Saturday, August 01, 2015

To Make Converts to a Doctrine is to Make Proselytes

As I have often made reference to, I believe that part of what God is doing in the world now is breaking up the religious systems and practices that have become hindrances to people seeing Jesus and what God is like in Him. Our preoccupation with ensuring doctrinal correctness has become a stumbling block to our making disciples/followers of Jesus.

In his outstanding book, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes that Hinder It, Roland Allen addresses the desperate need for preaching Jesus rather than preaching Christianity. In the following quote, he critiques western Christianity for worrying more about getting our "doctrine" correct than about preaching Jesus. Jesus ends up being relegated to a secondary place. He is the First Cause and we tend to stress the secondary causes:

"...We speak as if the Gospel and the doctrine, preaching Christ and preaching Christianity, were identical terms.

"There is a difference between the revelation of a Person and the teaching of a system of doctrine and practice.

"...our doctrine so dominates our mind that we can scarcely believe that men can love Christ and be saved by Him unless they know and use our doctrinal expressions. Because we find this difficult we inevitably tend to give the teaching of our doctrine the first place in our work...But the Person is greater and far excels it.

"When we fall into this error, we inevitably tend to make the acceptance of the shadow (the doctrine, the system) the aim and object of our work. In doing that we are doing something of which Christ spoke in very severe terms. To make converts to a doctrine is to make proselytes."

Jesus recognized this in the religious leaders of His day, condemning them for making converts instead of disciples (Matt. 23:15). Only as we make Christ crucified our theme and passion will others become true followers of Jesus rather than mere adherents to certain prescribed beliefs.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Washing Feet...

The quote below from Dietrich Bonhoeffer helps paint a picture of what it looks like for Jesus' followers to wash the feet of others in His name:

"In the midst of discipline, the entire fullness of the Holy Spirit wants to unfold and to ripen, and we should give it full space within us for the sake of God, for the sake of others, and for our own sake. The entire world of God, the dear Father, wants to be born in us, to grow and ripen. Love—where only suspicion and hostility reign; joy—instead of bitterness and pain; peace—amid internal and external strife; patience—where impatience threatens to overwhelm us; kindness—where only raw and hard words seem to make any difference; goodness—where understanding and empathy seem like weakness; faithfulness—where long separations and enormous changes in all relationships seek to rock the foundations of even what is most stable; gentleness—where recklessness and selfishness seem to be the only ways to reach one’s goals; self-control—where short term pleasures seem to be the only reasonable option and all bonds are about to dissolve."

In a world where hostility, sadness, strife, impatience, harshness, meanness, infidelity, brashness and self-indulgence wear and tear people down, the fruit of the Spirit of Jesus at work through us brings refreshing as did the washing of tired and dirty feet in Jesus' day.

Galatians 5:22,23 "The Spirit however, produces in human life fruits such as these: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, tolerance and self-control—and no law exists against any of them."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Wisdom Gives Us Ground Rules for Growing and Relating in a Time of Transition

This week a friend of mine pointed James 3:17 out to me. I hadn't read this portion for awhile and I was struck afresh with the contrast that James makes between earthly wisdom and wisdom from God. He speaks of this in the context of the power of the tongue to bless and to curse. After stressing that earthly wisdom is contentious and jealous, James goes on to give a beautiful description of what the 'wisdom from on high' is like. Below are several versions/paraphrases of this verse, and I have highlighted the various descriptive words used for wisdom:

NET: But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceablegentleaccommodatingfull of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical.  

ESV: 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere

HCSB: 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy.
TLB: 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure and full of quiet gentleness. Then it is peace-loving and courteous. It allows discussion and is willing to yield to others; it is full of mercy and good deeds. It is wholehearted and straightforward and sincere.  

MSG: 17 Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced.  

NRSV: 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  

YLT: 17 and the wisdom from above, first, indeed, is pure, then peaceable, gentle, easily entreated, full of kindness and good fruits, uncontentious, and unhypocritical.

