The Liturgy of My Local Gym

Standard

Last summer I bought a membership at my local gym and began running on its treadmills for a half hour 3 or 4 times a week.  When the school year began I terminated it but this summer I renewed it and have spent another 12 weeks making regular trips to the treadmills.

As I have spent my time in purgatory, watching the calorie tracker tick up and the clock tick endlessly down, I have thought a lot about the works of James K.A. Smith, my friend Brent Peterson and others which have helped me see the hidden liturgies around me, that is those sacraments and rituals that form and shape us in invisible ways.  The culture of my local gym has provided a fitting case study.  As I have sought to distract myself from the anguish of running in place, I have studied the surroundings and wondered about how my local gym has a liturgy that subconsciously forms and shapes us for better or worse.

To be sure there is a definite liturgy to any gym.  There is a sacrament of initiation with a catechism.  That happens the moment you sit down with a trainer and begin filling out all their forms while they quiz you about your “fitness needs” and explain to you the basics of exercise.

My gym also has sacred texts, those blackboards scattered around that tell people what workouts to perform and rules to follow to live into the good life.

As for the good life, my gym shows us icons of it.  Those are the pictures hanging everywhere of the saints who have come before.  In those pictures the saints who have submitted to the liturgy of the gym are flexing their many muscles, showcasing their toned physiques while wearing very little clothes and holding trophies.  Those pictures seem to say, “if you follow our rituals and submit to our sacred texts, you too can wear little clothes, have great muscles and earn many trophies!”

There also is sacred music playing over the loud speakers, those high energy rock songs which feed our desires to run faster, lift harder and become better toned.  Without those songs we may not achieve “the good life.”

The sacraments are not hard to note.  Those are the weights, the machines and the bars and the actions we perform with them.  They are a sign of the reality and they also participate in that reality.

Initially, the purpose of noting all of these things as I ran on that interminable treadmill was somewhat critical.  Surely this liturgies and the sacraments of the local gym were forming and shaping us away from Christ.  By working out there we were becoming less like Christ and not more.

As evidence of this I noted that despite the rock songs and the sound of the machines, there was an eerie silence in the gym.  In my gym, those exercising don’t talk to anyone.  This very morning, the sacred rock songs turned off and I discovered there was no noise at all.  I looked around and realized nobody was socializing.  Instead everybody had headphones in their ears and a screen in front of their faces.  That’s when I realized that in the church of the gym we are expected to pursue the good life individualistically, in a way that says, “You pursue your fit body in your way.  I’ll pursue mine in my way and never will we compare notes.”  I am proud to say that is not the case in my local church congregation.  Surely we are better then the gym in that one instance.

But then I took a second glance and I noticed that my gym is incredibly diverse in every way there is to be diverse.

All colors of skin are represented and that almost equally.  This is probably not true of all gyms but at the very least my gym is an actual representation of the demographics of my community.

So also, those at my local gym have diverse body shapes.  Despite those icons of the muscular life, people of all shapes and sizes gather there and feel welcomed.  Today I did pull ups next to a man who was borderline obese.  He almost dropped his weights on a girl skinnier than a stick!  And all felt welcomed.

There isn’t a dress code either.  While most people wear some form of “workout” clothes, those clothes differ drastically and every time I go, I find someone working out in jeans.  It probably isn’t wise but they aren’t judged, at least not that I’ve seen.

My gym also breaks down class barriers.  The subscriptions are quite cheap so anybody can afford it.  The aforementioned lack of dress code makes it hard to tell if someone is living in a mansion or a single wide trailer and I don’t think anybody cares.

There isn’t an age limit either.  Every time I go there are many people much older than me.  They are not pursuing “the buff life” but trying to stay fit with what years they have left.  At the end of the age spectrum, my gym has an excellent children’s ministry which is most of the reason I go.  Children are welcomed and nurtured so their parent’s can attend to their exercises and many parents can be seen instructing their children on the how to workout and the virtues of it.

So, I began this project with the goal of explaining how my gym is worse than church but now I am wondering if my gym is a better reflection of the kingdom of God than most Christian congregations…

And that means we pastors may have some work to do.

 

Advertisements

A Sunday Sermon: Thinking and Praying for Houston and SE Asia

Standard

This is roughly what I offered my congregation yesterday in light of the devastation that floods have wrecked across our world this week.  It is a bit long but I hope it helps you as you “think and pray.”

