Hebrews 5: Am I Mature?

I go back and forth on this question.

Some days, I feel like an adult.  Some days, I don't.  That's pretty normal for folks in their 20's (even their late 20's, when they have a wife, a son, two dogs, two degrees, two mortgages and bad knees).

In Hebrews 5, the author of Hebrews steps back from the theological teaching and moral admonishment to provide a meta-comment as to the condition of his hearers: "This is hard to explain because you are slow to learn." 

I'll be honest, I'm struggling with Hebrews.  I'm struggling to see how the pieces connect, struggling to pay attention to every verse (and not just the ones that are memorable or controversial), struggling to read it at all. 

I don't like to think that I'm slow to learn.  I graduated near the top of my class at Jesuit, Duke and Oxford.  I'm kind of proud of my ability to learn.  And maybe that's part of the problem.

I wonder if I haven't abandoned the milk too soon, jumped to solid food too quickly.  One of my best friends has a daughter just a little bit older than Will, my son.  She's struggling to maintain her body weight because she is bored with her formula and only wants to eat solid food.  She isn't ready for solid food yet.  And that's not something to be ashamed of or ignore...in a baby.

Solid food, in Hebrews, is for the mature, who are acquainted with the teaching about righteousness, who "by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil."

That training idea keeps following me.  Training, not trying.  Training.

Maybe I need more milk, need to return to "the elementary truths of God's word" again, before I'll be ready to be a teacher.

Am I mature?  Depends on who you ask and when you ask them.  If you ask me and you ask me today, I'll say I'm in a milk-drinking place.  For now.

Maybe Hebrews will change that.

Hebrews 4: The "Then"

"And then I met Amy..."

"And then she said 'Yes'..."

"And then she looked at the ring and said 'Yes'..."

"And then she jumped on the bed, waving the stick and shouting 'It's blue'..."

"And then she pushed one last time and we heard his healthy lungs..."

The story of my life has a lot of "then's" in it.  Great moments, turns, twists, markers and milestones.

Big things happen after "then's." Especially in Scripture.

In Hebrews 4, the author of Hebrews says "let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we might receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."  The "then" here is crucial.

Lots of people feel confident approaching the throne of grace.  They feel confident because they think their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds.  They feel confident because God is a loving God and a forgiving God.  They feel confident because they don't realize that the throne of grace is a throne, that God is the King of kings, and that they've never approached a throne like this one.

Hebrews tells us to approach the throne of grace with confidence.  This is an imperative.  We are supposed to do it.  We are implored to do it.  But it's important to know why, to notice the "then."

Our confident approach to the throne of grace is the next natural step from our vision of the great high priest who was tempted just like us, but who didn't sin.  Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses.  The person sitting on the throne understands.

And this, then, makes all the difference.

Hebrews 3: Don't go back

I think there's a temptation every time you go forward.

When you're making progress, things always seem to be harder before they get easy.  Try to hit a baseball for the first time.  It's hard.  Keep at it long enough and it becomes easy (well...not for me...but I've been told it's easy for some people).

In his great book, The Dip, Seth Godin talks about this resistance.  He claims - and I think he's right - that you have to go through the resistance to get great at something.  And the resistance knocks people off of the path right and left.  That's why so few people are great, are at the top of their fields.

In Hebrews 3, the author of Hebrews is writing to people who are in the midst of the dip, who are experiencing resistance and are eye-balling the door.

I don't know what they were tempted to go back to.  Maybe it was a legalistic religion.  Maybe one that worships angels or gods in plurality.  Whatever it was, the temptation to go back was strong.

I feel that same temptation sometimes.  I catch myself, rarely but often enough, daydreaming about a different life.  "If I hadn't decided Jesus, what would my life look like?" I ask myself.  But that daydream is a lie.

When I imagine that life, I don't see the times God intervened, helped me.  I forget the crippling depression in Trent Drive Hall.  I forget the nightmares and loneliness at St. Margarets Place.  I forget the rising anger, the crimson haze over my eyes, the near fight off of Gunn Highway.  God impacted my life in each of those place, for the better.

In Hebrews 3:13, the author of Hebrews talks of sin's hardening deceitfulness.  Sin lies to us, tells us that we can go back, that it will be better back there, wherever "back there" is.  This hardens us to what God would have for us in the present and calls us to in the future.  But the gospel of Jesus calls out to us: "Don't go back.  It isn't better back there.  Life is here.  Life is forward.  Hold fast to Christ.  Don't go back."

