Tuesday, November 8, 2011

England 2011, part 1...

Hola!

Of course, it has now been months since my last blog entry. What can I say, other than...well you know me, if you know me at all. Just busy. To get everyone up to speed, we finally moved into our house in Bozeman, Montana. I laid our wood flooring myself, moved and unpacked over 100 boxes of books. Then my back crashed...again. One of these days I will learn, I am sure. Anyway, I'm back in beautiful Bristol, England again, with side trips planned to Bath Spa and Oxford, maybe London if I have time. Regardless, it's good to be back in the Mother country!

While I am here I am wrapping things up with my current thesis supervisor, Jeanette Sears and entering the final stretch with a supervisor yet to be named. This doesn't really trouble me; maybe it should, but it doesn't. Maybe its because I'm 47, almost 48 and already have one doctorate. Maybe it's because I'm under no pressure at my new post to 'get it done'! Either way, I'm not stressed. I am going to enjoy finishing this piece up because I want to do so!

I had an interesting journey here. It took four flights and 26 hours. I saw the Amsterdam airport for the first time and was really impressed. Think contemporary upscale shopping mall meets airport, all staffed by 'Stepford' types. Hey, you've got to love the Dutch - they not only do soccer right, they also know how to treat the traveler in their airport!! Anyway, I arrived Bristol at 8:20AM - tired, but intact. My luggage made it with me and the wonderful folks in immigration let me pass without a hassle. My good friend Chris Bliss picked me up in his way cool Alpha Romeo and dropped me off at his place for a spot of tea and some toast with orange marmalade. Ah, to be back in England!

Anyway, I had a nice jet-lag nap and am now going to walk down to the Shirehampton village center to pick up some items for my hosts. Hopefully, it will be a nice, relaxed evening and a good night's sleep. Shirehampton is a truly beautiful suburb of Bristol. There are areas that remind me of a Jane Austen movie, really.

Well enough for now. I'll make another post tomorrow. In the meantime my friends, remember this:

God's grace is always greater...



Friday, July 29, 2011

wow.

It's been awhile since I posted. Almost a month! It has been a crazy month, so you will forgive me. We have been moving off of the ranch and into our home in town. It has take a lot of work. We've laid flooring, painted, put down baseboard and quarter round. My back hasn't been too happy, but I've lost 10 pounds and we are starting to really feel at home. Today was a breakthrough, we got closer to normal - I mowed my new lawn (almost a quarter acre!) and smoked a brisket. Tomorrow I will install some bookshelves, take a hike up the butte with Hannah and Catherine, then settle in for some more sermon preparation.

I am taking this break not to share with you all about my personal life, but to share an amazing insight with you.

It is when we confess our own inability and act in simple obedience
that God reveals Himself in strength.

Now I have amassed quite a bit of education in my 47 years, but I realize now more than ever that my education at times hampers ministry more than facilitating it. I have seen the power of God at work here in Bozeman like never anywhere else I have lived. God has doubled the attendance of our church in six months. People have attended worship and given more in the last 8 months than in the last 8 years. Spiritual strongholds have been broken, psychological and spiritual oppression has been lifted, young men and women are coming to know Christ. God is bringing together the personnel for Montana College in a fashion that only God can.

And guess what else? As much as I would like to take credit I can't. It's all God. I just preach, teach, pray and love people. It's absolutely not me. A congregation and a community is looking towards God in humility and finding Him. I am humbled and invigorated all in the same moment.

So what's my role? I am just being obedient. I am equipping people for ministry and encouraging them to engage their community. I am preaching what God has given me. I have never been a great preacher; I pray that I am a clear communicator; but if God has shown me anything, it is that the love, beauty and kindness of the gospel will go places that my education and skill cannot.

This has been a hard move. I've left dearly loved friends and family in Texas. My back has caused me severe pain at times. It took a long time to get into this house and off the ranch. Melissa is still looking for a job and the list goes on. Yet in my weakness He is made strong. Paul, another highly educated man, says this in 2 Corinthians 12:19, a passage that has put this all together for me:

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.


I get it.

I love God. I love God with my mind and my heart. As I get older and am less able to do the things I once easily did, I am reminded over and over again, that truly - it is Him; not me. Amen.

Monday, July 4, 2011

An Update for All My Friends… July 3, 2011

Although this is is a break from my regular theological reflections, it is about my journey, so I hope you will forgive my brief repose!

It is July 3rd, 2011 at about 11:00pm Mountain Standard Time. I am sitting in a rocking swing outside of my unit at the Copper Spring Ranch bunkhouse. My new friend, "Franchesco" - a young male ginger cat is tired from chasing gophers and is at my feet. It was a warm day in the Gallatin Valley - about 94º at its peak. Now, close to midnight, it's a lovely 64º with an ever so slight breeze. Hannah, my daughter, is fast asleep and Melissa is reading.

From my vantage point at the foot of Pine Butte, in Gallatin County Montana, I am situated perfectly to the southwest of the city of Bozeman and to the southeast of the city of Belgrade. I know the picture to the left isn't great, but I am located just to the left of the picture. The butte is located on the ranch. Anyway, my elevation allows me to see the lights of both cities. The scene at 9:00pm was incredible. The Bridger Mountains to the north were like huge shadows, that provided an almost eery backdrop for the Independence Day festivities that had begun two nights ago.

