Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Babies

I felt sleazy, walking through the Goodwill with an armful of baby dolls: blue-eyed babies with purple underwear; bald babies with tattered onesies; and one special doll my daughter later named baby Jesus. I was the lone adult in the toy aisle. I had to reach over kids were playing with three-wheeled cars and battery-drained keyboards. I needed as many babies as I could find.

The collection of stitched and stuffed infants was for a sermon illustration. Unfortunately, other shoppers wouldn't know that the man pacing the store with a flock of Little Mommy Real Loving Cuddle & Coo dolls (or other varieties) was a pastor. And I'm not convinced this image helps any suspicion American consumers have toward the church.

Real men don't play with dolls. And holy men cannot play dress up.

When I came to the cash register, the young clerk didn't make eye contact. Voicing his concern, he asked, "Are those for you?"

"They're for a sermon," I confessed.

"What are you talking about?" His alarm was turning to curiosity.

"I want to give a picture of the time Egypt's pharaoh tried killing all of Israel's babies. I thought about tossing a bunch of babies around while I preach. I hope I don't hit anyone in the face."

"Really? Will you have sound effects?" he asked, appearing interested.

"Do you think I should?"

"Absolutely."

I thanked him for the suggestion and for hiding my assortment of dolls in a plastic bag. The sleazy pastor had become an evangelist.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hearing

Eli had weak eyes, but his more profound ailment was bad ears. He didn't hear God when his servants were snatching meat from the Crock Pot before the meal was cooked. He didn't hear God when His sons were drinking scotch and performing one-night-stands like a priestly duty.

There is little in the Old Testament of Eli's hearing: public opinion (1 Sam. 2:22) and prophetic rebuke (2:27). It was Samuel who heard God--with good ears and bad eyes--as a voice calling his name in the night. He sought Eli, but the latter hushed him. Three greetings later, Eli redirected Samuel, telling the boy to have God speak.

And God did, but Eli didn't hear it. There is no record of Eli eavesdropping on the conversation. No recollection of the old man in his bed robe and slippers creeping up to Samuel's room with a cup to press against the door. The account fails to detail the distance between Eli's bed and Samuel's or the volume of God's voice. Thus the reader assumes God spoke in a whisper or the boy's head. We think this because Eli did not hear.

But even if Eli's weak eyes are a matter of geriatrics, his bad ears were a matter of choice. He didn't hear because he didn't want to. Hearing God would 'make his ears tingle' (3:11), because the news would be bad, and bad press is not better than no press.

The news, of course, was not new news, but it was breaking news. "Your house is guilty and there is no atonement," God had earlier told him. This was the first and last time Eli listened. God's voice had broke him--eyes, ears, mouth, and heart. Henceforeth, God never came direct, only mediated.

To Eli the voice of God was always twice-removed. God third-party. God in parables. I'm not sure this is too uncommon.

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear... To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God" (Mark 4:9, 11).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Historic

I solved our economic crisis last night. Using a simple algorithm, I calculated that every use of the word historic in describing the 2008 presidential election, if taxed, redistributed, and applied to the Healthcare reform plan, could return America to her glory.

Or so we hope...audaciously....historically.

I found this to be the predominant summary of last night's result. Not race. Not landslide. Not hope. Not dangling chads and dysfunctional systems (unless you count the government). Not change. Not democratic seige. Not record turnout of young idealists and racial minorities.

No, historic was the all-encompassing word employed by the Washington Post, CNN, USA Today, Fox News, MSNBC, Colin Powell, John McCain, and Aunt Gertrude.

So this morning I celebrated being part of history by buying an historic newspaper, drinking historic coffee, having an historic conversation, eating historic biscuits topped with historic gravy, and writing an historic blog. And I can tell you this: Calling something historic makes it sound grander than it may actually be. Only tomorrow will tell.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Better

I finally found the solution to becoming a better me. I've long wanted to master the soft psychology of self-improvement. Ever since I started watching Oprah, reading Doctor Phil books, and receiving my weekly e-scription from Deepak Chopra, my appetite to help myself has become insatiable.

The problem, though, with these gurus of autonomy is their lack of biblical reverence. Sure, they're spiritual, but they're not Holy Spirit(ual). To reinvent myself in the purest sense, I would need the New Testament, not the New Age.

The answer descended in my mailbox, on glossy paper with the Parents Television Council Seal of Approval. (Twenty-first century theophanies are delivered in print because God must condescend to our rationalism.) Short of wings, harps, and halos, skyangel was the answer I'd been waiting for: TV for Christians.

Promised in the publication is programing that will help the consumer "become a better person... a better parent... a better Christian... a better you." More importantly, skyangel can be customized, since self-improvement is, by definition, an individualistic pursuit. If your only interest is faith, purchase the Faith Package ($14.99 mo.); if being better includes your family's needs, buy the Family Package ($19.99 mo.); and if you're not content with the better you, but are striving for the best (value) you, then subscribe to the Family Values Pak ($24.99 mo.).

I"m so excited! I can now "Bring Faith Home" via satellite. I can bolster myself and my family through digital transmission. I can fix those vulnerable parts of my soul that neither the Bible nor the Church have addressed.

Until this point, I was going without any TV, but I hadn't reached a spiritual zenith. And I feared that strengthening my faith was just remotely possible. Now it's remotely controlled.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Blinking light

Our answering machine was blinking. The call had registered at approximately 8:03 p.m., EST, precisely when Liz and I were singing songs and saying prayers for our daughters to lull them to sleep.

An eight o'clock call is never promising: it's too late for good news ('Congratulations, you've won a weekend cruise), and I'm too and masculine to enjoy a casual, mid-week chat. I've long since passed that two-month window in fifth grade where talking on the phone was fun.

No, a call at eight o'clock means someone in the church is bleeding or your Alma mater needs money or your brother-in-law wants to borrow your second season of The Office. Anyone who calls at eight o'clock wants something.

I wasn't eager to listen to the message. I didn't feel like resourcing myself. But my desire was trumped by an overwhelming sense of duty, or an unfortunate case of answering-machine OCD. (I also suffer from check-the-mail and read-the-police-beat OCD.)

Beckoned by the blinking light, I pressed the Play button. It was a dispassionate, female voice. She was calling for John McCain. She was calling to rally me. She was calling to impugn Barack Obama and the Illinois state legislature for their liberal views on abortion.

She was calling to inform me that late-term fetuses that survive the monstrous abortion process are not the doctor's responsibility.

She was calling to tell me that these babies may be set out to cry, dry, and die.

She was letting me know, as I sang lullabies to my three-year old and prayed peace over my one-year old, that the doctors were not required to pray peace over these children, and the nurses were not mandated to sing 'Good Night Sweetheart.'

She was letting me know, before I sat down for Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream and conversation with my wife, that the hospital was not responsible to provide feeding tubes and respirators to these survivors.

