Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Church Worth Joining

A friend called to say he'd been reading my blog regularly. That was cool. Of course, since I've been posting irregularly that means he's been doing a hit-and-miss checkup. Still, he's READING it! Now all I have to do is think of things worth saying.

About a year ago I set my browser homepage for ChristianityToday. If you're interested in a good blog, one that will get you thinking about current issues in the church, then check out their Leadership Journal blog "Out of Ur." If I've done my job correctly, you should be able to link to it from here. It's a good one to subscribe to.

One thing I've seen is that we all seem to have different definitions of what the church is. We start with the Bible's definitions or metaphors, such as: "The church is the Body (or Bride) of Christ," or: "The church is the people who worship God," or: "The church is the saints of God who believe in Jesus." But when we get to specifics, we go all over the map. We use Bible definitions in human ways, in the ways we've been taught by our elders (sometimes spiritual elders, sometimes family elders). God's terms become our own code language.

This matters because how we define the church is how we define what we are supposed to be and who joins us in being that. If church is rules, then we are supposed to follow rules and hang with people who follow the same rules. If church is doctrine, then we are supposed to believe certain doctrines and hang with people who also believe those doctrines. If church is conservative or liberal politics, or culture or ethnic background, then we are supposed to be conservative or liberal or intellectual or artsy or whatever, and must hang with people who are also whatever. And the un-asked question is: "Is this really the church?"

The New Testament church came to a point where it had to decide whether it would accept its own preconceptions about what it was, or God's definition of what it was. God's definition was surprisingly broader than theirs. As it turned out, God's definition didn't include such things as kosher foods or circumcision. God's definition was much more simple. It was the people who believed on Jesus as His Son and believed that He had raised this dead Son to life. Nothing more was needed to define the church. Not activities, not race, not culture or heritage or politics. Just "Confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead."

What would happen if we began to redefine ourselves Biblically? Would we stop giving the attention we do to denominational affiliations? Would form of worship matter more or less to us? Would it matter to us when others think the Rapture would take place? Would we care that they are Calvinists while we are Arminians, or vice versa? Would we mind if they read the New Living Translation rather than the King James Version?

The thing is, we think that when we make these things part of the definition of the church we really are defining ourselves Biblically. We think we are purifying by splitting hairs. And in hair-splitting, we are Christ-splitting. But if we return to the New Testament definition of the church, then we exalt and lift up Jesus Christ. We show the unity that shows the world He really is the Son of God. If we confess Him as Lord, then we also will inevitably grow in holiness, because you can't call Jesus Lord and at the same time excuse what your Lord calls sin. If we believe that God has raised Jesus up from the dead, then we can believe that this same God has now, in this world, sowed the seed of immortality and new spiritual life in us--and death can't stop that life anymore than it could keep its hold on Jesus.

I have to accept that anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord, and who believes God has raised Jesus from the dead, is a part of the church. I have to treat that person as a brother or sister, and to seek to stay in the unity that the Holy Spirit brings. Unity comes from a common sharing in the life of Jesus and a common indwelling of the Spirit. That person is as much a partaker of the covenant of God as I am. That person has what I have. I can serve, encourage, teach and learn; but I cannot define that person out of the Body of Christ. This isn't an excuse for tolerating sin; there is a clearly-stated time for Biblical discipline. All too often, though, I see Christians treat one another as if "sin" means "not doing it my way."

It was said of the early Christians, "Behold how they love one another." What if people could say the same about us--that we all love one another no matter what church we went to or what translation we read? What if we try to live up to God's definition of who we are and not our own? Wouldn't that make us a church worth joining?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why We Love

It's five days past Valentine's Day now, and I'm just starting to dig into my Valentine's gift from my beloved. We do things differently here; for a celebration of our love, my wife gave me two books. One is on discipleship; it's called Side by Side, and I'm looking forward to reading it. But the other, by Simon Chan, has engaged my attention. Its title is Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community. What better way to say "I love you" than a book on liturgy and the evangelical church? (Yes, in our house, this is normal.)

I've gotten out of practice with reading academic books, but I plan to give this one a lot of attention. Chan teaches systematic theology at Trinity Theological Seminary in Singapore. He starts this book off with the very question I've been thinking over: Why does the church exist? This isn't the same as asking what the individual Christian life should be; in America I think we confuse "Why am I here?" with "Why are we here?" and never notice the difference. But the answers to the one do not fully apply to the other. My own life, of course, is meant to show the person of Jesus Christ. But what about the community that makes up the church? Why is the church here?

Right at the beginning, Chan puts forth two possible answers: (1) The church exists for the transformation of creation (or culture), or (2) the church exists in order to be in a covenantal relationship with God. How we answer that question, Chan thinks, goes a long way toward what we do as a church.