Introduction

I want to begin by sharing about how I was awakened to the fact that this Houston tragedy was “the real deal.”  I have been super busy the last three or so weeks, busier than I have been in a long time.   That is a good thing but in my busyness I haven’t been able to pay attention to national headlines as much as I usually do.  That is also a good thing.

So I heard rumors of hurricane Harvey but what I initially read seemed minor.  It appeared to me that Hurricane Harvey was one of those headlines that was exaggerated by the media in an otherwise low news cycle.  Even the articles I did read said that Harvey only barely reached category 4 status before being downgraded to a tropical storm shortly after going over Houston.  That’s all I read and I figured, “no big deal.”

But Harvey’s problem was what came behind it.  Although Harvey itself was not that bad as far as winds go, it was the wettest hurricane on record in the US.  To make it worse, several rain storms followed in its wake so that Houston got hit again and then again and then again resulting in the catastrophe that it now is.  It took me until about Wednesday of this week to realize that this is the real deal.  This is pretty bad.

Right around that time I came across the pictures from southern Asia.  For those of you who don’t know, there are several countries and areas under water all across the Indian Ocean shores.  This started happening in June and has continued to get worse until now when most of the shoreline is uninhabitable along with several inland areas.  Thousands have died due to the flooding and millions of families have been displaced.  Flooding  is a global concern right now.  We have millions suffering in Texas and tens of millions more in Asia.

“Thoughts and Prayers”

About the time the gravity of all this occurred to me, another feeling came over me.  I think  this feeling is common nowadays.  I am going to call it “overwhelmed apathy.”  This is not apathy that overwhelms.  It is apathy that comes from being overwhelmed.  I was so overwhelmed by the pictures, the stories and the amount of neediness that I had no idea how to respond.  So I didn’t.  I shrugged and went on with life.

There is a phrase which “overwhelmed apathy” loves to utter.  It is, “Thoughts and prayers.”  Those of us who are so overwhelmed say this often as a way of trying to convince people we actually care.  Sometimes I wonder if that phrase is thrown about because we have no idea what else to do or to say so we say, “Thoughts and prayers” as a way of trying to signal that we are still decent people.  Thinking and praying are not bad but some people throw that phrase around as a way of trying to convince others they care when they really don’t.  They are more worried about showing they care than actually doing anything that would actually be caring.

Thursday night, about the time the gravity of Houston was dawning on me, I had a conversation with the daughter of a recently deceased mother.  From the minute she answered her phone, I noticed that she didn’t sound so happy.  She sounded like someone who is grieving.  She sounded like a daughter who doesn’t have a mom any more, at least not on this side of eternity.  She also sounded like someone who was completely overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to close out a person’s estate.  It was a rough conversation.

Guess what I heard myself say to her, “Well, our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  I hated myself for it!  It sounded so shallow.  What I hated even more was that I wanted to do something tangible but I seriously could not.  There was almost nothing I could to help other than listen.

In my defense, I have been thinking and praying for this family a lot.  If you were to somehow measure how much time I have spent thinking and praying about the various areas of my life, that family would top the list.  Every time I think about them I offer a prayer for them and that prayer is offered with a tear or two.  I miss their mom and I hurt for their loss.

Yet here is another tragedy which is a lot closer to home than Asia or Houston.  It only involves the fifty or so extended family members but it is no less a devastation.  Death is a tragedy.  I think we are numb to it, especially when people die in their 80’s, but it is no less a violation of God’s original plan for creation.

Actually Thinking and Praying

So that happened Thursday and then Friday morning came.  I was at a worship service and they had an extended prayer time.  Prayer times can be awkward, especially for pastors.  I felt like I had to pray to sound “spiritual” but I didn’t know what to pray for or about.  Somewhere in that, it occurred to me that this was a good opportunity to actually think and pray for Houston and for Asia so I started to think and pray.

I immediately had another problem.  I had no idea what to pray.  Everything obvious seemed so cliché, like a million other people had all ready prayed it.  What good would it do to echo popular, overly simple sentiments up to the heavens?  “God be with them.  .  .even though I am sure you are and probably don’t need me to ask so that you can be with them.  God I wish I could do something but they are there and I am here.  God, um this is kind of sad.  .  .Amen.”

