Beyond a foundation

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I wrote last week about Freedom. It was real good, you should read it.

Every generation inherits the religious practices of the previous generation. Most of the time, they try to change them. They are frustrated by a system, and so they throw out what they can and start over (well, or at least they change something). This is time and energy consuming, and often to the frustration of the previous generation.

I don’t think this is wrong – but it is horribly consuming. I can’t tell you how many hours I have spent with people while they try to deconstruct organized religion, find their own way, only to revert back to the old way with a new twist.

Perhaps in some deep psychological way this is actually rebellion against mom and dad, and not against the religion, but either way I think: can’t there be another way?

You can think of something that your parents did that you now consider old hat. Your kids, if they don’t already, will continue to build a cathedral west.

Here is what I think happens. The form, the way we do church, starts to replace the function, why we are there. Generations come to church and start to become critical of imperfect forms. The older generation gets defensive, and frankly they are quite proud of their new form because it’s quite a bit better than the older form.

And round and round it goes.

Rather than tearing up the old foundation every 30 years, maybe we can spend our energy better. Maybe we’ll be the group that doesn’t spend our time tearing up the old to put down what will be old in 30 years. Maybe instead we’ll focus on Jesus. Our kids will be neither enamored or imbittered to a form because it will have never been our focus.

I’m not recommending that we get rid of structure. I just think it will take a radical commitment to say all the time, in every way possible, “it’s not about the way we’re doing it (that will always change) it’s about why we’re doing it, and who we’re doing it for.”

Freedom (yeah, right)

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Some friends and I were talking about worship this week. Some of them are in a season where they don’t want to go to church. They experience God more closely in nature than by going through the motions every Sunday. Most of us know that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a refrigerator makes you a stick of butter. My friends were supportive of one another and cheered them on for taking a hike instead of going to church. But the conversation, which started as leaning away from legalism, soon begins to lean towards “anything goes.”

The anything goes mindset goes like this: Whatever you feel like you should do, that’s what you should do, because God made you that way. Like you, I can quickly come up with a list that starts with “yeah, but…” Yeah, but, what if I want to kill someone? Yeah, but, what I don’t feel like being generous? Yeah, but, what it feels good to gossip?

The intention is to offer freedom. But does it actually work? Eventually, we will find out that “anything goes” is actually all about me. Shouldn’t worship be all about God?

Maybe we need to step away from the legalism we’ve inherited from generations of Christians who handed off religion rather than Jesus (religion, after all, is easier). The great irony is that we might walk away from one form of legalism into another.

Legalism isn’t just creating and following old rules, it’s defining religion so that you can control it. You can be legalistic (in control) by claiming that you experience God in the woods because, just like in religion, it is something you can control.

Maybe real freedom comes through doing something where we’re not in control: obeying. I suspect that worshipping God means putting him first. It’s about submission. Now I’m all for re-examining what Jesus actually wanted us to do. I’m just wondering, maybe we can find freedom, not by looking inward, but by doing what God says.

Cathedral

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In the spring of 2005 I lived in England. I went to Oxford University because I’m wicked smart and then moved back to California because I was wicked cold. When you’re from the Colonies and you visit Brit’an you want to visit old castles and cathedrals because the oldest thing you have in your town is that burger place with a “D” rating from the health inspector.

So, a bunch of us went on a tour of this cathedral in such-and-such old city. The ceilings were high, the room was damp, the benches were uncomfortable. All-in-all, very different from the auditorium I sit in every Sunday. Our tour guide told us about how they built these things without power tools, and it’s incredible. They would start at one end, let’s say the east end. They would build the whole east side, and then over the next several hundred years (seriously, like 400 years) they would build west. I promise I’m going somewhere with this story.

In this particular cathedral they had a real-real-old organ on the east side, and then a pretty-darn-old organ on the west side. The art on the east side was renaissance-ish, then the art in the middle was classic, then the art on the west was romantic. You could literally see the progression of art, music, and architectural history from within the building. 400 years after breaking ground they put up a wall on the west.

