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'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 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.