Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Limits of Doubt

Trends come and trends go. One of the advantages of middle age is watching them go. Take Christian fashion for example: you can recognize a Christian hipster these days by their vintage jackets, skinny jeans, iPhone 4’s, and their in-your-face doubt.

Doubt is all the rage. Articulate and earnest Christians are shedding the fashions of their predecessors by posting their doubts online and in print. Thoughtful folks like Jason Boyett and Rachel Held Evans not only wrestle with the faith as they received it, but chronicle their journey of doubt for others to share. They are talented and sincere Christian writers, sharing their experiences. Yet it seems to me doubt has become a badge of authenticity among 20 and 30-somethings. Is doubt the new mark of a follower of Jesus?

It’s worth noting that doubt belongs in the Christian story. Gospel accounts of the resurrection include the doubts of Jesus’ closest followers. As noted in a previous post, doubt does not--and should not--exclude us from worship. Jesus bridged the gulf of open rebellion and sin in order to restore relationship with humanity; a little thing like doubt certainly won’t hold him back. The earliest Christian community followed Jesus’ example and did not reject those who struggled to believe (John 20: 24-31 is an excellent example). Nor can I blame others for expressing their doubts. Honesty trumps mindless conformity. The demand for agreement on certain points of doctrine has damaged people’s faith as much as the open confession of uncertainty.

Yet there are problems with the popularity of doubt in our day. The rush to embrace doubt may be a needed correction within some quarters of Christianity, but it comes with a price. I’d like to suggest six considerations worth keeping on the front burner along side the current dish of doubt simmering today.

Doubt can be the evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. In every generation the essentials of faith become polluted with the non-essentials of Christian culture. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is moving in a new generation of believers to question whether every detail of Evangelical faith is actually required by God. In every age religious expressions are infused with political, social, and intellectual agendas that have no real bearing on the Kingdom of God--we just like to think they do!

Never trust anyone who hasn’t wrestled with doubt. The person who receives the words of Jesus without any questions is someone who hasn’t really heard the words of Jesus. The Son of God is an equal-opportunity offender. Saul of Tarsus was a first-rate Jewish scholar who believed he was doing God’s work by persecuting Christians. After meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus he spent three days, blind and alone, reconsidering everything he previously believed to be God’s will. If Jesus is real, everything changes.

Don’t confuse doubt with seeking. We seek in order to find; sometimes we doubt in order to avoid seeking. Jesus appeared to Thomas because his doubts were reasonable; Thomas responded with the declaration, “my Lord and my God.” God invites us to seek--even to question--yet he assures us he can be found. The witness of scripture and of the centuries is that God reveals himself to those who seek him. Too many people consider doubt an impartial quality, as if doubt is somehow above the fight. Instead, doubt is a method, and like all methods it has its limits. Doubt is a useful tool, but a terrible destination.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith. In his useful book, God in the Dark, Os Guinness points out that unbelief is the opposite of faith. Unbelief is the willful choice to not believe even after the questions have been answered. Doubt can spring from honesty or confusion; unbelief springs from the will. In the final analysis, even our intellect is called to obey.

My doubts are my doubts--they don’t have to be yours. Sometimes the religious establishment can be guilty of a stifling orthodoxy. It’s equally true that the next generation can be guilty of demanding uncertainty of others. I might think your faith is nothing more than Christian superstition but that does not mean I’m called to change your mind. I suspect God is more interested in whether we play nice together than whether we all sign the same creed.

The object of faith is a Person, not a proposition. For twenty-five years I’ve loved my wife. After twenty-five years I don’t pretend to understand her! How much more the unfathomable Creator? The book of Job reveals the essence of faith is relationship, not precept. I may doubt my understanding of God, but I trust I will never doubt him.