The woman did not ask for my vote; the facts spoke for themselves. In the end, the only thing this message asked of me was to have a ' Good night,' a salutation not legally required by doctors in Illinois; they must merely state this the time of death.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Circus: a parable and critique

When my two-year old daughter yawned at the circus, I was convinced it was a bust. We'd looked for reasons to clap, laugh, ooh, and aah. But none came until the final moments, when the little elephant, dwarfed by age and shame, sat in its own excrement. This, of course, was not a choreographed move, but it aroused the audience from its slumber. I whooped and clapped and came to my feet.

There were signs that Baron von Applesauce's traveling show would flop from the beginning. The very name, billed under the auspices of nobility, concerned me. Nor was I convinced that the location--a vacant car lot in Warsaw, Indiana--provided the Big Top feel of Barnum and Co.

In addition to Poop the Elephant and Baron the Tamer, the supporting cast comprised a pony that could lift its leg only when struck by a whip, two yawning tigers, three climbing goats, and four pre-pubescent children, whose talents ranged from hanging upside down to juggling fire to bending over backwards and making eye contact with the audience from between arched legs.

As if the exploitation of the circus-children wasn't enough, the audience received its turn. The transition between acts frequently showcased a 'limited time offer' for circus schwag. Apparently, three-dollar cans of soda and twelve-dollar tickets weren't bringing in sufficient revenue. Thus patrons were tempted with 'limited offer' color books, bags of peanuts, bull whips, and tranquilizer guns. The last item several parents purchased to survive the final moments of the show.

After the rebate, the experience cost me eighteen dollars and two hours of my life. I've spent time and money on worse things, but I fear my daughters may be forever scarred. This was their first and only experience of a circus. This is their filter, their schema, their ruberick for what a circus is like. They may never want to come back.

But if they do, there's always another show on Sunday.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tribute

I've never been a bigger fan of MOPS than right now. An international, faith-based organization that reaches out to 'mothers of pre-schoolers', MOPS is a bulwark for feminine sanity. While the children play, color, fill diapers, and hear stories, the moms get a break. Nothing feeds the misery-loves-company machine better than a morning away from children and a table spread with pastries. Speakers, crafts, and prizes are merely consolation prizes.

MOPS assures that my wife has opportunity to speak in full sentences and use polysyllabic words before eight o'clock at night; that she'll get two hours of reprieve from having her lap occupied and need for the phrase 'Quit whining' -- that is, if there are no especially needy moms there; that she can retreat to the restroom with the promise of privacy and no unsolicited offers to wipe her.

But, selfish as I am, the reason I applaud MOPS today is because it is my bulwark. For five days my wife has been vacationing, and I have been entrusted with the lonesome duty of caring for/raising/discipling my two daughters. Now I have precisely one hour and forty-five minutes to attend my soul, manage my accounts, and maintain my workload.

So if I don't close this entry with a tidy analogy about my renewed appreciation for stay-at-home parents, it's because I have dishes to do and laundry to fold.

Who can find a virtuous and capable wife...
Her children stand and bless her.
Her husband praises her:
“There are many virtuous and capable women in the world,
but you surpass them all!”
(Proverbs 31:10-31)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Liberal

I don't want to be a conservative anymore. I'll leave the gate-keeping to Peter, and the watch-dogging to the AFA; I'll let the political circus run its tour, and weed out the 'lesser of two evils' (or as one columnist recently said, 'the evil of two lessers').

What I won't do is conserve.

Conserving is for my job-depleted, fuel-depleted, moral-depleted, eco-friendly nation. It is their approach to life consumed by the fear of scarcity. It can also be the way of religion. Their food is biblical truth--their fuel the Spirit of God. But God is not scarce. He is unlimited, renewable, and does not need to be plugged in at night for a full charge.

Jesus did not conserve His life; He poured it out and God raised Him. Paul did not conserve his life; he poured it out and God continued to fill him. This is living liberally. A liberal does not save the best for last.

The words of Annie Dillard are appropriate:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

God fills from every direction. And he fills better and faster when the vessel has made room.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Presumption

After Jericho fell the people of Israel grew pretty presumptuous. Their next target was Ai. "It's a small town, and it won't take more than two or three thousand of us to destroy it. There's no need for all of us to go there." They sent their small battalion and reduced God to a lethal weapon. The results are almost comical: "The men of Ai chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the quarries, and they killed about thirty-six who were retreating down the slope. The Israelites were paralyzed with fear at this turn of events, and their courage melted away" (Joshua 7:5, NLT).

Courage founded on presumption will melt. Faith based upon a mechanized view of God will inevitably turn to fear.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Faint

A lady fainted during our church service yesterday. After an overnight stay at the hospital and several tests, no certain reason has been listed as a cause. By mere observation, I've found my preaching has a soporific effect; not until yesterday did I consider my exposition swooning.

The irony is I had just finished reading a passage out of Stephen King's Carrie (not quite on par with the TNIV). I was making a parallel between Carrie White and Jesus Christ, and before I got a chance to explain, I noticed a quiet group huddled around an unconscious member of our church. My face had been fixed on the book for a minute before I noticed the silent upheaval.

There I was, caught in an untidy allusion that, taken wrong, could border on blasphemy. There she was, eyes clenched, mouth agape, and a dear friend holding a towel below her chin.

"Can we do something?" I asked.

Her friend nodded and lipped the words, 'Just pray.'

So we did. Corporately. Individually. In small groups. A few songs from the earlier worship set erupted as a soothing aroma. It is well...with my soul...

The EMT arrived before the third verse. They carefully moved the woman to a stretcher and led to her the ambulance idling in the parking lot. Within minutes she was conscious, and by the end of the hour, three couples from the church had visited her in the hospital. She was spirited, recovering well.

Had the woman not fainted, I can forecast the rest of our morning worship:
four men would've fallen asleep;
three girls would've passed notes;
five adults would've thought of their dying lawns;
eight people would've looked confused;
seven ladies would've smiled and nodded;
six geese would've laid eggs;
one pastor would've wondered if he was connecting;
and everyone would've stood to sing a closing song.

One of the most common complaints about the church service is its monotony. And perhaps too many gatherings open and close with the predictability of a Friday night sitcom. Nonetheless, the church service is one corporate venue for God to manifest Himself and call His people out. We should expect Him more.

And if we don't, we are bound to grow faint of heart.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Barabbas

Barabbas is the poster-child for the ageless revolution. He is a Father’s Son, a Rabbi’s Child. He stands before governors, priests, and common people and gains their affection, because he is not so different from them.


Barabbas doesn’t claim a throne in heaven; he doesn’t boast a royal crown. He works in the soil and city, with sweat and blood beneath the burning sun. And if you mock him, he might kill you.


He is not so different from us. Making our own rules. Promoting our own causes. Fighting our own fights. Thinking our own thoughts. And if you mock us, we might boycott you.


Barabbas could as soon be Pastor Tim, Farmer Bob, President Regan, Senator Obama, Officer Krumsky, the Joker, your mom, or the reflection in your mirror.


His name is inconsequential. Even his crime is of little concern. It is the fact that he stands beside Jesus in a popularity contest, a moral dilemma, a church election, a beauty pageant. The rule-breaker against the ruler. The insurrectionist against God incarnate.


