Via Negativa

I first heard of via negativa, the way of subtraction, in a college religion class. At the time I thought it was an antiquated form of philosophy/theology that really didn’t have a place in the modern world. The idea of figuring out who God is by stating what He is not seemed overly tedious – just tell me who He is! Age, it seems, has brought a small measure of wisdom – I now understand how powerful via negativa can be.

I was turned back on to this concept reading the book “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (a book I highly recommend if your brain is screaming for a rigorous think). Via negativa is not just a way of knowing God, it is a way of living life. 

The crux of the argument is this – life can be enhanced more from subtraction than by addition.

This has been the way Christians have lived for centuries (millennia?). Fasting, depriving oneself of food, is necessary for optimal health. Charity, giving away money and possessions, frees us from slavery to Mammon. Solitude helps you appreciate company. Silence allows you to take in the power of words. The vast majority of Christian Disciplines sprout from this way of subtraction as a way of embracing a fuller, more meaningful life.

Another kind of example might be helpful. I believe the default setting of every human being is joy. Why, then, are we so consumed with “the pursuit of happiness?” Because we have so many sources of unhappiness in our lives (bosses, morning/evening commutes, email, solicitors, malls, the evening news). I bet that getting rid of what makes you unhappy will result in a net gain of happiness far more than doing something that “makes you happy” and keeping the rest. Less is more in many cases.

Or take the story of the pope asking Michelangelo about how he carved the statue “David” from a huge block of marble. Michelangelo’s response? “I simply took away what wasn’t David.” I wonder, sometimes, if that isn’t God’s process with us? 

Anyhow, I’ve been really captivated with this way of looking at things and I thought I’d share. I hope it sparks some thoughts in you as well. Have a great weekend!


Tiers of Gifting

This post was inspired by an email I got asking if someone had a particular spiritual gift. I don’t recall ever writing about spiritual gifts, so here we go. 🙂

There are a wide variety of gifts and abilities given to Believers by the Holy Spirit. Some of the gifts listed in the Bible are: healing, miracles, prophecy, helps, administration, pastoring and teaching, though I believe there are also many more.

All gifts (with the exception of tongues/prayer language) are intended to benefit and build up the Body.

I tend to think of gifts in three levels, or tiers:

Tier One: Ability
Holy Spirit is the source of all the gifts and lives inside of every Christian. I believe this means that all gifts are available to all Christians. Said differently, every Christian has the potential to operate in every gift. Indeed, the purpose of Church leadership is to equip the Saints for the work of ministry – to help develop these gifts and abilities within the whole congregation so that they don’t bottle neck with a select few.

Tier Two: Gift
I define gifting as being used by The Lord repeatedly for a specific task or function. If God likes to use you in a particular way, I say you have the “gift.” Gifts are usually more pronounced than Abilities, though probably because of practice. People with gifts usually don’t recognize it; they have become so comfortable doing something (helping, administrating, healing, etc.) that they gift seems like an expression of their character. We all have different gifts. Someone may repeatedly be used to prophesy, but that doesn’t exclude them from needing to evangelize, help or offer hospitality. The Body is not intended to be a highly specialized organism – it is full of beneficial redundancies.

Tier Three: Office
When someone’s gift is developed to a high degree and is very powerful, that person gets recognition from the Body of Christ – locally, regionally, nationally, or even internationally. At this point, that person is considered to be “in office.” We generally restrict the title “office” to the five-fold ministry talked about in Ephesians (Apostle, Prophet, Pastor, Teacher, Evangelist), but I think that is a narrow view. Furthermore, I think the “gift” of the five-fold ministry is the person and their worldview, not their abilities. Anyhow, whenever someone’s gift is exceptionally strong and starts to influence other people, that person becomes responsible for how they use their gift to help others grow into Christ – in other words, they become a leader and are held to a higher standard in terms of character, doctrine and lifestyle.

There is obviously much more to say on this subject, but this is a good start. To recap:
* Every believer has the potential to operate in any of the gifts of the Spirit
* If you find God repeatedly using you in a certain way to bless and encourage others, you are gifted in that area.
* If your gift is so highly developed that you start getting corporate recognition from the Body (locally, regionally, etc.) and have the ability to influence people, you are considered to have an office.

As always, thanks for reading.

What I Meant to Say: Mother’s Day

Yesterday was a fun day – I’m glad we got to celebrate the women of our congregation the way that we did. You’re all wonderful!

