Four Values in My Preaching Methodology: The Early Years

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Prior to March of this year I preached an average of four times a year in my last seven years of full-time ministry. As a Worship Pastor these past 10 years, it was always a gift to get to lay my guitar down for a Sunday and lean in to my gifts as a communicator using a different method, and soon I began to itch for a season when I could do it more frequently.

Then in March, my wife and I (and a handful of beautiful people) started a new church in San Diego called Sojourn Grace Collective and my primary responsibility was to be the Teaching Pastor. Thrilled at my new position, these past seven months have been quite the journey of learning how to write and prepare a sermon every. single. week. (Of course, it’s not REALLY every week, it’s about 3 times a month.. but still, you get my drift). Here I am, a guy who had given maybe 30 sermons EVER, getting ready to be a full time Teaching Pastor. It feels a bit like, “hey, you coached Little League right? Here, manage the Giants in the World Series.”

Okay… a bit dramatic… moving on…

It has, and continues to be, a real learning curve. For those of you that do this, or have done this before, then perhaps you can remember when you first started out, and the challenge (and thrill!) of churning something out week in and week out.

I love it.
Like, really love it.

And it’s hard.
Like, really hard.

I’d like to think I’m starting to find a groove. And perhaps I am. But this past week I sat down with a book I hadn’t picked up in a while called Deep Church by Jim Belcher. It’s five years old, and some of the references are dated already, but in short it’s a book where Jim tries to imagine a Third Way of doing church that goes beyond the Traditional model and the Emerging model. My hope was to read his chapter on Preaching and take some intentional time to work on developing the craft of sermon writing and delivering. I was hoping for some new insight and some fresh takes on preaching, but what I found was actually refreshingly surprising.

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I remember taking a Homiletics class in College. Homiletics is the “art of preaching.” And I remember having a blast because not only did I learn some wonderful techniques from the esteemed Dr Trull, but I also got to deliver one of my first ever sermons to my peers. It was from Habakkuk 2:4 (“the just shall live by faith”) and I recall taking a rather unconventional approach to the sermon. Sort of half-acted out, half-exegeted. My classmates ended up loving it (more so than my professor, ha!) and voted me “Preacher of the Year” when the semester ended. It was one of my favorite moments in college.

Even though, after graduating, I went in to the field of Worship & Arts, I never lost my love for preaching. Always believing that a time would come when I would get to preach and teach in a church full time.

Finally, that time has come.
And while I still have some of the residue of my homiletics class hanging around (such as the concept of the “Big Idea”), I more or less have developed a preaching style in the same way my wife cooks: intuitively, experimentally, and through trial and error.

My wife doesn’t use recipes to cook. She finds an assortment of ingredients, has a general idea of what she wants the end product to be, and then feels her way towards that goal. Likely leaning on some things she observed from watching her mom and grandma cook, maybe remembering a Rachel Ray episode here or there, and possibly holding in mind a recent picture she saw on Pinterest as to what it “could” look like.

I kind of feel like my approach to preaching has a similar methodology.

Since graduating college I haven’t read one book on preaching. But I have listened to countless sermons and absorbed what resonated with me, what I loved, and what I wanted to emulate. My three largest influences would be:

  • Rob Bell (the master of words, the poet of theology, and the make-the-biblical-world-relevant guy),
  • Jonathan Martin (the from-the-heart, follow the spirit guy), and
  • Greg Boyd (the deep thinking,  theology-can-be-fun guy).
  • Oh, and I’ll add one more, Shane Hipps (the Turn guy… that’ll make sense in a minute).

(Ironically, three of those four guys are no longer preaching regularly. So I’m currently in the market for some good preachers. Preferably some women. Let me know who your favs are!)

Then, with these guys as my guide, I’ve sort of felt my way through the best way to try and communicate each week the “Thing” that I really want people to leave with. Creativity has always been one of my strong suits, and so when I have the creative energy I love to think outside the box and outside the “lecture.” Be it with props, or movie clips, or guided discussion. But all that is normal preaching stuff, right?

So let me get back to my experience reading Belcher’s “Deep Church.”

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Jim was looking for a preaching approach that moved beyond Traditional Preaching, aka “bounded-set preaching” (evidenced by things like: three points and poem; you suck, try harder; and lecture style answer-giving), and that moved beyond what he identified as Emerging Preaching, aka “relational-set preaching” (based off of Doug Pagitt’s work and evidenced by things like: dialogical presentations, elevating the community over tradition and the Bible, and not giving people answers or creating any sort of boundaries). Where Jim landed, after dissecting the pros and cons of the two previous approaches, was on what he called “center-set preaching.”

Here are few hallmarks of centered-set preaching.

The Indicative and the Imperative – One of the downfalls of bounded-set preaching is that it can create an up and down roller coaster of commitment, failure, depression, followed by re-commitment, more failure, more depression… rinse and repeat. The “you suck, try harder” mentality. In centered-set preaching (using Jim’s terminology) you always begin with justification and then move toward sanctification. In other words, “the indicative indicates who we are in Christ through his saving grace. The imperative of the gospel impels or empowers us to obey God’s commands as an act of gratitude for the new life that we have” (pg 154). Without this proper movement we can leave people thinking that either they’ve got it figured out (yay! you’re righteous! you didn’t sin this week!), or they’re miserable cretins (no! you fool! you’ve sinned and separated yourself from God!)

The Homiletical Drama – Traditional preaching style tends to be deductive. In that, it makes three points and then sets out prove those points using logical arguments, illustrations, and application. But Jim points out how this takes the drama out of the sermon. It’s like revealing the climax before seeing a movie. “Once you know the conclusion, all the tension, the myriad twists and turns, and the surprising reversal of fortune are missed” (pg 155). Instead, what if we saw our sermons as a dramatic unfolding like many of the narratives we find in the Scriptures?

