Taking no thought for tomorrow…

One of the tensions that comes with living and leadership (whether leading a classroom or a family, a church or a company) is that you need to be thinking about tomorrow.  “Where is this ship headed?” is one of the primary questions that leaders need to be asking, and it forces them to think about tomorrow, and even the day, or year, or decade, after that.

Then along comes Jesus, and as he turns the gaze of the crowd towards the birds he says, “Look at these little creatures.  They’re not worried about what they’re going to eat or wear, not worried about productivity reports or GDP growth.  In fact, they’re not worried about anything, so content are they to rest in their confidence of God’s provision.  He continues by saying, “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow.  God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (Matthew 6:34 – ‘The Message’)

Too often, though, this is interpreted as a calling to pursue some sort of zen emptiness as, for example, in another book I’m reading, which says:  Every moment we are wondering at the path of wind across the water or smiling to see a dog rest in the sun, we are not rehearsing our misfortunes.  I’m all for looking at my trees, and pondering the path of the ducks at the lake, but I think Jesus isn’t telling us to perpetually drop out.  So what is He saying?

The answers come to me from climbing.  I was able to get out on real rock recently for the first time since a late fall ski injury.  (pics here) My son, along with two other friends, went climbing.  To be out on the rock is to be reminded of what it means to live in the present moment.  I was able to lead climb a short and simple little face of rock and when one is leading, one isn’t thinking about yesterday’s failure, or the drive up, or the pretty birds.  One

the next move

is thinking about this: “What’s the next move? How can I stay balanced while moving my left foot?  Shall I jam my hand in that crack, or reach for the little pocket in the rock?”  There’s nothing but the present – but the present is nothing more than an endless succession of ‘steps’ and then ‘what’s next’, all of which are leading to the goal.

I love this about climbing.  While doing some other activities, I too often brood, thinking through lists of failures and concerns and if the run is long enough, I’ll think up a few potential worries that aren’t even real yet, a list of “what if’s” that leaves my mind aching as much as my joints.  I’m prone to this in real life as well sometimes, what I call, “poisonous introspection.”  But when I’m climbing, I’m utterly present, and that’s the kind of person I need to be in real life as well.  Somehow, that capacity to be present is lost on as, as cataloged in the book, “Distracted” and evidenced by our increasingly short attention span and openness to interruption.  We need to swim upstream against these tendencies, and I’m profoundly grateful that I still enjoy enough health to do that, because in climbing, like in real life, I need to:

1. Know the goal for which I’m heading – This is why I like to take some time out periodically and prayerfully consider whether I’m climbing the right mountain.  My wife and I talk about where our marriage is heading.  Our staff and church council will meet in the fall to ponder “where is our church heading?”

2. Climb – The top of the rock is the goal, so.  1) put on climbing shoes, 2) put on harness, 3) check that harness is secured properly 4) attach carabiner, 5) tie figure eight note in rope, 6) attach rope to carabiner, 7) check that carabiner is locked 8) talk to belayer 9) ponder route on rock, 10) do first move, 11) look ahead, 12) do next move. 13) repeat 11 and 12 until you’re done. This isn’t climbing.  This is life.  When I’m in the zone, I’m so focused on the present that time disappears, along with worries, regrets, and fears.

Living fully in the present, then, doesn’t mean disengaging from life, or blowing up all your goals.  It means knowing the goal, knowing the steps, taking them, and continuing to live, picking yourself up with mercy and forgiveness when you fall, rejoicing when you don’t, and finding the wholeness and fruitfulness that only comes when the gift of the present overtakes the shadowy inner voices that too often paralyze.

The present is the best gift we have, which is why learning to live in it is so important.

Dreams – impossible, improbable, important

It’s been the week of dreams, as I spent my two free evenings seeing both the movie “Inception” and the musical, “Man of La Mancha”.  Both were great; well crafted and executed, drawing the audience fully into the story.  Both had to do with with dreams and visions, with how we view reality.  Both play with the question of what becomes of our lives when the lines between reality and our dreams become blurred.

