28 March 2017

keys and the kingdom: discipleship and a buddhist teenager

I remember once when I was in graduate school at Denver Seminary, taking a course on religious pluralism, one of our assignments was to attend and observe a religious service of a non-Christian practice and make our evaluation and assessment of the experience. We were given a good amount of freedom in the parameters of this project, so our small class of about fifteen people scattered ourselves across the metro to a variety of religious contexts. I found myself at a Buddhist "temple" for a weekly meditation gathering, sitting with a handful of other curious men and women in a row of chairs set up on the parameter of the gathered Buddhist faithful. It was an interesting experience, and I experienced more spiritual light and darkness conflict than I anticipated.

One particular piece that remains with me in regular thought was a special ceremony that took place toward the end of gathering. The temple was welcoming a new member into their official ranks. On this particular day it was a teenage young man who had shown himself committed to the life of that community. I do not remember most of what was said to him by the elder gentleman who was leading the gathering, but what I have not forgotten is the key. As part of his formal welcoming into the group he was handed a key to the main doors of the center (they were meeting in a former church building). As he was given his key he was told: This building is for you; it is for your use in meditation and growth. Come here whenever you need to. Bring your friends and your family to this place, and show them the way that you have learned.

Having been a part of the Christian church since birth, I can say that this sort of mentality is incredibly rare in American evangelicalism. I have seen that most churches guard their keys, many with great fervor, and restrict access to the physical space for a whole host of reasons. Even in churches where every adult member has a key to the building, it is still rare that this should be given over to a teenager (or that a teenager might be considered a full-fledged member in the first place).

I suppose this comes down to being an issue of discipleship: What is the goal of Christian growth, anyway? In this Buddhist temple it was part of the spiritual culture that this young man, regardless of his age, understood the responsibilities of participating in this community. And with those responsibilities came a charge of evangelism and discipleship – bring others and show them. This was clearly an expectation of the journey of meditation and enlightenment, and here was someone coming into his own along the journey. Why would we in the church be so terrified of what might happen if we entrusted our teenagers in the same regard?

In his fantastic book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Thomas Bergler says: "Adolescent Christians don't expect to be adults for a long time, so they don't particularly care if their Christianity prepares them for adulthood. They tend to be much more aware of their religious 'rights' than their religious responsibilities" (14–15). I think that sums it up quite nicely, and sheds a particularly bright light on the lack of genuine discipleship within the average American church today.

Many times, when I have relayed my experience of watching this young man receive his key to the temple – in a serious and ceremonial way – I am met with some form of admiration: Wow, they are serious about this. Indeed, they are. Or, perhaps we are not. While it might be a stretch to give out keys to the teenagers, why are we still battling over who among the adults receives keys to the building? (Or, what about every nook and cranny in the building: how many locks does your church kitchen have?)

Rick Bundschuh, teaching pastor at Kauai Christian Fellowship in Hawaii, once wrote of when their church community had built a new campus and decided to give everyone a new key that would open every door in the building (!!!). Yes, this was difficult for some of the congregation to swallow, and I have shared this with a number of pastors and church leaders over the past few years, none of whom have thought it was a good or appropriate idea for their own churches (to be fair, about half have indicated that it would be great if they felt as though their group was ready for this.) But there again we see the problem: are we discipling men and women (and children) into maturing believers who are ready for the responsibilities of faithfulness?

Bundschuh says of their experience: "And while we have had a few bumps along the way (just how did those high school kids get a copy of the key anyhow?), the place is a beehive of activity day and night with people doing the very things that we had hoped they would do. I think people in the real estate business call it 'pride of ownership'" (Don't Rock the Boat, Capsize It, 80).

So, there it is – a short little lesson on discipleship that I found at a Buddhist temple. And I think it has important implications for the American church today. It's amazing what can be discovered by handing one little key to another.

