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.

I Don’t Want to Be A Christian

I sat with a friend today who is not a Christian.  She knows I’m a Christian and generally avoids the subject.  Today, out of the blue, she said, “Have you always been a Christian?”

I told her my story of growing up going to boring, dead churches.  I told her about rejecting the faith on rational grounds because of the wide variety of religions in the world and the painful exclusivity of Christianity.  I told her about my return to the faith.

She grinned and looked away.

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be a Christian,” she declared.

She told me about experiencing pushy Christians who tried to manipulate her to believe and who wouldn’t respect her disinterest when she said “no.” She talked about churches that made her fall asleep.

Listening to her description of what she had experienced from Christians, I couldn’t help but think it:

“I don’t want to be a Christian either.”

And by that I mean, I don’t want to be a Christian like the Christians she’s met.

I don’t want to be a Christian who disregards people’s feelings when they tell me they don’t want to hear or have heard enough.  I want to be a Christian who talks about Jesus with people who are open to listening, usually because I’ve taken the time to listen to them first, and then respects them if they say “No thanks.”

And I don’t want to be a Christian who goes to or leads a boring church.  Boring churches should almost unilaterally be closed.  They should be shut down until the people who are called to lead them can come up with a meaningful vision for what it looks like to reach lost people with the gospel.  And I don’t care if your approach is miraculous healings or one-to-one evangelism or an attractive megachurch or artsy alternative community, but if a church doesn’t have a vision, the church needs to close.  If a church is boring, it’s already closed in every way except the literal way, and that’s only a matter of time.

I told her that the way Christians behave isn’t a measure of whether or not Jesus is God.  And the real question is whether or not Jesus is God, which is irrelevant to how Christians behave.  She seemed unconvinced and changed the subject.  I let her change the subject.

In that exchange, I have to trust that God did what he wanted to do.  God never forces himself on us.  Christians need to unilaterally stop forcing themselves on anyone else.

But I do have one thing better than force, manipulation, or nagging.  I can ask you to pray for my friend.  Please do.

 

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Disciples and customers

The critical decision that the modern church must make is whether or not to raise up disciples or customers.  The results will be very different.

You can have a very big church filled with customers.  Appeal to the expectations, calm every complaint, give the old guard what they want, and appease the donors.  This can generate a gathering of satisfied church-attenders who bring their friends, promising them a similar customer-satisfaction experience.

On the other hand, a church can create disciples.  This necessarily requires telling peoplehqdefault.jpg that they can’t have what they want, that Jesus’ call is to take up your cross and to die to yourself.  A church in a frenzy of attracting customers can never deliver a message like this.  A church that delivers a message like this will never attract customers.  But it is fundamentally the road to discipleship.  Churches that create disciples define their purpose by their mission, not by the whims of their shareholders.

The result of a disciple-making church is a most likely initially smaller but impassioned group of people who are truly committed to the mission of Jesus in the world.  But when a gathering of people takes Jesus’ mission to heart, they become an unstoppable force for the kingdom.

The leadership of the church just has to decide at the beginning, when the groundwork for the church is being laid: customers or disciples?

Religion is stupid and evil

BillMaher_directI don’t know if you heard Jimmy Kimmel’s interview of Bill Maher the other day (I didn’t), but Bill was apparently sweating out the threat that Islamic jihadists now pose to people who mock them (aka Bill Maher).  And he said, “There are no great religions.  They’re all stupid and evil.”

I don’t normally take offense at comedians who are paid to offend.  You know what you’re getting into when you listen to them.  And I generally don’t listen to Maher, because I generally don’t find him funny.  But that comment stuck with me, because he’s actually rallying the hordes against the innocent.

I went to church the other night.  There were 200 homeless people sleeping at my church.  We fix them three meals a day, run a clothing boutique, offer free showers and haircuts.  They’re here for three weeks in January when it’s coldest outside, and then on to another church, such that they can be under a roof from December through March.  We’re not short on volunteers, so I usually just sit and talk with people who are having dinner.  One woman needed help finding a Narcotics Anonymous program, which we host at our church, so I helped her find it.  One woman was looking for a Bible, so I pulled one out of our pews for her.  Generally I just listen to their stories.  And as the 200 or so shuffled off to bed, I heard someone saying to me, of me, “You’re stupid and evil.”

