Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Letter Of Encouragement To My Congregation In Light Of Advent

The first Sunday in December marks the beginning of Advent, the season when we look forward to Jesus’s coming at Christmas. Growing up in the Christian tribe I did, all the Christian holidays seemed rather disconnected to me. We enjoyed Christmas, but when Christmas was over…well, it was over. A few months went by and then we had Easter, and even though I thought it was a wonderful little holiday (how could any holiday full of chocolate be anything but wonderful), it had nothing to do with Christmas as far as I knew. Now I find myself in a Christian tribe that respects and follows the Christian calendar. This has influenced me in a number of ways. For one, it has created in me a new, growing awareness of how the story of Jesus shapes how I view the passing of time. Within that context, it has also shown me how our Christian holidays are not disconnected blips on a twelve month calendar, but rather highlights in an ongoing, unfolding story. To put it differently, we cannot have Christmas without Easter because they are bookends to the same story.

During Advent we build excitement for the birth of our Savior, much like expecting parents during the third trimester. We know the day of arrival is coming. It is getting close. We can feel it in the air. After Advent comes Christmas, the day when we realize we can finally look our Savior in the face and see him smile. But the story does not end there, we know Lent is coming. Lent, the time when we are reminded that, as things stand now, from dust we came and to dust we will return. The joy of Christmas mingles with fear. The beautiful, snowy landscapes on the Christmas postcards are marred by the shadow of an impending cross. And then, with Good Friday, the cross stands tall. Death appears to be victorious. The laughter of Christmas turns into tears, and we all wonder, “What now?” But praise be to God for Easter! What began as a story like any other, a baby born that would one day die, ends by rewriting the rules of the book. Death has been swallowed in life. That is the story our Christian holidays tell. That is the story we willingly step into as we begin celebrating the season of Advent, and that should mean a great deal to our congregation.

We were born over 120 years ago and have gone through many rites of passage since then. We have changed locations and church buildings twice because of growth. We have fallen in love with ministers. We have seen children born, children grow, and children leave to begin new families of their own. We have experienced seasons of Advent and Christmas in our congregation, but over the last few decades it seems those joys have become tinged with other emotions, emotions like fear, sorrow, and discontent. What was once a picturesque church with a tall, white steeple atop a glowingly white roof, small green saplings lined out front, has become an aged building. We have entered into Lent. The paint on the steeple is flaking. The roofing shingles have faded to brown, and the trees are overgrown. And understandably, that scares us. It scares us because we know what Lent means. Lent means the cross is coming, an end to that with which we were familiar and a transition into a frightening unknown. As on Good Friday we are left asking questions like, “What happens now?”

But much like the story that unfolds from Advent to Easter, our story will not end at Good Friday. It will continue. It will continue on to Easter because we are the people who have made Jesus’s story our own by dying to ourselves in baptism. We are Christians, a people whose story ends with life swallowing death. We will get through Lent. We will mourn on Good Friday, but the final word of our story is a word of resurrection.

One cautionary word, however. The body Jesus had after resurrection was not the same body as before resurrection. In the years to come as God works on and in and among our church, we will be changed. Experiencing Easter does not mean going back to the way things were. Easter means something better, mind-blowingly, vocabulary-exhaustingly, imagination-surpassingly, grammar-breakingly better. God has a better imagination than we do. He is the Creator God, so there is nothing to fear in what God might do with us next. It is only very good when God creates.

The story of the Christian holidays is the story of Jesus. The story of those of us who follow Jesus is the story of Jesus, at least on good days. The story of our congregation is the story of Jesus: birth, death, and resurrection. It is a good story in which to find ourselves. Presently we find ourselves in the middle, in the letting go and maybe grieving that act of letting go. We are experiencing the unsettled nerves of transition, but just as Advent casts our vision toward Christmas, and Christmas toward Easter, let us set our eyes on resurrection. Let us be a people of vision, and fear not.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever, amen.” –Ephesians 3:20-21

Monday, November 12, 2012

Congregational Transformation: A Minister's Perspective

I came across this video today, and I'm glad I did.  It's an interview with Amy Butler, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC.  I appreciated her honestly, transparency, and self-depricating humor as she talked about her last ten years with Calvary Baptist Church.  It's a long interview (an hour), but I highly recommend watching it all.

The congregation I serve is presently going through a transformation of its own. I'd love to hear from other ministers who have gone through, or are presently going through, congregational transformations.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Church, Political Ads, and My Building Frustration

I try to steer clear of politics.  As a minister, I try to keep my mouth shut because I don't want the divisive nature of politics to come into my congregation.  It's probably no surprise then that I hate election years.  As I sit here typing, I can already imagine the flaming I'll take in comments either here or on Facebook.  But even if that happens, as a minister who serves the Church, I've seen and heard some things that I feel need a response.

With each passing year the political rhetoric attempting to tie Christianity with a specific political agenda has escalated.  This is nothing new.  It's been going on at least since the 1980's.  I've found that rhetoric suspect ever since I was old enough and aware enough to see beyond the smoke and mirrors of it all, but this year I've become especially frustrated.  I'm frustrated that the Church is having words put in her mouth.  I'm frustrated that Jesus is being replaced with nationalism to serve another agenda, and I'm frustrated that certain individuals are using fear mongering (in the name of Jesus) to get people to vote for specific political agendas.

