, ,

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

,

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.

,

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.

, ,

The Tension of these Times

I will never forget a flight back to the DC from Nairobi, Kenya. As we boarded the plane one of the flight attendants told me and the two pastors I was traveling with that there were a group of Somalian refugees on this plane. She was preparing us, because these refugees had never flown and did not understand the etiquette of planes, etc. She wanted us to be aware.
 
We boarded the plane and my heart broke as I walked down the aisle and saw about 10-15 Somalian CHILDREN. None of them were more than 12 years old. They looked frightened, unsure, and yet also perhaps a little hopeful.
 
I don’t know what their stories were. I don’t know what their religious beliefs were. I don’t know where they are now. I don’t know if any of those children pose a threat to my safety or the safety of this country.
 
But I know I was proud to be on that plane with those children. And on that day, I was really proud to be an American.
 
I read this article this morning about Evangelical responses to the issues of refugees being discussed by the Trump administration in the past few days.  I’d encourage you to take some time to read it.
 
Christians… the climate of our country today–at least the climate we see on the surface of social and news media–is fragile. We stand as followers of Christ, with an opportunity to perhaps demonstrate our love and presence of the Spirit in more tangible ways than ever before.
 
The old quote, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words,” is perhaps more relevant than ever before. Maybe we should be a little quieter in these months and these moments. Perhaps we should spend less time skimming the media streams and more time doing what my good friends are doing this weekend, simply hosting a dinner with friends and strangers to have conversations in love. Perhaps now, more than ever, we could become people who throw really good parties and bring joy to a stressed-out world.
 
And as we do that, we can never lose sight of the biblical commands to care for the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner.
 
Scott Arbeiter, President of World Relief, the National Association of Evangelical’s compassionate arm ministering to refugees says this in the article above:
 
“The question for the American Christian is: Will we speak out on behalf of those who are running from the very terror that we are rightly trying to put an end to?” he asked. “People who are running from Mosul and Aleppo and a thousand other places on fire?
 
“Would we be willing to accept giving up a 1 in 3 billion chance of our safety in order to make room for them?” he continued. “Or would we say, ‘I am not willing to give up even the smallest fraction of my safety to welcome people who have been vetted very carefully, who have been proven as a remarkable population of people. Will I not make room for them?’”
 
“We have never had an opportunity like we have right now to reach people who are coming to our shores, in many cases from places we have no access to,” said Arbeiter. “The risk that we have right now is that we are closing the doors to the very people that we say we want to share the gospel with.”
 
The church needs voices more than ever. Prophetic voices. Shepherding voices. Truth and love voices. But perhaps the greatest voice we can offer is one that has been coated in the presence and tangible demonstration of God’s love.
,

What Do You Do When a Cat’s Falling Out of Your Car?

Okay, full disclosure.  I’m more of a dog person than a cat person.  But, that in no way makes me take the situation I’m about to describe lightly.  This was a true moment with true tension.  And, if you’re a cat lover know that the stress you’ll feel in reading this is exactly what I felt when I witnessed it.

There was this moment a few weeks ago.  I had spent the morning working from McDonald’s.  I’m not a fan of the food, but the free wifi and bottomless drinks are good for someone with a mobile office.

After a couple hours of morning productivity I packed it up and began to walk back to my truck.  As I headed toward my vehicle I saw another car (potentially a member of the Junky Car Club) slowly heading toward the exit in the parking lot.  It took me a minute to fully recognize what I was seeing, but when it hit me it was a series of realizations bubbling up like the fizz of a fine champagne:

1 – The back door of that car is open.  The back door on the passenger side of that car is swinging open.

2 – Maybe they’re hauling a push mower.  I’ve seen people do that.  Haul a push mower and leave the trunk bungee tied so it doesn’t bounce around but they can still fit the push mower in.

3 – Wait, that always happens in the trunk, not the back seat.

4 – The back passenger side door of that car is open.  And there’s something sticking out.

5 – Good Lord.  The back door of that car is open and that’s a cat carrier hanging halfway out.

6 – What in God’s name should I do?

At this point I began to jog toward the car, waving my arms and shouting at the driver to stop.  “Ma’am!  Ma’am!  Ma’am!”  All the while thinking of my next sentence… “Um, your back door is open.”  “Um, your cat is about to fall out of your car.”  “Um, are you a complete idiot?  You door is open and your cat’s going to fall out!”

