Saturday, July 25, 2009

What is worship?

I already wrote about what I think the role of worship leaders should be ( What I can't get over is how much the term "worship" in modern parlance has to do with (1) my feelings, i.e., my emotional state, and (2) my various expressions of it. Typically, when a church person speaks Christianese, they would define worship as "an emotional, passionate response to God." But, by practice, they really mean more. It means that I have to really squint my eyes. I need to cry when I do it. I should shout when I do it. I should sway when I do it. I should act very emotional, whatever that means, to express my "worship" to God. Furthermore, I need to express it in some type of "passionate" way. I need to raise my hands. I should clap. I should, in some way, act like I feel passionate about God.

Of course, this means that if I sit still, quietly, then I'm not worshipping God completely, or at least, at a level that God requires.

We've done something quite serious when "worship" is understood in this manner. We've done two things: (1) we've completely ignored what God says proper expressions of worship are, and (2) we've confused the expression of something with the thing itself.

The Bible is full of examples of singing, dancing, raising hands, and the like in worship to God. That's all good. It really is. But the prophets were very clear that all these expressions of worship weren't really expressions of worship. What was really an expression of worship was how we treated others. Those other things are expressions for how we feel in the moment.

I'm not suggesting for one second that we can't or shouldn't show emotional expressions during worship. Of course we can and should when it's appropriate. However, these expressions can't be the standard by which other times of worship are judged. Sometimes we don't feel like shouting. Sometimes we don't want to clap. OK. This has nothing to do with whether or not the person is actually worshipping God.

For example, Amos vehemently protests Israelite "worship" because they know all the motions, but are utterly failing in their "worship."

"I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24, NRS).

This is an absolutely crucial point to understand. God understands good worship to be intimately related to how we treat others. I have never heard in my entire life in church a "worship leader" tell me, before, after, or in the middle of a song, "Just one more stanza . . . and let this one (unlike the previous 24 stanzas) really come from the heart . . . and, if you are begrudging, hateful, vengeful, hypocritical, irritable, or a mean person, repent right now or God hates everything that comes out of your vile mouth." This is what Amos is saying. Proper worship is when we treat other people as God treats them, in righteousness and love. It's not about how much I cry. It's not about how much I stand up and raise my hands. It's how much I act lovingly with the love of Christ to my neighbors, even those who are punks.

Or what about Isaiah?

"The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote . . ." (Isaiah 29:13, NRS).

Lord knows I understand what "rote worship" is all about. I've been guilty of it repeatedly. I know when to stand. I know when to clap my hands or whatever. It's rote; it's contrived; it's perfunctory. And all the while, "my heart is from Him."

Have you ever been so grateful for something? Have you ever told someone with a simple, or passionate, "heartfelt" gratitude for something they did for you? How did you express that gratitude?

Again, if the goal is to act like I'm worshipping, as measured by what can be seen on the outside in my emotional expressions, then we are judging worship miserably.

A worship leader said at a concert recently, "I want to live desperately for God. And if the measure of my expression is the measure of my desperation, then I'm not desperate for Him." Well, this might be true. But is this good theology? For those of you who have children, this will make complete sense. Is it your goal as a parent, or at least, is it something you cherish more than anything else, that your child stay in a constant state of desperation for your love?

Of course not. That would be both mean and demented. I want my children to come to the point that they feel content in my love, safe in my love, and peaceful in my love. They do not ever need to chase after me.

It sure is special and moving when my children praise me. When they take the time to tell me how much I mean to them, how much they love me, or how much they appreciate what I've done for them, it makes me glow. It makes me joyful.

But you really know what makes me proud? You know what really makes me so content and happy that my children are, in fact, my children?

When they treat other people with charity and kindness.

Then, when they "praise me with their lips," I believe them.

Is this analogy so profane as not to be used for the God of the universe?

I dunno. Ask Amos and Isaiah.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A "Christian Tithe"?

Perhaps like you, I was raised in Protestant churches. I was always taught, at least once a year, that Christians were obligated to pay a "tithe." Typically, references to the Old Testament were mentioned, but not very often. Usually, the preacher just assumed that everyone just "knew" it was expected.

I've been bothered about it for many years. Those who know me well know how opposed I am to churches speaking out so vehemently against those who do not devote an entire ten percent of their income to the Church.

Plain and simple: the New Testament never supports giving a tithe and when it was given, it was part of the now-dead-and-gone Temple system of Judaism. What is so intriguing and vexing about this issue is how much Christian leaders speak so forcefully about a subject that is so clearly limited to a particular cultural time and place as to render the moral necessity of our fulfillment absurd.

If we're going to use the Bible, then let's see what it says. Unlike most preachers, I invite you to read this texts along with me. The following are some salient points mentioned straight from the Bible.

1) The tithe (from Old English, teogothian, meaning "to take a tenth" of something) comes from a Hebrew word ('asar) which means "to take a tenth" of something. Giving a tenth of what you earned to someone above you has been around for a long time, as is evidenced by Abram giving a tenth of his spoils to the high priest of Salem (= Jerusalem) in Gen 14:20 (cf. Jacob in Gen 28:22). But, the official understanding of the "tithe" isn't established until the official cult division (e.g., priests and Levites, other tribes, etc.) of the early Israelites is established.

