Flotsam and jetsam (4/29)

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I wish I could tell you that, when I express my concern that church-as-usual is failing to reach our younger generations, I’m really talking about how disenfranchising the experience my wife and I have had growing up in the church has been.

There is a type of person to whom I am writing. You are a Oneness Pentecostal who either doubts this whole Christian religion or you are beginning to wonder why your group has become so isolated from everyone else. I have been there. I have been this person. You are fairly sure you do not believe what comes from the pulpit on Sunday, but it has been your whole life for some time now. If you leave it is more than just changing churches. You will lose friends. You will fracture relationships with some family. You will be told by some that you are no longer a Christian. And after all of that you now have to try to fit back into broader Christian circles feeling a bit out of place. If this is you then these post will be for you.
Craig R. Koester tells us that the author employed gematria, a system of Kabbalistic numerology. In fact, in the third chapter of Revelation, verse 18, it seems obvious that John assumes his audience will be familiar with the system: “Here is the key, and anyone who has the intelligence may work out the number of the beast. The number represents a man’s name, and the numerical value of its letters is six hundred and sixty six.” The numbers, Koester says, point to Nero, Emperor of Rome from 54-68 C.E., as the likeliest candidate.
Ideally ours will be a journey of constant discovery and acquisition of new ideas and information. This may well involve – as it has in my case – complete paradigm shifts and reevaluation of deeply held belief systems. As I do not exclude faith from this process, for me, it is not unreasonable to abandon certain tenants of my beliefs in the light of new experiences, knowledge and understanding.

I remember going to Disneyland for the first time, fidgeting in line at the main gate, body tense with excitement. A whole new world lay just out of sight, a magical world waiting to be explored. (I had not yet fully appreciated that this magical new world included two-hour long lines, terrifying roller coasters, and a limitless sea of hot and harried tourists.) To enter this wonderland, I simply needed to hand a rectangular slip of pink paper to the bored teenager standing at the gate. A ticket. So simple.

And, once I passed through the gate, what did I do with my ticket? Well, I put it in my pocket, of course. You see, I needed the ticket to get into Disneyland, but once inside it was useless. They include all the rides and attractions in the price of admission. The ticket gets you in, after that you can put it in your pocket. I suppose I could have thrown it away, but you don’t do that with your ticket. You hold on to it “just in case.” At least, that’s what my parents told me.

That’s how many of us think of the Gospel. We hear the Gospel as the good news that we can “get in” to God’s kingdom and live with him forever. There’s a whole new world waiting for us, and the Gospel is our ticket. Without it, we’d never get past the main gate. But, with it we have exactly what we need to believe so we can rush through the gate with all of the other children, eyes wide with wonder at all the new sights and sounds.

And, we could do worse than to think of the Christian life as an amazing new world that we can explore like small children delighting in God’s wonderful creativity.

But, there’s a real problem with this analogy. Once you’re inside the park, what do you do with your ticket? You put it in your pocket. You keep it “just in case” or as a souvenir for your scrapbook, but you don’t really need it anymore. You’ve already gotten in.

So, you tuck the Gospel safely away, confident that it has served its purpose.

I also remember the day that I got my driver’s license, that little plastic card that declares you to be a free agent, a real teenager, able to go wherever whenever. But, arriving home from the DMV, I was angry. Although I’d finally reached the pinnacle of teenage freedom, my parents weren’t going to let me drive. Not by myself. I was still too young and inexperienced. Maybe in a few weeks.

I needed to sulk. How could they do this to me? Didn’t they understand what a driver’s license was for? How was I supposed to explain to my friends that I had a license, but I still couldn’t drive? It was embarrassing.

Then I stepped through the front door. And my dad tossed me the keys, the car keys. In my memory, it feels like a scene from a cheesy movie. Everything slows down. The keys glint in the sunlight as they trace their gentle arc through the air. Cue the music.

I’m not sure who was more surprised: me or my mom. I found out afterward that my dad hadn’t consulted her on this sudden change of plans, and she was not at all pleased. I say I found out afterward, of course, because I was out the door before the keys had finished jingling in my hand. I wasn’t about to give anyone a chance to change their mind. I’m not even sure I knew where I was going. But that hardly mattered. I had the keys!

