The Holy Huddle and the Christian Club

holyhuddleWhen a person becomes a Christian, there often is a temptation to “Christianize” his or her entire life. An avid reader, who becomes a Christian, often forms or joins up with a Christian book club where he can share both his love of reading and his new-found faith in Jesus. A Christian lady who loves to quilt might start a Christian quilter’s circle.

The idea is noble: enjoy what you love with like-minded people. It makes sense, too. After all, birds of a feather do flock together. People who make a living out of studying the behavior of people in groups have a name for this phenomenon: the homogeneous unit principle. That’s one reason that there tend to be rich churches, poor churches, white churches, and black churches. We naturally gravitate towards those who are most like us.

This behavior can become a well-intended dragon in the life of a local church. When I gravitate towards people like me, I necessarily drift away from those less like me. Before long, I find that I don’t have any close relationships with those who aren’t in the church, or even those who aren’t like my church.

I don’t know who said it, but I’ve always liked it. Christians are kind of like manure. When you heap them up together, they get hot and stink. When you spread them apart across the world, they really improve things.

I’m grateful for the time that I can share with the people who are most like me, but if I’m going to be salt and light—a disciple-maker—I can’t live in my holy huddle. I have to be like Jesus. He wasn’t sick, but he walked with the lepers. He wasn’t unholy, but he ate and drank with the “sinners.” He is the ultimate example of leaving the huddle to go into the world.

There’s nothing wrong with the “Christian club.” It can be a source of great strength and much-needed encouragement. It can help us in life’s struggles. But if we’re not careful, it can also become an escape from the mission we’ve been assigned or a distraction from our purpose as churches. Let me encourage you to be intentional about being with people who aren’t like you—and sharing the good news of Jesus!

Church Leaders as Translators

If you’re connected to churches of Christ, feel free to read this. If you’re not, this probably isn’t for you.  I don’t want to air our dirty laundry for you! I’m writing in response to the hubbub about 4th Avenue’s decision to have a female preaching intern. Good-Translator

I’m a weirdo. I go to Summer Celebration and FHU Lectures. Let that sink in…

I was trained at Crieve Hall, Lipscomb High, Freed-Hardeman, Harding University, and Knox Seminary (a reformed, predominantly Calvinist school). I read Hugh Fulford’s News and Views, Patrick Mead’s Tent Pegs, The Jenkins Institute’s Hope and Expectation, Rubel Shelley’s FAX of Life and the Gospel Advocate. Some days, I’m afraid my Facebook feed might destroy the universe when posts from the left and the right collide with each other like matter and antimatter.

My behavior doesn’t make me a traitor, a coward, or unwilling to make a stand. Don’t look me in the eye and call me wishy-washy. Truth is real and worth searching for. I’m not afraid of hard questions from either side. I believe that God’s will is simple, but his Word isn’t always. Scripture itself teaches me that in 2 Peter 3:16 and church history colorfully illustrates the point.

Here’s why I read what I read and do what I do: the right and the left speak different languages. Literally different languages. They have different vocabularies and different dialects.

The right has a vocabulary of book-chapter-and-verse that sometimes devolves into fragments and proof texts. The left has a vocabulary of story that sometimes forgets some significant details and turns in the text. Each language has different assumptions and preferences. Each side carries baggage. Both sides are biased.

I’m writing this article because of what I saw in the comments and posts about 4th Avenue. Here’s what happens: The left makes fun of the right for not speaking their language. The right makes fun of the left for not speaking their language. We go around in circles, tell all our friends how smart we are and how dumb they are, and get nowhere. Nowhere! I’m sick of it.

If we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need translators. People who can stand in the middle. People who can go to Freed-Hardeman lectures and find the good and reject the dumb. People who can go to Lipscomb’s Celebration and hear truth and reject error. People who remember that the only kind of brother they have is the erring brother. People who love the people with whom they strongly disagree on important matters—who can hug them without a dagger in their hands. You can’t prove to me from scripture that doctrinal perfection is possible. History confirms that unity has never come through perfect doctrinal agreement.

Let me act like a translator for a moment.

