Sunday, July 13, 2014

Growth and the Cringe Factor

My life journey with God has brought me to a place that offers daily opportunities to wonder, reflect and anticipate. My Christian existence continues to grow and blossom into greater realms of unknowing. As my faith deepens, my uncertainty expands.

I look back on my personal and professional life and at times I smile and at times I cringe. I often wish I could have been at the place I'm at now when I was in my youth, early adulthood and child rearing years. I wish I could have had my current perspective during the 25 years I spent doing church work as a youth pastor, worship leader, education director and associate pastor. I think back on sermons preached and teachings taught with much embarrassment as I remember what I said and how I said it.

 And I wish I could go back and do it "right". Or at least, I hope my leadership in either church or home was not flawed by what I perceive as an unhealthy and incomplete theological perspective. I pray that my kids and parishioners survived and were not irreparably damaged.

My reflections had led me to remember some other notable people and personalities with whom I might be able to identify in some small way. Let's start with the people of Israel, particularly the Hebrews that believed in Jesus and became his followers.

Do you think they ever reflected on their history as recorded in the Old Testament, the Bible they used and the one we still read? If they did, what was their cringe factor as they read about atrocities performed and laws enacted because of their covenant relationship with Yahweh? Knowing what (or perhaps more accurately who) they now know having been converted by Christ Jesus and filled with the Spirit of Yahweh, I have to think they wished to redeem their past or at least claim that they only did what they did in light of the knowledge they had at the time.

With that I can agree. Like the Old Testament Israelites who acted in good faith and with what we now know to be a very limited understanding of God (not their fault, but more due to the way God incrementally has chosen to reveal Himself over time to both individuals and to humanity at large), I can honestly say that what I did and taught was through a lens of good intention and in light of knowledge I possessed based on my upbringing and education.

I'm figuring Peter went through this after his sword-swinging in the garden and his subsequent denial of Jesus during his trial. But its forgivable because I believe on both counts he acted out of love for his Master. Remember earlier in his time with Jesus when Peter rebuked Jesus for being so negative by expressing that he was going to Jerusalem to die? Jesus called him Satan! No doubt as time passed Peter would cringe as he remembered what he tried to do after he learned more and experienced deeper revelations of what was true.

Perhaps the most notable biblical personality with the greatest reason for regret was Paul. With the best of intentions, the Law on his side and the religious authorities backing him, Paul killed people who wanted to follow Jesus. It took a confrontation by Jesus to open Paul to how misguided he had become and who Yahweh really was. Paul never let himself forget the kind of person and professional he was in the name of God but willingly exposed his past as a part of his journey that he couldn't go back and change.

All he could do was cringe.

I therefore will continue to allow God to grow me with every cringe and with every cleansing breath that follows.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Jesus Debunks the Death Gospel of Which we Seem to Fond

Mark 12: 26-27

Our evangelical gospel is a death gospel. "Are we ready for what happens after we die?" Afterlife is the goal of every choice we make now, so this gospel goes. Now is only the precursor and grim necessity for what will come after death. 

Like the Saducees in this story, we have been taught to believe or in this case, not believe in the resurrection of the dead. And this struggle is even before we add the account of Jesus' own resurrection. 

So given the opportunity to establish a strong foundation for both his followers and critics to have a focus on post-death issues, Jesus instead re calibrates magnetic north for them and us.

Life in God is present for us as it was for Abraham in his day, Isaac in his day, and Jacob in his day. Not only is a death gospel wrong, according to this Scripture it's "quite wrong"! God is the god of those who live, not those who live waiting to die so something else might happen.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gutenberg and Aaron: The Bible and the Cow- Worshipping the tangible

My personal and professional history groomed me to read, love and use the Bible. I teethed on the King James Version and was taught to be oh so careful when it came to using other versions. They might be liberal in their interpretations and textual inclusions/exclusions.

I memorized verses and each year attempted to read the entire Bible. I became familiar with Genesis but lost interest in February.

