Monday, February 25, 2008

(Almost) Everything that's on my mind

The following are random thoughts in no specific order...

We were in Egypt last week so I have been absent from the blog world for a few days.

My 8th month old baby has already been to 4 different continents and has "seen" the Redwood Forest, Windsor Castle, the Pyramids of Giza, ancient Petra, and old Jerusalem. What will his checklist look like by the time he is 30?

My older boys (8 and 5) know the difference between Jews, Muslims, and Christians and actually have real conversations about the relationship between these religions. Don't worry, they still think words like burp, fart, and toilet are funny.

An Egyptian man offered me 5 camels for my wife and kids but he wouldn't throw in the "Pyramids" keychain so we were unable to reach a deal.

I am ready to live in America again but probably need to find a job.

I realized that I have the best 3 boys and wife that money, or camels, can't buy.

Like a normal college student I am counting the time until Spring Break and then the end of the semester. The difference is that I do not care about the degree, I just want to learn. I have become one of those annoying old people that do all of the reading and that come with new questions and proposals for the class.

"Bucket Lists" cause people to quit jobs and live in the Middle East... or the Bahamas.

More than one month of winter weather is too much. Thank God for California.

If I was a billionaire I would be doing the same thing that I am today but I would be doing it from a nicer home, a newer computer, and my butler would be washing my empty glass of fresh squeezed Pomegranite juice... and I would probably have a car.

I have read about 7 good books and 3 bad ones in the past 4 months.

I set aside 1 minute every day so that at the end of the year I have a few hours to myself.

I have Dave Crowder, Bone Thugs, Norah Jones, Jars of Clay, and Poison playing in the background while I study. And that is the secret to great grades.

I miss the students I used to work with but honestly hope they connect with their new leader.

I don't know why it seems like the time here in Jerusalem goes by fast but it seems to take forever to do so. Figure that out.

I may actually be the leader of a church next year and I listen to TuPac, I have read all the Harry Potter books, I read the books and listen to the messages by the Presidential candidates before I vote, I am imperfect, I will probably walk or take the bus to work, I think Chris Rock is funny, and I have only read a few chapters of "Purpose Driven Life".

This year I have learned how much I don't know.

Retirement is fun, but coming out of retirement is not going to be easy. Since I want my boys to eat I guess I better suck it up and make sure they have all they need.

Having less food, no car, a small house, and a few suitcases worth of possessions is actually an okay way to live.

Traveling is great and seeing people and places all over the world seems necessary to understand and lead people, but I look forward to returning to my home and being in a place I know. (At least a place where I know the language fairly well).


Friday, February 15, 2008

Ode to Church as we Know it

This is this week's addition of "the Shaping of the Church" that is intended to create some dialog regarding the focus and potential direction of churches in an American context.

I have been talking a lot about the need for change in churches and my personal desires to be a part of something that feels different from the same old story. In fact, it is not difficult to find people roughly my age and background saying the same things and longing for something new.

Before I mislead you into thinking that everything to do with the "Western Church" as we know it is bad and that everything new is good, please allow me to say that I am grateful for the Western Church. Throughout the history of the "Western Church", we have seen some terrible things happen but we have also seen some amazing things happen.

Lets face it, how many millions of people have received food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and love throughout the entire world as a result of Western Churches. When our federal government was locked in bureaucracy after Hurricane Katrina, it was the Church there meeting needs. When racial hatred continued in the south, it was the churches (not all I admit) that joined in the cry for justice and civil rights. How many people have felt completely hopeless and ready to give up on life until followers of the risen Jesus (from the Church) meet them and love with the unconditional love of God.

Turning to less practical matters, it is the Western Church that encouraged the dialogue between science and theology. It is this same church driven by "baby boomers" that pushed the limits on acceptable worship and paved the way for a new generation of new churches. The Church has forced mainstream culture to wrestle with how to expand the message of tolerance even to those with religious convictions. It is the Church that has delivered messages of hope and practical advice for daily living.

The Church that people like me want to resist and reform is not all bad and still offers hope and guidance to millions of followers today. I do believe that millions more exist who are hungry for meaning in life who have not been able to find that meaning in or traditional churches and who are more likely to in a new church, but let us not be so naive as to believe that everyone will like a new approach.

This new style of church that I talk about often appeals to people because it comes with the promise of really accepting people no matter where they are at in their own spiritual journeys. But that acceptance must also include accepting those who lead and who attend the "Traditional Western Churches" that we are challenging. The truth is that we all have different tastes and styles, and as long as Churches (old and new) live the message of Jesus and seek the priorities of God, I don't care what style is used. As Paul said in his letter to the Philippians, the good news being spread is what matters to me. So thank you traditional western churches for your years of pursuing the truth of the scriptures. May we stand side by side in our efforts to show the world the love of God and to actually be a part of blessing the world through our lives... but you can keep the Starbucks cafe in your lobby, I don't really want it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Time for Lent Again

