Saturday, July 31, 2010

Just a closer walk with thee...

So many believers get frustrated with their faith because God hasn't answered a specific prayer request, because a special person close to them died, because a young person died who we think should not have, because the person in the pew next to them doesn't agree to the very same beliefs you do, because young people won't change to fit our traditional worship patterns, because the music minister repeated a chorus one too many times and the list goes on... We are obsessed with the trivial. We focus on the minutiae and no longer see the big picture.

Yesterday, I saw that Anne Rice 'left' Christianity. "The Marquee Blog" quoted Ms. Rice thus:

Rice wrote, “For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian ... It's simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

Rice then added another post explaining her decision on Thursday:“My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me," Rice wrote. "But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”

I've got to say this, to the great offense of some of you: I understand Anne.

American Christianity in particular, but Western Christianity in general, is prone to a terrible disease: consumerism. We 'shop' churches and we participate in the programs of 'our' choosing. We attend churches that fit our personal income and community status specifications. Then we comment and complain about those who don't "fit". The Western church has been made into our image rather than God's. Anne might be disappointed, even upset; but I think God has already passed judgment.

Anne wants to walk with God; so do I. As a baptistic Christian, I've grown fond of the old revivalist hymns as a source of theology. One of my favourites is, "Just a closer walk with thee."

Just a closer walk with thee
Grant it Jesus, is my plea
Daily living close to thee
Let it be dear Lord, let it be.

I am weak, but Thou art strong
Jesus, keep me from all wrong
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee

I think every church and without doubt, every Christian, needs to rethink and recapture that idea. As Christians, we believe that the very Spirit of God resides within each believer. We believe that Christ's presence is with us. Would he be pleased with how you walk, with the choices you make or the kind of presence you have with others?

I know several people who have a 'church face' for their church attendance; a 'family face' for their time with family; and a 'vocational face' for their time at work. They serve on committees, they vote at business meetings, they even sing in the choir or do time in the nursery - but if you asked them to "take up their cross and follow Jesus" or to "be crucified with Christ" or to "walk the narrow road" or "to give all to the poor and follow Jesus" - they would look at you like you were an alien. In America, they call this reality; in the New Testament, Jesus calls is hypocrisy. You are either who you are in Christ, or you are not. You say you love your neighbor, but find ways to be angry with people who use to be your friend? That's hypocrisy. The last time I checked, every Christian was called to be a peacemaker and thus an emissary of Christ everywhere they went.

Now all of us have struggles. I do, Anne Rice does and so do you. But the hypocrisy has to stop. The church and its people need to get serious about the character and mission of Christ. If it does not get serious, then my church and your church can join the growing number of churches that are dying, losing members and closing their doors.

On top of that, why even be a Christian if you don't want to walk with God in this life?

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Messy Life....

Everyone wants to find a "groove" in which to live. You know, that well worn path that 'feels' comfortable to us, that is both predictable yet stimulating... The life that doesn't catch us too much by surprise, yet has enough twists and turns to make life rewarding on occasion...

I watch as my students attempt to cultivate a life just like I have described. Even my most adventuresome students - the ones who want to go on the mission field, or live a shared existence in a Christian commune or live on the margins with a minimal amount of possessions or 'escape' the dying traditional church for an 'emerging' church experience eventually begin to crave a life that has signposts, markers and a regular manner of being. They find that the life which is filled with too many surprises can be disorienting and even frightening compared to his or her existence at home or before college. So they begin to find ways to 'settle down' or to be a 'localized radical' or to just admit that they were an 'idealist' and now they are a 'realist'... So they cultivate careers, bank accounts and retirements like the rest of us, and many times at the expense of what began as a vibrant faith.

The problem, however, begins with the fact that there is nothing more radical in this world than a devoted Christ-follower. To stand on your feet and proclaim authoritatively that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead; to declare that He is coming again to judge both the living and the dead and that all human-beings will experience that judgment is the heart of a polarizing, radicalizing life. It makes life messy. Not all people will like or appreciate your message. The gospel message paints not only a halo above your head, but a target on your back. To "take up your cross and follow Jesus" makes you an object of scorn and derision. To unabashedly declare your loyalty to God in Christ may even result in crucifixion.

The reality is, the Christian life is a messy life.