2) Tithes and taxes were closely related. Nearly every ancient Mediterranean culture had them. The fact that all of the Israelites had to give it is rare. The ancient Israelites understood it as a tax in texts such as 1 Sam 8: 15, where Samuel the prophet tells the people what they are supposed to do in service to the king who would be established by God.

3) The tithe was to be given by all Israelites from the grain they grew, oil they produced, wine they produced, and certain livestock (Deut 14:22-23; cf. 2 Chron 31:5-6). This food is supposed to go the "storehouses," which were located at various places, under the supervision of Levites and priests. Of the eighty times "storehouse" is used in the OT, it refers primarily to the treasury at the Temple or, for a few occurrences, it refers to the "heavenly storehouses" in Heaven where God "stores up" treasures (e.g., Deut 28:12). (BTW: this is why when invading enemies of Israel came into town, the first thing they did was raid the Temple. It was the "First Israelite National Bank," as every Temple was in the ancient world.)

4) If you couldn't afford to transport all of your tithe, then you could sell it all, travel to the Tabernacle or Temple, then the person could "spend the money for whatever [they] wish-- oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together (Deut 14:24-26). "Strong drink" is liquor (Hebrew: shekar, that which causes one to get drunk)! Yes, you could buy alcohol in honor of God and drink up "in the presence of YHWH" and rejoice! You will NEVER hear this biblical principle preached from the pulpit. If preachers want to increase the tithe, then let this be placed on the sermon docket.

5) The tithe was apparently done annually, though only every three years did one give the tithe to help the poor, Levites, and priests (Deut 26:12, though this verse seems to suggest that the tithe was only done, at all, every three years).

6) Because of the various texts on tithing in the Old Testament, three different traditions arose in Judaism. There is evidence that by the time of Josephus in the first century, certain (many? most? some?) Jews thought they were supposed to give thirty percent of their income.

7) The tithe was for two purposes only: (a) pay for the services of the Levites ("priest-helpers")and priests who ran the religious ceremonies, helped in legal settings, and oversaw the poor and needy ministries (Numb 18:21, 24; cf. 2 Chron 31:4), and (b) (every three years) as offering for the poor, orphans, and resident aliens (Deut 14:28-29). Taking care of the poor and needy is attested in other ancient cultures, but not much is said of providing for them financially; Israel's practice is rare if not unique. Also, we are not told how the priests divided the tithe (e.g., did they get 2% of the tithe, while the poor got the other 8%?). Modern churches just assume their division is right.

8) The Levites gave a tithe of the tithe back to Aaron (Numb 18:26-28; cf. Neh 10:38-39).

9) Priests, "the clergy," apparently did not give a tithe (this is assumed). And if they did, like the Levites, it meant that the clergy could not be paid more than 10% of the gross income of the Temple. However, this usually meant the priests were loaded! We have archaeological evidence of this in Jerusalem. The priestly class had the most lavish homes in all of Jerusalem.

10) One could offer "offerings" to the priests and Levites, which were part of the animal sacrifices offered to YHWH (Deut 29:27-28).

11) When the great primitive church leaders got together at the so-called "Jerusalem Council" (Acts 15, esp. verse 29), they did not require Gentile converts to follow kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), observance of the Sabbath, the giving of the tithe, or circumcision. In fact, as I will demonstrate in a later blog, the Christians did not have a Sabbath, since that was a clear distinction between Jews and Gentiles. They celebrated on Sunday (the day of Jesus's resurrection), never on Saturday (always the day of Sabbath, even until this day). Furthermore, once the Temple was destroyed, the priests and Levites no longer existed, including their ministry to the poor.

12) Jesus condemned how certain Pharisees were more concerned with "giving that ten percent" than with the things God really cared about, like "justice, mercy, and faith" (Matt 23:23). Giving a tithe can clearly not be considered inviolable, or Jesus would have been clear that one should uphold the sacredness of giving the tithe regardless of a person's (im)moral behavior.

13) The poor widow who gave the equivalent of one penny to the Temple treasury is not an example of faith. The text says nothing whatsoever about her "virtuous example" or faithful giving. On the contrary, Jesus is pointing out how badly the whole Temple system had gotten. This is why Jesus thinks that the widow gave more than everyone else. The widow was giving her "whole life or existence," while others were giving out of plenty (Mk 12:43-44). She is a victim of the system, not a moral exemplar. While the others are doing their "religious duty," this woman, the kind of woman for whom the tithes/offerings were intended to help, is being taken advantage of.

14) And here's one of the most important points: when the Temple fell in 70 AD the Jews no longer gave the tithe. There was no way to collect it.

15) The early church continued to help each other monetarily. Paul believed that ministers should be paid by the Church (though no word on whether or not ministers were supposed to give back, see 1 Cor 3:8 and cf. Phil 4:18), and Paul travelled extensively collecting money for the Christians in Jerusalem who were suffering hardship (called several things, a “ fellowship” (Rom 15:26), “service” (Rom 15:25, 31; 2 Cor 8:20; 9:1, 12, 13), “gift” (1 Cor 16:3; 2 Cor 8:6, 7, 19), “generous gift” (2 Cor 9:5), “collection” (1 Cor 16:1), “liberal gift” (2 Cor 8:20) and “service that you perform” (2 Cor 9:12). There is no mention in the New Testament that Christians were to give weekly, monthly, or annually to the local church. Rather, it seems, they were encouraged to do so on an ad hoc basis (i.e., when a need arose).

