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Thoughts too long for a Facebook status message.

9 Days in Honduras

Last summer, I spent 16 days in Central America and subsequently accepted a position as HOI‘s board chair for economic development. Since that time, I have been working to come up to speed in an arena where I had zero prior experience. Thankfully, with HOI there are amazing people with 25 years of in-depth experience who would love nothing more than to share it.

Last month I returned once again, this time to spend nine days focused specifically on economic development.

In The Villages

Shirts Drying

We arrived at the Ranch on January 9 and over the course of the next five days visited nine different villages to work with them on their plans for micro-enterprises:

In each village, Eriberto Rivera, our Economic Development Coordinator, presented them with the plan they had worked on previously, went through the report page by page to remind them of their goals, and then let them discuss what progress had been made so far. We saw an amazing gamut of plans: egg-laying operations, pork producing, ceramic tiles, and small stores just to name a few.

Village Meeting

Some villages were very far along — a couple of them to the point where there was nothing they needed from us at this time. Other villages were making slow progress, but still seemed to be moving forward.

Only one village wasn’t making any progress at all, and they quickly admitted that they probably wouldn’t. They were a great example in contrast between how organizations like HOI work and how we’re tempted to work as North Americans coming into situations like this. Read Toxic Charity for complete details, but the essence is that too often our good intentions, rather than helping those who need help, diminish their dignity and increase their dependency.

That’s what we saw in this village. It was easily the most affluent that we visited, apparently because they receive a steady flow of donations from another organization. As a result, the people weren’t motivated to work or further improve their situation. I would be the same way.

It quickly became clear — and was confirmed throughout the week — that Eriberto is amazing. He handled not only the easy, positive meetings, but also the ones that didn’t go so well. He was able to adjust seamlessly on the fly with seemingly no effort at all. Meeting after meeting, I was just blown away. What an amazing asset God has blessed us with in him. The micro-enterprise portion of our efforts is in tremendous hands.

Why am I here?

In the midst of all my trips last summer, Christianity Today quoted Jenna Lee Nardella in “33 Under 33“:

Through Blood:Water, I get to be in the broken places where suffering and joy meet. Because of this work, my faith tends to be an active, broken, and constantly winding journey of simply trying to follow Jesus’ example of love.

Man, that hit me right where I was. These trips have been a continual cycle of pain and realization as things I have believed most of my life get tested in the real world. This trip was no exception.

Another mission group arrived at the ranch while we were there. No one but the leader had ever been in a place like this, and as we talked to them about what they were looking forward to, one of them said, “I can’t wait to get to the village and tell them about Jesus.”

That bothered me, but what bothered me most was that I couldn’t figure out why it bothered me. I mean, what was wrong with that, right? I took me several days to finally figure it out.

My first realization was that it called into question what I had been doing up until then. At no point during our village meetings or in our discussions afterward did this concept ever come up. Oh, man. Should it have?

That led me to analyze why I was here in the first place — something I had never stopped to consider. Is creating followers of Jesus our sole purpose? Is that the agenda? Is everything else just a means to an end?

Jesus said…

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

And…

The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.

I grew up in a tradition where these were our highest goals — so much so that they had become our only goals. Only in the last few years have I started realizing just how much Jesus’s methods differed from ours.

As I read through the Gospels independently, one of the things that struck me was how often Jesus ministered with no apparent agenda. Healing after healing was performed with no “presentation of the Gospel” or even the handing out of a tract. (I’m not going to lie, my first reaction was “Man, he missed a lot of great opportunities.”) He ministered to hundreds, maybe even tens of thousands, knowing that virtually none of them would ever follow him. Why would he do that? What a seeming waste of time for someone who had less than four years to accomplish his goals.

I think the answer lies in his response to a question about what was the greatest commandment. He answered:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.

It was the same answer he gave when someone else asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In that instance, the man probed further and asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.

GirlsGod has made the people of Honduras and Nicaragua my neighbors. My responsibility is to love them just as I love myself. In this particular situation, at this particular time, that means working with them and for them to develop economic opportunities.

There are amazing organizations like Cafe 1040 working in contexts where people have never heard of Jesus. It’s different there. The people I’ve worked with so far, though, don’t need to hear about Jesus any more than my friends in America need to hear about Jesus. They’ve heard plenty of words about Jesus that don’t come accompanied by action. What they need is to see Jesus lived out — to see love like Jesus loved. When that happens, everything changes.

