My Review of Flipped by Doug Pagitt

Doug Pagitt is releasing his new book Flipped this Tuesday and I hope you check it out. I was able to obtain a pre-release (without any promise/payment of a review/endorsement). Like with any pre-release I try to get my hands on, I was hoping I would like it, but with high expectations sometimes comes disappointment. In this case, I’m happy to say Flipped delivered and I really liked it.

The basic premise (from Author/Publisher):

“We all have stories in our heads about God, humanity, life, and the meaning of it all. One of the most common—and misleading—stories is “If I’m faithful in doing this, then God promises to do that.” Jesus didn’t believe it and neither should you. God does not insist that you play by the rules before he will respond to you. A careful reading of the Bible will free all of us from trying to make a deal with God, inviting us instead to live in God.”

And a thought from Doug:

[Read more…]

Brian Williams, Preaching, and “Everyone Loves a Good Story”

Brian Williams is the cautionary tale of the week. As you probably know, he’s taken himself off the air and has admitted to being untruthful in his accounts such as his helicopter being shot down while he was covering the war in Iraq. Many of his other stories are now under suspicion as well and it’s likely going to be a long year for him. And of course, when you are found out today, you get made fun all over cable and flogged on social media.

There’s a lot in this story for me. One his actions represent to me why we cannot take the media to be a reliable source of information and truth. At best, it’s a system of partial half-truths. The news business is compromised with its competition for ratings, advertising dollars, reputations, status and more. In a world uncontrolled by business and status, could we get better news? I believe so but the question still remains, how well we can actually know something?

This of course sends me back to the posts from last week, “I don’t know what to believe” from the significant to the trivial, to current events, to the spiritual, etc. I used to think if I just had the right data, I could arrive to reliable conclusions. If I applied the right hermeneutics, and prayed just enough, I could understand this particular passage of Scripture. The experience of life has taught me (and probably you), that this is not a reliable strategy and being Spirit-led is more for the journey than the occasion. 

Back in college, there was this guest preacher who came and gave these messages filled with some amazing stories. On this particular night following the chapel service, the campus pastor invited me [Read more…]

I Don’t Know What (Or How) to Believe – Post 3 – Outsourcing Our Faith

To paraphrase philosopher Peter Rollins, there is a tendency to outsource our faith and have someone else do the believing for us. At first, I thought it was another one of Pete’s interesting conjectures but felt it was a bit of an overstatement. Then he offered this next thought: Imagine a pastor announcing to his congregation that he/she no longer believed in their Christian faith. Likely such a confession (or anti-profession) would shatter the faith of a significant number who identified that person as a pastor and spiritual leader in their life.

As a pastor, I’ve often thought about this, not because I am on the brink of abandoning my faith and overwhelmed by the guilt of ruining the faith of others but for two reasons: One is what the pastor represents and two, the fragility of faith.

There are pastors who abandon their faith, there are those who have done so quietly but keep on pastoring (this is scandalous) and of course, there are those that truly believe despite the madness of the world. Further, whenever I hear of a pastor publicly renouncing their faith, I feel more sympathy than threat. My faith is more troubled by the evil and suffering we encounter in this world. All this said, when I imagined what I might feel should my favorite theologians/thinkers abandon their faith, I was bit more bothered.

What if N.T. Wright came out and stopped believing? What if his next book was Simply Atheism, Why I No Longer Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus? What if Ruth Haley Barton started to teach that prayer is not actually transcendental, merely psychological for incremental self-improvement? What if Tim Keller preached his last sermon and it was entitled, “Richard Dawkins is Right”? I’ll admit, it would stun me.

The previous post discussed the issue of spiritual laziness, in this one I’m aiming to confront it. When framed this way, it feel like the first question then is asking, “Who is doing the work of believing for me?” or “Have I outsourced my faith?” and the second is “What is it that I actually believe (and/or trying to figure out)?”

Similar to the first post, it’s tempting to just yell out, “Jesus!” and while this is true in the big picture, this doesn’t actually help that much in the local and immediate. Yelling “Jesus” at your billers, or in the middle of a conflict or at Isis does not solve the problem. It’s who Jesus is to us and what this means to the situation that makes the difference. Thus, this unpacking, believing and practicing requires work and diligence.

