Friday, December 25, 2009

In Hoc Anno Domini (So the light came into the world)

This is printed every year on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. It is a powerful testament to what this day is about.

When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage. There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.

Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.

But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression—for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?

There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?

Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's.

And the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.

So the light came into the world and the men who lived in darkness were afraid, and they tried to lower a curtain so that man would still believe salvation lay with the leaders.

But it came to pass for a while in divers places that the truth did set man free, although the men of darkness were offended and they tried to put out the light. The voice said, Haste ye. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness come upon you, for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.

Along the road to Damascus the light shone brightly. But afterward Paul of Tarsus, too, was sore afraid. He feared that other Caesars, other prophets, might one day persuade men that man was nothing save a servant unto them, that men might yield up their birthright from God for pottage and walk no more in freedom.

Then might it come to pass that darkness would settle again over the lands and there would be a burning of books and men would think only of what they should eat and what they should wear, and would give heed only to new Caesars and to false prophets. Then might it come to pass that men would not look upward to see even a winter's star in the East, and once more, there would be no light at all in the darkness.

And so Paul, the apostle of the Son of Man, spoke to his brethren, the Galatians, the words he would have us remember afterward in each of the years of his Lord:

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

This editorial was written in 1949 by the late Vermont Royster and has been published annually since.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

At the end of Slavery

I am really looking forward to showing this at church. I think it will be an eye-opening experience for the community and all of us who do not see what is happening around us.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Slavery in our time

If you haven't seen the movie, At the End of Slavery, I encourage you to do so.  Slavery is alive and well across the globe, and here in the United States.  Here are some links to stories about the problem here in the United States:

Forced labour and rape, the new face of slavery in America

Sex trafficking: An American problem too

CNN has been running  a series on human trafficking and the issue is gaining more attention in the media and among law enforcement agencies.  But it is still around, and we can help.  Our church is planning a showing of the movie soon, and we have asked federal law enforcement to send a speaker to address the issues as they pertain to us locally.  I'll keep you posted on when that will happen.

In the meantime, I encourage you to visit the International Justice Mission, which addresses this issue across the globe. Learn, then get involved, Encourage your church to become involved in this fight.  This is an issue that is very close to the heart of God - the protection of the innocent and powerless.

Monday, November 30, 2009

More on the Prosperity Gospel heresy

Here are a couple articles on one of the more popular heresies of our day:  The Prosperity Gospel.

Some Thoughts on the Prosperity Gospel

Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

Quoting from the Simple Dollar:

First of all, if the prosperity gospel were true, every single person of faith would be showered in material wealth. I know some well-off people of faith. I also know some very poor people of faith. At the same time, I know some very financially poor atheists and some very well-off atheists.
Second of all, it implies a nonsensical quid pro quo. The entire idea of a prosperity gospel is based on an idea of direct reciprocity – if you believe in God, you will directly be given material wealth. This implies that God is some kind of spiritual ATM – deposit some faith and you can withdraw some cash.
This implies a very direct connection between our spiritual choices and the material world. Yet, if that direct connection were true, people of faith would have all the material wealth and people without faith would have none of the material wealth. As I pointed out above, a cursory examination of the world shows this not to be true.
Do not be seduced by these false teachers. Heed the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 6:
 3If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. (emphasis added).

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Do we make Christianity too easy?

I'm not talking about putting obstacles in people's way, but is the "raise your hand and say a prayer" process too easy?  Does it help create a generation of shallow Christians?  I've been giving that some thought lately.  I'm not one to add to the requirements of the Gospel, but the Desert Pastor brings up some good points in his most recent post.

He talks about baptismal preparation, and the practices of the ancient church.  Take a look at this list and see how many of them we still use today:

  • To varying degrees, the role of the “sponsor” was important.