Barabbas and Jesus are the last two standing in dodge ball, and you have to decide if you route for the thrash talker who punishes the other team, or the man in the corner who refuses to flinch. We opt for the player with the strong arm.


By nature, we are better at breaking rules, windows, and friendships than following the lead of the King of Jews. People will more quickly choose rebellion than repentance, insurrection than submission. People will more quickly shout, “Crucify Him” than “I surrender.” People are more likely to bind Jesus and release Barabbas if it means they can join the ageless revolution: the fight for self-rule.


Fortunately, Jesus will put an end to this revolution. Now and later, globally and internally, if we release Him.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Vocabulary

Whenever my oldest daughter says Jesus I get really excited. For her the name is not much more than that. A name from a song lyric. A name from a picture Bible. A name tied to church (which is 'Where daddy works') and prayer (which is what we say before dinner). The name Jesus is just another piece in her ever-increasing vocabulary, but one that delights her parents.

Words are transferable, but changing. They cross generations and pick up accents, inflections, and connotations as they move from father to son, mother to daughter, elder to infant, pedagogue to apprentice. We don't always know what we're saying/hearing, even if we agree on the terms. Conflict originated with one person redefining the meaning of 'Don't Eat!'

And though we're bound to be misunderstood, one of the essentials of leadership--at home, church, school, or Little League--is building a common vocabulary with people. While this requires talking, the first requirement is listening. What words do people utter as values? What notions are implied in their terms?

Once a leader finds the group's vocabulary range, he is able to communicate in the lingua franca. Then he can expand certain terms. To rush this process is to stall progress. When I speak, do I use familiar terms? Where do I come across as unclear, compromising, or mean? Where can I redirect?

Thus, the task of the leader is to break down deficient meanings of a word and rebuild the definition together. Jesus listened and avoided the term 'Son of God.' Moreover, He only agreed to the title Messiah after it was stuttered by Peter. Moments later, he rebuilt the deficient meaning of Messiah-as-Conquerer to Messiah-as-Suffering Servant.

Leaders break down so they can rebuild. They greet death, so they can experience life. They smile while their children sing about Jesus, but they make sure the Name is not simply a high note.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fleas

My home has been overrun with fleas. It's gross and embarrassing. My cat carried them in on her fur coat: little black felis, laying eggs and sucking blood. They jump and gnaw on warm flesh. They dodge my fingertips and hide in my bed.

I've gotten to the point where I don't want to stay inside, and if I do I can't sit on the floor or couch or chair--I'll be attacked. I can't go in the basement--I'll be devoured. I've been hiding out in the bathtub for days--fleas can't swim.

My legs are covered with bite marks. My ankles are red with rash. My feet itch. I might have rabies.

The flea plague is consuming me. When I sleep I feel them in my hair. Their little legs bound up and down my spine. I see them hiding in my freckles. I hear them whispering in my ear.

And everywhere I go, they follow. Yesterday I took some to work. Today I brought some to the hospital. I dropped a few off in Florida, and sent some in the mail to Canada.

This is life in a plague. Suffering, in whatever form, seizes your body and restricts your imagination, so that every thought is essentially one: Fleas.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Gators

From the Florida Notes of Tim Sprankle, Pastor:

I've been searching for gators and lizards. I want to take pictures. I want to get close. I want to start a conversation.

The overwhelming theme for iGo 08 (FGBC Adult Conference) is evangelism. Paul tells us to do this work (2 Tim. 4:5). So does Jim Brown and Mark Cahill. I'm pretty sure I can do this, even if I don't have a video camera, survey, and copy of a book I authored. All I need is conversations.

One of the realities of gator safaris and lizard hunts is the target is moving. He may bite, she may scurry behind the bushes. The gator may not be baited by heaven because he likes the swamp too much. The lizard may not be scared of hell; just the flash of my camera.

But my job isn't to tame any of these wild creatures, just to engage them. And to take pictures--I promised my daughter I would.


NOTE: For those caught in a literal/historical/grammatical reading, the reference to 'gators' and 'lizards' has both a face-value and symbolic meaning.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Meetings

I don't like calling meetings. Perhaps the word is too formal for me. Meeting suggests moderation, agendas, votes, reports, and refreshments. And while each of these is necessary, the refreshments are the only immediate payoff. Empty calories don't wait for a nomination.

My despair with meetings is reasonable: talking about issues doesn't intrinsically effect them.
"Meetings. Don't we love meetings? Every day. Twice a day. We talk... I bet if I blew the conch this minute, the'd come running. Then we'd be, you know, very solemn, and someone would say we ought to build a jet, or a submarine, or a TV set. When the meeting was over they'd work for five minutes, then wander off..." (Golding, Lord of the Flies; 51).
Talking requires doing. Faith, James says, is no different. Thus, I can talk until I'm blue in the face about sound equipment and building modifications, but the discussion doesn't manifest a mixing board and contractor. That requires a second step: a service order. Furthermore, talking is always in community; doing is often in isolation. (The inverse, of course, would be lunacy and co-dependency.)

I read in isolation. I pray in isolation. I prepare sermons and activities and outreach events in isolation. But if I call a meeting, there is a quorum. People love to gather. I need a conch.

Actually, I just need to ask people to do with me.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Leader

"We need a leader," she said.

The woman stood with five others in the church foyer. They were waiting for me. People need a leader when the church doors are open. People need a leader when the scheduled event breaks from routine. People need a leader when their pastor is five minutes late.

So I led, as needed, repeating the details from the morning. "The instructions for 'Read Your Bible for an Hour Straight' are thus: Read your Bible for an hour straight. Oh yeah, you can sit anywhere."

Some may have wanted to know what to read, where to read, and if there would be an alarm going off at 7:00, followed by a brief quiz and discussion. I warned them about the quiz, but said nothing else.

One lesson I'm begin to learn is that leadership includes answering both WHAT and WHY? Call me postmodern (or unorganized), but I'm not too keen on either. I like ambivalence. I like hosting a gathering that does not explicitly tell either WHAT will happen or WHY we're doing it. I like tension and communal discovery. But this is not always what people want.

Last night, I just wanted people to read the Bible. Must of us don't. Not enough. Not at all. Once I heard a girl profess she was 'purging from the Bible' for a year. Apparently, along with the partially hydrogenated oils in her peanut butter, it was polluting her system with toxins. She was reaching God through Yoga instead.

As folks left that evening, I received a brief report on the content of their reading: what book, story, poem, letter. And I asked if it was beneficial. It was a leading question, I know, but I was asked to lead. So I did.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Sin-less

We've come a long way from Johnathan Edwards prophetic image of mankind as the spider.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire...
The apostle Paul wrote something similar, placing us in the lineage of Satan and calling our destiny 'wrath' (see Ephesians 2:1-3). God holds no affection for transgression and sin.

Unfortunately, the term sin is becoming curiously absent in our culture. Whether it's been modified for cultural equivalents, or exchanged for the banner of empathy, the long-term effects are worrisome.