Toward my first frustration, I'm sick and tired of having politicians tell me what the Church believes and then never actually hearing what the Church believes.  As a minister who (often failingly) is called to speak on behalf of the Church, let me remind everyone of what the Church believes.  This is the massage that the Church has proclaimed from the very beginning.
Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day.  After his resurrection, he first appeared to Peter, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than 500 people, then to his brother James, then to all the apostles, including Paul.  He is the first fruits of God's new creation, which means that the life Jesus has already experienced will later be experienced by everyone who belongs to Jesus when he returns.

Yes, I just plagiarised Paul from I Corinthians 15, but those are the words that come out of the Church's mouth.  I absolutely believe that the message Paul proclaims here, and the Church through him, makes demands on our behavior, morality, and how we understand ethics.  I do believe that this message is bound to come into dialogue with political agendas, but the words of the Church are Jesus, Jesus crucified, Jesus raised, and Jesus returning.  Any time a politician uses rhetoric to suggest that the Church says "X" about abortion or "Y" about marriage or "Z" about some other hot topic and never mentions Jesus crucified, raised, and returning...well, they aren't speaking on behalf of the Church or using the Church's language.  The individuals and communities that compose the Church are incredibly diverse.  Some are pro-life.  Some are pro-choice.  Some are pro-LBGT, some not.  Any time politicians use language that oversimplifies that diversity, they are not speaking on behalf of the Church; they are speaking in spite of her.

On to my second frustration...It not only frustrates me when politicians try to make the Church say things she doesn't.  It also frustrates me when they appeal to their constituents as a Christians but then replace Jesus with something else.  I'm specifically thinking of a phrase Gov. Romney used in his closing arguments after the foreign policy debate.  (Please don't misread what I'm about to say.  I'm not suggesting you shouldn't vote for Gov. Romney if that is what you want to do.  I am also not saying that Gov. Romney is an evil man for using this phrase.)  In closing he said, "This nation is the hope of the world."  If he wants to believe that personally, fine and dandy with me.  However, this rhetoric should deeply unsettle Christians because that is not at all what we believe.  America has good to offer, without a doubt, but it succumbs to greed, injustice, and the fear of death just like any other nation.  America will never break the cycle of fallen-ness and set the world free, not just because it can't but because Jesus has already broken the cycle on the cross.  Jesus is the hope of the world, period.

And finally, my last frustration.  This ad represents a trend that infuriates me.

Stop using hell to scare people into voting for a specific political agenda!  Seriously...this ad is just nuts.  "Your vote...will be recorded in eternity."  Barf...forgive the juvenile sarcasm, but come on.  There's something else that might be recorded in eternity, scaring people with eternal fire if they don't vote the way you want them to.  As a Christian, the fact that this ad was made by another Christian shames me.  Christians have a hard enough time being taken seriously in this world without ridiculous ads like this.  This ad might be endorsed by Mike Huckabee, but not by me, or my congregation, or the Church.  God didn't promise eternal life through a pro-life, same sex marriage, anti-Obama administration insurance law agenda.  God promises eternal life through the Son.  Someday I hope to look back on ads like this and laugh.  For now, I'll just try to ignore it and do damage control in my community.

Luckily the election is right around the corner, and this will all settle down again after time.  I look forward the upcoming three-year hiatus from the insanity.  In the mean time, speaking to the Church and the Christians who make it the beautiful (if faulty) thing she is, remember who we are.  Remember what we believe and remember our message.  The powers that think themselves important in this world will all come to an end.  Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords is eternal.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thank You "Chainsaw" Charlie

I read today that one of my professors from ACU passed away this morning after a long battle with cancer.  I have to admit, when I think of Dr. Charles Siburt, I'm left with mixed feelings.  He could irritate the snot out of me, yet without him my life would be very different.

After transferring to ACU from Pepperdine, I had a nervous break down.  I won't go into all the details about that; let me just say that my pretty, little 4.0 from Pepperdine fell apart.  My past professors considered me a bright, promising student, but my new professors saw me as mediocre.  When you're planning on earning a Ph.D. of your own and your whole life is academics, that's an identity rattling transition.

There was a good reason Dr. Siburt was called "Chainsaw Charlie."  He had a gift for cutting through the crap and being brutally honest.  There were a few times I was on the receiving end of that chainsaw.  I got the impression he was frustrated because I wasn't focused enough.  I know I was frustrated because after my nervous breakdown, I couldn't focus the way I used to.  Years down the road and looking back, I see that I had some definite pride issues.  I wanted to be respected like the "scholar" I once had been while realistically not performing as the "scholar" I thought myself to be.  Dr. Siburt wouldn't let me play pretend, and although now I see he couldn't do that and still be a good mentor, at the time it made me angry.

That having been said, when I finished my time at ACU I no longer had the desire to go on for a Ph.D.  Through mostly happenstance, I found myself in part time ministry and enjoying it.  After a brief stint teaching religion at a private K-12 school north of Dallas, Kalyn and I moved to Kentucky so I could begin full time ministry.  It wasn't long (think three months) before we knew there were some major disconnects between ourselves and our congregation.  After about a year, we began sending out feelers for other congregations.  It never led anywhere.  Trying to use my contacts, I got a hold of Dr. Siburt to ask if he had any leads.  He had some, but they never led anywhere either.  Months went by, and Kalyn and I started asking hard questions.  Again making a long story short, Kalyn and I eventually realized that many of our major disconnects weren't only with our local congregation, but with our denomination in general.  Not knowing what to do, I sent Dr. Siburt a long (and I mean GIGANTIC) email spelling out all of our concerns and basically saying that I didn't see how I would have a future in the Church of Christ.