But what if they didn’t? What if they just kept building? After the second organ you might find a piano, then a choir, then a couple guitars, then a drum set. You’d move from wood floors to shag carpet to linoleum, to stadium seating. You’d always be reminded that whatever is in today will be further east in a few years. Nobody would ever look at the guitars and skinny jeans and think, “now we’ve arrived,” because they see that overhead projector next to the Keith Green album and know once upon a time that was cooler than shaved ice.

Church is certainly more than the building it meets in, but I wonder if you spent a dozen generations building something if you’d think twice before your church broke up. There might be some folks who miss the linoleum, but from a young age they knew church isn’t about linoleum – it’s about organs, shag carpet, stained glass, and the plasma TV all being in the same room. Maybe if you were so invested in a building you wouldn’t be so tied to it.

Spiritually Ignoring Good Ideas

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I’m reading a fabulous book called “The Power of Habit.” It’s interesting, powerful, insightful, helpful and I suspect it will be largely ignored by the people who could do the most with it: Christ followers.

This book has insights about community, disciplines, free will, and even forgiveness.

You should read “The Power of Habit.” It helps us understand ourselves and others. As I often do when I read great books I think about how powerful it could be if the local church would leverage these insights.

Of course, there are plenty of Christians who will read this (among other great) books. But we will subconsciously assume it is separate from our faith and from the Great Commission. We will read The Screwtape Letters for our ‘devotion’ and The Tipping Point for pleasure, when the latter might actually contain more practical and helpful insight into our calling than the former.

Maybe we’ve never connected the dots. Maybe Sunday comes too quickly and our pastors can’t handle new information. Maybe we disregard Stephen Covey and Jim Collins because they don’t quote Jesus. Maybe we think our current models are working or if we could just get people to read Mere Christianity things would change.

I think God is at work. I think there are tools to help people be free. An author doesn’t have to cite the Bible for their thoughts to be Biblical. Solomon says: get wisdom, and whatever else you can get, get insight. If the next great secret to healing, growth, and redemption isn’t in the Christian book section – are you willing to go find it?

Stop sharing your faith (for now)

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A few weeks ago I gave a charge to the college guys in my Bible study: stop sharing your faith. Take two weeks and don’t talk about Jesus, don’t offer Biblical insight, don’t answer the question, don’t tell your story. Instead – just listen. Listen to what questions your friends are asking, listen to their stories. Don’t think about your response, just absorb what they are telling you.

I teach this class about college student spiritual development. Parker Palmer says that we really learn about our calling when we’re willing to dive in to the dark and deep places within us. I just didn’t think it was practical to talk about the spiritual journey’s of students-out-there if we weren’t in tune with the stories of the students-in-here. So we (in the class) broke into small groups and shared our spiritual autobiographies.

For two hours I listened to the broken, winding, and beautiful stories of skeptics, Jews, agnostics, believers, and I-don’t-knows. People said things out loud for the first time. They talked about pain, family, and what’s next. In a way I can’t explain, I saw God more clearly in their stories than in the half-focused broken-record testimony of Christians at churches new member classes. It was probably the best two hour class I had ever been in, and more enlightening than any sermon I’ve ever heard on evangelism. There are a hundred things I learned. But what I took away most was a feeling that I wish every Christian I know could have heard what I heard.

Of course, they can’t. One of the reasons it worked is that our class has built up trust. We intentionally created space to be able to listen. Most Christians will never get to hear those stories. We are too busy trying to talk. We don’t know how to create safe space. Maybe we aren’t interested. We’re so eager to share Jesus what we don’t honor or listen to the people he died for.

I was wrestling through how to share my own story and so I asked my friend Nick to help me. As the instructor, I know my voice carries more weight. I was so fearful of someone putting up a wall because of what I would say. Would it be too polished or preachy? Would it be authentic? Though I obviously wanted to be able to share, I didn’t want to trick them into having to hear the gospel. Nick said, “what’s your motive?” I knew immediately – I just wanted to be real.

This is a mystery. Opening the door to others sharing started with me listening. On the other side of that door, they asked me to share my story, that is, the story of how God came close to me.

