Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

The Gifts of Christmas #4: Jesus breaks dividing walls

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Dec 16, 2016

We live in an increasingly tribal world, where white supremacists feel empowered in new ways, European nations are finding xenophobic voices on the rise, and whole people groups, like the Kurds, find themselves at risk wherever they turn.  In spite of all the good work God has done in Rwanda, tensions still brew just under the surface there, and the developed world is dealing with an exponential increase in refugees, precisely because of tribalism.

With fears of “the other” on the rise, a look at Jesus life, from beginning to end, is like a drink of fresh cold water in the midst of the desert.  This is because Jesus loved all, breaking the normal social and tribal walls that so often isolate and divide. Consider:

1. The wise men were from the east, not Jewish, and among the first worshippers, along with shepherds who, by virtue of their work, were considered ceremonially unclean by the religious elite.

2. Early in his ministry, he goes out of his way “pass through Samaria” and engage with a woman who, by any standard of Jewish religious propriety, would have been an outsider.  She was a) a Samaritan, and Jews have no dealing with Samaritans b) a woman, and men have no dealings with women and c) living with a man ‘not her husband’, which would have rendered her unclean.  And yet here he is, talking theology with her, and eventually revealing his identity as Messiah.  She becomes an evangelist, telling others what she’d seen and heard, just like the shepherds before her.

3. Jesus heals a Greek woman’s daughter, commending her for her faith, and later, heals the child of a Roman soldier.

4. He calls a despised “tax collector” to become one of his disciples.

5. The complaint leveled against him by the religious establishment is that he spends time with “tax collectors and sinners”.

6. He advocates for a woman caught in “the very act of adultery” saving her life, forgiving her, and telling her to “sin no more”.

7. He tells a thief dying on the cross that he’ll be joining Jesus in paradise.

7. He even has a heartfelt and compassionate conversation with “a ruler of the Jews” who is part of the religious establishment

All these things offend the sensibilities of basically everyone, because Jesus refused to be confined to a single people group or party.  Rich or poor.  Jew or Gentile.  Slave or free.  Man or woman.  Married or those with failed marriages.  Undeniable sinner, or sinner covered in a veneer of religion – Jesus loved them all.

This is a great gift this Christmas season, because the reality is that those who love this way receive a much needed gift as a result of crossing social divides and loving those different than them – they receive the gift of joy!

I know lots of Christians, lots of religious people.  One thing I’ve learned is that its the people who “cross over” who find an element of joy in their lives unavailable to those who remain confined within the walls of “their own kind”.  This isn’t because crossing over is  easy.  It’s not.  It’s because crossing over is “the life for which we’ve been created” and when we cross over, we become aligned with the deepest part of our soul.

The gift of crossing over began early, as shepherds, judged as unclean, received a message from an angel and “crossed over” into the presence of a holiness that the religious establishment would have forbidden to them.  God, far from forbidding, initiated the invitation!  Jesus, we are told in Ephesians 2, has broken down the dividing wall.  This is a gift.

Have you unwrapped this gift, and begun enjoying relationships with those across the way – racially, economically, socially, politically? There’s joy “over there” friends, for those willing to follow Jesus and cross the divides.

Here’s the deal, as announced in Luke 2:10:

Good news 

Great joy 

For all people! 

There’ll be a banquet in the end, and most folks at the table won’t look like you; they maybe didn’t even vote like you.   But though the banquet’s still to come, the party’s started, so enter in – by crossing over!

 

Fantasy: A Door That’s Closing—And Why We Should Keep It Open

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Feb 22, 2011

This past weekend, as part of our plans to insulate our attic bedroom, I was searching out the “art” part of the project and stumbled upon these lovely works from England.  They’re part of a folklore, fairy tale genre that hints at a different world—they’re not the world itself, but just a hint of it, a marker pointing us in a direction beyond what we can touch, taste, and feel in this here and now.  As Lewis says, they are “only the scent of flower we have not found, the hint of a tune we have not heard, the news from a country we have never visited.” Lewis proposes that our love of fairy tales reveals that we’re made for more than this life, more than buying and selling, living and dying, watching Glee and filling our our March Madness bracket.  He proposes that the fairy tales themselves point towards another part of our world, invisible yet real.

