Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Jesus, Not the Church?

There is a statement that has almost become a cliche.  You hear it mostly in settings where people want to talk about church growth.  Or when pastors want to argue the church needs to change.  It's statement I've probably used myself, unfortunately.  What many church leaders claim is that we live in a culture that likes Jesus but doesn't like the church.

Is it that simple?  Does our culture really like Jesus but can't stand the church?  The conclusion is Jesus is not the problem, but the church is.  If only the church can change, then all will be well. Granted, there is some truth to the fact that churches often misrepresent the reign of peace in Jesus.   That being stated, I doubt we can conclude that the church is always the problem because everyone likes Jesus.
To challenge the simplicity of this idea, we can ask, What Jesus does our culture like?  Is it the Jesus who stands against greed in all of its forms?  I'm not sure American culture would naturally embrace the Jesus of Luke who speaks several times about the dangers of money and possessions.

Is our culture enamored with the Jesus who calls us to love our enemies?  I doubt it.  Learning to love enemies is not natural and therefore not easily embraced.

Does American culture like the Jesus who calls for repentance--the Jesus who is not offering a spirituality but new way of life shaped by a cruciform discipleship?  Does our culture like the idea of the cross?  Suffering?   Again, I doubt it.

You see, the assumption most church growth experts make is that Jesus meets our deepest needs.  He solves our problems.  He makes our lives easier.   Everyone will love him.  All we need to do is get rid of all the noise of religious activity, offer Jesus and the world will come to church again.  Lost in this naive narrative is the reality of sin and evil from which Jesus longs to deliver us.

Another way to state the matter is to recognize that our culture is probably not any less idolatrous than the one that nailed Jesus to a tree.  We live in a time when greed, violence and the narrative success above all else dominate our lives.  These idols do not go down without a fight.

So Jesus very well might be the problem.  Jesus very well might be a hinderance to our church growth.  In some settings, Jesus will be embraced and the church will be loved; in other settings, he will be rejected and the church will be hated.

Regardless, we are called to witness to the Son who has rescued us from this present evil age and has called us to into the light of God's new creation in Christ. This work is not easy.  We might grow numerically.  We might shrink.  We might be loved.  We might be hated.  The results are beyond us and out of our control.  So we are called to a full faithfulness to Jesus and his way.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Thursday, May 25, 2017


I'm angry and anxious.  This is the current state of my soul.  It's not that I live there every waking moment, but it is the gravitational pull in my life.  Without deliberate effort I land in this this dark realm.
I am growing weary of the ways sin distorts our lives:  The lack of wisdom that leads people down paths of abuse; adults who are blind to the ways they hurt others by seeking their own agenda and crushing others under the cogs of their desires. 

Deeper still, I have buried my frustrations believing there is nothing I can do.  All these buried wounds are being struck again.  I am hurt and bleeding.   

I'm beginning to realize that I have not practiced the hard work of reconciliation.  I've walked away from conflict, seething, thinking the worst about people and their intentions.  Rather than confront and seek the path of reconciliation, I've embraced the path of bitterness.  It has not worked.  

David Fitch's book Faithful Presence challenged me this afternoon.  He argues that Christians are called to the hard work of reconciliation in the church, in our community, and in our world.   He argues that where there is no reconciliation, there is no gospel.  As Paul says, "God in Christ has reconciled the world unto himself . . . And he has given us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5).  

I need to do better.  God help me.  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Long Longing

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." (1 Corinthians 13:12-13, NRSV)

As I prepare for this Sunday I've been thinking about these words.  They capture the great longing I have.

Paul recognized that we don't see clearly right now.  We don't have the answers to all our searching questions.  Nor do we have solutions for every problem.  Truth be told, all answers create more questions; and all solutions create more problems.  We live in world tainted by sin, distorted by evil.  Life lacks clarity.

But one day we will see face to face; and we see/experience God fully.  Interesting, the longing we have is relieved in a full experience of God.

Paul continues with this thought but now in a different key.  He recognized that we know only in part.  We don't understand everything about life and faith.  But one day will know fully as we have been fully known.

