Monday, October 31, 2005

"Pray for me, John"

That's what he said. Just, "Pray for me, John."

He's a man I've known for a long time. I've learned from him. I've laughed with him. I've respected him, and I've made fun of him. I've sat with people when his name comes up in conversation, and we've collectively rolled our eyes. We've heard stories about him and said, "That's just like him." We've told stories about him that included the phrase, "You know how he is."

Today he asked me to pray for him. He said, "I've been wrong. I've written things that were just plain wrong. You suffered some of that abuse, didn't you?"

I sat silent.

"I'm sorry. I'm rambling. This morning I got on my knees and told God I was sorry. I've gotten so caught up in being right. Does that make sense?"

I know the feeling.

We talked for a few minutes more. We talked about how easy it is to miss the "who" of Christianity and get caught up in the "what". We talked about how we fool ourselves into believing that we're fighting for truth, when we're really fighting to be the one who gets everything right -- to be heard -- to be respected. If we can't be liked or loved, at least we can be feared.

He was telling me this as if I was unfamiliar with the pattern. I know it all too well.

Christianity -- at its core -- is relational, not propositional. The diagnostic questions we must ask have less to do with how well we know our Bibles and more to do with how well we love the people around us. Are we more approachable or less? Are we becoming more like Jesus or more like the people Jesus criticized?

It's strange how humbling an experience like this can be. Rather than putting me in some kind of superior position, it brought me down to the place of being a servant. Praying for him will be like washing his feet.

"Pray for me, John. Will you do that?"

Of course I will.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Manipulation Is Bad

Elijah invites Elisha to volunteer for a life-changing ministry.

Elisha says, "Let me go home and tell my folks goodbye first." This was probably Elisha's way of saying, "Give me some time to think about this."

Elijah replies, "Hey, take as much time as you want. Don't worry about it."

And then he lets Elisha leave and go home. He doesn't feel the need to say, "But if you don't volunteer, think of what you'll miss out on. And if you don't volunteer, think of what you'll be depriving those people of."

He doesn't say any of that. He doesn't pressure Elisha or coerce him or manipulate the deal at all.

It reminds me of the time a rich young guy came to Jesus and asked, "What do I have to do to be a follower of yours?"

Jesus replied, "You know the Law. Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't commit adultery. Honor your parents. All that stuff."

The guy said, "I know all that. I've done all that since I was a kid. Anything else?"

Jesus said, "Well, there is one thing. You need to trust me more than you trust your stuff. So, go sell everything you own, give the money away to the poor, and then come follow me."

Anyone remember what happened next?

The guy walked away.

Anyone remember what Jesus did then?

He let him.

You know why?

Because manipulation is bad.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Go Ahead and Ask

When Elijah finds Elisha, the latter is plowing in the field. He goes to Elisha and hands him a cloak as a way of inviting him to be an apprentice. There are a few things that make this difficult for Elijah.

First, it will mean that Elijah is no longer the only prophet. Up until this time, Elijah has been THE man of God; now he will have to be one of the men of God. That takes some humility on his part.

The other thing that makes it a little difficult for Elijah is that Elisha has a lot of money. He's plowing in a field with 24 oxen. Most families at that time would have been lucky to own a chicken. An ox was like driving an SUV. Having 24 oxen was almost unthinkable. He's got money.

Elijah the Tishbite from Tishbe was from the other side of the tracks.

It would have been so easy for him to look at Elisha and say, "God, you must have made a mistake. There's no way he's going to give all that up to pursue the lifestyle of a prophet. People don't like prophets."

Elijah had been dependent upon birds to bring him food. He had relied on a widow with just enough flour and oil to make a loaf of bread. He could have said, "God, he's just going to say no. I'm not even going to ask."

But he didn't. And because the man of God stopped one day to have a conversation with a wealthy farmer about volunteering for a ministry, widows and servants and kings and whole armies were changed forever -- because he simply asked.

We'll talk about this more in the next few days, but for now here's my question: Who is so far out there that you think they'll never say yes to God's call?

And here's the bottom line: Don't you dare say "No" for someone.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Stress Management and the Days of Elijah

In a previous post we talked about stress reduction. I suggested that a lot of unnecessary stress is caused by our lack of doing what we know we should do. We overeat, we engage in risky behavior, we make poor financial decisions, we work too much and sleep too little, and all of this causes stress -- over and above what we are able to handle.

But there is some stress that is unavoidable. So, how is it possible to experience the rest that Jesus promised us if there is stress present in our lives? How can we keep ourselves from worry in the midst of stressful times?

I think it comes down to a matter of perspective.

To demonstrate this, all we have to do is look at the biblical character Elijah. He lived during the life of the most wicked King Israel had ever known: King Ahab. Ahab had married a foreign woman (Jezebel) who was determined to introduce the people of Israel to pagan worship practices. She systematically killed off all the priests of YHWH and replaced them with priests of Baal. Ahab did a lot more stuff than that, but what's important for this discussion is that God sent a man named Elijah to confront Ahab.

Elijah told Ahab that it was going to stop raining for a while. Three years, in fact. But during that time, God miraculously provided for Elijah's needs -- first with birds bringing him sandwiches and then through the faith of a widow and her son.

Eventually, God sent Elijah back to Ahab for a winner-take-all confrontation on Mt. Carmel. Elijah took on 850 pagan prophets and the false god they worshiped. After some prophetic trash-talking, Elijah calmly stepped forward and called down fire from the sky. After that, he had all 850 of the false prophets killed, and then he outran a horse 12 miles back down the mountain to the palace.

I can't think of anyone who saw more powerful signs of God's protection and deliverance than Elijah.

And yet....

Jezebel threatens to kill him, and he runs away. He goes a 12-day journey down to the furthest point in the southern kingdom. Then he goes one more day's journey. In other words, he goes as far as he can, and then he goes a little farther. At this point, God shows up and Elijah says, "I have had enough. Kill me now."

