How To Read Difficult Books

Posted: May 27, 2011 in books
As a preacher, church and community leader and comunicator, I do a great deal of reading, studying and research. Much of this is difficult technical and academic literature. This reading gives people the illusion that I’m smarter than the average bear, but that’s not really true.
Truth is, even though I read a lot of demanding material; I’m not a natural reader and I don’t think that my IQ is higher than the average person. I merely went to graduate school, which forced me to read a lot, retain a good bit of what I read, and then deliver the same material, along with my own reflections, in ways that make sense to people. I’ve learned is that there are some simple strategies that anyone can employ in order to read difficult texts.
Here They Are:
  1. Read in Short Burst. I rarely read more than 10-15 minutes. I cut out all other disctractions, set the timer on my iPhone, put my head down and plow through. When the time is up, I wlk around, check e-mail or something else for 5-minutes, then set the time again. It sounds short, but you’ll be amazed at what you’ll get done in an hour.
  2. Set A Daily Page Count. Getting through tough reading becomes easier if you’ll covenant with yourself to get through a certain number of pages per day. For me, it’s usually 50-75 pages. That’s not many, but you can make it through a tough book in about one week.
  3. YouTube Videos. Some books (authors) are really difficult to follow. When you come across one, stop reading and hop on YouTube! Hopefully you can find video of the author speaking. Doing this will give you a feel for the author’s diction and rhythm and the way they use language. (Confession: I never made it through a N.T. Wright book until I did this. After hearing him perform several sermons, his books flow much more easily. I began to understand how he communicated.)
  4. Read The Conclusion First. I picked this up from my friend, Kraig Martin, as he wa doing his Master’s in Philosophy. Kraig would read the conclusion of each chapter in order to get a sense of what was being argued. He’d then go back and read the argument. I tried it. It helps.
  5. Keep Resources Handy. I’m not picking up theologians like Mark Heim without my online dictionary handy. He uses words I don’t know. Without the resources hand, I’d be debilitated. Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know and look it up. There’s even a Wikipedia for theology.

These tips have helped me and my reading. Reading, in turn, helps me with everything else in life. Try them for a while. I bet they’ll help you too.

5 Steps to Post Graduation Success

Posted: May 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

This past Sunday night at Redwood Church, we celebrated our graduating high-school seniors. When I was a youth minister, celebrating our seniors was one of may favorite activities in the year. Rarely in life do people make opportunity to simply heap blessings on those we love. As I was listening to friends and family members share memories, stories and blessings, I thought about the nearly two decades I spent working with teenagers. Over that time some of those students have succeeded spectacularly and others have flailed to the same degree. After having witnessed this, this is my advice for all graduating seniors:

  1. Become Don’t Look. Over the next several years many of you will be looking for a spouse. You probably have a working list of what you’re looking for, even if you haven’t written it down. Rather than look for someone who fits the bill, spend your time becoming the kind of person who fits that bill. 1 Corinthians 11 is a good place to start. There is no “right person” out there! You’re looking for the “right kind of person.” If you become the right kind, you’ll attract the right kind.
  2. There Are Plenty of T-Shirts. Don’t fill-out a credit card application because they’re giving away a free t-shirt! At some point, a credit card company will stop by your campus and offer you a free t-shirt or key chain or some other non-essentail item in exchange for you “filling out” an application. You’ll tell yourself, “I’ll get the shirt and never use the card.” Whatever! They know you’ll use it. That’s why they’re there. While you’re at it, start to think wisely about your money. Take a personal financial management class while you’re in school. Learn now to give away 10-15% of your income to your church, save 10% and live on the rest. It’ll never be as easy as it is now.
  3. You Don’t Need A Break. I’ve had countless friends and students who decided that since they were in college or professional school, or, heck, just because they were young, it was a good time to take a break from their spiritual formation. Wrong! It’s the worst time. Now is the time you’ll form lifelong friendships, likely find the the person you’ll marry, and concretize habits that you’ll keep for the rest of your life. You don’t want to try to reignite your faith at 25, 30, 35 or 40 and wake up with a spouse who is unsupportive and friends who refuse to help you.
  4. Study & Work Hard. When you’re in school you think studying is a low priority, but absolutely no one you know who is successful in life, relationships or is spiritually mature will ever tell you that they studied and work too much in college. Going to class, reading the material, and maximizing your time are investments you’re making in your family and your future. Your professors will become your first references and your classmates will be in positions to help you the remainder of your career and life. Plus, work and working is a spiritual commitment. Do it as unto the Lord.
  5. Become A Giver. You must enter life knowing that your gifts and talents are for the benefit of others. Learn now to give your presence, your time and your money. Find a non-profit, a ministry, anything really that makes more demands on you than you think you can bear, and cheerfully give yourself away.
There’s much more to say, but if you were simply to begin with these 5-steps, it will pay unbelievable dividends for the rest of your life. You don’t have to believe me, but trust me. These are principles that will not and have not changed. And they are the path to your success.

