Mar 13, 2014
In the beginning of March, I finished teaching a two-day seminary on "Developing a Thriving Community" for the George Fox Evangelical Seminary DMin track. The following occasional series offers my readers a shortened and concise review of the big lessons I presented in the course, all, of course, under 100 words.
Thriving doesn't mean growing.
There's an almost canonical myth within contemporary American Christianity, following suit with a capitalistic, post-industrial society, that something which is healthy must grow. Healthy things grow, we're told. Only problem with this, simply put, is Jesus. Jesus preached and lived the Kingdom of God. He was the Kingdom of God. Yet, as Jesus came to his end, he was abandoned. His team of disciples not only shrunk, they completely abandoned his side.
"Thriving" must be understood as a category much larger than "growing." Even Jesus' team could decrease in numbers but be expanding in power.
Mar 1, 2014
Jerry Seinfeld once asked security exists in old-folk homes: is it to keep old people out or to keep people from stealing old people? I wonder the same about the heaven. Is it to keep people out or is it to keep people in? What’s the need for the keys?
Jesus said, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matt. 16:19)
I appreciate this text because I was a latchkey kid. From thirteen to fifteen, I’d catch the big yellow bus to a humble stop a couple of blocks from my house, spitting distance to a rather notorious smoker’s corner. At the time, the smokers were a scary people. I’d dodge on through, lucky if I’d escape their attention, and run into our one-story ranch-style house to play video games and watch Montel Williams until mom came home.
There was something powerful about having keys. About unlocking my own house. And locking it back up. I had an inordinate amount of control; a level of control someone going through adolescence shouldn’t legally be able to have.
I lost my key once. My step-dad went ape-mad. He told me he may need to change the locks because some criminal out there had the key now and could get in if they wanted. He was a cop. He knew the dangers.
When Jesus says he gives us the keys to the Kingdom, my emotional response remains the same: what a large amount of power for someone who shouldn’t have the legal authority to have it, and, I hope I don’t lose them. Truth is, what exactly Jesus meant when he said this remains rather perplexing. Biblical commentaries and preachers have wrestled with this one for sometime. One thing is for sure. Jesus seemed to think that we would have some kind of keys that could open up the kingdom of heaven so that we might bind and loose stuff. By that, we mean that Jesus actually gave his followers some power, some authority.
If we assume that Jesus wasn’t just speaking to Peter and he was speaking to every follower of Jesus, then this is a powerful idea. It means the access Peter had, we have. Same key. In reading this passage, I find God’s nature so profoundly trusting; too trusting. Who gives keys to their business, their house, their ranch away? Who’s that secure? Who’s so utterly kosher with just anyone coming over whenever the heck they want to? Talk about being security.
Turns out that two thousand years ago, during the life and times of Jesus, people didn’t actually have locks on their homes. People couldn’t afford them. Their homes were open. A key would only exist on a gate, most likely at the King’s estate. They were the only one’s who could afford them. So Jesus wasn’t talking about a house, rather, he was talking about a palace, a section of town, domain, whole district.
He was talking about the Kingdom of God. The realm where the King lived.
Spatially, that would mean that Kingdom is somewhere around town. It isn’t just “up there” but it’s somewhere down the street. It’s close by. That is that the key isn’t to a mansion but to a whole kingdom. Our image of heaven is so often way up in the sky, isn’t it? Which, don’t get me wrong, might be true. But for Jesus, he seemed to pray a lot that the Kingdom, that heaven, would come down here. On earth. That it would be available. Nearby. Not distant. But then again, why the need for keys?
Jesus is the locksmith of the Kingdom of God.
And that’s refreshing. I think it’s natural for people resist the idea that Jesus is the only way to God. I did. I read and re-read the part in the Bible where Jesus says he was the only way to God. (John 14:16) It was a heresy to my young brain to believe that there was one single path to God and countless false paths. For some time, I believed I could follow Jesus and mentally white out that part of his message. But I came to agree with Bono who said that either Jesus is who he said he is, or, he’s a lunatic like Charles Manson. I came to believe wholeheartedly that Jesus is the only way to God.
