Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A Community of Selflessness.

As believers, the journey we share is one of common submission rather than common understanding. We are united as Christians in submitting to God even when our thoughts about and descriptions of God differ.

The same can be said of scripture, or the historic creeds. We place ourselves under the authority of God's revealed Word and seek to live intentionally in ways reflective of the Word.

We don't and won't see all of scripture the same. Common understanding is sometimes what we enjoy, but it is not the essence of our community. Our unity isn't built on our understanding.

We can all recite the Apostles' Creed, and in doing so submit ourselves to a mystery we believe is expressed in those words. We believe that the words talk about God, but don't define God. Our understanding of the words of the creeds aren't as important as hearts that believe in the God the creeds point to.

Repeating the faith is our submission to a historical stream enlivened by the Spirit. We are saying this isn't about us, but about God.

We are together through the person of God, and what we have in common with one another in our humanity is submission. Our bond is what we acknowledge we don't have (competency, hence we submit) rather than what we might think we have (knowledge and understanding).

A community of selflessness.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Staying on Track

Last week Mark and I got to spend some time with Mike Lewis who is pastoring a new church here in Birmingham, Fellowship of the Valley.

Mike made some comparisons between the emergent stuff happening today and the Jesus movement of the 60's and 70's. One big difference he observes is the solid base of theological reflection that is going on in the current re-imagining of church, which was often lacking in the Jesus movement.

I also think that the current ties to ancient liturgies and the creeds helps keep us from simply going off into some jelly-bean and fluff kind of spirituality. The contemporary church movement which wants to make the Christian experience so relevant seems to me to want to be relevant in the wrong ways.

My missions training makes me desire relevance - but being relevant to the culture's desire for everything to be pre-packaged and microwavable (just for example) won't be the right type of relevance. Making following Jesus a self-indulgent experience for a self-indulgent culture is the problem.

We need to talk about the real areas for relevance . . .

Friday, March 18, 2005

A Visit

Today Charles walked in looking for food. Seems like another church provided him with a room last night in the motel next door . . . and he saw the "Angel Food Ministry" banner outside our meeting place and decided to come in.

I microwaved some broccoli and Swedish meatballs that were in the freezer here. We made sandwiches by putting the meatballs on hamburger buns which were left from last Sunday's fellowship meal and sat down to watch basketball.

Charles told me some about his divorce, about growing up in Jasper, several jobs he'd had . . . you know, the story isn't real clear and to ask questions to keep the conversation going seems to make the story even get more confused.

I don't care if Charles was telling me the truth. He was hungry and we enjoyed a meal. I talked about making changes in life, about relying on God because we can't do it ourselves by our own efforts.

He asked if I would give him money for a motel room. I offered to help him find a job and get a place to live . . . but he wasn't sure that he wanted to stay in Alabama. He said maybe he'd be going back to Florida, or Georgia. Wasn't sure he wanted to settle down.

Mark and I gave him a few bucks and welcomed him to come back anytime. We'd cook whatever food we have and he can watch TV or play pool. Charles said maybe he'd come to our fellowship meal on Sunday.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Looking for God

Visiting a different church is always interesting. We automatically evaluate what we see, hear, and experience. Doing that comes naturally.

A good exercise for spiritual reflection is for us to be self-aware enough in that moment to stop evaluating the new experience and look at ourselves. What is the way we are measuring this time we are spending with a group of believers who are new to us?

For many of us, because of the way we've been formed by religion, our opinion of the event of worship with others comes down to "did I agree with what was said and done?" What does this say about what we believe is the essential reality of Christian worship and community?

Obviously this shows that for us everything comes down to an orthodoxy of correct doctrine and practice. Now that sounds good . . . but the "correctness" of everything is being measured by my own understanding. My intellect becomes the arbiter of what is orthodox. I aspire to orthodoxy as much as anyone else - but I'm trying to let go of the idea that assumes I am orthodox and therefore able to "detect" all those who are not.

What if we were to let God be the judge of orthodoxy? What if my "evaluation" of the experience of worshipping with others in a new situation was centered on one question: is the Presence of God here? Forget what I think about the rightness or correctness of what they say and do! If God is present, how critical should I be?

Seems to me that Peter judged his encounter with Cornelius not on the basis of his understanding of what was correct, but on the real Presence of God. In fact, looking for God seems to be what the early Christians did . . . and it helped them out of some of the wrong-headed ideas they believed were orthodox - like 'Gentiles can't be Christians'.

Conversely, God may also be obviously present where everything isn't truly orthodox . . . and that says something to us about His grace and mercy. If God is present in the imperfect, can I stay away? Don't I become like the slave of the foot-washing Master who refuses to wash feet? If God serves I can't refuse to serve and be called His.

I know . . . if we run around following God rather than our own understandings of orthodoxy who knows where it might lead! And we can't have that.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Gospel in a Song

A talented singer/songwriter/musician, Steve Tagliere, blessed us with a powerful song written for our worship time yesterday.

"Fall So Short"
By Steve Tagliere
Copyright 2005. Steve Tagliere. All Rights Reserved.

I'm not spending enough time on my knees,
Fear of unlocked doors, reach for the key.
I keep missing You, You meet all my needs.
Get so lost.

So many idols there's no room to move.
Closer or further, every step that You choose.
Sometimes I try to make my way without You,
I get so lost.

I fall so short,
But, You've made me Yours,
I fall so short,
You've made me whole.

I'm not spending enough time on my knees,
I prayed for my friends, but what about my enemies?
Am I taking in all that's there to receive?
I get so lost.

