Monday, January 31, 2011

If you're doing ministry

More thoughts from Dave Johnson's talk last Thursday at Bethel. Note: The longer I live with these ideas the more my own thoughts get interspersed ... so what you're getting is sort of a blending of Dave's presentation with my reflections. If it ticks you off, you're probably better off blaming me, not Dave.

The three main enemies of longevity in ministry are


So this time we'll deal with fatigue:

We get worn out and fatigued because we feel like we HAVE to keep on keeping on. Somewhere we got things mixed up -- instead of hearing Jesus say, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11), we chant "The show must go on!" So we keep on keeping on. And we wear ourselves down to the nubs and get thoroughly fatigued.

When we are fatigued, we are unable to make good decisions, and often unable even to stop working. (Stopping takes energy.) Even successful ministry may wear us out. In fact, the more successful (in our own eyes) we are the harder time we may have letting go and stepping back. You never intended to let your soul get lean -- it just happens while your attention is elsewhere.

Here's the problem. Having the strength to say yes to the right and no to the wrong requires energy. You can't say "yes" and "no" appropriately when you are worn out. You simply say "whatever". This is the root cause of many, many moral failures in the lives of ministry leaders. They are simply fatigued beyond measure and so they have no resistance when a morally compromising situation presents itself.

The other reason is that many of us operate too much in the area where we see the Spirit's anointing in our lives -- this is good, by the way -- but we totally neglect the area of our own discernment of what is good and evil. This is simply part of Christian maturity, as the author of Hebrews says, "But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil" (Hebrews 5:14) So we need to get good at making SMALL moral choices -- choosing good over evil in many small ways, so that when the test that matters comes, we will not fall. This is simply what we try to teach our children - give them choices when they are small so by the time they're older they can make responsible choices for themselves. God is doing nothing less with us; but if we constantly avoid the hard choices -- even the small hard choices -- we will have little resistance when real temptation comes our way.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Don't Take It Easy

Another post from my colleague Leon Stier, Central's visitation pastor. You can see more of Leon's work here. Powerful thoughts:

Many church councils have had long discussions about how to make worship times more convenient and forms of worship more acceptable. It is as if it is the council’s job to help people fit worship into their busy schedule and specific preferences, if that is even possible. Many congregations offer options, such as a traditional early worship service and then a contemporary late service in an attempt to keep everyone happy so all will keep coming. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but what about those folks who like a traditional service and want to sleep late, or, those who want a contemporary service, but want to get in and out of church early and get to the lake? If you have 7,000 members, six pastors, and a support staff of twenty, you might be able to offer something for everybody at any time. But how do you manage that in a four-point parish in rural Montana, or most other places? Most congregations cannot hope to cater to everyone’s needs and preferences. And even in congregations where many options can be offered, the greater the attempt to make worship convenient and pleasing, the more it will become a matter of only convenience and pleasure. In fact, the more a church has to talk in terms of convenience and something for everyone and keeping everybody happy, the worse it will get.

When ease and convenience become the measure of a church, then we are in big trouble. Worse yet is when congregations have to start advertising themselves in those terms to gain the competitive edge, which is what we are seeing more and more. This is all too much like an insecure young woman, hungry for love, whose behavior gets her a reputation for being easy. Then she gets used by many men, but she is loved and respected by none of them. This is happening in the church. Many now just use the church when it is convenient or useful, but they have no love or respect for the church or its Lord. The Bible itself uses this illustration, sometimes calling the people of God the ‘bride of Christ’ and sometimes calling them (calling us) a prostitute. At least in hard times of persecution the church is not used by people who do not love it. In those times the church is avoided by all except those who truly love it and are committed to its Lord.

Sergei Kurdokov was a Russian soldier in the early 1970’s who had a special assignment. His job was to break up meetings of Christian believers who were in unregistered churches. These believers met secretly in homes to worship as they desired, without the stifling regulations that came with being a registered church. In the Soviet Union at that time this was illegal. Sergei and his men were to stop these meetings and to discourage the believers from ever meeting again. They were to discourage them by beating them severely and doing extensive damage to the house in which they were found meeting. Sometimes believers even died in these raids. Being a believer was not easy. It was a rough road to travel. But Sergei Kurdokov was surprised to find time and again that they could not discourage these believers from gathering. They kept finding the same people on these raids, bandaged and broken and in a different home, but still packed wall to wall, singing and praising God, even after several raids. He began to see that these Christians had something in their lives that he did not have, and he wanted to find out what that was.