I also didn’t know what to think.  These floods are devastating and so senseless.  There is no rhyme or reason to it and the rhymes and reasons others have offered seem so trite and shallow.  When we “think and pray” for such tragedies there is a very real danger we end up as callous as Job’s friends in the ash heap.  “This happened because of sin!”  “You should have moved away from there!”  “Those guys deserved it for not evacuating!”  How cruel can you be?

So I had no idea what to think or what to pray.  I just stood there, overwhelmed and apathetic.

Then another feeling came over.  Even though I had no words to say and no thoughts to think I found that I had an incredible longing, a longing for a world where these things do not happen, a longing for Jesus and his kingdom.  This longing itself was my prayer but it was one those prayers that was too deep for words.  It could only be expressed in sighs and groans.  It is a prayer of lamentation.

Mark 13

Then I remembered Mark 13.  The chapter opens with Jesus leaving the temple.  One of his disciples marvels at the beauty of the buildings.  Jesus plays the role of the downer.  “You see these great buildings here? Not one of them will remain standing!”

They sit atop the Mount of Olives and his core group asks him, “Well when will this happen?  What are the signs that this is about to take place?”  We now know the answer to that question.  In 70AD the Roman Empire, the “abomination that causes desolation” sacked Jerusalem and tore down the temple and those in Judea who went back from the fields were raped, enslaved and slaughtered.  Jesus was right.  The Roman conquest of Jerusalem was a tragedy unequaled too from the beginning and never equaled again (though the Holocaust came close), at least for God’s chosen people.

We know this now but Jesus didn’t answer their question, at least not directly.  Instead he seems to be more concerned that they not be deceived by false answers to the question.  He tells them to be careful not to listen to false prophets or pay attention to false signs.  He say, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end.  For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.”

There is a very shallow reading of this passage and its companion passages in Matthew and Luke that thinks Jesus is telling people that things like wars, famines, earthquakes, floods and pestilences are signs that Jesus is about to return.  The people who argue this have a very inadequate understanding of history.  They seem to think that right up until 1960 there were never any wars, earthquakes, tornadoes or floods.  They think pestilences are this brand new thing.  But trust me, there have always been wars or rumors of wars.  There have always been murderers.  There have always been floods.  There has always been death.  There have always been terrorists and terrorism.  Pick a year in history and you will find a war or a rumor of war.  Far from being new, these tragedies are a very old part of our dying world.

In Mark 13 Jesus is not saying, “See this paradise you live in without wars or famines or hardship or death?  Well in 2017 that won’t be the case anymore but don’t worry I am coming back in 2018!”

Instead Jesus is actually saying, “Don’t be deceived by the false Christs and false prophets who point to wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines and the like.  Those things will continue to happen and unfortunately, must happen.  When they do happen, stay faithful and remain smart.  But when the end of the world does happen, you will know it, because you will see the Son of Man coming on clouds!”

So when we have things like wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes, famines and yes, even floods, they are not a sign that Jesus is coming back soon.  Instead they are a sign that Jesus has not come back soon enough!

The hurricanes and rain storms happening all over the world today are signs that this old, broken world continues to be old and broken.  The mom who died on her bathroom floor one night is a sign for us that death still continues.  The victory is not yet won.  Sin continues to be sin.  Death continues to fight.  Creation still groans under futility, waiting for the children of God to be revealed.  Our bodies are still subject to decay.

God has not yet sealed the victory.

We are still between the times.

Proclaiming Our Hope!

So Friday morning there I stood, between the times, thinking, praying, sighing and groaning my longing for Christ, my hope for the final healing and victory!

And as I cry the tears of hope and groan the compassion of Christ I can boldly proclaim that even though death, destruction and decay still seem to reign, one magic day the sun will be darkened and the moon will turn to blood.  The heavenly bodies will be shaken and we will see the Son of Man coming with great power and great glory.  He will send his angels and gather us up from the four winds!

Likewise, to those of us who have lost loved ones, I can proclaim the hope of the Apostle Paul who said, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”

And to those suffering under natural disasters I can proclaim the hope that John the Revelator offers when he tells us,

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

If you find yourself “thinking and praying” for the tragedies surrounding us, there might just be three words to offer and they comes from the very end of Revelation, the very end of our Scriptures.  Will you pray it with me, “Come, Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord.  .  .”

