The Signature of Jesus

 

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In November, 1999 a colleague gave me a copy of a book called The Signature of Jesus by Brennan Manning.

I really didn’t like it.

Maybe it was because I was consumed with a rebellious intellectual quest to remake the North American church.

Maybe it was because I just wasn’t spiritually mature or ready to receive it.

At any rate, I read it, and underlined a few different things, and then set it aside: it really hadn’t “taught” me anything.

Then, sometime later, I decided to pick the book up again and read through it. For some reason—who knows why—this time I was ready.

And it rocked my world like nothing I’d ever read.

Manning wasn’t “cute” or overly-intellectual by any measuring stick: he was poetic, but in a forceful and time-tested way. He was obviously brilliant, but his theology found its way out through references to plays and poems and ancient monks and hermits that I had never heard of before.

The man could write, and God was speaking (very loudly and clearly) to me write through his words.

He wrote things like this, “Viewed as a theological relic, the cross does not disturb our comfortable religiosity. But when the crucified risen Christ, instead of remaining an icon, comes to life and delivers us over to the fire he came to light, he creates more havoc than all the heretics, secular humanists, and self-serving preachers put together.”

I needed to hear that. Brennan challenged me (over and over again; he wrote multiple books, and all of them contained similar marks of style and hard-hitting but poetic, “practical” theology) to not keep my spirituality abstractly in my head but to bring it out where my mouth, hands, and feet made use of it.

It was what I needed, and I’ve read the book now probably a dozen times. It contains the reminders I need to live out my faith.

In 2008, I was playing guitar at a conference that Manning was to speak at. Now, I’ve shared the stage with dozens of superstar speakers: Bill Hybels, Beth Moore, John Ortberg, Rob Bell and Louie Giglio, to mention a few. Most of them have been pleasant men and women, but none of them have ever captivated me or put me in any sort of nervous awe.

But this was Brennan.

This was the man who formed me in a way that few—if any—author or speaker ever had.

I was giddy.

We were rehearsing the music for the session when an elderly man in jeans that were patched with 30 different colors and textures of cloths walked up on the stage to test his microphone. I stopped in my tracks, and knew instantly who it was. I had a job to do, so I couldn’t talk to him then but my heart lept when I saw this man who had mentored me—maybe even fathered me in a way—for so many years.

I had brought my copy of the book that had shaped me for so many years, and as he spoke (plainly and profoundly) I jotted just a couple notes inside the front cover: “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance.” (from Paul Tillich)

After the session, he was doing a book signing, and I stood in line with my bent copy. When I approached him, I stammered out that his writing had changed my life and in a way even saved it. He glanced at me, and said, “Great.”

Then he signed it with a shaky autograph, and I was on my way.

It was one of the most gloriously anticlimactic moments of my life.

It’s actually difficult to communicate why this was so perfect.photo 2

He was slightly (and perfectly) grumpy, and not slick in any sense of the imagination. There were no false smiles, no fake sense that I mattered to him. He didn’t write the books or speak or do book signings because somehow his ego needed to be stroked. He did what had to be done, and he delivered the books, the message, the signing with an understated and subtle presence that refused to bow to a false self, to the idol of fame.

It would have been so easy for him to be false, to give me a slick smile and handshake.

But instead he just said, “That’s great,” and signed his name.

It’s one of my most prized possessions.

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My Thoughts About IS and the Crisis in the Middle East

I thought I’d offer some ideas and thoughts regarding the unfolding human rights catastrophe in the Middle East. They are offered humbly: I am no expert on either the region or on Islam. I have, however, done a fair bit of reading over the years, and I have been “working out my salvation with fear and trembling” for even longer. So I’m writing as a pastor, as a history buff, as an American, and as a follower of Jesus Christ (though not necessarily in that order).

Let’s begin with the end:

  1. We are one body; when one part of the body suffers we are called to join with them in suffering and prayer.
  2. I believe that God is opposed to innocent suffering in any form. Violence done in the name of the religion is the worst form of injustice, whether it’s done in Germany in the 30s and 40s, Mississippi in the 50s and 60s, Belfast in the 70s and 80s, the former Yugoslavia in the 80s and 90s, or Syria and Iraq in the 2013-14. Crying out to God for an end to the violence and for justice to be done is appropriate and necessary for human beings.

Now for the messy part.

