Blake Griffin wonders why Christians don’t act more like Jesus

Blake Griffin just dunked on the church.

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The NBA superstar appeared on You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes this week, and as is custom on this podcast, the topic of faith and the meaning of life came up towards the end of the lengthy conversation.

Griffin said he grew up going to a non-denominational church that’s now a huge mega-church, and he understandably doesn’t know how to feel about that evolution.

Despite moving away from that foundation and questioning that model, he still retains a measure of faith.

“I still like the idea of believing in God,” he said. “If you don’t, fine. I like it. It gives me something bigger.”

Griffin then added more context to his faith journey. He went to a Christian high school where he attended weekly chapel, took bible courses and learned about other religions in order to refute them.

To explain where he’s at now, he then worked through a common line of thinking that dissuades many from the church these days.

Note: He was careful with his thoughts here and I transcribed as best as I could as he stopped and started along the way,

“My issue with Christianity is I just don’t understand how a religion that is following somebody who stood for these things … In the Bible, you know, Jesus would eat with the sinners, the prostitutes. And yet Christians believe, for instance, homosexuality is a sin. But then you can’t accept? I don’t get it. Why can this person who you’re supposed to be following do these things but you can’t?”

Great question, Blake.

Jesus was notoriously hanging out with those on the margins of society, and yet Christianity is sadly seen as a religion that makes in/out, us/them distinctions.

It doesn’t make any sense at all, and that disconnect is a big reason why Millennials in particular are running from the church.

As a side note, I had no idea Griffin is a stand up comic in the off season, making his chat with Pete even more interesting. Pete’s utter lack of basketball knowledge is also hilarious.

I listen to every YMIW, but this one’s got wide appeal and should be a stand out episode.

I’m officially more of a Griffin fan than I was a few hours ago.

Danny McBride’s relationship with the church is heartbreaking and familiar

The ever-hilarious Danny McBride has a new HBO show called The Righteous Gemstones in which he plays a prominent member of a “world-famous televangelist family with a long tradition of deviance, greed and charitable work.”

 

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McBride recently appeared on Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard, and due to the nature of his new show, the topic of church was raised. I was surprised to learn McBride grew up going to church, but the story he told about his experience there was all too heartbreaking but not unfamiliar.

He told Dax he grew up going to a Baptist church and his parents were both really involved. His mom even did puppet ministry. And then life happened, and his family’s relationship with the church came to an unnecessary end:

We went hardcore. We were there all the time. My parents were so involved in it. And then my parents got divorced when I was in sixth grade and my dad kind of ran out on us. Suddenly, here’s my mom who works in a department store at the mall, she’s got two kids living in an apartment, and you’re thinking “maybe this church you donated all this time to will be supportive.” Instead, the people there turned their backs on her, shamed her for getting a divorce. I can remember seeing my mom and how much the church meant to her, and now she didn’t feel like she could enter the church.

He said his mom would take the kids back to church for a couple months after her husband left, but  their relationship with the church ended altogether shortly thereafter. And while McBride didn’t exactly love going at the time, he did feel a bit of an emptiness when that it was all over.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a rare occurrence. All too often, the church is a place of shame and judgement when we are at our lowest points instead of a loving and supportive refuge in times of trouble.

In my life, I’ve experienced the good that church can offer, there’s no doubt. Meals delivered to the house, visits and prayers in times of need, the development of lifelong friendships to name a few.

But I’ve always witnessed my fair share of what McBride detailed above – shunning those who didn’t live up to expectations and a complete lack of love when it was needed the most.

No church is perfect because it’s made up of imperfect human beings.

But you can never, ever go wrong with love.

Sermon Notes: Thoughts on Philippians 1:9-11

I’ve spoken in church a handful of times in my life. This one is from 2011. Does it hold up? Maybe, except for the outdated Wii reference.

This morning, we are going to take a look at a few sentences written by Paul to the people in Philippi, a very important prayer that I believe has much to say to us this morning.

Before we get started, I just want to share this quote as a bit of a compass for where we are going together this morning. It’s from Dallas Willard, who has written some great stuff about faith, discipleship and spirituality over the years.

The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heart-breaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – student, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ.

In the first part of his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes this prayer:

9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (NIV)

 And again from The Message:

9-11 So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.

Before we take a closer look at these words, let’s take a brief look back at few important details about the author.

