Archive for the ‘humility’ Category

I have long been a fan of Brian McLaren – both the man and his writings. We’ve e-mailed back and forth through the years, been apart of a scripture project together (The Voice), shared multiple meals, and Brian spoke an important blessing into my life at a critical time. His “A New Kind of Christian” came along for me at the perfect time; a time when I thought I was becoming disillusioned with faith, but ultimately, I was disillusioned with the version of Christian practice I’d thoughtlessly inherited. Brian showed this to me. This is, perhaps, Brian’s greatest gift; causing people to reexamine, search, study, investigate and re-conclude. In this way, Brian is a one man Hegelian Dialectic.  This is why so many people distrust and despise him and his work while others love him. In “A New Kind of Christianity, (ANKoCty)” Brian’s newest release, McLaren will not disappoint his fan or his critics.

ANKofCty endeavors to consider 10 questions that Brian says are transforming the faith. Truth is, these questions are not transforming the faith, but Brian wants them to, and he’s right to want it. The ten questions: (1) The Narrative Question, (2) The Authority Question; (3) The God Question, (4) The Jesus Question, (5) The Gospel Question, (6) The Gospel Question, (7) The Church Question, (8) The Sex Question, (9) The Future Question, and (10) The Pluralism Question are good ones, and Brian hopes to help push us ahead as we think through them together.

At the heart of ANKofCty is what McLaren calls, the “Greco-Roman” reading of scripture. This, it seems, is the root of our collective problems in terms of church and culture. Brian argues that freeing ourselves from this narrative releases us to answer the 10 questions Brian poses more faithfully. Within the Greco-Roman reading of scripture, Brian argues, there is no room for story or development, which ultimately gives rise to a “six-line narrative” that prejudices our reading of scripture. McLaren argues the “six-line narrative” leads us to all the wrong conclusions about everything – which Brian endeavors to demonstrate throughout the remaining pages of ANKofCty. In the end, Brian argues that we have read the Bible backwards with our filter coming through Paul, the apostles, Augustine, Plato and the Platonism and philosophical systems that are foreign to the true nature of the scriptures. Therefore, our view of Jesus and the Bible is not the Jesus OF the Bible, but a character – or caricature – inherited by thousands of years of interpretation lodged and birthed by the Greco-Roman narrative and Greek philosophy. This is Brian’s central thesis and gives rise to his conclusions.

I think Brian is both right and wrong. In fact, having read nearly all his books, I have never felt more strongly that he is both right on and far off course. This is what I mean: In terms of McLaren’s analysis of the Greco-Roman reading, he is dead on. The problem is that there is no way to avoid this, no way to time travel back through scripture and get something other than what we already got. This is where Brian is right and wrong. Having been raised in a “Restoration” movement, I know all too well the nonsensical pitfalls of thinking you can just skip over history, doctrine, theology, and theological and ecclesial development and get back to “the real thing.”

It cannot be done!

At best you miss the richness of the tradition that has given life to the faith that gives us life, at worst, you become a partisan to largely uneducated, ununified and incoherent belief system. If we were able leap backward over the hurdles of history to uncover a new way – or the grand old way – to read and interpret text without the obstacles course of 2000 years worth of interpretation and thought, then we would be forced to just to pick a method, system or interpretive lens and go with it arbitrarily.

Been there. Done that. Thank you very much.

All of that to say this; even Brian is coming at the text from somewhere “post-Jesus” in terms of history. Is he right in arguing that the method we’ve chosen is bad for hosts of reasons? Yes.  Is it possible for us to read and interpret Jesus the way McLaren wants us to, without the narratives that have been imposed heretofore? Unfortunately, no.

This means that all of our conclusions, even Brian’s, have to be held loosely, with epistemological humility. Perhaps it is my own ecclesial history, but something in my gut churns at the thought of dismissing church history and the schools of thought developed through it. For this reason, I’m open to the idea that I may be seeing shadows and experiencing paranoia where there need not be. I may be reacting to something not explicit in the pages of ANKofCty.

At the same time, Brian has offered the most helpful way forward on a number of issues that are becoming tremendously important to more and more people – sexuality, pluralism, etc…. He is far from convincing his critics or those entrenched in either/or, black/white, privileged / unprivileged thinking, but Brian’s conclusions, I think, are generally pointing the church in the right direction – though I need more convincing in some areas, myself. Both critics and fans of Brian know where he’s going with many of the issues addressed in ANKofCty before they turn the first page, but what is good about his work is that he provides a useable way forward for conversation (for those willing to have it). Using the Biblical text, McLaren at least gets the ball rolling and establishes what can become common language around these issues. This, I think, is the great service Brian has done for us.

