Saturday, December 16, 2017

Our individualistic context

I'm very tempted to park on this theme of community at some length. Why? Simply put, this is an area in which our culture stands in direct opposition to the Bible.

It's hard for the average westerner (meaning, western Europe and North America) to understand just how different we are from people in the Bible. Not just the heroes of the Bible (if there is any such thing -- they're all a pretty sinful lot) but everyone in the Bible had radically different understandings of themselves than we're used to. One huge difference -- perhaps the main difference -- is our assumption of individualism.

When you meet a person, you do just that. You meet a person. When you introduce yourself, you introduce yourself as a person. That's so obvious that it hardly needs saying, right? To us, yes. We see ourselves as individuals first, and only second as part of a larger family, community, society, culture. We have a hard time imagining that a person could see themselves as anything other than just an individual.

That is EXACTLY why this is so important -- we just assume our view is true. But the Bible has a very different frame of reference, and we can't even see it.

What would it look like to see yourself first as part of a community, and only later, less importantly, as a particular individual? Think about some of the most basic structures of our lives. Remember report cards? A report card is a measure of the individual's knowledge, skill, or achievement. It doesn't measure relationships or the achievement of the whole class or the entire school. It reflects on the individual. We assume that's the way it should be. Or think about sports -- you try out for the basketball team or the gymnastics team or the volleyball team or the track team. Team sports, right? But even in team sports, individual athletes are measured individually to see if they're an asset to the team or not. And we track individual statistics. (By the way, the whole "fantasy football" thing takes this to a huge extreme -- we divorce an athlete from their team context and use their individual statistics to create a pretend "team" made up of pure individual achievement. It's a peculiarly western practice.)

The Bible sees people as part of a community. Abraham is a significant individual precisely because God used him as an individual to give birth to a new nation. But even Abraham was firmly rooted in his community -- both the one he came from and the one God was creating through him --, as you clearly see if you read Genesis. David was an outstanding individual, but read 1 Samuel 23 and see how dependent he was on the community of warriors that surrounded him. And that's just one aspect of the wider community that made David famous. Paul was as close to a true "individual" as we find in the Bible, but even Paul didn't travel alone -- he constantly took companions. He planted communities and considered himself a part of them. Read the last few verses of any of his letters to see how completely intertwined his life was with many, many others. And when he defines himself, he does so by talking about the communities that shaped him and gave him identity (see Philippians 3:5, for example). When was the last time you introduced yourself to someone you just met by describing three or four groups you belong to that shape your identity? No, you probably gave them your name and your job.

The problem with this individualistic approach is that we assume faith happens on the individual level. We assume that "believing in Jesus" is an individual decision or practice. We assume that having a healthy spiritual life is about my individual spiritual disciplines. None of these ideas are biblically supported. In the Bible, faith is a community thing. The individual is baptized into community, comes to faith as part of a family and church, receives communion under the command to "discern the body" of Christ -- a clear reference to the wider church, not a magical understanding of the bread and wine used in the meal (see 1 Corinthians 11).

Precisely because our assumptions about reality are so far from the Bible in this area -- we think, live, eat, shop, work and play as individuals -- we need to go above and beyond to learn what the Bible says about the stewardship of the community and what the church needs to do in this context. We need to learn to read -- and live -- with new understandings.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Created for Community

I've been reading Scott Sauls' blog for a couple months now. This recent post does a great job of laying out still more biblical arguments for the importance of community. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

More about the Stewardship of Community

Like the previous theme we touched on, Stewardship of Creation, this theme of the Stewardship of Community permeates the Bible from start to finish. In the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, the only time God says something is NOT good -- in contrast to all the times God repeats the idea that something he's created is "good" -- is when God says in Genesis 2 that "it is not good for the man to be alone." God designed humans for community, and he creates it right there in the Garden. He created the man for community with himself, yes, but also for a human community and partnership. Then God delights, apparently, to come walking in the Garden in the cool of the day, partaking of and enjoying this community himself.

Later, when God chooses a man to deal with the brokenness introduced into his good creation by the destructive power of sin, he doesn't just choose an individual -- he chooses Abraham to be the father of a great nation. It is through the community of the nation descended from Abraham that God will do his ultimate work on behalf of the whole creation.

When God gives his law through Moses, he gives it into the relational context of the community of Israel, encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai in an orderly community centered in the tabernacle, the "tent of meeting" where God lived among his people. Many of the laws and sacrifices instituted there deal with keeping people in proper relationship with each other.

And when Jesus "pitched his tent" (the literal meaning of John 1:14) among us, he immediately surrounded himself with a community of men and women who would form the nucleus of his ongoing movement after his resurrection. The book of Acts is laser focused on the life and growth of this community. Most of Paul's letters deal very clearly with the stewardship of the community centered in Jesus Christ. At the end of the Bible, the book of Revelation envisions people from "every tribe and tongue, every race and nation" gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb -- and the book ends with the city of God coming down out of heaven, the place where God will dwell with his people, in the heart of their community.

The Stewardship of Community is one of the great tasks of the church. Yet so many churches assume the existence of and the health of the community. There's little intentionality about it. You have some churches that allow you to be completely anonymous, and others that are like the bar on "Cheers," where everybody knows your name. And neither option is necessarily healthy. Most churches think they're incredibly friendly, but most unchurched visitors never return precisely because they don't feel welcome. Professional church leaders are often run off their feet pursuing the care of physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in their flock -- when those needs, biblically speaking, belong not to the professional pastors but rather to the whole community, the whole body.

It's an amazing exercise to read the Bible looking for guidelines of how to build a community. Themes like leadership development, conflict resolution, self-giving love, and development and use of diverse gifts fairly leap off the pages when you start to look for them.

Trouble is, the life of the community is where things start to get really messy. This is where letting go of offenses and forgiving others comes into play. This is where learning to live as imperfect people who hurt and damage one another becomes an issue. This is where letting go of my own agendas and putting my neighbor's needs first really matters. And none of us enjoys those sacrifices and disciplines, at least not at first. Living in community, tending the community, is an ongoing challenge that takes a lot of work and a lot of intentionality. But if we're going to build the church the way Jesus talked about it, the way the Bible describes it, we have to pay attention to the Stewardship of Community.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Stewardship of Community

There is a lot more we could say about Stewardship of Creation. It's one of the Bible's great themes and permeates the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation. And for those of you who are nervous about this, the church being called to "Stewardship of Creation" is NOT the same as today's environmental movements. There are parallels and overlaps, but approaching these matters under the kingship of God changes things.