For those of you that don't know, ACU is a Church of Christ affiliated university.  Dr. Siburt was a prominent professor and in charge of church relations.  He could have protected himself and his position by telling me it would be fine, that I just had to keep looking in Churches of Christ.  Instead, the first line of his return email was basically, "With the concerns you've voiced, you probably won't be able to find work in a Church of Christ."  Then he proceeded to give me advice on how to move forward, which I took, and have never regretted.

My family and I now find ourselves in a wonderful church and a wonderful denomination.  We are happy; we are supported, and I no longer have to constantly censure what I truly believe about things.  I am in a denomination where I can honestly and genuinely serve.  That couldn't have happened without Dr. Siburt.  That couldn't have happened without him pushing me when I didn't appreciate it.  That couldn't have happened without him supporting me and guiding me when I didn't know what to do.  That couldn't have happened without his willingness to be a reference for me when I was applying for recognition of ordination with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  No matter how much I was frustrated with him, or he with me, he was always there for me, chainsaw in hand, when I popped out of the blue needing help.  As much as his blunt honesty could hurt, I don't know who else to go to now that it's gone.

Dr. Siburt wasn't a loud presence in my life.  He wasn't flashy, or necessarily even prominent, but he was present, and that has made all the difference.  I will always be grateful for that, and I will miss him.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

NT Wright And The Historical Resurrection of Jesus

I came across a presentation by NT Wright this morning.  It's from a few years ago, but still well worth watching.  I can't express how deeply Dr. Wright has influenced me as a theologian and as a minister.  This presentation is on the argument and evidence for a historical resurrection of Jesus.  Dr. Wright doesn't actully start talking himself until about eight minutes into the video.  Also, after he concludes his presentation, there is a short question and answer session that is also worth watching.

A warning: this video is very long, so don't expect to listen to it all in one sitting.  That having been said, enjoy.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Embrace The Kingdom Of God As You Would A Little Child

Okay, my second post for today.  This one comes from preparing for my teen class Sunday morning.  We're working our way through Mark, and this morning I read Mark 10:13-16.

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

I've always understood this little parable to mean that if we want to enter into the Kingdom of God, we must be like little children.  To put it differently, this parable is about me making sure I get into heaven.  "Don't be an old fuddy-duddy like Jesus' disciples.  Be loving and innocent like children," was usually how the sermons went as I was growing up.  And honestly, the few times I've gone over this passage in a class environment, that's along the lines of how I've taught it.  I've never paid much attention to how Jesus treats the children at the end of this passage, because, well...that wasn't the point.

I don't know why, maybe it is because I have a little boy of my own now with a little girl on the way, but that is not what I got out of this parable today.  What struck me today was precisely how Jesus treated the children at the end of the story.

"Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

If we let this story end where it actually ends (with Jesus receiving children), then the point of this story is not how we can be received by the Kingdom of God, but how we will receive the Kingdom of God, and that changes everything about how we understand the point of this parable.

On our piano at home sits a picture from last Thanksgiving.  I had a great Thanksgiving this past year.  Some of my best friends and their families came up from Texas to spend the holiday with us, so, of course, we had to take a picture.  Kalyn and I are to the left.  Josh, Allie, and their daughter Emily are in the middle, and to the right are Jeff and Rebekah.  Jeff and Rebekah are holding our son, Shepherd.  They all hit it off from day one.  He loved them, and how did they respond?  Well, who Shepherd chose to take the picture with says it all.  They picked him up, were affectionate with him, and, in general, were a complete blessing to him all week long (not to mention a total blessing to me and Kalyn for watching Shepherd so much).  They did with Shepherd exactly what Jesus did with the children around him, and that type of embrace and care is the metaphor Jesus uses for how we should embrace the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God is a gift, much like children.  As a gift, we need to take it up in our arms, show it affection, and bless it.  Much like the surprise of finding out you're pregnant, it was an unexpected surprise when Jesus came and said, "The time is at hand.  The Kingdom is near!"  And with his resurrection from the tomb, God's labor bore fruit.  The Kingdom of God had been established here on earth, young, infantile, and with a great deal of growth still to come, but here none-the-less.  It is our responsibility as the followers of Christ, as the Church, to nurture it until God brings it to completion, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

In the meantime, let's receive the Kingdom of God as we would a little child, with tenderness, love, and excitement.  And also in the meantime, let's be thankful to the people around us who show us what Jesus was talking about.  Thank you Kalyn, Josh, Allie, Jeff, and Rebekah for helping me see what it means to take the Kingdom of God into my arms.

In The Kingdom Of God We Say We're Sorry

So, I have two thoughts I want to get written down today so I don't forget them tomorrow.  At first I was going to put them in the same blog post, but they're so unrelated I'll put them in separate posts.  The first thought comes out of my sermon prep for this Sunday.

I'm presently journeying through the Sermon on the Mount with my sermons.  This Sunday we're discussing Matthew 5:21-26.

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

While getting ready for Sunday, I was talking to our music minister on the phone.  She had also been reflecting on this passage.  She pointed out something that, once she pointed it out, seemed glaringly obvious, but I'd never caught it before.  By connecting the man who leaves the altar with the man who is on his way to jail, she astutely noticed that this is not a teaching about us forgiving our enemies.  It is a teaching about asking our enemies to forgive us.

In my mind, I have always partnered this teaching with Jesus' other teachings about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies.  I always had the middle of the Lord's Prayer playing in the back of my mind, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."  However, if we really listen to what Jesus is saying, as our music minister did, we are caught short by the absence of any of that language.  This teaching isn't about learning to forgive.  It's about finding the courage to be forgiven.  It's about humility and admitting wrong.