Conservatives, can I let you in on a little secret? Patrick Mead knows that 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 exist. I promise he does! He just doesn’t think they mean what you think they mean. Like it or not, he has some compelling reasons, too. And don’t be fooled: you don’t take every “simple verse” simply, either.

Liberals, can I let you in on a secret? If the conservatives can’t hear your direct references to scripture, they can’t hear you at all. Oh! And they’re not all cranky, grace-hating old fogies, either! If you don’t like the “conservative monopoly on truth” – then you probably should back off your tendency to claim to monopolize grace.

We need conservatives who talk with liberals instead of about them.

We need liberals who listen, (and not lament!) conservatives.

We need fewer open letters about churches and more lunches and studies with them.

We need to respect autonomy and embrace connection.

We need intellectual honesty and searching of scripture. We need grace and the freedom that Christ gives us.

We need hearts that search for what is right, but also realize that we haven’t all come to the same place.

If we’re going to have those things, we desperately need translators. People who can speak to both worlds.

Want to be a translator? Want to bring peace? Here are a few suggestions.

FIRST: Make friends with someone on “the other side.” Have lunch with them. Get to know them. Learn to love them. Like them! It’s a lot easier to spout venom anonymously behind a keyboard than at a friend—even a friend with whom you disagree. In scripture, correction happens within relationship (see Matthew 18). Outside of relationship, it is impossible.

SECOND: Whenever you find yourself thinking, “I can’t possibly understand how somebody could think that” – congratulations! You just found your new job. Your job is to understand how somebody could possibly think that. Until you understand how, and why they think like they do, you don’t have the right to criticize what you do not know. Seek first to understand, then be understood. Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (James 1:19) Beware the sound of one hand clapping! If you only know what you think, of course the other side seems ignorant. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (Proverbs 18:17) As much as it depends on you, if it is possible, live at peace with all. (Romans 12:18) You may still disagree, but you’ll be disagreeing with the real story, not some straw man in your imagination.

THIRD: Season your speech with grace (see Colossians 4:6). Romans 5 teaches that God offered you grace while you were his enemy. I think you’ll find that being gracious to the people you see as wrong, erring, or dumb will make a bigger change than simply proving them wrong. When you win an argument, you’ve made a loser. Biblical discussions shouldn’t be a zero-sum game where there’s a winner and a loser. If truth is prevailing—that’s a victory for everyone.

FOURTH: Shut up! See James 1:19 again! It’s not my job to fix your congregation. It’s not even really my job to fix mine. It’s my job to work on me. Read Romans 14:4. It is not our job to judge God’s servants. That’s God’s job. I’m content to let him do it, thank you very much. The most helpful and hopeful line of Romans 14 (which deals with some tough topics, I might add) is that God is able to make his servant stand. That implies to me that the servant wouldn’t and couldn’t on his own. If you read the issues that plagued the early church, they were no “matters of expediency.” Does bacon damn? Is circumcision essential to salvation? It’s okay for me not to tell everything I know. I don’t have to show up at every argument I’m invited to.

Let’s be translators. Let’s fix this mess. Let’s quit displaying our bad side to the people who need Jesus the most! Let’s show the world how Jesus would disagree.

If I’m going to spin my wheels, I want to go somewhere. The only way my spinning wheels will go somewhere is if they have traction. And to find traction, we need translators. Be a translator!

Preaching and the Zombie Apocalypse

Animated-Zombie-ReverseLifehacker just ran a great article — “Craft a Better Presentation with Zombie Apocalypse Principles.” It’s a zombie-themed advice column on making your presentations better. While they wrote for a more general audience, I thought my preaching friends might enjoy the article, too.

Here were the tips they suggested:

Know your endgame. Indecision and meandering get people killed in zombie movies. They kill audiences with boredom and irrelevancy, too!

Be Clear and Kill the Vague. Again–anything “extra” is just dead weight that distracts from the main idea. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, lose it.

Be Ready for Emergencies. They’re talking tech, here. Know what you’ll do if your PowerPoint crashes. Have a backup plan to minimize that risk. Do you have your own dry erase markers? The ones that the venue might be dried out. Plan ahead.

Create Community. They quote Walking Dead: “Stray from the pack, you become a snack.” In a presentation, you want everyone with you, going the same place. Plan the “next steps” after the talk that will allow people to immediately act on what you’ve taught.

