Monday, January 29, 2018

Ministry in the mess, or why the church misses the mark

For many weeks now, we've been pondering together on this blog about what the church ought to be and do. We've talked about this in terms of four tasks:

  1. Stewardship of Creation
  2. Stewardship of Community
  3. Proclamation of Jesus Christ
  4. Proclamation of the kingdom of God

The more I've reflected on these four tasks, the more I think they do a fair job of summarizing the high and holy calling of the church, from a biblical point of view. We haven't exhausted each of these four in our ponderings, but we have made a start. 

Why do churches so often miss these tasks, misunderstand our calling, get embroiled in self-interest, and settle for far less than the Bible calls us to?

There are good reasons why we miss the mark on this. Let me go way too far into my personal life by way of a parable. 

As I write this, my kitchen counter is accumulating dishes. Two days' worth so far. My living room carpet is full of dog hair, and that gets on my socks and my fleece blanket and my recliner, because (after dog-sitting for a couple days over the weekend) I haven't vacuumed in the last couple days. The cracking linoleum in my entryway still clearly shows dog prints because it was above freezing the first day the dog was here, and we both tracked in mud, though we tried (unsuccessfully) to keep our feet on the rug. 

I have a couple unruly stacks of papers sitting on my side table that I haven't gone through yet. Or rather, I've gone through them, but haven't finally decided which ones need to be discarded and which ones represent bills needing to be paid. Upstairs I have a stack of folded clothes on top of my dresser and a pile of dirty clothes in and on the clothes hamper. The bed is made, yes, but the covers are drawn hastily over a mess of pillows.

Overall my house is fairly well organized but there are "in progress" piles here and there that drive me more than a little crazy. 

My inner landscape reflects my home, not surprisingly. I'm fairly well organized -- my thoughts, spiritual life, work and emotions all have their place, but in each of these areas there are "in progress" piles that I wish were tidier. And the messiness of my inner life can vary greatly during the course of any given day. 

Currently my life includes a lot of solitary hours, and I go back and forth like a pendulum, sometimes loving the solitude and other times wracked by a bitter loneliness. I have good friendships and a strong church community, but processing my own difficult junk -- and I've accumulated quite a bit of that over the past few years especially -- is often an hourly challenge. 

I just walked up through the darkness to get the mail, and the night sky is a wonder -- nearly full moon, stars gleaming out of the inky black, everything lit with a glow that seems brighter than it really is. I am touched by the beauty of the place I live, and the privilege of dwelling here. God is good and faithful. Even as I say that, I'm stabbed to the heart with the realization how rarely I thank him for these gifts, and how often I'm obsessed with my own frustrations, faults, and unfulfilled desires. 

Now, allow all that to provide a background. Given some of the "difficult junk" I referred to above, I regularly question whether God could use someone like me. And yet he graciously opens doors -- portals to praying with people, serving in humble roles that facilitate the ministry of others, coming alongside a grieving family, and even (for the first time in many, many months) preaching to an eager, growing congregation. I have to remind myself that God is faithful to communicate his love, speak his word, and reach out to this beloved creation ... in and through and in spite of my brokenness. 

We face exactly this problem collectively, as a church. Each of us individually, and all of us together as a church called to gather in the name of Jesus, face these harsh realities. We are broken. We are selfish. We are divided. We are arrogant and fearful and rude and judgmental and obsessed with trivia. Yet God promises that in and through and in spite of our brokenness, he will get his work done. He will proclaim his love to this beloved creation. 

His promise is the mark of his goodness, not of our competence. When I was a very young man, I heard a word that has never left me: God is more interested in your availability than he is in your ability. If we make ourselves available -- realistic about our brokenness and limitations, but fully extended for God to use -- he will put us to the tasks that serve his loving purposes. That is, in fact, the message of so much of the Bible. 

Looking around my house, my life, it sounds to me like a sheer word of his grace, his mercy. And I believe it with all my heart. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A real life example

What does it look like for the church to do its important tasks and really be the church?

