Archive for the ‘church’ Category

I’m in the process of redesigning this blog and working more intentionally on branding, so I haven’t been posting. But I couldn’t let this moment past. You can see the post below as a kind of follow-up to a brief post I did several years ago.

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Rochelle and I saw ‘The Help’ this weekend with another couple from church. They are wonderful people and gave me the book last year. Since the wife of the other couple, like me, is from the south, she thought I would resonate with the book, and in many ways I did.

 I was born in Jackson, MS, as were my parents and grandparents. Both of my grandmothers were maids in Jackson, working for multiple white families. ‘The Help’ nails the look of Jackson and its cultural and racial ethos  – both in the 60’s and today. From my read – visiting hundreds of times over my lifetime – Jackson remains two cities; one white, one black. Speak with contemporary Jacksonians, white and black, and you’ll get a completely different picture of the city, just like you do in ‘The Help’. The whites in the movie don’t see a racial problem in Jackson while it’s painfully obvious to blacks.

It’s been interesting to see the response of my white friends to ‘The Help’ (and I have tons of them and I love all of you). What has startled me is the amazement by which they look at the racial division in the 60’s. The white characters in ‘The Help’ are largely unlikeable. They want separate bathrooms, believe in separate stations in life, and mindlessly go along with the status quo; a status quo which occupies a social position of separate and unequal and the theological position that God did not create all people in his own image. When we see it in Mississippi in the 60’s we look back and marvel with confused awe and disgust. Some of us even think, “How could people be that way?” But many of us don’t think that most Sunday mornings when we sit in our segregated churches.

Our senses get offended when someone like Hilly Holbrook speaks of segregated bathrooms because “niggers carry different diseases than us”. But that’s hardly a concern at most congregations I know. There’s no fear of black butts on white toilets because there are no black butts in the building. If you don’t believe me, what’s the racial make-up of your congregation. I bet most of them are OVERWHELMINGLY homogeneous. As a matter of fact, that’s how the church-growth experts tell us is the best way to grow a church.

Once, in college, I sat in a ministry class and listened to a young white woman explain that segregated churches are better because different ethnicities like different worship styles.

Seriously?

It would seem that the apostle Paul didn’t consider the powerful importance of “worship styles” when he said that Jesus Himself was our peace and had destroyed the the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility between us (Eph. 2:14). Apparently, even the church is  inventing mythical reasons to keep the races separate. Shockingly, this is antithetical to the message of the New Testament, wherein one of the central questions is bringing Jews and Gentiles together as one under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Just this last week on Twitter, someone referenced seeing ‘The Help’ and asked, “I wonder what our kids will look back at and be embarassed?” I submit, it will be the same thing…at least if they’re better Christians than we are. Jesus Himself prays that all his disciples be one (John 17), and Paul works for it throughout his entire ministry, yet it is the least talked about issue in the church. We get all in a bunch about things we can’t do anything about; real important things like millennial debates, and hardly lift a finger to do what was critical to Jesus and Paul, bringing people from different backgrounds together to become one.

The difficult and deadly work of ending Jim Crow and segregation in the south was undertaken by courageous men and women, who under the banner of Christ, sought to end a wicked, demeaning system of life. Yet it was the white churches in the South who were last to the party. In fact, they openly defended the status quo, rebuked Martin Luther King, Jr., and called to uphold segregation and second-class citizenship. These churches and their leaders saw nothing wrong with segregation, with white, blacks, Latinos and anybody else all worshipping separately, though supposedly to the same God.

Some churches still do this.

Some churches maintain racists systems in the David Duke kinda way. But the majority maintain it by not caring at all, not working to end it, not standing up for others and by  sitting on their hands…in the theatre.

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There’s no need for me to add my voice to cacophony out there telling the world why Harold Camping has been before and is currently wrong about the Rapture and coming apocalypse. For Christian insiders like me, it began as a joke; another nut with extraordinarily poor textual criticism skills shouting from the rooftops about the end of the world. Then it turned slightly more maddening as we realized that some naive believers were following Camping, but worse, his crazed misconceptions about Scripture and Jesus were becoming a obstacle to faith for those  searching for faith and another obstruction for those already opposed to it.

