Month: May 2016

Subtle Idols

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I’m reading through N.T. Wright’s enlightening book Paul and The Faithfulness of God (PTFG) and it has really opened my eyes to the worldview of Paul. One of the things that is so fascinating is the ancient world’s saturation with the gods. We often think about God and religion as a small thing that people do, or some aspect of our culture. However, in the ancient world the gods were in everything. Religion and worship wasn’t something for Sunday for a subset of the culture, it was in the very DNA of public and private life. This leads Wright to make a statement like this in regards to the work and ministry of Paul:

When Paul arrived in Ephesus, Philippi or anywhere else with his message about the one God and his crucified and risen son, he was not offering an alternative way of being ‘religious’ in the sense of a private hobby, something to do in a few hours at the weekend. He was offering a heart transplant for an entire community and its culture.  (PTFG, 255)


This is a fascinating statement. When Paul planted a house church and the locals came to faith in Christ, it was a 180 degree turn from the world around them and all they had known. When one became a Christian in one of these ancient cities, it was obvious as they travelled around their town and saw the temples and statues of the gods who was competing for their allegiance. How would they navigate their culture in light of their newfound faith in Christ?

So I think about this in light of the world we live in today. We don’t walk around town and see statues of gods and see temples that the culture says we should worship. We don’t have gods that the world believes bring about prosperity, health, fertility, etc…or do we?

The deal is, it seems obvious what the idols were in the first century. The danger was in navigating this gods-saturated culture. The danger for us today is much more subtle. While we may not have obvious temples and gods it seems to me we have plenty of idols competing for our attention.

How about the god of government and nationalism? I’m not saying a Christian can’t be or shouldn’t be involved in politics, but how quickly do our politics become our religion, or our god?

Or how about the god of money, self-image, idealism…you name it.

Or here is a dangerous one; the god of sound doctrine and right thinking. How quickly do we replace the God we were aiming to love, serve, and honor with our understanding of him and how we think others are supposed to think and agree with us?

It seems that we can sometimes go out as Christians inviting people to follow Christ, but so often we are just asking people to tack him on to a part of their life and then tell them their life will get better because of it (their life does get better, but not in the way many think). But here’s the deal, many of us, including myself are guilty of seeing our faith in that same way. Rather than it being something that effects every part of us, all the way down to the core of who we are, it becomes a cultural add on. Maybe if Paul walked into our communities today, he’d be offering us a heart transplant as well.

Wooden statues and temples built to the gods are pretty obvious for us 21st century Christians to avoid. However, those subtle idols find a way of making us prostrate ourselves before them without us even knowing it.

Embodying the Good News

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So I’ve been preaching through a series at Hunter Hills on the good news. We have been thinking more deeply about the gospel, the astonishing news that God has decisively won the victory over sin, evil and death on the cross and in the resurrection of Jesus. God’s new world, God’s future, God’s new creation has been launched on Easter morning. With that, I am thinking about how do we as a church embody the good news and become good news people (that’s this Sunday’s message by the way). You can’t program this stuff among a church, it just has to naturally and organically grow.

One of the things I’ve been blessed with is great mentors, and today I got to eat lunch with one of my dear friends and teachers in the ministry, Buddy Bell. Buddy is the preaching minister at Landmark Church of Christ, and he’s been a big influence on my life, and in the life of my family. I’m having this conversation with Buddy and we are both talking about wanting our church members to grasp this idea of embodying the good news in their neighborhoods and work places, and Buddy just got through agreeing with me, “You can’t program this stuff, it just has to happen.” I don’t know if he planned in advance what happened next, but the timing was perfect.

Right after that statement, the waiter brings our food. He asks the usual, “Do you need anything else?” and I’m about to brush him off when Buddy says, “We’re about to pray for our meal. Is there anything we can pray about for you?” And just like that my questions about embodying the good news and helping our churches to become good news people have been answered. Sometimes we get too busy thinking about it that we don’t slow down and see where the Spirit of God might be at work.

You see, I can create a program for meeting your neighbors, hospitality, evangelism, etc. The fact is, those things just don’t work well this day and age. But, when a 50 something (sorry Buddy!) sits down with a 30 something, embodies the good news, models loving care for another in praying for them to the loving God who created the world, discipleship is happening. I’ve been learning from Buddy for nearly 20 years, and today the learning continues. How simple it is to slow down, pay attention to the Spirit, and be a loving presence and let people know that the world is a different place because the Creator God has broken into our midst on Christmas and launched a new world on Easter.

So, sorry Buddy for drawing attention to you on the internet, but we have to pass on stories like this to others. Everywhere you go, in every moment you exist, in every encounter you have, you have the opportunity to embody the good news and proclaim that this world is a different place because God doesn’t abandon us to our sin, our decay, or our violence. He lovingly enters into it in Jesus Christ and defeats it, so that we can be released to be the people he created us to be; good news people.