Of all the nuanced considerations of dreams, reality, and the blurred lines between them, the thing I’m thinking about most is Don Quixote’s perception of Aldonza in “La Mancha”.  He sees her through a different lens, utterly.  His perceptions bump up against objective evidence, against the realists who taunt, against the woman’s own self-perception.  In spite of everything, he sees her differently, and his seeing, naming, loving, in spite of all the contrary evidence, is what the story is all about.

It’s also what Christianity is all about.

1. We’re seen for who we’re becoming, not for who we’ve been or are .  We’re ‘new creations’ in Christ. Jesus renames impetuous, cowardly Peter, calling him “The Rock”.  He gives us all new names, moving us from shame to forgiveness, lust to love, failure and fear to completion and courage.  Jesus is able to do this because he sees us as “complete in Christ”.  Like Michelangelo’s “David”, the perfection is there already, with just a few rough edges needing to be chiseled away.

2. We’re called to see others through the eyes of faith. If God can see us as new and whole, by God, we’d better start seeing others that way too.  “From now on we regarding nobody according the flesh” is how Paul puts it in II Corinthians 5.  We’d do well to take it to heart, because our default eyesight regards people “according to the flesh” all the time – putting people in boxes because of their wealth or poverty, fatness or thinness, beauty or ugliness, education or ignorance.  God help us.  People aren’t these categories, and we need the eyes of faith to see differently.  “La Mancha” reminds us of that.

3. We’re called to see the world through the eyes of faith. We’re told there’s a new kingdom here already, but the truth is that it takes the eyes of faith to believe it.  Things look pretty old.  Same old wars; same old greed; same old sins and failures, same old injustices scattered across the globe and our neighborhoods.  It all reminds me of Jesus hanging on the cross, with taunters taunting, while His eyes of faith saw this very moment of darkness as the beginning of wholeness.  Can we see with the eyes of faith, clearly enough to believe that God’s good reign has begun, as little shards of beauty pierce the prevailing shroud of darkness, allowing the light of hope to break through?  We must see, in spite of the charges brought against us that we’re just “dreamers”.

Aldonza resists her new name, resists receiving love, resists believing.  I won’t give away the dialogue, there’s a moment when she asks, in essence, why this man see her as he does, why he loves her.  She knows her life, her story, her failures – knows that if it’s just a matter of public record, then this man’s insane, seeing things that nobody, not even she, can see.  Dare she believe though, that what he sees in her is real?

Dare I believe? Dare any of us believe? It’s never just a play when I go to Taproot.  I’m sitting there last night, weary from the day, and deeply aware of my own shortcomings.  When she asks him about what he sees, he sings.   The song melts the shell of my soul, reminding me of how often I pull myself back into dungeons of accusing, condemning realities, rather than believing in Another’s belief in me, believing in the assessment of the One who sees me, not for who I’ve been in my failures and shame, but for who I’m becoming.  That moment – that song – was the best sermon I’ve heard all summer.

“If anyone is in Christ, they are a new a creature”.  We could tear this little verse apart, and I could explain to you the difference between the two kinds of “new” in the Greek language, and what the implications are of these “new” words, on this text.  I could explain how these words are used in classical Greek literature, and then suggest why Paul used one rather than the other in this letter.  I could toss in a story about newness – maybe a poem too.

Or I could just say this:  “Are you stuck in the land of accusation and shame this summer, or this year, or this decade?  Go see “Man of La Mancha” – and dream.

“La Mancha” continues at Taproot Theatre in Seattle, through August 21st.