Where this is most evident is in the writing/preaching of younger generation leaders, like myself. In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell's therapist says his issue is 'sin.' In an interesting turn of phrase, Bell translates, "I was split... I saw I had all this guilt and shame because I wasn't measuring up to the perfect person I had in my head" (pg. 114). In effect, 'sin' is an offense against myself, not God. Sin is my brokenness, emptiness, weakness, shame, dysfunction.

Moreover, we've grown weary of the church being labeled judgmental--which, in light of Jesus' great sermon (Matt. 7:1-5), is laudable--and thus swung the pendulum in favor of the sinner. As revealed in Kinnaman and Lyon's recent publication, unChristian, the church has a reputation for casting stones (and ballots). This perception is damning to (and from) the church, so Christians must create a new perception "show[ing] grace by finding the good in others and seeing their potential to be Christ followers" (pg. 181). On the surface, this suggestion is fine; however, when considered theologically, the potential of any person to follow Christ rivals that of a corpse. We were all dead in sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:1).

But there's more. In the absence of 'sin,' our talk gravitates toward love. "Why judge," I read, "when you can love?" Again, on the surface, "Love is a many splendid things, love, lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!" But love separated from sin, covers nothing (see 1 Peter 4:8). True love must acknowledge sin.

The church may now be in the twilight of sin. My fear is that we no longer offer the resurrection power and life of Jesus, but a forced empathy and a feeble love. We're on course to sell out the whole gospel to popular psychology and group therapy. We will give people all benefit and no doubt. And perhaps no faith, either.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Slang

I'm a young bol, which in Philly-talk means, a guy under thirty. Next year I'll be considered an old head. Of course, by then the language will change. Slang is short-lived; the language reflects its urban originators, whose median age is 23 (nationally, the statistic is early thirties).

I'm a lover of language. Etymology enthralls me; a thesaurus enchants me; and I'm a geek for slang. Each subculture has its idioms, jons, and vocabulary. I couldn't learn it all 'in a minute' even if I tried.

But I did learn a few terms this weekend, both from the street and the construction site.

The men in our church did a two-day work project at CE National's Urban Hope Training Center. The ministry comprises more than seven facilities spanning a single city block. We worked in the youth center basement: moving cement, dumping trash, fixing plumbing, wielding power tools, and building a wall.

Men bond well around piles of sawdust and stacks of treated 2x4s. Those with calloused hands and splinters taught the ones with paper cuts and carpal tunnel the lingo of construction. I learned that cripples and studs have nothing to do with your gait and hairstyle, but they are support structures within a wall. I learned that plumb wasn't just a fruit but a wall that stood flush, erect, and level. And I discovered that Sawzall was not a country in Africa, but a prototype reciprocating saw tool useful for deconstruction.

I grew my vocabulary from hammer and nail to chop saw and Remmington actuated fastener, and I may have grown some chest hair in the process.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Inflamation

During my last three days of Operation 08, I spoke with a sore throat and the sweats. Every speaking engagement taxes the glands, but this was profuse. And I can't blame it on nerves: It was viral.

One night after discussing our identity in Christ (e.g., I am chosen, saint, Spirit-sealed, beloved, alive, workmanship, powerful, new creation, bearer of God's image, child of God), my body took a hit. It started with a tickle in my throat. Then a tenderness in my lymph nodes, swelling of my eyes, and dizziness ensued. I went to bed in convulsions; the Benadryl didn't relieve much.

My study in our Christ-given identity came solely from Ephesians. There Paul elucidates the 'riches in Christ' (3:8) we share as believers. These riches, above and beyond our salvation, include the truths cited above. Some of the students looked bored as I revealed these identity markers; they were waiting for the next movie clip. Other students took notes and jotted questions.
  • What do you mean 'we're alive'? Of course I am, I'm breathing.
  • What does it mean to be a poem of God (Eph. 2:10)?
  • How can I be 'powerful' if I feel so powerless?
  • Does God really love me?
These are not questions limited to the adolescent mind. The adult, long since accepting the treasure of salvation, tends to remain ignorant about identity markers. We live within the cultural roles of parent/employee/deacon/neighbor/Republican/taxi driver, and feel defined by our doings. True identity is a duty-free good.

Paul likens this 'ignorance' to a former way of life--the futile life of the material person (Eph. 4:17). Embrace your new life! he writes (Eph 4:1-16). Live your calling!

But it is difficult to live what one does not know. Sloppiness, boredom, and flippancy in the Christian life have more to do with faulty thinking about our identity in Christ, than petty responses to others/circumstances. And our thinking is chronically under attack.

To the core of his nature, the Enemy is a liar. More than forcing us into situations where we might sin (those are unavoidable), he peddles lies--lies primarily related to our standing with Jesus. Thus, it is no afterthought that Paul closes his letter to the Ephesian church by recognizing spiritual warfare. The Enemy seeks to usurp truth and plunder our 'riches in Christ.'

And if those truths are coming across too palatable, he will likely go for the throat.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Defining Moment

It was a defining moment: I provided the students with five minutes of silence. Five minutes in a large group can be eternal, but it only scratches the surface. As Dallas Willard notes, it takes time for muddy waters to become clear.

We all have muddy waters. We all have filthy hands. Our habits, our strongholds, our alliances soil us. Silence gives God a chance to speak to these areas.

As I prayed in the back of the room--for my own issues and those of the students--I sensed an unhealthy degree of anger among us. It had come to the surface in the silence, through questions many of the students were asking: Is this over yet? Why do I have to do this? This is so hokey? This guy doesn't know me, how can he tell me I have filth in my life?

If they only listened to these questions... They prove the need for silence; they explain the need for confession.

"This was the defining moment of the week," I assured the youth as the silence closed. I gave them a opportunity to act upon their confession. Two 10-gallon planting pots were placed at the front. One was filled with soil represeting our filth; the other represented Jesus as the recipient of the dirt within us. "Give your filth to Jesus," I said, "if you want His full life."

Several kids reached in, some in earnest, others in form. We sang songs as youth walked up front. There was dirt everywhere, but mostly with Jesus.

As a speaker, I cannot judge the motive of spiritual activity in a person's life. Altar calls and symbolic replies only show that people heard you ask for a response. The lasting value is uncertain. But for a few minutes, the room was defined by reverence. For a few minutes, the room was defined by worship.

Then sound system screeched. Once. Twice. The screech turned to a cackle, stealing any reverence left in the room.

God does not hijack sound systems as His people sing hymns and confess sins. He works through silence, soil, and human hands. Someone else was trying to define the moment: our Enemy. He works through distractions. And he clearly defined his goal for the week.
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and
purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:7-8)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Sad, you see

My earliest run in with the Sadducees was at youth camp. I did not want to be a Sadducee "'cause they're so sad, you see," I sang. Apparently, being a sheep was preferable.

Since that little ditty, my experience with Sadducees has expanded. I met them again, though not at church pot-lucks, that is more a haunt for Pharisees ("'cause they're not fair, you see"). Sadducees hang out at smoke shops and universities. They wear tweed jackets, smoke pipes, sip espresso from 4-ounce mugs, and discuss God like a recurring archetype in Joyce's short stories.

