Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A 21st Century Reformation

“Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. (1 Samuel 8:6-7 ESV)
It seems for all of our advancements in science, technology and understanding the world around us we as God's people can still fall into the same traps Israel did 3000 years ago.

Some Personal Context

I'm going to be highlighting a problem I see with the structure of the church, but I want to be clear about one thing upfront. I love Christ. I love the gospel and the kingdom of God. And I love the church. I love the people of God and the ministers that serve. There isn't another organization on the planet that has done more to help mankind than the Christian church. You won't find more honest, loving people than those that know Jesus Christ personally and strive to make his name famous in the world. The church is full of wonderful people who want to love God and love people.

I also want to be honest with my perspective and personal bias. I grew up as a shy, quiet kid in a charismatic church and very much felt overlooked by leadership because I was quiet. This created a lot of hurt in my upbringing that still carries forward to this day. I count myself among the de-churched but I don't want to be. I want to meet with my fellow brothers and sisters and encounter the presence of the living Christ.

I'm an engineer by trade. A large part of what I do is to analyze systems and look for improvements. To look for improvements means you first have to find deficiencies. Pointing out deficiencies always has a negative tone.

I want to apply my trade to the structure of the church, namely the weekly Saturday/Sunday gathering. I want to see if the structure helps or hinders the mission of Christ.

While this writing does carry a fair bit of critical perspective, keep this in mind: God is always moving and transforming. He uses broken vessels to make things whole. There is a lot of good in the church. I just want to see the church become even better.

It may seem arrogant of me to analyze and recommend ideas for the church. I mean, who am I to comment on centuries of tradition? All I can say is I'm just a child of God with a burden on my heart. And I don't think I'm alone in seeing some problems with the church today. This is just my attempt to put words to my thoughts and impressions. All I can say is chew the meat and spit out the bones.

Is Christianity honestly different?

Like it or not, Christian churches rise and fall by the personalities that lead them. Great-sounding worship, dynamic preaching, well-designed facilities and your chances of successfully attracting large crowds goes up. Off-key music, monotonous, dry sermons and outdated decor and even the most devoted follower will make a beeline for the exit.

But is this really how church is supposed to be? Dependent on personality and talent? We preach that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We preach that He is the risen King of Kings. We preach that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. If that truly is the case why does Christianity look like every other world religion?

I wonder if Christianity looks like every other man-made religion because it is precisely that, a religion structured with a man at the center.

Protesting the Protest

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther hammered "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, also known as "The 95 Theses." This gave rise to the Protestant Reformation which can be summarized in the three solas:
  • sola scriptura (scripture over tradition)
  • sola fide (faith over works)
  • sola gratia (grace over merit)
From the Protestant Reformation began a tidal wave of church splits and new denominations. As the joke goes you can always tell how many churches will be built in a given year by the number of drape colors available at the store.

In the Protestant tradition we place the 66 books of the canonized Bible as the foundation and authority to our faith. As such we make the sermon and the pastor delivering it the centerpiece of the gathering. The trouble is we can't all agree on what the text means. And let's face it, we as people don't do being wrong very well. Better to split and avoid the argument. And though we keep the Bible as a foundation we violate it's teaching.
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 1 Corinthians 1:10
Yes, the Bible is the foundation of our faith. And the Bible points to Jesus. And the central theme to Jesus' teaching is "God loves man."
"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?"" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:35-40 ESV)
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48 ESV)
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34 ESV)
How can we love brothers and sisters we disagree with if we separate weekly to meet only with those in whom we do agree? I think the world sees this and rightly judges we don't show love well. Especially when it confronts us with the possibility of being wrong, Especially in being wrong about our theology.

It seems to me as Christians we should be lovers of truth and grace. The truth is we are all sinners. Every one of us is fallible and gets things wrong. Leaders get it wrong. Pastors get it wrong. Churches get it wrong. Denominations get it wrong. Even Bible translators get it wrong.

But amidst all this wrongness is a greater truth. We are forgiven. Not based on our merits but based on the blood of Jesus. There is nothing in our lives that is not washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. Nothing is too crooked it cannot be made straight by the work of Christ, including theology and tradition.

Relationship: Giving Up the Right to be Right

I have a slightly radical idea. What if rather than running away from being wrong we embraced wrongness? Not to call wrong right but to choose relationship over being right. What if rather than shaming wrongness in us and in others we offered grace and forgiveness? What if we gave up our right to be right, even about our theology, and chose relationship instead?

