I’ve moved!

First off I want to thank everyone who has been reading this blog.  The interactions I have had with people has helped me in my own learning.  So thank you for coming, reading, and commenting.

we-have-moved-thumb-600x644Due to the amount of traffic my blog has been receiving lately, I am moving my blog to www.natepyle.com.  If you are a subscriber to this blog, I would love for you to follow the link and subscribe to my new blog.  You can do so through email subscription by clicking this link (or input your information on the form on the front page of my new blog) or through the RSS feed there.  Please stop on over, check it out, subscribe and let’s keep the conversation going!

Thanks!

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Sandy Hook Deserves Our Honesty

Aside

It is difficult to put words to the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. As a father, I cannot imagine what these parents and families are going through. There is a thought that breaks my heart: No doubt, there are homes with presents under a tree that will never be opened. Our thoughts and our prayers rightly go out to all those affected.

I am saddened by what happened. But today I am mourning the loss of empathy in our society. I, like many, followed the events of yesterday on social media. Hours was all it took for people to climb on top of their soap boxes and feel the need to connect this tragedy to a heart felt cause. I’m not saying those issues aren’t important, I am lamenting our ability as a society to “mourn with those who mourn.”

I think our inability to enter empathetically into the suffering of another comes, not from our preoccupation with our particular causes, but from our emotional immaturity. It might be right to label it as our emotional ignorance. I wonder, in the face of so many posts about gun control, mental health, violent video games, and the media if we really know how we felt yesterday.

Did the person who posted about guns not being the real issue understand their post as an anxious response to indescribable evil?

Did the mental health advocate see their response as an effort to negate the choice of another by labeling it as a disease?

Did the media hater recognize their desire for a scapegoat?

My Facebook and Twitter feed filled with people blaming this or blaming that or making the case as to why we shouldn’t blame that, but very few (if any) stated the most common emotion we all felt: fear. Deep down I believe all of us felt fear.

Because that could have been our children.

It could have been our son.

It could have been our neighbor.

It could have been our town.

It could have been me.

I wonder how we might respond if we moved towards our fear rather than shroud it in a brazen opinion about what may or may not be the reason for evil. Evil exists. And people make evil choices. We can try and figure out what makes a person do what they do all we want but we will never eradicate evil. No amount of legislation, medication, or anything else is going to change the broken nature of a human being. My wish, is that in the face of evil, we as a society could be authentic about what we are really feeling. Because maybe if we admitted that anyone who could walk into a school and shoot children scares us, then we might be able to embrace our humanity enough to embrace another. Maybe our mourning for others would really be mourning. Maybe we would really show compassion. Maybe grace might be extended. Maybe people would feel cared for because they wouldn’t have to wonder if they are being used by some cause. Maybe our authenticity would lead to a genuine care for each other. Maybe in saying how we really felt we would see what we would really hope for.

Maybe this might happen less.

So, for the sake of authenticity, how did you feel yesterday?

Political Idolatry

Please read this post about political idolatry.  It says much of what I have felt for some time.

If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, ‘What a shame, how difficult,’ but rather ‘This is the end! There’s no hope!’

 

This may be a reason why so many people now respond to U.S. political trends in such an extreme way. When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admit how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created.

Read the rest here.

Here are some great thoughts from a good friend of mine on confession.

Drew Pop

I am part of a faith tradition (the Reformed Church in America) that embraces liturgy.  Although we officially encourage freedom within that liturgical framework, we also believe that worship should take a certain form.  That form includes a time of “Confession and Assurance.”  In a typical worship order, you might find this series of elements:

Call to Confession (e.g., Hebrews 10:19-22)
Prayer of Confession (perhaps from a penitential Psalm)
Words of Assurance (maybe 1 Peter 2:24)

It’s a wonderful rhythm in that it reminds us of our need for grace and how God has already granted that grace.  In short, it is a way of reminding ourselves, each and every week, of the Gospel.

And it is for this reason that the next movement in our order of worship is usually the Passing of Christ’s Peace.  Having experienced the Gospel all over again, we have…

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A Counterintuitive Response to Chick-Fil-A

I know that I am late coming to the party, but it has taken me a while to really formulate my thoughts.  When the uproar regarding Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy became national news, I payed little attention.  It’s not that I don’t care about the issue of marriage and homosexuality, I do, but it isn’t something that is going to elicit a passionate response from me.  I realize this means people on both sides of the issue will find me naive or not taking a stand for the things that are right (the authority of scripture on one side, and civil rights on the other), but I’m more interested in people than issues.  No, that is not semantics because when I say “people” I mean individuals, and dealing with individuals who have stories forces me to hold my beliefs in tension with my love for the person.  Pure doctrine apart from the love for a specific individual can be a blunt sword used to maim many.

No, the reason that I haven’t jumped into the fray is because I haven’t really figured out what I really thought.  There were a couple of blogs that were helpful.  Barnabas Piper’s warning about the secondary messages Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day could send articulated something I was feeling, but couldn’t put words to.  Rachel Held Evans, in her blog, urged Christians on both sides to watch the speech and reaction to those who disagree with us, lest we hurt our integrity to the gospel.  These, and other articles, said things better than I could, but still left me desiring something when it comes to how we might respond to this day.

And then the cliche question came to mind, “What would Jesus do?”

Would Jesus wait in line to buy his juicy chicken sandwich and waffle fries?

Would he boycott the restaurant chain and call its president a bigot?

Or might he take an option none of us expect in order to dispel the escalating demonization present in this debate?

I’ve noticed that much of what either side of this debate does is in reaction to what the other side has done.  So Dan Cathy says he believes Biblical marriage is defined as marriage between a man and woman.  This, along with money he has given to groups who support his beliefs, upsets those who hold a differing opinion so they react by boycotting the restaurant and, in some cases, saying they won’t let the restaurant in their city.  This provokes those who side with Cathy to go out like a ravenous army to eat chicken and waffle fries, and on the cycle goes.