Maybe the best way I’ve ever heard it put is by the folks at The 410 Bridge: “We want them to hear the music of the Gospel so they’ll want to listen to the words.”

That, I realize now, is why I’m there — and here.

Filed under Spirituality

16 Days in Central America

Between May 18 and August 12 this summer, I spent 16 days in Honduras and Nicaragua. I was traveling with HOI, an organization that has been working in Honduras’s Agalta Valley for 25 years now. This is an exhaustive (though brief) run-down of everything I personally did. For more info on HOI, two great resources are their answers to commonly asked questions and their write-up on the extraordinary results of their work.

May 18 – 21

WeRanch Paraíso had been giving money to HOI for over a year and very strongly wanted to get down to Honduras to actually see the work for ourselves. Our opportunity finally came in May.

Along with a handful of others, Jennie and I left Sunday evening for Tegucigalpa, Honduras. We landed and immediately hit the road to Juticalpa (with a brief rest stop at the Mennonite bakery). We spent the night at the Hotel Boquerón in Juticalpa, and then hit the road for Rancho Paraíso (HOI’s home base in the Agalta Valley) first thing the next morning.

The setting of the ranch is just stunning. It’s impossible to convey in photos just how beautiful this area is. It’s easy to see why so many people love it. To the right is just one of the scores of photos we took.

Community Development

HOI’s mission is to not only feed the poor, but to empower them to escape long-term poverty for good. A key component of that is community development. When you’re dealing with the second and third poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere (behind only Haiti), there is an incredible amount of simple groundwork that must be laid.

In each village, HOI works to establish five basic things for each home: a dedicated place to use the bathroom, chimneys to expel cooking smoke, concrete floors instead of dirt, potable water, and electricity. After lunch at the ranch on the 19th, we spent the afternoon visiting some of the nearby villages to see that work in person.

Education

School Children

Another key component of breaking the cycle of poverty is education.

HOI runs an elementary school and middle school in Culuco, just down the road from the ranch, where all the children in the area can receive a very high quality education. Some children even ford the river on horses to get to school every day. Every child within range of the school is afforded an opportunity to take advantage of all it has to offer — including a full computer lab where they learn on the very latest equipment with the very latest software. (When we were there, one of the middle school classes was working with the latest version of Excel.)

The morning of the 20th, we spent a couple of hours at the school. Each elementary school class sang us a song (including “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes” in English), and we got an in-depth tour of all that was going on. Needless to say, as a teacher this was probably Jennie’s favorite stop.

Health

A third key component is health. Obviously much of the community development work is to support this effort, but there are a couple of other ways that HOI is addressing it as well. We got to experience a couple of them up close the afternoon of the 20th.

Village GirlThe first is with medical clinics. HOI has built and staffed several different medical clinics around the area where local residents can have a number of health issues addressed — both proactively and reactively. They have also initiated a dental program this year, complete with a mobile dental facility.

The second is with nutritional education. The beautiful girl to the right is just one of the many children we met on the 20th. (Click the image for a better view.) We marveled over the gorgeous blonde streaks in her hair until we learned that they were evidence of severe malnutrition. Her mother is one of the villagers who, with the encouragement and guidance of HOI, now has her own garden in order to grow the vegetables that will provide the nutrients that she and her little girl need. Convincing the people that they need more than rice and beans is just one of the many steps in breaking the cycle of poverty.

July 13 – 18

While Jennie and I were so thankful to have gotten to go to Honduras, we still longed to be able to have the kids experience it as well. That opportunity came in July as HOI led a trip to Nicaragua — a new location where they have recently begun work. It was valuable to see the beginning of the work, compared with the mature work in Honduras.

We had an absolute blast. I cannot recommend a family trip highly enough. Even Jonathan, who’s not yet five, had the time of his life.

Waking Up in Managua

We arrived in Managua late on Sunday night, so there was virtually nothing to see until we woke up on the 14th. Thankfully, Managua delivered right away. The kids got to eat breakfast in the open-air dining room as the cat wandered around.

Boo was digging it.

Managua Breakfast

From there, we headed up to Finca El Petén, our home for the next three days. Residing high in the mountains of Jinotega, the beauty of this place cannot be overstated.

Finca El Petén

Highs were in the upper 70s and low 80s during the day, with lows at night in the 60s. And there was always a breeze. Just as with Rancho Paraíso, it’s a stunning location.

