And to think it all began with The Church Without Pants

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Church of The Black Hole

A popular church in our community (an editor of our local paper suggests they just be called “Church”) is purchasing some vacant land near the university. More than 6 acres of vacant land. According to interviews published in our local paper the pastor of Church insists they are not setting up there to “take” but to “give.” They’ve raised $2,000,000 so far for this gift and anticipate that they will raise another $3,000,000 to build out the site. That’s $5,000,000 worth of “giving.”

When I think of giving, several things come to mind. One is that a gift is for the recipient, not for the giver's benefit or to further the giver's agenda. (Ask me sometime about the wisdom of giving that new toy you've always wanted, or a vacuum cleaner, to the person you share your home with …)

They say they’re not yet sure what all they’ll build, but so far they are committed to building a center for offering “Biblical counseling” and a place for their campus ministry. And it will be called “Church West.” It seems to me like they’re “giving” 5 million dollars in order to put their name on something else and then furthering their agenda by doing two things they already do: campus ministry and “Biblical Counseling.”

Sorry, but you sound like you're giving more to yourself and your own causes than to anyone, or anything, else on the west side.

Pastor, if you’re really open to suggestions, I have a couple of ideas. First, since you are so interested in giving, why not ask the churches and agencies that already serve the area what types of things they’re doing to make things better on the west side of town and offer grants to help them?

And second, right after the TV interview in which the pastor insisted that Church just wants to help make things better, the next topic in the news was about our county’s toxic waste disposal facility. Sadly, the buildings where we bring our poisons (damn those government regulations) are not OSHA compliant (double damn those government regulations) and the county needs more than $400,000 to bring the facility up to code (and triple damn everyone else). That’s about $300,000 more than the county can scrape up. So, here’s my thought, Church: Since $300,000 is chump change to you, how about giving $300,000 to the county so we can have a place to bring our toxic wastes?

That would really help make this whole community a better place for everyone.

I’d even vote for putting your name on the new facility.

The new sign could read, “Church Waste.”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Saved from What?

We heard from a few people not too long ago that a woman who had recently left our church for another was proclaiming that at her new church they really preach the message of salvation and that she was finally hearing the "truth" and that she was glad she had moved on.

I thought about giving her a call to ask if we could meet for coffee so I could hear for myself what this truth was.

But I didn't. Maybe because deep down I believed that if this truth she was now hearing was important enough, she would be compelled to come back and share it with us. She could not possibly want those she had had fellowship with for so many years to continue on in their ignorance. She would want us to be enlightened.

We never heard back from her.

Now I can only imagine what our conversation would've been like and I've seriously wondered what this important truth is that is so missing at the Big Old Church. My guess would be that it has something to do with the big questions of life and death, heaven and hell, and sin and salvation. Being listed among the saved is probably a hot preaching topic at her new church and their worship services are most likely focused on offering a conversion experience for those who they would classify as "unsaved."

But I'm also troubled that she found something missing at Big Old Church. And she's hardly the only one. Based on our attendance, clearly there are at least a few other people who don't mind not being part of what we're doing.

I think Big Old needs to take a hard look at ourselves. Maybe a good place to start is by asking, Are we Saved?

As in many parts of the Bible, the letter to the Ephesians talks about salvation and being saved. Chapter 2 (click here to read Chapter 2) begins something like this: "And you were dead in your sins ... in which you used to live ..." The chapter also includes remarks to the effect that some of the Ephesians lived "without hope and without God in the world" (v. 12) but that they had been made alive, even when they were dead (v. 5)

Zombie fans would go nuts if they ever read the Bible. But there it is, right in the Letter to the Ephesians - "... made alive, even though we were dead ..."

Are Christians really these brain sucking fiends, animated deadness, who prey on anything that moves just to satisfy our own bottomless emptiness? Do we enter our houses of worship mindlessly, with little or no passion, feed ourselves on whatever is offered, and leave in just the same manner as we came - mindless, passionless, and empty? Is that how we are perceived at Big Old?

Are we zombies?

Probably not, but it's never a bad idea to take a look at oneself and, as the prophet Haggai writes, "Consider your ways."

Some of us from Big Old meet together with some friends for this "not church" thing we playfully call "Showtime." The name is totally tongue-in-cheek because while it's a worshipful gathering there's nothing showy about it at all. There's no sermon, no professionals entertaining us, and none of us are there looking for what we're going to get out of it because we all come bringing something to add.

Anyway, during one of our last meetings we looked at this Ephesians 2 passage about the hard questions of life and death and salvation. We concluded that, at least here in chapter 2, Paul seemed very concerned about what salvation could look like today, in the here and now. Not to discount the importance of a future after we're done on this earth, but he seems to also be addressing the importance of a present tense salvation and that when God moves us from the realm of the dead to the realm of the living by saving us from our own sin, God has more in store for us than a series of platitudes and a yearning to escape to another realm. When we live as if we're saved from our own sin we can really be alive right now.

It's a very non-zombie lifestyle and kind of what we'd expect from Jesus.

Imagine, if I'm saved from my sin then I'm no longer the most important person in the world.

You are.

So when Jesus saves me, I'm saved from myself and you're saved from me, too.
As one from among us stated that night, "I'm here, God. Use me in any way you want."

That sounds like real worship.

It also sounds like that kind of life would be a hopeful life, maybe even a life that Paul might describe as "a life with hope and with God in the world."

Wouldn't a group of people who live this way be incredibly attractive?

And we don't have to wait to die and go to heaven for this life because we've already been dead.

We've been there. Now it's time to "choose life" just as God urged the Hebrews in the days after Egypt (Deut 30:15-20). Being saved means we have been brought to life and as Paul sums up his teaching on life and death with the Ephesians, he tells them, "We're God's handiwork, created [brought to life?] in Christ to do the good works that God has prepared for us to do."

Not later. Now.

But if we really like being dead and existing without hope and without God in the world, we can always go back.

Anytime we want.

I hope the woman who left Big Old has finally heard enough of the truth so that she can be confident that she's numbered among the saved. I also hope that she'll not need to hear those sermons too many more times before she's ready to move on to other important scriptural lessons.

As for me, I guess it's always a good idea to ask, "Am I being alive or dead?

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. Give me the grace to choose life and please save me from myself. Again and again. Amen and Amen.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Smell Theory - It's kinda like String Theory, only a little closer to home

Long before pheromones were household topics and Josh Harris gave up dating to advocate a thinly camouflaged form of aristocratic European courtship rituals, I was talking with friends about “Smell Determined Behavior” and throwing out dating and courtship altogether. Since everyone in college was (and still is) interested in relationships and most are interested in being in relationships - especially the kind that lead to something more - I simply wondered about the nature of the commitments we were making with each other that set us apart as a “couple” and the effects these commitments had on our other relationships. I concluded that whether we call it “dating”, "going together," or being an “item” or a “couple” (what we now know on Facebook as being "in a relationship") is not only unnecessary, but that it runs counter to developing true intimacy and reduces both genders to mere sexual objects. (I’ll write more about this in another post.)

As for Smell Determined Behaviors, or my “smell theory of relationships” as it was known then, the concept came about simply by extrapolating what I knew of animal behaviors and our own vestigial sense of smell, and melding that information with a little personal experience. Smell Determined Behavior, or SDB, is quite primitive in its origin and can be thought of as a variant on the more [in]famous SBD (Silent But Deadly) phenomenon that also induces us to behave in a predictable manner. You’re beginning to understand, aren’t you … Simply put, we all know that animals often make behavioral decisions based on what they smell. In most cases the odor originates from another living creature. For example, scents are used as territorial markers (Who’s place is this and do I dare go there?), to issue challenges (I think I can take that), or as calls to mate (I want to bear your children!). These scents are now known as pheromones. They are powerful and in some cases irresistible.