Tonight, I sit here in the swing, listening to the flow of the Gallatin river and the occasional 'whump', 'crack' and 'fizz' of the fire works. The breeze is nice. It has given me an occasion to think and reflect just about me and my last 24 months. It has been a whirlwind. Two years ago, the summer of 2009, I was in Bellingham, Washington on a mission trip with the First Baptist Church of Brownwood. Last year, I was in Bellingham, but this time with Coggin Avenue Baptist Church of Brownwood. This year I am on a new adventure - not with a church from Brownwood, but as pastor of a church here in the valley - Bozeman First Baptist Church - now a part of Bridger Community Ministries. BCM has as its component ministries First Baptist Church, The Rock Youth Center, and, eventually, The Montana Center for Faith, Adventure and the Arts. As I think about it, all I can muster is, 'wow'....

The hard part for me has been missing my friends. As I get older, I realize more and more how dear my relationships are. I miss my close friends. I miss my afternoon talks with my good friend and mentor Wallace. I miss my friends, the McCutchen's. I miss my colleagues in the School of Christian studies. I miss my friends in Bangs and in De Leon. I miss my students - I found out today that one of my favorite students this past year is leaving HPU to go to nursing school at a university in San Antonio. I know that this is life though.

As I sit here, I realize that although I miss my friends, this was absolutely the right move. God's finger prints have been all over it! I have connected with the people here in a way I could have never imagined. The church is growing. We literally add new people every week. I am able to mentor students here and I have intellectual colleagues that satisfy my thirst for dialog. My time in Brownwood and in Bellingham have been preparing me for this stage in my life.

I think the hard part for me is realizing that this may be my last real challenge. I love the challenge, I love this place of incredible beauty. I miss my friends and my daughter Catherine - tremendously. But I realize that I am closer now to 50 than 40. I am the mentor. Although I have many projects, I can only tackle them one day at a time. I love each and every person that comes into my sphere of influence. I pray that God continues to lead me and to open doors in this ministry.

I miss all of you though. Rob, Monte, Corey, Wallace, Carol and the rest. Keep me in your prayers as I seek to follow Christ in this challenge. Oh, and visit when you can!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Community on the Edge: Church Outside the Comfort Zone.

Dusk came last night in Bozeman at about 9:55pm. Dawn came this morning at 4:56am (or so). I've got to say that kind of schedule is tough. The day becomes so long at this time of year at this latitude that it is practically disorienting. Needless to say, I didn't get much sleep! Indeed, it can be so disorienting for people that they don't stay here but return to a location that has a more consistent day length, closer to the equator. But I am not unfamiliar with this situation. My old home in Bellingham, Washington was even further north and it too had long summer days. Those kind of long days in the summer and short days in the winter create a unique environment and a unique community.

We live in disorienting times. Some call this time "the postmodern era"; a time when all that we know about life and all the means we used to navigate this life has been turned upon its ear. The institutions and methods to which we have grown accustomed no longer have the appeal or effect they once had. This is no more true anywhere than in the church. The church is inherently embedded in culture. At its heart, it worship and reveres an historical figure (Jesus) as God who spoke to a specific culture in a specific way. Yet the ethic that Jesus taught was, and is, Truth (His teaching and ethics are experienced by all people as 'eternal' - His teachings transcend the culture and historical context to cause change in the hearer-reader; you see, the 'truth' of Truth is that it inaugurates change) and it must be applied in the ever changing culture around us. Thus as the culture changes around the church, the church too must adjust its methodology as it proclaims the Truth that is Jesus.

In a time where change is common; indeed where change is the norm and where steadfast adherence to any static context or tradition means quick death, the living church finds itself - if it is to be faithful proclaimers of the gospel - as a 'Community on the Edge' - a church outside of the comfort zone. As the comfort of the modern age fades into the quantum change of the postmodern (or is it ultramodern?), the survival of the church depends upon its willingness to be at the very edge of culture; reaching out to the lost, the hurt, the child and the widow, who always are the victims in culture.

It would be easy for the church trying to survive in the waning comfort of the modern era to continue its methods for as long as they can. And some churches in North America, located in cultures still relatively ruled by the ideas of the modern period (the Bible Belt, for example) will continue to rely on those methods. But a note to pastors: even as you rely on the tested programs of the 20th century to build the church body, start to equip people to make relationships with their neighbor. Rather than relying on attractional evangelism, start equipping people to engage in missional evangelism, where they go out of the building and into the world, making relationships, sharing the truth of Jesus with their lives, leading them to the Truth as we experience it in life and as it is codified in scripture. If you begin this process of equipping your sheep to do the meat of ministry, be prepared: you will soon find yourself outside your comfort zone as a community on the edge, challenging the norms of your culture and society. But be encouraged: that's exactly where Jesus and Paul were! I like what Paul says and what the church must take to heart today:

"To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22)

Learn to live as a community on the edge; seriously engaging culture with the Truth and Love of God in order that some might be saved.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Spiritual Warfare: Addendum

Weapons of the Believer:

1) The Holy Spirit
2) Prayer
3) Boldness in the Jesus' Name

Some Outside Resources:

Boyd, Gregory A. "God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict" (IVP)

Kraft, Charles. "Defeating Dark Angels: Breaking Demonic Oppression in the Believer's Life" (Regal)

Kraft, Charles. "I Give You Authority" (Chosen)

Kraft, Charles. "Christianity with Power: Your Worldview and Your Experience of the Supernatural." (Wipf & Stock)

Rankin, Jerry. "Spiritual Warfare: The Battle for God's Glory" (B & H Books)

All of these authors have accredited doctoral degrees and have extensive experience!

Other believers who have experienced spiritual warfare!




The Toll of Spiritual Warfare

To engage in warfare of any kind takes a toll. The goal of spiritual warfare is to 'exorcise' or drive-out the demon or resident evil and to begin the process of restoring the person or community to health. Thus the toll is two-fold; the extraction of the demonic, and more importantly, the spiritual, psychological and physical drain that occurs on the part of the believer. Spiritual warfare requires such focused prayer and attention that one is left at least weary and often times absolutely exhausted from the engagement. Our core energy sources are drained.