Don't go back.

Hebrews 4: Salvation is Rest

The author of Hebrews takes an interesting turn at this point in the letter.

Salvation is rest.

This isn't the only perspective on salvation presented in Scripture, but it is one I find challenging.  I normally view the salvation we receive from Jesus as rescue, redemption, healing, victory...angles like that.  But in Hebrews, at least in chapter four, salvation is rest.

God has prepared a Sabbath rest for his people.  God rested after he created.  The hard-hearted and disobedient get no rest from God.  Make every effort to enter that rest.  Hebrews 4 is peppered with the promise of rest.

I struggle to rest.  Rest doesn't feel like salvation to me.  I get bored.  I fall asleep.  Rest is something I need, but not something I enjoy.

But what if salvation is really, at some deep level, rest.

What I call 'rest,' then, probably isn't really rest.  Maybe it's an echo of rest, a faint shadow. 

When we reach that final day and stand before the Lord, tired and joy-filled, resting with God will be wildly welcome. 

Hang in there, Hebrews.  Hang in there, blog readers.  Hang in there, Small Group leaders.  Rest is coming.

Salvation is rest.

Hebrews 3: Transitive Stories

At this point in the Hebrews letter/sermon, the author starts talking about Moses and the Desert Rebellion (there's a huge difference between the Desert Rebellion and the Dessert Rebellion).

The author wants us to stay focused on Jesus, to not waver in our attention or affection.  And the Moses story serves this purpose well.

Echoing chapter one, we see another piece of transitive logic.  If Jesus is greater than Moses and Moses is considered worthy of respect and attention, how much more respect and attention should we give to Jesus.  If A is greater than B and B deserves attention, A deserves more attention.

But, at this point, the author does something really innovative.  He weaves the story of Moses and the story of the church together.

Moses led a group of people (the Israelites) through the wilderness, toward freedom.  Before they reached the land of freedom, they wavered and rebelled, wanting to abandon God and return to the way of life they experienced as slaves in Egypt.  Their unbelief and turning back had tremendous consequences, in their lives and in their generation.

The author of Hebrews is very concerned that the readers might be on the verge of abandoning Jesus and the church, that they might waver, rebel or turn back.  And so, he weaves the stories together. 

Don't be like the folks who rebelled in the desert.  Don't turn back.  If it was bad for them, it will be worse for you.  Jesus isn't just a prophet or a leader, like Moses.  He's the Son, the "son over God's house."  "If you hear his voice, don't harden your hearts."

We rarely talk like this.  It's confrontational, borders on threatening and I think I would deeply dislike it if it didn't sound compassionate to me.  The author is pleading to these people to hang on, to hang in there, "to hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast."

Weaving our stories into the larger story, this transitive connection, serves us well and challenges us deeply.

How could we incorporate this into our ministry and into our theology?

Hebrews 2: Unassumed is Unhealed

Why does it matter that Jesus became "like us in every way"?

In the fourth century, a blogger named Apollinaris suggested that maybe Jesus wasn't like us in every way.  Maybe humans were made up of a body, an animal soul, and an rational soul and in Jesus we see God replacing the rational soul in a man with the divine Logos.  Jesus was mostly human, but not totally human.

In a rapid Tweet response, Gregory the Theologian dispatched this notion: "@Apollinaris If what is unassumed is unhealed, your system leaves us unredeemed /// @BasTheGreat and @Chrysostomite give a brother a retweet"

This idea is so crucial.  In order to redeem us, to heal us, God must take on our humanity (assuming it).  If God only took on a human body, he could only save human bodies.  If God wants to redeem full human beings, he has to take on our nature entirely.

And this is what we see.  We see a man like us in every way, Jesus.

This piece of theology also discards the notion that there is nothing worthwhile in humanity, that God's good creation has been utterly destroyed.  Misapplication of the doctrine of total depravity can lead people to believe this, but it isn't true.  Humanity isn't evil.  It's fallen.  And there's a huge difference between the two.

And this theology - unassumed is unhealed - leaves us in a hopeful place.  Because Jesus has stood in our sandals, because he has suffered when he was tempted, he can help those who are being tempted.  Our hope for help come from his joining with us in our humanity, from him not being ashamed to be identified with us.

We can be healed because he has assumed our humanity and has become "like us in every way".

Hebrews 2: Jesus is like us

Jesus is like us.

