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Monthly Archives: August 2013

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Uncle John Wyclif – Dangerous Mind

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An iconoclast. A controversial thinker. Not a good pastor, but a man whose thoughts and leadership did more for the common saints of England than perhaps any church leader in British history.

He’s part of my family, and I like him. He’s John Wyclif. Like most family members, I mostly like him, but am troubled by a few things about his life. Maybe I like him because he reminds me a bit of myself, and my own troubling weaknesses. Sometimes I think I am a direct product of Uncle John’s spiritual gene pool.

First, some of the rough stuff. He was part and parcel of a religious machine that he at once  a) criticized openly, and  b) benefited from handsomely. In those days, you could get assigned the oversight of a church in England, and not even have to be there – you were simply expected to get substitutes to cover your bases. Uncle John was awarded a rectorship when he was 31, and another one at 44…but never lived in the towns of the churches until he had to for political reasons, when he was 52 – 21 years! For all this time, he was paid by the church as an absentee rector, but stayed in Oxford, where he thought, and wrote.

What I love about Uncle John W. is his mind. He addressed many issues that today, with our post-Reformation perspective, seem somewhat obvious. But they weren’t then. They were shocking, “heretical”, and considered dangerous. Some examples:

He believes all political rulers need to be godly, and that leaders who live blatantly sinful lives forfeit their right to govern. Not the “divine right” of kings, but the “divine responsibility” of kings. 

* He believes the Bible is free from error, free from contradiction, and is God’s entire revelation – that there is no need for added teachings by the church, and that all theological thinking needs to be measured against the text of scripture. 

wycliffe* He believes the Bible should be available to all people, not just the teachers. It therefore needs to be translated into common languages. 

* He believes that Jesus is present in the Lord’s Supper, but not in the way Thomas Aquinas described a century ago, saying Jesus is “transubtantiated” into the physical bread and wine. Uncle John W. thinks it is more mysterious than that.

* He believes that the office of the Roman papacy is man-made, not God-ordained. He also believes the pope should have no authority in secular government. Finally, he says an immoral pope – in fact the entire papacy – is “the antichrist” (and the popes were quite immoral those days!).

Interesting…the Roman church usually burned thinkers like Wyclif at the stake, right? How did he survive? The same way another one of our family members did – Martin Luther. Both of these men enjoyed enough political protection in their home countries to continue thinking and publishing. Sure, Uncle John’s ideas were repeatedly condemned by Rome, but no one was able to lay a hand on him…

Well, until after he died,  He passed away on New Years Eve in 1384, after experiencing two strokes. But, just because he’s dead doesn’t mean he can’t be punished. 44 years after he was buried, they exhumed his bones, and burned them. I guess that showed him.

FMB Mural The Trial Of WyclifThere are different kinds of people in our spiritual family. Some are great with people. Others are deep in prayer. There are those who are unusually active in service. And there is the occasional super-evangelist.

And then, there are people like Uncle John W. They see things. They get things. They uncover blind spots for others, which often isn’t received too well. They make logical connections from truth to truth which challenge the status quo. They aren’t particularly skilled at kneading his thoughts into the hearts of individual people – that’s what pastors do. But they get the important, game-changing thoughts out on the table, and those thoughts find their way to the right people who can, in turn, make a difference on the ground.

It seems I spend much of my time these days wrestling with what I think are important thoughts … then sharing them … then apologizing for the hurts they inflict on others. I mean no harm – in fact, I truly want my ideas to be redemptive. When people seem to be after my bones, Uncle John W. reminds me that I’m not alone … and, by the grace of God, it may well be worth it in the long run.

 
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Posted by on August 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Uncle Augustine – Unity of the Church

Uncle Augustine – Unity of the Church

As an orphan searching for his family, I was pointed to one old uncle who everyone seems to like. I thought that would be a safe way to begin.

Uncle Augustine (St. Augustine) is a very smart African Christian who lived from 354-430. Everyone seems to love him – Protestants, Catholics…even the Eastern church venerates him as a “saint”. He was a late-in-life convert at 32. He had a Christian mom (Monica, e.g. Santa Monica, the city in the Los Angeles area), but his dad was pagan. His was a well-to-do family, so a good education was made available to him. He loved literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. He also liked the ladies, a had a baby out of wedlock during his teen years.

He became a rhetoric teacher in Carthage, and eventually moved to the big city of Rome to teach there. In Rome, and then in Milan, he was encouraged by his mother and some friends to check out Christianity. He was inspired by some writings from Church history. He heard the preaching of the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, which was very influential to him. But what put him over the edge was his reading of the book of Romans. Ambrose baptized Augustine, and the 44-year ministry career was on!

So much more to say – but for now, I want to share with you one of Augustine’s ideas that shines some much-needed light on our contemporary family – and on me.

Augustine and the Donatists

In Augustine’s day, the church had a problem: It was splitting. The issues were intense. There was a group that had broken away from the one, unified church because they thought that some of church leaders had disqualified themselves by what they perceived as the sin of apostasy – of denying Christ when the heat was on. They said that, since these leaders were defiled, they could not lead communion services. So they ordained their own leaders, and started “doing church” on their own, apart from the one, internationally connected church.