The last line arrests my attention.  We are held in love right now--as we have been fully known.  We are fully known right now because God is love.  One day we will know fully.  The longing we have is relieved in knowing God in love.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Post Easter Relfections

I made it through another Holy Week.  It all started with Palm Sunday, continued with Maundy Thursday which included a darkening of the church, then our outdoor Sunrise Service at 6:30 am and finally our Easter Celebration.

I must admit, I have contracted yet again the post-Easter blues.  Part of the reason for the blues is everything leading up to Easter was intellectually and emotionally taxing:  final approval for our development project, construction drawings, start of the new church year, three days of interviews for ministerial candidates, pastoral reports, and last but not least, Holy Week preparation.  Then it all comes to an end with a sense of emptiness and fatigue.

But the deeper reason, I am find myself infected with the post-Easter blues is the knowledge that I can never give expression to the beauty of the gospel.  My words and our liturgy are ultimately lacking.  They fall short of God's glory and grace.

I'm not suggesting that we necessarily failed, though that might be partially true. We can always learn and do better, but that is not what I mean when I say our words and our liturgy fell short.  What I mean can be stated in two simple sentences:  First, I REALLY believe in the beauty of the gospel.  Second, I never adequately communicate it's beauty.  

Think about:  The Gospel is beautiful.  It is glorious.  God in Christ serving us (John 13), reconciling the world unto himself (2 Corinthians 5:18).  God in Christ assuming human form, suffering the full weight of sin, evil and death (2 Corinthians 5:21).  God in Christ going before us in suffering, death and resurrection (Romans 8:29).  God in Christ in hell to break the power of hell (1 Peter 3).  God in Christ submitting to his own judgement to make things right; after all, forgiveness is not enough, sin must be dealt with (Romans 3:21-26).

Then there is the resurrection which announces that God's kingdom of peace has truly begun (Acts 10).  You see, sin, evil and death could not keep Christ in the grave.  God's intention to heal are greater than the worst that can happen (Romans 8, Revelation 1:5).

Equally amazing is wonderful reality that the gospel makes emotional sense.  It matches our needs perfectly. We are broken, we need to be healed (1 Peter 2:24).  We break others; we need forgiveness and hope for healing for our loved ones.  We long for joy, and the gospel promises joy (Philippians 4).  We want to love, and Christ give us the means to love (1 John 3, John 15).  We believe our love is eternal, and the gospel announces that love is eternal (1 John 4).  We want peace, we need peace; the gospel promises us peace (Romans 5:1-5), even in suffering.

It's so beautiful.  So beautiful that words fail.  On Easter Sunday (and all other Sundays for that matter) we are trying to say the unsayable.  Our words can only point as God draws us to experience the truth firsthand.

The question remains, Did we hear and understand, with our hearts?  . . . Time will tell, time will tell.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Standing For

“Why do we have to voice opinions on the hot-button issues of the day?  Instead of ‘Where do you stand?’ why aren’t we talking about ‘with whom are you standing?’  Isn’t it the nature of disciples of Jesus, less to be known for a certain opinion about an issue than to be known for whom we are in relationships with.  Show disciples of Jesus a lost cause or an underdog, the sidelined or the undermined, and they become suckers . . . If Jesus fanatics push a hot button, it’s not an issues button so much as it is a relations button.  There is no ducking the ugly duckling for Jesus followers.” (Len Sweet, So Beautiful, p. 118)

One of the more troubling aspects of our current cultural climate is the rampant polarization of nearly everything.  The question has really become, Where do you stand?  And unfortunately there are usually only two positions, diametrically opposed to one another.  The end results of this binary worldview are easy to discern:  lines drawn in the sand, alliances forged, and wars are waged.  Personally, I’m growing a little tired of it all.  It’s difficult to even have a meaningful discussion without getting into spitting matches.

So maybe Len Sweet is on to something here.  Perhaps our focus has been on principles and not people, rules not relationships, standing against and not standing for.  This particular failure is a very subtle trap, especially for Christians who believe in the importance of holiness.

