Love Wins And Me (Part One)

Regardless of how many tasks I'm juggling, I will always take time out of my schedule to address contemporary Christian issues that demand attention. In the past two weeks a firestorm has erupted concerning a popular Christian preacher and writer named Rob Bell. He has just released a new book entitled, "Love Wins," that minimizes the role of hell in Christian theology. Much has been written on the interwebs about the hubbub, so my two cents might seem irrelevant. While I don't intend to pave new ground in the conversation, I believe I have a unique perspective on Bell himself as I've been tracking his career for more than a decade now. This is a lengthy post, but I figure if you're still reading, then you're interested.


One of my wife's childhood friends settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan after attending college there. In one of her visits to Cincinnati after our wedding, she told us about the church she was attending.  It was a newer congregation which, at that time, was meeting in something that resembled an airplane hanger. "Steve, you'd really like our minister. He's pretty good," her friend told me. I didn't think much of it until that winter when I heard her minister speak at a conference I attended.

Yes, Rob Bell was pretty good. He's a phenomenal orator. He has incredible command of his diction (especially when rehearsed) and usually has sufficient content to keep his teaching compelling. There are few Christian speakers like him today, who can leave the audience hanging on his every word.

Later that year, we took a trip to visit Kelly's friend in Grand Rapids and attended Mars Hill Bible Church for the first time. They had recently purchased an old mall and were converting it for their ministry purposes. Back then, they had a sermon cassette tape booth (cutting edge, eh?) and I bought the entire first year of his preaching; he taught through the Old Testament book of Leviticus. This is precisely why I appreciated Bell at the time: he was a younger evangelical minister fully embracing biblical preaching. A decade ago, this was novel.


In January 2003, Bell (who was growing in popularity but still wasn't mainstream) and his church hosted a preaching study conference centering around the Ten Commandments. I convinced my friend Aaron Burgess that it would be worth the drive to Grand Rapids to hear this, so we braved a Michigan winter for some knowledge. There were only about fifty people at this gathering—many Michigander clergy folk and a few people like us sprinkled in—consisting of three days of Rob Bell talking with us. He went through his thought process on preaching, developing theology, and anything else that we cared to ask him. Some reflections from this experience are worth noting to understand the current controversy:

1. It was here where I found out where Rob harvested much of his best material. Ray Vanderlaan is an author and Bible teacher who specializes in the Holy Land and Jewish rabbinic culture. Himself a compelling speaker, Vanderlaan said many things that I had heard in Rob's sermon tapes. Vanderlaan is a sharp man, but not really a biblical scholar, so some of his assertions have been refuted by those with more letters after their names.

2. Rob also revealed his library. At the time, he had many books that were Jewish in nature. One, for example, was Abraham Heschel's God in Search of Man. I made an effort to read many of these texts. The majority of them stood in opposition to orthodox Christianity. Obviously, there's nothing with that; when teaching in the Old Testament, I make sure to utilize Jewish scholarship fully understanding the different perspectives. But some of the concepts he articulated in this forum, derived from these and similar texts, were likely the path of development towards his current theological positions. I even have notes on Redemptive Theology (also known as trajectory theology), which helps solidify his position.

3. While in Grand Rapids, I believe I determined the rise of Mars Hill. Rob was an associate minister on staff of a megachurch in the city. Obviously, his oration skills were phenomenal, so when he stepped out to start a new church it was an event. I've read before in articles, where Rob decried church marketing, even having the church sign removed from the front of their building (it was true back in 2003). I always found this interesting because they were able to start their church with almost 1,000 people. I'm not discounting the Lord moving to grow that congregation, but they didn't really need a church sign because Mars Hills was the coolest church in town.

4. The concept that "Love Wins" was created in the first year of their church. In response to a powerful gospel sermon (not sure if it mentioned hell or not), he concluded by throwing open boxes of bumper stickers with the two word sentence printed on them. As we drove around town, we could see many of them affixed to car bumpers. I am uncertain as to whether or not he had fully conceptualized what he meant by that phrase when he promoted it to his church a decade ago.

5. This was soon after the Nooma series had been created. It was interesting to see it on the bottom floor in light of what it became. We met the guy who came up with the concept, who apparently knew exactly how to match Rob's talent with this medium.

6. Kind of a sidebar here, but Aaron was hilarious at this conference. In one of the early sessions, Rob said something about philosophy (Aaron's wheelhouse) and proceeded to correct him publicly on a couple of concepts. At the time it was awkward, but now it seems extremely funny to me. Later that week, Aaron asked one of the Mars Hill staff members about sheep stealing and the dude blew up at him. Besides wearing cool glasses, Aaron wasn't buying into the hype.

7. Since it was a small gathering, I did have a chance to talk with Rob for about five minutes. Although he seemed really gracious, he was somewhat socially awkward. I remember dropping a couple of jokes in front of him and he just stared at me. And since he's really tall (and I'm not), and since he had really cool glasses (and I did not) I do not have warm fuzzies about our interaction. I don't think he's rude, he's a thinker. I've met many a pastor who are outgoing and personable on stage yet more reserved during one-on-one interactions. I could be way off on this, however, but that's how I pegged him.

I must admit that it was a memorable experience. It took me a few months to digest all that I took in there. And it was, after this fact, that my intruigue with Bell began to wane. See, when he started the church, he was preaching through books of the Bible (Leviticus and Ephesians). After the Ten Commandments, he started to depart from this and engaged in more topical preaching. Honestly, I'm just not convinced that his content was as good as it once was, leaning towards opinion and conjecture. I honestly never watched a whole Nooma after the second one. And though I own three of his books, I only read one all the way through. And, since those early days, more and more of his theology has emerged, leading me to question where he really stands.


One more anecdote: a year or so later, my wife's friend got married and we made yet another trip to Grand Rapids. Many of the attendees at the wedding attended Rob's church, so we had some good conversations with them at the reception. But I remember one conversation very clearly: it was with a twenty-something woman who was clearly excited about Mars Hill. As I asked her some questions about the church, she responded in utter admiration of Rob. I wish I could remember the exact phrase the woman uttered, but it was something to the effect that he was prophetic. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with respecting you pastor, but these opinions transcended mere appreciation. Unfortunately, some of the woman's terminology seemed borderline cult-like. She believed that Bell was one of the holiest, most profound people in the world. While this isn't an indictment on Bell (I'm certain he didn't demand this adoration), I wonder if he truly realized such a culture existed where someone could make those statements.


I always assumed the Bell would parlay his talent into a larger situation; Grand Rapids, while nice, is a small midwestern town lacking in influence. But Mars Hill provided Rob the perfect safe haven to develop his thoughts without fear of theological repercussion. While there was a leadership team over the church (at least this was the case in 2003), Bell was a part of this governing group. I am pretty sure that he won't have to fear the wrath of the church leadership in espousing these controversial thoughts in book form because the leadership team shares them. So why has he stayed in Grand Rapids? It offers him a shield of protection it would be difficult to find elsewhere. He's continuing to claim association with orthodox Christianity while moving further away. But as long as he has that church, he'll have stability.

So yeah, there's a little bit of a background for ya. I've mentioned nothing of the book here, but I think for many people it will reveal more about what's behind it.

