And if God is For Us…The Last 30 Days at the Arndts

The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann begins his magisterial Theology of the Old Testament by making the simple, yet stunningly profound claim: that Israel’s faith does not begin with metaphysical claims about the deity they worship, but rather it begins with a remembrance of how that God was “for them”, in concrete situations of need, for their good; and that accordingly, any Old Testament theology that claims a rootedness in the Scriptural text ought to begin with one simple Hebrew word:


‘Todah’ means ‘thanksgiving.’  Israel gives thanks for what God does for them.  Their knowledge of God grows from there.  And so should ours.  As the Book of Common Prayer says, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”

To that end, I have some things I want to publicly “todah” today… thank you for your kindness to us Lord Jesus!

  • For helping us find a house that is MORE MORE MORE than we hoped or expected
  • For blessing us with a realtor that treated us like royalty and made the whole process an absolute joy
  • For giving us favor with the seller, to the extent that we got the house at the price we wanted, got a lot of our closing costs covered, and were able to get every “fix” done on the house by the seller without any trouble
  • For helping us secure financing on this house despite the fact that we aren’t exactly “low risk”, pastoring, as we are, a fledgling community of faith
  • For helping us secure money for our end of the closing costs
  • For surprising us the morning of closing with the news that our end of closing would actually cost us $1200 LESS than originally estimated
  • For blessing us with good friends at this wonderful church who helped us to move bunches of our things yesterday…THANK YOU HOUSE CHURCH!
  • For causing the phone to ring off the hook yesterday with potential renters for the property we’re in right now
  • And for the ridiculous favor and love he’s showing to the Bloom community by causing support to come in, in surprising ways, from friends near and far who wish to lend their “yes” to what God’s doing in our midst

“If God is for us, who can be against us?”  Amen and amen!

Christian Music worth listening to//”The Brilliance”

All right, this post is both a confession and a shameless, unabashed plug for a couple bros.

For the most part, I stopped listening to Christian music a really long time ago.  Most of it, IMO, was cliche and uninteresting to me.  It got worse when it came to “worship music.”  Again, IMO, the Christian music industry juggernaut put so much pressure on guys to put out fresh “product” that, inevitably, the quality and originality of the product suffered.  Honestly, how many of us have shed a silent tear or two listening to 3 chord songs recorded in a sterile studio that go something like this:

God you are worthy

All the angels bow down

You’re the king of heaven

And I give you my heart, again

Anyway, I sort of stopped listening.  So it is with incredible enthusiasm that I recommend to you “The Brilliance“, which goes on sale tonight at midnight.  Do yourself a favor and download it as soon as you get the chance.

The lead singer for the band, David Gungor, writes:

…Last year my soul was very tired. I was tired of most Christian music sounding the same. I did not like it. And I would not have thought I wanted to do any kind of worship album. 

Last Spring I had the wonderful opportunity to go to New York and hear my brother-in-law play at Carnegie Hall. It was wonderful and so inspiring. My wife Kate, (who played viola on the record) and my brother-in-law Joshua inspired me to make this record.

I wanted to make a Christian record that was constructed in a fresh way. I had an idea to base a record around a string quartet and piano, and then build around that.

I called John Arndt, and asked if he could produce the record, and do the string arrangements. He challenged me and brought out the best of the music.

We recorded in Denton TX, Tulsa OK, Denver CO, and NYC. After a lot of hard work, energy, money, and time, we have finished.

This record was a dream come true for me. So many wonderful friends, and amazing musicians and wonderful friends helped along the way.

In the end, we accomplished what we set out to do. We made a record that we are proud of and hope that you enjoy.

They’ve actually done more than that.  The music and arrangements are so fresh and original… but what’s more, they’ve actually put together songs that are lyrically rich, deeply theological, and congregationally accessible.  In other words, you can sing these songs in church, not feel like they suck, and find your imagination shaped and broadened at the same time.

David is a good friend of mine and has always been like a brother to me, and John, who helped him write and arrange most of the songs, is my actual brother.  I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.  So go, buy the record.

(Shameless plug now complete.  David, you owe me a sesame chicken at Spicy Basil.)