He is my destination, and I hope my heart is like St. Augustine's, "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until we find ourselves in you." Peace.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Worship in the Midst of Doubt

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  (Matthew 28: 16-17)

Why doesn’t everyone include verses 16 and 17 in the “Great Commission?” I suspect because these two verses include topics rarely discussed in the lives a disciple: obedience and doubt. Thursday we began to discuss doubt. This week why not meditate on worship in the midst of doubt?

Imagine the scene around the resurrected Jesus: his best friends giving him worship in a private setting, yet in some minds and hearts there was still doubt. Yet their doubt did not disqualify them. He still received them, and he gave the “Great Commission.”

Doubt is a solitary struggle. Most expressions of worship are outward: we sing, kneel, pray, dance, bow, read, listen, and fellowship. Others see our actions, but this passage reminds us Jesus knows our hearts and thoughts as well. What kind of doubts did some of the disciples have? Matthew does not tell us. We are left to speculate: perhaps, “I don’t belong here . . . I denied the Lord . . . Have I gone mad? . . . Is this really Jesus? . . . What will he require of me?” I believe their worship was sincere; so were their doubts.

The doubting disciples had obeyed. They had made their way to Galilee, just as Jesus instructed. Jesus did not turn away the doubters, he received their worship and included them in his mission. Disobedience would have kept them from hearing his voice; doubt did not. 

What if worship is giving all of ourselves to God--even the parts that struggle to believe, to trust, to surrender? Perhaps that day the doubters discovered Isaiah’s description of Jesus was true: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Matt. 12:20)

Earlier in his ministry Jesus told his friends, true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” Some people have interpreted "truth" to mean "doctrine," but what if Jesus also meant the truth about ourselves? Here’s a meditation worthy for the week: can I bring my doubts as an act of worship?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About . . . Well, whatever.

It's the first real day of fall here in Kentucky. Forget it: I'm not blogging--not even about pancakes or movies.

Fortunately my good friend Tom Wright offered to step in. Geez, he's been begging to get in on this Students of Jesus action for nearly two years, so I thought, why not throw him a bone and take the day off? I gotta go . . .

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sharing Our Doubts

“Tonight we’re going to do something a little different,” I told my small-group Bible study. “Let’s talk about the passages in the scripture we find difficult to believe.”

Should I tell them?

I should have had a video camera. Some people immediately began searching their memories for which passage might fit into that category. Others were clearly surprised--their faces revealed their thoughts, “Really? We can talk about that?” But one person sitting in the back was clearly offended.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “I believe everything in the Bible.”

This woman was my friend--I had no desire to win an argument with her. Yet I was certain her response came more from a desire to be correct than to be honest. I knew a little bit of her history and upbringing: she was from a very conservative part of the country and had been a life-long member of a very conservative Christian denomination. In short, I knew she was giving me the only answer she thought was allowed to such a question.

“Great!” I lied. “Perhaps you can help the rest of us with whatever issues we’re willing to reveal tonight.”

One by one the rest of the gang turned to pages in both the Old and New Testaments and read out passages that gave them pause. For some it was no big deal--like discussing why there are a ten hot dogs in a package but hot dog buns come eight to a bag. Others found freedom in expressing for the first time that some verses just didn’t seem to make sense to them. Some were surprised to learn that I had a list of five verses I fond difficult to believe. After all, I was the Bible study leader--isn’t that guy supposed to be the answer man? And still, in the back of the room, my faithful friend watched and listened like a child spying on grown-ups long after she should be asleep.

Our discussion was wide-ranging that night. It was delightful to experience the kind of tender honesty where people discovered that their faith would not be questioned even as they expressed uncertainty, doubt or sometimes simple ignorance. “You, too?” laughed someone. “I thought I was the only one!”  That night we discovered that a community of believers can be one of the safest places to express doubt.

And this was precisely the problem for our one hold-out. She had grown up in a community where orthodoxy trumped everything--even honesty. The kind of community so common in some quarters of Evangelicalism, where conformity of opinion somehow equals the same thing as the Truth.

