Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Stewardship of Creation

In my November 3 post, I said that the tasks of the church were as follows:

  1. Stewardship of Creation
  2. Stewardship of Community
  3. Proclamation of Jesus 
  4. Proclamation of the Kingdom
I want to start working through these and explain why each of these four is critical to the mission of the church.

Stewardship of creation is a trendy political issue these days. Pipeline protests, land management conflicts, environmental regulations, carbon exchanges -- all of it lives in the realm of secular politics. Why should the church be concerned about creation? Face it, most of us as Christians don't pay a whole lot of attention to the natural world. Doubt that? Let me ask you a question: Is the moon, right now, waxing or waning? 

If you can't immediately answer without going to a website or a calendar to check it out, you're out of touch with the natural world. But does that matter? 

Again, let's go back to Jesus' practices, words and priorities. If you're paying attention as you read the gospels, you'll see Jesus intimately attentive to the natural world. He speaks about cycles of planting and harvest, talks about signs of weather in the skies and the wind direction, the habits of animals and birds, the intimate details of vineyards. He uses flowers and grasses and sparrows and trees throughout his speaking and teaching. When Jesus was in Jerusalem, an urban environment where, if he wanted to, Jesus could be insulated from the natural world by immersing himself in the life of the city, Luke's gospel tells us it was "his custom" to go to the Mount of Olives, to stay in places like the Garden of Gethsemane outside the urban bustle. 

Of course, all humans were more intimately connected with the natural world in those days, right? This is probably true. Though there were people who could insulate themselves from the vagaries of the natural world. They tended to be the upper classes, the rulers who could afford climate-controlled housing, artificial light, and who didn't have to worry as much about weather as they didn't have to work in the elements. Herod, Caesar, and other wealthy, powerful people demonstrate the truth of what Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett say in their delightful story, Good Omens, "almost the entire drive of human history has been an attempt to get as far away from Nature as possible." 

And we see this like crazy today. Your cell phone, your computer, your television are not dependent on vagaries like the length of daylight in any 24-hour period, for example. And the fact that there are apps you can get on your phone or your computer to change the wavelength of light so your body can adjust and get ready for sleeping at certain times of day just proves my point, not the reverse. 

You see, what Caesar and Herod and the wealthy in Jesus' own day had is exactly what we have: the ancient Greeks called it "hubris," the belief that somehow we're above it all. Beyond the simple annoyance of it all, does it really matter to you if it rains or freezes? Yes, it might affect traffic. Does it really matter what the phase of the moon is right now or what time the sun rises and sets? Taking it a step further, as long as it doesn't affect your drinking water, does it really matter if the vacant lot next door turns out to be a toxic Superfund site? Beyond a little sense of offense and indignation and fear, probably not. We're capable of controlling things like that. We're capable of getting beyond it. Even the residents of Flint, Michigan were quickly able to get sources of bottled water for the most part when their tap water turned out to be toxic. 

But stories like that are a good reminder that we may be more vulnerable than we thought. More to the current point, while we are capable of insulating ourselves from the natural world pretty effectively, we may be missing out on important things if we do.

For the last few years I was living in a first ring suburb of the Twin Cities. The concrete and traffic drove me crazy. I'd go to parks just to have a chance to breathe, but even the wildest of parks in the Cities felt like artificially domesticated, groomed plots of woodland to me. Let me say that the Twin Cities has an amazing network of parks and I thoroughly enjoyed many of them. But I longed for the woods and fields. Granted, I'm a farm kid and a hunter, and a sense of connection to the natural world is hard-wired into me. 

My circumstances have changed significantly (it's a long story, but my urban burnout plays significantly in the drama) in the last several months, and as I write this I'm sitting in the midst of real, undomesticated trees, with real wildlife roving the terrain. I have the privilege of watching -- and participating in -- the rhythms of the natural world as the days grow shorter and the lake freezes up (not yet, thank goodness, as I still need to get the dock pulled out) and I'm cutting wood for heat for the winter and getting a few important projects finished up before the soil freezes. My days are shaped by the weather. 

