My Unorthodox Road to Christian Higher Education & Why It Mattered

I originally wrote this for Fuller Theological Seminary’s website, which was highlighting 2013 graduates.

IMG_5350I had been in paid, full-time ministry my whole adult life. My reputation was glowing, my job security in place and my future bright. In the moment that everything “should” have been perfect, I could sense my soul disconnecting more and more from the life and ministry I poured myself into each day. I couldn’t run one more missions trip, facilitate one more event, or even prepare another sermon. It wasn’t that I was burned out, it was that I knew God was doing something in me that needed space to grow and be cultivated.

Ironically, it was in the moment I stepped away from formal ministry that I had the greatest desire to begin seminary. I wouldn’t be attending to build my resume or reputation, but simply to better engage and be transformed by the Story I had loved all along.

My experience at Fuller not only met but exceeded my expectations. As any responsible higher education institution should do, it taught me not what to think, but how to think. It allowed me to formulate the right kinds of questions that would lead to a renewed set of answers. It created space for me to be captivated by the Story of God and the reality of Jesus in such a way that I couldn’t help but dive deeper into my study and practice. It not only created space for me to identify my calling and gifting, but it equipped me with the tangible resources and networks to be sent into it with both conviction and expertise.

And while I have been deeply impacted academically by my time at Fuller, I have forever been transformed by the highly relational environment that envelops and grounds the academic in the everyday realities of life in our neighborhoods, city, and world. Today, I live more fully into my Kingdom calling not because of the institution of Fuller Seminary, but because of the dynamic network of relationships it represents.

You’re Invited to Golden Hill

This fall we are thrilled to have the capacity to invite 10 aspiring missional leaders into our one year apprenticeship at our NieuCommunities site in Golden Hill (San Diego).  Although we understand that we are all apprentices of Jesus, this experience is guided by mentors who foster and coach our NieuCommunities’ apprentices towards their unique calling as participants in the Mission of God.  I see it as a hands on seminary experience that is rooted in shared life and practice, but informed and enhanced by academic work.  

In short, we seek to form leaders for mission in the context of covenant community that is deeply rooted in our neighborhood of Golden Hill.  This apprenticeship is geared toward 20 or 30 somethings.  If you or someone you know is interested I would highly recommend coming down for one of our “Taste and See” experiences.

Note: Check out the NieuCommunities page above for more info on who are and what we’re about.




The Disease of Building Theology in the Theoretical

This blog was first posted on Tony Campolo’s Red Letter Christian’s online publication on 5/6/12…

I love and am enlivened by intellectual stimulation, specifically in relation to the integration of theology and ethics.  In many ways, I feel that I am hardwired for this stuff. 

The other night my NieuCommunities’ tribe was taking an extended time to explore how we each individually connect with God; what are the times, places or activities where we are most connected and alive.  For some it was through contemplation, others through a variety of worship forms, while others through care giving and hospitality.  For me, intellectual exploration was one of the primary ways I connect with God.  My writing, teaching and graduate studies have not come out of a desire to attain a “deeper” faith, but rather out of a unique conviction that I must pursue these things out of faithfulness to the faith I ascribe to.  God has created me for this stuff and it is a significant way I hope to edify the Church global.

Now, while this is an important reality to acknowledge and foster as I come to better understand my wiring and its relation to my Kingdom contribution, I have to hold this reality in tension with some recent experiences and convictions that have come about as a result.

On one of my recent trips down to Tijuana, Mexico I was able to stay for a few days and enter into some of the rhythms of life in this context.  Because of the close proximity, shared economy and common relationships, we consider Tijuana part of the larger metropolitan area of San Diego.  Whether it is acknowledged or not, we function as one city.  With that said, the ways of life in Tijuana and San Diego run in sharp contrast with one another.  The material poverty in much of our neighboring Mexican population is stunning in comparison with the material excess in much of San Diego.  More stunning to me was the comparison between the Christian communities on each side of the border.  While much (certainly not all!) of the energy of Christians in the States goes to building bigger buildings, having better events and ascending the intellectual ladder, our friends in Mexico (certainly not all!) are seeking live out their faith in the everyday realities of the mundane.  They simply don’t have the time or energy to debate doctrine when they need to provide the next meal for their family. 

