Friday, December 26, 2003

With the transformation of the anticipation of Advent into the gift of the coming of Christ, we are left to answer what we will do with the presence of God among us. How will we be changed? What will the "light for revelation to the Gentiles" reveal to us about what is in us? What I am going to do about it might even be a greater question.

I learned some time ago that my first response to what God reveals in me is to trust in the atoning death of Jesus. The faith I put in Jesus is both desperate and sure. Desperate because I truly realize that I have no other recourse, but sure because the promise is based on God's faithfulness to me, not my faithfulness to Him.

And yet . . . that is only a first response. Even with the certainty of Christ's atoning death, I still need to ask myself what I am going to do about that in me which necessitated Christ's death - even though the guilt and punishment has been fully removed. I was not saved to continue to sin, but to be freed to become like my Savior.

After all the wrapping paper has been thrown away, the Christmas tree taken down, and the ornaments packed away for another year, what will the legacy of this Christmas be? The gift of Christ was given by the Father that we might become gifts in Christ to the Father.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

I see two intertwined problems: We need to move away from individualistic Christianity and toward community, but we also need to take more personal responsibility instead of relying on our churches. At first, I know this sounds contradictory - like I'm discouraging individuality, and then encouraging it. Like I am calling for community, and then saying we rely on it too much. But I see a huge difference between individualism and taking personal responsibility, and the type of community I am calling for and our churches.

Militant individualism shuns accountability, prefers personal interpretation, and asserts the rights of a person, all in ways that interpret Christianity as fundamentally between each person and God. The way this extreme individualism views a church is as a resource for the intensely individual pursuit of God. Church is not community, it is here to help me. I think we become too dependent on churches as sources of nourishment to spur on our personal growth.

I believe that we need to grow to see our faith as fundamentally communal, in a way that cannot be organized through a church with its campus, meetings, programs, and structures. Christian community (not human community based on preference, personal tastes, shared interests, social status, etc.) can occur in organized churches, but only among those who seek it despite the organizational structures of meetings, buildings, and programs. The personal responsibility comes in when we talk about "seeking" that community.

I find myself trying too hard to help people have community who may not truly want it. Maybe they don't understand it. I think perhaps they are victims of an individualism that our culture promotes. They may only want social interaction, or self-serving relationships, . . . but if they do not want community, and the personal responsibility involved in participating in it, along with the accountability and transparency required, there is little that can be done except to offer it and live in it.

I'm not the first to state that our churches are designed to cater to the individualism of our culture. We need counter-cultural communities of believers that practice Christian community and call for personal responsibility. When we understand the true meaning of those two ideas, we will grasp how counter-cultural we will be.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Just got back yesterday from Thanksgiving in Iowa. We went to see my parents.

I was going back to a place where I lived for two years, when I was in third and fourth grade. It was, and still is, a very small cluster of houses built around eight streets with no commercial activity at all. Today the two main streets are paved, though the others still are dirt as they were before. The elementary school is closed now, as is the community center, which used to be a general store long ago. There are two churches, but since one is moving out to the highway into a new building, within the month there will only be one. It was a great place to be kid - and probably still is.

Now when I drive through the streets where we rode our bicycles, and stop at the creek where we swam, and see the empty lot where we played, everything seems so small. What seemed to be far away back then was really only a mile or less. It also looks so very rundown and dilapidated. I asked my parents if the houses look the same today as they did when we lived there, and apparently they do. I guess when I was nine or ten I didn't know that our town looked poor. I hadn't learned to be as conscious of material possessions as I am today.

I am less easily satisfied than I was as a boy. Having a bicycle, a place to play, and a best friend was all that mattered. It probably still is - but I am just less aware of it.

Friday, November 21, 2003

I went to a concert at Covenant Presbyterian with my son and Christian friends from our fellowship last night. We heard Derek Webb sing some of the new songs off his new SHE MUST and SHALL GO FREE album, which is all about the church. Everywhere I turn I hear the same message. People are calling for change, but it's not a rejection of church for an intensely personal and individualistic Christianity. That would be tragically self-centered and un-Christlike. I hear a longing for the total recreation of the church into something much more real, authentic, and God-focused. I also hear from many a recognition that the Christian culture which is televised, sold in stores, and pre-packaged so that we might be an enclave unto ourselves is an abandonment of our calling. We rightfully have seen the fall of Christendom - that we might rule the world (we made a mess in the process and tarnished the person of Christ) - and some are retreating to a segregated existence. The idea of aliens, sojourners, pilgrims, of being salt and light, and of an incarnational church seems not an option to those who wanted to rule. I guess it's "if we can't rule the world, we'll create our world where we do rule." There is another option, of ruling with Christ as he rules in mystery over a world seemingly not as responsive to his sovereignty as we would like. We can simply be the people of God and embrace all the distress of being foreigners in a hostile world. A world of enemies we will serve and sacrifice ourselves for, as Christ did not only for us, but for all.