Moving up the food chain half a link or so we come to humankind and our puny noses. Our sense of smell is poorly developed compared to that of most other mammals and our noses are relatively small and far from the ground where most odors settle. And yet we’ve all met someone who reeks from last night’s dinner. We don’t even need to ask what they ate. So, our noses do function, but can they detect the scents emitted from glands and pores that we usually keep hidden from view and well masked with other scents?

I think they can and even though most of us go through life happily oblivious to most of the scents or odors around us, there will be occasions where even our lousy noses catch a hint of something we really like (or don’t). And if that happens, how many of these scents might we process to the point that they will influence our decisions?

Which brings me back to relationships and long-term commitments.

I can’t help but wonder, whether we are consciously aware of these scents or not, how many of our long term relationship choices simply come down to the fact that I just can’t (consciously or subconsciously) imagine myself sleeping next to, or waking up to that smell.

Every day.

For the rest of my life.

Think about it.

Monday, September 26, 2011

If only more people were like me ...

Of all the famous people who've ever lived, I've met about three (not counting the real-life Bozo, Pinky Lee and Red Buttons*). Sadly, Diana Butler Bass is not among those three. But that doesn't get in the way of my enjoying her books and articles. Somehow she is able to sift through the holy sh#t piles we've collected and stored in our churches and somehow finds good things hidden there. She finds people who live, what she describes as, a "generous and open faith" and looks ahead to a time of reformation when the "sort of Christianity that loves God and neighbor" will flourish and again be a transforming influence on this earth.

But make no mistake - that hope implies that not all is well. Butler Bass seems to be admitting that the branch of Christianity that "loves God and neighbor" has gone AWOL. It's missing. Maybe hijacked or trapped somehow in suspended animation.

So, who in the world does she think is going to bring about this reformation? Me? I can't change anyone's mind about anything. I can't even change my own bad habits, let alone the Church and the Christian faith!

So, if it's not me then, who's running the show? Who's pulling the strings in the church these days? Is it those who (whether they are in the majority or the minority) preach hate and fear and who take solace in their own salvation while condemning everyone else for all of eternity? Or is it some other group?

Maybe it is these extremists. Their message is certainly as well known as it is ubiquitous. It almost seems to drown almost everything else out.

I might wish that the those who embrace that generous faith that "loves God and neighbor" would be the ones who really influence the church. But I suspect that they find themselves too busy feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and working to correct injustice to argue or fight with churches and churchgoers they can't change anyway. Besides, it would, in a sense, be hypocritical for a loving and forgiving (religiously tolerant?) person to not tolerate religious intolerance. They will find more important things to do than fight and argue. It is almost always a waste of time to argue with someone (especially an institution) who has already made up their mind. And I think even a generous and loving person can admit that and remain generous and loving.

But then I also do not believe that it is a majority of Christians who advocate hate and discrimination. I think, like in other faiths where we find extremists, while they are fodder for a sensation craving public, they are still a vast minority.

I do happen to believe there is a majority in the church and it is neither a majority of hateful, mindless, intolerant people, nor is it a majority made up of generous loving people. I think the majority are people a lot like me.

And deep down, I suspect it is this majority who really run the church.

My life looks something like this: I help distribute free baked good and fresh vegetables to people on a weekly basis. I also own more cars than I can drive, 3 DVD players and 2 computers. My internet is too slow and it really pisses me off. I have friends who are missionaries. I am always hospitable to those I like and who like me. I can remember only one time in my whole life that I've invited a homeless person into my home for shelter. I read my Bible. In my many iterations of attempting to live like Christ, I can't remember the last time I fasted. I'm not sure what Jesus would think of what I call prayer and I do not say the "shema" on a daily basis. I have never given sacrificially let alone sold anything in order to follow Jesus more faithfully or to help someone else. While I decry intolerance my response to it is usually limited to sarcasm. I live with my wife in a 5 bedroom air-conditioned house. While we both have jobs, we are totally dependent on either the charity or the brokenness of others for our income. I have in my garage a classic car, two tandem bicycles, two vintage racing bicycles, an unused pool table, half a ping-pong table, two powered lawn mowers and an antique radial arm saw that doesn't work. We have a water softener and I can tell when it needs salt when my dishwasher leaves embarrassing spots on our glasses. Most of my neighbors have never been in my home. My front lawn is a disgrace and I'm sure it brings down property values in the neighborhood. I am in debt. I have enough free time to do facebook, pursue hobbies, read and go for runs or a bike ride every day. Some days I take two showers - both with hot water. I can drink fresh water from my faucet. I can even drink safely from my hose outside if I'm dying of thirst. I have two refrigerators. I have food rotting in both of them. My medical insurance has nearly a 5-digit yearly deductible. And we could meet that if we had to. I attend worship regularly and the church and its institutions and its hypocrisies piss me off almost as much, and sometimes even more, than my really slow internet.

Yeah, I think the majority is like me.

It's not the extremists. They're just louder than the rest of us. And it's not those with the open generous faith who run the church. They're too busy changing the world to worry about running the church.

I think it's people like me. People who are fat and happy and perfectly content to do just enough so that nothing changes.

We're the ones who run the church.

* What's with the color-blind guy meeting all these colorful and colorfully named people?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

I'm More Biblical Than You Are

I know Love Wins is old news, but I enjoyed reading Rob Bell's book. I admit that freely even though many Christian scholars and other self-appointed defenders of Hell and the Bible assailed Bell long before the book was published. Well, it's been out for half a year now and more than enough authors have taken it upon themselves to parse Bell's words and proof text him into oblivion. (Isn't that where one would end up if there is no hell?)

I hope everything Rob says in that book is true.

But I doubt it. That would make Rob Bell the final authority on The Final Authority. And that's not really what he seems to be about.

What I get when I read anything from Rob Bell, is a sense of his humility as he wades through issues and questions. I feel welcome to join him on a journey to question and explore. I never get from him that he's set himself up as being the final authority on The Final Authority.

I've also had a chance to read some of what Bell's detractors are writing. There's God Wins, Christ Wins, Hell Wins, Hell Forever, etc. (OK, I made up some of those titles, but there's a bunch of these books out and ... well, you get the point.) Each of them proudly asserts that they (and not Rob Bell) are dispensing the Biblically true Truth. And while each of them will humbly deny this, and they do this in such a way as to say: "I may be wrong, but I'm not," the implication is clear that they have appointed themselves as the final authority on The Final Authority.

One forward says that "[this book] will immerse you in the truth of Scripture." (Since Love Wins doesn't and God hasn't.)

Another reads: "I want to help you understand the Biblical and theological issues ..." (Whereas Rob just wants to confuse you.)

Then there's the "I want to persuade you to side with the Scriptures ..." (While Rob Bell obviously wants you to side with Rob Bell) and one author totally pulls the Sola Scriptura card as he writes: "It is impossible to reassess the subject of hell without also reevaluating our beliefs about Scripture ..." (Impossible? Curious, but I think Rob Bell just showed us that it is possible and he did so long before you even thought of writing your book. Or do you mean that if I don't believe what you say Scripture says then you're going to have to throw out the whole Bible? Don't be silly.)

Again, "The book [Love Wins] is so anxious to show that love wins that it fails to appreciate how important it is that justice also wins." (Because all those questions at the beginning of Love Wins were so confusing I never made it past Chapter 1. Plus, I was looking to see if I could find myself in the picture at the beginning of Chapter 2.)