As Dennis Haack writes, “Right up to the medieval age, the church believed that fantasy creatures, sorcerers, ghouls, goblins, and ghosts were as ancient as creation.  Their inclusion reminded everyone that humans are more than mere mortals or machines.”  Fairy tales hint at the grand meta-narrative that permeates the universe, the cosmic struggle between good and evil.  This is why Christians like CS Lewis, JR Tolkien, and yes, even JK Rowling, tell fantastic tales, and it’s why nearly everyone’s a fan of at least of one of these authors.

During the Victorian age though, much to Lewis’ dismay, fairy tales were sanitized and moved from the parlor to the nursery.  Twentieth century evangelicals have taken the whole thing a step further, often vilifying Harry Potter and Halloween, rather than leaning into to the truths contained therein:  there are powers beyond this physical realm—real evil exists in the this world, and real good. Honor, sacrifice, and courage are things that matter, as does beauty and our longings to be caught up in a story larger than our sanitized lives.

Some of this stems from our desire to protect children from the realities of this cosmic struggle.  I understand the desire to shelter, but hear this: Life is not safe.  Following Christ is not safe.  Confronting evil in the world, whether in our own hearts or in the power structures around us, is not safe. But neither is it boring.  In our attempts to make our faith safe and sane, we’ve created a Precious Moments version of Christianity, with pastel figures splashed across the pages of our children’s bible, highlighting our sanitized view of the faith.  There’s pastel Noah entering the ark with all the happy animals (but no drowning masses).  There’s the pastel version of David strumming on his harp (but no picture of him cutting off Goliath’s head).  There’s no pastel Tamar, disguising herself as a prostitute and sleeping with Judah either.  (Did you know that in the original version of sleeping beauty, the princess was wakened, not by a kiss, but by giving birth to twins, conceived while she slept as the prince…well, you know how these things happen!)

We’ve sanitized it all, sort of pretending that there is no cosmic struggle, that there are no powers higher than our college degree and credit card.  The result is often, as Dennis Haack says, a church that offers a “therapeutic God and advertises church as a ‘safe’ place.”

What’s needed is the recovery of our authentic sense of mysticism, our sense that the world is bigger than what we see and touch, that the invisible forces of evil in our world are real (because they are), and that we’re invited into God’s story, even more so than Edmund was invited in by Aslan.  This is the kind of life I want to live—saturated with mystery and glory, right in the midst of bill paying, shopping, and yes, even insulating the attic.

What are your thoughts?  Have we sanitized our gospel too much?  How about our fairy tales?  Why are Christians afraid of Harry Potter but not CS Lewis?

Thawing my heart in the heat of Africa….

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Jan 15, 2011

I’m back home, and don’t know how to write about what happened.  But I wanted to share something… so here’s this morning’s entry from my prayer diary, with a few pictures thrown in.

Good morning God…

I’m back in Seattle.

I remember being in the thick of my time there – tired, hungry, annoyed by sweat and bugs and the smells that come to humid places that have no showers.  I remember thinking, “I can’t get home soon enough – back to wood stoves, and skis, cologne and college basketball, my wife, literacy, favorite smells, high speed internet.”  How shallow is that?

Now I’m home, and when I scroll through the pictures, tears come to my eyes – tears of gratitude for the privilege of meeting people who taught me things I didn’t want to learn, things I didn’t even know I needed to learn.  And I’ve a feeling the learning, and the relationship with these wonderful people, has just begun.

One thing I’ve begun to learn through this visit is that “normal”, on both sides of the continent, is in need of readjustment, and that we can help each other learn.  They need to  learn hygiene habits, and that water from a deep well is much better than water from the lowlands, where parasites and mosquitoes conspire to deal sickness and death.  They need to learn that saving money is a good thing, and that they’ve the power, even with their own limited resources, to build their lives, their families, their communities.  We can help them learn these things – we must help them – we will help them.

