Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Friday, September 28, 2012

My love for "Relevant Magazine"

My wife and I have a little inside joke between us;  Whenever we are a little critical of someone or something, that person or thing will, without fail, turn around and demonstrate some act of charity or kindness which leaves us with egg on our faces.  I think it started with Tammy commenting before our marriage that a particular female worship leader's attire was not appropriate one Sunday morning and then having that same person gush to Tammy how much she would like to volunteer to make our wedding reception something special...

...that kinda situation has been happening ever since.

In March of 2009 I wrote a blog piece on my view that there should be a moratorium on use of the word "relevant" in church circles as people were coming dangerously close to making it a sacrament alongside marriage and baptism.   In fact, my precise words were:

 There are a few words I believe the church needs to have a moratorium on. These include use of the word "Extreme" in any youth group related activities, use of the word "Victory" in any church names, and use of the word "Relevant" in any form whatsoever.

So it goes without saying that in a small way that post has come back to bite me.  Last week I subscribed to Relevant a periodical that monikers itself as a "Magazine on Faith, Culture, and Intentional Living."  And to add insult to injury, I'm addicted to the weekly Relevant podcasts which I often listen to on the train heading to and  from work.

Founded by Cameron Strang, son of Christian media pioneer Stephen Strang, the magazine, while maintaining an anchor in evangelical Christianity, penetrates outside the traditional Christian bubble and examines issues such as social justice and culture.

Put it this way, you're more likely to find Mark Ruffalo on the cover than Mark Driscoll. 

As they say at their website:

We try to publish ideas that break stereotypes, challenge the status quo and spur a generation to know God more—and change the world while they're at it. We want to engage our generation in a deeper conversation about faith, challenging worldviews and causing people to see God outside the box they’ve put Him in. Encountering God changes things.

I really love it but wished it had another name...  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Young Evangelicals are going Liturgical

I have a confession to make;  I have been, and probably still am, a "sneaker."

Now, don't look so surprised.  There are a LOT of us and if you are a Beyond the Pale reader there is a chance you either are one...or may give it a try :)

So what is a "sneaker" you ask?

Well, I read an interesting blog post over at Adorate Worship about how many, mainly young people, are "sneaking" out of their evangelical / charismatic churches on the off Sunday to go hang out with the Catholics, Anglicans, and other more mainline denominations to participate in a little liturgical worship.

Now some of you reading this are wondering "Why on earth would anyone want to do that?"  Others of you reading this are nodding your head and whispering an "amen" because you know exactly why they're doing it!

I've been a Christian for 37 years now and remember the 1970s when the "sneaking" went the other way.  Catholics, Lutherans, & Methodists, bored by the monotony of traditional hymns and church organs, were "sneaking" into charismatic worship times for a little hand clapping, foot stomping "Hallelujah" action.  I remember being 10 years old and telling my Catholic friend Bobby, "Dude, we have electric guitars and church."

Oh, how the times have changed...

So why, after 30-40 add years where evangelical "praise and worship" has become the new "traditional",  do young evangelicals "sneak" off to more liturgical and corporate times of worship?  The blog piece at Adorate Worship suggests:

The reasons for this new wave of sneakers are obvious.  They’ve grown up dancing, so they long to kneel.  They’ve grown up with masterfully orchestrated services, so they long for worship that may be planned, but never rehearsed.  They’ve grown up with the latest, so they long for the oldest.  They’ve grown up with, “God is here, let’s celebrate!”   They long for “God is here, let’s kneel and be silent.” 
They’ve grown up being urged, “Now, everyone can just worship God however you might want.  Just let the Holy Spirit move you.  We are all different.”  So now some are seeking worship where the implied advice is, “Now, everyone leave your hyper-individuality at the door.  Let’s say words together.  Let’s make gestures together.  Stand together.  Kneel together.  Let’s listen to the wisdom the Holy Spirit has given over the centuries."
My own experience in "sneaking" started in 2004.  I attended the Pastor's meetings in Boulder, Colorado and one of the attending minister's was the priest from the local Catholic church.  The very fact that a Catholic priest wanted to join with his protestant brothers instantly warmed my heart to him.  His church was nearly walking distance from my house so one Sat. evening (yes, its easier to do this on a Sat. evening especially when you are "sneaking" away from your own church :) I went over with the family to check it out.