I really like the paragraph in God Wins (that's really the name of the book) that reads: "What is broken will be made whole again. What was lost in Eden will be regained. Love wins. Justice wins. And the God who is perfectly just and perfectly merciful wins." (And you needed to write a book about this because Rob Bell didn't cover this thoroughly enough for you?)

Finally one of the authors makes the appeal that, "As we dig deeper into God's Word, we discover it is less important that love wins than that God wins." (Because while Rob Bell certainly digs somewhere, it isn't in the Scriptures and Bell really, really doesn't want God to win.)

OK. I get it. You guys are from the truly Biblically-based camp and Rob Bell isn't.

Does that mean he's a heretic?

Can we burn him? Or would it be more Christian of us to wait for God to do that?

Just how long will we need to wait before God finally says, "Now you've gone and done it. You've crossed the line and there's no coming back. Off to Hell with you! Scat! Scoot along!"

Will Rob Bell really go to hell if he's got this one backwards?

Do we know this for sure?

But as always, I digress.

I met with a student a few months ago who switched churches. At first he said it was because his new church, the Church of the Biblically Based Biblicalists (not its real name), is more "Biblically based" (I like how spell check wants to change "Biblically" to "Bucolically") and that the sermons were "convicting." I know about the church he left. It's a big one. The Fellowship of Un-Biblical Bible Believers (not its real name, either) holds four services on Sunday. I also know some of the staff. I never thought of them as being un-biblical and so I asked this guy, "How did you discover that the Fellowship wasn't Biblical?" He was very careful not to say anything bad about the Fellowship or the people there. He just thought the sermons and lessons didn't come straight out of the Bible and that they weren't convicting enough.

I've been hearing about the incredible "convicting" sermons from other students who go to all the hip downtown clone churches and I really wanted to pursue
the whole "convicting" sermon thing with him, too. I apologized ahead of time in case I got too personal but I had to ask, "So, what kind of things are you being convicted of each week? Would you mind sharing with me about the last sermon when you felt convicted and how your life was changed?"

"Well," he said, "it's not really about convicting me as much as it is about convicting the world..." which is pretty much the same thing everyone else has said. So either they're too embarrassed to let on about what they're being convicted of or this is really what convicting is all about.

"Ahh ... So," I went on, "it's not so much about God speaking to you about your life through these Biblically based sermons or even conforming your own life to the Scriptures as it is about distinguishing the 'Us' gang from the 'Thems' isn't it?"

Which was a perfect segue into the Biblically based teaching issue.

When I asked him why being Biblically based was so important to him he explained that since the Bible is only way we can really know God it just stands to reason that you'd want to be around Biblical teachers who really teach the Bible.

"So," I asked, "getting back to the Fellowship where you used to be, if their teachings aren't from the Bible, where are they from? And if they're not from the Bible, are they unbiblical? Did you go home and look in the Bible and find that the Fellowship was teaching false, unbiblical stuff?"

He didn't and as it turns out, the Fellowship was merely guilty of not "backing up" everything they said with Scripture. In essence, the Fellowship didn't quote Scripture as often or use the Bible the same way Church did, therefore they weren't being as Biblical as Church.

"But," I asked, "at the new place, Church, they do use the Bible?"

"Yup, and they back everything they say with Scripture verses."

"And then you go home after Church and look everything up to double check on them? Or do you just take Church's word for it that they're using the Scriptures correctly?"

Well, he doesn't go home and read the Bible after Church services either, so I'm guessing he must take their word for it or he just hasn't heard anything yet that sounds unbiblical enough to check up on them. Clearly, he has a sense of what is Biblical and what is not ...

"Sounds like you're letting them be the final authority on what the Word of God says. Have you ever heard anything from them that you disagree with?"

"Not yet."

"So," I paused here to think of the correct phrasing, "since you have the ability to agree or disagree with them, doesn't that make you the final authority on what you think is Biblical?"

"Um ..."

"Well, what would happen if sometime you went home and read on your own and found that you disagreed with Church? Could that happen?"

"I guess it could ..."

"And if that happened, who would you say was the final authority on what the Bible was saying? It can't be Church, since you disagreed with them. Isn't it ultimately up to you to decide what you think is Biblical or not?"

"Well, me and the Holy Spirit."

"So," I pressed on, "besides the Bible, another source of knowledge about God would be the Holy Spirit? And when the two of you get together you can go beyond the Bible to either learn something about God or discern whether something is Biblically based? In other words, there's something bigger, more authoritative, and even more important than the Bible?"

This was beginning to irritate him. But I was having fun. A clearly unbiblical moment for both of us ... but ultimately it was a few minutes that helped me to understand that the Fellowship of Un-Biblical Bible Believers could theoretically teach a Biblical lesson but not tell anyone it's from the Bible, while the Church of the Biblically Based Biblicalists might teach the very same lesson, even use the same words and illustrations but then add some proof texts to demonstrate that the teaching is "Biblical."

"It sounds like you're telling me a couple of important truths, let me see if I'm understanding you. First, after all this talk about the Bible and being Biblical, it's not really your church or even the Bible that has the final say. It's you and God, or the Holy Spirit, that are the Final Authorities in your life, right? And God is the The Final Authority on the Bible. And second, the real difference between "Biblical" teaching (I used the quote signs) and "unbiblical" is what we say about what we teach, and not what we actually teach?"

This produced a really long "Hmmmmm ...."

I couldn't help but think about "South Park" and the episodes when Cartman goes to the future looking for a Wii and finds himself in a world where three branches of sentient atheist groundhogs are trying to kill each other over what to call themselves. (If you can get past the potty mouthed children of South Park, the show is an amazingly accurate looking glass through which to view our culture.)

I think all this just frustrated him because he finally admitted that he switched churches because the girl friend goes there. (Amazing what we'll do to get the girl, isn't it? Some of us switch churches and some of us will even play tennis.)

Why is it that when anyone uses the word "Biblical" or "Scriptural" I just know that some kind of literal line is about to be drawn in some metaphorical sand and that they're about to use the Bible as an excuse to do or say whatever it is that they've already decided they want to do or say? (With the Holy Spirit's help, of course.) I don't even think it's about Truth. It's more about someone needing to be righter about everything than the rest of us. And rather than elevating the Scriptures, The Bible is reduced to the role of Justifier of All Things. Maybe that's why, when someone is about to enlighten me with some "Biblical teaching" I get the feeling that the same Bible I read is about to be used as a weapon against me and the only light I'm going to see is because I just got wapped upside the head with a really thick book.

"As we dig deeper into God's Word, we discover it is less important that love wins than that God wins."

And all this time I thought "God is ______."

God is ___________.

God is ___________.

God is ___________.

(I John 4:8 - 4:16)

Excuse me, but I'm expecting to get wapped upside the head any moment by some Biblical Bluto who'll explain to me how I've totally missed John's point and that _________ has nothing to do with being Biblical.

Thanks, Rob, for taking some hits for the rest of us. I love your work.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Stand Ups, Stand Ups for Jesus

I remember when preaching the gospel used to be as simple as shouting to everyone, "Have you heard the word of the Lord?" as we drove up and down the main drag in our part of the city.

Part of the fun was that we'd found one of those huge orange traffic cones abandoned down the hill from where our stretch of freeway was being extended. They obviously didn't need it anymore. We weren't exactly sure what we needed it for either, so we began modifying it. We began by cutting the heavy rubber anchor off the bottom. Then, just in case they changed their minds and decided they really did need it we further modified it by curling the cone in on itself so the orange was on the inside and the clean white innards were on the outside.