24 March 2017

just a little bit more

I'm up later than I probably ought to be, but finding some entertainment in watching reruns of a once-popular sitcom. It's not edgy or provocative, which makes it a somewhat pleasant choice for late night hours of relaxation. But what I've noticed throughout the night is that I keep muting the sound whenever a round of commercials comes along. The reason is because this particular station has decided to advertise some of its other programming, which does not really "match" the level of entertainment of the show I'm watching. So, the network has brought me to its channel by broadcasting a program that appeals to a certain level of entertainment value, and then pushes me to watch programming that is edgier in its content.

Now, one could insert a rant about how television (and every other form of media) isn't what it used to be, and one would be right. But I'm already aware of this and navigate it every day without too much difficulty. This is probably true for many people who are mindful of such standards, aside from those who have simply given in to the assumption that accepting the vulgarity of our cultural trends is the only way to engage in modern artistic and entertainment options.

This is the beckoning call of the world around me: to take one step closer each day. Our culture did not change overnight, and what is now considered provocative was once thought of as offensive and will soon be regarded as commonplace. This is the erosion of our selves, what C. S. Lewis called the abolition of man, and it happens just the like geological world around us – one grain of sand at a time. Scientists say that the formation of the Grand Canyon began about 14 million years ago, through the constant flowing and cutting of the Colorado River through the rock. Give me just a little bit more, the river speaks to the earth as it cuts ever deeper into the ground.

Modern resistance to cultural erosion seems to be little in our world today, perhaps indicating a complete surrender. When I first started sketching these thoughts, the live-action Beauty and the Beast was preparing for its release. As it comes to theaters around the country there is a dust up of concern regarding a blatant reference to homosexuality in the film, which would be a first for a Disney production. All-too-quickly these concerns were cast as narrow-minded, over-reactive, extremist positions. And even many within the church were content with admitting that it wasn't much of a focus in the movie, and it could easily be overlooked. Give me just a little bit more...

Another day, another step. And even those who think that such concession will bring about appeasement from those who push progressive agenda cannot look at our most recent social history and admit this has ever been the case. Erosion does not stop with this layer, but rather digs down to the next one. Just a little bit more if you want to be a part of our world.

This is not a new problem for the church, but one that is as old as the church itself. There has always been a tension between believers and their surrounding culture. Our scripture speaks quite directly to this very thing: to those who are seeking to accommodate their faith to the voices of culture who ask for just a little bit more, the voice from heaven cries, "Come out of her, my people" (Revelation 18:4; Jeremiah 54:45).

One voice calls me to conformity, another voice calls me to separation. The two cannot be reconciled. Why, then, do we think that we can live in such a way as to harmonize the ethics of the kingdom with the ethics of the world? Why do we believe that giving just a little bit here and there will not affect our commitment to faith? Why are we so sure of these things when our very Creator tells us that this is not true?

And yet, the erosion continues. We will say that it is the "cost of doing business" in our world today, that we must learn to live with things that don't share our values. I wonder if this cost of cultural inclusion has replaced the cost of the Cross. Our modern Christianity is so quick to surrender to just one more step toward the world, but so resistant to take one more step towards Christlikeness. And that is all that we need to see to understand the state of the church in America today.

"You know, it's not that much ..." is part of the modern creed that undermines kingdom faithfulness in our world.

16 February 2017

soft hearts and thick skin

For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.

1 John 3:11

I remember once being told that the work of pastoring is simple: preach the word and love the people. Some might say this is an oversimplification, but there is merit in understanding these two basic tenets of the vocation. Of course, as St Francis would like to remind us, preaching the word is much more than that which we do on Sunday mornings. In the role of church ministry the ways and means of gospel proclamation are everywhere and in everything. Still, I continue to be startled by the amount of pastors who shirk their responsibility to be proclaimers of the gospel, in both word and deed.

And then there is the other half of our simple statement: love the people. It should be no surprise that this contains numerous challenges as well. People can often present themselves as unloveable, and the irritations and frustrations that accompany close relationships – especially ones defined by spiritual endeavor – quickly disrupt our ability to act and respond in ways of love. This is the essence of people trying to work out their salvation, and the place of the pastor is heavily affected by such relationship dynamics.