God deals with Elijah like you would deal with a cranky toddler. He gives him a drink and a snack and puts Elijah down for a nap. Eventually, Elijah gets all the way to Mt. Sinai -- in the Sinai Peninsula -- near Egypt.

At this point in time, God feels the need to point something out: "Hey, Elijah, Prophet of ISRAEL, what are you doing here -- in EGYPT?"

Elijah tells him, "I'm the only one left. I served you as best as I could, but now I'm as good as dead. Why don't you finish the job?"

God says, "Watch this."

Elijah stays put in the cave, but there's all kinds of commotion going on outside. An earthquake, a fire, a tornado. And then God whispers. It's the whisper that gets Elijah's attention, so he goes and stands at the entrance to the cave.

I think God is saying to Elijah, "See what I can do when I get ready? Anytime I want, I can do all this."

"Elijah, what are you doing here?"

Elijah thinks God is still looking for information -- like maybe God didn't hear his answer the first time. So, he repeats himself -- word-for-word -- probably a little louder this time to make sure God gets it.

God says, "I heard you the first time. Did you hear me? Get up and go home. There's a new king."

"You mean, Ahab won't be king forever?"

"No, and there's a new prophet?"

"You mean, I won't be the prophet forever?"

"No, I was here before you, and I'll be here after you're gone. I've been at work getting things ready for the next chapter. Just because you don't see it happen, doesn't mean nothing's happening. Oh, and by the way, you're not alone. There are 7,000 just like you."

Strange: Elijah and God look at the same situation, the exact same circumstances. God says, "I've got these people right where I want them." Elijah says, "I am all alone and as good as dead." God wasn't panicked; Elijah was.

Elijah freaks out and runs away because he doesn't see things from God's perspective.

Maybe these are the days of Elijah after all.

Monday, October 24, 2005

My Inbox Is Empty

I've finally converted to a Mac -- a Powerbook G4 with a 1.67 GHz processor, a 15-inch monitor and a SuperDrive.

In the process of switching everything over, I've lost everything in my email inbox (it wasn't entirely accidental). I had more than 700 email sitting there and the task of moving it all was just so daunting that in a moment of insanity I simply selected all and pressed "DELETE".

Oh, it felt good.

Anyway, if you've written me anything that I haven't responded to -- you should probably send it again. Sorry for the inconvenience.

But not too sorry....

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Quick Question

Just returned home from Phoenix where I had a great time with the folks at the Gateway Church of Christ. They're super-excited about creating an environment where kids and parents can come together to learn the same thing. They're making bold strides toward ending the dysfunctional cycle of parent-church-child relationships that currently exists in most churches. They're implementing changes and starting to really think strategically about things. I can't wait to see how things develop for them in the next few months.

By the way, if you're ever in Phoenix, go eat at Pizza Bianco. They don't have a website as far as I know. And the wait is ridiculous, but it might be the best pizza in America. I'm not kidding.

For those of you who have asked, my knee is still swollen, and I still don't have full range of motion. But it doesn't hurt anymore. That's probably good and bad at the same time. I'm sure a doctor will tell me all about it -- when I finally get around to visiting one.

I went with my friend and co-worker Jeff Sandstrom, and we laughed ourselves silly. I love having a good travelling partner.

I'm tired and will get back to talking about stress and other things. For now, I do have a question for you. It's a question that was actually sent to me in an email, so here's the body of that email. I eagerly await your ideas:

"Can you ask [this] question on your blog? Is it possible that Rick Warren's book and Mel Gibson's movie were going to trigger a national revival? Rick Warren said he thought it would when he started holding his 'MegaConferences.' Did Dan Brown's book [The Da Vinci Code] have anything to do with thwarting their efforts?"

Well, what do you think?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Two Kinds of Stress

Jesus himself said that if anyone was tired, exhausted and stressed out, we could come to him and he would give us rest.

Is anyone out there ready to say that this is their normal experience? Does anyone out there feel like the one word that could summarize their current lifestyle is "rest"?

Judging by the comments and email I've received in the last 24 hours, I'd say this is an area many of us struggle with. And it's not for a lack of ideas. There were many great suggestions. CJ, I'm obviously not taking one of yours (fasting from my blog), but I am taking the other two.

I think Amy and Kerry make really interesting points that I want to follow up on. Amy is right: a certain amount of stress in life is unavoidable. Some can be avoided, so it is wise to talk about stress reduction. But some isn't, so it is also wise to talk about stress management.

I think a lot of our stress (notice I've changed the subject from my stress specifically to our stress in general -- Do I know how to avoid, or what?) comes from disobedience. God tells us to take time off, enjoy small pleasures, celebrate life and the goodness of God. If I don't obey God -- whether it is in taking a Sabbath rest or in overextending myself financially or treating my body as a Holy Temple of God -- I bring avoidable stress on myself.

Overeat, gain weight, feel terrible, add more stress. Drink too much, do stupid things, feel terrible, add more stress. Practice deception -- even in small things -- cover my tracks, wait to be discovered, feel terrible, add more stress.

Any time I disobey God, I end up adding more unnecessary stress to my life -- stress that is easily avoidable if I will just do what I know I'm supposed to do.

I am rarely this open about things, but I feel the need for confession. So, here are some areas where I have been walking in disobedience:

I've been talking more than listening.
I've been eating too much and not getting enough rest.
I haven't been exercising and treating my body right.
I've been more concerned with how God's correction applies to other people than how it applies to me.
I haven't been trusting God with my finances.

How about you? Anything you want to confess? Any areas where you've been walking in disobedience that have added unnecessary stress to your life?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Stressed Out

I have a friend in Texas who is a doctor, and he told me once that probably 80% of the people he sees are really coming for stress-related illnesses. Stress is a badge of honor in our society now. If you're not stressed out, something's wrong.

If you're not worrying about the next hurricane, you're probably worried about rising gas prices -- or the war in Iraq -- or whether or not gay people will be allowed to get married -- or Harriet Miers' Supreme Court nomination -- or the state of your church -- or real estate prices -- or your kids -- or your marriage -- or your parents' declining health -- or your declining health -- or what might happen this weekend -- or what happened last weekend -- or whether you'll get the promotion -- or if you'll be able to find a babysitter for your job interview next Monday morning.

