Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Pastoral Geometry Lesson

"American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn't the remotest connection with what the church's pastors have done for most of twenty centuries."

This may sound like the rant of an angry, young blogger.  It's not.  This may sound like a bitter congregant who has been hurt by the church.  It's not...not even close.  This may sound like a pastor who is jealous of other pastors who have large churches, a bigger platform, or a better book deal.  Ha!  No, this is a quote from Eugene Peterson, best selling author, scholar, poet, and pastor.  He's one of my heroes, and I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Peterson wrote Working the Angles in 1987, almost 30 years ago.  Since that time, the role of pastor in America has continued to degenerate.  The "other gods" Peterson refers to are easy to name.  Celebrity status.  Money.  Political influence.  Organizational control.  Relevance.  These are no longer temptations to avoid that a few succumb to and the rest condemn.  They are expected, sought after, and encouraged.  These gods dominate the landscape of what it means to be a pastor.  And they make me sick.

Peterson advocated for a return to the three basic pastoral angles - prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction - that give the visible lines of pastoral ministry - preaching, teaching, and administration - their shape.  Without the angles, you are left with a jumbled mess of lines, not a triangle, a real ministry.  The beauty of a triangle is its structural integrity.  It is stable and can handle weight and pressure.  There is no "better" side to an equilateral triangle.  Each side, each angle, is as valuable as any other.

I have spent the last 13 years pastoring (verb) various groups of people in a variety of contexts.  I have never carried the title of pastor in the same way Peterson did.  It's not my day job.  However, I have tried to invest as much time as I can to the angles as a means to make my pastoring as effective as possible for the few God has entrusted me to equip.  Some of the practicalities of pastoring must be shared in a community like ours.  The lines of my triangle are short.  But I have others around me who are also capable shepherds and practice pastoring in their families, their workplaces, and in their neighborhoods.

Honestly, I do not think the role of pastor will ever return to its former place of honor in American society.  The internal pressures (the gods mentioned above) and external pressures (culture's denial of spiritual authority and the knowledge of God) are just too great.  Instead of wringing their hands and attempting to grasp for the last shreds of honor, pastors should swallow their pride, take the rebuke, and fervently return to the triangular task of pastoring.  For some, this may mean the end of a career, to drop the pastoral salary and find a job in the community.  They might find ways to use their gifts in other settings than the Sunday morning service routine, maybe as business owners, counselors, or coaches.  For others, it may mean redefining the role of pastor around the ancient skills (angles) and finding innovative new ways to draw the lines that are the meat of pastoral work.  

Of course, included in this is the recognition that the equippers doing the equipping in Ephesians 4 are not all pastors and not even all leaders!  They are people, Holy Spirit empowered people that are willing to respond to God's call - however big or small - to help the church grow in unity, maturity, wisdom, knowledge of God, health, and ultimately, Christlikeness.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Reading the Bible as God's Story

Ever struggle with the Bible being dry, repetitive, or even confusing?  Tired of listening to other Christians spout off Bible verses that seem to say something else when you read them?  Do you listen to sermons and just feel like you must not be smart enough to really understand the Bible?

Well, a lot of these feelings are a direct result of the way most Christians have been trained to read the Bible.  Although we could spend a lifetime and barely scratch the surface of the historical, literary, and theological dimensions of Scripture - for most of us, we just want to hear what God has to say.  That starts with learning the underlying story that lives within the Bible.  With that foundation, we can begin to hear what God is saying to us without a Doctorate in Theology.

I've made this short video to introduce the Scriptural story and why it's so important to helping us read the Bible the way God intends.  If you want to know more after you watch, here's a few very helpful resources:

The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew

How to Read the Bible For All It's Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart

God's Epic Adventure - Changing Our Culture by the Story We Live and Tell, by Winn Griffin

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Beyond the Status Quo

As 2015 approaches, I have been reflecting the past several weeks on what God is saying to me personally, to our community, and to the wider church.  The question I have been wrestling with is this: “Is 2015 going to be another year of the status quo?”  Of course, God is always working within us through circumstances and our relationships.  We continue to be challenged by God’s overwhelming love and acceptance for us.  There is no doubt of his love for his children - ALL his children.  Yet I sense that as important as this message is for everyone who has ears to hear, the still small voice keeps calling like Aslan in the Narnia chronicles, “Come further up, come further in!”

