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

The Great Divorce: read it, see it, live it.

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Feb 2, 2010

Taproot Theater is presently offering a marvelous production of CS Lewis’ classic book, “The Great Divorce” on their mainstage.   After watching a play or movie derived from a book, I usually come away with a heavy preference for the book; things are left out; the visuals are other than what I’d imagined.  I go back to reading.  In this case the opposite proved to be true.  Taproot’s production is so brilliantly crafted and executed, that I left with a more profound appreciation for the book rather than less.  If you’re in the Seattle area (and for you students from Montana and Canada that are coming) I’d suggest you see it soon, because it’s slated to run only through the end of this month.

Having praised the production, I’ll quickly add that you’ll probably appreciate it best if you’ve read the book, because it’s dealing with some themes that are best digested with a little forethought.  For this reason, I’ve shopped the internet and found this review, which I think gives a good synopsis.   Love for the light, beauty, humility, joy, and strength of the redeemed becomes the main theme of the play.  I left with a deeper love for Jesus and where history is heading.

But this is a play about heaven and hell, as the review link above states.  It might surprise you to know that, among people who believe that Jesus is the single door through which we must enter if we’re going to know God, there are a wide variety of views regarding the afterlife.  This post, also shopped on the internet, offers a catalog of these views.  Some will be loathe to consider anything except view one because it is the most popular view, carrying the weight of history and orthodoxy in its favor.  All of us must rightly be suspicious of any view that deviates from orthodoxy, being slow to overturn centuries of history simply because we find some other view more appealing.  And yet…

We must also have a willing openness to re-ordering, not because a view is ‘appealing’ or unappealing, but because the scriptures themselves might offer a challenge to conventional wisdom.  When it comes to matters of heaven and hell, we need to weigh the prevailing view in light of these questions:

1. What does Matthew 11:21 mean, where Jesus indicates that Tyre would have repented had they received the light of Christ?

2. What does Philippians 2:11 mean, when Paul indicates that ‘every knee will bow, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father?”  I know the conventional view is that the unsaved will confess after death, under duress.  Still, is there some reason Romans 10:9 (the promise that if we confess Jesus as Lord, we’ll be saved) won’t apply to them?

3. Is there anyone in hell, in the end, against their will?  Lewis’ thesis is ‘no’.  Does this fit with Jesus’ teaching in Luke 16:19-31.  I think it does, because the tormented man doesn’t ask to get out of his hell, only to be comforted in his hell.

In the end, I believe we need to deal with two realities:  1) There is a place of judgement, and there are people in it.  God’s love is infinite and relentless.  2) Provision has been made for everyone to receive the cure for the deathly disease of sin, a cure which includes a confession (Romans 10:9), a confession which all will make (Philippians 2:10,11).

In Tim Keller’s marvelous article on the importance of hell he writes, “Many, for fear of doctrinal compromise, want to put all the emphasis on God’s active judgment, and none on the self-chosen character of hell. Ironically, as we have seen, this unBiblical imbalance often makes it less of a deterrent to non-believers rather than more of one. And some can preach hell in such a way that people reform their lives only out of a self-interested fear of avoiding consequences, not out of love and loyalty to the one who embraced and experienced hell in our place. The distinction between those two motives is all-important. The first creates a moralist, the second a born-again believer.” This, it seems to me, is the central message of Lewis’ work as well.

Lewis’ said that “Divorce” wasn’t theology, or even speculation.  But the themes reflect the beliefs of his literary mentor, George MacDonald, who ultimately believes that God’s character as ‘consuming fire’ will ultimately destroy every last vestige of rebellion in every last human.

There are other themes two in “Divorce” especially regarding the role of the human will in choosing the offer of God’s cure, but I won’t go down that road in this post.  Instead I’ll recommend that you see the play, write down some questions, and we’ll set a date for a hearty discussion of the play and the doctrines it address… coming soon to a Bethany near you!

Finally: Corporations are People too!