In addition, Brian explores Romans in ways many will find broadening. In fact, I read ANKofCty with my Bible open. Trust me: this does not happen often! What more can you ask of a book? Brian forced me to look into the scriptures and I found myself looking differently. That alone is worth the price of purchase. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to read Romans the same way after engaging ANKoCty.

Likely the most out of character elements of ANKofCty comes in chapters 12 and 13 dealing with The Jesus Question. To articulate his vision of Jesus, McLaren takes on two vocal critics who happen to hold in common the ability to be consistently wrong and increasingly sought-after.  For those in the know, the critics are fairly easy to recognize, though Brian does not name them. What is out of character is Brian’s pointed language. Having spent time with Brian multiple times, I’ve found him to be irenic and generous, these chapters weren’t. At the end of chapter 12, I wrote in the margin, “Bam! One in ___________ _______________’s kisser.”

Between you and I, the rebuke was long overdue. Overdue not because scores needed settling, but because this particular critic has, and often does, misread Jesus and the Bible, offering an alternative gospel, in my view. This critic seems to envision Christian leadership as a full-contact blood sport and Brian gives him what he wants. Brian skillfully disarmed the violent, warrior-only version of Jesus, which had the added benefit of fitting nicely into Brian’s overall aims in ANKofCty. At the same time, he gave one particular critic the only kind of conversation he seems to understand. Harsh! In this way, the rebuke can be described as incarnational – speaking to people in their own language.

If Brian’s goal is to get people thinking and talking, ANKofCty is a success. Clearly not all will embrace his vision, yet others will be freed to pursue the Spirit in wild and new directions. Ultimately, ANKofCty is more than worth the time. I suggest reading it community. Drink from it slowly and invest in the ideas, maybe even choosing one question and digging deep over time. This is not a book for singular and individual thought. Brian has returned to what he does best – challenging the church. And he does so brilliantly this go round.

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Disclaimer: I received this book free of charge from Viral Bloggers for the purpose of this review.

Dr. Joel C. Hunter gets it right on conflict resolution:

Tiger Woods may have attended Stanford, but the past two weeks have proven how stupid he really is. I like Tiger Woods and believe him to be the greatest golfer of all time, whether he tracks down Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional Majors or not. Tiger is the best at what he does, but as we learned from Michael Jordan, being the best in a sport has very little to do with being good in the rest of life.

What’s odd is that we think it does. When I was a youth minister, I frequently told students that one of the best ways they could witness for God was by being good at what they did. Colt McCoy, Hunter Lawrence, Jordan Shipley and Tim Tebow are examples of this. By performing with excellence in one area, our very lives are granted credence in the minds others. It’s only natural that people believe that the excellent are excellent. But that’s not always the case. Through all the fist pumps, chest bumps, sunk putts and kicked rumps, we continue to find that our “heroes” are anything but.

Here’s El Tigre, the worlds most recognizable person, complete with a yacht named “Privacy” slinking around, hooking up with cocktail waitresses and pornstars – allegedly – and thinking, presumably, that he wouldn’t get caught; that no one would find out. You’ve got to be kidding!

That’s just plain stupid.

He was bound to get caught.

But it’s the best thing that could have happened to Tiger Woods.

Why? Because of Steve McNair and Michael Jackson.

Last summer, former NFL great Steve McNair was found shot by his girlfriend. A married man, McNair was having an affair with Shalel Kazemi, a 20-year old, who murdered him in his sleep before turning the gun on herself. (In case you didn’t know, if someone continues to hook up with a string of women who do not care that he is married, he will run across one who is crazy!) That’s what happened to McNair, whose girlfriend feared he was leaving her, and that would have eventually happened to Woods. It’s unlikely that it would have ended in murder, but it almost certainly would have been worse than bad press and a re-written pre-nuptial agreement.

And we all know the disturbing tragedy of Michael Jackson. Something dismaying happens to people when we are too tightly insulated. That was the case with Jackson and has been the case with Woods. No healthy person can exists in a world of yes men and staff rather than friends and mentors. Woods – due to our incessant desire to know everything about everyone – had created his own kingdom, perhaps with Elin and his own mother as the only citizens by choice, the only ones who wanted him for him and not cash or celebrity.