After getting settled in, we visited Los Robles (the village where we would be working the next day) and the farm operations of Finca Java.

Village Boy

A Day in the Village

ColoringJuly 14th was our big day. While most of the group spent the morning mixing and pouring concrete floors for two of the houses in the village, Jennie and Jonathan colored and made sticker pictures with some of the children. They colored and played for hours.

Once the floors were done, we headed back to the finca for lunch and a little rest. Then it was time to head back into the village.

We dropped some of the group off at the local soccer field to play with the locals. The rest of us went back to the village gathering area to do a short Vacation Bible School with all the village children.

After the Bible stories and crafts came the best part (at least for me). Mary Elizabeth had made a Rainbow Loom bracelet for every child in the village — 22 in all. They were thrilled. Here’s a video of her handing them out.

Young Life

The next day, we left the finca and headed back south to Granada. On the way, we stopped at the Young Life camp in Matagalpa. Young Life has done some amazing work in Nicaragua, and it was exciting to hear about it and witness some of it in action.

Opportunity International

Opportunity International is another organization that we have supported for some time (Opportunity Nicaragua specifically) and couldn’t wait to see in person. After a fantastic dinner at El Zaguan on the 16th with Opportunity Nicaragua Executive Director (and Alabama grad), David Kone, we enjoyed a great night’s sleep and then hit the ground running on the 17th.

Yucca FarmerOur first stop was a visit with yucca farmer Don Concepcion. Opportunity’s work in Nicaragua started with the yucca farmers and has just exploded.

From there, we headed to the yucca processing plant. Opportunity buys the yucca from the farmers and harvests it for them, providing them much greater revenue than they ever had before. They then turn it into a wide array of products, using every single part of the plant.

After the yucca operations, we headed to their amazing school. There they teach the kids not only advanced agriculture or tourism skills, they also teach them how to do it specifically as entrepreneurs. The school includes a vast organic farming operation with a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as a large egg operation.

Finally, it was up to the edge of a vast crater lake where Opportunity is building a new ecolodge that will not only provide additional revenue for their Nicaraguan operations, but will also provide a place for on-the-job training for students of the school.

Seeing their work in person was every bit as exciting — and challenging — as we thought it would be.

August 6 – 12

By the Nicaragua trip, it was becoming apparent that God had in mind a much bigger role with HOI than we had anticipated. So I accepted an invitation back to Honduras for an opportunity to see things at a much bigger-picture level.

Biomass Power Plants

Our first stop, the afternoon of August 6, was a meeting in Tegucigalpa with Fundación para el Desarrollo Municipal (FUNDEMUN) to hear their plans for building several biomass power plants in Honduras. The country has an abundance of biomass fuel (and places to grow more), a severe power generation problem, and dramatic underemployment — making these plants a perfect addition to the economy.

Breakfast with the President’s Chief of Staff

The next morning, we had breakfast at the Casa Presidential with the Honduran president’s chief of staff, Jorge Ramon Hernández-Alcerro, a member of HOI’s board of directors. We covered a wide range of topics, including how the U.S. is helping the Honduran government in their fight against drug trafficking in the country and the latest with HOI’s work in the country.

New HOI Location in Southern Honduras

After breakfast, we hit the road to San Lorenzo. After settling into our home for the night, we headed to the offices of the Agrolibano Foundation, one of the companies who lobbied (successfully) for HOI to add southern Honduras as a new project location. There we learned about the community development that Agrolibano has already been doing, including the complete turnaround of the local hospital.

The next morning, we toured one of the villages bordering the vastmelon farms of Agrolibano, met with the ladies of the village, and visited their school.

El Sembrador School and Farms

Next it was back through Tegucigalpa and on to Juticalpa for the night. Bright and early the next morning, we were off to the school and vast farming operations of El Sembrador. El Sembrador takes the best and brightest students from all over Honduras and gives them not only an excellent academic education, but spiritual education as well. The farms help fund the school with extensive dairy and beef cattle operations — all of which were a great learning opportunity for us.

Have I mentioned that everywhere down there is just gorgeous?

El Sembrador

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

After our visit to El Sembrador, we hit the road to Rancho Paraíso for a couple of nights. We took in a soccer game at the ranch and met with a few of the Young Life leaders in Honduras to hear how their work was going. We were met at the ranch Saturday night by more than 200 kids streaming out of a Young Life meeting. Not bad for just a few months’ work by the Young Life couple newly arrived on the ranch.