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Jan 29, 2010

There were many in the evangelical world of my youth (read: James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, et. al.) who decried the ‘liberal courts’ for overstepping their bounds by using the court as means of legislating, rather than limiting their responsibilities to ‘upholding the constitution according intent of its framers’. They viewed Roe v Wade as an example of, not merely ruling on a case, but of using a case to create and impose a new ethos that was far beyond the scope of the case at hand. How dare those liberals do that!  If only conservatives ruled the court things would be different, right?

Apparently not. The court used the case of “Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission” as a means for overturning a century of campaign finance laws, ushering in an era whereby corporations (both American, and foreign ones with US subsidiaries) are granted the same freedom of speech rights as individual Americans. The McCain/Feingold law that sought to limit the degree to which companies could influence elections (and thereby, influence elected officials) was overturned with this ruling.

So, as Stephen Colbert mockingly said last night: “Now my bank, “Morgan Stanley” has the same rights to contribute their voice to policy making in Washington as my barber, “Stanley Morgan”. Each one can donates hundreds of millions to campaigns and then, by virtue of their generosity, have access to, and influence over, the policy makers. It’s a fair battle. And may the best man win.”

All sarcasm excluded, isn’t it obvious to everyone that granting free speech rights to multi-national corporations is 1) far beyond the intent of our founding father’s intent, 2) dangerous in it’s opening that will now grant foreign companies influence over American campaigns, 3) marginalizing to common citizens, who will never be able to match the scope and wealth of large corporate spending and influence, and 4) the very kind of ‘legislative over-reach’ that conservatives have been angry about for years.

This is precisely why there’s so much anger and cynicism towards American politics. Apparently the religious right, and political conservatives weren’t really angry about the Supreme Court’s over-reach in the 70’s, but angry that the over-reach didn’t favor their ideology.  As Dobson himself has written:  “tyranny by judicial fiat is destructive to our democratic institutions.”    Now that the recent court and ruling is in line with their goals, the right has fallen strangely silent about “the intent of the framers and the tyranny of judicial fiat”.  I guess it all depends on the ruling.

When the rhetoric dies down over this ruling, the thing that will have changed is this: corporations can buy as much time to exercise ‘free speech’ and thus influence the vote, as you and I can. This isn’t good news for salmon or eagles, people who use banks and have loans, water tables, topsoil, small farmers around the world, or the artic wildlife refuge.

But it’s good news for multi-national corporations because now, when we appeal to our constitutional rights by declaring, ‘we the people’, they can spend 150 million dollars crying back: “I’m a person too!”

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.

Our Prayers: Thermometer of our world view…

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Jan 22, 2010

I recently read a survey that indicated 90% of American men self identify as being “above average fitness” compared to their peers.  When you do the math (and even I can do this math) it becomes these men don’t have self image problems; but they are delusional.  Their problem comes, I suspect, from one of the oldest tricks in the book: confusing intention with action.  They want to exercise, want to eat right, want get enough sleep, want to cut back on coffee and alcohol.  They watch bow-flex commercials, drink low carb beer, and declare themselves ‘fitter than average’.  Intent gets confused with action.   What’s actually needed are objective measures of health; things like body mass index, resting heart rate, and the good/bad cholesterol ratio.   The harsh numbers tell the truth.

There’s a similar objective assessment, in my opinion at least, in matters of spiritual health.  Many of us say that we live in a world where God is able to intervene in history, and does intervene in history.  He changes hearts, heals bodies, brings the triumph of the cross to bear in lives that are wracked with self-loathing and guilt, sets people free.  We say God does these things, and many of us even go a step further and say that, while God is able to do whatever he wants, he sometimes partners with us mere humans, “waiting” as it were, for us to get involved in God’s activities by our doing one simple thing:  asking.

We who believe this can offer a boatload of evidence that this is true:  God steps into history to deliver Israel from slavery because he ‘hears their cry’. Hannah prayed for a son and God gave her one.  Elijah prayed for an offering to be consumed and it was.  Jesus told us that we have not because we ask not.  Later he said that ‘this kind’ (speaking of a certain demonic possession) can only come out by prayer and fasting.   It’s all through the Bible – God steps into history in response to prayers.   We believe it – or at least we say we do.