What Would Make Mormons a Christian Denomination?

Standard

Good afternoon everybody (or evening, or morning, or middle of the night depending on when you are reading this).  As I am typing this we have a blizzard developing outside my Utah door that is incredibly beautiful.  I wish I could share it with all of you but pictures would not do it justice.

It has been over a week since I last posted, which means my New Year’s Resolution to blog almost every day is going terribly.  But this morning a friend sent me an email and asked me a question that has been on my heart and mind a lot over the last couple years.  This email came from a couple who lives in a town that is 95% Mormon.  They left the Mormon church years ago but still love the Utah Mormon culture.  Last summer they reached out to me asking about the Church of the Nazarene and I have become their pastor over the last several months.

She more or less pointed out that there are members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles whom she respects and whom she believes are steering the Mormon church in a Christ like direction.  However, she also noted that several Christians she talks with don’t share that belief at all.  Instead they argue that the “Christ” talk is just a deceptive PR stunt.  She wanted to know my thoughts.

I assured her and I assure you that I am not an expert in Mormonism at all.  However, over the last couple years I have spoken with many who are experts including a Southern Baptist Missionary who has a PhD in Mormonism and Richard Muow, the former President of Fuller Theological Seminary who meets regularly with the Mormon leadership.  I have also read some books about the relationship of Mormonism to Christianity that were insightful.  In addition I am friends with several Nazarene scholars who regularly meet with BYU professors and I have also listened to some lectures by an evangelical pastor out of Provo.

And I still find it incredibly difficult to say that the Mormon denomination is a Christian one.  The most gracious I can be is to echo what the previously mentioned pastor in Provo said in one of his lectures: “I do believe many Mormons will be saved, but it will be despite Mormonism, not because of it.”  For the record I also believe many members of the Church of the Nazarene will be saved despite our denomination.  And I believe the same thing about Baptists and Assembly of God and Catholics and Lutherans and any other.  After all it is by grace that we are saved, not by church membership.

However, to call an institution itself Christian requires something more succinct than the generic statement above.  I have thought long and hard about the circumstances that would have to happen for me to be able to call Mormons a Christian denomination.  The email from my friend gave me opportunity to sit down and write two lists that have been germinating in my head.  The first list is of the non-negotiables.  They are the things the top tier of the Mormon leadership must do in order make Mormonism Christian.  The second list are things that would make it easier for me to call them Christian, but that aren’t necessarily deal breakers.  You will notice the second list is longer than the first.  Regarding that second list, be assured I have similar lists for my denomination and, if I am being completely honest, most other Christian denominations.

List 1: What Would Make Mormons a Christian Denomination?

  1. Full acceptance of the Nicene Creed along with First 7 Ecumenical Councils (including full deity of Jesus and full equality of the Trinity)
  2. Statement placing the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments over the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants  (This would not be a rejection of the Mormon documents per say but a relegation of their authority to that under the Scriptures.)

List 2: Things I Personally Would Like to See:

(Of note: some of these are all ready happening)

  1. Stop proselytizing people from Christian denominations
  2. Stop rebaptizing those from Christian denominations
  3. Start teaching the stories about the life and teachings of Jesus from the four canonical gospels as part of a catechism process for children.
  4. Relax some but not necessarily all requirements on temple recommends so that Christians from other denominations can participate in some manner.
  5. Rejection of the tiered eschatology (i.e. terrestrial, celestial and telestial levels of heaven).
  6. Full and public rejection of eternal marriage, especially eschatological polygamy (i.e. that divorced Mormons who were married multiple times in the temple will be married to multiple wives in heaven).

I have other things I am sure to add to that second list but it is a snowy Sunday afternoon and my head is spinning with other things.  Be that as it may, those are my thoughts from someone who is on the ground doing ministry in Utah!  Have a blessed day wherever and whenever you are!

The True Problem With “Legalism”

Standard

I am a pastor in a holiness denomination, maybe THE holiness denomination.  We were the largest and most successful grouping of churches to arise out of the 19th century Holiness Movement and our favorite hymn “Holiness Unto the Lord” is truly our watchword and song.  I find myself talking and thinking about holiness a lot, a lot more than, say, my reformed siblings.

