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Better Stories Episode 7 :: World Traveling Mommy and Daddy

Dave and Erica Baker are professionally creative.  Filmmakers, photographers, global travelers and idealistic storytellers, they are out there on the front lines making the world a better place.  They are also brand new parents.  Enjoy this conversation!

www.bakerstories.com
www.bittersweetmonthly.com
www.bittersweetcreative.com

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Better Stories Episode 6 :: Play and Exploration

A special interview with my good friend and the Founder of the Center for Play and Exploration – Dave Bindewald

www.playandexploration.com

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Better Stories Episode 5 :: Live at the McNemar House!

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What Right(s) do you Have? :: Counter the Culture Part 1

When I was a teenager I remember having this shirt with a Bible verse from the book of Romans emblazoned on it.  It showed a picture of a school of fish swimming in forward movement to one side of the shirt and then one, red fish swimming against this school in the opposite direction.  Surrounding that fish were these words of the Apostle Paul:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)

It was a clear and simple message.  If you’re following Jesus, you’re going to swim against the way the rest of the fish are going.  So get comfortable being uncomfortable and learn the way to be counter cultural.

It wouldn’t take much to convince a group of Christians that the Gospel is a counter-cultural message.  The call of Christ has always taken a “swim upstream.”  If we understand the stories of Jesus we understand that the mission of God in the world often stands against the values of the world.

And yet, there’s a problem with this t-shirt that I didn’t realize when I wore it proudly to school to declare my faith.

The problem is today I’m not sure who the other fish are or what values they represent?

What culture am I supposed to be countering?

To explore this question, I’m starting a series here called  Counter the Culture.  This is a discussion of the values that seem to counter the Kingdom values of Jesus.  This is a conversation about the values that drive our communities, our country, and our world systems today that don’t align with the way of Jesus.  I recognize these are rooted in my opinions, so they are little more than my own estimations about cultural values and Kingdom values.  I also recognize this is a conversation that won’t be exhaustive and could continue to evolve as our culture moves forward.  But for now, it’s a start.  It’s a move into the tension of the waters with eyes open that might possibly identify some of the fish and the currents we’re swimming against.

So let’s jump in.

What Right(s) Do You Have?

For the first conversation in this series I want to talk about our rights.  My rights, and your rights.

In the aftermath of so many recent news stories where the concluding option is to stand on a left side or a right side (read any article in the last three days and see if I’m wrong), the common thread of so many arguments centers around someone’s rights.

One person takes a stance that calls someone else out and that someone responds by saying, “Who are you to tell me what to do?  I have my rights!”

We could apply this to entire groups of people and the conversation would be the same.  The assumption of warring sides comes down to a single mantra… “I have a right to do/say/think/act/believe this and you can’t infringe on that right.”

So why is this something that needs countered by a Gospel-focused people?  Doesn’t the very Declaration of Independence commission the unalienable rights of a people?  Doesn’t this Declaration declare that we have–without question–certain privileges that form our very humanity?  Life?  Liberty?  The pursuit of happiness?

Let’s unpack this.

We need to consider first of all what it means–as Christ-followers–to have rights.  We could consider several places in the Scriptures to explore this, but let’s start with Philippians 2 and a few conclusions that can be drawn from these verses:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!”

Point #1:  These verses were written for those identifying as Christ-followers, and that identity took precedence over any sense of nationalism.

Paul begins this famous passage with a series of “if’s” identifying his audience.  If you have encouragement from being with Christ… if there is comfort from Christ’s love… if any common sharing… All of these statements emerge from a connection of this audience rooted in Christ.

For the early church, the great tension of their times often came from their division of Jew and Gentile.  For Paul and the other church leaders, the call of Christ superseded any sense of nationalism.  At the core of a Christ-identity for the Church was an understanding that citizenship and allegiance had been transferred from earthly kingdoms to a heavenly Kingdom.

Point #2:  The Christ-follower’s identity is rooted in posture and actions that elevate the value of others above value of the self.

Paul’s commission in Philippians continues with a call for those united in Christ to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” to “value others above yourselves,” and “to look to the interests of others”.  For Paul, these heart postures are an overflow of the identity one found in Christ.  For those united under Jesus, the natural reaction is to move toward a way of living that lays down our own rights and increases the value and dignity of others.

Point #3:  At the core of a Christ-follower’s relationship should be a mentality of emptying that cares for others as Christ cares for us.

