If it weren’t true, it might be offensive.

To suggest that God became a human.  Sadly, people have been punished for suggesting things that are even less bold.

Christmas.  The birth of Jesus.  But it’s so much more than that.  So much deeper and richer and mysterious and powerful.  Things aren’t supposed to work that way.  Butterflies don’t choose to turn back into caterpillars.  Birds don’t choose to clip their wings.  Humans don’t decide to live like worms.  And God isn’t supposed become a human.

But apparently not.  Apparently this God does.  And things have never been the same.

Because it seems that this God has a keener interest in us humans than we could have ever imagined.  Laws – these were proof enough of his love.  He did not leave us of forsake us – he gave us his presence and his words.  He gave us his law.  And we are blessed for it.

But this is something much more than a little help in a time of need.  He gave us himself.  He became one of us.  And not temporarily….permanently.  He is a man.  Forever.  We could not have imagined that he had this sort of interest in us.

And apparently we are more valuable than we realized.  He took away our excuses.  “I’m only human.”  Only human?  If by only human you mean, “only the divine image bearing creation of the most high God, member of the very race he joined,” then fine, but let’s reexamine our standards here.

Like I said, if it weren’t true, it might be offensive.

But no need to be offended tonight.  Merry Christmas.

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Staircase is such a slippery word.

Today I’ve been fascinated with words.  They’re amazing, aren’t they?

We all bring different understandings, biases, and experiences to the table every time we interpret a word.  We each have a different “lens.”

For example, suppose I walk a room and say the word “staircase.”  Immediately, an image of a staircase will pop into the hearer’s minds.  Certainly any English speaker understands “staircase.”

However, think about how different each person’s mental staircase would look.  How tall is it?  Is it a straight staircase, or a winding one?  Are you seeing it from the top looking down?  From the bottom looking up?  A side profile?  Is it made of wood?  Marble?  Concrete?  Is it carpeted?  Is there a railing?  How many stairs are there?  And yet, we feel that we understand what one means by “staircase.”

It’s amazing we can even communicate at all.

As best I can tell, this is one of the difficulties central to postmodern thinking.  It’s not so much that “truth is relative” or that “there is no absolute truth.”  It seems to have at least something to do with the questioning of our ability to understand an idea – to even be on the same page.  Words are slippery.  If we have so much variation in an idea as simple as “staircase,” how much more difficult is it to communicate about things much more abstract? 

Such as, “gospel?”

Or “salvation?”

For me, this emphasis (maybe it’s postmodern, I’m not really sure) has some benefits, even though many who share my faith have preached that there is nothing good about it.  Perhaps it will help us – or even force us – to bring balance to our approach to scripture, salvation, and gospel that has become almost entirely deductive and propositional.  Perhaps we’ll be able to peel back the layers and layers of tradition that we’ve buried the Bible beneath, and once again hear the gospel for what it’s always largely been – a story.  And that story is good news indeed.

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Thank you, rock.
For me, you are sanctuary.
The sound of rushing water reminds me of my Lord, who has the power to calm the raging sea and my turbulent soul as well.
The crispness of the air this morning brought with it a sobering thought: our days together are numbered.  Soon it will be cold and I’ll make the trek from my office much less often.  Nonetheless, I’m thankful for what I’ve learned while sitting on you.
The temptation today is to be like a waterfall.  Always moving, constantly doing, never stopping, always noisy.  And it’s true, people will drive for miles to see waters rage.
But no one ever wants to swim in them.
Thank you for helping me learn the value of tranquility, stillness, depth, and intimacy.  
It’s not that it’s always easy.  You are my Paniel – the place where I wrestle with God and where God breaks my hip.  The place where I meet with God, and yet my life is spared.  I often walk away limping.
We have several more days together, but our days our numbered.  I’ll have to find sanctuary indoors.  But I’ll be back when the ice melts and the earth is restored.  And it will be sweet.
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My wife has stepped into the world of mothering with as much grace and beauty as when she stepped into my life over 7 years ago.
She’s a great teacher.  She’s a wonderful childrens ministry director.  She’s an amazing dancer.  But I’ve never seen anything bring her as much joy as being a mom.  There have never been more smiles in our house before.
It’s fun to see people’s gifts and passions intersect.  Now, I get to see that every day.
Her proclivity toward mothering was obvious before Bella was even born.  Heck, it was that way in the delivery room too.  I understand that some women hurl expletives at their husbands.  Well, my wife quoted scripture at me.
I love walking into a room and catching her reading a story or having a conversation or laughing about something with her daughter.  Those two are going to be best friends.
We don’t know much about parenting.  But it makes me feel much better knowing that at least one of us was born for this.  
Yes, that would be her.
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Incarmissional emergenistic neo-orthodox liberganic fundagelicalism.