I'm working my way through the book now.  I'll have a critique about its content out soon.

Click here for part two.

Ash Wednesday (sans ash)

Here's a note I sent out to our church about tomorrow. So tomorrow it begins. Lent is here. I hope you're excited as I am.

Tomorrow is the day known in Christian tradition as Ash Wednesday. Perhaps you're familiar with this but, if not, allow me to explain. The palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday were supposed to have been burned and the ashes kept. Then, on this day, the church would gather together at an early morning worship service. The minister would take his fingers, dip them in the palm ashes, and affix an ashen cross on the believer's forehead (many say the tradition is derived from the Genesis 3:19 text, "For from dust you are and to dust you will return”). Christians wear those ashes on their foreheads until they wear off.

Obviously, Echo Church isn't gathering tomorrow morning for a service; as a church that meets at night, I'm not sure what we'd do that early anyway. So while it might be disappointing that you won't get an ash cross on your forehead, I'll admit I'm a little relieved: I have a business meeting tomorrow night where it would be difficult for me to explain my markings. So if you see another Christian wearing ashes tomorrow, you might feel inferior. But perhaps there are other ways that you too can keep the cross on your mind throughout your day.

As for me, I plan on marking my palm with a miniature cross. This might sound like a weak substitution but this way, as I'm using my hands, I'll remember that this is the day we begin to look forward to the resurrection. Maybe you have a better idea or suggestion of how to replace the forehead ashes. I'd be interested in hearing it. Again, our point in this isn't to be mired in ritualism but to refocus on our faith. So do what you need to do to remember.

Regardless of how you do it, tomorrow we focus on the cross, and what Christ has done for us. Pray that God will transform you through this experience. I'll be praying for you.

Blessings, Steve

Lent: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

Last week, Kelly and I saw the musical Fiddler on the Roof downtown at the Aronoff Center (big thanks to Julie Keyse for watching our daughter so we could attend). The story of Tevya, an impoverished Jewish family man in a small Russian town, centers on his transitioning faith. The entire show is encapsulated by the driving song of the musical: “Tradition.” Will Tevya continue to live within the framework of tradition or will he cede that some things change and that life can go on? Christians, at least those of us within the "evangelical" tribe, are the antithesis of Tevya. While we too are uncertain as how to engage both modernity and the faith of our past, we choose to eighty-six the tradition without a second thought. We are especially leery of those practices connected with Roman Catholicism, dismissing the lion's share of them as having been tainted by its hierarchy. This is precisely why many of us refer to ourselves as "New Testament Christians," claiming that this is the only tradition that has any value.

Within the spectrum of “tradition,” two extremes emerge: either we WORSHIP tradition as if it's biblical, or we WIPE IT OUT altogether like it's paganism. As with most positions, extremism is rarely healthy, but it tends to unify adherents so we acquiesce. As a result, many of us are cautious of moving away from the pole, fearful of being identified as "one of them." But at Echo Church, where we continually unite believers from various backgrounds under the banner of biblical authority, we're able to indulge in certain aspects of tradition while clarifying its place within our faith.

And that's precisely why, this year, we're observing Lent.

Lent isn't Catholic, it's Christian, dating back to the second century. The word "lent" is derived from an old English word meaning "springtime,"* and the Latin adverb "lente" means "slowly," providing us the opportunity to downshift our lives in anticipation of Resurrection Sunday. The length of Lent, approximately forty days, correlates with Jesus' desert temptation in Matthew 4. We observe the season with a renewed emphasis on prayer, giving, and (the most popular discipline) fasting. Most people use Lent as the opportunity to fast from something particular that they love.

We just need to remember why we're giving it up. We're not fasting to flex our powers of self-control; if you're trying to prove you can deprive yourself, this isn't the time. We don't fast because we're trying to merit God's approval; nothing we can "do" will get us saved—Jesus did that on the cross. We're preparing our hearts for Easter. Really, Lent is a lesson you get to re-learn. Through the experience you recognize that you love the Lord more than any one thing. Yes, you already know this, but it's a helpful reminder.

"So what are you giving up?"

Ah, the popular Lenten question. So here's my answer: Diet Coke.

In the summer of 1995, I switched over to Diet Coke from regular soda. I've always loved drinking pop, but couldn't keep the weight down will absorbing mass quantities of it into my system. So almost sixteen years ago I switched over and it's been a part of my life ever since. I’ve likely not gone two days without drinking it since then. Even when we were in Israel, I was able to locate Coke Light, the Asian/European equivalent. I've become known for my Diet Coke addiction, so it's the perfect thing to temporarily abandon.

Of course, in the scheme of things, this isn't a huge deal. All over the world people suffer and I'm going without a beverage? While it's not impressive, it will force me to alter aspects of my life. When I get a morning longing for a Diet Coke, I’ll remember why I don't drink one. And hopefully those moments of unfulfilled desire, I can focus on my faith.

So what about you? Maybe it's a food or a beverage. Maybe it's some kind of media (Facebook, the internet, Twitter, or television). Maybe it's a hobby like reading or sudoku or the crossword puzzle. Just ask yourself: what do you love? And is your dedication to it comparable to your love of the Lord.

As our church observes Lent, I'm going to write some thoughts on it to send out to people. I'll post some of them here.

The journey towards the Empty Tomb begins Wednesday. What can you give up?


*Yes, Lent is likely another pagan ritual that was Christianized and, therefore, isn't necessarily biblical. But if you've ever touched an Easter Egg or exchanged Christmas gifts, don't take the religious high ground and call this unbiblical.

It's Not My Idea

Today at the office a prospective student informed my that he prayed about his college application and the Holy Spirit informed him that he shouldn't hand in his old college transcripts; he was led into making a fresh start. I love it when the Spirit meddles in academic affairs.

Tonight, we ate out with friends at El Rancho Grande (a.k.a. the best Mexican food this side of the border) and our server was a man named Jesus.

And then I thought, "what if?"

If I wrote out on a piece of paper the following message:

"Sir, you should really hand in your old college transcripts."

And if I then gave the message to our server and have him read it out loud.

And if tomorrow, when I get into the office, I call this student and say, "I talked to Jesus and he said, 'Sir, you should really hand in your old college transcripts'. And since Jesus trumps the Holy Spirit, you should call that college ASAP."

I decided, instead, to eat more salsa.

An Ecclesiological False Dichotomy

I find that I tend to use bigger words in average conversation now than I did just ten years ago. I'm not sure whether it's the fact that I'm involved in academics or that I finally know some big words that have brought me to this change. It might simply be that I used to think I couldn't be both deep and down to earth and I've finally come around. Regardless, sometimes nothing else makes quite the same impact as tossing out some polysyllabic words. In my life's context, constantly dealing with people who know everything, you have to sometimes let 'er rip. And that's the preface to this post's title. It's really not that complicated, but it's the first thing that came to my mind when I started writing this post.

Let's break down this phrase: "ecclesiological false dichotomy." For starters, "ecclesiological" is the theological study of the church— how we Christian folk do stuff. And we all understand what "false" is, true? Finally, "dichotomy" basically means "split into two parts." Often, a dichotomy can simply refer to choices: choose one or the other.