On their raids, Sergei and his men would always confiscate any Bibles or hymnals they would find and burn them. But one night, Sergei hastily tore out a few pages from one of the Bibles, and when no one was looking, he stuffed them into his pocket. The next night, alone in his room, he read those pages which were from the Gospel of Luke. He read about Jesus and from just those few pages, he decided he had to do all he could to find out more about Jesus and about how he could become one of these Christians. To make a long story short, Sergei did eventually turn his back on a privileged career in the military to become a Christian. It wasn’t easy, and he had to give up a great deal of worldly power and wealth. But Sergei grew to love the Lord Jesus and his church. (From The Persecutor, Sergei Kurdokov, 1973, Fleming H. Revell Company)

The church in Eastern Europe was persecuted for two generations after World War II, but what was left of it grew strong. In the late 1980’s they began experiencing some freedom and there was great rejoicing and relief. There were many new opportunities opening up for them and this was very good. But there was also some concern and worry among them. They had seen what happens when faith becomes too easy. They had seen Western Europe and the United States. They wondered if they would be able to remain strong when the road became easier, or, would the good times ruin them? And indeed, the new freedom and opportunities did bring new challenges. There is an old German proverb that says, “It takes strong shoulders to bear good times.” Church historians put the same truth in these words, “Nothing fails in the church like success.”

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to the people one last time after being their leader for forty years. These people had been tested by, and endured, forty years of hardship and adversity in the wilderness. Now, they were to enter the promised land. There, they would be tested by prosperity and abundance. In Deuteronomy 8, Moses described for them the many ways they would be blessed by God in this new land. They would be blessed with new houses, good land, large flocks, and much silver and gold. But then Moses added a warning. He said do not become so proud of your success that you come to believe that you are self-sufficient for then you will forget God. Deuteronomy 8 is essential reading for anyone who has been richly blessed by God.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Another item to ponder from Dave Johnson's talk at Bethel University on Thursday:

If you've read the story of Joshua and the Israelites coming into the Promised Land, you may have noticed this detail. (We worked through this story not quite a year ago at Central.) When Joshua and the Israelites cross the Jordan River via God's miraculous provision, they enter a land where the inhabitants know they're coming and know they're coming to conquer. So Israel is trying to be as ready as possible for a fight. "Vigilance" is a good word to capture this mood.

What does God tell them to do in that precarious moment? He commands Joshua to circumcise the Israelites a second time. Every male in the nation -- all the warriors -- are to be circumcised. What is God thinking? This is going to make the Israelites SO VULNERABLE! If you're wondering whether they thought about this vulnerability, go check out Genesis 34. This story was part of their folklore. They knew about the consequences of being sore.

Fact is, whatever deep theological significance lies behind this circumcision -- and there's plenty -- the immediate problem is that this is going to slow the Israelites down. God calls the Israelites to submit, and he says "I am going to cut you at the point of your pride, your power, your productivity, and your pleasure."

Still want to be one of the Chosen People?

Being chosen means that God isn't content to let you skate by and have a pretty good life. He wants to slow you down, to cut you, in order to begin ever so slowly to pour his life into your life. What we think of as life is just existing, and God wants so much more than that for us. But he has to strike us and slow us down first. He has to get our focus off our own pride, power, productivity, and pleasure. Once we let go of these self-focused pursuits, God can begin to have his way with us. Then he can begin to give us real life, not the imitations we've been spending ourselves to gain.

Fact is, the life of faith is hard because God won't let you have your illusions for long. He longs for you to know him, to know the truth of his presence, his love, his holiness. He wants to take you into the Promised Land of his fullness. So he'll cut off what keeps you from knowing him.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Long Haul

This morning I was privileged to go with most of the Program Staff from Central to hear Pastor Dave Johnson from The Church of the Open Door in the Twin Cities talking about "Staying in Ministry for the Long Haul." While nothing Dave said was earth-shatteringly new, his talk provided an excellent review of many things I have known but too often forget. I'm planning to take a few days to process some of these tidbits and share some of his insights and wisdom with you here.

One key area he spent time on -- we talked about the story of Samson. Remember Samson? If not, go to the book of Judges in the Old Testament and read about him. It's almost like some trashy tabloid when you dig into this story! Samson has superhuman strength, given by God. He comes to rescue the Israelites from their oppressors, the Philistines, who lived along the coast to the west of Israel. In spite of his call from God, Samson is shallow and ruled by his appetites -- mostly his appetite for beautiful Philistine women. Yet God continues to use him.

How often have you seen someone -- maybe even yourself -- who is able to do amazing ministry work for God but doesn't have the depth of character to get through the hard times without injuring themselves and those around them? Dave pointed out that the ability to do some kind of "anointed" ministry does not guarantee that we will do the hard work it takes to allow God to transform our character. Further, it is only a transformed character that will allow us to get through the hard times with wisdom and grace in a way that minimizes damage to ourselves and those close to us.

So the hard question -- how are you pursuing God and asking him to transform your character? (This is different from asking him to transform the characters all around you!) One of the chief spiritual disciplines -- Dallas Willard says it is the number one discipline -- is that of solitude and silence. When I am silent, says DW, I can begin to hear the noise within my own soul. That is why we avoid silence and solitude so much!

