Christ beyond Christianity

Christ, of course, was not Jesus’ last name.  “Christ” was the Greek translation of “messiah,” which meant chosen one or anointed one.  By themselves, I don’t think these definitions today really get at who Jesus was and who he claimed to be.   As moderns, without a rich sense of Judaism or Christian history, much of the meaning of the messiah and messianic faith gets lost.   

Could that mean that some modern Christians don’t have a real sense of who Jesus is and what Jesus, the messiah, really means?  Without a deep sense of the messiah, there is no real sense of Christian faith.

History lessons and biblical exegesis are important to get a sense of Jesus.  In fact, I believe a life of disciplined study unites the mind with the heart and soul of faith in one of the most significant ways.  It’s one of the most ancient ways of worshiping God.

But, if the emergent church tells me anything about our today’s day and age, it’s that we live in a world that longs to feel and live this faith.  I think this is points us to a new understanding, a faith beyond words, beyond denominationalism, even beyond religion.  Unsatisfied with escapist self-centered salvation formulas and abstract cafeteria style spirituality, some hunger for a deeper relationship with God.

I’m on the search for the Christ beyond Christianity.

Knowing there’s not real substitute for worshiping God in a life of service and study, I think we can come close to grasping the meaning of the messiah if we stop and get intensely personal.  The heights of a life of faith begin in the depths. To begin to feel messianic faith, you have to get in touch with your deepest longings.   Go to that place inside where either everything matters or everything doesn’t, that place where life is a choice.  Traces of this deep human longing and hope for deliverance are literally everywhere, in our music and movies, often lingering just below the surface of the most common of things.

The seeds of messianic hope, the kind that can change the world, lie within everybody.

So, start on the surface.  Think, a minute, of a love song you just can’t hear without crying or a song that takes you over.  Spend time with that feeling.  Let it take over.  If that doesn’t work, think about a scene in a movie that absolutely grips you.  Or, an artist that somehow taps into your soul and, somehow, makes it overflow with a sense of meaning.

Dwell in that spirit.

Now, take it deeper.

Remember a time when you were literally struggling with your sanity,  battling the most profound feelings of your life.  Perhaps, you were dealing with abandonment or rage…or your deepest fears.  Whatever it was, it took you to the brink.  Maybe it was coming out.  Maybe it was a break-up, an abusive situation or  addiction.  Maybe, you are haunted by depression, a mix of impenetrable loneliness, defeat, and helplessness.  Or, perhaps, you’ve live with the most indescribable loss or rejection.

Maybe you just desperately needed someone to hold you and accept you for who you are.   Maybe you lost a loved one…and almost lost yourself.


Take this indescribable moment – full of breathlessness and longing – and imagine it burned deep into the memory of a people.  Give it history.  Make it an identity.  Imagine it lasting for years, its story being passed on to the generations.  The high, and its low.  Let it forge a history through the life of an entire people.  A people who were released only to be conquered.  Born, it seems, only to be abandoned.  Like a motherless child.

Remember, “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords” are names of both personal and political proportions.  To know what the messiah really means, you can’t stop at a mere personal Jesus.  As isolated individuals, we only have what we have.  Plumbing the depths of our own history is only just the beginning.  To sense the hope of a people, to really know the dream of a Love to end all loves, of a Hope to end all hopes.  To know a living moment when justice really blends to mercy, and mercy bends into justice.   In a time of reckoning, where meekness really isn’t weakness.  Instead, it inherits the earth.   Joy is born of mourning.

A land is promised, a new life will come.

That is the beginning of belief…the belief in the messiah…when you can just get a glimpse.

He is coming.

To get a sense of Christ, you have to strip Christ of all religious pretensions and abstract arguments.  You have to begin to strip Christian faith of all its denominational doctrines and salvation formulas, which reduce Jesus to words.  The Christ of Christian faith lies beyond Christianity, beyond religious affiliation, beyond “Christian” identity, beyond categories and moral codes.

Jesus is not some passport to heaven.

To get a glimpse of the savior, first you must know the need to be saved.

Then, you begin to see his Kingdom.