Unfortunately, I think when many Christians say Jesus is the only way to God, what they’re actually intending to say is that their way is the only way to God—that their church or denomination or theological preference is the only path. Jesus didn’t say that. The religion of Christianity is not the only way to God. Jesus Christ himself is the only way to God—my church, my denomination, my theology are not the only way to God. Only Jesus is the way to God. And that means I’m not the only way to God. And I certainly don’t make the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. I can only borrow them until the keys are taken from me.
Jesus allows us borrow the keys. But he never allows us be the locksmith.
This would mean we can’t get to heaven on our own, wherever it is. We can’t make our own keys. We aren’t the only way to God. Jesus is. Humans make bad locksmiths. So do churches. So do books. So do ideas. Only one locksmith still knows the key pattern to the kingdom of heaven.
Christians make horrible locksmiths. They make great latchkey kids.
Don’t confuse the two.
Nov 7, 2013
Celibacy is the one gift from God nobody apparently wants.
A recent New York Times article illuminated the story of a young, gifted, virtuous, highly trained Evangelical with a sterling resume who’d hit the streets to find a job. After an arduous job search, it turned out he wasn’t suitable to land a pastoral job in his local Evangelical community. Why? After initiating follow-up conversations with those whom had interviewed him, the young man discovered there remained one big problem in other’s minds. A problem, mind you, which a sterling resume couldn’t atone for…
He was single.
By no stretch of the imagination, an attitude of anti-celibacy, which this article uncovers, is lamentably widespread in contemporary Christian culture. Pastoring as a single person is a tough gig in America tantamount to a kind of pastoral suicide in some places. Get married, or get out of ministry, some would say. More broadly, however, Christian singleness is an even tougher gig in America. To our shame, a great many Christian communities believe (either overtly, practically or silently) that singleness and celibacy are one of the following: something to be ‘fixed’ and ‘remedied’, curses from the heaves that God has cursed you, or sign-posts that the person is attracted to the same sex or even perverted. Today, if someone is thirty-years-old, single, and joyful about it, there must be something wrong with him or her.
Tell that to Jesus or Paul.
My biggest hic-up with this brand of theology and church practice is, among other things, the witness of the Bible. Most particularly, the words of Jesus and St. Paul. Jesus embraced the single life. He didn’t marry Mary Magdalene. Few serious New Testament scholars would argue he did. Furthermore, Jesus made it clear that some would become eunuchs out of their love for the Kingdom of God (Matt. 19:10-12). As if the words of Christ weren’t sufficient, St. Paul envisioned marriage as entirely negotiable if not altogether a distraction. Singleness was a charisma, a ‘gift’ for Paul; not a curse. Not only did he permit singleness, Paul admonished people against marriage in many cases (1 Cor. 7:1-16). For Jesus and St. Paul, there’s a strong precedent advocating for holy singleness as a legitimate form of worship, and even, in Paul’s mind, a preferable one.
Stanley Hauerwas underscores this by suggesting that we’ve completely undermined the biblical teaching on singleness. In so many religions, Hauerwas points out, singleness is viewed as a curse. In many traditions, if one is unable to achieve married status, one must assume the gods aren’t happy with you. Christianity is different. Jesus and Paul come along and say that singleness is a sign of blessedness. Hauerwas writes:
“[S]ingleness becomes a sign that the church lives by hope rather than biological heirs, that brothers and sisters come not through natural generation but through baptism, that the future of the world and the significance of our future is ultimately up to God rather than us….Ultimately, there is…only one good reason to get married or to stay single, namely, that this has something to do with our discipleship.”