Meeting with the President of Honduras

Sunday night, we got confirmation that the president of Honduras would like to meet with us Monday afternoon, so we headed out from the ranch first thing Monday morning. Over coffee in his Oval Office, we discussed several topics and just generally spent time learning about one another’s efforts at improving life in Honduras — a task that takes many hands.

Moving Forward

I have no idea what the future holds, but I certainly hope it includes more trips to Honduras and Nicaragua. A single visit is truly life-changing; three in one summer was amazing.

I know I can’t possibly answer even most questions in a short post like this, so feel free to fire away if there’s something you’re interested in. And if you’d like to get a better sense of what it’s like there, we have lots of great photos (thanks to my awesome wife) and many videos as well. We’d love to sit down with you some time and give you a more in-depth look.

Better yet? Go with me next time. I’m not kidding. We’ll put together a special trip designed just for you and what you’d like to see and do. With three different locations, there are a ton of options. Heck, just look at all the different things we did.

Mary Elizabeth asked me before we went if I thought she’d like it better than Disney World. I told her I thought she would. No one does it like Disney, but the depth of experience on a trip like this is one that Disney just can’t touch.

Ask her what she thinks now :)

Filed under Spirituality

What would happen if you suddenly raised the bar?

One of Neil Cole’s mantras is “We want to lower the bar of how church is done and raise the bar of what it means to be a disciple.” I’ve written about it before, but raising the bar of what it means to be a disciple is just one of those topics that seems bottomless when you’ve spent 23 years with a very low bar.

A question that I have been pondering lately is one for you professional clergy out there.

Jesus had a very high bar for his followers; his call was absolute: Leave everything and follow me. He even went out of his way to chase off followers who had been following him but who weren’t 100% committed. He didn’t tolerate a middle ground.

So what would happen if you showed up to church one Sunday, read them one or more of Jesus’ ultimatums, and then told them this:

From now on, we will live by these words of Jesus. If you want to follow him to any lesser degree than he requires, we will not be the church for you. There are plenty of other churches who will be glad to take your money and include you on their roles with no other demands of you, but we will no longer be one of those churches. From now on, we will follow Jesus absolutely, and we will help you to do the same if that is your desire.

If you are here and have never made the decision to be a follower of Jesus, we invite you to do so with the same conditions that he gave 2,000 years ago. Or, just hang around to see what this crazy experiment of actually living like Jesus produces. Either way, we don’t want you to have any illusions as to what following Jesus really means. He told those who were thinking of following him to first count the cost of doing so.

Obviously I’m sure you would phrase it differently, but the point is this: What if you drew a line in the sand once and for all? As Jesus did 2,000 years, tell people that they’re either in or out; there is no middle ground.

I’m sure it would get crazy in a hurry. Would you even keep 10% of those who regularly attended? Could you continue to pay the upkeep on the building and facilities (or even come close)? What would the fallout be?

More importantly, though, what would prevent you from doing it? Why don’t we do this every Sunday? I’ve been in church for 23 years now, but I can’t ever remember someone making sure I understood that it was all or nothing. If they had, how different would my life be now? How different would our churches be now? How different would the Church be?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. I am honestly posing this question to you guys as someone who is genuinely inquisitive. I am speaking from a position of significant ignorance.

It’s just a question that has been stuck in my head for over a year now, and I can’t shake it.

Filed under Spirituality

How Few is Few?

I decided in September of 1988 that I believed what the Bible said about God, the world, and the afterlife. I still had tons to learn (and still do), but I understood the core message well enough to know that I knew it was true.

From then on, the larger message I heard generally sounded like this:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son…

[M]y yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.

“Blessings all mine with ten thousand beside.”

I realize now that I had subconsciously developed a theology that God wanted me to be happy and comfortable. I can name several verses right off the top of my head that I knew then and that seem clearly contrary to that position, but I was very good at not thinking about those.

Thing was, I have been successful — in a lot of different ways of describing success — ever since that time. Couple that with the American Dream and the fact that we are constantly wrapped in the message that stuff equals happiness, and it’s nearly impossible for God’s message not to being to take the shape of America’s.

