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Mumford_ChurchWe’re talking the idol of politics this weekend for our sermon series, Counterfeit Gods. Politics is often one of the reasons people leave the church.

In doing so, people frequently give me some version of the cliche:

‘I like Jesus just not the Church.’

On first blush that sounds like a defensible statement. After all, organized religion, the institutional Church, is the easiest straw man of them all to beat up. Like most cliches, it can’t hold much more water than that.

What ‘I like Jesus just not the Church’ usually means is ‘I’m tired of the Church and/or other Christians not wanting to think, worship or vote just like me.’

Or, it means the Church is full of hypocrites (translation: the Church is made up of people who are no more perfect and just as sinful as I am). 

And no ever stops to consider that the guys who knew Jesus the best, the disciples, couldn’t like him enough to stick by him when the going got tough. So how in the world could you ever expect to follow him on your own?

I would never, for example, on my own pray for those who speak ill of me, much less try to love them, if I wasn’t called upon to serve the Body and Blood of Christ every week. 

Leaving the Church is often just a way for people to turn the volume down on Jesus.

Without the Church, it’s easier to fit Jesus into your lifestyle or politics rather than conforming your lifestyle or politics to Jesus.

And before you accuse me of making a self-interested, need-people-in-the-pews-to-pay-the-preacher, argument, stop to consider:

No one has a better reason to be cynical, jaded, beat up and exhausted by the limitations of the Church and its sinners than does a pastor. 

Lilian Daniel says this better than me (jealous) in a piece from Relevant Magazine:

It seems to be a growing trend—people who claim to love Jesus but don’t want to call themselves Christians. The latest to stake a claim for not staking a claim is Marcus Mumford, the front man of the wildly popular Mumford & Sons, whose Christian-themed lyrics have been a source of fascination to believers and nonbelievers alike.

In Rolling Stone’s upcoming cover story, Mumford demurred when asked if he considered himself a Christian, as a teaser on the magazine’s website revealed. “I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage,” he said, in terms that many fans will relate to. “So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian.”

IN OUR “HAVE IT YOUR WAY” SPIRITUAL MARKETPLACE, RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY THAT IS RIGOROUS, REASONABLE AND REAL IS STILL THE MOST NUTRITIOUS ITEM ON THE MENU.

Mumford, the son of the U.K. founders of the evangelical Vineyard movement is hardly the first church kid to question or reject the faith tradition he was raised in. In fact, the words he uses to describe himself inRolling Stone will resonate with the fast growing group within Millennial culture—the “nones.” As the Pew Research Center reported last year, 32 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds listed “none” as their religious affiliation.

Mumford’s remarks certainly aren’t a rarity, but they may disappoint the multitude of Christian fans who have seen in Mumford & Sons an intelligent and artistic articulation of their faith.

After all, Marcus Mumford’s faith as evidenced through his music is much like many of ours: his spiritual journey is a “work in progress,” he’s never doubted the existence of God, but he asks nonetheless not to be associated with any religion. “I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity,” he told Rolling Stone.

A cursory glance at Christians in the headlines will tell you why. Why do the looniest Christians get quoted after every natural disaster? Why does the pistol-packing pastor who wants to burn the Koran get all the airtime?

I know what it feels like to want to distance myself from hateful statements made in the name of my faith. If this is all that Christianity is, I don’t want to be associated with it either. But of course, that is not all that Christianity is. And unless some sane people claim the label, the extremist fringes will have the last word.

A few years ago, I grew tired of people claiming to be “spiritual—but not religious,” because I do not believe this is enough. In a culture of narcissism, religious community matters. In our “have it your way” spiritual marketplace, religious community that is rigorous, reasonable and real is still the most nutritious item on the menu.

NO ONE GROUP OF PEOPLE CAN CARRY THE BLAME FOR ALL THE WORST THAT PERVADES SOCIETY. I AM NOT APOLOGIZING FOR A CHURCH I AM NOT A MEMBER OF.

Yet often when I say this, as a minister myself, it is received with howls of complaint from people who want to do the God thing solo.