Seeking Practical Solutions to HIV/AIDS in Africa // “The Lazarus Effect” Screening

This past Saturday night, Bloom, in partnership with nearly a half-dozen other churches in the Denver area, hosted a free screening of the HBO/RED documentary “The Lazarus Effect“, a powerful short film highlighting the impact that free antiretroviral medicine is having on the HIV/AIDS situation in the country of Zamba.  The event, entitled “Advocating Simple Solutions to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic” and organized by the ONEVote 2010 Colorado Representative Nick Stevens (IMO) was a marvelous success, as it featured an absolutely INCREDIBLE panel of experts who engaged the audience’s questions for more than an hour on Saturday night.  The panel included:

  • Sidney Muisyo, Vice President for the African Region, Compassion International
  • Keren Dongo, Senior Manager of Community Engagement and ONEVote 2010 Campaign Manager, ONE Campaign
  • Dr. Charles Steinberg, Senior Trainer and Consultant for the Infectious Diseases Institute at the Makerere University Medical School
  • And me : )

Each of these folks (myself excluded), brought significant insight and perspective to the conversation.  (FORTUNATELY, if you missed Saturday night, you can listen to the entire panel discussion here, which I would highly recommend.)  Some of the huge takeaways of the evening for me included:

  • The war against HIV/AIDS has multiple battlefronts, including but not limited to issues of community development, politics, social infrastructure, available food and clean drinking water, etc.  Any Western involvement in this issue needs to avoid a myopic approach.
  • Part of that entails that AFRICA ITSELF has a huge responsibility here… poor or non-existent government means that the most excellent “1st world” aid programs to fight HIV/AIDS can’t gain a foothold, since there’s no way to distribute life-saving medicine
  • Social stigma about HIV/AIDS still exists, and one of the ways church folks can take the lead on de-stigmatizing it, both here (and perhaps more importantly) in Africa is simply by going to get an HIV test.  (That one blew my mind.)

And those were just a few.  But perhaps my favorite takeaway of the evening was a train of thought that came together for me slowly as I myself listened to and engaged the panel… and that train of thought went something like this:

  • Infrastructure is everything
  • In many African villages, IF THERE’S NOTHING ELSE, there is a local church
  • Which means the local church often quite simply IS the most robust social organism in an African village, tying the community together, encouraging folks to live morally sound lives, distributing food (and medicine!), training the next generation of leaders, etc.
  • Which means that one of the most important things that churches in the 1st world can do to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa is working to create church partnerships between us “over here” and churches “over there.”  The benefit is mutual.  We learn more about what’s happening “on the ground” in Africa by having such partnerships, and they benefit from our help, prayer, friendship, and support.

That was a super-inspiring thought to me.  The church really is the hope of the world…

Anyway, hopefully you’ll go ahead and listen in on what we talked about.  Huge thanks to all the churches that helped sponsor the event.  Huge thanks to the Huffington Post for running this article highlighting the event.  And huge thanks to pastor Gary Bowser of First Baptist Church for letting us host it at his fine venue.  My hope is that this is merely the first of many such conversations on this important topic hosted by Denver Churches…

The end of evil

We picked up our series in the Sermon on the Mount last night at Bloom with one of the most difficult and controversial passages in all of the teaching of Jesus: Matthew 5:38-48:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.   43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

What possibly could Jesus be advocating here?  Is this not the epitome of insanity?  Not standing up for your rights?  C’mon Jesus!?  Is this practical?  Practicable?  Wouldn’t society deteriorate into a mad rush of violence if all the good people of the world simply yielded to evil?

Passages like this, so radical, so bold, so counter-intuitive, have been part of the reason that the Sermon on the Mount, and Christianity in general, has been held to scorn.  Theologians of previous generations have often said on the basis of passages like this that Jesus clearly was advocating an “unrealistic” ethic, on account of the fact that he expected the imminent end of the world and the coming of the kingdom.  But of course since he died and the kingdom didn’t ACTUALLY come as he and all of his followers anticipated, we need to live our lives by different standards.  “Practicalities” and all.  Even more, guys like the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Adolph Hitler thought that Christianity was a poison to society because of passages like this, breeding week-willed, smarmy, self-deprecating weaklings.  You can’t possibly build a society on people that love peace can you?

