Monday, December 7, 2009

Krispy Kontextualization

"The church must adapt or die," said the Lutheran. I met him at a wedding I played preacher at over the weekend. During the meal that followed, I served as resident preacher, answering demographic questions (How big is your church?) and denominational inquiries (What exactly is Grace Brethren?)

People don't know how to talk to preachers. Then again, preachers don't know how to talk to people. I made the mistake of thinking people might be interested in spiritual topics. For example, when the Lutheran told me the church must adapt or die, I figured this was an open door to wax theologically.

I was compelled to talk about Christianity, because I was not sure that the Lutheran followed the same Christ, given his definition of adapt was "tolerate and welcome any difference" and die meant "lose its sex appeal for the sake of orthodoxy."

Adapt or die: He spoke a half truth, and I, the resident preacher, wanted to correct it.

I approached the conversation third party, asking them if they had heard of a book called The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. They had not. "It's a New York Times Bestseller," I clarified. No response.

"The author is a pastor in Manhattan who has interviewed people throughout the city, compiling questions and objections to Christianity."

"That sounds interesting," one lady interjected.

"I would recommend it to anyone." Then, looking at the Lutheran, I continued. "One of the objections to Christianity is that it functions as a cultural straitjacket. Christians are dated, sheltered, out of touch with reality, so the argument goes."

I watched for nods of approval.

"Keller argues the opposite. In fact, if you look at other religions, especially Islam, you see that most adherents have remained in the same region. Numeric growth is the result of reproduction. Whereas Christianity has spread from the Middle East to Europe to North America to South America. Now Christianity is surging in Africa and Asia."

At this point I cannot tell if people are memorized or suffering from a food coma. Because of the empty plates and champagne glasses atop the table, I fear the latter.

I press on. "In this book--that I recommend to anyone--Keller applauds Christianity for its ability to adapt to new cultural contexts while remaining true to its core message..." (See 1st Comment for quote from The Reason for God.)

Church planters and missiologists, of course, call this contextualization. It is an essential practice in sharing the gospel. Suddenly, I realized the opportunity to contextualize was before me. My table was comprised of accountants and business people. To them the language of gospel was foreign. So I employed market terms. And here is where the conversation got sticky.

"Any business understands that functioning outside your core mission eventually reaps disaster. For example, several years ago Krispy Kreme donuts overextended itself, went outside its mission, and the company has become virtually non-existent..."

I was getting ready to make a parallel between donuts and the candy-coated gospel in America's churches, but seeing a small hole in the conversation, one of the ladies blurted, "Krispy Kreme donuts are delicious."

"Do you know how many calories are in those?" added another.

"Have you ever gotten them hot and fresh?" intoned a third.

I tried to adapt and the conversation died. My wife squeezed my leg under the table. So much for contextualization!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Loser's Mentality

Two people left during the service yesterday. It may have had something to do with their pastor calling the church losers. That, of course, is not exactly what was stated; words stated and words heard are often different animals.

A more precise rendering of the quote was: "Our church [like many small churches] has a loser's mentality." The assessment has weighed on me for over a year. So we built a new entryway. We erected a new welcome center. We installed new carpet. We upgraded our sound system. Because of these things we will not grow.

Our church is located on the outskirts of a miniature town known for grain elevators and fresh cut meats. Had the apostle Paul been part of the planting team, they likewise would've located elsewhere: at a port or railroad crossing; off the highway or in the city. We are between a silo, gravel pit, and softball field. Traffic is infrequent.

The location of Leesburg Grace Brethren Church is oppositional to growth...

...that is if you define growth in its most patriotic sense: strip malls, franchised restaurants, housing additions, and capital campaigns. Biblical growth, however, measures maturity not material costs.

The author of Hebrews chides his readers for their failure to grow. Their life reflects apostasy more than diligence (5:11-6:12). So the writer exhorts them with hard words (13:22). He calls out their loser's mentality and corrects it with a vision. And the vision begins with Jesus. Everything begins with Jesus. He mediates. He forgives. He speaks and listens. He gives rest and defines success.

The Christ is supreme. Fixing our eyes on Him is the first step to envisioning a victorious church.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Enya Hijacked My Playlist

The battery was near dead this morning. The thin red line warned me that I had but seconds to chose a song from my iPod. Playlists was highlighted; I clicked. 25 Most Played songs was highlighted; I clicked. Music began, and at best I expected hear a few selections.

Our Most Played songs are defining songs. As far as favorites go, I tend to binge. Any new album becomes an exclusive. Old things pass away. This, of course, is a terrible ministry philosophy. New college students at the church receive more attention than older college students. New families get the warmest greetings; older families get sweaty, post-sermon palms. Then new families leave for bigger churches. Then new college students graduate. And the faithful disciples stick around, felling a touch less attractive and desirable.

But I'm talking about MP3s, which certainly don't get their feeling hurt when their play time suffers. More specifically, I'm talking about the 25 Most Played songs in my digital database, which reflect a thing or two about my musical preferences and emotional disposition.

So there I was jogging in the dark with no guarantee of musical accompaniment for the duration of my workout. Sigur Ros started me out. They have a song about Hopping in Puddles (Hoppipolla) and another about the Glowing Sun (Glosoli).They sing in Icelandic, so I don't know what they're saying, but they make me want to march in a parade with Dr. Suess characters and the Main Street cohort.

I was afforded these two songs. Then a third started: It was Enya, singing about trees and dreams and a Wild Child. She made my muscles cramp. I came close to stopping. Worse yet, I feared any manipulation of buttons on my iPod would simultaneously cue the backlight and kill the battery.

So I endured. The Enya song must have mistakenly crept onto my 25 Most Played list. Surely she would be succeeded by Chris Tomlin, Weezer, Bob Dylan, or another Sigur Ros song.

But she was not. She was succeeded by herself. Three times over. For the last twenty minutes of my run I was subject to the hypnotic melodies of Enya. She hijacked my playlist, but I could not bring myself to turn her off.

Enya is like all addictions: she creeps up, embeds herself, and drains our battery life as we run.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sex Talk

Tomorrow I travel to Malone University to talk about sexuality. The title for the event is PMS...even guys deal with it. I'm not discussing cramps and mood swings, but Pornography, Masturbation, and Sex.

My buddy, a Resident Director at the university, selected me to converse with his students. One of them asked, "What makes him qualified to teach us about the subject?"

The answer is simple: I have sex. Good sex. Indeed, my wife and I rather delight in the process. Moreover, in a world rampant with sexual dysfunction, addiction, and perversion, shame on godly voices deferring to the godless culture on the topic. I will not defer.

Many parents don't talk about sex with their children; health teachers and peers do.

Many pastors don't talk about sex with their congregation; television and advertisements do.

Many small groups and married couples don't talk about sex with their Christian peers; fraternities and sororities do.

Sex is an uncomfortable topic because of Christian deference. We have allowed our culture to take a sacred pleasure and distort it into carnal play. It is sacred because its context is intended for marriage, in which intimacy reaches its logical extreme: Two become one (Gen. 2:18-24; 1 Cor. 6:12-20). It is pleasure because it is good.

Carnal play reverses the intended progression of relationships. Relationships should move from infatuation to frustration to maturation. Intimacy should deepen in each phase. Unfortunately, we're duped into believing sex is the assurance of intimacy. And we trust the campaign that promises sex will birth intimacy.


Deep relationships are never the result of a single transmission. Intimacy is a cumulative good; sex is a wonderful benefit.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Blueberry Muffins

A girl brought blueberry muffins to college group last night. Two dozen were arranged neatly on three Dixie plates. During most of the discussion, they sat untouched.

The theme of the evening was technology and its unintended consequences in human relationships. My wife and I led, citing experts, reading Scripture, and eliciting the occasional laughter. The previous year we had shared with this group insights on married life and sexual purity. We said some awkward things. This year we chose technology because it is an easier and more convenient topic.
  • It is easier to send a text message when you're late than to call the person and hear the disappointment in her voice.
  • It is more convenient to broadcast your weekend update and assume someone reads it than to meet him in person read his disinterested body language.
  • It is easier to turn the television on at night than to sit on the front porch and converse.
  • It is more convenient to bring grocery store donuts to college group than bake blueberry muffins and arrange them neatly on Dixie plates.
Easy and convenient are the recipe of fast food relationships. But the Bible models a different form of hospitality: where grain is collected, leaven rises, and the oven stays hot all day; where dishes pile up and trash collects; where hands and shirts get dirty; where tax collectors honor the BYOB mandate; where whores break in and hijack the conversation.

