Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Last Day

Today is the last day of classes at HPU for the semester.


It has been a long semester, with several mountains and valleys. But life is like that, isn't it? I have attained several of my personal and professional goals, and yet I have watched as several goals have alluded me. My students have likewise realized or not realized their goals. At times the classroom learning environment - especially in theology, where we talk about personal beliefs - can be like a roller coaster ride. People are alternately thrilled and nauseated by the experience!

In all of this "realization," "attainment" and "education" process, however, I realize that there is one important intangible - relationship. I have been making relationships marked by a passion for Christ. I have been making relationships marked by a love of learning. I have been making relationships marked by grace. I have been making relationships that will last years beyond our semester together in the classroom and for that I am grateful.

In that I have been making relationships, I realize how important relationships are. We simply can't take them for granted. Relationships must be nurtured and cultivated or they will die. Relationships must be pruned or they will over grow healthy boundaries and become a liability rather than an encouragement. I get it now as I've never gotten it before. I want my relationships to thrive and be full of love, grace and beauty.

Jesus was the master of relationships. He understood the dynamics of interpersonal relations. I love the Gospel of John for precisely those reasons. He knew people, he knew how to love, but He also understood the need for boundaries and when boundaries had to be torn down. Above all, He dispensed love, forgiveness and grace throughout His walking ministry on this earth. He was as loving, kind and forthright with the Samaritan Woman in John 4 as He was with Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3. In Luke 10 He relays what it means to love your neighbor as yourself in the story of the "Good Samaritan"... In the passion narratives, He asks the Father to "forgive them, for they know not what they do." Jesus knew people, Jesus is love. He is the master of relationships.

My last class of the semester meets today - doxology. I am taking them to the Sonic Drive-In. We will celebrate the semester and the bond of our relationship. Let me encourage you to celebrate and encourage those in your life whom you love and cherish. It's what God does.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Earth Day Thoughts...

This past Thursday, April 22, was celebrated by many people as "Earth Day." BGCT Theologian-in-Residence Dr. Jim Denison recently commented on the phenomenon, which was then received with great criticism by his readers. Interestingly, I understand a bit of why his 'positive' understanding of this event was received so negatively by a handful of the folks that read his blog. So in light of this issue and my strange desire to join the fray and take some of the heat off of my brother, let me take my own stand.

First, Wikipedia has the following entry for Earth Day:

Earth Day is a day designed to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth's environment. It was founded by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson as an environmental teach-in held on April 22, 1970 and is celebrated in more than 175 countries every year. Earth Day is celebrated in spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. Many communities celebrate Earth Week, an entire week of activities focused on environmental issues. While the first Earth Day was focused entirely on the United States, an organization launched by Denis Hayes—the original national coordinator in 1970—took it international in 1990 and organized events in 141 nations. Earth Day is now observed each year on April 22 in virtually every country on Earth. Earth Day is now coordinated globally by the Earth Day Network. World Environment Day, celebrated on June 5 in a different nation every year, is the principal United Nations environmental observance.

There is a website as well - that seeks to inform others about the issue. The issue, as stated above, is environmental concern. The late 1960s and 70s saw a massive escalation of pollutants in the Northern hemisphere, particularly in the industrialized nations. Now this was not new, pollution comes hand in hand with industrialization for the most part. The depth, breadth and impact of the problem however had not been assessed until late in the twentieth century. Then the verdict of the environmental scientists came out: pollution is bad and something should be done. So government steps in and regulation occurs. Thus, most human beings would agree that pollution is bad and that steps should be taken to control or eradicate it. For the last 40 years, however, scientists have been divided over the impact of humankind on the Earth and the issue of pollution with the side effect of global warming.

So what are the problems for the church and what position should Christians affirm on the issue?

1) Earth Day as government sponsored day to encourage environmental responsibility is not a bad thing. Christians affirm that the Triune God created the earth, sun, moon and stars and all that is in it. Indeed, Christians affirm that God appointed Adam and Eve as stewards of creation, commanding them to protect and cultivate it. It is that for which we are created in Genesis 1 and 2. Paul, in his letter to the Romans describes that the sin of Adam has even corrupted creation. Paul states:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. (Romans 8:18-22 NASB95)

Christians have a responsibility, as human beings, to be aware of their responsibilities as stewards of creation, by not only cultivating, but also by protecting creation. Indeed, Biblical Christians should be at the front of the environmental movement for all intents and purposes as part of the redemptive strategy of God.

