The Death of Religion

Jesus doesn’t really like a lot of what passes as religion.  Even religion with his name on it.  Maybe especially that kind.  In fact, he is so disturbed by the religion that was devoted to God during his day that he flat-out curses it (Matthew 23).

We recently started a series entitled “How To Kill a Religion” at church. (You can listen to them as we go along here: https://soundcloud.com/pathwayschurch).  We’ve been looking at the things from Matthew 23 that Jesus says will kill a religion.

DOR7

And while there are many fatal pills that religion can swallow that will put it six feet under, there are three that seem especially deadly:

A lack of sincerity.  Not practicing what you preach.

A lack of compassion. Prioritizing rules over people.

A lack of humility. Practicing religion in order to be noticed by other people.

Religion that lacks sincerity, compassion, and humility is dangerous. It hurts people and Jesus thinks its should die.

Probably many of us who have been hurt by that kind of religion agree. In an unexpectedly weird way, many people who are wary, skeptical and against religion are to some degree on Jesus’ side. And it has been freeing to learn this.  It’s been relieving to discover that Jesus isn’t as petty and oppressive as much of the religion we’ve seen. Sometimes I just wanna cheer, “yea, Jesus! You tell ’em!”

If I’m honest though, it’s also been a little convicting. I’m sure I am guilty at times of lacking any one of these key ingredients to religion that truly honors God.  It’s caused me to examine who I am, what I do and most importantly WHY I do it.

Am I sincere in actually living what I believe?

Do I really prioritize people over rules and rituals?

Would I do this particular thing if no one ever knew about it?

 

I’m finding that I can even do the right thing, but for the wrong reason. And when I do, rather than honor God, I drink the poison that kills religion.

But more than conviction, this series and these words of Jesus have caused me to dream more about the identity of our particular church community.  As we have discussed the things we DON’T want to be, it has inevitably had the side-effect of forcing me to ask “what DO we want to be?”

And what DO we want to be?

After all, while there is religion that is dangerous and hurtful, not all religion is bad.  Jesus’ own brother, James, reminds us of this:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.  (But) religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

(James 1:26-27)

Now I know that defining ourselves by what we are NOT is not of itself adequate. But what if it adds some clarity to us as a community of things we want to avoid and prompts us, like James, to discuss what we really DO want to be about?  Saying “no” to some things may inspire us to say “yes” to what’s better.

This week we celebrate “Orphan Sunday” at Pathways Church.

We’ll be discussing ways to get involved in protecting the most vulnerable in our global society.  There will be ways to get involved that are more immersive than maybe we’ve ever been involved with before.

I don’t know what will happen with all this, but it feels big.

It feels like it might be defining for us.

Maybe there is more here than just a simple Sunday.

Maybe there is the beginning of identity.

Religious community starting to be reformed around the right things.

I’m praying that this series will be more than just a few shots at the religion God hates but that it will call us forward into the religion God delights in.  Could be this Sunday is the first step in that calling.  Join me in praying for that vision and identity to come bubbling out of these moments.

 

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The Core Values

Here is what I’ve been meditating on lately.  Seems like every day I re-read this list multiple times.  I think I’ve almost got it memorized.  Hahaha.

They are the “Core Values” of Pathways Church (Mill Creek, WA) that I have recently accepted a call to help lead.

In fact, it is these values that really drew me to this community.  I love the choice of terms and the almost poetic language in which they are described.  There is honesty, reality, grittiness, hope and beauty described here.  They remind me of the best of what church can be.  And I pray that they are a source of refreshment, hope and inspiration to you as you read them.

Struggle

Personal depth is developed by asking tough questions, by struggling. Those who abandon the struggle either come to believe that they have gained all of the answers or quit caring about those answers altogether. Life is not meant to be lived in either of these extremes. Life is a struggle. Following Jesus does not alleviate our struggle, give us the answer to every question, or enable us to conquer every difficulty of life. But it does make the struggle worth facing by tying it to something greater than ourselves. It is in this wrestling that we learn to trust and draw closer to the heart of God.