I (I won’t be bold enough to use “we”, though I suspect many will agree) need to learn how to dance.  Not literally so much (that’s beyond teaching in my case), but in other ways:

The dance of joy is written into their lives. Without any of the things we’ve deemed essential, they manage to smile.  For all their lack of sanitation, and vitamins, and recreational opportunities, and clean clothes, and benefits packages, and happy hours, and professional sports, I swear they’re onto something because it seems like they enjoy life more than most of us, in spite of our multi-levels of security: financial, medical, physical, emotional.  It’s sinking in, just a little, that my world won’t collapse if I don’t take my bevy of morning vitamins, or if I skip the latest seminar on making my church cool, or if I never write another book in my life, or buy another pair of shoes.  JOY doesn’t need shoes, or conferences, or vitamins, or relentless status updates – JOY, it seems, is about living in the moment, content with what I’m given – those are my impressions at least.

I don’t mean to romanticize.  There are people living with nightmares and trauma because of the Rwandan genocide in the 90’s.  There’s political tension bubbling, just beneath the surface.  Though there’s progress with infant mortality, kids die all the time, and parents don’t just take it in stride – it cuts them to the core, just like it does us.  The suffering is immense.  Still – the dance of joy is woven right into the fabric of it.  Go to church in Rwanda and watch them dance, remembering that they’re way less than one generation removed from killing each other with machetes in ways more brutal than I can stomach writing about.  And yet – joy.  I’ve much to learn.

The dance of community reveals my relational poverty. When I was there, in the thick of it, with people everywhere (Rwanda is the densest populated African nation), I longed for the solitude of my cabin.  When I’m just with me, I get along with everyone in the room perfectly.  I felt, in Africa, my impatience, my arrogance, my selfishness, my greed.  Nobody was lecturing me from a position of moral authority.  It’s just that they’ve space in their lives for gratitude, celebration, relationships.  When we went to that first village where our church had put in a well, they’d planned a feast for us – slaughtered a couple chickens, boiled a dozen eggs, and served mountains of fruit!  They would have gladly danced, eaten, and celebrated with us all day, but of course we had other important places to be, as we Americans always do.  And so, we enjoyed a few minutes and moved on.

“This ‘moving on’”, I remember thinking, “is the story of my life.”  I’m good at having a thousand acquaintances, much better at that, in fact, than having real friends.  They don’t have the “thousand acquaintance” option on the table, and so many of them have mastered the art of community and real friendships.  Now that I’m back where “solitude on demand” is available to me, I’m praying Jesus, that I’ll remained challenged by the countless examples of interdependency and community that I saw there.

The dance of faith in Christ is beauty and grace in Africa.  In one church we visited a man gave a profound and powerful sermon about how to keep moving ahead joyfully, even when you lose everything.  He wove scriptures together with personal narratives from his own life and the life of the nation, calling people to “give thanks anyway” when all hell breaks loose, because Jesus is still with us.  It was said better than that, but you get the point.  After, we gathered with the pastor, and I asked him if the man who preached was some sort of associate pastor.  It turns out he was a layman, a deacon.  You see, the deacons fast and pray with the pastor every Saturday, while the pastor trains them as leaders.  They practice preaching, learn to study the Bible, and pray for their town.  I wonder if, even in my highly paid position, I’d be willing to fast regularly, or give up one of my (often) two days off, in order to equip leaders in my church?  I wonder how many council members I’d have if fasting on Saturdays was a requirement?

It seems like this trip has had the effect of revealing a lot of arrogance I’ve had, and then squeezing it out of me, a process I hope continues.  It seems also, that I’ve a chance to live better here because of it – more intentionally, simply, generously, joyfully.  I am, now that I’m home, profoundly grateful for the learning, born in the warmth of Rwandan and Ugandan culture, that’s beginning to thaw some coldness in my heart.  I pray the thaw continues.