Little did we know when we discovered this new toy that it would become an instrument of God and eventually become known as the "Cone of Evangemism."

With our new prize we'd take turns doing the Lord's work by riding shot-gun in Kenny's Plymouth shouting the good news through our Cal Trans bullhorn to everyone on the streets. People at bus stops, drive throughs and in movie theater lines were our favorite evangemizing targets.

"Have you heard the word of the Lord? Sinners can be saved ... "

[wait for it]

"... or redeemed for valuable coupons!"

Can you hear us laughing? BWAH HA HA HAHA

We also liked following behind people who plastered "Honk if you love Jesus" bumper stickers on their cars. Because, who doesn't love Jesus?






And my Uncle Les' little Renault had an amazingly loud horn. Even Jesus lovers who were busy minding their own business would get into it. They'd suddenly jump up from their yard work and ecstatically wave their arms and shout at us while we were sharing the love with our bumper stickered buddies. So, realizing how much they must love Jesus we blasted the Renault's horns repeatedly for them, too.


God, we were so clever.

Some nights we got ourselves laughing so hard we didn't need anything else to get high. It was a vicious cycle. And very inexpensive. We'd be laughing at something someone said, then we'd do something, like fart, and it would be funny, so we'd laugh ... With each cycle it got louder and easier. When it took hold of us there was no way we could ever "maintain." As soon as anyone made a sound of any kind it would start all over. It was amazing and it was totally contagious. Even our dour friend "Grim Jim" (a relative of Eor) would be in tears. It was the Laughing Buzz.

One night when we were majorly afflicted with the Laughing Buzz we pulled up to one of our drive throughs backward and ordered a pizza. "Heavy on the Secret Sauce!" we added. BWAHAHA HA AH HA HA ... HA!

I'm pretty sure they called the police.

No problem, though. We'd outsmart them all by switching cars and piling the four of us into my two seater Fiat. Our escape route usually took us up the hill toward the freeway. There, some of the residential streets would peter out into narrow dirt trails that were blocked from automobile access by cables strung between concrete posts.

Again, no problem. No cables or narrow trails could stop us! Just lift the cable, scoot the Fiat underneath and we'd enter that remote world between the city lights and a wilderness infested with snakes, skunks and a few coyotes.

Some of the trails ran underneath the freeway into little canyons in the hills where we could access secret tunnels carved deep into the hillside. We had no idea who made them, or the whens or the whys, but we had plenty of time to create our own versions of the living histories surrounding their origins. But that's another story ...

Other trails ran right up to the freeway. There was nothing quite like the freeway sights while on a Laughing Buzz after a night of evangemizing the theater crowd and ordering pizzas at the drive through. The lights of speeding traffic flickering through the railings were hypnotic. The combination of hypnotic lighting together with a full on Laughing Buzz meant only thing ... It's time for Stand Ups.

That's what we called 'em. It was our own "12 Steps to God" program.

Step 1: (You really think I'm going to tell you how to do this?)
Step 2-9: Repeat Step 1
Step 10: Repeat Step 1 while performing a valsalva maneuver.
Step 11: Lose consciousness
Step 12: Wake up hungry and wondering where we were and how we got there.

It was the opposite of a "head rush."

But all that ended when I got "saved."

It wasn't a street preacher with a bullhorn that got me. It was a girl. But that's another story...

Needless to say, my friends were a little put out by this and I'm sure they would've traded me in for a coupon because to them, I just wasn't very fun to have around anymore.

I must admit that at the time I made the decision to join the "saved" crowd I was also worried about not having fun anymore. Although many from among the "saved" at our school went directly from their youth group meetings to hang at the same parties and do the most of the same things my friends and I would be doing, my primitive thought patterns did not make room for the possibility that I could be "saved" and still indulge in Saturday night grope-fests or any of the other many miscreant activities my wastrel friends and I craved. It meant that there would now be a seemingly endless list of self-satisfying, pleasurable and borderline criminal experiences that I would be missing out on. Forever.

And the list of things I could do seemed quite narrow. On the "Safe List" were things like "Little House on the Prairie," tennis, singing sappy songs and reading the Bible.

This was going to be hard. I hated singing sappy songs (still do) and I could never bring myself to watch "Little House" (still won't) so I was confined to tennis and the Bible.

Tennis wasn't a terribly transformative activity but it certainly was safe, though, as I was separated from the girl by 78 feet and a net. I was an embarrassingly bad tennis player back then so when I started playing my Uncle Les (who didn't like to hear that a girl was beating me) would load me up in his Renault with a bunch of tennis balls and take me to the park. Sometimes he'd let me drive and I could honk at Jesus lovers. The lessons were late at night and usually involved me dodging his wicked sliced serve. But the girl never knew I had a coach and she was amazed at my progress. Even from 78 feet I could see her smile and mouth "Wow!" when I made an incredible shot. She had blue eyes, her short tennis skirt magnificantized her long legs, and her long blond hair pulled back in a pony tail would sail luxuriously around the court. (Damn that net!)

But the Bible, that was something else.

I'd read it a little for Saturday School at the Temple, mostly stories from Genesis and about Moses, and then again when I heard scratching in my closet after I saw The Exorcist. At that time I started in Genesis again and I remember being really impressed with how much sleeping around they did. Not only that, but they were rewarded by being immortalized in the Scriptures. But other than that the Bible was not really part of my life. And I'd never even seen a New Testament until the girl came along ...

Just to make it clear, my getting saved wasn't totally about the girl. Reading the stories of the life of Jesus was incredibly compelling. My reaction each time I finished the Book of John was pretty much the same, "What? There's no more? I want to read more! OK, so Jesus said and did so many things that if they were written down the whole world wouldn't be able to contain the book, but you could've written a little more, couldn't you?" Even my primitive mind detected that Jesus was wise, sarcastic, and he lived fearlessly. He also saw more in people than they saw in themselves. I read through the four gospels over and over and over again.

I wanted to be like him and if that made me a Christian, so be it.

Ultimately, the promise of heaven and the threat of hell were not huge factors in my decision. I wasn't totally convinced that I wanted either to exist, at least in the traditional forms of fiery furnace or streets of gold. Not that I'd complain if I made it to heaven but, and I think this has something to do with being Jewish (and a teenager), I just couldn't relate to or comprehend that my death was the only reason I was ever alive. But even in my unsurety, I was confident that if I lived my life as Jesus lived, when everything was said and done, I would have lived a good life. Even if I had "nothing" to look forward to after I died, I would have lived a good life. So I said the prayer (that compulsory prayer that every real born again Christian is required to pray - it's right out of the Bible ... somewhere) and was converted.

As far as following in the way of Jesus I think I have the sarcastic part down and I'm getting better at seeing more in people than they see in themselves. Although I'm sure Jesus is pleased that I don't honk that annoying Renault horn at people with bumper stickers anymore, I'm pretty sure I've let him down a time or two. But even though I often think I would've been more successful at being a self-absorbed pleasure seeker than I have been as a Jesus follower, I guess part of my faith is that I still believe Jesus sees more in me than I see in myself.