In today's climate of change and paradigm shifts, this passage provides us with a great set of 'ground rules' for growing and relating with one another as we work through differences of views. May we desire and seek for God's wisdom as we would for hidden treasure (Prov 2) and therein grow in our understanding of God and of one another together.



Saturday, July 11, 2015

Jesus' Good News of Peace - God is Not Against You!

As a young woman I loved praying the well-known prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. It is a wonderful and profoundly fitting prayer for the days we are living in:

The first words from the risen Christ to His fearful and failing followers were, "Peace be with you..." He should have scolded them and pointed out their failure and weakness. Imagine how startled and relieved they must have felt to hear His words of comfort after their utter failure to be loyal to Him in His darkest hour.

But Jesus is always different than what we expect.

When He spoke words of peace to His followers after His resurrection, He was sowing seeds of love, forgiveness, faith, hope, light, joy in hearts that were full of fear, offense, unbelief, hopelessness, darkness and sadness. He was loving and forgiving them without demanding to be loved and understood. In so doing He won their full allegiance and willingness to follow in His steps.

This is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus. Every human longs for inner peace. To be His follower is to be an "instrument of peace" to those among whom we live, giving them the good news of the risen Lord that God is not against them but is for them no matter how they have failed.

Lord, make us instruments of Your peace in the days we are living in...Amen.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Devoted to Jesus or to Our Beliefs about Jesus?

I used to be certain about my beliefs about God, but as I have continued to grow in Him, I have become increasingly uncertain about many beliefs I used to hold tightly. I have discovered that God won't be held captive to a set of beliefs; this can be seen clearly in Jesus who was continually confounding the religious leaders of His day by acting and speaking in ways that did not fit their belief system.

When I first began loosening my grip on what I had been so sure of concerning God, it scared me because my sense of security was based on being certain, not on God Himself. Now after a few years of exploring outside the confines of my inherited belief system and discovering that God is unbelievably wonderful, I am experiencing a level of peace and joy unlike what I had in the past. He is my certainty, not my beliefs about Him. This allows me to continue to keep changing in my beliefs and to be at peace with uncertainty.

Oswald Chambers had strong words concerning our tendency as evangelicals to be more devoted to our beliefs than to Jesus Himself. "...a Christian must be consistent in his relationship to the life of the Son of God in him, not consistent to strict unyielding doctrines. People pour themselves into their own doctrines, and God has to blast them out of their preconceived ideas before they can become devoted to Jesus Christ."

"...When we become simply a promoter or a defender of a particular belief, something within us dies. That is not believing God– it is only believing our belief about Him. Jesus said, “…unless you…become as little children…”. The spiritual life is the life of a child. We are not uncertain of God, just uncertain of what He is going to do next. If our certainty is only in our beliefs, we develop a sense of self-righteousness, become overly critical, and are limited by the view that our beliefs are complete and settled. But when we have the right relationship with God, life is full of spontaneous, joyful uncertainty and expectancy. Jesus said, '…believe also in Me', not, 'Believe certain things about Me.'"

Our devotion to unyielding doctrines and beliefs about God cause us to look more like the Pharisees of Jesus' time than like Jesus. In these days of significant social change in our culture we have a great opportunity to demonstrate what it means to be devoted to Jesus and His ways (serving those in need, giving to the poor, befriending those we consider unlovely and unworthy, embracing the "other" without judgment) rather than to defend our beliefs about Him and shut people out of the kingdom.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"To Forgive is Manly"

In his wonderful book, Beauty Will Save the World, Brian Zahnd says that beauty always has a form to it; it's something that is expressed and can be seen. Through his non-violent, non-retaliatory death Jesus re-centered the world around an axis of love rather than the axis of violence and power; this forgiving love of enemies in the shape of the cross is the most beautiful form.

At the end of the chapter the author challenges followers of Jesus with these words and a story:

"Jesus was not trying to give the world the best version of Caesar's kingdom; he was giving the world the kingdom of God!...Jesus refused to be drawn into any of the many heated political controversies of his day. Political controversies were simply irrelevant to what Jesus was doing in giving the world a radical new alternative...

