Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Particular Trap

I was almost caught in it today -

The Particular Trap.

I took the bait and heard the snap. But, then I saw it for what it was and chose to let myself out.

The Particular Trap; it is when I make universals out of particulars. It's generalizing. I find when I get caught in this trap I get really ugly or really down.

Let me tell you what happened.

I was surfing YouTube, looking for something else and I came across a video by Rob Bell. Since I like Rob Bell I thought I'd see what else was on YouTube related to Rob Bell.

[Full disclosure #1: I like Rob Bell. I have never met him. I resonate with much of his theology. I loved his books Velvet Elvis and Sex God. I didn't think his latest book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, was as good as the other two. Just last Sunday I used one of his Nooma videos in worship, and I have quoted from him in a few sermons. I have worshipped at Bell's church. But, if I lived in Grand Rapids, I probably wouldn't worship regularly at Mars Hill for personal reasons.]

So, I look up Rob Bell on YouTube and got dozens of videos about his work. One was a nearly three hour vitriolic diatribe by a radio talk-show guy blasting Rob Bell in a segment called "Rob Bell Isn't a Christian." In another video a pastor showed one of Bell's Nooma videos and then spent the rest of his sermon taking apart Bell's theology in that video. There were more along the same lines - pastors and speakers trashing Bell's theology and his work. Another radio host (I didn't know you could put radio clips on YouTube) predicted that "very soon you will hear that 'it is okay to be a Christian and a homosexual' coming out of Mars Hill."

[Full Disclosure #2: I really have a strong response when people talk as if they believe that entrance to heaven depends on a perfect score on both the oral and written components of a theological exam. Don't even get me started.]

It's not that I take the blasting of Rob Bell personally. I just feel bad for Bell - who, if he is healthy, isn't even paying attention to these criticisms.

Then I got to thinking about the critics - see full disclosure #2. And I got to thinking that if this is how the church is, then it is on a fast and troubling spiral downward. Then I got to thinking about how I am losing faith in the church - and that's when I heard the snap of the trap shutting down.

I was making a generalization about the church from a relatively small number of people. These folks are part of the church of Jesus Christ, but they are NOT the church of Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ does not waste time criticizing people who don't theologically agree with them because there are waaay too many people in the world who are hungry and afraid and wounded and neglected and oppressed to argue theology. Besides, the church gets enough criticism from non-Christians (some of it legitimate); we don't need to sling mud inside the family.

The Particular Trap. It perpetuates things like racism and sexism and ageism and all of the other isms that ensnare humanity and keep us from being the people that God created and redeemed us to be. Sometimes I can see the Particular Trap a mile away, and then, like today, I only see it when I hear the snap shut.

Thank God I heard the snap.

I share this with you because I want to remain alert and I want you to remain alert as well. I suspect that I am not the only one who gets caught by The Particular Trap. I am pretty sure that a lot of people get caught in that trap.

But, maybe I am generalizing again.

Monday, July 27, 2009

There is Not Always a Good Reason

Okay, I am going to write something that may shock you.

I no longer believe that everything happens for a reason - at least not in the way that most Christians think.

Certainly everything happens for a reason - someone made a decision. But, to often we attribute events and circumstances to God that I don't believe belong in God's lap.

For instance, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast all kinds of people were trying to make sense of that event - including some prominent Christian leaders. Some Christians claimed it was God's punishment on New Orleans for the sin of the French Quarter or gambling.


Then why was the French Quarter still standing and the first district to open up after Katrina? Did God miss the target? Did God not whip up a strong enough hurricane? Why were the casinos the second to open up and had their best year ever because people had nothing to do in New Orleans except gamble?

After terrorist rammed airplanes and their passengers into the World Trade Center in 2001, some Christian leaders claimed it was God's punishment on America for our tolerance of homosexuality. Where did they get that one??? I was unaware that everyone who died were either homosexual or pro-homosexual or that the World Trade Center was in any way connected with homosexuality - except, perhaps in some freaky Freudian way.

Last year Steven Curtis Chapman's daughter was killed in an accident when her older brother ran her over. It was tremendously tragic. People told the Chapman family that this event "happened for a reason."

What reason???

