The dove, the waters, and the solid ground

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11

I talked to a Christian guy recently who was nervous that God might be mad at him. It’s an understandable enough sentiment, but from a rational perspective, it’s odd. It’s like fearing you might fail a math test after you’ve already received your diploma, or fearing you might be burned by a fire that has already been extinguished. Christians have little reason to fear the thing from which they’ve already been saved. It reminded me of something that happens at Jesus’ baptism.

At the baptism of Jesus, a dove descends and lands on Jesus as he arises out of the waters. I’m wondering if we’re talking about something that was visually bird-like or if it was like a dove in its peaceful nature? Regardless, Matthew and Mark say that Jesus saw something like a dove. Luke states, from a narrator’s third-person perspective, that it was a dove in bodily form. John records it from the mouth of John the Baptist, who says he saw something like a dove.

The first place a dove appears in the Bible is in the story of Noah. God sends floodwaters to eradicate a corrupt and violent human species, saving only Noah, his family, and a boat-load of animals. After 40 days of floating, Noah sends out a dove. Eventually, it returns with an olive branch, signifying that it had found solid ground.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that in both stories a dove goes out and finds solid ground amidst waters sent to wash away sinfulness.

The baptismal waters of the River Jordan, like the floodwaters of the ancient flood epic, were there to wash away sins. The floodwaters were sent to destroy the evil of humankind. The baptismal waters captured symbolically the washing away of sin.

We, as a species and as individuals, deserve the punishment of the flood. We have lived corrupt lives, or conspired to do so, and we cannot by our own merit survive. Only when God provided solid ground could Noah endure the flood. At the baptism of Jesus, the dove again settles on the solid ground, which is Jesus Christ. He is the only thing on which we can stand in the midst of the waters that have been sent for the sinful. If we try to stand on our own goodness, we are standing on sinking sand.

When the dove, the Holy Spirit, comes to us today, it is to call us to return to the only solid ground on which we can stand – to Jesus. When we believe he died for us, we are spared the punishment of the flood. There is no longer anything for which we can be held accountable, because his death consumed our sin. We ourselves arise out of baptismal waters to stand on him.

Without solid ground, we have every reason to fear we will be rowing forever. But once you believe in him, there’s nothing left of which to be afraid.

Can’t Buy Me Love

It’s been said that addiction is an increasing thirst for a decreasing satisfaction. It turns out that when we equate wealth with happiness, we may be on course for addiction in that sense.

A typical mindset among we who spend our lifetimes in or seeking gainful employment operate under a host of tacit assumptions, some of which are correct, some of which are partially so, and some of which are just dead wrong. The problem is that no alarm bell goes off when our brains wander from the former into the latter. When we’re getting things wrong – like say, our expectations for what will make us happy – we still feel like we’re probably right.

Our expectations for what will make us happy are significantly wrong.

That’s not just speculation. The social sciences are now doing quantifiable research on human satisfaction, a relatively new field of serious study within psychology that has popped up over the last 20 years. Laurie Santos at Yale has a class (available for free on Coursera) entitled “The Science of Well-Being,” and Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard teaches “The Science of Happiness.” Also at Harvard, Dan Gilbert, professor of psychology, has published “Stumbling on Happiness,” which chronicles the brain’s missteps into “miswanting,” the act of wanting the wrong things.

When it comes to money, and wanting it, and predicting how happy it will make us, we are way off. A study done of people making on average $30,000 per year were asked how much they would need to make to satisfy them, to end their financial stresses, and they said, on average, $50,000. When the same question was asked of people making $100,000, on average, they said $250,000 (Lyubomirsky, 2008). To quantify it, researches deduced that on average, for every $1 more we make per year, we’re going to expect we need $1.40 more than that. In fact, the stronger the goal of financial success, the lower the satisfaction with relationships, and satisfaction with relationships is one of the greatest predictors of overall happiness (“Zeroing In on the Dark Side of the American Dream,” Nickerson, et. al.). Increasing desire; decreasing satisfaction.

What is true of parts is true of the whole as well. Studies have shown that for all of the advances in technology, wealth, and overall life circumstances in America since the 1950s, it “has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being” (“The American Paradox,” Meyers).

It shouldn’t be surprising that this newfound science of the Spirit – because it is, ultimately, a study of the human soul – simply validates what the Bible has always said. Ecclesiastes states, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Jesus would later ask, “What does it profit a person to gain the world but to lose their soul?” And a band of British prophets once declared, “Money can’t buy me love!” More importantly, it is love, not money, that most contributes to our happiness, according to an 80-year long longitudinal study at Harvard.

Unfortunately, there is a large swath of the American public, and probably the world, who are wholeheartedly handing over their souls in pursuit of the miswanting of money.

It gets worse.