Here is one excellent example.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

In memoriam, Ursula LeGuin, 1929-2018:

Only in silence the word

Only in darkness, the light

Only in dying, life:

Bright the hawk's flight 

on the empty sky

- A Wizard of Earthsea

Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward toward the light, but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.

- The Tombs of Atuan

Monday, January 22, 2018

Revealing the love of God

Last post I said that "the church is the means God uses to implement his will for the world." For too many of us, that seems like a weird idea. Why? Isn't that the natural outgrowth of Jesus' death and resurrection? But ... but ... "Church" seems so normal. Mundane.


We read stuff in the Bible that sounds absolutely crazy exciting, and then we go to church and fall asleep. The two just can't be connected.

Two problems for us. First, the Bible uses figurative language -- the Jewish people in Jesus' time were experts at this -- to express everyday realities with huge supernatural meanings behind them. So to casual observers, these things looked just ... well, normal. Second, we have gotten so used to hearing the Bible's language as religious language, meaning there's got to be some wacky CGI-movie supernatural meaning to things. (And there is, but we fail to see it because we haven't trained ourselves that way.)

Here's one concrete example. If you read Jesus telling someone to "repent and believe in me" what would you think? You'd think there needed to be some major heart change, a supernatural religious experience that led to a change of what theologians would call "epistemological structure" in a person's life -- their faith would change, meaning their religious beliefs would change. Probably this involves tears and falling to one's knees in front of a church and "repenting." Now, a real example of what this language, "repent and believe in me" meant when the New Testament was being written. In the first century, a generation after Jesus' death and resurrection, a guy named Josephus was a general of the Jewish army. At that time, a rebel was running around messing with the Roman soldiers that occupied Galilee, which was a Jewish territory. Everybody knew that if guys like this rebel kept doing stuff like that, the Romans would come and wipe out the Jewish people and raze their homeland. The problem wasn't what this rebel believed, but what he was doing. So Josephus, the general of the Jewish army (who at that time had a dicey working relationship with the Roman authorities) went to visit this rebel. What did he tell him? He told him, "Change what you're doing and do things my way." But the words he used to convey that message were exactly the same words in the Greek language that we translate in the New Testament as "repent and believe in me." So what would it sound like to hear Jesus saying, "Change what you're doing and do things my way"?

The third major problem here is, of course, that the church has too often missed her calling to be God's agent in the world, to understand the depth and magnitude of our task and our importance.
We're used to reading things in the Bible that seem like wild, supernatural statements. We assume weird religious meanings when we read stuff in the New Testament. So when, in John 16, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, when he comes, will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, most of us either ignore a difficult passage or we make it somehow about some wild, Holy Spirit thing that happens in the supernatural realm.

What if it's more mundane than that? What if Jesus is referring to the church here?

Let's look at the passage. What Jesus says in John 16 is this:

"When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged."

Most of us read this and just shake our heads. But I'm making the argument that this is fulfilled in the church, not because of anything we do intentionally, but by the church just being the church, being what Jesus created us to be. When Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit coming, he's referring to Pentecost (see Acts 2) and what is Pentecost except the birthday of the church? Out of that event, the church of Jesus is born and begins to grow, as described at the end of Acts 2 and following chapters. The church exists to know and proclaim the truth about God in an experiential way, including living in loving community at every level. (It is quite possible that there is nothing in all the world that can change us so profoundly as the experience of being well and truly loved.) At its most basic level, the church is made up of those who believe in Jesus Christ. In John's language, belief is not cognitive assent, it is a life-changing trust that leads to changed actions. Also in John's language, the ultimate sin is unbelief -- refusal to live in a life-changing relationship of trust with Jesus. So the very existence of the church convicts the world of sin by highlighting both the possibility of trust and by shining light on the world's unwillingness to risk that trust. In the decades and even in the first couple centuries following Jesus' death and resurrection, the world was mystified, befuddled and offended by this group of people who believed something so crazy as Jesus' resurrection, and believed it so strongly that it changed their actions and relationships so radically. The existence of the church in its life-changing belief holds up an alternative to the world's stubborn unbelief. It convicts the world of sin.