On and on it goes. We wear stress like a badge of honor. And it manifests its negative consequences in physical problems, emotional problems, relational problems, spiritual problems. We're stressed out and exhausted, and we don't seem to know what to do about it.

I had a conversation with a very good friend of mine recently. You know -- one of those friends I've known for forever -- a guy who is almost more like a brother than a friend. And we've been getting on each other's nerves for the past couple of months. We couldn't figure out what the problem was exactly. I just think we didn't really like each other that much for a while.

And then it hit me: I'm so drained that I can't give anyone my undivided attention. Not myself. Not my wife. Not my kids. Certainly not this friend.

So, this marginlessness life I've been living has impacted (negatively) the conversations I've had with and about my friend. If I was rested, if I was living at a sane pace, we could have unguarded conversations where we shared openly and freely. But because I am too tired to do that, I end up saying things I shouldn't say and reacting in ways I know aren't helping anyone.

My stress is threatening my health and my relationships. Yet I still continue to feed the monster.

Is it just me, or does anyone else feel this way?

Does anyone have any suggestions?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Culture Wars and Conspiracy Theories

Dan Brown is right about one thing: there was a culture war going on in the early church between those who accented Jesus' divinity and those who stressed his humanity. There were extremists on both sides; Dan Brown merely sides with the extremists who stressed Jesus' humanity to the exclusion of his deity. And, while that same culture war may still be going on in 2005, perhaps it's not entirely fair to blame it all on Constantine. In the Nicene Creed, Jesus is understood as both fully human and fully divine. Some have trouble with that paradox. Others take the paradox itself as evidence of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Forty years after the Council of Nicaea, in 367, the highly influential bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, delivered an Easter sermon in which he endorsed the writings that make up the New Testament as we know it today. To eliminate potential confusion, Athanasius wanted other books with other teachings destroyed.

"But someone," writes Elaine Pagels, speculating specifically about the monks of a monastery in Upper Egypt, "gathered dozens of the books that Athanasius wanted to burn, removed them from the monastery library, sealed them in a heavy, six-foot jar and, intending to hide them, buried them in a nearby hillside near Nag Hammadi," where they were unearthed in 1945, providing fodder for conspiracy theorists in general and Dan Brown's novel in particular.

In a real sense, however, Brown's novel only underscores the wisdom of Irenaeus. Pagels defines a Gnostic as "one who knows." She suggests Irenaeus and other early church leaders "used the term derisively to refer to those they dismissed as people claiming to 'know it all.'" At the core of Dan Brown's novel is the conviction that folks like Leonardo Da Vinci, Robert Langdon and Elaine Pagels know things about God that lesser people cannot know, matters kept secret from common Christians like us who are not "in the gnosis."

Monday, October 17, 2005

Broken and Exhausted, The Warrior Limps Home

Don't worry -- I'm not broken. But my tooth is.

I feel like I've been beaten up. Allow me to explain: I have petellar tracking disorder -- an imbalance in the knee area that causes the kneecap to shift or tilt out of place. What really gets me is that it never happens when I'm playing full-court basketball or something really physical. It happens getting off the sofa, or -- as in the most recent case -- rolling over in bed at 5:00 in the morning.

Every four or five months, my kneecap falls off its track and refuses to allow my leg to straighten out or bear much weight. It's ridiculously painful and necessitates an equally painful trip to my friend Lee Strickland -- chiropractor extraordinairre. Lee performs electro-stimulation to the muscles around the knee to try and reduce the amount of swelling. Then he "adjusts" the knee -- a euphemism for doing something that feels about like someone taking a hammer and whacking my knee repeatedly for about three minutes.

I have to admit: it works.

Unfortunately, this happened just before I was scheduled to go out of town (again). So, I limped my way through airports in Atlanta and Philadelphia. I arrived and was taken to my hotel in Morgantown, PA. I met up with my friend Bill Winegardner, and we watched the second half of the USC-Notre Dame game -- what a fantastic finish! Then we went downstairs and asked the lady at the front desk of the Holiday Inn where we should go to dinner.

She sent us to a place in Reading called The Ugly Oyster. Those of you who know me, you know I love to go to places like that. And it was good. If you ever find yourself in Reading, you'll find it on 5th Street. Order a Crab Cake Sandwich. It's really good.

Our waitress was just doing her job -- trying to upsell us on dessert. But nothing they had sounded that great to us. So, she brought us each a Tootsie Pop. Walking to the car, I bit down and my gold cap in the back of my mouth came out. I have it in my shaving kit. It still has purple candy remnants on it.

It doesn't hurt really. I was afraid it might affect my speech, but people tell me I'm not lisping or anything. It's more a source of anxiety than anything else.

Oh, and I spoke in "big church" yesterday. And then I did a 5-Hour Workshop. For those of you who speak for a living, you know how long yesterday was for me. We got lost on our way to the airport, but I arrived in time to catch my flight home. My knee is feeling better. I slept some on the plane. As I said, my tooth doesn't really hurt. The folks in Pennsylvania were really great, and the weather was beautiful. Tonight, I'll be in the studio with Reggie Joiner and Sue Miller discussing the virtue of Generosity.

All in all, things are pretty good. I'll get back to the whole Dan Brown, Da Vinci Code, Paul's take on physical resurrection thing tomorrow. Or maybe I won't. I'm teaching this Wednesday night on Elijah, and I have several thoughts about him bouncing around in my head that I'd like to get your take on. Maybe I'll do both. Or maybe I'll do neither. Who knows?

For now, I'm interested in hearing from you. How are you?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Gnosticism, The Canon and Dan Brown

"One of these things is not like the other...."