Racing to the car, I unlocked the door, flung it open, and jumped into the driver’s seat. It’s like I was afraid that it wouldn’t be real until I was in the car by myself…with the keys.

Then, with a contented sigh, I closed the door and placed the keys carefully in my pocket. “Isn’t this great?” I thought, “I’m finally in the car!” Reaching over I fiddled with the little black knobs on the radio. I found out that if I turned them all the way to the left, they made a little clicking sound. That was fun. Then I discovered the vanity mirror. It had its own light. Cool. But the best was the button with the red triangle. When I pushed it, these little green arrows on the dashboard started blinking. I liked that. I even said “Vrooom, vroom,” a few times and turned the steering wheel back and forth. All in all, it was a good evening.

Of course that’s not what I did. I was a teenager with a driver’s license, a car, and car keys! What good would it do to sit in the driveway with the keys in my pocket? I wanted to drive the car—roll down the windows, turn up the radio, enjoy my newfound freedom. But, to do that, I needed to use the keys. The keys make the whole thing work. You can’t leave them in your pocket.

So, I had the keys in the ignition almost before my butt hit the seat. And I was gone. Off on my first teenage driving adventure. I barely managed not to peel out in my parent’s driveway, wisely thinking that this might hinder future driving opportunities.

Unfortunately, many of us see the Gospel more like a ticket than a key. Both are good for getting into things. But beyond that, the resemblance ends. Once you’re in, you don’t need the ticket anymore. But the key to a car, that’s what makes everything work.

The Gospel is a key. It’s not simply what we believe to get into the Christian life; it’s what makes the Christian life work. As I hope you will see by the time you’ve reached the end of this book, the Gospel shapes every aspect of the Christian life—worship, ministry, work, family, theology, and more.

Why do you need to read a book about the Gospel? If you’re like me, it’s because we often think that the Gospel is only for the beginning. But, without the Gospel, all we’re left with are the knobs and buttons on the dashboard that my daughters like to twist and turn when I’m not looking. If you really want to roll down the windows, turn up the radio, and drive the car, you need to take the key out of your pocket and use it.

[This is the third part of a short series I’m doing on different ways I could begin my Gospel book. The first two were “I Don’t Want to Be a Dirty Klingon” and “A Place of Mystery, Magic, and Dirty Kleenex.” (Apparently I’ve had dirt on the brain.) This one takes things in still a different direction. Let me know if you have any thoughts/feedback.] 

Don’t park Jesus, drive the car

A Missional Manifesto

A group of evangelical leaders yesterday released their “Missional Manifesto,” a document aimed at explaining what it means to be “missional” and why it matters for how we understand the church. Framers of the document included people like Tim Keller, Dan Kimball, Ed Stetzer, and Alan Hirsch, among others.

According to the framers, understanding the missional nature of the church is vital for the church today.

A biblically faithful, missional understanding of God and the church is essential to the advancement of our role in His mission, and thus to the dynamism of Christianity in the world.

In the document, the word “missional” is grounded in two basic ideas: (1) the nature of the triune God and his mission in the world and (2) our calling to be ambassadors of that mission in the world. Regarding the former, they say:

Properly understanding the meaning of missional begins with recognizing God’s missionary nature. The Father is the source of mission, the Son is the embodiment of that mission, and mission is done in the power of the Spirit. By nature, God is the “sending one” who initiates the redemption of His whole creation. Jesus consistently spoke of Himself as being “sent” in John’s gospel and subsequently commissioned His disciples for this same purpose (John 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). As the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of His mission (John 20:21).

They then move on to the second point, arguing that God has appointed the church to be the ambassadors of this divine mission in the world:

The Church, therefore, properly encourages all believers to live out their primary calling as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) to those who do not know Jesus. The ministry of reconciliation is applicable to both its native culture and in cross-cultural ministry throughout the world. In this sense, every believer is a missionary sent by the Spirit into a non-Christian culture activating the whole of his or her life in seeking to participate more fully in God’s mission.