Thanks God, for the privilege, profoundly so, of being there… it’s great to be home – may the seeds you’ve planted through the thousand beautiful people I met bear fruit, and spare me from settling back into the insidious pull and demands of my often sanitized faith.  Amen…Amen.

Curious…

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Nov 24, 2010

I’m enjoying reading the biography of a favorite Christian: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while I’m over here in Germany.  He was a German pastor, ultimately arrested and executed because of his overt and covert involvement in the resistance movement. I love reading about German history while I’m over here because this history still bleeds into day to day conversations.  I learned today that the dorm for a local school here once housed Nazi youth, and that the Art Center I visited was leveled by Nazis and then rebuilt.  “if these streets could talk” I say to myself as I walk along them, pondering what it must have been like to live in the midst of such confusion, fear, and chaos.

There’s much to learn from those who lived well during those days, and as I read about Bonhoeffer, I’m struck by the degree to which his leadership and influence was extended by his curiosity.  Bonhoeffer was a learner: concerts, plays, art musuems, theater, movies.  His curiosity, though, extended beyond the arts, into the realm of people, places, and ideas.

People: Dietrich sought out, and nurtured relationships with people whose views were different than his own.  In Berlin, he learned from a theologian whose views were different than his own.  While studying in America, he developed close ties with a Frenchman, and an African-American, both students of theology with him.  He would come to value eccumenism (getting along with Christians of various denominations) because of the Frenchman, and would become convinced of his need to intervene and actively resist Hitler because of the horrors of racism he saw firsthand, in America, through his friendship with an African-American.

Places: Italy, England, Spain, America (including a road to trip to Florida that continued by boat, all the way to Cuba), Mexico.  This man was always exploring other cultures, and doing so with the goal of learning and absorbing, not just criticizing.  He tried to get to India to visit Gandhi, but that never materialized, and Gandhi himself would exit this world shortly after Dietrich.

Ideas: Dietrich both criticized and praised: the fundamentalists, and the liberals, the Americans and the Germans, the Jews and the Gentiles.  The only Easter Dietrich was in America, he didn’t go to church, but rather to a hear a Rabbi speak (because all the churches were filled overflowing), where he heard an exhortation for Jews to step up and make New York the city it could be, a city fit for the Messiah.  If you read Dietrich’s “Letters from Prison” you see that, to the very end of his days, his was a mind intent on digesting and refining ideas.  Of course, there’s a danger in academia, of which he was aware, and Dietrich was always careful to call his listeners to action, not just contemplation.  He especially loved the African American church, because it was there, and there alone (he said) that he found, “great intellect and social vision…combating racism and speaking about the saving power of Jesus Christ” for Dietrich believed (like I do) that the centrality of Christ, and it’s social/ethical implications must always go together:  “when the two are combined, and only then, God came into the equation”.

I bring all this up because curiosity is deplorably lacking in our culture today, as we gather around people who are just like us.   In our self-referential little sub-cultures we can all feel good about our ideas beliefs.  What’s needed is exposure to the realm outside our existing convictions, but always with an eye toward growing in our understanding of truth.  It’s the curious, reading, watching, questioning, person that enjoys the bet possibilities of living a well textured life.  How do we cultivate curiosity?

1. Read outside your genre.  If you read fiction usually, try non – or vice versa.

2. Get entertained outside your genre.  If you go to movies, try theater.  If you go to rock concerts, try the symphony.

3. Visit art musuems.

4. Get your news from a new source for a month.  If you’re FOX, try CNBC, or vice versa.

5. Have lunch with someone from a different faith, or an atheist.

6. Have some friends over for supper, light some big candles, and have a conversation about politics, with a view towards understanding the other.

