Saturday, September 20, 2008

Solomon, Oh, Solomon

Somewhere today I heard a man talking about Solomon, king of Israel after David. You know the story:  Wisest of men, leading Israel to riches and peace, 700 wives and 300 concubines, the builder of the Temple and, in the end, apostate king. "The difference between Solomon and David," this man said, "is that David had a passion for God and Solomon didn't."

I'm not sure the difference between them is that simple. But the man had a point:  Solomon, as he grew older, became distracted and turned from God. In the end, so far as anyone can tell, he died unrepentant, his heart cold towards God and the people of his kingdom.

This reminds me of Jesus' parable of the man sowing seed in his field. Some seed fell on ground where there were thorns and weeds, and when that seed began to sprout the thorns entangled themselves around the grain, choking it out so that there was no fruit from that seed. This, Jesus said, represents the person who hears the gospel and receives it; but the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke out the gospel.

I think about this as I grow older. I think about this because I wonder how many of us are slowly, and all unawares, turning into Solomons. We have kingdoms now, and alliances, and comforts and blessings. We want to keep those things going on into the future. We have a place for God, just as Solomon had a temple for God. We aren't tearing down the temple; we're just kind of ignoring it. We have other concerns now--retirement, paying off the mortgage, getting the kids through college.

You don't need to be wealthy to be deceived by wealth. You just need to put your hope in wealth. We show this when we think that all our problems would be solved with a bigger paycheck, or by winning the lottery, or by someone leaving us a few hundred thousand dollars as an inheritance. Money can give us what we want. Money can provide the toys that make life worth living. Money can ease the stress we face day by day.

Most people I know look for two things in life:  we want security and we want to enjoy the fruit of that security. We use our faith as a tool to gain what we want. Not only the Word of Faith people--those "prosperity gospel" preachers--do this. In everyday living, we all throw our time and thought and strength into seeking these things. What a contrast to "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you."

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Making Light of It: Pierce Pettis

Some time ago, I first heard the voice and songs of folk singer Pierce Pettis through Paste Magazine's pasteradio free mp3 download site. The site has changed now, and I can't find the artists listed whose works I downloaded then:  Claire Holley, Ryan Long, Harrod and Funck, Over The Rhine, Innocence Mission. . . . These are not-quite-mainstream artists whose work is cutting-edge lyrically, and who are worth looking up. But the one who most impressed me was Pettis.

I haven't had the chance to hear much of his music. For one thing, the local Wal-Mart just doesn't carry a lot of his kind of thing, the lyrical folk music that oddballs like me love but that doesn't sell gold. For another, I just don't have the spare $20 to grab any album I like every few weeks. Then I found Pandora, an internet music site that lets the user set up personal radio stations based on specific artists. Now I have Pandora stations featuring Steve Delopoulos (of Burlap to Cashmere), Phil Keaggy, Todd Agnew, Daniel Amos, Glenn Kaiser, and. . . Pierce Pettis (Can't wait to add some Maggie Becker into the mix).

Because Pandora doesn't stream the whole album at one time (instead it streams the featured artist and others like him), I haven't heard all of Pettis' songs from his album Making Light of It. But there are two songs I'd downloaded from Paste:  "Miriam" and "Absalom, Absalom." If you follow the link to the album, you can hear clips from these songs and the rest of the album. If you follow the Pandora link, you can register and set up your own stations, including (I hope) a Pierce Pettis station for your own.

Here's what captured me about Pettis:  He's the perfect mix of voice, instrument, and lyric. He weaves faith into his songs without being preachy; he shares deep sentiment in plain, simple words; he sings real life. "Miriam" is a good example of what he can do with a song:  Taking someone we think we know (the virgin Mary) and showing her for who she really is (Miriam, a Jewish girl). This is like good exegesis in a song:  You get people to look deeper than they have to find what they've skipped over and missed because "we already know that one."

I hope to get the chance to hear more of Pettis, maybe even to buy a whole album (or you could send me one this Christmas. . .). In the meantime, check his music out for yourself. For that matter, check out the other artists I mentioned. You'll know what I like, and you'll find (I hope) new and intriguing music.

