How Did You Arrive at Where You Are in Life?

Values determine priorities. Priorities determine decisions. Decisions determine destinations.

Let me lead with an example of this from my own life, and I think you’ll be able to see how it applies to all levels of life.

Most Americans are in debt. The question is what are you in debt for? Well, what you value dictates the destination of your finances and the decisions that paved the way.

Lindsey and I have education debt. Why? Because we value education. We prioritized spending money on education over vacations or a mortgage. We made decisions in line with that priority and voila–we’re in debt 😦 But it’s okay because Dave Ramsey’s going to get his way, and we’ll be debt free this December.

Now you’ve made decisions based on priorities and values, and those factors have led to where you are right now. Of course there are things that happen TO us, decisions we don’t make. But insofar as we are in control of decisions, this progression holds true: values –> priorities –> decisions –> destinations.

mazeAllow me to apply this to a local church at this juncture. A church is where it is, for the most part, because of its values. Those values may be unstated, but we could deduce-based on present circumstances and past decisions-what the priorities are. The grave fear I have as a pastor and follower of Jesus is that far too many churches have a single unspoken value, namely, have church next week. If we can just get through this Sunday we have six days until it happens again.

There’s no destination in mind. There’s no vision of a preferred future. Thus, the unspoken values and priorities of a select few or a cowardly leadership take over.

Let me put it this way. In your church, if the answer to the question, “Why do we do this” is “because we’ve always done it,” you’re unspoken values are winning. And let’s be frank: Satan is thrilled over that. Churches with no vision, no intentionality, and no boldness don’t threaten hell one bit.

If you aren’t thrilled with where you are personally or where your church is, look at your values. What you value will ultimately determine your destination.

Your move

Tear Up Your Contract Already

The Village Church in Texas is currently doing a series called “The Dearest Place on Earth.” Believe it or not, this is referring to the church (and drawn from a quote of CH Spurgeon–linked above). I believe it. But many don’t. If you’ve been to a church on a regular basis, you’ve had an experience contrary to anything dear or pleasant—if you’re at a church and haven’t been disappointed or disgusted, just wait.

Although there are a myriad of factors that contribute to toxic situations in churches, the main factor is people. The church is a people, after all, not so much a place. So if your church is toxic, it’s because you have toxic people. If you have toxic people, you have a toxic church. I forget in math what it’s called if a formula works both ways, but this is whatever that is.

Now as for the mindset that causes toxicity and the like, it’s hard to pin down just one, but if I were forced to name a single one it would be that of the “contractual” Christian. Breach-of-Contract

Matt Chandler of the Village Church points out that we live in a web of contracts today. You have a contractual relationship with your energy provider, cell phone provider, cable provider, mortgage company, car lien holder, etc. It’s actually crazy to think about the proliferation of contracts by which we live.

But one place you have not entered a contractual relationship is with the church. And the reason for that is that God didn’t call you into a contract but a covenant. Covenants don’t have clauses that make the relationship null and void. Nobody goes to a wedding and gets teary-eyed over a bride and groom exchanging a series of contractual obligations and conditions for their marriage.

Marriage is a picture of Christ’s love for the church and, as such, is never-ending. Christ has never stopped loving His bride regardless of her repeated infidelities (have a listen to Derek Webb’s song Wedding Dress). Christ remains and pursues regardless of how distant and adulterous we become. So if your relationship with Jesus isn’t contractual, neither is your relationship with the Church of Jesus.

In other words, there is no clause that says the church you joined must do the kind of music with the exact instrumentation that you prefer or else the contract is void. There is no particular clothing which the pastor must wear, lest he nullify your contractual agreement to be there each Sunday. Moreover, your giving money to the church in the form of an offering does not earn you any more privilege or ‘voting power’ at said church.

Why? Because there’s no contract. You are in a covenant relationship that mirrors marriage, which mirrors Christ’s love for His bride.

And thank the Lord there’s no contract. If a contract did exist, the contractual Christian would’ve broken it already ten times over with his sorry attitude, selfish actions, and souring words. We should thank God that He didn’t make us sign a contract. Rather, when HE put our names on a dotted line the top of the form read COVENANT.

