the Weekly Town Crier

towncrierBlippity bloppity boo to you too. So what of it?

Buy my art here or here or contact me directly to purchase originals.

Visit our family blog: “The Thomas Ten.”

Browse Outside‘s 2015 list of “The 16 Best Places to Live in America”. Did your town make the list?

Read about the “121-year-old bottle of whisky” found in a “Scottish time capsule”. Would you try it?

Browse Paste‘s list of the 10 best things on Crackle (other than Seinfeld, though Jerry does make an appearance).

Read as Oregon Live catches up with NPR’s/”Portland’s Own” Ari Shapiro.

Read Time‘s report: “J.J. Abrams Says Nazis Inspired the New Star Wars Villains”.

Read about “One Woman’s Attempt to Become a Wrestling Fan”.

Browse this list of “15 Composers To Watch” in 2015.

Read reports that “Amy Schumer and Jennifer Lawrence are writing a movie together”.

Read as Salon explores “Why the ’90s are literally disappearing from history”.

Read FACT‘S piece reporting: “Spotify demands access to your contacts, photos and location”.

Adding traffic sound effects on ants makes them entertaining to watch“.

Browse Time’s list: “14 of China’s Finest World Monument Replicas”.

Read Outside‘s piece: “John Muir Knew How to Live”.

Read The Atlantic‘s piece: “How Coolness Defined the World Wide Web of the 1990s”.

Enter the debate: “Are Older Whiskeys Really Better?”

Read as Banksy interviews Run the JewelsRead about Banky’s Dismaland. See the trailer.

Read about “Pop Tart Beer”.

Watch Seinfeld Recut as a Devastating but Heartwarming Lifetime Movie.

Apparently “Axl Rose and Slash are friends again” prompting many to wonder about the possibility of a Guns n’ Roses reunion.

BrowseUncut’s 50 best bootlegs”.

Read Paste‘s report: “Paul Thomas Anderson to Release Documentary on Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood”.

See a $20,000 opal, which looks like “a nebula trapped in a gemstone”.

Read NME‘s report: “Morrissey announces release of debut novel. See the cover.

Browse Paste‘s list of “6 Fictional Languages in Literature”. What’s your favorite?

Read as the Washington Post laments: “We’re now averaging more than one mass shooting per day in 2015.”

Read Flavorwire‘s report: “Bruce Willis Probably Got Fired From the New Woody Allen Movie”.

Hear “Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp’s Hollywood Vampires cover The Who’s ‘My Generation’.

See photos of rarely seen cultures.

Read Consequence of Sound‘s report that Odd Future rapper Tyler the Creator has been banned from the UK.

See “Harry Potter re-imagined as the villain of a horror movie”.

Read the Washington Post‘s report that the Mormon Church will continue its relationship with the Boy Scouts of America.

Watch “a Supercut of All the People Batman Has Killed”. For a guy with a no-kill policy . . .

Browse Spotify‘s list of “the most timeless songs ever”.

Faith Anchors the Soul

2014-09-20 14.18.09I have come to believe that the search for “identity” is one of the key issues facing us all. By “identity,” I mean more than simply your name, rank and serial number, though that’s as deeply as many of us think on this key issue. Instead, I’m referring to how we understand ourselves and present ourselves to others. I’m talking about where we find our worth and our security. I’m talking about self-knowledge and security.

Our sense of identity is uniquely tied to what we do. In fact, many of us (unconsciously or not) find our identity in our jobs. Don’t believe me? Think about just about any time you’ve met someone new. After the exchange of names, what’s the usual first question?What do you do? 

Of course this is understandable. Our jobs are where we spend the most time and we rely on them for income, and by extension, stability. It is understandable but it is not healthy. When we find our identity in what we do, we find ourselves in the never-ending pursuit of working for our identity rather than from our identity and thus we rarely find true security. We will feel more valuable, we will have more worth (literally and figuratively) when we get that promotion or that other job. And when the work is not fulfilling, we are not fulfilled. We never truly find out who we are because we are looking for that in moving targets.