Blessed is the girl who brings homemade blueberry muffins to college group--we her be remembered when the gospel is preached. She toiled for us for over an hour, cooking and cleaning. Homemade goods are the proof that she values community. I said this last night, and students found their appetite. They wanted to taste the love.

My thinking on meals has been influenced by Eugene Peterson, who writes:
Meals take time, meals are inefficient, meals are not 'productive.' And so meals are streamlined, made efficient, individualized--the personal and relational and communal are abbreviated as much as possible...The centrality of the meal in our lives is greatly diminished. We still eat, of course, but the intricate cultural world of the meal has disintegrated. The exponential rise of fast-food meals means that there is little leisure for conversation; the vast explosion of restaurants is evidence that far less food preparation and clean-up takes place in homes... (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places pg. 216).
His thoughts apply to food in any portion--coffee breaks, midnight snacks, Saturday brunch, bread and cup. The church needs better table etiquette if it wants to bless an obese and dying world.

Unfortunately, too many Christian family's reflect the hurried life of a student who spoke up. "Our family hasn't eaten a meal together in weeks. We usually grab Subway because its the cheapest."

And easy. And convenient. And empty.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Random Readings and Reflections

Yesterday I read more of my sermon than I usually do. Frankly, I do not manuscript. The few attempts produced articulate literary documents that lacked pathos in their verbal execution. I don't like to read from the pulpit; yesterday was an exception because I was not reading my reflections, but God's revelation. I counted 127 verses spoken--a liturgical tour de force. By the end I was desperate for oxygen.

Paul told Timothy not to forsake the public reading of Scripture, as well as exhortation and teaching (1 Tim. 4:13). From the pulpit we often get more of the latter than the former.

Christianity today editor, Mark Galli, explores the 'need [for] spiritual and moral renewal,' in his current article entitled, "In the Beginning, Grace" (Oct. 2009, pg. 24). His essay cites a book by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, whose research confirmed a belief system that synchronizes Christianity with Popular Psychology. They have coined this phenomenon "Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." In other words, God is a remote deity who informs my ethics and comforts my pain. Bowing to His sovereignty is optional.

Sadly, this circumcised faith is not limited to teenagers. "We have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition..."

In his 2009 publication, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them, Ed Stetzer and company conducted two-years' worth of polling. The research supports a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in many of the younger unchurched, but this finding does not bode well for the church. In fact, 90% of people surveyed agree to the following belief: I can have a good relationship with God without being involved in a church (pg. 54).

Admittedly, the word church carries with it more baggage than Indiana's elderly at the first sign of frost. But popular opinion (of the unchurched) raises the question: How does church involvement increase our intimacy with God?

Self-proclaimed Geek par excellent of Wired Magazine, Scott Brown, laments our national obsession with 'imperialistic' science fiction overloaded with 'ever-shinier effects' (see "All Aboard!" Nov. 2009, pg. 083). The critique is founded. And I confess, I love dystopian stories. Give me Orwell. Give me Huxley. Give me Darth Vader chucking the Empower into the Death Star's reactor core.

But I digress: What intrigued me about Brown's article is the connection he made about imperialism and evangelicalism. He writes, "Like its not-so-distant cousin American religion, American sci-fi is fixated on final battles, ultimate judgment (particularly on questions of control and leadership), and an up-or-down vote on the whole good/evil issue." The following sentence curtly references the Book of Revelation.

So evangelicals are criticized for reading their Bible like science fiction. Or is it possible that Brown has the order reversed, perhaps science fiction authors are criticized for making their stories reflect God's.

Brown's point considered, it is possible we obsess over the Bible's flashy ending, and churches obsess about flashy services, and somewhere along the line, we lose the plot: A holy God invites people to worship Him because Jesus' life/death/resurrection secured the way. A stumbling block to the M.T.Diests. Foolishness to the Geeks.

"Who is like You among the Gods, O LORD?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
Awesome in praises, working wonders" (Ex. 15:11).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


"Why don't you read the Bible?" I asked my friend.

He provided an initial list of excuses: boredom, familiarity, lack of understanding. Like most Christians, his Bible reading is spotty, inconsistent, and marked by frustration. To his credit, he is a literate person. Piper, Claiborne, Oberbrunner, Lewis, and a pair of Stanleys (Andy and Hauerwas) line his shelves. Peter and Paul, Mark and John, Moses and Isaiah have been relegated to footnotes.

Avoidance of the Bible concerns me. While the Bible remains atop the bestsellers list, it receives as much play time as a Rick Astley songs on my iPod.

Being a good friend and motley pastor, I interrogated his reasons. "You like stories, right? (You are, indeed, postmodern.) Why not read the Bible as a story? It starts in a Garden and ends in a City. In between, there are several episodes of crisis and intervention, which culminate on the Cross. Now the church carries the crisis intervention story into a Brave New World."

"But I have trouble understanding the Bible. You need a pastor to explain it. That's their job," he replied.

As a pastor/teacher, I understand the sentiment. I am to labor in explaining the text, but I can no more read the Bible for someone than change his beliefs. So I countered, "Who taught you how to interpret Rob Bell, Malcolm Gladwell, and the Stanleys? Does everyone write clearly except for God (and Shakespeare)? I'd like to think the basic meaning of Scripture is evident. Moreover, we have the promise of the Holy Spirit who guides us in all truth."

He nodded. And as we continued the discussion, the fundamental reason surfaced. He does not read the Bible because he struggles to be intimate with God. So he settles for third-party affiliates. This is a tragic and all too common affair.

I felt sheepish and over-simplistic, but I encouraged him to read the Bible. Such literacy cultivates intimacy.

NOTE: Inspired by a true story. I have changed names and modified dialogue to protect the innocent. Rick Astley never came up in the conversation with my friend. He never does.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


At our Fall Festival we sold refreshments for fifty cents. Cold winds fueled hot chocolate sales. Cookies sold by the dozens. People will throw cash at a cheap insulin boost. Energy drink sales are a testimony to our national lust for carbohydrates and fructose. Our refreshment table profited more than one hundred and fifty dollars.

I'm a self-proclaimed cheapskate, so I waited until the 'For Sale' signed turned to 'Free.' In fact, I announced the sign change and took a gob. We had already paid out the prize money from the fund-raiser, so additional monies were unnecessary. I took, broke, blessed, and ate. But I was not refreshed.

After three weeks of phone calls, email confirmations, event planning, poster distribution, task management, weather forecasts, and worries, I was going to need more than cocoa and creme filling to refresh me.

My typical menu of nourishing activities includes: quality time with my wife and children, jogging, reading, writing, watching football, listening to music (and occasionally making it), and hiking. While some of these exercises are more spiritual than others, they are all important for me to maintain a healthy perspective, a guarded heart. Event planning and home improvement replaced these, leaving me malnourished. I don't thrive on fast food, gobs, and to do lists. Fortunately, God satisfies the thirsty soul (Psalm 63).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I helped my friend put a new roof on his house this weekend. He gathered a motley crew of in-laws, pastors, and handymen. The roof was leaky, shingles curled, and drip edge damaged. My job, as pastor and construction novice, was aligning shingles while another worker shot nails into place.

I lusted after the power of the nail gun, every pull of the trigger sounding a piercing Ptssst. Ptssst. Ptssst. But I accepted my role as leveler. Straight lines are aesthetically pleasing. Menial tasks are still meaningful. And if you don't catch a crooked line, not only will you follow it to the end of the roof, you will throw off every line above you.

I think there is a moral about orthodoxy here.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Yesterday I was a target. I should have known when a member of the church wanted to make sure I would be available and up front during the announcements. He was tasked to inspire involvement with our fall festival.

The theme of the festival is Get Flushed, playing on sewer imagery. Within three months everyone in the town of Leesburg (IN) has to abandon their septic tanks and hook up to the communal sewer system. People balk at change, especially when it is mandated at the tune of several thousand dollars. Our church wants to bring levity to the situation. If change is inevitable, we assume you might as well embrace it joyfully.

This brings me back to the front of the church with a toilet seat in my hands. The man at the microphone had given it to me, and he begins explaining the nature of a game called Toilet Paper Toss. One sentence into his explanation, and I cringe: A synchronized front of church people, armed with toilet paper rolls, stands to deliver. On cue they launch their single-ply missiles, unraveling as they soar through the air. I duck and dodge, repositioning the toilet seat, but recognizing that it is simply a prop; Pastor Tim (PT) is the real bulls-eye.

