Comparative Religion in a Worldview of Absolute Humility

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I don’t know if you knew this about me but I am a really religious person.  That last sentence was a bit of a joke because any of you who know me know that I try to be spiritual but that I succeed at being religious.

A pastor named Kent Carlson once wrote, “At night I am a subversive revolutionary in a French cafe, wearing a beret and smoking cigarettes with some revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of the institutional church.  The next morning I put on my nicely laundered button-down shirt, pull on my neatly pleated Dockers and drive my Honda Civic to the church office to try to figure out ways to build the organization.” (Renovation of the Church, 175.  You can read my review here.)

These words come pretty close to describing me.  I started this blog because I liked the freedom that the format gives me to pose revolutionary questions and give “third way” answers.  Therefore, I write this blog as a revolutionary.

But after I am done today I will open up a word processor and write a sermon for institutional church ears to hear.  Then I will go to Excel where I will work on an institutional church budget that hopefully represents our religious priorities.  After that I will meet with traditional church guys for lunch and then go visit a woman who has given most of her life and money to the church.

I make no apologies for that.  There is a lot of good left in what we so wryly call “religion.”

Yet lately I have been inundated with questions and claims that seek to defend our institutional religion against the big bad enemies.  These questions and claims come from a defensive posture by those in our institutional world who want everybody to know, “we are better than them!”  These come in the form of, “Who is the better Christian?  Am I a worse Christian for disagreeing with you?  Is our religion more or less violent than theirs?  Is our denomination or tradition more doctrinally sound than theirs?  Are our political views better or worse than them?”  I could list many more.

I admit that sometimes I catch myself asking those questions and playing that game.  I make lists that rank worldviews from better to worse.  I find myself thinking, “if that one grumpy parishioner would just become a better Christian, like.  .  .wait for it.  .  .me.”  I find myself in the heat of argument claiming that a “true(r)” Christianity would do A, B and C for the world.  And I get defensive and stand on what others might call “molehills.”  There I sit with my French revolution cigarette, holding a scimitar and daring anybody to try to push me off of this ideological issue.

Lately I have been laying down that scimitar and repenting of those tendencies, desperately asking God to cure me.  I am doing so because I have found those comparisons are extremely unhelpful in following a God who requires absolute humility.  In our system there is no room for better or worse, truer or falser, righter or wronger.  After all, when you boil out all the religious fluff and pound down all the molehills, what remains of Christianity is a group of wayward sinners who are dying of spiritual thirst helping each other find the free water that gives life and then proceeding from the well to live faithfully to its owner.

In closing, I am reading a wonderful little book about Jacob Arminius, whose hometown Oudewater was completely destroyed by a Christian army because the Christian in Oudewater were not “right” enough.  There is a rather dark report from Oudewater of the Christian army raping the nuns while the nuns cried out, “We are Catholic too!”  This did not just happen in Oudewater.  It happened all throughout Europe for over 150 years as Christians slaughtered Christians.  Not coincidentally, that century also saw the rise of atheism as a legitimate worldview.

It seems that with that dark memory in my religion’s recent past we can stop arguing about who has the truer system and start seeking the truer God, a God who is not far from any of us and yet whose narrow gate we still refuse to enter.

Have a blessed day.

 

Beyond the Talking Points: The Current Refugee Crisis

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Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to be the judge of a high school debate competition.  Not surprisingly one of the debate topics centered around “the current refugee crisis.”  Unfortunately I only got to listen to one such debate.  Those arguing in favor of accepting refugees did an okay job at listing out several economists, historians and anthropologists who all argue that accepting refugees will most likely improve a country’s living standards over a long term period of time (up to 1oo years!).

Those arguing against it did a fascinating job of listing out everything that is happening today.  They had current and relevant data on the spread of disease, the increase of poverty among nationals and the outbreak of violence.  It was all quite disconcerting and overwhelming, especially when that team pointed out, “All our opponent’s data is about what might possibly happen.  Ours is about what is happening.”

They won the debate.  The reality is that when people cross borders, particularly because of persecution or poverty, they bring a lot of bad stuff with them, not intentionally but it happens.  This team’s crude listing of current statistics did a lot to undo the pie in the sky optimism of those who claim, “yeah but none of that will happen because, you know, love.”  Sadly that seems to be the argument many are making even today.  However, the threats are very real and we would be foolish to deny that.

Yet I remain in absolute favor of open borders worldwide, starting with our own.  I do so not because of a pie in the sky optimism but because I am a biblical Christian.  I am not a fundamentalist one but I still believe the narrative of Scripture should be given absolute primacy in all affairs.

The narrative of Scripture leaves little room for gray when it comes to feeding, clothing and accepting foreigners, even dangerous ones.  God does it and God wants us to do it.

