Proclaim the Hope

The most devastating waves of hatred exercised in violence betray an underlying sense of fear and fatalism in those perpetrating such atrocities. I sometimes wonder what drives people to the precipice where they no longer see any hope for alternative ways to change their world than to destroy others. Perhaps many of these tragedies might have been avoided if the Church had better articulated its message of hope, if it did not so often succumbed to the same tragic despair that can no longer imagine new possibilities from dead ends? How devastatingly dull our witness is when it is incapable of offering hope to the hopeless. Salt that has lost its saltiness is thrown away and trampled under foot. May God revive the imagination of the Church for these days. May the Church and its disciples be light in the dark places.


Kids These Days: Reflections on Generational Conflict in the Church

Occasionally, I hear phrases bemoaning the state of the “younger” generation.  Somehow or another, they are given credit for the state of the world or the Church’s stumbling about.  They are usually castigated as lazy, unmotivated, faithless, entitled, and ungrateful persons.  Of course, this is true of persons in every generation, but it is easier to point the finger at others than to reflect critically on the ways we are responsible for the world and the state of the Church.  It also releases us from taking responsibility for the way we have discipled the next generation.  There have been books and blogs written ad nauseum about how to fix “the problem.”  I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of growing up to do still.  But, I want to point out that the issues we face in the Church concern all generations within the Church, both in culpability and responsibility.  After all, some problems we created, others we inherited.

Using blanket statements about this younger generation, often couched in negative language, has sometimes blinded us to the incredible things God is doing in and through them!  Becca and I sat at a table of Church congregants complaining about how “this younger generation doesn’t appreciate commitment in marriage.”  Granted, Becca and I hadn’t been married but for five years at this point – there’s still a long way to go.  But, we looked at each other as if to say, “Well, I guess we don’t count as taking our vows seriously in their eyes.”  I can name so many others that have undertaken those vows with utmost seriousness.  Is divorce still an issue?  Yes, definitely!  But, it hasn’t just infected the youngest generation.  In fact, what has often been modeled for them hasn’t looked like fidelity and covenant – even when the marriage hasn’t resulted in divorce!  This is an issue for the whole Church, not just a small segment.

I have actually been encouraged watching young Church members, ministers, and pastors.  Some of the work and witness that they are doing is incredible!  Some have written books, some are ministering in “unconventional” ways, some are teachers, some serve the most vulnerable and destitute in our communities (when they could be making bigger paychecks doing other kinds of work), some are using the arts to proclaim God’s glory.  There are a million ways that these young ministers, entrepreneurs, mothers and fathers, counselors, librarians, coffee-makers, and others are serving and proclaiming Good News in their communities.

One young minister in Oklahoma City has created a community garden as a means of living sustainable, healthy lives and simultaneously helping those in need.  Several people that I know (or know of) have created community through coffee ministries where they integrate themselves into a community and share the Gospel.  Some others run a weekly VBS in Section 8 apartments, while their church has created a center that is intentionally being used to help those families through education and other programs.  Incredible gifts that are being offered by those who want to make a tangible difference as the hands and feet of Christ.

This is not to raise up a younger generation as the saviors of the Church or to say that they have all the answers.  I really don’t believe that to be true.  Nor is it to say that an older generation is unfaithful and obsolete.  I have often found the contrary to be true.  Rather, it is to say that all are needed as part of the Body.  But, if we continue to look upon every new generation as a liability or with suspicion while failing to recognize them as a gift, then we might very well find generations absent from the church (by the way, Millenials were not the first generation to leave denominations or the Church over generational divides. Our parents modeled this trend for us.).  If we can’t love those represented in the Church, how much more difficult is it to love those we might identify as enemies?  But, we are often suspicious of difference and change because it creates tension in us and sometimes challenges our own assumptions (this is not a new problem).

If we are fearful of change and the resulting conflict, we will treat those who are different like a body treats an illness.  It attacks the foreign element to eradicate it.  There may be elements that are harmful to the Body that must be healed or expelled (i.e., sin), but when the Body attacks itself we call that “cancer.”  Sometimes we have lacked the patience discerning when it is a disease in the Body and when its simply difference represented in the Body (i.e., the foot or the hand or the eye).  Like the wounds of Jesus, the Body bears the marks of our wounding one another.  As Pastor Becca, my lovely wife, once stated: “It is sad when we who have had our wounds healed turn around and wound others.”

