Friday, April 30, 2010

The Danger of Following One’s Heart

Yesterday, instead of going to JazzFest as I had planned, I ended up home sick on the couch passing the time with a combination of naps and daytime TV.  About 4 in the afternoon I came across Oprah’s interview with Rielle Hunter, the mistress of presidential candidate John Edwards.  At one point in the interview Oprah asked Hunter if she thought that she had hurt Elizabeth Edwards by having this affair with her husband.  The answer that she gave (which I will mostly paraphrase since I cannot locate the transcripts yet) seemed to beat around the bush a bit but finally landed on “I was following my heart.”  Oprah then probed a bit further by saying something to the extent of “but what if following your heart was hurting someone else?”  The next couple of minutes of the interview were an exercise in trying to find right and wrong in the murky waters of moral relativism.

This is where things got interesting because Rielle Hunter, in defending her actions, was no doubt using the very philosophical arguments that are so commonly propagated by folks like Oprah.  Oprah was very much caught in a predicament at this point in the interview because as far as moral relativism goes Hunter was just doing what was true to her and what was in her heart.  This was a rather awkward moment in the interview because Winfrey just didn’t have much else she could say though it was obvious that she believed that what Hunter did was wrong (at least on some level). 

I am a big proponent of living from the heart.  In my opinion folks like John Eldredge have been a huge blessing to the church as he has called folks to live from their hearts with books like Wild at Heart and Waking the Dead.  This has been much needed because so many in our world simply live on auto-pilot with no sense of passion or desire in the way they live their everyday lives.  However, following one’s heart, in and of itself, is not the answer.  Living from one’s heart only works in the context of being submitted to God. 

In my message last weekend at Northshore Vineyard entitled Ruined I shared how as a teenager I followed my heart.  I wanted to be a musician and everything in my life conformed to that dream from how I spent my time and money to even the kind of car I drove.  I put everything I had into that form of following my heart but it was selfish and self-absorbed at the core and ended up leading me to a place of depression, loneliness and despair.  It was only when I surrendered to God that I could truly live from my heart in a way that was redemptive, in a way that freed me to live as God had intended. 

What do you think?
  • Have you ever experienced following your heart in a way that was simply making up your own truth as you went along?  If so, how did that work for you?
  • Where should living from the heart fit into the life of a Christ-follower?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why Aren't American Christians More Generous?

A friend of mine recently recommended a book called Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money.  While this book isn’t a real fun read (it reads much more like sociology than your typical book on church) I am finding that it offers a lot of interesting insights on Christian financial giving.  Passing the Plate is crammed with detailed statistics on giving that account for religious denominational affiliation and economic status going back to the 1920’s.  The conclusions reached by the authors are that American Christians are not as generous as one might expect.  The statistics give a picture that around 25% of Christians give nothing at all to churches and the overwhelming majority of Christians only give in the range of 2.5 to 4 percent of their income to church or charities annually. 

Self-identified Christians in America represent a huge chunk of income--somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 Trillion dollars annually.  With this in mind, the authors of this book make the case that if Christians across the board would give just a little bit more of their income it would have some amazing consequences not simply for churches in America but for helping end hunger, bringing fresh water to villages that have no access to fresh water, Bible scholarship and translation, community outreach programs and certainly new missions initiatives to reach the unreached all over the world (just to name a few of the beneficiaries). 

Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson, the authors of this book look into nine different hypotheses as to why there is such a gap between disposable income and giving by American Christians.  While I won’t go into their hypotheses or their conclusions at the moment, I would like to get your thoughts on why Christians don’t give more. 

So here are a few questions to wrestle with today:
  1. What have been your biggest barriers to giving as a Christian – debt, living from paycheck to paycheck, distrust of churches and charitable organizations, or some other reason?
  2. Why do you think that American Christians don’t give more of their money away?
  3. How can pastors and those who work for non-profit charities address these realities in a way that is not manipulative or whiney, but redemptive?
  4. Finally, how does theology (beliefs about God) play into the way Christians spend their money?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How Do You Define Church?

What is Church?  The question no doubt brings up images in our minds either from the culture or our own experiences.  Church may mean something very formal and solemn for some, or it may fit more with the idea of the local megachurch where there are lots of programs for the entire family, the music is more contemporary and the atmosphere laid back.  Still for others church may be simple gatherings in homes.  Along with the ways that folks gather for church there are no doubt strong emotions that are evoked by the very word as it relates to those who call themselves Christians.  So here I am, pastoring one of these entities called a church and I come to it with my own mixed bag of experiences both good and bad. 

