Thursday, November 26, 2009

Going Home

This summer and fall I've been writing, just for fun, a series of reflections around the theme, "Going Home." I wrote the piece below a few days ago and when each of my daughters read it, they independently told me, "You should put that on your blog." So at the direction of my daughters, here it is. I will be offline for a few days but should be posting again by the first couple days in December. I hope you are having a blessed Thanksgiving and entering into a joyful Advent filled with anticipation.

One of the problems with going home is that in a mobile society, many of us have multiple homes to return to. One of my favorites is the badlands of North Dakota. I go back there to bowhunt for mule deer with my brothers. That fellowship of pleistocene ritual is wonder enough, but layered over the top for me is the emotion of going back to the badlands. My first call as an ordained pastor was to Williston, North Dakota, and I fell in love with the wide, dry, rugged land.

Western North Dakota is what geologists call “negative topography.” That means that once upon a time the surface of the ground was more or less level, far higher than it is now, and what would eventually become vast prairies were laid down in successive layers by a warm inland sea where mosasaurs and other primal creatures did epic battle. Their bones eventually settled in the mud at the bottom of the sea. Depending on the sources of inflowing water, the mud was brown, or white, or black, or reddish. When the waters dried up, these great prairies became lush grasslands. Here and there a river cut the surface and over time erosion began to carve the surface down, layer by layer, into canyons and coulees. The multicolored layers of clay and dirt and sandstone opened up to reveal a riot of color and eye-numbing designs on the sides of the canyons. As the runoff cut deeper and deeper channels, the winding canyons twisted and turned back on each other until this deeply carved area -- miles and miles and miles across -- became a navigator’s nightmare. You can literally walk in, turn around once, and be lost. The designs, the canyons, all look the same.

Mule deer love it here. They sleep in the junipers on the north facing slopes and graze in the sage on the coulee bottoms. Coyotes and rabbits and rattlesnakes all have a place in this severe wonderland. I wounded a rabbit with an arrow one hot day and followed him into a narrow washout where he retreated to hide. I crawled six feet inside the small cave, dark and dry, where he had disappeared before I remembered rattlesnakes. I backed out slowly without injury, but a few minutes later saw a six foot rattler slide through that same hole.

Before he led the charge up San Juan Hill or got himself elected President, Teddy Roosevelt had a ranch just northwest of the canyons we hunt. In later life he was fond of reminiscing about how his time in the badlands made him strong.

Because the landscape is carved from the flat surface down, not lifted up like traditional mountains, it is deceptive to drive to the badlands. You drive and drive across flat prairie and it sucks you into the illusion of flatness. You think it will go on forever. Then suddenly you come around a corner (why have a corner in flat country? you wonder) and the bottom drops out and you run down the coulee into bottoms where the rust and cream bluffs tower over your head. The farther down you go the deeper it gets and the higher the canyons, until the bucks are sitting on a shelf a hundred feet above your head and watching you drive by, confident that you are blind to their presence, and you are.

Strange things live here. Bighorn sheep and mountain lions make an appearance from time to time, and in Teddy Roosevelt National Park there are herds of bison. Even the geology takes on a life of its own. There are towering buttes with flat tops where a tabletop of flat, hard sandstone protects the clay underneath from being eroded away. By some strange geological happenstance here and there you can find something that look like gigantic cannonballs, two and three feet across, dark brown and waiting for battle. Swallows nest in stands of wavering sculpture that look like drunken mushrooms leaning on each other for support, but the whole formation is made out of clay. Here and there a seam of coal shows through. Other places there are dark red, sharp-edged scoria rocks, formed when one of those coal seams caught fire and baked the clay around it.

I knew a man once who made his spending money as a boy digging that coal. He and his brother parked a wagon at the top of the bluff, and one brother climbed down to dig the coal. He’d fill a three gallon bucket they had tied to a hundred twenty feet of rope. The other brother waiting at the top pulled the bucket up and dumped it in the wagon. They repeated this process until they got a wagon load, then drove the horses twelve miles to town and sold the load for five dollars.

You can still find old cabins, broken down and mostly rotted, here and there in the badlands. Some homesteader in the early 1900’s, probably poor, probably from Denmark or Finland, came to try his luck at the American Dream. They almost all failed, for the badlands don’t suffer fools lightly. Brutal winters, scorching summers, desperate men avoiding the law and nearly every other pestilence known to humanity has taken up residence there at one time or another.

The weather here can be ornery, too. It’s not unusual to get a week of beautiful 50 degree sunny weather in the middle of winter when the winds are right. But don’t let it put you too much at ease! Frequently those warm spells give way to a blizzard, and in an afternoon the temperature can drop fifty degrees and usher in two feet of howling snow.

I used to take my daughters to the badlands just south of Williston when they were about five and eight. We found slides in the clay formations, wore the backsides out of our pants, learned about cactus and bull snakes, and I taught them to shoot the replica Henry .22 I bought just for the purpose. There’s something just right about a lever-action rifle when you’re in that kind of country. I’d like to take them back. It’s probably one of the first real homes they have to go back to. The summer they were seven and ten we camped with them in the north unit of Teddy Roosevelt National Park, in a campground we had all to ourselves. All to ourselves, that is, until sunrise when a bachelor herd of bison wandered in, about thirty males all testosterone and determination to show each other who was the baddest. This was the first night we ever let the girls sleep in their own tent. My wife and I watched breathless as the snorting, heaving, wooly behemoths came within six feet of the girls’ tent. The girls were transfixed, fascinated, in awe of a spectacle that is just a little different in person than on Animal Planet.

So now and then I go home to another home, to commune with the windswept buttes and yucca plants, to see a few mulies, to hear coyotes sing and to sleep out in the open country with my brothers. I climb the buttes and lay in the grass, avoiding the cactus, to scan the coulees below for mule deer. We walk ten or twelve miles in a day, or maybe we sit in one spot and never move more than a hundred yards. Just like it did for my ancestors thousands of years ago, it depends on the deer. We get up in the early dark and sit by the fire after sunset, carrying jerky and water to get us through the days. And after a few hard days it will be time to pack it all in and come back here, come back home, come back to the ones I love most. I’m excited.

Unbind him

This is Jesus' command after he calls his friend Lazarus back to life from death. "Unbind him, and let him go." So much of what the followers of Jesus need to be doing is wrapped up in these words.

The story is in John 11. If you're not familiar, take the time to read it. There are lots of details in this story that are worth comment, but I want to take a very narrow approach for the moment. In this sense, Jesus raising Lazarus is a foreshadowing or a metaphor for the new life that Jesus wants to give to each human being. Lazarus becomes a symbol of all those who are dead spiritually. He has people who love him who are pleading with Jesus to make a change in his life, to heal him of his disease. Their prayers are an important part of the equation, and Jesus acts in response to their prayers -- even though Mary and Martha both would have preferred that Jesus act sooner, he does respond to their requests, and their love for Lazarus moves him.