How did eating or not eating chicken sandwiches become a theological act?  When Jesus said, “Go and make disciples, teaching them everything I have commanded you,” was he intending us to stand in line for 75 minutes for a chicken sandwich?  Or boycott?

Or is it possible that what we witnessed today had more to do with escalating reactions against those who disagree with us, and had little had do with the Bible, marriage or homosexuality?

It’s the same thing we see on the playground.  One kid bumps another kid, who pushes the kid who bumped him, who shoves the kid back, who hits the kid, who punches the kids, who tackles the kid and we have a full blown fight.  It’s the USA and the Soviets threatening to blow the other to kingdom come so both build more bombs capable of even more destruction.  It’s the campaign that smears the opponent, who smears back and on and on to the point that voters only know the negative of each candidate instead of what they really are about.  Escalating demonization is the modus operandi of our culture and I fail to see how today was any different.

I realize people will think I fail to see the importance of their side of the issue.  I get that.  But I also think it doesn’t matter.  We may have the right stance on the issue, but our reaction to people who disagree with us is just as important.  The US thought its stance was right in terms of dealing with the Soviets, but their reaction was to build more bombs.  Which led the Soviets to build more bombs, which led to, you guessed it, more bombs!  But what if one side, either the US or the Soviets, said, “Enough is enough,” and stopped building bombs?  Might we have less nuclear weapons in the world today?

To stop escalating reactions against others one side must be willing to lay down their arms against the other side.  That seems counterintuitive and a sure fire recipe for defeat, but it is the only way.  And guess what?  The gospel is completely counterintuitive!

That Jesus would tell Peter to put away his sword is counterintuitive.  That Jesus would tell us to pray for our enemies and do good to those who persecute us is counterintuitive.  To carry the cloak of a soldier farther than required is counterintuitive.  Giving away things just because you have two of them is counterintuitive.  We could go on and on.  Much of the teaching of Jesus is counterintuitive to how we believe the world works.

That doesn’t mean we give up what we believe.  It simply means we stop reacting to the other side in such a way that it begets more reaction.  It slows down the rhetoric.  It stems the tide of regrettable, unhelpful behavior.

In order for both sides to be able to converse and constructively handle their differences, one side is going to have to lay down their “arms” and say, “No more.”  I believe, and this is where it gets hard, that side should be those who profess to follow Jesus.  Because that’s what it means to be a minister of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20) in the midst of a situation that continually escalates.  Again, that doesn’t mean a concession of beliefs or an affirmation of behavior.  It simply means we react to those who oppose us or our beliefs in a manner consistent of the one we say we follow.  Jesus willingly laid down is life in the name of reconciliation.  Does that mean he compromised his beliefs?  Of course not!  Refusing to participate in an exercise of escalating demonization doesn’t mean you never take a stand for what you believe in, it means you won’t react in such a way that it encourages escalation.

When I look at Jesus and how he responds to those who question his healing on the sabbath, or his response to those who bring the woman caught in adultery before him, or arrest him, or spit and mock him it makes me think: In the face of escalating reactions, that’s what Jesus would do.

Sustaining Tension

This week the new RCA Today magazine came out.  In it is a short article I wrote about generating and sustaining creative tension.  All of this comes from the Ridder Transformational Process that I have been a part of for the last three and half years.

This takes courage. It takes courage to purposefully create tension. It takes courage to intentionally rock the boat. It takes courage to accurately and truthfully reflect current reality to people who may not want to see it. For me personally, it takes courage because I have to face into my fears of failing, not being competent, and wanting to be liked. If I don’t face these fears, they will dominate what I do or don’t do. My actions will be driven not by my pursuit of Christ, but by my pursuit of protecting myself. I’m serving me.

Following Jesus means giving up EVERYTHING

Luke 5 records Jesus calling his first disciples. In both instances, in the calling of Simon Peter and Levi the tax collector, Luke notes they “left everything and followed him.” That jumped off the page when I read it. Jesus extends them an invitation to follow him, and they drop everything and follow. Right there, on the spot. It is recorded in another place in Luke’s gospel that others wanted to take care of their affairs before they followed Jesus and Jesus basically told them they could take care of those things or follow him. But they couldn’t do both. And they weren’t insignificant things. It wasn’t like they wanted to go check Facebook one last time. No, one person wanted to bury their father, and the other wanted to say good-bye to their family.

But Simon Peter and Levi dropped everything.

Everything.

Most of the time when we read that they dropped everything to follow Jesus we picture them leaving their boats, their nets, their tax collector booth, and their other possessions. And that’s all true. But they also left their families, their houses, and their careers. That doesn’t mean they never saw their families again. We know they stayed at Simon’s house as Jesus healed his mother-in-law. But they were willing to. Those who followed Jesus turned their lives upside down for three years to be near him and learn from him.

Those who followed Jesus gave up everything.

Everything.

They gave up their expectations, understanding, and hopes about what the Messiah would do. We see them struggle with this even after the death and resurrection. In Acts 1, after spending time with the resurrected Jesus they ask, “Are you now going to establish your kingdom?” They still believed Jesus was going to build an earthly kingdom like they had grown up believing. But they had to give this up to really follow Jesus. In order to live into the mandate they were given to make disciples, they needed to give up trying to build an earthly kingdom.

The disciples had to give up their desires for success. We see an argument between James and John about who is greater and who will sit at the right hand of Jesus. When Jesus confronts them about this conversation, he turns their understanding of recognition and privilege upside down by saying the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Over and over again the disciples had to give up their prejudices. Prejudices against the poor, the righteous, the Samaritans, children, prostitutes, religious leaders and themselves. When we follow Jesus we are called to give up everything.

