Reflecting on the Complicated Middle East

The black lettering reads “We are all Christians.”

Israel, Gaza, Isis, Iraq and all things Middle East are on many of our minds these days.

In respect to the Israeli-Palestianian conflict, we often ask, “Why is this conflict so complicated ? Among the reasons is its long history and each party telling its own version of it. We also know Iraq carries with its own complication. While the moral atrocities conducted by Isis are obviously evil, we again find the long-term solution to be weighty. Today we see a persecution that is bordering on holocaust that must be stopped.

The Middle East is certainly a topic that punishes you emotionally the more you read and learn. Sheer brutality, beheadings, sexual violence, children used as shields, missiles fired from churches, broken cease-fires, the perception of no mercy and brutal retaliation, and countless human rights abuses leave us extremely angry and frustrated. What is going on here? How do we stop it? How can we make things better? How can do it now?

Easy questions to ask, extremely difficult to answer and deliver. Our anger takes another step forward. What most of us want is to understand what’s what. When you don’t have access to the classified information and lack the power to mobilize an army or a peace delegation to stop the pain one way or another, you just feel powerless.

In the meantime, we try to read/scan/pick through all the content. There’s a lot of rehash, a lot of bias, and personally, I find more frustration. Frankly, I don’t really know what’s going on, there’s a lot of eye-witness accounts, a lot of opinion – some much better than others. There are images taken from other scenes and used for support, and all these other “snapshots” that don’t quite fill out the big picture. I even find some of the good guys and villains switching roles and it’s difficult to figure out who we can trust.Then because no one really knows, we attach the word “allegedly” to everything.

Then like with everything, there’s our own bias and perspective. This informs not just our starting points but our potential emotional investments, among other things. We could continue comparing perspectives but the point really is everyone has a different one. Further, no one can or should assume too much of the other perspective. Like we said, it’s complicated.

So what can we do?

Today, I’m feeling practical, strategic and spiritual and frankly, none of this seems that complicated. They may not lead to the short-term results we want today, but if enough people did them, it feels like things would change for the better.

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Reflecting on the Tough Weeks

Last week was one of those tough weeks. It wasn’t necessarily a bad week but definitely challenging, definitely intense, definitely fulfilling, and definitely hoping this one isn’t the same. Maybe you’ve had a similar one recently too.

We all know these days well: something happens in the midst of the regular craziness, all the unresolved issues compound, anything that was trivial becomes relevant, everything minor is now significant and everything that was already major is now epic. Often during these weeks, strong points are challenged, weak spots are revealed, even the imaginary ones, and the gaps feel like black holes. Time is critical, we’ll never get it done, we should pull the plug now or go full steam ahead now, get out of the tension and preserve whatever sanity we have left. Relationships are strained, prayers seemingly don’t work, does God really care, does any of this really matter – yeah it was a bit of that.

But this post is actually not about moving through those weeks – this one is about the week after. I moved through the weekend with something of an emotional hangover and began yesterday in a haze. All the things that had to get out of the way are back in line, and they are anxious. And that To-Do list that got set aside, well, there are some items that are frankly pissed. As we all know, there are no holidays given [Read more...]

Review of The Church and Postmodern Culture Series (7 Volumes via Logos Bible Software)

I was thrilled to have been asked to review the “Church and Postmodern Culture” series. Having previously read one of the titles of the series already, I was pleasantly surprised to see Logos offer a seven volume set and personally excited to read more of the series. I have two more titles to go and coming up for air here. I feel as though I am nearing the end of an extremely affordable seminary class in terms of emotional energy and the pressure of the deadline (It turns out I skim a lot less when there is no syllabus telling me the required reading is due on Tuesday). Grade or not, what I am confident in is since beginning the series in early June, I feel like I have taken a course on postmodernity and church practice.

What Is It? From the Logos site:

“The seven-volume Church and Postmodern Culture Series features high-profile theorists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology writing for a broad, nonspecialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church. This collection is assembled by a variety of contemporary theorists and uses insights from Deleuze, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Augustine, Irenaeus, Aquinas, and others to bring different angles to answer the many questions dealing with [Read more...]

“Do I Need a Seminary Degree to Understand the Bible?”

I heard a form of this question a few times this year. In some way this is very good as it reminds us that we’ve been talking about Scripture in our community. In another way, it’s not as good, as the statement implies frustration and perhaps a growing disunity between those who hold different convictions, different interpretations and most obviously an “us versus them” when it comes to seminary education. As one who is sensitive to disunity, I keep thinking about this.