Anniversary of Our One-Month Hospital Stay

It’s quiet here this morning at 6am.  The humidifier, which makes the air in our Chicago apartment breathable, hums trying to keep up with the intense dry air.  I pull one of my shades to find the sun rising outside my east window.  It has not broken the horizon yet, but its light sprays layers of dark purple to salmon-y pink atop the grey of the lake.  Only a few windows in the 40-story highrise across the street are lit.

It’s Sunday.

It was a year ago today, November 23rd, that a friend, Nikki Zabriske, and I took Margo to the emergency room.  We were in Michigan celebrating Thanksgiving.  Margo had felt ill for 3 days.  With intense headaches, persistent nausea, and other odd symptoms, we finally took her to the ER after she had collapsed.  While in the ER at admittance, her neurological symptoms first manifest.  Suddenly she began speaking in a pronounced lisp.  About the same time, dysphasia and disorientation mildly set in.

margo-2008Within three hours, the doctors accurately diagnosed her with a rare blood disorder we couldn’t pronounce and never heard of before:  TTP, (Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura) It affects only about 4-6 million. There was little to any available prognosis.  TTP was a roller-coaster ride.  Everyone manifests the disease differently.  For some, it’s an annoyance.  For others, they lose organs…or, due to the complications of the global clotting caused by TTP, die.

Some of the things I witnessed during those first three hours were enough to change my life.  But, I had no idea what awaited me the next thirty days. Margo would have one of the most severe episodes of TTP I’d read or talked to others about about.  Margo was unconsious about two-thirds of that month.  She had seizures, dark and terrifying delerium, countless CT’s to search for bleeding, and was in and out of ICU twice.   Her episode ended only after two visions Margo had about choosing to live or die…and rounds of chemo.  I didn’t learn about these visions until after she awoke out of almost three weeks unconsciousness.

If anyone wants to read or revisit those days, click here or go to  If you still want to make a difference, give blood this week.   Margo went through dozens of packs of red blood cells and 200-300+ units of plasma.

So many things happened to us that month, I cannot begin to tell you.  Margo and I had parallel journeys.  Margo’s mother and I witnessed everything together: the daily blood draws, the paralysis, the fingerprints left on her body when we had to move her, and the sobriety of the doctors’ and nurse’s faces.

A year later, Margo and I still think about how our lives have changed.  I realize how much I’ve mellowed.  We don’t know if Margo will ever relapse, or if so, how that relapse will go.   We talk about how some things just don’t matter anymore.  Margo expresses how a cloud of depression over her life is gone.

Something like this puts life in a different perspective.  Margo talks about how real the words of the 23rd Psalm are for her now.  Especially, the fourth verse:  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me…”

My prayers go out to everyone who walked with me on this journey, especially my friends who reached out and encouraged me at the TTP/thrombocytopenia Yahoo group.  Prayer and community sustained us and kept me together.

Christianity Can’t Compete

2725050979_26ba7a5a1e_mHow can Christianity compete in a world that offers up so many promises and ways to escape?  Can a life of discipleship really compete with the endless stream of distractions that bombard us daily?  So many promises at such a low low price.

I confess: After work or after church, sometimes I do go to Burger King just so I can “have it your way.”  I mean, my way.

We live in a culture that exploits the very meaninglessness it produces.  I’m not trying to be negative or pessimistic, here.  Just honest.  I know so many who are secretly lonely, struggling with depression, or unable to accept who they have to be in a world where you have to pay to play.   While we’re being told our potential is unlimited, we’re forced to play the game.  We give ourselves and energies to so many demands and projects – which carry some reward of success and accomplishment.  Secretly, we have to take the paycheck to pay down our debt, which paid for the house or the education or credit cards that buy back our self-worth and sense of self-esteem.

How is Jesus’ cross meaningful in a world like this?

One mistake we make is to let the cross become less and less real and more and more spiritual.  Christianity becomes a message we tell ourselves to stave off the feelings we really feel or what others are saying.  Everything is fine.  God is good.  Grace abounds.  No big deal.  I’m OK.  Praise God?

Stop to think that we live in a world that can even profit on widespread depression.   In this kind of world, belief in Jesus can also become something its not.  It can quickly become something else that wards off the emptiness we accumulate by selling ourselves to a world that is supposed to value us so highly.  This is a world where you have to live for yourself in order to be anybody…or do anything.   When its at its worst, like Tylenol, Jesus on the cross becomes something we swallow to take away the pain of feeling insignificant or guilty.