It’s happened to me lots of times.  I’m in a room with some passionate Christians.  Issues of faith inevitably come up, and spiritual opinions and insights are rampant.  The conversation remains agreeable for about 2 to 4 minutes.  Just enough time for the first person to hear something that they only agree with about 97% of.  They’re tempted to let it slide, but that 3% that they disagree with is just kind of lingering in their minds, festering like a slice of pizza you hid in the ceiling tiles of your dorm the beginning of your freshman year.  So they utter the following phrase:

“Yeah, but…”.

Yeah, but.  It’s really an odd phrase when you think about it.  “Yeah” – meaning “yes,” “you’re correct,” “I agree,” “I concur,” “I affirm the validity of what you just said.”  And then there’s the “but,” which means something different: “however,” “except,” “not so fast,” “well actually,” “I disagree,” or maybe just plain “you’re wrong.”

So which is it?  “Yeah” or “but?”  Agree or disagree?  Are we tracking or not?

We have more “yeah buts” than we know what to do with.  Sometimes it’s almost like we want to disagree with each other.  It’s as if we get another 5 yards added to our drive for every meaningful “yeah but” we can produce.  And so we look for ways to critique, disagree, define, re-define, and contest everything we can.

And before you know it, we’ve got people labeling themselves and each other with all sorts of crazy words; words which differentiate and define and categorize themselves and others.

“I don’t like so-and-so’s writing.  He’s one of those incarmissional emergenistic neo-orthodox liberganic fundagelical types.”

Now it’s time for a disclaimer.  I love theology, I’m a big fan of pure doctrine, and I even think it’s important enough to debate over.  For instance, I believe that the question of whether or not Jesus is of “like substance” or the “same substance” as God really matters.

So what I’m ultimately saying is this.  The purity of the faith is important.  However, in the midst of all our “yeah buts,” we should remember something equally as important.  As I listened to a podcast by Steve Deneff the other day, it was impressed upon me that “Christianity’s problem with the world is not one of doctrine, but of ethics.”  In other words, Deneff explains, it isn’t that we don’t believe in the Trinity.  It’s that our marriages don’t reflect Trinitarian love.  And it’s not that we don’t believe that God became a human being – rather, it’s that we don’t embody Christ on this earth today.

I would add that the problem isn’t so much that we don’t believe in salvation by grace through faith.  Rather, it’s that we don’t live lives that exhibit faith in the God whose grace supposedly gives us that salvation.  I could probably go on.

Yeah, but that’s for another post.

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In water and in fire.

We preach, as much as possible,
both by day and by night,
in houses and in fields,
in forests and wastes,
hither and yon,
at home or abroad,
in prison and in dungeons,
in water and in fire,
on the scaffold and on the wheel,
before lords and princes,
through mouth and pen,
with possessions and blood,
with life and death.

We have done this these many years,
and we are not ashamed of the Gospel of the glory of Christ.
For we feel His living fruit and patience and willing sacrifices
of our faithful brethren and companions in Christ Jesus.
We could wish that we might save all mankind
from the jaws of hell,
free them from the chains of their sins,
and by the gracious help of God
add them to Christ by the Gospel of His peace.
For this is the true nature of the love which is of God.

-Menno Simons, 1544

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Quenching the Spirit 101.

I want my life to exhibit God’s power working, not my own.  All too often, though, I get in His way.  I was reflecting on some ways that this happens.  Here are a few of them:

1.  My service to God concerns me more than His presence.  Imagine a spouse that just ran around frantically cooking and cleaning and serving the other spouse, but was never intimate.  Sounds like a pretty awful arrangement.

2.  I assume that since I’m called, I’m spiritually mature.  I suppose Judas is the best example of this.  But the examples are endless.  I need to come to Him like a child every day.

3.  I don’t seek Him in the small things.  It’s become sort of fashionable to denigrate those who petition God for seemingly petty things.  The temptation is to pray for things we think we should pray for instead of what’s really on our hearts.  But it’s better to be vulnerable with God than eloquent.  Abraham, David, Jeremiah, Elijah, and others all knew this.  After all, not a single sparrow falls to the ground without our Father’s care.  The hairs on our heads are numbered, so it seems that God cares about the details.  I want my life to be in God’s hands from top to bottom.

4.  I want to know God’s will for my life more than I want to know God.  It’s safe to say that the better we know God, the less of an issue discerning His will is going to be.