But let's change gears and start exploring what the church's second great task, "Stewardship of Community" might look like. To get us started on this I'm going to repost a few paragraphs I wrote in 2013. (You can read the entire manuscript via the link on the right hand side of the page about "Pastorates.") Here's some food for thought about community:

After Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, the Bible tells us that he talked with his disciples for about forty days before he ascended into the heavens and sent his Spirit to give his followers direction and power.  During those forty days, Jesus gave clear directions to his followers.  They were to take up the task Jesus had started.  They were to be sent out to the world, even as he had been sent to Israel.  They had received training from him over a three-year period, and now they were to go out and invite others into this Jesus-following movement.  Nearly all of the New Testament writers include some version of Jesus commissioning his followers for this task.  

We are probably most familiar with Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus tells his disciples, 

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). 

In John, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).  In Acts, Jesus tells his followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Paul certainly embodied this call in his whole life of traveling around the Mediterranean, telling people about Jesus and starting fledgling churches everywhere he went.

Jesus’ followers called themselves “followers of the Way” (Acts 9:2, 19:9 & 23, for example).  Only later were they labeled Christians, and that term came from their enemies as an insult.  Early on, these people saw themselves as followers of Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  This new relationship with Jesus redefined everything in their lives.  They experienced a new power and a new sense of relationship with God that came from the resurrected Jesus. 

They gathered together in groups with others who knew Jesus, who knew this new power and new life.  They referred to these gatherings as “churches,” which brings to our minds pictures of buildings and steeples, pews and hymnals, but for these early Jesus-followers, the word referred to groups of people.  The Greek word was “ekklesia” (from which we get our word “ecclesiastical”, meaning something that refers to the church).  Ekklesia means literally, “those who are called out.”  Jesus used the term himself a couple of times (see Matthew 16:18 and 18:17), and in the book of Acts ekklesia becomes the standard term for a group of Jesus-followers.  These are the ones who have been called out of the world and its ways, called to follow a different Way, called to be like Jesus and to be part of his movement in the world.  

Let’s be clear about something from the start.  The New Testament knows nothing of church buildings, of pews and hymnals and committees changing the altar cloths or debating the color of the new carpet.  The movement Jesus started is about people, not about property.  The idea that a person can “go to church” and sit in a building for an hour, then go back to an unchanged life for the rest of the week, has little or nothing to do with New Testament Christianity.  

The Bible envisions a church -- an ekklesia -- of people who gathered together, most often in someone’s home (see Romans 16:3-5, for example).  They read scripture, worshipped, and prayed together (see 1 Corinthians 14:26).  They shared in a mission to impact the world in the name of Jesus.  In fact, non-Christians accused these Jesus-followers of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).  By following Jesus’ example, living in community with other Jesus-followers, and loving the world around them, they changed the Roman Empire and eventually the whole world!

What does the task of “making disciples” (meaning, making followers of Jesus) look like today?  In the early years of the 21st century it’s not hard to see that many churches have failed in this task.  We may baptize scores of people, our Sunday Schools may (or may not) be bustling, our youth programs crowded, our worship services pleasantly full.  But how many lives are changed in a lasting way?  

It’s been said that many of our churches are like football games.  A football game is 22,000 people who are desperately in need of exercise watching a game played by 22 men who desperately need rest.  Sadly, many people come to church to observe.  We relate to Jesus not so much to follow him or even to admire him, but to use him for our own ends.  In order to be blessed in this life and avoid hell in the next life, we are encouraged to pray a prayer inviting Jesus into our hearts.  At its worst, it’s cheap fire insurance.  Sadly, in most of our churches, few people experience the “abundant life” (see John 10:10) Jesus longs to give his followers. 


Yet people inside and outside the church today are hungry for exactly what Jesus’ first disciples found as followers of the Way.  We are hungry for meaning, for community, and for a mission that is worthy of our sacrifice.  Not knowing where to find what we really need, we flock to Facebook and Twitter to find community.  We let advertisers, smart phones, and sports teams tell us who we are and what we need.  We clutter our schedules so that we don’t have to face the disturbing questions that confront us in quiet moments.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Thinking about vocation

Apologies to those of you who have been checking back for more input on this discussion of what the church is and what it should be doing (both of you!). The last few weeks life has gotten busy. I've been occupied with both doing life (work, hunting, community) and doing church (life, community, work) and haven't had a lot of time for reflecting.

One of the things I've been thinking about around the edges of all that frenzied onset-of-fall activity is the idea of "vocation." Historical note: In the middle ages, the idea of "vocation" which we often equate to "job" (more on this in a second) morphed from the Latin word "vocare" which means "to call" into the idea that some people have special "callings" from God into specific roles. Mostly this was applied to monks, priests, and nuns -- what still gets called in Roman Catholic circles "the religious." So if you're a good Catholic kid and an older relative says you might have a vocation, they're saying you might be called to be one of those special religious people, called into a life of serving God in these specifically religious ways.

In 1519, Martin Luther published a book that turned the whole idea of "vocation" on its head. Luther claimed that God calls all people, not just religious people. So farmers, teachers, plumbers, house husbands and house wives, nurses, pastors and electricians and accountants and engineers ... all these people can legitimately view themselves as "called" by God -- as having a "vocation."

This is why it's legit to consider your job a "vocation" -- a calling. But Luther went further than that. He said we receive the call of God in various areas of our lives: In our work, yes, but also in our citizenship, in our community life (including the community of the church, which was a lot more overlapped with general society in Luther's day than it is in ours) and in those core relationships of marriage and family. In all of these areas, we are called by God to live and work for the good of his creation.