  • A screening interview became common prior to admission into the catechumenate in order to assure sincerity.
  • An emphasis on the “Two Ways” during pre-baptismal instruction.
  • A preference for baptizing in natural or “living” water sources, with exceptions allowed.
  • Immersion as the preferred mode, with allowances made for pouring.
  • Baptism is in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • Baptisms are primarily held on Easter/Easter Eve.
  • Lent is reserved for final catechesis and preparation for baptism.
  • Repeated exorcisms, signing with the cross, and laying on of hands were common for catechumens.
  • Catechumens were expected to purify their lives and engage in good deeds within the community.
  • An affirmation of faith and renunciation of the devil occurred at the time of baptism.
  • Partaking of the Eucharist is reserved for baptized believers only.
  • Though sometimes quite brief, after-baptism mystagogy occurred
There aren't too many of these that I see practiced in evangelical Christianity today.  Triune baptism, immersion (and there are those who make that their hill to die on) are about it.  I honestly believe that we have so tried to be liked that we have made the process about as meaningful as the frequent shoppers club at our favorite store at the mall.  Consumerism is the culprit in many ways.    The church is competing for leisure time and attention with so many other things.  But is this really the way to build the kingdom?  To have  people raise their hands when their eyes are closed, go through a nominal vetting process and then make them members?  Jesus spent 3 years teaching his disciples.  Most of us didn't spend 3 weeks prior to our acceptance into the body as full-fledged members.  Without that deep acceptance, there is no hope of church discipline of maintaining conduct within the body.  People just leave and go to the next religious store.

I don't mean to sound bitter, but I am chewing on this.  And as we enter Advent and look forward to the return of Christ, I fear that many people who are part of our "frequent worshipers club" will be unhappy when they go to redeem their membership points card.  And we will have done them a disservice.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I preached on this same subject on Sunday

In my sermon on Tradition, I hit upon what Piper calls an abomination in the clip above.  I called it a heresy, but the effect is the same.  Those who misuse the Gospel to feather their own nest are contradicting Scripture.  And at is basic core, the Prosperity Gospel is spiritually destructive. If God wants you to be rich and healthy, and you get sick and go broke, what does that mean?

Does God lie?
Is there something wrong with you?
Are you not good enough?

How do you explain that to a broke 35 year old dying of cancer?  It is an abominable heresy that is so destructive.  Please, avoid any of the Prosperity Gospel folks on television and radio.  They preach a false gospel, and one that you should avoid.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Words of Affirmation

That comic speaks a stark truth that doesn't apply to men only.  When I read it the first time I chuckled, then cringed, realizing the truth behind the statement.  A sad commentary on our society is that many men do go outside looking for affirmation.  Some do it in their work, where their success provides the positive feedback they desire.  Others do it in sports or other activities.  Some do it in the arms of other women (and men).
But men are not alone.  Women who do not feel affirmed will bury themselves in other activities looking for the positive reinforcement they crave.  Some find that in their children, their vocation, groups and clubs.  And sadly, some find it in the arms of another.
Children are the same way.  If a child does not feel affirmed by his or her parents, they will seek out some way receiving that affirmation.  The ways that they choose are often not the means their parents and family would choose for them.
The human need to be loved is universal.  We know that God loves us, but sometimes we just want someone with "skin" to love us and affirm that we have value. We in the church know this, and the Apostle Paul made a special note of it: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4:29.

As we look forward to Advent and the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons, let's make a special effort to affirm and encourage each other.  The world does enough to tear us down.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Mr. Wesley's quadrilateral

We are in the midst of a four-week sermon series on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral - a method of doing theology that John Wesley gave to the followers of Methodism.  The quadrilateral is often thought of as a 4-legged stool, though one of the legs must be considerably larger and stronger than the others.  The legs are Scripture, reason, experience and tradition.  It is the interrelatedness of each of these legs that allow us to better understand and interpret scripture.

