Saturday, December 8, 2012

Matthew 19:7- how might this verse be updated for today's religious audience?

While Jesus was probably saying something in this verse about marital commitment and sexual faithfulness, is it possible he was offering a larger understanding of God's workings with humanity?

What if in today's confused religious milieu the question posed to Jesus might be along the lines of "Paul taught that believers should go to church and in Hebrews we read not to neglect meeting together. What do you say, Jesus?"

I wonder if his response would challenge a modern interpretation and a resulting mis-application of Paul's words to say in response something like, "Paul wrote this because of the hardness of the human heart and he knew that people will gravitate to organizing themselves and reducing the Church to religious institutionalism. God has permitted this but it's not his ideal. My Body is more organic and mysterious in its makeup."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Freedom from the Institutional Bubble to Live the Incarnational Life

Here I sit at my dining room table on a cool Sunday morning and instead of feelings of bondage, I have feelings of freedom. Up until 4 yours ago, I was "bound" to attend a local institutional church- as either a member or its minister. It wasn't until I got out of the bubble that I realized how enslaved I was to a mindset that prevented me from experiencing deeper and more adventurous aspects of God.

Lest one thinks that I can write something like the last sentence glibly or naively, I must assure you that is not the case. Not even close to the case. In fact, I agree that from a conventional and institutional point of view- one that is deeply entrenched in me- it sounds like a typical rationalization for not going to church. For me to write it, let alone think it, is a bit scary and deeply humbling.

All I can say is that by not attending a local representation of Americanized Christianity, I am finding- and have found to a large extent- freedoms in my faith that I don't think I would have discovered if I were still bound in the bubble of church attendance.

Firstly, I am free to live as Jesus' disciple without conforming to long-standing institutional norms and christianized group expectations. If my faith is authentic, it will live and grow on its own. This does not mean that community and group life aren't helpful, if not essential to a robust and productive discipleship. It just suggests that too many personal expressions of faith have no foundation on their own and essentially live in and through others. For example, would you still give money, time and energy for others if you were not regularly preached or programmed to do so at church?

Closely related to this idea of living authentically because of internal rather than external forces (faith versus church) is the activity of what the church has marketed as "worship".  For the institutional church, this means a service (read: meeting) in which songs are sung, prayers are prayed and sermons are preached. A really good worship experience is typically identified by participants as an emotional rush that we allow to be termed as such and encourage to be equated with the presence of God. The institution sadly is forced to embrace this conceptual idol in order to sustain its existence.

If pressed, however, everyone would agree that the presence of God is not limited to a time or location and is indeed everywhere and always present. By not attending a service of "worship", I am free to explore the omnipresence of God without the burden to make God perform for my expectations in a programmed way (even though I would never have acknowledged it as programmed). I am free to experience God whether I "feel" his presence or not, whether the music leader is anointed enough to move me beyond myself or not, or whether or not the atmosphere is charged in a special way because we have paid our religious dues to make it happen-if it ever happened at all.

And people are bound to select the church they attend based on criteria like this: Was God's presence in the music and was the "word" preached in the way they wanted it to be?

Speaking of the "word", by no longer feeding the institutional beast with my presence, I am free to experience the "word" without being bound to an interpretation that is self-perpetuating. I now read Scripture because by doing so, I permit myself to discover stories and finding meaning that may be prompted and directed by the Spirit that hovers between the chaos of my life and Divine transcendence. I don't have to limit my personal encounter with the Bible to the manufacturing of my next sermon. I read it to encounter God and sometimes- perhaps more often than not- I am confronted and/or blessed by the "Word".

I cannot express how this brings life and encouragement to me. I honestly believe that church attendance would deny me this glorious freedom.

Lastly, I am free of church-think. I can think outside of the four church walls. I am not bound to think of the kingdom of God in terms of institutional perpetuation. I am not a part of an organization that by necessity has to make decisions that is driven to keep its organizational doors open. I am free to think about the Incarnational life of Jesus' followers whether or not my church has a robust membership, a strong missions program, or a solvent budget. I am free of whatever political or international policies a particular congregation chooses by intention or default to adopt and for which to pray.

I am free to live as a citizen of God's transcendent yet gloriously mundane kingdom. I am free to explore and hopefully experience the Mystery that is not particularly American. I am free to be human in my humanity discover the Imageo Deo not only in me, but in every other person who shares space with me in God's presence on earth.

Friday, November 16, 2012

I am a Better Ambassador Now that I'm not a Minister

Another reason why I can justify not going to programmed church anymore is that I have discovered a better and purer representation of Kingdom ministry.

I spent 25 years professionally promoting Christian servanthood and missional living. Not only did I encourage others in this obviously biblical lifestyle, but I tried to program it for them through the church. I found that church members longed for opportunities to tangibly do some form of ministry, outreach or mission. And inside of this institutional bubble I believed I was doing exactly what God expected of me as an ambassador of the Kingom of God.

Since making my exit from professional ministry and local church participation three years agoI have entered into a new and (to me, at least) different yet fulfilling wilderness in which I can safely conclude that my role as Christ's ambassador is more representative of biblical discipleship. I now serve others because of a loving impetus for others and God placed in me by faith and the Spirit of Jesus.

It appears to me that what Jesus introduced in his incarnation was an unprogrammed, spontaneous, and direct form of love that had impact in the world. Nowhere do I read that he meant for committees, boards, or professional ministers to design and implement short term mission trips and weekend outreaches to be the outlet of a real faith experience. And yet those who enlist their volunteer time in such efforts are led by the professionals (like me) to believe they are pushing the envelope of involvement in what God wants for them. To make matters worse, participants in these spiritual endeavors tend to look down on others who do not get as involved since as I mentioned, missions and ministry are the best and purest things a church member can do - especially in an Americanized church.