But saying we do is like watching bowflex commercials while eating popcorn and drinking low-carb beer. The real thermometer of our belief that God steps into history actively is our prayer life.  I was reminded fo this recently when some people at our church asked pastoral staff to come over to their house and pray through it because they were sensing ‘dark spirits.’  We don’t get these requests often (all right, never until now) but a team went and prayed.  The family said that the effects were both immediate and dramatic.

Dramatic encounters with the forces of darkness are, in my opinion, easier that dealing with the day to day subtleties of life, because there’s so much noise telling us that we live in a purely material world, and because we’ve so many medical, and financial, and therapeutic tools at our disposal that we come to believe, practically speaking, that we can “do it on our own” in spite of what we say we believe.  I mean, with a good marketing guy, a killer web site, and good sound and lights you can build a church.. right?  Sadly… right.

Our prayer life, asking specific things of God, is a good indicator of the degree to which we believe God is at work in the world.  We’re saturated in a materialistic culture that says, both overtly and covertly, that God isn’t active, that things just happen.  We push back, maybe even pointing to the very verses I’ve quoted above.

Big deal.  The real issue is this:  Am I asking God to step into my world, or the world of another, to bring healing, faith, hope, provision, direction?  Do I believe it when Jesus says, “apart from me you can do nothing?”  Does the amount of my praying correlate to the amount of my talking about how great God is, how involved he is in history?

The house demons are gone, and I’m reminded through the event that, behind the veil of our material world, there’s a God able to intervene, and forces of darkness intent on destroying hope and life.  We’ve a calling here folks, to be people of prayer.  I’ve taken to writing my daily prayers in a journal, just like I do with exercise, so that I can look back and see if I’m being consistent.  When there’s a gap of 13 days in the journal, I realize that I talk a good game, but have a long way to go in living what I say I believe.  How about you?

Digesting the “Deadly Misunderstanding”

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Jan 19, 2010

The past decade could have, and perhaps should have been a time for Christians to begin learning about Islam.  But that didn’t happen very much.  Instead we learned about the terror tactics of ‘racial Islam’, and some of us even made the grave error of generalizing radical Islam, imputing those values to all Muslims.  This is very kind of objectification that Jesus warned against when he spoke of people who ‘have eyes but don’t see’, ‘ears but don’t hear.’  It’s time to step away from our stereotypes and get educated.

One of the better tools that might help you towards that end is Mark Siljander’s book, “A Deadly Misunderstanding”. Mark shares the evolution of his own thinking on the Christian/Muslim divide with us, going all the way back to his being offended by a Muslim speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in DC, to how his senate, and later ambassador responsibilities intersected with his Christian faith to create a crisis of questions:  “How can I learn to show love to Muslims?”  This first question led Mark to approach heads of state from the middle-east and North Africa as one eager to learn about the values and beliefs of Islam.  He began studying languages, including Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), bought a copy of the Koran and began reading and studying it.

The book is a blend of narrative (Mark’s own expanding web of relationships with Islamic leaders, teachers, and scholars), and theology (Mark’s ever expanding discoveries of common beliefs between Christians and Muslims).  I won’t reveal those points of common interest because I think you should take the time to read the book.  After all, nearly every nation in which our military is involved in conflict has a sizable Muslim presence.  Conventional wisdom, even, would tell us that we should know our enemy.  Jesus would tell us that we should love our enemy.  Mark will tell us that when we begin to study our enemy, we realize that he might not even BE our enemy, that we perhaps share more in common, than we differ.

I was skeptical as I read the book because I found myself thinking, at each point, “Yes, we might share that in common, but what about…?” as I raised the flag of a great divide between Islam and Christianity.  Then Mark would address my concern.  I’d be satisfied for a few pages, and then ask again, and then again.  Each time, Mark has an answer.

