I Think We Can All Agree…

There’s one thing we can all agree on – that somebody always disagrees. Go ahead, disagree with me. You’re only proving my point.

In college my then-girlfriend-now-wife and I attended a weekly worship night on Thursday’s called Grace. It brought students from the three Christian universities in town – Abilene Christian, Hardin-Simmons, and McMurry – together to worship. Matt Chandler was the weekly speaker, and Matt now leads a mega-church of over 10,000 people in the Metroplex. He’s a fantastic teacher. He’s funny. He always “brought it.” It was hands-down some of the best preaching I heard in my college years. He was the closest thing to a Christian celebrity I’d ever seen in person. We were all gaga over Matt Chandler.

One week he said something that made me pause. I realized I disagreed with him, and after worship I told Christina about it. She thought for a moment and then said, “I like that you disagree with him. I like that you don’t just agree because Matt Chandler said it.”

From that day forward I had my mission: disagree with Matt Chandler.

After Grace each week we’d discuss the lesson in the car on the way to wherever we went next. I’d let conversation flow for a bit, and then I’d chime in with, “Yeah, but did it bother anybody else when he said…”

It was gold for a few weeks. Everyone seemed to appreciate having such a sophisticated theological mind to keep the likes of Matt Chandler in check. But after those few weeks passed, I was the only one impressed with my critique. It was almost as though people just took the good and ignored the bad. Like they didn’t want to hear about the time Matt Chandler said it was Genesis 2:8, but when I looked it up it was actually Genesis 2:16, so…

After a while I even exhausted myself. Dissecting a person’s words in hopes of finding fault will ultimately reach its goal. You will find something wrong with just about everything everyone says. Whether it’s politics, religion, play group, the local op-ed, your mom, or the fry cook at Burger King, you will find something wrong if you’re looking for it. You will find a reason to complain. However, as a word of caution, if this is how you spend your life, you will be exhausted, and so will everyone around you. Spending your days searching for the negative is about as unhealthy a way to live as a diet of McDonalds, Miller Lite, and Marlboro’s.

This is typically a power move, right? We point out the negative so we can feel superior, smarter, better than all the sheep that willfully bowed to the guy saying nice things. It’s arrogance dressed in a really bad suit. We all pass through stages when we play the “I’m-Smarter-Than-The-World” game, but that’s usually in adolescence when one bad hair day can ruin your entire junior year. Everyone was so sensitive and self-absorbed back then because they were terrified of being ridiculed. Sadly, many of us don’t outgrow that habit, and the only thing worse than a self-absorbed 17-year-old is a self-absorbed 37-year-old still trying to prove he’s smarter than everybody.

The opposite is also true – if you’re looking for the good, you will find it. There’s good everywhere and in everything. But we only see it when we’re looking for it. And aren’t we drawn to the happy optimists? Don’t we generally enjoy the people who are amazed at everything? Don’t we prefer to work with people whose answer is “Yes” first, and they work and work and work until the only possibility is to say “No?” We like those people, but somehow they’re not contagious. We get sucked into Negativeville because it requires little-to-no effort to say no. It requires no effort to disregard someone’s passion. It sounds too hard to get swept up in the joy and thrill of living a life of wonder.

One of my favorite YouTube clips ever is Louie CK on Conan talking about how everything is amazing but nobody’s happy. You should watch it.

For one day, let’s just all be happy. If you have kids, be thankful you’ve got them instead of complaining that they’re being annoying (that one’s for me). If you’re upset with that politician for saying that thing and not doing that other thing, be glad you got to vote. If you have a job, be thankful for it whether it’s your dream job or something you hate. If you’re stuck in traffic, be thankful you have a car; you could be walking to work. If you’re low on cash, be thankful you had enough to make it to today. If you’re reading a lousy book, be thankful that you’re among the world’s literate citizens. If your team lost, be thankful for the sport you love.

Turn off negative TV and radio. Stop yourself before you speak ill of something without acknowledging the good. Be amazed at the world. Live happy. And give us all a break because, just like you, everyone’s doing the best job we can.

It’s fine if you disagree.

Fight Flight Love

I don’t often dabble in neuroscience, much less post about it. But I’ve been fascinated by something I heard recently.