Unemployment is a special kind of hell in the midst of this essential conversation. I have applied to over 125 jobs across multiple states. I’m currently receiving 2-3 rejections daily. Every time I see someone I know, they ask about the job search; an unintentionally cruel reminder that I have been unable to find work. They mean well. But the question stings and, when repeated hundreds of times, can cause one to question their identity.

There are mornings when I second-guess the decisions that led to this point. I could have stuck out that situation but should I have? What am I doing with my life? What do I want to do? Does it matter what I want to do? Why can’t I get a job? How many no’s can a person receive without taking it personally? Am I not worth hiring? What am I worth? How do I know? Will I be happier when I find a job? How do I remind myself that I am not what I do, when all I can think about is wanting to do something?

This is why the issue of identity is so important and why my faith in Jesus is so essential. I have a tattoo on the underside of my left arm which depicts an anchor amidst a storm with the words: “Faith anchors the soul.” This is a personal reflection on Hebrews 6:13-20 which reminds us that our hope in Jesus serves as an anchor for the soul.

I don’t know how you deal with struggles or your personal faith journey but I know that, without my faith in Jesus, I would have had a nervous breakdown by now. The heart of following Jesus is not the politicians we vote for, the radio we listen to, the things we boycott, or the issues we oppose. It is that our very identity is changed and it is secure. In spite of our circumstances and in spite of us.

When the Holy Spirit brings someone to faith, a mysterious thing happens. We are somehow united to Jesus so that what’s true of the Savior is true of His people. We are transferred from the “domain of darkness” into Jesus’ kingdom, in whom we have “redemption and the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). “He who knew no sin was made sin on our behalf so that we could become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are united with Jesus in His death to sin and resurrection unto newness of life (Romans 6) and we are “seated with Him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2) even now.

But, our union with Jesus means more than just getting in to heaven when I die. It has drastic implications for life here and now. I don’t have to find a job to be worth something (though I would like to find a job). Yes, I find my “identity” in something outside of myself, but instead of something like a job which ebbs and flows, my identity is anchored and becomes my anchor.

Over the past couple of years, I have meditated more on one scene of Scripture than any other. Do you remember the scene where Jesus goes out to the Jordan to be baptized by his crazy revival preaching, bug-eating cousin (found in Matthew 3 , Mark 1 and Luke 3)? As Jesus comes up out of the water, the Spirit descends on Him in the form of a dove and a voice comes from the heavens saying: “This is my Son in whom I am well-pleased.” Curiously enough, Jesus is immediately sent into the wilderness where Satan immediately attacks Jesus’ identity: if you really are who you say you are. . . but that’s a study for another day.

I know that, while we feel like our house will never sell, while it seems like I will never find a job, I know that I already have all of the comfort, security, belonging, and love that I could ever hope for because my identity is God’s child. He is pleased with me even when I am not pleased with my circumstances. I don’t have to work for acceptance because I am accepted by God. This is good news indeed.

I may not see the light through the clouds yet, and the waves don’t seem to yet but I have an anchor in the midst of the storm. This is good news indeed. This is how, even in the midst of life’s storms, we can “be still” and know that He is G0d (Psalm 46). I simply pray that these storms cause me to hold on tighter to my anchor.

It Was The Prime Of Our Discontent

amazon-prime-day-1Unless you live in North Korea, you probably knew that Amazon, (the giant on-line retailer) celebrated their 20th anniversary by throwing themselves a party with, what they proclaimed would be “more deals than Black Friday”. Apparently, this was such a big deal that WalMart (the giant, giant retailer) wanted to celebrate Amazon’s birthday by also offering discounts!