Following Jesus is one of the most difficult things I have done with my life. And the reason it is so difficult is precisely this idea of giving up everything. It is one thing to give up possessions, but giving up the prominence my family gets in my life is difficult. Many in ministry make a commitment, and rightly so, to not sacrifice their families on the altar of ministry. Far too many families have suffered from being treated as second fiddle to a pastor’s ministry. But at the same time, to follow Jesus, and to be willing to leave family means that one cannot sacrifice following Jesus on the altar of family. Personally, I find this a difficult, but good, tension to live in.

Many of us have worldviews that are based more on political ideologies than the teachings of Jesus. Many of us live our of our self-protections rather than our trust in a sovereign God. Too many decisions are made because of idols we cling tightly to rather than making decisions out of a decision to follow Jesus with everything. But following Jesus means we give up everything. It means we give up our world views, our ideologies, our desires, our idols, our insecurities, and whatever else we give authority to in our life. If we are to become like Jesus, which is what following Jesus is all about, then we must give up everything.

Everything.

So what are you holding on to?

What have you not given up to follow Jesus more closely?

Christian Subculture

I recently came across this article, and while it is a bit dated, I believe the message is still incredibly pertinent.  Since I could not find a link to the actual article, I will take the risk and go ahead and post the entire article here.    It is an eye opening read!

from GQ Magazine – September, 2002

WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?
BUT MORE, IMPORTANT, WHAT WERE JESUS’ FITNESS SECRETS? IF YOU WERE ONE OF THE GROWING MILLIONS OF AMERICANS LIVING IN THE MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR CHRISTIAN ALTERNACULTURE—IN WHICH EVERYTHING IN MAINSTREAM CULTURE GETS CLONED AND THEN BLEACHED OF “SINFUL” CONTENT—YOU’D KNOW. WALTER KIRN SPENDS SEVEN STRANGE DAYS WALKING IN THE SHOES OF THE FAITHFUL.

DAY ONE: RESOLUTlONS

Today I will pray for Jewel, the singer-songwriter, “that Jewel’s artistry in music and poetry will draw her audience into an encounter with truth.” Tomorrow I’11 pray for Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire, “that Allen and others working on the leading edge of interactive media will pursue their objectives with integrity.” And later this week, in the manner and order prescribed by Praying for the Worlds 365 Most Influential People: 5 Minutes a Day to Change Your World, I will pray for Michael Crichton, the author/producer; for Jesse Helms, the North Carolina senator; and for Bill Nye, who hosts TV’s Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Today I will start reading Desecration, the ninth installment of the Left Behind series, a best-selling fictional treatment of the Apocalypse that pits the heroic Rayford Steele (“original member of the Tribulation Force3 against the cloven-hoofed Nicolae Carpathia (“self-appointed Global Community potentate3. Today I will dine on foods from What Would Jesus Eat? by Don Colbert, M.D., heeding Dr. Colbert’s solemn warning that “eating a diet high in salt, low in fiber, very high in fat and sugar, and virtually void of nutrients is not the way Jesus ate. Today I will ask my daughter, Maisie, 3, to pick out a video from the Bibleman series, a live-action superhero saga for kids directed by and featuring Willie Aames of Eight Is Enough and Charles in Charge fame.

Today I will plug in my TVGuardian, a handy electronic chaperone whose “patent pending, award winning technology” filters out “95% to 100% of foul language from TV shows” and replaces objectionable phrases like She’s such a #%&#h! and Oh &#!t! with She’s such a nag! and Oh crud!

Today I will leave behind the fallen world of secular American pop culture and enter the sell-contained parallel universe of American Christian pop culture, within which I’ve vowed to dwell, exclusively, for seven days and nights, watching PAX instead of NBC and letting Pat Robertson be my Tom Brokaw. But first, before I do any of these things, I will read from my new prayer book and ask God “to bless Jewel with safety, meaningful relationships” and, of course, “success.”

DAY TWO: ADJUSTMENT

I wake aboard the Ark.

The old Ark, the biblical Ark, constructed to save the chosen from the Great Flood, had two of every creature in existence. The new Ark, the cultural Ark, built to save the chosen from the Great Media Flood, also has two of everything I’m learning. You say you’re a Pearl Jam fan? Check out Third Day. They sound just like them–same soaring guttural vocals, same driven musicianship, same crappy clothes, just a slightly different message: Repent! You say you like Grisham- and Clancy-style potboilers! Grab a copy of Ted Dekker’s Heaven’s Wager–same stick-figure characterizations, same preschool prose, just a slightly different moral: Repent! Your kids enjoy Batman, you say? Try Bibleman. Same mask, same cape, just a slightly different…

That’s the convincing logic of the Ark: If a person is going to waste his life cranking the stereo, clicking the remote, reading paperback pulp and chasing diet fads, he may as well save his soul while he’s at it. Holy living no longer requires self-denial. On the Ark, every mass diversion has been cloned, from Internet news sites to MTV to action movies, and it’s possible to live inside the spirit, without unplugging oneself from modern life, twenty-four hours a day.