All of this helps me see some of what was so important to Jesus in connecting to the natural world. The Bible says repeatedly that the natural world reveals God in significant ways. Now, it's important to say that we don't get a complete revelation of God from nature. But Psalm 19 and Romans 1 and many other passages tell us that there are significant lessons to learn from the natural world. And Jesus' own practice of using nature to illustrate his teachings (see for example Matthew 6) says he was all about this connection to the created world. 

It follows, then, that the church ought to be concerned about the stewardship of creation. What exactly does that look like? Does that mean we should be concerned about the use of styrofoam cups in our coffee hours, or protesting the latest pipeline routes, or picking up garbage on the side of the highway? Possibly. Our stewardship might lead us into each of those and dozens of other places. But maybe it's wiser to start with realizing how much of our life as a church is already shaped by the natural world. 

For example, why is Christmas on December 25? That date was carefully chosen not because it's Jesus' actual birthday, but rather because that is the first day after the winter solstice in which human beings without scientific instruments can measure the increasing length of daylight, in the northern hemisphere at least. So Jesus is the light coming into the world, coming into our darkness. The season of Advent, as the days descend into darkness, is built off this cosmic event, as is the season of Epiphany, when the days are growing longer and light is coming into the world and we celebrate Jesus being revealed to us in splendid glory. The word "Lent" comes from the Latin "lencten," which means "lengthen" which refers to increasing daylight as the calendar marches forward. 

Easter is perhaps the most notorious cosmic calendar holiday. Did you know that the date for Easter, modeled off the biblical system for calculating Passover, is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring (vernal) equinox? That's why the date of Easter jumps around in such annoying fashion. It depends on the phases of the moon. 

Our problem is not so much that we are arrogant about feeling superior to the rhythms of the created world -- our problem is that we are just ignorant and unaware. In the creation story we are told that God himself set up the stars and the heavenly bodies to be "for signs and for seasons and for days and years." If we are not paying attention to the created world, we are in danger of missing the signs. I'm not talking about signs of Jesus' second coming or any of that hand-wringing, though the cosmic bodies get in on that action too, according to Jesus. Rather, I'm talking about the signs that reveal to us a loving, orderly Creator and call us to live as part of his created order. So much of the Bible speaks of this calling and connection. The church would do well to pay attention. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

What to do in response to Sutherland?

Here is a link to an excellent post by Carey Nieuwhof addressing, at least in part, the tragic violence at First Baptist in Sutherland, Texas this weekend, though Carey's post was mostly written long before. He gets at the task of the church in a way that is so much more biblical than much of what you'll hear from people about this. Some will say they plan to start carrying a weapon to worship. Others will say all weapons should be banned. Both miss the point of what the church is called to be and to do. Read Carey's article.

Because it's not enough to post a tearful Facebook post saying your "thoughts and prayers" go out to the victims. And it's not enough to say someone should change something at the level of legislation or personal security.

Fact is, Jesus' followers already have title and access to the one force that has proven to change the world in the face of hate and violence time and time again. We just need to put it to work.

It's love.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Oswald Weighs In

Nearly every morning I read the day's selection from My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. This morning the excellent devotion contained this thought:

In the history of the Christian church, the tendency has been to avoid being identified with the sufferings of Jesus Christ. People have sought to carry out God’s orders through a shortcut of their own. God’s way is always the way of suffering—the way of the “long road home.”

Excerpt From: Chambers, Oswald. “My Utmost for His Highest.
 Interestingly, most of what the church does today is geared toward seeking to carry out God's orders through a shortcut of our own. Evangelism programs are my favorite example, but they're just the easiest of many, many things the church does via easy shortcuts.

How do we do evangelism via our own shortcuts? Put simply, we change the goal. So it's probably not true that we carry out God's orders -- instead, we rewrite the orders to make them achievable by our own methods. So with evangelism, instead of "proclaiming the kingdom" as Jesus sent his followers to do, we change the orders -- and we make evangelism about getting people into heaven and helping them avoid hell. We do this even though that was never the assignment Jesus gave us.

It's a lot easier to scare someone with fears of hell and entice them with images of heaven. For the sake of their own self interest, they may well choose to "become a Christian" -- and we feel good about following God's orders.

Trouble is, Jesus gave us a much more difficult assignment. He didn't say, "Go out and scare people with hell and entice them with heaven so that based on their own self interest they will give their hearts to me." He said, proclaim the kingdom of God. As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' That's different from making people fear hell.

