Friday, October 29, 2010

Flashback Friday: Mud Slinging

***Originally posted October 31, 2008 prior to the last major election. Reposted as we have the mid-terms right around the corner as a reminder that no matter how much things change, things stay the same. You might as well replace Kay Hagan in this post with Christine O'Donnell and "godless" with "witchcraft". Two years ago it was a "godless" Hagan, this year is the "witch" O'Donnell, I shudder to think who the target will be next year as some corners of the religious establishment continue to try to seize power politically. Personally, this isn't about any particular political stripe, but we need to seriously examine the level our politics, and our religion, have stooped down to.***

The North Carolina Senate race is a tight one, and like most races this season no one wants to talk issues but everyone wants to sling mud. In this case it's Liz Dole, who I just lost all respect for, putting out an ad against her opponent, Kay Hagan, accusing her of being "godless." This article includes a link to the videos and hers is definitely over the line. If I didn't know better (and most voters don't) I'd think the voice that says repeatedly "there is no God" was hers. But then I read the article and find out that she's an elder in her church and teaches Sunday school. Hagan responds with an add of her own calling out Dole for "bearing false witness" and follows that up with a lawsuit against Dole.

Have we sunk so low that this is the substance of our political debates? Do you base your vote on who is most religious, has the most faith, is the most righteous? If so, you might as well stay home because we are all sinners and Jesus reminds us that "no one is good but God alone." (Mk 10:18) That's not all we need to be reminded of.

If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another—and this in front of unbelievers!


The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. (1 Cor 6:1-8)

"Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs..." (2 Tim 2:3-4)
They say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the same way political power corrupts politically and drives out whatever spirituality was there to begin with.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Label Me, I'll Label You

This post continues the conversation Glynn Young, Nancy Rosback and I are having over the book Mere Churchianity. They always have a head start on me, so be sure check out their thoughts on Chapter 11, "It's a Bad Idea to be a Good Christian" over at Faith, Fiction, Friends and Bend the Page.

Soren Kierkegaard said “once you label me, you negate me.” The idea was that labels strip us of our humanity, reduces us to nothing more than that label, and denies what makes each of us unique. If you label everything, then nothing has meaning. Michael Spencer observed this in our churches and came to the same conclusion: these labels have no meaning. "Dynamic" worship. "Seeker Sensitive" church. "Good Christian". My favorites are "missional" and "purpose driven" as if the church leaders just read a book and suddenly they're a new church.

This should come as no surprise. Our consumer-driven culture requires everything to be marketed, even churches. And because of this, churches are constantly on the lookout for a niche, a buzzword, a marketing strategy that makes them stand out above the rest. I was on a business trip in Utah where I saw a billboard advertising a church. Their motto was, "church. caffeinated." (To get the in-joke, you have to understand that Utah is 90-ish percent Mormon and they do not drink coffee.) Sadly, we seldom see churches advertised as God-centered, Jesus-focused, or Christ-like. If you didn't know the label, you wouldn't know these churches are even Christian.

When Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone began the Restoration Movement during the Second Great Awakening, they wanted to strip all the labels that described people more than their beliefs. One of my favorite movies is A River Runs Through It. The patriarch of the family is a preacher and the movie has this line, "My family is Presbyterian, which my dad likes to say is like Methodists who can read." Ask a stranger on the street if they are Christian and they are just as likely to answer their specific tradition as to just simply answer "yes". Stone and Campbell desired a church free from from labels so these churches adopted the simple name "churches of Christ." Of course, a hundred-plus years later many might as well be called churches of Tradition, churches of Legalism, or a capella churches. (Oh wait, some already call themselves by the last one. Sigh.)

If there is to be a movement back towards Jesus-shaped Churches, preaching and living Jesus-shaped spirituality (which even Michael admits is just another label), we need to strip ourselves of the labels that divide and instead embrace Christ alone as the "author and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2). This is his premise of what so many who have left the Church are looking for. It is sad they have been unable to find it. I believe these churches are out there (see some of my previous posts from this book). I pray that we find these churches more and more out in the religious marketplace.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Inner Voice

I have to admire marathon runners. I honestly don't know how they do it. Despite the physical strength required to run 26.2 miles, mental strength is also required. I can't seem to concentrate on a single thing for more than a few minutes. Imagine having to focus your thoughts for anywhere from 3-6 hours? Sure, you can plug in your iPod, but that's a lot of time alone with your thoughts. They say 80-90 percent of "self-talk" is negative. In other words, thoughts like "you can't do that" or "if only I was like him/her" or "I'll never..." A weak mind over the course of a race can be bombarded with such thoughts.

When I was younger and actually ran a little (and by little, I mean I sprinted. 400m was "long distance" for me) I read an article in Runner's World called the "Nine Golden Cheetahs" that has always stuck with me. The story was of an African runner who would run for miles and miles. At some point, he would reach his "wall" where he strength could no longer sustain him, but only by sheer will-power could he reach his destination. He also hit a mental wall where his thoughts failed him. Delirium would set in. It was at this point that he saw nine golden cheetahs staring at him. As he approached, the cheetahs began to run away towards his destination. He was compelled to follow them. The will to follow those cheetahs overcame his pain, his exhaustion until he reached his goal and the cheetahs were gone.