The conclusion was humorous. The man at the microphone said, "We wanted to see what it was like to Tepee PT." Sometimes pastors get hit. They are easy targets.

"And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints" (Eph. 6:18, NIV)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Technology and the Simple Church

When my brother-in-law showed me his iTouch, I lusted. I wanted to swap out my old, defunct Video iPod for the newer, sleeker version. His had more gigabytes, applications, and longer battery life. Turning the screen sideways initiates widescreen (16:9) format, fitting summer blockbusters into a three-inch screen.

"Do you like to watch movies that way?" I asked my brother-in-law.

"Oh, yeah," he replied.

Either small is the new big, or we have really lowered our standards.

In a recent Wired magazine article, author Robert Capps labels this the "Good Enuf Rvlutn" (a.k.a., Good Enough Revolution). His premise is that 'low-fi technology,' such as MP3s, Skype calls, minibook laptops, Flip camcorders, and virtual lawyers, 'will rule the world.'

In a insightful summary, Capps writes, "The attributes that now matter most of all fall under the rubric of accessibility. Thanks to the speed and connectivity of the digital age, we've stopped fussing over pixel counts, sample rates, and feature lists. Instead, we're now focused on three things: ease of use, continuous availability, and low price." As a result, people will 'happily sacrifice power and applications' in pursuit of the three aforementioned values.

People are beginning to prefer what is simple, ready-made, and cheap. Perhaps this accounts for the rebirth of the Little Caesar pizza franchise. And the simple church movement can likewise pay tribute to the 'Good Enough Revolution.' Let's just hope this expression of church, which could likely become the soul of Christianity in decades to come, avoids becoming too cheap.

Monday, August 17, 2009


I once heard someone defend our government's three-branch division using the Bible. In a curious case of proof-texting, the speaker stated that Isaiah 33:22 informs our Constitution. "For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; it is he who will save us." I suppose, using the same method of stripping verses from their contexts, you could argue that Jesus Himself, as Prophet, Priest, and King, also prefigured our republic.

The problem is this: The government cannot save. (And proof-texting is bad interpretation.) The President, Capitol hill, and the Supreme court cannot deliver us from 'the present evil age' (Gal 1:4) and party politics. Like Paul, I want to call out, "O you foolish Americans! Who has bewitched you?" (Gal 3:1), but that, too, would be out of context.

Admittedly, my recent frustration has been fueled by Glenn Beck's Common Sense (which apparently is a Christian book because it is selling in my local Christian bookstore). And, to be fair (and balanced), some of my disapproval stems from overspending and short-sighted solutions to spiritually deep problems. Greed, gluttony, hate, and fear cannot be curbed with a quorum and Yes vote. Nor can mega-churches and self-help movements cure depravity.

Glenn Beck suggests we need more common sense in our country. I would not disagree, but I add that common sense does not save. Call me old-fashioned, conservative, or pithy, but salvation is found in Jesus alone (Acts 4:12). We need more Jesus and more people like Him. The early church fathers understood this well. Then again, they were not trying to establish a nation, but to resurrect it.

"I am the Vine, you are the branches; he who abides in me bears much fruit. For without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

Monday, August 10, 2009


"Are you on the clock or off?" I asked.

"I'm always on the clock," he responded. This is what you say when you're a man-in-charge.

I took this as a green light and began my interrogation.

"Tell me about leadership. How do you inspire people? How important is chemistry, democracy, and vision? How often must I repeat something before it sticks?" And so on.

Golf was our excuse for a conversation. While Grace College was raising funds, I was raising my leadership IQ with the guru of raising new leaders. His recent topic of interest was crisis, a term I know more from watching balding dads and studying Chinese writing (crisis = chaos + opportunity). According to social theory, crisis is the point where a system, organization, or unit has its viability threatened. Life or death; make it or break it; do your business or get off the pot.

I've heard people state that Christianity is in crisis. In a revised and updated book from the eighties, Hank Hanegraaff said as much.The thesis is simple: False teachers have put Christianity into a state of crisis.

Is this true? They've certainly started conversations, sold books, questioned orthodoxy and fought poverty with vigil. But have they bled Christianity of its viability? I would argue otherwise. My contention is that controversial teaching (i.e., heresy) has always quickened the pulse of the church, not squelched it. Jesus will not abandon His bride for the sake of a few bad minstrels.

Moreover, the viability of Christianity is greater than the sum of its teaching. Bible-teaching churches across the world are full of anemic, Spirit-quenched Christians. Evangelicals across the nation are submerged in porn, self-harm, and fear. Sermons and Bible study are an essential foundation to viability, but truth devoid of practice is pure theory. Crisis is when both orthodoxy and orthopraxis disappear (or, for Grace College, when orthopedics stop donating).

Finally, the social understanding of crisis is irrelevant to Christianity because the church is not a system, organization, or unit susceptible to the laws of Darwin. Only when it is treated as such--rather than an organic, begetting, Christ-centered community--does the words crisis enter the discussion.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I cringe every time I think of Zipporah flicking her son's foreskin at Moses' feet. "Bridegroom of blood," she called him, because he compelled her to wield the knife.

The scene in Exodus 4:18ff is confusing. Moses and family, donkey, staff of God set out from Midian to confront Pharaoh with the news that YHWH is reclaiming His people. Suddenly, God stops this family vacation and tries to kill someone. In a classic version of Hebrew narrative, the details are limited. We don't know if God was trying to kill Moses (majority position) or his son (my view). What is unquestionably vivid is the stain of blood on Zipporah's left hand, and the tiny heap of flesh caught between Moses' toes.

The issue was Moses ignored the sign of Abraham's covenant. Circumcision marked God's relationship with the father of Israel. Every son of Abraham, on the eighth day, was sealed with a scar (Genesis 17:12). This was an everlasting covenant that Moses overlooked, I suspect, out of deference to his wife. And when God interrupts their travel and attempts capital punishment, Zipporah owns up and surgically intervenes.

The scene is both comedy and tragedy. We grin at the mother doing the messy work of parenting; we cringe at the father standing passively by. We laugh and cry because we are not watching an isolated event, but a paradigm for father/mother roles. Mothers eternally intervene. Fathers eternally withdraw. And I blame this on circumcision.

Timothy, a bi-racial disciple of Paul, underwent the knife to pursue vocational ministry. Converts to Judaism were expected to do the same during both the Old and New Testament eras. Conversion was costly, painful, emasculating. It is no coincidence that Timothy's spiritual guide was a Jewess believer, not a Greek dad (Acts 16). Fortunately, the early church remedied the debate as to whether or not Christians should undergo the knife (Acts 15). We can keep our blades above the waist--our hearts are the new target.

Nonetheless, I suspect men have never recovered from the sight of blood and the shine of a blade. Circumcision has incapacitated many a man. So I am thankful for ladies like Zipporah, who have iron stomachs and nimble hands.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Women in Ministry (with Men)

Why are women so often relegated to auxiliary ministry roles?

The question was asked during the morning session of my Equip09 class. The title is Women in Ministry, which envisions knitting circles and kitchen crews. To be fair, the title was a shortened version of another proposal: Women in Ministry with Men. But the latter was too edgy, offensive, complementarian.

Everyone knows that women with teaching gifts must go over seas and disguise their theological acumen in the guise of another tongue. Everyone knows that women who lead are limited to classrooms of infants, toddlers, and their own four kids when daddy's not home. Everyone knows this.

Well, that's not quite right. Eight people in the Fellowship are wondering otherwise, asking questions, searching Scripture. And here, perhaps, is a better question: What is an auxiliary ministry? Most of us likely define it in terms of profession (i.e. the pulpit) and preference (i.e., whatever we don't do is auxiliary to us). To echo my mentor, this issue may be less about model and more about mindset.

How can we change our minds about women in ministry (with men)? Stay tuned tomorrow for my theory behind why men are spiritually passive.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Whenever I have special speaking engagements on the horizon, I either develop twitches, fatigue, or an indulgence for chocolate. Throughout the morning I worked on a two-day lesson for Momentum students entitled The Pre-historic Jesus. Please note, this is not some trendy new packaging for Jesus in which he appears in the guise of a dinosaur or caveman. Rather, I'm tying Old Testament covenants to the New Testament Jesus.