Finally, the document concludes with a number of theological affirmations on biblical authority, the Gospel, the kingdom, and the nature, purpose, and work of the church. It looks like they intend this to serve as the foundational document for a diverse, missional think-tank of some kind. With the people they’ve pulled together for this, it should be interesting.

Cool uses for books…other than reading them

As we transition into the digital book-reading age, you may be wondering what to do with all those books you have laying around the house. You could just continue to house them in the same old bookshelves that have served you so well over the years. Or, you could get more creative, like one of these Cool Non-Literary Uses for Books.

Here are my favorites:

Make a book room

Make a book desk

Decorate for Christmas

But, I have to confess that one of them seemed a little morbid. Isn’t this a little like making someone dig their own grave?

Urban Legends…for preachers

You’ve all heard them, those interpretations of scripture that just sound so good. But, are they legit? Not according to Trevin Wax. Here are his 7 urban legends for preachers, or seven things you hear so often in sermons that everyone assumes they’re true.

1. The “eye of the needle” refers to a gate outside Jerusalem.

2. The high priest tied a rope around his ankle so that others could drag him out of the Holy of Holies in case God struck him dead.

3. Scribes took baths, discarded their pens, washed their hands, etc. every time they wrote the name of God.

4. There was this saying among the sages: “May you be covered in your rabbi’s dust.”

5. Voltaire’s house is now owned by a Bible-printing publisher.

6. Gehenna was a burning trash dump outside Jerusalem.

7. NASA scientists have discovered a “missing day” which corresponds to the Joshua account of the sun standing still.

Check out Trevin’s original post for explanations of each and why he thinks they’re really urban legends. And, make sure you check out the comments as some of the readers have offered their own nominations.

Flotsam and jetsam (4/28)

  • Jerry Bowry argues that the modern seminary system is broken and we are facing The Seminary Bubble. Although his criticisms focused primarily on mainline seminaries, I found this comment particularly interesting:

Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark finds that the historical pattern fits the current one. Decentralized church systems with a history of less formal schooling historically outperform top-heavy ones with heavy academic requirements.

Admittedly, Austen’s world is idealized, yet consider this: who would you prefer your daughter to bring home? 1) a young man whose sexual imagination has been formed by Jane Austen along with Homer, Virgil, The Song of Solomon, Dante, and Shakespeare or 2) a young man who has spent the last ten years of his life fantasizing about women whose images he has objectified and consumed through pornography?

In light of this reality, Warren is only capable of talking about such social relationships and the nature of social injustice as sin in terms of the abstract.  The concrete reality of unjust relationships does not become part of his discussion because his theological language is not apt to describing relationships in terms of power.  Warren’s silence on the issues of racial and economic justice is indicative of the silence of many European-American churches that choose to remain quiet while instances such as the hanging of nooses in public spaces continues to occur; thus, churches with predominantly minority members are left to shoulder the burden alone in confronting domestic terrorism.

The fact is, there never was a golden age of the church. The New Testament church was just as messed up as the 21st century church. And I take that as an encouragement rather than a rebuke from the past. The early church was full of greedy, bickering, sinful people who did not get along with each other, did not listen to their leaders and even split off from one another when disagreements became too heated. And sometimes their leaders said bad things about each other. Let’s not forget that all of Paul’s opponents were not non-believers, but followers of Jesus who happened to disagree with the apostle. Not unlike what we experience today.

The new universalism is not the old universalism. Fair enough. But those of us who reject even the new universalism aren’t gleeful about it. We might even wish it were otherwise. But we also recognize that even our wishes, hopes, and desires need discipline.

Making some changes

You may have noticed that I’ve made some changes to the look and layout of the blog. Some time back, I asked a number of questions about the blog:

I ended up deciding pretty strongly against the last one, and I’m still undecided on the first one. But I do think that the time has come for a “yes” on the second one. So, I made some changes. Let me know what you think.

A Place of Mystery, Magic, and Dirty Kleenex

A place of mystery, a dark region of unexplored secrets, a fairy realm of magical enchantment, only the bravest dare delve its depths, and only the most foolish do so without some sense of trepidation and awe. Slowly I reach out, hands trembling slightly. What lies within? What treasures might I find? What dangers?