Our brains have a hypothalamus. It’s at the base of the brain, and almost all animals have it. The hypothalamus pairs with the sympathetic nervous system to control our fight or flight instincts. The hypothalamus is primal – it can do no higher thinking. But, when faced with a threatening situation, it decides in a split-second between fight or flight.

We also have a section called the frontal lobe. That section is largely what distinguishes us from the beasts. Our frontal lobe helps with higher cognitive reasoning, handles emotions, etc. When you’re in calculus, or when you’re at a new restaurant deciding what to order, or when you’re trying to get that riff just right on the guitar, your frontal lobe is fully engaged. The frontal lobe is also where we find higher human expressions like love, grace, and forgiveness.

Over time we train our brain to receive input and send it to the proper section. Example: what comes to mind when you read this word -

OBAMACARE

Depending on your experience with Obamacare, you felt something in the hypothalamus (fight or flight) or in the frontal lobe (higher cognitive processing). If you felt it in your hypothalamus, you probably had a physical reaction too. Your blood pressure went up. You shifted in your seat. You felt a subtle surge of adrenaline. You were ready to fight because your experience with that word has been negative and you’ve trained your brain to receive it in the hypothalamus. The second you saw it, you weren’t sure what I was going to do with the word, so your hypothalamus prepared for a fight.

(Interesting note: the Obama administration has consistently referred to the law as “The Affordable Care Act” because more people approve of the ACA than Obamacare, even though they’re the same law. Hypothalamus vs. Frontal Lobe)

But, if you’ve had a positive experience with the Affordable Care Act, your brain sent a signal to your frontal lobe. You probably thought about the health coverage you now have that you once couldn’t afford, or the joy you had at hearing it passed into law, or simply that you like Barack Obama and you want to see his policies succeed. Even if you have not had a good experience with Obamacare but are willing to weigh through the pros and cons, your brain will send it to the frontal lobe for higher processing.

Here’s what’s fascinating: those two parts of the brain cannot work simultaneously. When one is engaged, the other shuts down.

Consider the implications of this. We train our brain to send signals to one part or the other based on our experience, and the two parts cannot work simultaneously. When it comes to politics, most of us have politicians we either support or despise. There are political figures and pundits who, when they start talking, I stop listening. It’s true. I don’t think I’m alone in this. And I believe it’s because we have trained our brains to send some people to the hypothalamus, and others to the VIP lounge of the frontal lobe. Why do partisan people point out the specks in the other party’s eye while ignoring the log in their own? Because the frontal lobe is far more forgiving than the hypothalamus.

Think about your child. You’re thinking (hopefully) in the frontal lobe. You’re thinking about the latest stage of development they reached, or the art project they brought home, or the way they finally seem to understand what you’ve been teaching them for so long.

But what about the bully at school that made your child cry every day last week? Hello, Hypothalamus!

Now think about this in the context of Christianity. When the world sees this word:

CHRISTIAN

do they receive it in the hypothalamus or in the frontal lobe? Have we “trained” the world to love us or fear us, to listen to what we say or to engage flight mode and get as far away as possible?

The frontal lobe is usually for people who:

1) Love us in a way that makes us feel loved

2) Treat us with generosity and respect

Typically, the hypothalamus is for people who:

1) Judge us from afar

2) Treat us as inferior

I think it’s essential for Christians to start acting in a way that sends us to the world’s frontal lobe and gets us out of the hypothalamus. We are often so bent on being right that we forget to love. We have conditioned ourselves to fight for our “rights” even at the expense of others. Yet that’s the opposite life that Jesus calls us to. We get to be people who lay down our lives, give up our rights, and trust that love will always win in the end.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not drawn to people who are always right. I’m drawn to people who are always kind, always generous, always humble, always forgiving. When Jesus said to treat others how you want to be treated, it was because nobody wants to listen to a jerk. People were drawn to Jesus because he knew how to love better than everybody else. Wouldn’t that be a great slogan for the Church – “We know how to love better than everybody else!” Imagine if the whole world looked to us when it needed to know how to love, how to forgive, how to show grace, how to give mercy, how to help the needy, how to welcome the outcast. What if people couldn’t stay away, whether they believe in God or not, because the human heart simply cannot resist that level of love.