But cramming this lesson into two forty-five minute sessions with illustrations, interactions, punchlines, and theatrics was more than I could handle today. By the end of my preparations, I was exhausted to the point of boredom. A quick ransacking of the church kitchen, and my sole comfort was an expired bag of chocolate chips. They were extra soft.

The whole time I chided myself, saying, "God be your comfort, not external things." I tried playing a few songs, but songs, too, are external. As is As text-messaging and e-mailing. (Blogging?)

The last half hour, though, I set aside for reading and reflection. I considered the concept of calling and 2 Timothy 4:1-5. I pondered the role of preaching, the immanence of Christ's return, the reality of judgment, and the role of the body of Christ in correction, rebuke, and exhortation.

When handled improperly (merely to preach to others or defend a point), the Word of Christ can just as easily become an external thing. When it 'richly dwells within,' the Word of Christ provides the ultimate comfort. And it never expires.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ice Cream

People worship everything: animals and athletes, architecture and herbage, gods and gigabytes. Tozer wrote, "There is not a tribe in all the world that does not have some kind of religion and some form of worship. Men and women have an instinct toward worship."

In the spirit of worship, I encouraged folks from my church to attend the opening night of the county fair. As part of the free family night, a community worship service was scheduled. I could not attend; I was busy serving ice cream from one of many concession stands.

If offerings and attendance are a fair indicator of worship, I would suggest that The Church of the One-Dollar Milkshakes lambasted the Community Praise Tent. People race to the ice cream booth, itching to get to the front, laying their cash down, and opening their mouths wide for
the solid milk of indulgence in a sixteen-ounce cup. Fair attendees love ice cream. Boys buy large chocolate shakes. Girls get vanilla. Moms and Dads buy separate swirls that they do not share. Everyone walks away from the Church of the One-Dollar Milkshake with a smile.

Folks from my church left the Community Praise Tent early. Ice cream is often more compelling than song. Choruses are less appealing where Elephant Ears, Blooming Onions, and Pork Bar-B-Q are available. Then again, the right diet is an act of worship--the Catholic and Jewish faith figured this out long ago. And for some, ice cream is worship, too.

'What is worship?' is the wrong question. Everyone worships something; some worship everything. The better question is: 'What is acceptable worship?'

Worship requires the proper alignment of object, form, and disposition. Raised hands and a humble heart are worthless if the object of adoration is a 4-H sow. Not much better is the prayer to the Heavenly Father from a bitter and grudge-holding son.

Thus worship is tricky business--three elements properly ordered toward the Three-Person God. Jesus answers the question: worship aligns God, spirit and truth (John 4:24). Simple to state, but tricky to maintain. Unfortunately, too often worship is simply business... and ice cream tastes better.

Monday, June 29, 2009


My daughter and niece fought a battle over the Bible this morning. While my wife prepared breakfast and I poured coffee, the two little girls raised their voices at one another vying for spiritual ascendancy. James and John wanted the seats closest to Jesus; Claire and Mahlia wanted the title for Best Version of The B-I-B-L-E. Interrupting and increasing volume, each girl tried to out-Bible the other.

We learn at a young age the importance of fighting for the Bible. Unfortunately, both children sang errant versions of the tune. They dropped words and missed notes. They were probably influenced by liberal scholars and moralistic teachers. Fortunately they have an evangelical dad/uncle to correct them. And their mother/aunt has a lovely singing voice.

As the scene unfolded, I couldn't help but wonder if this childish scene wasn't reflective of evangelicalism on the whole. Sometimes we fight others singing the same song because we like our voices better. We like our versions better. We like our pitch better. We like us.

By the end of breakfast, instead of standing alone on the word of God, we simply stand alone. Our B-I-B-L-E-beaten cousin has dashed off crying with a soiled diaper and a runny nose.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

There Goes Everyone

For the second time this week I have experienced a major mental lapse. The first time my neighbor brought it to my attention. "I have something of yours," he said. It was a book I'd been reading. The title was The Jesus Way by Eugene Peterson. The book uses Old Testament characters as examples for the ways that Jesus is the Way (John 14:6). Peterson addresses many ways*, but he did not answer how my copy curiously arrived several blocks from my house.

This morning was the second lapse. Turning onto SR 15 and increasing my speed, I noticed a flash in my review mirror and heard a muted thump. Another book and two library DVDs flew from my trunk. (And I had just recently paid off a fifteen dollar fine!) This book was entitled Here Comes Everybody, which felt rather appropriate as I dodged traffic to pull it from the pavement.

As I reached for the items and fended for my life, I considered one of author Clay Shirky's comments: "Self-preservation of the institution becomes job number one, while its stated goal is relegated to number two or lower, no matter what the mission statement says" (pg. 30). As Darwinian as this sounds, I certainly did not want ensuing traffic to make me and my media a Times-Union headline. Moreover, this line gave me insight as to why churches tend to be anemic and Christians struggle with the first commandment. Our natural mantra is: Mememememememe.

All this commentary to say: Apparently I don't load my car anymore, so I'm glad I take books to work and not babies. And the fact that this has happened twice in a given week makes me think I have a lot on my mind. And my car.

*Note that Peterson restricts himself to Old Testament figures (Abraham and the way of testing; Moses and the way of language; David and the way of stumbling; Elijah and the way of seclusion, etc.), not alternative religious figures. There are not many ways to Jesus, but different emphases in how people follow.

Monday, June 22, 2009


A family in our church just delivered their second baby, Ann. On the same day, our church hosted a memorial service for a miscarried child, Xavier. The Lord gives, takes, and keeps a registry of names (Job 1:21; Psalm 139:16).

Likewise, God reproduces and reclaims churches. I talked to a pastor this morning who had five in attendance yesterday. I can hear doors closing. Contrarily, earlier I had listened to the podcast of a pastor who oversees 7 campuses and leads a church network (Acts 29) whose goal is 'to plant 1,000 new churches in the next 20 years.'

Mars Hill is a big church in a big city, and it would be a flippant understatement to describe the personality of its pastor, Mark Driscoll, as big. Elephant is a better metaphor. Of course, I am borrowing the term from a book I recently reviewed from Barna Publishing, entitled The Rabbit and the Elephant.

Barna's recent research has predicted a deathblow to traditional church life in North America. The pollster's numbers suggest that by 2025 of the two-thirds of adults who currently attend traditional churches, only half will remain committed. The Lord takes away.

The others will relocate, recant, or become rabbits, according to Tony and Fecily Dale, pioneers of the House2House movement of simple churches. "Somewhere between ten and fifteen million adults are estimated to visit a house church each month... The traditional resistance to these microchurches has dissolved rapidly in recent years... Rabbit (simple) churches are here to stay (pp. 28, 207). The Lord gives.

Of course, the premise that mass-reproduction is always good is not unanimous. Commentary surrounding the octuplet mother has been primarily critical. Many countries illustrate the evils of overpopulation by birthing children only to traffic them later. And Bob Barker daily calls for neutering and spading pets.

I understand that each example of reproduction is clouded by various ethical issues. That being said, reproducing churches as quick as rabbits promises its own subset of birth defects. Not all of them will survive. Just like the elephant-church of five down the street.

Fortunately, God peers through the clergy robes and ministry models and accepts the naked souls that inhabit them. "Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Monday, June 8, 2009


I perspire toward the end of sermons where I feel like I missed it. The it is what homileticians variously call the main idea, big picture, core truth, or central theme. In his marquee work, Biblical Preaching, Haddon Robinson warns, "Those who hear you do not understand what you are saying unless they can answer the basic questions: What is the preacher talking about today? What is he saying about what he is talking about? Yet Sunday after Sunday men and women leave church unable to state the preacher's basic idea because the preacher has not bothered to state it himself" (pg. 43).

Yesterday my friend visited our church. A former youth pastor and disciple of Andy Stanley's Communicating for a Change, Rhett asked me if I stated my big idea. The beads of perspiration again swelled. I was unsure. My response was honest, "I didn't have one."

Robinson would call me lazy. Stanely would call me ineffective. Furgeson would call me unfocused. Rhett called me dude.

Naturally, a preacher does not feel sure after each message. I don't. I don't always know it. I'm not always confident, confident, dry and secure.

Last week I did my diligence at sermon preparation: I studied, parsed, cross-referenced, illustrated, discussed, outlined, (Power)pointed, and alliterated. But I sweated my sermon out with my hands in the air. Moses did the same as he led a battle against the Amalekites. And if Aaron and Hur remained committed to Moses after a full day of his battle-tested-desert-scented body odor, I'm sure people who attend church will accept perspiring pastors and shotgunned sermons.

