Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

Planting Seeds

July 2, 2018

Our Sunday night ministry has continued strong.  Each week we have half a dozen or so core attendees, who bring with them a myriad of roommates past and present, co-workers, family members in town.  It continues to be a place where people feel welcomed and loved.

But I’ve struggled over the past few months, worried that it’s stagnating into a fairly predictable clique.  And worse, that we aren’t really making headway in building relationships that lead to sharing the Gospel and applying it to the lives of people who think they already understand it.  Some evenings are spent playing games – literally.  And while I don’t mind me a game every now and then, I want something more.  Something deeper.

My struggle has found me isolating myself at times.  Excusing myself from the group when they’re involved in a large game or several small discussion groups that I have no part in.  At times it has felt as though my presence is superfluous.  I  know  this isn’t the case, but when there’s no real meaningful connection with anyone in the course of an evening for weeks  on end, I begin to second guess myself and my work and whether or not I’m all that necessary.  Easier to just nip off upstairs for a round or two of Call of Duty before checking back in to see that everyone is pretty much as involved as they were before I left, as though I haven’t really been gone.

I’m missed by some, who attribute it to my introverted nature.  I haven’t been able to find the right way to tell them it isn’t that I don’t want to be with people, but rather it seems people don’t need to be with me.  For all my talk about mission-work and the long-game in terms of relationship building, I’m still pretty American.  I want things to move along quickly.  I want to see some  stuff happening.  And when it’s been months since I’ve had a substantive interaction, and that one was challenging, to say the least, I  begin to tire.

God is good.  And a lot happened on the past two Sundays.

Last Sunday, there was an early discussion before most of the folks arrived.  The topic had been touched on once or twice before but here it was again.  How can we trust or love God if He allows people to go to hell?  This young woman – raised Christian and recently graduated from a prestigious Christian liberal arts college – was insisting that she couldn’t be happy in heaven knowing that there were people in hell.  She wasn’t sure she could trust a God who didn’t make sure everyone went to heaven.

The discussion began based on a Gospel reading from Mark regarding blaspheming the Holy Spirit – calling the good works of God evil.  Conflating good with evil.  She was worried that perhaps she was blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and I agreed that perhaps she was, something she was a bit rattled by to say the least.  If you’re going to insist that God is doing something wrong, something evil by allowing people to go to hell, then you’re putting yourself in a situation similar to the one Jesus warned the scribes about.  If you presume to pass judgment on the works of God, you’re in effect setting yourself up as God, and this is an untenable situation.  So long as you’re putting yourself above God you will refuse the good and necessary gifts of God, and this puts you in eternal danger.

It was an invigorating conversation to say the least.

Afterwards I was able to talk with a young man who was struggling in a relationship and the very real difficulty of learning to orient two separate lives down a single path.  I was able to listen and suggest some mentoring courses of action that might be of help to both him and his lady.  New opportunities for my wife and I to live out the Gospel by standing with the people the Holy Spirit has placed in our lives and assisting them with the hard work of life.

That was last week.  An exhausting but very exciting conclusion to an 18-hour work day.

Last night was another great conversation.  A young woman was asking questions about Holy Communion.  She didn’t understand why the Roman Catholic Church (that she was partially raised in but was not confirmed in) wouldn’t allow her to receive Holy Communion?  She saw  Holy Communion as a beautiful and wonderful gift to receive regularly and it make no sense that anyone would be excluded from it.  So after a bit of discussion about Scripture, we opened up Scripture and actually read it together.  Specifically, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

She read it, and I would stop her on occasion to explain or elaborate on something Paul said, or offer insights as to what he was getting at.  All of which culminated in verses 27-32, which are some of the most challenging verses in Scripture as regards the Church.  Paul asserts that physical illness and even death can result when someone doesn’t recognize what they’re participating in and therefore receives Holy Communion inappropriately.  It was so amazing and humbling, at the end of perhaps 30 minutes of Scriptural reading and discussion, for her to finally exclaim in understanding that denying Holy Communion to someone who may not know what they’re doing isn’t an attempt to be exclusive or cruel, but rather an expression of Christian love and responsibility.

Only on a few occasions on Sunday nights have I been sought out for discussion specifically because of my vocation as a pastor.  And this was the first time that in fulfilling that vocation, somebody was able to see and understand Scripture with their own eyes and heart.  I don’t know what that will mean for this young woman, but at the very least she has a better understanding of why the historic practice of the Church has been to be careful in terms of who is permitted to receive Holy Communion.