So think about this for a minute. If part of the calling of God on the church is to work for the stewardship of creation as we said last time around, one of the ways God engineers this world specifically for the good of that creation is to put people in specific roles. So if you are a botanist, a biographer, or a baker (or whatever) -- you are called into that role to exercise God's command in Genesis 1-2, to till the earth and keep it. To tend it. To care for creation. To make the world a better place.

If this is in fact the case -- and reading through the Bible with this in mind, you see it literally EVERYWHERE -- why has the church done such a poor job of helping people understand their daily work, their citizenship, their core relationships, their community life, as callings from God?

I had a most interesting conversation this summer with a farmer who is a firm believer, but who gets really frustrated with the church. He recognizes that seven days a week he is engaged in the work to which God has called him, caring for his animals and land, caring for his neighbors, tending the earth and keeping it and making it better. But when he goes to church, he said, the only things they really tell him are a) he should come more often, b) he should get involved in one of their activities, c) he should go on one of their mission trips to make the world a better place, and d) he should give more money to the church. He rarely, if every, hears anything that equips him for his calling, his God-given mission in life.

Talking to this farmer, it was hard not to see how wide the church has missed the mark on this.

Joseph Campbell used to say that the task of an artist is to "mythologize life" -- to write, paint, dance, sing, whatever, in such a way that the rest of us understand the deep meanings behind our lives a little better. I believe this is one of the main tasks of the church -- to help people understand the deep meaning behind their lives, to understand the story of which we are a part.

So your life in all those areas listed above, is a vocation. A calling from God. How are you, day by day, working to make the physical, relational, financial, spiritual world around you a better place? And how is your church equipping you to understand and live out those callings?









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.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Golden Oldie

Continuing these reflections about "what is the church" today with a re-post of this old blog post. I wrote this a few years ago in the context of a Lutheran church, and Martin Luther and his theological brilliance still informs so much of my thinking about these issues. Take some time and read through this post, including lots of references to the Augsburg Confession, as you are pondering with me what it means to be part of a community that follows Jesus in our own context. I checked out the video link toward the end of the post, and it's still active -- and still well worth watching.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Framing the discussion

Sticking with the "picture" metaphor for just a moment ...

You put a frame around a picture to set it off, to emphasize the boundaries around it. In the same way, to "frame" an argument or a discussion means agreeing ahead of time on what the boundaries are.

I ran across this interesting blog post from several years ago where I laid out a few examples of the huge questions that go into this discussion of the church. If you read through this, written as I was finishing up an eight week sabbatical, you start to see the amazing diversity of this discussion. And as I reread that post now, I think I oversimplified things!

Let me give three examples of what plays into this discussion of the changes in the church:

First, the church itself. Anyone who is paying attention will tell you that churches face incredible change today. The majority of churches in America and throughout the west are in stasis or decline. Very few are growing, and those that are growing often find themselves under attack -- from other churches! Why are churches facing such challenges? You can find people blaming all kinds of factors, from youth sports to the internet to affluence to (probably most common) our society drifting away from its Judeo-Christian roots. Each of these factors no doubt plays some part in the decline of church attendance. Carey Nieuwhof and others have documented the fact that the level of loyalty among church attenders has decreased. To put it another way, a generation ago a loyal church attender was in worship three out of four Sundays. These days, loyal church attenders are in worship one or two Sundays out of four, and they see themselves as very dedicated if they're present that often. Churches themselves are changing, and this in itself is a complex matter with lots of factors involved. Now, add in many ways churches have chosen to deal with these changes, and the situation gets extremely complex indeed! (I'm just laying this out at this point -- I know these issues deserve more discussion, but for the moment I'm just putting them out there.)

Second, think about technology. Not just church technology -- hymnals have given way to digital LED projectors, and flannelgraphs have gone the way of the Tyrannosaurus. Think about the way technological change impacts every possible area of our lives. Smart phones alone are revolutionizing our lives in enormous ways. I tried to fix my toaster the other day and realized that the problem was in the motherboard. Who knew that a toaster had a motherboard?! The technological revolution we are currently experiencing has enormous impacts on not only churches, but on every area of life -- and it changes the way we think, the way we process, the way we research. Furthermore, it changes what we believe is true about truth. This gets slippery, I know. If you're interested in thinking about this, check out Amusing Ourselves To Death, an excellent book written in the 1980's about how television was doing exactly that -- changing the way we view reality -- and then think about what impact Siri and her minions are currently having on our views of truth, reality, and what life is supposed to be like! It's hard enough to think coherently about how the changes in technology are impacting our lives, but then to think about how our spirituality and our churches are being impacted ... this is a tough one, but we can't ignore it.

Third, think about America. This gets at history in a little bit different way than we usually think of it, but part of the grand experiment that became the United States of America is the idea of "disestablishmentarianism" -- of not having an official religion for this country. What that does is, it means churches are "voluntary societies." If you move to a new town, you have multiple choices of churches you could join -- or you might choose not to join any church. It's voluntary. From about 400 AD until the early 1800's, that hardly ever happened in Christian history. And in fact in America, there was a sort of "expected" participation in church that had more or less power until the last few decades of the 20th century. But today, very few people will look down on you if you don't go to church. Even dedicated Christians recognize that on any given Sunday, the majority of people in America are not attending worship. This character of voluntary participation in church has shaped the church in America in huge ways, and we have exported many of those attitudes about the church to the rest of the world. In the early 1800's a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and made the observation that the way churches functioned in this fledgling country was truly amazing, and a key part of our strength.

So there are three examples of what it will take to frame our discussion. Now, I believe that each of these three examples provides just a tiny bit of the puzzle, like three tiny peaks showing above the waterline at the top of an enormous iceberg. The part that sinks the Titanic is hidden under the surface, and we need to do some scuba diving to try to figure things out in depth.

To recap: There are massive cultural shifts going on right now. Getting anything like a coherent glimpse of these shifts will require us to think long and hard and deep about what's going on in our world and why things are they way they are. That cultural analysis will not be enough, though. We need then to look at what the church is supposed to be according to its architect. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus said to Peter, "... I will build my church ..." Notice that it's his church, and he's the designer and builder. We'll take a hard look in coming blog posts at the question of whether churches may have missed Jesus' design as he lays it out in the Bible and in history. Then, once we've looked at our current context and at Jesus' intention for his church, we can begin to ask the question, what is the Spirit of God up to in churches today? What is a community of Jesus-followers supposed to look like today?