There’s no need for me to add my voice to cacophony out there telling the world why Harold Camping has been before and is currently wrong about the Rapture and coming apocalypse. For Christian insiders like me, it began as a joke; another nut with extraordinarily poor textual criticism skills shouting from the rooftops about the end of the world. Then it turned slightly more maddening as we realized that some naive believers were following Camping, but worse, his crazed misconceptions about Scripture and Jesus were becoming a obstacle to faith for those  searching for faith and another obstruction for those already opposed to it.

But in these last hours, I’ve become more understanding of both Camping and some of his followers, not of their eschatology, mind you, but their emotions; their longing. What if today were the rapture (which many Christians don’t believe in and haven’t historically)? What would it mean for you? Let me tell you what it’d mean for me.

If Harold were right, my mother would be reunited with her best friend, her mother. My mother might also know more or see more about her two sisters who died at the moment of childbirth.

My wife would be reunited with her father who died far too early. And my two daughters would get to meet their grandfather, a great man who loved them before he knew them.

And all the other people in our family, deceased grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins; the whole lot would come together once again, because death has been conquered by Jesus. That’s a little bit of what it would mean for me.

But it’s not only about death and resurrection, is it?

The Kingdom of God (which is not someplace you go after you die, by the way) is the place where everything is done as the King would have it done. That means, if Harold were right, my daughters, would no longer live in a world consumed with the threat of terrorism, war, or nuclear disasters and/or holocaust, or famine, nakedness, and disease. They wouldn’t even have to negotiate the terrorizing social structure of Junior High School. I wouldn’t see marriages fail and children abused. None of us would be witness to slavery, the mistreatment of women and minority groups around the world. If Harold were right, I’d never again sit next to a hospital bed with a dying parishioner. I performed the funeral for a 7-month old once, watched his mother weep uncontrollably for days, if Harold were right, I’d never have to do that again.

If Harold were right, at 6pm tonight there would be renewal breaking out across the globe, complete with a New Heavens and a New Earth. There would be singing on Zion’s glorious summit and the lion would lay down with the lamb. If Harold were right, we’d have a reconciliation celebration. If Harold were right, the Jesus I now see dimly, I would then see face-to-face.

Wouldn’t that be good?  Doesn’t part of you wish Harold were right? I do!

With all the talk about hell recently, we may have looked past the simply fact that the return of Jesus is not, in fact, Doomsday; it’s Joyday, Renewalday, Lifeday, Perfectionday. And we belong to that day!

Maranatha! Come, Oh, Lord!

The Arrest

Posted: April 21, 2011 in Bible, history, reconciliation, words, writing

This is the devotional I gave at Redwood Church’s Passion Week service.

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That night itself was pregnant with the pangs of irony and opposites.  As the mob marched with torches and lanterns—in search of The Light.  Gathered in anger, anxiety and anticipation soldiers, Priest, police and Pharisees brandish their weapons to make war against the Prince of Peace.  Judas backed by army, but lacking integrity, leads the crowd in search of The Way.  Men connected by their own desire to snuff out The Life.

And of course, in a manner completely opposite of what anyone would suspect, instead of running away, Jesus steps forward.  After a night of praying that this moment would not have to come, Jesus does not hesitate to walk the road He and His Father have chosen.

The scene is so much different than you’d expect it to be.  In the recesses of my mind it has always been like a movie. They’ve got the building surrounded.  The roadblock is in place; the city is under siege.  Drop the bunker-buster. That’s how you arrest someone that’s dangerous.  It’s John Dillinger outside the movie theatre.  It’s Elliot Ness racing horseback across the countryside, while the Canadian Mounties rush down from the hills above.