A couple of weekends ago I was giving the weekend message at Northshore Vineyard on the church and the definition I landed on after wrestling with the question a bit was that the Church is the community gathered around the person and purposes of Jesus.  I drew this definition from the story in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter responded to this question by saying, “You are the Messiah (the Christ) the son of the living God.” 
Jesus then commended Peter saying that he was blessed because he didn’t think that stuff up himself rather it was revealed to him by God.  Then Jesus went on to tell Peter that he is a rock and on this rock Jesus is going to build his church and the gates of Hades won’t overcome it. 

While there are differing views of what Jesus meant by upon this rock I will build my church (the Catholic Church has tended to take the view that Jesus meant Peter himself), I tend to think Jesus was referring to the revelation that Peter had just had-that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God.  In this light, the community that Jesus is gathering is built on and around that revelation.  So if this definition is close to being right about church, then church is much bigger (and perhaps much smaller) than what many have come to associate with the word.  What I am wrestling with today is what it looks like to be a community gathered around Jesus and his purposes?    

I read something in N.T. Wright’s latest book After You Believe that may be relevant on this point,
 “What Jesus did and said was designed to give a decisive answer, in deeds as well as words, to the question, What would it look like if God was running things?"  
I love that quote and I love thinking about what it would look like as a community to live this idea.  Just some things I’m thinking about today.

So… What comes to mind when you think of church?

Does the definition I put forth about church ring true with you?

Have you experienced church as a community of people gathered around the person and purposes of Jesus before?  What was that like?  

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Oh, Did I Mention… Love?

In the last post I talked about how the fundamentals of a relationship provide sort of an infrastructure and fuel for spontaneity and how if the fundamentals are not respected in everyday life that any spontaneity in a relationship will be hollow.  I do want to add one more thing – LOVE. 

I want to use the music analogy a bit more to illustrate something...  
I love music.  I love playing music.  I love writing songs.  I love doing gigs with others.  I love listening to music whether it’s a street musician, a club, a festival or even on my Ipod. When I was a teenager I just knew that all I wanted to do in life was play music.  This love of music affected the way that I lived my life.  It meant that while other folks were playing sports I was playing music (which is why you don’t even want to see me try and play basketball of football).  This meant that I wasn’t too concerned with getting a sportscar because that was not practical for caring music equipment and instruments.  My car purchases over the years have not been sexy ones but they have always been able to carry equipment. 

I say all this to make the point that discipline without love is simply destined for monotony.  Discipline needs to flow out of love and in turn love will flow out of discipline.  But it’s got to be in that order. 

There is a passage in the last book of the Bible where Jesus encourages the church to remember her first love.  Great words for the church and great words for marriage.  Take a few minutes and remember your love for your spouse.  Remind yourself why you are his/her biggest fan.  Don’t let the routines of life distract you from that.  And let that be the compelling vision for practicing the fundamentals.  

Monday, April 19, 2010

Can Spontaneity and Commitment Really Coexist?

One of the most frustrating things as a musician is to be playing improvisational music with others and to hear a line in my head that I just can’t get my fingers to play on the piano or guitar.  I know in my mind what needs to be played.  I know where the notes are.  I can hear the line.  But I just can’t get my fingers to move that way in the moment because I haven’t paid the price in my everyday life.  In other words my capacity to be spontaneous in the moment (improvising musically) is very tied to the rhythms and routines I follow in my daily life (which may or may not include getting better at playing an instrument).

Last week I brought up the question raised in the new movie Date Night – Does being married doom you to a life or boredom and routine or can a committed relationship still maintain vibrancy and spontaneity as a couple grows old together?  My experience with playing music seems to be a helpful analogy for the relationship between routine and improvisation, between monotony and spontaneity.