Josephus tells us that Sadducees were boorish (The Jewish War). Rabbis recount their numerous debates (e.g. Yadaim). Jesus said they were greatly mistaken (Mark 12:27). God must be more than a conversation topic.

That Sadducees denied the resurrection puts them in a similar category with today's secular humanists. Life is material, they argue. The here/now is all that matters. Meaning is coterminous with brain function. They might order a second shot, relight their pipe, and discuss the virtue of abortion, carbon credits, and standardizing sex education.

They would call these 'honest opinions.' C.S. Lewis, in his brilliantly composed The Great Divorce, calls them 'sins of intellect.'

The damned man argues: "[My opinions] were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it."

Like Jesus, C.S. Lewis' glowing protagonist calls this thinking a mistake. Honest mistakes about God, when they move God from the object of our affections to the topic around the table, are inexcusable. He summarizes:

Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about this best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do not occur as psychological events in the man's mind...But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.

For many people Faith may be nothing more than routine, vocabulary, or drifting opinion. How sad, you see.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Let No One

I went to a CD release party for my brother-in-law in Chicago this past weekend. The 250-mile-round-trip-in-less-than-24-hours was not my greatest show of support; it was the fact that I stayed up past my bedtime. (Apparently, CDs cannot be released before sunset; it must have something to do with the Jewish calendar.) I had to wait until midnight to hear the first C-chord strummed on his guitar.

Once upon a time the notion of an all-nighter sounded romantic, especially if it included the highway and chocolate donuts. But when you lose three hours of sleep due to distance, one hour due to time zones, and a fourth hour due to a noisy cat who crawls about your chest as soon as you hit your bed, the romance wilts. You're left with red eyes, black rings, and a green stomach.

I feel old when I don't get enough sleep; I feel old when I play sports and ache the following day; I feel old when I run my fingers through my hair and twenty of them dive to the floor.

Feeling old has a remedy, though. Any time it oppresses me, I tell a stranger I'm a pastor. They automatically clarify, asking if I'm a youth pastor. I assure them I am not; I am merely young.

Fortunately, age is not what defines my ministry, it merely seasons it. Rather, my speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity are definitive characteristics (2 Tim. 4:12). Or so I pray.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Unraveled

I let him get out of my sight. Only for a minute. He and my daughter chased each other around a corner and into the bathroom. They were laughing. Then my daughter came out, and there was silence.

Silence from a toddler is an omen. I walked through the guest bedroom, approaching its adjoining bathroom with unease. As I drew closer, I could hear something. A spinning sound. A swirling sound. A something falling to the floor sound.

It was a roll of toilet paper: 80-sheets of plush, 2-ply, Extra Soft Cottonelle. The boy looked at me, his mischievous gaze replaced with alarm. He removed his hand from the roll and fled the scene. I was left with a barely dressed cardboard roll and a floor blanketed in white. Then I did what any good parent would do, I plugged my fingers into the cardboard roll and started spinning in reverse.

An appreciation for factory-packaged toilet paper naturally arises when you find yourself trying to re-thread 80 squares of Cottonelle. If you pull too tightly, you rip it at its perforations; if you wrap it too quickly, the edges are uneven. And no matter how gentle, deliberate, and methodical you are in returning your unraveled roll to manufactured form, it's near impossible to do. The end result is always a metastasized mess that you surely wouldn't display if your mother was coming into town.

But the paper is no less useful. Its presentation has changed, but its contents have not. And the same core still centers every skewed square. In fact, when unraveling occurs, the core does its main function: holding things together. Tidiness and tightness are secondary, matters of form.

I fear that too often--in the ominous silence of the heart--our greater concern is form over function. Sunday dress and small group prayer requests are cordial and compact; the raw asymmetry of doubt, struggle, and self-harm are too messy for the bathroom, let alone a sanctuary. We leave unraveling to toddlers and therapy sessions.

Fortunately, we have a Good Parent who, upon seeing the messes we make on the floor (or elsewhere), will secure us to our core. He will re-wrap us. He will rewind us. He will hold us together.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Asking

I had a rather absurd epiphany last week. I was praying, asking God for something mundane, when a spiritual reality broke on me like a rash: God wants to give.

I had known this, but for some reason--in this particular moment--the notion made me itch. My desire for prayer had always been high, but hamstrung by inconsistency. In groups I was not too shy to pray aloud. In solitude I was not too distracted to say nice words. Even my theology of prayer was sound.

But something about a particular request last week, left its mark. The request was something simple: Lord, give my wife a good day. Or: Lord, let my daughters sleep well. They are prayers I have muttered before, prior to working or sleeping. They were part of a script. Nice words. Best wishes. Hallmark God-greetings.

It was the simplicity of the request that sent me scratching. Could God possibly care about the sleep patterns of my ten-month old? Was He partial to how smoothly my wife's day might unfold? Currently, God was busy: fighting cancer in a neighbor's chest and adulterous leanings in a friend's heart; sustaining the persecuted church abroad and dispatching angelic hosts to wage war against demonic insurgents. Did He really have time to stamp goodness on a day and serenity on a night?

But those are the wrong questions. Prayer is not about time. God need not consult His dispensation chart to answer. Rather, He answers as a Father, wanting to give good gifts to His children (Mt 7: 9-11).

If they ask.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Blisters

I've started running again. I can say this with confidence because for two days straight I've donned my imitation Adidas pants and set my feet to the pavement. The revival has more to do with weather and weight than my 29th birthday. However, there's an adage that states: "Habits set before 30 are made in wet concrete, middle-aged patterns are set in stone..." (and its ending has something to do with granite, but I've not quite finished making it up.)

Quite frankly, I'm not sure wet shoes are helping my pace, but at least I have an excuse for the blisters. A blister gives proof of one's effort--credibility that the runner is, in fact, running. There are other causes, of course. Perhaps her shoe is too loose. Perhaps his sock is too new. But a new sock and a loose shoe on a lazy man will produce a stench sooner than a blister.

Blisters are the result of work, friction, output. They come most readily when your hands and feet are repeating motions, but not all motions are worth repeating: A woman blistered her thumb when shoveling a six-foot hole. A man blistered his foot when marching at a day-long hate protest. Young Christian blistered his soul and lips when he fed his hormones one more fantasy.

But I would be foolish to judge every sign of chaffing and serum as a mark of sin. Some people blister because they run: life depends on it.

(1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Timothy 2:22)

Monday, April 7, 2008

Books and Beliefs

I charged the publishers' tables. There were books, books, and more books. Mass market and price reductions might be the greatest contribution to the annual (regional) meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). That and papers which discuss the "Socratic murmurings of socio-economic collectivism in the sixth chapter of Saint Luke." Who can pass on that?

My visit to Moody's campus came on the invitation of a former professor. We hadn't caught up recently, and he was attending the Midwest meeting to present a paper. Flattered, I quickly secured my associate membership in the Society and packed a bag.