We don't much like "the long road home." We certainly don't like the way of suffering. We like a simple task that we can accomplish before suppertime. Trouble is, that's not what Jesus left us with.

Proclaiming the kingdom of God is a much more difficult and challenging task. It will take us a lot more careful study in order to learn what Jesus means by these words. And it will result in asking / inspiring / challenging / inviting people to know Jesus as Lord and to follow him as his disciples. Now those are phrases and ideas that we do, actually, find in the gospels.

Next post we'll get back to unpacking a biblical view of the task of the church.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Distilling it down -- the tasks of the church

To review a few basics from the last several weeks:

  • Churches are struggling to define themselves these days. Church leadership, growth, and management are all growth industries. 
  • Everyone who is in church leadership in any form struggles with some of the myriad of challenges facing today's churches. 
  • Though Jesus talked very little about the church, he did talk a LOT about what he called "the kingdom of God." 
  • It's important for Jesus followers to understand what the Bible says about the church, and specifically what Jesus means by this phrase, "the kingdom of God." 

So as we observed earlier, the Bible is shot through and through with this idea of the kingdom of God. How can we begin to get our heads and hearts around what this means for churches and individual Jesus-followers today?

For simplicity, let's distill the kingdom of God -- as witnessed throughout the Bible -- down to four basic concepts. We can make biblical arguments for each of these, and down the line we'll unpack some of that. But for the moment, let's just lay these four concepts / directives out there: 

1. Stewardship of Creation.
2. Stewardship of Community.
3. Proclamation of Jesus.
4. Proclamation of the Kingdom. 

If you know the Bible's stories, you might remember the Garden of Eden and God's directive to the first man and woman that they should manage the earth. "Till the earth and keep it" is one phrase that gets used to address this command. Another is that we should "have dominion" over the earth. We'll unpack this more in the future. 

As we read the New Testament book of Acts and the letters of Paul and others in the New Testament, we see an incredible priority on the stewardship of the community of believers. Basically the entire Bible challenges us to ask ourselves what love looks like in the context of the Christ-centered community. The stewardship of this community dominates so much of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Again, this is worth taking some time to unpack in the future. So let's. 

The followers of Jesus -- both the first disciples and the church today -- are called to be a proclaiming group. Our first proclamation is that we proclaim Jesus. Read the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament and you find that the church is constantly proclaiming Jesus. The church today is too often tempted to slide away from focusing on Jesus -- but that never goes well for us. 

The followers of Jesus, this "proclaiming" bunch, are also called to proclaim the kingdom of God. This is the proclamation that we in today's church most often miss. What does it mean to proclaim the kingdom today? Jesus made this task incredibly clear, and yet it's so easy to miss. I'm very excited in the coming weeks to explore what it might look like for today's church to be a kingdom-proclaiming church. This proclamation goes hand in hand with our other tasks of stewardship of both creation and community, and our proclamation of Jesus. In fact, without those other tasks we really can't proclaim the kingdom effectively. 

So let's start next time with the stewardship of creation. If you're impatient, check out the poetry and essays of Wendell Berry, who has been thinking about these things in depth for many years. One of my favorite collections of his poems is called Farming: A Hand Book and it includes a character called "the mad farmer" who challenges us to think beyond what we have known before and to see more clearly than we have seen in the past. If you can't wait for that next blog post, those poems would make a great read!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A 500-year celebration

Interrupting the train of thought we've been on for a moment ... today is Reformation Sunday, 2017 -- so effectively the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the chapel door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, the event that traditionally marks the launch of the Protestant Reformation. Of course, the actual history is much more subtle and complex than that, as histories usually are. But anniversaries are important. I had the privilege today of telling a small group of people some stories about Luther and the launch of the Reformation. How fun to be able to lay out a few of those stories about one of history's most fascinating people!

The Reformation grew out of Luther's Spirit-driven insight that "the righteousness of God" in scripture refers not to God's own holiness that gives him the right to judge and punish us, but rather it refers to the righteousness God gives us because of Jesus' death on the cross. Some theologians have taken issue with that definition in recent years, but the fact is that this insight drove Luther for a lifetime to redefine and proclaim the good news of Jesus in a way it hadn't been done for centuries.