A Canadian study of the next-door neighbors of lottery winners showed that they neighbors were unusually likely to go bankrupt, and the larger the lottery prize, the larger the likelihood. When the lottery included the award of a car, the next-door neighbors were unusually more likely to buy a new car as well. Happiness is, unfortunately, relative to whatever we are comparing ourselves. One survey even showed that a majority of people would prefer a lower salary at a company where everyone was making less than them than a higher salary at a company where everyone was making more than them. The wanting here is correct – it’s the comparison, not the dollar amount, that is most likely to lend itself to happiness.

So a few solid facts about money and happiness:

  1. The strong pursuit of it can make us less happy.
  2. After a certain income (on average $75,000 in the US), the degree to which our happiness increases with our income levels off considerably.
  3. People who give money to charity or spend money on others report higher levels of happiness. Not only that, but for adults age 50 and older, those who spend at least 4 ours per week in community service are 40% less likely to have high blood pressure than their peers who do not.
  4. Money is not completely unrelated to happiness, but the stance we take towards it and the way we use it are far more determinant of how happy it makes us than is how much we have.

This has made me spend a good deal of time thinking about what I really want. How about you?

Rebuilding Happiness

“Happiness then, is found to be something perfect and self sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed.”

– Aristotle, Ethics

Of all the things we lost in 2020, the most devastating was our day-to-day happiness. We lost not only the apathetic normalcy of suburban America, but the stabilizing calm of a world that has a chance for a peaceful tomorrow when today was kind of lousy. There was no clear hope for that tomorrow – no one knew when tomorrow would roll around.

It looks like tomorrow may come in a big way in April, 2021. As vaccines distribute worldwide and the number of recoveries increases by the day, we inch closer to a herd immunity and public sentiment that will pave the way to public life. As we forge ahead in that direction, I am thinking about rebuilding not just routines and freedoms, but happiness. And by this, I mean the opposite of normal. Normal is the baseline against which happy is measured. If normal is ground level, happiness is a mountaintop. I’m not going back to normal. I’m going to chase happiness.

Fortunately for me, two things are at play. Scientific studies on the sources of happiness (and its obstacles) have for the last decade emerged as a legitimate field of study in psychology. Quantifiable research is being done on what makes us happy and why. Secondly, this is the iGeneration. All those studies are available everywhere and all the time. Knowledge from now on is going to spread like laughter. It will not only be available, it will be contagious.

So the Bible verse around which I will revolve in 2021 is a teaching of Jesus in John 10:10, the second half of the verse: “I have come to give you life to the full.” Some translations follow Jerome’s Latin translation from the 4th century, when he used abundantias: “abundant life.” The Greek adverb here is “perisson.” It has the sense of exceeding the need to be measured and way more than necessary. The Bible uses it to refer to how much God can do (like, you know, a ton), and how much more than a prophet Jesus actually is (picture your Christian summer camp counselor trying to explain this with her arms over her head – like way, way more, you guys).

There are even some things we can do to increase our happiness. We can actually track what is shaping our half-empty-half-full mindset and tilt ourselves in the direction of living the life that Jesus promises.

The first is to pay attention to what actually causes happiness (your intuitions are wrong on this one). Martin Seligman, who holds a PhD from U. Penn in psychology, has named five. I’m changing his terminology, but here are the ideas:

  1. Positivity – the ability to focus on hope and thankfulness
  2. Passion – finding something in which you love to lose yourself, your calling
  3. People – happiness is inextricably tied to loving relationships
  4. Purpose – discovering that your life is part of something greater
  5. Progress – the ability to set reasonable goals and chase after them

I’m going to explore each of those in posts to come. There’s no reason why 2021 has to be a festering of wounds, when it can be a rebuilding of the human heart according to the blueprints of the creator. For my part, I’m not going back to normal. I’m going to chase after abundant life.

Grace and Alexa

Jim Miller

There were two twin girls, identical in every respect, Grace and Alexa. They grew up together, played together, wore the same clothes and put their hair in the same ponytails. They made up their own language that they shared between them.

One day a terrible thing happened. There was a tumultuous storm at night and the roof of their house caved in. Remarkably, both girls were saved, but both were changed. Grace saw her salvation entirely as the work of a gracious God who protected her. Alexa, who managed to throw herself under a table when it happened, believed she had saved herself. Neither was ever the same, nor were they alike anymore.

They looked the same, they dressed the same, they wore their hair the same. Grace lived with trust and confidence that she was watched over by God. Alexa did a lot of reading about architecture and how the house was supposed to be designed or retrofitted.

They were both accepted to the local university and excelled, graduated with honors, both of them. Grace majored in literature. Alexa majored in, well, architecture, actually. Both applied for jobs at the university and were hired. They taught together, a cute novelty of the school, the twin genius professor sisters.

