Thursday, November 17, 2016

Living As a Christian in an Anxious Age

With the presidential election results squarely in our review mirror, I’m amazed at people’s reaction. I know Christians who are deeply disturbed by a Trump presidency and others who are gleeful that at last, our left leaning country may stand a chance at tipping more upright. Some people in New York, Christians and otherwise, are afraid to admit they’d voted Trump for fear of recrimination, while others are planning on monitoring his every move. As one of my left leaning friends put it, “We’ll watch him and hang it on his neck when he messes up.” Others are protesting outright and taking to the streets. And then there are the protests of the protests. “What are we protesting?” I heard one person say. “Our democratic process?” One man named Dionne Alexander, a vet, excoriated those who are protesting in a Facebook post gone viral saying, “You’re causing all this destruction because your candidate lost! See that’s the problem with this country. You can’t always get your way…Quit being crybabies.” Whoa! We are one divided country right now. So what can we do to live in an anxious age?

I’m reading a good book right now by John Inazu called Confident Pluralism. It’s political science book and one that offers a way through the maze. I’d recommend it for those who are trying to figure out how we can live a pluralistic culture. The same author co-wrote an article with Tim Keller in Christianity Today, September 16, 2016 entitled, “How Christians Can Bear Gospel Witness in an Anxious Age.” Listen to Inazu and Keller: 

Our engagement in… an anxious age is made possible by our confidence in the gospel in a pluralistic society where people have profoundly different beliefs. We won’t always be able to persuade those around us that our beliefs are right and theirs are wrong.… But recognizing the existence of these disagreements should not prevent us from holding to what is ultimately true. Our beliefs can be true, and we can hold these warranted beliefs confidently even though others reject them. …. [a] confidence in the gospel can encourage us to work to strengthen the social fabric for the good of others.

This kind of posture is what one of us [Inazu] has called “confident pluralism.” As Christians, we can engage with the pluralism around us because our confidence lies elsewhere. We can acknowledge genuine differences in society without suppressing or minimizing our firmly held convictions. We can seek common ground even with those who may not share our view of the common good.

So here’s a thought. Regardless of where you/we stand on the election results, if you are a Christian, lets choose to put our confidence in Christ and what God has done through his work to bring real lasting change to each of our lives, and in our culture. And while we’re at it, lets take the time to listen to those who have a different opinion with respect, grace, and genuine interest. It will go along way to lowering social anxiety, contributing to the common good, and we may even learn something.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

I'm Entitled

I saw it on the fourth of July, on a beach on the North Shore of Boston a few years ago. The crowd was poised for the fire works show. There were thousands of people milling around the beach with their blankets and beach chairs waiting for the inevitable. The place was packed. You couldn’t be alone if you wanted to. And its in that environment where I/we experienced, once again, the mindset of entitlement.

The show started and everyone took a seat on a blanket or a chair; well almost everyone. There was a small group of people, maybe ten yards from us, who remained standing. “Down in front,” people called. That did little to make them move. They huddled together a little more closely out of consideration but the message was clear, “We’re not sitting down. If we block your view, so what?!” And so the show went on and on and on and they remained standing—to the end. I guess I didn’t like that they blocked my view of the lower fireworks. It was pretty obvious that they were locals, based on how they were talking and acting. They probably had yearly beach passes. Maybe they lived in the community. I don’t know. But clearly, they felt entitled to stand while everyone else sat. They were at least middle class, white, and arrogant. They were entitled. And who they inconvenienced was irrelevant to them. It was truly amazing to watch. Irritating but amazing. They were entitled. And they let everyone know it!

It made me think about how much people feel entitled to. In America we feel entitled to compensation if we can’t work and a nice living if we can, freedom of speech and religion, health benefits, dignity, respect (even if you act disrespectfully), material goods, personal satisfaction and meaning, the right to say what you think or feel even if it hurts someone, happiness, and a lot more. We feel entitled. I’m not so sure that’s always good. I think in a democracy, there are benefits and those benefits, more than entitlements, seem to me to be more like privileges. I recently finished a book by a guy named Jamie Smith. The book is called How (Not) to be Secular. Smith’s book is a summary of a book by philosopher, Charles Taylor, who is so complex to read very few can understand him. So you read Smith to understand Taylor. At any rate, Charles Taylor (via Jamie Smith) notes that there is an individualism that haunts our modern way of life in the west. My take on it is that it erodes our ability to care for others the way we should.

St. Paul told the Corinthian church that he was entitled; entitled to compensation, entitled to respect, entitled to bring a believing wife along on his ministry if he so chose. But he didn’t. He chose, for others sake, to give up the things he was entitled to and live instead with a servant heart. Are we doing that? Am I doing that? Its easy to feel entitled. Its hard to want to serve. Jesus Christ, as the eternal Son of God, is entitled to respect, reverence, honor, and glory. On the cross He gave it all up for us. I think that means we can and should do the same for others.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

I Just Bought My First Pair of Skinny Jeans

I just bought my first pair of skinny jeans. It’s true. I’m sort of, well—there is no easy way to say this—kind of skinny. I’m well muscled, as my aunt described me way back (I hang on to that statement hoping its actually true), but well muscled in a skinny sort of way. So the jeans fit and look good. I plan to wear them preaching some time. I share this bit of family reality for one simple reason. Christianity Today recently published a study done by Fuller Theological Seminary. The article was entitled “Put Away the Skinny Jeans.”  “But I just bought mine!!!” I protested. Let me unpack this more.