Okay, that's probably enough for you to chew on for the moment. Get off the internet and go spend some quiet time!

Monday, January 24, 2011

More information

The mid-sized groups that we're launching as "Life Together Groups" are very similar to the Delta group that we experimented with last fall based on a model from Holy Trinity Brompton in London (the church that started Alpha). So click here if you want to learn more about it.

Things that matter

It's amazing to me how easy it is to do things that don't matter.

If I don't care about the outcome, I can do difficult tasks all day long without getting worn down by the work. One of the intricate tasks that I do well, for example, is talking about theology. So if I'm not invested in the person to whom I'm talking, I can discuss the intricacies of biblical inspiration or the vagaries of various views of the Trinity and, while I'm spouting orthodox Christian theology, it's just so many word games. It's like playing Scrabble. After a while the brain goes a little numb, but I can still play the game.

If I'm invested in the outcome -- if I'm talking with one of my daughters, for example, or a dear friend who's going through a crisis -- my emotions and my will come into play and the game takes a very serious twist. The answers matter. My heart is somehow on the chopping block and it's no longer a game.

Often enough when I get into situations that really matter, my heart gets beat up. This is not pleasant, but I'm starting to get used to it. One of the things I am learning little by little and bit by bit is that if you're not willing to get hurt, you shouldn't be playing. (The really good news here is that if you're playing a game Jesus wants you playing, he is the Healer and he can tend those wounds.)

Why am I thinking about this at the moment? Tonight I am wiped out. I've been pouring a lot of energy into three or four areas of life that Really Matter A Lot to me right now. One of these areas is the "Life Together Groups" that we're forming at Central during Lent. I am big-time invested in these groups -- not that I need to control the outcome, but I believe with all my heart that God has called me to drive the process of forming them. So I don't want to drop the ball. It matters.

The trick is, and I think you see this in the gospels, is to remember to take time away from it now and then. Jesus frequently reminded the disciples to "come away by yourselves to a lonely place for a while." My wife is very good at reminding me to set aside time to rest. Because the truth is, if you're in a game that matters, it's easy to burn yourself out.

So two questions:

1. Are you playing a game that matters to you, and to Jesus?
2. If so, are you taking time to rest, to breathe, to renew?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

From the glowing coals of the Pleistocene

One of the things I enjoy doing as a creative exercise is cooking. I heard once that a woman cooks to provide food for her family -- it's a relational thing. But a man cooks to conquer the kitchen. That is certainly true for me. I despise recipes, at least those that I have to follow. A recipe for me is a beginning point, like paint-by-number kits would have been a way for Picasso to get started. I don't know that I've ever cooked the same dish the same way twice. I love things like venison stew and meatloaf and multi-grain bread that can be adapted to the vagaries of the kitchen and my temperament at the time. (Plus, things like this usually turn out at least edible even if I've got some kind of a wild hair for weird recipe experimentation.)

So the other day I ran across a recipe card, in my own handwriting, that I vaguely remember from four years or so ago. I so rarely write down the recipe when I come up with something new, I imagine this must have gone over well with my family. I recreated the dish (with slight variations from the written version, of course) the other day and enjoyed it enough I wanted to share it.

One of the things I love about this dish -- it doesn't have a name yet -- is that with slight variations, you might well have enjoyed something like this in late August or September in the camp of the prehistoric peoples that hunted mammoths in the spruce forests along the shores of Lake Agassiz where I grew up. I enjoy feeling at some level like we still have a connection to those hardy hunter-gatherer types.

So let's call it Venison-stuffed Squash, or maybe Pleistocene Thanksgiving:

1 small onion, diced
2 lbs venison (or other lean meat), diced
1 c. wild rice (uncooked)
1 c. raisins
1 c. diced apples
2 T. worcestershire sauce
1 t. ground sage
1 t. thyme leaves
1 T. salt
2 T. vegetable oil
2 c. water
One large squash or small pumpkin

Combine wild rice and water and 1 tsp. salt; bring to a boil and simmer about an hour. While this is simmering, brown venison and onion in oil and worcestershire sauce in a large saucepan. Add spices including remaining salt. Cook uncovered over medium heat until meat is thoroughly browned and most of the liquid has cooked off (but not totally dry). Wild rice should absorb all the water as it's cooking, but if not drain as needed. Add raisins, apples, and wild rice to venison mixture. Mix thoroughly. Remove seeds and pulp from squash or pumpkin, leaving the lid intact like for a jack-o-lantern (but don't carve eyes and a mouth, please.) Spoon venison, fruit and rice mixture into the squash and replace the lid. Bake at 325 degrees for 90 minutes or until a knife easily pierces the side of the squash.