What doesn't fit into Dan Brown's conspiracy plot is the fact that the canonization of New Testament Scripture and establishment of creedal statements was initially borne out of the dilemma faced by second century leaders such as Irenaeus, who believed it of critical importance to forge a unified church. Irenaeus' mentor, Polycarp, himself a disciple of the apostle John, had been burned alive by the Romans in 167. How was the church to survive that kind of pressure if it couldn't even agree on whether Jesus was laughing or suffering on the cross?

Elaine Pagels says that the issue really came to a head when "The Three" -- Montanus, Maximilla and Priscilla -- began traveling around the churches of Asia Minor "claiming to communicate directly with the holy spirit." The Three were having all sorts of visions and revelations. Priscilla, writes Pagels, "claimed that Christ had appeared to her in female form." Furthermore, they taught others to fast and pray so they too could receive direct visions and revelations, their own personal gnosis.

Gnostics, such as "The Three," made a distinction between Common Christians and Spiritual Christians -- they, of course, being the latter. They were Christians "in the know." But the Book of Acts tells us that the first edition of the church held everything in common (Acts 2:44). They were all in the same boat. Irenaeus cannot be blamed for being concerned that a two-tier system was evolving with Christians "in the know" holding themselves superior to the others.

There are Christians today who, because of some spiritual experience, practically disdain other believers who have not experienced what they have. We see still what Irenaeus was talking about, when he said, in effect, you can always tell a Gnostic, "strutting around with a superior expression on his face, with all the pomposity of a rooster."

How was the church ever going to sing out of the same hymnal if there were 80 gospels floating around and anybody and everybody could claim to be communicating directly with the Holy Spirit, their gnosis making them more spiritual than other believers?

It was Irenaeus himself who came up with the four-gospel solution. The bishop noted that Ezekiel had envisioned God's throne "borne up by four living creatures;" likewise, the church would be borne up by four pillars: the "full formed gospels" of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These had been accepted for generations; Irenaeus wisely saw no need to add to them.

Then, in the second decade of the next century, Constantine himself was converted. Dan Brown portrays the emperor as a master manipulator, using Christianity to his own political purpose. I don't know that his accusation is entirely justified. Legend says that Constantine had seen a vision of the cross in the sky with the words "In this sign conquer." Having committed himself to Christianity, it was perhaps understandable that Constantine would want to konw what he was supposed to believe. Thus, it was he who called church leaders from across the empire to gather in Nicaea, June of 325, asking them to come up with a clear statement of belief. The result is remembered as the Nicene Creed.

Are you still with me?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The History of Heresy

The reason I'm writing so much about church history lately is because millions and millions of people around the world have read Dan Brown's version of how things happened. In his telling, the books of the New Testament, as we have received it, were selected by self-interested men for self-interested purposes, and the church has been involved in a 2,000-year conspiracy to suppress the writings that didn't toe the company line.

Says the eccentric religious art historian in The Da Vinci Code, "The modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda -- the promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ and use His influence to solidify their own power base."

Robert Langdon interjects, "An interesting note. Anyone who chose the forbidden gospels over Constantine's version was deemed a heretic. The word heretic derives from that moment in history. The Latin word haereticus means 'choice.' Those who 'chose' the original history of Christ were the world's first heretics."

If by "original history of Christ," one means the notion that Jesus was not God in the flesh living a sinless life and dying on the cross to pay the price for the sins of the world, then, yes, these were the world's first heretics. The word haereticus doesn't just mean "choice" or "able to choose." Its original meaning also carries the notion of being factious.

Granted, when former Senator Frank Keating, a man hand-picked by Roman Catholics to lead the inquiry into the church's role in sheltering pedophilia among priests, resigned after saying his experience was like dealing with the Mafia, it is easy for many to believe the historic church is just one big organized crime syndicate. It's relatively easy to cast the Roman Catholic Church in the role of bad guys. It's not too big a stretch to see them branding everyone who disagrees with them with a scarlet "H" for "Heretic."

But, while the word "heretic" has been misused in the past and continues to be misused today, we cannot dismiss it as easily as Dan Brown wants us to. It is a sad but true fact that we may be called heretical for disagreeing over a great many things -- the role of women, which translation of the Bible you use, your view of biblical prophecy, etc.. Unfortunately, the word "heresy" is often used to protect a base of power or some long-held religious dogma.

Sometimes, however, a person is called a heretic because they actually are a heretic. Dan Brown, Elaine Pagels and those who champion the Gnostic gospels are heretics, not simply because they choose to believe an alternative story of Jesus, but because they create division and foster attitudes of superiority among those "in the know."

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Bible, Jesus and Women

Was Christianity, as presented in the New Testament, an attempt by men to gain control over women? No.

The irony of this question is that one of the most radical things about Jesus was how seriously he took women, and this is evident from the writings contained in the New Testament. Just for some background information, rabbis in Jesus' day generally held women to be extremely inferior to men. One ancient rabbinic saying was that it was better for the Torah to be burned than for it to be taught to a woman.

A rabbinic prayer commonly prayed in Jesus' day started with these words: "Blessed are Thou, oh God, who did not make me a Gentile, a donkey or a woman."

Thee was a group of rabbis who were so devout that not only would they not talk to a woman or teach a woman (because they thought a woman could defile them), they wouldn't even look at a woman. They made a vow that they would go through the rest of their lives without letting their eyes look at a woman. If, out of the corner of their eyes, they saw a woman coming into their line of sight, they would close their eyes until they were sure she was gone. They were always running into trees and buildings, and (I'm not making this up) they were called the "bruised and bleeding" Pharisees.

In light of all this, here is what we read in the Gospel of Luke:

Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve wre with him and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household, Susanna; and many others (Luke 8:1-3a).

We tend to read those words and skim over them, completely missing the shock value they would have held for the initial readers. Jesus forms a band of followers, but it's made up of women and men who travel together and study and learn and do ministry together. Do you have any idea how counter-cultural that was in the first century.

Here's how the paragraph ends: These women were helping to support them out of their own means (v. 3b).