And as for that endless list of pleasures I'd given up? I have no regrets. In fact, I've found so many others I have a hard time even remembering what was on that list now.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Parable of the Buried Talent

This story may remind you of a parable recorded in Luke 19:9-26. In that story, the heroes are the nine servants who earn large profits using their master's money. As interpreters have taken the parable and allegorized it (I know "allegorize" may not be a word, but remember, we're allowed to make up words in The Church Without Pants), the nobleman (Jesus) is appointed king by an absentee king-maker of some sort (God) over the objections of his subjects (those who reject Jesus). This Jesus figure rewards those who are faithful and executes those who tried to get in his way. The moral to story (i.e. What we learn about the Kingdom of God) as we've been traditionally taught it usually sounds something like: "God will give more responsibility to those who demonstrate responsibility in small things," or put simply, "God helps those who help themselves." This story is also used as grounds for the idea that in God's Kingdom "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." This story is commonly known as the Parable of the Ten Talents (or Minas).

But what if we've got it all backwards and inside-out? What if the king/master in the story is really what he appears to be: a complete and total slob; a Jabba the Hutt kind of a guy who is rotten to the core? And instead of many heroes who gain profits, there is but one hero: the only one who dares to speak out and pull the veil away from evil, revealing its stench and ugliness in such a way that no one can ignore it any more. This version of the story might be called The Parable of the Buried Talent and if we read between the lines (as all good readers do) it might sound something like this:

The Parable of the Buried Talent

Jesus, having just dined with Zacchaeus, a tax collector and notorious sinner, was asked by his followers to explain himself and his actions.

They questioned him saying, “How could you lower yourself to do such a thing?”

“Why do you question me on this?” he asked. “Surely you can see that this man was lost but that now salvation has come to his house. He is once again a son of Abraham and has been restored to his people. This is why I came.” And Jesus continued on his way saying, "Let us go to Jerusalem now, and do the same there”

Thinking upon this, his followers wondered: Surely now, Jesus will restore our kingdom to its former glory.

But knowing their thoughts, he took pity on them and told them a story so they would understand their rolls in unraveling the kingdoms of the world.

He said: “You remember Herod’s son? The man who went to Rome to be appointed lord of the realm? Well, let me tell you the story of another man of noble birth, who, like Herod’s son, was ambitious and wanted to be Governor of the land. And like Herods’ son he too was very unpopular with the people and his subjects hated him. Fearing the crowds, he went to the emperor to secure his appointment as governor and gain the backing of the might of the empire. He was confident the emperor would appoint him because he had already proven himself worthy by greatly expanding his holdings and he now controlled not only all commerce in the cities of the realm, but he also commanded many powerful and ambitious barons who served him and did his bidding without question or hesitation.

"But before leaving he called ten of his most trusted barons and giving them each a large sack of gold he put them to the test saying, ‘Put this money to use while I am away.'

"Meanwhile, his subjects sent a delegation to the emperor to protest saying, 'We don’t want this man to rule over us!' But while the emperor heard the protests of the delegation the would-be governor arrived for his audience and the emperor invited the nobleman to sit with him and make his request.

"'Faithful friend,' the emperor began, 'I have heard of your success and your record speaks for itself. You are a man much like myself. You reap where you do not sow and you take for yourself what is not yours. You reward those who service you and you punish those who stand against you. I need resourceful men like you as my deputies and governors.'

"And so in spite of protests by his subjects the emperor appointed the nobleman to be governor of the realm.

"When the new governor returned he called his ten trusted barons to account for the gold he’d left with them.

"The first baron reported that he used his gold to purchase the services of mercenaries who seized a trade vessel. After paying the mercenaries he sold the goods from the vessel at market and also sold the ship’s crew into slavery. He earned 10 sacks of gold with the one the nobleman had left him.

"The second baron reported that he used his sack of gold to purchase 10 young slave women and a large well appointed villa at a seaside resort. The baron set up a fee-for-service menu for the villa's "guests" and in the short time his master was gone his small home business had returned five more sacks of gold.

"The story of each baron was similar and for every sack of gold the barons deposited at the feet of the newly appointed governor, he rewarded them in kind by putting new lands and new cities under their dominion.

"That is, until the last baron came before the governor with just one sack of gold. He told the governor, 'I once admired you but in your absence I’ve realized that you are a cruel man and possessed by an insatiable greed. I know now that you are a hard man and that you reap what you do not sow and you take what is not yours so I buried your gold and let it sit while you were gone. Now I’m giving you only what you deserve.'

"'How dare you!' roared the governor. 'A ‘hard man,’ indeed! And knowing this you still held back from me? I will judge you by your own words.' And calling his soldiers he ordered them to take the sack of the gold from the rebellious baron and give it the baron who earned 10 sacks.

"The barons and even the soldiers were surprised at this and whispered among themselves, 'But he already has 10 sacks of gold.'

"Overhearing the whispering in his own halls the governor raged, 'Listen carefully, everyone. This is how things work in my kingdom. To everyone who has, more will be given, but as for those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. Now, bring to me the delegation and all those who did not want me to be governor. Bring them here and kill them in front of me.'"

And Jesus said to followers, “This is where we are headed. This is what our Jerusalem is like. The kingdom here is nothing like God’s realm. This is why I weep for Jerusalem. But I have spent my whole life in preparation for this. We will be a bright and searing light entering a dark and corrupt world. Now, be steady and follow me. It will not be easy." Then, with a gleam in his eye and a flicker of a smile he said, "Let's go stir up the hornets’ nest ...”

And having said this he went on ahead of his disciples, going up to Jerusalem.

In this parable our hero discerns that the governor is nothing but a criminal who champions corruption, cunning, greed and cronyism over generosity, hospitality, justice and compassion. He stands alone with the buried talent as evidence before the lords of the realm and names and exposes the evil in front of him. In so doing the mask that hides the governor's true nature begins to unravel.

Simply stated, Truth undoes evil. This, I believe is a powerful lesson about the nature of God's Kingdom that is too easy to ignore when Jesus is left in the role of the appointed king.

However, in the Buried Talent story, we see this clearly as the governor's temperament devolves from that of a "hard man" who merely steals from his subjects and exploits his land to a vengeful beast and malicious executioner. We see that once the curtains that shield evil from our eyes are peeled back, evil can no longer disguise itself. The "hard man" is a murderer. There is no place evil can hide.

I was lucky enough to spend a few days with a man named Os Guinness (not sure he's related to Obi Wan, but yes, he is the great, great, great, grand something or other of another famous Guinness) many years ago. We took a drive together in Santa Barbara and I remember a few of the many things we talked about. One idea he shared is that truth, by its nature, is self revealing (like a city on a hill that can't be hidden?). A corollary to this might be that just as truth can't be hidden, once a lie is exposed or begins to unravel there is no way for it to remain hidden either. Ultimately, as the Blue Fairy says to Pinocchio, the lie becomes "as plain as the nose on your face." It becomes impossible to ever put a kind face on the monster again. There is no place for untruth to hide and the full depths of evil are ultimately exposed for all to see.

So, when we look to the parables for some enlightenment about the way things are in God's Kingdom, will we read Luke 19 and continue to rationalize why the king/Jesus character is portrayed as a petty thug who rewards his cronies and executes those who stand against him? Is the Kingdom really about the rich getting richer? Or is Jesus the one who tasks us to stand with him against evil and call it out, exposing it, making it harder and harder for evil to disguise itself until finally there is no place anywhere in God's realm where evil can abide or hide?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Love, Jesus (Un-invited, Part 2)

We (She, Another, Another Other, One More and I) were parking the old Honda in the big Big City Church parking lot (as far away as possible, near their Youth Complex, so as not to embarrass ourselves) when She blurts out that she visited a church in Georgia that didn't allow children in their worship services.

"Really? says I.

"Too distracting," says She.

"Unbelievable!" says Another.

"Did you take a picture of the sign?" asked Another Other.

 We're out of the car and walking by now.