One of the great shortcomings of Evangelicalism in the last 75 years is the foolish, mistaken idea that doctrinal conformity is somehow the same thing as relationship, love, commitment, and family. Orthodoxy, as embraced by the Western Enlightenment mindset, engages only the mind and never touches the heart. When questions and doubt are pushed out the door, honesty and relationship go with them.

Of course orthodoxy is important. The word means correct teaching, and I’ve never met anyone in favor of incorrect teaching. The problem comes when my version of correct teaching becomes the required ticket for all the other aspects of Christian community. Community thrives in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is remarkably tolerant of our foolish notions of theology. He welcomes the poor in spirit, not the rich in knowledge. He is patient with the ignorant and gently leads us along, knowing that orthodoxy discovered is better than orthodoxy imposed.

Consider the stunning admission in Matthew 28:17--just one verse before the Jesus utters the Great Commission. “When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.” Did you know that was in the book? Can you imagine the scene: the resurrected Jesus (back from death, scars visible and real as your Mom), is standing right in from of his closest followers, and some were doubtful. If Jesus was ever going to thin the herd, that would have been the moment. Instead, Jesus gives them all the same assurance, the same task, and the same promise.

We are all invited to follow him. Apparently understanding is over-rated and relationship is under-rated. I suspect he will clear up the questions when I’m able to handle the truth. In the mean time, he invites us to participate in something none of us fully understand.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In other quarters of Christianity it’s become trendy to glory in our doubts. That’s not much better. You’re invited back next week (Thursday) when we look at the flip side of the equation.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Delight in the Sea of Humanity

Keep me safe, O God,
for in you I take refuge.

I said to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
apart from you I have no good thing.
As for the saints who are in the land,
they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.”
(Psalm 16:1-3)

Psalm 16 shows us David embracing the goodness of God. David’s life story shows him taking refuge in God again and again: God was his refuge from wild animals when David was a boy; his refuge from Goliath; his refuge from the demonically tormented King Saul; even from David’s own adult children, some of whom turned on him his old age. Time and again when people were the source of trouble and danger, David found in God a refuge.

But then, David says something that is enough to think about all week long:
As for the saints who are in the land,
they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.
And this gives me whiplash. The people of Israel were frequently the source of David’s trouble. Apart from a couple of animals and a nine-foot Philistine freak, most of David’s difficulties came from his kinsmen. How could David include them in the blessing of God?

It would have been easy for David to sing, “God you’re awesome, but people are just no good.” Yet David finds delight in God’s people. David recognizes the presence of God in the community around him. That’s where I’m tempted to get off the train. Like blanket-toting Linus in the Peanuts cartoon, I’m inclined to say, “I love humanity--it’s people I can’t stand.” But David found delight in his own decidedly less-than-perfect community.

What did David see in this treacherous, turbulent people? The question deserves consideration for at least a week: can I encounter the goodness of God among the crazy group of people I call my family, my neighbors, or my town? Can I find my delight in the sea of humanity around me each day? Can I love my city?

To see God’s glory is one thing: can God give me the grace to see their glory? 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About Saturday Morning Pancakes

If you’re reading this on a Saturday morning, I’m having pancakes.

Saturday mornings around here means pancakes. Mom gets to sleep in while my seven year-old daughter and I play “Top Chef.” Some folks think rituals have to be religious. I think they have to be smothered in butter and syrup. The ritual is Daddy-Daughter time, the altar is the kitchen counter, and I will not make the obligatory joke about burnt offerings--we are too good for that.

Even among the irenic hills of Kentucky everyday events threaten to steal time from the things we treasure most. I treasure time with my family, I treasure quiet mornings, and I treasure pancakes.

We are not particularly creative: my cooking skills extend to reading and following the directions on the box, even though they never change. Her skills extend to mixing the powder and water so carefully measured out by her Dad. Neither are we brave: simple pancakes will do, thank you, without the addition of berries, bananas or yuppie toppings. There was that one morning where we experimented with something other than syrup: whipped cream, honey, chocolate syrup and whatever that green stuff was. But we have promised never to speak of that morning again.