Radical discipleship, we’re reminded, is part and parcel with someone giving up his or her sexual rights to carry Jesus’ cross if Jesus is in it. Still, we’re stuck in the ruts of a worldly, success-oriented vision of life and love. Sadly, would the celibate Paul at fifty enter many of our contemporary churches today, we’d immediately be cautious that there was something wrong with him all the while he is doing exactly what he believes Jesus was asking him to bear.
Contrast this to the Roman Catholic tradition. Catholics, since the 11th century, have taken the strong stance that clergy are required to be single. Until Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) celibacy was “honored…but not required.” This, in my mind, is a problem that doesn’t resolve much. Mandatory celibacy has, in my opinion, created a great challenge for Catholic priests and doesn’t take into account many of the biblical teachings, which do permit people in places of church leadership to wed and have sex. In fact, one of the only times celibacy is mentioned is negatively as a practice advocated by heretics in the early church (1 Tim. 4:13-15). Many, myself included, see this position as both non-biblical and harmful to the health of a person.
Forcing celibacy and singleness isn’t the solution to the problem. But doing whatever Evangelicalism is doing has offered no improvement. In my opinion, the only thing worse than mandatory celibacy is mandatory marriage as the litmus test of qualification for church leadership.
Almost brutal in its clarity, Christian history reveals an ethic of singleness and celibacy that is both liberating yet broadly counter-cultural. The classic monastic communities and many of the early Christian monks were committed to rejecting social mores and embracing the themes of sharing their resources, complete submission of the personal will to God, giving up sleep, and oftentimes celibacy. Even the new monasticism has honored the virtues of submission to the larger church, living with the poor, community living, hospitality, common life, peacemaking, reconciliation, creation care, formation of new members, contemplation, and either monogamous or celibacy.
So we need to seek to remove our fear regarding single people. And it is a fear problem. We have celibacyphobia. Andreas Kostenberger once wrote, “[T]he only call of God that Western Christians fear more than the call to missions is the call to a life of celibacy.” His point? The only thing we are more afraid of singleness and celibacy than we are selling everything we own and becoming full-time missionaries. If Jesus came to us and told us our gift would be celibacy, would we obey?
So, to the single person reading this, have hope. What you’re doing, if Jesus is asking you to do it, is good. It’s a gift. You are a gift. And, moreover, put this in your back pocket:
Christianity is the only major world religion that was started by a single dude.
 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/us/22pastor.html?pagewanted=1&_r=4&partner=rss&emc=rss (accessed November 4th, 2013)
 Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Resident Aliens, 1989, 66.
 Soto, Donald. The Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi. New York, NY: Viking Compass, 2002, p. 8. Celibacy, as a required practice, was solidified at the Council of Trent, which called for the requirement of “true celibacy.”
 Jonathan R. Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World. Morehouse, 1998.
 Andreas Köstenberger, David W. Jones, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010, 167.
Oct 11, 2013
Fact: non-Portlanders think Portlanders do nothing more than sit around watching Portlandia and eating Voodoo doughnuts. That’s our reputation. Bacon maple bars and Fred Armisten. What stereotyping, one bemoans. But, stereotypes are often based in reality. In all truthfulness, I’m one of those narcissistic, self-centered Portlanders who do watch a show about his city laughing cynically at himself. And, for the record, if I weren’t dieting, a bacon maple bar probably would be in my hand.
Stereotypes are almost always well earned.
Portlanders are a proud, envious people. One Portlandia episode depicts two Portlander’s sitting at a coffee shop table. One looks up asking if the other had read a certain article in the New Yorker. They had, of course, and the question is asked back about another article. They had read that one too. The banter ping pongs forever. As a piece of social commentary, of course, a slice of Portland culture is dissected—intellectual envy. That conversation actually happens. All the time. And it drives me to be well read. As a result, I’m continuously surprised at how much reading I do—not out of love or desire to learn—but out of raging envy over everyone else’s reading and the hope of looking knowledgeable to everyone I meet. I want to keep up, want to look well read. I want to have thoughts on that editorial expose.