So when I'm thinking of "ecclesiological false dichotomy," it's an instance where the church has made/must make a decision, but the choices offered are not really the only choices. What led me here was an article at the interestingly named website "Church Marketing Sucks" that discussed a major outreach in Atlanta, Georgia. Almost 80 churches in the region will be cancelling their weekend worship services at the end of July in order to go out and do service projects. It reminded me of something I read a few years back where a church did the same thing. I was so fascinated, I even saved the pastor's quote in a Word doc: "we need to spend less time GOING to church and more time BEING the church."*

I've refrained on commenting on this for awhile, but it has finally worn me thin. I personally know quite a few churches who have done this same thing. They have great intentions and do some very good things while cancelling their worship services.

But they are misguided. And I think I'll go as far to say that they are actually wrong.

And here's where the "ecclesiological false dichotomy" comes into play. People would have you believe that there are only two choices in this issue: 1) Going to church or 2) Being the church. But it's much more complicated than this. As I've already offended some of you who think this is an phenomenal idea, you're likely crafting a response in your mind that creates a false choice. Go ahead and pick your poison:

  • "Serving is an act of worship. All they're doing is choosing a different way to worship."
  • "Those churches will do more good in those two hours of service than they would have worshipping in their church."
  • "The world will be more impressed with the church being out serving than inside singing"

I'm sure there are others I didn't think of. In the end, those who dare to critique cancelling services for service are offered only two reactions: buy into what we're doing as brilliant or come off as a negative, stick-in-the-mud Christian who doesn't have a heart. Frankly, I am not satisfied with those choices.

So now that I've decided to criticize, let me offer my full critique. I ask that you grant me some patience as I break this down. And it all has to begin by asking "why?"

1. Why do Christians gather every week for "corporate worship" (a.k.a. the worship service)? Why do we sing songs, read the Scriptures, pray, and have communion together? My response: we gather on Sundays to worship together because it is the biblical/historical mandate; this is what the first Christians did, it's what those immediately after them did, and it's what the church has done for almost two-thousand years. By and large, most Christian worship services still adhere to these basic elements of a corporate worship service because it's in the Bible (Roman Catholics might frame this answer differently, but they'd still agree that the Bible offers a template). Ultimately, our Sunday worship gatherings are regular and consistent because it is what the church has been called to do throughout its existence.

Protestant Christians don't view corporate worship as sacramental (that is, something we must do for merit) but rather as something we do out of love, honor, and respect for God. Yet we must understand this: what we do in corporate worship has a definitive purpose—to please God. Even though we might want to be "seeker sensitive" and not offend any non-Christians in our midst, the service is intended for believers to worship God together. So when the world criticizes the church for coming together on Sundays to worship, we mustn't be surprised. They don't understand why we do this. We do it for the Lord.

2. That said, we must admit that God also has called us to do good works; we cannot be "so heavenly minded that we do no earthly good." Yes, good works are good. As of late, churches have started to see this as one of our callings. Social justice, once only the tool of liberal Christians, has been reclaimed by evangelical Christianity. Jewish mystics refer to this as "tikkun olam," or "repairing the world." We are finally doing good works in our communities and throughout our world.

3. But we must admit that we've become rather proud of ourselves. This is not good. I know this is low, but I'm going to unleash some wisdom of Jesus to confirm my point.

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." Matthew 6:1**

Yikes. You see how this is difficult? While we are called to do good works, we should be careful of letting people know about them. Yet I continually hear of churches around the country cancelling worship gatherings to go out and serve. This is fascinating because I don't attend any of these churches. So, somehow, the word of these acts of righteousness is getting out; we're not as subtle as we think.

And here I will insert a quick sidebar: why are many churches motivated to do service outreach/projects in the first place? We'll usually explain that we're just trying to do some good in the world for Jesus. People tend to enjoy service because it makes us feel good (I'm reminded of the episode of Friends where Phoebe tells Joey that there's no such thing as a truly unselfish good deed). But, more than this, I believe that there are many churches who see outreach as an opportunity to add to the flock; I'm not talking about the traditional "win-lost souls-to-Jesus" addition, but rather the "I-wish-our-church-was-as-outward-focused-as-this" addition. Listen, I'm a minister and I've been there. We already go to extreme lengths to make our congregations look attractive. Church service projects can be used in the same way—as a way to steal sheep. There, I said it.

4. Good works aren't performed by Christians only. I think this is something we must readily admit: Christians aren't the only people doing good things in the world. There are Muslims and atheists and Buddhists who do as many good things as we do. Heck, even corporations allow employees to take off work to do service projects, so our pride is usually misplaced. Still, I would offer that just as all truth is God's truth, all good works belong to Him as well. But let us not deceive ourselves that only we are the only ones who do good.

5. Ultimately, these churches hold to a theological misunderstanding. Churches cancel worship services to do service projects because they equate manual-labor worship with corporate worship. "Worship is worship," they claim, whether it's painting a house or singing hymns together. But this is neither biblical nor consistent. It's not biblical in that, while our service can be worship (observe Romans 12), it isn't the same thing as corporate worship; there's a textual difference between working a soup kitchen (good works) and the Eucharist (communal/corporate worship). And it's not consistent because we don't encourage abandoning corporate worship for other forms of worship. If I use this logic (that service projects and corporate worship are equal) then a walk in the park on a beautiful Sunday is the same thing as worshipping with the church. Eventually, if I adhere to this thinking, the church itself is irrelevant and I can do just as well living the Christian life on my own.***

And that's what lies behind this false dichotomy: a confused view of worship. We Christians worship through service, we worship through fellowship and friendship, and we can even worship alone. But our communal worship, when the church gathers specifically to give praise to God, is something all-together different. And it was never intended to be abandoned or replaced by whatever we prefer.

I'm not only offering critique here. Here are a couple of thoughts that can work towards solutions.

1. First, we shouldn't be afraid of being criticized for worshipping together. The world mocks Christians continually, especially for taking time out of their week to gather to worship God. "Isn't there a better way they could spend their time," people ask. I find this fascinating: are you telling me that these critics waste no time during their week? I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that a couple of hours with the church isn't any sillier than watching a Desperate Housewives marathon. Christians need not be apologetic for the time we spend worshipping together.

2. And perhaps the most simple solution: why not do service projects on a Saturday or on a Monday night or any other time of the week. And if it must be done on Sunday, there's nothing wrong with worshipping corporately in the morning and serving later that afternoon.  But why completely cancel the service? At the very least, if there is no other time, couldn't you gather first as a church and have a shortened worship gathering? We shouldn't be forced to choose. You can both "go to church" AND "be the church." Cultivating pride in the fact that our church isn't afraid to cancel worship in order to do service projects exposes traces of a shallow Christianity; it makes as much sense as fasting from God to make Him happy. Even if we are doing this with the proper motivation, it's self-defeating.

In the end, I'm just asking church leaders to ask ourselves "why?" Why are we doing this? Are we doing it because it's what God wants or because it's what we'd prefer that God want?

Dichotomy is rough, eh?


*As I read the Church Marketing Sucks article I was sure that, somewhere on the webpage, the phrase, "be the church" would be found. Sure enough, someone used it in the comments section.

