November 30, 2007

A Semi-Millennial Cycle

Approx 1 A.D. - Jesus is born.
Approx 500 A.D. - The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Approx 1000 A.D. - The Great Schism, separating Eastern Orthodoxy from the Pope and his Roman Catholic Church.
Approx 1500 A.D. - The Great Reformation, separating Roman Catholicism from Luther and his Protestant movement.

Approx 2000 A.D. - ?


The time is ripe for something to happen. What will it look like? (Thanks to the EV Blog for tipping me off to this article.)

November 29, 2007

Church Thoughts

So I finally compiled the results of my little poll. Thanks for responding--I knew I could count on you. Here is a table of the results, with my attempts to classify/categorize what you all said.

I obviously took some liberty with the categorizations, but it seems like people think that a church should be diverse, have strong biblical teaching/doctrine, have good community between church members, and reach out to the larger, surrounding community. A church should avoid being rigid or resistant to change, shouldn't worry so much about being modern or cool, and should be careful about getting in the way of Jesus and his gospel.

Now, before I do any expository commenting on your responses, let me list my own. (I ended up having to reconstruct them finally, since I can't find where I originally wrote them down, but I think I got pretty close to my originals.) Here they are.

The Church Should Be

1) A community of people who are honest about their similarities (loving Jesus, seeking out his truth) AND their differences (which could be almost anything else).
2) A safe place for everyone to meet friends, learn about living, seek truth, experience God, and/or observe others worship him.
3) A source of inspiration that results in people becoming who they were created to be in their life and communities.

The Church Should Avoid

1) A long list of doctrines or beliefs that "membership" requires.
2) Becoming defined by our numbers, by exclusion, by measures of success or failure, or by sin-management and reactionary preaching.
3) Lost focus (the church is not a political action committee, or the town judge/detective/accuser, or a private club, or etc.)

Now, let me compare. I'll start with diversity. It looks like I don't find this important at all, but I don't think that's exactly true. I do think that a Church should be representative of the community of people that it's a part of, but I'm uncomfortable with the idea of actively seeking this out. I don't ever want to look at my church and think, "This church needs more Latinos! How can we attract Latinos? Hmm..." Instead, I think I see the problem the other way around -- if a church is located in a Latino community and still has very few Latinos, the question to ask is probably "Are we doing anything that is discouraging Latinos from feeling comfortable or safe here?" If the church isn't a safe place for everyone to seek truth and experience God, why not?

Biblical teaching and doctrine is important, but sometimes I think it becomes a tool for the wrong purposes. The problem, I think, is with our understanding of what counts as "Biblical". There have been many times that I know I have pretended to agree with someone for the sake of what I thought was church unity or solidarity, but what did I gain by doing it? I want the Bible to be preached from because it is dripping with the very truth that we're all there to seek. But the minute our definition of "Biblical" is used to stomp on someone's questions or doubts or confusions or experiences -- the elements of an honest search for a wild and mysterious God -- I think it compromises the strength and the safety that the church has. I want the community of people I worship and seek with to be honest about our differences, and to be okay with them. I don't think we need an inflexible list of mandatory doctrinal statements and theological beliefs to hold our community together, either. Is it possible to be honest about the fact that we're all seeking, and we don't have everything figured out? I think it is.

Community within the church is what the Church is, in my opinion. A group of people who are bonded by the fact that we're all very interested in this God that we've heard about, and are seeking after him together as much as our hearts allow. And out of that search, and out of those experiences with each other and with God inevitably will flow an outpouring of compassion and love for our surrounding communities. But when I think of my desire to love people more, I can't help but think that it's a desire not to be a better church-goer or a better Christian, but just to be human! We believe that God created us to love and care for each other, but we aren't always motivated to be those people that God created us to be. I long for the Church to be a source of that inspiration, serving as the flint that sparks us to love each other, to create beautiful music and art, to care for our communities, and to live in (or out) God's love.

An unwillingness to change can be harmful. Where change is needed, I think the Church should be bold enough to consider it and to follow through with where God leads, as best as can be determined. But I also know that there are times when change feels exciting, or looks attractive, but resisting that particular change is the right thing to do. God help us if we ever begin to believe that all change is good, or that change just for its own sake is always helpful. How to determine which changes are good and right and which are unnecessary or untimely is probably one of the things I'm most scared of getting wrong. Not because I think the consequences are all that drastic, but because I think it's just so hard to know which is which. I guess sometimes we make the best decision we can and let God's grace cover us when we're wrong.