One of the things I find myself pondering as I think about our watchword and song is that nasty four letter word, “legalism.”  The word is used so much by so many Christians these days that I am not sure it means anything any more other than, “bad Christian.”  With that said, it originally referred to a short lived period of US church history where the ethics of various denominations became fundamental.  In college I learned it was my generation’s job to repent of that time and help lead the denomination in a new direction, but not so much that we turn to another four letter word “antinomianism” or lawlessness.

A fascinating side note in all of this is that in the “Legalism Era” other Christian denominations were just as legalistic as we were.  Today, many of them still are if not more so.  I often wonder how the Baptists, who often don’t seem to have any theology of holiness at all, still throw people out of their churches for things like playing Magic: The Gathering or reading Harry Potter.  All that to say at least legalistic Nazarenes have an excuse and a theology that pushes us towards legalism.  After all we are not the ones saying, “everybody sins every day in thought, word and deed” and then throwing people out of our churches for sinning every day.

Thinking beyond that interesting side note, I often wonder what the real problem with “legalism” is.  I really don’t think it is having a biblically based, church established ethic.  Every social gathering ever known to humanity has had an established ethic.  It is what makes communities possible.  For example, I recently ran past a Yacht Club who seems desperate for new members and is advertising heavily in our community.  Desperate though they are, if you don’t buy a new yacht they still won’t let you join!  Are they legalistic or do they just not want their yacht club to turn into a “whatever vehicle suits your fancy club?”

I think our problem isn’t really that we enforce and hold ourselves to a biblical ethic.  I think the problem with legalism is the age old problem of treating good advice as if it was biblical mandate.  I think as we try to be a holiness people in the world, we hit several gray areas, times when a simple yes or no doesn’t seem to suffice.  In those areas we survey all our options, pray and come up with some good advice about what might be the best way to act in that situation.  Many times we are right.  But then we begin to apply that advice to others as if this is the only absolute right thing to ever do.  Then we practically force others to follow suit or else we begin talking and thinking about them as “lesser Christians” not because they won’t follow the commands of the Bible, but because they won’t listen to our obviously good advice.

To further explain what I mean I want to think through 2 case studies.

The first is the “Focus on the Family” parenting and family advice.  In 1977 a Nazarene psychologist named James Dobson began “Focus on the Family” as a way of helping parents raise better children.  Dobson was and still is a very accomplished psychologist and for the most part did an okay job at fusing biblical parenting ideals with the 1980s North American culture.  Many parents have read his books, followed his advice and seen great benefits.  It was the kind of awesome thing that can happen when a Christian takes both Scripture and their cultural context seriously.

The problem arises when in 2016 Dobson has a massive group of followers who have turned his good advice into biblical principles.  I personally know several parents who have been driven from their churches because they didn’t agree with Dobson’s advice or just didn’t have time to read his books.  When I talk to some of Dobson’s people they seem to believe that James Dobson’s books should be added to the canon of Scripture and are normative for faith and practice.  If his advice isn’t followed you are considered a bad parent and a horrible Christian.   This is one case where our good advice has supplanted the gospel in the lives of our church.

Another example would be protecting ourselves from false accusations of sexual misconduct.  Unfortunately this has become a major area in clergy education.  I have had to and will again have to sit through many seminars about how to protect myself against accusations.  This is badly needed for our day.  We live in a very anxious and paranoid time and the most harmless of accusations have ended otherwise successful pastors and even closed down a few churches.

The advice in these seminars is extremely valuable.  Don’t be alone in the same room as a child.  Don’t drive a child home alone.  Don’t drive alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex.  Always meet with a member of the opposite gender in public.  When you do have to meet alone in public by all means make sure your spouse knows all the details about it.  I try to live my life by these rules.  It is unfortunate that our society is so judgmental that I have to but I do have to!

But these are not biblical.  Nowhere are any of them even suggested in the Bible.  In the Bible Jesus draws water from a well with an adulteress in the middle of the day when no one is around!

The problem here is that when we tell someone, “well you might be innocent but you were stupid for not following MY advice about how to avoid accusation” we are putting the most judgmental people in control.  And whatever you want to say about the Christian ethic, one of its foundations is “do not judge or you will be judged!”