It seems to me in the evangelical world we misinterpret the words of the Great Commission.
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." (Matthew 28:18-19 ESV)
I think instead of the word "disciple" we read word "convert." The message of the evangelical church sounds something like this. "Come to my church so you can hear a sermon that states what we believe. We want you to believe it and be right. Then you can get some of your friends to come to our church so they can hear a sermon, believe what we believe and be right. And then THOSE friends can get THEIR friends... and on and on the party goes.

Does anyone else smell a multi-tiered marketing, Ponzi scheme? Where is the final value of in this endeavor? Is the point of this life just to get across a line of salvation and then wait to die or for Jesus to come back? Or is the purpose of disciple-making something entirely different, something much richer and deeper?

I believe the church today is structured to streamline and optimize the creation of converts, not the formation of disciples. What's the difference? Converts merely parrot back some truth about Jesus they heard preached to them. Disciples are committed to an ongoing process of transformation. Disciples are actively pursuing Christ, exposing the darkest corners of their hearts to the light of truth and grace. For a disciple life is an all-consuming process of become like Christ. And that means living a wholly transparent life. Walking in the light, not in the darkness.

What was Christ like? He was perfect and He loved being around the imperfect. He hung out with the rebels and scoundrels of society. He came for the sick not the well. It was the clean, sanitary piety of self-righteous religion he chastised, not the sinner. Wrongdoers clung to Christ because He did something mankind could not do. He loved wrongdoers because they were wrong and needed to be loved. Anyone can love what is right. It takes Christ to love what is wrong.
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 ESV)
Does the modern church service look to embrace wrongness or rightness? Does the modern church service showcase the sinner or the saint?

What is ministry?

Look at what we call the modern church service. People arrive to a building, sit down and face a stage. The music pastor leads a few songs. Announcements and greetings. The teaching pastor delivers a sermon. The people shake hands and leave. In that entire gathering who is participating and who is looking on? The pastor, the under-shepherd of Christ, stands above the flock conducting the business about bringing truth and the flock sits passively watching a show. Does this sound like the Christ of the Bible? The one who washed feet, spit on blind eyes, touched lepers, offended religious leaders?

What does Scripture say about the gathering?
What then, brothers? When you come together, EACH ONE has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for BUILDING UP. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For YOU CAN ALL PROPHESY ONE BY ONE, so that ALL MAY LEARN AND ALL BE ENCOURAGED, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Corinthians 14:26-33)
Notice that everyone is speaking, everyone is contributing and yet things are orderly. Where are the leaders? What role do they serve? Let's look at another passage that describes the role of leadership.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to EQUIP THE SAINTS for the work of ministry, for BUILDING UP THE BODY OF CHRIST, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to GROW UP IN EVERY WAY INTO HIM, WHO IS THE HEAD, INTO CHRIST, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when EACH PART is working properly, makes the body grow so that IT BUILDS ITSELF UP IN LOVE. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
Did you catch that? The leaders exist to equip the saints to do THEIR ministry, not the other way around. What is the ministry of the saints? The building up of the body of Christ. The leaders don't build up the body. They train the body so it can build itself up. The leaders are training the flock to minister to each other, to be Jesus to each other.

I don't think Christianity was intended to have a clerical caste system where certain people are elevated to assume the role of Jesus to minister to the flock. The body of Christ is supposed to minister to itself and the world. It is the body of Christ that incarnates the spirit of Christ on earth, not one man.

By scripting the gathering and preaching the Scripture as a monologue from a pulpit we have robbed the Word from being made flesh and coming alive in the present-day body of Christ here on earth. By isolating and elevating one man and his staff to do the work of ministry we have reopened the gap between God and man that the cross sought to bridge.

How did we get this way? Personally I think we've allowed worldly practices to enter the church for one big reason: pride.

If we have a large church with lots of attendees the world says we are a successful organization. If our view of success is number of converts and converts are measured by those attending church then the current model works very well. But if our goal is to see each member wholeheartedly ministering to the collective at the gathering, to be the body of Christ, the incarnate Jesus in the world, well then we are severely missing the mark.

If we have a select group of people doing the ministry of the church we can show up and enjoy the superficial without any sort of spiritual commitment to the outcome of the gathering. We can pay our money and hide in our seat, never taking the risk of exposing our hearts to the people we call family to receive healing. We never get to experience the joy of being Christ's hands and healing the hearts of those sitting right next to us.
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6-7)
If we're really honest with ourselves the modern church is a platform to showcase successful, talented people using their gifts. There's nothing inherently wrong with demonstrating talent. I believe there's absolutely a place in our culture for entertainment and education. But we are lying to ourselves if we think that is truly what church is. Let's call our meetings what they really are. Concerts. Lectures. Seminars. Crusades. Just don't call it church.

