Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Imagine a Church...

This weekend, my church gathered together on a Saturday night in order to hear from the pastoral team about where they feel the Lord is guiding our body, both literally and philosophically. Pacing a stage littered with pine trees and decked out with various hiking tools representing the beginnings of a wonderful new journey into the unknown, Pastor Rob Cowles spelled out the vision to an eager congregation.

Reaffirming the solidity and strength of our past and evoking a glowing and thrilling future, Rob explained that the concept of the journey is the proper perspective for the Christian life and that transition and change is the necessary phase of growth in the life of any living organism.

“The church is the entity God has chosen to change the world,” Rob began. “There is no ‘Plan B.’”

He went on to say, “Jesus declared that he would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. He has entrusted His church with the sacred trust of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of reconciliation. He has also empowered the church by His Holy Spirit to be a witness for Him to the ‘uttermost parts of the earth.’ The Great Commission is a commission given to the universal church.

The living out of that purpose, however, is done in ways that are unique to each local church. The four gospels all tell the same story but in unique ways. Each of them is written to a different audience and therefore the style and details included in the story are different. So it is with local churches. It is as though God has marked each local church with its own unique fingerprint. The story is the same but the methods and emphasis are unique to the culture of the community and the culture and giftedness of the local church.”

I thought I would share some of the exciting vision of that night with you now, providing you with the frame that was given to use and fleshing it out a bit with some of the language and ideas of that evening. The ideas communicated here are certainly not new, nor relevant only for my church. I think many of you will find the substance of the evening inspiring and though-provoking. Read on…


Multi-Generational Approach:
The most beautiful diamond is the most multi-faceted one. The Bible’s metaphor for the Christian community is family and it is in this context and this understanding that everyone in the church comes to realize that they have something to contribute and teach others. We must not only build bridges to our community and our world but across our foyer as well. Multi-Generational does not simply apply to physical maturity, but spiritual maturity as well. We must embark on the journey together, delighting in our common bonds and in our infinite diversity, celebrating our unity not our uniformity.

All People Matter:
If people of all stripes, walks of life, and orientations matter to God then they must matter to us as well. Jesus treated every person He met as unique and special. He crossed the lines of categories and groupings to seek out the individual. Whether it be across the street or across the ocean, we must bring hope and love to whomever we can, wherever we can.

Real Relationships:
Everything in Christianity springs from relationship. We recognize that it is out of our relationship with God that our ability to love others flows. Holiness cannot be separated from relationship. As we are made in the image of a triune God, we are created to be creatures of community—we are designed to need each other. We desire to facilitate opportunities where people can know and be known, serve and be served, and grow to reach their full potential.

Kingdom Vision:
Our mission on this earth is to advance the Kingdom of God, not our own petty and insignificant empires. As Rick Warren said, “It’s not about you!” We must redefine our orientation assuring Christ is the head and reason for all we do. Furthermore, we must break down denominational lines and embrace and support all true believers.

Demonstrated Love:
Christ said that His followers would be known by one thing and one thing alone—their love. We must demonstrate that love tangibly and without any strings to a world writhing in agony. Love, without demonstration, is dead. It is imperative that we recapture social concern.


We will worship God by growing a community of people who are becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus. This model is best represented in Romans 12:1, 2 where it says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.”


Building Bridges and Bringing Healing as We Journey Together with Jesus


Imagine a church that is wholly devoted to becoming like Jesus, and, in turn, becoming an extension of Him to the world.

Imagine a church where everyone is valued—from the youngest to the oldest—in age and in spiritual walk.

Imagine a church that pioneers innovative ways to bring generations together, bringing glory to God and growth to everyone.

Imagine a church that so loves its city that it selflessly serves the needs of that city, bringing physical, emotional, social, and spiritual healing to people.

Imagine a church that demonstrates God’s love in such tangible ways that it’s thought of with affection and respect by its community.

Imagine a church that is so committed to following in the steps of Jesus that each one seeks to serve the needs of others before him/herself.

Imagine a church where people diligently seek to discover how God made them and then are empowered by leadership to serve according to the way God made them.

Imagine a church where relationships are so real that community becomes the context for all ministry.

Imagine a church where relationships are the primary source of care and accountability in a person’s life.

Imagine a church that regularly gives birth to healthy new churches and satellite locations, all committed to growing communities of people who are becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus.

Imagine a church whose ethnic diversity reflects the diversity in its community.

Imagine a church where people at any point on their journey towards Jesus can find love and support and safety.

Imagine a church where fully devoted followers of Jesus so love people that they are willing to sacrifice their own comfort and desires in order to see people come to Jesus, becoming fully devoted followers themselves.

Imagine a church where fully devoted followers of Jesus actively build authentic relationships and, through their journey with Jesus, inspire others to begin a journey towards Him.

Imagine a church where baptism services are the highlights of every year.

Imagine a church where every follower of Jesus sees him/herself as a missionary somewhere and gives sacrificially of their time, energy and resources for the sake of the gospel around the world.

Imagine a church that gives over $1 million a year to missions and sends hundreds of people on short-term trips all over the world, sometimes resulting in families and singles moving to different parts of the world to serve.

At the conclusion of the service, each member grasped a fist-sized rock and with a black marker, scribbled upon its face a characteristic of God’s church that they most wanted to see in the future. I jotted down “authenticity.” We then rose and placed the rocks before the alter in the form of a cairn, a mound of stones piled up as a memorial or to mark a path.