Paul, of course, was born as Saul, probably within 10 years of the birth of Jesus. It’s believed that he was born in Tarsus, a centre for Roman imperial activity and Greek culture back in his day. At some point, he moved to Jerusalem, whether with his family or sent there by them to be educated. He studied under the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel I, was extremely well versed in the Old Testament (as any young Jewish student would have been). For those not familiar with the Rabbinic educational system, basically how it worked was that Rabbis would study and meditate and pray over the scriptures, deciding how certain passages were to be interpreted, trying to get as close to the original meaning as possible. He would then come up with set rules and regulations of how to live out the scriptures, and this was called his yoke. If you followed or studied under a certain rabbi, it was because you believed in his interpretations and were prepared to live according to them. This was called a Rabbi’s yoke, which helps us to understand what Jesus meant when he said his yoke is easy.

 It’s more than likely that Paul had the contents of the Hebrew scriptures memorized at a young age. He knew Greek, and probably Hebrew and Aramaic as well. Many scholars believe that it’s more than likely that Saul was aware of Jesus, and some even believe that “it is very possible, even probable, that the young Saul even witnessed Jesus’ death.” Saul’s upbringing brought about an entirely different reaction to these events than the original followers of Jesus, however. As Paul himself sums it up, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Phil 3: 5-6) He was fervently religious and knew much about God and his Scriptures, but the specific way that he was taught to interpret it was far from the Way of Jesus and ultimately led him to persecute the early church.

A couple years after Jesus’ resurrection, something happened to Saul, a change that has since helped others redefine their lives.

For a few years after Jesus’ death, Saul was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus with authority from Rome to basically hunt down Jesus’ remaining followers. He was stopped dead in his tracks by a bright light, and Jesus himself appeared before him. Immediately, Saul was changed in many ways; he was given the name Paul, began following Jesus, accepting the mission to spread the good news to Gentiles. Please don’t miss this: a man who grew up devoutly studying the Hebrew scriptures was on his way to kill Christians one minute and began not only following Jesus but reaching out to Gentiles the next. Talk about a complete 180.

This brings us to Paul’s letters, which I’m sure he never would have ever guessed would have been part of a new part of the Scriptures. They came out of his missionary journeys, where Paul would travel around and help establish and sustain faith communities throughout the Roman provinces. About 50 years after the death of Jesus, Paul was able to travel to Philippi and got to know the people there, and it was this community that he would address from prison later in life after being arrested in Jerusalem and sent to prison in Rome. Paul felt very strongly about the people in Philippi, as this letter would suggest. He appeared to very much enjoy his time with them, and he was very grateful for the support they had offered him throughout the years. He is essentially writing them to reassure them that everything was going to be ok despite his imprisonment, and to encourage them to keep Christ before them as they live out the gospel that he had brought to them.

Which brings us now more specifically to the verses at hand. Paul has begun his letter with a standard greeting of “grace and peace to you”, and has reminded them that he has been remembering them and praying for them, “confident that the one who began a good work” in them would carry it on to completion. He in turn thanks them for remembering him even in his imprisonment, and then offers up this beautiful prayer on their behalf as a culmination of this opening section.

Paul begins by saying that he prays that their love would overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight. Unfortunately, in reading certain passages of the Bible that have become familiar to us in our various favorite translations, we often miss certain things that the original Greek text would have brought out and that would have been evident to the original audience. Here, Paul is speaking of agape love, a love that comes from God and is unconditional, self-sacrificing and active. The Greek word for abound is parisos, and means “no limit to the growth of increase”, or that it is “more tomorrow than it was today.” This word, or the Hebrew equivalent, is used a few times in the Old Testament, and usually addressing the same kind of theme. In Psalm 86, we read the following: “You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call on you,” and also “you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” To abound, then, isn’t about reaching a certain point; for Paul, he is praying that the people at Philippi would literally actively and sacrificially love more and more each day, qualifying it even further by adding “with knowledge and full insight.”

Now the word that Paul uses here for knowledge is epigenosis. This is not ‘about’ knowledge, or the obtaining of a certain and fixed amount of information. The knowledge that Paul is talking about here is participatory; this is not a reading or hearing about something, but intimate, deep and rich knowledge that can only come from experience.

Take, for example, the Nintendo Wii. When it first came out, it revolutionized video gaming because, more than any other system in the past, it actually made you go through the motions of the game that you were playing. The two that I enjoyed the most were tennis and bowling. You would pick up that controller, make sure that it was safely fastened to your wrist to avoid having it fly across the room and break a lamp, and you would stand at a safe distance from your opponent to avoid popping them in the face with your backswing. As the game would start, you would flick your writs just right and rip an ace down the line – game, set, match, and you’re a tennis player. In bowling, you line up the ball just right, put the perfect curve on it, and bam … you’ve bowled a perfect game. Two sports mastered, just like that. But hold on. There’s a huge difference between knowing how to play Wii tennis, and actually knowing how to play tennis. Who among us didn’t figure out pretty quickly that you could get the same result sitting on the couch and barely moving your arm as you did standing up and swinging away with reckless abandon? But to step outside onto a court, with an actual racket and a tennis ball, and to actually fire a ball hard enough and straight enough for your opponent to not be able to send it back over the net … that’s the epigenosis of tennis. It’s the same difference as watching the running of the bulls on TV, and actually running with the bulls; or seeing a picture of the Eiffel tower and actually looking down on Paris from its heights. The kind of knowledge that Paul is talking about here is not something you can read in a book or see on TV; it must be experienced.