Christians aren't very good at this.  A survey done by the Barna Group has been making its way around the blogosphere here lately.  I personally haven't looked at the whole thing, but what I've seen isn't all that encouraging.  During the survey, people were asked how they would describe Christians.  The number one response among Americans ages 16-29 was...can you guess?  Anti-homosexual!  The next most common negative perceptions were judgmental, hypocritical, and too involved in politics.  (Here's my source.  You can order the book unChristian here.)  I don't mention that to say Christians are all horrible people.  I am one, so I hope that isn't the case.  However, it does go to prove that there are some "I'm sorries," that need to go around, and we're the ones who need to be saying them.

The Sermon on the Mounts is all about what life should look like in the Kingdom of God.  And here, toward the very beginning of the sermon, we find that living in the Kingdom means taking responsibility for our actions, and then going to pay the piper, so to speak.  Being a Christian means being the first to drop what we're doing, especially if it's worshiping God, and righting our wrongs with other people.  Then we can come back to worship God.  In the Kingdom of God, we say we're sorry.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Why I'm Not (Still) Church of Christ

Beware...this post turned into a short story.

I've gone back and forth quite a few times about whether I should write this blog post or not.  I've been watching some blogosphere dialogue take place on the blogs of some old friends of mine.  These friends also happen to be ministers in the Church of Christ.  I grew up Church of Christ, was educated in Church of Christ schools, and have to admit, still have a soft spot of affection for the denomination that raised me.  I certainly have a great deal of respect and admiration for all of the friends, mentors, and teachers I have had in Churches of Christ and Church of Christ schools.  That having been said, I left the denomination.  My hope is that this post will be a counter-point to some of my friend's posts.  If you would like to read some of the conversation going on, Adam Metz (a man I respect who I've known since I was a kid) has a good series going on here.

First, a very short introduction to who the Churches of Christ are.  They are not a cult, and it irritates me that they have ever been accused as being such.  They are the product of an American, Christian religious movement in the early 1800s called the Restoration Movement, started and sustained by men such as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Walter Scott.  At the time, American Christianity was strictly divided along denominational lines.  These men, sometimes together and sometimes as individuals, all worked to bring Christians together.  In essence, the Restoration Movement was a Christian unity movement.  To try to foster unity, the movement valued a focus on scripture (the one thing all Christians had in common was the Bible), the removal of denominational creeds and names (hence the generic name Church of Christ rather than Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist, or Presbyterian Church), congregational autonomy, and the desire to go back to the (perceived) simplicity of the first century Church (hence the "restore" in the Restoration).  As a side note, in the early days of the movement, names such as Christians, Disciples, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ were all used interchangeably.  It's not hard to see why things didn't pan out exactly how the founders had hoped.  All Christians have the Bible, but as the running joke goes, "Put five Christians in the same room with a Bible and you'll have a dozen interpretations."  And just because you don't have official creeds, that doesn't mean congregations don't have unofficial ones.  So, long story short, a movement started to create unity has since broken into three denominations.  The Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ split in 1906, and then in the 1960s, the Disciples of Christ split into the Christian Church on one side and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on the other.  All three of these denominations are Restoration Movement denominations, which means their theology is almost identical, but how that theology has been put into practice can be very different.

So, there's nearly 200 years of history summed up in a paragraph...moving on.

Growing up in Churches of Christ, I found myself at odds with much of what we did and said, but when you're not the one responsible for what is being done and said, it is easy to let a lot slide.  I earned a Bachelor of Religious Education (Biblical Studies) and a Master of Divinity from Church of Christ schools, and it was always my perception that my professors hoped they were teaching me and the other students so that we could go out and be catalysts for change in our congregations.  I say all that to say, everyone knew and acknowledged that there was a major divide between the fundamentalist slide many of our congregations were taking and what many of us who would one day become ministers actually believed.  To put it more bluntly, everyone knew there was something going horribly wrong in our denomination, but either no one knew what to do about it or no one had the courage to call a spade a spade.  I'm going to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and call it the first.  And so, I stayed in Churches of Christ, because...hey, God was going to use people like me to change things!

But then I found myself in ministry and what had been a distant unease, sometimes even a strong pain in the backside, became an acute, spiritual disconnect.

To use an analogy I heard from another friend of mine who has also left Churches of Christ, it was as if Churches of Christ were hanging their hats on pegs I wasn't interested in anymore.  Let me give an example.  I have a deep respect and regard for the authority, history, and place of scripture in the life of the Church.  I learned that in Churches of Christ, but I found that as a minister I wasn't being asked to uphold the authority of scripture.  My congregation wanted me to uphold their interpretation of scripture, under penalty of losing my job.  That attitude was symptomatic of my childhood congregation and almost every other congregation of which I had ever been a part.  (As a side note, if you've never been attacked as a heretic when you weren't willing to spout bad theology to keep a pay check, let me say...it's not fun.)  To be frank, as a minister I was no longer willing to uphold or perpetuate that attitude.  That's just one such "peg."  Other pegs were the Holy Spirit, religion and politics, sectarian versus ecumenical approaches to congregational life, the historical context of Biblical books, science and Christianity...it was a long list of issues.  As a minister in Churches of Christ, I was constantly finding myself backed into corners where I had to choose between personal integrity and providing for my family.