Their argument goes something like this: I like the idea of Jesus but I can’t stand the Church. Therefore, I want to identify directly with the primary source, Jesus, rather than with the annoyingly fallible human beings who have tried to follow Him but failed.

They describe to me a personal privatized journey free of the sins of the historical Church but with a direct hook-up to the guy who got it all started. What all of this implies, however, is that the person who loves Jesus privately is somehow better at it than those who try to do it with other people.

As Mumford went on to explain about such people who call themselves “Christian,” “I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who He was. Like, you ask a Muslim and they’ll say, ‘Jesus was awesome’—they’re not Christians, but they still love Jesus.”

So, let’s recap. Jesus is awesome. Muslims are awesome for thinking that Jesus is awesome. But Christians? Not so awesome.

When people tell me they can’t stand Christianity, they are usually describing a Church that bears very little resemblance to the open-minded church I serve. They describe judgmental hypocrites who hate people of other faiths and are only after your money. They attribute all the world’s problems to the Church, from sexism to sexual abuse to warfare.

In very few arenas would we tolerate a similar discussion about another group of people. And yet open-minded people listen to such meandering musings with a sympathetic ear, as if they are hearing something wise, brave or original. When in reality, they are hearing something uninformed and insulting.

No one group of people can carry the blame for all the worst that pervades society. We call that stereotyping. I am not apologizing for a church I am not a member of.

Unfortunately, when it comes to all those horrors, the one common denominator is not organized religion, but a more frightening answer: people. It is the presence and participation of human beings. If we could just kick all the people out, we might actually be able to do this Christian community thing.

In a culture of narcissism, the easiest way to follow Jesus is from a distance on a solo stroll to the beat of the same drummer you have listened to your whole life: your own personal preferences and already held beliefs. From a distance, you are safe from the assault of community.

People will explain to me that without the Church, they are traveling light, without all that Christian baggage. But what exactly is this baggage? It’s people—who might actually be some of the best road companions there are.

Certainly, Marcus Mumford got one thing right—the Church is something you enter at your own risk.

Because you might actually bump into humanity there. You might hit up against something you disagree with. You might have to listen to music you don’t like. You might get asked to share your stuff. You might learn from a tradition far older than you, and realize how small you are standing before such a legacy. You might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.

 

60_BobGoff_1139x541_1When I first read this list by Bob Goff in Relevant Magazine, my reaction was: ‘Damn, I don’t follow hardly any of these principles.’

Sometimes Advent can change everything, including your perspective. Reading over this list again while anticipating Emmanuel’s, God with Us, arrival on December 24, I notice that Goff’s guide to an extraordinary life is largely premised on being ‘with’ people as a priority.

And maybe there’s a theological reason this is the key to a good life. After all, if Jesus is true God and true Man then what it means to be authentically human- our true selves as we were created to be- is to be like Jesus. To be most fully alive is to be the sort of person who makes being with others more important than anything else.

That is, is it not, the priority God makes at Christmas. To be God with us. Indeed, as Barth says, God decides not to be God without us.

———————-

When Bob Goff answers the phone, it’s a bit of a shock. It shouldn’t be. His phone number is one of the world’s most easily accessible—available at any bookstore in the country. He printed it in the back of Love Does, his best-selling collection of stories about a few ways he’s managed to turn each day into a “hilarious, whimsical, meaningful change to make faith simple and real.” As you dial the number, you might expect a hotline, or a secretary, or at least a voicemail. But you’ll get no such thing. Call the phone number, and you’ll be greeted with, “This is Bob Goff!”

If it’s possible for someone to become famous for no other reason than that he loves genuinely and lives fully, then Goff has done it. He’s a lawyer in Washington. He’s the Ugandan honorary consul to the U.S. He’s a professor at Pepperdine Law School and Point Loma Nazarene University. He’s the founder of Restore International, which serves underprivileged children in Uganda and India. His endless supply of stories charm, his overseas work inspires and his demeanor encourages—but the most truly fascinating thing about Bob Goff is Bob Goff.