No. The beauty of Saturday morning pancakes is their dependability. Children need ritual and predictability. Grown-ups do, too. Sundays we do church, and there are plenty of rituals there as well, but we need holiness at home--holy without the trappings religious traditions, even when you love the traditions of your faith. I can reliably report that Jesus loves pancakes just as much as we do. The word holy means simply, set apart, and Saturday mornings are set apart for Katie, me, and some guy named Hungry Jack.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Glory, Declared

God does some of his best work at sunrise, and he never says a word about it. Each morning the heavens declare the glory of God without the benefit of advertising, hype, or self promotion.

The heavens declare the glory of God; 
       the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
 Day after day they pour forth speech;
       night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
       where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
       their words to the ends of the world.
       In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
 which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
       like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
 It rises at one end of the heavens
       and makes its circuit to the other;
       nothing is hidden from its heat. (Psalm 19: 1-6)

There are those who say, "Good morning, Lord!" while others say, "Good Lord, it's morning!" His mercies are available to both groups, but only one group will see his glory.

In the past few days I’ve been thinking about the voice of God, ever since my friend Andrea said, “In the past I loved his words, now I love his voice.” I’ve tried to go about the business of the day while still tuning my ear to hear his voice. I’ve discovered what Psalm 19 has been trying to say all along: it’s God’s nature to speak, and his voice is in all the earth.

Daybreak is only one example: daybreak, spectacular and quiet. Like the resurrection. We are reminded each day that God delights in new possibilities. Each morning the message comes again: because of his great love we are not consumed, his mercies are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:22-23)

Dawn differs from daybreak, and his voice speaks again: the transition from night to day is subtle and occurs over time. Dawn is process, not an event. The hope of transformation is displayed each day, reminding us that coming alive in Jesus Christ is not like flipping a light switch, but rather like the coming of the sun. “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” (Proverbs 4:18)

Nor does he stop speaking just because the day is begun. King David saw the sun trace across the sky, felt its warmth on his face, and heard the voice of God. His voice engages all the senses.  By his light we not only see, we can actually feel the warmth of his love. It can grow into a blaze of glory.

Once we come alive to the sound of his voice in the earth, we discover it everywhere. My friend Adam heard the sound of the Spirit as he planted flowers: he stopped for just a moment, felt the breeze on his neck and heard the its sound in the leaves. To be aware of the breeze is to be aware of his presence. It's a matter of training ourselves to take notice. 

The voice of God is available to everyone. The heavens encircle the earth. All of humankind is included. Each of us can see his works. Rich and poor alike can see the sunrise or sunset. Rich and poor alike can ignore the majesty as well. The heavens encircle the earth, enabling people of every tribe and tongue to discover his goodness. He speaks without language to the hearts of men. Children are attuned to the wonder; the busy-ness of adults drowns the still small voice.

Nor does he speak only in the day. Once my ear was attuned I found myself worshipping God under the night sky. I heard the silent speech of the stars. The still of the night is vibrant with his presence. There’s a difference between God’s greatness and his love. Some people are impressed by God’s power and might, the wise fall down in worship at the realization of his love. The sight of a single star in the evening is enough to provoke awe at God’s greatness. A sky filled with stars declares his unfailing love.

I went to bed that night, unaware his voice was even yet still speaking, “He gives to his beloved even in their sleep.”

My prayer the next morning became, “Lord, let me love your voice.”

The Windhover  (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

 I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Streets of Gold

What happens when a Bible verse becomes a cliché--when it takes on a life apart from the setting the Spirit intended? If a passage becomes widely known and quoted it’s easy to miss the revelation the Spirit intended. Because it’s familiar we think we know what it means: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth -or- no rest for the wicked --or this week’s meditation, the streets of heaven are paved gold. Actually, this last example reads a bit differently: The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass. (Revelation 21:21)

Revelation 21 shows us what life is like when God lives among men. Some people call it “heaven.” I think Jesus called it “The Kingdom of God.” Some people think heaven is reserved for another day. I think Jesus told us “the kingdom of God is breaking in.” What if he wants to live among us now? I’d like to suggest three possibilities of what the Holy Spirit is trying to communicate when we hear that the streets of heaven are paved with gold.