I now am more aware of the needs of the world in which I live- not because I have been preached and programmed to do so but because as a follower of Jesus I can't stop it. The view I have of people is being filtered through a lens that transcends what the institutional church is currently providing. I wonder if the same thing shouldn't be true for all who claim to be citizens of God's transcendent kingdom on earth.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

My "Tithe" is Not Watered Down By Some Church Board

I have always been a ten percent tithes. I was loyal, religious, and strictly "biblical". I directed ten percent of my gross earnings to my local church believing and preaching that this was not only where God wanted it to be given but how the money would be distributed in a way that would honor God the most.  I had pastor friends who questioned why I would tithe to the sane organization that paid me and as economically weird as it may have been, I believed it was the way God's financial design was to work.

Even when I hit financial crisis, I found a way to keep from "robbing from God", believing that God should not be penalized for my bad decisions. And while I had no problem with a "New Testament" interpretation of tithing which conveniently suggested that a believer didn't have to tithe 10 percent since everything belonged to God, I rarely if ever found a believer in this interpretation to give more than 10 percent if they gave that much!

Then, after a lifetime of church attendance and involvement at both personal and professional levels, I left. But I didn't quit giving money for God's purposes. I simply changed the direction in which I gave it. I never gave my money because I was part of the religious organization now called "church" but because I both loved God and felt it was my duty to tithe. That didn't not change when I left the institution since it is spawned at the level of faith, not works.

Since leaving the church as it exists today in America, I have had to come to the difficult conclusion that the money I gave for God is sadly disseminated in a variety of ways that are decided by relatively prayer less boards and committees and that the lion's share (Lion?) went to administrative expenses- including, of course, my salary. In fact, churches rarely make the most "worthy" line item- missions- even 10 percent of their own budget. And the membership lets this happen in most cases, or they go to a competitor who after looking at there books, decide this is where they want their hard earned pittance to go.

My current benevolence is now more directly and completely going to people and causes that I hope are honoring God in their work. I still give more than the biblical "tithe" but I isn't being filtered thorough administrators or trapped in institutional needs. The ten percent I gave back ended up being watered down to a far smaller percentage once the organization got its share.

I now believe that God is rarely honored by how churches create and spend their budgets- even though every pastor has to believe and declare that their church budget DOES bring God glory (as well as feeds their family). I know this because I was one of those pastors.

I am glad to honor God with unfiltered money. I don't have to compare spreadsheets between competing religious businesses to see whose salary I'd rather support or which missions organizations a committee has determined are the best ones for their congregation to get behind.

All of me and my money belong to God- not the current version of American Church.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Four Words I Use to Justify My Position Regarding Church Attendance

I have not been to a Sunday worship service in a local church for over three years. After being born into a Baptist preacher's home, going to church at least four times a week, following a call into full-time ordained Christian ministry, serving professionally (and personally) in six different churches in five states for 25 years, I left. And people (including me) wondered if I was not only alright, but if I was still a Christian.

And yet as I write this, I am more firmly convinced than ever of my spiritual status in Christ Jesus. Over these last few years I have prayerfully and thoughtfully tried to articulate why it is better for me to not go to church than to go. I feel like I've been able to identify some concrete reasons that for me, it is better to follow Jesus outside the institutional walls of a church than maintaining a membership within them.

I currently have identified four words that succinctly describe the areas that for me, affirm my position:

  • Money
  • Ministry
  • Freedom
  • Community
I will offer a brief explanation of each of these in separate installations so as not to make this blog a tome.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Those Who Believe Deserve Better

In Luke 20:3-7 Jesus was apparently forcing the spiritual leaders of the people to express a position on John- for the sake of the people. Interestingly, the people's perspective on John was formed without the guidance or approval of those they considered spiritual leaders. Perhaps people can discern that which has God's blessing without the aid of leaders stuck in a religious paradigm.

Perhaps people who are "spiritual" will respond to God's messages and move toward a healthier faith-filled Life independent of institutionalistic pastoral leadership that thinks it knows what is godly but sadly are playing religious politics.

Jesus knows that people deserve better in their quest for God and Truth.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Praying for Permission to Judge: A Humble Look at James and John

From Luke 9:51-56

My personality and passion identifies with James and John, labeled "Sons of Thunder" by Jesus. Here they are, deep into their experience with the Boss and something happens that triggers their initiative and compels them to demonstrate what they presumed to be a reflection of the God that Jesus represented. After all, they could support their bold suggestion from the Scripture, using the well-known story of Elijah calling down fire on the Baal worshippers as the basis for their initiative. 

Surely James and John expected Jesus to applaud both their passion and their application of the Old Testament to a New Testament context. They were showing that they could "rightly divide the word of truth". The fact that Luke records this suggests that the shock James and John must've experienced upon Jesus' rebuke was palpable. They, once again, had to recalibrate their theology in order to digest the words of the man they believed to be their GodMy personality and passion identifies with James and John, labeled "Sons of Thunder" by Jesus. Here they are, deep into their experience with the Boss and something happens that triggers their initiative and compels them to demonstrate what they presumed to be a reflection of the God that Jesus represented. After all, they could support their bold suggestion from the Scripture, using the well-known story of Elijah calling down fire on the Baal worshippers as the basis for their initiative. e

Surely James and John expected Jesus to applaud both their passion and their application of the Old Testament to a New Testament context. They were showing that they could "rightly divide the word of truth". The fact that Luke records this suggests that the shock James and John must've experienced upon Jesus' rebuke was palpable. They, once again, had to recalibrate their theology in order to digest the words of the man they believed to be their God's son.

What was the "sin" of these Samaritans for which such severe punishment was due? Were they promiscuous, greedy, abusive, violent, disrespectful, etc.? Perhaps they were having sex with the wrong gender or judging those that do. Apparently, the problem for which they deserved a good dowsing of heavenly fire was that their expectations of Jesus did not match Jesus' plan. Their narcissistic ignorance seemed like a golden opportunity to suggest something that would no doubt enlighten them.

As an ex-professional minister, serving a variety of churches in a variety of paid and voluntary capacities for over 25 years, I see myself in this story- and not in a good way. I sport an aggressive if not arrogant posture toward those who don't share my understanding of and relationship with Jesus. It's all too easy for me to suggest severe judgement on institutional churches who reject Jesus because his mission is different that their historical expectations. 