Now, before I get too far on this, let me say that I have no interest in speaking of the pastoral vocation in grandiose terms, whereby you are supposed to think of the minister as a super saint who is able to do such an amazing work in spite of the overwhelming burdens of the task. There are plenty of sources that speak in this manner, and they are almost unequivocally wrong. The role of pastor is a unique endeavor that requires a certain temperament and skill set, but so is every other vocation in the world. The aim here is to present an observation of the relationship dynamics of the church from someone who spends their time in constant evaluation of the community of saints. For that matter, I might be wrong in how I understand the church. However, there might be merit from my reflected experiences.

Those who lead in the church, pastorally or otherwise, know well that that there is no shortage of hurt and/or angry people who make the work of ministry challenging and difficult. Speaking from the role of a pastor, these realities have a tendency to make one callous to the task – to treat this vocation with little sentiment or enthusiasm, moving from one appointment to the next and one Sunday to the next. But this is never in the work that Christ has given to the church, and it should not give shape to the way leadership works in a congregation. I think that the primary reason for this callousing is the amount of times that impassioned effort yields apathy in the pew. And there is no place where this has a more profound effect than in the realm of loving people.

There seems to be a difficult balance in the Christian life between having soft hearts and thick skin. If you hang around people for long enough, especially in the church community, you will discover that those to whom you have opened your heart will say or do something that makes you wish you had instead only shown them your thick skin. There are people who take advantage of you, either consciously or unconsciously, and the human tendency is to allow the hurting heart to become callous in order to avoid such pain in the future. But in this hardening of our hearts we lose the mandate to love our neighbor as ourselves, and thus we become our own hindrance to the gospel's work in and through us.

Yes, we want to be protected from pain, but this is simply impossible in genuine and meaningful relationships. Callous hearts close others out and prohibits love from having its effect. The only defense against this is having a heart that has been born of God. A heart such as this will continue to break – perhaps even more than before – but it will break in the same rhythm as the Creator, who alone can give healing comfort. It is from this assurance that we can have the kind of thick skin that enables us to experience incredibly hurtful things in this life and continue forward. For our worth is not found in what others think about us, or what value our world stamps upon us, but in the assurance of our heavenly Father, who fills us with an indescribable peace.

To be a part of this work, in official and unofficial roles alike, requires that we have soft hearts and thick skin. Otherwise we will be trampled and needled into a life that ceases to be connected to our Father's heart, and we will fail in our attempts to love, which is the very essence of who we are and what we have been created to be. For to love God and others is the highest calling and the greatest fulfillment we can find.

15 December 2016

songs of the season

Each year there seems to be another battlefield being fought over the so-called War-on-Christmas. I confess that I do not know how one particular issue reaches such status, at times even in its ability to rise above all that peace and goodwill stuff. Now, one might assume I'm going to make a rant about how some businesses do not allow for saying "Merry Christmas," or how the corporate fat cats are shoving their pagan and insensitive "Happy Holidays" down our throats. Actually, I'm thinking of the modern trend of watching self-identified Christians to find some cultural burr, stick it under their own saddle, and ride the range of public irritation, offensiveness, and outrage.

In 2015 we had the infamous war on Starbucks because they did not print "Merry Christmas" on their paper coffee cups, which we were supposed to believe was an anti-Christmas (therefore anti-Christ) assault on the millions of Americans who simply wanted get their $8 sugar-caffiene fix. (Oh, the plight of the affluent!) Of course, none of this narrative was true to the intentions or actions of Starbucks, and it wasn't too long before those greatly offended were able to return to their mocha and frappe lifestyles, even if they had to wait for the non-seasonal cups to return –  the ones with the logo based upon Nordic mythology, which is must less-offensive to Christians than the ommission of a specific holiday phrase.

