The Suicide Rate in Utah (And Elsewhere)


Hey everybody.  It has been a few weeks since I have posted anything which is a testimony to how crazy busy the Spring is for pastor’s.  What that said, yesterday I attended a wonderful and enlightening presentation on suicide.  I tried to share some thoughts about it on Facebook but the status was too long.  Therefore, I decided this might be a better venue.

Those of you who do not live here in Utah may not know that Utah has the 5th highest suicide rate in the country.  In 2015, 648 people in the state of Utah committed suicide.  That averages out to one and a half per day which means that the news is constantly reporting it and talking about it.

Along with the suicide rate, Utah also ranks high in antidepressants and plastic surgery.  These are distressing realities to face while living in what is an otherwise great state.

The speaker explained a few fascinating notes about why people struggle with depression and suicide here more than other places.

The most fascinating has to do with brain chemistry alterations that happen at elevation.  It turns out the higher the elevation, the harder it is for your brain to secrete dopamine into your system.  This means people who live at higher elevations have a harder time feeling positive.  Our bodies just can’t regulate our emotions as well as they can at lower altitudes.

Another interesting note is that the suicide rate is higher in places where the overall population is happier.  This seems to be true all over the world.  The happier the people, the more of them commit suicide.  This is because misery truly does love company.  If you are miserable in a room full of miserable people you are all there for each other and can commiserate together.  In turn, if everybody is happy and you are miserable than you have nowhere to turn, or at least feel like it.  So Utah’s suicide rate is actually an unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise extremely healthy and happy populace.

With all that said, the most important point the speaker made had to do with media coverage.  It is true that 648 suicides is 648 too many.  It is also true that it averages out to one and a half per day.  However, if you divide 648 by the 3 million people living in Utah that is 2/100s of 1 percent.  That is .02%!  When a person and a half a day are committing suicide and the statewide news is reporting every single one it is so easy to think, “Everybody here kills themselves!  Why should I continue where everybody else has failed?”  But the truth is 99.98% of Utahns don’t kill themselves and we all go through the same things together.  We all live at the same elevation (mostly), struggle to make financial ends meet, strive to maintain a healthy-happy family, deal with the same stressors at work, and are driven crazy dealing with the ridiculous Utah drivers.

And so I end by repeating something I am quite fond of saying.  I admit I stole it from Red Green, “Remember I am pulling for you.  We truly are all in this together.”



What Would Make Mormons a Christian Denomination?


Good afternoon everybody (or evening, or morning, or middle of the night depending on when you are reading this).  As I am typing this we have a blizzard developing outside my Utah door that is incredibly beautiful.  I wish I could share it with all of you but pictures would not do it justice.

It has been over a week since I last posted, which means my New Year’s Resolution to blog almost every day is going terribly.  But this morning a friend sent me an email and asked me a question that has been on my heart and mind a lot over the last couple years.  This email came from a couple who lives in a town that is 95% Mormon.  They left the Mormon church years ago but still love the Utah Mormon culture.  Last summer they reached out to me asking about the Church of the Nazarene and I have become their pastor over the last several months.

She more or less pointed out that there are members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles whom she respects and whom she believes are steering the Mormon church in a Christ like direction.  However, she also noted that several Christians she talks with don’t share that belief at all.  Instead they argue that the “Christ” talk is just a deceptive PR stunt.  She wanted to know my thoughts.

I assured her and I assure you that I am not an expert in Mormonism at all.  However, over the last couple years I have spoken with many who are experts including a Southern Baptist Missionary who has a PhD in Mormonism and Richard Muow, the former President of Fuller Theological Seminary who meets regularly with the Mormon leadership.  I have also read some books about the relationship of Mormonism to Christianity that were insightful.  In addition I am friends with several Nazarene scholars who regularly meet with BYU professors and I have also listened to some lectures by an evangelical pastor out of Provo.

And I still find it incredibly difficult to say that the Mormon denomination is a Christian one.  The most gracious I can be is to echo what the previously mentioned pastor in Provo said in one of his lectures: “I do believe many Mormons will be saved, but it will be despite Mormonism, not because of it.”  For the record I also believe many members of the Church of the Nazarene will be saved despite our denomination.  And I believe the same thing about Baptists and Assembly of God and Catholics and Lutherans and any other.  After all it is by grace that we are saved, not by church membership.

However, to call an institution itself Christian requires something more succinct than the generic statement above.  I have thought long and hard about the circumstances that would have to happen for me to be able to call Mormons a Christian denomination.  The email from my friend gave me opportunity to sit down and write two lists that have been germinating in my head.  The first list is of the non-negotiables.  They are the things the top tier of the Mormon leadership must do in order make Mormonism Christian.  The second list are things that would make it easier for me to call them Christian, but that aren’t necessarily deal breakers.  You will notice the second list is longer than the first.  Regarding that second list, be assured I have similar lists for my denomination and, if I am being completely honest, most other Christian denominations.

List 1: What Would Make Mormons a Christian Denomination?