And yet my self-righteousness is, and ought to be, rebuked as not matching the the character of God as much as I think it does. God's ways and thoughts remain higher than mine and instead of praying for permission to judge those who are less enlightened then me, I should allow them their place and know that God's desires for them are exactly the same as for me: salvation over destruction. 

And the beautiful part of this story is that Jesus was heading to the cross for that universal purpose. God was to save both those that appear to reject Jesus and those who appear to accept him.

What was the "sin" of these Samaritans for which such severe punishment was due? Were they promiscuous, greedy, abusive, violent, disrespectful, etc.? Perhaps they were having sex with the wrong gender or judging those that do. Apparently, the problem for which they deserved a good dowsing of heavenly fire was that their expectations of Jesus did not match Jesus' plan. Their narcissistic ignorance seemed like a golden opportunity to suggest something that would no doubt enlighten them.

As an ex-professional minister, serving a variety of churches in a variety of paid and voluntary capacities for over 25 years, I see myself in this story- and not in a good way. I sport an aggressive if not arrogant posture toward those who don't share my understanding of and relationship with Jesus. It's all too easy for me to suggest severe judgement on institutional churches who reject Jesus because his mission is different that their historical expectations. 

And yet my self-righteousness is, and ought to be, rebuked as not matching the the character of God as much as I think it does. God's ways and thoughts remain higher than mine and instead of praying for permission to judge those who are less enlightened then me, I should allow them their place and know that God's desires for them are exactly the same as for me: salvation over destruction. 

And the beautiful part of this story is that Jesus was heading to the cross for that universal purpose. God was to save both those that appear to reject Jesus and those who appear to accept him.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Tents and Cattle- Luke 9:33-36

This passage reminds me of the story of the golden calf in the wilderness. When all they could see was a cloud and they were afraid of losing the "moment", the children of Israel tried to memorialize their experience with something tangible that would remind them of the God they had experienced. Likewise, Peter offered to put tangibility into a mysterious moment by offering to construct tents. God's answer seems to both the Israelites and to Peter seems to reflect disappointment in the human tendency to institutionalize the Divine experiences. We codify, quantify, construct, formulate and document That which transcends our ways and thoughts. To the Israelites God said to listen to Moses. To Peter, God said to listen to the new Moses- Jesus. 

It seems that our love and devotion to God has been reduced and limited to our involvement in and commitment to the institutional representations we have constructed of the Church. Perhaps God is again saying to embrace the Mystery of the Spirit and listen to the small (and perhaps indistinguishable in the midst of so much "noise") voice that leads us into Truth.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Can Christianity Exist Without the Bible?

I have grown up loving and reading the Bible. I remember starting annual Bible reading plans over and over starting around 5th grade. Like most people who adopt this plan, I became an expert in Genesis and Matthew and had little or no exposure to the minor prophets. Thankfully, I attended a church where my dad was the pastor and he believed in preaching "the Word" so I was able to expand my Biblical knowledge as I sat under his tuteledge up to 4 times a week.

At some point in my professional ministry experience, I decided that I needed to be an expert in at least the content of Scripture as I believed that would allow me to be a better interpreter and expounder of what was written. I proceeded to read the New Testament at least once a month along with Psalms and Proverbs. I read the Old Testament annually. I did this for years and did become very conversant with what was in the Bible and where it was located.

Having betrayed the institutional experession of Christianity (read: Christendom, church) I have been permitted new and refreshing reflections on the nature of what we have as the Bible and perhaps more importantly, I seem to have a greater appreciation for its value and application. Not as the "Word of God", as if it has found its way into the stature of the Divine Godhead, making it the fourth member of a Quadrinity. But rather as a Spirit-inspired text opening my soul to deeper and more realistic applications of faith in my contextual existance.

Today I wonder if Christianity can (and perhaps at this point, should) exist without the Bible. After all, hundreds of years passed before there was a canon and even more years passed before the Bible reached the hands of the community by virtue of the printing press. Christianity, in its best and perhaps purest forms, was founded without the New Testament as we have it today. Yes, there was the Old Testament and unquestionably the early believers relied on it for instruction. But that "instruction" had a new Instructor that was delivered as a gift in the form of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter that Jesus said would teach us all things and lead us into Truth.

Does that not still work the same today? Should it not be the Spirit by being present, that sparks the life of Christ in every soul and guides us into a life designed for every human by God? Could not a life in Christ be lived by the provision of faith and the gift of the Spirit apart from the text of the Bible?

It seems to me that embracing this possibility opens us to a greater understanding of what it means to believe in Jesus and to walk in the faith provided to us by God. It allows us to live instinctively rather than legalistically. It even allows us to read Scripture through a spiritual lens instead of limiting it to a cultural one. Perhaps the Spirit is fully capable of guiding us into very real demonstrations of Christ's life in whatever country, culture or context we find ourselves.

Wouldn't it be refreshing to live with others who share a hunger for the things of God as discovered through time and togetherness and not by seminars and strategies. I believe the life of a believer ought to have the fullest opportunity to realize a God-given destiny in Christ and current Bibliolotry prevents the experience of the Divine Mystery.

It's what the Israelites lost when they embraced the Golden Calf.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Does this Sound Like "Good News"?

In a religiously glutted Christianized culture that throws the term "gospel" around as if we all knew what it meant, try out for size my effort to offer a fresh and perhaps more accurate reflection of not only what it means but how it is lived:

"Our God-created image is free to live the transcendent and cosmic values of God's eternal Kingdom. When we choose to respond  to promptings generated by a gift from God called "faith" by believing in a God who became human in a man named Jesus who lived a full but often troubled human existence and died a horrific death by which he overcame sin and its consequences for everyone, we discover a freedom to live in this life by God's universal design, no longer hamstrung by guilt and the debilitation that guilt and sin bring. We are free to love and be loved."

Does that sound like good news? I would think it is good for anyone who hears it, whether or not they choose to believe.