When I felt called to go into professional ministry, it seemed appropriate to be academically trained in the Bible so I majored in Biblical Literature, New Testament. I would be introduced to biblical criticisms and did my best to ward off any hint at evaluating the Bible from any position other than a literal/spiritual point of view.

I was raised to be a good Pharisee and didn't know it.

As I entered the profession, I based all I taught and did on my understanding and interpretation of the Bible. I taught that the Bible had quasi-magical therapeutic value and that simply allowing words to pass over our eyes had super spiritual benefit. This was the trick to making people read Leviticus.

During the last 10 years of my professional ministry life, I read the New Testament every month along with Psalms and Proverbs. I read the Old Testament annually. Not only did this greatly expand my awareness of the Biblical texts it allowed me to draw upon passages without much effort. People were impressed and I was proud.

I don't know when it happened, but at some point in the last 5-7 years I realized that what so many of us super biblicists were doing was committing bibliolotry. We worshipped the Bible. It had assumed a position within the Godhead so that instead of a trinity, we now had established a quadrinity with the Bible being its newest member.

I wonder if the position the Bible has taken in the minds of believers isn't similar to what the idolatrous cow had become to the Israelites in the Wilderness. After all, they asked Aaron to provide them with something tangible to remind them of the God who delivered them and to inspire them to stay true to this God. They couldn't handle uncertainty and rather than struggling to accept that which confused and tested them (the absence of their leader and a mountain that smoked), they asked the vice-leader to create something that could provide them tangible comfort.

Perhaps Gutenberg was the "Aaron" of the middle ages. Unwittingly and undoubtedly for the good of humanity, Gutenberg took from his time in history what was available and like the cow in the wilderness that seemed to be the random result of Aaron's kiln, out came the printing press and more importantly, a Bible that was tangibly available to the masses.

And like the cow, the Bible was celebrated as a great addition to helping people connect with a God that seemed distant and unreachable. Five hundred years later, the Bible has been elevated to a place of worship so that its greatest value to us has been lost in the glitter of its superior status.

I believe- and it seems to me that the Bible teaches- that it is the Spirit of God that breathes life into our beings. The Spirit not only connects is with God, but is that which filters our human existence with God's likeness. Could we still be Christian's if there was no Bible? Somehow, people were in Christ for hundreds of years before Gutenberg.

The Bible is under the microscope these days and I think its a good thing. Instead of "Bible Studies", I think it would be healthy to have "non-Bible Studies" where Bibles were not permitted. People who attend a non-Bible study would be required to discuss life without biblical clich├ęs and proof texts. They would be challenged to discuss life from a more purely spiritual point of view. This point of view may be biblical, but the Bible can't be used to support it.

Christian living is bigger than the Bible. God's Word may be experienced as one reads Scripture but it is not the Bible itself that is the "Word". God needs to be allowed to be God and the Bible at best, should be allowed to direct us to God as it presents God's activity in the lives of humans in their space and time. I am amazed at how when I read the Bible now- no longer tethered to the pressure of professional ministry- that I connect with greater levels of truth and application. I believe that this happens because behind its words and stories, the Bible is a vehicle by which the Spirit is allowed to work. And this can and should be said of other things as well. Conversations, experiences, thoughts, books, people all can be vehicles of God's Spirit to plant the life-giving Word in our souls.

I no longer worship the Bible. I now read it occasionally. And my life is Spirit-filled, like Jesus said it should be. He wasn't recorded as saying our lives should be Bible-filled.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sunday Musing: Comparing Local News to Local Church

Church services are like the local news and ministers are like journalists, so called. By this, I mean that while both are well intended and both purport to present their products with intensity and professionalism, both fall sadly short of the ideal they want their audiences to believe. Even sadder is the reality that their audiences do believe that what is presented is true and untainted.

Let's compare, shall we?

The news (read: "gospel") you see presented on the local station (read: "church) may or may not be "news". At the very most it has information that is true based on witnesses. At the very least it presents stories that will appear to inform when in fact the intention behind their selection for presentation is designed to keep the viewer tuned in to their station.