Paul, when describing our adopted relationship with our Lord in heaven, said we received a Spirit that allows us to call Him 'Abba'. (Galatians 4:6 and Romans 8:15). Abba is an informal term and would have sounded shocking to his Jewish audience. The message being that we have such a close relationship that we can be informal with God. I've heard others pray to "Papa" in that same vein.

Yesterday my wife ran a half-marathon. Her second, to add to 6 full. I admire her deeply for the commitment she makes and the strength it takes. She's found that her "wall" hits right around the maximum distance run during training. But the mental wall can happen at any time. Her mental wall hit with a little over a mile to go. She knew she was close and was making good time. But she saw something out of the ordinary out of the corner of her eye that tripped her concentration. When she tried to regain focus, she heard the words, "you can do it, mija!" coming from somewhere deep inside of her.

Mija is a term much like Abba. It is informal and endearing. But it's not a word used casually, it is loaded with too much affection. My wife is Latina but she hasn't been called mija since her grandmother would call her that as a child. That voice was out of the blue and unexpected. But she could feel herself somewhat carried the last mile.

We had a long conversation last night about where this voice could have come from. A distant memory? Did she overhear someone else? Was it God reaching out and giving her a hug? We settled on the latter. We recognize that sometimes God reaches out to us and whispers in our ear. I've heard such voices when facing hard decisions. But I have to admit I've never had an example so personal, so endearing.

My question this week: Has God ever audibly spoken to you? What did He say?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Weekend Reading, 23 October

As par for the course, there was a lot of good goin' on across the Christian blogosphere. I don't catch everything so I encourage you to visit Jason Stasyszen's Light Friday Hit List, Kevin Martineau's Favorite Links Friday, and Glynn Young's Saturday Good Reads. Now on with the show...

I include the brothers above because not just because they're cool guys, but because there's simply too much out over the interwebs to cover. Web 2.0 and social media has changed how we communicate with one another and I believe has created a virtual church without walls in which we can find encouragement, challenge, and inspiration through a limitless number of writers, bloggers, and free-thinkers. Of course, we need to balance the bottomless rabbit-hole of virtual relationships with the need to fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ who are right beside us. We also need to balance the time-suck that the Internet provides. With that in mind, there were several posts on ministry and social media.
  • Tony Alicea writes over at Geek For Him about the dangers of "soulless social media" when we'd rather update or status than have a conversation with the person right in front of us.
  • Shawn Smucker is consider taking a break to focus on what's most important.
  • On the opposite side, Cassandra Frear lists the advantages of blogging and how it can make us better people.

Regrettably, our churches aren't perfect. People leave. Racism is still present. But yet Jesus is still Lord and we are still His body.
  • There was an article on CNN this week about segregation in our churches. I tweeted that the most segregated part of America is Sunday mornings. I still believe that to be the case.
  • Ron Edmondson asks us to consider why.
  • An article in the LA Times wonders if the uncomfortable marriage between religion and politics has caused many to leave the church.
  • While Stephen Lamb continues his series over at Jesus Needs New PR on why he left the church. This time he challenges us to consider that we may be too narcissistic when we think we have our own "personal Jesus".
  • Ryan Tate asks what signs do your church give that it is thriving?
  • And Jonathan Pearson reminds us why the Church is still alive.

With our own personal walk our will is always challenged by God's, be it through our jobs, our families, our ministries, or our sins.
  • Jonathan Keck challenges us in the lost art of being open and honest while being painfully open himself.
  • Bill Grandi gives us a personal story of things not going his way.
  • Scott Couchenour gives several helpful tips for facing burnout in ministry.
  • Jason Stayszsen gives us parents tips on praying for our children over at Make a Difference To One.
  • And Chuck Salser is challenged to plant a church.

Hope you enjoy all of these posts. They should keep you plenty busy this weekend!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Flashback Friday: Beyond Belief

***Originally posted March 12, 2009. Reposted as Josh Hamilton is tearing up the Yankees so far this ALCS and I know many are rooting for him to reach the Fall Classic. His story of overcoming his addiction is compelling and could have been cliche when he fell off the wagon last year. But instead he has persevered through his personal demons, being injured most of this season, and has made this year's playoffs worth watching (of course Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Tim Lincecum are more than worth the cost of admission). His teammates recognized his battle and instead of showering him with the usual champagne, instead cracked open bottles of Canada Dry.

I'm curious if any of you have read Josh's book and what you think. Being an alcoholic and working regularly with addicts there were several warning flags I picked up on in his book. I think his experience last year woke him up a little and I hope matured him. I know I'm rooting for him this fall.***

Every season I find a baseball-related book to read during the season (ok, I've really only done that a couple of times, but I want it to become a tradition). Last season was Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy about the 1908 season, arguably the best season in the history of baseball. I also posted last season a list of books I want to get to. But I just got my monthly Family Christian catalogue and saw this book about Josh Hamilton.

