Beyond The Pale

Thoughts on Kingdom, Grace, Culture, and Church

Beyond The Pale - Thoughts on Kingdom, Grace, Culture, and Church

Peter Rollins and “Holy Ghosts”

peter-rollins1In just a few hours I’ll be hopping on a plane for LONG flight from Hong Kong to London and then on to Belfast Northern Ireland.

The reason?

I’ll be attending Peter Rollin’s 4 day Holy Ghosts event or, as it is officially known by its much cooler sounding moniker, Holy Ghosts: A Boutique Arts and Theo-poetic event curated by Peter Rollins

Yes, Beyond the Pale is going on the road and I’m taking you along for the ride.  During the next few days as time (and wifi) is available I’ll be making some (brief) posts about the event and my experience during it.

If you follow Beyond the Pale at all you know Peter Rollin’s work and ministry has had a real impact on my Christian walk over the last couple years.  I feel very fortunate that I’ll be able to attend Holy Ghosts this week.  I’ve known about the event for a few months now but never really imagined I would be able to get to Belfast for it.  Through a series of fortunate events (and a very supportive wife) I found the opportunity laid at my feet.

So off to Belfast I go…

Peter is known for embracing doubt and “unknowing” as a necessary aspect of our walk with God.  He has an adept way of turning concepts about God on their head and making you examine whether your relationship with him has been constructed on something solid…or artificial.  The 4 day event be a mixture of talks, music, film, poetry, and story-telling.  As Peter notes in a recent update the guest list of speakers and performers will be both diverse and impactful:

I’m currently getting ready to leave for Belfast to put the finishing touches on my Holy Ghosts event before next weeks kick off. Over four days we have the following people joining us,

Screenwriter and director Phil Harrison (showing his award winning short Even Gods and his feature film The Good Man ahead of it’s cinematic release in May), academics Katharine Moody, John Caputo (via Skype) and Gladys Ganiel, poet Padraig O Tuama, artists Jonny McEwen and Micah Purnell, musicians Duke Special and John Hardt, politician John Kyle, and psychoanalyst Chris Fry.

It’s sounds kinda all over the place… which is just the way I like things!

For those of you unfamiliar with Peter Rollins here is a brief YouTube clip where he explains how he founded his faith community in a Belfast pub and some of the activities they use to help people think about their faith.

Anyhow, I’m looking at the clock. 2 hours till I leave and I’m not done packing yet.  Hong Kong to London via Singapore…talk to you again from the U.K.



The “Cloud” Is Moving But Is The Church Ready To Move With It?

In 22 years of marriage my wife Tammy and I have lived in 8moving-house2 different locations. We have moved from Hong Kong, to Colorado, to China, and then back to Hong Kong. In the process we have learned not to accumulate too much unnecessary “stuff” in our lives and can be surprisingly brutal when it comes to parting with “treasures” at those times that we find ourselves on the move again.

And we will move again…


Israel on the Move

In the book of Numbers the Israelites were in a similar lifestyle arrangement.

They were constantly on the move…

Having been delivered from captivity in Egypt they found themselves following the presence of God in the form of a cloud out in the desert.

 When the Cloud lifted above the Tent, the People of Israel marched out; and when the Cloud descended the people camped…As long as the Cloud was over The Dwelling, they camped. Even when the Cloud hovered over The Dwelling for many days, they honored God’s command and wouldn’t march. They stayed in camp, obedient to God’s command, as long as the Cloud was over The Dwelling, but the moment God issued orders they marched.

If the Cloud stayed only from sunset to daybreak and then lifted at daybreak, they marched. Night or day, it made no difference—when the Cloud lifted, they marched. It made no difference whether the Cloud hovered over The Dwelling for two days or a month or a year, as long as the Cloud was there, they were there. And when the Cloud went up, they got up and marched. They camped at God’s command and they marched at God’s command.

Numbers 9:17-23 (The Message Bible)


Now I can imagine if you only camped a night and the cloud moved you’d be ready to go right away.  You wouldn’t have even really unpacked at all.

But what if the cloud hadn’t moved for a month?

By then you’d have figured out where the good watering holes are.  You’d figured where to set your chair at a certain time of day not to get too hot or cold. You would have begun to get comfortable…

What if the cloud hadn’t moved in a year?

By then you would have made that temporary dwelling tent a little more permanent.  Maybe an extra room added on?  You would have perhaps built a hammock to catch the cool breeze you know always picks up at a certain time in the afternoon or taught your child how to fish in the pond near your tent.

You would have built a home…

And then the cloud suddenly lifts …

…God is moving!

And you have a decision to make.  Do you stay…or do you go?

