Connecting the Core

For those of you who may be leading musical worship in some context…

A while back, I wrote about “Knowing Your Core”: knowing how you would essentially describe the Gospel. (If you haven’t taken the time to write down your core, I’d encourage you to take a few minutes and do this).

It’s not enough to know your core; the real challenge is to make sure that our ministry reflects these beliefs.

For some of us, that means making sure that the songs we sing on Sunday match what we believe is the core. In other words, though we may claim that our Gospel “core” looks like this (this is my core, by the way)

  1. mission/vocation
  2. community
  3. restoration
  4. the Holy Spirit
  5. God-With-Us

However, if we’re not mindful, the lyrics of the songs we choose to sing on Sunday may look like this:

  1. God is really great
  2. We are sinners
  3. Jesus died on the cross
  4. We are still sinners
  5. Good thing Jesus died on the cross

This disconnect isn’t healthy, either for you or for your congregation.

For those of us who are leading music, take a look at the lyrics that you’re singing week-to-week. Are those lyrics consistent with your core? With your church’s core? (Again, first you need to know what your core is.)

For those of us in another form of ministry, we can still examine how our values, actions, and words are connecting with that core.

There is no reason that ministry cannot be an expression of our deepest and “truest” selves, but we do have to do the challenging, reflective work of knowing what that deep and true self looks like.

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When Good News is Really Good Pt 2 :: “Creation is One Great Magic Trick”

When I was young, I was taught that Jesus’ miracles offered proof of his divinity: after all, who else but the son of God could turn water into wine, heal people, or feed thousands (much less bring someone back to life)?

This is absolutely true; God was working supernaturally through Jesus and his ministry, restoring the people of God and inviting others into the family.

But is there something else going on in the miracles stories as well?

In contrast to the other three gospel writers, John has a very interesting and specific agenda, and he hints at it in the opening lines of his gospel:

“In the beginning the Word already existed.

The Word was with God,

and the Word was God…”

John’s opening words are not mere prose—compare them with way Luke begins: “Many people have set out to write accounts about the vents that have been fulfilled among us.”

John is up to something else here. His opening is less like an account and more like a poem. It’s almost like a song.

And we have seen this before.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

In the beginning…”

John opens his gospel with a poem. What’s more, he uses the same opening phrase. It’s as if John is intentionally pointing us back to Genesis 1, saying, “this is the filter you need to read this gospel through.” Not only that, but I’d also like to suggest that John pushes this Genesis connection strongly through his gospel.

Especially through Jesus’ miracle stories.

Jesus works a few significant miracles in John’s gospel, and John directs our attention to them in a very unique way. For example, after Jesus has “got the party started” at the wedding feast in Cana, John writes this, “This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was the first time Jesus revealed his glory.” (2v11)

John uses phrase miraculous sign in a very distinct way. It’s associated with Jesus doing some kind of miracle and associated with a revelation of his glory.

But John is telling another story as well.

Because if you read the whole of John gospel, you’d find that he uses that phrase five more times between chapter 4 and chapter 12.

  1. After Jesus heals the Roman Centurion’s servant (4v54)
  2. After Jesus heals the man by the pool in Bethesda (5v9; technically John doesn’t use the word “sign” here but scholars identify this as one of the significant healings in this gospel)
  3. After the feeding of the 5,000 (6v14)
  4. After Jesus heals the man born blind (9v16)
  5. After Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (11v47)

For a total of six… 

OH, and the sixth one involves giving life to a human being. 

Hmmmmm….Where else has there been six of something, with something involving humanity on the sixth? 

Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reigh over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.’

“So God creed human beings in his own image.

In the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them…

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!

And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day.
(Gen 1v26-27, 31)

John is telling another story here, one that has to do with creation—new creation, in fact.

In other words, Jesus’ miracles aren’t just cool magic tricks. Something radical and cosmic is happening in Jesus and through Jesus, and John wants us to know it. Through Jesus and his ministry, a newness and a freshness is beginning (“God saw that it was very good!”). Through Jesus, a new reality is breaking into this present reality; a foretaste of what God eventually wants to do everywhere, for everyone.

To restore creation, ultimately and completely.

But John’s not done yet; there were only six miracles, but Genesis accounts for seven days.

“So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work.” (Gen 2v1-2)

When is John’s “seventh day”?

Before we get there, the sixth day isn’t over yet. John has an interesting account of Jesus’ interaction with Pilate, hinting at where all of this is going. John tells us that Pilate had Jesus beaten, whipped, and mocked. If you’ve read accounts of this, or seen The Passion of the Christ, you know that this was not pretty. 