* * *

These are great suggestions for preaching, too. I’d like to chip in a few of my own.

Be Bold. Fortune favors the bold, right? Don’t be afraid to speak strongly and passionately. Leaders lead! The sermon might not always be for everyone–but it will be clear.

Go for Bodies and Brains. Zombies are bodies hungry for brains, right? I like to divide a person into three parts (no, not literally!) — head, hands, and heart. The head is intellect. Preaching should speak intellectually. The hands symbolize action. Good preaching should call towards godly action. The heart symbolizes our feelings. A sermon that tells you what to do and how to do it, but that fails to answer the “why” with a motivation will fail. It’s a brain without a body. Make sure to hit the whole person.

Urgency. The great thing about zombie movies is the sense of urgency. If the characters don’t find water, they will die. If they don’t build this barricade, they will die. The movies are filled with urgency. Good preaching should be urgent, too. If it is important, treat it like it’s important. If it’s not important, why are you wasting my time by saying it?

I should probably leave this one alone — but sometimes you feel like you’re standing before a room full of people that want to eat you. Other times, you might feel like it’s just a brainless horde! But whatever crowd you’re in, these tips will help sharpen your presentations.

What to do with opinions?

opinion“That’s my opinion, and it ought to be yours!”

That’s how radio character Makk Truck would sign off his daily comedy bit on WSIX on the House Foundation each day. It was a funny way to end a goofy rant on the radio, but in reality, it’s how most of us feel. After all, if I believe something, I believe it to be correct—so you should, too.

Dealing with opinions can be really tough. The “letters to the editor” page in the paper is proof enough of the diversity of opinions, and we know that they aren’t all equally valid. We always argue more about what the Bible doesn’t say (or what it might imply) than what it actually says. My friend Wes McAdams shared three suggestions for what we do with our opinions. I’ve tweaked them a bit for our purposes…

FIRST: Don’t be argumentative about them. That’s what Romans 14:1 says: “don’t quarrel over opinions.” There are some things worth fighting for; opinions aren’t one of those things. (By the way—an argumentative spirit seldom wins anyone!)

SECOND: Keep them to yourself. Proverbs 18:2 is great: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” You don’t have to share everything you know. Paul said that knowledge can puff up while love builds up. Sometimes the best thing to do is do nothing at all.

THIRD: Use your opinions to restrain yourself, but not others. It’s not our job to judge our brothers—that’s God’s prerogative. Read the rest of Romans 14 and you’ll see that for yourself. One of our heroes in the faith, Thomas Campbell, wrote a document called Declaration and Address in 1809. While encouraging us to go back to the Bible and reject human creeds and divisions, in section #6, he warned the church to be very careful not to bind the things that are not explicitly clear in scripture on others as a test of fellowship, lest we raise our own beliefs to the status of scripture.

I wish that we all agreed on everything, everywhere—but we don’t. How we navigate the uncertainty of our opinions can make us or break us as a fellowship!

Our Halloween Masks

I like Halloween. It’s always fun to see what costumes you come up with at Keith and Donna’s house. I wasn’t here for the year that there were two Glenn and Connie Buffingtons, but I do remember seeing lots of ghosts, cowboys, super heroes, and more.

12HalloweenMasks1Nov09At Halloween, we put on masks and pretend to be other people (or other creatures). I think it makes a pretty good reminder that people around us are wearing masks all year round.

Most people don’t live their lives in “Superman” masks—but sometimes they wear an invisible mask that tries to hide pain and sadness that hasn’t been dealt with. They pretend that an insult didn’t hurt or that they didn’t mind being overlooked. They’re always “fine” in words, but never in reality.

Very few people walk around at work in masks that have other people’s faces on it, but many people do have invisible masks where they try to project a different image of who they really are. We try to look richer than we are or younger than we are. We spend money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like. It’s a game we can’t win!

Sometimes we even have a “church mask” that we wear. We pretend to be perfect, pious, and put-together, and hope that nobody notices that it’s only hanging on by a string.

