Preaching When Words Have Lost Their Power

This is a blog I wrote for the Center for Pastoral Leadership at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Here is a preview of the work: “Preaching from a posture of Wisdom requires dying, which relinquishes the need for acclamation, control, power, violence, and conformity. Wisdom is the way of Jesus.”

You can find the rest of the article at the Center for Pastoral Leadership’s blog: https://cpl.nts.edu/index.php/component/k2/item/430-preaching-when-words-have-lost-their-power

“Dirty Laundry” – Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21

My family once had a potbelly pig for a pet.  Yes, we literally bought a pig for a pet.  It was the runt of the litter, rather small.  We named it “Wilbur.”  It wasn’t long before Wilbur needed a bath.  FYI, pigs tend to become dirty and smelly in a short amount of time.  If Wilbur was to stay in the house, he needed to be cleaned.  So, bath day came.  We prepared the bathtub and set Wilbur down in the water to begin scrubbing.  Wilbur had a different idea.  He didn’t care for the bathtub.  Maybe it was the water.  Maybe it was the slippery porcelain floor of the tub.  Whatever it was, Wilbur wasn’t having anything to do with the bath.  He began to freak out, squealing and squirming.  Suddenly, Wilbur began to fly in the air as he used the slick porcelain bathtub like a snowboarder using a half-pipe – flying up one side, back down the side, and then shooting up higher on the other side.  It was a disaster.  Water was everywhere.  Wilbur was a piglet of chaos and no closer to being clean.  Wilbur eventually worked himself out of a home with us because he refused to be cleaned.

Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.”  It is a time for preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, that is, Jesus’ birth, and also Jesus’ coming again to complete the union of heaven and earth.  The season of Advent lodges us between these two events.  As the early Church used to say, “Christ has come; Christ will come again.”  As Christ came as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, now we wait in joyful anticipation of Christ’s return to reconcile and redeem the world to God.  The time is coming, says Jesus.  Prepare.  The time is drawing near, says Jesus.  Be ready.  The day is on the doorstep.  Be prepared – “wash your robes.”

If we are totally honest with ourselves, we could all write up a lengthy laundry list of grievous sins, poor decisions, lapsed judgment, and painful brokenness.  Imagine yourself robed where everything that you are and everything that you have done was written in permanent marker for everyone to see.  What would it say?  If we came to the gates of the City of God wearing those robes, would we expect entrance into the wedding party?  No, we’d expect to be outside with the dogs.  But, we’re not always sure we want to go through the tedious work of preparation – of washing.  We’d rather toss it in the laundry heap and forget about it.  Advent reminds us that the time for Jesus’ return is drawing near and we need some clean clothes for the party.

Like Wilbur, we desperately need to be washed, made clean.  Our robes are dirty, tattered, and torn.  Our lives are soiled rags, frayed threads, and filthy garments.  Some stains are so deep that Clorox can’t touch ‘em.  We look worse for the wear.  The mud of lust cakes the sleeves.  The dirt of gossip smudges the collar.  Broken relationships fray the cuffs’ hems.  Anger tears apart the seams.  The buttons of love are chipped or dangling by a thread.  Wrinkles of dejection and anxiety mangle the fabric.  Distrust leaves the bottom edges thin with strings dragging in the dust.  Our robes are rags, hardly suitable to wear at the coronation of Creation’s King.  “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me… Blessed are those who wash their robes.”[1]

Do you know the key for clean clothing?  Two things: Clean water and agitation.  Stale, stagnant water only increases the filth and stench in our clothes.  Using the water of this world, with its empty promises for new life and purpose, leaves us wreaking of death.  We have soaked too long in the stagnant pools of our world and culture so that our robes have taken on their flavor.  We have washed ours clothes with the disease-ridden waters of arrogance, deception, racism, sexism, idol worship, addictions, greed, and any other number of things.  Our robes, our lives, are covered in sludge, slime, and slander.

Jesus, the Living Water, calls us out of the filth-filled floodwaters of our world into the stream of life flowing from the very throne of God.  These waters of purest crystal, fragranced with milk and honey are God’s free gift to all.  Jesus offers us Living Water to drink for our parched and thirsty souls.  Jesus invites us to bathe, to soak, to dive deep into this life-giving current, which is the very Life and Way of God.  In these waters we find healing for every disease, every malady, every infirmity, and every seeping wound.  This Water can bring even life to the Dead Sea… surely it can bring life to my dusty rags.  To drink of this Living Water is to also be swept up in its current, its Way, and its movements.