After a wholesome scriptural breakfast of unsweetened wholegrain cereal, I start my morning with a holy workout based on a chapter from Dr. Colbert’s book, “Did Jesus Exercise?” It’s a question I never would have thought to ask, but in Ark culture there’s a fundamental presumption that if one squeezes the Bible hard enough it will yield practical guidance on any topic, from personal finance to toilet training. And lo, it appears that the Lord did have a fitness program: Many days he walked “between ten and twenty miles” and thus “certainly was engaged in aerobic exercise.” As I walk, I listen to music over headphones, a convenience unavailable in Jesus’ time. The CD is the sound track from Extreme Days, a Christian movie for hyper suburban teens that was released last fall. According to a slick promotional video hosted by a bouncy-breasted blond veejay (she’s a virgin, presumably, but just barely), the story of Extreme Days involves “five friends forever changed by a journey to the threshold of life and sport…. [They’ll test their will and skill with the best extreme-sports athletes in the world.” Skateboarders for the Lord, in other words. The sound track includes a range of acts-Audio Adrenaline, P.O.D., PAX217–from the born-again-rock scene’s “alternative” department. They’re not that bad. They’re not bad at all, in fact. Because their lyrics are mostly unintelligible, there’s no way to know they’re even Christian, really. And yet, in the same way one sensed that groups like Abba were singing in a language they didn’t speak, one detects a certain falseness in these bands’ sound. They’re trying too hard, somehow. They have the formula but lack the flair. They’re straining at carelessness, but deep in their hearts they do care, one suspects–about their fans, their message, their authenticity. Bottom line: They sound a bit like foreigners–highly talented Asian prodigies whose governments have equipped them with guitars and trained them in some elite punk-rock academy.

These new Christian bands rock like Americans play soccer: skillfully but somehow not convincingly.

Or maybe it’s the power of suggestion that makes the stuff seem counterfeit to me. At the Family Christian Store in Bozeman, Montana, the multimedia spiritual emporium where I bought the CD and my other Ark supplies, a poster above the music racks matches name-brand acts from secular radio with their closest sanctified equivalents. For the atheist teen who has suddenly been converted and wants to carry into his new life as many of his old attitudes and tastes as he can safely manage, such a chart would prove helpful, I imagine, much as a cookbook of sugar-free recipes might help a chocoholic with diabetes. For me, though, the chart confirmed a preconception that Christian rock is a cultural oxymorona calculated, systematic rip-off, not a genuine surge of inspired energy.

After my walk, I turn on the computer to survey the day’s news, a morning ritual. Today, though, instead of going to the Drudge Report or NYTimes.com, I call up the home page of Crosswalk.com, the all-purpose Christian Internet portal whose NASDAQ symbol is AMEN. Crosswalk.com is a Net within the Net, where vulnerable children and sensitive adults can surf without fear of predators and porn.

Before I can find the morning headlines, I’m snagged by an ad for Pura Vida Coffee, a mail-order outfit that donates its profits to Central American children’s ministries. They even have their own coffee on the Ark! There’s no harm in that, of course, so I order a pound and feel a virtuous shiver, a passing glow. Can buying sundries score me points with God? If so, I wish there were Christian gasoline too–Christian tube socks, Christian printer cartridges!

Here are the day’s big stories according to Crosswalk.com:

CHURCH PREPARES COURT FIGHT TO SAVE LAND FROM DEVELOPERS. PASTOR FINED $1,000 FOR REBUKING LEWD WOMAN. RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN JEOPARDY IN GEORGIAN REPUBLIC. GOD AND GUINNESS” REACHES OUT TO POST-MODERN GENERATION.

It’s not exactly CNN, and I find this refreshing. I’m burned out on bad news. As a member of the post-modem generation myself, I also support people’s right to shape reality in whatever way they see fit. A world in which rebuffing lewd women rates a headline-a world in which lewd women get rebuked at all, a world in which the word lewd is even used–must be a cozy, reassuring place, and it doesn’t surprise me that some should choose to dwell there. I’m tempted to hop off the Ark and check the real news, but why break the spell, why shatter the small-town silence? Instead I do the paternal-Christian thing and ask my daughter, whom I’ve prohibited from watching secular children’s TV this week, to join me for a viewing of Bibleman: Conquering the Wrath of Rage.

“Who’s Bibleman?” Maisie sneers. I’m taken aback. She’s only 5, and she’s never sneered before.

“That video you picked out. You want to watch it? It’s like that Spider-Man movie you’ve probably heard about.” She shakes her head and toddles off to her room. Despite the videos colorful, jazzy packaging, she has sensed the whiff of uplift in its title and wants no part of it. She’ll break down soon, though. A few more days without Disney or Nickelodeon and Bibleman will look pretty good to her.

A few more days without sugar, salt, major-label music or mainstream news and I bet it will look pretty tempting to me too.

DAY THREE: APOCALYPSE KITSCH

I sit in an armchair and open Desecration (subtitled Antichrist Takes the Throne). What I don’t understand about these Left Behind books is how there can be so f–ing many of them, given that their subject is Armageddon. How long can a writer drag out the Second Coming? Even a trilogy would be a stretch, but ten novels going on eleven, all huge sellers, with no final volume in sight? I smell a con.

But that’s because I’ve failed to realize this: On the Ark, the End of the World is never ending, because it’s the only dramatic game in town. Drop the curtain on the Apocalypse and there are no more stories–the party’s over. Which means the art of Desecration, and of the Christian thriller in general, is the art of the stall–of giving the reader a sense of forward motion without moving things any closer to a conclusion. This task is complicated by the fact that the genre’s basic principles rule out new suspense. Since the heroes are assured of going to Heaven, it doesn’t really matter if they die, and since the villains are bound to bum in hell, it doesn’t matter if they win. Which they won’t, of course. The Bible tells us so.