The simple answer to the question is no, you do not need a seminary degree to “understand the Bible.” Everyone should read the Scriptures as this is one of the great maxims from the Protestant Reformation, “Sola Scriptura”, and making the Bible available to everyone was another one of the greater convictions and benefit that came out of the Reformation.

Everyone should read the Scripture but no one fully understands the Bible either. No one. 

Yes, I am keenly aware of the great stories of those who have memorized chapters and books of inspired text, they’ve read the Bible every day for hours for decades, and someone has identified them as one who “knows the Bible inside and out.” We can presume this individual is clearly well-versed in Scripture, loves the Lord and is doing amazing work for the Kingdom of God but no mortal can fathom the ways of God, no can know the mind of God, no one can comprehensively understand the Bible.

We all like to think that if we were alone on a desert island that we could master the Bible. Well, we definitely couldn’t if we were reading it English. it’s not simply that word meanings are lost in the translation so the solution becomes learning Hebrew and Greek while alone on this island. No and ask anyone who has taken Greek/Hebrew and they will tell you, we’re not even sure we’re using the right words. How often do you hear the line form a professor, “Perhaps a better word for this particular translation to have used was ….”? This is one of the reasons why we have so many translations and no shortage of new ones. The more we understand of the original language and historical context and the more our own languages change, the more translations we’ll have and need so make sure that island has a P.O. Box.

We can learn this truth from Scripture, we can learn it from experience, we can also learn it in places like seminaries. There have been books written about why to go to seminary and it’s been my observation that some are helpful and some over-promise. There are many excellent reasons to go to seminary, particularly vocationally, but among the reasons for me is that seminary gave me access and a measure of formal training in a conversation about Scripture, theology and mission that I really craved.

It was eight years between my first master’s and second and I clearly remember during my first year at Biblical Seminary reading the Drama of Scripture and thinking to myself, “Thank God I signed up for this crazy, intense cohort program, I need this.” In those in-between years, I was trying to read nerdy books, trying to keep up, but I had no real academic community around me that offered the conversation, encouragement, frustration and refinement around me.

One of the best moments of any seminary education is when the professor leads an intelligent room full of people in a discussion on something that seems initially solvable and as we explore contrasting passages, interpretations, traditions, and practical ramifications, we come to a moment of complete frustration and collectively say, “Wait, so what do we do this??” There are some moments when you literally say to the professor, “I can’t leave this room not knowing the answer.” And the prof responds, “I’ll make some coffee for you because you’re never leaving here then.” We stare at the text, shrug our shoulders and the education is learning the history, complexity, and beauty of Scripture.

It’s a humbling experience. One that moves the student of Scripture to prayer, to be Spirit-led, to seek God’s wisdom until we are given the complete answer on the other side of this life. The reality is you actually do learn quite a bit of the historical context and nuances found in our holy text. But that education and humility gives you sense of self-awareness of how great God is and how rich these sacred words are.

So where does that leave us especially those of us who are not seminary-bound? Should we not bother reading Scrpture? Of course not, the best thing we can do is keep reading.Then should we stop forming opinions, convictions and doctrinal statements? Of course not, there’s a place for all of that.

It’s our spiritual and hermeneutic posture that needs forming. My opinions, convictions and doctrinal conclusions will be in conflict with another and that’s ok. What’s not ok, is the arrogance and superiority we assume over the other. We can receive Biblical education in different forms: personal study, academic education, sermons/podcasts, communal learning with fellow believers, etc. and all of this will make a difference in the quality of our informed positions but none of us, from the newbie to the PhD can actually know the mind of God.

To be sure, I’d rather have the understanding of the PhD, unless it’s stripped me from the love of God, Scripture and neighbor. But for all of us, we learn the power of Scripture by sitting at our Lord’s feet and living by word and deed and you don’t need a degree for that.

For some practical resources for study, consider the following:

Use different translations in whatever passage you are reading that day. Biblegateway is very helpful.

The New Testament for Everyone Series by N.T. Wright

The NIV Application Commentary Set

Reading/discussing Scripture with friends.

Too Busy to Keep the Ridiculous Notion of the Sabbath

Everyone I know is busy. And if you read the previous post, I don’t know anyone that is really happy. Are these observations linked? Would we be happier if we were less busy? Some might say so but I know plenty of bored people who are not happy either.

We’re busy people. There’s a lot we want to do these days and there’s a lot we want to do before we die. We want to enjoy life, laugh with our family and friends, experience happiness and love, find discover new things and contribute to the good of this world. We want to find meaning, find God (if there really is one), and figure out our place in this world.

As we search the answers to these big questions, we have schedules to keep, bills to pay, people to take care of, demands, responsibilities, and all the whatevers of life that keep us busy. At the end of a long day we sit down to catch our breath, turn on “Love It or List It” and two hours later, dozens of houses, and a few annoying home-buyers, you’re even more tired, more frustrated and already bogged down by the busyness forecast for the next day.

