A Dream about Jesus

Like most people, I dream about the things that happened to me during the previous day.  There was a period when I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder where I had recurring nightmares about the morgue I worked in after the World Trade Center attacks, but that was an exception.  Now, after good therapy, I am like most everyone else again—reprocessing the events of the day in dreams sometimes linear and sometimes non-linear.

In that context, one dream last week was very intriguing.  It was a dream about Jesus—Jesus of Nazareth the biblical figure—not the Jesus from Costa Rica who is my roofer.  I didn’t grow up with much awareness of Jesus Christ—my family was totally unchurched and I became an atheist in my early teens.

When I came to believe that Jesus was the Savior of the world and I committed my life to be His follower, I had a lot of learning to catch up.  I became passionate about understanding the real world my real Savior lived in.  That interest grew into my work in biblical archaeology.  I can easily teach several courses on the historical Jesus and the details of His earthly life and times.

How does this connect with last week’s dream?  Well, since I am a visual person I have very visual dreams.  I didn’t see Jesus in the flesh that day so my brain filled His image in with other available data.  And herein is the rub—Jesus was a line drawing.  Yes, the best my brain could do was a Sunday school handout Jesus—a cartoon Jesus.

I was so disappointed in myself.  All that reading and study—all those long hours touring ancient ruins—all that time and all I could come up with was a line drawing Jesus you could download for free from the internet—for coloring purposes.

Once I got over my self-castigation, I looked for some lessons to learn.  These I will share with you now.  First, the images we make and circulate of Jesus matter.  People put them in their heads and they fill in the visual side of the mental equation when they read, think, dream or imagine.  I am not arguing we create or become the picture police but it might be nice to seek out authentic renderings of Jesus and add them to the vast reservoir of schlock the church has generated through the centuries.  There are some good DVD’s for this—from The Passion of the Christ to The Jesus Film.  Maybe there are even some good line drawings out there—I need to check.

As a second lesson, I would say we need to read the Gospels more so we can affirm authentic images of Jesus.  I read a chapter each day of a given Bible book.   When I get to the end of the book I repeat the process at least three times.  When I had my dream last week I was just finishing the New Testament book of Hebrews—I did it five times.  Because of my dream I will do the Gospel of John several times and then go to the Gospel of Luke.  John portrays Jesus in His divinity and Luke emphasizes His humanity—a great balance.

The ultimate goal for the Christian is to know and love Jesus and not merely to picture Him.  But for those of us who are visual people, picturing Him is a natural thing.  I doubt if Jesus was concerned that I made Him a line drawing in my dream.  After all, anytime He needs me to see Him He can easily take care of that.  Maybe the message is that, despite any scholarship I achieve, I will connect to Jesus more as a child than a historian.  And, certainly, I will never go wrong spending more time in the Gospels.  So, I think I can live with that—even in my dreams.

Creativity and the Gospel

I have three very creative friends who are speaking creativity into my life right now.  Interacting with each of them is like a double-shot of espresso.  They have come alongside my life at a time when I have a chance to explore new media and dream new dreams of how people can be served, touched and transformed by the Gospel.  I wouldn’t be blogging without one of them.  I wouldn’t be engaging the internet for Gospel ministry if the other hadn’t been brought into my life.  I wouldn’t even be thinking about creativity today if the other had not shared things that were interesting to him.

When I look at their gifts at work, it always reminds me of the Creator.  God is full of imagination and creativity.  He has to be because humans are and we are created in His image.  If that weren’t evidence enough, the Creation is so diverse, so exotic that even the little that we can see and understand reveals a God who delights in complexity, variety and diversity.

But, alas, I am not my friends.  On their worst day, these two women and a man make me look like a dullard.  Their extreme creativity works for them because it is their authentic voice.  And that raises a caution about creativity in Christian ministry.  Sadly, so much so-called “creativity” in Christian ministry is a “me-too” rush to copy some beautiful creative expression that has arisen in some other corner of God’s kingdom.  In the most inauthentic way we copy it and stuff it down the throat of the people in our care.

I like to think of myself as a radical and innovative guy.  Some people may think of that as creativity but it isn’t.  Radical comes from the Latin word radix which means “root” as in the word radish.  Radicals are those who are willing to abandon the status quo and get back to the root of things.  For some that might be the Quran or the Torah but, for me, it is the Bible.  Of course, there is a danger that our interpretations of these foundational documents are wrong but it is not wrong to desire to overturn the status quo to create an authentic modern expression of what they teach.

