It's about the kenosis, stupid

I own a home in Buena Vista. I'm not particularly proud of that.

Amy and I moved to Rockbridge County believing that God had called us to ministry at Washington and Lee University, which is in Lexington. Why, then, did we buy a house in Buena Vista, 15 minutes away, disconnected from the campus? Our decision to buy the house in Buena Vista was a step away from incarnation. Why did we do it?

Well, it's pretty simple, really. We could afford a house in Buena Vista. We couldn't afford to buy in Lexington, in walking distance to campus. We liked the house...and, and everyone knows that the smart move to make with your money is to buy, especially now (that is, in 2006), when housing prices are on the rise. Renting is just throwing money away and you can't just throw money away.

Now, this isn't a huge deal. Don't mis-hear me and think I'm going into some depressive, self-flagellation. God's really blessed us. I'm grateful that he's given us a home and we've used that little, old house in Buena Vista for some amazing, incarnational ministry (think about the 20somethings Group and the LDS community). God redeemed our decision, but I think it was a bad decision.

We all (or at least Amy and I) have these mental scripts that guide our behavior. And our scripts don't naturally lead to incarnation, to the things called for by Ramez, Shane and Oscar: new alignments, changed expectations, caution around wealth, humility, powerlessness, poverty and sacrifice. The incarnational value of emptying yourself, the value that pulses in the heartbeat of the kingdom of God, clashes with the rhythms of the kingdoms of this world.

Throughout the series of talks by Ramez, Shane and Oscar was woven the theological theme of kenosis. In Philippians 2 we see that in the incarnation, Jesus emptied himself, made himself nothing, dove to the bottom so that he could be with us. In his mission, he didn't commute down from heaven every day. He didn't even own a home, much less one in Buena Vista. He had a different script, a script that includes kenosis.

And this is hard for us to hear. The language of kenosis, pried from the hands of the church and plastered on the billboards of the state becomes something ugly: dictatorship, communism, or worse. Kenosis at knifepoint ceases to be beautiful.

But kenosis should be beautiful. That Jesus and his followers would voluntarily empty themselves, make themselves nothing, dive to the bottom to be with the poor and needy and broken and shamed and afraid...that's beautiful. This language of kenosis belongs to the church, to God's people. It's ours. We shouldn't shy away from it. We should lean into it. God calls us to lean into it. We should call eachother to it. Empty yourself, make yourself nothing, dive to the bottom, engage in radical, incarnational kenosis. That's what the incarnation is about.

So, what's the incarnation about? It's about the kenosis, stupid.

The Short Post

Mastering the art of the short post is essential for everyone who blogs regularly.

We all have nights like tonight, where we're just sitting down to the computer, our roommate is snoozing away and we have to be up for a 7:30 breakfast. Wisdom (remember her?) says "Go to bed," so I have to whip out The Short Post.

What hinders us from an incarnational ministry? What gets in the way?

Yesterday, Ramez, Shane and Oscar threw themselves at the task of scraping away the blinding crust from our eyes and digging out the waxy blockages that keep true words from reaching our hard hearts.

Our speakers targeted...
Alignments unchallenged.
Expectations unexamined.
Wealth unwatched.
Pride unchecked.
Power unfettered.
Privilege undenied.
Comfort inalienable.

All these prevent us from following the model of incarnation given to us by our God of grace and truth. They are why we compromise. They are why we fail. They are why I own a home in Buena Vista. Wonder about that? I'll explain later.

This is only The Short Post.

Five steps for Nathaniel

Notes from Ramez Atallah's exposition from John 1:43-46

"Evangelism is all about reaching out to your family and friends."

Five steps, five thresholds for Nathaniel
1) Skeptical - Nazareth? sarcastic and doubtful
2) Willing - Philip invites Nathaniel to "come and see"
3) Startled - instead of examining Jesus, Nathaniel finds himself known
----- literally, here is an Israelite in whom there is no Jacob (deceit)
4) Exposed - saw you under the fig tree, in your place of safety
5) Totally convinced - believes from the depths of his heart and makes a remarkable declaration

"You will see even more than this" - angels ascending and descending on Bethel, the house of God ---> they will descend and ascend on Jesus, the Messiah

God specializes in surprising people. Our mission is to take Jesus with us into our neighborhood, our families, and our friends.

Go and make known the One who knows you.

Trust in the sovereignty of God (Patrick Fung and Greg Jao)

I love good interviews. One of the reasons I watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is because, whatever else they are, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are great interviewers. In an interview, stuff comes out that wouldn't come out in a talk or a lecture or a sermon.

Last night, Greg Jao (Urbana's chief celebrity) interviewed Patrick Fung, the first-ever Chinese director of OMF. They talked about calling and family, God's global church and our need to trust in the sovereignty of God.

Calling and family
Greg fished a little bit for how Patrick (a succesful medical doctor) ended up on the mission field, first in Pakistan, then with OMF. Patrick told us that he had noticed in Scriputre early on in his walk with Jesus that none of Jesus' followers lived stable lives. This challenged Patrick and threatened the life-trajectory set in place by his family: get a stable job and marry a stable wife. Over the years, as Patrick honored his parents and took risks in missions, he said he saw "God's grace, not just in me, but in my parents."

God's global church
Greg asked a series of questions about learning: what can the church in the North America learn from the church in Asia? what can the church in Asia learn from the church in North America? Patrick said that the NA church could learn two things...
1) That suffering and joy can always go together
2) That God surprises us, that even without leadership or strategy or resources, God can grow his church

Trust in the sovereignty of God
One of the cornerstones of OMF and Hudson Taylor's ministry and, by extension, Patrick Fung's life is this phrase...
God's work done God's way will never lack God's supply

That's something we need to hear. If God really is sovereign, in control, ruling and reigning in the world and in history, we need to learn to trust him.


At conferences like Urbana, sometimes there are so many words and phrases coming at you that you can only grab ahold of a few. On top of that, some phrases grab back. You're grabbing phrases. Phrases are grabbing you.

Here're some of my grab-phrases from yesterday...

Marilyn Ramirez - a Latina student testimony
Giving with purpose, not just giving to give.
While I was at work in Kenya, God was at work in my family.

Cheryl Bear - a missionary to First Peoples in North America
"Kill the Indian, save the child."
The gospel was not given as a gift, but used as a tool of assimilation.
Be strongly Native and strongly Christian.

York Moore - one of InterVarsity's national evangelists
How could my Jesus be relevant in the light of these atrocities?
Preaching Christ and doing justice go hand in hand, you cannot fully do one without the other.

Rahab drama
Remember me.

Greg Jao - Urbana Emcee
I hope you're feeling this tension, the tension between a God who is sovereign and a God who is intimately connected to us, the tension between a sovereign God and the world's brokenness.

Urbana video

Last night's Urbana is available on-line here.

If you're into dance, I'd recommend you check out the Welcome to Urbana 09 video. It made me miss my wife (she loves anything dance-related) and it helped me understand why John started his gospel account with echoes of Genesis (the book of the Bible, not the band).

I'm off to the next session!

Three M's from the Incarnation

There's a part of me that really loves taking notes. Orderly rows, staggered and lettered make me smile. And that's one of the reasons I love expositional preaching. It's usually easy to follow.

Tonight, we met our expositor for the week: Ramez Atallah. Ramez will be working through John 1-4 over the course of the week. I'm really looking forward to his teaching.

Tonight, Ramez focused on John 1:14:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Ramez movingly talked to us about the wild love of the incarnation. He compared Jesus' being born in an unsanitary stable to missionaries choosing to give birth to their child in one of the world's poor garbage villages. As an expectant father, I can't imagine a love that would be willing to endure those conditions, to take that risk. But God chose to leave the safety and comfort of heaven to dwell among us. That's the Incarnation.