We need a 21st century reformation of the church. The church needs a "come to Jesus" discussion. We need to take a step back and truly ask ourselves, "Are we following Christ or are we following man?"

The Tops-Down Church

Do a Google image search for "church service" and see what comes up. Every photo will have a common theme. All the people are facing forward, seated or standing in rows in front of a stage where one person or a group of people perform. The organization structure, the order of service, the very architecture of the building bears striking resemblance to a top-down, command-and-control organizational chart.

Traditional services
Contemporary services

This seems to run against what Jesus instructed for leadership.
"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28 ESV)
I don't care who you are or how humble your character is. When you rise in position in an organization and perform on a stage you become greater in the eyes of those in the organization. Even if it's not your intention you become a lord over those around you. The more you talk the more people become quiet. The more you cast vision the more people blindly follow.
I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority... he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9,11)

The traditional, tops-down church model.
Blue dot = pastor. Gray dot = flock
Emphasizes monologue and static structure.
De-emphasizes interaction and sponteneity.
A shepherding, non-hierarchical church model.
Blue dots = pastors, Gray dots = flock
Emphasizes interaction and spontaneity.
Maintains oversight.

I think Christ had a different model for his church. One that removes all the hierarchy. One where He is the head, all the people are His body, and the elders are overseeing the gathering. For me I think a good analogy is a playground at the park. At the center are the children, playing and exploring. Parents are on the perimeter watching over the kids, making sure the kids stay safe and don't fight.

"Anyone who doesn't receive the kingdom like a child will never enter it." Mark 10:15

Maybe that's what we need. Maybe it's the younger, immature believers that need to be speaking and sharing more and the older, wiser believers that need to be listening and offering help when needed, including leaving the ninety-nine to go after that one lost sheep. Maybe there is no need for any vision casting other than the vision that believers need to get together and everyone needs to contribute in their own way from the music of their own hearts.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3)

A Family Gathering

Picture this. You arrive at a location with your family and take a seat at a table. The room begins to fill as others arrive and finds their seats. Seating is organized to encourage relationship. The low rumble of conversation is punctuated with the occasional burst of laughter. Eventually someone rises and says they would like to offer a prayer. All heads bow as thanks is given for the gathering.

A group of musicians walk over to their instruments and begin to play a song they felt was important to sing. Voices raise, eyes are closed and (for the more charismatic) hands sway back and forth. The instruments stop and the heavenly chorus of voices vibrate off the walls and ceiling.

Then the feasting begins. Hot food comes out of the kitchen and people get generous helpings of their favorite casseroles, salads and bread. There is always enough food, no one goes hungry and the leftovers are sent home to families that need a break from cooking.

In turn people rise and share what Jesus has placed on their heart. Perhaps it was a verse they were reading that resonated with something that happened earlier. Maybe it is a word of encouragement they felt someone needs. Another rises and confesses they are struggling and need some help. The laying on of hands. Prayers for blessing, healing and comfort. Intimate one-on-one conversations. All this happens at the gathering. This is real life. This is family. This is Christ.

Next Steps

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God... And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:19,23-25)
So where do we go from here? How do we do better? How do we BE the church rather than GO to church?

I wish I had answers but I think it's up to each congregation to figure it out. I've been waiting and praying for some kind of breakthrough. Perhaps pastors and mature believers can seek God and ask for direction in their own gatherings. My hope and prayer is that with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, with the guidance of Scripture we can find a way to make our gatherings a place where the entire body of Christ operates as intended, with all its members performing their function, ministering to one another.

Sola Christo. Sola Sanguinem. Only Christ. Only the blood.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Have we crucified the cross?

Do you remember playing with Chinese fingers traps as a kid? I can't be certain when or to whom but I'm pretty sure I made one of my cousins cry when they placed their fingers inside only to realize to their horror that they couldn't get them out. Ah, the joys of being an older child.

If you don't remember, these toys they are small tubes woven out of something fiberous - usually bamboo. The trick is once you put your fingers inside and try to pull them out the tube constricts. The more you pull the tighter the trap gets. It's only by relaxing and pushing your fingers together that the trap can fall off. By the way if you didn't know this secret and I spoiled the surprise I sincerely apologize and would also like to know what it feels like to be seven years old. :)

As I stated in my last post I believe the gospel of Jesus is very simple. I understand it as God coming down to man to demonstrate empathy and compassion on us while we experience the growing pains of life. I believe Jesus teaches unconditional love that comes straight from the heart of God the Father and that His love is complete in removing the stain of all sin from our lives.