There are no doubt gaps in this statement and questions that can be raised. But at the very least, it seems to offer inclusivity rather than exclusivity. All are free to believe and choose to live in love but since it is apparent that not all do, those who choose to live selfishly and resist an Irrestible Force find their lives incomplete and empty of the Life afforded to them through Jesus' resurrection.

It is certainly their loss in this life but may not be in a life to come. They may realize after death that what was available to them by God's design was ignored or rejected in the context when it could've been best experienced. Hell may be this realization.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Prickly Prayer Problems, Part 2: What Prayers Should Believers Pray?

I concur that prayer is a vital part of our life on earth with God. What I wonder is how on earth are we to do it? More specifically than how to pray- as I feel any person can pray in any way they want- is the question of what should be the content of faith-full prayer. As a recovering evangelical/charismatic American Christian, I am concerned over the things I have been oriented to pray for as they seem to reflect more of a Westernized narcissism than a biblically accurate representation of citizens of God's Kingdom.

The prickly nature of this prayer problem is centered in praying for what God cares about. In other words, I wonder how much of our praying energy is wasted offering supplications that waste God's divine time. Should not the content of our prayers match the heart of a God that loves the entire world, not just my world?

Part 1 of this topic highlighted my frustration over my community's obssession with green grass to the point of calling a prayer meeting in our town plaza to ask God to break a serious drought. While this event has lingered in my mind and has had a large effect on the deconstruction of what I considered to be a weak prayer persepective, I believed it was also constructing a healthier and more universally transcendent prayer perspective. I was developing a somewhat arrogant theological perspective that actually limited God's interest in the world rather than expanded it.

I had come to conclude that God was only interested in "big" praying- you know, prayers that centered on real and universal human welfare such as poverty, trafficking, disease and the like. Prayers for parking places, manicured lawns and computer problems were not even to be mentioned as they would not only be a waste of our breath, they would be ignored by a God with bigger fish to fry.

I mention computer problems because it was just recently when my "healthy" perspective on what God seems to care about was severly challenged by someone's prayer for a computer problem.

I know a man who at 78 years old has been an avid lover of God and a professional minister for 50 years. He is perhaps the most disciplined believer I have ever known. He arises hours before anyone else and spends at least an hour in prayer and probably another hour reading the Bible. I have known him my entire life and his focus has always been ministry. I would "label" him evangelical/charismatic/fundamental. He puts in the time.

This man recently felt inspired to write a small book and seek its publication. Essentially the book is about how believers can either grown toward God or away from God by how they align themselves under the Lordship of Jesus. Knowing this man and his theology, I can safely conclude the book to be a fairly narrow expression of a point of view firmly entrenched in Christendom. It would appear legalistice and works-oriented. I have trouble accepting this as a publication that God would favor in our time and place of post-modernism.

That being said, this man was having difficulty finalizing some word processing issues on his computer, mostly related to securing the proper margins in order to submit it to the publisher. Not having a lot of computer experience, he solicited the assistance of a friend who allegedly did. Neither of them were able to solve the problem and had come to an impasse. The natural thing for the man to do at this point was to pray.

He admitted to me that in his prayer he qualified its content to God by acknowledging it was not a big deal for God to solve this computer problem. Nonetheless, he asked God to help him finalize the document that he believed had been God's idea all along. He told me that he went back to the computer and indiscriminately stroked some keys and, thanks be to God, somehow the problem was fixed!

Wow. This really disturbed me on a several levels. First, I wasn't sure this book would accurately reflect God's interest in the first place so having this happen really caused me to question what I considered to be God's will. I would've thought that something that prohibited its publication would've been more in line with what God wanted then to cure the computer thus allowing the process to continue.

This, of course, had to make me wonder that if God really did answer the prayer of this man to solve the word processing challenge, then perhaps I did need to rethink my post-modern theology and consider that what this man had written was indeed an accurate reflection of the God of the universe. Perhaps I need to return to fundamentalism and biblical literalism as staple features of healthy faith.

And another level still is that which no doubt was a result of this event: the man's faith and prayer perspective was more deeply entrenched in him. His prayer life and the content of his prayers was reinforced. Why wouldn't he continue to believe in and pray for things that to me seemed to distract from that which I believed must truly be what God wants to pray for?

Going deeper, this event made me wonder why if this man had God's ear for something as trivial as a computer concern that he didn't go ahead and ask for something more biblical, such as justice for the oppressed or fathers for the fatherless?

Perhaps the most disturbing level at which this event concerns me is wondering if perhaps God is only interested in or able to solve computer problems and that the greater problems of mankind are beyond his ability to resolve. Or perhaps there is something to be said for putting in the time with God as this man has which opens up the windows of blessing for things that to most people would appear insignificant. Does this mean that a believer can and should embrace a position of privilege to which the heathen have neither right nor access? Is Club Christianity really what the gospel is about?

I tend to want to betray this perspective in favor of a God that is not limited to or only interested in the apparent petty and self-serving interests of American Chrsitians. After all, would the children I support in Rwanda ever think to pray that their computer would cooperate? What do they pray about?

Maybe my theology needs to allow for a "bigger" God than the one I thought was under construction. By making him too big for American computer operations perhaps I had limited him to only issues of global grandeur. Maybe my theology represented my on spiritual pride in thinking I had uncovered the God of the Bible and any prayer that didn't meet the standard of transcendent human welfare should not only be avoided but it should be called out.

Maybe God is big enough not only to throw the man whose questionable theological perspective and practice a bone of apparent insignificant blessing but also to address issues that are universally grievious. Perhaps what I am learning is that my prayers should certainly include the "big" stuff without excluding personal issues that the God of the universe has room in his character to care about as well.

My recent car problems would seem to support God's care and concern for problems about which most of the world would not be concerned. I was grateful to God for solving the car's mechanical issues in ways that presented very little inconvenience to me but I also had to wonder about the theological perspective that I had developed about God's concerns and my prayers.

I still want and to choose to believe that God is more interested in human welfare than in technological obstacles. I choose to believe and practice a kind of faith that should put transcendent social issues on the top of any prayer list I use. In fact, no faith perspective should be called healthy that doesn't instinctivley evoke an on-going concern which leads to unceasing prayer for such things.