In my experience, there's growing awareness that #2 ought to be the right answer, the one we give by rote. Yes, Jesus changes the world; but He came to bring men and women to God. In day-to-day living, though, almost every major Christian leader is really pushing answer #1 above #2. This goes across the board, from the Christian right (Chuck Colson, D. James Kennedy, et al.) to the Christian left (that would be Jim Wallis and Brian MacLaren, among others). I may be doing these people an injustice, but when I get their mailings they are all calling on me to follow them as they seek to transform culture. I'm not quibbling about their politics or good works; much of what they want is commendable from a Kingdom perspective. I wonder if we should use the kingdom of men to attain heavenly goals, but that's beside the point. The point is whether our goals are as heavenly as we think they are. Doing acts of love as an expression of the covenantal relationship we have with God will lead us in quite a different direction from doing acts of love in order to transform culture. They might look the same at first, but one will lead to an outpouring of love while the other will lead to--well, a repeat of much of Christian history. Didn't the state churches try to transform culture? And end up secularizing Europe? Is American evangelicalism going to go down that road, too?

I am waiting for the leader who stands up and says, "We do what we do because God is present among us. We're imperfect at it, but all that we do is because God has brought us into a relationship with Him. We want to live in a way that shows His presence to the world, because we've been transfixed by the glory of His presence and we've been drawn into Him." If we show that our God is beautiful, if we live out the beautiful life that is ours because the Spirit of God lives in us, then I guarantee you that culture will be transformed. People filled with the Holy Spirit will want to bring others to the God Who has taken them to Himself and Who invites all the world to come to Him. Bring the presence of God to people, and you change the culture as a by-product. Try to change culture, and you end up exchanging the living presence of God for legalism--the letter of the law brings death, but the Spirit brings life.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Law of Averages

It's been a busy week and now I'm back to the blog. And along the way, this past week, I came across a review in of a group I'd never heard of before, Future of Forestry. Their music is rocking praise, and the sound is a bit like early U2. You can check out some of their music at (click the link). Their song "Open Wide" is available for a free download as an mp3 file.

My wife and I were part of a Marriage Encounter this past week. No, we weren't presenters; we had wanted to go to Marriage Encounter for quite a few years, and about a month ago some friends registered us for this one. We had a wonderful, but intensely emotional (in a very good way) time. Our friends told us we would get out of Marriage Encounter what we put into it, and they were right. I 'd recommend it to any couple, and I'd tell them the same thing: They will get out of it what they put into it.

I said something to my wife during our Encounter that ended up meaning more to me than when I first said it. I told her that I felt about our marriage the same way I felt about my own Christianity. I wasn't afraid of either of us walking out on the other, any more than I was afraid that I would convert to atheism. What I worried about was the same in both areas of my life: That I would settle for "average," or even "above average." We were doing okay, even better than most couples I know. In fact, when my beloved told someone we were going to Marriage Encounter, that friend exclaimed: "You and Robert? Really?" We do the right things: We make time for each other, we talk, bounce ideas off one another, and look for ways to minister together. Above average.

Same with me and God. Look at my bio: I teach, I'm an associate pastor, elder, and home fellowship leader. I even blog for Jesus! And do the occasional Bible College course as time and money make possible. Above average.

But the nagging question is: Am I sold out? Have I given all? And if not, why am I satisfied with being even "above average"? I'm going to let out a secret here: I'm not too terribly impressed with the "average" Christian in the US. The "average" Christian isn't much different from the average non-Christian. And the "above-average" Christian seems to stand out only because the "average" Christian is such a poor reflection of his Master. Take Jesus just a little more seriously than the rest, and you too can be a super saint.

There is, in the Christian life, this "law of averages" that sets in the longer you go on. It comes from not wanting to stand out. We don't want to be labeled as idiots, fundamentalists, and fools by non-Christians. So we do what we can to seem "normal"--which comes to mean "average." The fellowship of believers turns itself into a social club of people craving acceptance and surrendering, little by little, the distinctives that have made them what they are. You see this law at work with every reform movement and renewal movement in the church, after a while. The apostolic church became the hierarchy of Rome; the Lutheran and Calvinist movements became mainstream doctrinal Protestantism; the Wesleyan and pietist movements slowly lost their emphasis on holiness. It's happening as well to the Pentecostal movement, because we're more concerned now with size than with authentic Christian life. We are joining the learned theological masses of evangelicalism--fine in itself--but are forgetting that the Spirit, not the letter, gives life.

