Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Paul's Final Journey: an excerpt from Journeys to Significance

The apostle Paul’s last arrest landed him in a damp and cold dungeon in Rome where he wrote his final letter, which we call 2 Timothy. In 67 AD Paul was executed by beheading, which launched him on his final journey home.

After traveling 15,000 miles (8700 by land) [1], enduring four shipwrecks [2], starting churches in seven or eight people groups (perhaps as many as ten) [3], writing 15 letters that we know of (13 of which are in the New Testament) [4], enduring multiple imprisonments and uncounted beatings, he ended his life almost alone. According to 2 Timothy, his last days were spent short on time (4:9), Cold (4:13), Lonely (4:11), rejected by his own spiritual children (1:15), abandoned by his son’s in the faith (4:10) and betrayed by someone he trusted (4:14). Nevertheless, in spite of so few that stood with him in the end, he was a success (4: 6-8). 

The Mamertine Prison in Rome
My oldest daughter, Heather, and I visited Rome a few years ago. We landed early in the morning and knew we needed to stay awake all day if we had any hope of adjusting to the time zone.  We dropped off our luggage and took a train into the city looking for one place: the Mamertine prison. This is where it is believed that Paul wrote 2 Timothy at the end of his life, hidden among some of the most famous ruins in the world. In preparation, we decided to read 2 Timothy every day while on the trip, which made the experience and the Scriptures come alive for us. 

Looking up at the entrance and exit to Paul's prison in Rome
We descended into the Mamertine prison, also called Paul’s Prison. At one point, my head could touch the ceiling while I was standing on flat feet. I am just a little taller than 6’1” with shoes on. It is most often in places like these that God's real heroes are found.

Ironically, we visited the Vatican later that same day. Wow, what a difference a few hundred years can make for Christian leaders. Great riches of history adorned this palace, this religious city. The ceilings were way too high to touch, but they wouldn’t let you anyway as some are original Michelangelo masterpieces (the Sistine Chapel as well as the famous Dome of St Peter's Cathedral).  

Both sites are impressive. My art background drew me to the Vatican, but my heart never left the cave. Being there and trying to imagine Paul in such a place at the end of such a heroic life changed me forever. 

Heather and I looked at each other in the dim light with the smell of mildew and realized that this is the very rock where God inspired one of my favorite books of the Bible! Paul agonized over his few remaining days and the lasting impact of his life in this tiny place.

I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Neil, which place would you prefer as a Christian leader?” I am afraid too many of us choose the elegance and posh atmosphere of privilege before the cold, hard and unforgiving stone of Mamertine. But as I think of real heroes throughout history, most have lived their days in dark, marginalized places. 

We, however, have taken to exalting those who make the most money and are the most famous, whether they be actors, musicians, athletes, or preachers regardless of their character. Real heroes, however, do not emerge from places of comfort, elegance and privilege, but are born from pain, hardship and trials. It is under the pressure of great conflict, conviction and challenge that heroes are forged. May we all choose the dark cave of obscurity over the posh privilege of the Vatican. 

Paul’s Influence is found today, on the very screen you are viewing right now!!! He finished well.

“I have fought the good fight,” Paul says, “I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). As I serve the Lord I am finding that there are fewer people than you would imagine who are able to say at the end of their life words like this. As I mentioned at the start of my book Journeys to Significance, “the only applause that really counts is at the finish line.” A true hero faces the finish line with strength, nobility, courage and faith. Though he may not have been celebrated at the end of his life, he was a success, and he would die the champion that he truly was. He would have no shame at the end of his final journey.

[1] Schnabel, Eckhard, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, p. 122. This is an outstanding resource as is the authors two volume work on early Christian mission.
[2] It is usually agreed that 2 Corinthians, where he mentions three shipwrecks (2 Cor. 11: 25), was written prior to the shipwreck mentioned in Acts, therefore Paul experienced at least 4 shipwrecks.
[3] Besides 1) Cyprus, Paul left behind indigenous church movements in the 2) Galatian region, 3) Macedonia, 4) Achaia, 5) Asia Minor, and 6) Illyricum (Rom. 15:19) in just ten years time. He also likely started works in 7) Arabia, 8) Tarsus, 9) Crete, and 10) Spain.
[4] Not in the New Testament are his actual first letter to the Corinthians which he mentions in the letter we now call 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9) and also his letter to the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Don't follow the Piper with this Tune

Last week John Piper put up a post on his blog Desiring God with a very energized attack of a statement from Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost's book The Faith of Leap. He readily admits to having not read the book but only the few sentences that bothered him. He never attempted to clarify with Mike and Alan and didn't bother to even read the entire chapter (let alone book) for context. He just rambled on in a doctrinal discussion, complete with a video statement as well, all based on his impression of one paragraph removed from any context.