One of the most notable things that has made this a cultural moment rather than just another sale was the immediate blowback against the products Amazon chose to discount. And yet, the site’s sales soared. So, we all complained about what was being discounted and yet still ended up buying more! I do wish I had known about the “Beard Growther” on Prime Day, but I didn’t buy anything because I didn’t see a single thing I needed.

Of course, “Prime Day” was first and foremost a way for the company to push Prime memberships and only secondarily a real sale. And yet, the loudest thing about Prime Day were the complaints.

I wonder what this says of us as a culture? A business has no obligation to discount its merchandise. Especially when sales remain strong. So, when a company does decide to discount merchandise, there is always a financial reason. They need to move certain merchandise, clear certain inventory, etc. When Amazon discounts merchandise, it does so for itself, not the consumer. Amazon said it would have more deals than Black Friday. Apparently, they did, because their sales topped Black Friday. And our response is to complain that they didn’t have what I wanted at a cheaper price.

What Prime Day forces us to consider is that we are selfish creatures who feel entitled to more. Amazon may have gotten people’s hopes up with the hype, but that’s good business, not false advertising. We, who were owed nothing, complain that we didn’t get what we wanted. We truly are the culture who, hours after getting up from a meal with family celebrating all we are thankful for, will trample one another at WalMart to get more cheap crap.

Content hearts don’t complain.

We who love and follow Jesus must be keenly aware (2 Corinthians 10:5, Romans 12:1-4) that we are marinating in a cultural stew of consumerism that places self at the center of the universe. How else could someone like Joel Osteen pass off as a Christian? The man literally teaches that we should have our “Best Life Now,” which Jesus says is actually a sign of judgment rather than favor. But I digress.

Why is contentment so difficult?

I would wager that most of the people who read my posts (if there are any?) live pretty comfortable lives. You may live in a smaller house than someone else. You may drive an older car than someone you know. You may not eat out at restaurants as often as that friend of yours or have the new appliances like your neighbor. But we are among the wealthiest population the world has ever known. Most of us may not have private jets or yachts, so we tell ourselves we aren’t rich, but that’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Try telling a subsistence farmer with no electricity that you’re not rich.

Consumerism idolizes the self.

Contentment is so difficult because everywhere we turn, we are told that we deserve more, we deserve better, cheaper, faster! One of advertising’s key functions is to create discontent in self-image so that the product in question can fill that void. And, even we Christians who owe everything to grace (Ephesians 2) believe these lies from time to time. We believe that life (or Amazon) somehow us us special treatment. Could be because we let people like Joel Osteen tell us: ““God wants to give you your own house. God has a big dream for your life” (page 35, Your Best Life Now). Osteen has allowed consumerism to color his view of our relationship with God. We know we are loved because of more stuff. We feel secure because we have a firm grip on our stuff and we feel better about ourselves when we get more stuff and since it’s all about me, I will complain that Amazon didn’t discount the right items. The items I wanted.

But what if we already have all of the love, acceptance we could ever hope for and that our identity is not found in what we do or what we own. What if, in Jesus, because of Who He is and what He has done, we don’t need stuff to find identity? What do I have to complain about? Because of the Spirit’s work uniting Believers to Jesus (Romans 6), the Father says that I am His beloved child in whom He is well pleased (Matthew 3:13-17)! Because of Jesus’ continued work of interceding for His people (Romans 8:34), we can know that our seat (our “position” // our “identity”) is in the heavenly places with Jesus and because of Jesus, it is secure (Ephesians 2:6), in spite of us!

What a great opportunity Prime Day turned out to be to examine our hearts. Do you feel entitled to anything? What? Why? What do we really deserve and for what should we be thankful? How might thankfulness change the way we live?

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (03): Emotionalism/Performance, And, “I Don’t Feel Close To God”

Emotional-TradingOver the past week or so I’ve been wondering whether our current system of “American Church” actually makes our fundamental task (Make, Mature and Multiply Disciples) more difficult than it ought to be. We’ve looked at questions like: “What is the Call To Ministry” and we’ve examined why many seemingly qualified men often feel discouraged from ministry as well as the idea that our current system actually promotes passivity rather than active faith.