Gently prying the sides apart, I peer into the gloom, wondering what I will find this time.

My wife’s purse is an amazing place.

You doubt? She’s a mother, public school teacher, and children’s ministry volunteer. Spend that much time around small children and I’m sure your purse would be a pretty interesting place as well. She has to be prepared for every occasion, and she picks up all kinds of odds and ends along the way. Magicians have their bottomless hats; my wife has her purse. She wins.

I love watching her try to find stuff in there. After a little rummaging, she can usually locate the important things fairly quickly: wallet, cell phone, keys, lipstick. I don’t know how she does it. If she asks me to get her keys, I usually just bring the whole purse. Otherwise, I’d be gone all afternoon. But my wife can track them down in an instant.

When she has to find something she hasn’t seen or used in a while, however, that’s when the real treasures come out: toys, candy, pens, mysterious “presents” from her kids, food, and small herbivores. Okay, maybe not the last. But you get the point. Beneath the dirty Kleenex and nail files, down in the wrinkled corners far from the light of day, that’s where the fun stuff hides.

I like to think of my wife’s purse as a magic bag filled with amazing treasures. On any given day, she’ll probably pull out just a few of those. Others may get used on a weekly or monthly basis. And, some particularly rare treasures almost never breathe fresh air.

And, for many of us, the Gospel is just like this, a bag full of treasures, some so tarnished from daily use that we’ve forgotten how amazing they truly are, others pushed so far down that we have forgotten all about them, if we even knew they were there in the first place.

Ordinary Treasures

Some treasures are relatively ordinary. Now, at first glance, the concept of an “ordinary treasure” seems like a contradiction. How could a “treasure” ever be “ordinary”? Yet, it happens all the time.

Have you ever looked closely at a blade of grass? At first glance, it’s nothing special. Just a flat and fairly straight piece of vegetation. Look more closely, though, and you’ll see the veins running up the blade, the frayed edges at the top from the last time you mowed the lawn, the delicate way it bends slightly to one side. Place that same piece of grass under a microscope and you’ll see even more: an entire grass universe will open up before you—cells, chloroplasts, molecules, atoms, neutrons, electrons, and so on. Each level giving way to another. Press deeply enough and you’ll arrive at levels of reality only dimly understood by our most brilliant scientists—quarks, antiquarks, leptons, strings. Can you get much more ordinary than a blade of grass? Yet, when we stop to take a close look, we begin to realize that what seemed so normal and non-mysterious a moment ago actually contains limitless mystery, wonder, and awe. But, how often do we do that? Grass is “normal”, and normal things are not mysterious; normal things are not treasures; normal things are, well, normal.


Some Gospel treasures are like a blade of grass. We see them so regularly that they’ve become ordinary, almost boring.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

One one level, . Jesus does love us. He loves us very much. Press a little harder, though, and you begin to see the wonder, mystery, and awe lying just beneath the surface.

Who is Jesus? That question alone could take us an entire book to answer. Messiah. Savior. God. Man. Son of God. Servant.

Who are we? Creatures. Beings made in the image of God (more on this later). Sinners. Saints. Persons. Men. Women.

And, what is love—not just the broken, human love that I’m familiar with—but real love? What does it mean to say that God himself loves? And, what does it mean to say that the almighty, holy God of the universe loves tiny, broken, rebellious creatures like us? Talk about a mystery.

“Jesus loves me.” A childlike statement of simple faith? A profound declaration of mysterious wonder? Both. Viewed under the microscope, a whole universe unfolds before us. A universe that we have just begun to explore.

If parts of the Gospel have become “normal” for you, then I encourage you to take some time to see the mystery again.

Even the ordinary can be a treasure.

A Forgotten Treasure

When I was a kid, “cleaning” my room involved cramming as much stuff as possible into my closet and praying that my dad wouldn’t notice when he came to inspect. Sometimes that even worked. Usually it didn’t. That means I often had to spend an afternoon pulling everything out of my closet and putting stuff where it belonged.

