Feb 25 2013
On the Chair Next to You

Each Sunday morning, Kumar sits on a folding chair, waiting for the rock band to start up, and the preacher to give a seeker-sensitve sermon. The chairs are partly filled, in a school gymnasium, just outside Washington, D.C.

He's a small man, from Chennai, India, and here, in the rows for the audience, he's part of someone's Big Vision. Like many others, the church start-up has a visionary, who hopes it becomes the next Big Thing, even hoping to buy 40 acres in suburban D.C. (Anyone got a half-bil for that?)

And Kumar, who's 36, drives each day to his office job at Sun Microsystems, where he spends a lot of time checking urgent email from very far away.

Friday night, I walked with Kumar, and our mutual friend, Woody, to a crowded Whole Foods Market in Alexandria. I made a salad about four times bigger than his, but when we got back to the hotel room, it took him a couple hours to finish. I kept asking questions. He kept answering.

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Kumar was on a crowded bus in Chennai, India. He heard God's voice. "Unmistakeably," he says. I heard God say, twice, 'Seek Me.' That was it. Twice."

Just "Seek Me"?

"Just 'Seek Me'. And I knew it was God, but which God? I was Hindu. Was it Vishnu? Calli...? No idea. I just knew it was God. Somehow, I knew it. Unmistakeable."

And Kumar isn't the gullible type. He has multiple advanced degrees in Aero Engineering and Physics, for starters, from the M.I.T.-equivalent in India.

He studied and researched, but just wasn't satisfied that it was one of his familiar gods, and eventually found a friend with a Bible -- a "good luck charm" -- and traded a textbook for it. He started reading, got confused, but eventually was pointed to Jesus.

He became a Jesus-follower.

Costly decision.

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His parents weren't happy. They scheduled an arranged marriage. Kumar met his wife-to-be on Friday, told her and his parents on Saturday about his Jesus decision, and got married on Sunday. "They thought it would blow over," he says. It didn't.

Six months later, there was an intervention. Her family, his family, neighbors, friends -- 150 people strong -- all telling him to repudiate his faith. He refused.

His parents, fearing for their reputation, said he should leave the area immediately. They would tell everyone that he was dead.

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Kumar took a job in the states. He drove to a big church building. "I didn't know what else to do," he says. "Nice cars everywhere. I liked that."

He walked in, and was taken aback. "It was a fancy church, and everyone was a black person, and they were quite animated. They were walking on their chairs around the room. I was confused, but they were happy.

"They had a testimony time, and I like microphones, so I got up and told them, 'I am so happy about Jesus! I do not want a Mercedes or a BMW! I want to go back to India to tell people about Jesus!' Everyone applauded me! I was the center of attention! But I had just lied! I did not want to go back. Actually, I did want to be rich. I did want a Mercedes."

But some brothers took him to a room and prayed with him, that his return to India would happen. "I did not want to go back to India..."

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A few years later, he went back to India. Kumar took his vacation from Sun, and headed over... with no plan. He just went door-to-door, and told people about Jesus.

The first day, 45 people decided to become Jesus-followers. How'd THAT happen?

"I don't know. I just went door to door, and neighbors would introduce me to others, and I was amazed."

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Kumar still takes his vacations, two weeks a year, and heads to India. But things have grown. From those first 45, and from his trips over the past seven years...

More than 100,000 conversions. 139 communities. More than 100 pastors. Model orphanages for children suffering from AIDS Schools for Dalit children, the lowest-of-the-low in India. Shelters for little girls, now rescued from prostitution. Food. Medicine. Jesus.

They want to name projects after Kumar. He does not allow them. He spends hours every day, after work, praying and communicating and wondering what the next move is. He doesn't raise financial support. Not his style.

"God always provides. Children are dying in a project, because all we have is rice for them, and not much. Woody gave us some money for a down-payment on four acres with hundreds of coconut trees, and then several families who know us each called me, unaware of what we were doing. 'God woke us up last night, and we can't get you off our mind. Here's five thousand dollars...here's a thousand dollars...we got the forty-thousand we needed to buy the land. I am always amazed."

