October 31, 2007

Clever Jesus Twist

This idea that Church waits to see what the culture is doing then produces a D grade version with some sort of clever Jesus twist to me is utter blasphemy.

-Rob Bell

I don't particularly have anything to add to it, but if you care about the church, I think you should read this interview with Rob Bell (*the link isn't working anymore for some reason, so I've provided the Google cached version instead). I used to think that he was just a new hyped up guy that was trying too hard to be trendy and "on the edge", but I think I was very wrong.

Edit: Okay, I changed my mind. I just want to include a few snippets for those of you who are never going to click on that link above and read that whole long interview. These were the parts that got me fired up.

Our assumption is that Church is where you say the things that have to be said. So people will speak but say, "Oh, I wouldn't say that in church." Well then, where would you say it? To me, it's the place where you would push it the furthest. A faith community should be the place with the most honesty and vulnerability and prophetic culture—calling things what they are.

I don't believe in Christian art or music. The word Christian was originally a noun. A person, not an adjective. I believe in great art. If you are an artist, your job is to do great art and you don't need to tack on the word Christian. It's already great. God is the God of Creativity. Categories desecrate the art form. It's either great art or it isn't.

Until you have a community that you are journeying with, please don't say you are a part of this church. You just come to a gathering. We are very intentional about that. The question is, "Who do you call when your brother ODs on cocaine? If your mom is in the hospital, who comes and sits in the waiting room with you? When you cannot pay your rent, who do you go to and say please help me out?" That's your church.

-Rob Bell

Okay, now I'm done.

October 29, 2007

Ana Versus Paedo

An·a·bap·tist [an-uh-bap-tist] [From Late Greek anabaptizein, to baptize again : Greek ana-, ana- + Greek baptizein, to baptize (from baptein, to dip).]

Anabaptist martyrs, shown here, died cruel deaths at the hands of the Catholics and other paedobaptists for their belief that an infant's baptism was invalid and so the person must be baptized again.

As I mentioned previously, we attended our nephew Ben's christening this past weekend. Christening, as some churches call it, is the rite of paedobaptism, or infant baptism. The belief is that the child should be baptized into the family and salvation of God as soon as he's born. Within the first few months, the baby is brought to the church, anointed with oil, prayed upon, and holy water is poured on the baby's head, beginning the child's journey of faith in the church.

Those of us with an evangelical background can get confused by this tradition because we see salvation as a choice we make when we're old enough to choose. Our churches offer people the chance to be baptized as teenagers or adults, as a way to publicly profess their decision to follow the Lord. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, describes baptism on its website:

When Jesus gave His command in Matthew 28:18-20 to make disciples, the directive was to baptize those new believers/disciples, and the word for baptism was literally "to immerse." It was a practice reserved for those who had decided to follow Him.

Baptizing a believer by immersion conveys the picture of a person dying with Christ, being buried with Him, and being raised with Him in a new life (Romans 6:3,4). This act is a voluntary declaration to all witnesses that the person has openly and unreservedly placed his/her faith in the Lord and will follow Him.

For young, new Christians that grow up in our churches, or people who have lived outside of any church their whole lives who wish to come and make a public profession of their newfound faith, this can be a wonderful experience. But for those who have been baptized in the name of our Lord by our brothers and sisters in other churches, why are we still baptizing again?

Let me illustrate my question with a story. The church I now attend had a lake baptism ceremony a few weeks ago, and we attended. The scene couldn't have been more different from the elaborate rite of christening that we just recently witnessed, but the purpose was the same -- to welcome people into the family and salvation of God through the public ceremony of water baptism.

Each baptizee nervously shared their testimony story to the rest of us, but one caught my attention more than the others. I'm sure, if you are a part of this type of church, you've heard the same quite a few times.

"I grew up Catholic, and was baptized as an infant, but I don't remember making a decision for the Lord at the age of 3 weeks. [crowd laughs] So I've decided to be baptized again as an adult..."

I didn't doubt the sincerity of that person at all, but I started to question the setup of our tradition. I wasn't baptized as an infant in the Catholic church, and yet, when I attend a Catholic mass I want them to recognize my Baptist baptism as having been a valid baptism in the spirit and tradition of Jesus. I think we owe the paedobaptist traditions (it's not just Catholics) the same courtesy.