I went to a congregational meeting on Sunday.  We just approved a new budget.  This year we raised our giving overseas by $30,000.  There’s a program in India that uses English literacy training to give people marketable job skills.  They’re helping people climb out of poverty by starting with reading.  And in the midst of that, they introduce whoever will listen to the guy who taught us to love people on the other side of the ocean.  Religious people in America usually give more to charity than their non-religious peers; we again have raised our giving.  And as we pour tens of thousand dollars of our charity into people we’ll never meet, someone tells me that I’m stupid and evil.

Last year we made a donation of about the same amount to an orphanage in Haiti that had lost a building to the earthquake.  We paid for the whole thing.  And the guy living in Haiti at the orphanage leading the build – he’s one of our church members who has moved there to live among and help the poor.  I gather that he’s stupid and evil as well.

But I can read the history of Christianity and so-called Christians as well as everyone else, and I see in my predecessors what is functionally just the same behaviors you see outside the church. And part of me has to agree – yes, religion, and religious people, are stupid and evil.  We always have been.  Just like everyone else.  Atheistic regimes killed 100,000,000 people in the 20th century.  Religious people haven’t done any better with power, just not worse.

But here’s the deal – Jesus wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t evil.  If I have to come to grips with my own stupidity and the darkness within my own heart, I start groping around for someone to bail me out.  The only person I have ever known who without question has earned the right is Jesus.  He isn’t stupid or evil, and only blind stupidity or fiery hatred would make anyone say otherwise.  I’ll admit it – I’m stupid and evil.  I need a savior.  But he’s actually worthy of the title.

So the bottom line is that the common thread between stupid and evil religious people and stupid and evil secular people is not religion, it’s humanity.  And rather than casting stones at we who have called out to a savior for help, in a century where persecution of Christians is at a historical high, you might just as well have the humility to admit that you need a savior too.

Islamic Violence

ImageAmericans are finally waking up to the fact that Islam is a worldwide phenomenon, and not just “over there,” although we seem to believe we are the first to have discovered this and are going at it like Marco Polo.  American media commentary about Islam would make you think that you were listening to the first broadcast from the moon.  “What’s it like?” America asks.  “We will tell you,” says the news.

For my part, I’ve read the Koran twice cover to cover, which is far less than many Muslims, and far more than most Christians.

The million dollar question today is whether or not Islam is inherently violent.  “Is it?” you are asking.  “I will tell you,” says I.

There are two popular lines.  One is the ranting and insistent “Yes!” which has on its side a vast array of very obvious evidence, namely, that some of the most terrorist-producing countries are Muslim.  Muslim countries are not good to women.  Honor killings are still practiced in some Muslim countries.  The people who point this out usually do so without much nuance.

The second popular voice is a more calm but less sensible, “No.” It’s the claim that Muslims are just people like everyone else who have a peaceful religion like Christianity or Buddhism.  They’re misrepresented by extremists the way sophomoric cynics try to group all Christians with Westboro Baptist Church.  This view is based on hope.

The Koran came to be when Muhammed entrenched the ethical code of the 7th century Arabian desert in an eternal religious being whom he claimed was speaking to him.  Thus Muslim ethics will always be tied to the nature of daily life in that cultural context.  In that context, if a tribe attacked your tribe, and you did not retaliate, you signaled weakness.  Thus the rival tribe would feel empowered to attack again, to take your women as property, to drive your people away.  “An eye for an eye” is the teaching of the Koran.  Forgiveness is encouraged only insofar as it causes a person to reform.  But territorial defense is essential.

Is that violent?  Sort of.  It’s also sort of basic, common-sense justice that you would expect of a culture that isn’t governed by a bureaucratic legal system.  It’s not the same as the Christian ethic of turning the other cheek and repaying evil with good.  It’s not the same as Christianity, and the two are not just different paths to the same God.  But it also isn’t crazy.

The problem is that masses of Muslims throughout the world are told that the West has already taken eyes and teeth from them in wars of incursion.  The sexual morality we dispense through our movies and our scandalous celebrities is fairly convincing proof that we’re not reforming.  So in a cross-section of the Muslim world, there is a wholesale belief that the West has attacked.  If they don’t respond in kind in some way, it will signify weakness and allow for further offense.  That’s just the way of the desert.  So rather than demonizing Islam, take its ethic for what it is: pre-Enlightenment myopia.  Combine that with abject poverty and you have something that is potentially volatile.  However, it isn’t of necessity violent.