Mark isn’t saying there are no differences between our respective faiths.  He is saying that we can find fellowship and even friendship by focusing on the ethics and teachings of Jesus and discussing them with Muslims, that this is a common ground.  This work will challenge your notions of evangelism, and even the use of the word Christian, as Mark hints that Jesus didn’t come to establish a new religion at all, but rather to draw people into relationship with Himself.  I disagree on this last point (Jesus is the head of a body called ‘the church’, and though the church has mucked things up over the centuries countless times, the truth is that when we’re called to Christ, we’re called into a community of faith, because Christ’s life is displayed through community).  In spite of my disagreement on this point, I think Mark has made some remarkable discoveries.

He’s shared his research about common points between the two faiths with scholars of both Christianity and Islam, along with Evangelical leaders, and found an overwhelmingly positive response.   I’m so intrigued with what he’s done that I’m hoping to find a way to have him visit us here in Seattle for a weekend.  We’ll see what happens.

I enjoyed the book for personal reasons as well.  I did a wedding in DC this past summer for some Bethany missionaries, and as Mark began sharing his story, several names of people I’d met at the wedding popped up, including the father of the bride!  This makes me all the more intent on finding a way to further the discussion.

Buy the book, because you’ll want to mark it up.  Don’t swallow everything without thinking, praying, and searching the Bible.  But don’t reject anything simply because it doesn’t fit what you’ve heard before.  The points of common ground with Muslims just might be one of the most important discoveries of the past ten years, and getting the word out, an central mission for next ten.

Cheers…

The Book of Eli – an accident needing to happen

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Jan 17, 2010

My wife and I were planning on see Avatar this afternoon, but when we arrived for the mid-day matinee, it was sold out.  Having come all the way downtown we decided to see “The Book of Eli” instead, mainly because we both enjoy Denzel Washington.  From the opening moments, the movie was phenomenal at every level: great cinematography and acting, and a story line that utterly caught us by surprise, because it is, after all, a movie about the Bible.  Though we were there accidentally, it felt providential for too many reasons to share here.

The viewer is drawn into a post-apocalyptic world populated by savage survivalists.  As the story unfolds, we learn that Eli is carrying the last remaining Bible on the planet with him, trying to transport it ‘west’ because he’d a vision from God directing him to do so.  He’s strong, compassionate, and deeply committed to this ‘calling’.  It becomes clear that the reason there’s only one known Bible is because after ‘the event’, all holy books were intentionally destroyed.

I loved this movie at many levels, but primarily because we encounter our holy text as both the glorious gift, and dangerous weapon that it is, has been, and may yet be in the future.  CS Lewis hinted around once that he thought things with the greatest capacity for good were also the things that had the greatest capacity of evil.  If he’s right, the Bible is surely one of the most powerful elements on the planet.  Because of God’s Word, ethics of compassion, peace, love for enemies, care for the poor, and hospitality have been preserved and handed from generation to generation.

The same book has been used to sanction colonialism, genocide, slavery, and oppression.  Great good; great evil, both reminding us that any of God’s gifts are open to abuse, including the Bible.   The new atheists, of course, can only see this myopically, only seeing the evil and heartache that have been poured into our world with a cup of proof-texting.  They point to these things as revealing the danger of religion.  This movie does that, but also helps us see where history would go if there were guidance, if were all left on our own to follow our basest desires.  We come to see, in Eli, the stark contrast of his life as ‘light’, set in the midst of darkened human hearts.

I won’t give the ending away, but I’ll see that I was reminded, throughout the movie, of the passage from Amos which declares that a day is coming when there will be a famine, not of food and water, but of the hearing of the Word of God.   What a treasure we have!  May we feast upon Christ through the gift of His Word so that, come what may, the word will live, through we who claim to follow.

The movie is rightly rated R for it’s graphic violence, but if you can sit with such violence, the redemptive message of this film is will worth it.  You can get a study guide for group discussion, and movie clips here.

The quake: shaking our assumptions?

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Jan 15, 2010

David Brooks excellent article about this week’s quake in Haiti is a must read.  Whether you agree with his diagnosis or not, he shines a light on a problem that absolutely must be addressed:   There is no formulaic relationship between $$ aid and economic development/autonomy.  Haiti is the ongoing recipient of immense investments.  By some estimates, they have the highest per capita ration of NGO’s (nongovernmental organizations, like World Vision) in the world.  In spite of this, Haiti has remained locked in poverty, and it is this poverty that prevents the kind of infrastructure (building codes, sewage systems, access to water, hospitals, schools) from developing.  What do I mean?