But that’s not really what happened here.  Sure they thought, no they knew, that Jesus was dangerous.  So they send a “detachment of Roman soldiers” to make sure that nothing went wrong.  And just in case that wasn’t enough the Jewish Temple police came along for the ride.

A detachment of Roman soldiers?  That could have been up to 600 men.  The chief priest and the Pharisees?  That is serious religious and political power.  Not to mention all the hangers-on and rubber-neckers.  What they were doing tonight was too important.  This arrest couldn’t go wrong!

The last thing they needed was this arrest to go like the first six times they tried it.  Sometimes they were scared that the crowd would revolt, other times Jesus just walked through them because it “was not time.”

But then the one thing they hadn’t planned on happened.  When Jesus reveals who He is, it is they who step back and fall to the ground. It in all there clandestine proposals to rid themselves of Jesus, through all the late night planning sessions, back-room deals and political back scratching when the moment comes to apprehend Jesus they find it is they themselves who are arrested.

It’s not our Lord who shirks back in the moment of confrontation.  It’s not the Christ who suddenly feels the thunder of His heart pounding away in His chest.  It is not Jesus whose hands and voice shake and crackle with nerves in the moment of truth.

Jesus is captured, not because of their might, but because of His strength.

But the question is “why”?

One of the things that is so often lost is the fact that Jesus, is not murdered or assassinated. Judas doesn’t hand Jesus over—Jesus hands Himself over.

Sure there’s a mock trial and cruel beatings.  But it’s Jesus who says in John 10:18, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the one way to show love to an enemy is to refuse to defeat him…if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and transform them.”

And the Thursday arrest that lead to the Friday of pain, was the mark of our redemption.  Because we all live as enemies to the cross. Jesus chose His capture that night.  Because in that night, He chose you!

Knowing that you weren’t going to be everything that you could have been.

Knowing that in your brief time on Earth you would turn away from Him countless times.

Jesus knew that we’d speak harsh words to one another, seek out our wants before the needs of others. Jesus knew that we would read and study God’s word and still not do it.  He knew that we would break our promises to people we care about.  He knew that we would be inclined to make other people suffer before we chose to sacrifice.  He knew that we’d rather take than give.

I suspect that if Christ had wanted to he could have walked out of the garden on Thursday and avoided the pain of Friday.  He could have rallied His supporters and fought the powers.  He could have done all of those things and much more and still been Jesus.  But He couldn’t have done those things and been Hosanna—the one who saves!

Make no mistake about it. Jesus suffers to save us from our sin…and from ourselves.

It is His unfailing love, His great compassion that blots out our transgressions.

Without Jesus’ choice to suffer the fierce suffering of the cross, we are lost in the woods.  We cannot help ourselves.  No one here, no one anywhere is good enough to save themselves.

D.M Stearns was preaching in Philadelphia.  At the close of the service a stranger came up to him and said, “I don’t like the way you spoke about the cross.  I think that instead of emphasizing the death of Christ, it would be far better to preach Jesus, the teacher and example.”  Stearns replied, “If I presented Christ in that way, would you be willing to follow Him?”  “I certainly would,” replied the stranger without hesitation.  “All right then,” said the preacher, “let’s take a first step.  Jesus did no sin.  Can you claim that for yourself?”  The man looked confused and surprised.  “Why, no,” he said. “I acknowledge that I do sin.”  Stearns replied, “Then your greatest need is to have a savior, not an example!”

In the wake of Jesus’ death, our Lord leaves us with a lot of things. An example, a comforter, a source of strength in times of weakness.  But in the garden, He willingly leads the crowds to His own death, because we need a Savior.  He has heard our deepest cry to the heights of Heaven: “Hosanna!  Save Us!”

As we explore the basics instincts (though not uniform beliefs) of Anabaptists, let’s pause for a moment to talk a little bit about the Schlietheim Confession and what it says about Anabaptists. During the Reformation and the Radical Reformation, three streams of Anabaptist believers came together in Switzerland to concretize a central set of beliefs and practices; practices which largely distinguished the Swiss Brethren (the other, non-pejorative name for Anabaptists) from the Reformers and the Catholic Church.

Among the items discussed were Baptism (to be administered to those who have chosen baptism for themselves); The Oath; The Sword; The Ban; Eucharist; piety and the role of Pastors. Having discussed baptism, we move on to The Oath.