On a larger scale, I feel that God has been and will be in the process of taking away the “familiar ways” of relating to him.  The worn-in traditions, routines, and patterns will steadily lose life.  But even the bright, fresh ideas that energize us for short seasons will fail as well.  I don’t believe he is calling the church to deconstruction or to rally around some new cause or to a flashy renewal, but rather to a season of repentance, rest, quietness, and trust.

In Isaiah 30, the prophet describes how God feels about Judah’s reliance on Egypt for military protection from their enemies.  It’s not a pleasant series of verses.  In essence, God says their trust in a foreign power to save them will utterly fail and potentially destroy them.  At the center of his complaint is their refusal to listen to his voice:

"They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!” They tell the prophets, “Don’t tell us what is right. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Forget all this gloom. Get off your narrow path. Stop telling us about your ‘Holy One of Israel.’” - Isaiah 30:10-11

Judah cannot hear what God has to say because they have stopped up their ears and are looking for help from a nation that once enslaved them.  As ludicrous as that sounds, it is no different than when the church relies on either traditionalism or innovation to maintain the status quo.  Maybe God has something richer in store beyond what has become comfortable and maintainable.  Getting there requires a prescription:

"This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: “Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it.” - Isaiah 30:15

I believe this is God’s command for this season: repentance, rest, quietness, trust.  In other words, shut up.  God is telling us to stop slinging our opinions around on what ails the nation or world or families or the government and making ourselves look like fools.  Be willing to be wrong.  Be willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers.  Be willing to confess to the world that we have failed to follow the Way of Jesus.  Don’t just talk about repentance, lead in repentance by repenting! 

Then rest.  Resist the urge for quick solutions and feel good remedies for problems that span multiple generations.  Rest and be quiet before The Master.  And trust.  Trust that he knows what we really need.  Trust that the King of Kings is in charge of his Kingdom.  Trust that he sees every injustice, every place of pain in the world, every broken heart, every life cut short by disease, every person that feels unloved.  Trust, because we are a people of the cross and the healing it brings.  Trust, because we are a people of the resurrection and its promise of now and future abundance.

The warning at the end of Isaiah 30:15 should give us pause.  “But you would have none of it.”  We live in the age of instant gratification.  Pez dispenser faith.  Karma.  But that is not God’s Story.  He looks at the scope of human history and sets about the slow, patient work of forming a people for his glory and the world’s blessing.  Both of those must go together - glory and blessing.  Glory alone divorces itself from pain and reality.  Blessing alone forgets to sit at Jesus’ feet and worship.  But glory and blessing together are the home for which we were created.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Finding the Real Thing

Every few days (it seems like at least) there is a report / study / survey / commentary / sermon / rant / prophetic word / gut feeling that people are giving up on church in large numbers.  Here is the latest one (HT Jesus Creed).  This has been going on for quite some time.  I don't doubt the numbers and it is fairly obvious to the casual observer of American culture that this is, in fact, happening.  As someone who has been watching this for a long time, I am not alarmed, dismayed, and certainly not surprised.  However, I continue to be troubled.  Not because people have given up attending church services.  But because a generation has been sold a false bill of goods.

In my last post I talked about how easy it is to base a church's life and ministry on "taking a stand".  This is a dangerous place to be and can suck the life out of even the most vibrant communities.  The simple fact is, God did not wire the church to take on the culture in some kind of direct frontal assault.  He actually never asked us to take on the culture at all.  If anything, the image the New Testament paints is of a Spirit-filled, cross-bearing, underground family of subversives.  In an article I wrote a few years ago, I described how a church like this would approach its mission:

"The Subversive Community's mission is not to bring the kingdom of God from without; it is to release the kingdom of God from within. Subversives do not "reach outside people and encourage them to come in." Subversives live and do their work ‘undercover’ where the world lives and breathes. Their goal is not escapism (trying to build a Christian utopia), but to show people how they can lay hold of life as God intended, in his Kingdom."

The startling thing about the rise of the "nones" is that they are not going to return to church if somehow churches make their services more relevant.  They also won't return just because our theology is more inviting or inclusive.  Quite simply, the ship has sailed on institutional Christianity's position of influence to a large portion of the population.  Again, this should not be a shocking revelation to any Christian who has had their eyes open in recent history.  But it should have caused us to ask deeper questions than what kind of music we should play for worship or if we should have a Saturday night service to attract a younger crowd.