This has been his greatest weakness. Tiger has fired caddies and coaches for doing commercials and giving too many interviews. In Tiger’s world, it’s Tiger’s way or the highway. In fact, Tiger’s mom once reportedly told a former girlfriend of his, “There’s only one star in this family. Tiger.” That’s the problem. Everyone needs people in their life to tell us the truth, to remind us that the world, in fact, does not revolve around us and folks like Woods are woefully short of them.

The titillating headlines concerning the train wreck Woods’ life has become over the past two weeks, present Tiger an opportunity. If he can resist the urge to be handled or save face, he can come clean with himself. No one besides Elin needs an apology or explanation. Tiger has the chance, right now, to rewrite who he is, not to resurrect his shattered image, but become a new man. Right now, Tiger can take a big swing.

Deal with your issues, Tiger, – because it’s clear to everyone now that you have them. Become a better father to your kids (good dads don’t cheat on mom). Stop sporting for gullible, star-struck women, using them as objects, and stop doing whatever else you’ve got going on under the surface. Become a man who is honest, friendly, open, humble, straightforward, less the golf machine and more an authentic man. Just think what Jackson’s life could have been had he a chance to be more Michael and less icon. Today Tiger’s life has a chance to be genuine, something, I think, at the end of life, he would much more enjoy than the coat-check girl.

This is a reprint of a post I wrote several years ago. It has been updated since its original posting. Each Advent I read and re-post it here. It is my favorite piece, of all the things I’ve ever written. It continues to challenge me every Advent

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A friend of mine was walking through his neighborhood a few weeks before Christmas years ago. Living in Houston it never gets too cold so walks in December aren’t unusual. Anyway, as he approached one house, he noticed the Nativity in the front yard. Everything was in its place; shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and manger. Only inside the manger was the baby Jesus wearing a Santa Claus hat; fur-lined, red, and with that cool looking white ball thingy at the top. My friend points out that that’s the problem with Christmas – many of us cannot see the difference between who Jesus was, what He taught and did, and the unhinged, consumeristic fervor of America’s most gluttonous season.

It all begs the question: What should we be thinking and doing at Christmas?

Before a renaissance in my own thinking over the last 7 years, Christmas was essentially about getting the stuff that I wanted, the presents under the tree.  A good Christmas meant I got what I wanted and the sweet potato pie was tasty.  It had nothing to do with Jesus.  In my religious tradition we simply did not celebrate Christmas as a religious event.

It was purely secular!

I remember asking my sixth grade Sunday school teacher, Larry, why we didn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter, and why we paid absolutely no attention to the Christian calendar.  No Pentecost! No Advent! Nothing!  Larry told me that no one knew the exact dates of those events so to celebrate them on the dates proposed was outside what we knew from the Bible.  That’s true, I suppose.  However, I also knew that my grandmother, as a black woman born shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Mississippi, had no birth certificate and no one could remember her exact birth date, but she still got older each year and we still acknowledged her life. I applaud Larry and the church of my youth for being concerned about what the Scriptures say, but at the end of the day it taught me that Christmas was about the same thing that Fisher-Price and Mattel wanted Christmas to be about: The stuff!

That teaching has been hard to shake!

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around, I know that there are very few things that I need. A new pair of pants, some new shoes, maybe, but nothing alluring – no iPhones or new cars.  I tell myself that I don’t need anything, don’t want anything, and that I won’t ask for anything, but I can never keep up with my plans.  Suddenly newer things start shining, old things seem, well, old and in need of replacement.  Those things that seemed like nice hobbies to start “one day” turn into imperatives that need me to invest in them immediately.  So I end up needing, asking and wanting more. Thank goodness for Christmas sales.

Before I know it, this time of year, this Advent season in which the church is to anticipate the coming of Jesus into the world, this time when we are to be looking to the Heavens with expectation about the healing of the world, and the healing of our broken relationships with each other, and our broken relationship with God has somehow become a dime store smash and grab to see what stuff we can make off with.

Have you ever had that experience? Am I the only one?

