Same Sex- Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage – A Book Review

same sex marriageSean McDowell and John Stonestreet tackle a difficult subject in their book, “Same Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage.” McDowell, the son of famed Christian apologist, pastor, speaker, and writer, Josh McDowell, is a professor at Biola University. Stonestreet is cohost with Eric Metaxas of the radio program Breakpoint. Their experience has led them to write this book which is targeted at Christians who are seeking a different approach towards responding to same-sex marriage and the continuing battle that rages between culture and the Church. The authors state that the unfortunate fact about Christians is that, “we are far better known for being against gays than being for people.”

McDowell and Stonestreet state that both sides of the raging debate over same-sex marriage continue to use proof-texting to prove their points. The authors instead believe that we need to go back to creation, “the way God made the world in the first place.” They point out that, “Because sexual intercourse is the only biological process that leads to procreation, this implies that marriage requires gender diversity.” Out of all of the biological processes, it is the only one that can’t be accomplished individually but which requires the opposite gender.

The authors also point out that marriage is more than simply being happy. It is rather a covenant between two people and God. They believe that, “Marriage was designed by God to thoroughly join two image bearers in a permanent commitment, enabling them to fulfill their purpose of filling and forming God’s world.” In fact, since they make the connection between procreation and marriage, they believe that, “including same-sex unions as being a type of marriage would change the definition of marriage for everyone.” While there are certain exceptions of procreation being fulfilled within marriage (e.g., those who are infertile), the authors see this as one of the primary purposes God attached to marriage.

McDowell and Stonestreet state that their argument against legalizing same-sex marriage does not mean that they believe that same-sex romantic relationships should be criminalized. In fact, they say, it doesn’t even mean that committed relationships should have no legal protection when it comes to property, inheritance, and care of partners. The argument on which they stand as that by redefining marriage, we take away the purposes for which it was created by God.

So, how should Christians who do not support same-sex marriage approach the issue? McDowell and Overstreet say that as Christians, “…we must spend more energy getting our own houses in order than we do trying to correct those outside the Church. Those in Christ are continually to call each other back to His authority in all areas.” They state that, “There is too great of a difference in the morality that is being demanded by the Church and the morality that is seen in the Church.” Peter writes in one of his epistles that judgment begins with the house of God and if we do not deal with the sin in our own lives than we have no business trying to address that sin in the lives of others. Until Christians begin to take seriously the moral standards to which they hold others, they will never gain a voice in a world that sees them as judgmental hate-mongers.

The authors include some helpful resources such as a to-do list of things that can be done to build inroads into the LGBT community and show them the love that has been so notably absent from Christians in the past. They also provide suggestions for the long haul, reinforcing the need for Christians to take strong stands against sin in general rather than singling out a specific sin that seems more egregious to them. The example given is divorce, a sin that has been largely overlooked within the church and yet which still stands as a sin. They also include guidance for everyday questions, similar to an FAQ with some helpful hints of how to respond to questions or circumstances which readers may confront or be faced with on a regular basis.

I wasn’t sure what to think when I picked up this book. Based on the backgrounds of both authors, I was unsure that this would be as different of an approach as advertised. I was pleasantly surprised that the book lived up to the promises that it made. It was written for Christians but I could see some disagreeing with some of the stances of the authors, but those same people may just be the ones who have been responsible for the wide chasm that lies divides the evangelical church and the LGBT community. The authors do a good job of confessing the shortcomings of Christians in the past, holding fast to the convictions which they hold based upon the Bible, and laying out a more loving approach to an issue that has been not only causing dissension between the Church and the culture but causing divisions within the Church itself.

McDowell and Stonestreet take a loving and gentle approach without compromising their convictions. I would recommend this book to those Christians who have been struggling with their own response to this ongoing debate. Even if you disagree with the approach laid out by the authors, their approach, in my opinion, can’t be labeled as hateful, judgmental, or bigoted. They seek to go back to a more loving and Christ-like approach towards conflict in hopes of regaining a voice within culture and, more importantly, showing those with whom Christians disagree that the love of Christ can rule the day, even when we still disagree in the end.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Distorted Religion

extremismThe news has been full of stories about ISIS and the rampage of terror that they are wreaking upon the Middle East. The videos that have been portrayed have been brutal. They have beheaded journalists and others. They have instilled fear in people and had the world scratching their head in wonder, asking how this can happen and who will stop them.