If you haven't heard of him, he's a phenom for the Texas Rangers who had an incredible season last year and lit up the Home Run Derby. What's so special about that, you ask? Well I said he's a phenom, but he's not young. In fact he's soon to be 28 (middle aged in baseball years). What took him so long to get to The Show was a complete derailment of his life by his addiction to drugs and his subsequent redemption through his faith in Jesus Christ. Given that background, as soon as I saw this it moved right to the top of my must read list. I love this kid and cheer hard for him. Sorry Free Byrd, but you're going to have to wait until next season.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

An Army Without Swords

"Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:17)

"For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12)

Describing Jesus, "In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword... These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword" (Revelation 1:16, 2:12)

Michael Spencer was a radical. If he was a member of your church, your leadership might consider him a trouble-maker. He had unconventional thoughts and did unexpected things. Like giving a young disciple of Christ a Bible to read on her own.

This is the context Michael uses in Chapter 10 of Mere Churchianity, "Jesus, the Bible, and the Free-Range Believer" to describe the Biblical illiteracy that is present in the American Church (TM). This is a subject I am passionate about and have written on before. I'm going to try and restrain myself from going off on another rant. Instead I want to try and dig at the heart of the problem.

Why don't we read our Bibles? I forget the survey numbers, but something like 90% of households own a Bible but only 10% (I'm guessing on that one) actually read it. You see the traditional, large, "family" Bibles on coffee tables with baptisms, confirmations, and weddings scribbled in the front. But those occasions are the only times those Bibles are ever opened.

Michael notes that Bible reading is actually discouraged in many congregations. I wouldn't go that far, just that it's not explicitly encouraged. But why?

"Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." (Acts 17:11)
In the Middle Ages, reading the Bible yourself, or even owning one after the printing press was invented, was considered in many places a crime that could cost you your life. Then, the church operated much like any dictatorship- control the information and keep the populace ignorant. A lay-person reading the Bible could lead to them having their own convictions. Let that spread and you lose your grip on power.

I don't think that's the case today. At least in terms of consolidating power. However, I do think churches do not encourage personal Bible study to protect their long-standing traditions. You'd be surprised all the things your church does that isn't in the Bible. Transubstantiation? Not in the Bible. The Sinner's Prayer? Not in the Bible. Infant Baptism? Not in the Bible. Of course you could take this too far. The Churches of Christ split in the early 20th Century over whether worship music should be a capella or with instruments. Why the debate? Worship with instruments isn't explicit in the New Testament. (But then again, neither are church buildings, Sunday School, parachurch organizations, and on and on) And you'll find things in the Bible that are missing in our churches today such as Love Feasts and evangelism that is more than just handing out tracts or knocking on doors. But there's a danger in making the Bible your standard instead of Jesus.

We're not going to find the perfect church that does everything right according to the Bible. But I do believe that personal Bible Study will lead you to what's close. It did me. It did Glynn Young. This is how I approach my evangelism, in fact. I sincerely believe that if a person is truly obeying the Greatest Commandment, even if they are in another church, they will come around to seeing errors shortcomings in their church's traditions and structure. They will then be on a quest for what Michael describes as Jesus Shaped Spirituality. I know I cannot make anyone come to my church and I know I cannot make anyone think my church isn't just as wacky with our ways of doing things than another church down the street. But I do know that my church encourages each of us to study the Bible and come to our own convictions. We are encouraged to follow Christ, not traditions. (Though I will admit that historically we have had "leadership shaped spirituality", cults of personality if you will. I want to believe that has changed. I know it hasn't everywhere, but it has where I worship.) I believe we encourage Jesus Shaped Spirituality.

I'll never forget reading in a book this take on the following scripture: we need to come to our own convictions on who Christ is; we cannot rely on anyone else's conclusion to reach our own. That was radical to me in just the same way as Michael handing the newly converted a Bible to read. It changed my walk with Christ and still challenges me today.

"Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, 'Are you the king of the Jews?'


'Is that your own idea,' Jesus asked, 'or did others talk to you about me?'" (John 18:33-34, emphasis added)

Nancy Rosback, Glynn Young and I are discussing Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer. Check out Nancy's blog, Bend the Page, for links to other discussions.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Did Jesus Contradict Himself?

Interesting discussion at my recovery group last night. Did Jesus contradict himself at the Sermon of the Mount? Specifically, Matthew 5:16, where Jesus instructs us to "let [our] light shine before men" and Matthew 6:1, where he warns us "not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them."

So my question of the week is simply, what do you think? How do you let your light shine while not doing "good deeds" to be seen?

I have my answer, but I'm first interested in your thoughts.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Weekend Reading, 16 October

I'm going to do things a little differently this weekend. The headline-of-the-week prior to the rescue of the Chilean miners was on suicide and bullying. So this week's theme continues that subject, with emphasis on how Christians treat the LGBT community and also include some posts on depression.