Scripture is the dominant leg, and is the only one that possesses a "trump" card.  If scripture deals with an issue, we should closely follow it's lead.  If it does not, or if we need to interpret the scripture, the others come into play.  Reason is our God-given capacity for thinking and asking the question "Does this make sense?" When we are interpreting scripture we have to ask if what we think it means makes sense and passes what my Trigonometry teacher called "the plausibility test."  Is the answer plausible?

Experience is the Holy Spirit's interaction with the individual believer and the church as a corporate body.  How has the Spirit illumined us on this particular issue?  How has our life experience helped us understand what the scripture might be saying?

What does Christian tradition teach us about the scripture?  Where have the ancient commentators fallen on the issue?  How has the Church of Jesus Christ treated the issue in the past?  Those are all good questions to ask as we look at difficult passages and issues.

This article offers us a fascinating look at the quadrilateral through the lens of one of my favorite foods - biscuits.  I encourage you to take a look at the quadrilateral with fresh eyes and see how it can provide a balanced way for interpreting scripture and providing guidance in life situations.

I'll be preaching on experience this Sunday if you want to come hear my thoughts.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A very neat picture of a father's grace

There is a little glimpse of the Kingdom in the reaction of the dad in this video.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

It appears that our headlong rush into "clean energy" without thinking through how the transition will be managed is creating havoc on the electrical grid.  Evidently the wind doesn't blow at a uniform speed and tends to blow more when the demand is lowest.  This phenomenon will create the possibility of higher electricity rates because we will have to use the more expensive natural gas peaking plants to produce electricity since nuclear and coal plants can't be turned on and off easily. So, during a severe recession we decide to launch a strategy that will raise the cost of production and living for air quality benefits we could achieve with nuclear power plants.  Never mind the thousands of birds being shredded, and threatened species being killed.  If ExxonMobil were killing 50 Golden Eagles per year at one of their sites, can you imagine the outcry and the fines that the environmental regulators would hand down?   This is almost Alice in Wonderland-esque at times.

The road to hell sometimes is paved with good intentions.

Friday, September 11, 2009

There are days I feel like the second one

Actually, both of them ring true at times. 
The imagery in the second clip is so vivid though.

Remembering a Very Surreal Day

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Unspeakable grief

For the second time in the past three months I will be going to the funeral of one of my neighbor's children.  And for the second time it will have been caused by an apparent drug overdose.  I cannot imagine the pain that the parents are bearing right now.  To lose a child is a tremendous loss.  To lose a child to the scourge of street drugs that run rampant in our country would be something that I don't know how to process.  My heart and prayers go out to the families during this time.

I really don't know what to make of the drug issue.  I praise the Lord that it is foreign to me.  I have no experience with family members being addicts, and I praise God for that.  But I have friends who have conquered the addiction, and others who are still struggling mightily with it.  I know it is a powerful addiction and one where your body is at war with your mind.  I also know that God can, and has, delivered people from the clutches of addiction.  Why do some make it and others don't?  I don't know the answer to that.  I don't know why some people are delivered in an almost supernatural manner from addictions, and others grind it out slowly - two steps forward, one step back - for their entire lives.  It's not fair, that is for sure.  But life isn't fair and we know that.

I pray for people who struggle with this.  I know sometimes I get short with them and wonder why they aren't farther along than they are.  But then God will remind me of how long some things in my life have taken, and others that are still a work in progress.   God is pretty good that way.  Just when you think you can be "all that" and pass judgment, He will remind you of who you once were.  He will also remind you that it was His grace, not your power that changed your situation.  Praise God for his mercy.

Listen to the clip below.  It is a song written by a friend for someone who cannot shake a drug addiction.  Right now this lyric just sticks with me:
If I could through myself
Set your spirit free
I'd lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day    

Say a prayer for those stuck in addictions tonight.  Lord knows they need Divine Intervention

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Love Wins

I had the pleasure of a presentation from this pastor during a class in January. It is a fascinating ministry they have. Ministering in strip clubs wouldn't work for everyone, but they are reaching the lost, which is what we are called to do. Click on each of the three videos to hear the way they are ministering in their community. Thanks to the Emergent Nazarene site for the links.