This account sounds as if I am implying that "we" do the work - not so - we are simply being obedient to the call to engage. The Holy Spirit within us is the power. The drain comes from facing and engaging something for which we have no love and quite often causes confusion and even fear. Thus each believer must be drenched with the Spirit of God through prayer before and after the engagement. Thus the believer is physically, psychologically and emotionally exhausted after the engagement.

This is why pursuit of the spiritual disciplines is important. Just like the training armed forces go through to increase their knowledge of the enemy and their ability to withstand attacks and attack on their own, Christians must be spiritually disciplined in order to enter their battles with evil. Spiritual battle is not for spiritual wimps. Luke tells the story of the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19:13-16 to illustrate this point:

God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out.

But also some of the Jewish exorcists, who went from place to place, attempted to name over those who had the evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, “I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches.” Seven sons of one Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. And the evil spirit answered and said to them, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” And the man, in whom was the evil spirit, leaped on them and subdued all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.


To fight the good fight of faith, one must be a true follower of Jesus, filled with the Spirit of God and prepared to do battle. If not, we enter into this spiritual battle on our own folly and risk the injury of Acts 19:16. The evil at hand must recognize Jesus in you for it to yield to the words you speak!


As a believer though, we need not fear the enemy, but simply engage it. The name of Jesus, used by the true believer, is the power feared by the enemy. The enemy must obey. The battle is won by Jesus, but it costs us something; energy and some emotional pain; thus we must renew our strength and reconnect to God in prayer. Jesus does this several times in the gospels, most notably in Matthew 14:23, Mark 6:46 and Luke 5:16.


The perils of post-spiritual warfare is simply more spiritual warfare. The enemy is insidious, always looking for your weakness to to exploit you, especially if you are engaging him. Thus right after an engagement, we must look to God in prayer, seeking protection, strength, insight and renewed strength. I believe this is what Jesus did when he went to the mountain to be with the Father.


Our biggest mistake as Christians in a modern world is first to ignore the spiritual battle, but second, to engage the enemy thinking that there will be no cost. This attitude can only be describe as flippant and careless. Those who are not prepared for the battle are always injured, sometimes they are so psychologically wounded that they never quite recover. The Christian must be prepared for the battle and the toll. It is only then that we can continue to engage in spiritual warfare and live the victorious life God has for us.


Be prepared friends, its coming.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Nature of Spiritual Warfare

Jesus doesn't talk about 'spiritual warfare' at length, He primarily teaches about the relational, moral and economic nature of discipleship. I believe that in itself says much about the nature of spiritual reality. Indeed, although we see Jesus casting out demons, those actions tend to be witnessed within the larger context of his 'signs and wonders' ministry of the Kingdom (Mark 1:34-39, 6:13, et al). Going a step further, the Gospels of Mark and Luke have the majority of references to demons and the 'casting out' of demons, and those references tend to cast spiritual warfare as a normal part of the life of the disciple in the world. Truly part of every disciple's commission is to exercise God's power over the demonic in the name of Jesus (see the 'Sending of the Seventy' in Mark 6:13 and Luke 10:17). The contested ending of Mark even states that the 'casting out of demons' will be part of the signs that accompany the one who believes in Jesus name. Yet Jesus does not give any direct instructions as to the methodology of 'casting out demons' as it were. The narratives suggest that Jesus naturally comes into contacts with the demonic when He is in there presence. At that point, Jesus confronts them and tells them to leave. In the late addition to Matthew - 17:21 - Jesus tells the disciples that there is a certain type of demon that does not come out except through 'fasting and prayer' although a few verses earlier, in Matthew 17:18, Jesus 'rebuked the demon and he came out and the boy was cured at once.' My question is two-fold: On one hand, is Jesus saying that there is a demon that is of such strength that one must prepare 'more' to confront it, or is He saying the depth of the disciple's life must include regular fasting and prayer - as Jesus would seem to have pursued - in order to engage in spiritual warfare. In other words, the spiritual life and spiritual warfare demand a devoted spiritual regimen or you simply aren't prepared to address absolute evil? This is an interesting question. Spiritual warfare must not be engaged flippantly! So what is the nature of spiritual warfare?

1. Spiritual conflict between God and evil is normative for the disciple. It is a part of the fabric of reality in a fallen world.

2. Evil exists along side good and is personified in the demonic. Demons are personal and have an agenda - to interfere with the expansion of God's Kingdom and to hold captive humankind. Jesus says that the "thief has come to steal, kill and destroy, but that He has come to give life and that more abundantly!" (John 10:10)

3. God has absolute power over creation, including evil and the demonic.

4. Jesus, as God, has given human believers - better, disciples - power, in the Holy Spirit, to confront and defeat evil in the demonic, in His name.

5. Disciples of Jesus, must be actively pursuing spiritual discipline to be prepared for this confrontation.

a. They must understand the reality in which they live - spiritual and physical

b. They must understand that there is nothing in their own flesh or spirit that can withstand evil.

c. They must understand that it is the power that indwells the believer - the Holy Spirit - which roots out evil and defeats the enemy, when called upon in the name of Jesus.

d. They must understand that if they seek to follow Jesus in this world, spiritual warfare is a constant reality, and that vigilant preparation is necessary. The disciple must have a rigorous life of prayer and fasting, worship and study as they seek to embody the love and virtue of God, as well as confront the powers in this world.

