“Will you love your campus?”

Presented at Baptist Campus Ministries Refuge (large group) meeting at Shorter University, Thursday 11 November. Thanks to Derek Hale for the invite. Credit to Paul Tokunaga for the original inspiration 20 years previous. For that matter, credit to RCF people who opened their arms to me 20 years ago this year, at the point when I needed to be reached out to the most.
And, for the record, I was told to arrive at BCM at 7:30 PM.

There have been a multitude of people telling me this week that they were looking forward to hearing me talk at BCM tonight. I have looked at them quizzically, and muttered to them “well, I suppose I better write something for BCM, then.”

I wasn’t kidding. I would like for the record to show that I started typing stuff for this talk at 6:34 PM tonight.

I hear that the issue at hand is peace, and I suppose I ought to say something relevant. The default book for me to go to for these things is Romans, and a useful text for these things would be Romans 12:9-21. So I’m going there; you can turn there with me.

But let me tell you about a guy named Paul Tokunaga first.

I’m an old InterVarsity punk. I was in a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship where I went to college (Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, on the outskirts of bee-yoo-tee-full Terre Haute, Indiana [Readers who know Terre Haute know that this was a joke. This probably isn’t the most peaceable footnote to write, but while Terre Haute is many wonderful things, and was many wonderful things to me for four years, “beautiful” isn’t one of them]) between the point where I received saving faith in Christ in 1990 and 1993. One of the first things heard about when I joined our InterVarsity chapter was a missions conference at the University of Illinois called Urbana ’90. It took place over Christmas break.

For those Rose-Hulman students who were local, the trip to Urbana was short. I was from north Florida. No way I was going to Urbana.

But the guys who went came back hyped up, and they heard a lot of things that blew them out of the water, but one of those things was a message from this guy Paul Tokunaga, which blew them out of the water so much they bought a video of the talk and showed it one night at our large group, which looks a lot like you guys look now.

Paul Tokunaga is now the Vice-President and Director of Strategic Ministries for the whole of InterVarsity, and he’s done a metric ton in Asian-American ministries and toolkits for campus ministry leaders who aren’t white, middle class punks like I was. But he was one of the speakers on the Urbana ’90 program, and he was talking about his own college experience, which was back in 1971, which is the year I was BORN, so it’s ancient history for me and I don’t know what it is for you.

And this is a time when students were not only skeptical of everything going on in society around them, but they were out-and-out hostile, and on many campuses they would demonstrate and would sit in the administration building and there might even be violence if the students didn’t see exactly how things were changing to make it better for them. This is the era of Vietnam, remember. Not only did this group of students feel like the adults had it in for them, they had the body-bags coming home to prove it.

So this is the time Paul Tokunaga is talking about when he says these words about his sophomore year at California Polytechnic State University – and believe me, if I had the video of this talk, I’d show it to you, because it killed me hearing it. Imagine I’m a nervous Japanese-American instead of a nervous Pearson, as I read this.

I had converted from Buddhism to Christianity as a senior in high school. But it wasn’t until my sophomore year at Cal Poly that I really started to fall in love with God and with the campus. That year, God grabbed my heart, gripped it tight, and yanked hard. The turning point was one bright sunny afternoon. University Union, courtyard, upper deck. I was catching some rays between classes, just minding my own business. Down below, a chaotic, political demonstration was taking place, and as I watched, “Lord, these are sheep, lots of them, they need a shepherd. They need you.” As I thought what it was like to be a student, without the hope of Jesus Christ, I began to cry. It wasn’t religion that I was crying over. I had been raised on the moral teachings of the Buddha. It was for forgiveness for their sin. It was for the power to forgive other people. It was love, true love, for the unlovable, and I was crying for their souls. “Lord, can you, will you love the campus through me?”

I was involved in the InterVarsity fellowship, and there were some awfully nice folk in that group of about 60 or 70. But in terms of being a force to be reckoned with on campus, we were pretty harmless. Then several of us naive underclassmen, Billy, Alexis, Pam, Mark, and others, caught a vision, and the vision was that God sent his only Son to live and die for Cal Poly. We wanted more than anything, more than great GPAs, more than a stunning resume, more than a mate to marry, even more than a winning division II football team, we wanted to see Cal Poly, the whole campus, wrestle with the greatness of Jesus Christ. We wanted to reduce the population of hell and we wanted to increase the population of heaven. We wanted Cal Poly to look like the kingdom of God.