I have been away from the Sunday church gathering for four months now. One verse I have had thrown at me over and over is Hebrews 10:25 which reads "Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching." I suppose the intention behind telling me this is that I'm doing something wrong in missing church and that I'm disobeying God.

This is the problem I see with how people use the Bible today. We pull out passages and then correct people with no regards to the context - both the exegetical context and the heart context of the person being chastized. I wonder if we behave more like Pharisees who Jesus said, "bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they will not move them with one of their fingers." Do we preach another gospel? The gospel of sin management. Have we crucified the cross?

When I read the entire chapter of Hebrews 10 there are a number of things that stand out to me. The chapter opens with the author saying that animal sacrifices are not only insufficient for the removal of the consciousness of sin but actually serve to remind people of their sins annually (verses 2-4).

The author then goes on to say that God knew this system of religion wouldn't ease the conscience of people and needed to come in human form (verse 5) and do away with this empty religion and replace it with a one-time act of sacrifice and empathy (verses 9-10). This one act is all sufficient for every wrongdoing a person has committed, is committing or will ever commit (verses 14-18).

He then speaks of how Christ is now our high priest, serving over the house of God right now and we can draw near to him with a heart of full assurance that our conscience is clear and our faith is secure (verse 21-23). We also are to think about each other and how we can encourage each other in love and good works (verse 23).

It is in this context that we hear the instruction to not forsake one another. It is not a blind, heartless dictate that means we need to do this or burn. It is not about evoking guilt in someone but drawing out faith, hope and love. Especially love.

One more interesting thing stands out to me. Right after the verse about gathering together the author warns about willfully sinning after receiving the knowledge of truth. Here's how verses 26-31 read:

For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,”says the Lord. And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

What does it mean to fall into judgment if we sin willfully? I've grown up with this passage taught to mean we are to control our feelings and temptations and not sin. And if we keep on doing the same sin we can kiss our salvation goodbye because we are willfully not changing.

Do you want to know the receipt for creating an addict? That's a key ingredient. Throw some shame and guilt over a person's feelings and you'll close the loop of the shame cycle, driving them to any sort of addiction: drugs, alcohol, sex, you name it.

That cannot be the correct way to interpret this passage because Jesus told his disciples they were to forgive not just seven times but seventy time seven (i.e. never stop forgiving). It can't be habitual sin that the author is speaking of.

So what is the willfull sin that causes judgement? What is the sin that tramples the Son of God underfoot, that treats the blood as common and insults the Spirit of grace?

It is one thing and one thing only. It is the thing the Pharisees did which Jesus referred to as blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. It is the same thing Eve did in the garden of Eden that started this whole chain of events. And I believe it is the same thing Christians are preaching today. One word. Mistrust.

Unless a person comes to the knowledge in their heart that God is good and can be trusted they can never experience freedom. Ultimately there is one question we all need to answer in our own way and own time. Do I choose to trust God or do I choose to trust myself?

I have come to understand that trusting in myself is the same as trusting my own intellect and mind. To the extent that I can direct my thoughts, build mental models and control my actions I am acting out of my own strengths and skills. I can manage my sin through sheer willpower. I'm in charge.

But when I trust my heart, namely trust my emotions, I am powerless. Emotions appear to be irrational. They come out of nowhere. We can't predict them and we can't control them. They just happen as a result of what we experience. We can't control them but we can decide how to respond to them. And we don't always respond in the most beneficial way. And that's okay!

This is where the cross comes. By Jesus coming and entering into our pain he is telling us that it's okay to respond to our emotions inappropriately. Just like we as parents are training our children to process and respond to their emotions, so to is God training us to respond to our hearts. And we are going to get it wrong. And we need to be okay with that. God certainly is.

There's a reason Jesus said that to enter into the kingdom of heaven we need to become like little children. Children make mistakes and are loved. Mistakes are just choices that lead to consequences. Nothing is unrepairable. When we fear making mistakes we can't learn.

We are so wound up and fixated on getting it right we end up squelching the very life we were given to live. But when we are humble. When we just take life as it comes, trust that our hearts are being shaped, learn and above all trust that God is loving us, then and only then can we experience life as God intends it.