It's a huge topic, so thanks for hanging in as we launch in the coming days. And as I said last time, know that your comments are important to this discussion!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Does this look crooked to you?

Have you ever hung a picture by yourself? If it's just one nail and you can get it pretty close, that's not too bad. But if it's one of those get-two-hangers-in-the-wall-and-level-it pictures, it gets tricky. Here's why: Not because you can't hang it level -- but you can't decide just where to hang it and at the same time, step back and get some perspective on just where you want it to hang.

Not a perfect illustration, I know. But I'm convinced that for most of us in the western Christian church, it's hard to step back and get any kind of perspective on what's happening these days. The culture, the church, and so much else has changed so fast.

The study of the church -- a strange and fascinating brand of theology -- is called "ecclesiology." Back in the late 20th century, ecclesiology was a boring and much-neglected branch of theology. Seminaries rarely had classes on the church. It was something we assumed we understood.

Suddenly in the last 20 years, ecclesiology has become the cutting edge of theology. There are more books on the church and what it should look like than you can imagine. Bloggers (!), podcasters, websites galore -- all are trying to offer some perspective on the church.

I've been leading, participating in, watching, and puzzling over churches for a long time now, and I'm going to weigh in with a few reflections. Here's the plan: I'm going to lay out in a series of blog posts what I think is happening in churches today, what God is up to in that, and what biblical Christianity looks like here and now.

Presumptuous? Maybe.

For the next many weeks, I'm going to try to write this out and let you chew on it, comment on it, be sharpened by it, reject it ... do what you need to do. This is the topic that, in the wisdom of God, doesn't seem willing to let me go. My goal is to be 1) true to the big picture of what the Bible has to say about the church, 2) honest about what's going on in churches today, the strengths and the embarrassing weaknesses, and 3) relevant to people who love and care about the church and its direction. I'll try to post at least weekly, maybe more often. (I do have a day job, and it's fall in Minnesota so hunting and a few other pursuits need a little time.) I haven't written these reflections ahead, though I am working from an outline. So your comments along the way will very likely help shape the conversation. 

Let's see if we can step back and gain some perspective on this thing. And maybe, just maybe, we can help this picture hang just a little straighter.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Still in kindergarten?

Ask any churchgoing five-year-old, and they’ll tell you what sin is. It’s wrong things we do. Saying bad words, or being mean, or killing people. Stuff like that. 

So when you ask that same child why Jesus died, they’ll say, “To forgive our sins.” 

I used to show a video clip from time to time called, “Is Your Faith Still In Kindergarten?” It showed a 40-something man going through a day in kindergarten class. He looked ridiculous, as you might well imagine. 

Trouble is, most of us have never really explored what the Bible says about sin. So we have never really learned what the Bible says about our “sin problem” or why Jesus died. So we, good kindergarteners all, believe Jesus died to forgive our sin, and we assume that sin means bad things we do. Killing people and stuff. Cheating on your taxes. Spitting out your gum on the sidewalk. Sampling grapes in the produce department without paying for them. 

You know, bad stuff. 

This gets tough, because we’re not good at pulling this out and looking at it. What I want to do here is walk with you through a problem nearly all of us have. We believe sin is bad things we do, so we assume that if we just didn’t do bad things, God would be happier with us. So we set up a list, conscious or unconscious, of rules — principles by which a Good Person should live. And then we try to be Good People and live by our lists of rules. And we spend a lot of time evaluating how we’re doing — how much good we do and how much bad we do.

As soon as we make that move, we have abandoned biblical Christianity. 

I was struck this morning by what Oswald Chambers wrote in his excellent devotional, My Utmost For His Highest. I don’t always track with Chambers, but I read him nearly every morning. His thoughts about following Jesus always challenge me and very often encourage me. This morning his devotional included these words:

“The nature of sin is not immorality and wrongdoing, but the nature of self-realization which leads us to say, ‘I am my own god.’ This may exhibit itself in proper morality or improper immorality, but it always has the common basis of my claim to my right to myself. When our Lord faced either people with all the forces of evil in them, or people who were clean-living, moral and upright, He paid no attention to the moral degradation of the one, nor to the moral attainment of the other. He looked at something we cannot see, namely the nature of man (see john 2:25).”

Really? Jesus paid no attention to the moral uprightness of people? Jesus didn’t pay attention to whether people did good or bad things? Maybe. Or more like, good and bad looked different to Jesus than they usually look to us. To Jesus, being in a close relationship with God was good, and being far from God was bad. And that relationship with God was not necessarily affected the way we think by our “good” or “bad” behavior. In fact, very often Jesus pointed out how our “good” behavior got in the way of having a good relationship with God! (See for example Luke 18:9-14.)

Does this idea come up in the Bible? Oh, yes. It is actually woven all through the Bible, if you start looking. If you remember a story from your kindergarten Sunday School class, it’s probably about the Garden of Eden, where God placed the first people who then sinned, and now we’re all in trouble. But do you remember what was the name of the tree that bore the fruit they were not supposed to eat? It was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” It was precisely that obsession with their own behavior, with their own goodness or lack of it, that Adam and Eve were not supposed to pursue. 

Really?

I’ve also been reading Isaiah as part of those same morning devotions. Yesterday I read Isaiah 28, where the prophet criticizes the religious establishment of his day — the priests and temple authorities — because they reduce God’s living word to “precept upon precept, line upon line” — in other words, they have made God’s Word into a list of rules they can keep. In the very next chapter, Isaiah 29, God speaks to these people and says, “this people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). Jesus quotes this verse to the religious establishment of his own day in both Matthew 15 and Mark 7. 

Understand, I believe it is better to be moral than immoral, to be good than bad. But when we reduce Jesus and what it means to follow him to a system of rules, we have sided with the scribes and Pharisees rather than with Jesus. That’s why they crucified him, because he was threatening their system of rules and precepts that kept them in some control. 