Recently, I was thinking about my Christmas coveting and reading about Francis of Assisi (these are not two things you should do simultaneously).  Francis was born the son of a wealthy merchant and had visions of becoming a superior fighter. After an illness, however, he began to experience deep religious feelings.  He would go off by himself to pray, wear ragged clothes and give away money from the family business to the poor.  As you might imagine, this made his father a little – um, irritated!  His father took Francis to court and asked that the Bishop force him to give back all the money Francis had given to the poor.  Equally as irritated as his father, Francis stripped off all his clothes, hurled them toward his father and walked out of the court proclaiming that he would only now speak of his Father in Heaven.

From that point, Francis renounced materialism.  Over time, Francis founded several mendicant – which is fancy word for “beggar” – religious orders.  Unlike other orders, Francis and his followers rejected not only individual property, but also communal and collective property.  In short, they had no stuff!  For Francis, poverty was not an end in itself, but a means of aligning with Jesus, the disciples, and the gospel by direct imitation. Jesus owned nothing. Francis owned nothing.  One of Francis’ biographer/followers wrote: “While this true friend of God completely despised all worldly things, he detested money above all.  From the beginning of his conversion, he despised money particularly and encouraged his followers to flee from it always as from the devil himself. He gave his followers this observation: money and manure are equally worthy of love.”

Might we imagine spending Christmas at St. Francis’ house this year?

I wonder what this patron saint of animals and the environment who married “Lady Poverty” for the sake of the gospel, might say about “Black Friday” – the day after Thanksgiving – when Americans sleep outside department stores to get the first look at sales.  Or what might he offer to a Christian community that essentially sees and treats Jesus like Santa Claus?  Perhaps he would feel uncomfortable with the fact that American Christians, who by and large have too much stuff already, spend the season of Advent concerned about getting more stuff.

Perhaps St. Francis might tweak our practice of Christmas a little.  Maybe he would say that during Advent and Christmas, we shouldn’t focus on our riches but our poverty.  Of course, there are a lot of us who give to good causes year round, but that’s not the only kind of poverty I’m talking about.

I’m also talking about real poverty – spiritual poverty.

I’m talking about the way many Christians display no demonstrative difference in their character than non-Christians.  I’m thinking about Christians who proclaim love for the powerless babe in the manger, but spend each breath of their existence trying to beg, borrow, steal and deal for more power for themselves.  I’m speaking of pastors and church leaders who have no vision for the communities they serve and no love for the sheep of their flock, looking only to the church for what they can get from them.  I’m concerned about people who are made miserable through their own self-concern. And I’m talking about those of us who fundamentally believe that something other than God will finally or ultimately make us healthy and whole.  We are all so deeply, deeply poor.

And that’s why we need to visit friend Francis this year.  We need to strip it all off and look only to our Father in heaven.  If we don’t we will continue to look around the next corner, over the next bend, and under every rock for that “thing” we think will make us whole.  Yet we will certainly not find it.

Most of us hate feedback! I know that that has been the case for me throughout my career. Most people – especially ministers and pastors – hate the idea that we would submit ourselves to another’s thoughts, judgments, and perceptions. It all seems terribly threatening, and for good reason too. There are simply too many stories of some poor preacher being made to sit through a sermon rebuttal at the weekly elder’s meeting or having to attune themselves to the constant carping of one or two hard-hearted and untrained church members?

There are some kinds of feedback that are only destructive. While we know as a leader there is absolutely no way to please all the people all the time, yet a good leader learns to hear criticism appropriately and use if effectively.  In addition, for us to become what the Kingdom of God needs us to become, we have to open our ears and lose our fear of feedback. Here’s why:

First, “good” feedback has limited use. For years I thought I wanted feedback, but what I actually coveted was “good” feedback. Good meaning, “You did a great job, Sean.” While we all need our strokes, good feedback has limited ability to make us think more deeply and broaden our perspectives. Good feedback has a tendency to point us backward to what we have done instead of forward toward what we can do. We need to hear good feedback. We need to hear that we are on track and that our work and prayers have been meaningful to others. Yet we also need to seek out thoughtful, measured voices to tell us when we may have hit a wrong note or are headed for trouble.

Second, feedback gives us perspective. As a Senior Minister I have a great deal of latitude in what happens on any given week in my congregation. Yet it would be abusive to shape congregational life around my preferences or the preferences of a privileged few. Because I’m human, I naturally orient things around what I like. But in the process of seeking deliberate feedback I can see, hear and feel what others see, hear, and feel. At the end of the day, my job is to add value to my congregation’s worship experience, not design the perfect experience for myself. This cannot be done if I have not endeavored to know what their perspectives are. Leaders, it seems, should ask themselves, “Am I doing this because it is what I like, or because it best serves my church.”