Meaning

Because we have been purposefully created, everyone seeks meaning and truth. The desire for purpose is built into us. Satisfaction of this inner hunger will only be found by exploring why we were created. Jesus claimed to give “life to the full.” As we gain an understanding of His teachings from the Scriptures, our eyes are opened to the ultimate meaning of life. This fullness is not only found beyond this life, but it can exist in how we live our lives right now, everyday.

Redemption

To “redeem” is to buy back something that you originally owned. All truth and beauty belong to God. Unfortunately, selfishness, pride, and hatred have twisted and marred much of it. Christ came not only to reclaim individual lives, but all of creation as well. Redemption can occur in the simple beauty of art and creativity, the profound redirection of a life consumed by self, or the overwhelming task of tackling poverty, hunger and sanitation in third-world countries. We partner with Christ to recover the sense of beauty, renewal, and justice which He intended for our lives.

Sacrifice

Here the teachings of Jesus become very unpopular. True love transcends self and ease and therefore requires sacrifice. God first demonstrated that love to us through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus, on the cross. As an act of worship, and in response, we give our lives, sacrificially, to Him and to those around us. To follow Jesus is to reflect His giving nature; to take more interest in the needs of others than of ourselves.

Community

We struggle, but not alone. We search for meaning, but others walk the path alongside us. We partner with God to redeem creation, but we do so in conjunction with others. We sacrifice of ourselves, but must have others to whom we give. The New Testament is filled with teachings on how we are to live with “one another”. We laugh together and cry together. We celebrate together and grieve together. We were not meant to journey alone.

 

 

 

 

 

Wherever you are tonight, may you find struggle, meaning, redemption, sacrifice and community as a core experience in your faith journey.

iReflect on Steve Jobs

I have never met Steve Jobs.

But his influence literally effects every day of my life in both profound and very practical ways.

Mr. Jobs never stepped into my house, but his legacy will be living here influencing my family for many years to come.

Almost every single picture and video of my two young children was either taken on or is stored on an Apple device.  These are the most treasured recorded memories of our family and they owe their existence to a man I never met.

The family-connecting moments of grandma reading my 3-year-old a story before bed, all while sitting in her house hundreds of miles away, on the video FaceTime of my phone have allowed my children to discover their grandparents.  This too was possible because of a stranger.

And let’s not forget about the times I’ve been away because of work and able to see my children before bed because of the same invention.  Or the educational apps stored on my iPad that have entertained my children during moments we needed to extend their patience.  Or the AppleTV device that streams Disney’s “Tangled” into my TV so my daughter can enjoy a movie and popcorn night with us in our sleeping bags on the living room floor.

Or the macbook that my wife uses to scrapbook the pictures and stories of our family life into a blog online that friends and family far away can view to follow along with our lives.

And what of all the hours spent reading news on one of his devices, emailing and communicating through his iPhone, finding my way to a destination by his map app, locating a restaurant through another app, following a live football game during a long meeting, and the countless work tools that I depend on each day.

This and so much more. Because of a man that I’ve never met.

I’ve been a Steve Jobs fan, from afar, and an Apple fanboy for many years now. I’ve stood in long lines for iPhones and iPads and all sorts of things.  Each keynote address was as exciting as Christmas morning for a 9-year-old.

But, for me, it was never about having the coolest and newest device.  My love of Steve’s Apple products isn’t about keeping up with the Jones’ or some sort of status symbol.

I’ve loved Apple because of Steve’s passion to blur the lines between art and technology.

He didn’t just make a phone; he made an iPhone. He didn’t just make a computer; he made a macbook.  And anyone who’s used his products understands the difference.

Every product released under his guidance was like watching a new painting being completed by da Vinci or van Gogh.  Each as striking as a new literary masterpiece by Shakespeare or Mark Twain.  On par with the greatest sculptures, architecture, poetry, and music of all time.