That may all sound ideological.  Let me give you another example.  At the last Church of Christ congregation I served in before leaving the Churches of Christ, the leadership (all male) wanted to increase teen involvement during our worship services.  We had a great group of teens that I still miss today, but only two of them were male, and neither of them were all that keen on being the only two teens involved.  Churches of Christ (at least the vast majority of Churches of Christ) believe that only men can be involved in the worship and leadership of a congregation.  However, I had three teenage girls (none had grown up in Churches of Christ) who approached me to ask if they might lead singing, lead prayers, or lead devotionals.  I had to tell them no.  My congregation's leadership would never have approved.  And worse, I didn't have a single good reason to tell them no.  That was one of those watershed moments when you realize you've got to change the path you're on.  My job as a minister is to help people find their spiritual gifts and then empower those people to use them.  Those three girls should never have been told no.  I felt like a failure and a sellout.

And then, a great thing happened.  My wife got pregnant.  We were happy.  We were excited.  We felt all the things soon-to-be first time parents feel.  We asked all the questions soon-to-be first time parents ask.  What will our child look like?  What will our child's personality be like?  Will we have a boy or a girl?  ...And then we found ourselves with another spiritual dilemma.  If we had a girl, did we want to raise our daughter in a denomination that treated her like a second class citizen?  We didn't have to think about that one very long.  The answer was no.

I could go on and on about the reasons I left the Churches of Christ, and although it might be therapeutic for me, there isn't much point in it.  Let me just say that it wasn't a knee-jerk response and a great deal of prayer, time, effort, and conversation went on behind my transition into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  From start to finish, it took multiple years.

So, why write this post at all?  Who cares why I stayed or left the denomination I grew up in?  I wrote this blog because some of the assumptions I see behind the "Why I'm Still Church of Christ" conversation concern me.  Here they are:

1)  Churches of Christ are the Restoration Movement Denomination, and as such, have something unique to offer American Christianity.

Well, I am fully willing to admit that Churches of Christ have something unique to offer Christianity.  Personally, I really miss the acapella music, but their uniqueness isn't found in their Restoration Movement history.  Disciples of Christ and Christian Churches have just as much of a claim to that heritage.  All Churches of Christ are Restoration Movement churches, but not all Restoration Movement churches are Churches of Christ.  Churches of Christ have tended to have a "we're the only ones" attitude, and I have seen that bleed over into the way they view their heritage.

2)  If you want to be a courageous Christian, don't ever leave the denomination you're born into...unless, or course, you want to join the Churches of Christ.

I will be one of the first to rant about how idiotic some of the reasons are that people leave congregations or denominations, and church shopping has reached epidemic proportions in this country.  However, there is a point at which the courageous thing to do is leave the home we know in order to follow after God.  I believe there is a story in Genesis about just such a thing.

3)  If I can get over the differences I have with my denomination, so can you.

All people, myself included, tend to think that if it is right for them it is right for everyone.  So when individuals begin feeling as if there are some major disconnections between themselves and their denomination, the temptation is to respond with, "Stop whining.  Cowboy up."  Obviously, based off the decisions that I have made, I don't think that's a good response.  I am happy for my brothers in Christ.  I am happy that they have reconciled themselves with their religious tribe, but just because they could doesn't mean other people should. 

4)  Staying builds character.

Sometimes that is absolutely the case, but sometimes staying destroys the person.  A few years back my alma mater, Abilene Christian University, hosted a dialogue as part of their lectureships.  Basically, ACU interviewed a number of female ministry students to find out what there experience was like as ministry students who would never be able to use their degrees (unless it was for children's ministry or the long hall to a PH.D. and teaching).  At some point in the interview, each and every one of the students broke down weeping.  God had called and gifted them to serve his Church, and then his church told them they couldn't.  Please explain how that builds character.

Believe it or not, I didn't intend to write this post to bash Churches of Christ.  I have many, many good memories from my thirty years in Churches of Christ.  Abilene Christian University is a fabulous school, whether you're Christian or not, Church of Christ or not.  I hope my kids go there.  They'll get a great education.  However, staying with a denomination just because it is what you are used to or because you're afraid of what it will mean if you leave is not faithfulness.  It is laziness and cowardice.

Jesus told a parable once.  An orchard owner had had it with a tree that was not producing fruit.  He instructed his grounds keeper to cut it down.  Instead, the grounds keeper asked for one more year, saying, "I [will] dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good but if not, you can cut it down."  There ends the parable.  Jesus never said what happened next.  Churches of Christ are in decline (in their defense, they're a long way from being alone).  I think that much of the discussion going on about "Why I'm still Church of Christ" is in some way the gardeners spreading manure in the hopes that fruit will come soon.  Maybe it will.  Who knows?  This blog post was more for the people who are being spiritually strangled in the Churches of Christ.  There is no shame in leaving a denomination that is asking you to take your spiritual gifts and let them atrophy in the name of faithfulness.  There is no shame in leaving a denomination that has fallen into the evangelical trap of believing Biblical womanhood is 1950s womanhood.  Doing so does not mean you're leaving behind your respect for scripture's authority.  Doing so does not mean you're weak or a coward.  Doing so does not mean you don't appreciate your religious heritage.

Take courage.  Stay faithful to Christ and the power of his resurrection.  Know you're not alone.  Walk into the unknown, and who knows, God may have been waiting for you there all along.  Oh, and by the way, I'm fully assuming that if you walk out of the Church of Christ, you'll keep walking until you find your way into another Christian community.  Christians are only Christians in the Church.