Some have taken to criticizing Islam because of this extreme group. I read the posts and found myself feeling mostly aligned with some of the thoughts and criticism…..until I looked in the mirror. A friend posted this picture on his Facebook page and I was horrified at the thought that, as a Christian, I should be associated with the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, Fred Phelps and his minions, or psychotic megalomaniacs like Jim Jones and David Kuresh. Surely people who know me would know that the Christianity that I espouse does not bear any similarities to these extreme distortions, right?

Over and over again in the past few weeks, I have mulled over in my mind what to do with ISIS and how to address it in my own mind. I have wondered about the process which has become known in the theological world as eisegesis, the isolating of passages of the Bible out of their contexts to be used for less than noble purposes. For hundreds of years, people have taken the Bible and distorted it, twisting the words to fit whatever their preferences would have them. If the Bible is subject to such distortion, why should the Koran be any different or exempt?

Christianity is an embracing of the teachings of Jesus as truth, the embracing of Jesus as the only son of God, fully human and fully God, the embracing of his life and teachings, the embracing him as the only way to the Father, the becoming a disciple and follower of the incarnate God, the embracing of the Bible as the written Word of God. When we fail to fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith, we will find ourselves guilty of eisegesis over and over again. We might like to point our fingers at those who are doing “really bad” things with their distortions of their religious books, but it doesn’t make our distortion any less of a distortion.

I have always hated to be associated with mainline Christianity by friends whose only understanding of Christianity comes from MSNBC, the Washington Post, or worse yet, from an experience that they had with a supposed Christian who hurt them or offended them in some way. While I consider myself evangelical, that word seems to set something off within people that triggers an alarm, signaling for them to stay away……far away. Labels have a way of doing that, polarizing people because we tend to think in extremes, identifying the labeled with the extremes that fall into that particular label.

Unfortunately, imperfect people (like me) have spoken for Jesus and have caused people to think that they (and me), in their (and my) imperfect state are the reason to follow or reject Jesus. It’s not license to live however we want, but it is a request for grace from those who are still not convinced that Jesus is who he says he is or that God is real.

I am sorry for the distorted picture of Jesus that I have sometimes given to others. I am sorry that my representation of him has been less than stellar at times and downright atrocious at other times. I am sorry that I may have caused someone who was searching for answers to have looked the other way because the Jesus that they encountered in me was so far from the real thing.

I am thankful that God’s mercies are new every morning. I am thankful that there is grace extended to those like me who fall short time and again. I am thankful that Jesus came for people like me, people who fall short and are unable to bring salvation to themselves.

I hope and pray that I might learn a little more every day just who Jesus is and how I can best represent him. I pray the prayer of John the Baptist that I might decrease in order that Jesus might increase in me. I pray that the God of second chances might grant me second and third and beyond that number of chances to better represent him to the world and the people around me.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found but now I see. Soli Deo Gloria!

Keeping Me Humble

anonymous feedbackI have been a pastor for 10 years. Over that time, I have experienced some incredible blessings. I have shared in the joys of life as well as the losses and valleys that people have experienced. Along the way, I have experienced some of my own valleys as well.

Early on, someone that I knew gave me some helpful advice regarding notes that I got. They told me to keep a file with encouraging notes. They told me to store them in a drawer where I could easily find them and refer to them on those days that I felt less than adequate, when I needed a good dose of encouragement again. They also told me to disregard any notes that weren’t signed.

I have had a significant amount of experience with anonymous feedback. Generally, when someone needs to maintain their anonymity, they are not going to be offering helpful or constructive feedback. I have often found that advice offered anonymously is mostly aimed at causing hurt and humiliation.

Even though I was given this advice, I’ve still kept a few notes that were less than complimentary to me. In fact, I found one the other day that I received early on in my ministry. The anonymous responder was questioning my heart and whether I really was a worshiper of Jesus because I had said the word “heck” in a rehearsal three times. Three times. I’m glad it wasn’t four or five. My language had offended them and caused them to question my relationship with Christ.

Wow! When I found this note, I began to think back to when I first received it. I wondered exactly what I had thought when it came in. Did I take it seriously? Did I begin to question my own faith because of this anonymous feedback? I don’t think so. I think I kept it because, even if it wasn’t funny at the time, I probably figured that one day I could look back on it and laugh. That day came, and I laughed.

