Fundamental Heretics

It’s time for a church history lesson.

In the first few hundred years of the church, the leaders were constantly figuring out what it believed. All of these doctrines and teachings that we take for granted had to be hammered out in the context of real disagreements between real people. (BTW, some of these arguments are hilarious: people who have been canonized as saints writing back and forth with arguments that are the ancient equivalent of “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny,” and “I know you are but what am I.”)

There were a few different strands that diverged off of the “normal” beliefs of the church: gnosticism, docetism, monarchianism, etc.

Fascinating, I know …

One interesting heresy (?) is “arianism”, founded by Arius in the 4th century. Arius essentially denied the true divinity of Jesus, instead holding that Jesus was a “created being” (Orthodox belief would hold that Jesus existed eternally with God before entering our world, as per John 1:1-10). Arianism was declared a heresy, and Arius was excommunicated in the late 300s.

All that is fine and dandy, but what is truly interesting about this story is the actual substance of the debates. You see, when the Arians were defending their position, they submitted to the church authorities a very long list of scriptures (that is, from the Bible) that more than adequately (at least in their eyes) defended their position.

However, they’d missed the forest for the trees. They did a great job at using the Bible—at face value—to defend their position. Interestingly, the Orthodox priests and scholars couldn’t supply nearly as long a list of scriptures supporting their position (this exercise is still repeated in seminaries today, by the way).

But what the Orthodox did have on their side was common sense. To the list of scriptures, they basically replied, “Sure, you have all these scripture references, but you’ve neglected to use your brain to think through the nature of Jesus from an intellectual and theological point of view.

The heretics had all their Bible verses in line, but they were still missing the point. Badly.

They had landed on the “truth” (as they perceived it), but they had missed the essence.

My personal takeaway from this is twofold:

(a) It’s not enough to simply line up proof-texts and say, “See, X is right/Godly/holy/etc.” Often (maybe not always), we need to take a step back and go, “Okay, I know that these scriptures indicate X, but maybe God is asking us also to examine whether or not these square with what we know about His character (especially as revealed by the Gospels).” If you neglect to think theologically (and intellectually), you can easily be a fundamentalist, and still be heretic.

(b) I think it’s a wonderful thing that God asks us to use our brain. Read the Bible. No, seriously, read it. It’s a complicated book (but a very simple story, ironically). There are awkward (and even very uncomfortable) texts (slavery, prostitution, incest, genocide anybody?), and even some apparent contradictions and “tensions” that we need to manage. Origen, one of the church Fathers who was alive during many of these heresies, maintained that God allowed the tensions that we find in the Bible to remain there so that… get ready for it… we could exercise our intellect. 

The solution to a complex world is to not adopt a simplified, fundamentalist reading of our Bible. solution (for there has to be many) is to balance our sacred text(s) with an understanding of the traditions of the family of faith, our God-given intellect, and our experience of God in this world.

If only there was a name for this… #wesleyan_quadrilaterial #can’tbelieveIjustdidthat


When the Weather Can Radically Change Your Life

5 Day Pressure Forecast, Public Domain

5 Day Pressure Forecast, Public Domain

A couple of my favorite “odd” history books were written by a guy named Erik Durschmied. One was called The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed HistoryThe other book was called The Weather Factor: How Nature Has Changed History. Both were about how seemingly “unrelated things” (random chance or weather patterns) can forever and unalterably change the course of history.

Before Jesus is crucified, he tells his followers that he is going to send them another “counselor” who will help them in a variety of ways (John 14-15). He’s talking here about the Holy Spirit, who comes in fantastic power in Acts 2, and at that point takes up residence in God’s people (the church). If you read Acts, and even most of Paul, you find that the Holy Spirit is really the thing for us today. It’s the presence of Jesus with us (and in us!), and is the power for the church to achieve his work in the world.

When the Spirit is at work in our lives, we are able to see more, be more, and do more than we would otherwise. As Paul says, this is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. 

And we have access to that.


Sadly, it seems that most of us don’t even approach that level of power and freedom in our lives. Instead, we limp around in our sins, content to screw up, confess, and repent, and wonder when (or better yet, ifwe will ever “get better” and be able to live a life that we see occasionally in the New Testament: a life that can suffer gracefully, that can forgive lavishly, that can give freely, that can dream radically.

Where do we start to get that kind of life?

Recently, I heard a professor give this metaphor.

One of the Biblical images (and words) for the Spirit is “wind” (Hebrew ruach). Now, Wind has a pretty peculiar, but somewhat predictable, behavior. Weather systems are made up of “high pressure” and “low pressure” systems; these variable levels of pressure force weather and wind around the environment in a constantly moving and evolving system.