The Aha Moment – When you’ve established the problem, and are working towards the solution (using the narrative/dramatic form) then you are able to bring the congregation along with you until you’re ready for the “aha moment.” This is the point where everything is leading up to, and where you pivot on the ridiculous love and grace and mercy of Jesus.

Jim sums up Centered-set preaching as thus:

“Like relational-set preaching it is inductive–setting up the problem, asking the questions, analyzing the situation and then moving to the solution together. But then it lays out the solution’s ramifications in a deductive manner, similar to bounded-set preaching. The big difference is that unlike bounded and relational set preaching, centered-set preaching always includes a linchpin, the aha moment, the life-changing, transforming power of God’s surprising grace through Jesus – his kingdom, his gospel, his salvation and the new life he brings.” (pg 156)

Finally, in what might be my favorite point, Belcher says that centered-set preaching focuses on the gospel and not on boundaries. In other words, the preaching begins from the radical place of Good News (Jesus, gospel, acceptance by God… that’s the Center) and then works out from there. It doesn’t exhaust itself with creating boundaries and emphasizing the “minor” elements (or the non-essentials) of Christianity, creating an us/them dynamic. Nor does it wander around in a void of questions and non-answers, never finding a grounding in what is true, good, and noble.

When I read this yesterday I was struck with this thought: hmmm… that pretty much describes my approach to preaching.

So instead of finding new inspiration or fresh challenges for honing my craft, I found language to articulate what I have sort of pieced together over the years (and, more specifically, over the past several months). For instance, here are Four Values that I hold in my preaching:

  1. When I preach, my starting point is our identity in Jesus. I want to make sure people know to begin with the wonderful and beautiful reality that they are a child of the King. (side note: I recognize that not all my readers share my theology here, and nor, for that matter, would Jim Belcher. But I think the principle still remains). I begin with the Good News that YOU are in the favor of God. So then, in response to that, we can live out the freedom of the Kingdom and be people of grace and forgiveness and peace and love. But ultimately, how you live isn’t going to impact your identity in Jesus. Grace… it’s weird like that.
  2. When I preach, I consider the elements of a Story. The setting, the conflict, the climax, and the denouement. Then I order my flow accordingly. In other words, I’m always building towards SOMETHING. I might drop a few observations here and there, grab some low hanging fruit on the way. But I am inviting the congregation to go along with me on a dramatic narrative, attempting to create tension along the way. If I tell them everything I going to tell them up front, they’re more likely to check out half way through. But if they are hanging in there with me, waiting for some sort of resolution, then they’re more likely to track with me and hopefully find it more interesting and engaging along the way. A lot of times I will actually draw out, on paper, a narrative arc. And I’ll put in the elements of a story, and build my sermon accordingly. Here’s a picture of what my sermon last week looked like (it’s a pretty good example of my general preaching style, if you’re interested here’s the link).
  3. narrative arc of a sermonWhen I preach, I look for the Turn. This is where Shane Hipps has influenced me in a big way. Once I’ve reached the climax of the story, what is the pivot moment? Sometimes it is saying, “you’ve heard it said like this… but what if instead it goes like THIS!” (That sounds familiar… who spoke like that?). The Turn is that moment when people get rewarded for hanging in there with me for the previous 30-40 minutes. It could be reimagining an old theological assumption, it could be a fresh interpretation of a familiar passage, it could be a new word about an old idea. It could be the one big Thing I’ve been building a case for the whole time.
  4. Finally, when I preach, I keep it open-handed. Meaning, I’m okay if you disagree with me, and I’m sure as heck not going to make you feel like you’re somehow less than me if you DO think differently. While I might stand firm on some convictions, I humbly acknowledge that these are MY convictions, and your story might have taken you some place else. One of my favorite pieces of feedback recently went something like this, “your sermon was SO Jesus-y… but I still loved it and it spoke to me!” This person doesn’t share the same Christology as me, and yet I believe that my open-handed approach to preaching allowed her to still hear and receive a fresh word of Grace from God even though she wasn’t tracking with me on all the Jesus-stuff.

I’m only seven months in to this Preacher gig. That’s why I sub-titled this post “The Early Years.” Because I’m sure my preaching style and methods will evolve and transform over the years to come. But I believe these four values that I’ve intuitively created, and have picked up through inspiration from others, will establish a solid footing for me as I grow in my craft. And trust me, I have a lot of room to grow.

I’ll close here with a special word of THANKS to my family at Sojourn Grace Collective for being such a kind, attentive, affirming, and encouraging group of people week in and week out. Thank you for letting me preach every Sunday, and for coming back the next week. Thank you for being patient with me as a I grow. Thank you to the Ministry Team and the Elder Board for understanding that so much of my time each week is consumed with sermon prep… I’m sure I’ll get quicker at as time goes on! You all are lovely people. Lovely.

 

 

Pros and Cons of the Bible: Part IV

This is the final post in my four-part series that tries to honestly engage with some of the angst that some people (myself included) feel when they read their Bibles. The goal here was to perhaps say, put words and language to, those feelings of frustration, bewilderment, and curiosity that can rise to the surface when we try and interact with this thousands-year-old collection of writings.

In case you missed the first part where I explain the premise, I’m using a Pro/Con framework (ala Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show) to provide a jumping off point for the discussion.

In case you need to catch up,

Part I
PRO: The Bible is Inspired by God
CON: It has armed people throughout history to do some really atrocious things in the “name of God.”

