Ain’t Going Out Like That

abandoned-churchI’ve been asked before whether I hate Christians, which is kind of a funny question to be asked when you’re a pastor. Digging deeper down, I think the genesis of the question was because I have a tendency to speak my mind with a combination of my New York and New England roots.

Growing up in the church, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of the local church. I’ve seen people who claim the love of Christ but rarely show it. I’ve seen people who have been forgiven for much be stingy in offering forgiveness to others. I’ve seen the hypocrisy that flows freely behind closed doors, a stark contrast from the public face that some wear. And, if I’m totally honest, I’ve probably seen all of these and more in the mirror as much as I’ve seen it in other people.

The place of the local church in society has changed dramatically over the last fifty or sixty years. Once upon a time, the local church, regardless of denomination, was afforded a place of respect within our culture, but things have changed. People have run from God. They generally want him to care when their lives are a mess, even criticizing him and asking where he is in the midst of trials and difficulties. At the same time, when things are going well, they have no issue taking credit for how they’ve made themselves who they are and how far they’ve advance their own causes, giving no credit to God for the blessings they’ve received.

Within the church, it seems that many of us have been licking our wounds and lamenting this fall from grace for the church. How did we get here? Why did we get here? Why can’t things be the way that they used to be? Instead of adapting to this new normal, we’ve allowed panic and fear to drive us to find ways to regain the church’s place in society, mostly by thinking (like Israel) that politics is the way to make that happen, especially if we can just get the “king” (or president) to lead us to glory.

But the place of Christians in our society is not much different than the place of Christians in many of the societies where Paul planted churches in the first century. Corinth. Ephesus. Rome. Colossae. The Roman empire was not a “Christian” culture. Regardless of Constantine’s move centuries later (which I believe instilled a false sense of security into the Church universal), Roman culture was pagan.

Fifty years ago, the place that the church occupied within culture and society in America fostered an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. I call it the “Field of Dreams” mentality. People respected the church and pastors enough that just being there and offering opportunities was enough. You could draw people in with your programs if you made them attractive enough. Even if you made no concerted efforts to reach out to your community, people would inevitably find their way back to the church, right?

But those days are gone, and I can’t say that I lament them at all. As difficult as life can become without certain things at times, using crutches can give us a false sense of security that also removes our reliance on the muscles that we were supposed to be leaning on. But now that the crutches of false security have been removed, we need some major physical therapy in the church to begin to strengthen those muscles that we haven’t been using for so long.

Primarily, those are the muscles of outreach and evangelism. Because those things were so programmatic back in the day, we are dumbfounded in the church to realize that there is no magic formula or secret sauce that allows us to bring people into the church in droves.

Instead, it takes one conversation at a time, one relationship at a time, over a long period of time. It take intentional investment, not a one-time event that we can throw money at in hopes that it will somehow translate into a growth boom in the local church.

But, we just ain’t going out like that. Churches continue to struggle to do this.

I think there are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is our diminished ability to connect and relate well to other people. Our culture will generally respond to crisis, but when the crisis is gone, where do we go? Where do the relationships go?

I’ve seen some messy situations both inside and outside of the church. I’ve only seen few of those engaged by some very brave people who understand the messiness into which they are venturing. It’s not easy. There will be hurt. There will be pain. There will be joy. There will be celebration. There will be life.

Somehow, the Church needs to figure out a way to relate well to the world once again. It’s not done with picket signs and boycotts, it’s done through relationships, especially relationships with those we would consider to be the “other,” people who don’t look like us, act like us, or even think like us. Jesus’ instructions about the greatest commandment were twofold: love God, love your neighbor.

Unfortunately, we’ve diminished our definition of the word “neighbor.” Instead of defining the word from Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, anyone who comes across our path, those who are like us or not, we’ve limited it to those who we enjoy spending time with or who we can tolerate. I can tell you, Samaritans and Jews weren’t particularly chummy back in the day, yet that was the definition that Jesus gave of showing love to a neighbor.

This is a big ship to turn, one that takes time and patience. I’m running out of both. I’ve never been a patient person and when I feel urgency, my patience becomes even more limited.

Ultimately, reaching out to a world in need of hope and in need of a Savior can’t be about building a Christian empire or nation, it needs to be about building a kingdom. But this kingdom isn’t of this world and it certainly doesn’t have values that look like the values of this world either. When we lose sight of what we’re building, we become like those inhabitants of Babel, building a tower for our own glory rather than the glory of God.

I’m on this journey, learning more every day, becoming a little bit more willing to take risks every day. I want to see the Church succeed in her mission, but it’s going to take some momentum and synergy to move things forward. I’m hoping I find some others who are willing to take this ride with me, not for our sake or even the sake of our local church, but for the sake of a King and Kingdom that will reign forever.