Full disclosure here:  I am committed to a way of "doing church" that I feel best suits the place that God has called me and my family to live.  You could call it simple church, organic church, home-grown-on-the-farm-church - whatever, pick your poison.  In essence, we have chosen to worship in a way that strips back a lot of organizational fluff so we focus on the essentials.  What are our essentials you ask?  Well, here is a list we come back to again and again:

Worship - bringing glory to God and receiving his love in return.
Care - living by the Golden Rule.  Love God, love your neighbor as yourself.
Discipleship - following Jesus together.  Giving away what we have received.
Mission - making the world a better place.  Building for the Kingdom.
Fun - enjoying ourselves along the way.  We NEED to have fun.

It is amazing what can be accomplished by a relatively small group of people with limited time and resources if, as they like to say in AA, you keep the main thing the main thing.  I believe the answer for the church's next season will be found in returning to the beauty and simplicity of the Way of Life Jesus gave us.  There is incredible diversity to be found in this Way.  It will look very different from place to place (which I believe is an important challenge to the American tendency to franchise "success," but that is fodder for another post.)  But where the life of the Kingdom is concretely practiced by people who profess Jesus as Lord, there WILL be tangible fruit.  It cannot be otherwise.

My response when people walk away from church en masse is to ask, "How have we not been living out the real thing?"  This is the only response that honors the fact that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in the world.  As has been said so many times, our only job is to find out what he is doing and join in.  

Maybe God is trying to tell us something:  "I've been at work all around you in places you would never expect me to be.  But you have been so busy playing church, that you forgot how to see me outside of a church service.  Wake up!  Take notice!  Throw off your comfortable routines and empty traditions.  Seek out and find me with the broken, the hurting, the sick, and the lonely.  Find me talking with your atheist friend.  Find me spending time with your shut-in neighbor.  Find me sharing a drink with your blasphemous co-worker.  I am there."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On How Not to Take a Stand

I have been a practicing ecclesiologist for the past fifteen years.  As much as I love thinking and writing about the kingdom of God, resurrection and new creation, following Jesus, or authentic community, I always come back to this core question (and title of this blog): What is Church?  The secondary questions flow easily from there.  What does it mean to be the gathered people of God?  What is our mission?  Who gets to lead and how?  What defines our priorities?  How do we measure success?  How should we relate to the world around us?

It would be easy to write volumes on any of these questions, but the last one is what I have been thinking about most lately.  From my observation, churches have been implicitly or explicitly answering this question and in turn allowing that answer to define how the other questions are addressed.  Let me state that another way.  Instead of starting with the question, "What is Church?" and allowing that answer to shape answers to the other questions, churches have started with "How should we relate to the world around us?" and let that define how they answer "What is Church?"  The result are churches that know how to draw clear lines in the sand on "issues" but have no idea how to love their neighbor, heal the sick, set people free, or proclaim hope.

Hope.  Shouldn't that be towards the top of the list of what we are known for?  Somewhere between love and faith?  Sound familiar?  There is tremendous pressure for churches to "take a stand" on some of the very public and very hotly debated issues of our day.  Consequently, it is inferred that by taking one position or another, we are either taking a stand for biblical faithfulness or becoming a voice for the voiceless; having compassion on the hurting or prophetically calling out the sins of our culture.  Never mind that all of those things are important for the church to do.  Instead, we are defined by our position on the issues which lumps us into one camp or another.  And woe be to the church which sides with one camp on one issue and the opposing camp on another issue.  Ye be double-minded and shall be cast into the lake of wishy-washiness.

Do you see the problem?  The world is a complicated, messy place.  We are bombarded by media - social and mainstream - that is unrelenting in its wranglings about "the issues".  "As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness," the proverb says.  So it becomes natural to think that our response to these issues is of utmost importance.  If we don't respond, we will be accused of collusion with the wrong side (whatever that means to you) by association or set aside as irrelevant (aghast) and belittled for our lack of courage.  How should we relate to the world around us?  By taking a side.

Jesus said, "A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit."  If a church primarily defines itself by what it is for or against in response to the surrounding culture, the tree will suffer.  Fighting endless battles that never resolve is like pouring poison on its own roots.  New battles will announce themselves at every turn and slowly, the tree will stop bearing fruit.  It will simply try to survive.