Video #1

Video #2

Video #3

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Reclaiming the lexicon

Kudos to the Desert Pastor for this piece on the process of catechesis. Last year when I implemented a catechism curriculum with my 5th and 6th grade class, I received so many cross-eyed looks from people it wasn't funny. If I had a dollar for every person who said something to the effect of "Isn't catechism a Catholic thing?" I could take a weekend trip somewhere. For the record, Catechism is a Catholic thing, and a Lutheran thing, and a Presbyterian thing, and an Anglican thing and.......

Take a look at the article on the formational process that is catechism. He makes a statement that "among evangelicals, salvation is commonly viewed more as an an event than as a process, and baptism as merely an "outward sign" of an inner conviction. This is a travesty - a point of view that contributes to the hollowness that has only recently been called into question by a new generation of evangelicals."

I guess I am among that new generation of evangelicals. I see the crying need for formal, systematic (NOT dry, boring and ritualistic) training of new believers in the faith. We as the church need to emphasize the journey of catechism, not the sprint-like race that so many have embraced.

More on this later as the Desert Pastor continues his thoughts.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

More on the theology of Sacraments

This is an interesting post on the theology of sacraments that I discussed a week or so ago. I encourage you to take a look at it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Good Samaritan

The story of the Good Samaritan is one of those biblical stories that has been interpreted so many ways that it is kind of like tofu – you can make it into whatever you want it to be. That is a dangerous thing to do with Scripture. Interpreting scripture is one of those things that can be done well or it can be done in ways that do violence to what the text actually means. I learned that in hours of hermeneutics lectures, where Dr. Hahn pounded the thought that we have to begin with this question: What did this mean to the original readers or hearers? None of the authors of the Gospels or any other bit of scripture were writing to us in the 21st Century. They were writing to the audience of their day, and anything in the text has to make sense to the readers of the day. Our task is to try to understand the hearers of that day and as best we can put ourselves into their situation as we read the text.

That is really more difficult than you might think. When the adult life group was studying Revelation, one of the points the author made was that for a white American, Revelation makes little sense. But for someone on the underside of power, someone in an oppressed minority, someone who might live in fear of the law such as undocumented aliens or escaped slaves, Revelation makes much more sense. It was written to an oppressed people being hunted by the government. We, who enjoy the top side of power and protected rights, have a hard time understanding the message of hope that John put in that letter. The same can be true of the Good Samaritan.

To give you some background, Jews hated Samaritans, whom they considered heretics. Does anyone know what the basis of their disagreement is? {ask the congregation for input}. Their main issue was over the temple. The Samaritans had built their own temple on Mount Gerazim, and counted the Pentateuch as scripture, but not the other Old Testament books. To say that there was a lot of built up hostility would be understating the issue by an enormous amount. Jews viewed Samaritans as “half-Jews” and would not allow them to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. This hostility went all the way back to the Assyrian exile in the Old Testament, when the Samaritans were placed there by the Assyrian king and intermarried with the Assyrians and Babylonians. This is the setting in which we find ourselves today.

Turn in your Bibles to Luke 10: 25-37. Hear the word of the Lord:

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.j “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,k gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This story should be familiar to many of us. It is so familiar, in fact, that Samaritan has become a common noun like Kleenex, Xerox, Coke (in the south). It stands for an entire category or genre of things, not just the thing it originally stood for. But if we stopped at reading this as a prescription for how to be a person willing to help others, we would be missing so much in this story. Also, if we, as so many have done, make this into a giant allegory where everything stands for something else, we will shortchanging the text. This is a fascinating look at Jesus taking the religious rules and conventions of the day and giving them the Alice in Wonderland – up is down and down is up- treatment.

Let’s dive into this thing.