Learners run the risk of having weak convictions, because they’re addicted to getting more information.  That’s the downside, and it needs addressing.  But the downside of not being a learner is even greater, for the truth is that you’ll likely fall into some ideological hole and have neither the will nor desire to get out, because everyone around you thinks, just like you do, that all’s well.  When nearly all pastors in Germany were metaphorically kissing Hitler’s ring, Dietrich was running an underground seminary, and I’d suggest the courage to swim upstream against popular religious opinion came from Dietrich’s willingness to explore everything, a willingness which served only to strengthen his convictions to live by the truth that is found alone in Christ.

How do you cultivate curiosity?

The Perfect Storm: Finding Liberty in Simplicity

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Nov 16, 2010

I went running this morning in my shoeless shoes, pondering the fresh health I’m enjoying in my running because I’ve been liberated from the belief that the foot needs something other than itself to run well.  It’s not the point of this post, but if you’re interested, you can read about it here.

The morning offered a bed of leaves through which to run because last night there was a wind storm, the kind that makes a howling sound in our attic bedroom, the kind that strips trees of leaves, reducing them to a shadowy stick figures of their former selves.  They cling, the dead leaves do – until the wind is strong enough.  Finally, some gust wins, and they’re gone.

I ponder Jesus words about the wind of the spirit blowing wherever it wants, and realize that sometimes the wind blows hard so that the things in our life that are enslaving us, weighing us down, and filling us with anxiety, can be untethered and float away.  The wind can be painful, but it leaves spaciousness and liberty in its wake.  “What is cluttering my world?”, I ponder, as my nearly naked feet touch the forest floor.

We cling to much that is needless, and as a result are too often, like that woman in the Bible, “concerned about many things”.  Because of this we worry, we’re weary, and we’re prone to comfort ourselves by escaping from the mess we’ve made by hiding in our big and little addictions.  Sometimes we look for you to bless our messes and our complexities, when what we really need is a good storm, a good gust of Spirit wind to whirl through our souls, stripping us of illusions.  Only when the last dead leaf has been stripped away will we be truly free.  And so I pray, as I prepare for an exceptionally busy day, which kicks off the fullest of weeks, and leads into what is, for many of us, the busiest of seasons:

Blow, wind of the spirit; blow!  Strip my life of all that enslaves.  Blow through my possessions, and give me the capacity to release. Blow your wind through my shopping habits so that I don’t buy needlessly, in some vain attempt to fill a void.  Blow your wind through the use of my time, that I might not be enslaved to meaningless pursuits, that I might invest in the things that matter – loving God, loving people, sharing my gifts and celebrating Yours.  As I’m hanging on to destructive comforts, or petty bitterness, or shallow greed and fear, blow wind, blow.  Release me.

Life comes to us, and pours through us, when the wind of your spirit liberates us from all that enslaves.  Blow through my soul, blow through our church, freeing us from that which detracts from your purposes.  Blow wind, blow.  Forgive us for trying to preserve lifeless forms, when you long to free us so that new life can form.  Blow.  Blow.  Blow.  And when the wind stops, you will be there to cradle us in your love – and that will be life enough.

The wind blows friends – through loss, dead ends, illness, accidents, solitude, silence, weeping in the arms of Jesus, pouring our hearts out to God, listening for God’s voice, cleaning the office, doing the dishes, sitting with your aging parents, quiet music on a cloudy day as your read God’s words.  And when the wind does its job, you’re released, lighter, liberated – may the wind of God’s spirit blow through our souls this day, and every day.  Amen.

Getting to “Why”

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May 18, 2010

This past Sunday evening’s sixty minutes offered a remarkable example of the power of vision.  This is worth watching! Gustavo Dudamel is the new Venezuelan conductor of the LA Philharmonic.  He could have gone anywhere, but chose Los Angeles because, as he says, he wants to “change the future of this city through music”.  Members of the Philharmonic are now investing part of their professional hours teaching young children in the poorest parts of the city how to play instruments, believing that the disciplines associated with music are a path to living well.