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"Kumar...I don't get it. We made a quantum leap in your story. 45 people decide to follow Jesus, and now more than 100 thousand. Wha...? How...?"

We sit at our table in our hotel room, and Kumar starts laughing. I laugh, too! -- and then, I realize, he's not laughing. He's crying, and he can't speak.

"So many have died..."

Who has died?

"So many of our pastors, so many of our people..."

I look at Woody, who knows the stories, and he bites his lip and nods.

"They are beaten to death, they are killed, because they are talking about Jesus. It happens all the time in India, but the country is very concerned about image, very concerned about foreign investment, they pretend it doesn't happen.

"They are the reason this growth has happened. Their blood. I ask God, 'Why do you let this happen to these people who love you?' They have nothing. Our pastors are not paid. There is no money. But I realized, God is releasing them, at last. They have nothing, they are beaten, they are hungry, they live on the ground, in the streets, and God finally releases them to go home."

Pause. And I can't talk, either.

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Woody, who met Kumar at that seeker-sensitive church in suburban D.C., says I should let Kumar eat his salad. He's right. It's getting late.

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If you're reading this on a weekday, Kumar is sitting in a little room at Sun and doing his job, and answering far-flung emails while he prays. And on Sundays, he sits on a folding chair in a high school gym, and hears about the church's big plans. It will be costly, but just think what could happen, with a new building!

He admits he wonders sometimes...

"They have now added us to their missions budget. They give $1,000 per year. I guess I am happy for that, but..." and his voice trails.

But...the church has other priorities, and a Big Vision for another affluent suburb that, need we remind, needs Jesus, too.

 

Feb 10 2013
Parental Warning: This Blog Contains Actual Bible Stuff

 

So is the Bible "family-friendly"?

I asked the guy from "Focus on the Family" that question. A great guy. Totally appreciate what they do at "Plugged In Online", where they review the content of movies and such, since I've always been strict with what my kids see and hear. But his answer was wrong.

"Yes."

You guys rate things on a family-friendly level according to "stars".  Given the content of the Bible, how many "stars" would you give it?

A pause. "Five."

Really? So, if there was a movie, realistically showing the actual stories in the Bible, you'd say it was appropriate for all viewers?

"Yes."

Man, I wouldn't take little kids to see Lot fathering his daughter's children. Maybe I'm more media-conservative than Focus on the Family...?

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I know he gave the political answer, and the one he had to give. (Imagine Focus on the Family getting complaints, "The Bible's not 'Family-Friendly'???") But with due respect:  You gotta be kidding me.

"Well," you might say, "it's family-friendly, because I read the Bible with my little ones every night…"

Well, you read SOME of the Bible.  Parts of it.  Why?   Because you're a smart parent, and don't really want to be explaining what "like the emissions of horses" is all about, right before lights-out.  That's Ezekiel 23, and that's for starters.  Nevermind Lot getting his own daughters pregnant, or Samson taking advantage of prostitutes or Noah getting naked and trashed, or Song of Solomon's well-known lusty stuff. Kids have a sense of modesty, and wise parents protect that.

Here's another reason it's obvious: The Bible isn't family-friendly, because there's plenty of content that I couldn't share on the air without a disclaimer. Or at all. I can read direct quotes from Jesus, on a Christian station, and send people to their computers for emails of complaint. "My kids were in the car, so I don't appreciate you talking about how prostitutes will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven before the religious leaders."

Other people notice the decidedly unclean, non-family-friendliness of the Bible. Many Muslim leaders criticize it for being full of "abhorrent tales of sexual escapades as done by the Bible's 'holiest' men."  And, indeed, these stories ARE abhorrent, they ARE horrible, they ARE scandalous in the worst way if...

IF...God's ultimate, highest call on our lives is for us to be "family-friendly."  

But it's not. Not even close.  

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"Well, okay, but but the Bible IS family-friendly, because it shows us the best way to put our families first, and..."

Actually it doesn't do that, either. The Bible doesn't buttress the primacy of the family. It threatens it.

