Your Church Is Probably Lying to You

In a recent speech, Donald Trump was distracted by a baby crying somewhere in the crowd. As a pastor who has experienced firsthand what it’s like to have your train of thought jump the tracks because you hear a crying infant, I immediately sympathized with him.

I even appreciated how he handled the situation.

“Don’t worry about that baby; I love babies … I hear that baby crying; I like it.” Trump said. “What a baby, what a beautiful baby. Don’t worry … Don’t worry about it.”

Imagine the baby’s mother in the back of the room. She knows her child is being a distraction to people. She’s desperately trying to keep him quiet. She wants to make sure her child is comforted, and she wants to be considerate of others. Read More…

Facebook Christianity

For those of you who have asked, here is my column from Saturday’s paper.

Like many people, a good percentage of my social interaction now takes place on Facebook.

I use Facebook to connect with old friends, chat with people far and wide whom I don’t get to see that often, and keep track of what is happening in the lives of my family and close friends. Facebook is one of those rare revolutionary developments that has the potential to change everything about how we communicate with one another.   Read More…

Am I All Alone?

Am I the only one that thinks this way?
Am I the only one that feels like this?
I must be crazy.
I don’t know if I should speak up.
Am I all alone?

One of the scariest things for us as human beings is being alone. I am not talking about spending some alone time or being by ourselves to refresh our batteries. Most of us don’t fear that, and even more of us desperately need it. I’m talking about that terrifying sense that I am all by myself in this. I am alone in life. Alone on my journey. The only one who thinks this way. The only one who feels this way. Surrounded by people everyday, but alone – emotionally and spiritually.

When I started to realize that I had to leave fundamentalism, I felt very alone. My whole life revolved around the church that I pastored, the denomination I had grown up in, the network that contained all of my friends and family. At first, I suffered in silence. I was alone with my doubts and questions in an internal dialoge that ended up spiraling me into depression. Once I began to talk about what I was thinking and how I was feeling with a few trusted friends, I knew that the journey I was on would take me far from where I had always been. I left my church. I left my denomination. I left my network.

And I felt very alone.

Many years later, I wish I could say that I don’t feel alone anymore. But that wouldn’t be true. There are still days, weeks, months even, that I still wonder when I’m going to find a tribe of people like me. More and more, however, I get flashes that they are out there. Today was one of those days. I had two conversations that reminded me about how important and encouraging it is to find others who are like ourselves. 

One conversation was with a person trying to make his own way in the Christian music industry in Nashville. He talked to me about how he’s been rejected but he’s still pursuing love. We talked about his daughter whose struggling to keep her faith in Jesus while she comes to terms with the hateful way her gay, lesbian, and transgender friends are treated by Christians.

The other conversation was with a pastor without a flock. We talked about being authentic. I shared with him about one of the loneliest times in my life – when I woke up on my 30th birthday with the sense that I was wasting my life pastoring the church I was. He nodded his head with understanding.

When we feel all alone, the most powerful thing we can do is share our stories. Finding community isn’t about finding people who see things exactly like I do. It’s not about finding carbon copies of me. Finding community is about finding people who will hear our stories with understanding and share their own with vulnerability. When we share our stories with one another, we make a connection that pierces our loneliness.

I wrote Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism But Didn’t Lose My Faith in part for this very reason. I am not the only pastor who has felt like preaching the sermon I wanted to preach would get me fired. I am not the only person in a fundamentalist church who went along with beliefs and traditions I didn’t personally buy into so that I didn’t lose the opportunity to keep serving people I loved. I am not the only Christian who has struggled with questions and doubts, left unspoken for fear that everything I’d always known would come crumbling down around me.

I want others – pastors, Christian school teachers, church folks, former fundamentalists, and those who love them – to know that they are not alone. You are not alone. I know how it feels. I’ve been there. Somedays, I’m still there. But I’m also discovering a way out, a way to new life and hope beyond what I dreamed possible.