Exhausted by the never-ending to-do list, and frustrated that our aspirations move further beyond our grasp someone inevitably comes along and asks, “Do you ever practice keeping the Sabbath?”

Ahh yes, the Sabbath. The Fourth Commandment – “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

Umm, no I don’t keep the Sabbath, I’m busy, I have a lot going on, so if you don’t mind, please either move along or quickly unload the guilt on me and I’ll add it to my to-do list of dealing with it later but whatever you decide, just make it fast because I have stuff to do and watch more “Love It or List It” and then Sportscenter.

Is there anything more ridiculous than the keeping of the Sabbath? All decent people will understand the other commandments that forbid murdering, theft, adultery, even the worship of idols (that can’t be good, right?). But a mandatory off day? Why does God care so much and why put it on the same scale as these other commands?

Sabbath-keeping feels like a luxury for rich, spiritual people. Or for the Jetsons. But you don’t understand, I have people relying on [Read more...]

Is Anyone Actually Happy?

There are days when it feels like I don’t know anyone who is really happy.

Life is tough … for everybody.

Which is odd because so many people look so happy. I walk into a coffee shop, I see women hugging and greeting each other like prodigal friends, “Oh my goodness Darlene – you look fabulous!!” I’m at bar with friends and sometimes it feels like I just walked into a Bud Light commercial with all these dudes high-fiving, singing, retelling old stories and intoxicated with life – “Yeah, I’ll have what they’re having.” Then the next day, I will look in the rearview mirror in our van and marvel at the sight of these beautiful children and say something sarcastic to my wife about how I’m really sensing that we should really keep all these kids.

But inevitably I will wonder why these moments feel so fleeting for us. The ladies in the coffee shop will start complaining, the bros in the bar will have a few too many and the sweet kids in the rearview will turn into Gremlins.

The more people you talk to, the more pain you see. The longer you talk to someone, the more hurt they reveal. And the longer you live, the more awful things you see and hear. It’s the theme of the book Ecclesiastes and it’s all throughout anytime anyone says, ““I’m just not happy anymore” and share their feelings of hopelessness.

Then there’s you. You and your happiness or lack of it. We say things like, “If only this were different, if only this could be changed, if only this had or had not happened, if only …”

At this point, we’re wondering a few things. Just how depressed is everyone, should I be more depressed, is happiness simply feeling a little better than the collective misery around me and how depressed is this blogger? And is he really a pastor?

Well, most days I think so and today happens to be one of them and while I’m unconvinced that happiness can be found at the end of a blog post, don’t click away yet because these words feel very true to me.

Predictably I’m going to talk about Christianity and the promise of happiness. In fact, I’d suggest that if our faith is not pointing us to a deeper, truer life,  and happier life then we should either get rid of it or figure out if we really understand it.

Frankly, if Jesus does not understand happiness, can I really trust him and further, what good would Jesus/Christianity be if happiness was not part of it? What’s not as predictable is perhaps our  understanding of happiness. 

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Blog Update: What I’ve Been up to, On My Mind & What’s Coming

Quite a few thoughts on my mind lately. Got back from a vacation a couple weeks ago and hit the ground running like you do. Also got to spend July 4th weekend with great friends, been a nice start to the summer, and the only real casualty is the blog. So hoping this post gives me some clarity and gets me blogging again. If any of this resonates, let me know.

I was grateful to have preached last week in our new sermon series “One Word Prayers” and my word was “Please.”  In the message I revealed my love for bacon, coffee and that we’re expecting a new baby this fall. That said, the point of the message was we use the prayer, “Please” in many ways, from seeking God’s blessing, interceding for others, and desiring God’s sweeter reality. You can listen/watch it here and embedded below.

There’s a draft on the post-sermon that I’m unsure I’m going to finish. Similar to the feeling of “it’s great to have written”, there’s the “it’s great to have just preached” but this time I really feeling, “It’s great to have just connected.” I was grateful to have had a bigger part in shaping this sermon series and I think I feel the difference of having preached something a bit closer to my heart. If you’re not a weekly preacher, there’s often either a hangover or afterglow, I’m grateful to have experienced the latter.

The other night I started on a draft that wondered why it sometimes feels like everyone I know is unhappy. It’s a half-true of course but it feels like there’s a lot going on with all of us, we’re all in need of something and what do things like contentment, waiting and joy look like in the midst of this? Working on it. 

