Happy Birthday to Van Morrison

Van Morrison turns 66 today.

It’s no secret how much I love the music of Van Morrison. I started listening to his music back in 1996, actively. Of course I knew many of his songs but only the radio friendly ones. But in 1996, I took a plunge from which I have to emerge. How it all started is a pretty good story.

It was a Saturday morning and I was bored. Particularly I was bored with my music and wanted something new and different. If there was an internet, I knew nothing of it. So I drove over to the record store at Century Plaza Mall. I walked around the store over and over looking for something interesting.

I can remember stopping in front of the Van Morrison CDs and picking up his Greatest Hits. As I looked at a memory of something my friend Jay had once said shot from out of the forgotten like a bullet. “Van Morrison’s music seems to be a quest for beauty.”

Jay was not what you would expect. We worked together at Chuck’s BBQ in Opelika and were both students at Auburn. He described himself as redneck trailer-trash. Prone to depression and ridiculous kindness, he was an enigma. His major was Russian Lit and he played the guitar about as well as anyone I’ve ever known. When he played it felt…. it felt like it was coming from this great longing for some unknown beauty in the midst of all the ugliness.

It was the blues mostly.

So as I sat there holding that CD, this is what kept me from putting it back – this longing for something beautiful. I went home and put it in. And I listened. I sat on the couch all day and listened. And I can remember the feeling of wanting – needing to plunge deeper each time. The feeling was so profound, even though I have over 60 Van Morrison albums, I still listen to that Greatest Hits disc because of that experince on that day.

You might be tempted to think I was being lazy or wasteful of my time by listening to an album over and over for nearly a whole day. But it was not. Not only did I walk into a storehouse of music which will take me a lifetime to explore. But I found beauty.

Tuesday’s 10: What I Learned From My Pastor, Bob Flayhart

Back in 1996 I was a mess. I was in a toxic relationship, had very little direction, a ridiculous amount of debt and though I was beginning to enjoy the study of theology through books, my desire to be a part of a church was disappearing. All I knew were the Baptist Churches I had grown up in. I wanted out and had no idea where to go.

One day, while sitting on my parents front porch, I was talking with my friend Ross and told him some of my frustration about church. He invited me to one he had been attending. So that Sunday, for the first time I went to a Presbyterian church. And even though the Lead Pastor did not preach that Sunday, I was hooked.

And then for years I sat under the preaching of Bob Flayhart hanging on every word. And every word was a word of grace. Grace that comforts and grace that convicts. I needed both and every Sunday it was delivered with power.

No preacher has influenced me more. And I’ve longed to give tribute to his ministry and it’s peculiar effect on me. Today is his birthday. So I want to list 10 things I’ve learned from Bob over the years. And even though much of this has helped me as a pastor, far more often I’ve needed to hear these things on a personal level – as a man, a husband and a father. Some of these come from sermons, some from the pre-marital counseling he did for us. All of it is now part of me and I wouldn’t be able to shake it loose if I wanted.

1. The Christian life is a daily waltz. 1, 2, 3…Repent, Believe, Fight…1, 2, 3…Repent, Believe, Fight. This is in the DNA of OMPC and chances are you will here it at some point during a Sunday service.

2. Cheer up! You are a lot worse off than you think you are. And the gospel is greater than you could ever imagine. I know this a Jack Millerism but whenever I hear it, I hear it in Bob’s voice. And I hear it all. the. time.

3. Even in the midst of your sin, you are still loved. This is a variation on a theme. But I remember Bob saying this once and it caused a huge paradigm shift in my thinking. The love of God for his children is that great.

4. The “doctrines of grace” are given as encouragement. They had always been an argument since I’d bought in and became a Calvinist. Bob helped me see they are there to encourage Christians that God is at work always and will save his people.

5. Our spouse is given to us for our sanctification. If it true that all things are working together for our good, then our spouse and our marriage are both working for our good. This is an enormous help when you have two people who still have to fight against sin living under the same roof.

6. Our own sin should be far more obvious than the sins of our spouse. We should see ourselves as the greater sinner because we know the ins and outs of our own hearts better than anyone. This makes us slow to accuse and quick to show grace and mercy.

7. Marriage is not 50-50…”you do your part and then I’ll do my part” is a terrible way to live and love. It’s 100-100. The husband should give his life as Christ did. The wife should give her all as the church is called to give all. Both loving the other radically.

8. Husbands are not dictator and wives are not doormats. How many times did we hear this in weddings he performed? There was a time where it was weekend after weekend. I’ve now done two weddings and I’ve said the same thing. Because it’s true.

