Tag Archives: Church

The Rhythm of Prayer

King Saul is a fascinating figure. He reigned as king over Israel for 42 years even though A) he was horrible at it, B) was corrupt, C) was full of pride, and D) was more than a little paranoid. He never asked to be king, or even considered the possibility. One day he went out looking for his father’s lost donkeys, and when he came back he’d been anointed king of Israel. (Seriously, read 1 Samuel 9). His only credentials seem to be that he was a head taller than everybody and, apparently, easy on the eyes. But from the start it was clear his reign would not go well:

▪When he was inaugurated before the people, he hid from everyone “among the supplies.” (Seriously, read 1 Samuel 10:20-22).

▪He repeatedly disobeyed direct commands from God and the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 11-15).

▪After David killed Goliath, Saul did everything he could to kill David, a threat to his throne. (1 Samuel 18-31)

▪After driving out all the witches and fortune tellers from Israel, Saul went to a fortune teller at night so nobody would see him. (1 Samuel 28)

Eventually, when Saul’s sons were dead and all his men abandoned him in battle, he fell on his own sword and died so as not to be taken captive by an enemy army.

A shameful end to a shameful reign.

RED FLAGS

We see red flags from the beginning of the story of Saul. He was never going to be a successful king because his eyes, his heart, his mind, his spirit had no capacity for the spiritual realm. Saul lived in the physical world and governed like a person with no expectation that God might break through and do something miraculous. He trusted himself and what he could see, rather than God and the realm that is unseen.

You and I aren’t that different, are we? We lose sight of the unseen. We forget that we have limits while God is limitless.

Perhaps our biggest red flag that we’ve lost sight of God is the absence of prayer.

RHYTHM OF PRAYER

I’ve heard it said that the church’s dirty little secret is that we don’t pray. We do lots of good things, but we are mostly capable of doing them whether God is present or not. So our lives develop a rhythm of self-sufficiency. Church happens with or without God. Work happens with or without God. Families are raised with or without God. All this by we who call ourselves followers of Jesus. Eventually, without reminding ourselves of God’s ability and desire to break into the present realm, our world begins to look a certain way.

Prayer is an invitation into the realm where God lives and moves and has his being. Even the simplest prayer before a meal is an act of humility, acknowledging that God has, in fact, seen you, cared for you, and loved you. A lot of us give up praying because it feels like one more command us normal folks cannot keep. So most of us feel guilty for not praying and, in some cases, even fear God’s punishment.

But prayer is an invitation into “the ineffable,” the indescribable place where God’s supernatural power is the norm. Praying because we’re “commanded” to is fine, but eventually it becomes one more thing we’re capable of doing with or without God.

We also give up on prayer because we don’t always get what we ask for. But getting our requests is not the function of prayer. If it were, Jesus would have avoided the cross, Paul would have had his thorn taken from him, and psalmist after psalmist would have avoided the phrase, “How long, Lord!” Seriously, from what we read in scripture, you’re far more likely to not get what you want than you are to actually get it.

But that’s not what prayer is for.

Prayer is a rhythm. It’s a rhythm that keeps our minds, hearts, spirits, and souls centered in the unseen realm. Prayer reminds us that what we see is not all there is. When we create a rhythm of prayer for ourselves, we begin to see that ineffable realm more clearly. We’re not surprised when God shows up and does what God does. When we create a rhythm of prayer, the line between the natural and the supernatural fades. Prayer is the key to God’s world.

A SMALL RHYTHM

If you’ve lost (or never created) your rhythm for prayer, will you start this week? Make it simple; you don’t need to carve out five hours a day or get up at 3:00 in the morning or buy a prayer shawl or even keep a journal. Start small. Make a decision now to speak briefly to God once each day – at a meal, in the car, tucking in the kids. It’s like the bass line of a good song: subtle, simple, the foundation to something beautiful. As you feel your connection with the Other Realm intensify, expand your rhythm a little at a time, all the while opening your eyes to the realm of God.

Don’t do it because the Bible says to; do it because God invites you to see the world as he sees it. Don’t do it because you feel guilty; do it because you want to feel the presence of God. Don’t do it because you want to be a better Christian; do it because you want to experience a life that can only happen because God made it so.