But in these last hours, I’ve become more understanding of both Camping and some of his followers, not of their eschatology, mind you, but their emotions; their longing. What if today were the rapture (which many Christians don’t believe in and haven’t historically)? What would it mean for you? Let me tell you what it’d mean for me.

If Harold were right, my mother would be reunited with her best friend, her mother. My mother might also know more or see more about her two sisters who died at the moment of childbirth.

My wife would be reunited with her father who died far too early. And my two daughters would get to meet their grandfather, a great man who loved them before he knew them.

And all the other people in our family, deceased grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins; the whole lot would come together once again, because death has been conquered by Jesus. That’s a little bit of what it would mean for me.

But it’s not only about death and resurrection, is it?

The Kingdom of God (which is not someplace you go after you die, by the way) is the place where everything is done as the King would have it done. That means, if Harold were right, my daughters, would no longer live in a world consumed with the threat of terrorism, war, or nuclear disasters and/or holocaust, or famine, nakedness, and disease. They wouldn’t even have to negotiate the terrorizing social structure of Junior High School. I wouldn’t see marriages fail and children abused. None of us would be witness to slavery, the mistreatment of women and minority groups around the world. If Harold were right, I’d never again sit next to a hospital bed with a dying parishioner. I performed the funeral for a 7-month old once, watched his mother weep uncontrollably for days, if Harold were right, I’d never have to do that again.

If Harold were right, at 6pm tonight there would be renewal breaking out across the globe, complete with a New Heavens and a New Earth. There would be singing on Zion’s glorious summit and the lion would lay down with the lamb. If Harold were right, we’d have a reconciliation celebration. If Harold were right, the Jesus I now see dimly, I would then see face-to-face.

Wouldn’t that be good?  Doesn’t part of you wish Harold were right? I do!

With all the talk about hell recently, we may have looked past the simply fact that the return of Jesus is not, in fact, Doomsday; it’s Joyday, Renewalday, Lifeday, Perfectionday. And we belong to that day!

Maranatha! Come, Oh, Lord!

Once you see how an Anabaptist approaches baptism, it becomes easier to understand why and how s/he makes determinations about other issues. At the heart of much of anabaptism is choice, more accurately, at the heart of anabaptism is the lack of coercion.  For many Anabaptists, Jesus is the one who humbled Himself unto death. He forced no one to embrace Him, to follow Him, to worship Him. This is more than a type of libertarian freedom, but a commitment that Jesus does not force His very self on anyone, even knowing that the curtailing of such freedom is in the individual’s best interest.

One of the places this is evident is in Anabaptists’ approaches to church/state issues. Since both the Catholic and Protestant churches continued to baptize infants, which made citizens of the baptized, when Anabaptists refused baptism to children they were also making a statement about empire, kingdom and state. The early Anabaptists (and I’m compiling three separate groups in the 16th Century Radical Reformation) saw the state as antithetical to the kingdom of God. In response, the church was to remain distinct from the state (we’ll talk about The Schleitheim Confession next time). The early Anabaptists witnessed how devastating the entanglements of church and state had become and they wanted no parts of it. At all!

Clearly, some Anabaptist groups have taken this impulse to separation to an extreme; the Amish for instance. Behind the Amish itch to create a separate world is a deeply held belief that intermingling with “the world” would corrupt the church. History, including the Reformation itself, has given us much evidence that they were and are right. However, the limitations of separatist movements is nearly self-evident.

The way this instinct in Anabaptism gets played out among mainstream Anabaptist like myself is predominately in the political realm. Caricatures of evangelicals are what they are, but I have never been a congregant of a church where American Flags adorned the walls; though you would see flags from  countries where the church supported missionaries. In Anabaptist churches you will be hard pressed to find church leaders advocating a particular political agenda, or suggesting to congregants who they should vote for. As a matter of fact, in most of the churches I have been a part of, if someone were to do so, many people would be offended, even if they agreed with the politics themselves. In Anabaptists churches You will not typically find big to-dos on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, and the 4th of July. We find ways to both honor the service of our members who have sacrificed for America and acknowledges that all humankind are our brothers and sisters. 

