Thursday, December 4, 2008

Church of Starbucks

Ok, so I'm not dead. I just haven't posted in a really long time. I've come across a blog called Beyond Relevance, a website devoted to helping churches figure out culture. Many churches try new things, often to discover that what they're doing was "in" ten years ago. For example, using a new font for bulletins and anouncements, like Papyrus - the most overused font on the face of the earth. Anyway, Beyond has put together a little video to make their point. What if Starbucks marketed itself like a church (i.e. a 'seeker friendly' evee-free church)

I'm not a big fan of church marketing to begin with, at least the concept in general. If by 'church marketing' you mean, we're going to try to make our letterheads match and have a website that doesn't look like it was made with Windows 3.0 and a crayon, fine. If you mean you are trying to figure out how the wider, essentially non-Christian-but-heard-enough-Christian-jargon-to-be-innoculated culture sees the church, fine. If you mean you are trying the latest fad to get attendance to go up, forget it, they'll see right through you like a clear, see-through thingy.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Cultural Christianity (funny but depressing)

After my last posting on Obama vs. The Rain Prayers I thought it can't get any worse than this. Well, it has. I came across this website which collects a different image of Jesus created by Christians from all over. I don't know if the site is run by non-Christians or not, but clearly Christians have domesticated Jesus to an extent where the Son of God, Lord and Savior, the God-Man who is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who is worthy of glory and honor and power and praise, the Lamb who was slain from the foundations of the world, is reduced in total to "Jesus is my friend." Awww. Isn't that sweet. Like, my favorite Jesus, like of all time, is like, the Buddy Jesus from that, like, Dogma movie.

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present: Jesus of the Week (in stereo & Technicolor [tm] )

And I heartily recommend this particular Jesus, which comes from our brothers across the sea, The French. Be sure and click the link at the end of the commentary for more alien Jesus fun. (granted, this last one is not a Christian contribution)

It is a sad indication that Western Christianity has little if any ability to present the Lord Jesus Christ to its culture in any way that is faithful to who Jesus really is - that is, the Jesus of the New Testament. Most of the best cultural and pop cultural presentations of Christ actually come from non-Christians these days (for example, Spielberg's Amistad). I would loved to be proved wrong on this. Any takers?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Christians Being Stupid

So here's a video I just saw about a guy who wants God to send rain on Obama's acceptance speech in Denver later this month. It's so smarmy I want to vomit. Nevertheless, a deeper question remains. If a Christian does not agree with some (or even all) of Mr. Obama's platform, is this the appropriate recourse as a Christian? How about praying for God to work in and through the election process, or that God would move a particular politician to change their views on an issue. Lord knows tons of progressive Christians have done so for the last eight years (the ones who aren't staging protest rallies, that is). Furthermore, if a prayer request for supernatural intervention is on the table, why not just shoot for the moon and call down the thunder. Why not do as Moses did when Korah rebelled and the earth swallowed them up (Numbers 16:28-35). Or James and John when the Samaritan village refused to let Jesus in and they asked him, "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven and consume them." (Luke 9:51-56). Oh wait, Jesus rebuked them when they said that.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight. Just the name itself is ridiculously cool, even if you've never read the Frank Miller graphic novel. It is fitting (and thankfully not ironically tragic) that the movie bearing the same name does not suck, but is in fact one of the best movie's I've seen in a long time.

I'm a pretty big movie fan, and when it comes to the comic-book hero genre of films my standards are pretty low and easily pleased. Perhaps that is why more often than not I am "pleasantly surprised" when at the comic book movies. But the Dark Knight, like it's predecessor Batman Begins, takes the genre to a whole new level. A few thoughts on this impressive film. By the by, the NYT's review is actually pretty good, although it is filled with art-house fancy-shmacy words that I really don't know the meaning of (which is saying something).

First, if you are my age, you will remember the hullabaloo surrounding Tim Burton's 1989 take on the franchise, which probably should have more appropriately been titled "Joker", since the film was really more about Jack Nicholson and his dermatologically bleached character. Batman was really an after-thought. But, while Heath Ledger's performance is undoubtedly riveting and repulsively engrossing, Batman/Bruce Wayne still weighs in heavily. And what really makes the film is how it wrestles with the questions surrounding human nature. Bruce Wayne's inner battle to actually no longer have to be the dark knight (i.e. the anti-hero) is fantastic. His hopes are in Harvey Dent, an ordinary citizen who will fight for justice. In a world with people like Harvey, maybe we won't need a Batman after all.