In a more technical sense, Paul here is addressing the differences between the understanding of knowledge in the Hebrew sense vs. that of the more contemporary Greek world in which he lived. As author Alan Hirsch describes it in his new book “On The Verge”, whereas the Greek model was very education and information based, concerned with concepts, ideas, and (dare I say it) doctrines, the ancient Near East worldview, on the other hand, was more life-oriented, concerned with the practical outworking of the interrelationship of all things under God. Essentially, the Greek approach was based on the idea that if people have all the right information, it will change how they act; we are to think our way into a new way of acting or being. Based on the Hebrew approach, we act our way into a new kind of thinking, and this is what Paul is getting at when he is writing about love overflowing with knowledge.

Think about another one of Paul’s letter, this time to the church in Corinth. “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” And Paul is speaking from deep experience here. Remember, he had accumulated just about as much knowledge as he could, about the scriptures no less. But all that knowledge failed to translate into a way of living that was congruent with the call that God has upon his people, the call to love that which he has created, and to show others what he is like. Again, we can listen to all the right sermons, read the best books, attend conferences, but it all means nothing if we are not engaged in acts of love, then, Paul is saying, we don’t really have a full or meaningful knowledge of God and what he is all about.

But of course it’s not just knowledge that Paul is praying for, but also “depth of insight.” The word in Greek is esthesis, and this is the only time that this particular word is used in the Bible. It essentially means having the ability to know what to do in difficult situations, or discerning what the next right thing to do would be. It also involves a keen awareness of what the consequences of these actions will be. Again, this does not revolve around being able to pick out bits of information and dissecting them for the sake of knowledge. This is not about theoretical insight, or, like Paul in his earlier days, having a set list of rules and regulations to live by. This is deeply rooted in the present, in experience, in the daily realities of life, in seeking Christ and hearing His Word spoken to us in fresh ways. It involves being called to and immersed in difficult situations in the first place, and having the courage to step out in loving action on behalf of those who are in need, even when we don’t know what to expect or how it will work out.

This is all about the difference between hearing and acting, between knowing about God and knowing God; it’s about knowledge and insight that affects every area of our lives, so that we are every day living out the love of God and putting it on full display to those around us in meaningful and exciting ways.

Paul finishes off the prayer with 3 pieces that serve to qualify why this kind of knowledge and insight is so important. First, he prays that the people in Philippi would be able to ‘discern what is best”. The Greek word used here is ‘dokimozo’, and was used primarily in reference to money. The other week, I stopped in at Tim Horton’s, and the guy in front of me pulled out a $100 bill. I was hoping that he was going on some sort of pay it forward rampage and would be paying for everyone in line, but sadly this was not the case. The cashier took the bill and placed it under the purple light to make sure that it was not a fake, to examine and check its authenticity. This is ‘dokimozo.’ Paul is praying that the Philippians would be able to check and examine their hearts so that they would be able to live in a way that reflects an authentic and genuine walk with Christ.

Furthermore, he prays that they would be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” A few months back, I was listening to an interview with Dan Rather, former anchor for the CBS Evening News and currently the managing editor and anchor of the television news magazine Dan Rather Reports. In these reports, Rather takes a deeper look at certain political and cultural stories, at times shedding some light on or exposing certain injustices going on in the world. In this interview, he had a great line that speaks to what Paul means when he writes about being pure and blameless. What Rather said was this: “I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Paul is urging the people in Philippi to love in such a way that if all was brought into the light, they would have nothing to worry about. When the full splendor of the sun shines, darkness cannot exist; light and dark are not opposites, but rather the absence of the other. Light cleans all the dark and dirty areas of our lives, and Paul was saying to them and saying to us today – what if the sun were to shine on our jokes, the websites we visit, the things we spend our money on. Live in such a way shows that you have nothing to hide in the dark spaces, and also in such a way that those around you are not tripped up by your actions and attitudes. This is what it means to be pure and blameless.