So why am I still reading? It’s a mystery. Desecration’s dialogue is preposterous (“In all candor, Anika, our intelligence reports indicated that we might face more opposition here, in the traditional homeland of several obsolete religions”), and its situations; and episodes develop in a pell-mell, miscellaneous cascade, careening from Jerusalem holy sites, where Ultimate Evil haunts the ancient shadows, to the family rooms of average midwestern homes, where true-blue Americans with names like Ray battle the Beast using laptops and ham radios. No, it must be the freakish tone that holds me: part Marvel Comics (“Mac jumped out and realized his front tires were on the edge of the gigantic crevasse”) and part Sunday sermon (“We often wonder, when the truth is now so clear, why not everyone comes to Christ”). Who’d have thought such styles could ever be united? It’s the prose equivalent of a sideshow monster: a snake with fur or a dolphin-flippered lady, unbearable, repulsive, yet irresistible. I decide to make this an all Armageddon day, so I pop in a tape of Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, starring Michael York as Stone Alexander, the Antichrist, and Michael Biehn as David Alexander, the straitlaced American president who opposes him and also happens to be his brother–a touch that suggests that Doomsday by itself is not sufficient but needs a soap-opera family angle too. After a brief intro by Hal Lindsay, a leading doomsayer from the 1970s and proof that a Christian can cry wolf for decades on end and still not lose his audience, the movie deals its familiar hand of cards. As in the Left Behind books, the Antichrist is an oily Eurotrash bureaucrat whose globalist rhetoric masks his raw ambition. His cosmopolitanism marks him as the Evil One as surely as David Alexander’s Yankee bluntness shows he’s a born lieutenant of the Lord. Does this come from the Book of Revelation? Of course not. The folks behind Megiddo and Desecration may pose as scholars of biblical prophecy, loading their products with murky sacred symbols and fancy numerological allusions, but at heart they’re cornpone vaudevillians.

As the evidence mounts that Megiddo’s cosmic climax will be a dud and necessitate a sequel, I find myself pitying Michael Biehn. Biehn is your typical Christian-movie star: a semilegitimate Hollywood leading man (remember Navy SEALS?) who hasn’t been seen much for the past few years and appears to have weathered some crisis or tribulation that has dimmed his good looks without completely wrecking them. Because his role in Megiddo has no substance, what comes through most clearly in his numb performance is his gratitude for finding work mixed with his self-hatred for taking the work.

Biehn has plenty of company, of course. Ark culture is all about the comeback and the redemption of the mainstream hasbeen. The music aisle of the Family Christian Store features a number of John Tesh CDs. The former cohost of Entertainment Tonight has rebranded himself as a composer of inspirational music. In his photos, he’s a praying man’s Michael Bolton, all stuble and jawline and long–if thinning–blond hair. He’s just the type church ladies go nuts for: a sort of macho eunuch. Burt Reynolds comes in a Christian version now, too. In Waterrproof, a weepy melodrama about forgiveness and spiritual growth, he plays a crusty Jewish deli owner who’s shot in a holdup by a troubled black kid. The air of studly mischief that made Burt famous persists, but only faintly, subliminally. Once, long ago, he sinned, but now he’s harmless.

I suspect Christian movie fans love to witness such neuterings. You thought you were such hot s–t, I hear them thinking. Look at you now–you’re not even allowed to cuss!

DAY FOUR: REVELATION

Eating as Jesus ate, I have lost one pound. I can’t bring myself to pray for Jesse Helms. The ending of Desecration was a cheat. Maisie still refuses to watch Bibleman.

When I’m depressed, I drive, and I’m depressed today so I set out for Bozeman, thirty miles away, to fetch more Ark supplies. On the way, I tune in to Christian radio, and the moment I hit the right frequency, I know it. There’s a curious hush in the announcers’ voices, as though they’re broadcasting from a library, and though the top-of-the-hour news report is heralded by a dramatic burst of music not unlike those used on secular networks, the stories that immediately follow deal with abortion and pornography instead of politicians and celebrities. There’s news from Israel, reported straight, but I detect an agenda between the lines–the correspondent is hoping to remind me that suicide bombings mean the End is near and it’s time to get my life in order. Fair enough, but I need no reminding. What I need is a little meaningless entertainment.

The station–one of those disembodied jobs that’s beamed via satellite from a distant headquarters–serves up a relentless series of buzz-kills. A man discussing the war on terrorism, which is depressing enough, digresses into a rant about damnation and how the real terror threatening the world lurks inside the sinful human heart. A therapist specializing in relationships instructs the wives out there to bow their heads and pray for a spirit of obedience. A rambling sermon about generosity loses itself in an endless and painful anecdote about a mentally retarded busboy who toiled at a truck stop to buy medicine for his sick mom until he fell ill and was hospitalized himself.

An odd sense of dislocation comes over me. I’m floating out of my Ford and into space. Secular radio, with its sports and weather, grounds one in a specific time and place — it’s rush hour, the Vikings play the Rams tonight, tomorrow it will be fair to partly cloudy —but Christian radio bypasses such trivia, conjuring up a vast eternal void in which titanic forces of good and evil struggle over man’s immortal soul. Who cares if it’s sunny or rainy? Details, details. Who cares about traffic conditions? The Lord is coming!

I’m amazed that regular listeners can bear such weight, yet I’ve spoken to some who find it soothing. They say Christian radio makes them feel cocooned, particularly when they play it in the car. It’s Babylon out there, corrupt and dangerous, but they drive right on past in their little rolling tabernacles.

One must grow used to it. Maybe after a while the buzz-kill becomes the buzz.

But I need a break. I skip the Christian store and stop at a supermarket for some junk food. Standing in line with my chips, I pick up a National Enquirer without thinking and binge on forbidden Hollywood scandal. It’s silly stuff but exactly what I need. And then I turn a page and understand, utterly, profoundly, and in my gut, why so many people seek refuge on the Ark despite the copycat music, crappy fiction and fifth-rate performances by third-rate actors.

Before me, so raw and obscene that they look sticky, are enlarged color photos of the Columbine crime scene taken just moments after the shooting stopped. A teenage boy’s skull leaks brains onto the floor next to a blood-smeared black rifle. He has a face, but it’s like a McDonald’s hamburger in cross section–more ketchup and cheese and special sauce than meat. Even harder to look at is the bland school furniture. It wasn’t designed to shield sophomores from shotgun blasts. I put down the tabloid. I feel infected, soiled. A week ago, I could have handled this image, but my spell on the Ark has weakened my immune system. Afterward, at the Christian store, I put on headphones and sample a track from the latest John Tesh CD. It’s not any good, but considering what I’ve just seen, it could be worse, and right now that’s good enough.