Two weeks in a row of wonderful discussions where I believe the Holy Spirit was at work.  I’m not sure how or to what ends, but it was a reminder that God is always present, and that building relationships can and does lead to a place and time where someone is willing to trust you enough to give voice to a concern or a question.  And to a time and place where the Word of God can be brought to bear for the glory of God and the benefit of the body of Christ.

What a humbling privilege!




Book Review: The Gospel Comes With a House Key

June 23, 2018

The Gospel Comes With a House Key: Practicing Radical Ordinary Hospitality in our Post-Christian World

by Rosaria Butterfield

As a fan of one of her other books, I was looking forward to this one.  After reading it, my thoughts on it are mixed, though overall positive.

Rosaria is obviously an intense woman who is passionate about things and pours her copious energies into the truth as she discovers it.  And the truth that Rosaria has discovered is that Christian hospitality can be a powerful means of engaging people who would otherwise never accept an invitation to Church or respond to a shallow sharing of the Gospel.  She knows this firsthand because this is how she came to faith, leaving behind a life that I dare say was the antithesis in almost every aspect of who God has now shaped her to be.

This book is a call to hospitality.  Not a cute exhortation or a cheery sharing of favorite recipes, but rather a call to the oftentimes gritty and taxing work of opening ourselves and our homes to other people in order to build relationships by which the Gospel might be shared.  This is a sobering book, a book that holds nothing back in insisting that every Christian needs to engage in Christian hospitality while refusing to paint it as a anything less than obedience to the Lord’s call.

The book is structured as a series of snapshots from her life of hospitality, literal days and the events that transpired on those days.  Some are wonderful and encouraging.  Many are painful to hear, despite knowing that God is at work in the midst of it.  She makes the case that any and every Christian should engage in this hospitality in some way.  Introvert or extrovert makes no difference.  Married or single makes no difference.  Young or old makes no difference.  Every Christian can either open their home or help another Christian open their home to be hospitable to friends, neighbors, and strangers.  Her passion and dedication are admirable, but perhaps at time swerve more into a sense of legalism of the most dangerous kind, the kind that justifies its existence on the Gospel.

Scripture makes clear that while Christian hospitality is desirable (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9) , it isn’t necessarily a universal gift to every Christian (1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Timothy 5:9-10; Titus 1:7-8).  It is something special and of note that leaders should be evaluated on, and this is perhaps a better direction for some of her more strident urges to hospitality.  Given that her husband is a pastor, this makes much more sense than insisting that every single Christian bears this perpetual obligation.  She shrugs off the idea that some people might not be well-equipped for this type of ministry too easily.  She also has some strong opinions on what sort of arrangements constitute hospitality, which she doesn’t really bother to substantiate.

This book might terrify some people, and that’s good.  Because hospitality and entertaining are somewhat conflated and confused in our culture, it is necessary to show that Christian hospitality is not always pleasant.  The results are not always discernible, let alone storybook.  There are costs that come with it both financially and emotionally.  In opening ourselves to others we are made vulnerable, something that our culture of independence and individualism is pitched against.

Butterfield’s exegesis is generally not very deep or elaborate  but is often very perceptive.  She grasps clearly that in a culture where Christians are increasingly cast as the villains of whatever soap opera is playing out, the only effective way to combat such an image is not through legislation but rather through hospitality.  She understands that accepting an invitation to church is far less likely than accepting an invitation to dinner, but that a Christian bringing someone into their Christian home for dinner places guests in the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit.  Who we are, what we do, how we do it, and why we do it should be different for Christians than anyone else, and this should become obvious over time to those we draw in close to us.

Once again I’m struck with the lonely aspect of what Butterfield describes here.  Yes, hospitality is personal and sacrificial but it doesn’t need to be isolated and unsupported.  There is – as with other books on this subject I’ve been reading – little or no acknowledgement or encouragement of the larger Christian community of the congregation being supportive and encouraging of this kind of ministry, financially or otherwise.  I  think this is a glaring area where we need to  think things through further.  Scriptural admonitions to hospitality are implemented individually but they are often directed to communities of faith.  If a faith community doesn’t see this as an important aspect of the Christian life, the odds of individual members taking it upon themselves in an obedient and permanent way is less likely.