  1. Full acceptance of the Nicene Creed along with First 7 Ecumenical Councils (including full deity of Jesus and full equality of the Trinity)
  2. Statement placing the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments over the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants  (This would not be a rejection of the Mormon documents per say but a relegation of their authority to that under the Scriptures.)

List 2: Things I Personally Would Like to See:

(Of note: some of these are all ready happening)

  1. Stop proselytizing people from Christian denominations
  2. Stop rebaptizing those from Christian denominations
  3. Start teaching the stories about the life and teachings of Jesus from the four canonical gospels as part of a catechism process for children.
  4. Relax some but not necessarily all requirements on temple recommends so that Christians from other denominations can participate in some manner.
  5. Rejection of the tiered eschatology (i.e. terrestrial, celestial and telestial levels of heaven).
  6. Full and public rejection of eternal marriage, especially eschatological polygamy (i.e. that divorced Mormons who were married multiple times in the temple will be married to multiple wives in heaven).

I have other things I am sure to add to that second list but it is a snowy Sunday afternoon and my head is spinning with other things.  Be that as it may, those are my thoughts from someone who is on the ground doing ministry in Utah!  Have a blessed day wherever and whenever you are!

Beyond the Talking Points: Of Fake News and Real. . .ly Annoying News


There is a fascinating line in John’s gospel that is often overlooked.  Jesus is on trial before Pilate, the politically weak governor of Judea.  Jesus was brought to him by a group of religious fanatics with no real data or evidence, just blind rage with a petty accusation.  Pilate is all questions, just trying to get a hold on the situation.

Jesus replies, “For this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37 CEB)

This vague theological statement is par for the course for Jesus.

But Pilate gets the million dollar question, the question we all are asking, “What is truth?”

This is my question as a pastor in today’s world.  “What is truth?” and I am as equally frustrated as Pilate that Jesus doesn’t give me an easy answer.

Over the last three weeks I have been reading all the articles about the fake news which saturated our feeds over the last several months.  My favorite is this one put out by NPR about a liberal who writes fake news articles that attack liberals because he enjoys how quickly conservatives will spread lies.

And those lies have spread quickly.  Over the last several months, completely false articles were shared more times on Twitter and Facebook than real news.  Over the last year fake news sites have grown exponentially and they are now a legitimate economic market.  People are becoming rich by spreading lies on the internet.  Some days I hate having integrity.

If it all stayed on the internet I would probably be okay with it.  In fact, I most certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post.  However, those lies have spread into my congregation and into my friendship groups.  They’ve even spread into my family.  Everywhere I go someone says, “I heard somewhere that.  .  .” followed by a completely unverified piece of data.

I would correct people on how wrong they are but there is no use to it.  After all in a world saturated by lies, I am not even sure if I know what is correct.  And the last thing anybody wants is a smart phone stand off where our thumbs quickly search to verify opinions as we argue about which websites are authoritative.

“Fox News said.  .  .”

“You can’t believe anything they say!  They’re conservative.”

“Well Huffington Post says,”

“Huffington Post?!  Really, Huffington Post?!?!?!  They are a glorified dorm room blog!?”

“Well The New York Times,”

“I can’t believe you would even bring them up!  You lousy liberal!”

Nobody is friends after such a conversation.  Nobody is even Christian after that.

The problem isn’t just fake news.  There is also the problem that now more than ever people are claiming the “real” news’ sites are hopelessly compromised.  I saw a conversation the other day where someone cited “Snopes” and was quickly dismissed with “Snopes is getting everything wrong now too.”

It seems we have successfully created a world where no one can be trusted.

This has crept into my sermons as well.  I now step out of the pulpit every Sunday morning wondering that if some datum was attacked if I’d even be able to defend it.  There is always another way to interpret a passage, always another theory left out, always another resource to double check and as is commonly held to be true in my profession, “The next Sunday is always 3 days away!”

In such dilemmas, historical perspective has always helped.  After all Mark Twain noted in the mid 19th century, “A lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Only Mark Twain didn’t say that.  After all it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”  I read that on the internet.

Putting fake quotes aside, for centuries, even millennia, lies spread around the world with no help from the internet.  Let us not forget the earth was once almost certainly flat and the best way to heal people was to bleed them slowly but surely.  Even John Wesley, the great patriarch of my tradition, published a book of home remedies that weren’t exactly remedial.  He was one of the great fake news anchors of his generation.  His brother Charles Wesley also embarrassingly and wrongly predicted the end of the world.

So fake news isn’t new.  Lies have been spreading faster than the truth for millennium.

That is of no comfort to me.  The fact that we have never been good at “truth” doesn’t help me when I have to get up and preach a sermon once a week that is supposedly “true” but which even I can tear apart with relative ease.

With poor Pontius Pilate, I ask, “What is truth?”  If I can’t trust anything I am hearing and have huge qualms even about what I am sharing and saying, how can I pastor with any sort of integrity?  What is truth?