To serve, spoon meat mixture out and scrape squash from the rind to use as a side-dish. Or, if you're daring, simply slice the entire squash into wedges and serve wedges and meat mixture together on individual plates. I have also heard of people pouring cream over the contents after it's stuffed in the squash. This gels a bit as it cooks and makes it easier to cut the whole business into wedges, I understand. Of course, I don't think they had milking cows in the Pleistocene. It's a matter of priorities, I guess.

The quantity of venison mixture in this recipe will be far more than you need to fill a large squash. So it's a good thing it is also excellent as cold leftovers, and even more so if you're experimenting a bit and decide to add in a half cup of grated parmesan cheese before cooking. I think next time I make this I will try adding dried cherries or cranberries instead of (or in addition to) raisins to give it a little more zing.

Friday, January 21, 2011


I went to the gym this morning. Got my workout in -- managed to run three miles without walking, which is a goal reached this latest time around. (One of the surest marks that I'm not thirty anymore is that every time I take a break from my exercise regimen, whatever physical gains I have made go right out the window. So I'm back to building up my endurance.) In the locker room I ran into an acquaintance and we talked just a bit about things that matter -- work and Alpha and the kingdom of God and evangelism and such. People were coming and going, casual conversations about food and recipes and current events and ideas flew around the building. People lifted weights, sweated individually and together. What a great place.

On the way out I chuckled to myself. All this was made possible by a twenty-something year old man from Macedonia who decided to conquer the world more than 2,300 years ago.

Did you know that? The only reason we have gym class or gyms in our communities for working out is because Alexander the Great conquered the world. Alexander and his armies went eastward from Greece bringing not only the sword, but also Greek language and culture. Primarily the cultural piece was bound up in two community institutions that Alexander left behind in every city he conquered. The first was the theater, where people could see plays and be entertained, thus being inundated with Greek ideas. Note: Be very aware of what you accept for entertainment, as ALL entertainment contains philosophy in the same way Snow White's apple contained poison. What you accept for entertainment determines what philosophy you subscribe to.

By the way, your philosophy probably owes a great deal to Alexander as well. Do you believe that the human being has an immortal soul that lives on after death? Thank Alexander. He didn't come up with the idea, but without Alexander you would never have adopted this Greek metaphysical idea.

The second thing Alexander left behind him was the gymnasium, which in Alexander's vision was not just a workout center but also a place for conversation about ideas and ethics and philosophy. So you'd go wrestle or run track or hurl the discus or the javelin, then you'd go sit on the sidelines and talk about Epicurus for a while, debating with your buddies what it takes to make an excellent life. Not so different from the guy I overheard in the locker room trying to foist his yogurt-honey-and-cinnamon diet on his friend because it detoxifies the body.

These three legacies -- Greek language, the Greek theater, and the gymnasium -- effectively left a legacy of Greek culture that deeply shaped the eastern Mediterranean for hundreds of years. Alexander is one of the primary reasons -- if not THE primary reason -- we are so enamored of Greek culture in our own world.

Yet most of us simply drift through our lives, never knowing that most of our ideas, much of our daily routine, is indebted to an ambitious young man -- Alexander -- who had a vision for spreading Greek culture throughout the world, who conquered everything from Greece to India, and then wept because there were no more worlds to conquer, and died when he was thirty-three. We live in our world as we do today because we stand on the shoulders of Alexander and others like him.

Now the question you have to ask is, was Alexander right, and do you really want to believe what he told you is true? And is it even possible to begin to question those pieces of your culture that are so deeply ingrained that you just assume that they are true?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Conquering gossip one conversation at a time

I had a delightful conversation this morning with a woman who wanted to ask me about Central's position regarding homosexuality.

Now, understand, after our decisions to change our affiliation a year ago from ELCA to LCMC, I am sick to death of being misunderstood. So when this woman came in with misinformation, ready to be quite offended, I was ready to be tired. Patient, kind, but tired.

So I was thrilled when she genuinely wanted to know the answers to her questions. She informed me that she's heard from people in the community -- mostly people who formerly attended Central but have now moved to other churches -- that Central prohibits gays, that we are closed-minded, that we are hateful and we exclude anyone who doesn't fit into our narrow view. She wanted to know, what's this church's position? So (imagine this!) she came to the church to ask.

Now things get even better. Turns out she's been part of our Wednesday morning food distribution, where people are welcomed to Central to enjoy breakfast and then we have free distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables and occasionally other things (this morning there were some clothes available on one of the tables as well). She's volunteered for some time with this ministry, helping people get resources to make their nutrition and their lives better. Part of the reason she was troubled about what she heard in the community was that she also heard people had stopped coming to this food distribution ministry because of Central's exclusive stance.