And so, dear reader, I challenge you to give no answers, share no truth, tell no stories, read no verses, and do no preaching. For now. If you just listen, you’ll soon find people are begging you to talk again.

Survey

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Imagine you were able to peer into the minds of non-Christians and see what they know about Jesus. You might be able to uncover something that could be corrected, a misunderstanding, or simple clarification. It might influence how Christians talk about Jesus, or how our language confuses people. On an individual basis, it would be helpful as we try to tell the story of Jesus.

This is exactly the opportunity I had this week. I teach a class on spirituality. It is not a required class, and the roster is incredibly diverse. Buddhists, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and a few Christians circle the room. This week I gave them a 20 question short-answer religious literacy quiz designed to teach the class a basic understanding of what college students believe and reveal our ignorance about major world religions. Most people get about 4-5 of the questions right. Every single person knew the answer to this question:

Why, according to Christians, did Jesus die?

Paul writes in Romans 10 that everyone who calls on Jesus name will be saved – but how can people call on his name if they haven’t heard about him? And how will people hear if nobody is preaching? The natural application is – preach! We need to preach more!

But what if the people you are preaching to already know what you are preaching?

This must be exactly what Paul had experienced, for in the next few verses he describes this same phenomenon – “of course they have heard!” Over the next chapter Paul clarifies that we ought to approach this with humility, not being arrogant of what faith we have. Instead we look to the celebration when those far from God accept him.

Paul circles back around to, “so what should we do?” Should we preach? Should we stop people and tell them that God died for them? Should we take every opportunity to share “salt” and “seed?”

His answer begins with “Therefore…” in which he explains a few applications of what it means to offer not just your words (i.e. truth), but your whole life. It’s one of my favorite chapters, it was in our wedding vows, and I know I need to re-read it about once a week. If people have already heard the words, they need to see it in real life.

If you survey your friends, I bet they know why Jesus died. But they might not have seen one of his followers live.

J Curve

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If you look up the term “J Curve” you’ll find a plethora of writing on stocks, nations, social science, employee performance, and perhaps even wine. The theory of the J curve is that while things often get better over time, at first they get worse.

The J Curve

The J Curve

Let’s say someone wants to re-learn how to type. They’ve been an index-finger typer their whole life. If they take a typing class and learn about the home row and watching the screen instead of their fingers, they’ll get better at typing – but first they’ll get worse. At first they will actually be slower than they were in their finger-picking days. If you want to make more money you might decide to go back to school. Getting a degree will likely make you more money, but at first (while you’re in school) you’ll be poor. Simple right?

See if this sounds familiar. Roddy, a broken non-believer hears a message about the new life that Jesus offers. He is told that a life with God brings healing, forgiveness, and restoration. Roddy – God can actually make your life better! He puts his faith in Jesus, only to find that his marrige is still broken, habits unchanged, and morality not much improved. Roddy might (wisely) put himself  in a small group or Bible study. At first, the group rejoices at Roddy’s decision to follow Jesus. Then, they become a bit burdened with the messyness of his life. Roddy is frustrated because God hasn’t “come through” yet on his promises to give him a new life. The group is wanting to go deep, and a bit perplexed themselves that Roddy’s life is still messy.

It’s my suspicion that every person who comes to Jesus finds that their life looks messier at first. Sin is revealed, ugliness they had kept hidden rises up, and re-organizing their life around kingdom principles doesn’t happen in a day. If we’re not careful, they might think Christianity is about sin management. As the line creeps down they get discouraged and (gasp!) might try to fake it that things are getting better.

This is the worst. It limits growth, it doesn’t allow for grace, and it’s probably happening because they’re sitting in a circle of fellow-fakers (no offense).

The good news is that the curve can go in the other direction! All of those things they were promised are true! But the surest way to ensure things don’t get better is to pretend that they already are. The economy is recovering! Our marriage is fine! Congo’s government is stable!

The best antidote to Roddy faking it is to make sure you aren’t faking it. If you’re sitting in a circle with a Roddy (awesome) make sure you’re all committed to embracing grace together. Say “me too” a lot. And then, uh-oh, maybe we figure out we’re not as far as long as we thought we were.