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The “Why” and Not Just the “What”

As my children get older, the issues that they are dealing with become weightier and the questions that they ask become more poignant, requiring so much more than a simple “yes” or “no.” When they were much younger, it was not unusual for them to ask “why” in response to a command or an answer that they were given. But giving them the “why” of the answer was not always appropriate because of their lack of understanding and their maturity level.

Now, I find myself analyzing the questions that they ask and the instructions that I give them and realizing that simple commands of “do this” or “don’t do that” don’t suffice. If I’m honest, I know that they were never sufficient for me when I was their age and as I grew older. Prohibition without rationale seems to simply be given for the sake of controlling rather than because we want to see a change in behavior and heart. If we give commands to our children and scatter in prohibitions about what they should or should not do, the majority of children will push for something more, trite answers will not shut down the conversation. Giving the answer “because I said so” or “because I’m the parent” may have worked when the kids were toddlers, but those days are long gone.

Beyond parenting, I’ve thought about this in the church, with children, youth, and adults. Too often, the church has been quick to talk about prohibitions, the “what,” without giving sufficient reasons for them, the “why.” Then when people respond less than favorably, we get surprised or even angry at the response, as if answers that would never suffice for us should somehow be acceptable to those to whom we are giving those answers. But those answers we give are rarely sufficient.

We can all most likely think of some of the controversial topics that the church has dealt with for which clear boundaries have been given. Sexual relationships. Marriage. Abortion. Euthanasia. And many others. Even the Bible verses that we give when defending our position on some of these topics only address the “what” rather than the “why.” We want to give people a compelling reason to embrace the teachings or positions of Christianity and yet we can so often give restrictions without reasons or rationale.

It’s made me think an awful lot as I’ve dealt with my own children but also as I’ve had conversations with the various generations represented within my church. If you’re younger than fifty, chances are that you’re not going to take the “what” answer to a question about restrictions and run with it. You’re going to want something more. You’re going to want to know the “why” of something.

If the church is to remain relevant, she won’t become relevant by dressing up with various accoutrements that make her look like our culture. Instead, the church needs to engage the various topics that come to the forefront by providing rationale and reasons for the worldview we embrace. If we simply hold to clichés like “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me” then we will find many abandoning the church.

But if we choose to dig deep and understand for ourselves and teach to others why we’ve come to the conclusions that we have come to and what has shaped and formed our worldview, I believe that more people will see that we’re not simply trying to put restrictions on life for the sake of restriction but rather that those restrictions are given in order that we may have life more abundantly. We may find that we begin to live into the image in which we were created. While not everyone will agree, it’s an approach that seems far more valid to me.

Too often, it seems, the church points backwards in history to places where rules and regulations were given, but we don’t point back far enough. Most of what we point to is just outward rules. We need to point deeper into the heart and soul, into who we are at creation. We need to connect things to the overarching themes of Scripture that point to God’s intent in creation. We need to point at the image in which we were created, the imago dei.

Considering our culture, this becomes problematic as our culture continues to try to divorce and separate our hearts and souls from our bodies. We’ve become a neo-Gnostic culture that embraces the inward and emotional, while abandoning its connection with the physical. We see Francis Schaeffer’s two story imagery playing out every day within our culture and our world.

We are emotional, spiritual beings, but we are also physical, sexual beings, and those things cannot be easily separated, certainly not as easily as our culture wants us to believe. But saying that we cannot separate them is not an answer that will suffice, it’s the “what” rather than the “why.” We are emotional, spiritual, physical, and sexual beings because that’s how we were created by God, in his image, for his purpose. Those aspects of our being did not come about after sin entered the world. They were there before, sin just skewed our perspective of them all.

The gap between the church and the culture seems to be growing larger. That gap seems insurmountable from a human perspective, but the church will not do herself any favors until we begin to have conversations that begin to address the “why” of our beliefs and worldview rather than simply regurgitating the “what” and expecting that everyone will just come along for the ride.

 

A Frank Conversation About Sex

sex and jesus isomHistorically, the church has been fairly good about clearly defining and even broadcasting the things that she is against. Boycotts. Picketing. Writing letters. If you would ask the average person what it is that the church is against, you would most likely get a laundry list of items repeated back to you.

But how about the things that the church is for? Has the church done a good job of framing up the things that are beneficial? Has the church put such an overemphasis on the prohibitions that there hasn’t been any room (or time) to spend on the things that should be encouraged?

Mo Isom believes that the church has dropped the ball in clearly having conversations about the “whys” of sex because the church has been so focused on the “whats” of sex. In her latest book, “Sex, Jesus, and the Conversations the Church Forgot,” Isom shares her own background and experience and talks about the many things that she has learned regarding sex since having gone astray and making choices that altered her journey.

There were multiple times in this book that I wondered how many other readers might blush at the level of candidness with which Isom shares. She pulls no punches at not only describing her experiences but also explaining what she wished that she knew. She describes her struggle with pornography and how the things that we see shape our view of sexuality and sexual expression. She describes how she held her virginity high up as a banner all the while treading as dangerously close as she could to doing everything but giving it up, realizing and admitting her own hypocrisy.