PRO: The Bible was written by Humans
CON: It’s culture and context isn’t always understood or appreciated

Part II
PRO: The Bible reflects ways in which humanity has sought after, heard from, wandered from, and engaged with their Creator
CON: Those interactions all occurred a long, long time ago, and can be quite violent and disturbing

Part III
PRO: The Bible is diverse collection of different types of letters, poems, and books that all move with a singular narrative.
CON: It has been used as a legal constitution to statically determine what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

PRO: The Bible is the unique Book for Christianity and functions as its voice of authority.
CON: It has been seen as the ONLY source of truth, wisdom, and beauty, and its “authority” has been misunderstood and abused.

Many of you found it refreshing to have someone else echo things that you’ve always felt. While others have been a bit flummoxed that I’d say there are “Cons” to the Bible.

I acknowledge that none of these posts are exhaustive treatments of the issues I address. In fact, this post will be even briefer in its treatment of the final two Pros/Cons. But feel free to sound off in the comment section if you want to engage in any of them further.

Now, on to Part IV…

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PRO: The Bible reveals to us the life, teachings, and person of Jesus, as well as the movement that began in his name.
CON: It has wrongly been used as the Word of God, to replace or trump Jesus, and the church has forgot her roots.

This, for me, is one of the strongest most compelling reasons why I still return to the Bible over and over again. For it is the unique and primary revealer as to the person of Jesus Christ. And it is Jesus that I follow, Jesus that I trust, Jesus that I give my life to.

And be it not for the Bible, I’d really struggle to know about Jesus, and to know how to best follow him.

However, the Church historically at times has err’d on the side of elevating the Bible as the “Word of God,” instead of acknowledging that Jesus is the “Word of God.”

And when you read the teachings of Jesus and get a picture for what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like.. and you read about the New Testament church and how they functioned… it can often times be very curious how some of our Western/American/Protestant/Evangelical churches have gotten where they have.

It seems (to me, anyway) that according to the Word of God (remember, that means Jesus) some of our current church practices just seem really counter-Kingdom.

I get confused by the Prosperity Gosepl.
I get confused by churches of tens of thousands of people.
I get confused by churches who exclude people from the Table.
I get confused by churches run/led only by men.
I get confused by churches that get mixed up in politics.
I get confused by flashy lights, fog machines, theater seating, rock-concert-vibe.

And so many times they point to something in the Bible as their support, or to justify something… but I want to say, “no, look at the person of JESUS!”

Like we talked about in Part II, if we are not viewing ALL of Scripture through the lens of Jesus, then we are doing it wrong.

PROThe Bible has a profound ability to still speak to us, challenge, encourage, and inspire us today.
CONIt is hard to interpret and can be wildly misunderstood and misused.

For the majority of the Church’s life the lay Christian did not have a Bible. In a world now where you can get a teen Bible, a women’s Bible, a man’s Bible, children’s Bible, a Bible app, a Bible for this or for that, for this AND that… I even came across the Forever Bible this week (you’ve been warned), it seems completely foreign to us to consider Christianity apart from having a Bible to read.

But Christianity operated for 1600 years with only the highly educated having the access or ability to read the Bible, and only the religious leaders having copies. People were, more or less, beholden to whatever was taught to them on Sundays. They did not have the ability to study the Scriptures for themselves.

You could argue there’s an upside and a downside to that, I suppose.
And I say that because nowadays everybody has a Bible, everyone has access to resources online (dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries, Greek/Hebrew translations, etc), so therefore everyone is an expert.

Except they aren’t.

Furthermore, within the western/protestant/evangelical strain specifically, the idea of the “plain meaning” of the text has been elevated far beyond what is probably helpful. The idea being that you can simply open up to any passage, read it, and the best meaning is the plainest and simplest one.

Yet that just simply isn’t the case.

As we’ve discussed previously, if you don’t have a grasp on the context, the culture, the author, the audience, and the general narrative thrust of the Bible, there’s a really good chance you’re going to be headed in a poor direction interpretation-wise.

So yes, the Bible is (as the Hebrews writer said) living and active and powerful, and I’m fully convinced that the Spirt of God works profoundly through the words and the stories found therein, but it just isn’t always that simple.

Which honestly can be a bit of bummer.
I know people who have just been turned off completely at the sheer weight of the realization that they couldn’t every really fully understand what the Bible was all about. They felt totally unequipped and unable to make sense of it.

And I resonate with that. Truly, I do.
I’m someone who studies it and teaches it for a living and I can still feel like that!

One of the practices of reading the Bible I’ve found to be really helpful in light of all this is called Lectio Divina. It is essentially a way to Pray the Scriptures. To just sit with a text, meditate on it, pray it. The goal is not to figure it out, dissect it, interpret it.

It’s something, therefore, that anyone can do as a way to approach the Bible and be fed by the unlimited inspiration and beauty found therein.

So if you’re someone who has been turned off or discouraged from reading the Bible because you just feel totally insufficient to really “get” it, then I invite you to try it out.

Okay friends, that is it.
Thus concludes my four part series featuring seven PROS/CONS of reading the Bible.

Thanks for reading along.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section!

 

 

Pros and Cons of the Bible: Part III

After leaning in to the inspired nature of the Bible, the human composition of it, and the difficulties with some of the pictures we get of God in the OT, we now move our series in to two more PRO/CONS.

PRO: The Bible is diverse collection of different types of letters, poems, and books that all move with a singular narrative.
CON: It has been used as a legal constitution to statically determine what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

There are 66 books in the Bible, and even just a cursory glance reveals that it truly is a library of different genres, different styles.

There are History books, books of Wisdom and Poetry, there are prophetic books, there are apocalyptic books, there are letters and gospels.

Each book or letter was written or compiled by a human or humans, and their unique personality and make-up are evident in each writing.