According to Ramez, John 1:14 and the Incarnation provide us with three M's:

The means by which God reaches out to us
In the Middle East, where John's gospel is based, you honor someone not by inviting them, but by visiting them. Think about where you're more comfortable: at your home or at someone else's? You would honor or reach out to someone by going to where their comfortable, their turf. And this is how God reached out to us, reaches out to us. He doesn't demand that we go to him. He comes to us.

The message which God wants to communicate to us
In the Incarnation, we see the glory of God, Jesus is the new temple. In the Incarnation, we experience God's grace: both undeserved favor and beauty. In the Incarnation, we are challenged by God's truth, not in a philosophy, but in a person. This absolute, the truth that is Jesus, God the Word, is for all people.

The model for how we minister
The Incarnation gives us values for ministry. So many of us use business tactics and strategies in ministry - and that's okay - but we start to value business values, and that's dangerous. The Incarnation displays the values God carries in ministry, Philippians 2 values: vulnerability, identification, weakness.

God has given us the means, the message, and the model when he came in the flesh. Let's live lives that reflect the One who has moved into our neighborhood.

Your neighborhood is much smaller/bigger than you think

How big is your neighborhood? God calls us to love our neighbor, so this is an important question.

Jim Tebbe welcomed us to Urbana tonight. His short talk followed a poetry, hip-hop, tap-dance interpretation of John 1:1-5, 9-14.

He started off by telling us that why we came to Urbana doesn't have to matter, urging us to set our pre-made agendas aside and let God do what he wants to do. I found this particularly challenging. Task-oriented, comfortable running around, I find the idea of setting my agenda aside, putting my expectations on hold is tough.

Jim then moved on to a short teaching about God's mission: your neighborhood is much smaller/bigger than you think. This is one of Jim's big themes. Talk to him for just a little while and you'll hear this, this bigger/smaller awareness that he tries to pass along.

God's mission is tiny, next-door, to the person you talk to next, see next, would normally overlook. And God's mission is global, historical, cosmic, so much more than you can imagine that you'll look back on your life in awe five, ten years from now when you see where God has brought you, who he has connected you to.

Jim closed his talk with a warning: "You will be asked to say 'Yes' to God at Urbana...don't take that lightly."

Yes, Jim, let us take seriously our "yes'" to the God who calls us to love our neighbors, to the God who sends us to our neighbors, for our neighborhoods are much smaller and much bigger than we think.

Urbana memories

Urbana is here again!

Over the next week, I'll be posting some highlights, as I hear them and as I can get to the computer.

Here're some teaching highlights from my previous Urbana experience...

At Urbana 2003, John Stott's talk was amazing. He was too ill to attend, so it was read by Joshua Wathanga, an IFES representative...
How then should we respond to the spirit of pluralism? I suggest with great humility and with no tinge of personal superiority, we must continue to affirm the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ. He is unique in his incarnation (the one and only God-man). He is unique in his atonement (only he has died for the sins of the world), and unique in his resurrection (for he has conquered death). And since in no other person but Jesus of Nazareth did God first become human (in his birth), then bear our sins (in his death) and then triumph over death (in his resurrection), he is uniquely competent to save. Nobody else possesses his qualifications. We may talk about Alexander the Great, Charles the Great and Napoleon the Great, but not Jesus the Great. Jesus is not the Great, he is the Only. Jesus has no rivals and Jesus has no successors.

At Urbana 2006, Oscar Muriu stunned us all with his talk on the Global Church. Two quotes, in particular, are burned in my memory:
The center Christianity has moved south.
If Western models of church are not working in the West and the church is in decline, should the church in the Two-Thirds world copy the models of the church in the West or embrace Western theology? If we do, will we not end up in the same problem? Could it be that to drink from the cup of Western theology is to drink from a poisoned chalice? This is a changing world in which you must go out in missions. Of necessity, because our world is changing, our models for mission must change.

Some old, dead guys share why we have Christmas

You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it.

Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.

For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.

That passage from Athanasius' De Incarnatione Verbi Dei hints at why we get to experience the "Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing." John 1, which we will be studying at Urbana, does likewise...
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' " From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.

Adoption. Redemption. Revelation. "Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing."

So, that's why some old, dead guys think we have Christmas.

Here're some other opinions:
How December 25 became Christmas - the origins of the date and festival

O Holy Night...sort of - "Jesus was born and so I get presents"...Eric Cartman's take on Christmas

Advent Conspiracy - These folks think that since it's Jesus' birthday, he should get the presents and that having this attitude would help us, especially in America, to recover what they call "the scandal of Christmas."

Why I dislike religious people (one of several reasons)

I can almost year this friend's voice: "...and that's why I dislike religious people." Actually, he would say 'hate' rather than 'dislike' and would modify 'hate' with a word that started with 'f' (you can guess which word).

I also find myself, at times, gripped by an intense dislike of religious people. Sometimes those people are people I see on TV; sometimes they're my friends; sometimes they are me. Sometimes I catch myself acting self-righteous, looking down on people who aren't as "Christ-like" as me, who are foolish. Sometimes I find myself rolling my eyes at my friends' earnest pursuit of the Christ-life, mumbling to myself "quit being such a Tebow." That's religiosity and, man, do I flippin' dislike religious people.

We become this sort of person - close to the kingdom, but, oh, so far away - when we lose perspective. Here are three ways we lose perspective:

1) We fail to see God doing anything while we're "training wisely." If our perspective is so narrowly focused that we can only see our own efforts, why wouldn't we become the arrogantly, self-righteous down-the-nose-looking religious nut jobs that we all dislike? We can take credit for our own holiness, our own good deeds.

If, on the other hand, if it is "God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" and we are truly "God's workmanship," then we should expect some healthy "fear and trembling" and the refreshing awareness that "no one can boast." (see Ephesians 2:8-10 and Philippians 2:12-13). It is following this train of thought that Paul eventually winds up saying: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

2) We fail to see God's command to "train wisely." If our perspective only notices God's promise to perfect us and is only aware of his grace, we miss out on his frequent commands to work for the kingdom. In our efforts to fight and re-fight tired, old Reformation battles, we end up with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls a "cheap grace"
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. 'All for sin could not atone.' Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin...

But over and over again, God says, from Leviticus to 1 Peter, "Be holy". God wants us to live in raging pursuit of spiritual discipline, to train wisely, to live life as Jesus taught and modeled it. So, my eye-rolling and exasparated grunts betray a perspective-failure, a perspective that fails to see God's command.

3) We fail to see why God wants us to "train wisely." God isn't just cracking the whip because he wants obedience. God desires relationship. This is a huge part of the story of Jonah, if you remember that series. In our pursuit of discipline, we are connecting with and getting in on what God is doing in our lives and in the world. This is something that we can do together.

And this is why the religious person in me is so horrible. He pushes God away. "I've used you already." of "I'm doing it on my own." Both of those religious perspectives cause us to miss this huge opportunity, to connect with God. Someday, God will perfect this work. Maybe it will happen while we're sleeping. We will have worked with him on this project for days and weeks and montha and years and decades and one night while we're sleeping, he'll finish it. It's not the glory of getting the work done that we're after, but the relationship and intimacy we experience along the way.

The right perspective makes a huge difference

What is God doing while we are "training wisely"?

If God is working while we are "training wisely," why don't we just cease working and let him take over?

Why does God require us to "train wisely" if he's just going to finish the job himself in the end?

The answers lie in the concept of Perspective.

Something's missing

Something's missing
And I don't know how to fix it
Something's missing
And I don't know what it is
At all

This song, Something's Missing by John Mayer, captures one of the emotions that I frequently feel when I'm trying to work any difficult discipline into my life.

Over the last week or so, since that challenge was issued to blog more frequently over break, I've been blogging about discipline and "training wisely." There have been posts about Resources, Timing, Community and Rhythm. It's been fun to think about.

But something's missing.

Even if we use resources wisely, bite off exactly as much as we can chew, involve other people wisely and pay wise attention to our ups and downs...something's missing.

What's missing?

