Churches As Hospitals

Churches As HospitalsThe other day I posted the above quote. It raised quite a bit of online and offline discussion. So much so, that I felt it could and should be discussed further.

In my understanding, this quote is an analogous attempt to contrast two ideas. 1.) Churches as museums… where ideas and artifacts and histories are placed on display versus 2.) Churches as hospitals… where the wounded, hurt, injured, and broken find healing.

I do agree with one friend who said, “Churches have become more like Facebook, with people only sharing what they want you to know while hiding so many of their struggles.” Another friend expressed her concerns with the hospital analogy this way, “Odd analogy ‘tho since most people don’t hang out indefinitely for kicks in hospital once healed.” So why do I think this “churches as hospitals” analogy is valid?

  1. Healed and whole are not the same thing. This actually speaks to the concerns mentioned above by both of my friends. Many/some/most churches seem to value what I call Facade Christianity – focusing mostly on perceived output. The reality is that none of us are perfect. Ever. I have a friend whose church attempts to live it out in one of their core values this way, “No pretending. No need to.”
  2. The safest places on the planet. Many/some/most churches say “come as you are”; but really mean, “Come as you are until this date when we think you should fully conform to our ideas of what it means to follow Jesus.” I know this may be the hardest part of the analogy for Christians. They will fire back that the gospel is offensive and should make people feel uncomfortable when they are in opposition to it. Church ought to be a welcoming place that allows people to come and explore faith indefinitely… just as they are.
  3. Churches should be the hope of the world. If this is not true of your church, stay as long as you can without losing your own hope, and try to effect change. If they are unwilling or unable to change, run. Find a compassionate, broken, safe place that encourages all people to come and be infused by the life-giving joy and peace that can be found in Jesus.
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Gender Identity & A High Regard for Scripture: A Review of Understanding Gender Dysphoria

Disclaimer: the post that follows is a recent book review that I did for a Christian publisher. As such, I was mainly critiquing the author’s work.

transgender dysphoria

The main title for this review borrows a quote from the book’s author, Mark Yarhouse. He details a disparaging story (as most of his eventually are) of a man who, in his view, mishandled the Scripture in a public meeting regarding gender identity issues. This story and its following commentary left Yarhouse saying that he and the speaker had one thing in common – their high regard for Scripture. As I did not generally disagree that the public speaker had misinterpreted the Scripture in this instance, what left me excited was that the author of this book was almost immediately labeling himself as one with a high regard for Scripture. What followed was nothing of the sort. Page by wearying page I began to see that, if true at all, Mark Yarhouse had chosen to leave his high regard for Scripture out of this work. It is my singular negative opinion of the work in total.

Mostly this work is a cold and academic treatise. One is allowed to write in this way. I just found it odd in that his book dedication says, “To the church, the Body of Christ…”

Having said all that, I do believe there is value here. Most of what he says is not unscriptural. I do believe he does an excellent job defining the key terms in and around this discussion. For that alone, from an academic viewpoint, the book may be worth the read. I also find it painfully valuable to hear story after story of churches and leaders who damaged the name of Jesus by their dismissive (often worse) handling of this sensitive issue.

His lack of biblical connectivity should also compel us to approach the whole of Scripture to seek what it has to say to these types of difficult issues. So my biggest negative here could turn out to be the greatest unintentional takeaway from this book. How do the Scriptures, both by direct address to humanness and indirect principles flowing through its pages, speak to issues of which most of academia believe them to be silent?

He does give some solid general biblical concepts as final suggestions, though the Scriptures are never mentioned as the source for these great ideas.

As the crushing tide of public opinion continues to rush the shores of biblical Christianity, compassionate conservatism cannot simply be a political moniker used in news bites. Through the sacred pages of Scripture flows the strongest of tides – the redemptive love of Jesus. It is for that reason and because of that message that our starting and ending places must be its holy pages. May we continue to hold back the darkness with the light of Christ, revealed to us in His Word.