Similarly, the existence of the church convicts the world of righteousness. Jesus' going to the Father following his death and resurrection includes the idea of him imparting righteousness to those who believe in him. So in the church, we are called not to live out the old, tired system of moralistic shame and reward. Rather, we are called to live in the glorious freedom of those who are welcomed into God's love freely, because of what Jesus has done for us. To bring in more of the New Testament's language, we are forgiven. So often churches make forgiveness about taking away the sin that keeps us from heaven after we die. But what if it's so much more? What if forgiveness opens up a pathway for us to live in love, mercy, and welcome with each other in relationship now? Part of what the world observed in the church was a delighted, self-giving love that transformed lives. "See how they love one another" was one of the reactions non-Christians marveled about this strange movement. The church living out its freedom in Jesus Christ convicts the world of righteousness, because we know we're loved and accepted by God and one another not based on our own goodness but based on the free gift of God's amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

Finally, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, when he comes, will convict the world of judgment, because the ruler of this world (a pretty standard biblical way of referring to Satan and all the powers, including human powers, that are opposed to God's rule) stands condemned. Again, this seems like something we'd expect to happen in some wild supernatural cosmic judgment hall. However, to see the "ruler of this world" and his works all you have to do is look around, especially if you're standing in the ancient world. See a world based on Machiavellian power structures (might makes right), the corruption that power brings that justifies all our self-indulgent actions, shame based structures that oppress the weak and broken for the benefit of the strong, me-first tribalism and nationalism and abuse of all kinds. That's what a world without Jesus had created. We live today in a world where precisely through centuries of the church's existence, belief in Jesus has transformed the very ways we think. We take the existence and value of hospitals, schools, charities, safety nets, literacy, and so much more for granted -- yet all of these things grow not out of some shared humanistic assumption that we should do what's good for people. Rather, that idea that people are important and we should care for the lost and the least is a direct outgrowth of the church's existence over the centuries. The church, by living out the nature and character of Jesus (all too often in imperfect, partial ways) has indeed transformed the world. In doing so -- in creating societies that value the lives of the weak and broken as well as the strong and capable -- the me-first values of the world (and its ruler) stand condemned, judged.

There is obviously much more to say about this, but now we come to another notoriously difficult passage in the New Testament. In Ephesians 3, Paul writes that his job was to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles, so that he could bring to light a mystery hidden for ages and ages, and that "through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places." In other words, by the church being the church -- worshipping a crucified and risen Lord, treating one another with love and mercy, operating not out of self-interest but self-giving love -- the universe might come to know the character and loving nature of God. For Paul, one of the huge elements of this revealing revolved around God's accepting the Gentiles into his love. Basically, Paul was saying that all the assumptions we had about our tribe (the Jews) being accepted and us being better than everybody else -- which is the natural sinful human way to think -- had been totally blown away by God's plan to send Jesus for the sake of all people, to create a church that lived in love and forgiveness and mercy and righteousness according to the character of a loving God who welcomes all of humanity into his kingdom.

What it comes down to is this: to the extent that the church functions as the church -- living according to the nature of Jesus, not according to the world and its systems -- its very existence bears witness to the world of the reality and love of God, and convicts the unbelieving world of the fact that its values and systems stand opposed to the creator and ruler of the universe. All too often, the church buys into the world's power structures, so we see me-first politics and campaigning and power blocs and shaming and gossip and rumor-mongering carrying the day in the church. But these are not the ways of Jesus, and when those things become our pattern we are no longer living as the church. To the extent that the church can learn to love well, God will use us to reveal himself to the world.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Proclaiming the Kingdom of God

Lately I've been reworking the document on this blog entitled "Pastorates: New Testament DNA for the 21st Century Church." Right now I'm involved in a church that is looking seriously at implementing this model of being the church together, and it's exciting. It's fun to have a good reason to go back through these ideas and evaluate and fine-tune some of the work I've done in the past, all the while considering how best to put this mid-sized groups model into practice as a way to "make disciples." 