Masks at Halloween are fun, because we’re all in on the joke. We can play pretend and have a good time, but the masks we wear every day in our lives aren’t healthy because most people don’t see what’s really going on, and sometimes we haven’t dealt with reality ourselves. When we pretend to be something else, we deny ourselves the help that we so desperately need. Let’s make sure we don’t wear our masks anytime besides Halloween this year!

Everybody’s a Jesus Expert

expertsI love that the Bible is for everyone. It’s not chained to the pulpit. It’s not interpreted by only the elect few. One of great translator William Tyndale’s dreams was that the plow-boy could know more scripture than the priest.

Despite that, we may have forgotten an important premise: equal opportunity does not guarantee equal results. In other words, just because we all can read and study scripture doesn’t mean that we all do.

Here’s how this plays out: whenever there’s a public issue that somehow involves Christianity, everybody has an opinion. The talking heads on TV interview scholars and people off the street and everybody’s opinion gets equal screen time. The opinion of the guy who couldn’t name the four gospels is counted as equal to the Christian who has dedicated herself to studying the scriptures honestly and deeply. That’s insane.

Do you see the problem? Everybody claims to be an expert on Jesus, but not everything said about Jesus is true. Do you know how Jesus said you could tell who someone was that really knew his stuff about him? He said that, “the student who is fully trained will be like the teacher” (Luke 6:40). The angry, arrogant, combative guy who claims to be speaking for Jesus probably doesn’t know as much about Jesus as he claims.

On the flip side, there are others who always want to tell you what Jesus thinks about things. No matter what the question is, they have the same answer: don’t judge and Jesus loves you. Are those two teachings of Jesus legit? Absolutely and undeniably. I can’t imagine the teaching of Jesus without these thoughts. But the range of Jesus’ teaching is far richer and deeper than those two concepts alone.

Can I encourage you to spend some time with Jesus. Read the scriptures and see what made him cry. See what prompted him to anger—and watch how he handled his anger. Notice what brought him joy, and see the subtle nuance of his handling of delicate situations with hurting people.

I can promise you this: the real Jesus is better than the 30-second version you get from the experts on TV.

One Simple Tool to Improve Your Marriage

1simpletoolDr. Tony Campolo says that he can give you one simple tool that will make your marriage better, no matter how you’re doing right now.

Imagine what it would look like if you and your spouse were really, truly in love. Imagine what it would look like if you weren’t fighting and it was like the best times you’ve ever had—or even the best times you never had. Then think about this and answer a question: in your imagined scenario, what were ten things you did (not your spouse, but you!) every day that you’re not doing now?

Dr. Campolo’s advice is simple: whatever those ten things are—do them!

He says, “My prescription for creating love is simple: do ten things each day that you would do if you really were in love. I know that if people do loving things, it will not be long before they experience the feelings that are identified with being in love. Love is not those feelings. Love is what one wills to do to make the other person happy and fulfilled. Often, we don’t realize that what a person does influences what he feels.”

This is good advice. It follows the model of Jesus. “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” (Matthew 7:12).

Here’s some real good news: this prescription doesn’t work only in marriages. It works in all of our relationships. Trouble with the kids? How would you act if you had a great relationship with them? Do it! Irritating boss? Act like he isn’t. Want one more application? Are you having trouble with your faith? I’m not asking you to be a fraud; I’m asking you to live into the instructions of Jesus, and see if things don’t work out.

What Would You Do?

kent-brantlyOn Thursday, Dr. Kent Brantly made the news by doing the last thing most people expected him to do: walking out of a hospital.

If you haven’t followed the story, Dr. Brantly contracted the Ebola virus while doing humanitarian mission work in Liberia. Ebola is a strange and deadly virus, with an estimated fatality rate of 50-90%. There is no known cure. Dr. Brantly was perhaps the first human to receive an experimental drug. Researchers don’t know what (if any) impact that treatment had on his recovery.

The drama of this story is incredible. A man, moved by his faith, intentionally goes to the sickest people in the world. In the course of his service, he contracts what they had and is handed what amounts to a death sentence, but by the grace of God, the sentence was commuted.

What would you do if your doctor told you that you were going to die in 2-4 weeks?

What would you do if after 4 weeks, you found out he was wrong?

