Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Saying Good Bye to the Stepmother I Never Knew

On Sunday, August 27th, the stepmother who raised me during my formative childhood years passed away. Her name was Stella. She was 91 years old.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel any personal loss when I learned Stella had passed. The truth is my stepmother and I were not very close. I haven’t been secretive about the fact that I’ve had to be healed from some aspects of my upbringing under Stella. Sometimes when Stella got very angry, something would “snap” and she’d inflict rather bizarre, humiliating forms of punishment on me, my younger sister and my older brother. On top of this, the Stella I remember was always distant and almost always quite miserable and angry. If I had any tender moments with Stella, they for some reason didn’t stick in my memory.

In the time since she left my father (Ed) and his three kids 37 years ago, I had reconciled with Stella, though we’ve had very little contact. Two years ago I visited her for an afternoon in Detroit since I learned she might not have long to live. We had the best exchange I think we’d ever had.

In the early 1970’s, shortly after leaving us, Stella became a “born-again Christian.” To say she changed is the understatement of the century. Stella was in fact the single most thoroughly transformed person I’ve ever known. She became a sweet, lovable, tender lady who said “Praise Jesus!” incessantly and handed out religious tracts. Not at all like the woman who raised me!

In any event, yesterday Shelley (my wife) and I flew to Detroit, attended Stella’s funeral and spent the day with rest of the family. What an enlightening day! Among other things, I heard story after story about what Stella was like before she married my father and they all revealed a woman very different from the lady who raised me. As told by her daughters and all who knew her well, with the exception of the 11 years Stella was married to my father (along with the two years or so it took for her to recover from the marriage after the divorce), Stella was a loving, caring, rather carefree spirit. This loveable disposition intensified greatly after she became a Christian, but it was there before–except for the time she raised me and my siblings.

One of Stella’s two daughters (who is about 10 years older than me) told me how shocked she was with her mother's negative transformation. She said she wondered to herself, “Where did my mother disappear to?” Stella’s happy-go-lucky, vibrant personality became militant, miserable and vindictive.

What changed Stella? In her view, it was her marriage to my father. If there are marriages made in heaven, this one seems to have been made in hell. Both Stella and my father came into the marriage with lingering love for their former spouses. My father had recently lost his wife, my biological mother. And Stella and her husband had been forced by the Catholic Church to annul their marriage because it was revealed that her husband had been previously married and they faced excommunication if they stayed together. (I never knew this till yesterday!) They chose their religion over their love.

On top of this, my father was a difficult, demanding and somewhat eccentric man. I knew this already, but I didn’t know the extent of it, nor the impact it had on Stella. From the perspective of my older sister and two half-sisters, he made life absolutely unbearable for Stella. (My father always said the same about her). My three older sisters all think Stella may have suffered a breakdown of some sort, or at least that she was always on the verge of one (and this would explain her tendency to “snap”). I learned that when she finally left Ed and his kids, it was on the advice of a psychiatrist who felt it was necessary as a matter of survival for her.

She agonized over the ethics of the decision, I'm told, but after a year or so of being out of the marriage, the former Stella began to return.

I had already been freed of all anger I had toward my stepmother growing up. I forgave her almost thirty years ago. But learning about Stella outside of the 11 year period she raised me gave me a sense of compassion toward her. I came to appreciate more fully how myopic my childhood perception of this unfortunate woman was. Despite her sometimes abusive behavior toward me, this was a woman who was doing her best in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

And to my surprise, at some point during the funeral I began to feel something I hadn’t felt before: a personal sense of loss over losing my stepmother. But the sense of loss was directed more toward the wonderful stepmother I never knew than to the tormented woman who raised me.

Yet, I have no regrets. At every turn, God has overcome evil with good. While God of course didn’t will much of what I and my siblings went through -- or what Stella and my father went through -- I firmly believe he’s used all of it to further his sovereign purposes. I would not be who I am today had I not gone through what I’ve gone through. And so for all others involved in this family.