Now here’s the interesting part…

Weather, or “wind”, always flows from “high pressure to “low pressure. The absence of volume, or pressure causes air to flow—sometimes quite intensely—into the area of low pressure.

If you want the wind to flow into your life, you have to create a low pressure atmosphere in your life. 

So, what creates low pressure atmosphere?

You have to get rid of what’s occupying the space. 

You have to get rid of yourself. 

Self—our ego, our preoccupations, our demands, our agendas, etc., etc.—keeps our lives in a “high pressure situation.” There’s simply no room for the Spirit to come in.

This is repentance on a whole different level.

This a willing abandonment of our need for security, esteem, approval, and anything else apart from God.

Confess your sins? Yes.

Repent? Yes. Absolutely, but make sure your repentance involves an abandonment of your ego, and your demand to have your way in the world.

Then the wind can come in. Then the Spirit flows in. It’s as if God says, Finally, this is something—someone—I can work with.

Lessons I Learn (… over and over again)

August to November was a difficult season, but somehow some of the clouds are parting and some light is creeping through…

I was sitting with some friends of mine recently—older men who have gone round and round with life and lived to tell about it—and unpacking the things I’ve seen and heard and done.

Most of it revolves around buying into the same lies I’ve bought into countless times before, namely that I can somehow control the brokenness inside me. Some of us—I’m not the only one—lose sight of the fact that our false self is manipulative and sneaky, and largely seeks to just throw us off our path.

It hits me again and again; it’s a strange thing when you can’t trust your own thoughts (because “your own thoughts” are really the thoughts of your false self).

One of the amazing gifts of centering prayer and meditation is that gradually you can learn to identify these tricks of your false self as such, and steer clear of them, but sometimes…

… Sometimes you still drift.

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul uses the phrase “the old self” (6:6). I used to understand this phrase theologically, as a reference to “just” our sin. Now, however, I realize that Paul is actually wading into to pretty deep psychological waters: the “old self” = the “false self”. It’s the part of ourselves that seeks to find its solace in security and control; in acceptance and affection; in power. Technically (and theologically) it has no power over us except the power that we give it. 

When we buy into what the false self is selling, we tend to reap the consequences.

The only cure for it is to deliberately (and painfully) return to rejecting this false self through meditation and prayer, and to choose to live in reality instead of the illusion of the false self.

(By the way, this is called repentance: it’s really not as scary of a word as you might think.)

And guess what: reality is actually kind of refreshing and peaceful.

The True Power of the Church (… And why we largely ignore it)

“The local church is the hope of the world.”

As an employee of Willow Creek Community Church that was a slogan that was ingrained into my psyche. I heard Bill Hybels passionately invoke that idea over and over again, at conference after conference. Later, I heard other evangelical leaders take up the phrase, until it was common evangelical parlance.

But I’ve had my doubts.

I remember Hybels talking about being in an aiport, and vividly describing a scene in which two brothers were pummeling each other mercilessly. Hybels basically asserted that NO other organization in the world could address those kids’ challenges. Relatedly, I hear many church leaders claim that only the church is equipped to deal with the totality of a human being’s needs.

But is that really the case?

Maybe a small group or a really close friend could have offered the parents of those children some valuable advice on parenting, but it seems to me that there are a lot of organizations who can do a better job of addressing certain needs of people better than the church can. Health clubs do a much better job of helping people exercise. Professional financial planners, counselors, and doctors are better equipped to help people deal with their finances, their emotional issues and health questions.

Pastors aren’t really financial counselors (FPU excluded), therapists, or doctors.

So first of all, just what are we?

Eugene Peterson says that ultimately pastors are in people’s lives to prepare them for “a good death.”

Wow. I don’t know about that. But I like the idea that Peterson is getting at: pastors should be equipped to deal with the heaviest questions that life has to offer. We confront the Mystery that is God and existence on this planet. With revelation and transformation, with life and death.

Now, the church is full of a lot more people than just the pastors, and this is where things get interesting, because with so many people in one community who are (theoretically, at least) experiencing life altering encounters with God, there is a huge potential for really good things to happen…

* entrepreneurs can be inspired to create socially- and ethically-conscious businesses (that make money!)
* artists can be inspired to create great works of art in community that speak of the deep needs of humanity (and not be kicked out of the church!)
* hurting people can come together to share each others’ burdens (and make recommendations on professionals and specialists who can help them further!)
* people can share resources with those in their community that don’t have as much

… In other words, a lot of problems can be solved. That’s a lot of potential.

But there’s a catch.

