Watching our Culture Die: Where the secular culture went wrong and what Christians can do to help. 

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We have all become spectators of our culture. It is fascinating and disturbing – like the accident you cannot avert your gaze from.

Are things as bleak as they appear?

One way to get perspective on a culture is to look at the stories that society tells its’ young adults…

  • In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s the story we told was the Western. The Western featured a universe in which one moral man in a white hat stood strong against evil.
  • In the 50s and 60s, the world became more complex. Our best-selling story was The Chronicles of Narnia, featuring a magical alternate universe where children escape evil, and goodness wins out.
  • In the 90’s, Harry Potter flew in with his magical parallel universe. In Harry Potter’s world, evil may be around us, but we are being defended against the dark arts.
  • In the 2000s a new tale was in vogue: Vampires. In the vampire narrative the evil is us, and we live by sucking life from others.
  • And, just when you thought it could not get worse, today’s popular narrative is zombies. There were 8 zombie movies in 2015. 11 will be released this year. In the cratered civilization of the zombie, The Walking Dead pursue us in order to violently compel us to join them.

Consider the dystopian psychological projection of our culture and ourselves that we are buying and feeding to our young when our national narrative is the Zombie Apocalypse.

Cultures survive on shared narratives: common language and worldviews, well-established purposes. In America at this moment our “shared narrative” has been lost. One evidence we have lost our story is our social outrage. Everyone is angry. Consider the catchphrases of the summer: “Black lives matter.” “Blue lives matter.” “All lives matter.” The reason we shout, “lives matter” is because they don’t. Our shared narrative is so broken we can’t even agree on so fundamental an issue as who “matters.”

The Story we Used to Share

Western civilization was once undergirded by a single coherent and widely accepted story – the Christian story. The narrative is that God, sovereign over all, created the world and everyone in it as a special and unique creation – The Christian narrative is that each of us, by definition, matters. Humans, in the Christian story, have the freedom to walk in the revealed truth of God’s providence, or reject the truth and live in a false-self of our own creation. It is a profound story: A God so good and wise and strong, that he dared give humans the gift of freedom…even if that gift would need to be redeemed at the cost of his own son. That son would then offer himself, as the Prayer Book says, “a full, perfect, and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Our Story has Become Nonsense

Unfortunately, as we have systemically and legally purged God from our narrative, our story makes less and less sense – without the foundation our house crumbles in the storm. Our vacuum of narrative leaves us with two options: We may substitute the story of our place in God’s kingdom for another world-view. Unfortunately, most competing world religions simply do not place the same value on the dignity of the human person. Or, following current fashion, we may construct a narrative of our own invention. In their book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen label the picking and choosing of religious bits and pieces to manufacture a world-view, “Sheila-ism” after Sheila Larson, a woman they interviewed who followed “her own little voice.” The only problem is that being the captain of our own destiny didn’t work for Adam and Eve. Eventually it didn’t work for Sheila either. And, as we can’t help but notice, it is not working for our friends and neighbors.

Why not create our own narrative?

First of all, my right to fashion my own story presumes a responsibility on your part to approve of my invention. And, when we remove the authority of God, we have no place to appeal for what is good except majority rule. Morality then becomes the tyrannical bullying of whomever has the votes – making the individually constructed stories inherently coercive. Second, our rage screams that narratives of our own invention simply do not provide lasting satisfaction for the human heart. We were not designed as discrete moral agents. The one who is perfect love, and made us for himself, woos and wins our hearts to union with Him. Once captivated, we look back to find God has made straight the paths of our lives as we have entrusted ourselves to his mercy.

This story explains the way things actually are: That God is for us not against us. That we are not our own, we have been bought with a price. That, as Augustine said, “Our hearts are always restless till they find their rest in thee.”

Occasionally those sharing the story of God become confused and mistake the enemy of the story to be those who would silence the story. But if you notice in the New Testament, the enemy is not other humans, even those who persecuting and killing God-followers. The enemies to human thriving, the Scriptures tell us, are the world, the flesh, and the devil. All three war against humanity by creating alternative false narratives.

The Struggle is Real

The key is to put down the binoculars and get involved. The secular culture will ask for more of what you are already doing. They will ask for reparations and labor. The church is already giving money and effort far in excess of any other group in the culture. And we will continue to do so in gratitude for the grace we have been shown by God. But when they ask for “more” you have permission to remind them of the old definition of insanity as “doing the same thing but hoping for different results.” However, instead of sitting on the sidelines watching, though, I would encourage you to build relationships with those outside of our bleacher seats and find those you can share the story with. As the relationship grows you will hear them say, “The sky is falling.” Look them in the eye with confidence, and with great mercy say, “No, it is not, but your story is – You are watching the death of the story of the self-made life. There is another story, friend. A more sensible one. A story that has transformed everyone who has ever received it.”

