Posts from Urbana 09

Next December, we'll gather in St. Louis with 20,000 students and missionaries at the Urbana Missions Conference:
Urbana is a large-scale, empowering missions event held every three years and is the most diverse gathering of students, recent graduates, missions practitioners and church leaders in North America. 
I've been to Urbana three times. I actually have had two job interviews at Urbana conferences. God has used Urbana to call and challenge me, to mold and shape me, to equip and inspire me.

At the last Urbana, I took time in between sessions to share what I was learning and thinking about during the conference. I've posted links to that series here:

Your Neighborhood is smaller/bigger than you think
Notes from Jim Tebbe's opening talk

Three M's from the Incarnation
Notes from Ramez Atallah's exposition from John 1:14

Grab Phrases
Conferences like Urbana have a ton of content. Here are some of the potent quotes.

Trust in the Sovereignty of God (Patrick Fung and Greg Jao)
An interview with the President of OMF and Urbana's MC (and chief celebrity)

Five Steps for Nathaniel
Notes from Ramez Atallah's exposition of John 1

The Short Post
A quick reflection on the day's teaching

It's about the Kenosis, Stupid
A more thorough reflection/application of the incarnation

A Credible Witness
Why don't people believe us?

What are you so afraid of?
An application from Brenda Salter-McNeil's sermon.

The Gospel Looks Fake
A reflection on the ethnic diversity at Urbana (and in the church)

The Secret is Where You Start
Seriously ... start small, here, now

The New One is not like the Old One
God's kingdom is a kingdom unlike any we've ever seen

Mercy, not sacrifice

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice."

This quote from the Old Testament comes up several times in the Gospels. Jesus says that things would be very different in the world if people understood this truth about God.

Mercy, not sacrifice ... this is what God desires.

We tend to exalt sacrifice in campus ministry. Sacrifice moves us.

We tell stories of sacrifice: the young man whose parents disowned him when he decided to be a missionary to students, the student who rides the bus for an hour to lead a Bible Study on campus, the Staffworker who sets aside great opportunities to follow Jesus.

There is something beautiful about sacrifice.
But that is not what God desires.

It's not that sacrifice is evil. God himself sacrificed himself for us, for our good and for our salvation. And through history, God has used our sacrificial systems to communicate to us truth about ourselves and about him.

But God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

One reason for this is very straightforward. If all God wanted was sacrifice, we would quickly create systems that required other people to sacrifice. Humans have a wild capacity to ask others to sacrifice. We ask children to sacrifice for our careers. We ask young soldiers to sacrifice for our safety. We ask the poor to sacrifice for our financial freedom.

And religious systems have frequently used principles of sacrifice oppressively. The hungry are asked to sacrifice because we don't harvest on the Sabbath. The sick are left sick because we don't want to dishonor the Sabbath. Sacrifice.

God desires mercy, not sacrifice because he wants us to be merciful toward others, and not sacrifice them.

The second reason God desires mercy is because he is merciful. God did not give us what we deserved. He held back. He showed mercy. Our devices and desires demanded that we be sacrificed, for the good of humanity, for our own good even (that we not be allowed to grow in our evil). But God choose to show mercy.

God wants us to be merciful because he is merciful.

Our world is full of conversation about sacrifice. In economics, people are talking about shared sacrifice. In politics, people are talking about sacrificing ego and agenda in order to compromise and work together. In the church, people are talking about sacrifical serving and sacrifical giving.

But there's very little conversation about mercy.

What would happen if the people of God decided to be merciful wherever they could, whenever they could, with whoever they could?

Start to obey today

There will always be a better time to begin being obedient.

But delayed obedience is a form of disobedience.

If God prompts you to pray, pray immediately, even if you can't pray for long, even if you don't know exactly what to pray about.

If God prompts you to give, don't wait too long. Don't give greed and selfishness time to chip away at the generous impulses of the Spirit.

If God prompts you to serve, don't put it off. Don't run the risk that he will move on and do the beautiful thing he wanted to do without including you.

If God prompts you to forgive, do it quickly, before the seeds of bitterness take root in the soil of your soul.

What would happen if all of God's people were quick to obey?

Health and Wealth and Knowledge

How do you know that God is pleased with someone? What does God's favor look like? What will you find if you look at the life of a thriving Christian?

One false gospel claims that the best Christians will be healthy. Freedom from sickness reflects your freedom from sin. A healthy body stands as the outward manifestation of a healthy soul. Strengthening your faith-muscles gives you a healthy glow. You'll live long.