Isom shares of her year of a sexual fast, a year where she focused on her relationship with Christ and her journey towards finding fulfillment in him rather than in the experiences that she was having or the way that she would feel through those experiences. And in that year, she met her husband and began the journey with him. She shares freely even about the struggles that she and her husband experienced and how her tainted past negatively impacted their own sexual encounters even within the boundaries of marriage.

My experience of a lack of good conversations within the church about sex was very similar to Isom’s experience. I was raised with such prohibitions and the simple statement that God wants us to remain virgins until we are married. What was lacking was a deeper conversation about just how God sees marriage and this sacred act that should be reserved for marriage. God’s holiness and desire for our own purity was not emphasized nearly as much as our own need to remain chaste simply because.

“Sex, Jesus, and the Conversations the Church Forgot” is a book that I wish had been written when I was much younger. Isom’s unabashed sharing may be shocking (she is not graphic or explicit in what she shares) to some, but compared to the world in which the youth of today live, it’s a walk in the park. Our society is emphasizing sexual encounters divorced from emotional attachments. Isom explains all the reasons why she believes that is impossible and even shares just how detrimental those encounters will be to the future of everyone who enters into them.

If you have children who are moving towards becoming teenagers or if you work with teenagers or even if you just care about teenagers, this book is worth picking up, if for no other reason than to get a glimpse into the real struggles that exist. Isom’s approach and all that she shares just may encourage someone who has been barraged with prohibitions to understand the rationale and reasoning to view sex much more sacredly than they ever had before.

(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.)

The Boy Who Could

bowie aladdinI came into the world of pop music late in life. Well, late in life in comparison to many of my friends. In fact, there were two things that shaped my infatuation with music that would continue for the rest of my life.

The first was my parents’ prohibition of anything outside of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) and easy listening such as The Carpenters, Andy Williams, Percy Faith, Perry Como, and an assortment of other treasures you can find in your local Goodwill’s record collection. I just wasn’t allowed to listen to “secular” music and was even brought to one of those “Rock Talks” that were so popular in the 80’s where some “expert” stood up and went on and on about all of the popular music groups and what kind of satanic and hedonistic messages they were promoting. Sadly, I probably got my list of “What To Listen To” from that talk.

The second thing was General Music in 8th grade with Mr. O’Donnell. I didn’t actually take the class, I played trumpet in the concert band, but on the days when the band director was absent, I was fortunate enough to have Mr. O’Donnell as a substitute for my class. I had heard the stories of what they did in General Music class over and over again, so I was pleased to finally get a taste of it firsthand.

I remember the day that I walked into class and saw O’Donnell (as we affectionately called him) with the stereo out, all ready to start playing “Name That Tune.” I was so excited….until we actually started playing. I realized just how far I was from the reality of pop music when song after song was played and my ability to identify any of them was virtually non-existent. I think there was a part of me that died that day and another part that made a secret vow to never find myself so humiliated again.

Those two things really shaped the way that I see music to this day. My collection is eclectic and large. It’s hard to pin me down to a favorite style as I like a lot of stuff. Some people say that and then you find out that their so-called “eclectic” style is much more narrow than you thought. When I say “eclectic” though, I mean anything from Iron Maiden to Andy Williams, Anthrax to The Carpenters, Megadeth to Les Miserables, and everything in between.

I’m not sure the first time that I heard David Bowie. I have a feeling that he must have been named at one of those “Rock Talks” I went to during my formative years. After all, he was an androgynous spaceman who had been rumored to be bisexual, why else wouldn’t he end up on that list?

Regardless of my first hearing of him, I remember listening to “Space Oddity” and wondering about Ground Control and Major Tom. I remember hearing his collaborations with Freddy Mercury and Queen on “Under Pressure,” with Mick Jagger on “Dancing in the Streets,” and with Bing Crosby on “The Little Drummer Boy.” When I finally came to the place in my life when I heard his song “Heroes,” I’m pretty sure he had me at, “I will be king.”

While I’ve never been a huge fan of Bowie, I can say that I have appreciated his versatility and talent over the years. This past Friday, on the occasion of his 69th birthday, Bowie released his 28th studio album “Blackstar.” That’s quite a career considering he could never be fully pinned down, never lingering in any one thing for long enough for anyone to pigeon-hole him. He was constantly reinventing himself, in fact, it seems that over and over, the headlines are posthumously labeling him “The Master of Reinvention.” He understood the notion of reinvention before Madonna was even a blip on the pop culture radar screen.

As I woke to the news of Bowie’s death on Monday morning, there was a bleakness and sadness that I felt. January is a hard time for me as it marks my mom and dad’s anniversary as well as the date when we discovered that my mom had cancer. Hearing the news of Bowie’s passing from cancer reopened old wounds that never seem to close.