"Yup. Big signs right there at the doors," and she holds her hands out in front of her as if to demonstrate "plain as day."

"Signs signed: 'Love, Jesus?'" I ask.

(glaring from everyone directed at me)

The talking stopped there as we were overcome with a sense of ... maybe we should stop talking ... as we approached the Doors of Big City Church.

"If there is a final judgment, Americans will need to go through twice," says She. (We didn't even know about the Nordstrom's, yet!)

We took a breath and entered into the cavernous entry space where She noticed the Bistro and ordered a "Death by Caffeine" Latte. (Formerly known as the "Final Judgment Latte." Says She, "A little caffeine is always a helpful precursor to a sermon.") She sipped and we noticed the brushed stainless steel lettering above us:

"Serving the Poor, the Homeless and the Unloved"

We looked around ...

"Hmm... maybe. Just not right at this minute," says One More.

"And probably not right here," says Another.

"Maybe they're talking about us," says She.

"I'm taking a picture of this sign!" says Another Other.

We survived the drinking of the deadly latte and subsequent judgment and walked past the worship area.

And there was Big City's version of the sign (using the same blog friendly font):

Children Accompanied by Adults are
Welcome in the Sanctuary.

It wasn't signed by Jesus, but it still made it quite clear that there were to be no distractions during worship and that any potential distractions were to be accompanied by an adult. That, or maybe worship here is R rated.

"Really?" says I.

"Too distracting," says She.

"Unbelievable," says Another (but using her sotto voce so as not create a distraction.)

"I'm taking a picture of this sign!" says Another Other.

"Don't forget to turn off your flash," says I.

Two nights later Still Another friend joined us and would share the musings of Rachel Held Evans about a child with Cerebral Palsy who was escorted out of a worship service (reportedly on Easter Sunday) for being a distraction (You can read Blessed-are-the-uncool here.)

"You know, of course," says Still Another, "worship wasn't always cool ..."
The first occurrence of the Hebrew word that is translated into English as "worship" is found in Genesis as Abraham is taking Isaac up into the mountains for a little father-son time. The Hebrew word is a verb and it means "to fall down" as in fall on your face before your god. A few translations toss in a "worship" as early as Genesis 4 when people "called on" the Lord. But most translators hold off on revealing the "W" until the well known story in chapter 22.

You can read it now if you like, but here's how the story goes:

Abraham and his true love, Sarah, finally have the child that God promised them so many years ago. The boy is named Isaac and while he is still a child Abraham is told by God to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. At that time, some 4,000 years ago, that meant there would be a lot of blood and a lot of fire (very uncool worship). But, Abraham silently obeys. So he takes Isaac, along with some of the men from his household to a place God had appointed and there he would offer Isaac as a burnt offering to God. (As you can already tell this is another one of those I just want to feel good about my worship experience stories.)
 When Abraham comes near to the place he takes the fire wood from the donkey and tells the young men from his house to wait while " ... the boy [Isaac] and I go over there. We will worship (there it is, the first appearance of the "W" in Scripture) and then we will come back to you."

I know this is hard to do, but from here on we need to look at what we know of the story from Isaac's point of view, remembering that Isaac doesn't know what Father Abraham has in store for him ... we need to forget for a moment the plan to roast the only son. Today this story is about a boy and what he understands about worship.

Isaac thinks he is going with his father to worship and so he has certain expectations. He also has certain responsibilities. Let's begin with the fact that Isaac is only a boy, a "lad" according to some translators. He is going to "worship" with his father. He is carrying the wood. And Abraham is carrying the fire.

As they walk together toward the place appointed by God Isaac interrupts and asks, "Father?"

"Yes, son?"

"I was just wondering ... you've got the fire and I've got the wood, but where is the offering?"

Abraham simply says, "God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice." He probably said and did more than that, but the two of them went on ...

So this very first depiction of worship in the Scriptures involves a father worshiping with his young son. It is obvious that either Abraham has thoroughly prepared Isaac for what they're about to do (minus one little detail), or they've done this before because the boy is able to detect that something's wrong. Something's missing. It is Isaac, the child, who recognizes that their worship will be incomplete because there is no offering.

Isaac knew what was supposed to happen. Worship involved a journey, a destination, an offering and some sort of action. Worship was messy and hard. It involved blood and guts and fire and smoke and smells that would tighten our throat holes and turn our stomachs inside out. By our standards it sounds gruesome and barbaric and not very pretty and probably not very "age appropriate." Hell, I'd probably be arrested for making my kids witness such a ritual. (And we think worship today isn't kid friendly...)

Yet none of this was strange to Isaac because he understood what worship was.

There was no sitting, no entertainment, no performances. It was hard work and all about what you put into it. The only thing anyone would "get out of it" was the satisfaction that they'd been obedient to God. And most important is that the boy, even if he didn't understand all the nuances and significance of worship, knew enough about what was happening to recognize something was missing.

hip was never, ever an "adults only" endeavor.

When it came to worship there was no such thing as "no children allowed" even if the activity might seem a bit grisly.

So what happens in our worship today that seems to make it so universally kid unfriendly? The copious amounts of spattered blood in our Sanctuaries and the sacrificial killing of virgins? (This might also explain why 80% of unmarried Christian adults in America are sexually active*.) Or is it candles? Maybe the announcements? Or possibly the fog machines and worship bands? Or maybe the prayers and sermons? Hymnals? PowerPoint presentations? Passing the plate? Just what goes on in today's worship services so that children (and their families) are considered distractions?

I wonder if today's brand of worship service might focus too much on us being served by talented professionals. I wonder too, if we're so consumed with consuming a brand of worship that makes us feel good about God and what God does for us that we've forgotten that the foundation of worship is us bringing something, offering something, to God.

I wonder, if our children can't get what's happening, or if their presence is going to be a distraction to us and the professionals serving us, are we missing the point of worship?

What would happen if we re-constructed the whole worship thing so that children and their families could be participants rather than distractions? No need, though, to turn everything upside down all at once. Let's take small steps. Maybe we could start by welcoming children without disabilities. 

 Or maybe it would just be easier to invite all of them to use their own space, perhaps a Youth Complex, to do their own thing.

* "(Almost) Everyone's Doing It," Relevant Magazine, October 2011

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Un-invited (Part 1)

Some friends and I recently visited Big City Church (not its real name). It's new and edgy. And it's big. Huge, even. More like a campus than a church. The architects melded the main structure into the swell of a rolling hill so that it managed to blend in and, at the same time, call an almost obscene amount of attention to itself. It's pure genius... The blue lights at night are a real cool touch producing an almost iridescent glow. On the inside they had their own bookstore, a bistro with fair-trade coffee, a Nordtroms Rack, an Audi dealership, and plenty of hip young adults. My old Honda with the rocket launcher roof rack was totally embarrassed when we drove up.

A few generations ago the mainline churches in the United States decided they were going to un-invite a whole segment of the population from their gatherings. It certainly wasn't the first time the Church un-invited a group of people from their house and it probably won't be the last.

Big Old Church (not its real name), where I now serve is pretty old and pretty mainline. It's closer to 200 years old than it is to 150 and throughout its history the people of this church have played central roles as public servants working in government, health, business and trade professions. They even helped establish a major university in the community. Within a few years after the civil war, Big Old Church helped set a tone in the community by becoming one of the first churches in town to accept people of all colors as members. The church even employed African Americans. This went on until near the turn of the century, when by seemingly mutual agreement a new and separate "colored" church was established. Whether or not anyone protested or decried this action, no one now remembers the conversations and there is no record of anyone calling very loudly for the groups to stay together.