We’ve also taken a moment to point out that voicing questions/concerns does not mean that I’m bitter in any way. I’m really not. But I am in a place of wrestling with a lot of really big questions which I feel deserve open consideration and public dialogue.

Today I want to consider another issue that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. As you might guess, I wonder if there aren’t many ways in which our current system have actually made following Jesus more difficult than it was meant to be. I’ll be open and say that, though it’s been many years since I’ve read Neil Postman’s essential Amusing Ourselves To Death (seriously, if you haven’t read it, please do so), his notion that “the medium is the message” has stuck with me as I’ve considered American Evangelicalism both as a pastor and church planter.

I have come to wonder whether the very systems we have adopted are actually distracting from discipleship. I believe that one of the main places where we see this disconnect is given birth in our Sunday Gatherings but matures in personal quiet times. Let me explain.

Though there are certainly exceptions, I’ve come to wonder whether American Evangelical “worship gatherings” can be separated from emotional appeals. The very notion of our Sunday gatherings has borrowed so much from the entertainment industry that I’m not sure they can be separated. We borrow our seating structure from entertainment venues, with the “crowd/congregation” seated as spectators and the “leaders” on a stage with cool lighting and a professional speaker. I’ve been to worship gatherings that were indistinguishable from rock concerts and that should be at least a bit disconcerting.

Many people describe their favorite concerts as “religious experiences”. There is something special about losing yourself in the moment to the power of music/crowd/shared experience. But I wonder how much of that we have set out to re-create in our Sunday gatherings. The most famous “worship leaders” are often the ones who can most consistently get an emotional reaction. The most famous preachers are also those who are typically the best public speakers. We have come to believe that the most “effective” worship gatherings are those during which we were most emotionally moved.

This, of course, carries over into the personal Christian Life. We have come to believe that we are most close to God when we “feel” most close to God. Our “most powerful” quiet times are those that are the most emotional. In other words, though it begins with our production/performance based Sunday gatherings, it certainly extends to our personal spiritual disciplines. We have have come to equate spiritual growth with emotional experiences.

I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me as a leader and said that they just “don’t feel moved” in their quiet times, so they must not be “close to God”. I get it. I mean, there are times in marriage when you “feel” closer to your spouse, but (hopefully), your commitment does not waiver when the emotion is not there. Yet, somehow, we have come to believe that our faith is in danger when our emotions aren’t moved.

If the medium is the message, as Postman asserts, then many of the ways we have adopted in following God owe more to American entertainment culture than with genuine faith. If emotionalism can weave and wane in a marriage, surely we will not always have an emotional response in worship or Bible reading/prayer. And I’m not so sure this should be as much of a concern to us as it seems to be.

In fact, the more we equate emotional experience with spiritual experiences (which are, undoubtedly often emotional), we are setting ourselves up for a never-ending cycle of theatricalism in our churches. Once a specific church hits a “dry spell,” many might head to the church down the road who has the “fresh experience”. When we don’t always feel “moved” in our quiet times, we will be tempted to substitute time with God’s Word for time with things that tug on the heart strings.

Many of us have wholeheartedly devoted ourselves to the chase of emotional experience while we hope that spiritual growth will follow. But what if spiritual growth is not always accompanied by emotional experiences? I have grown the most in some churches many would consider “dry” simply because I was regularly encouraged to place myself in an encounter with God’s truth. The speakers weren’t always dynamic nor the music moving but the truth was impressed in my heart.

I worry that by adopting so much of our systems from the entertainment industry, we have communicated that “church” is just another form of entertainment. Hopefully you’ll grow during the performance, but at least you’ll leave wanting more.