When Lazarus is laying dead in the tomb, he is beyond care. He does not ask Jesus to give him life. For all we know he is unaware of Jesus' presence until Jesus speaks to him: "Lazarus, come out!" Then, at Jesus' call, Lazarus shuffles out of the tomb. If you've ever watched a movie version of Jesus' life, Lazarus is more often than not a comic sort of character -- thoroughly wrapped up in graveclothes almost like a mummy, squinting in the sunlight, unable to move or function very well because he's wrapped up in all the bindings of death. Then Jesus speaks again, but not to Lazarus. Instead, he speaks to those standing nearby, to Mary and Martha, those who have already confessed him as Lord and been "raised to life" by him. "Unbind him, and let him go," Jesus says.

Lazarus doesn't free himself from death, and he doesn't free himself from the wrappings of death. That takes a community of believers who come alongside him and help him get unwrapped. Each person who comes to know Jesus, whom Jesus raises to life, is still wrapped up in graveclothes. Old habits, old beliefs, old sins, old strongholds all cling like a shroud to the new believer. The heart is alive and beating inside, but the bindings of death still keep that person from living as Jesus intends. So Jesus speaks to the community around that new believer and says, "Unbind him." This is why those who do evangelism must have some way to connect converts to a fellowship of believers. How else will these people get unbound? This fellowship doesn't have to be a traditional church, but we need others who are following Jesus to help us, to unbind us. Alcoholics Anonymous understands this quite well. Who can help an alcoholic who has hit bottom? Someone who has been there, who is in recovery.

What does this look like in the church? So often we want to do ministry in the area we are strongest. But in the economy of God, it is usually in the area of your weakness that God can best use you. Where you have been healed, you are able to unbind others. So the former addict starts a recovery ministry. The person who has endured the bitterness of a painful divorce sets up a ministry for those in the throes of a breaking marriage. One who has lost a loved one ministers to those who are grieving. Don't look for your strength -- look instead for the place you have been most wounded, where Jesus has brought healing to you.

And if you are still wrapped in graveclothes (as all of us are to some extent) don't make the mistake of thinking "I've got to get free before I can plug in to this fellowship." Bring your old stuff, bring your wounds, and let others help unbind you.

This ministry is a miracle that happens along the way anytime Jesus' followers live beyond the surface. As soon as we have authentic relationships, we begin to unbind each other. As soon as we start to pray together, as soon as we begin to serve those who are really in need, we start to see our graveclothes coming off. A group of people who just gather for an hour of worship on Sundays, who exchange polite "howareyouI'mfine" but do not relate beyond the surface, a group of people who are never in each others' homes or workplaces, who never pray together outside a worship service and who don't read and talk about the Bible together will not experience this unbinding. It happens as we invest time and energy and life in each other and God's Spirit works in the mix to bring freedom and strength to what was dead.

And if you continue reading in John 12, you begin to see what an impact this has on the world -- that those who have been dead are now alive and able to bear witness to all Jesus has done for them, and the world is fascinated. According to John, it was Lazarus being raised that really raised people's interest in Jesus to a fever pitch. So it is with us. How powerful it is to hear someone tell the story of what God has done for them! How inspiring (literally, the Spirit coming in) to hear, "I was dead but now I am alive" from the lips of strangers, let alone those we know and love. This power of testimony, of personal witness is a critical part of the church's task. The stories need to be told not only in church sanctuaries, but around the dinner table, in the car, at bedtime, at coffee shops and bars and restaurants. Tell them to your children and to your friends. (See Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

So today is Thanksgiving. Many are gathered with extended family, and often in these grand holiday celebrations we are confronted with our most difficult habits, relationships, and circumstances. So maybe this weekend is a good time to ask -- where do you need to be unbound? Where do the graveclothes lie heavy on you? What area of your life have you just given up, deciding that change is not possible? Then ask yourself, who do you know who knows Jesus, who can come alongside and help set you free?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A cautionary Thanksgiving text

One of the traditional texts for Thanksgiving is taken from Deuteronomy 8. It is well worth the time to read. This text makes so clear the dangers of having everything go the way we want them to go. When my life is easy and my bank account and my stomach are full, when I am at ease and conflicts around me are at a minimum, I am so much in danger of forgetting the God who provided it all. It's a little ironic that our traditional Thanksgiving is filled with self-indulgence and self-absorption. The Pilgrims who we traditionally remember this time of year gave thanks not for their abundance, but for their survival. They worshipped not because God had given them what they wanted, but because they were desperate and recognized God as their only hope.

The Thanksgiving holiday was instituted by Abraham Lincoln after the 1863 battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg in the Civil War. These were desperate times when the fate of this nation hung by a thread and everyone could see it.

When Moses spoke the words of Deuteronomy 8 to the Israelites, they were lined up on the eastern edge of the Jordan, waiting to enter the Promised Land. They had just finished 40 years of wandering around in the wilderness -- a period they endured because their parents had been afraid to trust God, afraid to enter the land and take hold of what God had promised them (see Numbers 13-14). Now this leaner generation was ready to follow Joshua into the land, but Moses looked ahead and recognized the danger inherent in prosperity. "Don't forget," he says, "That it is God who gives you all these things -- your land, your homes, your food, your ability to work and make money. It's all a gift and you are dependent."

God grant us the vision to see both our blessedness and our dependence through his eyes this Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A contrary voice

Here's a direct quote from the online version of a small-town Minnesota newspaper (not Elk River), in response to an article that touched, among other things, on the ELCA and various parties' decisions to leave or to stay. In the rather contentious "comments" section following the online article, one person summed up the way Christians look from their perspective. They said:

"To those who quote scripture- Why can't you put down your bibles and think for yourself? Please, please, please OPEN YOUR MINDS instead of relying on ancient stories to tell you how to think. You are carrying around a lot of hatred."

I post that here primarily because many Christians are totally unaware that people think this way. Many blissful Christians assume everyone pretty much thinks they way they do. They assume that everyone recognizes the Bible as an important, valuable book, and that quoting it responsibly as a guide for life is a Good Thing. We like to think everyone agrees with that.

It's not true.

Not opinion but testimony

So we're living under the tyranny of personal opinion. But the follow up irony to that fact is that there is nothing greater today than the power of personal testimony. If you can say, "God changed my life in this way ..." everyone within earshot is paying attention.

