Thoughts too long for a Facebook status message.

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.


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.


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 rolls 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 sight:

[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


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!'”


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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

What Church Should Be

Over the past twenty-two years, I’ve been in a wide array of different churches.  And in the last three years especially, I’ve experienced more different churches than I ever have before.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, though, that I realized my focus over most of that three years had been what church shouldn’t be.  I’ve been very critical.  That isn’t all bad — it’s good to realize what should be done differently — but constantly focusing on the negative doesn’t do much good either.

So the past 14 days has been a time of shifting my focus to the positive — leaving behind what shouldn’t be and thinking about what should.  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

What It Does

Last summer, a friend and I worked several days to come up with a mission statement that we felt reflected a healthy, Biblical church:

A community of believers that exists to worship God, make authentic disciples of Jesus, and serve others for the glory of God and the advancement of his kingdom.

In our three decades of study collectively, those were the three things we had come to believe were absolutely essential for a church: worship, making disciples, and serving.  We felt like a church that wasn’t actively doing all three couldn’t be truly healthy.

What It Looks Like


I have heard 1 Corinthians 13 read in virtually every wedding I’ve ever been to.  As long as I’ve been in church, though, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone teach or preach from it.  Because of that, I had always just thought that Paul was writing to instruct couples on love inside marriage.

That’s not what he was doing, though.  Not that the same principles don’t apply, but Paul wasn’t writing to couples at all.  That chapter is 100% about how people in the church should behave toward one another.

Now I do a halfway decent job of living up to those principles in my marriage, but I certainly fail the test when measured against how I have treated people I have gone to church with.  Just read the meat of that passage:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

My church experiences (even the great ones) had always been much more accurately described by this quote from Tennessee Williams:

We have to distrust each other. It’s our only defense against betrayal.

We carry the same attitude within church as we do outside because we’re largely treated exactly the same both places.  That should never be the case.  First and foremost, above everything else, a church should be characterized by love — the kind of true love that Paul described.  The Bible makes that abundantly clear.

Jesus said:

The most important commandment is this: “Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” The second is equally important: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” No other commandment is greater than these.”

John, his disciple and friend, wrote:

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

Jesus also said:

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

My sense is that love isn’t the first thing people think of when they think of Christians today.


The church should also be characterized by community — not just a group of people with common interests, but a group of people who truly care about and support one another.  We see that throughout both the Old and New Testaments.  We weren’t meant to go this alone.


The other thing we see constantly in the life of the early Christian church was a dedicated commitment to prayer — prayer lasting hours or even days.  It’s the number one way church today is different than it was then.  And the number one reason things look so much different.  I love this quote from Ron Dunn:

In Acts chapter two, they prayed for ten days, Peter preached for ten minutes and 3,000 were saved. Today, churches pray for ten minutes, preach for ten days and three get saved.


Paul compares the church to a human body, with Jesus as the head:

Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?

But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”

In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect those parts that should not be seen, while the more honorable parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.

The church should foster and encourage these different roles so that all members have an equal responsibility for the health of the church.

– – –

This obviously isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, and I’m sure I’d change some things if I thought about it for another 7 days, but there’s also the danger of trying to make it too perfect and never actually publishing it.  I’d rather stop here and revisit it in later post as I continue to think about it.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Filed under Spirituality

KJV: The Only Inerrant Word — Revisited

My regular sarcasm and unhealthy pride frequently result in moments like this where I spout off about topics that I know little about with no regard at all for the targets of the criticism.  I’m trying very hard to be aware of it and do a better job of thinking before I speak (or write) because I understand how hurtful it is.

Thankfully not long after that I did that, I was given the opportunity to spend many hours actually researching the KJV-only discussion, and I found that there were very thoughtful, reasoned cases for it.  So with that basis, I wanted to revisit this topic one more time.

The Case for KJV-Only

As I understand it, there are two cornerstones to the argument for using the King James Version of the Bible exclusively:

  1. The KJV was translated from the manuscripts that are closest to what the authors originally wrote.  (Some believe that those manuscripts are a perfect copy of the originals.)
  2. The KJV is the best translation of those texts that has ever been and ever could be.

The Best Manuscripts

There are several different reasons why those who advocate KJV-only believe that the manuscripts from which the KJV was translated are the most accurate.

Pure Line

They believe that a pure line of manuscripts originated in Antioch and culminated in what is known as the Textus Receptus (TR), Latin for “received text” — first compiled by Erasmus in 1516 and published by him four more times over the next 19 years.  The next 106 years saw several more versions of the TR from two different editors.

The Problem

There is no pure line of manuscripts.  Erasmus himself used at least six different Greek versions to compile his New Testament, and was forced to include at least one verse from manuscripts that appeared after his first version was completed.  He also included at least one verse (Acts 9:6) that only existed in the Latin Vulgate, which they believe to be corrupted by the Roman Catholics.  Some answer this problem by saying that Erasmus’ work was God-breathed in the same way as Scripture, and so his work was as inspired as the originals.

