February 24, 2014


Photo Credit: Len Bishop
Oil and water don't usually mix very well. It has something to do with their chemical makeup; one just doesn't blend with the other. And yet, if you go to any cookbook, you'll find them both as ingredients in many recipes. By themselves, they don't mix well, but add another ingredient (or more) and a little heat, and suddenly you're enjoying waffles or pancakes.

Now, I like pancakes. Every saturday when I was a kid, my dad would make blueberry buttermilk pancakes for breakfast. It became something of a family tradition, and though I don't usually have blueberries around anymore (Nutella is a nice substitute, in case you were wondering), I've started making pancakes for my kids on saturdays too.

We can learn a lot from oil and water. Churches I've been in have oft equated their two different worship cultures with oil and water; the traditional people and the modern or contemporary people never seem to mix well. Or it's generational; the old people and the young people scrupulously avoid one another because they're quite sure they'd never mix very well ("they're so disrespectful!" or "they just don't get me!"), and are quite sure, then, that they SHOULDN'T mix at all.

Now, it's true - oil and water are very different from one another. Both have unique chemical properties that allow them to do very different things. Water is a substance that makes our planet incredibly unique - it is one of the primary substances that allows earth to sustain life. It is the only substance I know of that expands when it freezes and shrinks when it warms. The unique electrochemical properties of water allow it to dissolve many things to create useful, even necessary solutions (like coffee). Oil, too, is unique; it enables many machines to run because it lubricates without evaporating (where water would not help). It enables cells to exist as unique bodies so they do not dissolve in their watery environments. Some of the most amazing paintings I've ever seen were created using oil-based paints.

So it's not a question of whether or not they are in and of themselves good, nor should that question ever arise in these discussions. Many traditional hymns have much to give, since its original purpose was to instruct theology in a way that people could remember easily. A lot of modern music too, has much to contribute, since its strength is how well it can help us emote. While this is a huge overgeneralization (modern music is often theological and traditional music is often emotive), it's a simple way of looking at this.

What we need to keep in mind is that these are not to be kept in isolation from one another. Sure, they may rub each other the wrong way, but what if we added a third ingredient into this mix and made some theological pancakes out of it? There are a lot of things we could say, although "just add Jesus" seems a bit trite, but I'm going to settle on one:


Photo Credit: Marc Garrido
When our worship cultures rally around a specific musical style or preacher or denomination, it's no wonder that we spend so much time bickering and infighting. That's consumer language, which makes US the subject of the gospel instead of the Triune God who invites us to be part of the story. Our music is many things, but what it is NOT is a product to consume. When we rally around the same mission, when we focus together on the vision of a world reborn, made new by the King of Kings, then all of a sudden it becomes a catalyst for something bigger, and BOTH are necessary for their strengths and for how they can speak to one another's weaknesses. It's the best argument for multicultural engagement I can think of: if we make the Kingdom our common focus, we will all be better.

And together we can enjoy a delicious pancake. Please pass the syrup.

February 22, 2014


There's this old saying: "you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family." And it's true; friends, we can choose for their strengths, the things we like about them, and we don't have to choose people we don't like or that annoy us. When someone stops behaving as a friend, they often cease to actually be our friend.

Family, not so much.

To accept our families, we must accept all of their flaws; that weird way mom cuts a pork roast before she cooks it, Dad's odd collection of hoozie-whatsits, Grandmother's penchant for putting zucchini in EVERYTHING, and of course, crazy uncle Bob, and all the unmentionable things he does. Our family is our family no matter what; nothing we do can make them not family. Even if they do not behave as family, even if they behave in a way we wish would make them strangers, they are still family and will continue to be so.

And the Church is our family.

This goes against basically everything we do these days. If we don't like somebody at our church, we avoid them. If we don't like the sermons or the music or a decision, we leave. If we don't like someone on staff, we change jobs or ask them to resign or gossip them out. If we move to a new town, we "church shop." If we feel embarrassed by another pastor or denomination we write "open letters" and share them all over Facebook.

We're so passive-aggressive. (insert self-aware facepalm here)

But Jesus' Church is much bigger than our little denominations or even our individual congregations. Many of us have gotten into the bad habit of church- or pastor- or congregant-bashing; the world we can love in spite of its flaws (they don't know Jesus, so we can excuse their behavior until they do), but our own family needs to shape up (because they know Jesus, they should know better!). And it's annoying, because let's face it, there are times I really don't like those nutters who follow John Piper, or those creepy snake handlers, or those Southern Baptist misogynists who won't ordain women, or those crazy Presbyterians who fancy themselves the "frozen chosen," or the ultra-liberals or the ultra-conservatives or the people in my own denomination who use too much liturgy or not enough or the people who only sing old hymns or the people who only use modern music or the people who





I mean, they're SO judgmental!

But they're still family.