It's not as if baptism is the only way to publicly profess a newfound expression of faith. Catholics who decide, for whatever reason, to join an evangelical "non-denominational" church could take part in our baptism ceremonies, but with a different emphasis. I can't imagine how appreciative some Catholics would be (perhaps especially the young person's Catholic parents?) if our baptisms included a time for those who were baptized as infants to talk about their experience, explain that they have made a renewed profession of faith and are now affirming and completing the decision that their parents made all those years ago.

We don't believe that baptism brings about salvation. In fact, the levity that we approach the ceremony with (clapping, cheering, playful splashing) shows the spirit in which we view the tradition is at least somewhat lighter than our paedobaptist brothers and sisters. Our belief about when to baptize is different, but we all believe that baptism is a wonderful expression of faith and a symbolic act of being raised up in the grace of Christ.

I guess I wish that we'd act on that grace even more by upholding and affirming the expression our brothers and sisters have chosen to use. The body of Christ could use a little healing, last I checked.

Charity is Tricky

Our nephew had his rite of Christening this past weekend. Having been asked to be his godfather, I still hadn't finished personalizing a note on the inside cover of the gift I'd gotten for him when it was time to leave. So as we pulled up to Starbucks to pick up some coffee to help keep us awake for the 40 minute drive to the church, I decided to stay back in the car and finish my note.

On her way into the coffee shop, my wife was approached by a man asking for money. She truthfully told him that she carried no cash, but on the way back to our car and with her arms filled with overpriced coffee, she was quite overcome with guilt. And as I'd just finished my note and wrapped up the gift, we spent the rest of the drive to the church discussing the complexities of charity.

Nikki: I'm an evil person.

Me: I don't think that's exactly true, you didn't have any cash.

Nikki: But I had enough money for a grande non-fat sugar-free vanilla latte!

Me: True, but that just makes you pretentious, not evil.

Nikki: Shut up. I think I just need to accept my evilness.

Me: Here's the thing, and I don't expect you to agree with me, but I think I've made a conscious decision somewhere along the way to never give money to people on the street. There are so many other ways for people to get help if they need it, and there are so many people that simply work the street for extra money when they don't need help, that I think the whole system has been ruined.

Nikki: Yeah, it's really tough to know who needs help and who's just trying to get your money through guilt or something.

Me: Right, exactly. And what's someone going to do with the $2 I give him? Is that going to help him get out of his situation, or is it way more likely for him to use that on something not so helpful?

Nikki: I don't know that it's good to assume that they're using it on alcohol or drugs or something, though.

Me: I know, but is the best way for me to help someone who really needs help for me to give them the six quarters in my pocket?

Nikki: Probably not, but should I really just walk by with my hands in my pockets and my head down? That feels so... evil.

Me: Well, when I see people asking for money, I immediately feel guilty about how little I give to organizations that are actually helping people who need help. I'd love to give more money to them, and even work with them. Then when someone asks for money, I would know that I've done what I can to help their situation if they really need help, and I'm not giving money to people who are running a street scam or whatever.

Nikki: Yeah, the hard part is actually doing that, instead of just saying it.

Maybe you didn't care to read through that whole conversation, so I'll sum up the point--I don't think that giving money to people on the street can actually help them. They might not even need help (some friends of ours lived up the street from a house full of "homeless people" who would spend the day begging on the median and then come home each night to their successful meth lab). And if they do need help, your $2 is doubtfully going to give them the kind of help that they need.

If you're out of a job and out of a home and away from your family and friends, you need real help that isn't six quarters from my linty pocket or a bag of biscuits from Popeyes. You need help from a shelter or an organization who can really help you get out of your situation so you don't have to keep begging for change (and getting hot chocolate from McDonald's instead).

Giving to shelters can help, but only if people use the services provided there. And people will be far less likely to use those services (which come with some levels of responsibility) if they can make a fair amount of money on the streets because we keep giving change out of our car windows.

The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is about the people who ask, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?" I wonder if the answer to us would be, "The least of these were all around you but you didn't help them because you only cared enough to lazily throw some spare change out your window to the first person who asked enough to make you feel guilty or scared."

Okay, that was a horrible summary, so here's a better one:

The next time you feel that pang of guilt as you watch someone stand on the corner and ask for money, channel it. Take the guilt home with you and write a big check to a responsible organization in your community that's doing everything they can to help people who really need help. Or volunteer with them, and actually serve the least of these.

October 26, 2007

Sign Up Now And Get A Free Gift!