The absolute tyranny of individual opinion leaves each of us standing alone. But we yearn for transformation and transcendence. Deep down we recognize that we are alone in our individualism and bound by our self-centeredness. We long for that which unites us to another. We dream of something that will take us beyond ourselves. So the power of a person's story is tremendous. Look at reality (sic) television -- the concept is that we get to listen in on the lives of individuals who struggle through challenges of all kinds. In their struggles we hope to gain perspective on our own struggles. Extreme Home Makeover or The Biggest Loser or The Amazing Race -- all these shows have tried to connect us to stories of real people who get set free in some way. Along with many others, I've enjoyed listening to Dave Ramsey's call-in talk show. The highlight, of course, is when an individual calls and tells the agonizing story of their financial bondage and their road to freedom. They call their husbands, kids, grandparents, and pets to the phone and together scream over the airwaves, "WE'RE DEBT FREE!" It's great fun.

When my wife and I went to the Philippines in 2005, I spoke to church leaders there about an issue that was dear to my heart -- I spoke about congregations that were living in bondage and the kind of church leaders it would take to take them to freedom. We explored this theme with the Filipino church leaders by digging into the Bible's great story of freedom, the story of the Exodus. One of the pastors I worked with on that trip made the comment near the end of the week that these same ideas could be applied to the life of an individual who is being set free by God's Spirit. That idea stuck under my skin like a sliver and over the next two years I pondered it. I began to see that God works frequently in the same kind of patterns, whether with a nation, a church, or an individual. The story of God's powerful work to set the Israelite slaves free from Egypt in the book of Exodus is in some ways like a template for the ways God sets you and me free. He defeats the powers that hold us captive, leads us through our own whining and rebellion, lays out a covenant to help us know how to live in relationship with him, and gives us time to grow into all he has planned for us. Step by step he leads us toward all he has promised. Finally in November 2007, I wrote some of these thoughts down, and eventually Augsburg Fortress Publishers took the project on and it became the book advertised on this page.

The feedback I have received from people has been universally rooted in the fact that this is a personal book -- that it tells some of my own story and that it engages the reader at a personal level. We long for something that takes us beyond ourselves and helps us to make real change. Spend too much time on Facebook and you'll begin to think that all there is, is your opinion and my opinion and the opinion of everyone else. Ad nauseum. We are all trapped in our own self-centered bubbles. But we yearn for freedom.

The trouble with much of the watered-down religion that passes for Christianity today is that it has no power to set people free. It is what Paul described in 2 Timothy 3:5 -- a faith that has "the form of godliness but denies its power." Whether it is the politically correct social agenda of the left or the rigid moralism of the right, this kind of "be-good-and-do-what's-right" religion has no power to change. We need a savior, not an agenda.

That's why I've been so enjoying the stories I've heard lately of God reaching into people's lives, shaking them loose from what has held them, and leading them from bondage toward freedom. Jesus saves, not as an abstract spiritual truth that allows me to go to heaven when I die, but as a gritty change in real life that affects every second, every decision, and yes, even every opinion in my life. This is reality. This is connection. This is both transcendence and transformation rooted in a Person.

If you're looking for a great story complete with conflict, humor, and touching personal transformation, I invite you to join me in John 9 -- the passage that kicked off these ponderings this morning.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Tyranny of Opinion

We live in a culture dominated by opinion. As a culture, we used to believe in facts. Now we believe in opinions. Websites supposedly dedicated to delivering news regularly post nonscientific polls of their visitors. As I write this, one major news site has a poll asking, "Do you think sick people should fly?" Another asks, "What are you looking forward to most about Thanksgiving?" The interactivity of the internet has catapulted your opinion on the most mundane matters into the news.

Those tasked with delivering that news frequently deliver opinion polls as though they were of terrific importance. Note that these public opinion polls are not surveying experts or even people who are informed on the issues. This is not the television commercial of my childhood that proclaimed, "Four out of five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum." No, these are not the opinions of anyone with authority -- they are just people caught at random to answer a question or two so that someone can publish a poll.

Those who are set apart to lead our country consult public opinion polls and make decisions not based on what is right, but based rather on what people think at any given point in time. It is what is popular, not what is proper, that matters most. Many web pages have a special section advertising the most popular searches people have submitted on that page. Currently on Yahoo! the top ten list is: Susan Boyle, World of Warcraft, Kate Hudson, Mark Sanford, The Origin of Species, Katee Sackhoff, Dancing with the Stars, Michael Jackson, Israel, and Turkey Recipes. Don't you feel better for knowing that is what people are searching for on Yahoo!?

This tyranny of opinion is directly linked to our desire to be in charge of ourselves. What I think rules the day. No one can dictate the rules to me. I have My Opinion. The awful irony is, so few of us have enough real information to have a meaningful opinion about anything. So instead of doing the research to figure out important issues or appealing to an authority who might help us, we watch the stats of what the crowd is doing. If everyone else is doing it, it must be right. Right? What do you think?

Reminds me of my favorite piece of graffiti, observed on the back of an old building in downtown Fargo many years ago: "Go, Lemmings, Go!"

My point is, you should not care one whit what I think about anything, unless my opinion is backed up by something better than, "That's just what I think."

This is why I am utterly convinced that the church of Jesus Christ is being called today back to a greater reliance on the Bible as our authority. In a culture that has rejected authority out of hand, where "submission" is a dirty word, in the face of "that's just what I think" reasoning where the individual opinion rules over all, we must stand under the authority of the Bible. If Christians cannot submit to this word the world is correct in rejecting our witness. If we are simply a group of people who have a certain opinion about God, about the correct agenda for the world, about good and evil, the world should shrug and walk away. And that is exactly what the world has been doing for decades.

But look at churches that cling to the Bible and say, "This is more than just opinion. We take this as our authority because in these pages God speaks. We don't understand it perfectly, we don't always get it right, but this is the book that corrects us and holds us accountable and helps us to follow Jesus." Those churches consistently grow, not because weak minded people gravitate toward such authoritarianism, but because those churches are bold enough to stand against the current of culture. They are strong enough not to bend in every breeze. And they are making a difference in the world.

At least that's what I think.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

More Alpha retreat feedback

More afterglow from the retreat yesterday. This morning I heard lots of stories from people who were at the retreat, lots of people saying that it was an amazing day. One person told me it was in the top four days of his life, along with his marriage and the birth of his kids. One said, "I'm so glad I skipped the Gophers' game to come." Others just smile and nod and say, "It was wonderful."

What strikes me is that this is so different from the sometimes cold discipline of theology. I've studied theology with some amazing thinkers. But studying about God can be a whole different matter than interacting with God. This goes right back to the garden of Eden. In Genesis 3, we have a story about the first theological conversation between Adam, Eve, and the serpent.