And finally, Paul prays that they would be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes from Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.” To understand this, we must return to the beginning of the prayer, and the word parisos – “no limit to the growth of increase”, or that it is “more tomorrow than it was today.” Paul is calling the people at Philippi to be ever growing, ever reaping a harvest of spiritual fruit. We must look at another letter to see what this might look like. In Galatians, we read that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” These are habitual attitudes must be developed in order to gain the epigenosis and esthesis that Paul is writing about. As Dallas Willard notes, “if we take note of and follow Jesus in what he did when he was not ministering or teaching, we will find ourselves led and enabled to behave as he did when he was ‘on the spot’”. Remember the example of Jesus; in the Gospels we read was regularly engaged in such spiritual practices as prayer, fasting, silence and solitude, practices which led into transformative, missional encounters with those in need. In order to be ready, to display esthesis or to know what the next right thing is to do it is important to adopt various practices and habits according to the Way of Jesus. For, as Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann says, “discipleship fundamentally entails a set of disciplines, habits and practices that are undertaken as regular, concrete, daily practices.” Harvesting fruit takes time and hard work, but if done right, it can be pretty sweet. And as Paul qualifies it at the end, we are to ever be growing in these things, putting them into practice as we interact with the world around us, not merely for the sake of self-improvement or knowledge, but for the glory and praise of God. It is through this, as the Message puts it, that we will make “Jesus Christ attractive to all.”

If you read the NT closely, you will find that the term Christian is found only once in its pages. The more common designation was simply ‘the Way’; Jesus came to show us again who God is, what he cares about, and how to go about making the prayer ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’ a reality. What Dallas Willard is calling us back to and what Paul has reminded us this morning is that as God has demonstrated his abounding love to us in Christ, so to are we to abound in love to all those that we come into contact with through our day-to-day lives. It is this abounding love that leads to knowledge; the Way of Jesus must be lived out before it is mapped out. And as we step out in loving action on behalf of those who are in need, even when we don’t know what to expect or how it will work out, it is then that we will truly begin to know God, our neighbors and ourselves in the esthesis sense of the word.

*note: the info re: Greek translations was borrowed from Rob Bell’s sermon in the same passage a couple years ago.

Highlands – Hillsong United (Video)

 

I’ve been a Hillsong United fan pretty much since the beginning. Their faith-based, positive lyrics, masterful musicianship and ridiculously catchy hooks have been a staple through good times and bad.

I must admit, though, I always haven’t felt like listening to them, unable to relate to their sense of reckless abandon in the face of the realities of daily life. It sometimes felt a bit much – how can one really be that full of praise ALL the time?

Their new album People is refreshing in that it seems more honest than their previous work. There’s room for doubt, for questioning. That seems to stem from band lead Joel Houston, as explained in RELEVANT:

Houston had questions about his future, his band and even his faith. Where does the person a generation has turned to for worship go when he’s no longer feeling inspired? Who does a leader ask when he has questions about faith? Houston needed help.

That’s what led him to that rundown farmhouse in the Scottish countryside.

He’d taken the invitation of a friend to go to Scotland, get away from things and spend some time talking through his struggles. Arriving at the farmhouse was a moment of revelation.

“I saw something inspiring for the first time given the season that I was in, in that moment,” he says. “I felt like I got a picture of my life.”

On the outside, the house was rundown, worn by weather and time. It was a shell of what it had once been. But if you looked hard enough, you could see that with a little work and care, it could be restored.

It could, for all Houston knew, be even more stunning than the place it’d been before.

“Sometimes, if you’re going to create something beautiful, you’ve got to get through the process of reconstruction,” Houston says. “And that involves deconstruction and all the rest of it.”

All of the above plays out in a beautiful new song that I posted above called “Highlands.” It makes me think of when Lauren and I lived in Scotland, everything we’ve been through since, and the fact we know everything is going to be OK in the end.

I can’t stop listening to this song, and I hope it’s an encouragement to others as well.

Searching For Sunday

Rachel Held Evans passed away today at the age of 37. 

I’m so sad and don’t know what to say.

All I can think to do is share this review of one of her books that she graciously sent me directly. It speaks to her impact on my life and how much she will be missed.

If you’re able, you can support her husband and two young boys here.

So church is, essentially, a gathering of kingdom citizens, called out – from their individuality, from their sins, from their old ways of doing things, from the world’s way of doing things – into participation in this new kingdom and community with one another.

imageThat’s the conclusion reached by Rachel Held Evans in her new book, Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving, And Finding The Church, wherein she describes her journey out of evangelicalism, through a church plant that didn’t quite get rooted, a break from church altogether, and into a deeper, richer and fuller understanding of what it means to be part of the body of Christ in the 21st century.

I read and enjoyed both of Rachel’s first two books – Evolving in Monkey Town and A Year of Biblical Womanhood – and have benefited from following her on social media and meeting her in person at the conference that spawned the book Letters To A Future Church.

