Monday, April 30, 2012

Look Twice: Mirror, Mirror

One of the most difficult aspects of "looking twice" (or being a Berean), is the ability -- and the willingness -- to look in the mirror and ask God to "see if there is any offensive way in me". (Psalm 139:23-24)

Back in the day of Miami Vice, New Wave music, and omnipresent synthesizers (sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages), while I was in Bible college, I chanced one day upon an article in Moody Monthly (now discontinued) entitled "Eight Sure-Fire Marks of a Cult". Since I was taking a class on cults that very semester, and had a research paper to write for it, I sat down in our school library to read through what the article had to say.

Maybe it's just me, but sometimes when I read these kind of articles, my mind goes to unexpected places. As the article expounded on various items, only a few of which I can still recall a quarter century later, a thought occurred to me:

This article was focused primarily on the methodology of cults; it was almost completely a study in manipulation and mob mentality.

And I couldn't help but notice that some Christian ministries that I was aware of could easily be accused of using the same techniques.
So, I wrote a paper for my cults class on "Cultic Aspects of Evangelical Groups". (Note to self: if you are ever feeling over-looked or ignored at Bible college, let it leak out that you're writing a paper exploring cultic tendencies of "us", instead of "them".)

My basic thesis was that, as Christians who believe in the power of God, our methodology in ministry should be completely above reproach. If what we believe really is The Truth, then we need no gimmicks, no sleight-of-hand trickery, and definitely not even a hint of manipulation in our methodology.

Some people -- those who actually read what I wrote -- understood what I was getting at; the professor gave me an "A" on it. Others were so offended by the title of the paper that they couldn't hear properly whenever the topic came up over lunch.

This new emphasis on being "above reproach" in ministry methods was beautifully reinforced during my years as a youth pastor on Vancouver Island. And the concerned parents of the many non-Christian teenagers who frequented our group (about 60% during our first two years) were probably my best resource for looking twice in the mirror of our youth ministry.

They would ask questions about how we structured our bi-annual weekend retreats, such as:
  • Will the teenagers be kept up with so many crazy activities that they get no rest (sleep deprivation)?
  • Will there be constant, non-stop programming, or will there be a normal-life's pace?
  • Will they be fed well?
  • Will there be an emotional, late-night fire-side love-bombing session?
I loved that they were asking me these questions: it was a golden opportunity to look at a typical youth retreat from an "outsider's" perspective. Together with the youth leaders, we committed ourselves to being "above reproach" in our youth retreats.

We were actually pretty militant about everyone getting enough sleep. We scheduled "break times" to make sure people weren't running 1,000 miles an hour for the whole weekend. We made our meals together into extended times of hanging out; they weren't "feeding stations before the next activity" -- table fellowship was the "activity".

We continued to have sharing times, but there was no fire. No dim lighting. No late-night. In fact, our new tradition was to have a time of debriefing, right after supper, in a fluorescent-lit, aesthetically butt-ugly room. No hype. No gimmicks. No ambiance. We created no artificial "worship experiences". Various leaders would share from the Bible; no grandiose hype-em-up intensity. We prayed for each other. We encouraged each other.

Some of my best memories of seeing God working in the lives of these teenagers happened during these weekends.

Because at the end of it, there was no doubt in anyone's mind, that "God did it".

Looking twice -- choosing to exercise discernment, following the example of the Bereans -- also includes looking at ourselves in the mirror. It will only serve to improve us.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Take Note

"Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you." 

(Philippians 3:17)

Yesterday was a beautiful, sunny day in the Okanagan Valley. One of those days when, as you drive north out of town towards the airport, you thrill to the incredible mountainous landscape around you, roll down your window, and crank up whatever tunes are currently in your car's stereo (Lynyrd Skynyrd, in this case).

What made yesterday even more special was the special guest that I was picking up at the airport:

C.E. "Tom" Warren has been a friend of our family for as long as I can remember, and before they both retired, had been my father's long-time business partner. For many years, Tom also served as one of the elders at our church.
As Wendy and I enjoyed our lunch with Tom at a local Montana's Steakhouse (his treat, thanks Tom!), I couldn't help but remember numerous instances over the years where Tom had gone out of his way -- in his usual subversive manner of not wanting to draw attention to himself -- to encourage, support, and show true servant leadership.

When I was a kid in elementary school, Tom was just one of my parent's friends, although I had a lot of fun playing with his son Mark, who was a year older than me.