But anonymous feedback that is less than complimentary can be helpful, at least for me. Another reason for me to keep the anonymous and critical note was to keep me humble. If I have a good day or if I preach a good sermon, I could easily find myself taking credit for how wonderful I am, but that’s the last thing that I want to do. The minute that I begin thinking that I am the one who has accomplished something is the minute that I need to reassess my calling into ministry. I need to remember who I do this all for and who gives me the strength to do it. Realizing that not everyone loves me is a really good way to remember that.

Thankfully, I have grown and learned a lot over the 10 years that I have been in ministry. I have seen growth in myself and been affirmed by others with whom I am close who have seen that growth. I am grateful for the feedback that I have received, even if it’s less than stellar. We can all learn some lessons from people who don’t like us, even if they write anonymous notes to us.

Rejecting Independence

scottish independenceThe United Kingdom will remain united. Yesterday, Scotland voted to reject independence and maintain its union with Great Britain, maintaining a united kingdom which had been established for 300 years.

As the time approached for Scotland’s historic vote on September 18th, 2014, the world voiced their opinion as to whether or not they thought that Scotland should vote for its independence. Nuclear arms and world economics were among the significant topics which drove the rest of the world outside the United Kingdom to fix their eyes to see what the outcome might be.

Seeking independence is nothing new. My own country, the United States, was formed when colonists sought their own independence from the monarchy of Great Britain. At the heart of independence though, it’s a battle that has been fought by humankind since the very beginning. According to the biblical account of Adam and Eve, independence was at the heart of their rejection of God’s covenant, creating a chasm between Creator and created.

We generally think that independence is a good thing. As children grow up, they seek independence from the decisions of their parents. There is great fulfillment in the milestones along the way that they achieve such as obtaining a driver’s license, being able to vote, finding their first job, and eventually getting married (although some might reject marriage and see it as a means to reject independence as well). We constantly want to be autonomous as individuals, making our own rules so that we are no longer encumbered by restrictions.

Even the latest Disney animated film “Frozen” has the main character singing, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free.” Freedom is worth fighting for, and in the words of William Wallace, “They can take our lives but they’ll never take our freedom.”

But is it possible that we could be more free by maintaining our dependence? Is it possible that rules and restrictions might actually result in more freedom?

In his letter to the believers in Galatia, Paul reminds them that it is for freedom that we have been set free. We are no longer bound by the yoke of slavery but are set free in Christ. Our dependence on God can actually make us more free, we are no longer encumbered by the weight of slavery to sin.

But it doesn’t make sense for those who are seeking to be fully autonomous. We reject anyone else’s governing or ruling of our lives. We reject the idea that somebody might know better than us. As we grow and mature from children into adults, we believe that we can gain the same wisdom and insight that our parents had, but there is always someone wiser, someone whose insights exceed our own.

In maintaining dependence and rejecting independence, we acknowledge that we cannot do it on our own. We acknowledge that we are better together. The wisest man that ever lived affirmed this position when he wrote that, “two are better than one.” He even went a step further, stating that a cord of three strands is not easily broken.

I’ve always told my wife that we are better together. We may do things separately and apart, but when we team up, we find so much greater success at certain things.

In the same way, when we as individuals team up together, we can get more accomplished. I’m not discounting the importance of acting as individuals with our specific gifting and talents, but how much more effective can we be when we use those gifts and talents in collaboration with others?

Yesterday, Scotland rejected its independence from Great Britain, successfully giving us a model to say that it’s okay to stay together. After all, two are better than one. Maybe we all should take a page from Scotland’s playbook.

Experiencing the Loss of a Family Member – A Book Review

Experiencing the Loss of a Family MemberIf we live on this earth, we will all experience loss. Sometimes we wade into the losses that we experience while other times, we dive right in, experiencing the loss of family members or friends who are close to us. When we experience loss and dive into a time of grief, how do we appropriately wade through it? How do we venture through grief, especially when our society seems to want to push past it and not even address it?

H. Norman Wright has experienced loss of his own. He lost his 22 year old son who was severely disabled and his wife who succumbed to breast cancer. It is out of the depths of this loss that Wright is able to write and share. He is not coming in as a counseling or therapy expert alone, he is able to share his thoughts and guidance through grief because he has personally experienced deep and painful loss himself. His voice of experience speaks volumes when it comes to grief.

