Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Short rant, just to keep things alive

Sorry I haven't posted. I offer no excuses.

Today, a brief rant about Christmas. I heard a fellow say on the radio about gift-giving: "Or you can just ask for what you want. That's what adults do."

Arghhhhhhh!

No, that's what toddlers do. "Here's what I want, Santa!" As my grandaddy used to say when I was a child, "You've got your 'wanter' stuck out." Again, the spirit of giving turns into the spirit of getting. I'm such a curmudgeon, I have a hard time telling anyone that I want something for Christmas. Ask me any other time, and it's just a kindly question. But around now, it makes me feel like a co-conspirator in the Great Gift-Getting Gala. Those who ask me such questions are entirely innocent. So this is not a criticism of them at all. But honestly, it makes me uncomfortable. It unconsciously feeds this spirit of getting that leaves such a bitter taste in my mouth.

Now, I will admit that I do this holiday dance a bit as well. Still uncomfortable; makes me feel like I don't know a loved one well enough to think of anything she might enjoy. Hurts my feelings. And maybe I'm splitting hairs in my view. But I don't mind my friend asking another friend what might bless me. That leaves me out of the loop and leaves my "want list" on the shelf. I don't want to think about what I want-- I have that disorder without feeding it further.

I've told my family this story: one of the best Christmas gifts I ever got was small and fairly cheap and utilitarian. It was a pair of inexpensive mechanical pencils. Many years ago, my sister-in-law apparently noticed that I passed a lot of my time during in-law visits sketching architectural plans. That observation made for a nice gift. Since then, others have done similar things for me, I know -- my framed map of Tolkien's Middle Earth is really cool-- but that first one just stuck with me.

I like giving. I like getting. But I like THINKING about giving a lot more than about the other side of the coin.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Be True To Your Clergyman

A Scottish friend sent this message: "I was listening to a Mark Driscoll sermon today. There are things I like about him, and things I don't care for so much. But he said this:

Quote:
Comparing your pastor of his little flock to the great preachers of the world...is like comparing your wife to another woman....it's an act of betrayal.

My take on it?

The prophet Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys said,
Quote:
Be true to your school
Just like you would to your girl
Be true to your school
Let your colors fly
Be true to your school!


Now, replace "school" with "pastor" and you have the basis for Driscoll's statement.

This all goes back to this exclusive ownership thing that local clubs (and their professional staff) need in order to survive. (A different antecedent for the term "MY sheep"...) I do know this, that fellow who is suffering from comparison to Charles Spurgeon or Robert Schuller or Charles Stanley or whoever needs to look hard at his relationships with the "little flock". In my experience, a true pastoral relationship does not suffer from the sheep hearing a good sermon from somebody else. In fact, that shepherd is usually the first sounding board for what the sheep hears elsewhere. But if that club manager is mainly connecting to people by his Sunday sermons and his management of club programs, he deserves to suffer by comparison. And he should probably develop some more secular job skills, because he may need 'em.

Driscoll is trying to help protect the small club manager's salary. Sort of a fraternal favor, and maybe to a lesser extent, defending his own turf. This is from the same playbook as the sermons which claim that God commands you to tithe to your local religion club. Again, we find a system of clubs trying desperately to hold onto the exclusive rights to a believer's resources so that the club may continue.

It's almost like finding a counselor who stirs up fear and anxiety in his client so that he can maintain his practice of helping the client deal with fear and anxiety. The client stays in the therapeutic process for life and the counselor makes a decent living off of him. When that client dies, get another one and repeat the process. A client who actually gets well enough that he no longer needs the therapist, well that's to be avoided at all cost.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The New Patriarchs

I continue to be amazed at the durability of simple pride among believers. Many have left Christian denominations and clubs after tiring of being ruled over by men and traditions rather than God. And some of those same folks are finding themselves in the latest version of just what they left, only with themselves as the ruling class.

The fashion now is to ask a believer, "Who is your father?" in an effort to find out if he has submitted himself to another man's rule, and if not, to determine his availability to be ruled. While the construct of spiritual fathers is both biblical and IMO a necessary part of our spiritual development, this current twist seems more intent on bringing people under submission to human authority and to cement those relationships-- often with regular cash payments to "dad" as part of the equation. I'm not so sure this is healthy spiritual parenting. A good father holds most precious the day his child is mature and free. Some of the new patriarchs I am seeing are gathering to themselves "children" long past the age to be asking their daddy for permissions and instruction. Jesus warned us not to call anyone "Father", as we have but One. This admonition is ringing in my ears again, for the first time in a long time.

Years ago, I was separated from my children by distance and circumstance, and I was worried sick about my inability to be an active father to them over the miles. I was complaining rather bitterly about this state of things to a dear brother, who looked me in the eye with unaccustomed sternness and said from the Lord, "How dare you think that I am not their father?" In that single sentence, I found myself re-oriented by the Holy Spirit into my right place with my children. God is their father just as he is mine. While I am called to serve them as a father, both physically and spiritually, that role is merely a small reflection of the glorious reality of their True Father. The measure of my success as a father will not be how often my children call me for advice-- or how much they take it. It will not be even in their expressions of love and respect for me. It will be, rather, in how well my children are able to connect with their heavenly Father, carrying their connection with me as a model and an encouragement and a help in walking as eternal sons.

Good fathers raise and release, rather than collect and keep. They save up for their children rather than seeking to have their children support them. They decrease as He increases. They rejoice more in their child's divine sonship than in their own fatherhood. I am blessed in hearing my own natural father, who introduced me to Jesus, refer to me often as "son", but just as often as "brother".

For those of you spiritual fathers who are working hard to lay your lives down for your spiritual children, may God bless you. And may you see those children blossom as true sons of the Most High. For those who are embracing fellowship in your households and neighborhoods, may your table be full! But for those who would in the name of fatherhood gather people to themselves so that they may rule over them, may God eventually make this plain as well.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Radical-in-Chief

A friend posting on a discussion board referred to Jesus as our "Radical-in-Chief".

I like this a lot. Sometimes, we lose sight of just how radical Jesus' teachings are; instead of the confusion and outrage experienced by Jesus' listeners, we seem to have filed the sharp edge off the sword and allow ourselves to nod agreeably with Jesus' words. Perhaps we should look at just how radical our Master is, and how radically different he calls us to be--

Love your enemies.
Well, I don't have anybody really trying to hurt me right now, and if I do, I just get away from them. What do you mean, I should mow the lawn of my next door neighbor, whose kid just beat up my kid?

If someone asks something of you, give it to him without expecting repayment. Well, everybody knows better than to ask to borrow on those terms, so I don't have a problem there. Except for my ungrateful brother-in-law who continues to try to sponge off me and won't get a real job, and about whom I complain regularly to my friends. Technically, I don't "expect repayment", as he never does pay me back, so I think I'm good here...

If a man takes your coat, give him your shirt, too. If a man takes my coat, I let law enforcement handle it. At the very least, I lock up everything else so he doesn't get to me again. I call that "being a good steward".

If a man compels you to travel one mile, go two. As long as the government gives me a tax loophole, I'm taking it. As long as the cops won't ticket me for doing 75 in a 70, I'm setting the cruise on 75.

Lay not up for yourselves treasure on earth.
You're kidding, right? My 410k is not really "treasure", not after that last market crash, anyway. What about my retirement? My kids' college? Who's gonna take care of me if I don't do it myself? Jesus had to be talking to rich people, not me.

Ever wonder why Jesus had enemies? If you hammered away on these things in the church today, I think you would find someone ordering wood and nails for you, too.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

There's Fish, and There's Bait

Announce to the family that tonight's dish is fish, and the response is, "Okay."

But announce instead that you are serving minnows, and the response will be even less enthusiastic. Why? Because even your grade-school child knows the difference between food and bait.