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Biblical Persecution vs. American Persecution

I was initially disappointed to hear the news of Houston’s city attorney filing a subpoena for five pastors’ sermons. Houston was our home for five wonderful years. We love and miss the city. Not only that, but overall I’m a fan of Mayor Parker. I think she has been an exceptional mayor, so this news was troublesome. Based solely on the facts I’ve read online, I have tried to answer the following questions regarding the subpoena of the pastors’ sermons for myself: Is it Overreach? Yes. Is it Unconstitutional? I can only assume, though I claim to be no expert. Is it persecution? Hmmm… You know what, for the time being, let’s just say yes, this is persecution. As followers of Jesus, what’s our response? PERSECUTION 101 I’ve seen Christians on Facebook and Twitter quote from the United States Constitution, the Texas Bill of Rights, and even from America’s founding fathers. What I’ve yet to see is anyone cite the New Testament and its teaching on what we do when faced with persecution. Granted, I’m currently sensitive to this topic and at least one passage is fresh on my mind because I taught about it last Sunday in my series on Hebrews. The passage is from Hebrews chapter 10. In an effort to encourage his church to hold firm in their faith, the Preacher reminds them about “the good old days” and suggests they get back to how things used to be. He says:

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

It’s difficult to teach from a passage like that one – one that reminded the Church of how wonderful it was to be truly persecuted – and then read this week’s comments from those who are aghast at a constitutional infraction. The way American Christians respond to suffering, persecution, and injustice is not consistent with the teachings of scripture. In fact, we’ve got it completely inverted. We have become notorious for looking away from racial, gender, and systemic injustices in society while vehemently defending perceived injustice against us. In scripture, God’s people are told to uphold justice and fight for the oppressed, yet are never told that we are the oppressed. Even in the Hebrew scriptures when the Israelites were captives and slaves, they were never told to see themselves as the victim. When they cried out, their cries were to God, not to Pharaoh, not to Nebuchadnezzar, not to Pilate. They believed God when he said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.” The people were bound by simple commands, even in the face of persecution and slavery: love God and love your neighbor. Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. The same was true for the early Church in the New Testament: suffering and oppression and even death were part of the job. They were to be expected. We are never the victims. We are never the oppressed. We are “aliens and strangers” whose citizenship is in heaven. Author and theologian Simon Chan wrote in his book Spiritual Theology:

The cure for worldliness is seeing the world for what it really is: passing away.

Why should we fear those who can only kill the body when we follow the One who can heal the soul? What does it matter if we work much harder, go to prison more frequently, get flogged more severely, and are exposed to death again and again when the power of him who raised Christ from the dead lives also in us? The world and its desire pass away, and if God is for us, then who on earth could be against us? JESUS TAUGHT US HOW TO SUFFER More than anything else, don’t we follow a Savior who walked willingly to the cross, who showed us the way of love as the Suffering Servant, who humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, whose humble posture even won over a hardened Roman soldier who just hours before was flogging him and driving nails through his wrists and feet? We don’t win over the world through power, bombs, money, votes, litigation, or angry Facebook posts. We win over the world by humbly submitting ourselves as servants, even to the point of death. We win over a world that’s given up on us by being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. That’s the way Jesus carved out for us to follow. There are people suffering oppression – real oppression – around the world. There are Christians in the Middle East praying against all odds that ISIS won’t make it to their town, that a masked terrorist won’t knock on their door, that their children won’t be executed in the streets and their wives sold as sex slaves. There are followers of Jesus in Egypt still facing loss of their homes and even death. May we be mindful of them and their suffering, pray with them for peace, and take action when we’re able. And may we not belittle their suffering with cries of injustice in our country of wealth, safety, and comfort. ARE WE THE OPPRESSED OR THE OPPRESSORS? We must also acknowledge the suffering and oppression the Church inflicts and has inflicted on others. Gay teenagers make up one of the largest populations of homeless people in America. Some of them are homeless because they come from Christian homes and their parents refuse to live with a gay child. Historically, the Church has been guilty of excluding, ignoring, or even condemning those who: are divorced, are mixed-race couples, vote for the “wrong” candidate, cannot or do not dress appropriately, cannot or do not show personal responsibility, have been incarcerated, prostitute themselves, dance, drink alcohol, smoke, struggle with addiction, believe in evolution, have had an abortion, are mentally or physically disabled, suffer from depression, etc. etc. etc. May we repent of our own oppression forced upon others. May we repent of the injustices to which we daily turn a blind eye. May we recall those who have suffered before us and joyfully take our place in a long line of sufferers. If this is truly the beginning of the “Liberal-Gay-Media-Muslim-Obama-Democrat” take-down of the American Church as we know it (and I don’t believe it is), may we welcome the suffering and persecution with joy, just as the apostles did in Acts, just as Christians have done for centuries, and just as Jesus himself did when with the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame.     SINCE FINISHING THIS BLOG, I’VE COME ACROSS UPDATED INFORMATION. AS I STATED ABOVE, I THINK IT’S IMPORTANT FOR US AS FOLLOWERS OF JESUS TO SET A PRECEDENT FOR BEING QUICK TO LISTEN, SLOW TO SPEAK, AND SLOW TO BECOME ANGRY. IT’S ALSO HELPFUL TO DO OUR RESEARCH. Here’s an exceptionally helpful article from Vox that details the specifics of the subpoena. The short of it is this: the subpoena’s are in regards to a suit filed by city pastors. They submitted the required number of signatures to have a ballot measure to repeal HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) that grants all people equal protection under the law. The city attorney, however, ruled the signatures were acquired illegally. So the pastors sued. The city attorney then subpoenaed, among other things, their sermons in order to find out if they explicitly told their churches what to say/do/sign in regards to the petitions, which would be illegal. The subpoena wording is now being revised to more specifically target the HERO repeal signatures, and not the HERO act itself or references to Mayor Parker.