The alternative is so much better (and more fun).  A good tree - a healthy, sustainable church - starts with the primary question, "What is Church?"  What does it mean to be the sign and foretaste of God's kingdom in the midst of a broken, hurting, imprisoned world?  With its roots firmly planted in the soil of God's love, it relies on the Holy Spirit to provide the best conditions for growth.  It is cared for by gardeners who protect it from poison and keep it well watered and fertilized.  As a good, healthy tree, it can't help but bear good fruit.  But its fruitfulness is measured not just by quantity, but equally by quality.  The tree might have a thousand apples that look pretty on the outside, but are rotten to the core.  The true judge of its value can only be made by the Master Gardener.  If the tree remains healthy and bears good fruit, it naturally (effortlessly!) becomes a blessing to the world around it.  People will be fed by its fruit and its leaves will heal (man, that sounds familiar).  The tree will become a source of hope and symbol of the goodness of God.

Perhaps I am a voice crying in the wilderness.  Taking a stand on serious issues feels so right, so necessary.  And certainly, there were times in the church's history when it kept silent to its peril and other times when a portion of it rose up to denounce a horror or champion a cause with astounding results.  But so much of what the world needs to hear from us now can again be boiled down to those three simple words - faith, hope, and love.  We have faith in a big God who loves us and sets us free from our bondage.  We hope in the power of the resurrection and the glory of the coming kingdom that sets the world right.  We love each other as God loves us.  And we love those around us who simply just need to know that in God's world, they belong.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Live Now Because of Kingdom Come

In my last post, I ended with this thought: "This final image in Revelation is not of God’s people escaping the world floating on clouds. It is of a City with God himself at the center, we as his worshipping, resurrected family, and a glorious renewed earth. If this is our future, what does that mean for the present?" 

The Christian hope in the resurrection and the Kingdom stands in stark contrast to the typical escapist images of life in heaven for eternity.  We will inherit a "limitless" body, a bustling City, and creative, fulfilling, beautiful work without the curse that makes our work now often so frustrating.  These are powerful, challenging images, but they beg the question: "how do we live now if that is our destiny?"

This is not a new question.  The New Testament was written primarily to small communities who were trying to make sense of how to live in a confusing, changing world.  They had the same questions we do.  Why is there so much suffering?  How should we respond to evil in the world?  How can we live in the world, but not be of it?  How can we see people come to faith in Jesus?  What does the future hold and when will Jesus return?

The apostolic writers directed these communities back to the heart of Jesus' message of Kingdom come.  They envisioned small groups of people singularly committed to the Way of Jesus.  In these groups, there was at the same time an incredible challenge to the self-righteous and an incredible invitation to the broken.  The lavish, unfathomable love of God destroys religious achievement and blazes the trail for even the worst sinner to experience the riches of the Kingdom.

Dallas Willard describes what this will look like in practice:  “We should, first of all, find ourselves constantly growing in our readiness and ability to draw our direction, strength, and overall tone of life from the everlasting kingdom, from our personal interactions with the Trinitarian personality who is God.  This will mean, most importantly, the transformation of our heart and character into the family likeness, increasingly becoming like “children of our Father, the one in the heavens (Matt 5:45)." - The Divine Conspiracy

Yet it is still tempting to slip back into a vision of our future that only values individual decisions.  Transformation is wonderful, but are you choosing an eternity in heaven or hell?  This, of course, gets right to the heart of the matter.  What is salvation for?  Why are we being saved?  What is the ultimate purpose of salvation?  Is it just to avoid hell?

This is where our friend Tom Wright spells it out clearly:  “As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future.  But when we see salvation, as the NT sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality - what I have called life after life after death - then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.” - Surprised by Hope

So we are being saved to participate in something much larger than ourselves and certainly something greater than to just avoid punishment.  We are, in the words of Willard, training for reigning.  So our life and work now as the church takes on new meaning.  We are hope-filled, joyous, peaceful, excited, wonderfully creative, and constantly aware of the power we live by.  It is important to say that we do not build God's Kingdom.  As Wright says, we build for God's Kingdom. 