Monday, June 30, 2008

No Place For Boys

This is going to be something of a more personal post than any other, and one in which I can't help but leave myself open to some criticism. Nevertheless, taking a deep breath, I plunge in with an illustration; several, actually.

My family was at church this last Sunday, previewing worship clips the church will use in this summer's Vacation Bible School. There were two clips, bouncy melodies about worshiping and praising God--not what I'd call memorable, but after two or three nights I'd probably catch on to them. The singers were a kids' ensemble, and a minute into the second clip something struck me: There are no boys. The ensemble members are all girls.

Okay, no big deal. Typically, more girls than boys go to church. Why not? After all, there are more girls than boys in the US now anyway. I myself am the one boy of three children; I have one son out of four children; our best friends have three girls and no boys; my wife grew up with one brother and one sister. Girls outnumber boys in my world now.

But I watched this video and wondered: What is my son going to take from this? That church is for smiling, perky, bouncy girls and not much of a place for rowdy, roaring, rough-and-tumble boys? After all, when you get down to it, the whole church service tends to be something women relate to better than men. There's not a lot of action; the typical evangelical service is usually a monologue, a shortened and less-formal version of a college lecture. At least Jesus told stories--some of them quite violent, all of them fitting into the real world.

About a year ago I came across a book with the intriguing title Why Men Hate Going to Church.
Gotta love the cover:
Why Men Hate Going to Church

Murrow's book stirred some controversy, but I found myself with him far more often than against him. I want my son, and the troubled young men I'm coming across, to know that there is a place for them in the church. I want them to know that church isn't a Girls Only (or Mostly) hide-out that neuters any male who comes into its doors. And unfortunately a lot of men are beginning to think that way.

This is strange, when you realize that the main point of the New Testament is that a new kingdom has invaded the world. A mighty Sovereign has claimed the world as His and is taking it through warfare. Granted, it's a new kind of warfare; no one in the new kingdom is ever told to wield a sword against other men. Still, it's warfare. It calls for men to be disciplined and committed to our Captain. It calls for us to endure hardship not just with patience but with exuberant praise. It calls for us to leave the places where we feel safe and to batter down the gates of Satan's own stronghold. It calls for us to take a sword against demons, wield a shield against burning darts flung from Hell itself. This is a gospel for men.

Men want to be challenged. Men want leaders who will stop pampering them and who will tell them: "Be on guard. Be strong. Play the man. Hold your place in the line of battle, and don't back down." Most of all, men in the thick of battle need to be told over and over: "The battle is not your own. Your God has won the victory." We need to hear it again and again because the real battle isn't the romantic thing we thought it would be. People get weary in the front lines. People get wounded. People back down in fear.

God has won the victory. That's the key message that leads us to victory in every part of the Christian life. It leads us to holiness, to worship, to service. It leads us to overcome the enemy in our communities, our families, ourselves. God has won the victory. So we fight on.

In a sense, yes, the church really isn't a place for boys. It's a place for men. And a place where boys can be turned into men.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Cookie-Cutter Fallout

Last night, I ran into a friend I'd not seen in several years. The last I knew, he was doing well and had recently married. Three years later, the picture has changed.

My friend has Asperger's syndrome, something we know a bit about because our youngest daughter has it also. Asperger's is on the autism scale and those who deal with it are, to put it bluntly, socially clueless. These people have limited (sometimes very limited) capability for social interaction. They are not stupid; my friend is much smarter than I. They just do not get the nonverbal aspects of communication--the facial clues, body language, emotional clues we all pick up on. They prefer to be alone; my wife has read that Asperger syndrome is the one disability that goes away when the person is by himself.

My friend also spent several years in a church that left a bad mark on him. It was a Calvinist congregation and its members were all, it seems, cut from the same cloth. I say this because both of these factors (the Calvinist doctrine and the conformity) hurt my friend. He doesn't play life safe; he's a born adventurer. The folks at his church just didn't get him, didn't know how to relate to him or how to accept him for what he was. And he, with some serious issues that he faced again and again, began to wonder if he were one of the damned, one of those outside the elect. No atonement for him, it seems.