Just a few weeks ago I returned from spending an extended time in the West Bank among Muslim and Christian Palestinian friends (see above pic).  Not only did we experience life-giving hospitality, we received it from a people who have almost nothing (material) to give.  When we came into one of their homes, the father/husband said, “When you enter our home you are the resident and I am the guest.”  The Church of Palestine lives under the heavy yoke of occupation enduring extreme poverty, daily injustice and has seemingly little hope of a new reality for the generations to come.  But -- and this is a HUGE but -- the Spirit is alive among this community.  This is a band of Jesus’ followers who everyday have to choose to follow the Prince of Peace in their daily realities.  For them, following Jesus cannot simply be reduced to a belief system or a doctrinal statement.  No, following Jesus for them means choosing peace in the face of yet another incident of violence, it means choosing dignity amid imposed humiliation, it means expecting the arrival of “daily bread” when all their resources have run dry.  

Here is the bottom line: People in third world countries are more worried about living out their theology in the mundane than arguing theology in the theoretical. From my experience, a lived theology is much more true and compelling than a “thought about” theology.

This truth serves both as an inspirational and helpful critique of those of us in first world West. 

Developing theology in the theoretical is a unique luxury we have in the West.  If held in tension with the reality of our brothers and sisters living in 3rd world countries, it can be a great benefit to the Church global.  If only understood through our grid of success, achievement, value, intellectual assent or a desire to be on the “right” side of an argument, it can be a grave tragedy for the Church of the West and its relation to the Church global. 

Our intellectual excess is a reflection of our societal tendency towards excess and consumerism.   Yes, even our heart felt desires for intellectual assent in theology can be a sin of excess and consumerism.  It is a reality that is largely only an option in places where we have the time and resources for such practices. 

There are no debates between neo-Calvinists and neo-Anabaptists in the West Bank.  There is no talk of Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell.  There are no flashy programs and events.  Sure the Church has its issues in these places, but their differences are unearthed through shared life and practice rather than in lecture halls and blog rolls.

If done well, I think theological debate and discourse are good.  In fact, they are needed.

Intellectual stimulation is good.  For people like me it isn’t pursued with a desire to be unfaithful, it’s the exact opposite. 

So we have a great gift here in the West.  It is one we must cherish and develop, not for our benefit or reputation, but for the benefit of God’s global Kingdom.  We have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters around the world and as one who has build much of my theology in the theoretical, I choose to stand first in line to repent and learn from these hero’s.

May we not only learn from our brothers and sisters in third world countries, may we allow their life and practice to inform the voice of the Church global as much our best books, sermons and lectures.  Because while we get carried away arguing our theology in the theoretical, they are busy living out their theology in the mundane of the everyday. 

Note: I am speaking to “general” contrasts between 1st world theology and 3rd world theology.  There are many exceptions and I am in no way discounting the brilliant intellectuals with a significant voice and influence who live in 3rd world countries.  They are a numerous, needed and growing presence.



What My Muslim Friend Taught Me About Jesus

Ali is my good friend and one of my hero’s. He has taught me so much. Let me tell you about him.

Ali grew up a Shi’ite Muslim in Iran. In an effort to complete his studies as a doctor of neurology, he moved to the United States about three years ago. His whole life is in Iran; family, religion, tradition, friends, home.

After moving to New Orleans, Ali met one of the couples who are now on staff with our NieuCommunities team in San Diego. Although coming from two very different backgrounds (Iran and Washington state), they immediately connected and became close friends. More than anything, Ali became intrigued by this Jesus their lives revolved around. Within his Muslim tradition, Jesus is a prominent and highly respected prophet, but to believe in him as God is to commit shirk (holding anything/anyone as equal with Allah/God); the worst sin of all.

In fact, Ali became so intrigued by the Jesus he saw in his friends that when they moved to San Diego to go on staff with NieuCommunities, he asked if he could come with them and be part of their missional church community. After finding a neurology position in San Diego, Ali packed his bags and not only moved to San Diego, but moved into our neighborhood of Golden Hill (where all NieuCommunties participants have committed to live).