Our instinct is that church and state don’t mix. What’s more, for many Anabaptists, open political discussions in church would be considered coercive. Politics change, Jesus does not! We make our camp on Jesus, everything else is too transitory. Anabaptists see the church as a kingdom within a country, and while you are free to advocate in whatever way you like outside church life, Anabaptists are suspicious and uncomfortable with political advocacy inside it. As a matter of fact, early leaders in my tribe, like David Lipscomb, abstained from participation in civil government and, believe it or not, some of our current thought-leaders do so as well.

This approach to church and state is strange to many evangelical and Catholic believers.  But Anabaptists have never minded being thought of as strange.

More to come…

I was raised, and remain, in a somewhat Anabaptist faith community (Churches of Christ). Most people don’t know what Anabaptism is, even people who are a part of Anabaptist’s communities and hold Anabaptist’s commitments often don’t know. This has happened because true, historic Anabaptism hasn’t ever been terribly popular. What remains in the 21st-Century are vestiges and fragments of 16th-Century Anabaptism – Mennonites, Churches of Christ, Amish, Brethren, etc…. This is unfortunate, because I, for one, believe recovering that the heart of Anabaptism is crucial for communicating faith in Jesus as we lean into the future.

Therefore, I want to give some space to articulate the best parts of Anabaptism. I want to describe what Anabaptism is and how it differs from popular, American evangelicalism and the emerging and strengthening, hard-edged, mean-spiritedness NeoReformed movement in America.

Let’s begin with the most obvious commitment of Anabaptists: Believer’s Baptism. Anabaptist means “re-baptizers.”  During the Reformation, as Martin Luther was breaking with the Catholic Church, many, particularly in Switzerland, believed Luther’s Reformation wasn’t going far enough. Thus the “Radical Reformation” was birthed.

The root issue was pedobaptism (infant baptism). Anabaptists, through their reading of scripture, determined that baptism was a practice for people who choose trust in Jesus for themselves, rather than received faith as a family heritage. In days when baptism into the church was tantamount to becoming a citizen of the state/empire (we’ll talk about Anabaptist’s views of church and state later), Anabaptists  said “No,” and began to “re-baptize” one another.

At the time, the church the world over baptized infants, making them both citizens of the church and the state. Anabaptists believed this to be improper. Luther and the Reformers, for their own theological and sociological reasons, maintained the practice of infant-baptism. This simple commitment that discipleship into the way of the Lord should be volitional is what made the Radical Reformation radical.

While lots of groups now practice “believer’s baptism” this wasn’t the case in the 16th-Century. The early Anabaptists were counter cultural, bucking the established church, the emerging Lutheran church and the state all at the same time. This instinct towards anti-institutionalism remains part of me and Anabaptism. And if you think the mode of baptism isn’t or shouldn’t have been a big deal, I will only point out that many of the Radical Reformers were hunted down and killed for believing it was.

Earlier in my pastoral career I attempted, as many have, to distance my theology from the hard, sectarian stance on baptism I inherited as a youth. Fortunately I did. And fortunately, I didn’t. I maintain that God enters a relationship with a person whenever God chooses and it’s not my place to say when that is (Through the years, some Anabaptists had come to believe that baptism was somehow magical and was the only hope anyone had of knowing God). Yet at the same time, I think there is something vitally important about each person making a personal decision to take on Jesus for themselves. Faith is not something your parents can bestow.

There you have it, the beginning of what it means to be Anabaptist. What do you think?

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A Snarky Note:

Oddly, many people in my tradition have come to practice a defacto infant-baptism as we press harder and harder to baptize children younger and younger. Parent’s who won’t let their kids choose their own order off the menu at Chili’s are baptizing their children at terribly young ages out of a fear that, “They might not ask again.”

Please!

