Sunday, October 19, 2014

Private Faith in Today's Church: Is the Egg Preceding the Chicken?

Having exited my mother's birth canal onto what very possibly might've been the pew of a Baptist church and being raised in a Bapto-charismatic environment, I grew up in the bubble of evangelical if not fundamental Christendom. I learned that church attendance was theoretically synonymous with Christian fellowship. As I entered into the professional world of church work, i.e.,pastoring, I promoted attendance at my church for the well intended reason that one could not live as a follower of Jesus without being in community with other believers, which of course, meant going to church in general and my church in particular.

What I'm afraid this cultivates in the attending believers is an unhealthy co-dependence on the leader and perhaps other believers for one's personal spiritual health. Instead of bringing a growing personal faith journey that can be examined, challenged and encouraged, I'm afraid that most people who make church attendance so important rarely have enough "closet time" with God to allow for deeply honest introspection- the kind that can be independent if necessary. Instead, and perhaps unwittingly, people depend on the faith of whoever they believe, or are led to believe, has a faith that in their opinion, is healthier than their own.

The model used in churches does not allow for anything other than co-dependent faith. Whoever is up front- pastor, worship leaders, etc.- are naturally assumed to be at a place in their faith journey that permits a pew sitter without a personal faith to lob on to whatever is oozing from the platform. The church goer leaves each service hoping that the faith they vicariously experienced at church will carry them through another week without much personal effort on their part.

I am at a point where I wonder if our emphasis on community, i.e., fellowship, has usurped it's appropriate role in the order of Christian citizenship. Being together with like minded people on a similar trajectory may find its most useful and appropriate place when experienced after personal faith is birthed and growing. Instead of a co-dependent and weak discipleship, one would experience the health of an inter-dependent gathering in which all participants understand that the need for community is a result of a personal faith and not necessarily dependent on it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Serving in the Church or Sitting at Jesus' Feet: Martha and Mary May Challenge Church Attendance and Ministry

The famous story of Martha and Mary may serve as a challenge to today's questions about the role of the church organization in knowing who Jesus is and what he wants from us.

I left both the church as an attendee and as a minister to arguably sit at the feet of the One I purported to serve. And yes, I have been misunderstood by those who serve in the kitchen (read: church) who are working their asses off trying to do what might make the most sense. 

But Jesus, as he was wont to do, turned conventional and apparently godly perspectives on their heads by lauding Mary's choice to lazily but eagerly sit at his feet and hear his words over diligently and anxiously working at having a good church service to honor him.

It doesn't seem too much of a stretch at all to make this application today. Jesus' teachings and their subsequent documentation may go further and deeper than what we have assumed to be a simple application of not being so busy to take time to be in prayer. Perhaps this text stretches our understanding of American church activity and what can and should be Christian living. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Spirit of Zebedee is not the Spirit of God

James and John may have left their father in the boat when they responded to Jesus' invitation to become fishers of men but they still carried his "spirit". We applaud their courage to leave their "world" and what they thought they knew to be a part of an inner circle with a man and a message that attracted them. But some things aren't exposed immediately and time and experience are required for some things to come to light.

I'm guessing that these boys were steeped in the tradition and writings of their religious community. They may have even thought that they were like their father Abraham when they left their father to follow Jesus into unchartered territory. They new of Elijah and the God he represented when hearing the story of fire being called down on those who reject Yahweh. They learned the spirit of their father that embedded its perspective so deeply that it took a particular incident for it to be exposed. And this spirit was not accurate, in spite of the prophet that demonstrated it and the Scripture that documented it.

We know this because of what we have recorded in Luke 9: 51-56. James and John probably thought they would be commended for not only paying attention in Sunday School, but also for finding a relevant and timely application for what they had learned. They were confident in their theology. Their eagerness to judge people and wipe them out was confronted and condemned by God in Jesus Christ. The spirit of Zebedee was trumped by the Spirit of God.

They were ready and willing to use the Scripture but they lacked the right spirit. This is like the Pharisees who brought the adulterous woman to Jesus quoting Scripture but failing to know the Spirit. Jesus redirected them too.

I come from the same background in which I learned the Bible and embraced judgementalism as part of the spirit of God. Yes, I had left "my father" in "the boat with the hired servants" feeling sure of my personal conversion. I even went into professional ministry for 25 years. But I see myself in James and John, quick to judge in self-perceived righteousness but slow to understand how that spirit is not the right Spirit.

By Gods grace and the Spirit and words of Jesus, I, like James and John, am being confronted at deeper levels of theological error. The Spirit of God filters our interpretations of Scripture to more accurately reflect the God of the universe.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

John the Baptist lost his head long before he lost his head

John the Baptist had job security. Growing up he undoubtedly learned who he was as his father's son and what the future held for him. He would be a priest like his dad with clearly assigned tasks and times when those tasks would be performed. And he would embrace this destiny because it was instituted, ordained and supervised by the one true God. John didn't ask to be born into this family business but he could've felt the fortune other kids couldn't by being so.

Why, then, do we read about him being in the wilderness? How did his family feel about this clear rejection of their expectations? And how could he so blatantly turn against what the Torah so clearly instructed him to be and do? What possible "message" could be more important and valuable than that which was documented in the Scriptures of their day?

I like to think that I feel John. I feel the ministerial expectations of family and friends. I feel the angst of challenging the environment in which I was raised and the dogma I was fed to digest a message that appears to be out of sync with the religious culture of my day. And yet I feel, like John, I suppose, that what I am experiencing and what I am becoming is driven by the same Yahweh of my father too.

Certainly his son's direction was not easily understood and accepted by Zacharias, let alone the faith community.

But instead of getting credentialed and bringing who God is evolving him to be and the message that drives his being into the religious culture, Jon goes to the wilderness. Instead of seeking change from the inside out, John is "called" to a setting that will only allow, at best, change from the outside. And that's where insiders would go to get this annointed message from an unlikely messenger.

Once John accepted his calling, how did he proceed? Did he advertise? Did he go tent to tent on his bicycle inviting others to come hear him preach on Sunday morning? Did he start a blog and create a Facebook page for people to "like"?

We don't know. What we read is that people went to him. We assume people of all classes mad ages. We read that the established religious representatives quizzed him about his role. Perhaps they knew he was supposed to be working on this "inside" and they felt obligated to get him back on the conventional wagon. After all, God as they had come to believe wouldn't operate so unconventionally.

I find myself having rejected the conventional position on the inside of a church, preaching messages that might smack of anti-establishment themes in hopes of changing the religious culture of our time. Me and my "message" have moved to the wilderness waiting for God to validate what is happening in me. If it has merit, somehow insiders will find me and listen. If not, I'll be satisfied with locusts and wild honey when I could've had the spoils of temple sacrifices.

I hope it's worth losing my head over.

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.