The article debunks what many in the Christian community have assumed for years—that youth are reached by a relevant service, modern music, hipster dress, a cool place to worship, youthful staff, and coffee. The key issue in reaching youth isn’t any of those things. The article lists several areas that are necessary: (1) They want to be the best possible neighbors within their cities. The churches that were “growing young” were showed high involvement and creativity in their commitment to be good neighbors (2) The goal is the gospel. Other things are good, like racial reconciliation, or social justice. But the ultimate goal is the gospel and engaging people as an expression of the gospel. (3) Key chain leadership, meaning senior leadership is avoiding leadership models that focus on personal charisma and moving towards giving the keys of power over to the younger generation. (4) Focus on youth has little to do with hiring a good youth pastor and giving them domain of a part of the property but is seen in everything from how the budget’s made to programming to planning and community life. In short, younger people are made a priority. They are needed and they feel needed! (5) Finally, older folks willingness to be part of the lives of younger folks including showing up at football games, learning their names, and supporting their endeavors.

The irony of this has to do with the demographic of Moses Lake Alliance Church where I now work as a pastor. It’s made up mostly of the kinds of people who have the biggest impact on the lives of younger people: older people. You read it right! Older folks like me (gasp—did I actually write that) who are just not yet retired (or even sixty) can have a meaningful impact on the lives of younger people by doing several simple things: (1) Caring (2) Releasing authority and responsibility into the hands of those who are ready to have it. (3) and focusing on the gospel instead of other superfluous issues.

The big challenge for any congregation is whether or not they want to do this. What I’d tell people is, “Don’t wait around for the staff to tell you how. Figure out a way to care for younger folks in the community and do it.” They’ll start inviting their friends to church, church activities, groups, and mid-sized events simply because they are cared for, loved, and respected.

A Lament for Another American Tragedy

Another black man was shot and killed by the police. This time it was in Charlotte, NC. The police recovered a handgun at the scene along with an ankle holster. The man was on medication and may not have responded properly to police commands. He was right handed but had something in his left hand which the police claimed was the gun. The investigation is underway. The man’s name is Keith Lamont Scott. He was not just another black man. He was a person. He was married. He had kids. And yes, he had a criminal record. I’ll let you read about the details in the paper.

The issue for me isn’t simply who's right and whose wrong here. That’s not the issue. The issue is that we have this incredible spate of police shootings of black men--regardless of who is right or wrong. The NT Times posted an editorial by an African American professor at Yale who wondered how long he’d live as a black man (can't find the editorial to post here). Just being a black male makes you a suspect these days. I’ve heard all the reasons why. And I think I can honestly say that in many cases, law enforcement is correct to shoot, regardless of a persons skin color. But not in every case!! There seems to be way too much of it these days. Some may say, “Well, if you limit police officers right to use deadly force, there will be fewer police officers going home for dinner after a shift.” That may actually be true. And that wouldn’t be right either.

Now some may say I’m moving towards a liberal view of justice. I don’t think so. I want to move towards God’s view of justice. The political and cultural right and left don’t dictate my views on things. I'm a Christian first, an American citizen second. 

Truthfully, I don’t know what the answer is. But the only thing we can do is what the scripture calls Lament. The Psalms are full of Lament’s where’s God’s people cry out to God for his seeming absence. Ruth Haley Barton, a spiritual formation author, recently noted this on her blog site in response to the some of the tragedies including the killing of police officers in Dallas during a peaceful protest. Here is what she said: 

"The prayer of lament is that unsettling biblical tradition of prayer that includes expressions of complaint, anger, grief, despair, and protest to God. Many of us have never been taught this way of praying and it is often missing in the worship of many congregations…. The prayer of lament is a place to begin as we seek to respond to the sin, the brokenness, and the complexity of our life together as human beings. It is tempting to rush to problem-solving and fixing when the situation is so dire, but I hope we won’t."

"Let us stop, at least for a moment, and lament together. Let us stand in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters who continue to experience such tragic loss; let us mourn with them the loss of another black male and affirm that black lives matter. Let us grieve for the law enforcement officers who lost their lives while trying to keep the peace. Let us acknowledge complexity, that we don’t have answers, and cry out to God together for the peace and justice that seems to elude us."

Psalm 13 is an example of a prayer if lament. I’ll include it in this post for your reflection. 

"How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me."