Then why are Christians so divided over the topic? Two words: bad theology. One interpretation of the end times have left Christians with the residual thought that the degradation of creation is a 'sign' of the end and that this degradation must be left to run its course, or else Jesus won't return. Another interpretation of the King James translation of Genesis 1 and 2 asserts that human beings are to 'subdue' creation - as if it were a wild beast - in order to force it to serve human ends, whatever they may be. The worst theological spin on creation however, is what I call "the lazy view," which simply states, "If God is going to destroy the heavens and the earth by fire in the end, before the coming of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22), then why should it matter what human beings do to creation? This is simply a poor, uniformed interpretation of an even poorer translation of the original Greek text.

No. All human beings, but especially those who have a developed theological sense of creation - as Christians should - must be aware of our dependence upon, and responsibility toward our co-creation, the earth.

2) On the other hand, elevating Earth Day to the status of worship, as some in the neo-Pagan or Wicca movement have done, is abominable sin. Christians do not worship the earth nor the creatures in it. This neo-Pagan (pagan, meaning 'rustic', in reference to the simple life of rural folk in ancient Greece, but evolving to mean 'uneducated non-Christian) movement has turned Earth Day into a regular liturgical event, a sacred day, on par with the summer and winter solstices. Sadly, this understanding of Earth Day is becoming more and more pervasive.

Can Christians ignore the earth? No. We have a mandate to be stewards of the earth, our environment. God has plans to redeem the earth in the eschaton, just as God is redeeming us. According to my mentor Stanley Grenz, God, in "making all things new" will be renewing the heaven and the earth, not destroying the earth itself, but destroying the degradation - sin, pollution, destruction and death - and in the process, bringing the Earth again to its edenic destiny. No, let's give Jim Denison a break. He's getting it right. If you don't believe me, just look at the words to Folliott Pierpont's timeless Christian hymn:

For the beauty of the earth
For the Glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies:
'Lord of all, to Thee we raise
this our grateful hymn of praise.
Alternative refrain:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This, our sacrifice of praise.
For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale and tree and flow'r
Sun and Moon and stars of light
For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child.
Friends on earth and friends above
For all gentle thoughts and mild.
For each perfect gift of Thine
To our race so freely given.
Graces human and divine
Flow'rs of earth and buds of heav'n.
[For the Beauty of the Earth (1864) Folliott S. Pierpont]

Friday, April 16, 2010

When God Calls Us, He Calls All of Us!

As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him.

(Mark 1:16-20 NASB95)

I had a great conversation with a friend of mine the other day about ministry. The question he had for me was, "If I can't preach, then can I still do ministry?" The answer, of course, is yes. It's yes because God calls all of who we are to ministry. Preaching is simply one part of ministry. Teaching is a part of ministry. Encouragement is a part of ministry. Healing is a part of ministry. Leadership is a part of ministry. And the list goes on... If God has called you to ministry, then he has called all of you. I am reminded of the passage above from the gospel of Mark. Which part of those fishermen's lives do you think God did not call to serve him? He called each of them to lay their lives down to follow him. They did not stop being fishermen, but they became fishermen for Him. They began to 'fish for men'.

When we lay down our lives to follow Him, He picks them up and uses every aspect of who we are for the sake of His Kingdom. The question is, will be attentive enough to His voice to minister in the manner He desires, rather than what we think is right? Now before you start making assumptions, let me say that I am constantly evaluating not only what God wants me to do, but how He wants me to do it.

Go ahead, ask God today how He desires to work through you for the glory of His Kingdom. I think you will be surprised to see just how God can work through the words, the actions and small kindnesses. There are times when we are convinced that 'our' ministry can only occur under certain circumstances with specific gifts - it's just not true though. Our God is bigger than that, and when we start to dictate the manner in which ministry can be done, then it is no longer God who is doing it; and the truth is, ministry done in our own power, is not ministry at all. Ministry done in our own power, by our own desires pacifies our own ego and does not build the kingdom. I have had to learn that lesson, and sadly, I've had to repeatedly learn it.