You can look at the prologue to the 10 Commandments where God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.”  This statement, upon which the 10 commandments rest, calls to mind the recent past where the Israelites were strangers in a foreign land.  God not only rescued them but accepted them into God’s presence.  We serve a hospitable God.

You can also look at the entire book of Deuteronomy, most notably passage like chapter 10:18-19 where, “God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

Then there is chapter 16 where Moses takes great pains to clarify that the benefits of the national festivals extend to the foreigners who reside in their towns.  Then the book ends with Moses pronouncing a curse upon anyone who refuses to grant foreigners justice (see 27:19).

You can also study the minor prophets who pronounce God’s wrath upon Israel over and over again because they did not accept strangers and foreigners (most notably Zephaniah 7:10).

The Psalms too proclaim that our God loves the foreigners and defends their cause.  (See Psalm 94:6 and 146:9)

I wish I had the time to cite another 100 examples but clearly the Old Testament God loves immigrants, rescues immigrants, feeds and clothes them and insists we do the same.

But this isn’t just about Israel and God.  Jesus is the ultimate example of a God who deserted the heavens to welcome wayward sinners into the hospitable presence of God.  Jesus is the ultimate example of a God reaching out to make room in his house for us.  At the same time, Jesus is the ultimate example of one who was crucified for being so hospitable.  And Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him.

Therefore, although I am very much inclined to accept the prognostication of the anthropologists, historians and economists who argue in the long term it will be to our benefit, I still know that in the short term we might get crucified and not just with violence but also with disease.  The danger of hospitality to refugees is very real.  What happened in Paris on Friday was very real.  The threats of disease and violence and increased poverty (at least in the short term) are big problems.  But if we trust and follow the God of Scripture, these are problems to solve, not problems which should cause us to reject God’s commands.

In close, I remember the early church.  You probably didn’t know that the number one cause of death among early Christians was not martyrdom but disease.  The Roman government had a way of isolating the sick and letting them die in extreme poverty.  This was all so that the healthy didn’t get sick and it worked!  It turns out that the healthy do stay healthy when they don’t go around sick people.  The early Christians didn’t care.

They were so overwhelmed by the picture of a healthy God embracing a sick creation (and getting crucified for it) that they went to the sick, fed them, clothed them, took care of their needs and then all died of the same diseases.  They did this not only willingly but joyously because they believed in The Great Physician who would one day heal them, even from death.

If we aren’t willing to become a bit poorer, a bit sicker, a bit less safe for the benefit of others, even our enemies, I just don’t think we really understand the grace and compassion of a healthy and loving God who was crucified to welcome the very dangerous, very sick and very poor sinners into a holy nation.

At least that’s my two cents.

Assertive, Aggressive and Passive Agressive

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Right before I got married we met a few times with one of my pastors to go through the motions of premarital counseling.  My pastor was in an unenviable position because I had all ready gone through both premarital and marital counseling courses and passed them with flying colors.  More than that, I had recently taken them, which of course means I was an expert on the subject!

I also believe that I had interrupted a very busy time in his life or maybe he just trusted our all ready strong network of mentors.  Either way we only met a few times and didn’t talk about much.

However, there is one thing that stands out 8 years later.  During one session he explained to my wife and I that there is a marked difference between being assertive and being aggressive.  He explained that being assertive is merely explaining your wants and needs clearly, firmly and politely.  Being aggressive is more sinister.  It is attacking the other for perceived failures or sleights.

I have now been in ministry much longer than I have been married and have found that this little lesson doesn’t just apply to marriage but to all human relationships, particularly those in the local church.  Our off line culture right now seems to be inundated with a sort of passive aggressiveness that masks itself as “being polite.”  In turn our online culture (see Facebook and Twitter) seems to be inundated with a sort of over aggressiveness that masks itself as “assertiveness.”  Neither attitude is very Christlike.

So I have compiled some fun examples illustrating the difference between being assertive, being aggressive and being passive aggressive.  Some of these are meant to be humorous.  All of them are meant to be illustrative.  None of them are taken from any of my ministry contexts.

Passive: Pastor, your sermon was fine.  It was just.  .  .great.

Aggressive: That sermon sucked just like all your sermons!  When are you going to say something valuable?!

Assertive: You know I really struggled Sunday to figure out what you were trying to say.

Passive: Oh, your a Mets fan.  .  .well, okay, that’s.  .  .interesting.

Aggressive: Why would anyone cheer for the Mets?  Don’t you know that whole franchise belongs to the dark Lord?!  Repent immediately or perish!

Assertive: I assert that anybody who cheers for the New York Mets should repent immediately or perish. (:P)

Passive: Well if you all think we should paint the fellowship hall green then, whatever, do what you want.