Heaven has abundance. The present value of gold comes from scarcity. The economies of this age are, in part, built on what we do not have--and because we do not have something society sets the price high. But in God’s presence there is always enough. There's no scarcity in his presence. Imagine--how would we live today if there was always enough?

Heaven has its values in order. When God lives among men we would value gold no more than we care for asphalt. In our age the source of wealth is possessing what others value. In his kingdom the source of wealth is him! Imagine--how would we live today if the values of this world were beneath our feet?

Heaven values beauty. In God’s presence Main Street shines with the radiance of transparent gold. God is not only holy, God loves beauty. And he makes all things new: try to imagine your Main Street shining like gold.

This week, I invite you to turn your thoughts toward how your world would change today if “the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About Dialing it Down

I keep a dreadful secret from my friends at church. You see, where I worship, if you think the music’s too loud, you are definitely too old. The drugged-out neighbors near our building call the police to complain about the volume. The Kentucky Academy of Pediatrics has labeled the Vineyard the number one threat to children’s hearing in the state. Baby Boomers bring ear plugs to church. All the guitar amps go to 11.

But deep in the recesses of my iPhone, where no one can see my music collection, I have a playlist of gentle music. At my desk, I put in the ear buds and secretly dial it down. The fools--they think I'm still rocking it out! But God lives in the still small sounds, too.

So if you promise not to let this get back to the hometown gang, I’d like to recommend quiet music for quiet times:
Perhaps my opinion today is not for everyone. On Saturdays I recommend books, movies, even porches. In my opinion everyone oughta dial it dial down from time to time.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Meeting the Author

Would it be possible for someone to spend his entire life studying the scripture and yet fail to recognize the Author if they came face to face? Though it may seem difficult to believe, that’s precisely the story we find in John’s gospel, chapter five.

It’s too easy to criticize Pharisees like those in John 5. “How could they have failed to recognize Jesus?” we might ask. “Surely we would not have missed God’s anointed when he came.” Yet we should be careful because these Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers possessed a commitment and dedication to the scripture that was likely far greater anything we practice in our day.

I would like to suggest this answer: it is easier to relate to a book than a living person. Books are manageable. Books can be memorized and mastered, books can be analyzed and interpreted, and books can be used to support conclusions we have have already decided upon. In our pursuit of Jesus, we need to think seriously about the role of the Bible. If our aim is to take his yoke of discipleship and to learn from him, what role does the Bible play in becoming a follower of Jesus?

Among the closing words of the Old Testament are these: "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3: 1) God Himself came to earth in the person of Jesus. He came to the center of religious devotion and announced that the Kingdom revealed in the Old Testament scriptures was breaking in unexpectedly. The very guardians of religious orthodoxy could not recognize him. How could this be?

Perhaps the religious people of Jesus’ day were engaged in a kind of idolatry. Not in pagan practices or rituals but in a kind of idolatry which elevated the inspired word of God over God himself. The Bible is a precious gift from God. He breathed it into the minds and hearts of the men who wrote it. I believe that God Himself watched over process of collecting and canonizing these documents. I believe that God has protected the Bible through many dark ages so that every generation would be able to benefit from his gift. I love the book he has given us, but I do not confuse the book with the Author. Sadly, in many Evangelical circles the Holy Trinity has morphed from “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” to “Father, Son and Holy Bible.”