Except that this didn't work for Jesus or the early church. Few lived to ripe old age.

Another false gospel claims that the best Christians will be wealthy. God blesses those he loves with material abundance. To the faithful, more will be given. God enlarges your tent if you obey him (especially with the tithe). You will prosper.

Except that this didn't work for Jesus or the early church. Few lived with great wealth.

Live long and prosper. Few evangelical Christians will claim that this is the goal of life or the good news about Jesus. Jesus didn't join our humanity, live a life of love, die on the cross, conquer sin and death, and rise to new life just so we can live long and prosper. He wants more for us than health and wealth.

We know this.

We ... know ... this.

Know.

This is the temptation for us. To measure by knowing. To measure not by health and wealth, but by knowledge.

Which books have you read?
Who and what can you quote?
Who do you recognize?
Do you know arcane theological terms?
Do you know the Alpha according to its nature?
Did you catch that reference to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas?


Knowledge, like health and wealth can become a false North Star for the Christian life. It's tempting for us to think that all God wants from us is to grow in knowledge, that a little more knowledge will solve all our problems. We look for answers in the latest books. Fight the latest controversies, thinking that if we're on the right side, we'll be accepted by God. We think that a little more knowledge will end war, end poverty, end racism and sexism and fanaticism.

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This is where the Haiti Test comes in so handy.

The Haiti Test is a test my friend Evan Keller over at Entrust uses to fish for cultural snobbery in spiritual life. It goes like this: "if it isn't true in Haiti, it isn't true at all." The Haitians who most love Jesus don't experience health and a wealth. The earthquake shook everyone. Disease and poverty effects everyone. And the godliest people seem to suffer significantly.

With this in mind, it certainly wouldn't be fair to claim that a man in Haiti who was never taught to read can never be as favored by God as faux-Ivy Leaguers like me. By virtue of my education and comparative wealth, I will always have more knowledge, more access to knowledge, than that man in Haiti (and most of the people who ever lived).
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Now, you might say "Didn't Jesus have knowledge? And weren't the founders of the church wise?"

Sure. I'll give you that. But so were the Pharisees and the Sophists. They memorized the Scriptures. They were in constant dialogue with the most brilliant minds of their day. But they still missed out on Jesus.

Though wise, Jesus didn't make wisdom our goal. He didn't say "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you have great knowledge."

What did Jesus say?

If the mark of a disciple of Jesus isn't knowledge or health or wealth, what is it?

Seasons of Vocation

What do you do when a job you loved doesn't look so lovely?

I've had several conversations this week with folks who are finding themselves feeling uncomfortable with their jobs. Asked a year or two back, they would have said that they had a perfect job. Ask them today and you'll hear awkward stammering.

The world of vocation has shifted in our generation. 

It used to be that you worked in a job or for a company for decades ... until retirement. My mentor, Bill, worked for Kodak for something like 30 years. 30 years. Can you believe that? 

Today's job market isn't built for long-term commitment. And we aren't equipped (or willing) to make the sacrifices to roll with traditional vocational structures. We have different expectations for work.

I've seen this first-hand in my life. My desire to be a present father has deeply influenced my recent vocational shift (ie. the move from Campus Staff to Area Director). I knew that I couldn't work in the same rhythms and still be the kind of father I wanted to be.

This is one reason people fall out of love with jobs. A job that fit you in one stage of life may not fit you in another. That's not a criticism of the job, the people you work with, the organization, mission or cause. In fact, you may be able to adapt and thrive despite your shifting life stage. Or you may need to look for something else.

If you're finding yourself loving a job less and less, take a quick look at your life season. Was there a recent change that could explain the discontent?

Who do you know that is experiencing vocational discontent? Do you think you could help them see that a change in life stage may require changes around their work?

What is VS What could be

"Leadership is all about vision."

How often have you heard that? Vision ... painting a picture of what could be, making it feel like it should be ... that's vision, that's leadership.

Or is it?

As I've engaged in more intensive fundraising through December, I'm wondering whether I should talk about "what is" or "what could be".

I've been reporting to donors, letting them know how their money has been put to work and letting them know what God has been doing through our ministry.

And it's kind of exciting. We have 305 students involved. 9 chapters. 11 conversions. 17 supporting churches and over 100 donors.

God is doing amazing things: taking care of our students, taking care of us.

But I wonder if I'm showing enough "leadership."