 Caution 1: Be Careful of Using the “Militant” Psalms as Examples of Prayer

The psalms are the model of prayer for God’s people. They run the full gamut of human emotion: from joy to despair from thanksgiving to lament. Surprisingly there are more than a few very militant, angry psalms that cry out for God’s vengeance, and for revenge. Psalm 10, for instance, asks God to “break the arms of those who are wicked and evil (v15 CEB); Psalm 54 asks, “Let death devastate my enemies; let them go the grave alive because evil lives with them—even inside them!”

There are other examples; you get the point.

The tension, however, is removing prayers like this from their context, namely that of a relatively small nation (Israel) which is often praying these prayers amidst defeat, oppression, and eventual exile at the hands of larger empires like Babylon and Assyria (later to be Rome). On the other hand, prayers for vengeance take on a markedly different tone when they are uttered from the lips of people of a superpower (In fact, it can be argued that the stronger Israel became, politically and militarily in the Old Testament, the more their troubles multiplied, culminating in exile). The question that has been going through my head lately is Where do predator drones come into these prayers?

I’m not saying we cannot pray them (well, I almost am), I’m simply saying that you cannot transfer the words of Psalm 137 (“Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks…”; btw, where does this fit into the idea that the Bible is “God’s love letter to you?”) into 21st century United States of America.

 

 Caution 2: Be Careful of Making This an Issue of “Christianity versus Islam”

Again, I’m no expert here, but I’ve read enough lately to understand that many (most?) mainstream Muslim clerics are condemning IS as heretical and “not Muslim.” Furthermore, at least a few clerics have outright condemned the “caliphate” that IS wants to establish similarly as heretical (in fact, the whole idea of a Muslim “caliphate” is more complicated than it might seem; it’s not a given that all Muslims want a physical caliphate, at least as its been portrayed by IS and in the press). In my opinion, groups like IS (or the Nazis, or the Taliban, or the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda) are really more about politics, and have just constructed a religious extremist view to cloak very worldly (even evil?) goals. If leading Muslim clerics can condemn them as heretics, I’m willing to follow their lead.

So How Do We Pray?

  1. Start with repentance. Calling out to God should begin with an examination of our own heart, and, like it or not, the West (USA included) has a troubled track record in the Middle East of supporting religious extremists in order to bring out a desired political end. We did it with the Taliban against the Russians in the 1980s, and we see where that led us. As this article points out, Great Britain was (directly or indirectly) responsible for the formation of Saudi Arabia, which was in turn established on the same brand of Islam that gave rise to IS. In fact, IS is merely an effort to return the Middle East to the “pure” form of Wahhabi Islam that the the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded on. So it’s not inappropriate for us to acknowledge that we have had a had in seeking short term political and gain financial (hello oil!) for the sake of long-term perspective on religious extremism.
  2. Pray for Muslim spiritual leadership to unite people against the violence and heresy of groups like IS or the Taliban. Repression, violence, torture and murder are no more part of Islam than they are of Christianity (there are some nasty parts of the Bible that could be used in some crazy ways if someone wanted; trust me).
  3. Pray for the long-term development and sustenance of the region. The Middle East has a recent history of turmoil and upheaval. Before that (again, hello oil!) however, the region was a leader in tolerance, scientific and literary development. To put it bluntly, young men with no future except poverty and political disenfranchisement can be motivated to do any manner of things. A CNN report recently said that ISIS recruitment relies on “cars, guns, cell phones, and cash money.”
  4. Pray for justice. Now, in this case praying for justice is going to necessarily involve physical, violent confrontation. In all honesty pray for this, for God’s Kingdom to come, for His will to be done, and for those who are killing and torturing to be brought to justice. However, again, I must acknowledge the fact that I pray as a member of a super-power, a nation who can pilot an unmanned drone into a building from 7,000 miles away. We are not Israel. We are not an oppressed minority.
  5. Pray with an eye towards the cross. This throws a wrench into everything. We profess to follow a man who—as he was dying on the cross in the face of his torturers and murderers—said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” In their own minds, the Romans—just like ISIS and any number of people perpetrate violence and murder in the name of religion (Islam or Christianity)—knew exactly what they are doing, but Jesus knows better. As we pray, we need to pray, somehow and some way, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” 
  6. Know that it’s not about praying “correctly”, it’s about praying. The Spirit, in fact, does intercede for us when we don’t know what to pray. There are just a few thoughts to get us started, and to maybe free us from some of the spiritual paralysis that is easy to fall into in situations like this.

This is simply not easy. We recoil at the images and the stories, but we also have to look inside our own hearts and consider the Story we live in: a world that is moving towards redemption at the hands of a King who suffered and died and said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

I’ll close with a prayer from theologian Walter Brueggemann; maybe his words can be yours (and mine) today:

The Threat upon Us

Summertime…when the living is easy.