Here's a hint:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. - Ephesians 2:8-10

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. - Philippians 2:12-13

Sunday church feature: Abingdon Bible

We love and appreciate Abingdon Bible Church.

Amy became a Christian in ABC's Children's ministry and jumped into the mission field with their support. She learned to value Scripture under Pastor Greg's leadership. And this summer, when Jane was in the hospital and Amy and I were struggling for hope, Pastor Paul and Jane's Care Group were there for us. We think that Abingdon Bible is a special church, the sort of church you should look for when you're looking for a church.

Here are at least 3 special things that you'll find at ABC:

1) A commitment to God's Word: the
sermons are biblically-based and expositional, Sunday schools study Scripture, they wrestle deeply with God's Word.

2) A commitment to share the gospel with the whole world: they value evangelism, support missionaries, and really want people to come to know Jesus.

3) A commitment to community: their Care Groups engage God and each other, they pray for each other faithfully, and they love spending time together.

Churches like Abingdon Bible are intimately linked with our work on campus. They support us with prayer, personal encouragement, and financial support. And our hope is that the folks we get to work with will leave W&L and bless churches like these with their maturity and leadership.

God loves local churches, and so do we!

God-given rhythms

God gives us rhythms.

We don't pay a lot of attention to life's rhythms. We work from home, eat food shipped from around the world, use birth control. And all this makes life a little more comfortable.

Until you hit a day like today. We've had almost two feet of snow in Lexington. Everything but the wine shop in Buena Vista is closed. Life is slower. Boring.

Proverbs 19 talks about gaining and cherishing wisdom, seeking out instruction. I've been thinking about that today, as I've been experiencing the forced slow-down caused by the snowy rhythms of God's Nature.

My mentor - Bill - jokes that there are three different ways to learn...
- you can go to school
- you can learn from your mistakes
- you can learn from my mistakes

I think Solomon wanted me to listen to Bill (and folks like him). And Bill says that God gives us rhythms. And I believe him.

It was Bill who introduced me to the question "How are things with you and God right now?" The implication behind this is that God and I have a relationship, one with ups and downs, moment of intimacy and distance. The ancients carried this idea in their themes of consolation and desolation. (Note that this is the subjective plane of which we are speaking. Objectively, God is always present and the relationship is never truly at risk).

So, then, "training wisely" would require an awareness of our God-given rhythms.

These rhythms are caused (in the proximate, not the ultimate) by things as natural as how we sleep, what we eat, the frightful weather outside, and seasons and by things as unnatural as sin. Some days, we are more able to pray. Some days, God's words leap from the text and shake us with power. Some days, even the small act of smiling at a stranger requires Holy Spirit power. That's how rhythm impacts discipline, our "training wisely."

I wanted to leave you with a quote from my old, dead, never-met friend CS Lewis. In his book Letters to Malcolm, Lewis writes to his friend Malcolm Muggeridge about rhythm. Unfortunately, I can't find the book (story of my life). It might be lost in my truck or it might be in the good hands of Luke-the-wonderful-and-wild-west-virginian-bear-scarer-Ellis. I'll leave you with this attempted re-creation:
I go wrong when I make the mistake Pascal called "The Error of Stoicism": thinking we can do always what we can do sometimes.

Rhythm is a dancer

I've had that song stuck in my head all day. Actually, it's been alternating with Rosemary Clooney's "I want to wash my hands, my face, my hair with snow".

I have to confess, I have no idea what they're singing about in "Rhythm is a dancer," nor (I suspect) do I want to. I mean, anyone who would say "I'm as serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer" in early 90s pop-rap, can't be saying something helpful.

But here's something helpful:

Your spiritual growth has a rhythm.

Want to know more? Well...there's a foot of snow on the ground already, so I guess I'll be writing tomorrow.

It takes a village to raise a Christian

Sometimes I hate English.

Who decided that "you" (second person singular) and "you" (second person plural) would be the same word? I easily read through my Bible and assume all the "you's" are directed at me, reading the Bible, alone, somewhere private. Now, some would interject here "That's why you should read it in Greek! in Espanol! in context!" And I would reply "I really want to, but..."

The context of Christian discipleship is the Christian community. Most of us were never intended to go off like Rocky and train into the Russian wilderness to train. We don't pursue spiritual growth and the Christ-life apart from the body God's given, the body of Christ, the church.

Proverbs 16 indicates that "a perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends". Our communities are meant to be harmonious, close friendships nourished. But often our attempts at growing into a godly life pushes us away from other people.

I was talking to a friend today - a student at W&L - and was sharing with her a little bit about how I've seen her grow in her relationship with God this year. One of the things that really stood out to me (and that she's noticed in her own life) is that she seems to have developed a healthy balance in the way she relies on her Christian friends to help her live life as Jesus taught and modeled it, to "train wisely."

When she first became a Christian, she relied on folks too much (they started to replace God). When she realised this, she unplugged, but went a little over-board (I mean, these people were given to her by God to help her live the Christ-life). Now, she's in a healthy place. And I'm excited about that.

There are tons of reasons people shy away from the church. Surprisingly, one of them is that they want to follow Jesus and they feel that the Christian community gets in the way. (Check out this book for a thoughtful, productive approach to this phenomena).

No matter our reason - whether it's growth, shame, or arrogance - leaving the church behind always hinders our following of Jesus. Leaving a particular church can help (though not as often as we leave), but leaving the church never does.

Jesus loves the church. He changes the world through the church. You cannot be in him and not be in the church. This is the deep, body theology of 1 Corinthians and Ephesians and John. You may not go to church on Sunday, you may not like any of the various Christian communities you know, but if you are "in Christ" (united to him through the gospel), you are - mysteriously - "in the church".

The context of Christian discipleship is the Christian community. It takes a village to raise a Christian. And not just any village, the village in which dwells the Christ.

As we "train wisely", let's pour our lives into the church. It is the only place we were meant to grow, for it is the only place we were meant to dwell.

All in the timing

I love buffets. Today, I went with Will to Crystal Chinese Kitchen ("a shining jewel of pseudo-Chinese fried deliciousness" or an "inauthentic slop heap" depending on which review you read). I always leave Crystal stuffed to the gills and I'm always hungry a few hours later...the rice, I know.

In Proverbs today, I read about buffets...or at least about that dance of plenty and want.
Better a little with the fear of the LORD
than great wealth with turmoil.
Better a meal of vegetables where there is love
than a fattened calf with hatred.
I couldn't help but think of this on-going, mostly (but not completely) one-sided (thanks, Larry) conversation we've been having on the blog about discipline and "training wisely."

Some of us rely too much on resources. Some of us don't use them enough. As mentioned here, we need more than resources to "train wisely."

We need the right timing. So often, our attempts to pursue discipline fail because we try to do too much, we go to the buffet and put too much food on our plate, we over-reach.

I remember the first time I tried to read the Bible every day. It didn't work. I tried to read too much too fast. My timing was off. There's nothing inherently wrong with reading the Bible for an hour a day or owning a fattened calf. Some people can do it. Maybe someday, you and I will be among those people. But what usually happens when our timing is off is that we go great for a few days and then crash. We read for an hour, then don't have the time, then drop the discipline. We get the fattened calf or the great wealth and experience turmoil.

Timing matters.

In some cases, too much, too soon can be worse than nothing at all (see 1 Tim 3:6). Let's be realistic about our timing. What disciplines can we realistically incorporate into our lives today? What would be too much?

Let's train wisely. Timing matters. We don't pursue Jesus in a vacuum. We need to be aware of our current limits if we are going to challenge them with growth. And since we're not in a vacuum, we should probably think about how the people around us, our community, impacts our training wisely...

That resource card might not help you get that development card

Wandering off of the Way of Wisdom can be hazardous. In Proverbs 14 we hear warnings of beatings, loneliness, poverty, death and (perhaps worst of all) becoming an oppressor of the poor, someone who shows contempt for their Maker (Prov. 14:31). These dangers lurk in the darkness that surrounds the path.