  • The government is not able to provide the resources to educate the nation’s next generation.
  • The unemployment rate is over 80%.
  • More than half of Haitians live on less than a dollar a day.
  • There are few paved roads, an inadequate supply of potable water, minimal utilities, and depleted forests.
  • About 60% of the population lives in abject poverty.
  • Less than 20% of Haitians age 15 and over can read and write.
  • Fewer than 75% of children attend school.
  • 40% of the Haitian population does not have access to primary health care.
  • The United Nations estimates 6% of Haitians are infected with HIV/AIDS. The highest rate in the Western Hemisphere. An estimated 30,000 people die of AIDS every year.
  • One in twenty Haitians is infected with HIV/AIDS and there are over 150,000 AIDS orphans.
  • When things begin to shake, the underlying social and economic pathologies are revealed, and the devastation is exponentially greater than would be the case, were there adequate infrastructure present.

    So why is it that infrastructure doesn’t develop?  And how can we, who are opening our wallets, invest our dollars in the best way to assure that we not only triage the damage, bury the bodies, and provide acute care to those who need it now, but also begin addressing the systemic issues that have kept Haiti stuck for so long?

    Brooks declares that beginning with the assumptions that all cultures and beliefs are morally equal is the height of folly.  Ideas have consequences, and the tragedy of Haiti isn’t just that there’s poverty, it’s that the poverty is interwoven with deeply held beliefs and practices.  Until these beliefs change, the poverty will remain.  Brooks says it this way:

    In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism….It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

    When WWII ended, the German government sent hundreds of young people who’d been raised in the ethos of the Hitler Youth movement, to Capernwray in England for moral re-education.  International Needs is taking a similar strategy in Romania.  This, it seems, is the path in Haiti offering the greatest light.  But such a strategy swims against the popular current that eschews any challenge to another culture’s world view.

    We’ll take an offering at our church on January 24th for Haiti as part of the important effort to contribute to the acute crisis of the moment.  But it’s vital that all of us with means think long and hard, not about whether to invest, but about how to invest, so that our investment leads to changed lives and changed cultures, not just handouts.

    A case for marriage…

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    Jan 12, 2010

    I’d like to spend a few words building the case for marriage, because this institution, like all institutions (it seems) is increasingly regarded with both suspicion and cynicism by younger generations.   For this reason an increasing number (of both Christ followers and the general populace) are forsaking marriage, choosing instead to simply live together.

    I understand the cynicism, but disagree with conclusion.  The cynicism makes sense because people are looking for something more substantive than some sort of ‘legally binding’ arrangement.  If that’s all a couple has, and they stay together for propriety, or reputation, perhaps even ‘for the children’, then they enflame the notion that marriage is meaningless.  After all, when a couple stands before God and their friends to make a vow, they don’t promise to live together; they promise to love each other through all the seasons life – and let me tell you, the latter is much harder than the former.

    My wife and I have been married thirty years, and I don’t think I’m speaking presumptuously in declaring that we love each other deeply.  We’ve built a storehouse of adventures, laughter, child-raising, and braving challenges together.  Each of these marvelous moments seems to add a brick to the solidarity of our marriage, and each brick makes the notion of walking away from our commitment to love, all the more difficult.

    God knows, though, there are moments when we’ve both wanted to walk away.  Between us, we know all the tricks – stony silence, careless disregard, hurtful words, manipulation, a fear of truth or confrontation that leads to perhaps the worst thing of all: the pleasantness of relational death.   We’ve never strayed very long into any of these arenas, falling in unwittingly, and then crawling out – but we’ve been there, and when one or the other of us is there, the grass suddenly looks greener elsewhere.  After all, we’re both competent and capable individuals, right?

