Posts Tagged 'church'

I doubt I’ll ever forget the day.  There are a series of days burned into my memory. My wedding day. Graduations (both mine and friends). My kids birth. The phone call from my dad telling me that my mom had died. The day Rob put his hand on my shoulder.

It was dark in the shed. “I come to the garden alone…” was being sung by pastors all over. I had prayed 30 minutes before that I needed some confirmation from God about the direction I thought He was taking me. I knew there were dark nights ahead. My soul lanquished inside of me. Raw wounds stung my heart and bled all over the place.

My wife and I had been at our current church for 18 months. They had lied to us throughout the process until we moved there. My wife was hurting. My bloody soul was literally in shock. I felt used, abused and betrayed by the church, Christ’s bride. Now, I was going to move my family to Michigan without a job? And I was going to have to tell people that we moved because God told me to do it? To say, I didn’t trust the church would be an understatement (and this was before I knew about angry “christian” bloggers).

So I prayed, “Dear God, I’m going to do what I believe you are telling me to do one way or another but I need a sign. I know it’s weak to ask for a sign but I need one. I need one for the cold, dark nights of doubt that I am sure are coming. I need one because my faith will be tested. If You would, I’d like to ask…I mean, I was hoping…Here’s the thing God, I’m going to go up on that stage and I’m going to pray right at the foot of that cross. I’m going to pray and if I really am hearing You, would you have someone from staff here touch me? I don’t care if it’s a preacher, or a janitor. I just need a ‘I asked the LORD and He answered me’ moment, if you know what I mean God.”

Then I went and prayed.

As I was getting ready to get up and call it a day. I felt a hand on me. I looked up and it was Rob sitting there just offering me comfort. God moved in my soul at that moment. That was January. We moved to Michigan in April. It has been the best decision we ever made. We’ve since left Mars Hill so that our family could worship in the community in which we actually live. We want to give our kids roots and Mars is about 40 minutes away.

But man, the things I learned while I was there! The healing that occurred in my life. I am not sure I can do it justice. God used Rob and Mars to bring healing to my life, and that of my family. He Rob and Mars to help me get over my hurt with the church. Rob taught me the best way to answer your accusers because he did exactly what Jesus did and ignored them. Rob taught me that Love Wins. Rob preached three of the best messages I have ever heard on forgiveness.

Sure, he preached things I didn’t agree with all the time. He said things that made me stop and scratch my head once in a while. He also taught me that it’s OK for people to disagree. We can disagree and still be brothers and sisters in Christ. Being creative doesn’t mean you hit a home run every time. You know you have really good material when the stuff you’re cutting out and leaving on the floor is really good.

He also taught me that we can have real live humans that we look up to. Before Rob, I used to say that my heroes were all dead, that way they couldn’t let me down.

Rob taught me that you can be a flawed human, with a wealth of insecurities and still change the world.

Man, I’ve debated writing this post because I am sure that people are going to read it and want to attack him. There are going to be people who say that God didn’t really talk to me that day. I may actually lose business over this post. I’ve decided I don’t care. If it were not for Rob’s influence in my life, I might not be in church today. God used him in my life in a might way.

So like John Piper once famously (or infamously said), “Farewell Rob Bell.” I would add, “I and my family will miss you.”

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It’s been a while since I had anything to say or anytime to say it. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’m not even sure I have anything to say now. A lot of things have changed since I last posted here or there or anywhere (0ther than Facebook) for that matter. I’m not even sure I remember how to do this blogging thing.

Many things have changed since I last posted here or there or anywhere. I have had a lot of time to think about a lot of things and I hope to explore some of it as I slowly begin to work my way back into writing about things like church and people like Jesus and books like the Bible. In some ways many of my thoughts on such matters haven’t changed a bit, but in other ways my thoughts, and perhaps more importantly, my actions, have changed drastically. There might be time to share thoughts on such matters later.

One thing that I hope to write about is how the Episcopal Church confiscated the building and property of the congregation we have worshiped with for the last nearly 3 years. They did so after a rather lengthy court battle which saw a judge scarcely even hear the argument before deciding against us and for them. (I hate using ‘us’ and ‘them’. It sounds so archaic and anti-everything Jesus came for.) They did so because we decided that the Episcopal Church is theologically wrong on certain issues. (They believe we are wrong too; a judge agreed with them.) Unfortunately, ‘they’ have more money than we do.

Another thing I hope to write about is my evolving relationship with Jesus–yes, that Jesus, the one who has been particularly and conspicuously quiet in my life for a while now. And yet, too, periodically, he has made such loud statements in the life of my family that I have had to run for cover for fear that it might be an archangel blasting his trumpet announcing the end of days. I still love Jesus, but it’s a different kind of love we have now. I’m not even sure I have words for whatever it has become.

Still further, I might tell you about my former church which has, for all intents and purposes, lost its identity. I amazed that so many of those who were confident the Lord had told them to remove me from the pulpit have, now, themselves, left the church. It’s a very strange irony and one that perplexes me greatly. There are a lot of things that perplex me these days not least of which is what it really means to be a christian and what it really means to belong to the church.

Church is a strange thing, a strange creature. It has been a funny thing doing church from the other side of the pulpit. If my relationship with Jesus has evolved, my relationship with the church has gone through two or three evolutionary cycles as my wife and I have tried to come to grips with the fact that we are, for all intents and purposes, orphans. (We love the Anglican church we worship with, but we also know that we are passing through there for a little while and that we really miss ‘our’ church.)