Perhaps it is only in the particular circles in which I run, but 2016 seems to have a lot of jabbing and condemning of Christmas music. Over the past few weeks I have seen a good number of articles (some more serious than others) and social media commentary on how terrible certain Christmas songs are that we should dump, or even ban their existence. Now, we've all enjoyed reading those lists that poke fun at some of the more campy holiday songs that are mostly ridiculous, even though we all know someone who will defend the likes of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" to the bitter end. My concern isn't for the playing-around, but with what appear to be more serious attempts to chide certain Christmas music on moral or theological grounds.

(If only we were this adamant when it came to our worship music!)

Not every holiday song (Christmas-themed or not) has the best message, or the most moral content. Some songs are not as well-crafted musically or lyrically as others, and there is always the great variable of personal preference. These are all fair game for discussion. But the cultural and theological discussions are going to need to be dialed back just a bit, because the church ought to be about more than manufactured irritation.

There have been a handful of songs that are drawing the ire of would-be social commentators this year (some not for the first time), but I will limit my push-back to just two of them. First is the classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside (1944)." Over the past few years this song has raised a nod of suspicion, driven mostly by the mainstream political-correctness crowd who claim that this song tramples on consenting relationships, the allusion to a date-rape drug, or both. This is the result of a culture that has become so enamoured with its own significance that it has lost a sense of its own history, not to mention its inability to read and understand the plain meaning of lyrics.

First, this song is from 1944 New York City, a place much different than today, when the social scene was filled with entertainment-types hosting parties in their high-rise apartments. To this, folks would often perform for their guests (or have entertainment provided), giving rise to a number of good songs over the years. One such case was "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which was composed and initially performed by husband-and-wife, and gained instant popularity. Thus, the phrases and concepts are bound to that time period and should not have our modern behavior superimposed on top of them. For a woman (even girlfriend or fiance) to spend the night at her suitor's home was still culturally frowned upon at that time, which is where the play of the song originates.

Second, a reading of the lyrics demonstrates that the woman wants to stay the night, but is conflicted by the social customs and expectations of the day. Hence, it is a consentual relationship in which two people are torn between staying together and being pulled apart. The oft-questioned phrase, "What's in this drink," is then best understood as an almost-self-depricating-and-humorous self-awareness, much the same as was common phrasing at the time whenever someone was less-inhibited due to 'a few too many.' It is sad that we would rather assume and impose our world upon what was a different world once-upon-a-time. No, I'm not claiming that life in 1944 was perfect, but there was a shared cultural morality that frowned upon premarital sexual relationships, which one might need to explain in our contemporary society, where such things are laughed at by the voices in our culture.

The second song that is getting roughed up on the Christmas playground is "Mary, Did You Know? (1991)" I suppose that a good amount of the push-back here is due to a lot of overplaying that has happened with this song since it first gained widespread popularity. That's understandable, but the last couple of years – and especially in 2016 – it has become a popular move to offer a theological challenge to the intended meaning of this song. From internet memes to social commentaries in blogs and articles, the knee-jerk reaction is simply paraphrased: Yes! Mary did know! So, shut up!

Aside from perhaps some people hearing this song too many times in the December rotation, I really don't know why there is such pushback to this song. Probably this is another example of simply not reading the lyrics. The criticism of the song is based on the fact that Mary was told by Gabriel that her child would be the Messiah, and she sings in The Magnificat that this child will be great, sans the specifics that are mentioned in the modern song. That is to say: Yes, she knew that her child would be great and messianic, but there is little more than that in her self-stated 'knowledge' of what was happening. A longer reading of the Gospels shows that she did struggle with parts of Jesus' messianic role – she knew that he was to be God's Messiah, but she apparently didn't know what sort of Messiah he was going to be. We have no reason to think that Mary had a radically different understanding of messiahship than did everyone else in Second Temple Judaism.

Also to keep in mind here is that "Mary Did You Know?" is designed to be a reflection piece, centered on the mystery of the Incarnation, so that we too might ponder these things and treasure them in our hearts as well. Perhaps we miss out on this because so little of modern Christian worship involves reflection and meditation on the mystery of faith. The church in our culture, by and large, think of mystery as a riddle to be solved, not a person to be explored. Thus, we quickly get off on the wrong foot. No, this song isn't perfect theology, but it is a start – and it does seem to capture a lot of what people think about surrounding this Christ-child.