First of all, yes, Adam is a participant even though he doesn't say anything. He just stands there, the same mistake so many men make when it comes to spiritual matters in their families. Instead of being engaged spiritually, they're watching the women in their lives make those decisions. I can't tell you how many times I've met women who tell me, "My husband really isn't interested in church." That's just one example. So Adam's in the conversation, passive and unhelpful. Eve and the snake talk about God, but Eve never thinks to say, "Lord? What do you think of all this?" God is certainly within reach of Eve's voice, but she never turns to him. Instead she engages in theological conversation, speculating about God's actions and motives. Talking about God is radically different than talking to him.

I believe this is part of what has happened to mainline churches in America. We have such a rich tradition of theological study, but it has backfired on us in some ways. We have learned to speculate about God in a way that leads us away from relationship with God rather than toward him. Increasingly mainline churches have retreated to language that depersonalizes God rather than leading to greater intimacy with him. We argue about theodicy -- the question of whether God is responsible for evil's existence -- rather than letting misfortune drive us to the cross where we meet Jesus and learn to trust him more deeply.

What happens when we think about God instead of talking to him? We are masters of our own mental processes, and so we begin to think and act as if we are masters over God. This is precisely the sin of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. "Go ahead," Satan invites, "You can be like God!" By defining and delineating the particulars of theological abstraction, we distance ourselves from God and we are left cold in the dark.

So it was refreshing yesterday to talk about the Holy Spirit, yes, but then to move immediately to prayer and worship, inviting God to fill his people with his Spirit. I don't remember anyone ever walking out of "Theology of the Triune God" in seminary saying, "This changed my life." There is a time and a place for thinking deeply about who God is, but we must resist the temptation (quite literally) to allow deep thinking to distance ourselves from relationship with God, so that logic replaces lordship.

Alpha retreat

Yesterday was the Alpha retreat focused on the Holy Spirit. We had about 80 people gather for the day. I was once again so impressed by the team of leaders who carry the Alpha ministry at Central! Looking back I think it was far and away the best Holy Spirit retreat out of the ten or so we've done here.

Friday evening eight of us drove down to Golden Valley for the regional Alpha celebration. What was so cool that night was hearing stories from all over the Twin Cities region of things God has been doing in people's lives through Alpha. It is exciting to know it's not just happening here, but in churches and ministries and homes all over the place.

I'm still amazed by the fact that 1) so many church leaders are totally unaware of Alpha and 2) that of those who know of it, many are defensive about it or even opposed to it. The course is running in just about every denomination, on every continent (with the possible exception of Antarctica) and consistently those who experience it say it draws them into a closer relationship with God. What's not to like? I understand there are some who quibble about some of the theological niceties. Maybe that's fodder for pondering another day.

For now I just thank God for the people who opened themselves up to God's Spirit in a new way yesterday.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I just wanna be a sheep?

Why is the Bible so intent on God / Jesus being the shepherd (see Ezekiel 34 or John 10, to choose a couple out of many examples) and God's faithful people being sheep?

Have you ever worked with sheep?

True story. Many years ago, for a very short time (about a half hour), my brother had a sheep. Not by choice. It wandered across the fields and broke into his cow pasture. It was alone, which for a sheep is literally (as you will see) a fate worse than death. So this solitary sheep was trying hard to herd up with whatever group of critters it could find. In a pinch even Herefords would do. So my brother's cows were confronted with something they had never seen -- a sheep. A puffy white demon on spindly legs, running toward them like they were long lost cousins. So they ran away. And the lonely sheep ran after them. Three or four times they raced up and down the pasture, this one desperate sheep chasing fifty or sixty cows. After the fourth lap the cows decided they'd had enough and they turned on the sheep and trampled it. So my brother had to go up in the north pasture, find the badly injured sheep, and finish it off.

Sheep are stupid sometimes.

A little over a year ago my brothers and I were elk hunting in Colorado. We shared the high country with about a million (I'm not kidding) sheep, six or eight dogs, and two shepherds. The sheep grazed and grazed and grazed in the high meadows. Every now and then a handful would wander off into the woods nearby where coyotes and cougars waited. The dogs chased them back. But when the shepherd appeared at the far end of the meadow and called his high, trailing call, the sheep dropped whatever they were doing (grazing mostly) and headed that direction. They didn't know where they were going, but they had heard the shepherd's voice. Some of them, to be honest, had not heard a thing, but the tail end of the sheep ahead of them was headed downhill and they followed. Sheep are followers.

Maybe that's part of the deal. Jesus wants us to follow him. Too often I'm trying to be a dog or a horse or a pig -- anything but a stupid follower of a sheep -- and I want to make up my own mind. So when I hear the shepherd's voice I say, "Nope, still lots of good grass here, don't think I'm leaving yet. Lots of grazing here. This is a good place." Pretty soon I'm a lonely sheep on a hillside, all by myself. And we already know that this is not a good thing for a sheep. Even if there were a few other sheep there with me, the shepherd has gone. And when the shepherd has left the meadow, the sheep are in trouble. Because sooner or later the grass will run out or the snows will come or the coyotes will sing and we'll be on our own.

Follow the shepherd. Now.

You start to get the picture? Jesus doesn't call us sheep as a compliment. He's not saying we're pure and white and fuzzy and soft and beautiful. Only people who have never been close to sheep think that. He's not insulting us, either. He's simply telling us the truth. We're sheep. We can't exist on our own. With apologies to John Wayne and the rest of that crew, we are not able to make it as the solitary hero of our own fantasy. We're left alone on the mountainside in the dark if we do not follow the shepherd.

So where is Jesus going?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A good friend of mine has part of this posted as his quote on Facebook. It is from Teddy Roosevelt, who knew a thing or two about getting down in the mud and trying to lead people:

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again. Because there is no effort without error and shortcomings, he who knows the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the high achievement of triumph and who at worst, if he fails while daring greatly, knows his place shall never be with those timid and cold souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

This quote was included in a speech given at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910. Teddy used this theme frequently throughout his life. Earlier, in 1894, he said this:

Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness. It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing the stress and the danger.

If you've ever been the guy in the mud, you identify with these ideas right away. It is much harder to make change, to lead, to affect the world, than it is to sit back and evaluate the efforts of others. So many people see what needs to be done, but are simply afraid of taking the risks to make it happen. In 1992 I heard Dr. Pat Keifert from Luther Seminary say, "It's not rocket science to build a growing, dynamic church. We know exactly how to do that. What's hard is to find a leader who is willing to make the hard calls and take the risks to make it happen."


Monday, November 16, 2009

The way forward

Through the last six and a half years, and especially through the last ten weeks, I have been incredibly grateful for the team I work with at Central. Today again I was reminded of the caliber of these people as we began to talk in earnest about how to move forward. We have been so occupied with questions of the process of sharing information and bringing the congregation to the vote on November 8th, of caring for individuals who have been caught crossways in this conflict, and of the bare minimum of taking care of the necessities, that we have had little time for the specifics of how we move forward.