I’d like that sort of Church. And, if I had to guess, so would the rest of the world.

Two Days with Rob Bell

I did it.

I saw it promoted for a couple years, and I always thought “Two Days with Rob Bell” sounded a little pretentious. But then he changed the name from “Two Days with Rob Bell” to “Craft Lab.”

I was sold!

I booked my seat/flight/hotel/car and spent two days last week in beautiful Laguna Beach, CA with Rob Bell and around 50 or 60 people from all over North America. I met some incredible people doing seriously mind-blowing things, made more foster-adoptive connections, tried (and hated) surfing, and, of course, met Rob Bell.

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Initially there was a lot of what my wife calls “peacocking” – people strutting their stuff, trying to distance themselves from the rest of us lower-tier humans. But then Rob (or Robbie-Rob as I decided to call him) entered the room. An awe-full hush settled over us star-struck drones and without even saying a word, he’d begun.

Eventually, peacocking gave way to beautiful honesty and transparency. And by the end I declared it to be two of the most important days of my entire ministry.

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Rob Bell has a gift. Not just preaching, not just writing, but he has a gift of getting to the heart of what a person is truly saying in a matter of seconds. He’s a relentlessly hard worker and a genuine inspiration. He spent the first morning asking people about projects they’re working on. Within a few moments, he opened door after door after door to each person’s insight and what the project is actually about. It sounds a bit arrogant to say he sat and told people how to make their books-films-sermons better, but that’s exactly what he did and it was amazing. He read excerpts from his new book set to release in August called Yes, You. He shared some personal stories about ministry, about criticism, and about making the move from Michigan to L.A. to find a way to share his message on television. He explained his move this way:

Politics and religion are the two hot-button issues in America. Politics is everywhere on television, but where do you turn for religion? Where’s the religious equivalent to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?

He starts filming his show in a couple weeks, and it airs in October on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

He gave us priceless advice on the craft of presenting our thoughts like:

Be tight and ruthless

No B-minus stuff

Be able to tell the gist in 30-seconds

Structure breeds spontaneity

Use the particular to explain the universal

These have already had a profound impact on my preaching, and I’ve only been back one week!

Yes, Rob Bell has a gift.

But Rob Bell also has a curse – he’s a celebrity. I learned as much from his curse as I did from his gift.

One of the more insightful moments for me was when we talked about the daily slog of ministry. Most of us agreed ministry was exactly where we wanted to be, but some days are much, much harder than others. He told stories of his days at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI. Their church was enormous so he had to draw very clear lines around what he would and would not do. Like weddings. At a church of around 17,000 people at its highest point, he was simply unable to do every couple’s wedding. So his church formed a wedding team and the members of that team did all the weddings for the church.

He also spoke of a much darker side to being a celebrity pastor – the hate, the criticism, the toll on your family. And as I listened to other pastors in the room who work for large churches share their ministry struggles, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “I really, really love our little church in Little Rock.”

CrossWalk is about 120 people strong. I hear preachers say all the time that they’d trade all their lukewarm members for just a handful of committed disciples. That’s what CrossWalk is. We’re not big in number, but we’re huge in impact.

This is both a gift and a curse. A gift because we have the intimacy so many people mourn when moving to a larger church. We have a level of freedom that comes with our smallness (big ships are hard to turn). We don’t suffer from the typical 80/20 rule of most churches. Almost all of our people are fully committed in some way or another to growing the Kingdom in Little Rock. We don’t deal with much politicking because at a church our size hierarchy has no place. People don’t get upset with “the elders,” they just go have a conversation with Brooks or Tom or Euel or Brad.

But it’s a curse because we don’t have the resources of a larger church, which can be especially hard for families with young children and teenagers. It’s a curse because when all the right people are out of town on the same Sunday, we take a hit financially. It’s a curse because when a family moves away, the gap is often hard to fill.

It’s easy to get caught up in the trap of wanting to be a celebrity pastor or build a megachurch. Rob Bell tells a story in his upcoming book about a young man who bluntly asked him what it takes to “do what he does,” which is to speak in front of large crowds of people. This is often the dream and the standard by which we judge our pastors and ministers. Success=Numbers. But, oh boy, is that toxic!

Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog  about success versus faithfulness, and points out that one is not necessarily indicative of the other. It reminds me of the last time I taught the 200 or so inmates at Wrightsville Prison. I tell you the number because, ironically, it’s the largest crowd of people I teach on a semi-consistent basis. One of the men brought me a glass of water after I sat down and said, “Thank you for being faithful.”

Not: “Wow, great sermon!”

Not: “You should preach to millions of people!”

Not: “That sermon changed my life!”

Not: “You’re the best preacher I’ve ever heard and for the rest of my life all other preachers are dead to me!”

No, just a simple, “Thank you for being faithful.” It rocked me.

Most of the megachurch leaders I know are tremendously faithful people. My wife and I are part of an adoption support network that meets weekly at the biggest church in Little Rock, and we’ve grown to love the hearts of the people there. I was thankful to be with Rob Bell for two days and come away believing even more that despite his celebrity he is also a tremendously faithful man. And I was thankful for the reminder that we are to carry out the task God has given us simply because it is the task God has given us, whether we’re celebrities or nobodies, whether we’re teaching thousands or dozens.

We are to love because all people in all places need love.

We are to serve because pastors and preachers should be the model of service, not just the ones holding the bullhorn.

We are to preach because we have been given a word from the Father, not because there’s a crowd.

And every single time, we give it everything we’ve got.

If you have a chance to spend two days with Rob Bell, I recommend you take it.

My 5 New Social Media Rules

UnknownFor the past 45 days I’ve been on a fast from social media. I broke it a couple times for things like our son’s sixth birthday and to send some Facebook emails. Occasionally I peeked in just to see what was going on. But for the most part I’ve been social media free for a month-and-a-half.

And it feels amazing.

It was like a cleanse diet for my mind, heart, and soul. I told a friend recently that I used to condense every situation to 140 characters. No matter what I was doing, I was always thinking of a clever way to tell the world about it. Having not done it now for several weeks, I see how much Twitter and Facebook consumed my thoughts. It feels a lot like exchanging a fast food diet for fruits and vegetables. I feel light, I feel healthy, I feel release.

It was also a tremendously helpful reminder that I’m not as important as I think. Apart from my grandmother, there have been no complaints, no cries for just one little post, no begging for a glimpse into the life of Cory Jones. In fact, if you weren’t reading this blog, you would probably have had no idea I was even absent last month.

NOW WHAT?

After Easter, will I go back to my old habits of seeing the world in 140 characters and believing people care about me way more than they do? I sincerely hope not. But I do plan to resume participation in social media. So I decided to lay some ground rules for myself in order to use social media in a healthy way. Here are the rules:

RULE 1 – Share what is helpful/useful - I try not to waste people’s time with my posts. I try to avoid sharing my to-do lists, my mood, or my observations of the weather, but I’m not always perfect in this regard. So, after Easter, I will try my best to limit my posts to what I believe is productive and/or useful: articles, new restaurants, thoughts on parenting, inspirational stories, etc.

RULE 2 – Limit my content – I once read an article by a person with many Twitter followers who wrote that he posts on Twitter a minimum of 14 times per day. That’s about once every 90 minutes. And that’s crazy. Nobody has that much productive material to share DAILY! Not only that, but, as I mentioned above, it creates both a mental state in which every moment is something to Tweet, as well as a false sense of self-importance. So, I’m going to limit myself to a couple posts per day on Twitter, and fewer than that on Facebook. And all posts must clear RULE 1: Share what is helpful/useful.

RULE 3 – Limit my consumption – Like a lot of people I use my iPhone as an alarm clock. When the alarm sounds in the mornings, I turn it off and immediately open Facebook. When I pull up to a stop light, I reach for my phone and open Facebook. When I’m home with my wife and children and there’s a lull in conversation, I check Facebook.

While I prefer Twitter and Instagram, I’m probably on Facebook more than any other social media outlet purely because there’s more content. It takes longer to skim Facebook and all its comments than to scroll through a bunch of tweets or Instagram pics. So, to limit my consumption, I’m deleting Facebook from my phone and will check it only on my computer. It might mean I swap one social media habit for another, but I hope by not having it within fingertips-reach, I’ll be able to limit the amount of control Facebook has in my life, and maybe get to know my wife and kids a little better.