I remember one afternoon in particular. Toward the back of the closet, I found an old lunchbox. Thoughts of rotten PB&J sandwiches and prepubescent flies swarmed through my head, until I opened it. Nestled inside like a pirate’s lost treasure, I found twenty dollars I had hidden several months before, a considerable sum for a small child. This was my secret stash. (I’m not entirely clear on why all kids need to have a secret stash. But, it seems pretty universal.) And, I had forgotten all about it.

That was an exciting afternoon. I didn’t have anything in particular that I wanted to do with the money. But, that was beside the point. I had rediscovered my secret stash! Indeed, finding a forgotten treasure was so exciting that I spent the next several months trying to recreate the experience. I tried hiding that lunch box back in the closet, under my bed, in another room, and even on the ledge just outside my window. Nothing worked. Try as I might, I kept remembering where I’d stashed it this time. It’s hard to forget a treasure on purpose.

It’s easy to do on accident.

I can’t remember when I first heard the Gospel. Growing up in a Christian home, I’m sure I first it before I could even understand what I was hearing. But, I have an amazing capacity for forgetting things. So, even if we assume that my Sunday school teachers those many years ago did a great job explaining the Gospel to me, how much do you think I could forget over the course of several decades? Or even just a few years? I’ve always been able to recall those “ordinary” truths we discussed above. But, what if there’s more? What if there are treasures in the Gospel that I’ve simply forgotten about?

I bet if I dug into the Gospel a bit more, I’d find a secret stash of Gospel truths nestled inside an old lunchbox just waiting for me to rediscover them.

What about you?

An Unknown Treasure

The really great thing about my wife’s purse, though, are the things even she doesn’t know about. I still haven’t quite figured out how that happens. But then, I don’t spend most of my day surrounded by small children. So, she occasionally finds things in her purse that she knows nothing about.

I tested this the other day. With her permission, I dug down into the nether regions of my wife’s purse. Along with the ordinary items, I found a single mitten (even though it was almost summer), several plastic doodads of unknown origin and function, a small stuffed elephant, candy that I think was from several Halloweens back, and a love note that one of our daughters had slipped in there months before. She had no idea how any of it had gotten there.

What if the Gospel contains treasures we don’t even know about yet?

Just look at what Peter says when he preaches to a large crowd on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-36).  He’s just explaining the Gospel, so you’d think it would be pretty straightforward. Yet, he includes all kinds of odd things that most people don’t even consider when they’re talking about the Gospel. He begins by emphasizing that Jesus’ death was done according to the “plan” of God. What plan is this? What was God trying to accomplish and how did Jesus fit into this? Then, Peter spends more than half of his time talking about the resurrection. Really? What does the resurrection have to do with the Gospel? When I explain the Gospel, I usually focus on Jesus’ death. But, Peter only devotes one verse to Jesus’ death, spending nine verses on his resurrection. Why is that so important? And, we Peter spends a lot of time talking about God’s promises from the Old Testament. It’s good to know that God keeps his promises, but is this really a part of the Gospel? And, why does Peter include the fact that Jesus was raised to the right hand of the Father and that he has poured out the Spirit on his people? How do these truths relate to the Gospel?

I’ve heard a lot of Gospel presentations over the years, and I don’t think any of them included most of the ideas that Peter thought were so important. What have I been missing? What might we all be missing?

The Gospel has treasures many of us know nothing about. They sit in the wrinkled corners, waiting for us to come looking.

UNPACK YOUR BAG

With a purse like my wife’s there’s only one reliable method for discovering everything that lies within: tip it over and see what comes out. Every now and then, you have to empty your bag in the table, giving it several good shakes to make sure that each wrinkled corner surrenders its precious cargo. Then you can pour yourself a cup of coffee, sit back, and take a close look at what you’ve discovered.

That’s what this book is for. Like my wife’s purse, we need to dump the Gospel on the table and (re)discover its amazing contents. Some things will be ordinary treasures that we know well and use regularly, but whose true depth and mystery we need to see again. Other things we’ve heard about, but have since forgotten. And, there may even be some things that we never knew about in the first place. Regardless, this book offers you a chance to pour yourself a cup of coffee (latte, tea, hot chocolate…whatever), sit back, and experience again the amazing glory of God’s good news.

