Sunday, May 31, 2009

Religion clubs: a rose by any other name?

From the Ongoing Debate Department:
Why do you call local churches “religion clubs”? Are you just trying to be insulting?

Well, insult is not the intent, but I fully expect to be heard this way. After all, if you take what is considered a holy thing and decline to recognize it in that way, and you can expect to catch a few stones in the small of the back. Occupational hazard...

I use the term religion club in the interest of rhetorical accuracy. After all, what is a “club”? A group of folks who associate with one another based on a common interest. Nothing wrong there. If the common interest is Christianity, then we have a Christian club. In practical terms, our local clubs can usually be identified in more detail than this. Joe belongs to a local religion club whose main interest is studying the Bible and trying to understand it and follow what they gather from it. Jane’s club is more oriented toward feeding the poor and evangelism. Nice people getting together to do nice things.

So why is my terminology offensive? Because we insist on seeing our local club as a holy thing, as The Body of Christ. But in most cases, it is no more “a church” than a hindquarter is a heifer. The believers are indeed part and parcel of the church, but that organization which they claim, that non-profit corporation, is not.

Jesus has one bride, one church. Granted, the Church appears in many, many places. Paul wrote letters to the church in Philippi, to the church in Corinth, to the church in Ephesus. But it strikes me that he never writes to the plural “churches in Corinth”, or the “churches in Ephesus”. He writes to a single entity in each city. The idea of plural “churches” in a city-- discrete from one another, separate in almost every tangible sense, governed and operated as though the majority of the other believers in the city do not even exist—is an idea foreign to Paul’s writings.

Well, I say “foreign”, but perhaps it is not entirely so. I do find a hint of our tradition of schism in I Corinthians 3:
“You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?”

Replace the characters with Luther or Wesley or Calvin or Moody and we find ourselves readily cut-and-pasted into Paul’s discourse, with largely negative consequences. Mere men make organizations of more mere men. The local organizations I find in the burgeoning Yellow Pages listings between “chiropractors” and “cigar stores” are, if I may boldly steal from Lincoln, “…of the people, by the people and for the people”.

The church of Jesus Christ in any city is far greater than the organization who meets at a particular address on a particular day. The local religion clubs are something far less. The everyday members of these groups speak with a prophetic pronoun when they refer to that organization to which they belong as “our church”.

Or in my terminology, “our club”. I don't object at all to such clubs, but it does seem important to me to be able to recognize what they are if we are ever to be able to see the actual church of Jesus Christ in the cities where we live.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reality 1, 2, 3

Before I can walk in really healthy relationships with those I love, I must be settled in my primary relationship: the relationship with my heavenly Father. To do this, I must accept and believe three immutable Realities.

Reality Number One
As a child of God, I am secure and accepted in his love and by his adoption. I am loved and received not because of my actions, but in spite of them. Nothing can change how the Father feels about me as his child. Nothing I can do can challenge or breach this relationship, because God created it through Christ Jesus. When I sin, does that change his perspective on me? Absolutely not, because the blood of Jesus does not change and the character of the Father does change. My place in the heart of the Father came from the work of Jesus and his work alone. I must accept by faith my place in the Father.

Reality Number Two
What my life looks like now is going to change. The Father intends to conform me to the likeness of Jesus. This means discipline, chastisement, and a standard that I can only reach by the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit in my life. Just as the Father’s love is immutable, so is his holiness. He will make me into something I am not now. This pressure will never stop. The Father will never wash his hands of his sons and say, “Enough! I’m tired of fooling with you!” Nor while we are in this body will we ever hear, “It is finished!” What I am at this time will come under constant challenge from the Holy Spirit. The flesh hates the hand of the Spirit and it always will. This conflict is part of setting aside the corruptible and taking on the incorruptible. I must accept by faith that the Father’s correction is not his rejection.

Reality Number Three

No matter how severe the discipline or struggle I experience in Reality Number Two, it will never in the tiniest degree change Reality Number One. Reality Number Three is my place of rejoicing! No matter what can of worms the Father opens in my life, he loves me not one bit less. He does not recoil from me in my sin, even while he confronts it. He embraces me in my filth and washes me clean at the same time. This is the paradox of love that I must accept by faith.