Many of us have been exposed to resources that are designed to keep us on the Way of Wisdom. Quiet time guides, prepared prayers, Bible studies, Christian books and music form guardrails for many of us in our pursuit of a Christ-like life. These resources are their place.

In high school and into college I carried one of these resources with me everywhere I went, strapped to my wrist: the infamous WWJD bracelet. My friends held me to a higher standard because I wore the bracelet and I actually went several years without sinning. Yeah, I never once wandered from the Way of Wisdom while I wore my handy-dandy WWJD bracelet. When it started smelling really bad and the white lettering took on a yellowish tinge, I removed it my horror...started sinning and wandering again.

You see through that, right? Resources can help us live life as Jesus taught and modeled it, but they are not enough. We ignore them to our detriment, but they are not enough. I'd recommend using a Bible reading plan, committing God's Word to memory, and singing quality worship songs in praise to God...but this is not enough.

Resources fail. This is a tough truth. You can read your Bible every day and not live life as Jesus taught and modeled it. Does that sound crazy?

One of the main reasons folks don't want much to do with Christians is because they see us as hypocrites, people who claim a relationship to God and yet fail to live the Christ-life. We've all known those people...heck, somedays I'm those people. No, resources aren't enough.

We need more. What do we need?

My Weekend Update (12/12)

Here're two helpful quotes by John Ortberg that I've found helpful this week:

Discipline: Any activity I can do by direct effort that will help me do what I cannot now do by direct effort.

Spiritual discipline: Any activity that can help me gain power to live life as Jesus taught and modeled it.

And in the reading from Proverbs for today (12:1 in particular), we see discipline connected to correction (loving discipline is contrasted with hating correction). This is a very versatile concept!

Pity the Fool

Before we really dive into what it means to "train wisely," it might be helpful to describe wisdom. In a way, that's what the book of Proverbs is all about, this description of wisdom.

One of the main ways Proverbs describes wisdom is by contrasting it with foolishness. Proverbs 11 exemplifies this technique. The author rattles back and forth between descriptions of the wise (or righteous or upright) and the foolish (or wicked or unfaithful). Readers of Proverbs are pushed, we are pushed to walk in the way of wisdom. Psalm 1 echoes this contrast. Let's not be fools, here.

So, part of our resolve to "train wisely" also involves refusing to "train foolishly."

Here are 10 ways to train foolishly...

1) Depend too much on resources
2) Reject available resources
3) Try to do too much at once
4) Plan to do too little at once
5) Rely too much on other people
6) Fail to rely on other people
7) Ignore your God-given rhythms
8) Obsess over your God-given rhythms
9) Exaggerate the importance of your effort
10)Downplay the importance of your effort

Maintaining a healthy balance in these categories - resources, timing, community, rhythm and perspective - has proven vital to my pursuit of discipline. That narrow way that runs straight through those extremes of foolishness, that is the way of discipling, the way to "train wisely."

Fight like a man beating the air

I made a decision recently.

When we found out that Amy was pregnant, we were overwhelmed with joy. We starting really thinking about what life with a child would be like: where would we put the crib? Who will we trust to babysit? How can we prepare Jiffy and Cinco to welcome the child?

This thought of preparation slowed me down. Our friends, April and Zach, just had another child (Emma with the supermodel hair). They are great parents. And they are exhausted. Being a parent, or maybe being a great parent, requires a lot of energy: late feedings, frequent changing, games and rocking and singing.

I realized that I'm not least, not in that way. I don't have the energy to parent. I can try. I will try, of course, you have to. But an honest evaluation reveals that I'm on pace to fail.

So, I made a decision.

I wasn't going to just "try harder". I will "train wisely". I will pursue discipline in order to honor the responsibility that God has given me as a potential parent. So, I hit the gym: one day a week in October, three days a week in November, four days a week in December...slow, intentional, incremental steps. Training.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul talks about training. He encourages the church to "not run aimlessly" and "not fight like a man beating the air." That image, the image of a man beating the air, flailing his arms, the scattered whirl of limbs that exemplifies the schoolyard brawl...that image stands in stark contrast to the image of the boxer, standing steady and ready to apply focused violence.

And Paul's not talking about exercise here, not really. The analogy is good, but the stakes are higher. As Proverbs 10 says: "The memory of the righteous will be a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot." We train with long-term, impactful, eternal consequences on the and blessing on one hand, the sorrowful rot on the other.

How, then, do we train wisely?

Fighting for my love

I've been wondering today how discipline relates to status. How does our status as men and women who have been united to Christ and adopted as God's beloved does this status connect with the biblical call to "train wisely" (ie. discipline)?

There seem to be many ways to approach this, but one angle might be to ask: "What is God doing while we're training?"

I was sitting and praying about this today, avoiding the gym showers after a long workout, and I experienced this special moment of connection with God. I had my iPod on and a song came shuffled in: Fighting for my love by Nil Lara. I wonder if that phrase - "fighting for my love" - captures the essence of God's activity while I'm training.

It's so easy to abandon God-love while pursuing the way of discipline. Routine sets in and the checklists, well, they satisfy and substitute for real relationship (at least for a while).

That image of Lady Wisdom from Proverbs 9 was so vivid today. "Let all who are simple come in here! ... Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of understanding."

I think that God, like Lady Wisdom, invites and pursues (see Luke 14), fights for our love. And His fighting shapes our practice of "training wisely." We pursue discipline because it will help us love the One who loves us.

Discipline prevents The Slide

No great company sets a goal to slide into mediocrity. No newlyweds, madly in-love, plan to divorce down the road. No fit, muscular athlete figures how to put on a hundred pounds ... in the next few years. No neighborhood holds a meeting to outline steps toward a rundown community. No committed, vibrant Christian dreams of a day when he or she will reject and curse and simply walk away from God, living a life of joyless compromise.
- Jose Barreda

One of the reasons we "train wisely" and pursue discipline is because our story contains The Slide. We live in a slidden world. Small, incremental slips(not spectacular sins) hold us captive. We die the death by a thousand cuts. I mean, kinda.

We believe in the gospel and rely on the Saviour. Though we are dying, held, slipping and sliding, we are solid and stable and free and alive. We pursue discipline, not out of desperation, but as a strategy.

Reading Proverbs 6 highlights this. A little sleep, a little slumber and poverty will come on your like an armed man. Constant vigilance is necessary. But how do we reconcile this with constant grace, constant providence, constant security in Christ?

Does our status in Christ remove our need for "training wisely" in order to prevent The Slide?

Training wisely, not trying harder

There is a huge difference between "trying harder" and "training wisely."

At Leaders' this week, we talked about this distinction. Many of us long to have a deeper relationship with God and a more disciplined spiritual life. We identify areas of sin and brokenness in our lives and resolve to turn from them. We single out areas of sin and brokenness in our communities and resolve to put an end to them.

And this is all good. But ill fated.

Our resolve falters and sin creeps back into our communities and into our lives. Our strength fails. We yo-yo. We try and try and try and give it our all and then collapse.

We need a better way.

The way of Christian discipleship is way of "training wisely." We take small, intentional steps toward transformation. Abby and Crystal and Salley are reading one Proverb a day. Just one. For now. That's how it works, that's how discipline always works. More on this later...

For a deeper discussion of Training vs. Trying see John Ortberg's chapter on the topic in The Life You've Always Wanted. And yes, Google Books is awesome.

Faith in the Justice of God

Tonight, we had a special Large Group, featuring Pastor Michael Wilburn from Lexington Baptist Church. He preached from Genesis 22 and took us deeper into the story.

For so many of us, we've encountered God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and jumped straight to thinking about ourselves. "What might God ask me to sacrifice?" we ask ourselves. And that's appropriate. We should go there. But what about the questions raised by God's command. What does it look like to have faith in the justice of God?