This is a good book to read if you’re considering embarking in Christian hospitality.  It’s a very good book for pastors to read before encouraging their parishioners to hospitality, as it helps prepare pastors to deal with fallout that can (and perhaps will) occur in such settings.  I’d suggest pairing it with a lighter read that provides a counter-balance to the sometimes gritty and heavy aspects of Butterfield’s book, while making sure to talk about those areas because they are very real and, knowing our Enemy The Satan, most likely to come up sooner or later.

Above all Butterfield conveys clearly through both the heavy and joyful aspects of her book Christian hospitality as a holy calling and privilege.  Our neighbors need us.  More accurately, our neighbors need Christ, and if they can meet Christ through us and in our homes around well-worn dinner tables and mismatched table ware,  then we need to take seriously hospitality as a missionary activity.  I objected in a review of an earlier book to the characterization of Christian hospitality as a weapon.  I’ll be amending that review a little bit, as I believe it is a good metaphor in the proper context.  It is not a weapon against our neighbors themselves, but against any power that might hold them and seek to keep them from Christ.  Christian hospitality invites the non-Christian into Enemy territory in this regard, bringing them intentionally into an environment where the Word of God is lived out, and an environment where they can and should encounter the Word of God, which as we are told, is dangerously life-giving (Hebrews 4:12).

Book Review: Just Open the Door

June 11, 2018

Just Open the Door: How One Invitation Can Change a Generation

by Jen Schmidt

This is another entry in my unofficial doctorate program.  Amazon suggested it to me when I bought three other books on the topic of Christian hospitality.  I should have looked a bit closer and perhaps I might not have purchased it.  It isn’t that the book isn’t helpful to some degree, but it’s very much written for women (the author says so!).  So I had to deal with a writing style that, while very good, was not always easy for me to listen to.

That being said, the book is helpful in and of itself.  She provides a lot of encouragement along the lines of you can do this sort of stuff.  And she provides lots of personal stories and experiences to highlight what she means.  At times, this can make it sound like bragging, though I am pretty sure that isn’t her intent.  The difficulty is that hospitality is going to look slightly different based on who is practicing it.  Sometimes stories are relevant and help me envision what I could be doing.  Other times they are not, and then have the capacity to take on a lecturing tone.  As with many things, you have to figure out how to discern what is practical given your personal gifts and situation, and let the other stuff go, at least for now.  She has some practical tips in the chapter Who Are My Neighbors on how to be intentional in getting to know your immediate neighbors.

At times her suggestions seem a bit naive or unhelpful, most noticeably in dealing with the cost that hospitality can rack up.  This chapter (The Elephant in the Room) could have been an excellent place to talk about the role of Christian church community in facilitating and extending hospitality through those in its midst who are so gifted.  But that wasn’t really talked about at all.  What resulted was basically a trust-God-to-get-you-through combined with a isn’t-this-more-important-than-money mantra.  Both these things are true, but in a book dealing with community and hospitality, it seems reasonable  to point out that you don’t have to do it on your own all the time, and that creating a network of others who help out – either with hands or donations – not only makes being hospitable easier, it involves the larger Christian community in the effort.

If you’re a fan of chick-oriented writing, this is probably a pleasant, light read for you to help stimulate some thinking in terms of how to be more intentionally hospitable to others.  Schmidt is a successful (or at least persistent?) blogger and undoubtedly has a notable following there as well.  She does a good job of introducing the topic, offering encouragement along with some practical tips, and shares a lot of personal stories along the way.

Original Hospitality

May 22, 2018

As I’ve noted several times over the past few months, it’s been a challenging year.  It continues to be challenging, but either I’m getting used to that or they’re becoming easier to deal with.  Much is still yet unknown, but then that’s life for you.

One of the outcomes of these five months is  a very good reconnecting with my wife about the visions we once held for ministry and life together.  Visions that have never gone away completely, but in the starting and raising of a family and vocational changes and moving hither and yon across the country are easy to put on the back burner.  Visions that we have lived out in some ways all along, but that are larger than what we’ve been able to do so far.

Those visions center around a singular aspect of the Christian life, one that I argue is easily the most overlooked and neglected, and that is the gift/discipline/tradition of hospitality.  I still remember one of  my seminary professors, while explicating 1 Timothy 3:1-7 explained the requirement of being hospitable to mean basically being open and friendly.  While friendliness is certainly helpful in being hospitable, it showed me just how little – or how little valued – this aspect of Christian faith has become in our culture.

