“Success exposes a man to the pressures of people and thus tempts him to hold on to his gains by means of fleshly methods and practices, and to let himself be ruled wholly by the dictatorial demands of incessant expansion.

Success can go to my head and will unless I remember that it is God who accomplishes the work, that he can continue to do so without my help, and that he will be able to make out with other means whenever he wants to cut me out.”

Charles Spurgeon

The Challenge of Discipling the Fragmented Self

The Christian faith at different times during its history has had to confront differing concepts of individuality, each of which deeply shapes how we do ministry and which presents the Church with unique challenges. The Church of the early medieval period ministered in a culture with a very different understanding of self. Our modern day sense of radical individuality would have seemed strange to medieval individuals. The early medieval individual saw themselves as part of a great chain of being.

Europe was Christianized not soul by soul, but rather by decree as rulers declared their kingdom’s Christian. This sounds unusual to us, but not so to a culture with a weak idea of personal freedom and individuality. The entire shape, structure and apparatus of the medieval Church was built around this collective idea of culture and faith.

Read more…

Crucified By Email

On 07/06/2010, at 3:34 PM, Pastor@BelmontCommunityChurch.org wrote:

Dear Jesus,

I have been praying that you are sensing God’s presence during this difficult week for us all. Last night the Church board and I held an emergency meeting and I am writing to inform you that we have come to a difficult decision. Writing this email is one of the hardest things that I have had to do at my time here at Belmont Community Church. Before I tell you of our decision, I felt that it was only fair to explain how we as a Church leadership came to our decision and for me to share with you how I have been affected by your behaviour. In order to maintain clarity I will address the various issues regarding your employment as a pastor at our Church. Before I start I really want to say how difficult this has been for me and Alison, I am not above stating that I cried before I wrote this email. Things started so well when you came on staff, it was a joy to have you around the place and the congregation loved having you. I am still struggling to comprehend what went wrong.  But here goes;

Behaviour During Church Services

I have communicated time and time again in our leadership meeting the idea that how we as leaders act, affects the whole congregation. Sundays are meant to be a fun, upbeat and inspiring time. We are trying to create an atmosphere that communicates the idea the gospel is good news and that those who put their faith in God will receive abundant life. Your constant habit of crying and weeping over the fate of our neighbourhood, completely works against this. I have been so confused by your mood swings, one minute you are full of joy – the next you will be weeping for the whole service. After talking to Dr Blackby I am more and more wondering if you suffering from a form of Bi Polar disorder or manic depression, I really encourage you to go and get this checked out. You can be so dark sometimes, which is not attractive to unchurched people and a totally different place to where we are going as a church.

Being a Good Example.

I hear things about where and with whom you hang out. I really do hope that some of the stories that I am hearing are wrong and merely gossip. But I have to admit that some of the people who you bring to church do make me wonder what circles you are mixing in. I certainly hope the stories about the party at Matt’s place are not true. As a single guy it is never a good look to be hanging around with women who work in the adult industry. To turn up to leaders meets smelling of dope can only lead others into bad places. You need to get into an accountability group ASAP.

The Jewish Thing

I totally understand that you were raised in a Jewish home and in the Jewish faith. We loved the service that you put on during passover it was great to hear you sing the psalms so beautifully  in Hebrew. The ladies at our Golden Gals ministry loved you teaching them Jewish Dancing. But I really do not understand why you continue to wear your prayer Shawl and yarmulke to church. At the interfaith city dinner Rabbi Rosen told me that you attend synagogue weekly??? He was under the impression that you were a practicing Jew and did not refer to yourself as Christian??? For goodness sake you need to work out where you stand, and who you identify with! Are you Jewish or are you Christian, what team are you playing on? Where do you loyalties lie??? Your behaviour just makes things confusing for people.

The Night at @tomic.

After ripping my hair out for months wondering where to place you, I finally thought that our emerging young adults congregation @tomic would be the best place for you. It is edgy, justice focused, andthey love conversation, it is in a bar, and filled with Christians who don’t like the vibe of our sunday services. But then the morning after you speak – I am inundated with emails from angry young adults telling me that you got all ‘hellfire and brimstone’ on them. They even started a facebook group to keep you away from the bar! Seriously what were you thinking telling them that ‘they will always have the poor with them’.??? Don’t you know that half that crew work for Christian aid organisations? I had to promise them that you would not come back! They said that you were too full on, too fundamentalist.

