• How Tom Wright is Saving Evangelicalism

    Well looky here! A new blog post.

    I realize that I have not been posting here very often , but I am preparing to lead a six-week small group study of The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. (Tom) Wright and I had some thoughts to share.  By the way, I am writing once a month for Missio Alliance, so if you are interested you, can follow me there.

    I am looking forward to leading people through Tom Wright’s new book on the cross. Lent is the perfect season to focus on the cross and, beyond the timing of our study, I believe Tom’s book on the cross is a game changer. I believe it will revolutionize our view of soteriology the way Surprised by Hope revolutionized our view of eschatology. I am not recording our small group study which begins tomorrow night, but I will post my notes on this blog, much like I did when I led a group of people through Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I called that small group “N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul” and it turned into a 100–page book that has humbled me with how it has helped so many people.

    This small group study will be called “N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross” and I will post notes on this blog over the next six weeks. And maybe, just maybe I will turn it into a reader’s guide. We shall see.

    As I was preparing my small group study, I began to realize the significance of Tom’s ministry. (I do call him “Tom,” because not only is he my theological mentor…and bishop!…I consider him a friend, even if we have only exchanged a few emails over the last couple years.) I do not believe there is another theological voice that is more widely heard than Tom Wright. I have friends from lots of different traditions and denominations and I can say quite confidently that no one else writing and lecturing in New Testament studies has more of a predominate voice than Tom. The emergence of N.T. Wright Online has expanded Tom’s influence, giving him an even broader audience access to his teaching.

    What excites me more than anything is that I believe he is saving evangelicalism and his timing could not be better.

    Evangelicalism Needs Saving

    Today the term “evangelical” refers to a voting block in the United States, determined by a very select few issues in the very present “culture wars.” For many evangelicals the title has become polluted and vandalized to the point that many do not want to be labeled “evangelical.” Fine with me. Don’t call yourself an evangelical if you don’t want to, but for those of us who have found a theological and ecclesiastical home in evangelicalism, let’s not throw away our evangelical heritage with values rooted in personal conversion, a high view of Scripture, and the necessity of mission.

    Many of us who have a theological perspective shaped by Tom Wright have been called “post-evangelicals,” but such a designation is not helpful. This label attempts to define what we have left behind, but doesn’t define who we are. Furthermore “post-evangelicalism” has many different expressions including progressives, neo-sacramentalists, neo-Anabaptists, etc. These Christian expressions have cross pollinated and have left outsiders confused. It is not so much that we have left evangelicalism behind, rather we have left behind sectarian fundamentalism, biblicism, and the “religious right,” three ideologies that have overtaken popular expressions of evangelicalism. Indeed these three ideologies are killing us.

    • Sectarian fundamentalism turned conversion into a formulaic experience of “getting saved.”
    • Biblicism turned our high view of Scripture into the impossible task of forcing the beauty of Scripture into a compressed flat text of points and principles.
    • The “religious right” hijacked our mission and led us in the way of constantinism, the faulty attempt to change the world through legislation and partisan politics.

    Evangelicalism is sick and in need of a doctor. I believe Tom Wright may be exactly what we need. Maybe he is saving evangelism or maybe as Alan Bean argues, he is saving Christianity.

    So how is Tom Wright saving Evangelicalism?

    Wright has given us a better eschatology.

    We have suffered too long with a shrunken view of salvation whereby we have wrongly assumed Jesus came to save us in order to take us to heaven when we die. Over the years I have challenged people to show me in the New Testament where Jesus or the Apostles clearly taught such a thing. I have searched and it is simply not there. The thief on the cross was promised to be with Jesus in paradise. Jesus said in his Father’s house there are many mansions. He said he will go and prepare a place for us and we will be with him when he comes again. Lazarus was taken to “Abraham’s bosom,” and Paul mentions to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. I may have missed a few, but these are the brief references to an experience of what we call “life after death,” but what Wright has shown us is that the overwhelming emphasis in the the New Testament is that Jesus came to offer us new life, eternal life, the life of the age to come, which is life after life after death. This new life is a part of God’s new creation project which is not about taking people from heaven to earth, but about bringing heaven to earth whereby heaven and earth will be conjoined once again. Once we adopt this much more biblical view of the end, the rest of our theology begins to change because eschatology is not the caboose at the end of the train. It is the theological engine that drives the entire enterprise.

    Wright has given us a more coherent way to read the story of Scripture.

    God has had one plan to rescue the world. God initiated his plan through Abraham and brought it to its termination point through Jesus. While Christians divide up Scripture into the Old and New Testaments, Wright has argued that this is one continual story that needs to be read together. As we work to understand specific passages of Scripture, Wright has taught us to look at the particulars in light of the whole. In this regard we can see Scripture tells as a five-part story:

    1. Creation
    2. Corruption
    3. Covenant
    4. Christ
    5. New Creation

    God has created the world and all that is within it. He created human beings to reflect his image into his world and reflect back creation’s praise to its creator. Humanity failed to be God’s image-bearers and thus failed to care for God’s good world. The corruption of sin in the forms of idolatry and injustice entered and marred all of creation. God did not give up on his creation project, but sought to set right a world gone wrong beginning with a covenant God made with Abraham. The children of Abraham became Israel, the people of God. They were given the Law to form them into a people of worship and justice, but they too fell under the corruption of idolatry. Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah to bring Israel’s story to full completion. Jesus dies for our sins and is raised from the dead to offer new life to those who would repent and believe this good news. The gathering of those who follow Jesus stand within the broken world as the people of new creation, awaiting the appearing of King Jesus who will come to complete the new creation project.

    Wright has given us a better way to read Paul.

    The Apostle Paul has been read and interpreted in various ways since the Protestant Reformation. Often Paul has been read in a way disconnected from Jesus and disconnected from the story of Israel. Wright has given evangelicals a tremendous gift in giving us a reading of Paul’s epistles that is connected both to Jesus and Israel. Paul was first and foremost a Jewish thinker who wrote using Jewish language, Jewish metaphors, and most importantly Jewish Scripture. When we come across Paul writing about justification, works of the law, righteousness, and other theological terms critical to evangelical theology, we interpret them not in the context of the anxieties and issues of the 16th century, but within their covenant Jewish context. Justification by faith is not so much a right standing with God as it is God’s act of declaring us to be withing God’s righteous covenant family. The larger thing happening in Wright’s interpretation of Paul is that he is connecting together history with theology. All theology is biblical theology and all good biblical theology is historical theology. Wright’s better way of reading Paul has taken us to the triple peaks of monotheism, eschatology, and election, rooting election-language not in the fatalism of a God who predetermines who is saved and who is damned, but a God who gathers a group of people to bring light and salvation to the world.

