Friday, June 30, 2006

Is God Nice?

Since I am on "sabbatical" and I am sick (bad cold/flu), I have had some time to read and think. This afternoon I read an essay called God is Not Nice" by D. Stephen Long. This essay is found in a book edited by D. Brent Laytham called God is not ... Religious, Nice, "One of Us", An American, A Capitalist. Now, I know that this title will more than likely offend a number of people and also help one make assumptions about the content of the book. But, just like Greg Boyd's The Myth of a Christian Nation, the title doesn't always reflect the content of the book (more about this book later).

Now to get to what I am thinking about. Several years ago I read a book entitled The Missional Church (Darrel Guder). One of the statements in the book that has been influential in my thinking over the past while is this one

more often than not, the church has become a dispenser of religious goods and services."

If you honestly look around at the North American church, we have to admit that this is by and large true. Churches provide funerals, weddings, youth programs, children's programs, good music (in any one of the styles you find most appealing), good sermons, lots of entertainment, etc. Now, in and of themselves, most of this is not wrong -- but we all know that people leave one church and attend another one because the religious goods and services that the former church offers are not as good as those of the new church. In essence, one of the things we have been doing is developing religious consumers rather than disciples of Jesus.

Why has this happened? I am sure that there are scores of reasons, but Stephen Long said a couple of things in his essay that may make some sense. Long suggests that we have turned the God of the Bible into a "nice god". One that does things for us -- heals us, makes us happy and fulfilled, provides for us financially, etc. And, we have created this "nice god" because we have allowed our therapeutic culture and some of the theology of the Reformation to infiltrate our modern/post-modern church. In essence, we have molded the God of the Bible into a nice god that is acceptable in our materialistic, self-absorbed culture.

The nice god we worship emerges from our therapeutic culture where self-esteem and narcissism rule. I don't have to add much to this -- if we have open eyes, we know our culture is ruled by these two things -- and I more than suspect that the evangelical church has bought into these two values as well. Our nice god makes us feel good about ourselves (after all if He didn't, imagine what it would do to our self-esteem) and is there to provide us with everything we need and want.

If you add to our therapeutic culture the Reformation idea that we can primarily know God for what He does "for us" and "in us", you end up with churches that are primarily dispensers of religious goods and services. As Guder indicated in his book, and McLaren clearly states in A Generous Orthodoxy Jesus becomes our personal Saviour (a religious commodity), our healer, provider, etc. It almost sounds like it is "all about me" despite the fact that we sing a song that says "it's all about you Jesus".

Long says it even more bluntly. He suggests that churches sell people a product they want or need for their own fulfillment. Now we use religious words for our products -- but our "sales pitch" is that one of the primary purposes of the Christian faith is to give our lives "meaning" and to satisfy our individual souls. Our evangelism says "accept Christ, He is good for you." We are thrilled by the fact that people "make decisions" for Jesus (somehow I can't remember the word "decision" in the Great Commission). Our discipleship often concentrates on a "benefits package" that come by following Jesus. We preach sermons that tell us that Jesus is the means to a better life or marriage or job or attitude. These all turn Jesus into an expression of that nice god who meets my spiritual needs.

Is it any wonder then, that when Jesus doesn't meet all our needs or wants, or we lose a job, or get sick, or have marriage challenges, etc. that we begin to wonder about God's existence, His reality, etc.

Is it any wonder, that if we have been sold a religious commodity (Jesus), and if that commodity doesn't "work" we discard it and look for a better one?

Hmmmmmmm? Makes one think, doesn't it?

It also explains a lot about the church in the developing world. Whether I am in the mountains of Guatemala, the slums of Africa or in India, Indonesia or Turkey, I find "ordinary" Christians making extra-ordinary sacrifices to follow Jesus. Somehow it hasn't hit them that Jesus is to provide them with personal satisfaction, money, health and happiness. I wonder why?

