Chasing Extraordinary

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to volunteer at one of the Passion 2014 gatherings.  As volunteers it is frequently emphasized to us that any of the students passing through this gathering could be the next Chris Tomlin, John Piper, Louie Giglio, or Beth Moore.  Several will go out from this gathering to start megachurches, influence denominations, start hugely successful nonprofits dedicated to providing clean water in Africa or ending sex slavery in India…who knows?  And we get to be on the front lines of serving them during this time.

Certainly, given the law of averages and the size of a typical Passion gathering these days, there is a strong likelihood that the next Louie Giglio, Chris Tomlin, John Piper, or Beth Moore is somewhere in the room.  But what no one seems to want to talk about very much is that the vast majority of these students will not be the next Chris Tomlin, Louie Giglio, or Beth Moore.  Instead, the vast majority of these students will go out into the real world and take jobs as engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, IT professionals, baristas, nurses, paralegals, plumbers, carpenters, architects, you name it.  The vast majority of these students will live in the city as young professionals, or get married and move to the suburbs and start families.  There they will live as husbands, mothers, fathers, wives, and strive to raise children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

But in the evangelicalism of our day and age, this is not good enough.

We are addicted to chasing extraordinary.

In so many parts of evangelicalism, Paul is held up as the standard to emulate and strive for.  Look at his zealous, singlehearted, radical devotion to Christ!  Look at what all he went through in order to spread the Gospel throughout the known world of that time!  Look at the passion he felt, that drove him forward in all he did to advance the Gospel!  Shouldn’t you be ashamed if your life is anything less than this?  This is exactly the sort of thing we get from so many pulpits and conferences for zealous young college students in evangelicalism these days.

But who received Paul’s letters?  It was ordinary believers.  Not other apostles.  Not even other pastors.  Paul’s letters were written to ordinary, rank-and-file believers.  Bet you didn’t notice this, did you?

These people, the recipients of Paul’s letters, were carpenters, farmers, traders, sailors, fishermen, shepherds, mothers, fathers, and children.  Compared to the apostles, these people were no great shakes.  Their lives were quite mundane.  They were ordinary people who gathered together in someone’s home to drink their wine and eat their bread and hear the Holy Spirit speaking to them through the words of an apostle.

And then they went home.

And then they got up the next day and lived a perfectly normal life.

And they came back the next week and went through the exact same drill.

And on and on it went, all the way to the very end of their days.

Then they died, and now they are all forgotten.

For most of these people, the most extraordinary thing that happened in their lives was the day they trusted Christ and joined the Christian community.  After that, their lives were completely back to normal.  They listened to the words of Paul, learned from him, then in faith stayed exactly where they were, doing exactly what they were doing before, after he left.

Never in any of Paul’s writings do we get the sense that he was asking his readers to stop being who or what they were.  He never challenged them to pack it all up and go overseas to preach the Gospel.  We never get hints that he is making them feel guilty for living in relative comfort and ease, compared to his lack of it.

For some of you, this idea of identifying with the ordinary rank-and-file believers who received Paul’s letters may seem like a sort of death.  Death to the dream of being extraordinary, of being someone special.

I get that.  I once dreamed that I could one day be the next Chris Tomlin.  I once dreamed that I could stand on a stage and preach or sing in front of thousands.

Matt Chandler, a prominent megachurch pastor in the Dallas area, attended the first ever Passion gathering in Austin as a college student back in 1997.  During those days God turned his world upside down and sent him out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory.  Now he is a big-time megachurch pastor, widely recognized as the next John Piper.

Those are the sorts of stories that are celebrated around Passion.  You too can be just like Matt Chandler.  You too can be just like Chris Tomlin, who is now living the dream, married to a former Miss Auburn who is now the woman whom every young Christian woman on the face of the earth would give her very life to be.  Just pray harder.  Surrender more.  Dedicate more fervently.  Live with even greater zeal than before.

I wanted it.  God, how I wanted it.  I have been going to Passion gatherings for over a decade now, just hoping and praying that God would rock my world as he did Matt Chandler’s, and send me out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory.

Hasn’t happened yet.