    Wright has brought together the academy and the church.

    When I was a seminary student at Oral Roberts University in the mid 1990s, the world of academic theology opened up a new world to me and I could not read fast enough to absorb everything I wanted to explore. I spent countless afternoons in the office of Dr. Dorries, our church history professor, wrestling with God’s call for my vocational life. I entered seminary with a desire to enter church ministry as an evangelist or pastor, but my first taste of theology had me thinking about a career as a scholar. Dr. Dorries did his Ph.D. work at the University of Aberdeen and he helped me think through post-graduate studies. At one point I declared a double major, adding a M.A. in Historical Theology, to prepare for Ph.D. studies, but soon after I dropped the second degree. As much as I love the work of the academy, I knew my calling was to serve the church. Wright, as much as any scholar working in the area of New Testament studies, has been able to bring together the academy and the church. He has been able to lecture and write, teach and preach, in both the lecture halls of the some of the most elite universities in the world and in parishes and local churches in the UK and the US. He writes and speaks with the mind of a scholar and the heart of the pastor reminding us we need both. We need scholars and pastors and the academy needs the church, just as much as the church needs the academy.

    Wright has given us a renewed vision of the cross of Christ.

    Throughout his career Tom has gone back and forth from Paul to Jesus and back to Paul. He started with Paul. His Ph.D. was focused on Romans. He has written extensively on the historical Jesus. For me How God Became King maybe his most significant book in that regard, while other may look to The Challenge of Jesus or Simply Jesus. He spent longer than we all expected to finish up Paul and The Faithfulness of God, which people are still trying to digest. And now he has turned his attention to the cross in his latest work How the Revolution Began. He has been dodging the subject of atonement theories for years. I remember reading Trevin Wax’s 2007 blog post “Don’t Tell Me N.T. Wright Denies Penal Substitution,” when I was working on understanding atonement theories myself. Finally Wright has answer the question of atonement is this stunning new book. I believe the cross is central to an evangelical vision of church life and mission and I believe Wright’s vision of the cross will help us move forward from stale fundamentalism into a new era of evangelical life where we know nothing except Christ crucified.

    So what does Wright think about the cross? Follow my blog posts over the next six weeks for a summary of his fascinating book.

    Thanks to Ben Mulford for carefully proofreading the first draft of this blog. 

  • When Death Is So Near: A Spoken Word Poem

    Yesterday I did something impulsively, something I had never done before.

    Let me back up and offer some context…

    My friend Ruthie Johnson wrote a poem yesterday. She is a person of color and lives 5 miles from where Philando Castile was shot. She wrote in response to what she was feeling. She works 3 miles from the gas station where he was shot and she had even stopped there before. This shooting happened in her neighborhood. Her poem was deep and poignant. It was prophetic in that it was words from elsewhere. The more I read her poem, the more I was moved by it. I began to hear this voice inside my head as I read it over and over. It was the voice of a preacher, a spoken word poet, crying out in lament. I felt compelled to record her poem as a spoken word. I have never done anything like this before, but as I said, I felt something calling me (demanding me!) to give voice to the words I was reading.

    A few caveats…

    First, I am no poet and I am the furthest person from hip hop culture. I literally have one Jay-Z song in my music on iTunes. Any weaknesses in my reading should not take away from the brilliance of the poem.

    Second, I am not taking a side in the growing hostility between the Black Lives Matter movement and the police. I equally mourn and pray for the city of Dallas and the police officers who lost their lives. I do not want to add to the hostility. I want to grieve with those who have lost the lives of people they love.

    Third, I do not pretend to understand the pain and struggle of my black neighbors and people of color. I am simply offering this spoken word as a way to say: “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I am a white son of the South who grew up in the suburban Midwest and I am learning to listen and love people who are not like me.

    Finally, in recording this I changed one word of the poem. I did this subconsciously, but chose not to correct it. Near the end of the poem, Ruthie writes: “When death is so near we must repeat.” I say: “When death is so near we must REPENT.” And with this slight change, I encourage you to repent, to turn away from hate, name-calling, scape-goating, discrimination, and suspicion and turn to King Jesus who teaches us to love God and love one another. Jesus died to take away our hate and violence. He rose from the dead to offer us new life.


  • Book Review: How Jesus Saves the World From Us

    How Jesus Saves the World from Us_book image copy

    Morgan Guyton is on a journey.

    He has left behind Christian fundamentalism with its debilitating toxins and has trekked his way through the expanse of God’s wide-open grace. His book How Jesus Saves the World From Us serves, in part, as a chronicle of that journey. He does not presume to have arrived, as many of his humble, self-deprecating stories reveal. He is following Jesus with sincerity and intent and has shared with us what he has gained from his experience. Parts of what he has learned on his journey resonates with my own story. In these sections, I found myself applauding Guyton. In other parts of the book, I found myself scratching my head as I failed, at times, to connect the dots as he offers a better way to live the Christian life than the narrow confines of ugly fundamentalism. A few times I found his anecdotes and illustrations distasteful. In these sections I felt my attention distracted from the richness of the solutions he was offering. In the end, much of the valuable insights in this book are overshadowed by a dualistic, polemical tone that is a toxin of its own kind. It seems this book is an attempt to be prophetic in the Hebrew tradition of prophets. In Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann makes the case that Hebrew prophets both energize and criticize the people of Israel through their acts of prophecy. In the case of How Jesus Saves the Word From Us, Guyton seems to be far too critical and far less energizing in most chapters.

    Strengths of the Book

    Let me back up a few steps and draw out some of the strengths of this book. First, Guyton writes from a Christ-centered and Church-centered perspective. This is a book for the church, for those who are serious about following Jesus and working to support the work of Jesus in building healthy churches. One of the strongest chapters in the book is “Servanthood, Not Leadership.” Guyton writes:

    “When Christian leaders structure their churches around their need to feel important, they are creating cancer in the body of Christ. What would our Christian communities look like if our leaders truly sought to define themselves primarily as servants?”

    He rightly identifies the rampant self-ambition in church leadership and offers a Jesus-model of leading through servanthood. Other chapters have equally strong solutions which will promote church health.