Could it be that they know the God of the Bible rather than the "nice god" of the North American church?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Brian McLaren, Brenda Salter-McNeil and Greg Boyd

Over the past couple of weeks I have been reading A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren and The Myth of A Christian Nation by Greg Boyd. Then yesterday morning on the way to Prescott, Arizona my wife and I listened to a tape by Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil on racial reconciliation.

It struck me that there was a common theme running through the two books and the sermon. McLaren talks about how following Jesus in really about serving. Boyd talks about the difference between "power-over" (kingdom of the world) and "power-under" (kingdom of God). Dr. Salter-McNeil talked about the importance of humility in racial reconciliation.

The theme is humility and service. It reminded me that God is humble. That Jesus came to earth in all humility. And, that as Boyd points out -- the Kingdom of God is about humility and service -- about "power-under". That if we are going to reflect Jesus personally and corporately, we need to be characterized by humility and service.

That got me thinking about how my city or state or country sees the church -- and the church I am part of in particular. Would the people in our immediate community see us as a humble church that desires to serve? Do the other churches in our city see our church -- as a church that is humble and desires to serve them? Do Americans perceive the churches in our country as churches that are committed to humility and service as we follow Jesus?

God also began to speak to me personally. I realize that I need to have God work in my heart as well to be someone who in everything I do am committed to service, humility and "power-under". My education, ministry experience, ministry position, country of origin or ethnic background really have nothing to do with anything. I need to follow Jesus and serve Him using the gifts, skills and abilities He has invested in me.

My prayer is that I will truly serve the Lord with humility.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Some Thoughts While Sitting in the George Bush Airport in Houston, TX

Getting back from New Orleans is turning out to be quite the nightmare. I have been in the New Orleans and the Houston airports since 1:00 pm this afternoon. As I am typing this, it is 10:15 pm -- and my next flight doesn't leave for another 75 minutes. Not only that, but the letter "a" on my notebook doesn't want to see to type anymore. Must have overworked it.

Anyway, I am reading a book called The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd (I will review the book in the next couple of days) and I remembered a song written by Bob Dylan back in the 1960's. Here are the words:

Oh my name it is nothin'
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I's taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side.

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.

Oh the Spanish-American
War had its day
And the Civil War too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I's made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side.

Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side.

When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side.

I've learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side.

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we're forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God's on your side.

In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.

Quite the song isn't it? This song is 40 years old and it could have been written in the last 3 or 4 years. In Christian circles there are currently a lot of people identified as "prophets". I'm never quite sure who made them a prophet, but they are "Prophet _________".

The way God works always surprises me. He uses a movie star to provoke cultural conversation about Jesus. He uses a rock star to raise awareness of AIDS and poverty among evangelicals. Perhaps He used (and continues to use) Bob Dylan as a prophetic voice as well.

It would be just like God to do that.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

10 Months After Hurricane Katrina

I am sitting in a hotel room in downtown New Orleans. I'll be here through late tomorrow afternoon. My primary purpose is to visit a ministry in St. Bernards Parish that has been working with those who have been affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Before Katrina the parish was home to more than 70,000 people. St. Bernards Parish was hit particularily hard. As I drove through neighborhoods 10 months after the storm I saw hundreds of homes on scores of streets that were empty and uninhabitable. The destruction was almost unbelievable. It was hard to believe that all this time could pass, and so little reconstruction had been done -- in a country that has more resources and wealth than perhaps any other nation in the world. Over 20,000 homes and businesses were destroyed by Katrina. The pastor I was with today thinks it is going to take a decade for the area to recover. He could be right.

In the middle of all the destruction I visited a church that has been working in St. Bernards Parish since the storm. This despite the fact that it's building was covered by more than 10 feet of water and the pastor's home was totally destroyed. In fact, he drives 90 miles everyday (one way) so that he can lead this ministry that is bringing help and hope to the neighborhood. The church is feeding 350 people day, provides a food bank (there are no grocery stores within 10 miles of the church), a medical clinic, help for families in rebuilding homes and a place where the people of the community can come for spiritual help. This truely is the people of God in action.