I LOVED it!  There was just a different atmosphere and feeling of reverence that I longed for.  It wasn't "better" per se.  It simply allowed my spirit to experience a form of worship to the Living God that for many in that service was "normal" but for me, at that moment, was new and refreshing.  It's like having eaten hamburgers every Sunday for 30 years and then biting into a nice hot dog.  A different flavor...a different texture.

A visit to the Catholic church became a semi-regular occurrence for me. I even "snuck" out to visit a liturgical Presbyterian church and was amazed that during the Lord's Supper there was ten minutes of silence for reflection. TEN MINUTES!  When was the last time you had corporate silence for 10 minutes  in a charismatic church service?

Not better...just different...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Keeping Heaven, and Toy Story Land, in our Hearts!

Ethan just stood...and stared!
One of the best things about living in Hong Kong is that I have a Disneyland about 30 minutes from where we live.  Yes, God, in his infinite wisdom and knowing I would be returning to live in the city, had Hong Kong Disneyland built just for me...

...Ok, so it wasn't built just for me, but you have to admit, it's pretty cool to live 30 minutes from a Disneyland.

Anyhow, we visited the park late one afternoon last week and I got a little insight from my not quite 2 year old son, Ethan George, on what having a "focus on heaven" can do for one's ...mmmm... enthusiasm.

We were in Grizzly Gulch, one of the 3 new "mini-lands" being constructed at the park alongside Toy Story Land and the soon to be completed Mystic Point.  It was September hot in Hong Kong and the cool water geysers in Grizzly Gulch were helping to keep us all chilled.  (Grizzly Gulch is a recreation of 1880's America West)

The start of the path
After riding the new roller coaster and running through the water area we decided it was time to take little Ethan to his favorite place in the park, Toy Story Land.  Toy Story Land lay just beyond the "soon to open" Mystic Point but the park had wisely put up a temporary wall creating a path through the construction area thus avoiding a long walk backtracking around the Jungle Cruise ride.

Tammy went to use the bathroom and said she'd meet us in Toy Story Land which left Ethan George and I to make the walk together.  The walls along the path were quite tall as to mostly shield the building work as well as to not break the "fantasy" of Disneyland by watching construction workers build the latest attraction.

Is this heaven?
But from Ethan's vantage point it just looked like a cool tunnel and like a bullet raced onto the "path".  But as he ran for a bit he realized nothing changed; just the same old boring high walled road.  As he turned a bend only to discover more road his pace got slower and slower, till finally he turned around and started walking back toward Grizzly Gulch.  I grabbed the little buck-a-roo and spun him back in the right direction and then holding his hand we walked together.

But it was late afternoon, the sun was setting in our eyes, and it was hot.  On top of that, because of his height, Ethan couldn't see the tall buildings and Amazonian theme of Mystic Point that was rising just beyond the walls.  Nope, all the little guy could see was lots of never ending walls and hot sun in his eyes.  After a few paces, he turned around and was literally trying to drag me back to Grizzly Gulch.  If he could speak it would go something like this, " Papa, forget the Promised Land, I wanna go back to Egypt."

I again spun him around, much to his displeasure, and headed us off in the right direction.  I knew once he "saw" Toy Story Land his heart would change.  We trudged on...Ethan hated it...but we trudged on.

Then, after turning a bend, Ethan got his first glimpse of his destination.  I watched him try to make it out as the sun was in his eyes. "Was that Rex the dinosaur?  Is that the Toy Story music I hear?  Is it, no it can't be...Buzz & Woody?"  The contorted look of pain suddenly turned to joy.  A big wide smile from ear to ear broke out across his face.  Suddenly he was running...and in the right direction!