One more biblical example. The biblical word for this system of precepts, these principles of moral behavior, is “law.” In the last few verses of Galatians 3, Paul says that the law was given by God to be a “guardian.” This is a difficult word to translate from Greek into English. In Greek it’s paidegogeia and it wraps up our ideas of a nanny, a tutor, a guardian, a mentor. In wealthy Roman households, the paidegogeia was responsible to raise the heir as a child until he came of age and could take up his full authority in the household, acting as an adult. Paul says that the law is designed for us when we are spiritually immature, but when we come to Christ, we come into our inheritance, and we are no longer under the law but now we live by faith — by a relationship of trust in Jesus. 
So when we go back to the law, when we make lists of good and bad and focus on people’s behavior, we are, in biblical terms, going back to kindergarten — and not in a good way. 

What, then, is biblical Christianity? 


Simply put, it is a relationship. It is living in love with God by focusing on Jesus, knowing him and trying to follow him. Trusting that in some way you may or may not understand, what he did in his life, death, and resurrection opened up a new way for you to have a relationship with God. 

And if you think Jesus wants you and everybody else to "be good", you should re-read the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) or read them for the first time — and then try living like Jesus lived. Love the unlovable people. Focus on building a relationship with God. Care for people your society says should be discarded. Invest in people and help them grow. Get less concerned about rules and more concerned about relationships. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

CS Lewis on love:

I heard this quote this morning in worship and thought it connected to my last post. By the way, apologies to regular readers as my intermittent wifi these days has me blogging sporadically. Hopefully that's going to be remedied soon!

Here's Lewis, from The Four Loves:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” ― C.S. LewisThe Four Loves

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sometimes love ...

It's been a while since I posted here. Lots of reasons for that -- busy-ness of new job and new home is by far the biggest one.

That said, I have certainly not stopped pondering. One of the recurring thoughts for me lately is the nature of love. I resurrected a song from many years ago by Chris Rice that includes the line, "Sometimes love has to drive a nail into its own hand" -- which is provocative on a number of levels. Along with that particular ponder, I've been continuing to chew on a read from last spring, N.T. Wright's excellent book, The Day The Revolution Began in which this amazing theologian tries to get a grip on what actually happened when Jesus died. Wright's conclusion (you should really read the book if you haven't) is that self-giving love is really about the only thing that has the power to change the world, and that's why Jesus' death does effect such a change.

So then I started thinking, why does he have to say "self-giving love"? Isn't love by its very nature self-giving?

Of course, we use the word love quite liberally and loosely, so it's hard to say that everyone would agree love is by nature "self-giving." If you say "I love blueberries," for example, you're hardly saying you will give yourself to blueberries, except by the most stretched definition. If you say, "I love the farm where I grew up," you might be making more of a commitment to give yourself, but it's not required by the statement of your love. You might just be saying you really enjoy the place.

If, however, you say, "I love you," all bets are off. Because in our cultural usages of the word "love," you might be saying, "I really enjoy you and feel a great sense of pleasure being in your company." That's a kind of self-indulgent, self-centered love. But very often what starts out like that, in pleasure, grows in depth and quality until you are really, actually willing to sacrifice -- to give up an amazing amount of time, money, energy, choice, and more, for the sake of your beloved. In its height and depth, this kind of love is a powerful engine for transformation, both in you and in the one you love. Because love changes things.

So what is the relationship between pleasurable desire and self-giving love? Many Christian traditions, teachers, and theologies would say these are completely different and separate. I'm not so sure, though. As I read the Bible, I think God's intention is that a pleasurable, desirous love should be at the heart of a staunch, committed love.

Is it too much to think that God is not only committed to acting for your best good -- a definition of love I used for many years -- but also that he has a real, pleasurable delight in you, a desire for you, a longing for more connection, more unity with you? We don't often picture God having that kind of desirous love. But it's biblical. Love throughout the Bible is one of those things that continually blurs lines. We think we have it all figured out, then we stumble on Song of Solomon. Then, when we integrate that lusty passion into our love-definition, we read Hosea. And now we're back to stalwart, staunch commitment again.

Yet the Bible unapologetically names "love" as the quality that most closely defines God. The closer we get to God's love, the more we are caught up in his passionate desire for us, his unyielding commitment to our good, the more we realize that all of our loves -- our love for peach ice cream to our love for our children -- is a broken, halfhearted, imitative kind of love that falls so far short of what it's modeled after.

And that's not something to beat ourselves up about, or to shame ourselves. Because we are broken people, and our love -- all our loves -- come out broken and partial, yet they still reflect the image of God like shards of a shattered mirror reflect the world.

Circling back a bit, is it possible for love not to be self-giving? How about this. Try an experiment, and maybe you've lived this experiment before. Give your heart completely to someone or something. Invest yourself. Then put yourself in circumstances where you are unable -- by distance or lack of contact or some other circumstance -- to give yourself to your beloved. I guarantee you this love, this "unrequited" love will become one of the most frustrating things you can imagine. If you have truly given your heart to the other, and you are suddenly unable to follow up your love with your self-sacrifice, you will find yourself frustrated and longing and heartsick at every turn. Guaranteed.

Because love by nature is self-giving. It reaches out to cross every boundary, to bridge every gulf. If he taught us nothing else, Jesus taught us that.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Pondering the possible

Twice in the last decade I have been moved to tears because someone compared me to a literary character.

The first was an occasion I've written about previously in this blog, when my daughter Erica and I were talking about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and she wondered who I resembled in those great stories. We debated this character and that, until finally she settled on Gandalf. Now, if you know LOTR, Gandalf is perhaps the greatest, most noble character in the whole story. He is one who influences without power, who wields great power without demanding control, who carries immense wisdom but speaks with humility. I was moved to tears that my daughter, of all people, would make such a comparison.

The second time was more recent, when a friend with whom I'd been talking recently about Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books casually commented that I was like Ged, one of the main characters, and then said, "Thanks for holding off the earthquake." It's a reference to a key moment in the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, when Ged does indeed (temporarily) hold off an earthquake to allow himself and Tenar, a young woman, to escape from an underground labyrinth. Again, I was moved to tears by my friend's obvious respect in saying something like that.