What they meant, of course, is that God created the circumstances by which the daughter ran out behind the vehicle at the same time her brother was backing up. An SUV is much heavier than a five-year-old and thus killed her - for some reason that only God knows.

Is that how God works??? Is that in the nature of God to kill a little girl with a car, or to displace thousands of people by a hurricane or to kill thousands of people through terrorists to teach us a lesson or prove a point???

Does cancer happen for a reason? Does most of the things that happen to people that they didn't choose into happen for a reason???

In one way they do. Someone made a choice. The reason some people get lung cancer is because they smoke four packs a day. The reason thousands of people died on September 11th is because some angry, radical, fringe zealots made a decision. The reason that hurricanes happen is because of atmospheric conditions.

Sometimes, a variety of unrelated circumstances converge with very tragic outcomes. It's called chaos theory.

Back to God.

When people look into the eyes of someone who just lost their daughter, or father; or just found out they have breast cancer or they lost their job, and they say "This happened for a reason;" let's not be quick to blame it on God.

Over and over again in the Bible I read how people make really bad decisions that wind up with very tragic outcomes and God works with those choices and within those outcomes to bring about some kind of good for people. Over and over I read in the Bible how chaos happens in life and God is there among us trying to bring as much good as possible.

So, in the traditional sense, I don't believe that everything happens for a reason. But, I do believe that God works in ALL things (the stuff we chose into and the stuff we didn't) to bring about the most good possible. (see Romans 8:28)

So, instead of blaming God and asking those unanswerable "why" questions, I am encouraging people to turn to God and trust God is at work in all things to bring about good in our lives.

There's not always a good reason. But, there is ALWAYS a good God.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Among and With

Counter: against, to act in opposition, in an opposite or wrong direction.

Counter cultural: a culture with values and mores that run counter to those of established society.

I was reading the blog of Rev. Dan Dick, the new Director of Connectional Ministries of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church. In a June, 2009 blog, Rev. Dicks was writing three questions we really need to face in our pursuit of growing God's church,

They are:

  • Do we prefer style over substance?

  • Are we more concerned with image over identity?

  • Is being popular more important than being prophetic?

I have to admit, as one who tried to keep up with and implement much of the Church Growth Movement's rules and principles and best practices - I was more concerned with style and image and popularity.

Man, was that a treadmill.

No matter what I tried, no matter how hard I worked at it, the "key principle" or "the practice that will put you over the top" was always just one more step away, always the next rung up the ladder, always just around the next corner. (Plus, I am pretty sure I am not handsome enough, sharp enough, or cool enough to be one of those rock star pastors.)

Then Rev. Dicks wrote about being counter cultural. Now, in the best sense of that word, the church is always counter cultural, meaning that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, have different values and priorities and pursuits than those of the cultures that surround us. But, when counter cultural is lifted up as running in opposition to culture, that's when the conversation needs to start.

Now, it is a no brainer to me, and I trust to you, that if the culture is into human trafficking, then the church needs to work in opposition to that. When the culture is into harming children or the vulnerable or the powerless, then the church needs to work in opposition.

But, if we are to be a missionary church, if we are to see ourselves as missionaries in a mission field, then we don't need to stand in opposition to nor even separate ourselves from the cultures that surround us. That would be counterproductive.

Missionaries live among and with another culture. Missionaries learn the language and customs of their host culture. In many ways, missionaries "adopt" their host culture. Missionaries then look for ways to make connections between the host culture and God and God's grace and power and love and mercy. All the while, the missionary lives as as a faithful Christian to show how an indigenous Christian would live. Missionaries don't adopt all of the values of their host culture, but live Christian values among and with that culture.

No trying to "fix" people. No trying to conform the host culture to some alien standards or political or economic systems.

Being a missionary is about substance and identity and being prophetic in the Biblical sense of that word.

I am starting to see myself more as a lead missionary than a pastor. I am starting to lead my congregation to see themselves more as missionaries in the cultures to which they belong.

So, when churches brag about being "culturally relevant" and "image is everything" or when they brag about being "counter cultural" and "revolutionary" -

I am suspicious.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Circumference and Center

"So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat? What shall we drink' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you as well."
Matthew 6:31-33



The outer edges.

The margins.