A brother on a discussion board was asking the most common question known to organized Christianity: "How do we get more people to come to church?" And it got me to thinking, even as I was quick to recommend some form of service to the community. Question: If we choose to do good for our neighbors, is our intent important? If we offer to feed the neighborhood, does it matter whether we are using this as an inducement to church attendance or as simple altruism?

In a word, yes. It's the difference between serving fish and serving bait.

Jesus castigated the Pharisees for doing good works "to be seen of men". And we readily join Him in that criticism. But really, how different was the Pharisee's motivation from that of the average religion club? Is it really all that different when we hold children's events at our club in hopes of attracting that prize of demographics-- "young families with children"? Here, we are certainly not doing our good works in secret, but are hoping that the recipients of our efforts will "reward us openly" with attendance and cash in the offering plate. But since we are concurrently blessing someone else, we excuse our self-interest.

I wonder if this is the kind of activity contemplated when Jesus told of people telling God, "Did we not in your name do many wonderful works?" only to hear Him reply, "I don't know you." Perhaps the people were telling the truth. But God sees through to the intents of the heart.

In Latin, the question is "Cui bono?" That is, "Who benefits?" When we ask how to get something WE want, and the answer is to serve others, this is charity in service to self. We are the intended beneficiaries, the people we serve merely participants who will hopefully help us get what we want. But it is quite easy to claim that we are truly being altruistic. Sometimes we even believe it. But here's a simple test:

The next time your group plans a service to others, ask honestly if you can do it without anyone giving credit to your group. Real service can almost always be done this way. If you find yourselves having difficulty imagining a work of service wherein you get no credit, that should be a serious warning sign about the intentions of your charitable endeavors.

Doing our good works in secret is hard because we are so accustomed to putting our faces - or the name of our club - on the front of everything. We don't even think of it as self-serving. It's so common as to be invisible. Individuals seem to be able to serve selflessly, but organizations find it almost impossible. Here's an out-of-the-box question to kick around in your group, as you look at working in your community: "How can we bless somebody and not get caught at it?" If you can do that, know that your Father will reward you openly.

A good question to ask about a work of service: Would you do this in a dark room, where no one could see, and where no one would ever know? And before you quickly say, "Yes!" to the question, examine how often your group has done such things in the past. Often, such an honest self-appraisal leads to a lot of prayer. And change.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Old Paths, circa 1680

I grew up in a religious tradition in which, when I had the opportunity to do the right thing, I would say, “I will obey God, as I should.” When I did the wrong thing, I would say, “Well, nobody’s perfect, and I am doing my best. I hope God will forgive me.”

Contrast this with this description of a 17th century Carmelite monk:
When an occasion of practicing some virtue offered, he addressed himself to God, saying, “Lord, I cannot do this, unless Thou enablest me,” and that then he received strength more than sufficient. That when he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault, saying to God, I shall never do otherwise if you leave me to myself; ‘tis You must hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss.” That after this, he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.

These days, I am slowly coming closer to the latter place than the former. There's more air here. And more of the presence of God.

Oh, the quotation is from Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a Carmelite lay brother who died in 1691.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sunday Sermons are Obsolete

A sister in Scotland suggests, correctly I believe, that the traditional Sunday sermon is obsolete.

The whole idea of a sermon-oriented meeting needs to be re-thought. The assumptions?

When you get people together, you need to teach them. Says who? The people who make a living doing those lectures, that's who. Getting together to learn is a fine thing, but assuming that this needs to dominate every gathering is simply not well thought out. First, you can more easily absorb a podcast than a live lecture. Pause, rewind, review, all these are important learning aids that live speech can't offer. You can also catch the message even if you're not ready to tramp down to the sanctuary, or if you can't. And you have access to lots more teachers and topics than you can get from that one guy who does your pulpit thing every week.

Second, technology renders the need to gather people for simple communication obsolete. It actually became such when reliable mail service became available, but the Internet has established this beyond doubt.

Third, gathering people together, only to forbid them to interact for over half their time together is a terrible waste. It's like buying a boat, towing it to the lake on Saturday morning, loading the family up in the boat, and keeping the boat on the trailer for half the day. It does not make sense. If I'm going to be with my family, I want to be able to connect with them!

Get together to worship, to fellowship, to testify, to pray for each other... all these are sound reasons for us to be getting together. So why do we spend most of our time together looking at the back of our brother's head, being fed information we could have easily have gotten at home?

Traditions are like crabgrass... ubiquitous and hard to kill. Best treatment I know is to shine really bright lights on them and talk honestly about them.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Contrarian advice for club leaders

I recognize that many well-intentioned religion club leaders will read my criticisms of the club system and say, "Well, but our group is not like that." To them, I say, you may be right. Here is some anti-traditional advice that you might consider. Every suggestion is designed to unwind some bad habit or negative result commonly found in the average religion club. If you find you can recognize the value here and seriously consider these things, perhaps you are not "like everyone else". But the rubber meets the road at actually doing some of these things.

Leaders! Go ye therefore and...

Attend various other local churches’ activities and services, including Sunday morning services. Do this at least twice a month. This especially applies to those who are called to be shepherds of God’s people. The elders lead by example, either modeling unity or division. Leadership is never neutral.

Find and invite gifted people from other local groups to lead or teach in your activities and services at least twice a month. If you do not know very many such people, it is a sign that you have become isolated from the rest of the Body.

When you hear that another church is doing a ministry in the community similar to what God has called you into, go to them and ask to be a part of that work. Do not go back and recreate that ministry in your own building.

Establish personal, accountable relationships between individual shepherds and individual sheep. People are never shepherded by organizations, but by individuals to whom God has joined them.

Release less-mature people to minister, in tandem with more-proven believers. Place weight on more mature Christians to pray for and mentor them as they minister.

Elders: Develop relationships with other church leaders. Call them and ask if your group can come to their services. Dismiss your own Sunday morning services at least four times a year and meet with other groups en masse. Do this strictly for the purpose of fellowship. Bring them a large offering.

Open your homes at least once a week and share a meal with someone. If you don’t have time for this, cancel a church activity and free up the time. Elders must be “given to hospitality”, so on them this requirement is even greater.

In lieu of organizing a “visitor visitation” program, invite strangers to your home for lunch after church every Sunday.

Mark out special parking places for the church leaders… farthest from the building.

Take the church building budget. Pay a contractor to repair widows’ houses and fix the church building yourself with what’s left.

Give to and serve in community projects. Insist that your church’s name not appear on the credits.

Schedule church activities at different times than everyone else does. If everyone else has Wednesday night services, meet on Thursday. In this way you will add to, and not compete with, what God is doing elsewhere, and you will create opportunity for fellowship.

Team children with adults to minister to the needs of others, even adults. Children move into intercession easily when encouraged to do so.

Have parents minister to children rather than trying to “take this burden off them”. (In that tradition lie the seeds of the destruction of spiritual inheritance.)

If you are doing any of the following, STOP. If you are not doing it, do not start:

Taking attendance or counting heads. A true shepherd cannot depend on Sunday morning meetings to look after the sheep. And one who counts sheep is not a shepherd, but a herdsman.

Asking people to “place membership” with your group. If they are born again, they are members of the body of Christ. If “membership” requires more than Jesus required, it is not Jesus’ church they are joining.

Making attendance at your services a requirement for any other part of the spiritual relationship. Accountable relationships and ministry joints are the important things.

Making church programs out of God’s callings. If a person is called to make bread for the needy, buy him flour instead of starting a First Church Bakery Ministry. If a person is called to minister to the sick, pray, support and encourage him. Do not make him the Chairman of the Hospital Visitation Committee.

Making ministries that require you to find people to fill slots. This leads immature people to follow the slots rather than the Lord.

