Waiting in Silence

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img_0087The music was blasting the other day in my car, as I listened to Tom Petty’s tenor nasally voice tinged with a Southern drawl…

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

As we celebrate Advent, what we often forget is the time period in-between the Hebrew Scriptures and the coming of Messiah was 400 years. This is called the intertestamental period (“in-between the testaments”) where prophetic words from God ceased, leading some to call it, “the silent years”. It has as its beginning Israel in bondage to Persia leading to release, occupation of the land by the Greeks and then the Romans. Four hundred years of waiting in silence from Yahweh.

One of the more interesting facts about this period is this is when the Pharisees added oral tradition to their written Scriptures (called the Talmud). This should serve to remind us that silence has the ability to create a deep religious insecurity where one leans on the rules (or makes up rules) to bring clarity to one’s religious devotion. So what does it mean to love God and neighbor? If God won’t spell it out, we will.

When we observe Advent it’s important that we shed the niceties and overly romantic notions of Christmas. We put ourselves in the shoes of those Jews who were waiting for Messiah to come even when God had been silent. God’s speaking then into human history with the advent of the living Word was abrupt. It was sudden and unexpected yet gently sublime.

With Christ’s first advent (“arrival” or “coming”), we declare like Simeon in the Jerusalem temple:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
   which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)

The idea of Advent prior to Christmas is to prepare our hearts in waiting… waiting for Messiah to come. While we all know how the story turns out in Bethlehem we don’t want to get to the birth too fast! We want to share in what Simeon must have felt to see God’s salvation after years of silence! Likewise, we enter into the silence of the story again and again, saying in our hearts, ‘Lord, will you rescue your people?” While waiting for anything feels like torture, its full effects are intended to confront our safety, self-sufficiency, and our false expectations about God and life.

In 1966, Japanese author, Shusako Endo wrote Silence, probably his personal best bringing to life the evangelization of feudal Japan by Portuguese Catholics. One theme of the book is the silence of God contrasted with the brutal persecution of small hidden cloisters of Christians as the country unified under one national leader rather than hundreds of competing feudal lords. Mako Fujimura writes,

[Endo’s] books unveil a vital link between trauma, hiddenness, and beauty of faith in the ambiguity and relativism – two features of postmodernism and Japanese culture. 1

In the end, when is it that God speaks loudly in His majesty and glory? It is in the silence of Advent as we await our Savior who arrived in a way that no one really noticed or went looking for. He didn’t come in grandeur and power. Nor did He come in divine wrath. He came in relative obscurity, a “silent” night, marked by the beauty, grace and simplicity of a Savior born for us. He shouts to us in the silence we experience because He was born to suffer and die so that in what seems like silence we would always know He is with us, Immanuel.

The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In The Manger).

1 Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty, p.78-79.

Is it Possible for Someone Who Doesn’t Believe in Jesus to Follow Him?

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book-krattenmaker-jesusI consider Tom a friend but actually we’ve never met in person. Our paths “crossed” when I was a college pastor in Orange County, California. He had written an interesting article on evangelical Millennials serving the needs of the world and I had just taken a college group from our church to help New Orleans rebuild post-Katrina. That began an email and Facebook friendship and we have stayed in contact here and there albeit at a distance. I’ve read his two previous books, so before Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower was released, I told Tom I would read it and offer my thoughts. My confession is I’m one of those evangelical pastors.

The book fits with Tom’s view of the world – someone who is secular and a skeptic of any religious faith of his own but the kind of bridgebuilder the Christian community should embrace. Rather than disparaging evangelicals, Tom is known for locating common ground emphasizing what shines brightly about modern day Christianity contrasted with how it’s often publicly portrayed. In many ways, Tom’s book digs a bit deeper into the question of, “Can a person be good without God?”.