    Second, he consistently draws upon love as the supreme ethic whereby we can identify and remove the toxins in the church. For example, in the chapter entitled “Honor, Not Terror,” he describes the fear of the Lord not in terms being scared of God, but honoring God and honoring the God-image in other people. He uses the story of Huck Finn who goes against his cultural and religious upbringing to show kindness to his friend Jim, the slave, even if such kindness will “send him to hell.” Guyton writes:

    “Fearing God is not being afraid of what God will do to me, but afraid of what I might do to Jesus.”

    This helpful corrective rightly classifies the fear of the Lord as a kind careful respect, locating Jesus in and among the suffering and the oppressed.

    Third, the chapters in this book are written from the vantage point of a life lived in honest pursuit of Christ and his kingdom. Guyton has no pretense in telling his stories, stories of pain and stories of transformation. Never is this transparency more clear than in the story he tells about encountering poverty while on vacation in Mexico. A young five-year old girl in a dirty dress is begging Guyton to buy a doll from her. This encounter wrecked him. This moment was when he claims he “got saved.” Stories like these are raw and honest and lend credibility to many of the solutions Guyton offers the church.

    Weaknesses of the Book

    For all of it’s strengths, I found How Jesus Saves the World From Us riddled with weaknesses which honestly surprised me. First, the book is trapped within a dualist, “us vs. them” paradigm. The overarching theme throughout the book, as captured in the title, is that the church, primarily the evangelical American church, is filled with toxic practices and beliefs hindering the brightness and beauty of the gospel. Guyton argues for solutions to these toxins as way for God to save the world from us and our unhealthy ways. Sadly this dualistic theme (the world against us) undercuts the many helpful solutions Guyton offers because it pits the world against the church, or at least the unhealthy church. The classic Wesleyan vision is of God at work among his people for the sake of the world, and not, as Guyton positions things: God saving the world from his people. This dualism, the world against the people of God, filters into a number of issues dividing progressive and conservative evangelicals.

    For example, in the chapter on “Outsiders, Not Insiders” Guyton argues that Jesus was not a religious “insider,” but that he associated with the “outsiders” (i.e. sinners). He creates a false dichotomy here in that Jesus was both a religious Jew who came as a fulfillment of the Law to be Israel’s Messiah (as an insider) and he was fulfilling Israel’s vocation to bring the light of salvation to the sinful Gentile world (as an outsider). Guyton does rightly advocate for the church to embrace the outsider, but he does so from a dualistic point of view. When speaking of the church’s response to the LGBT community, a sensitive and delicate topic among progressives and conservatives, he creates an unhelpful divide. He confesses that he has “almost given up on trying to argue (that being “queer” isn’t sinful), because it seems like so many insider Christians are so invested in their anti-LGBTQ stance that it’s become their litmus test for Christian identity.” The language here sadly reveals the antagonism between progressives and conservatives causing ongoing disintegration in the conversation in the church on how to best love our LGBT neighbors. If I stand with the great tradition of the church in defining marriage as a sacred, male plus female relationship, which I do, then am I anti-LGBT and against their community? He has already defined Jesus in this chapter as an outsider, which implies I am an insider not only opposing a community of people for their sexual orientation, but I am opposing Jesus. This kind of unhelpful polemic only creates greater divide in the body of Christ. I too do not want to argue with gay-affirming evangelicals, because arguments and debates seldom produce the love Jesus commands of us.

    Second, I found some of Guyton’s anecdotes and illustrations cynical and at times distasteful. I sense that Guyton is attempting to be provocative, but I felt he pushed some metaphors too far. He mentions yelling at his kids, teenage boys who are “horny and incapable of controlling themselves,” a girl who was molested by Bill Gothard, and worship through fasting as an “erotic experience,” an illustration to which he adds the disclaimer: “as icky as that may sound.” Yes it was icky. He should have left that one out. These are examples in just the first three chapters. I found these and other anecdotes distracting me from some of the great points he was making. For example the worship through fasting description is in the context of a larger metaphor for hearts that need to be emptied of clutter more than they need to be cleaned. And while I think this metaphor is a false dichotomy (I think we need both a decluttered heart and a clean heart), it is a helpful way for us to think through the difficult subject of sanctification.

    How Jesus Saves the Word From Us is a mixed bag. There is so much I loved about this book and so much I disliked. In the end I think there are better, more constructive, ways to root out the pathogens in the modern American evangelical church. The ancient Church has given us ways through prayer and conversation to root out those things hindering the work of the gospel. It begins with prayer, contemplative prayer, rising above the harsh dualisms of “good guys” and “bad guys,” “right Christians” and “wrong Christians.” Guyton loves the church and I appreciate his work in calling us to greater faithfulness to the mission of Jesus, but solutions tainted with dualisms fail to bring about their intended cure.

  • Book Review: People to Be Loved by Preston Sprinkle

    people to be lovedI have been anticipating the release of this important and timely book for some time. I have followed the author’s blogs on the subject and listened to him talk about the project for a while now. Understanding how to love our LGBT neighbors is an extremely important topic of discussion for Christians in general, and for evangelical Christians in particular. Preston Sprinkle has gone to great lengths to ground People to Be Loved not only in exegetical and theological research, but also in the real-life stories of LGBT people, stories of people who have suffered insults and isolation or worse throughout their lives. The result of his work is an honest, and at times heart-wrenching, look at what the Bible says about the sexual ethics related to those who have same-sex attraction. The strength of the book is in its ability to challenge people on both sides of the discussion. Far from fueling the culture wars over “gay marriage,” this book has the potential to bring people together in conversation as Sprinkle leads us in taking a fresh look at Scripture.

    rainbowI read the book over a three-week span. One night when I grabbed my copy of People to Be Loved, I saw something sticking out from book like a bookmark. My six year-old had drawn a rainbow and tucked it into the book. I took it as a sign! I finished my reading of the book with hope for the church, not that we will all agree, but that we can find a way forward to love one another despite our differences. Let me be clear: this book is not simply a pragmatic tool on how to carry on a debate about sexual ethics. Rather this book focuses on the Bible, and not merely what the Bible says, but what it means. Sprinkle argues that the debate surrounding homosexuality is not about what the Bible is saying, but what it means, because the Bible is clear in what it says. This claim is a bit over-stated as Sprinkle’s own exegesis shows. What the Bible is saying, the words it uses, is deeply entrenched in layers of cultural meaning requiring much effort to understand the key texts in this discussion. Thankfully Sprinkle has done solid work in grounding key Greek terms like pornia, malakoi, and aresenokoites in their historical context, a context which is debated among scholars. The book is itself a conversation with others who are writing on this topic, those who are also wrestling with Scripture to determine what it means and how it informs how we love and how we live…

    Read my entire review on the Missio Alliance blog here: http://www.missioalliance.org/people-to-be-loved-a-review-of-preston-sprinkles-latest-book/


  • Wendell Berry, “To a Siberian Woodsman”


    Today was a day full of activity…meetings, emails, and phone conversations. The work of a pastor is not a weekend gig and neither is it a 9-5, clock-in/clock-out kind of vocation. I love serving the church, but it requires us to wear a lot of different hats. I do not mutli-task so well and it takes me some time to transition from one task to another.