One thing I do know is this: when I start writing again on a more regular basis, I will be writing as someone who has embraced a career outside of the church. I will also be writing as someone who has been crushed by the church, hurt in ways that I wish I couldn’t describe, abandoned by a denomination that had little use for me and my family. My relationship with the church has changed drastically. This might be a good thing; it might be a bad thing. I’m not sure what sort of thing it is. All I know, at this point in my life, is that I’d like to think I am a gracious enough person to forgive the church and embrace the church, but I realize, truthfully, that the bottom line is that I am more blessed that the church continues to forgive and embrace me.

It seems to me that is what makes a church church.

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So much conversation in today’s marketplace of ideas. There’s more drama in the church nowadays than there is in the L-B-C. I wrote yesterday that, frankly, I’m bored with the entire conversation. This is mostly because it doesn’t really seem to be making any progress or leading any place in particular. Given some of the conversations that exist in the Church today, I am cautiously skeptical that we are making progress; I am recklessly hopeful that in some way Jesus will redeem them.

Seriously, what progress are we making in world missions with all of the conversation about heaven and hell and who is and who is not saved? Do I really need Seven Reasons not to believe in Hell in order to be a good decent Christian? And if not, do I need to know another person’s reasons? What progress are we making for the Kingdom of God by continually engaging in conversations seemingly only meant to prove one side is right or that the other side is wrong? Are most of the conversations even necessary? Would these conversations even be happening if the blogosphere didn’t exist? For example, does contending for a ‘biblical’ view of gender (a term traditionally applied to nouns) have much to do with contending for the faith? Do conversations about whether or not we (as Christians) should or should not watch Harry Potter films or read the books help feed a starving child in our neighborhood? (I know, it’s an illogical, false comparison.)

How are we supposed to have any idea what we are to believe? How are we supposed to have any idea what to say to others who ask us about our faith (1 Peter)? How are we to contend for the faith that has been delivered (Jude 3) when there are so many ideas floating around? It is some sort of Cornucopia Christianity and everything must change. How can there be one body, one faith, when there are so many clinging tenaciously to things other than Jesus (Ephesians 4:3-6)–like opinions, ideas, politics, and so on and so forth.

(I’m guilty too since I cling tenaciously to the idea that Scripture is not as vague as some think it is. But I do wonder, seriously, about the effects these conversations have on people who are not part of our tribe. That is, many of these internal conversations that end up external seem to me to raise more doubts than they do faith. They do this among the church too. Frankly, there are days when I simply have no idea who is telling the truth, who to believe, or who is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing.)

Maybe when I go out I can tell people about God’s love. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I can mention hell, maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should speak of a creation made by God in six days–as a foundational element of Gospel proclamation, maybe if I do I will be laughed at or ridiculed by other Christians. Maybe I can make my arguments from Scripture, maybe I should not (see in particular comments 14-17 in the comment thread). Maybe I should talk about Jesus, maybe I should talk about other Christians who talk about Jesus. Maybe holiness matters, maybe the journey does, maybe both.

Maybe the problem is that we have set up too many dichotomies in our conversations.

I’m not saying any of these conversations are necessarily wrong. What I am doing is asking a question: Are they helpful? Are they vital to the cause of Christ or are they culturally mandated and distracting and beside the point? Are they producing fruit in keeping with repentance or are they educated (or uneducated, as the case may be), lengthy ways of asking ‘Did God Really Say?’ Are they keeping our eyes off of the greater purpose for our existence which is, it seems to me, to know God and love him? Or are they helping us forward as we slouch closer and closer to Gomorrah?

I fully realize that what I am writing here will not be enjoyed by all because it will seem I am missing the point of the conversations, stereotyping others, that I am hopelessly naive, or that I am playing a significant role in helping perpetuate the very dichotomies I am so opposed to. I’m OK with that as long as someone in the world helps me get to the bottom of this problem. Accuse away! But please, help me understand what point we are trying to make and if we are saying things that, in whatever ‘end’ we may conceive, God will say, “Well said good and faithful blogger. Enter into the joy of Technorati Authority ratings.”

Maybe it is seriously time for Christians to stop fruitless conversation (1 Timothy 1:5-6) an ask the following questions: Is this conversation helpful? Am I helping the cause of Christ? Is my work advancing the Kingdom of God in a thoughtful, forward direction?

Or am I just trying to be right and out-shout the other person for whom Jesus died?

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Introduction

Contemporary Christians often feel Hebrews to be a strange and difficult book. There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, it seems to ramble about and discuss a lot of themes which have never made it into the ‘top ten’ of Christians discussion tops. It begins with a complex discussion of angels; continues with a treatment of what Psalm 95 really meant in talking about ‘entering God’s rest’; moves on to Melchizedek; lists the furniture in the Tabernacle; and ends with an exhortation to ‘go outside the camp’. Well, you see what I mean; were I a betting man, I would lay good odds that none of my readers have found themselves discussing these things over the breakfast table within the last month or two. Small wonder that most people don’t get very far with Hebrews, or let it get very far with them.—NT Wright, Following Jesus, 4

I think he’s probably correct in his assessment. There is a lot going on in the book of Hebrews—and most of the stuff going on is terribly complicated to understand. The arguments are complicated, the exegesis is tricky, and the logic is sometimes a maze of confusion. I’m not suggesting for a minute that I have it figured out entirely. Not at all. That is not to say, on the other hand, that I am completely wordless or thoughtless about this magnificent book.