A brief recap of yesterday’s message:

* It wasn’t an accident that God chose Mother’s Day, 1979 to birth a new move of the Spirit that we now call the Vineyard. God’s Spirit is attractive and tremendously effective at bringing people to Christ, but God wants to make sure these converts are brought into a family, not left as orphans with an instruction manual.

* Women carry the Presence of God in a special way. We see that with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and in Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection. Women are an essential part of God’s plan to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” And they aren’t relegated to “just” the multiply part. 🙂

* We saw that, at the end of his life, Paul’s primary concern was for his spiritual son to grow, mature and step into his calling. For all the work Paul did, all the churches he planted and letters he wrote, when push came to shove, Timothy was forefront on his mind. I think that is a tremendously powerful lesson. Are we taking our role as spiritual Fathers and Mothers seriously and pouring into the next generation? If not, we may need to rethink our priorities.

* We have amazing women in our congregation. I took the time to honor a few by name, but that list wasn’t exhaustive by any means. I’m really thankful to have such wonderful women in my life – thank you for being who you are, you inspire me to be more than I am.

I realize I didn’t say that as concisely yesterday as I did here, but this is what I meant to say. I think you guys are great. I love being your pastor!

Happy (belated) Mother’s Day to you all!


Learning About Love

Love is a concept/experience/lifestyle that is central to understanding the Gospel. “For God so loved the world…” “Love the LORD your God…” “They’ll know you’re my disciples is you love one another…” For all the talk of love in the Bible (at least 686 mentions) I don’t feel I understand it very well – particularly not God’s love for me.

I get Jesus as King, that makes sense to me and I could preach it all day. But Jesus as Bridegroom, Jesus as Lover? I feel like a fish trying to climb a tree.

My initial reaction to the unknown is to study. I thought, I’m going to look up every verse on love, study the context and implications and learn how to love God and people. And God, in His infinite gentleness reminded me that I can know why something is and still not know what it is.

For instance, I could give you a lecture on the Aurora Borealis. I could tell you what the name means, the detailed scientific explanation of how the electrically charged particles from the sun interact with the Earth’s magnetic field to create the various hues of color. You would have an in depth understanding of why this event occurs. But I would argue you don’t know what the Northern Lights really are until you’ve stood on a frosty plain in the middle of the night and seen this cascade of colors transform a barren landscape into an ethereal paradise. There would be a gap between your understanding and your experience.

That is how it is with me and the love of God. Cognitavely, I get it, but I feel like I still haven’t surrendered myself to the full experience. And to continue in this vein of honesty, I’m not really sure how to.

When I was 11, I had a tremendous encounter with God that changed the course of my life. A camp counselor had prayed for me and Holy Spirit decided to stop by for a visit. Without expectation or warning, I was suddenly in the midst of an encounter with the love of God. I remember weeping openly, totally undone. I was so transformed that I committed myself to serving God from that time forward. I feel like I’ve been chasing that encounter and looking for the Presence of God ever since.

I’m aware of the fact that I’m trying too hard and I need to let this love just happen, like I did when I was 11. Unfortunately, that is much harder said than done. If anyone has any tips on how you connect with God and feel His love, I would appreciate hearing from you. Have a great weekend everyone!

Reclaiming Outrage and Indignation

I’ll admit that outraged and indignant aren’t usually the first words that come to mind when I think of Jesus – not even the second, third or fourth. Though I know it isn’t accurate, I still tend to think of Jesus as the long-haired hippy of my youth, sitting with children in a field of flowers and teaching everyone to be nice. And then I read the Bible and see that Jesus is a multifaceted and complex person, not so easily written off by sentimental Hallmark cards.

Indignation is defined as “anger or annoyance provoked by what is perceived as unfair treatment.” Outrage is indignation on Red Bull. It is a little easier to see Jesus’s indignation with that definition in mind.

Remember the man with leprosy who said to Jesus, “If you’re willing, you can make me clean”? Jesus was indignant and said, “I am willing! Be clean!” Some translations says that Jesus was moved with compassion. I’d like to suggest that the two ought to be the same thing of a Christian. Perceiving injustice and unfair treatment ought to provoke something within us, fill us with compassion and cause us to take action.