  • To begin, I want to repost this link from Matthew Paul Turner, simply because I don't think we can read this enough. At some point, we need to look at how the church addresses those who are different for whatever reason. And a quick Google blog search shows many churches (surprisingly voices from the Mormon and Catholic churches are prominent)
  • Jason Boyett follows up by sharing a couple of posts over at Beliefnet on the LGBT experience. If we want to relate, and we want to have sympathy, we need to hear their story.
But they aren't the only victim of bullies. Outcasts for any reason, looks, athletic ability or lack thereof, scholastic or musical aptitude, and so on are easy targets for bullies who resort to that means to justify feeling superior. And the end result is often depression.
  • Over at the Internet Monk, Jeff Dunn wonders what a church was thinking putting "Depression is Selfish" on their church sign.
  • But we can choose whether to be better or bitter when faced with adversity. While Michael Perkins intends this for any adversity, it applies just as well to bullying and rejection.
  • And if we wonder where is God in all of this, Jerad Wilson reminds us that we have to believe there are reasons that He allows suffering.
  • If you have a personal experience battling depression or being around those who have, Alise is looking for your story.
So what do we do? Good question.
  • Mike Ellis asks the same, which inspired this great response from Katdish. And ultimately what inspired me to post this today.
  • Tom Pounder gives suggestions on what to do if bullying is present in your ministry.
  • The bottom line though is that God does not reject us, so we cannot reject others. Good thoughts from David Rupert at Red Letter Believers.
Suicide is one route taken from these victims. Just as tragic is when the pain is directed outwards instead of inwards. We need to be reminded of what happened with Matthew Murray and pray we can learn from this and the posts above and not repeat past mistakes. Have a great weekend, practice compassion, and reach out to someone who needs it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Flashback Friday: Jesus, Savior of the Rejected

***With all the recent news related to bullying, I kept thinking back to what pushes people to school shootings. Then I remembered these posts on Matthew Murray, a young man who opened fire at Youth With a Mission and New Life Church, killing two people at each back in 2007. This is a combination of two posts right after the event, the first before too much information was known. Given the climate today, both messages are worth reposting.***

I can’t post another word without acknowledging the tragedies that happened over the weekend in Colorado. First and foremost, I want to echo the prayer of Michael Sheridan, Bishop of the Diocese of Colorado Springs.

This hits pretty close to home as it wasn’t far from the first shooting that I took some very early steps in my Christian walk. And although it’s been years since I lived in an apartment a few miles north on Wads, I still have the feeling of, “I can’t believe it happened here.” I feel the same way about the other recent shooting in Omaha. That one hit close too as I was there just the day before. So it’s hard to sort out all these feelings and try to form a coherent thought.

As of the time I’m writing this, the shooter has been identified although no motive as yet been disclosed. I fully plan to update this if/when that happens. It also looks like both the shooting in Arvada and in Colorado Springs are related. (Update: It’s been confirmed the shootings are related and that the shooter, “hated Christians” and was thrown out of Youth with a Mission three years ago.)

There is a lot of speculation as to why and how something like this could happen. As expected there are many messages posted on the Denver Post website placing the blame on the churches themselves or even Christianity as a whole. I prayed at length about this this morning and I still can’t comprehend how anyone can equate a doctrine or polity to the murder of the innocent. Regardless of any single person’s belief on any of the hot topics of the day, or what that person might hear from the pulpit, or the name above the door to the church they attend, no one deserves to be killed indiscriminately. Yet there are many (I hope and pray, only a very vocal minority) who flat out hate anyone who claims Jesus as their savior without knowing their personal creed.

But this is a very broad brush used to paint a very narrow (singular, really) issue. Let me state as clearly as I can, the Jesus I follow does not condone hate. The Good News is that he died for the forgiveness of our sins, no matter what sins those may be. And that the greatest love anyone can have is to lay down our life for another.

Now, I can’t think of any Christian who would disagree with any of those. Can anyone find any fault in what I just wrote that could excuse senseless killing? Yes, there are churches that emphasize some sins as being worse than others. But, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) Does it matter what our sin is if we all fall short? Don’t we all need to repent of the sins that keep us from having a fulfilling relationship with God? At the same time, we cannot excuse sin. And it doesn’t matter what that sin is. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Rom 6:1-2)

But there are some that believe that since the Bible condemns their lifestyle that Christians “hate” them. That they can’t follow a God who is so arrogant to condemn anyone who disagrees with him. If we preach that Jesus is the only way to salvation, then that means we hate anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. The thing is, the exact opposite is true. If we really hated someone and thought we had the only golden ticket to heaven, would we bother telling them? Would we, really? For someone to say that they’re not surprised someone opened fire at a church because of current-event politics is absurd, it insults my faith and is contrary to everything Jesus lived and taught.

***

So I'm still grappling with what happened in Colorado and what would motivate someone to do such a thing. And I think about the kid in Omaha too and many, many others who turned their personal demons into another's hell. Quite common with nonsensical shootings like these are that the shooter is overwhelmed with a feeling of rejection.