Something else: One of Derek's unrecorded songs, "I Repent", was so compelling I include the lyrics for you. I pray that God helps you know in your heart the truth of Derek's words.

i repent

i repent of my pursuit of America's dream
i repent of living like i deserve anything
my house, my fence, my kids, and my wife
in our suburb where we're safe and white
i am wrong and of these things i repent
i repent of parading my liberty
i repent of paying for what i get for free
the way i believe that i am living right
by trading sins for others that are easier to hide
i am wrong and of these things i repent

i repent judging by a law that even i can't keep
wearin' righteousness like a disguise to see through
the planks in my own eyes

i repent of trading truth for false unity
i repent of confusing peace and idolatry
of caring more of what they think than what i know of what they need
and domesticating You until You look just like me
i am wrong and of these things i repent

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Saturday a number of us gathered to distribute food to the needy, a project we call United Neighbors. Our goal was to tell people that Jesus loves them, and to do that in word and with a gift of food. Equipped with addresses and maps, we loaded the 60 bags of groceries into our cars and split up to make our deliveries.

Without fail there is much to be gained from a discipline of Good Works. One thing we learned, is that though our first delivery was at 9:30 am and we continued until 11:30 am, we woke someone up at each residence. Some received us warmly, and others were not as friendly. They knew we were coming because they had returned a self-addressed stamped envelope requesting the groceries. But maybe they felt uncomfortable, or uncertain. We prayed with the people in every house and told them that God loves them. We were reminded of how many people who live right around us struggle to have what we enjoy every day.

We were totally surprised Sunday morning when a mother called our Upper Room at 8:30 am to see if someone could come pick up her daughter, a woman who is married with children of her own, one of those we had visited. Without even making "our church" or "inviting people to do anything" an emphasis, someone wanted to spend some more time with us. Maybe that person wanted to be with us because we hadn't asked anything of her.

Do good. God works.

Friday, November 14, 2003

I was blessed this morning with fellowship and community from an unlikely source - a call from someone I've never met before; a person who lives a good 700 miles from where I sit and write this blog. He wanted to know what our little band of believers is doing. He had visited our website, read what we say there, and wanted to find out more. What he and I found out quickly is that we are brothers in Christ (not because we traded and examined each other's doctrinal positions - as if community depends on facts we hold as true) but we share a common desire to seek Christ, know Christ, share Christ - all at any cost. He has the stripes to prove it too - fired from two churches for not sticking to the once-for-all received beliefs and practices as they were defined a few decades ago.

What I discovered this morning is simply more evidence of what God is doing. God wants to bring together those who are hearing the same call - a message about being totally focused on God through Christ and as experienced in the Spirit. A call to get Christ back in the center and to be the church, rather than focusing on promoting the church as an institution. To clear away where religion has obscured Jesus, and be bound to Christ and Him alone.

God is working and moving. He is speaking the same message throughout Christianity. He's not sitting back to see if it happens, God is making it happen! This is exciting!

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

What am I thinking? What am I thinking? Truly, honestly, deep down inside whatever the conscious mind really is, what am I thinking? Actually, I am thinking about what I'm feeling. I'm not always doing that, but that's what I am doing now. At least I'm thinking that writing what I am feeling would be a whole lot easier than writing what I'm thinking.

So what am I feeling? That is a lot easier to know, I guess because I probably believe that a thought should be something noteworthy, but a feeling just is what it is. But I don't think I really want to write about what I'm feeling because I start to think about what someone else is going to think of what I'm feeling. I guess it is easier to write about what I think, but easier to know how I feel - if that makes any sense. (By now it is obvious I just sat down to write something, anything - without any real plan. If this stream of consciousness thing doesn't work, I won't do it again).

Ok, let's be honest about the feeling part. I feel scared. I've always felt scared. Not knowing what the future holds, and being smart enough to realize that it often holds unpleasantries, is enough to make any sane person scared. What I feel scared about has changed a lot over the years, but I always find something to be scared about. When I was ten I was sometimes scared of other kids who picked fights, and I never wanted to fight. I was scared of getting in trouble. When I was in high school and college I would dread upcoming events - like some big test or very unpleasant requirement like having to give a speech in class. Now, it is easy to worry about the kids - are they going to turn out to be decent, functional people? I'd be happy with just normal - I don't need super-achievements. Just don't be an ax-murderer.