We didn’t have a blueprint, or any king of grand scheme. We started right where we lived, literally. We shared with our roommates our popcorn poppers, our sweaters, our letter jackets, we also tried to be good listeners and compassionate friends. We studied with classmates, and when it seemed right, we explained the relationship between Jesus and business ethics, Jesus and animal husbandry, Jesus and theater. We were involved in all kinds of campus groups. Some of us joined Tomo Dachi Kai, the Japanese club. Guess who? And we challenged segments of the campus with racial injustice issues that rang true with the gospel.

Six of us became writers and editors for the newspaper, the Mustang Daily. We helped build honest journalism into the fabric of the paper, and in return we were given incredible freedom to report from a Christian perspective. The Lord was growing our fellowship in size and in boldness, and we could join with the apostle Paul when he said, I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Our identity was now in the Lord. He, not letter jackets, was giving us our identity and worth. “Lord,” we asked, “how can we love Cal Poly even more?”

The fall of my sophomore year I met with the college president. These were violent times on California campuses. “Sir, I’m a Christian, and I’m committed to non violence and peace on campus. If there’s anything I can do to protect Cal Poly, feel free to call.”

Several months later on a Sunday afternoon I was working hard on a nap. It was the eve of a potentially violent major campus rally. It was Mayday 1971. It was the day in our history when the radicals of our country were committed to shutting down our entire country. “Paul, this is the president. About that rally on Thursday, I’m scared. What do you think I should do?”

Is this a dream? Wait a minute, I thought. You’re the college president. You’re supposed to have the answers. I am just a sophomore. The president asked for the Christians, not the National Guard, to protect his campus. If we said yes to the college president, we were putting our lives in danger. But we had gone too far. By that point, we were victims of love. We loved Cal Poly too much to turn our backs on our campus. No longer was the campus our adversary. It had become our friend. And we had become its lover.

Thursday came. We were ready. The auditorium was jammed with over a thousand students. There I was, aisle seat, third row, leaning, ready to lurch forward to grab the mic as soon as the radical leader yelled, “Let’s tear apart the administration building.” Oh, Lord! Pudgy, Japanese Americans with thick glasses and acne. We don’t usually do these kinds of things. But, if you’re in it, I’m in.

Our biggest guys were ready to block the exits. More importantly, over a thousand fellow Christian students throughout California were praying for us. By the end of the meeting, Tom Hayden, who is generally a rousing speaker, had literally put some students to sleep. Our God Reigns.

Paul Tokunaga went on to talk about how much that time transformed him and how, as he moved from random sophomore swept up in a genuine movement of God to a junior and senior moving towards excellence in a vocation God kept reminding him of that vision, and how much he would love that campus. I’ll link this talk on Facebook. Read the whole thing. The punch line at the end still kills me.

But the question at the end is what haunts me, and what I hope will haunt you, because it’s so important. What will your legacy be to your college? What will you be remembered for after you’re gone? Jesus loves your campus. Will you love your campus? Jesus died for your campus. Will you die for your campus?

Will you love your campus?

Romans 12:9-21, and I use the New English Translation for these things:

Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another with mutual love, showing eagerness in honoring one another. Do not lag in zeal, be enthusiastic in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, persist in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

“Live in harmony with one another.” “So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.” That sounds easy enough. But the instructions for how to do that surround the commandment, and what do they have in common?

They involve giving ourselves up.

It’s not just living with one another, but being devoted to one another. All I can think of when I hear devotion is my grandparents who lived in Palmetto who would wake up so early every morning, often at the same time, and who would share breakfast together, and talk together, and then open the Bible and the Upper Room devotional book together and read it and pray together. They smiled so often. They were so kind to people. And they were kind to one another first, and they started each day in devotion first and foremost.

Is our commitment to the people we live around that deep? How often does an obnoxious noise interrupt your sleep – or, if you’re taking a sophomore science course, your study? Do you remember that person is your brother or sister? When you get interrupted by a person with a problem, do you give them that time that they need, or do you consider it a burden? Do we rejoice in hope? Do we endure in suffering? Sure, we pray for people when they show us a need – but do we persist in prayer?

“Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse.” First, Paul would show up here and insist to us that we don’t have a clue what that statement means, and if you doubt then read Paul going off on the Corinth church in 2 Corinthians 10-12. Paul knew from persecution, and Paul did practice showing mercy to the people who would throw him in prison. What do we put up with here that even approaches that?

And when we do walk into a situation that’s unfair to us, do we practice showing grace even in those circumstances? How many professors have you talked about behind their backs lately? (And if you think those of us who are faculty are innocent here, you think way too highly of us.) Do we thank God that we have the ability to give over time in our life for learning and thinking, and do we thank those who are providing here for us, or do we curse the small difficulties? And if we curse the small difficulties, then how do we expect to manage the big ones?

“Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly.” It’s tempting to put people in classes here and call one group that’s not like us lowly, while everybody who looks like us is haughty. Who is in your circle of friends? Do you reach out across social groups on campus, or do you remain in your own little clique?

There are absolutely amazing people on this campus who nobody knows about, because they don’t naturally reach out to people who don’t look like them and people who don’t look like them don’t reach out. If Jesus Christ died for this campus, he died for this whole campus, not just the people in your dorm or the people who play your sport or the people in your major. Do you act that way? Or do you keep to yourself? (And again, I’m pointing the finger at myself here too; how often do you see a science professor outside of Rome Hall?)

Let me put this even more starkly. It’s so easy to feel like, just because we’re on a Baptist campus and it’s understood that Jesus Christ is in the mission statement of the institution, that there’s no need to reach out to people and there’s no need to show Jesus Christ day in and day out. But I will tell you I know people who have been here and who have left this place broken-hearted at how these Christians act and how much they never want to be like what they found at Shorter. That’s a hard truth to bring to the table, but it is there.

And in that truth is a challenge to us: if Jesus Christ died for this campus, if he died for the people on this campus, and if he calls us to be his hands and his feet, then we are to be the ones who love this campus and prove to those people that Christians are people far beyond the cold, the intolerant, the unloving.

It’s 7:25 PM, and I need to get downstairs. But as I’m finishing this up, a song called “In The Light” by Charlie Peacock comes up. You’ve probably heard the song, but recorded by some jokers called DC Talk. Charlie Peacock’s bridge is a little bit different than the Christian-radio version, and it’s hilarious that it comes on right now:

Is there such a thing as a man of peace?
If there is, then a man of peace I want to be
I will need your help if I am ever to be that
If I’m to lay down, to lay down, to lay down
Then I’ll lay my life for my brothers and sisters
I will need your help
Jesus, I need your light forever shining bright

That light is the light of the world, and it’s what we were commanded to show. Do you remember the Sermon on the Mount? “You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.”

Paul Tokunaga’s words still haunt me. I heard them so long ago, and they have never left – when I think about where I’ve been and what I’ve become, much of the genesis of that transformation was hearing those words. I pray they haunt you as well.

What will your legacy be to your college? What will you be remembered for after you’re gone? Jesus loves your campus. Will you love your campus? Jesus died for your campus. Will you die for your campus?

Revised on 4 August 2015 to add a link to video of Tokunaga’s talk – and a thousand thanks to Intervarsity twentyonehundred for making it freely available. I’m not even kidding, I may have shed a tear of joy seeing it again.

…together with glad and sincere hearts – December 9, 2006

The third of three Chapel Hill Saturday Night messages.

We tried to launch in January 2007. It didn’t work. Random what-ifs still crop up about it in my mind and heart.

I’m tempted to blame being on MySpace, tho.

…and this got us through three trial services. Once again, to everybody who helped: thanks so much.

Keep tabs on what we’re doing through the Chapel Hill Saturday Night myspace page – we are going to shoot to launch the service formally in mid-January.

I’m amazed at how well this came together, for how late I started typing up – there were a TON of thoughts and words spinning around my head, honestly…


I think that one of the most frustrating things for me, growing up in the church, was the feeling of being alone.