Yet within such a broad range of diversity of literature spread out over a long period of time there exists a general thrust, or a story, a narrative, being told within and throughout Scripture that for years I was completely ignorant to.

I’d always thought, and been taught, to see the Bible as basically a FLAT document. Everything is equal in weight. It’s like a cookbook: you just open it up anywhere, and take out something, and run with it.

But the reality is that Bible tells a story. And the story builds and moves and climaxes in Jesus.

So everything has to be viewed through the lens of Jesus.

Moreover, if we lose the fact that the Bible is a Story then a lot of it isn’t going to make sense, while other parts of it will be misapplied and misused.

Like yesterday’s post emphasized, the picture we get of God the Creator in the OT is not the final word about who God is. Rather, those are like the early chapters of a book where the depth and nuance and layers of a character are slowly revealed as the story progresses.

It isn’t until you get to Jesus that you see, as the writer of Hebrews said, the “full image of God, the exact representation of God” found in Jesus.

And also, in Jesus, we see the climax of the story being told throughout the Old Testament. The story of a God who creates and wants to connect with and be in relationship with that creation. Yet the creation is unable or unwilling or uninterested in such a relationship, and so we see God at work in calling out Abraham and choosing to enter in to a unique relationship with what would eventually be the nation of Israel. The goal, of course, is to bless Israel to be a blessing to the rest of the world. Israel was tasked with being God’s light and love to the world.

However, as things go, that story didn’t really work out too well. Israel got a bit self absorbed at times and just downright rebellious at others. They got off mission more often than not. But God, being slow to anger, never gave up on them or the Mission.

Eventually the story was moving towards God doing something new in creation, and so Jesus came to be and do for the world what Israel was supposed to be and do for the world. And at last, through his life, teachings, healings, death and especially resurrection, we experience the climactic moment of God’s redemptive story.

The rest of the NT then is how that story then gets played out (i.e. the implementation of the Kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated).

Point being: there is a Narrative in the Bible. And knowing that Narrative is important. But knowing how the Bible carries along that Narrative is even more important.

Here’s why.

What can happen is that instead of seeing the Bible as Library of books that is moving towards (and then flowing from) Jesus, we can come to the Bible as though it were a Legal Constitution. (Thanks to Brian McLaren for the helpful language here).

There’s a tendency to see the Bible as a text book that we come to for answers. 

Have you ever heard it said “the Bible has an answer for all of life’s questions.”

No it doesn’t!

That’s ludicrous!

Find me a verse on Fracking. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
And what does the Bible say about Energy Consumption?
Should I be a vegan or not?
Stem cell research?
Cloning?

And the list goes on…

If we insist that the Bible is a Text Book of answers, instead of the unraveling story of how God has sought about redeeming and renewing Creation, we will continually be frustrated that Bible doesn’t do what we need it to do.

The early chapters of text book carry equal value, weight, and authoritative thrust as later chapters do.

But in a story?

The establishing of the setting, the introduction of the characters, and the development of conflict are all fulfilled and completed and rounded out by the resolution and the denouement.

So the way I see it, the PRO to reading the Bible is that it tells the beautiful redemptive (and still redeeming) work of God in and through Creation. But the CON can be when we approach it as something other than what it is designed to be or do.

It’s like saying, “well my microwave heats things up and cooks my popcorn… so I’ll just stick this cookie dough in here and cook it for 30 minutes… I’m sure I’ll get cookies when I’m done!”

PRO: The Bible is the unique Book for Christianity and functions as its voice of authority.
CON: It has been seen as the ONLY source of truth, wisdom, and beauty, and its “authority” has been misunderstood and abused.

This one might ruffle some feathers, so let me unpack it just a bit (even though admittedly it deserves a much fuller treatment).

Traditionally, this phrase, “the Authority of Scripture,” has been used as a way to empower those who say, “look, here, the Bible says it, which means God says it, so that settles it.”

In turn, the Bible has been used to support slavery, to oppress women, to condemn those born with same-sex attraction, to kill jews, etc etc…

All with this attitude of, “hey, what do you want from me, it says right here in the bible, and the Bible is authoritative! So even if I wanted to invite blacks, or women, or gays, or Jews to the table… I’m handcuffed by the Bible!!”

But NT Wright goes to great length to explain how this is NOT what The Authority of Scripture means.

All authority rests in God, first and foremost.

So the Bible merely functions as a conduit to convey the “authority” present in God. That’s an important distinction.

But more than that, the way this actually works out (to go back to the point of Scripture having a narrative arc to it) is that the Bible is authoritative in so far as it gives us the Story of God and invites us to be people who keep on writing it.

Nt Wright describes the “authority of Scripture” like this:

The shorthand phrase “the authority of Scripture,” when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community.”

In other words, the “authority of scripture” is put into operation by the church going in to the world on behalf of the gospel announcing the good news that God has defeated the powers of evil and begun a work of new creation in Jesus Christ.

The Bible gives us a story, and we take that story and continue to live it out, recognizing that the story found in the Bible is authoritative in that it gives us our mission to be people of the Kingdom of God. It gives us the shape of the Mission. We can’t start carving new paths in the story if they betray the integrity of the narrative already played out and given to us.

So the Scriptures are unique for Christianity. They give us our Mission. They give us insight into God, especially as revealed by Jesus. And they function is the authoritative text for our faith journey.

And yet…

Sadly, much of Christianity has refused to acknowledge that other faith traditions and other religions have also had experiences with their Creator.

All truth is God’s truth, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find truth in other sacred literature or other sacred stories.

