Archives For Culture

I have zero home improvement skills (or home repair skills for that matter). So last month, when my wife asked me to install a new closet system in my oldest daughter’s bedroom, I balked. I was tired. I was grumpy. And when it comes to projects like this, I always seem to screw things up.

This effort did not disappoint.

After an hour of missing studs with the anchor screws and hanging half-cocked support beams, I threw my worthless drill on the floor, expressed my disdain for all power tools (and at that moment life itself), mumbled a few unmentionables under my breath, and went to bed. Once again, I’d screwed it up.

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I have a propensity for screwing up this Christianity thing, too. There are two (overly-simplified) ways I tend to do this, and they both start with how I view God’s character and nature. In my experience, when I make these common mistakes, I basically screw up everything else in my life, too.

Climbing Up To God

In this approach, I get ahold of God’s installation manual and think to myself, “heck yeah, I can do this.” Then I grab my amateur tool belt and have it. Sure, the shelves are a bit crooked and a few wrongly placed pilot holes have to be hidden back in the dark corner, but who will notice? And so I dumb down God’s standards into a pile of achievable goals and set out to (somewhat) fulfill them with my own manufactured morality.

The problem with moralism is that it doesn’t work. The actual standard is way too high (and God goes and starts hinting around that it’s not just what we do on the outside but why we do it on the inside that actually counts). So we either quietly acknowledge our failure and live beneath a constant weight of guilt and shame, or we arrogantly assume our efforts are at least “better than that guy’s” and settle into a smug (and detestable) air of self-righteousness.

Climbing up to God always screws up everything.

Reducing God To Me

To counterbalance this tendency, I instinctively flip the script. I’ve heard about this concept called grace. It sounds pretty awesome, especially since it means I can just throw away God’s instructions completely (right?). God is love, after all. And so I seek internal peace by flipping my pencil to the eraser side and eliminating the stress and pressure of God’s holiness altogether. Humanity has evolved. We understand things better now. Those self-righteous moralists have held us all hostage for far too long anyway.

The problem with enlightenment is that it doesn’t work. Grace isn’t about removing the standard. And yet we live in a false sense of self-made peace and arrogantly look down on anyone who might not tolerate our way of putting life together.

Reducing God to my level always screws up everything.

The Gospel Changes Everything

The only way to fix our swaying pendulum of screw ups is through the message of the Gospel. I like to summarize the Gospel this way:

The Law Crushes: The demands of a holy God are intended to destroy us. We can’t fulfill them on our own, and we can’t erase them if we try. Let it do its job.

The Gospel Resurrects: God sent His son to live the life we couldn’t live, and die the death we should’ve died. His perfection is given to us by proxy. Our rescue comes from the work of another. This is grace.

The Spirit Empowers: Our ongoing and humble trust in the finished work of Christ comes with the promise of His Spirit. This gift is what changes us and gives us the power to live lives that are pleasing to God. Not our efforts for Him, but His work in us.

Moralism screws up everything. Enlightenment screws up everything. The Gospel changes everything.

If you’re looking for true peace, maybe it’s time to put down your tool belt and surrender to something with the power to actually deliver on its promise.

Her eyes widened then quickly shifted down at the table as she moved uncomfortably in her seat. I had asked one of those awkward dad questions.

“So have you and your friends heard about this new movie ‘Fifty Shades of Grey?'”

She paused, then sheepishly acknowledged.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going where you think I am with this dialog. Relax.”

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Photo Credit: Craig Swatton

She exhaled and I began to wax parental eloquence. It went something like this:

When I was kid, we ran from culture. We shielded ourselves from it and even created our own Christian versions that we could embrace with safety and piety. Christian books, music, magazines, and events allowed me to live in a somewhat cloistered world of sexual abstinence and hard core replicas with a biblical twist. 

(Let’s just ignore 1980’s Christian television and movies).

And while it’s fun to make jokes today, I didn’t completely hate it. In fact, you can listen to my favorite high school throwback Spotify playlist by clicking here. That’s some quality stuff (don’t judge).

There’s no doubt, one of our most popular Christian reactions to secular culture was to withdraw from it, recreate it in our own image, and then condemn what was left behind from our place of manufactured purity.