Jesus is bloody; broken.

And in the midst of this scene, John relates a curious phrase by Pilate: “And Pilate said, ‘Look here is the man.” 

Man.

Adam.

Genesis 1 (and 2) again.

John is trying to get us to see that Jesus is the “new Adam”, but also that this newness comes with a cost. In order to fulfill Adam’s “commission”, suffering has to happen.

Blood has to be spilt.

And we’re still not done.

When does the “seventh day” come in John? When does Sabbath—which means wholeness, peace, healing, completion—occur?

Jesus knew that his mission was now finished, and to fulfill Scripture he said, “I am thirsty.’ A jar of sour wine was sitting there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips. When Jesus had tasted, he said, ‘It is finished!’ Then he bowed his head and released his spirit (John 19v28-30).

“It is finished.”

Genesis 1.

The six “signs” culminate in this one. 

Only at the cross is Jesus truly done.

John’s “seventh day” comes on the cross, with Jesus’ death. Only when Jesus has done what only he could do—to be obedient all the way to death, to defeat evil by letting evil do its worst to him—could he say, along with God in Genesis 1, that this work of New Creation is truly “finished.”

Sabbath is coming: healing, completeness, rest.

Death will shortly be defeated, and the era of the resurrection will begin.

When good news is really good, miracles aren’t just clever magic tricks: they are signs that something cosmic is breaking out all around us. When good news is really good, we realize that God wants to heal the whole world, and every one in it. 

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When Good News Is Really Good Pt 1 (or “It’s Okay With God if You Don’t Join the Choir”)

Mark’s Gospel

I confess: I’m passionate about the Bible. Maybe it’s too reflective of my status as a (decidedly not young) grad student, but I am determined to see it taught well, and “used” accurately.

I was talking to a friend the other day, and we were talking about how there can be a difference between the historical meaning and significance of Scripture and the individual/devotional meaning and significance.

I land decidedly on the historical/contextual side: Jesus meant what he said, not what we in the 21st century wish he would have said.

I’d like to suggest this: the overwhelming agenda of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is to prove that God’s story was coming to an epic resolution and fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Everything that we read in the gospels flows into and out of that. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to separate Jesus sayings (and actions) from this agenda. 

For the next few weeks, I’d like to spend some time pushing back on some (what I believe) are misreadings of the gospels, and try to recover some of the (sometimes even more explosive) things that Jesus actually may have been saying.

Let’s start with a story out of Matthew. Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a man (generally understood to be God) who goes on a long journey. He entrusts  different sums of money to his servants, and when he returns he asks what they did with the amounts. Two of the three double his money, while one buries it.

The two that gained money get praise from the master, but the one who buried it (safely) gets some harsh words: “‘You wicked and lazy servant… To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Just in case you were wondering, historically, the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” is just as bad as it sounds.

… and cue awkward silence.

Is God really that way?

Divorced form the agenda of the gospels, this can be (and has been) taught as a story about stewardship and giftedness.

Again, is God really that way? 

If you don’t play in the church band, are you going to be thrown into outer darkness?

If you don’t risk investment (in people or things or whatever), is what you have going to be taken from you?

Gnash teeth much?

Ugh.

But once you understand the agenda of Jesus—and the gospel writers—things begin to fall into place a bit more…

  • if the sums of money represent God’s mission and message in the world…
  • if the servants—including Israel—are people with whom God has entrusted His mission…
  • if (by extension) the “wicked and lazy servant” is the religious establishment in Israel…

then we begin to see what Jesus (and Matthew) might be saying here:

  • God has entrusted his mission to people, specifically Israel
  • Israel believes that God has left on a long journey—His presence has not returned to the Temple
  • God has come back to find (a) that unexpected people have valued His mission/message, and (b) Israel (or rather their leaders) have buried His message
  • God is taking His message away from Israel and entrusting it—through Jesus and his ministry—to others (the Gentiles; that’s us)

Is God still stern? Yes, because His mission is at stake. When you read the parable this way, this is why Jesus uses such strong language.

Good news is really good: God isn’t concerned so much with how much risk you take in life, or whether or not you serve in the nursery (though you should!); He’s concerned with how faithful His church is to His message and agenda in the world.

-e

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A Disruptive Gospel

I stumbled across this video this week.

Though that instrument is undeniably weird (and cool), a couple ideas sprang into my mind.