This book is laid out in such a way that it can serve as a handbook, so you can pick and choose the chapters that may be more applicable to your own experience if you don’t want to read the whole book. There are insights throughout the book on the journey through grief, tucked in among the specific chapters. Wright starts out with an overview of the world and process of grief and then walks through chapters that deal with specific losses such as the loss of a spouse, the loss of a child, the loss of a parent, and the loss of a sibling. Wright even adds chapters on losing friends and pets (as pet lovers can attest to the fact that pets become part of your family).

Part of the strength of this book is the permission that Wright gives to the reader/grieving one. He says, “Everyone grieves differently, and there isn’t one right way to grieve. Never compare your grief with another’s; your grief is uniquely your own.” He talks about the potential physical implications that will be seen as one journeys through grief, the complexity of emotions that will be experienced, and some helpful hints as to how to make the journey less bumpy. He wouldn’t go so far as to say that the journey through grief is easy, but his suggestions can at least help to ease the pain a little.

Throughout the chapters, there are questions that can be asked by the reader (or others) to try to explore and even get to the heart of grief. Wright offers advice from others who have written on the subject of grief and includes helpful Scripture references that may bring salve to the wounds of grief that are experienced.

Wright’s style of writing is such that you almost feel yourself reliving some of your own losses as he describes the emotions experienced. I felt myself knotting up inside as I read through some of the implications of losing parents. Wright’s experience in loss is an asset for him as he doesn’t describe the process of grief in psychological jargon but in conversational prose. He makes a connection with his reader with this approach. The only criticisms that I have for the book are that it can feel a little overlong if you read it from front to back rather than using it as a manual. The other criticism is that there are times when the scriptural reference seem rather forced or obligatory rather than flowing naturally out of an essential part of coping with loss. A deeper theological treatment of grief would have been helpful.

Besides those few critiques, the book was good. It’s a book that I could easily recommend, in sum or in part, to someone who has experienced grief and is looking for some answers for their own coping. If you know of someone who has experienced the loss of a family member or if you have experienced that loss, you might give Wright a try.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Bethany House Publishers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

How Do We Move On?

black and whiteI wish that I knew how we could move on in our country. I wish I knew how we could bring healing to the racial tension that has existed for years. I wish Americans who happen to be African American did not have to experience the continual frustration and demeaning of being constantly questioned for their skin color.

The latest claim of racial profiling has taken place in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood, home to stars like Steve Martin, George Clooney, and Miley Cyrus. An actress who starred in the Tarantino film “Django Unchained” as well as having appeared in some roles on television was detained after police received calls about a sex act being performed in a Mercedes between a white male and black female. The actress, Daniele Watts, refused to give police her identification and was detained. According to police, her temporary detention was because of her refusal to present identification, although it did result in minor injuries from her handcuffs.

We’ve all heard the stories of Hollywood stars getting unruly when confronted by police. There’s no story there. But no matter what anyone says, there is enough tension lying beneath the surface in our country that every single time that someone who is not Caucasian is stopped, pulled over, or questioned there will ALWAYS be a question of what was motivating the officers who stopped them. Would this even be a story had the woman in question been Caucasian? I doubt it, but that doesn’t negate the importance of this story either.

I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t multiple layers to this story. How sensitive and communicative was the responding officer? Was he hostile? Did Watts’ hostility start right out of the gate? Was she provoked?

I honestly feel for both sides here. I feel bad for the officers who are trying to do their job every day in our country. I feel for them who will be criticized if they come across as anything less than accommodating to anyone whose skin is darker. At the same time, I feel bad for every person whose skin is darker than mine who is constantly wondering how their skin color affects the perception (or misperception) of people who can’t see past it.

I don’t know what it’s like to walk around with knowledge that people are suspicious of me simply because of my skin color. I don’t know what it’s like to have been rejected or passed over because of my skin color. I don’t know what it’s like to be fearful that my strengths, gifts, and abilities may be passed over because of my skin color rather than because my skills fall short of someone else’s.

How do we move on though? The racial tensions in our country seem to be rising to a higher level, or maybe it’s just that we are more sensitive to and aware of them because our president is African American. Regardless of the reason, the question becomes, “How do we respond to them?”