The altar of my literary envy is Powell’s.
Envy fuels so much of our lives. The same principle recently came to play when my friend returned from a month in Africa. Recounting her wild missionary travels, I found myself seething with jealousy over all she experienced leaving me to question if I was living a life crazy enough for God. Hearing her tales of adventure made my tales of mundane life feel so puny. So boring.
Why do I read so much? Why am I jealous of my friend’s travels? I suspect its because internally—right or wrong—I believe there’s some sort of narrative hierarchy in the world. In this mythic hierarchy I’ve emotionally constructed, the one with the biggest and craziest stories wins. This is why we try and ‘up’ everyone’s stories. The most well read person is triumphant.
It’s what I call narrative envy—the envy to have the best story out there.
To satiate our envy, we hoard narratives. We go overboard trying to create crazy stories to make other people jealous just like we were. We commit the sin of narrative gluttony. We turn stories into merit badges—did you read?, did you go?, have you heard?, have you been?
What ever happened to the simple, homebody, who followed Jesus?
A literary scholar by the name of Erving Goffman gave his life to study the complex dynamics of drama, theatre, and acting. His ideas were quite radical at the time. His most widely read volume was a little text entitled The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Within, Goffman discussed how people essentially live as actors in front of a world they believe to be an audience watching them. Aware of it or not, he believed we all perceived the world around us as a big audience that either booed or applauded all that we did. And because the audience can often be quite harsh, we’ll always naturally try and cover over our real insecurities and fears. Thus, we engage in particular behaviors, patterns, and attitudes in order to make impressions of success and confidence upon others to protect our real true inner brokenness. Goffman’s academic title for this is the “dramaturgical conception of self.” We conceive of ourselves as actors. Goffman was right—we often pantomime our way through insecurities and fears, painting a smiley face façade that keeps everyone thinking we know our lines, we know the story, and there’s no chance we will hiccup. This, of course, is exactly why Junior High was horrible for all of us: at that stage none of us had figured out which character we wanted to be yet.
Goffman’s theory about humans posing as actors is proved true with our obsession with Facebook. With Facebook, each of us can put on the mask of their choosing. Now, with all of its social benefits and possibilities, Facebook has two toxic side effects. First, Facebook allows us to put the best side of ourselves into public domain. This ultimately allows us the opportunity to minimize almost entirely the things about ourselves that are ugly and broken, thus, marketing a version of you that is a lie. In other words, we always make our most pretty picture our profile picture. No one that I know puts that ugly picture of you in green spandex and a fanny pack from 5th grade as a profile picture. Facebook allows us to photo shop our lives.
This leads to a second problem—that version of ourselves that we float into public domain is a lie; the lie of the perfect life. Facebook is social pornography. It allows you to do what Goffman says you always want to do; put on a mask to impress your audience. Now that might be theatre, but it isn’t reality. No one’s life is as pristine as his or her profile suggests. The real problem is that others look at your ‘perfect’ life and get depressed because their lives are actually broken. In fact, psychologists have actually began to speak of a phenomenon called ‘Facebook depression’ that stems from this—onset depression from seeing other people’s pictures, profiles, and perfect status updates and believing you are missing out. I noticed this the other day. There were all of these pictures of activities (parties, weddings, dinner parties) my friends were doing without me. I got sad because they all happened without me. I realized I wasn’t the center of their life. I felt angry, sad, and alone.
Kids are killing themselves over this stuff.