Among other things, God used our unfortunate experiences to help bring me, Stella and my father into a transforming and healing relationship with Christ. I look forward to the day when the three of us – and hopefully the entire extended family – will embrace as we celebrate the goodness of God whose love conquers all evil and heals all wounds.

Without regrets,

Friday, August 24, 2007

Thoughts on “God’s Warriors” from "The Heretic"

Hi folks,

I and a bunch of friends just finished watching Christiane Amanpour’s CNN documentary entitled “God’s Christian Warriors.” I honestly thought the whole three-part series was simply fantastic. Each segment was well done, balanced, and over all enlightening. Mike Mocklar, the producer, and Christiane, along with the rest of their team, are to be commended.

On a personal note, I have to say that I found Christiane and her team to be a delight to work with. Christiane in particular was a joy to interview with. She’s just an honest, inquisitive human being who happens to be one of the world’s greatest reporters. Some might assume that a person with her notoriety might be a bit big on herself, but nothing could be further from the truth. Christiane is as real and humble as they come. This is probably why she’s so good at what she does. I feel honored to have been asked to be part of this enlightening documentary.

When I and my friends saw that the segment on me was entitled “The Heretic,” we laughed so hard we had to pause the documentary (fortunately, we had recorded it). Given all that had preceded this segment, we considered it a supreme compliment.

I felt the documentary captured the essence of my interview with Christiane. The team clearly wanted to sharply contrast my vision of the movement Jesus came to establish with the vision of “God’s Christian Warriors” who think Christianity is centrally concerned with winning political battles. They did this well.

Yet, some may have gotten the impression from the documentary that I think the Kingdom of God is only about having a personal relationship with Jesus. If you’ve read my book, The Myth of a Christian Nation, or if you’ve listened to any of my sermons, you know I have a much broader understanding of the Kingdom.

In my view, followers of Jesus are to be concerned with everything Jesus was concerned with – and Jesus was obviously concerned with more than people having a relationsip with himself.

Jesus was a revolutionary on social issues, so his followers are to be revolutionaries on social issues. Jesus entered into solidarity with the poor, so his followers are to enter into solidarity with the poor. Jesus revolted against racism by the countercultural way he treated and spoke about non-Jews , so his followers are to revolt against all forms of racism. Jesus revolted against classism by the way he embraced social and religious “rejects,” so his followers are to revolt against classism. Jesus revolted against sexism by the counter-cultural way he treated women -- even women of ill-repute -- so his followers are to revolt against sexism. Jesus revolted against legalistic religion that oppressed people, so his followers are to revolt against legalistic religion that oppresses people.

Jesus was a radical social activist, so his followers must be the same. It’s just that Jesus never once placed any trust in the government of his day to address social issues. He rather just addressed social issues by how he lived and taught. So too, we who are Jesus' followers are to place no trust in government to address social issues. We’re simply called to address them by how we live.

Following Jesus’ example, we’re to place our trust in the power of the cross – the power of self-sacrificial love – not the power of the sword. We’re to trust the power of Calvary, not Caesar. And this is why I believe those who spend their time and energy trying to control the political arena “in Jesus' name” are profoundly missing the point. Our job is to love, serve and sacrifice for sinners – not argue about passing laws against them. For we are to know that, whatever sin we see in others, our sin is much worse (Mt. 7:1-3).

Thank you Christiane, Mike, and the whole CNN team for giving me a chance to contrast the Jesus of the New Testament with the ugly, politicized Jesus of far too much of American Evangelicalism.

Keep his kingdom holy.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A lesson from Apocalypto

Hello Bloggerites,

The other night I watched a movie with my small group: Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. It’s basically a story about the tribulations of a young Mayan man and his family toward the end of the Mayan civilization, just prior to the Spanish Conquest. I found it to be a very interesting and engaging movie. For all his faults, you can’t deny that Mel Gibson is a great storyteller.