But lest I do to another extreme what the man of God appears to have done, I have to make room for a God that can be interested in what appears to me to be that which is more insulting to the Divine Nature than appealing.

His ways are not my ways.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Prickly Prayer Problems (Part One)

I have wondered about what prayers God is or should be interested in. Having grown up as an American in an evangelical/charismatic environment, I learned to pray for a variety of issues that in retrospect were generally self-serving and certainly non-transferable to other parts of the less-privileged world. I truly appreciated when a song would come on the radio that I could attach to God blessing me in that moment. I valued as a sign of God's favor when car troubles occurred in ways that didn't inconvenience me as much as they could have. I'm sure there are countless other events that occurred in my life that without batting an eye I attributed to being a Christian. The result of such an interpretation undoubtedly inspired gratitude and solidified my commitment to the God of the (my) universe.

Was this bad? Should my theology embrace a God who would encourage my narcissism if in fact it cultivated deeper worship and discipleship on my part? And did I mention that my evangelistic fervor was heightened as I sought to share my "testimonies" in hopes that other favored Americans could likewise discover joy unspeakable and full of glory.

As I continue on my chaotic journey of faith, I find myself challenged with an Americanized theology from which my spiritual system is being purged. This process has included musings on what believers should bother God about with their prayers. A few years ago our community was experiencing a severe drought. Naturally, it was a topic of conversation and concern in almost every setting and interaction. It was an inevitability for the Christians to look to God for relief.

The church I attended was no different and prayer for rain was a part of our weekly liturgy. A local Christian "celebrity" decided to invite concerned people of faith to a community prayer event at the local town square to beseech God to break the drought. This event attracted a goodly amount of attention. The local newspaper was quick to make it front page material. It was especially noteworthy when ten minutes before the scheduled prayer meeting we received a brief cloud burst that was over before the prayers of those congregated at the plaza were able to ascend.

Needless to say, people fell over themselves in the rush to glorify God and their prayers for the rain. It would appear that this apparent answer to the desperate prayers of a community whose grass was drying out had the effect of strengthening faith, discipleship and congregational morale. I had issues with this, however, and I was pretty quick to voice them to my fellow Christians, starting with the motives of this prayer event.

There appeared to me that the driving force behind why anyone really wanted rain was the fact that indeed our yards were looking horrible and we were only allowed to water once a week. Otherwise, nothing else was affected. We could still drink as much water as we wanted, we could shower as much as necessary, and toilets still flushed. It didnt seem to me that God should give attention to prayers for greener and fuller grass in our suburban sprawl.

But then I was told by a fellow Christian that she knew of a family that could lose their farm and livelihood if it the drought continued. On the surface, that sounded like a very worthy reason to pray for rain since we would all aggree that God wouldn't want a family to starve or suffer. But I challenged the statement with what appeared to me to be a more God-worthy reply. Since we cannot be sure that rain will or won't come, and since we have no ability to control meteorological events (and quite possibly at the risk of sounding Deistic, perhaps the weather is something that simply happens as a part of God's initial and natural design), what does God expect from those who claim to be a part of the Kingdom that transcends earthly events and parameters?

In the case of a family about to lose everything because the weather won't cooperate or worse, because our prayers have failed to motivate God to intervene, it seems biblically appropriate to suggest that the community of faith would surround and support a family in crisis. Did not the first century church operate in this manner when they naturally cared for anyone who had a need?

It seems to me that we hope that God will rescue us from what is clearly our responsibility. If we can pray and ask God to manipulate barometric pressure so that we can have an abundance of rain, then we are off the hook to have to intervene ourselves. We want and expect God to rescue us from what it appears is ours to do. Perhaps our tangible involvement is a better direct representation of God than any drop of rain could be.

This "push back" to my believing friend further entrenched me in a way of thinking about prayer and what God cares that we pray about. I boldly asked why if a scheduled prayer meeting by a local celebrity that by all estimation produced the desired result (albeit small and relatively insignificant in light of the larger need) was there not a daily prayer meeting at the town square until the drought was over? In fact not only were there no more scheduled town prayer events for rain, there was no more rain the entire summer! You'd think that if the initial event had the effect for which the entire community was spiritually aroused, and that it appeared to be clear and convincing evidence that those who gathered had the ear of God, why wasn't there rabid follow up?

Perhaps more disturbing was the fact that since God apparently was listening and eager to intervene into areas of our life such as lawncare, why had the same celebrity (or anyone for that matter) not suggested a prayer event to seek God's intervention on behalf of human trafficking around the globe?  Since they had God's attention, why not go ahead and ask for something that might really matter? I wonder if anyone would have cared enough to show up.

When I offered this scenario to my fellow believers, I was told that the difference would be because human trafficking isn't on the front page of our paper like the drought is. To which I say, why isn't it? Is it because alleged citizens of God's Kingdom fail to share God's transcendent perspective? Somehow we have concluded that what is important to us is what is important to God and our myopia has reduced our amazingly transcendent and globally involved God to the dispenser of narcissistic answers to prayers that most of the inhabited world would consider insulting to waste as prayer.

On the other hand, perhaps God is about such mundane and Americanized concerns and my theology needs to accept this as the way God is.