Sunday morning, before seeing the news, I taught Sunday School to a group of 3rd graders. My lesson juxtaposed the sinful woman caught in adultery in John 8 with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus in Luke 7. When I present lessons from the Bible to this age group, I need to emphasize why the story I'm telling them is important. In this case, the lesson was how Jesus accepts anyone and everyone despite their sin and despite what religious leaders might say about it. A lesson certainly applicable today. There are a lot of religious leaders, Pharisees of this day and age, who are quick to condemn, quick to judge. But not Jesus. Jesus accepts. Jesus forgives.

I think about the modern parable (an oft-forwarded email, actually) of a young man in ratty clothes, long hair, piercings and tattoos who walks late into a Catholic Mass. The church is full and he can't find a seat and even where there is a seat available the looks from the parishioners made it clear he wasn't welcome. So without any other seats, he sat down right in the middle of the center isle. Of course, the priest had yet to come down the isle himself and everyone in the church was breathless with anticipation to see what he would do when he came to the young man. The organ stated the opening hymn as the priest and altar boys began down the isle. But no one sang along. All eyes were on the priest to see what he would do next. Noticing everyone's stares, the priest looked at the young man and...

sat down with him.

Maybe the young men involved in these shootings could relate to this young man. Maybe they could relate to the women described in the Gospels above. Maybe they never understood that Jesus would sit right down next to them, even if no one else would.

What makes this even more sad is that I know of ministries in and around Denver whose sole purpose is to reach out to the unaccepted, the rejected. The one that I think of first is Scum of the Earth. Yeah, you read that right. The name comes from 1 Corinthians 4:11-13, "To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world." They say Matthew Murray came from a very religious family, so maybe he had no interest in finding a community that would accept him. But sources also say that he was once part of Youth with a Mission and was looking at enrolling in Colorado Christian College. So somewhere in his heart and soul there was a desire to reach out to God.

Now some will say it's arrogant for a Christian to say, "well, he just needed Jesus and this would've never happened." To that I can respond based on experience in ministering to addicts, that while Jesus forgives us there's no promise that he'll heal us. No doubt he can, but there will always be scars. We need to face and deal with the baggage we carry and lay it at the foot of the cross. If he "had Jesus" would this have been prevented? There's really no way of knowing. Did he "need Jesus"? Well, only Jesus knows the answer to that.

Instead of worrying about the arrogance of us Christians having all the answers, or of the eternal fate of the shooter, the focus should be on the victims. And to follow Jesus' example and forgive.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Perfect Church?

(I warn you in advance, this one is long. There's a reason I didn't finish it last night like I planned or earlier this morning as I hoped...)

***

I've been on board with Michael Spencer through eight chapters of Mere Churchianity and I've enjoyed every part of the ride. But I had to get off the train at chapter 9 (though I'm going to jump right back on at 10). In chapter 8, Accepting the Real Jesus, Michael drew a line in the sand delineating the Church consisting of disciples of Jesus and the institutional, religious church filled with Christians. But it seems as though in this chapter he forgot the line was there.

I agree with Michael that you cannot keep "church shopping" hoping to find the perfect church because you never will. I also agree that many people's spiritual journey to be Jesus Shaped will lead them "out of the church as they have known and experienced it." (pp 109) I can personally testify that this can be the case. In fact, I do believe there is a perfect church worth going after. But I do not believe everyone Michael describes in this chapter has found it.

Let's begin with the perfect church. What does it look like? Michael listed several flavors of church he experienced trying to find it. Someone commented yesterday that it would be great if we could combine each of these into one. I've always felt that the perfect church would have the reverence of the Catholic/Orthodox church, the worship of an AME church, the emphasis on Biblical survey of the Calvary Chapel, the outreach of a foreign mission, and the doctrine (personal bias) of the Restoration Movement. But I haven't found that yet, and I don't think I ever will. But that does not mean I cannot create it.

You can browse the titles of Christian books, search the themes of Christian bloggers, and find the most followed Christian tweeters and it won't take long to notice that many are on the same quest to find the elusive perfect church. There was a push not long ago to "restore the First Century Church" even though that is not described in the Bible. The best we have to go on are the sparse writings of the Early Church Fathers and the Didache. Right now we see the "Acts 29 Church", or as I like to say "the next chapter". Catchy name. I pray they are successful in creating authentic community and a Jesus Shaped church. I've also seen "the Acts 2:42 Church", but there is very little written in the New Testament, and even less in the book of Acts, for "what" this perfect church should look like outside of a few anecdotal examples.