Just as I was nearing the car and my brain was continuing to register how clueless this driver truly was the car pulled out onto the road and headed north.

I have no idea what happened to the cat.  And I did pray for the cat that day.
Now, the point.

Somewhere around you, right now… your church, your organization, your team, your family… somewhere under your influence has a freaking cat carrier hanging out of the car problem.  And you’re either truly oblivious or pretending it isn’t real.  And it’s time to deal with it.

You’re 3 1/2 days into a new year.  Stop ignoring what everyone else sees and go fix it before you leave a cat laying on the side of the road.

, , ,

You Should Be Cheating Part 2

So, a couple weeks ago I started a series here called You Should Be Cheating.  You can read Part 1 to catch up.  The heart of this series is simply challenging leaders to consider the fact that we have a limited amount of time and a limited amount of resources, and when we live like we have more than we actually do we end up burnt out, overcommitted, or sacrificing the people we love for the sake of productivity.

I referenced Andy Stanley’s great little book called Choosing to Cheat, and began to lay out five principles that I think pave the way for healthy rhythms and rest and an ability to “cheat” on the right things in life.

The second principle of healthy cheating is simply this:

Live like Jesus owns your time, because he does.

There’s this passage of Scripture in Luke 6.  Jesus is carrying out his ministry in a culture that deeply understands rules, rituals, and expectations for productivity.  The Jewish world has a deep awareness that God set up rules when it came to Sabbath, and these rules spelled out a whole system that had been turned into legalistic assumptions.

So it’s in this world where we find Jesus making two conscious choices on the Sabbath–to eat grain they had just picked and to heal a man with a crippled hand.

Now, in my mind there is a certain beauty to these stories.  Imagine being in a small group with Jesus, taking a walk through the fields and grabbing a handful of grain kernels to eat and continuing your journey.  Then, imagine a man whose hand has been shriveled with deformity, and all at once Jesus asks him to stand up and stretch out his hand.  And it is healed.

And Jesus is criticized, by the religious elite, for breaking the Sabbath.  He utters these simple words:

“The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Now, I don’t live today with a set legalism to my periods of rest.  I don’t mind doing yard work or cleaning up the house on my days off.  But you know what I do?

I live like my time is owned by me.  I live, week in and week out, as if my productivity is dependent on my management.  I stress when there isn’t enough time and I worry that I can’t get it all done.  I pursue efficiency and avoid interruption and run myself ragged until “rest” becomes a consequence rather than a condition.

The Son of Man is still Lord of the Sabbath.

In reality, our time does not belong to us.  It is not owned by us and we do not even deserve it.  We can continue to live and function as if our way of doing things is the best way possible and the only way things will work out; and time and again we will crash, burn out, and wear out the ones around us who matter most in this life because of our constant pace.

So, in choosing to cheat we must learn to learn to live like Jesus owns our time.

Because he does.

What would it take for you to surrender your time?  What would it mean for you to lean on his rhythm rather than your own?  What would happen if you reoriented your schedule to truly enjoy a period of Sabbath each and every single week?

As I’m sitting here, there is a beckon to stop blogging and return to what I was doing.  You see, in about 3 weeks I have my comprehensive exams for the PhD program I’m pursuing.  And in this pursuit, the beckon to keep reading, keep studying, keep driving is more endless than anything I’ve ever studied.  But this choice to reflect, to read the stories of Jesus and let him remind me that he’s in control of my time, has brought a greater deal of peace than I’ve had in weeks.  So for what it’s worth… my own shriveled hands (or over-studied brain) has suddenly found a bit of healing on this somewhat quiet morning… simply because I chose to cheat.

,

Flying Like the Giggling Kid

I was on a plane not too long ago.  It was a small plane flying out of West Virginia (most planes flying out of West Virginia are small).  So, on this cloudy day as we came down through the clouds prepping for landing it was quite bumpy.

I hate bumpy on a plane.

But in these bumpy moments as I was pushing away waves of nausea I heard this growing decibel of a giggle.  It slowly got louder and louder until it took over the drone of this plane’s engines and the silence of its passengers.

Giggles.

All the way down through the clouds building to a crescendo as the wheels touched down and the clicking seat belts ended the flight.

And you know what happened?

Others began to laugh.
Passengers became participants.
Strangers became community.

And we all made it through the bumps.

May we lead like the giggling kid on the plane.