Somehow, using the same 24 hours in a day the rest of us have, Goff has crafted an extraordinary life of adventure, joy and love. It’s an appealing prospect for anyone, and we wondered: What are his secrets? And: Will he share them?

The answer, as with most things in Goff’s life, was an emphatic yes.

1. Don’t Let Anyone Go to Voicemail

“We get really busy,” Goff says. “But the less time Jesus had on earth, the more available He became to people.”

So when Goff put his phone number in the back of Love Does, he made the promise to himself to answer every call—regardless of whether or not he knew who it was. There are practical limits to this, of course. “I don’t feel guilty if I’m on the other line, or on a plane,” he says. But from where Goff sits, Jesus wouldn’t have ignored many phone calls. So neither does he. “If I get a call, I answer it,” he says. “And it’s been terrific!

“There’s a God we can talk to anytime, anywhere, about anything, and I’m so glad He doesn’t screen my calls—because I don’t have anything that’s particularly interesting to say. And I’m understanding that better because I’m available to people.”

2. Don’t Make Appointments

Goff says, “When someone calls me and says, ‘Can we meet two Tuesdays from now at 3 p.m.?’ I say, ‘How about now?’ If you call me two Tuesdays from now at 3, I’ll probably say the same thing.”

That’s right. As implausible as it sounds, Bob Goff, lawyer and Ugandan consulate, doesn’t set appointents.

The benefit of this thinking becomes evident even now—he is, as we speak, driving home from an impromptu meeting with a young man who needed to talk.

“Guess what!” he says, laughing. “I didn’t have any appointments that I needed to cancel … I’ve got all the time in the world because I don’t have any appointments.”

Goff insists when your life is appointment-free, your time is at the service of others instead of your personal demands. Plus, you become a different person when you structure your life around others’ needs.

“Can you imagine a lawyer who doesn’t make appointments?” Goff asks, recognizing the absurdity of it. “But it’s been great.”

3. Be Incredibly Inefficient at Love

“Don’t do an efficient brand of love,” Goff says.

Then he does what he does best—launches into a story without missing a beat.

“The woman who lives across the street from us has cancer. She called me up and told me the bad news, and I told her, ‘I’m not going to call you ever again.’ She’s like, ‘What?’

“I went to Radio Shack and got us two walkie-talkies, and it was terrific. For the last year, we’ve been talking on walkie-talkies every night. It’s like we’re both 14-year-olds and we’re both in tree forts.

“She took a turn for the worse about four days ago, so this morning, I woke up about 5, and I went to the hospital. I sent the nurse in with a walkie-talkie, and I sat in the next room and called her up. I heard her just start crying—because there’s something inefficient and beautiful about it. We were sitting in a hospital, separated by a room, talking on walkie-talkies.”

Here he breaks off and seems choked up for a moment.

Then he continues. “Be inefficient with your love. The more in-efficient, the better. It would have been a lot more efficient for God to not send Jesus to die for us. That was very inefficient love. But so sweet and so tender.”

4. Don’t Have a Bible Study

When it comes to Bible studies, Goff says simply, “I’m done. I’ve got all the information I need.”

But this doesn’t leave the Bible out of his daily routine. To the contrary, he’s upped the ante.

“I’ve met with the same guys every Friday who I’ve been meeting with for a decade,” he says. “And we have a Bible Doing.”

The idea, Goff says, is basically that memorization is only effective if it motivates you to action. It’s great when believers meet together to internalize the Bible, but why not externalize it as well?

Goff is likewise unconventional in his approach to a morning quiet time. “I can’t do them,” he says. “I think I got sent to the principal too much when I was a kid.”

“Instead, I take Scripture, I let it wash over me, and I say, ‘What do I really think about this?’” Then he shares his reflections by sending out a morning tweet.

This morning habit helps his day start on the right foot in front of God and everyone else. “It helps me dwell in Christ,” he says. “But it also helps me not be a pill midday. I can’t send a beautiful tweet in the morning and then be a pill.”

