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.