Brian’s Song: confusing words on a slippery slope

I’ll start by saying that many of Brian McLaren’s books have been great reads.  I read “the church on the other side” years ago, which gave voice to some important cultural shifts as “post-modernity” was becoming a common phrase in theological circles.  Two things stood out in that book as important and true:

1. Brian didn’t challenge the notion of absolute truth.  Instead he challenged the human capacity to apprehend truth perfectly, and communicate it accurately, so that it might be perceived with perfect clarity by other recipients.  The problem isn’t in the in the existence of truth, but in our fallen human capacities.  This posture gives a much needed humility to our declarations.

2. Brian challenged churches to love people unconditionally, suggesting that out of this would come a more natural invitation and sharing.  People shouldn’t be viewed a projects, or worse, sales calls.  We need to love everyone, whether or not they ever share our deepest beliefs.  This too was a breathe of fresh blowing in after the religious right’s sometimes combative arrogance of the 80’s and 90’s.

Both of these declarations were creating much needed shifts in some churches.  Brian kept writing.  His audience kept growing, and continues to grow.  His tune has remained the same: love people, make God’s reign visible by caring for the poor, and the earth, and celebrating justice and beauty.  It’s a good tune, deeply rooted in, to use Brian’s words, “the story God is writing in the world”.

In his most recent book though, it’s: same tune, different lyrics…disturbing lyrics.  I love his “quest for honesty…and a faith that (makes) more sense.” (p6).  The trouble is, his words make less sense, at least to me.  Here’s what I mean:

1. Brian’s entire case is built on the assumption that we tend to read the whole Bible through a Jewish lens, calling into question the “Greco-Roman narrative”.  The G/R narrative leads to dualsim: in/out, material/spiritual, saved/lost etc.  If we’d only read the whole Bible through a different lens, a Jewish lens, these categories would disappear. My response: Since the New Testament was written in the thick of a Greek/Roman culture, and since the gospel is good news for all, “the Jew first, and then the Greek” (Romans 1:17), shouldn’t we be reading parts written by or for Greeks through a Greek lens?  For example, Paul’s letter to the Romans was written to Jews and Gentiles, so Paul wouldn’t assume all readers to be thinking like Jews.  His dualisms:  life/death, enemies of God/reconciled, etc. are real, and should be read as real.

Much of Brian’s “New Kind of Christianity” makes sense if his assumption that we must discard Greco/Roman thinking is true.  But if the assumption isn’t true, then he made a wrong turn on the road, and the wrong turn will take him farther and farther away from the destination.  How far?

2.  Brian writes, towards the end of the book, that he envisions an evangelism is “calling people to a kingdom that transcends and includes all religions.” This statement seems nonsensical to me.  If you read here regularly, you know that I believe we’ve things to learn from Buddhists, Muslims, and Pagans.  You know that I’m quick to point out the shortcomings of institutional Christianity.  But I hope you know this too: Everything hinges on Christ because, as Paul said, there’s no other foundation. Paul even has the gaul to get all dualistic, many times, by saying that Christ will be foolishness to some, but salvation to others.  When people reject Christ, Paul has no problem shaking the dust off his shoes and letting them know that they’re missing the boat.

Don’t get me wrong.  God’s mighty generous when it comes to salvation.  Christ’s death on the cross absorbed all wrath for all sin.  But if I reject the gift, or refuse to even believe there is a gift, or that I have need of a gift, then what more can God do, without impinging on my own will and making me a robot?  The reality is that people do reject the gift. They deny that Christ’s death is worth anything, or that He lives now.  Some deny the notion of sin, declaring that evil and good are false categories.  People are free to do this, but in Brian’s song, it seems as if it doesn’t matter;  Reject Christ, deny his existence, or his deity, or his resurrection – it’s not important.  You can join God’s story without any of that.

Really?  I don’t buy it.

In Brian’s past writings he seemed to be calling the church to make certain that we moved beyond simply declaring right beliefs about Jesus (orthodoxy) into actually living like Jesus (orthoproxy).  Thanks for that Brian.  I couldn’t agree more, and the message was, and still is needed.