Along the way, I ran across this quote I had written back in 2013: "People 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.  We clutter our schedules so that we don’t have to face the disturbing questions that confront us in quiet moments."

I've been seeing this hunger for meaning, community, and mission so much lately. It doesn't hurt that as I write this, Vikings fans are reveling in an amazing last second win over New Orleans yesterday (vindication from 2009, anyone?) and all the adrenaline and collective identity that goes with marching toward the Superbowl, which happens to be occurring IN MINNEAPOLIS this year. So social media is lit up with delighted fan commentary, and that's a good thing. 

It strikes me in the midst of it all that this quote points out exactly why it is so important to get to the fourth priority of the church. (Remember? That's what we're working on. See this blog post if you've forgotten or, better yet, come late to the discussion.) The fourth priority of the church is just what Jesus did from start to finish in his earthly ministry: proclaiming the kingdom of God.

In reality, this fourth priority is really the culmination of the first three. Working backwards, we recognize Jesus as king. "All authority has been given to me ..." Jesus says this about himself over and over in the gospels, both in words and in actions. He repeatedly demonstrates his kingship, his authority. Out of that authority, he creates loving community. And it is largely through that community that he exercises his rightful lordship over all creation.

The kingdom of God is the phrase Jesus used to describe his own kingship -- the authority he exercises over all creation, including (but not limited to) humanity. There's a powerful picture of this authority in Daniel 7, a book that was written hundreds of years before Jesus' birth. But Jesus adopted a phrase from this vision, "the son of man" as a title for himself. Quite often in the gospels he refers to himself as "the son of man," in what sounds to us like an odd third-person sort of construct. In reality, Jesus is claiming to be God's authoritative representative by referring back to this vision.

One of the things that amazes me the deeper I dig into it is how the New Testament sees the church -- these scrappy, imperfect, home-based gatherings of Jesus-followers -- as the means by which God exercises his authority over the world and implements the effects of Jesus' resurrection. Next time we'll take a look at a couple passages -- Ephesians 3:10 and John 16:8-11, notoriously difficult passages -- to see how the church is the means God uses to implement his will for the world. Crazy.

It is in the church that God intends to meet our hunger for meaning, community and mission. It is in these imperfect gatherings of Jesus-followers that God intends to transform the world and spread the consequences of Jesus' resurrection throughout creation. If you're looking for significance, you just found it. And it probably looks different than you thought it would. Reality is, the church has an unimaginable responsibility. That's why this discussion is so important -- why it's so critically important that we would understand what God intends for the church and why it's such a tragedy when we miss it, when we get it wrong.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Religion vs. Relationship

Almost a week ago, I ended a post (see January 4, 2018) with this question:

So what was God's original intention, if not for us to be good people? What is the good news of Jesus all about, if not rewarding us with heaven?

One of the biggest, most serious problems afflicting the church is that we work very hard to make Christianity into a religion. In fact we have succeeded to such an extent that nearly every authority would grant that Christianity is one of the top four or five of the world's major religions. 

Does that seem odd? 

The trouble is, Jesus never started a religion. He was part of a perfectly good preexisting religion, namely Judaism, that had all the pieces a religion needs. And even at that time, two thousand years ago, the world did NOT need another religion. 

Read the gospels carefully and you'll discover that Jesus was far more interested in fostering relationship -- namely, relationship between God and people, but even going beyond that, between people and other people. Playing off the traditional religious structures of Judaism, someone asked Jesus what the two greatest commandments were. (The Jews of Jesus' day spent unimaginable hours debating the commandments and their relative importance.) Jesus' answer goes right to the heart of what he was all about: First, love God with everything you are. Second, love your neighbor like you love yourself. Both of these commandments are relationship-building. That was Jesus' priority. 

If, as the Bible claims, Jesus is the visible expression of the invisible God (see Colossians 1), then it stands to reason that God's intention for humanity would be reflected in Jesus' priorities, teachings, and actions. So if Jesus never set out a moral framework -- remember, Judaism already had a perfectly good one -- but he did focus on relationship with God and relationship with other people, then that should somehow reflect God's original intention for humanity. 