But of all work, I can honestly say nothing has impacted me as much as this new book.

I’m not sure if I qualify as a millennial, but Rachel’s story of growing up in, moving away from and rediscovering ‘church’ resonated with me in deep ways, as if she was sharing my story and the stories of thousands of others in the same boat, beckoned to step out, in faith, to something different.

But this is distinctly her story, told through the lens of seven sacraments of the church, namely baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick and marriage. Interspersed throughout are tales from her travels, some hilarious, others heartbreaking, all with a heavy impact.

What struck me most – and what might cause many to strike back – is her telling of stories shared at a Gay Christian Network Conference, stunning example of how the church is meant to look more like a support group than a country club.

Reading on the train on the way home from work, tears came to my eyes as I thought of the church’s wretched history and its brilliant future, one based on embracing the call to love and live together, as described above.

Reading this book felt like I was having a good, heartfelt chat over coffee with a like-minded, like-hearted friend, grieving that which has gone wrong and celebrating a bright hope for the future of the church, of this world, and ultimately, in Christ.

Very much worth checking out.

Oh, and I’m going to frame this quote, I think.

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A Better Easter Story

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

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I used to think Easter was all about God being so angry with us that Jesus had to die on a cross to pay the price for our sins. If we believe, then we can go to heaven; if not, we go to hell.

That’s not a narrative I can get behind anymore.

Back in college, my Old Testament professor blew my mind when she walked us through Genesis 15, where God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising to make a great nation out of him that was to be a light to the world and a blessing to others.

Basically, God was saying “stick with me, and everything will be OK with you, your descendants and the whole world by extension. Through you, the whole world will know that I AM God and God is good.”

To seal the covenant, God asks Abraham to bring “a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” The idea was to kill and cut these animals in half, and the lesser party involved in the covenant would walk between then, effectively saying “if this is broken, let me become like these animals.”

When God was making this covenant with Abraham, then, the assumption was the latter would cross through the broken animals while the ruler looked on. The script was flipped, though, when a pillar of fire passed through instead. This was God saying “I will take on the punishment if (let’s be hones, WHEN) the covenant is broken.”

A pillar of fire in the night. The light shining in the darkness.

Here’s a good summary of what was going on:

“There is widespread evidence that in the biblical world animals were slaughtered in treaty contraction ceremonies. When the parties to the treaty walked between the rows of freshly killed animal flesh, they placed a curse upon themselves — May they too be cut limb from limb if they violate the treaty or covenant.

The smoking firepot and blazing torch that Abraham observes represent God himself walking between the animal carcasses — binding himself solemnly to his promise. Abraham doesn’t walk between the pieces, Yahweh does, making it a unilateral promise that God pledges to fulfill in the most solemn and binding way.

We know the end of the story, where God himself bears — in the broken body of his innocent Son — the penalty for man’s breaking of the covenant.”

When I think about why Jesus died, I always come back to that verse from John 1 quoted above. God created the world and saw that it was good; God called his created people to be a light into the world, but we fell prey to the darkness. And even when we snuffed out the light when it appeared directly in our midst – an ultimate act of darkness if ever there was one – GOD STILL LOVES US.

That’s the good news right there.

Not that Jesus stepped in to appease God’s wrath and give us an out from being sent to hell forever, but that God kept a promise to keep loving us despite the very darkness we continue to embrace.

Jesus took our place not because God was angry, but because God loves us that much.

All of us, no exceptions.

Me.

You.

Us.

Them.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

Repost: Let’s get back to our roots

Back in 2010, folks across the World Wide Web were posting their ‘letters to the Church in North America’ as a lead up to the Eighth Letter conference, which took place place on October 1-2 of that year.

What follows is my contribution to the Eighth Letter Synchroblog, hosted by Rachel Held EvansPlease check out the other posts listed on the synchroblog home page, and please take some time to write a letter of your own.

To the church in North America, from a fellow sojourner daily struggling to understand what it means to follow Jesus Christ our Lord in the 21st century.

A wise voice in our day has proclaimed the following:

The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heart-breaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – student, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ.
– Dallas Willard

Before I address that, let me begin by telling you about an experience I had recently. Sometime late last summer, my wife and I were driving back to Aberdeen after a lovely weekend in the fabled Lakes District of Northern England. After a meal at one of our favorite restaurants in the town of Stirling, we made a planned and highly anticipated detour into the Scottish Highlands. A major factor in our decision to spend a year in Scotland was to experience some family history, and what better way to do so than to visit the small village of Balquhidder, which, overlooked by the dramatic mountain terrain of the Braes of Balquhidder, and sitting at the head of Loch Voil, has been home to generations of McLaren’s dating back to the 9th century.