Should Christians give money to the Church? Perhaps. They should give money for two main reasons: (1) they can afford it, i.e., they are not poor or under severe hardships; or (2) if they are greedy with their money, whether rich or poor, then they ought to give it up. This is Jesus's point over and over again: being rich tends to make one dependent upon money and not the God who grants money to people. We tend to worship jobs/possessions and not God (e.g., Luke 6:24, Matt 19: 23-24, etc.). 

Being rich is not a sin. Worshipping money -- paying it more homage than the Kingdom of God; obeying the Market and not God -- is most certainly a sin. I know some people who don't make much money at all and they utterly worship money. It's on their minds all the time. They talk about it all the time. How much everything costs is a huge deal. This is greed -- putting your trust in your capacity to control money. At the same time, having a huge house while others in your community are broke, and you are not helping your fellow brothers and sisters, is a sin. (For much more on how Christians should use their money, see my work:

In any case, the theological danger of the love of money should be preached about, not giving a tithe to the church.

I know. I have spoken with church staff for several years and have served on staff at several churches. Many with whom I have spoken are too concerned that if we don't preach 10%, people will stop giving. So be it. Unless the church is full of poor people (and many are!!), then the next sermon series should be about the dangers of loving money too much and the demands of the community.

Either way, the tithe is not the goal. Let's put it to rest. Let's let it be a thing of the past --a Jewish, Temple-based past that it is.

Stop feeling guilty if you can't afford the tithe. Start feeling guilty if you can afford it and you refuse to give it in the ministry of others.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Inconsistent Christian Views on Gay Marriage

There are now twelve states that support same-sex marriage or civil unions. Certainly this number will continue to climb. Is there anything positive about the the discussion of same-sex marriage or should we oppose any SSM decisions?

This post is deliberately limited. I will not tackle every possible issue in this discussion. Rather, I wish only to discuss a few salient points. I've seen the two Dr. Phil shows on the issue (especially concerning the CA legislation concerning Proposition 8) that aired a couple months ago (one of them can be found at There was a panel of three advocates on either side. The entire audience was split down the middle: about 50 pro-gay marriage, about 50 anti-gay-marriage.

(1) In every discussion of same-sex marriage (= SSM) I've heard, the following thing must be admitted: the entire discussion is predicated upon the morality of homosexuality. Though this might seem elementary, it is typically overlooked in the discussion. Something that really struck me in the debate on Dr. Phil was how no one discussed this issue. No one on the anti-SSM panel or from the audience ever said the obvious thing that the pro-SSM side couldn't understand. Those in favor of SSM saw how the anti-SSM group was inconsistent. This is the case, I would argue, especially because the anti-SSM never came out and said what was painfully obvious.

When a married gay man looked at a married woman on the other side and asked her, "What does my being married do to your marriage?" In other words, how does gay marriage affect heterosexual marriage? And it's a fair question, though not enough to make it moral or immoral. The genocide occurring in Darfur doesn't affect me at all; it doesn't mean it's a moral thing to do.

To keep their argument going, anti-SSM people should have said: "Same-sex marriage should be banned because it occurs between two gay people. Homosexuality is considered immoral, and therefore, SSM is immoral. If homosexuals can be called, "married," and they are immoral, and heterosexuals can be called, "married," and they are moral, then allowing SSM means that the notion of "marriage" is brought down. It's subhuman; or immoral." This is the point of view of anti-SSM. Either no one was able to articulate that thesis, or no one was courageous enough to say it. Nevertheless, it should have been said. It's the "elephant in the room."

If homosexuality is not immoral, then there is no problem with SSM at all. If it is immoral, then there is a problem with SSM, since "marriage," it is assumed, is and should only be, between heterosexual persons. That is, if marriage is by definition between male and female (and therefore moral), then allowing SSM means that marriage is no longer moral, but immoral.

(2) This next part, I imagine, will be more invidious to the reader. I have only two questions: isn't it a good thing that this entire discussion has come to light, and doesn't it show that Christians are being completely inconsistent? Let me explain.

I won't speak about marriage across the globe (yet), but here in the US, marriage has always been united with the State. We all know it. The officiator, in fact, says, "I lawfully declare you husband and wife."

Now, why in the world does the marriage officiator have the legal right granted by the State to declare anything at all? Can I go to the courtroom and get baptized? Can a judge officiate the Eucharist? Why not? The answer to this question is crucial. The sacred has no place in the mundane; the mundane has no place in the sacred. If it does have a place, then we should dispense with the entire concept of "holiness."

When we get married, we must go to the State to get a marriage license, but we do not go to the State to have a religious ceremony. Why? Because traditionally, a marriage ceremony is a sacred ceremony that historically and theologically does two crucial things: (a) it makes a covenant between the couple and God that the couple will behave as a covenant couple until they die, and (b) it makes a covenant between the couple and the community that the couple will behave as a covenant couple until they die. This is why the marriage ceremony should be held so seriously: it means there could be tens, hundreds, or thousands of people who are now enabled to keep the couple accountable to their vows.

Thus, my first point: the church officiant should not have legal rights to declare anyone or anything legal according to the State. If a couple wants a marriage license, then let them. If they want a sacred marriage ceremony, then let them. Can someone have a marriage license without the ceremony? Of course they can; it happens everyday all over the US. What's positive about this issue? It clarifies what the role of the Church is.