I Don’t Want Kent to Die

 

How you do life is your real and final truth, not what ideas you believe. -Richard Rohr

THEOLOGY MATTERS. MOSTLY.

I love theology and Bible study and good, healthy debate. What we think about Jesus matters, but only so far as it prompts us to action. This sounds harsh, but I really don’t care what your theology is if you’re on the broad road with everybody else. If you’re part of the individualistic, materialistic, comfort-driven crowd who hasn’t sacrificed so much as a scrap of life for another person, then I just don’t care about your theology. As Jesus said, the wise man hears Jesus’ words and puts them into practice. The fool hears them and does nothing.

Think of the number of us who listen to (and preach) sermons, read (and write) dozens of blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts every week telling us what to think about God or the Church or the latest political crisis. Compare that with the number of people who haven’t got time for such things because they’re actually out there doing it – they’re living their theology instead of reading and writing about it. As Hermann Cain famously said, “I don’t have the evidence to back this up,” but I have to believe there are far more of us preaching and reading and writing than actually doing. That is exactly what Jesus meant when he said there is a broad road and a narrow road. Most of us are on the broad road that’s going nowhere, but only a few are on the narrow road that leads to life.

Which is why I don’t want Kent to die.

DR. KENT BRANTLY

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I met Kent Brantly – the American doctor who contracted Ebola – a few times. I didn’t know him well. He was two years behind me at our small Christian university in west Texas. Kent’s older brother and sister-in-law were my age. My wife and I knew them moderately well. I remember Kent being a tall, gangly guy whom I never saw without a smile. He was in the same social club (Christian university lingo for “frat”) as most of my friends, so I had an awareness of him and his pleasant personality.

Like many of you, I’ve read lots of articles about his condition and, more importantly, about his life and the choices he’s made. Kent is obviously an intelligent guy, and intelligent people sometimes choose the broad road that leads to comfort and wealth and fame and power. Kent, however, chose the narrow way that leads to life.

His story has weighed heavily on my wife and me. It’s tragic on every level. For people like us, reading and watching from afar, it’s like a punch to the gut. Our hearts break for his wife and children, his brother, his family, and all his friends.

I don’t want Kent to die.

I don’t want Kent to die because the world needs people who look and live like Jesus. The world needs people who see disease, risk, and danger as invitations for going instead of excuses for avoiding.

I don’t want Kent to die because if he does that’s one less person living out the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus in real time, in real life. Not somebody talking about it from a pulpit or reading about it in a coffee shop. Kent strikes me as a guy who believes the Word became flesh so he has done likewise.