Water isn’t the only necessary ingredient for clean clothes.  Soil, soot, stains, and sweat are dislodged from clothing when water is combined with agitation.  People used to wash their clothes in rivers and then beat them on rocks.  Or, they used washboards to agitate the stains out of the material.  Today, we use machines that turn barrels with paddles that toss the clothes to-and-fro and then sift out the dirty water through high-velocity spinning.  Removal of stubborn stains requires adequate agitation.  Our sin-stained robes… our broken lives could use some agitation.  If you’re in need of some good old-fashioned agitation, like I am, Advent is a wonderful place to start.

Advent places us firmly in what theologians call “the now-and-not-yet” Kingdom.  Christ has initiated the Kingdom of God here on earth, but it hasn’t come yet in its fullness.  We’re still waiting for the final unveiling.  Christ’s first coming unveiled the brokenness of the world and marked out a different pattern of living.  Jesus demonstrated what it means to be both fully human and a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  His birth, life, death, and resurrection both initiated God’s Kingdom on earth and pointed toward its future consummation and completion.

And that’s agitating… because Jesus wakens us to a new, truer reality that calls all of our previous ways of life into question.  Everything is thrown into question: politics, economics, family relationships, marriage, divorce, education, personal rights, private property and land, nations, power, parenting, community and neighborliness, poverty, violence, hope, success.  EVERYTHING!  The shabby robes with which we have clothed ourselves and our world is put under the black-light of Jesus… and the robes we wore and which we imagined to be clean and whole are shown to be disgusting, disheveled rags clinging to our bodies.

Jesus’ way calls for peace and unmasks our love of violence.  Jesus’ way calls for mercy, but we are bent on retribution.  Jesus’ way calls for love, but anger has its claws in our flesh.  Jesus’ way calls for justice, but we enjoy the benefits of injustice too much.  Jesus’ way calls for hope, but we are entrenched in fear.  Jesus’ way calls for truth, but we are committed to our collective lies.  Jesus’ way calls for sharing resources, but we’re just not sure there’s enough to go around.  Advent agitates us, stirs us, and disturbs us because we are confronted with the reality that our lives, both communally and personally, don’t yet fully reflect Jesus or his Kingdom.

Waiting and preparing for Jesus often tumbles us, throwing our world upside-down.  Yet, when we encounter God’s grace in Jesus the Living Water who washes us and the Spirit of God that agitates us from places of complacency, something life-giving stirs in us that we would have never anticipated.  We begin to change – little by little.  The stain of discontent begins to fade.  Neighborliness sews together the seams frayed by enemy-making and violence.  The stench of anger and bitterness are replaced with the fragrant aroma of Christ’s mercy and grace.  Greed is washed out with self-giving love.  Humility and service bleach out vanity and pride.  The more we are washed by God’s presence and stirred up by Christ’s life, the more we realize that our robes are being repaired and made clean and that we’d rather not wear those old, dirty rags of our former lives.  So…

The Spirit and the bride (that is, the Church) say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.[2]

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne[3]

 

 
[1] Revelation 22:12a, 14a.

[2] Revelation 22:17, 20-21

[3] Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

“Preaching Jesus as God’s Wisdom: Breaking the Denial of Death”: Preaching – III Reconciliation — Explorations in Theology

Denial is powerful. Denial is the capacity to avoid what is real and to create in its place a sub-version of reality in which to dwell. Humans are very adept at self-deception and denial. A few years ago, my step-grandpa told my mom that he would never die. He wasn’t a person that really professed […]

via “Preaching Jesus as God’s Wisdom: Breaking the Denial of Death”: Preaching – III Reconciliation — Explorations in Theology

“Sabbath for the Rest” – Mark 3:1-6

This was a short sermon (5 minutes) that I wrote for the ACTS D.Min. program in Chicago.  It utilized “incarnational translation” as part of the methodology for the sermon.  

 

The Pharisees sat in the pews keeping a suspicious eye on Jesus, waiting to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.  Work was strictly prohibited on Sabbath.  The Jewish religious leaders had created numerous laws designed to restrict working on Sabbath.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  Don’t take too many steps on this day.  You can’t prepare meals on this day.  You aren’t allowed to do any manual labor.  It was a long, extensive, exhaustive, comprehensive, encyclopedic list of prohibitions they were required to follow.  The Pharisees prowled around the sanctuary just waiting for Jesus to step one toe out of line and break the Sabbath.