Over the course of the days leading up to Monday, I had been watching Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (a blog post in and of itself) and had been feeling the heaviness and poignancy of that film, so the news of Bowie’s death fueled the fire of melancholy that had already been lit.

I think the sadness that came from knowing Bowie was gone was multi-faceted. He is a dying breed, there are not many true artists who are willing to shun public opinion to do their own thing. In these days of Auto-tune, 3 minute songs, and drippy lyrics, artists are a dying breed.

Another aspect of it is that there is something to be said about taking a chance and being willing to fail. All of us, whether we are willing to admit it or not, are too willing to play it safe, to do the thing that is comfortable and familiar rather than trying something new. Bowie is an inspiration to try something new and different, regardless of whether everyone rejects you and criticizes you. It’s a reminder to me that taking chances should be second nature to me, especially as someone who claims to follow the King of Creation who knit everything together.

David Bowie proved to the world that taking chances is worth the risk. He never seemed afraid to try something different and he was never afraid to abandon something that no longer seemed to fit. He proved himself a boy who could in the midst of a world of boys who “know that they can’t.” His artistic spirit will be missed and I can only hope that others might find that same adventurous and risky spirit in order that it might live on.

Just A Thought

I’ve been delving into a new world lately, finding pieces that I write needing to rely more on research and experience rather than simply thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately, my time does not always afford me to get done the things that I want to get done in an effort to get done the things that I need to get done. Therefore, I’ve gone on a hiatus of sorts here, not offering anything since I haven’t been able to offer what I want.

For that, I apologize. I’m working on the constant balance between life and work and continually struggle with it.

But for this Tuesday morning (the first day of school for my older children), my mind is buzzing with all kinds of thoughts, both relating to school and life, but also having to do with many conversations (both digital and face to face) that I have been having lately.

There will be fuller posts, but for now, in the absence of something fuller, I offer some simple thoughts.

I have had conversations of late on art and faith. It’s a topic for which I get too passionate. My criticism rises to new levels and I am misunderstood more often than not.

Based on my conversations, I am realizing that we feel very personally when we talk of what matters to us. Now, most readers are saying, “Duh! Tell me something I don’t know” to response to that. But we feel deeply to the point that criticism heaped at the things for which we are passionate is taken personally. In fact, it’s almost as if the criticism was lobbed at us rather than an inanimate and lifeless piece of art.

I am learning to wade more gingerly into engagements of this nature as we all feel so deeply and personally. I’ve got a long way to go, but I am grateful for those who have offered insights and direction in this area.

I am also realizing just how much I have to do more research and study in the area of faith and art. Once upon a time, sacred music was considered excellent. It may have been the “Contemporary Christian” music of the time, but it was influencing culture and having a deep impact on the world. Many of the sacred pieces of music written once upon a time remain timeless and excellent today.

C.S. Lewis had much to say about faith and art, as did Madeline L’engle, who I am currently reading. I expect that I will have much to say after spending some time with the two of them.

Until then, I offer this thought. What is art that is Christian? Is it art that specifically presents a message to unbelieving souls in order that they might know the Christ who has transformed our lives? If so, that greatly limits the possibilities.

One of the greatest and most powerful books that I have read is John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” I believe that it was Rich Mullins who pointed me towards the book. Regardless of the recommendation, I picked up the book and read it and had the desire to put it down on more than one occasion.

The book was crude and profane and yet beautiful. Within its pages was a message of calling, of gifting, of purpose. Underneath the crudity and profanity, there was a message of beauty that spoke loudly. The problem was that that message was tainted and covered over, unable to be seen by some who were still hung up on the fact that there was crudity and profanity. It’s not a book that I would recommend to everyone. In fact, there are probably some who would distance themselves from me just for the mere fact that I’ve read the book.

Years later, I have yet to open up the pages of the book again, but I know that I need to do it. I know that I need to be reminded of the message that it offers within its pages. I know that there is something within those pages that speaks to me out of the crudity and profanity that surround it.

In many ways, that book is a metaphor for so many of us and how God sees us. Beneath the crudity and profanity, there is beauty, there is hope, there is substance. Many will simply take a look at the crudity and profanity and walk away. In so doing, they will walk away from potential, from transformation, from all that could be. In failing to see past our faults and imperfections, we throw out the baby with the bathwater.

While there are limits here and the analogy can be taken to an extreme, I’m not pushing to that end. It’s not a call for those who follow Christ to embrace all things crude and profane. It’s simply an effort to ask some soul-searching questions about the things that we disregard before we’ve allowed God to speak through them.

At my worst, I am crude and profane, yet many have given me the opportunity to speak, and I am grateful for that. More importantly, God has seen through my crudity and profanity to see who he created me to be, and the image in which he created me. Thankfully, he did not abandon me, he did not walk away, he chose to engage and in that engagement is transformation and life change for me.