Now to be honest, I don't just feel scared. I would be terrified if I only felt scared. No, I also feel loved, and happy, and even secure. I feel secure about matters much bigger than the things I'm scared of. When I live all too aware of and focused on the little things, the bits and pieces about the future that are uncertain, my sense of fear can grow. But there is this really big and sure sense of ultimate comfort that reminds me that even if my worst fears come to pass, I'm safe with God. Where did that come from? I didn't get that reassuring peace because someone told me about it; I think it came through having lived through a lifetime of fears and discovering God's faithfulness.

Monday, November 10, 2003

It is much easier to talk about community, than truly pursue it. So much of the time even when we want relationships, to have close friendships and not to be alone, our own selfishness sabotages everything. Selfishness has to be one of the great barriers to community.

I suspect that selfishness comes in many varieties. These subtle opinions, personal likes and dislikes, and desires effectively create so many tensions and disputes that building community becomes a true test of patience and endurance. And I haven't even mentioned selfish expectations. Paradoxically, I believe that we might be able to have selfish opinions about what is best for everyone else. Is it selfish to be opinionated? It seems to be if I have little room for anyone else's thought to be accepted, or patience for it to be expressed.

I am thinking that only in desiring something greater than our selfish ambitions will we discover community. I don't think the answer is to desire community itself. We really don't build community. Community results among those who are bound together by something greater than everything that would naturally drive them apart. I imagine that one might experience strong community in a foxhole. Teams in any sport often have a strong sense of community. Our desire is not for any ministry or mission or goal to be what binds us together, but for the person of Jesus Christ. From Christ we will all learn selflessness and discover we are in community in the process.

I think that I am wanting community sometimes when I ought to simply want Christ.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

A Matter of Excellence?
I know that in matters pertaining to church "events" the reasoning goes that "we should do things with excellence to honor God". I understand that thinking. But let me be perfectly contradictory for moment. (That's what blogs are for, right?) Our mantra that calls for excellence creates a "measuring mentality." Every event, whether a worship time, the delivery or content of a lesson, the organization of an activity, or whatever, is evaluated and critiqued. The theology of excellence leads us to monitor the presentation of everything. With so much feedback on performance, we ought to be wondering where our thoughts are during those times.

Rather than striving for excellence so that we might honor God (at least that is why we say we are striving for excellence - it wouldn't be for our own pride) maybe we ought to do things poorly to confess our own depravity. Sometimes I think we ought to do things poorly just to remind us that the "performance and execution" is not important. If there is an excellent presentation, everyone wants the next one to top the last. Every "event" is then critiqued so that we might "do it better." Better for whom? For God? Was the presentation/performance/execution not up to God's standards? Do we ever think that we could be up to God's standards? Maybe a discipline of doing things poorly would help us remember that it is what we are doing and not how.

There is a very true saying about food and affluence: The poor worry about the quantity of the food - will there be enough? People of the middle class worry about the quality of the food - is it good enough? The wealthy worry about the presentation of the food - does it have the right look?

Spiritually we are acting like the rich who worry about presentation. If we realize that we are spiritually impoverished then we will only be concerned with the availability of spiritual food and not its presentation. Maybe that is why in eight years in Tanzania I never heard one complaint, critique, or suggestion of how we needed to do something better or with more excellence when we came together to worship God. In American Christianity our "worship wars" are a luxury afforded to those who have so much we can actually fuss about presentation. If God would give us a famine of spiritual food, Christians would be seeking wherever they could find it without regard to the excellence of presentation.

Do you think this blog entry was excellent?

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Dying to self is definitely the hardest. It seems like an endless death . . . I just keep dying over and over and never seem to be dead. Which does say much about me making any real progress. Maybe I just think that I am dying over and over. I'm probably not dying at all. I think I am just going through the mourning process over and over. I keep attending my own funeral, imagining myself to actually to be dying to self and becoming alive to God, but never really going through with it. A personal inventory shows that I still have all the flesh I started with.

I am more aware. At least I make a half-hearted attempt at having a funeral for myself. Maybe I am getting closer to actually going through with it. Being dead has got to be better than mourning your own death again and again. I guess that means that I really don't want to die. I should celebrate and be spiritually dead to the world. It ought to be a party, but feels more like a dirge.

