Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Lunch at Barnes and Noble

While waiting for his glasses to be crafted, my son and I decided to visit the local bookseller and redeem gift cards we had received for Christmas. After finding a few books, there was enough time left to visit the in-store café.

As we sat in the café, we noticed the mural above the café counter. Stretching for about forty or so feet, and being about four to six feet tall, the mural displays likenesses of fifteen famous authors – Faulkner, Hemingway, Parker, and the like. They are sitting in a café themselves, most at tables, but with one or two standing. As we studied the mural, a few things became obvious that we had previously not noticed. The first is the most obvious – of the fifteen authors, only two are women. Not overly exciting this, but curious nonetheless given the recent and somewhat extended push for gender equality and recognition of women's contributions in previously male-dominated fields.

The next detail that became apparent is that the few "extra" people in the mural – those who are not authors - either have their eyes painted with little or no detail, or that their eyes are not visible at all. Essentially, the only people with eyes are the authors. We could chalk this stylizing of the non-authors simply to the idea that this mural is in a bookstore. It would be reasonable that the authors would be the main and possibly only object of the painting, with the others simply filling in some open space. 

The foregoing would make the mural interesting enough, but there is another detail that highlights this only-authors observation. It seems that the authors are looking at something, or perhaps are intently pondering some grand idea. The authors aren't all looking at the same thing, but they are all intently looking at something. Nabakov for instance is holding his glasses and peering at them in his hands. Neruda though, seems to be staring into space, pondering some idea or site perhaps only he can see.

There is clearly more going on in, and behind this mural than what initially is apparent. The message seems to be that authors – those with classic staying power – are observers of people and life. It isn't suggested that they are simply observers though. No, these authors are observers that intently study the goings on around them – people, ideas, and events. The only author who is actually writing is Hughes who seems to be writing in a bound journal. Maybe he's recording his observations – or writing poetry about his surroundings for later delivery to us as classic.

It occurs to me that perhaps God followers could be in this mural. After all, what better group of people to closely observe the human condition and pass on their observations to the rest of the world? Maybe if we spent a bit more time observing the world from the perspective of God – from the perspective of the image in which we were made – we could more effectively communicate the Good News to the world full of people who remain confused and wondering, with no one to lead them. To do so though, requires that we set our Bibles down, let go of our perceptions of what doing life "right" looks like, and allow ourselves to become and experience real humanity. Can we do all this without lecturing, without castigating our fellow humans that don't seem to get it?

It seems that we must do this if we expect to have a continuing positive impact on our world. Have we become so ensconced in our churches, so shallow in our faith lives, that the realities of life shock us overly much, or even scare us? How can we minister to people whose lives scare us? I suggest that we cannot.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Prayer for a Newborn

Our great God, our Creator, the giver and sustainer of Life. We praise you for this miracle we have received today.

As Violet Grace takes her first breaths, we ask you to breathe on her; give her your Spirit. Infuse her with a desire for you, give her wisdom to discern you in herself, in others, and in the Creation. Give her the strength to follow You, and patience and compassion with those who do not know you, or who have not discerned you as she has.

Give her patience with herself and teach her to wait on You. Give her a desire for a simple life, lived quietly in trust with You.

Father, as we remember the coming of Your Son, we ask that You incarnate Yourself in Violet; that You nurture and grow her to be a living witness of Your grace in this life.

Keep her safe, bless her and her parents beyond their imaginations, and give them long lives and great wisdom.

We trust You, and rely on Your steadfast love.

Thank you for Your Son, and in His name we offer Violet to You.

Amen

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Communion Reflection – 7 December 2008

Psalm 138

I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name
for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things your name and your word.
On the day I called, you answered me;
my strength of soul you increased.
All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O LORD,
for they have heard the words of your mouth,
and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD,
for great is the glory of the LORD.
For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly,
but the haughty he knows from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life;
you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
and your right hand delivers me.
The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.

This psalm describes a God that is not far off, but a God that sees and loves those who would follow Him. This God sees the trouble of His people and protects them, lifts them up, and sustains them. Communion reminds us of this same God who saw the world in distress, as those without shepherds, and who intervened to save, protect, and lift us up from our despair.

As we remember our God who died for us, let us also remember that we do this in community – with one another. As we take the bread, we promise one another, we promise the world, we pledge to our God to take not just His life, but His death into our own bodies. We die to ourselves so that we may join with our God in blessing the world.

We are told that blood is life, and so today we take into ourselves not just our Lord's death, but His life as well. As you drink this cup, and as it courses through your being, let it enliven you, let it give life to your souls, to your minds, and to your bodies. Let us use this life to leave here and give life and blessing to those outside. Let us live life as God would have us live it.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Why Do People Seek Spirituality?

The question was posed on another site, "why do people seem to be seeking spirituality; why are they searching for fulfillment and satisfaction?"

Asked by someone who had a non-believing friend, who had asked the original question. The answer to this question is rather simple it seems to me. Here's what I posted in response:

"We are made in the image, the character of God.

Somewhere inside us is some God-stuff that tells us the world, the way it is, isn't the way it's supposed to be; that we, chasing after stuff that ultimately doesn't satisfy, aren't the way we're supposed to be.

As a result, we look to match that God-stuff with meaning and life. And so we seek, without knowing sometimes that it is the God-stuff that needs to be met.

Humans are all made in the image of God; and we all seek to live in that image (even if we don't know what that image is)."