My thinking on this went through a significant transformation a number of years ago when I started reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Ethics. I got as far as the first page and got stopped by a pretty simple idea. Here's the simple idea that sprained my brain pretty badly: 

God created humans for relationship with himself, and only through knowing God would we have any appropriate sense of right and wrong. If we try to know right and wrong apart from knowing God, we are repeating the mistake of the Garden of Eden all over again. 

So on the first page of Ethics, Bonhoeffer basically says there's no such thing as Christian ethics. 

It's all about knowing God.

In fact, Bonhoeffer talked near the end of his life (as he was imprisoned by the German Gestapo, smuggling letters out to his family and friends) about what a "religionless Christianity" might look like. And he contrasted what a religious man, say like John the Baptist, might look like compared to a non-religious man like Jesus. Wow. 

Re-re-re-read the gospels all over again, and you'll find this theme of Jesus being all about knowing God dominates something fierce. At the outset of his "high priestly prayer" as it's sometimes called in John 17, where Jesus not only lays out his own understanding of his mission and prays for those who follow him, he defines eternal life. He says, "And this is eternal life -- that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Get it? Eternal life is not strumming a harp on a cloud for a million billion jillion years. It's knowing God in an intimate relationship. It's not something that happens after you die, it's a relationship that starts now. And God is not some indefinable abstract being, he is the one revealed in Jesus. 

Getting to know Jesus is God's priority for you. And getting to know God through Jesus is the best investment you can make. That will change everything, if you really put your heart into it -- it will change how you see God, of course, but it will also change how you relate to other people ("love your neighbor as yourself") and how you live in community with others and how you feel about your own moral successes and failures. And guess what, that relationship with God through Jesus Christ will shape your behavior as well, just like any life-giving love shapes the way you behave. It's as natural as breathing. 

But do all of us -- especially yourself -- a favor and don't start with trying to obey a moral code of some kind, thinking that's how you get close to God. It doesn't work. Start with getting to know Jesus through the stories that his first followers wrote down about him. Read the gospels. It's about a relationship. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Twelfth Night

Tonight is the Twelfth Night of Christmas, made famous by William Shakespeare in his romantic comedy of that title. (To be honest, there is an online debate about whether January 5 or 6 should be the twelfth night of Christmas, but those who hold to January 6th clearly have NO understanding of how liturgical calendars work. January 5 is the twelfth night. So there. If you want to argue about this, email me, but you'll lose.) So tonight is the last night of Christmas when we celebrate Jesus coming as light into the world (see John 1:5 among other references) and it's also Epiphany eve, the night before January 6 which is Epiphany when we mark the revelation of Jesus -- his "epiphany" -- to the world, specifically to the Magi (see Matthew 2).

So what to do on this illustrious night?

Build a bonfire, of course. Sip on an appropriate winter beverage and ponder what it means that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome / understood it (the Greek word in John 1:5 demands both senses of the word, by the way, which is ponder-worthy in itself).

And if you live on the shores of a gorgeous frozen lake, and if you currently have a beautiful white husky for a roommate, better yet. So tonight I built an enormous fire, undecorated and burned my Christmas tree, and enjoyed the light shining into the darkness, all the while savoring the light show overhead, the January stars proclaiming the glory of God (see Psalm 19) in a spectacular way as Orion climbed over the tree-covered hills to the east and the Northern Cross stood on the western horizon.

For those of you who, having been reminded of the Twelve Days of Christmas, have the carol stuck in your head, here's one more way to do Christmas, Day 12.

So tomorrow is Epiphany. The liturgical calendar was developed in a context where the church completely dominated the power structures of society -- so everything, including the passage of time, was governed by the church. The seasons of the liturgical calendar (which very few people understand anymore, and which our culture has walked completely away from, so don't hear me trying to reinstate the liturgical calendar) were a powerful way to proclaim Jesus Christ. That proclamation was structured into everything from the changing amounts of light in each day to seasons of planting, growth, and harvest, to the amount of food in your larder. All those things and many more were wrapped into that shared calendar of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, to tell the story of Jesus and proclaim his glory.