DAY FIVE: GOD’S COUCH POTATO

Despite my invitation to pop some popcom and curl up together on the sofa for a big Saturday night of Christian television, my wife and kids go to bed early. I’m not surprised. Courtesy of Falwell and the Bakkers, Christian TV has a lousy reputation, even, I bet, among a lot of Christians. Between the nonstop frantic appeals for funds and the apoplectic praise-athons, it throws a lot of heat for a “cool” medium. Or at least it used to. It’s changing now–blending into the mainstream, as the music has. That’s a shame: I miss those frenzied traditionalists. Like the old-style gospel singers, the classic televangelists were geniuses, inimitable products of a culture that stood as a rival to middlebrow mass taste and didn’t try to beat it by joining it. Now, instead of soaring, perspiring rants staged amid profusions of potted lilies and amened over by bouffanted grandmas who seemed about to either cry or come, you get shows like the Sky Angel network’s Ten Most Wanted–a low-voltage rip-off of those MTV music video-countdown programs. The twentyish host has a fuzzy soul patch, a grungy plaid shirt and a shock of spiky hair that like most Christian versions of “downtown” style, is years out of date and ever so slightly too clean. Plus, his earrings look suspiciously like clip-ons.

Both of the videos I manage to sit through–by Gibraan, a black rapper who seems to lack his race’s stereotypical gift for rhythm, and by 12 Stones, a gang of mussed-up white boys whose sisters are probably standing just offstage mixing pitchers of Country Time lemonade for when the guys knock off–are set in what seems like the same abandoned apartment building. Its broken windows and peeling paint presumably stand for the sinful human condition that teens today are struggling to transcend.

An ad comes on for a pro-life pregnancy hot line, and then it’s back to the shaggy veejay, who drops his rebel pose, earnestly asks his young viewers to come to Christ (“call 877-949-HELP”) and then slips back into jive talk for the sign-of: “Thanks for hangin’ wit’ me. I’ll see you guys later.” Such lame mimicry is the curse of most youth ministries. I start changing channels, looking for fire and brimstone–healings, tongues, exorcisms, spectacle–but wimpiness reigns in the Kingdom of the Lord. A lot of Ark TV, particularly on PAX, seems to consist of nothing but reruns of Murder, She Wrote and other shows aimed at the nursing-home demographic (like that one in which Dick Van Dyke plays a crime-fighting pathologist). There’s nothing particularly Christian about such programs, but insofar as they feature extremely old people using their wits to bring younger folks to justice, they do radiate a diffuse conservatism. Then there are the specifically Christian shows, such as Touched by an Angel, whose soft-core, herbal-tea spirituality meld old-time religion with the New Age. I catch one on PAX–Twice in a Lifetime, starring Mariette Hartley as a grown-up ’60s hippie chick who, way back when, betrayed her longhaired boyfriend in order to please her crusty Republican dad. The plots of these tearjerkers are all the same: Someone screws up very, very badly and then, with the help of a kindly intercessor from outside the space-time continuum, is granted a do-over, which the person aces. Of course, the whole agony of moral choice is that do-overs aren’t possible on earth (unless you’re a Hindu or a Buddhist), which makes these shows meaningless as religious instruction, if not heretical. Also, I find their stories hard to follow. There’s always one being who’s visible to some people but not to others (or not at the same time), and there’s always some tricky problem that results from leaving the present to tinker with the past.

DAY SIX: DECEIVED

It confused me at first, but I think I understand now why my book on praying for powerful people targets Bill Nye of Bill Nye the Science Guy. It’s because he talks to children about dinosaurs.

Fundamentalist Christian children’s media is preoccupied with dinosaurs. The monstrous lizards and their fossilized remains represent a big black buzzing fly in the wholesome lemonade of creationism. If you lose a bright 5-year-old on the dinosaur issue–and what bright 5-year-old isn’t mad for dinosaurs?–then you may lose him on the God thing too, or at least on the Holy Bible-as-perfect-truth thing. Then again, if you win the kid over on the dino stuff–and it’s best to start this effort early, before a school trip to the Smithsonian saturates the kid’s spongy brain with lies–then you’ve opened a hole in the fortress of his intellect wide enough to drive the Rapture through, or maybe even the theory that the Beast is somehow using grocery-store bar-code scanners to brand people with magnetic 666s.

As luck would have it, I finally persuade my daughter to join me in some Christian-TV viewing just as one of the ‘ dinosaur shows starts. Maisie loves ancient reptiles. She sits up straight, her right hand motionless in the popcorn bowl. For a 5-year-old, she’s a prodigy on this subject, able to pronounce the word Cretaceous and hip to all the latest hunches and theories about the abrupt demise of pterosaur. She favors the killer-asteroid scenario but is open to extinction by natural climate change. I’ve taught her well.