The wounding of one another is astonishing.  I think of a young pastor that I know who went on vacation with his family only to return to find that the board had voted to fire him out of the blue.  I recall a young female pastor that is a tremendous pastor and yet is dealing with “ministry PTSD” because the church treated her like an enemy because her ministry resembled something they didn’t expect (I think it resembled the Kingdom, which makes all sorts of people uncomfortable!).  I know a pastor that received death threats from his some of his congregants!  I can name too many stories where “difference” was met with disdain.  Rather than seeking conversation, clarification, and discernment together, faithful people were dismissed, demeaned and denigrated.

As I have reflected on these realities, there are a few areas (though this list is not exhaustive) where these tensions, dissonances, and differences have created conflict.  They revolve around questions concerning the nature of the Church, what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple, our responsibility for living as Kingdom people here and now, and our complicity with the powers that be, among other issues.  These are important and complex issues that every generation must navigate and re-articulate because every generation faces a changing world in which to contextualize the Gospel.  It is hard yet necessary work which has been going on since the beginning of the Church.

Rather than problematizing a “younger generation” and dismissing them out-of-hand, we could see the tension emerging from the changes happening around us as opportunity for discipleship and discernment together – which is a two-way street where we are all willing to learn, to grow, and to work together for the proclamation of God’s Kingdom.  I am deeply grateful for the many older pastors and parishioners who have lovingly and graciously engaged with me on the hard issues without disowning me and branding me a heretic when we disagree.  Those have been transforming relationships that continue to shape me.  And, I pray that I will be that same kind of non-anxious presence for those who come after me.  When we fail to embody this kind of posture, we move, in the words of Willie James Jennings, toward “Faith seeking understanding” to a “Faith judging intelligence.”



The Church, Marriage, Sex, and Prayer

I recall one of my professors, who was also a member of the church I attended, saying something like: “The purpose of marriage is not to make you happy but to make you holy.”  It’s been a number of years since I heard this line, but it recently came to mind as I have been reflecting on marriage, the Church, sexuality, and prayer.  Yes, that’s a seemingly odd list.

It’s an odd list, until we begin to think about what is at the center of all of these things: God.  Prayer, marriage, the Church – and, yes, even sexuality (think desire rather than simply a physical act) – are all intended to be oriented toward God.  But, as we often experience, when God ceases to be at the heart of these entities and activities, they become grotesque aberrations of their intended purpose.  That is to say, they are steered from their purpose of making us holy – set apart to reflect God’s character.

Sexuality tends to get the most press where this is concerned.  It is not difficult to drudge up the culture that utilizes sex in manifold harmful ways.  Nor is it difficult to find where the Church has strayed in its misuse of sex either.  However, I think that many of the issues that we are struggling with in the area of sexuality spawns from our lack of reflection on the connection between marriage and the Church.

The apostle Paul uses marriage as a metaphor for the Church.  Namely, Christ and the Church are bridegroom and bride, brought together to be one Body.  We are familiar with this association, but we don’t always see the reverse as true.  Yes, Christ and the Church are like a marriage.  But, is marriage really like Christ and the Church?  We struggle with that particular phrasing, if not explicitly, at least implicitly.  And, we may struggle with both the reality of the Church and marriage as sanctifying spheres in our lives for the very reason that we think “happiness” is of the utmost importance for whether or not something has value.

If we were to be honest with ourselves, it would be difficult to deny that marriage or our commitment to the Church is largely based on whether our needs are satisfied in the relationship.  If our spouse, our local church, or some person in the church rubs us the wrong way, upsets us, or doesn’t meet our perceived needs, then we are quick to look elsewhere for satisfaction or fulfillment.  We look outside the marriage and outside the Church for something more, for something that will finally make us happy.

We treat the institutions (that’s not always a dirty word) of marriage and the Church like shopping malls, which makes us consumers.  That puts us in control.  When marriage or the Church are their to serve our happiness, we have essentially made ourselves the end goal.  In other words, we have placed ourselves in the place of God – simply put, idolatry.  And, oh, how our moods and desires are like trashbags caught in the wind, blown to and fro.  Our passions as consumers change with each passing season.  We cast off marriage like changing a shirt.  And, I’m afraid the Church doesn’t fare much better, especially when we see so little use in it making us happy people.