Third, feedback keeps us humble. This applies to both positive and negative feedback. At no point in my life am I more in awe of the power of God then when people are telling me stories of how God has used my life to change theirs. At the same time, when we receive negative feedback we stay in touch with our own humanness. Let’s face it; some of us think that once we’ve entered pastoral leadership we’ve been anointed with greatness. Sometimes we are great – or do some things great – but many times, we are simply filled with hubris. If you cannot handle negative feedback, then you might need to get your ego in check. What happens in ministry is not about you, and to be good leaders, we have to know the areas where we need improvement.

These are simple ways we are aided by criticism and feedback and I don’t want to work with or alongside anyone who feels she or he is above it. If you don think you’re above it your department or organization is going nowhere fast. As a leader, your challenge is to identify the very best modalities to hear and incorporate valuable feedback. Know this, though they may not mean to be, oftentimes, your critics are you allies.

The List

Posted: January 22, 2009 in advocacy, books, change, church, grace, humility, life, theology

It’s official. I”m out!!

The Christian Chronicle (a paper to which I contributed last month) is running an article noting that my new congregation, Redwood Church, has been omitted from the 2009 edition of The Churches of Christ in the Unites States.

The reason: Redwood (along with Farmer’s Branch and Richland Hills) has at least one instrumental worship service of Sunday morning. In the words of my friend, Kraig Martin; “This is stupid.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Though it is stupid,  I do have some questions about my newfound “unchurchofchristiness:”

1. Do I still have to pay all my ACU student loans?

2. Am I disfellowshiped? And if so, who has the power to do it?

3. Does anyone use that directory anymore, or do most folks simply look up churches on the internet?

4. Should I get together with Chris Seidman, Rick Atchley and the other church’s minsters to commiserate or celebrate? I say celebrate. Let’s get a tee time fellas.

5. Do the compiler’s of the book believe the churches of Christ (the little “c” is deliberate) can live with fewer members. I can imagine that meeting. “Hey guys, we’re a part of a dwindling movement. Let’s do our share to dwindle it some more.”

At any rate, it is apparent that some people have no bigger fish to fry. I do. I have to get prepared to pastor a church with a heart for the poor, a love for their city, and a desire to bring people from darkness to light, even if that means using a guitar.

I keep questioning when (or where) is the right time and place for questions. Just recently I saw an interview by Tony Jones (of Emergent Village fame) with John Chisham (of criticizing Emergent Village fame). When asked what his “beef” with Emergent was, Chisham said that people like him don’t like Emergent because they “don’t get it.” He went on to say that he thought doctrine was “nailed down.” He even went on to say that God was “bound” by certain things — which was shocking news to me. After Jones gently dismantled Chisham’s “American court room” analogy, Chisham remained un-changed. Chisham also felt that Emergent (and other religious organizations, I suppose) should have a statement of faith. When Jones said, “What about the Bible?” Chisham suggested that wasn’t good enough. (Again, a Restorationist like me and my friends have trouble with needing something more than scripture.)

Now, I’m not fully on board with all things Emergent Village — and no one is, even the people most intimately involved in it, it seems — but I find it curious that some people have such difficulty with “open questions” about God. Some folks want it all “nailed down,” and when other people allow for, what I would consider, legitimate questions and doubts, the response is vitriol and criticism.

Is there no place for open questions in faith? Or asking questions? No place for challenging beliefs that seem not to ring true? If not, why do we call it faith? We should call it certainty, then, shouldn’t we? But scripture (and I guess here Chisham might refer to his Statement of Faith instead) doesn’t call it certainty. The Bible calls it faith.

I have to confess — and I hope this doesn’t disturb too many folks at my church — everyday I have to make a decision about whether or not I believe God. Note, I did not say “believe in God” which connotes mere intellectual assent, which is no help to me in decision making and spiritual formation. Lots of folks believe in God. My questions center around whether or not I believe God is who He says He is and life is about what He says it is about. As Jones says in the interview, it is an intellectually honest way to live.

God is not provable, and from my read of scripture, doesn’t really like people telling Him what He must or must not do. Are there people really prepared to make that proclamation, that God “must do?”

But I guess at this point I’ve asked you too many questions.