Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Once and Future Conflict

It should come as no surprise that since humanity's fall into sin we have been in conflict. It is the nature of our existence. More often than not that conflict has coalesced around those of differing belief systems. For simplicity sake the conflicts are colloquially known as "religious wars".

From the conflicts between the Hyksos interlopers against the indigenous Egyptians to the great Exodus battle between Pharaoh and Moses to the epic struggles between followers of Baal and followers of Yaweh to the Christian Crusades against the Muslim Caliphates there is little of history free from religiously driven conflict. That goes for today's conflicts driven by followers of Islam bent on seeing their religious beliefs hold sway over greater and greater numbers of people.

Living in the relative cocoon of technology and comfort here in the U.S. we have been anesthetized to the faith driven nature of conflict. I hear leaders talk about lesser causes like poverty, hunger, and income inequality. All of which pale by comparison to the true driver of conflict, the desire to have one's religious system become dominant.

I'm a verbal processor which means I develop my thoughts by either talking them out or writing them out. It's my intention to write out the thoughts I've been developing regarding the growing trend in our country among some Christian leaders to embrace Muslims in a show of loving acceptance. Let me be clear up front that I truly believe Jesus' call to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. However, I'm seeing a trend toward accepting those active in the Muslim faith and standing in solidarity with them as Christians. This is, in my opinion, the height of foolishness and ignorance. The Christian worldview is diametrically opposed to the Muslim worldview as easily discerned by reading the foundational texts of the two religions, the Bible and the Q'uran.

We are well into the early days of a coming conflict that will be awful and heartbreaking for many in this country. I am quite troubled by Christian pastors, authors and leaders rushing to support their Muslim counterparts in, what I can only imagine is, an expression of Godly love for them. I'm not sure Jesus' call to love your enemy means laying down and inviting your enemy to take control over your community, government and/or country. But we'll see where my verbal processing leads over the next few posts.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

I Blame Constantine

What an amazing time to be a Christian in the United States. Just today a cousin of mine whom I love dearly posted on Facebook her fear that the constitution was being destroyed by fundamentalist Christians. Imagine that, in just two hundred and forty-one short years we've come round to a place where U.S. citizens think Christians are a threat to a country founded by Christians. How does such a thing happen.

I blame Constantine.

Up until 324 A.D. Christianity truly was a counter-cultural revolution that was not of this world. The earliest followers of Jesus had no political aspirations for they knew their kingdom was not of this world. They met secretly and grew quickly with a message of community, love, acceptance, forgiveness, and salvation that would last for all eternity. Christians weren't interested in earthly power because Jesus had already imparted to them the power of the Holy Spirit. They had the power to heal the sick and raise the dead. No politician in their wildest imaginings had this kind of power.

Then Constantine became a follower of Christ and, as a political ruler, gave state sanction to Christianity along with all other religions. He returned confiscated property back to the Christian owners. He exempted Christian leaders from certain taxes (maybe you thought that was uniquely American). He assembled the first Council of Nicaea from whence came the Nicene Creed, one of the ancient statements of Christian faith. And he began the long history of the unholy union of church and state.

So I can't really blame all the protesters shutting down airports and senators weeping behind microphones over a government that's not acting with Christian charity toward the disadvantaged, oppressed, and outcast people of the world. It's been 1,693 years of church and state in bed together and, let's face it, the church has done some dastardly things to stay in the good graces of their political handlers. There have even been whole centuries when you couldn't tell the two apart.

You see governments are temporal and territorial by nature. Each country draws its borders then proceeds to protect those borders for the sake of the people within and to the exclusion of the people without. Sometimes a land is conquered adding to the territory and sometimes revolt happens throwing off the control of one government and establishing another. Some countries can trace their borders back thousands of years while there are others like South Sudan which only goes back less than six years.

The church, on the other hand, is eternal and universal. Jesus' love is for everyone. The church is without borders and is called to seek out the lost, least, and left behind. Followers of Christ show up all over the world, often at great physical risk to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them...or anyone. Pope John Paul II famously forgave the man who shot him. An act many admired but many also didn't understand.