How grateful I am in that God sees through my imperfections. May I look with those same eyes on the world around me.

Searching For Sunday – A Book Review

searching for sundayI’ve never met Rachel Held Evans in person. I’ve never even had a digital conversation with her. My guess is that if we ever met face to face that we would hate each other, love each other, or love to hate each other. She’s spunky, witty, snarky, and smart. She shares with a verbal eloquence and a truth-telling ability that will make the open reader ask helpful and valuable questions of themselves.

I picked up “Searching For Sunday” because I had committed to reading books by those with whom I knew I would not necessarily agree. I had read enough of Evans’ blog posts and articles and had heard enough about her to know that we were most likely at odds with each other in the areas of our theology and ecclesiology. But I didn’t pick up the book to refute everything that she said, I picked it up to learn, to hear, and to hopefully understand just what I might be missing.

“Searching For Sunday” is the story of her journey away from the church and back again. In fact, it may be aptly subtitled “There and Back Again” if she were honest about it, and just like Bilbo the hobbit’s tale, it involves twists and turns that might never have been planned for yet which rarely left her the same. Evans tells her story and shares her experience with raw boldness and honesty. Anyone who has had experiences with the church in America will most likely relate to much of what she writes and shares.

Along the way, Evans makes many generalizations, often looping everyone into the same bowl without taking into account that all evangelicals are not created equal. The evangelicalism to which Evans reacts is the same one that I have reacted towards, the one that emphasizes a “closing the deal” approach towards evangelism, the one that seems to be more about sin management and less about showing love to one’s neighbors regardless of their political views or sexuality. She criticizes the church for, “taking spiritual Instagrams and putting on our best performances.” This is her experience, an experience that she realizes has shaped her and formed her, that has caused her to be cynical and that colors every other experience that she has, an experience by which every other experience will be measured.

In the midst of her sharing her experience though, I find myself asking the question about what we ground our stories to. Do we connect our stories with God’s story and do we call others to do the same? Are we seeking to be grounded to God’s truth as we connect those stories? Is it enough for us to just find common ground on our experiences, or do we need to find something unmoving and unchanging in the midst of culture’s constant shift?

“Searching For Sunday is broken into seven parts, each named after a sacrament, the sacraments practiced by the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Orthodox churches. As she shares her own story and experience with the church, she shares what she sees as the church’s work and responsibility. She emphasizes the church’s work on us through these sacraments, claiming that the church tells us we are beloved (baptism), we are broken (confession), we are commissioned (holy orders), feeds us (communion), welcomes us (confirmation), anoints us (anointing of the sick), and unites us (marriage).

There is much that Evans says that I can support, so much that is so eloquently put that it’s hard to argue or disagree. It seems that we can find common ground on our influences such as Bonhoeffer and McKnight, but somewhere, our paths diverge and we separate. There are times when it seems that she cops out on the call of the Gospel, the call to come and die, the call to lose one’s self in a pursuit of holiness. In her pointed indictment of those who would put themselves in Jesus’ role in the story of the woman caught in adultery, I fear that she plays the role of the defeatist, not explicitly saying it, but implying that because the pursuit of holiness is difficult it should just be abandoned, asking, “So how’s that working out for you? The sinning no more thing? Because it’s not going so well for me.” Are we to abandon a pursuit of holiness because it’s hard?

Like much of our culture, Evans talks of love but it seems that her definition of love is based too much on her surroundings and experience rather than the sacrificial and holy love that we know from God. She claims that evil and death are powerless against love but what of God’s other characteristics of holiness and immutability? She seeks an “adapt or die” approach towards the church rather than calling us to do the same. When we ask the church to “adapt or die” are we still taking God at his word? Do we still believe that the Bible is God’s self-revelation or do we view it as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” from which we pick and choose the things that feel good or are least likely to offend?

Evans wrestles with good questions, she wrestles with the need to stay connected to her beliefs with both her head and her heart. I agree with her that the church has in recent decades been a place where it is unsafe to wrestle with doubt, where we can’t come to the table without assurance. The church needs to be open to those who are questioning and searching, knowing that the journey is often messy and will result in more than a few bumps along the way. We need to reconcile that connection between heart and mind without feeling the need to have everyone check both at the door.

Evans writes, “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.” Does this all mean that we simply continue “to be” without accountability and reform? Is truth-telling enough or should we allow the truth to mold us and shape us; does truth remain the same or does it bend and break with the culture and the times?

In the midst of creating safe and comfortable environments within the church, do we forget that there is an offensiveness to the Gospel? It’s easy to point out the offensiveness of grace that makes us scratch our heads and wonder as to the worthiness of the recipients, but we need to keep a balanced approach and remember that there is still the need for accountability, there is still a call to holiness. No, we will never “arrive” at that holiness on this side of eternity, but the process of sanctification should not be abandoned because it’s hard or because it won’t reach its completion on this side of eternity. Evans understands God’s tendency to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and holy, but what sacrifices are made by us as we allow God to perform that transformation in us?