The Incident at Belmont Reformed Church

After the @tomic incident I was totally at my wits end of what to do with you. I mentioned the incident to my friend Rev Peterson and he said that he would love to have you come and spend a month preaching at his church and that he loved a young preacher who had the guts to talk directly about hell and eternal consequences. I thought all of my problems with you were solved. Then you go there and deliver a bunch of confusing stories that seem to skirt around the issues. Half the congregation walks out and you end up in the car park with the remainder explaining yourself. Rev Peterson is still rope-able, he not only thinks you are unable to preach the gospel he has serious concerns over your theology.

The Incident Last Sunday

And now to the straw that has broken the camel’s back. You know as well as I that it is so hard to get a Preacher like Pastor John Rosetti to speak at our church, he is world class. Ok even for me he can be a little ‘prosperity focused’ but he is such a gifted speaker and the Church was packed. When you overturned his merchandise tables I wanted the ground to eat me up. The damage that you caused to our ATM cash machine in the lobby will put the church back around $10,000. I can put up a with a lot, but vandalism I cannot. Your actions were a direct undermining of my leadership.

So I am writing to inform you that we will be making you redundant. I have with great difficulty convinced the Church board to not press charges and we will not be referring the matter to the police.

I am so heart broken, you are one of the most gifted young men I have met. I find you maddeningly frustrating. I have barely slept since last sunday, I keep wracking my brain trying to figure out why you are like this. I wonder if it is your age, 32 is pretty young for a pastor role at a church our size. I can’t help think that it must be mental health issues, probably the bi polar condition that Dr Blackby referred to.

We don’t want to turf you out on the street so we will be giving you a generous severance package, plus Jane has sent you a card that the staff has signed which includes a gift voucher to Brysons Christian Bookstore.

It will always perplex me why things did not work out. In your heart I  know that you mean the best.

Sadly Jesus we must ask that you never come back to our Church.

Yours in him

Pastor Craig Clements

The above is a fictional piece I wrote that was inspired by my friends Al and Deb Hirsch’s book Untamed.

My American Self Promotion Condundrum

Well I have almost come to the end of my trip here in the United States, I have had a fantastic time, God has done some great things, and I have met some wonderful people. However this trip has raised a slight conundrum or moral question for me.

Obvious to both you is that fact that I blog. I try to use the gifts that I have been given to help others learn about the things that I am being taught, so for me this blog is about me teaching and informing you the reader about issue of culture and faith.

But on this trip I have not had a whole lot of time to do writing. What I have been doing is meeting lots of great people, many of them authors, many of them well known authors. So as someone who had a blog the obvious thing seemed to blog about these meetings, maybe put up a picture of me with some of the great new people who I have met who just happened to be well known. To put in my status update “Mark is hanging in some cool locale in California with well known author __________________” To name drop in order to elevate my social staus.  Why would I do this? Because it is what everyone does today in our self promoting society, it has become the norm.

So I was just about to belt out a blog post last night which would include an impressive list of the well known leaders and authors that I have been hanging out with and a little voice in my head said to me “why?”. “Why do you need to tell the world who you have been hanging out with?” “What can your readers benefit from such an announcement?” All that I would be doing is upping my social status by showing off and broadcasting to the world. Who God has lead me to meet with is between God, me and those people.

I am constantly reminded how vigilant that I, someone who regularly talks and teaches about this stuff  must be.  Because all of us are constantly tempted to slip into the self promotional mode of the 21st century which seems a million miles away from Jesus’ example of humility.

Reports From Hyperreal Hollywood

For the last few days I have been hanging out here in Los Angeles. As you travel around this city (or rather giant extended suburb) you cannot but be struck by the way that Los Angeles seems to have magically been plunked down overnight by some giant mythical property developing giant. In contrast to a city like New York L.A. seems to have no connection to any sense of historical past, but rather seems stuck on loop in some perpetual sunny present, a fecund ‘today’ which seems to carry an implicit promise of making everyone’s dreams come true.

This erasure of memory is not just about a lack of historical architecture or an absence of connection to the land, it is rooted in a mass consensus of individuals to disconnect themselves from their pasts, from who you were before, and to give themselves over completely to the task of continual regeneration. L.A fosters a lifestyle of constant makeovers, be they cosmetic surgeries, new age spiritual cleansings, or a consumerist metamorphosis.