Losing focus, becoming defined by the wrong things, becoming focused on unimportant issues like being modern or successful, getting in the way of Jesus and his gospel -- these are all very similar ways of saying the same thing, probably. We may differ on what's included in the "wrong things" or the "unimportant issues", or what's "getting in the way", but we all recognize that getting sidetracked or becoming something other than what the Church should be is bad for the Church. Because of this, I think an honest community that's willing to discuss these kinds of issues is probably the healthiest kind of Church.

Thanks again for responding. Feel free to let me know why you disagree with my categorizations, or my lists, or my consensus picks, or my explanations. Thanks for reading!

November 26, 2007

Work Kills

I am currently pondering the inevitability of my future death. I will post my response to the poll later tonight.

November 21, 2007


Thanks for responding to my church poll. Over the Thanksgiving break I plan to write my own response with a little commentary on what you all wrote.

In the meantime, have a happy thanksgiving!
(if you're American)

Oops, wrong one.

November 15, 2007

I Need A Favor From You

Okay, so I'm pretty sure that at least two or three people are reading this blog. So if you are now reading this, I need your help. It doesn't matter if you don't usually comment on these types of things, you don't even have to use your real name (log out of Blogger and just post anonymously). I need your thoughts.

A few days ago I did a little "exercise" with myself where I wrote out all the things I would want in a church and then all the things I would want a church to avoid. Then I looked over my lists and made myself narrow it down to 3 of each. I was somewhat interested in what I ended up with.

For you, what are the three things you think a church should be/have, and the three things you think a church should be without? And by the way, it's only interesting if you try to make them a little more specific than, "Love."

Don't look at other comments before you leave your own. I'll post my lists later, and then talk about them all (if anyone chooses to participate, that is). Thanks, folks.

November 13, 2007

How To Build A Church

Emergent Village posted a link to an excerpt preview of Intiuitive Leadership, the unreleased book by Tim Keel, pastor of Jacob's Well church in Kansas City, Missouri. First, you should read the preview. But one passage from his chapter called "A Modest Proposal" really jumped out and grabbed me, and I wanted to share it here.

In that chapter he talks for a while about how people always want to emulate other ministries. Look at what's "working" or what's "successful", find out why, and then copy it--that's the most common model of modern church-building. Part of the buzz surrounding the "emerging church" is generated from just that -- an attitude of "ooh how can WE do that too?" Is "emergent" just the next fad in a long line of cutting-edge ministry strategies?

Keel's suggestion is a simple one: Maybe we should stop trying to emulate the newest cutting-edge ministries and just try to seek God? He quotes a passage by Thomas Merton about architecture and the ability of monastic communities to create beautiful buildings. Even though the topic was a bit different, the meaning is eerily on target for our current church climate. Merton writes,

The perfection of the twelfth-century Cistercian architecture is not to be explained by saying that the Cistercians were looking for a new technique. I am not sure they were looking for a new technique at all. They built good churches because they were looking for God. And they were looking for God in a way that was pure and integral enough to make everything they did and everything they touched give glory to God.

We cannot reproduce what they did because we approach the problem in a way that makes it impossible for us to find a solution. We ask ourselves a question that they never considered. How shall we build a beautiful monastery according to the style of some past age and according to the rules of a dead tradition? Thus we make the problem not only infinitely complicated but we make it, in fact, unsolvable. Because a dead style is a dead style. And the reason why it is dead is that the motives that once gave it life have ceased to exist. They have given place to a situation that demands another style. If we were intent upon loving God rather than upon getting a Gothic church out of a small budget we would soon put up something that would give glory to God and would be very simple and would also be in the tradition of our fathers.1,2(emphasis mine)

The relevance of that passage, especially the part I bolded, gives me chills.

1Excerpt from Thomas Merton's The Sign of Jonas (1953).
2Excerpt originally quoted in Tim Keel's Intuitive Leadership (not yet released).

November 12, 2007

A Note About Cal

Because one of the commenters from my last two posts just called me sounding distraught and asking if the stories about Cal were real, I felt the need to inform anyone who reads them now or later that they're fictitious. Cal is only real in the sense that he represents a lot of what I've learned about God from other people who believe in certain theologies, etc.

That's all. (Sorry, Alex.)

November 9, 2007

A Clarification

I received an email over the weekend from Cal, who wanted to clarify the details of his story that I posted last week. Apparently I didn't have the story exactly right. Here's what Cal told me.


Thanks for the kind words. I do love my children more than anything in the world. However, the details of the story you told about Jack's death were incorrect, and I couldn't let that slide.

When I heard my boys yelling to me, I ran to find them hanging off the edge of a steep cliff, like you said. I looked at Brady first and said, "Do you want me to pull you up, Brady? Do you believe that I can pull you up here and save you from falling?" He looked back at me and said, "Yes Dad please save me! I believe you can save me!" and I grabbed him and pulled him up to safety.