The chapters move seamlessly through the ethics of Jesus and why he thinks Jesus’ take is still revolutionary yet grounded in a reality that many people dismiss far too quickly. Adroitly moving through topics like inclusion, narcissism, consumerism, dissatisfaction, criminal justice, racism, forgiveness, and sex, Tom writes to convince his readers that what Jesus taught two thousand years ago is not confined to some sectarian religious fundamentalism. In fact, my sense in reading the book is that Tom is arguing for his stance not only on the basis of pragmatics (it works and it makes sense) but also on the basis of moral realism.

The title itself is fascinating as if he had Augustine in mind. His confessions are interspersed through the chapters as someone who is being honest with his readers and with himself. How a person who holds to a secular view of life follows Jesus in how to live life is filled with wonderful tension and Tom communicates this well. I would recommend Tom’s book to evangelicals solely on the basis of breaking down the barriers with those who are typically “excluded” (to use Miroslav Volf’s language) from our faith community. We can sit at the table with others even with charitable disagreements to focus on creating dialogue and even working together for common causes. If you don’t think there are common causes, you had better read the book (and your Bible).

Now to what I think is challenging. Let me state it in the most charitable way possible. As much as I found myself emphatically saying, “Yes” over and over as I was reading the book, there is one piece that seems problematic to me. It seems difficult in my thinking to separate Jesus’ ethics from his person. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, wrote in his book Making Sense of God, “What is surprising is not only that [Jesus’] claims were so self-centered but also that his character and his actions were so completely un-self-centered.” (p.236).

Tom’s book covers well the un-self-centered character of Jesus that as an ethic lived out seems consistent with reality and adds to a personal sense of flourishing. But it’s the “self-centered” claims that don’t bear as much weight in Tom’s mind. In other words, the ethics of Jesus are taken literally but the claims about himself are treated with more liberty. This splitting of Jesus seems problematic to me because it raises questions about the unity of the total person, in this case Jesus. It’s hard to accept Jesus’ ethics at face value without treating as serious the personal claims he made about himself, leaving him only in the category of “model”.

I absolutely think the book is well worth your time reading and it will give you plenty to think about and discuss with your friends. Despite my question, I loved reading the book so much so that Tom and I can continue this conversation in our own WTF (you have to read the book) over a good beer if we meet one day. This is one of the great values of the book – as we find ourselves living during a time in history where people converse by shouting at and over each other (my tribe included) Tom’s book is just the opposite. It forces us in humility to drop the pretensions, not push away from the table and simply mock the “other side”, choosing instead to have a conversation. In doing so my hope is that it helps us to forge friendships with people holding diverse views with mutual respect. Bravo Tom!

How to Disagree With Others

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does-disagreement-prove-there-are-no-moral-truths“I fell in love with Jesus and his church because of the way Christians could stand, weep, walk, and be gracious with me.” 1

We have all noticed how in the the past few years, the tone of conversation has changed. On social media, it’s as if people now sense the permission to state and post anything that describes how they feel. Frankly, the past few months I’ve taken a break from blogging because I wanted to scrutinize my own motives for writing but also because I’ve been shocked and disappointed with the level of discourse.

Miroslav Volf does an excellent job in his book, Exclusion and Embrace, summarizing the various ways we exclude others, some overt and some more subtle. In short, the ways we exclude others through social media posts that are less than charitable, verbal rants that denounce others declaring that our side is right, are actually power plays (you gotta love how Nietzsche is still relevant today). Power is used to demonize a certain group of people who “don’t get it” and prop up one’s sense of self-esteem. This is actually a heart issue that is rooted in either pride or fear with very little to do with truth.

How we disagree with others as followers of Christ is critical. It not only is the way forward, preserving unity but it also demonstrates to those watching us that we can actually listen and dialogue in a peaceable way. As a pastor, rather than use the Bible to undergird individual points let me simply offer the command found in Romans 12:18 – “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (notice it’s toward everyone and not just your own tribe). Just consider for a moment those disciples living under Roman rule and you’ll begin to see how counterintuitive this seems. Let me offer a few thoughts as I have struggled through this at times as someone who feels this need to be right:

Listen. Rather than entering into a conversation that seems like a ping pong game – back and forth from point to counterpoint – intentionally be quick to listen to someone else and not speak. You might not understand or agree what they believe and the deep feelings they have, but try. Elisabeth Elliot once said, “Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth closed.”2 That’s good advice when people are full of fear or even anger. Listening to others and their objections provides this window that can lead to understanding. I don’t know what it’s like to experience fear that some Muslims are feeling now but I want to listen.