Again, there are more songs in question – some are genuinely poor, in musical quality and/or theology. But the endless complaints and manufactured irritation and criticism needs to go away, especially from those voices that are in the church. Christmas is indeed a significant season, and the gospel message that shines through the nativity ought to have teeth to it. But the Christmas songs are not the right battlefeld, and we ought to be doing more that is reflective of the Savior who has come.

There you have it – my Stop the Insanity plea for Christmas 2016.

Listen to that fireplace roar ...

09 November 2016

you don't have to explain this one

"Come now, let us settle the matter," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool."

Isaiah 1:18

In the overnight hours the news came that our nation had elected our next President, thus bringing to a close another election cycle that had long grown weary and tired. To some degree or another, every election season wears on the American people and brings families, friends, and communities to feverish debate over which candidate will be the best in moving forward. This year the election is being called historic, for the presidency has gone to someone with no prior political or governing or military experience, and who has defied the odds put up by those who thought he had no legitimate chance of winning.

There have been fifty-eight presidential elections in our nation's history, and this is not the first time scandal, corruption, and immoral behavior have tainted the candidates. I am not a historian enough to know if these items have ever before been such a considerable factor for both candidates throughout the process, but at least in my lifetime this is unique. As a Christian pastor I have spent a considerable amount of time considering, speaking about, and listening to the moral issues that have surrounded this election and the persons involved. And I have had many conversations with Christian men and women who have labored and thought and prayed over how best to handle the choice between these two. From my finger-in-the-water sense of it, this has not been an easy road for many.

And now that it is over we are entering into the post-election onslaught of second-guessing, lamenting, and even moralizing. Let me say that I understand the general sense of frustration and uncertainty that presently exists, and even that there are some who are taking the results of this election rather personally. What is more, I have seen enough to know that such reactions are part and parcel for the days and weeks after an election (then it usually gets 'back to normal' after that). As we stand at this particular point of our history, however, the nature of the questionable moral character of the President-Elect has made for some very sharp criticism of him, and for those who voted for him.

There are many levels of this aspect of the election that need to be examined, but this post will only be able to deal with one in particular: the moral superiority of many Christians who are choosing to be overly critical of other Christians who voted for Donald Trump. Of course, there are many self-identified Christians in our country who aren't particularly serious about their faith, or who aren't necessarily 'biblical' in their worldview. Perhaps we can set this sub-group to the side for a moment. But, based on the statistics, there are many men and women of biblical faith who have cast their votes for the President-Elect.

And now the questioning has been set loose on all the country: Why? How could you? What are you thinking? Do you not even care about what the Bible says? These are some of the sentiments that have been running across my social media feeds throughout the day. The vast majority of these comments are not intended to hear and understand, but to express disappointment and frustration. I have rolled right on by most of these because they are emotive reactions. There have been, however, a couple of times today where I have the statement that evangelicals who cast their vote for Trump "have some explaining to do."

I am beside myself that some self-appointed moral authority has decided to call out other believers to justify their choice, as though we answer to some national spiritual parental presence. Even still, this is not the language of understanding, but of accusation for doing something that is so clearly in the wrong – this coupled with the conclusion that just over half of our nation has gone off the rails in that they would even think of voting this way in the first place. This is not the language of reason, and it is a fundamental truth that one cannot reason with emotion. However, you can respond, and that is what I feel I need to do here.

Rather than passing judgment from one believer to another, let us reason together what happens when there is a choice between two people (no, third party candidates are not viable to this election and very few were under the impression that they were). The Republican primary cycle was quite interesting, for a few reasons. One of the more fascinating pieces is that Trump won states that had 'open' primaries (in which people from any party could vote on the Republican ticket), and did not win states that held 'closed' primaries (where only registered Republicans could participate in the vote). American Evangelicals, for the most part, tend to be socially and politically conservative, and so their role in the primary process is worth considering. Without getting into a sea of nuance and overly-justifying every statement, suffice it so say that conservative evangelicals in large part were not in overwhelming support of Trump. This warming-up to the Republican nominee started to happen when other viable candidates had fallen by the wayside.