All of these misunderstandings (which sadly still exist today) hinge on the fact that the the basic Story of Scripture, out of which this passage arises, is not grasped by most.  OUR STORY, the Christian story, is a story that runs counter to the world’s account of power, evil, justice and the like.  For at the center of the Christian story stands the cross.  And the cross changes everything.

“Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth…”  This of course is how most of us think that “justice” ought to operate; on thin, emaciated, pale concepts like “equality” and “fairness”.  Not that “proportional justice” is a bad thing, mind you.  The Psalmists frequently called upon Yahweh, the righteous judge, to mete out justice in response to evil.  I think that our revulsion at evil and our longing for justice is part of the moral blueprint of our souls.  God the Righteous One validates that sense.

And YET… Jesus calls attention to the deficiency of “eye for an eye” as a way of finally dealing with evil.  For God understands what most of us do not: and that is that evil is not vanquished by a frontal assault.  Something in the nature of evil is such that when it is resisted, it does not go away; it simply redoubles its strength.  And so, paradoxically, the law of “eye for an eye”, while meant to LIMIT EVIL, actually contained, validated, and gave more power to evil.

Jesus’ intent, of course, is not simply to “limit” evil, as we’ve been learning all along in the Sermon on the Mount.  He wants to do away with it completely among his followers.  His dream is that the renewal of the world would begin among his people.  And so in the place of “do not murder” he calls us to forgo contempt.  In the place of “do not commit adultery” he calls us to chastened desires.  In the place of divorce he calls us to keep our promises.  In the place of “do not break your oaths” he calls us to truthful, simple speech.  And in the place of “eye for an eye” he gives us something bold, bracing, and energizing.  He gives us a call to love beyond the evil.  Here and only here is evil finally conquered.

This intuition, that evil is overcome not through direct assault but through an assault of love, is nowhere better exemplified (indeed, it is grounded in) one place: the cross of Christ.  Here evil took its best shot, and strangely… it exhausted itself.  When we threw the Son of Man up on the cross, what rained down was not divine vengeance, but forgiveness.  The renewal of the world begins at Golgotha.  The followers of the Crucified Christ are called to make Golgotha’s truth known in the warp and woof of their daily lives, testifying to the reign of God’s peace… which finally is a more satisfying form of “justice” than the tit-for-tat legalism that merely encodes bitterness between human beings, clans, families, cultures, and finally nations too.  We can do better than simple “proportionality” if we follow Him.

I realize of course that some will see this as dangerous, even foolish.  How would we get on in the world if we simply allowed evil to run around unchecked?  Those are hard and important questions.  Yet I think it would be unwise to distract ourselves with them.  Whether or not the call to “love our enemies” is a practicable method at the level of international geopolitics should not blind us to the fact that it is most assuredly a practicable method at the level of our interpersonal relationships… You have to walk before you can run, as they say.  And perhaps until we can figure out how be peaceable at the most basic level of our social selves, husbands to wives, parents to children, bosses to employees, and so forth, we stand no chance of speaking a morally coherent word to the powers that be.  As Wendell Berry once famously put it: “Amish pacifism works because the Amish are peaceable all the time.  If they attacked their neighbors and then, when their neighbors retaliated, started loving them, praying for them, and turning the other cheek, they would be both wrong and stupid.”  This is a way of life first, and only afterward a political critique.

That said, I suggest four movements towards peaceableness, which is finally the beginning of the end of evil:

1) We must strive to make Jesus’ words practical reality in our lives.  Vast evils stand on small evils, and most of those small evils are the habits and practices of our daily lives.  We return evil for evil in our homes and then raise a public outcry when bombs are dropped on cities.  The moral incoherence of our lives should be spoken of more plainly, so that we avoid hypocrisy.  Peacemakers make peace not merely by attending anti-war rallies (when war is really a moral animal so complex that it’s difficult to speak of it intelligibly with a 4×4 foot cardboard sign… duh) but by refusing to let the sun go down on their anger.

2) We’re going to need to do a lot of repenting.  Whether we realize it or not, WE are the violent ones that Jesus came to save.  He intends to undo the evil in us.  And so when I overreact to my kids disobedience, it is crucially important that I have the moral wherewithal to ask forgiveness.  Ethan and Gabe need to hear dad say when appropriate, “Guys, dad’s sorry he overreacted to that.  Will you forgive me?”  Owning my complicity with evil helps me overcome it.

