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Category Archives: church

Any Chance We Might Grow Up?

Withholding love from another person is the supreme act of childishness. Forbearing, proactive love … that’s the trait of a mature adult. We need God for that.

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This from one of Christianity’s most popular texts, 1 Corinthians 13: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (13:11). What are these childish ways that Paul is talking about? In the context of this chapter, it’s quite simple. It is childish to withhold love.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” If I lay out articulate Facebook rants, and can share quotes from my favorite talking heads, but am snarky, antagonistic, profane or dismissive of others, I’m just noise.

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” If I, in my self-perceived brilliance, believe in my convictions can change the world around me, but cannot be kind when I present them, I am nothing.

“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Even if I “walk my talk”, and am involved in all kinds of service projects that support my causes, but my heart and attitude toward others who disagree with me remains angry and contentious, the gain of my good works is nullified.

So, what is this love that Paul speaks of? It is, primarily, staying active in hard relationships. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Kind. Love suffocates in non-relationship. It breathes through activity. Being kind is love. Just choosing to be neutral — to not be unkind — isn’t love.

Patient. Bearing. Enduring. Never-ending. Love assumes things will get difficult, and stays in the game anyway. To bail out on a relationship when it doesn’t go your way, that’s childish.

Arrogant. Rude. Irritable. Resentful. If these words describe you, then you’re acting like a child.

If you are so bent toward someone that you actually rejoice when things don’t go their way … this is the height of immaturity.

Children always think they should be given a second chance, but still carry grudges against others, and withhold them their kindness. Children want the benefit of the doubt for themselves, but they choose to meditate on the negatives of others, thus exchanging joy for bitterness. Children want people to believe in them, but they magnify and believe the worst in others. Children want others to see it their way, but give up hope for a better tomorrow that comes, as promised by God, through reconciliation and sticking together.

Children think they know. Then they become judge and jury over you. You will be found guilty. Love is gone. Existence becomes null and void.

Childish politics conceives contentious gridlock. Childish religion creates suicide bombers.Childish academes squash thoughts from a different point of view. Childish employees trash talk their bosses behind their backs. Childish church members leave their congregation when something happens they don’t like. Childish marriages produce divorces. Childish friends feel they’ve been so wronged that they have to withhold their ongoing care, affection and kindness.

God, through His Word, calls us to put away these childish behaviors. He provides the means to do so. But these days few are listening to God, and even fewer are availing themselves to the divine empowerment that makes change possible. Even those who find God interesting remain unwilling to hear His call to us to exercise the self-sacrificing kind of love that could change the world.

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Any chance we might grow up? Our chance is contingent on our love for God … which will enable our love for our neighbor. Without God? No chance.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

– EO

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What Are We Promising?

I saw this on the home page of a church website today.

Is this really an accurate representation of what the church is supposed to be?

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You are welcome here.

lisa-engel-church

At (our) Church—

You will find a family who will make you feel and know that you are wanted and welcomed.

You may want to dress casual or be dressed up.

You may be hurting or praise filled.

You may come for yourself or for your family.

The Lord and His people are ready to embrace and welcome you.

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Paraphrase. You are all that matters. You feeling wanted, welcome, comfortable, free to let your emotional state go unchallenged … that’s why we exist. Come, because God is ready to be your servant.

I feel compelled to offer an alternative.

You are welcome here.

At (our) Church—

You will find a family who does want to know you and love you.

But you need to know that your personal feelings of warmth and comfort are not our goal.

You see, God is glorious and good … and we are not. Like everyone else in our church, your life falls out of alignment with the way God wants us to live. So, there are issues to be addressed in seeking (re)connection with Him.

So, if you are new to seeking out a relationship with God, you will likely not feel warm and fuzzy at first. Those feelings may come at some time, but we don’t promise them, and certainly don’t want them to be your expectation. 

If ultimately your willingness to attend a church depends on your choice of clothing or the music mix, we’re off to a bad start. If it depends on the people of the church affirming you to the point that there is no call for repentance or life change, you’re in the wrong place. If you’re a religious consumer, looking for spiritual goods that meet your expectations, you need to know that we’re not in that business.