The conference theme was "The Church Divergent, Convergent, and Emergent: a 21st Century Ecclesiology." One speaker argued that God is a Pluralist, citing the Trinity as his proof. Another argued that the doctrine of Justification must be recaptured in preaching and practice. The final speaker acknowledged the brokenness of the church and encouraged the bookends of evangelical thinking to stop pointing fingers.

The conclusion sounds simple enough: be more forgiving. The following day, I preached through Mark 9:38-41, where Jesus rebuffs John for stopping an "in-Your-name" exorcist from casting out demons. Jesus says, "If he's not against Me, he's for me." The attitude Jesus is trying to cultivate in his disciples, I phrased as "Gracious Inclusion." (I purposely avoided the term generous, so as not to make an allusions to Brian McLaren's protracted Generous Orthodoxy.)

Of course, the concept of Grace inevitably raises the question: "Does Anything Go?" The question is as old as Cole Porter and Paul (Romans 6:1ff), but it was never the first question Grace led us to ask. The first questions Grace ever elicited were: "Who can save me? What should I do? Why me?" (Acts 9:3-6; Romans 7:24; 1 Tim 1:12-17)

I fear that too many of us forget the primary question and run emboldened to the secondary question of limits. In fact, if convergence, divergence, and emergence characterize our churches, I have a hard-time believing otherwise. We've become experts of the limits, neglecting the more important matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (viz. Matthew 23).

Only one group of people at the conference had this last part right: the publishers. Justice, mercy, and faithfulness are embodied in the phrase 50% off.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Resurrection Reading

We celebrated Easter by integrating some original Resurrection Readings from the LGBC body. One man from our church encouraged me to put my reading on this blog. I wrote it at the height of the DaVinci Code controversy. As all such controversies go, the minority voice hit its high note for a verse and chorus, only to be silenced by the constant melody of the Resurrection.

The DaVinci tide has crested and fallen to the shore of irrelevance; Jesus remains risen. Enjoy:

Da Vinciists and Iscariots have nothing to celebrate today. They’ve decoded their conspiracy and uncovered their truth: Jesus is dead, but his lineage lives on. They will toast his ancestry in the templar; they will honor his heritage in the masonry. They will hunt for eggs and celebrate nothing.

All they have is fiction.

Historians have become bored. History is not modern enough. Not mainstream enough. They’ve taken pen to the parchment to rewrite it. But in the process, they’ve changed genres. They’ve moved from gospel to gnosticism; they’ve shifted from faith to fiction. And in every line, they’ve undercut the credibility of our beloved Creed.

So they have nothing to celebrate today, except for eggs and sugar, family and spiral cut hams.

And yet, today marks the most mysterious of days. The day the grave lost its martyr. The day the Romans lost their victim. The day the Enemy lost his battle. The day of Resurrection.

There is a power in the resurrection that is alien to Hollywood and Random House. Thrillers and blockbusters, regardless of their packaging, cannot strip from our Story the miracle of a risen Savior. It is the power that moves mountains and heals wounds, that transforms nations and calms hearts; it is the power that dwells within us.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Compliment

Faces are fairly easy to read while I preach. They're Large Print versions of first grade phonics. Nods, smiles, bright eyes, closed eyes, furrowed brows, and yawns all tell me something. This is boring. This is confusing. This is comforting. This is true.

On Sunday I noticed a face that said, "I need this." Every time I looked at that face, the line was the same. "I need this. I need this. I need this."

A sermon is not what the face needed; it gets one every week. It need food. It needed water. It needed strength for the soul. Unfortunately, sermons aren't always prepared like family dinners, and appetites are too often ruined by thoughtless grazing.

But one appetite was ready. "Thanks, pastor, that hit the spot."

I think this is what Jesus meant when he asked Peter to feed His sheep.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Convenience

I bought a package of Hostess' Lucky Puffs on Thursday and hit an all-time low. Eleven out of twelve months in a given year, I can walk past the Hostess aisle, with nary a thought or glance at the coconut-covered marshmallow treats--when they're called Snowballs, they have no appeal. However, dye the coconut green, adorn the package with a leprechaun, call it Lucky, and Hostess has found itself a consumer.

Hostess is not the only company that has made a fool of me. I buy every permutation of Reese's Peanut Butter cups. If M&M's put nougat, caramel, or egg nog in their center, I would try them. Twix could market a new individual stick, change nothing but the name (Diet Twix), and my candy addiction would take over.

But I assure you, it is not the sugar that lures me, it is the packaging.

Junk food makers have mastered the art of changing colors, swapping ingredients, and celebrating holidays (e.g. Hershey's Mr. Good 'Friday' Bar) to dupe eager buyers. In actuality, distributors are fooling no one; the consumer fools himself. If he can come up with an excuse, any excuse ("Oh, what's this? The Authentic Snickers? I haven't heard of that one. Hmm. Wrapper says, 'Tastes more like a Snickers than ever before.' I guess I'll have to try it."), then his conscience is appeased.

What confuses me, though, with this phenomenon--given our Postmodern culture in which we deplore labels--is why we embrace wrappers. Isn't this hypocritical? "Don't call me evangelical, emergent, conservative, grace brethren, mosaic, polyphonic... but would you please hand me that bowl of Resurrection Skittles."

Some might argue this is different: "Wrappers delineate, they don't discriminate." But aren't these functional equivalents? In either case, the Bubble Yum is separated from the Tic Tac, and the Twinkie segregated from the Oatmeal Cream Pie.

So why do we allow it?

Simple. In an economy built for convenience, some discrimination is necessary. And I can accept this, especially if it means my Lucky Puffs will stay fresh.


Author's Note: I threw the second Lucky Puff away, after leaving it unclothed on the desk Thursday night. This blog represents the fifth stage of grief, thus I almost entitled it "Acceptance."

Monday, March 3, 2008

Dirty Sink Water

Claire dipped her feet into dirty sink water yesterday. I'd set her on the kitchen counter to prepare her a snack. The post-nap snack is one of a few ways that Liz and I appease Claire when she wakes up; we can count the number of times she's come out of a nap in a good mood on one hand. Typically she whines for a half hour.

So we offer her a snack. And we set her on the counter while we get it. And we make her chocolate milk. And we turn on a DVD for her. And we teach her to cope with food and entertainment and desperately pray that we haven't sown seeds for eating and/or dissociative disorders.

Yesterday was no exception. She woke up crying. I carried her downstairs, crying. I set her on the counter; crying. I offered her pizza. Crying. I put the pizza in the microwave... Splash.

I turned. The crying had stopped, replaced by laugher and splashes. Claire had pulled her socks off and dipped her toes in the sink. The water had been sitting for two hours; pizza grease and tomato bits were moving over its surface. I'd forgotten to unplug the drain.

Now I'm not much for dirty water and greasy feet, but there was something divine about that scene: A child will play in muddied waters. I think of the germs and the smell and the laundry; my daughter considers the texture. (Filth is unfashionable to adults, but the child delights in being muddy.) I think of the aftermath and obligations; my daughter thinks of the moment. That is why she cries, laughs, and splashes.