So back to the Chinese finger trap. Maybe it's time to stop pulling on the trap, just relax and let it fall away.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The simple gospel

I've been in a two year process of deconstructing my faith. I've been doing some deep soul-searching to understand what it is I really believe. I've been raised in an evangelical, charismatic tradition my entire life and have always felt I understood the gospel of Jesus. And then something wonderful happened that transformed my head knowledge into heart knowledge. I no longer believed in God's love with just my head; I believed in God's love with my heart.

Since that time I've been trying to understand why I didn't see and experience this before and why those around me haven't seemed to experience this either (or perhaps they have but I was unaware of it). Now that I've had some time in solitude I think I found a key to something that might be missing to our understanding in what it means to be "saved."

Bear with me for a second as I sketch in broad strokes and forgo some details. I think one of the main points of the Protestant Reformation was the rejection of the papal system and the authority of the Catholic church. It's my understanding that this happened because of certain abuses the church was committing. The Protestants rejected the authority of the church and placed authority on scripture alone (sola scriptura).

I think this is what brought about higher institutions of learning for theological study. If we hold the Bible as authoritative we need to understand it clearly. So we train people how to interpret Scripture; how to read Greek and Hebrew, the historical context surrounding the original audiences, literary styles, etc. We in the Protestant and evangelical community place a lot of emphasis on exegetical study of the Bible; eisegesis is strictly forbidden.

Just a quick aside. Exegesis means "to draw out" while eisegesis means "to read in." When we exegete something we detach ourselves as much as possible and try to understand the author's meaning as objectively as possible. When we eisegete something we interpret what the writer means in light of our own experiences and context.

Given this backdrop of the authority of scripture and the importance of exegesis it makes sense why when we go to protestant churches we have educated speakers reading and interpreting the Bible during the service. We as Christians believe that belief in Jesus is what leads to salvation. From what I understand we think that belief is coming to the conclusion that a set of propositional truths concerning Jesus is truth. How are you going to know what truth is if it isn't adequately explained? Makes sense, right?

Here's where I start my questions. Bear with me as think this through.

We come to the Bible with the view that exegesis is the proper way to believe in Jesus but where in the Bible does it actually say that this is true? That proper exegesis is the way to know Jesus and be saved? Didn't Jesus himself speak to the contrary? In John 5:39-40 Jesus speaks these words to the Pharisees: "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life."

The teachers of the law were the best interpreters of the Hebrews scriptures around. And yet they missed understanding who Jesus was and what he came to do. I wonder if we evangelicals are doing the same thing today.

I had a relative recently tell me that he's concerned that we're losing our respect of the Bible, that we're beginning to pick and choose what we like and don't like. And if we lose the authority of the Bible we lose our faith because that's what our faith stands on.

Did you grow up with this song in Sunday School? The B-I-B-L-E. Yes that's the word for me. I stand alone on the word of God. The B-I-B-L-E. Good luck getting that melody out of your head now...

I'm think I'm beginning to understand where the disconnect between head and heart lies. It's true we as Christians place trust in the authority of Scripture. There's a vivid picture of New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 that describes the foundation of the city as being the names of the 12 apostles. I believe this is a symbolic picture that the teaching of the apostles are foundations to the teaching we receive today. But there is something more foundational than the teachings of the apostles. There is a cornerstone which is a foundation to the foundation of the apostles.

Look at what the apostle Paul writes at the end of Romans 9. He's wrapping up a large discussion about faith versus works. Romans 9:30-33 reads:

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written:

"Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense,
And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame."

The Gentiles were not experts in the scriptures and yet they obtained righteousness by simple faith. But the Jews who were well-versed in holy scriptures did not obtain righteousness. Why? Because the did not pursue it by simple faith. They were white-knuckling their righteousness through their righteous acts. The stumbled over the stumbling stone.

Who is the stumbling stone? The stone that builders rejected? The cornerstone of our faith? It's the person of Jesus. Not scripture, not the words written about Jesus, but Jesus himself and what He did on the cross.

I've thought about the cross of Jesus and why this needed to happen. Why does God need to pay a debt to Himself? He's God. Couldn't he just forgive people? Wouldn't that be more glorious and further demonstrate that He is God and we are not? People seek vengeance. People forgive imperfectly but not God. Couldn't he forgive without all that bloodshed?

I'm not sure this is spelled out in the Bible but one idea makes sense me. Perhaps God needed to come down as a man to empathize with us. Maybe He just needed to show us that there's no animosity or anger on God's side. Maybe Jesus came to demonstrate to mankind that God can be trusted through an act of surrender to evil.