For some, believing is outsourced to a particular media outlet (or a defined ideology), or to the consensus of their friends, whether be trusted friends or people they aspire to be or be accepted by. For some, believing is outsourced to their tribe, whether it be familial or occupational or some other marker of identification. Lastly, some outsource belief in a number of different directions, held together by what is most convenient or alluring to them in the moment.

While I believe we must hold our convictions with an open-hand, we must be careful that our beliefs are not whimsical and superficial. The great revealer of weak belief is how it endures during times of testing and the storms of life which brings to mind Jesus’ parable of building your house on rocks versus sand.

Who is doing the believing for you? That’s a harder question than it first appears to be. It’s in exploring how I come to my beliefs that cause me to wrestle.

Can I disagree from your favorite authors and thinkers? For me, I need to remind myself that N.T. Wright, Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis are not infallible. Not only that, I’m finding that not only can I disagree with them but I must on some level so I can preserve my own thinking. Further, as great as certain minds are, there all contain blindspots and weaknesses. Apparently C.S. Lewis was terrible at math, Luther was a racist, and I’m not sure that N.T. Wright knows any music outside Bob Dylan and the Beatles, which isn’t bad, but there’s certainly much more.

Wright probably has the better handle on soteriology, Pauline studies and historical Jesus, but is it possible that you might have a better understanding of say, the doctrine of creation? Is it possible that in heaven, you might have tea with C.S. Lewis and help bring clarity to his understanding of the atonement? And it’s safe to understand that many in the church have a better understanding of multiculturalism/multi-ethnicity that the great reformer Luther (but we certainly have a ways to go).

To avoid outsourcing our faith does not mean that we practice belief in a self-contained vacuum. But not just the brilliant minds of those whom we read but we also need each other’s presence to have dinner, wine and coffee with and  to gather in each other’s living rooms. We need different forms of community. Not so the community thinks for us in some sort of tribal group think, that’s unhealthy as well. Thinking in community means we contribute to each other, listen to each other,  process our confusion together, correct, rebuke, reform, reframe, create, and continue walking together.

For Christ-followers we must be rooted in Scripture as well. This blog often critiques the shallow Christian thought and cliches that we hear. This series of posts has taken special aim to “Jesus is the answer” (which He is). But it’s been my experience that some Christians have used this excuse to refrain from being a student of Scripture. After all, if it all comes down to a revered, five-letter name, why read the 66 books? In short, we need to study the 66 books, we need to read the books about the 66, we need to hear sermons, study privately, and study in community. This is part of the tradition of “Sola Scriptura” that the Reformers (including Martin Luther) fought so valiantly for.

Lastly, we need to depend on the leading of the Holy Spirit. Inevitably, our best minds will fail us, even the best of our communities will bring hurt at one point or another, and our own understanding of our God-given Scriptures may even impair us. We need to be people committed to the leading of the Holy Spirit as we pray, serve, learn, unlearn, gather, and worship in general. This latter point, is the only one that is exclusively divine, and unimpaired by our own personal/collective deficiencies. And it’s through this process that we confront our spiritual laziness and construct a robust faith for belief and practice.

There are a couple other drafts of thought regarding “being informed,” seeking the balance of worldly matters and having your head stuck in the clouds and being manipulated/brainwashed or lied to. Would welcome feedback on what’s connecting and/or what could use some fleshing out. Feel free to comment or private message me via email, text or Facebook.

Grace and peace, Tim


I Don’t Know What (Or How) to Believe – Post 2 – The Spiritual Laziness Issue

It happens every day. I hear something, I read something online, is it true? Then see its immediate rebuttal. “It’s not a true story!” He’s lying, “The media is making it up for the gullible.” or “It’s factually inaccurate and empirically unverifiable.” Statistics, study findings and a touching anecdote to reply to the posters. I find myself thinking way too long about what is true and if relevant and what should be done. For me, this results in a stalling in what to think, and therefore what to do.

The previous post described the frustration of trying to buy a burr coffee grinder on Amazon and how this simple experience illustrated the decision-making process and belief formation in countless other things. The post concluded with the idea with the idea that Jesus may be the ultimate answer but what if you’re not actually asking the ultimate questions? What about all the normal, everyday things that range from extremely important, fairly significant, important but temporary, all the way to trivial and fleeting? Merely shouting “Jesus!” to such things may not actually help our faith or bring clarity and instead, may actually be a form of spiritual laziness. 