Jobs didn’t just make items that were functional.  They were beautiful.

Of course, like any good artist, he didn’t really want people changing his creation.  He was famous for secrecy and closed systems that people couldn’t fundamentally customize.  What he created he was passionate about and wanted it to stand as he had made it.

He was at heart an artist, who also happened to know computers and like technology.  Touch screens, computer chips, mobile antennas and operating systems were his tools; the paint brushes, violins, and writer’s pen of his craft.

Art. Productivity.

His tension and pursuit of both as the same thing is what is most inspiring to me.

And it strikes me that we could use a few Steve Jobs’ in our churches today.  A person here or there that advances God’s kingdom with creativity, passion and courage.

Someone who challenges the status quo and with courage and braves a new path forward, despite previous failure and criticism.

Someone who refuses to see salvation as a cold transaction, but as a creative life experience.

Someone who doesn’t see building churches as a business model but as Divine art.

Someone not as concerned with “the bottom line” (number of people in the pews) or “financial margin” (how many new buildings we can put up) but, as Steve put it, to live with the purpose of putting “a ding in the universe”.

Someone who finds the beauty in simplicity and engages in life as a labor of love.

I don’t know what Steve Jobs thought about God, but I know what God thought about him.  He loved him.

And for that much, so did I.

Thank you, Steve, for all your art over the years.  I’m so glad to have been a witness to the artist God created in you.  May we all be true to the creative genius He has placed in each of us as well.

 

. . . made on a mac . . .

Putting the “apology” in apologetics

Ever read something that almost instantly strikes you as strange?

I read an article today by Christianity Today (read it here) that claims that apologetic teaching (a field of study that aims to provide logical arguments in favor of Christianity) has come back en vogue for teenagers and youth ministry.

Now, I want to be clear. I personally enjoy good apologetic discussion. I like to use my brain in conjunction with my faith and wish more Christians would as well. I think logical reasons for trust in Christ can be useful in proper context and that student ministry curriculum should include some of these elements. However, this article raised all kinds of red flags and questions for me:

Are apologetics really the hot new trend for teenagers?

Are today’s students really lined up outside the door to hear William Lane Craig argue creationism and God’s existence against his nemesis, Christopher Hitchens?

Can mental arguments for religion inspire today’s students to live like Christ?

Does the religious “I-can-prove-I’m-right” candy of modernity really taste that sweet to the children of postmodernity?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Almost every study available on this generation suggests that in fact the opposite is true; that apologetic classes are in fact not en vogue. And my personal experience with teenagers seems to agree. Even Christian studies by George Barna, David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Thom Rainer, and others show time and again that young people today are turned off by logical arguments for faith alone.

That’s not to say that kids today don’t want to think about evidence for their faith. They do. They desire some rational answers to religion. However, they don’t perceive these discussions as having real value unless they are embodied in experiential Christ-like living. If you don’t live it, they don’t care whether it is intellectually believable.

The primary question that the majority of young people (both in the church and outside of it) are asking today is not, “Do I believe what you believe?”

The big question is: “Do I want to be like you?”

If I don’t like who you are as a person, if you’re not kind, generous, loving and accepting, then I’m not interested in what you believe. Because, clearly, neither are you.

In an environment where truth has become relative, apologetics has just become your spin on how you see truth. It matters, but not universally. It matters to me, but not necessarily to you. It’s important, but limited.

What does matter is your actual experience.

The question has moved from “is Jesus who He says he is?” to “do I really see Jesus living in you like you say He does.”

Some have called this an embodied apologetic; rational answers given credibility by how we actually live and treat others.

The questions of apologetics, then, aren’t unimportant to young people, it’s just that the answers are meaningless unless they have context of actual life transformation.

The famous quote: “No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument,” is completely understood and valued by this generation. And actually, I think it is mostly admirable and honest.

With this well documented cultural mindset as a backdrop, I find it very hard to believe that arming students with arguments is or will be any time soon the new youth ministry fad.