I can't help but think of Nietzsche at this point. In a world of 'good' people, who needs a savior. Who needs God, except to relegate him to 'a god' for our own petty self-gratifying needs. Thus the danger of Wayne's struggle. When good people stand up for justice he will no longer need to walk the precarious line as dark hero to save the city. After the Joker's little 'social experiment' with the ferry boats doesn't work, Batman claims that people aren't all evil and can tap into good (thus they didn't destroy the other boats). But the tables turn again because Harvey Dent goes nuts and Bruce has to take the fall as the dark hero and remain Batman. Ironically, Harvey was the one on whom all his hopes were placed. So much for that anthropology.

On the other hand, the Joker says of ordinary, 'good' people, "When the chips are on the table, normal people will eat each other." How true. The diagnosis of the monster within, which only has a very thin veneer of civility indeed, is given by the film's true monster. The only thing that breaks the cycle is sacrifice (a very Christian idea). And that is, amazingly, what we see in the film. The huge prisoner (played by "tiny" lester) tells the warden that he will take the blame for blowing up innocent civilians. You want to kill, but you've never seen someone die. I'll do it, he says. And when he gets the detonator, he throws it out the window, sits down, and bows his head with a few other inmates who gather, with bowed heads, around him. Now, while this character does not offer his own life in a sacrificial manner, in a real sense he does become the scapegoat, taking the iniquity of all the 'good' people (who are vehemently eager to blow up other people, incidentally) upon himself. Hands down favorite scene.

One last thought for you all to respond to. Check out this article published last week in The Wall Street Journal. It's created quite a stir in the blogosphere, and understandably so. Let me just say that the author's point is so valid it's hard to dispute, but his interpretation of fantasy as the means of the conservative branch of Hollywood is based on allegory (Batman = George Bush), which is actually the wrong way to interpret fantasy as a genre, including comic book based films. Discuss...

The Fruit of Grace

Here's a video of a newscast from Tennessee. An elderly Christian woman gets carjacked, but she shares her faith with the perp and he starts to cry. After talking with him in her car for a few minutes she gives him all her money anyway and he tearfully gives her a kiss on the cheek and leaves.

What an amazing picture of grace. We speak of the fruit of the spirit working in this way: that grace produces what the law requires. The response of a sinner to grace in this news clip is a tender expression of affection. Grace produces love - love does not elicit grace. That is to say, our love of God does not prompt him to be gracious to sinners. If it did, then it wouldn't be grace and Christ died for nothing (Gal 2:21).

Such one way love (grace) produces a reaction in its object: love! The carjacker, in that moment of grace, gave the old lady a kiss on the cheek. Spontaneously and probably quite to his own shock (although that would be conjecture, but I'm willing to bet on it). And in the end he got what he didn't deserve, the money he was trying to take by force in he first place.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

It's Fun To Do Bad Things...

Over the last few weeks I've been reading the Book of Romans in the Bible. It talks about human nature in a very stark and, quite frankly, offensive manner. It says that we are all dead in sin (Adam's sin) and rebellion. It says that all people, by their wickedness, suppress the truth. Only God's radical intervention of grace in Jesus Christ, who died for our wickedness, can change us.

Most Americans think we are "basically good." What we really need is encouragement and to be pointed in the right direction. Very often this sentiment is expressed by stating that what troubled people need is "education." And even if adults and society in general are bad, children certainly are not bad. They come into the world innocent; that is, untainted by Adam's sin. Well, here's a video on YouTube from a recent news broadcast in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, which blows this sentimental (and unrealistic) view out of the water. The fact that a kid would do something like this is not hard to imagine. His own view of his behavior, is plainly demonstrative of our fallen nature.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Devil You Don't Know

"A Romanian village re-elected Mayor Neculai Ivascu even though he died shortly before the election. Ivascu had been mayor for nearly 20 years. “I know he died, but I don’t want change,” said one voter."

Wow. how badly do we cling to the past. This little news snippet was in last week's issue of The Week, under their "Good Week/Bad Week For...the devil you know" section.

While certainly an extreme, this sentiment clearly demonstrates the bound nature of the human will. Despite a rational understanding of the candidate's status of 'dead', the voter's will was completely unable to follow reason. But instead the will turned in on itself out of fear, and elected a corpse to office. If humans are unable to get past their fallen, broken wills to elect a mayor, how much more completely unable are we to "vote" yes for God?!