    I’ve a feeling we’re not alone in this.  But, in spite of the fact that our eyes have looked longingly at freedom once in a blue moon (ok, maybe twice), staying in the arena of working on the promises we made has always been the obvious choice.   And because of this, the bricks have continued to accumulate, until we’ve now, not a wall with a marriage contract tacked on to it; but a home of love and gratitude.

    There are many reasons we chose to stick with the vows, but one of them is pretty simple:  We made a vow – and we made it before God, our friends, and our family.  It carried a weight for us (as I both believe and teach that it should for anyone who makes it), and this weight has always been lurking in the background.  But recall, as we have, that our vow wasn’t a commitment to stay together – it was a commitment to love each other.    Choosing to simply stay together, without comitting to the hard work of learning to love does two things:  1) It displays our obsession with appearances and our desire to please people, both of which lead to the charges of hypocrisy in the Christian community.    2) It helps create the disillusionment that leads young adults to avoid marriage completely, opting instead for ‘authenticity’.  That marriage and authenticity are thus juxtaposed reveals how wrong headed we’ve become.

    The value is found in declaring a commitment to love one another.  Sometimes love might call for consequences, such as temporary separation or intervention.  But always, love is working for the good of the other, and the union, rather than retreating into a cage of selfishness in order to preserve one’s own fragile and wounded ego. But beneath it all, there’s a commitment to love that was public, personal, and had the effect of creating a sense of accountability

    Ironically it’s that sense of accountability that is largely missing in the generation that’s must hungry for authentic intimacy.   Intimacy without accountability is a mirage, and boatloads of heartache and woundedness are waiting for those who try to create it.  Better to keep the accountability ingredient in the mix; and how is that done?

    Simple:  marriage.

    I welcome your thoughts.

    The Roman Road: More than you thought?

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    Jan 9, 2010

    Growing up in the church, I learned that one of the best ways to share the gospel succintly would be take hearers (eager or not, no matter) through what came to be called the “Roman Road”.  In essence, this declaration of the good news find in Christ was, to use a cooking term, a ‘reduction’.  The idea was to boil away the unecassary ingerdients in order to leave the more powerful essence.

    The essence includes about four truths:  1) you are a sinner,  2) the wages of sin is death, 3) God paid the wages through the death of Christ, 4) you can be reconciled to God by accepting this free gift of salvation.

    All these things are true, and very good news indeed.  Increasingly though, I’m convinced that the reductionist model is missing some things that are vital for the gospel, things that, to the extent that they’re missing, contribute to a vast misrepresentation of both the good news and our calling to live it in this time.

    To begin with, Paul calls Jesus, “the Christ”, which is tantamount to calling him “the King”.  This is not only vital news, it’s threatening news whenever any state declares itself to be the highest power.  Caesar is King.  Caesar is Lord.  Right? Isn’t that inherent in declaring one’s allegiance to the state?

    Further, Caesar declared himself to be “the son of God” and his birth was heralded as “good news” (gospel), throughout the empire.  He demanded obedience in the annual event during which citizens of the empire would verbally declare that “Caesar is Lord”.

    When people say the gospel isn’t political, I wonder what they’re smoking.  Declaring allegiance to an ethic and authority other than the state is the ultimate subversive political act.   Paul throws down the gauntlet in the first seven verses of his letter to, of all people, the Romans.  It was a letter to the equivalent of Moscow, or Berlin, or Washington D.C. declaring, at the outset, that there’s a different kingdom underway, a different king.

    Heads of state don’t generally look kindley on such declarations, and Rome was no exception.   Within two decades, Christianity would become the focal point of Rome’s rage, and Christians would become torches for Nero’s parties.

    There’s more.  Paul declares that this higher allegiance isn’t theory or generic.  Rather, he delcares that all followers of Jesus are called to the “obedience of faith”, meaning that they’r called to live differently.

    It’s right here that I wonder about the split between the right and the left among people of faith.  My sense is that all sides, (all of us, in fact, even we who like to think we have no side), are guilty of cherry picking our obedience.  The right gets marital fidelity right, and the call to sexual purity, but somehow thinks hating our enemies and destroying them, and allowing market forces to “raise the living standards for the poor” is the gospel of Jesus.