What think ye?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

There Are More Of Us Than You Think

Today, there is an AP article in the papers on the subject of house churches. Some interesting points I noticed in the article:

According to a religious data-crunching company called the Barna Group, somewhere between 6 and 12 million Americans attend house churches. The Pew Forum finds seven percent of Americans say they attend services in someone's home, and that 9 percent of American Protestants attend ONLY home services.

That means we are not so odd after all. One out of every eleven American Protestants does not do "big church" at all, but only "house church". So, if there are an estimated 60,000 Protestants in my metro area, over 5,000 of us may well fit that profile that my church-going friends find so very odd. That is, we don't have a "home church" whose brick-and-mortar edifice can be attended at the posted hours. My religious peers seem to think that I am one odd duck, as I have regular fellowship in homes, and I don't hold membership in any local religion club.

Another thing I found interesting in the AP article (by Linda Stewart Ball) was how the take that she got from institutional sources was so different from what she heard from people who are immersed in house churches. A researcher connected with the Southern Baptist Convention opined that we are motivated by our desire "for a simpler expression of church". (As though "church" is a given, and it is only the modern complexity that we don't like.) Ask Tony Dale, a brother from Austin whom some of you know, who has been working in house churches for years, and he says, "I'd say the vast majority of house churches we know are Christians honestly trying to live 24-7 for Jesus." It's not about how you organize the church services, my institutional brothers! It's about an organic connection with other people who are living the life we are living for Jesus.

This subtle, but important difference in viewpoint shows up in how the religion clubs try to incorporate small groups into their structure. They see this phenomenon, and so they try to "get some of that". So, they assign people to "home groups", often developing those groups demographically. (One group I connect with is an "older believers" group out of a large local religion club.) Then they provide vetting of leadership, and organization and lesson plans and reporting requirements and attendance checks and all the stuff that many of us find so worthless in the club at large. The club wants the benefit of the small group dynamic without releasing any of their institutional control of its members.

It's too much like a "spontaneous demonstration" in Iran. The feelings may be real, but the overall intent is to accomplish a goal of the organizers. But at least they can organize the buses and have the signs printed up for our convenience.

And frankly, I don't have any hope that will change. Every religion club's main raison d'etre is to continue to exist as a viable organization. So, they will adapt every positive wave in the church to help achieve that goal. This is not to say that the clubs do not have a desire to follow Jesus. They do. But they are not open to following Him in any path that leads to their own dissolution or significant loss of their religious market share.

But I am encouraged by the recent poll numbers. They give the lie to this idea that people stop going to church because they become lukewarm or worse. No, more and more of us are stepping completely out of club membership to embrace spiritual fellowship. And in my opinion, it's time that my brothers in places of leadership in the local church begin to learn from us a bit, rather that looking down on us while simultaneously trying to co-opt our practices for their own ends.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Selfish Gratitude, Redux

This is a re-run from last year, but I just re-read it. I still like it...

We have all taken the "We should be more grateful" guilt trip. Unfortunately, too many of my well-intentioned brothers make this a sermon staple. I think it started when we wouldn't eat the beets Mom cooked when we were six years old. Remember when she reminded us about the starving children in (insert deprived nation/continent here) who went to bed hungry? It didn't make us grateful for beets-- just made us wonder why we couldn't ship them to the hungry kids Mom knew and make a win/win out of the deal.

So we grew up having our blessings pointed out to us as an illustration of our own malformed character. Didn't help much. For the record, I have yet to meet the person who developed a lifestyle of thankfulness because he felt so badly about his previous ingratitude.

What if we came to realize that thankfulness is actually good for us? (Like most things God wants us to have.) Not good for us in the "You better eat your asparagus" sense, but in the "Now, that's what I'm talkin' about!" sense. Consider, if you will, that thankfulness is like a developed sense, like smell, for example. If you are insensitive to aromas, nothing stinks. But nothing smells good, either. You never get to know the difference between sweaty socks and homemade sugar cookies. Ingratitude is like that. Gratitude, on the other hand, is like the capacity to wake up in the morning and smell rain, or brewing coffee, or the pine tree outside the window. It is to experience with greater depth and clarity what is good around us.

And gratitude can be cultivated.

It's simple, really. We are often prompted by the Holy Spirit to be thankful. Take each opportunity to say, "Thanks!" Even if you forgot to do so when it happened. Don't feel guilty about the timing, just express your gratitude when you remember. The more this happens, well, the more it happens. The more you sniff, the more you smell. The more you offer your thanks-- to God or to anyone else-- the more aware you are of the gifts given to you. The more aware you are of your blessings, the more you enjoy them. The more you enjoy them, the better your overall appraisal of life in your world.

You know those people who seem to always be able to see the good in the world around them? Those pollyannish, unrealistic people whose apparent happiness is so annoying? The ones you secretly envy? They are most often those favored few who have learned to express their thanksgiving as part of their living and breathing, and in so doing touch the beauty of life with great depth and vitality.

Gratitude. Do it for you.

The Path to Faith

Warning, long post! But may be worth the read....

The Path to Faith
“So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:17 (NKJV)

I have been wrong a long time on this one. Fortunately for my battered intellectual ego, I am not alone. In reading the above passage over the years (and hearing sermons on it, and preaching sermons on it), I always understood it to mean something like this: “Read your Bible, and believe what it says…especially if someone preaches it to you.” What I heard all these years was “Faith comes by hearing the Bible preached”.

Now reading my Bible is an important thing, as is receiving godly teaching, and believing what is taught. But Paul is not saying any of these things in this particular verse. He is rather, shining a light on one of the “mysteries of God”…and that is the mystery of just exactly how we come by (or acquire) faith.

We are encouraged time and time again in scripture to believe… to have faith… not to doubt… not to fall into the sin of unbelief. So we are being instructed to “do” something. Yet Paul tells the Ephesians that we are saved by grace through faith, “and this not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” So faith is something we receive from the Father. So do we wait on it, or go after it? Do we make a mental decision to “believe” or does God make that decision? Is believing about using our mental skills, or about refusing to do so? Resting on the answer to this mystery is our ability daily to walk by faith as Christians.

In studying Romans 10:17, I was faced with the paradox that the leading of the Spirit of God is not necessarily contrary to other sources of information. I am an escapee from a long tradition of interpreting the Word by mental gymnastics, and I tend to flee any kind of natural reason in seeking the wisdom of God. So in this case, God (as seems to be His wont) led me against my personal inclinations to the ancient Greek text. The lesson: God is often willing to let my mind go along for the revelation ride; He just won’t let it drive.

Romans 10:17 presents a rich picture that opens up first linguistically. Do you remember first-year algebra? There we learned to restate things logically so that we could better handle the information presented. Let’s apply this concept to the verse in question. Paul says faith comes by (is the product of) hearing. Hearing comes by (is the product of) the word of God (Greek: “word of Christ”). Allow me to simply restate what Paul has said in a different way.

“The word of Christ produces hearing, and hearing in turn produces faith.” --Romans 10:17

This restatement allows us to see clearly (and perhaps for the first time) the path to faith. But seeing the road and navigating it are different things. For starters, exactly what “word” are we talking about?

The Word of Christ

The Greek word here is rhema, the spoken word (or current word) that is from Christ. How do we get this kind of word from Christ? Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would “take what is mine and make it known to you”. So Paul is speaking of the revelation by the Holy Spirit of what Jesus is saying to us at a particular moment. This may be directly from scripture or it may not be. Most assuredly, anything the Holy Spirit speaks will be in agreement with what He has already spoken in scripture.

The “Word” actually produces hearing. Creative power in the words of God has been evident since He said, “Let there be light” and there was light. So the driving force behind the faith process is not our will or actions, but the creative power of the words of God.