Luckily the good gospel has all ready answered the question.  Truth has actually come up in John’s gospel several times before chapter 18 but nowhere more prominently than in Jesus’ famous declaration to weeping sisters, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

For us Christians, truth is not a datum or an article or a fact and it certainly isn’t a book.  Truth is a person.

What is truth?  “Well Pilate, I am the truth.”  Truth is a personality.

When I get up to preach or sit down to write or even engage in conversations I am way more concerned with proclaiming a person than I am with facts or data.

If this is “true” than our obsession with data and articles and how true or false they are may be idolatrous.  We may be more obsessed with facts than with Jesus and if that is true repentance is needed, not fact checks.  This is a repentance that seeks to serve the true God of humility while rejecting the serve of fact checks which serve our pride.

At the very least that is what I am going to tell myself next time someone fact checks me.

Beyond The Talking Points: Last Tuesday’s Election and America’s Silent Majority


Like many of you I have spent the last week trying not to read too much about the election while reading everything that flits across my tablet screen.  Trump’s victory has been hailed as a major victory for everyone in America, except of course the Democrats.

In fact, if I had a favorite article from the last week it would have to be this one from CNN which compiled the 24 often conflicting reasons Trump won.  It was social media but it wasn’t social media.  It was the millenials but it also had nothing to do with them.  It was the Democrat’s fault but not really.  I loved the subtle humor and satire there.

If you have read as much as I have you know this election defined the reemergence of uneducated whites or probably not.  And if not them, then certainly rural farmers had their day.  .  .or didn’t.  And if not, then certainly white supremacists are now, well supreme, or really not at all.  If not them then the Evangelicals but not really.  And if not them then definitely the Republican party won.  .  .or maybe just conservatism in general.

None of this has convinced me.

It seems to me that in an election when both candidates had approval ratings below %45 and when the deciding states were all within 50,000 votes and when one candidate won the states and another candidate won the popular vote and when half of eligible votes sat the thing out that this wasn’t an election that was about anything except the huge leadership failure in American culture that has been building up for years.

I want you to hear that last stat again, half of eligible votes did not vote!  And yet I have been unable to find one article in the deluge of information about them.  HALF of Americans said “NO!” to the entire system but nobody is talking about them.  Who are they?  Where are they?  Why are they?  These questions are being entirely ignored by the media.

But these are the questions that defined the election right up until Tuesday.  I found scores of articles about the non voters before Tuesday but after the victory, they seemingly have disappeared from my news feeds.

Yet they are still out there.  And they sent a powerful message to the country, a message far more powerful than the 18,000 or so voters in Wisconsin or wherever.  Their message was, “no confidence.”  They have no confidence in the Republicans or the Democrats or the Libertarians, or the Green Party or even pretty looking Independents like Evan McMullin.

They have no confidence in any type of Republic style government.  They don’t believe in the value of voting, whether it be for a President, a Congressperson, a State governor or down ballot measures like sales taxes.

This should be alarming to us.  It certainly is to me as one who pastors these people.  I should add I am not one of them.  I did vote and I took every ballot measure seriously including the one that changed two words to the city constitution to make it more intelligible.

But the fact I am surrounded by people who don’t have any confidence in this system scares me to death.  It means a far more serious revolution than the victory of a reality TV star President may not be far away.  Donald Trump’s victory probably did nothing to pacify their strong antipathy.

And if I were a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian or the Green Party or even a pretty Independent I would use this election as a mandate to start listening to those %50 of people.

Let’s hope the entire media, from the mainstream to the “new” to my friends who insist on posting ridiculous memes, gets their act together and starts listening to them.

A Pastor’s Dilemma: The Ecumenical Councils and What Really Happens When We All Get Together


A couple decades after Jesus’ ascension, the Apostle Paul returned from his first missionary journey and, as the Apostle Paul was prone to do, began a conflict.

The Gentiles were joining the church in great number all across Macedonia and there was massive confusion about how “Jewish” these Gentiles had to be in order to be accepted as full members.

In a decision that would set church precedent for 2000 years and counting, a council of elders was called to figure this out.  They hashed out the different sides of the argument and in the end rallied to the Apostle James when he declared, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19b)

It was an important decision with huge implications.  And it was the right decision.  Jesus had died to make it easy to turn to God, therefore the church decided not to throw up road blocks.  Our theology and our church became bigger.

It wasn’t until 300 years later that another council was called to deal with massive theological rifts in the church.  Over the next centuries several more followed.  These councils were fundamentally different from Acts 15.  They were not called by apostles or even bishops and pastors but by emperors.  Every time they met, our theology became a little bit narrower and our church a bit smaller.

Acts 15 was about pointing the finger across the table and saying, “of course you are welcome here!”  The other councils were about voting people off our island.

As for the massive theological agreements that were struck, I totally agree.  I confess all the creeds they produced.  I believe in the Holy Trinity, the full humanity and divinity of Jesus, the eternally begotten son and the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.

But I am still a child of the 21st century.  The thought of calling councils to make our Christianity narrower makes me uncomfortable.  The thought of saying, “let’s make it a little bit harder for some people to be Christian” rubs me the wrong way.