RULE 4 – Don’t exploit the children – How we present our children on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram is always a source of debate. Some believe children are fair game, no matter how embarrassing their picture/story might be, and others believe children should never be mentioned, period. We probably lean more toward the former. And I’m certain we’ll have some ‘splainin’ to do when our boys are old enough to have their own Facebook accounts and see all the things we’ve posted about them over the years.

This is a hard rule because, to be completely honest, I think we have awesome kids. Many of our friends and family have expressed joy at seeing them grow up. Many have followed our adoption process and seem to enjoy seeing our family continue to grow into a real family. And – okay, total honesty – our boys do some stupid stuff that makes for really great Facebook posts.

However, we (Christina and me) need to be more discerning with what we share about our children. So I plan to limit posts about our boys to: A – Bragging on accomplishments, and B – Stories and pics that show their gifts, talents, and positive qualities.

I think venting publicly about our children inadvertently gives permission to all our friends, family, and followers to join in the criticism. That’s completely unfair to our kids. And if all we ever share are our frustrating moments, our kids’ failures, or all their boneheaded decisions, then that’s how the world will see them.

I think we owe it to our kids to be their Number 1 Cheerleader, not their Number 1 Critic.

RULE 5 – The Golden Rule – I want to be more purposeful about treating others how I want to be treated on social media. I like when people comment on my posts. I like when people retweet my tweets. I like when people LIKE my pictures on Instagram.

Conversely, I don’t like it when people troll, I don’t like it when I send someone a message and they don’t respond for weeks. I don’t like when people make juvenile, derogatory comments about someone/something that I support. I don’t like sports comments that trash teams or their fans. I don’t like “spiritual” comments that sound holier-than-thou. So I’m going to try my best to avoid doing those things.

I plan to engage/comment more than I post on Facebook. I plan to retweet, FAVORITE, and comment more on Twitter. I plan to LIKE and comment on people’s Instagram pics more than I do. After all, that’s the whole reason we post anything anyway, right? To engage.

So those are my rules moving forward. What do you think? What rules have you set for yourself in the social media realm?

Happy Ash Wednesday, Dirtbags (Parts 1 and 2)

PART 1

I attended an Ash Wednesday service today at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It was everything I hoped it would be – very high-church, dripping with symbolism, the imposition of ashes, and participation in the Holy Eucharist. As a dye-in-the-wool Church of Christ boy, this formal celebration of Jesus and a pious participation in Lenten repentance was refreshing.

One thing I was not expecting was such a focus on mortality. At the imposition of ashes, the Celebrant rubbed an ash cross on each person’s forehead and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

That’s right; we’re all living, breathing, dirtbags. Not the pick-me-up most people are looking for during their lunch break. But, as I learned, it’s actually a crucial element to the Lenten season.

Lent was originally a period of fasting and repentance in preparation for baptism on Easter Sunday. Participants in Lent spent 40 days preparing themselves for their new life with Christ. And what better day to celebrate one’s new life than on Easter Sunday, the day celebrating the moment that all of creation was made new!

In the past, the Episcopalian tradition at the imposition of ashes was to say, “Remember that you are dust ONLY, and to dust you shall return.” But the “only” was dropped several years ago because it was believed to have contributed to a spirit counter to resurrection. Without Jesus, sure, we’re ONLY dust, and to dust we will return. But, because of the resurrection, we are MORE THAN dust, and we will be MORE THAN dust at the final resurrection of all things.

And THAT’S the pick-me-up we all came to hear!

PART 2

My (informal) Lenten journey this year involves fasting from all social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I often find myself preoccupied with what people are saying about me, how many people liked my status or retweeted my awesome picture of the burrito I was eating. Fasting from social media isn’t about saving time (though that will certainly be an added benefit). Instead, it’s about getting my heart right. It’s about reorienting myself in God’s Kingdom instead of my own. I say all the time that we are never further from Jesus than when we’re being selfish, and social media has become a self-glorifying medium for growing further and further from Jesus.