Just like every other problem with a significant history, we don’t move on overnight. We didn’t get here overnight, so we shouldn’t expect that we will wake up tomorrow and everything will be hunky dory. It’s too easy for those of us who don’t experience racism on a day to day basis to have an “out of sight out of mind” mentality. If we don’t see it or hear it, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But we can only move through it, not past it. We need to experience this together; we need to acknowledge that it’s there regardless of what our own ideology might be. We can’t brush it under the carpet no matter how insignificant we might think it is, no matter how much we might feel that it’s distorted.

All it took for me to see another side of this was a conversation with a friend and mentor who is African American. I asked the question that I have asked of myself time and again, “What am I missing?” So, I spent time on the phone with my friend and mentor and he began to tell me his experiences of discrimination. This man who I had grown to love and respect, this man whose intelligence far exceeds my own, this man whose kindness and love was seen almost immediately when getting to know him, this man had experienced discrimination that seemed impossible to me……..but it wasn’t.

We fear what we don’t understand. So, it would follow that we can reduce our fear by gaining a deeper understanding. I am blessed to have had some of the friendships and relationships that I have with many great people who have helped me to gain a deeper understanding, but I’ve certainly not arrived. It’s not enough for me to simply learn for myself, I have a responsibility to pass on what I learn. There are three kids in my house who can make a difference for the future, what am I doing to help them see things differently?

I don’t know how to tackle this seemingly insurmountable obstacle of racism. I will never fully understand what others experience, but that shouldn’t stop me from trying to understand a little more. The more that we come together to try to understand, the more we can fight racism.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, I wonder when that dream will be realized.

To Hit or Not To Hit

ray.rice1_By now, you’ve most likely heard about the NFL star, Ray Rice, and the video that shows him spitting on, punching, and dragging his then fiancée (now wife) in and from an elevator. It’s pretty brutal to watch the soundless video and how Rice turns his fiancée into a “sack of potatoes” with one punch, rendering her unconscious and completely helpless, looking nearly lifeless as she lays slumped on the elevator floor.

This case has so many different layers that it’s really hard to know where to begin in taking about it. The NFL has responded to the video by indefinitely suspending Rice from play, but now there is question as to whether or not they had seen the video prior to its becoming public.

One of the most surprising reactions to the video is the idea that what Rice did was okay, that maybe his wife deserved what she got. There are actually people who are saying that Rice’s then fiancée was to blame and that the punishment that has been meted out on the NFL star is too harsh. Really? Did I miss something?

You might call me old fashioned, but I still kind of look at it as a man’s responsibility to protect his woman. Protect, not beat. Protect and guard, not forcefully abuse and punish.

I grew up with parents who had witnessed abuse or experienced it themselves. Both of my grandfathers had tempers and were known to release those tempers on their wives and sometimes, children. One was an alcoholic and the other just allowed his German blood to boil to the top. Because my parents had both experienced and witnessed this anger themselves, to say that their sensitivity to anger, losing control, and striking another human being was heightened is probably a gross understatement.

I remember once when I was in high school, my girlfriend at the time and I were hanging out at my house. As we talked, the conversation moved towards a female friend of mine for whom my girlfriend suspected I had feelings. I denied it but my girlfriend persisted and in a moment of anger and rage, I snapped. My hand moved fast and I slapped her across the face. It was almost as if I was watching the whole incident play out from above and I acted before I had thought, responding to words rather than the person.

Well, whatever took place in the moments following, I don’t completely remember. I do remember that my mom knew something had happened and she came into the room where we were. I vividly remember my mom and dad sitting me down to explain to me how egregious my actions were. No, I didn’t render my girlfriend unconscious, in fact, the biggest thing hurt in the whole incident may just have been her pride, but my parents would NOT raise a son who would raise his hand to a woman, no matter what she had said. They would not raise a son who would turn out to be like their fathers had been to their mothers. That was their concern.

While that seems like a lifetime ago, I still remember what happened and it left an indelible mark on me, to the point that I’ve never repeated those actions nor would I ever consider repeating them. I was a teenager. I was young and stupid. I repented of what I had done, turned from that stupid mistake. I didn’t just say I was sorry because I got caught, I turned away from that day and never, ever, ever repeated those actions again.