In fact, the Hebrew word “Satan” literally means the “judger” or “accuser.”  When we falsely accuse people and then declare them innocent of the crime but guilty for making yourself susceptible to accusation, we are basically telling the Satans in our church, “you can have free reign!”  We are literally handing the keys to our kingdoms over to Satan.

So follow good advice.  Do the hard work of deliberating about what is best in any given situation.  Pray for discernment always and often.  But don’t punish those who do not follow your good advice and by all means do not hand the keys of the gospel over to the most judgmental, accusatory people in your church.  Instead they need to be reminded that bearing false witness is a crime against the commandments and those who judge may wake up in a very hot, dark place on the other side of death while those who are just ignorant will finds themselves in the arms of mercy.

Sharing the Gospel With Un-Churched People

Standard

Lately my ministry has taken a new and notable turn.

I suppose if I wanted to pick a “start date” to the whole thing it would be a couple months ago when a man from our neighborhood walked into our church and decided to start regularly attending.  He and his wife work in law enforcement.  He grew up religious but she did not.  Neither one of them had attended a church in years.  But he was starting a new business venture and his mentors were religious folk who argued that you must have a proper relationship to the Almighty if you are going to succeed.  So he decided to give us a try.  I have been meeting regularly with his family since then and we have become fast friends.

Awhile after that, I received an email that a woman from a sister church had been electrocuted and was now in the burn ward here in town.  I found myself down by the hospital one day so I decided to drop by and say “hi.”  I discovered a rural couple who worked as farmhands and lived, or rather died, from paycheck to paycheck.  Their faith was brand new.  They had only been baptized on Easter Sunday, mere weeks before the accident.  As such, their faith was also fragile and an electrocution had provided an incredible challenge.  I walked out of the hospital that day vowing to see them as often as I possibly could.

Shortly after I got an email out of the blue.  It was from a family who lives 50 miles away from our church’s building.  They were both bookworms and very heady thinkers.  They grew up religious but had since walked away.  Now they were feeling called back so they did what bookworms do, which was a survey of all religious sects ranging from atheism to Islamic fundamentalism.  Somehow the Church of the Nazarene won and they now wanted to meet a Nazarene.  She had read everything on Nazarene.org!  I haven’t even gone to Nazarene.org in the last year.

Then last week I received a phone call from a woman who had just moved to town.  She was young and had been an addict for the last decade.  She met a pastor who introduced her to Jesus, after which she moved here to start a new life.  She needed a church.  She had moved in with some friends who were also former addicts starting a new life and now the group of friends wanted to make church a go, something about a higher power who wanted to freely give to them the self control they needed to live better lives.

So suddenly I am an evangelist, talking to people about Jesus who know nothing about him, or at the very least are very suspect of him and his followers.  Here I am explaining elementary truths of our faith to the unlearned and trying to defend our faith to the unsure and this twice weekly!

But I don’t feel like an evangelist.  Only one of those above groups are in anyway a product of my church’s ministry.  There was no program, no sermon, no outreach event, no bible study that drew these people in.  Instead I did something far more profound.  I answered my phone and replied to emails.

So too, I found that I have not done much of the talking with these four brand new Christians.  Instead I have tried to listen.  That is not always easy for me but it has come more natural in these times.  They all have incredibly different stories and backgrounds but all of them need a listener.  They needed someone to listen while they tried to figure out this new thing called, “faith” and what it meant for their families and lives.  In one conversation, I spent an hour just nodding my head, only saying the occasional, “oh interesting.”

I have walked away from these four groups thinking about ministry programs and practices.  I have all kinds of ideas about how to help their fledgling faith.  There are bible studies we could plug them into.  There is money we could give.  There are programs and outreach events and even church plants that will help connect them and their family members and friends to the work of the Nazarenes.

And yet, whenever I play those ideas out in my head they all end bad.  There is a certain powerlessness to my daydreaming, like imagining nightmares.  After all, I have been in this game long enough to know that church programs are most often the worst thing for a young faith.  In fact I worry that introducing them to more church people would destroy what little faith they had.  Good church people are just not understanding or compassionate enough to new Christians.