    In the business of clearing out my inbox today (which I like not to be longer than 10-15 emails) I saw that I had received an email from a friend inviting me to read a poem he had recently come accross from Wendell Berry. I thought that in the fury of that moment a break from email to read a poem may be a perfect idea. So I switched gears. I took off my “office/admin/clearer-of-the-email” hat and put on my thinking cap. I am glad I did.

    The poem I read from Wendell Berry was “TO A SIBERIAN WOODSMAN (after looking at some pictures in a magazine).” Reading it stopped me dead in my tracks. I want you to read it too, but let me offer a few introductory comments.

    First, Wendell Berry may be the sanest man in America. No joke. Wendell Berry is a modern wise-man, a rare American-sage, who speaks with the authority of the aged. Granted he wrote this poem in the late 1960s, but it carries the weight of a societal elder who brings insight and counsel from another world. Berry is a prophet. This is true. He is also a farmer, which offers credentials much more believable than those so-called “prophets” with self-appointed titles, blogs, and  YouTube channels, “prophets” lost in a mixed up sea of conservative politics and a doomsday eschatology.

    Second, this poem is about love and peace and letting go of the idol of nationalism, at least these are some of the themes I drew from the poem. Feel free to draw your own conclusions, but do not read it with too critical of an eye. Do not read it with your defenses up. Do not read it looking for things you disagree with. There is time for critical evaluation, but as with all art, do not start there. Instead start with a mind and heart that is open. Read it multiple times. Remain open until this poem speaks to you and then, if you must, evaluate what you are hearing.

    I have probably said too much (or maybe I have not said enough!). Nevertheless I invite you to read and listen. Perhaps God will grant you ears to hear.

    (after looking at some pictures in a magazine)
    by Wendell Berry

    You lean at ease in your warm house at night after supper,
    listening to your daughter play the accordion. You smile
    with the pleasure of a man confident in his hands, resting
    after a day of long labor in the forest, the cry of the saw
    in your head, and the vision of coming home to rest.
    Your daughter’s face is clear in the joy of hearing
    her own music. Her fingers live on the keys
    like people familiar with the land they were born in.

    You sit at the dinner table late into the night with your son,
    tying the bright flies that will lead you along the forest streams.
    Over you, as your hands work, is the dream of still pools.
    Over you is the dream
    of your silence while the east brightens, birds waking close by
    you in the trees.

    I have thought of you stepping out of your doorway at dawn,
    your son in your tracks.
    You go in under the overarching green branches of the forest
    whose ways, strange to me, are well known to you as the sound
    of your own voice
    or the silence that lies around you now that you have ceased to speak,
    and soon the voice of the stream rises ahead of you,
    and you take the path beside it.
    I have thought of the sun breaking pale through the mists over you
    as you come to the pool where you will fish, and of the mist drifting
    over the water, and of the cast fly resting light on the face of the pool.

    And I am here in Kentucky in the place I have made myself
    in the world. I sit on my porch above the river that flows muddy
    and slow along the feet of the trees. I hear the voices of the wren
    and the yellow-throated warbler whose songs pass near the windows
    and over the roof. In my house my daughter learns the womanhood
    of her mother. My son is at play, pretending to be
    the man he believes I am. I am the outbreathing of this ground.
    My words are its words as the wren’s song is its song.

    Who has invented our enmity? Who has prescribed us
    hatred of each other? Who has armed us against each other
    with the death of the world? Who has appointed me such anger
    that I should desire the burning of your house or the
    destruction of your children?
    Who has appointed such anger to you? Who has set loose the thought
    that we should oppose each other with the ruin of forests and
    rivers, and the silence of the birds?
    Who has said to us that the voices of my land shall be strange
    to you, and the voices of your land strange to me?

    Who has imagined that I would destroy myself in order to destroy you,
    or that I could improve myself by destroying you? Who has imagined
    that your death could be negligible to me now that I have seen
    these pictures of your face?
    Who has imagined that I would not speak familiarly with you,
    or laugh with you, or visit in your house and go to work with
    you in the forest?
    And now one of the ideas of my place will be that you would
    gladly talk and visit and work with me.

    I sit in the shade of the trees of the land I was born in.
    As they are native I am native, and I hold to this place as
    carefully as they hold to it.
    I do not see the national flag flying from the staff of the sycamore,
    or any decree of the government written on the leaves of the walnut,
    nor has the elm bowed before any monuments or sworn the oath of allegiance.
    They have not declared to whom they stand in welcome.

    In the thought of you I imagine myself free of the weapons and
    the official hates that I have borne on my back like a hump,
    and in the thought of myself I imagine you free of weapons and
    official hates,
    so that if we should meet we would not go by each other
    looking at the ground like slaves sullen under their burdens,
    but would stand clear in the gaze of each other.

    There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
    you in silence besides the forest pool.
    There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
    hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
    There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
    dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
    There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
    comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.

  • Teaching Christians to Speak Christian: 12 Essential Words

    Nicene-Constantinopolitan-CreedOne of the things I enjoy about distance running is the time it gives me to think. While on a long run this morning, I began to think about our task of making disciples of the Jesus way. I was thinking these things not because I am employed at a church and the word “Discipleship” appears in my title. I was thinking about these things, because I have been baptized into a community marked with this distinct vocation—to go into all the world and make disciples. On my run, I was specifically thinking of something I read from Stanley Hauerwas. In his new book The Work of Theology, he tackles a number of subjects including the connections between theology and ministry. As a self-proclaimed “high-church Mennonite,” Hauerwas cares deeply, and has written widely, about the importance of the church. Those who have been given the task to lead churches, we who are pastors, ministers, priests, and ordained clergy, are by nature theologically-driven people. Theology is after all what we say and what we think about God. Theology has (or should have) everything to do with our pastoral vocation.