You may feel alone. But don’t be scared. We’re actually in this together. Let’s share our stories and bring each other hope.

How have you navigated the scary feeling of being all alone?


I Am the 1%

Over the past few months, I’ve watched the Occupy Wall Street movement with great interest. In all honesty, I haven’t known what to think. On the one hand, there is much in OWS with which I agree:

  • I agree that our politicians have been corrupted by corporate interests.
  • I agree that our consumption is way out of control.
  • I agree that unemployment, student loan debt, and poverty are issues that need to dominate our national conversation.
  • I have been appalled by the way some Occupy groups have been treated by police while they attempt to peaceably protest.

At the same time, there are things about Occupy that don’t resonate with me: 

  • I’m not sure why, but class warfare rhetoric just doesn’t resonate with me. 
  • I also am amused by the seeming double standard of protesters using their iPhones to tweet complaints about big corporations. 
  • I’ve struggled with the inconsistency of cities like Richmond VA, for instance, that have allowed Occupy groups to use free-of-charge the same park that it charged the Tea Party nearly $10,000 in fees to use. 
  • Most significantly, I am predisposed to distrust government solutions to problems, and – I may be wrong about this – but most of the demands being made by the Occupy groups accompany suggested government solutions.

In the last few weeks, however, I’ve started to think differently about the whole thing. Though it has had an impact in other countries, Occupy is a very American kind of protest. Its primary branding is related to the top 1% of America’s wealthy versus the 99% of everyone else in our country. The “We Are the 99%” posters are brilliantly effective. 

Here is what I’ve been wondering about. OK, so I am in the 99% in America. But where do I rank globally? It’s not just about America, right? We are a global community with responsibilities, not just to ourselves and our own national interests, but to all. So … who are the top 1% on the planet?

I did a little research (googled it up on my google machine), and here is what I found.

According to World Bank economist Branko Milanovic in his book The Haves and the Have Nots, to be in the top 1% globally, you have to make $34,000 per year. I am in the top 1%, and I bet a lot, if not most, of you reading this are too. Here’s the breakdown:

  • $34,000 per year – top 1%
  • $18,500 per year – top 5%
  • $12,000 per year – top 10%
  • $5,000 per year – top 20%

Does that change our perspective at all? Does that change the conversation?

It is so easy to vilify the other, the Wall Street banker, the politician, the corporate tycoon. It is much harder to admit that I can find myself among the other. It is so easy to target the greed of the wealthy and fail to see my own constant consumption.

Certainly, it is important to have prophetic voices that highlight the abuses of those in power. But maybe those in power aren’t just the Wall Street banking vice presidents in their $3,000 suits. Maybe those in power are also the soccer moms shopping at Target. Maybe those in power are me. And you. Maybe the finger isn’t just pointing at the politicians in Washington. Maybe the finger is pointing at me too. And at you.

In 1 Timothy 6.17-19, Paul tells Timothy this, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”

This passage is about me and just about all of us here in America, for we really are rich in this present world. That wealth must not make me – or us – arrogant, but so often it does. Somehow, it needs to drive me – and us – to put our hope in God. And I – and we – need to find ways to invest in others so that we can take hold of a life that is truly life.

It’s a good thing that it’s Advent because these are the kinds of issues this season conjures up in my heart. Goodness. Generosity. Sharing. These are the words that are resonating with me. I’m looking for ways that I can take what I have been richly given and use it for the good of others … not just here in America, but around the world:

  • We are talking to our kids this Christmas about consumption and not needing more stuff just for the sake of more stuff.
  • I am thinking about the people across the globe who have had a hand in what I enjoy, be it the clothes I wear, the technology I use, or the food I eat. And I’m trying to give thanks for them and pray for them when I remember them.
  • I am looking for needs to meet. I am hoping this Advent season to do some small but significant things in the lives of others, generously sharing what I’ve been blessed with so that others can enjoy God’s blessings too.
I’m in the top 1%. Given that I am an American, there is almost nothing I can do about that. It simply is reality. However, there is much that I can do for the sake of others, and that is where my focus is now.

