Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Most Difficult Lie

When I began preaching full-time at age 30, I had a rude awakening when I realized I was supposed to be in “community” with these church folks. I had always been somewhat of a lone wolf. In seminary especially I went my own way. It wasn’t that I was unsociable; it’s just that I had things to do (work, study, dote on Angela) and not a lot of time for hanging around

I remember in one particularly difficult class joining a study group with four other students. The idea was for each of us to prepare a study guide on a specific portion of the class material and share it with the others. I showed up for the first meeting expecting to exchange material and head home. Everyone else wanted to discuss the material. I was emphasizing “study,” they were emphasizing “group.”

I mentioned I had a rude awakening. What I mean was that folks thought I was rude. I had an image of the preaching ministry that was a mixture of John the Baptist and Clint Eastwood in “High Plains Drifter.” I would ride in from the hills on Sunday mornings, deliver my message, hang around just long enough for a fellowship meal, then head back to the hills (complete with background music).

That didn’t last too long. And it wasn’t very rewarding while it lasted.

So I can relate to Donald Miller in his delightful and acclaimed book, Blue like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Herewith, an excerpt about his journey to community.

Before I lived in community, I thought faith, mine being Christian faith, was something a person did alone, like monks in caves. I thought the backbone of faith was time alone with God… If other people were a part of the Christian journey, they had small roles; they were accountability partners or counselors or husbands or wives. I hadn’t seen a single book (outside the majority of the books in the New Testament) that addressed a group of people or a community with advice about faith.

It is like in that movie About a Boy where Nick Hornby’s chief character, played by Hugh Grant, believes that live is a play about himself, that all other characters are only acting minor roles in a story that centers around him. My life felt something like that. Life was a story about me because I was in every scene. In fact, I was the only one in every scene. I was everywhere I went. Sometimes I would have scenes with other people, dialogue, and they would speak their lines, and I would speak mine. But the movie, the grand movie stretching from Adam to the Antichrist, was about me. I wouldn’t have told you that at the time, but that is the way I lived.

[When I eventually moved in with six other single Christian guys] living in community made me realize one of my faults: I was addicted to myself. All I thought about was myself. The only thing I really cared about was myself. I had very little concept of love, altruism or sacrifice.

The most difficult lie I ever contended with is this: Life is a story about me.
(Donald Miller)

This Sunday, in conjunction with Memorial Day weekend, my congregation will worship with a special focus on the Lord’s Supper. One of the primary things we will affirm as we gather at the Table is that we gather TOGETHER. We break the bread and drink the cup together in remembrance and celebration of the One in whose name we sit at the table as a PEOPLE, not merely as individuals joined by a common faith. The Christian life is meant to be lived in community. Even rude people get to sit at the table! That’s part of how we break our addiction and confront the most difficult lie.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Watched Closely

There’s an age-old question that goes like this: “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” I thought of this recently while reading a short news item in the Houston Chronicle (“Honduran ex-gangsters live with misery, danger;” Alexandre Meneghini, AP, 5/14/06).

It seems that the previous president of Honduras, Ricardo Maduro, facing a monumental street-gang problem, instituted a “no-tolerance” campaign in which police arrested anyone who appeared even likely to be part of a gang – whether they had committed a crime or not (this resulted in overcrowding and violence in Honduras’ prisons, so that the next president, Manuel Zelaya, rescinded the policy and has employed more conciliatory means). Gangs are serious business in Honduras. One man profiled in the article fled his gang when he was ordered to kill his wife. The gang eventually killed her themselves.

But here is what caught my interest and why I share this with you. According to the article, “Honduras’ gangs recognize only lifetime membership; trying to drop out is considered a death sentence. The only exception is if a gang member proves he has become a churchgoing Christian. The former gang will keep watch to ensure that the dropout is not drinking, using drugs or hanging out on the streets and that he is always carrying a Bible.”

Now this is fascinating, isn’t it? Obviously, if being a Christian is the only way to get out of a gang, it would be tempting for departing gangsters to claim dramatic conversions and feign Christian faith. So the gangs adhere to an informal list of criteria: “church-going,” “clean-living” and “Bible-toting.” In other words, you better walk the talk.

Now don’t expect me to suggest that American Christians formulate a list of “evidences” that determine the legitimacy of peoples’ faith. That always leads to Spirit-deadening legalism. But let’s face it, our lifestyles “testify” in some way to our faith convictions: they either perjure our faith, offer tepid confirmation of our faith, or declare resounding evidence of our faith. Which is the case for you?

For us it’s not a life or death issue. And I wouldn’t want to suggest that we should conduct our lives as if we are being “graded.” But there is something very refreshing to me about the contrast of the past and present lives of these former gang members who are now Christ-followers. The New Testament is full of the language of “once you were, but now you are.” The apostle Paul says “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22).

This is a life-long journey but the point is clear: Christ-followers are called to a different kind of life.

So, what kind of testimony are you living?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

United 93

I was in L.A./Malibu last week for the Pepperdine Lectureships and stayed over for the weekend to spend time with a couple of close friends. One of the things we did on Saturday was see the new movie, United 93. I strongly recommend that adults and older teens see it.

The movie is very straightforward. It pulls no punches but also takes no cheap shots (though there is one passenger on the flight who pleads [in a French accent] for the passengers to cooperate with the hijackers/murderers instead of resist them -- this was obviously a pointed barb at European pacifism).

The most dramatic and moving scenes in the movie, in my opinion, were not on the plane but in the air control towers. It was heartbreaking, and in a strange way heartwarming, to see the air traffic personnel slowly piece together what was happening as they watched their screens, tried frantically to regain radio contact with the four hijacked planes, and then viewed CNN on the big screen and realized the exact nature of what was happening. The theater audience reaction was much the same as to The Passion of the Christ: people exited in silence. To do anything else would be to cheapen the import of what we had just viewed.

One of my convictions leaving the theater was that we are in for a long war and we need to get very focused on exactly who the enemy is. As numerous commentators have noted, we are not in a “War on Terror” (as if this includes Basque separatists in Spain, IRA radicals in Ireland, etc.), we are in a war against militant Islamic imperialists whose very ideology compels them to seek to subjugate any society which resists their convictions.

One of the $64,000 questions in this regard is: Are the basic tenets of the Muslim religion itself complicit in this ambition? As Dennis Prager notes in a recent essay (“The war we are fighting needs a more accurate name”;, 5/9/06), “No one should have a problem with Muslims wanting the whole world Muslim. After all, Christians would like the whole world to come to Christ. What should matter to all people is the answer to one question: What are you prepared to do to bring the world to your religion? For virtually every living Christian, the answer is through modeling and verbal persuasion.”

There is much to suggest that Islamic theology itself compels imperialist, rather than persuasive, tactics.

Again, Prager: “Many listeners have called my radio show asking me if I consider Islam to be inherently violent or evil. From 9-11 to now, I have responded that I do not assess religions; I assess the practitioners of religions. Why? Because it is almost impossible to assess any religion since its own adherents so often differ as to what it is. For example, is Christianity the Christianity of most evangelicals or that of the National Council of Churches? On virtually every important moral issue, they differ. The same holds true for right- and left-wing groups within Judaism (note: Prager is Jewish). Nevertheless, one can say that from its inception, Islam has been imperialist.”

This is certainly politically incorrect. But if you watch the movie, you will be reminded how ludicrous political correctness is in a time of war. Christians in America need to avoid blanket judgments while seeking and speaking the truth in love. Or as Jesus puts it, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”