If you’re interested in seeking out God on His terms, and seeing your sins forgiven, your life healed, and your eternity squared, and are ready to take God’s directives in order to experience these blessings …

Then know that the Lord and His people are ready to embrace, welcome and walk with you you into life lived extraordinarily well.

I would want to attend this church.

– EO

 

 

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The Evangelical Exchange: The Gospel for Life Coaching

The Evangelical Exchange: The Gospel for Life Coaching

I was reminded today that … well, the fastest growing churches in our land are producing guilt-ridden workaholics rather than a community of men and women who believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of [their] faith, the salvation of [their] souls!” (1 Pet. 1:9). Rather than the celebration of peace with God, I fear we promote a spiritual anxiety in people who feel like, if they are following God the way they should, their lives should be fixed by now. 

LCoachI was reminded of this tension as I read this Facebook post today. It’s from an old friend, talking about his church’s upcoming weekend services. Needless to say, the names are fictitious:

Tomorrow is going to be an epic day at our Midtown Campus! John Doe, Jim Doe and Josh Doe combining on a message about Lazarus. Jessie Doe narrating. Jen Doe communicating. Jeremy Doe leading music. Our bulletins to take notes on… they are toe tags that read: Deceased: Lazarus. Physician: Jesus. Funeral Director: Martha. Case #: John 11. We’ll be looking at overcoming obstacles, trusting for miracles, and removing entanglements. I’m so excited for how God is going to use this in my life and in the lives of others.

It sounds like quite a production. There was a day when I would have been proud to be a part of such an “epic day”.

Now, there are a few things about this enterprise that make me squirm a bit, but aren’t that big a deal. All of the terminology is strikingly not-church (campus, communicating, leading music, bulletins). Jesus being termed as “physician” (only?). Playing into our culture’s CSI-enflamed media passion for crime dramas. It’s obvious that this service has been designed with seekers in mind … so the gathering seems produced to capture the fancy of non-Christians, more than to engage its own membership in the Biblically-prescribed worship of God through Christ.

LAZWhat I find most disheartening, though, is the hermeneutic of the “message”. The story of Lazarus is a narrative story that speaks of the grandness and glory of God, the power of resurrection, and the beauty-for-ashes reality of salvation! It’s about how great God is, and how we should praise Him, be assured by Him, and believe in Him. That’s why “these things were written” (John 20:31).

But, in true contemporary Evangelical fashion (and I say this with great warmth, since I, too, have been an Evangelical for so many decades), they’ve taken this glorious story, and turned it into a self-help seminar. Jesus is the one who can help us overcome obstacles and remove entanglements … perhaps even perform a miracle if we trust in Him correctly. The “gospel” behind this version of the story is: Incorporate Jesus into your life, and He will make it run more smoothly. Your life is what matters, and Jesus is here to help.

Again, I have to admit that I would probably have taken the same tack on this passage a few years ago. That’s before I was introduced to the classical hermeneutic of “law and gospel”. Preaching the law (telling people what they should do to be pleasing to God) is a painful-yet-necessary word for those who aren’t Christians. They need to know why they should repent of their sins, and seek to be forgiven by God. But, for the truly repentant, broken soul – the Christian – what’s needed is not the law, the but comforting assuranceget to work of the gospel: God’s love overwhelms your sin, so that you are at absolute peace with God. This gospel also serves as the greatest motivator to righteous conduct.

John 11 is, as much as any passage in the New Testament, a celebration of the completed work of Jesus – the gospel! To turn this around and use this text to instruct people how they should do their faith (appropriate the life-helps offered by Jesus … not in this passage, but perhaps elsewhere) lays burdens on the lives of believers from which Jesus came to alleviate! And, as we baptize our services in the trappings of contemporary culture, affirming to our world that you aren’t supposed to be like God, but that we and God want to be just like them … we fail to tell unbelievers that what they need most is a repentant heart, not the instructions of a life coach.

I’m so thankful for those who have recently nurtured me in classical understandings of the gospel. I wish I had known these things earlier. I am genuinely sad for the lives I’ve stressed out over the years of overemphasizing “practical application” (the “so what” and “now what”). Lord, in Your mercy, hear my prayer of repentance, and continue to lead me to an authentically redemptive proclamation of the gospel.