The long path still to be walked was ignored.  The heat, the sun, the humidity...the boredom was but a distant thought in light of the glory that was Toy Story Land!  The only thing that mattered was arriving at his goal!

In my last post I reviewed a book Things Unseen about the importance of keeping a heavenly mindedness in heart as we encounter the world around us.  When we fail to keep our eyes on Heaven we will be continually discouraged by the momentary things that surround us.  We may even be tempted to turn around and head back to Grizzly Gulch.

Last week I had a lesson from my 2 year old on the advantages of keeping Toy Story Land in our heart

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Book Review: Things Unseen by Mark Buchanan

If there is is a passion for me right now, it would have to be the Kingdom of Heaven.  For someone who spent years (decades) as a political junkie, I think many who have known me are surprised how much my "politics" have transformed themselves from "things below" to "things above". But "things" have a way of changing  when you move from a theology of "getting from here to Heaven" to "getting Heaven to come here". I realized that many of my "good intentions" not only failed to help bring God's Kingdom to Earth but actually inhibited it's coming at all.

It's in this new environment for me that a pastor friend from Colorado recommended, Things Unseen: Living in Light of Forever by Mark Buchanan.  It has been said that "some people are too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good."  Buchanan's premise is that without a proper fixation on heaven, you "earthly good" will be all but crippled.

Rather than paint Heaven as the great "Here After",  Things Unseen reveals a heaven that we can have written in our hearts.  A heaven that guides our actions and decisions here and now; and when the time comes that we do move on into eternity, we simply transition into the fulness of what we had already been living in. 

This "Heavenly-mindedness" says Buchanan, "is sanity.  It is the best regimen for keeping our hearts whole, our minds clear.  It allows us to enjoy earth's pleasures without debauchery.  It allows us to endure life's agonies without despair.  It allows us to see things from the widest possible perspective and in the truest possible proportions.  If anything can give us a true scale of values- one that enables us to sort out the disposable from the precious, the trinkets from the treasures, the surface from the substance- heavenly mindedness can."

Much of the book's strength rests on Buchanan's gift at spinning a phrase that makes our understanding of an issue more passionate and inspiring.  Take for example "holiness".  Any preacher announcing he will do a series on "holiness" will usually generate a collective groan from the congregation.  "Holiness" in Buchanan's hand however comes out like this:

"God intends the holy life to be an odyssey of wonder.  The religious impulse tends to make it into a journey both dreary and heavy, perilous and plodding.  But God designed holiness to be invigorating, the discovery of life so abundant that if He didn't unveil it for us, we would forever lack the imagination even to ask for it."
 See what I mean?

So if you are looking on getting a clearer view of Heaven before death rather than after, Things Unseen, should go on your "to read" list!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Does the Chinese Government understand Christianity better than America?

I was in a meeting a couple weeks ago with some Americans and the topic of the U.S. election came up.  O.K., full disclosure, I was watching the Republican National Convention with a group from Republicans Abroad  here in Hong Kong.

(Hey, it included breakfast at The American Club whose club membership I could never afford in a million years so...yes...I shamelessly took the opportunity to have coffee and bagels in such a swank setting  even if it did mean having to endure watching Fox News on the big screen)

Of course being Republicans somehow the conversation meandered on to the topic of God and as I am a pastor and have had a little history with Republican politics my opinion was sought.

"Well," I said, "sometimes I wonder if the Chinese government might understand Christianity more than the American government."

Yes, jaws dropped... and then they wanted to know what I meant.

"Well," I explained, " the Chinese government understands that Christianity is an alternative way to order society.  That it places Jesus as Lord of everything in Heaven and Earth.  For Christians to truly follow Christ is to ultimately have an authority higher than the State.  China rather frowns that; seeing any authority higher than itself as not such a good thing.  Hence, they actively persecute it"

"In America we have a Christianity that tends to put American patriotism and "We the People" as the highest authority.  Yes Jesus is our "Personal Lord & Savior" but it better stay just that...personal.  Any public proclamation of Christianity is expected to be accompanied by tacit approval (and blessing) of general domestic and foreign policy."

