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.

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.

I Know I Am (But What Am I?)… 

I like personality and gift tests: Myers/Briggs; Strengthsfinder; Enneagram; so on and so forth. Enjoy finding out how I (and others as well) am wired, and why I think the way I think. Overall, it’s really helpful. In fact, a lot of organizations (including churches) take great stock in how these gifts are allocated and mixed through staff members. All of these tests help us identify how to interact with each other, and where the pitfalls may be in our common life.

However, the last time I was a part of a round of these tests, I found myself thinking, “How many times do I need to be told what or who I am?” Furthermore, I found myself thinking a lot of how I’d used my personality type as an excuse for some issues in my life that I actually needed to address. Rather than thinking about my behavior or thoughts as issues that needed to be addressed or changed—as sin or brokenness—I thought about them as “this is the way I am.”

But is that all there is to life?

Lately, I’ve stopped being so interested what/how/who I am now, and I’ve become much more interested what/how/who I can be. 

I love all of these tests, but I know for me that I am very adept at hiding inside these labels and avoiding the call to grow, to change. I’m afraid that it’s all too easy to use these labels and titles to simply reinforce my “false self”—the part of me that is so good at hiding from God and others—and ignore the possibility that all of these “strengths” and “gifts” may actually inhibit my growth if all I ever do is focus on them and remain content.

Which is ultimately what we are called to: I wholeheartedly believe that the point of the life that Jesus offers us is to change and to become increasingly more like him. Our personalities, or strengths, or gifts are tools that we can use to grow and change, but there’s also a limiting side of those gifts. I’ve come to believe that every part of our personality has a shadow side; a broken part that can keep me from growing and being shaped into a “little Christ” (as C.S. Lewis would put it).

For instance, I know that I’m an introvert, but I also know that I have a tendency to use my quietness as an excuse to hold back from people, from actively welcoming the stranger, from being a voice of invitation.

I know that I tend to look at the world from a “strategic” perspective, and this has been very helpful to my church. However, I also know that this perspective sometimes keeps me from getting in and just “doing the work” to ideas and initiatives that I don’t always understand. It can also keep me from supporting ideas that I don’t agree with.

The point is not to reject my gifts and personality; it’s to think about the idea of change and growth as an imperative. It’s about refusing to be content with what the assessments say that I am, and writing off my behavior as, “Well this is just as good as it gets, because I’m an INTJ (or whatever).”

It’s about seriously accepting the call to grow, and never stop growing until I can say that I have truly adopted the “mind of Christ” that Saint Paul says I’m supposed to have.

No I’m not there yet. But I am increasingly knowing who I am, and hungry for who I’ll be next.

Does this make sense?

 

+e

Just As I Am (But then again…)

It is one of the great mysteries of God (and, indeed, the universe) that I am accepted with all my faults and imperfections. So much so, that one of the great journeys of my life (or anyone’s for that matter) is simply coming to terms with that great truth: I am loved in spite of myself.

But lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s something we’ve been leaving out.

Simply stated, I’ve been wondering how much of what passes for faith and spirituality in the American church is geared towards letting me stay the same arrogant, prideful, self-obsessed person that I’ve always been.

Is that the path that we’re on?

I know we give lip service to “change” and “transformation”, but at the same time we our “de jeur” practice of faith celebrates our individualism and uniqueness, often simply allowing our individual “quirkiness” (read: brokenness) to simply become part of who we are.

In a way we say, “This is who I am, warts and all: deal with it.”

Even some of the most helpful tools we have in understanding ourselves: Strengths Tests, Myers-Briggs, etc. Can we used to REINFORCE our false self, rather than expose its shortcomings and invite us to change.

In my life, for instance, some of the major characteristics of my personality are that I’m introverted, I’m highly motivated by intellectual curiosity, and I place a high value on individual stories and perspectives. These are all amazing and helpful.

But I’m afraid that what we don’t talk about enough is the shadow sides of our strengths, the ways all of these assets can tend to reinforce and prop up our false self; that part of ourselves that—out of fear, or self-centeredness, or pride (or all three!)—has difficulty relinquishing control to God.