So if this seems like a death to you, death to the dream of being extraordinary, death to the dream of being someone special, I get that.

But for countless others of you, this idea of identifying with the rank-and-file believer instead of the Apostle Paul is the greatest news you have ever heard in your life, next to the Gospel itself.

As noted earlier, we in evangelicalism are addicted to chasing extraordinary.  Meaning that we have GOT to make a good name for ourselves.  We have GOT to do big things for Christ that will be remembered by God and by others for all of eternity.  It is not enough to run your business ethically or raise small children to the glory of God unless you are doing it on another continent, with bullets flying overhead and malaria crouching at your door.  Why?  Because we approach life needing desperately to succeed.  To fail is to die.  Success equals life.

But because of God’s grace, we are free to be ordinary.  We don’t have to go out and turn the world upside down.  Jesus Christ already did that when he won the victory over sin and death at the cross.  We don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter.  We don’t even need anything from God.  Why?  Because we already have everything we need in Christ Jesus.  Because Jesus was extraordinary, it is perfectly OK for us to be ordinary.

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The Rich Man and Lazarus: A Picture of Heaven and Hell?

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”  (Luke 16:19-31)

This passage is the fire-and-brimstone preacher’s dream come true.  The issue of salvation presented in stark, contrasting terms.  The reality of an eternity with God or separated from Him in a place of intense physical misery, with a great gulf fixed between the two locations.  The urgency to make a decision right now as to where your eternal future will lie.

In the dispensational way of looking at things that a lot of you are probably familiar with, Hades is the realm of the dead.  Not their final destination, but a holding chamber, as it were, where the souls of the dead would consciously await the resurrection at the end of the age.  This place is separated into two distinct regions: one called “Paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom” where the blessed dead would wait to enter into eternity with God, and the other called “Sheol” where the not-so-blessed dead would await judgment and eternal separation from God.

Only the most ultra-super-hyper-literalist types would think that this story refers to an actual rich man and an actual beggar named Lazarus.  But a lot of you who read this story no doubt think that these are types for every person who has ever walked the face of the earth.  Will you be like the rich man, caring about nothing but your own wealth and comfort, showing no concern for the things of God or the needy in your midst, and ending up in hell?  Or will you be like Lazarus, who had nothing in this life and at the end was taken up to Abraham’s bosom to spend eternity with God?  That’ll preach!!!!!

Not so fast, my friend.

What if Jesus had something completely and totally different in view when he told this parable?

Some considerations:

–First, it is very difficult to show from Scripture that Hades refers to anything other than just “the grave” or “the place of the dead”.

–Jesus was using folktale elements to make a point here.  Notice that he draws the widest possible contrast between the rich man and Lazarus.  Notice also that Lazarus is not actually buried when he dies, but is instead carried off by angels a la Elijah, whereas the rich man is buried.  Bet you didn’t notice that detail, did you?

–Note also that this story does not exist in a vacuum.  Luke has placed it in a specific context.  Jesus has just finished telling the parable of a shrewd manager who, on the eve of his firing, did some creative bookkeeping to help people who were in his master’s debt.  He follows it up with some well-known sayings about money, including “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

The Pharisees know that Jesus is talking right at them.  Luke records their reaction thus:

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

–Luke 16:14-17

Jesus then goes on to give two specific examples of how they were ignoring the law: the way they practiced divorce (verse 18), and our story.

The story points back to the words about the Pharisees in verses 14-17 by portraying a man who (1) loved money, and (2) justified himself in the eyes of others (note his words and attitude toward Abraham).  The story carries the themes of the Law and the Prophets (verse 29) and the good news of the kingdom of God (particularly in his reference to one raised from the dead in verse 31).  The story knows that God knows their hearts, just as he knows the heart of the rich man, and that what people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.

What if this story was actually providing a warning to Israel, as embodied by their religious teachers the Pharisees, and pointing toward the coming judgment that God would bring upon the nation?  Instead of being about heaven and hell and the urgency for the individual to make a decision for Jesus, this story is about how Jesus is bringing the story of Israel to completion by fulfilling the Law and the Prophets while Israel’s representatives the Pharisees are continuing their ancestors’ unbelief by rejecting the good news of the coming kingdom and by practicing injustice.  So hard were their hearts against Jesus that not even his resurrection from the dead (to which verse 31 is a rather hard-to-miss reference) would change them.