I’m very stoked, pumped, excited, and animated to be heading to Rochester College this May 16-18 for “Streaming: Biblical Conversations From the Missional Frontier”. Streaming is an in-depth exploration about the adventure of ministry. It  will focus on the book of James and will offer ministers and church leaders biblical resources to help them lead God’s people in a missional era. Mark Love – the churches of Christ missional yoda and peculiarly dedicated Bob Dylan fan, has put together, along with JoPa Productions, an awesome line-up of missional thinkers.

The featured speakers will be Scot McKnight and Miroslav Volf! Wow!!

Many of you already know Scot McKnight. He’s a Christian blogosphere rockstar (if there can be such a thing), has written a first rate book on how to read scripture and is not afraid to call John Piper’s questions of whether or not “Jesus preached Paul’s gospel” stupid, well “irritating!” His newest book is One.Life.

Perhaps less people know Miroslav Volf, but you should. Volf is as first-rate as first-rate gets when it comes to theology, and his book Exclusion and Embrace is a modern-day classic when it comes to race, identity and reconciliation. His newest release, Allah: A Christian Response is supposed to be excellent as well.

Just those two guys make Streaming worth the mere $189 for the registration. Plus, other incredible folks you’ll want to be around will be there. People like me, Jack Reese, Tony Jones, and Doug Pagitt.

I hope you’ll join me this May in Michigan.

Embracing Lent

Posted: March 6, 2011 in advocacy, Bible, church, giving

This post is an annual repost that seeks to help people from non-liturgical traditions – like mine – understand and be blessed by the wonderful season of Lent which begins this Wednesday.

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This past Sunday I preached about addictions – idols really; those things we allow into our lives believing that they offer life, but ultimately do not. The key text was Isaiah 44. In the text, people take inanimate, lifeless objects, like wood, and fashion them into gods to be worshipped.

Times haven’t changed.

People still do this. We make things – money, food, sex, accomplishment, a particular political philosophy, the words of a radio or television personality or cable news station, whatever – our gods. We chuckle at the idea of folks worshipping a piece of wood, but it’s not as funny when we think about the men, women and marriages that have been ruined by people worshipping pornography or sexual immorality.

At any rate, all this talk of addictions and idols reminded me of the importance of the Christian calendar, in general, and our present season of Lent in particular. Lent, as you may know, is the 40-day period before Easter. In short, it is designed to help believers share in Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice – at least that’s the most popularized aspect of the season. But at a deeper level, we might want to consider the fact that since we are all idolaters – looking to other things give us life – Lent is perhaps our one chance, our one excuse every year to give ourselves permission to melt our golden calves. Lent is the perfect chance to try giving something up, something that has come to master us.

What I mean is simple: Oftentimes our false gods and idols seem so overwhelming that we surrender the fight thinking that nothing can be done. This is made easier by the fact that we generally enjoy idol worship. If we didn’t we never would have begun our idol worship in the first place. When we think about giving up our addictions they pain and sacrifice just seems to much.

But Lent sounds like a suggestion. It’s just 40 days. Spring training is longer, for goodness sake. If your god is shopping or over-eating or over-spending or terse, course language then giving it up for 40 days seems like something you can do.

Lent is subversive this way. For the last 7 years I’ve participated in Lent, setting aside some crutch I’d come to deepened on to deeply. Each year I’ve learned the same thing: I can live without it! In years past I’ve set aside certain language, red meat and few others things that I’m too embarrassed to mention. And every time I’ve learned that those things don’t give me life and never could. They were blocks of wood. I learned that not only did I not enjoy them all that much, they were harming me in ways I never noticed or considered. What’s more, for each idol I’ve relinquished, I’ve never returned to using them like I did before. Lent provided me an excuse to try – without feeling like I was trying to climb Mount Everest – and ultimately allowed me to loose idols and addictions and be free.

So here’s my encouragement to you. If like me, you’re from a non-liturgical tradition that thinks Lent is strange or foreign, just give it a try. This is how we learn; we try things. Pick up the idol that is eating at you and say, “Until Jesus is raised (Easter), I’m leaving you in darkness.” My bet is that by doing so, you will come to see the light.