If this is a correct answer to the question, it could help form the focus of our telling others the Good News. Rather than telling people they need to be saved from their sins, we could point people to the God that fulfills their longings and makes sense out of the world.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Made to be Imperfect?

Most Christians know of Paul’s admonition to be perfect, even as God is perfect, and most Christians have at one time or another, vacillated between security in faith and wondering if they’ve been perfect enough. It dawned on me this past Wednesday that all our attention on being perfect may by miss-placed.

What if we were meant to be imperfect? Really.

It has been demonstrated that most of us find it hard to be really compassionate, really caring, really empathetic unless and until we have undergone some sort of disappointment, loss, or failure. In the psychology world, and in a few Christian books, the idea of the wounded healer posits that only those who have suffered and worked through it can most adequately “be with” those who are now receiving the blows of life’s realities.

If we are called by God to live in His image, to live in His and with His worldview, His other-centered drives, His compassionate care for the world, how can we really mature into that image if we have never lived outside it? It has been observed that the lessons of life either kill us, or make us stronger. In this case, stronger in faith and character.

Could it be that humans, rather than being created to be perfect, were actually created to be imperfect? Imperfect so that we can learn the vagaries of life, the hurts, the defeats, the griefs of living. Imperfect so that we can learn to be a bit more gentle, a bit more forgiving, a bit more understanding of others’ failures, others’ periods of disorientation, others’ outbursts of anger, and others’ sins.

The implications of this possibility are that we no longer need beat ourselves up for failures. We can learn more readily from Brother Lawrence and his readily giving up his sins to the care of God. We can see our lapses in judgment as opportunities for growth in the Spirit rather than causes for fear.

What would it mean for you if you were made to be imperfect? How would that change your life?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What Draws.....II

A comment has been received concerning our last post. Essentially, the question is "do you have Scripture for that post, or are you just making it up?" This is a common question since I don't pay a lot of attention to peppering my writing with citations. I much prefer to assume that my audience has a grasp of Scripture and can recognize it when they read it. However, that is not always the case and there is nothing wrong with asking questions. And so the answer is, "yes there is plenty of Scripture to support the ideas in our last post."

To make the point concisely, I would offer Paul's admonition to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus as well as Jesus' urging that we live in Him as He lives in the Father. He further tells us that He and the Father are one.

It would seem then that yes, God does call us to live as He would live on this planet. When asked to show the disciples the Father, Jesus' response was something like "what, haven't you been paying attention? If you've seen me, you've seen the Father." Jesus also says "I call you friends because to you has been granted the right to know the things the Father has revealed to me."

Essentially, John 14-17 paints a picture of the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit living in a close and intimate relationship wherein is shared the knowledge of the Father, of what He is up to, and the love He calls us to live.

Is there any Scripture in the previous post? Quite a bit, actually.

Monday, September 15, 2008

What Draws You To God?

When I was young, I came to know God as creator and eventually as savior, and those things drew me to Him. Those are good things for children to know about God. In fact they are good things for seekers, for new Christians to know, but they exist in the elementary things of which Paul speaks. Elementary I suspect for two reasons. The first, that they can sometimes be based in fear – if you don’t believe, God is going to send you to Hell. The second, that they are things about God; they are objective statements. Objective I suspect as faith concepts can be.

But I do not want to stay there. I no longer want to know God as creator and savior only. I want to know God; I want to know Him in His essence, His character, His love. But here again I do not want to stop at objective statements. “God is love” is nice, but it cannot satisfy. These again are a set of objective statements about God.

Much more do I want to know God as my God, on a personal and communing basis. I want to know Him as He knows me, moving and sensing, and abiding with me. I want to abide in Him, to know His desires, to know His loves, to know His attractions and revulsions. I want to know these things as though they are my very own. I want to, as much as a creature can, become God in this world. When I speak and when I do, I want to be able to say as Jesus did, that I only say and do what my Father tells me.

My assurance in this pursuit is that He wants me to know Him that well, and that He will provide a path for me to find Him and become like Him. He invites me into His world, into His mind, into His very life. He has shown me His likeness in His Son, and invites me to summon the courage to live the picture that Jesus paints for me.

This is no mere learning about, and it is more than conforming behaviors. No, this is much more. This is to know in such an intimate way that I can comfort as He would comfort; I extend mercy as He would extend it; I live in His life and as He would live. I want to know the will and the passion of God so that I join with Him on this earth.

God is my savior; He is my creator – my sustainer in fact. But He is so much more and He draws me to know Him far beyond my initial saving and forming. He draws me to know Him as He would be in this world.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Basic Training

In the last couple weeks our youngest son graduated from Basic Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Pretty routine really...music, soldiers, families, heat, humidity, irritability from time to time. The first day was Family Day. We were to get there at 10:00 and so my wife wanted to get there early. As it turned out, we were to be let into the post theater at 11:00.

Picture this....200 family members standing in the sun and humidity, pushed up against the front of the theater, waiting. Wonderful really. The Family Day family theater period lasted about twenty minutes and included primarily a hard-to-hear bubba try to tell us the rules for Family Day. Essentially, we could have our soldier until 8:00 that evening with some limits on distance and admonitions that he could not have alcohol, drive the car, or change out of his uniform. Well that went OK and we had him back on time, dressed and with no alcohol on board.