I don’t want Kent to die because we need people who are living now like Jesus, without much concern for a proper eschatological view or theology of infant baptism or clearly spelled out explanation of hell and how one arrives there. Sure those things are important, but only if they get you off the couch and into a world full of hurt. We need people who aren’t satisfied with a safe, comfortable theology that gives them permission to lead a safe, comfortable life. We need people who are willing to stand toe-to-toe with death and pain and disease and brokenness because their love for life is so fierce.

I’ve said many times that there’s always a reason you shouldn’t make sacrifices for others. It will never be the right time, it will always cost you something, and you’ll be forced to sacrifice what’s precious to you. There’s always a reason not to move your family to Liberia. There’s always a reason to stay on the road that’s broad, avoiding the one that’s narrow.

But the world moves nowhere when we’re only concerned with ourselves. The world gets better when I sacrifice what matters to me so that I might do what matters to us. It gets better when the Church decides that the Word only matters when it takes on flesh.

As Jesus followers we’re driven by two fundamental practices: incarnation and resurrection. With incarnation there’s nowhere we cannot go, and with resurrection there’s nothing we cannot do.

I pray with great hope for Kent’s healing. I pray his life inspires a thousand others to live with the incarnational spirit of Jesus. I pray his life gets all of us off the couch, doing something in the world that actually matters. May Kent’s life not end here, and may he continue on that narrow road, giving others life along the way.

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.

It’s interesting to me that he receives so much criticism. I get it, I mean he says some things that are knowingly on the edge, if not over it. I don’t agree with 100% of what he says or writes or teaches, but I’m drawn to him because of the way in which he speaks and writes and teaches. He approaches God as I think God should be approached: with wonder and awe, fully aware of the mystery. His teaching style models that of ancient rabbis in that he asks far more questions than he has answers for. Questions unlock the door to mystery. Questions tell us more about who we are than any answer might. Questions are the way we move forward through time and space. Answers are the end of a trail, questions are its head. I think many people struggle with Rob Bell not because of his answers, but because of his questions. He doesn’t seem afraid to ask “the big ones,” nor is he afraid to arrive at an answer different from the one we’ve all be conditioned to regurgitate. I find that beautiful and inviting. I see in that a genuine sense of wonder at who God is. I see the disciples doing the same thing with Jesus, especially in John’s gospel. It’s there that John repeats over and over that the disciples had no idea what was going on, and it took them until well after Jesus’ ascension to begin to understand what his life meant.

Asking questions to which you’re unsure of the answers is the way of the disciples, and it was the way of the rabbis, and it’s a beautiful way forward for any and all who are tired of regurgitating the same old answers we learned as children. We will never fully grasp the enormity of God. We will spend our entire lives searching without fully knowing even a fraction of God’s Being, and that reality sets us free to explore and wander and ask and doubt and struggle and resurrect our faith time after time after time. That’s what it’s all about anyway, right? Resurrection? Death to one way of being and new life to another. We experience resurrection on large and small scales every day, and in resurrection we find the powerful love of God drawing us deeper into himself.

If you ever get a chance to spend two days with Rob Bell, I suggest you take it. You may not agree with everything he says, but you’ll find yourself sucked into the mystery of God and discovering a new side of the Kingdom you’ve never before explored.

4 Reasons Why Comparing Kills

I’ve been a minister for about 12 years in some form or another. And, like many men and women in my profession, I often find myself playing the Comparison Game. The first time I read The Irresistible Revolution I felt guilty for weeks that I don’t sew my own clothes.

I wish I preached like that guy.

I wish I connected with people like that lady.

I wish i had the creative vision like that church.

I wish I was wise like that group.

We all do this – it’s part of being an American human. We’re constantly told to compare ourselves, sometimes subtly and other times not. For instance, just count the number of fitness centers between your current location and wherever you’re going next. American capitalism  and culture are driven by our belief that we don’t measure up.

I am learning to avoid the Comparison Game, though, especially as a minister. The past year-and-a-half I’ve preached for a little church in Arkansas that has taught me much about obedience and the power of a few people to transform a city. I am still tempted to compare myself with what’s on the other side of the fence, but I thought I’d share a few of the destructive outcomes I’ve experienced when we compare ourselves to others.