I Ain’t As Good As I Once Was

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I had a startling realization last night; I’m getting old. Yeah, I’m still young at 32, but I’m not as young as I once was for sure. You see last night I played in our church league softball game. The realization started when my friend yelled for me to run harder and turn second to see if I could make third. Thankfully, the third baseman dropped the ball because I was too slow to beat the throw. Then I noticed how quickly I got tired and sore. And it finally sank in when I woke up this morning and felt like I had been at football practice all week long. I have a sore leg, wrist, and hip. Did I mention this was from slow pitch softball?

Yes, I know I need to get the bat higher. It’s been awhile, alright?

Anyway, I woke up today feeling pretty beat, and maybe slightly depressed that my body doesn’t work as good as it once did. And maybe I’m slightly depressed because I anticipate that to get worse year after year. However, today I was thinking of the words of a pastor named Greg Boyd who I’ve heard say that life is about learning to lose. It is a series of losing. You lose your hair, lose your flexibility, lose your stamina, your health, your youth, etc. Depressed yet? But here is the deal, we follow a Lord who has called us to lose, and in doing so to find.

I am always a bit fascinated by how tempting it is to turn Jesus into a self-help guru. The lines we often give sound something like, “Come follow Jesus and he will make your life better. You will be better with your money, you’ll be a better spouse, you’ll be a better parent, you’ll get a better job, perhaps a raise, and life will be really good!” Now don’t get me wrong, I think when we follow Christ and allow his image to be formed within us, we are “better” at life, but not by the world’s standards.

So I hear us (myself included) often tempted to preach this way and portray this message to the world, and then I read the words of Jesus when he says “Come, follow me. Deny yourself, take up your cross. Come, lose your life.” In other words, as Randy Harris said this past week at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, “Come and be a loser!” How’s that for church marketing?

In the Philippians 2 Christ hymn, we see the Son of God lowers himself line after line until ultimately he has reached death, even death on a cross. Then when we get to that point, we see that God begins to raise him until finally he is that name to which every knee should bow and every tongue confess. Jesus lost, rather he gave it all and there gained it all. The world and the principalities, and Rome and the Jewish elite thought they had lowered him as low as one could go when they hung him on a cross, but in a turn of events we see that God used this very act as the one to defeat the powers of darkness. As Paul noted in 1 Corinthians, if they had known what they were doing when they crucified Christ, they surely would not have done it.

So, those of you like me today who can say, “I ain’t as good as I once was”, I say welcome to the club. Rather than trying to grab a hold of this life and hang on so tightly, join me in following Christ. Come and be a loser. Be poured out like a drink offering in the name of Christ for the sake of your neighbor. Go ahead and release what will one day all be stripped away when we find ourselves in the presence of a loving God. Surrender your life for the sake of Christ, and there find it.

Sure, that sounds like a big task, but I am reminded that the kingdom of God often comes in small ways. So maybe today that means we just start submitting our way to another. Maybe don’t feel like you have to pick the restaurant at lunch. Maybe don’t feel like you have to talk so much and try listening to someone. Maybe give up your favorite TV show and let your wife watch hers. And maybe by learning to lose in these small things we will ultimately learn what it means to lose our entire lives for the sake of Christ.

Now, I need to go take some Advil…

The Pepperdine Bible Lectures and the Story of the Church of Christ

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Brace yourself, this one is a bit longer than usual. Don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of it. And hey, I haven’t written in a few months so cut me some slack.

I’ve been thinking a lot today about the story of the Churches of Christ and our history, and that is partly because I recently attended one of the great gatherings in our movement, the Pepperdine Bible Lectures.

I grew up in this story of the Church of Christ. Some today call this a denomination, some a movement, and the new lingo seems to be “tribe”. It doesn’t matter much to me. What I knew of my history I didn’t like. It was embarrassing. It was divisive. It was sectarian. We also had the habit of pretending that church history was our slightly over 200 years of existence, and then there was this dark void dating back to pre-Constantine. That era from Acts 2 to Constantine we pretended looked just like our current churches. We were the standard that everyone should seek.

So, I didn’t like our history. Then I picked up this very short book by Douglas Foster called The Story of Churches of Christ. Given the background and view of our movement I just described, you can imagine the shock when just the second page of the book had the heading of “An American Unity Movement”. How could Foster call this a unity movement? This little book, along with my friend Mike Cope as a conversation partner and mentor led me to a better understanding of our history. It is a history that I think if embraced could speak of a brighter future.

So in short, what is our story? Many say it began with a young Alexander Campbell who was fed up with the deeply divided church of which he was a member. The leaders had determined that they should examine the parishioners to decide who they deemed “worthy” to partake of the Lord’s Table, which is odd in and of itself since it is the Lord’s Table and his invitation. Anyway, they would offer an examination of the communicants and if they passed, they received their token to partake of communion. But Campbell knew something didn’t seem right about this, and so when the yearly observance of the Table came along, the story goes that Campbell threw his token in the plate, pushed his chair back, and walked out of the church.