L.A. attempts to halt time, to stay on the cutting edge of trends, to fight aging, to by sheer work create a spring of eternal youth, in which the present never ends. This worship of today, means that hedonism will always be a constant companion, and consequence and responsibility will always be distant. Tomorrow will also be worshiped, it’s patron saint Walt Disney will always hover above the city wand in hand, ready to make the dreams of it’s citizens come true. However the problem is that tomorrow never comes, so the good people of L.A. always find themselves in a constant state of waiting, being primed and ready for good fortune to reach down and sweep them up into its arms. This waiting means that behind the terracota roofs and shabby chic interiors a gnawing anxiety lives.

Yesterday I watched a group of tourists walk along Hollywood Boulevard; they spoke Russian and had Asiatic features, they were probably Khazaks or Uzbekis. As they walked along the walk of fame, and looked down at the various stars names underneath their feat, you could see the palpable confusion in their eyes, the sense of disconnection between the hyperreal Hollywood that they had experienced as they sat through a thousand movies, and the reality of the sad, dirty, and very ordinary urban street beneath their feet. As they walked I realized that there are two L.A’s. One is the city situated on the edge of a desert in Southern California, the other floats above the ether, somewhere in our collective memories. Like holy scriptures of old it carries our global culture’s most basic of myths, it is also home to a pantheon of gods with names like Marilyn and Elvis. This imaginary L.A. sends out its emanations and shapes wants, desires and expectations of the the people of world.

Over and out from the city of dreams.

“Hyperreal Christian Predictions” or “Sorry History is just not that Sexy”

When I was studying Advertising back in the day, I remember one key thing that was drilled into us by our lecturers “Cut through the clutter!”. What this meant was that the advertiser is forced to elevate her message above all of the other advertising messages out there in order to capture the attention of the consumer.

Now due to the self-publishing capabilities of the internet, Christian commentators (yours truly included) and opinions abound like never before. Coupled with this fact is also the reality that the sheer volume of information that we are faced with in overwhelming. Therefore more and more Christian commentators, leaders, authors, opinion makers and bloggers are become prone to earth shattering pronouncements in order to cut through the clutter; predicting all kinds of watershed moments from the death of evangelicalism in ten years, great emergences, sand-castle like collapses of certain denominations, traditions and structures, to overnight revolutions within the church and so on.  (Believe you me, I have made plenty myself.)

Of course all of these predictions are going to happen any moment now, they are going to shake our world, rock our foundations and leave us breathless at their gravity. These momentous predictions are great fodder for controversy and conversation, both in VR and RL. We love to speak about such predictions because they are dramatic, grand and exciting. This is history unfolding before our eyes Hollywood style, all quick cuts with THX sound. It is history jazzed up, made faster and flasher.

However there is a big problem, history rarely works so instantaneously, or dramatically. Change certainly happens, but it is almost always in increments, often unfolding over centuries. History on the whole does not operate in dramatic shifts but rather in simultaneous movements and counter movements. Yes watershed moments and epochal change does happen but it is often not recognized or named for generations.

Every generation loves to picture itself living at a watershed moment, with the destiny of all future generations in its hands. Yet the reality seems to be the life is more cyclical than evolutionary, that each generation has to make its own errors, remember forgotten past truths, and shape the world, in order for the next generation to take it apart again and so on.

Just occasionally instantaneous change does happen in a moment, yet the ironic thing is that almost nobody can predict it. I think of the two greatest moments of change that have occurred in my life 9/11 and the fall of communism. Just when we were settling in for a lifetime lived under the shadow of the cold war, David Hasselhoff’s Teutonic ballads inspired a bunch of East Germans clad in acid washed jeans to take down the Berlin wall with hammers and garden tools, and thus the Soviet Empire collapsed like a house of cards. No one saw that coming. Just as virtually no one predicted that after staring down the Soviet nuclear arsenal the United States would be attacked by a bunch of rich Saudi spoilt brats, armed simply with box cutters, Jihadist propaganda and commandeered commercial jets.

Almost magically as soon as you predict the demise off something it will roar back into fashion. Just as I never thought that Dunlop Volleys sneakers would ever be cool, as soon as you write off a tradition, denomination or style of church it is sure to undergo a renaissance that will leave you blushing and making up excuses at parties as to why you wrote that blog piece.  The reality is that these mega-predictions are more about the wishes and wants of the prognosticator, rather than what is going to happen the day after tomorrow.