Luther was right, the will is bound. We don't choose God, he loves and finds us curled in on ourselves, and by his grace brings forgiveness and light. Left to our own devices we will choose death again and again and again. Not life. Sorry Joshua. Makes you wonder who will be their next mayor.

How well do you know your country?

MSN just posted the latest citizenship test, which non-citizens must pass in order to be naturalized. Think back to your middle school civics & government class and click here to take the test. (FYI, yours truly scored 100%, thanks Mr. Stiffler).

Regardless of how you do on this test, it makes you also wonder about the process of citizenship. Some receive it by birth, warranted by the location of their mother a the time of their birth. Some receive it by working for it, by moving to this land and applying to the government and after achieving prescribed requirements, then earn citizenship. Now, while the rights of both born and naturalized citizens are identical, the way they become citizens is different. One works for it, the other does nothing, it's given.

If I may springboard from this idea, moving beyond the political and societal implications of naturalization, to the biblical idea of citizenship. Our default setting regarding salvation and God, is actually in terms of naturalization. All religions of the world prescribe how one may become a "citizen" of that religion. They are naturalized by their actions, of which faith may or may not be included. By achieving prescribed requirements, something is then conferred.

However, the Christian Gospel of Jesus tells us that none are naturalized by earning their citizenship, but rather we enter into His heavenly kingdom only by being born from above (i.e. born anew or to even use the phrase born again - see John 3:1-18). Just as some US citizens are such by no merit of their own, but have it by birth unearned, so the grace of God grants to sinners citizenship in his kingdom by being born again, not by their achievements but by his preordained grace. Jesus said, "You did not choose me, but I chose you." I am a US citizen not by my freewill choice, but by nature of my birth. Likewise eternal life is given me by God's grace bringing new birth of which I contribute nothing.

Please note, my point here is not to argue that naturalized citizens in this country are somehow "second class." That is not my point at all. Rather, my point is simply analogous: that one citizen earns their citizenship, one does not. Likewise one view of Christianity is that we earn our citizenship in heaven - either by our works or by our "choice" of Jesus - the other says it is only by God's grace are any born anew as heavenly citizens

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Kaczynski's Unlikely Bond

I just read this short article in "The Week" check it out.

It, no pun intended, blew me away. It deals with David Kaczynski, the brother of Unibomber Ted Kaczynski. David turned Ted in to the Feds, but before doing so he called one of his victims, Gary. David was wrestling with guilt - would one of Ted's victim's blame him, or impute guilt-by-association. Whe he found in Gary was forgiveness and grace. What was produced was, over time, a very real and genuine friendship. This line from David is the kicker:
"Gary and I are ‘blood brothers’ in a literal sense. Our bond forged through violence is as powerful and as deep as any genetic bond."

Amazing to think that a violent act actually, through grace, produced a relationship that otherwise would not be there. Note that the violence is not trivialized here, but that something good comes out of it, specifically by means of forgiveness and grace. And the good that comes out is a relationship. How Gospel is this! That a violent and tragic act of the Cross would bring a new relationship through grace and forgiveness. I don't know much else about David K, other than that he opposes the death penalty. But I do know that he has experienced something that is certianly quite Gospel.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Imperfect Past

It's been a heck of a few weeks. We just moved into a new townhouse, which, while only a mile or so from our old apartment and very nice, still requires going through the whole moving "thing". Boxes like Tribbles take over your dwelling and you experience a radical sense of disconnect and disquiet in your life. The move went well and we were getting back to a semblance of routine and Memorial weekend hit. Not only was there a funeral of a dearly loved member of church (who had died suddenly), but an election for a new bishop, as well as the requisite BBQ on Monday. Just a crazy handful of days.

All this is to point me to the fact that we are creatures who are forced to remember. We are rooted in the past. Who we are today - with all our "issues", fears, shortcomings, and even joys - are almost entirely the product of our past. It is the unavoidable reality of life that the present is always flying past us into the past (the present is always becoming the past), and we are irrevocably people of the past. Never mind what Garth says ("live in the now!" - Wayne's World), everything we deal with, or rather, how we deal with everything, is phenomenally dependent on what happened in our past.