But there is plenty written on "how" this perfect church should function. For the sake of our discussion, I'm going to stick with Ephesians 4. Here Paul gives an outline of how Christ's church should grow up in unity. (And remember that Jesus prayed for unity amongst His believers the night before he was betrayed.) First, the perfect church is up to us. "[L]ive a life worthy... be completely humble and gentle...bearing with one another... make every effort to keep the unity..." (v 1-3) And later, "to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it... It was he who gave some to be... to prepare God's people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." (v 7, 11-13) In other words, the perfect church is up to us, doing our part, "From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." (v 16, emphasis added)

Of course, we are all human. Our pride and selfish ambitions will get in the way of what Paul describes above. Over time religiosity, legalism, and false-doctrine will set in. And the church we thought we were a part of will become unrecognizable. But, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever." (1 Peter 1:24-25) We can always turn back to the Word and return to what is right. I do believe that in this sense, the Church is undergoing constant revival as each generation comes to it seeking to be Jesus Shaped.

But the description above isn't the approach Michael Spencer takes. Instead he takes an ecumenical broad-brush and (practically) declares that everyone who is doing good work in Jesus' name is part of this true church. Yet Jesus himself said, "not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." And it continues, "only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 7:21) This is consistent with what Michael wrote in chapter 8, but appears to abandon here. It is also interesting that when Michael declares "There are thousands of Christians where I live. They express their faith through how they serve…" (pp 111), he then lists off several brand-names of churches as if they are all equal. But he does not mention the Mormon Church. I would expect that many Christians, and most Evangelicals, would not consider the Mormon Church to be Christians, yet I challenge you to find any group as focused on their communities and on their families as this church. According to Michael's description of the "true church" in this chapter, they have to be included in the discussion. Unless he applies an unwritten doctrinal line.

There is a written line in Ephesians 4. "There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (v 4-6) Which brings us to the "One Church".

This is a dangerous doctrine. Not because it is unbiblical, but because of our human nature to corrupt everything we are a part of. The Restoration Movement began when a Reformed Baptist and a Presbyterian got together, examined their doctrines in light of Scripture, and chose to go another way. They strived for One Church, unifying the divisive denominationalism that still exists today. Because of the emphasis on One True Church being defined solely on Scripture, the church they founded, the Churches of Christ, have been turbulent with division ever since. I think the Scripture says this, you think that, therefore we cannot agree and you are no longer part of "my" One True Church. Yet Paul said he doesn't care  so long as the Gospel is being preached and Jesus said no one can do a miracle in his name one minute and curse his name the next. You see the slippery slope?

So what does that mean for you and me and our quest for a Jesus Shaped church? First, we have to look to the Word of God to measure the state of our church, not our feelings, not the latest bestseller on church growth, and absolutely not traditions. Next, we have to examine ourselves by the same standard. Are we "doing are part" as Ephesians 4 instructs? Finally, and this goes back to the thrust of Mere Churchianity, we need to keep Jesus as our focus.

Is there a perfect church out there? With our sinful nature, sadly not until Jesus returns to claim His Kingdom. Is there a Jesus Shaped church out there? There are likely many and as Michael describes, there is no shortage of people striving towards it. Is there One True Church? Yes there is, and it is defined by God's own Word, not by the walls we construct. I pray one day we can worship there together.

Be sure to also check out Nancy Rosback's thoughts on Chapter 9 over at her blog, Bend the Page.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Where has your journey taken you?

In Chapter 9 of Mere Churchianity, Michael Spencer describes the point where he became disillusioned with the church. He then went out to search for the perfect church and lists the places where he looked. These stops are likely familiar to you, they are to me:
  • Church Renewal where you try to create perfection from within via methods.
  • Church Revival where you try to create perfection through worship and prayer (worship and prayer are not  bad ideas, but note who's trying to create perfection here).
  • Small Groups where you hope for perfection amongst a subset of relationships.
  • Charismatic Movement where you effectively do nothing and expect the Holy Spirit to do it all (is that too harsh?).
  • The true church where you are convinced yours is right (in doctrine, method, or both) and everyone else is either wrong or should be just like you.
  • The Catholic and Orthodox churches where tradition reigns.
  • The emerging church where just about everything is thrown against the wall to see what sticks.
  • The house church where the institutional church is abandoned and like-minded Christians meet together in homes hoping to recreate the First Century Church.
  • The media church (now this would be called the multi-site online church) where there is a virtual fellowship via the Internet and the church has multiple sites all streaming the Word of God from some centralized locale.

My journey took me from the Catholic church to a combination of the true church, small groups, and the multi-site church. I'm happy with the decision and wouldn't change it despite some pretty messed up things along the way. Since becoming active online, I've hung out with traditional Protestants who were migrating over to Orthodoxy, traditional restorationists who were exploring small groups, house churches, and renewal and now an eclectic mix of emergents, traditionalists, Catholics and Charismatics.

So my question this week is: where has your journey taken you in search of Jesus Shaped Spirituality?