Our Bible is inspired, literally God-breathed, and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” The Bible is capable of correcting us when subjectivism and emotionalism threaten to lead us into error. Yet our misuse of the Bible can cause us to “get the lyrics right but get the music all wrong,” in the helpful phrase of Leonard Sweet. Todd Hunter, a leader in the Vineyard Movement says plainly that “the Bible is the menu, not the meal.” I believe he means that the Bible should help bring us to the Bread of Life, Jesus, and encourage us in a living relationship with a Lord who is still alive, still speaking, and still doing.

The same Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures in the first century is still moving and working all over the world. Jesus pointed his followers to the ministry of the Holy Spirit when he said, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14: 26) For each follower of Jesus there is a tension between learning about Jesus and having a relationship with him through the Holy Spirit.

So how should we come to the Bible? I'd like to suggest three "nevers:"
  • First, never come to the Bible alone. Always invite the same Spirit who inspired the Book to inspire your encounter. The Holy Spirit is the one who "will teach all things." He will use the Bible as part of His tutorial.
  • Second, never settle for head-knowledge apart from personal experience. True, our first ideas about following Jesus may come from reading the Bible, but I believe we should ask the Holy Spirit to move us from the book to real-life experience. What starts as head-knowledge must find its way into our experience.
  • Finally, never come to the Bible without a commitment to obey his voice. James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that if we build a lifestyle of merely hearing God's word without doing it, we will become deceived. God doesn't speak "FYI," he speaks "FYO," For Your Obedience. 
The Bible is a gift--a gift we should treasure and respect. Let's use that gift to grow closer to the Giver.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Hearing the Symphony

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” ~ 1 John 4:8

Three simple words: “God is love.” What could be easier? John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, has given us the key to understanding God. A second-grader could create this sentence. All we need to know about the Creator is captured in nine letters, but these nine letters require supernatural insight, or we are forever trapped in an earth-bound idea of God.

Try describing the sound of a symphony orchestra to someone who has only heard a piano and you’ll begin to see the challenge of understanding the revelation in this verse. We are sure we know all about love: the love between husband and wife, between parent and child, the love between lifelong friends. These are wonderful experiences, but only shadows before the dawn.

When we read "God is love," it’s easy to apply our notions of love to Him. Because we have experienced some taste of love we are tempted to think God conforms to our definition of love--but he does not conform to some definition, he is love. He is the definition.

This is part of the challenge of knowing God, and our meditation for the week: what if the things we think we know keep us truly knowing? What if because we have heard the sound from a piano we convince ourselves that’s all there is to know about music? Without choosing to do so we think God conforms to our image. I know all about love, therefore I know all about God. We would never speak these words outright, but our mind has done the math all the same. We impose our categories on God rather than allowing him to provide the eternal meaning.

When the scriptures say “God is love” it's an invitation to discover love in him. This week I’m going to put my understanding in the tomb and wait to see what love looks like when it’s resurrected.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About Porching

Front porch-sitting is making a come-back; in my town it never went away.

In a simpler place and time folks sat on the front porch and did, well, nothing. The evening’s pastime was to sit together and watch the world go by. In the last 60 years the trend on porching has been down. Lately the curve is looking up. (Of course, if you’re the kind of person who uses the words like “trend” and “curve” then porching may not be for you.)

After splitting the first 40 years of my life between Chicago, Dallas and Washington, D.C. I was unacquainted with the fine art of hanging out. The rhythms of city and suburban life are reggae-rock: schedules, rush hours, play-dates and alarm clocks loomed large and imposed themselves on my life. I remember one stressful day which was scheduled to end with a small group discipleship meeting. I had to cover 20 miles in 25 minutes through cross-town traffic. When I pulled up to the meeting (ten minutes late), the brakes on my car were smoking--the brakes, mind you. That night we were probably discussing something deeply spiritual, perhaps “finding peace with Jesus.”

When a five-year effort toward church-planting crashed and burned, our family ended up in rural Kentucky. Imagine: a smart-ass Yankee Chicago know-it-all sitting on a front porch. I keep looking at my watch, waiting for someone to get the meeting started. It took me two years to discover if someone has to call the meeting to order, you’re not porching.