Standing with this church is Operation Blessing -- and this week -- a team of young people from Pennsylvania and another group of Lutheran young people from Wisconsin. They are helping to feed people, clean up and rebuild houses, and build facilities for the church to more effectively minister in the community. These youth are staying at the church -- on cots that fill every available room and part of the worship center. There is no air conditioning and only a couple of bathrooms for the 100 plus people helping. I was impressed by the commitment of the church and the teams working in difficult conditions.

As I toured the neighborhood with the pastor I met a young woman the church helped after Katrina. The woman was a Vietnamese refugee who had married an American. After the church helped their family they came to church and committed their lives to Christ. Now they are serving the Lord by helping with the reconstruction effort.

Sometimes I get discouraged about the American church. We seem to be so self-centered, not interested in our communities and unwilling to make a difference. Then I see a church like the one I am visiting in New Orleans, and God reminds me that He is still at work -- and there are still are churches that are interested in making a difference in their community.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Generous Orthodoxy -- Brian D. McLaren

A Generous Orthodoxy is perhaps one of the most controversial books written by an evangelical author in the last couple of years. I have read countless blogs and magazine articles which criticize this book from almost every angle possible. When a friend of mine in her 60's asked me some questions about it, I realized that I probably should also read the book. So, over the past couple of weeks, that is what I have been doing. When I have mentioned this to my friends I have received comments ranging from "what a piece of drivel -- can't McLaren stand up for anything" to "what a wonderful book -- I just love it -- my small group is studying it right now."

So, what do I think of the book? Well, while I don't think it is inerrant, or has been written as if dictated by the hand of God, I must admit that I love the book.There are a couple of things that make me go "hmmmm" -- but not in a bad way -- in a way that says I need to think about this more.

In all the critiques I have heard on A Generous Orthodoxy, there have been two things that have been talked about the most -- McLaren's ideas about salvation and the question of Christianity's relationship with other religions. I'd like to say a few words about both of these issues.

Jesus: Saviour of What?

I love what McLaren has to say about Jesus as Saviour.

. . . in Jesus, God is intervening as Saviour. . . by judging (naming evil as evil), forgiving (breaking the vicious cycle of cause and effect, making reconcilliation possible), and teaching (shwoing how to set chain reactions of good in motion). Jesus comes then not to condemn (to bring consequences we deserve) but to save by shing the light on our evil, by naming our evil as evil so we can repent and escape the chain of bad actions and bad consequences through forgiveness, and so we can learn from Jesus the master-teacher to live more wisely in the future. (page 96).

Isn't this a great definition of salvation?

But, this is probably not the controversial issue in regard to salvation. A couple of pages later McLaren syas that he used to believe that Jesus' primary focus was on saving me as an individual and saving other "me's" as individuals. This is of course the whole idea of Jesus as personal saviour. He still believes that Jesus is vitally interested in saving individuals, but McLaren also talks about the idea of Jesus saving the world -- not the idea of universalism, but rather the idea that God is saving us -- so we can be about the establishment of the kingdom of God.

Why this apparent move away from a primary focus on Jesus as personal saviour? McLaren believes that for too many Christians Christians "personal salvation" has become another personal consumer product (like a personal computer, personal journal, personal time, personal trainer, etc.). Salvation is the personal product that will save you from hell. So, in many ways, personal salvation is the ultimate consumerism. As he says:

In a self-centered and hell-centered salvation, doesn't Jesus -- like every company and political party -- appeal to me on the basis of self-interest so that I can have it all eternally and can do so cheaply, conveniently, easily and quickly?

He continues to talk about the fact that if we see salvation as primarily a personal issue, having Jesus as your personal saviour can actually make you more self-centered and less concerned about justice on earth.

McLaren summarizes his thoughts by saying that :

. . . although I believe in Jesus as my personal saviour, I am not a Christian for that reason. I am a Christian because I believe that Jesus is the Saviour of the whole world.