All three of the Realities are received by faith. We must choose to believe. Nothing in the natural realm can cement such things in our hearts. But when we do believe, nothing in the natural realm can take these Realities from us.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Found God, added cream, no sugar

Stopped at my local Starbucks today for my usual cup-in-lieu-of-lunch and couldn’t buy one. The barista set my cup on the counter and said, “Your money’s no good today. I like to buy a cup for a regular every day, and it’s getting close to the end of my shift. This one’s on me.” Nice.

Some bullet points from this experience:

Doing good need not be a well-considered action. “Just do it” is better than “think about how best to do it until the moment passes”. Wasn’t Peter healing the lame man sort of a random act?

Kindness is real when it’s out of your own pocket. This young man didn’t offer me the hospitality of his store, but bought me a cup out of his own pocket. Next time someone comes to you in need, think about this before referring him to the Benevolence Committee. (Somebody, remind me to tell you the mule story another time.)

Don’t forget the heart of your Father, who is following you around looking to bless you. If you want to enjoy your life more, let things like this cup of coffee speak to you loudly. This sharpens your senses to the other times God does such things and you just haven’t noticed.

The heart of God is revealed in many places. Don’t just look for Him at “The Store That Displays The Fish”.
If Jesus was from Palestine, Texas

See if you can identify the passages referenced below:

~ “Listen, Martha, the chicken salad sandwiches were great. But you oughta spend less time stuffin’ that celery with Cheez Whiz and more time listening.”

~ “Lemme get this straight. You boys saw some fella you don’t know casting out demons, and you told him to knock it off? Whose side are you on, anyway?”

~ “Quit worryin’ about how you’re gonna get along. I ain’t never seen a bluebonnet in a beauty shop, or a mockingbird fillin’ out a credit application.”

~ “Only a knothead would turn on the flashlight and stick it back in his pocket. Hold it up here high so we can see somethin’.”

~ “You just can’t do much good trying to teach people who used to change your diapers. They never let you forget it.”

~ “The kingdom of God is a little like plantin’ squash. Plant just a few seeds, and you’re givin’ away squash all summer.”

~ “This idea you’ve got about my castin’ out demons by the prince of demons is just plain silly. You reckon for the big finish, I’ll just grab myself by the scruff of the neck and throw myself out the window?”

~ “Buildin’ your house on soft ground because it’s easy diggin’ seems like a good idea until the first frog-strangler comes along.”

~ “Of course you badmouth the good things I’m doing. You people have had a bad taste in your mouth for so long, you couldn’t taste goodness if somebody hit you in the face with a pie.”

~ “I’d advise figurin’ out a way to scrape that forty years worth of ugly off your own face before you start in to nitpickin’ your wife’s eyeshadow.”

~ “Let’s get with it, boys. Forty acres of hay to get in and we’re burnin’ daylight. Come dark, you can stick a fork in us, ‘cause we’re done.”

~ “Trouble’s comin’, church bosses, you sorry rascals. You characters foreclose on a widow lady on Friday, then donate a piece of the action to your church on Sunday. By Monday, there’s a brass plaque on the church wall sayin’ how your generosity paid for the new stained glass window.”

~ “Sure enough, that’s Johnson grass in the cotton. But put down your hoes, boys, ginnin’ season’s comin’ soon enough.”

~ “It’s not what goes into you that causes a mess, it’s what comes out of you. Anyone who knows the difference between a picnic table and an outhouse knows that.”

~ “Don’t worry about what kind of fish are in the river. If we fish, we’ll get some catfish. If we catch any carp, we’ll throw ‘em back. Just get the trotlines in the water.”

~ “When my Father gets a call about one of his cows being out in the bar ditch, He doesn’t start off mending the fence. First thing He does is go after that cow. He’s just that way.”

~ “Trouble’s comin’, church bosses, you sorry rascals. It’s not enough that you turn up your nose at my cookin’… you try to run everybody else out of the kitchen as well. You’d rather folks go hungry than to let ‘em chow down on a meal you won’t eat.”