Do you break down the semi-permanent structures you erected while you were camped in order to follow God? Do you give away that big comfy chair that you loved so much while bivouacked but would be totally dead weight while on the move?

Do you give up:

* familiarity

* security

* comfort

in order to be led by God?

Do you stay…or do you go?


The Cloud is still Moving

We may not have a physical cloud to follow but God’s presence is moving today every bit as much as it did for the Israelites all those years ago. I’d like to think that when God’s cloud moved back then there had been a lot of excitement.

I imagine there was…

…I can also imagine there were a lot of groans!

“Are you kidding me! I finally got everything settled just the way I like it and now God decides to move? What’s wrong with this place?  God led us herehere seems good enough?  Look at all the good things we have and all that we have accomplished here.

I don’t want to move!

I could see a lot of agitation by those who were settled in the present arrangement towards those that we excited about moving on. People who are enthusiastically packing their bags and willing to follow where God is leading can be very irritating to those sitting in a big religious comfy chair!


Pastor Brian Zahnd echos this “fork in the road” decision that is looming for the church in a recent article :

Western Christianity is at a critical juncture. Those who care deeply about the church are aware of this. Things are not as they once were. Things are changing. Dramatically so. Even if we don’t understand what is happening, we can certainly feel it…

…There is a sense in which we have come to the end of the line—not the end of the line for Christianity, but the end of the line for the track we have been on. We are like people on a subway who have taken a particular train as far as it will go. We now find ourselves sitting in the terminus. We have two choices. We can sit on a train that is going nowhere, or we can disembark and find our way through the confusing labyrinth of the terminus and locate the proper platform to catch the train which will take us farther down the line.

Brian Zahnd- “End of the Line”



I love the place I am currently living.  We have lived in our little 1000 sq. foot Hong Kong apartment now for 4 years, 3 months and 6 days. We have good friends and a tight knit community.   I have a small balcony on the 21st floor where I can sit in the evenings and watch the large ocean container ships stream by across the channel below. Its relaxing and I love it!

But I know I will not always have it.

At some point the cloud will move and it will be time for us to pack again.  Knowing this makes me all the more appreciative of what I have now.  And it makes me realize what is really important.

See, when we move, stuff will get thrown out!  So I try not to get to attached to “stuff” because that “stuff” may have to go.  The only guaranteed thing that remains during a move is my family.

Our relationship…

Our togetherness…

Yes, there is stress during a move and tempers can flare.  There has never been for us a “stress-free” move!  What we have come to realize though is the more “stuff” that has to be jettisoned, the more stress.

Likewise a “move” is coming for the church; and it’s causing a bit of stress!  A lot of people are clinging to semi-permanant structures and stuff that won’t be able to come with

…and its causing some strife and stress.

What we have to remember though is its the family that is important!

The world will know we are Christ’s disciples by the love we have for each other.

As we make this “move” let’s remember to have grace for all our family members;

both those who are excited about the next leg of the journey…and those who aren’t!

Despite Flaws, Aronofsky’s “Noah” Shows God Is With Us And Not Against Us

noah 1finally got some time to check out the Darren Aronofsky film Noah everyone has been talking about.  My Facebook feed has been filled with Christians sharing the pros and cons of the film for days now.  I hadn’t seen it yet so I stayed quiet.  (A strategy others may want to consider)

But now I have and…

… I really enjoyed it!

It  was a good movie that had some great parts.

Understand though I am not an Aronofsky fan.  His last movie, the Academy Award winning Black Swan, I could only watch for half the film before shutting it off and regretting the hour of my life I had wasted on it.

But Noah is strong film making; A wonderfully told tale of the human condition with all of our tragedy and beauty laid bare for the audience to experience.

I do understand a lot of friends were concerned at some of the liberties taken in the movie.  But other than the “rock angels” (which are admittedly a big stretch) Aronofsky simply supplies motive and emotions to the principal characters which the Bible remains largely silent on.

A lot of the details of the Noah story, we really don’t know!




Noah is really “us”

The part of the movie I struggled with the most was while Noah’s family are on the ark they discover that Shem’s wife is pregnant.  Aronofsky’s Noah is convinced that it is God’s desire that all humanity die.  He believes when the creatures they have rescued are safely delivered after the flood his family will live out their lives and then die one by one allowing creation to go on without Mankind’s wickedness.

Because of this Noah announces that if the child Shem’s wife is carrying is a boy he will allow it to live and die naturally but if it is a girl he will “strike her down” immediately as a woman could become a mother to a new race of humans.

Everyone is horrified and as the pregnancy develops Noah becomes more and more insane as he internally tries to reconcile his natural heart of mercy with obedience to God and the judgement he requires.