However, if holiness is the proper end because it is pointing us finally toward God, that says something about commitment (rather than our happiness) as intrinsic and necessary for both the life of a marriage and the life of a local congregation.  Of course, our model is Father, Son, and Spirit in this regard.  They have been committed to the Creation, even after its descent into sin.  They have patiently worked with God’s people throughout time, remaining faithful even when we were unfaithful.  It is the persistence of God that enables our faithfulness which leads unto holiness.

That’s not to say that joy isn’t an important part of holiness.  But, we shouldn’t confuse joy with happiness.  Joy is content in all circumstances.  Happiness tends to fluctuate with my comfort level, which God doesn’t seem as concerned about.  If we could extend my professor’s statement to the Church, it would read: “The purpose of the Church is not to make me happy but to make me holy.”  We could also say the same of sexuality (for instance, how we talk about celibacy) and prayer.  This would drastically change the way we struggle with conflict and the mundane parts of being married, serving the Church (rather than schism), practicing prayer, and being sexual beings.

If holiness is the point, then our happiness is not the goal.  And, holiness is only possible insofar as we remain faithful to a God that calls us to live in faithful, covenantal relationship with God, with others, and with Creation.  And, if this is true, then the purpose of such things is not the seeking of my own best interest(s).  Rather, it is seeking the best good for others (i.e., God’s peace or “shalom”).  John Wesley once said, “There is no personal holiness without social holiness.”  Thus, God has wed us together; we need each other.

The Church as Rat Race

Anxiety.  It presses in on you in nearly imperceptible ways.  You don’t always notice that you’ve been caught up in the cycle.  Your best intentions were to never get caught up in the rat race.  But, there you are, sitting there trying to figure out a way to squeeze every bit of efficiency you can from people and the organization.  Productivity, quantifiable productivity, is generally the measure of success.  We may say that’s not true, but one need only look at the end of year reporting to see what’s really valued – numbers.  We are told that a truly gifted leader knows how to achieve the numbers.  The implied logic says that those who don’t achieve, well, they probably never had the vision to begin with or lost it along the way.  That’s the power of numbers.

Numbers can be helpful.  We’ve learned that much.  Numbers can tell us a story.  But, in order to arrive at that story, the numbers must be interpreted.  What do they REALLY mean?  Rob Staples gave insightful counsel when it comes to measuring growth.  He essentially remarked that many things grow quickly, not all of them helpful.  He continued by saying that cancer grows quickly but we wouldn’t think that a good thing for the health of the body.  Numbers may tell us a story about our lives together, but it must be discerned with wisdom.

But, therein lies the problem: wisdom.  In our lust for growing the organization, we have often sacrificed our relationships, our calling, and our ecclesiology (our understanding of the church).  We have created CEO’s, not pastors, that were great at running church like a business, hitting milestone after milestone of growth.  But, when it comes to spiritual depth in the church, we are severely lacking.

Now, we have become concerned about a shrinking Church.  More and more people, it seems, are leaving our doors.  The blame is placed on those leaving or the pastors that seemingly fail at “leadership.”  Rather than learning from our past mistakes, we have only intensified the call to LEAD.  Be better managers.  We haven’t stopped to consider that shrinking congregations may be a symptom of our own discipleship efforts.  Our people are living out their discipleship, which sees the Church as unnecessary or as another entertainment among many options.

Leadership based on “quantifiable growth” does damage to the Body of Christ for it treats pastors and people as commodities.  The people in the church then become expendable.  (Again, growth isn’t necessarily bad, but it is not the goal of the Church).  If they aren’t “producers” adding to the numeric growth, then they are seen as hindrances to the “vision.”  This is where the anxiety is created.  Pastors and churches are weighed and often found wanting when this is the criteria.  This creates an environment that is unable to value other things that are significant in the life of a congregation.

This “leadership” not only demeans the gift that each person is to the Church, but it also creates a poor ecclesiology that operates from hierarchy.  The priesthood of all believers is given over to the professionals.  Or, pastors under pressure to perform create an environment of anxiety in their own churches so that burnout happens within our people.  Sabbath is denied, scorned.  It’s never a good thing when the Church begins to operate more like Egypt, pushing for a higher quota of “bricks” and productivity.  It becomes oppressive and enslaving.  The result is death.

Death from this kind of leadership has been on full display.  In fact, we may be keeping the Kansas City Star in business with the headlines that have filled their pages.  Leadership looking at the bottom line has silenced the Gospel, been found lacking in integrity, and created chaos that have left families unemployed, people in the Church bickering, and political posturing that undermines the trust that people have placed in their “leaders.”

