Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Battle

As I continued to look into the Scripture, I noticed that angels’ wings were fluttering all around the first few chapters of Matthew and all through the narratives of the conception and early childhood of Jesus. And I wondered what this might have to add to the truth that I discovered about Jesus being declared as our deliverer from the very start.

The root word for Angel is messenger. Angels are simply messengers of God if you go simply by their name. And this truth is both helpful, and somewhat deceiving if you just stop there.

One of the books I utterly hated when I went to a Christian college was a series of novels with all sorts of angels and demons called THIS PRESENT DARKNESS. From the moment it came out, everyone seemed to be seeing angels and demons in everything. If something went bad in their life, it was because of demons. If they narrowly avoided car accidents, it was because a host of angels protected the vehicle. I remember a friend invoking angelic protection as we were about to drive from Sterling, KS to Lawrence in a small hatchback in the middle of a blizzard. I kept wondering why God did not advance the angels ahead of time to give him a vision to get snow tires for the death trap we called his vehicle. Providentially, we made our journey safely.

There is a lot of angelology and demonology that is based on extra-biblical philosophy and experience. But much of these stories reflected a truth I often ignore, and that I rediscovered in preparing for this sermon.

You see I did a little study on angels through the Bible and biblical history. And one thing you notice right away about the angels in scripture is that they are always in the middle of a cosmic battle. Read Daniel and Revelation. Look at what is implied in the passage on spiritual warfare in what Paul said to the Ephesian church.

As we look at this passage, we see right away that there is a power struggle happening. From the beginning, Jesus is under attack. From the beginning, Jesus is in the middle of a battle.

This should not have surprised me, because deliverers often are engaged in a great struggle or battle in order to deliver those in bondage. But it was a surprise nonetheless.

As a young Christian, I used to think that when I became more mature and knowlegable in my faith, that somehow following Jesus would become easier. That it would go from being a daily battle to second nature.

I have since come to agree with renowned Christian leaders like CS Lewis and Thomas a Kempis who say the opposite. The more I grow in my faith, the more it is a battle to continue to strive to be faithful. With increase in faith, I also find increase in temptation. The more I seem to press forward in my journey of faith, the more acute the attacks of the enemy seem to be at the same time. And the more attractive running away from everything I have built my life on seems to be. Because even though I am called into the battle of faith, a lot of times it seems easier to be a coward.

One of my favorite modern Christian leaders, Eugene Peterson, puts it this way. He says that there is no place in the universe that is not contested ground. Each and every moment is a battle. Each and every decision has not only personal but cosmic importance.

At the risk of being overly direct and transparent, or sounding weak or complaining, I feel compelled to share something with you. My experience in ministry has felt like a battle. There is not a year that I have not struggled with the fear that all of my efforts have not made a bit of difference. There has not been a year in over 11 years of ministry where I have not been ambushed by an unexpected attack. I have been lied about and lied to. I have been picked at and picked apart. I have been criticized about everything from my svelt physical appearance and my choice of footwear to how peppy or somber I am to the fact that I am not married. And everything in between. Sometimes these difficult experiences that feel like attacks are used by God’s grace to allow him to work victory in my life and my ministry. Other times they can be classified as nothing more than spiritual attack in my mind. Either way, I guess I see part of being called to ministry and to follow Jesus is a call to be a good soldier in the spiritual battlefield I am assigned to.

It’s interesting. In continuing in the struggle, at least in my ministry and spiritual journey, I have over and over seen the grace of reconciliation and forgiveness at work. Through persisting in love and hope I have seen students who were dead set on doing everything they could to see me fired by my church (and some have made valiant efforts) become friends, supportive youth leaders as they got older. In fact, one such student now meets with a mutual friend and prays for me and my family specifically on a weekly basis. The same has happened with parents, church leaders, peers in ministry, and even leaders in the community. And this is no surprise to us. The thing is, I don’t get deserve any credit for this. My deliverer does. Because his invasion into this world is about this kind of thing. This is because even though Christ comes as our deliverer, and joins into spiritual battle along side us to deliver us, he is a different kind of leader than the leaders of this world. And he fights a different kind of battle than we expect.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Different Kind of King

Which brings me to the final thing I noticed as I began to study this passage. There is a contrast between the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of Jesus. There are two kings in this passage…with different claims to authority, different agendas, striving for different kinds of influence.