The church is called to address injustice wherever it occurs. Christians are charged with being the representation of God to everyone demonstrating love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and justice. The church at its very best cares for widows and orphans, clothes the naked, visits the imprisoned, houses the homeless, feeds the hungry, and tends to the sick. All this without judging anyone's eternal disposition but trusting God to ultimately be in control.

So I don't blame Christians for speaking up and speaking out for refugees, the displaced, and the dispossessed. In fact I expect that from them. Not only do I expect them to speak up, I expect them to act on their convictions and it's been my experience that they do. I've spent my whole life with Christians in countries all over the world including in the U.S. who were tending to the neediest people. People who were being treated at best with disregard and at worst with hostility by their governments.

At the same time I expect the government and those who lead it to take every necessary measure to protect the boundaries of our country. That includes putting a stop to the influx of refugees until such time as those in leadership can be certain those with ill intent toward our citizens are not sneaking in through that door. That includes strong border protection and finding a way to control immigration into this country so that both those immigrating and our country are strengthened in the process. I want a government that has as it's first and most pressing concern the welfare of the citizens it governs. That includes all citizens and those who desire to legally become citizens. And I expect the government keeps this primary concern top of mind when dealing with all other governments of the world.

I expect that of the government of France, the government of Great Britain, the government of Canada, the government of Mexico, the government of China, and India, and Russia, and every other government of every other country on earth. And I expect nothing less from the government of the United States of America. This is my temporal and political expectation which I'm able to separate from my Christian expectation which is eternal and universal.

I blame Constantine for the confusion amongst Christians and those who are haranguing Christians about the government not being compassionate or caring. We have 1600 years of confusion regarding the role of the state and the role of the church to unravel. St. Paul instructed Christians to submit to the authority of the government placed over them. He did not, however, confuse the government with the church. And neither should we. Let's stop insisting our government act like the church and start doing some positive things with our moral outrage.

The church, the Christian church, all those who follow Jesus should absolutely care about the refugee crisis in this world. Every one of us should be housing homeless people, feeding hungry people, clothing naked people, visiting sick and imprisoned people. And if our government for a time keeps any of those people from getting to us we should not let that deter us from going to them. If, for a time, the obligations put upon our government for providing safety inside our territorial borders should cause them to keep needy people away from us then we should gather up our passports and go to where the refugees are. Now there's a genuinely good reason to go to an airport. Because the church is universal. There are no boundaries for us. Wherever we go God is there with us.

And should we die in our pursuit of God's call on our lives we know that simply means we have transitioned into eternity with him. Into a place where there is no more fear, no more tears, no more death, and no more refugees. Truth be told all who follow Jesus know we are strangers in a strange land waiting to be called home to heaven. As refugees ourselves we long to cross the border into eternity. For now, though, we are sojourners not yet permitted to cross that border.

I hope, perhaps in vain, that we will all stop confusing the role of church with the role of government and vice versa. But 1600 years of confusion is a very daunting challenge to overcome, so I won't be overly upset if it doesn't happen in my lifetime.

I'll just blame Constantine!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Shameful Waste

I had an interesting experience today. A Facebook "friend", as opposed to a real friend, who happens to be a pastor posted this article about church sanctuaries that have been upgraded and beautified. If you clicked on the link you'll see pictures of ornate sanctuary spaces that are quite beautiful.

My response was to point out what a waste of money it is to enhance worship spaces where fewer and fewer people are gathering and that such expense does absolutely nothing to advance the Gospel. I hoped for a little conversation about how we Christians choose to spend God's resources. Instead the pastor deleted my comment and unfriended me. It seems apparent glorified sanctuary spaces are very important to him and dissenting opinions are not welcome.