Who's paying the bills for this travelling troupe? The women. Even in our enlightened era, you know how sensitive it is when a wife earns more than a husband. Jesus didn't consider this demeaning or threatening; he welcomed it. He was constantly surprising his disciples by the way he would speak with, teach, listen to and be approachable for women. This led to the formation of a community where, as the apostle Paul described: There is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

Such a community had never existed before! The Da Vinci Code says that pagan religions (such as those in Rome) gave greater honor to women than Christianity did because they had goddesses as well as gods -- the "sacred feminine."

The reality is that in its early centuries, women flocked to the church. In Rome, when a woman became a widow, if she didn't remarry within two years, she would be viewed as a financial strain and could be penalized for that. In the church, however, being a widow was honored, and the care of widows was a high priority. Historian Robin Fox writes, "It is highly likely that women were a clear majority in the early church."

One early Christian community in Cirta was recently discovered by archaeologists. They found 16 male tunics -- in other words, there were at least 16 men who were part of that early church. But they found 38 veils -- which would have been worn by women obviously. They found 82 women's tunics, 47 pairs of female slippers and six copies of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

I made one of those up, but the rest are all true.

Women found the church to be a place where they could be accepted. And that was rather unique in that time and place.

Part of the irony and hype about whether or not Mary Magdalene was "Mrs. Jesus," is that what gets missed is her extraordinary role in the New Testament. At the foot of the cross, when Jesus is being crucified, according to the Gospels (which were written by men) -- when all the men had run away because they were afraid of what might happen to them if they followed Jesus too closely -- there was a group of women who watched Jesus die. When the apostle John was the only man with enough courage to stay, he stayed with a group of women. Peter wasn't there, but Mary Magdalene was.

Paul writes: If Christ be not raised from the dead, our hope is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14). In other words, if there is no resurrection, the whole thing is a sham. The resurrection is the hinge point of Christianity, and the first person who sees Jesus is Mary Magdalene. She is the first evangelist -- the apostle to the apostles.

All of this is in the Bible, and yet we're told that the Bible was put together by people who were hostile towards women. A Roman historian named Celsus -- a member of a pagan society that supposedly honored women more because they had both gods and goddesses in their religion -- wrote, "The resurrection rests on tales of hysterical females."

This society that was supposedly so affirming to women (Roman) wouldn't allow them to testify in court. This society that was supposedly hostile towards women (Christianity) had its most essential doctrine rest on the testimony of women.

Contrary to The Da Vinci Code, when the Bible speaks of God as Father, it doesn't mean that God is more like men than he is like women. Does God have a male body? No. Does God like men better than he likes women? No. Does God like action movies better than chick flicks? Yes, of course he does, but that's just good taste! There's no theological significance to that.

The Bible writers are careful to say that God is spirit -- he doesn't have a body that defines gender like we do. The Bible also affirms that women as well as men are equally co-bearers of God's image. Has the church always lined up to this reality? No, many times it has not. But one of the most important things we need to remember is that what we have been told is in the Bible and what is actually in the Bible are often two very different things. Unlike Dan Brown, I am especially interested in what is actually in the Bible.

I am in complete sympathy with those who asssert the church has too often promoted the masculine to the exclusion of the feminine. Many women have been abused; men has misused their authority and put their own agendas first. Women have historically been unfairly discriminated against in churches and in the workplace. Often, the Bible has been twisted and distorted in an attempt to justify such behavior. But this is an important distinction: One has to twist the Scriptures to arrive at such conclusions. The Bible itself does not lead to these ideas.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Divinity of Jesus

I got an email recently that starts with this quote from The Da Vinci Code: "Until 325 AD, Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet, a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless -- a mortal." The emailer goes on to say, "My encyclopedia confirms that it was not until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD that the Church established the divinity and equality of the Son in the Trinity. This seems to confirm what he says in The Da Vinci Code. Could you clarify?"

In other words, is it true that nobody believed Jesus was divine until 300 years after his death? Dan Brown says that the first century church knew Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene but covered that up along with a lot of other information because that would reveal that Jesus was only human and not divine, and they wanted people to think he was divine, even though they all knew that he wasn't. Therefore, according to The Da Vinci Code, "Any gospels that describe earthly aspects of Jesus' life had to be omitted from the Gospel -- what was included in the New Testament."

This seems bizarre to me, because the Gospels in the New Testament talk about the earthly (and earthy) aspects of Jesus' life all the time. The miracle of the Incarnation is exactly this: Jesus was born in a manger as a baby, and he was a real baby who really did go through birth in all its awful glory.

But we don't like to think of Jesus like that. We don't want him to be a helpless infant who cries and nurses and can't control his own bladder. In fact, around Christmas we'll sometimes sing a song that says, "The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes."

We've had three babies at our house, and none of them were the no-crying variety. In fact, if a baby doesn't cry at all, we usually think it's because something's wrong with them developmentally. Jesus was not a no-crying baby. He was one of those babies who cries, because that's the only kind of baby there is.

We also can guess that he was a crying baby because when he grew up he was a crying man. He wept real tears. He got hungry, and he had to eat. He got thirsty, and he had to drink. He got tired, and he had to sleep. When thorns pierced his skin, they drew real blood and caused real pain. He wasn't faking it.

It's the later non-eyewitness Gnostic accounts of Jesus' life that make Jesus look the least human. In one of them, Jesus -- as a little boy -- is playing with some clay. He makes a couple of pigeons, says some magic words and the pigeons turn into real birds and fly away. In another one, Jesus is a little kid when he gets into a fight with another little kid. Jesus is mad at him so he curses and other boy -- and the other boy dies. Jesus kills another little boy by the power of a magic curse! In another one, Jesus isn't suffering on the cross, he's laughing. In another one, after the crucifixion, Jesus comes out of the tomb, but now he's as big as Paul Bunyan. And after he comes out of the tomb, the cross comes out of the tomb, and the cross speaks. It's a talking cross!