I presently live in the 'Buckle of the Bible Belt' - the heart of socially conservative Christianity. On one hand, this means that people have heard about Jesus, church and salvation. On the other hand, many people here separate his or her life of faith from their vocation and family life. This results in a very interesting religiously- oriented 'schizophrenia'. In other words, when with other "Christians" he or she will pour out bible and theological knowledge; they will volunteer to teach a class or even work in the church on Sunday - The Lord's Day. They may even engage in some simple Bible study during the week. But for the most part, his or her faith life has little effect on vocation, marriage and general daily life. They would like to think that it does... but then, they still hold grudges, gossip about others, curse and suspend religious activity when professional football is on the television. This religious orientation then comes to supplant the radical life of discipleship to which Christ calls us in scripture.

The Christian life is a life of radical obedience. You love God and love neighbor. You love your enemies. You go the extra mile. You take up your cross and become crucified with Christ. It's a messy life of love - a love always costs you something and always changes you. Once you have loved deeply as Christ loved, you are changed. There is nowhere to hide once you have loved like that. Once you have given it all to Christ on the cross, life becomes an adventure. Money will come and go; jobs will come and go; friends will come and go; and even family will come and go. (No, I'm not advocating divorce or any other such thing!) What I am saying is that there will be those in your family who just don't get it to the point that they will walk away or distance themselves from your radical call. Life will change for you.

But this is how the Kingdom changes things. This is how Christ chose to continue the mission. Radical love results in radical obedience. The problem lies in us. We don't want messy lives, so we allow Christ to have as much of us as we can bear - until our He impinges upon our comfort zone - and then we shut the door. We settle for the dance, rather than the marriage supper of the lamb.

I am asking you today to rethink your life a bit. It's not too late to get a little radical. It's not too late to allow Christ the title to your soul. It's not too late to take a stand and live the messy life of a true disciple. Think about it...

Monday, July 19, 2010

I saw you...

I saw you today
walking along the sidewalk
by the old first church
in your crocs
and socks
watching children play
and adults talk.

I wondered deep
inside what you thought
or were thinking

you were walking with purpose
long deep strides
but not in a hurry
not rushed or pushed
just walking.

So I passed you by
and turned my head
a thousand thoughts
in a second.

Were you thinking
about children
about work
about Him

as you walked....

I thought
and nod.
you were.

I saw you today.
I saw

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Leadership Reflections

[Friends: Unlike some of my other entries, this blog is an exercise in thinking in print. I hope you will engage with me, but it may get a bit dry! Hopefully it will be rewarding for those who are thinking through these processes with me!]

Church leadership is an interesting and complex phenomenon. When the apostle Paul drew an analogy between the church and the human body, he was more on target than he knew!

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]

Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians with this analogy as well. Each 'member' or part of the body has a different spiritual gift and together, under the direction of the 'head' - Christ - function in a cooperative, even unified manner. Paul paints a theologically beautiful picture, but a painfully difficult one to put put into action. It would seem that even Paul had a difficult time working with some of these churches!

Part of the problem would seem to lie in the ambiguity of the governance. Being 2000 years removed from the early church, we struggle understanding how the different governing roles of the church should operate. In other words, how are the pastors, elders and deacons to work together? Is there a 'pecking order' in regards to authority? Is the role of 'pastor' an office or a function or both?How does the congregation-at-large function in the governance? How does our Western, secular democracy influence the manner in which we attempt to implement these Biblical concepts?

These are questions every church must ask itself as it seeks to be faithful to scripture and effective in mission. How a church implements its governance may even determine the nature and success of its mission. Too much governance, too many committees and the church may become ineffective in fulfilling the great commission. The church simply becomes bogged down in its own bureaucracy. On the other hand, too much authority focused in the hands of one or only a few individuals could create a dictatorial governance that alienates the congregation. Church leadership constantly walks a fine line between effectiveness and ineffectiveness.

I would like to point out two small items though as I reflect on this topic: giftedness and authority.

First, church leadership operates according to the gifts given it. Paul goes to great lengths to point out leadership gifts in Ephesians 4:11 - apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. In other words, church leadership must evidence the working of the Spirit in their lives that would suggest these gifts. It is significant that Paul in Romans 12:8 points out the spiritual gift of diligent leadership. Leadership, therefore, under the direction of the Spirit, is not haphazard or self-focused. It is bound to the directives of Christ through the Holy Spirit and to the glory of the Father.