I spend a lot of time interacting with people around the concept that Jesus loves them, that he even likes them.  Some of us are so gripped by shame and doubt and fear, that the notion that God might actually like us sounds foreign.  Some of us aren't surprised.  Jesus likes us. Well...why not?  I'm a likable chap.  Tension fills the room.

Jesus likes us, but Jesus is also like us.

This is a tense concept as well.  We take it, at times, to mean too little and too much.

We take it to mean too much when we think Jesus is like us...
  • in our politics (Jesus would totally vote Whig)
  • in our sports preferences (Jesus loves Carolina)
  • in our sin (nobody's perfect, not even Jesus)
The whole notion of God is just another one of my buddies stems from us taking this to mean too much.  Jesus is like us, but he is still the Son, the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

These notions seem incompatable.  How can Jesus be like us and still be God? 

This is when we take it to mean too little...
  • Jesus is like us on the surface
  • Jesus is like us as we will be in heaven
  • Jesus is like us technically
No, Jesus is like us.  He is truly a man.  He truly has flesh and blood (v. 14).  He truly died (v. 14).  He truly is a descendant of Abraham (v. 16). He truly became like us in every way (v. 17).  He truly suffered when he was tempted (v. 18).

The tension created by the Biblical teaching that Jesus is like us is a healthy tension.  It stretches our theology, forcing us to re-evaluate and re-examine our abstract notions of God. And it's a crucial complement to what the author of Hebrews introduced in chapter one.

Jesus is better.  Jesus is like us.  Tension.

Hebrews 1: Angles on Angels

Why does it matter if the readers of Hebrews believe that Jesus is superior to the angels?  What's at stake here?

I was talking this over with my friend Matt on a post-dinner constitutional (see 7).  His initial response was the same as mine: maybe the people at the time were tempted to worship angels.  After all, if modern men and women really believed that there were powerful, invisible beings circling them with the power to do them benefit or harm, we might be tempted to worship them as well.

But the Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being.  Surely, he would be more worthy of our worship than mere angels.

There isn't a great deal of angel worship in modern America, at least, not in the circles I run in.

But there still is a lot of worship. 

One arena where you see worship is that of hero worship.  Celebrities fill the news.  Their deaths pain us.  Their near victories become our near triumphs (next go around, Yanks).  The only thing missing from the ESPN LeBron special was the palm fronds.

I struggle with hero worship as well.  I remember being frozen in place when Coach K walked up to us and thanked us for camping out.  I remember holding my breath when CJ Mahaney got off the elevator I was getting into.  I remember the thrill I got sitting between Alex Kirk and Rene Aguirre a few weeks ago.

The author of Hebrews, in his presentation of the supremacy of Jesus, undercuts every other object we might be tempted to worship.  Matt put it this way: "Take the most incredible being you can imagine ("He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire"), if they worship Jesus, we should too."  And that's what it says in verse 6, quoting Psalm 97.

Don't be distracted by the things that come at you from a thousand different angles, don't worship angels.

Jesus is better.  Worship him.

Hebrews 1: Jesus is better

Hebrews starts up at full speed.  No greetings.  No blessings.  Boom.

Jesus is better.

That's the main thrust of the first several chapters of Hebrews.  Jesus is better than the Old Testament system of revelation.  Jesus is better than the angels, better than Moses, better than the priests. 

Jesus is better.

Actually, Jesus' name isn't mentioned until halfway through the second chapter.  In Chapter 1, we see the Son, mythic and glorious.  Here are some things chapter one tells us about the son:
  • God speaks through him (v. 2)
  • God appointed him heir of all things (v. 2, 4)
  • God made the universe through him (v. 2, 10-12)
  • He is the radiance of God's glory (v. 3)
  • He is the exact representation of God's being (v. 3)
  • He sustains all things by his powerful word (v. 3)
  • He provided purification for sins (v. 4)
  • He sat at God's right hand (v. 4)
  • He is superior to the angels (v. 4, 9, 13-14)
  • He is God's firstborn (v. 6)
  • He will rule forever, righteously, joyously (v. 8-9)
  • God calls him "God" (v. 8)
I struggle with this section of Hebrews because, although it elevates Jesus, it doesn't quite go as far as I'd like it to ("Just say that Jesus is God already!") and it doesn't fit perfectly into our Trinitarian boxes.  But it isn't trying to.  The author is just trying to show that Jesus is better. 

Does he?

Studying Hebrews

In just a few weeks, we'll have the Florida Divisional Staff Conference.  Our Divisional Director, Evan, will be leading us through a study of Hebrews during that time.