The Hebrew people expect a military leader that will help them overthrow the world’s powers by force. They get a deliverer who is a suffering servant that delivers the world through entering its suffering in Bethlehem and taking the world’s sin upon himself at the cross on Calvary.

Herod is the kind of king that attempts to overcome his enemies through violence and force. Jesus delivers the world through love and compassion.

Herod is now dead. His palace is in ruins. His kingdom has long faded away. And if it had not been for his relationship to Jesus, nobody would have remembered him.

Jesus is risen from the dead and reigns at the right hand of God. His kingdom continues to grow. People today still worship him, and await the fullness of his deliverance.

Loyalists of the kingdom of Herod inherit the fate of Herod.

Followers of Jesus have an eternal inheritance to look forward to. And they begin to help bring it about even now as they join Jesus’ revolution of justice, love, and compassion—even for our enemies. In being delivered, we get to become a heralds of the good news of our continuing and impending deliverance to others.

Herod rules by staying above the fray and collecting more and more money and political control through fear and moral compromise.

Jesus enters into the sin and suffering of this world, befriending the moral compromisers he hopes to lead, in order to deliver them to a life of hope and complete transformation.

The picture we have of the church, the one full of perfect people who have things all figured out and have everything in their lives all together, that church does not exist and it never has. That is not the kind of church that we see in the Bible. The church we see in the Bible is a church full sinful people who have made total messes of their lives who discover a community that is about proclaiming a deliverer and embodying the love of a King who seeks to deliver us.

The people of God that Jesus comes to deliver are sinners all. Sinners who fall on their knees and cry out for deliverance to the one who is coming out of Egypt to rescue them from their pain and heartache, their oppression and affliction. Even more than they cry out to be delivered from their self-righteous, self-justifying selves and march into a kingdom of humility and love.

May God find me in that number. May God find you in that number, May God find us in that number together. Amen.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Money Waters

is a guy I played college football with. His name when I knew him was Ian "Money" Johnson. Not sure I would call him a buddy. He was mad at me for writing him up for dormitory rules infractions our junior year, which led to a one game suspension from the football team (walking the halls on a dry campus with a bottle of malt liquor). But we seemed to get along well about the time of graduation from Sterling College. Now he is an independant rapper in Texas with an apparently bright future in rap. When "Money" was in college he was our star wide reciever.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Me and God

That is the title of a fairly recent release by Josh Turner. The lyrics of the song can be found here. The thing is, there is something that disturbs me about this song. Do I disagree with it? Not necessarily. But the chumminess of which he speaks of the divine somehow disturbs me. I couldn't figure out why until I thought about it a bit.

What bothers me is in the title. Its "Me and God". Its too self-centered. God is my buddy. He's got my back, so don't mess with me. This sentiment is so wrongheaded. Yet, whether it is American Christianity, American Buddhism, the New Age movement, or whatever is around me, it seems to echo the same religious sentiment. "Me and God".

The strange thing is that Jesus brought in "love your neighbor as yourself" into that whole "me and God" equation. The "me and God" equation is all about God using me to love others on his behalf. We are not partners. God is God and I am not. I am God's servant and his vessel.

And it is not just about me. It is about the world I love in that is in need. The person who needs someone to listen to. Yet, much of pop spirituality is tied up in this me and God motif. And for some reason it rubs me the wrong way.

I made the evening news

The other night I got a call from Scott Harrison of Channel 13 in Colorado Springs. He asked me to comment on the new Left Behind game.I said a lot of things that I thought were really smart, but the clips made me look a little like a dumb ox. You can link to a transcript of the report here.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Current Reading: Welcoming But Not Affirming

I just finished reading "Welcoming But Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality". It is a comprehensive book that states this position well. It is written by the deceased Stanley Grenz, who was a prolific writer and theologian.

Perhaps most interesting in his thesis was the relationship throughout human history between faith viewpoints and the related sexual behavior to that faith viewpoint. His position is that one's views and behavior sexually in some strange way almost always integrated to one's spirituality/relationship with God. In the process, he shows historical basis for "ritual enactment" across cultures, and then points out Scriptures to show that one's sexual behavior is intimately tied to one's worship life. This kind of creeps me out, but it also seems to have a lot of truth to it.