Tomorrow is Epiphany, marking the revelation of Jesus to the nations, to the entire human race, not just to the Jews. It's a powerful season, set at this point in the calendar to mark the return of light into the world after the darkness of the winter solstice. It's a time of clear, cold days and long, starry nights, of glory pouring into the world.

But the times have changed. People don't pay much attention, as a rule, to the liturgical calendar these days. And that's okay. But the church needs to figure out how to proclaim an unchanging Jesus Christ to a changing world. We stand in the gap between the two. Our Lord doesn't change, but our methods of proclaiming him might need to.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness neither overcomes nor understands it. So take heart this Epiphany. Jesus is still the light of the world, even in a world where everyone has a flashlight on their smartphone. That little bulb will do nothing to illuminate the darkness of the human heart, and that is the context in which we need to faithfully proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord these days.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Jesus and morality

One of the major questions we need to face if we are to proclaim Jesus biblically, faithfully, is what is Jesus' relationship to our sense of morality.

When it comes to the question of morality, most of us have never thought very deeply about our views. We assume that there is Good behavior and Bad behavior, and we rarely examine why we think that way, or what distinguishes one from the other. Some of you, right now as you read this, are thinking to yourselves, "Of course that's the way things are. Why is he questioning that?"

Be careful.

You might recall that it was the desire to distinguish between Good and Evil that got human beings in trouble in the first place, according to the story at the beginning of Genesis. The tree Adam and Eve ate from, disobeying God's command, was "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

So apparently, God's original plan for us did NOT rest on our being able to distinguish good and bad behavior, doing good and trying not to do bad. Yet most of us believe what God wants us to do is "be good." Do good and try not to do bad. Morality. By far the most common statement you'll encounter if you try to tell someone about Jesus and his love is, "Well, I've tried to live a pretty good life." Because in people's minds, religion is about being good.

And here's the deal: The church has caused this problem by preaching something called "works righteousness." Works righteousness means that in some form, you're made right with God by doing good. This is NOT the good news of Jesus, it is the old, bad news of morality. It's the stick we wave over people's heads to get them to shape up.

Or sometimes it's the carrot we dangle in front of people to try to get them to want to be good, like the half-stick of Wrigley's Spearmint gum my mom used to give me on those rare occasions when I was quiet and attentive all through a church service. Most often we do this with the idea of heaven. Be good and God will take you to heaven when you die. We would never say it like that, but we have dozens of ways of communicating that message without saying that way. It's all works righteousness.

The by-product of moralism, of works righteousness, is shame. Whenever you see a church or a religious person wielding shame like a baseball bat, you know it is moralism, not the good news of Jesus, that is in the driver's seat.

For most of us, this move -- separating Jesus from morality -- is a tremendously difficult leap to make, because "being good" and "trying not to do bad" have been so deeply entrenched in our thinking and our living and our internal shame. So let me put you a little bit at ease here by saying that I'm not going to suggest that it doesn't matter what you do. Quite the opposite. Our behavior is tremendously important, for some very good reasons. But being good and trying not to do bad is NOT what we are called to proclaim. It is NOT the message that Jesus proclaimed, nor is it the message he sent us to proclaim.

The trouble comes in when we set out to proclaim Jesus and then, either in our words or our actions, we tell people to shape up. Suddenly the non-gospel of Moralism leaps in to take Jesus' place, and we believe we have faithfully proclaimed the good news in a faithful, biblical way without ever realizing that we've done exactly what Paul railed against in the book of Galatians -- we have replaced Jesus with the Law.

In fact, the whole New Testament is chock full of this idea -- that knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior, that "being saved" (though the New Testament only sparingly uses that language) is separate from our moral behavior, or lack of it. That's what Paul's letter to the Galatians was all about. That's what the first great council of the Christian church was about in Acts 15.

And it should turn our heads a little bit that it was the guardians of public morality who crucified Jesus.

So what was God's original intention, if not for us to be good people? What is the good news of Jesus all about, if not rewarding us with heaven? Stay tuned ...