And when you, church member, live with the covenant mindset, you’ll start thinking about how to serve the body and contribute to the greater cause of God’s kingdom rather than getting your preferential itches scratched.

So tear up the contract already. There’s no fine print to read with God, and that creates immense joy as we learn to follow Him.

What does being a Pastor have to do with the Disabled?

I’ve thrown the names of Stanley Hauerwas and Eugene Peterson around quite a bit of late, but now I bring them together into one post. It’s lengthy, so I understand if you abandon ship now. But if you take the time to stick with it, contribute to the conversation when finished.

I attended a lecture by theologian and professor Stanley Hauerwas a couple of nights ago in which he spoke on the topic of disability. His paper was entitled, “Disability: An Attempt to Think With.” The with of the title is the key word because it stands up against the notion to think about the disabled. In the former, the disabled are no different than those who are not, whereas in the latter the disabled are something other than those not disabled.

Is it a minor detail, simple word play, insignificant minutiae? I don’t believe it is minor or insignificant. Theologians can, at times, delve into a world of intricacies and details that have no apparent value, or better, contribution to ‘everyday life.’ This distinction, however, is critical in understanding ourselves, disabled or not, as no better than another. Talking with the disabled requires an interconnectedness of love and union. There were plenty of things Hauerwas said that flew well above my comprehension, but his point was made nonetheless.

His conclusion was that the disabled do not have a ‘problem,’ which is the category of which we prefer to speak because problems have solutions. To speak ‘about’ the disabled means to speak of a solution. To speak ‘with’ the disabled means admitting and acknowledging our commonalities and, more specifically, naming them as persons rather than problems.

So in a sense, being with the disabled seems somewhat hopeless because there’s not a problem to be fixed. As I listened to Stanley speak I couldn’t help but notice the striking similarity between what he was saying about our disabled brothers and sisters and what Eugene Peterson says about the body of Christ.

Part of what has been a staple of Hauerwas’ writings is the theme of story. We’re a part of a story, THE story of God. Being named and loved draws us into the story together. This is the same point Peterson makes in his memoir in regards to the congregation. Peterson writes of helping people understand the story into which they’ve been written and are participating, but to do so requires talking with people, rather than about or at them.

As Peterson matured in his pastorate, he recognized his tendency towards treating people as problems to be fixed. After all, if there’s a solution, there is something measurable. “I did it. I fixed it. I fixed him/her/them.” To have no solution is a helpless, sometimes hopeless feeling. Such is being a pastor. Such is being with the disabled.

Peterson confesses that by “reducing them to problems to be fixed, I omitted the biggest thing of all in their lives, God and their souls, and the biggest thing in my life, my vocation as pastor” (The Pastor, 140). The congregation is not a gathering of people over whom the pastor is charged with helping fix their problems (You may want to read as follows: MY pastor is not charged by God to fix my problems). That is a market-driven way to see this messy, unkempt vocation into which many are called.

Problems have solutions. People have souls. Solutions are tidy. People are not.  According to Peterson and Hauerwas, then, what’s frustrating about being a pastor is the same thing that’s frustrating about being with the disabled, namely, there are no solutions but souls. Will we, as pastors and as people of God, commit to being with and speaking with one another for the long haul?

1 Corinthians 12:21-25 “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable pars do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division (no speaking about) in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”

Stanley closed by pointing out that to give greater honor to those parts we think less honorable will mean we don’t get as much stuff done in the process. It takes time to be with, rather than to talk about and figure out solutions. Will you join me in committing to get less done for the sake of being with?  


A Most Extravagantly Unfair Gift

For the most part, pastor Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA writes books on leadership and practical theology (e.g., exposing the evils of greed, hate, lust, envy…). If you’ve heard him preach there is no question he is a gifted communicator. He speaks often about the grace of God and finally, at the challenge of a publisher, has written a book called The Grace of God. The following is a review of his book for the booksneeze program.