And it’s not that I was actively ignored in my church, as a youth. It’s not that I wasn’t surrounded by kind, generous and loving people. I think the fact that I didn’t actually live in the town that I went to church in did make things more awkward. In part because of that, in part because I was just a terribly different kid from the youth in my UMYF group, I never really felt like I knew anybody there, that I had any true friends that I could lean on.

And socially, loneliness is epidemic in this culture – moreso than ever before. I have referenced in my own blog writing, and Bryan has mentioned from the pulpit here, a study from June of this year from groups at Duke and the University of Arizona that appeared in the American Sociological Review. The study dealt with how connected people are with friends. Their stunning conclusion: The average American has only two confidants outside of their family who they can talk to about serious matters. Over the past twenty years, the number of people who have no confidant whatsoever has grown from 10% – already incredibly high for a civilized country – to an absolutely staggering 25%. We live in a land surrounded by painfully lonely people.

It goes without saying that this is a severe problem, and Something Ought To Be Done. And that I feel this passionately.

But – and here we get right back to my hypocrisy – what do I do with my own life? I fill my life with so many THINGS, so many TASKS and DUTIES, that the time to simply be with others and to enjoy company of others gets drowned out. Even this little exercise, in which I have this so-called awesome vision to provide a place for people to come and to be together, can very quickly turn into an excuse to be Doing Stuff instead of genuinely fighting loneliness.

And, of course, the sole end isn’t fighting loneliness. The hope is that we’re pointing people to Jesus and pointing people to the transformed life that we know that Jesus Christ provides.

I have to confess something: The scripture I’m pointing to here – Acts 2:42-47 – is a bit of a softball for me. It’s one of the scriptures I’ve studied most in my life, and when I first came across it in graduate school it revealed so much to me about what was right in the times in my life that I was most actively growing in my faith, and what was wrong in the times in my life when I was foundering and failing. It truly was a transformative passage in my life.

The story surrounding the scripture is this: The event that in Christendom we call the Pentecost has just happened. You want to talk about transformative events, this is it. The Holy Spirit comes on the small group of believers who have clung together after Jesus has died, been resurrected, appeared to the disciples, and has left the disciples waiting for his return. These believers find that they’re able to speak in different languages, and they pour out of the room they’re praying in speaking in these languages, and as people in Jerusalem who hear them speaking in REAL DIFFERENT LANGUAGES recognize, people gather around in shock and stunned amazement. Peter preaches. He convinces. He gives what we’d call an altar call. Three thousand respond. They’re all baptized. Basically, that day, the “church” – the whole body of believers in Jesus Christ – grows by about 2000%.

That’s radical growth for ANY church.

Now, that’s a whole lot of people to come in the door and to want to have something to do with Jesus. There had to be plenty of people there who, just before, had nothing whatsoever in common, and now suddenly have everything in common and are thrust together. And whatever they did, it obviously worked, because here we are today heirs to the legacy that they started more than two thousand years ago. So what they did is worth studying.

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, puts what happened next this way. Starting with verse 42 of Acts 2:

They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.

Honestly, this is a really radical vision for what a church should look like. It’s a vision built for another time, when people did live closer together, when we felt less trapped by our property and our things, when people didn’t have to hop in the car every morning to go to work or school. It’s not a vision that we’re going to be able to turn and meet tomorrow. Nonetheless, there are priorities here that we can set for ourselves.Now, I’m going to be an obnoxious teacher here and pull out three take-home lessons. They’re hopefully very straightforward.

We need to have a discipline of worship. I believe the Sunday morning worship service is laden with baggage for people of my generation. It’s hard to get up on the Sabbath morning. The music style turns them off immediately. The sermon is too long. We could go on. But the reason it has sustained – and the reason something of that sort needs to sustain – is because it provides a central meeting place, and a central point of organization for the church. When I have avoided the church in my life and pretended that I can worship God on my own, in my life, that’s been where I’ve seen spiritual deadness set in. And if the service is taken with the right spirit – how can I see God and touch God in this time I’m here? – then even the most high-church, ancient-music worship service can be relevant and renewing.

We need to be dedicated and determined to worship God together. But simply having a discipline of worship doesn’t do the job.