Our story opens with Jesus being confronted by a lawyer. It seems that in the past 2000 years, the stereotype of a lawyer hasn’t changed much. J This lawyer is trying to pin Jesus down on some matters of faith. So he asks him a somewhat loaded question “What must I DO to inherit eternal life? Has anyone here ever received an inheritance from an earthly relative? Did you have to do anything to receive it? Wash the car? Clip toenails? Seriously, you don’t have to do anything to inherit. You typically inherit because of who you are not because of your works. Jesus, sensing the trap, throws the question back and asks “What does the Law say?” The Lawyer, then starts looking for a loophole. So he drops in the question “Who is my neighbor?” He seems to be saying “who do I have to be nice to in order to merit favor from God? You could look at it as him asking what the minimum is. He could be viewed as self-righteous “I did this therefore I deserve eternal life.” Or you could look at it as him trying to trap Jesus, this guy who has a habit of eating with tax collectors, sinners, talking to Samaritan women at wells, and other unsavory types. Regardless, I don’t think we can say that the lawyer was honestly looking for some religious guidance that would make him a better human being.

‘Who is my neighbor?’ the lawyer wants to vindicate himself to the teacher, wants to show his cleverness, he wants to manage his responsibility. And who is my neighbor? The way the lawyer asks this question puts him in the driver’s seat. He is in control. He is the one who loves. He is the one who decides if another person is truly his neighbor or not. This is his game. With his question to Jesus, he’s just trying to estimate the size of the pitch and identify his teammates.

In answer to this question, then, Jesus’ story becomes quite odd indeed. One of the two main characters, the man set upon by robbers, is passive and unconscious for virtually all of the story, left half dead in a ditch. He doesn’t even have a speaking part. We know almost nothing about him other than that he is most likely an Israelite, like the lawyer. And we know that throughout this story he is passive, exposed, vulnerable. In answering the lawyer’s question, Jesus effectively turns it on its head: who is my neighbor? Is not a question that we answer out of our own power, by our own decision, through our own control. Determining who our neighbor is not a matter of carefully vetting likely candidates and finding some who are really worth bothering with. No; in the event, our neighbor is who we are given.

And what a neighbor this man is given. A priest and a Levite both see the man, half-dead, and pass by on the other side of the road. These fellow Israelites are most likely afraid that this man is not half dead but all dead, and in that case coming into contact with him would render them unclean. So his countrymen and co-religionists pass him by. Instead, a Samaritan comes upon him and helps.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,k gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This is where Jesus’ story starts to get really dicey with his audience. As we said before, Samaritans were looked down upon in that society. But Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero in the story. The Samaritan pays the equivalent of 2 days wages to the innkeeper, which would have been enough for several days in an inn of the era. The Samaritan bandaged his wounds, put him on his animal, took him to the inn and paid for his care with the promise to pay for any more care that the man may incur.

Now here is where we ought to be careful and try to bracket out our contemporary notions about Samaritans. To an Israelite of Jesus’ day, a Samaritan would have been repugnant. There had been hatred and animosity between the Jews and Samaritans for centuries, as the Israelites held the Samaritans to be idolaters and betrayers of the faith. And the Samaritans gave as good as they got. Roughly 25 years before Jesus would have told this parable, a group of Samaritans entered the Temple in Jerusalem and scattered human bones around, desecrating the place. In our story today, once the Samaritan comes on the scene, the lawyer most likely would have thought that he would come upon the half-dead Israelite and finish the job. To the lawyer, the Samaritan’s help would have been shocking, even scandalous. And that, of course, is just why Jesus used him in the story in the first place.

What’s more, the help that the Samaritan gives is extravagantly over the top. He doesn’t just give first aid, but takes him to an inn. He gives the innkeeper an amount of money that, at that time, would have sustained a person for three weeks. And he doesn’t even stick around for a thank you. In fact, there is no sense at all that this half-dead Israelite ever even knows who saved his life.

