Sunday, May 29, 2011

Does Jesus' Body Look Like He Hoped it Would?

Are we living Jesus' dream?
Do our churches look like the Body Jesus hoped he'd have after 2000 years?
Is the institutional American church operating as Jesus intends?

My current answer to these probing questions is "NO". What we do in our American Churches is American stuff.. We compete for a consumer-driven audience by marketing our music, our preacher, and our programs so that our attendance will allow us to meet the budget and if possible, change a few lives. (If a life is changed every now and then we can justify all the marketing we do.)

I know of which I speak. I grew up the son of a Baptist/Charismatic/Evangelical preacher, attending church 4 times a week. I sensed God calling me into professional ministry when I was 18 and proceeded to not only get a theological/ecclesiological education but I landed jobs in 6 churches across 4 states over 25 years. I was a "biblical", "seeker-sensitive", "traditional", and "contemporary" full-service minister. I always sought to bring the reality of Jesus into the congregation that paid me. I put up with politics, senior pastors, and institutionalized people because I believed that being present was better than being absent.

I have not attended a church service for almost 2 years. With God's apparent blessing, I was left professional ministry. Being outside of the "bubble" has only increased my concern about the state of the Body of Christ in America. I cannot explain it by conventional means, but I am experiencing God at least as much if not more than when I was sitting in a church service.

I can't attend a church because it would be wrong for me to make life difficult for an existing pastor. It is not my place to join a congregation and then question the motives and strategies of the institution. It's not fair to the leadership or the people. And in good conscience, I couldn't help but call out the church for being less than Jesus must want.

One thing that could change the landscape would be to make it illegal to attend any American church and raze every one of them to the ground. Arrest and kill anyone who claims allegiance to Jesus. Once it is no longer part of cultural acceptability, true "worship" (read: how one lives for Jesus, not just how one sings for him on Sunday) would rise. Gatherings would have to be redefined and guess what, Jesus would have to be in charge.

Yes, I think we need a new starting place in America. We need a revolution that begins and ends with the Alpha and Omega, Jesus himself. Unfortunately, we don't have to do that as long as the culture is as it is and the institutional church continues to align itself along the same path.

When will I go to "church" again? Who says i am not already attending when I engage with others on the same trajectory over a cup of coffee? Who says I'm not doing "church" when I seek justice for orphans? Am I able to "worship" when I pour out my thoughts in a blog and trust Jesus to lead others to read it?

Alone or with others, one thing I do is count all things as loss for the excellency of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of the current institutional American church and count it as rubbish, that I may gain Christ.

Some people are satisfied in catching many sea bass; some of us are willing to wait for a marlin. If the current practice of church in America is what Jesus wants, then I am sorely disappointed. The Bible offers a grander vision and a more passionate experience.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Waiting and Wondering in a Wilderness

As I disappear from the institutional church landscape, I think about Paul and imagine the situation he found himself in shortly after his encounter with Jesus:

You have encountered the living Jesus in person. You have been so moved by the encounter that you redirect your aggressive passion. You put yourself out there to courageously tell anyone who will listen (especially the religious community in which you were carefully indoctrinated) that you know Jesus to be alive and all that you thought you were against was true after all. You no longer seek out the followers of what you thought was a misguided Messiah-figure to have them arrested and probably killed. You are now one of them and you are eager to bring your obvious gift of leadership and your keen intellect to bear on this new discovery. You can capitalize on your celebrity since you were a rising star among your people and the Christians will celebrate your conversion. Your aspirations to be a High Priest in the way of Moses has been shifted to being a prominent spokesman for the way of Jesus.You are the poster-child of the new movement.

Within days, your outspoken declarations that Jesus is alive find you in the cross hairs of the same group that killed the One who you know as a result of a direct encounter to be alive. You have riled up the same group whose clothes you guarded as they threw rocks at another follower of Someone you were certain was not only a threat to your theology, but was indeed dead.

As your reputation as a mover and shaker shifts from the arena of Judaism to the arena of Christianity, you are taken out of the limelight and shipped back to your hometown. For reasons that must be unbelievably perplexing and no doubt enormously confusing, you are no longer in the center of a perfect storm of evangelistic activity - a place where you could make a difference- but back in a place you had left years earlier to pursue a God-oriented dream.

Not only would you wonder as to why you are learning to make tents in Tarsus instead of using your abilities as a thinker and orator to debate for the Truth in Jerusalem, your family and friends also wonder why you have quit on your dream. After all, you had been educated among the best, preparing to carry the torch of a religion that is centuries old and was the religion of the one true God. How would you answer their questions? What would you say to Gamaliel, the one who had invested himself in you to allow you every opportunity to succeed as a priest?