Have you ever studied Hebrews?

I confused and worried me a lot when I was in high school.  What exactly was faith and how could I get enough of it to make sure I go to heaven?  Do I lose my salvation every time I sin?  Questions like these rose out of the text and gave me a hard time.

In college, I remember Joe, my Staffworker, saying that he didn't think he'd ever fully understand Hebrews.  Joe is one of the smartest men alive and knows more about Scripture than I could ever hope to learn.  I started to steer clear of Hebrews after that.

I remember one of our Men's Small Group leaders at Virginia Tech telling me he wanted to study Hebrews with the guys.  I cringed.

Maybe it's time to stop ducking Hebrews, to lean in to it.  My commentaries are boxed up (waiting for us to finish the move), so this study will be a little more responsive.

Have you ever studied Hebrews?  Would you like to?

My Two favorite Books on Technique

The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster

The last time I was in Tampa for a summer, I asked Bill Atkinson to mentor me.  If anyone's keeping track, I've been mentored by Bill Hunter, Bill Robinson, Bill Atkinson, Bill Davis, and my Dad (whose name is Bill).  Some shrink would have a blast with that (so would some economist).

But back to the story.  I asked Bill Atkinson to mentor me.  He's a wise man, who radiates strength and gentleness.  I don't know anyone more patient, more kind, or more devoted to prayer.

He suggested that we read the Foster book together.

The book does a tremendous job balancing theory and practical application.  Read a chapter and you not only know where to start but why to start there.  Spiritual disciplines like fasting and confession finally made sense, finally seemed doable.  I mean, the dude got specific enough to tell you that you might get bad breath at the start of a fast.

Foster developed the material in the book, as a pastor, after hearing one of his Sunday School teachers teach on the disciplines.  I mean, if you have Dallas Willard teaching Sunday School at your church, you should take notes.  And if Dallas is open to you making his material widely accessible, you should do it.

The Life You Always Wanted by John Ortberg

I almost refused to read this book.  The title is so lamely, self-helpish.  I wouldn't have been surprised if it was sub-titled "A Journey of Self-Discovery Along A Road Not Taken."  Then the first chapter uses a Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers reference.  How quickly I came to missing out!

His "Training vs. Trying" chapter is, for my money and for the person starting out, the best chapter on the spiritual disciplines ever written.  I've referred to it previously on the blog: here and here and in a series starting here.

He does a fantastic job, throughout his book, of showing from his own life what it looks like to live out the disciplines he's describing.  When explaining the discipline of slowing, he talks about his efforts to go to the longest line in the grocery store checkout.  How does this technique help you connect with God?  He explains it.

The book isn't a perfect book, by any means.  But it's a good book, a helpful book.  And that's what you want if you're trying to branch out in the techniques you use to connect with God.

On Quiet Times

Hang out around an InterVarsity Small Group for even a little while and you'll probably run into someone who does what they call a "Quiet Time."

The Quiet Time has been the centerpiece in the conversation when evangelical Christians talk about techniques they use to connect with God.  Ask your average evangelical how they're doing connecting with God and they usually answer with something about their Quiet Time: "Not great, actually.  I haven't had my Quiet Times this week." or "Fabulous!  I actually found time to do a Quiet Time today."

What it involves:

1 Hour (or as much time as you can spare)
Daily (or as often as you can)
Alone with God (hence the quiet)
Pray to prepare yourself (the forgotten step)
Read a passage of Scripture (usually just one passage)
Think about that passage of Scripture (could journal too)
Give God space to speak into your life (the step we zip through)

Benefits to this technique:

Impresses girls
Matches rhythms of school/9-to-5 jobs
Straightforward
Can get the day done in one sitting
A lot like studying for school
Flexible
Active, when done well
Transformative, when done rightly
Impresses girls

The myth:

There's a myth that says that the Quiet Time is the standard of Christian devotion for your whole life. I wildly respect the men and women who started practicing a Quiet Time when they started following Jesus and have flourished from this technique for 60 years. They're out there.

I'm not one of them.

The problems with this technique:

I'm married and don't need to impress girls
I'm not in school and don't work a 9-to-5
Feels simplistic
Too easily compartmentalized
Feeds the head and not the heart
Cop-outable
Passive, when done poorly
Useless, when done wrongly
Do I still need to impress girls?