I went on to explain in Rome the disciples of Christ were executed, as was Jesus himself, for proclaiming a king other than Caesar. Rome was fairly tolerant of other religions and if the the disciples had basically stuck to an American styled Christianity and just told people if they accepted Jesus Christ they could go to heaven one day, followed up by a "God Bless the Roman Empire", hey, they probably would have lived to a ripe old age.

The early church, however, tended to take the words of Christ seriously.  That the Kingdom of Heaven which had come to Earth through Jesus Christ was fundamentally at odds, not just with Rome, but with the power structures of the age.   As Christians we certainly can honor governmental authorities and engage in the civic process, but when the church simply performs the role of a chaplain called in to bless the latest government policy we lose our prophetic voice which is calling all people everywhere to be citizens of the Kingdom of the Heaven.

When I see American friends who have been walking with Christ for years angrily attacking political rivals  and defaming even fellow Christians who have a different political view I realize the Kingdom of Heaven is but a soft whisper in their ears that, sadly, is all too easily silenced by the kingdom of this corrupt age.

In the end my breakfast companions polietly thanked me for my thoughts on that but, you know, Clint Eastwood was coming on now so lets give the God stuff a rest and watch what Dirty Harry had to say.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Coast to Coast Walk Redux

For those of you that don't know, in July my 14 year old son Gabriel and I did the Wainwright Coast to Coast walk across northern England.  We started in the town of St. Bees on the Irish Sea coast and headed east eventually arriving on the North Sea coast 14 days later.  We traversed the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire Moors and it was the father / son trip of a life time.

Last week I did a school assembly where I compiled a stack of photos together and using the Animoto software program made a nice little keepsake of our amazing journey together. 

800 students watched the presentation and when I finished I walked over to the side of the gymnasium where one of the teaching assistants was crying.  Apparently she was REALLY touched by the following clip...I don't suspect most of you will have that same reaction, but I do hope you enjoy it!  Cheers..

Friday, September 7, 2012

How not to get Sucked into Election Season Madness

Wow, my Facebook news feed has really changed lately.  I knew the 2012 political season was in full swing  when the normal posts featuring my "friend's" travel adventures, babies being born, and what they had for breakfast were usurped by updates showing why the apocalypse will reign down on America if there is a Democratic or Republican victory in November.

What's most disturbing from my vantage point is that the most bombastic and "cringe worthy" posts come from Christians who, ironically, are supposed to be identified by the love they have for people. I'm left wondering at what point during the election season is the Sermon on the Mount  no longer applicable to Christ's disciples?

Back in 2003 when I was a graduate student at the University of Colorado our department invited former Democratic Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson in for a panel discussion.  One of the questions asked was how things in Congress had changed from when they served.  Their immediate response was the adversarial nature between the parties was much more bitter and personal than it had been in their day.  They noted how President Reagan (R) and House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D) fought passionately over policy but at the end of the day "they were two Irishmen who enjoyed beer."

What happened?  Why have Christians, who are supposed to be putting out fires of strife and discord, are instead fanning the flames?

I recently listened to an excellent teaching by Brian Zahnd called Election Season and your Soul.  He gives his church congregation a 10 point "voter guide" on how NOT to get sucked into the "madness" of the political season.

The original post can be found here:  Let me say I agree with the below points 150%...and you should too.

1. The political process, while necessary, has little to do with how God is saving the world.
For more on this point go here: The Church as an Alternative Society

2. The fate of the kingdom of God does not depend upon political contests.
Don’t be swept away by apocalyptic political rhetoric. It is what it is. Another election cycle. Jesus is Lord no matter who wins the Big American Idol contest and gets their turn at playing Caesar.