As inquisitive as the community is, it doesn't compare to the questions you have in your own mind:
  • "Did I really see Jesus?"
  • "Why am I marooned outside of the center of activity where I can do some good?"
  • "How long will this last"?
  • "How will I know when I am to do something else?"
  • "Isn't time being lost as I sit here doing nothing to bring Jesus' vision for me to pass"?
Perhaps the biggest question is wondering what Jesus meant when he said you would be a witness to kings, and Gentiles and you would turn them from darkness to light. It is hard to make sense of such a grand vision while you piece together more tent parts.

I feel Paul's confusion. But I suspect that Paul wasn't completely out of the woods in his wilderness. Like others before him (Joseph in prison, Moses in Midian, Elijah by the brook, and yes, Jesus between birth and baptism), this was part of not uncommon strategy in which the human in question learns not only who they are but also who God is.

From the biblical record, Paul was in Tarsus for what appears to be at least a decade. A DECADE! By American standards, ten years is a lifetime! And even worse, Paul didn't know he would be there a decade. Nothing indicates that he could anticipate a certain length of time to be in this situation any more than Joseph could know that he would only have to endure the Egyptian prison cell for a mere two years before being remembered. Paul had to live each day with faith in the Jesus that had confronted him (not the other way around) and trust that Jesus knew what he was doing.

While Paul was a rising star in Judaism he was large and in charge. In the long decade he spent in Tarsus, not only he, but the embryonic Christian community in Jerusalem had to be broken of depending on Paul (or anyone other than Jesus) to do what was theirs to do as Jesus' followers. Paul had to realize that God wasn't lucky to have enlisted him with his celebrity and ability to carry the torch of leadership for all of Christianity. Rather, Paul was fortunate to be a servant of the One who was the real Leader of a movement in which the human community shared the load of love for the world. No one person other than the Master himself was meant to be the star.

So Paul waited, wondered and worked. He no doubt learned to relate to a very real Jesus while he did a very real job. He prayed as he patched and he loved his neighbors. He disappeared into God's heart.

During this period Paul allowed himself to be purged of a virus that had worked itself so deeply into the culture that the culture couldn't see the very God they thought they knew when He stared them in the face. Paul no doubt discovered a peace in letting Jesus call the shots not only for his own personal destiny but for that of the entire world. If Paul were to stay in Tarsus for 50 years, Paul knew that it was up to Jesus to determine how and when the vision he gave Paul would be implemented.

How unlike the American way. We are quick to add our expertise and energy to help God out. Paul learned to wait while he wondered.

Then one day without notice or expectation, Barnabas shows up and invites Paul back into the game- a game that in God's design, Paul had never left. The Paul that accompanied Barnabas to Antioch was not the celebrity that had disappeared into obscurity over a decade earlier. Paul was a human being who knew his place and instead of leading a charge for a new understanding of faith, he would follow the Leader as direction and opportunity were given by Him.

I find great encouragement in Paul's story. I humbly accept my place in Tarsus, doing real work while loving those around me. I trust Jesus to do what he wants when he wants while those around me ask questions for which I don't have answers. Like Paul, I know in whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him until that Day. 

And that's all that matters.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Living the Dream

When I was in professional ministry, I used to envy those who weren't. I would publicly declare to the congregation that graciously listened to my sermons that they are in a better position to live God's dream and represent God's culture as normal, everyday people that I can as a professional minister. I would tell them that they were encountering people every day outside of the church's four walls that needed the love of God that they could represent. The people they daily encounter in their unique frames of reference would probably never hear one of my sermons. I believed that true followers of Jesus not only would let their lights shine, but would actually want their lights to shine. Professing Christians could actually do not only what I preached to do, but what I myself dreamed of doing.

Over the years, I discovered that most American Christians would rather come to the church to fulfill their obligation as "disciples" rather than to reach their unique worlds. The excitement and anticipation of being among the great unwashed seemed to elude the weekly pew-sitter. They didn't seem to grasp that they possessed the kind of evangelistic opportunities that professional ministers miss out on. They might hear the knocks that opporutunity was making on their door but they refused to open it and let it in.
As a minister, I sought ways to be "in the world" and outside of my institutional bubble but even when that occurred, it was hard to shake the label I wore as a minister. After all, I was doing what I should, right? I wanted to be a "regular" follower of Jesus who loved others because it reflected who I was, not what I did. I dreamed about what I thought all followers of Jesus dreamed about and that was to be in the world as salt and light, mixing among others who would only know me as a person, not a minister. I wanted to simply be Jesus' ambassador without the usual agenda to either get someone to my church or to "save" them. I wanted to do what Jesus said to do: Love God and love others, leaving the results to God.