Aggressive: Green is a lousy color.  Why would you ever do that!?  We cannot do that.  Nobody will come to our church if our fellowship hall is green!

Assertive: You know the carpet in that room is all ready red and we don’t have the money to replace it quite yet.  The green might make the whole room look like 1970’s Christmas and I am not sure that is the aesthetic we are going for.  Why don’t we consider a more neutral color or not paint until we saved up to do the carpet too?

Passive: Live your life however you want but I think all sinners are going to hell.

Aggressive: You are violating all the laws of God’s sacred scriptures and insulting God and are going to burn in hell if you don’t repent.

Assertive: You say you try to follow Jesus’ teachings and I believe that but how do you reconcile Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” with the things you are saying about and doing to Lisa?

Passive: Well if you want to turn our church into a coffee shop instead of a church go ahead!  I don’t care.

Aggressive: Coffee is black.  Black is the devil’s color.  Coffee is the devil.  You are the devil.  You are turning our church into the devil’s house.

Assertive: This may seem like an easy decision but it is going to cost some money and change the atmosphere and climate of our church.  I’m not sure we want our worship atmosphere to resemble the atmosphere of a coffee house.

I hope at least some of those helped.  I know that being politely assertive is a hard mark to hit but I believe we, including myself, can all do better!

Have a great Thursday!

My First Foray Into Performing the Scriptures: The Sermon on the Mount

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There is a neat trend hitting modern day Christianity where clever interpreters and actors memorize and perform a large portion of Scripture in an engaging way.  You can watch some of these live performances on Youtube.  When done well, they are quite engaging.

A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try with the Sermon on the Mount.  I memorized it and performed a dramatic reenactment of it for my congregation, complete with Powerpoint slides and props for the kids.

I would love to take a week and write a whole book of posts about this experience but I am way too busy and all ready a day behind because yesterday I was in bed with the stomach flu.

However, here are a few things I learned/gained from memorizing and performing the Sermon on the Mount.

First, I learned way more memorizing it than I did studying it.  Last year I spent a few months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.  I read a few books, looked up a lot of Greek words, realized some Old Testament connections and poured over the structure.  All that was really useful.  However, I learned more memorizing it out loud.  I saw things I would never read in a book.  These were things like subtle transitions, rhetorical devices, tonal changes and sarcasm.

Second, you make 1,000 more interpretive decisions reciting a text than you do preaching it.  When I preach I try to focus on explaining just one or two interpretative moves from the text.  However, when I spent 15 minutes reciting the Sermon on the Mount, I found I made and conveyed over 1,000 interpretive moves.  When does Jesus raise his voice and lower it?  When is Jesus standing or sitting?  What props did Jesus have handy?  Was there a snake in the distance he pointed to?  Did he have a loaf of bread in hand?  When did Jesus’ voice convey sarcasm?  When did it convey compassion?  When was Jesus being ironic?  When was he being solemn?  Then there is the wonderful ending to the sermon when Jesus says the house fell with a crash!  Do you yell “crash!” or whisper it?  What do you do after you say, “crash?”  Do you get up and leave?  Do you issue a call to follow Jesus?  Do you add an “amen” or a “so be it?”  This brings me to.  .  .

Third, I had to work my tail off not to add words.  I do believe the Sermon on the Mount has an internal structure that made sense to 1st century Jews.  I think that structure is something like:

Describing the World as God Has Made It (5:1-5:20)

Commandments for Living Well in God’s World (5:21-7:6)

Various Metaphors Imploring You To Live Well (7:7-8:1)

With that in mind, there are still some really awkward transitions.  I had no idea what to do with the transition from “do not worry” to “do not judge” or from “salt and light” to “I have not come to abolish the law.”  So I found myself adding “and’s” and “but’s” and “oh’s” to help the audience out a bit.  I felt really uncomfortable doing that, like I was adding to “God’s Infallible Word!”  Still, I didn’t know how not to do it.  After all, that is what I would do in any other sermon or even in blog posts.

Fourth, when Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, chop it off” he is definitely talking about masturbation.  I read that in a book over a year ago and didn’t believe it.  But after memorizing it in the context of looking lustfully after a woman and after learning a little bit more about those addicted to pornography.  .  .yeah that is exactly what Jesus was talking about.  This brings me to,

Fifth, parts of this sermon are quite mean.  Everybody loves the poetry of the “do not worry” passage but when read out loud it comes off rather insulting.  “Don’t worry about food and clothes!  The pagans run after those things!”  “Who of you by worrying can add one single hour to your life?!”  In another part, Jesus says that anybody who makes promises is evil, taunting them with, “you can’t make one hair on your head white or black!”  Then there are the obvious ones like, “Be perfect!” or “Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law!” or “Any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery!”  It is hard to say this stuff out loud and not sound like a jerk, especially when your congregation is full of guilty addicts, remarried divorcees and gray haired worriers!  Still I should add that my personal favorite is, “if you then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts.  .  .”  Wait, did he just call his entire audience evil?  Yes, yes Jesus did.