**Contextually, I might be using this verse broadly. Some will say that the "acts of righteousness" referred to religious disciplines and not to serving in general. Maybe someone should write an article about it.

***Frank Viola wrote a book entitled Pagan Christianity that would take an entirely different perspective of this issue. He believes that the majority of what churches do today (such as owning buildings) is unbiblical and should be abandoned. He would likely endorse the idea of calling off corporate worship to do service projects. While I disagree with many of his assertions that serve as the basis of his thinking, at least his thinking toward the conclusion would be logical.

The Bedtime Show

Every couple of Monday nights Kelly has ladies Bible study, so the responsibility for getting Kaelyn to bed falls solely on me (Kaelyn tends to like it because I end up letting her stay up a little longer than normal). For a while now, Kelly and I have used bedtime as an opportunity not just to read her books but to tell her Bible stories. For a small child, she has a pretty good grasp on the minutia of the stories, but now she's starting to ask even more specific questions. There seems to be no way to fully quench her thirst to know more. Last night I had the book of Exodus on the brain because I'm getting ready to start preaching it at Echo over the next year. I decided to read her the Moses story, culminating in the Israelites' passage through the Red Sea escaping Pharaoh's army. While this is a classic narrative, there's a lot in there for young children to question. After some back and forth with Kaelyn, I decided I would try something else. I pulled out my iPhone, YouTube'd a clip from The Ten Commandments (a movie I've seen dozens of times that still fascinates me; it was on last Sunday night), and let her watch a five minute segment as the people of Israel traverse the dry ground between two walls of water.

Now I made sure to explain to her that this was not actual footage, lest she think that she can always opt for the video version of the Bible. But after she went to sleep, I was still thinking about how cool technology is. It basically changed the traditional bedtime story into a live action experience. I don't make this observation to downplay the power of books, nor is it my pre-justification to get an iPad. It's just really hitting me that Kaelyn's childhood will be much different than mine. Lately I learned that one of my nephews (age 6) was criticized at school for having poor computer skills. Yep, Lisa Bonet, it's a different world than where I came from.

Kaelyn's growing up in a time of unparalleled access to information. When I was growing up, I practically wore out our family's World Book Encyclopedias. I loved them. Having all that information about anything was amazing. But as my child continues to grow, she'll be able not only to look up that information online but see video of it—all in an instant. Obviously the impact of this tech runs the gamet of sociological implications. But I'm just now starting to wonder: how crazy will the next twenty years be. What will our children look like then? As a minister, what will I have to do to adjust.

In the midst of these questions, I'm still taking the opportunity to cherish the timelessness of the biblical stories. As Kaelyn repeated asked about the "E-gypt-ans," I knew there were many other tales for her to encounter. And they will still be powerful, regardless of the medium.

Just Keep Swimming

You know you're tired. You know tomorrow will be more of the same. Of course, it would be easier to give up. But you shouldn't.

No, seriously. Stick with it.

If you give up, you'll miss out. Nothing in life comes easy.

The version of Romans 3:4 in the New Living Translation encourages us that, "endurance develops strength of character."

Own the day. Rule the month.

Spring is just around the corner. The season's about to change.

Don't give up.

Blue Christmas

What follows is mini-rant. If you want your warm, fuzzy Christmas feeling pulverized, enjoy the read. I woke up this morning and headed into work, something I haven't done in years on a Christmas Eve. And it really didn't bother me at all.

My commute in seemed pretty normal, except that there were very few people out and about. It's interesting that Christmas Eve has morphed into almost full holiday status. I guess that speaks to the power of Christmas: even the day before it yields to its glory.

And, in relation to all this, I'm just . . . meh.

I don't need a spotlit Linus to quote Luke 2 for me. Nor do I require a triad of paranormal visitors to show me my past, present, an future. It's just that, after more than a decade of ministry, I tire of what we've done to this day. From Black Friday madness to billboards putting words into the mouth of Jesus, the extremes of both the pagan and the holy factions have left me exhausted.

Don't get me wrong: there's still beauty in this season. On Monday I was able to deliver an Explorer-filled load of gift that the folk at Echo collected for needy families. The generosity of this time of year is something I wish I could bottle up and keep throughout the year.

All the other stuff . . . I can tolerate it, I guess. I just lament the overdose.

I'm not saying Christmas is of the devil, but we need to dial it down a bit. The importance that Christians thrust upon this holiday is, most often, displaced.

Jesus is still Jesus when he's outgrown the manger.

We embrace the silent imagery of the newborn baby without a thought to his savage death thirty-three years later. If you're irate about the un-P.C.ness of "Merry Christmas," try channeling your anger towards the person whose sin killed the kid. Yep, that's you.

He was born to die, folks; born to die for you. Perhaps that's why one of my favorite Christmas songs is What Child Is This?. Yes, the lyrics are powerful, but it's the minor key that draws me in. It reminds me that all is not happy and joyous. An ominous cloud hangs over this scene, like the gift of myrrh to a young child.

And this is why I'm a tad blue this Christmas. And that's OK.

Happy holidays.

Questions of Faith [The Canon]

QUESTION: "Could you explain the canonization process? I understand why the Gnostic gospels weren't included, that one is easy. But what about the extra books that the Catholic Church includes. And in the book of Jude, the writer quotes from an apocryphal text, as does Paul in a few places; does this mean those books should be trusted as inspired?" This seems to be a good place to start. Basically, how did the Bible become the Bible? By the way, the term "canonization" (use only one "n" in the word or your talking about the instrument of destruction) is derived from a word that 4th century church leader Athanasius used in reference to the completed books of the New Testament.

We don't have any original manuscripts from the Bible. Yes, we have numerous copies that date over thousands of years, but we don't have anything written by Paul or the apostles. The earliest scrap from the New Testament is a tiny piece of scroll from the gospel of John 18 which dates to 125 A.D. Still, we have multiple manuscript copies with unparalleled consistency that shows that scribes faithfully copied the texts as accurately as possible.

Conservative Christians hold that the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) were written from the time of Moses (approximately 1400B.C.) until after the exiles were allowed to return to Palestine from Babylon (about 400 B.C.) Soon thereafter, Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world, uniting many people groups under the cultural banner of Hellenism. After his death, his generals split up the territory, and a family known as the Ptolemies ruled over Egypt. The key city there was Alexandria, a place where a large contingency of Jews lived. Depending on your take on history (here mythology seems to intermingle with reality) the Old Testament was translated into Greek for inclusion in the great library of the city.

This translation was known as the "Septuagint," derived from the word "seventy" (seen in your Bible notes as the "LXX"). In determining the contents, the traditional books we now consider as the Old Testament were included, in addition to several books known as the Apocrypha (meaning "hidden"). Primarily wisdom literature, these books differ from the others because they were penned in the Greek language; the established O.T. was written in Hebrew and some limited Aramaic.

After the fall of Jerusalem in 70A.D., the Jewish communal center transitioned from Jerusalem to Jamnia. A nineteenth century scholar suggested there must have been a rabbinical council here to cement the Jewish canon. Whether or not this occurred is debatable. Still, by this time the Jews are using those traditional 39 books of the Old Testament. While there are references to the Apocrypha, they are not held in the same esteem as the other books.