Jesus, in one story, has just offended the religious sensibilities of all of his hearers. He has constructed a scenario that none of them would have even considered, and he took a group of people that may have been as hated as the Romans, and made them the hero. During Frog Club this summer, the kids took a stab at recontextualizing this story in terms they could understand. We rewrote the story using characters from TV shows and movies familiar to them and switching the roles around. In one of them Darth Vader was the Samaritan. In another, Squidward was the Samaritan. I think you get the idea of how this story is so important

How might that look for us today? I’ve take a stab at rewriting the story for a 21st century conservative, evangelical audience.

A man was driving from Auburn Hills to Toledo through the inner city of Detroit, and fell into the hands of a gang of thugs, who carjacked him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead in the street. 31 Now by chance a minister was going down that same road; and when he saw him, he drove by went home, and called 911. 32 So likewise a church board member, when he came to the place and saw him, drove by, went home and also called 911. 33 But a Mormon church member, while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and administered first aid, bandaged his wounds, having treated him with Neosporin. Then he put him in his car, drove him to the hospital, and checked him in. 35 After ensuring the man was being cared for, he took out his credit card,k paid the hospital finance officer, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the gang members?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Who is our neighbor? Suddenly, in the logic of the parable, we’re not calling the shots; we are not so sure just who our neighbor is. Suddenly we’re not so sure just who our self is. If I’m to love another as my ‘self’ then the upshot is that I’m not even totally familiar with who I am, as I seem constantly to find that self facing me in others. And here we find the most radical challenge, for in this we see that no boundary will finally stand in the way of us and our neighbor, if we are to love them as our self. There are certainly distinctions: yes; love doesn’t seek to make everything else the same. But boundaries? No. There are no boundaries to our neighbors, no limits to whom we are to find our very selves in, no restrictions to whom we are to love unstintingly in God.

Sisters and brothers, in this day of the internet, international travel, and globalization the world seems to grow smaller; it is clearer now more than ever that any line we draw to limit our neighbors will simply be arbitrary. And so we discover that we have neighbors far and near: your family who sits at the dinner table with you, the young woman across the counter at the Coffee Beanery, the Baptist or the Muslim or the atheist who lives down the street, the unemployed young man who lives across town, the politician we disagree with so ardently, even the worker in a different country who picked the fruit you ate with breakfast or who sewed the shirt you’re wearing right now. Who is my neighbor, who I am to love? Who isn’t my neighbor?

We might even be surprised to find, in fact, that God is our neighbor. That’s not to parrot the words of that song from the nineties that God might be ‘one of us’. What I mean is that the story of the Good Samaritan is also a parable of God’s grace. The man who is half-dead and abandoned, who is unable to do anything on his own encounters a freely given and extravagant healing love from a surprising source, without conditions. This love gives him back his life and allows him to be a neighbor to others. This is the mercy and love of God that we meet through Christ, and that empowers us to love our neighbor. And so here we find that love of God and love of neighbor meet.

We don’t love God because it is a commandment. It is ‘written in the Law’ because God loves us first. God’s love elicits love from us. We respond to that love with love; and we find that even the love we respond with is a gift from God. This responding love is then worked out in loving our neighbor. Loving God and loving neighbor are not two different projects, for love begets love. The love we receive is the love that we love those around us with; and it is with that same love that we graciously receive from our neighbor, who is also beloved of God.

We know how the lawyer in today’s story answered Jesus’ question, but we don’t know what he did after that. Was his life changed? Did he ‘go and do likewise’? Or was he so turned off that he went and looked for a different venue to plead his case in? Or did he, perhaps like most of us, walk away convinced that Jesus was right, yet also knowing how far he was from it, nevertheless trying to love others with the love that he had found in Christ? Of course, we can only speculate about him. But I hope that as we go out in the wake of this story we will be both challenged and comforted by what we find here: by the surprising Samaritan, by the neighbor in our life we do not choose but are given by God, and most of all by the extravagant love and grace of God. In that way, may we better grasp this story, better love this story, and above all, be better grasped by the love we find in it.