We don’t need leaders.  We need followers.  Shepherds that are willing to follow Jesus as those who embody the Kingdom.  We don’t need leaders.  We need followers.  Followers who are servants to the flock, who feed the sheep.  We don’t need leaders.  We need followers.  Followers who are walking the way of Jesus, picking up our cross and emptying ourselves for the sake of others.  We don’t need leaders.  We need followers.  Followers that recognize that we are in this together – both in receiving God’s vision for the Church and for living out that vision together.  We don’t need leaders.  We need followers that don’t “lord it over others.”

The Church is longing for those who would help us to keep our eyes on Jesus, not the latest leadership style.  We don’t need more techniques.  We require deeper theological reflection for living as the community called “sent.”  We don’t need to be reminded of all the ways that we are inadequate producers; we need shepherds that help us to collectively confess our sins (it should be modeled).  We don’t need another seminar on planting churches “because that’s the most effective way to grow the Church.”  We desperately desire to see the lives of those in authority authentically following the Master’s cruciform life.


Joshua, Jericho, and Pastoral Ministry and Leadership

This past week I have been reflecting a lot on pastoral ministry and the Church.  It has been a hectic year and this is my first time to seriously stop and consider everything that has happened.  This was my seventh full year of ministry as a pastor on staff at a church.  Unfortunately, due to financial circumstances, my position at a local church ceased to exist.  As such, for the first time in those seven years, I’m not a pastor in the typical sense of the word (on staff at a church).  I’m still ordained and in good standing, I’m looking to be involved in a local church, and I still deeply care about being pastoral to those I interact with daily.  The call to be a pastor is not easily revoked.  Yet, this break (let’s call it a “forced sabbatical of undetermined length”) has given me welcome space to reflect again on my call, what it means to be a pastor, and what a good church looks like.

There is something deep, like fire shut up in your bones, that burns when you are called.  Granted, there are a lot of misguided zealots that burn brightly for a time.  Plenty of people that consider themselves to be “called” are quite insistent on being inflammatory.  But, none of those are quite what I mean.  Perhaps it’s akin to a hunger.  Not a hunger that yearns for the call itself or even personal fulfillment – both of those will be short lived, especially in ministry.  It’s rarely that glamorous.  It’s quite messy typically, it looks like a cross… by the world’s standards, anything but glorious.  It’s actually a hunger for something much bigger – it’s a hunger rooted in the presence of the Living God that calls us into being.  

I was speaking yesterday at the first church I had the opportunity to serve as a pastor.  It was a spur of the moment opportunity – one I was excited to have.  The passage was out of Joshua 5:13-6:27.  It’s a well-known story: the destruction of Jericho.  Previous to marching around the city, Joshua has a divine encounter.  Much like Moses, he is told to remove his sandals for the ground he is standing on is holy.  What kind of God can make worthless dirt holy?  Joshua’s call is intimately tied to this idea of holiness – being made to reflect the very character and nature of God back into a broken world.  But, his personal experience is not separated from the community’s call.  God doesn’t call just one person without also calling a community.  Pastoral ministry thrives when it is integrally connected to the Holy God and embodied in a living community of obedience.  

Joshua is called to lead God’s people into the Promised Land, the completion of Moses’ call to lead Israel out of Egypt.  Pastoral ministry is not isolated from history but builds upon it.  That doesn’t always mean it is a positive history, but it is part of the DNA of that community that must be remembered and dealt with carefully.  And, in fact, God often uses that history (we call this “redemption”).  God had intended for the Hebrews to enter the Promised Land before Joshua’s time.  Joshua had been one of the original spies and one of only two to give a positive report.  The others were skeptical and it ended up keeping them from entering the land.  Fortunately, the generation under Joshua’s leadership has learned from their past mistakes and decide to move forward in obedience to God’s command to enter the land.

Pastoral ministry often casts vision.  It is, and must be, interwoven with the call that God has given both the leadership and the community.  Many visions fizzle out because they are cast from ego rather than divine prompting.  Other visions fail because it is not compelling to a community – it lacks significance.  Still others fail when the leadership’s passions are not stoked hot by what is voiced by the community.  And, sometimes visions fail because people lose hope in the face of opposition.