Nothing Is Beyond You

nothingbeyondThe famed artist Rich Mullins was working on a project at the time of his untimely death. Some fellow-artists took up that project and finished it in his honor. Among those tunes are this gem… one of my all-time favorites. I love the way it attempts to describe the otherness of God.

Where could I go, where could I run
Even if I found the strength to fly
And if I rose on the wings of the dawn
And crashed through the corner of the sky
If I sailed past the edge of the sea
Even if I made my bed in Hell
Still there You would find me

‘Cause nothing is beyond You
You stand beyond the reach
Of our vain imaginations
Our misguided piety
The heavens stretch to hold You
And deep cries out to deep
Singing that nothing is beyond You
Nothing is beyond You

Time cannot contain You
You fill eternity
Sin can never stain You
Death has lost its sting
And I cannot explain the way You came to love me
Except to say that nothing is beyond You
Nothing is beyond You

If I should shrink back from the light
So I can sink into the dark
If I take cover and I close my eyes
Even then You would see my heart
And You’d cut through all my pain and rage
The darkness is not dark to You
And night’s as bright as day

Nothing is beyond You
You stand beyond the reach
Of our vain imaginations
Our misguided piety
The heavens stretch to hold You
And deep cries out to deep
Singing that nothing is beyond You
Nothing is beyond You

And time cannot contain You
You fill eternity
Sin can never stain You
And death has lost its sting
And I cannot explain the way You came to love me
Except to say that nothing is beyond You
Nothing is beyond You
Nothing is beyond You

The Spirit of Jesus and Religious Freedom

Indiana Religious Freedom ActWith all of the venom (from both sides of the issue) coming from and to Indiana regarding the recent Religious Freedom Restoration Act, I thought it might be helpful to be reminded of the words of Jesus. The phrase I use in this title is one I have come to use frequently. I am often asked what I mean by it. As I understand it, the spirit of Jesus is the heartbeat behind what he said and did. This is from Jesus’ words in Luke 6:

27 “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. 30 Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. 31 Do to others as you would like them to do to you.

32 “If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! 33 And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! 34 And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return.

35 “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. 36 You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.

Morality cannot be legislated. The way of Jesus was and will always be beyond politics. Particularly if you claim to be one of his followers, what do you hear in the above (unedited) words of Jesus?

God’s Most Difficult Command

THE BOOK OF ELIThe Bible is filled with commands that followers of Jesus are meant to embrace. Perhaps none is more difficult than the one found in Proverbs 3:5-6…

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do…

Sounds simple, you say? I suppose at first reading, it may. But when you start to think of its application, and further, its implication, the admonition becomes downright scary. For the thinking person, the questions are likely to start flowing. How do you trust in something/one that is invisible? Does not depending on your own understanding necessitate suspending your intellect? Does seeking his will mean abandoning my own desires? And these are all fair (and answerable) questions. Let’s tackle each of them.

How do you trust in something/one that is invisible?
The answer is simple… notice I did not say easy. The only way to trust is to decide that you are going to attempt to trust. Look at another reality in which this is difficult – the fear of flying. For some, the thought of trusting the technology of an airplane to safely transport them is crippling. So how do you conquer that fear? Unless you are a former hulking NFL football player/commentator, the answer cannot be not flying. And, sorry Mr. Madden, that cannot be the answer for you either. To conquer fear we must fight it. That gets us headed in the right direction with trusting Jesus, too.

Does not depending on your own understanding necessitate suspending your intellect?
For an unfortunate number of Christians it would seem that the answer is all-too-often, “yes”… but, no! No, not depending on your own understanding and suspending your intellect are not the same thing. So exactly how does this work? It works by admitting that I don’t know exactly all of how it works. There is a required humility that is the linchpin in this entire discussion. If you believe that your thoughts are the beginning and end of all discussions, not only will this be woefully apparent to others, it will also be repellant. I prefer to focus on what this means instead of what it does not. For me this is about admitting that God knows more than I do and submitting my “wisdom” to his wisdom.