Sixth, there are softer parts too.  The aside about settling matters quickly before your adversary takes you to court is just Jesus giving us some good, loving advice.  Out loud, it almost sounds fatherly.  The question, “are you not much more valuable than sparrows?” is full of compassion.  The beatitudes are beautiful.  There are lovely assurances of God’s provision in statements like, “your father knows what you need before you ask” and “ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.”

It turns out these are not just descriptions of God but invitations to express our holiness in the way that God does.  The unseen God insists our “acts of righteousness” remain unseen.  The God who forgives sins insists we forgive sinners.  The God who shows mercy insists we be merciful and yes, the God who is perfect insists we be perfect as well.

In closing, this was a very worthwhile practice for me.  My congregation also seemed enjoy it, and not just because I offered a kid a loaf of bread, only to actually throw a rock at him.

Therefore I will definitely do it again, but maybe next time with one of the minor prophets.  That will fill up a sanctuary, only to empty it out just as quickly!

Blessings on your weeks!  May they be full of God’s provision and protection.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Renovation of the Church by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken

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In order for you to understand what follows I will, very regrettably, have to do a bit of recent USA church history with you.

We are now emerging out of a rather short era in US church history that I have dubbed the “relevancy era.”  The now way over used cliche that drove the “relevancy era” went something like this, “The church of the past was too insular and exclusive.  So we should be super inclusive and relevant to the modern times.”

They sought to accomplish that goal by changing everything about the church, from worship styles (from hymns to rock), to pastoral expectations (from a thinking listener to a noisy vision caster), to when and why we gather (from bible studies to bowling nights).  Hence the end product of the “relevancy era” was celebrity pastors (see Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll), diverse and ever changing worship styles and much fewer but much larger congregations.

While many of the changes were good and even necessary, there is now a sense that we threw the baby out with the bathwater.  Some of the “relevancy era’s” breakout stars seem to have woken up and realized that even though they call themselves “church” they have very little to do with the Biblical Jesus or the historical Christian tradition.  In fact, some have admitted that if they succeeded in producing any new Christians at all, those Christians were very shallow, biblically illiterate and quite ignorant of the ancient traditions of our faith. As an example of that last one, it greatly humors me that the “traditional” songs in our hymn book are all less than 150 years old.  It seems to me that if we wanted to sing “traditional” Christian songs we should figure out what Augustine and John Chrysostom were singing!

With that aside, we are now seeing a movement away from mega churches with hip rock bands and celebrity pastors.  This is a movement towards small group discipleship, smaller congregations and liturgical forms of worship (that sometimes do sing what Chrysostom was singing!)

And I could not be happier about all those things.

But in case you are not happy about it or still confused by all that above, Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken have written a wonderful narrative about their own transition from a pastor as an entertainer CEO model to a spiritual director model.

Click to buy!

They tell their story beautifully and succinctly in “Renovation of the Church.”  They were seeker sensitive pastors of a large suburban church that boasted over 1700 attendees per Sunday.  Gradually they began reading about spiritual formation and eventually found themselves at a vision casting retreat admitting that though they had 1700 people coming, they did not have many people who showed up on Sundays who cared about Jesus.

They came home from the retreat and over a course of a few years changed everything about their ministry model.  They switched up the worship style, the discipleship structures, the times and places the church met and their expectations of leaders.  .  .and lost 1000 attendees.

As if to offer proof that their 1700 laity were not good disciples, one group of laypeople, angry about the changes, wrote a long, mean and painful letter detailing everything they hated about the new church.  They wanted it “their” way and when they weren’t getting their way any more it made them bitterly angry.  The sad part of the letter was that they had been attending the church for over 5 years and still it had not occurred to them that writing hate mail is against the expectations of Jesus.  The church had catered to their needs so well, they thought they had a religious “right” to have their wants met.  This was the type of attitudes that Carlson and Lueken found they could no longer tolerate as Christian pastors and why they gladly took 700 disciples seeking Christ over 1700 consumers seeking entertainment.

Amidst stories like this, both writers take time to write beautiful chapters that highlight why they had to make the changes they made.  Kent Carlson offers particularly poignant chapters about the harmful effects of pastoral ambition and how we should worship.  Lueken provides great primers on the gospel and spiritual formation as it pertains to a church’s structure.

Together they both tell a great story that gives substance and emotional heft to the current trends in US Christian culture.  And just like the current Christian culture the story is both heartbreaking and full of God’s amazing grace, a grace that will always meet us where we are and insist we return to or stay on God’s straight and narrow path.