The evening was exhilarating and powerful, full of the spice of hope, promise, and corporate destiny. It now falls to us all to take the skeleton we were given and paste the flesh of substance and tangibility upon it in order to make it live. I am humbled and trilled to be a part of it.

Enterprise Flies Again or, Fourth Time's a Charm!

Has anyone been so foolish as to have given the dismal, sacrilegious, and second-rate Star Trek: Enterprise yet another chance in this, its fourth season?

I have a confession. I have.

And it was worth it!

What happened over the summer?! The show has begun superbly (minus the silly season openers that wrapped up last season’s cliffhanger)! It’s as if everyone over at Paramount suddenly woke up, actually watched their own show and finally realized it was abysmal television and an embarrassment to the Trek franchise. (Similar, if less obvious, transitions occurred on each of the other series’. Even The Next Generation took three seasons to find its stride. Enterprise, it seems, simply lags a bit behind the Trek learning curve.)

This season the special effects are terrific. The music is epic and thunderous. The cast, generally wonderful, have finally gelled. The acting caliber of the guest stars is spot-on. Porthos, the captain’s beagle, is adorable as ever. But most importantly of all, the writing and story craft have been elevated phenomenally. I’ve said for the last few years that the producers needed to can every writer on the show and bring in new, unpolluted, non-Trek writers. They have done the next best thing, recruiting Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, some of the Trek universe’s best paperback novelists. Their perspective, part reverential, part shake-things-up has been a breath of fresh, professional, erudite air.

The show still plays fast and loose with established Trek history, the chronological timeline, and the progress of technology, but it’s a complaint that, for perhaps the first time, finds itself superseded (thankfully) by the script.

From renegade genetically enhanced supermen (and a glimpse of Data’s creator) to conspiracy plots on the sweltering Vulcan desert, Enterprise is off and running and if the last several episodes (mini-movies actually as the last two storylines have been broken into 3-parters) are any indication of what is to come, the series shows no sign of slowing down.

Full speed ahead! It’s about damn time.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

"Manifesto" PART II

We yearn for a community of faith that knows each other well enough to have authentic relationships. We don’t want church to be somewhere we go or something we do, but something we are. While we see personal devotions and even personal retreats as essential to spiritual growth, we believe they have been extolled at the expense of finding meaning in a religious community. This is not a private, but a public faith. Who we become together is always more important than who we were alone—our range of creative expression is in direct proportion to our ability to unite.

Community is a safe place where we can grow in truth, wholeness and holiness. The only way to propagate the message is to live it. Our mission must be to show the world what it looks like when a community of believers lives under the reign of God.

Realizing that we are all just sooty ragamuffins rescued by unmerited grace, we know we have no right to expect others, outside our community, to act in accordance with God’s laws. Nor do we have any right to look down upon that place where we so recently squatted. We must extend mercy and grace because God so unsparingly lavished it upon us. Laying aside the axe of condemnation we instead enfold the sinner realizing we’ve been down that road before too. We do not categorize or prioritize sin. Sin is sin and it all grieves the heart of God. He makes no distinction between the pastor who nurtures pride in his heart and the man who finds comfort in the arms of a homosexual lover.

We shun pithy Church colloquialisms and trite (and quite honestly offensive) religious slogans. The way we behave to each other is a far greater indication of our true faith. How we treat others on a day to day basis, especially those we don’t like or who intend to do us harm is a far greater indicator of our spiritual walk than a condescending bumper sticker.

We do not consider the Church to be a place where one enters sparkling and clean. The church is a rescue mission, a trauma ward. It is the Church where one goes to get clean, to get healed. The messy transformation from vile sinner to redeemed saint happens not without, but within the wall of the church. We understand that holiness is not only a choice but also a process. Change happens not with a magic prayer, but a lifetime of spiritual toil and hard work. Many of us came to real devotion in God not through a serene process, but through a dramatic crux in our lives where we wrestled with God for our faith; where we questioned the touchstones of our upbringings and came out on the other side, limping perhaps like Jacob, with our own faith and not just the faith of our parents.

We desire to share Jesus with others in our sphere of influence in natural, non-religious ways. We balk at the “If you were to die tonight, where would you go” method of frightening people into salvation. We are just as comfortable talking about Christ in the church as we are in a smoky bar.

Socially, we are more permissive. We recognize that all too often those things which we were raised to view as forbidden are little more than the pet peccadilloes of cultural bias. Still, we simultaneously recognize that if my glass of wine or my friend’s cigarette offend a brother or might cause him to stumble, our liberty does not come at the expense of his beliefs or temptations. We are not scared of living, nor of confronting those who live too well. We do not think that ignoring or chastising sinners will cause them to suddenly want to be a part of our community. Like Christ, we must reach out to them, where they are. The prostitutes, homosexuals and drug addicts must be more than our mission field—they must also be our friends.

Additionally, we strive, like Brennan Manning to, “maintain the open-mindedness of children, to challenge fixed ideas and established structures, including our own. We listen to people in other denominations and religions. We don’t find demons in those with whom we disagree. We don’t cozy up to people who mouth our jargon. We rarely ever say, ‘God told me…’ If we are open, we rarely resort to either-or: either creation or evolution, liberty or law, sacred or secular, Beethoven or Madonna. We focus on both-and, fully aware that God’s truth cannot be imprisoned in a small definition. Of course the open mind does not except everything indiscriminently—Marxism and capitalism, Christianity and atheism, love and lust, Moet Chandon and vinegar. It does not accept all propositions equally like a sponge; nor is it as soft. But the open mind realizes that reality, truth, and Jesus Christ are incredibly open-ended.”