As my wife and I made our way down the windy roads leading us deeper into the hills, I began to sense that an important pilgrimage was taking shape. I took in the scenery – the lochs, the trees, the mountains and valleys – and felt as though I was created to enjoy such a place as this. If heaven really is a renewed earth [a topic for another letter altogether], then this was the space in which I longed to dwell. After a bit of a longer drive than we expected, we finally found our destination just a bit before sunset. The weather was cloudy, and a mist was in the air, adding a beautifully mysterious backdrop for what we were about to find.

The main feature of this village is the ruin of the Old Kirk, where, as we discovered, one can find the gravestones of many a McLaren, one of which features the actual McLaren Clan crest. As we toured around and took pictures of this ruined building, I came upon a sign on the side of the kirk, which read: “For generations of McLaren’s, their place of worship, and within whose walls their chiefs are buried.” In a year where I had been wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century, it was an amazing experience to pause and stand in a place where my ancestors had gathered to hear from and worship God for hundreds of years before me.

Connecting with my family history in this way got me thinking about two things: 1) the biblical account of the beginning of human history, and 2) Martin Luther’s thoughts on what was right and what went wrong.

Having been introduced to the story of Genesis at a young age, like many of us were, I have always been pretty confident that I had a firm handle on the story recited to us in its early pages: God creates and it is good, and we humans come along and mess it all up. Recently, however, I have come to see that it might not be as straightforward as we might like it to be. In fact, it’s apparent that this Genesis story goes far deeper than a matter of command / non-compliance / punishment. Rather, as has been suggested elsewhere, the entire Old Testament must be read as the beginnings of a special partnership between God and humankind, the “record of the divine-human conversation, of how God spoke in ‘many and various ways’ and of how humans are called to respond in speaking to God and speaking of God.” (Christoph Schwobel) Human history is formed by a God who creates and speaks, with a view to working with His people to fulfill his loving purposes for creation within the present realities of life.

Which brings us to Luther. In Genesis 2:17, we read that God spoke a specific Word to Adam, prohibiting him from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. For Luther, this Word acted as a call to trust in, worship and obey the God who had spoken; “it was God’s intention that this command should provide [humankind] with an opportunity for obedience and outward worship, and that the tree should be a sort of sign by which [humankind] would give evidence that he was obeying God.” To actively listen to this Word was a tangible expression of early discipleship whereby Adam, Eve, and their offspring would demonstrate that they had heard from God and would live accordingly. This tree, therefore, was a place where the divine-human conversation was to carry on steady and unbounded. This tree was, in effect, the first church: it was at its feet that humankind was to “yield to God the obedience [they] owed, give recognition to the Word and will of God, give thanks to God, and call upon God for aid against temptation.” Again, according to Luther, “this tree of the knowledge of good and evil … would have been the church where Adam, together with his descendants, would have gathered on the Sabbath day. And after refreshing themselves from the tree of life [they] would have praised God and lauded Him for the dominion over all the creatures on the earth which had been given to [humankind].” This tree, this first church, provided Adam, Eve, and all those who were to come after them, with the opportunity to be reminded of who God was, who they were in turn, and the responsibilities bestowed upon them as the recipients of His Word.

In Genesis 3, however, this beautiful picture of the church is brought to a halt by a crafty ruse, characterized by Luther in this way: “the chief temptation was to listen to another word and to depart from the one which God had previously spoken.” This is key in terms of understanding the nature of discipleship and what it means for us to be part of His Church in North America today. In this description of that which led to the inception of sin in the midst of God’s good creation, Luther is effectively saying that the point is not that Eve physically bit an apple or broke an explicit command, but rather that the first human beings failed to trust in and adhere to the word that God had spoken. As Luther puts it, “the source of all sin truly is unbelief and doubt and abandonment of the Word.” And as a result, humankind began a pattern of being absorbed into stories that are not intrinsically our own, stories that cause us to forget the Word that God has spoken and continues to speak, stories that de-emphasize and attempt to silence altogether our role as God’s partners in bringing about his loving and redemptive purposes for the world.

But thankfully, the story didn’t end with Adam and Eve’s fateful mistake, for throughout the centuries that would follow, God would indeed continue to speak, calling Abraham and his promised descendants to show the world what their God is like; they were to be deeply engaged in the present realities of the world, acting justly on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed as God had acted on their behalf in the past, and they were called to embody an alternative way of living lest they continue to listen to other words and in so doing be absorbed anew into stories that were not their own.