Today's viewership (read: "congregation") has been acculturated to believe that not only is the information and stories presented to be actual news, they believe that those presenting it are the journalists (read: "ministers") they claim to be. Would anyone really continue to watch a station that was honest enough to declare that journalistic expertise is trumped by good looks, endearing personality and the ability to read? Of course, we may have to allow that journalism schools only produce attractive and witty graduates these days. After all, its been a long time since I've seen an ugly journalist on TV.

To maintain viewership and therefore stay in business, local (and arguably national) news organizations have to select information, stories and "journalists" that will produce ratings that keep them viable. "Real" news- whatever that may be- is defined by that which will keep the viewer from switching channels to another station whose stories and "journalists" may be more to their liking. You see, for the typical viewer, a local news station is not generally selected because of the "news" as much as the way in which the "news" is both selected and more importantly, presented.

That's why "journalists" change or are changed by management. Rarely has it anything to do with expertise or experience. It may have more to do with viewership losing interest in a personality (as I have done with weathermen, so called, when their cuteness wears off) or deciding the personality lacks credibility (as happened to me when a sportscaster mispronounced the name of a professional golfer). Loyalty to a station can change as quickly as changing the personalities involved.

Granted, a television journalist probably believes they are true professionals who perform their craft with journalistic integrity. And that's fine. But while journalistic integrity may be present in the stories presented to the viewing public, it rarely holds a candle to the criteria of audience appeal.

And the audience does not notice these issues or does not care to investigate. Otherwise why wouldn't there be more outrage that during sweeps month there are more stories about local pet abuse than international human abuse. Audiences cry over Rover's starvation but go to the kitchen to get a snack when stories of starvation in third world countries are presented.

Which should be "news"? Both types of story are true but one has more chance of keeping an audience.

Then, of course, there is advertising. Once the team of "journalists" is in place, word must get out so that news-hungry viewers know who they can trust when it comes to the dissemination of "real" news. So billboards show attractive "professionals" who are easy on eyes and look trustworthy. (Sadly, an attractive news anchorman's trust was exposed recently as fraudulent when he was arrested for possessing child pornography. Interestingly, his good looks were unaffected.)

This "parable" is, in my opinion, tremendously analogous to today's local churches. Yes, there is some true spiritual activity and sincere presentation but behind it there are people selecting the "messages" and the ministers that will keep people coming back.

And the attendees think this is as authentic as the news they watch before they go to bed. They will pick and choose which church they attend with the same criteria with which they select a channel: Is what is being presented "true? Is the minister trustworthy, credible and unquestionably likeable? If these tests don't measure up to the consumers' personal interpretation and standard of quality, they will simply switch stations and ultimately land on the pew of another church in which the "gospel" is uncompromisingly presented through a "man of God" who "rightly divides the word of truth"....

.....according to them.  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sunday Musing: Purity of Heart is not just about sin

As a recovering evangelical, biblical, charismatic, conservative ex-minister of 25 years in six "denominations" serving in a variety of staff capacities, I find myself daily detoxing myself from ways of thinking about God and practicing the religion of my historical discipleship. While I'm thankful for the foundation that was laid my parents and churches, I have been blessed to recognize the limits much of this placed on my growth in Christ. Leaving professional ministry and no longer attending churches has allowed me to see not just who I was, but who I'm becoming. I am learning how to follow Christ as an American living in a religious culture not unlike what Jesus seemed to encounter in his day.

And as the barnacles of my boat are removed, I am discovering what the boat looks like in its created form. After all, no boat-builder builds his boat with barnacles already attached. And few boaters seem to care about the fact that barnacles are not original parts of a boat. The boat was built in a certain way to accomplish its created purpose.

Over the last few years, then, I have found myself evaluating the things I do and the perspectives by which I have done them in light of purity. My upbringing and religious indoctrination limited my perspective on purity to be centered on sinlessness.  I'm learning that purity of heart may be more encompassing than simply being rid of sin.