Here's my second point: Why in the world aren't Christians "up in arms" against all those who circumvent the religious ceremony? Where are the picket lines opposing this? No group is standing outside the courthouses screaming at those who choose just to get a marriage license.

Similarly, the typical anti-SSM stance is driven, as discussed above, by the belief that "marriage" is sacred and is only ordained by God. If homosexuality is not ordained by God, then marriage should not be "ordained" as legal. But, as my first point notes, the Church's boundary lines are way too blurred with the State.

But let us change the discussion and compare it with homosexuality. What about those who get married, in a religious ceremony, according to Satanic worship? What about atheists who get married? What about Muslims, Hindus, or Jains getting married? Christians believe that all of these examples demonstrate couples who get married under false pretenses. Therefore, they are not granted "sacred" or "valid" under God (especially by the atheists!).

Where are the picket lines? Where are the vehement blogs and articles?

No one bothers about them. No one meets a Hindu couple at Kroger and says, "Oh. I didn't know you were Hindu. I can't believe you were allowed to get married."

The State, in theory, can allow any couple, regardless of faith, nationality, or creed to retain the legal status of "couple" in the United States. They have granted marriage licenses to murderers, those guilty of incest, gossipers, liars, adulterers, Satanists, atheists, and on an on.

Does this mean that the Church should endorse these as legitimate marriages? That's up to the Church and if the ceremony is done with clergy in front of an audience. In any case, it doesn't matter if the Church accepts them or not for them to be legal; they are still granted by the State legal status as a couple.

In other words, the Church's criteria and the State's criteria of marriage are different, and they should be. Their goals are very different. Their values are very different. We should not expect them to think the same thing, because one is concerned with the theological value of marriage; the other is concerned with the legal value of marriage.

Point two, then, is thus: Christians I've heard and met are inconsistent on this point. If you oppose gay marriage because they are not considered moral by God, then you must also, with equal force, oppose every single other marriage that is done under a false god or no god at all.

What we have, de facto, in the US, are thousands of different types of marriages: marriages endorsed by all kinds of faiths and religions. Such is the state of marriage right now as we know it.

If we oppose others who are married under different religious systems, then we oppose billions of marriages across the globe.

I'm afraid that we will need more than one or two shows on Dr. Phil to combat billions of marriages. Moreover, I would need more than one blog post. :)

I haven't said one word about whether or not the Church should endorse homosexuality, SSM, or the like. Rather, this post is primarily about the forms of arguments used by typically-Christian opponents of SSM.

It's time for the Church to consider seriously its affiliation with the State in such sacred issues as Christian marriage. It's an entirely different issue if one wants to speak of Hindu marriage, Jewish marriage, etc. We are then forced to discuss the Truth claims in each religion.

I imagine the discussion will move to this: "Hey, how are you? I heard you got married? Was it a Christian marriage or under some other faith? Or, did you just get licensed by the State?"

What I personally believe about this discussion is left for another post. For now, it's worth examining the way we're talking about it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Should the Flag be in the Church?

This question is utterly about one theological issue: ecclesiology, i.e., the theology of the function or role of the Church. The Church is full of symbols: the cross, the baptistery, the seasonal colors, etc. Moreover, for most American churches, it also contains another symbol, the American flag. It is not a small issue for churches to decide if the American flag should occupy the same level of symbolic significance as the other symbols in the Church (i.e., be placed alongside them).

Though the Church was independent of (suppressed and oppressed by) the State for the first three centuries, from Constantine (4th cent.) on the Church exercised an enormous amount of influence in civic issues. For centuries the Roman and Orthodox Churches held enormous sway over the various governments across the European landscape. The Roman Catholic Church has changed its position through the years, but has typically held to the separation of the Church and State in modern times. The recent position of Roman Catholics is that they are to be firmly divided. Pope Benedict XVI said in October, 2008:

She [the Church] carries out this mission fully aware of the respective autonomy and competence of Church and State. Indeed, we may say that the distinction between religion and politics is a specific achievement of Christianity and one of its fundamental historical and cultural contributions.

When the Protestants broke off from "Mother Church" in the 16th cent., they took with them the same mentality: the Church should, in fact, be the foundation of the State (usually predicated upon the imagery used in Augustine's City of God, written in the 5th cent.). Lest we forget, Jean Cauvin (John Calvin) was brought to Geneva in the mid-16th cent. to help establish a (better) Christian government (cf. Mohammed's trek to Medina in the 6th cent.).

But, there were some really odd-balls. They were called "Anabaptists." Anabaptists were hated by Protestants, their own "kindred," among other things, because they insisted on re-baptizing adults (hence, "believer's baptism") and the absolute separation of Church and State. They are probably the spiritual antecedents of "modern" Baptists (like Smyth and Helwys in the 17th cent.). In other words, if you're Baptist or similar to Baptist, you have a long tradition of absolute separation. The Anabaptists were pacifists. They could not conceive of the Church having any close relationship with the State. Why? Because the Church and State held competing worldviews, competing values, competing destinations.

When we walk into a church today, we are struck by powerful theological symbols. The cross represents the atoning death of Jesus; the baptistery represents the death and resurrection of Jesus in the water and our unification with Him in that event; the pulpit represents the proclamation of the Word of God, and so forth.