How about you? What’s on your mind this Advent season?


Dreaming of Community

He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I have been thinking a lot lately about community. It is word we use often in our emerging conversation. But maybe for all of our talking about the need for community, we haven’t reflected enough on how it is actually experienced. My thinking lately has coalesced around three ideas: community takes actual relationships, a heavy dose of reality, and a good bit of resilience.

I am always amazed by people who speak of community but don’t invest themselves in actual relationships. I’ve seen this as a pastor when people talk about how they love church community but they don’t talk to people at worship gatherings (if they attend at all) and don’t join small groups when they are offered. It reminds me a little bit of the young woman who has every detail of her wedding planned and is only missing the groom. What is community without relationships? Community is not some mystical or magical thing that happens outside of ourselves. Community only takes places where relationships exist, where friendships are growing, where people are connecting.

Relationships require investment. If I am going to be in community with a group of people, I need to invest myself in them and be prepared for them to invest themselves in me. Investment takes time, emotion, energy, even money – all of my precious resources that are already scarce. I need to listen and not just talk. I need to give and not just take. I need to initiate and not just respond.

True community also requires a substantial grip on reality. Bonhoeffer’s observation that people who love their dream of community more than the actual Christian community end up destroying the actual community is a profound one. How often has a person been so enamored by the prospect of being in love that they have driven their potential lover away by being too clingy and needy?

The same happens with churches. People come to church will all sorts of expectations (frequently unrealistic) and ideas and dreams. Many who have been hurt and burned by church are hopeful that their new community will finally live up to those dreams. Rarely can a church leap such a high bar. I get a little skittish when new folks at Vintage gush about how it’s the church they’ve been looking for. I know that if they invest themselves in relationships within our community that it’s only a matter of time before they experience reality. The reality is that churches are made up of weak, frail, and hurting people – and those who are pretending that they are not.

Weak, frail, and hurting people tend to hurt each other sometimes. Words are spoken out of turn. Memories fail. Priorities differ. Expectations are unmet. People are often selfish and immature and slow to do the right thing. The dream of community and the reality community are often far apart in our actual experience.

Does this mean that we should abandon the church whenever our feelings are hurt? Absolutely not. If we abandon anything, we should abandon our dream of community and embrace the reality of community. And this takes resilience. Community grows and develops over time. It is deepened and solidified by interpersonal conflicts.

Community is not a happily-ever-after fairy tale. Community is, to borrow another phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, life together. It can only take place when we commit ourselves to experience the ups and downs, the joys and disappointments, the twists of turns of reality in relationships with one another.

This runs counter to our cultural inclination. We live in a disposable culture. Take the unfolding saga of Jon and Kate Gosselin of Jon & Kate + 8 fame. While it might be easy to join the crowd that is casting stones at them for disposing of their marriage and family. Maybe we ought to consider how we collectively have used up and disposed of them. Their story was entertaining for a while, and as it has taken a turn for the worst, we’ve been content to stand by and crack jokes. Soon, we’ll be on to voyeuristically enjoying some other celebrity’s crisis. When we haven’t invested much in them and when we weren’t realistic about them in the first place (even though they were on a “reality show”), it doesn’t cost us much to dispose of relationships.

We dispose of relationships far too easily. As Bob Dylan once sang, “But to remain as friends you need the time to make amends and stay behind.”

If we dispose of actual community too soon in hopes of finding our dream of community, we will end up never experiencing either. Community is experienced when we know each other well enough to be ourselves. Community is experienced when forgiveness is needed and extended. Community is experienced in the tears of disappointment and recommitment. Community is experienced in the joy and pain of reconciliation.

In Philippians, Paul spoke of the fellowship (relationships) of sharing (resilience) in the suffering (reality) of Jesus. That’s not a dream; that’s how actual community is experienced.


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