Friends, if we change the narrative, we will change our culture. But we have a much more pressing matter: eternity itself hangs in the balance. When we share the Good News of Jesus, when we bring friends to church to be immersed into Christ and learn to feast at the table of Thanksgiving, we change more than our culture, we change eternity itself. And that is the task the followers of Christ can least afford to leave unfinished.

Story Bearers

The call to the bearers of the story, the Church, was summed up nicely several years ago in the movie trailer to the first Lord of the Rings. Over exciting footage appear the words, “Fate has chosen him.” More exciting action, then the words, “A fellowship will protect them.” Yet more footage and the words, “Evil will oppose them.” All three are true of the church: Fate has chosen us. A fellowship will protect us. And evil will oppose us.

…But then the trailer closes with the spoken voice of the princess Galadriel, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

The cultural collapse shouts the dire need of the great narrative of God in Christ. Our unique contribution is to be a band of merry Gospel proclaimers, joyfully singing the story of the goodness of God to our friends and neighbors. As Galadriel said, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”



Unraveling racism – Naming our Samaritans and traveling our Jericho road

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(A sermon. 7/10/16)

What a week.

You may be wondering: Will the church address the events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas? Will we go there? Spoiler alert: Yes.

Although I successfully resisted the urge to engage in Facebook activism, I cannot avoid last week’s events from the pulpit – we have to “go there” because at this moment in America our problems are simply outside of the realm of mere secular solutions. We have a spiritual sickness, so the church has to talk about it.

Everyone has a perspective. Here’s mine: First, I have strong admiration for the police. Police officers risk their lives every time they put on the shield. I played high school basketball with the Phoenix Chief of Police. Even as a kid he was smart, tough, level headed and fair. I have friends who work difficult beats. I have friends in vice and friends on SWAT. A friend renting our home in Phoenix starts the police academy next month. I love, respect, and appreciate every officer I know personally. And I respect and appreciate the job police officers do to protect us all every day.

And…I also did urban ministry in Phoenix’s I-17 corridor. As “the white guy” on our church staff, I know a dozen people who have been “sweat” – stopped for things like tail lights being out when they weren’t. I have friends who spent the night in jail for non-offenses that would raise your eyebrows. Our preacher, Dijuahn, in an incident eerily similar to Philando Castille’s, was shot multiple times by an officer who panicked when Dijuahn told him he was carrying a gun. Dijuahn lived, though. He did nine years in prison for the officer’s mistake. So I have experienced both sides of this tension. If there were easy answers we’d have found them already.

How do we begin to unravel this mess we are in? Luke 10:25-37 is a good place to start.

Look at how a well-meaning religious person can be part of the problem…

v25 And behold, a lawyer (an expert in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – “the law”) stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” “Eternal life” in the first century was not a ticket to heaven, but was rather viewed as a quality of life here and now that would simply never end. This lawyer starts with the right question: “How do I have the life I was meant to have? How do I have that quality of life that only comes from God?” He starts in the right place:

1) He has the right question.

v26 Jesus says to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ Jesus asks.” v27 The lawyer quotes the summary of the Law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Not only does this lawyer know the right question,

2) He has the right source of authority: the scriptures-God’s revealed truth. And,

3) He has the right answer: love.

And (Jesus) said to him, v28 “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Jesus confirms that Loving God and loving your neighbor as a result of your first love, love for God, is life-giving.

And here it gets interesting: v29 But he…desiring to justify himself… (The human default is the desire to justify ourselves, to try to prove to God how lucky he is to have us on his team.) V29 he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (It is difficult to even read the question without an attitude. The man is trying to figure out how little he can do. He is trying to lower the bar on love.)

So our man has the right question, the right source of truth, and the right answer. Unfortunately, he also gets a few things wrong… He has:

1) The wrong motive (v25) “to put Jesus to the test.” And now,

2) The wrong method (v29)“to justify himself,” and,

3) The wrong attitude (v29) “Who exactly is my neighbor?”

Unfortunately, half-right in the Christian life usually leaves us with a life that is all-wrong.

And have you noticed that when we are half-wrong we are usually 100% convinced we are all-right?

Breaking through our self-deception

When someone was self-deceived in the bible, Jesus would often sneak around their internal defenses with a story. He does that in Luke 11:

v30 “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho… I have been on the road to Jericho. I was nervous. It’s a rocky downhill descending 3500 feet in elevation, an 18-mile ambush opportunity. If this were a Western movie, the road to Jericho is where the stagecoach would get held up.

“A man fell among robbers, who strip and beat him, leaving him half dead.” (all quite predictable) v31 A priest comes along. He saw him and passed by on the other side.” v32 Likewise a Levite,” (who assisted priests, ie. A person active at the church.) “when he came to the place and saw him, he too passed by on the other side.” That is what smart people do. The bleeding guy is probably a set up. Be safe: walk by on the other side. And now, just when you would expect a nice Jewish layperson, Jesus throws the curveball…

v33 But a Samaritan…” A SAMARITAN! Jews and Samaritans helping one another? Simply unthinkable. Samaritans were the remnants of lower class Jews not considered important enough for the Assyrians to exile when they had conquered Israel eight centuries earlier. Then they intermarried with the invading Assyrians and Babylonians. The Samaritan/Jewish thing was a racial, cultural, tribal, religious, and class conflict beyond our experience.