There are many questions that have to be settled before that one can be addressed in specific terms, but now -- not later -- is the time to begin the process of planning for the future. We are in a 90 day consultation period, in which the bishop and / or his representative will come to consult with the congregation and with the church council. At the end of that 90 days we will have a second vote to either deny or ratify the results of the November 8th vote. There are still constitutional requirements that have to be met and processes that need to be honored. But at this point the issues in question -- biblical authority, questions of sexuality and the Bible, and the proper role of leaders in the church -- have been addressed, debated, and voted upon. There is a moment now and then to take a deep breath and glance toward the future.

In the middle of this, I am reminded of Alpha. This fall an unbelievable team of volunteers has taken the Alpha ministry by the horns and led it in amazing ways. They have given themselves to this ministry and some -- many -- have made significant sacrifices to do so. They serve in this way because they know that there are spiritual battles going on around them and that the territory at stake in these battles is not a denominational affiliation, but the hearts and souls of individuals. Watching Alpha happen around me in these last weeks has been such a joy.

This is why I am so impressed with my coworkers, those volunteers who serve so faithfully, and with Central's pastors. As we begin to talk about the future, I hear no desire to be right, to win, to prove something. Instead, I hear biblical stories come to life. Whether in the overall question of where Central goes from here or the specific question of how to do Alpha this winter -- in these brainstorming conversations my colleagues are deeply rooted in Scripture, and it shows. At a level beyond calculation and strategy, they are immersed in the word of God and the hours they spend in his word bear fruit. That investment of time in the Bible is a mighty tool the Spirit of God uses to create the future he wants for Central. And I get to see it happening -- and be a part of it! What an honor.

If you are in a position to be looking for a church leader, or evaluating a current leader, take this to heart: Look for a person who is rooted deep, deep into the Bible. Listen for scripture to be woven into their thoughts and their words without second thoughts. This is not a biblical quotation like a President quoting Isaiah during a State of the Union address to sound Christian and appeal to a voting base. No, look for a person who makes sense of the world by holding what they see around them up against the Bible. The hard part of this evaluation is that you have to know the Bible yourself a bit to be able even to hear this. But it's worth the investment of time in your life, too.

I'm thankful tonight for parents, aunts, uncles, Sunday School teachers and even pastors who grew me deep into God's word so I can hear it in the words of others. I'm thankful for colleagues -- staff, volunteers, members -- who have let the Bible take root in them such that it comes out in their sentences and thoughts. It is such fun to watch the Spirit using these tools to lead us forward. It is awe-inspiring to know that we live as part of that same story.

John the Baptist

I'm working my way through the gospel of John in my recliner these days. The routine looks something like this -- get out of bed, stumble around for a while while my eyes remember how to focus and about the time I stop bumping into things, I perch myself in my recliner with my Bible and so a little reading (usually about a chapter, maybe two) and spend some time talking to God about stuff. Experience tells me that this time of day -- once I wake up -- is when I'm mentally at my sharpest. (Scary, I know.) So I try to use that time for the most important thing in my life -- connecting with God. I've been working my way through the gospels, and recently got derailed to go read Romans. I finished Romans this weekend, so now I'm back on track in the gospel of John.

I read John 3 this morning, which usually gets me thinking about Nicodemus and his fascinating conversation with Jesus. But today I was struck by the last few verses of the chapter about John the Baptist and his attitude toward Jesus. John's disciples come to him and tell him that Jesus is baptizing people not far away and everyone is flocking to him. I think they expect that John will start a new advertising campaign or ramp up his publicity efforts. But John says, "This is exactly what I wanted. My joy is complete." John sees himself as one who can help people come to know Jesus. When people start flocking to Jesus, John recognizes that he is fulfilling his God-given purpose.

I have served in too many churches where the people suffer from jealousy. We get jealous of the church down the street that is attracting people, and we step back and start throwing rocks. "They're not really preaching the gospel," we say, or "They just use a lot of gimmicks. It won't last." Somehow if people are attracted to Jesus we think there must be something wrong.

Certainly there are churches and preachers out there that water down the gospel, that preach a self-centered message. I'm not saying that we should endorse that. But there are also churches out there preaching Jesus in a biblical way. And guess what? People are attracted to that message. Sometimes it's surprising, but when we preach a high commitment to Jesus, a gospel that costs you your life, a "costly grace" in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's words, people want in. Jesus himself said that he would be lifted up like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. People flocked to that grotesque bronze statue (see Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-15) in order to be healed of snakebite. Can you imagine the Israelites saying, "Who does Moses think he is? Is he saying that looking at the bronze serpent is the only way to be saved from snakebite? Maybe I like being snakebit. I'm certainly not going to travel all the way to the center of the encampment just to look at a snake statue. That's ridiculous. I have the freedom to make up my own mind." They could certainly say this, and I don't doubt some of them did. It's not so different from people today who look down their noses at churches that say Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. But when they lift Jesus up, those who want the gift of life he offers will come streaming in the doors.

That puts the rest of us in a hard position. We, like John the Baptist, see people flocking to Jesus and deep down it can make us uncomfortable. But John's a good role model for us here -- with John we can say, "He must increase, but I must decrease." I've heard several people at Central recently worried that people have been unkind to me personally through the last few weeks leading up to our vote to leave the ELCA. Others have been concerned that people may leave Central and go looking for other churches. In response to both of these concerns, I side with John the Baptist. If people need to be unkind to me in order to deal with Jesus and the fullness of his message, I'm okay with that. I'm willing to lift him up in hopes that they will be drawn to him. And if people need to leave Central in these days, my prayer is that the turmoil of searching for and finding a new church will open them to the work of Jesus in their lives in a new and powerful way. God can use that unsettled time in their lives. I'm not concerned where they attend worship, as though I got a commission on our membership numbers. Instead, I'm concerned that people come to know him, whatever that takes.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Spent the last three days hunting deer on the farm where I grew up. It was good to be away, to decompress a little bit. Had a good friend along, got to visit with another good friend who lives up there, and spent a couple days staying with my brother. What a change of pace.