How (Not) to be Secular--A Review

I’m not the first person to say this and I’m pretty sure I got this from someone else. So here goes: the great sin of our age isn’t that God’s dead, but that God’s trivial. He just doesn’t matter. “There is no God” is more than atheistic fiat. It’s the de facto way American culture works. We may give attention to him here and there but frankly, we don’t pay much attention. We give him his due, sort of, kind of, maybe—not really. It affects everything from what we spend our money on, to justice issues, to race relationships, to what we think about in our spare time. He’s just  not really considered.

I recently finished a book entitled How (Not) to be Secular—Reading Charles Taylor, by Jamie Smith. Smith is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. He’s taken Charles Taylor's book A Secular Age, and made it understandable. Don’t think that reading Smith’s a whole lot easier! He’s got a glossary in the  back just to keep the reader informed. It’s not an easy read. But if you want to understand the western culture we live in, that’s the book to read. Smith comes from a distinctly Christian worldview (Smith is a Philosophy Professor at Calvin College) but the goal is to understand culture more than provide an apologetic for the Christian faith. Here are a couple of his main points:

In the modern secular world, we doubt transcendence. As a result, doubt and longing are the cross pressures (how people respond to the lack of transcendence) of the secular world. Pg. 11

What makes our modern secular age is the default assumptions about what is actually believable. Some people call this a plausibility factor. A God whose personally involved in our world just doesn't seem plausible (e.g. I think Leslie Newbigin came up with that idea in The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society). Pg. 19

There is no goal beyond human flourishing. Pg. 23

Civility becomes the naturalized, secularized sanctification. Pg. 43 

Humanism isn’t something we fell into but an achievement (Taylor makes this very clear and Jamie Smith captures it nicely). Pg. 57

We are buffered and sealed off from enchantment (the sense of God’s presence in the world) which also seals us off from meaning and significance. Consequently we no longer view this world as a “Cosmos” created by God but as a “Universe” that is cavernous, anonymous space. Pg. 64, 69

All of this secularization is rooted in assumptions! There really is no neutrality only “unthoughts” as he calls them (Taylor—and thus Smith in writing about Taylor—begins in the later part of the book to show the inconsistencies of secularism). Pg. 80f

The real consequence of secularism is that you have no reason for meaning, morality, or beauty (he calls this agency, ethics, and aesthetics). These become “cross pressures” on our secular culture which forces us to violate the logical implications of a secular culture devoid of God. Pg. 102

In fact, secularism faces the same dilemma Christianity faces: to attain any sort of moral aspiration requires you repress your ordinary human desires!  Pg. 112

Consequently, there really are moral codes in a secular culture and they focus on political correctness. Pg. 128.

It’s an incredible book. The last chapter Smith entitles “How (not) to be Secular” but does little to clearly actually unpack specifics of what that may look like. The reader has to figure it out on his or her own. But it's a great book, one that I will turn to regularly as I seek to be a good Christian leader in today's culture.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

It’s (not really) simple! Thoughts on Recent Tragedies

That seems to be the new American solution to everything. “It’s simple.” After a Muslim extremist shot up a gay night club in Orlando, there were essentially three reasons brought up for the carnage. An editorial in The Week noted the three most common: (1) Our failure to keep weapons of war out of the hands of terrorists (2) President Obama’s refusal to take ISIS seriously (3) Hatred and intolerance for the LGBT community. The reductionistic arguments repeated over and over by commentators, and others like them, became combatant and a bit odd when CNN’s Anderson Cooper went on the offensive against Florida’s Attorney General because she didn’t Tweet enough about Gay Pride.

Then after the unjustified killing of several black men by the police in Minneapolis, MN and in Banton Rouge, LA and the killing of five police officers in Dallas during a peaceful protest, the blame game started. “It’s simple,” we were told, The problem is the Black Lives Matter movement, Donald Trump, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Church, and so forth and so on. 
I’m thinking these simplistic solutions to complex problems aren’t helpful. And they are really unhelpful when they take on religious overtones. But I have my own simple solution. It’s the human heart. Our hearts are hard. All of our hearts; not just the hearts of people like the guy shooting up the gay bar in Orlando or the people shooting up the café’s and dance hall in Paris. And not just the hearts of right wing conservatives who naively seem to think that our only real problems are economic and big government and we should become isolationists to protect ourselves, or left wing liberals who can’t seem to tolerate anyone who disagrees with them and believe the best rules are no rules except the rules they want. 

 Our hearts are hard. And people do what they do for reasons we are unaware of. In fact, based on my experience, people do what they do for reasons they themselves often don’t fully understand! Why? Because their hearts are hard and its complex. Who can know the human heart?! It’s not really that simple.  

As a follower of Jesus I’ve been struck by how the early church addressed issues like this. Christianity was birthed, and thrived, in the midst of a cultural cauldron that didn’t include CNN, smart phones, multiple political parties, and democracy. The King or Emporer could have a commoner killed for doing virtually nothing wrong. Work was hard. Oppression of the lower class was rampant. War and terrorism were common occurances. Violence was the norm. In Greaco Roman culture, sexual promiscuity was common which included abortion, adultery and long term gay relationships. And yet over time, over decades actually, the church thrived and grew and became powerful in the midst of it all. How? 