Look for points of agreement. Nothing says that you are being heard more than having someone affirm, “Oh, I get it.” The key is this… just because we agree with certain parts doesn’t mean we agree with the whole! A simple example is the Apostle Paul at Mars Hill where he affirmed that his audience was very religious. This is true when studying philosophy, ethics, theology, and the list goes on. We look for ways to establish relational bridges. Then at points where we disagree we have some relational capital built up.

Don’t use bad arguments. I’ve heard Tim Keller say that if we are going to bring up counter-arguments that we understand the opposing position maybe even better than the people holding them. This will keep us away from bad arguments (ad hominem, straw man, name calling, red herring, etc) and help us get to the root issue. For instance, when I have a discussion with those who disagree with me about cohabitation, I want them to get to the core issues of why couples slide into it rather than telling them, “You know the Bible says…”

Don’t use loaded words that label people. This is for another blog post but let me give you a “for instance”. Honestly, I think the word racism is overused to the point where it shuts down the conversation. To call someone a racist not only deviates from the clear meaning it used to have but it often has the opposite effect of closing people off.3 People might have deeply held prejudicial beliefs or even unknown prejudicial beliefs but to label someone as a racist in most instances is not helpful to discussion. As my friend Josh Reasoner said recently, “let’s not push away from the table” by categorizing people in ways that condemn them as the “other”.

Treat people with charity. This is charity or love as commitment to friendship with another with their best interest in mind. When we disagree we want to think about how we can keep the conversation going and not just shut it down trying to be right. We want to be patient with people, treating them as we would want to be treated, even if it feels like you are on different pages. Insecure people have a hard time loving people because they need to be right to bolster their sense of self. When we treat people with charity we actually are willing to admit that we don’t have to “win” to preserve future friendship and dialogue.

Contrary to what others say, it is the gospel that gives us the power to embrace Truth in humility. If God initiated with you through Christ in the state that you were in, then there is no sense in which you are afforded the opportunity to look down on someone else. We not only have a confidence that comes through our unwavering acceptance through Christ as He is the Way, Truth and the Life. But we also have a humility to embrace others since the gospel reminds that we were once poor but have become spiritually rich in Him.

 

1 Rosaria Butterfield, former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University, author of Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ, on what surprised her the most about Christians when she actually became one.

2 Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity, p.63

3 See the Vox article by German Lopez, “Research Says There Are Ways to Reduce Racial Bias. Calling People Racist Isn’t One of Them.”. http://www.vox.com/identities/2016/11/15/13595508/racism-trump-research-study

Questioning Discipleship

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question-mark-1236555There is absolutely nothing in what Jesus Himself or His early followers taught that suggests you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and have nothing more to do with Him.” 1

Over the years I’ve read quite a bit of literature on making disciples. Coming from a parachurch background, we were intent on making disciples even if our approach needed to be broadened a bit. I remember sitting in the living room of Walt Henrichsen, a former Navigator staff member who wrote the classic Disciples Are Made Not Born, discussing theology and how it played out in making disciples as well as personally growing in my own commitment to follow Christ. Along with Leroy Eims’ The Lost Art of Making Disciples and Robert Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism, I was convinced early on of the necessity to make Christ-followers and not just converts.