9. Transparency. It’s difficult to be transparent about your own struggles and need for the gospel of grace and not turn the sermon or lesson into a confessional.  But I’d rather have the struggle for balance than not see any need for transparency at all. Bob’s transparency turns “you need to” moments into “we need to” moments.

10. Looking for grace everywhere. No matter where I am in the Scriptures. No matter what I am listening to. No matter what I am reading. No matter what I’m watching, I’ve been trained to look for stories and ideas upon which the shadow of the cross falls. Sure, it’s been invaluable as a pastor. But more so as a person on the path so often needing just a sign – even a faded, warped one – that I’m loved because of the Son.

Evangelism Redux

For over a year I’ve been fielding questions, having conversations and receiving…ehem, interesting emails over a post called “The Silence of Paul On Evangelism.” I’ve been called a heretic and I’ve received an amazing amount of notes of gratitude. I expected the criticism but not the gratitude. And honestly, I’m thankful for both.

But I think it’s time to say more. I know it is unthinkable to wait as long as I have to say more in a world like our own. Everything so immediate. But the weight of the subject has kept me back from saying much more. But I need to say more and maybe…hopefully close the discussion. Eventually

So I wanted to offer some thoughts that will hopefully clarify further, provoke some more thought and get us on the journey of loving God and neighbor.

A couple things before we begin: First, please read all of these. Especially if you find yourself confused or angry. Second,   I ask that you stop and think before you respond. I do not ask you to agree with me so much as think deeply.

With that, let’s begin.

1. There is no command after Pentecost for believers to evangelize. This is a fact. Paul does not command evangelism in his letters to the churches. Peter doesn’t do it. John doesn’t do it. In the letters to the churches, the command is just not there. This is not an argument for anything. It’s just not there. I know there are some passages which come close and there are examples. But close is not the same. And examples are not commands. There are commands to pastors and vocational missionaries to evangelize but not to ordinary believers.

2. The above statement should not cause you alarm if you love evangelism. If you think it is dangerous for me to point this out, your beef is with reality. With God himself. You are alarmed that someone is pointing to something the Holy Spirit did. Not Matt Redmond. Not anyone, save God. The truth sets us free because it is entirely in step with the character of Jesus. Embrace it and look to it for warmth in the midst of a cold world that denies the power of truth.

3. No one gets reprimanded for not evangelizing in the Scriptures. There are no rebukes. No one is made to feel they have erred or sinned. No one is guilted into doing it more. No tweetable statements making those who have not evangelized today (or lately) feel like they have neglected their duty. There is nothing of the sort. This is in stark contrast where the majority of pastors across the evangelical landscape lean heavy upon those in the pew to be about the business of evangelism. And yet, there is no example for them to do so.

4. The lack of commands in the letters to the churches must be meaningful. If there were many commands we would point to them often. Those who are passionate about evangelism would wield them with ferocity against those who questioned the wisdom of evangelism. If you deny any meaning to the silence, you cannot ask with any seriousness for us to pay attention to the noise.

5. I think evangelism MUST have some place in the Christian life. I just do not think it is the thing. I do not think it is the sign of faith. In other words we have no justification for questioning the salvation of a person who is not engaged in evangelism. But evangelism to some degree may be beyond  a command. Why do I say this? We must speak of the reality around us, within us, beyond us and out in front of us. But primarily because it is reality. To call this evangelism always is to reduce it to something smaller than what it is.

6. The guilt poured upon those who have no desire nor inclination to do cold evangelism is wrong. I do not think we can justify it biblically. We have no cause to guilt someone into a practice which most unbelievers have no desire to be involved with. This is not a blanket condemnation of cold evangelism. But I do not think it needs to be reigned in.

7. Evangelism seems to be the trump card for the evangelical church. This is insane. Think about it. A guy can be a complete jerk, lack any generosity, have a mess of a home-life but if he is known as a soul-winner, nothing can be said against him. For some reason we have exalted a practice the ordinary believer is not commanded to pursue. And we have done this while ignoring the prevailing horizontal ethic of the New Testament: Love. That is what we are called to over and over and will be distinguished by.

8. There has to be a happy medium between those who make evangelism the most important thing and those who would make it nothing. I’ve no tolerance for either position. Both are skewed to the personality. One is a bully pulpit and one is a coward’s castle. I do not know that this happy medium can be plotted on a graph or made into a plan of action. But I do assume if we continue to love God and love our neighbor, believing the gospel of grace in Christ and seek to manifest the fruit of the Spirit, we will see people converted.