 So next time someone tells you about the next momentous change that is about to come crashing upon our church and the world. Back away from the computer, make yourself a coffee, stare out the window thinking of nothing while you drink your coffee, grab a history book off the shelf and retreat to your most comfortable chair. Repeat until tantalizing feelings disappear.

Desert Fathers in the ‘Desert of the Real’

desert2I was chatting recently to Roshan Allpress from Compass. He felt that in our interactions today with culture we need to re-engage with the tradition of the Desert Fathers. The Desert Fathers is a loose term to describe the movement of believers out of the the cities into the deserts of Asian Minor and the Middle East around the 3rd century. This move was a response to a perceived corruption of Christianity that occurred with Constantine the 1st  giving the faith legal status.Much of the Desert Fathers spirituality was tainted by a horribly dualistic view of life. However their prophetic stance and withdrawal, brought out a rich vein of theology and Christian thought that still holds today.

One term that has been used to describe our hyperreal culture is The Desert of the Real. I wonder what it would look like to be a Desert Father today? What would it look like to withdraw, to like Christ spend some time in the wilderness? Often we do find ourselves in the wilderness, sometimes we find ourselves ill, socially isolated, overwhelmed. Our culture tells us to run from these moments, to fill the voids and silences with glitz, glam, noise and neon.But maybe when wilderness experiences come along we need to integrate them into our lives, to reframe them as gifts, chances to unplug, to encounter God away from the distractions. To see them as prophetic possibilities. Chances to dare to see who we are unplugged from the universes of affirmation we build around us. To face God without the masks and manipulations.

My Favourite Reads of 2008

People are always asking me what I am reading. So here is my all genre list of the best books that I read in 2008 in no particular order. Enjoy!

Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and Other Christians in Disguise. Robert Inchausti

Shanghai : The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City 1842-1949. Stella Dong

The Road. Cormac McCarthy

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Michael Chabon 

Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard. Paul Borgmann

The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism. David Klinghoffer

The Everlasting Man. G.K. Chesterton

The Somnambulist . Jonathan Barnes

More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts. James Naramore

The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. Donald Spoto

What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way. Nick Cohen

God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis. Phillip Jenkins.

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Rodney Stark

The Private Adam: Becoming a Hero in a Selfish Age. Shmuley Boteach

The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian. Robin Lane Fox

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Clay Shirkey

Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Seth Godin

Leadership Lessons from the Toilet

well1Recently after giving a talk an enthusiastic young adult bounded up to me and asked “Wow, I want to do what you do, how do I get into ministry?”I at first thought that they were asking me how they could become a pastor, so I began to tell them. But then they interrupted me and told me that they wanted to know how they could speak to large groups, write and consult. I did this thing that I do when I am not sure how to answer someone which consists of me with one hand scratching my head, sort of half laughing and looking down at my feet. “Oh man……I don’t know” I replied. I could see that they were disappointed. How on earth could I distill all of the events, trials, errors, lesson, mistakes and people who have gotten me to this point in one conversation let alone in one Yoda-like aphorism that this young keen bean wanted to hear?

Later as I drove home I tried to think of Zen Master-ish statements that I could have uttered to this young person that would have made me look cool or wise or hopefully a combination of both, but alas nothing came to me. Yet one image stuck in my mind when I thought of my 15 year journey in full time ministry. It was the image of being stuck in a hole and looking up at the sky. This image was first burnt into my consciousness when I read the novel The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. In the novel at a number of key points in the plot the protagonist Toru Okada finds himself stuck at the bottom of a well; all around him is silent, dank darkness. As he looks up, all he can see is opening of the well through which he can see the moon and the night sky. Murakami uses this image as a allegory of the human condition, so much of our time on this earth seems to consist of fumbling about in the darkness and seeming hopelessness of life, yet there are those times when we lift our eyes upward and see that small circle of clouds and blue sky, and rays of light and meaning floods our enclosed world of darkness. This image paints a picture of my experience of leadership, so often it has been exhausting, painful, lonely and confusing, but then there are these moments, when God lifts my head and I forget the darkness and see again the sky, and I again start dreaming God’s dream for the world.

The bible also contains it’s own leader in a hole story. In the book of Genesis we encounter Joseph, a talented ‘dreamer’, a spiritual gifted, handsome young guy. Of course we know what needs to happen with this guy, he needs to be placed on staff, he needs to lead the worship band, he needs to be keynote at the next conference, he needs to be branded. That is what our culture tells us to do to the young and talented.