    In the context of the connection between theology and ministry, Hauerwas writes, “one of the essential tasks of the theologian is to teach speech; it is to teach Christians how to speak Christian” (The Work of Theology, 111). I am surprised I had never thought of this idea before. Hauerwas is quite right. A part of my job as pastor and a member of the church Jesus is building includes teaching Christians to speak Christian. Words are important after all. Words have the power to shape the world we live in. We are a storied people in that we are the stories we tell and we are the stories we believe. While it may be theoretically possible to tell a story in images, good stories, well-told stories, are communicated with words. Learning new words give us the capacity to think in new ways, opening up new possibilities. In order to help Christians grow as true disciples, which includes a renewing of the mind, a reshaping of one’s worldview and beginning to think Christianly, we need to teach Christians the essential language of the Christian faith.

    So what are the core words that form the essential Christian vocabulary? I began to compile a list in my mind while running. I couldn’t keep all the words in my head so I grabbed my iPhone and used Siri’s assistance in recording the first couple of words that came to mind. I then took to social media and I asked my friends and followers a simple question: If the task of disciple making includes teaching Christians to speak Christian, then what are 10 words Christians should have in their vocabulary? Here is the master list I complied thanks to the help from my friends online:

    Salvation, Trinity, disciple, faith, hope, love, resurrection, Christ, Lord, Grace, church, surrender, Paschal mystery, relinquishing control, redemption, incarnation, transformation, justification, reconciliation, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, Father, intimacy, Eucharist, servant, Bible, prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace, proper theology, formation, Jesus, fruit, repentance, holy, mercy, ministry, communion, apprentice, humility, covenant faithfulness, baptism, justice, peace, praise, Maranatha, and theodicy. Also mentioned: tithe, transubstantiation, and Shibboleth which were all jokes except “tithe,” that one was half joke/ half serious.

    These words are good, but I want to condense this list down to the essentials. Maybe 10 words is too limiting, so I am going with 12. These are essential words in the Christian vocabulary. There are more words to learn, for sure, but these are the essentials, the big overarching words, every Christian must have in his or her vocabulary.

    1) Jesus
    God’s Son, Israel’s promised Messiah, and the world’s true Lord and Savior; fully God and fully Man

    2) Trinity
    The one God of Christian worship revealed in a holy community persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

    3) Disciple
    A follower of Jesus who learns from him, obeys him, and lives according to his teachings

    4) Church
    The gathering of disciples devoted to worship, community, and justice

    5) Grace
    God’s expression of love in the world to sustain and transform

    6) Salvation
    God’s act of rescuing people from sin and death and bringing them into his covenant family

    7) Humility
    A lowly mind, thinking of other people as more important than yourself

    8) Ministry
    Finding greatness by serving the church and others according to the gifts one has received

    9) Formation
    Becoming like Jesus in thought, character, and action

    10) Forgiveness
    Removing a person from the penalty they deserve to promote healing and wholeness

    11) Love
    Seeking the good and well being of another with heartfelt devotion

    12) Resurrection
    The victory of God in raising Jesus from the dead and our future hope

    My description of each word is not intended to be complete, but to open up conversations about the essential words of our story.


  • Pope Francis before Congress [FULL TEXT]

    Pope_Franis_before_congressLike many people around the country I watched and listened with eager anticipation to Pope Francis’ address to a joint session of congress yesterday. I have followed some of the reaction to his address in the last 24 hours and as with anything touching on the subject of religion, and yes politics, some reactions have been good and some not so good. I encourage you to read the address in its entirety. The Pope speaks with the voice of a prophet, assuming a vocation similar to the Hebrew prophets where he both energizes and criticizes in what he says.

    I am aware we all read and listen from a certain perspective, a certain point of view. My encouragement to you is to try NOT to read it from the perspective of one political ideology or another, whether conservative or liberal. Also try NOT to read it from the perspective of denominational dogma, whether Catholic or Protestant. Instead try to read it from the perspective of Jesus. I am not Roman Catholic, but I believe in one, holy, catholic (meaning “universal”) and apostolic church. I am compelled by this ancient belief to listen to Pope Francis as a brother in Christ. While he does not mention the name “Jesus,” he quotes Jesus and it seems to me his words are filled with the Spirit of Jesus.

    Maybe pray before you read, perhaps you will have ears to hear.



    Mr. Vice-President,

    Mr. Speaker,

    Honorable Members of Congress,

    Dear Friends,

    I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. I would like to think that the reason for this is that I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility.

    Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.

    Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

    Today I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States. Here, together with their representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and –one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society. They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.

    I would also like to enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience, and who seek in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights. I know that many of them are retired, but still active; they keep working to build up this land. I also want to dialogue with all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations, who are not led astray by facile proposals, and who face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults. I wish to dialogue with all of you, and I would like to do so through the historical memory of your people.

    My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.

    I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

    This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that “this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom”. Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.

    All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

    Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.

    The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.

    In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.

    Here I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776). If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.

    Here too I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery fifty years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his “dream” of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of “dreams”. Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.

    In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this.

    Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

    This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

    This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

    In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.

    How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.

    It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (ibid., 3). “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (ibid., 14).

    In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference, I’m sure and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (ibid., 139). “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology” (ibid., 112); “to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power” (ibid., 78); and to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.

    A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a “pointless slaughter”, another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers”. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

    From this perspective of dialogue, I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past. It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 222-223).

    Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.

    Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.

    Four representatives of the American people.

    I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

    In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

    A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

    In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.

    God bless America!

    (Here is a PDF copy of his address if you would like to download it.)

  • My New Book: Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright is Here

    bookcoverI am proud to announce the release of my new book: Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Reader’s Guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God. It is now available in paperback and on Kindle.

    Everyone has heroes. When I was growing up, mine was Michael Jordan. I idolized him. My bedroom was a shrine to his basketball awesomeness. Like Mike. If I could be like Mike. Then I grew up and faced the facts: I wasn’t a very good basketball player. I also grew up in my faith. As a teenager I began to take my faith seriously and my heroes began to change.

    In 2007 I found a new hero and he wasn’t a basketball player. He actually grew up playing rugby.