I posed this dilemma to a class in church last Sunday and I made them uncomfortable too.  We all agreed that calling a council to deal with huge things like the identity of God was probably a necessary thing.  We agreed the idea of the Trinity was around long before it was officially canonized.  Jesus almost certainly taught it.  Likewise the early apostles almost certainly referred to Jesus as fully human and fully God.

Still at Nicea fingers were pointed at two particular bishops who led successful and thriving ministries.  They were not just told, “You are wrong.”  There were told, “You are banished!”

I also asked how we do this today?  What do we banish people for?  What successful ministers do we banish and for what reasons?  Unfortunately in the 21st century we have this love/hate complex going on with celebrity pastors.  We love everything they do until we don’t.  Then we crucify them and for much lesser reasons than the identity of God.

The question of the councils and creeds is even more difficult for those of us who live in 21st century Utah.  We are surrounded by a very prominent religious sect whose scholars will freely tell you, “we are pre-Nicene Christians.”

Are they?  Of course they are pre-Nicene.  Does that mean they are still Christian?  A lot of people living before 300AD would have thought so, though not nearly as many as Dan Brown would suggest in his entertaining but ultimately ridiculous novels.

For the record I am pre-Nicene too but not concerning the nature of Christ.  I am pre-Nicene because at Nicea the council also voted into law twenty canons or rules, many of which my denomination no longer follows.  We never talk about that.  The same council that put together our Christology also gave us other laws that we do not follow today.  Many good Prostestants even mock some of those laws.

For the record, Nicea was one of the better councils.  Some of the other ones were comical train wrecks not far off from your average Three Stooges sketch.  Do we really think this is the way to govern ourselves?  Should we get together to make our theology and our practice smaller and vote our favorite celebrities off of our islands?

Yes, we should.

Albeit with much humility.

There is great value in getting together every once in awhile and hashing out the issues to figure out a way to agree enough to pursue mission in the world.  Though in humility, we should not call our decisions “eternal” but admit that in this time and this place with this congregation/denomination we have agreed to abide by this theology and these rules.  This leaves room open for another generation to come along and tweak our mistakes.

I’m not sure my class reached any easy conclusions on all this.  But a veteran pastor and army chaplain closed our time together by reminding us of the now famous words that date back to Augustine:

“In essentials unity, in non essentials charity, in all things love.”

Why I Am Not Writing About Which Lives Matter or Who Should Be President or The Weather


When I was a kid there was an old proverb going around that I think had been going around for a good century.  It went something like this, “Do not talk about politics and religion in polite company.  Better to stick to sports and the weather.”

I’ll never forget the moment I realized the last sentence in that tidbit wasn’t true any more.  I had moved to a small town in Eastern Oregon from the Midwest.  I was sitting in the local sandwich shop that sat a block from my church.  I was trying to get to know the owner, a bright woman with an entrepreneurial spirit and fun personality.  Somehow we got to talking about the weather, probably because we were polite people.

I made some statement about the fact that I was glad that I wasn’t in tornado alley any more.

She stopped and stared at me and said, “Oh, we get tornadoes here” as if she was genuinely concerned that I had been misled.

I almost laughed out loud.  Northeast Oregon is surrounded by 9,000 foot tall mountains.  They do not get tornadoes.

“Well I suppose you get little dust funnels out on the farm fields but not like Missouri where people’s homes get destroyed.”

The tone of the conversation changed drastically.  Her concerned expression turned to a glare.

“No, you need to know here that the wind blows pretty hard.  In 1967 a tornado knocked a single wide trailer right off its cinder block foundation!”

I suddenly realized I was in an argument I didn’t even want to win and so back tracked and said, “Oh really?  Thanks for letting me know!” and changed the subject to sports which she gratefully knew nothing about.

I could list thirty more conversations I have had that are very similar to this.  When I started my current assignment I made the horrible mistake of asking my worship team to pray right before our worship service.  I thought, “Everybody loves prayer!”  I am still paying for that horrible request.  Right after that I suggested to the wrong person that we look into painting our fellowship hall.  He let me know in no small way that I was not to touch that fellowship hall and still, a year later, won’t meet with me outside of Sunday morning.  I can’t open my mouth about anything any more without some unexpected backlash.

This illustrates that keeping polite company any more is a brutal chore.  People don’t value civility any more.  Instead they value their own opinions and how right they think they are.

Some of my friends have given up entirely.  They seem to adore the national and theological arguments that are destroying politeness.  Every time something goes down regarding guns, the LGBTQ community, women’s rights, or national elections their Facebook profile is instantly water marked and their statuses hashtagged with activism.  Whether conservative or liberal, they seem to love the chance to post divisive cartoons, tired talking points, angry blogs and partisan articles.  They seem sincere in this, like they genuinely believe they are doing society some good.

You older, anti technology types should not be fooled.  This did not start with the invention of Facebook.  I know a lot of people I meet with face to face who are just as boisterous.  They yell and share their opinions with anyone who will listen and they want to bait you into the argument so they can drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.  They have succeeded to do that to me more times than I can count.