Let me illustrate. The dream model today has what is called a “thigh gap”—a gap between the thighs even when one’s feet are together. The thigh gap, experts say, is both dangerous and nearly impossible to attain. Through the medium of social media, which becomes a visual marketplace for what people are eating, how much weight people are losing, and how perfect everyone’s life is, young people don’t know the difference between reality and hyperreality. Young people go to great lengths to fit in even if it hurts them. A number of recent stories in the newspaper have described how young girls are becoming borderline anorexic to achieve the “thigh gap” like the pictures of Facebook. Young people who are attempting to get the “thigh gap” in hopes others will pay attention to them. When a young person sees someone else’s skinny body, their only response is to try and reproduce it even if it is grotesquely unhealthy.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that pictures and images “hold us captive.” There’s a truth to that. In a sense, every image is a kind of peer pressure. It is a kind of dare. It is a recommendation. Every image questions whether we’re ‘in’ or ‘out’.
Which is why porn ruins marriages. I’ve lots of qualms with pornography, but none greater than this: pornography sells a lie. Once we’re captured by pornography, sex loses its sacred creativity—we just do in the bedroom what we saw on the screen. Furthermore, porn portrays a version of human sexuality that’s never actually fulfilling or possible. Real sex isn’t glossy. Real sex doesn’t always have a happy ending. Sadly, people think what porn portrays is actually possible in real life. It isn’t. And since it’s never found in their marriage, they go on a quest to find it ‘out there.’ It isn’t out there. I dare anyone who claims porn is fine because it doesn’t hurt anyone else to say that with a straight face to the fatherless in my church whose dads left mom because sex wasn’t exciting anymore.
I think God is inviting us to participate in a new economy of stories—an economy where the ancient, biblical secret of “contentment in all things” rules. (Phil. 4:11) At this table, I’m given permission to freely engage and rub shoulders with the other in a great exchange of rich narratives and experiences without presumptively and lustfully being driven to need, own, and conquer others stories. At this table, my boring old life is okay. Life’s redundancy and normalcy, which so often mark my experience, are gleefully sanctified and welcomed just as they are as the guiding gifts of God’s love to me before the creation of the world.
In this new economy, I am fulfilled by my story. Thus, the only way to fix that humming depression is to stop incessantly looking at Facebook, get off the computer, and invite a friend to coffee. That’ll set you straight. People always look great on Facebook but are really screwed up in real life. I promise.
I think God invites us to bring our boring old selves to the Kingdom of God. We can have narrative contentment—practicing thankfulness for every story God has given us as a gift from above.
But that’ll never make it onto Portlandia.
 In his Philosophical Investigations.
Oct 3, 2013
As a kind of liturgy, I’ll stand before our nearly five-year-old church community on a Sunday in September and ask a question: “Should we continue to exist as a church for another year?” And every time, you could hear pins drop.
I oddly enjoy the awkwardness. The entire community—new comers, old comers, elders, parents—are always, without fail, caught off guard by my unsolicited question. Quickly surveying the faces, I can instantaneously discern their primal, intuitive responses: something tragic has happened. Is he quitting? Is he rejecting the Trinity? Did he sleep with the church secretary? There is a sort of terror in the room. Of course the answers are always no—I’m still the pastor, the Trinity is pretty much the best thing I’ve got going for me, and my wife’s the only one silly enough to take me in. It’s the immediate guttural reaction of uncertainty that I’m after; even if, momentarily, everyone imagines the worst-case scenario. For me, there’s great intentionality and rationale behind simply asking the question about our future. As the pastor, I never want us to assume that we should keep our ministry going because, well, we should just keep going. I desire Jesus to breath freshly into us each year. Now, I’d certainly hope that our folks would affirm our existence and that, yes, we should continue for another year. But there is within me something appealing about asking God if perhaps God wants the same thing.
No ministry is permanent. It strikes me that not a single church St. Paul planted claims to be in existence to this day. Ergo, churches, even the best ones with the best church planters, will eventually close their doors. God is eternal, not the local churches. Pushing further, I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that there are a great number of churches that needed to shut down like yesterday, and, equally, countless churches that should have never given up in the first place. Because no ministry is permanent, it’s our job to discern if we’re to continue for a year in, year out basis. That’s why I ask the question. Every year. And it always causes a bit of a momentary panic in people’s eyes. That dreadful, confused, deer-in-the-headlights look on the unbelieving eyes of the congregation is, quite honestly, priceless. Instagram priceless.