Purity is allowing me to enjoy each moment for its own sake and not because it serves as a the preliminary moment to the next thing. I wonder if being "pure in heart" is more about an approach to all of life rather than a description of a life without sin.

For instance, I think about purity when I watch sports. Typically, and perhaps somewhat naturally, I tend to watch my favorite teams with the perspective of finishing the game with a win in order to get closer to the ultimate goal of a championship. I fail to enjoy the game's competition because I'm concerned about how it will end. Purity is opening me up to the activity of the game itself thus allowing me to appreciate the playing of the game rather than the outcome that I want.

Perhaps purity from God's point of view has more to do with embracing the moments of life rather than the outcomes. If the moments are that which count, then the outcomes can be whatever they will be. Joy is found in appreciating the "now" of life, not the "yet to come".

This perspective on purity continues to expand its application in my life. It certainly affects my experience of God. I'm learning that Jesus redeemed incarnational living and not eschatological focus. In other words, life in Christ is just that- LIFE, not death. Experience with God in purity is embracing our "nows" and not letting life pass because our focus remains on the "not yets".

I want to live life with purity of heart- a quality that Jesus clearly promoted. To limit it to a life without sin may miss the full possibility of a life refined from not only activities that rob me of the full scope of life in Christ, but also religious perspectives that deny what Jesus meant when he said he came to give abundant life.

Purity for me has certainly always incorporated cleanliness from sin. It has not, however, included cleanliness in theology. I'm glad to say that the rehabilitative work of the Spirit for me is refining me like gold from the dysfunctional and toxic dogma that traps people from living abundantly. Hearts are impure but not in a sinful way- just in an infected way.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Churches as Businesses: Calling them what they are without judgement

I've only been to church a handful of times since quitting my job as a minister four and a half years ago. It s not because I was so pained or traumatized by a lifetime of both attending and professionally serving churches- after all, I had chosen to serve in difficult places and be employed by difficult people. No, I left because Christendom had become irrelevant to my discipleship.

Perhaps I'll elaborate more on that in a blog post of its own. Back to today....

I went to a "church" this morning. Admittedly, I'm a cynic and am all too quick to analyze all things "church" through the lens of my history, experience and faith. My cringe quotient was as high as ever and it was very responsive to the tsunami of stimuli that confronted it upon entry into the lobby- a large and trendy area where we easily gravitated like herds of livestock toward lines in which we could get coffee. Coffee, by the way, has become as much a part of church liturgy as the offering and sermon. No self respectin church who wants people to attend would dare open it's doors on a Sunday morning without some version of coffee available- and FREE.

Coffee in hand,I was ready to find my seat in the darkened three-tiered auditorium (they are not allowed by cultural convention to call it a sanctuary) and prepare myself for what church goers now affectionately term "worship": a live band presenting their adaptations of popular Christian music. The congregation- or if you prefer, consumer- was diverse in age and gender and the dress code was equally varied. I was back again in the arena of Americana called "mega church".

It was comfortable and it did what it was supposed to do: make me think I was not only in A church, but that I was part of THE Church.

So, my meditation during this scripted and controlled "Spirit-led" event, was focusing on what was really happening and what I had actively engaged in as an attender and as a minister for my entire life. My honest and open assessment of Christian living allows for such meditation and I find it to be both disturbing and rewarding. Honesty about what I was experiencing in this energetic environment led me to the following definition of the church culture in America:

"Churches are businesses that promote their version of the product called Christianity by providing presentations, practices and programs for religious American consumers."

This need not be interpreted negatively- just honestly. It's probably just fine to have places that provide Chrisitan consumers places to be together and enjoy the version of discipleship that is offered by a particular leader and his organization (yes, too few women at these levels to be more inclusive in my use of pronouns). It is not different in this sense from consumers of chicken wings who go to places that offer wings in ways that are preferred by them. It doesn't mean they can't get them somewhere else, it just means they like them best there. (And as it's colloquially said, going to chicken wing places and consuming chicken wings will not make the consumer a chicken wing, let alone a chicken!)