"The only institution that can claim the title of 'Christian' is one that is actually must take up the cross and follow Jesus in the most demanding of Christ's ethical imperatives - loving and forgiving enemies. The principalities and powers of this world simply cannot do that. They belong to a structure organized around an axis of power; their entire orientation is one of retaliation, and their only paradigm is vengeance. Only the  church empowered by the Spirit and organized around an axis of love can forgive enemies...Quite simply, we are disciples of the one who would rather die than kill his enemies."

The chapter ends with a story about a young pastor, Dritan Prroj, in Albania who was murdered on his way to get his two children from school in 2010. This happened because of a blood feud that had begun five years earlier. According to the 'law' of the blood feud, if someone is killed, the family of the victim can avenge the death by killing another male from the other family. These feuds can wear on until all the males of one family are dead. Whole villages are paralyzed in this region because the men of entire extended families don't dare leave their homes.

However, Pastor Prroj, who was living in hiding, decided he could not live this way and would live openly; and he and his brother agreed that if one of them was killed, the other would not 'take blood' in revenge. "They would simply allow the cycle of violence to die with them in a deliberate imitation of Christ." Because he had helped lead large aid programs for flood victims in his region, Prroj was well known and respected as a man of peace. There was wide media coverage when he was killed; his death helped "expose the false 'honor' behind the demonic philosophy of blood feuds."

Two weeks after the murder of Dritan Prroj thousands turned out for a rally in the capital city of Tirana for the purpose of naming and shaming the evil practice of blood feuds. Many carried signs that read: "TO FORGIVE IS MANLY"

This story illustrates the power of forgiving love to break the cycle of violence and is how beauty took form in this particular time and place through Christlike followers of His.

"This is the church showing the wisdom of God to the principalities and powers....This is the cruciform in its most radical form. It is in the axis of love expressed in forgiveness that the axis of power enforced by violence is exposed as ugly..."

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Messy Transition: Changing Priorities

Transition times are always messy and confusing and require changing priorities. What worked formerly or was practiced in the past has to make room for other more effective life-giving ways in the new age. This doesn't always mean a total abandoning of former things but it does imply re-prioritizing; using Phyllis Tickle's metaphor of a 'rummage sale' (see previous post here), it means that a lot of stuff we've collected over time needs to be looked at and sorted through to determine what should be kept (and the degree of importance given to that) and what should be tossed.

Last week (see here) I wrote about the overarching need in the church for reprioritizing Jesus over Christendom. In this post I want to mention three more areas of changing priorities that I see happening in the Christian community particularly in America. This is not exhaustive nor is it in any particular order of importance, but this may help spark conversations about how God is moving in our times and how we can move with Him.

First, I see a prioritizing of compassion over belief systems. In the Age of Belief (which we are transitioning out of) we have placed a high premium on having a correct belief system and adhering to that at the expense of people. There is a shifting of priorities to compassionate action. This doesn't eliminate a need for Jesus' followers to adhere to a few simple basic beliefs about God and Jesus, but it means we never allow our belief systems to become more important than people, particularly those who are disenfranchised, for whatever reason, to whom we extend mercy and understanding and help without condition.

Second, there is a move towards prioritizing the kingdom of God over the American empire. Ever since the Roman church agreed to partner with the political system in order to win more adherents to the faith (this was the beginnings of Christendom in the 4th century), we have confused God's kingdom with worldly kingdoms; and in the US Christianity has become increasingly enmeshed in political parties with the hope of remaining a dominant power in our country. The kingdom of God is political, but its politics is not built on the politics of this world nor does it operate with the same value system. I'm seeing a move away from blind patriotism that equates America with God's kingdom.

Third, I believe that slowly but surely there is a prioritizing of unity over division among God's people. On the surface it appears to be the opposite as we hear and read all the attacks against one another on the internet and in other venues. However, I'm sensing some fatigue setting in over this and am seeing the attempt by some to do some healthy debating that doesn't label the other person but accepts that they have valid reason for thinking differently. While this will take a long time yet to become the norm, I believe that it is coming and that we will learn how to do the hard and self-giving work of "achieving disagreement" rather than assuming erroneous things about one another.

