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.