6. Disciples of Jesus must be unafraid to engage in this battle. By dismissing or not engaging, the battle is lost.

7. Disciples must never forget: It's Jesus. But Peter said, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk! Peter finally got it. To defeat the enemy, it's not about what we possess, but who possesses us. All Peter had was Jesus, and it was Jesus who worked through Peter in the power of the Spirit.

For next time: The Toll of Spiritual Warfare

Friday, May 27, 2011

Spiritual Warfare: Introduction

The Bible describes a world that is far more complex than the world we have inherited from modern, empirical science. The biblical world requires that we not only engage our reason and senses, but that our faith-filled imagination also be constantly engaged in order to understand fully the world around us. Indeed, the Bible posits a world that contains beings that elude our ability to identify them 'empirically'. We 'sense' them, we experience their presence or their activity, but not usually in any scientifically quantifiable way. We simply know we have experienced something; pleasant or unpleasant. The Bible calls these beings, 'spiritual' beings', and they inhabit the same world you and I inhabit, yet their existence involves another aspect; one which eludes the modern, mostly 'faithless' world. We experience these beings but they elude our common empirical categories of description. We know them, but we can't explain them with scientific categories. Indeed, the only way these beings make sense to us, is that the Bible gives us a socio-linguistic framework by which to understand their existence.

The Bible tells the reader of the existence not only of God, but of 'angels' (from the Greek a‡ggeloß meaning, "messenger") and 'demon' (from the Greek, daimo/nion meaning,"demon"). In the scriptural narrative, the angels are messengers from God and serve God with absolute loyalty. We see this in the Old Testament as well as the New, from Genesis to Revelation. They are transcendent beings; beings that elude qualification in our empirical reality. They are ever present to the timeless, spiritual realm which God the Father inhabits, but also have the ability to participate in the earthly reality which human beings inhabit. They have the ability to remain hidden from human eyes, or, they can 'reveal' themselves. Likewise, the demons in the scriptural narrative are present in both the Old and New Testaments. These transcendent beings do not operate in the heavenly realm of God, but according to intratestamental or apocryphal literature - have been relegated to the earthly realm. These beings stand in opposition to the angelic beings and indeed stand in opposition to God's will on the earth. Rather than serve God, the demonic serves the former angel of the presence of God, Lucifer; also called Satan or the Devil. He is the great deceiver, the father of lies and seeks to keep humankind from attaining the eternal destiny God has chosen for them in Christ. This 'fallen' angel, according to non-canonical sources, led a rebellion of angels against God, who then banished these angels to an earthly existence, where they remain with fallen humankind until the final Judgment. While on this earth, they seek to keep humankind from obedience to God's will with the final goal of defrauding humanity of salvation and eternal life.

While demons seek to hamper God's will upon the earth and defraud humankind of salvation, Angels seek the opposite. Angels not only seek to implement God's will on the earth, but they stand ready to aid humankind in their struggle against evil and in their effort to find redemption in Christ. They respond only to the commands of God the Father.

Human beings, blissfully unaware of this battle between Angel and Demon, good and evil, tend to be pawns in this war, until they receive Christ in the process of salvation and the Holy Spirit enters their lives. At this point, everything changes.

For next time: the nature of spiritual warfare.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Spiritual Warfare?

In recent days, I've been dealing with what can only be described as "spiritual warfare." Although my worldview has always had a chapter titled 'spiritual warfare' and it is something that I have 'tacitly' affirmed, it, nevertheless, has always taken a 'secondary' status in my theology. I assume this is because I live in world tinged by 'modernity' and its assumptions. A 'modern' worldview assumes that 'unseen' things, related to religious belief, evade empirical evaluation and thus are dubious concerns and best related to the category of 'hocus pocus' and other fictional ideas. On top of that, contemporary media - television and film - have so abused the concept of incarnate evil that most people in modern cultures simply dismiss the idea of spiritual warfare.

I am here to tell you that I have been engaged in the "Gettysburg" of spiritual warfare for the past several weeks. Now in the past most of my spiritual warfare has dealt with my own choices and battles in regards to the flesh - temptation, lust, deceit, etc. Things not uncommon to most human beings. Not this time. I feel as though today, over 3 months of pastoral care and prayer have brought me to the "Pickett's Charge" of this pitched battle. It involves the forces of evil and the forces of Christ in my immediate community. Its not about me personally, but I have been drawn to the fray out of sheer necessity. The good news is that I am the II Corps of the Union Army... and although General Hancock took great casualties in the assault, Pickett was soundly repulsed. "I can do all things in Christ, who strengthens me!"

In the next few weeks, I hope to detail the framework of a theology of spiritual warfare. Maybe it will be a help to some of you engaged in the same areas that I am. Until then, I appreciate your prayers!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sunrise Over the Bridgers

I slept almost 8 full hours last night. Sounds relatively mundane, doesn't it? Not for me though. Lately, I've been turning into a 5 or 6 hour a night person. Restless, I would get up two to four times every night. I could never seem to find the gear for REM sleep. I think I'm changing though. The stress of flying every other week, switching mental gears constantly and generally living in crisis mode from day to day had taken its toll on me. I was always tired, frustrated and generally not healthy. That is changing! So, I've come to the conclusion that I'm becoming human again. I'm getting good sleep. I'm focusing on fewer things and becoming more productive. I look forward to the new day.

My coffee is almost done now. Time to watch the sunrise over the Bridger Mountains!


Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Clarification: Abandoned by Those Whom You Love the Most

I mentioned in the earlier post that I had been "abandoned" by several whom I at one time considered "good" friends. I am a person, I feel. I invest in everyone around me. My assumption is that those whom I call "friend" will indeed be a "friend" in return. Thus, it is a shock to me when those whom I expect to support and encourage me, even in the most difficult of times, simply push away. With very few exceptions, I was alone my last week in Brownwood. One of my friends even told me that I should "expect" this treatment. Wow! I was stunned. This seemed to be a justification that allowed this person to behave in this fashion, even though he knew, deep inside, it was wrong, even petty. Now before I dig myself into a 'hole' here, I need to make a clarification; not a retraction mind you, but a clarification.

When you leave people you love, they react in different ways. I get it. Some are hurt that you are leaving and can't face it. Some are glad to see you gone and finally are able to revel in your departure. They just don't do it in front of you. Some are jealous of your departure, because deep inside they want to leave as badly as you, they just don't know how to leave or don't have the opportunity. That sadness in all of this is that it reflects a base selfishness. Selfishness on my part because I want my friends to support me. Selfishness on their part because, well, they are unwilling to stand with me for their own reasons.

I hurt right now, but I'll get over it. Too much to do here. My friends will eventually get over their hurt or anger. Maybe they will even keep in touch with me. I hope so. They will eventually get their chance to leave as well. And that is where their character will reveal itself. As I look carefully in the last analysis on all that has transpired, I realize that I have not suffered abandonment like our Lord, or like so many others in our world. I am good. I pray that the sun shines upon the faces of those whom I left behind in Texas and that our Lord gives them peace.

I'm Home.

For the last five years I have been living in Brownwood, Texas. It is a special place to me. Home of Howard Payne University, where I earned a bachelors degree, where I taught theology and bible and now where my oldest daughter is in college, it will always be a special place to me. But it is no longer home. Indeed, though it is a special place, I'm not sure if it was ever truly home. I never felt completely settled. I never felt completely accepted, nor did I ever develop roots. There are lots of reasons for this, but deep inside maybe I knew there was something else, someplace else. Brownwood would be a 'layover' in life and I would need to take from it "life's lessons" make friendships and go where I needed to go next for ministry and mission.

Sadly, when I made the decision to leave, several people I considered 'good' friends simply abandoned me. Although I made some great friendships - Pastor Tim, Sam, Don, my SCS colleagues, many students - some people to whom I thought I was closest just shut me out. I continue to wonder and reflect how you can call someone friend and then just shut them out. They didn't even say goodbye. All I can do is reflect on my own actions and examine what I may have been to sow injury or hurt. C'est la vie? Oui?

Well. Bozeman, Montana is home. The challenge awaits. It has already proven to be a place of promise and hope; a place of challenge and tears. That's OK, because deep in my heart, I know it is home.

Thank you Father for leading me home;
for giving me the wisdom to hear your voice;
for giving me the courage to follow your call;
for allowing me to be in Brownwood - even for a short time
so I could love, learn and live -
love others
learn from my mistakes
and live life as courageously as possible.
Thank you.

Amen.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Touching Orion's Belt

It has been a very busy four plus weeks since my last post, and this will be a short one. Melissa, Hannah and I have just returned to the ranch from "Hawks Night Live" - a musical review put on by the Bozeman High School students as a benefit for Bozeman Friends of Music. (http://hawksnightlive.com/) It was a lively evening. All three of us were entertained, touched and amazed by the presentations. But that's not what I want to write about.

After we returned to the bunkhouse, I had reason to go back out to my car in the garage, a walk of about 30 yards from our door. As I stepped out into the quickly cooling night air, I noticed how many stars were close to the horizon; then I looked up...and stopped in my tracks.

I've never seen stars like I've seen tonight. The stars were brighter than I had ever seen before. Later winter stars...and they were twinkling. Orion, the hunter was so close I reached up as if I could touch his belt. Rigel was pulsing - I could even make it out its blue light. The cool air kept me from staying too long (it's funny how you can call 27º cool!), but I stayed long enough to offer a prayer or two for friends and family. The stars reminded me tonight of the many, many blessings in my life and the opportunities that yet lay ahead. They reminded me of how much so many of you have shined brightly in my life.

Thank you.

Friday, February 25, 2011

-14 Below Zero

You can get used to anything. Really. It's surprising, I know, but I am now getting used to living in snow. If you would have asked me a year ago if I could be comfortable living in a climate where snow was simply a daily reality and that temperatures were an average 60º lower than where I was living, I would have just laughed. Really. But I am now living in a place where snow is as soft as fine powder, people don't go nuts when driving in below freezing weather and when you go outside you need a scarf to cover your face because the possibility of frostbite is a daily reality.

The picture on the left is of my commute to the bunkhouse yesterday at about 5:30pm. The temperture was 0º with a windchill of -22ºF. Visibility was limited to about 50 yards. What you are seeing is snow being blown across the road from east to west. It wouldn't just come straight across though. It would swirl too and so the angle was constantly changing. It was difficult to see the road, almost disorienting. The effect it had on the sun and moon was interesting too. Obviously, it obscured them, but it also produced some interesting effects. I saw my first winter rainbow yesterday for example. I am not quite sure how the rainbow was created, though I can only assume that the angle of the sun through the blowing snow somehow created it.

This kind of weather, normal for the Gallatin valley, is also reflected in the actions and attitudes of the people. The ruggedness of the weather creates an interesting character. There is a craving for community, an openness and a deeper desire to understand the things of God. The natural beauty of the valley lends itself to the existential questions of life, but the harshness of the winters - which last roughly from November to May! - also embeds a deep respect for the power of God. You must respect the cold and the snow in the same way a Texan respects thunderstorms in the spring and heat in the late summer.