I spent some time while I was there thinking about Elijah. He's one of those people in the Bible that I ponder from time to time. I never quite know how to think about him. On the one hand he's lifted up as this amazing hero of faith -- he's one of two Old Testament characters who is with Jesus in his transfiguration. He singlehandedly stood up to the 400 priests of Baal. Amazing. But on the other hand, after his showdown with the priests of Baal Elijah is anything but admirable. He's kind of the patron saint of burnout. He goes into a depression, goes into hiding, sleeps a lot, and eventually God calls him out into the wilderness to the same mountain where God had given his people the covenant during the Exodus. Elijah hides there in a cave. He whines to God about how alone he is, how tough he's got it, and how nobody else has remained faithful to God. So God reveals his glory to Elijah, and he experiences all these wonders -- fire, storm, thunder -- but none of it moves him. Then God shows up in person in a still small voice -- my Hebrew prof in seminary translated the words "a crushing silence" -- and Elijah whines in exactly the same way he did at first. Even God revealing his glory doesn't overcome Elijah's depression.

So God decommissions him. God graciously tells Elijah to go anoint a successor for himself, and also to anoint God's chosen kings for all the surrounding kingdoms. "Oh, and by the way" God adds, "I have preserved for myself seven thousand people in Israel who have never worshipped Baal, who have remained faithful to me." You can read the whole story in the last few chapters of the book of 1 Kings.

I want Elijah to jump up and down, to be revitalized, to say, "Wow, God, you are truly amazing! I'm revitalized! I'm ready to go again!" But Elijah just trudges off, obedient but depressed, to anoint Elisha as his successor. He leaves it to Elisha to anoint all those kings for the surrounding kingdoms. Bah, humbug.

So I don't know quite how to think about Elijah. Maybe the message is that sometimes it's time to be done, to let go. I'm not there myself, not by any means. But I have been just tired enough that it was really, really good to go out in the wilderness and experience a little bit of crushing silence. To sit in treestands and hear leaves rustling. To sit so still that a red squirrel ran down the far side of the tree I was leaning against. To wait for a still, small voice, and maybe, just maybe, come back a little bit revitalized.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Excellent devotional

This devotional was shared with my by a reader who has been a real encouragement through the last weeks at Central -- mostly because this individual told me in passing that some time ago, they had taken the time to read the Bible on these issues rather than just go with what they thought and what others around them were pushing. The devotion is published on which is an excellent source for biblical material, devotions, articles, etc. It's written for women, but guys, I'm confident you can do the hard work of translating and find that this applies to us in spades as well.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Taken to task?

Thursday I posted that I was "not sad for the current conflict Central is experiencing." One of my readers was apparently quite offended by that statement because I received a bit of a thrashing over it. She understood me to be saying that I was standing back and gleefully watching the whole spectacle like it was a football game or something. I don't think she quite understood what I was trying to say, however, so I thought I might clarify just a bit. This is a hard distinction and one that we don't usually handle very well within American Christianity.

If she had read carefully she might have understood that the "heavy heart" I described was exactly what she thought I should have -- a deep concern for the people of Central and for the way they were acting toward each other. But I will hold to the statement I made that I am not sad for difficult circumstances.

Our culture is so far in bondage on this issue it's hard for us to think straight. We believe at such a deep level that if things are going right for me that I will enjoy lack of conflict (we call this "peace") and easy circumstances. In John Steinbeck's words, we will be "livin' off the fat o' the land." Preachers preach this all the time -- that you can have what you want, that if you're right with God you WILL have what you want. Some of us are sophisticated enough to make it more subtle -- we believe that if I'm just doing what God wants, he'll take care of the rest and I won't have to struggle.

This whole debate has been about biblical authority -- so let's ask the question, What does the Bible say about this?

This is where Christianity -- real, biblical Christianity -- becomes a hard-edged critic of American culture and American religion. Because from start to finish, the Bible says things that are hard for us to accept and harder for us to live out.

Start with Abraham. God told him that he was chosen, special, elect, God's own instrument of blessing. So what next? Leave everything you know. Leave your homeland and your father's people. Go to a land I will show you where you will live as a pilgrim, a stranger, an alien, for the rest of your life. By the way, your descendants will be enslaved in Egypt and about 400 years from now they'll be set free. We could go on and on about what Abraham endured because he was God's chosen one.

We could go through each character in the Bible this way, but skip ahead to Job. The way Job functions in the Old Testament is that this is a story specifically crafted to deal with this question: If I'm right with God, will my life be easy? Job's answer is an emphatic NO. Job loses everything and suffers from boils, a difficult wife, and meddling, religious friends specifically because he is right with God.

How about David? He could have enjoyed a peaceful life as a shepherd in Bethlehem but God chose him. So he had to fight a giant singlehandedly, survive multiple assassination attempts at the hand of the king, and be chased around the wilderness for years, living among the rocks and sand. All this happened because he was chosen by God.

We could go on -- the prophets? Many of them tried desperately to avoid being chosen because they knew it would cost them their lives. Even if their circumstances were okay, they had the terrible burden of speaking for God. Jeremiah lamented, "Your word is like a fire shut up in my bones." Difficult stuff.

The New Testament is no different. Near the end of his life, Paul looks back on a record of shipwrecks, stonings, arguments, conflicts, narrow escapes, and imprisonment. All this happened because he was specially chosen by God.

Somehow in this country, even in our churches, we have fallen prey to the idea that being chosen by God means everything will be sweetness and light for me. Where did we get this crazy, unbiblical idea? I think we confused the 1950's idea of the "American dream" with the biblical idea of following Jesus. If I just live a good life, work hard, and raise a good family, everything will be good for me, God will be happy, and I'll retire in peace. That might indeed happen, but that life has little or nothing to do with a biblical call to follow Jesus.

So what about the recent conflict at Central? What is a biblical view of this difficult time, these agonizing questions, these painful-to-the-bone rifts between those who should be brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ? Read the New Testament. Suddenly parts of it begin to jump out that have never made sense before. Try James. "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." Be honest -- we like the idea of being mature and complete, not lacking anything, but we don't like the idea that we get there through trial and tribulation. Right?

At the risk of stepping up on my soapbox, we have a plague in this country of bad parenting because we try to raise mature kids without ever letting them suffer. Not only do we avoid disciplining our children in a way that causes them trials, we pad and protect their lives so they don't experience any difficulty. Then, deep down recognizing that something is missing, we pay hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours to enroll them in team sports that will provide a sense of discipline and character that we have been unable to give them. We don't know how to face pain and difficulty in a biblical way.

So no, I'm not sad about the conflict Central is enduring. I have seen already that God is bringing a new depth and a new maturity to people within Central through their suffering. Sunday morning about fifteen people were on their faces before the altar, spontaneously, during public worship. They just started streaming up during the offering time (this was at the traditional service!) to pray for their church, praying in agony before the altar of God, asking him to work his will at Central. This kind of thing doesn't happen where life is easy. About forty others voluntarily got up earlier than is reasonable to come and pray at the entrances to their church before people started arriving for worship. Last week about 30 men gathered in the sanctuary for prayer, praying not for a certain outcome to the vote but asking God to work his will at Central. And here's my favorite part -- none of these things were suggested or anticipated by the staff. This was God's Spirit moving the hearts of his people, using difficult circumstances to grow a new depth and maturity.