~ “Here’s something else that’s bad news. I hire a foreman to look after my ranch and my hired hands. But while I’m out of town, the sorry mongrel takes the hands’ payroll and buys beer and barbecue for himself and his lowlife buddies. But when I get ready to come back to the ranch, I don’t call ahead. Let me tell you, when I do get home, I’ll barbecue that foreman myself!”

~ “Don’t go around tellin’ folks your hope is in God when all your cash is in First National.”

~ “Better find out the whole cost of the house before you start building. Otherwise, after you’ve laid a good slab and beautiful brickwork, the neighbors will notice that there’s no roof and that it’s raining all over your furniture.”

On feeding the five thousand:
“You boys see if you can’t find these folks some supper.”
“Jesus, do see us hidin’ a caterer somewhere in our back pockets?”
“Well, what have you got?”
“Two hunks of catfish left over from last night’s fish fry… and five biscuits.”
“Y’all all sit down. Father, I thank you that tonight, it’s catfish and biscuits for everybody!”

“It’s a good thing to be merciful. Some day, you’re gonna need some slack yourself.”

“When you fast, wash your face, comb your hair, and hush about it. If you’re gonna make a big deal about missin’ meals, all you’ll get out of it is a growlin’ stomach.”

“Stand up for me, and I won’t forget it. Act like you’ve never heard of me, and I’ll remember that, too.”

“Folks are going to seek me and come to church folks for guidance. And some of these people are going to drag these innocents into sin. Let me tell you, when the day comes, these so-called leaders will wish they’d gone headfirst through a combine harvester rather than face me.”

“The trick to being first in God’s kingdom is to be constantly saying, ‘After you, brother.’”

“Trouble’s comin’, church bosses, you sorry rascals. You knock yourselves out to try and make people act just like you. And when do you find some poor sucker to buy into your nonsense, all he does is add your bad habits to his. He turns out to be even worse than you!”

“The best way to live your life with just enough to get by is to always give other folks just enough to keep ‘em satisfied.”

“My Father has a funny way of counting. He don’t so much count how much you give, but how much you keep for yourself.”

“Funny how everybody’s impressed when they find out you’re a doctor, but then they don’t understand why you hang out with sick people all the time.”

“Pick up the check for someone who can’t return the favor. Your Father will pay you back with a lot more than that cheeseburger and Dr. Pepper that you popped for.”

“It’s better to sit in the folding chair and let other folks have the front pews. Otherwise, the usher is liable to come and escort you back to the cheap seats while everybody looks on.”

Monday, May 25, 2009

Turning the Other Other Cheek

You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. --Matthew 5:38-39

Jesus is famous for turning common sense on its ear. Most Christians have been able to quote this famous teaching since Sunday school. But have you actually walked this one out? Many have made the attempt to turn the other cheek, only to come up short. It actually requires more of us than we might think.

First, this command concerns dealing with “an evil person”. It is not enough to turn the other cheek to a person who might deserve the benefit of the doubt, but to someone who is maliciously trying to hurt you. Second, it is not enough to simply refuse to retaliate. Jesus says not even to resist a person who would attack you in this manner. This means seeing the attack coming and deciding not to defend yourself. Third, Jesus calls us to stay engaged with the evil person and offer him a shot at the undamaged part of us, in short, to consciously continue in a decision to lay down the most basic of our “rights”—the right to protect ourselves from harm.

Recent experience tells me that the real test of obedience to this command comes only after my assailant has struck the second time. Up until this point, I can walk in that self-interested kind of faith that says, “If I obey God, everything will turn out all right for me.” But when my attacker takes the opportunity to strike the cheek I offer him, then I am faced with the fact that even though I obeyed God, I got hurt—again. Now what will I do? A self-centered faith says, “This is not working. I must not be ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’, or I would not now have two swollen jaws. God certainly would not want me to stand here and be beaten.” I will at the very least withdraw in my own defense, or I may even reason that I have given the evil person more than enough grace and feel free to retaliate.