Just an observation.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Cateye Cafe

The "Cateye Cafe" pictured at left is on Tracy street, just north of Main street in downtown Bozeman, Montana. It is an extraordinary place and I don't mean just because the food is good. Located in the old telephone company building, it is owned and operated by Tina and Kevin. Tina and Kevin are fun. Tina is a native of Montana and Kevin, her husband is a native New Englander. She is the personable host and he is the creative chef. The dining room is small, but the personalities are large. Wait service is excellent. It is both personable and efficient. The food is spectacular. (I suggest trying the banana bread french toast!) All walks of life can be found at the cafe. It is open for breakfast and lunch daily, and dinner on Friday and Saturday. Now this is not simply a 'plug' for a good eating establishment. What I have found there is a representative of the postmodern life: a life that eschews traditional religious expression, yet is simultaneously desperate for the good news.

At the Cateye, the secular crowd gathers for community. People find fun, food and personal acceptance. It is a rudimentary fellowship, bound together by the ethos of its owners, who function as both hosts and priests. The people who gather there find love and acceptance, sprinkled with a little joy. The most injured of human beings find an atmosphere where they can let down their guard and laugh a little while they enjoy a feast.

I sometimes wonder if the church couldn't learn from the Cateye and I couldn't learn a little more from Kevin and Tina.

An Outpost of Love: Addendum

A friend of mine wants me to go further on my ideas. But before I can explore the "outpost of love" further, I need to post an addendum. My journey has been one of agnostic 20 year old to charismatic to fundamentalist to generous Evangelical and then simply to generous Christian. It has been an interesting journey. When I look back on this journey, I think two things. First, I see a life in process with God and second, I observe what it means to take scripture seriously. Let me take these two observations in order.

1) A Life in Process with God. It has now been 27 years since Christ came into my life. It has been a life that has reflected Psalm 150, Psalm 51, Psalm 150 and Psalm 27. There have been spiritual highs and lows. I have experienced grave disappointment and deep sadness but I've also experienced tremendous victory and the accompanying joy. As I look back on these 27 years I can see how God has used time, circumstance and Spirit to lead me along and indeed to shape me. I am who I am because of the great I AM. It is indeed a 'walk', a journey and as well a 'shared' walk or journey. Although there have been times where I walked without human company, God has always been there. The journey is shared first and foremost with Father-Son-Spirit and then with other human beings. I have been lonely, but I have never been alone since Christ came into my life. Now, I see life not only as participation in and with God, but as one of becoming* - by 'becoming' I mean transformation into that instrument which God utilises for His glory, His Kingdom and the benefit of humanity. It is only in this participation and transformation that I gain my true self.

2) Taking Scripture Seriously. Aye, here's the rub. As a young Christian, I became involved with fundamentalist influences. I don't see this as a negative, simply part of the process. For if there is one thing in which fundamentalists excel, it is taking scripture seriously. Many of my more 'permissive' friends don't truly take scripture seriously. Now don't get me wrong; they read and preach the bible - but problematically, they don't take its claims as seriously as they could, or as I argue, should. They have allowed another ideology- usually science, history or secular psychology - to determine how they will handle or understand the scriptures. Sadly, this approach to scripture inevitably leads to a diluted faith and a weak theology. In extreme cases it leads to a biblical atheism or unitarianism, where one posits the existence of God, but the Father is Mother, the Son is not deity and the Spirit is an ambiguous 'world consciousness'.

This is not acceptable to the fundamentalist. Of course, they have their own set of bizarre problems. They too tend towards a biblical unitarianism but it functions through a focus on the sovereignty of God the FATHER ALMIGHTY, and then proceeds to treat the balance of the divine Trinity hierarchically: the Son is divine, but he only gets it from the FATHER ALMIGHTY, thus it is a derivative divinity. The Spirit is the 'toady' of the Trinity, the errand boy of the Father or according to my fundamentalist pentecostal friends, the essence of God that motivates Father and Son, and, for a generous love offering and slaying of the Spirit, can be at your beck and call. Now I don't want this to become too negative or harsh, for I have benefitted from my Charismatic brethren as well. More importantly, in order to maintain a literalist, scientific approach to scripture, my fundamentalist friends have to affirm crazy millennial schemes, the marginalisation of women from ministry, the denigration of any type of evolutionary science and an exclusive focus on penal-substitutionary atonement as the only explanation of Jesus' death. If anything, my friends are not fundamentalists, but rather, 'saddamentalists'.

Let me make my point. Out of this trajectory, I have taken scripture seriously; and if one takes scripture seriously, you end up not with a rigid confessional theology as much as a theological ethos. I could not remain a fundamentalist because in actually reading and wrestling with the truth in scripture, I could no longer affirm the strange theological schemes and vacuous, angry ethic. I could not remain a Pentecostal or Charismatic because of their generally skewed understanding of the Holy Spirit.

What I found in taking scripture seriously was that a life informed by God does not dead end in confession, but rather explodes outward in transformation.

If we take scripture seriously, we find that God wants a personal relationship that results in a peripatetic, Jesus-like life. A life of grace, mercy and unconditional love. A life of loving the enemy, where forgiveness is our lone weapon. A life poured-out. Paul understood this. Peter understood this. John, James and Philip understood this.

Yet far too often, modernist, American Christianity emasculates the truth of the gospel and the scriptures in favor of an individualistic, commercialist corruption.

Too many well intended, bible-reading Christians make the confession of faith, only to hold transformation at arm's length. In this fashion, they can control the operation of God in their life. Their walk with God becomes stunted, precisely because they refuse to allow God to be in control of their transformation. The Christian life becomes a neat, tidy, acceptable way of living. They can even get away with a little sin if they are crafty enough. This is American Christianity at its best. I have lived this form of Christianity and it is ultimately vacuous and unsatisfying.