We desire to bring the arts back into the folds of the Church. Shunned for a century as the bastion of depravity, the church used to be the biggest advocate and supporter of artists and the incalculable power of the medium on the human soul. Bach, Michelangelo, Dostoyevsky, Elliot, O’Conner—artists that used their creative talents in God’s service. The time has come to revive that dynamism. It is time for us to stop producing mediocrity and calling it inspired. Music, film, painting, fiction, poetry, dance—all done to the glory of God for the advancement of His kingdom.

We are far more moderate than our parent’s generations, especially when it comes to social action, standing up for the downtrodden and giving voice to those who have no one to speak for them. This is not to say that we throw aside God’s law for man’s fads. Right is still right and wrong is still wrong. But we do not assume that a political party has the monopoly on Christianity. Furthermore, we realize that more often than not, Christianity, by its very nature flies in the face of what would be considered modern conservatism. We understand that the United States of America is not the church, nor do we want it to be. The government's job is not to be identified as God’s people, but to promote the welfare of the citizenry by restraining evil. The Church, on the other hand, is called to be a witness. It does not have a mission, it IS the mission. While we are good citizens, rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, we realize we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom. When our heavenly citizenship clashes with our earthly citizenship, we are not afraid to speak out against our government, even if it brings about scorn and ridicule from others in Christendom. We realize too that the body of Christ transcends borders and lines on a map. Jingoistic and xenophobic policies only cause further injury and mistrust. We are not interested in changing the world through power politics. That was never a Christian’s job. Hung up on making the world a theocracy, too often the church does not admit the free moral agency God Himself would not overthrow in an individual.

Change, we believe, happens through humble serventhood. Transformation is achieved through meeting the needs of the least of us. We are spurred on to show our love for God in works. We know works do not earn our salvation—they are both a natural outgrowth of our thankfulness and appreciation to God as well as a allegiance to his commends. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ instructed his followers to love their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and secondly to love our neighbors as themselves. Jesus never said the Church would be known for its numbers, the size of its cathedrals, the variety of its cell groups, the veracity of its preaching or the caliber of its praise and worship. Simply, Jesus said his followers would be known by their love. That’s all. That’s it. The two greatest commandments are proactive. If necessary, we’ll use words.

We are committed to the plight of the poor, the downtrodden and the unlovable using medieval Catholic orders as our models. We must be God’s hands while on this earth. Servants like Mother Teresa light our way. We are much more interested in serving in a soup kitchen that picketing an abortion clinic. The social gospel may not save the soul, but it realizes the soul is hardly in a receptive state when it cannot hear above the growling of its belly. It is time for the church to reclaim this area of its responsibility, abdicated to the government long ago.

But most importantly of all, we realize all too well that those ideals we strive for and extol slip from our fingers daily. Our knees are bruised and bloodied from falling to them so often in repentance. We recognize that the biggest sinner of all lies within us. We/I realize that I fall woefully short of so much that I have scrawled here. My failure is not my hypocrisy—it is my inspiration, my objective.

In proclaiming these things, “younger evangelicals” (we really must get a new name) are not changing what we know, but how we know it. This, we believe is where the Church must head if it has any hope of impacting our post-modern culture. It has been documented recently that just as many unsaved are flocking to the Church as a refuge from a sin-battered world, there are also many Christians leaving the Church, disgusted by her lack of authenticity and clear vision. They do not desire a life without Christ—just the opposite—they simply feel they can discover Him easier outside the walls of an established religion that is more interested in church growth than salvation growth. We cannot allow this to happen. The Church must become viable again, not by conforming to opinion polls or reciting endless books on growth strategies and leadership how-to manuals, but by reestablishing itself as an immovable rock in the midst of the gale, grounded in historical orthodoxy and an Acts Two mentality of contagious community.

Please forgive me if I have rambled or come across too zealously. I of all people know that the values I exposed here are not yet within my grasp. But I rise to meet them every morning with a sense of wonder and humility and excitement that I have never felt before.

How many of you, I wonder, are on the same road?



“As yet we have done nothing. Let us begin again.” – St. Francis, at the end of his life

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

"Manifesto" PART I


In advance of my upcoming review of Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian” I felt compelled to repost something I wrote over a year ago. It was dubbed by many as my “manifesto.” Whatever you wish to call it, it was, for me, a genuine outpouring of my passions, convictions, and Spirit leadings. Re-reading it, I admit they have altered very little. At the time, I had no idea how to explain, much less name, what I was feeling. Furthermore, I didn’t know if I was alone in my feelings or if others felt as I did. As it turned out, I received dozens of letters from you, many quite lengthy, excitedly explaining that I had nailed what many had been thinking and feeling for some time. Many of us have continued those dialogs and persist in feeling that the modern church (primarily because it is a MODERN church) can no longer speak to the emerging generations.

If anything, a year’s time has allowed me further research, prolonged study, and extended observation of what has come to be known as the Emergent movement (for more on Emergent and its birth pains read this month’s Christianity Today cover story at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/011/12.36.html). I suppose I am curious how the movement (I, like others, hesitate and even resist calling it a movement, but there you are) has grown or shrunk. Who still feels the same way as before? Who feels differently? Who has begun incorporating Emergent ideals into their lives and who has decided not to proceed?

The original was long and so I will present it here in a couple sections. I have cut its content down at bit as well. There were some things (most notably my struggles with and pulling away from the Pentecostal/Charismatic church) that were (and continue to be) specific largely to me. Please forgive the work’s pace and often-aggressive tone. It was written in one sitting and can be, shall we say, provocative at times.