The season of Lent has begun and it is the time of year when believers all over give up a vice or a pleasure for the period of 40 days leading to Easter. Because I live in a country that does not acknowledge Easter, and the majority of the people who do celebrate Easter here belong to the Eastern Churches who follow the Jewish calendar and not the Roman calendar used in the West, I did not even realize we are already in this Saeson. (This year the Eastern churches celebrate Easter 3 weeks later than the Western churches). In other words, I have a few more days to decide what to give up so here are some of my preliminary ideas:

What to give up this year for Lent:
I will give up:
1) eating Pepperoni Pizza, Bacon Cheeseburgers, and Ham.
2) eating all shellfish and animals with split hooves and who chew the cud.
3) I will not work.
4) I will do no chores on the Sabbath.
5) I will not drive my car.
6) I will reject all temptations to drink mochas and American Beer.
7) I will not spend any money at Chipotle or Baja Fresh.
8) I will not watch ESPN or the Food Network.
9) I will only eat sandwiches on Pita bread.
10) I will read the Bible in Hebrew.

Remember that this list is just a preliminary list so please do not feel too impressed with my obvious commitment to self-sacrifice and unwavering pursuit of perfection for the Lord. I will keep you posted on the progress.

On a serious note, it is hard to believe that it was a year ago when the group I used to lead took the season of lent to "give up negative" and focus on doing something positive. As a result of the group's desire to do something positive, they raised around $8000 to build wells in Africa through Lifewater. I recommend that you use this season to focus on something positive. It is amazing what you can accomplish is such a short time.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Rhetoric and Philosophy

The other day my wife and I were talking about the gift of rhetoric and the example given by (Socrates?) about the ability for a philosopher skilled in rhetoric to convince a less informed crowd about his/her superior knowledge. The example given was a philosopher convincing an uninformed crowd about some medical procedure he knew nothing about and a knowledgeable doctor without the gift of rhetoric being unable to convince the same crowd of the truth.

I could take this example and show how it plays itself out daily in poilitics, education, and religion, but for the sake of this post I have a confession to make. I am currently living in Jerusalem and studying Hebrew (and other subjects) at Hebrew University. This is a University that prides itself in its level of education but it is one that holds dearly to a "German-Style" evaluation and grading proceedure. In other words, comprehensive exams without any subjectivity are preferred. This means that one cannot B.S. his/her way through the exams. For a person like me, this is troubling. Because I have spent most of my education in Humanities where I have the luxury of waxing-eloquently through the course material, my style of limited studying for exams is having its limits tested.

In addition to my exam-preparation techniques, I have the added workload of being a good father, husband, and tourist. All this to say, I feel like I am learning at a break-neck pace but my grades in some classes (especially Hebrew) are not ones to write home about. The fact that I am learning the language will be helpful when I return to America and use "rhetoric" to show my knowledge of the subject but it simply does not help the ego here and now that you know the truth, please do be impressed there.

I am a firm believer in aquiring knowledge in all areas (remember my quest to get rid of uneducated Christians), and I enjoy the process of learning new things. But I am also a believer in the adage "knowledge puffs up" and I have a pet peeve against those who live to show others how smart they are. So I guess I am saying that for all those (like me) who like to use rhetoric to show off their knowledge, just keep in mind that you are not as smart as you think you are. in fact, I reccommend that you spend time with people who make you feel dumb to help keep the ego in check and to remind you that pride comes before the fall. So here's to all of us that feel "dumb" sometimes. Don't give up the pursuit of knowledge and truth but please do not ever feel like you have arrived.... because you probably haven't. ! מזל תוֹב

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Tuesday (Shaping of the Church)

Today is a decisive day in American politics and I have fortune and misfortune of being away from the country so I miss all of the hype of the presidential primary season. As I look at the candidates I am excited to see that at least this election will come with some new choices for American voters. We will have either an African American (Obama) or a woman (Clinton) on one side and we will have a republican who is willing to admit that his ideas change in time (McCain) or a Billionare (Romney)... okay so the billionare thing has been done before. Either way we look at it, we will see some type of change in the country, for better or for worse.
Without making an official endorsement for anyone or responding to any of his specific ideas, I did want to mention something that Barack Obama said that caught my attention,

" Today, you can join nearly half the nation in saying that we are tired of business-as-usual in Washington, we are hungry for change, and we are ready to believe again."