Recently I’ve found myself, once again, thinking about what brings people to faith. This has been prompted by two things: (1) I’m walking a church group through Tim Keller‘s best-selling book, “The Reason For God”, and (2) multiple conversations with Atheist and Agnostic friends. I love these conversations. They force me to refine my thinking, listen to new people and perspectives and process what I actually believe.

Though I’m having conversations with both Christians and non-Christians regarding faith, our language – in some cases – is strikingly similar. One linguistic construct we share is the notion of “a leap of faith.” What is commonly meant by a “a leap of faith” is acting as if something is true regardless of the evidence present. Both Christians and non-Christians mean the same things by this phrase. What I want to suggest is that taking “a leap of faith” is not a Biblical understanding of what it means to “come to faith.” More to the point, the Bible does not ask anyone to make  “leap of faith,” but the scriptures do call all of us to make a “leap at faith.” Here’s why:

Christianity Isn’t for Stupid People. To the dismay of many, Christianity requires thinking.  Taking “a leap of faith” connotes that evidence doesn’t matter. Another way we call faith stupid is by calling it “blind faith.” The truth is, no one does anything on “blind faith.” We all do what we do out of some calculation. The calculation may be ill-informed, misguided, or poorly constructed, but we don’t do anything that matters “blind.” No one takes a “leap of faith,” we negotiate the knowns and unknowns and select. That’s not a leap, it’s arriving at a decision point and taking a step, not a leap.

Plus, I don’t know about you, but my faith is neither blind nor stupid. Yes, it is the product of participation in a particular community over the course of a lifetime, but I have also read, studied, and questioned. My questions about the Bible, the nature of God, and the nature of the world are tougher and more accurate than the passing machinations of a freshman philosophy major somewhere because I bothered to seriously investigate. I investigated Christianity, Atheism, Buddhism, and Mormonism in particular. My list isn’t exhaustive, but I’ve studied the world’s major worldviews enough to know what I’m talking about, and I’ve tried to take all claims seriously.

Taking a “leap at faith” means those both inside and outside orthodox faith owe it to themselves to investigate earnestly what is at the heart of the world and ask the toughest questions they can imagine. Christians should not fear what the hard sciences discover or what historians unearth. If we believe all truth is God’s truth, then what is there to unnerve us? Real faith is not a leap, it’s the intentional examination of the available evidence and then carefully formulating something that is philosophically coherent and realistically useable. The Apostle John even instructs us to do so in 1 John 4. Our job is to “test the spirits.”

Christianity Isn’t Mental Assent. Far too many folks think “a leap of faith” means “a change of mind.” Of course, in many ways, this is accurate (just think about the literal meaning of “repent”). Though coming to a place where you believe that God exist does mean that you’ve made a philosophical shift – that’s just the beginning, and can oftentimes mean very little. As James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us, “even the demons believe…” (James 2.19). One of the great problems in the world is that Christianity has become nominal (Christian in name only) and notional (people like the ideas of Christianity).

Taking a “leap at faith” means looking at the life and teachings of Jesus and trying them on, taking them out for a stroll, not just agreeing with a few principles. Faith is a lived-experience, not a thought-experience. If interaction with Jesus doesn’t result in kinder words, radical generosity and justice, engagement with the poor and self-denial, it just ain’t faith. There’s only way to know if God is truly the Provider or if His Spirit will be with you in times of disappointment and brokenness; you have to try it. It’s not theoretical, it has to mean something. That’s why the people you know who have a mental assent to faith, but who haven’t experienced what the Apostle Paul would call “circumcision of the heart” are some of the worst people you know. Jesus’ instructions to those living in His time was simple: “Go and do likewise.” It was about trying it out and seeing if Jesus was right.

Ultimately I’m advocating that faith isn’t a stumble in the dark. Those inside the church who believe so, do God, themselves and their fellow-believers a great disservice. And those outside the church who would suggest that faith is “blind” simply haven’t done their homework. But worse still, Christians have made their homework harder by not reflecting the real thing.