The New Testament documents don't tell those kinds of stories. They don't present Jesus as a single man because they're covering up his humanity. They don't cover up his humanity. The New Testament presents Jesus as a single man, because he was a single man. There simply isn't a shred of evidence from any document written from within 100 years of Jesus' life to support the idea that he was married.

The Da Vinci Code says that Jesus must have been married because all Jewish men had to get married. But there were communities like the Essene community where celibacy was practiced. There were prophets like Jeremiah and John the Baptist who were single. Josephus, the first centurty historian, talks about Banus, another wilderness prophet who was single for the sake of his ministry.

Most importantly, the idea that Jesus was not regarded as divine until 300 years after he died just doesn't square with the facts. The apostle Paul, who most scholars would agree wrote within a few decades of Jesus' life, wrote these words: "For in Christ all the fullness of God lives in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9).

Now, for a first century Jewish man, committed to monotheism, to write those words...that's a staggering statement.

In the Gospel of Matthew, again written in the era of eyewitnesses, Jesus says to Simon Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter says, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:15-16).

Jesus does not respond by saying, "Oh, no. I'm just a regular guy like you. Stop saying stuff like that."

Jesus says, "Blessed are you Simon Peter for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:17).

The Gospel of John says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:1, 14).

It is a matter of historical record that many of the early followers of Jesus -- the eyewitnesses -- were martyred for their faith. For me, trying to say that they knew Jesus was only mortal and covered it up, and then they were willing to suffer and die for what they knew to be a lie...that's the biggest leap of faith of all.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The New Testament: How'd We Get It? (part 2)

In the second century after the birth of Christ, there weren't just four Gospels (i.e., testaments to the life and times of Jesus) in circulation. There were about 80. As the Jesus movement grew, more and more people wanted to get in on the act, and the quickest way was to write a story about Jesus and attach an apostle's name to it.

These texts had stories in them about Jesus that were different from what we read now in the New Testament Gospels. There was a lot of confusion, and the early church leaders realized that they needed to have criteria that would help them decide which documents -- which Gospels -- should go into what became known as the Canon (a word meaning "the norm, the standard, the rule"). They wanted to know which books ought to be canonical. Which books can we trust? Which books are reliable?

Church leaders developed essentially three criteria to evaluate these different documents:

  • Does this document have roots connected to one of the Apostles? Was it written by an apostle or by a student or associate of one of the Apostles?
The four Gospels that we have in the New Testament meet this requirement. Matthew is associated with Matthew, also known as Levi the tax collector. Mark was a student of Peter. Luke was known as the "beloved physician," a good friend of the Apostle Paul. John is the Gospel connected to the disciple John. (By the way, the other books in the New Testament like the letters of Paul or the letters of John meet the same criteria.)

It's important to remember that most scholars agree that all these books were written within 30 to 60 years after Jesus died. In other words, they were written while there were still eyewitnesses around who could challenge what was in them. They had to meet the task of being read by people who were alive when Jesus was around, and who would be able to say, "No. I was there, and it didn't happen like that," if something was inaccurate.

The Da Vinci Code talks about many other ancient books about Jesus' life and suggests that maybe the church was trying to cover them up. In reality, all of these books were written much, much later. In some cases, they were written centuries after Jesus -- after that eyewitness generation. They were often given fictitious and misleading names like the "Gospel of Mary," or the "Gospel of Peter," even though they were written centuries after Peter or Mary had died.

  • To be included in the Canon, the contents of the book had to be consistent with the kind of teaching that Jesus did.
There's one account of Jesus' life that was probably written about 50 years after the Gospel of John, the latest of the New Testament Gospels. Some of you may have heard of the "Jesus Seminar." It's a group of people who get together and vote on whether or not Jesus said the things attributed to him in the Bible. They have argued that the Gospel of Thomas ought to be taken more seriously.

Have any of you ever read the Gospel of Thomas? It's not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. In some places, it doesn't even make sense. For example, here's a quote from the very last part of the Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." (GoT 114)

Aren't you glad that didn't make it into the Bible? It seems a little weird, and it doesn't sound like anything Jesus says in the New Testament. This leads to the third criterion that was generally applied.

  • In order for a book to be included in the Canon of Scripture, it had to have widespread influence in churches both in Israel, in Asia Minor, in Rome and had to have continuous acceptance and use by the church at large.
It took some time, and there were a few books where the decision was very difficult, but the materials and Gospels that are included in the New Testament are the ones that fit these standards. One historian puts it like this: "None of the non-canonical gospels comes close in date of composition, breadth of distrubution, or proportion of acceptance."

So the idea that we have the New Testament gospels today because Constantine put them together in 325 AD for political purposes is wrong. By 325 AD when councils were pulled together to talk about important questions (which they sometimes were), in a sense they were formally recognizing the authority of these Scriptures that had already been guiding followers of Christ for centuries.

There is a lot of evidence of this. For example, more than 100 years before Constantine, a man by the name of Origen said, "The four gospels" -- and he goes on to name them -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- "are the only undisputed ones in the whole church of God throughout the whole world."

That's a quote from at least a century before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. A great New Testament professor by the name of William Barclay from Edinburgh wrote once, "It is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them from doing so."

Now, as for this Council of Nicaea -- what exactly is that? That's what we'll talk about next.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Clearing Things Up

Let me state this clearly: I am not opposed to children's church. I am not opposed to children's choir. I'm not against men's ministries and women's ministries and single parents' ministries and car ministries and bus ministries and living Christmas trees and Easter pageants and Sunday night services.

I'm really not.

But you better be ready to make a compelling case for why those things accomplish what your church is supposed to be accomplishing. If you can show me how children's handbells and old lady sewing circles help you get from point A to point B, I'll jump on that bandwagon.

But if it doesn't get you there -- if you can't legitimately prove how that program helps people become more like Jesus -- you'd better be ready to kill that program.

We do not have enough resources, time is too short and the stakes are too high for this to be about not hurting someone's feelings. This isn't about your ego or mine. This isn't about who gets offended. This isn't about who might leave or who is threatening to withhold their contribution.