One verse gave me so many problems that I pushed it under my bed out of site:

[C]ontinue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

I just couldn’t even begin to reconcile my theology with what Paul was saying there. It wasn’t even in the same ballpark. Why would I have any “fear or trembling” if all I had to do was “believe”? I mean, how hard was it to just believe something?

I can see now that one of the reasons God has had us outside of traditional church for so long was to force us to read the Bible with no outside influence, to let the Holy Spirit do what he said it would do.

One of the main things I’ve begun to see is how overwhelmingly different God’s definition of believing is from mine. The last few things I’ve written here reflect that, and this morning he led me back to a passage that he started teaching me about many months ago:

[T]he gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.

I’ve known that verse for as long as I can remember — which makes it that much more astonishing to me just how much depth he has shown me in it. We just keep going deeper.

This morning it was more instruction on just how few “few” is. I mean, just look at who Jesus said a few verses later aren’t part of the few:

Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

You have people who prophesy, who drive out demons, and who perform many miracles — and that’s not good enough to get in. I was always fine with that, though, because “it’s not what you do, it’s who you know.”

Look at what he says right before that, though:

[E]very good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

It is important what kind of “fruit” I’m producing, because that’s the only indicator of my true condition. Prophesying and casting out demons and performing many miracles seems like pretty good fruit, though. Do I have any fruit that compares with that?

I can see now where the “fear and trembling” comes in. Jesus set such a high bar for entry in the Kingdom (one that we’ve brought much lower). When we honestly analyze ourselves in the light of his demands, it ought to cause some anxiety. Am I so confident that my life is more reflective of a changed person than those who prophesy, exorcise, and perform miracles?

Am I finding the road to be both narrow and difficult?

This commentary on Matthew 7:13 from The New American Commentary stuck out to me this morning:

The fulfillment of the Great Commission does not imply that a majority will respond with genuine faith. The percentage of true believers in places and times in which being “Christian” is popular is perhaps not that different from the percentage of Christians in times of persecution, when few dare to profess who are not deeply committed.

Just how few is few?

Filed under Spirituality

Greater Works?

I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.John 14:12

I haven’t been able to get this verse out of my head the last few days. I’m just constantly unsettled by the phrase “greater works” and how it doesn’t accurately describe anything in my life or in the life of anyone I know well.

I Tell You the Truth

As John records it, Jesus starts his sentence with the Hebrew word “amen,” and he repeats it twice for even more emphasis. This was peculiar to Jesus. “Amen” was always used at the end of a message to indicate agreement with the truth it conveyed, just at it is today. Jesus was the first to use it at the beginning of a sentence, and the Gospels record him doing it often. He used it to make sure the hearers didn’t miss the importance of what he was about to say.

There are a lot of passages in the Bible that we make much more of than the original writers or speakers intended. This one, though, is one that I think we make much less of than we should.

Will Do The Same Works

Jesus says that his disciples “will do the same works I have done.” This part needs little explanation. We all have a pretty good idea of what Jesus did, and collectively those works were so incredible that it changed the world forever. That’s a pretty high bar.

Even Greater Works

So then he takes an impossibly high bar and raises it even further: “even greater works.” Okay, let’s be serious for a minute. Who really believes that anyone could do greater works than Jesus did? I’m having a hard time with same works. Greater works? I’m not seeing it. Not at all.

Many others aren’t either. I’ve heard and read many different people trying to solve this problem by explaining “greater works” to be something other than what seems completely obvious. Jesus often spoke in parables and other ways where the meaning of what he was saying was hidden from those he didn’t want to understand. This is one of those cases, some say.

The explanation that has stuck with me, though, was that the works were “greater” not because the works themselves were greater, but because of the ones who were doing them. In other words Jesus healing someone was amazing, but a dirty, uneducated fisherman healing someone was even greater.

Maybe, but I’m not buying it. Jesus seemingly couldn’t have been more clear here and he made sure to emphasize this truth. I think we’re trying to explain it away because we don’t see this playing out in real life. Instead of explaining it away, though, I’d rather try to figure out why we don’t see it.

Anyone Who Believes

It’s certainly not because Jesus meant this for the 12 apostles alone. He made that as clear as possible, too: “anyone who believes.” Anyone.

Anyone who believes in me will do greater works than I have done.

In Me

I think this is the key phrase to understanding this truth. Jesus says that anyone who believes in him will do greater works.