Go ahead, ask God today how he desires to work with you and watch as the Kingdom grows around you...

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Joy of the Lord

Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength. (Nehemiah 8:9-10)

Nehemiah is commenting on what has just occurred in the life of Israel. The exiles have returned from Babylon and have rebuilt Jerusalem. In celebration Ezra has just read from the book of the Law. The people are "cut to the quick" by the reading, which has not taken place, ever, in their memory. In the words of scripture are power - for they carry the weight of the Holy Spirit as the Word of God. The crowd is brought to tears as the scripture is read, for the Spirit is at work in a powerful way. What is happening? Why the tears? Maybe the tears come the conviction the Spirit brings... Maybe the tears come from an experience of holiness... Maybe the tears come from the sense that for so long they have waited to know God's presence in their midst again... Maybe they are truly tears of joy.... Probably it is all of these things.

Yet Nehemiah responds with an interesting turn - "the joy of the Lord is our strength"...

We have confidence in our God when the night is darkest and the world is set against us. God sent the Word to become flesh in Jesus so that he might experience death for us. He has gone on before us and shown us the way. We need not fear man or world. We need not fear the principalities and powers, or the spiritual forces of darkness in this world, for Jesus has already seen them "nailed to the tree" (Col. 2:14-15).

For Nehemiah and for us, we need to understand that the Spirit not only convicts of sin, but fills us with "joy." The world wants you to be happy; God wants you to have joy. Happiness comes and goes; joy is God's favor, and lasts a lifetime (Psalm 30:5).

Friends in Christ, as Paul tells us in Philippians 4:4, exercise your "joy" today and chase the darkness away!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

When 'church' goes wrong... part 1

In July 2006, I left a beautiful group of people in Bellingham, Washington in order to follow a call to teach theology, ethics and Bible at a small university in Brownwood, Texas. In the years following my appointment to Howard Payne University, I have become an interested observer of churches in terms of life and health. As a professor, I want to know what makes a good church good, a healthy church healthy and a growing church grow. I also want to know why a good church loses its way, a healthy church becomes unhealthy, and a why a growing church stops growing and begins to die. In the intervening four years since I left the full-time pastoral ministry I have witnessed the structural and ministry collapse of several churches. It has been frustrating and sad as I have watched the destruction of fellowship, the ineffectiveness of ministry, the loss of membership and ultimately the damage to the witness of Christ everywhere.

The apostle Paul draws an analogy between the church and the human body, when trying to describe how the church functions. Its a useful analogy in understanding what happens when "church goes wrong." So this week I want to highlight this analogy:

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function,

so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Romans 12:4-5 (NASB95)

¶ For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

¶ For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

¶ Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.

1 Corinthians 12:12-27 (NASB95)

So what can we draw from these scriptures about church health?

1) The church is Christ's body today. It is a living organism that breathes (Holy Spirit), walks and talks (ministry, witness and worship).

2) The church - as an organic body - has members. The term 'members', literally means appendages, organs or parts. Each member has a role to play, a purpose or function that is important to the life of the body. Paul makes this very clear in 1 Corinthians 12:21f.

3) The church as a body, needs exercise. If the church does not walk and talk consistently, regularly and according to function, it will atrophy and become ineffective. Just like the middle-aged person who does not pursue some type of physical and mental exercise and becomes over weight and unhealthy, the church as the Body of Christ must do what it is called to do. Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 10:27...

If this is how we are to understand the church and its function, why do churches "go wrong?"

1) People today do not view the church as a body. The 'church' is a building we meet in or a group of people that share a common interest. "Church" is an activity that we do for a couple of hours during the week in order to pay homage to God. Church, like so many other things in a our materialist culture is something we 'consume'...To view church as a body though is something that is foreign to people living in Western culture.

2) A body can get sick. If the different parts or members of a body do not function correctly, the body become sick and unable to fulfill its function. When it becomes 'dysfunctional' it becomes focused on the internal problems and ceases to do what it was created to do - walk and talk - ministry, witness and worship. Slowly but surely, it ceases to engage in healthy ministry and passionate worship. As these two aspects begin to fail, the church's witness becomes feeble or weak until it becomes non-existent. Eventually, when the body fails to address its illness, it becomes so weak that it dies.

What are some of the illnesses that the Body of Christ can experience?