As I look back, it didn’t matter what my girlfriend said to me, words are words. Whatever it was that she had said caused something within me to rise up, but the end result should hardly have resulted in a slap across the face. While words can be hurtful and cause us emotional pain, can we really equate emotional and physical pain to one another? Can we really say that one pain deserves another? If we are the bigger person, don’t we just walk away from hurtful words? What does it benefit us if we respond and react, especially in such an angry and aggressive manner? The thought that emotional abuse would evoke or even deserve physical abuse is distorted, at best. It doesn’t matter that Rice’s fiancée eventually married him. It doesn’t matter that he pays the bills. What matters is that his commitment to protect and care for her doesn’t render her as his property, giving him freedom to do with her as he pleases.

If we are all honest, we get angry. Some of us struggle with anger more than others, but I think that most of us have ways to handle our anger, hopefully they are healthy ways. The moment that we begin to handle our anger in inappropriate ways is the minute that we need to look beneath the surface to see what’s at the heart of our actions. If there are mental issues there, lurking underneath what everyone sees, then those issues need to be addressed. If we see a tendency in ourselves or others to be controlled by anger, we need to sound the alarms. That’s what my parents did for me and as much as I might say that it was only a slap, what would have happened had my parents not confronted me on what I had done.

I won’t soon forget the day that I raised my hand to a female that I loved, my parents assured that that would not be the case. They helped me to understand what my role was as a lover, companion, friend, and protector. I wonder whether or not Ray Rice will forget the day that he raised his hand to a female. If we have a remorseful response to our mistakes only because we were caught for them rather than because we legitimately see the error of our ways, we will most likely be doomed to repeat those same mistakes. I hope that we all stop not because we have been caught but because we’ve seen the error of our ways and changed our behavior.

And here we are…

wtc-introSeptember 11th comes every year. There’s no stopping it. For me, it’s a dual edged sword. Not only does it remind me of that fateful day 13 years ago when terrorists hijacked 4 planes and flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, but it also reminds me of my mom. September 11th was my mom’s birthday.

I could feel my anxiety rising within me a few days ago. No matter how much I tell myself not to get uptight about it as it approaches on the calendar, it’s easier said than done. I could feel the pit in my stomach, the tightening of my neck and back, and the long sighs that would somehow find their way out of my mouth.

Today is a somber day, a day to remember. When the United States first experienced the tragedy that happened 13 years ago, the tagline, “We will never forget” could be seen all over; coupling the tragedy with my mom’s birthday has assured that I would not forget either.

If you go to New York City, you will see the memorial where the towers once stood. Although I’ve not been there yet, I imagine that there is little indication (other than the memorial) that those events took place there. Things have been cleaned up and fixed. The memorial has been erected where there was once a gaping scar in the earth. While the visible evidence of the tragedy is no longer there, the mental and emotional evidence will always remain.

I can remember so much about that day as the news spread of what had happened. Living 50 miles outside New York City, it felt even closer to home. I knew people in the City, fortunately, they had not been physically injured in the midst of it all, but how many more lives were lost, families impacted, lives shattered and changed.

13 years later, are we any closer to peace in the Middle East? ISIS runs rampant, making the atrocious events and behavior seen in the past look like child’s play in some respects. Evil has not died, it still lives on. Hatred still fuels wars and disagreements. 13 years later, what have we REALLY learned?

Dates are powerful, at least they are to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a “numbers” guy. Numbers stay with me and I can remember them randomly. I will always remember this day. Can we all? But beyond remembering, can we move closer to finding peace? Can we put an end to the strife, enmity, and bloodshed? I fear that we can make a lot of noise to say that we want to move towards peace, but we can never quite get there……..not if we do it on our own.

Take a minute today to remember.  How is your life different today than it was had the events of 9/11 never happened?  What are you doing to make a difference in the world where you are?  Where do you go to find peace?  Many places that offer peace are simply offering shallow substitutes that don’t last but promise the world.  May you find the peace that passes all understanding, the gift of life. and the living water that offers those who drink the chance to never thirst again.

The Crumbling Empire

mark driscollChurch, what are we building?

It’s a question that I asked of my own church a few weeks ago during a sermon. It’s a question that the Church needs to ask over and over and over again. What is it that we are building? Are we building programs and activities, events and experiences? Are we building huge buildings with state of the art technology, smoke machines, light shows, and enough power in the sound system to blow the doors off the place?

Or are we building disciples, followers of Christ?

I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive. In other words, I don’t think that programs, activities, events, experiences, and modern technology are bad. But…..they can easily distract us from the true “building” on which we need to focus: the people.

