Monday, August 30, 2004

God's People and Persecution
To suggest that American Christians are undergoing persecution would be to insult the believers around the world who know what suffering really is. I don't intend to render the word meaningless by suggesting that the American Church in being moved out of a position of governmental favor and privilege is experiencing honest-to-goodness persecution. Those accustomed to a position of dominance usually whine when forced onto a level playing field in a pluralistic philosophical environment - but that hardly qualifies as persecution. The more American Christians wail about their treatment with extremist language, the more others will be convinced that evangelical and conservative Christianity is a threat to society.

Having experienced Christendom so long some have come to believe it is the believer's birthright. Not only is it a questionable understanding of God's Kingdom, Christendom has been shown to be a poor environment to spiritual nurture.

In the midst of cultural change where Christian faith is being counted as one among the many, it would serve believers well to look at the historical response to real persecution. Maybe in that we will find a direction for reacting to the very mild situation where I am not banned from praying to God, but only from coercing others to pray to God.

More to come . . .

Monday, August 23, 2004

Neither Jew nor Greek
I think we made a big mistake when we first talked about having a ministry to Hispanics. I think it was a very honest and sincere mistake, but an error nonetheless. One of our desires was to reach out to the people in our community with love and service. That was good. We wanted to be intentionally diverse. That was good. There was an individual who had a vision for serving the Hispanic population and had the skills to do it. That was good.

The problem was that whenever we talk about having a ministry to a certain group we start thinking in a 'them' and 'us' mentality. We (the Christians in this faith community) will serve them (a distinct group not part of our community). I am not fussing over the language of describing realities. The Hispanics we were wanting to serve were not sharing life with us, and our goal was not to 'convert' them to our group. But it is almost a condescending position that we assume when we target a group in that way, though all very unintentionally.

Even though the goal was to serve and not get them to join our group, it would have almost been impossible for them to become full participants in our faith community had they wanted to do that. It would have been more like they would have always been labeled as those to whom we minister. Maybe I'm not expressing this distinction very well, but I think there is something real here.

By God's working our faith community has become more diverse, but that has been because God has brought African families into this body of believers to share in both giving and receiving. If we had a ministry to Africans I think we would be putting them at a lesser place. Instead, God has shown us how we don't have a ministry to certain groups, which presupposes they will be mainly receivers, but God has expanded our community to include more believers, who though having different perspectives and experiences than some of us, stand equal with us in ministering to one another. The differences are obvious culturally, in experience, and even the articulation of our faith, but God is showing us how to be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female . . . as God intends. We have not put these individuals into a mental category of those to whom we minister, and so we have been blessed as they minister to the rest of the congregation in teaching, leadership, and service. I believe God is teaching us how to live as the Kingdom of God in which all peoples serve one another without worldly distinctions. Praise God!

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Regular visitors to this blog will see the new format. I like it . . . but I hope to play around with it more and add more graphics.

Some little add-ons I had on the old blog were lost when I chose this new template (you didn't think I did this on my own, did you?). I lost the old add-on comments, so those gems that some of you wrote are gone. I didn't know that was going to happen! Honestly, I didn't! It wasn't that I couldn't stand the competition . . . that your comments might be more insightful than my blogging! Really! Anyway, I like the new comments format better.

I also lost the stats generator. Maybe you never noticed it, but there was a link called Go Stats or something like that down at the bottom of the page. You know what I could do . . . and what I did do all the time . . . was to click on it and find out how many "hits" my blog was receiving, what days people were visiting my blog, where I ranked among the "Culture and Relationships" blogs on Blogger (somewhere usually around 270) and a bunch of other stats. When I visited my blog to see if there were any comments, there was that little tyrannical stats generator tempting me to check the usefulness of my blogging existence. The little beast became an ego-meter. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit . . . my existential angst wasn't that tied to the stats add-on . . . maybe the stats record is simply a good proxy for a bigger temptation.

Anyway, I've chosen not to have a statistical record anymore. What does it matter? Modernity lies deeply ingrained in my being and its penchant for measuring everything by numbers is a habit I don't want to foster. It's an addiction I've been fighting since going to Africa. I don't freakin' care anymore . . . well, honestly I do. I want to know how many people are visiting my blog. I want to be validated! I want to know someone is reading this! But I don't want to want to anymore.