Where I live, the primary race was decided before we had a chance to cast our ballots. And so, between those who voted for another person in the primary or who had no choice to cast a meaningful vote in the primary, there were a good number of American Evangelicals who were left between two people with whom they had serious issues of moral and political leadership and character. But – and this is important – November 8 came anyway, and these were the names before our country. This is where the prayer and consideration really hits hard: some will say 'Never Hillary' and I can understand that as a reason; some will say 'Never Trump' and I can understand that as a reason; some will find some virtue in her and in him and, though I strongly question this, I can understand this as a reason; some will refrain from voting for either, and I can understand this as a reason.

Add to this the social and political climate that has been over the past six months, not only among the candidates themselves, with their brash talk and manipulative speech. I find it fascinating that the moralizing voices that are calling fellow believers to explain themselves and their choices, that any attempt to have a serious discussion about these candidates up to this point has been met with dismissive attitudes and demeaning response. It is hard to have a reasonable conversation about issues and candidates when the very mention of either candidate brings eye-rolling, scoffs, and an overall dismissive response. Speaking politics in the realm of the church community has become tense and fearful and divisive. Believers have allowed modern politics to divide the church quite easily, and our fellow brothers and sisters who struggled with how to live out their faith in this election might very well have appreciated a place where we could edify one another instead of looking down upon those with whom we disagree.

Now is the time for these to offer explanation? No. Within the church community the time to hear one another every day. And those who are stunned by this election and who cannot comprehend why so-called evangelicals could cast their votes en masse for Donald Trump are simply not hearing the frustration with the issues that is plaguing the church today. You see, this is not a simple issue of checking-a-box – a great many of our fellow believers struggled with this through and through. I know that I have wrestled with this election each time it has crossed my television, radio, mailbox, and conversation.

The Christian knows that we live before Almighty God, who sees into the human heart. When we are right and when we are wrong he knows our thoughts and our motives. He understands our struggles and our entanglements, and he loves us just as we are. And our Creator is the only one who can rightly judge the individual for what has been done, thus making him the only one who ever requires explanation. All other attempts to push this issue are simply the feeble acts of moral superiority that strip us of our humility in all of this and attempt to give us the role of examiner.

No, you need not explain yourself for any of the votes you cast on any level of your ballot. This is not only the virtue of the American system, but also the moral reality that is before Almighty God. But you do need to live your life tomorrow, the next day, and every day that he gives you breath, and you do need to walk in a way that honors the rightful king of the universe. Elections are neither the problem nor the solution – they are events that can reflect and affect the climate of our culture. As for what we do with them as believers, this begins with the simple truth that we will never find political answers to spiritual problems. Electing the "right person" will never achieve that which is given to the church as a daily exercise in making disciples of all nations with the continuing presence of Christ Jesus.

Perhaps once we have begun to truly rely on his kingship, beyond the snarky internet memes, we will stop the over-dramatizing of fear and loathing and dread that make us all look like a hopeless lot. Fear drove both of these campaigns, and believers were wrong to get swept up in it. Fear is now driving a lot of the response to who won (it would have been the same from the other side), and believers are wrong to get swept up in it. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)

Let us as a church not betray the love that we have experienced because we have disagreed with many of our brothers and sisters in how they voted – either direction. If we cannot work in genuine love, devoid of self-aggrandizement and backhanded moralizing, then we have surrendered the unity of the Holy Spirit to the empty shell of political power. "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35)

It will be an incredible experience for the American Christian to realize that he really isn't surrounded by bad or stupid people – it's just that evangelicalism seems to be hurting from what we've allowed our church experience to become. And there is so much more when we all surrender everything we hold dear – even our candidates and elections – to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, to which all else is abandoned to the dustbin of eternity.