With one exception…

One of the great problems with American Christianity today is it’s insistence on winning the so-called “culture wars”. There is a strong feeling in many church circles that the prevailing culture has lost it’s moral compass (which is mostly true) and that it is the church’s job to legislate, argue and demand a return to Judeo-Christian moral principles (which is mostly untrue).

This “Us vs. Them” mindset is being played out on our political stage on a daily basis. There are Red-States and Blue-States. Conservatives and Liberals. Bumper stickers and talking heads have replaced actual conversation. As of today, the President and House Republicans can’t even agree on what day he should give his “jobs speech”.

We are a very divided country and this culture war mindset is deeply entrenched in many of our churches.

And don’t think this doesn’t rub off on our children. There are, I believe, an increasing amount of children of culture-war soldiers that have been told they must know the arguments to “defend their faith & country” from demise.

It is these students (and perhaps more accurately their parents) that have started this niche trend toward apologetics. And while apologetics is a great field of study, I believe any resurgence in it’s popularity for students and youth group is born out of this more fear-based rhetoric then actual interest in youth culture more broadly. It is localized in the Christian subculture and certainly not a trend for young people generally.

I’m encouraged that this field of study is being included in youth ministry curriculum, but I pray that youth leaders across the country will have the wisdom not to cave into this small minded view of “my god is better than your god” spiritual war mongering. I pray we will not only teach students what we believe to be true about God, but that we’d spend even more time modeling how we actually live like Him.

If we don’t we’ll have a lot of churches full of answers with no one who wants to hear them.

And, we may end up doing a lot of apologizing for all our apologetics.

Holy Sheet!

I found a valuable treasure in our linen closet the other day. Old bed sheets. We don’t use them on our bed anymore, but my three-year-old daughter repurposed them (we’re a green, recycling family) for a new cause.

You know the old saying, “one man’s garbage is another toddler’s treasure.”

Turns out old bed sheets are the perfect building material for a kid’s bedroom fort. They are large enough (if they are queen size or larger) to span long distances. And they are light enough (not like grandma’s quilt which is big too but heavy) that they don’t sag too much in the middle, a crucial concern for good fort creation.

Three bedsheets, 15 minutes, two dresser drawers closed on corners, one stereo placed on top to hold an edge, and three pillows for stability later and my daughter no longer had a bedroom but a wild west trading post. Although, she preferred to think of it as a “princess fort”.

It was the perfect place to hide in, play with dolls and pretend to be in a castle.

Turns out, it was also the perfect place for a three-year-old to want to spend the night.

“Daddy, can we have a sleep over in the fort tonight?”

And so, long after Paytyn had been tucked into her sleeping bag and fallen asleep, I crept in to my sleeping bag under the fort to “sleep over” as well.

It was not a comfortable night. Sleeping on the floor when I was three was easy. Now it just makes my whole body hurt. But, I could have dealt with that if it wasn’t for the constant karate kicks that my sleeping daughter hurled my way all night long. Have you ever slept next to a toddler? They literally never stop moving. Even when they sleep.

Sore and exhausted, I woke up the next morning to a bright-eyed girl, her face right up in mine, staring at me from three-inches away.

“Good morning, daddy! We did a sleep over!” she beamed with joy.

That we did. It was just one night. We took the fort down later that morning. But the joy my daughter experienced lasted for weeks.

And in the effort to win my daughter’s heart I hope to have a few more sleepless nights on the floor.

God’s that way, you know.

Sometimes we think of Him as inaccessible or standoffish or too good for the likes of us. In fact, there are many of us who have grown up not liking this God that sits up in His comfortable digs in heaven judging us down here doing our best in this mess of a world.

We’ve assumed the only terms He’s willing to meet us on involve stuffy religious ceremonies and boring church services. Which for many of us has made him seem un-relatable and elitist at best.