I want more and if you take scripture seriously, how you view and live life changes.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Outpost of Love

It has been interesting cycle, ministering in Montana for 9 days, then back to Brownwood for 5 days and repeat. In all fairness, two of those five days in Brownwood are travel days. Nevertheless, I consider it a great privilege to teach my courses and simultaneously get to know a new community of people. Although it is physically demanding, it is also mentally stimulating!

What I want to share with you though is not my personal travel and schedule. It is a developing set of ideas.

1)People are sinners. All of us have some idea of this concept, it is not new. Sinners are not necessarily 'bad' or 'evil' - there are some people out there who obey the laws, go to work, have families and retire, but are still separated from God. We see this separation from God in our generally self-focused behaviors. In business speak, we are not maximizing our potential as human beings. We are unrealized. However, our generally selfish approach to life coalesces into a communally tragic situation over time. Our sinful condition manifests itself in anger, lying, greed, lust and a multitude of over painful behaviors. We are in desperate need of God.

2) Salvation is transformation. Salvation is not found in a confession of faith or even in a set of theological principles. Salvation begins with grace, resulting in confession, profession and transformation. Thus, our confession begins a transformation - a living theology. We are judged by the Creator in the end of time, not based simply upon our confession, but on the accompanying transformation! (See below) Most Christians don't get the transformation part because it is humbling. We like feeling superior; we like the fact that "we are chosen" and they are "not." Pride is always the final sin to go and it is replaced with a self-controlling humility. But the end of transformation isn't simply humility.

3) The end of salvation is love. God is love, agape love (1 John 4). Agape is "selfless concern for the other." Agape is not simply a noun, but a verb. One does not simply possess love; one lives love. Or better, love is lived through us. When love is lived, it becomes a fixed aspect of life and takes on objective, noun-like qualities. Understood in this fashion, salvation is the process where we learn to live in relationship with God, who is love, and allowing God, who is love, to love others through us. Jesus stated, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you have love for each other" (NIV). We have often interpreted this 'each other' as 'one another' - this is a legitimate translation, just not a good interpretation. We naturally interpret this as others 'like us' - Christians. This is the ornery residue of the sin nature, the natural man, seeking the easiest path, the wide road. But the Spirit gently directs us 'other' wise!

But I believe it is best to understand 'other' as those not us. To love each other then becomes the command to love each person that is not us. Hence, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to forgive those who abuse us and even those who would kill us - "forgive them father for they do not know what they do..." (Luke 23:34). We are to love as Jesus loved.

In Matthew 25:31-46, "The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats," the sheep, those who "entered into their rest" (heaven), did not do so based upon confession, but rather on transformed living. The sheep did not even realize that their lives were characterized by unconditional, selfless concern for the other. Their lives were lived love. They were transformed and being transformed.

4) The Church is a Movement of Agape-Love. Awash in the inner strength of the Holy Spirit, the church - made up of persons brimming with the Love of God as the Holy Spirit - penetrates its community. Rather than being a specific social strata of people who gather for a few hours each week for worship and discipleship, the church is the ekklesia, those called out by God to demonstrate the righteousness of God in selfless concern for the other.

My home church has started a project called, "Love Brownwood." That is the heart of what we are called to be and do. We go to the laundromat, to the impoverished neighborhood, the hurting professionals, the struggling businesses and we live selfless concern for the other. No fancy programs, no slick bible-teaching, no contemporary worship can replace the command to love. The church is an outpost of love, sending out sorties into the world, so that person by person, community by community, our world is changed into what God intended from the beginning of time.

Amen.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

From the Bible Belt to Bozemania - part 2

When I last left an entry, it seemed as if I was 'dogging' Brownwood, Texas. Not true. Many of the churches in that community are attempting to connect with others in a culturally relevant and authentically 'New Testament' fashion. The Bible Belt culture simply makes it more difficult to do so. Thus said, I was making a comment about the culture in which much of the south is mired. Many of America's seminaries are located in the South, and many of them continue to train students as if all of the United States reflect the Bible Belt approach to the church. This is a serious problem. The culture is changing, the church is changing and thus theological education must adapt.

The Bible Belt and Bozemania have one important thing in common: people. People still yearn to understand the ineffable. They seek answers to the greater questions of life and the possibility of existence after death. They crave acceptance, forgiveness and love. This aspect of being human would seem to be universal.

In a culture that is not bound by the assumptions and theological considerations of the Bible Belt, there is a much greater chance that disciples will move beyond superficial understandings of salvation and the church. Indeed, explosive church growth in third world countries and the coastal and urban communities of the United States suggest this might be the case.

To the point: I am now outside of the Bible Belt. The ministry opportunities are challenging, yet invigorating. God is at work in a way I have not seen in quite some time. And so I pray for my friends in Brownwood and the work of the gospel that goes on there. I look forward to the day when they can join me in the 'fields of the Lord' in Montana - where the harvest is ready!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

From the Bible Belt to Bozemania!

Good morning from Bozeman, Montana!

As I start my first full week of ministry in Bozeman - a stunningly beautiful place! - I am noticing the differences and similarities with my other place of ministry in Brownwood, Texas. The biggest difference I have noticed is that I am no longer in the "Bible Belt."

Brownwood, Texas is in the middle of what many scholars, pundits and just regular people call "The Bible Belt." The map on the right shows the density of practicing Baptist Christians across the United States in 2000 and it is a fairly good representation of the geographical location of the Bible Belt in general. This is how the author of the Wikipedia article on "The Bible Belt" defines the phenomenon: "Bible Belt is and informal term for an area of the United States in which socially conservative evangelical Protestantism is a significant part of the culture and Christian church attendance across the denominations is extremely high." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_Belt) If you would like to read more on the topic, Christine Heyrman's book, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Knopf: 1997) is the book you want to get.