In this last book though, the obsession with orthopraxy has destroyed all notions that orthodoxy matters, because when you invite people in “the way of Jesus” and quickly add that’s it’s available “whatever the new disciple’s religious affiliation”, (p216) you’re saying that I can remain embedded in a community that denies the deity of Christ, or the value of his death, or the reality of his resurrection, or the reality of sin, and still adhere to the way of Christ.

What saddens me most, is that this book will lead some in the emergent church further away from historic orthodoxy.  I’ve applauded Brian’s role, along with his emergent friends, in the reformation and restoration of missional emphasis, of actually loving neighbors, of resisting the objectification of people that so often happens at the hands of the church, of confessing or materialism, greed, and pride.  But I’ve applauded all this to the extent that this reformation is built on the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.   All of Christ matters:  his deity, his humanity, his atoning death on the cross, his empowering resurrection, his love of his neighbors, and enemies, his care for the poor and marginalized.  Brian seems to applauding half of that and saying the other half doesn’t matter.  But half a Jesus is no Jesus at all – as the left and right have proven for centuries.

If you catch wind of this Brian… I welcome your thoughts.

As always, I welcome everyone else’s too.

extreme sports, shamanism, and the danger of boredom

I’m rereading a favorite old book of mine called, “Bone Games” right now, about extreme sports and shamanism.  The author had one of those supernatural experiences that climbers sometimes get when their life is hanging by a thread.  He was able, after a fall, to down climb a stretch of ice covered rock flakes in Colorado, something most expert climbers wouldn’t be able to do in a state of even perfect health.  As he writes regarding his perfect presence during the ordeal, “I was the very best version of myself that I could possibly be”, and the rest of the book catalogs his academic anthropological quest to understand people who seem endowed with supernatural powers, some of them at will.

If you overlay the Christian faith on the subject, you come up with lots of conclusions or speculations about demon possession, and those of us who’ve encountered demon possession firsthand know the reality of supernatural capacities that attend those so possessed.  However, I’m not convinced that’s all there is to it.

After all, Jesus was alone in the wilderness for 40 days, fasting no less, when he encountered the forces of darkness.  In other words, his body was involved in his spiritual formation, along with his spirit.  Only after that did he begin his ministry.  Moses had 40 days in the mountains with God, alone.  Let’s not forget about Paul’s word that he “buffets his body and makes it his slave” in I Corinthians 9, all for the purpose of displaying the power of God.

I’m only pondering here, but my suspicion is that cultural softness and physical softness lead, invariably to spiritual softness.  On the other hand, my first response to my own thought is, “Of course not,”  because the Bible tells us in II Cor. 4:16 that “though our outer man is decaying our inner man is being renewed day by day.”  I know old saints who can barely walk, whose face and faith are joy filled and confident.

On the other hand, there must be something to the relationship between body and spirit, because we crave comfort.  As a culture one might even argue that we’ve become so addicted to comforts that we’re digging ourselves a hole of debt, in part because of our refusal to live simply.  I wonder if “comfort addiction” has spiritual as well as financial consequences.  The premise of “bone games”, in part anyway, is that they are best suited to live well who are living near the edges, at least some of the time.  Drop the shamanist labels, and the fear of demon possession, and just look at it this way:   If Paul prayed that we would prosper, body, soul, and spirit, wouldn’t it be wise to think about what means?  I know that I’m a better version of myself after a day that includes some exercise and eating right, than after a day of sleeping too long, surfing the internet, and eating potato chips.

Not only am I better, but I’m slowly discovering that I’m wholly better, soul, and spirit are better when I’ve lived in direct contact with the earth, faced a challenge or two, and finished my shower on cold.  I don’t want to make too much of it, but I don’t want to make too little of it either.  I certainly recognize that each of us have limitations and afflictions, but it’s also true that we can choose to either live in contact with the earth – cold water, bike rides, smelling flowers, gardening, nights under the stars – or we can live behind the curtain, watching TV and staying indoors.