Then, look a little to the left or right and you'll see the flag, the symbol of the nation of the United States of America. This symbol can stand for freedom and a democratic republic. It can also stand for enormous corruption and devastation. It doesn't really matter what it stands for. What matters is whether or not this symbol should be present inside of the Church, since it is NOT a symbol from within the tradition of the Church.

When is the last time you celebrated Easter at your local courthouse? What about Christmas? No? Never? Why not? Have you ever celebrated Lent at your mayor or governor's office? No? Why not?

It would never occur to us to celebrate a Christian event in a location that has no Christian significance because those events are only significant within a Church. The exact same could be said of why we do not hold Passion plays at a courthouse. That event has no business in a courthouse, and the judges would concur. And they would be right.

The American flag should absolutely not be placed within any Church in the USA. We should hold our symbols so sacred, so significant, that only Christian symbols should enter into our sacred space or be directed by our ministers.

The exact same is true of civic events (e.g., July 4th events) at churches. If we don't have Passion plays at the Mayor's office -- and we would never do that -- then we should not have a service "recognizing our troops" in the sanctuary.

Why not have the American flag, a symbol on its best days for something good, next to other "good things" at Church? Then let's bring in any symbol of "good" -- say, for example, Great Britain's flag. No? Because we don't live there? Ok, why not Wal-Mart or McDonald's signs? They give millions of dollars every year to various causes. Even still, let's put more "Americanana" in the Church: let's put some Elvis and Michael Jackson tunes in the hymnal (or Powerpoint slides; though, I must admit that I would prefer this to the Chris Tomlin pablum that I'm forced to endure each week).

Are these ideas really so silly? Why? We have seen the flag in the Church for so long in the USA that we think that its symbolism is just as equal in status as the cross. And when this happens for the disciples of Jesus Christ, our devotion is most certainly split.

This argument is not about whether or not American Christians should "obey the government." I've already written on this issue elsewhere ( The issue is whether or not patriotic symbols or activities have a place in the life of the Church. And they have none. None at all.

Am I thankful for what the troops have done in our protection throughout our nation's history? Of course I am. Does this mean that I need to spend one second of time within the Church recognizing them in a special ceremony? Absolutely not. I have never, in 31 years of Church involvement, recognized teachers, doctors, ministers, chaplains, nurses, plumbers, construction workers, or the rest of the workforce in this country. And if we did, the same critique would apply.

There needs to be one place and one time, at least each week, where the boundary lines between the work of the Kingdom of God and the work of human nations are clear and distinguished. Christians should be about the work of transforming our nations, for certain. A chief component of Paul's declaration to the Gentiles in the first century was that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord and that eventually, "every knee would bow" just at the mention of His name (Phil 2:10, quoting a privilege accorded only to God in Isaiah 45:23; cf. Rom 14:11). The same Rome who is to be heeded in Romans 13 is the same Rome who is the Beast, fueled by Satan, in Revelation.

I'll be watching fireworks tonight. I'll say a prayer for some friends of mine who are serving, this very day, on the other side of the planet (thanks Matt Weathers!). I'm thankful that I live in this great country and I'm thankful for the people who came before who made certain that I didn't have to live under a Nazi regime.

Yet, I will not be saluting the flag tomorrow in church. I will not sing patriotic songs in church. There are some things that are just too sacred. There are some places where I will only perform certain acts because I believe the presence of God is most attentive.

So, what's the point of this blog? It's simple: tomorrow morning, run down to the sanctuary, grab the flag, run hurriedly to the nearest courthouse (never letting it rub the ground), and leave it. Then, tell the Pastor and Music minister that there will be no patriotism today in church, only the Kingdom of God.

I know. I dream. . . but it's a good dream. And one worth doing something about.

Friday, June 26, 2009

We Owe All of Our Devotion to Michael Jackson

I'm sad for his family; I really am. The sudden loss of a family member or close friend is traumatic and will cause much anxiety. I have prayed that God will comfort them in the coming grieving process.

But for the rest of those flooding his Neverland Ranch . . . what in the world is wrong with you?! This guy was not some hero or world leader. "Beat It" and "Thriller" do not transform people. Michael Jackson was an "icon" (which for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, is already a bad word) for Pop music, of course. But does this mean that we should be forced to hear about it for the next week on the news?

Michael Jackson was an entertainer. . . an entertainer. All this attention in the media is expected by Americans since we worship entertainers. American "royalty" are actors, actresses, and musicians. Entertainers. We worship them because they make us happy. And when they don't make us happy, we discard them. We vitiate and vilify them. We love it when our royalty fall. His pedophilia charges occupied the media for weeks and weeks. People couldn't wait to hear a verdict that we all knew was true . . . but we were disappointed. It pays well to have good lawyers I guess . . . and oh yeah, it's Michael Jackson. He's royalty.

If we were to apply the Hindu caste system in the US, entertainers would have to be part of the Kshatriya, or even at times, the Brahmin strata. These people are on the very top. We treat them differently. We give them free stuff at every store. Brands beg them to wear their brand of clothes, star in their movies, sing their songs, and speak in their commercials. Why? Because people in those top caste systems will bring in the all-important, chief religious offering to the head god in the US: money.

Well, technically, it's not "money," but "power." Money is just the only real way in the country to possess power. "Whoever holds the gold makes the rule" should be on our dollar.