I am going to share a discovery with you. Why? Because I suspect that many of us have adopted a like-minded spirituality without perhaps being aware of it. Something has been percolating inside of me for some time now. I have felt the confines and borders of my spiritual self heave and shift in the past several years. Perhaps you have too. My Christianity no longer fits into any preconceived box, and for the first time, I am ok, even excited about that. I have begun looking at my Christianity and its role in my life with new eyes and a new appreciation. I knew from talking with several of those friends in my immediate circle that they too were transforming their religious experiences into a new and at times, controversial package. I simply did not realize how far reaching this alteration was. Suspecting but never being able to confirm its breadth, I was both astonished and energized to discover that I and those I keep company with are in fact not alone.

I will attempt to describe this trend as it applies to me personally and the others who find themselves the vanguards of its tenets. I have researched its emergence extensively over the past week and found that, more often than not, our thoughts align to a compelling and faithful standard.

I would love to hear from you about this. I suspect that I am not alone and as my week’s serendipity alludes to, there are more of us than we know.

This is not intended to be a critique of the current state of the Church as much as it is a barometer of a new and fresh move of the spirit of God among that Church’s younger (primarily but far from exclusively) members. I think what follows will intrigue you, possibly shock you, and almost certainly thrill you. Please take it in the spirit of which it is intended—a soul only dimly aware of the universe he resides in, trying his hardest to wrestle truth from the cosmos. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, only the hunger.

Before I continue I just want to say that I am thrilled at what I sense the Lord doing in my life and the lives of those around me. While it may shock and grieve some of you, I am, for literally the first time in my life, on the cusp of my thirties, truly ecstatic about my Christian faith and where it is taking me.

In one week’s time, my perspective on this issue has exploded. It went from something that I thought was only seething in my and some dear friends’ hearts, to something that is being described in recent books, reputable periodicals and online journals as, “a new great awakening,” “a historical change,” and “a spiritual revolution.” It is a revolution occurring at this very moment. As one writer in Christianity Today admitted, “Something is unquestionably afoot.”

But what is it?

The “Younger Evangelicals” as author and researcher Robert Webber has dubbed us (referencing Richard Quebedeaux’s seminal 1970s text, “The Young Evangelicals” ) range in age from early 20s to mid 30s. We recognize that we are in the maelstrom of a cultural transition period as modernism is thrown overboard in a post-modern world. The old counterculture of the sixties is now the mainstream—we are the new counterculture. We are the first generation raised among the fallout of a society that embraced moral relativism, licentious sex, rampant drug use, and debased ethics and morality. Far from the utopia it was touted to be, the socially corrosive world into which we were born has produced broken families, relentless promiscuity, dumbed-down education, devastating sexually transmitted diseases, and increasing social violence.

The popular mythology of the sixties said that religion would end on the trash heap of history. Instead, while cultural elites wring their hands over the erosion of civil society and the increasing irrelevance of the church, their children are entering adulthood on their knees. Confounding the predictions so fashionable just decades ago, Gen-X is not cynical and jaded, but optimistic and spiritually sensitive. Gen-Xers and the uncreatively dubbed Generation Y that
follows them are embracing religous faith in record numbers. We are seeking something with more enduring meaning and we are finding it in religion. Churches around the nation are recording record growth and numbers.

However, even among those raised in the Church, tectonic shifts are occurring. It is here that the true crux of the movement hinges.

There is a widespread theological discontent among ordinary young Christians. Many of today’s youth are unresponsive to the agendas of our immediate forefathers in worship, theology and general church strategy. Instead, we are increasingly drawn to Christian orthodoxy, traditional Christian teachings about doctrine and morality. There is a deep hunger for tradition and all that has been stripped away in modernized worship and teaching.

The trend of the mega-church is an anathema to us. Our goal is an organic, relational community of believers—a goal that cannot be achieved in huge Wal-Mart churches delivering a slick and packaged program of nauseating Christian consumer goods. We wish to communicate our faith by embodying the teachings of Christ, rather than articulating principles and programs. There is no longer any room for truth in our market-driven atmosphere.

Glenn Wagner said, “[W]e have bought into gimmicks and programs, the razzle dazzle Las Vegas syndrome of Christianity, all flesh and lights and gaudiness. We have forgotten what it means to BE the church and do ministry.”

We want tradition, not innovation. We seek meaning, not entertainment from our worship. Unsatisfied with both “traditional” and “contemporary” worship, we strive to strike a balance, blending the two into a rich tradition where the Church is vibrant and alive but also contextualized for the era.

These changes represent a paradigm shift in the Church. We are quite aware that we are deconstructing modernity and re-imagining the Church in western culture. The Church, we feel, does not suffer from a lack of persecution in our hemisphere because of supernatural blessings and protection, but because of a lack of serious threat and impact to our society. Our churches strive to be inoffensive, instead of desiring full-blooded truth claims. More and more denominations are letting secular and indeed Satanic influences infiltrate the Church. Many who call themselves Christians are adopting belief systems at odds with the primacy of Scripture.

In enacting this change, we not only feel the freedom, but the responsibility to shatter denominational lines. We gather together from the full spectrum of the Church, creating a new spiritual mosaic. Moreover, those raised in evangelical Protestantism (like myself) are finding deep satisfaction and comfort in more liturgical forms of worship, often sending us into the pews of more Orthodox and Catholic churches while our parent’s generation of clergy and laity look on with uneasiness. We do not draw the line in the sand as others before us have done. The Gospel has been made far more complicated than Christ ever intended it. An individual who calls on the name of Jesus Christ for his salvation, who recognizes Christ’s gift off the cross, and who repents of his sins is a Christian—be he Catholic or Protestant. Both groups tack on “do’s” and “don’ts” that have nothing to do with Scripture and only divide one group from another. We see these issues as irrelevant so long as the Gospel is tantamount.