Returning to my question above, in light of our future, how should we live now?  To begin, I think we need to revise our expectations.  If your vision of the future amounts to hell-avoidance, then your expectations for the present will be very limited.  At best, you will hope to convince a few of your family and friends to say the sinners prayer before you go to be with Jesus.  But if your vision is of a new heavens and earth brimming with hope and resurrection power, you will want to see that manifest in the present as much as possible.  You will expect God to act in a way that is consistent with that future.  And you will want to join in on the fun however you can.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Leaves for Healing

In my vision, the man brought me back to the entrance of the Temple. There I saw a stream flowing east from beneath the door of the Temple and passing to the right of the altar on its south side...Fruit trees of all kinds will grow along both sides of the river. The leaves of these trees will never turn brown and fall, and there will always be fruit on their branches. There will be a new crop every month, for they are watered by the river flowing from the Temple. The fruit will be for food and the leaves for healing.” - Ezekiel 47:1,12
Ezekiel saw this vision in captivity. Israel had been removed from the land, the temple (and Jerusalem) had been destroyed, and the Israelites were decimated as a people. Ezekiel's words made it clear that this would not be a short visit, but there was hope. God would restore what was lost and be present with his people. At the center of this restoration would be a temple (God's presence – the name of the city would be YHWH-Shammah or “The Lord is There” - Ez. 48:35), a river (literally bringing life back to the land), and green fruit-bearing trees (providing fruit for food and leaves for healing).

I spent some time researching the properties of fruit leaves. It turns out that all the common trees that grow in Israel have leaves with healing properties. Apple tree leaves and bark have powerful astringent and antiseptic qualities. Mulberry leaves can be made into a tea that is packed with vitamins and minerals. Olive tree leaf extract can lower blood pressure and is full of antioxidants. Pistachio leaf extract has anti-fungal properties comparable to nystatin. Fig leaves have even been used to treat diabetes! Of course, the leaves must be green to extract these health benefits. So the promise that the river keeps the tree bearing fruit every month also keeps the leaves green and God’s people healthy.

This beautiful image of presence, provision, and healing has important parallels in the biblical story. For Ezekiel, this vision was not just about imagining a renewed Israel. He was pointing back to the beginning of the story, to the Garden:

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed from the land of Eden, watering the garden and then dividing into four branches.” - Genesis 2:8-10

The “four branches” describe what historically been called the fertile crescent, or the cradle of civilization. Right from the beginning, God intended Eden to be the head waters for the rivers that would populate the earth with life. Also present were the fruit-bearing trees bringing provision (and sadly, disobedience).

Ezekiel's vision did not get fulfilled as he thought. The people returned to the land, the temple was rebuilt, but the other promises delayed. It was within this climate of hope deferred that Jesus spoke these words:

On the last day, the climax of the festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’” - John 7:37-38

So now, instead of the life-giving river coming from the heart of the temple, the living water (God's Spirit) would come out of our hearts! Jesus, playing off the river imagery, draws a straight line from Eden, through Ezekiel, intersecting his own ministry, and points forward at the promise of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:29).

But the line does not end there. As Paul declares in Ephesians 1, the Spirit is God's guarantee of a future inheritance. This inheritance, when “he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth,” (Eph. 1:10) is not our “heavenly reward.” It is not paradise, rest, or disembodied bliss. It also is not a return to Eden. Our inheritance is not a garden, but a City:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” - Rev. 21:1-2

Yet there is no temple in the middle of this city. It has been replaced with the throne of the King. Issuing from this throne is something very familiar:

Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.” - Rev. 22:1-2

Now we get the full picture; the culmination of thousands of years of prophecy, hope, and expectation. The river flows straight from God's unrestrained presence right down Main Street. Now there are two Trees of Life bearing fruit and providing leaves. Lest the impact of that last part be missed, the leaves are still “for medicine to heal the nations.” If this does not blow your mind, it should. There is something so profound about this idea, but John can only give us hints. Somehow, in the new heavens and earth, we are still involved in God’s healing and restorative project. John is quick to clarify, “No longer will there be a curse upon anything.” But it still does make one wonder. 
This final image in Revelation is not of God’s people escaping the world floating on clouds. It is of a City with God himself at the center, we as his worshipping, resurrected family, and a glorious renewed earth. If this is our future, what does that mean for the present? I think it means that everything we do now empowered by the Holy Spirit is pouring living water into this world. Whatever we do, big or small, that bears fruit provides food and sustenance. And if our trees are bearing fruit, our leaves are green and healthy and becoming tools of healing for everyone around us.