Jericho stands looming on the horizon before Joshua and his army of… priests, nomads, and untrained soldiers?  It’s a band unfit for war on any scale that Jericho is accustomed to enduring.  Formidable walls, towering structures, and well-trained warriors.  The Hebrews have an ice cube’s chance in the Sahara desert of surviving, much less winning, any battle here.  It would be quite easy here to say that God or Joshua or the community was mistaken.  Perhaps they misheard or misunderstood.  Or, maybe with a little more time and training they would be ready to wage war, to fight Jericho on its own terms.  The problem is too big, the barriers too great… unless God is the one fighting the battle.  

Pastoral ministry can easily slip into survival mode.  Demands mount, deadlines press, and durability wanes.  Add to the mix that you’re dealing with broken people and situations frequently, including yourself and your family.  Your vocation, affirmed by God’s call, will often come up against Jericho-like situations.  Great opposition to our call should not be surprised – Jesus warned us as much.  The world hated Jesus; it will hate his disciples, too.  Trials should not come as a shock.  The problem in pastoral ministry is that sometimes the trials blindside you because they come from the least expected places.  It comes from the congregation, from brothers and sisters, from within the Body.  And, pastors are not guiltless in this either.  Sometimes they are the stumbling block.  We are adept are hurting people while placing a “spiritual” spin on it.  

Jericho looms large in our imaginations.  They fight for blood, they use power to get what they want, they violently protect their way of life – never mind who gets hurt or used up.  It’s a dog-eat-dog-world… and only the most ruthless survive.  Fortified walls hold at bay the outsiders, protect from changing the way of life, and promote uniformity without challenge.  Jericho has fortified itself not only from outsiders; it has also closed itself off from God.  And, surprisingly, it seems to work.  Who would challenge such strength?  Who would entertain such thoughts?  It’s the way it’s always been, the way it’s always going to be… or so the logic goes.

Life often presents barriers to God’s call upon our lives, from living into God’s promised future now,  And, it is tempting to live like Jericho in those moments.  After all, on the surface, it seems to work and continue to work – at least for Jericho and those like them.  Their position seems so firm and sure.  Our position seems tentative and weak.  From a pastoral perspective, we are no less vulnerable to this than our parishioners.  In some form or another, we all want control over the variables of life.  We want the sure bet.  

Let’s be honest, Joshua’s plan looks like the worst battle plan in the history of military warfare.  Really?  March around the city once every day and seven times on the seventh day… then shout!?  I’m no tactician… but even I would be saying, “Joshua, you’ve been out in this desert sun too much.”  

But, isn’t a life of prayer much like that?  We hear God speak, calling us out… and then?  Silence.  We march around and around that barrier.  Nothing.  Not even a crack in the wall.  Marching and marching, not fighting Jericho on its own terms.  Marching and praying… day after day after day.  It is in the silent obedience of daily marching, daily prayer, that something subtle and almost hidden begins to happen.  Jericho might not be changed… but we are.  The Hebrews marched and marched, never speaking a word.  Like a liturgy that slowly seeps into the bones and into our very character, prayer shapes us by opening us up to God’s presence… to the One who is able to make dirt holy.  We find that we are being changed and transformed into something more than we are alone.  

Persevering prayer causes the steadfast walls of Jericho to become little more than rubble littering the landscape.  But, in every victory there is cause for caution.  Joshua tells the people to “devote everything to destruction.”  The temptation, with this victory, is to take up the resources received and to become another Jericho.  Many churches that have experienced “success” by the world’s standards soon begin to covet many of the same things that the world covets.  Hello, Jericho!  Instead, Joshua calls for the people to take everything and dedicate it back to the Lord.  

Honestly, as a pastor, one in leadership, it is a temptation too readily available for us.  Given the pressures of various institutions, our cultures, our congregations, ourselves… we often settle for an established Jericho rather than risk walking into the unsettled Promised Land.  Having coveted the world of Jericho, we find ourselves building new walls to firm up our positions of power or prestige.  We create new walls for insiders and outsiders.  We construct fortresses that ensure stability rather than risk following a God that is not controllable.  We trade the language of relationship to a language that deals with God at a distance, describing God but not engaging God.  Jericho stands again.

And, yet, honest, persistent prayer will not allow such walls to stand in our own lives or in the lives of the community.  Ultimately, we find, there is only one sure foundation: God.  

In our economic environment, it is not unusual to be concerned about finances.  There are few who are not working on budgets to make sure that bills are paid and ministry is funded.  We want to be good stewards of the gifts God gives us.  Nothing wrong with that.  Yet, I know of churches where the “bottom line” revolves far more around money than it does people.  When it becomes more important for us to keep our doors open, even at the expense of people going into personal debt, there is another stone in the wall for Jericho.  