Let’s unpack the Gospel together. You may be surprised by what you find.

[This is part of a short series I’m doing on different ways I could begin my Gospel book. I started yesterday with “I Don’t Want to Be a Dirty Klingon.” This one is obviously a bit longer, and goes in a very different direction. Let me know if you have any thoughts/feedback.] 

I don’t want to be a dirty Klingon

I

I’m trying to decide if I should tell you what this book is about. Everyone says that’s what you’re supposed to do in an introduction. After all, if I don’t tell you what the book is about, how will you know if you should keep reading? But, here’s the problem. If I tell you what the book is about, I’m afraid that you’ll think it’s really about something else. After a few chapters, you’ll realize what’s going on and get frustrated with me for tricking you into reading my book. Even though we’ve never met, you’ll think I’m a jerk, and tell people bad things about me. Word will spread and soon people everywhere will hate me. Devastated, I’ll retreat into an imaginary world, refusing to speak in any language other than Klingon, and bathing only during full moons.

So, as you can see, the stakes are pretty high. If I don’t tell you what the book is about, you won’t want to read it. Then I’ll get depressed because no one is reading my book, and I’ll spiral down into my own private pit of despair. But if I tell you what the book is about, you might misunderstand. Then you’ll hate me, and I’ll end up as a dirty Klingon.

Since I’d rather avoid both outcomes, let’s see if we can find a third option. I’ll tell you what the book is about. But you have to promise to believe me. You’re not allowed to think that I’m really talking about something else. I’m not. This is a pretty simple book. It only has one topic and one purpose. So, if you’d rather read a book about something else, please do. You’ll enjoy it more, and you won’t hate me as much.

This is a book about the Gospel.

There, that wasn’t so hard.

But, now that I’ve said that, let me explain what I was so concerned about. First, even though I just told you that this book is about the gospel, I’m afraid you’ll think that it’s really a book about evangelism. Flipping through the pages looking for tips and techniques on how to share the Gospel with your friends and neighbors, you’ll be quite disappointed. Evangelism is an important topic. But, this book is not about that. Instead, we’re just going to focus on understanding the Gospel itself better. That should prepare and motivate you to tell others about the Gospel, but that’s a subject for a different book.

Second, by telling you that this is a book about the Gospel, I’m also afraid you’ll think that this is a book primarily for non-believers or new Christians. I can understand why you’d think that. We want people like that to hear and understand the Gospel. The word “gospel” simply means “good news,” the good news that God wants the world to hear. And, if God has good news for the world, everyone should get to hear it. So, if you’re a non-believer or a new Christian, please feel free to continue reading. You’ll hear some pretty amazing things about God and his good news.

But, if you’ve been a Christian for a while and have heard the Gospel more times than you can count, I want you to know that this book is really for you. Once you’ve been a Christian for a while, you start to think that you’ve got that whole “gospel” thing down pretty well. You’re ready to move on to the more challenging truths of the Christian life. Indeed, if you’re like me, you even start to tune the pastor out when he gets to the gospel part of the sermon. It’s not that you don’t think preaching the Gospel is important; you’ve just heard it so many times you don’t think you have anything left to learn.

If that’s you, please keep reading.

There’s always something new.


Book Giveaway – Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey

Recently I received in the mail a free copy of Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey.  According to the author, her book is an examination of the worldview of secularism, and she offers resources for helping Christians to “resist the secular assault on mind, morals, and meaning.”  You might find this book helpful personally or in your ministry.  You might find it to be a good example of the wrong kind of approach to worldview thinking.  Either way, it can be yours by the end of the week.  I’d like to offer to one reader of this blog an opportunity to take this book home for free.

Here is all you have to do to win: write a one paragraph (4-5 sentence) response to the question: What does it mean to have a Christian worldview?  Your answers should be given in the “response” section below.  No more than one entry per person. The last day to enter your answer is 5 p.m. PST, Friday April 29th.  The answer I like best will be the winner – and it doesn’t mean the one I necessarily agree with, either.

Here’s the trailer for the book:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jX2V3fASrpU