Exegesis, Patterns, and the Big Idea

What I like to look for when I am reading is patterns: patterns of thought, recurring phrases, foreshadows, double-backs—you know, all those things we were taught to pay attention to when we were learning to interpret writing back in junior high. Reading through the book of Hebrews has given me an opportunity to notice a pattern repeated without fail over and over again in the book at least 14 times in the book. It’s a simple pattern and really helps us understand what the book is about or, at minimum, what small sections of the book are covering.

I add one small caveat: the book does, I believe, have an overarching point. I again agree with Wright who is very careful to write that

The book of Hebrews offers us, quite simply, Jesus. It offers us the Jesus who is there to help because he’s one of us, and has trodden the path before us. It offers us the Jesus who has inaugurated the new covenant, bringing to its fulfillment the age-old plan of God. And it offers us, above all, Jesus the final sacrifice; the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, who has lived our life and died our death, and now ever lives to make intercession for us. (Following Jesus, 10)

Jesus is the Big Idea in Hebrews, without doubt. What I would like to demonstrate is a pattern for how we understand what the smaller arguments in the book of Hebrews and thus how they all tie together to help us understand the bigger argument of Hebrews, viz., that Jesus is enough.

I think if we break up Hebrews into small chunks and see how the author ends each argument then we will begin to understand the greater point he is making within each argument. That is, each argument he makes leads naturally to breaks and conclusions which are set off by key words or phrases. Then all of these smaller arguments, when clumped together, give us a grand picture of Jesus. Throughout the book, leading up to this grand climax, the author has taught us how to live—not leaving theology without a point because all good theology has, ultimately, the point of teaching us how to live because of Jesus. So we learn how to live because of Jesus or what Jesus has said or what Jesus has done and when the book is done, we can say, “Yes, I will join him outside the camp.”

Conformity to Jesus

Barth noted that “Christian speech must be tested by its conformity to Christ.” Unless ‘speech’ is a metaphor for an entire life, then I would expand upon his thought and say that Christian life must also be tested by its conformity to Christ. We have concocted all sorts of ways to judge one another (how often do we go to church, how much money do we give, how much do we serve, etc.), none of them without some merit and some with more demerit, but it seems to me that the best way to examine ourselves, the Bible way, is to judge ourselves and see if we, I, in fact conform to Christ. I’m fairly certain the apostle Paul wrote something to this effect at some point in Romans or Ephesians or both. And this only makes sense given that Paul did definitely write that we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, renewed in the image of our Creator who is Christ Jesus.

So all throughout Hebrews, the author will give frequent pauses, after short or lengthy expositions of Old Testament Scripture, and say something like, “OK, here’s a conclusion. I just said this and that, therefore, here’s how to check yourselves against what I just wrote.” Or, “OK, I just said this and this about Jesus, now, therefore, here’s the way you ought to be conducting yourselves.” He does this over and over again; I count at least 14 times where this pattern is used. The key, if you are reading in English, is to find the word ‘therefore’. In our English translations, this word will signify the need for the reader to pause and consider what has just been read. It’s a good exercise in exegesis that when you see the word ‘therefore’ to ask what it is there for.

Read the rest of this entry »

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I’ve been finding my way back recently. It’s not been an easy journey. I have chronicled my journey here and elsewhere. The road has been crooked and confusing. The journey has been filled with missteps and sidesteps. My feet have been tangled in weeds and soaked from stepping in potholes deep enough to hold melted winter water.

Sometimes we grope in the darkness and hope for a helping hand. Sometimes the hand is clenched, fist-like, and lands squarely on our jaw.

Therefore, when I approach Scripture these days it is not without trepidation and fear and trembling. I used to be a ‘pro,’ but the Lord was convinced that I need to be demoted to the minor leagues. He demoted me in dramatic and startling fashion. I have had to find a way to know God when I don’t have to know God. It’s hard to know that water quenches thirst when it’s on tap, much easier to know it does when you are in a desert. Still, as I walk back to the life I was ushered from, I begin to find my way back to the pulpit. That is, I find myself able and wanting to talk about Scripture from a particular point of view: the pulpit.

The view from the pulpit will never be the same for me again in this life. And that is probably a good thing.

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The short letter to the church at Ephesus has, for reasons not entirely unknown to my heart, captured my attention anew in recent days. Last year, it was from reading Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection. It was also due to a sermon series I heard at one of the two churches my family attends—the preacher did a masterful work exegeting Paul’s thoughtful, pastoral and prophetic words, bringing them to life inside the congregation.

I have realized much, lately, that I am hungry again. The letter to the church at Ephesus has startled my taste-buds like a fragrant and aromatic wine. It’s like tasting a sweet cake all over again for the first time. It’s like having an ice cold beer after cutting grass in the hot August sun. It’s like seeing my wife, gorgeous and majestic as she was, on our wedding day. It’s like waking up from a long illness and craving a tasty, sumptuous, and rich dinner. It’s like walking down the Emmaus Road hungry and finding oneself strangely satisfied, without ever having taken a bite, because Jesus was in our midst all along.

Do I have words to describe what water tastes like after walking thirsty across a desert for many, many days? What is a sound night’s sleep like after being awake for many days? What is a dreamless night after a year of nightmares? What is it like to finally beat up a bully who has been humiliating you day after day after day? What is it like to put on fresh socks after walking for miles barefoot on the jagged rocks? It’s like realizing again that our hunger is satisfied only by things we cannot feed ourselves. Taste and see, the Lord said. It’s no wonder he told us to taste and see. I gave up pop for Lent; water is delicious.

Yeah. That’s what Ephesians has been to me as I have awakened from my slumber and realized that Jesus has not been nearly as silent as I had previously thought.  I am hungry. I am thirsty. Ephesians has been good food, good drink, for me.