Rather than mourn the loss of an online "friendship" I decided this was an opportunity to expand on my comment here and explain why, in my opinion, dedicated sanctuary spaces are an abomination rejected by God and harmful to the commission Christ gave his followers. Scripture is quite clear that at Pentecost the outpouring of the Holy Spirit meant God is bodily present in every follower of Christ. Further our bodies are the temple of God meant to be active and effective for our Lord Jesus Christ wherever we find ourselves. Further still this presence of God is to be daily making an impact amongst those in need in the world. Whether that's need for comfort, clothing, housing, food, or any of the countless other needs present in this broken world.

That over time the church has retreated inside buildings and invested literally trillions of dollars over the past two thousand years to deck out these spaces with gold, silver, ornate rare woods, carvings, artwork and more is a travesty. A careful reading of the account of David's plan to build a temple reveals God's rejection of such a plan. The temple in Jerusalem was rejected by God. The fact Solomon went ahead with it anyway...with the help of Satan and his minions (let him who has ears hear the truth) simply confirms what an abomination temples truly are.

God did not and does not want buildings built and assigned as his residence. A residence for God is a place we visit giving rise to our misbegotten notion God can be visited and, more erroneously, contained. Dressing up such spaces and calling them sacred make them no less abominable. Look at the whole story. Temple rituals and prayers were rejected by God as noise and a stench in his nostrils. We have simply recreated mini temples a million times over all over the world.

I'm not saying the church doesn't need gathering places. I am saying the places we gather are of no consequence to the advancement of the Gospel. God comes and goes with us, those who are filled with his Holy Spirit. If the gathering places are of no consequence then investing ridiculous amounts of money to decorate these spaces is an absolute waste of God's resources imparted to his Church for the sake of spreading the Gospel. The creation of God is far more majestic and awesome than any creation of man. I am pleading with the church to stop building ornate boxes for God and calling these spaces sacred. They are an abomination to God, a waste of God's resource and a distraction from the vital work the Church has been called into.

One final note. Where your treasure is there your heart is also. Pouring treasure into a worship space entices us to sit in that space waiting and hoping others will show up. They won't. Fewer and fewer people are coming into our worship spaces. The most ornate cathedrals of Europe are quaint tourist attractions but nearly devoid of worshipers and worthless to the advancement of the Gospel. Get out of your space and take God with you. Out in the world is where he really wants to be.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Last Chance - New Year

As 2016 moves into the final days I'm discovering I haven't posted anything here for the entire year! There's no way to go back in time and remedy that so I'll just post now knowing I didn't miss 2016 completely.

What a year this has been. There's no shortage of commentary on the horrors of this year from the number of celebrities who have died to the U.S. presidential election. But you won't hear anything from me about those topics here. This is a blog about church and 2016 wasn't so hot for churches, either.

The Christian church in the U.S. continues it's long, slow, steady decline. Fewer and fewer people are involved in church as it is traditionally understood. Giving to churches is down (but then so is giving to most charities this year). The nones and the dones have been in the press as identifiable groups that have separated from church.

Recently I had coffee with a church leader who is trying to sort out what the future looks like for his church. He's asking a lot of good questions about the purpose of church and where church fits in 2017. I'm encouraged by discussions like this and the fact people are having these discussions more often and with more urgency. Nothing spurs meaningful, soul-searching conversation quite like impending death.

In 1990, a year before his death, my father had a medical episode that nearly ended his life then. I was summoned to his bedside and spent a week working with doctors to find a way back for him. During that time we had the deepest and most honest conversations about the choices he'd made, the regrets he had, and faith. Neither of us was sure he'd make it out of that hospital room alive so there was no pretense or posturing. Just good, honest conversation.

Is it possible 2017 is the year the church in the U.S. realizes it may be on it's deathbed? Every year more than 4,000 churches close their doors while only about 1,000 new churches open. Along with that about 2.7 million churchgoers become inactive on an annual basis. All this according to the U.S. Census Bureau as reported in an article on ChurchLeadership.org. Having worked in and around churches my whole career and active in church since birth I can say with confidence churches are the slowest to change of nearly any organization in the world. The lumbering bureaucracies of government come close but I'll argue church is still king when it comes to refusing change and holding on to failed methodology until long after their futility has become obvious to everyone else.