So I’m beginning some theological reading on the topic.  My wife beat me to the punch in starting the book I’m most curious about, Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes with a House Key.  We were both very impressed with her earlier book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.  This book demonstrated the powerful role Christian hospitality can have.

So while she reads, I’m working on Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl.  So far I’m not overly impressed with her treatment of Biblical or early Christian sources on the topic, but I’ll wait till the end of the book for a final review.  She comes at it from the idea of hospitality having to do with providing for the needs of the less fortunate, ie. the poor, refugees, etc.  I dislike the way this frames hospitality in terms of the haves and the have nots.  Certainly in Butterfield’s case, she would not have considered herself marginalized or needy in any way when she accepted a pastor’s hospitality.  I don’t plan on coming at hospitality from Pohl’s angle (at least as I understand or see her angle thus far), but of course it is one aspect or facet of hospitality.

The Biblical text that gets the ball rolling in terms of hospitality for many scholars is Abraham’s hospitality to three strangers in Genesis 18.  But it strikes me that really, hospitality begins literally at the beginning in Genesis 1 & 2.  In creating the universe and humankind, God instantiates the first instance of hospitality known to us.  He provides us with food and lodging in terms of creation itself, with himself as the host and Adam and Eve as the honored and beloved guests.  The entire parameter of existence in the Biblical tradition is one in which we extend hospitality to others because of this primal hospitality that we exist in, as well as the later formulations and witnesses to God’s graciousness in human history.

We can see an instance of hospitality gone awry in Genesis 3, as Eve extends to Adam what ought to be the hospitable gift of food, but which instead is the essence of disobedience.  Eve as host here, and Adam in his willing complicity to disobedience, demonstrate failed hospitality as they seek to mimic God’s hospitality to them, as well as the primal example of the bad and ungracious guest who seeks to take advantage of the host’s generosity and openness.

How do we model hospitality in a culture where it is no longer valued other than as a means for demonstrating one’s abilities or material wealth, or as a means of providing for the needy?  How do we not only model hospitality but teach it to others as a means of creating relationships wherein the Gospel can be shared and the Holy Spirit at work?  How do we engage in hospitality as a means of honoring the command to love our neighbor as ourselves?  How  do we learn to love and honor others even if they don’t think or act like us?

These are all themes that my family has been working with in various ways ever since my wife and I got married.  Some episodes were more memorable than others, but I can honestly say that this is one area we’ve been dealing with consistently all our lives together.  It’s the area we want to continue dealing with for however long God grants us together.  And it’s the area we want to continue to draw others into for experience, discussion, and the celebration of God’s great hospitality to all of us.  I look forward to seeing what that will look like!

It’s Not You, It’s Me

May 14, 2018

At some point in trying to think through change, I would hope that any rationale person would struggle for some amount of time with the simple dilemma – Am I the problem?  Is my seeing the need for change really the problem, rather than the inability or unwillingness of others to change being the problem? 

This has to be a reasonable part of the equation.  We all look at things a certain way, conditioned by our experiences and knowledge and a myriad of other criteria that psychologists (social and otherwise) build careers off of pinpointing.  What if there really isn’t a need to change, and I’m just creating turmoil where none needs to exist?

Important, but confusing.


One and One is One

May 12, 2018

Tomorrow is the Sunday after Ascension Day, the last Sunday of the liturgical season of Easter.  The readings center on Jesus’ preparation of his disciples for his departure and his departure.  The Gospel lesson is from the Last Supper, and is known as the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus’ prayer for his disciples before they leave the room and before his ordeal plays out.  In a few last moments of peace together – even the peace of collective ignorance and confusion! – Jesus prays for his disciples.  At the center of this passage is verse 11 – Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 

That unity has proven to be elusive, to say the least.  Judas has already shattered it in his heart and soon the evidence of this will be revealed to everyone.  From early on there have been those who sought to portray a different Jesus than the one the disciples and eye-witnesses proclaimed.  Those who sought to foist their own ideas about Jesus backwards onto him.  There have been theological differences of opinion, some of them heated and violent.  The history of the Church is fraught with internal violence as Jesus’ prayer for unity often becomes the pretext for enforcing unity.

Our polity makes a big deal about unity even as the unity we seek seems to crumble into smaller and smaller bastions of like-minded individuals.  And so congregations as well can struggle for unity.  We’re easily misled into thinking that our way is not only the right way, it should be the only way, and if others won’t see it then we are tempted to remove ourselves from the community or struggle for power or dominance over others.