But deeper than that is the reality that people don’t need programs.  They don’t need events and they certainly don’t need to be a church’s, or even a Pastor’s, project.  In fact as I have entered hospital rooms and shared a meal with these people, I am all the more convicted that they just need presence.  They need someone who will show up in their hospital room, someone who will drive 50 miles to honestly try to tackle their questions, someone who will invite them over for dinner and games and tell jokes and laugh with them.

When I do that I think I am evangelizing.  I think I am representing the good news that “God is here!”  By showing up I am a parable of Jesus, who himself showed up to tax collectors and sinners.  I stole that idea I stole from Brian Hansen, by the way.

And the good news I share by showing up is, as John Wesley put it, “Best of all, God is with us!”

God is with us in our hospital beds.

God is with us in the depths of the despair of addiction.

God is with us when we start new business ventures.

God is with us when we ask tough and hard and deep questions.

God is with us when we sit around a campfire and make s’mores.

God is with us when we sit around a table and eat dinner together.

God is with us wherever we go and I hope that by showing up I can at least preach that great news.

The Widow’s Mite, The Poor Woman’s Dollar Bill

Standard

I want to open today’s post as all good Christians should, with a confession.  I am, once again, breaking one of my rules.  When I started this blog the idea was to keep it separate from my local church.  I wanted this blog to be more about my own thoughts and experiences than about those of my church.  After all, no church needs it’s pastor interpreting their community’s ups and downs in a public setting.  Therefore, simply put, this is not a church blog but a Pastor’s blog.  However, something happened on Sunday so kingdom shattering and profound I couldn’t help but share it with the broader world wide web.

One of our neighbor churches is trying to purchase a property adjacent to their building. They have been in negotiations with the property’s under water owner for the last year.  Last week they were informed the city had foreclosed on the property due to back taxes and are auctioning it off this very week.  We are scrambling to get the funds together to buy it, which is a magnificent chore considering we have no idea how much money we need.

At the end of my Trinity Sunday sermon I closed by sharing with my congregation that the unity of God implies the unity of the church.  I then explained the situation of our sister church and led our congregation in prayer over the property.  I ended the prayer with a brief note that, “If anybody wants to financially contribute let me know.”

We have a wonderful saint of a woman who attends our church periodically.  I only know snippets of her story but I know life has dealt her some severe blows, financial and otherwise.  But they are the kinds of blows that sanctified her and she worships the kind of God who walks with us through all seasons.

After church, while people were milling about, she came up and told me she had left a $1 bill on the altar, noting, “It’s all I have on me right now but you make sure they get that property.”

Somehow the dollar got to my treasurer who later asked me, “What do I do with this?”

I totally understood the question.  We could create an account line for $1 but that seems like a lot of hassle.  Being just one dollar, I could have also pocketed it and taken it to the Pastor of their church.  That still seemed risky, even for a dollar.  So I muttered, “I don’t know what to do with it, but I tell you what, I love this dollar bill.”

At that moment the magnanimity of it dawned.  Nobody else had yet given me anything.  Our board would later start a conversation about how to help.  I myself hadn’t considered giving any of my person funds, not for any selfish reason but because the amount I could give wouldn’t sway the auction in any way.  We needed tens of thousands of dollars, not the measly $200 I could come up out of my checkbook.

None of that logic had occurred to the wonderful widow.  She had just caught a vision beyond herself and knew she wanted to be a part of it.  Her life with Jesus had not taught her to think practically but spiritually.  She knew the value of a dollar because she had never had too many of them throughout her life.

Me, on the other hand, well as I type I am picking crumbs out of my teeth from my $8 breakfast this morning.  I swiped my debit card without thinking twice and because it was a church meeting, my congregation will reimburse me for it.  Yesterday I threw a dollar in a machine at the mall to give my kids a fun ride.  Last week I bought a $20 video game and an $8 book.  I regularly spend money on anything from entertainment to food.  Have I forgotten the value of a dollar?

This was all she had and our Bible, nay our Jesus, tells us that it is worth many thousands of dollars, worth so much more than the coffee and breakfast and video games that I purchase regularly.

I said to my treasurer, “You know, we should just treat it like we would any larger donation.  Go ahead and make the Quick books account and when we write the check for however much we are going to give we will make sure it is +1.”  My treasurer had all ready reached the same conclusion, having been dealt similar blows in the last year.