At the same time, it was an incredibly hard movie to watch. It’s not just that the movie is graphically violent – which it is. The real difficulty is the level of psychological pain inflicted on people as they have to watch their spouses get killed or raped, or watch their children left behind in the forest as they are taken away as slaves. Gibson doesn’t spare the viewer any of these horrors. One person in my group simply had to stop watching.

It’s a raw look into the demonic barbarism of one particular culture at one particular place and time. As such, the movie is a reminder that the barbarism we see in our world today is hardly anything new.

The day before we watched this movie, more than 500 people were slaughtered in four explosions in Iraq. One of these explosions involved a water truck. The driver drove into a town and waited till all the thirsty villagers had gathered around to get their ration of water. (It was 110 degrees. The driver was assured a good turnout). When all the thirsty folks had gathered around – women and children included – the driver blew himself and the truck up, taking hundreds of innocent lives with him.

Of course, some of the surviving relatives of those destroyed in this explosion have pledged to avenge their loved one’s death by returning the favor on the wives and children of the group that carried out this explosion, ensuring that this tit-for-tat game will go on for ages to come.

I think the greatest proof that this world is held hostage to Satan and other fallen powers is not that humans are capable of this level of hatred and violence; it’s that, despite our intelligence in most other areas, we seem to never be able to see how completely futile this retaliatory way of thinking is. The sheer level of hatred and violence is perhaps hard to explain without appealing to Satan, but the complete blindness to the obvious insanity of this bloody merry-go-round is utterly impossible to explain without appealing to Satan.

From the ancient Mayans, Greeks, Hebrews and Persians, to the Medieval Christians and Muslims, to the modern day exploits in places like Iraq, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Darfur, the mindless retaliatory blood bath goes on and on and on. And various groups still keep on thinking that whoever kills the most wins.

I’m increasingly convinced that the only way a person can begin to truly commit to Jesus’ command to love, bless and do good to our enemies is to get so disgusted with the insanity of the retaliatory game that they decide they’d rather die than be a part of this. The disgust one experiences watching Apocalypto is helpful toward this end.

Whatever evil an enemy may inflict on us and our loved ones, the greater evil is allowing oneself to sink to this demonic level by wanting to return the favor.

Monday, August 13, 2007


From the admins~

Multitudes of people around the country, and around the world, have grown concerned about the widespread fusion and confusion of faith and politics. Over the past several years, Greg has had many opportunities, through the media, to explain his perspective on the beauty of God's kingdom, a kingdom that transcends partisan politics and always looks like Jesus, giving himself in loving service to all people.

Last spring, Greg was interviewed by CNN's Christiane Amanpour for the upcoming CNN special, God's Warriors, which will be airing August 21-23. Greg's segment in this documentary may turn out to be small, but CVM is excited for another opportunity to share our vision of the kingdom.

Check out the following link:

Click on "Christianity," then on "Video Diary: Politics and Faith" for a preview of Christiane's interview with Greg.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Why the 35W Bridge Collapsed

As all of you know, I’m sure, a little over a week ago the 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed. This is the most traveled bridge in Minnesota. It was a tragedy, though the fact that only 13 people died and/or are presumed dead is really amazing, especially given that this happened at the peak of rush hour. The catastrophe is rendered especially poignant by the fact that it involved the failure of human-made structure we instinctively trust. Like the Titanic, this collapsed bridge has become a symbol of our perpetual vulnerability.

It’s also an occasion for theological reflection. A prominent local pastor in the Twin Cities reports that the night of the collapse his eleven-year-old daughter wanted to pray that people wouldn’t blame God for the event. He told her this was a good prayer since “blame” implies God did something wrong. He assured her God let the bridge fall, in part because he wanted people in Minneapolis to “fear him.” But, he assured his daughter, God isn’t to “blame” because he did nothing wrong (

In this same blog the pastor discusses Luke 13:1-5 where Jesus responds to two catastrophes: Pilates' slaughtering of some Galileans and the fall of the tower of Siloam that killed 18 people. About both events Jesus asked his audience, “Do you think these people were more guilty than anyone else? No. But unless you repent, you will all perish” (vs. 3-4, my paraphrase). This pastor interprets Jesus to be saying that “everyone deserves to die,” for “all of us have sinned against God.” And this, he insists, is “the meaning of the collapse of this bridge…”

What is more, this pastor argues that catastrophes like this one are God’s “most merciful message,” since they mean there’s “still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction.” For this reason, the message of the collapsed bridge is “the most precious message in the world.”