Actually, the more I think about it, what I want is to be dead. What seems so hard is the life of the flesh that is still in me. What makes me miserable is the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. I think I do want to be free from those things. Forget what I said about not wanting to die. I do want to die. I am impatient with how long it is taking! The things that make me depressed, that make me angry, that suck the joy out of life, are things that come out of my sinful nature. My flesh does not like the way my life is headed - maybe that is good news! Maybe God is working! I like that thought.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

I've been trying to put together a series of thoughts on prayer. The idea I had yesterday while writing is that God breathes into us His presence and Spirit, and our exhale is prayer. Prayer is our part in a rhythm which God initiates. To be prayerful is to experience this cycle of God's life in us and our being in tune and responsive to His every grace.

Monday, October 27, 2003

I got to my office today, and felt convicted about the need to pray. Mark and I prayed through a list of needs. We prayed for ourselves to be quiet in spirit and open to God, about specific believers who are struggling right now, about the faith formation of our young people, about ministry opportunities like the Hispanic outreach, VA hospital visitation, the upcoming women's retreat, and Saturday night's gathering for a party of praise and fellowship. We prayed about our study of leadership and upcoming discussions of other aspects of our journey, and for all the experiences of growth and life taking place in small groups throughout our community.

Our prayer reminded us how much everything is really in God's hands. I was refocused to be faithful and trust God to work, while I work in the confidence of God's all-sufficiency. I know that I need the discipline of laying everything at God's feet.

Friday, October 24, 2003

I got to see the movie Luther a few weeks back. I went with several others from our little fellowship of believers. I was impressed by the quality of the production and the boldness of the story-telling. It was for me a thought-provoking picture that persists now, several weeks later, as an experience of spiritual reflection. There are two thoughts that stay with me.

The wonderful depiction of the religious climate of Luther's day demonstrated to me how little the world of Christianity has really changed. The story we are in is not new, though sometimes we flatter ourselves that it is. The same vices of religious opportunism and the temptation to craft a pragmatic message remain constant threats to a life in Christ. True religious devotion is always threatening to established religious practice. It has always been dangerous to ask questions.

The second thought that speaks to me is the observation of how much we are the people of our time. Luther was a man of his time, which is to say nothing derogatory. He could have no more have initiated his reform in another time, then we today can escape our time. My own religious heritage bears the marks of the time and thought-world in which it was formed. I am reminded that I too will remain a person of my time.

I do not see this as negative, but actually encouraging. God is at work in this time, and being in tune "with the times" - at least the times as they are reckoned as God's working - is faithful. The question is how do we be as bold as Luther in claiming solidarity with the history God is creating?

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Here are some things I've noticed: Jesus never attended church twice on Sunday, and once during the week. Jesus never preached a sermon with three points and a poem, following it with an invitation. He never talked to anyone about placing membership, joining his church, or moving their letter. He never chaired a meeting, prepared a budget, or read a report. Jesus never took up a collection. He never owned a Bible. Jesus didn't study church growth or management principles on how to organize an efficient enterprise. He did not seem to keep good statistics on how many came, how many responded, and on how much they gave. He organized no programs.

So how did the usual definition of being a "good Christian" become a list of things Jesus never did? Why do we have to do what Jesus never did in order to run what some would consider a "good" church? I ask myself these questions when I compare what is often identified as what I should do, as someone who is serving within a congregation of believers, with what I feel called to do.

Jesus spent time in relationships. He spent time with His Father. He spent time with others. He really spent time with those few others would. He did not organize programs, but he gave people a vision of what God's reign looked like on earth. He encouraged and empowered people to enter that reign, and to live out its call on their lives. He did not worry about what the numbers looked like, but watched for what his Father was doing. He did not build an organization. He left virtually no instructions on how to organize or run anything. Instead, he left a body of teaching about how to live in the presence of God daily. He taught about loving God and your neighbor, and on how to go about doing good. He gave little instruction about beliefs to affirm, and much instruction about how to live out beliefs. For him, beliefs led to daily action and were not a list of doctrines to be agreed upon.

So how has being a faithful Christian come to be associated with things Jesus never did? How has being a church leader come to involve so much that Jesus never practiced? I believe we have emphasized and elevated certain minor characteristics as the essential measure of being a Christian, and those are not the real measure. We have sometimes focused on peripheral aspects of leadership, and according to those standards Jesus was a failure. In our world we sometimes do need to prepare budgets, and do need to do some things Jesus never did. In fact, Jesus would probably do some of those things were he ministering in our context. The difference would be that Jesus would never confuse those necessary but peripheral matters with the central truth of being a follower of God, or a leader among His people.