I found the whole sequence really disturbing…

…and then I realized why.

Noah is US!  More than likely the real Noah had no such internal dilemma but Aronofsky’s Noah had the classic religious struggle that has wrecked lives both inside and outside the church for centuries.

* Noah thinks he knows God’s will!

* God’s will demands judgement which Noah doesn’t really understand

* Noah believes that judgement trumps any love or forgiveness he may feel 

* By conveying judgement rather than love Noah feels he is remaining “faithful” to God.

* By remaining “faithful” to a warped understanding of God’s will, Noah wrecks havoc in the lives of those he cares about most.

Its only when mercy and compassion are finally extended that the relational healing between Noah and his family can begin to take place.

And then it hit me!

When Noah was at his most demented I suddenly saw

* every hell fire and damnation preacher.

* every prophet who proclaims coming judgement on America because of the iniquity of her sins.

* every parent who cut off relationship with a child because they were gay, joined another faith, got pregnant etc.

* every protester, blogger, speaker, and teacher who has projected their warped image of God and his nature to the world.

They do it because they think they are doing God’s will!

They know what God wants…and like Aronofsky’s Noah, they don’t.


Stewards of the Earth

Finally, one of the elements I particularly enjoyed in the film was the focus Noah had on continuing God’s commission to mankind that we be the stewards of creation.  We are to cultivate and nurture the earth!

 God created human beings;
he created them godlike,
Reflecting God’s nature.
He created them male and female.
God blessed them:
“Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!
Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air,
for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”

 Then God said, “I’ve given you
every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth
And every kind of fruit-bearing tree,
given them to you for food.
To all animals and all birds,
everything that moves and breathes,
I give whatever grows out of the ground for food.”
And there it was.

Genesis 1: 28-30 The Message

There is a beautiful scene when the family is in the ark. The storm is raging all around them so Noah recounts the story of creation as told through Genesis to his wife and children.  Its was a beautifully shot scene and a wonderful reminder of what God blessed us with “in the beginning”

Of course that “stewards of the Earth” message did have its detractors.  One blog writer warned;

the early reports indicate that the Noah film will not be in line with the Biblical account of Noah’s ark and the flood, but instead will push a liberal, political message focused on the environmental agenda.

Apparently someone forgot to tell God back in Genesis 1 that he was pushing  ”a liberal, political message focused on the environmental agenda.”

Oh well…

Does Noah have its flaws?  Certainly. Its not a great movie but it had some great moments.





Brian McLaren and Why Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Crossed The Road

BrianmcLaren1Within the Christian community the name Brian McLaren elicits either declarations of gratitude or cries of “heretic” depending on where one stands on a number of theological issues.

The gratitude part tends to come from people who want to follow Christ but are put off  having to accept the package he often comes wrapped in.  The “heretic” moniker is usually leveled by more traditional elements of the evangelical church who tend to frown on the way McLaren overturns tables in their temples.

That said, McLaren’s new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? will give the gratitude crowd more to be grateful for while the “heretic” crowd will, well, they won’t read it but will certainly declare it heretical anyway.

The Focus

McLaren writes Why Did Jesus with a desire to help Christians maintain their Christian identity in an increasingly pluralistic world.  He argues that a Christian’s attitude toward people of other religions has been primarily seen through two different paradigms.  Conservative forms of Christianity tend to have a “strong / hostile” attitude characterized by a strong Christian identity with a hostile view of other beliefs.  More liberal forms of Christianity in contrast tend to have a “weak / benign” paradigm (i.e. a weaker Christian identity but perceived to be more benign to other religions)

McLaren says in fairness the conservatives don’t desire to be hostile per se, but in their genuine desire for a strong Christian identity it can, unfortunately, manifest as hostility to their non-Christian neighbors.  Like wise liberal Christians don’t necessarily desire a weaker Christian identity, but it can be the unwanted result of a focus on maintaining a benign attitude in a multi-faith setting.

Mclaren though suggests that both of these paradigms are in error.  That Jesus, in fact, demonstrates a better way; one characterized by a strong Christian identity underpinned with a benevolent relationship to those outside the faith.

Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren

Embracing “the Other”

The book’s title is a play on the “What happened when the chicken crossed the road” joke.  McLaren suggests that Jesus crosses the road to get to “the other”.

 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners (“the other”).

Romans 5:8

In recorded civilization there has been the historical conflict between “us” and “them”.  Them is “the other”; those outside our race, culture, religion and tribe.  They are the ones who don’t fly our flag, wear our colors, or support our team.