Fast forward to 2013. Whatever, right? This happens all the time in the Christianity we know today – it couldn’t be more “normal.” Any idea of some sort of single, universal church is long gone. New churches start every day, with new leaders being “sent” by whichever local church organization with whom they happen to be connected. No one cries “foul”. How can we? Our politically-induced freedom of religious expression has translated to the total freedom of Christian expression. There seem to be no rules, and – by virtue of our contemporary world view – we are obliged to honor all such expressions.

Augustine takes issue, and turns the whole leadership/sacraments argument on its head. See if this makes sense to you:

Ancient Eucharist“Although this sacrifice is made or offered by man [cf., communion], still the sacrifice is a divine act … The whole redeemed community, the congregation and fellowship of the saints, is offered as a universal sacrifice to God by the great priest who offered himself … that we might be the Body of so great a Head … so the Apostle exhorted us to ‘present our bodies as a living sacrifice’ … we ourselves are the whole sacrifice … this is the sacrifice of Christians; the ‘many who are one body in Christ’.” (City of God 10:5-6)

I’ve always understood communion as God giving me the body of Jesus. Jesus is the sacrifice, and I’m the recipient of it. Nod with me if that’s what you’ve always thought…

But Augustine says we are the sacrifice at the table. Not that we are broken and bleed for the sins of the world – that would, of course, be heresy. But Jesus said “This is my body” about the Eucharist. He also says “This is my body” about us, His people.

“The reason why these are called sacraments is that one thing is seen in them, but something else is understood … listen to the repeated teaching of the Apostle; for he says, ‘We are many, but we are one loaf, one body’ … So the Lord has set his mark on us, wished us to belong to him, has consecrated on his table the mystery of our peace and unity.” (Sermon 272)

I’ve never thought this way before: That celebrating communion is a celebration of our unity as a people! He goes on to say,

“If a man receives the sacrament of unity, but does not ‘keep the bond of peace’, he does not receive a sacrament for his benefit, but evidence for his condemnation.” (Sermon 272)

In other words, if people celebrate a unity they aren’t actually doing, it does you more harm than good.

Yikes.

a plate full of small, individual “loafs” – an icon of our times?

Every Sunday, hundreds of thousands of tables are set with versions of the Lord’s Supper. People take for a variety of reasons. Some believe it is the transubstantiated host which fills them with grace. For others, a mystical encounter with Jesus. Others see it simply as a memory device to remind them of the crucifixion. For others, it is truly a mindless act of religious ritual. Christians have split numerous times over the interpretation of this sacrament…

Which makes Uncle Augustine’s insistence all the more ironic in our day. Communion is a “sacrament of unity.” When we hold that bread, it is a piece of the one loaf – the one “body of Christ” – of which we are a part. But the Protestant world, like the splitters in Augustine’s time, live in conscious, active division. Our many denominations are a testimony to the fact that we are not one body. And that our communion is not universal. And that there is not one loaf.

Now, I walk to the table, and see that bread there. The body of Christ. Am I a part of it? Or, as a spiritual orphan, am I and my church tradition so hopelessly severed from the unified body of Christ that the bread’s conveys to me a word of judgment, not of benefit?

I’ll be spending more time with Uncle Augustine. But one thing I’ve learned from him already is that there are those from our past who took the unity of the church way more seriously than we do today. I wonder what he would think if he could see our modern church. If his heart and convictions are right, what should we do?

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Church Hopping: A Mexican Point of View

This is profound.

The comment below was made by a Christian in Mexico. It was made concerning a post entitled When is it time for a church to call it quits? I’m posting it unedited.

“Here in Mexico, we dont have notices of evangelical christian churches
who have to close their doors for any reason. I had lived in the United States some years ago. And I remember a lot of baptist churches with
just old members. The youth and children runed away to another more modern temples, with different kind of liturgy, with young pastors,with
modern music instruments.So they just left, I understand that our culture and american culture are different, but we had never think in
left back our elder brothers. I really believe that God not like this
american christian costume. We have to show love to every think that we are thinking to put away, and I talking about temples, furniture, our
elders, our old pastors, and our parents, our old parents. Can you imagine they singin alone Victory in Jesus?What victory we cheer with
out our loveones? My fellow american brother in Christ, you have to think about this…”

“But we had never think in left back our elder brothers. I really believe that God not like this american christian costume.”

I pastor a church that is experiencing a significant exodus of people. All of them are younger than the leadership. They aren’t abandoning their faith – rather, they will all turn to other churches, other families, they believe will be better for them. They will experience the positive sensations associated with a new start, and feel like it was good to have made the change.

“What victory we cheer with out our loveones?”