The conversation regarding “The Oath” in Anabaptist traditions is simple: No oaths should be taken! While this has not historically included an orthodox confession of faith; “Jesus is Lord,” it has, to some degree or another included nearly every other oath imaginable – including the Apostle’s Creed, and, for some, oaths of office and giving civic testimony. There were two dominant reasons for the prohibition against oath-taking in Switzerland. For one, Anabaptists were reacting (rightly or wrongly) to a Catholic Church that insisted all kinds of oaths and verbal commitments and believed the Reformers intent to continue taking oaths to be a half-measures. The early Swiss Brethren, did not see this cacophony of oaths in the scriptures, and did not feel they were appropriate for Christians. Second, Anabaptists took literally Jesus’ command to assuage oath-taking (Matthew 5.34).

How Anabaptists determined what to do about oath taking reveals a significant theme in the religious life of Anabaptists. That theme is one of reading the scriptures free of traditionalism. While there are some difficulties in approaching the biblical text this way, the benefits, it seems, outweigh the deficits. Both the Catholic and the Reformed Tradition  in the 16th Century, as they do today, read the biblical text through the lens of the tradition itself. They are concerned with and give privilege to what others inside the tradition have written and said before (yes, I know this is an oversimplification). Anabaptists feel no compulsion to do so. While what Popes,  Martin Luther, John Calvin or Martin Lloyd Jones said about an issue might be good — or even right — Anabaptists do not appeal to them as being authoritative. Though most Christians do not think they read the Bible through a traditionist lens, Anabaptists have enshrined the value. Therefore, when a traditional belief or practice is questioned (take the traditional understanding of hell, for example), Anabaptists don’t feel a need to protect it, and would never refer to the “teaching of the church.”

Many times, new Christians or church members ask me, “What does your church believe about _______?” Typically my response goes something like this, “Well, people in our church believe a variety of things about ________.” This, I find, leaves people feeling dissatisfied. And many pastors, teachers and Christians within other traditions find this unbelievable. But nearly always, the questions people ask regard something non-essential, i.e. “Is this a Republican or Democrat church…?”

Anabaptists have always believed that thoughtful, spiritual people can come to their own conclusions about non-essential matters and, more importantly, we can lovingly coexists in disagreement. At the root of this is something many contemporary Christians refuse to believe: On some issues the Bible isn’t necessarily all that clear. In response, Anabaptists seek charity is non-essentials, which can only be done when believers rightly understand the place of tradition.

It is right and good to know what others have said and thought concerning the scriptures. These men and women should be both living and dead. The present moment is not privileged in BIble reading; we need to reflect upon and learn from our sisters and brothers. At the same time, Anabaptists know that God still speaks a fresh word, free from the constraints of other and older interpretations whose age or prominence does not necessarily equate to rightness.

Once you see how an Anabaptist approaches baptism, it becomes easier to understand why and how s/he makes determinations about other issues. At the heart of much of anabaptism is choice, more accurately, at the heart of anabaptism is the lack of coercion.  For many Anabaptists, Jesus is the one who humbled Himself unto death. He forced no one to embrace Him, to follow Him, to worship Him. This is more than a type of libertarian freedom, but a commitment that Jesus does not force His very self on anyone, even knowing that the curtailing of such freedom is in the individual’s best interest.

One of the places this is evident is in Anabaptists’ approaches to church/state issues. Since both the Catholic and Protestant churches continued to baptize infants, which made citizens of the baptized, when Anabaptists refused baptism to children they were also making a statement about empire, kingdom and state. The early Anabaptists (and I’m compiling three separate groups in the 16th Century Radical Reformation) saw the state as antithetical to the kingdom of God. In response, the church was to remain distinct from the state (we’ll talk about The Schleitheim Confession next time). The early Anabaptists witnessed how devastating the entanglements of church and state had become and they wanted no parts of it. At all!

Clearly, some Anabaptist groups have taken this impulse to separation to an extreme; the Amish for instance. Behind the Amish itch to create a separate world is a deeply held belief that intermingling with “the world” would corrupt the church. History, including the Reformation itself, has given us much evidence that they were and are right. However, the limitations of separatist movements is nearly self-evident.