I'm not done with probing prickly problem with prayer. Part 2 will delve into another testimony of God answering a prayer that raises more practical and theological issues.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Early Christians Attended Synagogue Like American Christians Attend Church

Apparently Jewish believers in Jesus still attended synagogue even after their profession of allegiance to King Jesus as Messiah. Did they attend as believers in Jesus looking for fellowship with other like-minded people or is it more likely they attended as a matter of tribal identity? In other words, they didn't depend on synagogue attendance as the means of growing as a community in Christ. It was simply what they did as part of their heritage and Mosaic tradition. Not only was that not a bad thing, it provided a setting for cultivating their shared identity as Jews. But to be clear, the believers in Jesus would no doubt gather in different settings (homes?) and practiced a different "liturgy" to cultivate their identity in the Kingdom of the God of Jesus. Attendance in one religious setting (synagogue) neither precluded nor replaced attendance in another setting in which a more transcendent identity was being forged. American church attendance likewise has become a reflection of "tribal" identity and our Westernized christian culture. Like the early followers of the same King, today's believers cannot limit the definition of our identity to that which is thrust upon members of a particular local religious institution (read: church). The identity of a true believer transcends what most churches can and do provide and must therefore find its definition encouraged in different settings and in different ways. So going to church should be accepted for what it is: participation in an American tradition. But let the community of Jesus seek out each other in ways that encourage us to love and good works (HEB. 9:25). Because its safe to say that the modern "synagogue" will not embrace true belief in Jesus as it will threaten its organizational fabric. New wine will need new wine skins. 

Some God-lovers Hear Jesus' Voice but For Some Reason Don't Get It

Acts 22:9- Everyone was exposed to Jesus but only one person understood what was being said and allowed it to change the trajectory of his existence. Paul's companions were no doubt lovers of God like Paul and undoubtedly shared both his passion and vision to protect God's interests. Yet, only Paul "got it". Only Paul's trajectory appeared to change. It's as if people of faith can sense something life-altering is happening around them but for reasons we don't know, they are unable to understand Jesus' message in that moment. Perhaps they would get it later- we don't know. In spite of being what appears to be the ONLY one that understood Jesus that day among the many that apparently heard him, Paul could not deny the reality of the experience. He could not soften or politicize it to make it more palatable for his God-fearing compatriots. He was compelled not just to allow his life's passion and pursuit to be eternally altered by the message which only he had ears to hear, but also to pledge his undying allegiance to the new and fuller expression of the God he loved now directly introduced to him as Jesus. The personal price he would pay for "getting it" would be the highest that could be paid but the daily satisfaction he claimed to experience from being "in Christ" was beyond his best efforts to describe.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Evidence of a New Operating System

The selling of personal possessions and the distribution of goods to those in need was not the First Commandment of the first congregation. This behavior was not the result of a carefully crafted three-point sermon by one of the power preachers. I doubt there was a call to the altar so the believers could repent of their greed and materialism.  This short verse seems to capture the instinctive essence of a people who are driven by the presence of a new filtering system. The fullness of the Spirit of God generated a perspective that when believed in, generated the kind of behaviors described. It is inevitable. The culture in which these believers lived probably frowned on the relinquishment of property and possessions. So the life of a faith-filled believer in Jesus inevitably and lovingly transcended the cultural setting in which they lived. A new and more powerful operating system had been installed by God. The believers were still living in the same community with the same friends and family but were now citizens of a transcendently better kingdom.  I live in America and there are cultural identities that are strong. Evidence, however, that I have pledged allegiance to King Jesus will be seen in how I live from a new and improved filter of faith in God and belief in Jesus. It will look selfless and probably counter cultural. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why Can't a Healed Person Return to their Village?

First of all, while the blind man might've been satisfied to see people better than he ever had (as "trees"), Jesus wanted his vision to be clear and to see others as he sees them. It would seem to many of us are willing to accept "better than before" but fail to allow Jesus to complete his desire for us. Secondly, why would Jesus instruct the newly envisioned man to not enter the village? The village had only known him as blind and perhaps would not know how to accept him as envisioned. Perhaps this is why I sense Jesus saying to me to not go back to the "church-village" as it will not accept my new status granted me by Jesus. The "village" is full of of good and well-intended lovers of God. Unfortunately, people struggle to accept the inexplicable and the different. An envisioned person who had a place in the village as a blind person disrupts to the point of either rejection by the village or discouraging doubt as to the reality of "seeing" on the part of the healed one. A new vision may need a new village. Something to consider...

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Genesis to Jesus: God Grows Up

Even as an eight-year-old I remember it well. My "conversion moment". My dad was a Baptist minister and after a sermon by a travelling evangelist on the first night of a week- long "revival", I felt drawn to "give my life to the Lord" and "accept Jesus into my heart". I went forward, then to a room in the back, and not only did I "recieve Jesus", I also was "baptized in the Holy Spirit" and spoke in tongues. And unquestionably, my life was changed and from that moment on I operated from a new perspective. I was "in".

Even as my life has progressed I have not only been faithful to my "new birth" moment but have never doubted that what happend on that fateful night was authentic and real. Only lately have I tried to analyze the process of faith-filled followership more deeply. I don't question that there are landmark moments in peoples' lives at which time a renewed and more developed discipleship emerges. I do wonder, though, how much of the "salvation" process is infected with an unhealthy virus that has become part and parcel to the culture of Christianity and is therefore suspect to some scrutiny. I think it is safe to say that many who "accept Jesus" after an emotionally charged sermon combined with an abundance supply of internal guilt have not experienced the life that Jesus wanted his followers to know. The Kingdom values may be acknowledged but not necesssarily lived. The seed was sown but for a number of reasons (see Mark 4) it has failed to bear the kind of fruit it was meant to when it landed in the soil, generally speaking. What worked for me doesn't seem to have worked for others who followed the same formula.

So at this stage of my life I'm asking a more transcendent question: What is the transcendent/universal process (if one exists) that all humans would follow if and when they are to become true citizens of God's eternal kingdom? And if there is a deeper understanding of how to see more fruit borne in God's design, how did my experience fit into it and how can others be encouraged to experience the authentic conversion of which Jesus speaks in John 3?

If the bottom line (an American metaphor for sure!) for God's economy is love (and does anyone disagree with this?), what is the process by which this fruit matures and blossoms in our lives to the same degree as it was manifested in Jesus' humanity? Anything less than this falls short of the plan God demonstrated and fulfilled in Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Simply attending a church, serving on a committee, voting as a republican, and paying your taxes does not define citizenship in God's Kingdom. Devotion to God through mimicking Jesus in our earthly existance does!

So my thoughts have meandered into considering the possibility that perhaps what we see in biblical history offers hints into this "conversion" process. Perhaps from Genesis to Jesus we see God maturing to the place where what we see recorded about Jesus is a the "fullness of God", i.e., love.