It’s the same invitation expressed by Jesus himself, the Word made flesh among us, who called all those that wish to follow him to repent and believe [a believing that is not passive and informative, but active and transformational], to embrace and embody his radical teachings, and to participate in his mission of good news to the poor and marginalized, and to those whose have been absorbed into stories that were not intended for them.

What, then, does all of this have to do with the Church in North America, and how does it relate to the call to discipleship quoted above? There are two things to note about Luther’s first Church that must be emphasized. The first is that while many of us continue to read the Genesis story as one wherein God gives humankind a clear prohibition and doles out a punishment in light of Adam and Eve’s non-compliance, the reality is that this tree is a great picture of the freedom that we have to continually meet together to worship and hear from He who has created and cares deeply about the world in which we live. Again, the apple is not the point, but rather that those who gathered around this tree failed to see it for what it was – it was not a place where God’s Word was to be reduced to a set of principles and prohibitions, set aside in the pursuit of power and prestige, but rather a place of worship, trust and obedience with a view to extending God’s grace and love out from its wide branches. To gather here was to hear from God, to worship Him and to learn afresh who He is and what he cares about.

Second, it’s important to note that while this tree took up physical space in the world, it was not cut down and crafted into four walls, a roof, an altar and some pews. Instead, this place was holy and communal, set apart yet wide open. It’s a picture of the reality that God’s people are not meant to be hidden, and cuts to the core of the distinction that must be made between what it means to go to church, and what it means to be the Church. To be a part of the Church is not to individualize faith, nor is it to retreat into a fixed address one day a week. Rather, we are to constitute a widespread community that on one hand gathers together to hear the Word that God has spoken and continues to speak, and, on the other, seeks to ensure and enable faithful, daily participation in God’s loving and redemptive practices in, to and for the world.

As I visited that old ruined church in Balquihidder, and as I considered that great need for authentic discipleship described above, it occurred to me that perhaps what the Church needs most is to get back to its literal roots – let us, therefore, gather together to hear from and worship God and, in turn, day in and day out, demonstrate to the world that a different way of living has been made possible, one that reaches back to the very beginnings of human history and continually reveals who God is and what He cares about.

May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be upon you, wherever you may be.

Ian Cameron McLaren

“Did God not like dinosaurs?”

There’s nothing quite like conversations with a 4-year-old.

I was putting our youngest son Henry to bed the other night and, as per usual, the routine included reading some stories (as well as requests for a drink, cries for mama, and a need to pee. But I, like he, digress).

We began with Hug-A-Bible, a fur-covered collections of 10 stories meant to remind children of God’s great love of creation.

Let me say here that sometimes I struggle with how to talk to the boys about God. We flipped past a page about Noah, for example, and it talked about God spared Noah, his family and two of each animal, with a nice rainbow to put a bow on it. Of course, it failed to mention the story was about the rest of creation being destroyed by an angry God who was sick and tired of humanity screwing things up. That’s the bit left out in Sunday school.

Henry seemed to get the basic, age-appropriate gist though – God loves him and will always be within and around him.

We turned to a book called That’s Not My Dinosaur. He’s smart enough to dinosaurs don’t exist anymore, and before we were able to turn the first page, he asked me what happened to dinosaurs. I explained they were all gone because a big rock fell from space and caused a “spolsion” (his word, not mine) and now they’re extinct.

That satisfied him for a moment, but maybe the Noah story triggered something because then he asked, “did God not like dinosaurs?”

How does one even begin to answer that?

We already implicitly covered the fact that God (allegedly) got rid of most created beings through the flood, not to mention there are those who believe God sends people to hell for all eternity if they don’t believe in Jesus. Maybe God thought velociraptors were getting too smart for their own good and fossilized them. They can open doors after all, and probably took a bit from that God forsaken apple.

I tried to affirm that God loves all that God created, and sometimes things don’t go as planned (which he’ll learn more about one day when he watches Jurassic Park). I think an all-loving God would have been sad when dinosaurs went extinct, but apart from that instinct, I really didn’t know how to answer.

Instead, I simply blurted out, “that’s not my dinosaur, his back is too scratchy!”

Maybe the best thing I can teach him and his brothers is there are some questions that can’t be answered, and that’s OK.

 

Comedy Sex God and me: A review of Pete Holmes’ book

My journey to Comedy Sex God began with Rob Bell, which is fitting because he’s the author of Sex God.

Similar themes, but less funny.

Rob is the former pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI (not to be confused with Mars Hill Church in Seattle). I used to religiously download his weekly sermons, and was feeling a Bell-shaped void after he decided to take off for Los Angeles to pursue other ventures.

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It was 2013 and were planning a trip to Ottawa at the time, so I did a search for Rob Bell in my podcast app to help keep me entertained on the long drive. I came across his name listed beside this funny little logo and was interested to see how the author of Love Wins could make it even weirder. As it turned out, that book was the impetus for this podcast host to reach out to Rob, and I quickly learned that I actually had a lot in common with Pete Holmes.