However what happens next in the story surprises us, this young leader, the guy ‘most likely’ finds himself in the most healthy place for up and coming leaders to find themselves in, that is a depressing  hole. Now lets remind ourselves this is not the nice old well that Murakami places his hero in, rather Joseph is placed in what my bible politely describes as a cistern. Translation, a dirty big hole in which you do you business in. Joseph sits naked, surrounded by excrement and ripped off by people who he trusted. Basically its the perfect place for a gifted and up and coming young leader. Why? Because God wants to test Joseph’s mettle, there are no short cuts to leadership. God is not a helicopter parent in the business of rescuing us from the unpleasant. God is not santa claus dishing out toys to his favourites. Rather God is in the is in the process of shaping and preparing. He has a bigger and better plan in place than we can imagine.

The reason that God allowed Joseph to literally be thrown in the toilet, was that Jospeh was going to be thrown in some non-literal toilets soon, namely that place which symbolized so much of what God was not about, the soon to be prison of the chosen people, Egypt.

Joseph was called to be a leader in a pagan nation, his leadership and his witness would at times be incarnational at other times counter cultural. Thus at several key moments his character would be tested. Joseph would prevail, and he would become a blessing to not only himself, but to a whole nation. His leadership and holiness would radiate through generations. The bible would remember him as a great leader as a man of exceptional courage and character. However the roots of this public victory I believe can be traced back to those first moments in the hole, that first test.

So for those of you out there who feel like they are sitting in a hole, a well, or even a toilet. Look up. It might just be the making of you.

After the Bling the Bang – Thoughts on the Current Economic Crisis

  “Unrestrained capitalism like the kind we’re experiencing right now with all its greed will in the end devour itself,”             German Finance Minister Steinbrück

Well it had to happen. After the bling of the noughties we are having the beginning of the bang as the bubble bursts. To put it in layman’s terms the global economy has been acting like a teenage girl who had stolen her parents credit card and was buying everything in sight at the mall; it was fun for a while but it was always going to end in tears.

I recently saw a story about the opening of a new luxury department store in Egypt, it was catering for the growing hunger amongst young middle easterners for consumer goodies. On sale were handbags for $20,000US, what was the store called? Ego. Sums it all up really. The social landscape of the last ten years has been marked by conspicuous consumption; it has been ten years of Paris Hilton, iPods, Hummers, extreme makeovers, Jay Z and Louis Vuitton handbags. Greed became the norm, we got so used to it that we barely noticed that everyone’s ride had been pimped. A culture of insanity set in as no one was happy anymore with being healthy and free, we all wanted the lifesyles of the rich and infamous.

If any one image captures the zietgiest of the last ten years, it was the video of looters in New Orleans stealing Plasma Screen TV’s in a flooded city with no power. We had become a culture that was living beyond it’s means, our expectations of life had become inflated. We lived lives that were the most affluent and comfortable in human history, yet we wanted more. In the Trouble With Paris I write,

“in the hyperreality world, happiness is always just around the corner yet always out of reach. This sense of incompleteness powers the global economy. Happiness is always postponed; fulfillment and meaning can never be found. In many ways, it is like trying to reach the horizon; you can always see it and you can walk toward it, but it stays away at the same distance. Hyperreality is a “I will be happy when . . .” existence. The space following the “when” will be different for everyone and will constantly change. But the principle of postponing happiness is the same for everyone who operates in the hyperreal world. So no matter how affluent or comfortable our lives become, we will always be looking over our shoulder at something better.” 

And thus this Hyperreality, this desire to live beyond our means, this disconnection from reality seems to have gripped that mysterious group of traders who seem to be at the wheel of the global economy. David Brooks writes in the New York times,

“These traders live in a high-tech version of Plato’s cave. They do not see reality directly. Instead they see the shadow of reality as it dances around in numbers on their computer screens.”

But now reality has crashed the hyperreal party. We are seeing the consequences of our culture’s credit card lifestyle. So now I pray, because this will hurt a lot of people, most of all it will hurt those at the bottom of the economic pile. Yet I also have hope, hope that sanity will return, that people will begin to question our culture’s hyperreal paper tigers. That people will see that there is another unseen reality that exists in our world. A reality that does not revolve around stocks, currencies and computer screens. A reality that is marked by shalom, righteousness and justice. A reality that is breaking out in our world, that we will see if we just can take our eyes off the dollar signs.

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