Let me show you how this works: Yes I’m introverted, I can’t merely celebrate my “quietness” without recognizing that it can keep me from seeking to embrace the outsider; that my quiet reflection can also morph into arrogant self-justification.

Yes, I’m intellectually curious, but that curiosity can also turn into a crutch, and an instance where I substitute the latest book ABOUT God for God Himself. It can also drive me to needlessly spend resources, and to over-complicate my life with more material things.

Yes, I react powerfully to people’s individual stories and perspectives. I seek to hear and understand what “makes someone who they are.” However, this can turn into a hesitancy to challenge their assumptions about their lives, or the decisions they are making.

I am not saying that understanding yourself is in any way wrong or mis-guided. What I AM advocating is that we keep in mind that there is ALWAYS a shadow side to ourselves. Declaring to the world, “This is who I am” can neglect the powerful and necessary truth of our need to be transformed, to be liberated from the brokenness, the compulsions, the pathological desires that still govern our lives.

Don’t ever—for one minute—think that you can (or even have to) earn God’s love: it is freely given to us all, no matter where we find ourselves or what we have (or haven’t done). However, also don’t ever think that we should remain content with who we are in this world. There is great brokenness in the world, and the church is no exception. We need to avoid our tendency to self-justify our personalities and false selves, and embrace the true mystery of the spiritual life: eternal change and transformation.

Is “Religion” REALLY Opposed to “Relationship”

I’m tired of playing off “religion” against “relationship.”

The notion (as defined by my tribe) is that Jesus came to save us from “religion” and invite us into a “relationship” with God.

This is a false dichotomy for a few different reasons.

First of all, it’s generally understood by Biblical scholars that the Jewish faith of Jesus’ era was immersed in “relationship”. The Jews (probably even moreso than most modern, western Christians) were intensely aware of the all-encompassing nature of God. They lived in a God-soaked, God-bathed world. God pervaded their politics, their art, their social structure.

They did not compartmentalize.

This God that was everywhere lived in a vital and dynamic relationship with them through a Covenant relationship that looked something like this: God committed Himself to Israel in a binding relationship; Israel would wander away, and God would pursue, invite and even “woo” Israel back like a lover who had betrayed her true love and left.

This God—YHWH, or even “The Name”—acted time and again to bring back and restore Israel, not because they kept the Law or were perfect, but simply because He loves them. (Read the Exodus: when does God rescue? before Israel has a chance to even hear the Law, much less obey it. God acts while His people are helpless and enslaved. For those of you keeping score at home, this is what grace looks like.)

Now, had some people in Jesus’ time forgot about this? Had some of them turned the vital faith of Abraham and Isaac into rote performance and rule keeping?

Sure. But look around us: we are just as adept at doing that in the 21st century as they were in the 1st.

What Jesus was up to was (among other things):

… showing what an “eternal life now” could look like
… welcoming in the outsiders to the Kingdom
… conquering evil through suffering love
… providing a ransom for our sin

It’s simply too narrow of a statement to say that Jesus saved us from religion.

Furthermore, by playing this “binary” game (black and white, on or off, etc), we are missing a vital part of what “religion” actually means.

Though the etymology is slightly unclear, the root of religion could be understood as a coming out of the Latin root legare, which means to “connect or bind” (it’s where our word for “ligament” comes from as well). In other words, “religion” at its best re-connects us. It should literally “knit us together”; it should connect us with ourselves, the world around us, and with God.

It should not fragment us, or make us small-minded.

With these thoughts in mind, what I’d actually say that Jesus (and the Prophets, and Paul, and the church fathers and mothers, and the great saints as well) was not trying to save us from religion as much as he was trying (still is trying, actually) to save us from bad religion, that fragments, fractures, and reduces our world.

So I’ll take both. I like my relationship (with the Triune God, with the world), but I can only have that relationship through my religion (my efforts to re-connect with God through His Holy Spirit).