Those are the ones Jesus embraced, gave a voice to, and ultimately died for!

He showed us that the way to demonstrate our belief in him was not how we treated “us” (our team) but how we treated “them” (the other).

But Mclaren argues the fear of “us” is a more manipulative force on Christians than any fear produced by “the other”:

Ironically, Us can be as great a threat to each of us as the Other is, probably greater.  Us might withdraw its approval of me.  It might label me disloyal, unsupportive, unbeliever, unorthodox, liberal,anathema, etc.  To be rebuked, marginalized, or excluded by Us is and even greater threat than to be attacked by the Other…

…Our fear becomes all the more acute when we venture to do what many of us in this dialogue are doing; we are daring to defend and humanize the Other.

Brian McLaren “Why did Jesus”- pg 47

I’ve been in Christian settings like that.  Where someone suggests the genuine love a Muslim or a Jew may have toward God only to watch the uneasy silence and shifting in seats of those in attendance.  There is a fear that somehow we not being “faithful” if we don’t counter such a suggestion.

But it doesn’t have to be so…

Throughout the book McLaren provides a road map using anecdotes, history, and the pattern Christ showed us in the scriptures on how a “strong / benevolent” identity can be cultivated in the church today.

In order for that to happen though we may need to risk crucifixion at the hands of Us in order to reach out with compassion to the Other.



The Church Is Changing: Will Believers Start Bypassing Christianity to Follow Christ?

change_articles-400x264Rachel Held Evans has been one of the “go to” blogs for commentary on the unfolding World Vision controversy.  Today, in an article for CNN, Rachel argues that in their desire to win a culture war, Evangelical Christians have lost a generation.


As I grieved with my (mostly 20- and 30-something) readers over this ugly and embarrassing situation, I heard a similar refrain over and over again: “I don’t think I’m an evangelical anymore. I want to follow Jesus, but I can’t be a part of this.”

Increasingly children growing up in evangelical homes are saying,  “We want to follow Jesus, but that system you are selling, no thanks!”

Which begs the question, “Could following Christ possibly mean bypassing Christianity?”


The Apostle Paul’s Dilemma

For many Christians following Christ equates to the pre-packaged religious system they’ve been brought up with.

You want to follow Christ, you must first become a Christian; and as part of that process there is then a number of rituals, behaviors, ceremonies, and disciplines to be learned.


Heck, there is even a language (Christianese) to be mastered which is near indiscernible to outsiders.

A not so subtle pressure is placed on new people believing in Christ to conform to that pre-packaged religious system.  You may just want Christ, but you also get this, that, and the other thing.  It’s like subscribing to cable TV because you want the History Channel and finding out you have to also get MTV and the Trinity Broadcasting Network as part of the package!

The Apostle Paul dealt with this same situation in the years following Jesus’ ascension.  See, back then there were no Christians.  People who followed and believed in Jesus were called…


Jesus was a Jew.  All of the disciples were Jews.  All of the earliest believers in Christ were Jews.  However as the Apostle Paul took the Good News of Christ beyond the Jewish homeland into Asia Minor and Greece a huge debate began to take place.

Did “Gentiles” (non-Jews) hearing about Christ’s Love and desiring to receive it have to conform to the Jewish law first to confirm their new relationship with God?

A LOT of believers thought so.

Imagine if your whole life you had been told that the way of following God equated to following a certain set of religious laws and observances.  Your daily life literally revolved around it. The chance that you would be open to the idea of a relationship with God minus those laws and observances would probably be nil and none

Well, nil and none, except for the Grace of God…which was just what Paul happened to be sharing.

But as he shared that message he was constantly harassed by religious Jews who were insisting that the new believers in Jesus first

* be circumcised if they were male

* follow the Jewish Law

* observe the Jewish Feasts

Essentially in order to become a Christian…you had to first become a Jew.

(Watch from 1:40)

In the movie Peter and Paul there is a great scene where Paul is trying to explain the success of the number of Greeks coming to Christ including Titus who is with him. Foreigners are opening their hearts to Jesus!  Cause to celebrate right?


The religious folk don’t care about that.  What are they concerned with?

Whether Titus is circumcised or not.

Sound familiar?

Paul counters that their religious pre-conditions are in fact trying to “affect a monopoly on the Grace of God by which men will have to first go through them in order to obtain it”

Its the age old problem.  Getting past the gatekeepers to get to God.

In the first century the question was “Does a Gentile need to first become a Jew to have relationship with Jesus?”

In the 21st Century the question is becoming, “Does a Gentile need to first become a Christian to have a relationship with Jesus?

According to many young evangelicals the answer is increasingly sounding like “no”!