Maybe the most important thing that I’ve learned over the past four years is that I had never really believed in Jesus. I believed in a particular characterization of Jesus. I believed in church. I believed in my faith. And I believed strongly. Once I decided to be all in, I was all in.

Church is good. Jesus died for the church.

Faith is good. Without faith, it is impossible to please God.

The problem is that I placed a higher priority on those than I did on Jesus — not intentionally, but it’s so subtle.  Looking back, I see how I used to describe things: My faith was important to me, my faith sustained me, I wanted to be in church whenever it was open. Jesus was there, but not in the forefront.

And that was largely because my view of Jesus wasn’t entirely accurate. I’ve written about that at least a couple of times. In fact, as I look back over the history of this site, I can see my focus gradually changing. I started off writing about how we can do church better. Then it was how we can better reflect the Jesus who we believe in. Now it’s finally to Jesus himself and who he really is.

Unless we start with who Jesus is — who he really is — and let everything we do stem from our belief in him, we don’t have any chance of doing greater works. None.

Staying focused on him alone is probably the hardest thing in the world to do, though.

Filed under Spirituality

Slowing Down

I took Mary Elizabeth to Chick-fil-A for a birthday breakfast this morning, and the first song on the radio was “Blink” by Revive.  I’m thankful she wanted to turn on the radio, and thankful that I slowed down enough to listen to the words:

Teach me to number my days
And count every moment before it slips away
Take in all the colors before they fade to grey

I don’t want to miss
even just a second more of this

It happens in a blink
It happens in a flash
It happens in the time it took to look back
I try to hold on tight, but there’s no stopping time

What is it I’ve done with my life?

Slow down, slow down
Before today becomes our yesterday
Slow down, slow down
Before you turn around and it’s too late

Filed under Spirituality

Starting Over

Over the past year, we’ve talked with lots of different people in varying degrees of detail about what we’re doing now church-wise.  Ross summed up the philosophy exceptionally well last night in his article “Imagine,” so I thought I’d take the opportunity to go into more detail for everyone who might be interested.

Go read that article first (it’s short), and then I’ll add some details specific to our situation.

Ross asks what would happen if we “abandoned all the traditional trappings of our faith and reverted to only what we read about in the New Testament.”  As much as possible, that’s what we’re trying to do — not because we believe it’s the only right way (or even the right way for most people), but just because it’s the right thing for us.

More and more people are doing the same thing.  (Katie describes us as “second shifters.”)  Still, it’s not yet to the point where it doesn’t seem really suspect.  Homeschooling is one thing, but having church in your house is just weird.  I get that.  We’re not building a militia, though, and we’re not stockpiling supplies to prepare for war against the government :)  Here’s what we are doing.

Each Sunday we meet at 10:30.  We take turns bringing a breakfasty-type food, and we just spend the first 30 minutes or so eating and talking about whatever.  Eventually we transition to the living room and pick up where we left off in the book of Mark.  We’re reading through it together and discussing specifically what each story tells us about what Jesus would really do.  (Inevitably, our image of Jesus is shaped by the type of church we have grown up in (or not grown up in).  The Jesus of the Bible is often much different than the Jesus we have in our heads.)

It has been incredible.  It’s amazing what you see and what you experience when you remove what isn’t necessary.  It has also helped us shift our mindset from church being somewhere we go to being something we are — not just on Sundays but every minute of every day.

Again, we would never argue that this is the way that everyone ought to be doing church.  It’s just what’s right for us right now.  If you want to see how it works, drop in one Sunday.  We won’t make you fill out a guest card ;)

Filed under Spirituality

Church of the Dimpled Chad

Remember the Florida debacle in the 2000 presidential election?  A poorly designed paper ballot had election officials struggling to determine what most accurately represented the will of the voter: A hanging chad, a dimpled chad, a partially detached chad or a two-cornered chad.  Many argued that a dimpled chad showed intent and thus should be counted as a vote.  Others argued that the vote shouldn’t be counted unless the voter showed enough commitment to their vote to actually dislodge the chad.

The church in America could be called the Church of the Dimpled Chad because we’re eager to accept anyone who shows the slightest interest in joining us.  We may ask a few questions to find out more about their intent (and some do ask some relatively difficult questions) but few churches will risk turning away a new member.

And there’s good reason for that.  If you believe in a literal Hell, a place of eternal torment where those who are not reconciled to God before they die, a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched,” what kind of heartless person wouldn’t eagerly welcome anyone into the lifeboat?