Overall, it was helpful in giving me some perspective about related community issues and struggles our church is having.

Brainwashed--a humorous story with a point by NT Wright which appears in the John for Everyone commentary

A story from NT Wright:

A friend of mine described the reaction when he went home, as a young teenager, and announced to his mother that he'd become a Christian.Alarmed, she thought he'd joined some kind of cult.'They've brainwashed you!' she said.He was ready with the right answer.'If you'd have seen what was in my brain,' he replied, 'you'd have realized it needed washing!'Of course, he hadn't been brainwashed. In fact, again and again - and this was certainly the case with my friend - when people bring their lives , their outer lives and inner lives, into the light of Jesus the Messiah, things begin to become clear.If anything, it is the surrounding culture that brainwashes us, persuading us in a thousand subtle ways that this present world is the only one there is. This is seldom argued. Rather, a mood is created in which it is easier to go with the flow. That's what happens in brainwashing. What the gospel does is to administer a sharp jolt, to shine a bright light, to kick-start the brain, and the moral sensibility, into working properly for the first time.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Something is in the water

ht to Non-Prophet

It seems that there are a lot of people who are coming out in the open about their lifestyles these days.

First, there was the announcement from Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church's Senior Pastor about his choice to step down because of his sexual orientation. Dr. Reynolds was a leading advocate for civil rights in Colorado Springs, and his church is dually aligned with National Baptists and American Baptists (my denomination).

Then, Ted Haggard and New Life made national news with the same issue.

Now another megachurch in South Denver has had its senior pastor forced to resign for the same reason. Wow.

Whose next?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Special Links to Read

For some helpful writing advice
Passing on the passive voice (ht Ivan Wolfe)

Kindergarten Romeo (ht Brotha Buck)

Sarah's Christmas Wish (ht Ruby Rocks)

Elf Yourself (ht Marko)

The Best New Christmas Present You Could Buy for your child (ht John)

Blue Christmas

I was listening to Christmas music and noticed how much several songs of Christmas are different than I expected. Of course,there are a lot of Christmas songs that are all about frolicking in the snow, or falling in love while getting close to someone on a winter's night. To my surprise there are also a number of songs that have a more somber mood. Even more surprising, almost all of the more somber songs are more directly related to the spiritual side of Christmas.

I am no musical expert, but have you noticed how many songs of the season have minor chord arrangements? I do not think O Come, O Come Emmanuel can be sung well as a joyous and celebrative piece. It is meant to be a song that is somber and full of heartfelt longing for redemption and new life. I have also come to love "Mary, Did You Know?", which is a song that makes one think both of the hope to come and the suffering that must be endured to get to that point. Sting sings what appears to be a classic lesser known hymn called "Gabriel's Message" which is a hauntingly beautiful meditation on Gabriel's telling Mary she was going to have a child that was going to die to save the world. Ever listen to "Down in Yon Forest" sung by Bruce Cockburn? That is downright creepy, bloody story of the Holy Grail and Christmas. Speaking of Bruce Cockburn, I have also enjoyed Mary Had A Baby. This song has a more celebrative tone, but the message is a Negro Spiritual communicating that the Underground Railroad has "left the station" to head north.

Also, have you noticed how many Christmas songs are filled with questions and mystery? Do you hear what I hear? Mary Did You Know? What Child Is This? These are all titles of songs that begin with and ponder questions. There is even a sense of apprehension and doubt in Little Drummer Boy, which reminds of our own insecurities and doubts of acceptability in the eyes of a God become man.

Finally, there are a lot of songs that are simply filled with wonder. Even the Christmas song is filled with meditative wonder at the gifts and the blessings of God in our lives.

In our eagerness to celebrate Christmas, I have begun to think we need to take time to ponder at Christmas time a little more. There is a lot of emphasis by persons of faith that we need to remember the "reason for the season", but a lot of time that does not change much of how we remember. The remembering just goes from us getting a bunch of stuff from Santa to associating our materialism and parties with Jesus.

Maybe at Christmas time, especially in the Advent season that precedes Christmas, we need to rediscover the importance of wonder, of coming to terms with our spiritual emptiness and longing that we feel, and to give voice to our desparate longing for renewal and redemption.