“…and they were first called Christians at Antioch”

The term Christian  was pejorative at first.  It meant “little Christ”.  Believers in Christ took the mantle however as a moniker of their genuine desire to follow in the Way of Jesus.

Over the centuries the term has got a little muddled though…

A co-worker who is vocally non-Christian was chatting with me the other day.  I mentioned how we had a teenage friend of my son staying with us for a few weeks while a difficult domestic situation at her home got sorted out.  Mentioning the notoriously small size of Hong Kong flats he suggested most people wouldn’t be open to being put out like that.  I admitted it had its challenges “space-wise” but the young person is in need right now with no where to stay.  “Taking her in is part of the way Jesus taught us.” I said.

“You know, if Christianity was more known for stuff like that, I’d be more open to it,” he replied.

There was a time when that WAS what Christianity was know for.

My prayer is that “Christian” is not what new believers have to become in order to follow in the Way of Jesus but is instead simply describes someone who is already following in the Way.

Evangelicals may have lost a generation but thankfully Jesus won’t!

Some More Thoughts on the World Vision Controversy


A couple days ago I contributed to the deluge of opinion on the recent controversy surrounding World Vision with a satirical post of my own.

Needless to say I received more than the usual amount of feedback:

* some loved it

* some hated it

* some appreciated it but thought I went to far

For the record I admittedly went to far…that is the nature of satire.

Let me say though, I have great respect for World Vision (I’ve worked with them in Hong Kong on occasion) and their President Richard Stearns.  Stearns was unfortunately put in a situation he could not win.  Either he:

* admit he had made a “mistake” in allowing same-sex employees to be hired and reverse the policy back


* watch the funding for thousands of impoverished children disappear as ideologically driven Evangelicals pull their support in protest.

Richard Stearns did what someone who wants to imitate Jesus would do; he put the needs of the poor and disenfranchised first…at the cost of his own reputation.

My friend Tom Read wrote a very insightful post noting that in this whole controversy there are no winners, only losers.  He suggests those being hurt are not only World Vision and the children they support, but the church at large as well:

Some Christians will see this as a victory, but it isn’t. There is a time and a place to “make a stand” for what you believe in, and this wasn’t one of them.

The simple truth is that it doesn’t matter one single bit to the children being supported by World Vision whether those working there are gay, straight, single, married, divorced, black, white, or green. What this has done is further expose what I consider to be the “dark side of Christianity”, a side that has nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with religion, politics, and ideology.

It doesn’t matter how you term it, it’s rotten, and it’s something that Christians should be ashamed of. There is not a single instance in the bible where Jesus refuses to help someone because he disagrees with their lifestyle. He loved people unconditionally. The moment we put conditions on our love and support, we lose the heart of Jesus.

Tom’s thoughts echo my heart on the subject minus the satire :)  I encourage you all to check out the full post here

We have a God who can bring Life even out of this “bad” situation.  Perhaps awareness can be raised to the real issue at stake; that hundreds of thousands of children are waking up this morning malnourished and in need.

Put all ideology aside wherever you stand on this issue and consider sponsoring a child today.  You can do so at World Vision here!



World Vision’s Open Letter Reversing Their Decision to Hire Same-Sex Couples: With My Translation


Hi all,

If you are like me you may have been confused by World Vision’s declaration that it would begin allowing legally married same-sex individuals to be employed by the Christian relief agency only to have that decision suddenly reversed 48 hours later.

Originally Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, had stated the reason for the change:

 World Vision hopes to dodge the division currently “tearing churches apart” over same-sex relationships by solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor.

Mr. Stearns statement, however much it was birthed in the Kingdom of God, did not go over well in Evangelical America.  A deluge of protest engulfed World Vision with calls for funding to be withdrawn from some of the biggest names in Christendom.

Two days later World Vision realized the Kingdom of Heaven may be the goal but Evangelical America presently foots their bills.  In an open letter Richard Stearns “reversed” their decision and acknowledged their “mistake”.

Below is a copy of Mr. Stearns letter but because many of you may be unfamiliar with vague code words of Evangelical diplomacy I have provided my version of a translation for your benefit (enjoyment)


Dear Friends,

Today, the World Vision U.S. board publicly reversed (capitulated) its recent decision to change our national employment conduct policy. The board acknowledged they made a mistake (in trying to act like Jesus) and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy (pre-conditions for serving the poor and needy) requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

We are writing to you our trusted partners and Christian leaders (Pharisees and Hypocrites) who have come to us in the spirit of Matthew 18 (anti-Christ) to express your concern in love and conviction. (through coercion and intimidation)  You (don’t) share our desire to come together in the Body of Christ around our mission to serve the poorest of the poor. We have listened (heard your threats) to you and want to say thank you (cry “Uncle”) and to humbly ask (beg) for your forgiveness (our funding back).