Jesus tells the man with the withered hand to stand where everyone in worship can see him.  As the congregation has gathered in their holy huddle, Jesus asks them an unsettling question: “What’s the whole purpose behind Sabbath?  Is it for doing good or evil, for sustaining life or promoting death?”  The Pharisees believe the Sabbath is about not working.  But Jesus says the Sabbath is about re-defining our work – not simply stopping it.  It’s not only about avoiding evil, but actively doing that which is good – preserving, sustaining, and blessing life for all.

You may have heard the old saying, “We don’t drink, smoke or chew, and we don’t go with girls that do.”  There have been times, we, as Nazarenes, were known for what we didn’t do.  We didn’t play cards.  We didn’t go to movies.  We weren’t allowed to dance.  We didn’t drink alcohol.  I’m not even sure we were allowed to smile.  Somewhere along the way, we rooted our identity in what we were against, but we weren’t sure what we were for.  We can list what we shouldn’t be doing, but we struggle to name what we should be doing.

While we may have avoided doing some harmful things, while we may have insulated ourselves from “a dangerous world out there,” we have also divorced ourselves from God’s Sabbath call.  Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand and upon doing so the man’s hand is healed.  Jesus demonstrates in this healing that the “work” of Sabbath is the work of justice.  It is the work of restoration.  It is the work of renewal.  It is the work of reconciliation.  Sabbath is not only rest – Sabbath is restitution.

We stand at a crossroads in the life of our state and community.  It is a crossroad which recognizes that worship which fails to engage the real issues of this world isn’t really worship.  Our state has experienced a massive shortage in money for budgets.  It was a gross mishandling of money entrusted to them by its citizens.  The result was significant cuts to education, mental health care, and loss of tax breaks for our poorest neighbors.  Simultaneously, huge tax breaks were given to large oil companies.  The disturbing misuse of power and privilege which tramples over the most vulnerable people in our state and in our community is unacceptable and we cannot remain silent.  We cannot remain on the sidelines.

Jesus stands in our midst today, asking us: “Why have we gathered here in worship?  Is it just to avoid being tainted by the world outside?  Is it to build a huge wall of security around ourselves so that we might not concern ourselves with the world’s brokenness?  Or, is it so that we might be empowered to do that which is good, that which is right, that which preserves life?”  Perhaps we have been gathered here in worship to be reminded that God wants to heal our withered hands so that we might be sent back out into the world to work for the good of others.

“Heaping Burning Coals – Romans 12” – Reflecting on Lent

Lent is a season of reflecting in a further intentional way on the life of Christ which leads to the Cross.  The cross is symbolic, although not simply that, of the kind of ministry which Jesus embodied while proclaiming the Kingdom of God has begun here and now in him.  The cross is the way of the Kingdom, for it is the way of its King.  As Kingdom citizens, we are called to embody this same cruciform way of living here and now.  We are called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  Our baptisms are where we are buried with Christ so that we might also participate in his new-creation-life, which also anticipates Christ’s coming again to fulfill that which he began – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

As such, we are visible, tangible reminders that God’s Kingdom has come.  We are stewards that build for the Kingdom, announcing its inauguration in Jesus, and the Christian hope that it will someday be consummated in his return.  This is why we say: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!”

Yet, while we wait for Christ’s return, we recognize that there is still work to be done in the Creation and in us.  Although the Kingdom has begun, it is not yet completed work.  So, we long for and anticipate the coming redemption of all things, when Christ will be all in all.  Paul says that the Creation waits for the redemption of humanity.  And, as we wait for our redemption, sometimes we groan in prayer when words fail us.  The Spirit of God takes up our prayer and presents them to God.  We hunger and thirst for God to make right that which is broken and twisted by sin.  We all, including the Creation, groan to be set free from the bonds of sin and death.  Paul’s words picture this anguish perfectly: “Who can rescue me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24)!?

Lent weighs heavily upon us.  We see the cross in the distance and recognize that the twisted beams of wood which pierce the ground and the rusty nails which pierce Jesus are both driven deep in the flesh and the earth by our own hands.  It is our violence and our demand for justice which finally nail Jesus to that branchless tree.

It is a tree of death upon which we have placed the Author of Life.  It is the tree which is rooted in our anger, bitterness, anxiety, and malice.  Through that tree we pour out all of our contempt upon the Light of the World.  The cross which stands in the distance comes nearer and nearer as we approach Good Friday.  It holds up the mirror before us, asking: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  We can only exclaim, “Yes, it was me.  Yes, it was us.”  We try to avoid the disciplines of Lent because we finally want to avoid seeing our face in the crowd which cried out, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  We cannot bear the shame.