Monday, June 1, 2009


Last year we attempted a toilet ministry with the local baseball league. I suggested using our bathrooms as an hygienic alternative to the port-a-potties across the street. My inspiration was the mother who demanded that her child 'Hold it!' because she dare not expose her son to a dirty outhouse. A stressed bladder and soiled underpants were preferable to the port-a-john.

I brought the idea before the board. The official board exists to filter ideas. We wrangle about with details. Some ideas we approve; the LGBC Toilet Ministry was flushed. Instead, we voted to provide a third port-a-john with a sign: Toilet provided by Leesburg Grace Brethren Church. I added the tag line: A Holy Place to Unload.

For the board, the septic stress and toilet paper consumption was not the determining factor. The broader topic was building usage. If we opened our doors every night to any bowel movement, our property might be endangered. Insurance might not cover poop stains; the pipes might not handle flushed baseball mitts.

"We could be vandalized." "We could be robbed." "We could be defaced." "We could be mistreated."

These are legitimate fears (cf. Mt. 5:11-12; 10:1ff). So we approved a tertiary toilet. Unfortunately, the plan did not completely work. One year later and a vandal was recently among us. For scratched into the wall, above the toilet paper dispenser, someone etched the word: F*#!

Herein lies the institutional rub. We want people to use our bathrooms and building, but we also demand that they respect our beliefs. "No potty-talk in our church," we say. "Not in the foyer, sanctuary, or stalls. If you want act filthy, go across to the outhouse. That's why we rented it for you."

Of course, with the filthy word scribbled on our wall, I cannot properly digest there. Fortunately, there are three outhouses across the street. Who knows, maybe I'll even make some spiritual connections over there.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Memorial Day in Leesburg, Indiana would make Norman Rockwell drool. Families bring their strollers, puppies, and folding lawn chairs to watch a quarter mile procession of tractors, fire trucks, and police cars. They roll across the brick streets and make eyes at waving hands. Horns blast, flags fly, and the colors red, white, and blue appear in various shades and shapes on printed tees. This is how the town remembers.

And there, where the engines die and cemetery starts, our church body gives out hot dogs and soda. This is how we reach out. Patriot fodder for the local herd.

For the second year I was asked to join a duo of Methodist pastors share homilies from the graveyard. Our words, God's word, framed a ceremony, insulated with pledges, salutes, and Star Spangled hymns. We removed our hats, covered our hearts, and paid tribute to the fallen. At no point did I mention the clause in my statement of faith referring to 'no carnal strife,' which at one point meant nonresistance.

Instead, I pledged and prayed and spoke a benediction. "How have the mighty fallen!" David began his dirge. His lament memorialized the life and loss of Saul and Jonathan, 'beloved' king and 'pleasant' prince of Israel.

David's eulogy was my benediction. I read his poem, pointing out that David first was a shepherd, second a poet, and third a warrior. As a shepherd, David called his people to fast and mourn (2 Sam. 1:11-12). During this time he composed* his Song of the Bow (vv. 17ff). Then he unleashed corporeal punishment on the murderous Amalekite (vv. 13-16).

The mighty fall, David sang, and I agreed. Even today I could see their decorated gravestones. But the mighty were not alone. Sitting among them, with solemn faces and Americana shirts, were the rest of us: big and small; patriotic and apathetic; residents and hot dog vendors. "For all have fallen..." Paul wrote because he wanted us to remember our need for a Savior.

*Chronologically, the poem follows the execution, but the fact that David chants the song and requests a copy of it for successive generations implies he had worked on it prior to verse 17. The time of fasting is the most logical time. Moreover, I have to believe David's poems were thoughtfully composed, and not simply the product of spontaneous, ecstatic utterances.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


We were discussing how Jesus healed the man with the withered hand. Three characters interact in the story: Jesus, his critics, and the handicapped soul. Jesus is angry and active; the Pharisees suspicious and passive; the handicapped is desperate and obedient. Jesus, of course, is the hero, but each character vies for our affections. We know them by their actions. Pharisees: watch, accuse, question, go silent, go home, and conspire for a kill. Handicapped soul: rises, comes forward, stretches and receives. Jesus: speaks, asks, surveys, emotes, and heals.

We should find ourselves in these characters as we read God’s Word, but too often we don’t. The reason is simple: We introduce a fourth character, namely ourselves. With our own context and verbs we harass the text: read, analyze, diagram, expose, and apply. We don’t find ourselves in the man or the critic or the Christ. We find ourselves in a living room, above the passage with our Bible study methods. And the central question is “What did you get out of this story?”

“I got this…” one starts.

“I got that…” another adds.

We circle the room with our gets and gots, treating this story of Jesus as a product that we could buy or rent for a few dollars. Perhaps this is just vernacular, a way of saying, “What is God teaching you? How do you observe/experience/obey Him in this story?” But these questions are as mute as the kill-a-life-but-keep-the-law Pharisees.

No, the word was get, as in take, consume, pull from. The verb reduces the Bible to a commodity. Eugene Peterson addresses this Western approach to the Christian life in his book, The Jesus Way. He writes, “My concern is that the prominence of the way in our Scriptures…has been transferred in contemporary life into ways of getting money, getting jobs, and getting power” (pg. 38).

I felt God moving me to address this language in our Bible study. The company was mostly unfamiliar, but house church gatherings promise a voice to everyone present. “I want to challenge our language for studying the Bible,” I began. The room was quiet. I pointed out and corrected the language of reading-to-get, and offered an alternative.

“We enter into the text as a participant, not a consumer. This is God’s story to tell, not ours simply to take from.”

Perhaps this is just clever wordplay, but I would argue otherwise. The words we employ both reflect and shape our thinking. Approaching the Bible as an entrance, not a fuel stop, might help reform our withered reading.

Rise up. Come forward. Stretch out your hand.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Today marks the two-year anniversary of my return to Indiana. I woke up at six a.m. for a breakfast of steak and eggs at the home of my collegiate running coach's home in Nebraska, so I could be on US 80 by seven. I wanted to arrive in Indiana by dinner time. It was mother's day 2007, and my gift to my wife was returning safely.

Six weeks earlier I had driven most of my possessions across the country in a Ryder truck with my brother-in-law. We drove through the night, fueled by Rockstar and unleaded gas at $2.76 a gallon. Throughout the night my brother-in-law shouted expletives as my eyes drooped behind the wheel. What was left for my successive, and permanent return trip was a Mazda Protege filled with clothes, books, and a laptop.

Two years and a move--this had become our modus operandi. From Indiana to Phoenix to Denver and back again--one foot for each year in each state. By the time Liz and I felt settled, we uprooted. In fact, we'd become so efficient at moving, I wrote an article for Relevant Magazine's website that was published: Transience - Life by the Lease.

In reality, I'm not sure we ever felt settled. Both Spirit and circumstance influenced us. The religious discontent that drove me to the house church movement, and then further to the communal living experiment, surfaced the essence of my discontent. I wanted to experience the transforming power of God's church, but also balance a budget and birth some babies.

Neither movement nor community are the solution to spiritual discontentment--our Heavenly Father is the remedy. Movement and community are proper means and fruits, but they are not the goal.

Like Paul, I have not achieved the goal (Phil. 3), but I press onward. My current context is no more conducive to apprehending God. I could've done that in Phoenix homes or Denver communes. At times I did. What is different, however, is the comfort of my own skin. It doesn't itch anymore. The pollen of discontentment no longer compels me to sneeze and scratch and move.

Of course, that might change if I can't solve this confounded dandelion problem in my front lawn.

Monday, May 4, 2009

T9 word

I met a guy yesterday who sends 4500 texts (min.) in a month. I shook his free hand after the church service. In between the words 'hello' and 'what is your name?' he'd fired off two messages. His thumbs rival his lips.

To his credit, he did a fine job multi-tasking. He carried on a conversation with me while digitally transmitting to a remote audience some miles away. Later we went to lunch, a group of nine, and the young man simultaneously spoke with me, the group, and Cha Cha--a mobile search engine.

To author 4500 texts (min.) in month, one would have to average 150 texts in a day. If the average message is 30 characters, then, including SEND and any punctuation, the person, would likely exercise 1000 thumb presses a day. Orthopedic companies would be wise to develop replaceable thumbs for Generation TXT.