This is only one instance where we have coveted Jericho and haven’t earnestly marched in prayer around the problem, waiting upon God.  It is merely one example of trying to control our circumstances rather than praying for God to provide victory over situations that are too big for us to handle alone.  Joshua wasn’t trying to build another Jericho.  He sought to follow God whole-heartedly.  Joshua stands as testimony that God never fails to follow through on His promises.  Pastors and churches can rest in that kind of sure foundation. 

Where Two or Three are Gathered…

I was reading from Fred Craddock’s book, Preaching, this evening.  It is a very engaging read thus far.  I only managed to get through the first chapter because it was so thick with great thoughts on the task and art of preaching.  Given that he is a very accomplished preacher, it seemed appropriate to let the words soak in and to think carefully through his thoughts.

In talking about preaching, Craddock noted the importance of the Spirit’s work in preaching.  Craddock writes, “The Spirit is of God and not contingent upon our willing or doing.  The truth is, and by this the church sometimes feels embarrassed, there is no agreement among Christians as to the canons for ascertaining the Spirit’s absence or presence at the time of an event.  Afterward, of course, the evidences of love, hope, trust, truth, and justice can be read clearly as footprints that say, ‘Yes, the Spirit was here'” (29). 

This thought, that we cannot control God’s Spirit or presence, got me to thinking about another verse that we often quote in services.  We say, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there will I be also.”  It’s Scripture, of course.  But, we use it in a very mechanical way.  Thus, if we have a group of “Christians” together in a place, by extension, God MUST be there. 

I don’t want to deny the fact that where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church.  I think we have sufficient warrant in Scripture to say that this is a truth.  However, we rarely mention the impetus and foundation of our gathering.  God’s presence is not dependent upon our willing or doing (as per Craddock).  Rather, the inverse is true.  It is because God is present that we have gathered (prevenient grace – which is to say – God calls us into relationship).  Thus, our gathering is a testimony to God’s presence whenever we “gather in His Name.” 

I especially find this to be important.  Not any, old gathering will do.  “Gathering in His Name” directs our purpose, shapes our imaginations, purifies our hearts, molds us into His likeness, transforms us for passionate ministry, and energizes us with hearts of compassion.  “Gathering in His Name” means that we are shaped by God’s story of Creation and Redemption, have been reconciled to Him, and have received and responded to the call to be a light to all nations.  And, while it is an inclusive call for all to come, “Gathering in His Name” also brings a particular kind of exclusion… our gathering is not in the name of another.  We would call that “idolatry.”

Our gathering is not in the name of a nation.  The gathering is not in the name of a political party.  The gathering is not in the name of a particular interest group.  The gathering is not in the name of the gods of this world: Mammon (wealth), Aphrodite (pleasure), Mars (violence), Zeus (power).  And, it is not a gathering for the “cult of I”, where we seek self-sufficiency, self-realization, self-congratulation, self-flagulation, self-confidence, and self-indulgence.

It is against these that Jesus tells his disciples the way that the world will recognize them as his followers: They love one another in his name.  Ultimately, this resembles the cross.  It looks like Jesus washing feet as a servant; holding children as honored; eating with sinners, taxcollectors, and prostitutes; touching lepers; giving sight to the blind; and, giving hope and healing to the broken and battered in society.  “Where Two or Three are Gathered” might be better understood that we need to be where Jesus would be… not expecting Jesus to show up where we are because we had a meeting.


Testimony to Otherwise

Sometimes life just seems like there is no possibility of something changing.  We make arguments for it all the time.  “Well, that’s just how it’s always been.”  Or, “I’m sorry, but we (I) didn’t have a choice in the matter.”  Life and reality just seem to be given to us as if there are no real alternative, no real options.  Life is what it is and what it always will be.  The person writing Ecclesiastes felt this way: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” 

            This plays itself out in a number of different arenas of life: government, work, family, and, sometimes, the Church.  In actuality, what underlies many of these arenas is a culture that has significantly shaped us to think and act in specific ways and always on its own terms.  Thus, when our “rights” are trampled by someone else, we feel the need to secure our privileges.  And, most of the time, this is done through violence.  Violence here is used in its broadest sense (not simply physical violence).  And, it happens in all areas of life.  Scripture, in fact, is full of examples (I’ll use physical violence, as an example): Cain kills Abel, Herod and Pharaoh slay children and David has Uriah killed, Eli’s sons use the Ark as a tool of war and to legitimate their own reign of terror (which backfires).  Maintaining the illusion of certainty, that there is no alternative to the way things are, requires brute force and strength… which ultimately produces death and suffering, especially among the weak and disadvantaged of any society.