Glenn Young shares his journey over at Faith, Fiction, Friends as he, Nancy Rosback and myself discuss Michael Spencer's book. Please come back this evening for more thoughts from me on Chapter 9: What Jesus is Doing in the World.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Weekend Reading, 9 October

A lot of great blogging out there this week, so I'm just going to cut right to the chase:

 
Some great posts this week on how we should approach our faith and the power of the Word.
  • Matthew Paul Turner says he approaches his faith with doubt. I think he approaches it with humility. Like we all should
  • Kevin Martineau vulnerably reminds us (by channeling Justin Davis) that our weaknesses don’t make us weak but a lack of sharing our weaknesses prevents the deep relationships we need to be strong.
  • Amy Sorrells hates evil and fight it with her own strength. But she recognizes that only gives in to evil while trusting in God overcomes.
  • Is living the Christian life impossible? I’d say it is; without Jesus’ divine power. Rick Lancaster encourages us to tap into that “divine power”
  • Glynn Young shares a powerful post on the spiritual wilderness and healing that comes from the Word.
  • Shawn Smucker asks what the first words of Jesus were when he started his mission. Jesus asked John the Baptist, “what do you seek?” Jesus asks us today, what do you seek? 
  • Jared Wilson reminds us the power is in the Gospel, not in our abilities.
  • He also draws our eyes to the Cross, to remember what God has done for us instead of focusing on what we want God to do for us.
  • Dusty Rayburn challenges us to look at the world and our lives through God’s eyes and to stop being so self-focused.
On "Living the Life":
  • Justin Davis gets to meet one of his mentors and reminds us how powerful are our words, even at a distance (or over the Internet).
  • Matthew notes that worrying about what others think paralyzes us.
  • Michael Ellis gives us a lesson from a child’s heart on how to serve.
  • Another great Blog Carnival at Bridget Chumbley’s on Healing. 37 links, totally worth the time.
  • Michael Perkins implores us to keep knocking on that door
 On the Church:
  • Richard Young (via Church Salser) notes that multi-site churches are only following the early church example and that our focus should be less on structure than on reaching our communities.
  • Michael Lukaszewski, after studying Nehemiah, gives us five characteristics we need in the Church.
  • Sharon Norris Elliott shows us that the purpose of the Church is to demonstrate God’s wisdom to the world. A challenge we should not take lightly.
  • Perry Noble takes some lessons from the Mac vs PC commercials to examine how we treat those outside our church.
  • Finally, Matthew Paul Turner writes a powerful post in light of all the recent news on bullying and how we need to own up to how poorly the church has treated the LGBT community.
Enjoy reading. Have a blessed weekend!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Flashback Friday: Our Money Says "In God We Trust"

***Originally posted February 3, 2009. I linked to this Tuesday, but wanted to bring it back up to the front page. Ann Spangler's book, "Praying the Names of God" has been a great encouragement to me, delving into God's character through the names He was called in the Old Testament. In trying times, it's worth remembering who God is.***

This story breaks my heart. I can’t imagine what must have been going through his mind while looking at his children and committing these heinous acts. I’m sad that we live in a society that is so driven by wealth and status that not only motivated our present economic crisis, but also has left so many hopeless in its wake. I consider myself blessed. Both my wife and I are gainfully employed with relative job security. Our children are healthy and our mortgage isn’t totally screwed up (only just a little). But I do worry about what would happen to my family if something were to happen to me. To some degree I worry about the loss of income, but I worry more about the emotional pain of loss. If both my wife and I lost our jobs would I feel completely hopeless to the extent that I have no hope, even for the future of my children? That’s the part of this story I just don’t understand.

I’m also sad that we live in a culture that is overly self-focused. I’m guilty of this myself. I don’t know my neighbors like I should. I’m sad though that others feel they can’t turn to family or friends for support even if their neighbors are strangers. At least through my extended family and my spiritual family I believe I could manage through the hard times. Catastrophic loss of income? I don’t really know. I know many families in my church are hurting right now. I’ve had several neighbors move because they can no longer afford their homes. My heart goes out to them, but I also know that a loving God will take care of them, even if not in the ways they hope.

El Roi, Yahweh Yireh, the "God who sees” and “the LORD Provides” encourages me through His word: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance." (James 1:2-3) And "we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." (Rom 5:3-5) I pray that my circumstances may be a blessing to someone in greater need, be they family, friend, neighbor or stranger.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

I've Had Enough!

Skimming the headlines lately isn’t just depressing, it’s disturbing. Denver Broncos receiver Kenny McKinley. Restaurateur Joseph Cerniglia. Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. 13 year-old Seth Walsh. They say celebrity deaths happen in threes. But front-page suicides don’t seem to follow that rule. 34,000 Americans commit suicide every year. I wonder if our 24-hour news cycle, instant online access to information, and social media run amok has caused that number to increase recently. Each of the examples above suffered from over-exposure, desired or not.

Then there are those cases that don’t get the headlines. How many others don’t we hear about? How many crack under the pressures of the present economy? How many succumb to their addictions? How many crumble under the weight of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after serving our country? How many others just can’t take it anymore?