The passage in question is below:
It seems correct to say that God took something of a risk in handing over his mission to the all-too-sinful human beings who were his original disciples—and all the sinful disciples beyond them. We wonder what Jesus must have been thinking on the cross, when all but a few powerless women had completely abandoned him. Did he wonder if love alone was enough to draw them back to discipleship? The noncoercive love of the cross necessitated a genuinely human response of willing obedience from his disciples. Given our predispositions to rebellion and idolatry, it is entirely conceivable that history could have gone in a completely different, indeed totally disastrous, direction if the original disciples hadn’t plucked up the internal courage to follow Jesus no matter where. (The Faith of Leap, pp. 36–37)
There were four things that Piper said were wrong about these sentences, each point filled with much content. They were...
  1. false to the Scriptures;
  2. built on a false philosophical presupposition;
  3. damaging to the mission of Christ in the world;
  4. and belittling to the glory of God. 
Taken out of context one can see these points as perhaps a valid opinion, but I think that attacking them online without knowing the context and intent of the statement that is scrutinized is irresponsible.
From this point on I want to address Piper directly in my language…

Frankly, John, I believe a public apology is in order and anything less is weak. Not just an apology to Al and Mike, but to your readers who trust you to do the right thing and set a good example of how we are to communicate in the body of Christ. Surely you do not want a person of your caliber to take two or three sentences of your book out of context and without having read your complete thoughts then slam your theology onstage for all to read. That wouldn't be fair to you. Show your true leadership in this by taking responsibility for speaking out publicly before thinking. We've all done this at some point so I am sure you will receive a good response to such courage. I have admired you for years in the past and would respect you greatly for boldly taking the lead in this.

John, we need to do better. Next time, give Mike and Alan (or whoever is next) a call before you slam them in public. When Jesus said to go to your brother “in private” we can assume he didn't mean to blog it publicly. Read the book for crying out loud! If you find something wrong with what they believe ask them to clarify it. If it is a concern about how the flock will be led astray, ask them to do a dialogue online together and present both sides so that the people can learn to Think for themselves. There are better ways to do this than to post a public rebuke on a blog without even so much as an opportunity for comments on it. 

I do not intend this to be a theological defense of The Faith of Leap, but I want to mention that there are other possible thoughts behind what Hirsch and Frost wrote. 

There are places where the Bible describes God in humanistic manner to demonstrate something of His character that would normally be beyond our ability to grasp (one can argue the entirety of Scripture is this way–language is finite, God is not). This is not a slight on God or his attributes but on our limited cognitive capacity. This is different than Anthropomorphism where we reduce God and his attributes to our level. God does not have chicken wings (unless its for dinner), but He has the sort of protective heart that gathers his people much like a mother hen does her chicks under her wings. That is finite and poetic communication of an infinite being, not heresy. Moses describes God as changing His mind…is God indecisive, or are we unable to fully comprehend His being and so the author uses language to help us understand and relate?

There is a sense that because we have the godly capacity to choose to dare something even when the consequences can be harmful that this reflects something of God’s image–in which we are designed. Call it sacrifice, call it faith, call it a dare, but it is certainly a godly characteristic reflected in our finite perspective of the moment. Of course God is not weak, but then again, daring something is NOT weak but godly. Yes, God is sovereign and eternal and knows the end from the beginning…but he is also capable of fully living in the moment regardless of how he understands the future. That is why “Jesus wept” with those who were hurting at the loss of their brother and friend in John 11–even though he also knew that he would be having dinner with Lazarus that evening! In a circumstance where I–in my limited and selfish humanity–would be smiling, Jesus was weeping. Why? Because even though He is aware of the future, He is fully engaged in the emotions of the moment. We should all be more like this, not less.

All of this could very well be what Hirsch and Frost had in mind when they said, “it seems correct to say that God took something of a risk…” Notice that even the authors knew that it was not absolutely true so they clarified their description as something seen from our weak and human point of view. The language was not adamantly presented in absolute authority, but tentative and suggestive, reflecting that this is a possibility seen from our human point of view so that we can relate more to the concept that being daring is indeed godly (or Godlike). If from our viewpoint God can change His mind, certainly He can take a risk. From this perspective, such doesn’t take anything away from his attributes, but makes them more accessible and doable.