When it comes to the New Testament, the contents of these books were written in the first century A.D. While we'll touch on these "Gnostic" books later, understand that there was widespread agreement of the authenticity of these books with decades of their writing. Although there were many different gospels written in those first two centuries (perhaps you've heard of the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas, Mary, and Judas) the four that we currently have were asserted to be true by early church father Irenaeus by 160 A.D. By the early 200's, the church leader Origen was using the 27 books we use today. When Jerome was translating his Latin version of the Bible, he did not believe the Apocrypha was be inspired, but was later directed by the bishop of Rome to include those books in his translation. Over 1,000 years later, when Luther translated the Bible, he placed these Apocrypha books between the Old and New Testaments, explaining why they're sometimes called "Intertestamental Books."*

In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Christian Church held various councils that finally affirmed these books. Since then (especially in the last 150 years) there have been debates about the validity of these books, but I would offer that the collective weight of history speaks to their truth. The church (and the Jews before them) has maintained them as holy for thousands of years. This is not a definitive argument, but cannot be ignored.

As far as the Apocrypha being inspired, it's a continual source of argument. These books must be held up to the others in the Hebrew Scriptures, and their historicity and presence are not as cemented as well as the other 39. As our questioner notes, there are instances where it seems the Apocrypha is quoted in the New Testament. There is much argument over whether or not these are actual quotes from the Apocrypha or just similarities. Yet even if there are Apocrypha quotes in the N.T., we know that the apostle Paul repeatedly quoted popular culture/pagan literature to make a point. So just because it's in there doesn't validate it as inspired.

In the end I'd offer that even if the Apocrypha was inspired, there is no instruction written within them that we can't find in the traditional 66 books. These books that we hang on to have been meticulously maintained over centuries. I'll gladly hitch my wagon to them.

*Another Luther/Bible tidbit: it was he who ordered the New Testament as we view them today. He believed the stories of Jesus to be most important and had doubts about books from Hebrews through Revelation and put them at the end of the New Testament. Even though Luther had doubts, he knew he couldn't remove them entirely; the weight of history was against him.

Questions of Faith [An Introduction]

I have this good friend who has supported my ministry for years. He's a great Christian man and makes full effort to live a faithful Christian life. He called me up on the phone a couple of weeks ago and said he was struggling with his faith. He wasn't really wrestling with HOW HE SHOULD LIVE (morality), rather, he was concerned with WHAT TO BELIEVE. When you decide to follow Jesus and connect with a Christian community, you're usually surrounded by people who have figured out how to deal with these troubling aspects of faith. There are a few ways people deal with these questions of faith: Some people brush questions aside and don't deal with them at all; these people choose to accept ignorance, going with the flow and reasoning that millions of believers can't possibly be wrong. Other people immerse themselves in a quest for truth and are indiscriminate of the data they're examining. This group can be easily swayed to dismiss Christianity all-together; in fact, many a liberal biblical scholar were reared in simplistic, ultra-conservative faith communities and finally rejected faith as a result of deeper studies. Then there are those people struggling with skepticism who honestly and humbly seek to discover answers to their questions. These people tend to consult clergy for help with these questions and, unfortunately, this can actually prove to be detrimental. You see, many ministers adhere to the earlier described "go-with-the-flow" philosophy and haven't really felt the need to explore the deeper issues themselves. These ministers usually suggest that you just read your Bible more, pray more, go to church more, and God will strengthen your faith.

But there are answers out there, and clergy ought to be able to help reveal these answers. I am by no means an expert in the field of apologetics (the defense of the Christian faith), but I know that some of you share the same questions that my friend has. And while you might not read an entire book on these subjects, you might be able to digest what I write here on my website. So over the next few weeks, I'm going to answer my friend's questions here on the blog. The majority of them concern the biblical text, but if others emerge, I'll go ahead and take a stab at them. The point of the exercise is that we believers to continue to ask difficult questions and diligently seek those answers.

And all of this is not to say that Christianity is fully dependent on empirical evidence (proven facts). In the end, what we have is faith. I believe God gives us enough to keep us going, but there are still holes that must be filled by the individual.

Still, we have questions . . .

Still Content

When I was thinking about a title for this post, I figured "Contentment" would be a good summary. Then I realized that I just wrote a blog post with that title back in March.

I guess I've been thinking a lot about contentment this year.

Just this past Sunday I concluded my sermon from Paul's letter to the Philippians where he offers,

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Paul unveils this secret in the next verse:

I can do everything through [God] who gives me strength.

They say that you can always tell what a minister is struggling with by what he preaches, so you might assume that I'm haven't a hard time with contentment right now. But that's not the case.

Actually, I'm more content than I've ever been. But even when you're content, you must constantly remind yourself of it. Otherwise, you may begin to replace the ultimate source of contentment [read: God] with other things. And almost always, the replacement is detrimental to our ultimate contentment.

Yesterday I read about another high-profile minister who had an affair. This guy had a national audience who was held captive by his every word; he was seen as the measure of success. And yet this wasn't enough to make him content— he had to have more. Unfortunately, the result of his drive cost him his job, perhaps will cause Christians to lose faith in the church, and will be a scar on his family life the rest of his life.

I'm not saying this to kick a guy when he's down, as he's obviously not the only person this has happened to. Examine any recent major scandal [Berlusconi, Madoff, steroids] and you discover that it's usually the result of someone trying to manufacture contentment. It would be foolish for us not to heed these examples as a warning in our own lives.

Ask yourself what you're chasing in this world and why. It might seem antithetical to the American dream, but maybe you need to find a pace where you can just be happy with what you've got.

By the way, it's things like this that make it easier for me to maintain my level of contentment.

Preferring Bats in the Belfry

Here's a follow-up post to yesterday's pandering for someone to buy Echo a school building.

When I was a child, our church met in an old building on the corner of Price and Grand Avenue in Price Hill. The Westminster Presbyterian Church sold the building to Cincinnati Bible Seminary [now Cincinnati Christian University] in the 1940's for use as a chapel. This purchase allowed for a new church to be started in it: the Price Avenue Church of Christ. Once the college built their own multi-purpose facility, they gifted the building to the church. Unfortunately, the building was not properly maintained and the church couldn't afford the upkeep on the facility, so it was razed. Here's a picture I found online from the Cincinnati Public Library:

I loved that old building. We [the people of the church] actually tore it down by hand; our family spent every Friday night there for years doing demolition. I believe it was finally leveled in 1988, nearly 100 years after it was constructed. That was, for me, the end of an era in worship.

After the uniqueness of that century old building, the rest of my church-going was unspectacular. The rest of my church attendance throughout my childhood took place in a bland annex building constructed on the plot east of the old building. While in college, the chapel services I'd occasionally attend occurred in a gymnasium. My first ministry was at a church whose building resembled a UFO [use Google Street View for full effect]. Our next church was a boring 1970's sanctuary originally built for Jehovah's Witnesses. And the inside of my last church's building could easily be mistaken for a convention center. All these buildings were functional, but far from impressive.