The other day, I was reading through chapter 1 again and I realized some important things about it. So I offer some tentative thoughts from chapter 1.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,  in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Ephesians, like pretty much all of the Bible, is about Jesus. It is really, truly difficult to avoid that idea. What I noticed is that God is working out a plan in Jesus. Read through these verses slowly and notice how many times he uses simple pronouns: he, him, his. Notice how often he talks of Jesus, writes his name, sings his praise. God has a lot to do through Jesus and he is doing it, has done it. God means to accomplish three main tasks as I see them here in chapter 1.

First, he means to bring us all together into complete unity (v 10). All things in heaven and earth under Christ. All of this is accomplished through the work of Jesus—this is his purpose in Jesus. Complete oneness of all God’s people, and all God’s places, in Jesus.

Second, he means to bring about our final redemption (v 14). And in the meantime, he has given us a promise, a seal, in the form of his Holy Spirit. Our redemption is through his blood (v 7).

Third, he means to once and for all, finally, to place all things under the feet of Jesus (v 21-22). This dominion begins with the church. We are the firstfruits of his rule and authority even though clearly all things are under his authority (Matthew 28)

That is brief and unfinished to be sure, and they should probably be expanded and finished. What is amazing is this: look how much the church is included in this work of God! Look at what he has done for us, how much he has included us in the mystery, how much he has invested in the church, how much authority he has given us already, how much he has promised us, and how he gone out of his way to make sure we are not entirely in the dark. We know what to expect of God, we know what his ambition and goal is: unity, redemption, dominion—all resulting and exalting God’s glory (‘to the praise of his glory’, 3, 6, 12, & 14).

I just finished reading David Platt’s as yet unpublished book Radical Together. He writes of what I believe is of utmost importance that many of our churches have yet to figure out here in this world (that’s not a blanket criticism, just a general observation based upon my own personal experiences in the church–and I’m probably limiting it to the Church of Christ/Christian Church). You see, the letter to Ephesus asks the church to be involved in some rather important and heady stuff—stuff we couldn’t plan, cannot finish, and cannot control. The letter also informs us that we have not been left helpless or powerless. Platt captures exactly my point:

As long as church consists of normal routines, and Christianity consists of nominal devotion with little risk, little sacrifice, and little abandonment, then we can do this on our own. But what happens when we give ourselves to something that is far greater than we can accomplish on our own? What happens when we dare to believe that God desires to use every one of our lives and every one of our churches to bring about kingdom advancement to the ends of the earth? We will find ourselves around every corner and at every moment dependent on his power and desperate for his grace as devote ourselves to his purpose. (129)

This is the God who calls us to abandonment and the freakishly terrifying idea of taking his Gospel to the masses of lost and hopeless people in this world. This is the God who gives us a spirit of wisdom and revelation that we ‘might know him better.’ And when we know him better, we clearly communicate Him to others. He has given us resurrection power to accomplish that very purpose that all things may one day be brought to complete unity, that one day he might finally redeem us, that one day all things might truly be brought under the power and rule and authority of Jesus—to the praise of his glory!

What’s so amazing is that God has included us in that plan. Amazing.

God does not involve us in his grand, global purpose because he needs us. He involves us in his grand, global purpose because he loves us…Let’s rise up together as selfless followers of a self-centered God, and let’s live—and die—like we believe our highest prize is his global praise. (Platt, 135)

To the praise of his glory.

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“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a  radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27).

I think it is fair to say that I have had my issues with the church. Maybe my issues are a wee bit different given that I have been on both sides of the proverbial aisle—as a lay person and a professional person. Maybe those are the wrong categories too.

It was not just professional failure that caused a lot of my criticism. I had some especially irritating youth leaders when I was a younger man. They thought they knew so much with all their ‘you shouldn’t do this’s’ and ‘you shouldn’t do that’s’. Ugh. Being a teenager was such a drag with all those hypocritical youth leaders whose own children grew up worse and who, inevitably, ended up divorced or worse. Sheesh.*

But hypocrisy is something I am well acquainted with now that I am adult. You’ve heard the old saying that there was a certain fourteen year old couldn’t believe how dumb his father was and who later, when he became a twenty-one year old, couldn’t believe how much his father had learned in a mere seven years? I now believe in the utter genius of all those terrifically, wonderfully, hypocritical youth leaders who loved me so ceaselessly when I was a teenager. Now that I am older man with children of my own who have never experienced that for a minute in their lives, I realize just how blessed I was. How I wish my own sons had some hypocritical, problem-laden adult youth leaders cramming all that morality and Jesus talk down their throats.

Who knows the depths of self-destruction that might have plagued me had they not been there, hounding me, loving me, restraining me. As I look back, I think I was actually compelled by their sometimes confrontational nature. I enjoyed arguing; they were more than happy to give me reasons to argue. I wanted to be loved; they did so generously, carelessly, and devotedly.

I have read a couple of articles in the past week that I believe were placed in my path by one of those old youth leaders or perhaps the Holy Spirit had something to do with it. Either way, they were special articles that I thought I’d share with you.

The first is from Books & Culture and was written by Philip Yancey. It’s from a couple of months old issue of the journal, but I’m a bit behind my journal reading. In the essay, Yancey is recapping an aspect of his writing career that has dealt, primarily, with his criticism of a certain Bible College he attended as a young man. Near the end of the essay Life in a Bubble he writes:

Through the grace of God, and also the grace of the college administration, I managed to survive through graduation. I now reflect on my time at Bible college with some shame but much gratitude: for the biblical knowledge I acquired there, for the personal disciplines that I resented at the time but learned to appreciate, and for the essential part that school played in grounding my faith. Ever since, we have had an ambivalent relationship, the school and I. They gave me a Distinguished Alumnus award—and nearly asked for it back after I wrote about the school in What’s So Amazing About Grace?