All of this seems healthy to me, but it is very confusing and disorienting to our systems and our collective psyche. As I expressed previously, my prayer is for grace for God's people to walk through this mess in humility and love shown in genuine listening and learning without discounting another because they think differently. The Lord is with us to help us!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Transition from Prioritizing the 'Sail' to Prioritizing the 'Wind'

One of the shifts happening now in the church (see my post here about the historic transition we're going through presently) is the movement away from Christendom to simpler, more creative ways of encountering Jesus in community. In other words, through the centuries of organized religion, we have collected a lot of practices and beliefs that aren't all necessarily bad but that are often barriers to encountering the living Lord. This shift is taking the form of disillusionment with institutional Christianity and the exploration of simpler means of encountering Him and sharing Him.

In his book, Selling Water by the River, Shane Hipps contends that Jesus (the River) is accessible to all people and that unfortunately our religious systems and structures have become barriers to this access to Him. In the chapter about "wind and sails" Hipps shows how Jesus went out of His way to disregard the boundaries that religion had established. In His first miracle of turning water into wine Jesus "sets the stage for his way of operating in the world. It frames his entire ministry."

In this miracle, what's astonishing is not only that Jesus changed the chemical composition from one liquid to another but that He flagrantly broke the ceremonial rules which insisted that wine not be put into vessels that were dedicated for ceremonial washing. This is exactly what Jesus did - he had the servants use the  jars that were for ceremonial cleansing rather than use the empty wine jars. By doing this, He was mixing wine and water thereby defiling both and causing the people to be unclean.

Why would Jesus do such an offensive thing (and continue doing this sort of thing throughout His ministry)? Hipps says that it was because He was always trying to get people beyond the banks of the river and into the great expanse of the river of God's love.

"Religions have a tendency to get stuck. Institutions aren't made to stay limber...Thus the trajectory of any religion is always to become brittle. A basic law is at work in most things we humans create: whatever the intended purpose of our creation, when overextended, it can reverse on itself...when it (Christian religion) becomes overextended, the impulse is to preserve the institution rather than the message...Jesus consistently undermined the natural inertia of institutions. He was the embodiment of pure, unbridled creative force. Creativity is often disruptive. It has little interest in preservation; it is about making new things and making things new."

Jesus is not against religions. The author says that Jesus is the wind while religions are the sails. His own conviction is that the Christian religion is the sail that best catches the wind but adds the following, "We must never make an idol of the sail and thereby miss the wind. But it is also a mistake to say the sail doesn't matter. Without a sail, the wind is difficult to catch..."

"It is not the sail, but the wind we are after." Jesus continually broke the rules and boundaries established by religion so that people could get to Him; this is happening in our day as more and more of God's people work to make Jesus (the Wind and the River) more accessible to all people.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Grace for a Time of Messy Transition

In his book The Future of Faith Harvey Cox looks at the patterns in church history to suggest where we are headed as a people now. The following is a very simple summary of the three great eras of church history as outlined by Cox:

1. The Age of Faith: first 3 centuries of Christianity. "The faith of the earliest Christians was oriented around this hope for the new world of shalom that Jesus personified. Their emphasis was on community rather than creeds or clergy. The first three centuries of Christianity demonstrated theological variety, spiritual fellowship, and an anti-imperial stance.

2. The Age of Belief: from the fourth to the twentieth century.  “…faith became identified with creeds, orthodoxy and ‘correct doctrine.’ The imperialization of the church under Constantine also resulted in the glorification of bishops and widespread ecclesiastical corruption."

3. The Age of the Spirit: began about 50 years ago and is continuing now to shake the foundations of the previous era of hierarchical, patriarchal, and institutionalized religion. We are presently in the midst of the dismantling of fundamentalism (close-mindedness and clinging to non-negotiable beliefs) within Christianity. This age is characterized by the “growing interfaith movement, the de-westernization of Christianity, liberation theology, and the tsunami of Pentecostalism.” In general, religious people are becoming "less dogmatic and more practical . . . more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrine."

