Thursday, August 24, 2006

Heads or Tails?

"Jesus died for our sins because he loved us!" I felt sorry for the poor girl who made that statement. I really did. Couldn't she see that she was trivializing God's glory by making mankind the source of his motivation? Yeah, saving us from our sins was part of the deal, but ultimately Jesus bore the weight of the cross out of obedience to the Father. Couldn't she see that her need for Jesus' actions to be based on love for us was actually a way of making God small?

I believed in a big God; a God who sought his own glory. I knew that Jesus died on the cross so that God the Father might be glorified in the salvation of the world. It may be nice to talk about other sources of motivation around the campfire on warm summer nights, but in the end God's glory is the most important thing at stake. I knew that God's glory was more important than even our salvation.

Only, a funny thing has happened over the years. I've noticed that a lot of the guys who helped write the Bible spoke more like that poor girl than like me. Paul consistently affirmed the glory of God as the ultimate end (Eph 1:6,11,12), but that never prevented him from defining his mission in human terms. Paul's reason for bringing the story of Jesus to the world was that the world might be saved (Acts 13:47,48). Moreover, in his answer he quoted a passage from Is 49 that described God rescuing and restoring his people. Paul later told King Agrippa that his mission was to open people's eyes so that they might receive forgiveness of sins, an inheritance, and be sactified by faith (Acts 26:18). Paul was not unique in his perspective; Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, and others all spoke of the gospel in terms of human salvation.

Why does this matter? In my zeal to bring glory and honor to God I had twisted Jesus' obedience on the cross into a pass that excused me from concern for those around me. Somehow I transformed a desire to bring glory to God into a lifestyle that had little room for loving humanity. I had stumbled into this error by focusing on only one side of the issue.

There are two sides to every coin. The currency is no exception. We as evangelicals do well to focus on God's glory. But are we as consious of God's mission to the people around us as our Christian forefathers were? I know that for me, at least, the faces of humanity have become a blurred mass as I raced onward toward the glory of God.

Of course it cannot be one or the other. We cannot bring glory to God without allowing his love for people to transform our lives and relationships, especially with those who have not yet met him. On the other side of the coin, we cannot truly love people unless our lives are bringing glory to God. A myopic refusal to embrace both aspects of evangelism does not result in a bigger God. Any focus on glorifying God that minimizes his plan of salvation for the world is no true gospel.

And so the question: are we using the currency of the gospel to flip a coin, or are we spending it liberally on those around us? The best way to answer this isn't to ask ourselves--it's to ask those around us.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

I Remember

I saw the movie World Trade Center on Friday night. Initially, I wasn't too excited about the prospect. I anticipated a typically cheesy, Nicholas Cageish, cliche-driven, pseudo-historical regurgitation of already-familiar events, ala Jerry Bruckheimmer. Oliver Stone and the extremely talented cast he assembled delivered something else entirely.

What I got was a powerful, moving, even haunting story that developed along the themes of families, love, courage, and loyalty. I doubt it will win many Oscars, and it hasn't really made a big splash among the critics or box office. The magic of WTC wasn't that it had the abiblity to whisk you off to unseen worlds or unimaginable adventures. The power of WTC wasn't that it provided a brief hiatus from reality by drawing us nearer to what would otherwise only be dreams. The magic, the power of WTC was that it took us to a place we'd already been, and then let us forget the movie itself.

WTC took us to our memories. We all share a part of that day. When I watched the movie I was forced to think back to that black day and the darker days that followed. WTC did not create a false emotional experience; it simply drew on our past and reminded me of the emotions that had always been there, emotions that we all shared.

When was the last time we remembered? When was the last time you looked past the present and submerged your mind, heart, and soul in the events of that day? Where were we when we first heard the news? Where did we spend the rest of the day? Whose hand did we reach for as the horrific images unfolding before our eyes began to hit home?

When did you first cry about it? For one of my friends it was on the way to school the next morning as he listened to the numbers. I think it hit a lot of us in the days that followed as the news footage focused on the misery of the families. Remember? Remember those signs posted all over NYC? Pictures, short pleading messages, phone numbers, and the scrawl of a child's prayer, "Daddy, please come home." I first cried as I sat alone in front of a computer screen, writing, thinking, processing, and ultimately, mourning.