This passage in Philippians is known by theologians as the kenosis.  The word kenosis connects with a sense of “emptying”.  It is, at the most basic level, the choice that Jesus made to step out of the heavenly realms and all the privileges therein to become human for the sake of humanity.

Put most simply:  Jesus gave up his own rights for the sake of giving worth, redemption, and salvation to those who were alienated, isolated, and separated from the love of God the Father.

So allow me to draw some conclusions by returning to that school of fish on my high school t-shirt.  What culture are we trying to counter by living in the way of Jesus?

In perhaps every news cycle and social media stream we see these days, there are at least two sides to the conversation.  One side says, “We have experienced a great wrong at the hands of others.”  The other side says, “Get over it.  It was their right and you need to understand that.”

Frame it with whatever example you want, these general feelings are what the conversations come down to.  We have rights to act, say, speak, live, do, think, behave, etc. in whatever way we want.  And another side says no you don’t, it’s inherently wrong, and you have to stop because of the suffering it’s causing.

For the Christ-follower, I believe we have the gospel opportunity (truly good news) to counter this culture.  We stand in a divided land in U.S. where political opinions and obsession over “rights” opens the doors for a people who truly understand kenosis as a way of life to change the conversation.

The citizen of Heaven, whose allegiance is to God the Father even above country, has a duty and an obligation as Paul points out, to regularly, passionately, and humbly empty themselves of their own rights for the sake of giving value, worth, dignity, honor, and redemption to “the other” (whoever the other may be).

Can you imagine how this might change our climate and conversations on social media?  At work?  In the news?  In our neighborhoods?

Take, for instance, the latest perpetual news cycle coming out of Charlottesville.  In the wake of the horrors of racism at the hands of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in which a president comes as closely as possible to offering statements of a blatant racist nature without endorsing these groups outright, the conversations of those who want to see another side immediately shift to seeing the removal of monuments as heritage and history rather than hurt and lament.

How might this change the conversation if Philippians 2 offered new approaches?  In this way, my passion is to value others above myself, give up my own rights, and look to the interests of others.  At this point it doesn’t matter what history and heritage mean.  Superseding any of those conversations is the fact that my brothers and sisters of color are grieving.  They are wounded.  They are hurting and fearful, and my duty as a Christ-follower is to seek their good, their healing, and their unity.

Immediately, the climate and the culture have changed because of the posture of my heart.

Friends, this is only the beginning.  There are values that drive our world and our nation today.  And as the people of God rooted in Jesus Christ, there are answers it is time for us to start living rather than denying because of our comfort level.  May you find yourself rooted in a perpetual emptying of your rights for the sake of others.

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Can We Stop Calling America a Christian Nation Yet?

Last year, as the strains of the presidential election droned on for what seemed like decades and our country heard continual stories of racial conflict, there was a Sunday I remember leading our congregation in prayer and conversation about what it might mean to find stillness in the midst of chaos.  We spent two weeks — two Sundays — in these conversations.  Week 1:  We talked about God STILL being God.  Week 2:  We talked about a God who STILLS the storms of our world.  And I thought I had done a good job of handling our difficult times with grace and truth.

Today I think these talks are like a songwriter who walks away after writing lyrics and then goes back a year later still happy with what she’s written.  When I look at my teaching notes, they “hold up”.  I like what I said and I would teach these things again.

But there’s a problem.

In these teachings I gave as a pastor with my congregation, I spoke as if the events of those days were out of the ordinary.  I taught from the Scriptures as if the chaos of police brutality and the gross unraveling of the free voting process turning into reality television snippets were a hiccup — something that would eventually go away and leave us with America as it “normally” exists.

Of course, after this weekend in Charlottesville, I’m reminded once again that these events, these patterns of unrest and infighting, and at the most honest level deep-seated racism and HATE are and have been the norm for longer than I’ve had my eyes and my ears and my heart open to the reality around me.

A bit of my backstory

I grew up in my Christian faith primarily in the 1990’s as an adolescent who found belonging in a community of believers who instilled in me affirmation that I was a child of God and I had potential to work for God for the good of his mission.  I remember attending camps and conferences through my teenage and college years and being deeply transformed by those experiences.  To this day, these stand as the formative years for me in my vocation and journey as a pastor.  I would not trade them.

But, I also recognize in the midst of any journey there are hazy illusions that convince us they are concrete realities.  