Athletes are paid more, injured on the side-line, in one year than a good teacher will be paid in a lifetime. Why? Because they entertain us. That makes them royalty. And we give the highest offering of money to those who make us happy. They deserve it--who else will make us so happy if we don't have entertainers, right? Do you expect me to find my own happiness and joy?

However, having that privilege of being my entertainer has its price. It means that you have to behave in a way that makes me happy at all times. Have an affair, take advantage of kids, shoot someone, or do anything that this culture believes to be bad, and you're the target of all our scorn. Don't you know better? Don't you know, royalty, that our entertainers must be flawless in their pursuit of making us happy? Why did you fail us? We gave you so much "power" (i.e., money and admiration) over us and you took advantage of it.

So here we go again. Another American royalty is dead. And for our culture, this is a hard blow. We worship our entertainers, especially those who have been around for several decades. Part of being "American" is the music of Michael Jackson. Hardly any of us has any memory in the last few decades without some of his music in our heads. He has made us happy for a long time. So, now it's time to grieve one of our "idols." It's only appropriate. When someone you worship dies, it's a big deal. Who else will fill his shoes and make me as happy as he did?

"Dear Jesus. Thank you for your life, death, and the resurrection. But, I really thank you for the wonderful, incredible, life of one of our heroes, our royalty, our idols, our icons: Michael Jackson. I ask that you let him in to the world to come. His #1 hits really transformed me when I sang them in the fifth grade. I'm not certain if I could have been as happy and complete without him in my life. Regardless of the color he is in Heaven, please let him in. In Jesus name, Amen." (I sure hope you get the social commentary in my sarcasm).

Heavenly Father, please forgive us. I wish I could say that we "know not what we do," but it wouldn't be true. There's something about us that wants to worship idols. I don't look forward to the day when you strip us (including me) of all of our idols.

I know this: You won't be singing "Beat It."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Fake Cigarettes

My family was walking through the zoo known as "the mall" yesterday. I saw a kiosk that was soliciting something I'd never heard of: e-cigarettes. Yes, "electronic cigarettes." The sign for the product really struck me:

"It looks like a real cigarette . . . it tastes like a real cigarette . . . it feels like a real cigarette . . . but it's not a real cigarette. E-cigaratte."

These electronic straws allow a battery-powered device to shove nicotine down your throat without having all that pesky smoke. While it's legal in most places, supposedly it's still illegal in Australia and Hong Kong.

I was both humored (as I am now, in fact) and amazed by it. I thought the sign should read, "E-cigarette. It's the cleaner way to kill yourself."

Then I was struck by the sales sign. As you might imagine, I had a theological reflection. My reflection made my smile go away, unfortunately, as I thought about how many Christians could fit that description. The haunting question was if I could fit that description.

"It looks like a Christian . . . it talks like a Christian . . . it smiles like a Christian . . . but it's not a real Christian. E-Christian."

Jesus' message was inextricably linked with who He was. That is, His message made no sense apart from who He was. The imminent Kingdom of God declared in His message was present in Him: the God-man who ate grilled fish, slept, got dehydrated sometimes, had dreams, stared at the sunset, prayed each day, made jokes with his disciples, and even cried. The same person was able to forgive sins apart from the Temple, walk on water, raise the dead, heal the sick, restore the blind and lame, and even see and hear heroes of old once Transfigured. How a person responded to His message was how they were responding to God's call to repentance. If Christianity is anything at all, it is about Christology. It is the thing that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions on the planet.

To be certain, Jesus' message of "good news" was that our repentance and forgiveness was salvation. One did not repent in order to be the benificiary of the good news. The actual act of repentance and being forgiven was the good news. After the resurrection, the Holy Spirit is promised to enable such a reception of the "good news." When we receive the good news, we are being transformed. We are not transformed because we make the transformation possible, but because Jesus has already made the human race capable of transformation.

C.S. Lewis reflects on what it means that Jesus, the Son of God, actually became human: "What, then, is the difference which He has made to the whole human mass? It is just this; that the business of becoming a son of God, of being turned from a created thing into a begotten thing, of passing over from the temporary biological life into timeless "spiritual" life, has been done for us. Humanity is already "saved" in principle. We individuals have to appropriate that salvation. But the really tough work—the bit we could not have done for ourselves—has been done for us. We have not got to try to climb up into spiritual Me by our own efforts; it has already come down into the human race. If we will only lay ourselves open to the one Man in whom it was fully present, and who, in spite of being God, is also a real man, He will do it in us and for us. . . . One of our own race has this new life: if we get close to Him we shall catch it from Him" (Mere Christianity [New York: Touchstone], 157-58).

The Incarnation has made the human race capable of being made new. We just need to receive it.

How do we receive it? By coming under the discipleship of Jesus of Nazareth. Without repenting and trusting in Him; without actually knowing what the Kingdom of God is about; without living a life of obedience and love, there is no way that we can be the real thing.

It sounds as if I'm talking about a give-and-take relationship, as if it's up to me to respond faithfully before He can transform me. Yes. Such is the nature of discipleship.

What would the Church, not to mention the world, look like if there were no "E-Christians," but the real thing? Could it really be that the risen Christ could be in us, working through us, saving us each day?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Negotiating with God

Exodus 3:12 He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain" (NRS).