In our board’s effort to unite around the church’s shared mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ, we failed (succeeded) to be consistent with World Vision U.S.’s commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” And we also failed to seek enough counsel from our own Christian partners (evangelical Right Wing). As a result, we made a change to our conduct policy that was not consistent with our Statement of Faith and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage. (as I’m certain none of our more than 1,100 U.S. employees are divorced)

We are brokenhearted over ( the loss of our funding)  and the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends (the folks who wrote nasty e-mails to us), who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority (sign that World Vision was going to hire Caligula). We ask that you understand that this was never the board’s intent. We are asking for your continued support (funding). We commit to you that we will continue to listen to the wise counsel of Christian brothers and sisters (promise to do what we are told), and we will reach out to key partners (stumbling blocks to Christian Ministry) in the weeks ahead (starting with a Kowtow to Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council).

While World Vision U.S. stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage, we strongly affirm that all people, regardless of their  (except those with a different) sexual orientation, are created by God and are to be loved and treated with dignity and respect. (But maybe not today) 

Please know that World Vision continues to serve all people in our ministry around the world. We pray that you will continue to join with  (fund) us in our mission to be “an international partnership of Christians whose mission is to (get all of you Evangelical leaders who threatened us to) follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice, and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God

Sincerely in Christ,
Richard Stearns, President                     
Jim Beré, Chairman of the World Vision U.S. Board

Complicated Answers to Simple Questions: Why Jesus Is Still Overturning Our Religious Boxes


QuestionsWhile visiting Shanghai on business last week I had dinner Friday evening with some colleagues from work. The mainland Chinese waiter who took our order did what I have experienced hundreds of times while traveling in China. Wanting to practice his English he asked the question that always gets the ball rolling, “Where do you come from”?

In that moment I have a decision to make. I can:

* give the simple answer he expects, “Wo shi Mei Guo ren” (I am American) and end this conversation fairly quick


* give the complicated answer, “Wo shi Xiang Gang ren” (I am from Hong Kong) and watch the smile on his face give way to a confused stare as 21st century globalization invades his tidy world.

With some time to kill before the dinner arrived I went with the latter to see how far down the rabbit hole this young man was willing to go.

“I’m from Hong Kong” I answered.

Yep, sure enough, he looked perplexed. Then he smiled like he figured I was just pulling his leg, “I don’t think so,” he laughed nervously.

I reached into wallet, pulled out my Hong Kong Identity Card, and handed it to him. There in both English and Chinese was proof that Hong Kong considered me one of it’s own. As he examined my ID card trying to figure out how a “foreigner” had one another friend from work arrived. Greeting him I said, “Kit, our waiter doesn’t seem to believe I’m from Hong Kong.”

Kit, who is ethnically Chinese, also decided to forgo the simple answer (Hong Kong) and instead chose to compound our waiter’s confusion by verifying I was indeed from Hong Kong and introducing himself to the young man as Canadian. (Which he is)

White guys from Hong Kong? Chinese guys from Canada?

The poor waiter! His world was just turned upside down.


Our Tidy Little Boxes

Our waiter that evening lived in a simple world with tidy ethnic boxes. Whether someone was white, black, yellow, or brown was determined by regional areas with restricted options. For this young man keeping people in these boxes helped him navigate the world in a way that made sense to him.

child and box

But we all like our tidy little boxes…don’t we? Especially when it comes to matters of faith.

Because of my pastoral background, and no doubt because of this blog, I am often asked questions regarding Christianity.

* Grace and Law

* Heaven and Hell

* Faith & Healing

You name it…

In those moments I have to often make the same decision I made with the waiter. Do I

* give the simple answer that fits within their preconceived religious “box”


* give a Jesus answer


The Jesus Answer

Jesus dealt with this issue ALL the time. Read the gospels and you will see Christ often giving questioners a “simple” answer they expect and THEN when they digest that, he drops the answer that flips their boxes over and spills everything along the ground. Take for example a wealthy young man:

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“Follow the rules”: A simple answer which the wealthy young man could easily receive as it fits neatly in his box marked “Religion-Eternal Life- How to”. He should have stopped while he was ahead.

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Matthew 19:16-22

Then Jesus dropped the “complicated” answer on him. The answer that stretches him. The answer that forces him to exercise economic and relational muscles he didn’t want to exercise.

dropping boxes

The answer that will mold him into a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven which will bring life to himself and those he comes in contact with.