Yet it is the Samaritan who… “came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. v34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine” (oil speeds healing. alcohol is antiseptic.) “he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. v35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ v36 And then Jesus asks the obvious: Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

Don’t be the well-meaning religious person who inadvertently becomes part of the problem. Ask yourself: #whoismyneighbor? #whatisyourjerichoroad?

It is on the road to Jericho where fear, security, and realism butt up against faith, hope, and love.

It is on the road to Jericho where we confront our fears and our prejudices – where I decide if I will do what is smart and safe or what someone else needs me to do.

It is on the Road to Jericho where love is put to the test.

I wonder…at what point did the lawyer who had it half-right realize that his motives, methods, and attitude where all-wrong?

I wonder…at what point on our Jericho road you and I will confront our Samaritans?

What should we do when we, like the lawyer, begin to realize, that for all we have right in life, we still lack that quality of overwhelming, overflowing joy that Jesus spoke of?

What you should do depends on where you are. First, do you know Jesus Christ? Have you allowed him to be your justifier, or are you still looking for life on your own? If so, the hard to hear truth is this: There is only one source of eternal life, only one who justifies – Jesus. There is only one truly Good Samaritan. Only one, who, having compassion, crossed out of his way, all the way from heaven in fact, to us. One Great Samaritan, who, as unlikely as it sounds, binds up our broken hearts, who takes us, battered and bruised by life and pours the wine of his presence and the oil of his calling upon us…who takes us to his own home, at great personal cost, and keeps returning by placing his Spirit permanently within us when we place our trust in him. So, if you do not yet know Jesus Christ, come to him this morning by faith. Surrender your life to his healing, uplifting, love-giving presence. Because otherwise you will, ultimately, serve the world from pain.

Have you already experienced the touch of the master’s hand? If that is you, I implore you, courageously seek, name, and turn from your fears. Acknowledge your Jericho Road and name your “Samaritans,” the “other” in your heart. Our nation’s hope is not to be found in justice but in love. And love and fear never occupy the same space. Why is this so important? Because,

when 13% of America is convinced that it is open season on them, it is a fail for 100% of us.

Only those filled and led by love, freed from the grip fear, can hope to overcome four centuries of earned distrust. So I ask you, who are your Samaritans?

I’ve had my share of “Samaritans” – people I have feared over my life. Since my dad was the realtor for the Phoenix Suns, I grew up in a uniquely multi-ethnic environment for a middle class kid. But I had lots of other “Samaritans.” Lots of roads I avoided. Mine were communists, illegal aliens, and gang members.God has stripped those one by one as I watched people from those groups experience the mercy of God and the same life-change that I experienced. They became friends. It is amazing the way “perfect love casts out fear. (1 Jn 4:18)

This week we had Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas. Not morally equivalent acts, yet acts that will always be connected in our consciousness. In the wake of the horror you may be tempted to retreat to slogans or party lines. Or, alternately, to take a silent detour through “nice,” and avoid traveling the Jericho Road altogether.

Church, refuse the easy way. Don’t allow the dangers of the Jericho Road to cause you to question, “Who is my neighbor?” What Jesus taught is simple: If they are breathing, they’re your neighbor.

Here are a few small simple neighborly things you can do: 1) Smile and say, “hi.” 2)  Build friendships outside of your ethnic and social group. 3) Ask people outside of your group to tell you how their experiences. Listen (without judging or attempting to correct their impressions).

Because If they are breathing, they’re your neighbor. So, Christian, don’t lower the bar on love. Or, as Jesus told the lawyer, “You go, and do likewise.”

And as you go remember, “love” is still the right answer.

You will be tempted to go driven by the heart breaking needs you see around you. As counterintuitive as it seems, resist that urge. Because if you allow the world’s need and your desire for justice to drive you, you will end up bitter and broken. Anger is a parasite that cares not on whom it feasts.

So go. But go centered in the deep and wise love of God. Go loving God’s world with the overflow of God’s love in your life. G0 with the hope that the one whose love is redeeming you can redeem them. Go in the majesty and power of the one described by an anonymous second century disciple of John who explained the transforming love of Jesus to Marcus Aurelius’ tutor Diognetus like this….and I quote:

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us…the one love of God…took on Him the burden of our iniquities, and gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for those who are mortal.

For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Savior who is able to save even those ones which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desires to lead us to trust in His kindness, (and) to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life.

                                                                                     (Chapter 9, Epistle from Mathetes to Diognetus)


(If you would like to listen to the version preached it is here:

No. You don’t want your uncle Jimmy to get ordained online to do your wedding.