Second, there is an authoritative structure to leadership. Foremost is the headship of Christ. All offices and gifts submit to the headship of Christ or they are illegitimate. (I believe the real issue is here - How do we acknowledge and rely upon the headship of Christ in our churches? I truly believe that we fail in this area over and over again!) The structure to leadership in the church, however, would seem to be flexible. Paul, in Titus 1:7 and 1 Timothy 3 suggests that the episkopos or 'overseer' is the primary administrative leader in the church. In 1 Timothy 3:8f, a second office of diakonos or 'servant' and its qualifications are outlined. Although 1 Timothy 5:17-19 and 1 Peter 5:1 refer to the 'elder' or presbuteros, this would seem to refer more accurately to older or experienced Christians, rather than to a specific office. Paul made it a point to designate 'elders' in the churches he planted in order to anchor the young church in a mature leadership base, hence the appointments of Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 and the allusion to 'elders of the church' in Acts 20:17. The 'elders' then are those who inhabit the offices of 'overseer' (1 Tim 5:17) and teacher. The concept of a 'council of elders' is a holdover from the Jewish synagogue and thus would not have been unfamiliar to Paul and Peter.

Thus described, the entire church is given gifts by the Spirit to carry out the ministries of the church. The mature Christians, the Elders, are the ones who are to be prayerfully considered for the offices of the church - preaching, teaching, serving (diakonos) and administration (episkopos). These elders also serve as an advisory council, if you will, to those who hold specific offices. The deacons then assist the elders in their responsibilities. But, what about the 'pastor'?

In my tradition, each church has a primary 'pastor' or 'minister' who functions as the 'overseer' of the church on a daily basis on both a spiritual and administrative basis. What is the warrant for this office or activity? Throughout the Bible, the image of 'shepherd' aka 'pastor' is used as an analogy for spiritual leader. Although it is used as a noun, it is more frequently used as a verb - "to shepherd" - and refers to the activity of spiritual direction, leadership and general care. Paul uses the term only once, in reference to the duties of the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28. The pastor, then, is an overseer by appointment and an elder by qualification who evidences the spiritual gift of leadership, and is tasked with teaching, leading and defending the sheep.

You see, leadership is an interesting and complex phenomenon. The key, however, to which I keep coming back over and over again is the headship of Christ. The system by itself is fraught with difficulties. Nevertheless, when firmly placed under the authority of Christ - where the leadership is constantly measuring itself and its actions by the character and commands of Jesus - it can flourish in a miraculous way!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Life is about the journey...

A good friend of mine was recently turned down for a residential grant to an institute in France. I, as well as several others, wrote references for him in the process. His research interest and his general situation seemed to make him an ideal candidate for just such a residency. Sadly, the foundation turned him down. The grant would have been a nice addition to any resume. A six to nine month residency at a prestigious institute always seems to entice publishers and thrill personnel committees. Nevertheless, my friend, a talented author, businessman, musician, hockey goalie and practical polymath was not chosen. The irony is, he will continue to be a talented author, businessman, musician, poet, philosopher, hockey goalie and polymath.

Having received the notice of his non-selection, I sent him a quick email telling him of my continued support of his work and friendship. He then replied to let me know that he would no longer be seeking these types of grants - just too much emotional energy expended for little gain. It then struck me, as it often does, that whether or not my friend got this grant was not a measure of his person. He has accomplished far more than most human beings will ever accomplish. But he has never put much stock in accomplishments for the sake of accomplishments. They are what they are. They are markers on a greater journey, but cannot be the goal of the journey itself.

Nevertheless, you and I measure our lives by our accomplishments all the time. It is the hazard of living in a capitalist-consumer culture. Indeed, one of the first things any American male will ask another upon being introduced is, "What do you do for a living?" - The question is designed to help us understand and assess a persons accomplishment in a millisecond. In short order it answers the following questions: Did you graduate from college? Did you marry well? Did you obtain high paying employment with a prestigious company or firm? Did you attend graduate or professional school? Are you a physician, professor, lawyer or CEO? Do you drive the right car, own the right home, attend the right schools? Do you vacation in the Hamptons, Martha's Vineyard, Big Sur, the Rockies or Europe?

Sadly, all this serves to do is to 'measure' our own worth in comparison to the other person's accomplishments. Yet that whole approach is flawed. Does this really give us a measurement of a person's life? What does it do to assess a person's value by their financial and material accomplishments? Can this really tell us something about a person? Yes. It can tell us that somewhere down the line they have forgotten what it means to be human.

Please don't mistake what I am saying. To have and to do these things is not "bad" or "evil" in and of themselves. Yet, to make them the end or goal of our lives is.

