I am insanely jealous of Rob Bell

Last week, I started reading the new pseudo-biography of Rob Bell, Rob Bell and the New American Christianity. Also, there is a multi-page profile on Rob in the New Yorker. Even almost a year after he left Mars Hill and published Love Wins, he’s still getting press just for being him.

I have long been an admirer and fan of Rob, and a student of his work. I have listened to countless sermons, digested every Nooma film and longer tour films, and have been to see him live. I borrowed the videos from his preaching conference, and have read his books. I have worked his exegetical insights into my own sermons and have led classes on his teachings.

And now, lo, these many years later, I feel comfortable admitting that I am insanely jealous of Rob Bell.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: When I read or hear anything that Rob has to say, my first reactions are always “Why didn’t I think of that?” or “I’ve been saying that for years!” According to whatever personality profile you choose, I’m the kind of person who fears being “normal” (insert jokes here) and unoriginal. I want to offer the world a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking, which will result in new ways of being.

This jealousy has troubled me recently, so I’ve decided to employ Calvin’s “Three Uses of the Law” to see if I can get a handle on it.

The First Use of the Law is that the Law teaches us. My jealousy is tantamount to (if not outright) the Tenth commandment regarding coveting. So the First Use actually teaches me about coveting. If this Commandment was not in place, I would not know anything about it.

So, I get a little education about jealousy and coveting, and what it means, and how and why it is different than other strong emotions I have. This is different than a healthy competition. This is beyond debate. This borders on anger that someone else is having success in life. Simple enough.

The Second Use is the one we normally think of: Don’t do it.

The Commandment is pretty clear that this is not behavior to be encouraged. All sorts of extrapolations can be teased out as to why: It’s bad for my health, my self-image, the resultant way that I will treat others, etc.

Regardless of the way I feel, this Use is about behavioral modification. Essentially, Divine Approved program to “Fake it until you make it.”

The Third Use is where the real genius lies in Calvin’s scheme. The Third Use is designed not to teach us the parameters and require adherence to the parameters, but to point us in the direction of the Christ-like response; the way in which we can allow ourselves to be more and more conformed to the image of Christ.

I’ve known what coveting and jealousy are for a long time. I get the psychology and emotional content surrounding them. I know not to do it and why. But when I get to the Third Use, I am always amazed at what it teaches me.

And what my insane jealousy of Rob Bell has taught me is that I admire the work he has done and want to do similar work, because I find that kind of creativity to be life giving for myself and others.

I know that I have had a good deal of success in my life. I know that I have no reason to complain or be petty in my jealousy. And so I am thankful for the Third Use because it has, once again, reminded me of the kind of work that I believe God is calling me to be a part of. My soul resonates with the work of Rob Bell because it is work that I see as valuable. I see my jealousy, interestingly, as a confirmation that seeking the answers to big, life giving questions is where I need to focus my time and energy. That’s a relief to me because I have been blessed to be in situations where I get to do that on a regular basis.

And this, friends, is the beauty of our God. We are not left to wallow, but (as the Psalmist says) to be lifted up out of the muck and mire to a better place to stand.

Giving up chocolate and beer for Lent is not what Jesus had in mind

In three days, it will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Naturally, folks are all abuzz about how to best observe. As I read through Facebook comments, tweets, and blog posts, I find that I have had all of the typical responses.

  • “I’m gonna give up chocolate or alcohol.”
  • “Giving things up is ridiculous. God wants us to live fully live. This whole practice is just stupid.”
  • “Instead of giving something up, I’m taking something on this year.”

Like I said: I’ve said and done each of these things. I’ve given up something that was that important, I’ve wholly rejected the practice as a part of my rejection of conformist religion, and I’ve tried to reframe “self-denial” into “self-giving.”

But each of these responses makes a mistake, in my opinion. Notice that all of them are about me. They have very little to do with what God might be doing, but about something that I’m doing. Each of these responses betray a belief that I am the one in control, that I am the one, ultimately, who matters. As Richard Rohr says,

Resurrection takes care of itself. It’s getting people into tombs that’s hard. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, most contemporary people, both liberals and conservatives, abhor boundaries.

This realization was a hard truth for me, and so I have returned to the classic Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I encourage you to do the same.


Prayer is not about asking God for things. It is about establishing, maintaining, or strengthening your connection to God in Christ. We do this so that we can begin to see the world as Christ sees it.

This is the first, most foundational Lenten practice. If you do nothing else during Lent, commit to the practice of daily prayer (preferably silent and contemplative, like Centering Prayer or praying with beads). Lent is the perfect time to reignite your prayer life. It is the time of the year when we intentionally focus on dying in order to rising.