The way I'm going to try and kill that little modern monster is to deprive it of nourishment. It's been on a bread and water diet for years, but still managing to stay alive. To break myself of a lingering numbers fetish I'll get rid of little counters like that one. But, of course, you know what the second question is after "So, where do you go to church?" - "How many members do you have?". And if someone already knows the answer to the first question, then question number two moves up to number one . . . even if they asked me that three months ago. If it is about numbers, why are we still worshipping one God?

Monday, August 09, 2004

When I published my last blog I got a pop-up offering me a free Dell laptop computer! How apropos!
Usually I don't pay much attention to "pop-ups" or other ads when I'm surfing the net, but one just caught my attention (while checking out my own blog). It was a banner that promised a free* copy of Halo 2, the limited collector's edition. Okay, I confess that I'm a gamer and think that Halo is about the best game ever produced - and I am counting down to November 9 when Halo 2 is released. So that was an enticing ad.

When I clicked on the banner I got a "pop-up" ad that promised a free* Halo 2 with free shipping*. You know what I kept seeing - those little asterisks. It was always free with a catch. At that point my well-entrenched skepticism took over and I didn't click on the pop-up because I knew I would have to do something like apply for a new credit card, refinance my home, or sell a child to get the "free" game. Either that, or I was going to have to buy the game and get the collector's edition upgrade for free. It really wasn't going to be free, but the ad didn't want to tell me on the front end what the real story was.

Too often God's grace has been presented as free* (with that ubiquitous asterisk). Investigation usually reveals that what the preacher meant was that the offer was freely given but the actions needed to qualify for God's free offer are extensive and meticulous. So stringent are the requirements that one begins to wonder what the meaning of "free" is. The nuanced small print is that one does not work to earn salvation but one must work to receive and keep salvation. God's grace and forgiveness is free to those who meet the qualifications. But it is free.

What rubbish! God doesn't have an asterisk by His free offer of eternal life through Jesus. Whatever one might construe as "requirements" God Himself supplies - be it faith, repentance, confession, humility, submission, or anything else. And as those who have received freely we become giveaway communities who share in God's generosity by extending it to others. The abundance of grace creates a celebratory atmosphere that is irresistible. The Gospel becomes Good News (as it should be) and life in Christ becomes joyous. Kingdom parties become common, and the invitations are thrown around with abandon. Come one and all to feast in the palace of our God!

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

I saw a billboard along the highway today - "You Must Be Born Again - Jesus Christ". My instant reaction was that the Gospel doesn't fare too well when put on billboards. I was also asked a few days ago to summarize our faith community's essence in a succinct phrase, one that would fit on a t-shirt. I was stumped. Ask me to take an hour and talk, but not 10 seconds. Do I talk about God's dramatic and gracious rescue of us as miserable sinners? Do I talk about how our day-to-day emphasis is to seek the transformation that God does in changing us into the image of Christ? Do I mention that our identity is in a communal relationship with the Triune God rather than assent to any doctrinal formulations? What do I say about what God is doing, how we seek His leading, and our emphasis on "roaming about the Kingdom"? The possibilities are many and varied.

Now I know that having a mission statement or slogan is considered essential to having an identity, but all the ones I've heard are virtually the same even though the churches that create them are radically different. It seems to me that the slogans, then, are not very representative. No church says "we are here to make you feel good" or "it's all about appearances". No, the churches for whom those statements are true are going to say something like everyone else - "where we love God and people so they grow to love Jesus and their neighbors in doing good." Or maybe it's "We Worship a Worthy God who Works by His Spirit to Win the World." That is a church that likes w's.

I think the problem is reductionism - both with the billboards and the mission statements. If you want to know what the community is about, live with us for a while. Let me talk to you. But I can't give you that picture in any meaningful way in 15 words or less. My family doesn't have a mission statement, and don't ask me to summarize my relationship with my wife and children on a t-shirt. My relationship with God and my spiritual brothers and sisters doesn't fit on one either.

I do believe that despite what any mission statement says, if you live with a group for even a short time, you will discover what they are about.

And the Gospel . . . it's much more than "you must be born again."