The more I thought about all of this, the more it made sense to me. America has 400,000 churches -- yet Christianity is increasingly become more of a ghetto within American culture rather than a force for positive change. We are planting churches all the time -- often filled with people for whom Jesus is their personal saviour -- yet Jesus seems to make little or no difference in their lives, family or community. Evangelicals have a divorce rate as high or higher than that of the rest of the country. It is hard to find anyone -- religious or not -- that believes that the moral, ethical and social climate in this country is improving. Yet, 400,000 churches and 40% of the population attends church. Why is there no change?

Why are all these churches we are planting not making a difference in our culture? A friend of mine who has worked in SE Asia for the last 10 years believes that perhaps here in North America we have become so concerned about people accepting Jesus as their personal saviour, that we have not seen the whole Gospel. We are planting "harvest" churches -- but not healthy and holistic churches -- churches that understand that the Gospel is not just about seeing people saved -- but also about discipling people (helping people love like Jesus and live like Jesus) and discipling nations (seeing communities transformed by the grace of God). So, instead of planting churches that engage and become part of our communities -- adding value to their communities -- doing what is good for their community, we plant churches that are concerned about personal salvation -- we plant churches for consumers of religious goods and services -- that they add on to the other goods and services they feel are important for leading a life as close as possible to the "american dream".

Something to think about -- don't you agree? Maybe McLaren is on to something here.

Why I am Incarnational

In the chapter on incarnation, McLaren talks about the relationship of Christ with other religions. The controversy surrounds paragraphs such as the following ones from pages 249 and 250.

. . . we are linked and bound through Christ's incarnation all people. I am not saying that all religions are the same, it doesn't matter what you believe, truth is relative . . . I am saying that because we follow Jesus, because we believe Jesus is true, and because Jesus moves toward all people in live and kindness and grace, we do the same.

Because I follow Jesus, then, I am bound to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, New Agers, everyone. . . . Not only am I bound to them in love, but I am also actually called to, in some real sense . . . become one of them, to enter their world and be with them in it.

Radical statement don't you think? McLaren goes on to say that the real enemy is not fundamentalist Islam, but the "McDonaldization and Wal-Martization of the world". The enemy of all people of faith is global consumerism and lust for personal items that make our lives better. I suspect most of us American evangelicals don't see consumerism as the greatest threat to our faith -- but my sneaking suspicion is that McLaren and Jesus are on the same side on this issue.

What does this mean practically? McLaren suggests a number of things.
  • The Christian Faith should become a welcome friend to other religions, not an enemy.
  • We should be a protector of the heritages of other religions and a defender against common enemies.
  • If we are truly to love our neighbour, then we should also be willing to learn from the good that is in our neighbours religion.
  • We must accept the coexistence of different faiths in our world -- willingly, not begrudgingly.
  • We should actually talk with people of other faiths, engaging in humble gentle and respectful dialogue.
  • We should not stereotype people of other religious beliefs.
  • Conversation with other religious faiths does not exclude evangelism, but makes it possible.
  • We must be aware that our "old old story" is not necessarily the true story. In other words, we must be open to the idea that our understanding of the Gospel -- as it was passed down to us by our forefathers -- may have elements of untruth in it.
  • If members of other religions are under threat, we must seek to protect them.
As a . . . Christian, I consider myself not above Buddhists and Muslims and others, but below them as a servant. Better, I consider myself with them as a neighbor and brother (page 263).

Food for thought, don't you think?

McLaren closes the book with the following;

To be a Christian . . . is not to claim to have truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall. It is rather to be in a loving (ethical) community of people who are seeking the truth (doctrine) on the road of mission (witness) and who have been launched on the quest by Jesus, who, with us, guides us still. Do we have it? Have we taken hold of it? Not fully, not yet, of course not. But we keep seeking. We're finding enough to keep us going. But we're not finished. That, to me is, orthodoxy -- a way of seeing and seeking, a way of living, a way of thinking and loving and learning that helps what we believe become more true over time, more resonant with the infinite glory that is God.