5. Quit Stuff

“Every Thursday, I quit something,” Goff says. It’s one of his more infamous habits, one that he follows faithfully—and, often, dramatically. He’s been known to break apartment leases, throw out furniture and quit jobs. “You can quit cussing if you want,” he says, “but go a little higher up on the tree. It can be something really good.”

His most recent Thursday resignation was from the board of a prominent charity. “I called the guy that runs it up and said, ‘I’m out!’ And he said, ‘How come?’ And then he paused and said, ‘No! Thursday!’”

The idea is not to be a liability to charitable organizations (although that might be part of the fallout). It’s to give yourself room to grow and to give God room to work. The patterns of life can weigh down and hold back. Quitting things forces you forward to explore new opportunities, to try things you wouldn’t have time for otherwise and to fill your life with things that are fresh, different
and dangerous.

6. Do What You’re Made to Do

In today’s functional culture, the common question is, “What am I able to do?” People take tests to determine skill sets and aptitude and then march off to pursue a career based on the results.

But Goff says the better question is, “What am I made to do?” He goes on to say, “It’s as simple as asking, ‘What are the things you think are beautiful? And you want in your life?’ … And then there’s other stuff you stink at, and they cause you a bunch of stress. I just try and do more of the first and less of the second.”

7. Get More Unschooled, Ordinary Friends

For most people, friendship is accidental. You see someone often enough, find a few common interests, hang out and strike up an easy friendship. New friends probably come from the people you work with or go to church with. The childhood idea of “making friends,” a proactive pursuit, has been replaced with the idea of “letting friends happen.”

Goff suggests making friendship intentional and, moreover, risky. Because sometimes you can learn more from friends who stand just left of center than those with whom you share everything in common.

One of Goff’s dearest friendships began with a simple thank you, for example.

“They call me Mr. G at the airport, because I’m there just about every day,” Goff says. And before every flight, the same TSA security guard—Adrian—checked Goff’s ID. After a few months of this, Goff decided to extend his appreciation.

“You start every day for me,” he recalls telling Adrian. “When I think of you, I think of God. You’re so tender and kind to everybody!”

And just like that, the diminutive security guard put his arms around Goff and held him, in front of a line of waiting passengers. “It started this terrific friendship,” Goff says. “We spent the next six Christmases together with his family at our house.”

Adrian tragically passed away last summer, but not before coming to Jesus. “And now, when I think of heaven,” Goff says, “I don’t think of St. Peter. I think of a guy like Adrian, who’s checking IDs. And all of that came because I decided to get more unschooled, ordinary friends.”

8. Jump the Tracks

Goff spends most Wednesday mornings at Disneyland, prepping to teach his courses at Pepperdine University. From his vantage point on Tom Sawyer Island, he watches hundreds of park visitors board the monorail, content to be whisked wherever the train takes them.

And their park experience, says Goff, suffers because of it. The real adventure, both in Disneyland and in life, is when you venture outside the fixed loop.

But Goff is quick to point out there’s a difference between fighting the system and choosing to explore new paths outside the system. He says everyone should be jumping more tracks: “Not with a militancy. Not with a black arm band around your arm, just saying what you’re against. But with a resolve.”

And what can you expect to find off the beaten path? Adventure, and good company. “I’ll know more about my character, and I’ll know more about Jesus,” he says. “I’ll meet a lot of cool people.”

9. Crowd-Surf Each Other

At a speaking event, Goff met a man who had just received word that his 8-year-old son had been diagnosed with leukemia. Someone suggested everyone lay hands on him and pray for healing.

“That means the four dudes next to him put hands on him, and the guy in row 50 is really just putting hands on the guy in row 49,” he says.

Not satisfied with this set-up, Goff called out, just as the group was bowing their heads, “Let’s crowd surf this guy.”

So the man was passed up and down the rows of the auditorium. “That’s the picture that’s etched in my mind,” he says. “This man in agony and delight.”

Goff, who is big on physical touch, doesn’t shake hands. “If we say we’re the body of Christ, let’s act like it,” he says. “Let’s stop treating this faith thing like it’s a business trip. I want us to treat it like it’s a family. Family picks up the phone. Family surfs each other. Family hugs each other.”