So how can I be sad for these circumstances? My heart aches for broken people, but I know that if we allow it, God's Spirit will use brokenness to grow us more and more into the image of Jesus. How can I be sad for that?

Sunday, November 8, 2009


I'm tired tonight. The vote this morning at Central was 574-171 in favor of leaving the ELCA. I know that there are many people on both sides of this vote sad, angry, bitter, and disillusioned. At the moment, I'm just worn out. My prayer is that those who want to can move forward with a new / renewed sense of the Bible as our authority and Jesus as our foundation. There will obviously be some people who choose to find a different place to worship, and I think for some that would be a wise choice. Others will be able to forgive what they perceive as poor leadership and be reconciled to remain at Central. We are by no means done with this business, but hopefully as a good friend of mine has said, we can turn our attention to healing now.

Tomorrow (Monday) the church staff is going away for a "play" day. It will be good to go away and decompress. The conversations about "how do we move forward from here?" have already started, though, and I'm sure there will be lots of that around the edges as well as some good belly laughs.

Thanks to so many who have been praying for Central, for the staff, and for me through all this.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Hunting God

This is my best question lately: What is God up to? I'm writing this post sitting in a hallway at Bethel University, where I just a few minutes ago read a quote from a previous president of Bethel. He said we should not ask "Are we able to do this?" but rather we should ask, "Is God in this?" If God is in something, we should pursue that no matter whether in human terms we are able to do a thing or not.

It's been a long day already and I didn't get a ton of sleep last night, so I'm not sure I'm being clear -- but I believe this is life-changing important. If I ask, "Am I able to do this?" I am concerned about my agenda, my chosen course of action, my resources. If I ask, "Is God in this?" I am concerned to know God's heart, God's agenda, God's priority, God's provision. Then I must follow his lead for all I'm worth.

So lately I find myself asking, "What is God up to?" I ask this a lot when circumstances around me are confusing, when events unfold in a way that I don't expect or desire. What is God up to? Why is he allowing this, or perhaps even causing it? What is he doing in the middle of it? I asked this a lot when I was confined to my hospital room at North Memorial in September. Now I am asking it again anticipating tomorrow's vote at Central.

So far my track record with this question is not great. I have not (thus far) had any great epiphany moment where I have suddenly understood the mind of God in its completeness (good thing, too, because there would be a little pile of smoking ashes where I used to be sitting). No, I get to see tiny slivers of God's agenda. I get to see a glimpse here and there, through the smoke and fog.

Lately I've seen several glimpses. I watched dozens of people stand at microphones during Central's forums sharing their stories, the stories of God's faithfulness in their lives. After standing at the mike and saying these things under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit -- whatever their views on the social issues at hand -- they cannot sit down unchanged. God was up to something.

I have received multiple, multiple emails from people who share with me that they have started reading the Bible through this whole controversy, or started praying, or praying more, or praying more fervently. I hear from people who suddenly recognize that they have been coasting, and this flap has moved them to seek God and his agenda for their lives in a new way. God is up to something.

I hear a new concern among God's people for the integrity and meaning of the Bible. Not in a wooden, legalistic sense at all but as people who long to hear a clear word from God who are finding him in this ponderous book. People are reading not just because it's a good idea, but because they're hungry for God. He's up to something, and they want to be a part of it.

People have come to me on the edge of tears to tell me that their church matters. Matters a LOT. They are learning that God's Spirit is moving in this fallible, human, messed-up bunch of people who love Jesus.

God is up to something. He's changing hearts, opening minds, creating faith and breaking down strongholds. But that's just what God does. As my daughter would say, he's just cool like that. So I keep looking around, keep watching for him and his distinctive fingerprints. Feel free to join me. And oh, by the way, it doesn't hurt to ask him once in a while, "What are you up to?" My experience says don't expect a straight answer right off the bat -- but keep asking the question.

Friday, November 6, 2009


I just received a call that the letter mentioned in the previous post DOES in fact contain, on the reverse side (not included in the email attachment I received), a signature and contact information for some of the individuals responsible. So they are not in fact anonymous. I'm very grateful for this much integrity, though the fear-casting still grieves me.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Walking in the light?

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent tonight to some of the leaders I am privileged to work with on Alpha and other ministries. I wrote this in response to an anonymous email and anonymous letter that are being sent to members of Central in anticipation of Sunday's vote. I have left out some of the more tedious portions of the email that deal specifically with allegations concerning technicalities in the meeting and voting process.

I am writing to you tonight with a heavy heart. I am not sad for the current conflict Central is experiencing. No, I believe God is using this conflict — whatever the results — to prune and shape Central (see John 15) for his purposes. Whatever the result of the vote on Sunday, I am confident that God’s work will get done and his kingdom will be built. I have certainly seen in my own life this fall the truth of God’s promise in Romans 8:28 that he works in all things for the good of those who love him! So I have no question that he will be glorified in the aftermath of Central’s vote on Sunday.

No, what grieves me tonight is that certain members of our church — rather, Central does not belong to us, it belongs to Jesus -- certain members have chosen to send out an anonymous letter making all kinds of fearful allegations and accusations against the current staff and leadership. I have a pretty good idea of who sent the letter, but that’s not the point. By sending this mailing anonymously, they are “walking in darkness” (1 John 1:6) and the consequences for them are awful. By appealing to the fears of the people of Central, they may well prevent Central from leaving the ELCA — but they will bring down disastrous consequences on the congregation as a result. I am not at all referring to the resignation of the staff should Central stay with the ELCA. Rather, I know from experience that a congregation that makes decisions based on fear cannot be effective in making disciples for Jesus Christ. We have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). The very action of these anonymous accusations is planting seeds that will be reaped in a spirit of fear and mistrust in Central’s life should this group carry the day.

I have every confidence that the process Central’s leaders are directing is open, legal, and proper in every way. I am grieved to see people who feel the need to promote fear and mistrust as a way of trying to prevent or invalidate the vote this Sunday. In my quieter moments I have found myself wondering what exactly they hope to accomplish? I’ve heard some of these individuals say, “All we need to get is a third of the votes plus one to stop this.” What will they have at that point? A thoroughly divided congregation? I can’t understand it. My heart aches for these people and for their actions, partly at least because try as I might I just can’t understand what they hope to accomplish. I have had significant dialogue with several people who see these issues differently than I do. We have enjoyed respectful, even fun, conversations that start and end in mutual respect and honor and love for Jesus.