Jesus caused many of his followers to leave him when he gave answers that flipped their world upside down. That’s why he would often say things like, “Those of you that can accept it should accept it” (Matt 19:12) because some answers they just couldn’t accept.

On hearing it, many of his (Jesus) disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this (answer) offend you?…From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

John 6:60-61, 66

Many disciples of Christ today are still offended by what God is doing. 2000 years later it seems Jesus is still overturning the tables, stalls, and the carefully stacked boxes of our religious temples.

Conclusion: What Golf Club to Use?

Since moving back to Hong Kong I don’t get to golf near enough anymore. I really miss it. But I find answering people’s questions on Christianity a lot like golfing. In golf I have to size up the ball’s position (fairway or rough) and distance from the green while keeping in mind surrounding hazards. I then select the club that will best get me closest to the pin but I often have to make a decision on whether to “play it safe” or “go for it”. Playing it safe means pulling out the 7 iron and keeping it straight down the middle…but not very far.

sand shot

“Going for it” means pulling out the “Big Dog” club and hitting the ball farther and more spectacularly…albeit with a much bigger chance of going into a hazard.

When people pose theological questions to me I have to quickly size them up:

* What is their age?

* What is their faith history?

* What is the underlying motivation? (genuine or antagonistic)

* How tidy are their “boxes”?

* If they are a Christian, how long?

* What country or region do they come from?

Among others this allows me to determine the answer that will best bring Life to the person and to the encounter.

If the person is a bit older and been a Christian a long time I just may keep the ball down the middle of the fairway and away from any “trouble”.

If it is an inquisitive person without a lot of religious boxes I might just choose a club with a little longer distance in it.

Back again to the waiter I met in Shanghai, I could have answered either “American” or “Hong Kong” and both would have been an honest and correct answer. If I had answered “American” he would have smiled with knowing satisfaction. But I chose in that moment to pull the golf club marked “Hong Kong”, swing for the green, and give him an answer that would expand his world just a little bit farther.

2000 years later Jesus is still saying, “Those that can accept it, should accept it.”

It will overturn some tidy boxes but it’s an exciting ride.


God At The Movies: Jodie Foster in “Contact” and How Real Belief Transforms

god-at-the-moviesThere is a great scene at the end of the movie Contact where Jodie Foster is sitting before a Senate hearing committee in an attempt to “prove” she had an extraterrestrial encounter.

For those unfamiliar with the movie Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a young scientist that discovers an alien signal from space. The signal provides blueprints for the governments of Earth to construct a vehicle that, is assumed, will provide a single person journey to meet the aliens.

Arroway is sent and has an incredible encounter with the universe that fundamentally changes her perception of everything. However when she returns she discovers the vehicle she was in simply dropped off the launchpad, didn’t go anywhere, and no time had transpired.

Ellie has this experience that she can’t prove, that goes against her very being as a scientist,…and yet she can’t deny it.

(The courtroom scene starts at 1:20)

As she sits before the U.S. Senate Hearing Committee she is hounded by people on the panel that simply want her to recant her testimony:

		So why don't you admit what by your
		own standards must be the truth:
		that this experience simply didn't

			   (pauses, then,
		Because I can't.

		I had... an experience.  I can't
		prove it.  I can't even explain it.
		All I can tell you is that
		everything I know as a human being,
		everything I am -- tells me that it
		was real.

The room grows quiet.

		I was given something wonderful.
		Something that changed me.  A vision
		of the universe that made it
		overwhelmingly clear just how tiny
		and insignificant -- and at the same
		time how rare and precious we all
		are.  A vision... that tells us we
		belong to something greater than
		ourselves... that we're not -- that
		none of us -- is alone.

		I wish I could share it.  I wish
		everyone, if only for a moment --
		could feel that sense of awe, and
		humility... and hope.  That
		continues to be my wish.

Arroway as a Disciple

Christ’s disciples had a lot in common with Ellie Arroway.  They had an encounter, an experience, with a person who claimed he was the Son of God. But by all the laws of the natural world he was just an ordinary carpenter from an obscure region in Judea.

Nothing special…

But the experience his followers had when they encountered him fundamentally transformed them.  Despite all the stress (and physical beatings) they could have probably avoided by simply denying what they experienced…

…they couldn’t!

Then they (the temple priests) called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.  But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.

Acts 4:18-20

Since you can’t prove it, just say it didn’t happen…

We can’t…

Belief transforms…or it isn’t belief

The interesting part of belief is it becomes real, not when we defend it, but when it transforms us.  It wasn’t Arroway’s declaration in the Senate chamber that demonstrated she really believed what she had experienced…it was the scene showing her 18 months later.