We were both raised in the church. We both went to small Christian universities (I even knew people who went to his). We both liked to make jokes, although he’s admittedly a million times better at comedy than I could ever dream to me. We were both clearly fans of Bell’s, and welcomed his work as opposed to bidding him farewell like so many others still caught in the throes of evangelicalism.

I ended up listening to that episode more than once, and You Made It Weird has been part of my weekly routine ever since. I love the silly episodes, the spiritual elements of it, the Friends of Rob Bell series, the comedy guests, the inside baseball tales from the worlds of stand up and show business. I rarely take a week off.

On top of that, I devoured clips from Pete’s foray into late night television, his HBO specials, and especially the recently-cancelled Crashing, which I loved for all the same reasons I keep downloading the podcast.

So when Pete first announced he was working on a book, I knew it would be right up my alley.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy from Harper Collins and made my way through it over the course of a few days. Here’s a few thoughts on this delightful piece of work.

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I was already pretty familiar with Pete’s story from all of the above, but I really resonated with his early struggles with the church, particularly as it pertains to purity culture, the sins that tend to befall teenage boys, dealing with that guilt and shame, responding to countless altar calls and repeating the process over and over again.

Like I said, I too went to a Christian college, began to explore new/old ideas, and eventually left the church I grew up in.

Our stories aren’t quite the same (my wife didn’t leave me for a small Italian man, thank God), but I weave in and out of phases of deconstruction and reconstruction as a result of life circumstances, having my eyes opened to new ways of thinking while shelving old, harmful beliefs about faith and God’s role in the world in which we live.

I can’t say I’ve gone so far as to have my mind opened by psychedelics, and likely never will. Pete’s deep dive into Ram Dass is kind of where our paths veer most obviously. I’m interested in him and will check out his teachings, but I won’t be humping on a plane to Hawaii anytime soon. At the same time, I’ve kind of found a guru in absentia in Richard Rohr – another previous YMIW guest and a fave of Pete’s – and often think about planning a retreat to New Mexico to meet him.

That’s kind of the point of Comedy Sex God, really. We’re all on different paths, but we all come from the same Oneness, and the more in tune we become with it and each other, the better off we all will be.

Pete referenced Bell in this book, and I know he has a relationship with others I admire, namely The Liturgists, David Bazan, and Rohr himself. Again, different streams, but all flowing from the same grand river.

The sections on meditation and breathing and Awareness were particularly meaningful for me, and I know these are practices I need incorporate into my life. Thanks for another kick in the ass, Pete.

I should add Pete is a really great writer, and both his comedy and his warmth come off the pages in droves. This book is hilarious, and I laughed out loud on several occasions; it’s also deeply moving, and I teared up more than once. It’s above all incredibly honest and vulnerable, and Pete’s authenticity is what draws so many to his work, myself very much included.

Right off the top, Pete writes “My mom always wanted me to be a youth pastor. When I become a comedian, she said, ‘Close enough.'” I’m a grown man with a wife and 3 sons, and Pete’s inner youth pastor speaks to me on a regular basis. It will come as no surprise that I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I hope you all read it, love it, and come to admire Pete as much as I do.

Book review: Holy Envy by Barbara Brown Taylor

After years of serving as an Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor began teaching Religions of the World at a small liberal arts college in Georgia. She guided her students through Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, discovering more about herself and her faith along the way.Image result for holy envy

She recounts stories about this in her new book, Holy Envy. The title speaks volumes; only does she allude to be very much attracted to elements of religions other than her own, she sees holiness in all of them. We are all created in the image of God, and religion – at its best – is humanity’s attempt to figure out what means.

There’s a million different ways to go about it, and certainly a fair amount of diversity within Christianity itself. Regardless of what you believe about God and Jesus, few object to the notion of a divine spark within us, and the call to love. As the author writes:

Yet this, in a nutshell, is the monuymental spiritual challenge of living with religious difference – and more centrally than that – of living with anyone that does not happen to be me. “Love God in the person standing right in front of you,” the Jesus of my understanding says, “or forget the whole thing, because if you cannot do that, then you are just going to keep making shit up.”

Amen.

We don’t need to be afraid of the differences between us; a lot of it comes down to using different languages and symbols to try and articulate the same things.

We are all made in God’s image, called to love each other and take care of this world. It’s OK to open our eyes and look around at what others are doing, and we don’t have to be afraid of otherness.

All that matters in the end is how we loved each other.

Thanks to Harper Collins Canada for hooking me up with a review copy of this book.