For those of us coming from Protestantism, high liturgy reinforces the awe and majesty of God lost on a watered down evangelical movement more interested in seeing God as a bosom chum. We find grounding and purpose in the historical creeds, communicate our faith publicly through the use of symbols and the recovery of sacramental life reminding us in tangible ways of the grace that saved and sustains us daily. We are just as likely to listen to Nicole Nordeman and Michael W. Smith for spiritual nourishment as we are Benedictine choirs, Gregorian chants and even U2! We find ourselves less hung up on the finer points of non-essential doctrine and tit-for-tat legalism. Harkening back to a bygone era, some have dubbed us, “young fogies.”

Our heroes and standard bearers are pulled from the familiar and the obscure intellectual landscape, without respect to denomination: C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Francis Schaeffer, Brennan Manning, Phillip Yancey, Thomas Merton, Os Guiness, John MacArthur, Henri Nouwen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rich Mullins, Soren Kierkegaard, Brian McLaren, and Dorothy Sayers.

We are committed to a biblically rooted, historically informed and culturally aware new evangelical witness in the 21st century. We desire a multicultural community of faith, and inter-generational ministry. As our model, we look to the past to forge our future.

Of particular importance is the early church. Much of what we want is found in the Catholic tradition—a profound respect for church history that traditional and contemporary evangelicalism has ignored. We are not interested in going back to wallow in the past, but to take from that past (its ancient traditions, worship, biblical dependence and doctrine) and implement them in a contextually relevant way.

Make no mistake—we are not interested in changing the church based on our culture as so many contemporary churches have done in an attempt to fit in and make themselves more palatable. We wish to approach our culture and the current humanist disciplines through the lens of the Church’s ancient beliefs and practices. There is no better way to read the history of humankind. Our religious beliefs should inform, shape and direct our culture, not the other way around.

The path is an ancient road, rediscovered. Adoption into the life of the Church grounds us in a world far more substantial then we could ever discover on our own. It establishes a direct link with the apostolic life of Christ and His disciples and their followers in the early church. Individualism as a paradigm (especially that of the personality-driven ministry) is vanishing, allowing for a new appreciation of the corporate paradigms in Scripture.

This involves a return to ancient Christian and Reformation teachings that Christianity is a community of faith. We seek a rebirth of the church visible. The church was intended to be incarnational—that is, the Church is the body of Christ, and as such is His hands and feet and mouth. The most persuasive apologetic is not a finely crafted sermon, but a visible, identifiable people living truly and honestly under the rule of God in both community and service. The question is not whether or not we can prove what we believe, but can we live what we believe.

Monday, November 15, 2004

"INCOMING!" A review of U2's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb"

Midway through November, illicit copies of the uberband U2’s latest album “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” were leaked on the Internet. Though I fully intend to buy the CD when it hits store shelves next Tuesday, my curiosity could not help a sneak peek.

“Atomic Bomb” is a powerful, confident, expansive guitar rock album. Yes, you heard me—guitar rock album. The Edge wore the pants in these recording sessions. The past decade’s experimentation gives way to heavily guitar laden pieces brimming with 80’s nostalgia. For those who yearn for the U2 of “Joshua Tree,” here is your chance to come back to the fold.

“Atomic Bomb” is powerhouse of an album, which is a remarkable observation given its balance of slower, graceful tracks. The album moves with its own gravimetric velocity.

“Vertigo,” while the most energetic song on the CD is also the least representative of the overall style. For those frightened away by the song’s radio-friendly, tough exterior, “Vertigo” is merely the catchy hook to bring you to the CD. It will grow on you, but stands alone stylistically from the rest.

“Miracle Drug” will inevitably feel weaker following the momentum of “Vertigo” but don’t let that fool you. It is a fine track.

“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” is a tremendous balled written by Bono for his father. It is the sort of song that builds and builds both musically and lyrically sweeping the listener away.

“Love and Peace Or Else” opens with spacey bass and turns into one whammy of a song! One of the best, most innovative, most courageous tracks. You’ll be blasting out the car speakers with this one!

“City of Blinding Lights” is a U2 hymn, dominated by an unforgettable piano and guitar melody. It is classic U2.

“All Because of You” opens with an ear-splitting guitar hit and instantly moves into a sound we are familiar with but haven’t heard from the boys in some time. Still, it is one of the album’s weaker tracks.

“A Man and A Woman” is easily the weakest track, more a B-side than a premiere release. Seems uninspired.

“Crumbs From Your Table” is a typical U2 song—mellow, soulful, full of heart and soul but requires a few listens before one discovers the melody.

“One Step Closer” is a deeply emotional song, melancholy and atmospheric. The sparse instrumentation really allows Bono a chance to shine. The guitar is reminiscent of “With or Without You.”

“Original of the Species” is my favorite track on the album. It is a wonderful, seductive, Beatlesesque ballad.

“Yahweh” is tinged with the current UK powerhouse, Coldplay’s influence. More upbeat than the usual U2 closer.

The overall prognosis is that U2 have rediscovered rock. “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” is a predominantly straight, guitar-heavy album, uncomplicated and without much fuss. This is not to say it is not loud and aggressive, every song heavily influenced by The Edge’s angry guitar. It is.