It has become so confusing that I have to wonder what it might look like to remove the performance aspect from our Sunday gatherings. Is it even possible any longer? And, while there is certainly an emotional equation to our faith, God’s move will always produce emotional responses in His people, but I’m just not sure that emotional experiences will produce the movement of God. Have we muddied the waters and made it more difficult than it was ever meant to be?

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (02)? Missional Living And The Plague Of Passive Christians

cemetery-church-416587-mOver the past ew months, I’ve thought a lot about various aspects of the way we “do church” in America. Though there are certainly variations on a theme, many if not most American Evangelicalism churches look pretty much the same. Though one may have “young adult contemporary with a hint of edginess to attract the Millennials” style worship while the church down the road maintains “traditional values”, chances are, the basic structure of what they do, (order of worship, ministry structure, classes offered, etc.) is probably pretty similar. You can repaint the barn all you want but it’s still a barn.

The other day I considered whether the American approach to “church” tends to exclude otherwise qualified men or whether I’m just a curmudgeon. By the way, I did get one vote for curmudgeon from a friend on FB, so that is still a real possibility. Just like I have come to wonder whether or current models of ministry tend to favor certain personality types over others, I wonder whether the current model of church has actually hindered rather than fostered discipleship. The primary thing Christians have been called to do may actually be stunted by our approach to try and fulfill the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).

While I love that there are exceptions, the general rule seems to be that the American church produces passive Christians. I have been part of the missional conversation since I was encouraged by my Acts 29 Assessment team to attend Soma School in 2008. Since then, I have been challenged to actively live out my faith and I have given my life to equip others to do the same. We tried to plant a church that would require people to participate. We have participation in our sermons. We are structured around Missional Communities, we limit our church programs, etc. After all, Paul is very clear that it is the people of the church who are to be responsible for the majority of its ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).

And we have seen God change people’s lives! We have seen people not only learn their neighbors’ names but build relationships with them. We have seen families open up their homes for foster care and adoption. We have seen people learn to identify and de-throne the idols they worship. We have seen people increase in love for God and others.

But it has been a slow and sometimes discouraging process. It has meant that we have to be sensitive to the fact that many people are simply not accustomed to their local church expecting a lot (other than maybe money and volunteer time) from them. Jesus certainly gave people pause before following Him, reminding them to count the cost. Following Jesus will often cost us in life because Jesus expects our entire lives to be devoted to Him. The local church is the avenue in which and through which we live out this life-encompassing call. If you are never challenged or made uncomfortable by your church, you might have reason for concern.

God’s people have been blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). God calls us to bless the cities in which we live, even if we feel captive (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Jesus  calls His people “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16). But I often meet Christians and pastors who feel like they just don’t know how to tangibly live out their faith.

Why have we made it so difficult for Christians to actively live out their faith in natural, unforced ways in everyday life? Why have we made it so difficult for so many Christians to talk openly and welcomingly about their faith? Why have we made it so difficult that throwing parties and serving others seems so unnatural? Why have we made it so difficult for people own their own spiritual growth?

I have come to believe that many of the challenges American Christianity faces are a direct result of the methods we have adopted in living out our faith. These methods have actually created a culture of passive Christians who need to be awoken, energized and equipped to put feet to their faith.

Though there are certainly other factors, I think that at least a few reasons we seem to pump out passivity, such as:

Theology (or lack thereof) of Place: American Evangelicalism generally seems to have a poor theology of place. Instead of challenging commuter culture, we have adopted it wholesale. We have removed most churches from their local context. Sure their property sits in a particular geographical area but it is increasingly rare for those surrounding communities to feel that the church is a blessing.

We need to regain and live out the notion that faith is put in to practice in everyday life. Local churches should be involved in their local communities. If we have been blessed to be a blessing, our communities should have tangible blessings to point out. Instead, they complain that our mega-services cram up the traffic and we take tax breaks from our communities rather than pouring in to the city.

The issue here is probably bigger than just a theology of place.