    The left believes (rightly in my opinion) that God calls us to care for the earth, and find ways to love and care for those who are our enemies, but utterly ignores the more personal calls to higher morality.  Too often, they believe that changing systems will change the world, when the reality is that changes in the world only come about because of changes in the human heart.

    In all of this, it’s also important to remember that Paul never, ever, envisioned the union of political power with the kingdom of God.  Power structures will rise and fall, be allied with the gospel at some points, and run counter – it matters not.  Our calling remains the same:  embody the reign of the king in our communities of faith, and work to actively make that reign visible in our lives, our homes, our cities, and our world.

    This is what I’ll be talking about tomorrow.  I welcome your thoughts.

    10 for 10

    by , on
    Jan 5, 2010

    Resolutions, hopes, musings, prayers?  I really don’t know what these are.  But there are ten of them for the new year, offered in no particular order:

    1. Exercise – I’m bummed that I’m starting the new year with a couple of injuries that are making my exercise routine more challenging.  I remember reading the biography of an Italian climber once who, when interviewed at the age of 87 said, “I still try to do something challenging for my body every day.”  That’s my mantra at the beginning of 2010 as well: challenge the body daily somehow.

    2. Socialize – The deadline for my next book is May 1st, and I’m aware of my tendency to sort of jump into the ocean of ideas and hide in the safety of my own head rather than be involved in relationships.  I’m intent on doing a better job of developing and maintaining relationships with friends, neighbors, and co-workers, during writing season.

    3. Encouragement – I was privileged in 2009 to re-connect with some friends from architecture school who were, and still are, gifted encouragers.  They reminded my how important this gift is, and I’m intent on developing some little habits in order to more be encouraging.

    4. Service – Our church is doing this Rule of Life thing (if you’ve read my book, you know about it), and this year one of our focal points will be service.  This is a big and challenging deal for me.  When I was in Austria recently, a man ten years older than me got up at 3:30 in the morning to drive someone to airport and then spent the day teaching ski instructors on the slopes while I… slept in, read, did e-mails, took a nap, and tried to write.  I was convicted by his action, and the actions of many others, that serving has increasingly become a blind spot in my world, and that if I’d listen more closely to the Holy Spirit, I’d do the dishes more often.

    5. Generosity – Stewarding the wealth of health, family, home, and material abundance is a tremendous privilege and responsibility.  I’m mindful that I could share more freely and am praying for Jesus to show me the way.

    6. Simplicity – I’m tossing stuff I haven’t used, and have it as a goal this year to go through my files (after me) which have become clogged with needles papers, articles, ideas… there will be a fire in the mountains this spring.

    7. Mission – As our church moves towards the establishment of new services, campuses, and satellites, it’s on my heart that we also begin to find a way to focus, with greater intentionality, on our own backyard – serving in the North Seattle area creatively and building platforms for relationships there.

    8. Teaching – I’ve a men’s retreat this spring and two family conferences this summer.  I’m praying that God will use me in these venues, and that I’ll ‘devote myself to these things’ as Paul exhorted Timothy to do.  I fear becoming stagnant, redundant, meaningless, as I grow older, and am praying for the capacity to still be used by God, knowing that ‘being used’ is simply the byproduct of my own relationship with Jesus.

    9. Beauty – Whether it’s the beauty of creation, poetry, good coffee, architecture, photography, intimacy or…anything else, I pray that I’ll both appreciate beauty and contribute to the beauty of my little part of the world, for it is in beauty and suffering, as Simone Weill wrote, that we see God most clearly.  On a practical level, I think this means we need to address the front yard.

    10. Contentment – The pursuit of “more” is bothersome to me these days, and I nearly didn’t write this entry because of the risk that it implies a sense of ambition and drivenness that, in reality, simply isn’t in me.  Instead, I’m a fan of Ecclesiastes 5:18 – it might even be my ‘verse of the year’, if I were ambitious enough to have one:

    Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that it is good to eat, drink, and enjoy work under the sun during the short life God has given us, and to accept your lot in life.  And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it.  To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life – this is indeed a gift from God.

    All right then – welcome to 2010