Does seeking his will mean abandoning my own desires?
This one is a “yes” and “no”. Again, what this really comes down to is… “Who’s in charge?” If I demand control of my life, trusting God becomes more than difficult – it will be nearly impossible. However, if I believe that the one who made me also dreams bigger dreams for me than I ever could for myself, it becomes much more pleasurable. Or put another way, I seek to discover his plans and those plans become my own!

Only after wrestling through the first part of this passage does the second part come to life:

… he will show you which path to take.

And isn’t this what we’re looking for? Direction. Guidance. Clarification. We want to know that the road we’re on is the right one. For the Christian this assurance is found by obeying God’s most difficult command: trust me. And as we learn to trust, we learn that the prophet Isaiah was right, his ways are not our ways. God’s ways transcend our best attempts.

You’re Not JUST A Youth Pastor

potterThursday afternoon near the end of my work day I stopped at a coffee shop on my route. I noticed a guy with a Bible and a few other books at a table nearby. We had a short conversation as he was leaving. Included in that exchange was my question, “Are you a pastor?” His answer sent me into a 3-day thought process, the fruit of which is this article. His response? “I’m just a youth pastor at ___________ Church.

I began my career as a youth pastor. From that day to this – almost 22 years worth – I have always served students in some capacity. I write these words as one who has shared your experience. I am for you.

Be A Shepherd
If you joined this game for any other reason, you should probably stop and do something else. Students and their families are your flock. You have been tasked with leading them to green pastures. Take yourself seriously and others will too. Understand the gravity of your position.

Be A Strategist
Though you may often wonder if your students are listening, they are. The data supports this notion. Ages 11-18 are among the most formative and developmental years of a child’s life. Because of this, you and I cannot afford to be casual about our approach. What an opportunity we have been given to change the landscape of Christianity by helping students understand and own their faith. Pray. Contextualize. Strategize. What was missing from your own teen experience? Be intentional.

Be A Student
First, I am not suggesting you act like you’re a teenager again. It is imperative to model that being a student is a lifelong process. Show them what you’re learning and who you are reading. Live out your faith by demonstrating that learning never stops.

If you are a Youth Pastor, thank you. Keep striving to be more than you are. If you know a Youth Pastor, please pass this on to them and encourage them to be more than JUST a youth pastor.

What You Probably Never Knew About Robin Williams

Professor KeatingThe answer to this title… anything.

For the last few days I have read and heard pontifications surrounding the unfortunate death of Robin Williams. The fact is that a very minute number of those same people knew anything about him. Most of us only knew his persona. So for anyone to draw “certain” conclusions about his death and depression and their relation to each other and what should have been done to prevent this… is mere foolishness. It took me two days to cool down enough to write something about this. The arrogance and stupidity of comments I have read from people who profess to follow Jesus has been unnerving, to say the least.

You don’t know anything. I don’t know anything. Not about Robin or his struggles or his life or what caused him to take his life so, please stop.

When these types of events continue to come to the fore, what are some helpful responses? Seriously, what would Jesus do? A few suggestions:

  1. Resist the Rush Limbaugh, Al Sharpton, Ann Coulter, Jesse Jackson, Matt Walsh approach. If your response is inflammatory by nature, it is likely not of Christ or at very least not helpful to the current situation.
  2. Reflect on how your words may affect people who are already hurting in the same direction.
  3. Respond with Scripture… as a salve, not a sword.
  4. Remember your own fallenness and need for grace. Practice humility.
  5. Realize (and acknowledge out loud) that you may not know everything.

I know many of these suggestions overlap. I understand that not all of my readers will share my perspective. Can we all at least agree to say a prayer before we write or speak and allow our words to be directed by more than just our tongues?

The Stickers That Saved My Life

stickersBefore we begin, no, I don’t believe the stickers literally saved my life. And, no, I am not even talking about my physical life. However, none of that makes any part of my story any less true.

Recently a new friend of mine learned that I had been a church planter and that our church closed. He asked me a question that I have not stopped thinking about since. He said something to this effect, “And you escaped with your faith intact?” It was a harmless question. I think in some ways he was joking. But having also been a minister himself, I’m sure he knows examples of people that were not so fortunate. I know I know such people. I have friends that have not only stopped ministering after a spiritual trauma, but in some cases, they have walked away from their faith. So, my friend’s question was fair. The answer is a simple “yes”. The title of this post gives the how of the “yes”.