They looked the same, they dressed the same, they wore their hair the same way. But they were not the same, and the students knew it.

Grace loved her students, laughed with them, encouraged them, and was known for being an easy grader, and for staying up late tutoring study groups who had fallen behind. Alexa was stern. Her gaze was piercing. Her classes were hard. Few students got A’s from her. They learned a lot, but at a high cost. Only the strong survived, and the weak were weeded out through the natural selection of her red pen.

The funny thing was, when one of them turned a corner, the students weren’t sure which one they were about to encounter. They bristled and sat up straight, for fear that it was the architecture professor, but they looked with hope that they were going to get to see their beloved literature professor.

They looked the same, they dressed the same, they wore their hair the same. But when they got close to you, you could tell who you was who. Because the architecture professor never looked at you with anything more than a cold, evaluative glare. The literature professor always looked at you with a gleam in her eye, and you knew, for some underserved reason, you were loved.

Of Mountains and Microbes

Jesus said, “If you only have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell this mountain to go throw itself in the sea and it will.”

Mountains are bigger than microbes.

If Jesus intended us to have no fear of the mountains we have to climb, he certainly intends us to have no fear of the microbes we have to kill. In this season of exhausting inactivity, the kind of boredom that William Blake called “rage spread thin,” Jesus is working out a kind of exercise of faith in we who believe. Just like floor exercises in which the muscles are strained by maintaining a position and standing still, there is a kind of intense workout that Jesus is doing in our hearts right now. Stretch and hold it until your core quivers, and when you’re done, you will have muscles that weren’t there before.

In the patience of this moment, God is building:

Hearts that fear him alone

Minds that don’t worry

Lives lived on mission rather than in self-satisfaction, and

Prayers that are powerful

We are not victims in this moment any more than an athlete is a victim of the gym. Have faith. Don’t be afraid.

 

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell that microbe, _Go jump in the ocean,_ and it will..png

The Viral Blessings Challenge

We’re going to change the world this week with a little challenge.

chris-de-tempe-6Tl5Kl7JEQg-unsplash.jpgUp and Down.

When I ride roller coasters with my kids, I grab hold of the handle bars, make a face like someone who is having dental surgery, and hold my breath until it’s over. My kids throw their hands up in the air, laugh, and scream about how they think my seatbelt is coming loose. We don’t ride the same way.

As our society does somersaults this season, there are two different ways to handle it.

Some are holding on tight. They’ve raided Costco and stocked up unnecessary tissue. They have dozens of water bottles, though their sinks work fine. They’ve dumped stocks and they’ve stopped spending, clinging to every dollar.

Personally, this week, if I have to go to a grocery store for essentials, I’ll try a new spiritual discipline. I won’t shop for myself. I’m going to buy the gift cards that they often sell near the registers, and fill them with small amounts of money. Then, after the employees at the registers hand them to me, I’m going to give them back to the employees as a gift and thank them for what they do. I’m going to tell them that Jesus is watching over them. These are people who are serving as modern day caregivers tending to the people who are afraid of the roller coasters. You can do the same.

It’s the “Viral Blessings Challenge.” Pay attention to public health announcements and don’t go out into public spaces when you don’t have to. It’s best to wait this thing out, but when we do encounter one another, let’s fill those encounters with grace. If you have a blessing-filled encounter with someone, send me the story at jim @ reallife.la

An Open-Handed Life

Jesus changes everything about the way you approach the season of sickness and anxiety.

With Jesus, I approach life with open hands. He will provide me whatever I need, and I don’t have to cling to anything. I can throw my hands up as we roll over these hills. It may not be filled with the same fun-filled laughter you’d hear at an amusement park, but it’s filled with freedom. I don’t have to worry about life, or what I will eat, or what I will wear, because my Father in heaven knows what I need. I’m not hoarding anything.

With Jesus, I approach death with open hands. I assure you, I’m going to die some day – there’s nothing to wonder about there. But whereas some people have to approach that reality like it’s a cliff they are jumping off blind, I approach it knowing that there is a huge party waiting for me on the other side of that door. I don’t have to cling to life, because what’s in store for me will be even better.

A Prayer

If your recent days have been filled with anxiety, here’s a simple little prayer you can pray. Say it by yourself or with your family. Say it out loud if you want.

Jesus, I’ve done life on my terms instead of yours. I’ve clung to things out of fear, and I’ve lived for myself.

I don’t want to be filled with anxiety anymore. Protect me from temptation and keep me away from evil.

I give my life to you with open hands, and I trust you to take care of me. Forgive me and start me on a new path.

Now teach me how you want me to live.

If you’d like me to pray with you and for you, or if you want to talk about Jesus, send me an email at jim @ reallife.la.

