May 2009

Israel-Jerusalem_Old_CityOne of my majors in college was Biblical Literature.

My school was a part of network of colleges that allowed students to spend a semester at another in-network school. One of those schools was in Jerusalem. So I literally had the option to study the Bible in Israel or Indiana.

I loved Taylor, and all of my Hoosier friends … but the choice was pretty easy.

Fall Semester 1995 – Institute of Holy Land Studies (Conveniently located between Jaffa and Zion Gates on the Old City Wall of Jerusalem!)

That experience was deeply influential for me. I often think back about that semester and the lessons that I learned. At the time a few of us wrote up a very funny Top Ten List of why students should study there. I can’t find that list, so I will just write about a few lessons that transformed my thinking. I write this realizing that plenty of people will disagree with me. I may have disagreed before the trip.

It is Not about the Land: My expectation of the semester was that I was going to Biblical Disneyland, a place with spirituality flowing out of the rocks! That was not my experience. The land, air, and water were …well … normal. Initially, this was a disappointment. Eventually, this became an encouragement. I realized that the stories in the bible are about real people in the real world. That makes it all the more relevant to me.

Christianity Did Not Start in Europe in the 1600s: While none of us say it, my experience in church and theological education functioned like Christianity really started in Europe in the 1600s. The language, framework, and debates are almost exclusively from that era. As I studied the ancient biblical world I discovered that many of those things were not on the grid of the original biblical audience. While I think that we can learn from Europe 1600s (or 1000, or America 1950), we have far more information about the ancient world and the ancient biblical texts than any of those eras. We would do well to spend more time focused on the true origins of the faith and our present context. This would eliminate much of our current debate and ineffectiveness.

The Arab-Israeli Conflict is Complex: I went to Israel thinking that I had a good grip on the modern Middle East. I believed that it was playing out ancient “biblical prophecies,” which (somehow) translated into “Israel is good and Arabs are bad.” Those views were quickly challenged and changed. The texts that I had heard so much about on late night religious TV during the first Gulf War, had nothing to do with the modern Middle East (or America). Furthermore, even if (BIG IF) the modern state of Israel has anything to do with the Israel of the Bible, then we should hold them to the standards of justice and mercy which are so clearly described in the Bible. We should call all sides toward peace, which is the actual fulfillment of the biblical prophecies.


Empty Stage

Last week our community’s worship gathering was displaced from it’s normal location in the chapel due a scheduling error. We discovered this just one day prior to our gathering!

What began as a highly stressful situation, became a very special gathering for our community.

Our team relocated the gathering to the stage of the building’s 3,5000 seat auditorium. We filled the stage with round tables and chairs, softened the lights, and placed the band on the lower section of the stage. It was truly a sight to behold (Go Team!).

We had already planned a different kind of flow for the night. In place of a sermon, Benj led the community in Lectio Divina (This is an ancient Christian practice of meditation and contemplation upon scripture.).  There was no preacher, just individual meditation followed by small group discussion.

The combination of what we did and where we did it made a powerful statement to the community. While many people showed initial discomfort with going up onto the stage of the auditorium, they quickly settled in. While there remained a few skeptics, the overwhelming response from Lectio Divina was extremely positive.

I do not plan to make this the permanent setting or format for our gatherings, but there are some concepts that I hope we will continue to grasp.

God is Our Leader: This night was a good reminder that it is God who leads our community. In the practice of Lectio Divina we are dependent upon the Spirit of God and the Word of God to teach us. Our community has some good leaders, but ultimately we all strive to follow God not people. We need to remember that truth.

We are a Community of Priests: The scriptures make it pretty clear that God has called all of us to ministry. However, our church structures and practices often contradict that truth, leaving ministry up to the professional staff. Part of the good news of the scriptures is that all of us are called up onto “the stage.” Of course, not all of us are called or gifted for the literal stage, but we are all equally called to the work of God.

Sunrise on water

All of us have wanted a meaningful life.

Some of us have given up that dream because of the disappointments and wounds of the past.

But what if the past is not as important as we assume? What if what we believe about the future is more influential on our ability to have a meaningful life than our past, or even our present?