But choosing to stay engaged and still not resist means moving out of selfish motivations and totally into submission to the lordship of Jesus. At this point, my response to my assailant has little to do with what is happening to me. It is no longer between me and the one who struck me, but it is a faith issue between my Lord and myself. No longer am I guided by my emotions, nor by my reason. For my emotions will tend toward hurt, anger, even bitterness. And human reason will not accept laying down my own life for someone who intends evil toward me.

But such behavior does look like Jesus. In fact, nothing more clearly reflects the message of the cross than the radical, outlandish behavior that Jesus calls us to in this simple teaching. As Paul writes, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” All the sermons in the world cannot preach this truth more clearly than turning that other cheek—again and again.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Parable of the Pizza

Enrico Bodoni sat down in a pizza restaurant one day, an establishment operated by two of his sons. When the pizza entrepreneurs heard he was there, they prepared their best Pepperoni Special and sent it to their father’s table. But soon the word filtered back to the kitchen that Mr. Bodoni was not touching his pizza.

The Bodoni brothers were astounded and marched out to the table. “Papa, we noticed you’re not eating your pizza.”

“No, I suppose I’m not,” was the even reply.

“Bodoni Brothers’ pizza is the best pizza in town,” said the pizza men. “Everyone says so.”

“I’ve heard that around the neighborhood,” said their father.

“We put a lot of time and effort into that pizza.”

“I know.”

“The ingredients were really expensive.”

“So I see.”

The pizza chefs leaned in closer to the table. “Papa, you’re embarrassing us. You know, sitting here in front of all our other customers, and not touching your pizza.”


Finally, the brothers threw up their hands in exasperation. “So, why aren’t you eating your pizza?”

“I don’t like pizza. Never have.”

The brothers Bodoni were flabbergasted. “What do mean you don’t like pizza? Of course you like pizza! You come in here all the time! If you didn’t like pizza, why would you come to a pizza restaurant?”

The father replied kindly, “I don’t come in here because I like pizza. I come in here because I like you.”

Moral: Never mistake God’s presence for His purposes. As many discover the manifest presence of God in their lives, there is a human tendency to correlate God’s presence with some effort of their own. “We must be doing God’s will; just look at how he is blessing us!” This is sort of like the fellow who thought the wind picked up because he put up a windmill. God’s blessings are part of God’s love for His children. In this He never leaves us. But we can only walk in God’s kingdom purposes by the power and direction of the Holy Spirit. And His purposes are equally real in the “valley of the shadow of death” as they are “beside still waters”.

Life Savers

"He who saves his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it."

What does it mean here to “save your life”? Does it just mean to avoid martyrdom, or is there something more here?

One who “saves his life” is like one who saves his money. He gathers it up in order to keep it for himself. If I keep my time, my resources, my passions for myself and my own satisfaction, I am saving my life. I am like the small boy who squirrels away the last of his cookies, and when asked to share it, refuses. “I’m saving it!” he says. Jesus says that when I finally reach into my pocket for that oh-so-carefully-saved cookie, I will find only a handful of crumbs.
In saving my life, I invest that which God has given me in myself. But investing in the natural man has a limited payoff. There can be no eternal return on that investment. It is somewhat like “investing” in a cord of firewood. The firewood is useful, and will keep me warm for a while. But when it’s gone, it’s gone. That money I spent has gone up the chimney in smoke, and I am cold again. Likewise, when we reserve the right to keep all or part of our lives for ourselves, we lose what we tried so hard to keep. We have become consumers of the gift of God, rather than stewards of his blessing.


In this blog, I do not promise originality. I would herewith warn my friends not to be surprised if they find themselves appearing unnamed in this space. After all, you are part of God's revelation to me! If you want editorial credit, just shout. Otherwise, I will adhere to the Preacher's Attribution Rule, which is:

1. The first time you share a thought in the pulpit you attribute it. "St. Thomas Aquinas once said..."
2. The second time you share the same thought, you generalize it. "A wise man once said..."
3. Third (and any subsequent) use belongs to you. "As I was praying, the Lord said to me..."