It’s been about a year and a half since the congregation that I am a part of and help to lead walked away from a building and a denomination with whom we could no longer live peaceably. Since that time, I have seen growth in myself and the other pastors, the leadership, and the congregation. I have been encouraged that we seem to be on the right path. We have seen God at work and it has been a joy to watch and experience.

I’ve always thought it difficult to define success when it came to spirituality and church. All too often, the business principles of success bleed into the church and we wrongly define success from a corporate standpoint rather than seeking out ways to measure spiritual growth. Businesses measure success by income and growth and too often, we can fall into that same trap within the church, especially when we are trying to pay for things like buildings and sound systems, broken HVAC systems and deteriorating nursery equipment.

If you are at all exposed to information and media from within the Christian subculture, then you have most likely read about the ongoing saga of Mark Driscoll out at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Driscoll has been no stranger to controversy, but in recent months he seems to have created an even greater firestorm for himself. Information has come out over how he has treated some within his congregation who oppose his leadership, how he has self-promoted his books to advance sales by buying books himself and distributing them (which is apparently not very uncommon within the secular world), and various other things. If you want to know more about him and some of what he has been up to, you can do a search and I am sure you will come up with sufficient reading material.

Right now, Mars Hill Church is in turmoil because of all of this publicity. Right now, I wonder how much they are really able to focus on the mission of the church as they do damage control. Right now, there are hurt people who may be read to walk away from the church forever (or may have already done so). Right now, an empire that has been built around a man and a personality are beginning to crumble and there is panic in the kingdom.

This isn’t the first time that a church leader has fallen from the pedestal shelf on which they’ve been placed. Jimmy Swaggart. Jim Bakker. Ted Haggard. The names are different and so are the situations, to some degree, but what is the same is that God’s Church, his bride, continues to look more like the bride of Hosea than the radiant virgin that one might hope and expect to find on their wedding day.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve all fallen from grace, that’s why we need a Savior, but grace is extended to us again when we show repentance. The reason that I constantly am drawn to stories like Mark Driscoll’s as well as some of these others is because it could easily be me. I could easily be the one to build an empire to myself based upon my personality and gifts rather than building the Kingdom of God. If I’m not careful, I can jump on that slippery slope and go sliding down to the bottom just like Chutes and Ladders. If we’re all honest, we can probably all say the same thing.

It’s a wake-up call for me and I hope that it becomes a wake-up call to the Church. When will we wake up and realize that the church isn’t supposed to become an empire that we build around a person or a personality, around a team, a music group, or anything that is shallow and fading, but it needs to be founded on the central tenet of who Christ is and who he has called us to be as his hands and feet. If the church fails to be the hands and feet of Christ, there is still hope for the world because God is sovereign, but would we rather he work through us or in spite of us? When we build the Church on foundations other than Christ, they will crumble and fall, there will be pain and regret, there will be damage and loss.

Empires are built with strong leaders, or even dictators, but we aren’t supposed to be building an empire, we’re supposed to be helping to build and populate a Kingdom. The moment that I lose sight of that is the moment that someone had better slap me upside the head and remind me that it’s not about me, it’s about God and his kingdom come, his will be done. We’d better wake up to that fact and start building on a more sure foundation than charismatic leaders and their gifting.

The moment that things start feeling like they’re being built around me is the moment that my pride will do its best to convince me that that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. At that point, I need to run far and fast and figure out how to change the plans because that foundation will not stand strong. Nobody said it would be easy, but the Kingdom benefits for the long haul will be so worth it in the end.

Feels Like the First Time

IMG_0053Although I grew up in the Northeast, I’ve lived in the South for the last decade. While you can take the boy out of the North and you can’t take the North out of him, that doesn’t mean that I have been indoctrinated to all things Southern either.

When my wife and I first moved south, there was a reception at the church that we went to where we were exposed to the southern phenomenon of RC and moonpies. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you can probably just Google it. Slowly, we began to see more and more of the cultural differences between north and south. We began to appreciate a lot of them and did our best to expose ourselves to them.

As much as I have tried to embrace some of those differences (think when in Rome), there are just some things that I struggled to fully understand or even think about embracing. Take for instance boiled peanuts. You’re talking to a guy who likes chunky peanut butter, why on earth would I think about doing something to peanuts that makes them softer rather than crunchy?