Hence, my current love for the building Echo rents— pictured above, it's over 80 years old, filled with beautiful woodwork and stained-glass. Overall, it has a certain character that I hadn't enjoyed since my youth attending church in Price Hill. I used to think my affinity towards the building was only about my personal taste, but it might more indicative of the trend in our country.

A recent Southern Baptist survey discovered that people who don't go to church prefer older, "churchy" buildings to more contemporary looking ones. To be fair, this wasn't an exact survey, as it asked opinions about aesthetics. Regardless of the legitimacy of this sampling, I do think the message to be true. And I think it has something to say about Americans' conceptions of church.

First, these older sanctuaries immediately convey a link to the past; it gives people a sense that this faith has roots. I'd propose that people of "my generation" are not quite as enamored with the newness concept in architecture as previous ones were. Sure, you might have a bookstore and a coffee bar, but can the new structure offer history?

Along those same lines, I'd say that older church buildings, especially those that pre-date World War 2, are a unique experience for Americans. This isn't Europe where ancient cathedrals abound. Walking into an older church building separates the worshipper from our fast-paced society. These buildings were built before air-conditioning, before television. Heck, the church we rent has fewer bathrooms than some houses. It's not normal, and sometimes a departure from normalcy helps us clear our minds.

One of the benefits of doing ministry in the city is access to these old churches. Fortunately, it seems that more people actually prefer them. We're just trying to take advantage of it.

The Tweet and The Cross

Still not a Twitter fan, nor am I a follower.*

I came across this Time article about how many churches have begun incorporating Twitter into their worship services. It's not necessarily a unique concept, as churches have been doing the same thing with text messages for a couple of years now. But what I wonder is, why even invite this into church in the first place?

The person obsessed with contextualizing the old, old story to a fast paced world will insist it is critical that we acknowledge the way in which our world communicates. But as the article I linked to a couple of weeks ago displayed,** does Twitter actually promote the kind of communication that the church should truly want? And more than Twitter itself, I think this comes down to an understanding of church worship.

Despite the way that many media conglomerations and companies have recently taken advantage of Twitter, it is a platform the elevates the individual for the world to see. Juxtapose that with the church, a word that means "assembly" or "community," and worlds collide.

You might already be thinking that there is much in the church, especially in the worship service, that accentuates the individual. This might be true, but it should not be. The point of corporate (communal) worship should be: NO ME, MORE WE, ALL FOR HE. When Christians gather together to praise God, we do so with united voices, not with a singular voice. Music should be sung together, prayer should be offered together, communion should be taken together, and the exploration of God's word should done together. Even though the community is sometimes represented by singular voices in these instances, they should be mindful to be representative of the entire church.

At Echo, we've been studying through the book of 1 Corinthians and one of the primary issues that plagued that church is that they had a community full of people who wanted their voices to be heard. They brought a "me" mentality into worship where they would literally outshout other worshippers. As Paul tells them, not everyone's voice should be heard during worship; we all have different gifts, some more upfront than others. The worship service is not the place for inclusiveness and individual expression. This might not seem very postmodern, but it is biblical.***

The one quote from the article I found disturbing was the following direction from the pulpit: "if God leads you to continue [to Tweet] as a form of worship by all means do it." Call me cynical, but when I read that, I can't avoid hearing, "you do whatever makes you happy and it's good with God." And maybe it really is, but is it really what's good for the community.

Corporate worship should symphonically combine voices instead of distinguishing them. Rather than hiding in our hi-tech world, we need to deprogram ourselves in order to emerge from our technological burrows. Where else do we have such an opportunity to allow people to disconnect from their grid?

Text and tweet if you must, but turn off the cell phone in church.


*It might seem that I have declared war on Twitter. It's really not the case. Tweet yourself to death and have a great time.

**My favorite pull quote from that article: "The broadcasting of the spectacle of the self has become a full-time job."

***Aaron preached on this text at Echo last week. Unfortunately, we didn't get it recorded. If you want the text, you could always email him and ask him for it.

That's Life

For more than a week I've been ruminating on an article I read online in the New York Times. Political scientist Charles Murray's drew me in with the title, Thank God America Isn't Like Europe -- Yet. I'd encourage you to take a look at it and wrestle with his assertions.

Murray begins by describing our continent's fascination with the European way of life, noting that the majority of us view it as superior. But, in reality, their worldview supresses life. The Europe Syndrome, as Murray refers to it, was shaped by Freud and Darwin and presupposes that, "human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible." This creates an Epicurean generation that devalues things like religion, interaction with neighbors, and raising children. And while Murray posits that while America has yet to adopt this perspective, the time is coming when it will be here.

"So what?" you ask. The problem is that this point of view eventually leads to a society where all human outcomes are measured scientifically. And any deviation from the perceived norm is decreed to be a result of human or societal error. In short, we will begin to legislate and medicate anyone different. When we boil down human existance to scientific outcomes while ignoring metaphysics, we will lose our identity. Murray implores,

"People must be treated as individuals. The success of social policy is to be measured not by equality of outcomes for groups, but by the freedom of individuals, acting upon their personal abilities, aspirations and values, to seek the kind of life that best suits them."

We mustn't sacrifice our country's diversity in an attempt to achieve equality of life— an equality that doesn't even exist. But it seems as though many of our policy-shapers are sold-out to adopting the European way of life. Since I've decided to quote large sections of the article, I figure I might as well give you the pay-off to Murray's article.

"The trouble is that American elites of all political stripes have increasingly withdrawn to gated communities -- literally or figuratively -- where they never interact at an intimate level with people not of their own socioeconomic class. Over the last half-century, the new generation of elites have increasingly spent their entire lives in the upper-middle-class bubble, never having seen a factory floor, let alone worked on one, never having gone to a grocery store and bought the cheap ketchup instead of the expensive ketchup to meet a budget, and never having had a close friend who hadn't gotten at least 600 on her verbal SAT.

"America's elites must once again fall in love with what makes America different. The drift toward the European model can be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional, and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it is: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious."


Staking Ground

I never wrote much about Richard.

Sure, I mentioned a little about him during those early days of Echo Church, but didn't see fit to tell much more after that. Richard died a couple of weeks ago. It's difficult to determine the background of his life, because he could never tell the truth. For example, reading that old blog post when he told me his age, he should've been 50 when he passed. His obituary stated that he was 53.

Richard was a guy from the neighborhood, known to every church and business establishment throughout the area. Although he was harmless, he had a drug problem which caused him to do whatever he could to get his next fix. He would beg. And he would steal. I visited Richard in jail once. He had stolen some CD's to sell them to buy crack. Most of the time I knew him he was in and out of jail for petty theft. Still, we tried to love Richard. Refusing to give him cash, we'd buy him meals.* One time he urged me to get him winter clothes because he didn't have any. I scrounged around for stuff to give him, trying to meet his need. I never saw him wear the clothes I gave him. Those too were most likely sold for drugs.

We still maintained a good relationship with him until one Sunday night Kelly saw him breaking into a car in the church parking lot [someone had left their doors unlocked]. I told him to go home and that if we found anything missing, I'd call the cops. He didn't get enough time to take anything from the car.