If this is all Christianity is, there are better alternatives.

Just turn on the TV.

1254274220_74c7802ae2_mChristianity tells a story about suffering.  The suffering of God.  You might see why this isn’t so popular.  Or, perhaps it is, because someone else is doing the suffering.  What sense can this story make to us in the “free world?”   A free world almost “free” of anything long-lasting, but where everything has a price?

What’s the meaning of the story of a God-man, a Rabbi born a carpenter, who was driven out of church by church folk?  What does it mean that religious leaders, the ones who had the most to loose from seeing things his way, wanted him dead?   What, possibly, could this guy have been teaching?  What’s the meaning of the God-man and his suffering?


You know.  You have to be a Christian to even care about this story.  Either that, or you have to care about the meaning of suffering.  Or, perhaps this is what is universal about it, you have to at least know your suffering.  Once you’ve felt this, you care about the suffering of others.  Perhaps, you have to suffer to really appreciate what anothers suffering might mean.  Even the God-man’s.

So, what’s the point of this?  I’m raising questions, that don’t have shallow or easy answers.  At least, I dont’ think they do.  These questions also hold the key to something hopeful and life-giving.  They hold untold meaning.  The questions are more healing and productive than closing them up with simple answers.  But, at the same time, what makes for faith doesn’t have to be complicated.  Christianity, I think, thrives amidst people who know struggle because suffering reveals something about the universe that nothing else can.  it calls for faith precisely where life’s depth intersects with its simplicity.

The cross calls out for the end of all suffering.

Now, do you believe it?

On the cross, God’s justice and love speak their final word into a world that profits on its own meaninglessness, that entraps us in our own need to escape it, and is dizzying with its attractive alternatives and technical distractions.  Despite the way some seem to think, in this environment the cross doesn’t point us to a new and improved doctrine of self-righteousness.  “Biblical” religion does not thrive on its own righteousness and people’s shame.

To that, I offer a biblical Christianity where love and grace are one in the same.

This is what I think:  To open our eyes to see and ears to hear, without numbness or distraction; to open ourselves to our own persistent loneliness, our own sense of helplessness or depression; to feel our need for either closeness or escape; to see our dependence on distractions; to open ourselves up to our own suffering, we open ourselves to a whole new world – one in need of a savior.

602041238_a9f18c5800_m1Once you’re there, in the bottomless space of a moment of suffering, you know the simplicity of a deep faith.  You are never again alone in the story.  You know why he came.  You know why we, the religious people, ran him off.  You know why those who benefited from the way things were wanted him dead.  You know why, by constantly changing, things can still remain the same.

Christianity can’t compete.  Enemies and opposition are good for politics.   Formulaic faith, both judgmental self-righteous versions and guilt-free spirituality, make for excellent religion.   They fit well with what we need.   Meaningless is a demanding, but profitable business.

But, love and justice, who needs that?

Thank you, Rob Bell (Mars Hill)

My cousins are members of Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan.  Jami (here’s her blog) was singing for 11AM service yesterday morning.  I wanted to take my girls and go see her.  So, we went.

Brief informational segue:  Spiritually, I’m still bruised and recovering from growing up in West Michigan.   Its religious climate – multiple Christian radio stations and Christian schools, avid Dr. Dobsonites, and Christian Reformed churches on every corner – made life difficult for me as a religious outsider.  Growing up “RLDS,” I was unacceptable.  I wasn’t really anybody.  Not Mormon, not Protestant, nor Catholic.  For many, I wasn’t even Christian.  I consistently had friends who were worried about my salvation.

Tracts about how to save people from cults like mine were printed in Grand Rapids by Zondervan.  They were on the “Welcome” racks of many churches, even in a few local eating establishments.  Half of my family came from this version of Christianity.   I remember the tensions that lurked underneath family gatherings.   I was 9 or 10 when my grandparents lovingly showed me the passages in Revelation that they felt condemned people like me to the plagues and pestilence of His Word.  There’s a feeling in those memories that accompany me to this day.   I learned later that my own church had a rich history of this kind of exclusive approach to faith.   It took grad school for me realize this was part and parcel of something called “sectarianism.”  Sectarianism underlies almost all my personal and intellectual struggles with orthodoxy.  In a way, I’ve spent my lifetime trying to theologically and emotionally figure how faith in Jesus came to all this.