When God was negotiating with Moses about Moses bringing God's people out of slavery, Moses gives every trick in the book. It starts out with (and I paraphrase), "Um . . . and which god are you? Who do I say sent me?" God answers something. Moses says, "Cool, cool. Um . . . how in the world would I be able to do this? Do you have any idea how much I am unimportant in Egpyt right now?" God says two things: "(1) I will be with you, and (2) you will know I have been with you when you get back here and look back."

There are several stories in the Bible with which I can relate the most. This is one of them. Moses continues to tell God why he can't do it; God continues to negotiate. I'm struck by how God does not make Moses do anything. He does not threaten or bully Moses or his family. God doesn't act like the mafia. He negotiates; He invites; He asks.

And God's twofold promise is striking. He doesn't say, "Because you'll cause destruction with the plagues (which might be implicit in the "my presence will be with you" phrase)," or "because I said so." God takes the time to comfort Moses, but without telling him all the details.

Though, at times, I do envy Moses. At least he knew he'd be back to his mountain.

We serve a God who asks and negotiates with us, not forcing anyone to do anything. And to guarantee that we have the courage to listen to him, he gives us reasons to hope. "Don't worry Moses, I'll be with you. And you'll see--once you get back here, it'll all make sense."

My son gets scared sometimes to swim long distances or go certain places. It's funny how much I say these exact things. "I know son; it's ok to be scared. But, I'll be with you each step of the way. And I promise, I know how this will end. You will make it to the end."

I often wonder if God is asking me to do something else. I tend to wonder it the most when I haven't been praying faithfully. I get the feeling, in those times, like a conversation is waiting to happen.

So I listen . . . and negotiate . . . and trust.

Why Don't I Feel Like God is There?

There's a Reba McEntire song called, "What Do You Say?" that has a line that is repeated several times: "Just close your eyes and let your heart lead the way." She's talking about knowing what to say in difficult situations, but that line really stood out to me. It reminded of nearly every Christian I've met in my life.

Part of the major attractions of Post-modernism is that fact that deconstructionalism (i.e., the attempt to dismantle any sense of "absolutes" in reality, truth, etc.) attempts to make everything relative. Therefore, if truth is not the standard, but a preference, then I get to decide what I consider truth to be. Isn't this great? We no longer have to say things like, "we all know that's wrong or right," or "that's not fair." We can only say, "that does not keep the societal preferences." Now, this blog is not about how silly and inadequate this notion of ethics is; this blog is only about how this fundamentally-flawed philosophical position has been bought -- wholesale -- by the Church. And it's devastating.

This is not a novel observation. There have been plenty of pundits before me who have noticed it; even predicted it. Nearly every Christian I meet today (and in the last decade of my ministry) really do believe, or are highly tempted to believe, that Christianity is right for him or her. It's what "floats my boat," "makes me feel better," "helps me know that granny is waiting on me," and so forth. Rarely do I meet modern Christians who believe Christianity to be valid because it's True; they believe in Christianity because it's good for them. That is, at bottom, most people pick a religion because they are utilitarian - if it "works" or meets some need of theirs, they keep it.

If there is one thing that Christianity cannot be, it cannot be merely a preference. People did not suffer crucifixion, get burned alive, get shunned by all family members, lose social and political positions, and live in fear lest authorities come drag them away during prayer meetings for centuries because they believed that Christianity simply "made them feel good."

Believing in Santa Claus made me feel good when I was a child. It really did. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I would never -- never in a million years -- offer myself to be tortured because of Santa.
The early Christians and early Church Fathers were so convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead that their entire lives were radically changed. They gave up everything that got in the way of living out that belief. Even when they did not feel like God was present (e.g., if they were killed, like Jesus felt while on the cross), they knew He was present because the gospel was True. Nothing could change the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead; nothing could change the fact that the manifestation of the Kingdom of God had begun as manifested in the several, small communities spread throughout the Empire.

What they felt about God while in despair had nothing to do with facts, with history. They were not ashamed of the gospel because they believed it to be true, not because they always felt God's presence.

Sometimes I'm tempted, like those Reba McEntire lyrics, to "close my eyes" and simply let "my heart lead the way." And sometimes, when I do that, I feel very happy and "close to Jesus." But for most of the time, in the "real world," those moments cannot be sustained. My feelings come and go. And they are supposed to do that; God designed my feelings that way.

Christianity is either true or false. Jesus and the Apostles never claimed to be spreading some new preference, but a fact. And they were either right or wrong, true or false.

If we Christians think that God has to feel close in order for Him actually to be close, then we are trying to manufacture a feeling. And this reduces Christianity and the promises of God's presence and love to mere feelings. Moreover, like the perfect relativist, it makes Christianity all about me. It says, "For Christianity to be true, I must feel God at this moment."

My wife is not always in the same room with me. I cannot always "feel" her presence. But, I never doubt her existence. She exists. This is a fact. It is either true or false, regardless of how I feel.

So it is with God. Praise God it is this way. I want a God who is not controlled by how I feel.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Since we are surrounded . . ."

My wife competed in her very first triathlon last weekend. It was a great event. To see 2500 women of various body sizes and ages wandering the landscape with multi-colored rubber hats on their heads was an intriguing sight. I was so proud of my wife. She looked just like the veterans (well, like the younger veterans).