Taking a cue from Randy Newman’s wonderful book on evangelism, Questioning Evangelism, where he explores the rabbinic method of asking questions in evangelism let me make a similar application to discipleship. Jesus asked people tons of questions, about one hundred in all. Here are some examples as I’ve paraphrased some of them:

  • Can you worry and add anything to your life? If you’re so concerned about things out of your control, why are so anxious?  (Matt. 6:27, Luke 12:26)
  • Why are so afraid? (Matt 8:26)
  • Do you really believe that I can do this? (Matt. 9:28)
  • Why are you filled with doubt? (Matt. 14:31)
  • What is it that you don’t understand? (Matt. 16:8, Mark 17:17-18, John 8:43)
  • Who do really think I am? (Matt. 16:13)
  • Why are you asking me what’s truly good? (Matt.19:16)
  • What is it that you want me to do for you? (Matt:20:32, John 1:38)
  • Why are you so stuck on the things in your heart? (Mark 2:8)
  • Why are people so concerned with the big and flashy? (Mark 8:12)
  • What are you bickering about? (Mark 9:33)
  • Where is your trusting belief? (Luke  8:25)
  • What is in my Word? What does it say and how do you read it? (Luke 10:26)
  • If you’re so caught up in worldly wealth, how can you be trusted with something much greater? (Luke 16:11)
  • Why are you asleep? (Luke 22:46)
  • Do you want to be well? (John 5:6)
  • Does my teaching on the picture of the Eucharist as union with me this shock you? (John 6:61)
  • Do you want to leave me? Where would you go? (John 6:67)
  • Who condemns you? (John 8:10)
  • Do you realize what I have done for you? (John 13:12)
  • Do you love me? (John 21:16)

Why did Jesus use questions? The use of a well-placed question helps to clarify the heart and mind. In other words, questions get after our cloudy hearts and muddled thinking. What I’m suggesting is making disciples (and being a disciple) is not less than imparting skills or practices but it’s more. It’s actually pointing to Christ in the context of community, listening to Him, allowing Him to “cross” our wills and clarify our hearts and thought process. For instance, some are sleepwalking through the Christian life and should have to deal with some questions like, “Why are you asleep?” or “Who do you really think I am?” Some are so bent on following the rules that questions like “Do you love me?” or “Do you realize what I’ve done for you?” are appropriate. Some with real needs need to hear questions like, “Where is your trusting belief in me?” or “What is it that you really want?”

Making disciples can certainly include programs or classes. However, it seems to me that one of the most effective ways to being a follower (and making followers) of Christ is to let these questions sink into our soul allowing the Holy Spirit’s “counseling” work to settle in (John 14:26). Most people are followers of something or someone – they are disciples even if they are disciples of a late-modern narrative. As Christians we are declaring that we are followers of the Messiah even if it seems countercultural. We let the living Word confront or deconstruct us as we read the Word regularly. In this way we allow the gracious words of Christ to cut against our predisposition to self-sufficiency and comfort in order to follow after Him.

1 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission, p.13

Reviewing The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Taunton

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51rELKRwN+L._AC_US160_I normally post my thoughts on books on Goodreads or Amazon but never directly as a blog. Let me strongly encourage you to read Larry Taunton’s new book on his friendship with Christopher Hitchens. Currently, when so many people are simply angry at “the other side”, placing them in isolated containers where you don’t have to relate to them, this is a splendid book on building bridges of friendship while holding to core beliefs. One need not mess with good and precise theological thinking and convictions in order to relate to others whose beliefs (and lives) are diametrically the opposite.
 
I remember being present at a debate at Biola between Hitchens and William Lane Craig – CH as one of the proclaimed Four Horsemen of a new breed of atheism. I’ve read his books often finding it easy to disagree with them at a distance. What the book exposes is the human side of Hitchens, the part of him that was not open to public view and discourse. As I began to read I found the hardness in my heart melt as I began to understand the complexity of Hitchens as a real person. Any desire in my heart to categorize him and demonize him as someone who was an enemy of Christianity was swept away.
 
The book doesn’t end on a fairy tale note (much like Darwin’s supposed death bed conversion). There was no clear conversion experience as Hitchens died of esophageal cancer a few years ago. Yet, Taunton provides a window into Hitchens soul where those questions must have been ruminating and the cost of conversion churned as the surety of his death approached. The book not only points out the immense difficulty of dealing with death if God is simply taken out of the equation (as Oscar Wilde pointed out that a map of the world without Utopia is not worth glancing at) but equally the importance of simple friendship across lines that normally divide us. 
Non-fiction books that not only read well but move the heart toward deeper understanding are far and few between. The book was hard to put down and I finished it in a few days. I’m sure that your experience will be very similar!