One of my favorite scriptures was written to a community who faced a number of challenges and had a rough past. In spite of their circumstances and history, God called them into a meaningful life based on what He was going to do in the future.

I believe that we can also experience a meaningful life by embracing the two callings found in Zechariah 8. ( )

Believe that God will make a glorious future.

Rooted in God’s Presence – Hope for the future is not found in naive optimism about humanity. There is hope because God promises to rescue us and dwell with us.

Marked by Peace – In the future the world will be a safe place, even for the most vulnerable.

Marked by Prosperity – In the future there will be an abundance of resouces for all people.

We can have hope because of God’s promise to turn things around in the future. However, God does not tell us to sit back and dream about the future! He gives us a second calling.

Live your life according to that glorious future.

Have Courage & Joy – We are able to face our challenges with strength and vigor because of the promised future.

Pursue the Glory of God – Knowing the source of this glorious future, we strive to give God the proper respect through our work and worship.

Prioritized the Good of Others – The glorious future will be characterized by Truth, Justice, and Peace. We had better get used to living that way! God calls us to be agents of those things here and now.

God’s invitation in Zechariah 8 still calls out to all of us. We can live lives of meaning by believing that God will initiate a glorious future, and by living in according to that future today.

Joshua Colburn

Two weeks ago Joshua Colburn led musical worship at Impact’s Spiritual Retreat. There was a lot of positive feedback from the community, and I really enjoyed partnering, worshiping, and hanging out with him.

Thursday was his birthday, but today he gets the Sunday Shout Out.

I met Joshua in the summer of 2008 when I spoke at his church. He was the worship leader, among other roles, and the worship was simply amazing! That night I was impressed by a number of things about Joshua. The experience made enough of an impression on me that I flew him out to Wisconsin two years later. Here are some of the things that I appreciate about Joshua:

Talent: Joshua has outstanding natural musical talent. My wife said that his voice like a train. That was not my first thought, but it is a really great description. He has a powerful voice that fills the room, and carries the rest of us along with him. To put it plain and simple – He can flat out sing. Check out his music on the link at the end of this post!

Passion: Joshua has seen some stuff in life. He knows (experientially) how God can rescue people. He has not forgotten that experience, or taken it for granted. He continues to carry a passionate gratitude and hunger for more of God. That passion is contagious, especially when he sings. Did I mention that he can flat out sing!?

Integrity: Joshua is big on honesty. He feels no need to be something that he is not. He has experienced Grace, and he feels no need to play games with anything else. Joshua is smart enough to know that he could make some tweaks in who he is and what he does in order to gain what others would call “greater success.” He has enough integrity to say “no” to that temptation. He is content with who he is and what he is doing. That is true success.

To learn more about Joshua Colburn and his music:

Summerfest crowd

Last week we took our kids to see Danny Gokey at the Summer Fest grounds on Lake Michigan in Milwaukee.

While the Gokey has a great voice and a powerful story, the free “mini-concert” was not the big draw for us. We were primarily excited for our city, and wanted our kids to join in the fun.

Sure enough, the air was electric! There were thousands of people crowding the stage, holding signs, yelling, and waiting for their hometown hero!

Then something killed the moment.

After a few words from the event sponsors ($), two prominent government officials addressed the crowd. The officials seemed appropriate – The Mayor of the City of Milwaukee and the Executive of Milwaukee County. Gokey’s success (and the national media attention) was exciting for the city and the county.

Oh yeah, one of the officials is a Democrat and the other a Republican.

And this is what changed the mood of the event: the response of the crowd to the polititians.

The crowd apeared to be evenly divided when the officials were introduced. When the Democrat was introduced about half cheered and half booed. Then when the Republican was introduced the other half cheered and the other half booed.

How sad is that? We were there to celebrate Gokey (OUR hero) and Milwaukee (OUR city), and then OUR partisan bitterness killed the party.

That is a clear illustration of what bitter partisanship does to our nation, our states, and our communities. I dare say it is killing any remaining civility in our society. We do not come together. We just boo each other.

And what does this bitter partisanship teach our children?

At the Gokey rally I saw children participating in the boo-fest! Many of these were young children wearing school shirts and hats from outside of the county. I doubt that they knew much about the social-political complexities facing Milwaukee. They were simply booing a person based on the political party.