I Hear You

So the word of Christ produces “hearing”. That God chooses to give us hearing implies that we do not already hear. So Paul is obviously not referring to natural hearing with our natural ears. The Greek word translated “hearing” in Romans 10:17 can best be translated “to hear so as to understand”. We experience this phenomenon every day. For example, it is one thing for my words to come in contact with the ears of my son. It is yet another for him to understand. Yesterday, when I corrected him, I made the statement, “Now, do what you know is right.” This was not a general philosophical statement, and he knew it. His “hearing” of my words went something like this: “I’m not supposed to hit my sister. And if I go out and do things I am not supposed to do, Dad is going to spank me again.”

He is a very perceptive little boy.

We even use this terminology as adults. When we say, “I hear you”, it most often means we understand and identify with what someone else is saying to us. So in this passage of scripture, “hearing” refers to spiritual perception. That is, the capacity to see things according to God’s reality instead of the reality that comes from our five senses. Abraham had spiritual perception when he went to the mountain to sacrifice Isaac. He told his servants, “We will go up and worship, and we will come back down.” This flew in the face of his full intention to kill Isaac. In natural reality, it made no sense. But in God’s reality, the promise of God was the controlling factor, so Abraham spoke and acted according to his spiritual perception.

So the word of Christ creates spiritual perception. Often we struggle to grasp what God is saying to us, when the seeds of spiritual perception are in the very words we have heard.

I’m reminded of Peter’s little stroll across the Sea of Galilee. This is often used as a model of the potential power of faith. But it did not begin that way. It began with fear (“It’s a ghost!”) and proceeded to a test by Peter (“Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”). The real action started with a single word from the mouth of Jesus, “Come!”

That word set something off in Simon Peter. Spiritual perception took over from natural perception. The conflict of “God says this, but I see something different” was settled in an instant. And Peter went over the side of the boat.

Just what did Peter expect to happen when he went over the side? I believe he expected what he had experienced hundreds of times before at the end of a workday. At days’ end, fishermen drove their boats onto the beach. How many times had Peter jumped out of his boat and onto the sand to pull his boat ashore? When Peter hopped over the rail to walk to Jesus, this is the reality that filled him. Just a walk on the beach… or in this case, on the water.

But Peter Sank…

The theological debate goes on—is Peter’s example more an encouragement to get out of the boat, or a warning not to look at the waves, a warning against unbelief? I think both his walk and his sinking reveal a critical part of the mystery of coming to faith.

Peter stepped onto the surface of the Sea of Galilee because he walked in the same spiritual perception that Jesus walked in. And that spiritual perception sprang from a single God-word, “Come!” Peter saw a reality that said, “If I couldn’t come, He wouldn’t call me.” Faith followed as the flowers follow the rain, and sent Peter over the side. Faith is the “evidence of things not seen”, and Peter walked by faith.

But God speaks to us on a constant basis today. And if His Word produces this spiritual perception we need, why do we so often not get it… as evidenced by our unbelief? Most of us are not walking on the water. So what’s the problem?

It’s the wind. Matthew reports that when Peter “saw the wind”, he was afraid and began to sink. The wind did not blow Peter into the lake. Rather, his spiritual perception was challenged by his natural understanding. Peter let his years of experience and knowledge begin to override the perception God had granted. And he began to sink. You see, in the midst of spiritual reality, there is natural reality. It does not go away. It is part of our mental makeup. And it is the greatest barrier to a life of faith.

Often, I’ve heard this lesson taught as though faith was some sort of mental exercise. “Don’t get your eyes off Jesus!” we say, as though walking by faith was dependent on our powers of concentration. It is much like trying to go as long as possible without blinking. You know you are going to blink—that you need to blink—but there is some sort of odd value in stalling that moment as long as possible. We try to use our natural willpower to somehow overcome the flesh. But it doesn’t work. It never has. We continue to lose money betting on the instant replay, trying again and again to overcome natural understanding by the powers of the natural mind.

You’re Not Losing Your Mind, Your Mind Is Losing You

The barrier to spiritual perception is natural wisdom. Paul quotes Isaiah in this regard, saying, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Our natural wisdom creates a set of screens and filters through which we evaluate everything we experience. The “wiser” we become, the more elaborate our screens. We belittle those whose filter sets are not as well developed as our own. We call them na├»ve, gullible, uncritical, irrational, foolish. We warn them that they are likely to be deceived. They are like, well, like little children. And we know what Jesus said about that.

“Unless you change, and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The path to faith requires time spent in the land of the childlike. Children are by their nature, uncritical. Junior sees an animal on television, and he asks Dad what it is. “It’s a yak,” Dad replies. And from now on, to Junior that hairy ox-like thing with the big horns is a yak. Junior does not fear deception, for he trusts his father. He does not ask for Dad’s references, or back-check his sources, or compare notes with what the other kids’ fathers told them. And the yak (name and picture) is filed for permanent reference in the child’s mental Treasury of Definitions.

When we are childlike, the path of the word of God into our being is short and direct, the results spectacular. It is only when that word encounters our array of natural screens that it gets filtered out and is not allowed to produce God’s designed results. God speaks to us, and our filtering process kicks in automatically. “Does this make sense? Does it match my current understanding? Have I ever heard this before? From whom? Do I trust them? If not, how can I trust this? What will happen to me if I accept this? What will my peers say? Does it mean I was wrong? Can I afford to be wrong? Am I deceived? How can I tell?”

Is it any wonder we do not believe?

A friend of mine was struggling mightily with issues in her life where what she heard from God was overwhelming everything she knew to be common sense. “I feel like I’m losing my mind,” she said. The Spirit’s response was immediate. “Rather, your mind is losing you.” It was not that she was losing control of her faculties, but that the Holy Spirit was vying with her natural mind for mastery of her life. The conflict is often titanic. The victory is in ceasing to struggle and surrendering to the word of God. The screens are ours to relinquish. In this, coming to faith is not a “doing” in any sense, but ceasing to do what we have always done. Ceasing to protect ourselves and our position among men. Ceasing our dependence on our own understanding. Ceasing to remain wise.

The Shortest Step

Once one gives up his death-grip on natural reality and offers himself unshielded and undefended to the words of God, those words produce the ability to see the eternal realm. From there, the obvious response is faith—acting on the spiritual reality that the Spirit reveals. Once Peter realized water could be walked on, what was to stop him from stepping out? Once you know the mulberry tree can be plucked up and thrown into the sea, a mustard seed’s worth of faith is sufficient for the task.

Suddenly, faith is not so far away. It is, after all, the gift of God.

Postscript

The psalmist speaks prophetically to our current state in Psalm 81. Verse 10 says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.” Like a baby bird, we trust not the food but the One who feeds us. We do not pick through what we are offered, looking for bones or gristle. We do not sample to see if the flavor suits our palate. We make ourselves vulnerable, we open our mouths as wide as we can. And we receive. The alternative is in verse 11-12: “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.”

There is no ground upon which a compromise can be made. We cannot settle with God to maintain a duke’s mixture of our wisdom and His revelation. One drives out the other. That which does not produce faith limits it. And the righteous shall live by faith.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Devoted Servant, Seeks Promotion

Considering the current "models" of the church I hear about..

The "household" or "House of God". An organic concept, if you think of Bob, who gets saved and tells his wife and kids about Jesus,then tells his friends and his in-laws, and his neighbor. They function together based on those relationships and Bob, as the most experienced believer, takes a leadership role. This is what the group looks like initially. But what does Bob's role eventually look like? Is he a local patriarch, to whom his spiritual descendants continue to defer as long as he lives? Or is he more like the nuclear family dad, whose role is to prepare and release those he "fathers"? Or like the family doctor, who cares about the family but does not govern it, who gives counsel based on his desire for the family's well-being, without much role in making them act on his advice?