This gets to something I’ve been pondering recently: the power of WHY. There’s a book out called, “Start with Why”, and the premise is that we tend to begin everything by focusing on the “what” and the “how”. The really great leaders though, always start with the why, because it’s the why that motivates us at our deepest level and inspires us to sacrifice, action, living differently.

Gustavo understands this, because he doesn’t say, “we’re going to teach kids how to play the violin”.   That’s not inspiring, or motivating to anyone except die-hard violinists, and even they will have their own ideas about the ‘how’ question which might make them dismissive of Gustavo. Instead, he begins with the “Why”. We’re going to change this city! The what:  by teaching kids to become musicians.  The how:  by linking professional musicians with the poorest children in Los Angeles who’d never otherwise have access to good music, training them, and then letting them perform at the Hollywood Bowl.

What’s the church’s “Why”? Though it varies from community to community, our passion had better be to make God’s good reign visible on this earth, because in a world longing for justice, mercy, beauty, hospitality, and hope, that’s compelling – and it’s our calling.

We’re taking what we hope will be a significant offering this coming Sunday, all of which will go to digging wells in Uganda through Living Water International.  But we’re not just digging wells (that’s the “what and how”):  We’re making God’s reign visible.

We gather each Sunday to worship through singing, prayer, fellowship, and teaching.  But we’re not just gathering. We’re making God’s reign visible.  Imperfectly?  Of course, but that’s the vision.

We do stuff, each of us, in our lives:  work, family, hobbies, rest, exercise.  Is there an overreaching “why” that governs the “what” and the “how” of our days.  I hope so.  Making God’s reign visible in my body, my life, my marriage, my family… this is a “why” worth sacrifice, discipline, sweat.  And this is a “why” that assures a great adventure.

I listen to Gustavo, and the children playing on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, and tears come to my eyes.  “Yes”!  Here’s someone imparting hope and he’s an entire army of musicians committed to doing it with him, all because he can understand and articulate the “why”.

Water Wednesdays

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Apr 14, 2010

Our church is raising funds to put wells in Africa through the “Spilling Hope” initiative.

It would be easy, for many of us, to just write a check on May 23rd, 50 days after Easter, and call it a success.  But success, in this case, requires more than writing a check.  We’re trying to “put on a heart of compassion” as Paul says, which means to “suffer with” those who are suffering.

The relationship of suffering to water is, presently, little known in North America.  However, for much of the world, the disease free water we take for granted is not available.  The consequences of this shortage are far ranging, limiting education, raising rates of infant mortality and infectious diseases, and stopping economic development in it’s tracks.

What’s a person to do?

1. Live with humble gratitude for the abundance that is ours.  I often pray a word of thanks for food, but during these fifty days, I’ve taken to giving thanks for water as well.  With this comes the realization that what Jesus said is true:  “to whom much is given, much is required.”

2. Recognize that this problem can be addressed.  There are enormous issues surrounding the politics of water, as a film this coming Saturday night will explain.  But there are solutions for hundreds of millions in the world, right now:  Wells Work!

3. Offer water “in Jesus Name” so that people can learn to enjoy not only physical water, but living water.  This is what we’ve done – and what we’re doing again.  Care to join us?  See Spilling Hope to get involved.

Sowing Resurrection Seeds…

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Mar 24, 2010

You’ve no doubt heard about the parable of the seed and the sower?  It’s one of those stories I’ve seen illustrated with little shreds of flannel when I was in 2nd grade, heard it taught at camp by a guy who illustrated it in what was called a “chalk talk” and studied it in seminary.

In spite of all this, it was only today that I was really struck by the fact this guy wasn’t very careful about where he put his seeds.  Rocky soil, good soil, the side of the road, amidst weeds… come on farmer man, take aim!  In spite of his seeming to sow seeds like a blind man, Jesus’ interpretation of the parable says nothing about being more careful, no, “so folks, let’s learn from this silly wasteful farmer about the importance of only planting seeds where we know they will be fruitful.”  To the contrary, when Jesus says that “the seed is the word of God”, He’s saying:  “this is the way it is – the seed will be scattered everywhere – EVERYWHERE!”