Therefore, “Renovation of the Church” is a must read.

Redemption in the Ugliest of Spots

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For the next 36 days (and for the last four) I am leading my congregation through the American Bible Society’s reading plan, “Engage the Word.”  This year’s theme is the Red Thread of Redemption, an obvious rip off of the the video game series, “Red Dead Redemption.”  Honestly, I am surprised the American Bible Society keeps up with video game titles so they get props there.

Whereas in “Red Dead Redemption” the good guy brings about redemption by slaughtering as many bad guys as possible, the Biblical story brings about redemption by God working with fallen and flawed humanity to fix that which is broken.  Don’t get me wrong, I love slaughtering bad guys, especially if I have the big gun and if it just on a big screen television.  However, God’s thread of redemption is probably better.

There are many stories I can and will tell to my congregation during these 40 days but one I don’t seem to have time in sermons and bible studies for involves a young woman I met a little over a year ago.

I was guest preaching at a very tiny church in a mountain town in northeast Oregon.  The congregation ran about 20 people on a good Sunday, most of them older and all of them wonderful.  While I preached a meager message about true fellowship a tall and skinny woman in her early twenties sat in the back row reading Twilight.  In thinking back about my sermon, I am not sure I blame her.

After the service a leader explained to me that she had been a part of the church for awhile now and a part of the community for longer but that she was fairly mentally ill.  Although she was in her twenties, she had the maturity of a 12 year old.

You see, when she was 2 and a half years old, her single mom left the apartment one day and did not come back, leaving her and her infant brother to fend for themselves.  It was a month or so before somebody discovered them and by a great miracle both were alive.  The 2 year old had done everything she knew to keep her and her brother alive.  They had eaten every bit of food in the house, including their own feces.  They were extremely malnourished and it took months to restore their fragile immune systems to something workable.

The infant son grew up to be incredibly violent and angry.  He is now in a mental health home and will live out his life there.  The toddler daughter is able to hold a steady job at a local business who is patient with her.  She has learned some valuable skills but still struggles to connect with people and always will.

What does redemption possibly look like in this situation?  Why do these things happen?  Why must they happen?

In “Red Dead Redemption” and the games like it, we would just have to buy a big gun and go find mom and maybe dad and maybe some family members along the way and, of course, a thousand henchmen with smaller guns and worse aim.  But in the real world, such justice would not solve anything.  It would just orphan many other children and widow many other wives.

In God’s story redemption works a bit differently.  It looks like a Son who being in very nature, God and living a genuinely human but perfect life becomes a victim of criminal and societal abuse.  His sacrifice creates a community called the “ekklesia” or the “called out ones” whose job it is to embody and inhabit this type of love in the world.  All of this means that one day when someone finds a toddler and a baby alone in an apartment, badly malnourished and sitting in their own filth, God can take over and go to work through the church.  The community of God, sharing in God’s substance through the communion table becomes the hands and feet of Jesus which welcome the children into its open embrace.  We have a God who empowers us with God’s very presence to love the hurt and broken back to eternal life.

And that is a thread I am glad to be a fiber in!

Sola Fides: A Wesleyan Pastor’s Return to Faith

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I grew up in what some people still call a faith tradition.  I was taught that it is by grace we have been saved (read Romans) and that grace is sort of activated through faith.  That is standard 4 year old Sunday School terminology in the Evangelical world.

It was reinforced in every grade and every age until I went to college where over time faith took a back seat to every Wesleyan’s favorite buzz word, “love.”  In college and seminary we talked a lot about love.  Love became that word that both began and ended all theological discussions and debates.

So now when I read Scripture my head just naturally bolds and underlines the word “love” in the text.  If love appears in any pericope, I know what my sermon is going to be about.  If it doesn’t appear, I try hard to make it appear, sometimes a bit too hard.

And I think our tradition is justified in that hermeneutic.  After all the great Apostle Paul himself said, “Now three things remain:  Faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is more important than faith, more important than grace, more important than doctrine and knowledge and data.  Love is the crowning virtue, the eternal truth, the reconciling doctrine.  See, just that one verse is enough to get me waxing poetic about love.  I guess you could say that I am in love with love.

And to my great frustration, it would seem the other half of evangelicalism, namely the Calvinist half, doesn’t agree with us Wesleyans on that.  Actually the Calvinists have become so numerous in Evangelical circles that they are not half of us.  They are 9/10s of the movement.

And this huge majority just likes faith better than love.  They talk about it more.  They bold and underline “faith” in the text.  if faith isn’t in the text they find a way to put it there.  And every one of their sermons quickly follow behind, adopting the mantra, “believe or be damned.”  Now, I know that is not a fair generalization but it does seem to at least describe the majority of their tradition.