But, no matter what you’ve assumed about God or maybe how churches or Christians have portrayed Him to you, Jesus shows us that God is more like a fort-building dad than a cold and distant tyrant.

So the Word (God) became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. No one has ever seen God. But the unique One (Jesus), who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.
(John 1:14,18 NLT)

He made is home among us. The words there literally mean, “he pitched his tent with us.” Or maybe a three-year-old might translate it: “he built a fort and lay down on the hard ground in his sleeping bag too.”

And maybe that’s the best picture of God.

Loyd Family 2011

Maybe we’ve had some assumptions about God that don’t match up to how God has defined himself in the way he actually chooses to act toward us.

The God that Jesus puts on display isn’t too good to experience a sleepless night. He isn’t too holy to break out the old bedsheets and slum it up on the floor.

This God will go to any length to win the hearts of the people he has made. It’s the foundational belief of Jesus’ followers: that God is in fact good, relatable, willing to live with us and do whatever it takes bring us ultimate joy and fulfillment.

In that case, it could be that something other than some old bedsheets need repurposed. Maybe our view of God could use a little retooling too.

The Pastor’s Pastor

Skyscrapers of book boxes teetered nervously in a maze around the cluttered new office; each box grunting under the weight of the heavy reading.  I was grunting too, flopped down in my chair at the desk.

Why do I have so many books?  I ask myself this question every time I have to move them.  And why is my office on the 3rd floor?

First day at a new job.  A new church body.  And my first task is to haul these long-time companions to their new shelves.  My head dropped to the desk just thinking about unpacking them all.

And that’s when I felt the hands on my shoulders.  Big hands.  Broad hands.

Startled, I lifted my head off the desk.  It was my pastor.

No, not the senior pastor.  Not the executive pastor.  Not an associate of men’s ministry or small groups.

It was “Big Al”.  The janitor.

And he was big.  He stood towering over me with a broad build and bald head.  Like a real life Mr. Clean, without the earring. I was pretty sure his hands could crush me and he probably wouldn’t have even noticed.

“Hey, is this your first day?”  he asked.

“Yea, just getting all my books in the door.”

Big Al looks around and smiles, “Has anyone prayed for you yet?”

“Uh no, I guess not.”

“Great then, let me do it right now.”  And before I can even agree, “Big Al” is praying for me to have courage, lead boldly, proclaim Christ clearly, to have passion in my spiritual journey and for my family to be strong and blessed by God.

That’s how I met my pastor.  On my first day as the new youth pastor, he stepped into my office to empty the garbage.  But he wouldn’t leave until he’d made sure my soul wasn’t in the same condition.

I like people like Al.  People who see themselves as part of God’s divine plan to breathe life into every situation.  Even while taking out the trash.

And now several years later, from time to time, Big Al will come strolling into my office to empty the garbage.  And sometimes he’ll stop and look at me.  And ask me a question.

“How are you doing with your relationship with God right now?  Are you feeling passionate or is it becoming just a job for you?”

Yikes!  How about “Hey, Nick.  Nice weather we’ve been having, huh?”  I mean, that’s pretty heavy for first thing Monday morning.

Except almost every time he asks me those questions, they’ve been questions that need to be asked.  Sometimes I can answer that I’m doing really well and other times not.  But, it’s always been a pastoral reminder to me to care more about the relationship I have with God than the job I think I do for him.

And it occurs to me that I can be honest with Al.  As people who are usually looked at to have all the right answers and constantly be the epitome of godliness, it is often hard for pastors to have real discussions of their own spiritual walk.  Those authentic moments of deep honesty are rare.  And even more rare the people that ask it of us.

But the older I get and the longer I’m involved in professional ministry, the more I find it essential to find those rare individuals who will ask the real questions.  It’s too easy to fake it.  Too easy to miss it, while talking lots about it.

After all, it’s often my own soul that needs the most work.  It is my wandering that needs a shepherd. I need a pastor too.

Whoever he or she is, your pastor does too.