Father in heaven, teach us to play.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Charity

I'm beginning to think I have a sign pinned to my back that says 'Charity case.' Or, perhaps, I'm wearing it on my face, in the form of blood-shot eyes framed in black. Regardless, in the past two weeks, I've thrice been been victim to what I've called a Chance F-D-B-ing.

The first occurrence was in Fazoli's. After porting two small children to a table--while carrying a pager in my mouth, balancing a booster seat on my head, and steering a high chair with my right leg--a lady from a neighboring church in Winona Lake sneaked up behind me. "Hi. We wanted to pay for your dinner. We remember how hard this stage was." She set two Five Dollar Bills on the table and returned to her husband.

Less than one week later, my in-laws agreed to babysit while Liz and I went out to eat. She won a gift card to a swank, local restaurant; it was burning a hole in our appetites. When her parents arrived at our house, her dad reached into his back pocket, retrieved his wallet, and pulled out some cash. "Take your time. This should be enough for two movie tickets, popcorn and a drink," he said, handing me the bills.

The third F-D-B-ing happened at the grocery store. An unexpected hand grasped mine. "Get something special for the girls," it said. I turned and immediately recognized a colleague. He sped off without another word. He had slipped me a five spot.

Three chance encounters; three acts of charity. (Is this tax-deductible?)

As a theologian, I use the term 'chance' rather loosely. Obviously, God is trying to teach me something (and/or empower the cash-carrying culprits). And I think the lesson is this: In God's economy, there is no place for chance, but plenty of space for cash.

Now if I could just convince my VISA card of this...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Prank

People don't always notice subtle, decorative changes I make around the church. One week I swapped a plastic, five-foot Ficus tree for a six-foot, silk Capensia. The tree stood behind a green wicker chair I repositioned in front of the administrative center that I'd shifted two inches further from the door.

All these changes and no one commented.

Now, to be fair to my congregation, someone did notice when I purchased a stool and moved it beside the podium. But he is an unusually observant man; once he pointed out a scuff on my shoe.

So, for my prank: I have removed the hallowed items from our church's showcase and replaced them with pink and yellow Peeps. The former objects are safely stored in an airtight container.

I'm trying to envision the scene come Sunday morning. Families will meander through the doors, only to have their attention snagged by a brilliant showing of pink and yellow. The overhead lighting will glisten off the sugar crystals. Everyone will stop, licking their lips and creating a human barrier to the auditorium.

Reactions will be mixed. Some will try hard to decipher the spiritual meaning of a showcase filled with Peeps. Others, concerned with preserving the church's history, will search for the hidden items. And certainly some will be so enraged at the tribute to Ishtar (idol) and Walmart (idol-distributor) that they'll storm out.

Actually, after that forecast, I'm not sure I'm willing to suffer the backlash of my prank. A former pastor once told me not to make any changes in the first seven years of ministry. He never qualified the magnitude of the change. Service order? Music style? Translation of the Bible? Putting Peeps instead of antiques in the church's showcase? He simply said, no changes.

Of course, now my problem is what to do with the 4000 Peeps I just charged to my credit card.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Prophecy

Friday, February 8, 2008; 8:30 a.m. ET

My phone rang, though not its typical tune; it was Melody 3, which I reserve for calendar appointments. I flipped open the device to see what was planned.

Typically, my phone alarm tells me when to wake up or if I have a breakfast date with someone. I've given up on the handwritten day planner; I prefer digital reminders and backlit screens. On more important dates, e.g., wife's birthday, I might also thumb in a notice, selecting a Ringtone that matches the event. Today's "event" fit none of the above.

Some time ago (before the foundation of the world, perhaps) the words Prophecy--church shift were logged into my phone calendar. Today at 8:30 I was reminded that this shift was immanent. When I upgraded to the V-CAST, double-flip screen, I had no idea of its capabilities.

A few things concern me about this prophecy:
  • I have no recollection of ever storing this information in my phone;
  • if I'm not the author of this prophetic utterance, I don't know whom to stone;
  • 'church shift' is unfortunately vague; however, it sounds more ominous than the Men's Breakfast I had scheduled the next morning;
  • I'm not sure if the church mentioned is Leesburg GBC, or the one, holy, catholic Church;
  • and now I'm divining the air for unusual scents.
Predictive prophecy has this effect: confusion, superstition, sign-seeking, and general unrest. This, of course, is as much a reflection of the interpreter as the message. I likely speak for myself, but a chamber of my heart is dedicated to confusion, superstition, sign-seeking, and unrest.

Another chamber of my heart, then, rushes to make sense of things. It places predictions on timelines and weds them with headlines on Fox News. It coordinates them with dispensation charts, midrashic margin notes, and provides cross-references to LaHaye and Rosenberg. Making order of chaos, sense of disparate stimuli, is a reflection of the imago Dei.

But until the time has passed, and the prophecy becomes a backwards glance, it's difficult to feel certainty. I await clarity, or try to force it. I manufacture fulfillments like Da-Lite screens. I go to the church building and rearrange furniture.

Predictive prophecy begs for resolution with granite-filled hands (Duet 18:20-22).

I suppose I should type a reminder into my phone to reconsider February 8th's prophecy in light of its recent history. Until then, I'll survey the current setting of church to see if the spring thaw moves its foundation. The more literal the prediction the better.


(NOTE: If you are the dubious prophet who tampered with my phone, please let me know so I can go back to leading this church without being so paranoid. I promise I'll put my stone down.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Grand Inquisitor

They were whispering behind me. This was not unusual. Every time I asked them a question, I heard them whisper. This is what adolescent girls do. And they whispered often, because I asked questions often. I made sport of it the week my wife and I watched them.

"Why do you think ________? Why did you say ________? What do you mean by ________?" I may have sounded like a three-year old, but I would not be victimized by their vagueness.

Questions are verbal instruments. They pry and chisel, opening minds and chipping away opaque beliefs. The question rivaled the parable as Jesus' preferred form of teaching: Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not see? Do you not understand? Do you have a hardened heart? (Mk 8)

Paul was rhetorical. The prophets were rhetorical. God is rhetorical (e.g. Ex. 4:11; Job 38). Rhetoric is an art form--political, philosophical, homiletic--but it is lacking as a basis for truth.

Herein lies MacArthur's critique of the Emergent church: It is too rhetorical, and rhetoric is more deconstructive than definitive. Questions are not absolute; they lead to more questions. Rob Bell said so much in Velvet Elvis (see "Springs").

But perhaps this topic raises some questions: Is rhetorical the same as rhetoric? Are questions the same as questioning? Is a tool to be judged based upon its function or who yields it? Is the term Emergent rhetoric or rhetorical?

These, of course, were not the questions I asked the two girls. They assumed I wanted "to make them think." Questions may function this way. But as a hammer has two sides (a head and a claw), so inquiry has another angle.

I did not ask simply to make them think; I asked because I wanted to know them.

Evangelicals are too quick to write off the questioning man as unstable and theologically suspect. We rush to call a question a doubt. I'm glad my wife said no such thing when I asked, "Will you marry me?"