The word innovation merely looks in the other direction.  Radicals are concerned about our origins but innovators want to look to the future—they want to build the next floor of whatever building in which they find themselves.  I would caution, however, that anyone who builds the next floor without a clear understanding of the foundations introduces a serious risk of collapse into the system.  Be warned.

So where do these creative people come in?  Ah, that’s the best part.  These artists—because they are artists whether they work with music, words or megabytes—these artists are the delightful provocateurs who are always offering new themes, new methods, new arrangements of venerable concepts that have become threadbare with time.  They have an authentic voice to speak into the church.

Without them we become stale—either locked into copying what everyone else is doing (we call this “contemporary”) or equally paralyzed doing what everyone else used to do (we call this “traditional”).  It sickens me that beautiful hymns, creeds and liturgies have been abandoned due to a lack of creativity in the church.  We need creative people—we need them very badly.  I am thankful that I have some in my life.  I hope you have some in yours.

Hollowed-out Churches

When my kids were small, I took them out into our backyard one day and showed them a tree in the fence row.  It was at least eight inches in diameter and 30 feet high.  “Watch this,” I said.  With a contrived groan and a dramatic shove I began pushing the tree.  Suddenly, there was a tearing sound and the tree toppled as my children’s eyes widened in awe and wonder.  Any adult standing there would have quickly noticed that the tree was dead and hollowed-out by rot.

Last week I celebrated my daughter’s church in North Carolina and mentioned that I knew it was a good church even though I had never been to their “show”—their worship service.  That was because I had already seen the seven-day a week living faith of the people.  I had also seen their equipping ministries at work.  That church has substance.

When I planted my first church it flourished principally because we had excellent Christian education and discipleship.  We put a lot of work into the equipping ministries and leadership development.  In the beginning, especially, our worship was decidedly unimpressive—we had many services without instruments—just some old used hymn books and a song leader with a strong voice.  But the church flourished.

When churches begin to lose their substance, they often become obsessed with the weekly show—tricks, gimmicks, special preaching, special music and special media.  Some new churches just starting out think the path to quick success is an impressive worship service.  But a great “show” without the supporting small groups, teaching, equipping, discipleship and leadership development is just a hollowed-out imitation of a church.

I am blessed to have a great team coming together for the start of another new church—Agora Church.  It will eventually have a weekly gathering and maybe we will even be OK at doing that—possibly better than the first church I started—not a high standard when we are talking about used hymn books and no instruments.  But I am most excited that we have a clear plan for substance—seven days a week and not just on the weekend.  That is what makes it worth doing.  How hollow is your vision?  How hollow is your life?  Substance—I really want it in my life and in my ministry.  And in yours.

What I Like About My Daughter’s Church

My daughter is a detective lieutenant in a rural North Carolina county.  When she moved there, she had me do an internet search for churches.  “I want a church that is conservative in theology and progressive in ministry to people.”  I said, “Honey, they are hard enough to find in big cities—there is no chance in the mountains of North Carolina.”  I am glad to tell you that I was wrong.

Her church hits that balance that is so hard to hit—conservative about the right things but crazy progressive about other important things.  I know some of my Muslim and Jewish friends read this blog and I am honored.   But, don’t you want everyone to be conservative about theology—who we say God is?  The big problems we have today don’t come from the traditional interpretations of Who God is and what He wants—they come from the novel interpretations.  At the same time, if our faith is going to count in this world, I hope it is going to make a positive difference in people’s lives in creative and innovative ways.  We need to be on the cutting edge of helping people.

I have never been to a service at my daughter’s church.  I still can tell you I like it.  This is not because I have seen the “show” that a church puts on every week but because I have seen the people in action in the community and especially in my daughter’s life.  I like it because they emphasize interacting face-to-face with each other on days other than Sunday.  I like it because they hold each other and cry together when they are hurting.  I like it because they are real about their struggles, their journey, and their fears.   I like it because they translate spirituality into real and practical caring for the needs of each other and their community.

I haven’t met all the people in that church.  I have met enough.  I haven’t been to the weekly “show” yet but I am sure that will be just fine as well—especially because that is not all there is to her church.  In a day when churches, and people I guess, are almost totally consumed with image, they clearly care about substance.  I like that.  Substance, yeah!