When I was in high school, our church was in the midst of a building program. Tom was a weekend co-worker on the roof, as we saved some of our church's budget by doing volunteer construction work on our new building. It was during this time that I first called him "Tom"; when you're shouting things like "there's a hammer falling!", it seemed rather silly to preface it with "hey, Mr. Warren". Somehow, "look out, Tom!" just made more sense.

And those of us in our youth group who had driver's licenses can all recall the terror of driving up the long driveway to Tom's house to drop off his daughter Christine after youth group or an outing of some kind. We will not soon forget the chill that went down our spines, seeing Tom's ominous silhouette in his front window, hands on hips, as Christine's curfew drew near. I can only imagine how it must have been for anyone dating her.

I remember Tom dropping me off at home one night, and sitting in my parents' driveway, chatting about discipleship and the book of James. I've never forgotten how "normal" it seemed to be having a casual, yet profound conversation between a church elder and a teenager.

Ever since Wendy and I were first married, Tom and his wife Joy have often gone out of their way to encourage and care for us. Because I respect (and admire) Tom's desire to "not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them" (Matthew 6:1-3), I won't give the specifics, but suffice it to say they both treated us in such a way that we knew we were loved and valued.

At the conclusion of our lunch yesterday, I reminded Tom of some of the things he'd said and done over the years that were a source of encouragement and true 'pastoral care' for Wendy and I. It was great for the two of us to have an opportunity to thank him for being such a positive example of what being an elder should look like.

It's important, as the verse at the beginning of this post says, to take note of those whose examples are worth following, and whenever possible, to also remember to say 'thank you', when the opportunity presents itself.
"Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith." (Hebrews 13:7)
Thank you, Tom. Today's church needs more elders like you.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Look Twice: A Primer in Manipulation

I will freely admit, right up front, that this is difficult to write about, because when I see spiritual manipulation taking place, it really steams my shorts. I will try my best to be civil.

My preference is to focus on the techniques that are so regularly used to shape -- or, more accurately, to manipulate -- people's opinions, beliefs, and paradigms. I don't want to point the finger at specific individuals, but if you see them using these manipulative techniques, you may want to pay closer attention to what they're trying to sell you.

Therefore, I now present the following, tongue firmly in cheek...

The "How-To's" of Spiritual Manipulation

perchance, you have a desire to become better skilled in the art of manipulating people into accepting your own personal heresies, here's a few insider tips:

(Ahem... cough, cough)

First and foremost, it's vitally important to begin well: this is best achieved by mocking anyone who values theology, before introducing any of your questionable teachings.

It's basically a preemptive strike: If you're going to introduce a biblically-questionable concept, remember that the ones best equipped to recognize, react, and refute it are those who value theology (and perhaps have theological training). Therefore, it only makes sense to discredit them in the eyes, ears, hearts and minds of your audience, first.

This is best done by using humor, caricatures, and apocryphal anecdotal horror stories about heartless theological thuggery (throw in a reference to the overlords in The Hunger Games for the desired emotional impact -- this will also establish your 'culturally relevant' credentials). At the same time, be careful to style yourself as "just a regular guy/girl trying to follow Jesus".

Another powerful and effective tactic is the Straw Man Argument:
Create a caricature of people's beliefs that you disagree with and then "prove" why only knuckle-dragging neanderthals with the collective IQ of algae would believe like they do. Be sure to infer that pastors and theologians fit this caricature (make that clear). Use humor to disguise the insults, misrepresentations, and character assassination -- if you can get them laughing (especially at their pastors), they'll believe just about anything you tell them after that.

Appealing to the emotions also works like a charm:
  1. you can get the audience "in your corner" by inviting them to feel empathy for you; once they identify with you sympathetically, herd mentality will police discourage anyone from voicing concerns.
  2. By appealing to the emotions (tell lots of tear-jerking stories, at regular intervals), you can effectively get people to stop thinking, which will create the ideal passive environment.
You can also deepen this level of sympathetic identification with testimonials about how misunderstood and attacked you've been, and how this has really wounded you. Very effective as a preemptive strike: anyone who would dare to later voice a concern with your teaching will be seen as "attacking", and will be lynched by the sympathetic sheeple herd.
Keep your voice carefully modulated and use a relaxed words-per-minute pace. This gains trust and reinforces your "average guy" credibility. Disguise your more obviously unbiblical ideas by saying them way too fast. Move to your next point quickly (or divert attention with a heart-warming story).

This is especially important when using out-of-context Bible verses. Quote these verses (or the fragments that you like) in rapid-fire succession, and quickly move on, before anyone has time to notice (or -- God forbid -- look them up).

Above all, remember to sprinkle your presentation -- casually but repeatedly -- with comments containing loaded language (eg. institutional church, pharisees, control, hierarchy, dead religion, hypocrites, etc.) so that people will quickly agree with you, out of fear of being labeled in the same way.

Finally, emphasize your personal journey into humility, grace, and love, love, love (as opposed to anyone who disagrees with you, who are obviously arrogant, power-hungry haters).
(NOTE: These are just the techniques. Feel free to create your own false teachings to apply them to. You can't expect me to do everything for you.)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Look Twice: Red Flags

In the previous Look Twice, you'll see the back-story of how some people can swear to an objective statement on one hand, while living, practicing, and enforcing the exact opposite.

Of course, none of us are qualified to discern the heart motives of others, so it would be unfair to assign intent. But that doesn't change the reality that mixed signals can be hazardous to our spiritual, emotional, and mental health.

Like the cross-walk sign at left, if both the "Walk" and "Don't Walk" signs are simultaneously lit, which one do we believe? Will we just step into traffic and hope for the best?

Or do we look twice before leaving the curb?

Sometimes, people deny teaching/endorsing error. But their lifestyle and their leadership proves otherwise. If you look twice.

Others will say they affirm historical creeds and statements of faith. But then they teach things that are diametrically opposed to those creeds. No-one will notice, unless you look twice.
The real trick, however, is learning to be someone who isn't naive and gullible -- someone who looks twice -- and yet not becoming suspicious, nitpicky, and fearful.
Here's a tip, from the trenches of experience:

Whenever you hear a speaker/teacher/leader mocking or deriding anyone who has or values theological training and doctrine, consider it a huge red flag of warning. Because 99.99% of the time, it's because they want to get you to accept an unbiblical line of thinking. Typically, the only people who will look twice and sound the alarm are -- you guessed it -- people with theological training.

Probably the most concise description we have of people who embody a lifestyle of looking twice would be the people of Berea:
"And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth." (Acts 17:11 NLT)
  1. They listened eagerly -- they were not suspicious, nitpicky, or fearful
  2. They searched the scriptures -- they were not gullible and naive.
If I were to choose a logo to represent these Bereans -- patron saints of those who look twice -- what image do you suppose comes to my (admittedly facetious) mind?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Can't Help But Smile

Okay, so we didn't make the playoffs in our first year back. But the return of the Winnipeg Jets, after a fifteen year drought of NHL hockey, had to be one of the #1 feel-good stories of this past season.

I've lived in British Columbia for as many years as I'd lived in Manitoba (11), and have cheerfully rooted for the Vancouver Canucks & the BC Lions, but every time either the Jets or the Bombers play, I can't help it: I'm totally jazzed.

It just needed to be said.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Look Twice

Imagine meeting someone who -- everyday, without fail -- wore at least one piece of clothing adorned with the logo of the Toronto Blue Jays. On Casual Fridays, sometimes they would show up to work in a complete Jays uniform.

Imagine talking with this person at lunch, and discovering that they have memorized every players' statistics for the entire roster.

Imagine remarking, "Wow, you are the ultimate Toronto Blue Jays fan!", and then reeling back from their instant fury and sense of offense.

"I am NOT a member of the Toronto Blue Jays Fan Club!" they growl through gritted teeth, fists clenched as if they were about to use physical violence to underline their reaction to your observation.

Taking a few steps back (for safety's sake), you point out that -- even now -- they are wearing the complete uniform, and that they have just recited an entire World Series' worth of memorabilia about the Blue Jays. And they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that they are a fan of the Blue Jays.

And then suddenly, you have an epiphany: They're telling the truth.

And they're also lying (or at least in serious denial).

The Truth (as they see it): they haven't "officially" joined the literal Fan Club. They have no membership card, and never did.

The Truth (as verified by objective reality): their zealot-like obsession with all things Blue Jay-related sure fits the functional description of "fan".
Admittedly, this is a far-fetched metaphor, but sometimes saying things outlandishly helps to get the point across (camel through the eye of a needle, for example?).