Perhaps 4500 is an extreme case. The record, I've read, was over 14,000 in a month; the average looms closer to 2000. Regardless, this prevalent and rather nascent form of communication requires a special skill set, which may eventually cost more than our thumbs.

First, predictive text, called T9 word. What would Isaac Asimov say about a phone that knows what I want to write before I write it?

Second, disjointedness. One must juggle several conversations, both personal and mobile. But do I really want to compete with the IN network?

Third, immediacy. Yesterday we waited, anxious and agitated, while Cha Cha took two whole minutes to respond. Is this why we could not discuss any single topic for more than 90 seconds?

I'd be interested in having a deeper conversation on the subject, but I can predict how it would immediately stray from the topic. So instead, I'll read a book.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


My neighbor asked me on Resurrection Sunday if I preached 'the obligatory salvation message' since it was a Christian holiday. After hurdling the fence, knocking him senseless, and tying his shoelaces together, I said, 'But of course.' Then again, isn't it our obligation to preach the salvation message every week? In fact, Jerry Bridges exhorts Christians to preach it to ourselves every day. (See Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges)

I attended a funeral last week. The service was reflective and honorable. At the close of the ceremony, folks moved toward their cars--some directed to the cemetery, some to work. As they staggered to the parking lot, I twice heard the phrase, 'Life goes on.' Apparently, this is how we mourn in our country. (See On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross)

Left over from our snack time at church was a partial gallon of chocolate milk. I drank what remained yesterday. A full gallon of Sunny Delight was likewise left behind. I think I'll reserve that for the rapture. (See Nutritional Facts of Sunny Delight)

An author I'm reading accused all Christians of picking and choosing what they believe from the Bible. First he said we 'adopt and adapt,' but translated that phrase into 'pick and choose.' This, he admits, is cause for the caricature of all Christians being hypocrites. Also fuel for that claim is our tendency to sin every day. (See The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight)

Fortunately we have the 'obligatory gospel message' that we hear on Sundays (when we rest (or don't)) and everyday. (See first paragraph)

Monday, March 23, 2009


I dreamed that an old man approached me to praise a blog I'd recently written. He was a retired pastor--which some pastors take as an oxymoron, but not this one--and I was simply impressed he knew what a blog was. Doubly in that he read mine.

His comment related to a specific blog that I've never actually written. In fact, it was a blog I've vowed never to write: one that parrots a sermon I preached the previous Sunday. In fact, the dream-blog-that-I-never-wrote was an alliterated sermon summary. The reason I would never write that blog is because, while I like my sermon enough to preach them, I don't like them enough to place them on public domain and reduce them to a textual summary.

People can read the Bible themselves. People can understand the Bible themselves (especially with the rampantly footnoted and commentated Bibles available at your local bookstore). People can drink of the same Holy Spirit that the pastor does (or doesn't) when he prepares. For these reasons and more, preaching is not the primary context for biblical literacy, but for shared biblical experience.*

(If you're looking for the former, try the library, kitchen table, or couch in the living room. If you want the latter, come and L-G-B-C)

Back to the old man and the dream: He told me he really like that particular sermon-rehash blog because he could actually understand what I was talking about. Apparently, the old man buried in the subconscious of my dreams finds my posts something short of lucid.

Fortunately, the young man of my conscious thinks that teaching can occur (and is best achieved) in the obscure asides. Sometimes hidden in the middle is a core truth.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Going Green

Today I am working from home because Brown is scheduled to deliver a package. With a portion of our tax-return cash, Liz and I decided to stimulate the economy. We put stock in a coffee roaster, which will be accompanied by eight pounds of green, coffee beans.

The Fresh Roast Plus is a machine for novices. It roasts a small batch in a short amount of time. It is easy to store, quiet in its churning, and protected by a warranty. In four minutes the beans will crack. In six minutes the oils will perspire. In eight minutes the process will end. And after 72 hours of setting, the beans will satisfy our caffeine deficit.

Today marks the end of an era. No more vacuum-packed, name brand, ten-dollar-a-pound coffee. We've gone green. When you compare prices, it's the sensible option. At a mere two dollars a pound, the green bean is far more budget friendly. At two dollars a pound, the green bean makes our addiction far more sustainable.

Going green is a solution to the economic crisis, that is, if we're counting beans.

NOTE: This post is dedicated to St. Patrick, the Democratic Party, and every church jumping on the environmental bandwagon.

Monday, March 9, 2009


The Shur Zacaron is an empty bookcase, stripped of its shelves, that faces my desk. I converted it to a prayer wall because in the 20 months that I've been pastor of this church, conversions have been wanting.

Attendance has increased. Giving has increased. But conversions are wanting.

Shur Zacaron is a Hebrew transliteration for Wall of Remembrance. I converted the bookcase to a prayer wall to reflect God's work in our church. The books behind me--Tozer, Willard, Swindoll, Lewis, Peterson, Claiborne, Manning, Waltke, Mounce--reflect the work of God outside our church. Conversions happen out there often.

The idea of a prayer wall came out of a sermon. During Christmas, I looked at the prayer life of Zechariah. His prayer was pregnant with OT promises, just like his wife. Zechariah remembered (as his name would indicate) God's promises, so the preaching team and I thought our church should, too. I converted a bookshelf and made a wall. I bestowed a Hebrew name and left out four giant Sharpies for people to record promises.

I told the church contributing a line was a good way to encourage its pastor. While I'm preparing for an upcoming lesson, feeling down about a current crisis, or just plain bored, I can look up and read memories of God's faithfulness. This I often do.

Unfortunately, today as I muse the absence of conversion and paucity of zacaron, one green etching stands out: You will REAP what you sow! (Gal. 6:7).

Since being here, God has used me to convert a bookshelf: I must be sowing illiteracy.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Flickering Pixels: CH 12.5

I have a dilemma, which accounts for my failure to write yesterday. After my initial permission request from Zondervan, I received another email Monday explaining the Permission Guidelines. As long as excerpts did not exceed 10% of my content, and as long as Shane Hipps's book Flickering Pixels (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) was properly attributed, I was cleared to write. As an aspiring author (shameless plug), I didn't want to violate copyright laws.

The follow up email came from a different representative at Zondervan. The details in the second email were modified and more stringent. My citations are limited to 500 words, and I cannot publish my blog in an anthology without prior, written permission. The correspondent also mentioned a licensing fee.

You can imagine my horror and surprise. I'm not sure which email to believe. I would post them both here and ask for some legal interpretation, but the medium and the message came with a confidentiality notice at the bottom.

So here I am, caught between a promise (daily blogs for 17 chapters) and a law (500 words). Sadly, I did the math and counted 577 from Hipps, still with 5 chapters lingering. What is a poor pastor to do?

Do I stop reviewing? Do I edit earlier posts? Do I march forward, using no quotations but obscene paraphrase? Do I procure a contraband stock of Shane Hipps's Flickering Pixels (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) books that I can sell on the black market to pay for license fees and jail bonds?

I guess I'll just suggest you buy the book directly from Zondervan (bulk orders receive a discount!). I don't think they can punish me for that. Perhaps they'll even give me a cubicle in their Marketing Department.

Integrity Check
Hipps: -77
Total: 400ish
Percentage: -19%

Monday, March 2, 2009

Flickering Pixels: CH 12

The set up was divine. Within an eight-block stretch of homes located off the central vein into Denver, God placed all twelve people from our 'intentional Jesus community.' I use an innocuous term because we couldn't agree on what we should be called; labels weren't our only point of disagreement.

The twelve of us moved to Denver in 2006 in obedience to God, in pursuit of something relational and apostolic. Some called it 'the group.' Others called it 'our church,' with various modifiers--house, organic, simple. But the terms no longer matter since we're no longer together. The twelve has divided into subsets of threes and twos and ones, spanning no farther than eight-states.

It's been nearly two years since I left what Hipps would call a 'communal experience' (pg. 122). From the early church to the Jesus People USA, to the 1400 block of Denver, CO Christians have celebrated the life of Christ in microcosms. I am a statistic in the opening of Chapter Twelve, "Next Door Enemy." Citing an article from This Magazine entitled "Better Living: Too Many Social Experiments Start with the Best Intentions and End in Disaster" (June: 2003), Hipps notes that 'nearly ninety percent of these communal experiments in North America fail" (pg. 122). I would not call my 'experiment' a failure, nor a disaster--for those are short-sided and corporate words-- but my flight to the Midwest betrays my better judgment.