Check out the sermon:

Here're my notes from the sermon:
Three true/false questions to start off...
1) Isaac's death would have violated God's moral character
2) Abraham believed Isaac would die (or stay dead)
3) The enjoyment of God's covenant required Abraham to act out his faith

Isaac was at between 10 and 15 at the time of this story (called "lad", asks insightful questions, carries wood, and is small enough to be lifted by his father). This means Abraham was at least 110 at this point (see Gen 21:5).

Main idea:
Your faith is going to be tested through trial
The trials increase...the hardest trials come at the end

1) The test was not the same as a temptation (James 1:13)
God was revealing what was in Abraham's heart
To point out that God stopped the sacrifice does not resolve the dilemma
Death would not void God's character
-Presupposition...God is light, in him there is no darkness (1 Jn)
-The sacrifice of Jesus...God doesn't ask what he would do himself

2) Abraham did not believe Isaac would die (and stay dead)
His focus was not on death, but on God's provision in the midst of uncertainty
"We will return" notice the "we"...response to Isaac's question
While Abraham is obeying, he is teaching Isaac to trust...what are you teaching?
Heb 11:17ff...God could raise him from the dead

3) Faith always has to be acted out in your life
Sacrifice is both a noun and a verb
See the reaffirmation of the covenant blessing
Why did God stop the sacrifice? No benefit for others, Abraham's faith sufficiently tested when he raised his arms

Now, we can ask, are you willing to sacrifice anything that hinders?

Love the world less and love Jesus more.

Christmas and the poor

The first Christmas was celebrated in poverty. A cave-stable-barn, a man and a woman, now a child, a star shines even more brightly, now shepherds, now wise men, refugees, exiles, aliens.

Christmas is still celebrated in poverty today. Sure, the holiday is celebrated in cathedrals and Macy's, but Christmas is also celebrated by some of the world's loneliest who are locked away in nursing homes and the hungriest who make their homes in garbage villages. The memory of Jesus and hope that comes from his Presence - Christmas - means something to folks who are lost, oppressed, downtrodden, and forgotten.

For many folks (despite the anti-materialistic sermonizing you will hopefully hear..."Jesus, not stuff, provides the reason for the season"), the Christmas celebration provides a reminder to reach out to and care generously for the poor. Choirs sing in hospitals and people send shoeboxes of toys and school supplies to children who have very little. One of my highlights from growing up was our annual family tradition of taking food to the inner-city mission around Christmas-time.

This is a beautiful part of the story. But it's not the whole story.

People go into debt buying Christmas gifts. And although more and more Americans intend to spend less on Christmas this year, we will probably still spend over $400 billion dollars on gifts before the year is out. And here's the thing...

Nothing changes

We spend this money, year after year, season after season and we're trapped. This cycle can't stop. Try it. Skip Christmas. Your family probably won't understand. People would be hurt, feel unloved. And we can chalk this up to petty materialism (and some of it probably is), but we are horrible as a society at communicating meaningful love to our families and friends. The Christmas season helps even our most inept members connect.

This is where God's presence exposes the status quo. The hamster wheel gets broken. Our habitual reliance on gifts and seasons for love and meaning comes crashing to a halt. We don't need the gold and incense and myrrh. They're great, but they're no substitute for the Presence.

And this Presence shows up among the poor. And wealth does trickle down. Gold and incense and myrrh appear in a manger (or a home, depending on when the wise guys showed up), but they're not what's important. God has chosen to spend Christmas with the poor. So, maybe they need us. Maybe they need us to buy them warm clothes and join the Advent Conspiracy. Maybe they need us. But we need them, especially around Christmas. What would it look like to seek God among the poor during the Christmas season?

Blessed are the poor, because they get the Presence.

God's presence

One of the big things Christmas is all about is captured beautifully in John's Gospel:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

God made his dwelling among us, tabernacled with us, moved into the neighborhood. What a momentous occasion!

But there's more to the story, more that John reveals in his Apocalypse:

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.

God's presence, his coming as a child, is a decisive move in an epic struggle. No, that's not quite right, it is the decisive move in God's sure struggle against evil, ordained from the foundation of the world, predetermined for our good.

When we celebrate the presence of God, whether it's on Christmas or any moment of our lives and years, we proclaim his now-but-not-yet kingdom, a kingdom established through this child. Maranatha!

What goes into Christmas Carols...

What would happen if someone changed the lyrics in my favorite Christmas carol to:

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, taking flight
Soldiers grab kids by the feet
Blood runs red in the street
Children die tonight
Chil-il-dren die tonight.

I remember my cousin Melanie singing this hymn (the real version) angelically when we were children. The Christmas Story is beautiful. The Christmas Story is hope-giving. The Christmas Story is peaceful. On that night, back in that stable, the world was all right. And on the nights that echo it, those silent nights, all was right in my world.

But the story is so much more complicated. So much more disturbing. Children died. Maybe not on that silent night, but on a night soon after. I don't want that to be part of my Christmas story. But it's there. Buried, disturbingly, in Matthew 2.

What do we do with the bits of the story that doesn't fit into carols? What do we do with the parts of the story that doesn't fit into hymns? Laugh and cry? Dodge and ignore? Wrestle?

Under the Unpredictable Plant

Jonah seems such a small, forlorn figure - satisfied when the plant grows and cools him, displeased when the plant withers and he is parched by the hot sun. How can he be reduced to such puny emotions, such piddling obsessions, such small comfort, such trite discomfort. Here is a man who has been in and out of the fish's belly, who has made the self-sacrificing commitment to be a faithful minister in Nineveh instead of a self-indulgent tourist to Tarshish. He has seen Nineveh, his congregation, turn to God. And he is petulant
- Eugene Peterson

Jonah and the City

So often our reading of the Jonah story goes like this...

God told Jonah to do something...Jonah rebelled (chapter 1)
God had Jonah swallowed by a whale...Jonah repented (chapter 2)
Jonah did what God told him to do and everything ends happy (chapter 3)
If God tells you to do something, do it or risk being swallowed by a whale (THE MORAL)

Unfortunately, the Jonah story is more complex than that. There's a fourth chapter, an angry chapter, a chapter with an object lesson, a joke and a question.

And the moral to the whole thing might be that God wants us to be concerned about what he's concerned about.

Here's the audio from this week's talk:

"Cheap Grace is the deadly enemy of the Church"

"Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship

The Genocide in Genesis

We must wrestle with God's justice to appreciate his grace.

The story of Noah's Ark has all the things that make up a great Sunday School story: animals, rainbows, genocide. God kills hundreds and thousands of people in a massive flood, kills men and women, adults and children, dogs. What are we to make of this slaughter?

Check out the audio for the talk:

Some answers to questions that won't get answered

One of the things I try to do with this blog is to vent a little bit before and after I speak at Large Group. I can write things on here that will end up getting cut from a talk (either to make the talk more clear or less long).

Tomorrow night, we'll be looking at the Noah story from Genesis 5-9. We'll be focusing on God's wrath and mercy, so I'll be cutting out a lot of the more familiar apologetical material. If you're curious, here are some answers to questions that won't get answered in tomorrow night's talk:

What's the deal with the sons of God and the daughters of men?
The inter-mingling of the sons of God and the daughters of men is mentioned in the run-up to the flood, possibly as one of the reasons for God's flooding of the earth.

There are three commonly-held theories as to why this inter-mingling might have prompted a response from God.

First, some say that the sons of God were fallen angels and that their pro-creating with human women led to the creation of giants, the Nephilim.

Second, some say that the sons of God were the leaders of the ancient world (who were evil men) and that their reproducing was leading to more and more evil being spread throughout the world.

Third, some say that the sons of God were the descendants of Seth and that they were mixing with their God-disrespecting Cainite distant cousins.

So, what's the deal? We don't know for sure. I lean toward the second option, but could be argued to the first pretty easily. What do you think?

