The Letter and the Spirit

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The contemporary American Church has forgotten itself, both the letter and the Spirit.

There are three contending voices in the modern Church concerning the letter, concerning the role of Scripture in the Church.  First, the letter has been lost among modern megachurches who forego exegesis to such a degree that it is not clear how, if at all, the Bible undergirds the proclamation of the church.  The text is at most a theme upon which the pastor riffs, a pastor whose voice trumps that of Scripture.  His tone and content need not reflect those of the letter; the Bible is there only as a source of material among the many anecdotes from the pastor’s family life, his sporting loves, and illustrations clearly mined from some website.  Were one to only learn the Bible from these pastors, one might reasonably assume the book is a practical guide to successful work and marriage, a therapeutic relief to stress and anxiety, and a promise of material rewards that are just around the corner.

I listened to a great big pastor in a great big church not long ago who said he “had enough people in the cheap seats.” It was time for serious discipleship, he insisted.  His only text for the next 45 minutes was John 3:16, which he read and then never mentioned to again.  I came to realize that the reference to the cost of the seats was meant to point out that many people attended but didn’t tithe.

These churches have largely surpassed and replaced the second voice, the dying stream of liberal Protestantism which practiced a sleight-of-hand exegesis, using the Bible, but only so as to give the educated the clergy the opportunity to cleverly reveal that it didn’t mean what it seemed to say.  Mainline Protestantism is now settling into a well-deserved retirement.

Third, the last refuge of the Bible is American fundamentalism.  Unfortunately, what we find here tends to be the people who know the words but not the meaning.  They want to debate how long were the days of creation and whether or not life could have evolved, just as their predecessors were energized against the heliocentric universe.  Here, conversation is consumed by creed.  They read the Bible, but only so they can weaponize it.

We’ve forgotten that the Bible is God’s word, and thus it’s worth learning.  We’ve forgotten that it’s living and active, rather than static and dogmatic.

Likewise, the Church has forgotten the Spirit.  The early church spread for one reason – Jesus was a wonder-worker.  People weren’t traveling for miles to hear a good speaker; they were coming to see paralytics walk.  People weren’t praying to make themselves feel better; they were praying because someone was answering back.  They were sufficiently convinced that God was present that they gave away their money with reckless abandon.  Honestly, what might it take for you to do something like that?  It takes a miracle.

I envision a church of the letter and the Spirit, where we embrace the Scriptures enough to care about what they say to us, and the way they say it.  I envision a church where miracles come to be as natural as they are super.  And I don’t think any of this is unreasonable or far-fetched.  I think this is what Jesus meant from the very beginning.

Christian Persecution in 2019

The bombings in Sri Lankan churches that killed over 300 people, claimed by ISIS and said to intentionally target Christians in response to mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, bring a moment’s attention to a horrifying underlying trend.  The persecution of Christians around the world is at an all-time high.  According to Open Doors USA, a watchdog group:

  • 1 in 9 Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution today
  • 345 Christians are killed each month for faith-related reasons
  • Christian women generally face the worst of it
  • China and India, the two most populous nations in the world, have bad records for human rights violations against Christians
  • Reported incidents of the persecution of Christians in the first half of 2019 are already higher than they were in 2018

The Wall Street Journal reports an exodus of Christians out of Egypt, as Muslim persecution of this minority grows, and the Christian population of Egypt in the last hundred years has shrunk from 15% to 9%.

Why the increase is a fair question.  Surely it doesn’t have to rise.  One would hope that as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, all forms of persecution would wane.  An increases worldwide speaks of a trend, and trends have causes.

I have a suggestion.

The world of philosophy and its ideas are hotly contested in the University.  Some people think of it as nothing more than intellectual banter, but history says otherwise.  Ideas propagate themselves from the University and through a culture, and ideas lead to actions, belief spawns behavior.  Marx’s ideas about the oppression of workers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution led to the birth of new political regimes and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the hands of tyrants.  What started as philosophy made its way to warfare.  Likewise, Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest profoundly influenced Frederick Nietzsche, who chided Christianity for protecting the weak.  The weak should be put aside, he said.  Only power and genius should be allowed to thrive.  Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, took over his estate as he fell to mental illness, and she promoted his works.  As Nietzsche’s praise of power was taught in the German universities, the Nazis would take it on wholesale as an ideology.  Nietzsche’s work was so influential on the Nazi regime that Hitler attended Elizabeth’s funeral.  They agreed, the weak should be put aside.  There are dozens of other examples of how ivory tower ideas later carry worldwide influence.

Now, what have philosophers and academicians been saying about Christianity recently?

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a group of boisterous and condescending intellectuals began propagating atheist literature in the public sphere.  They had absolutely no new ideas to promote – most of their work was panned by their peers.  What was new was the absolute ire with which they approached their subject.  There has rarely been such a concerted mockery of religious people as this circle put together.

Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor, has been perhaps the most sardonic.  He refers to dawkinsthe God of the Bible as “the most malevolent bully in all of fiction” and he calls religion “a kind of mental illness.” He says God is “about as likely as the tooth fairy.” Anyone who has been to a secular American university knows that these types of taunt are taken up wholesale by the average sophomore, and Christian students are often mocked into a defensive silence.

It’s been over 12 years since Dawkins began his public attack on religion.  It’s been reported that his book has sold over 3 million copies, relatively small for the planet’s population.  However, the unofficial Arabic pdf of the book has been downloaded 13 million times.  (Arabic is the language of the Quran.)

Now, one could suggest that the book’s popularity in Arabic comes from a number of different impulses – curious, defensive, etc. – none of which have to do with the persecution of Christians.  But I want to suggest that there is a growing side effect of the treatment of Christianity in the American University.  As the American culture becomes visibly less supportive of its religious bodies, those who see Christianity as a rival become all the more empowered to act out against it.  If Christianity is ridiculed in America, it’s unlikely that the financial strength of America’s institutions is likely to be leveraged to make a difference in its defense overseas.  Furthermore, according to the Associated Press, church membership in America had dropped over the last two decades from 70% to around 50%.  There are simply fewer Christians pleading and speaking out for their brothers and sisters who are minority groups elsewhere in the world.  Here, Christianity remains an open target of public ridicule in a way that other religions are exempt from.

If the public voices of the University consider Christianity a fair and easy target for mockery (and no, they don’t give equal time to insulting Islam and Judaism), it’s easy to see that those will be propagated through the culture and ultimately be expressed in the form of action, specifically, action against Christians.  A dozen years of vicious attacks on Christianity may be paying off in the form of growing persecution.

Given its general uselessness as a contribution to intellectual exploration and inquiry, it might be fair to ask whether the open mockery of Christianity coming from public intellectuals ought not to be considered hate speech.  That seems the most apt description.

Dressed for Heaven

-excerpted from “It’s Like This: Visions that Help and Hurt the Church”

I discovered that the work of justice still needed to take place in my life when I was questioned by a Black friend of mine.  “What’s the experience of being White in America?” he asked me.

I shrugged.  “I’ve never thought about it.”

“That’s the experience of being White in America,” he told me.

320px-Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_edit.jpgI can now answer the question.  The experience of being White in America is comfortable apathy.  It’s not necessarily malice or stereotyping.  It’s the mere disregard for the fact that you are benefiting from a system which disadvantages others.  The sense of nonchalance in the face of the struggle of a minority, the passive negligence of the other who must work against tougher odds, is the modern face of racism.  We may not have separate bathrooms, but we still have separate possibilities.

Justice is that outward movement of love from a simple compassion for others towards a determination to create compassionate systems and structures.  Love seeks to build a home for the homeless.  Justice seeks to stop future generations from experiencing homelessness.  The blueprint of heaven is not merely for an individualized faith that makes one a better person.  It is a plan for a better world.

Justice means living as though by a set of laws no one else has read.  Becoming a citizen of a new kingdom means living by the laws of that kingdom, even it if is still only a kingdom to come.  It is when employment is free of gender bias, when education is free of political slant, when relationships are founded in respect, society is awash with civility, and classism gives way to abundant generosity that it becomes clear the kingdom of heaven is infecting the kingdoms of this world.  Jesus told us to look for signs of it – that the lame would walk, the blind would see, and the deaf would hear.  Is it any less supernatural when unjustly shackled are free to run, the prejudicially blind are awakened to clarity, and the apathetically deaf become compassionate?  These are the signs that the kingdom under construction is coming to be.

The call of Christians is to begin to live by the rules of the kingdom that is to come instead of by the rules of the kingdoms we’ve inherited.

Standing in the Chicago airport, I was bundled in multiple sweaters, coats, and undershirts.  I had been summoned to be a groomsman in a frigid January wedding (for which I never forgave the groom).  I couldn’t wait to get back to my home in Hawaii.  Standing across the terminal from me was an older couple dressed in matching aloha wear, which, in Hawaii, is the equivalent of writing “tourist” on your forehead.  I couldn’t resist walking up to them and asking, “So where you headed?”

They almost shouted, “We’re going to Hawaii!” Of course they were, and everything about them said that they were, from their audacious outfits to their beaming smiles.  They knew where they were going, and they couldn’t wait to get there, so much so that they had already dressed for it.  They dressed themselves in such a way that no one could miss what they were doing, even if someone might be prompted to make fun of them.  And making fun of them wouldn’t have dampened their spirits, because their destination was just that appealing.

Shouldn’t it be that way with the people of heaven?  Shouldn’t we be so dressed for our destination that no one could miss it, so excited about our travels that it just oozes out of us?  The kingdom of heaven is so compelling that we can’t wait till we get there; we have to start living it here.

A Mess of Metaphors

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First published in Sunday U Magazine.

Most church conflict is not about worship styles, theological affiliations, or carpet color.  Most church fights are about metaphors.