And coming full circle back to our ecclesiological train of thought on this blog recently, that proclamation has implications for the church.

So what does it mean to be a group of people who are defined by God giving us the free gift of righteousness based not on our own merit but based on the death and resurrection of Jesus? Luther saw lots of implications. For example, he said that sacraments are all about Jesus, based on his commands, not based on some system we create. So he reduced the Roman Catholic system of seven sacraments down to two (baptism and communion).

For another example, he said worship should be relatively simple, not a work that we perform to earn merit before God, but rather a way to give thanks and praise to God because of what he's done for us in Jesus. And in turn, the direction of worship is not our giving to God, but rather God proclaiming his word, his gracious, merciful word to us. So Luther moved the center of worship to the proclaiming of the good news of Jesus. (This is slippery and we still often lose sight of it.)

In one of his most cutting-edge moves, Luther talked about the church being not a massive institution, but ideally a voluntary group of people committed to following Jesus together with their lives. Martin recognized the need for more institutionalized forms of worship, certainly, but for sincere believers he foresaw smaller groups of people meeting in homes, worshiping simply together and being salt and light in the world through their actions and their giving and their proclaiming of Jesus.

There's a lot more. Luther's influence is nearly impossible to overstate. In 1999, anticipating the turn of the millennium, Life magazine published a list of the 100 most influential people of the last 1,000 years. Martin Luther ranked #2 on their list. His influence extends into government, literature, education, linguistics, legal affairs, home and family life, economics, and so much more, in addition to theology and ecclesiology.

By the way, #1 on Life's list was Thomas Edison. So think about how many times in a day you rely on artificial light or listen to recorded sounds -- then realize that Martin Luther runs a close second (at least according to that ranking) in how he has influenced your daily life. It's a powerful testimony to a man who struggled with depression, saw himself as rude and uncultured, spent the majority of his life under a sentence of death and excommunication, and often wondered if he was having any kind of a positive impact.

Don't give up hope. God isn't finished with us yet! The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a great time to remember that, and to give thanks to God for the way he has worked in history. What might he be up to right now? It's a fun question to ponder.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Jesus' laser focus

Key ideas for today's post:

1. Jesus was laser-focused on something he called "the kingdom of God."

2. If we are following Jesus, we must be focused on this kingdom as well.

So what is the "kingdom of God"?

Jesus started out his ministry preaching a very straightforward message: The kingdom of God is near you. Mark records his words this way: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the good news." (See Mark 1.) I've heard this idea loosely translated as "God is close to you, and he wants to do stuff." That may start to get us thinking in the right direction. This key idea of Jesus is incredibly difficult for us to understand fully.

Trouble is, over a couple thousand years of church history, we have made some of this language into code words. So we sometimes translate "good news" (the Greek word is "euanggelion" from which we get the words like "evangel" and "evangelism" and "evangelical") as "gospel." The literal translation of this word is "most excellent message" or something like that. Good news is pretty close. When Caesar would send out a proclamation about something that should be celebrated, he would call the proclamation by this same word -- "Good News." If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend NT Wright's book, Simply Good News. Wright asks in this book what is it about Jesus' message that is "good" and what is it about his message that is "news." Fair questions, and harder to answer than you might think.

What we do with this word "gospel" is we turn it into a loaded code phrase for "accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and you will go to heaven when you die." If this is what you assume Jesus is talking about, I strongly recommend that you go look for that idea in the gospels. You won't find it, and only by twisting Jesus' words and actions in the most unconscionable ways will you insert that idea into Jesus' ministry. Heaven and hell are important, but they were very, very minor ideas in Jesus' teaching and ministry. So be careful about forcing him, two thousand years later, to say something just because you've believed it.

What did Jesus mean by "good news"? Great question. It seems like for him, it had something to do with this idea of the kingdom of God arriving. The kingdom of God, Jesus said, is "at hand." That was his first sermon. For roughly three years, he taught and acted in ways that helped people understand this "kingdom." Healing lepers, giving sight to blind people, feeding crowds on bread and fish, telling pithy stories about what it looks like to live in God's kingdom -- all these filled Jesus' days for three years. Very often Jesus started his parables with the words, "The kingdom of God is like ..." It seems like Jesus was constantly trying to answer the question, what does it look like to live under God's rule? At the end of his ministry, Jesus' disciples had gotten the idea that this kingdom he kept talking about was pretty important. Some of their last questions to him, both right before his crucifixion and right after his resurrection, involved the kingdom of God.