Comparisons are powerful things. What literary character is most like you? It's a challenging question, and the way people around you see you might be a surprise, like it was for me.

You can do the same thing with biblical characters, and I've been worrying that question like a sore tooth for the last several months. What biblical character describes me in this season of my life? The two most likely options I've settled on are either Job or David. I have a friend who would opt for David -- he called me a few months ago saying he was going to be Nathan to my David, alluding to a scene in 2 Samuel in the Bible where the prophet Nathan confronts David with his egregious sin and moves David to abject repentance.

So David's an option.

The more intriguing possibility is Job, who lives a life of obedience to God, and precisely because of that, ends up being targeted by Satan for special suffering. First he just loses his material possessions, but then he loses his physical health and the esteem of his wife and others around him.

Now, I'm not claiming to be righteous. In this season more than most, I am keenly aware of my sin. Thing is, I've been living largely "on my face" before God for months, returning again and again to repent for the sins of which I'm aware, asking God to correct me and teach me, asking God to use my sins and my repentance to do his good work. So I don't think there's unresolved pride or unconfessed sin going on in my life, at least not that I can see, and I've begged God to reveal it if it's there.

I'm struck today, however, by an excellent sermon written by Eugene Peterson, well known for his translation of the Bible entitled The Message. If you're not familiar with it, get a copy. I was recently given a copy of a collection of Peterson's sermons. Normally I think reading other people's sermons is like watching cheap paint dry, but these are something else again. The book is entitled As Kingfishers Catch Fire which is an allusion to a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and it's absolutely exquisite. Excellent. I highly recommend it.

In the sermon I've read today, Peterson retells the story of Job, and he points out that Job's three friends -- Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz -- are all mistaken about God and the nature of Job's problem. (God himself verifies this at the end of the book of Job.) Eliphaz, Peterson points out, is like a fundamentalist preacher who insists that if Job will just repent, things will get better. Zophar is like a housewife who has a picture in mind of how clean the house should be, and Job is a dirty spot that refuses to come clean. Bildad is that moralist who insists that Job just needs to get back in line with Bildad's carefully constructed moral system, and all will be right with the world.

And in my travels these last few months, I've met all three. I've been asked if I'm repentant. I've been told that my actions are "deeply disappointing." And I've been offered the services of those who would like to rehabilitate me, to reintroduce me to moralistic integrity.

What intrigues me about these three friends of Job is that they are utterly convinced that they have God figured out. Throughout, Job insists that he has not been punished for some sin, but that he is innocent of anything that might merit this kind of misfortune. God is acting unfairly toward him. (Note: That is not what I'm claiming about myself!) And at the end of the book of Job, God scolds Job's friends saying, "You have not spoken accurately of me, as my servant Job has." Wow!

So maybe I'm David these days. Maybe the major upheavals in my life are pretty simple, like David's were, and I should just call Nathan and ask him to walk me through a simple Romans Road of repentance. Problem solved, thank goodness.

Or maybe it's more complicated. Maybe, as Oswald Chambers wrote in his meditation for yesterday, "God called Jesus Christ to what seemed absolute disaster. And Jesus Christ called his disciples to see him put to death, leading every one of them to the place where their hearts were broken. His life was an absolute failure from every standpoint except God's. But what seemed to be a failure from man's standpoint was a triumph from God's standpoint, because God's purpose is never the same as man's purpose. This bewildering call of God comes into our lives as well. The call of God can never be understood absolutely or explained externally; it is a call that can only be perceived and understood internally by our true inner nature" (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest). One of the things that makes us dumbfounded about the story of Jesus is that if you asked any observer of his ministry, his trial, and his crucifixion whether Jesus was guilty of deep and grievous sins, they would have said, "Of course." Jesus was guilty of violating the sabbath. He was guilty of rudeness and disrespect to the religious leaders. He was guilty of blasphemy. He was guilty of pretensions to kingship. And much, much more. Jesus was the chief of sinners.

Until God vindicated him on Sunday morning when he rose from the dead.

It's a cautionary tale, to be sure, especially to those of us who are pretty sure we know what God is up to. Every time I think I have God figured out, he does something to blow my mind in a new way. And so, maybe he's working in my current challenging circumstances, or in yours, to blow our minds. To teach us that he won't be shackled and chained by our expectations. That he has greater plans than we do, and he will stop at nothing to get his purposes accomplished. And oh, by the way, he's not telling up front what those purposes are. At least not in detail.

So do the comparisons. Pull out your favorite literary or biblical character, and imagine whether you fit the comparison. But don't write your story down in permanent ink -- leave room for God to surprise you. Let him have the final word about what he says is true about you and how he might use you to accomplish his purposes, in spite of what you thought was possible.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Mythologizing life?

I was optimistic when I arrived at worship this morning. A quick look at the scripture texts for the day revealed that the epistle text was from Romans 8, starting with the passage about how the Spirit prays for us in our weakness and how God works for good in all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. The gospel text was a series of parables from Matthew 13, where Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is like yeast in dough, like a treasure hidden in a field, like a costly pearl. These parables have become especially meaningful to me lately, and the Romans text likewise carries a lot of weight the last few months in my life. So I was eager to hear the pastor expound God's word this morning.

In the meantime, the hymns and liturgy are a sort of safety net -- carrying the theological weight of the gospel, providing a basic framework that gives the worshipper a sense of what life is all about -- entering in a spirit of praise, confessing our sins and hearing God's gracious word of forgiveness, crying out "Lord, have mercy," hearing the word of God read publicly as it has been for centuries upon centuries, confessing the content of faith through a historic creed and praying together collectively. All of these things provide structure and meaning and take some of the ponderous weight of preaching off the pastor.

But I was still looking forward to the sermon, given those scripture texts.

Unfortunately, the sermon this morning didn't connect for me in any way. For me, at least. We heard about the dining habits of horseflies, how Kierkegaard was the founder of Christian existentialism, and how Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato were good examples of pre-Christian moralists. I was disappointed.