Spiritual laziness can be seen in many forms. Perhaps the most common is moving through life in this heavenly-minded, cruise-control. It’s the consumer-Christianity, the going through the motions, the mindless easy-believism,  “If it feels good, do it” and “just give my piece of heaven” sort of thing. This is the type of spirituality that slips away from sacrifice, refuses to answer the door commitment and avoids suffering at all costs. Think of the religious leaders who cross the street to avoid caring for someone. I loathe this type of spirituality because I know first-hand how easy it is to slip in and out of it.

Another aspect of spiritual laziness is the “quick to arrive at conclusions.” Some might call this efficiency and encourage me to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (I did read it, this isn’t what he means). I’m criticizing going with the first decent answer, insert convenient, somewhat workable philosophy here, and settling too soon if you will. While I am not suggesting that we agonize over every decision, the opposite process proves to be unwise as well. There is a temptation to cut to the chase and “just believe.”  There is a satisfaction to it, there’s closure, no more wondering, wrestling and at times, no more worrying.

And while there are probably more versions and aspects to spiritual laziness, one of it’s biggest problems is that it deludes us and those around us into feeling more Christian and loving than we really are. It disguises itself in a piety that when examined or challenged, false apart fairly quickly. Further it sabotages opportunities for growth because it prefers never to struggle, suffer or grind – again, because it’s lazy.

For example, a few weeks ago someone posted a status update that contained tragic news. Many wonderful and sincere people offered their support and sympathies (the situation did not call for condolences at this point). One person chimed in with a “Chin up – God’s in control!”

I assume this person was a fellow Christian, probably a wonderful person. I’m certain this person will track me down and I’ll hear all about how she single-handedly saved their church nursery ministry, led the entire congregation to Jesus, including the pastor, and then later foiled a terrorist plot. Indeed, this person is a saint, in the tradition of Jack Bauer. That said, on this particular day at that particular moment, the saint acted umm, to put it politely, less than saintly and more insensitively and flat out lazy.  The triteness of the update was not encouraging, it felt more like, “Get over it, keep you eyes pointed to the heavens (literally), your pain is of little cosmic significance and God is still alive and good.” 

Of course God is in control, in the sense that He is sovereign over all things, we believe this to be ultimately true but in the moment what we need to remind each other is that God is here in the midst of the pain. God being in control does not necessarily mean that our particular crisis will be solved. God being in control does not guarantee that our loved one will be cured or that there will not be another terrorist attack or school shooting or any other of our countless nightmare scenarios.  God being in control ultimately means that those who put their trust in Him will abide with Him but that does not mean we will win every battle until then. 

This I believe. Not only does none of this feel lazy to me, this feels anything but as the lazy thing would be to avoid any sense of pain and struggle and settle for a more optimistic sentiment. Still, there’s more to confronting the spiritual laziness issue which I’ll keep unpacking in the next post. Have a thought or pushback? Know that I’d love to hear it. Thanks for reading.

I’m Not Sure What (and How) to Believe Anymore – Post 1

“I’m Not Sure What (and How) to Believe Anymore ” or  “How Buying a Coffee Grinder Can Ruin Your Faith” – Post 1

There I was trying to figure out which burr coffee grinder to buy. I was on Amazon, clicking through the options, I even had my Note application open. What was supposed to take e a few minutes turned embarrassingly longer as I became completely indecisive. I opened the browser wanting a decent black one and became overwhelmed with the many grind options, various designs, different capacities, significant price disparities (“You can pay that much for one – does it fly you down to Costa Rica and pick/roast the beans for you??”).

Then of course, frustration set in while reading the comment section. Customers were literally reporting the exact opposite experiences from each other. There was: “By far the best burr grinder on the market – buy this one – you’ll thank me!” followed by something in ALL CAPS like, “Don’t buy this one – broke within two weeks, customer service nightmare – do some more research!”