Not only does she volunteer with the food distribution ministry, but she's attended worship at Central for a couple weeks now, trying to find answers to her questions. She's come here looking for the truth, examining Central's actions and attitudes for herself.

Her perception? She told me, "It's weird -- I hear all these things out in the community from people who talk about Central as a hateful, exclusive place. But when I come here, I see that this church is doing more to welcome all kinds of people in than any other church I know of. Why do they say these things about Central? I don't see it."

So we talked about the ELCA's vote in August 2009, and Central's choice after that to change our affiliation. I tried hard to explain things fairly, without using any kind of language that might bias her. I did not talk about my opinion that the ELCA's decision contradicts scripture. I didn't bring the Bible into the conversation up to this point at all. But her first comment was, "So your church just wanted to do what the Bible says." I said yes, that's our desire. That's our goal.

"This is why I don't believe gossip," she said. "People usually just spew their own hurt, and so much of the time they don't know what they're talking about."

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Last fall I read the book Total Church and commented quite a bit on this blog about it. Part of the thesis of that book is that following Jesus is best lived out in community, meaning not just "as part of a congregation" but as part of a smaller group of people who have access to each other's lives. The book's authors assert that all the functions of the church -- evangelism, fellowship, apologetics, worship, discipleship -- happen best in a context of authentic relationships.

I agree. When I look at how God has shaped me, or the contexts in which he has touched my heart most clearly, or the places I've seen him grasp people's lives and draw people to Jesus, it almost always happens in the context of authentic human relationships that provide meat and skin to the bones of Christian belief.

So this winter at Central we are putting a ton of energy into something called "Life Together Groups." These will be mid-sized groups (meaning somewhere in the range of 12-20 people) that meet together weekly during Lent (March and April this year) for worship, study, prayer, and fellowship. Currently we're recruiting leaders and hosts. These people will receive extensive training for their task, then later in February we'll have people sign up to participate in the various groups.

I'm excited for these groups to take shape! We have talked about some form of this for a few years, and various groups within the church have done some pioneering work, trying out different forms of life together. My hope is that not just a few, but hundreds of people will gain a new experience of what it means to be part of a Jesus-centered community this winter and spring.

I'm eager to see where these groups go from here. We'll certainly leave the door open for groups to continue, though we're only asking leaders and hosts to commit through Lent. But once people get a taste of this, I think they might be hooked.

No doubt you'll be reading more on this blog as we live our way into this adventure. If you live in the Elk River area and you want in on this, feel free to email me!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Life in miniature

Picture this:

I am kneeling before a large patio door in the lower level of my house, looking rapt at the beauty of falling snow in my backyard. Giant puffy flakes of snow drift slowly through the air, each one bright white against the deep green of pines in my backyard. Everything in my backyard is cloaked in purest white. It's gorgeous.

To make things better, my mind is rolling around a note I recently received from a lifelong friend and colleague in ministry. It's one of those messages that both affirms who I am and where I've come from, and challenges my thinking in significant ways. So I am playing with words, considering a reply, and I am remembering lots of good times from childhood that this note has pulled out of the recesses of my mind.

Beautiful, isn't it?

Now, pan out a little bit. I am kneeling not out of reverence but because I have a bowl of soapy water and a rag, and I am disassembling one of the dog kennels that sits downstairs by the patio door. Last night Abbie, my Chesapeake, who is getting old and incontinent, had an accident. And not just a liquid accident, but a more or less (actually more less than more) solid accident that coats the inside of her kennel, tracks across the floor, and out the door. I am on my knees because I'm cleaning up large volumes of dog doo. Slurry. Whatever. That's already more than you wanted to know.

It strikes me that this situation is a perfect picture of life, most of the time. We are surrounded by outrageous beauty, incredible mystery, and unbelievable garbage. Trouble is, most of the time we are willing to sacrifice the mystery and the beauty in order not to deal with the garbage. The pharmaceutical industry has honed this to a fine point, providing us little purple pills that lift up life's lows and reduce the highs to a manageable level so we can coast through life more or less calmly. Some of us are capable of muting the highs and lows all on our own; we hide our eyes from terrible suffering and at the same time we miss out on the pinnacles of life's joys.

I think I'd rather deal with all of it straight up.

P.S. There are certainly people who need to take medication for various mental conditions. I am not speaking against that. But my point is that too often we avoid the pain and at the same time exclude ourselves from the joy of life.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Thought for the day

From Thomas a-Kempis, in the 15th century:

"If you withdraw yourself from unnecessary talking and idle running about, and also from listening to gossip and rumors, you will find time enough for holy meditation."