Without getting into a theology for the house church movement, it is safe to say the model is biblical, and its traction in Eastern countries (e.g. China) still captivate me. Unfortunately, the context of Acts and the culture of Asia are different than the deeply selfish wiring of the West. Hipps offers his criticism: "Our deep individualism is partly to blame for the high failure rate of intentional communities..." (pg. 124).

In studying other cultures (minimally, I admit), I have seen the collective identity prevalent in the East (and biblical times). Our Western independence is entrenched in a rebellious history, early adoption of literacy, industry, factory, and democracy. These are all good things...with unintended consequences.

It is no surprise, then, that violent crimes occur at higher rates, that marriages dissolve more frequently, and that the apex of innovation is in Western countries. We have the lowest cultural sense of shame and highest cultural sense of materialism on the planet. And we cannot be so naive as to think these cultural factors do not sully our church experiences.

When was the last time you saw healthy church discipline?
When was the last time you saw an intensely flawed marriage chose reconciliation over divorce?
When was the last time you saw an offended person leave the church and return later because
  1. someone pursued them (or even noticed they left)
  2. the deserter swallowed his pride and submitted to God's leadership?
I'll hazard an answer: It's been a while.

For some reason, in a profoundly autonomous culture, conflict has become a swear word. We'd rather curse from a distance or exit quietly than take turns sparing in the ring. The word conflict envisions a boxing match where two people take turns punching. Com + flictus = together + to strike. Individualism likes to afflict and inflict, not conflict.

Hipps outlines a 'theology of conflict' (pg. 126) based upon the Mennonite rule of "Agreeing and Disagreeing and Love" (pp. 127-129). "Perhaps the most powerful part of this document is the first point: 'Accept conflict,'" Hipps states at the end (pg. 129).

I agree: reconciliation is impossible when everyone leaves the ring.
Integrity Check (these words included)
Hipps: 45
Total: 605
Percentage: 7.4%

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Flickering Pixels: CH 11

There are blog watchdogs. A Grace Brethren pastor cannot say whatever he wants and expect no recourse. I may not receive irate comments on a controversial post, but consequences would follow if I questioned something like the Scriptural validity of Triune immersion baptism. My ordination might be delayed. My church membership might drop.

This reflects two scary things about the Internet: It forgets nothing and publishes everything. There are ways to manipulate these rules, but in general, what is said in virtual world stays in virtual world...and with enough bandwidth can be shipped globally at 128 Kbps.

But what scares me the most is the content people publish.

A friend of mine just told me he keeps tabs on former youth group members via Facebook; he can track their current alcohol and narcotic escapades. My wife was invited to a friend's website flaunting homosexual testimonials. And I once wrote a diatribe on swearing that floats aimlessly on a forgotten blog.

The issue, of course, is not the Internet's lack of filter, but the person managing the website.

In Chapter Eleven of Flickering Pixels, "Our Nomadic Life," Shane Hipps laments the 'exhibitionism' rampant on our lines. "[W]e have the illusion of closeness with someone while remaining totally anonymous" (pg. 113). In effect, we have traded pseudo-intimacy for 'real intimacy' (pg. 114). We become virtual voyeurs, reading virtual walls of virtual friends while literal time falls like sand. Isn't this the reason men look at pornography and women People magazine? Both media give us a false sense of connection with people.

No different is a digital purge, where we spill our guts to faceless listeners, because then we can completely control their response. Click: Ignore. Click: Reply. Click: Block. Click: Accept.

"Digital social networking inoculates people against the desire to be physically present with others in real social networks... Being together is nice but nonessential," Hipps concludes (pg. 115).

(Note: At one point in this chapter, Hipps condemns blogging for its one-sided 'confession booth' nature. If I totally agreed, I would be wasting my time. My intention is not to confess, but to profess. If you contend with my thoughts, give me a call or stop by my house. And staying current on this 'book review' has been anything but convenient, Mr. Hipps.)

The last section was especially relevant. With the rise of digital media, workplaces and churches have moved away from face-to-face inquiry. I'm extremely guilty here: If I need a favor, I make a call. If suspect a 'No,' I send an email. If the person is under 30, I send a text. Ironically, ease works both ways, and the responder has a ready way out.

Thus, both in managing conflict and exhorting people, Hipps suggests using the oldest medium: your voice. So my number is 574-453-3401, or you can find me at 101. West School Street, Leesburg, IN.

I'll be waiting.

Integrity Check (these words included)
Hipps: 39
Total: 492
Percentage: 7.9%

Friday, February 27, 2009

Flickering Pixels: CH 10

You've all been in the room with that guy. He's your friend who keeps sending text messages while you're having a conversation. His eyes volley between your dull face and the brilliant LCD screen. I can understand the allure of the text message: It is the digital reenactment of passing notes in ninth grade. What I don't understand is why a reply cannot wait.

When I worked at a high school in Denver, texting was pandemic. These were kids who struggled with literacy, but had the nimblest thumbs I'd ever seen. During one classroom session on choices, I asked them to explain the rational behind sending a text. The reasons were enlightening:
  • to finish a conversation started between classes
  • to get the latest gossip
  • to schedule lunch plans
  • to distract from a boring class
  • to get answers on a test
All the answers could be summarized in this thought: to be somewhere else.

The topic in Chapter 10, "Together Apart," peers beneath communication technologies. Opening the chapter by analyzing two commercials from cell phone providers (AT&T, Nextel), Hipps identifies the connectivity and fragmentation resulting from our cellular devices.

Few would argue with the connection phones provide. My greatest time of catching up with old friends is long drives with my Bluetooth looped around my ear. And Verizon makes it clear that you don't buy a service but join the IN network.

But I've also experienced the opposite. Bad signals and poor timing have led to numerous tense conversations with my wife. And you never feel more lonely (and stupid) when you realize your heartfelt comment was cut off halfway through due to dead zones.

Simply put, there is a loss of presence with the abundance of digital media (see "I am Here" article in Wired Magazine 17.02) We've all drooled at the iPhone commercial that show an ordinary finger unlocking a world of music, topography, news, and streaming video. But even the simplest cell phone can ring during a conversation, and leave the flesh-and-blood person digging meat chunks out of her molars with her tongue while she waits. I appreciate Hipps advice: "Prioritizing those who are physically present can have a transforming effect on us when so many are digitally absent" (pg. 108).

Presence is important to me as a Christian. I recently preached about the Here & Now life required of the church. Moses' response to God at the burning bush was "Here I am." A few sentences later, God said, "Now go" (Exodus 3:1-10). The more distracted, fragmented, sidetracked, multi-tasked, and stretched abroad we become, the thinner our relationships will become, as a result.

In our electric age we will no longer wrestle to locate people, but walking with them is a different story. The 'electronic experience' has generated what Hipps has coined 'Empathy at a distance' (pg. 108). Televised horrors and broadcast brutality have exposed the average American to our globe's restless suffering. What this has spawned is 'numbness and exhaustion,' Hipps states. He warns, "Over time, if unchecked, this numbness undermines our ability to extend compassion to those in our own city, neighborhood, or even our own homes" (pg. 109).

I tend to agree. So the next time someone takes a phone call while I'm at lunch with them, I might punch them in the face. These days a pinch is too subtle. And for the next phone I hear ringing in church, its owner gets the privilege of preaching.

Integrity Check (these words included)
Hipps: 50
Total: 590
Percentage: 8.5%

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Flickering Pixels: CH 9

I have a confession: I always look at myself first in a picture.

I have another confession: I want to look cool in my future biographic photo that will don the back cover of my book.

One final confession: My wife took the picture several years ago in a frozen pose of youth, intrigue, and hair. (This tip was inspired by author Neil Gaiman, who stated on his website that an author was wise to market his more handsome days of youth.)

Recently, we acquired a box of photographs from Liz's grandmother. My wife and I stumbled across a startling photograph. Linking arms with her husband--deceased over thirty years ago--my grandmother stood with a wide grin. She looked genuinely happy, and expression I have little seen.

Pictures are often deceptive. They freeze candid moments and present them as common. At least, this is what our 'celebrity culture' has formed in our thinking. We see Barack Obama with his shirt off, Michelle Obama with a sleeveless dress, Jessica Simpson with hiked up jeans, and Michael Phelps with a bong. These are not accurate representations of reality, but they sell an issue for the small price of our soul.