The next day was Graduation Day. Oddly enough, it started the same way....one advertised arrival time and then a later actual start time. Same scenario...200 people in the sun and humidity pressed up against the same theater entrance. Once we finally got inside, the graduation itself was pretty much standard. The most interesting aspect of the graduation is that the soldiers entered in platoons - about forty to fifty soldiers each. Each platoon would march onto the stage, execute a Left Face and then singly take a step forward, state their name and home state, and then execute a Right Face and march off the stage.

That may sound somewhat boring, and I think I would agree with you - to some extent. In fact, it was boring until, after several names and states, a particularly singular idea floated into my mind. I don't know if it was during the first or second platoon, or where exactly in that platoon it came to me. As I sat there and listened to a soldier blast out his name and state, it occurred to me that this - these soldiers - were America. The states they named accounted for a great majority of the country - New York to California, and Florida to Washington.When these soldiers, so young and relatively naive may be sent off to war, it would be America sending America's soldiers to war. We were all represented and we would all send our sons and daughters off to fight. If there is any unity, if there should be any unity, it must be when we send our children - they may not like that label, but they are - off to war. There can be no room for argument; no room for hedging our political likes and dislikes. No, when American sends her kids off to war, we must do so together, because that is exactly what we are doing.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Elders redux

A reader (I am always amazed that people actually read this blog) submitted a rather long comment on the original post on Elders. It is apparent that the reader did some good homework as the comment has several, well, more than several, reference citations. It is clear that they both read the original post and did some Bible study before posting their comment. Because the comment was so long, I thought it appropriate to post another entry rather than bury the response in the comment log.

In the following discussion, I have included the text of the comment without the Scripture references. If you want to read the comment in its entirety, scroll to the Elders post and click on the comment.

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[Comment~~~~The church is expected to be a people in exactly this sense. We are the people of God who are charged with continuing and preserving the values, culture, hopes, and the identity of God’s people in our time.~~~~

Does this include the doctrines (teachings) of this people?]

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All of Scripture must be seen in light of God’s purpose. Scripture, while it describes God’s purpose for us, does not define that purpose. In other words, the purpose came first, and Scripture is given to describe it. As we read Scripture then, we must keep in mind that there is a larger purpose than the text we are currently reading, and all texts must fit that larger purpose. For instance, murder is not wrong because the Bible says it is. Rather, the Bible proscribes murder because murder is wrong. If we understand that God invites us into His world and asks us to understand life as He would have us live it, the Bible becomes an invitation rather than a set of hurdles to negotiate and a set of rules to learn. When we try to use Scripture to define rather than describe God’s view we risk confusion and overly limiting both ourselves and God.

Being the People of God includes primarily the purpose for which we have been chosen. That purpose is essentially the same as that of Israel – to bless the world through the blessings we have received. We bear God’s invitation to be reconciled to, and comforted by, Him. This would include the teachings of the people as they are rightly understood by the people. Using the murder analogy above, we would not teach only or even primarily that murder is wrong, but that grace, forgiveness, humility, and compassion are key aspects of living as God would have us live. Therefore, a simple teaching that murder is wrong would be insufficient because that in itself does not result in transformed people who abide in Christ. It results rather, in people who simply refrain from murder.

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[Comment~~~~Rather than arguing over how to select, qualify, and remove organizational functionaries, we are to be looking to acknowledge some of our members as elders of the people of God.~~~~

Is that not what Paul was concerned about in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-11?]

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Paul’s concerns were more about providing Godly leadership and direction to the congregations he had established. His concern is a proper (not legally, but Christianly) functioning community rather than specific rules for functionaries. The question becomes “what kinds of people” are appropriate to lead the People of God. It is instructive to note that the two lists of elder qualifications that we normally use are different, and likely neither was available to the other community when they were first delivered and read. And so we see Paul describing kinds of people rather than seeking to establish absolute rules for every congregation in every place. What we want are mature Christians that both understand the faith and have given themselves over to it. While the lists we have can be useful, they are not dogma in and of themselves. They can’t be because they are not mirrors of each other.

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[Comment~~~~As a result, we search for methods of selecting elders, making sure that we consider the qualifications we find in Scripture as though they are legal requirements,~~~~

Is not the new testament/covenant the law of Christ? If it is not a law, how it even possible to sin?]

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The Law of Christ is love and submission to the will of God, not every detail that we might find between Acts and Revelation. Sin is possible without Law as is clear with Adam and Eve. They did not have a Law and yet were cast from the Garden. Paul’s discussion of Law and sin is not intended to argue that you cannot sin without Law, but rather that the Law is insufficient to save and in fact can only define sin for us. He goes on to say, as many psychologists will tell us, that when we’re told not to do something, that seems to be the very thing we want to do. And so to what Law are we to submit? The Law of love and submission to God, just as we were made to live. A written Law will always be inadequate because perfect Law keeping as an external requirement is not, and never has been the goal. The goal is transformation of the people into those who would live as God would have them live. They so live not because God makes them, but because eventually they come to own the vision of God as their own, and they can do nothing else but live that vision. In that case Law becomes superfluous and can only entrap those to whom it is given.

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[Comment~~~You spoken of the aspect of this office we call elder from the tribal perspective, and I believe you have the right of it for that one aspect, but there are more aspects to that office than that of elder (prebuteros). There is also that of pastor/shepherd (poimen) that you touched on and that of bishop/overseer (episkopos) that you did not.

It is true that these men must protect and feed the flock they are shepherding (Acts 20:17-28). It is true that they provide wisdom from experience and knowledge gained from a life of study of God's Word and therefore must not be a novice(1 Tim. 3:6) and must be apt to teach (1 Tim. 3:2).