This happens countless times during my online reading of news reports, blogs, ezines and various sites. It could be theological, political, cultural or trivial. Recently, the posts have been about racism, millennials, Isis, and those worthless time-waster pictures. For some reason, I must know if that picture was fake or not and for some other ridiculous reason, apparently I think if I just scroll down long enough, someone in the comment thread is going to have the silver bullet answer for me … and no one ever does. 

Then when it comes to an important issue, I scroll and click and read and scan for intelligent [Read more…]

Reflecting on James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation

I was introduced to A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone in one of my seminary classes at Biblical Theological. Since then, there have been a number of titles I keep referring to including Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited and Justice For All and Let Justice Roll Down by John M. Perkins. But Cone was a bit more complicated (at least for me), and I remember thinking he needed more attention at a later point. That point came this past Christmas break where in the wake of Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and the killing of two NYC police officers. I’ve written on some of this already here and here but as I read blogs my black men and women, I kept feeling that I was missing something when it came to their references to black theology. And so reading Cone’s A Black Theology felt more than due.

Here’s what I really appreciated. For a good while, I’ve felt conflicted about writing book reviews (described elsewhere), Cone brings up the same tension for me as the last thing I want to do is objectify. So instead of a review, here’s a bit of a reflection and an encouragement for those that can read Cone to consider adding him to their reading list.

A quick origin story: Cone creates/writes black/liberation theology as he tries to reconcile the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the Black Power [Read more…]

Just How Involved is God When It Comes to Evil? Pondering, Not Answering

One of our Sunday morning class offerings is focusing on evil and suffering and the Christian story. The material is working from N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. I appreciate Wright’s treatment on evil and God’s justice – highly recommend the book, and if you are local, check out the class. Here’s the link for more info.

What I’ve really appreciated about the class is the opportunity for conversation. From the class leaders to the church at large, Im grateful that there is space to dialogue about evil, not just discuss apologetical rebuttals on evil. Both are important but both have limits. Praying, thinking, talking, learning, living helps move us forward in this world of suffering and hope.

As I’ve been reflecting on the class, I’m struck that at any given moment, I can quickly create a list of grave atrocities. Charlie Hebdo, missing planes (again), the very brutal Boko Haram attacks (2000 civilian casualties in most recent wave of violence), all the conversations connected with Ferguson, and the personal things that only we know. It’s staggering to consider all the suffering that happens around us.

If it feels like I’m constantly thinking about evil and suffering, it’s because, yeah, I am. I imagine many of you feel this way too. It’s not our television consumption. You can cut your [Read more…]

“Love Your Officer As You Love Your Protester and Love Your Protester As You Love Your Officer”

Everything is a justice issue. I do not know an instance in life where justice is optional. There is brokenness in every system because each of us are flawed. There are real criminals. There are ill-intentioned people who will exploit and hurt you and your loved ones if given the opportunity. We cannot be naive to this. Similarly, there are also those who have been charged to protect, legislate, judge, and enforce our laws. They are needed and are value and we cannot be naive to this either. And because there is brokenness in every system and each of us are flawed, some will selfishly take advantage of any situation and some will fail to live up to their responsibilities. Justice is needed.

Justice is needed but so are things like kindness, reconciliation, listening, communicating, forgiving, and peace-making. If life is about getting away with as much as you can get away (whether subtly or overtly), we will find not only is our life about seeking privilege, but that our hearts will become hardened by self-righteousness. And if life is about fighting every injustice, if we are not careful, we may bring an over-reaction, one that might be come from a different form of self-rightouesness, one that might be rooted in vengeance. Our souls are not designed for hedonism or to be the judge of all things.

So what is life about and what are our souls designed for? These are among the questions that enter my mind as the weeks unfold from the killings and reactions of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. These questions were re-asked as I heard some protesters chanting “We want dead cops”, as I read the news of the killings of Brooklyn officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos and as I’ve observed the over-genarlized anti-police rhetoric that has been swelling.

I am among those that want less violence, less inequality, less death, more respect, more unity, and more justice. Good society insists that we punish the guilty appropriately and good society demands that everyone is treated justly, without prejudice or discrimination. These are the basic human rights that people who hold to decency and honor are proud to champion. 

