Hopes and Dreams

During a recent conversation I was asked to share my thoughts about the future of the church. In a moment of personal clarity I suggested the issue was no longer about me or my preferences, rather I wanted a church that my children would attend, invest in, and support. I suspect that this kind of church will be very different from what we have now. Last week I finished reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, an American Slave. I have a bad habit of skipping the appendix when I read. On this occasion I was on a plane and still had an hour of flight time left, so I continued past the official end of the book to the appendix where Douglass reflected on the expressions of Christianity he witnessed.

On April 28, 1845, Douglass wrote:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slave holding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. (Appendix)

Although these words were written well over 150 years ago, they still ring true today. There are still significant segments of the church that have chosen the Christianity of this land over the Christianity of Christ. It is at this juncture where I find hope. There are many young adults (my children included) who choose not to participate in church because of its close relationship with “this land.”

The church of this land gets to choose who participates and who has access. It gets to choose country first and God second.

The church of Christ must by definition take seriously the words of Christ. More often than not these words will put people of faith in conflict with government, popular culture, and comfortable Christianity. The church of Christ must choose our common humanity over national, cultural, and class divisions. Welcoming the neighbor trumps walls of separation.

In Douglass’s day the church of power went to great lengths to justify slavery. Today there are too many who claim faith and yet find reasons to exclude. The church of Christ is motivated by the idea that all of us share one unifying trait – we are created in the very image and likeness of God.


What makes someone a Christian?  As a pre-teen I remember an “End-Times” speaker coming to our town and talking about how all the planets would line up in 1982.  He speculated that this would signal the beginning of the end or the start of the “tribulation.”  I was so afraid that I would be left behind when Jesus came to “rapture” the real Christians that I went forward every night to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.  Becoming a Christian had something to do with praying the right set of words.  Confession of sin and asking Jesus to sit on the throne of my heart needed to be included in the prayer.   I kept going forward every night because I wasn’t sure I prayed the prayer correctly. The fear of not having done it right haunted me for years.  More than once I snuck out of my bedroom at 2 AM to check on my parents to make sure they hadn’t been raptured away.  It took years to realize that the rapture theology that consumed my youth was a non-biblical scam made up to sell books.  There has been much freedom in discovering that Christianity is so much more than a way to avoid “The Tribulation.”

This journey into a new understanding of Christianity has only intensified the “what makes someone a Christian?” question.  During Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3 there is a fascinating conversation about entering into a process of rebirth.  It would seem that Christianity has something to do with resetting, rebooting and starting over with a clean slate.  In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a strange story about sheep and goats.  Eventually the sheep are invited into the kingdom of God and not because they prayed the right prayer.  There is no indication that they ever went forward at church and accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  They are invited in because of how they lived their lives in service to others.

The more I read scripture the more I am convinced that Christianity has everything to do with who we are and how we live our lives.  There is a song from my youth that says well what I am trying to say, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

There are still well-meaning people who want a Christianity defined by rules and formulas.  The reasons for this grow out of the best of intentions.  The problem is that the God of Scripture has no interest in rules and formulas, no matter how well-intentioned they are.  The closest Scripture comes to a formula is love, radical and unconditional love.

Silly Questions

May is not an easy month for me. It was in May 2003 that my mother passed away.  Recalling memories of her has become a May ritual for me. One childhood memory that has surfaced this year was a time when my mother, in a fit of frustration, demanded that I stop asking such silly questions. The other day USA Today ran a story asking if Osama bin Laden was in Hell.  The article goes on to speculate that this question has become a type of litmus test between traditional heaven-and-hell evangelicals and the emerging evangelical movement led by Rob Bell with its tendencies towards universalism.  The traditional argument in its simplest form goes something like this: if God is just, then it is not possible for bin Laden to end up in heaven.

I cannot help but wonder if this debate is a silly one.  After all, trying to figure out where someone else is going to spend eternity is a little like asking if Adam and Eve had belly buttons - a potentially  entertaining discussion but also a little silly.

Why is it so important to condemn someone else to hell?  There is a strange comfort in knowing there are people more sinful than I am.  It is reasonably safe to state that I am not, nor ever will be as sinful as Osama bin Laden was.

Is it possible that condemning someone else to hell is a convenient way to avoid dealing with the stuff in my life?  After all I have never master-minded a terrorist attack or sent someone on a suicide mission - so I can’t be all that bad of a person, right?

In light of what bin Laden has done my judgmentalism, anger and arrogance are just minor offenses that should be overlooked.

A Basic Question

It will be Easter in a few weeks.  It seems like a good time to ask a basic “Christian” question: Why did Jesus die on the cross? Is it possible that we have forgotten why?

From a certain perspective Easter seems to be mostly about chocolate, eggs and candy.  Or, for the casual faith crowd, it would be easy to conclude that this is the time of year for new dresses, fancy hats and an annual pilgrimage to church.

If you spend any time listening to popular Christian culture it might be easy to conclude that Jesus died on the cross so that we could own the house or car of our dreams.  Or maybe he died so that TV ministers could have world-wide audiences.  Could it be that Jesus died to inspire church “building” programs?  Is it possible that Jesus died so that church sanctuaries would be filled once a year?

Then there is the “ignore Jesus’ life and teaching, and focus on His death” crowd.  They believe that Jesus died so that we could get a free ticket to heaven.  If you are unfortunate enough to miss the free ticket-to-heaven line you still get a free ride but this “other” option is not quite as fun.

So why did Jesus die on the cross?  John 3:16 provides a clue.  We are loved.  Unconditionally loved.   It does not make a difference who you are, what you have or have not done, where you come from, your economic status, your national or religious origin – none of this matters.  Jesus died on the cross because He loves you, unconditionally.


There is an ancient proverb that goes something like this,“When two minds agree one is redundant.” Yesterday I started reading Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins.  I must admit that I bought the book mostly because of all the controversy surrounding its release.  People are concerned that Rob has walked away from core Christian beliefs.

Since I have not finished reading the book, it would be irresponsible of me to weigh in on Rob’s “theological correctness.”

I am, however, fascinated by all the waves this book has created.  Why is it that the Evangelical community gets so stressed out anytime someone questions the “core beliefs?”  What is so wrong with rethinking assumptions?

A few years ago I was part of a Bible study. One evening we discussed God’s heart for the poor.  About half way through the evening one person had finally had enough and declared, “I don’t know exactly where it is in the Bible, but it tells us that God helps those who help themselves.”   There are people who believe that God helps those who help themselves, but to assume that Scripture supports this idea is wrong.  The better Biblical argument is that God helps those who can do nothing for themselves.

Is it possible that what we assume the Bible teaches and what it actually teaches is not always the same thing?  Western culture has done a good job of marrying things like God and country or health and wealth to God’s favor and blessing.  Untangling the Christian faith from culture is never easy and always uncomfortable, mostly because it challenges assumptions and dearly held core beliefs.

When core beliefs and convictions are questioned maybe the best response is to listen, reevaluate and rethink.  Being labeled a heretic is not always bad; I suspect that Jesus wore that title from time to time.