Lately as I have been reading and studying Exodus, and through Exodus revisiting what Paul has to say about laws, works, circumcision, Abraham, Moses and the old covenant, I have rediscovered they may be onto something.  Faith has incredible value.  After all, “Abraham had faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

As I have studied that one verse and how Paul uses it, I have come to believe that faith didn’t allow God to overlook Abraham’s sins, but faith made Abraham stop sinning.  Faith is what makes us holy and righteous.  Faith is what makes us innocent, though we be guilty.  Simply put, as a good Arminian, this is imparted righteousness, not just imputed.

If I am right about this, that means faith is about holiness and holiness, in turn, is activated by faith.  If we want to express holy love, we must first trust God.  In fact, love without trust is not very loving.  You might say that faith without works is dead and love without faith is six feet under.

And therein lies one of the problems of the entire Evangelical tradition.  The great Reformers, Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, fully understood that faith meant trust.  But their heirs, gradually over many centuries, started defining faith as a mental assent to doctrine.  So now when we talk about faith, we are not preaching trust, we are instead claiming that “by correct doctrine you are saved, not works.”

As I have talked to people who preach this false faith, I have come to believe that they think the entrance room to heaven is going to be an SAT exam room.  You will be given a test with a bunch of true false and multiple choice questions and if you don’t pass it, you are going the other way.

But faith isn’t about doctrine.  It is about trust.  We trust God like we would trust any employer, any parent, hopefully any spouse.  We trust that God has our best and the best of the world in mind.  We trust that God created the cosmos and so can save said cosmos.  We trust God to provide for us when we are starving in a desert.  We trust God not to kill us for petty reasons.  We trust this God to heal us, if not in the present, than in eternity.  And, yes, we trust God to raise us from the dead after sin has claimed our mortal lives.

Faith is all about trust.  And when we trust God enough to enter into a loving relationship with God, we become holy.  God’s holy love emanates out to us and saturates us so that we become a people not defined by our hatreds or lusts but by a trusting obedience in the God who created us and everything else.

Correct doctrine will not save you.  The tongues of men and of angels will not save you.  Good works definitely won’t save you.  Only God will save you and only if you trust Him and out of that trust, obey.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Meaning of the Pentateuch

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I know pastors who graduated from seminary in 1974 and never read another book.  To no one’s surprise, they are still ministering as if it is 1974 and sitting around wondering why nobody seems to get them, except for those other parishioners stuck there with them.

When it is 2074 I do not want to still be pastoring as if it is 2015.  To that end, I force myself to keep reading and to read books from a variety of genres and traditions and perspectives.  The problem is that I am an energetic, extrovert with about 10 hobbies and a family.  Sitting down and forcing myself to read more than a half hour a day is like pulling out my front teeth.

The solution so far has not been a good one.  Almost by default I just pick the quickest, easiest reads that fall into my lap.  I race through them, only taking a few mental notes as I go and all so that I can say, “I read a book this week!”

So last month I set out to remedy this situation and decided to tackle a monstrosity.  This morning I actually finished it.  It was not just any book.  It was a 574 page theological and exegetical treatise on the Pentateuch, adequately titled, “The Meaning of the Pentateuch.”

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Being 574 pages long, you would expect over 20 chapters but the author, a cool dude by the name of John Sailhamer, was too awesome to divide his books into things like chapters.  I am guessing the publisher overrode his desire and found 11 places to break up the text.  The tradeoff, at least in the E-version, was periods.  There is not one period in the book, which makes figuring out where one sentence ends and another begins a true delight!  This makes every chapter over 70 pages long, which makes things like “easy reading” impossible.  One chapter is an afternoon commitment.  And in the words of a popular lady, “Ain’t nobody got time for dat!”

But I made the time and the length of the book was not its only unique aspect.  This is also an academic book which means that between the 574 pages of this monstrosity you will not find any guides to preaching the Pentateuch, any helpful hints on how to live out the commands therein or any clever sermon metaphors.

I take that last one back.  Early on there was a great comparison of the historical critical method to a hypothetical vandal who, upon seeing Rembrandt’s painting of Venice, became angry that Rembrandt had shadowed over various storefronts and therefore, chose to paint in what the storefronts must have looked like.  That’ll preach!  (No, it won’t, but I still liked it!)

The other factor that made this book unique among my usual reading fare is that Sailhamer writes from the Calvinist/Reformed tradition.  Most of what I read is from the Wesleyan/Arminianism tradition.  This means that Sailhamer quotes or engages well over 100 scholars and almost all of them are from the Evangelical/Calvinist camp.  Therefore, by reading Sailhamer’s take on the Pentateuch, I was really being introduced to a deep and centuries old conversation about the meaning of the first five books in our Bibles by a tradition other than my own.