9. C.S. Lewis said, “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” And I think this wisdom can be applied to our present subject. I think if we seek after what is explicit – love and all else commanded (did you know we are commanded to live quiet lives more times than we are commanded to share our faith in Paul’s letters?) – we will see what we want to see happen. I think we will see people who cannot help but talk about reality. But as it is, all of reality is filtered through a grid where all information, experience, knowledge and need must pass through the non-commanded command of evangelism.

10. I often wonder if our lack of trust is betrayed by our feeling we must always be talking about something Paul never really talked about… much less commanded. We have constructed a narrative which says you do not trust God if you are not always encouraging and engaging in evangelism. But I wonder if such activity is clouding our ability to see that we really do not trust him. Stop. I know what you are thinking. But I am not a hyper-Calvinist. I believe the pastor should call unbelievers to belief. I believe there are times neighbors should do the same. But I wonder if we are trying to get ahead of God. God’s means just may not be pre-packaged formulas given by spiritual spammers to real people with real beating hearts and real problems and real dreams and real failures. They are often more kind and loving than we are. Maybe we should trust God when he says to love them – by doing so I assume we will be seeking the kingdom and then maybe, just maybe all else will be added. Including some conversions.

Conclusion: I am pro-evangelism. However, I do not think it is a central part of Christian ethics. I think our current teaching on evangelism is out of proportion to the teaching contained in the Scriptures and this leads to misplaced guilt and ends up being a hindrance to the spread of the glory of God instead of a profusion.

What do you think? Why do you think we see no commands in the letters to the churches and yet are so quick to command people to evangelize? How can seeing the lack of something help us do something better?


(Updated: See #10)

1. You may have thought I was crazy when I wrote Food Is the New Legalism but even the NYT agrees.

2. Kinky Friedman is supportive of Rick Perry for President. Weirdly awesome.

3. Every time I turn around someone is making a positive case for my upcoming book.

4. Even Hipsters are abandoning Obama.

5. Moms, you should really be reading my friend Anita’s blog.

6. A great response to Tim Challies’ regarding the SGM controversy.

7. This Frank Lloyd Wright blog completes me.

8. In case you missed it, I have an article over here.

9. A photo album of Condolezza Rice and other bizarre items found inside the Gadaffi compound.

10. I’m being called a “negative influence” on a private forum by at least one pastor because I wrote this after lots of thinking and then reading this. I appreciate the increased traffic. (Update: The pastor referred to above sent me a very sincere apology. A rare thing in this world. I actually had no idea who it was that said this, I just knew he was part of A29. You should be so lucky providentially blessed to have such a pastor as this guy.)

"Everything Is Meaningless"

The Brink – a magazine/website for twenty-somethings – has published a piece I wrote for them.

The following is an excerpt:

“The book of Ecclesiastes is a puzzle for most people. Just when you think you have heard something which rings true, you happen upon a phrase, verse, or whole section which sounds nothing like what you have been taught to believe or do for that matter. Just when you think the writer of Ecclesiastes is making a great point, he says something crazy like, “Everything is meaningless!”

Which is weird.

Or is it?

I mean, on the surface this sounds a lot like the nihilism so rampant in western culture. The philosophy which strips meaning from anything and everything. The belief that nothing really matters in this life or the next is not only popular in our world, it is also pervasive. Some get there by speculation and others by experiencing suffering to such a degree that meaning is like a dust particle in a pitch-black world.

But not us.

Evangelical Christians reject such ways of thinking. Don’t we?

The proto-typical evangelical Christian finds it very easy to make sense of all the spiritual parts of their lives. Quiet times, Bible study, worship songs, sermons, prayer, baptism, communion, evangelism, missions and helping the poor are meaningful. We would never call these parts of our life “meaningless.” It all has meaning because these are religious or spiritual acts we do which relate directly to God. They help us and others be connected to our Creator and Redeemer. And this gives us joy. And rightly so.

But what about the other parts of our lives?

What about the parts of our lives which do not seem all that spiritual? You know what I mean—the parts of life we must be about because they are, well . . . life? What about all those day-in and day-out repetitions? Do the routine and mundane parts of our lives have meaning?”

Go read the rest here.

(And yes, this is a good intro on what my book is about.)

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1.  In the songs of Van Morrison there are cracks and crevices, fissures of gold waiting to be discovered while the young clamor for the plastic new.

2. If Dickinson is right and “There is no frigate like a book” – then I want my children to be owners, captains and sailors of one thousand sea-worthy vessels on death-defying quests for beauty.