What do you think?  What’s the relationship between challenging our body’s desires for comfort and ease, and being spiritually healthy?

Water Wednesdays: Justice and the Water Cycle

One of God's Best Inventions

Psalm 104 is one of my favorite parts of the Bible because it poetically articulates what we enjoy hear in the Pacific Northwest with such clarity:  the water cycle.  The sun heats the ocean and water evaporates, condensing as it cools on the rise, to become clouds.  Prevailing winds push the clouds inland, where the clouds empty as rain or, in the cold places, snow.  This water becomes life – for plants, animals, humans, and bloggers like me.  All of us…ALL OF US, need water to live.

That’s why I marvel at the water cycle.  Last night it I heard rain on my roof all night, and if I’m lucky, sometime in the next week I’ll make it up into the mountains to ski, where I’ll be reminded that the snowpack miraculously provides water well into the fall around here most years, right when, amazingly, a fresh season of rain and snow begins.  This is beautiful to think about, even more beautiful to see.  Too bad it’s disappearing….

If you’re still living in the land of denial regarding climate change, I’d encourage you to read Bill McKibben’s lastest book: Eaarth.  His thesis:  the old, predictable climate patterns are gone.  He provides mountains of depressing evidence that, in spite of an anecdotal cold winter here and there, or advancing glacier in some remote spot, the net trend line is both unambiguous and alarming.  Oceans are rising.  Glaciers are receding.  Summer storms are carrying more destructive force because hotter summers mean more water evaporating out of the oceans.  Winter snow packs are receding, which means that some rivers are shrinking, which means that oceans are encroaching into river wetlands, which means…

1. Disappearing Water Tables – there’s less ground water available in this new, warmer world.  We don’t notice it because we’re here in the land of cold tap.  But it’s true globally and, as is usually the case, it’s the poor of the world who are feeling it first.  The economic and public health implications of this reality are staggering.

2. Arctic Ice disappearing – in 2007 the Arctic melt suddenly accelerated, so that by the end of that summer, photos of the ice from space revealed 22% less ice than any previous satellite picture from earlier years, and 40% less that during the Apollo projects.  It’s now possible, for the first time, to travel through the polar ice caps in the summer because of the melt.

3. Increased fires – the evidence isn’t just anecdotal, like the vast California fires for the past few years.  It’s statistical.  IN one day in June 2008, the increased lightening storms (a result of global warming) resulted in an unprecedented 1700 different fires starting in California alone.  There’s more to come, and with it increased costs to government and insurance agencies.

4. Increased disease and poverty – I’ll give you just one example.  Have you heard of Dengue Fever?  Because of water shortages, people are starting to collect rainwater in open containers, and this is increasing the mosquito population.  Add to this, an extended breeding season and shorter incubation period due to warmer weather, and what do you get?  El Salvador has seen a 20-fold increase in the past 5 years.  “Dengue Fever has come to stay in Latin America” says the Argentinian health minister.

Two Responses:

I’m called to live generously, because I’m incredibly wealthy, by any standard.  I need to challenge my lifestyle at every level, because the world in which we live is, increasingly, resource challenged.  How can I simplify?  How can I invest, in Jesus name, in addressing these pressing issues?  These are the main questions and goals of the Spilling Hope initiative presently under way.  I’d encourage you to join in, even if you’re not part of the church I lead, and tell others about it – because lives are at stake, and we have the privilege and responsibility of making a difference.

The world is changing, and we who follow Christ would do well to wake up to the global issues surrounding humanity’s collective failure to steward the earth.  Creation is, indeed, groaning, as Romans 8 says.  The church can be at the forefront of offering models for living differently – but not if we mirror the consumptive, complacent, consumerist ways of our present culture and economic model.  Something different is needed – simplicity, generosity, community, interdependency, and so much more.  These cannot be slogans – they need to be deeply held values that challenge, and change, our life together.