The coming days may still be a roller coaster. That’s not something you can control. But you do have complete control over how you ride.

Food

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Some of us, as of this week, now face a moral dilemma.

 

Temptation and Fall

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The temptation that caused the fall of humanity in the Jewish narrative came in the form of unnecessary food. They already had all they needed. But this food promised to allow them to sort out right and wrong for themselves, to create their own system of weights and measures, so they no longer had to depend on God to provide for them.

Daily Bread

As the Israelites marched through the desert, away from Egyptian slave-drivers and towards a homeland, the tension between God and his people was again food.

“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”

God proved again that he could provide for them exactly what they needed, supernaturally. Bread fell from the sky. They called in “Manna,” which meant, “What is this stuff?” They were told to collect each morning only enough for the day. If the Israelites took more than what they needed for a day, it would rot. They didn’t have to store up. In this way, God called them back into dependence and rewarded them with providence.

The Bread of Life

Jesus draws on the lessons of his heritage. He says things like:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink.

Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

He teaches his disciples to pray:

Give us this day our daily bread.

And he says of himself:

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never go hungry.

It is perhaps more than coincidence that his birthplace, Bethlehem, is a Hebrew word that means “House of Bread.”

The most natural, healthy relationship between God and humanity is when we are dependent every day for our basic needs, and we live without fear that a good Father will provide for us when we ask him.

Hoarding and Sharing

Instead, in crisis, we stockpile food that we don’t need, escalating anxiety and tension in our communities. That leads us to the moral dilemma.

If you have taken more resources than you need this last week, in fear not only of a virus which is not particularly remarkable, but also in anticipation of the fear of your neighbors, you now have a moral imperative. This is from the Lord, not me.

If you over-bought this week, take food to your neighbors. Give it to them and say, “I’m trying an experiment here. I’m giving this to you to see if Jesus will take care of me.” What will happen is that you will experience the relief of knowing that a good and powerful God watches over you. You will be set free from a spirit of fear. You’ll experience the joy of providing for others. You’ll make new friends. You’ll live a story that will be worth telling.

The other choice is to continue running with the herd, and exposing sins of which we will have to repent in the next generation.

The choices here are between faith and fear, panic and peace.

Try Jesus. He’ll give you what you need.

Talking about Transgenderism

Talking about Transgenderism

I had a first-in-a-lifetime experience this week. I got together with a circle of other pastors and we talked about transgenderism and the church’s approach to people who experience gender dysphoria, the experience of being uncomfortable with one’s own gender. I have things to share on the topic, but not in this post. In this post, I want to talk about talking about it.

I sat in a circle of other pastors who don’t necessarily agree on the issue, what it means, what the Bible says about it, and how churches should address it. We questioned each other, debated a bit, talked about what Jesus said and would say. We prayed together. We weren’t trying to come to a final agreement between ourselves; we were trying to understand each other. We agreed that the church historically has been horrible to minority groups, outsiders, people whose lives were held questionable by society at large – basically everyone Jesus associated with. We agreed that we don’t want to contribute to that horror. There was no risk that any of us were going to stop talking to each other when it was over. We weren’t going to rule anyone a heretic or begin an excommunication trial. I’m so deeply thankful for these committed leaders who were willing to think, pray, and be gracious together. I cherish them. I hope that the tone we set together grows increasingly normative for conversations of its kind.

One thing I noted when we were done, after more that 90 minutes of talk, was that if a small group of theologically-trained friends took a lot of work to simply begin a conversation on such a weighty topic, it’s hardly imaginable what that conversation is going to look like spread over a congregation, much less a society, much less a globe.

While Christians continue to stumble along trying to talk about ethics in the abstract, minority groups continue to live lives of isolation and silence, abuse and suicide. Before we even get to sorting out the hard subjects, should it not be quickly obvious that the only way for Christians to talk to each other, and anyone else, is from a deep reservoir of love for all of God’s children? Shouldn’t that come first? When you follow the one who taught that we should not only love our neighbors, but love our enemies, not only our own kin, but prostitutes, adulterers, traitors, diverse ethnicities, and people who hurt us, how can you approach people with anything but love? There should be no question from the public that the last place you would find someone eager to throw rocks at you would be church. And yet, that’s exactly what people have come to expect from churches. And aren’t they often right?

For all of the panicked declarations echoing out of the stained glass windows about what a flaming dumpster society has become, it might be time for Christians to realize that a significant contribution to the public’s disinterest in the church’s prescription for a better world is the demeaning tone in which it has been preached. The world would be better off with more of Jesus, and a primary obstacle to that is his followers’ callous misrepresentation of him.

I remember talking to a self-declared atheist who nonetheless attended church events. I asked her why. She replied, “They’re Christians. They like you anyway.” The day could come when everyone thinks the same.

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.

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.