For those who want to idolize the importance of the nuclear family, Jesus, himself, is a threat.  He turned the entire idea of family on its head.

He says his kingdom matters more than your family, and my family, in Matthew 19. He does it again, in explicit terms, in Luke 14.

He says the poor, the imprisoned, the sick are his brothers and sisters in Matthew 25.

Shockingly, in Matthew 12, he compares his - what we would call - "real" mother and brothers with the people who were following him.  And he said the LATTER group, anyone who "does the will of my Father" is his real brother, and sister, and mother. He redefines family, itself.

"Yes, but that was a different time, and family is much more important now, in these troubled times."

I've thought that before, too, but... it's exactly wrong.  Family was your very IDENTITY at that time. Your past, present, and future, all in one. It was ALL about family. And Jesus, God among us, redefined it.  And no, it didn't go over well then, either.

For the believer, the Jesus-follower, "family" is redefined, and the centrality of our nuclear, physical family, is threatened. Like the old western, Jesus walks into town, confronts our worship of other things, even good things, like our families, and says, "There ain't room in town for the two of us."

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I thought about ending the blog, here. But then I anticipated the responses, attempts to take the shocking reality of Jesus, and simply make it fit what we're already doing. "Well, thanks, Brant! This is all true, of course, etc., but it doesn't mean we shouldn't care about our families, and…"

Yes, yes, of course. But don't use that as a means of escaping what Jesus is saying, here: If you are a believer, you are part of the body of Christ, and that means integrating your life, with others, in a way that recognizes this new conception of family.

It does not mean retrofitting the radical teachings of Jesus to keep doing the same thing. And that's good news, because the way of Jesus is BETTER, even if it doesn't fit our idea of what a "good Christian" looks like.

Imagine: Your money. Your time. Your home. Your everything, woven with the lives of others. Less isolation, less stressful relationships in the home, more healthy marriages, and true families for the lonely, the orphan, the widow, the divorcee, the single, or the misfit.  Jesus has a plan, and it's a good one. Don't short-circuit it by defending your status quo. (Frankly, as America becomes more post-Christian, we may find ourselves, by necessity, rediscovering just how great this family, his Real Family, is!)

No, by our definition of "family friendly", the Bible doesn't cut it.  Once again, Jesus takes our little categories and leaves them in tatters.

And once again, he threatens us, because he loves us too much to let us stay the same.

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Aug 12 2012
"Why Aren't There More Songs Telling Us Not to Sin?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a question from Facebook: "Why aren't there more songs telling us not to sin?  There's lots of the happy stuff, God loves you, etc. but the Bible is full of warnings not to sin, so why aren't there more songs like that?"

A fine question.  I'll try to answer, and then guess what the responses would be, based on years of conversation about this very stuff with Christian radio listeners.

Q: Why not have lots of Christian songs that are telling people to stop sinning?

It won't work, for one thing.

Q: Ah, you mean it won't sell!  People just want the happy-encouraging fluff stuff, and so when we take a stand for truth, it just won't sell. That figures, because our culture is just so messed up.

Nope, that's not what I mean at all. Oh yes, it can sell. There's part of us that WANTS to feel guilty. We'll hear something and think, "Wow, that's spiritual. What a moment. I'm so convicted."  I listened to a Steve Camp album years ago, and he was big on that. Honestly, it made me feel kinda good about myself to sing songs about how disgusting we all are, how ashamed we should be. Weird, but true. I'd feel so sorry for my sin, and then keep sinning, and feel even worse about it, and I felt like feeling worse about it somehow made God happy. There's a huge market for "I'm-not-doing-enough" in books, too.

Q: But shouldn't we use music to correct people?  Maybe musicians and radio stations just want to take the easy way out and avoid speaking to Big Issues, and confronting people.

Actually (I love being "Actually Guy") there are few things EASIER than "confronting people" with books, or speeches from a stage, or on the radio. Telling people they oughta do this, oughta stop that right now, oughta be better, oughta pray more, oughta be MORE RADICAL RIGHT NOW, or oughta quit lusting or whatever?  Easy. 