The book is divided into two halves, the first of which is devoted to the story of grace in the Old Testament. Chapter by chapter, Andy takes an Old Testament figure or encounter and unwinds the threads of grace that are woven throughout. From Adam and Eve to Jonah, the reader discovers that “grace is more story than doctrine” (xiii). Such a statement can land a pastor in hot water, especially with the strong push for Gospel-centeredness today. But Andy doesn’t waver in his approach. He travels the span of the story of Israel and show that God’s grace is, in fact, the story of God’s people. The Old Testament portion is filled with rich one-liners, for which Andy is famous, that seer into one’s mind and cause a moment of pause to ponder their implications. For those who criticize Andy because he doesn’t spend enough time in the Scriptures, this book reveals how gifted an expositor Andy is, and not just an expositor, but a teacher who draws a straight line from head to heart to hands. In other words, one won’t wonder how to apply what Andy is communicating.

The second half of the book, after a brief selah in the middle, is devoted to the New Testament story of grace–which is really the continuation of the story of grace from the Old. The focus is on Jesus, his life, encounters, teachings and stories (parables). “The story of Jesus,” writes Andy, “is the story of God drawing near to those who had been pulled away by sin and were subsequently pushed away by the self-righteous” (134). What the reader will understand more clearly than ever before is that grace is “extravagantly unfair” (187). The very point of grace is that it is unfair. Mathematically it makes no sense. Andy concludes the book with a section that challenges local churches, though I do wish he had clarified between the church as an institution and the church as the people of God. The point remains, however, that “the church is most appealing when grace is most apparent” (193).

As an individual, as the Body of Christ, whether a pastor or a painter, this book cannot help but bring its reader into a posture of humility and gratitude for the extravagantly unfair gift that is the grace of God.

Approaching 9/11: Living in a Terror-Filled War

This is my second book review through a fantastic site called Booksneeze. Via this website, Thomas Nelson publishers grants readers one free book at a time in exchange for a review on his/her blog. It’s a sweet deal. I found the book at hand particularly intriguing due to the approaching 10-year anniversary of 9/11.

The book:

David Carlson’s Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-filled World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001). Roughly $11 on Amazon (follow hyperlink).

Carlson, a professor of Religious Studies at Franklin College in Indiana, set out on a journey of discovery shortly after 9/11. He traveled to a number of monasteries and retreat centers, interviewing over 30 nuns, monks, abbots, and other retreatants. What resulted from those interviews is Peace Be With You. What does it mean for a follower of Christ to live in a world marked by terror, terrorism, war and vengeance? More specifically, how does one devoted to solitude and prayer respond, and, is there anything the rest of us can learn from those so devoted?

Early in the book, and stemming from one of the first interviews, a recurring theme surfaces, namely, that “9/11 had offered our country an opportunity for reflection, a chance to step back and consider who we are and what we are about,” (p.13). In no way do Carlson or any of the interviewees wish to minimize the loss of human life, but another tragedy of 9/11 is that America failed to step back, failed to reflect and instead pushed full steam ahead into vengeful assaults and killings of her own. The alternative to such a cycle of repaying violence with violence is the costly practice of peace.

War does not beget peace. That this has been evidenced throughout history seems to be of no consideration. Yet the current times are not like those in history past when a nation declared war against a nation. The attacks of 9/11 were not a declaration of war by any one nation but an act of mass murder carried out by an extremist religious faction (one that misrepresents any good thing to be found in Islam). The center of the question is how Christians are to respond, how Christians have been called to live in such a world.

We mustn’t condone such violence, on either side. Something that struck me personally in reading this book was a comment on how devoted and committed the men who carried out the attacks were. True, their actions were wrong, sinful and damnable. But one cannot dismiss their commitment to their cause. What if Christians had such a commitment to forgiving our enemies? What if Christians had such a commitment to peace? Those are the kinds of questions this book seeks to put in our minds and hearts. And then, we wrestle. We wrestle, individually and communally, with how to answer such questions.