But don’t get me wrong, I am envious of their freedom.  I wish I felt like I had the freedom to just post whatever opinion I wanted to.  In fact sometimes I feel guilty for not chiming in and joining my “side” with my carefully informed and well formed opinions.  I bet I could even articulate them better than half the internet and that alone might do some good.

Or it definitely won’t.

Because every time I do chime in, whether online or in real life, I instantly feel guilty.  I cried for days that I had let the color of our fellowship hall come between me and a beloved parishioner.  I am still in mourning over insisting my worship team pray during a time that just would not work for them.  I should have reversed harder and quicker.  I definitely did learn my lessons though.

When I do chime in on my opinions, it is almost like I had just smoked my first cigarette.  There is a rush of rebellious satisfaction followed by nothing but guilt and a hacking cough as I wonder:

What will my church people think?

Will I lose my job over this?

Does that person still love me?

What will my liberal best friend or my conservative uncle think?

What if this new couple who has just started attending our church disagrees and decides our church isn’t right for them because of it?

Then I delete, delete, delete.  Or if it is in person, apologize, apologize, apologize.

In today’s world having and sharing opinions is just too costly.  The price is too high, especially for pastors.  In ages past you were allowed to think differently than someone without losing your salary, your position, even your ordination and definitely your friends.  This is not true any more.  People care more about the weather and what color their fellowship hall should be than they do about each other.  I don’t want to be one of them.

My friendship with you is far too important to me.  If you are going to terminate it because I think Oregon doesn’t get tornadoes than by all means, “watch out for those funnel clouds!”  If you want me to liberal, I will be liberal for you.  If you want me to be conservative,  I will be conservative for you.  If you love our fellowship hall just the way it is, than it is the most beautiful fellowship hall I have ever seen!

You can call me wishy-washy but know that I am not.  I know what I believe and I do act on it.   My best friends and wife will certainly attest to that!  I just try really hard not to let you know what I believe because I would rather keep being your friend.

Rather, you can say I am a coward because I am.  You can say I care too much about what people think because I do.  You can say I like having money to feed my family more than I like “the gospel.”  That is fair, though I would argue my opinions and your opinions about national affairs are NOT the gospel.

Ultimately we now live in a world where pride is alienating us from each other and I desperately crave true, civil, Christian friendship.  And if the price of my friendship with you is letting you have your opinions while thinking (most times wrongly) that I agree with you, than so be it.  I want to be your friend and that is worth the price of constantly biting my tongue and not clicking the “share” button.

Church Buildings and Golden Calfs


I do not write this post casually or easily.  I am well aware that my personal experience greatly skews my opinion on this issue.  But, to be fair, the honest comparison of personal experiences are what blogs are for.

All pictures in this post come from Real Clear Religions “ugliest churches” thread.  This one’s a real winner.

I got off the phone yesterday with an incredibly gifted pastor who started a church planting movement.  I interviewed him for a long time about what he did and why he did it, what worked and failed and the triumphs and travails.  After a decade of planting churches, God called him to be a pastor of a more traditional church.  He noted how awkward it was to transition from overseeing 9-10 churches, none of which had buildings but all of which had people, to return to a church that had a building but was losing people.

He didn’t give me too many details just that it was hard to switch from doing church without a building to shepherding a people who were only still doing church for the sake of keeping the building.  I felt for him.

It reminded me of another church in the middle of Kansas, whose sanctuary sat 75 but whose spirit was so strong, 200 crammed into it before they added on.

It also reminded me of several churches in Africa who meet underneath trees or on beaches.

It also reminded me of several churches who started out in living rooms, elementary schools, bars, idol temples and riversides (see Acts).

To be fair, this cries out “welcome” to some poor out there. #madmaxchurchofthenazarene

It then brought to mind my favorite quote from Phineas Bresee, who is credited as founding my denomination, who said, “We want places so plain that every board will say welcome to the poorest.”  To put it bluntly, “we” failed.

I am not against a church owning a building.  I am friends with several pastors who are blessed enough to have congregations who let their buildings be used 24/7 for all kinds of community gatherings that increase the welfare of the city.  Nor am I about to advocate for selling off my own congregation’s building, lacking though it is.  And if I were to advocate for it, our short term plan would certainly include another building.

Is this a building or a statue?  How do you even get inside?

Yet I have deep reservations about our buildings.  As I talk to church people I sense that their church’s building is some weird mix of a scapegoat and a god.  They worship the building.  They brag about it to their friends, even if the building is about to collapse!  They open it up and tell people, “come inside and you’ll meet God here,” seemingly forgetting that you will meet God everywhere.  They spend copious amounts of hours talking about the building’s needs and wants, trying to discern how to best sacrifice their dollars and manpower to the building’s never satiated appetite.  Then they pass legislation concerning the proper use of the building.  They argue about who can use it and why and when.  Then they invent rules for how the building will get used.  “Don’t throw balls.”  “No eating food.”  “No running.” “No wearing hats or wife beaters.”  This is all seemingly to keep from angering the cathedral as if it was a pouty 2 year old you dare not make scream.