Here’s a couple of ways I believe that happened: (1) People in the churches loved each other. Christians were known for their love. (2) They did the politically incorrect thing in a gracious compelling way. They served and supported those society rejected. (3) They policed themselves. That is, not everyone who claimed to be Christians were allowed to call themselves Christians. This separated the wheat from the chaff and allowed the true church to emerge. (4) They valued marriage, family, and sexual purity. It set them apart from the culture as a whole. (5) They sacrificed themselves on behalf of their neighbors and others. They’d adopt little girls exposed to the elements after birth by the Romans who didn’t want baby girls. They stayed in cities during the plagues and cared for the sick at their own risk, when everyone else fled. (6) They valued everyone—especially women and children, who had little worth in the minds of many in that day. (7) They rejected the violent entertainment of the day and didn’t support it. 

In short, they didn’t run away. And best I can tell, they didn’t blame. They didn’t stop living out their faith every day. They continued to worship. They fought for the true faith and celebrated everything Christian because Jesus, the God man, gave everything for them. As Keller puts it somewhere, Christianity fights the individualistic, autonomous consumerism of modern culture because Jesus gave himself for his enemies. Shouldn’t we do the same? The gospel fights the simple reductionistic solutions to difficult problems and provides us with the tools to live humbly, simply, and generously in cities and communities that are often troubled. Life is messy. Lets get in the mess and realize the solutions aren’t simple but they point us to the ultimate solution—a relationship with Jesus Christ that addresses the hardness of the human heart by repentance from sin and faith in his work on our behalf. There is no other world religion like that!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Better to Post Late than not Post At All

I’m not real consistent in posting things on my blog. I blog, often on my own time, then post things when I feel like it. Part of the reason is that people have used those things I’ve posted against me. So I’m careful. 

But I’ve been struck by the things people post on Facebook and on blogs these days. I appreciate honesty and openness but I’m not so sure being that honest and open on a public venue is all that helpful. Same thing with Tweeting. Sometimes its fun to know what people are thinking, or doing, right at a given moment. But sometimes it crosses a line—a big line. A golf commentator once noted a Jordon Spieth tweet that was marginally inappropriate and said, “Well, he’ll learn to not to do that….” 

So below you’ll find a bunch of posts from a while back. Many of them posted on a church web site where I worked and just didn’t post them on my personal site. Some of them are dated. But I’d rather post late than not at all and I’d rather post late than post to regret it. More to come!

The Great Divorce--A Hellish Drama

I went to see the CS Lewis play, The Great Divorce, a while back. The play was off Broadway and in a very small theatre. What a production. It was amazing. If you’ve never read the book, consider it. It’s the story of a bus ride from hell to heaven. At the gates of heaven, each of the bus riders are given the opportunity to get into heaven, but all but one ultimately choose hell. I’ve read it over and over again. Lewis isn’t making a theological statement in the book. If you are reading it with that in mind, you are missing the point. But the characters at heaven’s gates are all very provocative!

For example: One of the characters was a grumbler. The actor walked across the stage mumbling and grumbling. The words cascaded from her lips like water over a water falls. Grumble grumble grumble. Over and over. Lewis used the character to highlight what happens when one becomes the qualities that get us into hell. He notes in the book, “The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. ….It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it, again. But [here Lewis warns us through the character, speaking in the book] there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”

Do you see what he’s saying? There may come a time when sin literally consumes us. It’s become so much apart of us, that it is us and when that happens, its hell. Hell is the by-product of what sin does to us—we become dehumanized and less of what we’ve been created to be to the point where we eternally disintegrate. Sobering!! The whole idea of hell as flames of fire is a metaphor for the eternal, non ending, disintegration of a human soul. Biblically it is searing heat and fire. It is outer darkness and isolation.  We never become what we were created to become: its utter, complete, and entire hopelessness. Lewis seeks to communicate that in the book.

After it was all done, we went out to dinner and discussed which character was most compelling. It made for good conversation. Read the book. The play was put on by The Fellowship of the Performing Arts which is a theatrical company committed to sharing theatre from a Christian worldview. The play, The Great Divorce, had taken several years to perfect and has gotten some great reviews. Max McClean, the founder, came out after the performance and took questions. There were three actors who played sixteen roles!! Honestly, living in NYC has its benefits when it comes to the arts. It was an amazing experience. 

The Gift of Self Awareness

Our two oldest daughters paid Jan and I a tremendous compliment the other day. They said that we’d given them the gift of self-awareness. By that they meant that we’ve taken the time to do adequate self-reflection and, as a result, to make personal and marital changes necessary to grow. This has resulted in changes they have noticed.

I couldn’t help wondering what some of those changes were. I’m almost afraid to ask. But I know that while we perceive ourselves one way, others perception of us reflects more reality than we want to admit. Sometimes others perceptions are certainly wrong. But more often than not, there is some truth in what they see and say about us. So even if what they see or say is just partially correct, it’s still partially correct. What’s most uncomfortable in trying to become self-aware is that others are more than willing to make sure you are aware of your problems, and very unwilling to become aware of their own. It’s frustrating. After thirty years of ministry, I’ve got boat loads of stories about this.