Furthermore, very few people that I meet who are "dealing" with stuff in the present, have difficulties and challenges in dealing because they had such a wonderful high school graduation. Or really enjoyed their cotton candy at a beautiful day at the zoo in fourth grade. Just about everyone I know (including myself) who is struggling to deal with something in the now is struggling not because of a positive thing from their past but a negative.

We are creatures formed and sculpted by the past. But we are creatures who are undeniably formed particularly by the negative things in our past. Not 100% shaped by the negative, but without a doubt upper 90s%. Why do some women fear and even hate men? Not because of a positive thing from their past, but a negative. Why do some people have a really hard time opening up in a relationship? Not because of positive things in their past but negative - a bad breakup/rejection in high school, or perhaps experiencing a divorce in the family.

For God to be Gospel he has to be able to impact us not just today but also yesterday (and tomorrow too for that matter, but for now I'm not going to focus on the future aspects of the Gospel, but the past). Jesus said, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). If I was meeting with someone who was struggling with something and they were bearing their soul and I were to respond, "I hear what your saying, that's really heavy. Let me ask you this: have you tried being perfect? Why don't you go home today and try being perfect for the next few days and see what that does for your situation." If you were that person you'd want to slap me, wouldn't you?!

The reason being is that the demand to be perfect, whether from counselors, friends, or even God, does not do anything to help you in a season of distress. If anything, all it does is crush your soul. And we all know this because our pasts are littered with the strewn carcasses of our failure to be perfect. Our pasts are searing indications of our imperfection. When Jesus says, "Be perfect," it is not a suggestion, nor hyperbole for literary effect or shock value, but the simple truth. The righteous demands of God in our lives are simply summed up in the demand: Be Perfect. In the end, however, this demand only crushes us, it does not inspire. We can fake ourselves into being inspired, but that only prolongs the inevitable.

What the crushing weight of "Be Perfect" does to us is forces us to cry for a savior. In the face of my history of imperfection I am forced to cry out "Save me!" Save me from my past, from my failures, from myself. Your past, when truly remembered, experienced, and exposed, will force you to either lie (to yourself and others) or to cry "Mercy!"

Incidentally, the only person who could take that demand and say, "yes" is the one who said it: Jesus. And it is Jesus, the Perfect one, who ends up loving the imperfect and also dying for their imperfections. And what happens when you trust this radical truth? When you remember your failures, you will not only see them for what they are, but you will also see him. The pain and frustration don't necessarily go away, but under the cool shadow of the cross, something else becomes present in our past - peace, and love. The sense of fear or loss or sorrow doesn't evaporate, but rather something covers it over like a balm, so that when you revisit those emotions and memories, the sting is not as sharp.

This is a taste of the peace which passes all understanding. When an utter Failure finds they are loved by the complete Success, that is called grace, and grace heals. Grace soothes, and by the power of Jesus' own Spirit, grace changes. That is why when Christians remember, they don't just remember their failures (like in a worship service during the confession), but they go way back to remember the Cross where the righteous died for the unrighteous, so that the negative, formative failures of the past might be mended by undaunted love..."love to the loveless shown that they might lovelier be".

Mike, we love you and we miss you but you are with Christ, which is better by far.

Monday, May 5, 2008


When did you last take a survey or a test or questionnaire where you had to fill out the personal identity section? You know the ones where you have to check the box on your gender, ethnicity, economic range, etc. Did you know that a few years ago in England the census had a write-in space for the category of religion, and enough people put "Jedi Knight" that the government legally had to recognize it as a religion! Interesting tales in the world of identity...

If you are a Christian, how often, if ever, do you think of your primary identity as "disciple". One of the last things Jesus ever said to his followers before he left the earth and ascended into heaven was, "make disciples of all nations". He wanted his disciples to make more disciples. The intentional life lived as a follower of Jesus, i.e. a disciple, i.e. a Christian, is aften called discipleship. When most Christians hear about "discipleship" there is typically one of two reactions: The Monty Python Reaction, or The Pat Benatar Reaction. The first reaction is embodied by Graham Chapman's King Arthur in , "Run awwwaaayyyy!". The second reaction is embodied by the hit 80s song, "Hit me with your best shot."

The first reaction is often the most common because most people, at the end of a long day don't want another list of "do's" they have to be subjected to. So when the crazy demon bunny jumps at their neck with a laundry list for being a good Christian, they 'Run Away."