I see so very few real servant-leaders, perhaps because my definition is more connected to real servants than to defining our leadership as "servanthood", while holding power and authority over people that a true servant would never hold to. Our view of a leader's servanthood falls more along the lines of Shakespeare's "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown". Oh, what nonsense. Uneasy the mother who cares for her family without respite and without guarantee that they will prosper. Uneasy the man who must work from sun to sun to provide food and shelter and little else, who may not have that job tomorrow. The head who wears the crown, at least in our kingdoms, fares pretty darn well.

It seems to me almost like servanthood is considered an interim step to authority. But that is not what Jesus told his disciples. He spoke of "greatness" in the kingdom, not of who gets to make decisions for other people in our religion clubs. The servant who becomes "chief among you" must remain that very same servant, or lose his position.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Real World as a Second Language

"Christians have tended to despise the concept of philosophy. This has been one of the weaknesses of evangelical, orthodox Christianity -- we have been proud in despising philosophy, and we have been exceedingly proud in despising the intellect. Our theological seminaries hardly ever relate their theology to philosophy, and specifically to the current philosophy. Thus, students go out from the theological seminaries not knowing how to relate Christianity to the surrounding world-view. It is not that they do not know the answers. My observation is that most students graduating from our theological seminaries do not know the questions."
(Francis A. Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, Ch. 1)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The One True "Sign" for the American Church

I was talking with a dear friend the other day about a multi-million dollar church project and he repeated a sentiment I have heard countless times. "If they can raise that kind of money, that probably means God wants them to do it."

Signs and wonders. For the ancient Israelites, it was a pillar of fire and daily manna. For turn-of-the-millennium believers, it was healing the sick and raising the dead. For modern American believers, it's large amounts of money. THAT is the sure sign of the approval of God, the one "sign" agreed upon by almost all doctrinal streams. This manifests itself in small and in large. How many poor laypeople are selected for church boards? Or denominational committees? How much influence do poor believers have in the church in your community?

We directly associate money with God's favor. What's the old country saying? "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" The church's version seems to be, "If God likes you so much, show me the money." The occasional Mother Teresa is the exception to the rule, especially among Protestants. While public acclaim runs a close second-- how many followers you have is the #2 indication of God's approval-- large stacks of cold, hard cash is still Numero Uno in the American church.

Hmm. I wonder. Is Warren Buffet among the prophets?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Looking at the new models... and the old ones

I keep coming back to this western idea of finding biblical "models" to try on so as to get church "right". We still seem to think that the church had it right two thousand years ago and we need to back and rediscover our lost virgin state. But we are not latter-day believers. We are first-generation Christians! While I am happy to take wisdom and insight and counsel from my predecessors in Christ, trying to figure out how to accurately follow them is no longer my idea of trying to follow Jesus. I have spent a long time getting free of one-off relationship with God, and simply can't find it in myself to trade back down.

As to trying to find the correct "model" to follow, I am reminded of the man who bragged to his friends that his wife was telling everyone that he was a "model husband". Then a friend suggested that he consult a dictionary. He found the following definition:
MODEL(n) A small replica of the real thing.

Friday, May 28, 2010

To The Top of the World

An ancient emperor of a great kingdom was told of the existence of an enormous mountain at the far western reaches of his kingdom. The mountain, according to legend, was the highest point on earth, and its peak had never been reached. The emperor immediately called for three of his most valiant warriors to leave immediately for the western frontier to claim this mountain in his name. He handed his men a great blue imperial flag to be planted upon the mountain’s snow-capped summit.

The warriors gathered some climbing tools and a large coil of rope, and set out on the long road to the mysterious western mountain, to claim it for their emperor. As they walked along, word spread among the people of their quest. The emperor was wise and beloved among all his subjects, and excitement swelled among them to see the imperial standard carried along on such a noble mission.

All along the way, many citizens gave gifts to the three warriors in the emperor’s honor, and to help along the journey. Early on, they were provided horses to ride, and servants to attend them. Then, they were given tents to sleep under on the journey, along with fine clothing and masterfully crafted armor. Articles of gold and silver, beautiful carvings and tapestries were all given freely to honor the emperor, his warriors, and their quest. Soon, the travelers had acquired oxcarts and oxen to carry their many gifts along the road. What had begun as three men walking became a majestic procession that thrilled every village and hamlet that it passed through. They traveled for many miles, as their fame spread and their treasure growing at every stop along their way.

As they neared the western frontier, the high mountain appeared blue in the distance. The smooth road ran out and low hills appeared. The procession made slower progress as the travelers picked a path through the steadily rising hills. The servants began to complain and the oxen began to struggle as the climb grew steeper. Soon the group was struggling to get the oxcarts up the hills, a task only slightly less arduous than the slippery, rocky descents. At the night’s camp in a small valley, the warriors decided to send the servants back with the oxcarts and all the treasures. “All this was given in the emperor’s name,” objected one of the servants. “And you would leave it behind?”

“We cannot go forward with all this,” replied the warriors. The last rays of sunset glinted off the peak of the great mountain in the west, a silent reminder of the daunting task at hand. “We will take the tents, our climbing gear, and our armor, and go on from here on horseback. Take everything else back.”

The travelers went their separate ways, and the western path grew steeper and more treacherous. As they reached the base of the great mountain, they spent more and more time picking out paths that the horses could negotiate. Hours were spent backtracking, as trails they discovered deteriorated into tracks only accessible to men or mountain goats. Huddled around their meager campfire the next morning, the talk centered on going forward. The horses could go no higher. The rest of the climb promised mostly rock and ice, and the route neared vertical in some places. But the summit was tantalizingly close. The warriors looked at one another, then at the carefully wrapped imperial standard that leaned against a nearby boulder.

The horses would be left behind, along with everything not absolutely essential for their push to the top. The tents were packed away, and the valuable armor set aside. All the climbers carried were the ropes and the emperor’s flag. There was no longer any imperial procession. No more glorious, celebrated quest. No more cheers or recognition, no more citizens bestowing gifts and honor. All that remained for the three men was the emperor’s simple command to plant his banner on the summit.

There were no witnesses. Who would ever see the standard and where it had been planted? How many years would pass before another man ventured this high to see the result of the warriors’ efforts? To retreat from the mountain at this point would be no shame… in fact, no one might ever know. What if, after all this, no one believed that the mission had actually been accomplished? There was no proof to be brought back.

Against all this doubt and uncertainty remained the word of the emperor, his standard, and the simple fact that this mountain indeed was his to claim. The only honor to be had was to participate in marking out the rightful claim of their lord. All this the warriors knew, and communicated unspoken to one another. The look in each man’s eyes spoke powerfully of the decision each had made in his heart.

The three climbers attacked the summit. It was a long ascent. How could anything look so close and still be so far away? Roping themselves together saved each of them on more than one occasion as handholds gave way and rocks crumbled under their feet. They inched upward, passing the banner from hand to hand as the ascent progressed. Merciless winds threatened to snatch them off the rocky cliffs. Then, swathed in cloud, they reached something of a level place to catch their breath. Looking about in the haze, they realized that there was no more mountain above them. This was indeed the summit. The imperial banner was carefully unfurled, and its staff driven into the cracked stone of the peak. It fluttered blue in the wind, the emperor’s personal crest flying above the highest part of his domain.

“As it should,” was the common silent thought of all three men. And they began to scale their way carefully back down from their perch at the top of the world.

