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. 


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