I could go on. There was a man with a shriveled hand, a women whose back was bent in half, the money changers perpetuating a system of religious slavery… Jesus very impolitely upset the apple cart in each instance. He was not overly concerned with public opinion or what would be good for business. He was zealous and passionate, outraged by man’s injustice to man.

How many Christian men do you know that could walk into, say, a football stadium and drive out all the vendors and instill such fear into the security guards that they do nothing but stand on the sideline? That is what Jesus did in the Temple. I used to think that was a shabby illustration, until I learned how many children are sold or traded in the sex slave industry at sporting events, and Iowa is at the crossroads of the nation, smack dab in the middle of it.

My intent isn’t to stir up a lot of machismo within the Church. My hope is to elevate us to a greater level of awareness and action. I’m tired of being in the camp of limp and powerless Christianity. I want to burn for something… and that something is the Kingdom of God.

I’ve been reading a lot about vaccinations lately. As many of you know, the idea behind vaccines is to administer a sub-clinical dose of something so that the body will build a resistance and immunity, a process known as hormesis. I fear that the Western Church has been vaccinated against agape, love in action. We’ve built up such immunity to the Gospel message of a God of Justice that we’ve settled for a definition of agape as loving inaction. James would be pissed.

We suffer from chronic, low grade outrage in the West. Taxes, bills, road rage, email, and hectic schedules all contribute to our sense of entitelment. We’re “outraged” when there isn’t a parking spot close to the door, “so mad” that our neighbor’s dog pooped in our yard – come on folks, can we care about something important?

What about the fact that 1.2 million children are aborted in the U.S. alone every year? That is the equivilent of 333 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings happening every day of the school year. What about the fact that there are now more slaves in the world today than ever before in history? What about the fact that the most prosperous nation in history is also the most indebted, has the most incarcerated citizens and has hungry and homeless people dying in its streets every day?

And we’re concerned there might not be enough Tickle Me Elmos to go around?

I realize that some people might misconstrue my ideas of outrage and indignation for self-righteousness, a ‘savior of the world’ mentality. I assure you, I have no such delusions of grandeur. This world is a sinking ship, no matter what I do, or we do, we aren’t going to create the Kingdom of Heaven on the earth through our own efforts – only Jesus can do that.

I love the idea of transforming cities and discipling nations – that energizes me and gets my blood pumping. But it is naive and unbiblical to think that we are going to make the world a progressively better place until Jesus says “I guess they did it without me, might as well go back.” Not very “saviorish”. But that doesn’t mean we give up, huddle up and let the enemy continue to ravage the world around us. We fight, we make a difference one by one.

I think the Starfish Story illustrates this perfectly:

A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?,” he asks.

“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

“But, old man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”

The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.”

“It made a difference to that one.” In the case of evangelism and salvation, it makes an eternal difference. Do we give up and call it vanity knowing we can’t save everyone and that this world is going to turn to ash? Not at all. The Kingdom we inherit is eternal, unshakable and only going to be revealed in its fullness at the end of the Age. Then we will see the impact of all the hours we spent throwing starfish back into the sea.

We can’t lose – the cross, death and resurrection of Christ assures us victory. Our task now is to prove our faithfulness and the quality of our character, not to God, but to ourselves. Will we hold on to our integrity when no one else is watching? Will we give ourselves wholeheartedly to the work of the Kingdom since we’ve accepted the promise of so great a reward?

I hope so. I want us to be the miraculous burning bush for all the world to see. It isn’t surprising to see trees spontaneously combust in the dry and brittle climate of the desert. But it is surprising to see one burn and burn and burn, longer than is right or that naturally makes sense. Anyone can burn with love for Jesus, passion for Justice or righteous indignation for a couple weeks or months, but I want to burn for decades. I want to more vigorously follow Christ at the end of my life than I do right now. I am hungry for my inheritance.

John Wesley is attributed with saying, “Set yourself on fire and people will come for miles to watch you burn.” That may be true, but I’d rather spark something in them. I don’t want spectators, I want a community of torches.

Will you burn with me?

Open Doors VS Green Lights

I’ve gotten a little worried lately about how much “open door” theology is going on these days. It’s almost like my pastoral spider-sense is going off, alerting me to danger that I can’t yet see. I’ll try to articulate my feelings as best I can, but I think of this as a work in progress, rather than my definitive thoughts on the subject.