I just wanted to say that, and that's why I wrote this beast of a blog post.  If you've left the Church of Christ, I'd love to hear your experience.  I only ask that you try to keep it respectful, and I know that can be hard if you've been hurt.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Church As Halfway House

I'm coming at this blog post from multiple directions.  First, I've been following a series of blog posts over at Experimental Theology called "The Slavery of Death."  It's a 31 part series (at least for now), but in spite of its length, I recommend it as very thought provoking.  Second, I'm teaching a mid-week Bible study on Romans.  For some reason, while sitting here trying to finalize my sermon, I had an idea pop in my head that I want to try to get in writing before it disappears.

Dr. Beck has done a very good job of showing how death influences all that we are as humans.  He makes the point early on in the series (possibly the first post) that we tend to think that sin leads to death.  However, rooting his thinking in Hebrews 2:14-15, Dr. Beck suggests that it is the reality of death that in fact leads to sin.  All we do and value, who we call heroes and what we call success, are all an attempt to run from our mortality.  Please read Dr. Beck's series, as he explains this very well.  The point is, our mortality holds us captive.  We fear it.  We run from it.  We slink from it.  All people die, and so we feel owned by death.  We are prisoners...or so it seems.

This is where my thinking switches gears to my class in Romans.  We are presently working our way through the first four chapters of Romans, the section of Romans used to advocate Justification Theory.  A few years ago I became made aware of the book Deliverance of God by Douglas Campbell, which basically dismantles Justification Theory.  But first, what is Justification Theory?

To oversimplify, Justification Theory basically argues that through sin humanity brings the wrath of God upon itself.  There are no exceptions.  Since all people sin at some point in their lives, all people deserve God's wrath.  However, God punishes Jesus with the death everyone else deserves, therefore appeasing his sense of justice.  Belief in Jesus then becomes a way for humanity to get our of its predicament.  If a person believes in Jesus, Jesus' sacrifice on the cross gets substituted for his or her own deserved punishment.

There are some noteworthy issues with Justification Theory.  I'll only try to list a few.  To begin, God is first known as a God of wrath.  Grace is the surprise no one saw coming, not the norm.  Next, my salvation is ultimately up to me.  Yes, God is the one who saves me, but only if I meet the right criteria (belief in Jesus), which is ultimately up to me.  I sin, which earns me death.  I believe in Jesus, which gets me the gift of life.  Even though what Justification Theory tells us to say is, "Salvation is God's gift!" what it tells us to do is, "Make the right choices or else."  Which leads to another problem, perfection is the standard.  Justification Theory tells us we deserve death because we are incapable of doing right, and then expects us to choose to believe in Jesus.  Well...if I'm not able to do right, what makes me capable of "believing" right, or having "faith in" right?  I can't be perfect, in regard to my behavior or my belief, period.

(A very important aside here....  Faith in Jesus is an identity marker for Christians.  I am in no way, shape, or form suggesting that we can call ourselves Christians if we do not believe Jesus was who he said he was or did what he said he did.  Jesus was the incarnate Son of God, crucified, buried, and raised.  He is King of King, Lord of Lords.  He reigns still and will some day bring his kingdom to fruition.  I have no problem with "faith" per se.  My problem is how Justification Theory understands the role and purpose of faith.)

My gripes about Justification Theory could go on for pages, so I'll stop there.  In his book Deliverance, Dr. Campbell offers us another option, another understanding of Romans and Paul.  Basically, God is not a god of wrath.  He is a god of righteousness, a righteousness specifically revealed in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.  In other words, Jesus isn't the key we need to break out of prison.  He is the Savior that breaks down the whole stinking wall.  Forget the lock...the whole door is gone!

If this is the case, salvation is no longer up to us to earn.  It's out there waiting for us with open arms.  We thought God was a god of wrath, but lo and behold, we were wrong.  God was never our enemy at all.  He was working to set us free.  And now, because of death having been defeated in resurrection, that freedom is there for us to enjoy.  All we have to do is find the courage to leave our prison behind and enjoy the life God has waiting for us.

But therein lies the problem.  Having only known the fear of death all our lives, we all have Stockholm Syndrome, thinking our captor is our friend.  Having only known one way of living, it is difficult to adapt to the whole new way of life God wants for us, no matter how much better it might be.

In light of all this, let me finally get to the point of this post.  There is a reason halfway houses exist.  After time in prison, people have a hard time adjusting to a world that functions by different rules.  They need time, support, and help to transition.  As people held captive by our sin and fear of death, and now suddenly offered life, do we honestly think we'll be able to transition easily ourselves?  No, we need halfway houses, and that is where the Church comes in.

The Church acts as a safe place were we can acclimate to the life and freedom we've been given.  The Church is where we learn that God's language is a language of peace, not wrath.  The Church is where we learn that humanity was made to sing, not weep.  The Church is where we learn that our value is not based off of accomplishments and the standard is not perfection.  My value is found in the fact that God loves me, whether you like me or not, and I don't need to be perfect because God loves me, whether you think I'm good enough or not.  The Church is where we learn that justice is best defined by God's judgment of us, and his judgment was to say, "I'll die to set you free."  The Church is were we learn that the best way to respond to hostility is to turn the other cheek, that the poor are blessed, and the meek will inherit the earth.  In prison, all these things looked foolish, if not suicidal.  Because of Christ's faithfulness to the point of death on a cross, I can walk out of prison any time I want, if I only find the courage to try.  But if I'm really going to learn to live in the world God has made for me through his Son, I have to leave my prison days behind.