One of Evans’ many criticisms of evangelicalism is the “alliances and coalitions formed around shared theological distinctive elevate secondary issues to primary ones and declare anyone who fails to conform to their strict set of beliefs and behaviors unfit for Christian fellowship.” Does she recall Paul’s urging to expel the unrepentant brother from the church in Corinthians? We let everyone in but is there a call to repentance, is there a call to holiness? Do we simply let people come in and enter into the Gospel journey with no accountability with no call to repentance and a pursuit of a Christ-like life?

Evans comes to a great conclusion and makes the statement that, “following Jesus is a group activity, something we’re supposed to do together.” I agree with that. When we enter into the journey to follow Christ, that journey is not just relegated to Jesus and us as individuals, but us as a community, as a body. We can’t “do” Christianity alone, and that’s where I think Evans gets it right. It’s an arduous journey on which we find ourselves, a journey that hardly goes the way that we would expect or even wish it to go, but a journey in which we will find reward in the end.

I appreciate the way that Evans challenges and questions. I appreciate her brutal honesty and her authentic sharing. What she shares, she shares well and I think that she knows how different she looks at this point along her journey. Anyone wishing to hear the experience of another would appreciate her story, anyone seeking to prove her wrong will have missed the point of her book. No, Rachel Held Evans and I might not agree on everything, but there is enough here from which I can learn.

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

An Unlikely Read

Unlikely DiscipleI’m not sure when I first heard the name Jerry Falwell. Growing up in a very conservative pastor’s home during the heyday of the Moral Majority, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to figure that his name may have been up there with Peter, James, John, and some of the other well-known biblical figures of the New Testament.

While my parents never idolized Falwell, I heard his name enough during my childhood for it to have stuck. Christian radio, magazines, music, conferences, and so much more were enough to expose me to the bubble that Mr. Falwell may have actually been responsible for helping to create.

A few years ago, a friend was driving to Lynchburg for work and asked me if I wanted to go along. It was not too long after my mom had died and my dad’s health was moving downward quickly. So, time in the car with a friend for a few hours seemed like a good distraction from everything that was swirling around me. He told me that he had a presentation and meeting but I could take his car and drive around Lynchburg once we got there.

Although I hadn’t planned on going to see the “school that Jerry built,” I found myself driving down the highway where I glanced a sign that said “Liberty University” for the next exit. I thought to myself, “Why not?” I mean, even though I’m in the same state, I didn’t know how often I might find myself out this way again, and besides, I was by myself, I had the perfect opportunity to spend as much (or as little) time as I could want exploring.

I followed signs to the campus and found a parking spot by the bookstore. I made my way over to DeMoss Hall where the visitors center was located. As I walked in, friendly, smiling faces greeted me and wasted no time giving me information about the school. I even received a free copy of Jerry Falwell’s autobiography (I still haven’t read it, but after my recent experiences and readings, it might have moved up my reading pile….a little). They invited me to visit the Jerry Falwell Museum across the hall.

I spent some time in there and talked to the older gentleman who was volunteering at the museum that day. He was friendly, and because I can still be lacking in my own self-confidence, I threw out the fact that I was raised and ordained Baptist…..I did, however, leave out the part that I had transferred my ordination to the Presbyterian church.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, so after I had looked around at the museum for a while, I walked around the campus a little bit more. I walked past the little prayer chapel and eventually made my way over to the place where Jerry Falwell is buried.Liberty-FalwellsGrave

I have to say, it was a little much for my taste. With a huge stone cross and an eternal flame, it had the hint that they had been trying too hard to emulate JFK’s grave in Arlington and yet make it abundantly clear that Falwell’s focus was a little different than Kennedy’s had been and that he had lived his life very differently than Kennedy had.

I couldn’t help but look around from that vantage point at the sprawling campus, the huge “LU” symbol on the side of the mountain, and this slightly overdone memorial/grave and wonder about focus. I knew what Falwell has said that he stood for, but I wondered whether that message was somehow lost in translation. It seemed that I was looking at a kingdom built to a man, honoring and memorializing him, almost to the point of idolatry.

Overall, I left the campus with a sense that I needed to process everything that I had seen. It was a little bit of an overload for my senses and I felt like there was more reading and studying upon Falwell that needed to be done. I had seen a glimpse at this man that I knew little about save for the occasional outcries within the media over some statement or other that he had made.

A while after the visit, the experience had kind of fallen back into the recesses of my mind. There was nothing that would really make it stand out to me. About a year after my initial visit, however, I was back on the campus again for a large Christian men’s gathering. As I soaked in that experience, it did nothing but solidify the thoughts that I had the first time that I had been on campus regarding focus. While it was an impressive campus, I kept wondering what it was all for.