But is it not also true that they are rulers of the congregation (1 Tim. 3:4-5; 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17)? What is the aspect of bishop/overseer about if not authority? Is it not just about guiding by example, but enforcing the law of Christ so that God's people are not corrupted by outside influences, but the flawed teachings of men?]

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Elders do have authority because they have responsibilities. Those responsibilities include maturing Christians and protecting the church from corruption of the Faith. As a result, elders hire and fire staff, they determine spiritual growth needs of the congregation, they determine what kinds of things cannot be taught in their congregations, and they direct the use of the congregation’s resources to accomplish those things. But, elders resort to “pulling rank” only when necessary. Just as both Jesus and Paul could pull rank if they needed to, they both appealed to people to live as they should because they wanted to live that way; because they were made to live that way. Elders need to know people in general and their people in particular. They need to know how to foster growth and development in others without having to push and pull, and without insisting on “doing church” according to their personal preferences. Therefore, this “rule” becomes a less apparent prerogative, something that should be transparent and seen largely in the selection of staff and teachers, and the kinds of material given to the congregation to study (as far as our corporate meetings go). Outside of our corporate meetings, this function is seen in mentoring, visiting, correcting, and perhaps cajoling members to live as God made them to live.

The purpose of the original post was not to describe every aspect of eldering, but rather to argue that elders are much more important in the lives of their congregations and the church at large than simply pastoral counselors. Elders are given the charge of protecting and furthering the faith to the point that they embody that faith. Elders are not advisory boards for congregational staff but they are the directors of the staff; they give the staff the vision, and shape the staff to further the faith needs of the congregation.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Camp

This September, my wife and I will lead our congregation's fall camp session. The theme as I have received it is "The Church," which does not seem overly exciting upon first hearing. But we will not discuss church as a flat subject; as something about which we already know all there is to know. Oh no; there will be plenty of twists and turns.

We will have four sessions, the last of which will be the camp's Sunday sermon. The topics will be these:

What is the Church? In this session we are going to gently pull back our standard answer and look beneath it to see that the church is simply the latest incarnation of the People of God. While God's plan was a mystery to Man, and the church is a central aspect of that mystery, the church itself remains as a link in the chain that God has used to bless creation from the beginning. We are not unique in the sense that our mission, our calling is the same as has been that of the People of God from the beginning.

Who is the Church? Here we are going to expand our understanding of who is in the church, or more appropriately, who might be said to be a follower of God even if they are not "officially" members of a church. We will spend some time in the first three chapters of John to get a better handle on what constitutes a God-follower. Maybe there are many more people in "the church" than we sometimes think there may be. If so, how does that affect my relationship to them?

Why the Church? What is the point of having a church anyway? In this session we will see that the purpose of the church is not significantly different than what has been the purpose of God's people through history. We are not a church for our own good, but rather we are the People of God for the purpose of extending God's reign in the world today, and for blessing the world as God would have it blessed through us. In this session we will also explore the idea that a blessing, once given, cannot be taken back. This session will explore how we bless others and will be conducted in separate men's and women's breakout groups.

Where Do I Fit In? Congregations hire Involvement Ministers so that their members can be assimilated and set to work in the church's ministries. We often hear of Christians figuring out what their gifts are and being placed in those spots within a congregation. We do this so often that many times new Christians, or even those who are simply new to a congregation ask "What can I do; where do I fit?" as though they are disoriented unless someone gives them a job to do. This seems to ask the wrong question. The point is not that need to fit into the kingdom; we are the kingdom. We need not fit, but rather simply be who we are called to be. See someone that needs a cup of water? Give it to them. Eventually, you will find yourself "fitting" just fine.

So those are the four sessions. The intent for this weekend is to do our part in tearing down the separation between being a God-follower and being a church member or a Christian in some technical sense. We will broaden our view of who we are, of who the church is, and of what our calling actually is in this place called Earth.

It should be fun; I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Jesus and the Big Picture

OK. This may well get me in big trouble, but let me throw it out there anyway. The question before those of us assembled on the mesa is, what is the point of the Christian faith?

This question comes to us because it seems that if we can grasp the big picture, if we can understand that what God wants is people that live the way He made them to live, how does that inform the purpose of Jesus’ coming?

A simple viewing of the Eternal Word Television Network, or a visit to an Episcopal church, or visiting a low-church protestant service reveals the centrality of Jesus in the assembly. Now this essay is not going to suggest we do away with or ignore Jesus, but it will question whether, in our attempt to worship Him well, we have forgotten what the big picture really is.

It seems to me that Jesus did not change the big picture. Rather, He came to illustrate it and be its example to those who can recognize God when they see Him. In other words, while Jesus’ coming was known and planned from the beginning, His coming is essentially a fix for humans; it is not the point of humans. While the coming, the death, the resurrection, the ascension of Jesus are certainly glorious revelations of God’s grace, they have a point outside of themselves.

The big picture it seems to me is that God wants us to be the people He made us to be – people who are made in His image; who are most at home when we live as though we have the character of God Himself. If we read Scripture closely enough, that is what it reveals. Why are people condemned? For not being compassionate. Why are people granted access to the King? Because they give glasses of water.