It is there that I met one of the most brilliant, yet humble and devoted men I have ever encountered. As a doctor, Ali was frequently getting published in highly respected medical journals, but as a friend he would always be the last to walk through the door. He set aside three times in his day to pray out of devotion and reverence. Anytime I saw him pray (no matter the setting) he would turn his palms face up as if opening and surrendering himself to whatever God may be speaking. For Ali, presence and devotion to his faith could be second to nothing and his life reflected that.

Although a brilliant doctor and having lived a life devoted to Islam, Ali was a humble learner who made the most of every opportunity to hear and experience the Jesus of his friends. Ali dove deep into our Christian community as he prayed, worshiped, listened and practiced alongside of us. He wanted to encounter Jesus, so he chose to expose and submerge himself deep into a band of believers whose lives had been submitted to their King, Jesus.

Ali became a very good friend of mine. Recently, I have spent a lot of time studying Islam as I seek to engage people like Ali and develop my role as peacemaker in the Middle East conflict (see this blog for more on that). Despite my occasional ignorance, Ali would listen to my questions and share insight into his sacred traditions.

Ali became my friend and dialog partner in the areas we each held most sacred. It wasn’t a competition for whose religion was more “right,” it was a dialog of mutual respect and reverence. After all, Ali wanted to experience the truth of Jesus and he asked that we intercede on his behalf.

Through the lives and worship of his new friends and the profound work of the Spirit, my friend Ali did encounter Jesus in his time here in Golden Hill. After a recent worship gathering, Ali looked at me as said, “Yes, I am a follower of Jesus.”

Having accepted a position at Temple University in Philadelphia, Ali moved away from his new family in Golden Hill last week. While it was hard for us to say goodbye, both Ali and our community knew this was not the end of our story together.

After taking Ali surfing for the first time in his life, we all gathered for a meal just hours before his flight took off to Philadelphia. We shared the ways he had impacted us and thanked him for all that he had taught us. He came to us as a student, but his humble devotion ended up teaching us so much.

It is easy to spout out a quick prayer before a meal and quickly conclude, “In Jesus’ name, amen.” Although some of us have heard and said Jesus’ name so many times, it must not lose its sacred power and authority. Ali reminded me of that. To come before God is sacred. It is not to be done in complacency, but with reverence and devotion.

Before Ali walked out the door to catch his flight, we all turned our palms to the sky and thanked Jesus for our friend; our brother.

This is a reflection first posted on my family/ministry blog: North of the Border

10 Books in 10 Weeks

Our Israel class is in full swing and I have quickly been made aware why I am getting 6 units of grad credit for this 3 week class! 10 hour days with about 4 hours of lecture and 5+ hours of field study. Super tuckered out, but super fun experience. It has been so fun to share with Janny as well. For some reason, we are having issues with our camera, so I am taking a pause in our Israel Diaries and giving a top 10 list that is really only a top 3 list. This last quarter, I read the following books for my seminary classes. Some were great, some were OK. After the top 3, they are in no particular order:

1. Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat
Offers some of the best commentary on the idols of rationality and pluralism within Modernity and Postmodernity. Also, their words on Christians embodying a social alternative to Empire through succession, community, liberation and suffering brought me to tears.
2. The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder
Yoder offers a careful exegesis of the teachings of Jesus and argues (although in an extremely humble posture) that Jesus offers a relevant ethic that is to be embodied today. As a pacifist who wrote this in the early 70’s, his words are all the more powerful and challenging.
3. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
What’s for dinner? That question is constantly asked before sitting at the dinner table. What’s in dinner and where did it come from? Those are questions that rarely get asked, but whose answers must be examined. I read this for a paper I wrote on Food Justice and it called into questions the justice that is/isn’t found in our industrial food complex.

Rounding out the final 7 I have (in no particular order):

4. Kingdom Ethics by Glen Stassen and David Gushee
5. God’s Politics by Jim Wallis
6. Missional Renaissance by Reggie Mcneal
7. Personal Faith, Public Policy by Harry Jackson and Tony Perkins
8. The Future of Faith in American Politics by David Gushee
9. The Culturally Savvy Christian by Dick Staub
10. The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch

Bonus Read
Artist, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City (still in progress)

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