People like to look at churches and cry, "Hypocrites!"  We're not hypocrites.  We're criminals learning how to live again.  Church is our halfway house.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Holy One Of Israel: A Gender-Neutral God

A few weeks back there was a debate raging in the blogosphere.  The debate began in response to a statement made by John Piper, a popular evangelical minister.  For the sake of space I'll only quote his introductory remarks, but if you want to read his whole talk, you can find it here
God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son. The Father and the Son created man and woman in his image, and gave them together the name of the man, Adam. God appoints all the priests in Israel to be men. The Son of God comes into the world as a man, not a woman. He chooses twelve men to be his apostles. The apostles tell the churches that all the overseers—the pastor/elders who teach and have authority—should be men; and that in the home, the head who bears special responsibility to lead, protect, and provide should be the husband.
From all of this, I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel. And, being a God of love, he has done it for the maximum flourishing of men and women. He did not create women to languish, or be frustrated, or in any way to suffer or fall short of full and lasting joy, in a masculine Christianity. She is a fellow heir of the grace of life. From which I infer that the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families where Christianity has this God-ordained, masculine feel. For the sake of the glory of women, and for the sake of the security and joy of children, God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.

And, of course, this is liable to serious misunderstanding and serious abuse, because there are views of masculinity that would make such a vision repulsive. So here is more precisely what I mean. And words are always inadequate when describing beauty. Beauty always thrives best when she is perceived by God-given instincts rather than by rational definitions. But we must try. What I mean by “masculine Christianity,” or “masculine ministry,” or “Christianity with a masculine feel,” is this:
"Theology and church and mission are marked by overarching godly male leadership in the spirit of Christ, with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, and contrite courage, and risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading, protecting, and providing for the community—all of which is possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s the feel of a great, majestic God, who by his redeeming work in Jesus Christ, inclines men to take humble, Christ-exalting initiative, and inclines women to come alongside the men with joyful support, intelligent helpfulness, and fruitful partnership in the work."
Not surprisingly, this struck many female Christians as rather insulting.  Christianity is "masculine," and a woman's role is only to come alongside men as men lead?  Now, let me lay my cards on the table....  I minister in a denomination that values, respects, and empowers the women who are part of our faith community.  Women in our denomination are ordained ministers, appointed as elders and deacons, and lead just as many of our ministries as the men do.  My denomination takes it seriously when Paul says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)  I say all that to say, I personally disagree with Mr. Piper's views on "masculinity" and how it applies to Christian life and practice.

However, what I found most troubling was what these statements say about Mr. Piper's view of God, and I was not alone.  Mr. Piper makes a strong implication that God is male, and that is troubling.  Male and female are part of God's created universe.  God is neither and God is both.  As one blogger pointed out, when God chose to make humanity in his image, "male and female he made them," (Gen. 1:27) implying that God is only truly seen when both come together.  As soon as we say God is pervasively (to use Mr. Piper's word) masculine or feminine, we lose sight of how God has chosen to reveal himself in his fullest.

As another example of this, let's look at a passage I read last week from Hosea (for the sake of space I'm putting this in paragraph form).

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.  I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them. They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.  My people are bent on turning away from me.  To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.  How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?  How can I make you like Admah?  How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

It's hard to miss the strong feminine overtones to this passage.  Verse four, "I bent down to them and fed them," reminds me of a picture I once saw of a Nubian mother stopping to nurse her one year old daughter.  The mother simply stopped walking, bent over, and nursed her daughter while standing.  One could easily make the argument that it is God as mother that leads her children out of Egypt.  It is God as mother that lifts her infants to her cheeks.  It is God as mother whose heart recoils within her, whose compassion grows warm and tender.  Here God is described in very feminine imagery.

At the same time, verse seven reads, "To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all."  In the middle of very feminine imagery, we read "he."  If we try to harmonize this passage with itself, we're left debating which metaphor is pervasive.  Is God masculine or feminine?  But that debate misses the whole point.  When trying to understand the nature of God by looking at men and women, the conversation needs to be led by both/and, not either/or (although to push back at Mr. Piper, in this passage God chooses to reveal himself as pervasively feminine).

God is not male.  God is not female.  God is Other, and "other" is a good definition for the word holy.  It is the "Other One" that is in Israel's midst, and it is the "Other One" that is in the Church's midst.  So let me rework Piper's quote from above into what I see as a much more Biblical approach...

Theology and church and mission are marked by an overarching godly leadership in the spirit of Christ, with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, and contrite courage, and risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading, protecting, and providing for the community—all of which is possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s the feel of a great, majestic God, who by his redeeming work in Jesus Christ, inclines humanity to take humble, Christ-exalting initiative, and inclines the ones he created in his image to come alongside him with joyful support, intelligent helpfulness, and fruitful partnership in the work.
Women, you're godly leadership, tender-hearted strength, and contrite courage are an example to us all.  In your femininity I see an act of God to make himself known.  The Church will never reflect the glory of God until we men allow you to stand among us as equals, equally created in the image of God and equally empowered by the Holy Spirit through the death and resurrection of the Son.  God forgive us for dividing the Body of Christ by gender.