Let's face it. None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. We all do things to cause pain to ourselves and others. We hurt and are hurt. This life is marred by pain. How could we trust in a God that didn't experience our pain? How could we relate to a God that we felt didn't understand us?

When I was in my depression it felt like no one could understand what I was going through. The pain was real and I felt alone in it. I didn't want it to be there but it was there notheless. I could quote scripture until I was blue in the face but nothing made it go away. I didn't need empty promises. I didn't need sympathic looks. I needed someone to crawl down in the hole with me, feel what I felt and tell me it was okay. You're not alone. You're not abandoned. Ya, this sucks! The reality around you just plain sucks right now. And I love you. I'll sit with you in this. I'll be with through this. You don't have to change anything about your circumstances or attitude. Just know that I'm here with you, feeling what you feel.

To me this is what the cross of Jesus means. It's God telling us He gets it. Life is hard and painful and there are no easy answers sometimes and it's okay. He just wants to be with us through it. Not to change us, not to make us presentable to Him but just to be with us. As Brennan Manning says, "God loves you as are and not as you should be because you're never going to be as you should be."

I think this is the core of faith out of which everything else springs. Doctrine won't save you. Theology won't save you. The onion-skinned paper of your Bible won't save you. Salvation is your heart becoming awake to the unconditional, amazing, unrelenting love of God for you. It's not a one-time moment in time. It's a continual experience of God's love washing you and filling you over and over again. It's a dance between you and God that continues through joy and pain, happiness and sorrow, peace and anger. It's going on right now and it will never end.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Simple Potted Plant

The link below is a sermon given by Paul Washer. Beloved, may our thinking never be prideful enough to compare our paltry garden to the majesty of the king's forest. Neither let us be meager enough to forget how the much his heart delights in the fruit we grow for him.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Humble Help

As we wrap up 2014 and look towards 2015 I find myself reflecting on where life has gone during these twelve months. While I've had some high points (like losing 50 pounds) to be frank this year has been thematically marked by pain, depression and loneliness. A new job assignment that is not going well. Multiple family deaths, the most recent being my grandmother. Terminal illness in other relatives. Marginalization by those who share my faith.

And a very Merry Christmas to you, sir.

Throughout these long days I've looked inward and outward desperately searching for God in the midst of all this. Where are you in all this pain? Why can't I sense your presence? Why can't I feel your peace? Have you abandoned me?

When I search the Bible for hope I find passages that speak to the goodness of God.
I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
Jeremiah 31:3
Never will I leave; never will I forsake you.
Hebrews 13:5
You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.
Jeremiah 29:13
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him.
Matthew 7:11
So if God wants to love on me, wants to give me good gifts, and wants me to find Him why so much pain? How is this a good gift?

My upbringing as an American has conditioned me to pursue comfort above all. Find a steady job. Buy a nice house. Raise your family. Pay your taxes. My upbringing as a Pentecostal has conditioned me to expect only wealth, health and prosperity from God. With faith you can move mountains. Sickness is an attack of the enemy and with enough faith you can cast out any discomfort.

Both of these viewpoints reinforce the idea that the physical world, the here-and-now is what's most important and that God should be most concerned with our immediate satisfaction. But what if this life was not the greatest reality? What if this life is a starting point to a much larger and grander destination? What if the pain we experience here is a tool God uses to shape and polish us into the glorious creatures we are becoming?

Pain is the most painful when it appears pointless. But with God there are no mistakes and no coincidences. If you believe God is all-good, all-powerful and all-loving then you must accept His sovereignty over how things are in this life, even the painful moments. He is permissively allowing or explicitly causing things to happen here and you have to trust Him. Trust that he has your best in mind, no matter what our culture says about pain. Pain has a purpose in God's kingdom. As Jesus' half-brother says:
Consider it the purest of  joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-4
Jesus is the Son of God, King above all other kings, Lord above all other lords. And yet He was born in the humblest of circumstances. He was not born to thunderous applause nor a fanfare of royal trumpets but the simple bleating of sheep. His human life shows a progression from painful, humble beginnings to the final destination of ruling and reigning with God the Father. Should we expect anything different in our lives as we follow Him?