As long as we keep seeking what is central and definitive, we will be asking the right questions. We will also probably do a better job of remembering what is actually incidental to our following of Christ and leading of others, and center ourselves more fully in the real life in Christ and in community.

Monday, October 06, 2003

I have enjoyed the comments written in response to my thoughts about the dangers of the institutionalization of the organic and living community of believers in Jesus. And I agree (not that my agreement matters).

We cannot afford to have a simplistic view that asserts that the root and source of the problems of institutionalization is inherent in having organization, in using or acquiring property, or in having a bank account and being legally instituted as a non-profit organization. While all of these are characteristics of institutionalism, these are not the sources of the problem. The disease itself is a mindset that grows in an environment replete with all these external indicators. But the mindset that views everything organizationally and institutionally, and loses the intent and purpose of relationship and organic life, is not necessarily generated by the presence of these structures.

I think we must see the same differentiation in Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5:29. Though Jesus admonishes us to take extreme measures to guard against sin, we cannot really take him as saying that sin is something in the eye itself, or something to do with our hands. In the preceding verses he had just affirmed that adultery is an act of lust, and stated that lust occurs in the heart (Matt. 5:27-28). The eye or some other part of our body may be the means through which we sin, but sin itself is an evil desire, a corrupted condition of the heart. It would be misguided to interpret Jesus as teaching that physical mutilation will actually change our hearts and deal with our real problem. Instead, we understand Jesus' instruction to be commanding us to deal with the ways sin is manifested in us.

In the same way, we need to be warned against the way the institutionalized heart manifests its desires. This is really my concern in the previous blog entry. Ultimately, never having any meeting place will not address a heart that substitutes commitment to an institution for a relationship with Christ. We might hinder the expression of that desire by not having a building of any sort, but the heart would still need to be changed.

I believe that we can be organized without being organizational in nature. I believe we can have facilities and yet not be an institution that seeks to perpetuate itself. I believe that by God's grace we will be empowered to keep our eyes on our identity as God's people joined in a spiritual journey.

As the comments suggested, we must keep our focus clear. Diligence will be required on our part, as well as perhaps a frequent shake-up of "our" status quo so that we never lose our "alien" identity as people who are sojourners - who live in tents. That too is an attitude of the heart.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Yesterday several of us went to check out a building. Not just any building, but a possible place for us to gather and worship, and from which to engage in some of the ministry we do. It was really fun to visualize what could happen in a space like that, to try and imagine a wall or two being taken out, and think about what could happen. The experience was exciting.

However, a part of the exercise was also disturbing. I am acutely aware of how leasing a place like that could be the on-ramp to the highway of simply being an "institutional church" - where organizational support is more important than authentic relationships. Where people are fuel to be consumed in order to keep the structure operating. Where original visions become lost due under the tyranny of what was conceived and formed to serve. There is a also a seduction to having permanence. The temptation to "have your act together" is strong. To be living in community and sharing Christ within a chaotic setting may be actually spiritually vital, but we often prefer dead but predictable structures.

Given my obvious dislike for the institutionalization of our relational identity with God and with one another, why would I go along to look at a building? I went because I am not pessimistic about the possibility of setting our priorities on relationships, grounding our identity in what God has done in Christ, engaging in true fellowship and ministry, and yet still organizing ourselves. It seems to me that unless I limit my experience of Christian community to only a very few people with whom I can communicate readily and frequently without formal planning, or only experience community whenever I stumble upon it, there will be some need to organize. If I hope to have meaningful interaction with other believers, then we will need to organize places and times to do that. If I want to enjoy serving with others, we will need to plan how that will take place. To organize some does not necessitate the death of a living organism. In fact, all living organisms have some arrangement and order, but that order supports life rather than inhibits it.

While touring that building has all the dangers of life-sapping institutionalism, there is a redemptive possibility as well. I wish I had quick answers to how to differentiate one from the other. The ugly extreme of oppressive organizational structures can be easily distinguished from simple communities of life-giving and life-enriching interaction. Where the latter crosses over into the former is hard to identify. While one way to avoid institutionalism is to refuse to organize, I personally do not want to sacrifice a wider experience of community and ministry because of what it could, and may, become.

So here I go. I am venturing into an unclear area where the stakes are high and the dangers real. I don't have many answers, and only a vaguest idea of what the questions really are. But then, that sounds like a real opportunity to walk by faith.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Well, now we're started on the journey. Let's see where we go.