– EO

 

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Christianity and Patriotism

Christianity and Patriotism

The 4th of July is coming. In the life of the church, there is often tension associated with the holiday.

In the U.S.A., most in our congregations are citizens (though there are also immigrants, aliens and sojourners among us). Most of these are proud of their country. In many churches, the expression of that national pride has become a part of Sunday worship celebrations, and even special programming centered around our pride in, love for, and allegiance to the U.S.A.

Some cry foul. Others are ready to tar-and-feather you if you don’t enter in.

Recently, John Piper shared his thoughts about Christianity and Patriotism in an online podcast. I’d like to share my thoughts in relation to Piper’s in an attempt to set an appropriate course for churches.*

Piper points out that, in many churches, our Fourth of July celebrations seem “uninformed, unshaped by the radical nature of the gospel, and out of proportion to the relationship between America and the kingdom of Christ.” This is our big question: What is that relationship?

Piper: “We are pilgrims, sojourners, refugees, exiles in all of those. Our first identity is with the King of the universe, not any country or nationality or political party or governmental regime. America is emphatically not our primary home or primary identity. That should be spoken.”

So far, so good. Unfortunately, for many church goers, it is their primary identity.  The Word of God does need to be spoken clearly into these idolatrous hearts, and a call to absolute allegiance to God needs to made. Still, being citizens of the U.S.A. is part of our identity. (I appreciate Piper using the the words “first” and “primary” above.)

Where I would veer away from Piper’s thinking is in his choosing to make such a vigorous demarcation between allegiance to God and allegiance to the state. “We swear absolute allegiance to him and to no one and nothing else. All other commitments are relativized … All of those authorities are subordinate and secondary to the authority of Christ and, therefore, all submission is qualified.” Piper draws a bold line between Christ as Lord and all other lordships.

ref-luthertours.jpgBut this approach and this rhetoric fails to give weight to the Biblical truth that the Kingdoms of this world are a divinely ordained extension of the rule and reign of God. For kingship belongs to the Lordand he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28). “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). And, the extension of God’s rule on the planet is delivered through human governments. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God … he is God’s servant for your good … he is the servant of God … the authorities are ministers of God … Pay to all what is owed to them … respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:1-7).

In short we have the tendency to pit God’s rule against the rule of governments — when the reality is that the state is an extension of God’s rule. This governance can and should be respected and honored by the church.

(I think it’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway — this is true not just for the U.S.A., but for any believer in any country. This can be especially difficult when a government is plagued by dysfunction and injustice. Nonetheless, it is truth that calls all Christians to appropriate, faith-filled, disciple-like action.)

So, if I might take the liberty of reshaping Piper’s previous paragraph: “We swear absolute allegiance to him, and our allegiance to our country is an extension of our acknowledgement of His rule. All other commitments are contained in this over-arching commitment to God … All of those authorities, though subordinate, needn’t be considered “secondary” to the authority of Christ, but part of it. Therefore, all submission needn’t be qualified, except in instances when disobedience to Christ is mandated.

As to the question of patriotism in worship, I agree with Piper when he says “any pledge of allegiance –  like the one to the American flag – does not belong in a worship service.” But I disagree with his assessment that, when these emphases on country take place, “what is being highlighted and foregrounded is an earthly allegiance.” Again, this doesn’t need to be the case, and this hard line doesn’t need to be drawn. God’s rule through the Spirit/Word/gospel and His rule through governments can be celebrated together. But it’s God’s rule. And because it’s God we celebrate, the emblem of a particular state should not be the icon for our worship.

I had the privilege of serving as a pastor in The Netherlands. Needless to say, we didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July! More to the point, we didn’t celebrate specific national governances, not even that of the Dutch. You see, it was a strikingly international community. To celebrate one sister’s nation would make us feel obliged us to celebrate the nation of every brother and sister in the church. (Churches in the Southwest, where I live now, would probably not think of having a special September 16th service to celebrate Mexican Independence Day — even though many aliens and immigrants are a part of our number.)