The way this instinct in Anabaptism gets played out among mainstream Anabaptist like myself is predominately in the political realm. Caricatures of evangelicals are what they are, but I have never been a congregant of a church where American Flags adorned the walls; though you would see flags from  countries where the church supported missionaries. In Anabaptist churches you will be hard pressed to find church leaders advocating a particular political agenda, or suggesting to congregants who they should vote for. As a matter of fact, in most of the churches I have been a part of, if someone were to do so, many people would be offended, even if they agreed with the politics themselves. In Anabaptists churches You will not typically find big to-dos on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, and the 4th of July. We find ways to both honor the service of our members who have sacrificed for America and acknowledges that all humankind are our brothers and sisters. 

Our instinct is that church and state don’t mix. What’s more, for many Anabaptists, open political discussions in church would be considered coercive. Politics change, Jesus does not! We make our camp on Jesus, everything else is too transitory. Anabaptists see the church as a kingdom within a country, and while you are free to advocate in whatever way you like outside church life, Anabaptists are suspicious and uncomfortable with political advocacy inside it. As a matter of fact, early leaders in my tribe, like David Lipscomb, abstained from participation in civil government and, believe it or not, some of our current thought-leaders do so as well.

This approach to church and state is strange to many evangelical and Catholic believers.  But Anabaptists have never minded being thought of as strange.

More to come…

I was raised, and remain, in a somewhat Anabaptist faith community (Churches of Christ). Most people don’t know what Anabaptism is, even people who are a part of Anabaptist’s communities and hold Anabaptist’s commitments often don’t know. This has happened because true, historic Anabaptism hasn’t ever been terribly popular. What remains in the 21st-Century are vestiges and fragments of 16th-Century Anabaptism – Mennonites, Churches of Christ, Amish, Brethren, etc…. This is unfortunate, because I, for one, believe recovering that the heart of Anabaptism is crucial for communicating faith in Jesus as we lean into the future.

Therefore, I want to give some space to articulate the best parts of Anabaptism. I want to describe what Anabaptism is and how it differs from popular, American evangelicalism and the emerging and strengthening, hard-edged, mean-spiritedness NeoReformed movement in America.

Let’s begin with the most obvious commitment of Anabaptists: Believer’s Baptism. Anabaptist means “re-baptizers.”  During the Reformation, as Martin Luther was breaking with the Catholic Church, many, particularly in Switzerland, believed Luther’s Reformation wasn’t going far enough. Thus the “Radical Reformation” was birthed.

The root issue was pedobaptism (infant baptism). Anabaptists, through their reading of scripture, determined that baptism was a practice for people who choose trust in Jesus for themselves, rather than received faith as a family heritage. In days when baptism into the church was tantamount to becoming a citizen of the state/empire (we’ll talk about Anabaptist’s views of church and state later), Anabaptists  said “No,” and began to “re-baptize” one another.

At the time, the church the world over baptized infants, making them both citizens of the church and the state. Anabaptists believed this to be improper. Luther and the Reformers, for their own theological and sociological reasons, maintained the practice of infant-baptism. This simple commitment that discipleship into the way of the Lord should be volitional is what made the Radical Reformation radical.

While lots of groups now practice “believer’s baptism” this wasn’t the case in the 16th-Century. The early Anabaptists were counter cultural, bucking the established church, the emerging Lutheran church and the state all at the same time. This instinct towards anti-institutionalism remains part of me and Anabaptism. And if you think the mode of baptism isn’t or shouldn’t have been a big deal, I will only point out that many of the Radical Reformers were hunted down and killed for believing it was.

Earlier in my pastoral career I attempted, as many have, to distance my theology from the hard, sectarian stance on baptism I inherited as a youth. Fortunately I did. And fortunately, I didn’t. I maintain that God enters a relationship with a person whenever God chooses and it’s not my place to say when that is (Through the years, some Anabaptists had come to believe that baptism was somehow magical and was the only hope anyone had of knowing God). Yet at the same time, I think there is something vitally important about each person making a personal decision to take on Jesus for themselves. Faith is not something your parents can bestow.

There you have it, the beginning of what it means to be Anabaptist. What do you think?

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A Snarky Note:

Oddly, many people in my tradition have come to practice a defacto infant-baptism as we press harder and harder to baptize children younger and younger. Parent’s who won’t let their kids choose their own order off the menu at Chili’s are baptizing their children at terribly young ages out of a fear that, “They might not ask again.”

Please!