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.