More Copies

Today we have thousands more copies of manuscripts in the Majority Text (or Byzantine) family (which largely matches the TR) than we have in the Minority Text (or Alexandrian) family (thus the names).  This is a compelling argument for the accuracy of the Majority Text.

The Problem

It wasn’t until the ninth century that Byzantine texts outnumbered Alexandrian texts.  For the first 1,000 years of Christianity, Alexandrian texts far outnumbered Byzantine.  In fact, there is no evidence that Byzantine texts even existed until the fifth century.

There are other reasons that could just as easily account for why we have far more copies of manuscripts from the Byzantine family today, none of which argue for their accuracy.


In the KJV, Psalm 12:6,7 states, “The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.”  This indicates that God will preserve Scripture 100% intact forever.  Therefore, we must today have the exact words of the originals.

The Problem

There is wide disagreement among scholars over whether “words” here actually indicates Scripture or whether “them” in verse 7 even refers to those words rather than those who verse 5 speaks of the LORD protecting.  If those two things are true, it obviously makes a strong argument for preservation.  However, it’s very questionable that they are.

Corrupt Source

In most cases, the Bible mentions Alexandria unfavorably and Antioch favorably.  Antioch definitely appears to have had a more solid Christian foundation, so manuscripts originating from Antioch are to be trusted more than Alexandrian manuscripts.

The Problem

This would be good support for other arguments, but it alone, in the absence of other evidence, is not enough to prove that the Antioch line is more accurate.  All other things being equal, it would be more likely for a better manuscript to arise from Antioch, but it’s not proof in and of itself.

Corrupt Editors

Those who argue for KJV-only believe that the Alexandrian line was intentionally corrupted, for reasons including the advancement of Roman Catholic theology.

The Problem

People have been attempting to corrupt the Bible from the very beginning.  We have plenty of evidence of that.  However, we do not have any firm evidence that any corruption was preserved in the Alexandrian line or that it was or was not also preserved in the Byzantine line.

Corrupt Words

KJV-only proponents state, “We find that these two texts [the Majority and Minority] disagree consistently concerning the major doctrines of the Bible. They are found to disagree on readings concerning the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the blood atonement, Christ’s second coming, the deity of Christ, and many other fundamental Christian doctrines. It is for this reason that we must examine our witnesses to determine if their testimony is accurate (God’s text) or if they are fraudulently misleading (Satan’s text).

This is one of the major problems that they have with other manuscripts and versions — and rightfully so.  If major doctrines are affected, then this is a very critical issue.

The Problem

The Minority Text doesn’t actually disagree with the Majority on any doctrine like the ones they list.  Where they disagree is on the readings, not on the doctrines.

The real issue is best stated by one of the KJV’s strongest advocates: Any fundamental [doctrine] found in any version is found purer or more frequently in the King James Bible thus making the King James Bible the best of the field (emphasis mine).

Maybe the best way to see this is with an example.  Here is Matthew 1:25 in the KJV and in the NIV:

And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

KJV-only advocates claim that removing the word “firstborn” gives room to question the virgin birth.  This would be true if the doctrine of the virgin birth wasn’t attested to in a number of other places, or if it indicated that Jesus wasn’t the firstborn.  Neither of these is the case, though.  The doctrine of the virgin birth is well established by Scripture, with or without the word “firstborn” here, and Matthew himself chose not to include the word.

Most of the cases like this involve words or phrases that have been removed.  Those words or phrases do often enhance the meaning, but removing them never changes a doctrine.  Additionally, a strong argument can be made that those were only added in later manuscripts and don’t actually occur in the originals.

The Best Translation

The second cornerstone of the argument is that the KJV is the best translation that has ever been and that ever could be: “Education has degenerated along with the entire world system and could never produce a scholar equal to those of nearly four hundred years ago.

You’ll have to decide for yourself if you believe this to be true.

Common Misconceptions

It would be easy to study this topic and come away believing we have two different sets of manuscripts that a) are exactly the same within each set and b) disagree with the other set on the majority of readings.

The truth, though, is that we can be absolutely sure of what the originals said in 95% of cases because the manuscripts, across both sets, match exactly at those points.  There is, at most, a 5% disagreement, and some claim it is as low as 1.7%.

Additionally, there isn’t 100% agreement among the manuscripts in either set, and frequently the differences actually cut across the two sets.

In terms of textual criticism, what we’re talking about are differences in a very small minority of readings across thousands of different manuscripts that otherwise agree 95% of the time.


If you’ve been taught something all your life, and had it backed up with facts that sounded both true and reasonable, why would you not believe it?  I’ve believed countless things like that (and I’m sure there are some I still do), so if anyone should have been slow to speak on this topic it should have been me.  There is no excuse for saying the things I said or the way I said them.

The series of translations that led to the KJV was one of the most monumental events in all of Christian history.  So much of what we have today was built on the work of those selfless men, some of whom literally died to get a readable Bible into the hands of regular people.  Having spent hours and hours researching this, though, I’m confident that scholarship continues to increase and that we can be more sure now about what the original authors wrote than at virtually any other time in history.

Filed under Spirituality