The answer? Fight the law. Stop worrying about what people think. We answer to God and not man. Stop worrying about being "above average." Our call as Christians is to be like Jesus, not like anyone else. He was never just "above average," and as long as we are fixing our eyes on Him and making His life the goal of our own life, neither will we be "above average." We will be something profoundly more. We will be changed into the likeness of Jesus by the Spirit Who lives within us.

This extraordinary kind of life is meant to be normal for every Christian. For this purpose the Spirit of God was sent to dwell within every believer. If we yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit, then this kind of life is inevitable. And if you are dissatisfied with the average life you've been leading, or with an above average life that impresses others yet rings hollow to you, then it's because the Holy Spirit is calling you to something more--to Christlikeness.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Here Among Thorns

Let me tell you about my day (he moaned, while his listeners rolled their eyes). No, seriously, let me tell you about it. Starting with last night.

First: my true love tells me our pipes had frozen. Her father suggests pipe insulation, which we purchase at Menard's (braving the sub-zero Midwestern cold that's making headlines). I crawl into a blocked-off room in our new old house (we moved 2 months ago) to find that the beams along the foundation are rotting. Surprise and disillusionment. Did the couple who sold us this house know? How can we fix this ourselves, without spending a lot of money?

Today: Snow, all day--four inches and still coming. I'm not looking forward to shoveling it. Then my wife tells me one of my sisters has called. It's an emergency, apparently. I fear the worst, but when I call her, my sister can't tell me what's going on. I stew while waiting for her call. Is she angry? Is somebody dying? What will she say? I imagine the worst.

When Jesus talked about the things that hinder the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in our lives, He spoke of a man sowing seed. Some seed fell on good ground, some on hard ground, some on shallow ground. And some fell among thorns. Then Jesus told His followers that each type of ground stood for something that hindered the Gospel. There was persecution (shallow ground) and there was lack of understanding that allowed "the evil one" to take the message away. No problem for me--I face no persecution and I understand the Gospel (I studied in Bible college, for Pete's sake!). But there was the third hindrance, the "cares of this life" that choke out the Gospel. Here, we're on to something.

The challenge we face is that we live in the world but we are not of it. Still it pries its way into our thoughts. Think about me, it cries. Face me! What are you going to do about me? And this is just what sucks the life out of most Christians I know. This is our biggest challenge, the place where we trip up. Here we forget that we are alive with the power of God's Spirit and that the Holy Spirit has an answer for all those things.

Once as I worried over my sister's call, the thought broke in: "What are you worried about? Can't God give you wisdom for this? Don't you have His strength? Why are you fretting?" But once was enough to make me see this from God's perspective. It's not death anymore that grips us but life. That's what happened at Pentecost; that's the point of Ezekiel's vision.

Things happen. That doesn't make them thorns--I make them thorns. Or I make them something else. They can choke life out or call me fully into real life, the powerful flood of life from Jesus. If we say that we are a mighty army that lives by the Spirit of God, then we also mean that we can shout with gladness no matter what we face, because our God is greater than all that. We will expect God's strength to show up in us and God's wisdom to come out of our mouths. We will honor God and rejoice. This is not trite; this is a point of view that we must hold onto day by day, moment by moment. If we don't, then the weeds choke us.

(BTW, Thanks, Tony. God bless you, bro.)

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Why "Dry Bones"?

Anyone familiar with Ezekiel's prophecies knows about his vision of the valley of dry bones (see Ezekiel 37 if you've forgotten). A few weeks back, I re-read that vision and saw it from a new perspective. I saw a parallel between that vision and the Day of Pentecost. Not that Ezekiel's vision foretells Pentecost, only that it mirrors what happened later: People gathered together, life poured into them through the breath of God, and a vast army formed--the New Testament church.

So what are we formed for? Culture wars, or revolutionary movements, or political change? For mega-churches and Bible studies and "taking the land for God"? For the GOP or the New Left or--well, what (and for whom)? Here in the "Valley of Dry Bones," just what are we supposed to DO? How should we look at the world, and each other? How should we think and pass our time?

We dry bones have been put together, joint into socket and muscle upon muscle, as warriors who live a common life and answer a common call. We are to be like Christ in every way, showing as a body the fullness of Him Who has called us into His Kingdom. Which means that we come together, learn what Christ-likeness means in our time, and put His Kingdom over every other allegiance we have--class, politics, race, nation. I'm not talking about simply finding common ground with one another. I'm talking about living out the basic mission of each Christian. What's essential? What matters? What's the heart of what we are?

That's pretty ambitious, but some ambitions are worth giving all for. This is worth the frustration of listening to each other and letting our golden calves get crushed into powder. So, this little blog will be my 2 cents' worth on the issue. Welcome to the Valley.