When all else fails build a Jesus statue!

But when something goes wrong they blame the building.  “Not enough lighting!”  “The nursery’s in the wrong spot!”  “The ceilings too low, the greeting hall too small, the classrooms not well decorated.”  So they buy more paint, hire more engineers, add more parking spaces, all so that they can keep from facing the true problem, that our failures have everything to do with us and nothing to do with some paint and sheet rock.

On my own district 3 churches in the past decade spent over 1 million dollars adding to or replacing their buildings.  All 3 churches saw their attendance decline over the next 10 years.  When I point this out, it is argued, “Well the building had nothing to do with the decline.  It was just bad leadership.”

To which I reply, “Yep, you just proved my point exactly!”  If we were good leaders 300 people would gather under our trees.  If we were more obsessed with prayer and fasting, then 200 people would cram into our tiny sanctuaries and nobody would care about the “parking.”  If we sought the Holy Spirit more than we sought a better sanctinasium, then 100 people would stop surfing and gather on our beaches to hear our acoustic guitars and our readings from the Holy Book.  If we followed the Spirit, we wouldn’t stay in a building for all too long.

Instead our million dollar buildings merely placate and, ironically at the same time, extenuate our bad spiritual practices.

Except this church, it doesn’t placate or extenuate anything.

Maybe what we need is not a new water heater or a better lit sanctuary or a bigger classroom and fewer “balls” in the church, but more devoted souls.  Maybe we need eyes that eagerly desire the kingdom of God.  Maybe we need hands folded in prayer, and knees bent in a begging posture while mouths plead for God to move.  Maybe our hearts should break for the lost and lonely and maybe our arms should be outstretched towards our communities.

Yes you can have all those things and still have a building and yes, a posture of prayer would even have an effect on why you have a building and what you use it for, but as long as your budgets and calendars are skewed towards “building,” your building will continue to empty of people.

Not sure which posture produced this design!

But if you forget about your building and open your mouths to pray, well it just might happen that our tree or our beach or our borrowed bar would be all God would need to gather the lost and lonely in for worship.

When Coin Flips Decide Presidents: Something’s Gone Wrong with Democracy


I am not going to lie, I have spent a crazy amount of time over the last six months reading politics in preparation for Iowa.  And last night did not disappoint!  In fact, whether you hated or loved the results, you have to admit that Iowa is fascinating.  By law they get to have the very first turn at picking the President, but only because they caucus.  The candidates have to campaign in Iowa in very unique ways.  They have to go door to door like your average county commissioner.  They have to pretend to like ethanol and to talk to Jesus on a regular basis.  They have to open booths at county fairs right next to the free donkey rides and they have to shake hands outside of pizzerias.  It is a lot of fun to watch.

They do this all summer and autumn until it all culminates in one night where hundreds of local communities get together and try to decide which candidate to support.  I loved every minute of following Iowa these last few months, right up through the results last night.

Then I woke up this morning with a nasty hangover whose primary symptom was cynicism.  There was something wrong and fishy about this whole thing and I am not sure I like it.

First of all Iowa’s population is 3 million.  3 million people is actually less than %1 of the US population.  More than that, only a bit more than 300,000 people actually went to the caucuses last night.  That is about 10 percent of Iowa.  So we are letting 1/10th of 1% of our population have an incredible amount of say in how the nomination battles take place.  That makes me a little uncomfortable but I still understand that someone has to go first.  Might as well be Iowa.

But then another story broke.  Hillary only “won” the caucuses because of six coin tosses in six different places.  It seems that the caucus model doesn’t leave room for ties, so the local commissioners had to figure out a way to break it.  And what better than a coin flip?  This wouldn’t have been a story if the election had not been close.  If it had been a landslide, we would all be rolling our eyes at the silly Iowan hicks who flip coins.  But the election was a tie and six coins gave Clinton the “lead.”  So now those coins are headlines as is her incredibly arrogant press release at 3am this morning before the official results were in.

Some are using the coins to critique the caucus system.  Some are using it to critique Iowa’s over inflated importance.  And still others are using it to say something more critical and profound about the state of our democracy.  I am in that last group.

Because this whole thing disturbs me.

The caucuses are not to blame.  They are closer to representing what the founding fathers of the US envisioned.  To them, democracy was not a group of people sitting in private booths pushing out chads and pulling levers, or even worse sitting at home weeks before the election with 8 envelopes that must be folded and “enveloped” just so in order for the vote to count.  (I misfolded mine in 2012 and my presidential vote for “Stephen Colbert” went uncounted.)

No, to the founding fathers democracy was about getting everybody together in a room and forcing them to work together.  This is why we elect our President not through popular vote but through delegates.  The original idea was that communities would gather together and pick someone from their community that they respected and trusted.  That delegate would then go to Washington and meet with the other delegates from around the country.  They would all bicker and argue about who the President should be but then the majority would rally around someone and the delegate would report back to the constituents who the President was.