But then a new wave of Christianity came along. One that was tired of “Pharisees” casting self-righteous condemnation on the “Common Grace” of the world. God was manifest in the creativity of all human beings, regardless of whether those creatives acknowledge His Lordship or not. Let’s be honest, many of the best musicians, and artists, and storytellers, and entrepreneurs profess no faith in Christ, yet they are making some of the most beautiful impact on the world around us. That can’t be easily discarded, nor should it.

So many of us swung from the pious constraints of the sheltered re-creation in which we had been raised and began hysterically consuming this unexplored culture with little critique or caution. While faith remained vital for many, life became easily compartmentalized into the sacred and the secular. It was time to enjoy all the things we had been told were wrong for so long.

And in our attempts to lay down the sanctimonious idols of man-made morality and doctrinal purity, we embraced new idols of enlightenment and sophistication. We simply created a different, more socially acceptable brand of self-righteousness.

So what does this have to do with 50 Shade of Grey? 

Stay away from it. Far away. No contemplation, no hesitation. Not because it makes you more righteous and better than, but because the One who gave you His righteousness has much better things for you. We can love the “common grace” of this world and find grace and love for sinners without naively consuming its perversion.

The Gospel doesn’t hide from culture, but it doesn’t blindly consume of it either. It engages. It brings life. It resurrects what is dead and distorted.

May the same be said of us.

When I was growing up, there were two major life paths we discussed within the context of our youth group and church culture (that is, when we weren’t debating the spiritual impact of Amy Grant’s crossover albums or whether movie-going became sinful at PG-13 or R). The conversation usually went something like this:

“Have you been called into full-time ministry, or are you going into the secular world?”

Or sometimes we phrased it this way:

“Are you planing to enter the ministry or fund the ministry?”

A third iteration might have emerged in more missional terms:

“Are you a sender or a goer?”

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As a high school kid longing to serve God and live out my faith in this world, I was keenly aware of this sacred/secular fork in the road. It quietly plagued many of us as we watched peers respond to altar calls at youth group rallies or emotionally-charged church camp services aimed at separating the chosen from the unchosen, the called from ordinary, the truly elect from the “financial supporters.”

Please don’t misunderstand, there is something holy and unique about full-time vocational ministry, of taking on the weighty role of an ecclesiastical leader within the life of a local church body (I know, I spent 12 years in just such a role). My concern is not that we’ve over-inflated this high calling, but that we may have unintentionally relegated business and everyday work to a tier of second-class christianity.

I recently had the honor of attending a gathering of businessmen, pastors, and leaders from all over the world to discuss 21st Century global trends and how they are impacting (or need to be impacting) the way we do ministry and missions work today. From Europe, to China, to India, Africa, and America, so many insights, angles, and ideas emerged I couldn’t write fast enough to record the barrage. But from beneath the fog of all this brilliant commentary, one key mantra continually resonated with my business-turned-pastor-turned-business-leader spirit:

Across the globe, ministry leaders are asking how we can break down this “sacred/secular” divide; about our need to harness the business community as a full-on ministry partner and not just limit their involvement to financial giving alone.

Here are a few questions to ponder:

What would it look like to see business as more than just an ATM machine for “real ministry,” but as an actual Kingdom solution?

What would it look like to better engage business people in ministry and mission – not only through their secondary giftings as ushers and choir members or Sunday school teachers – but through their primary, God-given gifts and talents as businessmen and women?

What would it look like to begin championing business and everyday work as “sacred” work? To develop a healthier and more holistic theology of work itself?

I’m starting this conversation in my own circles and would love to invite you into the dialog. What do you think? Have we misdefined sacred and secular when it comes to our work? Do these walls need to be broken down? If so, how?

I was still struggling to grasp my surroundings as we slipped off our shoes and walked into the expansive, open-air, marbled courtyard. There were dozens of students pacing the floors, kneeling in prayer, and sitting in study groups amongst the roman pillars “harvested” from the once-plentiful churches of this ancient city.

Al-Azhar.

The oldest university in the world (969AD).

The Harvard of Islam.

After stops in the UAE and Qatar, this (extremely) white, Midwestern christian boy somehow found himself standing in the intellectual center of the Sunni Islamic faith. Just another day at the office.