3) We’re going to need to be able to do all of this cheek-turning while still speaking truthfully.  No one is helped by quietism, and indeed even Jesus himself was rather vocal when he was on trial… “And you will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” is a truth-statement that contains its own judgment on the powers that threw him up on that cross.  It was not vindictive.  It was illuminating.  Truthful speech is part and parcel of what it means to be the people of God.

4) We’re going to need to learn how to embody this truthful speech towards the powers that be.  In his pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (“Hope and Joy”), Pope Paul VI declares that the Church is to be the conscience of the world, the “soul of the world” as he puts it.  It is simply not to be taken for granted that “the way things are” is in fact “the way things must be”.  We are a sign and foretaste of a new humanity that Christ has brought and ever is bringing into existence by his love, and part of our task is to put hard questions to the world… a world that must ever deal with the complexities of vast evil.  Not because we’re hoping to condemn the world, but because we share in the joy and hope of the world and know something ABOUT the world that it does not know… namely, that it is loved by a God that longs to put it right again.  Our speech should help expose to the world that there is always a better way available.

Make us instruments of your peace Lord God.

Denver area churches coming together for a screening of “The Lazarus Effect” hosted by Bloom @ FBC October 16th at 7:00

Hey friends –

Most of us can remember the days when receiving a diagnosis of “HIV Positive” was quite literally a death sentence.  As AIDS ravaged the globe, the world community struggled for a solution.  Joyfully, we found one.

In recent decades, antiretroviral drugs (ARV’s) have been developed, paving the way for HIV positive persons to lead a full and healthy lifestyle.  And whereas a year’s worth of ARV treatment cost $10,000 or more 10 years ago, today such treatments are available for just 40 cents per day.  Amazing.

Nevertheless, AIDS is still an enormous challenge to the well-being of the world community, particularly in Africa.  Fully two-thirds of all cases of AIDS occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where 3,800 people still die every day from what is now a completely treatable disease.

There’s good news, though.  Through innovative partnerships with governments, civil society, the private sector and affected communities, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria is distributing free ARV’s throughout the healthcare infrastructure of African countries. Since 2002, programs supported by the Global Fund have saved an estimated 5.7 million lives.  The tide of the war against AIDS is beginning to turn; we just need to finish the job.

That’s why we’re so excited to invite you to out to a free screening of the HBO/RED documentary “The Lazarus Effect“, a moving 30 minute film which illustrates the powerful transformative effect of life-saving antiretroviral medicine through the stories of HIV+ people in the African country of Zambia.

So join Bloom, the ONE Campaign, and several other Denver area churches on Saturday, October 16th at 7:00pm at First Baptist Church Downtown (1373 Grant Street) for this event.  The evening will include a brief intro and welcome from myself, a word about the ONE Campaign from the ONE Vote 2010 Colorado State Organizer, Nick Stevens, the film, and a time of Q/A with a panel of experts representing a variety of fields critical to the fight against AIDS.  We’ll start at 7:00 and dismiss at 8:30.  Our panel of experts will be available afterwards to continue answering questions for those interested in sticking around.

Our goal with this event is simple: education.  It is our hope that participants emerge from the evening with a clear understanding of the “state” of the global AIDS conversation and a strong motivation to join what is fast becoming a very winnable battle thanks to drugs that cost just 40 cents per day.

(Visit our ONE event page here)

See you there!

Book Review: “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”

I first encountered the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I was in high school.  Our teacher, Jim Martin, made us read passages out of Bonhoeffer for a class we were taking.  Like most things in high school, I didn’t take it all that seriously.  Cursory glances into the famous Cost of Discipleship at best.  Years later, in seminary, CoD was again assigned reading for a class I was taking.  Again, cursory glances.  The depth of the reading and the magnitude of the man escaped me.