For those who enjoy U2’s Christian stimulus, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” will reaffirm their faith in the band’s and especially Bono’s dynamic, raw, and influential faith—from uplifting lyrics to “Yahweh’s” Hebraic praise.

On a less positive note, this is not U2’s best album. Some of the songs sound a bit unfinished, especially among their disappointing middle passages. But “Atomic Bomb” is a solid, down-to-earth, enjoyable addition to their discography. While the album requires repeated listening, it gets better every time.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Reality is that you should be watching Reality TV!

The truth is I can’t fault you if you are disgusted by Reality-TV. There is plenty out there to be disgusted by. In a television market dominated by shows in which the objective seems to be either humiliation and embarrassment or depravity and deception, it’s not hard to see why so many people bemoan the status of the market’s newest golden children. I am constantly greeted by howls of derision when I try to bring the subject up. But what if there are good reality shows out there? What if, amongst the rubbish there are a few radiant gems that can either give your life some delicious diversion or even genuine uplift? Don’t believe me? If I could strap you into a chair and tape open your eyes and force you to watch Reality TV you did not want to watch (any Stanley Kubrick fans out there?!) the following two shows would be my choices.

The Race Is On!

If you have never given The Amazing Race a chance, now is the time. The two-time Emmy winner debuts its newest season this coming Tuesday.

11 teams of two circumnavigate the globe in a race for a million dollars. Each of the thirteen destinations is a surprise as are the choices of culturally-relevant tasks they must perform once they arrive. The last team to reach the designated pit-stop of that leg is generally eliminated.

One of the things that make The Amazing Race unique and spell-binding is its lack of politics. No one in this game votes another off. Here, only the strongest, quickest, or luckiest survive.

Are you tired of seeing the same-old-same-old scenery on Survivor? Every episode of The Amazing Race takes place in a different country. The contestants may find themselves in Siberia one episode and Venice the next. For those like Stephanie and I—cursed with a phenomenal wanderlust—the travel and panorama is breathtaking.

Psychologically, The Amazing Race is a complex and intimate look at how people react under pressure and exhaustion; how they handle this element of the game more often than not is the deciding factor in how far they progress.

No other show can get you to the edge of your seat faster and keep you there longer. No other show can make the space between weeks seem greater.

The Amazing Race is not only the best reality show on TV, it is one of the best shows on TV, period.

SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: The Amazing Race has been known to cause ulcers, nail-biting and nervous disorders in adults. A robust constitution is advised.

I Dare You Not To Cry!

Stephanie and I started watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition by accident and it has now become a staple of our Sunday evenings.

What makes Home Edition stand out among a glut of similarly themed shows? Because instead of going into the home of a family that is tired of looking at old furniture and carpet, the Extreme team targets those with genuine and profound physical needs.

Those treated with makeovers are in desperate need of them: a son in a wheelchair who can't get around his house; mold embedded in the walls is making a family seriously ill; after decades of never seeing him, a man finds his father living on the street but has no room for him in his house; a young girl cannot leave her home because she is allergic to the sun; a family of eleven who just lost their mother to cancer can no longer feasibly stay in their small, two-bedroom; a social worker who spends her life helping others comes home every night to a home falling apart around her; a deaf family with an autistic child has to find a way to proof their home against his frequent escapes…

There is always a sense of worthiness to the recipients. They actually deserve the makeovers they get. The changes the Extreme team undertakes do not simply make their lives easier, they radically change their lives for the better. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is a blessing to families every week and the raw emotion that wells up after doing good for another person is on the tear-stained faces of the team-members each episode…and on the faces of the viewers.

SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has been shown to make grown men weep. A sensitive heart is a viewing hazard—and an imperative.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

BOOK REVIEW: "Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People" by Michael Yaconelli

The following is the first of what I hope will become a monthly book review. For December: “A New Kind of Christian” by Brian McLaren.

“I’m all for getting the mechanics right, but spiritual growth is more than a procedure; it’s a wild search for God in the tangled jungle of our souls, a search which involves a volatile mix of messy reality, wild freedom, frustrating stuckness, increasing slowness, and a healthy dose of gratitude.” – Mike Yaconelli

Mike Yaconelli is a depreciatingly honest man. “I want desperately to know God better,” he says on the opening page of his book, Messy Spirituality. “I want to be consistent. Right now the only consistency in my life is my inconsistency. Who I want to be and who I am are not very close together.”

Yaconelli and I are soul mates.

With a light conversational style and a prose that evokes both brutal candor and unconditional empathy, Yaconelli spills his demons (and ours) upon the pages of his book. This is not a book for the Christian who thinks they have it all figured out. This is a book for the Christian who, like Yaconelli, has been “trying to follow Christ most of my life, and the best I can do is a stumbling, bumbling, clumsy kind of following. I wake up most days with the humiliating awareness that I have no clue where Jesus is.”

Instead of allowing us to focus on our own inadequacies, Yaconelli dares us to compare our lives against those of the scriptures. “Look at the Bible,” he says. “Its pages overflow with messy people. Sounds like you and I are in good company.”

“Spirituality is not about competency; it is about intimacy. Spirituality is not about perfection; it is about connection. Accepting the reality of our broken, flawed lives is the beginning of spirituality not because the spiritual life will remove our flaws but because we let go of seeking perfection and, instead, seek God, the one who is present in the tangledness of our lives.”