You give us summer and winter,
cold and heat,
seedtime and harvest,
but summer is special—
grills and patios and pool
and baseball.

We take our ease,
even amid terrorism.
The threat is mostly remote,
and the war in Iraq (or Afghanistan or Sudan or . . . )
scarcely calls us in our privilege to attention.

And then, right in the middle of our easy living,
the bombs burst on the street corner,
on the bus,
on the train.
the smoke, the fire, the shrieking,
the dash of emergency vehicles,
all brought very near, all brought right up
against our easy summer living.

We experience a sinking sense
that the world is not safe,
that our life is not free of threat,
and we wonder where and when next
will come assault on our well-arranged lives.

We turn to you, partly out of need,
partly out of habit, partly out of trust.
We know you to be Creator, who maintains order,
Redeemer, who loves us more than we love ourselves.

But we are so self-sufficient,
we do not easily turn from our ways to yours
And so amid our trust in you
comes our fated self-confidence,
our urge to manage,
our wish for self-sufficiency.

So we, unsettled in deep ways,
want to believe more than we do.
But even now we believe enough to know that your
good way does not depend on our trust.
So be our God—yet again—
this time, and
we will be honest in our double-mindedness
as we turn to you in our fear.

 

peace

+e

 

 

 

I Remember…

I remember when I first realized that living in my “faith tribe” might not always be easy.

Though I grew up in the church (good old Methodists! Everyone loves the Methodists!), my faith didn’t really take root until I was in my late 20s, when I was working at Willow Creek Community Church. Because of that church’s resources (and theology), I got to hear (or hear about) some amazing teaching from people like Philip Yancey, Dallas Willard, and Brennan Manning (who eventually became a sort-of guiding light for me).

I thought talk about the spiritual disciplines and hearing about the scandalous love of God was sort of part for the course for my evangelical, non-denominational tribe.

Then I moved south.

I’ve been in north Florida (or southern Georgia,  whichever the case may be) for 8 years now, and though there are plenty of fine folks here (that’s the way we/they say it), I was shocked to find that when my family arrived here to start working at yet another non-denominational, evangelical church, there was practically no awareness of Mr. Manning, or Mr. Willard.

Even more alarming, I was told about how certain people had left our church (before I arrived) because of they were “uncomfortable” with, of all people Philip Yancey. This prompted an internet search, and my naiveté collapsed around me as I read scathing comments about Philip. What’s more, I searched again, and discovered that Dallas Willard was considered practically evil, and associated with something like “typical Fuller seminary theology”. (Um, this was not a compliment.)

This was challenging, to say the least. I thought my “tribe” was full of open-minded tolerant people who sought to know this God of love and grace and mystery and transformation.

What I found instead were people who were interested in dogma and rigidity, close-mindedness and exclusivity.

I found fundamentalism.

I hope it’s clear when I say this is not about the south: this is about just me discovering the reality of the tension that still exists under this umbrella that I share.

(Some of my best friends of fundamentalists.)

Some days I don’t think I live under this umbrella anymore. Some days I no longer recognize my “tribe.” Some days I’m not sure I want to recognize them anymore.

But I keep on seeking. Because my tribe ≠ my God.

He’s bigger, and more loving, and more mysterious, and open-minded than any of us will ever be.

That’s why I follow him.

Channa Masala and the Myth of the Super-Disciple

Here’s what you must know first: I really, really like Indian food. photo-2

So when a buddy of mine forgot about a lunch appointment we were supposed to have at an Indian restaurant in town, I wasn’t about to shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh well, guess I should go on back to my office.”

No way. I was going to stay and enjoy that lunch buffet.

While I sat and enjoyed my tandoori chicken and naan, I started reading a book by one of my favorite authors: Future Perfect by Steven Johnson. Johnson perfectly fits my idea of interesting reading: his work is multi-disciplinary, makes unexpected connections, and is built around what makes ideas great and compelling.

He starts off the book by telling the story of US Airways flight 1549, the “Miracle on the Hudson,” when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger managed to successfully land a damaged airplane on the Hudson river in New York with all 155 passengers safe. Though it was truly an amazing act of piloting, and “Sully” made a great hero—humble and relatively quiet, and committed to being good at his vocation—Johnson goes deeper behind the story.

You see, Sullenberger (and flight 1549) was indeed a talented and composed pilot. But, as Johnson points out, there was a lot more going on here than just Sully’s grace under pressure. Actually, Sulllenberger’s actions on that morning were the culmination of decades of research and behind-the-scenes engineering, all of which enabled the pilot to make the “in the moment” decisions that saved those passengers lives.