It was some time after both of my visits that I stumbled upon a book while browsing the shelves at Goodwill. I think that I vaguely remembered having heard something about the book, but it didn’t strike my attention in that initial hearing. For whatever reason, when I saw “The Unlikely Disciple” by Kevin Roose at Goodwill, it struck my attention and I decided to pick it up.

Kevin Roose was a sophomore at Brown University when he decided to get some firsthand experience at discovering the decidedly vast gap between the secular and sacred. He transferred to Falwell’s Liberty University for a semester and went incognito to gather information for the book. He disguised himself as a student and a Christian and went to work figuring out what this evangelical Christianity was all about.

The book sat on my shelf for months before I finally cracked it open and began reading it. Once I started though, I couldn’t put it down. It felt almost like a bad accident on the side of the road, the kind that when everyone drives by but cranes their neck to see what happened. It was a painful read for me who has spent the better part of my life within the bubble of the Christian sub-culture. Roose’s insights and observations were spot on, he hit the nail on the head of so much that has come to symbolize fundamentalism in America.

I think that the thing that was so painful about it was the ability of Roose to peel away the layers and find a way to disguise himself within those layers without anyone really knowing the difference. I say that not because I feel as if he were an intruder but because it’s sad to me that the most distinguishing thing about Christians is cosmetic, outward, and seemingly superficial rather than being something that is internal and personal, that translates to something deeper than simply sin management.

Some of Roose’s impressions and observations felt fairly indicting for me. In some ways it felt like someone had infiltrated my family and told everyone secrets that were supposed to be kept within the family. You know, the whole “What happens in Vegas” thing except in regards to family. Roose observed the difference between the beliefs of many of his fellow students and their actual lifestyle and actions. While he saw many of them as kind and loving in some areas, he also saw some major discrepancies which led him to scratch his proverbial head.

As I continued to read, I thought to myself, “What is this saying about this sub-culture if he sees this stuff in a brief period of time?” I mean, one of the things that I have always tried to do is be honest about who I am and what I believe. Apart from that, one of the biggest things that my parents taught me was to be consistent, something that they modeled incredibly well. If people see inconsistencies in Christians, that’s our fault, not theirs, right? Shouldn’t our lives and actions match what we believe and the things that we say?

But it seems that Roose saw something in these Liberty students that was different, He said, “It’s hard to watch Liberty students singing along to worship songs during convocation, raising their hands and smiling beatifically, and not wonder whether they’ve tapped into something that makes their lives happier, more meaningful, more consistently optimistic than mine.” The overused mantra of “Preach the gospel and use words if necessary” seems to resound from this observation. Although he saw this difference and wondered about what was there that he was missing, it wasn’t convincing enough for him to embrace it himself.

But the kind and complimentary statements may end there. Roose saw the discrepancies in the belief system of his fellow students. He saw that there were more similarities between them and his friends who he considered “secular,” maybe even more similarities than differences. It’s just that the differences were pretty glaring.

Roose observed many of the things that have gotten lots of press within the evangelical church. He talked about the fact that there was “Frustration with a religious system that gives issues of personal sexuality higher spiritual priority than helping the poor of living a life of service.” He saw Sunday mornings as being about entertainment that resulted in what he called “Church Lite.” He talked about the general closed mindedness of many educators, particularly at Liberty and how there were no chances taken for exploration because of the culture that had been created, a culture “where academic rigor is sacrificed on the altar of uninterrupted piety, where the skills of exploration, deconstruction, and doubt – all of which should be present at an institution that bills itself as a liberal arts college – are systematically silenced in favor of presenting a clear, unambiguous political and spiritual agenda.”

I sat there reading the book and wondered how I was doing in all of these areas. I don’t think that he was plugging for people to change their beliefs but to at least take a deep look at them and understand them better. Simply saying “That’s what I was taught” or “That’s what my church believes” doesn’t really cut it when talking to people who are diametrically opposed in ideology and worldview.

This book is almost a necessary read for those Christians who can’t quite understand why the world looks at the Church with such disdain. While some might be offended at some of Roose’s language and attitude, I think it’s kind of important to understand how Christians end up coming across to people with whom they don’t agree. I wonder how willing Christians would be to do the same thing that Roose did, to go “cross-culturally” into a secular environment in an attempt to better understand people with whom they disagree or don’t see eye to eye.

Roose did a good job of documenting his own changes as well. While his journey and experience did not necessarily bring him to become a Christian, he was able to see some real value in the experience and I think he came to the realization that there was something different about the people at Liberty, people with whom he had originally thought that there existed a wider gap between him and them.