Bonhoeffer made a brief appearance, as he frequently does with this preacher, and so I got to thinking about some of Bonhoeffer's advice about the worshipping community. Interestingly enough, he was a staunch advocate for being a staunch advocate of the community you're involved in -- in other words, don't nitpick your church, but be thankful for it. Good, solid advice. Yet Bonhoeffer was also an outspoken critic of the German church in his own time, and a staunch advocate for change and internal criticism. And I wondered how he would have experienced this worship service. No doubt, he would have pointed out all that was good -- as noted above, solid hymnody, solid liturgy, excellent scripture readings. And he might have shaken his head in a good-natured way about the sermon. He preached enough to understand the ups and downs of that daunting task, and the need for both grace and high standards as the worshippers within the congregation listen to their preacher.

Then I got to thinking about something Joseph Campbell said many years ago that rolls around in my head whenever I think about the task of preaching. He was talking about artists, but I think there are huge parallels: Campbell said that the artist's task is to "mythologize life." In other words, to show what the meaning is behind life. I think preaching does much the same thing.

I was asked not too long ago what I get out of going to church. I read scripture and devotional writings every day. I have Christ-centered fellowship with other believers here and there throughout the week. I praise and pray, confess and read God's word on a daily basis. Why go to church?

This morning, sitting near the end of the worship service I thought of Campbell's words. Mythologizing life. Is that why we go to a corporate worship service that may be great or maybe not, but always connects us to a larger story? In hymns, scriptures, liturgy, and yes, maybe sermon, I am connected to the old, old story of Jesus and his love, connected to the story that God is continuing to write in my life and in the lives of all his people throughout this world. I get a sense of the "mythos" -- the meaning -- behind my life.

Or maybe it's like the wag who said, "You know why mountain climbers rope themselves together? It's to keep the sane ones from going home."

There's a tremendous temptation these days to get "sane" -- to buy into the agnostic secularism that says, this is all there is. Make the best of it and get ahead while you can. It doesn't mean anything anyway, so why worry about it? That temptation toward sanity gnaws at the underside of my life these days, and I consciously reject it every day. I know that my life is not my own, I have been bought with a price. I read the meaning of my life every day in scripture. But every once in a while it's good to gather with others and realize that there is meaning that we share. The story of Jesus and his love binds us and unites us and commissions us. We are about the work of building signposts in this life that point toward the kingdom of God.

I'm glad I went to church this morning.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Keeping the garden

I've been thinking a lot this spring and summer, being back among fields and farmers, about the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1-2. There are some important words there about what God wants his people to do and to be in this world.

In the first section of the creation story, God creates human beings and says to them that they are to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." Then he goes on and says that he has given seed-bearing plants for food, not just to people but to the rest of the animals as well.

A bit later in the second part of the story, God creates the man and places him (and later, with him, the woman) in a garden "to work it and keep it." This business of being stewards of the earth, of managing its yield, is right at the core of our calling as human beings.

So it's been amazing these past few months to be a part of delivering seed, hauling fertilizer, replenishing sprayers that are working against the "thorns and thistles" that enter the story a little later as a result of sin. In a year like this, when there is abundant rain and warm weather, the hills and prairies where I've been working do look a little like a Garden of Eden. Crops and pastures are green and full.

Still, there are many questions of stewardship. Most of the crops I see growing around me, most of the seeds I delivered early in the spring, are GMO -- genetically modified organisms. I know there are serious questions about stewardship in the face of this technology, both questions about the propriety of GMO technology and also questions about how, without some of these technological advances, we'd be able to feed the world's burgeoning population. I don't have the answers, but I've pondered the questions at some length this summer.

I have written here about my brother and sister-in-law and their cattle and the way they care so well for their herd. I'm continually impressed by the careful, labor-intensive way they provide for these animals, and the way the animals respond. Then I drive around the county and see neglected feedlots, calves kept in little isolation chambers as they're raised, turkey barns or hog barns clogged beyond breathing with too many animals, and I wonder about stewardship.

Some of the same ethical questions follow me in these reflections. How would we feed our population if the herds were spread out like my brother's animals? How could we meet demand if our land was so gently used? Important questions that don't lend themselves to easy answers.

I think part of what the story of the Garden of Eden does is it pushes us back not just on our vocational calling -- our calling to be stewards of this beautiful earth -- but also it pushes us back on our identity. We are not our own, we belong to God. It is in him that we live and move and have our being. In our work, in our stewardship, we are driven back to him because we don't have all the answers. We don't quite know how best to meet every challenge.

Whether you're a farmer or a physicist or a phy-ed teacher, your work will sooner or later drive you up against questions you can't answer. It's part of the plague of human life. I believe those unanswerable questions are designed by God to drive us back to him, back into his care and protection, to find our identity -- and eventually, to find some kind of partial answers that allow us to move forward -- in him. At the end of his life, one of the wisest people ever to live, Moses, said these words: "The hidden things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever." When you are up against hidden things, questions that defy answers, let them drive you back to God. Seek to know him, not just to know the answers to your difficult questions.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Community

It was Sunday, and I was thinking about the verse in Hebrews that says "Don't stop getting together." That's a loose translation, but gets at the idea of the verse that says basically, "Don't go it alone. Keep gathering with other Jesus-followers." It's important.

During this season of my life, loneliness has been one of my worst enemies. Recognizing that, I try to be intentional about scheduling time with others. Human beings are designed to need community, and I'm certainly no exception.

So I started the day in community with God. Read my devotions, from a couple good sources I tap into each day. Then a little time in Ephesians, which is my current biblical book of choice. In chapter 3 right now. Eventually I toddled off to worship at the little Lutheran church on top of the hill.

Going to formal worship services is difficult for me these days.  I'm not part of the community yet and that's painful and I recognize that it takes time and intentionality to become so. I sympathize with people who've told me over the years how hard it is to attend worship alone. So I come in two minutes late, during the opening hymn, and leave during the second verse of the last hymn, just before the pastor reaches the back of the sanctuary to shake hands. That's about as much as I can handle. And it's good to be there. Yesterday was a communion service, and it was good to kneel at the rail with strangers in Christ and receive a sliver of bread and a thimble full of Chardonnay (really??) and swallow the lump in my throat and take a deep breath to clear the tears from my eyes on the way back to my seat, still chewing on the words -- "The body of Christ, given for you" -- "The blood of Christ, shed for you."