The gospel isn’t supposed to be shared like a smart bomb: find your target, take aim, fire.  It’s supposed to be shared like a reckless farmer throwing seed everywhere, and this reality has some profound implications:

#1 – I need to stop preemptively assuming that people are or aren’t ready to hear about Christ.  I can find ways to build bridges, find ways to serve and embody hope, and listen clearly so that I might know when to speak and when to be silent, but we’re all soil, all in need of encounters with the holy, the true, and beautiful.  If it’s true that Jesus has ushered in God’s Good Reign, then to presume that my cranky neighbor won’t be interested or responsive (so ‘I’ll just save the seed’) doesn’t make me a smart farmer – it makes me a farmer unlike the one about which Jesus spoke.  Sow generously!

#2 – I need to stop presuming who I’m able to reach. Some people who ran a ministry in the Alps years ago didn’t have a target audience.  They simply prayed that God would bring ‘the people of His choosing’, and they were content to believe that whoever God brought were precisely the people God wanted there.  Of course it’s usually true that thinkers attract thinkers, skaters attract skaters, etc.  But it’s dangerous to presume your scope of influence because God might be using you to change the lives of people very different than you.

#3 – I need to expect fruit.  I don’t know when it will come, or how, or how much.  I only know that this is what God does.  This makes the starting point: “Thank you” rather than, “God will you please….”  because I genuinely believe that to the extent I’m living in dependency, looking to Christ to express life through my, I can equally enjoy the confidence that He will do just that.  The nature, timing, and scope of the fruit are God’s prerogative.  But the promise of fruit stands, and as a result, we’re free to expect that God will work miracles through us, ‘beyond what we can ask, or hope, or imagine’.

A British soldier picks up a German hitchiker in post-war Germany, as the reconstruction continues.  By the end of the evening, the German soldier has said yes to Christ, and goes home to share the news of his discovery with friends.  Soon he and his friends are off to England in order to learn more.  Eventually that same hitchiker will return to the continent and begin a Bible School in Austria which will spawn numerous other ministries around the world.

One hitchiker…  it would have been easy for a British officer to drive right past a German youth right?one seed.  But the British officer was a farmer – and 50 years later there are thousands who’ve attended Bible School in a Castle in Alps and gone on to be the presence of Christ around the world. I like farming…

We’re close to Easter, and I encourage you to sow seeds by praying for your neighbors and inviting them to be with you when you celebrate the resurrection on April 4th.  So sew… and let the adventure begin.

Modernity, Post-Modernity, and the Limits of Knowing

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Jan 27, 2010

The question on the table is this:  How can we step outside of our own context fully enough to objectively assess the faith? This is the question post-modernity brings to the table.  Rather than decrying post-modernity for critiquing the arrogant declarations of certainty that have come from people of faith down through the centuries, I’d suggest at the outset, that there are things to learn from the post-modern problem:

1. They’ve pointed out the elephant in the room:  we don’t KNOW (in the same way we know that we’re reading a blog right now) the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and the Bible.  There’s evidence; good evidence, but we don’t KNOW.

2. The reality is that our belief systems ARE shaped by our culture and upbringing in many ways.  That’s why more children grow up to become Muslims  in Iran than in Kansas.  What are we to make of this?  Do we simply declare that little kids growing up in Iran are running from the truth and those in Kansas are enlightened?  This seems a little arrogant, and a little small minded as well.  The reality is that we embrace the narrative of our culture more often than not, and this is formative in our faith declarations.

The crisis of “knowing” and the questions about objectivity and culture are valuable.  To be too quickly dismissive would be to miss some things of value.  Still, the post-modern dilemma remains:

1. Though, as the post-modern declares, I can never fully remove myself from my own context in order to objectively determine truth, I still need to believe something, and that creates a problem, because the post-modern is hesitant to believe anything at all.  However (how weird is this?), the reality is that even the claim:  “I can’t believe anything” is a belief system.  So in the end, the post-modern is faced with the dilemma of an unsustainable position because he/she, wanting to hold all belief systems at arms length, makes ‘holding-all-belief-systems-at-arms-length” their belief system.  In other words:  everybody needs to believe something!