There has to be something beyond the Quiet Time

A Few Non-negotiables

If not every technique will connect us with God, but there isn't one technique that works every time, where does that leave us?

Eventually, this winding path will get us to historic Christian spiritual disciplines.  There goes the surprise.

But along the way, it could be helpful to chart out some of our non-negotiables, guardrails on our way.

1) Connect through Christ

Jesus declares himself to be "the way, the truth and the life."  He is so bold as to say: "No one comes to the Father except through me." He is the point at which humanity and God unite, connect.

I love watching the Gulf of Mexico.  My Grandmother spends some time there every summer.  My Father recently bought a house on the Gulf as well.  Warm water, small waves.  If you go at the right time you can still find places on the beach where the rhythmic crash of the waves is all you can hear.

Looking out over the Gulf of Mexico there's a great horizon line, a visual representation that sky and water are meeting.  From my vantage point in the shallows, the meeting, touching of sky and water seems far off, miles and miles away.  But even in my knee-deep shallows, full of shells and sting-rays, sky and water touch.

Our techniques to connect with God are a lot like the water's reach to touch the sky.  Looked at from up close, it's nothing, no big deal.  From a distance, the horizon clearly makes the connection.

Christ is our connection, our place where sky and water meet.  From some vantage points, it's tough to see how Christ fits into it (What does Jesus have to do with fasting?).  But if you can back up far enough, if you get the right angle, you always see that horizon line between sky and water.

Every technique that allows us to connect with God does so through Christ.

2) Connection requires community

There is no option to connect with God without the people of God.  This is one of the reasons multi-ethnicity is so important.  This is one of the reasons the church is so important.  This is one of the reasons evangelism is so important.

All of our techniques, practiced in isolation, go astray.  This is one of the reasons the author of Hebrews urges us to "not give up the habit of meeting together."  Discouragement floods in.  Selfishness and self-centeredness sneak in.  Stagnation sets in.  We need community.

And this is a very difficult element to incorporate into our techniques to connect with God.  Real community often devolves into...
  • Mere accountability
  • Bragging
  • Spectatorship
  • Once-a-week Christianity
  • Laziness
  • Shame
It shouldn't.  Community is a gift from God, a means of grace.  But hard to receive.  Oh, so hard to receive.

Try fasting as a community.  All manner of corruption rushes in and we begin to see why Jesus told us to fast in private.  But Daniel and his companions fasted together.  Moses and David called for fasts.  Throughout the history of God's people, communal fasts have had a powerful effect, connecting and reconnecting people to God.

So many of our approaches to the spiritual disciplines are individualistic.  We don't know how to let other people into our practice.  I certainly don't well.

I tried a few months ago, tried talking some friends into reading Celebration of Discipline and putting some of the disciplines into practice together.  That's right, I gave my friends homework.  That's how it felt, at least.

But I know it's right.  I know community is a gift for us as we engage in the various techniques God's given us to connect with him.  Community is a gift.  I just need to learn to unwrap it.

Non-negotiable Orthodoxy

Draw a big circle, a very big circle.

The truth is in here, somewhere. We may not be able to nail down the exact point and we may disagree as to who's closer to this elusive truth, but it's in here, somewhere.

That's orthodoxy.

InterVarsity and our ever-expanding network of Small Group communities holds to a particular type of doctrinal orthodoxy. Read our doctrinal statement if you're curious.  It's pretty broad: including charasmatics and Calvinists and charasmatic Calvinists.

But orthodoxy does create barriers.  Saying "the truth is in here" is also intended to communicate "the truth is not out there."  And this is important for us if we are going to be open to other techniques for connecting with God.

Not all techniques to connect with God will work.  Here's a list of techniques that don't help:
  • Animal sacrifice
  • Human sacrifice
  • Treating humans like animals (with or without sacrifice)
  • Keeping track of brownie point / good deeds
  • Pretending that other gods are the same as God
  • Calling God by names he doesn't call himself (Jeebus, Mother Nature, etc...)
Can you think of other techniques that are beyond our orthodoxy?

Tied to Technique

I found a technique of connecting with God that really worked for me.

Jesuit High School. Fall. 1998. Free period/lunch. Behind the columns of the Chapel on the library side. Me. My Bible.

I connected so well with God then. Reading my Bible was fresh and new, exciting.

Then it was musical worship. Then prayer. Then Scripture memorization. Then Small Group Bible Study. Then preaching. Now, I'm not sure.

My friend Joe Moore once told me that the technique that best helps me connect to God may change over time, as my life changes, as I grow. I've found him to be right.