Fasting (what we typically mean when we talking of “giving something up”) is not about doing without “something you LOVE,” but doing without something you need. We should be limiting our chocolate and alcohol intake anyway. What do you say we not use Lent as an excuse to go on a diet?

The point of fasting is to recognize our dependence on God’s provision. Typically, fasting is done once or twice a week. Try John Wesley‘s practice of  sundown to sundown on Mondays to Tuesdays and Thursdays to Fridays.


If you are submitting to Christ through prayer and fasting, you will begin to see Christ in “the least of these.” When you do, offer yourself to the Christ you find in them. It’s really very simple, and it can be planned or spontaneous. Either way, it will be countercultural.


If you’re anything like me, you have to fight making spiritual practice into a self-improvement project. The Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the best ways to avoid that impulse that I’ve found. As Craig Dykstra wrote in Growing In The Life of Faith, Spiritual practices are actually not ours. They are the practices of the Holy Spirit that we get to inhabit. That these practices are not mine is important, in my opinion. Whereas Lenten disciplines are intended to remind us of our dependence on God, we more often inhabit these practices as if we are the ones responsible for the outcome of our lives and the world.

In the end, whatever you do during Lent is between you and God, but let’s commit to engaging in disciplines that remind us of our dependence on God not ones that prop us up as the saviors of ourselves.

Are you a stereotypical Christian?

Over the weekend, I learned the origin of the word “stereotypical.”

We often speak of “stereotypical men” – guys who seem do what we have seen guys do for years and years and years. We think of stereotypes as things that fit a certain mold or category, which repeat themselves over and over. We’re not that far off.

The word is derived from two Greek words: stereos=firm, solid and typos=impression. A stereotype is a “solid impression,” a really good copy.

Original usage comes from printing (as you might imagine) and actually refers to the copy of an original (a prototype). Apparently, in the printing world, it is the stereotype, not the prototype, that was used to make all the subsequent copies. I suppose that one could refer to all the copies as “stereotypes,” but we know that as one makes copies the quality degrades. There is usually only one stereotype.

This got me thinking about the fact that the earliest Christians were named such, not by themselves, but by others. The name “Little Christs” was not how they referred to themselves, but we find in Acts 11 that it was others who called them that. When people saw Jesus’ followers, they resembled their teacher so much, that they started referring to them as Christians. And it wasn’t a good thing either. Apparently, they were loving as Jesus had commanded them to and they were screwing up the system that certain powerful people had carefully arranged.

Servanthood always screws things up. People who should not be valued are highly valued. People who are left out are invited in. If you “forget” to invite my sister to dinner, then I’m going to go pick her up and bring to her as my +1 whether you want us there or not. Guess who’s coming to dinner, indeed.

It’s hard for me to remember sometimes, but the life and ministry of Jesus got him killed. He was killed for loving the unlovable and challenging the assumptions of those who control the system of “welcome.” So when I ask myself if I’m the “stereotypical Christian” I have wonder if I’m actually a “solid impression” of Jesus Christ or not.

Mama’s Boy (reflections on a “masculine Christianity”)

One of my favorite insults ever is “Mama’s Boy.”

I find those who throw it around to be delightfully ignorant of a whole host of facts, realities, and relationships. They accuse these boys of not being able to function on their own. They mock these boys for choosing to be within protective distance of their mothers (physically or emotionally).

Sure, I’ll grant you that developing a level of independence and autonomy is a great thing, but when I think about those who tried to insult me with this phrase as a young boy, well… Let’s just say I’m much more well adjusted than they are.

Recently, (thanks to Rachel Held Evans) I became aware that Calvinist preacher John Piper decided to say that God likes boy images a lot better than girl ones because, well, God has not only revealed “himself” as a boy, but has lifted up the boy ideal over and over in the Bible. I think that’s kind of silly.

One of the most powerful images of God I know of comes from Psalm 131:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.

The Psalmist has so many images at his disposal to use, but, when it comes time to describe (again) his relationship to God, what image does he call upon? A little boy and his mama.  A little boy who loves his mama so much that all he wants to do is be near her.

Developmental Psychologist James Fowler taught us that the earliest understandings we have of God come from the way we are in relationship with our parents, specifically our mothers. Think about that: We know who God is because of the ways we were loved and nurtured by our mothers as babies.

I’m afraid John Piper might be a little jealous of that. I know I am. I am a good father, I think, but when I look at the ways my boys revere their mom, I get kinda frustrated. When the five year old acts like he would crawl back into his mother’s womb if given half the chance, I feel that twinge of jealousy.