Yaconelli’s call is for Christians to come out of hiding, remove the masks that they’ve worn so long they can no longer remember the look of their own faces, and admit both to themselves and their community that they are still works in progress. Being real, he insists, is admitting you are messy. “Our pursuit of spirituality is not always nice, nor is it sanitized. It often gets messy, landing more outside the lines than we think.”

The church, Yaconelli claims, needs to cease being a place where Christians feel they must walk through the doors already perfected and become a safe place for the fellowship of Christ to admit their faults and weaknesses; a place they can come with ceaseless doubts and troubling questions; a place that, like Jesus, is not repelled by our messiness and flawed humanity but instead doggedly pursues us with outrageous, indiscriminate love.

“There is no room for pretending in the spiritual life. Unfortunately, in many religious circles, there exists an unwritten rule. Pretend. Act like God is in control when you don’t believe he is. Give the impression everything is okay in your life when it’s not. Pretend you believe when you doubt; hide your imperfections; maintain the image of a perfect marriage with healthy and well-adjusted children when your family is like any other normal dysfunctional family. And whatever you do, don’t admit that you sin.”

Yaconelli isn’t scared to admit that he doesn’t have it all together. He isn’t sheepish about confessing that, after forty some years of ministry, there are still places where he falls, things which continue to trip him up, and times during which he is not where he would like to be with God. But, he believes, Jesus cares more about desire than competence.

“Spiritual people admit their unfinishedness. Unfinished means incomplete, imperfect, in process, in progress, under construction. Spiritual describes someone who is incomplete, imperfectly living out their life for God. The construction site of our souls exposes our flaws, the rough-hewn, not-finished faith clearly visible in our hearts.”

For Yaconelli, messiness is simply another name for the place where desperation meets Jesus Christ.

“Desperate is a strong word. That’s why I like it. People who are desperate are rude, fanatic, and reckless. Desperate people are explosive, focused, and uncompromising in their desire top get what they want. Someone who is desperate will crash through the veil of niceness. People who are desperate very seldom worry about the mess they make on the way to be with Jesus.”

One of the greatest myths in Christendom, Yaconelli believes, it the myth of fixing oneself in order to be presentable to Christ. “Some of us actually believe that until we choose the correct way to live, we aren’t choosable; that until we clean up the mess, Jesus won’t have anything to do with us. The opposite is true. Until we admit we are a mess, Jesus won’t have anything to do with us. Once we admit how unlovely we are, how unattractive we are, how lost we are, Jesus shows up unexpectedly. The mess of our lives and our crippledness is what most qualifies us to be chosen by Jesus.”

Jesus is not scared away by losers, Messy Spirituality postulates, he is attracted to them. Jesus’ losers are great candidates for spirituality. Rather than being repulsed and offended by the sin of those around us, Christians need to see their own pasts in the presents of others. The search for love, for meaning, for happiness is often the search for God in disguise. The church needs to recognize not what the unsaved are doing, but what they are looking for.

“What characterizes Christianity in the modern world,” Yaconelli writes, “is its oddness. Christianity is home for people who are out of step, unfashionable, unconventional, and countercultural. As Peter says, ‘strangers and aliens.’” Rarely do you hear someone preaching that we should beware of balance but that is exactly what Yaconelli does. Besides, he claims, “oddness is important because it is the quality that adds color, texture, variety, beauty, to the human condition.”

Yaconelli’s definition of spiritual growth isn’t touted from most pulpits. But perhaps it should be.

Messy Reality: “Spiritual growth thrives in the midst of our problems, not in their absence. Spiritual growth occurs in the trenches of life, not in the classroom. We don’t grow while studying the definition of consistency; we grow when we try to be consistent in an inconsistent world. We can talk about love all we want, but loving those who are unlovely is how we learn to love. So do we encourage people to fail so they can grow? No, we encourage people to grow, which means they will fail.”

Wild Freedom: “Sadly most Christians are frightened of freedom. Freedom in Christ means I am free from everyone else’s definition of freedom for me. Because I am free in Christ, when it comes to my relationship with him, he is the only one I answer to.”

Frustrating Stuckness: “Getting stuck can be the best thing that could happen to us, because it forces us to stop. It halts the momentum of our lives. We have no choice but to notice what is around us, and we end up searching for Jesus. When we’re stuck, we’re much more likely to pay attention to our hunger for God and the longings and yearnings we have stifled.”

Increasing Slowness: “Speeding through life endangers our relationships and our souls. [It] damages our souls because living fast consumes every once of our energy. Speed has a deafening roar that drowns out the whispering voices of our souls and leaves Jesus as a diminishing speck in the rearview mirror. Rest is a decision we make. Rest is the ultimate humiliation because in order to rest, we must admit we are not necessary, that the world can get along without us, that God’s work does not depend on us.”

Yaconelli insists that spiritual growth looks different for each of us. The one thing he insists it is not is a straight, ascending line. “Growth cannot be charted as a steadily climbing line, even though most people in the church believe [it should be so]. True spiritual growth…goes up, down, and sideways, giving it an irregular, jagged, odd shape. Genuine growth follows as many patterns as there are people.”

While hardly ignoring the ultimate heaven-bound destiny of a Christian, Messy Spirituality preaches that this life is far more about the journey to God than the destination with him. “The spiritual life is not a life of success; it is a life of faithfulness.”

To that end, Yaconelli recites Paul’s words in Romans with his own spin: “Neither failure nor poor church attendance, nor inadequate Bible reading and prayer, nor betrayal, denial, doubt, insecurity, guilt, weakness, bad theology, or even losing our temper can separate us from the love of God.”