Then I looked at Jack and said, "Jack, do you want me to pull you up? Do you want me to save you?" He also looked back at me with eyes full of fear, and said "No thanks, Dad, I think I can pull myself up." Because I trust my son and value the choices he makes, I didn't force myself upon him. I let him try to pull himself up. When he slipped, I had a chance to grab his arm and keep him from dropping, so I asked again, "Do you want me to save you, son? Do you believe I can save you now?" He didn't respond, and refusing to violate his freedom I allowed him to fall.

I hope that clears things up for you, Jason. It was good to hear from you.

I had no idea. What I thought was a choice to show how great he was turned out to have been an act of compassion, as he trusted his son to make that choice for himself and never once forced him to be saved. Like I said before, what an incredible father.

The Best Dad Ever

I was at a Bible study last night in which we discussed Romans 8:28-30, a passage that inevitably sparks conversation about the doctrine of election or predestination. If you take a look at that passage and other related passages (Romans 11:2, Ephesians 1:3, Galatians 1:15, Romans 8:6-8, etc.), there is a very strong case for the idea that we cannot choose God, and that God must choose us and bring us out of darkness into his light.

The argument says that we, being of the flesh, cannot choose God. That God must choose us and save us from our selves, that we cannot resist his call because it is perfect, and that only some are thus called. Jesus' work on the cross was for the elect, so that it might be 100% successful in what it intended. If you want a better summary of the argument, read this. The end result is that God chooses some to be saved and allows the rest to receive their just damnation in order to display the riches of his glory to the objects of his mercy (Romans 9:14-24).

This whole thing reminded me a lot of my friend Cal, who is an amazing guy. I could go on for quite some time about just how wonderful he is in all different ways, but I am specifically reminded now of how great a father he is. The story he told me about his hiking trip with his two boys is one of the best models of fatherhood I have ever heard.

A few years ago, Cal took his two sons Jack and Brady on a hiking trip through a section of the Appalachian mountains. They were a little young for that kind of adventure, but he had laid out specific rules for them to follow in order to keep them safe in the rocky terrain. "Stick close to me, don't run off on your own, and don't fight with each other," he had warned. "If you boys stick with me, you'll be safe."

Things went very well for the first part of the trip. The boys, of course, ran off a few times and fought once in a while, but after a few scraped knees and rocky falls they began to settle in and stick with their dad. The view they got to see when they stopped for lunch was beautiful enough to calm even the wildest boys, and they sat and appreciated it for some time.

After lunch, Jack and Brady began to get a little restless. Brady had been teasing Jack the whole time about his short legs and how he'd never be able to reach the top, and Jack had begun to have enough. When dad was off in the brush relieving himself, the two ran off and began to fight. The scuffle would have ended with just a few bruises if they hadn't been too preoccupied to notice the sharp drop that led off behind the hill they were fighting on. Before they knew it, Brady had pushed Jack too hard down a slope causing them both to lose their balance and tumble off the side.

Being strong boys filled with adrenaline, they had both been able to get a grip on some of the rock and brush that stuck out from the side of the overhang, but the soft dirt was giving way fast to the weight of them both. They called out to Cal who came racing over to find his boys both in real danger of falling 150 feet back down the side of the mountain they'd just spent the morning climbing. Cal, being a strong, loving father, reached down and grabbed Brady's wrist, gently and swiftly pulling him up to safety. Then, he reached back down, wrapped his fingers tightly around Jack's arm, pulled him up and away from the side of the overhang, and then released his grip, watching as Jack fell away to his death.

Brady, terrified and confused, looked at Cal with wild eyes of disbelief. "What happened to Jack, Dad? What happened??" Cal looked lovingly at his son and said, "I told you both the way to stay safe was to stick with me and to not fight, son. You disobeyed me and found yourselves in the exact situation that I warned you of. You both deserved to fall. But in my great love and mercy, I chose you to save, while I chose to let Jack fall, to demonstrate my great justice."

What an amazing father.

November 7, 2007

The Unfortunate Irony of Fanaticism

A friend came over for dinner last night and we roasted a whole chicken that she'd killed herself at a local farm. Over a long, satisfying meal, our conversation wandered enough to at one point produce a somewhat provocative observation.

The common consequence of fanaticism is that something that could actually be quite good ends up looking extraordinarily bad.

November 2, 2007

God Likes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This post got a little out of hand and is now pretty long. So here's a short summary: Some people in the church disagree with each other. The more defensive you are about it, the more insecure and fearful you usually are about your own positions. God is a mystery, and that's okay. Can we learn more about the mystery of God from our disagreements instead of developing our own forms of modern-day excommunication?