Astonishingly, what we intended for evil, God reorients for our good.  This is what Paul is exclaiming when he finishes his thought in Romans 7.  “Who can rescue me from this body of death!?  Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).  God takes an instrument of death and transforms it into a tool for cultivating new life in the Creation and in us.  This is the grand sweep of Romans 8.  Jesus has brought about new creation!  Yes, it is not completed work yet.  But, it’s not just a future event that we are waiting for either.  In fact, Paul calls the Christian community to begin to live into the reality of new creation now – to put our minds on the things of the Spirit and thus to put to death the misdeeds of the body.

We are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).  God’s work through the Spirit will impact what we do with our bodies.  Paul writes, “… if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” Rom. 8:13b-15a).  We are called to no longer live in the deathly ways of this world (12:2a), “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  I do not think such transformation is possible without intentional practices that engage both body and spirit in the life of a follower of Jesus.  More specifically, as Paul highlights in the following section (vv. 3-8), it cannot happen outside of the community of faith.  This is not a journey which we can do by ourselves.  God has gifted us the Church for mutual encouragement and accountability.  Christian community and the peculiar practices (i.e., prayer, sacraments, fasting, confession, reading scripture, etc.) of that community have an odd way of “humbling us” and training us to think with “sober judgment.”

Paul reminds this covenant community (the Church) that the very purpose of this community is to serve as a training ground for the Kingdom-already-here-yet-still-to-come.  It is a training ground of love.  Love of God, yes!  Most certainly.  But, equally, love of our fellow people.  In fact, the competition of the world which tries to dominate others is traded in for a new kind of competition.  It is a competition of mutual affection where everyone seeks the benefit of others over their own desires.  It is a “holy zeal and an ardent spirit, serving the Lord” by serving each other (v. 11).  It is this energetic affection for God and for each other which makes things like “Rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer” possible (v. 12).  We bear the burdens together and we share in each other’s joy.  And, it is a joy that spills over to others.  The needs of the saints are met by one another (v. 13a).  Not only that, but this joy spills outside of the Church as well, by extending hospitality to the stranger (13b).  In other words, the new creation is expanding to receive those parts of the old creation that have yet experienced the new life found in Christ through the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

Of course, Paul isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses.  He recognizes that there are people that are still living by the flesh.  As such, they may very well reject, even in violent ways, the hope offered by the Church.  The Church may experience persecution.  Jesus never denied this possibility.  He said, “The world hated me; it will hate you.”  Don’t be surprised.  The Kingdom of Jesus isn’t always received as good news and is sometimes treated with hostility because it challenges the world’s way of life.  It says that there is a radically different way of doing things like politics, economics, how we treat our environment, how we treat our bodies, how we treat our enemies, how we treat the most vulnerable in society.  Love is the new priority.  And, if our way of life does not reflect the way of the cross, perhaps our minds have yet to be transformed by the Spirit.

Paul outlines how we are called to respond to the abuses which the world may heap upon us.  Before our renewal by the Spirit, we fought fire with fire.  We matched violence with violence.  We responded to hatred and evil with hatred and evil.  But, now, we are to be those who “bless and do not curse” (v. 14).  We are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vv. 15-19).  The way of Jesus; the way of the cross; the way of love.

Just in case we were confused, Paul goes further still.  We must not simply avoid evil.  We must pursue the good of others – even our enemies.  Paul writes, “No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 20-21).  Deep inside of us, we might cheer, “Good!  Serves them right!  My enemies deserve some burning coals on their head!”  But, that interpretation only highlights how much our lives still need to be formed by the Spirit.

The idea Paul is conveying by “heap burning coals on their heads” is rooted in a cultural practice during his day.  They didn’t have instant gas fires or lighters.  Starting a fire was hard work.  Once one was started, it was easier to keep it going than to let it die out and restart it.  If your fire died, it could be a serious problem, especially on cold nights.  If your fire did go out, you might visit a neighbor to get some live coals with which to start your fire back up.  Live coals are hot and heat rises.  So, carrying those coals in a bucket on your head would keep you from getting scorched.  Thus, “heaping burning coals on their heads” was a way of saying that we are called to get their “fires” going by returning evil with good.  Just as Jesus transformed our evil (the cross) into something for our good, we are called to do the same – even for our worst enemies.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  He understood the pain and suffering of being hated.  Yet, the Gospel of Jesus led him to respond with compassion and love for his enemies.  That is Christian hope in action.

May Lent call us to repentance where we have failed to put on the mind of Christ.  May Lent draw us to daily pick up our cross and follow Jesus in the way of love!  Let us move from the ash heap of the old creation people that we have been to those anointed with the oil of the Spirit as new creation people.