 

I’m also thinking about what’s going on in the news:

  • Still have a few thoughts and finishing the follow up to “What to Do with all These Stories of Women Being Sexually Attacked …”
  • Working my way through the Supreme Court-Hobby Lobby decision. On one hand requiring businesses to provide birth control seems like clumsy socialism yet this decision feels like it gives greater power to corporations and I’m not comfortable with that either. Some great essays/posts out there and I’m processing

There’s a pile of book reviews I’m trying to put together:

  • The Church and Post-Modern Culture Series via Logos Bible Software.  I was asked to review this seven volume series and while it’s time-consuming nerdy work, it’s reading I need and thankful for, especially during these post-seminary days. 
  • Fail by J.R. Briggs – love this guy, love how he talks about failure, love that IVP published this. I even when to his conference where each presenter shared about their greatest failures and how they survived. 
  • 24/6 by Matthew Sleeth – Sabbath, rest, worship, renewal. Every time I approach my stress and confront the feeling of being overwhelmed, I return to the teaching and practice of Sabbath. 

And an assortment of reflections ranging from short term mission trips, student ministry, small group ministry, discipleship culture in churches, faith and science divide and general leadership. I’ll never get it all out but I’m grateful to be around all this.

On a bit more of a personal level, I’m looking for rest and renewal this summer. I’ve said this all year, so I guess it’s been one of the themes all along and it’s filtered through just about everything I’ve been a part of including our Summer Discipleship Course starting this Sunday morning at the Lexington campus during both morning worship hours. We’re calling it “Rest and Renewal in Summer and Scripture” and I’m excited to  kick it off this week.

Hope all is going well with you and your summer.

 

If you’re up for a 30 minute sermon about prayer, heaven and bacon, I’m your preacher :)

 

What To Do With All These Stories of Women Being Sexually Attacked From #BringBackOurGirls to #TakeDownThatPost Post 1

Even if you’re only paying half-attention, there is a lot of news, content and awareness on the poor treatment of women right now. Frankly, it’s difficult not to be sensitive to what’s happening. Bad news is bad news but what’s even worse is to not learn from these hurt-filled moments so that people can be helped now and that pain can be limited or even avoided in the future. 

To recap the context I’m working through:

Back in April, news broke of 200 school girls in Nigeria were kidnapped in one day. Some have escaped, while the whereabouts of most are still unknown. As a result, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign was born (and shown to be effective). But we ask ourselves, how do we live in such a world? This is absolutely mind-boggling to an outsider like me.

Two weeks ago we read reports from Egypt of women who were sexually assaulted during the inauguration celebration. Make no mistake, these sexual attacks are political statements which brings back the question, what kind of a world do we live in?

Stateside, our heads are spinning from the news of Bob Jones University faculty telling a rape victim to repent of her sin. The link is to a story about a young woman who was assaulted at her summer job, then began college, shared her story, and was advised by faculty to repent because there’s “sin under sin.” Stupid advice is sinful too.  [Read more...]

Reflecting on the Calling of Fatherhood (Father’s Day 2014)

[Been out of pocket this week - a few belated postings going up in the next few days.]:

Most days I feel like a good father but I’m just being humble. It turns out, I’m actually “The #1 Daddy.” My six year old confirmed this for me in writing and I can produce this document at a moment’s notice.

I’m tempted to set it all on cruise-control but in a moment of self-awareness, I thought maybe I’d reflect on the goodness and the challenges of fatherhood.  I’m thinking about my personal joys, I’m thinking of two friends celebrating their first father’s day among a few other scenes featuring fathers and grandfathers playing out in my head.

This Father’s Day, I was surrounded by my family, my wife, my children, my own father and mother, brother, sister and her husband and kids. We’re vacationing together and it all fell on Father’s Day weekend. We all live in different parts of the country now so these days are special.

If we’re local or Facebook friends, you know we just announced that Susan and I are expecting baby number 4. If you don’t know us, we’re a couple who spent 6 years in fertility treatments, quit them and adopted our first [Read more...]

The “Slippery Slope” Argument is the Adult Version of the Boogieman and It’s Not True

My least favorite excuse these days is the “slippery slope” argument. It goes something like, “If you bend or change your mind on this, then you’ll have to do the same for everything else. And then you’ll end up in chaos and destruction. Therefore it’s best to avoid the slippery slope.” In my mind is a particular context that I want to be sensitive to. It affects people I agree with, people I disagree with and I have friends on both sides. Still, I feel the need to call it out.

First, the slippery slope feels like a modern day boogieman for adults who, pardon my saying so, are afraid to change their minds. I’m struck by how unhelpful a Google search of “slippery slope” turns up. From my perspective, It’s a lot fear language preached from a loftier and often overly-conservative position.

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