Open Door Theology (as I call it) is the idea that, if an option becomes available, it must be God’s will for you to walk into it. The idea is taken from Paul’s writings about God “opening the door” for effective ministry and evangelism (Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3) and Jesus’s remarks in Revelation about being able to open doors no one can shut (Revelation 3:8). As far as it goes, Open Door Theology isn’t wrong, but it can be misleading.

In a terribly poignant case, I once had a (currently married) woman tell me that God was opening the door for her to be with another (currently married) man. I love this woman deeply, but God doesn’t open doors for people to commit adultery or get divorced. I realize that is an extreme example, but “God opening a door” is the phrase people are starting to use to justify doing whatever it is they want to do.

So, how do you know if it is God opening a door, random chance or the enemy trying to distract you? A couple things come to mind.

1) God won’t command you to do something expressly forbidden in Scripture. While I believe in continued revelation, the days of God giving Peter a vision and commanding him to eat unclean food are over. Your personal revelation does not trump Scripture. If you believe it does, that is on you – the community and leadership cannot support actions that violate the most basic premises of Scripture.

2) In Revelation 3:8, Jesus says about himself “What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. If Jesus has opened a door for you, it cannot be shut – not by time, not by other people, not even by you. This has two consequences:

a) There isn’t any rush. If the door is open, it is open, and isn’t going to close any time soon. I certainly believe in timing, you might have to wait to walk through a door for awhile, but there shouldn’t be any pressure to make a decision immidiately. Hasty decisions are usually prompted by fear, anxiety, self-promotion or greed. None of those have the finger prints of God on them.

b) Try closing that door. If you really want to know if an opportunity is of God, try messing with it. Does God really want you to take that promotion that will move you and your family to another city? Maybe. It might also be your own desire for advancement. Has God called you to a long term assignment in your area? Is this promotion in accordance with your purpose and vision in life? Question, poke, prod. God has amazing ways of confirming His word. Trust more in God’s ability to lead you than in your ability to miss it.

3) God primarily opens doors for those too weak to open them for themselves. Continued reading in Revelation 3 shows that God opened a door no one could shut for the persecuted church of Philidelphia, who had little strength. When everyone else was against them, God was for them and made a way. If you aren’t currently being persecuted, the open doors you encounter are probably neutral opportunities rather than God’s will.

Which brings us to the second idea I’d like to discuss, Green Lights.

I live with the assumption that all the lights in my life are green because I’ve been commissioned to “Go”. As I continue to walk out my call and vocation, I’m starting to narrow down on the things I’m supposed to focus on. I have lots of open doors, but only a few of them are going to take me where I want to go.

I view most opportunities as neutral – simply opportunities that have come because of my choices, gift mix, favor with man, or chance. I rarely ask the question “Which one is God’s will?” I rather ask, “Will this help me accomplish my purpose on the earth?”

I could easily make more money working in the marketplace than in ministry, but more money doesn’t help me fulfill my call of leading and loving God’s people. I could easily step out of ministry to pursue full time writing, but I don’t want to write about good theories, I want to write about what actually works in congregational life.

The primary difference I see between Open Doors and Green Lights is where the power lies. People living out of an open door, or red light, mindset are powerless people at the mercy of circumstances and situations. They don’t believe they have the power to act or initiate, so they wait for “God’s will”. People living out of a Green Light mindset are powerful people. They believe they have been commissioned to “Go and make decisions” I mean “disciples.”

Green Light people have a totally different outlook on life. They realize they have an abundance of choices, but that only a few are going to lead to a fulfilled and satisfying life. Green Light people say “no” to lots of good things so that they can say “yes!” to the best. Green Light people exercise their free will and the fruit of the Spirit known as “self-control.” Isn’t it fascinating that relationship with God is supposed to result in you being able to govern your own self better, rather than make you dependent on Him to control you?

Discerning God’s will for your life isn’t supposed to be complicated. Do the things He has expressly told you to do in Scripture (heal the sick, feed the hungry, etc.) and that He has revealed to you about how you’re made (to be a doctor or a techer, to make music or create art) and don’t worry about the rest. God’s also given you desires and a free will. Act on them. He is a Good Shepherd, a Perfect Leader, He will let you know if He wants you to do something else or in addition.

What do you guys think? Anything I missed? How do you navigate the open doors you face in life?

As always, thanks for reading.


What I Meant to Say: The Message That Set the World on Fire

You can find the whole message from yesterday’s service on our website under The Story.