A few months later, Richard seemed hopped up and was desperate for some cash. I told him we had nothing for him. At the end of the worship service that Sunday night, he created a diversion and stole money from the offering plate. Ironically, since our offering was collected after the service at the front of the sanctuary [and because our church is small], we knew the only money that had been given was from a newer couple who had been attending. That night I had to call them to see how much money they had given to decide whether or not to call the police. It was a small amount, so I didn't think it the best investment of my tax dollars to have the cops pick him up. By the way, this is why we now have an offering box with a lid instead of a plate.

As he returned the next week, I sat Richard down and forced him to admit his theft; he did and apologized. I informed him that he had broken trust with our church and before we let him back in, he'd have to pay God the money back and apologize to the church. After that, he was gone for almost a year; yet another theft charge kept him in jail until this past January.

Richard came into the church service early a few weeks ago. He shook many a hand throughout the church and sat silently through our service. He spent my sermon time drawing me a picture of a flower. Afterward, our leaders sat down with him and informed him that the terms of his reconciliation still existed— he needed to repay the money he stole and apologize to our church [many of whom had started attending since Richard was last incarcerated and had no idea who he was]. It was the most peaceful I'd ever seen him. He never even asked for anything. He said he wanted to right his wrongs, and he was ready to get his life in order.

The next week, I was at a meeting and not at our service, so I might not get all these facts straight. From what I understand, Richard was once again seen attempting to break into a car. He fled inside the church and hid under a table in a darkened room. He was confronted, told to leave, and still asked for money before being kicked out. I knew that he would be back, and I'd have to deal with him myself.

The week after that, right before the beginning of our service, our worship leader Tye alerted me to some snow tracks heading back to the minister's office. I knocked on the door, heard nothing, so I entered to check things out. I didn't see anyone and was ready to leave when I thought should glance into the private bathroom there. There was Richard, sitting in the dark on the toilet, claiming that he really had to go. I was irate. I had him come out and frisked him to make sure he hadn't taken anything. I kicked him out and told him that he had completely broken his trust with us. We are renting our space and are responsible for taking care of it and we couldn't babysit him throughout the building. I was so angry, I told him that I would need some time before my anger subsided and I would seek him out.

But within a couple of weeks, Richard was back in jail. There the years of drug abuse finally caught up with his heart. He died in prison.

This, friends, is a very depressing story. For over three years, we tried to infiltrate this man's life and were unsuccessful. We never got through to him— addiction won out. What good could come of this?

But even though experiences like this could reinforce the idea that there is no hope for the city, I am not dismayed. The culmination of the Scriptures in the book of Revelation is the city. And throughout the Bible, we are given a vision where the city is redeemed. We might not win every battle, but the war will not be lost.

One last story. Richard had roommates in a recovery home in the neighborhood. He lived with them for quite a few years. As I understand, not one of them will miss him. They described him as a "pain in the ass" whom they always watched out for, fearing he would take their stuff. Walnut Hills will soon forget Richard. We won't.

There will always be Richard's in this neighborhood. They will come to us wanting to find a path to their fix, but we will give them Jesus. We're continuing to stake our ground. Our community needs our church. And we're not going anywhere.


*While our church doesn't give out money to people, I will occasionally. I make sure that the recipients know that it's coming out of my pocket. I will usually only give a couple of bucks and will tell them that they'd had better not buy booze or drugs with the preacher's money. I doubt that my warning is ever observed.


My job is weird.

For the bulk of my job, I spend hours of my week in preparation for a 35-50 minute speech. My subject matter is always the Bible, and I usually spend a good amount of my research time examining the nuances of particular texts. For example, in order to teach from 1 Corinthians 8 last night, I spent time last week researching the worship of the pagan Roman deity Asklepios [a healing god] in order to better understand what the apostle Paul was referencing. Additionally, I always highlight my messages with pop culture tidbits as a means of reinforcing relevancy. The climax of my professional week is the sermon, something which I spend a considerable amount of time crafting each week, only to start all over the following Monday.

One thing I've discovered throughout the past fifteen years of doing this somewhat consistently is that the process is the same. Although I could always be "more prepared"* I make sure to invest hours into this process; I do this so that I never take for granted my role in teaching people the Bible.

What this truly means, is that I try to give my all whether I'm speaking to seven people or seven hundred people.

Echo is still a rather small church. We're blessed to have visitors at least every couple of weeks, but our growth has been rather slow. Sure, since our first year we've tripled in size [ah, how math comes in handy when you're dealing with smaller numbers], but I can tell you pretty accurately what our crowd will look like from week to week. And I know on Monday morning that there won't be hundreds of people busting down the doors of the church to hear what I have to say on Sunday night.

So as I approach my study for the week to come, understanding that few people will notice the fruit of my labor, it wouldn't be surprising if I decided to mail it in. I suppose I could scour the interwebs to get someone else's sermon series. I'm sure there are books a plenty at Family Christian Store that I could steal from use as a template for some messages. Heck, I could go buy the complete set of Nooma's and allow Rob Bell to babysit our church for a few months.

But I could never do that.

Because I absolutely love what I do.

Right now, I'm still engaged in the same wonder that my three year-old is experiencing now for the first time.

For her birthday, Kaelyn's great-grandfather gave her an interesting gift: seeds. Kelly thought it would be educational for the little girl to witness what it is like to watch plants grow. Since she's already seen it on every kid's show available, Kelly figured that Kaelyn should get to observe it first hand.

A few weeks ago she planted the seeds and has watered them every day or so. And absolutely nothing happened. Nothing, that is, until last week. A couple tiny green sprouts began to reach up towards the sky. Saturday, those first sprouts were joined by a few more. And then this morning, quite a few more have emerged, which led Kaelyn to exclaim, "Look at my plants!" And she never would've experienced such joy if she had never planted the seeds.

I want a garden in the city. But I'm still planting seeds and watering.**

Some antagonists might insist that it that wasting hours of my week writing sermons isn't the best way to accomplish this, and I could see their point; understand that preaching is by no means "all" I do. We continue to immerse ourselves in this community. But my theology insists that preaching plays a major role in the transformation of the world. So as I spend hours of my week crafting words and concepts that only few will hear, I'm not discouraged. In fact, I feel as if its importance is gravely underestimated.

I'm not a farmer, aiming for the biggest yield; I'm gardening. What grows will grow.

And I'm so happy.


*One way I am not as prepared as I used to be is that I used to always attempt to go note-less into the pulpit. I could easily memorize my 25-30 messages years ago. But since I've extended the average length of my sermon, and since I desire to more deliberate in making certain observations and pre-crafted sentences, I now preach with notes. Not sure if I'll ever go note-less again.

**I'm not claiming to be revolutionary with this gardening metaphor. It's quite clearly stolen.

Deck Them Halls and All That Stuff

This has been an enjoyable Christmas season as Kaelyn has started to recognize the significance of Christmas. Tonight we reread the Christmas story with her and she's starting to get it. The live nativity scene by Krohn Conservatory in Eden Park has been a good reinforcement.*

Another great part of the season has been the Christmas shows. Of course, Kaelyn loves the Grinch so we've seen that numerous times throughout the month. But she's developed a certain passion for Charlie Brown's Christmas. We DVR'd it early in the season and have been playing it every few days. Until the little girl came along, I never noticed the frequency with which Charles Schultz had the kids use the word "stupid," but Kaelyn has yet to employ it in her vocabulary. She has, however, taken to quoting the lines, "Rats" and "Oh no, I've killed it."**

The best part of the whole is the dance scene during play practice. Kaelyn loves to impersonate all the different dancers. She prefers the side-to-side head bob that the twin girls do. My fave is the boy in the green doing the zombie. I'm sure there's some kind of personality test that tells you all about yourself according to which dance you prefer.