It was a beautiful morning. The sun was barely breaking over the clouds when the event began. Her group was one of the last to begin. When she got into her group of purple-headed women to wade into the water, we all awaited for the announcer to commence the count-down. I teared-up several times: that was my wife; she was a bit scared; would she be safe? "Ready women?! 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . Go!" Off she went like a minnow into the murky lake.

I cheered her on as she came out of the water, video camera in hand. “Yeah Elaine! You did it! You just swam over a half-mile! Wow! Keep going! Don’t stop!” I still fought back the tears. Up the hill she went to the bikes. One third of the event was over. As she and the other athletes ran up the hill, they stripped off their goggles and rubber hats.

Around forty-five minutes later, I recorded her as she came up the final hill, beet-red from hustling up and down several daunting hills on that bike. “Yeah Elaine! You did it! Don’t stop now! You just biked twelve miles! Keep it up!” The crowd around me cheered as well. Strangers were cheering on everyone, not just their favorite(s).

Then she was off to run over three miles. She put down her bike in her allotted spot and immediately began running. She was tired. Her gait wasn’t too fast, but it was steady. But this was the last leg. I prayed for her. And yes, I even teared-up for her again. I was so proud. I watched her in the distance as she disappeared into the arboreous running path. The next time I’d see her, she’d be running for the finish line.

I went to the finish line where a huge crowd had already gathered. People were running through the final gate and cheering, crying, panting. The crowd’s polyphonic cacophony was deafening. The announcer was broadcasting the finishers names as they crossed the finish line. Loud music was blasting over the speakers. Families and friends were standing almost in the way of the track as the runners would approach the finish line. Everyone was clapping and exhorting.

“Yeah!!! Come on Susan! Jane, don’t give up!! You can do it! You’re almost there! Don’t give up! Come on; just a little more! Don’t stop; don’t quit!”

At last, my wife came running around the corner to the last bit of track. She could hear the voices; she could hear the cheers from the huge crowd. Her pace sped up. I had my video camera ready. I came up to her in the last 100 feet, running beside her.

“Go honey!!! You can do it!”

I ran ahead of her through the finish line so that I could turn around and video her. She ran over the finish line and threw her arms in the air.

She exclaimed, “Yeah!!! I did it!!” The crowd continued to cheer. I gave her a big, long hug. And yes, I cried a little. For eight months, she trained. She had done it. And hundreds of people witnessed it. They were cheering her on too.

The author of Hebrews said it like this: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, . . .” (12:1; ESV).

We’re being watched, says the anonymous author of Hebrews. We’re being watched and exhorted. Anyone in the ancient world would have immediately gotten the image: an ancient sporting event. Ancient Greek athletes competed in the nude (all males, of course). Here, the author of Hebrews uses such practice metaphorically: just like they cast off their clothes to run unhindered, we too, should cast off sinful habits.

And run. Run like’s there’s no tomorrow. No holding back; no stopping now. Why? Because we’re being watched. We’re not alone. There are cheerleaders. There are those who actually want us to finish the race well.

The respected professor and author Ben Witherington, III, tells a story (which I adapted a bit from
Some time ago I was pastoring in Coleridge N.C. and had gone to Charlotte with my wife for a few days to visit my folks. One of our most stalwart church members, Bertha Albright, suddenly and unexpectedly became ill on a Saturday and was dead by the time we returned. This was in an age before cell phones, and when I arrived back in Coleridge my neighbor, Roger Whitehead, was frantic and asking me to come to his house. He was worried his mother had gone bonkers. You see, Mrs. Whitehead had been Bertha Albright’s best friend, and about 4 or so that afternoon she had received a phone call from Bertha, which her son Roger had overheard. The phone rang, they talked for a while, and then Mrs. Whitehead hung up. She had been talking to Bertha. The problem is, Bertha was already dead some hours!
When I came across the street and was told all of this, because of course now Mrs. Whitehead had learned Bertha was dead and was distraught, I tried to calm her down and ask her some questions. I asked her was she sure it was Bertha? Oh yes, she had known this person for many many years. How did Bertha sound? “She sounded far away.”
I remember saying “I guess so, it was truly a long distance call.” But when I asked her what Bertha said, one of her remarks struck home: “She asked if Ben would be back to preach on Sunday, and to tell him not to be discouraged but to keep giving those good sermons and doing the ministerial work.” I was a pastor of four churches, and it was difficult. And indeed I was discouraged, and wondered whether I belonged in the pastoral ministry. And that message was precisely the word of hope and help I needed on that weekend.

Cheerleaders. They actually want us to finish.

When my wife was running down the final stretch, the sun blazing, the crowd cheering, the music playing, and my heart racing, time slowed down. For a brief moment, colors blurred, voices faded off in the distance, and all I could focus on was my wife’s smiling face looking at me. She was proud. She was happy. She was joyful. Her time was fulfilled; it was complete. And she was soaking it in.

And for a brief moment—ever so brief—when time slowed down, I could have sworn that I saw something else. I can’t prove it; I can’t even explain it well. But, it’s almost as if I saw a huge crowd of people smiling and cheering around us all, or better still, through us all. I saw a glimpse into another world where we were being watched and applauded. And for a brief moment, I could see us at the end of time.

I can still hear those voices in the distance . . . “Don’t stop! Don’t quit! You’re almost done! You’re almost home!”

And it makes me smile.

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