Our missionary host led us through the university’s square to an old, wooden door at the base of one of the mosque’s minarets. He had a friend employed by the school that was planning to give us the grand tour. But first, he had something special he wanted us to see.

CairoMinaretThe antiquated door swung closed behind us as we stepped into the base of an ancient spiral staircase.

It was pitch black.

As I instinctively reached for my iPhone flashlight, my new friend stopped me. “Leave it off for a minute. Trust me.”

So I took a deep breath and began to climb.

The steps were rough and uneven, worn down by hundreds of years of pious footprints. I braced my hands against the sides of the chamber, trying to keep from stumbling as each tread varied greatly in both width and height. I could hear the voices of my climbing partners ahead of me, but I had no idea as to how far I’d fallen behind. My pulse was pounding. My thighs began to burn with lactic acid. I struggled to catch my breath.

Still no light. Still no rest. Just more and more steps. And more and more darkness.

That’s when he hit me with the point of this whole exercise. From the blackness above I heard this story:

“One of my muslim friends who came to trust in Jesus told me this stairwell is the perfect analogy for Islam. Always climbing, climbing, climbing. Completely in the dark. Exhausted. Worn out. With no light, and no end in sight.”

The metaphor resonated. They have their law, but there is no Gospel. They have heavy demands, but no grace.

And strangely enough, that’s not all that unlike the way many of us embrace Christianity: an endless ascent up a pious staircase in a fruitless effort to reach up to God by our own efforts.

But God doesn’t ask us to climb to The Light. The Light came down to us.

The Word gave life to everything that was created,
    and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
–John 1:4-5 NLT

My one-day journey into the heart of this muslim city didn’t leave me angry or afraid, it left me sober. Burdened for a people who must quietly long to escape the pressing weight of their religious bondage, to exhale under the freedom of God’s gift of grace.

And that reminder is just as pertinent for you and me today, too.

God isn’t found at the top of an exhausting climb up a dark stairwell. Jesus came for us. I don’t care what religious system you may associate yourself with today, that’s the Good News for us all.

The older I get, the more emotional I become. Lump in the throat, watery eyes, sheepishly blame it on seasonal allergies (all year long) kind of moments. Maybe I’ve always been this sappy, perhaps it’s some leftover neurological messiness from my medical issues last spring, maybe my two teenage daughters are just morphing into daily reminders of time’s fleeting passage…

…or maybe it’s something completely different.

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I think it takes a fair-bit of living to really grasp just how desperate and broken you are:

To realize how much you’ve been hurt by other people and are capable of wounding them, too.

To understand that regardless of how wonderful and put together your life may appear and even feel at times (just check your Facebook feed), that you’re still silently plagued by “what if,” and “not good enough.”

To acknowledge the constant companions of fear, and shame, and insecurity, even amidst your life’s greatest successes.

I used to think that intelligence and enlightenment would eliminate my dependence, that I would eventually grow out of my need for outside help. But with every passing year, my newly gained experience simply reveals more and more of my desperate need for a savior (and my own incompetence in trying to play the role for myself). Wisdom has revealed my weakness.

So (this time of year, especially) as I’m inundated with epic melodies and timeless lyrics, like:

“Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine, oh night when Christ was born!”

Or…

“All is well, all is well
Angels and men rejoice
For tonight darkness fell
Into the dawn of love’s light”

(If you haven’t heard Carrie Underwood and Michael W. Smith’s new rendition of this, I challenge you to listen with the Christmas lights on and a fire in the fireplace without feeling a few warm, salty tears running down your face).

Or when I read the Christmas story to my kids:

“Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

…I can’t help but get a little choked up.

I have hope, in spite of my failures.

I have hope, but not in my successes.

Weak and in need of power, I run to Power that embraced weakness.

How can you help but get a little emotional this time of year? Or any time of year for that matter?

I don’t have to live in my insecurities. I don’t have to earn my identity. I don’t have to suffer in shame. I don’t have to climb my way up to God. Everything I need, in Christ, I already have. Love came down. Emmanuel. God is with us.

Merry Christmas.

Now please excuse me, I need to grab a tissue.