Today, although Big Old Church would welcome any person from anywhere, any African American who visits can hardly avoid noticing that this is a congregation of "white" people. Old white people.

We can only imagine what Big Old Church might be like today had someone one hundred years ago insisted that they work out their differences. What if they had chosen the more difficult path of looking their problems straight in the eye and declaring without blinking, "Not here, Satan. We are the Body of Christ and we're better than you think." What a model of authenticity and determination they might have been. Instead, they all took the easier road and one hundred years ago the "coloreds" were invited to leave.

And they still have not come back.

A half century later churches all over the country invited their youth to go somewhere else. Well, they could stay in our buildings, but usually in some funky, out-of-the-way corner of the facility. It probably seemed like a very cool idea. (At Big Old Church they met upstairs in the unused room below the bell tower. It was very cool and very out-of-the-way, not even in the same building where the younger children and adults met. It was accessed by ascending a spiral staircase then walking across the balcony of the sanctuary. The room was poorly heated, un-airconditioned and it leaked when it rained. It was the epitome of funky.) We'd even supply them with leadership and funds for programming and events. They could do all the stuff they like to do, sing the way they like to sing, talk the way they like to talk and dress the way they liked to dress. And we could do the same. They'd be happy doing their thing and we'd be happy doing ours. Every once in a while we'd invite them back to put on a show for us. It would be called "Youth Sunday." The Youth Pastor or one of the youth would preach (not very well because they don't do that very often), sing (songs we didn't like with words we didn't understand and usually not sung to our high standards) and pray (in the stammering manner of youth who think "Uhhh" is a complete sentence) ... And we'd smile and applaud and silently give thanks that next week everything would be back to normal. (And maybe they'd be just as thankful that they wouldn't be trotted out on stage to be put on display next week, too.) Instead of doing the hard things like cooperating and learning and adapting, we chose the easier road. It was about three generations ago that we invited our teens to leave our churches.

And they haven't come back.

In fact, we gave them enough confidence in doing their own thing that that's exactly what they're doing. They're starting their own churches and they still meet in funky places. They still preach differently, sing differently and pray differently than their parents and grandparents. And for the most part they resist the denominational labels of their churchly elders and predecessors. (Curiously, they're beginning to recognize that they can't function independently and so they form "associations" of like minded churches. I like to think of these associations as "proto-denominations.")

So, was it a mistake to invite people of different ages (or colors) to leave and do their own thing? Did we do the right thing? Or, what if under the guise of, "We were just doing what we thought was best," we seriously missed the target?

If we did the right thing, then let's stop complaining that our children and grandchildren are joining with congregations that think and do things differently than we do. Let's recognize the fruits of our labors and celebrate when these newer churches sprout up on the swells of rolling hills or in living rooms and basements, or in our downtown storefronts, coffee houses, bars and nightclubs ... (They do meet in the funkiest places, don't they?) And no, they're not coming back. We invited them to leave. We gave them our blessing to go and do their own thing. And Big City Church, you might want to be a little more gracious and a little less audacious. And maybe even say, "Thank you." Because your "parents" did the right thing.

But if not, if the "parents" did make a mistake by inviting these people to leave, and some of these newer churches are the offspring of our mistake ... Should churches like Big Old attempt to reconcile with Big City? Would that be the Godly thing to do, or are we beyond redemption?

I also wonder, Are places like Big City a correction, a perpetuation or possibly a magnification of that mistake?

And mistake, or not, Would you vow to do things differently than your "parents"? Even under the best conditions I think anyone who has ever been a child has, at some time, promised that when they grow up they'll never treat their children the way their parents treat them. And every parent, even on their best days, can find themselves regretting that they just said and did the very same things their parents said and did.

So, what will our children's and grandchildren's churches do with their younger generations?

Will they do the hard thing and figure out how to live in the same room together?

Or will they also invite their children to do their own thing in their own space?

That's my brand ...

The "Hollister" brand is incredibly popular and people pay big money to be seen with "Hollister, CA." waving gently over their boobs and asses. They don't make anything big enough for my ass (probably intentional), but my daughter, who used to work at a Hollister store, is just the right size.

They have a dress code for their employees: Hollister, or something that the common shopper would mistake for Hollister. They also have an ingenious scheduling formula. My daughter was one of 150 young people on payroll and she worked 5-6 hours per week at minimum wage. Even with her employee discount she (and 149 others) earned just enough to purchase a pair of pants and a couple of blouses or shirts each month. She tried shopping elsewhere, but good luck finding Hollister ware at Target.

She worked there for 8 months and I don't think they ever had to pay her a dime.

But this isn't a story about Hollister. Hollister, CA is just good fodder for a story about marketing and branding, the lengths we will go to be associated (or not) with a "brand" and the price we pay for falling for this crap.

The Hollister* brand evokes thoughts of sunny California beaches and California girls. The kind whose asses you want associated with your brand. It is so "beachy" that their stores are set up in the style of oceanfront cabanas.

I had a friend in college from Hollister. His name was Tim and he didn't surf. That's because Hollister isn't near the beach. Hollister is right next to Gilroy, CA., "The Garlic Capital of the World." You can smell Gilroy long before you even know you're in Hollister. Just a little further away is Salinas, "The Lettuce Capital of the World." Salinas is more of a beach town than Hollister. In fact, before the clothing line came out, Hollister's only claim to fame was it's proximity to Gilroy. Just ask Tim.

Here is a picture I took of Hollister, CA. in 2008.

It looks just like Hollister did in 1978. And it looks a lot more like Iowa than it does "beach." It feels more like Iowa, too.

And it still smells like Gilroy.

But for some reason no one uses Hollister and cows (or garlic) in the same sentence.

I just think the whole marketing/branding thing is amusing because it seems to be a game of asking, "How far from reality can we go before we're discovered?"

It's almost as if the strategy is to clearly identify what we are, evaluate whether what we are will sell, and if necessary, change the equations to something that will sell. In the case of Hollister the equation would look something like this:

Farm = Beach

and everyone will buy it because

People = Cattle

In my town, Mega Suburban Church (not their real name) decided recently that their "brand" was stiffling their growth and so they've changed their name. They dropped the denominational tag because they no longer want to be associated with a denomination that is known for building "walls and fortresses" and behaving like "hyper-separationists" (sic). (This was such big news it made the front page of our local paper not once, but twice!)

Not that they no longer want to be associated with their denomination. In fact, the pastor affirms that all denominational ties are intact and healthy and that the church will continue to affiliate with the denomination and support denomination endorsed causes.

They just don't like people thinking that they "build walls and fortresses" and act like "hyper- separationists" (sic) like others with the same name.

"We feel we can tell [a better outreach story] if we don't make people outside our church think we're something we're really not."

Really. And Farm = Beach.

Mega Suburban Church, the one that just changed their name, has their own school (up through 12th grade). They do their own form of "biblical" counseling for personal psychological, emotional and social issues. (I know of a woman who was in a physically abusive marriage and the "biblical" counsel she received was to stay in the relationship and "submit" to husband.) And someone there is teaching their congregants that other denominations (for example, Orthodox Christians) are heretics and that people specifically in Big Old Church (where I work) are not "saved."

How far from reality can you go before you're discovered? Pretty far, it seems. A few years ago the senior pastor at Big Old Church**, a woman, called the senior pastor at Mega Suburban Church to ask what the deal is and why they find it necessary to slander other Christians. I was with her in her office and she began the conversation by stating, "I'm sure we have more in common than not, so could we talk about this?" He said he didn't have time to talk to her. Ever.