Something to think about anyway.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


I wrote this poem on Saturday evening after going up in the mountains for the afternoon. I have to warn you, it is an angst ridden poem full of doubt, confusion, regret, and a longing for hope. (And Mom and sis, don't worry about me I am fine). Much of the poem is playing around with the metaphor of the verb to fall. I was thinking about fallenness in a theological sense (separation from God) and the guilt that comes with a profound sense of that fallen state, taking leaps of faith (falling into the arms of God). It is also a little about what it means to fall in love, and to fall on your face in failure. I hope as you read you will identify with the feelings expressed and how they relate to your own life. Here it is:


know how
get back
on firm
solid ground

in the

all at the

my harbor
of safety
and knowledge
into a
of mystery

tears of
fears of
of doubt
in my

like socks
in the
I'm fallin'

Not sure
what's right
(or left)
or wrong
caught in
a riptide
where effort
seems useless
and surrender
an unacceptable failure

don't know
what part
of me
to trust
what to
how to
turn to
a new

Help me
me know
where to
how to
what to
whether to
say yes
or no.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Something stinks about this.

Most of us have some sort of gastrointestinal struggles while travelling. If you happen to become malodorous as a result of these struggles, it is still important to follow safety rules on our friendly skies. If you click HERE, you will see an example of someone who lacks a little common sense.

(ht to marko)

Meet an old friend of mine....

Scholar, armchair Mormon theologian, Battlestar Galactica buff, Ph D student Ivan Wolfe. Also teammate and high school chum of yours truly, Friar Tuck.

Drop by, say hi, and discuss the musical group Tears for Fears with him. He will soon be added to the blogroll.

God's Good Earth, Part 2

I grew up in the logging center of the world when I was a child. Douglas County, OR, which received its name about the same time as the Douglas Fir. So until late grade school, most of my childhood was spent with people who worked at the lumber mill, were loggers out in the forest, or were involved in other logging related industry.

If one listened to modern environmentalists, they would say that I would have learned abuse for the environment and disrespect for the land from these often hard-drinking, hard living folks. Infact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Early logging was all about pillaging the forests for rapid expansion, but most of the people that I grew up with in the logging industry had a deep respect for natural places. For instance, most of the men I have grown up with were hunters. So, they killed a few deer for their meet every year. However, they also spent hours making their ways to remote places just to look at herds of antelope and deer, and asses the relative health of the animal population. They were not about to eliminate modern forests from the world around them, because the forests were where they made their living. It was also the place where they spent a lot of their time, and a place where they loved to be.

Part of what has bothered me about the environmental movement, even though I have great sympathy for it, is the arrogance of non-local people coming in and inposing arbitrary rules about a land that they knew little about. Also, there is a sense in America in which there is great bias in who and where we chose to use environmental distinctions.

Let me give an example. I grew up in the Northwestern United States. And there is a lot of concern in not touching forests and leaving them as pristine as possible (which at times is a healthy impulse to preserve places of rare beauty, and at other times causes major environmental concerns due to overgrowth.). When I went to school, I spent 7 years in the breadbasket of the United States, and in Colorado Springs I am on the border of the Western Plains. In these two environments, from a Western perspective, I percieved an injustice.

All one has to do is read stories and narratives about the dustbowl to realize the damage that excessive farming has done to the grassland environment of the Midwest. Much of the Great Depression in America could have been averted if we had chosen to give proper care to plains ecosystems. Many environmentalists believe the Ogalla aquifer (The massive underground lake that makes the midwest able to produce and sustain crops from North Dakota to Oklahoma), is being dangerously depleted to such an extent that it may run completely dry in 100 years. Also, due to overfarming, topsoil is being depleted in the midwest at a rapid rate. The best thing to do to avert this is to surrender more and more land in the midwest to seeding the natural grassland that was there until about 130-150 years ago.

Another example is that 200 years ago a lot of the land from the Appalachian mountains to the Mississippi River was land that was forested. Yet, there is not a large movement to reforest much of the land there. Why not? Why not reforest large parts of the Rust Belt where factories have closed, and employ former factory workers to do the work? Why not raze the blocks of abandoned buildings in places like Detroit and St. Louis and create arboreteums in the city.