1. WE’RE DRIVEN BY POPULARITY, NOT OBEDIENCE

One of my 5-year-olds, Judah, is notorious for watching how my wife and i treat his brothers. He’s always measuring, making sure he receives the same treatment as everybody else. It’s not uncommon for us to offer our boys rewards for going above and beyond. We might say, “Titus, if you will pick up everybody’s shoes you can have an extra ten minutes on the Wii.” Judah sees Titus playing Wii while everyone else marches to bed. When he asks why Titus gets extra time, my response is usually: “Is your name Titus or Judah? What did I ask Judah to do?”

This is one problem with comparison – we forget, or completely ignore, that God has given us a job to do. Your job might be to preach twenty-seven services every weekend to thousands of people, or your job might be to wash out the communion trays. Either way, your job is not their job, and their job is not yours. Your job is important because it’s been given to you by God. You can either do your job well, honoring our Father, or whine that you didn’t get somebody else’s.

I recently spoke to a group of inmates at Wrightsville prison south of Little Rock. After i was done, an inmate came over with a glass of water. He hugged me and said, “Thank you for being obedient.”

No one has ever said that to me after I preached, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Are you obedient to the call God has given you? Do you believe your job matters, or are you perpetually waiting for your big shot at something better?

2. WE REJECT PEOPLE WHO LOVE US FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE NEVER HEARD OF US

If you spend your days wishing you had a bigger reach, if you wish more people retweeted you or shared your blogs, or if you wish your podcast had more listeners than just your wife and your mom, perhaps you’re missing something crucial: the people who are actually listening.

One day when I was a youth minister, I showed up to an event i thought would be really, really big. Tons of kids signed up, and most of them were bringing lots of friends. But one by one I got texts saying why kids couldn’t come, and by the end we had maybe a dozen teenagers show up. I spent the first ten or fifteen minutes stewing about those who didn’t come until one young lady spoke up: “Sorry we’re not enough.” She said it sarcastically, and it certainly lightened the mood, but man did it sting.

Imagine going to a soccer field and watching somebody else’s kid play. You get out your phone and start recording their big shots. You cheer when they score and talk to all the parents about how good that kid is. All the while your own child is sitting beside you, wondering if you’ll ever notice them.

If you’re a teacher, pour yourself into the students you have. If you’re a mechanic, work on every car like it’s your own. If you’re starving artist bussing tables, make sure your tables are the cleanest in the restaurant. Be committed to the work before you, because if you’re not, well, just read number 3…

3. YOU’LL NEVER BE SATISFIED

Jesus told a parable once about a king who left his servants in charge of his money. When the king returned, some of the servants put the money to work, but one didn’t. He told those who put the money to work that because they were faithful with a little bit of money, he knew they could be trusted with a big piece of his kingdom. As for the servant who did nothing, he was thrown out and punished.

Here’s the point: if you are faithful with your “little” job, you’ll be faithful with your “big” job when it comes. But so long as you live like a person waiting on her ship to arrive, you’ll miss the work that matters now.

4. WHEN YOU GET IT, YOU’RE STILL YOU

Remember the original Blackberry? I wanted one so bad. I had a friend who used one for work and I was always jealous when he’d send me an email with “SENT FROM MY BLACKBERRY” arrogantly scrawled across the bottom. This was before the days of smart phones, so a handheld device that could get email and internet was mind-blowing.

Around 2007 I got a Blackberry. A small one, but still a Blackberry. I liked it and used it for everything I could, but it was never the wonderful gadget I’d dreamed about. This usually happens when we get what we think we want. But it’s not that we discover the product or the job or the family or the paycheck is unsatisfactory. It’s that we discover we’re still the same person.

Most of us compare ourselves to others believing that having what they have will make us be who they are. If you think landing that job will suddenly make you a respected authority in that field, you’re in for disappointment. If you think a bigger paycheck or nicer clothes or the latest gadget will open the door to really become the man or woman you dreamed you’d be, you’re going to find only your same old self with new clothes.

Collin Cowherd hosts a radio show on ESPN, and he once said, “Money makes you more of what you already are.”

Money, jobs, clothes, Twitter followers, blog subscribers, none of those things changes you. You’re still you no matter who is listening. So do your work faithfully and with integrity.

Quit comparing yourself to other people. Get to work doing the job right in front of your face. You may live your entire life in the shadows, never being famous, never hitting it big, never making the New York Times Bestseller List, never cracking that 200-follower ceiling on Twitter. But if you do your job faithfully, as though the world depends on it, the world will be better because you were in it.