But incorrectly, I learn. Through a combination of patronizing slapstick and earnest pronouncements from middle-aged male authority figures, the program proceeds to reeducate my daughter on the following points: (1) Dinosaurs are just 6,000 years old, since Earth itself is just 6,000 years old and both were breathed into being at the same time. (The figure is arrived at, it’s explained, by adding the ages of all Adam’s descendants down to Jesus and then tacking on the next 2,000 years.) (2) Dinosaurs and people once coexisted, as evidenced by biblical references to “Behemoth” and other massive beasts. (3) There were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark but, due to space limitations, only little ones, which accounts for the survival ofthe crocodile and the fading away of diplodocus. (4) The carbon-dating process is a farce. It just is. (5) Scientists who dispute these facts are really not scientists at all, since the definition of science is truth seeking and the whole of truth is in the Bible and either most of these eggheads haven’t read the Bible or they have and they’ve consciously rejected it. (6) Science is really a religion, taking on faith what it purports to prove, while the Christian religion is really a science, which means that when you have a question about T-Rex you should visit your pastor, not the library. (Even better, avoid the library altogether–a kid can only get into trouble there.) I steal a quick look at Maisie’s wondering face. She’s buying this new line, I fear, and I don’t blame her–the image of dinosaurs living next to people is a natural fantasy for kids. It makes for great cartoons. It also, if you truly believe in it and you share this belief with the wrong person, can keep you from ever getting into Harvard except on some special affirmative-action program for underprivileged Caucasian hillbillies. “We’re turning this off,” I tell Maisie. “Can I watch Rugrats?” “Only if you forget you ever saw this. By the way, the prayer for Bill Nye is as follows: ” ‘My modest little goal is to change the world,’ says Nye. Pray that science education will engage both the imaginations and the spirits of students.” That’s code for this: I’m a forgiving person, you atheist bastard, so I’m giving you one last chance. Change your tune about the dinosaurs, or don’t blame me when you wake up in hell.

DAY SEVEN: SAVED

Even the mouse pad I’m using comes from the Christian store. It features a quote from Hans Christian Andersen printed on a snowy olde-time Christmas scene rendered by Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light. You’ve seen his stuff: wee little button-nosed children, frisky dogs, a diffuse golden glow that drips from everything as though somebody spilled a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s. It’s not even good kitsch–it’s too slick, too savvy somehow. Ark culture is mall Christianity. It’s been malled. It’s the upshot of some dumb decision that to compete with them–to compete with N’Sync and Friends and Stephen King and Matt and Katie and Abercrombie & Fitch and Jackie Chan and AOL and Sesame Street–the faithful should turn from their centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music and those outsider paintings in which Jesus has lime green bat wings and is hovering lovingly above the Pentagon flanked by exactly thirteen flying saucers, and instead of all that head down to Tower or Blockbuster and check out what’s selling, then try to rip it off on a budget if possible and by employing artists who are either so devout or so plain desperate that they’ll work for scale.

What makes the stuff so half-assed, so thin, so weak and cumulatively so demoralizing (even to me, a sympathetic journalist who’d secretly love to play the brash contrarian and rate the Left Behind books above Tom Clancy) has nothing to do with faith. The problem is lack of faith. Ark culture is a bad Xerox of the mainstream, not a truly distinctive or separate achievement. Without the courage to lead, it numbly follows, picking up the major media’s scraps and gluing them back together with a cross on top. You like this magazine–you like GQ Then check out New Man, “America’s #1 Christian Men’s Magazine.” Subscribe to Time, you say? Give World a chance. The covers are almost identical.

Bibleman, however, stands alone-a pearl in this vast pile of lukewarm mud. Maisie and I finally watched it together, father and daughter, the way it was meant to be, and damn it if Willie Aames of Eight Is Enough hasn’t pulled off a wily deconstruction, as clever in its way as Rocky and Bullwuinkle, of all the clunky old superhero clichés. He’s a guy in a mask who instead of socking people stands stock-still with his slushy gut sucked in, squares his not-broad shoulders, faces the evildoer and bores him into submission by quoting Isaiah. That’s it. That’s his superpower: the ability to compose at will tidy chapter-and-verse-packed sermonettes that send the villains into instant comas and, if you think like a college professor, subtly parody piety itself while also signaling to Willie’s old mainstream costars that though he’s doing Christian stuff these days, he’s smarter than all of them and he’ll be back. I’m serious: This Bibleman show has layers.

It’s bedtime now. Tomorrow is a new day. Off the Ark and back onto the sinking ship.

But first, before I sleep, a prayer for Jewel: Do whatever it takes to get back on top, my dear, but don’t go “Christian.” They have their Jewel already. I forget her name, but I saw her on the CD rack, and the chick is your twin, only prettier, and a virgin. •

Ephesians 2:11-22

The dividing wall has come down and our hostility has been slain.  This is gospel hope.  It means the dividing wall between God and us (sin) has been destroyed.  It means his hostility towards us (wrath) has slain our hostility towards him (rebellion) through the cross of Christ.  This is gospel hope.

Paul also says that there is no more ‘circumcised’ and ‘uncircumcised’.  The cross of Christ has created a new humanity.  Two have become one.  They have been joined together to build a temple where God can be encountered.  Peace can now exists were once there was division and hostility.  This is gospel hope.

While this is good news, it is also disheartening.  Because when we look at this “temple”, the church, we do not see unity but division.  Denominationalism, racism, sexism, nationalism, classism, tribalism….they all still exist in the church.  And it seems we’ve just accepted that’s the way it is. 

Shame on us.

How is it that God can have the power to reconcile us, broken and unrighteous as we are, to an all holy God and yet we. by our nominal efforts at peace in the Body of Christ, claim this same power is insufficient to reconcile us to one another?

Leading in the Midst of Conflict

It was supposed to be an easy week. Thursday was the start to a short vacation, others were responsible for the worship service, and I didn’t have to preach. On paper, it looked pretty straightforward.

All that changed with the three-page document I found on my desk Monday morning. That document was the deacon’s proposed church budget for the next year. I sat down, which turned out to be a good decision, and began to look over the proposal. The first number that caught my eye was the $20,000 reduction from last year’s budget. “Impressive. How did they do this?” I wondered. What I found caused my anxiety to shoot through the roof. Our church secretary’s salary was cut in half. The custodian’s salary suffered the same hatchet. I saw the worship leader position we were looking to fill had been completely removed from the budget. The children and youth ministries were completely defunded, including our vacation Bible school, which is one of our biggest outreaches.