My response to that is simple -- AMEN!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Edmonton Oilers Lose the Stanley Cup

It's been a tough year for Canada in hockey. We failed to even get a medal at the Winter Olympics -- that is a national disgrace. And tonight, the Edmonton Oilers lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The fact that Edmonton should never have even gotten this far in the playoffs doesn't really make up for the disappointment of the game tonight. I lived in Edmonton and watched the Oilers play when Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, etc. won the Cup 4 times. It would have been wonderful if Edmonton could have won tonight -- but it was not to be.

I don't think Americans understand what the Stanley Cup means to Canadians. If there is anything sacred in Canadian society -- it is the Stanley Cup. To win it, is the dream of thousands of boys and young men across the country. When you grow up playing street hockey or in the community rinks, in the towns and cities across the country, every young boy dreams of scoring the winning goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

For me as a Canadian living in the USA it is hard for me to believe that the fans in Carolina really understand the significance of the Cup. Somehow it just seems wrong that a team from there (or from Florida in 2004) has the cup. Yes, I know that most of the players are Canadian or European, but somehow that doesn't make a difference. It just seems wrong.

But, there are much more important things in life and in the world than hockey games. I'll feel better tomorrow morning.

Congratulations to the Carolina Hurricanes. They really did play well. And congratulations to the Edmonton Oilers -- at the beginning of the season nobody believed you would go this far.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Books You Should Read on the Missional Church

Lately I have been reading books on the concept of the missional church -- partly because this is a topic that interests me and partly because I am trying to move the church that I am involved in to become missional.

Here are some of the best books I have read on the missional church issue over the past couple of years.

The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church
- Reggie McNeal

Written primarily to senior pastors and "contemporary" mega-church pastors, Present/Future encourages church leaders to think about 6 questions relating to:
  • replacing church growth with a vision for kingdom growth
  • developing disciples rather than church members
  • fostering new apostolic leadership
  • focusing on spiritual formation rather than church programs
  • shifting for planning for the future to preparation for the challenges of an uncertain world
  • replacing the idea of "every member a minister" to "every disciple a missionary"
For those who have done a lot of reading on the missional church, this book is not revolutionary. However, it will help you begin asking the right questions that can help you begin thinking in a missional direction. It is a great book to give to your senior pastor, church elder, etc.

The Shaping of Things to Come
- Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch

The authors present a new paradigm for doing church and missions. The book lays out the fact that the current western model of doing church is failing, and that attempts to maintain the status quo are most likely futile. Frost and Hirsch go on to present a missional model of the church, that those tied to the status quo will resist. This book is a must read for anyone interested in the future of the western church. BUT, this is probably not the book to give to the senior pastor of a mega-church.

This book resonanted with much of what I have been thinking and feeling over the past few years. My sense is that many mega-churches will be closing their doors in the next 10-20 years. Their campuses will become office complexes and shopping malls. Instead, we will find the growth and development of smaller communities of missional believers who are forming "churches" that look very different. Pottery studios, book stores, community centers, coffee shops, etc. will become the face of Christianity, as we penetrate our culture rather than conform to it or just retreat into our own ghetto.

Transformation: How Glocal Churches Transform Lives and the World
- Bob Roberts

Another book to give to your senior pastor and church leadership that will help them think through the purpose of the church. This book is a call for the church to be missionary -- locally and globally. While there is a strong focus on church planting, the call is to plant churches that are missionary -- churches that want to engage their communities and see them transformed.

Roberts calls these churches "glocal". But the idea here is that glocal churches create disciples who, transformed by the Holy Spirit, infiltrate culture both locally and globally. As God transforms our lives, and those transformed lives form transformed communities, and those transformed communities serve the world locally and globally, community transformation takes place.

Again not a book that is revolutionary if you are familiar with missional church concepts, but one worth giving to those leading churches who are open to thinking in new ways.