Elijah had enough. He just saw a great victory as God answered his prayers and rained fire down in spite of the prophets of Baal. That upset the status quo however, and he was now a wanted man. “'I have had enough LORD,' he said. 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.'" (1 Kings 19:4-5)

God was still present, even in his time of despair. But he had to go out to see Him. (v 7-13)

Jonah was depressed because God forgave Ninevah, a hated enemy of Israel. “Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3) and later "I am angry enough to die." (v 9)

God reminded Jonah to not be upset over things he had no control; that God was in control and He knows what is best. (v 10-11)

Would these examples have helped those above? I don’t know. In some cases, I highly doubt it. But they help me.

Chuck Salser recently posted on "going boom". I commented that he described me perfectly. Thursday night I blew up. I’ve been continually irritable at work recently and even more irritable at home. I’m sure I’m not pleasant to be around right now. I’ve had enough! Enough of what, I don’t know.

Maybe it’s the change of seasons. Maybe it’s the start of the school year, turning my routine upside down. Or maybe I’m just missing what’s most important.

I need to take the lesson from Elijah and go out to seek God personally. I need to take the lesson from Jonah and not get upset over things I cannot control. I need to listen to Chuck and not let my anger boil over. Bottom line, I need to keep in mind the things of God and not the things of this world.

Just as importantly, I need to share this with others. Sadly we often do not know who is suffering in this way until it is too late. An encouraging word. A hug. Sharing from the Word of God. Who knows what effect this would have on a stranger, a friend, unless we stop and do it. That requires us to stop focusing on our own problems and seek to serve others.

My question this week:

Have you had enough? And if so, what are you doing about it?

This post is participating in Bridget Chumbley's Blog Carnival. This week's topic: Healing. Be sure to visit for additional insight and inspiration.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

No Weekend Reading

No weekend reading this week. I'm away for the weekend. Check out Glynn Young's Saturday Good Reads, Kevin Martineau's Favorite Links Friday, and Jason Stasyszen's Friday Hit List.

Enjoy the weekend!

Friday, October 01, 2010

Flashback Friday: Reading is Fundamental

***Originally posted March 2nd this year. Reposted in light of the Pew Forum poll showing that atheists and agnostics know more about the basic tenants of our faith and world religions than Christians. I was going to dedicate a whole (and original!) post on the subject, but as others cover it just as well as I could. Get Religion does a terrific job looking past the headlines to break down what the Pew Forum poll results really mean and points out the obvious: atheists and agnostics have those beliefs (or lack thereof) for a reason- they’ve done their homework. Does that make us blind followers, then? Matthew Paul Turner snarkly considers this in his response. Either way you slice it, from the serious to the snark, we have a Biblical Literacy problem. Christianity Today recently had a feature titled, "Why Johnny Can't Read the Bible" that I encourage you to check out. I also want to point you to a recent Barna survey that is more depressing than the Pew poll. Keeping these in mind, maybe we need a Read Across our Churches Day?***
Today is National Read Across America Day. Celebrated on the birthday of Dr. Seuss, events are held all around the country to "motivate children to read." A worthwhile event and a noble goal.

The American Christian Church needs something like this. Maybe not your priest/pastor/evangelist dressing up as the Cat In The Hat for the Sunday sermon. But something needs to be done in the Body of Christ to encourage reading and studying. Charles "Tremendous" Jones has often been quoted saying, "You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read." Reading was so important to the Apostle Paul that he asked Timothy to "come to [him] quickly" and bring his "scrolls, especially the parchments" while he was believed to have been in prison (2 Tim 4:9,13) While this most likely at least included Scripture, it was just as likely it included Rabbinic teachings given Paul's education. Paul also taught that the Bible is "useful... so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16-17)

Our reading shouldn't be limited to the Bible however, though as a Body we sadly fall short in this area. The number of Christian books are limitless, some of course better than others. It is always worthwhile to see someone else's perspective on a subject you hold near and dear. I encourage you to find a niche that appeals most to you- history, biographies, theology, apologetics, etc and dig in. Sally Stuart's Christian Writers' Market Guide lists 166 different categories of books. If you can't find something you like, well you're not really trying. It is important to remember though, that books should compliment, not supplement, your Bible study. This is a lesson I have had to learn the hard way a year ago as I felt myself spiritually withering away even though I was reading about a book a month. I was convicted listening to a lesson that reminded me that spiritual books should never take the place of the Word of God. So I have recommitted myself to my Bible study and any book I read is intentionally tied to a specific Bible study.

Not only do we have Read Across America, but it is also almost exactly a month before Easter. If you observe Lenten fasts, you may have given up chocolate or Facebook. Some also add spiritual disciplines to their fasts. If you're taking this season to dig deeper into your Bible study or read that spiritual book gathering dust on your bookshelf, amen! If not, don't fret because there's plenty of time. Many devotionals are written for a month's worth of study so now is a perfect time leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
With that in mind, here are some recommendations keeping to the theme of Easter: Calvary Roadby Roy Hession, He Chose the Nails by Max Lucado, The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey, Praying the Names of Jesus by Ann Spangler, Thirty Days at the Foot of the Cross edited by Tom and Sheila Jones, and Your Jesus is Too Safe by Jared C Wilson.

Happy reading!