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It is trendy to have someone you know buy an online ordination and do your wedding ceremony. Every year I have multiple (otherwise solid) Christians contact me to ask where and how to find the “least weird” way to be ordained. Here is my response:

It is an honor to be asked, and good on you for wanting to make it as right as possible. Unfortunatelywhat you are asking just isn’t. Would you ask a teacher help you get a “less weird” online teaching certificate? Or a doctor to help you get a “less weird” online medical license? Getting ordained through Billy Bob’s Online Church of the Twenty-Buck Blessing may seem like a good idea, but it overlooks the training and experience needed to do a wedding well. A teacher does more than pull off classroom management as a one-time substitute, and a doctor more than demonstrate mastery of the tongue depressor in a routine visit. In the same way, a pastor does much more than simply read a wedding service.

Your friend will be putting someone who has never done a wedding in charge of the single most expensive and important party of their life. Will they also be asking a friend who takes nice Instagram pics to be photographer? A minister is air-traffic control. They make all of the many parts and people move in coordination. Brides are under a lot of stress. They do not need a rookie at the helm.

More than that, a non-ordained friend doing the ceremony is a bad setup for the marriage. Marriage is a sacred act originating in the mind of God. Marriage is tough. It needs God’s participation to have more than a Powerball player’s chance of making it after you scratch the ink off and see what resides below the surface of each of us. There are important roles in a wedding a friend can handle, but when it comes to making the vows, you want to have every bit of oomph possible behind those promises. You want a couple, even ones without faith involvement, to say, “I promised God and God’s representative in front of all of my friends and family in that church that I will love this girl/boy no matter how bad a time I am having of it. I’d better make good on this!”

Do them a favor, ask them to find someone duly ordained. Probably not what you wanted to hear.🙂


Usually my friends then respond with: That’s a lot to think about, but my niece/friend/neighbor is really important to me. I’m the only Christian they know and being connected to a church isn’t a priority for them. I think this is a great opportunity for me to ask some good, tough questions to her and her fiancé. Don’t you? 

I love your heart. You don’t want an online ordination.

You are wise to see your friends’ need for preparation. Marriage preparation from someone who is in a good marriage, like yours, is a good thing. But why not also connect them with someone who has helped lots of marriages? Good churches typically do a 4-6 session pre-marital course. Your friendship gives you traction to say, “Trust us, you want one more person involved: a real pastor…with their experience, preparation program, and the encouragement of other couples who will also be making new marriages work. All of that will be really helpful!”

On top of that, encourage them to try a church. You and I have both experienced the support and perspective that faith and a multi-generational church community has been in keeping the wheels from coming off our marriages when they might have otherwise.


The friend then generally responds with some version of: “Matt, you really don’t get the situation here. Our friend doesn’t going to church and they aren’t going to. She wants ME to do it and I want to do it because I love them.”
I have learned to have this part of the conversation in person because it looks so snarky in writing:

I have been at this a long time. I actually do know what is going on. 99 couples out of 100 come to clergy and ask for a “great wedding.” The fact that you think you are their best option for that, friend, reveals their need for an actual pastor. It feels good to be asked, and it feels good to give someone what they want. But that doesn’t really help them. Pastors do not to acquiesce to people’s whims and wants, but move naive couples off of the dime of “great wedding” to “great marriage.” The first is a one-off. The second is a lifetime.

I am not saying, “Let a friend down.” I am saying be a great friend: Give them a third party – one who can say things important for their life together, but hard for them to hear. Then you and your wife are free to take the role of wise old married friend confirming the ancient wisdom offered by that pastor.

Many have been burned by the church and ministers, or, not knowing or distrusting the church, have failed to engage. But, to bring this full circle, bad ministers and bad churches do not invalidate the help provided by good ones any more than being harmed by bad public school teachers or bad doctors invalidates teaching or medicine. Don’t fall into the trap of reinforcing the perception of irrelevance of some of the most potentially helpful relationships in their marriage: a church and qualified, called, experienced clergy. Make their circle larger: Include a real church and a real pastor.


Ordination is not a piece of paper. 

Ordination is a long process that begins when the community sees someone’s calling. A person confirms that call through a period of prayer and community discernment. Then the person endure rigorous preparation that typically culminates in a 3-year Masters of Divinity degree program. After seeing the faithfulness of the person in their faith journey, service, and spiritual preparation, then the church ordains them, setting them apart and asking God to make them, by His grace, up to the task of leading God’s people.

In ordination, the community of faith, below, around, and above invests in a person’s training, and then asks them to, as Eugene Peterson said, “Lash themselves to the mast of Word and Sacrament” on that communities’ behalf. Ordained people pledge to be the one whom, when the storms of life come, the community can count on. They pledge to be there when we are married, when our children are born, when they own their faith, and when we are ill and when we go and meet our maker…and every week in between. It is a sacred covenant between God, the ordained, and a community. Because of our relationship with our clergy: we have an awareness of the sacrifices they have made, and knowing that they literally risk their supper if they offend us, we trust that the occasional hard things they say and we don’t want to hear deserve a listen.