How is Jesus the way to God, and why are we told that only those who believe in Him can gain entrance? Perhaps the answer is not quite as objective and clear as we sometimes want to believe. In John the context of the first three chapters provides an understanding of “belief” as something other than – something more than – objective acceptance. Those who believe are those who love the Light; those who see God and are drawn to Him when He appears; those who surrender themselves to the transforming Light that offers to shape them into their intended form. It is in this context that we read “…whoever believes on Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

This is an important distinction since our salvation is not dependent on passing a test, but on living God. It is not on being baptized, but in surrendering to God. It is not on Godly sorrow, but on turning our lives over to God. Could it be that it is in this sense that those who reject Christ will be lost? If we run away from Jesus rather than toward Him, we are then subject to the wrath of God. Could it be that this is the meaning of Jesus being the entrance to God? The way to God ceases to be a Jewish carpenter but the carpenter becomes the example of who we are called to be. If we conform ourselves to Jesus not because He’s Jesus but because that’s who we are meant to be, then and only then do we gain access to God. Is that possible?

OK, I know that may sound blasphemous to many, but does it not make sense that the big picture is our conforming to God, not the fix per se? Does not that fit more with what the broader scope of Scripture is telling us? The broad sweep of Scripture presents a God that made Man to be His image, to live with His character and world view. Because Man couldn’t consistently live in the character of God, God planned a fix, and provided that fix in God’s timing.

But it was a fix – not the intent. It was a gracious fix, known apparently from the beginning; a wonderful act of forgiveness and love, but a corrective nonetheless. The intent was that Man would live out of the character in which he was made, and the fix is a remarkably effective one. God comes to the world and lives a life that exhibits the life that Man was made to live. In doing so, God provides not just the example but forgiveness for our failures. Essentially, the message is “live like this, and because Jesus did, you can gain forgiveness if you wake up and seek to live in the same way.”

As I have mentioned before, N.T. Wright suggests an alternative translation for Romans 3.22. He says (as do Dunn and Sanders) that this verse, normally translated to indicate it is our faith in Jesus that saves us, can be translated to mean “…the faith that was in Jesus” is what saves us. In other words, we are saved not by any faith that we may have, but we gain entrance to God by the steadfast faithfulness of Jesus to God’s will.

If this is true, then Mankind gains entrance to God simply because Jesus, as the second Adam, restores Man in relationship to God. It remains that each person recognize the God character in Jesus and move toward it. In so doing, in imitating Jesus, we gain entrance to God.

How does this affect our faith? It is important, first, to recognize that we worship Jesus as God and we do so appropriately. It provides though a broader understanding of who we are, of what our calling is. Our understanding of that calling changes from being Christians as opposed to Muslims or Jews, and moves toward living as God wants us to live. Jesus becomes not an entrance at the end of a maze, but the example that leads us to God. Our faith lives change from doing church correctly or even being The Church in the world, to simply living as God has wanted us to live forever. Are we The Church? Yes, but simply as the logical result of living as God would have us live. Do we follow Jesus? Yes, but not simply because he is Messiah; He is the example who demonstrates for us how we are to live.

It is that living, that becoming the very character of God that saves us. Because we can still do that only imperfectly, the faithfulness that was in Jesus provides for all of Mankind justification that allows us entrance to God.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Pastor and the Church

As the self-declared spokesman for all of Christendom (at least for the next few minutes), I find the text of Pastor Hagee’s apology to Roman Catholics one of the most equivocal, off-point, and self-preserving that I have read recently. On the other hand, unfortunately, it is also pretty much standard.

According to the AP, a portion of the two-page apology reads like this:

"Out of a desire to advance a greater unity among Catholics and evangelicals in promoting the common good, I want to express my deep regret for any comments that Catholics have found hurtful."

Now I know that there may be considerably more self-deprecating narrative in the remaining text. Be that as it may, at least in this place it is apparent that Pastor Hagee isn’t sorry that he said anything, only that someone may have taken offense at what he has said.

That my friends, simply doesn’t wash. It is not Christian to make millions of dollars calling a group of people "The Great Whore” or “The Apostate Church” at the top of your lungs, and then only apologize that they may be too sensitive to get over it.

No, an appropriate apology would have read something like:

“I apologize for the ungracious and un-Christian things I have called the Roman Catholic Church, and I ask your forgiveness for decades of advancing myself and my organization at your expense. Today, I repent of my belligerent attitude, my sharp tongue, and my cynical view of a church that does great things for the work of God around the world. I intend from this day forward to ensure that my teaching and my preaching make distinct separations between the state of the Christian church in general in the early centuries – and whatever ills they may have had, and the modern manifestations of that church and the good that it does. I recognize that all Christian faith communities arise from a common history and we must therefore all accept as our own histories that which is our common heritage of the first few centuries. I am truly sorry for not living up to the example set by our Lord.”

But maybe that’s too far for our good pastor to go.

You may now all have your corners of Christendom back.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Words, Sticks, and Stones

“”Words can hurt…but only if you let them. They called you bad names. Were you changed into the things they called you?”

“No,” I replied.

“You cannot forget what they said any more than you cannot feel the wind when it blows. But if you learn to let the wind blow through you, you will take away its power to blow you down. If you let the words pass through you, without letting them catch on your anger or pride, you will not feel them.””

--Joseph M. Marshall III, 2001, The Lakota Way

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

--A common schoolyard retort

The truth is though, that words can hurt very deeply – and more than one child has experienced just how painful angry and barbed comments can be. Not only do they hurt in the moment when they pierce our hearts and seemingly sear into our psyches, but their pain can live for hours or weeks in the lives of school kids. If we hear enough of them, or hear them from the right people, they can impact our lives forever by providing a form and shape to which we conform our own identities and our expectations of relationships.