Then there's the second reaction. It springs from the person who views discipleship as a list of accomplishments, so "hit me with your best shot," as in, I can take it. Like Happy Gilmore in the batting cage getting ready for next year's hockey season their Christian faith is lived out with rigorous devotions or even spiritual disciplines with the understanding that the more you do the better you become.

Both reactions derive from viewing discipleship through the Law. Discipleship is about doing a list of things (that list changes depending on who you talk to, BTW). Not that any of these things, like prayer, studying Scripture, meditation, or fasting are bad, but discipleship does not begin nor end with them.

Most answers to the question "What is a disciple of Jesus" focus on what to do. That is to say, the task of making disciples involves tips on better Bible study and prayer and ideas for outreach or worship. If you do these things then you are a disciple, if you get better at them that is called discipleship.

There is certainly plenty for disciples of Jesus to do, and really ought to do - this is what I call "doing disciples". But there is another, more important dimension called "being disciples." In the Christian life all doing, if it is to be good 'doing', must flow from a right being. A disciple of Jesus is first and foremost a receptacle of the Gospel of Jesus, that is, being justified (set right) by God's grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). All disciple 'doing' must come from this.

In Philippians 3:3-6 the Apostle Paul is describing his life under the Law. Granted, he is referring to his status and behavior as a devout Jew before his conversion on the Damascus road, but he is not lifting that life up as the way to be a better Christian. Quite the opposite, in fact. He notes his (former) confidence in his lineage of the right people and right tribe and his zeal for what mattered most: keeping the mandates of God (i.e. keeping the Law)

But then he discovers, or rather it was revealed to him, that what he thought mattered the most in fact mattered the least. His status, standing, and pursuit of the law, he realized, did not matter. Why? If you give me a list of things to do and I am able to do them, what happens in my mind is that the list becomes the source of my goodness. You gave me all these things to do, I have done them (or at least think I have done them), and on the basis of that list do I begin to think of myself as good and righteous.

But for Paul this was the worst place to be in, because in the end, when someone relies on the Law for righteousness, they will eventually see themselves as the source of their own righteousness. Furthermore, life continually presents you with failures not success. To think that one can consistently keep God's Law and be righteous in His sight according to the Law is a serious case of denial. What Paul realizes is his need for a new source of righteousness.

In Philippians 3:7-15 Paul talks of discipleship under grace. He counts everything as a loss compared to knowing Christ. That is to say, he rejects all other sources of righteousness apart from faith in Christ. He considers all other sources as dung (the original Greek is actually more explicit, but you get the picture). He wants to know the power of Jesus' resurrection and to share in Jesus' sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, not in His success. This new way of looking at his life blew all of Paul's old performances out of the water. And what did that produce in him? Joy!

In the end, then, all discipleship "doing" must be things which redirect you to the things in the preceding paragraph, and must flow from them. Worshipping, serving, studying the Bible, and inviting others with this Gospel message are the "do's" of discipleship, and they are good. But unless you understand and are redirected, daily, to God's grace in Jesus Christ you will implode.

Let me close with this one last thought. When a crisis hits, what you and I need to know is that we are loved, not evaluated. I recently watched a movie called "Relative Strangers" with Kathy Bates, Danny DeVito, and Neve Campbell. Great cast, absolutely awful movie. I actually couldn't finish it because the acting and the story were soooooo bad. Not profane or gross, but just really bad (see trailer). The main character plays a self-help psychologist who's message (and recently published book) is "Ready, Set, Let Go!". While on a radio broadcast he leads his listener audience through this simple mental exercise to "let go" and the scenes cut to people screaming in traffic and family members fighting. They are listening to the broadcast, go through his steps, and find calm. And then two seconds later get cut off by another car and start screaming all over again. It actually makes you laugh, but only because we all know how true it is and have been there ourselves. The point is this, that peace does not come from within, by following steps, but from without - from Christ. Thus discipleship is first and foremost no what you can do (with five easy steps!), but what Christ has done and being connected and reconnected with Him.

[In the next part of our discussion on discipleship, "Disciples of Grace", we'll take a look at this dynamic between the madness within and the remedy without, and just how radical grace really is]

Crazy Bible Verses

A friend of mine sent me a link to this page on Cracked magazine's website. These are the Bible verses that would never be read in Church, even bible-based evangelical churches. My only regret about this article, which i belive is written by a non-Christian, is that i didn't write it!