Our memories serve as mnemonic monuments. We have built monuments practically since time began. Most are intended to commemorate some great king, battle, or wonderful event. We have plenty in D.C. in honor of our founding fathers and those who have died while in military service. There are monuments in DC, NYC, and even in a field in Pennsylvania dedicated to 9/11. And now we have one more eloquently powerful monument: the movie World Trade Center.

We must never forget 9/11. I fear the monuments in our minds were gradually torn down as 9/11 stopped being a memory and was morphed into a political pawn. Now when we think of 9/11 all we remember is which political party we like best, or perhaps which one we hate. 9/11 is no longer an event that has the ability to stand on its own; to many its only merit is its contribution to a broader conversation that also includes words like "terror," "war," "Iraq," and "Al Qaida."

We must never forget. Period. Not, "We need to remember in order that we can fight a war," not, "We need to remember because it supports our particular political view," not even "We need to remember in order to prevent it from ever happening again." There will always be a time for our memories to galvanize us into action. But that action should always wait on, follow after, and never replace the simple memory of the event itself. 9/11 is not a rallying cry. It is a memory in all our minds, an experience we all share.

We remember, and we honor those who died that day. This is why every American should see WTC. It helps us remember, and our memory by its very existence honors our fallen brothers.

September 11 is coming up. What will you do to commemorate the day? What will you do to honor those who died? What will you do to honor the broken lives of those left behind? Just on this one day, resist the urge to get political, resist the urge to make that day about anything other than what it was. Resist the urge to ignore it, and resist the urge to reduce it to pettiness by wrapping it like a bow around current events.

Just remember. Go see the movie, sit down, and open your eyes. But as you watch, don't just watch the movie as it unfolds before you.


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Struggling over the Valuable

I attended the Willow Creek Leadership Summit at a satellite location this weekend. What an amazing time! We had the privilege of learning from men and women who evidenced a genuine desire to serve God with excellence. They were eager and felt honored to be able to share their wisdom with us. We heard from pastors, authors, professors, and even a bona fide rock star! Almost every session was a combination of being invigorating, challenging, inspiring, or eye-opening. It was exciting to be in a room with hundreds of leaders of the church, watching with 70,000 leaders of God's church from across the world. I was encouraged by the examples of the men before me. I was learning from ordinary men who done nothing more than place their absolute faith in God and worked hard to be honorable stewards of His giftings. I may not feel like I can be the next Bill Hybels or Andy Stanley, but I can trust God and be a good steward.

I attended the Willow Creek Leadership Summit at a satellite location this weekend. It was one of the more disturbing weekends that I have had in a long time. Was I the only one in the room who wondered why we don't use our Bibles at a pastor's conference? Was I the only one who wondered how men who are spiritually dead could instruct us how to nurture those who are alive in Christ? I looked over pamphlets for upcoming events and was struck by the use of words such as "innovative breakthroughs", "Harvard Business School" "methods," "strategies", "intelligent thinking," "key sucess factors", and "transferable principles." Where were words like "dependence", "Holy Spirit", or "prayer." I learned that we must be confident and in control as leaders. We must never let them see us in doubt, and that some of our sins do not come from being evil, but simply from an overzealous desire to see the church grow. I heard words like "numbers", "growth," "expansion" and "goals" attatched to the term New Testament Church. I rarely heard words like discipliship, spiritual maturity, or being comformed to the image of Christ. Was I the only one bothered that the rock star based more of his message on the Bible than the pastors?

I've wrestled over these two viewpoints to the point of mental sweat-dripping, bone-numbing exhaustion. I have no answers. The point of this conference was not to preach an exegetical sermon or have a large Sunday School meeting. I believe the point was simply to encourage, edify, and equip pastors in their job. I felt all three of those goals were accomplished. One of the speakers addressed this very issue by commenting that it does the church no good when people with good hearts and motives fail because of mismanagement. I come from a psychology background; I have seen the damage caused by those who fear to use anything outside the Bible to minister to the children of God. We wouldn't advise those we love to pray away a broken bone or cut finger; nor should we command them to pray up their seratonin levels or pray to have their years of asbuse deleted from their minds and spirits. In the same vein, Paul never instructed us how to manage a staff, plan a budget, or schedule or calendar. I truly believe that the men who put this event together are humble servants of God who would agree that it is God that runs the church, not programs. In fact, some of them said as much.