This is about being as effective as we can. This is about a church actually having some integrity and doing what it says it's supposed to do.

There. I just felt like I needed to clear that up.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

I travel a lot. Not as much as some of you, but I travel a lot. In fact, my sister left me a voicemail today that said, "It's Friday. Which airport are you in today?"

It's become part of our life that I leave on Friday afternoon and return -- sometimes Saturday night -- sometimes Sunday evening. It's just part of our routine now. But every once in a while I feel bad about being gone so much. Usually, that guilt is centered around how much my wife has to do in my absence.

This morning it was my daughter Anabel.

She didn't want to let me go. Rather, she didn't want to let go of me. She was clingy and hung on my neck as I was trying to leave. For a minute I remembered what that was like when I was her age, and I would have given anything to get my dad's attention -- to have him stop paying attention to everyone else under the sun except me. I remembered, and it hurt my heart. So, even though I was running late, I stayed an extra five minutes with Anabel.

And I missed my plane.

Traffic in Atlanta was bad this morning. It was rainy and dark, and there were accidents and stalled vehicles blocking the center lane. I actually got to the airport in time. But they moved my plane to another gate -- a far away gate -- and by the time I figured that out, the plane had already left. The most frustrating part was that it was still 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time and it had already left!

I was supposed to go to South Bend, Indiana. There are two flights from Atlanta to South Bend per day. What?! Two?! That's it?! And the second flight was sold out.

So, I waited around the Atlanta airport for three hours, flew to Cincinnatti, waited an hour, flew to Chicago, waited 45 minutes and took a bus --through rush hour traffic -- to Michigan City, Indiana. I got in at about 7:00pm local time. I just got in from dinner.

I'm tired. I know I said I would try to explain how people decided which books got in the New Testament. But I just can't do it tonight. Please understand.

Are you still with me?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Catalyst Conference Update

So, the Catalyst Conference got into full swing today. Here's my take:

Andy Stanley is so consistently good. At a conference like this, he's like watching Barry Bonds take batting practice. Without all the steriods and terrible attitude.

Louie Giglio has one message: God is so big, and we are so small. That's it. Change the title. Change the Bible verses. Change his shirt. It's always the same message. But it's always fun to listen to.

Don Miller was better than I thought he would be. Still, it was a rambling and scattered mess. He's better in person than his books. He even managed to reference The Divine Conspiracy, which I think is one of the best books ever written on spiritual formation. He gained points for doing that.

Lanny Donoho and Reggie Joiner were...well...they were Lanny and Reggie. They're like an old married couple.

The band opened with "Fix You" by Colplay. They were great as usual, but the acoustics in the room aren't very good. Strange hums and buzzes abound. Still, that band can play just about anything. And they did.

The musical highlight had to be the set-up for Donald Miller. He wrote the book Blue Like Jazz, and the production team went with that as their theme. The session opened with "All Blues" from the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (the greatest jazz recording of all time). Then they showed a Nooma video featuring Rob Bell. After that, my friend Jen Carrozza came out with her band and did a couple of standards -- one jazz and one blues -- complimented by an incredible tenor saxophonist. Anybody get that guy's name?

Oh, and then Jeff McBride blew the roof off the place with a crazy, fall-on-the-floor rendition of "Georgia On My Mind". It was so good that no one noticed he didn't get any of the words right. Like Lanny said, "I don't know if that was jazz or blues; it was just darn good."

The capper was when they showed us the trailer to the upcoming movie Narnia. They showed the theatrical trailer. They showed the behind-the-scenes thing that's been playing a few places. And then they showed us footage that has never been seen before. Stuff that came directly from Disney's studio overnight -- literally. Someone convinced them to release unfinished footage, got on a plane with a dvd and arrived at Catalyst with it this morning.

The footage looks really good, and I'm not one to gush over movies. This looks like the real deal -- it looks every bit as good as Lord of the Rings. Not being a fantasy guy, The Chronicles of Narnia is actually among my least favorite writings of C.S. Lewis. I much prefer The Great Divorce or The Abolition of Man or even The Screwtape Letters. Still, I got kind of excited about seeing this movie.

So, there's my Catalyst Update. I'm on a plane first thing in the morning for Michigan City, Indiana. The high temperature there will be 57 tomorrow. The low over the weekend is supposed to be 38!

Once I get there, I'll tell you how people decided which books got into the New Testament and which ones didn't.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The New Testament: How'd We Get It? (part 1)

When Jesus was alive -- and we should first start by affirming that he actually did live on earth -- he traveled from place to place teaching. And his teaching was remarkable.

For example, there were guards stationed in the Temple to keep order and maintain the peace. One time they were sent to arrest Jesus, but they ended up not doing that. When asked why, they responded, "No one ever spoke the way this man does" (John 7:46). Imagine how many speakers they had heard. Jesus was unlike any other.

His teaching was special, and people remembered the things he said and passed them on to others. Remember, they didn't have tape recorders back then. They didn't show up for the Sermon on the Mount and receive a big notebook with fill-in-the-blanks. Initially, Jesus' teachings weren't written down; they were passed on because people remembered them and retold them.

I can't even remember the three things I went to the grocery store for if they're not written down. Sometimes, I walk into a room of my house, and -- when I get there -- I can't remember why I walked in there. How in the world could a person remember what Jesus said and did accurately if they weren't written down?

The first century was an oral culture. Today we're inundated by words -- newspapers, magazinne articles, stuff on the Internet. Back then it wasn't so. In his book Excavating Jesus, John Dominic Crossan cites a study that says in the Mediterranean basin the literacy rate was about five percent. In Israel, it was probably closer to three percent.

Literacy wasn't as big a deal to them as it is to us. At night, they didn't sit around watching television or playing video games. They sat around a fire and told stories or shared wise sayings. They would recite genealogies. They remembered everything.

Some of you have kids, and you know what this is like. A child will often have a favorite book and will ask that this particular book be read to them night after night after night. Are my kids the only ones? There are nights when I get tired of it and try to skip a page or a paragraph. Ever tried that with your kids? It doesn't work, does it? They know.