Like a Fire in my Bones

Yesterday I led the Bible study time at River City Ministries, an organization serving the poor and homeless around Little Rock. I’m on a rotation with several other ministers and typically speak there once a month. I enjoy being with the people, and especially the staff at RCM. They have a clear love for the Lord and for all of his children – especially the poorest ones.

As I pulled into the parking lot yesterday, I was overcome with a supernatural reluctance. I did not want to teach. I did not want to see the people. I did not want to get out of my truck and go inside. I sat staring at my phone, wondering if I could somehow call in sick and still escape the parking lot before I was noticed.

But then I was noticed.

I heard a voice say “Thanks Curtis!” When I looked back, there was Curtis Zachary, the Kindest Human Being on the Planet and a member at our church. He was there dropping off some supplies on his lunch break, just one of his responsibilities as the Kindest Human Being on the Planet. Curtis’ kindness and obvious joy serving the people at RCM made me feel all kinds of guilty.

He came walking through the parking lot with a big grin and his hand out-reached.

“Hey, Cory!”

I probably left him wondering why I didn’t return his enthusiasm. Because any other time I would have been thrilled to see Curtis. I mean, who doesn’t want to see the Kindest Human Being on the Planet? But this time he blew my cover. This time he forced me inside.

That wasn’t even the worst part. After I saw Curtis, I met Edward.

Edward is an African-American man who, I’m guessing, is in his late-40’s or early 50’s. He wore a black track suit with a cap and looked at everyone over his thin reading glasses. His voice was like thunder, really happy thunder. Without looking at him you could tell he was smiling.

Edward saw me carrying my Bible and hurried over to meet me, floating on his Holy Cloud of Joy and Goodness.

“You must be the preacher man today!” He smiled.

“Yes sir,” I fake-smiled back.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “But if you didn’t come, I was ready to share the Word. Psalm 121, that’s what I was gonna teach today if you didn’t come.”

“I can leave,” I thought. I didn’t say it, but I was really close.

I found a seat on the far side of the room, between the guys who never want to talk to anybody. Edward, of course, followed me.

“I’m a former drug addict and convict. But now I know Jee-zus and I have a joy cain’t no devil provide! You knowaduhmean? Cain’t NO devil provide my joy!” This time he screamed “no” and people jumped.

“God’s word says to taste and see that he is good. Well I’ve tasted it, and it’s sweeter than honey!”

I wasn’t sure what to say. But it was obvious the right man wasn’t teaching.

I printed off several copies of my text for the day just in case people didn’t have a Bible. Edward caught a glimpse of the scriptures, snatched them out of my hand and was handing them out before I knew what had happened. He controlled the room, telling people to smile, telling people God loves them, he even told one guy to shut up.

Everyone did just what Edward said.

As I watched him float around on his Holy Cloud, I couldn’t help but think of a verse in Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet who was terrorized, humiliated, and persecuted for speaking God’s word. And, as much as he lamented his duty, he couldn’t bring himself to stop. So in Jeremiah 20:7-9, he says:

O Lord, you misled me.

and I allowed myself to be misled.

You are stronger than I am,

and you overpowered me.

Now I am mocked every day;

everyone laughs at me.

When I speak, the words burst out.

“Violence and destruction!” I shout.

So these messages from the Lord

have made me a household joke.

But if I say I’ll never mention the Lord

or speak in his name,

his word burns in my heart like a fire.

It’s like a fire in my bones!

i am worn out trying to hold it in!

I can’t do it!

That’s Edward. The word of God is a fire in his bones, and he cannot hold it in. And there I sat, a professional preacher, wishing I could do anything but share God’s word with the poor. In case you’re wondering, it’s not a great feeling.

Edward’s energy fueled me through my lesson. When I got back to the office I looked up Edward’s passage he wanted to preach. Psalm 121 says:

I lift my eyes to the hills –

where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip –

he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you –

the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm –

he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going

both now and forevermore.

I should have left.