I have met people like this. I remember vividly the wild-eyed outrage of one leader, denying loudly, "I am NOT part of the Shepherding Movement!" Yet, all of his teaching, actions, and the authors he appealed to in support of his "being under covering/authority" and "I am the voice of God" approach to leadership were straight out of the Shepherding Movement. The spiritual abuse he was causing was corroborated by many witnesses.

He was telling the truth: he wasn't "officially" a part of the Shepherding Movement (obviously, since it had ceased to exist "officially" back in the 1980's). He held no official membership card. And he was being deceptive: his need to control had led him into embracing, promoting, and demanding compliance with the classic teachings of the Shepherding Movement. It was how he'd been mentored, and he was passing it along (which is why Luke 6:40 is both an encouraging promise and also a sobering warning from Jesus).

Just because someone protests that they aren't "officially" part of a movement known for its errors and abuses, doesn't mean they're off the hook, if they are still teaching and practicing those things. You can't get good fruit from bad roots.

"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit." (Matthew 7:15-20)
In other words, look twice before wandering into traffic.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Perfectly in Process

If you were to Google the phrase "favourite Bible verse", there are tons of examples that show up, particularly -- and with a wide variety of artistic creativity -- if you use Google Images.

I found myself thinking, "Oh yeah, that's the one I'd pick, for sure. Oh wait, maybe that one. No, definitely that one! Or maybe..."

Verses which immediately sprang to mind included Galatians 2:20 "for me to live is Christ", and John 15:5 "apart from Me, you can do nothing", among others.

But then I remembered one pithy little sentence, fraught with wondrous depth and profundity:
For by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14)
I love this verse!

It's speaking of Jesus, as the great High Priest who is superior to any earthly priest or go-between. I've always been blown away by the incredible truth jam-packed into a single sentence. Just look at the verb tenses to see why I find this verse so powerful.

Jesus has already made perfect forever -- past tense, already accomplished, a done deal -- those who are being made holy -- present, ongoing tense, still in process, not complete just yet.

Wow: justification and sanctification summed up in a single verse. We are fully justified by Jesus' crucifixion, and that is the basis on which God treats each of us -- loving, embracing, accepting us. And yet our sanctification is an ongoing co-operation, initiated by the Holy Spirit of Jesus, between us and God -- growing in maturity and holiness over the rest of our lives.

One is a done deal, accomplished by Jesus alone, the other is an ongoing co-operative journey of surrender, obedience, and paying close attention to His Voice.

One little verse. So enlightening. So comforting. So challenging.

What's not to like?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Hoy de la Música

Music that has caught my attention over the past few months, to the point where I bought the albums, whether on CD or direct from iTunes:

Fly From Here This is the first studio album from Yes in over a decade, and it's creative and ambitious, but avoids the trap of self-indulgence that prog-rock can tend towards. Although it's strange to not hear Jon Anderson singing, it's a treat to have guitarist Steve Howe back with long-time bassist Chris Squire. Highlights would include the entire Fly From Here multi-track composition, as well as The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be.

Move Third Day has been one of my favorite southern rock Christian bands ever since I heard their first album back in 1996. Third Day was a breath of fresh air way back then (as was Jars of Clay's first album), and their newest album continues in that fine tradition. Songs that I really enjoyed in particular include Lift Up Your Face, Surrender, Follow Me There, and Don't Give Up Hope.

Wrecking Ball Usually, my preferred Springsteen albums were recorded with the E Street Band, but Wrecking Ball breaks that tradition. Arguably Bruce's best album since The Rising (although I really liked Magic as well), the fusion of roots-oriented music with Bruce's classic rock sound works really well. Good tunes: We Take Care of Our Own, Shackled & Drawn, Jack of All Trades, Death to My Hometown and a great studio version of Land of Hope and Dreams.

Back to the Rock Petra's classic line-up from the early 80's has reunited and re-recorded some of their best work from that era. I've always been a fan of Petra's original bass player, Mark Kelly, and it's great to hear his voice and his instrument back with Greg X. Volz, Bob Hartman, John Lawry and Louie Weaver. A blast from the past that I am thoroughly enjoying in the present. Standouts include Clean, Second Wind, Adonai and Rose Colored Stained Glass Windows.

Re:Creation The acoustic-rock versions of some of Steven Curtis Chapman's best music over the years are refreshingly well done. For those who grew up enjoying Chapman, or new listeners like me, this is an album definitely worth checking out. Highlights: Do Everything, Long Way Home, Great Adventure, Meant To Be and Magnificent Obsession.