The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Romans 6:23

Say it with me if you know it, Christians. "3:23, 6:23, 10:9&10... the Romans Road to Salvation!" If you were like me, you memorized those three verses and became equipped to lead any poor, unsuspecting heathen straight to the throne of God, sobbing for mercy. Their meaning was obvious and needed no further thought or study -- you're a sinner, you deserve death, but if you believe in Jesus you'll be saved. Three verses to sum up the entire gospel message.

I'm sure that the so-called "Romans Road" has been instrumental in pointing a lot of people toward the redeeming love of Christ, so I don't mean to completely trash it. But for those of us Christians who became so accustomed to it, I think we've missed some of the deep, fleshy meaning that sits in these all too familiar verses. Look at the one I've quoted at the top of this post. Three words have really stood out to me recently.


The wages of sin is death. Wages are what you earn for the work you do. What we earn is death (it doesn't really mention "hell" or "eternal death", but that's for a different post). Whatever we work for, whatever we try to do, however much we try to obey the Law, if we miss the mark at all (sin), we earn death. This was, perhaps, the entire core of Jesus' message. "The Law is here and could save you if you kept it, but none of you do. Even looking at another woman is adultery, even being angry is murder. You earn death."


Please notice that the verse does not continue, "but the wages of believing in Jesus is eternal life". It's a gift. Given freely to each of us regardless of what we do, because what we do earned us death already. We don't like accepting gifts because they hurt our pride and make us very uncomfortable, but it's a gift all the same.


What's the gift? "Eternal life." Which, growing up, meant getting to live forever after I die (probably playing video games and never having a curfew, oh man). But look at it this way.

That's a ray. (Remember Geometry?) It starts at point "A" and moves to the right, forever, and it's how I always thought of eternal life. "P" was when I would die, and then oh boy eternal life would start and points "B" and "C" would equal "totally sweet". In the last few years I've tried to really understand that Jesus talks about eternal life starting now, as if point "P" was this moment, right here, and the ray extends off through the rest of our lives and into eternity. But I think that even that understanding is wrong. Eternity isn't a ray. Eternity is a line.

The gift of God is eternal life, extending off forever into the future and into the past. Not only does he prepare our life from now through forever, but he redeems and heals our past, working it all together for his good (purpose). Point "B" is now, point "A" is our past, and point "C" is our future but our life in God goes forever in all directions. And though we desperately want to earn our future in heaven, the wages of what we do/say/practice/believe is death. Thank God for his pride-crushing life-saving gift.

October 25, 2007

So What Is This "Emergent Church"?

I mean, I'm drawn to it. The idea of new, "cutting-edge" church philosophy that incorporates a lot of freedoms that I love is obviously going to make me get a little excited. But the more I read and explore, the more hesitant I become, and I'm trying to understand why.

If you haven't yet heard of the "emerging church", Wikipedia is your friend. The opening line of the entry describes it as "a controversial 21st-century Protestant Christian movement whose participants seek and to engage postmodern people..." (Yes that's right, they seek and to engage. Nothing lends credibility like bad grammar.) Despite its obvious flaws, I like Wikipedia because I think it gives a pretty good description of how something is actually seen or experienced by a majority of people. And this mysterious "majority of people" seem to think that the emerging church is "controversial".

If we are going to be completely honest with each other, I probably have to mention to you that this perceived controversy is at least half of the reason that the whole Emergent/Emerging movement (again, see Wikipedia for the ridiculously unclear difference) is gaining so much publicity. It's sort of like the kid who yelled "fight" in the halls of your high school -- some people were rolling their eyes and some people were cheering them on but everybody ran to watch. But this fight isn't between a jock and a punk in the halls of a high school, and there's probably a little more at stake. Regardless of who's right or wrong, are the unsuperficial parts of this fight good or bad for Christianity or humanity as a whole?