And you thought a hectic schedule was a problem new to the modern era?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Confirmation Retreat

I just got back from Timber Bay camp near Lake Mille Lacs, about an hour and a half north. It's an amazing camp and we had about 60 people there from Central for our freshman Confirmation retreat. I was privileged to speak four different times to this gathering. So I organized the four talks around two questions:

1. What will you do with Jesus?
2. What will you do with Jesus' followers?

I had fairly detailed plans for each talk, but God had different plans, so I ended up rewriting all four of my talks at the last minute -- meaning anywhere from two hours to two minutes before the talk, God provided a different -- and way better -- direction for the talk to go, and I proceeded to rewrite it. God proved himself, which is of course no surprise. Each of the talks seemed to engage the students in significant ways.

The adult leaders we have are amazing. It was so cool to watch them with their groups, just hanging out, building relationships, enjoying the kids and being real with them. What an amazing thing to see!

One touchpoint we came back to over and over again is that in the Bible, there seem to be five general ways for people to respond to Jesus. Going from "least preferable" to "most preferable" as they're presented in the Bible, here are the five:

1. Ignore
2. Reject
3. Admire
4. Use
5. Follow

Of course, the best response, from God's point of view, is to follow Jesus. But I'm convinced he recognizes that any response other than ignoring him may someday lead to following him. The biggest gap within the list, however, is between "Use" and "Follow." All the others kind of blend together, but "Follow" very much stands on its own.

It will be fun to see what conversations grow out of this retreat in the coming weeks. Of course, I'll never hear about most of them, but once in a while I hear, "We were talking the other day about that thing you said on the retreat ..." Those are always fun moments.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Answering Erica's Question

My daughter Erica asked me a great question on Facebook and I wrote a response. For the three of you who read this blog but who are not on Facebook, I am posting the exchange here. It's kind of long -- you've been warned.

Erica Krogstad wrote: Question, pastor-man. I was talking with a woman at the phonathon... it was a frustrating night anyway, a man said that homeschooling is a sin... and anyway, the woman said that she didn't count 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (I'm assuming those are the verses she was talking about) because they weren't spoken by Jesus. And Paul does say (2 Tim. 3:16) that "All Scripture is inspired by God," but that's him saying it. Where do we get the idea that we can absolutely trust things that were written after Jesus' time that he hadn't said himself, but that we implicitly assume he intended in his teachings?

So here is my attempt at a response.

When people dislike any particular policy that Christians have adopted because of a teaching that is biblical but not specifically articulated in the gospels, it is tempting for them to fall back on the "Jesus didn't say that, and I only accept what Jesus said" defense. I'm going to deal with that first before the specific question of the inspiration of all of scripture.

Note that the people who generally make this argument, at least in our time, are those who are disgruntled with what they see as a legalistic or condemning approach on the part of other Christians. And there is an aspect to this in which Christians need to confess that we have too often been condemning and judgmental where we have no right to be. Scripture gives us the right to judge those within the church for their conduct because it reflects on Jesus -- but we have no right to judge the lifestyles of those outside the church. (Paul makes this very clear in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.) Christians in America have made a growth industry of passing judgment on society. Biblically this is none of our business. One reason why western civilization has retreated from Christianity over the last several generations is because Christians have too often failed to be salt and light and instead have positioned ourselves to judge those outside the church. In fact, the divorce rates and rates of addiction to things like gambling and pornography are just as high in the church as they are outside, tragically. We have totally missed Paul's injunction cited above.

So we need to confess that and repent of it and change what we can in this regard. That's first.

Second. There is a growing segment of the Christian church -- usually composed of those who have been educated in religion, metaphysics, and spirituality by the culture rather than the Bible -- who want to "just follow Jesus" by which they mean that Jesus is sweetness and light, beauty and love and compassion without all the unpleasant side effects like judgmentalism and condemnation and hatred and suicide bombing and "God hates fags" and all that. Sounds nice. And personally I'd just as soon not be associated with any of that baggage either.

Here, however, is the question. How do we as Christians deal with the fact that the Bible -- including Jesus -- speaks not only grace and acceptance and love and joy, but also speaks a hard word of judgment on sin? I don't see how we can avoid this. It was Jesus himself -- sweetness and light -- who said, "“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean" (see Matthew 23:27). Jesus said lots of things like this, and he also cleansed the temple, and he told people that most of them were bound for destruction (see Matthew 7:13). Jesus spoke honestly about judgment and condemnation -- not in order to hurt people, but in order to bring people to repentance.

And I think this gets near the heart of the matter. We don't want to repent. We would much rather have a God who says, "I accept you just as you are! Don't ever change unless you really want to." So we avoid, if we can, hearing God's word of judgment on our sin, even if that means there are certain parts of the Bible I just won't listen to.

So let's move on a little bit to those parts of the Bible outside Jesus' own words. The black letters, if you will. Your question, Erica, implies that somehow Jesus' own words are trustworthy and everything else must be proven. Hmm. If I wanted to start from that point of view, I might argue that Jesus himself unequivocally affirms the integrity and the usefulness of the Old Testament, AND (this is critical) he also points to himself as the fulfillment (not the dismissal) of the Old Testament. (See Matthew 5:17-20 for one place Jesus affirms this.) So Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, begins to teach us how to use the Old Testament not as a rule book, but as a guideline for living under his authority, in his Kingdom.