Maybe the Mark Driscolls or the Steven Furticks or the Al Mohlers or the Rob Bells of this world irritate me. Maybe their theology has issues, or they seem too popular or too compromised or too condemnatory. But ours is a gospel that puts grace and mercy first, and just because they judge others doesn't mean that I have a right to judge them. Yes, I'm careful what ideologies of theirs I embrace (I must still be wise), but in the end, I don't know everything either and so I must be careful what and whom I condemn. 

There's this tradition where I come from called a "garbage plate." Basically, it's all kinds of different foods thrown together on the same plate; hot dogs, macaroni salad, couscous, ketchup, fries ... anything you want. It's when you ask "what's for dinner?" and the response is simply "yes." You'd think that this would be exceedingly nasty, but in fact, they can be quite delicious. While it's true that I can choose which part of the family I spend the most time with, but we have a really big, diverse, mental, messy, odd family of so many shapes and flavors that we're bound to have a few we don't like, we don't think are worth having around, or we'd rather would just not be flavors at all. But we can be better together if we choose to be. We need to be careful about our attitudes towards the crazy uncles and weird cousins and even the strange habits of brothers and sisters.

Because they're family, and even if we don't like them,

we can still love them.

February 19, 2014

Voice of the Revolution

There is no culture in the world that does not have music. Not a single one. If you want to know what's important to a culture, listen to the music the people hold most dear - the classics, the top 20, the ideas that cross between them. You'll know immediately, because music both shapes the people and is shaped by them - it is both formative and expressive. Not only do we find ourselves in art, but in it we also find something we'd like to become.

The stories told by musicians and painters and dancers and videographers and sculptors and poets and novelists and the myriad of other art forms available are the life of a culture. In and through our music, we express the longings we feel, the things that bring us pain and joy and everything in between. We pour ourselves into our art, whether we do it consciously or, most often, without even realizing it. And then it pours itself back into us; as we sing and bob with a tune stuck in our heads, as we admire an image, as our minds turn again to a character's predicament, the arts form us in ways no speech, no sermon, no textbook, nothing "objective" or "analytical" ever could. Creativity is as strongly tied to our emotional intelligence as it is to our knowledge and skills, which is why to learn something, you sing it, you draw it, or you tell a story about it. What makes you human becomes fully engaged when you engage art.  

So if you want to change a culture, you start with the arts.

This is clearly more easily said than done, but with an added catch: when you mess with someone's art, you're messing with his or her very soul. Like I said, art is one of the things that makes us human, it gives expression to the deepest emotions inside of us, and when we mess with that, we're putting ourselves at extreme risk.

But sometimes it's worth it.

According to Michael Frost, every revolution is driven by a song. For those things that are worth the risk, worth the suffering, worth the heartache, a song is penned. It is true that in the absence of risk, other art is created, but given something worthwhile, it is the artists who give voice to the revolution. It is their songs that drive us forward and remind us of why we started what we started, and it is those songs that drive us to finish or die trying.

We can sing our way to a new reality, a new way of acting, a new way of thinking, a new way of living. Worship in song, more than anything, drives the revolution. It reminds us who God has called us to become and then forms us into that People. 

"Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise His name; proclaim His salvation day after day. Declare His glory among the nations, His marvelous deeds among all peoples. For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth. Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.” The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity.
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness."

February 11, 2014


There is a reason that angels are constantly telling people in the Scriptures to not be afraid.

Angels are scary.

But that's actually not the reason. See, Angels never came to people to say "hey, it's all good, just dropping in to say hi and maybe have a manna-wich with you." No, Angels always dropped in to deliver an important message that somebody was going to find very inconvenient. Take Mary, for example. She's got everything going right for her; good, normal family, engaged to a good guy (which was more rare than it should have been), and then bang, the angel drops in on her and says that her life is about to get insanely hard.

Don't be afraid.

Remember Solomon? He's just been made king and has just realized how far he is in over his head, and so when God approaches him in a dream, he's ready to ask God for one thing: wisdom. He didn't ask for money or fame or long life, but rather, the heart and mind to govern fairly and justly. Out of a place of fear, God basically says "don't be afraid, I'll give you what you need."

But I'm discovering that this one of the most dangerous prayers you can pray.

Solomon wasn't just zapped by God and became suddenly wise. If you spend the time and read through 1 Kings, you see that Solomon doesn't always make the best choices. He makes a lot of really good judgements, but then makes a lot of not so great choices; he gets himself a ton of wives and concubines (which I'd say was probably not a great idea). He ends up worshipping other gods, idols, even sticks. Yet at the end of his life, he's known as one of the wisest people who ever walked the face of the earth, and says things like, riches and fame are meaningless and that the best thing you can do is submit yourself to God. Ecclesiastes and much of Proverbs are attributed to his wisdom.