Unity is hard when you have real freedom.  It would have been simpler for Jesus to draw up a complicated legal documentation to govern belief and practice so there could be no doubt about what unity should look like.  It’s another example of where I’d prefer a lot more detail from him but don’t receive it.  Joseph Smith sought to fill in some of those pesky missing blanks under the claim of further divine revelations.  Not much different than Mohammed in that respect 1200 years earlier.  In ways large and small we seek to not only identify or claim the proper rallying point for unity but to force it upon others.

But the Gospel is frustratingly free and it will not be pinned down and resists our efforts to pin others down with it.  Perhaps the essence of that freedom is in the relatively broad latitude within which we disagree with one another yet still consider one another more or less a brother or sister in the faith.  I may disagree with some Roman Catholic or Baptist theology but I’m pretty sure we’ll be in heaven together regardless of our disagreements.  And if the Gospel can provide for such a broad spectrum of unity, how much more should the smaller-scale decisions of individual congregations be governed first and foremost by a desire for unity, a refusal to allow Satan to sow seeds of discord or disparagement?   We are free, it would seem, to make bad decisions as well as good ones.  Paul picks up on this theme in some of his writings, and Romans 14 is particular instructive (as well as  challenging!) in this regard.

Perhaps if we set unity as our primary goal, it makes things easier.  Perhaps if we insist that we will bear with the weaker brother  or that we will not force our understanding of what is best on another brother or sister we come closer  to the essence of unity.  Perhaps this is where humility and a charitable spirit really develop.

Our unity is to reflect the unity of Jesus and the Father.  That’s a tough act to follow.  It implies a willingness to suffer in obedience to Jesus’ prayer for unity rather than to seek to impose  our will as a means of soothing our own consciences.  Of course there must be limits to all things.  There are aspects of our faith and our life of faith that cannot be altered or eliminated.  There are places where we need to stand firm against erroneous notions.  But in my experience, these are rarely the issues that divide congregations.  Denominations, sure.  But in congregations the divisions are more often over what we do or don’t do.  How do we spend the money we have?  How do we use the property we have?  It’s amazing how often these blessings can turn into curses and causes for separation and division rather than unity.  It’s frightening how strongly our insistence on what is right in these very fluid realms can destroy relationships and peace of mind, can shatter unity both between brothers and sisters in the faith as well as the peace of an individual heart or mind.

Isn’t it better to be wronged?  This is Paul’s’ argument in 1 Corinthians 6.  Isn’t it better to be wronged than admit to the world that two followers of Jesus Christ can’t agree on something?  That they aren’t willing to allow other brothers & sisters in the faith to arbitrate and render judgment?  Paul will use the very real possibility of personal damage and still insist that our goal should be the unity that Jesus prays for his followers in John 17.  A unity that insists that what is most important is not what we do but how we do it, that insists that we should do what we do together rather than allowing decisions to separate and divide us.  A unity that prizes the brother or sister in faith more than ensuring that a particular course of action is followed.  A unity that would rather stand with hands joined while the consequences of a bad decision bring down the church building around us, rather than push one another away in order to cling to what we think is the best course of action.

May we be one, Father, even as you and the Son are one.  May your Son’s prayer for unity echo in our hearts and minds and reverberate through what we do and say.  May our insistence on unity – made possible by your Holy Spirit within and between us – bear witness to your love for not just us but all of creation and give others pause to wonder at what power beyond ourselves could make such unity possible.

Death and Comfy Chairs

May 9, 2018

Today I got to sit down with Chuck.

Every Wednesday I’m privileged to sit down with Chuck for about an hour.  We meet in his study, where I sit on a lovely leather love seat and he in his office chair, his dog oftentimes expectantly moving back and forth between us as we talk without rush.  We are comfortable as we sit, remembering and laughing and talking about past, present and the future.  Especially the future.

Chuck is dying.  He knows this better than anyone, and I think it affords him in the midst of this process a clarity of thought which is breathtaking at times even as it is heartbreaking and jubilant.  As a follower of Jesus Christ death is an unpleasant visitor but neither completely unexpected nor totally to be feared.  He won’t, after all, be the final visitor.  He comes and we go  and then we part company with him again, never to have to share his cold congeniality ever again.  Chuck trusts this.  And as he sits in his comfy chair he is comfortable thinking about the future both individually and on a larger scale, and taking the stance of one who is curious, not cowardly.