We are told that 27 police officers were killed while on duty in 2014 while other reports emphatically state the number is more than 5 times higher. I am not in a position to verify the statistics, but I mourn any loss of life. May God be with all of them and may the numbers decrease. Similarly, while no actual data can be agreed upon, the FBI estimates that about 400 people are killed by law enforcement annually and some say the actual number is much higher. It would be foolish to assume that the deaths of all of them could be avoided and it would be foolish to conclude that all of the deaths were justifiable. Again, we mourn the loss of life and we must seek ways to reduce the hurt.

There are the numbers and there are the stories. As desensitized as I might be to violence, I am horrified when I watch the Tamir Rice video and I barely have the words to describe my reactions. The sight of the police car racing up to the playground and Officer Loehmann instantly shooting the twelve year old is shocking to say the least. Similarly, I am baffled and angered that Ismaaiyl Brinsley would drive up to New York City from Baltimore with the sole intent of killing police officers. Mentally ill or not, he had a plan, and had the whereabouts to update his Instagram account, this is evil.

In Ohio, Cleveland PD has suspended and have distanced themselves from Officer Loehmann and I have heard no one defend Brinsley. My point is whether we appreciate the side of the protesters or of the police, we all must mourn and love the fallen of the “other side” and all sides, because for justice-seekers, it’s not “us versus them,” but rather a discernment of what is just, what is unjust, and then pursue what should be done.

In the Bible, there is this metaphor of the wolf laying down with the lamb. It’s a scene where Isaiah describes a world filled with peace and the complete removal of fear. I wonder if we live in a world where a line of police officers could join protesters in saying “Black Lives Matter.” It’s not about protesting against themselves but rather protesting the brokenness of the heart and a call to fix the cracks in the system. Similarly, what would it look like if protestors would mourn our fallen officers? Can protestors hold up signs that say “Black Lives Matter” and “So Do Police”? And what does it look for all of us on both sides and in between to seek peace-making and do our part in confronting the instances of racism against minorities and unjust attacks against figures of civil authority?

I believe these messages are needed. It’s been clear that so many on all sides are hurting, and have felt attacked.  Thus, justice and healing are needed for all. But when everything becomes a fraternity and when we find ourselves more loyal to our system, tribe or people group rather than the universal values of goodness, love and life for everyone then we will be bound to repeat similar episodes of violence, loss and subsequent confrontation. But if we can love our neighbor and our enemy, if we can confront our prejudices, bring reform to our respective tribes, enter into pathways that lead to forgiveness and seek justice collectively, I believe we can lessen our societal division, pursue greater unity and experience healing together.

This is among my prayers for 2015, I hope we can continue talking about such dire matters, and may we rely on the Lord to give us the courage and strength to bring peace.

Failures and Resolutions

I was pretty sure I was not going to write a New Year’s post but I just couldn’t help myself. To create a resolution or not too, that is one of the questions. The others include: If I did make resolutions, what would they be? Would I be any more successful than last time? What happens if I don’t make any resolutions? Does anything really change and what is it that really makes the difference?

We often hear making resolutions is not a helpful thing to do as most dissolve within a few weeks of the new year and there is always a well-written article written on how the failure to keep a resolution is worse than creating it. But in the big picture, I find the concept of resolutions to be a good thing. I’m not talking about the trivial resolution where we aspire to be instantly successful on every single one of our life’s ambitions.

The resolutions that work are those that begin my taking inventory of life, exploring what needs to change and mature mature, and counts the cost of what needs to be sacrificed. Creating a plan, seeking accountability, celebrating the victories, and picking yourself up after the failures is part of what leads to better things.

There is great truth in the maxim “failure is a great teacher.” The internet tells me the quote was made famous by Steve Harvey (but I suspect that it’s been around for a while). In any case, its obvious meaning points us to the learning opportunities presented in failure. Not only is there learning in failure but there is the potential for great motivation in failure. Without the sting of it, we might find ourselves content with our doldrums, lulls and sentiments of apathy.