What does it mean that man's days will be one hundred and twenty years?
There are two theories on this. One theory is that the flood will come in a hundred and twenty year, the clock's ticking.

Another theory, paying attention to the fact that men's ages are dwindling, proposes that God sets a lifespan limit on humanity: no one gets to live past 120.

I lean toward the first, since there are clearly lots of people who lived past 120 in the post-flood Biblical record (although the life-spans do dwindle rapidly and significantly in the Biblical record).

How did Noah fit every animal on the ark?
Well, no one knows for sure, but here are some things that might help...

First, he didn't have to fit every animal, only two of every kind of animal (plus the one's for sacrificing). Speciation could take care of the rest.

Second, he didn't have to take mature animals on the ark. A baby elephant takes up much less room than an adult (a dinosaur egg, even less so).

Third, average animal size is probably smaller than we think. The average dinosaur was Cinco's size (our beloved puggle). Some estimate that only 20% of the animals on the ark would be larger than a sheep.

Fourth, the ark might be bigger than you imagine (or see in kids stories). At 450ft long and 75ft wide and three stories tall, it'd have (break out the calculator here) over 101000 sq. ft. That's a lot of space for what proves to be, if you bank on speciation, a small number of animals (something like 30,000).

How big was the flood?
Some say it was a local flood, others that it was world-wide. Logically, it's a lot easier to believe in a local flood. Exegetically, that doesn't make a lot of sense. God promised that he would do whatever he did again. That makes it sound a lot more epic and cataclysmic than a local flood.

What about other flood stories in ancient literature?
So what? If it really happened, wouldn't you expect other cultures to write about it? Gilgamesh should be seen as confirmation, not competition.

Effective Faith

Here's Brad Mullinax's talk from Large Group this week:

What can I do to be a better Christian?
It takes practice to win.
Everyone wants to win when you're in the tunnel...
2 Peter 1:10ff
...if you practice these qualities, you will never fall (ie. become ineffective and unfruitful)
which qualities?

Faith - what? Heb 11:1
how? Rom 10:17 faith comes from hearing and hearing from the word of God
encounter the word of God

Virtue - what? excellence (sum of all desireable character qualities)
how? Jas 1:22-25
put feet to faith, make adjustments

Knowledge - what? knowing your reasons for faith and action
how? Proverbs 1 Fear of the Lord
get to know God a little more
the pursuit of knowledge without the fear of God can lead to some pretty awful things

Self-control - what? will-power over one's actions
how? drastic radical action Mt. 18:9/5:29

Godliness - what? abiding, allegiance Jn 15:4, 2 Tim 3:5
how? Holy Spirit Acts 1:8/2 Tim 1:7
people are going to expect power
Eph 4:29-31 confess sin

Brotherly affection - what? high esteem for others
how? Phil 2:3 humility is the key to unity

Love...affection that leads to self-sacrifice


Chris Tutor's talk from last week's Large Group:

Who is John Mark?

This is one of the things I'm hoping to skip over and not get bogged down in during tomorrow night's Large Group talk.

John Mark is a shadowy figure. No one knows for sure if there is one Mark talked about in the New Testament or two or three or five.

Here's where the name shows up:

Acts 12:12 - people were gathered at John, also called Mark's house to pray for Peter's safe release from prison (it was actually Mary, John Mark's mother's house, but mom's house is always your house, right?)

Acts 12:25 - Barnabas and Saul take John, also called Mark, with them when they leave Jerusalem

Acts 13:5 - John serves as a helper for Barnabas and Saul in Cyprus at Salamis

Acts 13:13 - John leaves Paul and his companions as they head to Perga in Pamphylia (no one knows exactly why...was it exhaustion? fear? racism? disbelief?)

Acts 15:36-41 - Barnabas and Paul have a huge falling out over whether or not to take John, also called Mark, with them on their next missionary journey. Barnabas takes John with him to Cyprus and Paul strikes out with Silas.

Colossians 4:10 - Paul shares greetings from Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, and asks the church to welcome him if he comes by

Philemon 24 - Mark is listed as one of Paul's fellow-workers

2 Timothy 4:11 - Paul asks Timothy to bring Mark to him while he's imprisoned in Rome, since "he is helpful to me in my ministry"

1 Peter 5:13 - Peter's "son" Mark sends greetings in the closing of the book

If that wasn't enough, the Second Gospel is attributed to a dude named Mark, who was, according to the tradition laid down by Papias, Peter's scribe in Rome.

Following that tradition, some have suggested that Mark inserted an autobiographical reference into his gospel (Mk. 14:51-52, which provides the New Testament basis for streaking).

So, with all of this, I still think that all these Marks are the same Mark, John Mark, cousin of Barnabas, son of Mary (not that Mary), one-time failed missionary, scribe to Peter, author of my favorite Gospel and all around bad dude.

But if there are multiple Marks and the Mark Barnabas fought for never proved helpful to Paul or son/scribe to Peter, might detract from my point for tomorrow (Invest your life in other people), but not by much. I think Barnabas probably did the right thing to give Mark a second chance, even if he never turned out to be anything special in the history of the movement. People matter. They matter to us because they matter to God.

New song at Large Group

We sang a new song at Large Group this week (at least, it was new to us). I love the line (about 2/3 through the song) that says "He who lives to be my King once died to be my Savior." Check out the song and lyrics on this video:

Be honest about your commitment to God and God's people

I really struggle to be honest sometimes. I've unfortunately found that I can fake a deeper commitment to people and to God than I really have and that, most times, no one seems to notice. But I know that God desires better things for us.

Tonight's talk skipped around the Bible's introduction to Barnabas, a man who seems to be following me (in a sense) since the Beach Retreat during my Senior year at Duke. Barnabas' introduction comes as an illustration of what it would look like to live out the radical commitment to God and community talked about in Acts 4:32-35. Someone actually lived like this! His name was Joseph and he was re-named Barnabas.

Barnabas is contrasted with Ananias and Sapphira, who show up in Acts 5, a man and a woman who were not honest about their commitment to God and God's people. They, like me, hoped to benefit from the claim to commitment without experienceing the suffering and struggle and trial and hardship and sacrifice of actually living the committed Christian life in the midst of this wild community.

Check out tonight's Large Group talk and be honest about your commitment...
Barnabas (pt. 1)

The Five Dysfunctions of a GCF?

I think I spent most of last year trying to avoid conflict.

But Patrick Lencioni, in his The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, claims "all great relationships ... require productive conflict in order to grow" (p. 202).

What's going on here?

Lencioni uses an extended fable to describe the dynamics of high-functioning teams. In this fable, a struggling IT company hires Kathryn to be their new CEO and help them fix whatever mysterious thing it is that's keeping them from achieving what they set out to achieve. Kathryn focuses on their teamwork (or lack thereof) and challenges her company to move toward more trusting, honest, committed, accountable and results-aware teams.

The folks on Core Group found a lot in the book to help us grow as a community, but the one idea that really impacted for me is the need for productive, ideological conflict. What a challenge! If a team really has established trust and we know that we care about each other and want what's best for each other, then we should be able to passionately pull of the things we care about. That just doesn't happen around me.

I know that I try to stave off conflict, forge compromises, avoid disputes. What happens, then, is that, because people never have the freedom to voice their concerns, they never really commit to the things they were concerned about. According to Lencioni, you can't have full commitment, accountability and all that unless you're willing to engage in productive conflict.

Some of the changes Core Group is making this year are going to reflect this truth. We'll be trying to create more space for productive conflict, for honest sharing of concerns and dialogue.

We may end up doing the same things we would have done otherwise, but hopefully we'll be moving forward as a team, not just a collection of individuals.

As living members of the body of Christ, we need each other. We need teams.

Summer Reading

So, this summer, I got to read some books with some of the students on our leadership teams.

Last summer, we experimented with reading books together and it provided some really helpful structures for us to think in. On Brad Mullinax's recommendation we read Andy Stanley's 7 Practices of Effective Ministry. We could probably read that every summer and still be blessed. His whole idea of "think steps, not programs" really shaped our conversations about Large Group.