“Random” isn’t really random. The proprietors of the festival proclaim that the attenders had just witnessed a “random act of culture”, but it actually was only random for those who didn’t know that “art” was about to happen. For those “on the inside”, the act was actually intentional and really well thought out. Wu Tong is wearing a mic. The audio guys needed to know when he was going to play. There had to be some sort of signal for him to come in. A few people really knew what was going on.

What it you substituted the word “gospel” for “art”?Do that, and you have a very interesting idea. Great art disrupts people’s lives; it interrupts the “flow” of the world. It makes people sit up and take notice. In fact, in some instances art can change the world forever. Shouldn’t the gospel be just as disruptive (in a good way, of course)? Couldn’t the gospel make us sit up and take notice, and change our world forever?

To disrupt the world—to get the word’s attention—you need more than “random acts” of art (or gospel). You actually need “artists” who are willing to plan and execute an interruption in a very intentional, strategic way. If the gospel is the ultimate culture-disruption, what are you planning? How can you get the world’s attention in an intentional, compelling way?

“Gospel Artists”, pt 1

We have too many maps.

In general, maps do a great job of (a) telling you where you are, and (b) telling you where you need to go. Some of them even tell you the fastest route to get there. Maps are efficient and effective.

But what maps can not do, almost by definition, is how to discover something unexpected. They cannot tell you how to find that beautiful accident: a scenic highway, the fruit stand with amazing  peaches, the funky old barn right beyond the turn of the road.

It’s the job of maps to be accurate and efficient; that’s their nature.

But sometimes, I think we need to acknowledge that we need something “beyond” (or “short of”) a map.

As human beings, disciples, and ministers in the 21st century, I think we live in a time where “Gospel Maps” abound all around us. Books and conferences, CDs and Podcasts abound, all sharing the best ideas from around the world. We are inundated with information about how to find out what God is doing in the world, and then how to translate that into gospel activities.

But they are all maps. And maps inhibit discovery; they inhibit serendipity; they give us the easy way to get from Point A to Point B.

And I’m not sure that “efficiency”, and even “accuracy” is the point of living the Gospel Life.

What if the point is “creativity”, “innovation”, and “love”.

Maps can’t really tell you how to ultimately do that.

In Linchpins, Seth Godin writes, “The reason that art is valuable is precisely why I can’t tell you how to do it. If there were a map, there’d be no art, because art is the act of navigating without a map.”

From 1997–2001, I was a part of a ministry that was attempting to connect with a new generation of believers that saw the world slightly differently than their parents and grandparents. In the early years of Axis, finding any other “partners” in ministry was difficult. In fact, we only knew of two other ministries in the entire U.S. that seemed to be speaking our language.

In other words, there were no maps.

There were no conferences to go to.

There were no minor ministry celebrities to follow on Twitter.

There were only three widely-released CDs of worship music that sounded like “us”.

Let me say that again: there were only three widely-released worship CDs that resonated with what we were doing. 

No maps.

We had no choice, but to try and innovate. We looked at each other, and called out the best of our creativity and imagination and will. We experimented, we implemented, we corrected, focused and re-focused.

I think that our history as believers is chock full of innovators, people who found themselves in places where there either were no maps, or the maps they thought they had were incorrect:

Brennan Manning…

Henri Nouwen…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer…

Karl Barth…

Thomas á Kempis…

Martin Luther…

Augustine…

Paul of Tarsus…

John The Beloved Disciple…

James the Just…

… and, of course, Jesus Christ.

All of these artists innovated fearlessly and creatively. Their imaginations were fully engaged, and though (save Jesus) they made mistakes (yup, they made mistakes) they kept forging ahead rather than retreat to the map.

Today, maps surround us. You can follow any number of ministry blue prints and worship styles. Hundreds of “new” ideas/maps are thrown at us—daily—through Amazon, Lifeway, Catalyst, Passion, Willow, Hillsong, Twitter, etc. etc.

But is this your best? Is this the best imagination that you can bring to the table?

Understandably, sometimes we need a map. Sometimes we need to get from Chicago to Richmond quickly and efficiently. But if we never got off the major interstates, would we ever discover the farmer’s market outside of Winchester? (The most amazing apple pie, ever, btw.)

I think our Gospel—our Good News—deserves more than a map. It deserves all of our imagination and effort.

Where are you relying too much on Gospel Maps?

Where do you need to learn—or what do you need to throw away—in order to become a Gospel Artist? 

The Song

Jonathan was born unable to hear. He was unable to hear the words of love from his parents. The comfort that they spoke, the songs that they would sing. No matter how they shouted, how they wept for him, how they sang him lullabies, he would not hear.