For me, the underlying theology and nationalistic pride in the United States as a (perhaps the) beacon of light shining out of a truly Christian nation was the assumption of those to whom I listened.  I remember pastors, leaders, authors, and other speakers decrying the apostasy of our nation that came a few decades earlier because of the removal of prayer in schools or the acceptance of abortion.  I remember the passionate call to put God back in his right place in America because only then could we be rescued from our threat of abandonment by the God who was obviously the king of our nation.

My assumption in all of this as a young believer in my teenage years?

Christianity fit into the American dream like an oven-mitt over the baker’s hand.  The two were synonymous and our nation had been founded by Christian forefathers with the best intentions and a clear commitment to not only Christian morals but Christian living.  We were truly a Christian nation.

It didn’t take long to have my views of the U.S. expanded.  I remember several steps along the journey of life that unhinged my assumptions and broadened my perspective.  Little things to big things that forced me to assess the unspoken rules of my Christianity and begin to understand that the color gray that often overlapped and out-shadowed what I assumed to be black and white was actually a beautiful color.

I remember a political science professor at my tiny, evangelical college who confronted my assumptions with grace and rigidity and helped me understand that liberal/conservative, democrat/republican didn’t work as labels in the Kingdom of God.

I remember the first time a student in my youth ministry confessed to me she was struggling with her sexual orientation and wondered if God hated her and all the easy answers to these difficult issues I’d been handed suddenly became that much cloudier.

I remember working in a proudly liberal (theologically and politically) church and a proudly conservative (theologically and politically) church and walking away from both jobs humbled by the Jesus-lovers I’d met and shared life with in each congregation.

In these experiences, I never forgot that label given so often to the U.S. — a Christian nation.  I remember songs, quotes, sermons, and books, all espousing this proposition that part of the uniqueness of the U.S. should lie in our identity as a truly Christian nation.

It perhaps hit me no more clearly than a time I worked behind the scenes of a concert for one of the mega-stars of contemporary Christian music.  For an hour and a half, he led worship.  He sang amazing and powerful congregational songs about Jesus, about living faithfully for Jesus, and about caring for the world in the name of Jesus.  Then, in the next fifteen minutes he performed a series of patriotic songs and the intensity of “worship” in the room became electric.  The passion and zeal that had existed in singing for Jesus was elevated to a new level as images of the flag were displayed on the HD screens of the church.  It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

End the back story…

As I’ve watched and read the stories coming out of Charlottesville this weekend, the question I’ve been asking is simple.

Can we stop calling ourselves a Christian nation yet?

I know many reading this already have.  I know others who never did.  But I also know many, many Evangelical leaders and pastors, congregants and friends who still hold to this false theology that the word Christian can or ever should define an entire nation.  Friends, this is — if anything — a smoking gun of theological heresy.

The reality is God has never allowed himself to be co-opted to fit national agendas.  He didn’t allow it in Israel and he will not allow it for us in the United States.  In fact, at all points he seems to warn that the nationalistic desire to make God our biggest advocate and lobbyist (be it Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or whatever) will end with a failed attempt at divine power cornered in our own ambitions.

Can we stop calling ourselves a Christian nation yet?

So I’m asking this question as I’m watching the pictures and the videos of white supremacist terrorists spewing hate that says my black friends and my Asian friends and my immigrant friends do not belong in this Christian nation.

I’m asking this question as our president lives each day promoting and proclaiming his own excellence and infallibility across social media in the midst of this Christian nation.

I’m asking this question as we in small towns that are 98% white pretend these racial conversations do not affect us in this Christian nation.

I’m asking this question as those on the margins — the immigrant and refugees, the poor and homeless, the sexually disenfranchised, the beat down and worn out — continue to pass our church doors because we do not make them feel safe in this Christian nation.

I’m asking this question because I believe our nation is in desperate need of seeing Christ-followers truly act and live as Christians.

Those who incited the violence in Charlottesville this weekend moved in the name of God, claiming they represent Christ and the myth of a Christian nation.

But they do not represent me, and they do not represent my tribe, and they do not represent Jesus.

So I’m wondering, can we stop calling ourselves a Christian nation yet?  Because maybe when we do those who have been hurt, wounded, confused, and battered by the false representations of Christ… maybe then we could see an outpouring of love, unity, reconciliation, healing, lament, and forgiveness at every level to truly become the Kingdom God intended.