While engaging with those important voices, Sailhamer offers his own unique perspective on the meaning of the Pentateuch.  He argues that the meaning of the Pentateuch lies in using the 5 major poems in the book, all of which randomly interrupt the flow of the narrative.  Through studying these poems, you can find the central themes of the entire work.  In all seriousness, I did find this fascinating because in my studies of Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy (I haven’t gotten around to Numbers or Leviticus yet) I had completely ignored and neglected those poems.

And this is why, even though I am now far behind on my reading list, the grueling work it took to complete Sailhamer’s work was very valuable.  It helped me think through things I haven’t thought through before.  It forced me to engage parts of Scripture I had previously glossed over and it helped me understand the conversation the Christians on the other side of evangelicalism are having.

As it so happens, right after I read the short conclusion this morning, I took off for a run.  I was 24 minutes into my jaunt up to the mountains when I ran past an older gentleman hobbling down the street.  He saw me fly past him and remarked, “Good job, sir.  You must really be a runner.”

I laughed and said, “Why thank you” and continued running before he called after me, “What are you training for?”

Suddenly I realized this was a God moment.  I stopped and turned around and ran back to him.  “A marathon in October,” I answered and then we began comparing life stories.  He was a runner in his 30s, fought in Vietnam, organized troops for the Air Force in the Gulf and retired here.  His wife passed away 10 years ago and he has lived alone on the rim of the mountains ever since.

Eventually I revealed that I was a pastor.  He immediately claimed he was “non-denominational” which I thought meant he went to one of these hip, non denom church plants that are all the rage these days.  As the conversation continued I instead found out that it actually means that he refuses to go to a church.  That doesn’t stop him from claiming, “Really Romans 7:8 and 9 are all you need to know.  You don’t need to bother with the rest of it.”

In a weak moment I decided to push gently against that.  “So why do you think we have the rest of Scripture?” I asked.

He stared blankly at me and stuttered before saying, “That is a good question.  I don’t know why God would bother giving us the rest of it.”  I let the matter lie.  After all it isn’t polite to lecture total strangers on theology.

Yet, his story is becoming more and more usual these days.  After choosing not to go to church, he became disconnected from the conversation about Scripture and suddenly found himself concluding %99.9 of it was useless.

I know a lot of pastors who are there.  By refusing to engage with texts like Sailhamer’s, they become disconnected from the broader conversation about Scripture.  Without Sailhamer, I never would have read or studied the five poems of the Pentateuch, or thought to link them together for their common themes.  I never would have known about the ways covenant theologians, dispensationalists and traditional orthodox types read the book.  I wouldn’t know about the textual clues in the Sinai narrative and I wouldn’t be sitting here struggling in the back of my mind to figure out where the laws fit into the God’s covenant of grace.  Instead, I would be walking up in the mountains, feeling secure in my own biases and prejudices and concluding that most of God’s book is useless.

And though I didn’t get any clever sermon metaphors out of the book, I certainly found 10 sermons just waiting to be preached, all of them rooted in 10 ways that God spoke personally to me through the sacred first five books of our wonderful Scriptures.

As I turned to run away from the man he exclaimed, “God bless you and keep up the good work.”  Though I wondered at his hermeneutic (or lack thereof), I found I treasured his blessing the whole way home.

Monday Morning Repentance

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I was reading a magazine article with a group of pastors awhile back.  The article was about Sunday morning critics who used the car ride home to complain about everything they didn’t like about the worship service.

After we read that line, this group of pastors admitted to each other that we were the worst Sunday morning critics.  In fact, chances are, if you used the Sunday lunch to gossip about your pastor, your pastor was at some other restaurant being 10 times more critical of themselves.

You see what happens is that a pastor accomplishes more in 5 hours on a Sunday morning than you accomplish in a 40 hour work week.  Most Sundays, we survive at a level of chaos only known to E.R. surgeons.  It is a wild ride of emotions, little crises and small performances.  It takes a huge amount of adrenaline to get through those 5 hours and the best pastors are always on their guard, painstakingly choosing every word, carefully forcing themselves to convey meaningful body language at all times and trying desperately to connect with people who may need a reminder that their pastor cares for them.

And the more a pastor does on a Sunday, the worse it gets.  For pastors who teach a Sunday School class, preach more than one service, go out to lunch with congregants and lead a Sunday night group, it takes until about Tuesday morning to be even remotely recovered from that adrenaline surge.

Furthermore, if something very drastic goes wrong that morning, like a parishioner decides this is the morning to scream at you (which happens to most pastors about once or twice a year), you can pretty much write off the week.