We need to share life together beyond the worship service. So many Christians have their “friends” in the church that they only see on Sunday mornings (or even on Saturday nights). They’re warm and engaging at the one time during the week, and then they don’t have another thought of one another in the intervening week. Or, alternately, they exchange shallow e-mails or swap phone calls on church business during the week. There’s nothing shared in their lives together beyond that.

We’ve always heard it said that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” That might be why I’ve always found it so compelling that the NIV says in verse 46 “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” Sharing meals together is a clear entryway into shared lives. Why else have we historically considered the family meal such an important time in our culture? And why not take the next step, and share meals together as a church family?

And it’s not just time spent together over food, but time spent talking and sharing who we are, and as we get to know one another better, being able to share with one another where we are weak and where we are strong. It takes a serious amount of work to take our conversation from a surface level to real depth and accountability to one another. But that work pays off.

We need to share our possessions. There is a great deal of teaching in the church about the tithe, to the point of legalism in some places – you’re obviously not a good believer if you aren’t giving your 10 percent. And in all that teaching, a larger point is lost – it is considered important, in the Judeo-Christian ethic, to give a substantial sum of your possessions to something bigger than yourself. If there are others in the community who have need, they can pull from those monies. And all that community money put together can do bigger things than if we just tried to do good works with our money on our own.

It is sacrifice to look at the money that we’ve earned, that we’ve worked hard for, and then say “others need this more.” But that’s part of our calling.

The first believers didn’t see their numbers grow just because of the amazing teaching of the apostles or because of the wonderful worship singing and playing. We won’t see our numbers grow for those reasons either. We will grow because there will be something in the life we share together that smacks people upside the head and says “This is different. This is new. This lifestyle works.” The NIV translates verse 47 notably – the believers were “praising God and enjoying the favor of all of the people.” Can we put together a church community that is not only transformative, but is respected – both among those who believe and those who don’t?


Zaccheus Wanted To See Jesus – December 2, 2006

Message 2 of 3 from the Chapel Hill Saturday Night series. There’s a link to the first message hidden in plain sight below.

Result from round two: why, yes, it DOES work when you only prepare two pages’ of text, instead of three-and-a-half.

Thanks to those of you who came out tonight! It REALLY did my heart good to see you there. Please, if you haven’t already done so (or if you don’t completely forsake teh MySpace) add the Chapel Hill Saturday Night page as a friend and help support us!

And we go again next Saturday night, same time – when I’m no longer so mental over finals.

Here’s my text…


So, let me tell a story.

You can find the story in your bible (around Luke, chapter 19) but forgive me if I don’t read it straight out. Many of you have heard many of these words repeated many times. I want to look at the story fresh.

The story is of a little guy by the name of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector by trade, in a day when tax collectors are even more hated than we hate the IRS. All things considered, we have a grudging trust for the IRS – we have a half-decent sense that the money we actually give to the government will go there. But Zacchaeus was taking taxes in a place where he wasn’t claiming taxes for the local government – he was claiming taxes for Rome, and Rome was not investing the money back in Jericho, let’s put it that way.

Zacchaeus was also rich in a place where he was surrounded by poor people. And this led to a pretty massive amount of hatred, and it was easy to suspect where Zacchaeus might have gotten his money from. Heck, it would be very easily to justify hatred of Zacchaeus – if he’s got all this money, and Jericho doesn’t have all this money, and Zacchaeus is a tax collector, well, the guy must be skimming it off the top. Zacchaeus is the quintessential villain, the mandatory bad guy every story needs.

And evidently he’s heard a good bit about Jesus. Because Jesus comes to Jericho. And Zacchaeus absolutely, positively has to go see him.

Now, this next part of the story is what’s familiar to every child who grew up in Sunday school. I meant “little guy” literally earlier; Zacchaeus is quite short. Zacchaeus goes out to see Jesus and sees him basically walking a parade route, and the streets are lined with people. Of course, Zacchaeus can’t see over the crowds, and every attempt for him to get a place where he can see out fails. Maybe there were some people who saw him coming, crowded him out, nudged him out of the way. More likely, the people were just so enraptured with the chance to see Jesus that they didn’t see Zacchaeus trying to get his place.

Finally, Zacchaeus comes upon a sycamore tree. Perfect. Shamelessly, Zacchaeus climbs up.