Some years ago, this was the first Sunday sermon God ever gave me without a scripture. After hundreds of pulpit appearances, this was a serious paradigm shift. How could I preach God’s word without at least quoting a verse? But He showed me an incredible picture of what it is like to receive, dilute, recover, and succeed in God’s calling. In this picture is also a history of the church. We stand now in the valley with the oxcarts of treasure, deciding whether or not to lay aside the well-intentioned “weight that so easily besets us”. It is a hard choice and often an unpopular one.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Just in time for Fathers Day

A speaker at a social work conference yesterday brought out an interesting note about our culture. He reminded us of the television characters who played fathers. I was reminded of "TV dads" such as Ward Cleaver, John Walton, Howard Cunningham, and Cliff Huxstable. Then the speaker asked, "Today, who's the TV dad who has been in front of our culture the longest?"

The answer?Homer Simpson.

Explains a lot, actually.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Profound?

In speaking with someone about intercession last night, the following phrase popped out:
"Intercession is about lifting up, not about taking on."

Often, when we are called to intercede for someone, we take on the burden of their need. But that is not the point of intercession. In intercession, we lift that burden to God and offer it to Him, releasing it to His faithfulness. And we can only do this by faith. We are not called to batter the gates of heaven until a reluctant God finally does our bidding in order to shut us up. Our confidence is wholly in Him, not in our impact upon Him.

Friday, May 7, 2010

We are not alone

"Denominations were important in bringing the Christian faith to the variegated areas of American life, especially to the frontier. Their value now is by no means as clear. Because their structure is organized to secure the preservation and extension of the larger institution, congregations that take their primary identity from their denominations cannot relate to the total life of a community. Thus, denominational organization tends to make congregations a force of division rather than of reconciliation in their communities. The result of this fragmentation is that denominationally defined local churches do not feel ultimately responsible for representing God’s reign in or to their area." --Elizabeth Achtemeier, 1984

A short errand and a long blessing

A new friend was on the way to a home group meeting Wednesday when he had a flat about 30 miles from us. No spare. So, I hopped in the car and ran to Temple, just in time to help with a very small part of getting his family back on the road. I did very little (no modesty here, I just missed the hard work) but they were glad to see me and we got to visit for a bit. I am refreshed by their fervor and unmistakable love for Jesus.

Before I could leave, they wanted to pray for me, and this brother began matter-of-factly prophesying about facets of my life that I had not mentioned to anyone but the Father. Completely private issues that have troubled me no end. I was incredibly blessed, not so much because of some glowing revelation in the prophetic prayer, but by the intimate presence of my Father. And by the reminder of his attention to my deepest thoughts. But most of all, by how Dad seems to be able to put such troublesome private things into perspective. Without making me feel small, Dad seemed to say, "This is nothing dramatic. I'll tell anybody if it will help you come to me with such things! Why would you be afraid to open up to me? See how there is so much less anguish in it when your brother talks about it? Perhaps it's not so troublesome at all... to Me."

For those who struggle with the purpose of prophecy, here's a great clue. A word from the Lord which had the effect of pressing me more closely and intimately into Him.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Most Sacred Cow of All

I will ask the reader to read the following very carefully. There are so many assumptions about Christian meetings and such, that it is easy to line ourselves up in two groups: status quo, and anarchist. There is a third way, and yes, it is radical, but... well, just read on:

We must break the “scheduled weekly meeting” paradigm. This is a profound step for the religious, the sacrificial killing of the Christian Sabbath. This reality was pointed out to me some years ago, and I spent ten years arguing that our existing weekly meetings were not a bad thing in and of themselves, and could be reformed, renewed, and made to work. I am now convinced that I was wrong, and that I was hanging on simply because of tradition and a lack of any alternative vision. Changing the day of the week for the meeting does not help. If we decide to meet on Tuesday night, we will adapt—but not escape—our past patterns. Believers can accept almost any other change of activity: we can stop doing sermons, passing the plate, and meeting on Sunday morning. We can handle meeting in a house, not having a “pastor”, even having our group have no name. But discarding the scheduled weekly group meeting is so beyond the pale to most Christians that it begs the question: Who made the scheduled weekly meeting the linchpin of our Christian existence? How did we move from being identified by Jesus to being identified by our meetings? How did we move from being part of “the church” to being part of “our church”?

What challenges can we expect when we discard the regular weekly meeting? We can expect this move to be very revealing… and likely traumatic. When the Gospel came to the Jews, there was a backlash in some of them. Paul had to correct those who would turn their liberty to license, or who would feel free to sin “that grace may abound”. Other believers received the grace of Jesus with overpowering gratitude and the Spirit led them into lives of dedication and sacrifice that could never have been imagined under the character of law. In a very real way, our modern weekly meeting is rooted in the character of law to such a degree that we will not see its fruit until we get a safe viewing distance. Expect the abandonment of scheduled meetings to do several things:

It will reveal our hearts. If we were touching one another because of our love for one another, we will morph into new paradigms of connecting. If our participation in regular meetings is rooted in something else, we will find ourselves isolated, or at the least seeing much of our current fellowship wither. Too often, believers are together because of religious habit, a desire for doctrinal reinforcement, a sense of duty to the organization, or a need to be validated as Christians by their activities. Even positive things like the need to be fed and encouraged, or the desire to minister, if they are the primary reason for our attendance, will be revealed as a centering on self, and a dependence upon men, rather than Jesus.

It will expose the nature of our relationships. If our connection to other believers is grounded in common activity, losing that activity will break the connection. And we will soon look for others to whom we can relate on this shallow level. But if we have—or desire to have—actual relationship with our brothers and sisters, we will reorder our lives to pursue this. Relationship takes time and effort, far more time and effort than organizing and attending meetings.

It will create a time vacuum that begs to be filled, and will be filled by something. There is a strong temptation to fill that “meeting time”-- either to replace it with another “good” activity or to resist doing anything with it at all, and thus allowing the cares of this world to expand even further in our lives. It is a golden opportunity to be led by the Spirit instead of the schedule, but this must be pursued intentionally.

Can we even have a healthy “regularly-scheduled meeting”? I think the answer is a qualified “Yes”, but with a number of important observations:

I think meetings are to most Christians like a bar is to most alcoholics. And before you become too offended, consider the parallel. Once an addict realizes his dependency on alcohol to help manage his life, he finds that the first thing he must do is to put down the bottle. But this is only the beginning. Of primary importance is that he now sets his purpose to reordering his life. Remember, it is not so much the alcohol use itself that he must deal with, but the facets of his life that he managed with its assistance. During this period of reorientation, one keeps alcohol completely away from the addict. There is a shrieking void in the addict’s life that could be easily filled with a shot and a beer, so we shield the addict from that path. We essentially set a guardrail between him and this self-destructive answer to his life’s issues. And that guardrail is valuable until such a time as he strongly rejects alcohol as a valid life-management tool. When the now-former addict reaches this point, the guardrail can be safely replaced with simple markers, which do not bar the man from properly using alcohol, but which clearly remind him of its hazards.

The Christian can find himself in much the same paradigm. When I awake to the reality that I have ordered my spiritual life around meetings rather than around Christ himself, I know I have to back away from the meetings. But, while some Christian meetings do more harm than good, the quality of the meeting itself is not generally the issue. The Holy Spirit must reveal to me what I have been seeking from the meeting instead of seeking from Him. Identity, teaching, validity of our gifts and callings, worship or a devotional life—all these are facets of our spirit life that we may seek in meetings rather than in Christ.

So, I seek to reorder my life in the pursuit of God. And in this reorientation process, I avoid that to which I had addicted myself as I allow the Holy Spirit to fill the voids in my life as he wills. At this point, I avoid a commitment to meetings as the drunk shuns the honky-tonk. I press into Him who is my life to meet the needs of my heart. When my life is redirected in this path, I reject the very idea that men or their activities can validate my identity in Christ. I am a believer based on nothing more than him upon whom I have believed. This position in the Spirit frees me to touch meetings of the brothers in a pure way, to give and receive wholly of the Spirit. I can come and go among the church as freely as the resurrected Jesus passed through the walls of the upper room.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Martha R Us

Luke 10:38-42 says:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."