Big Al isn’t a janitor.  He’s a pastor that takes out my garbage sometimes.

And the fact that he knows that has made all the difference for me.

So may you see your true identity today. May you remember that you never need a title to fulfill your ministry.  May you discover the people to pastor all around you that you could never have blessed in any other role.  May you find your divine calling in the middle of the moments you label “ordinary.”

And may you be so fortunate as to come across your own Big Al.  Title or not, every pastor needs a pastor.  And he’s about the best there is.

Predestined to Hate Rob Bell

Weeks before Rob Bell’s newest book was released the claims of heresy started swirling.  People like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and Justin Taylor had condemned him while only reading select excerpts or in some cases nothing at all.

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John Piper famously tweeted:  “Farewell, Rob Bell,” apparently insinuating that he was no longer considering him to be a fellow Christian.

And truly, I don’t blame him.  I don’t hold them responsible for this reckless criticism.  How could I?  They were predestined to do it.  It’s not as though they had a choice.  From the beginning of the world, they were fated to do this very thing.  It’s almost as if the words were typed into Twitter on their own.

Love Wins

I just finished reading “Love Wins” for myself yesterday.  And as I read it, I was struck by how orthodox it was.  Having watched the blog and twitter world for the last two weeks I expected to find the reincarnation of Buddha or the Wiccan “Rule of Three” being proclaimed by Rob Bell.

Turns out though, he still believes and follows Jesus.  He believes in His divinity.  And His humanity.  He thinks His sacrifice was the crucial point in human history that reconciled us to God, set us free from sin and defeats evil. He believes He died and came back to life.  He believes only through Christ can we experience true life, healing, salvation and wholeness, and that through him all things hold together.   He believes that what we do on this planet has real consequences, either for good or bad.  He states his belief in the “already-not yet” paradoxical components of heaven and hell.

And he believes in free-will.

Which is actually where I think the real problem lies.

Over and over in the book, Bell asserts that “real love” requires the capacity to deny or reject that love.  Love that is compelled is not truly love.

Much of his theology is based on the rules of this love.  Rules that God himself chooses to play by in order to allow our decisions the reality of significance.  And though he acknowledges our ability to deny it, Bell believes that God will never stop His divine attempts to woo, pursue, and offer us His incredible love.

Rob Bell, author of "Love Wins"

It is the topic of choice then that is on trial for many.  Does Rob Bell believe in hell?  Yes, both in the sense that it exists now and in the age to come.  But he believes God doesn’t SEND people there.  He believes people choose to live in hell now and presumably in the future as well.

What is on trial is not the existence of hell, but the parameters of human freedom and choice.

And by the way, this is not new.  Nor is it universalism.  And I’m sorry to ruin the hype, but it isn’t heresy by a long shot.

This book is controversial because there are many people who do not share the ‘free-will” or “open” view of the human condition.

We live in a time that is currently marked by a significant “resurgence” of the Reformed theology/Calvinists that believe that all things are determined in advance by God.  Or if you prefer to think of it in building terms, that God has a divine blueprint that shows every decision every person will make.  And not only does he know that decision, but that we are in fact created to make that decision.  It isn’t really a “decision” at all, just the appearance of one.

And if you read the reviews closely, I think you’ll find people coming down on this book mostly along those lines:  free-will or determinist.

Heretic! Heretic!

Though the “heretic” rhetoric is flying around more carelessly than radioactivity spewing out of a nuclear meltdown, this isn’t a new battle for these tribes.  This is an age-old disagreement clothed in different garments.

So don’t buy the hype.  Rob Bell isn’t tearing down Christianity or saying that any path you take will lead to eternal life.  He’s not a universalist or a heretic or a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.  He’s just another guy contributing his voice to a long conversation of well intentioned followers of Jesus trying to make sense of the Divine.

And also, don’t be too hard on the Piper/Driscoll/Taylor clan.  It’s not their fault.  They were predestined to dislike Rob Bell.