Folks, we have neighbors we didn’t choose right here by the church. Some of you have noticed them, others may not have. I don’t want to focus on the neighbors and their various needs, misdeeds and the like. I would rather focus on Jesus’ admonition to the lawyer to go and do likewise. What kind of neighbors do we want to be to these people? What kind of neighbor do we want to be to the people who live near our homes? To the people we work with, come in contact with at Kroger, the gas station, at high school sporting events, in school? In many ways the point of this story is about the lawyer. How do we take the extravagant love that has been given to us and share it with the world around us? That is the question we as a congregation need to wrestle with. There is no easy answer that I can give you other than to love extravagantly .

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I think he is on to something here

The Internet Monk has a fascinating post on his views of post-Evangelicalism in America. As I have moved through seminary and my ministry process, I have had a growing realization that many (NOT ALL) evangelicals have a very low view of the sacraments. In the evangelical church, we have two sacraments - Eucharist (communion) and Baptism. Maybe it is the influence of the Lutheran school my children have attended for the past 9 years. Maybe it is all of those "radical" ideas that seminary puts in the head of "God-fearing young men and women." Maybe, just maybe, it is the still, small voice of the Spirit of God whispering to us and calling us to move away from the "experiential" emphasis that we seem to be racing headlong into, and back to a quieter, more contemplative, emphasis on the timeless things that have bound our faith together with other believers for the past 2000 years.

Quoting the Internet Monk:

"But evangelicals are in sacramental chaos, and the results are quite obvious. Evangelicals are “re-sacramentalizing” in an uncritical and unbiblical way. The Planetshakers article was good evidence, but you can see and hear it everywhere.

What are our evangelical sacraments? Where will evangelicals defend the idea that “God is dependably at work?”

-We have sacramentalized technology.

-We have sacramentalized the pastor and other leaders.

-We have sacramentalized music. (i.e. the songs themselves and the experience of singing.)

-We have sacramentalized leaders of musical worship.

-We have sacramentalized events. (God is here!)

-We have sacramentalized the various forms of the altar call.

-We have sacramentalized the creation of an emotional reaction.

We’ve done all of this, amazingly, while de-emphasizing and theologically gutting baptism. (I’m not buying everyone’s baptismal theology here. I’m simply saying the standard approach now is nothing more than could be accomplished by having someone jump through a hoop.)

We’ve done this while reducing the Lord’s Supper to a relatively meaningless, optional recollection. (And being deeply suspicious of anyone making it more than a glorified sermon illustration.)

We’ve done this while removing any aspects of sacramentalism from our worship and even our architecture. (Public reading of scripture, hymns, tables/altars, baptisteries, pulpits.)
And we’ve given over to whomever wants to speak up the power to say what God is saying, what God is doing, what God is using, what God thinks of whatever we’re doing, what the Spirit is up to and so on.

For example, in the next three months, you can bet your remaining life savings that someone will tell us that God is NOW using church X or method Y or person Z because the official discernment squad said so. (And ditto for saying what God is not doing, who God is not using, etc. from the discernment squad on the other side of the street.)"

As I read that I felt the sting in my own heart of the truth of what he is saying. Those of you who know me know that I am a firm believer that function should always lead form the church. Why we do what we do should always be more important than what we do. When you read that list, many of the items are forms, not functions. Yet they have become so important to us that they have become de facto sacraments. Some churches have a ratio of altar calls to communion services of 8:1, 10:1. But communion is one of the great unifying acts of the Body of Christ, instituted by the Lord himself. But we don't practice it often because it is "more special" when we do it less frequently.