Mars Hill sanctuary

Mars Hill sanctuary

So anyway:  I went to Mars Hill not knowing what to expect.  I liked the the Nooma videos I saw and knew something of Rob Bell’s celebrity.  But I’ve also been a victim Christianity.  More significantly, I’ve always found celebrity amidst Christ’s church a bit of a tragic irony – a contradiction beyond repair.  But, still, I was not skeptical.  I don’t ever leave my head nor heart at the door of any church, including my own.  But, I was looking forward to worship yesterday morning and wanted to learn something from Mars Hill.   I didn’t know Pastor Bell was teaching.

One quick confession:  I confess, too, I felt jealous of Mars Hill.  In the past, I’ve felt bound to a denomination that hasn’t seemed able to articulate the simple, yet deep and ungraspable words of Jesus’ Gospel in a clear and thoughtful way.  I’ve seen Bell do this with thoughtful exegesis and the benefits of modern media.  This is something I wish I had been able to be a part of.

So, back to my story.  I wanted to sing and pray.

The praise was good at 11AM.  I loved seeing my cousin at home in song and leading rich praise.

But, then, this testimony began to unfold.  Before Rob Bell had a chance to teach, I turned to Philippians.  I wanted to read.  Paul’s description of the mindset of Jesus and God kenosis (Gr. ~ self-emptying) has always meant alot to me.  I didn’t know Rob had been working through Philippians for over a year.  I didn’t know we’d be in chapters 3 and 4 that day.  So when he began by having us turn to Philippians, I felt the Spirit in a small but generous way.   The words almost broke out of context; I was already there…in more ways than one.

Then, like most deeply personal experiences, what happened next is hard to explain.  I had an encounter with God about Rob Bell and Mars Hill.  I felt God speak to me.

As Rob Bell spoke, I – myself, a full-time minister, student on the search, and first-time visitor – felt spiritually connected to Rob and Mars Hill in a deeply personal way.  All of the sudden I knew why Rob is a successful pastor.  I knew why Mars Hill exists.  I knew why people responded to Bell’s ministry.

He loves them.  That’s why Mars Hill exists and why Rob Bell shares his ministry.

He loves.

It’s hard to say exactly what I mean.   I think people either have eyes to see and ears to hear what I mean, or don’t.   My testimony is that the love at the heart of Bell’s ministry isn’t about “liking God alot” or caring a whole bunch.  The love I’m talking about is the well-spring of the Gospel.

Its the love that’s born within you because God has gotten ahold of you.  It’s the Love that makes you want to serve and want to let God use your gifts.  True, church-growth gurus and distraught church leaders can get caught in the presentation and use of your gifts, but they are just instruments.  The heart of any successful Christian ministry is the Love at its source.  This source is God.  Think John.

Its the love that scriptures tell about, but no church, ministry, prophet, or teacher possesses.  Only the Living God truly possesses it.  This energy needs no glory, though in our fallenness, we can fall victim to the recognition it gives us.

This love doesn’t celebrate in wrongs, but perseveres until the time is right.  When it gets a hold of you, it inspires hope and a thirst for justice.  Its greatness is its simultaneous power and humility.  Once it’s gotten a hold of you, it beckons you.  It becomes the source of your ministry.  You can’t have it for yourself, but you can follow its leadings and urgency.  Slowly, you let it claim you.  It is the Love that came down off its throne to fulfill its own purposes.  It is the heart of the Gospel: always intentional, personal, and purposeful.  It is Love.

Rob Bell

Rob Bell

Whether Bell ever confirms my testimony about what’s at the heart of his ministry or not, it’s not important.  I saw it at work in his teaching and at Mars Hill.  It’s a God-thing, and I am grateful for the personal testimony.

This post really is not about the success of Rob Bell or Mars Hill.  It’s about what God does to us amidst our worship, service, and response to Jesus.   God is consistently doing a new thing.  It is the heart of ministry.  Loving the people.

Thanks, Rob.

In the name of Jesus, Love on.