I wrap up this year with a video and prayer. Father, be with all those who are in the valley. Help them to persevere, to find you in the darkness. May they rest assuredly in your grace and purpose. May they find their delight in knowing that you are accomplishing a good work in them. May they approach pain and difficulty with the purest form of joy. Shape all of us into the pure, spotless bride. And quicken the day of the glorious return of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Small Giants

During my fourteen years working as a software engineer I've been a part of various teams. Most have been healthy groups working with wonderful people while others have been less than ideal. Recently I joined a new team and was a bit surprised by one of the first assignments. My manager gave us a copy of Zingerman's Guide to Giving Great Service by Ari Weinzweig and told us to read it and think of ways to apply the principles to our work.

If you're not familiar with Zingerman's it is a small deli located in Ann Harbor, Michigan, and is known for taking the best ingredients to make the best food while providing the best customer service. It's grown from a deli to include a restaurant, bakery, creamery, mail-order service, training service and more, all locally based in Ann Harbor.

I was curious what we as a team of computer engineers and architects could learn from a deli but it turns out the principles Ari describes are applicable to any organization regardless of what you do. If you're looking for a good book to inspire your organization I highly recommend picking this one up. It's a quick hundred-page read and full of practical tips to work better.

This book sent me on a course to learn more about Zingerman's and their philosophy on business. There is an abundance of videos online with Ari teaching principles of leadership and organizational greatness. In one training video he describes a hog farmer in South Carolina who chooses to use sustainable, traditional methods of raising pigs rather than what large farms do. He quotes the farmer as saying, "Well, the great thing about the way I farm is when I'm really stumped and don't know what to do, I just look at what they do in mainstream agriculture and do the opposite." Zingerman's takes a similar approach. While he says they don't intentionally do the opposite of mainstream corporations in practice almost everything they do ends up being so.

There seems to be something very valuable in this idea of going counter-culture to the traditional corporate model. I'm currently reading another book, Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big, by Bo Burlingham, not so much from a business perspective but rather from a church one. The title alone speaks volumes.

I think today's model of a healthy church is flawed. We have embraced the bigger is better mindset and hold up mega churches as the gold standard of what to do. But what if there was an alternative? What if rather than focusing on growing numbers we focused on growing people?

I firmly believe that a healthy body is one in which all parts are functioning and contributing. No part is better than another and no part is useless. As Paul says in his letter to the church in Corinth:
The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts that seems to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts we think are less honorable we treat with special honor... God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. -- 1 Corinthians 12:21-26
Today's church appears to give honor to the presentable parts and the less honorable parts are relegated to sit quietly on the sidelines. We look to pastors as the singular source of God's message to the body. We study YouTube videos of perfectly polished worship conferences and try to mimic them because we assume this is what Spirit-filled music is supposed to be. We strive to be flashy. We strive to be modern. We strive to be big.

But what if that's not what we're supposed to be? Everyone want to be a part of something great, something larger than themselves. But why does greatness have to be put into western corporate terms? The greatest possible pursuit is a relation with the greatest possible being, the originator of all great things, God. What if his idea of greatness is the exact opposite of man's idea of greatness?

Jesus is the complete fullness of God clothed in humanity. He is the very face of our Father. And Jesus did not seem to care about worldly success. He chastised the religious elite. He spoke to the impossibility of the rich entering the kingdom. Rather than elevating everything we as westerners hold dear, Jesus seemed to elevate the down and out. He spent time with the outcast Samaritan woman living in adultery. He highlighted the distraught tax collector as being righteous. He stepped away from the ninety-nine to look for the single lost sheep. Even his agricultural parables highlighted the smallest of seeds.

Maybe the path to greatness in God's kingdom isn't through the latest auto-tuned praise song. Or the latest canned Sermon Spice video. Or the teachings of brilliant scholars. Maybe greatness comes through simple stillness. Maybe all that God requires to be great is humility and honesty. Like Paul said to the Corinthians, "His grace is sufficient and his power is made perfect in weakness. When we are weak he is strong."

Church leader, are you willing to become less so those around you become more? Are you willing to be vulnerable and weak in front of those you lead? Are you willing to trade the accolades of a successful ministry for the anonymity of servant leadership?

One final statement from Ari Weinzeig on leadership:
We leaders need to take the lead. As leaders we come last not first. We get promoted to serve more not to get served more by others. As leaders we welcome staff complaints with the same positive appreciative response we would give to customers. It is more important for us to bring coffee to the new cashier rather than the other way around. When there's a conflict between what's right for us and what's right for the organization we always do what's right for the group. We hire people so we can help them succeed. We lead the way in making it an appreciative workplace. 
Rather than choosing to be more let's choose to be less. Let's be small giants.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Somewhere I Belong

My family and I just returned from a brief vacation to San Diego. We spent a week enjoying the beach, Legoland and my favorite part of the trip, a tour of the USS Midway. On the whole it was a delightful getaway. I would be lying if I said there was neither bickering nor the occasional meltdown but, hey, that's all part of the fun of spending time together as a family.