This is why at our church, Sojourn Grace Collective, we have this saying,

Uniquely Christian, but not Exclusively

In other words, we find something uniquely compelling and powerful and inviting about Jesus and about the story of God found in the Bible, but we don’t want to pretend that we have the corner on the market.

Even as you read the stories found in Scripture you are forced to acknowledge that “our” characters are constantly interacting with “other” characters who have already experienced connectivity with their Creator!

God did not (and does not) ONLY speak to, engage with, pursue, love, communicate with, inspire, empower and lead Israelites (before Jesus) or Christians (post Jesus).

I feel silly even having to type that sentence out because it feels so absurd. Yet that can be the default place many of us start from.

The Bible, to me, is a wonderful, beautiful, powerful, engaging, captivating, inspired, uniquely God-breathed piece of art. But I don’t believe that means it is the sole place where one can find truth, beauty, or evidence of God.

Pros and Cons of the Bible: Part II

Yesterday I kicked off this little series on the Bible which aims to lean in to some of the angst that is often felt by people (Christians, mainly?) who really want to engage the Scriptures on a level that goes beyond just a surface acceptance of the Text.

Stylized like this Jimmy Fallon bit, in this post I offer the third PRO/CON of Reading the Bible.

PRO: The Bible reflects ways in which humanity has sought after, heard from, wandered from, and engaged with their Creator
CON: Those interactions all occurred a long, long time ago, and can be quite violent and disturbing.

Angry Zeus-like-God

Even though our 21st century is worlds apart from the ones we find in the Bible, the essence of what it means to be human hasn’t changed all that much. The Bible is full of stories of how humanity has sought to connect with their Creator, and who doesn’t find their own stories reflected in these stories?

For instance, have you ever felt like the people you trusted most in life (say, your family) all ganged up on you, and treated you like dirt? Made you feel like an outcast?

If so, you can relate to Jacob in the book of Genesis, who’s brothers sold him in to slavery because they didn’t like him and were jealous of him.

Have you ever made a horrible mistake and betrayed a close friend, and wondered if they’d ever forgive you again?

If so, you can relate to Peter, who denied he even knew Jesus. Only to then have Jesus come to him later and affirm his love for him, forgive him, and restore their relationship.

I could go on and on… stories of heart break, stories of betrayal, stories of questioning and doubting God, stories of triumph and overcoming…
Stories of God never giving up on us. A God who is compassionate, and merciful, and slow to anger.

These stories are the stories of humanity whether it happened 3000 years ago or happened last week.

But still, that being said, it can be kind of weird, when you stop and think about it, that we orient ourselves around and follow things that were documnted in a book written so long ago.

It raises a really good question: Honestly, what does this dusty ancient book have to do with me here today?

I was sitting at Modern Times, a bar here in North Park, writing this. And I was surrounded by a wall made entirely out of floppy disks. You remember those? Little square disks of color that held 1.44 megabytes of data? I think I fit my entire Freshman year of college on ONE of those disks.

Then you look over and their bar is made out ofold  VHS tapes.

Floppy disks and VHS tapes. Ancient, ancient techonology… of like 20 years ago!! But now completely irrelevant and useless to us.

Ours is a culture that thrives on the Next-Best-Thing.
We all know this to be true.
What is the newest and latest model?

So to consider, then, giving ourselves to a book written two to three thousand years ago can seem at best naive, and at worse irresponsible.

I think It’s easy to read some of these Bible stories and think “what in the world does that have to do with me today?” Not only that, but they seem so barbaric, and primitive, and violent… because, well, they are!

It’s tempting at times to want to dismiss the Bible because of the atrocities that we read in stories like those found in the OT.

But one of the things I’ve had to reconcile with is this: if God truly desired to interact with, engage with, and be in relationship with Creation, with humanity, then what choice was there but to do so with.. well.. humans?

in other words, God didn’t really have a choice in the matter when it came to WHO to work with, and HOW to work with them.

The world of the OT was barbaric and violent and filled with warfare.

It’s kind of like parenting: if you, as a parent, have any hope whatsoever to raise a mature 20 year old who is full of compassion and love and respect, well then you HAVE to start with a winy, needy, violent, selfish, disobedient child!

And consider this: God’s blessing on people, like the Israelites (who engaged in some rather bloody warfare and went through their own seasons of oppressing people) is not a blanket acceptance of all their actions.

I was reminded of this concept recently when someone on FB said something to the effect of, “well, if you voted for Politician X a couple years ago, and you still support them today, then that means you have to be in full support of all the things they have done while in office!”

And I pushed back by saying that I, as a parent to my children, will always hold them in my blessing. I will always support them. But of course that doesn’t mean that I therefore must always (or WILL always) support or be in favor of everything they DO!

So to believe that God chose Israel as a nation that God would then bless uniquely so that they could be a blessing to the rest of the world does NOT mean that God therefore blessed or approved of everything they did as a nation, or of everything some of the characters in those stories themselves did.

A couple more thoughts.

Keep in mind… God was working with the raw materials of humanity thousands of years ago. And so we should expect then, when reading the Bible and reading these stories, we should expect to see that type of world reflected.

But we should also expect to see a God who is about the business of trying to help humanity towards greater love, and peace and unity and wholeness.

When we read, for example, a story in the OT where we are told that God commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, we must ensure that we also pay attention to details like God also telling them that once they subdued their enemies that Israel was then to treat their neighbors and others with respect and hospitality.

I also wonder if a lot of what we see in the OT, the stories of God seeming to be a violent or war-like God, are examples of a sort of Divine Accommodation.

In other words, picture this:

If I’m God, I personally might object violently to violence, for I am a merciful, compassionate, forgiving God.

But I ALSO am 100% committed to this project called Creation.
Committed to the restoration and reconciliation of all things.