Here's why I think it's a Good Thing:

  1. Freedom to explore and ask questions. The church is too good at squashing questions and questioners, as if its goal is to raise up an army of unthinking servants who recite their memorized lines in unison. Abortion is murder, protect the family, sexual sin is the worst kind of sin, Max Lucado is a great author, Josh McDowell used to be an athiest but look what happened when he tried to disprove the Bible, love the sinner hate the sin, etc. I grew up in the Church and I know this is not the real goal of most church people. So I think it's a Good Thing to stop making it seem like it is.
  2. Epistemological humility and the freedom to not know. Epistemological humility is just a fancy way of saying "uhh... we don't actually know everything." Growing up, I remember getting in numerous theological debates (I had a very boring childhood, you might say). It never once occurred to me that the appropriate answer to any number of theological questions is "I don't know." To answer that way would have been worse than admitting defeat, bringing shame upon my children and their children for generations to come. And yet, there are so many things we don't know or understand. I think it's great to admit that.
  3. Openness to new understandings. The concepts of infallibility and inerrancy have probably gained too much weight as Foundational Pillars of the entire Christian Faith, especially when the concepts seem to be misunderstood so often. What we have is our own interpretations and the interpretations of those we trust. When we ask questions and admit that we don't know all the answers, we begin to realize that some of our theological understandings may be built on misguided logic or unfounded assumptions. I think Jesus taught in parables as a way to get his audiences to engage with what he taught them, to talk it out and grapple with it on a personal level and with each other. When we seal off all theological interpretations as final, binding, and untouchable, I think we do damage to the spirit in which they were presented by Jesus himself.
  4. Emphasis on love and mercy. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is love. I like when groups begin to focus on how to better love each other, not just within the Church but all people everywhere. Sometimes it seems as though so many years were spent on preaching justice, wrath, and how to avoid sin that we may have missed out on some of the stories of redemption and healing that God meant for us to emphasize to the world. The harshest of Jesus' condemnations were saved for those who thought themselves righteous members of the church, while his softest and most loving conversations were with the lowest of sinners. To follow his example is, I think, to preach his message of love and grace and leave judgment to God.
But, like I said, I've become uneasy with it. Here's why I think it might be a Bad Thing:
  1. Elitism. Trading one kind for another is the worst kind of trick. I would hate to become so concerned with being a part of this "emergent" group that I entirely missed the point. Already people have begun to parody members of the movement as looking a certain way, using certain buzz words, and espousing certain trademark idiosyncrasies. And it's easy to begin associating all of this branding with an intellectual snobbery that says, "We're smarter and cooler and trendier, so why don't those idiots understand how awesome we are and join us?"
  2. Useless controversy. I think parts of the "fight" are good and necessary, but I think a lot of others are just for the sake of drama and publicity. Nothing gets more hits for your blog than saying something with a little bite to it, right? Conversations that are filled with grace will go a lot further toward making this a meaningful and productive discussion, but they aren't as exciting. People like it when their blood boils a little bit.
  3. It's a phase/fad/temporary excitement. It feels more exciting now to say, "There's a whole new church rising up and it's going to be completely different and it's going to change the way we think about everything, and it's emerging with a new postmodern worldview as we leave the modern era behind!" But really, we're going to move along just as slowly as we always have, and ten or twenty years from now our kids are going to say, "What's this 'emergent church' thing that you guys used to talk about?" or, "Haha remember when people thought the 'emergent church' was the big thing? That was so lame. They didn't realize that it's actually the Post-Re-Emergent Post-Community Gathering Conversation that is the real new movement, and this one's going to last..."
  4. Reactionary decisions. So much of the movement is made up of people who have had poor experiences with previous Evangelical churches. This is bad for two reasons -- people who are bitter about past experiences tend to use harsh, negative language when referring back to those groups, and decisions based on this kind of reactionary movement tend to be less thought out since they are partly based on anger.
Here's what I think: This movement is an indicator. A lot of people in our generation (some older, some younger) are beginning to think differently about some things, and some changes are going to grow out of it. But do we need another New Church? History tells us that New Churches become mirror images of their parent churches as the first generation grows up. Why shouldn't we learn from our parents' churches (and their parents' churches) as we try to incorporate these new ideas and interpretations into our faith?

Perhaps the best church to emerge from these conversations will emerge within the churches that we already belong to, as we try to work to redeem the broken relationships we have within them. Or maybe the freedom of new ideas will never catch on within the established churches and the movement will be forced to find new homes as it has already begun to do. It's probably too early to tell. But no matter what happens, I think any of us who sympathize with the good sides of this movement would do well to follow Mark Van Steenwyk’s “7 Loving Challenges for Emergent,” which are summarized here on the Emergent Village blog. If this topic interests you, that blog is a good place to watch.

October 16, 2007

A Story of God and Man

I originally posted this under a pseudonym on another blog, which was stupid. This narrative really explains the way I've begun to understand God and his relationship to us.