How I maintained my relationship with Jesus is much more involved than the simple “yes” answer indicates. The short list of things I will mention here are only part of the story. In time I will write about all of it because the how of my “yes” includes darkness and light.

I liken the grief of the last two years to the grief experienced in the loss of a close loved one. I knew I was hurting. In time, I even knew I was grieving, though I was numb to that at first. In 20+ years of serving as a pastor I have seen grief destroy relationships and people. I knew I was exposed. I felt exposed. I was deeply wounded.

Back to the stickers. Thanks to many years of great training and living as a practitioner, in my woundedness there were two constants that have sustained my faith. One, is the Bible and the other is worship… both were intentional choices.

Choosing Scripture
I’m not going to make this rosier than it has been. There were days that I do not even remember what I read. There were moments that reading the Bible was little more than a spiritual exercise. I wasn’t faking it. I just did what I knew. I believed then and now that the very words of Scripture are life-giving and powerful. I knew that even if I didn’t feel it, eventually this book and these words were able to revive my soul. And they are doing just that.

Choosing Worship
This one was even more difficult because much of worship involves the emotions. And when I was feeling numb, sad, and angry I was not favorably dispositioned to worship. I told another friend recently that I had even tried to be angry with God, but could not… because I know who and what he is. I can remember weeks where I stood in church and just listened to the words being preached and sung. Especially during the music I can remember contemplating the meaning of the lyrics and just weeping in the middle of the service. I knew none of this was God’s fault. Declaring his worth helped pull me out of my nose dive.

So, no, the stickers themselves did not save my spiritual life, but I do believe my choosing the Scripture and worship did.

Scrapping My Plans

blueprintWe were asked to write in my senior yearbook about what we thought we’d be doing years down the road. I don’t remember the assigned numeric value of said reach. Of course answers ranged from silly to sillier with a dash of serious. Without searching through dozens of boxes for the exact words, I can tell you that my attempt was a mixture of the silly and the serious. I predicted that I would be taking over the 700 Club from Pat Robertson. That was my plan… or some version of it.

Truthfully I spent a good portion of my adulthood as the anarchist who revolted against planning. I took pride in the fact that I was a go-with-the-flow guy. This began to change when I became a leader of leaders and learned that my style did not translate to the majority of those I was attempting to lead. They wanted to know the plan. Where are we going? How do you expect us to get there? These became questions that would simultaneously frustrate me and mature my ability to lead.

The older I become the more I value planning. I try not to get uptight about it, but I do my homework, pray about it much, and read incessantly to help me formulate my plans. This was certainly my practice in getting ready to start a church. I read every book that was even suggested to me, interviewed dozens of guys who had done it, and even learned from people who had rejected faith for a variety of reasons. I had a plan. In all the ways that matter, my plan worked. My greatest boast is that there are a few dozen people (most of whom are still in my life today) who have a different impression of Christianity because of the actions associated with those plans. But in May of 2012 it was time to stop. In the ultimate sense, depending on your perspective, the plans had either run their course or they had not worked. I choose to think the former.

In the days since – and for the better part of 2 years – I have been learning to work through that unplanned reality. I haven’t really written about it until now because I have not been ready to write. Last night I was watching the DVR of the season finale of Criminal Minds and this quote was the sendoff…

We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. – Joseph Campbell

Yes. Yes. And, yes. This is what I’ve been learning. Admittedly I have had a tough time moving on from this life event. But as I rewound and replayed that quote last night I felt a freedom in my spirit that has been mostly absent. Sometimes we have to let go of the things we had planned so we can get on with the things that are yet to come. Be free. These verses from Scripture say mostly the same thing.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection! But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be. No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.

For now I continue to work as a salesman for my day job and am starting to serve again through our great church that we’ve been called to be part of at The Bridge.