In Chapter Nine of Flickering Pixels Hipps talks about the dark side of our image-rich culture. Cameras feed our narcissism, exploit our 'celebrities,' and, according to Amish and African lore, 'steal our souls' (pp. 95-96).

But not only is the celebrity exploited, the consumer--me and you--has believed a myth. "Our culture has descended to a place where even the natural beauty of a supermodel is simply not beautiful enough to withstand the unflinching scrutiny of the camera" (pg. 98). This comment is in reference to an ad campaign by Dove promoting 'Real Beauty' (see pg. 96).

The scandal of our photoshop-Botox-implant-makeover culture is the perversion of natural beauty. Every run through the grocery store, every session on the Internet, every perusal of the newspaper, brings us face to face with unfair comparisons. Plastic beauty is synthetic--God looks at the heart.

Unfortunately, I have little time to elaborate in this post. The topic is worthy, my ire is high, but my wife has just finished putting on her make up, and we have an appointment at Olan Mills that we're running late to.

(NOTE: This falls under the Integrity limit).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Flickering Pixels: CH 8

The eighth chapter of Flickering Pixels, "The Dimmer Switch," raises a provocative question: What 'if Thomas had died just seconds before his finger touched the wound' in Jesus' side (pg. 86)? Was Thomas accepted into heaven because his belief was empirical? Did grace save him or evidence (that demands a verdict)?

Theologians call this topic soteriology, and it has three basic phases. Justification is the starting point. In Sunday School we learned this is a legal term meaning God treats me "just as if I had never sinned." The ditty glosses over a blood-stained martyr on the cross. Glorification is the final state of the Christians, where we shine with heavenly light (see 1 Corinthians 15). Unshackled by sin and flesh, we can finally dance (and fly, hopefully).

Sanctification is what Hipps labels the 'dim' stage of Christianity. Bouts with sin and shame. Moments of virtue and praise. Times when certainty feels liquid and faith matures.

Most of our work with the unbelieving world is peddling glorification based upon justification. The dim promises of sanctification don't sell as well. So we profess an 'on/off understanding of conversion' because we are limited by 'the medium' of text. "Printing breeds a strong preference for categories" (pg. 88).

Due to the advances in visual media, metaphors are gaining more strength than categories (pg. 90). The industrial revolution birthed the specialist. The Internet is resurrecting the generalist. Yesterday's pastor was an exegete; today's pastor is an environmentalist. Don't ask me what it means, but I've seen the metaphor abounding.

The best example of this trend is the popularity of Rob Bell's Nooma videos. Not only does he produce compelling audio-visual media, but most titles are limited to single word. Tied to each title is a picture. Thus the metaphor is reinforced. He is not alone in this preaching tactic, I remember a Galilean pointing to the dirt and talking about fertile soils.

Hipps concludes the chapter by returning to Thomas and the metaphor of the dimmer switch. We readily apply the saved/unsaved categories, but 'conversion can also feel like the gradual brightening of a long darkness' (pg. 92). I would argue for both/and.

As a critique, this chapter was one of my least favorite. Its brevity failed to handle a controversial topic with the depth--as earlier argued--expected of a book. I agree that our evangelistic efforts are often too incomplete, but I think time, care, and relationships will change this more than a few metaphors.

Integrity Check
Hipps: 39
Total: 422
Percentage: 10%

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Flickering Pixels: CH 7

On his ESPN radio show, Scott Van Pelt was lamenting the sensationalism that has run amok in journalism. Case and point: Following the latest Superbowl, countless commentators were using words like best, greatest, most amazing game ever. The last ten minutes were exciting, but on the whole, the game was rather standard.

We live amidst a tsunami of superlatives. To gain attention these days, the medium must shout louder. This is the primary metaphor of George Saunder's book, The Braindead Megaphone. We’ve confused noise with meaning, popularity with truth.

Hipps blames electricity for this. In Chapter 7 of Flickering Pixels, “A Thousand Feelings,” he fixes our eyes on the effect (and affect) of photography on our faith. A former marketing guru, Hipps demonstrates his awareness of visual impact on emotions. Earlier in the book, he admitted his task was ‘to save people from feeling impotent, unattractive, or powerless’ (pg. 12). Salvation was depicted in a Porche…or L’Oreal, Budweiser, or changing your insurance provider to Geico.

Marketers manipulate through imagery. Televangelists are notorious for this. They package religious services with swooping camera angles, throbbing music, dancing parishioners, salivating preachers, and miraculous signs. It is significant that these shows are called hours of power, not hours of equipping. Hipps labels this ‘image culture’ and admits it is ‘far better for presenting impressions and experiences’ than communicating truth (pg. 77).

Television is the ultimate form of ‘brain candy’ with its ‘extraordinarily stimulating’ flow of content (pp. 77-78). Watching requires no response. Channel surfing requires no dexterity. Even informative shows on PBS are no substitute for reading and human interaction. Unfortunately, we have reduced Discovery to a channel, not an active pursuit.

Discipleship, as Jesus envisioned it, was interactive learning. Good teachers create opportunities to show truth; good learners imagine the application of their curriculum (see pp. 82-84). Moving to an increasingly visual (and increasingly entertainment-oriented) culture, will suffocate the mind. “The mind was made to generate, create, and imagine. Creative imagination is fundamental stage of brain development,” Hipps writes. Our image culture has ‘hijacked’ the mind.

The mind is supposed to be the captivator, not the captive. Paul makes this pretty clear in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

The absolute greatest and best way to win this ultimate battle is to close our eyes to the imagery. Close our eyes so we can pray.

Integrity Check
Hipps: 464
Total: 41
Percentage: 10%

Monday, February 23, 2009

Flickering Pixels: CH 6

I am a little frightened by Google, though, I would not protest if my blog was at the top of the page when the name Tim was entered. Everyone has his price. (Coincidentally, if my full name is entered, old cross country results appear—once upon a time I was a decent athlete.)

I recall the first time hearing Google as a verb was in the movie Hitch. The proper noun was synonymous with ‘finding something out.’ This is not far from Google’s mission: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’

Google has its critics. Copyright lawyers have sued Google for infringement. Legislators have tried to block the company for monopolizing the search engine world. An attempt to purchase Yahoo was recently shot down for that very reason. And some Internet users are bothered by the permeation of advertising behind the engine.

My problem with the virtual Googliath is philosophical. In an age of relativity, truth is now defined by popularity. Google is the antithesis of the elementary school geek: In Googleland, you’re popular if you get a lot of hits. The result is people confusing accessibility of information with usefulness. Mission half accomplished.

“Electric Faith,” is the title of Chapter Six in Flickering Pixels, in which Hipps discusses the effects of the Internet on Christian thinking. The chapter opens with Hipps recalling a failed witnessing effort. Mustering up the arguments of C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, and other apologists, Hipps realized he had answers to questions post-modernists were not asking.

We can blame the Internet and Wikipedia for taking truth from authority figures and moving it to the voices of anonymous contributors, but the trend started long before in Morse’s invention of the telegraph. Morse’s initial message, Hipps reports, was prophetic: What hath God wrought? (pg. 66). In arguably the best line of the book, Hipps notes “[T]he telegraph tapped out the obituary of absolute Truth and created the conditions necessary to usher in the postmodern age” (pg. 68).

The reason the telegraph, and later the radio, television, and Internet, were so dangerous is the rate in which they sped up the flow of information. Thus, ‘information increasingly became a commodity in itself, something that could be bought and sold’ (pg. 67). In his book, The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman says that television is a medium that ‘must be filled’ and does not discriminate concerning its content. The lack of filtering and the unlimited access has, according to Postman, killed childhood. Moreover, it makes me think that Google’s mission to make information ‘accessible’ is, in ironically misinformed.

By dissolving mystery and secrecy, such media have likewise destroyed accountability. Unlimited access to information has created a false sense of maturity. Wisely, Hipps takes the second half of the chapter to distinguish between ‘information, understanding, and wisdom’ (pg. 70). He convicts our culture of being trivial and wisdom-depleted. To develop wisdom we need ‘time, experience, contemplation, patience, suffering, and even stillness’ (pp. 71-72).

I know too many information junkies. I hear too many people reciting irrelevant news stories. I have encountered too many folks who are data-fat but common-sense deficient. Let us slow down so we can learn and apply.

Perhaps this is why you should be reading the book (or The Book), not this blog.


Integrity Check

Hipps: 51

Total: 557

Percentage: 9%