We can all recite experiences backing this up and I could give you examples of conversations I've had in just the last month or so of churches actively chasing people off with the way they do things. In the distant past people irritated with their church just hung in there and complained a lot. Then things shifted and they would leave to find another church. Today they don't wait long and they just leave.

What if we Christians in the U.S. treated 2017 like it was our last chance to have an honest conversation with the church before it dies? What would you say to the church if you dropped all pretense and posturing? What would you say to church leaders if they came and asked you what the purpose and place of church is? And what if they actually listened?

A final note: I'm intentionally spelling church with a lower case 'c' because it's not the Church that's in trouble. The Bride of Christ is alive and well all over the world accomplishing great things. Followers of Christ are as vibrant as ever and often active and effective outside the restrictions of the church. Comment here and contribute to the deathbed conversation with the church. I'm not sure the church will listen, but that shouldn't stop us from talking.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Something Else We Aren't In Charge Of

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius[a]a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ Andwhen evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’[b] 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” - Matthew 20:1-16
In my last post I made the clear (I hope) declaration that we as human beings don't get to decide right and wrong. Right and wrong has been established from the beginning of time by the one who created everything. It only stands to reason that the one who made everything gets to set the rules for everything. Here's something else we're not in charge of...
Who is saved and who isn't.
Jesus accomplished the salvation of all humanity for all of time when he died on the cross. He defeated sin, death and the power of the devil. He declared "It is finished." And it is. 
I find myself getting increasingly agitated at the term 'the lost' when referring to other human beings who have not 'accepted Jesus as their savior.' Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. And he did. And it is finished. And all of heaven rejoiced and the curtain separating man from God and God from man was torn asunder from top to bottom.
And on Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out filling the followers of Christ with the power to stand in the face of horrible opposition and go to all the world with the message that Christ had accomplished salvation for all of humanity for all of time.
What if who goes to heaven and who goes to hell is none of our business?
Because it isn't any of our business.
But, but, but...what about the Great Commission? Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all these things I have commanded you.
Yes. Do that. Bring the love of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the freedom that has been given to every human being in all the world, for all of time. And stop there.
Stop telling people who's saved and who isn't. Stop determining which sins get you assigned a place in the burning lake of fire while turning a blind eye to other sins that are just as reprehensible but culturally embraced.
Given the amount of time Christians and the Church spend dissecting scripture in order to rightly determine who goes to heaven and who goes to hell and the mechanics of how it happens, it will be a very difficult challenge to let go of all of this.
But let go of it, we must. If we're to follow Jesus and do what he's called us to do, we must allow God to be God and acknowledge that we are not.
Leaving us with the Great Commission. To go and tell all the world that they have been saved by the death of Christ on the cross. They have been set free from sin, death and the power of the devil. To bring the Holy Spirit in all His Pentecost glory to people who need healing, need freedom from demons, need reconciliation, need justice, need mercy and need to know Jesus.
In the parable above workers who were called to the task early in the day were put out at the end of the day when they didn't get a better reward. This parable may be about heaven but, for me, it's more about how angry we human beings get when the owner of the vineyard doesn't let us advise him on how he should treat people. We really, really want to sit on God's advisory board when it comes to the eternal destination of others. And we want to do this not only as individuals, but as congregations, denominations and religions. It's what religion, at its root, is all about. Determining the rules for who gets God's approval and who doesn't.
And, truth be told, it absolutely pisses us off when God doesn't allow us on the advisory board...and really, really, really pisses us off when we realize God doesn't even have such a board. He makes all the decisions without a bit of input from us.
And, thank God, he does. Because I don't think any of us could have conceived of God sending his one and only son to accomplish salvation for all of humanity for all of time. That's so far beyond us that it makes it clear God's thoughts are greater than our thoughts and God's ways than our ways.
So if it's not up to us who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, what are we to do with all this time on our hands? Well, how about we go and tell every person that they are saved by Jesus Christ and bring the freedom and joy that gives us to them? Wouldn't that be wonderful? I think so. 
And when we do this, from this perspective, the way we treat other sinners...even those who are struggling to remain in their sin...changes dramatically. More about what that looks like in the next post.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Sanctioning Sin