I wasn’t the only one who had an emotional reaction to the proposed budget. Before the end of the day I had talked with some of the church elders who said they would never approve this budget. In our church polity, the budget has to be approved by the consistory (our leadership council made up of elders and deacons). The consistory was scheduled to meet Tuesday night and our number one objective was to approve a budget for the next year. I started to dread this meeting.

As we gathered for the meeting, we were cordial with each other, but the tension was palpable. It was obvious this was going to be a difficult meeting. There were basically two ways this was going to go; there would be conflict and people would be hurt, or we would find some compromise.

Obviously, I was hoping and praying for the second option to become a reality. So in the 36 hours leading up to the meeting I prayed a lot, and established these goals: 1) I did not want to dictate the decision. I wanted to there to be honest discussion about this difficult topic. 2) It was important to me that those sitting around the table would leave the meeting remembering and treating one another as brothers in Christ. And, 3) the mission of Christ would be served through our discussion and budget.

Below are some principles I used to prepare myself for the meeting and in the meeting to guide the discussion.

Gain perspective

I’m a young pastor in my first pastorate. By no means do I have this figured out. Part of my anxiety came from the fact that I had never done this before. Therefore it was essential for me to lean on those who had.
I called mentors and pastors and asked for their help. How did they run meetings like this? How have they dealt with conflict? How should I even be thinking about the budget? Asking these types of questions to those who have journeyed longer and farther than I have gave me access to experience and perspective I couldn’t have had otherwise.

No right and wrong

A conversation with the chairman of the deacons revealed the proposed budget was put together in an effort to avoid taking money out of our savings account. To be fair to the deacons, their goal was admirable. They desired to be good stewards, handling God’s resources responsibly. Giving over the last three years was trending downward. While we hadn’t dipped into savings yet, we had diminished the excess we had in our operational checking account. This is the reality the deacons understood, and therefore, were trying to respond by being responsible stewards, not spending more than we were taking in.
Those opposed to the proposed budget said we needed to have faith in God’s provision. They argued if we were following God’s leading He would provide the necessary resources. For them, our savings was seen not as something to be preserved, but as something to be used to accomplish our ministry goals. At this time, that meant not cutting back on ministry.

It was important to understand there is Biblical basis for both positions. Even more important was acknowledging those in both camps desired to serve God by living out these principles. The problem is, these two positions can be in conflict with each other. This was our case when we came to the table.

All too often when a situation like this occurs, the two sides label the other as wrong or less Biblical. This just isn’t true. Granted, there are times when some theological or doctrinal differences are unorthodox. But in situations where the two parties are holding to orthodox beliefs that happen to be at odds, it must be recognized that both have a valid truth claim. In our case it was important to acknowledge that responsible stewardship doesn’t please God anymore than operating out of faith in His provision, and vice versa. Both claims had a legitimate case and therefore those making them deserved respect. Recognizing the legitimacy of both ideas reduces the chance that people will become defensive. They don’t have to prove the validity of their viewpoint if you acknowledge it.

Recognize Anxiety

Whenever you come to a meeting where the emotions are going to run high, know that people are coming with some anxiety about the meeting. Pay attention to your anxiety, because more than likely, if you are feeling anxious others are too. Anxiety is energy. It will work itself out in some way whether in conflict, triangulation, or people withdrawing from the conversation. Therefore, it is important to allow that energy to be released in a healthy manner.

We needed to acknowledge the anxiety in the room. Before we even looked at the budget we took some time to share with each other our hopes and our fears for the meeting. We put them on a large paper and hung them around the room so everyone could see them.

This process can be very illuminating so pay attention to what is said. I noticed very quickly that the hopes and fears people shared revealed where they stood on how we should approach the budget. “I fear we won’t trust God” and “I hope we aren’t foolish with God’s money” were they types of things shared. I used this opportunity to keep us focused by sharing things like, “I fear we will forget that we are brothers in Christ,” and “I hope we find a solution that is fiscally responsible but at the same time facilitates Gospel proclamation.” This subtly (or not so subtly) reminded everyone what was central. Our responsibility as Christian leaders is not just to get us to peace on the other side of conflict, but is to keep us moving toward that which Christ has called us.

Stay focused

When emotions run high it can be difficult to remember the ultimate goal. For us, we could have gotten caught up in the minor goals of living by faith or being responsible stewards and forgotten what was most important as a church: proclaiming the gospel of Christ.

The last thing we did before the budget discussion was remind ourselves of the mission Christ gave the church. We made a list of the things we as a church do to live out that mission.

It is important to remember that the budget exists to facilitate that mission. The mission of the church is not the budget; rather the budget is a tool to be used to fulfill the calling of the church. Another way to say this, the church doesn’t serve the budget, the budget serves the church.

Look for the unexpected

Somewhere in the middle of the meeting something happened. I can’t really explain what happened, but I could sense it in the moment and it brought tears to my eyes. One member shared his fear (which, oddly, didn’t get shared when we were sharing hopes and fears) that if we cut so much out the budget we would basically be throwing in the towel. Another person shared their experience of losing their job and experiencing the provision of God. And somewhere in the midst of this vulnerability a creative energy began to flow. Ideas about how we could fundraise for different ministries, thoughts on opening the building for community use, attention to our assimilation program, emphasizing the connection between discipleship and stewardship, and approaching the budget as a living document to be visited and adjusted throughout the year over a static document drawn up for the whole year were just some of the conversations coming from that table.

I believe the conflict created the necessary tension needed for creativity to occur. Without that initial anxious energy we would not have felt the tension to do something different. At the same time, the creativity would not have transpired if we had not managed our anxieties or if we had tried to argue that responsible stewardship was better than living by faith. As leaders, it is not always our job to have the creative idea to solve the problem. Our job is to lead people to a place where ideas can be heard.