I am also studying the book of Isaiah over the next 40 days. Isaiah seems to be a book Jesus loved, and for good reason. Isaiah is often called “The 5th Gospel” because of its abundance of redemption passages and images of God restoring and resurrecting his people. Today I read and studied the first five chapters. Man, oh man, is it AWESOME!

The first five chapters are a flash-forward to the things God is GOING to do to the people of Judah because of their sin. And what was their sin? Injustice! The leaders of the nation were getting filthy rich off laws and loopholes that allowed them to exploit the poor and further-marginalize the marginalized. Widows and orphans and poor people were being left out in the cold – sometimes literally – and God had seen enough. So from the start he shows all his cards, he tells all the reasons why he’s angry with his people, and all the things that are going to happen to them, both good and bad. His anger is fueled by their injustice:

See how the faithful city [JERUSALEM] has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her – but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. (1:21-24)

Their punishment – Assyrian exile – was all because they were corrupt, favoring the rich and exploiting the poor. They developed a system that kept the rich rich and the poor poor.

But God had – and still has – a vision for what his people will someday be:

In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple [JERUSALEM] will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and ALL NATIONS will stream to it…

The word here for “all nations” is “goyim.” Goyim is typically a derogatory word used in reference to everyone who was not from Israel or Judah. Like the way your grandfather talks about “foreigners” with a little spite. That’s goyim. The Law of Moses spoke harshly about the goyim and warned the Israelites against falling into cahoots with anyone outside their own nation. Goyim were the outsiders that God’s people spent their lives avoiding.

But here, Isaiah says that God’s vision for all of creation is that one day all nations – all the goyim – will come to the Mountain of the Lord in Jerusalem. This means everybody on earth, including both the rich and the poor. They will come not out of fear, not out of obligation, but because God has something no other nation and no other god has. Here’s what he offers:

The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations [GOYIM] and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

The people – the GOYIM – will come because there will be unsolvable disputes. War and violence and death will have run so rampant that nobody will know what to do anymore. There will be no answers and no peace. No government or judge or arbiter can settle the violence and destruction. And on that day when the world is on the brink of total destruction, all the nations will turn to God and say, “Help!” And God’s answer, God’s solution, God’s ruling, will be to lay down the weapons and end all the violence. To turn weapons of violence into tools of rebirth and resurrection. God’s law will be a law of peace and renewal. And, as one people, the whole world will walk in the light of the Lord.

The problem in Isaiah, though, is that God’s dream of seeing the whole world come together as one is thwarted because his people refuse to lead the way. If God’s own people won’t act in ways that lead to peace and unity of all people, how in the world can anyone else be expected to?

The next few chapters are loaded with destruction and punishment for Judah’s corruption and neglect of the poor and marginalized. God has to rid his nation of everything that prevents his dream from becoming reality. So the rulers and leaders of Judah will be driven into exile, and some of them killed. While this might sound counter to God’s dream of peace and love, it’s necessary in order to see the dream fulfilled.

Our mortal selves are prone to chase after what’s temporary – money, power, sex, pleasure, self-gratification. But Easter brings something new, something better. Easter brings God’s vision for earth into a much clearer focus. At the start of this Lent season, may God’s vision become our vision. May we be a people who bring about peace no matter the color of one’s skin or the number of zeros in their bank account. May we be a people who lay down our weapons of violence – be they physical, emotional, or spiritual – and become a people who fulfill the dream of God.

Together, may we all walk in the light of the Lord.

A Church of Christ Preacher’s Take on Lent

1. What is Lent?

Lent began as a season of preparation for baptism. In some traditions it started as a 40-hour fast, and in others it has always been a 40-day fast. The number 40 is representative of Jesus spending 40 days in the desert fasting and praying in preparation for his ministry. Historically, the 40-day Lenten period started 40 days before Easter, and on Easter Sunday participants were baptized. 

Lent is an opportunity to become more like the resurrected Jesus in anticipation of Easter Sunday. By resurrection, we are transformed into the image of Christ and invited to participate in his mission – to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and set the oppressed free. During Lent, we fast from those things that are selfish, and participate in those things that are sacrificial and bring about justice. Many use this time to quit drinking sodas or cut back on chocolate, but the deeper sense of Lent invites us to rid our lives of those things that prevent justice and/or our awareness of people in need.