sanc·ti·fy
ˈsaNG(k)təˌfī/
verbset apart as or declare holy; consecrate.
"a small shrine was built to sanctify the site"
synonyms:consecrate, bless, make holy, hallow, make sacred, dedicate to God
"he came to sanctify the site"
make legitimate or binding by religious sanction.
"they see their love sanctified by the sacrament of marriage"
synonyms:approve, sanction, condone, vindicate, endorse, support, back, permit,
allow, authorize, legitimize
"we must not sanctify this outrage"
free from sin; purify.
synonyms:purify, cleanse, free from sin, absolve, unburden, redeem
"they sanctified themselves"


So, let's jump into the deep end of the pool. There is so very much to say on the broad topic of calling wrong right and right wrong. At the core of it all is the original lie recorded in Genesis and, in my humble opinion, the only lie Satan has ever told. He lacks any sort of creativity and has simply repeated this lie over and over and over and over and over and over...

And all we like sheep (and like Eve) have fallen for it over and over and over and over and over and over...

Here is the lie...

You can be like God deciding right from wrong (Genesis 3:5)

Trace back all the suffering of humanity from the beginning of time and you'll find at the root of it all the utterly selfish belief that we have the ability to discern right from wrong, good from bad, on our own apart from God.

Here is the truth...

We do not possess the capacity to discern right from wrong apart from God

Yet we keep trying to seize control from God. We torture His Word until it yields the permission we seek to engage in aberrant, destructive, selfish behavior so that we can call it holy, sanctified, pure and sacred.

Am I talking about homosexuality? Yes. Am I including the abomination of homosexual marriage? Yes. Those aberrant behaviors are sin. But these are just the current hot buttons. They are not the point of this post.

So let's pause and parse that sentence: "Those aberrant behaviors are sin."

An aberration is something that diverges from normal with normal being defined as the generally accepted state. Heterosexuality is by far and away the normal state in which humans were created to exist. Which makes homosexuality an aberration. This is not a statement of judgment. It is a statistical fact.

It is not God's intention for us to live in an aberrational state. That's where sin comes into play. Sin broke into our existence corrupting God's original design and intention. Simultaneous to the outbreak of sin at the time of the fall came the enticing lie that we could shake off the shackles of God's definitions of right and wrong and decide for ourselves. So sin created aberrational states and the lie gave us the confidence to declare aberration sanctified.

Ever since we have raised our fists to the sky, hurled invectives at the heavens and torn the fabric of civil society insisting on calling holy behaviors born out of the darkness of sin. Instead of dealing head-on with our brokenness and surrendering to the only one who truly has the capacity to define right and wrong, we fight tooth and nail for permission to live out every aberrational urge and be called blessed.

But here's the rub...even if every single living human being came together in a chorus of agreement without a single voice of dissent heard anywhere on the planet declaring sin holy it would not make it so. And that goes for every sinful behavior we license and embrace. Gluttony, lust, sloth, infanticide (abortion), euthanasia, homosexuality, gossip, greed, and the list goes on and on.

We don't do ourselves or our fellow sojourners on this planet any favors when we acquiesce to their demands and agree that sin isn't sin. Because we don't have the authority to do that. We've never had that authority. We will never have that authority. And pretending we do simply allows us to avoid the difficult work of engaging in a relationship with our mysterious, unfathomable, perplexing Creator God. The one who designed us, has a plan for us, has an intention for us and who loves us so much He sent His only Son to restore balance to the universe and the relationship He longs to have with us.