The fringe.

How many times do we confuse the circumference with the center?

How many times do we run after the things on the margins and neglect the center?

What shall I eat? Where shall I eat?

What shall I wear? Who shall I wear?

How can I look younger? How can I feel younger?

What can I acquire? Who can I acquire?

How can I look successful?


Many folks are consumed with it - consumed by it.

Image is the circumference. Image is the periphery. Image is the margin.

The circumference is not the center. And, when we confuse the two our life tends to get complicated and messy and out of focus.

Among the many awesome things that Jesus did for us was to point us to the center and encourage us to go there rather than to the margins.

The center.

The place where we find our focus, our meaning, our strength, our equilibrium, our peace, and the source of love, faith, grace and hope. The place where we find the Spirit dwelling within us. The place where we meet God in prayer. The place where we can listen and be heard.

The place where the sacred in our life mixes with the secular in our life.

And, for some, that makes the center a scary place.

The center is also where our fears reside, and we come face to face with our limitations, and our poor choices, and our bigotry and bitterness and jealousies.

But, in the center the secular can be made sacred, and the profane made profound, sins forgiven and bitterness forgotten. In the center we deal with who we are and we are also reminded Whose we are.

I am writing this at the beginning of the observance of Lent - a time when Christians make an intentional effort to cease pursuing the things of the circumference and examine the center. We do the work of self-examination and confession in order to make the center more of a place that we will more often choose to live from rather than the margins.

Jesus said that unbelievers run after the things of the circumference. I must confess that I am guilty of often running after the things that sit on the margins rather than running to and living from my center. I am pretty sure I am not the only one.

Does that mean Jesus is wrong?

Or, do my actions make a stark and unpleasant statement about my faith?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reasons or Excuses?

Mohandis Gandhi once told the great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones something to the effect that he really liked Jesus but he didn't see too many Christians that looked like Jesus. In other words, Gandhi may have become a Christian if it weren't for...


Today a vast majority of people, especially young adults between 20 and 39 are saying the same thing: we like Jesus just not ___________. Fill in the blank: the church, organized religion, Christians, Christianity, all of the above. {answer: all of the above.}

Now, on one side of the coin, I have never met a person who has told me the above and has also made a serious or even half-hearted attempt to research the claims of Christ or connect with a church long enough to begin to understand that, like many organizations, the church has its good and bad. Have we forgotten that the church has led the way on most of the good social reforms that this country and many other countries have experienced? Yes, the church has its flaws and some shameful bits in its history. All I am saying is that, to be fair, if one is going to point out all of the admittedly terrible things that Christians have done throughout our long history, one should also point out all of the very good an helpful things that the church has done in our history.

But, fairness to Christianity is not what I am thinking about today.

The Barna Reasearch Group put out a book last year called, UnChristian. The basis of the book is what young adults are saying about the church. No surprises: they are saying the church and Christianity is irrelevant, judgemental, hypocritical, etc.. Barna's suggestions for the church? Don't be irrelevant, judgemental, hypocritical, etc...


But, here is my (real or percieved) dilemma: It seems to me that most Christians will read that book, or want to address those issues by saying, "Yes! And if every church/Christian had my denomination's values/theology/tradition/rituals, etc...then we would make great strides toward addressing those criticisms." As a United Methodist, there are certain values and perpectives that I believe would indeed go a long way toward addressing those criticisms. But, I am sure that my friend Father Roy at St. Robert's Catholic Church would have different ideas of how we can live in ways that would address those criticisms. And, I am just as sure that my friend Rev. Dave Galbraith at Peace Presbytrian Church would disagree with us both.

You get the idea.

I think we need to take these criticisms seriously if they truly point to reasons why people are not becoming followers of Jesus Christ.

So, what to do?

I have my ideas, but I am really interested in yours.

What are your thoughts? Are these serious issues and legitimate criticisms? In what ways are modern Christians/the church/organized religion keeping people from becoming followers of Jesus Christ? What should we/could we do about it?

Please respond to these questions by posting your comments/thoughts/suggestions. Perhaps this can be a kind of e-conversation between us all?

I look forward to hearing from you!

And as always I am...
...with you on the journey.

Peace and much agape,