After worship I drove about 90 minutes to see a good friend. We had things to talk about, and I knew I needed to unburden about a few things, so I took some time after connecting with the family to allow this good friend to hear me out and care for my still-broken heart. He did a masterful job of listening to my thoughts without passing judgment. What a gift, to be able to lay out all of one's paragraphs and see the words sifted generously! He knew better than to offer answers, but he did share some perspective that was most helpful. Then it was time for me to get on the road again.

Two hours' drive this time, to another friend who is checking in at the Mayo clinic to get some insights into his cancer treatment. I met him and his wife at a restaurant and we chatted, then attended evening devotions at the Mennonite guest house where they're staying. A young women's ensemble sang beautiful four part harmonies of traditional hymns, starting with "God Will Take Care of You" and a half dozen others. One of the leaders shared thoughts about Elijah and God's care for him after his duel with the prophets of Baal. Then we went out to Perkins for pie and good conversation, and talked (among other things) how we are daily reminded to pray for each other -- him in his brokenness, me in mine.

And I drove home northward, and the entire drive the north and west skies were full of lightning and thunderheads -- one of the most spectacular displays of God's power I've seen in many years. It was as if God showed up to say, "Is anything too difficult for me?" So the drive became a counterpoint to the beginning of my day, a time of prayer and worship and lament and holiness and grief.

What a day, right? What an incredible day of Jesus-focused fellowship! What a fantastic day of connection to other believers, to a loving community, to the great and powerful promises of God.

And yet ...

The entire philosophical system of existentialism is built around the idea that at our core, we are basically alienated. Alienated from God, nature, other humans, ourselves. And last night I felt it. After that incredible day I felt the weight of isolation.

Yet I see the wisdom in the book of Hebrews. Don't forsake the practice of gathering together. This life is hard enough to bear without cutting yourself off from love, from community. Don't do it. Keep the connections, because when life is really hard, you will need them more than ever. When you're most tempted to curl up in a ball all alone, reach out. Schedule a conversation, or walk into a worship service, or phone a friend. Talk to God. Do the community things that remind you you're not really alone, even if it feels like you are.

It's important.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Endings

I didn't hit the doe. But I was there at her death, and complicit in it. 

I have hit deer many times before. Too many: a half dozen that I can specifically remember, brakes and adrenaline and dread and sickening thud and danger and blood and death and lasting damage. It is a sad fact of life that deer and vehicles do not coexist well. 

But I didn't hit this doe. That happened earlier, and I got drawn in to the ending of her trauma. 

It was a lovely spring day and I had parked my truck along a paved two-lane road in southeastern Minnesota, waiting to refill the spraying rig my partner operates. He called and said, "There's a doe over west on the property line -- I called the sheriff's deputy and he will be here soon." I walked up the road to wait, to give directions, to be complicit in her death, and to assess. Was this really necessary?

In emergency rooms it's called triage, the idea that you have to evaluate the damage in order to give appropriate aid. Often there is a sign on the wall to remind those of us with minor ailments that "the worst go first." 

When I first saw her, she was standing fifty yards from the roadway, head down in the young corn, looking for all the world like she was grazing. Maybe it's not so bad, I thought. I've known deer to be hit and bounce back relatively quickly. One December night my daughter and I collided with a nice buck whose skull and antlers shattered my windshield, leaving a silhouette of his profile right in front of the steering wheel in the spiderwebbed glass, inches from my wide eyes. I was doing over fifty miles per hour when we collided, and he took the whole impact to his head. There's no way he could survive, we thought. So after getting safely off to the side of the road and taking a look at the spectacular damage, we went tracking. We expected to find him dead within a few yards of the road. We saw where he had spun around, fallen, crawled, and fallen again. His tracks described a crazy weave in the clean snow. Then slowly, the weave became a stagger, and the stagger became a walk, and after a quarter mile his tracks merged with a trail. We gave up, shaking our heads at the resilience of this buck. 

So I wondered about this doe. Maybe she was just recovering. I worked my way around and noticed, first, that her head never came up. She never looked around, though I was less than fifty yards away in plain sight. She was not alert -- a sure sign of trouble for a whitetail. I could see one of her back legs was obviously broken, but that doesn't define things for a deer. There was more wrong. The flies were plaguing her, but her tail never flicked to chase them away. She stood hunched over, head down, staring at but not seeing a spot five feet in front of her. She had bedded down several places here and there, and my eyes teared to think of her agony in lying down and getting up again. 

The deputy arrived and we talked briefly about the doe. I hate this part of the job, he said. He took a rifle from his truck, loaded it, and walked to within twenty yards of her agony. Her head came up then, slowly, making eye contact with the officer. One quick, precise shot to the head and she fell, twitched twice and was still. 

Mercy. 

"Thanks for all you do," I said, and he just shook his head. I walked back to my truck. 

Ending things can be a hard decision. Ecclesiastes says that "there is a time to die." How to decide when it's time for the death of a deer, a pet, a person, an idea, a relationship, a church? How to do the triage, to weigh treatment options, to opt for compassionate care or a merciful death? Ask any doctor and they will tell you that though there are important guidelines and principles, it's not an easy science. 

And beyond the science, emotion rises up and threatens to break the levees of our lives, swamping us with fears of guilt and shame. If they unplug life support, does that mean they don't love him any more? If I file for divorce, does that mean I am a failure? If we vote to close the church, are we dishonoring the generations that built it?

Endings are hard, and discerning how to handle them is harder. Triage is necessary. Discernment is crucial. And we don't always get it right. We don't have the luxury of flying into the future and looking back with 20/20 hindsight that allows us to say, "That was exactly the right decision! Why did I put it off so long?!" No, we live and love and die and grieve in the present, and -- this is important -- God knows this. 

While the people around you may well second-guess your decisions, God never does. He wraps your imperfect discernment, your fears and your hopes -- even your failures and mistakes -- into his glorious future. He takes the toughest of our endings and brings about the most beautiful resurrections. 

In a biblical view, after all, there is no hope without death. Be comforted. Grieve. Pray, and make the hard decisions. 

Mercy.