These are just a few of the ways that I can easily quench the Spirit in my life.  I wonder if anyone has any more?

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Gimme some ears!

Imagine this scene: you’re out with a group of friends.  You’re all sitting around a table at a restaurant, and pretty soon someone pipes up with a new joke they’ve recently heard.  You listen intently, drawn in as they tell the story.  Suddenly, everyone bursts out laughing, but you didn’t realize that the punch line had come yet.  You take a split second to realize what’s happening, and you join in the laughter too, having no clue what’s so funny but still wanting to save face.

You didn’t get the joke.  Don’t worry, this happens to me all the time.

I’m not very good at riddles, either.  It seems like the more obvious that answer is, the less likely that I’ll figure it out.  What I’m saying is that sometimes, you just have to spell it out for me.

Now let me be honest.  When it comes to reading scripture, I often don’t get it at first.  I’ll read Christ’s words, and I often come away thinking, “I’m not really sure I actually just got that.”

Something about a pig eating jewelry and some wine bottles bursting and a really small camel and some vendetta against fig trees and poking my eyes out and wearing yokes.  What?

But there’s good news for we who are the thick sculled.  Jesus spoke cryptically even to his immediate audience.  And he did it on purpose.  Why? 

Imagine that you were trying to spread a message that turned people’s expectations on their heads, defied traditions, challenged the status quo, and pretty much revolutionized everything.  Now imagine that as you did this, there was a psychopathic king with his henchmen hanging all around, and if they got a whiff of the message you came to declare (in Jesus’ case, that he’s the king of the Jews), then they’d pounce.  One wrong move in this direction and you’d be run out of town by the mob.  A wrong move in the other direction got you thrown in a dungeon. 

Safe to say, you might choose your words wisely.  You might even encode your sayings with a little wink-wink-nudge-nudge-if-ya-know-what-I-mean sort of thing.  This is what Jesus did all the time.  

The thing about a really great joke is that when the punchline comes, it actually says more than the sum total of the words.  It takes you someplace you didn’t expect, saying more in a few words than others might say in a whole essay.

Parables are like this too. 

So you’re lying in bed a few hours later when it suddenly hits you.  You get the joke.  And it’s hilarious.  You can’t believe you didn’t get it before because it seems so obvious now.  Part of the genius of Jesus’ parables and sayings are that they say more about life and love and existence than can be held in entire libraries, and yet they do so in just four short books. 

So take heart.  Chase after the meaning.  Dig and wrestle and pray and share and pray some more and read and study and wonder.  Because a simple saying about a camel and a needle can teach us a lot more than Dr. Phil and Oprah on their best days. 

Jesus said in Matthew 11:15, “He who has ears, let him hear.”  So I’ve decided to pray the prayer, “Oh God, gimme some ears to hear!  I don’t want to miss this!”

Will you join me?

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Level 5 leadership.

During my drive to Indiana I had the opportunity to listen to Jim Collin’s bestselling book “Good to Great.”  In it, he explores how and why some companies are able to suddenly explode with market success – and maintain that success – after having been virtual nobodies for years.  Why is it that some companies can plod along neck deep in mediocrity, and then suddenly have a transformation, skyrocketing them from “good” to “great,” while others continue to just wallow in their average-ness?

That’s a really simple overview of the question, and Collins and his team have done an unbelievable amount of research in order to uncover what it is that makes only a small number of companies go from good to great, according to their very stringent standards.  But how they did it isn’t the point of this blog.  The point of this blog is to reflect on one of the most interesting findings their study revealed: the importance of level 5 leadership.

They broke leadership ability down into 5 levels.  Level four is a highly competent, inspiring, charismatic, hard working leader.  Levels 3, 2, and 1 digress from there, with 1 being someone who’se really not competent.  By most standards, level 4 leaders are at the top.  They are the ones who get a lot of attention, lots of press, lots of friends, and lots of glory.  In part, it’s because they seek the glory.  But it’s also because level four leaders often get great results – at least for a while.

Take, for example, Lee Iacocca, the famous CEO of Chrysler who led them from the brink of failure into a sort of revival, which is hailed as one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in history.  Iacocca became a leadership sensation, achieving rockstar status because of not only his magnificent business feats, but also his charismatic and ego-centered personality.

Lee Iacocca, despite all his success, is not a level 5 leader.

Why?  Because his company’s greatness didn’t last.  Specifically, it didn’t last once he stopped focusing on Chrysler and started focusing on his own awesomeness.  His leadership depended on him, and once he got more interested in fame and glory, Chrysler’s success started to dwindle, and it didn’t stop dwindling until it was taken over by the Germans.