(Hint: it was all about chicken guns and fly-by-wire technology.) 

 

This just in: none of those engineers were being interviewed on cable news shows.

Instead, decades of men and women simply went to work and thought about little ways to make flight better and safer.

And then when it mattered, it all came together.

Are they any less heroes?

There’s an assumption that the one with the most “face time” is the hero. They are the ones who have done all the right things in order to make things happen (or make things not happen, as the case may be). These heroic mean and women—even truly humble ones like Sullenberger—are celebrated as “just-a-bit-better-than-everyone-else” people.

But are those nameless engineers and manufacturers any less responsible for those 155 passengers still being alive?

Sullenberger is definitely a “hero”, but he is not the only one. Little decisions and efforts get made over months and years and decades that put people like him in position to win.

Sometimes people of faith get hung up on the “super disciples” around us. Whether it’s people from the Bible (like Peter, Paul, or John), or other really, really good people we’ve heard about (like Mother Theresa, or Billy Graham, or Desmond Tutu), it’s easy to get caught up in their stories, or in their charismatic personalities.

Maybe, if you’re anything like me, it’s even tempting to somehow start thinking that somehow they got an “extra dose” of God’s Spirit, something that’s allowed them to do the things they did and think the thoughts they did.

But it’s simply not like that.

Sure Paul looms large in the Bible. But if you just read his letters you know he didn’t do it alone: that he traveled with people, and had key helpers with him as he did his ministry. Some of their names ended up in our pages (Priscilla and Aquila, Junia, Tychicus [my favorite]), but a lot of them probably didn’t. 

Yet they were with Paul. Helping. Doing the work when he had moved on to other cities. Some of them may have even had preliminary conversations with their communities before Paul got there, so that they would have context for what he was talking about.

In other words, they help “set the table” so that Paul could succeed.

What are their names?

I have no idea.

But they absolutely made a difference.

And they are absolutely heroes.

Sometimes the person that gets the most prominent billing is not the only one responsible for the victory, or for averting a disaster. Sometimes there’s another story that is just as critical, just as important to the success as the decisions that are made in the moment.

The point that I’m trying to make is that when faith becomes “big business”, and when we become exposed to all of the gifted and talented Christian teachers, preachers, writers, musicians, etc., etc., we can allow this thought to enter our head that says that somehow they are “just a little bit more” than us. They are Christians, but moreso: somehow they got that extra dose of the Spirit.

That’s simply not true. Paul writes in Romans 8 that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us: the church.

That means everyone has the same spirit. We may all be at different parts of our journey, and we all have different gifts, but we should never assume that the man or woman doing all the interviews is the “most gifted”, or the only hero.

We are all heroes.

I love Indian food.

And this David Bowie song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgcc5V9Hu3g

 

 

 

I STILL Can’t Fix You, But…

A few years back I wrote a post about Coldplay. Well, Coldplay and spiritual growth.

I was thinking about it this morning. I’ve been in a class this week about being a “spiritual director”, an individual who helps someone become (and remain) open to growing.

One of the helpful metaphors that has come up in the class is the spiritual director as a sort of “midwife”—we are there to “assist” in the birth, but it’s really not our baby nor our labor. We may know a thing or two, but we are not a professional, not separate from the situation. We are in the birth process with you, helping as we can, naming things as we can.

But ultimately the birth process is yours, not ours.

In other words, I still can’t fix you, but

  • I’ll be with you during the process
  • I’ll try to help identify what you’re going through
  • I’ll comfort you when I can and encourage you when you need it

And I’ll celebrate with you when “new birth” arrives.

 

Dream … Small

Are big dreams the only dreams

Last week I spent two days along with some other leaders from my church at Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit (full disclosure: my wife actually works for the GLS). As usual the conference was full of top-notch speakers and cutting edge leadership and vision discussions, and it was awesome to take a bunch of folks from my church and have them hear such great speakers.

However, with where I’m at in my life personally, the GLS brought up some interesting tensions. Most of the speakers (Christian and otherwise) talked over and over again about having huge dreams, and how important these big dreams are to the world.

The particular challenge that I have in my life—and one that I have to continually come to terms with—is how damaging “big dreams” actually are to my life. You see, if you were susceptible at all (like I am) to the ravages of pride and self-centeredness, then big dreams are actually the worst possible things that you can entertain. When I allow big dreams to enter my life without some kind of balance, interior wreckage and disaster and seems.

In other words, big dreams can be an absolute disaster in my life.