Reading the stories of Jesus, though, he often responded in a much different way.

The Jesus Way

Discourage

I remember listening to Consider the Cost by Steve Camp in college and thinking I totally didn’t understand it.  I mean, it sounded like he was actually discouraging people from becoming Christians.  That couldn’t be right…right?  The words he used were words Luke attributed to Jesus, though:

And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. “But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it? Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of money, and then everyone would laugh at you. They would say, ‘There’s the person who started that building and couldn’t afford to finish it!'”

Disturb

At times, he went much further — intentionally saying difficult, offensive things to drive off all but the truly committed:

So Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. I live because of the living Father who sent me; in the same way, anyone who feeds on me will live because of me. I am the true bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will not die as your ancestors did (even though they ate the manna) but will live forever.”

At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.

Demand Everything

What does Jesus require of the people who want to follow him?  Everything:

As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.'”

“Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”

Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God.”

The Strength of the Church?

Proponents of organic/house/simple church advocate for what they say is a more effective, biblical model of church.  They point out (rightly) that two of the greatest periods of growth in the Christian church have been in the first 300 years A.D. and in the modern-day Chinese underground church — both textbook models of a decentralized, simple church model.

The more I’ve read and thought today, though, the more I’ve begun to wonder if the model isn’t actually one degree away from the true reason for the growth during those times.

The reason this model was so prevalent in those periods is because no other model would work.  It wasn’t because they chose that model; the model chose them.  When you’re relentlessly persecuted for being a Christian, gathering centrally in large groups simply isn’t an option.

When the first Christian church formed in Jerusalem, it followed a centralized model for a few years until Stephen was stoned to death and the believers fled the city under a wave of severe persecution.  For several hundred years afterward, being a Christian meant certain hardship and often death — sometimes brutally so.  Spectators regularly gathered in the Coliseum to watch Christians be devoured by wild animals, and Nero even had them dipped in tar and burned as torches at his parties.

In both the early years of the Christian church and in China today, choosing to be a follower of Jesus is a very difficult choice.  The circumstances naturally conspire to make it as “hard to enter the Kingdom of God” as Jesus made it in his time.  No one has to discourage, disturb or demand that they give up everything to follow him — the world they live in does that naturally.

The result is a church that is much smaller but one that is filled with completely committed followers of Jesus.  The model is indeed extremely effective, but is it the cause of the strength of the church?  Or is the church so strong because it requires such an extreme level of commitment?

Should We Change?

What do you think?  Is there a reason we’ve lowered the bar so much of what it means to be a follower of Jesus?  Are things that much different here and now that we need to take a completely different approach than Jesus did?

I’m honestly asking, because I genuinely don’t know.  I’ll be the first to admit that I speak with a certain level of ignorance and an exceptional degree of idealism.  I’m interested to hear what others think.

Filed under Spirituality

Religion Killed Jesus

One of the most surprising things to me over the past few months has been just how much I didn’t understand who Jesus really was.  Someone who’s been in church religiously for 22 years (even teaching for much of that time) surely ought to have a pretty good grasp of who the Bible says Jesus is, right?  I didn’t, though, not by a long shot, and Anne Rice announcing that she is leaving Christianity tells me that there are lots more like me.  (More on that in a minute.)

Three Different Types of People

One of the main areas where I labored under false assumptions was in how Jesus responded to different types of people he came into contact with.  They largely seem to fall into one of three categories.

Outsiders

These were people who had little or nothing to do with the church, either because of conditions beyond their control (disease, nationality, etc.) or because they had chosen to go their own way.  Jesus never spoke harshly to these people, and only occasionally did he speak to correcting their behavior.  Instead he spent time with them, loved them and met their needs — so much so that those inside the church derisively called him a “friend of sinners“:

“To what can I compare the people of this generation?” Jesus asked.  “How can I describe them?  They are like children playing a game in the public square.  They complain to their friends,

‘We played wedding songs,
and you didn’t dance,
so we played funeral songs,
and you didn’t weep.’

For John the Baptist didn’t spend his time eating bread or drinking wine, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’  The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’  But wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it.”

Religious People (Insiders)

Those born into Judaism or who adopted it later in life knew enough of God and the Law to know what was expected of them.  Jesus often spoke to these people like an exasperated father speaks to his children.