Jesus comes through to a rock star’s reception, of course. After all, this is the same Jesus who has championed society’s rejected, its poor, people of ill repute, people of different races, and in the eyes of the people on the street, he’s leading a populist crusade. We don’t know what Jesus thought of this particular reception, and quite frankly, Jesus probably had other things on his mind.

Like Zacchaeus.

Jesus surveys the gathered people, sees Zacchaeus, and to the crowd’s amazement, makes a beeline for the sycamore tree. To the crowd’s utter horror, the following words are the first they hear Jesus say: “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.”

This doesn’t work. This does not fit with our expectation of Jesus. This guy might be the richest guy in town – and ill-gotten riches, at that! This is the guy Jesus is supposed to explode at, to accuse forcefully of all the poverty in Jericho – after all, obviously Zacchaeus has profited at this town’s expense! This is the bad guy! And here Zacchaeus is, bounding out of the tree, making all nice with the guy who’s supposed to be on our side! What’s Jesus doing with him? “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with this crook?”

Well, that’s one way to kill your rock-star status. Jesus must not have cared about his popularity with the people all that much. He must have been after something more important.

Like Zacchaeus.

Listen to the exchange between Zacchaeus and Jesus:

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Now, if the mere thought of Jesus associating with Zacchaeus was galling, the idea of Jesus calling Zacchaeus “a son of Abraham” – a member of the most heralded family of the faith – had to send them completely over the edge. What exactly was Jesus seeing that they weren’t?

I think it’s very straightforward. Jesus was seeing Zacchaeus’ humanity.

It’s one thing to say that we’re good, moral, God-seeking church people, doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing while in our own little enclave. But when Jesus breaks through, he sees beyond who we are. He sees the people outside our walls who want a glimpse in, and who find themselves blocked out.

Maybe we see a person outside our walls that for whatever reason – because of their poverty or because of their wealth, because of their looks and dress and number of tattoos, maybe because of their race – we don’t want to let in. That may be true for some of us, but for most of us I’ll wager we don’t think that clearly. I’ll bet that we don’t let somebody who wants to see Jesus in because we get so enraptured in the church, we get so enraptured with our worship style, we get so enraptured by this good thing we have ourselves – we get so enraptured that we forget that there are people outside of these walls.

But there are. And when Jesus finds them, and when Jesus starts to work on them, we should not reject them. In fact, we should be prepared for transformation to be already happening to them.

There are any number of statistics I can point to that speak to the state of our own denomination in terms of bringing in people from the outside – and I commend to you a quick scan of the United Methodist News Service at UMC.org for plenty of those. But – as much as I cherish this denomination and want to remain in the Methodist Church – this denomination is dying. There are churches in this denomination today that might not even exist in twenty years, ten years, even five years. And there are plenty of churches in other denominations that are in equally ill health. Those of us in these churches, we have to honestly ask ourselves if we are doing everything we can, not merely to try to make our church survive, but to begin to legitimately demonstrate Christ outside our walls for this generation and for generations to come.

And if we see people being transformed by Jesus outside of these walls, we need to welcome them, not condemn them and condemn those who reached out to them. While we play “church”, Jesus is at work. We need to pay attention. We need to see what we can learn.


I Am A Hypocrite – November 18, 2006

Once upon a time, a church I attended, Chapel Hill United Methodist Church in Rome, GA, started a Saturday-evening gathering that theoretically was directed at a younger crowd than your standard Sunday morning service, and I did something that probably was closer to “preaching” but I tried to be relatable like any 30-something who was trying to teach to college-age folk should be.

It didn’t last. But the messages got blogged, and are saved here for posterity, along with my notes on them.

As part of this whole Saturday night worship thing that I’m leading, I thought something of a cool experiment would be to type out the text that I would be going through, to organize my thoughts better, to give myself something to fall back on should I get nervous, and to get a feel for the timing.

For that reason, I didn’t even come close to saying the amount of stuff I’d typed after the jump. I wanted to limit myself to 20 minutes’ worth of jabbering. It came closer to 22. If I’d have gone through all of the below, I would have hit 30 minutes easily.

This is a very good thing to know. For future reference: go for two pages on the OpenOffice document, not three and a half.

I still think this is probably the best start I could have hoped for, in terms of having a message, for the circumstances we’re trying to build under right now. Next shot: December 2nd.