Give more grace and allow for more opinions. At the very least do a review of the entirety of the book and then add the critique in the midst of your review if it still stands, which would be more kind and ethical if you ask me. That is very much like Jesus if you read his "critique" of the Ephesian church... “I know your deeds…I have this against you.”

Note: I did attempt to contact John Piper’s ministry before posting this on my blog. I sent a copy of these comments, requested a response and indicated that if there was no response that I would then  post this online to address a very public mistake. I was told that Dr. Piper would not be able to respond. I believe that this should be addressed and could not delay long as the internet world has a very short memory and the damage is immediate. As I mentioned above, Piper's blog does not allow for public comments (even screened ones) so this is what I was left to do after no personal response to my email. I felt it would be far better for Piper to first address the mistake himself but it doesn't appear that will happen.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A painting of a real organic church in action

The following post is taken off of a friend's blog. Lindsay Ellyson is an organic church planter in Kansas City. You can check out her blog here.
Let’s paint a picture.

Let’s paint a Puerto Rican single mom and her toddling half-Mexican daughter.  Let’s add a teenage black boy.  And his two sisters, one twelve years old, the other seventeen.  Let’s paint a Nigerian doctor, and a white nurse who was raised in Hawaii.  Let’s paint a white college student studying fashion, and a black one studying audiology.  A Brazilian soccer coach, and his newly wedded dancer wife.  A Colombian railroad worker.  A black rapper.  A white guy who owns his own computer business.  A black teen mom who has been separated from her daughter.  Let’s paint a half-Argentinean guy from California and his roommate from Kansas.  And let’s add one more white girl into that mix.

Stroke that brush and depict them sharing a meal.  Someone makes some soup.  Someone brings some bread and cheese.  Sandwiches are made. A pretty cake appears, and someone else traipses through the door with homemade mint tea in hand.

Let’s paint this small crowd sharing this meal in the living room of a two-bedroom triplex located on the border of the impoverished and crime-ridden part of the city.  Let’s paint a scene where the fifteen-year-old black kid leads the whole group in remembering Jesus’ great sacrifice by offering them a broken piece of a pita chip dipped in glass of Coca-Cola.  Stories are told from the week, stories of how the God who upholds the universe by the word of His Power invades each of their own little worlds.

Paint a book with words of life, and everyones hands held open on their laps.  Paint understanding pouring out in the form of simplicity off the lips of the twelve-year-old.  Paint tears in a few eyes.  Paint light dancing in many hearts.  Let’s be sure to paint smiles. And great sobs. And uncontrollable laughter.

Let’s paint the picture of these beautiful people praying for the sick in their midst.  Show how some are healed immediately.  Let’s not forget to add the scene where one girl’s leg is shorter than the other and grown miraculously on the spot.  Paint the prophetic words that fly around the room, and the ones that fly across the city via phones and laptops.  Depict the teenagers helping the single mom distract her little one, so she can have a twenty-minute break.

Paint that picture in such a way that we know that a few of those individuals have not yet made decisions to follow Jesus.  And several just started following Him a few months ago.  A handful more have known Him for just a couple of years.  Only a few have really known Him long.

In the middle of the painting, show the highschool students breaking up fights at their strife-ridden schools.  Show the Nigerian doctor sharing the good news of Jesus to a pregnant girl in his clinic.  Paint the nurse praying fearlessly over each of her ill patients, at the risk of losing her job.  Paint a few of the crowd driving their dear friend to the emergency room and taking her tiny kids home for the weekend.  By the way, their friend is a stripper & addict with sickness ravaging her body.  Let’s paint a scene where the computer business owner takes flowers to the eighteen-year-old while she recovers in the hospital after being shot in a drive-by shooting.

Paint these beautiful people crowded around a fountain nearby, as someone who just experienced the forgiveness of Jesus gets baptized by someone who has never baptized anyone before.

I wanted to paint a picture.  I suppose we painted a mural.  I suppose if we painted all this it would take up the whole side of one of these dilapidated buildings I can see out the back window that faces Troost Avenue.  If we paint with broad strokes it might cover a few.

What shall we name this lovely mural?

Let’s call it church.

(Note:  This is not a far-off dream.  This is not a bunch of nice ideas.  This is my present reality.  I have personally experienced all of these things happening within the last month, both here with my local spiritual family and as I have spent time with spiritual families on the other side of the nation.  I am in awe of what can happen when people begin to encounter the love of God for them.  I’ve tasted the miracle that Jesus called “church.”  And all I want is MORE.  This times a million, doused with even greater hope, greater faith, greater compassion.)