More to the point, the story says, using unique afterlife imagery, that One will be raised from the dead and we are called to listen to Him.

Tolkien, Williams, and Opposite Views of the City

Those of you who are familiar with the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien are probably aware that he was no big fan of urbanization and industrialization.  To him, the unspoiled countryside and simple life enjoyed in places like The Shire and many other parts of Middle Earth was the optimal mode of human existence.  There was a deep distrust of technology and industrialization, and almost a yearning for the rural, arcadian vision of England in times long past.  Cities were, at best, a necessary evil, such as Minas Tirith.  Minas Tirith served a vital purpose in defending Gondor and the rest of the free peoples from the onslaughts of Mordor, but you never got the impression of Minas Tirith as a place where you would want to spend any extended amount of time.  Certainly none of the companions of the Ring, not even the restored king Aragorn, spent a very long amount of narrative time there.  At worst, urbanization was the embodiment of the diabolical, for example Minas Morgul.  Witness Saruman’s takeover and development of Isengard into a headquarters for his war against Rohan in conjunction with Mordor’s assault against Gondor.

I feel Tolkien, a little bit at least.  There are numerous benefits to living in an industrialized, urbanized world, which I am not about to give up anytime soon.  But the unintended consequences of technology have made us at least a little less than fully human while disconnecting us from creation and from each other.  For many of us, our direct experience of creation is limited to the time we spend walking from house to car, car to office, office to car, car to store, store to car, car to house, etc.  And even this interaction with nature takes place in urban or suburban environments where the influence of man upon nature is very heavily felt.  This can’t be a good thing.  I wrote about this in somewhat greater length in response to a quote from Thomas Merton which expresses similar sentiments.

Just lately I have been exposed to Charles Williams.  Williams was a contemporary of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis while they were at Oxford.  He was never very close to Tolkien and Tolkien lamented the influence he had on Lewis.  (That Hideous Strength, the only novel of Lewis’s to be set in an urban environment, was strongly influenced by Williams.)

Williams’ view of the city is diametrically opposed to Tolkien’s.  Most of Williams’ novels are set in the city.  The countryside appears sometimes, but it is seen as basically an extension of the city–a more aesthetically pleasing and less stressful place, economically dependent upon the city, a place where the privileged few who can afford it go to visit from time to time.

In Williams’ way of looking at things, the city has a special place in God’s economy.  Humanity began in a garden (the Garden of Eden), but is moving toward a city (the New Jerusalem).  Civilization, the fruit of living in cities, is the most desirable state of man; apart from this there is only savagery and barbarism.  The Christian life is intended to be lived in the context of community, and city life forces upon you the realization that you live in community whether you like it or not.  Others have labored to put in place what you see and enjoy as you live in the city; you are simply adding your labors to theirs.  The city is the place where human energies are collected and submitted to the process of exchange–in his way of looking at things the Exchange is not just a Christian doctrine of Christ’s redemptive work applied to sinful man, it is also the means by which we live with others in community, bringing our best work and offering it in return for their best.

You can read more about Charles Williams’ view of the city here:  “On Charles Williams” by Mule Chewing Briars at internetmonk.com.

Mark 6:1-6: Jesus Whose Power is Cloaked Under Weakness

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

 

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

 

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:1-6)

What is the one thing that the people of Nazareth stumbled over with respect to Jesus?  It was his ordinariness.  They knew him.  He grew up with them.  He played with their kids.  They knew his family.  He was the carpenter.  He was homegrown.  They knew where he came from.  And now he is preaching with the authority of God.  Who knew?