Christians have succumbed to what Yaconelli describes as a “conspiracy of grace.” That grace is unmerited and unfair. But when God’s “unfairness” includes people like Mike Yaconelli or Brandon Fibbs, who wants to argue.

For those who would challenge his book’s thesis and say that God does not condone unbiblical living, Yaconelli would agree, with one caveat: “Christians do not condone unbiblical living; we redeem it.” Messy Spirituality is not interested in making excuses for our many foibles, spiritual shortcomings and generally messy lives, but in urging us to be honest with others and ourselves and admit that we exist in and contribute to that mess. And most importantly, that in the midst of that unfinishedness, that incompleteness, that incompetence is Christ.

This is a book written for the person who feels he simply can’t do Christianity right; who worries far more about what he has left undone than what he has done; who drowns beneath his own imperfections instead of realizing that God accepts and even has a historical fondness for the radically imperfect.

Michael Yaconelli dares to suggest that imperfection, unfinishedness, and messiness are, in fact, the earmarks of a true, real, vibrant, authentic, and forward-moving Christianity that also happens to be messy, erratic, lopsided and gloriously liberating. Messy Spirituality is a strong antidote for the spiritual perfectionist is us all.

Writer’s Note: Mike Yaconelli died in a car accident this summer while moving to be closer to his ailing mother. He was 61.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

For Whom Would Jesus Vote: Single-issue politics is neither necessary nor wise.

A Christianity Today Editorial

It has become a cliché for Christians to ask, What would Jesus do? But as we close out one of the nastiest campaigns in memory, it might be timelier to ask, For whom would Jesus vote? Many Christians think they at least know for whom the Lord would not vote, based on one issue.

In September, Illinois Republican Senate candidate Alan Keyes stated that Jesus would not vote for rising star Democrat Barack Obama, his opponent, because of Obama's earlier vote in the state Senate against a bill requiring doctors to provide medical care to infants born alive after attempted abortions. James I. Lamb, executive director of the pro-life group Lutherans For Life, also thinks he knows. "A candidate who favors abortion should be disqualified from receiving a Christian's vote," Lamb says. "A vote for a pro-abortion candidate implicates the voter in the destruction of children created by God and for whom Jesus died."

Over the summer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave such single-issue thinking more nuance. In a memo to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. (McCarrick leads a task force on Catholic politicians), Ratzinger said Catholics may vote for a politician who supports abortion rights if (1) abortion is not the reason for their vote, and (2) they have "proportionate reasons" (in other words, if the candidate's positions on other issues outweigh his or her stand on abortion).

But how do you measure whether a candidate's good on other issues outweighs his or her bad on the question of human life? As Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said in reaction to the memo, "What is a proportionate reason to justify favoring the taking of an innocent, defenseless human life?" Obviously, no amount of praiseworthy policies on the environment, terrorism, or the economy can atone for the loss of a single human life made in God's image—let alone for the 44 million unborn taken from us since 1973.

However, a vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights does not necessarily translate into more abortions. In some cases, voting for a pro-choice politician may be morally acceptable (especially if the pro-life opponent is otherwise incompetent). Of course, Christians should not vote for abortion ideologues—who reflexively and actively support the destruction of innocent human life at every turn and for every reason—and then claim ignorance.

This summer the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) released a thoughtful draft document titled "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." It encourages evangelicals of all political stripes to work together not just for the sanctity of human life, but also for religious freedom, family life, the poor, peacemaking, and creation care. While sanctity-of-life issues will always be of vital interest to Christians, today's context demands that believers engage a broad spectrum of issues.

We continue to believe the classic Christian teaching that abortion is the wrongful taking of innocent human life and a grave sin. We also recognize that many Americans view abortion as sometimes the lesser of two evils, and a complete ban is politically impossible right now. Unfortunately, public opinion tolerating this evil has been remarkably consistent since Roe v. Wade. Last year, 57 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances (compared with 54 percent in 1975)—such as to save the life of the mother (88 percent) or to end an unwanted pregnancy (42 percent). Former President Bill Clinton, who apparently never met an abortion restriction he liked, nevertheless captured public sentiment when he said abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare."

As President Bush has said, to make abortion nonexistent, we first need to build a culture of life. Part of that effort surely means educating and making alliances with open-minded pro-choice politicians (those who exist) to work toward reasonable compromise measures, such as parental notification, a ban on partial-birth abortions, funding for ultrasound machines, and waiting periods.

That's the real world of politics. We must make hard choices about using our scarce resources of time and money.

By thinking in terms of single issues, we marginalize ourselves, whether we are Republicans or Democrats, pro-life or pro-choice. A better approach is to think of dominant issues. For most Christians seeking to honor God with their votes, the sanctity of human life is a given. Because of Scripture's clarity on the dignity of human beings, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and like issues should be prime concerns for all of us.

But we can't stop there. Jesus is Lord of all. As the NAE statement says, "While individual persons and organizations may rightly concentrate on one or two issues, faithful evangelical civic engagement must champion a biblically balanced agenda."

The dark side of single-issue politics is that it has forced evangelicals to become ever more shrill and ever less imaginative. Dominant-issue politics shows greater promise in addressing our society amid all the pressing issues our society faces, including terrorism, economic justice, church-state relations, gay marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, and so on.

Abortion is a monstrous tragedy for the nation, but our Christian commitment to a culture of life does not permit us the luxury of abandoning other important issues. While single-mindedness in following Christ is always wise, single-issue voting may not be.

Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. November 2004, Vol. 48, No. 11, Page 32
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus