Friday, September 3, 2010

Package Delivery

Have you ever had one of those moments when you woke up with an odd thought or picture streaming through your head? That was my morning. I'm in Chennai, India all week interacting with and teaching Bible College students, pastors and professors. Yesterday I had a lively conversation with one of the professors and we were talking about the church's engagement with the world. When I awoke this morning an image came to mind. What would happen if the church viewed itself as an on-ramp to a highway? The highway is filled with people in speeding cars weaving between monotonously straight lines. Some chasing illusive dreams, some hopelessly bored in dead end jobs, some fearing layoff, some simply hoping to survive.

On Monday mornings what if the people who gathered in churches the day before scattered the other six days of the week? What if every day Christ-followers loaded their luggage racks with parcels of love, truth, beauty and goodness and became a human carrier system to human beings and human doings? What if we chose to view our office pools, factory floors, executive suites, lunchrooms and classrooms as places in desperate need of daily deliveries of those same qualities? What if the Church saw itself as the real, "United Parcel Service" taking to on-ramps with redemptive parcels of hope?

S t r e t c h e d

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Letting the Lion Undress You

In his classic Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis captures beautifully so many elements of the Christian experience. Book 3 of the Chronicles introduces us to Eustace Clarence Scrubb. Eustace was cousin to Edmund and Lucy, had no friends, and deep down enjoyed bullying and bossing everyone. In Edmund’s words, he became worse even when you tried to be nice to him.

One day Eustace stumbles across the entrance to a dark cave, which turned out to be a dragon’s lair. Once inside he discovers a treasure containing a bracelet, which he slips around his wrist. Soon after, he falls asleep and when he awakes he noticed a strange pain in his arm. Eustace had become something he was not before—he had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. The bracelet that had fitted very nicely on the upper arm of the boy was far too small for the thick, scaly foreleg of a dragon. At that moment Eustace realized he had become a monster, cut off from the whole human race and an “appalling loneliness came over him…and he began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed.”

When the dragon-that-had-been Eustace was reunited with his cousins, Edmund and Lucy, he began to make new discoveries about himself. When he flew over bodies of water and saw the reflection of himself he shuddered at his bat-like wings, the saw-edge ridge on his back and the curvature of his claws. It was dreary being a dragon. He wanted in the worst way to be a boy again.

One morning Eustace (the dragon) tells Edmund about a dream that he had had the night before. In his dream a huge lion approaches him and asks him to follow him to the top of a mountain where there was a garden—trees and fruit and everything. And in the middle of the garden there was a well. The well was a big bubbling well with marble steps going down into it and Eustace thought he could slip into the well to soothe the pain in his leg caused by the under-sized bracelet. But the lion tells him he must undress himself. Confused by the lion’s instructions, Eustace said to himself,

"I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress myself because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.”

When the dragon-that-had-been Eustace steps into the water, he notices the reflection of himself once again. He saw that he was still hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as he had been before. There must be a smaller, scaly suit underneath and so he starts scratching and peeling this under skin too. He steps out of this layer of skin and goes down into the water again only to discover the same thing happened again. He thinks to himself, “Oh, dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.”

It was then that the lion said to him, "YOU WILL HAVE TO LET ME UNDRESS YOU." Even though Eustace was afraid of his claws—he was desperate. So he just laid flat on his back and let the lion do it.

"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away…He peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I had no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I had turned into a boy again…After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me.”

When I read and reflected on this scene from the Chronicles of Narnia, I couldn’t help but ponder and think about my own reality. I want to be different; I want to change. But do I really understand and grasp all that it involves? Am I really willing to undergo change, or do I merely want to engage in a bit of my own self-engineered reformation? Am I more of a monster than I’m willing to admit? Have I faced my own appalling loneliness? Do my most cherished relationships often bear the collateral damage of my dragon-like behavior? Have I really faced my own false self? Have I settled for a painless and pointless kind of change that demands very little and results in less?

Lord, inner, real, deep down change requires more than my obedience, it demands my surrender. Grant me grace to lie on my back and let the lion of Judah do it. Remove from me my scales of selfishness, my hideous habits, and my dragon-like disposition. Take me out and dress me in garments of grace. And in that delicious moment, help me to give you thanks that I’m truly different.

S t r e t c h e d

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On Oil Spills and Heart Health

This morning I was reading Psalm 103. David begins, "Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name." His words, "my inmost being" got me thinking. Why so much attention to the inmost self? The inmost self is the interior me. It's that part of me that no one else sees. It is the hidden me, veiled to the human eye, but nevertheless of vital importance. In ancient Hebrew literature, sometimes the inmost place is referred to as the "heart" or the "eye." Simply put, the inmost place is the place most real to us, the center that defines us, orients us and animates our lives. On one occasion Jesus said that it is from this center, this core place that relational toxins like, "evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander" come forth (Matt. 15:19). No wonder David said earlier in Psalm 51, "You Lord desire truth in the inner parts, you teach wisdom in the inmost place." (Ps. 51:6).

Since it's so much in the news today the question occurred to me, "What does the BP oil spill in the Gulf teach me about my interior life?" At the time that I am writing this blog we are in the 51st day of the Gulf Oil Disaster. Undoubtedly the ecological and environmental consequences of this catastrophe will far exceed any of the previous disasters. In the early days when we were first learning about the oil spill in the Gulf, the public was misinformed. BP Executives grossly underestimated in their initial reports the severity of the situation. Now we are learning that in spite of sophisticated attempts to plug the well, it continues to spew upwards of 25,000 barrels of oil every 24 hours. Do the math--a barrel contains approximately 40 gallons of oil equalling 1,000,000 gallons of oil dumping into the Gulf every 24 hours. Scientists tell us that the oil is pouring forth from a source more than a mile below the surface of the ocean. At first, the effects of the oil spill remained secluded, buried and out-of-view from the public eye. But now in its fifty-first day, the whole world knows what was once hidden. What was innermost in the ocean floor is now uppermost in people's minds. The once beautiful azure and turquoise waters of the Gulf are now laced and stripped with currents of brown, oily pollutants. Pristine sandy beaches are being threatened, marine life is being drenched with petroleum, fishing industries have suffered, and the livelihoods of thousands have been affected. And now weather scientists are predicting an unusually severe hurricane season raising the strong possibility that the toxic mass now present in the Gulf will be carried by the loop current up the Atlantic seaboard. All of this because, what originated in the inmost place of the ocean floor has now reached the surface.

What does an environmental disaster teach me about the spiritual life? For one, whenever I ignore the "inmost" place, I run the very real risk of setting the stage for the release of harmful pollutants and toxins into my relational world, my ethical world and my spiritual world. Whenever I cut corners devotionally, ignore divine standards morally and fail to monitor my heart personally, it's only a matter of time before what was once hidden and concealed from the public eye eventually rises to the surface. Usually by that time the damage is already done.

S t r e t c h e d

Saturday, March 27, 2010

On Rabbits and Being Real

A couple of days ago I did something I rarely do. I read a children’s book. Don’t worry, it wasn’t for remedial purposes—I just wanted to read a simple story. My regular reading diet often includes selections like biblical commentaries, theology books, sermons, occasionally a novel or biography—but rarely do I ever read a children’s book!

I thought it was time—time to break out of my reading rut and introduce a genre of reading that I’m less familiar with—a child’s book. The great thing about juvenile literature; it doesn’t take as long to finish. My book of choice: Margery Williams’ classic The Velveteen Rabbit. Long before Pixar produced Toy Story, Margery Williams used vivid imagination to personify a “fat and bunchy” rabbit whose coat was “spotted brown and white and his ears were lined with pink sateen.” Williams delicately portrays how the velveteen rabbit was naturally very shy, often overlooked by its owner and frequently snubbed by the more expensive mechanical toys.

But there was one toy in particular who took notice of the rabbit—the Skin Horse. He was old, bald in a few places, and had been around long enough to see a lot of the mechanical toys come and go. One day the Rabbit asked the Skin Horse, “What is REAL? Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” The Skin Horse replied, “Real isn’t how you are made, it’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.”

Nowadays it seems a lot of people are asking the same question the Velveteen Rabbit asked the Skin Horse, “What is Real?” As proof that the question is very much on the minds of many, our culture has fallen in love with a popular entertainment offering called, “Reality TV.” Frankly, I find most reality shows hardly seem real to me at all! Nevertheless, we are very interested in what it means to be real these days.

The Skin Horse is right: the moment any of us truly become real is the moment we understand just how deeply we are loved. “It’s a thing that happens to you.” This is the Gospel—a real man born in real time in a real place. He lived a real life and died a real painful death. And then judging by the countless numbers of people he appeared to after his death, he REALLY rose again. God’s proof of love is this: He sent the Lovely One to die for this very unlovely one. Moreover, when unlovely people suddenly discover they are deeply loved—there is no need to become anything other than REAL!

One day the Rabbit asked the Skin Horse, “Does it hurt to become real?” “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

C.S. Lewis once said, “As an adolescent I would have been ashamed to have been found reading fairy tales. Now that I am 50 I read them in public. For when I became a man, I put away childish things especially the fear of childishness.”

When I was a child my heart was filled with wonder. But when I grew up I needed something else—I need the Gospel.

S t r e t c h e d

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ripple Effect

For two days I’ve been in San Jose, Costa Rica learning about a ministry that’s pioneering new and creative ways to train and equip church leaders throughout the Spanish-speaking world. It’s called ProMETA and the word “ProMETA” is a Spanish acronym for Programas de Maestria en Estudios Teologicos Accesibles. In short, it means, Master’s Programs in Accessible Theological Studies. All the study programs offered through ProMETA are conducted entirely through the Internet. They are leveraging technology to create virtual learning communities all around the Spanish-speaking world. Not even ten years old, ProMETA is already successfully training experienced and seasoned leaders in 24 different countries with minimal overhead and impressive results.

Thorough research indicates that Christianity’s center of gravity has shifted dramatically in the past fifty years from the northern hemisphere centers of influence (North America and Northern Europe) to the southern hemisphere centers (Asia, Africa and Latin America). In 1980 there were roughly 17 million evangelical believers throughout Latin America. Today there are more than 60 million evangelicals. Studies indicated that everyday throughout Latin America some 8,000 people come to faith. If you do the math, that’s a staggering statistic. But here’s the challenge. While the Spanish speaking church has exploded with growth, there is a disproportionate growth in leadership to meet that growth demand. And unless there is a strategy of multiplication, that disproportionate statistic is likely to increase.

A strategy of multiplication works like a ripple. A small drop of water released into a larger pool thus creating a ripple effect. The larger and weightier the drop of water, the larger the ripple effect. This week I’ve heard numerous examples of the power of a ripple effect. I met a young Venezuelan leader this week named Samuel. His English was certainly better than my Spanish, but through an interpreter his story managed to move me deeply and illustrate the “ripple” of multiplication. Samuel is a key Latin American leader in his country. He is enrolled as a distance learner in ProMETA and recently took an online Master’s course in church planting. He ministers in a city with a population of 1 million people. After he completed the course he decided to take what he learned and share it with 100 pastors whom he oversees in his denominational setting in Venezuela. Samuel reflects the Apostle Paul’s strategy, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). They met for a week, unpacked the principles of church planting, discussed strategies, videotaped each session, closed with prayer and returned to their homes. Days later someone suggested they place the training on YouTube. Within days Samuel was flooded with over 500 requests throughout his country to come and conduct the same training in their area. He did and as a result of multiplying his influence, 20 new churches sprung up on Venezuelan soil. That’s the “ripple” of multiplication. Technology has not only created a “flat” world, it has created an “open” world too.

It is true that sometimes technology can be used in ways that actually detracts from our message and hinders our effectiveness. But before throwing the proverbial “baby out with the bathwater,” I need to reflect about all the ways technology is helping to advance the Gospel and strengthen the church across the world. And a good place to begin is to consider ProMETA ( I learned this week that when godly men and women blend the science of technology with the truth of Scripture powerful kingdom-sized ripples result.

Speaking of technology…. I think I’ll sign off,

S t r e t c h e d

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Shhhhhh….Don’t Talk About IT!

Last weekend I spoke to over 200 university students at a conference sponsored by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. The topic: Sexuality. As I was doing my final preparations last week for the three talks I was to give, I received a phone call from a woman who used to attend our church (she no longer attends because of relocation, not because she was mad). She had called to inform me that her son would be in attendance at the conference and when he heard that I was the main speaker his comment to his mother was, “Oh, Pastor Lee—he’s the Sex-Pastor!” Now I’ve been called a lot of things, but that’s a new one! Apparently this young man had heard me speak on the topic some time ago and it made quite an impression on him. Whether the impression was good or bad, I’m not too sure!

Some may think the word sex and the word religious or God or spiritual don't even belong in the same sentence with one another. And yet maybe the two are more closely related than we think. It’s rather difficult to talk about one without talking about the other. Let me explain: it’s hard to talk about sex without talking about how we are designed as human beings. Which leads to a deeper and more profound question, “Who made us?”

Most of the time whenever Christians or those associated with the church talk about the subject of sex, we begin the conversation at the wrong place. More often than not, we use as our starting point the numerous prohibitions about sexual behavior in the Bible (plentiful, to be sure!). As a consequence, we shroud the subject matter with a cloak of negativity. Simply put, we are ashamed to talk about, dare I say it—our sexuality! However, God is not the least bit ashamed or embarrassed to talk about sexuality. In fact, he does a rather masterful job of explaining it in the first two chapters of the Bible—Genesis 1and 2. And every time Jesus and Paul spoke about the subject in the New Testament, they always seem to start the discussion by pointing back to Genesis 1 & 2 (cf. Matthew 19:3 and I Corinthians 6). What God was not ashamed to create, we should not be afraid to talk or think about.

Let’s be honest to God! We in the church are not at our best when it comes to the issue of sexuality. We are known more for what we are “against” than what we are “for.” So it’s no surprise that when a Christian group decides to discuss it, controversy lurks right around the corner. And the conference last weekend was no exception! The Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (GLBT) campus group was up in arms about the conference. They managed to circulate misinformation and rumors about the sponsoring organization Inter-Varsity, as well as about me, the conference speaker. The campus GLBT was operating with the erroneous assumption that the whole conference was intended to target the gay community and denounce homosexuality. Because of those misguided assumptions they organized protests, registered their complaint with school officials and even attended some of the conference sessions.

What impressed me most was how the conference organizers chose to address the concerns of the GLBT representatives. Admittedly, we’ve not always won a lot of style points by our attitudes and actions toward those in the gay community. All too often the church is viewed as homophobic and oppressive. The gay community in this case was upset, angry and ready for a fight. But on this day I saw something different. What the GLBT encountered last weekend from these Christians was not quite what they were expecting. I witnessed courageous Inter-Varsity campus leaders leading the entire conference in prayers of humble confession for our sins of indifference, arrogance and self-righteousness toward those in the gay community. We asked THEM to forgive US for our sometimes less-than-Christian attitudes! But we were also unapologetic about our belief in God’s original design for marriage and human sexuality as portrayed in Genesis 1 & 2—a belief that the church has unanimously held for 2,000 years.

Here’s what I learned through my weekend experience. We need to speak about sexuality, but we need to speak with a different voice—a voice that affirms the positive, noble, redemptive and virtuous view of sexuality presented in the pages of Scripture. We need to speak with kindness and humility—not with arrogance and anger. And we need to enter into conversations with those confused about matters sexual, but do so with sensitivity, saneness and the scent of Christlikeness.

Let’s talk about IT,

S t r e t c h e d