For my friends of color who are once again scared or angry, confused or broken, forgive us for believing this myth for far too long.  Forgive our silence.  Forgive our inaction.  Forgive me for not always knowing how to act or how to love more strongly or how to do anything.  But at least know this.  The myth has long ago been shattered for me… and I’m doing the best I can to piece together a new mosaic of truth.

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Better Stories Episode 4 :: Freedom, Success, and Leeches

This episode features two of my friends, Katrina McGhee and Nic Windschill.  Katrina and Nic are entrepreneurs and adventures, and they are learning what it means to redefine success.

Key links:

http://www.strivetrips.org

https://www.kmcgheecoaching.com/

attackedbyanatlas.com

 

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Why Ethiopia?

Last night, our team of 8 who have traveled to Ethiopia for the week sat around talking about our first full day of time with the children at the Care Point.  As we talked, one of our team members shared that she had received the question leading up to the trip several times…

“Why go so far away when the money could be used better here in the U.S.?”

I listened.  And I fought the instinct to respond as I have so many times to that question over the years.  And I waited for her to follow up with her thoughts.

She grew a little emotional as she recounted our home visits yesterday and said simply…

“It’s not the same.”
This is my seventh time on the continent of Africa.  The summer before my senior year of high school, just a few years after the official “end” of Apartheid, I traveled to South Africa for three weeks.  Then, with a former church I visited the slums of Nairobi four times.  And now, our church plant has been in a partnership with Children’s Hopechest and traveled to Ethiopia twice.

In my mind, there is nothing like the smell and sights and sounds of this continent.  Though every country I’ve been to has been different culturally, geographically, economically, and socially, there are also themes that I sense when I come here.  To walk through developing countries, third-world communities, urban slums and rural farm villages paints a picture of a land that is far from what constitutes the everyday existence of my own life.  I never cease to have a moment here where I catch a glimpse of a child, a mother, or a family that is surviving in the harshest of conditions with the greatest of joy.  It is a powerful experience, and one I’ve grown to love.

And yet, there is also a harshness to these trips.  Coming off of a very difficult funeral I performed last week, it has taken me about 48 hours to feel as if I’m now “present” here in Ethiopia.  There was, in all honesty, a sort of deep breath in knowing what this week would bring–time spent with 90 sweet children living in vulnerable conditions and visits to homes where in our culture we might insist it was unacceptable even for our pets.

This is not easy, but it is beautiful.

This morning, I read in the book of Acts about the church at Antioch.  It was composed of prophets and teachers, leaders who constituted a multicultural blend of an African, an aristocratic noble, and Saul the great Jew of Jews.  It was an eclectic mix who became the model of the missional church reaching not only their own backyard but sending the Kingdom of God into different parts of the world.

So, about 2 years ago as a young church plant we had a desire to make international missions a core part of the DNA of our faith community.  And while we recognized the world is so big and needs are even bigger, we knew the call of the gospel was to do something that would help bring the Kingdom to life in the hearts of those who were vulnerable–physically and spiritually.  For us, the question has never been, “Why Ethiopia?”  Rather, the question continues to be, “Why ONLY Ethiopia?”

The world is massive.  But the Kingdom of God is infinite.  It is diverse and forceful and amazing.  And it is what we are called to.

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Better Stories Episode 3 :: The Louisville Crew

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Better Stories Episode 1 :: Mike Masterman

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A Glass Wall and Face Painting

Last week I had two very different experiences.

On Thursday I stopped in an office where I encountered a receptionist straight out of Monsters, Inc.

She sat behind her glass window with two holes–one for our voices and one for my money.  I began to talk with her and realized very quickly with the maintenance man and his industrial-sized vacuum running behind me it was going to be very difficult to hear her.  So, I expressed that… politely.

To which she simply gave me a flippant hand gesture and mumbled, “Well, then come closer.”

Then, on Friday, I flew from Pittsburgh to Detroit with a layover in Chicago’s Midway airport.  I took Southwest Airlines, who apparently have a large base out of Midway.  When I landed in Chicago I walked through the terminal to my next gate and saw a line of people parked in front of a table.  Just at their feet was a sign that said simply, “Free Face Painting – St. Patrick’s Day!”
As I grabbed a bite to eat in the airport these two incidents came together in my mind.  One very negative, and one very positive.  And you know what the reality was for these organizations?

The difference in my experience barely cost them anything.

Great service and great leadership are not a problem of lacking resources.  It’s a problem of lacking effort.