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, memories will come flooding back of what happened on that tragic day. But how will we move forward? The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are still alive. Terrorism is still a threat. I recommend this book to anyone who is willing to wrestle with questions of moving forward in a different way that America has over the past decade. You can still love America and love this book. You can thank God for living in this country and also have your heart break for how we (as Christians in America) have responded in general to violence, with violence.

Are Immigrants your Enemies? If so, do you love them?

This post was inspired by the story of a confessed illegal immigrant who prevented a young girl from being abducted and the horrors that most certainly would have followed. My question is this: should American kick him out?

I suspect a survey of a handful of Christ followers would reveal that the majority favor more stringent immigration laws. But should this be the case? You may think I’m trying to stir a political pot. I assure you, however, that any political relevance this may have stems directly from biblical conviction and my story as an immigrant.

The issue comes down to this: am I foremost an American or a Christian? I am American by means of my locale in the United States of America. I enjoy living in the US. The privileges are many, which is why immigrants will risk life and limb to enter into this ‘promised land.’ However, I am a Christian. I would wish for this identity to determine more of my life than the former, but I know this isn’t the case most of the time. And it did not used to be the case in how I viewed the immigration question.

Then, by the hand of God, I was forced to take an Immigration and Religion class at Fuller Theological Seminary (a seminary too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals–which means I loved it). There were many nights sitting through lectures that I was more concerned with following the Braves game via ESPN Gamecast. Moreover, bar graphs and pie charts and statistics do not speak to my heart, and these were many.

But what I walked away with was a new perspective. The story of the people of God is the story of an immigrant people. Certainly one would claim, “But what about Israel!” I understand. But think before Israel. Abraham was called by God to leave his homeland and to go somewhere else, destination TBD. Israel formed, not as the nation-state we think of today, but as a people. This people lived in captivity in other countries on several occasions, sometimes by force, sometimes by choice. But they were always the people of Israel/the people of God regardless of locale.

The Incarnation is the foremost instance of immigration in history. God the Son left heaven and entered into this world. How’s that for immigration? Legal or not. The Old Testament is riddled with commands to welcome the stranger, to provide for the outsider, to love the Other. The more firm man-made boundaries become in our minds and hearts, the more we’ll see the Other as the enemy.

But even if we see them as enemy, I think Jesus said we should love our enemies. Either way you look at it, from the Christian perspective, is it possible that we’re thinking about immigration as Americans rather than as Christians?



What if Christians agreed to not Kill Each Other?

The whole just war/pacifist debate has been raging, even if under the radar, for centuries. I don’t really know where I stand in great detail at this point. I do think, however, the world is quick to go to war. As a follower of Christ, this is unsettling. As a follower of Christ, I read a lot about peace from the life and ministry of Jesus. When it comes to questions of when war is justifiable and what role Christians should have in military, I’m not prepared necessarily to address just yet.

But what I can say with confidence, and with all seriousness, is in the form of a ‘what if.’ What if, at the very least, Christians agreed we wouldn’t kill each other?

Professor and author (and pacifist) Stanley Hauerwas has a poster on his office door (perhaps similar to the one pictured) that reads as follows: “A modest proposal for peace: let the Christians of the world resolve not to kill each other.”

Now this may sound like a given, like an unnecessary message. But is it? If one says, “Of course we won’t kill each other!” How does one know if the other is a Christian?

You’re smart enough to see the far-reaching implications of this proposal. I won’t spend time fleshing these out.

But I’ll leave you with the ‘what if’…what if Christians agreed to not kill each other? Would that make a dent in the violence we see all around us? Would it make a dent in the violence we see within ourselves?

How at Home are You?

Consider this a survey without any free offers awaiting you at the end. I will list out a few passages of Scripture and ask one question. Feel free to answer how you’d like.

20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3.20-21)

 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11.13-16)

14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13.14-16)

Question: In light of the emboldened phrases signifying another home, a better home, etc., if you believed that to be true would it change the way you live now?

No need to give your Sunday School answer. Be honest. Do you believe those things? If not, then obviously it won’t impact your life. But if you do believe, is it impacting the way you live?