Googling an ordination makes a mockery of that process, real pastors, and the communities that call them. And it doesn’t help the people getting married.

Buying an ordination does two things well: It gives pastors lots of complements from people whose last wedding was officiated at by a bogusly ordained friend, and it feeds a side of the one buying it that really doesn’t need feeding. 

Photo from: wedding photo

Spiritual but not religious: Code for “trendy yet not helpful”

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I recently walked the final leg of the El Camino de Santiago in Spain.[1] Before leaving I was in a coffee house having a conversation about the trip. A guy behind me asked, “Why Spain?” My response, “It’s a spiritual thing.” Today a lot of people, particularly millennials, care about “spirituality.” 250,000 people walked The Camino in 2015. More will this year. My coffeehouse acquaintance, reflecting the cultural trendiness of “spirituality” said predictably, “I’m curious about that, after all, I’m spiritual but not religious.” To be “spiritual but not religious” is all the rage. Everyone wants “spiritual,” but many desperately reject “religious.” The question is “What do people mean by, “not religious“?

My friend Michael, a really smart priest in Dallas jokes, “‘Spiritual but not religious’ is code for ‘too lazy to get out of bed on Sunday.’” But I don’t think that’s it exactly. After all, millennials seem to be fine with ritual: We watched 2000 people a day crowd the pilgrim masses at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. So while my coffee house acquaintance and many others seek “a personal experience of the divine,” and are also willing to check out a religious service, they are most definitely not running out and joining a church. So, if “religious” doesn’t mean, “I don’t like ritual” or “I’m too lazy to get up on Sunday,” what does it mean?

What is “not religious”?

In the very least, “not religious” means “I don’t see value in joining a faith community.” Perhaps this is because the churches they know are engaged in social causes they don’t like. Or because it is too narrow…or too broad (“everyone is too similar,” or “no-one is like me”). The cynical might say millennials are like Goldilocks – impossible to please. My snarky reply is that the body of Christ has done church by focus group and now doesn’t like it when the masses return the favor.

The second thing “not religious” seems to mean is “I want to do my spiritual life on my own terms.” It is to this group I appeal: Doing your spiritual life on your own is ultimately empty.

Look for example in Luke chapter 7. The first ten verses give us the story of a Roman centurion whose favorite servant is dying. Hearing that Jesus is on his way to town, he sends the town’s Jewish religious leaders with whom he is on good terms to request that Jesus heal his servant. Jesus turns and heads toward his home. The centurion, realizing that a rabbi visiting the home of a gentile becomes ceremonially unclean, sends a second set of friends to tell Jesus, “Lord, do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy” for you to be in my house, “therefore I did not presume to come to you.” He finally says, “You don’t even need to come. Just send the word to heal, and I trust that it will be done. After all, I am under authority too.” Jesus sends the word and the servant is healed. Then it says, “Jesus marveled at his faith.” He then turns to the crowd and, in one of the very few instances of Jesus interacting with a non-Jew, holds the gentile military occupier up as the example of “spiritual.”

What makes the Centurion Jesus’ model for “spiritual”?

First, notice that the man calls Jesus “Lord” (master). Every single one of the the bible’s 66 books uses the word “lord.” It appears nearly 8000 times in the Bible. (For comparison the word “love” is used about 800 times.) As a title for Jesus, “lord” emphasizes his authority, his rule over the whole world. Unlike most religious leaders, the centurion calls Jesus, “Lord.” Let that punch land for a moment: the leader of the most powerful military the world had ever seen calls Jesus, “the one with authority.” Whereas the religious leaders treated Jesus as a colleague, the truly spiritual defer to Jesus as Lord.

Jesus calls that deference “faith.” Faith in the bible is the opposite of sin. Soren Kierkegaard, father of existential philosophy, in a little book called The Sickness Unto Death said, “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God….Faith is: the self, in being itself and wanting to be itself, grounded transparently in God.” Sin, regardless of what you may have learned in Sunday School, is not “doing bad things.” Sin is more subtle and much more dangerous: It is seeking our identity apart from God. While its’ antithesis, faith, is finding our identity in God. Faith, finding our identity in the God revealed in scripture and lived out in community, is why being truly “spiritual” always involves being “religious” as well.

Why do we need a defined faith and a defined faith community?

 Simply because they bring us into our created purpose: Finding our identity in Christ as we humbly, confidently surrender to the one rightly called, “Lord.” And having to express that faith by surrendering to other troublesome humans in the community of faith.

 The world, my friends, has realized the vacuousness of life without God. “Spirituality” is an acknowledgement of our unavoidable religious nature. “Spirituality without religion,” though, is an attempt to be nourished through a steady diet of dessert. It is the idolatry of the almighty self. The repeated more than reflected upon millennial mantra of “I’m spiritual but not religious,” reminds me of the six junior high girls I once saw walking through the mall wearing matching red “Dare to be Different!” T-shirts. Convinced they were saying something unique and profound, they failed to see the irony.