This summer, we read 3 books. Core Group read through Patrick Lencioni's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and Doug Schaupp and Don Everts' I Once Was Lost. With Alex and Sam, our worship leaders, we read Bob Kauflin's Worship Matters.

Lord willing, over the next few days I'll post some snippets on how these books are impacting our conversation about ministry on campus.

Without bias?

The topic of bias has been scattered all over the news this week with Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearing.

As I've worked with college students, this question of bias comes up from time to time.

One vivid memory I have was sitting with Abby Dean (back when she went by Abby instead of Abigail) in the Daily Grind (back when it went by Daily Grind instead of Java 23) and talking about a class she was taking. The professor had raised the question of bias. Can we trust the accuracy of the Gospel writings if the writers held a pretty intense bias?

These writers were really biased. I mean, really, really biased. They believed Jesus was the Christ (not Caesar), the Son of God, Messiah, the One in whom there is life. That's bias.

Their lives, their perspectives, their judgements were colored deeply by their experiences. They had seen and heard about Jesus. Their lives had been transformed by him. They came to the writers table with their minds already made up.

So, is bias a bad thing? Are there different types of bias? Can one truly be unbiased, uninfluenced by life experience? Are claims to be unbiased merely revealing an ignorance of the impact that one's experiences have had on one's judgement? Can that ignorance lead one to judge unjustly?

If that's the case (and here's something controversial), then a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences (and awareness of how that experience influences bias) would more often than not reach a better conclusion than pretty much anyone who believed they could approach an issue without bias.

That's postmodernity.

***And, for the record, that's not a direct comment on the politics going on this week...both sides have claimed to be unbiased and so, both sides have been full of it at one point or another (as we all are from time to time)***

Homily from Chris and Hilary Tutor's Wedding

This is a profound mystery, this union between Christ and the Church, between a husband and wife. Today, Chris and Hilary, you will be joined together in the sight of God. And we who know and love you are so excited! This is a special moment in God’s Story.

And it’s that Story that I want to mention at this point in the service. God’s Story. I want to remind you of this Story because I think that the last, most helpful, spiritual truth I can share with you as you head into marriage is this:

We are in the middle of God’s Story.

We all need to be reminded of this. I know that in my life, in my marriage, the biggest hurts and the biggest displays of brokenness come when I forget this truth. It’s so easy to think that the story is all about me that it’s Steve’s Story or Chris’ Story or Hilary’s Story. It’s easy to lose track of what God has been doing and of how the Story ends. It’s easy to lose track of God all together.

We are in the middle of God’s Story.

In the beginning this God made everything. And he continued to make and shape and form. In Genesis, God’s Word tells the story of God forming man and woman, guiding them together, setting their union into motion. One flesh.

God made Hilary. God made Chris. He does good work. He does very good work. God loves you, Hilary and I think he really, really likes you Chris. You are marrying a beautiful, much-loved fellow-creature. So love deeply, love wildly, love intimately, love passionately, get excited and turn off your inside voice…don’t hold anything back.

But know that we are in the middle of God’s Story. Not the beginning. And this won’t be simple.

God’s creation is no longer perfect. Some things have been broken, others shattered. We are all deeply flawed. When we look at the world with open eyes, when we look in the mirror, we don’t always see beauty. We don’t always experience love.

And though today we are full of love and joy, though this amazing day pushes the shadow of evil to the edge of our awareness, not even a day like today can erase the conflict in The Story. You are marrying a broken person, a flawed person, beautiful and much-loved, but broken and flawed. One of these days, Chris will do something stupid, he’ll play Halo all night even though Hilary is really upset. One of these days, Hilary will do something selfish, coming home with another pair of shoes, even though money is tight. Chris, Hilary, you will hurt each other. Don’t be shocked and don’t freak out. Do something crazy, forgive, forgive even as you’ve been forgiven.

You’re about to unite yourself to a broken person. You’re not picking a running mate, you’re getting married. And this beautiful person is broken. This seems like a crazy thing to do. But you’re not completely crazy.

Remember, we’re in the middle of God’s Story. And this Story doesn’t end with us being broken.

God loves with a crazy love, a love that changes The Story. Through his sacrificial death on the cross and his miraculous resurrection from the grave, Christ unites himself to the Church. Listen, the only unbroken person who ever lived unites himself deeply - marries himself - to the broken community called The Church. And through this union, Christ is unbreaking all of us, redeeming, reconciling, and restoring all who are united to him.

And he includes us in this. We join in what he’s doing in the lives of the people we love. Chris, Hilary, from this moment and every moment from now until The Story ends, you will be in the middle of God’s restoring work in each other’s life. You will help each other grow. You will help each other live. You will help each other follow and serve and love the Lord our God. The Story is still being written! Find out what God is doing and join him.

When you’re faithful, when you’re sacrificial, when you’re kind and gentle and patient and loving…then you will be living like Jesus and showing your spouse and the watching world what kind of God it is that we worship.

And when someone like me get up to preach and says that God’s Story has a happy ending, people will look at your marriage, see God’s beautiful love on display and see that I’m not just talking, that this God-story really matters.
Remember, we are in the middle of God’s Story.
The best is still to come.

Some wedding thoughts...

As I've spent a huge chunk of time this week preparing for Chris and Hilary's wedding. I feel like I've memorized the wedding section in the Book of Common Prayer and I've been practicing for the Kentucky heat of the outdoor wedding by working in my home office. It's 11:40 and sweat is still pouring down my neck.

I've been thinking a lot about the "If any person can show just cause why they cannot lawfully be joined together, speak now or forever hold your peace" part of the service. At first, it caught my attention because I didn't know how to transition out of that. I mean, in the movies someone always does something dramatic at that point (or if the wedding crasher doesn't make it in time, the scene always cuts to what they're doing instead...stuck in traffic, crashing the wrong wedding, tossing a donkey to look through the stained glass window).

But once I figured out how to transition out of this, I started wondering if I was living it. What I mean is this: I've seen some folks make questionable marriage decisions. Maybe they aren't a good match or maybe one of the partners just gets on my nerves and so I question the marriage. Does that push back against the "forever hold your peace" idea?

I mean, where did that come from? Is that just in there to protect people who are already married to someone else from tricking their way into polygamy or to give true loves a final chance to fight for destiny or to keep sibling separated at birth from getting married (hey...the wedding is in Kentucky, right?)? Maybe it's also to kick me in the pants, to make me shift from questioning to helping. Maybe what's done is done and my questioning makes it harder for my friends to keep their vows.

What would happen if we all decided to "forever hold [our collective] peace" and to serve these question-provoking couples? Man, I can only imagine.

A little wedding music

It was so amazing to watch Matt and Jessica get married last weekend! She looked beautiful and Matt was smiling so widely that the corners of his mouth seemed to touch his ears.

With Chris and Hilary getting married this weekend, I thought I'd pop some thoughts about marriage up on the blog this weekend. But before we get all serious, how about a little wedding music?

Pachelbel's Canon in D frequently makes an appearance at weddings, but I can't hear it without grinning anymore, thanks to the comic stylings of Rob Paravonian. Check out this video:

Starving Kids in Africa (Office Parody)

As we have several groups of friends going to Africa this summer to help kids, I thought I'd post something funny and thought-provoking (ok...maybe just funny)...

Changing lives - Lauren's testimony

God has done something amazing in Lauren's life.

Coming to W&L was difficult for Lauren. She experienced a ton of culture shock and struggled deeply with depression, solo-drinking and pornography. She had doubts and questions about God.

But God loved Lauren. Even when she didn't want to interact with Him, He pursued her. Lauren's testimony is a great reminder of the Lord's unfailing love and faithfulness. Her joy reflects his. Here's the audio from her testimony:

Lauren's testimony

God's heart makes a meaningful commitment

David committed to be God's king.