Monday, January 28, 2008

Fill in the _____________

"I didn't get these," he said to me after the sermon. He was holding up my notes, the page smiled at me like a gap-toothed, five-year old.

Apparently, notes with gaps are a problem for people. A word in a blank is proof of listening, learning, effective communication; a standing blank is an information gap. A cause for doubt. A reason to suspect the pastor hasn't reviewed his notes well enough. (Or they weren't worth reviewing in the first place.)

Where did this need come from to fill in gaps? Certainly it is not a matter of social science, otherwise we'd be more inclined to sit next to each other in church and movie theaters. Nor is it a matter of evolutionary science, otherwise we'd have Lucy's third cousin twice removed. And I cannot pin it on the economy and education, for those institutions tend to widen gaps rather than bridge them.

So who can be credited for our neurological impulse to fill blanks and turn in our sermon crib sheets complete with endnotes, asides, and doodles?

I can't take credit. I may contribute to the weekly game of Homiletic Mad Libs, but the resolve predates me. And frankly, I'm convinced our complaint is more than unfinished sermons. We're bothered by unfinished lives.

Deep down, an unmet blank reflects our inborn longing for Shalom (i.e. wholeness). The church is called to fill blanks. To build bridges. To reconcile differences. To redeem time/space. The Spirit of God will take us further in this endeavor than sermon notes.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Pastor/Janitor

The church hasn't been cleaned in a few weeks. I took my trash out once, but ignored the other twelve receptacles in the building. I haven't seen any flies or smelled any decay, so I've been slow to respond.

I did look over my job description. None of the bullets said, "Proficiency in trash disposal." The document didn't list among my skills: vacuuming, dusting, and scrubbing. On paper I'm expected to know Greek and apologetics, curriculum and outreach events. Menial tasks are for servants; I'm too busy trying to lead.

Don't get me wrong, once upon a time, I thought leadership was about service. I recall a great man, a Son of Man, saying this to his followers.

"If you want to become the greatest, you must become the least."

"I didn't come to be served, but to serve and give my life a ransom for many."

But apparently this is nice, folk wisdom. According to the leadership book I'm currently reading, pastors merely need to harness the skills of communication, teamwork and vision-casting, wed it to a resilient, relevant, and redoubtable personality, and the church will experience change for good. Service is something on Sunday that starts at 8:00, 9:30 and again at 11:00.

The noted author doesn't take out the trash at his church, and it's running in the thousands. Perhaps it's good I've left my office a mess.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Used Books

My town has two used bookstores. I made appearances at both today in search of Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy. I found another conspiracy at work: good books are hard to come by. Case and point: I'm currently looking at Joel Osteen's Become a Better You. His orange face and pearl teeth are inviting me to an improved life. It only costs twenty-five bucks and seven steps.

I open the book to its copyright page and check its listing. Self-actualization (Psychology) is the first category, followed by Religious Elements. Christianity is bracketed.

Osteen (coincidentally close to 'esteem') is not a new phenomenon. He is just a 2.0.1 version of writers to combine pop-psychology with religious terms; updated and revised editions are always more attractive. Norman Vincent Peale had a comb-over and lazy eye. Emmet Fox had a receding hairline. Robert Schuller encased himself in Crystal to effect a haloed appearance.

Osteen tells us that if we make someone else's day, "God will make [ours]" (pg 145). But on the seventh day, God might rest.

My dad once said "God helps those who help themselves." He should write a book.

The real issue with pop-psychology as a form of Christian living, is that it's bound...
...to deflate as quickly as it raises the soul;
...to dominate the Christian shelf at the local used bookstore less than a year after its printing;
...and to a cardboard spine, a papyrus skeletal system, and 12-point font ligaments.

So Osteen is not the issue. (Besides, by his own text he encourages me to be a giver, not a taker, a builder not a destroyer; pg. 144.) Eventually his cavities will show, and people will feel allured by a fresher therapy. People like their ears tickled.

The deeper 'reality' (a term Willard always puts in quotations) is our metaphysical longing to improve. To do this using To Do lists, Seven Steps, As Seen on TV products, and Positive Self-Talk is to accept a pedicure as a total makeover.

Putting a new dust jacket on an old book can't convince me to buy it. No matter how well it adorns my shelf.

[Jesus said]: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15)

Monday, January 7, 2008

Why I Won't Marry Rob Bell

Rob Bell and I are both male, each with our own wives. This is the simple answer. But we diverge on other issues, as well.

I have two daughters; he has two sons. I produce my own videos; he has the professionals at NOOMA do his. I prefer the Dead Sea Scrolls; He prefers the Mishnah. I pastor a church of 80; he leads a church of 10,000. And I wasn't quoted in a the current Relevant Magazine calling America's idea of church "an absolute total failure" (pg. 67).

Nevertheless, I can't help but enjoy the man's repainting of the Christian faith. I just finished reading Velvet Elvis two days ago.

It reads quickly.

Like a blog.

In fragments and short paragraphs.

You'll be done in eight minutes.

Each chapter is called a movement. (I use the same word when I preach about the 'gospel' or 'kingdom of God.') Although the sections read like disparate essays, the whole book creates an engaging look at Christianity within our spiritually-sensitive-but-institutionally-adverse society.

The Movements:
  1. Theology is more like springs of a trampoline than bricks in a wall.
  2. The Word of God is alive today, calling us to unleash it creatively in our lives.
  3. The truth of God is everywhere, not preserved in 'sacred' spaces.
  4. God's healing must reach our hearts.
  5. Jesus calls us to himself because he can make us into something.
  6. God's re-creation should be more central than a Christian's depravity.
  7. The gospel is cosmic, social, spiritual, and good.

While I'm not on my knee right now, I do propose you read it.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

An Advent Reading

I got invited to a party. Several folks invited me, actually. Word of mouth. Evited. Got a card in the mail, asking me for a RSVP.

I always respond.

But I am fairly particular about personal appearances. I've come to events before and people always act awkward. They say, "You need to come." Or, "I'm so glad you came." But then they act like I'd have done better by staying away, like the invite was a formality.

Part of the awkwardness is the scene: It's not exactly a birthday party for a two-year old. No streamers. No balloons. No Dora the Explorer plates and napkins.

This party is a romp. A rave. An unholy gathering that would make priests and prophets blush.

But they've asked me to come.

The adults drink too much. They say it's to loosen thick tongues and oil their social apprehensions. But as they open another bottle, pour another glass, I know it's to fill an empty spot in their souls.

They've asked me to come.

It starts after dark, and it's fashionable to show up late. Guests are wearing masks and dancing closely in the smoke of greed, gossip, pettiness and self doubt.

They've asked me to come.

The men are too sexual and the women too compliant. They say they're playing fore, just having fun. "Nobody gets hurt," they say, but I know that's because they already are...lonely.

I will come.

Some think I shouldn't; they think I should throw my own party. Why sit where the music is too loud, the drink too strong, the passion too thick, and love too thin? Why waste my time? Why would a holy man bother with such a scene?

Because my Father wanted me to come. To come and redeem it.
To come and give it real life. Eternal life.
My life.