As a musician, some of the most exhilarating moments I’ve had with other musicians have been times of improvisation where a new song arises, seemingly out of nowhere.  In these moments there is something of a collective inspiration and working together that produces a sum that is much greater than the individual parts.  I was in a band for several years called Mary’s Den and this was our preferred way of song writing—a very exciting approach to songwriting and music performance.  In our six years together, most of our songs came out of such an approach to music, birthed out of improv and spontaneity.  I have since read that this is also the way the band U2 approaches their songwriting as well (When U2 goes into the studio they will just start creating a mood with the music until all the elements musical and lyrical finally congeal).  While this is no doubt an amazing way to play music and write songs it is not quite as spontaneous as it may appear in the moment.  While the creation of the song does have much to do with the inspiration of the moment it is also, more importantly, the result of many years of playing music, writing songs, being a fan of music, not to mention fairly mundane aspects as buying equipment and finding rehearsal space.   In other words the song arises out of a journey, a lifestyle, and not in a vacuum.

I think this is very true of relationships as well.  Married couples do need to have times that are unstructured and spontaneous, times when the routine is broken, when caution is thrown to the wind but this can only come as the fundamentals of the relationship (love, respect, communication, care etc.) are respected and nurtured.  Too often when a relationship gets in trouble, a weekend away is scheduled as an attempt to salvage things.  This type of spontaneity doesn’t usually work because it comes after the fundamentals have not been respected for quite a long time and thus the very stuff that would rekindle passion and love is not there in the right amounts.  In these situations the spontaneity is hollow and betrays reality.  But if spontaneity arises from a lifestyle of care, respect, of working through conflict, of learning how to communicate, then it brings the relationship to a new level in the same way that a band that has paid the price in the not so glamorous aspects of music can create beautiful new songs in the moment.

I’ve heard various relationship experts talk about how making love doesn’t start with foreplay but with doing the dishes and taking out the trash and I believe there is some truth to this.  The problem is that this kind of everyday stuff doesn’t seem very sexy.  Yet it is the very rhythms and routines of everyday life that have the potential to unleash spontaneity and passion in the moment if we will approach them in a different way. 

So the question to wrestle with today is how might you and I structure our everyday lives to value the things that are most important?  How might we build a better relational infrastructure that would give rise to beautiful improvisational music in our relationships?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Romance, Boredom, and Committed Love - Reflections on Date Night

Dina and I got to go on a much needed and much enjoyed date on Monday.  As with most dates in recent years it was a day-date because the kids were in school and Monday is currently my day off.  The date was also our chance to celebrate Dina’s birthday with just the two of us.  So after a nice breakfast down by the lakefront followed by a trip to the cell phone store to get Dina a new cell phone we went and caught a movie (another thing we rarely do at night because they’re getting so dang expensive).  We watched the new flick Date Night with Tina Fey and Steve Carell.  We are both big fans of Fey and Carell and were not disappointed with their paring in this film because they actually worked quite well together on screen. 

While Date Night has some pretty over the top action and antics the underlying theme is something that most married couples can really relate to.  The characters played by Fey and Carell—Phil and Claire Foster are a married couple who’s close friends have said that they are going to get a divorce because things had become too routine as if they were just good room mates.  This news comes as quite a surprise to Phil and Claire as they had thought that things were just fine in their friend’s marriage, but the news plants a seed in each of their minds that perhaps their marriage may be headed for the same destination of divorce.  So in the interest of making their marriage a bit more exciting Phil decides to take Claire out to dinner at a hip and trendy restaurant in New York City called Claw.  When they can’t get a table they end up taking the reservation of someone who was being pursued by the mob thus inadvertently get a bad case of mistaken identity (the kind of mistaken identity that is likely to get you killed by the mob).  So what starts as a simple effort to add a little spice to the marriage turns into much more than that as the evening unfolds with mobsters, car chases, crooked cops and a frequently shirtless Mark Wahlberg (actually I don't think he ever has a shirt on in the movie). 

Though Date Night is a funny and at times over-the-top romantic comedy it succeeds in part because it gets to a core question that everyone asks from time to time--Isn't committed love destined to become boring and routine?

Most folks realize that the guy that is perpetually stuck in adolescence chasing after his next sexual conquest is missing a great deal of what love and life have to offer in a committed relationship.  On the other hand those who make the case that committed long-term relationships are doomed to be boring and routine certainly have more than enough cases of married couples living as “good room-mates” to back up their argument.  So is it a matter of choosing one of these two options or is there perhaps a way of living in a loving committed relationship that maintains excitement and vibrancy?  This is the question I want to wrestle with this week.  I have some thoughts but I will keep them to myself until the next blog.