You have to understand something about my friend: I would entrust my life to him. I don't say that lightly. I would put my life in his hands knowing full well that he would guard it as best he could. I don't understand everything about him but I know that he is honest with me and has let me see things in him that few, if any, others have seen. You can't have that kind of openness with someone else and not love that person.

I wish I were better at accepting people as they are. I wish I loved each one I met perfectly, even when that one is not like me--even when that one is a reprehensible flagrant sinner. That's how Jesus loved; that was one of the things he was criticized for. In the case of my friend, I've been able to do this where others haven't. I wish they saw him for what he is and not for what they want him to be.

Why has Christianity come to mean conformity to someone other than Christ? Why do we think He is so small that I and I alone express Him, and all that is not like me is not like Him?

Many wounded believers I've met have felt that pressure to conform to a certain image of faith. I've done it too. I remember the time 20 years ago when, while cleaning a church with some friends, I plopped in a Petra cassette. The pastor came out of his office and politely let me know that I couldn't put that cassette in the church's tape deck. I never let him know about my Rez Band tapes. . . and I guarded parts of my personality from him. I didn't feel free to let him know that Fahrenheit 451, for example, was one of my favorite books; that I re-read The Lord of the Rings about every 18 months and was interested in philosophy and hated fishing (back then, that is). I reflected back for him the image of himself that he wanted to see in me. That was safe. That won approval and the chance to minister in his church.

I can't help but wonder about the ways I try to force people into my own mold. What I long for is a place where I can be free to express who I am, grow into maturity, and love without holding back. But am I as willing to give that as I am longing to get it?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Start of Something Big? Or "Here We Go Again"?

My friend Mr. K thinks it is time for a new reformation, or at least a new denomination.

Mr. K is quite serious (he wants me to be the theologian).

Mr. K, to give you some background, is an ordained minister with a missions-oriented ministry based in Central Illinois. Mr. K has had experience with a Pentecostal denomination and with a Pentecostal fellowship of affiliated churches. When he began to pursue ministry, he was, shall we say, bounced around for a few years, pigeon-holed into children's ministry, and led on by a couple of pastors. He was, in fact, ordained only when he told his then-senior pastor that he was leaving the church he served as associate pastor because he had been asked to lead a small and unique church start-up in Urbana, IL.

Mr. K told me about a chat he'd had during that time with another pastor who'd become a mentor to him. The subject was ordination, and the mentor asked: "Do you tithe?" Mr. K, rather surprised, said that he did. "Then he's not going to let you go," the mentor said. His point was blunt: Mr. K tithed, he filled in for the senior pastor, he made the senior pastor look good. He fit a niche for the senior pastor. "So why would he let you go?"

This is the background that has led K to think we need another denomination, if not a new reformation. It's not a reformation of doctrine so much as of ecclesiology. A new structure to the church that makes for real community, in which the people of God share a common life. Less hierarchy (perhaps none at all!), a form of mutual submission among pastors, a place for each man and woman to use his or her unique gifts for the body of Christ. And a place for all the offices of the New Testament church: apostle, prophet, evangelist as well as pastor/teacher.

My own take on the church is not that far from his. I think the church has become an organization and not an organism. The structures of denominations, associations, and local bodies need to be re-examined and changed. I'm not sure that a single structure that is meant to be a model for every assembly, from now till the Second Coming, is the answer. But our ecclesiology needs a real re-thinking.

So the question is: Do we need to do this through a new denomination? Or would yet another denomination lead to repeating the same error somewhere down the road, oh say a couple centuries from now? As our mutual friend Mr. J has said to K and to me: "Why not work within the fellowship we're a part of?" Why start something new? Wouldn't it be better to change what already exists?