3. Don’t be na├»ve, political parties are more interested in Christian votes than they are in Christian values.
Do you doubt this? Thought Experiment: Imagine if Jesus went to Washington D.C. Imagine that he is invited to give a speech to a joint session of Congress. (He’s Jesus after all, and I’m sure the senators and congressmen would be delighted to hear a speech from the founder of the world’s largest religion—it would confer great dignity upon the institution.) Imagine that the speech Jesus gave was his most famous sermon—the Sermon on the Mount. Can you imagine that? Jesus is introduced. (Standing ovation.) He stands before Congress and begins to deliver his speech. “Blessed are the poor…the mourners…the meek.” “Love your enemies.” “Turn the other cheek.” After some perfunctory applause early on, I’m pretty sure there would be a lot of squirming senators and congressmen. The room would sink into a tense silence. And when Jesus concluded his speech with a prophecy of the inevitable fall of the house that would not act upon his words (Matthew 7:26–27), what would Congress do? Nothing. They could not act. To act on Jesus’ words would undo their system. In the end, the U.S. Congress would no more adopt the policies Jesus set out in the Sermon on the Mount than they were adopted by the Jewish Sanhedrin or the Roman Senate. The Jesus Way and the Politics of Power don’t mix.

4. The bottom line for political parties is power. The bottom line for a Christian is love. And therein lies the rub.
The problem with our “change the world” rhetoric is that it is too often a thinly veiled grasp for power and a quest for dominance—things which are antithetical to the way Jesus calls his disciples to live. A politicized faith feeds on a narrative of perceived injury and lost entitlement leading us to blame, vilify and seek to in some way retaliate against those we imagine responsible for the loss in late modernity of a mythical past. It’s what Friedrich Nietzsche as a critic of Christianity identified as ressentiment and it drives much of the Christian quest for political power.

5. While in pursuit of the Ring of Power, you are not permitted to abandon the Sermon on the Mount.

When the world is arranged as an axis of power enforced by violence, the pursuit of power trumps everything. But in the new world created at the cross (an axis of love expressed by forgiveness), love trumps everything. The Sermon on the Mount is our guide to this new kind of love. Among other things, this means you cannot deliberately portray your political opponents in the worst possible light. (Attack ads? Remember the Golden Rule?) Jesus also taught us that if you call someone you disagree with a “fool” you are liable to the “Gehenna of fire.” I might put it this way: When your political rage causes you to hurl epithets like “fool” and “idiot”—you are kindling the fires of hell in your own soul!

6. If your political passion makes it hard for you to love your neighbor as yourself, you need to turn it down a notch.

7. Your task is to bring the salt of Christian civility to an ugly and acrimonious political process.

If you cannot contribute to the redemption of the political process, but are instead being contaminated by it, then you are salt that has lost its savor…and what’s the point?

8. To dismember the body of Christ over politics is a grievous sin.
This business of denying that someone is true brother or sister in Christ based upon their politics is horrible and must be repented of! It is no small sin. When the Corinthian church carried their class divisions to the communion table, the Apostle Paul said, “Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Don’t do it!

9. Exercise your liberty to vote your conscience and conviction, while accepting that other Christians will do the same and vote differently than you.
There are committed Christians who conscientiously vote Republican. And there are committed Christians who conscientiously vote Democratic. This is true. You simply have to accept it.

10. It’s more important that your soul be filled with love than it is for your political team to win the game.
If your team loses, the sun will come up and life will go on. But if you damage your soul by succumbing to politically motivated vitriol that causes love to whither, you would have been better off to have never got yourself politically entangled in the first place.
I leave you with this…
Love is patient and kind.
Love does not envy or boast.
Love is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way.
Love is not irritable or resentful.
Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing,
Love rejoices with the truth.
Love bears and believes all things.
Love hopes and endures all things.
Love never fails.
This is what the Apostle Paul calls the “more excellent way.”
It is the way of Christ.
It is the holy way of love.
It is the way we are called to.
It is the way of human flourishing.
And if you have to choose between love and politics—choose love.