Many of you have heard the news about the now-former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggard. For those of you who don’t know the name, Haggard was a pastor who built a megachurch named New Life in Denver, and whose progressive evangelical preaching brought him to the forefront of his movement. He was the classic pastor-who-had-it-all – his church hit a peak membership clear of 10,000, he had the tight relationship with the other Colorado elites of the Christian right, he had the weekly teleconference with President Bush, he had the beautiful wife and the five kids, including an eldest son who was starting ministry in his own church, and he had the bully pulpit to get his ideas in front of people.

He has also been, for the past three years, keeping the company of a male escort.

On the morning of November 1, the guy in question said that he had maintained a sexual business relationship with an unnamed national religious leader. Haggard, on Thursday, while maintaining that “he was steady with his wife”, resigned the NAE and placed himself on administrative leave. By Friday, he was confessing that he knew the guy, but saying only some of the allegations were true. By Saturday, he had resigned everything. On Sunday morning, a letter was read to the congregation at New Life where Haggard said “I am a deceiver and a liar.”

Clearly, the guy was having a little bit of trouble dealing with the fact that he was a hypocrite.

One of my best friends said it far better than I could: “If you’re going to fight against gay marriage day in and day out, y’know…Please try to avoid the hot man lovin’.” The idea that a guy could so dramatically say one thing and do another simply is galling to our sensibilities. And it’s even more galling when that guy is an influential pastor and Christian leader.

In my day, the guy in question was Jim Bakker. He was the televangelist who built the PTL Network pretty much from scratch, and constructed a massive Christian theme park in Charlotte. Televangelist ministries in those days were very heavily dependent on the investment of their viewers, and as the 1980’s went forward, the ministries went increasingly seedy in how they made their pitches. Bakker’s ultimate pitch was the “lifetime memberships” that he wanted to sell – for a donation clear of $1,000 to PTL, you could get a three-night stay at a luxury hotel that would soon be built at Heritage USA. These pitches were more than a bit popular – PTL had more than 20,000 “lifetime members”. But Heritage USA only completed one 500-room hotel before the ministry collapsed in 1987, and the allegations of financial impropriety flew fast and furious – all the more so when the opulence in which the Bakkers lived came to light. (And the fact that Bakker resigned from PTL for a dalliance with one Jessica Hahn didn’t help matters one bit.) Jim Bakker went to prison for fraud, racketeeing, and tax evasion in 1989.

Well, it’s easier for televangelists to preach a prosperity gospel when they’re lining their own pockets.

I read a very interesting take on the Haggard affair this week. I really wasn’t sure what I thought about it when I first read it. It was written in the blog of the religion and culture journal “First Things” by a Villanova law professor, Robert Miller. He made the argument that what Haggard did fell along the lines of the wrongdoing that Bill Clinton engaged in with Monica Lewinsky, and his argument can be summarized by: “Wrongdoing like that … is not hypocrisy because it flows from weakness, not malice. Contrary to our sincere intentions and wishes, we sometimes do things we know to be wrong. Immediately after doing them, we acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that we have done wrong…Hypocrisy is a much worse form of moral wrongdoing.” In other words, if you know what you’re doing is wrong, and you struggle to avoid doing wrong, but you do it anyway, that’s not as bad as it is if you “consciously and intentionally” lie about what you’re doing and why, with the hopes of gaining from your lie – the way that we might think that Jim Bakker lied.

I put a lot of thought into that argument; I was even asking the guys I share Bible study with yesterday morning about that argument. And the more that I stewed on that, the more I came to my highly nuanced theological conclusion about it, which boiled down to “Thinking that one type of lying is worse than another is stupid.” Why in the world define hypocrisy as anything else as “to say one thing but do another”? We can be far too clever in how we talk about this kind of wrong, or that kind of wrong – but we miss the point that it’s still wrong. When we say one thing and do another, for whatever reason, we do wrong.