Martha tells Jesus how busy she is, and how much there is to do, and He replies, “You are worried and upset about many things.” If he said that to us, we would take it as a compliment. “Yes, Lord, you know how it is. SO much to do! I’m in charge of the bake sale and I’m on the pastor search committee, and we’re remodeling the living room. If you would just get Mary off her… well, get her to come and help me. Then we could really serve you!”

I love the language in the exchange between Martha and Jesus. You see Martha’s assumption and cluelessness, and Jesus’ gentleness. I love this exchange because it sounds so much like us.

“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” Listen to the assumption behind Martha’s question: “There are important people here. They need to be fed, housed, tended to. My house needs to be cleaned, ordered and made suitable for Jesus! There is no time for sitting and talking right now. We have to get busy and serve the Lord! Don’t you get it, Lord?”

The assumption is so strong that it even leads Martha into a bizarre foolishness. In her first sentence, she calls Jesus “Lord”, and in the second sentence she actually commands him to do something about Mary. The reality is that the task at hand was truly lord of the moment. Serving the Lord took precedence over the Lord himself.

The question Martha does not ask: “Why is Jesus here in the first place?”

I hear unspoken things in Jesus that He wants Martha to work out for herself. “Do I care that Mary has left what everyone expects of her to be still and listen to me? Do I care that she has incurred your disrespect and anger to do so? Yes, I care very much about that. And I will reward her for it.”

Martha, did you realize that you are actually trying to rob your sister of her blessing, to get her to follow you, instead of following me? Well, it’s not going to happen today.”

Note that Jesus does not tell Martha to stop doing what she’s doing. Most often, telling one of us to stop “serving the Lord” is to give an instruction we will never heed. We are like a dog chasing a car at a dead run. The Master’s whistle does not call us back. Only when the car has sped out of sight do we stop and trudge back to the yard. Then, we may get an opportunity to hear our Lord.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Measuring sticks?

I'm contemplating how we continually, even unconsciously, measure things in the kingdom. A friend talks about getting up at 5 AM to pray each morning-- and this is taken as a measure of piety. I write a check to a charity-- and it measures generosity. A thousand people attend the club down the street-- which is a measure of success and of the favor of God. A man confesses horrible sins from his past, and we see him as a more impressive work of redemption than we find in his neighbor. A sister extensively quotes scripture from memory, so this is a measure of respect for scripture and of the validity of her beliefs.

Immediate question: why are we performing these measurements?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sailing Stones

I stumbled across a letter written years ago to a dear friend who is an elder in the city. He has probably long forgotten it. It speaks to me still.

Dear Charlie,

It’s more radical that we think.

To those of us who have been long exposed to the idea of the church in the city, it is simple logic. Explaining the concept confounds us. It is like asking my young son David, “How do you throw a rock?” David looks at you in amazement, picks up a rock and says, “Like this!” and throws it. Not only is no further explanation necessary, it would require some skill to develop one.

See it, recognize it, do it.

Describe the church in the city to someone with no religious background, and they grasp it readily. But try to share the reality with a traditional, church-going Christian, and it can actually traumatize them at first. Go back to my little boy with the rock. My friend John is walking along with us. All his life, he has been surrounded by rocks. Rocks are a part of his life experience. He walks on them in the road, sees them mortared into walls, arranges them neatly in his Japanese garden. But he has been told all his life that rocks belong on the ground. That is where they come from, that is where they go. Every time he ever picked one up and dropped it, it returned immediately to its rightful position snuggled against the planet’s surface. John takes no little comfort in the eternal certainty of the place of rocks in his universe. It never occurred to John that a rock could fly through the air. Birds fly. Rocks do not fly.

Then a little boy with no significant experience with rocks breaks the rule. A mere child, who knows nothing of roadbeds and flagstone paths, of rock gardens or stone walls; a lad who has never seen the pyramids of Giza or the Great Wall, takes a rock and sails it through the air.

John actually breathes a sigh of relief when the rock lands in the road ahead. “That’s more like it,” he thinks to himself, “I knew that’s where that rock belonged.” But David is now enthralled with the flight of the rock. So he picks up another and hurls it. A little more arc, and a bit more distance this time. Another rock, and yet another sails through the summer afternoon.

“David, stop that!” John finally says in exasperation. “Leave the rocks in the road where they belong.” And the boy, respectful of his elders as I want him to be, leaves his rock-throwing. At least until John goes home. But somehow I do not believe the little boy has yet been created who ever lost his fascination with throwing rocks… adult approval or no.

David knows stones can fly because he is involved in making it so. The fact that they come back to earth does not dissuade him. There is always another one nearby. Another stone flight into space is only as far away as the end of his arm.

Unlike Jesus, I cannot resist explaining the parable. My friend John is the traditional Christian, who grew up, as his fathers before him, belonging to a church; following and paying its pastor, and finding his service to God within its walls. Everyone in his acquaintance did the same thing. They had different churches, but they were really all the same. They operated in the same way, has the same requirements of their members, held the same place in the community. It never occurred to John that they could do more, be more. John is a stone nestled comfortably in the earth, where all self-respecting stones should be.

David is one of those lively stones. They can go where they have never been, and come to rest again. They are more than just pieces of the earth. They are solid, but they are not stuck. These Christians come to rest where the Master throws them, some near, some far. Some in great pile of stones, some in solitary places. They are fitted together only by His hand.

John is distressed by this vision. He sees chaos where order should reign. He envisions a cloud of stones flying like driven hail. This cannot be allowed! What will happen to the road, the walls, his house if stones are allowed to fly? Please, please, put them down and leave them on the ground before someone gets hurt. Fear rules. John certainly cannot trust a little boy with such things. A mature stone mason might have the credibility to change John’s mind about stones, but such men spend their lives cementing stones into walls of their own design. Their stones will not, cannot ever fly.

Charlie, you are a boy who knows the stones can fly. You were blessed to be raised by spiritual, rather than religious, men. They never built the stones into their own walls. You have also walked with men who did just that, men who hoped you would become foundation material for their own houses. But that is not to be. And for that, I thank God! Know that you will create opposition without intending to do so, and be content. Be patient and love the brothers, even those who oppose you. Stand where God calls you to stand.

As elders in the city, as under-shepherds to the Chief Shepherd, one of our challenges is to resist divvying up the flock among ourselves. Sometimes that means correcting a fellow-laborer who is discreetly placing his own marks on the Master’s sheep. In a religious society where authority often comes from how many sheep bear your mark, it takes courage to refuse to own the sheep and to challenge that practice based only on our relationship to the Shepherd.

I am reminded more and more as my natural and religious resume gets well and thoroughly trashed, that the only authority I ever had was in Him. I used to be somebody in my own eyes, and had the track record to prove it. Now, about all I have is what He has done in me. I think that’s a good thing, but my soul has not caught up with it just yet.

We have a sacred trust to present a pure virginal bride, not one who has been married to us first while waiting for the Bridegroom. Do not be discouraged. If you can imagine the King of Glory being grateful to people like us, think of His response to the elders of a church who belongs purely and only to Him.

Love,
Charles Rolland

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Grasping at the Wrong Thing

From a discussion on another board, a brother was talking about what he sees in house churches. He said:
As for the early church, initially their meetings were patterned after the synagogue, which gave them a good framework from which to be able to develop their own meeting style. Today we're kinda having to rediscover that pattern, as the modern church has become so event-oriented, being driven by the whole pastor/layman division within the church that has made "churchianity" into a spectator sport. So we're kinda having to rediscover a more relational way of gathering together as the body of Christ.