In my life, I have found that since I have been “on” since 7am, the “off” switch usually takes the form of telling my wife everything I did wrong that morning.  You see, all Sunday morning I have been compiling my list in the back of my head about things I shouldn’t have said, body language I shouldn’t have conveyed, people I forgot to talk too, mis-communications that happened between me and others and the like.  Strangely enough, I am almost never critical of others, except when they scream at me after church.

This all lead to a new ritual in my life that I am calling, “Monday Morning Repentance.”  I did not choose this ritual nor have I even thought it all the way through.  But I do notice that when I manage to drag myself out of bed on Mondays and get to the office I usually have a list of apologies I need to make.

The list has three categories.  The first is apologies to others.  The second is apologies to myself.  The third is apologies to God.  Then my Monday morning is spent in prayer, contemplation and waiting for that proper hour (11am) to make some phone calls of apology.

It is a quite uncomfortable ritual and one that grew out of all the frustration I have with myself.  Why did I say that thing I said?   Why did I add that unnecessary point to my sermon?  Why did I forget that Powerpoint slide was in the presentation and skip over it?  In Sunday School, why did I insinuate that potato chips are as bad as alcohol?  Why can’t I ever start the service on time?   Why wasn’t I more prepared?  And why didn’t I stop and listen when that older woman started to tell me a story about her week while I was on my way to the restroom?

The answer to that last one is fairly obvious.  If I had stopped and listened, her story for next week would be about the wet pants of a young, inexperienced pastor!

These questions are probably well and good.  I pursue the perfect Sunday morning every week and every week I feel like I fall shorter and shorter of the mark.  A lot of times the mistakes are perfectly avoidable and flow out of sheer lack of self control and a lousy work ethic.  And sometimes those mistakes are unavoidable or unforeseeable.

Be that as it may, us pastors must take care that Monday Morning Repentance doesn’t replace Sunday Morning’s Grace.  After all, the church doesn’t rest on our shoulders.  The grace of God is not limited by our full bladders or by our adrenaline addled body language.  Neither is God’s grace undone by our half thought out Sunday School insinuations or our lousy sermon metaphors.

After all, this God we worship is the same God who in Scripture uses things like donkeys, dead bodies, magicians from the East and even a witch from Endor to communicate saving grace.  Even though I feel pretty beat up right now, I am sure I am more capable than three of those four things.  And you are probably more capable than all four!

So I hope that Sunday Morning’s Grace will meet you during your Monday Morning Repentance.  If today your find yourself begging God for forgiveness, making those frantic phone calls to angry congregants and trying to find the strength to forgive yourself, I hope a donkey starts talking and a valley of dry bones grow some flesh to remind you that God is greater than your lousy body language!

Blessings this week.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading with the Damned: The Bible

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This week I read Bob Ecblad’s, “Reading the Bible With the Damned” which takes first place in the competition for which book title makes my blog post title incredible convoluted.

This book is also rare in that I only downloaded it to read one chapter, the chapter on Exodus.  It was recommended by a fellow pastor who found that chapter to helpful in preaching about Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus 1.

But after reading Ecblad’s take on Exodus 1, I couldn’t help but peruse the other 8 chapters about his experiences reading Scripture with immigrants, inmates and third world citizens.

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At times the book is tedious.  At other times it is repetitive.  And some times it gets a little bit too preachy.  But at the very least Ecblad has found a clever way to introduce readers to a liberation reading of Scripture.  His chapters document conversations he has had in Bible studies with various groups where he helps the readers revisit colonial assumptions about the God who is on the side of the powers and embrace a God who is trying to free the oppressed from power.

With that said, this book played many different roles.  At times it read like a biblical commentary in the catechism tradition.  For example:

Q: Who does Jacob steal the blessing from?
A: Esau.

Q: And what is the significance thereof?

A: Jacob was younger and therefore not deserving of blessing.

At other times the book reads like a social justice text giving great details about the lives of the oppressed in today’s world.

At other times the book reads like a how to in giving a Bible study with comments about asking questions and an incarnational approach that pretends to know little or nothing so as not to belittle or demean.

As for that last one, a few years ago I spent three months teaching in a federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS.  How I got there and why I only lasted 3 months is a story for another day except to say that I failed miserably in all the ways where Ecblad succeeds.

At that point I had worked for about 6 months at a Rescue Mission and I mistakenly believed that inmates were the same as homeless men.  I was very wrong on that assumption.  The culture of prison is very different from the culture of the streets, though with some similarities.

As I read Ecblad’s book I found myself wishing I had read it before setting foot in Leavenworth.  As he documents the social justice travesties of our day and describes his interpretive approach while giving out detailed biographies of inmates he has met, I found myself deeply lamenting my own failures over those 3 tortuous months.  It would be a great text to give someone in that situation.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have some major tweaking to do to my Sunday School lesson!