But I cannot escape from the fact that aside from Hybel's amazing final session(his message on substitutionary atonement paired with that beautiful, tangible demonstration of the power of the gospel almost kept me from writing this blog) little of the conference was distinctively Christian. Most of what was said could have been transferred to any business conference across the country. All you would have had to do was tweak a paragraph here, delete a few expressions or words there, change that intro or conclusion, and fish out the couple of random bits of scripture that were dropped sporadically into each talk. I know, I know, I know that we must concentrate on the practicalities of church--it's not enough to encourage each other to "Preach the Word"; we have to get into the nitty gritty of what that will look like.

But how can we believe that we are offering something of ultimate value if it fails to lead us to the spiritual? Have we been called as managers of a movement, or shepherds of a living Body? Did God command us to pack as many as possible into a building once a week, or did He command us to make disciples in His name?

Yet there are those who stand on street corners and shout nothing other than scripture who likely lead none to our Lord. Part of me thinks that the danger does not necessarily come from the speakers we heard from this weekend--I believe their foundation rests solely on the Lord. But I wonder if it is reckless for them to present their thoughts without making their foundation more clear--I fear it is those who follow them that will pervert their message, leading their own churches to be driven by strategy and transferable principles rather that the Holy Spirit.

What is the best thing to offer when we have the ears of 70,000 leaders of God's church? I don't know. But I feel in my soul that there is that which is more valuable than that which was offered this weekend. Am I being too much of a seminary student? Am I right in my concerns? Do my questions have any merit, or will I find simple answers once I leave the theory of the classroom behind? Am I trying to jam every gathering of Christians into a Sunday School class-shaped cubby? Or do I simply long for God's Word to illuminate our lives?

What is the one most valuable thing for a group of 70,000 pastors to hear?

I don't know.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Are We Seeker-Friendly?
Any response to this question could be just as perilous as responding to the wife who asks plaintively "am I gaining weight?" There are times when it is best to simply follow the example of the ostrich and bury your head in the sand, hoping that the danger will simply pass you by if you pretend it does not exist. If you answer in the affirmative, then half of us will bitingly wonder aloud if you care as much about doctrine as you do entertainment. But then if you should distance yourself from such activities then the other half of us will lambast you for not having the heart of Christ for the lost.

Seeker friendly. What if both sides are missing the point? What if the point isn't so much about our methods of church as it is about church itself. Why do we do all that we do, regardless of what it is we're doing.? These questions can well be applied to all manner of life, but in this context they are reserved for our ecclisiological activities.

Why do we do all that we do? In the manner that we do it? Should we change anything? Change nothing? Should we make minor modifcations to the basic structure of the service or change it all wholesale? What kind of people should be on stage? What kind of people should be leading off the stage? I hear a lot about the Acts church, and doing things in order to look more like the Acts church. How much, in truth, should we be a cookie cutter image of the 1st century church? How much should we be different, and in what way? I see a lot of differences in the churches just in my neighborhood-- how do I know which ones are the right one?

Seeker-friendly. Why do only the heathen, pagan, and atheist get to be the seekers? Why do they get to have all the fun of asking probing questions with no tangible answer anywhere in sight? I want to be a seeker. I feel a hunger growing inside of me--I long to sink my teeth into this whole concept of what it means that people are joined together by God to form the body of the God they worship when they gather in his name.

In short, I wish that every church were seeker friendly, but that it had nothing to do with one's approach to evangelism. We must question everything about how we do our particular form of worship; not out of a spirit of arrogant rebellion, but with sincere questions aimed at glorifying God in his excellence.

May we all remain seekers on life's journey of discovery--may we never consider our personal level of expertise to be the crest.