3. Some memories are like money found folded in the pockets of a coat unworn for seasons.

4. We do not even live paycheck to paycheck right now but the riches of my children’s laughter crowds out the pangs of need.

5. Wonder is the lost needle among the haystack of instantaneous answers.

6. Beauty is a door into a world of grace. Turn around and grace is a door into a world of beauty.

7. The world will not see we are concerned about justice until our reputations are on the line and they hate us for it.

8. “What is good?” has been replaced by “What looks good?”

9. Ordinary life is the proving ground.

10. One thousand stars are not half as bright as the glint in the happy eyes of my wife.

Why I Alternately Love and Hate This Movement of Christian Manliness

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” – Gal. 3:1-3

It just hit me. I know why I alternately love and hate this new movement of manliness among evangelicals and especially the YRR. At least one reason. It has taken me a while to get my head around this call to manliness. Or at least begin getting my head around it.

There is an undeniable need for grown men to stop acting like boys. And yes some of them need to toughen up a little. Sensitivity does not preclude toughness of character and spirit. Indeed the mixture of the two is strong drink we could all use.

But it’s all law. Law upon law. It is characterized by what men must do and need to do and should get busy doing. It lacks graciousness because it is a message of almost pure law.

And so I love it because deep within me is a Matt, who loves the law and longs to wield it like a weapon on others. And for some reason I even want to beat my own self up with it.

But I hate it because it is a ministry of death and destroys the spirits of those to whom it claim to be a balm. It reeks havoc on the soul. Or worse – it creates chest-thumping bullies who construct personas of toughness and manliness who look down on all who need to hear the message of manliness. I hate it because I put on this cloak of pretension and deride those who I claim to love. Even myself.

And for some reason we think the gospel of grace is the thing. Unless we are on this subject.

Tuesday’s 10: Books That Have Helped Me ‘Get’ Grace

My guess is that none ever gets grace completely. We are all on a journey of discovery and recovery. We are discovering the grand vistas of God’s grace and also seeing worlds of grace in the minutiae of life. And we are recovering what was once intended – growing young in the aging face of history.

The following books have helped me along the way. This is not meant to be a best of list or seen as definitive. These are simply books which have moved me along in this world of “un-grace” as Yancey calls it. I’m not done with this list. As a matter of fact grace is what I’m always looking for when reading – no matter the genre or author.

My hope? Some of you will find a book to help you a few steps along the way.

These are in no particluar order.

1. What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Phillip Yancey. I’ve never been able to get over this book. There are a number of stories throughout the book and this is where the strength of the book lies. It was through this work I discovered Babette’s Feast, a favorite story.

2. Putting Amazing Back Into Grace by Michael Horton. It would not be much of an overstatement to say I was a Calvinist because of this book. And the theology presented here is the theology I still hold onto for the most part. mentally I go back to this book often.

3. The God You Can Know by Dan DeHaan You’ve most likely never even heard of this one. But it changed me and was the first book I felt like I could not get enough of. And it was the first book that made me weep while reading it. It’s probably been 14 years or more since I’ve read it but it still shapes me.

4. The Prodigal God by Tim Keller. The kind of book that can change everything.

5. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. A novel about an aged pastor learning to live out the grace he has preached. I Stayed up all night to finish once I got started. Painful and beautiful.

6. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. As much as I wanted to identify with Peter, as a kid I could not escape I was Edmund, in need of radical grace.

7. The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. This is still a relatively new one for me. I was always too reformed to even give it a try. But it came at just the right time. I was low and needed the grace that pours forth like Niagara from this book. The church…the world needs more books like this.

8. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard.  This was my introduction to Annie Dillard and she clearly understands grace more than most preachers.

9. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor. I know this cheating but in every story grace and the need for it edges in sideways and is sometimes there beside you sitting uncomfortably before you even know it.

10. The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. If you start reading the Puritans here, it just may ruin you. I’m not a Puritan hater but this is the standard in my book. A comforting book I’ve needed to read again again because of disappointment and the simple need to be reminded of God’s love for sinners.

The Confession of A Failing Pastor

(I wrote the following back in August of 2009, I was at my wit’s end emotionally. It was so bad, when we went on vacation to Birmingham to visit family, I was prepared to stay. Never to go back. I was right in the middle of despair. My guess is, a lot of guys in ministry get to that place and it is a terrible place to be. Accountants can experience despair and go do something else and it looks heroic. Pastors? No way. They are expected to rip open their shirts and reveal the S on the their chest. Bullets are supposed to bounce off and sermons just appear. All the while kryptonite is hurled at them through email, social media and meetings in coffee shops. I hope this is a help for other pastors.)