The trouble is, we don't want any guidelines unless they affirm what we're already doing, so we hear these guidelines -- given by a loving God for the benefit of his beloved people -- as harsh judgment because they call us to repentance and change.

Jesus' teaching, however, is not the focal point of Christianity. It is important, but not the focal point. Instead, Jesus' death and resurrection is the focal point of Christianity. Jesus' own teachings help us to understand him and his death and his resurrection. Jesus' teachings on the Old Testament help us bring the entire history of Israel, what Jesus calls "the Law and the Prophets" to bear on him. It is no accident that Jesus was Jewish -- God had been preparing the way for him for over 1500 years through the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Monarchy, and all the rest. So (contra Marcion) Jesus only makes sense based on the history and scriptures of Israel. Jesus does not (thank God) come to deliver a message of moral niceness in contrast to the judgmental Jewish rules that had gone before. Rather, all that had gone before -- Patriarchs, Prophets, Priests, and Kings -- are witnesses and foreshadowings to help us understand Jesus in his height and depth and greatness when he finally arrives.

What about the rest of the New Testament? Paul, Peter, John, and the other authors of the New Testament come from the same covenant community as Jesus. They are Jews, steeped in Jewish history and scripture. Their task is exactly the same as Jesus' own task -- they are making sense of Jesus' death and resurrection by reexamining the Old Testament and applying it to a new context. Some of the Old Testament suddenly leaps into brilliant light when they do this, because they are finding God's word to be effective and faithful in a new way as they apply it in a new context. Peter does this brilliantly in his sermon in Acts 2, for example. Paul, though he never met Jesus in the flesh, is the perfect tool for God to use because he was steeped in the Jewish traditions and interpretations, and once he became convinced of Jesus' identity as the Messiah, he shifted his interpretation of the Old Testament to understand Jesus, his cross and resurrection as the fulfillment of the law.

Now, why should we trust Peter or Paul or John or whoever wrote Hebrews or even Luke (NOT a Jew!) when they start doing this? They're not Jesus! Fact is, Jesus both anticipated and affirmed this process. In John 14:25ff, Jesus says, "These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." Again in John 16, Jesus says, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." Among other things that were yet to come -- we are so prone to hear this as predicting events surrounding the end of the world for some reason -- was the formation of the New Testament. Fact is, Peter and Paul and John and Luke and the rest were not writing on their own, making up their best guess at how the Old Testament applied to Jesus and what the "rules" are for those who follow him. Rather, they are writing inspired texts -- not meaning that this was effortless for them (see Luke 1:1-4 -- it was work!) but rather meaning that God himself guided what was written, sometimes for specific contexts and other times establishing ongoing principles that lie in continuity with the ongoing principles embodied in the Old Testament.

Jesus also understood that those who would follow after the disciples would have to put their trust in him through the disciples and their testimony. Jesus affirms this as well. In Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission, and again in Acts 1:8, and in other places Jesus tells his disciples that this is their task -- to pass on accurate faith in Jesus by bearing witness. In John 13-16, Jesus repeatedly refers to the disciples being his witnesses, and in John 17 he specifically prays for those who will believe through their testimony (that's us, among others!). Jesus anticipated and affirmed this process of those who were eyewitnesses being his witnesses and faithfully teaching other followers to obey all that he had commanded them.

Finally, the New Testament is formed (as hinted above) through the work of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the primary "yet to come" events that will greatly shape Christianity after Jesus' ascension. Studying the history, one can see an amazing progression of growing authenticity and authority for some writings (Romans, for example) while others are respected, but lose their identity as "scripture" very quickly (for instance, the Didache or the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas, all of which were considered scripture in some early circles but eventually fell by the wayside as the Spirit shaped a consensus among churches as to what was included in scripture). The question of authority is not dependent on authorship, either. Why isn't Paul's letter to the Laodicaeans considered canonical? We don't actually have a copy of this letter, of course, but Paul obviously wrote one (see Colossians 4:16). I believe the Spirit, for whatever reason, decided that letter did not belong in the canon and so it was not copied and redistributed, even though Paul must have thought it was pretty worthwhile. If we suddenly discovered a copy of it, it should not now become scripture simply because it was written by Paul. The question of authority for the books of the New Testament rests on their proximity to Jesus (that is, do they have intimate connection to an eyewitness of Jesus?), their consistency with the books that are clearly in the mainstream of the New Testament with regard to Jesus (the gospels and Romans, mostly), and their acceptance as "scriptural" -- authoritative -- within the life of the post-apostolic church in the first two and a half centuries of the church's history. These are the grounds on which some have argued for or against various books in the canon -- James, for instance. But James meets all the above criteria, and even though Luther didn't like it, it still belongs in the New Testament.