An Eye for An Eye

death penaltyComedian Ron White hails from the great state of Texas. Part of his routine includes a bit about the death penalty…

That’s right, if you come to Texas and kill somebody, we will kill you back. That’s our policy.

That would be funny, except that it isn’t. Most of us do not need any convincing regarding the seriousness of this issue. In recent weeks the debate about the usefulness and appropriateness of the death penalty has been re-ignited. It is my firm belief that as a Christian you should have an opinion on this. Your opinion should not be based on quippy sayings like, “What goes around comes around.” Your opinion should be based on the Scripture… all of it.

We’ll finish with the Scripture part. Allow me to make an intellectual appeal in the middle. In addition to what the Scriptures have to say about this issue, I would also appeal to the same sense of justice that has previously led many Christians to side with the death penalty. No one can deny or ignore the finality of death. There are no do-overs with the death penalty. Sadly there are far-too-many documented cases where innocent men were put to death. This should at least bother us. What if the sentence was unjust?

Finally, I would like to end with the Bible’s take on the death penalty. I am well aware of the Old Testament passages that contain the title of this post. So, yes, I agree that at one point in time the death penalty was instituted by God as part of the old covenantal system. However when Jesus references this very text in Matthew 5, he does so only to highlight that the New Covenant is the fulfillment of what was incomplete under the Old Testament law. This could certainly include capital punishment. Have discussions and debates. In so doing, understand that many of the cultural laws of the Old Testament have been relieved by coming of Jesus. The gospel trumps all.

No Greater Joy

joyAll of my adult life I have been a teacher. I am in my element when I am helping people understand the message of the Bible and what following Jesus entails. The season that I am currently in has allowed for (even demanded) moments of deep reflection. This week I’ve been thinking through the things that have made me most happy in my life. The one I kept coming back to is a phrase that Paul, the apostle, used versions of often…

I could have no greater joy than to hear that my children live in truth. – 3 John 4

Here is what the phrase has meant to me…

  • joy because of people who have chosen to follow Jesus
  • joy because of people who have fallen away and come back
  • joy because of people who have grown in their faith
  • joy because of people who have been honest with their doubts
  • joy because of people who have expressed thanks

So the joy of my heart has been people. First and last are those that share my last name and my address. And after my family I have been blessed to share life with hundreds and thousands of people. From the United States, Mexico, Hungary, the Ukraine, and Russia. I have friends around the world who have brought me joy as they live in truth. If you are one of them, thank you so very much.

The Noah Movie: Storytelling

NoahLet’s begin where the Book does…

5 And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. 7 And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.

Genesis 6:5-7 KJV

Let’s allow the movie to begin where it desires to as well (these are the first words at the top of the movie’s website)…

The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.

 Since its March 28th release (and before, really) I have had the advantage (and in some cases, disadvantage) of reading many passionate reviews… all before I had seen the movie. I was reminded that some of us actually read reviews to decide whether or not we will go to the theater to see a movie. So reviews have their place. As usual, I come to this evaluation process from a bit of a different angle. For the last 20+ yrs. I have been a professional storyteller. You may look at my resume and wonder why a pastor would call himself that, but that’s exactly what we who deliver sermons are doing… we are telling and retelling the stories found in the Scriptures.

If you were/are looking to the Noah movie to retell the story word-for-word as the Scripture does, I am nearly certain that you will walk away as many have… disappointed. However, most of us who attend Christian churches would be equally disappointed if we showed up to a worship service and the sermon for the day was solely the reading of Scripture. We want to know some perspective. How does that text apply to my life? What am I supposed to do or be because of what the Scripture teaches? I think this movie does both masterfully. Here a few of the high points that stood out to me:

  • total ownership of why God was destroying the earth… the wickedness of man… sin
  • acknowledging God as Creator
  • even enumerating the very acts of creation day by day
  • showing Noah as the righteous yet fallen human that he was
  • even the weird stuff (you already have your list) does not diminish the power of the story

So even if you don’t end up liking the movie, let’s be the ones that are known for what we are for instead of what we are against. May this retelling of the story of Noah cause audiences to consider the greatness and grace of our God.