But that’s the way I feel about God. I love God so much that all I can think about is being surrounded by that Divine Love.

In the end, I like God as Mother because it reminds me that I’m just a Mama’s Boy, that I can’t really do this on my own. Sometime, I’m just too scared to do this on my own, and I just need to crawl up in my Mama’s lap and let her hold me and tell me everything is gonna be all right.

Here’s a tune I wrote about being a “Mama’s Boy” (you can have it for free if you want it):

A Progressive Call to Conscience

One of my spiritual heroes, Fr. Richard Rohr, posted this quote on his blog yesterday:

“Despite a certain trend towards conservatism in parts of the church and society, I am convinced that we have moved into a new era that will be determined by people who live by their own conscience and are particularly qualified to act as discerning members of community and society…the era in which almost everyone was content to be born and to live as a member of a certain church or ‘organized religion’ is over. The people who will shape the future of believers of all religions are those who have the courage to make their own choice, whatever pain may be involved, and to do so with personal responsibility.”
– Fr. Bernard Haring, German Redemptorist priest

The “certain trend towards conservatism” that Haring writes of has been on my mind a lot lately, and I love how he describes it.

I appreciate his description of “conservatives” as simply being content to be born into and live as a member of a particular kind of system, because that has been my working definition of this stream of the faith for quite a while. The truth is that, for a lot of Christians, the historic ways of thinking about and enacting our faith works, and works well. To hold this particular doctrinal understanding or that one makes a lot of sense. Given the way that their worldview is constructed, one cannot fault someone for professing the particular theology that they do (remember: knowing determines understanding determines meaning).

But Haring names something important, I think. What will shape the future of faith is whether or not we have the courage to make our own choices. I do not understand him to say that all of those choices are going to be good ones that will lead to the Abundant Life, but I do understand him to say that this will be the norm (and this comes from Catholic moral theology, which, according to Rohr, has as its first principle, “Follow your conscience”). However, the interesting point that Haring’s thought raises for me is not regarding the future of religion, but about the reaction of those living out that “certain trend towards conservatism.”

I can say from experience that persons who want to preserve the particular system that has defined Christendom raise loud, vocal opposition whenever someone dares to explore the “adjacent possible” of our common faith. I find it interesting that, at almost every turn, what we have discovered to be a true expression of God’s love for creation was once thought to be in direct violation of scripture and theological tradition (ie – equality of races and genders, etc). I am grateful for those who naturally want to preserve the best of our faith, but I am not willing to let them rule the roost. And yet, that is what is happening.

As I observe it, Progressives (those who seek to explore the adjacent possible) do one of two things in response to loud, vocal opposition. We either cower in the corner, constantly on the defensive, and allowing the opposition to set the agenda; or we segregate ourselves, trying to ignore fray, telling ourselves that this “certain trend towards conservatism” is not a serious issue. In both cases we fail.

This “trend towards conservatism” cannot be allow to set the agenda for the future of the Christian faith, for, indeed, its agenda is not about the future, but about the past. This conservatism is often little more than a romanticizing of times gone by, and as Melissa Harris-Perry recently said of a similar kind of USAmerican nostalgia, there is no time in the American past that one would want to go back to as a black woman. If we allow the agenda of the Christian faith be “Back to the Future” we are all destined for a limited and limiting existence.

However, more often than not, what Progressive Christians do is sit smugly in the corner and decline to engage in the debate at all. The reason we can be accused of snobbery is because, well, we practice it. Rather than cower in the corner, we (instead) sit there smugly, waiting for others to “catch up” to a more inclusive, holistic, and complex way of engaging the world. We do this because we don’t like to argue and fight; we don’t think that anyone’s mind will be changed.

I disagree. Minds can be and are changed. I trace my own “journey to Progressivism” to my freshman year of college, when my friend Todd rhetorically dismantled my conservative theological worldview. I returned to my room after that very civil debate and cried for about an hour because, for the first time in my life, I did not have all the answers.

I believe it is time for those who identify as Progressive Christians to begin proclaiming what my New Testament professor calls ” a confident counter-proclamation.” I believe it is time for us to cease being afraid. I believe it is time for us to cease allowing the recent “trend towards conservatism” to be the agenda setting narrative. We must not be haughty, but we must be firm, clear, and respectful.

I would call this a call to arms, but it is not a war. So, instead, I take a cue from Haring and issue this Progressive Call to Conscience. Sisters and brothers, let’s once again be willing to make bold choices to explore the adjacent possible of the Christian faith, and be willing to endure whatever pain may come as a result.