And yet, this is where so much of Christian culture seems to be nowadays. I think one speaker even said something like if we leave something undone in the world, then God will never get it done. To my thinking this is outrageous.

Whenever I hear really really good people talking about grandiose visions and making some kind of huge impact in the world, I think about Richard Rohr’s comments about how the United States professes to be such a thriving Christian culture and yet we are at least as addicted and obsessive as everyone else in the world; maybe moreso.

Anybody in recovery would tell you that pride and self-centeredness are foundational “sins” that fuel our addictive and compulsive behaviors. 

Can the church actually be contributing to this addiction and compulsion?

Don’t get me wrong, I took lots and lots of notes last Thursday and Friday. I love learning new things. My voracious curiosity is a huge part of who I am. But I can only take these new ideas seriously to a certain degree in my life before they start getting unhealthy.

To be blunt, I actually think that what the church needs is people who dream small dreams. People who want the kingdom inside their hearts to be ruled by God, rather then doing some amazing outward work of ministry.

I think truly transformed and enlightened individuals who have dreamed the small dream of simply, “Change me, Lord,” can make a drastic difference in our schools church, churches, and neighborhoods.

How do you organize a conference around that?

At the same time, however, I want to say  that there were some really powerful glimpses of hope. For instance, a good friend of mine did an impromptu interview on camera, and in subtle but firm contrast to all of the talk of big dreams and grandiose visions, he related about how his call to ministry was one small, open window after another. He said something like, “for me to think that one day I would be leading worship at the Global Leadership Summit when I started out in ministry would’ve been absolutely outside of my framework. But it seems like God just open tiny little edoors one after the other and I just was faithful to what he brought to me.”

(I am paraphrasing)

In addition, Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, made a passing comment that was struck me. He mentioned that working for him was “not about the career, it was about the work.” In other words, what he seemed to be saying is that sometimes you need to forget the big dreams and do the things, day-to-day, that you love to do. I wonder if some pastors (if you’re anything like me) need to remember “the work” they were called to do (put loosely: preaching and healing) and why they do what they do and press “pause” on the big dreams and visions for a little while

Put the career on hold, and focus on the work.

After all, I think God has the big things covered.

How Most Churches Seem to View Discipleship

Okay: I know I’m dating myself here, but Steve Martin used to have this bit in his standup called, “How to Be a Millionaire and Never Pay Taxes.” He used it in his opening monologue 1977 when he hosted Saturday Night Live. The transcript reads like this:

 

You.. can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You say.. “Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?” First.. get a million dollars. Now.. you say, “Steve.. what do I say to the tax man when he comes to my door and says, ‘You.. have never paid taxes’?” Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: “I forgot!” How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don’t say “I forgot”? Let’s say you’re on trial for armed robbery. You say to the judge, “I forgot armed robbery was illegal.” Let’s suppose he says back to you, “You have committed a foul crime. you have stolen hundreds and thousands of dollars from people at random, and you say, ‘I forgot’?” Two simple words: Excuuuuuse me!!

 

Sometimes I think the church views discipleship in a similar way. In a variety of different ways we proclaim, “You can be like Jesus!” (Well, at least I hope we proclaim that. A lot of churches still focus on proclaiming, ‘You can avoid hell and go to a weightless, disembodied heaven!’ This, um, was not Jesus’ message. But that’s for another time.)

Then we roll out our “plan”, which essentially sounds like this:

“You can be like Jesus!”

“Pastor, how can I be like Jesus?”

“First, be like Jesus. Now…”

Um, what?

Most of church “discipleship programs” essentially tell people to be like Jesus without ever examining how transformation actually happens. 

We do well, and quote Paul about training versus trying, but then we never seem to actually do anything about the training! Which really amounts to us actually advocating trying versus training!

Maybe I’m wrong; maybe it’s happening in more places than I see (I know my church is doing its best at a multifaceted plan for discipleship).

But if we were doing our job, it seems like we’d be producing more transformed people according to Galatians 5:

  • more loving people, who fight against the divisive and often hateful speech of our country (particularly in the political realm)
  • more peaceful people, who are willing to entertain the fact that violence and war are often not God’s will
  • more self-controlled people, who are willing to recognize and separate themselves from all entanglements and addictions, whether they be from alcohol and drugs or food and shopping
  • more kind people, who are willing to stop blaming the poor and powerless for being, well, poor and powerless

As I said, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the North American church really is aligned with God on the subject of spiritual transformation (or as C.S. Lewis put it, “Producing ‘Little Christs’”. But I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it.

+e