The thing is, in the experience of the three of us, the fellowship we're a part of has not been exactly helpful. In part, that's because we're a "special needs" group: 3 guys who have full-time jobs and can't rush off to conferences and gatherings and networking meetings. And maybe we're the future of the church--trained but non-professional leadership--but the present isn't treating us well.

Still, the question needs to be asked: Why start something new? Is this (unintentionally) a "give me my ball 'cause I'm going home" thing? Or is it a legitimate answer to a problem that's cutting through all evangelicalism today?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Politics, Part 2

In this political year, the divide between parties is showing up in the divide among believers--especially evangelical believers. This year more than any in the past two decades, there is a rift between evangelicals. The rift has been a long time coming. It's getting a lot of attention in the media, both secular and Christian. The secular press seems to be playing the story as a "cultural shift" away from "the Religious Right" and towards a more moderate (hopefully liberal?) evangelicalism. But in fact the rift is the fruit of dissatisfied believers who want to live out the Gospel more fully.

I've wondered in the last two national elections if I were the only one who saw my votes as "the lesser of two evils." I've cringed at Bible-thumping crusaders who have made Americanism an integral part of their faith. I hear them proclaim that God has a plan for America and wonder: Is there any country He does not have a plan for? I hear the rhetoric about reclaiming America for God and wonder what exactly that means. Is it a moral vision? A moral nation is not a righteous nation. And when I hear them talk about persecution of American believers, I look through the latest news from Voice of the Martyrs.

But the rhetoric from the left is just as wrong-headed. It's an anything-goes, "Judge-not" kind of love that hasn't a hint of holiness, except in poverty issues. Even there, the solution isn't to bring the poor into your home for a banquet; it's increasing government programs. This is a poor substitute for the Gospel, but a nice dodge. It lets a man feel good about meeting the needs of the poor without ever actually meeting the poor themselves. It wants government to play the role of the church but in an inoffensively secular way.

There are so many things about this that are wrong. I have been left wondering where the complete men and women are, the ones who want to follow the Gospel in all its fulness. These would be the ones who proclaim Jesus as Savior of the world, as righteous Son of God with something to say about every part of our lives: how we spend our money, whom we go to bed with, how we dress, what we say of or to those we disagree with and how we say it. . . . Such people would be looking for a way to show love without compromising the holiness of the Gospel. Some aspects of their lives would be "conservative" and some would be "liberal."

You can see this as the expected norm in the New Testament church. The apostles taught believers to give to the poor among them and to have nothing to do with believers who lived immoral lives. If a brother were taken in a fault and refused to repent, he was to be expelled from the congregation.

All this might go to explain why I've begun to take the Anabaptist view of politics, at least to some degree. Political involvement has been a thing that divides and distracts us. We are not the people of God; we are Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. We do not define ourselves fully by Scripture but more by the bits and parts that our sub-culture finds acceptable. Politics changes faith. Do we stand for America, for a better future, for a transformed culture, or for the Kingdom of God? Are we first and foremost believers in Jesus Christ or partisans of one or the other party?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Politics and the Death of the Church

Super Tuesday is coming fast, and the political season is in full bloom. Everyone's telling everyone else how to vote and why, and this year marks something different from the past in one respect:  There's a real contest on for the evangelical vote. Some of this is due to the Iraq war, some due to disillusionment with Republican policies, and some is simply a sea-change brought about by the emergent movement. The last is the most important, because the Iraq war will come to an end in time (perhaps a long time) and Republican policies will change in response to the electorate. The emergent church, though, is going to have long-lasting effects because it is, for better and for worse, reflecting change in America's culture. I don't mean to air grievances with the emergent scene; I just want to blog on politics for a bit.

I've come to wonder lately if the Anabaptists, in turning their backs on the politics and the governments of their day, might have been taking the right and "Christian" approach to politics. Just saying this will get a lot of heat from activists on left and right who will tell me that this is turning away from the Church's activist mission to change the culture and to establish the Kingdom of God in the earth. Both sides whole-heartedly and heatedly think we need to engage the political culture of the nation and of the world.

Problem is, we're not engaging the political culture. We're marrying it.