Instead, we can take a day to focus on and celebrate the Lordship of Christ, which He exercises through all nations, including our own.

– EO

These thoughts are influenced by Martin Luther’s theology of the two realms/kingdoms, and by a desire to see these ideas once again fleshed out in the life of local churches, particularly Lutheran churches.

 

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Wrestling with Fred: “Ministers”

Frederick Beuchner is one of my favorite authors. His insights into the spiritual life, with Christ at its center, have been very formative to me. I recently signed up for a daily Buechner quote – great!

Wrestling with today’s quote from Fred …

“Ministers have their heads in the clouds, which is just where you should have your head when your mind is on higher things … Ministers are as anachronistic as alchemists or chimney sweeps … The perspective of ministers is so hopelessly distorted and biased that there is no point in listening to them unless you happen to share it.”

Hmmm…

1 Corinthians 2:13-15 comes to mind. Here, Paul says This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” 

So, to the world, we believers are perceived as “hopelessly distorted and biased” fools. It should come as no shock that people without the Spirit will not listen. Because the cannot listen. In Jesus’ terms, they don’t have “ears to hear”.

The simple, Biblical truth is that Spirit must precede the embrace of truth. We can’t make Spirit happen – only God can. But, we are promised that “the gospel … is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Gospel -> Spirit -> Truth. Any alteration or deletion from this process will prove impotent.

GospelSpiritTruthI’ve been a minister for decades. Sometimes I fall into the trap of believing that I’m some kind of  divinely appointed DA for the Lord, guiding testimonies in the court of public opinion. If I do my job right, I’ll be able to lead the “jury” to my appointed conclusions. That’s why I’ve been lured into my share of (what I have found to be counter-productive) social media rants, thinking that my clear delineation of spiritual realities through Spirit-taught (Biblical) words will win the day.

Oops. Fred reminds me to embrace the spiritual, Spirit-taught realities: Don’t be surprised or angry when (not if) the Biblical truth you share is misunderstood and rejected. It will be – it’s written in stone.

Before we all resign our pulpits, let’s remember Paul’s other words in the same chapter: “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began” (1 Cor. 2:6-7). To this end we preach … head fixed in the clouds, rejoicing with the faithful, and experiencing the collective sanctification that will shape us into a community that first lives and then proclaims the gospel … through which the number of anachronistic fools will swell. 

– EO

 

 

 

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Advent Makeover? 3rd Tuesday of Advent – 14.12.16

It’s hard to see your own cultural idols when you’ve grown up with them. Sometimes you have to take a step back historically to see who you’ve become.

postcard-advertising-selfridge-s-grand-opening-harrty-gordon-selfridge-inset-99849581I have really enjoyed the PBS Masterpiece series Mr. Selfridge. It chronicles the entrepreneurial activity of Harry Gordon Selfridge, who opened a new kind of store in London in 1909. Selfridge, an American with uniquely American ideas, challenged the culture of his day – an example being the marketing of makeup. You see, in early-20th century England, if you wouldn’t wear makeup unless you were a stage actress or a prostitute. “Respectable” people didn’t use greasepaint to make themselves more attractive.

MR-SELFRIDGE-croppedSelfridge challenged the notion, and bet on the idea that most all women would, if it were acceptable, would use makeup. And he would sell it! So, rather than keep those goods hidden in the back of the store, he put them right out front, where everyone could see them. By doing so, he publicly hollered, “makeup is okay!” (and I’d be happy to sell it to you!). Well, since then, the tide has turned so far that, not only is makeup front-and-center in almost every major department store, but many “respectable” women today wouldn’t be seen without it. The culture has completely changed – not only with makeup, but with all the external trappings of fashion.

Culture drifts. The Word of God doesn’t. What gives? Does the Word of God get re-evaluated by cultural change? Or should it be the other way around?

“Wives … do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves.” (1 Pet. 3:3-5).