We don't need to be slavishly tied to technique when it comes to connecting with God. The 30 minute quiet time may not be helpful for a mother with young children. Different people, in different seasons of life, will connect with Jesus in different ways.

I think I'll explore this theme over the next couple of days.

Blameless Failure

"You should try growing a garden."

This excellent advice was given to me today by my friend, Brad. We were talking about something I have been struggling with lately.

If something in life or ministry goes well, I feel comfortable giving God the credit. After all, Paul planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the growth. I find this satisfying, both theologically and emotionally.

But when things go poorly, it's another story altogether. I take the blame, try to figure out what I did wrong, try to prevent failure in the future. But this doesn't square perfectly with my theology.

I'm deeply aware of my internal desire to blame God for my laziness, to pin my mistakes on him, to use him as an excuse for poor planning or innattentive execution.

But there's something deeply wrong with a theology that says that God gets all the credit and I get all the blame. Sometimes things struggle and fail and it's not my fault. Sometimes, I think failure is God's idea and fits within his larger, loving purposes. Sometimes.

That's where the conversation about the garden comes in. In a garden you can do everything right and things still die. Blameless failure.

I could use some of that.

Fear is a Soul-killer

Be aggressive. B E aggressive. B E A G G R E S S I V E.

Despite the encouragement of a life's worth of cheerleaders, I'm still not a very aggressive person. My second place finish in tonight's poker game is evidence to that, as is the hour I spent in Best Buy waiting for the guy who said he'd "be done in 5 minutes, Buddy." We non-aggressive people know that whenever you get called Buddy by a salesperson you're about to be taken advantage of.

I used to think that I wasn't aggressive because I was a kind and gentle person, meek and mild, preparing myself to inherit the earth.

Now, I know that I'm just afraid.

I don't know why I'm afraid to stand up for myself, but I know I'm afraid.

Fear can be a deadly thing. Left unaddressed for too long, it becomes cynicism or apathy or exhaustion.

Fear is valuable in the short term and only for the short term. I need to be freed from fear to become who God wants me to be. You need to be freed too.

Can you free us from fear, God?

My money's on the local

In InterVarsity we love customization. We want everything contextualized. We love to redesign, to reengineer.

Some of this flows from our decades-long connection to university culture, where the new is always en vogue and rapid student turnover provides us with extremely short memories.

Our Small Group leadership structure seems to change every year. Our Small Group (witnessing community) strategy for campus outreach and impact "is new every morning" (to quote the Psalmist).

But we live on the tail end of an era when bigger is considered better, when in the business world big, national brands thrive and survive. But in the Christian world, the big brands - also known as denominations - are deeply struggling. And most of those struggles have to do with identity and contextualization.

I'm thinking about this today because we've been spending a lot of time this week with our friends April and Zach, who run a cottage industry that provides homemade baked goods to local food lovers. Their stuff is better (in part) because April is an extremely gifted baker and (in part) because the food is local, fresher, custom.

I wonder if the future will be full of local cottage industries or full of big-boxes; whether we'll see a proliferation of denominations or local Small Group upon Small Group, expanding and adapting to change the world.

My money's on the local.

Critics and Fans

I find it much easier to be a critic than a fan.

Nothing is perfect and nobody is perfect. A critic can always find something to say. And often a critic can find other voices to echo their own. Surely, someone else has noticed this inadequacy or this deficiency. But even if they haven't, they'll appreciate that you did.

I find it much easier to be a critic than a fan.

Fans care. Fans are emotionally invested. Fans hurt alongside whoever their a fan of. Fans can't always convince other people to become fans. Fans don't get the glory or the spotlight.

I find it much easier to be a critic, but I love being a fan.

Look for opportunities to be a fan. It's more work, but it's also more fun.

Specific but not exclusive

It's tough to be specific without being exclusive.

"God bless America" (specific) often implies "and no place else" (exclusive)
"God loves us" (specific) often implies "and not you" (exclusive)
"God is blessing my work" (specific) sometimes implies "and not yours" (exclusive)

In the story of Joshua, Joshua learns that God's specific blessing doesn't imply exclusivity.  He's scouting out Jericho, trying to find a weak point, a way to make a successful offense.

Along the way, he encountered a man standing with a drawn sword.  Joshua issued the challenge: are you with us or with our enemies?  The man introduces himself as the Commander of the Army of the Lord and, in answer to Joshua's challenge, said "No."