Friday, April 09, 2010

It's Allergy Season and I Could Sure Use Some Hookworms!

Yesterday I was driving to New Orleans getting my daily podcast fix in as I crossed the Causeway.  The podcast choice for yesterday was This American Life (one of my favorites).  This particular episode kind of blew me away with a story about a guy named Jasper Lawrence who willingly infected himself with hookworms to cure his asthma and allergies.  

Apparently developing countries don’t have near the problems with asthma and allergies that we do in the developed world and this is in part due to how clean we have made the world.  In the developing world there is a much higher hookworm infection rate which has proved to be the link in suppressing auto-immune diseases.  Jasper Lawrence was desperate for relief from his allergies and asthma when he came across the studies on hookworms.  After making multiple failed attempts to buy hookworms from laboratories he ended up visiting many villages in Camaroon (Africa) to walk barefoot in their latrines (hookworms enter through the feet).  After doing this about 40 times he went back home to the UK.  He achieved his goal of getting infected and subsequently cured his asthma and allergies.  Now he is a hookworm dealer

The question for today is… Would you willingly infect yourself with hookworms to cure your allergies, asthma, or other autoimmune disease (before you answer just take one more look at the picture of the worm that would attach to your small intestine to live of your blood)? 

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Running to Stand Still

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is Addiction and Grace by Gerald May.  Gerald May was a Psychiatrist who, in his work with addicts, realized that he had the very same tendencies towards addiction (though his were of the more socially accepted variety).  May’s premise, which I have come to agree with myself, is that every person is an addict.  Some are addicted to drugs, alcohol, pornography, or cigarettes while others may be addicted to habits and substances that are totally acceptable in our culture such as food, video games, shopping, people etc.  Whatever the object of addiction it is something that a person is compulsively drawn to.  May’s writings have been very helpful to me as I have come to terms with my own addictive nature.  This morning I was reading a bit from Addiction and Grace and I came across this highlighted quote:

A therapist friend recently told me he had observed that “addicted people can’t meditate.”…In know my own daily practice of prayer and meditation is not easy.  One reason is that this practice opens my awareness to things about myself that I would rather not be conscious of.  In many instances, these awarenesses have to do with my addictions: how attached I am to certain petty concerns and competitions, how worried I am about truly insignificant things, how important my selfish ego is to me.  So I find myself resisting settling down to pray, or I fill my meditation time with images or music or words—anything that will keep me from simply being present and awake before God.

These words really ring true with me.  I find sometimes that everything within me resists meditating, quietness and solitude.  When I plan to pray I feel a sudden urge to check my email, or make a phone call, or read a devotional, or turn on some worship music… anything but sit quietly with the Lord. 

One of my favorite U2 songs is Running to Stand Still.  The lyrics are about a heroin addict growing up in an impoverished area called the Seven Towers.  The imagery of the lyrics “She’s running to stand still” evokes an scene of someone running heroin into to the blood stream to get high, yet the bigger issue is not running the heroin but running from pain, trying to escape like Jenny in Forest Gump. 

The kingdom of God is completely opposite to the addictive inclination.  In God’s kingdom it is not a matter of running to stand still but of standing still to run.  We avoid this standing still with everything within us as if it is death itself, but this is precisely the place we desperately need to encounter God.  Carl Marx may have made the claim that religion is the opiate of the masses but true relationship with God doesn’t numb us or keep us distracted from pain, on the contrary following Jesus means confronting pain in the world around us and the pain within our own hearts.  This is not because God wants to see us hurt but because he wants to see us set free from the inside out.

Can you relate to these words of Gerald May?  Have you ever found that everything within you resists getting still before God?  

Friday, April 02, 2010

2 Million Reasons to Attend Church's Easter $ervice

What a week of interesting stories in the world of American Christianity!  Yesterday I wrote a blog on Holographic Preachers and then today I come across a story of a church called Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi, Texas  offering 2 million dollars in prizes to show up at its Easter services.  That's right 2 million in prizes such as cars, bikes and good old cash!  Everyone who shows up gets a chance to win.  Dang, if I didn't already have plans this weekend I would really like to get in on that new car drawing.  Well maybe next year.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