Thank you for your prayers for me, for the staff, and for Central. Thank you for your passion to make Jesus known. Thank you for all that so many of you have done to give God room to change lives through Alpha this fall. Over and over again in the last few weeks I have stood before God in awe of the opportunity he has given us to work together in his kingdom. May you know his peace through these next days.
I am sitting at Dunn Brothers in Elk River at 8:30 am. There have been at least a dozen households here with parents bringing their kids to the coffee shop before school. They are playing mancala, talking, reading the paper together. There's a deck of cards out. Lots of laughter. One girl -- maybe seven -- is demonstrating her ipod to her mom. Another girl is teaching her little brother to spell "r-e-s-p-o-n-s-i-b-i-l-i-t-y". It all gives me hope for the future.

We have entered the calm before the vote -- or at least it feels that way. A stray email comes through now and then telling me how irresponsible and manipulative I am, but since it's anonymous I don't take it too seriously. Some people just need to vent; I don't need to agonize over what they say if they're not willing to have a conversation.

It is hard to be fearful on a beautiful morning like this. These crisp November mornings just ring with the psalm, "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof ..."

And as if to verify that, a woman whom I have never met just came up to me and said that the Holy Spirit just moved her to pray for me. I asked if she knew what was going on at Central, and she said, "Is that your church?" So I explained just a little bit about this Sunday's vote and she said she'd pray for me.

Thanks, God.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A common question

Many people have been asking what Central might do as far as affiliation if we vote to leave the ELCA. If that happens, we will certainly align with another Lutheran body, one that is faithful to scripture and has a deep sense of our mission to make disciples of Jesus. There are many possibilities -- at least six that I can think of offhand, and probably more. It is informative to see what these organizations stand for and how they have organized themselves.

Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Renewal) is one of these organizations. You can follow this link to read about their sense of direction and hopes for the future. It's worth reading, just to see what's out there and what such a body might look like.


Wrote this in an email today and thought you all might appreciate this perspective:

I do have a sense that the body of Christ at Central is being torn apart and rearranged and reassembled by loving but firm hands. Anna’s words in Luke 2 come to mind -- “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” -- no matter how the vote turns out, people will have to live with what has been revealed about them through their actions and their attitudes in all of this. Hopefully it will lead some to repentance and others to greater risk-taking for Jesus. What will we become? Only God knows.

A word from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This is the introduction from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany in the 1930's who recognized early on that the state church of Germany was selling its soul by recognizing Hitler as its formal leader. He saw that the church as a whole was losing its very core -- the gospel of Jesus Christ -- by going along with the culture. Here is a lengthy quote from the start of his book:

"Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs. It is said that the essence of grace is that the bill for it is paid in advance for all time. Everything can be had for free, courtesy of that paid bill. The price paid is infinitely great and, therefore, the possibilities of taking advantage of and wasting grace are also infinitely great. What would grace be, if it were not cheap grace?

Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that teaches this doctrine of grace thereby confers such grace upon itself. The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free. Cheap grace is, thus, denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways. "Our action is in vain." The world remains world and we remain sinners "even in the best of lives." Thus, the Christian should live the same way the world does. ... cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord's Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son —“you were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6.20)—and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God."

Bonhoeffer knew that it is spiritual death to follow the world and lose sight of Jesus and his sacrifice for us. It is spiritual death to say "yes" to that which the world affirms but God denies. We are caught in a culture that sweeps us along like a spring flood, sometimes gently bobbing on the waves and sometimes raging in torrents. We cannot step out of the flood and say "that doesn't matter" because we see our world -- and all too often, parts of our church -- being swept away. It is only in clinging to Christ that we can avoid drowning in the culture. It is only the cross that will not be swept away in the flood.

Monday, November 2, 2009

New Eyes

One of the things that has surprised me in all the flap at Central over these sexuality decisions ... Now, understand this -- I've been through church conflict before, and I'm not surprised by the way people treat each other, or dishonesty, or arrogance, or anything else from anyone involved. We're sinners, and these things happen. It doesn't make them okay, and I certainly regret more than anything the times I see myself giving in to pettiness. I try to remember my own struggles and be patient with others whose fear or anger makes them act in ways they'll regret (hopefully) later.

No, what surprises me this time around is how the sayings of Jesus are coming alive. I've heard this from many, many people who have struggled with these decisions. Some have chosen to stand on what the Bible says and in doing so have alienated family members. Others have become fodder for gossip because they are unwilling to compromise their integrity. Still others have proven that they are devious enough to operate in the darkness for political ends (though I don't know if they see themselves in the sayings of Jesus on this count!).

Jesus talks about all these things and much more. He gave his followers advice on how to live as lights in a dark world. His words are not all "be nice to everyone" -- rather, the words of Jesus have a sharp, authentic edge because they are directed to people living in conflict with the culture that surrounds them. These sayings of Jesus are found throughout the gospels. Most recently I've been reading Luke, and here are just a few from Luke's gospel that have caught my eye with new meaning in the last few weeks. Take a look at these passages, for example:

Luke 6:22

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Meanwhile, back at Central ...

Last night at Alpha was a great reminder for me. We had a young couple come through the church and I had a chance to start a conversation with them. Turns out they'd been sleeping in their car the last several nights, and had no place warm to stay until Monday. They also hadn't eaten in a long while. Our Alpha leaders got them some food, then a couple of them took the two to a local hotel and got them settled in for a couple nights in a warm place. When it was all said and done, I couldn't quit grinning. Partly that was because I just enjoyed getting to know this delightful young couple. But something bigger -- deep down I was thinking, "Oh yeah! This is what we're supposed to be doing!" We have been so consumed by all the discussions about sexuality and scriptural authority. It was a nice relief to think, "I was hungry and you fed me."

Today there was a forum -- the final of four forums -- at Central regarding next Sunday's decision about terminating Central's relationship with the ELCA. These forums have been a good experience for us as a congregation. Difficult, to be sure, but I think about all the people who have gotten up to the microphones and taken three minutes to tell some facet of their own faith story -- testimony, struggle, conviction, or question. You can't spend that knee-shaking time at the microphone and then sit down the same person you were when you stood up. I guarantee you that whatever happens next Sunday, those who have shared in this process will have a new depth of faith and a new ability to put themselves on the line.

Some may choose to give in to bitterness and regret, but for those who are paying attention I'm convinced that Jesus will lead them into a greater future.

Do I have fears about this vote? Of course I do. But I'm convinced that God has been working in this process so far, and I don't think he'll forget us now. This whole year -- and certainly since early September -- I have been learning again and again that when I am at a loss or caught in fearful circumstances, God can do his best work. I don't think it will be any different this time. I just want to make sure -- especially this week -- that I am listening to his Spirit, staying in his Word, and doing my level best to be faithful. He'll take care of the rest.