Of course, the issue is not with holiness per se but our definitions of holiness.  Too often, holiness is reduced to personal purity at the expense of neighborly care and justice.  This type of holiness misses the mark.  It leads to pride, which forms Christians into people who are as pure as angels and as mean as demons.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, we must keep three virtues in front us—love, truth and humility.  No three words characterize the spirit of Jesus better than these.

He was love through and through. He was also truth; and he loved with truth to liberate us from sin.  Last but not least, he was humble, pouring out his life even for his enemies.

So if we are growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ, our lives should begin to take on the form of a humble, loving and truthful disposition.  This is our call.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Fear of God and Relational Wholeness

"When people are no longer awed, respectful, or fearful of God's holiness, the community is put at risk."  (Walter Brueggemann)

In 2 Samuel 6, we encounter the strange holiness of God.  A holiness that can't be presumed upon, used or manipulated for one's own agenda.  A holiness so powerful that if it is not respected, trouble ensues.  No doubt, David and Israel learn this truth after the death of Uzzah.

I connect this idea with the notion that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:9).  Fearing God creates a foundation for life that leads to a holiness that can be characterized by relational health. Failure to fear God creates a void, a void that leads us down paths of foolishness.

I believe this makes sense.  If God is feared, then communities have a much better chance of being healthy.  The God we serve is the God who commands us to love and serve our neighbors, even if our neighbors are strangers or enemies.

You see, we don't believe in two great commandments that conflict with one another.  We don't believe that we are to love and serve God; and then love and serve our neighbor.  This approach creates problems because we might conclude serving God trumps (no pun intended) serving our neighbor.  Then we will be justified in sacrificing people on some sort of religious principle or agenda.   This is not the Jesus way.

Instead, we believe in a single commandment with two parts that can't separated.  To fear God is to love the other.  To fear God is to pursue mercy.  To fear God is to be fair.  To fear the God who revealed himself in Jesus is to embrace his sacrificial love.  To fear God is to care deeply about the well-being of others.  

As John writes: "This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as He commanded us" (1 John 3:23).   Everyone who does not love has missed the mark:  "He who does not love abides in death" (1 John 3:14).   Notice again the tight connection between God and love:  "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (1 John 4:7-8).

We can see this at work in our lives.  When we lose our fear of God, we will tend to serve something else.  We might serve money or our own agenda or our image. Then we will sacrifice other people on the alter of our agenda.

However, when we serve God, truly with respect and reverence, we find a different path.  Fear of God frees us to pursue the truth, placing us on a trajectory of personal transformation.  Fear of God gives us the strength to forgive because we understand that our own sins have been forgiven.  With God, we are free to love because the other person doesn't have to be a god for us, therefore we can love without having to control.

So perhaps, this text is a powerful reminder that fear of God must be at the center of our lives.  Without it, we drift.  We move away from what is truly life giving.



Thursday, November 3, 2016

Embracing Uncertanity

Perhaps few things are more dangerous than absolute certainty.  It is tempting to believe that one's opinions are perfect and unassailable.

At best, such a stance keeps us from dialogue.  At worst, it creates enemies of people who think differently.  When this absolute certainty about an opinion is coupled with a belief in God, then one feels righteous in the denigration of the other.  

As Christians, we are called to a humility.  We believe God.  Yet that belief is shrouded in mystery. There is so much we don't know, don't understand.

But this goes to the core of our belief.  We don't hold the universe together.  We don't have to make history turn out right.  This is God's job.  We don't have to defend God, nor do we need to be heard.  We don't have to other people or legislate behavior.  Instead, we can love.  We can embrace hope.  We can walk in faith.

The words of Bono have been echoing in my ears lately:  "I can stand up for hope, faith, love/But while I'm getting over certainty/Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady."  

I'm not entirely sure what these words mean.  Nonetheless, I like them.  They speak to me, reminding me that we can live in hope, faith and love without certainty.  Furthermore, God is in control.  He does not need our help.  We can witness without winning.  

More to come . . .