    I was a young pastor, serving my first church, and I was on a bit of spiritual journey. I needed new heroes and I found one across the pond, a then bishop in the Church of England, Tom Wright or as he is better known in North America, N.T. Wright. He is currently professor of New Testament Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He is, without question in my mind, the most important and influential voice in the Church today. He also writes a lot of books and some of them are pretty big.

    I had a chance to meet him in 2014. He was lecturing at Christ Church Anglican in Kansas City. It was a ticketed event. I found out from one of the organizers that I was the first one to  purchase a ticket after they went on sale. I felt like a 12 year-old girl going to a One Direction concert. After the morning lecture I was able to meet him briefly at a book signing and although I was told he was not taking pictures, I snapped this picture with Tom.


    The book he was signing was Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a two-volume, 1,700-page densely-packed scholarly work on the theology of Paul. Tom has been working on this book for years or as he said in a recent interview, he has been working on Paul his whole adult life. It is a stunning academic accomplishment laying out in footnoted-detail what Paul was saying in his letters and what he was trying to accomplish. It is an important book, but I fear those who need to read it the most will have a tough time plowing through it. I took four months to read it and I ended up nearly 200 pages short. I had to take a break, before finishing it up.

    I have written Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright to make Tom’s work accessible. This book is like a road map to help you navigate through all the twists and turns as Tom works to reconstruct Paul’s world and his worldview, so we can see and understand what Paul has said about God, God’s people, and God’s future. These topics are massively important. Paul didn’t write philosophical discourses full of abstract speculation. He wrote real letters to real churches instructing them in the ways of life because something unbelievable had happened! The God of Israel, who is the God of all creation, had returned to his people and his work of new creation had begun! God has renewed his covenant and was in the process of renewing the minds of his people according to the new things he was doing.

    Paul wrote what he did because new life was springing up all around him and he wanted these small fledgling congregations loyal to King Jesus to begin to think Christianly, because God’s work of new creation is centered in and through his people. I could go on, but I really want you to read my book…and I need your help.

    My book is published by Doctrina Press, which is me. “Doctrina Press” is my own imprint. I have self-published this book, which means I am (among other things) the marketing department. I would love to have your help in promoting the book. Here are some things you can do:

    1. Check out the book on Amazon.com. The book is available in a paperback and Kindle edition.
    2. If you have friends who are interested in N.T. Wright and/or Christian theology, or who are serious students of the Bible, send them a link to the book on Amazon.
    3. Use your social media accounts to direct people to the book.
    4. If you have a chance to read the book, leave an Amazon review.

    I sent a PDF copy of the book to Tom not expecting a reply, but one day later I received a response. For me Tom Wright is a rock star, so getting his response was like getting an email from Bono. He thanked me and congratulated me for “ably summarizing” his big book on Paul. He said he was grateful, which made me happy. He also said that he wished I would have sent him my manuscript before I published it. He would have been happy to clarify some things. Dang! I should have emailed him earlier. He also said he would be “delighted” to meet with me if we were ever in the same part of the world at the same time. I have to find a way to make that happen.

    Anyway…check out the book, tell you friends, and let me know what you think.

  • Radical Authenticity, Sexuality, And Spiritual Transformation

    (One of the reasons I haven’t blogged here very often is because I have been blogging once a month for Missio Alliance. The following blog was first posted on the Missio Alliance blog on November 14, 2014. I thought it would good to post it again in light of the current conversation in the church regarding sexuality and personhood.) 

    authenticity“But God wants me to be happy, right?” As a pastor living in North America in the 21st century, I have been asked this question more than once. Christians conditioned by a me-first (and “me-always”) culture default to this one abiding principle: the universe exists so I may indeed be happy. I am not opposed to happiness per se. It is a product of the work of the Holy Spirit. Happiness, or “joy” if you prefer, is both in Jesus and connected to the mission of Jesus. He said, “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” (John 15:11 NLT). The issue is not whether or not God wants us to be happy, content, joyful people; the issue is how do we define happiness and more importantly, where do we find this happiness?

    The trans-cultural pursuit of what we may call “happiness” is really “wholeness,” becoming complete human beings. We were each created in the image of God, but as a master artist, God has created us uniquely in his image. We are to reflect God’s image into the world and echo back the praise of creation to God, but the ways in which we reflect God’s image will be based on how God has uniquely formed us and how he is re-forming us to be a unique expression of the image of Jesus. This transformation and wholeness allows us to be our true selves and enables us to overcome the internal obstacles to experiencing the happiness we all so desperately long for. Along this track of genuine, Jesus-formed, character transformation the church carries forward the mission of Jesus. Where we get off track is when we exchange the process of spiritual transformation for the acceptance of radical authenticity.

    The mission of Jesus is to redeem and restore God’s good world including humanity, God’s image-bearing creation. God created us to be whole, body and soul, so our true selves could emerge from the rubble of our false selves bent out of shape from the forces of corruption running rampant in God’s world. Radical authenticity is the mistaken task of being true to your self, determining what seems natural to you, and rejecting all outside influences, conventions, and moral knowledge. Being “true to yourself” enthrones the false self and follows the royal decrees of this self calling it “spontaneity,” “freedom,” and “being who I am.”

    N.T. Wright in After You Believe describes radical authenticity as the self-talk that goes like this:

    Be yourself; don’t let anyone else dictate to you; don’t let other people’s systems or phobias cramp your style; be honest about what you’re really feeling and desiring. Get in touch with the bits of yourself you’ve been screening out; make friends with them and be true to them. Anything else will result in a diminishing of your true, unique, wonderful self.

    Wright adds:

    Some people mistake (this way of thinking) for the gospel itself.

    Radical authenticity follows Shakespeare’s axiom: “To thine own self be true,” to which I reply, “Yeah, but what if you are jerk?” This kind of authenticity misunderstands the gospel and sadly misdirects the mission of the church. The gospel does not invite us to look outside to the rules or inside to our authentic selves. The gospel invites us to look to Jesus. We do not find our true selves, our uniquely-created-in-the-image-of-God selves, by looking inward at the false self, but by looking upward to Jesus. In speaking to the crowds following him, Jesus said: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” (Mark 8:34-37 The Message). Jesus wants us to discover our true selves, but it is found in first dethroning the false self with all of it’s wants, wishes, and desires and doing what may in fact be the most unnatural act of all: allowing that self to be crucified and buried, so God can resurrect the true self in a slow methodical process of spiritual transformation.