In another post, I mentioned that Steven Johnson is one of my favorite authors. In his book Future Perfect, he discusses the phenomenon of collaboration and how collaboration (and thus, problem solving) is drastically, significantly enhanced or limited by the presence or absence of diversity.

University of Michigan professor Scott Page compared the problem-solving capabilities of groups with high-IQ individuals with that of a group of diverse individuals. Referencing Page’s work, here’s what Johnson says: “Diversity does not just expand the common ground of consensus. It also increases the larger group’s ability to solve problems… when it came to solving problems as a group, diversity matters more than individual brainpower.”

Well now.

To transfer Page’s work into a church context, is it possible that the American church’s lack of diversity is critically limiting our ability to solve the problems that our communities face?

I have worked in an intentionally multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church. It was simultaneously one of the most exciting, difficult, messy and rewarding times of my life. Prior to that and since then, however, the churches I have worked at were not really interested in confronting the challenging topic of bringing different racial and ethnic groups together in a faith community in order to really come together and figure out what it means to be the church in 21st century North America (full disclosure: as a leader in my current church, I share the blame for not advancing this topic in my context).

The point is simply this: most churches are trying to solve horrendously complex problems: self-harm, addiction, poverty, abuse, depression, etc. without employing perhaps the ONE concept that would help them the most: the diversity of thought and perspective that (most likely) exists in their congregations. I’d venture to say that most “white” churches are anything but, however their leadership very well may be entirely mono-cultural.

Are we inviting multiple voices into our leadership? Are we bringing a plurality of thought into our efforts to help and serve people? Or does the input and counsel we receive come from people who look (and therefore, think) more or less exactly like we do?

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul has a powerful message about ethnic diversity, most powerfully stated in chapter 2;

11 So remember that once you were Gentiles by physical descent, who were called “uncircumcised” by Jews who are physically circumcised. 12 At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God. 13 But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. 15 He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. 16 He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.

17 When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. 18 We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. 19 So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household. 20 As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. 22 Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.

The gospel is not just about reconciliation between God and humanity; it’s about reconciliation across racial and ethnic lines as well.

Perhaps the true power of the local church is the fact that we’ve been called to come across racial and ethnic lines and bind together in the name of Jesus. He died to create ONE body out of two bitter enemies (Jews and Gentiles).

Maybe Jesus knew that we’d need all the help we could get.



That Time When Jesus Kicked Us Out of the House

When Jesus begins his ministry, one of the realities that he stepped into was one of “exile.”

To make a very long story very short, between 580-595 BC, the nation of Israel experiences two devastating events. First, the Temple—the very center of God’s activity in the world—is destroyed. Second, the core population is sent into exile in Babylon. It’s virtually impossible to understand how dis-concerting this was to God’s people.

They were without the sense of God’s presence in the world…

They were without a home…

Psalm 137 records just a little of what this felt like to the community:

“Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up in the trees there
because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
‘Sing us a song about Zion!’ they said.
But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?”


Eventually, the Jews returned to the Land, but significantly the presence of the Lord never returned to the Temple. It was rebuilt, but God had not returned. In a sense, they were still in exile.

Furthermore, over time more nations and empires showed up. In particular, Rome came knocking, and easily occupied the land and subjugated God’s people. Now, they were still “in the land,” but they were no longer in control; the Romans were. 

They might as well have been still in Babylon, and again, it’s as if they were still in exile.

God hadn’t come back to the Temple, and they were not in control of the “Promised Land.”

When Jesus shows, up, much of his activity centers around demonstrating that exile is over: God has returned to the Land (through his ministry), and will now “do battle” with Israel’s enemies (who are not the Babylonians, or the Romans for that matter).

At the cross, Jesus defeats the “true enemy” of Israel (evil) by dying. Three days later he rises from the dead and ushers in a new way of living.

But he’s not done yet.

In Matthew 28, he commissions his disciples, telling them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (CEB)

In short, he sends them out, away from their homes, away from what they know and find comforting.

Kinda sounds like exile…

As one of my professors says, “Jesus announces (through is life, death and resurrection, ‘Exile is over; now go be exiles!’” 

However this time not only has God returned to the Land (in/through Jesus), but now Jesus promises to be “be with” his disciples.

So the bad news is that when we “sign on” to this Jesus movement, we don’t get to come into the house and kick our feet up. Rather, Jesus kicks us out of the house to go be exiles in our world: go out where you aren’t comfortable, where you don’t know all the rules, where things may seem strange and alien to you.

But the good news is that exile no longer has to feel empty, or pointless, or like punishment. God’s presence is with his people, even where things are strange and “different.”

We may be in exile, but we are not alone.





HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “You Will Be Sifted”


Just after the Last Supper, the disciples show their humanness by immediately having an argument on who is the greatest. Evidently they have utterly missed the point of Jesus’ teachings on service and humility. When he hears their debate, Jesus reminds them that the greatest among them “must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant” (Luke 22:26).

In the gospels, Peter often serves as the “representative disciple”, meaning that he symbolizes the questions, successes and (mostly) failures of the disciples—of The Twelve and of all us.

Immediately after Jesus reminds all of the Twelve about “true greatness,” he turns to Peter and says, “Simon, Simon, look! Satan has asserted the right to sift you all like wheat. However I have prayed for you that your faith won’t fail. When you have returned, strengthen your bothers and sisters” (Luke 22:31-32).


This is a harsh but very true statement that holds as true for us today as it did for Peter. Sifting is not easy. Sifting separates the good from the bad, but it is seldom pleasant. If for nothing else, sifting reminds us that inside us there is both wheat and chaff.


Most of the time we don’t want to be reminded that we are not all perfect, but Jesus here reminds the “representative disciple” that it’s sort of inevitable, that some kind of breaking or humbling is going to come Peter’s—and thus our—way.


Interestingly, Jesus tells Peter that he has prayed that his strength won’t fail. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer: “Don’t lead us into temptation” (Luke 11:4b). In Matthew’s version of the prayer, Jesus says, “Don’t lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” There is a sense in Jesus’ teachings that temptation is a given. Avoiding it is not the point, but enduring it is (otherwise, he wouldn’t have to add, “but deliver us from the evil one”).


So with these words, Jesus is saying that reflection, humility, and even a bit of failure is inevitable for a disciple, but Jesus will be praying that we find our way through it. 


Then  Jesus adds this additional challenge to Peter: “When you have returned, strengthen your brothers and sisters.”


The sequence seems pretty clear:


  1. We need to be “sifted”: to examine ourselves and see what’s good and bad in our inventory, and then be prepared to respond appropriately.
  2. We need to rely on Jesus’ strength to help us endure the humbling that sifting involves.
  3. After we get done with our inventory, and come to terms with the “chaff” in our lives, we are called to service.


Next up: Jesus gets out the pruning shears.


Follow me on Twitter: @ericcase






Holy Week 2014: Last Words – Monday

A couple years ago, I wrote out some thoughts for Holy Week. They were centered around some of the places that Jesus encountered during his last days before his crucifixion. This year, I thought I’d offer some devotional thoughts on some of the last words he spoke. These are simply meant to give us all some things to think about as we process Jesus’ sacrifice.

“Let’s Go To Jerusalem.” 

Though Matthew doesn’t quote Jesus saying this, he does record that “Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day” (Matthew 16:21).

Personally, I think it’s crystal clear that Jesus knew what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. The portrait that the gospels paint of Jesus is of a man who is well aware of the directions that the winds in Israel were blowing. Between Rome’s empire and Israel’s coming, religion-fueled violent revolution Jerusalem was not the place to go if you (a) wanted to stay safe while (b) preaching the arrival of God’s kingdom.

But safety isn’t part of Jesus’ agenda.

Unless he chooses to change his message (God is King) or his strategy (non-violent resistance and prophetic pronouncements), Jesus knows what waits for him in Jerusalem: the might, power, and force  of the temple and the religious establishment (backed by Rome’s interest in keeping the tax money flowing).

Jesus may not be a mathematician, but I imagine he can add, and he can see that this is going to end badly for him.

But that’s exactly why he chooses to go.

I don’t know if Jesus was “afraid” in any sense that we may understand that word, but at any rate he sees where the danger and darkness lies, and he walks straight towards it. 

For many of us, we don’t need to look very far for darkness and danger. For a lot of us, we have wilderness and black caves inside our own souls; that’s where our darkness is. There are things—brokenness, fears, unconfronted/unacknowledged sin—lurking deep inside of our hearts and lives. They may be backed by the power of years of co-dependency and escapism, and we may be well aware that to confront them may very well mean pain and even death of parts of us.

But in the same way that Jesus knows, and still goes, I think we are called to go: go to the dark places inside us, the places that are rooted in the power of this world, that will buffet and beat us as soon as we show up.

Moreover, I think that we are called to go to the dangerous places inside us with Jesus’ message and method: “God is King, and you will be defeated, not by asserting more power or more control, but by surrender of ego, of self, and by a willingness to die to myself.”

What is your “Jerusalem”? An addiction? A vision of your future that you’ve clung to? Your pride? What would it mean to walk towards it, to face it, and then to surrender so that God can begin to heal you?