It's not relational. It costs you nothing.  And, in an affluent Christian culture that often welcomes it, it can actually help you GAIN things.  Like notoriety, respect, and money.

Yes, there needs to be loving correction, and even loving confrontation, in the church. We need to encourage people to put off the things that slow them down, and tie them to their old lives.  But let's quit replacing the hard work of actual relationship with hoping a guy with a guitar on the radio does it for you. 

Q: But bands have done it before. Why, I remember back in the early days of CCM, they took a STAND every night, every concert.

And then went on being humans, often cursing each other, getting in fistfights with each other, and then trotting right back on stage to do a scripted altar call. And many made good money doing it. When you don't know the people on the stage, when you don't really see into their lives, into their families, they risk nothing in telling you what you ought to do. But when someone from your actual life, your actual I-see-this-person-in-real-life actual life dares to do this, well, that person is risking something. 

In many cases, the very fans who loved that the artists were taking "stands against sin" were battling the exact same sins in their own lives, and wondering why they can't just work up the resolve to get past them.

Q: What about taking on a prophetic role?  You know, like the Old Testament prophets, who told people to quit sinning?

I'm not sure you would like that. The prophets spoke into the religious culture of the day, and blasted the refusal to give their hearts to God, in the interest of selfishness, money, control...

I do think that would be entertaining. I was just reading in Micah today, about how religious leaders would support people as long as those people were under their control, but the minute someone questions them, they'll turn on them. I do think that would make a great song. Or later on, where God's angry at how Israel's priests will only do their thing if they get paid, all the while talking about how "dependent on God" they are.

Jon Foreman from Switchfoot did "Instead of a Show", borrowed directly from Isaiah 1 and Amos 5, about how God hates our religious meetings and festivals and talkfests, when we're so slow to actually be merciful and pursue justice. That makes for an interesting listen. I know other artists do this kind of thing, too.

I like that he sticks with the Biblical text, both letter-and-spirit. The danger: It's really easy for those of us with chips on our shoulders to consider ourselves "prophetic".  But honestly, when people say, "We need more songs about sin," I suspect they don't mean songs about corporate sin, or songs challenging a religious establishment.

Q: Well, if we can't sing about sin, we're missing the point of the Bible.

Oh, we can sing about sin. Many of our artists do it, but they tend to start with their own. This said, though, amazingly, sin is not the point of the Bible.

Jesus is. 

He's the first Word, and the last one. He's the point. 

I hear people saying, "Yeah, yeah, I hear about 'all this grace stuff', but we need some real Bible-preaching, and..." - and I'm amazed. Like we've all absorbed "this grace stuff". Like we've mastered it. Like it's just a bit part of a larger story, and just a way to help us get our acts together.

Like it's all just about us.

Like grace is the "milk" part of the Gospel, but the real "meat" is more law. Like Heaven - the Kingdom in its fullness! - will be about more rules, just doing them right-er this time. Like we've so conquered the challenge of extending grace and mercy to people, that now we can move on to the better-and-higher stuff, telling people to stop doing stuff they already know they shouldn't be doing.

Plus, let's face it, "Stop doing that!" isn't an awesome hook for a song.  

Q: But good songwriters could do it.

Good songwriters go for the heart.  Heck, good art goes for the heart.  But moralism does not. Moralism never gives poeple goosebumps.  Grace does. Moralism is a mask; grace unmasks.

Grace makes for a great song. This isn't surprising, because it's His love that brings us to Him.  No wonder people are aching for grace.

Q: But don't songs that tell people not to sin help people stop sinning?

I was very convicted by Steve Camp's music. Over and over and over. And I kept sinning. If our message can be boiled down to "stop sinning", we'll wind up in one of two places:  Despair, or delusion.

Q: So there's no hope.

Now we're getting somewhere.  It's almost like we need someone to step in and save us, huh?  Someone to stand between us and the wrath of God.  Someone to cover us.  

There's something wonderful about reaching the end of your resolve, reaching the end of your hope that you can get your act together.  Something incredibly humbling, incredibly freeing, and - most shocking - incredibly not about me.  

It's about Jesus.  Here's to songs that remind us of that.