Whole-heartedly, passionately, wildly...King David.

In tonight's story, David makes a huge mistake, but reveals God's heart in a beautiful way. Taking a census of all the fighting men in the kingdom would have ruined a lesser king, wrecked a lesser line, but God determined David to be made of better stuff. In his core, even as he messed up, David was a man after God's heart.

In tonight's talk, we explore "meaningful commitment," following the trail in 2 Samuel 24. We see meaningful commitment at play in community, flowing from trust, taking ownership and requiring sacrifice. Here's the audio from tonight's talk:


Educated beyond our obedience

Just read this quote from Chris James ( It just might connect with the idea for tomorrow night:

"The sadly funny thing is we've somehow become convinced that the best way to follow Jesus is to learn something new about God, when in fact, we'd be far better served to act upon one thing we have already "learned." You might say that the almost ignorant activists make better disciples than the learned philosophizers. And this is an indictment of me, as it is likely to be of you - who derive some pleasure from reading a blog about Jesus. :)"

God's heart responds to betrayal with crazy love

All you have to do is live long enough and you will be hurt by other people.

In this David-story, King David responds to deep and bitter betrayal in a way that shows us God's heart: he responds with crazy love. Crazy love is love is love unexplainable, love that's not safe, love that's risky and wild.

When Ahitophel betrays David, David prays for him. When Shimei betrays David, David shows restraint. When Absalom betrays David, David laments. This constellation of kindness, mercy and grief is wildly different from our usual responses to betrayal: rage, revenge and exclusion. What would happen to the world if we showed crazy love every time we were hurt, let-down, disappointed, cheated and betrayed?

God loves us with a crazy love, despite our betrayals. This is the good news of Christ.

Here's the audio from this week's talk:


God's heart shows love to the ashamed

So often we find ourselves ashamed, afraid to be known deeply. We tell ourselves "If my friends really knew me..." or "If my parents really knew me..." or "If God really knew me...". So much is contained in that anticipatory "...": rejection, punishment, worse.

But God's heart pours "love" into that "...". God's heart shows love to the ashamed.

In this installment of the David story, we see his relationship with Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan. Mephibosheth had much with which he could be ashamed: a crippling handicap, a family rejected publicly by God, an outcast life. But David fulfills his covenant love to Jonathan, showing kindness to Mephibosheth. Here's the audio:

Love God's heart shows love to the ashamed

Brad Mullinax on "Keeping your commitments"

Here's one from the archives folks (okay, not that deep in the archives).

Last week, Pastor Brad Mullinax from Oasis Church spoke to us about keeping our commitments. As we think about leadership and integrity, this is vital. Check out his talk:


God's heart responds first and foremost to God

In this next chapter in the David story, we learn about worship. But not really about singing.

Worship is our whole-hearted response to God.

In 2 Samuel 6:12-23, David responds to God. The ark, the symbol of the presence of God is coming into Jerusalem and David worships. Leaping and dancing, David leads the worshippers, throwing his dignity aside before God the King.

And this presents us with a challenge. Do we respond, first and foremost, to God? Do we respond to him more than to other people, to culture, to our own wants and desires? This is not a challenge with a lot of nuance in it (I can think of some I'd like to add and might add later), but it's a challenge we need to receive as a community.

God's heart responds first and foremost to God. This worship, God-hearted people responding to God is what we need in GCF, on this campus and in this world.

Here's the audio from tonight's talk:


ps. here's the link to GCF's Leadership Application, if you're looking for it.

Theological rabbit trail...God's response to God

This week, we are going to hear that God's heart responds first and foremost to God. So, the God-reality dominates David's life. But the God-reality also dominates the life of God.

As I'm polishing the talk for Large Group tonight, I'm finding the need to cut out this really interesting theological rabbit trail. If I could preach for an hour, I'd be able to include this, but that wouldn't serve God's purposes for Large Group.

Here's the rabbit trail:

The Bible says that David is a man after God's own heart. As we hear the David story, we learn about God's deep character and about fully-alive humanity. So, when we learn that God's heart gives respect graciously, we learn something about God and something about who we are called to be. David graciously honored Saul and God graciously honors us. Do you see it? God's heart is on display in the man after God's own heart.

Although we Christians talk about God as monotheistic, we also say that he is relational. This commitment to monotheistic relationality leads to the doctrine called the Trinity. In the Trinity, God loves God, responds to God. The Father loves the Son. The Son loves the Father. The Holy Spirit loves them both and is loved by both of them.

We see the doctrine of the Trinity even more clearly on beautiful display in the life of Jesus Christ: God the Son with us in the flesh. Jesus had so many people to respond to: sinners, hypocrites, racists…and that's just the 12 disciples. On a daily basis, he saw the sick, the poor, the broken, Pharisees, prostitutes, parents and friends. He had Satan approach him, demons taunt him, and saints invite him to dinner parties. And then there's God.

Listen to Jesus:

Jesus gave them this answer: "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. - John 5:19

Jesus watches his Father and responds to Him. God responds to God, worships God. This isn't arrogance. This is love.

Managing God can be hazardous for your faith

Here's the 5 minute recap of the lost Large Group talk:


Managing God can be hazardous to your faith

Recently, we've been introduced to a host of hazards. Peanut butter just might kill you. So might chimps, the New York Post, and Rupert Murdoch. But God? Should we "Beware the God"?

This week, we looked at the story of David and Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6:1-11. The passage raised lots of questions, but drove home the point: Managing God can be hazardous to your faith. When we try to control God, something happens to us, something dies inside of us. We really want to avoid this!

Unfortunately, the audio for last night's talk was incomplete. I'll post a recap on the podcast and this page in a day or so

God's heart gives respect graciously

As we continue looking at the David-story in Scripture, tonight we looked at 1 Samuel 24 and 26, David's relationship with Saul. Through these passages, we saw that God's heart gives respect graciously. God shows respect and extends honor even (especially) to those who don't deserve it, to us. Here's the audio:


Talk from last week

Last week, Pastor Terry King spoke on King David's repentance after his sin with Bathsheba.


God's heart makes deep friendship possible

As we continue to follow the David story through 1 Samuel, we encounter David's deep friendship with Jonathan. In that friendship, we see a meaningful connection, someone who will be for David, a risk-taker. Here's the audio:


Omnipresence, election and incarnation (pt. 1)

This week we looked at the story of David and Goliath. This story is a story of courage, a story of God with his people. It’s a story that raises questions, questions of justice, questions about the nature of God.

As David and Goliath circle each other, exchanging taunts, David cries out: “the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.” What does it mean to claim that there is a God in Israel? What does it mean to claim that God is with his people? What does it mean to claim that God is with us?

Christians have long talked about God’s omnipresence. God is fully present in all places at all times. There’s no place to hide from him, no place where he can’t find you. This thought is comforting, frightening, and believable. If God is spirit and is not like us, why can’t he be everywhere?

But if God is everywhere and is fully everywhere, then we have a problem. The incarnation of God in Jesus presents us with Emmanuel, God with us. The doctrine of election (across the theological spectrum) seems to indicate that God has a special people (Israel, the church). If God is everywhere, isn’t he with everyone? If God’s presence is promised to the elect and he is all-present, isn’t everyone elect?

God is with us

God is with us. As we watch David face off with Goliath (1 Samuel 17), we see courage on display, a conviction that God is with his people. Here's the audio from tonight's talk:


Large Group talks now available as a podcast...if that's what you're into

To get this on your iTunes... iTunes on Advanced (at the top) on Subscribe to Podcast
...where it says URL, copy and paste

God wants you to share his heart

At last night's Large Group, we talked about the story of David and his anointing by Samuel (1 Samuel 16:1-13). What really came out of my study of the passage was a conviction that God wants us to share his heart. Here's the audio from last night's talk:

Check out this talk, where Eugene Peterson tells the story of David and Samuel:
Run with the Horses