Yet, where do we pick on? The Northwestern forests. Where people are very knowledgable and skilled on how to harvest trees, while still being sensitive to ecosystems.

One of the frustrations of environmental groups and movements, along with many outreach endeavors (religious, economic development) is that people don't use local people to develop creative solutions to environmental dilemas that can support ecosystems and people that depend on the land around them simultaneously. We need to do better in this regard, both to support people who need to live and eat, and to gain support for responsible, realistic help for the environment.

Friday, December 01, 2006

God's Good Earth Part 1

My sister is an environmentalist. I mean that both in a political and a vocational sense. She works for a non-profit agency seeking to support and preserve sea life and coastal habitat. I am proud of her for that. Actually, I am proud of her for a lot about the woman she has turned out to be, including her calling take baby steps to help heal the damage humans have done to the earth.

When my sister was in high school, and I was in college, I worked to find her resources in our college library and through interlibrary loan to find articles about how the Christian faith relates to the environmental movement (this is when most of us did not have internet capability). There was a lot about St. Francis and his care for animals, which I thought was a credible yet lame example of Christian care for the environment--if that was all their was. In Science magazine in 1967 published an article by Lynn White Jr. called "The Roots of our Ecological Crisis", in which White lays the blame of environmental exploitation on the hands of the Judeo-Christian worldview. And he had some credible arguments.

Since White's seminal article on the relation of religion and environmentalism, Christians have tried to find a narrative of environmental care from Scripture. I believe the pro-environment narrative is there in God's word.

Throughout Scripture there is a sense in which God refers to the natural world as revealing truth about him, and of being witnesses to his glory. When God makes his case about evil done by humans, he asks the mountains and the natural world to be witnesses of what he says. When he gives his law in Leviticus, he makes sure he commands us to let fields lie fallow on a regular basis. And when people command Jesus to silence the crowds, he says that if they were to be quiet the rocks would cry out. Jesus asks us to consider lillies and sparrows (Matt. 5), uses monstrous sea animals as examples of his splendor and his creativity (Job), and gives us trees as role models (Psalm 1). Christ came to earth welcomed by barn animals because people would not give him a place to stay.And the first people that come to meet him are people who care for sheep.

Tony Campolo has shared in his lectures and writings that when a species of animal dies somehow we silence the voice of God. Not because each animal and human is part divine (which is more pantheism than Christianity), but because each creation was spoken into existence by God (Gen 1-3), and creation is meant to give God glory and ascribe worship to him (Revelation 4). I think to a certain point I agree with Dr. Campolo, and it informs my attitude of care for the environment.

The challenge of the issue is this for me right now. It seems fairly clear to me that much of big business and oil have formed an unholy alliance with the religious right in many ways (although that is changing). It also seems very clear to me that the political left, often the radical political left, is closely aligned with a some environmental projects that are at worst dishonest, and at best unjust toward the immediate needs of the working class, the poor and the destititute. And changes are often advocated by children of yuppies who live off trust funds so they can have the luxury of making not wearing deodorant or washing their hair in the name of their ideals. But when the Kjoto treaty tries to address this in giving China a little more time to catch up, then the right steps in (supported by the extreme religous right) to push America away from ratifying the treaty. In other worlds, I think when people are beholden to a political agenda as their moral voice when it comes to environmental concerns, they end up decieved and used by both conservatives (the industrial elite) and liberals (the over-"educated" elite).

Which leaves me to share where environmental concerns inform my lifestlyle and when they do not. Which is a forthcoming post.

Who Said It? Jesus or someone else?

This is a quiz I am developing for Sunday school in a couple of days. Tell me which quotes you think are from Jesus, and which quotes you think are from someone else. Write them down. The answers appear in the comment section once you have taken the quiz. See how you do, and then tell me how you did.

1.The Truth shall set you free

2.The Soul of a man is immortal and imperishable

3.The unexamined life is not worth living

4.Love never claims, it ever gives

5.He who does not love God does not know God, for God is love

6.I have come that they may have life

7.What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose their soul

8.From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs

9.The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak

10.Over the soul God will not suffer any man to rule, only he himself will rule there

11.Both heaven and hell are within us

12.The kingdom of God is within you


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