How many people live their lives as though they have received their identities, their place in significant relationships from the expectations or valuations of others? We often refer to these ideas of self and others as baggage, or life stories, or scripts that provide ready-made views into which we place others’ and our own behaviors and words. Many times we think we know the intent of someone else’s behaviors, their thoughts behind their interactions with us. Shaped by the words and behaviors of other people, and seemingly reconfirmed by our experiences that seem to reinforce those judgments, our interpretations and meanings assigned to other’s behaviors cause us considerable anxiety and upset for the rest of our lives.

The quote above from Marshall’s book provides valuable insight into how best to view those words thrown at us. While children may lack the natural responsive ability to distinguish themselves from what others call them, we can be trained by those more wise than ourselves or through our own experiences and readings that we need not let others’ views of us shape and define our beings. Words do hurt – excruciatingly so at times, but we need not let them shape the way we see ourselves or even how we see those who sling them at us.

Notice that we are not to let the things people say and do to us get hooked on our anger and pride. This is perhaps the key element in the above quote. Only when we perceive a threat, perceive that someone is “out to get us,” do we let the circumstances raise our anger or hurt our pride. Anger is a natural, although often undisciplined response to hurt. Anger and pride are powerful aspects of human beings and the more we let them influence our reactions to others, the stronger they become as elements of our behaviors and attitudes. It is often in these moments that our self-stories and stories of others get formed and anchored in our beings. Can we learn to simply let the insults and conniving pass without getting stuck in our beings? Can we let other people make mistakes, call us names, and take advantage of us without having to own in ourselves their behavior? Can we refuse to let them and their immature prejudices define who we are and how we live?

In refusing to let the wind knock us down, we can maintain healthy beliefs about ourselves and even others. Do we want to live lives dictated by others, or would we rather live lives that match our values, our desires; lives that allow us to be valuable, competent, lovable, and loving people? We cannot control others’ responses to us any more than we can control the wind. We can however simply let the wind blow – even if it is at times blustery, bone-chilling, or gale-force. The wind will buffet us; it might even knock us over once in a while. We need not though, let it keep us down.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Knowing…Doing…Being

In class this morning we were studying Matthew 18. There are at least four pericopes in this chapter which seem to form a coherent whole. These four cast in practical terms the answer to an age-long problem: how to get people to let go of themselves? From arguments over who is the greatest, to parables about searching for lost sheep, to indebted servants beating on their debtors, we are led along a revelation of the sort of measure God uses when dealing with us – what sorts of expectations he might have of us.

Do we want to be first? Why? What's the point? Do we not know that the shepherd himself leaves the flock and searches in desert places for one sheep who is missing.? Rather than simply writing that one off, the shepherd seeks earnestly for it. That sheep – and everyone like it – means a lot to that shepherd. Does he remain around those that are where they are supposed to be; those that have followed his voice recently? No, he leaves them there and searches for the one that is having trouble following his voice, which isn't where she is supposed to be. That one is precious. We are not called to comfortable right-hand seats but to work in spite of ourselves and our pride. Do we expect that God would treat us better if we sat at His right hand? Likely not if we treated others in ways that we would not want to be treated; not if the goodness of His grace did not register in our hearts.

Tucked among these three pericopes is the famous Matthew 18 church discipline text. Let's see, how do I gain satisfaction from my brother who has wronged me? Let's see….I have to first go to him, and then I take two witnesses, then I get to defend myself in front of the whole church against this offense I have suffered. If I don't get satisfaction from the church, I can have the church avoid him like the plague!

And so we please ourselves that we know Scripture…we know that this passage exists, and we can learn the steps in "church discipline." So far so good. We are a People of the Book. We can quote long passages with ease and on top of that, we can guide others to pertinent texts.

But then we must do something about it. Many times we Christians don't really want to use Scripture when it might slow us down; delay our getting our justification. Many times we simply accuse – in the halls, on the phone, in whispered conversation with the elders – those we have a complaint against. That Matthew 18 process simply is too cumbersome when we are feeling hurt.

But what's the point of knowing Scripture if we aren't going to use it? If we aren't going to do what it says? Most of us can't abide the embarrassment of being caught not "doing what the Bible says" at least where church and church relationships are concerned. And so we eventually either forget about the hurt, or if we simply can't, we invoke Matthew 18 to set the record straight. And so we go to our brother to accuse him of what he has done and that we demand satisfaction. Predictably, he ignores us, and we pick two of our friends (after telling about twenty) to confront him with us. Our antagonist, feeling somewhat ganged-up on, rebuffs all of us and so we feel compelled to tell the tale to the whole church (which we likely have already done in small group discussions or one-on-one) or the elders (I'm sure there's a reason for this non-Biblical substitution, but I don't know that it is consistent with Scripture). At this point, our nemesis is pretty much fed up with our stalking and creating a larger and larger spectacle that he simple stops coming to church. Finally, we can show to all that his character and faith have surely been suspect for some time since he can so easily backslide!

And we are proud that we have finally done what Scripture demands.

The problem of course, is that this section of Scripture isn't a legal text. While it seems to progress as one, its purpose is far from legal. In fact, its purpose isn't really to provide satisfaction to harmed parties. Oh, it may well do so if understood properly, but that isn't its primary import. Falling where it does, this text is informed by the texts that surround it and their points deal with humility – not justice. No, the purpose of Matthew 18 is not to guide church trials and recompense hurts. Its purpose for the steps is the reconciliation of relationships, and the realignment of brothers in their walking the faith. It may well be hard to see that purpose when we are feeling hurt and looking for justification in others' eyes. After all our pride takes umbrage at such turns of events and we apparently have every basis to demand those who hurt us come to judgment.