In the final scene of Contact Ellie Arroway has a classroom of kids out in the dessert looking at the huge array of radio towers used for listening to the universe.  She is obviously a different person to what we saw before her experience.  She enthusiastically communicates the wonder and awe of the universe to the young students who are delightfully responding to her obvious passion.

Her experience hasn’t caused her to give up being a scientist, it has allowed her to become a better one!


Arroway’s encounter with the divine has transformed her.  It has reshaped the way she views everything including the way in which she teaches the children.

She knows

* she is not alone

* there is something “more” in the universe

* that “more” in the universe thinks she’s special

She’s changed and so she can’t help but share what she has seen and heard.  One of the great lines from the film is during the experience she realizes that their assumption of sending a scientist on this journey was wrong.  Gazing over the wonder she mutters in awe, “Poetry…they should have sent a poet.”

Writer and theologian Peter Rollins mentions how we can’t have 100 things in our life, then we add God and have 101.  No, God fundamentally alters the way we view and engage with those other 100 things in our life.

For the disciples of Christ the “proof” of their belief was years after the experience, when a transformed life was the trail left behind.

That should be our proof of “belief” as followers of Christ.  The proof of a life transformed!

Oh, and if you haven’t seen Contact yet…you should.  It’s one of my Top 10 movies of all time.

Mark Driscoll’s Open Letter Apology: Has the Mars Hill Pastor Finally Heard the Singing of the Whos Down in Whoville?

driscollI was a Mark Driscoll fan…and then I wasn’t!

Back in 2007 I didn’t know much about Driscoll other than he was that “swearing” pastor Donald Miller mentions in Blue Like Jazz.  Then a friend suggested I read his book Confessions of a Reformission Rev. (Conveniently I worked at Barnes & Noble at the time which meant just grabbing it off the shelf) 

Reading it I was struck by the raw energy Mark Driscoll possessed.  Here was a guy who had grew a church in Seattle Washington (no easy task) and seemed to just call ‘em as he saw them without a lot of regard to popular opinion (an attribute I have a particular soft spot for.)

When he took the men in his church to task saying something like “the Kingdom of God is not going to advance with guys who have their pants down around their ankles and a tissue in their hand” I nearly fell out of my chair.

Yep, I liked him

But then… the other stuff started coming out;

The Anger Guy

The Misogyny Guy

The Plagiarism Guy

The Control Freak Guy

The neo-Calvinist “God Hates You” Guy

Then there was the high profile exits of fellow Mars Hill Church leaders.

Finally last week news broke that Driscoll’s church had paid a marketing company US$ 210,000 to manipulate book sales of Mark’s new book Real Marriage to catapult it up to the top of the New York Times Bestseller lists.

Perhaps that was that final straw that did it…

Christianity Today is breaking a story of an open letter of apology Driscoll has written to his congregation.  In the letter he:

acknowledges an unhealthy spiritual aspect in himself and the church:

… it was clear that both the church and I were unhealthy in some ways,.. For years, I felt a joy in teaching the Bible and love for the people, but frankly was overwhelmed on how to organize and lead all that was happening… I was frustrated at my shortcomings, but needed help from people who were more experienced and mature. In my worst moments, I was angry in a sinful way. For those occasions, I am sorry.

apologizes for the recent controversy involving his new book:

Instead, I now see it as manipulating a book sales reporting system, which is wrong. I am sorry that I used this strategy, and will never use it again. I have also asked my publisher to not use the “#1 New York Times bestseller” status in future publications, and am working to remove this from past publications as well.

reaches out to leaders who left the church hurt and bitter:

I understand that people who saw or experienced my sin during this season are hurt and in some cases have not yet come to a place of peace or resolution. I have been burdened by this for the past year and have had private meetings one at a time to learn from, apologize to, and reconcile with people. Many of those meetings were among the most encouraging moments in my time at our church. Sadly, not all of those relationships are yet mended, but I am praying that God is gracious to get us to that place of grace. Now that others have come forward, my desire is to have similar meetings with those who are willing.

pledges to a new direction in regards to ministry

I have been deeply convicted by God that my angry-young-prophet days are over, to be replaced by a helpful, Bible-teaching spiritual father.


Is it possible?  Has the proverbial Grinch sitting atop his lair on Mars Hill finally heard the joyful singing of the Whos down in Whoville?

Could Mark Driscoll’s heart suddenly have grown three sizes that day?

We’ll have to see how this plays out I suppose but one thing I do know…

God loves Mark Driscoll and that means anything is possible!

I was a Mark Driscoll fan…and then I wasn’t…

…maybe I could be again!