The hope was that if we chose someone we trusted, we could trust them to pick someone trustworthy to be President.  We hoped trust would trickle up to the high echelons of power.

We are very far removed from that system and I see no hope of going back.  In fact, what disturbs me most about the primary process is that I will not know one thing about my delegate to the national conventions.  There is a high chance this year that both conventions could be “brokered” which means that on the second vote the delegates will not have to vote for who I tell them to vote for.  This means someone I do not know or trust might pick my party’s nominee.  I should spend a lot more time figuring out who that person is than who the candidates are!

If that doesn’t disturb you, then this will.  There is absolutely nothing that guarantees your state delegate to Washington D.C. for the general Presidential election has to vote for who you tell them to vote for.  Every Presidential election has had at least one delegate jump ship and vote for someone different than who their state told them to.  I live in Utah which will almost certainly vote for a Republican President but that doesn’t mean the Utah delegate has to choose the Republican.  They might go Democrat or even abstain from voting.  This happens all the time but so far hasn’t changed the outcome of the election.  The minute it does (and that day is coming) the foundations of our shaky democracy will crumble.  Be that as it may, there is some more info on national delegates here.

We are a far cry from what the founding fathers envisioned.  Their vision was about people getting together in rooms and choosing trustworthy local leaders to represent them at the state and national levels.  Currently we do the opposite.  We isolate ourselves from our communities and climb into tiny little booths.  When we do so we are quite arrogant, assuming that we think we know everything about the candidates when in fact we know next to nothing other than their appearance and party.  You can’t really know someone until you have met them face to face.  But we assume we are little gods who know everything and we pull our lever of power and then spew vitriol at those who disagree but we do it from behind closed doors.

This is not democracy.  This is arrogance.

What we should be doing is far more humble.  It is gathering together with our neighbors and having honest but confrontational dialog.  We should sit in a room together until we can all agree on a delegate whom we know.  Then we should trust that delegate to make the right decision about who the President should be.

Therefore the reason the coin flips in Iowa bug me so much has nothing to do with the caucus format.  It has everything to do with the reality that the coins were the easy and lazy way out.  Those communities should have lived into the spirit of the Fathers and argued until there was a majority.  That is how democracy is supposed to work and I pray, without much hope, we can get there again.

Beyond the Talking Points: Why I am Not Writing about Guns


There have been two devastating public shootings in the last couple of weeks.  This is according to my Facebook and Twitter feeds which are full of information.  .  .except that they aren’t.  The are full of opinionated talking points vaguely rooted in information.  Be that as it may, there are still some people who don’t think social media has enough opinions about guns.  They actually (and I am not making this up) post things like, “Why is nobody talking about the Planned Parenthood shooting?  We seemed all too willing to talk about Starbucks’ red cups.”  Or this gem, “Why aren’t more of my pastor friends posting about San Bernandino?  They were all over the Paris shootings.”

If they were looking for comments, they got their wish because in minutes they had 100 comments both about gun violence and why we are not talking about gun violence.  I am willing to admit that they might have different (and more silent) Facebook friends but trust me, my feed is full enough of the talk of guns and terrorism and violence.

With that said, I am one of the more cautious ones.  I didn’t post anything about Paris or about San Bernandino or about Colorado Springs.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of opinions about all three but I am choosing to remain silent online for a few reasons.

First, the talking points are tired.  We can repeat them all we want but without further information they are useless except for badgering people to believe what you do.

Second, people are not looking for honest dialogue.  They are looking for victims to publicly annihilate.  I want to contribute meaningfully to public debates.  Free speech and public debate are part of what made and still make our country so great.  But many of us aren’t doing either.  We are looking for people to lynch.  And I don’t want to be lynched or really lynch anybody else.

Third, I all ready wrote about gun violence a couple months back and am still a wee bit proud of that post because it did come together well.  You can read it here.

So there you have it.  I don’t want to repeat tired talking points.  I don’t want to be lynched and I have all ready said my piece.

However, if I were to wade back into this debate, here are some things I might do:

One, I would try to wait for hard data.  The right wants to divert our attention to “mental illness” (except ironically, when it isn’t white people doing the shootings.)  The left wants to talk about gun control and background checks almost to an annoying fault.  But I have not seen much hard data or studies about either.  How many of these criminals would have failed a background check?  How many were diagnosed with a mental illness?  What about mental illness?  Why aren’t more of the “mentally ill” shooting people?  The mentally ill I have known would never do that.  .  .I think.  Did Hitler ever actually make the argument that the mentally ill are violent and is that what led to the Nazis killing thousands of them?  What about terrorism?  What happens when a peaceful adherent to a religion becomes “radicalized?”  Does threatening everything they hold dear contribute to that or the opposite?  We seem to think threatening to kill them is a good way for them not to kill us first.  Does that actually work?  We have no honest answers to these questions, no hard data or studies.  Part of that is because this phenomenon of one a week is pretty recent.  So we should let the researchers do their job before screaming at each other.