Just imagine what Mega Suburban would be like if they were the type who built walls and fortresses or acted like hyper-separationists.

I think it would've been more appropriate for Mega Suburban Church to totally drop Church from their name and replace it with Institute. (Then they could be known as Megatute.)

But that would change the equation to Farm = Farm.

And that will probably never happen because Hollister is right, People = Cattle.

* A note about Hollister ware. I've heard that the brand is named for a person. While that may be true, the clothing often reads something like, "Hollister, CA."

** A word, or two, about Big Old Church and the Megatute (Mega Suburban Institute). For example, we carry the same denominational "brand" that Megatute used to carry, we both have schools that meet on our grounds and we both have had counselors and therapists in our congregation. A few differences between us would be that we haven't dropped the brand (yet), the school at Big Old is a public school, and the therapists at Big Old support laws that protect family members from each other because of their faith. We both teach "submission" - but at Big Old we find that mutual submission captures the essence of the Scriptures more fully than just having our women submit to men. We both have a story: Megatute’s story is crafted and told by a pastoral staff of about 10 (men) and a deacon board of about 31 (men); Big Old's story includes men and women who serve in every capacity and in any position of leadership within our church, even as senior pastor. We both seem to affirm and celebrate our Christian and denominational roots - but the people of Big Old can join in on projects with other denominations and serve the community along side people who don't share our religious or spiritual values without hiding behind judgmental and slanderous comments. I could go on but then I'd eventually have to talk about all the stuff Big Old sucks at, so ... let me just say I'm not sure we're the ones who are currently building walls and acting like the "separationists" that Megatute says prompted them to change their name. A bit of irony here, though, is that whenever Big Old is in the news (usually for something like feeding people downtown or hosting an event that may not include "Praise the Lord" in the dialogue) our local media almost invariably gets confused about our names and they end up putting Mega Suburban’s name on what we’ve been doing. I think repeatedly seeing and hearing their name put on something the people known as Big Old (Super Fortress) Church does really pisses them off. So much so that they finally had to change their name. But whatever the reasons they give, I’m glad they did ...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Church Without Pants

New churches are so dime a dozen. I live in a relatively small city and six new churches have opened in the last three years just in our little downtown. Seriously. They try to come off as unique and distinct but they're all doing the same things: Marketing consultants and demographic surveys, "branding," distinctive logos and signage, mass mailings, glitzy websites, young (white) male pastors with either shaved heads or pointy hair, passionate (but totally hierarchical) leadership with no venue for accountability, "Biblical" teaching and "dynamic worship experiences", names like Connected, River of God, Path, and City Church, gritty bands, color coordinated storefront locations, no denominational trappings, big goals, and a target audience. I wonder what that sixth and latest church thinks they're going to do in our downtown that the five previous iterations aren't doing. Maybe they think they'll be our own local version of Elevation (Please stop here to check out "The Code". It's a glitzy presentation of Elevation's story and viewing it helps the rest of this story of The Church Without Pants make a lot more sense). Maybe they imagine that they'll do for the church what The Beatles did for music.

But except for maybe the glitzy websites, we've been there and done that. The fact is there are so many of these cool churches out there using words like dynamic, single minded, purpose driven, dominating, and unapologetic to describe themselves, that I wonder if they might not be losing their edge. ("The Edge" - Now that might be a cool name for a church.)
But when I get a vision for something new I can count on three things: 1) it's not going to be The Beatles of church, 2) it certainly won't be considered "cool," and 3) it probably won't really be new. Maybe that's because it was more of an hallucination than a vision. But just imagine, if it was The Beatles of church, what might it be like ...

... In my vision/hallucination, it would be The Church Without Pants.

I think the whole "pants" thing comes from the fact that I keep outgrowing mine. Which makes me think of expansion. Maybe I should I call this new thing Expansion Church. The name borders on cool. It conjures images of growth and substance rather than bare tushies. But it could also just be a reminder of some kind of unwanted swelling or the fact that my ass is already bigger than my brain and it is still expanding.

And instead of using words like "compelling," "dominate" and "audacious" this Expansion Church will use words like "we," "ordinary," "dorky," and "zing." And we'll use lame phrases like "We am ..." Expansion is dorky followers of Jesus whose vision (and whose asses) are too big for their pants.

So here's part of our secret code, 11 of the expansive secrets of Expansion:

I We live an outrageous faith - This makes it possible for us to make up words (see secret VIII below) and sing Beatles tunes whenever we want. Most church folk think we're downright crazy. And they're right.

II You don't want to be here - Well, maybe you do, but most people don't. Not really, anyway. If you come to church in order to receive something or "get something out of it" there is probably a big box church nearby that is targeting consumers of religious and spiritual goods, like you. Go there. We can get more done if you're consuming worship somewhere else.

III More about the box - Cool people think they think outside the box. The even cooler people think they think inside the box. We recycle boxes.

IV We have a vision that's too big for our pants - God never changes but our vision of God does. Our vision isn't for a 3D or XL God or even the 2X version of God. We want all of God. Give us the God of 5X. And when we've met God 5X we'll want the 7X God. Give us the Big God, The One we can't totally figure out.

V You don't get it - Actually, no one gets it here. You only get it by giving it away. Faith and worship are not about us receiving. God gives us everything we need whether we worship, or not. Faith comes alive and worship happens when we start letting it go.

VI We am what we am - An expansion of a truth made famous by Popeye the Sailor. Some communities are like hives with thousands of drones. They are efficient and usually guided by a dominant personality with a simple and singular vision. At Expansion, "We" is everyone. Expressing our passions, personal preferences, choices and opinions is what makes us a community. It makes us what we am. It also makes us different from a hive.

VII We are guaranteed unprofessional - Turn down the house lights and turn on the fog machines then scream, applaud, capture video, tweet or text your friends, and wave your cell phones as much as you want. Just don't pretend that's what worship is. Stop being a schnorrer and cough up the bucks for a ticket if you really want to see a show or a concert. Worship isn't a show. Worship is literally "falling down" before God and we have no professionals leading us in face-plant rituals from the stage. (But perhaps we should ...) Expansion is just "we" offering ourselves to God. If a dazzling presentation accompanied by shouting, jumping and Christian mosh pits (Sanctified feel-up sessions) is your idea of worship see secrets II and V above.

VIII Our community has some added "zing" - Besides making up words (see Secret I), we are constantly de-monumentizing, un-inertiatizing, re-initializing, momentumizing, missionizing and transformizing because we are constantly making huge mistakes (zing), discovering new things about ourselves and God (see secrets IV and VI above) and becoming a new-improved version of what God is doing with us. (Zing. Zing. Zing.)

IX We are united by the dream of God's dream - "... Your will be done on earth as in heaven." Really? Jesus wants us to pray that the earth will be like heaven? If that's true, we had better get a better glimpse of what heaven is like. Hint: Heaven is not full of churches where cool people are entertained while children, homeless, hungry ... (feel free to add to the list) are either paraded in to put on a show to make us feel better about ourselves, or are made to feel unwelcome, stupid, out of place, unworthy or untouchable.

X We should expect this - God may make the rules and God has graciously let us in on some of them, but by no means can we presume to know all there is to know about God and how God wants things done. And so we are not surprised when God does something surprising. We expect the unexpected.

XI Leave your fancy pants at home - Just bring yourself: your plain, ordinary, sinful, dorky self. The self that God sees and yet still invites to the party. The self that God is saving and bringing to life. We believe in that self, too.

Expansion Church - For those whose asses are too big for their pants but who still want to grow in every known and yet-to-be known dimension. It's the Church Without Pants.