It's funny that with all of the newer animated Christmas specials that our 21st century girl prefers the one made over forty years ago.


*Last night, on the way home from church, we noticed that they had placed a menorah on the other side of Krohn Conservatory. I'm very cool with that, as this is still America and I think everyone should be allowed a place at the table, but I was not impressed with the display. I've seen some beautiful menorahs in my life and this one would not fall into that category. Additionally, I believe Hanukkah started Sunday night and not a candle was lit.

**At first, I had no idea where Kaelyn heard "I killed it." In my demented mind, I honestly thought she might have been watching South Park behind our back, claiming to have killed Kenny. As you know, it is actually what Charlie Brown says when he hangs the ornament on his sickly tree.

The Church Up The Street

I recently read a quote which opined, "If you're going to start a church, start it in the shadow of a megachurch because you know that God is already working there."

This wasn't our philosophy when we started Echo but even though we are a world away here in Walnut Hills, we are definitely in the shadow of a megachurch. Crossroads Community Church meets only four miles from our current meeting space. It is impossible to miss their influence here in our part of town. They are they cool church and they are the controversial church. Drop the "Crossroads" name around here and you'll either hear "I love them," or "I hate them."

Our congregation is nothing at all like theirs and our services are entirely different. Our approaches to ministry are on different ends of the spectrum. Yet they are my brothers and sisters in Christ. I have many friends who either attend there or are on staff there. We even checked in with them when we talked about starting our church.

I love Crossroads. They are doing ministry that no one else in our city was doing and they're constantly trying to make themselves better. They take great risks but their motivation is pure.

They made the local news earlier this week in a profile of their senior pastor. I've met Brian Tome a couple of times. He wouldn't know me from Adam. Brian is a larger-than-life character and, as a result, draws a lot of attention. But he would freely admit (this I'm sure of) that Crossroads is much, much more than him. Being the guy out front, all eyes are fixed on him. And as a result he takes a lot of hits. But he loves Jesus, his church, and is using the gifts that God has given him.

I planned to write a post about Crossroads earlier in the week because of these articles, but then came the tragic news that a young lady participating in their Christmas program died in an accident during last night's performance. Our family attended last year's show and it was absolutely amazing. Again, we know people involved in this event and our heart breaks with them today. Our heart also goes out to the woman's family and the church members who will be deeply affected by her passing

And my heart goes out to their church as a whole. As I noted, they are a lightening rod in this community and I fear that people will use this tragedy as an excuse to criticize the church and their ministry. I would hope that such people will be mature, keep their thoughts to themselves, and use the words from their mouths in prayers for the community of believers at Crossroads. As time heals wounds they will need to go on and continue to do what God has enabled them to do.

Until then they mourn, and we mourn with them.

Our family has experienced loss.


I wish I had more time to comment on this, but maybe some of you can do a better job. This is a goody:

This past Sunday a Detroit church devoted their corporate worship gathering to praying for Trinity— not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, mind you. Rather, they lifted up the automotive big three, Ford, GM, and Chrysler, filling their stage with SUV's from local car dealerships.

Personally, this makes me feel icky.


Napster, Titleists, and Faith

Let me ramble for a bit.

This past Tuesday night I started teaching a new class for the alma mater. This time, however, I'm up at their extension campus on the southside of Indianapolis. It's an additional three hours in the car for the next four weeks [and I've signed on to do this again up there in the Spring] but it seems to be a really great group of students and well worth my while.

I'm teaching Ethics— I know, I know: how do you teach if you don't have any, eh? As a discussion starter for the first session, we discussed illegally downloading music. I'll admit that in those early days of Napster, I downloaded songs on my work computer until I began to realize that it was essentially song theft.* Later, as I confronted others about their music piracy, I would hear the most creative attempts of justification; chief among is that was that file sharing was a victimless crime, harming no one except for the billion dollar recording industry that could well afford the loss. I expected to hear a few more excuses during the class discussion. But there were none: all my students held that stealing music over the internet was wrong.

Still I wonder if their not necessarily a reflection of their pre-established ideals or instead a visceral reaction to the way I presented it. I inadvertently used terms such as "theft," "stealing," "illegal," and "piracy"— all words that they already perceive negatively. As I discussed with them later, whomever is able to frame their argument in terms of their own choosing usually ends up being the victor. When I teach this course again, I think I'm going to have the same discussion while deliberately avoiding those terms to see if it affects their viewpoints. It's much easier to take a moral stand when you already have a clear delineation of right and wrong in front of you.

Anyway, I was still chewing on all of this the next day when I read the story of J.P. Hayes. His story is fascinating as Hayes is a pro-golfer who lost his PGA tour card and was forced to re-qualify via tournament. On one hole, he inadvertently played a prototype Titleist ball that was accidentally left in his bag and played it for two shots. When he realized this, he told an official that he played a wrong ball which automatically cost him two stokes. But the next night, realizing that the prototype might have been illegal, he again reported himself. It, indeed, was not an approved ball and Hayes was thus disqualified from the tournament and losing his place on the tour.

Golf is interesting like that. Whereas every other sport has officials that police the rules, golf insists that the player police himself. So when you attempt to violate the rules, you do so at the risk of your own integrity as judge. And if you try to justify your misdeeds through well crafted arguments, you are already well aware that you are, in essence, cheating.

I love that Hayes matter-of-factly responded that any other golfer would've done the same thing. After being lauded for reporting himself after a similar rule break, the legendary Bobby Jones remarked, "You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank." Basically, the ethics of golf are unshakable because a judge is always watching. 

I believe that this technological era allows more opportunities than ever to commit unseen transgressions. As a result, our personal ethics will become more and more crucial in the year to come. But if we really hold to the concept of an omniscient God, then absolutely nothing is different, except our own delusions about personal integrity. We'll need to take on the attitude of people like J.P. Hayes, staking a claim on integrity, even if it's to our detriment, until it becomes commonplace.

In summation: someone is always watching, so don't do it.


*Three additional thoughts about this that didn't fit the above thought flow:

1) I am gambling that the RIAA doesn't have enough information to nail down my indiscretions during my Napster days, but with the constant ineptness of my employer's IT system, I think I'm safe.

2) My ignorance surrounding the legality of file sharing in those early days can be attributed to the fact that I seriously assumed record artists wouldn't care if I downloaded their tunes. I never burned CDs of any of those songs I downloaded. If I really liked those songs, I went ahead and bought their album.

3) When I was younger, we would "file share" with each others' cassettes. In fact, I believe this practice is the reason why they began selling stereos with dual cassette racks [what other purpose could dual cassettes serve?]. Where was the RIAA 1980's big hair bands were losing cash?