I can't help but think that these are connected somehow, that the hard things Solomon went through had a lot to do with his wisdom. Thomas Edison too - it took him over 10,000 tries before he built a working lightbulb. But we don't like that - ours is a culture that wants to know the outcome now. We don't like to wait, to sit in the desert of anticipation. When things happen in our lives that cost us, when God comes to us with change or what feels like bad news, we want to know what comes next right away.

We want to feel safe.

Which is why God says, don't be afraid. It's not going to feel safe, but it's going to be good. I'm in this, and regardless of what the outcome looks like, follow me. It might be painful, it might be hard, but the desert of the Cross is not the end of the story, it is only a defining moment in the middle ...

The end of God's story is victory, a Kingdom come here on earth, darkness turned to light, recreation and redemption. What if the desert in the middle of our stories was about something bigger than comfort, but was about finding meaning? People who stay comfortable don't learn, they don't grow, they don't transform. In fact, people who stay comfortable actually atrophy, and they will never know wonder or joy or true satisfaction. Our difficulties and trials and challenges and even our suffering - the desert - can be the makings of a journey into wisdom.

So don't be afraid.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. [James 1:3-5]

February 6, 2014


I’m going to level with you: I’m kind of a science nerd. 

Shocking, I know. I grew up on “Reading Rainbow” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and “Ranger Rick” and pilfered copies of “Popular Science” (sorry Dad). I spent hours wandering in the woods behind my house looking at birds and animals and hunting crayfish in the creek. I dug a huge hole in my yard looking for arrowheads and dinosaur bones. I borrowed my grandfather’s chemistry books to flip through the pages and look at the pictures. I grew geodes and crystals. I read about volcanoes and brains and levers and whales.

The universe is an amazing place full of bizarre and crazy things.

And yet quantum mechanics is now discovering that the universe is made up of mostly nothing. We discovered that elements are made up of atoms, and how the bonds between atoms are actually empty space; electrons spin around a nucleus of protons and neutrons and in between is … nothing. Smaller still, those building blocks are made up of other building blocks called quarks, and between quarks is again, basically nothing. And down and down it goes; lots of small things interacting with other small things to make something bigger.

I have this theory that might sound sort of crazy. My theory is that we’ll keep discovering that everything small is made up of even smaller things, and that those small things are made up of even smaller things, and so on ad infinitum. I keep wondering where it’ll end. In fact, I keep wondering if what we call “matter” is really a substance at all, or if it’s actually nothing but a lot of boundaries that interact with each other.

You know a star because at some point, the star ends and space begins. A star is not a star unless there are other things that are not stars. You know hydrogen because at some point, hydrogen ends and something else begins; there is something apart from the hydrogen. A train is moving only because you are standing on something that’s not a train, and something you say isn’t moving - you can tell by its relationship to you, the observer. That’s a basic premise of the theory of general relativity.

I can’t prove any of this, by the way.

It’s just an idea.

But I do know that the universe is made up of relationships.

I was sitting on a seminary campus once, reading outside on a rather pleasant day, when two guys sat down near me on another bench and continued what sounded like a rather intense discussion about communion bread. Up for debate was whether or not, once he had prayed over the bread (he used the word “consecrated” it), he would later be allowed to give it away to the poor to eat or whether it was now too sacred to use for anything but the ceremony of communion. His companion mentioned something about it going stale and how maybe God would see it important (or at least useful, helpful, even holy) to give the bread away to someone that needs to eat so the bread wasn’t wasted. But no, said the first, that’s not communion, I couldn’t give that bread away because now it’s the body of Jesus.

And I suddenly had the urge to leave so that I didn’t get snarky at people I’d never met.

I mean, clearly, Jesus would never give himself away.

The sacraments are a way of pointing to the way that that the universe is made up of relationships. The bread and the wine and the water don’t mean anything by themselves. There’s nothing magical about them. In fact, without you present, for all practical purposes it’s almost as if they don’t really exist. But … when we interact with them within the context of the body of Christ, something special happens. We call it a sacrament not because the wine and bread are exceptional, but because as we pray, as we interact with one another and with the Spirit among us (“where two or more are gathered”), amazing, mysterious, inexplicable things happen.

Connections are made. Relationships are restored. Bonds are formed.

Right out of nothing.

So too with water. By itself it’s just water. But when we interact with the water in the context of our community of faith, when we interact with water and the Spirit, it’s called “baptism.” It’s not just a dunk in the pool or a sprinkle on the head, it becomes more.

Maybe that’s what God is like, too. Theologians tell us that the Trinity is three discreet persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, and they exist in something they call “perichoresis,” the eternal dance of relationship. But Father, Son, and Spirit are also One God. Maybe God created the universe because before He created, there was nothing BUT God, and by creating us, a universe that was NOT Him, it gave Him something new with which to relate.

Another partner with which to share the dance.

God is in the habit of relating. It’s at the foundation of His character. And this is why we gather together with those that are ‘not us’ for worship. The sacraments are one of those places where the boundaries between God’s space and our space get fuzzy. As one, we interact with God. And we are always transformed by the experience.