Along the same line Phyllis Tickle describes the times we are in now to be like a great "rummage sale", something that the Church goes through roughly every 500 years, during which we struggle and argue (as would any family preparing for a garage sale) about all the stuff that has collected over the past 500 years related to God and Jesus. Some want to dispose of certain elements within Christianity and others want to keep them...and so the fight goes. Tickle says these transition times in history are very, very messy and that it takes several decades to sort through the mess until there is general consensus among God's people.

One major issue that always arises with these paradigmatic changes every 500 years is the question of where the church's authority lies. In the latest "re-formation" of the church (Luther being a key figure), the authority shifted from the Roman Catholic pope to the scriptures ("sola scriptura"). In the present transition, the authority is changing to something else which isn't clear yet; but there are reasons (another topic for another day) why scripture on its own can no longer act as our sole source of authority now but rather will be one of the key pieces of what will turn out to be the grounds of authority for God's people.

If this is so, then we as followers of Jesus must grapple seriously with the issue of the role of scripture for us collectively. This is happening now with many serious scholars debating and researching and praying and studying in an attempt to discover improved ways of handling the scripture so that it can play its role along with the Holy Spirit in leading us in this critical age. Some recommended material in this regard are books such as:
* Disarming Scripture 
* The Bible Tells Me So
* The Bible Made Impossible
For those of us who have been raised and trained to view the Bible as more or less a 'flat' book and without any flaws, these books may be hard to read with serious consideration. But I suggest them because they are written by followers of Jesus who value the scriptures and desire to help God's people sort through many questionable issues that are in scripture so that, on the one hand we don't ignore these questionable parts and, on the other hand we don't toss the whole Bible out because of the questionable parts. 

If Phyllis Tickle and others are correct that this transition will take many decades of struggle, I pray for grace for God's people to walk through this mess and to do so in humility and love for one another expressed in genuine listening and learning without discounting someone because they think differently. This isn't easy and takes the work of the Spirit in and among us.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Hard Yoke of Judging and the Light Burden of Loving

As those created in the image of God, we desire to judge. This is part of what it means to "govern" or "have dominion", according to the creation story in Genesis. God's intention was that we would judge as He does: based on unconditional and impartial love (represented by the tree of life).

But when the first humans took the bait of the tempter and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they opted for an alternative way of functioning  from the way God had set up for them. The tree of knowledge was attractive to them for various reasons, one of which was that it represented a way to make decisions based on their subjective and limited knowledge and wisdom. All they would have to do is to trust independently in their own thoughts and feelings and desires and not have to take the time and effort to consult a Person outside of themselves for knowledge and wisdom (which requires getting to know that Person which in turn requires dependence and time and effort). It wasn't that they didn't want God in their lives, but they saw this as a way of doing God's work more easily and efficiently.

The world system, the flesh, and the devil all agree that this is the way to govern and judge. As those who have given up personal independence to live and operate under the Lordship of God the Creator, we are faced everyday with the choice to make judgments and decisions based on one of these two trees - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or the tree of life. The 'flesh' - that which wants to function independently of God - pulls us to make decisions according to what we subjectively believe to be 'right' or 'wrong'.

Most of us are unaware of how much emotional and intellectual energy is spent on fleshly judgments being made in a day. (Much of this happens in our hidden and often unconscious thought life and it seeps out into the open at times in judgmentalism of others.) Greg Boyd says, "Of all the sinful burdens that we place upon ourselves in our fallen state, none is weightier than the presumption that we can judge others."

Sizing others up to determine what's right and wrong about them is a hard yoke to bear; the light burden of dependence on God is loving others. Just as God's first and last response to all humans is that of love, so we are called to love all unconditionally and impartially, which turns out to be an easy burden! So in any given day when we are required to make decisions that affect others, our posture should be that of attentiveness to God and His love for the person(s) and acting accordingly.

Proverbs 3:5 sums up the two ways of functioning beautifully: "Trust God from the bottom of your heart (tree of life); don't try to figure out everything on your own (tree of knowledge)..." (The Message)