Here was my take:
This is a great challenge, because the mere fact that we are trying to rediscover an old pattern locks us into that which is foreign to us, no less than the clergy/laity pattern may be foreign to us. Many denominations spring from finding dead-end practices and responding with the idea that, "Let's try to figure out how to do this right".

It is the "doing this" that hampers our search for relational Christianity. Rather than doing what is in front of us, we try to create something religious to do. It's dangerous to point out even the most benign of recorded practices, as we tend to latch onto any positive example like a Rottweiler on a rib-eye. And in so doing, we adopt the result, instead of grasping what created the result.

Take the Jerusalem church, for example. These folks continued to do just what they had been doing all their lives-- getting together to eat, going to the temple, praying together, hanging out together, giving to the poor. This was not a "form", it was life they already knew. The advent of Messiah simply gave them a new focus that touched every part of their lives. Eating at the neighbor's house was now saturated with talk about Jesus. Almsgiving developed a new level of organization, probably because the local synagogues were not so keen to care for those heretical Jesus-following widows. Learning the will of God became much more than weekly Torah-reading, and centered around learning from Jesus' most experienced followers-- the apostles. Wanna guess who was speaking in the temple courts to all those believers?

This was not a change in practices, but a change in meaning! We continue to try to change practices in an effort to find more meaning. But that's like trying to find a cure for meningitis by studying the effect of aspirin on a fever.

I would suggest that this is much more simple, and far more difficult, than we suspect. Do you have friends? Eat with them! When everyone talks about his own life, your contribution to the conversation will be about what Jesus is doing. Rather than starting with how to "have a group" or "hold a meeting", just start relating to the people in front of you, without the artificial expectation that they will accept an invitation to your "meeting". (That kind of artificiality always sounds like some sort of sneaky Amway recruiting to me, anyway.) Jesus said that people would recognize Him as we love one another. Loving one another is not the product of a meeting, whether in an ancient cathedral or a tiny apartment. If we find ourselves struggling with how to express love for one another outside the dynamic of a meeting, then that's a clear sign the meeting is actually a problem, not a solution. And a different format won't change that.

If I were to advise a course of action, I would say to put someone's feet under your dining table several times a week and love them and feed them. Keep doing this until WE are changed, until those people become part of us, and we need no meeting or address or title to identify ourselves as such.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Closed circuit to my Texas friends

5,000 years from now...


Archeologists continue to unearth a series of small ancient west Texas towns of the American period, and find an unusually consistent commonality among them. Each and every one of these villages had, as its largest edifice, a central temple of worship for what appeared to be local deities. All the temples had a central arena of precisely the same size, the only variation being the amount of seating provided for worshipers. Other finds include ancient calendars which depicted armored warriors and virginal priestesses of these local gods along with paens of praise to the gods, paid for by various merchants. Some gods were represented by animals such as Lions, Buffaloes and Badgers, while other temples featured monoliths at their north ends dedicated to weather phenomena, bearing titles like Golden Tornadoes and Blizzards, as well as ancient heroic archetypes such as Cowboys and Matadors. One great temple, referenced often in ancient archives of newsprint rolls, was supposedly located near the city of Odessa, where the great Panther was evidently worshiped by tens of thousands, but scholars who have examined the extreme reports of dedication of that city's citizens to their god still consider the tales too exaggerated to be anything other than legend.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Today's quote:

"They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out." -- Aslan in The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis

Man, that'll preach.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Laying Down The Law

My take, from a board discussing whether believers are under some form of law:

Law is not authority. It is, rather, the one-off connection of man to authority. In our country, we elect people who make laws, which we then obey. So, obedience to the law is, in fact, a submission to the public consensus. The actual authority over us -- our "King"-- is 51% of the votes cast. But as it is impractical to hold a citywide vote every time someone jaywalks, we use law to effectively enforce the authority of the 51%. Law is the indirect application of authority.

The reason believers are not subject to law is that we have no more need of a one-off connection to divine authority. We are in Christ, who is our King. Law is extended to those who are beyond the direct relationship. In this case, those who do not believe. Those of us who are in Christ are ruled directly by Him, not indirectly via law.

It is helpful to me to understand the term "the law of Christ" in the same way as I understand "the law of gravity". "Law" in this construct means an understanding of the essential nature of a thing, rather than rules promulgated. IMO, the law of Christ is not rules promulgated by Christ, but a revelation of His person. Just as the "law of gravity" is a revelation of a part of our physical reality.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Time is Money, Just Maybe

I recently listened to an appeal by two nice young ladies who are doing children's ministry. They were asking for two things: more volunteers, and financial support so they could do this work full time. As a working stiff, I must confess I thought, "You want more time AND more money? That money you are asking for, well, I have to spend time earning it. I can't take Friday off and give you the money I would have earned that day."

I was not offended, for these folks were doing "ministry" the old fashioned way: ask to be hired as a ministry professional and then when you realize a few professionals are not up to the task at hand, ask for more help. Next time, it will be overseas ministry, or ministry to the aged, or to the sick. Send those folks on the rounds to raise support yet again. From the same brothers who had their wallet out last week. It's not the heart of the people that's causing ministry to struggle, it's the methodology.

Today I thought of a possible solution for my friends who are doing brick-and-mortar church ministry like this. What if you asked believers for time in lieu of money? The average Joe out here cannot go to meetings and ask for more money to support his calling as a bus driver or a teacher or social worker. We take our wages and make do. Then church members give a portion of those earnings over to their local group. But if your religion club sees a ministry as important, why not say--
"We'd like you to stop giving cash and give time instead. Instead of giving $100 this week, take a day of your vacation time and come serve soup to the poor for the day. Only put cash in the plate if you can't take a day off work to teach children or take elderly folks to the doctor."

We already do this with our "retired" members. If they can't give, they can drive the Meals On Wheels van. But most of us wage earners just can't do this under our current way of thinking. But value my time like you value my money? That can be very motivating.

Result? If this really takes hold, we get many more volunteers and much less cash flow to the institution. More willing hands, but more money left in their pockets to pay the bills. More work gets done, but the organization will have to pare down. Fewer professionals, more servants. People who can't afford to write a check can actually give more and feel like their contribution is appreciated.

If we are truly longing to see a work get done, this concept will get somebody excited. But if we are trying to make sure that "our church" has a thriving program, it will fall on deaf ears.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

New Ad Slogan For Christians

I realize that I post a lot in other places and some of those thoughts need to migrate over to the blog. So, here's something adapted from a recent exchange on a discussion board:

Friend:
"Lord I believe; help my unbelief. The more I learn to love humanity the less I love people.

"These 2 old saying kind of describe where I am. I no longer have any use for the institutional church with all the politics and guilt trips. I am still attending some but I really get nothing from this type of service. I think our family will start meeting at our house and invite folks to join us."

Charles:
I hear you.

Here's a thought to chew on about meeting at home. The whole idea of 'meeting' is pretty foreign to how we live at home. Meetings have agendas and expectations which turn into schedules and liturgy and organizations.

I have been in more home groups and house churches than I can count, and most wound up looking more or less just like Wednesday night services. We repeat what we know, whether we want to or not. It's just like when a man declares, "I'll never be like my father," and thirty years later, voila! He's just like old Dad. (Sorry, Dad. No offense!)

I have a radical suggestion that we change the entire basis for our getting together. Acts 2 says that the disciples devoted themselves to fellowship and eating together (among other good things). What if we started from here, instead of from "the apostle's doctrine"? Come sit at my dining table! We'll eat, and we'll visit. If there is something of the Spirit in us, it will come out. If we need to pray, we'll pray. But instead of tacking on eating and fellowship as "after we dismiss" activities because, let's face it, we did not do them during church services, let's start in a new place instead. And thus my new proposed slogan--

"Dinner! It's what's for church."

cm