The Ministry of Prophetic Weeping

The prophets were an interesting group of people. Sometimes misunderstood (sometimes understood perfectly). Sometimes an outsider to the community (more often members of the community). Usually called to speak a difficult word to a people that might not receive it. The prophets sometimes spoke and sometimes demonstrated their message (think Hosea’s marriage to Gomer). The message would typically involve a word of judgment that would end with a future hope, a new beginning that God would bring about. But, even with the promise of a new beginning, hearing judgment passages was difficult (who likes judgment?).

This seems to be the general pattern of prophetic ministries – speaking difficult words of judgment that would eventually emerge as God’s new work. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jonah, Hosea, John the Baptist all lived out these kinds of ministries. Sometimes those words were rejected and at other times they brought about confession and redemption. But, it rarely left people on the fence, but called for response.

While this pattern is important and indicative of how we might preach in our contexts, it neglects an important aspect of the prophetic: weeping and lamenting. The prophetic ministry is sometimes viewed as dispassionate truth-telling. No doubt truth-telling is in view in prophetic proclamation, but the prophets were hardly disinterested robots that did not feel the sting of the prophetic word they had initially received. In fact, most of the prophets suffered, wept, and lamented what they saw coming and what they were called to communicate. The passion that drove much of the prophetic proclamation to the community of faith was rooted in the fact that these prophets wanted the best for the people of God. They desperately wanted to see God’s new future take root. And, they knew that they were as much a part of the problem as everyone else. They did not stand outside of the scope of the message of judgment they had received and were called to communicate.

Isaiah hears a word of serious judgment against Israel. His first reaction to being confronted by God’s presence is to recognize that he is a “man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips.” In other words, it is lament and confession that drives Isaiah’s further oracles of judgment and redemption. But, I think it is informative that Isaiah’s prophetic power is rooted in his lament over the community and the part he plays in their brokenness.

Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.” Perhaps he had a mood disorder, but it is just as likely that his mourning is deeply rooted in the destruction he sees that lies ahead. He identifies with the pain and knows it only too well as a personal reality. Jeremiah mourns what is lost, mourns for his people, and mourns for the disconnection between God’s people and God. Jeremiah is a reluctant prophet. It’s a wonder his words could be heard through the tears.

Others could be mentioned. But, I think Jesus embodies the prophetic lament. While standing outside of Jerusalem, Jesus sees a fig tree bearing no fruit. He curses the fig tree to shrivel up because it lacks fruit. The curse on the fig tree is a symbol of the coming judgment upon Jerusalem. A few scenes later, Jesus laments, “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, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you.” Jesus’ prophetic words are mixed with the sorrow born of weeping for that which he loves. Jesus compares himself to a mother hen that desires to draw Jerusalem close but is instead rejected. The prophetic words, even difficult words, arise out of the deep love for God’s people.

Prophetic words are spoken from the deepest ache of a heart that longs for God’s new life to break out. These are words spoken out of grief and lament, mourning and woe. To be prophetic, in the best sense of the word, is to weep as one standing under judgment but who must proclaim the judgment so that redemption, salvation may follow. And, the prophetic ministry is one that laments the gap between where we are at as a community and where God desires us to be.

Prophetic words are intended to draw us toward God’s new, preferred future. But, it’s not always the case that the community wants to move in that direction. We’re comfortable where we are situated. We’re familiar with the way things are and don’t see any real need for movement from this spot. Or, we may desire for things to be different but expect God to do the new thing in the same way that God acted in the past. Although God acts in continuity with God’s previous action, God will sometimes do an entirely new thing.

I think the prophets have given us an example of what it means to be able to move toward God’s new future. It involves weeping and lament as well. It’s okay (most of the time) to weep what has been lost, the sense of displacement that we experience when things change. It’s okay to weep over what once was but will not be again. Mourning can be an appropriate response, but we cannot remain there. “Weeping lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Weeping, lamenting, mourning our sense of loss can be helpful for us to move toward what God has in store. Holding on to our past by refusing to weep may end up meaning that we miss out on the joy which God has in store for us.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everything about our past, our traditions are wrong or will suddenly be changed. There do remain things that are consistent with our history. We aren’t going to get rid of prayer, reading scripture, communion, baptism, and many other aspects of our common life together. These elements have played a significant role in the life of the Church from its beginning and have been testified to in the experience of the community of faith over time. There’s longevity in their practice because of those things.