Breaking the Missional Code
- Ed Stetzer and David Putnam

A good book for senior pastors and church leaders who have a desire to see the Gospel connect with their communities. Taking much of the good from Donald McGavran, the church growth movement, and the ideas and concepts developing in the emerging church and missional church movements, the authors talk about the need to understand their social context and communicate the message of the Gospel to those they sense God wants them to reach.

The thesis of the book is quite simple.
One size does not fit all, but there are cultural codes that must be broken for all churches to grow and remain effective in their specific mission context. Breaking the Missional Code helps leaders go beyond the idea of becoming "missional" and talks about the implications and consequences of being missional.

One of my favourite ideas in the book is their definition of a disciple. So often discipleship has been defined as someone who knows the Bible, practices the spiritual disciplines, etc. Here is the definition offered by Stetzer and Putnam. A disciple is:
  • someone who loves Jesus and loves like Jesus
  • someone who lives like Jesus
  • someone who leaves behind what Jesus left behind
A definition that is simple, profound and thought provoking. My question is -- am I a disciple?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Race Against Time -- Stephen Lewis

"I have spent the last four years watching people die." This is how Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envory for AIDS in Africa begins this brilliant book. The book, is a personal account of Stephen Lewis and his experiences in Africa. He is honest, blunt, humorous and pulls no punches. This book is the story of Africa's plight and the wealthy world's betrayal. Much of the book recounts the Millennium Development Goals set by global leaders in 2000 that promised the poor such essentials as primary education, basic health and a reversal of AIDS by 2015. In this book Lewis shows why and how the promises can't be kept, probes the appalling gap between vision and current reality and offers some pathways to attainable solutions.

I too have been profoundly affected by those suffering from HIV/AIDS. In early October 2005 I spent 10 days in Kenya and Malawi mostly with people dying of AIDS. One day we did "home visits" in a Malawi slum. Our group visited about 20+ homes of people who were dying of AIDS or who had family members dying of AIDS. Within two weeks more than 10 of the people we had visited had passed away. I returned from this trip to Malawi changed in profound ways. I have been to more than 30 nations of the world, have spent much time with the poor, but never have I been affected by a trip like this one. Since the October trip I have continued to think about how I should respond to what I experienced. I have responded in a number of ways. In March I worked on a celebrity basketball game that raised more than $50,000 for an AIDS clinic in Malawi. In April, May and June 28 people returned to Malawi to work with those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. I plan on returning to Malawi in November.

The face of HIV/AIDS in Lilongwe, Malawi
However, I am quite convinced that my involvement must go deeper than simply taking a few trips, writing a book and working on fund-raising events. What that will ulimately mean for me I'm not sure.

At any rate, you need to read Race Against Time. It is an excellent book that will give you an understanding of global issues related to AIDS that is crucial for understanding the related issues.


I am on Sabbatical!

Wikipedia tells us that a
sabbatical is a prolonged hiatus in the career of an individual taken in order to fulfill some goal. While some sabbaticals can be a year long -- I am thrilled that I am getting 4 weeks + an extra two weeks of holiday time. So, I am simply thrilled.

I have been working at the same place for 7 years now -- the last year was particularily stressful, and I am a more than a bit burned out -- emotionally, socially and spiritually. So, I am looking forward to 4 weeks of little people contact, some good books to read, and a project I am completing on global AIDS which will probably debut in Canada in August, and the USA later on in the year.

This year is also our 25th wedding anniversary, and we are going to Hawaii at the end of July for two weeks. I was able to find a condo for dirt cheap, we are flying to there on frequent flyer miles (my wife in first class, me in coach), renting a car, and then just spending time on the beach, seeing the sites, etc. It should be wonderful. We both love Hawaii and it will be a great way to end my time off.

So, my hope is, that in the next few weeks, I'll be updating this blog quite regularly -- especially with a list of books to read and a few comments about them.

Thank God for Sabbaticals!