Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Incarnation and Understanding

A synopsis of Sunday's meditation:

God did not become man so that he could understand what it is like to be human,
but so we could understand what it means to be like God.

God did not become man so that he could understand what it is like to be human,
but so we could know for certain that God has always understood us.

I suspect that God is not more understanding of our condition after the incarnation than before. I think being the Creator and Sustainer of all things enables God to understand intimately our condition, and that of the whole creation.

However, we would likely doubt God's understanding had we not the clear demonstration of the incarnation to prove God's empathy. Having been tempted in all ways like us, can we argue God doesn't understand?

Conversely, can we claim that we don't get what it means to be called to live on this earth like God?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

It's Only Worthwhile If . . .

I am very glad that many of us at Desperate-for-Christ Fellowship were able to participate in Operation Christmas Child through Samaritan's Purse.

I wish my memory served me better on this, but it seems that the promotional video we watched this year had more of an emphasis on how each child would receive a Gospel tract and now 1,000's had commited themselves to Jesus, than in pervious years. Maybe we just watched a difference segment.

It seemed from the presentation that the value of giving these gifts must be measured by how many children confess Jesus as a result. I am all for coming to trust in Jesus, and actually am concerned that in certain circles that seems to be intentionally left out- as if we are going to help people with their real needs . . . like food, shelter, education, medicine.

Can I reject both camps? I don't want to be kind only to convert, but also not to only do good and never tell what is good.

To treat people as whole beings is to bring the good of God to their whole life. What good to do first, or how to serve others in what order, must be occasioned by the person, circumstance, and moment. Some interactions that Jesus had with people seemed to be devoid of any concern toward their physical well-being (and who has no needs to be addressed?), while other times he seemed to address a physical need with little gesture to other matters.

I believe that ultimately the whole person is addressed by the good news. The good news should not be reduced to apply only to certain parts of a person. Helping someone with a physical need has value . . . not more and not less value than telling someone about their inward journey toward God.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sin and Sanctification


I used to have a clear and simple idea of sin:

1. Sin is doing what God forbids, or failing to do what he instructs.
2. Sin separates us from God and so is what makes us lost.
3. Sin is willful disobedience to God.

Addressing our problems of sin was equally as straightforward, and corresponds to the previous three statements:

1. Learn what God wills.
2. Receive forgiveness in Jesus.
3. Choose to stop sinning.

Get knowledge, get saved, make new choices. Anyone who suggested anything different was usually seen as "soft" on sin.

Now . . . enter complexity.

Concerning point two, sin does separate us from God . . . sometimes. I say "sometimes" because it is unforgiven sin and an unrepentant attitude that makes sin something that separates us from God. Since God has taken all the necessary action in Christ to forgive our sin, when we are people of faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, our sin (though still here in the old style of life that we all inhabit to some degree) no longer separates us from God. Having been justified, the sin which still needs to be rooted out through sanctification is no longer separating us from God.

Becoming saved and forgiven is extremely easy; how difficult is it to receive a freely given gift that one must only accept?. Having received grace, sin no longer separates us from God (making us lost) but does separate us from the life of God (making us unholy).

Very quickly the "problem" that sins presents to us changes. However, most people seem to think of sin only in the what damns me mode. Sin is exclusively tied to being in a state of lostness, which then gets in the way of dealing with the reality of sin. The old fears of being lost make them grasp for salvation again, rather than resting in salvation and moving toward sanctification.

If the simplistic ideas of point two keep us focused on being saved rather than moving on to maturity, the simplistic idea that sin is wholly a matter of choice puts the final block in the way of growing in holiness. This idea makes being sanctified a stoic endeavor. To overcome sin I need to steel myself to just make better choices.

However, my expereinces show that while there is often willfulness involved in our sinful actions, there are often other factors as well. If it were simply a matter of will, we could always say "Stop it!" and a person could choose to cease committing sin.

Here's where the charges of being "soft" on sin really enter in. If I suggest that besides the will, there are often aspects to sin over which we are powerless to simply "choose" to do differently it sounds like we are absolving people of responsibility. That is not the case.

The assertion that the will is all one needs to eradicate sin is sure to drive people to hopelessness - because when one tries by will alone to deal with sin, and fails, then one often concludes that there is no point in trying. They suppose that they cannot do what they believe others can. They resign themselves to sin, thinking that for some reason of personal failure they can't be sanctified. They hide the sin, and the guilt and shame grow. The sin grows too. And the they continue to be told "just choose to be different, what's wrong with you?

No one tells them that they powerless over sin. No one says that as only God can pronounce justification, only God can work sanctification. No one says that it is not only a matter of one's choice.

Sin is also rooted in the body, which has a willfulness of its own. The desires of our bodies are not always the desires of our spirits. Dealing with sin means that simply having the sincere will of heart might not be enough when the body has other desires. Also there are emotional dimensions to sin and cognitive dimensions as well. We cannot simply will ourselves into new emotions, new thoughts, new actions of the body . . . though willingness of the heart or spirit is essential. Essential but not sufficient. Food is essential to the body for life, but not sufficient for life. Alone, food cannot sustain life. Willingness is essential but not sufficient to lead to sanctification because sin is not simply our unwillingness to follow God.

We are right to call people to will to do good, but the work of overcoming sin is not done in that alone. I am not powerless to will with my spirit, but I am powerless over the emotions and thoughts that come to me. I am not completely powerless with how I will to deal with them, but I cannot control their appearance by all the willpower in the world.

Okay . . . the post is getting too long. But I will continue.