Goff’s personal policy is to hug whoever he meets. It doesn’t suit everyone’s comfort zone, but he says it’s part of his identity as a believer. And the benefit of breaking through these bubbles of security is being opened up to a deeper understanding of community.

“I’m the big winner,” Goff insists, on crowd-surfing others. “I understand more about my faith and the idea of being a body.”

10. Take the Next Step

Many people are passionate but often have no idea how to get where they want to end up. Goff says you don’t really have to. You just have to start.

“If I could do this Jedi move over a lot of people, I’d just tell them to take the next step,” he says. “And then the next step. You don’t know all the steps, but most people know the next step.”
And even if not, Goff says that’s no excuse. “I’m not that freaked out about knowing what the next step is. Because I know that if I trip, I’ll fall forward. I’ll be moving toward the next thing.”

I get calls all the time to my office from people shaking me down for money. Admittedly some of the calls are from people with a legitimate, sudden need where the church can be a helpful one-time help. However, working as a prison chaplain made me pretty good at recognizing a hustle.

On those days, when I decline to help the caller and instead direct them to one of our partner agencies in the community who are in a better position to assess their needs and route them through county services, it’s not uncommon for my refusal to help to be met by an angry rant about me being a Christian/pastor and I’m obligated to help everyone.

To which I sometimes reply (but always think): Jesus didn’t help everyone.

And he didn’t. Indeed for many an encounter with Jesus seemed to ruin their life not make it better (see: Young Man, Rich).

It can be shocking for readers of the Gospels to realize, perhaps after reading them straight through, that Jesus didn’t offer a miracle to everyone who needed one. He didn’t heal everyone who crossed his path.

His path to the cross was more important. 

That the previous sentence will strike many of you as callous/conservative/dogmatic is revealing. I mean isn’t it telling that in many United Methodist churches the terms ‘mission’ and ‘outreach’ refer exclusively to works of mercy for the poor and refer not at all to professing our core conviction?

Richard Stearns’ is correct that oftentimes our definition of the Gospel has a ‘hole’ in it, yet the Gospel is still a bigger piece of our calling than is the hole.

I think we often lose sight (and I count myself guilty here too) that we serve the poor not because it’s a good thing to do (the Red Cross takes care of that), and not because Jesus told us to and we feel obligated (that would make us just as joyless and duty-bound as Pharisees).

We empty ourselves on behalf of the poor as an expression of our worship of the one who made himself poor so we might become rich. In turn, because Jesus made himself poor we serve the poor with eyes expecting to find him among the poor-who accordingly are actually rich- thus, engaging the poor, is no different than bible study. It’s how we grow more deeply in Christ.

Because mission and service are means of discipleship for us, it’s all the more important that how we engage those ministries reflects and is consonant with our confession about Jesus Christ.

Here’s how a post from Relevant Magazine puts it:

Christianity is about self-sacrifice, but if it’s not for the purpose and glory of Jesus, there really isn’t a point. We would love to tell others we believe it’s all about Jesus. Yet, our actions say we don’t. It’s obvious in how we give. We often give without researching the organizations we’re helping. And when we do research, our focus is often fiscal—what does my dollar accomplish?—not on Christ-inspired outcomes. We must ask, “How are lives being changed?”

For Jesus, the most important outcome possible is the glory of God. When on earth, He profoundly understood that everything should serve this purpose. He also understood that the connection to God’s glory came through His work on the cross, as the savior for God’s people. When we realize this, Jesus’ reasoning for allowing a woman to spend an entire expensive perfume flask on Him makes sense. Those around Jesus scold the woman, because the perfume could have been sold to help the poor. Jesus rebukes them, saying, “For the poor you always have with you, and you can do good for them whenever you want, but you do not always have me” (Mark 14:7). Jesus is foremost.

This is not to say that justice and mercy cannot be brought through non-Christian organizations, because it certainly can. Life change does that; life change also involving the good news of Jesus, though, is even better.

Click here to read the rest of Relevant’s Post.