If we were engaging the political culture, we wouldn't be taking sides. We wouldn't split ourselves into Religious Right and Religious Left. We wouldn't hold political allegiance closer to our hearts than the Name of Jesus Christ or the unity that the Holy Spirit gives and that we are commanded to maintain. We would call even our political heroes to account when they sin. We would keep in mind the difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.

But we don't.

We take sides. We choose a party. We pick and choose from the Scriptures to justify ourselves--there's as much "proof-texting" by liberals as by conservatives.  What we choose has more to do with what pulls on our emotions than with what the Bible really says. And we make excuses when someone on "our" side clearly violates the Word of God. 

To quote J.P. Moreland, "If one approaches Jesus with either a democratic or republican agenda, Jesus will turn out to be just a big Ted Kennedy or Bill Frist in the sky!" This makes Jesus just another false god--remaking God into the image of man. God is not what He is but what we feel comfortable with.

At the root of the problem is this:  We think more in terms of the Old Testament state than of the New Testament Church. The Old Testament is full of laws for setting up a government and living under that government as a state. The New Testament isn't about a state. There are no kings anointed to rule except Jesus. There are no covenants except one, that God Himself will make and keep:  "I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God. . . . I will be merciful towards their iniquities, and I will remember their sin no more." The New Testament just doesn't tell us how to set up a civil government. Constitutional monarchy? Republic? Dictatorship? Big government? Small government? We're left on our own. Which leaves me to wonder:  Does God care about that as much as we do? Maybe His priorities lie elsewhere.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Shack: Pilgrim's Progress 21st-Century Style?

I just finished reading William Young's The Shack. If you haven't heard of this book, you're going to. A number of highly-regarded writers are endorsing it; Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible, compares it to Pilgrim's Progress: "It's that good," Peterson writes in his endorsement. When someone of Peterson's stature says that about a book, the book becomes worthy of attention. And The Shack (published by Windblown Media) is certainly worth your time.


(Cover image, copyrighted by Windblown Media)

Briefly, The Shack is the story of Mackenzie Allan Phillips, married father of 5 children whose youngest daughter is abducted and murdered by a serial killer. About 3 and a half years after her still-unsolved murder, Mack finds a letter from "Papa"--God--inviting Mack to meet God at a tumble-down wilderness shack where Missy's blood-stained dress was found. Out of both anger and cynical curiosity, Mack ends up waiting for God at the shack.

Let's get some things out of the way first. No, the book isn't perfect. It's always a risky thing to speak for God or to defend Him. Whatever you make Him to be is bound to be less than He is. That's the danger of a "graven image": mistaking the image or icon for the real thing.

On the other hand, the narrative gives good reason for things we take as. . . unorthodox. And, of course, icons (unlike idols) were not meant to be worshipped or taken as deptictions of the real thing. An icon was meant to be a seed for meditation. The Shack is just that.

A theologian would say that the book emphasizes the immanence of God over the transcendence of God. But, of course, that's the point: Is God near? How could He be near, or be good, or understand our pain as He claims to, and not do something about it--not stop it? Why doesn't He simply show up? Why didn't He show up then?

You may think you know where all this is going; Christian writers and philosophers have dealt with these questions for centuries. We've had lots of answers thrown at us, in books and sermons. The power of The Shack lies in the way it makes its points. The story goes deeper--much deeper--than the average sermon.

This book is littered with gems to pick up and tuck away. One look likely won't show them for their full worth. The Shack is worth pulling out and reading again, and handing out to friends. It has the power to change the way you view life and God, and to challenge you to something deeper than what we have made Christianity to be.