A friend of mine calls this whole awareness thing, “Looking beneath the iceburg.” He says we have to ask ourselves honestly and frequently, “Why do I think that, why did I do that, why do I feel that?” Dan Allendar once said feelings are the window to the soul. They tell us a lot about ourselves. But so do our actions. Do we take the time to actually consider these things? More often than not, I don’t think so. It’s terrifying to discover that some of what I don’t like in others, is actually part of who I am myself. Some of the people who are the least understanding of others, are the most demanding that others understand them. They are also, in my experience, the most least aware. Does that make sense? That’s a lot of “most leasts” and it can be confusing.

Here are three ways to become more self aware: (1) Be willing to risk asking, “Why do I think, act, and feel the way I do?” Then take the time to ponder it. (2) Take others negative reactivity and gracious responses to you seriously. Even if people’s reaction, or kind words, are flawed, they can tell you something. (3) Run to Jesus work on the cross. Let the cross determine the depth of his love for you and the resurrection his capability to answer your prayer. You are loved by the king of the universe! If you have the acolades of the king, why worry about the critique of the paupers! His dying love can give you the courage to be more self-aware and make changes as necessary. (4) Be patient with yourself, it's a life long journey. Enjoy it. Celebrate and acknowledge both strengths and weaknesses.

Death and a Wager

Jan and I are on a Hunger Games marathon. I am not much of a movie guy, but the last several days we’ve been watching the series. It culminates this fall with the final of four films. I’ve been struck once again by something philosopher Charles Taylor is reported to have said in his book on secularism. It goes kind of like this, “This is the first time in human history that God has not been a part of people’s lives.” Amazing!

But then back to the Hunger Games. “I wish we were all dead,” said one character in the movie. “Really?” I thought to myself. “Dead?! Then what? Eternity!" But if you die, and go into the ground, like any other animal, and that’s it, as one friend said to me, sure! Death is a great way out of pain; a great way to flee from trouble. But what if death is more like a portal than a dead end street?

I think Pascal’s wager is a decent reason to believe there is more to life than this life. The wager goes something like this, “If you believe, and God exists, you gain everything. If you disbelieve, and God exists, you lose everything.” (You can find his description of the wager in his book Penses) That’s very simplistic but incredibly compelling since a true believer not only rejects sin with all its ugly implications, but accepts righteousness with all its corresponding beauty. In other words, you truly do gain everything if you follow Christ. Christianity, if not lived out for the glory of God and the good of others, isn’t Christianity. There should be no such thing as a self absorbed, selfish Christian.

The wager, despite some arguments to the contrary, makes sense to me and to many others. But we in the west don’t think that way. Everything is about today, about our safety and ease, about money and possessions and the good life. So at the first sign of trouble, we question God. It makes me wonder. Do I live as if there is only today? Do I live as if the only real solution to my pain is the silence and peace of death, and that’s it? Am I selfish and self-absorbed?

It’s Thanksgiving this week (obviously I wrote this before posting it), but there are millions of Syrian refugees pouring into Europe who don’t think they have much to be thankful for. Islamic Terrorists live to hurt, maim, and destroy. They are Nazi’s with turbans! But if we are followers of Christ, this is not new territory. The first century Romans, if you got on the wrong side of them, weren’t exactly the most hospitable people in the world. The early church thrived in spite of it. Perhaps we can do the same again. But our motivation must be their motivation; Gods beauty, Gods glory, Gods goodness, and Gods revelation of himself in the person and work of Christ, and the hope of eternal life. Death is not the end. This must be the motivation for our philanthropy or witness or even our living out of the Christian life. If the motivating factor is guilt, like it is for so much of modern evangelicalism, I think our philanthropy and godliness will fall flat on its face with the first sign of trouble. As C.S. Lewis said in chapter 10 of Mere Christianity, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. …It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth, you will get neither.” At any rate, the Hunger Games are making me think. I’ll catch the end of the story this week. Those are my thoughts for now.

A Syrian Opportunity

A few months ago I spent a Friday evening with a friend watching the horrific events of the terrorist attacks unfold in Paris. It wasn’t what we’d planned to do! And like many, I read the papers and watched television in the days that followed as people in the west attempted to come to grips with the reality of what happened.

The immediate response of many governors was to exclude Syrian refugees. “I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria,” Gov. Charlie Baker is quoted as saying. According to the NY Times, twenty five Republican Governors vowed to block the entry of Syrian refugees into their states citing the safety of Americans being at stake. I’d like to suggest another way forward.

First, a close family friend who works with refugees informed me that the process of getting refugees into the US from Syria is long and complex. It can take up to two years. Its unlikely that the rigor of the process will fail to provide the needed security from Jihadists.