But in order to do that, I have to make some accommodations of my inherent values and principles in order to effectively engage with humanity.

Just overriding your free will isn’t an option. Love has to be completely free otherwise it isn’t love.

So I make some accommodations… but I don’t just stay there, in that place, nor do I leave you there.

I accommodate and then I invite and compel humanity towards transformation. Towards growth. Towards maturation and evolution and greater wholeness and equality and love and peace.

Eventually it becomes evident that I can only do so much going about it like this. So I choose to visit my creation, showing up as someone just like them, so that I can actually physically show them who I am and what I’m like.

And you guys, this is so important, and I feel like I say it all the time… but the God we are introduced to in the OT is NOT the final , not the last, not the best, not the most accurate picture of who God is and what God is like.

That is found in Jesus.

The Bible is not a flat document.
Everything is not weighted equally.

If the scriptures are not read through the lens of the person of Jesus then we are doing it wrong.

Okay… my point for this Con is this: yes, there is a lot in the Bible that is disturbing and confusing, and at times it can portray a really cruel and violent God. But those are incomplete and inadequate pictures of God. We HAVE to look at Jesus or we will constantly be led astray.

And to dismiss the Bible because of those sorts of stories is, in my mind, to not fully understand or appreciate what the world was like back then and what God was (and indeed still is) attempting to do with Creation.

Pros and Cons of the Bible: Part I

Being a huge fan of Jimmy Fallon, I’ve been digging his handling of The Tonight Show. Total breath of fresh air on the airwaves these days. Jimmy does this bit periodically called “Pros and Cons” where he weighs the good with the bad of current events. Like this one, dealing with the advent of the newest iPhone model.

Good stuff.

At our church this summer we have been going through a series called “PRACTICE: Reimagining the Christian Way.” Essentially my wife and I have been unpacking a number of Christian practices and hoping to breathe a fresh word in to them. It’s been a great series, with my personal favorites being Confession, Communion, and Prayer.

Last week I talked about the Practice of Reading the Bible. I shared a bit of my own journey with the Scriptures, starting with a deep love and excitement for the Bible when I first fell in love with Jesus at age 17, moving to a season of treating it like a text book that needed constantly dissected and interpreted and figured out, then entering a season of being disillusioned by the Bible because of how I’d discovered all the ways it has been used to oppress and control people, and finally moving in to my current season of re-falling in love with the Bible but with a deeper appreciation for what it IS and what it ISN’T.

Inspired by Fallon, I chose to use the format of Pros and Cons to lean in to some of the issues surrounding the Bible. I didn’t get to all 7 of my Pro/Cons during my sermon (only had time for 3) so I wanted to share the rest of them here (including the 3 from my sermon, so that they are all part of this blog series).

So without further ado, here are two Pros and Cons of Reading the Bible.

PRO: The Bible is Inspired by God
CON: It has armed people throughout history to do some really atrocious things in the “name of God.”

While I may no longer subscribe to the belief that the Bible is inerrant or infallible, I do wholeheartedly still believe that the Bible is Inspired by God.

I believe that at certain times throughout human history people have sought to put into form (originally by story telling, then by writing down) the ways in which they have experienced and interacted with their Creator. And I think that God, being out in front of humanity and inviting us towards greater and greater shalom, is actively involved in that process.

Paul wrote to Timothy, his young pastoral protege, and said these words:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. -2 Tim 3:16-17

This phrase “God-Breathed” (or in other translations, inspired) elicits the very first words written about God in the Creation account. That God “breathed” and creation came-to-be. This action of God’s Breath, God’s Spirit, evokes ideas of creativity and life-giving vitality.

So to say that Scripture is inspired by God is to acknowledge that God’s Spirit was at work in the creation of telling and writing these stories and letters and poems.

As part of our Christian-Family-Tree we have ancestors who taught something called the Dictation Theory, as a way to try and understand what it means for Scripture to be Inspired by God. Essentially they suggested that God actually WROTE the Bible through humans. Meaning, God supernaturally dictated the words and the authors were just the tools/robots to physically write it down.

But that’s not the sense I get from the Scriptures themselves, nor when I observe the world around me and see and taste and experience how God seems to work in conjunction with our human capacity to create and choose.

However, the downside to seeing the Bible as something inspired by God is that it has armed people with a sense of Divine Backing when they do some really horrible things.

You can virtually find a verse to support almost anything in life. And if you’re insistent enough, you can justify any action as being sanctioned by God “because it’s in the Bible!”

So we’ve experienced in history things like slavery being justified and supported by the Bible, and so by extension, God.

We’ve witnessed things like the Inquisition.

We’ve seen the subjugation of women and the oppression of gays and lesbians as being the “Will of God” because this verse or that verse seem to suggest that’s how God designed it.

And the list goes on… I’m not sure you need me to explain. I think you know what I’m talking about.

So the fear for some people, when considering buying in to the idea that the Bible is inspired by God, is totally justified because they have seen first hand how people have used the Bible to do some really awful things.

PRO: The Bible was written by Humans
CON: It’s culture and context isn’t always understood or appreciated

Though the Bible was Inspired by God, it was written and compiled in partnership with humans. So when you read the Bible you become aware of the many different types of voices and styles of the different authors. I think that’s a beautiful thing.

I’m constantly struck by how people have, throughout history, been so intentional about keeping a record of the ways in which they have experienced God.

I mean, think about it.
The Bible represents one of the oldest ancient documents that we still have.
Not only that, but when you consider the amount of manuscripts that we have of the New Testament, for example, it is actually far and away the most well preserved ancient text.

We have more copies, that are closest to the earliest copies, of the NT than we do for any other ancient document.