Brian McLaren is scaring the hell out of people. In the process, he's revealing an unfortunate attitude, a sort of defense system designed to guard against the horrifying fear that we could be wrong about a lot of important things. To be honest, I have trouble caring about anything that McLaren says anymore (I've been trying to plod through The Secret Message of Jesus for the last year and a half without much success), but this interesting effect he's had on the Christian community recently caught my attention.

For instance, the folks at Discerning Reader have posted a review of McLaren's new book called Everything Must Change. The reviewer appears to have a somewhat negative history with Mr. McLaren, so a negative review is unsurprising. It's not the disagreement that catches my eye, it's the defensive attitude that bubbles up around the discussion of his name.

For example, in his book McLaren apparently writes a version of Mary's Magnificat (the prayer she sings in Luke 1:46-55, giving thanks for her conception). His version, however, is supposed to be from a more Protestant perspective. I read the portion that was quoted in the review (you can too if you click the link to the review above) and I can understand how it could easily be seen as disrespectful, distasteful, or insensitive. But the Discerning Reader (DR) response goes a little further than that.

Time would fail me to even begin to address all of the doctrines he mocks and belittles even in this one paragraph. Suffice it to say that no doctrine is safe, with those closest to the heart of the gospel the ones that disgust McLaren the most. Just this one paragraph ought to shock and disgust any Christian.

One author's representation of the Protestant perspective--a perspective he's been a part of for many years--should cause all Christians to feel shock and disgust because he dared to say nasty things about us, sort of? Can you see the defensive reactivity that explodes from the page and how it seems so disproportionately intense?

Later in the review, DR continues.
With McLaren’s willingness to play fast and loose with Scripture, interpreting it as he seems fit with utter disregard for the stream of historic orthodox theology and the context of Scripture, how am I to trust his presentation of economics? If he is willing to adapt Scripture to fit his agenda and to do so at the expense of its most clear and obvious meaning, what confidence can I have that he has not done the same in other areas?

Now, maybe after reading the book, I'd sympathize more with the intensity of this response. But the content is telling, too. We're too quick to accuse others of "playing fast and loose with Scripture," forgetting that none of us has access to the One True Meaning of the Infallible Word™. We're all willing (and often required) to adapt Scripture to fit our agenda. There is rarely a clear and obvious meaning, and those that use that kind of language to describe Scripture often have the most relentless agendas of all.

We devote ourselves to the intense study of Scripture precisely because of the deep, rich meaning that lies within the text. We are all subject to interpretation, whether it's our own or the one of someone we trust (an author, a great leader, a Church tradition).

God and his word are a great and wonderful mystery. Passages like Romans 11:25, Ephesians 1:9, Ephesians 5:32, Colossians 4:3, and 1 Timothy 3:16 all speak of the great mystery of God that has been revealed to us. I used to think that it meant that what was once a mystery is now unveiled, and the mystery is gone. But it says that the mystery itself is revealed, not the answer. What Adam and Eve lost in the garden when they reached for the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, Christ brought back in the form of the mystery of God.

Unfortunately, we're really uncomfortable with mystery. And consequently, most American churches are uncomfortable with questions, and especially with the answer of "I don't know". How can God predestine all things while still allowing us choice? If your answer is, "It's a mystery of God, my child," you should expect a punch in the face.

So when a group of Christians starts asking lots of questions and not giving many clear answers, the natural reaction of many in the Church is to give them a symbolic punch in the face. A friend of mine who is in seminary near Philadelphia, PA told me that his seminary teachers have instructed him to avoid all of Brian McLaren's writings. Avoid reading what someone has to say about God, because you might become confused and think of God as a mystery, instead of clearly understanding their version of the truth alone. What kind of education, what kind of Godly leadership would discourage the pursuit of knowledge and truth? Even if they disagree with every word he says, what's to be gained by advising your students to avoid them (except having the exact opposite effect, I'd guess)?

I know of several pastors who preach out against the entire "Emerging Church" movement, and any writers that they believe are involved (whether the writer actually associates with it or not). Again, besides the fact that this is the fastest way to get people to read books by these people and become interested in this movement, what is it that you're so worried about? If it's not true, and they trust you as their pastor/leader/counselor/etc, they'll start a conversation with you about it. Conversations about God and his works are good, right?

Don't freak out so much, people. Mystery is a good thing. And people who chase after the mystery of God are continually blessed by it. So by all means, please disagree with Brian McLaren, but it would help us who disagree with you if you left the shock and disgust behind.