Our lives will not ultimately be measured by the things we achieve or possess. Our lives will be measured by how we lived them and the character they produced. Life is about the journey. The questions we should be asking are: Have I loved deeply? Have I sacrificed anything of value for the sake of others? Is my yes "yes" and my no "no"? Am I a liar or does the truth control my life? Do my possessions control me? Can I be content in any situation? How can I be the cause of the greatest amount of joy and peace, and minimize being the cause of pain and suffering? How can I love my neighbor and benefit his or her life? How can I love my spouse today? How can I best influence my children today in order that he or she might become a person of integrity and character?

And for the Christian, most importantly, how does my life reflect the life of the one who loved me and gave himself for me? (Galatians 2:20)

How you and I answer these questions will determine our worth, eternally.

I am 46 years old. I have travelled, accomplished and done. I intend to do more. I will succeed and I will fail. But in the grand scheme of things, they are but markers on the road. God reminds me that these 'things' are tempered by time. They occurred yesterday. He reminds me that I must live now. God does not remind me of past accomplishments, He simply says, "Jay, I love you. Now what will we do together today?"

Let me challenge you. Life is not about stuff. Life is about today's walk with God. What will you do with God today? Who and how will you love?

“But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.

[Luke 12:31-32 NASB95]

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Church is a Movement.

I have been around a lot of churches in the last 20 years. I've been a pastor, a staff member, an interim pastor, a "revival" preacher, a "guest speaker", a church-health consultant, a 'professional' theologian-in-residence as well as an educated lay person. I've led youth groups, conducted choirs, led musical worship, preached and taught. I've watched and listened.

I've watched as churches have blossomed and faded; I've watched as churches have grown tremendously only to splinter just as quickly. I've watched as churches 'maintained' - neither really growing or outright dying - but just held its head above the water enough to pay a pastor, a small staff and keep itself busy with a program of 'churchy-ness'... and I have watched as some churches have taken a whole new path and grown exponentially where others can't even take root.

In all of this time I've sought to understand why and how the traditional North American / Western church is fading so quickly. The church as we knew it in the twentieth century is quickly diminishing and something not very familiar to us is taking its place. When I say, "the church as we knew it" - I'm talking about the 'traditional', denominationally-oriented, doctrinally-focused and geographically located congregation. The church that proliferated in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries that is quickly becoming anachronistic.

The answer that is slowly coming to my mind is this: since the time of Constantine and the public ascent of the church, the church has forgotten what it is. It is a movement.

The church is not a building, a weekly meeting or even a group of people that does "mission" together. It is the movement of God in and through people. The images of God's people in the Bible that portray this group as healthy and blessed are dynamic, kinetic and not tied to one specific place or time. Paul talks about the church in terms of the "body of Christ" or the "called out ones" - another name for the militia or army. He talks about 'walking together' or 'running the race'... The only way to describe this phenomenon is as a movement. The church isn't missional, the church is mission.

The Cappadocian fathers in the fourth century sought to describe the inner workings of God by using the term "perichoresis" or "round dance" - It is a dynamic, kinetic movement of love between Father and Son in the Spirit. The church is that movement of people who have embraced and embody that same perichoresis in their midst. This movement is filled with the Spirit, armed with love and prayer, guided by the Scriptures and informed by just enough doctrine to remind them of who they are, what their purpose is and how they are to function. The church is a special forces team that undermines strongholds in the world by the power of Christ. It undermines hate and builds relationships. It exposes sin and restores righteousness. It plants the cross, preaches the resurrection and then continues on...

If the church builds a building, it must serve as an outpost, a refitting station, an aid station, a place of training and sending; a place that is temporary. It is not an end in itself. If the building becomes an end in itself - then it becomes a death trap, a tomb for those who have forgotten who they are and what their function is.

Jesus commissions us in Matthew 28:19-20. As the president commissions officers in the army, so Jesus commissions those in His Kingdom. He begins the commission with a simple word: "Go!" - It is an imperative. Go, go now into the world and make disciples. He did not say, "stay", "stay and build comfortable, inviting fortresses that look like modern temples where you can be happy and self-satisfied. And if your fortress is nice enough, others who are of like mind can come join you behind those walls every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night - barring the imposition of another more important event."

This sounds harsh, I know. But aren't you tired of seeing the church as an ineffective and dying body? I know that I am. Aren't you concerned that the church no longer looks like the group described in the New Testament? I am. If you are, like me, then let's do what we must to see the church become a vibrant, living body once again.