But God isn't overly concerned about our being recognized as being hurt or receiving recompense at others' expense. God would much rather we acknowledge, grasp, own, the great debt that we have been forgiven, learn humility from that, and extend the same mercy to others. We must approach Matthew 18 as the chapter presents itself to us. We are not at liberty to take this short passage, extract it from its supporting rationale, and then apply it to those with whom we have a beef so that we gain some advantage. Divine humility, living in our bodies, does not allow that. It is hard to argue for justification from a God who's Son died for us; a God who seeing our fault, does not drag us in front of tribunals but rather offers more of Himself for our transformation. We must come to own the Divine mercy, the steadfastness of love, the humble failure to demand justice for ourselves, if we hope to live as God would have us live – with Him, even in this life.

Knowing Scripture, and doing what it says can be laudable for Christians. But neither of those will suffice if we do not become the example we read of in Scripture. If we do not use the word to transform us into the likeness of the Word, we chase after a knowledge and accomplishments that are worth nothing. We are called, and we must pursue, to be Scripture not just know it, not just doing it. We must spend our lives being Scripture.


...At Least I Didn't Kill Them

He has achieved something most private citizens never achieve. In fact, he has elevated himself, almost single-handedly to heights rarely achieved even by heads of state or military officers. While he has prepared for this day for more than twenty years, he has rocketed to recognition in less than a week. This is normally the pattern, most world-take-notice achievements do not actually occur overnight. No, most world news worthy events only happen after intentional and decades-long preparation.

It is not a medal he has won, he has not achieved great political success, he has not almost single-handedly brought medical and emotional healing to millions. No, he is no hero, no beloved leader, he is certainly no Mother Theresa. The notoriety he has achieved ranks not with saints, but with devils. He has made himself equal to Pol Pot, Heinrich Himmler, or Stalin. This is the reason his name does not appear in this entry. If you have read or heard the news over the past week or so, you know his name. You do not need me to tell you.

When his daughter was about 17 years old he locked her in a hidden underground dungeon, and for the next twenty-four years he kept her and some of the children he fathered by her (three of them he and his wife adopted after his captive daughter “abandoned them on their doorstep,” and one died in the dungeon, apparently incinerated by him.

It is reasonable that the horrified and shocked public would call him names like “monster,” “tyrant,” and “evil.” It is this last epithet that has gotten his attention. He has protested that label, insisting that he isn’t evil. His defense against that heinous appellation? He can’t be evil he argues, because he didn’t kill them, after all. He didn’t kill them! For this act of restraint and mercy he argues that he isn’t evil. Never mind imprisoning his children in a dungeon for twenty-plus years. Never mind raping his own daughter to produce those children. Never mind providing such insufficient care that one child died, its body incinerated and a nineteen year old who remains in a hospital-induced coma because of the poorness of her health in the dungeon.

Yes, at least he didn’t kill them.

What else could he muster as evidence to prove his non-evilness? He fed them, didn’t he? Provided electricity, running water, beds on which to sleep, and clothing. It is interesting that someone had attempted to make the dungeon look a bit like a home. Tiles around wet areas, a bit of color here and there, some funny looking stickers or designs in a couple places. Certainly, in addition to not killing them, there are these bits of evidence to his humaneness. I suppose that if his family were poor and allowed to run around in the open air as free persons, these bits would indeed indicate some paternal care for his offspring. His paternity though hadn’t seen sunlight or smelled fresh air in a decade or more. These bits of care – almost insulting in their meagerness – do not assuage his guilt, but make it more stark.

But there’s the rub. If we aren’t careful, we will fail to see that we practice the same sort of self-deceit that he does. Oh, most of us don’t hold people captive for years, fathering our own children from our own children. But most of us use relative comparisons to justify or dismiss the things we do. “Oh, it’s just a couple bucks,” or perhaps even “They deserved it. If they hadn’t pushed me, I wouldn’t have punched them,” or my favorite “That’s just the way I am; you’ll just have to accept it.” We can use any number of justifications for taking advantage of people, for being rude, for ignoring someone in need, for doing things we ought not do. Our father-in-the-dungeon rationalizes almost exactly like we do. He looks for the good in himself just as we look for – and assume – the good in ourselves. We use his same line of argument.

Are we rude to the store clerk? Do we steal from the office? Do we take payment for work we didn’t do? Do we parade at church and then wallow in the gutter at home? Do we dishonor our spouses and mistreat our children? Do we deny others the things that might please them so that we can spend our time on ourselves?

We do all those things and more. And then we rationalize why we aren’t quite so bad as our brother in Austria – or maybe even the neighbor across the street.

After all, at least we didn’t kill them.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Principle of Priority

In "The War of Art," Steven Pressfield offers the "Principle of Priority" through the lens of which he encourages us to keep our eyes on what really needs our attention. The principle reads "a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and b) you must do what's important first."

At first this sounds either counterintuitive, or too simple. Counterintuitive in the sense that most of us spend much of our lives reacting to the urgent needs of our surroundings. The phone rings and we immediately answer it despite the violence that does to the conversation we may be having with someone else at the moment. Do we not understand that it is important to honor our correspondents than to respond immediately to a ringing interruption? Most parents have experienced the knee jerk reaction to control a child in a public place rather than taking the time to find out what the child's issue really may be. In a slightly more broad application, have we wanted church leaders to tell others what appropriate dress for Sunday morning is despite the expression of spiritual growth and sharing the man in the T-shirt provides us?