But, there are many things that the early Church did that we no longer do. Most of us don’t speak Greek or Aramaic. We don’t sing the songs the early Church sang. We don’t organize our life together in the same ways. We don’t necessarily use the same methods of leadership, accountability, or finances. We’ve incorporated things from our culture that have sometimes helped us do things the early Church couldn’t do – like using technology to reach more areas of the world with the Gospel. Change is sometimes necessary as the culture shifts for us to communicate the Gospel anew again and again. Although not all change is beneficial or faithful, change is a part of life and it has always been a part of the Church. If it the early Church had not been willing to change as the Spirit led, then, as Gentiles, we wouldn’t be part of the Church. Faithfulness sometimes requires that we change our methods and means for communicating the Gospel.

The difficult part is in deciding and discerning when that must happen. When must we change and what must we preserve? Is this like putting new wine in new wineskins? Is this like sewing an old piece of material on an old shirt? When is one appropriate over the other? That can be a hard tightrope to walk. But, as the prophets demonstrate, walking into that new future means that some things are pruned in order for new life to emerge. Lament the distance between where we are and where God desires us to be. As we do so, in all love, crying out to God readies us for what God is doing now.

Losing Market-share of the Religious Landscape: Beyond the Brickyards

The Pew Research Center recently released a survey detailing the American religious landscape (find article here). Some of the data indicates that there is a rise in those that affiliate with no religion at all. This trend is sometimes called “the rise of the ‘nones.'” Along with this upward trend is a downward trend in those that identify as Christian, regardless of the denominational affiliation.

Of course, without must surprise, the onslaught of moaning about the demise of the Church and the emphasis on ministerial techniques to reverse this trend have been plentiful. Some see it as the moral decay of a nation and shout to rally the troops so that they might retake Capitol Hill and reclaim some kind of power to assert their influence again. Others see it as a matter of ministerial, pastoral technique that will ensure recovery. So, plant churches because that’s “the most effective way to reach the un-reached” or market to a particular demographic or create programs that will get people hooked on the church (sounds like we’re peddling drugs). Or, perhaps, and this has been my tendency, it is a matter of better education of laity and pastors that will ensure the Church’s future.

But, unfortunately, those are all inadequate. They are woefully inadequate because they focus on “technique.” By “technique,” I mean developing the skill set to achieve a purpose or goal. It’s about management. Essentially, it’s about control. Finally, it’s about power. The underlying motivation for the above-mentioned techniques is typically motivated out of a desire to maintain or gain ground in the market-share of the religious (and perhaps non-religious) consumers. That’s the primary difficulty in reading the Pew Research Center’s survey – people are reduced to percentages. And, where people become numbers and percentages for a market-share, they cease to matter as anything more than a means to our ends. They become commodities, useful until used up. Their humanity is diminished, especially if they don’t serve our bottom line.

The result, with little, if any, exaggeration, is that people do not matter in the Church. Thus, the “rise of the nones” threatens our market-share kingdoms. It becomes a fearful thing to see this downward spiral, even if we don’t see it as bleakly as the survey paints it. The rise in the opposition to the Church or to religion in general is easily viewed as a threat to our longevity and viability. But, this is only a threat to a Church that does not know how to die, that has left the cross behind for the tools of management. Isn’t this the very thing that Pharaoh fears in seeing the rising strength of Israel? They’re too many and what if Egypt is attacked by other nations; what if Israel turns their strength against Egypt? So, Pharaoh orders them to make bricks, he begins building projects, he turns to technique in managing the loss of market-share. In so doing, he attempts to de-humanize God’s people. The end result is that Pharaoh has no real identity – he’s never named.

I see this turn to technique and the Church’s resistance to embrace dying as a move in line with Pharaoh. We see the rising threat to Christendom, want to desperately hold onto our power, and are willing to go so far as to de-humanize those whose rising power might threaten our own sense of security and privilege. When this is our position, we operate out of fear and self-protection. We create “brickyards” out of our sanctuaries that tell people to work harder, lest we lose more ground. And, in the process of de-humanizing others, we find that we have lost our identity. We resemble Pharaoh, not Jesus.

Personally, I have found hope in the numbers because I believe in resurrection. Yes, we must go through death, but Jesus has shown us that life is on the other side. I’m okay with Christendom dying, with the Church dying, with me dying because I know there is hope where God is at work and that life springs up from dead stumps, dead bones, and dead bodies where God speaks. New life is able to break out with the death of Christendom because we might finally come face-to-face with our own false claims and narratives. We might hear the Gospel again when it has been extracted from the cultural narratives that we have swallowed. We might stop relying on our own power to control the outcome and re-enter into the difficult work of imagination, wonder, and surprise. We very well might find that being crucified with Jesus will free us from the bondage of playing power games and developing leaders that play those games. Instead, we might find disciples utilizing the tools of towel and basin, bread and cup, and the cross as the call to serve others and “not lord is over them.”