            The Gospel is a dangerous alternative in a world of certainty.  It is a “testimony to otherwise.”  It suggests that the current arrangements of this world are death-dealing traps.  The Gospel is a call to a renewed imagination that goes beyond the surface of reality and looks to discern God’s alternative Kingdom in the midst of broken creation.  Jesus has some very peculiar words, like: “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted…”

            We look at that description of the Kingdom of Heaven and wonder: “How are those people ‘blessed?’”  We wonder how something is so possible when the exact opposite seems to be true in our world.  Have our imaginations not been so shaped by our culture and our world that we cannot see, nor understand, the Kingdom of God? 

            I think it is important and imperative, especially during this time of season, to remember where our allegiance truly lies.  The Kingdom is not a call to security or to certainty, as if we can explain everything and control it.  The Church is a testimony to otherwise in the midst of a world that cannot see or perceive God’s Kingdom way.  Living faithfully in a world of ideological idolatry opens up new imaginative possibilities for life in the present, as well as, the future.  Rather than saying, “That’s the way it’s always been.”  Let us ask, “Is that the way God would want it to be?”


“I’m Only Human…”

You may have heard or even said something like this yourself, “To err is human.”  Essentially, we mean to say that messing up is just part of what it means to be human.  After all, who hasn’t ever messed up?  It seems natural, for this reason, to dismiss sin and shortcomings by statements like: “Well, they’re only human.” 

            When we say something like this, we are communicating two things.  First, what we intend to say is that we all make mistakes and that we are often times so wrapped up in our world’s way of doing things that we often don’t make these mistakes intentionally.  They just seem to come from us naturally.  One need only watch young children for a short time to see how destructive we can be… if only that got better with age!

            However, what we also communicate is something that may be unintended and quite harmful.  By saying these phrases we equate being sinful with also being human.  There’s a major problem here!  Jesus was human… does this then mean that Jesus was sinful?  Scripture tells us that Jesus was not sinful.  If that’s the case, then perhaps we need to re-think what it means to be human!  For, it is in Jesus that we see the fullness of humanity and the fullness of humanity’s purpose!

            This has some major implications.  First, our way of life is not the measurement of true humanity!  Only Jesus shows us what true humanity looks like: the Cross.  Being truly human looks like sacrificing our lives for the sake of others, living out in tangible ways God’s love by loving others, and serving others as a means of serving God.  Saint Irenaeus suggests that the Incarnation (Jesus becoming flesh) was intended from the very beginning, not a result of our sin!  This means that humanity’s purpose has always been fellowship with God.  This should significantly change how we think about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

            Secondly, salvation is not so that we can stamp our tickets into heaven.  We are not simply saved from something but to something.  We are not merely saved from our sins but saved so that we might once again be joined to God!  In fact, Jesus calls us to pray that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  There is a sense where heaven is joined with earth as a restoration of relationship with the Creator.  Salvation is a call to embody, to live out, God’s Kingdom here and now… not simply in the future.  This challenges every allegiance that we claim… no person can serve two masters.

            Third, Jesus’ humanity connects all of us.  Jesus did not come to only save some.  Jesus did not come to die for my personal sins alone.  Rather, salvation is about relationship and connects us with each other.  Salvation is the means by which we are grafted into the Church, the community of believers, of which Jesus is the Head (meaning “source”, not necessarily meaning “status, position, or power”).  As such, there is no salvation outside of the Church.  Life in Christ necessarily means life together… it’s not just “Jesus and Me.”  Perhaps we should make it a habit to sing our songs of praise by replacing “me” and “I” with “we” and “us.” 

            Fourth, to be human does not mean that we are forever enslaved to sin.  Actually, to be truly human is to be living in right relationship (righteousness) with God, others, and creation.  To be living entrapped to sin is to be living as something less than human, something less than God intended.  Now, John Wesley is helpful here, reminding us that even in entire sanctification we can still sin.  However, he talks about two types of sin.  There is sin that is intentional disobedience and there is sin that is unintentional.  There is a difference between knowing we are sinning versus becoming aware later that we have sinned.  But, both require that we continually repent, seek forgiveness, and ask God to continue to reveal to us the way that we are not living in Love.  And, it is only in Love that we are formed once again into the likeness of Christ, into the capacity for living empowered by the Spirit rather than enslaved to sin.  To be human is to experience freedom in Christ; it is being empowered and free to love as God loves.