I fall so short,
But, You've made me Yours.
I fall so short,
You made me new.

You're with me when it's rough out,
And every time that I fall down.
You've picked me up and You've called me by my name.

I fall so short.
But, You've made me Yours.
I fall so short,
You made me whole.

And, I follow You and follow You, I follow You.
Yes, I follow You, I will follow You, follow Yyou.
Yes, I follow Ya, I will follow Ya, follow You.
You made me new.

We fall so short.
You made us Yours.
We fall so short.
We're paid for.

Copyright 2005. Steve Tagliere. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Coming Apocalypse

I used to criticize the ghetto-ization of evangelical Christians who want to pull out of the world and create duplicate "Christian" versions of everything so they won't have to be corrupted by the world when I suggested that we would some day have Christian health clubs.

I thought I was being absurd and ridiculous. It turns out that I was being prophetic.

Birmingham now has "Lord's Gym" - with an appropriately buff Jesus adorning the wall. He's not as muscular as the "Gold's Gym" guy, but he's ripped.

I'm not going to say anything about the hearts and intentions of those people who have created a place where Christians can sweat and pump iron in a godly environment, but this is madness. No, it's beyond madness. This is theologically bankrupt.

Think I am being too harsh? What about the command to not take the Lord's name in vain? Does that mean just "don't use divine names as interjections and exclamations"??? No, it means we do not treat God in common ways. We don't demote God, Father, Son, and Spirit, from a place of glory and reverence.

Naming my business with God's name is right up there as a vain use of God's name. What if Mazda's new vehicle was named the Jesus RX7? Maybe I'll open God's Grocery and Pawn Shop. Maybe Christians need God's First Bank of Birmingham, of course to be distinguished from all those other banks that aren't God's. It's a sign of how spiritually impoverished and theologically inept American Christianity is becoming. Let me invoke God's name to do more business.

Maybe I just need to calm down - listen to Christian radio, enjoy some Christ pretzels (in the shape of a cross and sold at all truly Christian grocery stores), and kick back in my Jesus-is-the-Way office chair from God's Furniture, Inc.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Trying to write on spiritual formation has convinced me that I prefer the "medium" of conversation to that of the written word. I know it seems contradictory for me to be writing this, but that's also what is really great about blogs: they are more like conversations.

I don't feel like I have to proofread them endlessly to make sure I am "getting it right." Bascially I just "talk" out through the keyboard (trying to catch the misspellings, of course).

The other advantage is that blogs don't "end." One of the problems I am having in writing what I'm trying to write - which is for people with whom I have no relationship for the most part, who don't know me nor I them, and so we have no shared "history" for the context of what I am writing - is that the piece is so confined. It has to be the whole conversation in 2500 words (or whatever the length should be).

It's just can't be done. Let's value having the face-to-face conversations, the interaction of sharing and listening, within a relationship and shared context. What a blessing!

Friday, March 04, 2005

Thinking About Spiritual Formation

The next Wineskins issue will discuss spiritual formation which is very much in line with our recent discussions - both within our fellowship and with our guests who spoke to us in this last week: Suha Jouaneh from Amman, Jordan, and Dr. Zhai Shiwei from central China. So here I am thinking . . . with thoughts still in the initial stages . . .

Preaching in general has often been 'too few attempting to direct too many in too little time'. In general we churchmen have put too much of our hopes for spiritual formation in the delivering of sermons.

If I look at how Jesus uses the times when he speaks to the masses, he regularly employs vague parables, paradoxical teachings, and provocative assertions which are not the mainstay of homiletics. The parables are intentionally designed to sift out of the crowd those who have ears to hear, the teachings puzzle as much as they clarify, and the assertions challenge people to rethink the status quo.

Continually Jesus seems to lure out of the crowd those seeking spiritual direction (e.g. Nicodemus, the rich young ruler) or he interjects himself into the lives of others (e.g. Zaccheus, the woman at the well) to initiate the same work. When Jesus speaks to the masses it is as if he uses that as a way to call out those who want to pursue spiritual formation. Individually and with smaller groups of his disciples, those who are committed to a long regime of receiving instruction, he does the formative work.

Of course, I am not recommending the abandonment of all preaching, but rather understanding the limits. Large mixed crowds of people of varying levels of interest and commitment are difficult to address, and real spiritual direction may be nearly impossible. Invitation to spiritual formation is appropriate, and giving people a taste for deeper things might be possible. Or like the sermon on the mount, perhaps we speak to the disciples and allow the conversation to be overheard with a ready acceptance of anyone willing to join the conversation.

Unfortunately, even well-crafted oratory presentations are forgotten quickly . . . and the vital work of spiritual formation cannot be trusted to something so impermanent.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Sandwiched right up against some very good things in the last few days are some other trying things. The bad doesn't overcome the good, and the good doesn't solve the bad. Both are simply what they are.

I am who I am. I find it easy to rejoice in the good, but the bad brings out bad in me. My worrying self, my anxious self, my angry self . . . can exist right alongside joy, righteousness, and hope.

I sometimes think I am becoming more and more ready for heaven. My attachments to this existence are less than they have been. A friend of mine long ago used the phrase "homesick for heaven". Maybe that is God's slow working in us. The good news is that goodness is lasting, while the struggles of life are transitory.

I don't want to try and pretend the struggles don't exist - which would be to miss whatever grace can be found in them. I also shouldn't let genuine blessing be diminished by temporary struggles. Rejoice where there is rejoicing, and weep where there is weeping is probably a healthy and realistic way to live.

Maybe sometimes we find ourselves doing both.