So what sort of leaders lead companies that truly do go from good to great – and then stay great?  The answer may surprise you.  It surprises me every time I hear it.  It also inspires me.

Level 5 leaders are marked by 2 primary characteristics: they have extreme personal humility combined with unwavering resolve.  

When the CEO’s of good to great companies were interviewed – and they all demonstrate level 5 leadership – there was a blatant lack of discussion about themselves.  And this was across the board.  When it came to their company’s success, they were quick to deflect the credit.  As opposed to some level 4 leaders, the word “I” didn’t pass through their lips very much at all.  These leaders didn’t get as much press as some other leaders with poorer track records.  But it didn’t bother them. 

Extreme personal humility and unwavering resolve.  So those are the characteristics of a level 5 leader.

I can’t get over the fact that those characteristics just seem so…Christlike.  

And in a culture that is obsessed with what Collins calls “level 4 leadership,” that’s a breath of fresh air. 

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Why Education?

I’m sitting in a dorm room in Indiana, miles away from my family.  Really, all I want to do is hold my baby.  I’m here to take a class as I progress toward earning the elusive “Master of Divinity” degree.  I don’t have a roommate this week, so the evenings are spent in this tiny room with nothing but a desk and a bed.  I feel a little like a monk right now.

All of this time away from family, all the money, all the time away from my job, all the hard work…it makes one wonder – why do it?  There’s really nothing tangible to gain.  In my line of work, it doesn’t mean a promotion or a raise.  I could continue to do my job for as long as I want without any seminary degree at all – there are all sorts of easier ways to get ministerial credentials.  That’s not to mention the negative arguments against it.  For instance, the idea that more education often makes ministers less relevant to those they are trying to reach, which seems to be true to some extent.  Or that it’s really just a pride thing, a desire to rack up credentials…which could be another valid point.  And of course there’s the problem of becoming a dogmatic “know-it-all,” which is I suppose another risk.

So why do it?  Just in an exercise in self flagellation?  As I sit here tonight and ponder this, here are a few conclusions I’ve come up with:

I’m just curious.  This is probably the most fundamental reason.  I just wanna know stuff.  I don’t have to be able to immediately apply it to my ministry context.  Who knows if I ever even will or not.  I just like to learn – it’s satisfying, challenging, fulfilling, all sorts of things.  I took a strengths finder test once, and this is where one sees my “input” strength coming through.  For me, immediate usefulness does not comprise the totality of something’s value.

My education so far has made me less dogmatic.  That’s right.  Another way of putting it might be that it’s made me more generous.  Instead of convincing me even more of the things I thought I knew, I’d say that learning in this fashion has opened my eyes to the broad universe of very bright and sincere people who think differently than me on various issues.  In fact, when it comes to being narrow minded, I think that a person who hasn’t studied is at greater risk, because they may not have been exposed to the overwhelming number of different views on any one subject.  This can be discouraging sometimes, it can be enlightening other times, but for the most part, it’s made me take a chill pill and relax a bit.  Ultimately, this is an advantage in engaging people with different worldviews.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t have certain dogmas that I’ll fight for.  It just means that I have fewer of them; and the ones that I do have, I know with greater precision why I have them.

I want God to use me to stem the tide.  The tide I’m talking about here is that of shallow theology that is downright harmful.  Take, for instance, the prevalence of gnosticism within our churches today (that is one heresy that just won’t go away!) that when thrown in with other various doctrines (premillenial dispensationalism perhaps being one?) which are assumed by the masses to be clearly scriptural seem to have led to a situation where even the most devout evangelicals can go about their lives supposing that real, vital engagement with the poor is somehow a waste of time and that concern for environmental issues are just not important, while the practical implications of other much more central doctrines (like…..the incarnation??) are simply unknown.  While most of these Christians would concede that we ought to be concerned for these “earthly” issues, it’s often done so with a chip on their shoulder.  I’m not saying that pastors just need to start using big words.  In fact, I’d prefer the opposite.  I’m just saying that without an awareness of the currents swirling around us, how will we know where to begin to change the tide?

Do I think all pastors should have to go to seminary?  No way.  Denominations like mine, which are more heart oriented than head oriented, are closer to the right track than others.  There’s absolutely no telling how the Holy Spirit will use a person who is courageous enough to utter, “Here am I Lord!  Send me!”  Besides, if education was a requirement for ministry then many of our heroes in the Bible couldn’t work at our churches.  However, as I’ve banged out this blog post, which was definitely more for myself than for the 8 or 9 people who might actually read it, I’ve been helped toward the affirmation that this is my calling.  For now.

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