Better yet, I should have stayed. I should have listened to Edward, the homeless recovering drug addict with God’s word burning like fire in his bones, tell me why God is his protection. I should have listened to Edward tell me how God doesn’t let his foot slip. How God is his shade. His protection. His help. Because of all the places I go for inspiration – books, videos, blogs, podcasts, other professional preachers – sometimes I just need to be with somebody who cannot, for the life of them, hold God’s word inside.

May God’s word be a fire in your bones. May you and I be worn out trying to hold it in.

What a Recovering Fundamentalist Learned at Subverting the Norm 2

Last weekend Ian – our worship minister – and I drove four hours north to Springfield, MO for Subverting the Norm 2, a conference about radical theology. “What is radical theology,” you ask?

I have no idea.

In fact, most presenters spent the opening six or seven minutes of their presentations explaining what they mean when they say “post-modern,” and the rest of the time explaining what radical theology means to them. This was not the premise of their speech, per se, but it was at the heart of each message.

Radical theology is primarily about making room for doubt. It begins with the assumption that God is not real and works up from there. I would say most of the people at the conference call themselves “Christian,” and most believe God exists. The question of radical theology, though, is essentially, “Can we know who or what God really is and, if so, what is God?”

The question posed by Subverting the Norm 2 was, “Can radical theology exist in churches?”

It was far different from the conferences I’m used to attending, which usually involve three things:

1. The most popular speaker/author/blogger the conference can wrangle in

2. The most popular band/worship leader the conference can wrangle in

3. T-shirt canons and various other gimmicks.

That’s not to say these conferences are shallow or fruitless; I usually end up feeling very filled and encouraged by the end. But Subverting the Norm 2 (henceforth “STN2”) was very, very different.

The primary difference for me rested in what was and was not assumed. At your typical conference (say Catalyst or Youth Specialties) every speaker, band, presenter, vendor, and sponsor operate with one common assumption: we all believe God exists.

Which, one would think, is good for a Christian conference!

What sets STN2 apart is that God’s existence – and the Bible’s accuracy and the Church’s authority, among other things – is never a given. At the heart of radical theology is room for doubt, room for really, really hard questions, and room to say things like, “Gee, what if God isn’t there? And, if he is there, what if he’s not at all like I’ve always thought?”

While this might frighten some in the non-radical theological world, it invigorates me. I believe God exists. I love scripture. And I love the Church. But there’s something freeing about stripping away the veneer of certainty on which most mainline churches build their buildings. There’s something real about unearthing the Trees of Tradition to see if the roots are actually deep and pure and binding or if, beneath the dirt, lies something else altogether.

As I explained to our Bible class Sunday morning, I’m a “Talk-About-the-Elephant-in-the-Room”-type person and preacher. When I encounter a text that challenges a traditional belief or tradition, I enjoy being confronted with its truth and challenging our church with it. So at STN2 I found an entire conference dedicated to addressing some of our biggest elephants.

The moment that defined the spirit of the conference best for me was when Namsoon Kang honestly asked at the outset of her presentation, “Why do we want to subvert the norm?”

See! Nothing is assumed. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is exempt from intense scrutiny.

To put it simply, STN2 forced me to be honest on a level I’ve never before experienced. Even in my undergraduate Christian education, no one ever challenged me to ask if God is actually there. Or if the way I think about God and Jesus and the Church is real or just a representation of the culture in which I learned about God, Jesus and the Church. Questions like that were written off as heretical, threatening, dangerous. However, after having experienced this sort of challenge, I am convinced that if I were a layperson in a church, I would expect my pastor(s) to be wrestling with these questions of doubt. How can a church know they are hearing Truth when some questions aren’t allowed to be asked?

I hope my doctor pauses to ask if a medication actually works before prescribing it. Sure brand name drugs bring the biggest bucks to the practice and the drug companies, but what kind of doctor prescribes something without ever having asked if it’ll cure what ails ya’?

Many pastors have never paused to ask, “Is God really there?” We are afraid to doubt. We are afraid to confront the hard truth that we might be wrong. We are afraid to disrupt the lucrative practice of selling Jesus as a brand name drug, so we continue prescribing something we’ve never examined deeply, intently, or personally.

But think of the power that comes from a pastor seeking the truth about God, Jesus, the Church, and existence as a whole. Think of MLK asking, “Is every person really created equal?” then beginning a movement from what grew out of that question. How much greater the fruit of those who take the time to dig deeper, to be honest, and to trust their doubts!