I welcome your thoughts…

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

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!

Digesting the “Deadly Misunderstanding”

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.


The Book of Eli – an accident needing to happen

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.

Lessons from the Faithful in Munich…

In case you weren’t at Bethany Community Church yesterday (and even if you were), I thought you’d enjoy this little production, created by roaming around Munich in search of learning more about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose.

Many people ask about the fruit of their work.  I can offer two stories, and with each, a word of hope from the Scriptures.  First, when the news of the White Rose reached America, the allies printed the leaflets by the tens of thousands and air-dropped them over the German cities, doing what, in their wildest expectations, none of the white rose would have imagined while they were living.  Jesus said it this way:  “Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains by itself, alone.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  These lives bore fruit, precisely because they were willing to die.  And of course, the thing of it is this:  Jesus is asking all of us to lay down our lives, and ways both large and small, for His purposes.  We must learn to make His will our only agenda, which means we must also learn to listen for His voice and be quick to follow Him.  In this way, we will find ourselves swept into the destiny God has for us.

The second principle is related to the first.  I will surely never go down the road of laying down my life unless there’s something far more important than ‘my life’ in my worldview.  Of course, those who follow Jesus know that, whatever their life might entail during these days on earth, their life on earth isn’t the end of it all.  They have more.  One women wrote this, regarding the tremendous sacrifice of the White Rose students:  ‘You can live without owning anything.  But you can’t live without having something ahead of you, ahead of you in the sense of something inside you.  You can’t live without hope.

Of course, there is nothing greater in which we can invest our lives than imparting the beauty of Christ’s reign into the very real world of this day, blessing people in the name of Christ, and inviting people to both be reconciled to God and join in the work of manifesting His kingdom.  Hans and Sophie were exemplary and inspiring to me, not only because of their courage, but because their courage came wrapped in lives well lived.  Clearly enjoying good food, the mountains, poetry, and good conversation, they nonetheless held the courage of their convictions in such a way that they were willing to lay everything on the line for the sake of their call.  It cost them their lives, but their testimony lives on.

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us…lay aside our weights of sin, fix our eyes on Jesus, and run our race.”  May we too be joy filled people who love God, love others, and stand firm!!

Cheers… from Austria

Blind Side… good for the mind and soul

I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s because I like sports movies.  Maybe it’s because I’m adopted.  Maybe it’s because the subject of class and racial divides is increasingly on my radar these days for many reasons.  Whatever the cause, I knew that, before I left for my teaching trip overseas, I needed to see this movie.  So tonight I did.  Here’s why it’s high on my list:

1. I like that Hollywood portrait a southern Christian Republican family in a positive light.  I’ve grown accustomed to the mockery of that demographic, but not this time.

2. Long after the movie’s ended, I’m still thinking about how actions seem so vastly more important than ideology.  I’ll be blunt in saying that I have a tolerance limit for esoteric discussions about Calvinism and Arminianism, Republicanism and Socialism, er, and Democratics.  And while I vote independent, and believe in election, free-will, and eternal security, I’m proud to say that I have heroes who are Calvinists and heroes who aren’t.  They’re heroes because they lived well – you know, loving their enemies without getting violent, serving the poorest of the poor, giving away millions of dollars, that kind of thing.  That stuff, done is Jesus name, is what matters.    This movie shatters our notions that some ‘party’ has the moral high ground.

3. I’m reminded that our calling to reach across the chasm of social and racial divides is a central theme in the outworking of the gospel, and I left the the theater thinking about what this means in my life.

4. It’s about the power of family and, for those of us privileged to be adopted into strong families, a reminder that we’ve been the recipients of a special kind of love.

I hope you’ll take a few hours and invest them in this movie over the weekend.  I’m guessing it might be a bit more thought provoking than Twilight, but I’ll miss that one, so I could be wrong.