I hate to burst your bubble on this one, but communion isn't there to make us feel good. It is there to bind the believers together in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is an incredibly intimate individual, AND corporate act that allows us to join together in the presence of Christ to build his Kingdom on earth. Yet we spend far more emphasis and time on the type of music we play than we do on binding our souls together in a common cause.
This Sunday I will be preaching on Joshua 1:1-9, which is the call of Joshua to lead Israel after Moses' death. And we will be having communion as a unifying act for a congregation that has lost its leader and is in search of a new leader. We have a common purpose, mission and Lord. And the act of taking communion is a reminder of that, as well as a means of grace for us who are struggling during this uncertain time. Join us if you can, but please pray for us during this time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

For Such a Time as This

Recently, the founding pastor of our church left to pastor a church in Florida. Sam was a great shepherd of this congregation and led them from a NewStart church to one that is stable and occupying its own space here in Dundee. With his departure, Ken Papenhagen and I have been named as the co-interim pastors. It's a different role for us, and one that will surely test us in ways that being associate pastors did not.

This week, we will be looking at God's charge to Joshua in Joshua 1:1-9. It is a great story of the faithfulness of God and how He promised to lead the people of Israel and never leave them or forsake them. For some reason, the word forsake has jumped out at me. I'm not sure why, but I'm going to be spending some time on it.

Joshua had an enormous task in front of him and his people. The only leader they had known was gone, and the work was unfinished. That is where we are. We are poised to take the land that God has given us, but we are in transition. The promise that God will not leave us or forsake us is one that I cling to.

Pray for us during this time. It is a challenging time, a time of uncertainty. But it is also a time of great promise and hope.

Monday, August 03, 2009

If I could sing

This is how I would do children's church. Musical theater to cover the entire story.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Signs there might be something wrong with your children's ministry

If something like this happens in your church, you may want to reassess your approach to children's ministry. This seems like an extreme attempt to avoid going somewhere he didn't like.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Little-known, but often-experienced laws of nature

1. Law of Mechanical Repair - After your hands become coated with grease, your nose will begin to itch and you'll have to use the bathroom.

2. Law of Gravity - Any tool, nut, bolt, or screw, when dropped, will roll to the least accessible corner.

3. Law of Probability - The probability of being watched is directly proportional to the stupidity of your act.

4. Law of Random Numbers - If you dial a wrong number, you never get a busy signal and someone always answers.

5. Law of the Alibi - If you tell the boss you were late for work because you had a flat tire, the very next morning you will have a flat tire.

6. Variation Law - If you change lines (or traffic lanes), the one you were in will always move faster than the one you are in now (works every time).

7. Law of the Bath - When the body is fully immersed in water, the telephone rings.

8. Law of Close Encounters - The probability of meeting someone you know increases dramatically when you are with someone you don't want to be seen with.

9. Law of the Result - When you try to prove to someone that a machine won't work, it will.

10. Law of Biomechanics - The severity of the itch is inversely proportional to the reach.

11. Law of the Theater and Hockey Arena - At any event, the people whose seats are farthest from the aisle arrive last, and they are the ones who will leave their seats several times to go for food, drink, or the bathroom and who leave early before the end of the performance or the game is over.

Those in the aisle seats come early, never move once, have long gangly legs or big bellies, and stay to the bitter end of the performance and beyond. The aisle people also are very surly folk.

12. The Starbucks Law - As soon as you sit down to a cup of hot coffee, your boss will ask you to do something that will last until the coffee is cold.

13. Murphy's Law of Lockers - If there are only two people in a locker room, they will have adjacent lockers.

14. Law of Physical Surfaces - The chances of an open-faced jelly sandwich landing face down on a floor covering are directly correlated to the newness and cost of the carpet/rug.

15. Law of Logical Argument - Anything is possible if you don't know what you are talking about.

16. Brown's Law of Physical Appearance - If the clothes fit, they're ugly.

17. Oliver's Law of Public Speaking - A closed mouth gathers no feet.

18. Wilson's Law of Commercial Marketing Strategy - As soon as you find a product that you really like, they will stop making it.

19. Doctors' Law - If you don't feel well and make an appointment to go to the doctor, by the time you get there you'll feel better. Don't make an appointment and you'll stay sick.