So we are left with broken hearts. My heart is broken for everyone. Because all of us are impacted by sin. My heart is particularly broken for those who relentlessly insist they do have the authority to decide right from wrong. Because they are fighting to live a life that is so much less than God wants for them. And this is not a behavior exclusive to homosexuals. It is endemic in the human population. And it has a solid foothold in organized religion where deciding right from wrong has been elevated to an art form. I am guilty of having insisted on deciding right from wrong and living years in misery as I avoided the correction and discipline of my loving Heavenly Father.

Enough for now. Next I'll tackle the other big lie we have embraced that, in combination with the first, creates a toxic atmosphere none can survive. And my guess is some who are reading this article are already dismissing me (or worse) assuming I ascribe to this lie. We'll find out.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Double-Minded

It has been an incredibly long time since I have written here. And I have missed it. Perhaps it has been from lack of time. Perhaps from lack of something to say. But I don't think either of those are completely true. What is more true is I have turned my attention to other things and neglected this particular avenue for sharing my thoughts on church, Christians, the present and the future.

And I'm afraid.

Over twenty years ago when I was regularly teaching the Bible to people whose interest ranged from mildly curious to somewhat engaged, it was typical for me to sound the alarm about the Biblical illiteracy of Christians in the west, the lethargy of the church and the dangers of being comfortable. At the time I couldn't envision living in a country where the church was not only marginalized but vilified to the point where Christians...I...would be reluctant to share a well reasoned opinion based on a firm grasp and understanding of scripture.

So I find myself in an untenable position.

These days I'm working for a Christian ministry that plants churches, cares for children and fights poverty in India and Nepal. We pursue and propel justice and reconciliation by building global community. All laudable and wonderful pursuits that are worthy of the support of many...Christian or not. What we do brings help, hope, healing, peace, joy and strength to people for whom all those things were in short supply before coming to know Jesus Christ as their Savior.

As the ambassador for our ministry it's my privilege to raise awareness and, most importantly, financial support for the work we do. And I have strong opinions about Christian faith, the work of the church, and community that are rooted firmly in my understanding of Scripture which I've studied, taught, absorbed, sung about, wrestled with, sought comfort from and been challenged by since my earliest childhood.

And I'm double-minded. And I find myself empathizing with and simultaneously loathing the church in America that is likewise double-minded.

There is truth in Scripture. Undeniable, immutable, distinct, clear truth. And teasing that truth out over the course of a lifetime is one of the greatest challenges one can undertake. Thinkers far more adept than I have come to the end of their lives still befuddled by our mysterious God who hides and reveals himself in the pages of scripture.

So what do I mean, then, that I am double-minded? It means that I want to be winsome, engaging and friendly with the culture in which I live. In part to gather as much support for the ministry I champion and in part because I don't relish being contentious. In short, I want people to like me (or at least not hate me). At the same time I want/need to speak my mind on things I see that are perilous and I fear many, in and out of the church, do not see or are not thinking about as clearly as they ought, if indeed they are thinking about them at all.

So goes the church. Wanting to engage the culture I see many churches at the local congregation level all the way up to the denominational headquarters being likewise double-minded. It is laudable to want to bring the love of Jesus Christ and the message of acceptance to as broad an audience as possible. It is difficult to stand on truth as best you understand it and still communicate a passionate, caring, sacrificial love to those to whom you are speaking truth. And all the while confessing that you don't really have it all figured out so you're open to engaging in dialogue that is respectful, mature and reasoned, though at times contentious. But it is an affront to God as his followers to sit mute in the midst of a culture that desperately needs what he has...or worse actively endorse sinful behavior...for fear of alienating or offending sinners. We as followers of Jesus are not called to either silence or capitulation.

So I will write. As a follower of Jesus who's still figuring this all out but with very strongly held beliefs I will write. On topics that may make you uncomfortable and opinions that may stir strong emotions. Because I cannot be double-minded any longer. And my prophetic urges will not allow me to sit silent. Like Jeremiah, what I have to say is like a burning in my bones and the pain of not speaking is intolerable. I will share my thoughts here and invite you, dear reader, to come join the conversation.