    Never has this course correction from radical authenticity to spiritual transformation been more urgent than in light of the current cultural discussion regarding sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual ethics. The church has failed in the past when we make conversations regarding sexuality merely a matter following a list of rules: Do this and don’t do that…or do this and try not to do that…or do this and if you do that, don’t tell anybody…or do this and if you do that, confess it privately and try not to do it again. Our sexuality is too complex, too connected to our internal life, to merely manage it by a list of rules. Plus spiritual transformation, as an integral part of the mission of the church, has never been a process of following the rules.

    When it comes to sexuality, radical authenticity has condition people falsely to assume that they must be free to express sexual desires according to the norms established by the false self. They reason: I have these desires. I have this sort of sexual orientation. I would be inauthentic and untrue to myself if I do not seek to fulfill these desires. Within this context, Christians across the spectrum of sexual orientation not only live out of their false self, but worse yet, they assume their identities, their true selves, are primarily tied to their sexuality. We have allowed the worship of Aphrodite to misshape us into people who define ourselves first and foremost by our sexual identity. We should certainly not ignore our sexuality, but we must tear down the altar to Aphrodite and submit our sexuality to a process of spiritual transformation where we can find our true selves with a much more modest view of our sexual identity.

    Spiritual transformation is not looking at the false self as the unblemished picture of who we are supposed to be. Spiritual transformation is the work of the Spirit to conform us into the image of Jesus for the joy of God the Father. We can be happy, joyful people. We can discover our true selves, but we cannot find out who we are supposed to be if we start with the false self. We have to place ourselves, all of ourselves including our sexuality, in the hands of the Holy Spirit and allow him to form us, mold us, change us, to reflect the image of Jesus. This work of transformation not only brings us the happiness we are looking for, but it ultimately brings joy to the heart of God our Father, because the Father loves the Son. As the Father sees the image of the Son being formed in our hearts and lives he exclaims once again: “Behold my son! The one that I love!” Dedicating ourselves to radical transformation as a direct rejection of radical authenticity is the only way forward if we are preserve the mission of the church.


  • Buffalo River Trail Hike (Boxley to Kyles Landing): May 22-24, 2015

    2015-05-22 19.00.20

    The Buffalo River Trail (BRT) is a 36.5 mile hiking trail in Northern Arkansas about an hour or so East of Springdale. The Buffalo River is a National River running 135 miles through Arkansas. It is a popular destination for float trips. There are a lot of trails in this area, but the BRT is considered the best hiking trail in the area and some of the best hiking in the Ozarks. The entire BRT runs from Boxley to Pruitt. We ended up doing just over half of the trail from Boxley to Kyles Landing. My oldest son Wesley and I were hiking this trail for his 16th birthday. We talked about maybe coming back for his 18th birthday and doing a float trip down the river.

    For our hike we used Tim Ernst’s trail guide. It had some good maps and descent descriptions of the trail, but it was written primarily for day hikers. There was no mention of campsites in the guide, making finding a campsite at night a bit of a challenge. While there was an ongoing description of the trail, it was written in paragraph form separate from the map, making it difficult to read and hike at the same time. With that said, we only lost the trail once and found the guide helpful in making our way down the trail.

    DAY 1

    We left St. Jo at 6:40 a.m. in order to get to Springdale, Arkansas by lunch time to eat at where else, but Zaxby’s, our favorite chicken place.

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    We drove another hour and half to Ponca and made it to the Buffalo Outdoor Center (BOC) by 1 p.m. When we dropped into the river valley we lost cell phone signal and never got service again. Grant at the BOC said there is no service along the trail, but that there are courtesy phones at the campgrounds which we would be hiking through and we could get a call out there to the ranger’s station or to the BOC. We dropped off a spare key and signed forms for them to shuttle our car to the end of the trail. We had a good experience at the BOC. As a river and hiking outfitter, they are fully stocked with whatever you need (last minute) for the trail. Their shuttle service is a bit pricey. It works like a valet service. They pick up our car from the trail head, keep it at their facility, and then drop it off at our desired location. After leaving the BOC we drove on to the Boxley trail head and locked up our car. We snapped a quick picture by the first sign and blaze and we were off at 1:30 p.m.

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    We crossed the road (Hwy 21) and immediately had to stop and take off our shoes and socks to cross Smith Creek. Thanks to my brother’s wise advice, I packed my camp shoes which made it easy to cross the creek. To do it again, I would have put on my camp shoes at the trail head and worn them across the road and across the creek. We passed two women who were going the opposite direction and we headed on around a field.

    We began hiking up some small ascents and we were both surprised how thick the undergrowth was. It had been raining pretty steady in the area the last few weeks which meant streams were full, but it also meant undergrowth and grass with high. After walking through a grassy area Wesley starting counting the number of ticks he was knocking off his legs. He was up to three in the first two miles of the hike. At one point the grass was five feet high. No joke. I should have packed my weed eater.

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    We caught a nice bluff view, before walking on a country road for a half mile or so. The trail jetted off the road and back down into the woods. We crossed a few streams along the way. As expected every stream and runoff had water moving. We were able to cross most streams without getting our feet wet for the most part. Some runoffs had rock beds that were slick, but we crossed through with no problems. We took a break at one creek running down the bluff. It has a nice cascading waterfall down it.

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    We crossed Arrington Creek at about the 3-mile mark. It had a nice campsite, but we were wanting to make more miles before making camp. We passed a number of blow downs along the way. Some looked recent. At one blow down over a large, rocky runoff we lost the trail. We looked around for a bit, before we saw a blaze on the other side of the runoff. According to the guide book we were using, the trail is not blazed, which is true…sorta. We did find either a blaze or a wooden sign of some sort anytime there was a sharp turn or intersection on the trail. The signs were helpful.

    We continued to climb up the trail after Arrington Creek and Wesley continued to knock off more ticks. I had to pull three off his legs. By 6 miles in, Wesley already counted 12 ticks. I really regretted not spraying down our gear and clothes with Permethrin. We stopped for a break and Wesley put moleskin on two hot spots on the balls of his feet. They weren’t blisters, but they were getting red and sore. We crossed Dry Creek, which wasn’t dry and then crossed into a private property. When we arrived at Running Creek, we looked for a camping spot, but it looked like the creek and surrounding area was on private property. When we crossed the creek, we found goats!