“Do not let your adorning be external.” That’s what it says. But, culturally, we can’t even hear this. Paraphrases abound … “what matters is not” (still, if it doesn’t matter, why the time and expense?) … “don’t be concerned about” … “don’t depend on things like” … but what it says is “let it not be”, present, imperative. “Don’t let it be.” Take a look at that Greek phrase in any other Biblical passage, and it will be translated as an absolute. But not here. Our culture won’t allow it.

mona made upMartin Luther…a little help? After all, you’re speaking from the 16th century! “Possibly one may ask whether that which Peter here says of ornaments is commanded or not (right!)… We say a wife should be so disposed as not to care for this adorning … a Christian wife should despise themChrist does not want you to adorn yourself to please others, to be called a handsome prostitute (literally, pretty mistress). It is good evidence that there is little of the spirit, where so much is expended on ornaments … Gold and fine stones are precious in the world’s esteem, but before God they are an ill-savor … the husband should draw and dissuade the wife from ornaments, so long as she is inclined to them.”

And that was Luther’s day. Today, it’s just crazy. The multi-billion-dollar fashion industry (U.S. women spend over $400 billion a year in beauty products alone) is based on lust, envy, and pride. And it is economically and emotionally oppressive. Can you imagine how much money, time and energy the first world puts into fashion that could be channeled elsewhere? How can anyone in their right mind spin this as “okay”?

Back to Advent: How do we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus? Needless to say, external decorations, whether they be in our homes or on our bodies, are of little consequence. Instead, Peter calls us to “respectful and pure conduct” in “the hidden person of the heart”, and “a gentle and quiet spirit.” These should be central to our preparation. (All of these go for men, too, of course. )

orwellI dare say, if we prepared our souls each day with the same attention we prepare our bodies, the impact of believers on the world would be startlingly stronger.

But, honestly, I know … a little blog like this can’t compete with a powerful cultural wave like this. I believe our addiction to external adornment is idolatry. But it’s an idol that doesn’t appear to be coming down anytime soon. And it won’t go well for me to speak up about this issue. But, I pray that this very-real idol can be pulverized in my own heart, and that no traces of it will be found when Jesus comes again.

E   *     O

 

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Aside

“There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.” – Peter Drucker, management consultant, educator and author

“Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard; they have trampled down my portion; they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness … They have sown wheat and have reaped thorns; they have tired themselves out but profit nothing. They shall be ashamed of their harvests…” – Jeremiah 12:10,13

In Jeremiah’s day, the so-called leaders of the people of God had been big on saying religious things to the people – things like, “God isn’t upset with you” and “this exile won’t last long.” The problem was that they had forsaken the hard truths of God, and the hard place that God had them in, according to His will.

Likewise, during His final week in Jerusalem, Jesus found himself in an environment which featured a flurry of activity being done in the name of God. But that activity was full of falsehood, which yielded bad spiritual fruit. This left people unprepared for, and unwilling to receive, the truth of Messiah.

Nowadays, our churches are hives of incredible activity (with incredible budgets to fund it all). We sow…something, a lot of things. We exhaust ourselves with professional pursuits. But we are reaping thorns. Having spent decades making attenders instead of disciples, we now stand ashamed of our harvests.

Then I read the next lectionary piece of the morning: Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  [nice!]  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world  [gulp]  will keep it for eternal life … Now is my soul troubled  [yah, mine, too!] And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? [Or, Father, don’t make hating life in this world part of following you? Let my faith be all about me and my happiness? Bless me with prosperity, not self-sacrifice? Let me be just like everyone around me, only with a Christian glaze?]  But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” (John 12:23-27)

And finally, a word from Paul: Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ … that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his deaththat by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead … Brothers, join in imitating me!” (Phil. 3:8, 10-11, 17).

Our lives, and therefore our “harvests”, should be men and women who cling to the Words of the Lord, and by doing so glorify the Lord in their rejection — hatred for — this world … who delight in the loss [not procurement and retention of] all things, and joyfully participate in suffering, for the sake of the glory of God. This is life at a soul-troubling level. But what shall I say? For this purpose I am here.

There is nothing quite so useless as a church that runs with great efficiency, but isn’t producing genuine disciples.

(Thankful for my lectionary today.)

 

 

 

 

Wasted Energy vs. Genuine Glory

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2014 in church, Discipleship, Lent