Yesterday’s message was on how Paul’s Gospel transformed the communities and cultures where he preached. His Gospel of Jesus as the Resurrected and Returning King transformed the world. His radical inclusion of the Gentiles and his insistence on salvation by grace through faith laid the foundation for Christianity as we know it. But Paul wasn’t responsible for the rapid growth and power of Christianity in the Roman Empire, the Church was.

Paul planted communities of grace strategically. He often chose the largest city in a province to work in and then, having established a sizable congregation, he would leave – moving on to plant another congregation in another city in another province. The Church would then continue on with the things they had been taught – living out with conviction and power their new life as sons and daughters of God. So it wasn’t Paul maintaining and expanding these congregations – it was the men and women of the Church.

These men and women weren’t trained scholars like Paul, they were ordinary folk. They had businesses, families and lives. But they way they did life was irresistible to the world around them. No one had ever seen a group of people love one another like these Christians did. No one had ever seen such generosity, compassion, charity or power. Their conviction of their beliefs and the extent to which those beliefs transformed their lives was extraordinary.

Their testimony and example challenges me – do I live out my beliefs with as much zeal as they did? Have I taken the time to think through the implications of the Gospel – like how the Gospel of Freedom should change the things that I buy, the way I spend my time and how I treat my possessions? I don’t mind these wrestling matches because I trust in the power of God’s Spirit in my life. This is a refining process, a purification if you will; much like Jesus in the desert.

God and satan both want you in the Desert, but for vastly different reasons. The enemy wants to overpower you with doubts and accusation. The Father wants to release His power through your weakness. It wasn’t until Jesus faced his own wilderness experience that he ministered “in the power of the Spirit.” He’d received the Spirit at his baptism, but it wasn’t accessible until the quality of his character had been proved. I think it is important to note that God will only lead you into battles you can win and that will strengthen your faith, rather than make you turn back (see Exodus 13:17)

I think that is all I want to recap for now. Have a great week!

Learning to be present to the world around me

I’m a dreamer. Most of the time my mind is not attached to the world around me because I’m dreaming, thinking, scheming, planning. I have what you might call an overactive imagination. I watched enough movies to be able to do CGI sequences in my head – seeing a plot of land become a garden, orchard and then a farm. I used to assume everyone else was this way too, but then I turned 6.

Most of my life is lived in the realm of what could be rather than what is. It isn’t like I’m totally divorced from reality, I just resonate with my ideal world more than the one surrounding me. This is good in that it leads me to be a catylist, a transformer. I am the embodiment of George Bernard Shaw’s quote:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

That sounds really sexy until the world kicks your teeth in a couple of times.

The truth is, I’m a lot more Greek than Hebrew in my approach to life, though I hate to admit it. I have the gross tendency to split life into the physical and the spiritual, thinking the spiritual is more holy, more noble, more right or good. It is Greek Dualism at its finest.

The Hebrews understand life differently. They realize that God made everything, not just our spirits. They understand than the physical and the spiritual can’t be separated from one another very long without something bad happening. More than that – they realize that physical encounters can be just as profound and life giving as spiritual ones – that you can find God in a glass of water as easily (or easier) as finding Him in a 3 hour long prayer/meditation session.

I often forget this point. I forget to be present in the world God has created for me to live in because I’m too caught up with the world yet to be. It is good to have a real expectation of Heaven coming to earth AND it is good to put your hand to the plow by loving and serving the people around you. I can imagine with detail a 250+bushel per acre corn harvest, but unless I hop in the tractor it ain’t gonna’ happen.

So I’m learning to be present. My son is a great help with that. There is something about watching a baby that keeps you in the moment. I’m learning to appreciate rocking him to sleep and letting him rest in my arms. I learning to stay focused on him playing rather than checking my email for the 20th time. I’m learning to make memories rather than take pictures. I’m learning to immerse myself in living.

It is fun, and also terribly difficult for me. I’m so accustomed to retreating to my well developed inner world that prolonged exposure to reality is uncomfortable at best and downright irritating at worst. All things in tension I suppose.

I’ve been really convicted by the idea that the Kingdom is “within” or “among” us rather than “out there.” How much of God’s activity have I missed in my speculations? How many divine appointments have I blown off because I didn’t have eyes to see. Too many.

I will never overcome being a dreamer – it is who I am. But I can learn to be more present than I have been. I can learn to see, serve and love. I’m excited for this new chapter.

Thanks for reading friends.