Too simple in that the principle seems to ignore, or at least reduce the importance of the urgent things that assail us almost minute by minute.

The important, from a spiritual view are normally those things that are intangible; those things that we oft find to define or explain, but which we know nonetheless. 

Living by the Principle of Priority does not justify not responding to urgent matters all together, but often it does mean that we practice the important while doing the urgent. Can we have compassion or empathy for the bully while pulling two children apart? Can we admit the hurt and fear in the pedophile while we remove the child from the situation? Can we discipline our children while keeping in mind that we are training them rather than punishing them?

Jesus' arguments with His accusers illustrate this concept well. While the leaders of the people felt it urgent to stop the disciples' eating of grain as they walked along - in violation of The Law, Jesus demonstrated the Principle of Priority when he reminded all of us that the Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath.

It shouldn't surprise us that we don't see this principle first in the life of Jesus. God has tried to tell us this all along. God has said, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," and He challenges His detractors to go learn what that saying means.

Whenever we feel pressured to do something, or to get others to do something or not do something; whenever we have a feeling of unease, or our anxiety rises, we do well to reflect and discern whether the demand on our lives is simply urgent, or really important.

The urgent often seems important, and sometimes it is. Its importance though, doesn't come from its demand on our attention and senses, but from a well understood priority of life. This understanding of Being is a large part of what Paul calls transformation, maturity, or Christ-likeness. We would do well to train our children and our adults in the proper use of the Principle of Priority.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Elders

Currently there seems to be some increase in the interest of elders. The discussion is often limited to "how are we going to make sure we don't get stuck with a reactionary," or "how best to protect the congregation by forcing elders to be reviewed every so often," the discussion reveals a considerable loss of understanding it seems, of the church and her elders.

This discussion simply reinforces my conviction that we really do not know what elders are all about. While shepherding is a nice, soft, and somewhat marginal term that is currently in vogue, it remains only one aspect of an elder’s “job.”

The discussion also reinforces my conviction that we have lost sight of what the church is actually called to be. While operating as an organization with rules for common assemblies may be the most visible aspect of church, it also remains but one aspect – and a very small one – of what church is.

The church is not primarily a Sunday morning operation. Rather, it is actually supposed to be a people, much like the Jewish people, or the Lakota Indians are a people. A people are much more than their ritual dances or healing sweats. Rather, a people have their own identity as a people that stretches across millennia, and see themselves as on a journey of some sort. Any given incarnation of the people are not the totality of the people, but they carry the values, the culture, and hopes, the identity of the people with them.

The church is expected to be a people in exactly this sense. We are the people of God who are charged with continuing and preserving the values, culture, hopes, and the identity of God’s people in our time. As a people we have a mission, and we have our own part of the history of God’s people to live and craft.

It is in this concept of people that the ideas surrounding elders are to be understood. The term elder (or its original language conceptual equivalents) has a long history in human society. It carries with it that history even into the church. Rather than arguing over how to select, qualify, and remove organizational functionaries, we are to be looking to acknowledge some of our members as elders of the people of God. These elders serve the same functions as the elders of other peoples. In essence they carry and preserve the identity and other aspects of the people in their beings. Elders are selected not because they are shepherds only, but because they embody the values, culture, hopes, and identity of the people of God.

In being elders, those so acknowledged are given a life-long obligation of carrying, protecting, and enlarging the people of God. This responsibility is not something that can be delegated, removed, or even given up. It is precisely because elders have been so acknowledged that they can sit at the city gates and judge between people, they can challenge people who argue for dangerous ideas and concepts, they can encourage and shape other members to take their places, and correct still others who do not live in the culture of the people.

Outside the church, we seem to have no problem understanding this concept of elders. It seems natural when discussing life with or among indigenous peoples, but we lose sight of the concept when we import the label to our church world. It is my opinion that we lose a great deal of the texture, the value, and the history of the people of God when we do so. We begin to look at elders as archaic novelties and modify our view of them and their “jobs” to fit our misunderstanding of church. As a result, we search for methods of selecting elders, making sure that we consider the qualifications we find in Scripture as though they are legal requirements, and we look for ways to protect ourselves from elders through mandatory rotations and reaffirmations. In many cases we act as though professional staff are more central to the life of the people than the people’s elders, relegating elders to essentially being pastoral counselors.

We have placed ourselves in a rather ludicrous position as is clearly seen if we reflect on how elders have been and are selected among other peoples. Have we ever heard of an Apache chief having to rotate out of being a chief, have we ever heard of a medicine man standing for reaffirmation, have we ever wondered why religious teachers of various stripes never step down from being recognized as a teacher – short of a moral failure?

And yet we have no problem with figuring out how to do just those things with the elders of the people of God. It seems that our teaching and our community lives have become so out of touch with what they are to be that we see our communities as organizations and our leaders as threats to the community.

Rather than trying to apply short-sighted fixes to a broken system, why not teach and practice a deeper understanding of what a people is, of who our acknowledged leaders are to be, and what our collective mission is in the stream of history. If we were to do that, we might just have elders who take the responsibility more seriously, and a people that don’t spend their time protecting themselves from their elders.

Recapturing the concept of elders could help us move considerably closer to the ideal of both the community of faith, and her elders.

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