“It is a big gift,” he said.  “We should definitely treat it like one.”

That’s what we did.  We treated it like any other gift because she, out of her poverty, gave all she had.

Still, I wish I had the dollar.  I would carry it with me wherever I go and take it out as a prop for sermons on giving.  Another part of me wanted to frame it and put it in the sanctuary.  If I had had a dollar bill on me, I would have traded it out and done so.

Instead I took the picture posted below.  My lousy phone has a really lousy camera so the picture is blurry.  But I love how blurry it is.  It isn’t fitting that a picture of that dollar bill should be like any other picture.  After all that dollar isn’t like any other dollar.

And of course by the end of the day I was reviewing my own financials to figure out how much I wanted to contribute.  Generosity is contagious like that.

20160522_125857

A Pastor’s Dilemma: When I Disagree With My Heroes

Standard

John Wesley is my patron saint.  I have spent hours of my life reading his sermons, letters and journal entries.  Those hours double, maybe even triple, when you include the amount of things I have read about Wesley.  I am even reading a book now that is a collection of devotionals from Wesley’s writings.  Furthermore, I have written well over 20 papers about Wesley.  I have spoken about Wesley in several sermons, almost all of them and now I am even writing one more blog post about him.  I also sing John’s brother’s (Charles) hymns and spend hours searching the internet to find obscure Charles’ poems that help inform my understanding of Wesleyan theology.  To top it all off, I go to weekend conferences that are named after John Wesley!

I am proud to call myself Wesleyan/Arminian, with ultra emphasis on the Wesleyan.  I am a proud heir of his ministry and theology.

But I disagree with John Wesley.  First of all, I think he was kind of mean, maybe meaner than a Christian should be.  I had a seminary professor who said, “you would love to hear Wesley preach but don’t go out for coffee with him.”  The implication was that Wesley was not easy to get along with.

It was probably because of that meanness that John Wesley also had a lousy marriage.  Rumor has it he didn’t know his wife even died until months after the fact.  Lying behind that practice, or lack thereof, he had a pretty low view of marriage in general.  He wrote several letters to the betrothed, begging them not to go through with their weddings so that they can remain single and free for Jesus.  (Okay, I admit there are days when I do wonder if he has a point there.)

Wesley also said things about the use of Scripture that I am not sure I agree with and he also seemed to highly prioritize the penal substitution view of the atonement, which I highly de-emphasize.

Once in awhile people in my tradition will get into a theological or political debate and one person will pull out a Wesley quote that somehow pertains to the debate topic.  This person will do so with a smug satisfaction, as if by just mentioning Wesley they have won the debate.  When they do that, I always wonder if they are promoting Wesley’s words to the level of Scriptural infallibility, as if everything Wesley said was somehow divinely inspired and inerrant in every way.

And Christians don’t do this with just John Wesley.  Calvinists do it with Calvin.  Lutherans do it with Luther.  Some of us do it with Augustine (with whom I disagree on almost everything) or Irenaeus (whom I like a lot).  A lot of us do it with C.S. Lewis or A.W. Tozer.  We even do it with the living, people like Pope Francis, Timothy Keller, Scot McKnight, James Dobson, etc.  And, very disturbingly, a lot of Christians have begun doing it with Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, even Ronald Reagan and the like.  We have this list of so called “authorities” and when we get into debates we name drop as if to say, “This person is God and they are right about everything and therefore you are wrong!”

I don’t think it works like that.  In fact, I wonder if what lies behind the “appeal to authority” is a misplaced faith.  Put another way, I wonder if we are promoting our heroes to the level of deities.  When we go further and use the very slippery adjective “biblical” to describe their works, I am wondering if we are trying to say that their writings were infallible and inerrant and should be added to the words of Scripture as a sort of 3rd or “Newer than New” testament.

For this reason I am always a bit relieved when I find something questionable written or said by my heroes.  Now that does not mean I am right and they are wrong.  Indeed they may be and probably are more accurate but the very fact I disagree with them means I am not worshiping them or elevating their works to the level of the Scriptures.

In fact, I might take one more step and argue that unless you do find something with which you disagree than you are, by de facto, claiming that this author is God and their works are sacred Scriptures.

And I am not sure we want to do that as faithful Christians.

That was just a thought for a January Monday morning.