Whose fault is this?

Whenever those outside the Christian faith fail to connect there are two dynamics at work: Humanities’ own sin nature (“There is none who seeks God, no not one.” Rom. 3:10-11), and the church’s communication and demonstration of the faith. Unfortunately, instead of showing the way of faith as joyful surrender, popular Christianity has too often attempted to make faith palatable – serving up healthy doses of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “Cheap grace.” Too often the evangelical church has dropped surrender for wish-fulfillment. Conservative churches have often settled for a message of self-help: “seven steps to…(fill in the blank) – diminishing God to one who exists to meet our desires.

While the conservative church has lowered God, the progressive church, on the other hand, has tended to elevate humanity. The progressive church removes the need for redemption by purging our documents of the words of surrender: Father, king, Lord…if a symbol might be deemed “oppressive” or “problematic,” it is not to be understood in its’ redeemed context, but struck from our hymnals, prayer books, and bibles. But God is not known either by shrinking him or elevating us. God is known through faith in the triune one who joined us and became “obedient to death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In the 1970’s there was a movie called “The Stepford Wives.” In it, a newcomer to an idyllic NYC suburb notices that the wives are unbelievably beautiful and docile. It turns out that the husbands have been eliminating their wives and replacing them with lifelike robots who behave according to the husbands wishes. “Spiritual but not religious” is code for “I want God on my terms.” “Spiritual but not religious” creates a Stepford God who comes on command and exists as a cosmic Jeanie in a bottle or as a dysfunctional parent who wants to be your buddy but won’t give you the discipline your heart craves. And, by the way,”spiritual but not religious” is a natural result of American Protestantism’s uncritical embrace of individualism and rationalism. It is Protestant Christianity that insisted that the world is not a magical and sacramental place and that the almighty self does not need the church to mediate God’s presence. How is “spiritual but not religious”  not the ultimate natural byproduct of the Reformation?

Overcoming the idolatry of the Almighty Self is why the historic church does the things she does when she gathers in worship: In the liturgy we remind our hearts that God is God and we are not. That God is Father and we are not. That God is King and we are not. That Jesus is Lord and we are not.

Jesus calls us to be spiritual and religious; to view our humanity perfectly fulfilled in Christ and our broken idolatrous selves perfectly redeemed by Christ. That can only truly happen in a community of other broken, annoying people.


[1] We did a very small portion. Our iPhones say we walked 150 miles in 10 days. It is fantastic!

Photo from: here

What’s Really Great About Texas: A Newcomer’s View of the Lone Star State


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I had heard the stereotypes of the brash Texan. You know the Hollywood image: boot, big-buckle, wide-brim wearers convinced their state is the center of the universe, the Eden of God’s creation…who on a second beer launch into a soliloquy of Texas possessing a larger, more impressive version of any landmark or feature anywhere else on the planet. Well, after nearly a year of Lone Star living, I tip my Stetson to the stereotype. Most Texans are indeed convinced to the bottom of their Lucchese boots of the unique and unrivaled beauty of the Great State of Texas. State pride is everywhere here: Lone Stars are plastered on everything from automobiles to ice cream machines. Four foot tall five-points festoon the exteriors of suburban homes. There are more state flags in Texas than grains of sand on Gulf Coast beaches. “Don’t mess with Texas” isn’t just a highway anti-littering slogan, it’s a state motto.

What Texans don’t know is that the strength of Texas is not its uninterrupted, “pretty-ish”-on-the-one-right-week-of-the-year topography. Texas has horrible weather and dizzyingly tall high-rises built to look out over nothing more than unending prairies and smog. Texas, while spread over 1/3 of the continent, has less elevation change than any other Western state. Most of Texas is flat. Flat with grass. Flat with trees. Flat with cactus. Flat with thickets. Do you hear the common denominator? Texans will drive three hours from Houston to spend the weekend in hills, something people in the rest of America only need step outside to find. No, the strength of Texas is not Texas.

The strength of Texas is Texans. Somehow the interminable swath of tedious topography known as Texas bred a new type of human, the Texan. The Texan is as unique as the Texas topography they love is not. Texans are faithful, courageous, confident, resourceful, and gracious. Texans are tough on themselves and hospitable to guests. While they may have earned the reputation for being insufferable about their state, they are humble and self-effacing about their own accomplishments. Texans consider strangers family, give the shirt off their back, and show up for your barn raising. Texans bring Texas sheet cakes the size of Rhode Island to church socials and casseroles to sick neighbors. Texans celebrate your gusher and cry with you when your hole was a bust. Texans know how to play: They know about beer and bourbon, football, fishing, and guns. For Texans, rodeo is something you do and give your kids a day off school for, not a road you buy designer goods at retail on. Texans still go to church and mean it when they say, “God bless you.” I was with a group of Texans at a beer tasting on a church retreat. Seriously. A Texas football team was in the playoffs. Football is a spiritual experience for Texans so, naturally (to them), the game was on the television. When the national anthem began, without a word, every man in the room quit talking and tasting, and turned and faced the flag with hat over heart. Really, they do that in Texas.