I would be much more comfortable if we could just honestly call a spade a spade. Let a church be defined as I have articulated but don't let it be more lest it confuse and misdirect it's consumer into believing that a church service equates with Spirit-filled living. (Going to a church and consuming its presentation and product will not make them the Church.)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Living in the Deception of Palm Sunday Part 2

It's Easter Sunday and as usual, churches are putting their best foot forward and "Christians" are attending the church they attend when they attend church. Facebook is alive with Easter greetings and declarations of joy that Jesus is alive.

Somehow I don't think this was the way it was on the actual day that Jesus appeared as a risen human.

Today's church-goer will sing songs, listen to the best choirs have to offer and sermons prepared by preachers who hope to wow the attendees with novelty and fresh insights. The Christian community will affirm their belief in and gratitude for something they understand to be the resurrection of God's son, Jesus, thus securing their hope in heaven because they can have their sins forgiven- over and over again. Churches will be presenting the idol they call the "resurrection" to religious consumers who choose to accept a superficial theology that does not disrupt their lives.

And I think God's ok with this. Perhaps God even rejoices in this superficiality. It may be a reflection of some of what Jesus taught about different "talents" granted to different people based on their capacities. Some followers will only go so far either by choice or by ignorance.

The story of the resurrection has evolved to conveniently cover what must have been enormously difficult for the people who had waived their palms and shouted their Hosannas just a week earlier. This crowd bought into the deception that Jesus was the king they hoped for and his power and presence would be that which altered their lives in every area of which they were aware.

But there would be no more Palm Sunday Processions for this King- even after he rose from the dead. His appearances after the resurrection were not as attention-getting. It is even written that on more than a few occasions he was not even recognizable to those who had been with him more intimately and regularly than the crowd that flocked to him on that Palm Sunday.

The events that would follow Palm Sunday would challenge beliefs to the core. The crowds were as easily swayed to yell "crucify" as they were "hosanna" within a matter of a few days. They quickly turned from allegiance to a king about whom they had certain beliefs to conspiring to kill someone they had been persuaded was a criminal and seditionist. They weren't open to the possibility that going further than Palm Sunday feel-good followership might include death to belief systems that fed into their all-too-human desires for theological comfort and earthly self-service.

The story we read indicates that Jesus went through his own crisis of belief. He died to his belief that God was present when needed. He was the quintessential example of a bad thing happening to a good person. The followers that remained loyal that day- a paltry few compared to Palm Sunday- no doubt had oodles of questions about who Jesus was and what they had been led to believe. Their own crisis of faith came on the heels of feeling the same celebration that the crowds felt on Palm Sunday.

After Jesus died, the few disciples who huddled together in a safe-house must've thought that when Jesus said, "It is finished", that it meant the dream they had bought into. To them, "it" was done. They might've contemplated going back to religion-as-usual for good Jewish people. What they thought couldn't have been true since what they believed to be true had died. Not only had their Messiah died but they had died as well.

So Easter came to people who had died to their beliefs. God, therefore, resurrected not only Jesus but the followers who had gone through the darkness of doubt and extreme confusion. Resurrection came to people who had no idea what resurrection meant or what it would look like. Perhaps that's why some still doubted, even when they were with the resurrected Lord.

Christianity today lives in the glow of Palm Sunday even thought it thinks its living in the reality of resurrection. We celebrate accepting Jesus as King but choose not to go through the crisis of belief that opens the door for God's resurrecting power.

The level of living that the resurrection calls us to goes beyond superficial church services. It invites us to the abundant life of the Spirit that thrusts believers into an incarnational life, embracing human existence in all of its various forms. It engages us with each other in love and mutual support so that no matter what life dishes out, we face it with the real presence of Christ and not the superficial belief in an idol that will rescue us out of discomfort and confusion.

Ah, the resurrection and the incarnation- together like peas and carrots, like Christmas and Easter.