That's quite a non-sequitor.  Are you with us or with them?  No. 

No isn't an option.  But that's the answer.  God refuses that particular exclusivity.  He isn't for us and no one else.  God is for us because he is for everyone else.  God was for the people of Israel because he was for the world.  He was for Abraham because he was for the nations.

The Christian reaction to postmodern subjectivism often ignores the reality that God gets specific because he's not exclusive.

It's hard for us to imagine "specific but not exclusive."  When Joel (a friend from Small Group in Lex) takes his vows this weekend, he'll be married exclusively to a specific woman (another friend from Small Group - Jenny).  This is a zero-sum game, at least in our culture.  Say "yes" to one in marriage, say "no" to everyone else, at least for a while.

We're used to zero-sum options, my gain is your loss.  But so much of Christian theology vaults over this dilemma.  One God and Three Persons.  Fully God and Fully Human.  Sinner and Saint.  Local and Universal.

This way of thinking - specific but not exclusive - is a big jump.  Let make it (and invite others to make it with us).

Freedom, Idolatry, and Dual Citizenship

I hate going to church on the 4th of July.

One year, a pastor linked Paul's idea of freedom in Christ from Galatians with religious pluralism, claiming that all religions are really the same and that Jesus freed us up to worship however we like.  I think that was when my hatred of 4th of July church started.

The next year, we sang "God Bless America" while a 60 foot American flag rose on the altar (actually covering the cross).  Something felt wrong.

Almost every year, former and current military are asked to stand, sometimes called out branch by branch.  America's soldiers, we're told, are actually fighting to make Sunday morning church possible.  That's what all our wars have been about, we're told.  But I don't buy that.  Not anymore.

We need clearer conversation about the meaning of freedom.  We need a heart-check around the idolatrous edge of patriotism.  We need to think deeply about what it means if we find ourselves as Christians and Americans.

I hate going to church on the 4th of July, I think, because it stirs up all of these questions to which I don't have answers.  What is freedom?  What does healthy patriotism look like?  What does it mean to be both a Christian and an American?

These are questions to be pounded out in community.  A good Small Group would really help, I think.  Courageous Small Group leaders, yeah, that would help too.
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I'd love to love going to church on the 4th of July.  Maybe next year?

Trust God AND Live Wisely

I received a heated voice mail from a good friend the other day.  Something that I wrote on the blog got on his nerves.
My first reaction was "Someone reads my blog other than my mom?"

After that, I got to thinking.  My friend's reaction had to do with some of my comments about saving for the future.  Actually, not so much the comments (since I still haven't landed on what I think the Bible has to say about that), but about some of the questions I'm asking.

There's a tension between our faith in a God who provides and our obedience to the God who asks us to live wisely. 

It's not an either/or tension.  It's not trust God or live wisely.  Doing both should be an option.

But sometimes, in the name of doing one, we sacrifice the other.  And this is what my buddy was pushing me about.  He felt I was shortchanging the "live wisely" element of our response to God.  Sometimes the best expression of trust is to live the wise life.  Let me illustrate...

When my computer died last summer, it was a dramatic death.  A week before camp, no hope for recovery.  I was really tempted to run out and buy a new laptop before camp.  We didn't really have the money, but I could have financed it and I really felt like I needed a computer.  The Bible says that the borrower is slave to the lender (very economically naive, but I like it).  So, in an attempt to trust God, I held off from buying the computer.  No big deal.

The path of wisdom is always the path of trust.  Saving for the future can be a radical, counter-cultural expression of trust in God's provision.  It's the trusting person who puts a portion of a paycheck away every month rather than blowing it on the latest fad or fashion, trusting society or technology to satisfy the eternal internal itch to belong. 

We need to both trust God AND live wisely.

Good call, my friend.  Good call.

Three Troubles that come with Being First

Being first can be a huge advantage sometimes.  Sometimes.

But sometimes the pressure to be first can cause trouble for us...

1) Consistency vs. Rightness

Former President Clinton spoke at Sen. Byrd's funeral today.  I saw part of his eulogy on CNN.  At first, I was appalled that he brought up Sen. Byrd's former association with the KKK.  But he made an important point.  When politicians are in the wrong, they should change their views.

This is incredibly difficult for us, not just for politicians.  If we change our opinions or views, we are accused of being hypocrites.  I've never met a Small Group leader or someone in a Small Group who likes being called a hypocrite.  We want to be known to be consistent.  But no one can be right all the time.