Alexander Campbell then embarked on a journey of unifying God’s church. The problem was, he thought we could unify around the Bible. As we have come to find out, people interpret the Bible in a variety of ways, and so unifying around the Bible is nearly impossible. Thankfully, Campbell found a partner in this movement named Barton W. Stone.

Stone had a more helpful and hopeful vision of unity which was “fire union”, or “Spirit union”. (Check out this link to the website of John Mark Hicks to read more about Stone and unity.) This is unity found where the Holy Spirit is working among the lives of God’s people. It is unity found not in agreement, not in interpretation of the Bible, but in worship, prayer, and service together with other believers. It reminds me of Jesus’ words that we will recognize his followers by their fruit, and by their love. We don’t recognize the people of God by proper beliefs, sound doctrine, or other factors. We see God’s people where the Spirit is present and at work in their lives. And we know who Christ is, according to John 17, not by proper interpretations, not by who is the most “right”, not by properly ordered church services, but by the unity of his followers. Yes, we may practice a bit differently, but we cling to one of the sayings of this movement that “we are Christians only, but not the only Christians”.

So what on earth is the point of this long post? Well, I grew up in Churches of Christ and I didn’t know this story. I knew stories of worship wars, stories of division, stories that embarrassed me, and at times made me want to leave this group. I really didn’t hear the phrase “Christians only, but not the only Christians” much when I was growing up, but now I understand that to be the rallying call of our movement from the beginning. We loved Alexander Campbell and his hope of restoring the church to proper practices, but we didn’t talk much about his and Stone’s vision of unity.

Now I have just come off of one of my favorite weeks of the year at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. As a side note, you should all try and attend these lectures. My friend Mike Cope is knocking it out of the ball park in directing these events, and this year was as good as it gets. If you missed out, check out this link to watch the keynotes. We had an Anglican bishop in Dr. N.T. Wright, a community church pastor and theologian in Greg Boyd, and many other thinkers from various backgrounds. In addition, we had hundreds of Church of Christ brothers and sisters teaching various classes on various topics. None of us agreed with each other on everything. Some of the classes were even at odds with others. However, we were unified in Christ and there were our brothers and sisters, despite the details of each person’s doctrines and beliefs. In other words, the Pepperdine Bible Lectures are an acted out parable of the Restoration movement. No we don’t all agree, and we don’t even all share the same background. We disagree and spar over things in love, but we are all one in Christ and we all find our common unity at the Table of the Lord.

And here’s the deal, in my opinion, we are in a post-denomination type of world. Community churches are all the craze these days. People are burned out on division and God’s people picking each other off. People are tired of arguments about “sound doctrine” and worship practices. I think God’s people are longing more for of Jesus’ prayer for unity. We long to be able to partner with our neighbors in God’s mission, not seeing them as competition, nor seeing people as objects to grow our local churches. We long for what Stone-Campbell were really all about in the beginning, though that vision has been lost through the years.

So, this Church of Christ story brings a young 32 year old like me hope, because at its core it is a story of unity. In this post-denomination, post-Christian world, or missional era we are in, this story has the potential to paint a bright future. It is why I love being a part of this group, even with our scars and bruises.

I love my Hunter Hills Church family. In my year here, I’ve heard from members all across the spectrum. I’ve heard from some that want instrumental worship, some that want a cappella. I’ve heard from some that want to see women involved more publicly in our church, and others who are concerned about this and interpret those passages differently. I’ve heard from some that want a traditional “altar call” every Sunday and some who never want to see that again. I’ve heard from some who are pacifists, and I know of many who are active military and have even fought in our current global conflicts. I know of some who want more spontaneous times of prayer together, and some who just want ancient scripted prayers that we read together. I could go on and on with what I’ve learned about my new church family. Yet each week, I look out as these various groups of people pass trays to people next to them, and partake of the one body, Jesus Christ, and drink from the one cup. We don’t agree on everything, and we never will, but we are learning what this “fire union” is all about. We’re learning to disagree with our fellow brothers and sisters, but not doubt that they love Jesus and the Scriptures. We’re learning to submit to one another, and look to the needs of others. We are learning to be self-giving in the form of our self-giving God who has invited us on a journey of losing our lives for the sake of others. Our Church of Christ roots give us a narrative to disagree, but still find unity.

Jesus seems to think in John 17:23 that the world is going to know who he is and where he comes from based on the unity of his followers. Perhaps it is high time we begin thinking seriously about what this means, and those of us who are Church of Christ to start embracing this story of unity. Maybe it begins today by simply praying for your Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, or whatever neighbors you have, and joining together with other brothers and sisters in God’s mission of restoration.

“I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” – John 17:23