To the rest of America I say, trust me, you want an invitation to the home of a Texan or a Texan beside you in a dark alley. You want a Texan as your attorney or banker or shoe shine guy. But when Texans talk about “the great beauty” of Texas, folk from the rest of the country wonder if someone has spiked their mint julep with something more hallucinogenic than bourbon.

After nine months in Texas, do I want to go home? Nope. I’ve begun to feel what many Texans say, “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as quickly as I could.” But not because of Texas, because of Texans. Because of Texans, Texas becomes “home” faster than any place on earth. But the next time a Texan wants you to drive two hours to look at a rock or a hill or the fender of a ’61 Impala that got stuck in an embankment, forward this article to them. They still won’t believe that you have no interest at all in their “landmark” at the end of a torturously long country road, but that you are there because you are honored to spend the day with a Texan.

…And I’ll lay odds they invite you to dinner and try to pick up the tab.

Worship: How Reshaping Desires Redirects Destiny


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Why are you here? Part two 

(In part one I made the case that we all worship and that it is the object of our worship that determines our destiny. In Part two I tell you how to tap into the transformative power of worship and why it works.)

Two kinds of worship: Personal and corporate.

Personal worship is humbly giving God glory and returning God’s love by joyously joining the Triune One’s dance in the interior of our own hearts. We ought to do that. It is the Communion with the Most High in personal worship that gives us songs in the night (Acts 16). But there is another kind of worship: Corporate worship. Corporate worship, which occurs in church, in a group, is an entirely different ballgame. While worship alone with God is about giving God glory and often involves powerful emotions, worshipping corporately is NOT about feelings at all. Worshipping corporately is the way God reshapes our love – the way God remolds us and re-habituates our desires. The way God helps us learn how to let go of the gods of our culture and worship the true and living God. Let me explain:

Our modernist educational system has sold us the incorrect vision that we are primarily thinking creatures (Descartes “I think therefore I am.”). But we experience our lives, not as decisions or commitments, but as story and longing. We experience our lives, not as thoughts, but as feelings. This is why when you had an Algebra test and a huge crush on someone, you had a hard time studying…even when you knew you really needed to focus on Algebra. Descartes was wrong: We are defined and shaped by what we love!

Our futures are determined by our desires. The pattern of historic Christian corporate worship was designed to allow God to remake our desires into God’s desires.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus first words are a question: “What do you want?” Jesus knows that our wants are the well from which our identity flows. That is why Jesus doesn’t ask “What do you think? Or What do you know? He asks “What do you want?”

His last words in John begin with the question: “Do you love me?” The simple truth is that we want what we love. We are first and foremost wanters. We are lovers. We are not defined by what we know or think, but by what we desire. This is why the secret to lasting change in our lives…learning a new instrument, or sport, or a work out plan, isn’t to make up our mind, but to have a greater desire for something that might be. We have to love the image of us dunking a basketball or having ripped abs more than the the social media that distracts us…or the image of being the spouse or parent or employee or leader we admire more than playing Stack on our phones. It is when our desires are reshaped that our destiny is changed.

In the corporate worship of historic Christianity we follow a pattern that, over years of repetition, reshapes our desires into God-shaped ones. The pattern of historic worship goes like this: We gather and read God’s word, the Bible. Then we sing the Bible, someone teaches from the Bible. Then we respond to the Good News of Jesus by stating our beliefs in creeds, praying for the world, confessing our sins, accepting God’s forgiveness, and being reconciled to each other in the passing of the peace. Finally, we bring a portion of God’s material blessings and offer them back to God and set them aside with bread and wine, asking God to make them the body and blood of Jesus. In this meal we are reminded of Jesus and his saving acts on our behalf. As Augustine said, “Eat what you are, become what you eat.” “Eat what you are” (the body of Christ), “become what you eat” (the body of Christ). This takes a lifetime of shaping in a community. On many Sundays worship might be, like many of Michael Phelps grueling, lengthy training sessions, going through the motions. But they are motions that groove the pattern of God into our souls like the grooves on an old record album. It is a grinding that uncovers who we were designed to be. It is a polishing that unleashes our inner beauty to the light. It is the repetition that builds strength and makes Phelps perfect stroke a habit.

But, you may ask, “What about when I am in a large group and we are all raising our hands and the hair on the back of my neck stands up?” My answer is that those times when you experience the worship heebie jeebies are mostly a private worship experience you are having in the midst of a group. The corporate rituals are where the transformative magic actually reside. The experience of “wow” is like topping out on a fourteener on a backpacking trip in Colorado. You get to say you did it, but the real distance happened in the valleys, with little ability to see above the trees and monotonously placing one foot in front of the other.