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    Apparently, whoever owns the land around this area is a goat farmer. We saw two fire rings near the creek, but it looked like those spots were all on private property. Bummer. We hiked back across the creek and looked for trees off the trail to hang our hammocks from. The challenge was to find trees near the creek, off the trail, and NOT on private property. We looked for a while and finally found four trees that would work even through the ground was on an incline. The good thing about hammocks is that you do not need level ground, but a step incline makes for a tough first step in the morning. I set up our hammocks while Wesley gathered fire wood. We were set up in the woods just on the other side of the property line, but still close to the creek.

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    We had finished setting up around 8:30 p.m., just as it was getting dark. We chose a flat spot near the creek to cook supper and build a fire, even though it was on private property. We ate mash potatoes and Turkey sausage bites and Wesley stretched out his pad next to the fire.

    We both went to bed by 10 p.m. I stretched out in my hammock and fell a sleeping listening to the sound of the creek.

    DAY 2

    I woke up at 6:15 a.m. to light rain falling on my tarp. It was a cool morning. I couldn’t see my breath but I shivered a bit as I changed into my hiking clothes. I warmed up as I gathered water and grabbed my food bag. The rain picked up some so I sat on a rock under my tarp as I boiled water for coffee and oatmeal. Breakfast hit the spot. I was ready to hike. I woke Wesley up at 8. We were hiking by 9.

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    We had to cross Running Creek again which meant we had to stop dry our feet and put our socks and shoes back on after crossing the creek in our camp shoes. The trail began to ascend up out of the Running Creek, I am glad I didn’t wear my rain jacket even though it started raining a bit. We began to make some miles in the ran, hiking on a pretty muddy trail. In crossing a draining stream running down the bluff, I stepped stepped too quickly on the slick open rock face and fell on my right side. I fell on my right arm and shoulder with a quick THUD. I hiked nearly 100 miles last year on the AT and didn’t fall once. I am out here two days and I fall in the first 10 miles. Lessons learned. Step slowly on slick rocks. We kept walking and as the rain let up, I shot a quick video.

    We made it to the Ponca landing and saw a number of people with canoes and kayaks getting ready to put in. We thought we might eat lunch there, but there wasn’t a picnic table on anything. This was not a campground, just a landing. The Buffalo River looks like great destination for a float trip. Wesley and I talked about coming back down here with some guys and doing a float trip, maybe for his 18th birthday. We went under the bridge (Hwy 74) and hiked on.

    2015-05-23 12.43.15We made it to the Steel Creek Campground at 12:15 and the sun came out! We set up by the restrooms and laid out our gear dry. We ate lunch and enjoyed the sunshine before heading back down the trail at 1:30.

    The terrain was rocky and steep in places, but we were rewarded with a great view of the river and surrounding bluffs a couples miles outside of The Steel Creek Campground. This was the best view of the hike. Parts of the Buffalo River Trail here in Arkansas reminds me of the Appalachian Trial in Georgia.

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    As we continued to climb, Wesley’s knee began to give him trouble. His knee really started to hurt on the downhill towards Beech Creek. As we were making our biggest climb of the day, a 700 foot ascent over 2 miles towards the Slaty Place, Wesley really started slowing down. The knee along with some pretty bad chaffing began to wear him down. He powered through, refusing to switch packs with me. This section of the hike was really similar to the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT had higher climbs, but the terrain on this section of the Buffalo River Trail was just as steep and rocky as parts of the AT.

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    He was in pain and I knew it, but he continued to say he didn’t want to quit. We talked it out and made the decision to get off the trail at Kyles Landing tomorrow. The only solution for a bum knee and chaffing is rest. So the decision was an easy one. I am in pretty decent shape and I could tell this trail was taking a toll on my feet in legs. It felt like I was getting a blister on the bottom of my right toe, probably from hiking with wet feet most of the day. The descent down from the Slaty Place to Indian Creek was wet and muddy. We made it to Indian Creek at 7:15 and found a great spot to make camp!

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    Wesley collected firewood and I set up the hammocks. A group of hikers we saw at the river overlook hiked joined us at our camping spot. I cooked supper near the fire ring. Ramen and beef jerky were on the menu for tonight. I do not eat Ramen back home, but I crave it on the trail. I talked with the other hikers who were a part of a hiking club in the area. A girl who hiked in after us built the fire. Another one had an interest in the AT. I told stories from my section hike on the AT last year and they had a lot of gear questions. Wesley went to bed a little before 10. I stayed up yawning until about 10:30 p.m. It is hard to pull me away from gear conversations. One of hikers had girl scout cookies, which she shared, and we all enjoyed sitting around the fire, eating cookies, and telling hiking stories. I got into my hammock and was again lulled to sleep by the sound of running water.

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    I slept great last night. Fell asleep fast and only woke up twice. We camped again by a creek with a little waterfall, which made for an excellent backdrop for good sleep. I woke up once to rain hitting my tarp at 4 a.m., but fell back asleep until 6:30. It was light rain so I grabbed my food bag and water and started breakfast. I enjoyed my coffee and oatmeal while listening to the new Mumford and Sons on my phone, all from the comfort of my warm and dry hammock. The rain stopped and our camp started waking up about 8 a.m. It looks like nine of us made camp here last night. Wesley was awake, but stayed in his hammock resting his knee. I walked down to Kyles Landing at about 8:30. It was a short walk as we camped only 1/2 mile from Kyles. I found the courtesy phone that Grant told me about. I called the Buffalo Outdoor Center and they said they would bring the car to Kyles Landing but it may be early afternoon before they could get there.

    2015-05-24 09.56.44I walked back to camp and told Wesley. We decided to lounge around camp and enjoy this creek-side camping spot while the sun tried to peak through the trees. I caught up on blogging and enjoyed the sound of the water and the birds overhead before we packed up and hiked out at 11 a.m.

    We got to the registration area at Kyles Landing where I made the call to the BOC early that morning and there was our car! We changed clothes and drove out. As we got a cell phone signal, I noticed I had a text from my brother saying a big storm was coming through our area. As we drove to Springdale the rain started coming down hard. I did want to hike on today, but I knew we made the right decision. Hiking in the rain with a knee issue and chaffing would have only made those two issues worse. Sometimes you have to listen to your body and make the right decision even if your heart wants to press on.

    All in all it was a great hike. Moments of suffering. Moments of discomfort. But a lot of fun and a memorable experience for Wesley and me.

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