This was a stumbling block for the people of Nazareth, and it is a stumbling block for us today.  We have this Platonic idea that holy = perfect.  If it’s holy it ought to glow like it’s radioactive.  It is not enough for the Bible to be the word of God, it has to be the perfect word of God.  The views of divine inspiration of Scripture that are prevalent in much of evangelicalism nowadays would be very much at home in Islam or Mormonism.  We expect Jesus to walk around with one of those goofy looking halo thingys around his head like an old-school Catholic holy card or an Orthodox icon.  As a carpenter he should have been able to produce perfect chairs with zero defects that fit his customers’ bodies perfectly.

Because this is what the people of Nazareth were looking for, Jesus could do no mighty work there.  Not that his supernatural powers had run out and were in need of recharging, or that he relied on faith to make the whole thing work (like Santa Claus relied on people’s Christmas spirit to make his sleigh fly in the movie “Elf”), but that he would not, in the face of abject unbelief, counter it with a show of power.  “Oh yeah?  Let me show you!!!!!”

The people of Nazareth wanted to see a work of power.  But they could not see it because they could not recognize Jesus.  They failed to recognize his power cloaked under weakness, under his being one of them.

Ezra 8 and Celebrity Pastors with Police Entourages

Today I would like to quickly address a practice that is becoming quite prevalent among prominent pastors (in my city, at least).  It is the practice of employing off-duty police officers to act as personal bodyguards.

Now, I do not intend to come off like one of those TR watchbloggers who can quote a million scriptures to show that Rick Warren is the Antichrist or that churches with praise bands and Powerpoints are of the devil.  This is not that kind of blog, and that is not the piece I am going to write.

In this day and age, it is a very sensible thing for a well-known pastor to have a police entourage.  There are lots of crazies running around out there, of whom yours truly is at or near the top of the list.  Some of these crazies stalk famous people for their own twisted reasons, and some would like nothing better than to get their moment of fame by knocking off somebody famous.  A celebrity pastor is a very large and inviting target.  On a more serious note, some well-known pastors are involved in ministry in areas of the world where hostility toward the Christian faith runs very high, and this places them in frequent and real danger.

But…

Consider this story from the Old Testament, tucked away in the book of Ezra.  The Persians had just defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple.  Despite opposition from some uncooperative elements in the Persian government, the project was eventually completed.  Ezra, a Jew who served as a high-ranking official in the Persian court, was given leave to return to Jerusalem along with all of the silver and gold articles used in Temple worship, which the Babylonians had confiscated during their conquest of Jerusalem.

Now there was just one problem involved in transporting all this gold and silver back to Jerusalem:  about 500 miles of desert between Babylon and Jerusalem.  All that empty space made a perfect hiding place for bandits, because no law enforcement agency could possibly hope to cover all that space.  The volume of silver and gold to be transported was north of 800 talents, an amount worth several million dollars in today’s money.  This, of necessity, would require a ginormous caravan, which could not possibly hope to travel secretly through the desert.  If word got out that such a caravan was leaving Babylon, bandits would have descended instantly upon it and seized everything of value long before it ever reached Jerusalem.

Ezra would have been wise to request assistance from the king of Persia in transporting all of this valuable cargo across the desert.  As a matter of fact, he would have been crazy not to.  All indications are that the king was ready to provide Ezra with soldiers and horsemen for protection if he requested it.  But he didn’t.  Verse 22 of chapter 8 (NIV):  “I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king:  “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” ”  Sure enough, God was gracious and all of the gold and silver made it to Jerusalem without mishap.

Again, I am not here to say that police bodyguards are unbiblical or that prominent pastors who have police entourages are false teachers leading the flock towards damnation.  I am not [insert name of your favorite TR watchblogger here].

But…

Imagine if there was a well-known pastor out there somewhere who had the kind of faith that Ezra showed in this story.  Someone who would be willing to step out and say “I know that having police bodyguards is a wise precaution for a person in my position, but I believe that God is gracious to all who look to him.  I know the risks here, but God is bigger than all of them.”

Imagine what it would do for the Christian movement to see that kind of faith in our world today.

Another Study in Contrasts: Thomas Merton and Tim Tebow

If you are an evangelical right now, you DESPERATELY want to be Tim Tebow.