The Bible is, by and large, a really miraculous thing!
That it has been preserved this long, and kept in tact for this long.

It is truly unique.

So even though it was written by imperfect people, and passed on and preserved by imperfect groups of people, there still remains this unique quality about it that truly sets it apart from other books.

However, for whatever reason, growing up I was not always taught that the Bible was written by humans in a specific time and place to a specific audience for a specific purpose.
In other words, the bible is often believed to be a book of timeless truths, as though Paul was writing with us in mind here in the year 2014.

But that simply isn’t the case.

And so what can happen is that we read the Bible just assuming it is for us here and now (even if, on SOME level that might be true) but we don’t do the hard (but extremely necessary work) of understanding the culture and the context of when these letters were written and stories were told. And so we can get lost in thinking that some things are still applicable for us today when really they were specific to the culture of the time or the place it was written.

So for instance, when Paul says things like “slaves obey your masters,” he is not advocating for slavery. He is speaking to the culture and the context of the day. And if you keep reading, right after that he says, “Masters, you treat your slaves with respect and sincerity.” Paul was working within the context of the culture of his day, but he was simultaneously being an agent of the Kingdom of God and helping move humanity towards greater shalom.

Or how about Proverbs 31? Growing up it seemed that every church  a women’s ministry called “Proverbs 31.” And the thinking was always that a truly “biblical” woman is one that looks like the woman being described in Proverbs 31.

But when you understand the language, the culture, and the literary style of Prov 31 you actually discover that this is a poem that celebrates what Wisdom in Action looks like!

(Check out the work Rachel Held Evans has done on this. Gold.)

And it’s actually a poem that men were supposed to learn to recite to their wives as a way to celebrate their strength and wisdom.

It is not, as has often been misunderstood, a directive on how a woman “ought” be.

My point (which is a simple one) is that a full appreciation of the Bible necessitates an understanding and awareness that it was written by humans, as guided and inspired by God, within their specific cultures and contexts.

And so rather than cast verses aside that perhaps offend our modern sensibilities, I invite us to ask: what is the THING that they were getting after? And how might we get after that THING today?

Part 3: In the Hard Times, Where is God Located?

When life is hard it is only natural and normal to ask the question, “where is God, in all of this!?”

I’ve been exploring a couple thoughts on that exact question. In Part 1 I suggested that God is ahead of us, inviting us towards a better future, a better way of life. And, like the father in Luke 15, God stands poised to run towards us at the first inclination that we might be ready for repentance.

In Part 2 I suggested that when we are in the Valley of Hard Times that God ALSO is right there, IN the Valley with us. Present, holding us, carrying and sustaining us. Not just waiting on the outside for us to emerge, but in the trenches with us being our strength.

Finally, I’ll offer one more thought.

Part 3: In the Hard Times, Where is God Located?
Behind us. Having just shoved us off the cliff and in to the Valley of Hard Times.

What if God isn’t just at the top of the valley, cheering us on, waiting to welcome us home?!
And what if God isn’t just also down in the valley with us, carrying us and sustaining us and holding us…

What if God also stands on the OTHER edge of the valley, the once from whence we came, because it was God who directed us to the valley in the first place?

What if God is the one who actually PUSHED us over the edge?

What?!

Okay, I know that sounds a little crazy. And it probably is. I’m probably wrong about that. And that’s okay.

But I can’t help thinking about it anyways.

Two reasons why.

  1. My own life experiences have given me reason to think that this might be the case.
  2. In Matthew the Gospeler’s opinion that’s exactly what God did to Jesus.

In chapter 4 of Mathew, as he’s about to tell the story of Jesus being in the wilderness for 40 days, Matthew writes this:

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” -Matt 4:1

Did you catch that?

Jesus was led BY the Spirit of God in to the wilderness.
Yes, sure, eventually he encounters the Satan while he’s out there. But it was the Spirit who sent him there.

Now, to be fair, perhaps God didn’t PUSH Jesus over the edge and in to the Valley. I imagine this leading was more of a gentle prompting. But the point still remains. It was God who initiated Jesus’ entrance in to the wilderness and ultimately in to a time of great temptation.

Have you ever done something that you just felt, in your bones, in your very spirit, was something that God was leading you to do? You just had this sense that this was where God was leading you.

Take this job.
Begin a relationship with this person.
Initiate this conversation.
Go here.
No, no, no… I mean there.

Are you with me?
You been there before?

And then, think back, and examine if any of those situations, those scenarios, those relationships, those life choices eventually went to crap. Just a total backfire. And you found yourself thinking, “wow, did I just TOTALLY misunderstand God on that one? How hard did I swing and miss on that?!”

I’ve been there.
I’m betting you have, too.

But I think that sometimes, even though we end up questioning ourselves and doubting that we really were walking in the direction God was leading us, that sometimes (in our more clear-headed moments) we end up concluding that indeed we had done as we felt led by God.

We entered the wilderness at God’s prompting. Not fully realizing (of course) that it would, in fact, turn out to BE a wilderness. Filled with pain and sadness and rejection and hunger and thirst and temptation.

But we still say it was God’s leading.

And don’t we generally come out of those times stronger than before?
I mean, isn’t every wilderness, every Valley of Hard Times, something that ultimately shapes us and grows us to become a better US?
I don’t know… maybe not every time. That’s likely not true.

But most times. I wager.

Julian of Norwich is one of the most important Christian mystics in church history. She was an anchoress in Norwich, England in the 14th century. An anchorite was essentially a spiritual hermit who would live in a cell, carved in the side of a church, choosing to live a life of prayer and meditation.

Julian said this:

“First, there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”

Yes.

Just, yes.

I love placing the very FALL itself within the mercy and the grace of God.