We also had a chance to visit with my brother-in-law's family and see our new niece for the first time, a Miss Charlotte Rae. What a cutie! He and my sister-in-law certainly know how to make darling babies.

One thing I prayed for during this visit was an opportunity to have a spiritual discussion with them. Not in an awkward, preachy way but rather something natural that was full of grace and respect. Both of them are more in the skeptical camp with a pinch of post-modern relativism and agnostic uncertainty. They are very much in line with the current belief of this generation. Spiritual but not religious. All paths lead to heaven.

I eventually did get my opportunity. I wanted to tell them about the unconditional love of Jesus. I wanted to tell them that if they place their hope in his promise of a full pardon for their sins they could experience a peace that passes all understanding. I wanted to present the good news of the gospel. I wanted to but I didn't.

What we ended up talking about more was organized religion and hypocrisy in the church. Any comment having to do with Christianity ended up back at church and its judgmental attitude towards people. Multiple comments were made about how they experience more love and acceptance from non-church-goers than professing Christians. They failed to see any good reason for attending a meeting that preaches judgement for a fee.

They equated gathering in church as supporting phony charlatans, snake oil salesmen that are more interested in their own narcissism and/or bank account than genuinely caring for people. They would rather take a walk in the woods and experience God's creation in silent reverie instead of shaking hands with a bunch of strangers that really don't care about you and listen to someone pontificate for 40 minutes.

The sad thing is I really had no answer to their comments because there is a kernel of truth to what they are saying. There ARE judgmental people in church. And many leaders DO only want to make money or stroke their own ego. And I completely agree with experiencing God in nature. I personally feel closest to God when I'm alone and meditate on his goodness.

To be completely honest this is one area I've been wrestling with for well over a year. What is the point of our church services? Why do we meet the way we do each Saturday or Sunday? Hebrews 10:24-25 says:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
But if I look at our Sunday morning services I feel neither encouragement nor love. What I feel is inadequacy and nonacceptance. As a more reserved and quiet individual growing up in a charismatic church I never felt like I measured up to living a truly Spirit-filled life. Anything less than running, singing, shouting, and dancing like a crazy person was portrayed as being lukewarm. One popular youth group chorus we sung put it like this:
I don't want be, I don't want to be a casual Christian
I don't want live, I don't want to live a lukewarm life
'Cause I want to light up the night with an everlasting light
I don't want to live a casual Christian life
My youth pastors reiterated over and over through their sermons, their songs and their socializing that if you aren't an outgoing, life-of-party, talk-to-everyone kind of person, you are lacking and need to pray for Pentecostal boldness. Never mind the notion that some of us are wired differently and don't enjoy these kinds of high-energy social interactions.

Today I still attend a charismatic church. And I still feel the same pressure to perform in a manner that goes against everything that makes me who I am. As a musician I used to enjoy worship songs as a genuine expression of adoration to God. I used to think music was just about the purest form of heaven we could experience here on Earth. And then I was told my music was too melancholy and not joyful enough. I no longer enjoy worship songs.

Now any time I hear popular Christian music I don't find inspiration. I don't find heaven on earth. Instead I hear cash registers. I see smoke and mirrors. I see contrived performances designed to manipulate people's emotions into getting them to do something. When I hear sermons by paid pastors I do not just hear their spoken words. I sense unspoken thoughts of suspicion about what their agenda is. Do they truly care about the people they are speaking to or are they just trying to grow their ministry?

I was recently listening to one of my old favorites, "Somewhere I Belong" by Linkin Park and found the chorus to capture a lot of where my heart is now:
I wanna heal, I wanna feel what I thought was never real
I wanna let go of the pain I've felt so long
I wanna heal, I wanna feel like I'm close to something real
I wanna find something I've wanted all along
Somewhere I belong

Getting back to the observations my brother-in-law and sister-in-law made about church, I wish I could tell them church is vital to their spiritual journey. I want to tell them we weren't made to walk the path alone. I want to say they need us and we need them. I want to say they have value and can be such a blessing to the rest of us. Maybe someday they'll believe it. Maybe someday I'll believe it. Maybe someday the church will believe it. Maybe.