I know that this is a typical rhetoric among politicians but allow me to take these words and move them to the church. From this point on I will post an idea every week or two called "The Shaping of the Church" and it is intended to involve all of you in a conversation that will hopefully lead to the formation of some healthy ideas. For now, I want to begin with Obama's words for the nation, "Today, you can join nearly half the nation in saying that we are tired of business-as-usual in Washington, we are hungry for change, and we are ready to believe again."
As for me, I am tired of business as usual in American churches, I am hungry for change, and I am ready to believe again". I'm tired of basing the success of the church by the number of attendees or the money that comes in. I am tired of pastors giving simple sermons that they have been giving for years seemingly out of obligation and not an excitement for new discoveries of truth. I am tired of churches saying they "accept everyone" but get incredibly uncomfortable when "everyone" walks through their doors.
I have seen enough "church models" mimicked in communities all over the country in hopes that "mega-churches" will be duplicated. I have witnessed too many pastors and other leaders sacrifice their families, friends, and their own personalities, "in the service of the Lord". I am disgusted when the church works to follow the corporate model of leadership and labors to keep "the shareholders" pleased (I will address the "shareholders" at another time). I am done with the endless desire to build bigger buildings and bigger programs (buildings and programs are not necessarily bad, but how many needless buildings are built for image?)
I lose hope in this system when I hear endless stories of people feeling "burned" or rejected by their church and the leadership. I am angered when church leaders and/or volunteers hurt innocent kids and ignore the needs of the under-privileged or the justice of the oppressed. I grow weary with each story from those who are not followers of Jesus who say they don't want anything to do with the God of "those Christians" because Christians are not kind or pleasant.
I believe that the Church (the Bride of Christ) is a good thing and it is necessary for joining with God in His redemptive work on earth. Rob Bell, the teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church in Michigan, refers to the Bride of Christ as a beautiful thing. He goes so far as naming their church's conference the "Isn't she beautiful" conference. The problem is that for many, the bride is not beautiful, she is ugly.
As my family considers plans to return to the country and lead a church, we are wrestling with the desire to make the Church better in the process. It is time for me to believe again and to be a part of a movement that helps others believe again. I do believe that a gathering of followers (and people searching for truth) of the Risen Messiah can live in a way that causes others to believe again. I do believe that we can be a part of a movement that revolutionizes the Bride of Christ. Maybe I'm crazy but I guess I just have the "audacity to hope".

So here is an assignment. Read Isaiah 1 (which is about Jerusalem around 700 BC) and let us look for the heart of God. Let us take this passage out of context slightly and apply it to churches you know. If we were part of a renewed movement, what are some things it should (or should not) look like?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Jesus is Difficult

In my 13 years of working with people in church settings, it is amazing how many times I had to help people struggle with the fact that following Christ is not easy. I believe there is a tendency within churches to over-simplify difficult things in life by saying helpful things like, “just trust in God and everything will work out”, or “ if you just have a little more faith you can overcome this struggle”, or “you need to be praying and reading your bible more and then things will go better for you”. Although these are good things to do, the problem is that when they do not work as a magical formula for a better life or and easy life, people lose hope.

Christians tend to give easy memorized answers in difficult times but I have found that these are not words that often comfort someone in a major crisis or that motivate a person who is making poor choices in his/her life. In these cases sometimes all we can say is, “Life is difficult and living like Jesus is even more difficult… sorry”.

The truth is that following Jesus will not always make you feel great but I do believe that you will never find someone at the end of his/her days regretting any effort to embrace the ways of Jesus. How many times have you heard a person reach the end of his/her life and say things like, "I wish I would have cheated on my taxes more because then I would have had more money", or "I wish I would have spent less time with orphans and spent more time on myself", or even "I wish I would have just given in to every sinful desire instead pursuing a life lived for God". We all know that living for ourselves would be easier but is it better?

For example, Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers” but I think it is more fun and exciting to fight.
Jesus says, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (right relationships with God and others)”, but I think it is easier to hunger and thirst for what I want.
Jesus says, “I do not condemn you, now go and sin no more” but I only like the first part of that saying.
Jesus models a life of service of others, of compassion and forgiveness, of extreme devotion to God the Father, of purity, in positive relationships with others around him (even the Pharisees if you care to study those passages properly). He gave us an example of God’s character and told us to do the same so that the world could have hope in something better.

The problem is that the way of Jesus is unattainable for us so it is just easier to fall on the grace of God and give up. The problem is that this doesn’t actually make our lives or the lives of others around us any better. Most thinking people would agree that decisions to live for ourselves hurt more people than it helps but for some reason that truth doesn't seem to be enough to motivate many of us to avoid selfish living. Perhaps the fact that churches have tried to simplify the answers and to fit everything into a formula has actually hurt. Maybe when the simple forumlas do not work is when followers lose hope and actually allow themselves to fall further away. I think it is time for churches to quit hiding behind quick fixes and simple formulas that can be attained in a 30 minute message and help followers of Jesus come to the realization that this is not an easy road, but it really is a good road. Jesus actually never gave a message titled, “How to have an amazing life”, or “10 ways to be a better person”, but he did say that he comes to give "life to its fullest".

I don't believe that Jesus gives us a list of "do's and don'ts", but he did leave an example of how to live in a way the refreshes, renews, and joins in the revolution of reclaiming the earth that God created. I’m calling on followers of the risen Jesus to choose the hard road. To give up the pleasure of gossip, to give up the fighting over trivial points in theology (because I believe we are all wrong on some things), to give up our pursuit of personal pleasures that only hurt others, and to give up our arrogance and disdain for those not following Jesus. I’m calling on all followers to smile more, to laugh more, to encourage more, and to put others first. Let us recognize that we have chosen a “narrow” road but it is a road that brings hope to the entire world.
I will end with the words of a songwriter that I often quote (not Eminem, the other songwriter).
“The world says follow your heart, but my heart just led me into my chest. They say follow your nose but the direction changed every time I went and turned my head. They say follow your dreams, but my dreams are only misty notions. But the father of hearts, the maker of noses, the giver of dreams is the One I have chosen and I will follow Him”…. and that is difficult but it is good.