This is an especially good article Yancey wrote. He took some flak for it in a later edition of Books & Culture in the Letters to the Editor section, but I appreciate his honesty.

A second article I read is from the November 14, 2010 issue of Christian Standard. In the article Stop Bashing the Bride, Mike Baker wrote, rather beautifully I might add, the following:

Here’s something else to consider: God knew the church would be imperfect! I’ve always been amazed that God established two crucial institutions in the world—the family and the church, and he put weak-willed, imperfect, prone-to-sin, messed-up people in charge of both. Did it ever occur to anyone that this is a part of God’s great design to show his strength in our weakness?

I’m not saying we should go on being imperfect losers so that God’s strength may abound. But I am saying God knew the people of his church would be imperfect; in fact, imperfection is one thing that has been universally consistent about the people who make up the church from the first century to the 21st century!

But the church is humanly imperfect. Spiritually speaking, she is beautiful and without flaw. God made her that way through his extreme love in dying for her. I believe it’s time for leaders in the church to stop pointing out her spots, wrinkles, and blemishes because Christ has made her radiant. Have you noticed her beauty lately? God has.

I encourage you to read both essays in their entirety.

Since venturing into this world, the world of blogging, I have met some of the most wonderful people on the face of Darwin’s earth. I realize that even though I am not currently supported by the church, any church, it was the church that supported me and my wife through many toils, trials and snares. Cancer. Hemolytic anemia. Three children. Bible College. Through all this and more it was the church—‘imperfectly perfect’ as Mike Baker calls her—that has loved me, loved Renee, loved my sons. There is, to be sure, a lot of ugliness in the church. No one denies that. But there is, more so, a boundless and unmitigated beauty in her too.

And I, for one, have, in my gross exaggerations of suffering at her hands, missed this beauty. Sometimes so eager to justify my own points of view or sin, I have been a downright arrogant prig when it comes to the church. My demands have been, at times, more than the Lord Jesus has asked of her. Unfortunate as that is, it is the truth.

Now I find myself in a strange way missing the church that has loved me so relentlessly.

I need a new trajectory for dealing with the church and her imperfections. It is only my awareness of my own conceit that keeps me from seeing the church as Christ sees her—His bride, His Love, the One He died for. He died for the church—the very church that I, and others, have taken such a delight in bashing and criticizing. Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips and I blog among a people with unclean keyboards.

Eugene Peterson wrote in his book Practice Resurrection that the church is somehow different, somehow beautiful, and that in the church we learn something we cannot learn anywhere else on earth: we learn how to love.

The church is the primary place we have for learning this language of love. The conditions here in the church, unlike the conditions in the world, are propitious—not the endless variations on eroticized fornication and adultery posing as love in the world, nor, to take a de-eroticized alternative, a classroom with a distinguished professor giving lectures on love, assigning papers, our desks strewn with grammars and concordances and dictionaries. Rather, in church we find a gathering of people who are committed to learning the language in the company of the Trinity and in company with one another. We don’t learn it out of a book. (216)

This is a long way to saying something along these lines: I love the church because she first loved me. I have been far more accepted in the church than I have been rejected. After all, I cannot let a few professional terminations along the way determine how I feel about those who have done nothing but open their arms and welcome me back anytime I happen to decide I’m sick of the pig-pen.

Maybe if we saw the church in terms of the Bride that Christ Jesus loves, instead of the place where we have been run over, then we will not be so anxious to hurl our criticisms at her. Perhaps if we are quicker to see the church as the Bride Jesus has healed with his own blood then we will not be so quick to point out that there may be places where she is not entirely healed just yet. Perhaps if we are wise enough to see how patient Jesus has been with the church then we will be a little slower to become angry with her ourselves.

Perhaps if we took a minute to see how much Jesus loves His Bride then…then…we will speak more tenderly to her, of her, about her, and around her. After all, if someone speaks ill of my bride, I’m going to take offense and deal with those words accordingly.

Perhaps we need to all take a minute and consider how Jesus feels when we talk about his Bride.

We are talking about Christ’s bride here. Shouldn’t we be a little more careful about how we flippantly describe Jesus’ wife as irrelevant, corrupt, hypocritical, and ineffective? Indulge me just a little as I defend the church I have come to love and am falling in love with more and more every day. (Mike Baker)

*I’m being a little sarcastic here.

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Daily Office

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21)

Something that has bothered me for a long time is the manner in which sinners are typically reckoned as members of the church. We ask them to ‘repeat the confession’: I believe, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God AND my personal Lord and Savior. So, we make sure we get in all those great Christological terms: Christ, Son, Lord, Savior, Jesus, God. And then, to much applause and fanfare, the right hand of fellowship is extended and the person is welcomed into the church. (Or they are baptized or catechized or turned into twice the sons of hell than they were before the confession.)

The problem is that nowhere in the Scripture are we told that this is even remotely close to the way in which sinners are reckoned as saints, orphans are reckoned as family, or wanderers are reckoned as disciples. In fact Jesus seems to be saying here that the confession of him as ‘Lord, Lord’ is one of the least reliable ways of determining anything. Jesus says that ‘not everyone’ who says this will ‘enter the kingdom’ (which I do not take to mean that it will be sufficient for some). There are wolves among the sheep. A lot of people are simply full of words, empty words as it turns out in the long run.