Second, according to my friend, the real threat from Syrian refugees, or any refugees from an Islamic background for that matter, is more likely to come from the xenophobic reaction of those in the States who are prejudice and fearful. People who have high hopes of a different life in America may get angry and discouraged and be more likely to radicalize in reaction to the bigotry they experience. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. But it was an interesting perspective. Here’s a thought:

I think this is an opportunity for Christians to be radical themselves, but in a very different way from the Muslim radicals. Instead of excluding refugees, why not welcome them into our community? Why not invite them into our homes and into our lives? Hospitality shown to the stranger and the alien is certainly one of the things that’s characterized Christians over the centuries.

Last fall, I spent time with a family that owns a coffee shop in West Philadelphia. They also board five students from Saudi Arabia. The hospitality, grace, and love shown to the Muslim men that I met, and in one case ate with, was extraordinary. While our government must respond wisely to the threat of terrorism on American soil, I think the Christian community can also respond with generosity and grace to those refugees who are fleeing the very terrorism they are suspected of creating. In the early 1980’s the church responded in fear to the AIDS epidemic and, in many cases, lost the opportunity to minister to the Gay community. Perhaps we have a new opportunity to bring people to Christ and serve humankind as we consider the potential influx of Syrian refugees into the US over the next few years. Just a thought.

We Cannot Have God on Our Terms

Several years ago I read The Dark Night of the Soul written by a Catholic monk named John of the Cross. It had a significant impact on my life as John made it clear that there were times in a Christian’s spiritual life that could not be understood. Times of pain, confusion, and sorrow are the anvil on which God teaches us to love Him for himself, not for the good gifts he gives us. Others like Pascal, Augustine and modern day protestants like A.W. Tozer say the same thing. Eugene Peterson puts it in these words in the Forward to the book Mansions of the Heart by Tom Ashbrook, “We cannot have God on our terms, domesticated to our requirements, reduced to our ideas of what we think God should be doing.” A mature Christian will love God for Gods sake, for his beauty’s sake, for his glory’s sake. We don’t love God because he does what we want. We love God because he’s God, period! For this reason, a life of prayer—prayer being giving attention to God in every part of our lives (cf. 1 Thes 5:17)—rooted in our absolute acceptance by God because of Christ’s work on the cross, is fertile ground for spiritual maturity. We can wrestle, argue, and dialogue with God about failures, successes, and our future knowing that whatever happens, as confusing as it may be, doesn’t happen in a outside of God’s awareness and for God’s glory. It teaches us to love Him for His sake, and nothing more.

What's the Deal with God?

“You do your part, I’ll do mine.” That's the deal we make with God. “I’ll be a good guy. I’ll come to church. I’ll give money. I’ll serve you but in the end, you need to come through for me too. And if you don’t?! Well then, the deals off. I’ll marry someone who’s not a Christian, or sleep around, or cheat, or just quit coming to church and serving you, and talking about you, and giving, and being nice, or being cooperative or …..” That’s the deal Christians often make with God. There is only one problem; God doesn’t make deals like that.

A god who makes deals is not the God who says to us, “Take up your cross and follow me.” That’s not the God who says, “I will not yield my glory to another.” Any one can give God glory, and be happy, and follow Christ as a result of an easy life. A pagan can say, “Wow, I’m happy I’m not sick with cancer, have a great spouse, make a lot of money, got over that relational hickup, etc, etc, etc.” It’s quite another thing to keep your relationship with God intact after you’ve been raped or sexually molested, or after your spouse has died when your 35 and left you with three kids, or your family rejects you for your faith, or you lose your job, or you are sued for some accident and it puts your life on a downward spiral, or you are rejected at school because you’re a Christian, or your kids go sideways on you even after you’ve done a decent job raising them, or you were honest and got in trouble while someone else cheated and got away with it, or whatever. See what I mean? Then the deal with God becomes another thing altogether. Then it gets really personal. Because now, Christ isn’t being followed because he’s making life easy but simply because he’s Christ, because he’s God, because he’s glorious and beautiful and lovely.

When you live for Christ without the deal, when you say, “Thy will be done,” not “My will be done,” then God really gets the glory. When you, as an act of faith, obey or serve or give, even when its hard and hurts, then whatever happens to you, as you submit and surrender to him, he gets glory, he gets honor and he gets praise. He gets to be God and he’s shown for who is really is in the eyes of those who watch your life. And in the long haul, who knows, life may work out differently than you ever imagined.

On the cross Jesus showed us what true submission and surrender is. In the Passion event, Jesus let God the Father be God the Father. In the garden of  Gethsemane Jesus asked the Father to let the events of the passion pass from him, “Father, let this cup pass from me,” he requested. But in the end, his deal with the Father was what it had been all along: “I can only do what I see the Father doing” (John 5:19). In other words, the Father has the final say. God is not a negotiator. Let’s all consider saying, “Regardless of what happens, despite it all, thy will be done!”