In addition to fasting, many choose to add something to their lives that put them more in tune with the Kingdom. For instance, some spend time each day in scripture. Others find places to volunteer. And still others find specific ways to bring about justice in the communities in which they live.

2. Can I eat meat?

Over the years many elements have been added to the 40 days of fasting. Some participants avoid certain foods like red meat, and that’s why you’ll see lots of ads for fish sandwiches during Lent or crawfish boils in places like New Orleans and Houston. In fact, it is quite common for people to eat a vegetarian – or even vegan – diet during Lent. Food is an important part of the Lenten journey because in preparing ourselves for the resurrected Jesus, we need to redirect our hunger. Food is symbolic of that which we crave, that which we rely on for daily sustenance and life. By limiting the types and amounts of food we eat, we remind ourselves that our primary hunger ought to be for Jesus and the life of justice and redemption to which he calls us.

3. When does the fast begin and end?

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends Easter Sunday. You may notice that’s more than 40 days. Some observe their fast every day from Ash Wednesday through Easter; others break their fast on Sunday’s. Ash Wednesday exists to give those who don’t observe a fast on Sunday’s a full 40 days of fasting (Fasting six days a week for six weeks only gives a person 36 days of fasting. Backing it up to Ash Wednesday allows the full 40 days). Whether you fast every day or break your fast on Sunday’s, it’s recommended to fast from Ash Wednesday all the way to Easter, even if you go over 40 days. By doing so, you join with millions of Jesus followers around the world simultaneously ridding their lives of selfishness and worldliness, replacing it with sacrifice, justice, and love. There is joy to be found in being part of a much larger whole rather than walking an individual journey alone.

4. What am I giving up?

Personally, I plan to give up my social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I’ve chosen to fast from these because I often find myself craving acceptance and affirmation through the things I post. I can become so preoccupied with people’s comments (or lack thereof) that I become unproductive in things that really matter.

In addition to fasting from social media, I plan to read and study the book of Isaiah. Jesus seemed to find great insight in this prophet’s words, so in an attempt to understand the Kingdom as Jesus did, I will pour over Isaiah for the full 44 days of Lent. 

5. What are you giving up/adding to your life during Lent?

Let’s hear it. What will you give up in an effort to be a greater participant in the mission of Jesus? What will you do during the Lent season to join Jesus in the work he’s doing in the neighborhoods, cities, and world around you?

Dear Donald Miller…

If you haven’t read Donald Miller’s thoughts on why he is not a regular church attender, take a few moments to read it here, and the follow-up post here. Below is an open letter to Donald Miller explaining why, based on his posts, I think he would love our church, and probably come most weeks.

Dear Donald Miller,

Thank you for your thoughts on learning styles and how they shape our life in the Church. As I read your original post, I couldn’t help but think one thing: he would love our church. So, I’d like to invite you. Next time you’re in or near Little Rock, you have a standing invitation to visit the CrossWalk Family of God.

I WAS A LITTLE SURPRISED…

In your original blog, you make a great point that people learn in very different ways. Sermons aren’t for everybody. And neither are discussion formats or pop-up picture books or movies. Everybody has their preferred style of learning, and the Church has often honed in on one style, and one style only.

I also agree that singing is a take-it-or-leave-it experience for many. In Churches of Christ, the tradition from which we spring, we use no instruments, so singing is borderline idolized as the singular expression of worship. Many in our heritage even believe listening to the worship music without singing along is not true worship. Still, there are people who, like you, find little or no connection with God through singing.

Neither of these statements surprised me. And your occasional worship  attendance doesn’t surprise me, either. Nor does it offend me or cause me to see you with any less influence or credibility. I love your blog and look forward to your next book (which will be coming…when?).

What surprises me about your comments is that, of all people, Donald Miller is stuck in the 50′s when it comes to church! To explain, I’ll use communion as a metaphor.

CHURCH AND COMMUNION

Recently at CrossWalk we made a dramatic shift in how we observe communion. (You should know that one of the core traditions in churches of Christ is observing weekly communion). Traditionally, we’ve passed the silver trays – one with bread and one with miniature shots of grape juice – followed by the collection baskets. For the ten or so minutes that passing three sets of trays took, everyone sat silently and, if we’re honest, awkwardly. Some bowed their heads, some read scripture to themselves, and others, like my wife and me, kept our children still-ish.