Now, I respect this pastor as a man of God, but this teaching honestly concerns me. I’ll make four points in response to this blog.

First, his interpretation of Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was somehow involved in Pilate’s massacre and the falling tower of Siloam. He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.” But where in the text is there any suggestion Jesus assumed God had anything to do with either of these catastrophes?

In fact, if you read on five more verses, you come upon another catastrophe Jesus confronted: a woman who had been deformed for 18 years. Rather than assuming that God was somehow involved in this deformity, Jesus says this woman was bound by Satan (13:16). He then manifested God’s will by healing her.

This is what we find throughout the Gospels. They uniformly identify infirmities (sickness, disease, deformities, disabilities) as being directly or indirectly the result not of God’s punishing activity, but of Satan’s oppressive activity. So it is that Peter summarized Jesus’ ministry by saying he was anointed “with the Holy Spirit and power” and “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil” (Ac 10:38).

In light of this, I see no reason to accept the assumption that drives this pastor's exegesis.

Second, while I agree with this pastor that all people are sinners who deserve to die, I wonder how the death of Christ factors into all this. Scripture teaches that Jesus died “not just for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world” (I Jn 2:2). If so, then why is God still in the business of physically punishing people for their sins by sending catastrophes? Wasn’t Jesus’ sacrifice enough?

Certainly God has the right to punish people by taking back the life he gives when he sees fit (e.g. Acts 5:9-10). But in the light of Calvary – and the entire ministry of Jesus – why should we think that this is his post-Christ ordinary mode of operation? Isn’t the Good News good precisely because, despite our sin, Jesus came to give us abundant life (Jn 10:10)?

Third, and closely related to this, the model of God bringing about disasters to punish people is rooted in the Old Testament. Here we several times find God using nature and human agents to punish people. (Though even back then this wasn’t God’s normal mode of operation). But in these contexts, God first gives ample warning about a coming judgment and he tells people exactly what he is doing. Punishment without teaching is not pedagogically effective.

Imagine a parent saying to their child, “I’m going to spank you whenever I want to but not tell you why.” It just doesn’t work!

Now, God is no longer working within the framework of the Old Covenant in which these judgments have meaning, so we have no reason to think God is still trying to teach people lessons by sending disasters. But even if were to suppose he was still operating this way, where are the warnings and the teachings? If God was in fact collapsing the bridge to make people in Minneapolis “fear him,” as this pastor claims, why didn’t God establish a context where the people would understand what God was up to and have a chance to repent?

I can make my point this way. How many non-believers in Minneapolis do you think interpreted the bridge collapse as an expression of God’s wrath? And of these, how many were moved to turn to God out of fear? I’m thinking it's probably close to zero. If God was trying to get people to fear him, it simply didn’t work. But it did cost a number of lives and inflicted misery and sorrow on many more. It was a harsh spanking without any helpful instruction, and thus was unhelpful while being costly. Is this the way the God revealed in Jesus Christ operates?

Fourth, and finally, if you accept that angels and humans are free agents who thus have the capacity to go against God’s will, there’s simply no need to appeal to a vindictive divine purpose to explain why catastrophes like this collapsed bridge happen. As Scripture depicts the matter, the world is oppressed by rebellious, evil powers that in a variety of ways and at a variety of levels have corrupted nature. As I’ve discussed at length in previous blogs, nothing in nature operates exactly the way God originally intended it to operate.