His world was an ocean of silence.

But then…

The moment when his face lights up, and he hears the voice — the overture of love — from his parent, is a priceless moment of grace, love and beauty.

It also teaches.

So many of us have either never heard the song and voice of Love. Others of us have heard it, but then have allowed it to fade into the background of clanging traffic, of playlists, of work and the corporate ladder.

But guess what: The Voice is still speaking. It’s still singing. There’s a song out there, singing all of our names, waiting for that moment when our ears and eyes are opened up and we recognize the Voice for ourselves.

What song(s) are you missing? Do you still hear the Voice? Do you still light up with the soft light of grace when you hear it?

The Disruptive Gospel

As the 20th century drew to a close, a German scientist named Karlheinz Brandenburg was working on a logarithm that would help reduce the size of certain types of computer files; specifically music files. Eventually, he landed on a formula that helped him shrink the size of a standard music composition by about a factor of 10.

Because the file format was designed for a group of scientists known as the Moving Picture Experts Group, it took on an abbreviated version of their name, “mp3.” Aided by the explosion of Napster and websites like mp3.com, the phenomenon of music-as-digital-files exploded.

Music would never be the same.

“Disruptive technology” is technology that enters a given market and, because of its price and or innovation, not only competes in that market, it actually redefines the market entirely. To be concise, it renders “competition” irrelevant, and redefines consumer behavior – it becomes the new standard, the new paradigm.

Whether you officially consider mp3 file compression disruptive technology or not, it’s difficult to argue that the innovation significantly changed the entire paradigm of music consumption. It changed forever our thinking about music (music should be portable, free, and easily shared), as well as our behavior (we either download our music illegally, or pay .99 for a single through iTunes, rather than buying a physical disc or tape from a store).

Mp3 technology had a major part in rendering irrelevant everything else in the “market” of music – CDs, cassette tapes, etc. – and eventually contributed to the entire dismantling of the record industry as we know it.

Now here’s the deal: The Gospel is disruptive technology.

Allow the Gospel to enter into your life, and it has the potential — if we let it — to  realign and redefine our values, thoughts, and behaviors. It renders our old ways of behaving — of our need to control, dominate, and/or manipulate — irrelevant. Hang around long enough, submit to it, and it becomes the new standard of our life, not just something that is an “add on” or a part.

Morning Pages: Mark 5 and “Ho-Hum Jesus”

I need to write more I need to write more I need to write more.

What can happen in ten minutes? What can transfer from soul to screen? From brain to keyboard?

Let’s see.

I’m teaching in 5 days. Forty minutes on the 5th chapter of Mark’s gospel. (I write it this way, because I think language should shock us out or our spiritual sleep — all language; “Mark 5″ just sets us up to blow by what is really going on — what is “Mark’s gospel”? What is “gospel”? Who was Mark? … but I digress).

Here’s where I want to start: Jesus exorcises a demon. Jesus heals a woman. Jesus raises a child from the dead. Our first instinct is take a step back and say, “Woah!” and then point to these scriptures (to ourselves and the rest of the world), saying, “You see?!!? You see?!!? You see how awesome this guy is? He wants to heal folks! He wants to set us free! He wants to make you ‘all better’!” And he does, mostly (see the parts about “taking up your cross”)…

But guess what?

<whisper> Other folks healed, exorcised, even raised people…

Peter did it, Paul did it, Elijah and Elisha did it, and that’s just the beginning. Ancient histories are pretty full of people — Jewish, Christian, and pagans — who could heal, exorcise demons and even occasionally resurrect people.

So what do we do with this? Is Jesus actually not that special? Is he just “Ho-Hum Jesus”? “Been-There-Done-That-Blogged-About-It Jesus?”

… Or maybe the healings aren’t the point?

Maybe Jesus’ healings (and by implications, Mark’s stories of the healings) aren’t meant to be just spiritual hocus-pocus (or the plural hocii-pocii?). Maybe Mark wants us to understand something deeper.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I think there is an under-current to the story, something that may be simultaneously more revolutionary and insidious than we ever imagined, and more normal and “every day” than we could ever have dreamed of…

… Because isn’t that who YHWH is, after all? And isn’t that what life with Him is, as well? More revolutionary + subversive, but also more gritty, and “Monday-morning-I-need-my-coffee?” (yes, I’m inventing new words, but it’s my blog, so deal with it lol.)

I’m still processing through, so you’ll have to check the tape in order to hear how deep the rabbit hole goes, but the invitation is there. Stay tuned, and “listen, if you have ears to hear…”