Religious Leaders

Jesus saved his harshest criticism for the religious leaders of the day.  Reading through the stories of Jesus describes a person much different than the one I thought I knew.

Opposition to the Religious Leaders

Jesus constantly found himself in conflict with the leaders of the church.

Intentionally

Jesus never shied away from conflict with the religious leaders.  In fact, there were times when he intentionally pursued it:

On another Sabbath day, a man with a deformed right hand was in the synagogue while Jesus was teaching.  The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees watched Jesus closely.  If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath.

But Jesus knew their thoughts. He said to the man with the deformed hand, “Come and stand in front of everyone.”  So the man came forward.  Then Jesus said to his critics, “I have a question for you. Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?”

He looked around at them one by one and then said to the man, “Hold out your hand.”  So the man held out his hand, and it was restored!  At this, the enemies of Jesus were wild with rage and began to discuss what to do with him.

Publicly

Jesus was very open about how he felt about the religious leaders:

Then, with the crowds listening, he turned to his disciples and said, “Beware of these teachers of religious law!  For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces.  And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets.  Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be severely punished.”

Personally

But he never shied away from criticizing them personally, either.  The Bible includes multiple instances:

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to his home and sat down to eat.  When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume.  Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping.  Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair.  Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!”

Then Jesus answered his thoughts. “Simon,” he said to the Pharisee, “I have something to say to you.”

“Go ahead, Teacher,” Simon replied.

Then Jesus told him this story: “A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver to one and 50 pieces to the other.  But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?”

Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.”

“That’s right,” Jesus said.  Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume.

“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”  Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”

And…

As Jesus was speaking, one of the Pharisees invited him home for a meal. So he went in and took his place at the table.  His host was amazed to see that he sat down to eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony required by Jewish custom.  Then the Lord said to him, “You Pharisees are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and wickedness!  Fools! Didn’t God make the inside as well as the outside?  So clean the inside by giving gifts to the poor, and you will be clean all over.

“What sorrow awaits you Pharisees!  For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore justice and the love of God.  You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.

“What sorrow awaits you Pharisees!  For you love to sit in the seats of honor in the synagogues and receive respectful greetings as you walk in the marketplaces.  Yes, what sorrow awaits you! For you are like hidden graves in a field.  People walk over them without knowing the corruption they are stepping on.”

“Teacher,” said an expert in religious law, “you have insulted us, too, in what you just said.”

“Yes,” said Jesus, “what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law!  For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden. …  You remove the key to knowledge from the people. You don’t enter the Kingdom yourselves, and you prevent others from entering.”

Violently

Jesus’ confrontations weren’t just verbal, either.  The Bible records multiple instances of him violently clearing the temple:

It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover celebration, so Jesus went to Jerusalem.  In the Temple area he saw merchants selling cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices; he also saw dealers at tables exchanging foreign money.  Jesus made a whip from some ropes and chased them all out of the Temple.  He drove out the sheep and cattle, scattered the money changers’ coins over the floor, and turned over their tables.  Then, going over to the people who sold doves, he told them, “Get these things out of here. Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!”

This was Jesus “mean and wild,” a Jesus I had never thought much about.

The Result

The religious leaders ultimately got their way, but only because Jesus allowed them to:

Then Jesus spoke to the leading priests, the captains of the Temple guard, and the elders who had come for him.  “Am I some dangerous revolutionary,” he asked, “that you come with swords and clubs to arrest me?  Why didn’t you arrest me in the Temple?  I was there every day.  But this is your moment, the time when the power of darkness reigns.”

The More Things Change…

The church in that day had been waiting hundreds of years for their Messiah; they rightly expected him to show up any minute.  So why did they kill him when he finally arrived?  They didn’t know it was him:

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him.  He came to his own people, and even they rejected him.

Religion always draws us away from the truth.  We set up rules and traditions and systems to help us be who we should be, but those same rules and traditions and systems gradually become our focus and blind us to true spirituality.  Like the church in Jesus’ day, we end up working for the very side that we think we’re keeping people away from.

Religion always kills Jesus — slowly, subtly, methodically — until eventually what we call Christianity bears little resemblance to the one it is supposed to represent.

Anne Rice says she’s leaving Christianity, but what she describes sounds more like she’s leaving what Christianity has become — not leaving Jesus, but leaving those who call themselves his followers.

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Filed under Spirituality

Single Ladies Devastation

Loved this — although it does get the song stuck in my head every time.

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