Two, and actually last, I would want a conversation that would do something other than form a lynch mob.  Yes, I think our politicians have a little bit of power and should be seeking meaningful legislation and the funding of good programs.  Right now I would just settle for a good group of members from both sides of the aisle agreeing to sit in a room without cameras or reporters to hash out some plan that tows a good line between all the talking points.  A man can dream, right?

The good news is that they are not alone in their power.  I have power and you have power and we can do something too.  I hope that “something” doesn’t start and stop with “buy a gun to put an end to them!” but moves beyond that to adopting the orphans, caring for the oppressed, preaching an end to violence, helping the mentally disabled and doing so much more.

All those things begin with dialog and debate but hopefully our talk leads to action.  After all talk is cheap, but a necessary first step.

But, as I said, I don’t want to be lynched so I am going to ignore the ridiculous talking points and keep posting pictures of my children doing cute things.

Here is one for you now.



Beyond the Talking Points: The Current Refugee Crisis


Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to be the judge of a high school debate competition.  Not surprisingly one of the debate topics centered around “the current refugee crisis.”  Unfortunately I only got to listen to one such debate.  Those arguing in favor of accepting refugees did an okay job at listing out several economists, historians and anthropologists who all argue that accepting refugees will most likely improve a country’s living standards over a long term period of time (up to 1oo years!).

Those arguing against it did a fascinating job of listing out everything that is happening today.  They had current and relevant data on the spread of disease, the increase of poverty among nationals and the outbreak of violence.  It was all quite disconcerting and overwhelming, especially when that team pointed out, “All our opponent’s data is about what might possibly happen.  Ours is about what is happening.”

They won the debate.  The reality is that when people cross borders, particularly because of persecution or poverty, they bring a lot of bad stuff with them, not intentionally but it happens.  This team’s crude listing of current statistics did a lot to undo the pie in the sky optimism of those who claim, “yeah but none of that will happen because, you know, love.”  Sadly that seems to be the argument many are making even today.  However, the threats are very real and we would be foolish to deny that.

Yet I remain in absolute favor of open borders worldwide, starting with our own.  I do so not because of a pie in the sky optimism but because I am a biblical Christian.  I am not a fundamentalist one but I still believe the narrative of Scripture should be given absolute primacy in all affairs.

The narrative of Scripture leaves little room for gray when it comes to feeding, clothing and accepting foreigners, even dangerous ones.  God does it and God wants us to do it.

You can look at the prologue to the 10 Commandments where God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.”  This statement, upon which the 10 commandments rest, calls to mind the recent past where the Israelites were strangers in a foreign land.  God not only rescued them but accepted them into God’s presence.  We serve a hospitable God.

You can also look at the entire book of Deuteronomy, most notably passage like chapter 10:18-19 where, “God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

Then there is chapter 16 where Moses takes great pains to clarify that the benefits of the national festivals extend to the foreigners who reside in their towns.  Then the book ends with Moses pronouncing a curse upon anyone who refuses to grant foreigners justice (see 27:19).

You can also study the minor prophets who pronounce God’s wrath upon Israel over and over again because they did not accept strangers and foreigners (most notably Zephaniah 7:10).

The Psalms too proclaim that our God loves the foreigners and defends their cause.  (See Psalm 94:6 and 146:9)

I wish I had the time to cite another 100 examples but clearly the Old Testament God loves immigrants, rescues immigrants, feeds and clothes them and insists we do the same.

But this isn’t just about Israel and God.  Jesus is the ultimate example of a God who deserted the heavens to welcome wayward sinners into the hospitable presence of God.  Jesus is the ultimate example of a God reaching out to make room in his house for us.  At the same time, Jesus is the ultimate example of one who was crucified for being so hospitable.  And Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him.

Therefore, although I am very much inclined to accept the prognostication of the anthropologists, historians and economists who argue in the long term it will be to our benefit, I still know that in the short term we might get crucified and not just with violence but also with disease.  The danger of hospitality to refugees is very real.  What happened in Paris on Friday was very real.  The threats of disease and violence and increased poverty (at least in the short term) are big problems.  But if we trust and follow the God of Scripture, these are problems to solve, not problems which should cause us to reject God’s commands.

In close, I remember the early church.  You probably didn’t know that the number one cause of death among early Christians was not martyrdom but disease.  The Roman government had a way of isolating the sick and letting them die in extreme poverty.  This was all so that the healthy didn’t get sick and it worked!  It turns out that the healthy do stay healthy when they don’t go around sick people.  The early Christians didn’t care.

They were so overwhelmed by the picture of a healthy God embracing a sick creation (and getting crucified for it) that they went to the sick, fed them, clothed them, took care of their needs and then all died of the same diseases.  They did this not only willingly but joyously because they believed in The Great Physician who would one day heal them, even from death.

If we aren’t willing to become a bit poorer, a bit sicker, a bit less safe for the benefit of others, even our enemies, I just don’t think we really understand the grace and compassion of a healthy and loving God who was crucified to welcome the very dangerous, very sick and very poor sinners into a holy nation.

At least that’s my two cents.