1) Cardio-Vascular Disease. The body does not get enough exercise because it is focused on a sedate life style - it focuses on the place instead of the people, the style instead of the substance and the inward instead of the outward. It prioritizes a style of preaching and worship over actual ministry and mission. It focuses on making the members happy, rather than making them healthy. After a while, actually being the church becomes too difficult, so it begins to wither, hoping that someone can come into transform it with a miraculous pill, without actually performing open heart surgery and a life-style change.

2) Ocular Diseases: myopia and presbyopia. The body neglects the value of its vision. It becomes near-sighted over time, looking only at its present situation and failing to look far enough ahead to see future problems or opportunities. Over time this myopia turns into presbyopia, which is far-sightedness: the church focuses so much on future redemption that it fails to see the ministry opportunities right in front of them. Either disease, either focus can contribute to a collapse of function.

3) Cancer. Cancer occurs when malignant cells begin to grow within the members of the body, eventually causing members to become dysfunctional or to cease function totally. What does cancer look like in the Body of Christ? Just like in the human body, cancer takes different forms and can attack different members:

a) Benign - this is not 'cancer' per se, but rather a tumor that may grow, but stays in the same place. It is a part of the body that does not function; it simply takes up space yet it may keep other members from functioning by degree.

b) Malignant - this is cancer. It is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells within a body. It causes massive dysfunction in the member organ causing function shut down and ultimately could spread to other members causing death of the body.

In the church, cancer takes the form of a member with either a poor attitude or a poor theology caused by individual sin or undiscerning discipleship. This attitude or theology at some point becomes viral, infecting other members and causing strife within the whole church. Poor or weak leadership allows the attitude or theology to go unchallenged until it is too late and the church hemorrhages members or simply splits and dies. No cancer is ever good... My personal opinion is that "lung cancer" can be the worst however in a church. It is the cancer that destroys the work of the Holy Spirit in a congregation until it can no longer breathe.

4) Dementia. Dementia in a church is caused by the teaching of unorthodox theology at best or heretical theology at worst by a leader. It causes an inappropriate understanding of the church, usually manifest in exclusivism or radical liberalism and fundamentalism. When a church is experiencing dementia, it will hold its own for a while and even experience modest growth, but ultimately, it begins to die, hemorrhaging members slowly at first, but quicker and quicker as time passes until their is only a remnant left.

Does your church manifest these symptoms or diseases? I hope not. In any case, it is best to pursue a healthy body life by staying faithful to the teachings of Christ, the guidelines of scripture and always manifesting "the joy of the Lord."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Second Chance Theology • Easter 2010

So today Christians from all over the world celebrate the "resurrection" of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, for one to call themselves a Christian, a 'believer' or even a disciple of Jesus Christ intimates the belief in resurrection. Paul, the earliest theologian of the young church maintained that salvation began with the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead (Romans 10:9). Pretty audacious, isn't it? Nevertheless, it is the cornerstone of the Christian faith.

The resurrection tells the world that death does not have the last word.

The resurrection tells the world that human beings were created for eternity's sake.

The resurrection empowers those who believe it with the very presence of God...

The resurrection is at the heart of an audacious hope.

The resurrection tells us that each and every one of us has a second chance in Christ.

Paul tells us that we are "to be pitied among all men" if we profess to follow Christ, but do not believe in the resurrection. Indeed, our belief is futile and of no worth (1 Corinthians 15:12ff). Truth be told, modern science cannot explain the resurrection; but then again, who would want to worship a god that was not the master of life and death?

Quite often, Protestants focus on Calvary's cross and rightly so. But the atonement of Christ is only half of his work. Indeed, the atonement would not be the atonement were it not for the resurrection from the dead. This resurrection was not expected by the disciples. It was not part of an elaborate plot to confound the temple rulers; and, it was not a first century "parlor trick." To attempt to explain away the resurrection by using reason or the canons of science is to say simply that your god is at best your science and at worst your self. Either way, you die in your sin, separated from God.

Because of the resurrection, I believe in second chances. Because of the resurrection, I believe in forgiveness before it is even asked. Because of the resurrection I can face the unknown. The tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is empty this morning: not from human chicanery or error; but because He lives.

Celebrate the empty tomb this morning and our second chance!