On top of this, we humans have allowed ourselves to be co-opted in the epoch long battle these powers are waging against God, so we too have become corrupted. We thus don’t have the right priorities, which in part is why bridges we build sometimes collapse. Think about it. To give one illustration, we are generally much quicker to spend billions of dollars on war than we are making sure people are safe (and adequately fed).

There’s undoubtedly plenty of blame to go around for why this bridge collapsed, ranging from fallen cosmic powers to a wrongly prioritized government to the wrongly prioritized people who elected these officials into office without holding them sufficiently accountable. But if you accept that God created a world with free agents, the one being you don’t need to blame is God.

If, on the other hand, you don’t accept that the cosmos is populated with free agents who can therefore make decisions that are contrary to God’s will, then you have an even greater problem. (This is the camp the pastor whose blog I’m discussing is in). For in this case one has to explain how everyone can deserve to die when everything every person has ever done, however sinful, was part of God’s great plan from the start!

Not only this, but if angels and people don’t have free will that can go against God’s will, then it’s no longer adequate to say God “allowed” a bridge to fall. You have to say God “caused” the bridge to fall. Other agents may have been instrumental in bringing about the collapse of the bridge, but they only did what God’s sovereign plan decreed they do. So one is fudging words to say God “allowed” the bridge to fall and that God is not to blame for the bridge falling.

In the end, this view requires that we accept that God punishes people with catastrophes – and then eternally in hell -- for doing precisely what he predestined them to do. Good luck making sense out of that!

I suggest it's far more biblical, and far more rational, to simply say that in a fallen, oppressed world, bridges sometimes collapse -- and leave it at that. Rather than trying to see the vindictive hand of God behind catastrophes, it’s wiser to simply acknowledge that the world is an oppressed place where things sometimes go tragically wrong and focus all of our mental and physical energy turning from our self-centered ways to carry out God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.”

That, after all, was what Jesus was getting at in Luke 13:1-5.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Our Town

In my previous blog I mentioned that I and my small group went to the play Our Town. I also talked about why this play means so much to me. God used it and a wonderful teacher (Ms. King) to wake up my brain and change my life.

If you’ve never seen a performance of this play, I strongly urge you to do so. I’ve read and seen the play about a dozen times, and I always get something new out of it. (I have to add that the performance at the Garage Theater was the most unique, and the most powerful, performance of Our Town I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, the production ended July 28th).

This 1938 work of Thorton Wilder is an absolute masterpiece. It has an ingenious way of bringing the extraordinary out of the perfectly ordinary. It is centered on a small town at the turn of the century, but it is cosmic in its focus. It is a play version of Blake’s maxim to “find the universe in a grain of sand.” It is hilarious and tragic. It’s a very odd and intensely beautiful piece.

As I experience it, the play is a call and an opportunity to wake up.

Emily is a passionate young lady who died while giving birth to her first child. Despite warnings from fellow deceased people in the town’s graveyard, Emily insists on going back to live one day of her life all over again. But she finds it too painful to bear. She sees that the living don’t really “look at each other.” They don’t appreciate the wonder of what they have.

Her brief visitation exposes how we who are among the living easily get lulled to sleep by the routines of our ordinary living. We do life on autopilot, half asleep. The wonder, the beauty and the preciousness of each moment is lost to the dullness of our mesmerized minds.

Emily – and Wilder – are challenging us to live in the now; to savor deeply the unexpected gift of existence each moment; to “look hard” (as Emily says) at the people we love and those who love us; to grasp this moment, right now, for the fleeting moments of our transitory existence are breezing past us with ever increasing speed, and tomorrow we shall be gone.

I found myself choked up -- and laughing -- throughout the play. At the end, all the women in my small group, and I (of course!), were crying. The play is bittersweet, for it captures the bittersweet quality of all of life.

Life is so full of wonder, so full of good things, and so very very short. You can’t hang on to one single moment.

This is what I began to wake up to in Ms. King’s 11th grade Humanities class. And this is what I’m still waking up to.

Blessings on all of you,
and remember to “look hard” at those you love.