How about okra? My wife’s made me a believer, but it took a lot of time and effort because, to be honest, when you cut up okra, you get what looks like snot all over the place as it oozes out of the okra. While it’s not my favorite, I’ve grown to appreciate it more than I did before. At least I’ll eat it now.

I could go on and on with a list and I am sure that all of my friends raised in the South could come up with an equivalent list of all of the northern idiosyncrasies.

This past weekend, I was finally exposed to what I have considered a southern phenomenon for all of my 10 years south of the Mason-Dixon Line: NASCAR.

Now, I’m not going to argue about the idea of it being a sport, that’s a topic for another day, I just didn’t get it. Not sure why I didn’t get it because I’ve been known to watch golf here and there or even World Cup Soccer (or Football, depending on where you reside). But the idea of sitting at a hot track, surrounded by people whose body art and wardrobe choices may very well have been made under the influence of one too many Budweisers, watching a bunch of cars go around a track like 400 or 500 times? It just didn’t make much sense to me.

But, hey, I’ve been known to be wrong before…..

So, when given the opportunity and the invitation to not only a NASCAR race here in my own Richmond, Virginia, complete with pit and garage tour, it seemed like just the opportunity that I needed to get acclimated to this phenomenon.

At the heart of who I am, I am a learner. Any chance that I have to learn something new, I will seize. So, this opportunity was ripe for the picking. In fact, as the day came closer, my anticipation and excitement grew more and more. I began to wonder how I might actually fit in to this new environment. I knew that wardrobe would be key. I wisely abandoned the idea of wearing my Bart Simpson T-shirt that says, “I see dumb people” and instead opted for my T-shirt with everyone’s favorite American kid, Opie. How could I go wrong with that?

Thankfully, my host was knowledgeable about NASCAR and motorsports, enough to keep me hanging on his every word to see what I might learn. We walked through the pit, saw the cars, smelled the tires, heard the sounds, and I can unequivocally tell you that I was immersed into the experience.

Now, mind you, I had NEVER watched a NASCAR race in my entire forty plus years of existence. Never. Ever. Watched.

As soon as the announcer said, “Drivers, start your engines,” I felt the goose bumps go up my arms. The engines roared, the cars filed onto the track, they swerved as they broke in their wheels, and after the obligatory initial laps behind the pace car, they took off. And from the moment that they started until the moment that the winner crossed the finish line 400 laps later, I was on the edge of my seat.

Sure, I was hoping for a crash here and there, not because I wanted anyone to be injured but just because I’m still a little boy deep inside, longing for explosions and action. There were no crashes. In fact, from what I heard from friends, it was among the most boring races that have taken place at Richmond International Raceway in recent years, but you know what? I was none the wiser……

……because this was the first time that I had ever seen any of this. Ever.

My friend’s wife noticed me on the edge of my seat for most of the race. Not sure if she saw the twinkle of excitement and wonder in my eyes or not. Not sure if she could hear me (or at least read my lips) as I pulled for someone to catch the leader. Regardless, I went to my first NASCAR race and it’s behind me.

What an incredible reminder it was for me of how we look at things when we see them for the very first time. There’s a sense of mystery, awe, wonder, and excitement that exists once, and only once. It can hardly be recaptured again because there is only one first time. The same look that my friend’s wife saw on me was the look that I have seen in my children many times before as they experience things for the very first time. It was there at Disney a few weeks ago.

You know what else I realized? I realized that when I experienced something that I knew well with someone who was experiencing it for the first time, it was as if I WAS experiencing it for the first time all over again. There was anticipation and wonder and excitement as I waited for their reaction. And I wonder if my friends had that same kind of excitement in them as they watched me experiencing this race for the first time. New sights. New sounds. New smells. It was a multi-sensory experience.

No, there will never be another first time, but it’s possible to recapture that excitement when I remember what it was like to step into that moment for the very first time. It’s too easy to get caught up in schedule or routine, blindly walking through life and falling into a rhythm that somehow zombifies me, rendering me among the walking dead. It’s too easy to miss the wonder and excitement because I’ve forgotten what things felt like when I experienced them for the first time.

Whenever I get that feeling, I just need to remember, I need to recapture the wonder, and if worse comes to worse, I just need to grab someone who hasn’t experienced it before so that I have the benefit of seeing the same wonder, joy, and excitement in them in hopes that it might stir up something in me, helping me to remember just what those feelings were when I experienced them for the very first time.