My Holograph Preaches Better Than Your Holograph

I am a big fan of technology.  As Kip sang in his wedding song on Napoleon Dynamite, “Yes I love technology but not as much as you, you see…” I love blogging, podcasting, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook and so on.  And as one who is just a few months into planting a church I am finding how the internet can do a whole lot to connect folks and get the message out for very little money.  For instance, our church has been going through a faith experiment (inspired by the folks at Not the Religious Type) through this season of Lent which is called 40 Days of Faith.  Because of technology, each day I am able to post a new reflective reading from scripture that a lot of people in the church follow along with on our website.  On top of that I am able to podcast the messages from our weekly services within hours of the service so folks who can’t make it can still stay connected with the content.  This has been very helpful for the folks of our small congregation not to mention a handful of others from around the country who are following along with us.  So yes I love technology. 

Many years ago media and communications guru Marshall McLuhan, made the insightful statement that “the message is the medium” (Shane Hipps explored this idea quite a bit in Flickering Pixels which I reviewed a couple of weeks back).  In other words the very medium that we use to communicate actually is a message in and of itself. 

For instance think of watching regular TV verses “On Demand” or programs you have recorded on DVR.  When we moved into our latest house in Abita Springs a couple of months ago we got cable hooked up and it came with an “On Demand” feature.  This feature means that you can watch a movie whenever you want without having to go the video store (I know we are probably showing up late for this feature but we think it is pretty cool).  But what is even cooler is that many of the channels like ABC, NBC, National Geographic and so on offer free programs “On Demand”.  What I find interesting is that there are shows I would watch if they just happened to be on while I was surfing through the channels yet when I have the option to watch them at my convenience I will pass on them.  What this shows me is that watching TV is mainly a passive thing.  We don’t want to have to make decisions or even commitments while watching TV which is in large part due to the format which encourages passivity.  This is why you can sometimes sit and surf through channels for hours on end without committing to any one program.  “On Demand” automatically engages your will a little bit more than regular TV and thus the medium is changed a bit in the process.  On Demand is a little (just a little) less passive than regular TV.  The internet and video games take participation several steps further.  But whatever the media used whether radio (where the content is chosen for you), or podcasts (where you choose what to listen to, or books (where your mind imagines the narrative) or movies (where your imagination doesn’t have to work), or social networks (where you interact albeit through text and pictures), or blogs etc. the medium is part of the message.  Technology is not nearly as neutral as we think it is because it communicates just as much as the message itself.

I read an article yesterday entitled Hologram Preachers Slated to Appear in Churches.  The title alone hooked me as I remembered the cool holograms from Sci-Fi movies such as Star Wars (“help me Obi Wan, you’re my only help!”)  I read the article which talked about how the next new thing in multi-site churches will be hologram preachers.  While I have thought of a lot of cool uses for holograms (video gaming, telecommunications, practical jokes on my kids) I never thought of preaching via hologram.  The article had a reel cringe factor for me and I am not exactly sure why.  I am certainly not down on technology but something about holographic preachers strikes me as not quite right (maybe I’m just becoming a grumpy old man who is stuck in my ways). 

I have been to a conference on Multi-site Churches and read a book and plenty of articles on the phenomenon (or revolution of multi-sites depending on who you read) and have even had many a spirited debate with friends on the strengths and weaknesses of multi-site campuses, so I am definitely familiar with the concept.  The typical multi-site approach is to show a video at the satellite campus from the main church service which allows a church to get into many communities and use smaller facilities instead of just trying to grow in one location.  In many video venues the video that is shown is shot from a front angle and is often projected on a screen that will make the speaker appear almost as a natural person (life size) in the room.  The philosophy behind this is to give the experience, or the vibe, of the main church service to those in attendance.  Some have even kicked it up a bit by using HD video feeds which are no doubt quite impressive (I have witnessed one in person and it was very cool).  So on this current trajectory wouldn't holograms be inevitable?  I just wonder though, if the medium truly is the message (or at least significantly effects the message), then what is the message that is shaping folks in attendance when there is a holographic preacher?  Is there any difference in hearing/watching a pastor/preacher in a room live, on a video screen or via hologram?  As far as the multi-site church debate goes I don't think anyone is even questioning the message of the medium.  The assumption at least is that technology is neutral and what we do with it determines its worth but perhaps we should ask how video screens, internet, and even holograms are a message in themselves and how that works with or fights against our call as kingdom people.  I would love to hear some ideas on this one.