Leadership is about creating holy uncertainty.
What if a leaders task included not only leading through, but actually creating, moments of holy uncertainty? I agree: a leaders job is to lead. Leading, however, creates quite a problem. Because today’s leader is in the business of leading people in times of uncertainty, they assume that a necessary requirement for good leadership is certainty in all things—that we know the future, we know the right answers, and we know the right path forward. And why not? We live in uncertain times and people are more scared than ever. I unapologetically believe that this accounts for a great number of churches’ exponential growth: they’ve tapped into the emerging market of selling and trading the commodity of certainty in uncertain times to uncertain people. With a desperate market, people will buy certainty even if, sadly, said certainty is based on lies. Driven by this, pastors can easily morph into certainty priests and neglect their divinely given assignment.
I question this economy, particularly, as it relates to pastoral leadership. The modern pastors incessant lust for certainty has ultimately created a context where we, ourselves, have become the incarnation of truth to those we lead. Perhaps this incessant drive arises from souls which need great renovation. Regardless of where it comes from, one thing remains widely true: pastors can become advice machines. In so doing, we implicitely disciple people to need us more than they need Jesus. As advice machines, we unknowingly teach people that truth is mediated through us. We become the Third Adams. We become too necessary, which is, great marketing, horrible leadership, and practical idolatry.
A leader is a Moses. A leader goes up the mountain to be with God so as to create a moment of sheer terror for Israel below. A leaders seeks to be unnecessary. In fact, a leader doesn’t know how to get to the Promised Land. A leader just knows how to get into the desert and knows God will show up somewhere along the way. Leadership is actually about leading people out of an Egypt of certainty and into a desert of holy uncertainty. It is there, and only there, that Israel could worship freely. For a church that craves certainty, uncertainty is becomes our road to worship. That is why we must create uncertainty—moments where sheer fear dances boldly on the faces of God’s people. For there, God’s people can worship.
Good leaders, like Moses, don’t envision uncertainty as an enemy to worship. They see uncertainty as the way to worship.
Moses hoped. He hoped they would make it to the Promised Land, although he didn’t know. Like Moses, we hope. We insist on ending our priesthood of certainty and receive the ministry of hope. We remember the difference between the two—the latter relies on eyesight, the former vision. One requires us to know exactly what will happen for us to be comfortable. The latter crucifies comfort. And does so that hope might will soon be resurrected.
Which brings me back to a church terrorized I’ve empregnated the church secretary or become a modalist. Without directly addressing the church’s clearly raw and freshly uncovered nakedness, I’ll pause for ten to fifteen seconds to just stare at God’s flock. I stare hard. Not to be mean. Not to be dramatic. It is within that fifteen seconds where time stands still. Long. Arduous. Awkward. Unnecessary. These are all words I’ve internally used to describe the moment. Then I see it. Anew, I stand before Israel in the desert—naked, afraid, yet on the precipice of worship. Then, there, in their eyes, right then, for that fleeting fifteen seconds, is seen on their face the name of something that is so important, so integral, and so fundamental to being a Christian in today’s world. Some would call it sheer terror. I call it a moment of potential worship. And in a world that worships uncertainty, uncertainty becomes the very place where we can truly worship God. And I believe it is in such moments of sheer uncertainty that we can truly worship Jesus as Lord of everything. That moment before we land on a communal answer is holy. Before continuing, like a wedding of yesteryear, I ask if anyone objects to another year of community (No one ever does; I’m sure someone will at some point). Then we agree on another year.
For good leaders, worship and terror are bedmates.
 In her book, Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership, Ruth Barton brings insight to the life of Moses by writing that one of the keys to being a leader is to re-attend to the life of the soul.