Monday, November 13, 2006


If my blogger homepage is correct this is my 200th post since beginning this blog in September 2003. Actually I should add the 76 posts to the Contemplation blog for my total blogging output.

Would that be considered a blogthology, or blogorpus? Maybe its my blogistory. It is certainly the most tangible part of my webdentity.

I guess this should be a notable post . . . something memorable to mark the event.

Untortunately, I'm not feeling very 'notable' right now.

I remember in the early 90's when all the correspondence from Africa was sent by two-week airmail. A month minimum for a reply . . . three to four months for a package.

Then there was the twice-a-day email from a satellite in solar synchronous orbit through a network for medical workers in the African interior. I helped configure their Macs for free access to their email system.

Today workers in Mwanza have blogs. But they still don't have reliable electricity.

Here I sit, writing my 200th post. A lot has happened.

I wonder what might be happening when I write a 400th post . . . if we still have blogs then.

Friday, November 10, 2006

An Emerging Adventure

The previous post was a little sarcastic . . . .

I was sincere about what the prayer said, but wanted to highlight how I think we truly ought to pray "in celebration of our existence".

A friend was telling me about the prayer he heard at a celebratory day that basically recounted the congregation's glorious history. I thought that a proper prayer in such a situation should not laud our efforts, or even accomplishments, but point in a different direction. Thus, the irony.

Which leads me to what I've been thinking. It has recently come back to my attention that when I left Africa I was convinced that my mission was to share with the American church a new ecclesiology - based on my experiences in Africa.

Alot has happened since then, not all of it particularly pleasant. Church life can often be brutal. But as I look back, I have really been an evangelist for a new ecclesiology. This started in 1999 - before I every knew anything about emerging churches. This was also before I had heard talk of being missional.

However, it's interesting that my own journey has involved a new ecclesiology (like the emerging conversation proposes) out of a mission perspective (as missional thinking promotes).

In Emerging Churches, by Gibbs and Bolger, they list 9 characteristics evident in the newer ecclesiastical approaches that take seriously our current context. These emerging churches that are within the emerging culture often:

1) identify with the life of Jesus
2) transform the secular realm
3) live highly communal lives
4) welcome the stranger
5) serve with generosity
6) participate as producers
7) create as created beings
8) lead as a body
9) take part in spiritual activities

From my thoughts (not Gibbs and Bolger) it might be possible to contrast these characteristics with the tendencies of more traditional congregations to:

1) take their identity from the teachings of Jesus and beliefs of the apostles
2) separate from the secular realm
3) interact with one another primarily at worship services or within planned programs
4) welcome the members, or prospective members
5) serve with the intent to convert
6) participate as consumers
7) ignore the creative arts
8) lead from a hierarchy
9) take part in worship services, seminars, meetings, courses, and other programmed, group events.

This comparison is not to suggest that emerging churches have no interest in the teachings of Jesus, or that what has been modernity's more prevalent traditional church has had no interest in living the life of Jesus. But I do believe that the comparison is helpful in showing where the emphasis lies - in emulating the daily life of Jesus or believing the teachings of Jesus. What makes us Christians - the beliefs we affirm or the way we live?

I do not present those as a hard dualism where these are mutually exclusive. However, sometimes deciding how we would rank these helps clarify our own ecclesiology.

This new ecclesiology is not simply the result of modern and postmodern differences, but also Western versus Eastern differences. In my thinking there is a wholistic versus compartmentalized dynamic influencing our ways of being Christians.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Prayer for Anniversary Sunday

We need to celebrate the existence of our congregation. Many churches plan days to commemorate their tradition, history, and legacy. We are nearing the fourth anniversary of the beginning of this marvelous adventure, and so a prayer of thanks is in order:

O Lord, we praise you for the mighty ways in which you have worked among us, bringing us together as believers committed to Christ to live out our common faith as Disciples' Fellowship.

We thank you that a number of Christians met initially to begin this ministry without clear ideas of what to do, and that we have remained, by your grace, in that state ever since. May your Spirit, rather than our wisdom, shape our walk as a congregation.

Your provision has been evident in the two places that we have used for our gatherings. You have allowed us to use both vacated offices and an old car dealership. May our uncertain leasing situation keep us mindful that we are aliens in this world.

We praise you for the Hispanic Ministry that we attempted to begin, and which failed to materialize. We praise you for the Angel Food Ministry, DF Housing Ministry, service to veterans, ministry to Jessie's Place, Honduras mission, and other good works that have continued, and may we always remember that only you give the increase.

We are thankful that you have kept the theft of items from our worship place to a minimum, as we continue to live openly as a community. May those times in which we lose something remind us not to put our trust in material things but rather in you alone.

You have been gracious, O Lord, in that we have never had a serious incident when we've gathered and some of us have been under the influence of something other than your Spirit. May we continue to practice an acceptance of one another however we come in search of you, and may we gently and humbly help one another to grow in holiness and devotion.

We thank you for all the disagreements that we have had, many of which remain differences among us to this very day: whether to have signage, whether to have formalized leadership structures, worship styles, wine for communion, etc. Through these we have learned, by your grace, to be patient with one another, to allow for others' consciences, and to keep Christ central.

We praise you, God, for smashing any aspirations we might have held for Disciples' Fellowship to become a large, attractive, and prominent church in Birmingham. Obviously, that's not going to happen. Continue to teach us humility through our unpretensious existence as a congregation.

As we celebrate our unflattering past and look forward ot an uncertain future, be our All in all. Your hand of grace has transformed us through every difficulty, according to your mercy.

Glory be the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.