Everyone has an operating metaphor for what the church is supposed to be.  Some think it should be a cruise ship, where the staff offer stellar customer service and glittering performances.  Some expect it to be a classroom, whose primary purpose is to instill a hearty theology in the minds of the students.  More than a few want a circle of wagons that keep them safe from the evils of post-Christian culture.  Some just want a punch clock that they use at Christmas and Easter to check in.  Whatever the preferred analogy, most people have one, and that frames all of their expectations for the church.  Nothing is more disorienting than a new pastor who comes to town with a fresh, vision-inspiring metaphor that isn’t the one the last pastor preached.

One of the biggest conflicts in churches in the 20th century came when….

Read the rest here.

 

A Christmas Miracle

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Well, this one is beyond explanation.

A family from the Real Life Church family contacted our Children’s Minister, Staci, to tell her that their house had been robbed.  The thieves got away with some cash that the family had set aside to send their kids to Winter Camp with the church.

Of course the church was ready to jump in and cover the costs for these two kids anyway, but the family told Staci to save the money.  The church might have to buy a new building this year – save the money for that.

This sweet family was about to sacrifice their kids’ opportunity to go to camp so that the church could continue in its mission.

What they didn’t know was that earlier the same day I had received a call from another member of the congregation who told me, “God is telling me to pay for a couple of kids to go to camp, in case anyone can’t afford it.”  The same day the house was robbed, even before it was robbed.

So of course, the kids are going to camp.

Now a skeptic might suggest that if God was behind this, he could have just stopped the robbery, right?  But think about that.  The family isn’t losing out on anything – they’re still going to camp, and not only that, they also know that God is watching out for them.  The donors aren’t out anything – they already wanted to give the gift.  Now on top of that, they know how special their gift is.  Even the thieves are not at a loss – they walked away with the cash, and, God willing, they are a step closer to finding out that money and theft will not lead to happiness.  If God had stopped all this from happening, we wouldn’t have this story to tell, and we wouldn’t have a deep sense of God’s hand in our lives.

So this is our Christmas miracle this year, and it’s my Christmas miracle, because what pastors want to see, more than beautiful services and shining smiles, is the powerful hand of God intervening in the world.  That is, after all, the story of Christmas.

#RLLA

Kyo

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Kyo

It’s not news that the Christian church is not proliferating in Japan.  It’s less than half a percent of the population.  There’s an interesting phenomenon in the Japanese language that help accounts for this.

In Japanese, a religion is named with the title of that religion, followed by the suffix pictured here, pronounced “kyo” (rhymes with crow).  So Christianity is “Curisoto-kyo.”  Islam is “Isulamu-kyo.”  Literally translated, it simply means “teaching,” but as with many words, there is a nuance not captured by the strict definition.

The nation of Japan is not religious in the Western sense.  They may offer worship to idols or ancestors, loosely grouped under the title, “Shinto,” but Shinto has no clearly defined doctrines.  When the Japanese talk about religions, they are generally referring to ideas from outside.  And when they think of such things, they still discuss the 1995 subway gas attack that killed 13 people and poisoned thousands.  The leader of that attack was executed this summer.  The name of that cult was Shinri-kyo.  “Kyo” has subsequently come to imply “cult.”  Because Christianity falls under the same broad umbrella of religious teachings, it too now bears a suffix that implies “cult.” Everyone in Japan has heard of the gas attacks.  Less than 1% of the population is Christian.  But when Christianity comes up, it’s immediately branded as related to the gas attacks.  No surprise that it’s not catching on.

A word to wise Christians in America: guilt by association is a real thing.  If Christians generally associate with unloving power-mongers who are more interested in politics that loving the lost, don’t be surprised when no one wants to talk to Christians any more.  At that point, the faith might as well be branded “The Christian Party,” because the suffix captures exactly how it’s thought of.  In America, there is a real risk that people may come to think Christianity is just a political slate that claims to have fallen from heaven.

That’s simply not what Jesus came to build.  He wasn’t out to create political power structures to shelter the fearful.  The teachings of Jesus (Jesuskyo?) are all about surrendering in the name of love.  The more his followers do so, the more likely Japan and the rest of the world are to see Christianity stand apart from cultish shadows.

My book is available!

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My new book, It’s Like This: Visions that Help and Hurt the Church is now available by ebook at Amazon.  For everyone who cares about the church, It’s Like This is meant to be an essential step towards a God-sized vision.

Churches languish for lack of vision, and pastors often blindly misunderstand the way their congregations already think about the church’s vision.  Everyone has a governing metaphor by which they think about the gathering of God’s people – some think it’s a country club, and some think it’s a battle ship.  Some think it’s a circle of wagons, and some think it’s a kingdom under construction.  Identifying the metaphor you think best for the church is critical to casting a vision for the church’s future.

It’s my hope that any church attender, church leader, pastor, or visionary will find the book of use.  Enjoy the book and pray for your church!