Bonhoeffer noted well,

“Even if we make the confession of faith, it gives us no title or special claim upon Jesus. We can never appeal to our confession or be saved simply on the ground that we have made it. Neither is the fact that we are members of a Church which has a right confession a claim to God’s favour…God will not ask us that day whether we were good Protestants, but whether we have done his will” (The Cost of Discipleship, 193; Bonhoeffer’s arguments here are a bit confusing but the short and long of it, he argues, is that this is not an ‘ordinary contrast of word and deed, but two different relations between man and God.’ One has to do with works, the other with grace.)

The gracious call of God, in other words, transforms us. There is a sense in which, in agreement with Bonhoeffer, our confessions are self-righteous and calls for people to notice us while our ‘doing’ is a drawing of attention to God, however quietly it may happen. Here N.T. Wright is also in agreement,

“This revolutionary vision of virtue thus enables us to shift attention quite drastically away from the idea that Christian behavior in the world is basically about ‘good works’ in the sense of good moral living, keeping the rules, and so on, and toward the idea that Christian behavior is basically about ‘good works’ in the sense of doing things which bring God’s wisdom and glory to birth in the world” (After You Believe, 71; his emphasis).

So Jesus is saying that, while a confession is not entirely out of place, if you truly want to demonstrate the grace of God in your life, or answer his gracious call, then respond to Him…make a confession not with words, but with actions. “The grace of Jesus is a demand upon the doer, and so his doing becomes the true humility, the right faith, and the right confession of the grace of the God who calls” He calls, we answer. “They know that confession does not justify, and so they have gone and made the name of Jesus great among the people by their deeds” (The Cost of Discipleship, 194).

Confession with words draws attention to the self: Lord, Lord, Look at me!

Actions, doing the will of God, calls attention to the God who calls: Behold, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So go, make his Name great today. Jesus seems to be more impressed with doing than with saying. And this, I suspect, will be the true test of whether or not a person has been received into fellowship in the church.

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balcony 02If you have paid any attention at all, you know full well how tumultuous has been the upheaval of the past year of my life. I’ve tried to keep my rants to a minimum, but sometimes I have failed. I have tried to learn through this experience of career change and learn I have–not always willingly, not always happily, and not always without an adult beverage to take the edge off of the process.

I’m not the only person in the world who has had to endure a career change. Some welcome it, others fear it. I’m somewhere in the middle, taking a more philosophical approach that goes something like this: “Why?”

Or maybe that’s the coward’s way out, who knows?

It’s always easy to avoid reality by asking ‘why’? Asking ‘why?’ enables us to sit and wonder all day long. Asking ‘why?’ is enabling–yes, it serves as a sort of co-dependent to all our Right-ness. Asking ‘why?’ is a way of avoiding the changes by hanging around in a fog-like stupor and questioning over and over again all the circumstances and issues that lead up to the moment when the change actually, and perhaps inevitably, took place. I guess maybe we think things will magically change if we sit around and question long enough what went wrong. So we lash out, question, regret, blame, and do all sorts of other unsavory philosophical things in the name of ‘Why?’ and never actually arrive anywhere but right back where we started: Why?

Rich Mullins sang about it in a song called ‘Hard to Get’:

And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow All I really need to know
Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can’t see what’s ahead
And we can not get free of what we’ve left behind
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret I can’t see how
You’re leading me unless
You’ve led me here
Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
And so You’ve been here all along I guess
It’s just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get

‘Why?’ becomes a sort of soothing god; a justifier of our self-righteousness; a companion in our misery. ‘Why?’ people are quite lonely people. It’s a wonder God allowed such a wicked word to be invented or to evolve alongside the aardvarks and amoebas. It’s a wonder that God allows, or catalyzes, such events to foster the perpetuation of the ‘Why’. Mysterious ways indeed!

In the course of this journey I have been taking I have gone from the guy who stands in front of the congregation, leading, praying, preaching to the person going most out of his way to hide: the balcony person. I have gone from being Bud Selig to Bob Eucker. I’m not writing this to disparage those of you who, reading this, also identify with the balcony. On the contrary I am saying I completely understand. I have become, in a little less than a year, a full-fledged, member of this esteemed congregational clique that goes out of its way to be unnoticed, uninvolved, and unannounced. It’s easy to migrate and hibernate and remain invisible in the balcony. I’m becoming a pro.

Following are some observations I made one Sunday morning while sitting in the balcony during worship. They define my experience and perhaps yours. Everything I write in this post is, obviously, patently, personal and generalized. I make no claims here to omniscience. I only offer what I am or what I have become or, probably, what I have resorted to in order to figure out what church means at this juncture in my life and as an insulation against hatred for the Body Jesus loves.

First, as noted above, balcony people can hide. We neither want to be seen nor need to be. In fact, we prefer being unnoticed. This may be a good thing. As I reflect back on my days as ‘the guy up front’, I think to myself it may have gone better if I had been a balcony person then too. Maybe, I say this regretfully, but maybe I wanted to be seen back then and maybe that was a problem, a large problem, The Problem. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to be seen, but being seen by the right one, the One who sees all and from whom none can hide, is a far, far better reason to be in worship. Perhaps the balcony is sort of like the prayer closet; perhaps it should be.