Give Until it Hurts?

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imageA few weeks ago I had a wonderful and stimulating conversation with a co-worker about giving and generosity. For the sake of the discussion he asked, if generosity is a biblical command (1 Timothy 6:8), how much is enough? How much is required to be generous? I suppose that’s what many people are looking for – something to help give clarity to generosity.

The phrase “give until it hurts” was originally spoken by Mother Teresa but instead of speaking about money, she was speaking about giving love to another. Without trying to explain what she meant, the phrase was then used to motivate people to give financially. The exact meaning seemed to be, “Don’t give at a comfortable level but give at a level that is uncomfortable or hurts”.

I understand radically sacrificial giving but I think using this cliche to guide giving is misplaced. In our desire to people give clarity to people’s giving, and for them to give freely, it mostly has the effect of motivating people in the wrong way. Rather than thinking of generosity in terms of it “hurting”, generosity should actually make us more joyful.

Take for example, people you know who are very generous people. While you might not know how much they give, you are aware that they give freely out of the excess of their resources – time, finances, and neighborly help and hospitality. Ask them if their giving feels like it hurts and you will be greeted with a puzzled look. “What are you talking about? Giving until it hurts? Giving is a joyful experience for us!” You don’t see these people wincing when it comes to letting resources flow from their hands to others. Instead, they will rarely see it as sacrifice but rather as a great settled, deep happiness.

In some ways when it comes to generosity we are pretty torn – on one hand we want clarity. We want someone to tell us what percentage or how much. Living under a system like the Israelites did seems to be so clear and cliches seem to provide some level of clarity! On the other hand, we don’t want anyone telling us how much because that sounds like legalism. Either way, we lose out on the great joy that could be presently ours by seeing the tenacious grip on our lives loosened as the gospel takes root in our hearts.

The Work of Generosity

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young-plant-growing-brown-soil-shovel-green-bokeh-background-53259242How does generosity work? All the virtues do a great gospel-centered work in us and through us to conform us to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Generosity does its great work by creating space in our hearts for others and giving to them without the need for them to reciprocate. This work helps us to become more like Christ in our character while also causing us to flourish or live the abundant life Jesus said He came to bring.

Generosity also works in another way. In a negative sense, it works to shine a light on our own hearts exposing those places that are strongly attached to our own resources. For instance, when we reflect on what it means to be generous we have to reconcile why we can be generous with money but at the same time incredibly stingy with our time. Or how about our generosity with helping a neighbor while choosing not to forgive a friend? If generosity is a heart condition that includes all of our resources as gifts from God, then certainly we don’t get to pick and choose which ones we find easier to give away. Why is it that some resources have such a strong attachment to our hearts?

This strong attachment of the heart, the Bible calls this idolatry. Timothy Keller defines an idol in Counterfeit Gods, as

“…anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give… An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “’f I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.'”

In the end, the thing or resource you have a tight grip on, and to lose that would devastate or even inconvenience you, is what you worship in reality. Our hearts clutch and hang on because to lose “that” means losing control or a part of me.  In an age of plenty, getting generosity deeper into our hearts does a remarkable job of revealing to us how much our stinginess is connected to our fear of losing and protecting ourselves. Again, as pointed out in my last writing, when the work of generosity is viewed in a positive sense, the generosity of Christ’s life and His body and blood getting deeper into the heart leads to a more generous life getting out of you.

One of the more important signs that the Spirit is at work in you is when you realize that this can’t be done in isolation. When we live life with other people and let them speak into our lives we will soon begin to discover what our heart doesn’t want to let go of. The duplicity of the heart is frightening as we can justify hoarding resources easily. Having others in our lives keep us honest and more free from slipping into rationalizing away our stinginess. When we get to do this together in our neighborhoods and our city, followers of Christ will be known as a truly generous people.