Whether I am failing as a student pastor or only perceived as failing is at this point moot. Well, maybe not entirely. But the effects are the same. Right? I mean, it is neither here nor there if the whispers are there, the discussions are going on behind your back and the arrows are flying. The truth of the matter is perhaps a very important thing for the Senior Pastor/Preacher/Lead Pastor and possibly for someone who oversees an adult ministry. 
Why? Because they trade in truth.

Me? I trade in bodies, numbers and pizza. And it is amazing that the decrease in that which I trade in is the reason I feel as if I am drowning. Usually, the abundance is the difficulty. Usually you drown in abundance. In my case it is the stark nature of the thing. There are not enough bodies. I am not doing enough. I do not care enough. When or what is enough? How would I know? When everyone is happy?
It’s like a hall of mirrors really. I went to one at the Alabama State Fair back in elementary school. To be honest, it freaked me out. You turn one way and you are fat. The other way shows you as remarkably short. Another turn and you are twisted beyond all recognition. And all the reflections make it very hard to actually get perspective on the distortions and see reality for what it is. Even when you find the exit…exhausted, have you escaped? Are you not still trying to catch your breath?
I vowed to never go back in.
Today I went to bed twice for short periods of time. Is this healthy? It felt healthy. When you are hungry, you eat. When you are cold, you put on more clothing. When you are tired – soul-tired – you lay down. 
Twice this week I am supposed to teach and for the first time in my ministerial life, I am not looking forward to it. This has never been the case before. I have always fed off the enjoyment of doing this. But right now I just want to hang out with Sam Adams and Billie Holiday. I just want to hang out with my wife in silence with small talk sprinkled clean by laughter. I want to watch my kids play and tickle them every now and then. Another nap would be welcome also.
Do I need a vacation? Am I burnt out? Maybe. The only path of sanity I can find is quitting. And I do not mean quitting this ‘job’. I am talking about quitting altogether. When you start envying the Fed-Ex delivery driver, something is not right. Can you quit for just a week or two? Perhaps I could start back then. But a few weeks of not being a “Pastor” (or at least what I am told that is) would be welcome indeed.
I used to talk about wanting to quit every week. That was very different. I knew I could not quit. The “call” was clear. Now not so much. Before, I could read something in the Scriptures or in a book that would drive me further in. Now what used to be fuel is retardant.
Not doubting my salvation is a great deal of help. The gospel is still good news. I don’t want to leave the “church”. I don’t want to leave my family. As a matter of fact these are the two things I want to run towards. Some may call it selfish but I want to be ministered to for a while. Emmylou Harris is singing My Baby Needs A Shepherd.
None of this is written for pity. There is cathartic help of course. But I really could find nothing like this anywhere. They are probably there somewhere. I did find some articles and essays about how pastors overcame their failures. Nowhere, though, did I find anything like a confession from a failing pastor in the midst of failure. 
“My name is Matt Redmond…not that Matt Redman…and I am a failing pastor.”

Food Is the New Legalism

If you have not heard about the scuffle between Travel Channel bad boy, Anthony Bourdain and Food Network darling, Paula Deen then go here and here.

Bourdain takes on Paula Deen’s association with “evil corporations” and her unhealthy recipes.

I’ve been a fan of Bourdain for years and have seen almost every episode of No Reservations. Paula Deen got old very quickly for me and I have not watched an episode of hers in years, partly because we don’t cable but even when given the opportunity, we will look for something else.

But see, here is the problem…Bourdain’s show is not on public access and his show is replete with him eating lots of fatty, high calorie foods.

For Bourdain to blast evil corporations is hilarious. His show is on The Travel Channel and his publisher is an imprint of Harper Collins. Healthy food?

He is famous for his love of tubed meat.

But this is the way of legalism. And for some reason, a new legalism has begun to surround the food we eat. We now look down on others because of where they eat (local v. corporate), what they eat (organic and free range v. everything else) and even how it was prepared. And we puff ourselves up because we can afford to make the choices to eat differently.

Every legalist is a snob looking down the nose at those who know less and do less. Because the less-enlightened didn’t watch the documentary the legalist watched they are looked down on.

We all do it.

But eventually the legalist will move on to something else because it really is not about food so much as pride and control. All of us, Christians and non-Christians have these hearts that just make up rules for people to follow. It would be bad enough if we only beat ourselves up with these laws but we don’t. We are not satisfied until others are moved to take on these laws and made to be as miserable as ourselves.

Related Post: Thomas Merton and “This Cult of Foods”