Communion was a very individual and insignificant act.

Something about how we practice communion in churches of Christ has felt off to me for years. For instance, it usually happens in the middle of a worship service, meaning it’s the bridge from announcements and opening songs to the sermon. The sermon has always been the focal point of our worship time, meaning the most transformative experience you’ll have in worship comes from somebody like me. I think I’m an okay guy, but I’m no Jesus. By making the sermon – and not communion – the reason we all show up, we rob communion of its transformative power and give preachers a disproportionate amount of influence.

I’ve also been bothered by the individualism of communion, and it’s this individual spirit I sense in your thoughts on church. Church and communion are just that – communal. It’s a collective celebration of Jesus and the love, grace, and hope we find in him. It’s a weekly transformation into a newer, better version of ourselves through community.

Communion is the single most transformative moment in every worship experience. It’s where the resurrection of Jesus as a past event becomes a present reality. To steal a phrase from Abraham Joshua Heschel, it’s the past in present tense.

WHY I THINK YOU’D LIKE US

I say the same to you regarding church. What you wrote is absolutely true – people experience God in an infinite number of ways besides going to church, and rightly so. It’s sinful if the sole expression of our faith is church attendance. That said, Jesus comes alive when church attendance is more than just learning and singing. And if we only want to learn and sing, we have six other days to do so.

And that’s why I think you would love CrossWalk. We changed how we do communion and we made it the focal point of our weekly gatherings. Communion is taking over the culture of our entire church experience. It’s done at the end of our worship time. The bread and lots of little cups are spread across tables in the back of the worship area. We turn on some music, have a prayer, and then everyone goes to the back, collects their bread and juice, and we all mill about talking and hugging and crying together. On the screen up front is a single question for discussion – usually based on the sermon – to give people something to discuss with their neighbor if they don’t have anything else to talk about. Usually, though, people spend the time searching for someone they know is struggling, or friends they haven’t talked to in a while, or somebody who was on their mind that week. It has become the defining moment of our worship, and it feels like the power has been restored to this ancient tradition. It’s loud, it takes a while, and we love it.

The beauty of this is that it’s the Spirit-filled community – not the sermon – that provides the transformative work. If someone needs to tune out and catch some sleep or play Plants vs. Zombies or mindlessly scroll around on Twitter, they can, and they won’t miss out on Jesus. Now, after church ends, I hear about conversations people had during communion rather than comments about my sermons. While CrossWalk people are generous and always encouraging toward me, I’d much rather hear what Jesus did in our worship gathering than hear which point in the sermon was most interesting. Church is no longer about me and what I said; it’s now about Jesus and what he did in a conversation, in a hug, in prayer between two people.

So, Donald Miller, it doesn’t bother me a bit that you don’t attend church regularly. I celebrate that you have found community with others and communion with God in various forms. Church people often get offended by those who seek God in other ways because we believe that since our sign says “Church” you must be there, regardless of your own beliefs, thoughts, or learning styles. Calling ourselves a church and being one are two different things, and we cannot continue to hold people hostage through guilt, shame and fear without ever asking if we’re missing something important. So thank you for drawing this discussion into the light.

But I think you would love CrossWalk. We’re a group of people who love each other, love Jesus, and come together every week because we want to, because we need to, and not because we feel guilty when we don’t. I hope you don’t miss out on the full power of Jesus by thinking church is something it’s not. Knowledge and singing are good things, but they are not the full manifestation of the resurrection of Jesus – a past event in present tense – that actually changes people’s lives. And discovering that power in the community of friends in a weekly gathering is a life-giving way to experience church.

If you’re ever in Little Rock, we’d love to have you. We’re a small group of rich and homeless, straight-laced and ex-cons, believers and atheists, conservatives and liberals. You’re guaranteed to find someone who agrees with you and someone who doesn’t, because that’s not really the point. The point is that Jesus is doing work in all of us, and we wouldn’t dare miss it.

Peace,

Cory Jones, Teaching Minister