Speaking only for myself, on good days, failure keeps me humble. On bad days, failure pushes me to lose confidence and wallow in frustration and self-pity. On good days, success leads me to thanksgiving. On bad days, success can lead to over-confidence and upon realization, wallow in misery and personal resentment. The next healthy moment reminds me of the goodness found in failure. This is part of the cycle and sometimes we maintain healthy emotional and spiritual rhythms and sometimes we’re living on a roller-coaster. [Read more…]

“The Shepherds Go Back to Work and … ” – Advent 2014 Post 3

I find myself always talking about the Post-Christmas blues. I think it’s because I feel that “holiday hangover” and see it in others. It’s the “Christmas has happened, now what are we supposed to do?” look.” I imagine how the shepherds who were told about Jesus’ birth felt shortly after. “This just happened, now what are we supposed to do?”

It has always baffled me that the angels did not announce the birth of Jesus first to royalty, political figures, the ancient 1%, not even to the religious establishment (including the ones that were righteous). Instead, on the night of our Savior’s birth, God sent angels to announce the good news to shepherds. God has not only kept an eye out for the ordinary people but has often invited them to enjoy the first-fruits of the most amazing moments in history.

I imagine what it was like for those shepherds. But it feels helpful to wonder how the shepherds felt prior to the angel’s visit. I wonder about all those long, cold, dark nights. They must have looked into the sky and wondered if there really was a Yahweh and what if there wasn’t?

Then one one odd night an angel appears and says “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” There’s an angel. And he’s speaking my language. He told us to not be afraid and he just referenced King David, our exiled nation’s greatest king, and just announced the birth of the Messiah. This angel knows our history. Yahweh is real and he has our prayers.

Filled with awe and wonder, they ran to meet the Christ-child and were among the most celebrated visitors on that amazing night. Others showed up, there was a bright star, fulfilled Messianic prophecy, angels sang Hosanna, there was a lot of celebration, and then … it was time to leave. Everyone probably woke up a little tired the next morning.

The shepherds went home, shared their story, then went back to work. If I was one of them, I imagine I would have kept an eye out for another angel. Maybe this would become a new thing? After a month, I’m sure the shepherds felt all was back to normal, the newness of it all faded a bit and the miracle of the moment would have lost some of its power.

What does one do after an amazing life-altering event? We ask ourselves this after milestones, sought-after achievements, mission trips, and just about anything that demands we examine our lives and make the changes that align with this newly encountered revelation. But after the feeling goes away, the motivation for making the change feels less urgent. Which then causes us to doubt the wonder of the experience. We ask ourselves, “Did I just get carried away?” We answer, “No that was real!” Then we interrogate ourselves, “Was it really real?? What exactly did I see?” “Am I not prone to exaggeration, especially when I am completely bored out of my mind when watching sheep on a dark, cold night??”

We deconstruct our experience. Which in the long run, I find to be a good thing. Because if there is anything worthwhile, answering the doubt will be needed if one is going to truly place the hope into and making significant life changes.

So what does a shepherd do upon returning back to work? Do they have post-Christmas or New Year’s resolutions? I doubt they were very inspiring. “This year I resolve a 50% reduction in wolves eating our sheep this year!” And what does the shepherd do on the anniversary of seeing the Christ-chilld? And what does the shepherd as the years turn into decades? After the high of a life-changing event, you might go back to your life but you don’t really go back to normal. If “normal” was living a life unsure if there is a God who really hears our prayers, unconvinced that there really is a purpose to all of this, unaware that there really is a salvation, a deliverance, a hope that awaits, then that there is no going back to that type of normalcy.

I believe the shepherds go back to work and I believe they woke up to a new reality. I believe those long, cold, dark nights were felt different. The sheep still smelled, the work was underwhelming but life was now charged with the reality found in the fact, that God came near. He came near because He too hated what we hated, the evil, the injustice, the oppression, the death and all the pain we find. He came near because He loved the things we love – joy, peace, love, and life.

Take steps deeper into the reality God invites us to is better than the high we often seek after. What most of us want is not a new job, shepherding is shepherding and the difference between being a farmer or a fisherman or a solider or a carpenter is probably not that much better. What we really want is to live in a better reality and that’s the beauty of Christmas. In the coming of Jesus, there is a reality that we get to taste now until we can fully realize when we are one day fully living with God in His glory.

Well, that wraps my Advent/Christmas reflections, I hope you found something helpful in them and that you had a Christmas. It’s the beginning of a new reality and I hope we get to experience more of this in the new year. Grace and peace.