So, why do we consider it hypocrisy if someone changes their mind?  Some of this has to do with the way we communicate our views in the first place: too absolutely, too ungenerously.  Some of this has to do with an under-value of learning.

In an age with YouTube and internets that never forget, the pressure to be consistent will only increase, even at the expense of adapting to lessons learned.

What would happen if we valued being right over being consistent?

2) Legacy vs. adaptation

InterVarsity is one of the oldest transdenominational campus ministries in the United States.  We were into Small Group Bible Studies before Small Group ministry gained popularity.  We trained Small Group leaders before my parents were born.

It used to be that being the first was an extraordinarily high value.  Seth Godin writes about this on his blog from time to time.  The first person to come up with an idea or create a product was laps around the track ahead of their competition.  But not anymore.

It's not enough to be first, anymore.  Legacy counts for little in a postmodern world.  People want to know if what you're doing is appropriately contextualized, adapted to them.  As the world changes and shifts, new ideas and new strategies are going to appear.  As much as I love Small Group ministry, Small Groups may not always be the best way to reach college students.  Inevitably, we'll need to adapt.

But adaptation is difficult.  Being the first in requires a lot of investment.  It involves inventing, creating, testing.  It's expensive and exhausting.  It takes a lot of life.  And all that makes it tough to scrap whatever it is you created, even if it's no longer relevant.

What would happen if - holding fast to our allegiances and mission - we scrapped the outdated strategies and structures that are holding us back?

3) Originality vs. faithfulness

I've been around academia for a decade now.  And in the publish-or-perish world, being the first to think of or articulate an idea has immense value.  Your dissertation has to be on something new.

Have you ever tried to talk to a new professor about his or her dissertation?  They usually don't want to talk about it.  It's not that they're bored with it (well...sometimes), it's that it's usually obscure.  In order to be new and first, people often ditch the relevant and practical.

And it's not just the academic world where the obsession with the original resides.  As a Small Group leader, I feel tremendous pressure to find an observation in Scripture that no one's noticed before.  I don't want to quote someone else.  And I know that my Small Group would be impressed if I created something new.

But the call of Christ is the call to faithfulness.  The gospel of Christ is the same gospel believed by Christians in all places at all times.  We don't have a lot new to say.

This doesn't mean that we don't have anything to say or that creativity is unfaithfulness, but this obsessive desire to be the first to think of something, the first to say something, this desire drives us away from the important, true things that have already been thought and said. 

What would happen if we focused our creativity to apply and communicate the ancient in original ways rather than to produce something irrelevant but new?

Get it right, even if you can't get it first

In Sunday school as a kid I remember hearing the story of the spies scoping out the promised land.  10 gave a bad report: the giants of the land will devour us.  2 gave a good report: God is bigger than the giants (and have you seen the grapes?).

The heroes of the story are Caleb and Joshua, the spies representing the tribes of Judah and Ephraim.  Of all the spies, only Joshua and Caleb trust the Lord and only Caleb and Joshua get to enter the land.  Heroes.  But Joshua wasn't a hero at first.

Somehow, I'd never noticed this.  I've never heard anyone preach on this.  In Numbers 12, Caleb gives a faith-filled report.  Joshua isn't mentioned.  The narrator says that the other spies (which would include Joshua) pushed the don't-go-into-the-land opinion. 

Why do we think of Joshua as a hero in this story then?

In Numbers 14, he does the right thing.  The people rebel and get ready to get rid of Moses.  They give up on the promised land and then, then, that's when Joshua stands up.  Joshua and Caleb urge the people to move forward in faith.

Where was Joshua when Caleb was giving his minority report?  Why didn't he speak up then?

We want our leaders to do the right thing and to do it first.  That's part of what makes them leaders. 

One of the things I love about this part of the story is that Joshua isn't an early adopter.  He doesn't do the right thing immediately.  He isn't the first one to see it.

Leaders can't always be first.  Leading when you're not first is a tough thing to do, impossible for most people.  For most groups, the leader is the leader de facto because she/he got there first, early.  How many pastors are in way over there heads because their churches grew faster than they did?  How many Staff are hesitant to lead because someone else in the chapter or area has more experience?  How many Small Group leaders make huge mistakes trying to be the first to some innovation?

Leaders can't always be first.  They don't have to be.  It's more important to do the right thing, even if that means copying someone else.  Joshua isn't remembered because he got it first.  He's remembered because he got it right.