Second, balcony people are, at best, spectators not participants. (Participation necessarily implies more than one.) I know this is not entirely true, but it has become true for me. Being a balcony person has given me the opportunity to observe the worship and avoid participation. I noticed that some Balcony People do not even sing when the words appear on the screen. What I have noticed is that Balcony People are keen to let things happen. They are fine with allowing the worship to be directed or lead or controlled by some other person. Being in the balcony gives me the opportunity to do what I want: sit when I want, stand when I want, spread out my notebook and legs when I want. I can be no one and everyone in the balcony. In the balcony I can watch what other people do, and people do not do much in worship. The reason I can get away with this is because in the worship our eyes move only in two directions: down (for example, in prayer) and forward (waiting to see the next move of the worship leader). No one looks up and no one looks back. The balcony is safe from prying eyes, but perfect for spying eyes.

Third, balcony people are, by and large, anonymous. Seriously: how many people who are downstairs are going to make a beeline to the balcony during the Passing of the Peace? In my experience none. I do not have to talk to anyone while I’m in the balcony. I do not have to shake hands with the preacher. I do not have to say hello to the annoying old lady who wants to slobber all over everyone with her hugs and ‘Jesus Never Failed Me Yet’ sort of naiveté. I do not have to have a name as long as I am in the balcony. For that matter, no one even has to know I am there. I can slip in and slip out as quietly as the proverbial church mouse and no one is the wiser.

Fourth, and finally, Balcony People can and do come and go as they please. There is no real starting time for those who sit in the balcony. They can afford this lack of punctuality because no one but other Balcony People see them arrive–and they understand all too well the reason for being unpunctual (to avoid others). On the other hand, Balcony People can also leave whenever they want. I’ve seen this phenomenon on more than one occasion and, to be sure, participated in it as well. It is a sacrament of Balcony People to leave early. We can leave during the sermon, before the offering, after the communion, but especially before the very end when we might be forced to make eye contact with other folks, those folks, the ones who sit on the lower level closer to god. I think this is the key: the freedom to avoid others, the freedom to avoid their strangling handshakes and hugs of super Christians, the freedom to avoid their questions about ‘what church we belong to’, and the freedom to avoid the other twenty questions that have nothing to do with anything but the sinister attempt to get me to belong.

Maybe the goal of conversation should not always be to get me to belong. Maybe I’m fine un-belonging for now.

What I have learned most about being a Balcony Person is that I get to be alone. Maybe that’s why balconies were invented in the first place, you know, so that people like me could hide; so that us undesirables wouldn’t have to be looked at or interacted with on Sunday mornings (we tend to bring down those on whom Jesus has painted a perpetual smile). Maybe it was created precisely to be a hiding place. Maybe the balcony has become the new ash heap, a modern pile of garbage for the Jobs among us, a Patmos for the defeated and broken, a Kedar for the struggling. (God’s people spend a lot of time in exile.) Job sat with friends in his heap while he suffered and tried to figure out the whats and wheres and whys of his trials and so do we–except it’s in a nice clean, carpeted, air conditioned building. And maybe we get to hide there for a while, kind of like David among the Philistines or Noah in his ark, until it is time to move back downstairs with all the people who have it all together, for whom Jesus contains no mystery and the Why no longer exists.

Balcony people can afford to hold hands with ‘Why?’ longer than those who sit amidst the congregation because we are in no hurry to arrive and in no hurry to leave. As a balcony person, I can take as much or little time as I need. I do not have to have it all-together in order to be a Jesus follower. I can be the run down, undone, miserable, joyful, loser that I am in the balcony because the only one who sees me there is only One whose sight matters during the worship. This doesn’t make us superheros or special or more real than anyone else. And this is not to say that all bottom-dwellers are exactly the opposite. It just means that this is my experience in becoming a wallflower in the congregation.

I think Balcony People are those who are lost enough to be led. Not all, but many. Those in the balcony are those who, to some extent, realize that sometimes God wants to know just how much we want Him. This is not to rundown the superheros among us who sit downstairs on Sundays. It’s just to say that some of us feel like we need to sit on a small hill of rubbish or in the upstairs or in the balcony so that we can get just a little closer to God. We need those extra twenty or so vertical feet. Maybe we think being higher up means he will hear our voices a little clearer or, better, that we will hear His.

Maybe we just like being invisible for a while.

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Last Sunday I attended a different church. It was weird to say the least. It felt strange and I felt awkward. I was unaccustomed to being at the mercy of some one else’s leadership. It wasn’t a bad thing; it was a weird thing.

The preacher leading the worship was enthusiastic and energized. He was prayed up, fired up, and lifted up. The thing I appreciated most about the church is that there were no clocks in the building. No one was worried about how long worship lasted or what direction it took once it started. They were there to worship not to be seen. In fact, as I read over their six page bulletin, I didn’t even see an order of worship. Mostly, it was six pages of prayer requests.

The preacher said several good things that morning but I have to say that I appreciated most this comment which I will paraphrase:

The problem with the church is that most folks think of it in the wrong way. Take ships for example. Most people get up and think that the church is a cruise ship. There everyone will be waited on hand and foot, drinks will be poured whenever they snap their fingers, and they will be entertained for an hour or so. After all, that’s what they have paid for.

But that is not what the church is, and certainly not how we should be thinking.

Instead we should be thinking of the church as a battle ship: And we are coming on board, at the invitation of The Captain, to get our orders.

That is brilliant, and true. It was the single best illustration I heard all morning (and the morning was nearly 2 hours!).

The church we worshiped with did things differently than I was accustomed to. I’m used to an order, a live band, a manuscripted sermon, a couple of cursory prayers, clocks (or people with them) and some well-timed responses from the people in the chaise lounge chairs pews. Instead, we prayed, we sang, we listened to a very poor sermon that I thought would never end (and yet we hung on every word because it was The Word), we prayed over people who would be leaving on other journeys, we didn’t even hear from the senior minister because the worship was conducted nearly entirely by the congregation, we were concerned about the Lord, and we fellowshiped in love.