The single best theological argument in the Bible is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. When Paul wrote this letter, his aim was to convince its hearers and readers of their need – all men’s need – for a Savior, in the person of Jesus Christ. He started his argument in the very first chapter, by pounding on (in Romans 1:18) “the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Paul preaches, and he preaches pretty hard, on how the world is going to pot. Yes, he beats on the “shameful lusts” of men. He also complains about the idolatry of the world. He also complains about the depravity of the human condition in his time, and he rattles off sin after sin (verses 29-31): “They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can imagine the pious believer hearing all of this and knowing exactly the guys he didn’t want to be like. He hears this preaching, he hears this pounding, he hears all of the “they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death” (verse 32), and he thinks to himself “yeah, Paul, tell ’em! Preach it! All those guys are full of sin! All those guys need to get right with God! All those guys are goin’ to hell if they don’t stop right now!”

And that’s the point where Paul gets us. Turn the page to the second chapter, and you read:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?

In other words: You point the finger everywhere else. Eventually, you find the finger pointing back at you.

Look, I teach college for a living, at a Baptist school, in the heart of Bible-belt culture. When, in those conversations I have in my office, I come across students who don’t want to have anything to do with God, nine times out of ten, it’s because of damage that’s been done in the church. It could be something as treacherous as sexual abuse. It could be something as simple as a hateful word said by someone in a single moment of weakness. More often than not, it’s something like gossip, or cliquishness. It’s a bunch of people in a church proclaiming that they truly love everybody, and then not thinking about those proclamations when they deal with people that ask the wrong questions, or listen to the wrong kind of music, or when they dress the wrong way, or when they simply don’t act the way that a “church person” is supposed to act.

And maybe there’s malice behind that – maybe someone truly does want to run a person who isn’t the right sort out of a church. Or maybe that damage has been done by someone who really doesn’t know how to deal with people not like them. I’m sure that I’ve done that sort of damage myself.

My point is this: I will stand up before you and tell you I’m a hypocrite. I will preach about being welcoming. I will tell you how important that it is to love one another. And then I will completely blow you off in conversation, or I’ll talk to somebody else about you behind your back, or I’ll do something else to verbally damage you. I simply can’t be trusted to treat another person the right way. Those of you who know me might think that I’m better than that, and I might have been better than that to you, but I’m not better than that all the time.

And I’m not the only one.

Let me go one other place in Romans – when we put together the flyers for tonight, this is the scripture I referenced on them. Remember, this was written by Paul. Paul was the single most important missionary of the early church – the number of adherents to Christianity multiplied manyfold simply because of Paul’s influence. Nobody is going to question that Paul did right, as God wanted him to do. And so what does Paul say about himself? Romans 7:15-25:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

I don’t cite this scripture to encourage self-loathing, OK? I don’t bring this out to make you hate yourself. I bring this out to make this point: Even the greatest Christian missionary of all time, the so-called “superapostle”, felt he was a hypocrite. If Paul was a hypocrite, then being a hypocrite is a fundamental part of the Christian experience. It’s a fundamental part of the human experience.The bad news is, we’re all hypocrites. But the good news is, we’re all hypocrites. If you say one thing and do another, it doesn’t mean you’re some horrible kind of sinner. It means you’re sitting in the same boat as every other of us.

The church is full of hypocrites? Absolutely. So is the rest of the world. “Come on in; there’s room for one more.”

Now, those of us who sit in this place who take the name of Jesus Christ, we have an obligation. It is critical for us that we eliminate our hypocrisy, as much as we are able to do so. We have to find ways to end this struggle and to actually do the things that we preach about, so that we are above reproach. This is the way we make the power of Christ evident to the world; in fact, we cannot be above reproach without the power of Jesus Christ, and we can’t pretend otherwise. Paul asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” He doesn’t say himself. He doesn’t say the church. He doesn’t pinpoint any of the other leaders of the church at the time. He points solely to God, through Jesus Christ. If Paul could not be saved, and could not be made whole, without the power of Christ, who are we to think we can make ourselves right by ourselves?

But we also need to make sure it’s clear to the rest of the world that they are welcome here, warts and all. And if you are here tonight and this has never been made clear to you before, it needs to be made clear to you now: You are surrounded by people like you. We are all on the same ground, with the same neediness. We need all need God to rescue us just as badly.

As you see men and women struggle and fail around us, as you see hypocrites exposed and shamed, understand this about them. Pray for them, even. In this world, at this time, they need God to rescue them just as badly.