Follow this idea and see what you think:
  • A happening occurs "in the beginning" in which the Spirit of God hovers over darkness and chaos and a "word" is spoken that brings life and light into the chaotic darkness. Could this not be compared to the prevenient grace of God and the way a faith perspective starts in us? It starts with God giving us life and we respond to his "word".
  • The Bible records a period of bliss and spiritual interaction that follows this moment of "birth". Perhaps this is taken for granted to the point that when pride tempts us, we fall victim to our own sense of worth and grandeur. At this point, a new sense of chaos takes hold without denying us the favored status we hold with God as his creatures. God again provides what we need to continue to live.
  • As time passes, the human spiritual journey evolves to need some form of legislation to continue. We struggle apart from some code that we can turn to and rely on. Of course the downside is that the code becomes a burden that we cannot bear. Yet we are not given permission to ignore the code. It apparently has a role to play in this process toward "salvation" (re: maturity). Unfortunately, the comfort provided by the "code" prevents us from moving forward. We remain adolescents at best, infants at worst.
  • Prior to Jesus' birth, there are plenty of periods recorded in Scripture where God's people experience some form of "wilderness" . Like those we read about this can cause rebellion or a simple succombing to enormous confusion and fear. Inevitably, we turn to some form of "idol", be it tangible or theological to offer us a means of comfort and hope. We are uncertain about a God we cannot touch, feel or figure out. These periods can be extensive and burdensome. Thankfully, God is present in each of them in hopes that the culmination of them will yield the kind of life he initiated in Genesis 1. God hopes we don't get stuck here but courageously step forward in our explorations.
  • Enter Jesus. Finally humanity is privy to seeing a full-grown God. And not just a full grown God, but a full grown human who is living the life God originally designed. Apart from legal restrictions and unecessary human codification, we are given permission to wonder and walk with a God that we will not have to please but are still driven to try because of love and gratitude.
So our lives may take this same evolutionary trail: From a miraculous "word" that invades us to layers of wilderness journeys to a well-intended but horribly misguided effort to instituionalize our relational understanding of God to finally dying to God on the cross and allowing resurrection to grip us and mold the way we live.

What I experienced as an eight year old boy could be seen in light of this process. God spoke to my darkness and I came to life. My journey over the next 40+ years was frought with legalism and theological infection yet I can see God's presence patiently moving me along. I am happily in a new wilderness but this one is on the other side of the resurrection. I am discovering the abundant life Jesus revealed in simple love of God and others. I am detoxing from the viruses and live in hope of exhibiting an incarnation of Jesus that transcends the boxes, tools, and formulas that have been successfully embedded in our institutionalized Christian experience.

While it may be relatively easy to identify both the beginning and the end of this process, it is the middle area in which we will continue to struggle. Yet if we can see the bookends- and agree on them- perhaps we can take responsibility for the middle by encouraging one another in the process toward fruitfullness.

At the risk of an over-simplified suggestion, it seems that for this process to move in the right direction all it takes is courage- courage to not allow ourselves to get stuck or comfortable. Courage to move toward the Mysterious and Unknown. Courage to be a resurrected human.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jesus Didn't Drool on Himself or Howl at the Moon

Yet according to Mark 3:21 his family considered him looney. Crazy. Out of his mind. Why? All we can assume is that his expressed beliefs about God God were different than theirs. His loving and miraculous activities cultivate neither family unity nor devotion to the God of Israel. There was no pride in knowing that the eldest son of Mary was preaching the word of God. Jesus was deemed "out of his mind" because the God he revealed in his words and actions did not match the interpretation of the Torah's Yahweh that had been passed on for generations. Perhaps the same thing happened to John the Baptist when instead of falling into the levitical line of his father, he preached a new message in the wilderness. How did Elizabeth and Zachariah feel about his state of mind? How did Jesus feel to find that not even his family could consider him or his message sane?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

New Wine, Unshrunk Clothes, and Lipstick on Pigs

As a "cutting-edge" contemporary service executive producer (or, "staff pastor in a mainline church trying to boost attendance by offering a contemporary option")for over a decade, it was my philosophy to create healthy spiritual change from the inside, a movement in the roots of the grass as it were. I patiently (well at least some of the time) and persistently encouraged new wine to not burst the old bottle. Yet time and again I would see not only the unshrunk cloth be frustrated with its incompatibility with the existing insitutional garment, but the old tired garment would tear leaving it wounded and in need of its own repair. It seems that Jesus' oft-repeated parable in Mark 2:21-22 about wine and wine skins had an insight I was unable to see until a few years after I left that church realizing that it was not going to be the kind of "healthy" I was hoping for. Starting with Moses through Jesus, then the Reformation and more currently, the great Emergence, these words of Jesus seem to carry transcendent and timeless significance. While most readers generally apply this parable to personal conversion and the changes one should make in their own life, I want to suggest a larger and more congregational application. A new and more relevant point of view apparently cannot survive within a pre-existing institutional mindset. Both the perspective and the institution are placed at risk. Unfortunately, too many church planters take their initiative and bury it in an old and tired institutional environment. Their new and improved idea ends up looking like the institutions from which they emerged but with a new leader. Jesus is saying that radical changes emerge from radically new perspectives. Courage must be mustered to analyze what this might mean for a closet full of old garments. The overflowing cupboard of old wine skins does not need yet another bottle of new wine; I believe the whole closet needs to be torn down. To make the body of Christ in America healthy and a more accurate reflection of the Kingdom of God, I would suggest two things: 1. Raze every institutional church to the ground. 2. Make it a capital offense to be a follower of Jesus. Do these two things and get ready for a cataclysmic shift in Christian experience and manifestation! This goes beyond simply renting storefront space in a shopping center and coming up with a cute name (something with "fellowship" or "community" in it). This new kind of wine that tastes like Jesus insists on fermentation and that takes time. Can the people of God take the time and resist the urge to "do" in order to see what the Master requires for us to "be"? If what Jesus says about wine and garments is true (and I'm gonna take a leap of faith and suggest that it is), then there is no way on God's paved parking lot that the people who pledge allegiance to King Jesus and seek to live from a faith-perspective can expect their existing institution to turn into new wine or unshrunk cloth simply because they attend and are highly committed to it. Both parties will lose the battle. It will be-and I have the scars to prove it- putting lipstick on a pig.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Difficult Challenge at a Difficult Time in a Difficult Place