Book review

We were discussing what the Bible really is. Or at least how people see it. Some see it as a legal document, full of laws, precedents and rulings to be studied so that we will know the basis upon which our lives will be judged. Some see it as a more friendly "instruction manual", where we get the manufacturer's instructions for operating a Christian, as well as troubleshooting information whenever the Christian malfunctions. Some see it as a book of clever stories with moral stories, profound aphorisms, pithy proverbs and a few basic God-principles. (Sort of a cross between Moses' tablets, Aesop's fables, and Poor Richard's Almanac.)

Me, I read it as a grand autobiography of the Divine Author. In it we are introduced to God by seeing how He relates to mankind. We can touch His character by seeing human characters with whom we can identify... or be inspired... or be horrified. Here-- as in other places-- God chooses to reveal Himself to us. But as an autobiography, the Bible is best understood as being both from God and about God... but that studying it is no substitute for actually knowing the Author personally.

Like all autobiographies, the book does not contain all there is to be said about the Author, it is in no way comprehensive, and as the Author still lives, much more could be written.

And indeed, IS being written.


Had coffee yesterday with my daughter who is headed for a brief mission trip to Uganda. Ever show up to pray and wind up prophesying? Happens all the time around here. I liked the word from the Lord we heard: The word of the Lord comes to you like a piece of ice in your mouth. You can swallow it, or you can spit it out. But for heaven's sake, don't ever let it just sit there and melt away....

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Tried this blog once before and just couldn't get it going. Trying again, since there are only a couple billion blogs out there now. So there's obviously a need!

Here's to a successful re-boot.

What would we look like?

I was just talking to a strong brother who had returned from visiting friends. These folks have come out of a number of church traditions to form--alas-- another "local church", complete with ruler/preacher and meeting house. This is simply because, as my friend put it, "it's what they know." And there's the rub. We tend to reproduce what we know, even if we intentionally leave what we know for good reason. It is hard, incredibly hard, to do something that is actually different.

Perhaps we have to step outside of our Christian skins to do this.

A question for the student: Let's say I am part of a large extended family. My mom has ten brothers and sisters, my dad has ten brothers and sisters, I have ten brothers and sisters... and we all live in the same town. How would you expect to see us expressing and maintaining our family relationships, passing on our family traditions, and so forth? What would you see us doing?

Would we show up at a cousin's kid's ball game and make fools of ourselves over a five-year-old hitting a ball off a tee? Would a dozen of us show up at cousin Luke's to celebrate his new swimming pool? Would most of the crowd descend on Mom on her birthday to her complete delight and the general dishevelment of her nice little house? Would the traditional Friday afternoon ritual be, "Can I sleep over at Matt's house?" Would I and four of my cousins corner my unemployed brother-in-law and quietly force some cash on him for his house payment? Would the granddaughter introduce the new boyfriend to Grandpa before going to the prom? Would we have the occasional family reunion, an exercise to play ourselves into exhaustion on what always turns out to be the hottest weekend of the summer? (Who schedules these things?) Would you find my ten-year-old son on our back patio learning the intracacies of dominoes from his grandfather and great-uncles? Would there be eternal arguments over who does the turkey for Thanksgiving this year; last year's was dry, I'm sorry to tell you. Would we crowd the hospital waiting room when Dad had his operation... or when little Julie was born? Would the first grandchild to get his college degree be cheered by a large group in the cheap seats, despite the admonition to "please hold your applause until the end"? Would every kid begin every school year hearing from his new teacher, "Oh, yes. I know your sister/brother/cousin. You're going to do fine. I know what your mother expects from you."


What if I told you that every Saturday night, Grandpa selects a movie at the local theater and our entire clan goes to that movie? Seven o'clock showing. We meet in the theater lobby, pay for our tickets, the kids run around a bit, then we troop in to see the show. For 90 minutes or thereabouts, we laugh together, or cry together, or sit on the edge of our seats, depending on the content of tonight's feature. Then the lights come up and we all troop out to the parking lot, pass a little small talk about the movie on the way to the car and say, "See you next Saturday!" That's it. That's what we do.

I would suggest that one of these families will still be close twenty-five years from now.

Door Number One or Door Number Two?