We're serving 305 students but have only 3 paid Staff. We have generous supporters, but are running pretty short of our operating budget (you don't want to know the numbers). We're reaching 9 campuses, but I know of 14 campuses in our Area that have 0 campus ministry whatsoever.

We could have 500 students involved pretty easily.
We could add several staff pretty easily.
We could plant ministry on most of those empty campuses ... pretty easily.

But this sounds so sales-pitchy: "We could do all this stuff if we just had enough resources."
And this sounds so independent: "We could do this and we could do that ... and sprinkle some Jesus in there somewhere."

But I'm told that this is "vision" ... this is leadership. And I wonder why it makes me feel so uncomfortable. Am I even a real leader?

How do you decide when to talk about "what is" and when to talk about "what could be"?

What would Jesus picket?

"I'm against picketing ... but I don't know how to show it"
                                                           - Mitch Hedberg
The Westboro clan plans to come to Broward College Central tomorrow. These are the people who picket soldiers' funerals and carry signs talking about all of the people God hates. They call themselves Westboro Baptist Church, but I'm not sure I want to call them "Baptist" or a "church."

What would you do if the Westboro people showed up at your school (or workplace or church or party or neighborhood)?

I'm tempted to counter-protest, to pick a fight, to make a scene.
I'm tempted to flood the airwaves, steal traffic and divert attention.
I'm tempted to overwhelm them with love and kindness.
I'm tempted to convert, infiltrate their organization and do something incomprehensible.

But then I imagine Jesus' response to them and get confused. He did all of these things.

He made a whip and drove out the moneychangers.
He drew the crowds away from the religious hypocrites.
He healed and forgave and protected.
He died on the cross and rose from a grave.

And I realize that I can't do all of these things. Not all at once, at least.

So, what should I do? What should we do?

4 Challenges to Biblical Inerrancy

As I mentioned in yesterday's post (Understanding the Other Side), I had the opportunity recently to play Devil's Advocate in a debate about biblical inerrancy.

Biblical inerrancy is a tough topic to pin down. When I think about it, I think about the idea that Bible is true and trustworthy, accurate and reliable, perfect and authoritative. I think this a great doctrine. So, how would you attack it?

Here are the four best arguments I could find to represent the anti-inerrancy side ...

Contradictions

The Bible is full of apparent, on-the-face contradictions.

What is Jesus' genealogy? Did Jesus feed 4,000 or 5,000 or both? How many angels were at Jesus' tomb? What were Jesus' last words? Google "bible contradictions" and you'll find a lot of people who excel at close reading and need new hobbies.

Contradictions seem to undermine claims that the Bible is perfect. Sure, we can still trust the Bible even if it has some imperfections, but where does this leave inerrancy?

Incoherence

The story of the Bible unravels and unfolds turn by turn. We learn more and more about God and his ways as the story unfolds. Some laws pass away (yay cheesburgers!). Some practices pass away (sacrifices for ex.). Some institutions pass away (temples and Levites).

And this raises the question: "what does it mean to say that the whole Bible is inerrant?" There are parts of it that we can learn from, but shouldn't obey. There are parts that are outright lies and errors (see Job's friends' speeches). For generations people have talked about "a canon within the canon," prioritizing some scriptures above others. But where does this leave inerrancy?

Process

The Bible you read today didn't descend from heaven and it wasn't mined from the earth. It came to us through a long and convoluted process. This process involves transcription, transmission, canonization and (for us non-Greek-readers) translation.

Most tight definitions of inerrancy hold that the Bible was only perfect in autograph form (ie. only the first edition was perfect). After that, errors creep in. As do biases. Where does this leave inerrancy?

Authority

The last challenge has to do with the locus of authority. Is the Bible your authority or someone else? Most evangelicals would say that the Bible is the ultimate authority (sola scriptura). Inerrancy protects our capacity to trust the authority of the Bible.

But where did we get the Bible? And how do we read it?

The reality is that the early, proto-orthodox church decided on the contents of the Christian Bible (for more on this, see The Canon of Scripture by FF Bruce). And we bring our community with us when we read the Bible (try to read Romans without hearing a Luther track laid over Paul). The fingerprints of men are all over the Bible.

Where does this leave inerrancy?

Can you think of other significant challenges to biblical inerrancy?

Understanding the other side

This past week, we had a debate at FIU MMC about biblical inerrancy. The concept of inerrancy revolves around whether or not the Bible is true and trustworthy, accurate and reliable, perfect and authoritative.