2. If I must believe something, then the question once again becomes, “How will I decide what to believe” and it is here that I think we should embrace the humility of post-modernism by changing our language regarding truth claims from “I know” to “I believe”.  After all, this is historically how we declared our faith:  “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”   Recently though, it seems that in some circles the objective has been to provide bombproof evidence regarding our truth claims so that we don’t need to say “I believe” any more.  We can say, “I know”.    To become people obsessed with providing evidence at just the moment in history when the enlightenment’s certitude is taking it’s last breath is terribly misguided.  We should instead say, “Here’s the evidence I see… and based on it, I believe.”  That’s more honest, and even in keeping with the life to which we’re called.

And what of those whose faith story is different than our own, not because of overt rejection of Christ, but because of being raised in a different environment.  I completely believe that Jesus words are true:  “I am the way the truth and the life – no man comes to the Father but through me” – how does that apply to the little kid in Iran?  I’ll save that post for another time.

For… a plea for beauty

by , on
Dec 8, 2009

Our church staff was looking at this article yesterday, which articulates some data from the Barna research people about how Christians are perceived by those who are not.  I wonder if the real Jesus, not the one conservatives and liberals have fabricated, would be perceived as boring (remember when he walked on water, remember the accusation that he went to the wrong parties, the ones with unreligious people), or judgmental (remember the women caught in adultery who, in accordance with Levitical law should have been stoned, and he found a way to forgive her?), or insensitive to others?  The people who hated him the most were the religious experts – seminary trained, with big Bibles that they used to prove to themselves that Jesus was a heretic worthy of death  (John 5:39, Acts 13:27).  They’re the only people Jesus angered, at least until those people nearly incited a riot in their efforts to get him killed.  Then Rome stepped and helped put him to death.

The normal run of the mill people though?  They seemed drawn to the man, which is baffling because they’re not generally drawn to his body on earth today, the church.  Why is this?

Of course, this could be a huge conversation, because there are many reasons.  But let’s tackle just one:  We’ve become, frankly, rather utilitarian in our approach to relating to God, each other, and the world.  What do I mean?  I mean that we may well have the right ‘WORDS’ about the sin nature of humankind, and our need for reconciliation with God, which has been miraculously provided through the incarnation and death of Jesus (I John 2:1,2).  All of this is good and true, but it’s sort of like a house without any beauty  (see the attached movie).  The ‘gospel’ is good news, not only because it gets us justified… it’s good news because God is reconciling people to Himself and each other, breaking down dividing walls.  If we start breaking down walls too, by reaching across doctrinal divides, not to shoot our brothers but to share and learn from each other, we’ll add the beauty to the message.  The gospel is good news because the entire earth is going to be transformed (Romans 8, Ephesians 1:10,11), and so we can embody a little glimpse of this earth renewal by caring for our environment because God cares for His creation and we’re in His family.  The gospel is good news because, according to Luke 4, people are healed, debts are forgiven, captives are set free.  Unless you want to spiritualize all of that, and turn those things into a tract about getting to heaven, then maybe we ought to be working to set people free who are caught in human trafficking, and feeding the hungry, digging wells and opening clinics.  This stuff is beautiful.

Instead, we’re boycotting Old Navy, not because of unjust labor practices, but because they don’t say “Merry Christmas” in their ads.  This is more than embarassing, it’s angering.  It’s just another exercise in missing the point, and our house continues, to look to the world, like a prison camp filled with boring haters, rather than a welcoming home, the place where the beauty is so inviting we can’t help ourselves… we’re drawn.  This is what the church is supposed to be, and can be.  But only if we start behaving like Jesus.  Until then, we’ll continue to be like the people Jesus struggled with the most:  religious prigs.