I think Desmond Tutu’s response to the question about optimism in the midst of great travail is poetically potent: “I am a prisoner of hope.” Hope is not yet another technique of optimism that we must engender so that we can motivate people to a new future. Rather, it is a hope rooted in the gift of God’s ever-abundant, life-giving Spirit at work in the midst of the broken Creation calling forth a new Creation – a new heaven and new earth. As Romans 8 unfolds, we are in the midst of the groaning pangs of child-birth of the new Creation. We’re not always sure even what to pray. But, the Spirit prays with and for us as we await the redemption of our bodies, which includes social bodies as well. In this I find hope to actively wait and serve while putting aside the tools of manipulation, management, and control. The hope of God’s promised future allows the Church to die faithfully, seeing it as an opportunity for God’s new work of the Spirit to unfold among us. Church, move beyond the brickyards.

Pick Up Your Cross and Follow Me: Reflections on Co-pastoral Ministry

Here’s the link to a blog I recently wrote about co-pastoral ministry, power, and being a servant. The blog is posted on Shawna Gaines’ blog. Shawna and Tim Gaines serve as co-pastors in California. Their ministry has been helpful to observe and learn from as Becca and I began our ministry together. Grateful for others that are faithfully demonstrating what it looks like to live in community, sharing ministry together!

Link to article: Pick Up Your Cross and Follow Me: Reflections on Co-pastoral Ministry

Micah 4:1-5 – “Swords into Plowshares: Reimagining Power in a Violent World”

Ask an American to tell the story of America and they will begin, perhaps, with the story of the American Revolution where freedom from tyranny was secured.  It will progress to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.  Naturally, the story will weave its way through World War I and II, where the tyrannical powers of the world were halted by our military might.  Vietnam and Korea.  The Cold War, Desert Storm and the Iraqi War will all make their appearance.  Our imagination, our identity as a country has been shaped by the marking of our history – a history littered with violence.  Some have gone so far as to say that the ethos of our dominant narrative is war. 

        Of course, our violence is not limited to national warfare.  Our history includes the dark shadow of slavery, sexism, and colonialism.  The poor have always and continue to be oppressed by unethical financial practices… just ask Wall Street and Wal-Mart.  Manifest Destiny was thinly veiled genocide hailed as progress.  This fails to mention human trafficking, child and spousal abuse, school violence, and political mud-slinging.  If we have only mentioned our human relationships, what list might we build if we considered violence done to the environment and to the rest of Creation?

The prevailing praxis flowing out of our ethos of violence is necessary to understand.  Our conceptions of power are built on the notion that “might makes right,” no less if by majority vote.  Power is used to attain what one desires and to maintain what one has acquired.  And, if something should be desired or my possessions threatened, then force, violence – even war – are deemed acceptable options to our desired end, no matter who or what might be destroyed.  This “will to power” objectifies the Creation, which includes other humans, for manipulation and exploitation for personal gain, pleasure or benefit.

From this perspective, everything is a commodity to be consumed.  Our consuming is never satisfied.  Our demand continues to climb higher while those commodities becomes fewer.  It is the crisis of the market.  Supply and demand create scarcity, which produces fear, which turns into violence to grab those precious resources.  That’s only one reason nobody wants to be a Wal-Mart door greeter on Black Friday.  Violence is a natural outcome and by-product of consumerism because it is based upon competition for limited resources.  All of Creation suffers as a result.  We are a culture characterized by violence.

The American church has been significantly impacted by this prevailing cultural narrative.  We have engaged in our own methods and forms of violent behavior.  Schism and division.  Proclaiming “truth” without tempering it with love.  We enforce our “rights,” using our power (both individually and corporately) for political posturing and the securing of our “freedoms.”

We have rendered people as commodities to be counted to bolster our attendance numbers to reach the next plateau of growth or what they can do for our ministry until they are used up and discarded, instead of seeing each person as inherently valuable as God’s creation.  We exercise violence through our words against our enemies, by demonizing our opposition.  We do violence to the Gospel when we make it about us.  We do violence to the name of God when the Church cannot be distinguished from the murderous world.