My observation of "The Bible Belt" phenomenon is that Christianity in this region takes on a "Constantinian Veneer." In other words, Christianity, rather than being the embodied living of faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and expressed through the community of faith, tends to take on a much shallower, individualistic and cultural gloss. People often speak about "going to church" rather than being "a part of the church." In this context, 'church' can become a social obligation, rather than participation in the body of Christ through a sense of 'call'. And, at worst, community standing is often measured by which church a person attends or how many 'ministries' or activities in which a person is involved.

Now don't misunderstand me. Although Brownwood, a community I love and respect, is in the Bible Belt, that doesn't mean that this mindset is 100% manifested. The problem is that churches have to fight the mindset in order to reflect accurately their gospel commission. They do this generally by embracing a turn to mission. They become outwardly focused. They see powerful conversions and the church becomes healthy and experiences healthy growth. Theology in this perspective grounds mission.

On the other hand, the church that is hamstrung by the Bible Belt mindset focuses on an apologetic for an exclusivist theology - a theology that can be either a stinging fundamentalist polemic or a more moderate apologetic for specific theological stances. These churches can grow, but the growth is based primarily upon their theological stance or their profile in the community - thus however mission is defined, it supports a skewed theology. My Bible Belt friends will die on many hills, usually just not Calvary.

Now I admit that this description is reductionist and a bit too simplistic. Some of my friends who read this blog are residents of the Bible Belt and will take issue with this description. Nevertheless, it makes the point. The Bible Belt, with all of its good intentions, can be a difficult place actually to reach people with the gospel. In an increasingly postmodern culture - even in rural Texas - the Bible Belt bound church is struggling to communicate with an increasingly skeptical, hurt and disenchanted younger generation. They have watched the Bible Belt church in-general fight, bicker and wound each other in theological turf-wars so often that they are abandoning the church of their childhood in favor of nondenominational churches or they even have abandoned the faith altogether. So to my friends who live in the Bible Belt, I simply encourage you to be an instigator of cultural change in your church. Put the gospel and its transformative power at the forefront of your faith!

Not so in Bozemania.

Bozemania isn't simply Bozeman, Montana. It is the area outside of the Bible Belt. Christianity in these places hasn't become a "taken-for-granted" part of the culture. Indeed, 70-95% of these populations do not have any religious affiliation. Most would consider themselves spiritual; just not 'religious'. They see society as basically secular in nature, with a few people on the fringe. They don't have any opinions for or against the church or Christians in general, unless of course, their politics collide. There are Christians here, of course; but they constitute a small segment of the population. There are Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Mormons. There are also scientologists and atheists. They too constitute a small minority, more or less. The vast majority is either undecided or simply secular - unconcerned. In a democratic republic where the economy is capitalist in orientation, a person is prone to a secular orientation.

The key is that there is little or no Bible Belt bias. These people are willing to engage you, listen and discuss the deep things of the faith. They want to discuss these things. They may not be convinced quickly, but they will engage. The key for this generation, however, is action. This generation is not a generation of 'pew potatoes' - they want faith to mean something whereby they can make a difference in another's life. The form and trappings of religion - the tradition, if you will - is way down their list. This is golden. This is a paradigm shift.

Part 2 - Later!

Agape.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

One last week...

With the new year - it is New Year's Day today - I contemplate the next four months ahead. I've remembered a year past, with all of its difficult decisions and now look forward to a four month transition that I can only describe as adventuresome! Beginning January 10, I will be spending alternate weeks in Brownwood and Bozeman. I know the physical aspects of this adventure will be tough; nevertheless, the spiritual challenge will be invigorating. So now I have this week, January 1 - 9, to wrap up the planning process and tie up loose ends before I leave on Monday, January 10 with a 14' Uhaul
full of books, some furniture and clothes. I will be ending my 'preaching life' in Brownwood on Sunday evening, January 9th, preaching at Coggin Avenue Baptist Church. It is a fitting conclusion to the ministry part of my time in Brownwood. The next morning I load the Uhaul and head for Oklahoma City. As you can see, the truck is pretty mundane. But the journey, from Brownwood to Bozeman with stops in Oklahoma City, Wichita, Denver and Billings in the middle of winter will be an adventure in itself. My traveling companion will be my father.
We will be dressed in our warmest clothes for the journey although it could be as warm as 27º when we arrive in Montana! Nevertheless, you want to be prepared for the very real possibility of being stuck in a blizzard or stranded in the middle of Wyoming in negative temperatures!
While in Oklahoma though, I plan to make a side trip to see my Aunt in Tulsa and pick up a case of my favorite root beer: Weber's! A native Oklahoman can't go to Montana without it - as well as a few of their fine hamburgers! Weber's is an institution, where one can major in the field of culinary studies with emphases on Grillology, Hamburgerology or the disciplined study of rootbeerology! Either way, its a side trip I've got to make. (Of course with stops in Marland, Ponca City and Blackwell too!)

Now enough about the trip itself. It's an adventure. What do I want you, my followers and readers to know? I have this one last week in Brownwood to tie up my loose ends, to see people that I will miss in Montana, or simply never see again. I've made good friends in Brownwood and I will miss them. If there is anything that I have found out over time, it is that places come and go, but a friend is a friend to the end. I don't want to leave this place without these people knowing that each one of them has made a mark on my life and that I'm a better person because they made it a point to befriend me. From the youngest to the oldest, I'm honored by the lives of these people. So I have one last week. I hope to make it count!