            Many of these problems stem from where we begin in our thinking about sin, Jesus, the Cross, and other elements of the Christian story.  Most of us probably begin with Genesis 3 (Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the tree) and read everything else in light of that story.  By starting there, we begin to ask “what’s the problem” and use it as a lens to read everything else.  We start with the problem and think that the rest of the story is the solution.  And, when we begin there, it’s hard to see anything good in the physical Creation.  This is really problematic, especially when we consider that Jesus came “in the flesh.”  If anything says that this Creation is “good,” it is the fact that Jesus entered into that very Creation. 

            Let me suggest a possible way of reading the story anew.  Begin with Genesis 1, not Genesis 3.  Starting with Genesis 1 does not begin with trying to answer the “why” question.  Rather, it begins by highlighting the purpose of Creation.  We don’t begin with the problem but the purpose.  All of a sudden, we have a very different lens with which to read and understand what God is doing throughout the rest of Scripture.  God isn’t merely trying to “fix the problem.”  Instead, God is working to bring and mature Creation to its intended purpose: fellowship!  In Jesus the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity dwell together so that God might become accustomed to living with us and we might become accustomed to living with God.  That is quite a purpose!

Good News for People Expecting Bad News by Dylon Brown

Good News for People Expecting Bad News.

This blog by Dylon Brown tackles a tough book: Revelation. It is a book shrouded in mystery and confusion for many of us. People either avoid it entirely or use it to predict and prophesy the future ending of the world. Sometimes it is difficult to find a middle way. But, as the Church, we believe that all Scripture is Spirit-breathed and useful for God’s purposes in our lives. For this very reason, we engage the text and allow ourselves to be opened to hear the Word of the Lord. In Revelation we find a Church that is rejoicing in God’d triumph over evil and the restoration of all things… with that in mind, Revelation becomes a hopeful word in the midst of a dischordant world.

Liturgy and Tradition

Liturgy literally means “work of the people.” Many people think of liturgy as formal rituals. But, it’s more than that. Even churches that are not “formal” in style have a liturgy. Liturgy is the community of faith‘s response to God’s grace. And, it’s how a church orders itself and works together. Every church has a particular rhythm and pattern of life and worship together (not just the services on Sunday). Liturgy is the practices that shape and inform faith. This can be on a bigger scale, too. There are liturgies that are unique to particular denominations (i.e., not drinking alcohol) and liturgies unique to all Christians (i.e., communion and baptism).


Another word for this is “tradition.” Tradition is the practices that have been handed down to us by the community of faith over time. Sometimes traditions are fairly recent (i.e., use of guitar in worship) and some have a very long history (i.e., saying “amen”). You can even distinguish between “thick” and “thin” practices or liturgies. “Thick” liturgies are the significant practices that we will always keep (i.e., prayer, communion, baptism, preaching, to name a few). We keep these because they are significant ways that we are shaped. If we stopped doing those things, our identity would be something entirely different than Christian. “Thin” liturgies are practices that aren’t nearly as significant in shaping our identity. These will usually change from time to time. This might be as simple as saying that we always have three songs before we go to a time of prayer in a service. We could change it to four songs before the prayer and it wouldn’t change our identity.


Ultimately, liturgy should be Christ-centered and in line with the teaching of the apostles. When it goes beyond those boundaries it’s probably a good idea to remove, re-purpose, or replace that liturgy. Tradition sometimes needs to be corrected and changed. Although tradition can be extremely useful and helpful, if it becomes the sole authority over our lives, it becomes quite destructive. When that happens it is called “traditionalism.” This statement helps me to distinguish between tradition and traditionalism: “Tradition is the living faith of dead men. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living men.” Liturgy and tradition should always point toward Jesus, not back to the tradition or liturgy.


Anytime you go into a new culture, it takes time to learn the language and way of life in that new community. The same is true of visitors in a church. It takes time to learn the liturgy of a church. But, that doesn’t mean that the liturgy shouldn’t be accessible to guests. Since liturgy is the “work of the people”, the people of the congregation should help guests understand what is going on and why they do the things they do together. Pastors will often help with this by continuously explaining what is happening and why it is happening. As guests become a part of a church, the liturgy becomes a part of them and they then help shape the liturgy for the future.