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Play, A Teacher, and a Changed Life

Ladies and Gentlemen, believe it or not I’m going to blog about something other than “Natural” evil! (I admit that when I get hooked on a topic, I can become a wee bit obsessive – just a bit).

Last week my small group visited the “Garage Theater” in Minneapolis for a showing of Thorton Wilder’s famous play Our Town. I was the one who suggested (insisted) that the small group go. The reason is that this play was instrumental in completely changing my life.

I first encountered this play in Ms. King’s 11th grade Humanities class. Up to this point in my life, I had zero interest in school or in anything academic. I honestly don’t remember reading a single book cover-to-cover. From 7th to 11th grade I gave five different book reports on the same book – Hiroshima – and I honesty don’t think I even read that (short) book all the way through. My whole life revolved around playing drums in a rock band, doing drugs and partying (though I remained active in cross country running and track, mainly because I was pretty good at it and it kept my dad happy – and unsuspicious).

I was totally checked out of the academic system, but I always thought a lot about death and the purpose of life. I was an atheist, but I obsessively wondered about -- and searched for --something that would make sense of life. Reality struck me as totally absurd. More often than not, my pot smoking and acid dropping excursions were more about trying to gain insight into the mystical oneness of things than it was just for fun.

So here I was sitting in Ms. King’s class. We were supposed to have read Our Town (which I of course didn’t do), and then in class we watched this totally hokey black-and-white film production of the final act. I was, as usually, totally checked out until one point in the play when a young lady (Emily) died and visited with other deceased people in the town’s graveyard. Something about Wilder’s perspective on death intrigued me, so I perked up. I ended up being quite moved by the play.

Then we discussed the play in class. At one point Ms. King brought up that in the play the narrator says “it's only natural that we go through life two by two.” She wondered what the rest of us thought about that. To everyone’s surprise I blurted out an opinion. (It’s the first time I recall participating in any class discussion). “That’s a crock of sh*t!,” I said.

Ms. King didn’t take offense at my language, but simply asked why I thought this. “We’re born alone; we die alone, and we go through life alone,” I said. Ms. King responded by saying something like, “That doesn’t sound very romantic,” to which I replied, “Romance is an illusion we create to suppress the pain of our aloneness.”

All the girls in the class turned against me. Mayhem broke out. But I stood my individualistic, nihilistic ground.

At the end of the class Ms. King continued the discussion with me. She complimented some of the points I’d made and told me she actually agreed with me. Then she said, “Greg, have you ever thought about going into philosophy?” It was the first time in my life I recall a teacher showing any (positive) interest in me, let alone affirming some potential in me. I asked her what “philosophy” was. She gave me a brief explanation and then made a deal with me. If I’d read two books on philosophy and write up two reports on what I thought about the books, she’d pass me (I was flunking at this point). I accepted the deal.

I went to the library, checked out the card catalogue on philosophy (I needed the librarian’s help because I’d never done this before!), and eventually happened upon Eric Hoffer’s True Believer. It completely blew me away! I couldn’t believe someone else thought the kind of thoughts I think – and wrote a book about it! For the first time in my life I found something interesting enough to read!

The somewhat fried neurons in my dormant brain began to wake up and talk to one another. And I’ve been reading and thinking philosophy ever since.

Ms. King gave me an “A” in the class, bless her heart.

And to this day Our Town remains my all time favorite play.



POSTSCRIPT #1: I visited Ms. King last year in the hospital, several weeks before she passed away. I told her how God had used her to completely change my life. (I had told her this twenty years earlier, but I wanted to remind her). It was a precious moment. Like the rest of us, Ms.King had to take the journey from this life into the next alone. She did it with peaceful courage and style. But she certainly didn’t live life alone. I was dead wrong in 11th grade. She touched many lives – including this previously checked-out teenager – along the way.

POSTSCRIPT #2. I had planned on writing about the play Our Town, but I got a little sidetracked. I’ll do that on my next blog.