So can we trust the New Testament? I believe yes, for several reasons:

1. Jesus affirms the Law and the Prophets and names himself as their fulfillment.

2. Jesus expresses his confidence in the apostles' ability to serve as faithful witnesses for him not because of their skill or strength but because of the Spirit's power and presence.

3. The writers of the New Testament (including the gospel writers, by the way) were grappling with the Old Testament texts and the experience of those who had met Jesus in order to make sense of Jesus, especially his death and resurrection. They come from the same covenant as Jesus, and they grapple from the point of view of close proximity to Jesus, to his teachings and his death and resurrection.

4. Jesus specifically promises that the Holy Spirit will help flesh out the movement that begins with his resurrection. If we don't trust that the Spirit is involved in the formation of Scripture, we have little to go on because the gospel accounts themselves are then unreliable.

A final few words about these arguments in our day. Sadly, most of the voices that call for "just following Jesus' own words" today are those arguing for wholesale acceptance of homosexual activity within the Christian church. Our western culture has decided that homosexual activity is not a sin, and so biblical texts that proclaim otherwise are a problem. We must either ignore them or discredit them, and the easiest way to discredit them is to say that "Jesus never said anything like that." Sorry, but it doesn't hold water. Though Jesus never mentions homosexuality, he does refer to the created order of male and female and God's intention for marriage, and he does specifically affirm the authority of "every jot and tittle" of the Old Testament. The biggest trouble with this is, however, that by ducking under the Bible's word of judgment on sin, we too easily miss out on God's gracious word of love and forgiveness. If I said, "Jesus never spoke against overeating, therefore I should be able to engage in gluttony whenever I want to", I put myself in a very dangerous place where my own sin may well be the death of me. Instead, Jesus calls us to die to ourselves (not from our indulgence) and be resurrected by the presence of his Spirit in our lives. Repentance (death) and resurrection is the pattern of the Christian life. Those who reject their need to die to sin -- all sin, including judgmentalism and arrogance and hypocrisy -- are de facto rejecting the grace of God and settling for a cheap imitation.

Great questions, honey. I'm sure you will have some follow-up thoughts!

I love you!

Dad (the pastor-man)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Had the privilege of listening to a video by Matt Chandler last fall when he talked about the power of the resurrection and what it means for Christians. One of his asides in that video was to marvel at how Christians who should know better are often surprised when they run up against unpleasant situations. How can we be surprised by something that the Bible tells us over and over and over again that we will encounter suffering? Here is another video of Matt talking about suffering and what God is doing in the midst of suffering. This is such important stuff for us to understand.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Blood Trail

One of my passions is bowhunting. I enjoy the quiet of the woods, and the longer bowhunting season gives me opportunities to spend peaceful time outdoors from September through December. The downside of bowhunting is that it’s a lot more difficult to put venison in the freezer. Most winters as New Year’s approaches, I feel a sense of urgency to fill my tag, and the week between Christmas as New Year’s I try to cram in as many hours on stand as I can.

This year was no exception. New Year’s Eve I wasn’t thinking about resolutions, or the ball dropping, or parties. I was concerned about the sun dropping toward the horizon on the final afternoon of archery deer season. Right about sunset, with thirty minutes left before the end of the season, I shot a nice doe. In the fading light I tracked her, following the bright crimson pattern of blood across the snow. I thought how different this tracking was from a shot earlier in the season, when blood fades into leaves and dirt. A blood trail on snow is nature’s equivalent of a bright neon sign. Even a child can follow it.

The prophet Isaiah, speaking for God, tells the people of Israel, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). Sometimes when I try to see myself accurately, it’s like following a difficult blood trail on wet leaves and dirt. I can’t see clearly what is right and what is wrong. I always have good motives for what I do — or at least good excuses — and sometimes I can’t tell whether I’m right or wrong. But when I focus on Jesus instead of on myself, things become much clearer. As I get close to him, my own sin leaps into perspective like bright red drops of blood against the snow of his holiness, his purity, his goodness. (I suppose this is why so often people don’t want to get close to Jesus!)

The good news is that Jesus invites us to come close to him without fear. “Come, let us reason together,” he says. “You can’t earn my goodness, but give me your sinful self and in exchange I will give you the gift of my holiness. Then come, follow me!”

What a great gift as we begin 2011 — Jesus longs to give us the gift of himself, so that when God our Father sees us, he sees the perfection of Jesus. We do not come to him ashamed and apologetic; instead we turn from ourselves to focus on Jesus, and in doing so we see clearly both our own shortcomings and the beauty of his perfection. How exciting that Jesus invites us to follow him into this new year!