragedy. Look at trailers, or storage sheds, or lengths of rope or various kinds of plywood and ask the kid, "What could you think of to do with this?" Spend time in the stovepipe section or the garden tools. See it through the eyes of wonder and exploration. If you're brave enough, look at the propane cylinders and the associated gadgets. Oh, my goodness.

When you're done at the hardware store (which, if you're doing it right, means after you've been kicked out), find someplace that sells ice cream cones, preferably in multiple flavors.

It's May. Go have some fun.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Discontinuous Change

Yesterday at our staff meeting we talked about continuous vs. discontinuous change. Put simply, continuous change is change that happens little by little. Tweak the quality of your worship music and mess in minor ways with the style of preaching and you may draw a few more people to worship. Most of us are constantly trying to create continuous change. Every day in every way we are trying to get a little bit better. Learn a new habit. Read a new book. Initiate a new conversation. Manage finances better. Keep the garage a little cleaner.

If everything in your life is working the way you want it to, continuous change is probably right.

But sometimes life demands more than continuous change. Either something internal says, "This is not working!" or your external context changes and "the way we've always done things" no longer works. You can't tweak your way out of a radical problem -- you need to find a radical solution.

This is at least part of what Jesus was driving at when he told the rich young ruler to "sell all that you have, give money to the poor, and come follow me" (see Luke 18:18-25). The young man had life pretty much in hand. He was looking for some kind of continuous change that would help push him over the edge to eternal life. But Jesus responds to his question by saying this requires discontinuous change. The young man needs a radical solution.

Simply put, he has misdiagnosed the problem. It's like going to the doctor with a sore throat hoping for some high powered cough drops and finding out you have throat cancer and need immediate surgery.

We -- especially those of us in the church -- are often guilty of misdiagnosing our problems. We think we need to add a guitar player to the opening song or provide brunch after worship, and God wants to do throat surgery. This is why Jesus so often tells people to "repent!" Repentance is the New Testament's way of telling us we need radical solutions. We need a clean break from our previous pattern. We need discontinuous change.

I am not recommending that churches reinvent themselves every six months. That is a foolish trend that creates a climate of mistrust or else it merely gives lip service to the radical nature of change. But too many churches are stuck in a past that is fifty years out of date. We continue to do the same old same old things, hoping that some minor tweaking will bust our church loose from our moorings.

It is not the church that has changed. Rather, our context has changed in radical ways. Fifty years ago, the church was in the center of the culture. Pastors were Very Important People. Those who attended church usually attended the church their parents did, or at least a church in the same denomination. Church calendars, with their odd seasons like Lent and Advent gave structure to people's time. When churches spoke, everyone knew that what they said was important. Knowledge of the Bible was relatively widespread and people acknowledged the Bible as in some sense an authoritative book.

So today, churches often assume this context. But the context has changed. People may know the Bible, or they may wonder what is the difference between the big numbers and the small ones. Church attenders may have no idea what Easter or Christmas are really about, let alone Pentecost and Epiphany. When churches speak, people generally ignore what is said unless it's pathetic and foolish enough to draw CNN's attention. Clergy may be respected, but society has read enough headlines to know that they're not to be trusted with money or with children.

Yet the vast majority of churches simply motor along like a moped on the freeway. Our context demands discontinuous change. Think of every image that comes to mind when you think about what "church" means -- pews, one-hour worship services, steeples, offering plates, robes and candles and certificates -- and toss them out in the compost. Now start with the New Testament in one hand and the internet in the other, and figure out what it means to be church today. Along the way, take those proud traditions and figure out not how to live in the past, but how to have a past here in the present.

A dozen years ago, Sally Morgenthaler said that the world is asking three questions of the church. Though the culture has largely decided we don't have good answers, I think Sally's three questions (slightly altered to keep up with the calendar) still provide a good way to begin asking what discontinuous change might look like for the church today. Here are her three questions:

1. Do you know God?
2. Do you have a story?
3. Do you live in 2011?

Staying focused

This is a reprint of a weekly email post I wrote that goes out to men at Central. I'm just cutting and pasting it here:

Let me start this off by saying I don’t know what you think of politics, and I don’t particularly care. That is not what this email is about.

The last few hours I’ve been listening to news reports about the death of Osama bin Laden. Like many of you, I feel a sense of gratitude for the men and women who serve in our nation’s military. I am grateful for their skills, their determination, and their willingness to give their lives to protect our nation. Like many of you, I am relieved at the death of Osama bin Laden, and the word “justice” comes to mind often.

I stayed up to listen live to President Obama’s announcement on Sunday evening. I was impressed at the way the President handled himself. He was stern and resolute and as “presidential” as I’ve ever seen him. Too often our politicians have messed up military operations by being too idealistic or meddling too much. I think of John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, or of Jimmy Carter and the failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages. It was a pleasure Sunday evening to hear about an operation that went the way it was supposed to — not that everything worked out perfectly, but that the operation was a success, and no Americans were harmed.

I started thinking about the last several weeks and what President Obama has been enduring. Specifically, I thought about the resurgence of the “birthers” -- those who claim Obama is not a legitimate president because (according to them) he was not really born in the U.S. Many people criticized the President because he took too long to produce his birth certificate. Donald Trump has been the most recent in a long line of people bringing noisy accusations against Barak Obama.

In spite of these distracting attacks, last night we learned that the President has been taking care of business. He’s been paying attention to the intelligence from Pakistan and meeting with his National Security team. When the time was right, he gave the order to strike. Whether you like Barak Obama or not, he seems to have handled this particular situation effectively.

It made me wonder. Do I have what it takes to ignore the attacks, ignore the controversies, and stick to business? Or am I easily distracted, driven by a need to defend and protect my fragile ego? If people were in the press day after day maligning my character, criticizing my actions, and doing their best to make me look foolish, could I keep my mind on the mission God has for me?

Jesus made clear that his followers are going to come under attack, be misunderstood and slandered. Just before his death, Jesus told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart — I have overcome the world.” In another place Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Are you focused on the mission God has given you? Are you even aware God has a mission laid out for you? If you don’t have a sense that God has called you into a specific mission, it’s easy to get distracted by the small battles along the way. But if you have a sense of the greater calling God has placed on your life, it will be easier to ignore the trivial pursuits. Then you can be like Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Don’t get distracted by the small stuff — keep your eyes on the mission God has given you!