Paul invites his reader in 2 Timothy 2:7 to not overload his writings with weight they arent meant to carry. He is relieving the reader making his writings "the Word" and instead is supporting Jesus' teachings about the Holy Spirit who would guide his followers into truth.  To do this in an Americanized Christian culture asks the reader to not just read and assume the conventional interpretation, but rather to ruminate on the writings and develop an ear to hear what the Spirit may want to teach.  Sadly, we are not encouraged to wait on that which we cannot see and feel so we gladly invite our leaders to provide us with that which we can tangibly experience and call it " the god that led us out of Egypt". Leaders gladly offer us a consumer driven program commonly called "church" and the people sing and dance around it. And "the Lord who will give you understanding in everything" is great displeased.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Literalism gone Amuck: Jesus response to Bible Thumping

As a recovering literalist I can relate to those who brought the woman to Jesus in John 8: 1-8. They had scripture and verse loaded like bullets in a gun and Jesus was no doubt about to be brought down with a spray of biblical gunfire. This was Bible thumping at its best and lovelessness gone amuck. Jesus did then what I'm sure he would do now: without denying the existence and power do "the Word", he put his "flesh" into it's interpretation by articulating and demonstrating that which only faith can generate: transcendent love. Whatever we think the Bible says better be bathed in what Paul says "never fails" else we are guilty of letting the Bible outweigh that which reflects God and is incarnated in Jesus.  

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Easter Bunny and the Golden Calf: What to do When God Disappears

How is the Easter Bunny any different for today's church-going "Christian" than the Golden Calf was for the Israelites in the wilderness?

That sounds like a ludicrous comparison but consider what the Golden Calf represented for the Children of Israel. To start with, the calf did not represent a betrayal of God, but rather a symbolic and tangible effort to remind them of the God to Whom they wish to remain faithful. They had just experienced God's deliverance in unique, powerful and personal ways and the last thing they wanted was to deny or betray Him. They had erroneously placed God's presence equal to Moses' presence and when Moses disappeared for a long period of time, the people panicked and did what people do: They generate a way to remember by creating "images" that they can look at, touch, dance or sing with that for them represents their allegiance to God. (This raises the whole issue of putting our spiritual status vicariously into the lives of our religious leaders. Perhaps a blog for another time.)

Today we call this substitutionary environment "church".

The Israelites were afraid of mystery and the unknown. We are too, for that matter. The dangerous temptation is to allow our "wilderness" moments to suck us into domesticating the God who refuses domestication even to the point of making the first commandment a complete prohibition against this common but often misidentified religious practice. The Israelites could not handle living with a God they couldn't "feel" or "know" so in order to stay faithful, so they thought, they asked their leader to provide them with something to prevent them from forgetting, something to help them remain true to their intentions.

Sadly this was a mistake by well-intended people and a mistake by a well intended leader, Aaron. God was not to be reduced to that which the people could see, feel or even understand.

The Easter Bunny is now identified with the miraculous wonder associated with the Resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing inherently wrong with a bunny any more than there is anything wrong with a cow. Both are creatures of God. I would dare guess that no Christian when confronted would dare admit to placing the bunny in a position of reverence any more than an Israelite would have thought they were replacing God with the golden calf. They would laugh at the naivete of such a question because Christians today would see the bunny as the Israelites would have seen the calf: as a God-created being and therefore a helpful reminder of Someone that want to experience and never forget. 

A second consideration in this comparison is how leadership responds to and support the people's percieved "need". Aaron was no doubt afraid of the loss of God as well and when the people came to him for assistance, instead of struggling with the difficult and confusing dilemma of God's apparent absence, he did what leaders who want to retain their position (or remain "true to their calling): He led! He had an idea that made sense to him, pleased the people, and solved "the problem". Unfortunately, God would've rather he just languished in the frustration of the Unknown and let God be God.

To relate with God requires diving into the deep end of the pool with no ability to swim. Easter Sunday will in my opinion be another shining example of humanity's inability to face the demostrable and life-altering reality of resurrection. Instead, many good ideas, presentations, songs, videos, sermons (golden calves all!) will be produced to allow people to see, touch and "feel" a God who remains vastly beyond all of this. The resurrection cannot be contained in a tomb- no matter how many fragrances we bring to make it smell better.

Imagine an Easter service (every Sunday for that matter) where people gather to wonder and share their daily joys and struggles being people of the Resurrection- an event that alters the landscape of life. Instead of "showtime", the people dive into "no-show time"- when we feel what the Israelites felt when Moses was gone and what the disciples felt when God was gone. The resurrection of Jesus was something God did and when that miracle happens in lives, it cannot be ignored and neither can it be reduced to a memorial bunny or mult-colored eggs- let alone an hour of spectacular presentation to a room full of fearful, confused yet apparently satisfied people.

As long as the cow and bunny are in revered positions of religous reminder, people can feel comfortable with remembering God. For most "believers" this will be good enough. The Israelites danced and played in the presence of God's memorial. People will sing and clap in churches on Easter Sunday.

A bunny, a cow and a spectacular Easter show can be good, I suppose, and serve a valuable purpose. They just are not good enough for me and I'm guessing, for God. God is a wonder beyond our great ideas and presentations. God resides at times in mountains filled with smoke and tombs covered by great stones. It's at times like this that gatherings must fight off the temptation to memorialize and instead encourage one another with the felt absence of God as we wait and wonder if Moses will return or Jesus will rise. The resurrection generates earthquakes, not goosebumps.

What may appear to be a good idea to us in bringing us close to God may be the very act or idea that keeps us from God.