For us, because we are hung up on geography and political boundaries, it might be beneficial to think about it as "the kingship of God." What does it mean for God to be in charge?

So here's an exercise. Ask yourself, in what facets of your life is God most in charge? In what facets of your life is God least in charge? That starts to get in some ways at what Jesus meant by "the kingdom of God."

But it goes beyond that as well. It's not just about analyzing your life as an individual and figuring out where you're at spiritually. There are ingredients to this kingdom that Jesus includes, and we shouldn't miss them.

One of the main ways Jesus does this is he uses the Old Testament like crazy. So he's always quoting from or basing his actions on the Old Testament. There are some basic ideas we learn from the Old Testament and the New Testament takes these assumptions for granted. Here are a few examples:

1. God is not only creator, but also owner. He's in charge.
2. Humans are created to manage God's good creation. We have authority because God gives it to us.
3. Our stewardship -- our management -- includes dealing well with the natural world.
4. Our stewardship -- our management -- includes dealing well with human beings.
5. This kingdom is both individual and communal. In other words, human community is incredibly important.
6. God speaks, and what he says goes.
7. Our management needs to reflect God's character. We sometimes call this "justice" or "righteousness" or "love," though each of those words comes with some difficulty.

Remember, we're trying to get at the question of the church -- what is the church supposed to be and to do? Digging into these assumptions about God's rule, about his kingdom, is going to help us do exactly that.

Monday, October 23, 2017

What Jesus said about the church

If you are a Jesus-follower, you know that it's incredibly important to know what Jesus said about any given topic. So one of the most interesting things when we start thinking about the church and what Jesus intended it to be is this disturbing fact:  Jesus said almost nothing about the church.

Almost nothing.

Jesus mentions the word "church" (Greek, "ekklesia") in exactly two verses -- in Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 18:17 (where he uses the word twice). Three times in the four gospels the word "church" appears.

So Jesus didn't talk much about the church. He didn't lay out a template for what churches should look like. He didn't describe a system for organizing or governing churches. He didn't say what color the carpet should be, how the budget should be structured, or what leadership structures ought to look like. These, and a dozen other issues like them, are responsible for most of our church struggles and conflicts today. We argue and split churches over all these things because we believe that there is a right and wrong way to do these things.

Granted, there are a few nods toward issues of church leadership in the rest of the New Testament outside the four gospels, especially in some of Paul's letters. But if the issues by which our churches rise and fall are so important, shouldn't Jesus have at least mentioned them?

Well. If Jesus didn't talk about the church, what did he talk about?

Read the gospels, and Jesus' main idea comes really clear. Obviously clear. He started out his ministry preaching about this main focus -- what he called "the kingdom of God." He told most of his parables about the kingdom of God. (In Matthew's gospel it's usually called "the kingdom of heaven" out of respect for his Jewish readers who didn't like to mention the name of God. But the idea is the same.) When Jesus gave his followers advice about what should be most important to them, he said they should "seek first the kingdom of God." (See Matthew 6:33 for that statement.) If you read the gospels and pay attention to what Jesus was really concerned about and what he actually said, you find he was much more interested in the kingdom of God than he was in the church. Jesus came and proclaimed the kingdom of God. He sent his followers out to proclaim the kingdom of God.

It has been said that Jesus told us to proclaim the kingdom, and instead, we created the church. That's a disturbing thought.

Now, we're going to unpack this idea of "the kingdom of God" a bit next post. But let me first say that there is much that the church is and does that is important and good and necessary and some of it's even biblical. But if we think the church is the point of Christianity, we've missed the point. At least we've missed Jesus' point. If we're about creating churches, we may be great at manufacturing an institution. We might be skilled at creating a religious system. We could possibly be near the mark, though it's hard to say. But we've missed Jesus' own words and actions.

That's a point worth pondering as we try to figure out what the church ought to be about. But like I said, in the next post, we'll be trying to get a handle on what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. (Or you could go read the gospels, which would probably be a way better use of your time than reading my blog. But then, I suppose you could do both.)