I live in the west, a land full of transient people. We’re those who for centuries have abandoned families in pursuit of other things. Most people I know live geographically separated from their biological families. Why did they move? Good reasons … to go to a school, or follow a job, or to live in a nicer climate. It’s rare, but occasionally I’ll meet someone who has made their life decisions based on the priority of protecting their valuable family ties. For the majority of us, though, our most natural experiences of relational depth are strained by distance, which can’t help but breed some relational fragmentation.

So, new networks are pursued, by which we can experience the “love one another” realities that we sense and know are so essential to our lives. And churches should provide this, right? After all, the church is supposed to be a community that embodies – not figuratively, but literally – the reality of being a family. And it does for many. There are those for whom their church is truly their family.

What’s sad is that these, who are the most willing to invest their hearts and souls into being a close-knit community, are the most damaged when others sever ties. “I thought this was a family,” they say.

As I get older, I feel this more acutely. When I was younger, I couldn’t possibly understand the value of long-term relationships like long-term people can and do. With each passing year, the pain I feel when people family-hop is more pronounced. As they seek out a better song to sing, with a newer, nicer family than ours, our song turns to lament…and ultimately may be silenced altogether. “What victory can we cheer?”

“My fellow american brother in Christ, you have to think about this…”

We do need to think about this. But we don’t feel the need to talk about these issues until they’re staring us in the face. And then, it’s too late. The political correctness of our day demands that, because people are free, we must let people do whatever they want to without saying anything negative about their intentions or choices. So, when we’re in the midst of being abandoned, and we cry “foul”, we are chastised if we say anything about it publicly. We’re just seen as pathetic, selfishly clinging to something for your own benefit. Or worse, we can be taken as manipulators, trying to deny people’s freedom of choice. It’s perceived as just so much sour grapes.

It’s true … I can’t be subjective about this, not these days. But I’m trying to be. And in my most clear-thinking moments, I can’t help but come to these conclusions:

1. Church-hoppers are hurting themselves.They will never know the wonderful reality of long-term relationships around Word and Sacrament. They will miss the glories that come through the hard side of love – reconciliation, endurance, perseverance, forbearance. They will forfeit blessings God promises that are associated with subjection, selflessness and servanthood. They think that different leadership style, that shorter drive, or that alternative program is a good trade-off for their relationships. But, if we have a better communicator, or a deeper doctrinal understanding, or more “Spirit-filled” worship, or incredible social programs, but have not endless patience, contentment, humility, deference, forgiveness, hope, forbearance, endurance (cf., love), nothing is gained. When you cash in your relationships for whatever else, is it ever a good deal?

2. Church-hoppers aren’t aware of how much they are hurting others. Others who value family bonds more than they are devastated by their departures. Those who leave not only rob themselves of the inestimable value of growing up in a lasting, united church community, but they also rob others. And they rob their children. Then, as explanations are made to others in the church as to why people leave, other families – and particularly their children – are schooled by the hoppers’ examples to see church participation as disposable (this is exacerbated by those staying not being able to openly challenge their departures, because that is seen as inappropriate). We’re stuck with, “that’s what’s happened, and I guess that’s just the way it goes.” We’re all the worse for it, and the pattern continues.

3. Church-hoppers damage the advance of the gospel. If we don’t love each other in a way people can see it, they won’t believe in Christ. Jesus prayed that we “may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). We don’t choose to persevere with each other primarily for our sake, or our kids’ sake, or for the sake of other people in the body – we live as a “love never fails” family for Jesus’ sake. Because every time we leave, we might be able to justify it in our own minds, but the world doesn’t get it. Why should they? “If those people who talk about God and His love all the time can’t get it together, why should I think that their so-called ‘born again’ lives are any better than mine?”

Fresh eyes from south of the border have eloquently pointed out our condition. I fear my ramblings may have diluted the simplicity of his message. Will we rethink these things? Will our trends continue? And what can one orphan do?

For now, we lament, cling to the love that remains, and pray that God will have mercy on our generation, and build His church among us afresh.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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An Evangelical Orphan

ImageIt’s August of 2013.

I’m a product of the independent, American, contemporary Evangelical church.

I’ve spent my life pastoring in sundry ways – preaching, worship leading, programming …

Also, for the past 30 years, I’ve been digging into my Christian past.

You see, I’m an orphan. Well, I was raised by orphans. They had become disassociated from their family tree, and spent considerable time and energy making sure I knew that “those people” from my heritage are not to be trusted.

I decided to be rebellious to my spiritual ‘fathers’, and go off on a journey to meet my family. What I’ve found? That’s why I’m launching The Evangelical Orphan.

Frankly, I think my tradition is broken in so many ways that I don’t know how it can possibly be fixed. Reformation is needed. But reformation is hard – and very hard to lead. My attempts have born meager fruit. But the ideas remain. My prayer is that some of these thoughts will inflame others – far more capable than I in the art of bringing about change in people’s hearts and churches’ programs – to help bring about the needed remedies for our beleaguered condition.

(I also hope to have a cathartic dumping ground for my spinning thoughts. Time will tell if these ideas are treasures, or if this is just so much waste management.)

That’s the preview apology. Let the spelunking begin.

Bill

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2013 in Uncategorized