Do we really think that is healthy for our children?

I believe that we need to teach our children to be well informed and to think for themselves on issues. We need to teach them to respect people they disagree with and to work together for the common good.

The best way to teach our children is to model those things.

If we do not, then we will ruin much more than a music party.

angry preacher

After college I moved to a nearby city with a good friend. We joined AmeriCorps and moved into the inner city. We were ready to change the world, or at least a few blocks.

One piece in our redemptive puzzle was finding a local church. Yes, we believed a church would be good for us and the community.

We found a church that met at the end of our block. We heard good things about the pastor, namely that he was committed to the bible and the neighborhood. Then we discovered that the pastor lived next door to us!

It sounded perfect! I anticipated a long term relationship with that congregation.

The first couple of visits were fine. It was far from hip and exciting, but it was fine. We believed that other things trumped coolness. They had the right theology, which the pastor continually pointed out.

However, something was not right. I began to ask some questions:

Why all of the effort critiquing all of the other churches?

Why all of the effort pointing out what was wrong with other people?

Why all of the effort criticizing every other group trying to help the community?

Why so much effort yelling about how we were right because we believed in the Bible and Jesus … yet, so little time actually looking at the teachings of the Bible and Jesus.

It seemed that the pastor was more concerned with our not being certain things than he was with being who we were called to be. More concerned with the “don’t” than the “do.”

It was all anger all of the time. Even the jokes were rooted in anger.

They claimed to be the church that put the “fun back into fundamentalist.”

It was not fun. It was not life giving. It was not good for me, or the community.

So, I left a church that I really wanted to be a part of.

I am still sad when I think about that pastor. He was so angry, so afraid, so wounded. I pray he has healed.

I pray that church is now a source of hope, joy, and peace for that neighborhood.

As I continue to strive to change the world, or at least a few lives, and as I take some shots along the way … I pray for grace to protect me from becoming another angry preacher.

BillyG Preaching Crowd

Today the term “evangelical” has lost most of it’s meaning.

Reporters and Pollsters use the term interchangeably with fundamentalist.

Many fundamentalists lump true evangelicals with liberals.

However, historically those are three different positions.

In order to identify what an evangelical is (was), let’s take at a quick, admittedly simplistic, overview of 100 years in American Protestanitism:

Religious Liberalism: In the late 1800s many American church leaders began to adopt theological positions that were inconsistent with historic Christian beliefs. Among the theological positions which they abandoned were the authority of scripture and the divinity of Jesus. One liberal leader was very clear “we are changing, they (traditionalists) are not.” These church leaders were categorized as theological liberals. Many (certainly not all) “mainline” protestant congregations became theologically liberal by the early 20th century.

Christian Fundamentalism: In the 1920s and 1930s many of those who held to historic Christian beliefs found themselves increasingly at odds with mainline religions … and main stream culture. Fundamentalists reacted by removing themselves from culture in order to stay “pure.” In addition to isolationism, fundamentalists also reacted by rejecting areas of life not clearly connected with their religious framework. Areas that were rejected included the arts, science, academia, and social justice. Fundamentalist also narrowed the definition of “true believers” by placing additional beliefs as core to their faith.

Neo-Evangelicals: Out of this context emerged the neo-evangelicals in the 1940s and 1950s. These were people who held to the core historic beliefs of Christianity and believed that thoughtful cultural engagement was a clear application of those beliefs. Unlike Religious Liberals, the neo-evangelicals held the convictions of: 1. Authority of Scripture and 2. Lordship of Jesus. Unlike the Christian Fundamentalists, the neo-evangelicals: 1. Held to other beliefs but did not place them as essential for true faith. 2. Believed that their core beliefs drive believers to to engage in culture. 3. Believed that their core beliefs compel believers to explore truth, beauty, and justice in all areas of life.

I realize that this post might be like blowing into a strong gust of wind. There may be no use in trying to rescue the term evangelical.

The real shame is not that we have lost a term. The danger is that we would lose that type of movement.

We need Christians who believe and follow Jesus well enough to be thoughtfully and gracefully engage the world.

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