I began to take Bonhoeffer seriously several years later, when I was at my first pastorate in Tulsa.  I had run across Bonhoeffer’s name several times by reading such theologians as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, so I decided to give him another look, pulling Cost of Discipleship off the shelf once more.  This time, for whatever reason, I was completely captivated.  I motored through the book and then quickly ordered Ethics because I just HAD to get more.  Later on I purchased Eberhard Bethge’s monumental (1,000 page) biography of Bonhoeffer entitled Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Man for His Times and found myself utterly captivated by Bethge’s account of Bonhoeffer’s life.  (Bethge was perhaps Bonhoeffer’s closest friend during the last decade of his life.)  Putting CoD and Ethics in the context of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Naziism further solidified the importance of listening to Bonhoeffer for me.  One person has dubbed him a “Church Father for Modern Times”, and I think that’s accurate.  There are few more towering and important theological and pastoral figures in 20th century than Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

So it is with extreme joy that I recommend what is surely to become the modern classic on Bonhoeffer’s life, a new biography by Eric Metaxas entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  If you don’t read another biography this year, read this one.  Metaxas combines masterful scholarship with a novelist’s touch, presenting Bonhoeffer with truly stunning and compelling clarity.  The work is not nearly the tome that Bethge’s is.  And that is perhaps one of its strengths.  At just over 500 pages, it moves with a brisk and captivating pace.

As relevant and enjoyable as I think this book will be for anyone who decides to pick it up (Christian or non), in particular I wish to recommend it heavily for pastors and students preparing for ministry.  The modern church is devoid of good models.  In a time when the word “pastor” floats further and further away from its historical meaning, we need figures – lives of the saints – that can help us reclaim what it means for us to live the calling well.  Bonhoeffer is one such figure.  His theology was deep yet crystal clear, and provided the resources out of which he led the church resistance to Naziism.  He was an academic par excellence yet did not see life in the pastorate and life as a scholar to be incompatible.  He assumed that the Church (the communio sanctorum in which Christ really lived) could only be the Church if it knew the present call of Christ in all of its depth and splendor, and knew it well.  So he preached with vigor and sharp theological insight.  He cultivated a lively spirituality and sought to draw others into it.  He was one of the first to ever talk about church renewal through a “new monasticism”, and the illegal seminary at Finkenwalde which he led for several years provides a compelling example of that vision.  He never shied away from conflict or struggle, and understood that following Christ would often mean walking a lonely and misunderstood path.  Bonhoeffer is a constant source of inspiration for me.

Anyway, again, if you’re not familiar with Bonhoeffer, Metaxas’ biography is a great place to start.  And so, perhaps to whet your appetite for Bonhoeffer, I’ll leave you with a handful of my favorite quotes:

“Where a people prays, there is the church, and where the church is, there is never loneliness.”

“There is no theology here…They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria.  The students–on the average 25-30 years old–are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about.  They are unfamiliar even with the most basic questions.  They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.” (This he wrote in a letter back to Germany after observing the vacuity of theological education at Union Seminary in New York.)

“What is at stake is by no means whether our German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with the Jews.  It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: ‘here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God, here is proof whether a church is still the church or not.'”

“Only he who cries out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian chants.”

“A truly evangelical sermon must be like offering a child a fine red apple or offering a thirsty man a cool glass of water and then saying: Do you want it?…We must be able to speak about our faith so that hands will be stretched out toward us faster than we can fill them…Do not try to make the Bible relevant.  Its relevance is axiomatic…Do not defend God’s Word but testify to it…Trust to the Word.  It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”  (On preaching)

“I discovered later and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith.  By ‘this wordliness’ I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes, and failures.  In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings but those of God in the world.  That, I think, is faith.”

“If you set out to seek freedom, you must learn before all things mastery over sense and soul, lest your wayward desirings, lest your undisciplined members lead you now this way, now that way.  Chaste be your mind and your body, and subject to you and obedient, serving solely to seek their appointed goal and objective.  None learns the secret of freedom save only by way of control.  Do and dare what is right!  Not swayed by the whim of the moment.  Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying about in what might be.  Not in the flight of ideas but only in action is freedom.  Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living.  God’s command is enough and your faith in him to sustain you.  Then at last freedom will welcome your spirit amid great rejoicing.”  (From Stations on the Way to Freedom, written during his time at the Tegel prison.)

“This is the end…but for me it is the beginning of life.” (Bonnhoeffer’s last recorded words, just before he was hanged.)