Sunday, December 31, 2017

An excursus for New Year's Eve, 2017

Contrary to habit, I have been
tracking deer through the clean snow, following
the prints and drag marks and sizing the tracks
while I await sunset, and dark, and the end
of another bowhunting season.
I eat well these days, and I am
not hungry enough tonight to sit quiet in the bitterness,
in the twenty-below cold, listening to the trees pop
while the feeling goes out of first one, then the other, foot, nose, finger,
and I debate whether my cheeks are really frostbit --
though I have gladly spent so many recent evenings just that way.

Tonight I am moving, tracking, carrying my bow, arrow on string
as an afterthought, more than half amused
to see the leavings of those I have come to know:
I see many, many places where Momma has led her tiny twins
up, down, around through these acres. The yearling has been here
and there, hungry, and generally out foraging earlier
than the others. The big doe and her single fawn appear here
and there. A larger set of prints, solo, jags through at odd angles
and I wonder: A buck I have not seen? Or is it
that screwy forkhorn I have glimpsed a time or two? Though
I did not think his tracks would look so large?

I wander along the trails, down between the swamps and up the far slope
and I begin to look ahead. I am thinking now not about the deer but
about my woodpile, and how I burn through so much oak
when the cold draws the mercury so far down, down, down.

I am looking for seasoned wood I can burn yet this winter, and
I find myself standing, looking around, planning for the next few months' heat
and for the summer's wood-gathering, and for the winter after that,
sizing up trees and trails and saw-blades and whether that space is
wide enough for my trailer. I realize I am standing
in the old ox-cart trail that enters the property at the north end and wanders
like a dotted line, appearing and disappearing,
to the south. Shy of two hundred years ago, before these oaks appeared,
they drove here, the ox-carts. I imagine the interminable screech of those
wheels without bearings, screeching for bear-grease,
bearing furs and goods from Pembina to St. Paul.
They say two thousand a day, sometimes, came hauling wealth
into that infant city, plodding behind the oxen. They were so many
and so often and so long, they wore deep trenches on this land
that stand still today where the housing developments and highways
and plows and tractors have been merciful.

I cannot help but think of those drivers and their quiet beasts
day after day on this track, and what they must have been like,
living their unremarked lives out while doing their erosive part
to leave a mark, a route, a trench.

I am standing in one of these, half a grave in depth, looking back to the history
that made me, and the tracks that I have left this year, and the ephemeral
web of which I am a part. Then, too, I am standing, peering
forward to tomorrow's weather and next summer's work
and next fall's hunting, and next winter's heat. Wiser
than a year ago, perhaps, and more free? It may be
too soon to tell. I wonder. The future is dim at best,
and as much as I wish otherwise, I can only watch,
and wait as the light fades and the stars like fiery swans
appear silently overhead.
I turn back on my own footprints
pondering paths taken and paths left, and in my mind weighing
that big chunk of oak in the woodbox and whether it
will be warmth enough for tonight.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Mary's task

As we covered in the last post, it is critically important for us to know Jesus as a figure in history -- as the one who was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and all the other details that the New Testament gives us about Jesus in his historical context. But just knowing Jesus does not cover the needful task of the church. We are called to proclaim Jesus.

Lately I've been reading through the gospel of John, a chapter each day. This morning I read John 20, the Easter narrative. I was struck over and over as I read by the task Jesus entrusted to Mary Magdalene -- to proclaim his resurrection to the disciples. "Go to my brothers and say to them ..." Jesus directs her. When Jesus, who was entrusted by his Father with the task of proclaiming the kingdom of God, commissions these disciples, he says "As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." Just as Jesus was sent to proclaim, so are we. And first and foremost, we proclaim Jesus himself.

I've been thinking that after I finish reading John I might well go read Paul's letters to the Corinthians. Paul, when he wrote to the Christians at Corinth (1 Corinthians 2), described that proclamation: "I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." Really? Paul, that brilliant intellect, that expert in church planting and leadership development and rabbinical argument and application of the Levitical laws, resolved to know "nothing ... except Jesus Christ"?


It is tempting for the church to make our proclamation about "Jesus and ..."

... and our particular structure of church governance.
... and tithing.
... and our church's new capital campaign.
... and our particular theological bent about baptizing only adults (or mostly babies).
... and the inerrancy of scripture.
... and whatever else we love to include in the good news.

But the good news is simply about Jesus. He is the beginning and the end of the good news.

So the church, if it's following the biblical models given to us, proclaims Jesus. Like Jesus, we proclaim the kingdom of God, which we'll get to in a bit. But even the kingdom of God is, at its core, about Jesus -- about Jesus being king. Our proclamation starts and ends with Jesus, because in Jesus all the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2).

What does this mean? It means that if your church is not talking about Jesus constantly, your church is missing the boat. Every sermon should focus on Jesus. It means that as a Christian, if you aren't completely focused on Jesus, you're missing the mark.

So one of the things we like to do with this is, we like to focus on being good. We like to focus on the rules and how well we keep them and how other people don't. So Christians get known as people who are against stuff, because we feel the responsibility to point out the errors of the world's ways. That is so sad, because the one thing Christians should be known for is our passion for Jesus and our desire to be like him. Our words and our actions should proclaim Jesus -- and if we think Jesus is a moralistic preacher of the law, one who shames sinners, we need to go back and reread the gospels a few times.

Proclaiming Jesus in words and actions is probably the single most important task of the church.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Proclaiming Jesus Christ

We're moving on to the third major priority / task of the church -- not that we've thoroughly covered "stewardship of creation" or "stewardship of community" by any means. Lots more to say on each of those.

Oswald Chambers' devotion, My Utmost For His Highest, has become a regular part of my morning routine for a very long time now. This morning the meditation included this interesting statement:

"If you try to hold back the Holy Spirit within you, with the desire of producing more inner spiritual experiences, you will find that He will break the hold and take you again to the historic Christ."

One of the many dangers of our individualistic context is that all spiritual life becomes self-referential, and a little bit narcissistic. So we measure all of our spiritual life in terms of what it does for me, here and now. We value experience rather than truth. It is an indication of Chambers' keen biblical insight that he understands the historic figure of Jesus Christ as the counterpoint to subjective spiritual experience. Sadly, however, most of us these days discount the value of history and believe we're somehow exempt from its lessons.

Christ-followers above all can never give in to that temptation. Christianity is, from start to finish, historically rooted and grounded. If we try to divorce some set of spiritual lessons from the historic person of Jesus, we are lost.

So it's appropriate that in the last hours of Advent, coming up on the celebration of Christmas, we recognize the birth of the historic figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The most famous biblical passage about Christmas firmly roots Jesus' birth in clear historical context: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled ..." (Luke 2). All the New Testament writings are clearly rooted in specific historical contexts, but Luke is especially careful to make sure we know exactly when and where these things are happening.

It's not enough to love Jesus, to worship him -- we need to know him in order to do those things. And knowing Jesus means knowing him first as a person in history: his birth, life, death, and resurrection as they occur in first-century Palestine. Our meditations and teachings about Jesus are invalid and dangerous if they don't line up with what we know of Jesus historically through the New Testament documents.

Once we know those documents, we find that Jesus becomes greater and more meaningful, not less.

So this Christmas, take a few minutes to ponder the fact that Jesus is born not in some universal sense, but in this specific village in Judea, in a specific time in history, to a specific set of parents and in a specific cultural and historical setting. Just as you live in a particular context, so Jesus came to a particular context. Know him in history, and then begin to experience what he can do to transform your context, your circumstances, your life.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Our individualistic context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Created for Community

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

More about the Stewardship of Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Stewardship of Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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