In Jesus' day, people were just as bright as we are. They just weren't literate. They knew the stories. Jesus' life and teachings were well-known by a culture that was well-equipped to preserve them.

By the way, this is probably one reason why Jesus tells so many stories. Nearly 80% of what Jesus did was either put in story form, or in a kind of structure featuring parallelism or structures designed to help people remember what he said and be able to repeat it.

Well, after several decades of this, the eyewitnesses to Jesus' life began to age and die. The church was expanding, and there were false teachers who distorted what Jesus taught. Church leaders realized that they needed to write down Jesus' story -- his life and teachings -- so that it would outlive them and so it could be spread to churches around the world. That's probably why and how the Gospels were written.

Over time, a lot of other documents about Jesus were written as Christianity gained popularity. Some of them are what are called Gnostic gospels. Gnosticism emphasized a lot of secrets and concealed information and whether or not you were on the "inside" -- part of the Illuminati.

These texts had stories in them about Jesus that were different from what we read in the New Testament Gospels. The early church leaders realized that they needed to have criteria that would help them decide which documents -- which Gospels -- should go into what became known as the Canon. This word means "the norm, the standard, the rule." They wanted to know which books ought to be canonical. Which books can we trust? Which books are reliable?

Are you still with me?

The New Testament: Can We Trust It?

I forgot when I started this series of posts that I have to work the Catalyst Conference this week. I almost feel bad saying it that way. I do -- after all -- get to hang out with good folks like Reggie Joiner and Lanny Donoho and listen to Andy Stanley, Erwin McManus, Malcolm Gladwell, Louie Giglio, Bill Hybels and Donald Miller. Still, it is work. No, is.

Anyway, I'm going to be scattered this week, but I do want to continue this thread. So, my question for you today is this: How can we trust the veracity -- the reliability of the New Testament? Were there other authentic sources or "gospels" that were discarded in the process of collecting what we now know as the New Testament?

One of the characters in The Da Vinci Code says, "The Bible is a product of man, my dear, not of God. History has never had a definitive version of the Book. The Bible as we know it today was collated by the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in 325 A.D."

Is that true? If so, can you prove it? If not, can you refute it? This question especially goes out to those of you who have attended church most of your life and call yourselves Christians. Can you explain how we got the New Testament?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Questioning Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code

Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code is in its 129th week on the New York Times Bestseller List. With more than 25 million copies in print in 44 different languages, it has been on the cover of Newsweek and Time magazines, won the Book Sense book of the year award and is being developed into a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard.

The main character in the novel is Robert Langdon -- 40-something, gray-haired, very bright, dashing, attractive Harvard professor who stumbled onto some amazing secrets:

  • Jesus isn't like the four Gospels present him at all. He was married to Mary Magdalene, and they had a child whose descendents may still be alive.
  • Jesus intended Mary Magdalene to be the head of the church after he died.
  • This made Peter jealous, so he covered it all up after Jesus died.
  • The early church engaged in a massive cover-up to conceal Jesus' marriage and his humanity in order to put men in control.
  • Jesus was not considered divine until centuries after his death when the Emperor Constantine suppressed the ancient documents that tell the real story and had the Council of Nicea cobble together what we have today as the New Testament.

This book raises lots of questions for lots of people:

  • Are there other ancient documents about Jesus besides the New Testament?
  • Are they more reliable than what we have in the Scriptures?
  • Was Jesus married?
  • Was his wife Mary Magdalene?
  • Did they have a child?
  • Was Leonardo Da Vinci part of a secret organization that knew all about this?
  • Do we know why the New Testament includes only the books that it does?
  • Was Jesus human or divine?
  • What was the Holy Grail really?
  • How much time would it take for us to sort all this out?

Yes. No. No. No. No. No. Yes. Both. Who knows? About 45 minutes.

Don't worry. I'm not going to go into all these questions. I'm not going to talk about art criticism or literary criticism. But I do want to know what kinds of questions the book prompted in you. And I do want to get at what I think is the main issue: Does the Christian faith and our understanding of Jesus have a solid leg to stand on?

After all, Christians claim to want to build their lives on Truth. But in order to do that, we actually have to think -- and that is something a lot of Christians would rather not do.

So, as we go through some questions about the Christian faith and see how Dan Brown has distorted history, I may periodically ask if you're still with me. If you are, I'd like you to answer, "Yes."

Are you still with me?

Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code

Many of you know that I'm supposed to be writing a book about Dan Brown's worldview. Dan is the author of the controversial novel The Da Vinci Code. I'm not wild about writing the book (even though I did come up with the idea myself), but I really needed the money when they asked me to write it.

Is that bad to say?

Anyway, I'm in a big rush on the book because the publisher wants to make sure it's out around the same time as the movie. I'm interested in knowing how many of you have read the book and what you thought of it.

Monday, October 03, 2005

An Even Dozen

So, I took some time off of blogging. I went to Chicago for the weekend with my wife for our 12th Anniversary. We stayed downtown -- just a few blocks off of Lake Michigan -- and ate at Giordano's -- home of the best Chicago-style pizza in the world. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and we walked down to the Navy Pier. We actually slept in!

Saturday night we went to dinner with our friends the Nahrstadts in Wheaton. Bob Nahrstadt (can you think of a more perfect Chicagoland name than that?) works for Clark Pro Media and gets to hang out with some of the most innovative thinkers in the church world. We had a great time talking about what a church could be like and wondering why more churches don't seem willing to do what it takes to get there. It's nice to talk to folks who "get it".

And the best part was this: my email server went down, and I couldn't check my email all weekend. Of course, I've spent a big chunk of today digging out from under the pile, but it sure was nice to just shut it down for a few days.

These are all things I highly recommend.

Oh, and I ended the weekend by preaching at a church in Naperville.

Did I say the best part was not being able to check email? No way was that the best part. The best part was hanging out with my best friend for the last 12 years and thinking about what our next 12 years might look like.