While I certainly hoped that as a minister I was loving God and others, all too often as a paid professional I found myself trying to keep the institution that hired me solvent and hopefully inspired.

Was this what God had called me to 30 years ago? Or was my calling different than my profession? No one ever told me these two things might be different. I seized my calling and did with it what I was supposed to do with it: Get a ministerial education and then get a job in a church. I followed that conventional path for 25 years and during that time, I was always envying the non-professionals who had the best opportunity possible to be "missionaries".

I may finally be realizing that the calling I received from God in 1976 was perhaps to share the love of God to my world- whether in or out of the institutional church. After leaving professional ministry almost two years ago, I am now in the world being a "normal" follower of Jesus. I get to wake up everyday and wonder how I'll be able to love and influence others without a "sermon". How might the life of Jesus in me splash over on to the "others" that are uniquely in my life at any moment?

I make far less money and have less time for golf but I feel fulfilled like never before. I am living not just my dream, but possibly God's as well.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Choosing to be Left Behind: Betraying the "Rapture"

Can I opt out of the "rapture"?

What part of Jesus' life and message teaches escapism over servanthood? I remember something he said about salt and light. How can I flavor my world if I'm not present? How can I offer light if it is under a heavenly bushel? Can a true follower of Jesus really want to escape rather than serve?

I grew up as a pretribulation/premillenialist in the "rapture" generation: the 70's. On New Year's Eve 1969, my dad preached that we wouldn't see New Year's Eve 1979 because of the immenency of the rapture. We stocked dried food in the basement in the event we might have to endure part of the tribulation before being whisked away by our gracious Savior. Hmmmm.

TheRapture it the theological (not as "biblical" as some might think!) doctrine(?) that Jesus will return to rescue true believers from the onslaught of chaos and mayhem which we in the evangelical community termed the Great Tribulation. I remember living in fear of missing the rapture. I feared that my most recent bad thought, a failure to read my Bible that day, or generally be neglectful would cause the rapture's lightening to flash from the east to the west and I'd be left to face unparalleled suffering at worst or martyrdom at best.

As I have matured in my faith over the years, I began to question the validity of this eschatological interpretation of the Bible. I was amazed to learn in college that there could be at least 5 different eschatological possibilities and all of them could find biblical support! What?

The mustard seed of real faith founded on the message of God grows into a mature tree- something far different in appearance and function than the seed that spawned it. If our involvement in the culture of God is likened to this by Jesus, than our understanding of the present and future world should also evolve into an accurate reflection of God's likeness and interests- like the moon accurately reflects the sun's powerful light.

That's why I want to betray what I have been taught about the Rapture and opt out. As I think about this, I wonder why every believer in Jesus and citizen of God's transcendent culture wouldn't want to do the same? What good is it for the world that God loved so much that he gave it His Son  if those who bear the Son's image are no longer present to love it like God does? We don't have to look far in the Scripture or in ourselves to know that God doesn't seek to hate and destroy but to love and give life. The Rapture so defined ushers in destruction for those left behind while those who allegedly have practiced the correct spiritual magic enjoy the blissfullness of God's presence- perhaps and presumably around some grand heavenly dinner table with the Lamb. Can you imagine? Throwing back new wine with other escapees lauding the glories of God's love by allowing the raptured to know nothing of the horrors other God-loved humans are suffering back on poor planet Earth! This doesn't sound like the God I know and love- or the God who knows and loves me.

I betray this eschatalogical escapism! I find it ungodly and selfish- two distinctly counter-intuitive qualitites in God's culture. If the rapture is true, then I'd like to give my place to someone else and choose to stay behind, not so I can "enjoy" earthly living some more, but so that I can love others in God's name- others who will no doubt need to be loved like God has loved me. Isn't that message more powerful to those who will be left behind? Have those who qualified to miss the Rapture through ignorance or rebellion created a new category that is outside of God's love?

Nothing in the Bible reveals God as one who abandons. Quite to the contrary, God is incarnational- both in the world spatially and in humans individually. If I want to love God and others (the two things that Jesus said defined the best qualities that humans can demonstrate), then I would want to remain incarnational as well. It's natural to the DNA I possess by new birth. I choose to love the unloved (abandoned?) rather than being raptured and saving my own skin.

If the rapture is true, then theoretically I'll die as a martyr. I still prefer martydom (greek "testifying") at the hands of those who are loved yet abandoned to escaping with the "saints" not because I relish the possibility of a torturous death, but because my faith demands it.

I betray the theology of the Rapture so I can better represent the God I beleve to be true.

The reality of the Rapture should change nothing about how a follower of Jesus lives and loves. In fact, I find myself with a new sense of freedom from both a bad theology and the people who espouse it.