My Kentucky sojourn has taught me although we talk about the value of community as an expression of God’s Kingdom, we frequently settle for the shadow instead of the reality. We drive 30 minutes each way to attend a 90-minute meeting; we don’t have time to stay and listen to one another; we have to pick up the kids from the sitter.

What if community means your neighbors? Actually the porch is optional. The key is to exchange the reggae-rock rhythm for the sound of crickets, the ice melting in your glass, the pace of the setting sun. What if sunrise and sunset are enough to tell time? What if we gathered around something other than a curriculum? In my opinion everyone needs a place to porch.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Central Passion Number Two

They’ll let anyone teach at some universities, and I’m proof of that. It’s the beginning of the semester in our irenic little town. Fall freshmen have descended on the small Christian college like autumn leaves: beautiful, but doomed. Poor kids--31 unsuspecting students are now subject to the central passions of my life with Jesus.

They don’t suspect it will take me 16 weeks to share the two convictions that inform my life: the king and his kingdom are breaking into the here and now.

In the very first week I survey the class, “How many of you think Jesus is a worthy role model?” Every hand goes up. “And how many of you think you could live up to his example?” No one stirs. No hand is raised. This introduces passion number one: why would anyone choose an impossible mentor? I’ve written about it before.

Just when they recover from central passion number one, I subject them to central passion number two: what if the good news isn’t about us going to heaven, but instead it’s about heaven coming to us?

With each new class I invite my students to engage in a spiritual exercise. Would you like to play along? Here is the question we must answer:
What if you woke up tomorrow morning to find that heaven had come earth? What would your world be like?
I ask each student to imagine heaven on earth. Here are a dozen answers from my new best friends:
  • “If Heaven came to Earth sickness would turn into strength.”
  • “God would be everywhere. God would give advice, spend the day with you, make sure everyone was fed, and most importantly share his wisdom with us all.”
  • “Heaven’s nature would begin to alter the workings of the earth and wipe out the impure creations of man.”
  • “No one would be lonely or without a companion.”
  • “Life with my daughter would change for the better. I would not feel that sense of silent discrimination from those who live in glass houses . . .  we would not be the topic of whispers about a situation people truly know nothing of. We would not suffer judgments from those people with ample imperfections of their own.”
  • “This little town, what some would call a boring place, would flourish with excitement and love and unified happiness that we were living amongst the living God.”
  • “No one would have to suffer because in God’s home you can find everything you need.”
  • “Famine would be completely erased. Sadness would be no more. Not one tear would be shed”
  • “If heaven came to earth it would be a continuing cycle of great accomplishment.”
  • “The people on earth would be 100% stress free. No one would ever need to worry about anything at all . . . They would laugh and carry on as if they had no sense of time or worry . . . the normal stress I feel in my chest and head would be gone.”
  • “How could you be sad with so much love and compassion around you?”
  • “Heaven is where you can go to be yourself and to be with Jesus.”
Can you feel the hope rising within you? In the coming weeks these students will be forced to listen to me turn their gospel upside down. I’m convinced the good news isn’t solely about going to heaven when you die, it’s about what God has done to bring heaven here to earth.

In this class we will spend the entire semester on Matthew 5, 6, & 7. That’s the “Sermon on the Mount.” It’s astonishing how many people think no one could ever put Jesus’ words into practice. It’s more astonishing still how many people think that because his words are poetic or beautiful that he somehow didn’t expect us to give them a try. Last semester one well-meaning student told me “Jesus preached this sermon in order to prove to us that we couldn’t possibly do any of that stuff.” Really? Would the greatest teacher who ever lived simply come to point out what losers we really are? Would God send his Son on a mission designed to fill us with shame and inadequacy?

That’s the most challenging part of this spiritual exercise. These young students intuitively long for the beauty, the grace, and hope of heaven. Why do they believe they must wait a lifetime to experience His good gifts? How about you?