When Brantly was released, he went to spend time with his family. I’m guessing that catching up on paperwork at the office didn’t seem so important, anymore. I don’t think he rushed home to make sure the grass had been cut. I suspect that he wasn’t in a hurry to catch up on his favorite TV shows. I think that he wanted to be with the ones he loved.

Life is temporary. A church down the road had a true sign: “You are one heartbeat from eternity.” So here’s my question: are you where you want to be? Make sure you’re spending the time you have doing what matters.

Book Review: “A ____’s Heart” by Jeff and Dale Jenkins

father'sThis book review is WAY late…but I hope it’s better late than never!

Dale Jenkins has put together several books that are designed to encourage. A Minister’s Heart and A Youth Minister’s Heart would make great gifts for anyone you know in ministry, or even as a “peek behind the curtain” before someone gets into ministry.

If memory serves, the first book (Minister’s Heart) originated in a chapel talk that Dale was putting together for ministry students. It walks through the ups and downs of ministry. You’ll laugh on some pages, get angry on some pages, and want to cry on some pages.

A Father’s Heart and A Mother’s Heart follow this same pattern. They’re short gift books with a thought and an illustration on each page. These books would make mother’s day or father’s day gifts—or maybe even a great joint gift for expectant first-time parents.

It’s hard to know how to review these except to say that they were designed to be encouraging, and they accomplish just that. With all of the discouraging junk going on in the world, you’ll be glad that you spent time with these.

The books are available on Amazon, but check with The Jenkins Institute to order in bulk.

The Jesus Way in Ferguson, MO

ferg1If you’ve seen any news reports this week, you’ve heard about what’s going in on Ferguson, MO. We may never know all of the details about what happened when a police officer shot an unarmed man. Some claim he was complying; others say he was trying to take the officer’s weapon to use it against him. Some see racism; others say it was a split-second life-or-death decision made by an officer in the heat of the moment.

The aftermath is awful. It seems like everyone has gone crazy. The community hasn’t acted reasonably—looting, rioting, destroying private property, and threatening the lives of the officer and his family. The police haven’t acted reasonably—firing tear gas at the press who were reporting on the situation. Nobody seems to know who or what is in control. This unreasonable reaction has created a cycle: the crowds get agitated, the police intensify the situation, the crowd gets angrier, so police make threats, the crowd makes threats…and it just kept getting worse. There’s plenty of blame to pass around in this story. It seems like nobody has done right, and everybody has used the actions of the other side as their excuse to do wrong.

Did you notice something? This is the exact way that the world tends to operate. “If you treat me wrong, I’ll treat you wrong-er!” But what did Jesus say? If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to him the other. The world’s way clearly hasn’t worked! I like how Calvin Miller puts it. He said that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is fair and just, but it’s the shortest, most direct route to an eye-less, tooth-less world. Maybe it’s time to try the Jesus way.

When I opened up the news on Friday morning, I saw a headline that said something like “First Peaceful Night in Ferguson.” I clicked on the story and what I saw could preach a sermon. On Thursday night, the Governor installed Captain Johnson, a Highway Patrol officer, to take control of the scene. Rather than showing up in riot gear and a Humvee (which sounds pretty reasonable to me!), he showed up in the standard traffic cop uniform—a dress shirt and badge. Rather than putting a shield between him and the crowd, he walked among the crowd, talked, listened, hugged, and even took selfies with protestors. He spoke with them, saying, “In our anger, we have to make sure that we don’t burn down our own house.” Did I mention that Captain Johnson grew up in the area?

Think about this: what calmed high tensions and brought peace to Ferguson was not weaponry that was so powerful that it could intimidate the crowd into silence. It took someone stepping from their realm of safety into a dangerous, different world. He left comfort and ease to go to the people who hated him and the people like him. He became like those people and loved those people despite the risk.

Captain Ferguson hugging a protestor

Captain Ferguson hugging a protestor

Does that sound like anybody you’ve ever heard of? John 1:14 says, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Message paraphrased it as, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

I don’t know anything about Captain Johnson, but what he did on Thursday night sounds like what Jesus would do if he were in Ferguson, MO. I’m more convinced with each passing day that the Jesus way really works. Will you try it?