“Why’d I say that?” I thought to myself. I’d been in a conversation with someone, a friend, and found myself reacting to something they’d said. It happened so fast it was almost automatic. In other words, the terms they used, their tone of voice, their body language, facial expressions, and the way it was said was like the pushing of a button. With that button pushed, there was an automatic reaction that was, well—automatic. It was almost like it was programmed. My father in law worked for IBM and was an electronic engineer. “Computers only do what you tell them to do,” he once told while I was complaining about my computer not working right. In other words, “It’s not to computers fault for doing what you told it to do, Dave!” I didn’t want to hear that but it was true. Within reason, the same is true of our reactivity.

Reactivity, and the corresponding fight, flight, or freeze responses often associated with it, have historical precedent in our lives. In other words, they are virtually programmed into our psyche through our family of origin, life experiences, or just plain human frailty. James and John’s response to the Samaritan village that rejected Jesus is a case of reactivity, “Lord, should we call down fire from heaven to consume them?!!” they asked. “Good heavens no!!” Was Jesus response [Miles paraphrase]. “I don’t do things like that, and neither should you.” Their reactivity to being rejected by Gentiles was tied into their Jewishness and the cultural climate of the day. The same is true for us.

Why do we react when a parent or a spouse or a friend or an enemy states an obvious opinion as if it was fact? Why do we react when a coworker blames us for something we know we didn’t do? Why do we react when our expectations, even those that are really unrealistic, aren’t met? Why do we react when people don’t act or think the way we think they should act or think? Why do we react when others do stuff that is problematic for us when we’ve never told them its problematic for us?

In reality, reactivity tells us something about ourselves. Here’s what I think: reactivity tells us that something other than God is being used to validate our worth, significance, prestige or reputation. In short, reactivity flows from idolatry. And idolatry flows from the sense that something other than God will give me joy, happiness or life. Merle Jordon in his book, Taking on the Gods, says “Essentially, persons are created in the image of God and only in being true to that inner self, linked with God, will emotional and spiritual well-being flow. When a person takes his or her identity from that which is less that the Ultimate Source of Being, then the sense of self is distorted. Various defenses [emphasis mine] and emotional and physical symptoms may appear over time which are covert modes of communicating that one is out of touch with one’s true self and with the true God.” (pg. 24)

Truthfully, we all do this. Some of us are just more overt about it than others. We may react by quietly stewing for weeks over some perceived slight. Or we may explode or become caustic or gossip or trash another person behind their back. All of this tells us more about ourselves than we are often willing to admit.


I recently finished a biography on Roger Williams entitled, Roger Williams: Creation of the American Soul. Williams was a Puritan who lived during the tumultuous times of the early to mid-17th century in both England and the American colonies. I also recently listened to a biographical sermon, by John Piper, on Paul Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. These two men were contemporaries. Williams moved to the colonies in America and went on to become the progenitor of the Separation of Church and State and the author of numerous books. He was thrown out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for believing in religious liberty in spite of the fact that he was a Calvinist like everyone else. Bunyan remained in England, became a pastor, and went through the roller coaster ride of Cromwell’s rule and the reintroduction of the monarchy after Charles I was beheaded. He was imprisoned for twelve years because he refused to give up preaching Baptist doctrine, during which he wrote his auto biography entitled Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and he started writing Pilgrims Progress.

What struck me about these two men were the incredible hardships they faced to live out their Christian faith. Bunyan pastored his church from prison for twelve years. Williams lost everything he had. Religious freedom as we know it, didn’t really exist. You could lose your head for not showing allegiance to the Book of Common Prayer in England. You could lose your livelihood, or be murdered, for believing in religious liberty in early New England.
Both the book and the message were quite convicting. Today in America, Christianity is practiced with relative ease. We deal with budgets and buildings, constitutions and contemporary music, name changes, vision statements, and web sites. These are all important subjects at our church right now. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time talking about them in various churches. But the fact that we can even give energy to these matters is because of the religious freedom we have in this country. It’s not the same elsewhere. 

Today, Christians all over the globe are being killed and persecuted for their belief in Christ. The hardships they experience are incalculable. We debate the changing of our constitution. They debate angry mobs intent on killing them. We get wounded over perceived personal slights on the part of another person. They are physically wounded just for being a Christian. The following is a true story of how one Christian community in an unnamed country decided to address the hardship of persecution:

“So what do we do when the police come to take our lives?” asked a young man and his wife during a meeting in … 2010. An older man answered from his own experience, “Well, this is what I say when this happens to me. I tell them, ‘You are not taking my life. I am giving my life for you, and I hope you will come to know my Lord Jesus Christ so that we can be together in heaven some day.’” The young men and women in the room nodded their heads in agreement and said, “Okay, that is what we’ll say."
What kind of faith creates that kind of response? What do they believe about God to have the courage to stand up for truth like that, while at the same time accepting the hardship, and possible death, that goes with it? The Psalmist gives us the answer: “You are good and what you do is good. Teach me your decrees” (Ps 119:68). And again, “Our God is in heaven, he does whatever pleases him” (Ps 115:3). God has a purpose for you, and for me. That may involve deep pain and suffering or it may not. But we know that in his absolute sovereignty he is infinitely good, so we accept what comes our way with all the confusion, mystery, and pain that accompanies it. Perhaps those I’ve identified in this blog understood one more thing necessary to deal with hardship! On the cross Jesus was unjustly condemned to death as part of God the Father’s plan to redeem us to himself. We deserved the cross. Jesus did not. We deserve hell. Jesus came from heaven to save us from it. So while we may not understand all the hardship in our lives, we know that God is not immune to it, having experienced it himself in the person of Jesus. So we take comfort and continue to live in faith despite the hardship realizing that God, in his sovereign will, allows it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Three Kinds of People