So why are you here? Answer: You were designed to worship. We will, all of us, bow before something. Who will you bow before? We will, all of us, dance with someone. Will you, as the old saying went, “dance with the one that brung you”? Bowing and dancing are grounded in God’s nature as holy yet merciful. Worship is always diminished when we emphasize one aspect of God’s nature at the expense of the other. We can never fully dance without bowing, and although one might bow without joyfully joining the dance, don’t.

So start your training. “It’s what you do in the dark”…what you do over and over when no one is looking, that brings clarity and performance in the race of life. It is engaging in the discipline of trained worship that will “put you in the light.”

Engage in a regular pattern of repetitive worship. Begin unleashing your destiny this Sunday.

*Photo credit:

Why are you here?

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Michael Phelps new commercial unlocks the secret of overcoming uncertainty.

 I watched Michael Phelps new Under Armour commercial today. A powerful testimony to the value of sacrifice, commitment, and repetition, it shows the most decorated Olympian in history preparing for his final Olympiad this summer in Rio. The tag line: “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.”

I have many meetings with people I refer to as “the uncertain.” Often the person will look up from their coffee or craft beer and say, “I guess the real reason I wanted to meet with you is that I don’t know what I should be doing with my life.” I listen and then politely ask them to back up and ask themselves a prior question, “Why are you here?” My question is generally met with a blank stare. So I gently push the issue, “Really. Why are you here? What were you made to do?” Confusion usually turns to frustration and the stammering of some version of, “I’ve got enough problems without you starting an existential crisis.”

The irony is that they already have the existential crisis. But the willingness to dig deeply enough to get at the root, like my desire to quick-weed my yard in Spring, prevents a true solution to that crisis.

Ultimate questions lurk beneath the question.

“What should I do” can only be answered in light of knowing why we are here, what we were made for.

In another bit of irony, we get at why we are here and what we are for backwards, by starting with what we do. Not our paying job, of course, but we we actually spend our private energy on. (To be clear, in the Christian worldview people are not valued based on human performance, but in the mercy of God based in the performance of Jesus, as seen in his life, death and resurrection for wandering humanity.) But what we spend our time doing points to why we are here and what we are to do.

That thing we do…

What is it we do? Answer: Worship. Uhmm, yes, our secular culture still spends most of its’ time and energy in worship. Worship is a contraction of the old English words “Worth-ship” – that which we value, that which we love, that which we long for. Isn’t most of what you spend your energy on love? We desire. We want. We long. We are worshipping creatures.

In the Old Testament the word that is translated “worship” means to “bow before.” Don’t we all bow before something? The question is, “Are we bowing before the right things?” Young people in American “achiever” culture face tremendous pressure to “bow” – to fit in…look “right,” get to the “right” school, have the “right” friends…act the part. Even among individualistic “meta-narrative rejecting” post-modern males, our “individualism” tends to look pretty uniform. I see a lot of plaid flannel, skinny jeans and untrimmed beards – a grown-up version of the eight junior high girls I once saw in a mall wearing matching “Dare to be different” t-shirts. Sure, we are individuals, as long as you hold to the correct politics and sensitivities of our age. But if what we “value,” what we “worship,” is indistinguishable from our culture, surely we will end up as nothing more than this generation’s shallow sellouts to the outward trappings of our culture’s vision of success.

So we are worshipping creatures, made to worship. And we need to worship beyond ourselves. Redirecting our worship outside of ourselves, at the one who made and redeemed us, gives one a center and a grounding that our culture alone cannot. This is because it is worship rightly directed that fulfills your design, fulfills God’s plan for you. Worshipping God is the first step in identifying what one should do with their life.

Wait a moment: You are telling me that going to church is going to help me figure out a career? Are you daft? But better than questioning my sanity would be the question, “How does one best worship beyond themselves?”

Worship in the Christian worldview has been grounded in a vision of God’s two-fold nature revealed in the Old and New Testaments. God has many more characteristics, but the two foundational ones in historic Christianity have been that God is both perfectly holy and perfectly loving.

Holy yet loving. …Transcendent yet immanent. Awesome and out there, yet intimate and desiring to indwell us by the Holy Spirit. Out of God’s nature comes our need to worship. (Col 1:16, Eph 1:11, 1 Pet 2:9, Is 43:6-7)

God’s holiness reveals God as the grandest being in the universe. A being who spoke the universe into existence. God is a worthy of worship in the glory of God’s being. A being we should bow before.

God’s love: The Greek Orthodox have the idea of “perichoresis” Greek for “rotation.” The idea is that in the Trinity we have the One God in a divine Three-Person dance. God in love and unity, created humanity to invite us into the dance of eternity. “For God so loved the world” that he breathed it into existence. Then, when we had wandered away into sin and death, he “he gave his only begotten son” as “an offering and a sacrifice unto God.” (Eph 5:2)

These two foundations to God’s nature are revealed time and again in Scripture. Yet, much to our shame, the church has had a difficult time holding these two truths in tension.

Up Next: Part 2: How Reshaping Our Desires Redirects Our Destiny