In fact, these folks were so concerned about attending the Lord in worship that they didn’t even pass the plate for an offering. They trusted the Lord to provide. No offering was even taken.

That was a congregation preparing to do battle. That was a church ready for her orders. That was a church blessed because they knew that the Jesus Way is not just about showing up (at church), but about being (the church). These are people who know that the Jesus way is not a cruise ship chugging along for some distant, exotic port but a battle ship preparing to engage the enemy on his open water.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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Being a preacher in a local church has given me insight that, frankly, I would rather not have when it comes to the church. I have met people in the church who are, I’m sad to say (and not that I am perfect mind you) who are among the meanest, most ungracious people I have ever met. That is a sad, sad, sad, thing to say; may God forgive me.

This is not to say, again, that I am perfect nor that I have never invited the wrath of some folks. There are plenty of times when my own weak personality, quick judgmentalism, forked tongue, and short temper have contributed much ammunition to the weapons used by these angry folks. I say with much regret that there are times when, as a preacher, I am as dumb as a sack of potatoes.

Grace is God’s on-going exertion of resurrection energy in the life of a justified individual to perfect in them the image of Christ (Colossians 3:9-10). It’s called sanctification. It is not an easy project by any stretch of the imagination. In some ways, I suspect that it is just as ‘painful’ for God as it is for the child. If God disciplines his children as a Father, and I believe he does, I don’t suppose it is any less hurtful for God, as Father, than it is for me when I discipline my sons. But what I have noticed, all too frequently, is that ministers are not afforded that grace. Congregants are; preachers are not. Preachers are not afforded the reality of being human thus when they are scrutinized they are scrutinized as a little above humans. And when they fail, they fail worse than the satan.

Shouldn’t preachers, I have a special place in my heart for them, be afforded the same courtesy of allowing that God’s isn’t quite finished with them yet?

Thus an entire genre of literature had to be invented in order to help preachers not only survive such massive assaults, but also to prevent them from going bonkers and winding up in the Psych ward of a local hospital. I just finished reading Well Intentioned Dragons which was a mind-boggling look at the stories of some preachers who had to endure such devastating pressure in their ministries. I highly recommend this book. Currently, I am reading The Wounded Minister by Guy Greenfield. I’m only just starting it, but Greenfield’s approach is nothing short of ‘in your face’. He takes a no-holds-barred, no-prisoners approach to writing about the insidious nature of those who have made it their ‘ministry’ to destroy those who serve in some ministry type position in the church or para-church.

I’d like to share a paragraph or three from this book with you. After listing seven characteristics of ‘clergy killers’ Greenfield writes:

Clinically speaking, who are clergy killers? What has made them this way? Several possibilities may exist. They may possess distinct personality disorders (for example, they may be antisocial, borderline paranoid, narcissistic). These conditions will be discussed in more detail later. It is also possible that clergy killers have been victims of abuse, either in the past or the present. Inadequate socialization (the process of becoming human), arrested adolescence, or violent role models may be behind their behavior. Some may have a perverse, voyeuristic, and vindictive taste for the suffering of their victims. Others have learned to throw tantrums to get their selfish way. They have learned how to distract, confuse, lie, and seduce to do harm to the vulnerable.

Clergy killers would or destroy either by direct attacks or by inciting others to inflict the wounds. Sometimes they induce victims to self-destruct by harassing them to the point of frustration and anger. This is the minister who counterattacks angrily from the pulpit. Most congregations will not tolerate for long a minister who expresses angry outbursts during his sermons, however justified he may feel.

Understanding how any person can become a clergy killer is complex and difficult. Most Christians in most churches have never known one, but it takes only one or two in a church to create havoc and bedlam. Because these people live in denial as to their true nature, they would not see themselves in this chapter if they were to read it. Clergy killers have surrounded and insulated themselves with a whole array of defense mechanisms and justifications for their actions. They firmly believe that what they are doing in harming and terminating a minister is the right thing to do. For them, it is the will of God. Nevertheless, they are sick and mean people. (30-31)

In my own experience, I can say that this is exactly the truth. What Greenfield is talking about is the local church (of which I am a big fan). Take these thoughts and extrapolate them just a bit. Imagine that the church also included an online community of several millions of people. Imagine that ‘local church preachers’ also happen to be ‘global church preachers’ because they write books or podcast sermons or pray at inaugurations. Online Clergy killers are no different than local church clergy killers. They may have a bigger audience, perhaps a little more clout, but they are no less sick; no less mean.

I can tell you that such activity in the local church has ramifications for the church’s witness and ministry in the community where it is located. I believe it keeps people away from the church. I can testify that in one church I served, a clergy killer went so far as to sit in a local restaurant and talk badly about the church, and the preacher (me), and do his best to persuade people not to worship with us. Now, extrapolate that thought and apply it to the internet and it becomes apparent what the problem is. Far from saving people to the glorious Gospel of Christ, online clergy killers are destroying the church–the body for which Christ Jesus gave up his life.

I believe in my heart that something is going to have to give sooner or later. At some point, online clergy killers are going to have to realize that they are not helping the cause of Christ because they are not promoting peace, not displaying the fruit of the Spirit, not putting their good deeds on display so that people might give praise to the Father in Heaven. Maybe it is time for peace.

Lord, help us. How, O Lord, how can there be peace?

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