Comfy chairs have not been a major part of Chuck’s life until recently.  More often pick up trucks and chain saws.  Shuffling ordnance off the coast of Vietnam during heavy shelling.  Chuck and death have crossed paths on more than one occasion, as he’s happy to admit with a twinkle in his eye that defies the ravages of illness in his body.  He has time and need of comfy chairs now, at the last.

We talked about the future, about the decisions that congregations are sometimes called to make about the future and how to approach it, and I know such conversations are no stranger to Chuck either.  He’s spent his life trying to help people make decisions about life and death, individually and on a larger scale.  He knows firsthand the difficulty of such a decision, and all the amazing blessings that can flow from it.

We talked about drug and alcohol recovery.  How hard it is to start.  How much harder it can be to maintain it.  The statistics are sobering (pun intended).  Chuck ran a special program for inmates at the county jail to help put them on the path to real recovery.  That program won all sorts of accolades from people local and statewide for the impressive statistics racked up, particularly the percentage of graduates who were still clean and sober five years later.  The interesting aspect of today’s conversation was that long-term recovery is harder for women than for men, when I would have thought it just the opposite.  Even in his prestigious program, only 39-41% of the men were still clean and sober five years later.  But only 31-32% of the women were.

One of the reasons for that is  that women often have children.  Children, who were taken away by the courts at some point because of Mom’s addiction and related issues.  Once Mom has completed a requisite or voluntary treatment program, she wants to get her kids back, and the courts are eager to give them to her.  The problem is now she has left the program (often times a residential program) and now has her kids with her.  How is she as a single mom (which the majority are effectively, if not actually) going to get a job as well as a place to live while watching her kids or ensuring that they are getting to and from school?  Is she going to make enough to feed all of them and pay rent?  The pressures mount.  It’s easy to slide from an apartment after not making rent into a pay by the week or day hotel which is even more expensive.  Maybe you start selling dope again to help pay the bills.  Maybe you have a few drinks to try and sleep at night because you’re so worried about all of this.  Maybe you prostitute yourself.  In any event you’re back in environments that foster addiction and substance abuse.

The only real option for people entering recovery is half-way houses or sober living houses.  But these are often not much cheaper than other housing options, and kids aren’t allowed to live on site so that makes it undesirable for a woman trying to reunite with her kids.

We talked about how wonderful it would be if there was a place that a woman could go to after completing residential rehab.  Rent would be free for a period of time to help give her time to lock in a job and start earning money.  She would  be able to have her kids come and live with her.  And in exchange for the free rent, there would be requirements – attending regular recovery meetings, regular drug/alcohol checks, curfews, limitations on who can be on site.  But also required classes on parenting and other life skills.  Bible studies and required church attendance.  And ideally a strong Christian on site not simply keeping watch on everyone but also building relationships with the ladies and helping to connect them to their church family.  After a period of time fractional rent would be paid each month, incrementing gradually to full rent, and perhaps to a decision to move out into fully independent living.  He spoke with amazement, and I could see lists of organizations flitting through his mind, all the people who understand what needs to be done and could be done and the many beautiful things that could come out of it, but don’t have anyone to share that vision with and no way to bring it to fruition themselves.  All the people who would gladly lend a hand or even a few dollars to make it real.

In the span of 20 minutes or so, this beautiful vision sprang into being.  It started with a need as well as a desire, and sprouted out as we tried to think of how not simply to meet a need, but to meet the ultimate need that all people have, which is to be anchored in relationship with the God who created them and died for them and offers them hope and strength and comfort not just temporarily but eternally.  A beautiful vision of what could be rather than fearful worry about what might be.  A looking forward to something different rather than an obsessing about the past or the familiar, but which grounds itself both in the past and the familiar as the only means of making something new and different possible.  Within short order we had a rough, verbal sketch of what this all could look like and incorporate.

Of course a sketch isn’t a finished product, but it’s something that you can hang up on the refrigerator, or pass between friends in comfy chairs to help start sharing a dream or a vision, to help see areas that need a bit more thought or other options that could be included.  Eventually it requires getting up out of comfy chairs to start working with pencils and calculators.  It requires the hard work of determining what it would take to reach this dream, and further, determining what each person is willing to contribute towards realizing it.