Because our dominate narrative is violence, it is difficult for us to imagine a world otherwise.  After all, how is it possible for our world to change when there is such an extensive history of violence?  Plus, if everyone is looking out for themselves, who’s looking out for me?  The answer, it seems, is obvious.  Kill or be killed.  It’s about survival.  If someone puts out your eye or knocks out your teeth, then it is your right, not only to get even, to exact revenge.  Violence begets violence… and the cycle continues.

Micah, a prophet during the height of Judah’s power, lives in a world filled with violence.  Micah paints a picture of his contemporaries: “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Mic. 2:1-2).

The leaders of the community are unfamiliar with justice.  Micah testifies against them saying, “[you] tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones, [you] eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron” (Mic. 3:2-3).  The prophets are also culpable.  Micah says they proclaim “’Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths” (Mic. 3:5).

God’s people do not look much different than the Assyrians, who had recently destroyed Israel.  They take advantage of the poor, do violence to one another, and misuse the gifts that God has given to them.  Neighbor mistreats neighbor.  The weak of society are trampled under foot.  The powerful and the affluent hoard and oppress to the detriment of the community.  As such, they misuse God’s name.

Micah, however, imagines an alternative script for the ways in which Judah might faithfully live as God’s people again.  Hear what Micah says, “[God] will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths… They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore.  Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.”

Weapons of violence are re-shaped as instruments of cultivation.  Power is re-oriented to the sustaining of life and the protection of the weak, not for the exploitation of the poor and the elimination of our competition.  Power is re-directed from “might makes right” to purposefully seeking the “good of all.”  Micah invites a new world into their midst, not as a pipe dream… as an open invitation to live into God’s future now.  It is a future where power no longer resembles the warrior garbed in battle attire.

Rather, it is a future where they are empowered to live in right relationship with one another, enjoying the fruits of Creation which they help cultivate together, and where fear is but a memory.  No longer is their identity to be found in being a warrior, using power for their own security.  God’s people will be those that till the soil, utilizing their power to add value back into the Creation and into the lives of others.

But, of course, it does seem like a pipe dream.  Israel and Judah both fail to live into this future that God is providing.  Several centuries after Micah, Jesus shows up on the scene.  Things haven’t changed much for Israel.  They live under the pax Romana, peace maintained with the keen edge of a sword.  Power politics rule the day.  Rulers, like Caesar, Pilate, Herod, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, all play by Rome’s rules.  Some placate more than others, but Rome dominates the landscape and the way of life.  It is Rome’s way or the proverbial highway.  Violence is the basis for this so-called “peace.”

Jesus begins preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”  He offers an imaginative alternative to Caesar and Herod, to the prevailing violence of politics and religion and business-as-usual.  Fortunate are those who are pure in heart, the peace makers, the meek, the merciful, the poor in spirit, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  The world claims that power is for the fortunate.  Jesus re-arranges power and what it means to be fortunate!

Jesus challenges the violence that neighbor committed against neighbor.  He even calls for everyone to love their enemies!  But, in a culture and world where imagination is dominated by violence, it is nearly impossible to see God’s light dawning in the midst of such darkness.  The world’s violence against one another turns to violence against the Creator.  Though the Word  became flesh and tabernacles among us, we do not know him and want to put out his light.  And, so, Jesus is crucified.  The world takes up sword and spear against the Creator and slays him upon the cross.

Yet, that was not the end of the story.  By the power of God, Jesus was raised from the dead.  Death is crushed to death.  Light pierces the darkness, scattering it.  Sin and death are defeated foes.  When confronted by the violence of the world, Christ lays down his life… “[He] was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:5).

Christ transforms the cross, the world’s instrument of violence, into God’s instrument of peace.  Beating swords into plowshares.  The cross which was the world’s means of violence, became the very means by which God cultivates and prunes the Creation… readying it for the harvest of salvation.  Jesus, like Micah, wasn’t offering a pipe dream… He is calling us to re-imagine the world, to see God’s future that is even now breaking into our present… offering hope in the midst of violence, offering life instead of death.  And, calling for us to live into that future hope.

St. Francis of Assisi penned a well-known prayer that is very appropriate.  May it be our prayer.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is error, truth;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

When we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are confronted by our own propensity toward animosity, hatred, and violence.  Yet, it is at this Table that we are offered a new way, God’s way of being in this world.  Jesus breaks bread with his disciples.  He breaks bread with his betrayer.  The Risen Christ stands among us with pierced hands and feet, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

The Eucharist reminds us that Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us… precisely because it is a conquered foe.  At this Table, we remember that “on the night that Christ was betrayed, he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.’  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23-26).