One last thought and then I'll sign off.  Lest we think that God is the only one who speaks of itself in feminine terms, let's not forget Jesus.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings...." (Matt. 23:27)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Book Of Daniel: Yes, I'm Still Plugging Along

It seems that no matter my intentions, this blog is taking a much slower pace this year...at least so far.  Of course, the lack of posts could also be due to a week long family vacation in Indiana that went horribly wrong, a stomach virus that hit me as soon as we returned, the stress of trying to sell a house that has been on the market since January 2011, Kalyn's pregnancy symptoms on top of a one year old running around the house, teaching Revelation on Sunday morning and Isaiah on Wednesday night....  Let's just say it's been busy, and January is turning into a transition/adaptation month.  I haven't forgotten about the blog.  I have no intentions of discontinuing it, but a post almost every work day might be a bit ambitious on my part.

That having been said, I finished up the book of Daniel this morning.  It is not hard to note the similarities in imagery and language between the books of Daniel and Revelation.  That shouldn't surprise readers considering that both Daniel and Revelation are apocalyptic literature.  That makes understanding Daniel and its place in the Old Testament Canon a bit tricky, however.  Daniel is included in the prophetic books of the OT, but Daniel and Isaiah read very, very differently.  They are two different genres, so applying the rules one would use to read Isaiah to Daniel can get a person in trouble.

Most scholars date the writing of the book of Daniel during the mid to late 160s BC.  That places it squarely during the time of Antiochus Ephiphanes and the Maccabean Revolt.  At first glance, it might not be easy to see why this is of any importance at all other than providing a historical setting, but in fact it is a huge source of contention between conservative and progressive Christians.

Conservative theologians tend to downplay the place of apocalyptic literature in Daniel and lift up the book's authority as prophetic literature.  What I mean by that is they apply different rules to interpreting the book.  Conservative theologians uphold Daniel as the author, which means the book must be written during the Babylonian Exile, and all the images and prophecies foretell things to come.  However, progressive theologians would apply the generally true pseudo-authorship rule of apocalyptic literature and say that although the book is attributed to Daniel, Daniel does not have to be the author, and is in fact, not.  The book of Daniel is therefore not so much a prophetic book of things to come, but an apocalyptic book set in the 160s mostly providing a lens to understand what is going on in the present (the audience of the time's present, not ours).  A conservative theologian might then come back and say the progressive theologian doesn't believe the Bible means what it says, while the progressive theologian would say the conservative theologian doesn't respect the historical context of the Biblical literature itself.  If this seems like a purely academic argument, walk into a Church of Christ or Southern Baptist congregation this Sunday morning and say that Daniel didn't write the book of Daniel.  Tell me how that goes.

Here's the thing, though.  Both conservative and progressive theologians are trying to be faithful to the canon of Scripture.  Both of them take scriptural interpretation very seriously.  Both of them feel that scripture is inspired and both feel that they will have to answer to God for the way they've handled his written word.  The book of Daniel, or interpreting the book of Daniel, provides a great example of how people who follow God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength can wrestle with the same texts but end up with very different conclusions.  In the end, I think we all might need to relax a bit and realize that our relationship with God is not dependent on our interpretation of books like Daniel.

There's my meandering post for this week!

Stopping point: Daniel 12

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A New Year

I've been trying to figure out what to do with this blog through this next year, and I'm not exactly sure.  I've enjoyed keeping it.  It's been a good place for me to write down my thoughts, but I know myself and I know that if I don't have a purpose in mind I probably won't do much blogging.  So...what should the purpose of this blog be.

I have a few ideas.  One, I need to go back and read the Old Testament books I skipped while moving to Oklahoma.  That will take me about a month.  I also have a number of books I've been meaning to read, but haven't disciplined myself to actually start.  If I blog about what I read, it might provide me with the motivation to actually follow through on my intentions.  My last idea, and I really don't know if anything will come of this, is related to going back to school.  I fully intend to begin a Doctorate in Ministry program.  I was hoping to possibly begin this summer, but my wife and I just learned that we are expecting our second child, and its due date is right when I would begin course work.  That means I'll have to postpone my possible work toward a D. Min. until the summer of 2013.  I thought I might get a head start on some reading, however, and if I do, I could keep my thoughts on this blog as well.  For now I think I'll stick with going back and reading Daniel through Malachi, and starting in on my own reading list.

That having been said...the book of Daniel.  Today I read the first three chapters.  As you can find out from a quick google search, there is some debate over whether the book of Daniel is apocalyptic literature or prophetic literature.  That debate is tied closely to the debate over the authorship and date of the book of Daniel.  More conservative scholars typically argue that Daniel wrote the book during the 6th century.  Less conservative  scholars date the book during the intertestamental period, possibly as late as the Maccabean Revolt during the 2nd century BC, and argue for an anonymous author or authors.  In this specific instance, I find myself leaning toward a less conservative stance because of how strongly the book reflects apocalyptic literature, a  very intertestamental form of literature.  However, for me, this makes the book no less canonical.  It's been quite a while since I read through Daniel.  I look forward to my memory being refreshed.

On another note, I also began reading Dr. Richard Beck's new book Unclean.  I have a high regard for Dr. Beck.  He is the Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, my alma mater.  My sister was one of his graduate assistants while earning her masters in psychology.  I highly recommend his blog, experimentaltheology.blogspot.com, which is always full of thought provoking posts.  Anyhow, his recent book is a discussion of how disgust psychology influences the theology and mission of the Church.  I'm only a few chapters into it so far, but I have enjoyed it.  Expect a few posts on his book over the next few weeks.

I'll be up in Indiana next week visiting family, so I doubt I'll do any blogging there, but I look forward to getting back into the swing of things upon my return.  I hope you all hade a great Christmas and New Years, and I look forward to interacting with your comments in 2012.