Chapter 1: Creation

In the beginning, God created the perfect world. It lacked nothing, and it was very good. So good, in fact, that God wanted someone to enjoy it with him. So he created women and men to enjoy the world, to enjoy each other, and to enjoy God forever.

People enjoyed the world for a while, and soaked up its many pleasures. God made all the good in the world available to them, but instructed them not to worry about the difference between good and evil. They were meant to simply enjoy God and everything he’d given them–completely free to choose from any of the good that God had made available.

Chapter 2: Curiosity and the Love of Free Choice

But curiosity, a wonderful thing, soon became great in the hearts and minds of the people, so great that they soon set out to discover good and evil for themselves. That God would keep this choice from them must mean that he didn't trust them with Important Things, and they were determined to prove him wrong.

Soon equipped with their new knowledge (for God did not prevent them from fulfilling their curiousity), the people left their perfect world behind. God was not happy with his children’s decision. “You have ruined what I created for you,” he said. “I did not create you with the capacity to choose good over evil because I intended to do that for you. Now, with your new knowledge, you must choose. And since this has become your heart’s desire, I will not deprive you of it or its consequences.”

Chapter 3: Choices and Consequences

But people did not always choose good over evil, as God knew they would not. The perfect world was gone and in its place was suffering. And just as God had resolved to destroy his ruined creation now corrupted by evil, a thought came to him. He suddenly knew just what to do.

"They may have ruined what I created for them,” he said, “but behold, I will do something even better with what has now been left.”

Chapter 4: The Test Group

In that moment, God looked at his children and at the mess they’d made, and he chose a group of them. “Abraham,” he called, “I am going to bless you with an opportunity to fulfill the human dream–a chance to gain your own salvation and to learn how to choose good over evil once and for all.” After all, if these men and women could learn to choose good, then certainly anyone could. And if they couldn’t…

“Yes, Lord!" the people replied. "We know that we can make the right choice. How do we choose good, Lord? Teach us!” the people asked.

“Like this,” he replied. And the Law was born.

Time after time, year after year, and chance after chance found the people failing. The Law, clear as it was, proved to be too difficult to follow. People once again faced the crippling fact that they could not always choose good over evil. And yet they continually tried, for their pride was deeply rooted and their self-belief was great. But this was not how they were created.

Chapter 5: Intervention

After several hundred years of trying, God stepped in.

“Enough,” he exclaimed. “I have watched my children struggle for long enough. Do you now see that I did not create you for choosing good over evil, but to enjoy me and my goodness forever? Let me fix you and make you whole again. Let me send you unconditional forgiveness and completion. Let me send you Grace. You will know him as Jesus (God saves).”

At first, the people were confused. Would this finally be the person who could help them to become perfect? To gain the ability to always choose good over evil? But Jesus was not who they expected or wished that he would be. He was a servant and a healer, come to restore the world to how it was meant to be and to end the suffering that their bad choices had created.

Chapter 6: A Big Mistake

As the people spent more time with Jesus (Grace), he began to demonstrate to them where they fell short of the Law's instruction. "Close enough isn't enough," he said, and the most righteous of the people were offended by his message. And yet the least righteous of them found great acceptance and restoration in his presence. It was as if he were saying that the Law was not the only thing that could save them -- its purpose could be fulfilled in another way. Grace could pardon them from their choice and restore them to God.

When the people realized this, they turned on Grace with a new wrath too great for words. They still believed that they were capable of choosing good over evil, and they did not appreciate this attempt to undermine their latest endeavor to do so. They were unable to realize that this was not how they were created. And with all of the pride and self-belief they could muster, they chose the greatest evil of them all.

They killed Grace. God’s attempt to fix and save his children was completely and entirely rejected.

Chapter 7: The Gospel

God was left in quite a predicament. The people he’d created to enjoy him forever could not enjoy him fully because they continually chose evil over good, yet his greatest attempt to freely fix them of this eternal problem was rejected and sent back without a moment’s thought. They could not enjoy him. They would not be fixed. And just as God had resolved (for a second time) to destroy his now completely ruined creation, a thought came to him again. And again, he suddenly knew just what to do.

“They have chosen to reject my Grace,” he exclaimed, “but I too am free. I reject your rejection, my children. Grace is yours. You are fixed. You are free to enjoy me forever. I do not hold your pride against you anymore, for you are my children, and I love you.”

It is the best news we the people could ever hope to hear.