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!