A n0n-holistic Gospel Leads to Christian Isolationism: Though the Evangelists and Revivalists of recent ages past certainly meant well, American Evangelicalism seems to have learned from them that the salvation of souls is the most important thing. But if all of creation has been affected by sin, surely the Gospel impacts and will someday redeem all of creation. The Gospel is not about getting in to heaven when we die, it is about living out the Kingdom here and now.

One practical result of this disconnect is directly tied to our poor theology of place. Not only have we disconnected the local church from its neighborhood, the separation of salvation from everyday life has only led to the fact that Christians like to clump together, removing ourselves from the “secular” world. We create our own sports leagues, reading clubs, etc. It is entirely possible for a Christian to have no contact whatsoever with those who believe and live differently. We can eat Christian toast, listen to Christian radio on our way to our Christian job, having lunch at the Christian coffeeshop, and then go to Bible study before going to bed.

As Francis Chan says in Crazy Love  (a book itself devoted to shaking Christians from passivity):

“Christians are like manure: spread them out and they help everything grow better, but keep them in one big pile and they stink horribly.”

Christians were never meant to separate themselves from the rest of the world (John 17). Not only does isolationism separate us from those who don’t yet believe, it increases passivity. Though I may be challenged on the certain nuances of particular ideas, when I’m surrounded by those I generally agree with, stagnation is usually close by.

The Professionalization of the Pastorate Has Led to Poor Equipping: Though Paul clearly say the five-fold ministry as given to the church to equip Believers for the work of the ministry, we have relegated this “work of the ministry” to those paid to do it. Instead of viewing themselves primarily as equippers, many pastors are forced to live as doers. Part of this is related to the fact that seminary is probably not the best way to train equippers and we primarily seem to have seminaries in general because we wanted legitimacy from the academic world, but I am digressing and hope to address some of those issues later.

The very fact that John Piper (regardless of your thoughts on him and his ministry) felt the need to write a book called Brothers, We Are Not Professionals reminds us that this is indeed a real issue amidst American Evangelicalism. Many Christians have adopted passivity because they have come to believe that that’s what they pay others to do. And, instead of encouraging people to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth, we have turned spiritual growth over to the professionals.

Consumerism and An Entertainment Culture: Very few would argue that American culture has not willingly gift-wrapped itself in consumerism and the desire to be entertained. But, as Neil Postman has pointed  out, the medium is the message. Our news shows are more scripted drama than simple reporting of events. And our worship gatherings are often more about entertainment than they are equipping Believers.

As Hirsch and Frost and others have pointed out, the very fact that our congregations are lined up in rows facing a stage means that the gathering will typically mean a passive audience. Top this off with the unhelpful aspects of “seeker sensitive churches” and we have many churches that will adopt the “USA Today” model of preaching, never challenging above a seventh-grade level. The music is led by slick emotionalists and the message is delivered by a professional public speaker.

Another side of this is the self-righteously Reformed folk who have adopted the notion that the sermon is the time for lessons in doctrine and the transfer of information. I was heard a famous preacher say, more than once, that if a pastor wasn’t spending 40 hours a week in their study, they had no business stepping behind a pulpit. While not necessarily entertainment driven, this approach certainly promotes passivity rather than engagement.

As I said the other day, I am not bitter towards the church. But I am in a personal place where I feel the need for public dialogue. Over the years, I have asked hundreds of people if they thought the American church was rocking it at actually making, maturing and multiplying disciples. I have not had a single person say that they think we’re doing a great job. That should prompt some deep self-reflection and some really big discussions.

As Einstein reminded us, insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Even though we have painted the barn lots of different colors over the years, it is still a barn. If our current system does not excel at the one main task to which we have been called and, in fact may have not only discouraged some men from serving but encouraged passivity, (and I am open to the fact that you may have had a different experience and that I may actually be wrong) we need the humility to talk openly about our shortcomings.