Tim Tebow is currently the quarterback for the Denver Broncos (or rather–was the quarterback for the Denver Broncos.  Now that the Broncos have signed Peyton Manning, it is yet to be determined which team Tebow will play for in the future).  He attracted lots of attention nationally when he stepped up as the starter this year and led Denver to several wins and a strong showing in the playoffs.

Tim Tebow played quarterback at Florida from 2006 to 2009.  He helped lead Florida to two national championships in those years, and he captured the hearts and imaginations of people throughout the Southeast–Florida fans or not–through his nice guy demeanor.

Evangelicals have fallen head over heels in love with Tim Tebow.  Why?  Because he is successful–and he is unabashedly one of us.  He is someone in the public eye whom we can point to and say, “Look!!!  It works!!!  We’re right!!!  We win!!!”

Evangelicals are completely and totally infatuated with this sort of celebrity–the more public the better, and the more outspoken about his faith, the better.  The current Jeremy Lin lovefest is a case in point.

I could say a lot of things about this sort of celebrity, the long and short of it would be to say that it is completely and totally overrated by evangelicals.  But I won’t.  Instead I will direct your attention to a different sort of Christian celebrity.  If you paid attention to the title of this post, you know where I am going here.

Thomas Merton was a Christian, just like Tim Tebow.  Like Tebow, he was very well-known and had tremendous influence both in Christian culture and in the outside world when he was at the peak of his fame.  Like Tebow, he was very public about his faith and how his faith informed his life.

But once you get past these things, you will see that there is a world of difference between Thomas Merton and Tim Tebow.

Merton was a writer.  He wrote voluminously and deeply on the inner life.  As a monk, he had tremendous amounts of time to mine the inner depths of his being.  He desired to see all believers become attuned to the inner depths of their beings and not settle for living life on the surface.  He raved constantly against the “false self” that so many live with, an illusory person who desires to exist outside the reach of God’s love–ergo, outside of reality and outside of life.

But so much of evangelicalism–and especially the celebrity culture that evangelicalism loves to look up to–exists on the surface.  So much of the hype about Tebow and Jeremy Lin has to do with external activities and external commitments.  Tebow may have a very rich inner life just like Thomas Merton.  But if he does we don’t know.  And in the present evangelical milieu, it just doesn’t matter.  All we care about is what this guy believes–or at least professes to believe, what he does on Sunday morning, and what he does during his summers.  And the fact that he is a successful NFL quarterback–AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And that’s really all we care about.  We don’t care to hear what he would say about the state of his soul, or the state of our own souls.  We don’t care to hear any critique Tim Tebow would make–if he were ever inclined to make such a critique–of our false selves and our propensity to live on the surface and idolize the superficial.  And that is only to our detriment.

Andrew’s Story: Could This Happen at Your Church?

UPDATE:  In light of comments that recently appeared on Pat Kyle’s blog, it appears there is more to Andrew’s story than meets the eye.  Oh well.  Good thing I gave the disclaimer that we were only getting one side of the story from the accounts of Andrew’s story that were in circulation when this first went up.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE:  The church in question has released two leaders in the wake of the media attention brought on by Andrew’s story.  According to their statement, the leaders had a pattern of overstepping their authority and were released because of matters unrelated to Andrew’s story.

Today we are going to hear Andrew’s story.

Andrew’s story has been all over the Christian blogosphere the past couple of days.  It is a heartbreaking, tragic tale of church discipline gone monumentally awry at a nationally known church.  A more descriptive version of Andrew’s story is presented in two installments at the blog of Matthew Paul Turner:  Part 1, and Part 2.  (I will not mention the name or location of the church in question.  You know this church.  You know where it is.  You know who the pastor is.  Bashing this church and/or its pastor is something of a sport in some parts of the Christian blogosphere, and I do not want to get into that here.  If you need to know, read the Matthew Paul Turner posts.)

This story will grab a hold of your heart and not let go.  At least, that is the effect it has had on me.  Partly because it leads me to wonder:  Could this happen at my church?  Could this happen to me?  Partly because it leads me to consider my own relational failings and the adverse effect they have had on people I loved very much.  But most of all, because my heart breaks for this poor soul who has suffered so much at the hands of the Church. Continue reading