One of the more prolific thinkers of the twentieth century is CS Lewis. I have a small book of his entitled Present Concerns which is a collection of essays he’d written over the years for various publications. One essay in particular caught my attention. It’s called “Three Kinds of People.” In that essay Lewis unpacks what I think is a critical distinction today for those from religious and non-religious backgrounds. In short, it's a critical distinction all of us need to keep in mind, especially those of us who live and work in a religiously secular (my own odd sounding phrase) culture like New England. (I can’t say for sure, but it seems to me that even the non-religious people here seem to have religious roots).

 At any rate, Lewis says that first, there are those people who live for their own sake and pleasure. We would call those non-religious people or irreligious people. Regardless of what you call them, or how you describe them, they are people who live any way they want. They simply don’t care for God or religion or spiritual things. In many cases, spiritual things aren’t even on their radar. There are more of these people around than you might think. Philosopher Charles Taylor has noted that this is the first time in human history when one can live one’s entire life without any sense of the transcendent. 
Then, according to Lewis, there are those people who live with a sense that there is a greater claim on their lives—God’s claim. We’ll call these religious people. But more often than not, they surrender to that claim like a man surrenders to paying taxes. They do it because they have to but then, who wants to pay taxes?! Consequently their faith is as sterile as tax day. It’s there, but they hope that having done their due diligence, and paid what they owe to God, there will be enough of life left over for them to have some fun. 

And then finally, according to Lewis, there is a third type of person. This is the person who doesn’t feel that the will of God limits their will, but it is their will. Unlike the non-religious and religious persons, they don’t live for themselves but for God; for Christ. They do what they do for Gods sake, for his beauty’s sake, for his glory’s sake. For them to live is Christ, says Lewis. 

This is a critical distinction for those who are followers of Christ, or for those who seek to know what it means to be a follower of Christ. Christianity isn’t about working hard to merit Gods blessing. That’s a tax payer mindset. Christianity is living a life of faith based on the hard work done for us on the cross by Christ. We don’t merit God’s grace. We don’t earn God’s grace. We receive God’s grace. There is no other world religion like this. None, so far as I can tell!! And when that is your mind set, the resulting joy and delight that flows from it is palpable. The motivation for obedience and worship is beauty and delight. It’s the duty of beauty, or the duty of delight, as one person calls it. So what kind of person are you?

What We Need is More Prayer!!! Really???

I got the email just a few days ago. A friend of mine, a missionary, was challenging his readers to prayer. “There has never been a revival without the concentrated prayers of God’s people,” he wrote. His impassioned plea for prayer was convicting--and exhausting. “Oh great,” I thought. “Another thing I have to do.”

From the early church to the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards to the more recent ministry of Concerts of Prayer, there is little doubt that prayer plays a huge role in the work God does in a church or community. I believe it. I’ve seen it work. I’ve been part of it. I promote it. When we first moved to NYC in 1985 the church in the city seemed stagnant and flat. That's not to say there was nothing happening. It just didn’t seem to be happening to any great degree. In 1987 a prayer movement began amongst pastors and leaders from the various boroughs. It started in the church where I was a staff pastor. I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. What has happened to the Church in the city since then is truly amazing. There have been hundreds of church plants, a good deal of social justice initiatives, and the city is a nicer place to live for almost everyone. I’m no church historian, but I really believe prayer was at least part of the catalyst.

But here’s the caveat: when prayer is seen as just another thing we do to achieve church growth, success, or our goals, then we’re missing the boat. Prayer brings us into presence of God. What we want in prayer is God himself, not just Gods gifts or Gods blessing. I’m all for prayer and I want us to pray more as a congregation, but what I want more than prayer is God. I want Cornerstone church to be a God saturated church where Jesus is exalted every single day of every single week, and especially on Sundays. When we want Jesus, and God, and God’s ways, we’ll be driven to pray. “Oh God, be gracious to us, we long for you,” says Isaiah the prophet (Isa 33:2).

So its true that I want to be a praying person and my churches to be praying churches. But more than that, I believe that we’ll become a praying church when we become a God saturated church. The more we love the God who sent his son to die for us, the more we’ll want him and we’ll join Isaiah’s cry, “…we long for you!” Long for God and the prayer that connects you to him—and drives revivals and movements of his Spirit—will become easier, more intense, more frequent, and more focused.