As a Staffworker with InterVarsity I regularly affirm:
The unique divine inspiration,
entire trustworthiness
and authority of the Bible.
I believe in biblical inerrancy, as do all of our leaders. But, for the purposes of the debate, we needed to find someone (on short notice) who could represent the other side.

So, I stepped up.

I presented a 30 minute argument, answered questions and did my best to represent the a theological position that I don't hold.

Have you ever tried to do that, to represent the other side?

As I prepared, I found myself struggling to empathize with the other side. All of their arguments seemed easy to unravel. They lacked nuance or a complete picture of the facts.

Often, discourse stops that this point. We assume the other side are all pinheads. We assume they are idiots or jerks or fools. We listen to people who affirm our views and affirm our views until we can't understand how anyone can disagree with us.

Look at politics or theology. You'll see distinct communities ... tribes ... who gather and amplify each other's beliefs. Amplification in the echo chamber can be great (or horrible). And it often comes at the cost of empathy and understanding.

What do you do to help yourself better understand the other side?

A Psalm for the South Florida Area

This was scribbled in my journal as a reflection exercise as part of my day-long retreat on Monday. It's based off of Psalm 103, a psalm reflecting on God's past goodness and grace.

Praise the Lord, O my soul;
  all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, O my soul,
  and forget not all his benefits - 
who unites us to himself
  and removes all our rebellion,
who holds us together when we're out of control
  and keeps us from collapsing,
who does the work despite our inadequacy
  so that our youth is not spent in vain.

The Lord sees and cares about the unseen and unregarded and unreached.

He guided Doug Stewart as he drove up and down the coast,
  planting seeds of ministry that waited decades to sprout.

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, 
  slow to give up and abounding in creative generosity.
He will not always accuse,
  nor will he abandon our Area forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
  or repay us according to our selfish past.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
  so great is his love for our ministry teams.
As far as the East is from the West,
  so far has he removed our disobedient strategies from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
  so the Lord has compassion on the students who long for revival on their campuses;
for he knows how we were formed,
  he remembers our limited capacity.

As for our Staff, our days are like grass,
  we flourish in ministry for a season;
our call or our funding shifts
  and our chapters soon forget us.
But from everlasting to everlasting,
  the Lord's love is with our students
  and his righteousness with the generations that follow,
with those who follow his calling
  and remember his love, grace and truth.

The Lord has established his throne in heaven
  and his kingdom extends to every campus.

Praise the Lord, you Christian faculty
  you wise ones who love his truth,
  who love students for his sake.
Praise the Lord, all you Staff,
  you beautiful servants who do his will.
Praise the Lord, every campus,
  everywhere in his dominion.
Praise the Lord, O my soul.

Have you ever tried re-writing a Psalm to help you reflect and express yourself to God? Try it out!

Out of Rhythm

The "holidays" throw us out of rhythm.

We tend to operate on a weekly and daily rhythms. Every week has a rhythm: church, football, work, work, work, football, etc ... And every day has a rhythm: alone time, God time, work, family time, tv time, sleep.

But during the holidays ... no rhythm. Every day looks different. Every week looks different.

Seasons of disturbed rhythm can be very helpful:
  • They can release us from areas of unhealth in our regular rhythms
  • They can re-energize us
  • They can allow us to work on short projects
  • They can help us focus on what really matters
For example, over the last week, I've spent a lot more time with Amy and Will. I've read quite a bit, spent a lot of time in prayer and have listened to a lot of podcasts (Amy, Will and both of the dogs sleep in the car). It's been a good time ... out of rhythm.

But now I'm getting back into a rhythm, even if only for the few weeks before Christmas.

And as I do, I find myself paying careful attention to the things that make it into my new rhythm. Moments of rhythm-construction provide us with windows into the condition of our souls.

The rhythm I'm constructing this week (and for the next) is full of frantic work.
The rhythm I'm constructing this week has no space for exercise.
The rhythm I'm constructing this week has little space for God or my family.
This feels problematic.

But the problem isn't the new rhythm. That's temporary and easily fixed. It's a small task to rearrange your schedule. But what if our rhythms reflect realities that exist in our hearts?

"Why am I constructing this particular rhythm?" This is a question that we can all ask during times of transition, creating space for insight and reflection. Use the turmoil around the holidays to take a peek at your heart. What's going on in there? You can tell a lot by the rhythms you create.

What do you notice about the rhythm you're creating in this space between Thanksgiving and Christmas?