So: Is it The Pilgrim's Progress for this generation? In a way, yes; but it reminds me more of C.S. Lewis' The Pilgrim's Regress. Like that book, this one peels back our layers of objections to God, our fear and distrust of Him. It's not so much about the full journey, first step to last, as about how and why we make the journey. Call it a mid-course correction. When you're off-track, that's just what you need.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Refractions: Refractions 26: The Epistle of van Gogh

This entry links to the Refractions blog of artist Makoto Fujimura:

Refractions: Refractions 26: The Epistle of van Gogh

Refractions 26 is Fujimura's entry on insights he gained from the Morgan Library exhibit of Van Gogh's letters to Emile Bernard. Fujimura, a highly-regarded artist whose parents were born in Japan, has posted a lengthy but thoughtful entry that covers Van Gogh's art and faith, especially shown through "Starry Night" (probably Van Gogh's most popular and recognizable work). What's interesting to me is that Fujimura fleshes out the basic picture of Van Gogh with a few details about his intellect and culture:  that, for instance, Van Gogh spoke and wrote in five languages, daily read from Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ in its original Latin, and was rejected from the pastorate by the Dutch Reformed Church because he was not well educated.

Fujimura relates Van Gogh's literary and linguistic skills to his artistic ability. Van Gogh was keenly interested in not only his own but other cultures and was strongly influenced (like several Impressionist artists) by Japanese woodblock art. Would he have been so artistically and visually aware in a less literary culture? How does reading affect a culture's art? How does it affect the way a culture thinks and works? (An aside:  Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of the best books on this theme.)

So here's a thought:  Why are Christians, who should be the most literary people on the planet, so poor in the visual arts? We've got the kitsch of Thomas Kincade and the sometimes-preachy illustrations of Ron DiCianni (whose art I really like in spite of its drawbacks). But when I read the sections of Scripture in which God's prophets see visions of the Holy One on His throne, I see majesty, awe and holiness displayed in a way that brings the prophet (and me as the reader) to his (to my) knees in humility, repentance and worship. We can do this in our writing and music, but how can we develop a sense of the presence of God in the visual arts? And why aren't we trying harder to do so?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

God is Good, All the Time. . . Unfortunately

I wrote in my Dec. 29 post that Larry Crabb's book had gotten me to think about the goodness of God. We easily, in the comfort of a good worship service, respond to the pastor's line "God is good" with the refrain, "All the time." When he says, "All the time," then on cue we answer:  "God is good." And this is true. But not in the way we mean, or want it to be true.

If I say, "God is good," what do I mean? And when God says He is good, what does He mean? Are we on the same page? Are we talking about the same thing? Frankly, a close reading of the Bible makes it plain that we are not. Because the God of the Bible isn't always what I think of as good.

And yet, God is good--all the time. He is good because He never lies, not about Himself nor about what we are like. He is good because He always forgives the one who repents, no matter how heinous or despicable that person's deeds. He is good because He is merciful in equal measure to all who come to Him. He is good because He is always faithful to His words and to His character, and because He will not endure evil. . . not even in His Church. Especially not in His Church. This is what it means to say that God is good all the time:  That He never varies from this.

Whatever is good reflects the character of God. This means truthfulness even when it puts me in a bad light, and forgiveness and mercy when I would rather wound in turn the one who wounded me, and keeping my word no matter what it may cost me.

What do I count as good? Getting what I want is good. Being safe is good. Being wealthy is good. It's good to be sought out as a wise man, to be called "gifted" and "anointed." In other words, when we get down to it, selfishness is good. Christlikeness is painful and therefore is not good. Not that I would actually say this. But it describes the way I think and live.

In The Chronicles of Narnia, one thing is said of Aslan again and again:  "He's not a tame lion." Or, as Mr. Beaver puts it:  "Of course He's not safe. But He's good." So I have a choice between safety and the goodness of God. Not always, of course; sometimes they are the same thing. But in a fallen world, God does not promise to keep me safe in the way I wish He would. He only promises to make me like His Son. In all things, God works for the good--not for the comfort--of those who love Him.

In our hearts, there's something that responds to that. There's something that wants to throw off the fear of true goodness and where it may lead; there's something that wants to follow no matter what the danger, no matter the cost. That something is the Spirit of God, Who impels us to follow Christ. We are ready to let God look into our hearts, show us the root of our fear, and put it to death. The truth is, we know that we won't be safe in being safe. We are only safe in Christ.