The danger in any observations about anything is that you are always only getting a small picture window into a world and a perspective. The spectrum is rarely as narrow as one observation shows you. While Roose got a good picture of Liberty’s version of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and Christianity, it was still just that, Liberty’s version. Roose got a window into some people with whom he connected better, with whom he actually became friends based on commonalities rather than differences. He glimpsed some people who seemed to stand out more than others simply because they had chosen to buck the system, to swim upstream and against the tide that was so predominant and prevalent at Liberty.

Like him or hate him, the one thing that can be said of Falwell is that he was consistent, something that can’t be said of a lot of Bible thumping bigwigs who tout one thing while living something else. Falwell may have been incredibly vocal in his beliefs and disagreements, but he seemed to have lived what he believed, and honestly, that’s one of the most important things.

This whole read was another reminder to me that how I think I am coming across to others and how I really am coming across are not always the same thing. It’s important to do self-assessments to see what’s getting lost in translation and how I am presenting myself. Truth is truth, sure, I believe that, but it’s certainly possible that that truth comes across as anything but when it lacks a presentation of love and concern.

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.)

Holding Patterns

When airplanes are waiting for clearance from the control tower to land at an airport, it’s common for them to be placed in a holding pattern. They will stick to that pattern until they are given the go ahead to land. They don’t stop. They don’t divert to another airport (unless they are told to). They simply wait.

Waiting. Not sure I know anyone who likes to do it, but it’s something that we all face. Traffic. Grocery store lines. Amusement parks. Test results. Answers. We wait for a lot of things.

I seem to find myself coming back to the theme of waiting over and over again. Maybe I didn’t learn enough the first thousand times that I spent waiting. Maybe there’s something new that needs to be learned that can only be learned by waiting. Whatever the reason might be, I can point to many times in my life when I am in a holding pattern.

I have a friend who has been in a holding pattern for quite some time. He is a missionary, approved to go to the field, but his support has not come in. He has had a heart for the country to which he is going for as long as I have known him, which is around 15 years or so. He is waiting, holding on, longing to be given the go ahead to go and fulfill the passion that God has given him.

We grow weary when we wait for some things and if we really stop to think about it, we probably get a little too uptight about things which aren’t nearly as significant as we think that they are. When you have to wait for something, you begin to find out how much you really value it….or even don’t value it. Waiting either seems worthwhile or it doesn’t, we come to that conclusion while we’re waiting.

No bones about it, I hate waiting. I want things when I want them. I am a product of my culture, of my environment, and that’s not something that I’m particularly proud of. I understand my own impatience and the “NOW” mentality that I have embraced far more than I should. Impatience leads to rushing and rushing leads to mistakes or bad decisions.

So, I wait. I sit in my holding pattern. I take in the scenery as I pass it by the first time, the second time, the third time, and every other subsequent time that I pass it on my way to being given the go ahead to move on. I don’t like it, but I know how much I’ve learned while I’ve been taking in that scenery. I know the character development that has taken place along those holding patterns. I wouldn’t choose them, but I would rarely choose anything that would be hard and difficult or time consuming. Results rarely come immediately, and so, we enter into our holding patterns.

Social Media and the Church

social media iconsA few weeks ago, I was corresponding back and forth with a friend of mine and he suggested I explore a topic. He asked the question, “How is social media affecting the church universal?” I thought it was a great question and have had some experience of my own with it. Although I am far from being an expert, it’s experience nonetheless, and experience that has shaped the way that I approach things within the local church.

A few years back, Shane Hipps wrote a pair of books addressing the topic of technology and the church. The books were titled, “The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church” and, “Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith.” If this is a topic that interests you, I would highly recommend picking up Hipps’ books and even doing a search for him on Google. He has a lot of worthwhile things to say in the area of technology.

Once upon a time, as social media began to emerge on the scene, it was dealt with like so many other new inventions, with skepticism and dubiousness. Many people saw it as another way to waste time and a means of distracting us from the important tasks and opportunities that lie before us. This past February, Facebook celebrated its 10th year. While it had originally been targeted at college age students, the demographic of the social network has changed considerably over the decade of its existence. It is reported that 3 million teenage users have dropped Facebook within the last few years (article here). In fact, this article gives a good description of the primary demographic to which the various forms of social media are appealing.

All that being said, to ignore the impact that social media has had not only on our culture, but specifically on the landscape of the church universal would be foolish. While churches have been renowned for living in the past, to continue to operate in a 1950s culture devoid of the various widespread forms of communication which now exist, including social networks, is the equivalent to signing your own death certificate.

I have seen the power of social media used for good and used for evil. I have seen how it has benefited my own local faith community. So, for a few days next week, I want to simply unpack my own experience with social media. How has it impacted me?

My own faith community has been impacted by social media on a large scale in three areas: The Feedback Loop, Keeping Up With Your Peeps, and The Ripple Effect.  Over a few days next week I will hit each one of those separately, so I would love for you to come back next week and visit, share your thoughts, and share mine with others if you think that they are worthwhile.

Cheers!