After all, we grow most after we fall, right?
We discover more about ourselves after we fall.

If we are to grow, mature, then losing, falling and failing is a requirement. It is a necessary, and even GOOD part of the human journey.

I have always tried really hard NOT to fail.
I won’t start a new effort unless I know I’ll be really good at it.
This is why I put off learning to play guitar for like 3 years. Because I knew I would be awful at it in the beginning. (Brilliant, right?)

But there is grace IN the fall itself. Not just in the getting back up again.

So I guess that’s why I feel that sometimes, when we ask the question: where is God during this incredibly hard season of my life, I just wonder if one possible answer is: at the beginning of it all, prompting you to journey out in to the desert, in to the wilderness, so that you can find a type of transformation that can ONLY happen in the wilderness.

But (to go back to Part 2) God doesn’t just send you packing with a couple loafs of bread and a canteen… No, God is beautifully present IN the wilderness with you. Every step of the way.
IN the darkness.
IN the thick of the trial and pain.
Holding you… sustaining and carrying you…

And (to back to Part 1) God is also ahead of you.
Waiting with open arms… ready to RUN to you, scoop you up, and carry you home. Throwing a party to celebrate the courage it takes to finally repent, to turn around, to decide to live a new way.

Praise be to God, the One who leads, sustains, and invites.

Amen.

Part 2: In the Hard Times, Where is God Located?

Part 2: In the Hard Times, Where is God Located?
Alongside us. Sustaining and strengthening us. Unmoved by the chaos.

Yesterday we explored one potential response to the question of where is God when life is hard. And we borrowed from the story of the Prodigal Son in suggesting that God is out in front of us with two postures.

1: God calls us forward. Inviting us out of our patterns of unhealth and misery. Beckoning us to a more abundant life.
2: God anxiously anticipates the moment our hearts begin to turn away from the path of destruction and towards the path of life. And in that moment God runs out to grab us, envelope us in love, and lead us back home.

Today I want to explore another idea related to the location of God during the hard times of life.

I don’t think God ONLY stands at the edge of the valley you’ve fallen in to, cheering at you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start climbing up.

Though certainly I think that’s true.

And I don’t think God ONLY waits there patiently, with great excitement at the prospect of you finally getting out. God is not just a cheerleader inspiring us to get back up again, and then there to celebrate with us when we’ve succeeded.

Though I think that’s true.

No, my hunch is that God is actually down IN the valley with us.
Present in a way so that once you’ve reached the lowest of lows and cannot even FATHOM starting to get out of the mess you’ve made, it is in THAT moment that God scoops you up. When you’ve run out of all your energies, exhausted from trying so hard, is when the Grace of God can truly and finally take over.

You know, that whole “God is strongest when I am weakest” sort of thing.

Paul, when dealing with hardships in his life, takes this posture:

10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. -2 Cor 12:10

Paul takes a certain delight in the hard times because he knows that is, perhaps, when he is most aware of the presence of God.

And we all know this to be true, don’t we?

When life is going well and we’re in a rhythm of sorts, and there’s really nothing to complain about, then it’s pretty easy to… I dunno… sort of forget about God? To just sort of be like, I got this. Life is good. I’m good. All good.

(I’m not alone in this, am I?)

But when the sh*t hits the fan and everything starts falling apart, well it is then that we start to search for God. To grope around in the darkness, hoping for something secure to grab on to.

And IN that searching, IN that desperation, is precisely God.

If you grew up in conservative Christianity like I did then perhaps you struggle with some of the same religious baggage that I do. And one particularly heavy suitcase is the one that suggests that God can’t stand evil. Can’t stand sin. That God is Light, therefore there is not God-ness in the Dark-ness.

Are you with me?

And so what happens, or what can happen, is that we begin to believe that when we are in the depths of disaster (perhaps brought on by our own propensity to screw things up) we tell ourselves that we have to escsape the darkness in order to find the Light.

That surely God can’t be here, because there is too much “bad” here.

Here’s what I have to say to that: name for me, if you will, the primary tangible spot, the very location, of what amounts to the most horrible and tragic moment of evil and darkness?

The cross on the hill of Golgatha.

Isn’t it?

I mean, that’s how the biblical writers saw it.
That on that cross was the weight of the whole human race’s sin.
The cross: where the full power of sin and shame and evil and death all piled up and were hurled at the Son of Man.

Perhaps the singular most dark moment in history.
And there, right alongside it, right IN it, was the Light.

Jesus stood in the very place of human tragedy and sorrow and pain and suffering and evil.

The cross itself points to the reality that God is present precisely in the moments where you would least expect God to be.

21 the Anointed One, who had never experienced sin, became sin for us so that in Him we might embody the very righteousness of God. -2 Cor 5:21

On the cross was exposed the weight of humanity’s shame and guilt.
The point at which the powers of sin and death were exposed.
Sin was on full display.

And there was Jesus.

(Who, rather ironically, felt abandoned by God. Do you blame him? Don’t you feel abandoned by God at times?  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Clearly God had not forsaken Jesus, for God does not. But even Jesus himself felt the agonizing loneliness that accompanies great sorrow and suffering. But that’s another thought for another day.)

I ask you to pause and go read this post, written by Richard Beck. Specifically because of the section taken out of Elie Weisel’s holocaust memoir, Night.

I’ll wait…

You back?

Wasn’t that a harrowing tale?
And yet also a powerful, powerful image.

So that’s why I think that God does not merely sit atop the valley, waiting for us to emerge. I see (and have experienced in my own life) a presence and reality of God RIGHT IN THE THICK OF IT.

Right there in the valley. In the darkest places.

Where is God when life is hardest?

Exactly there.