Dreams and visions often start in easy chairs, in quiet contemplation.  Some start from the perspicuity of a life drawing to an end; new vistas opening up and familiar terrain suddenly transformed and illuminated in their light.  Visions can start in easy chairs but will eventually require the dreamers to stand up and stand together to determine if this is a way forward they’re willing to pursue and encourage and support others in as well, or if it’s a good idea but not the right idea for this particular time and place.  But by that point we’re up out of our chairs and on the back patio or in the office and we might as well look around to see what other visions are being discussed and find out if perhaps one of them is right.

Because comfy chairs, like death itself, should never be permanent.

Looking for Angles

April 19, 2018

A curious read, this.

Noting the publication, it’s not surprising that the piece is critical of gun ownership and a congregation or pastor’s attempts to make sense of Second Amendment rights in a contemporary context.  And I believe I at least understand and can perhaps even sympathize with those who think that banning some or all guns will fix the problems in our culture that more and more regularly express themselves in violence.  And I can further understand an uneasiness with this particular congregation’s advertisement of guns on site.  The conversation about guns and the risks that gathering groups of Christians seem to increasingly face in our society is one being had in many congregations and gatherings of church leaders and workers.

I wouldn’t personally advocate for such a sign on site, even if I lived in a place where such a sign wouldn’t likely be legally challenged.  It reads too much like a challenge, a dare of sorts.  I could understand better an article that wanted to deal with the tone and the repercussions a sign like that might generate.

But the  article wants to be theological.  It wants to imply that this congregation, this pastor, is a lesser form of Christianity.  Unfaithful, even.  Specifically because of their stance on guns.  I think it would be more interesting if the author cast a wider net, addressing some of the other pastoral statements that the author refers to with a not-very-veiled derogatory perspective.

But the attempt to focus simply on gun control falls flat, theologically and otherwise.  The author wants to talk about Jesus and speculate on how He might have dealt with the issue, personally.  Without referring or offering an interpretation of Luke 22:36 (perhaps understandably, it is a very confusing statement!).  But also without referencing parables and other sayings of Jesus that seem to at least tacitly acknowledge the understanding of self defense (Luke 11:14-21, for instance).  Further, the author disregards passages in Scripture (such as Exodus 22:2-3) that do deal specifically with the issue of reasonable self-defense.  Not gun control per se, but what many opponents to revising or eliminating the Second Amendment point to – the right to protect themselves.

I often hear opponents to the Second Amendment claim that you can’t be Christian and support the Second Amendment.  I don’t often hear opponents of gun control arguing that it is unChristian to argue for gun control. But I do hear them arguing – along with non-Christian opponents of gun control – that gun controls or banning gun ownership is not wise.

As the author notes, things were already scary.  I don’t see a division between Christians and non-Christians as to whether things are scary these days.  I don’t see a division between gun control advocates and Second Amendment supporters as to whether things are scary today or not.  I’m pretty positive that most people would admit that there are some seriously scary things going on in our culture.

What we disagree on is firstly what those things are, and secondly how to deal with them.  I’d rather see pastors and theologians talking about that, rather than trying to vet another person’s faith through a political or social filter.  In the long run, changing our approaches is going to be a blessing to everyone.

Easter Hit-Pieces

April 4, 2018

It’s that time of year again, when the smell of lily’s is in the air and a barrage of articles attacking the Christian faith or the Bible or the Church emerge just in time for Easter.  This is the one I was directed to this year.

I’ve had a lot of conversations recently with people about authority.  What is the authority in your life?  In mine, it’s the Bible.  Which means that to the best of my ability and despite my frequent failures, I acknowledge that what it has to say to me about my life trumps whatever ideas I might have about my life.  Whatever Scripture has to say about the world around me and my place and function in it gets priority over whatever the world says or whatever I come up with.  Every assertion, every idea has to run through the filter of Scripture first.

There are places where personal interpretation is necessary, of course.  And Christians have, of course, disagreed over a those areas over time.  But that’s different than discarding something the Bible says wholesale simply because you’d rather think about things or act on things or speak about things differently.

And that’s ultimately what’s at play here in the article.  It sounds sympathetic but it’s anything but.  This person who refuses to grant her fellow worshipers forgiveness, and would rather remove herself than have to deal with their obvious (by her definition) sinfulness.   A sinfulness she doesn’t apparently share and therefore can hold herself aloof and separate.  Despite Jesus’ rather pointed directive in Matthew 18:35, after an entire chapter devoted to radically reorienting our ideas about forgiveness.  I wonder if this author has read Matthew 18.

Perhaps not, as she admits that her issues with the Church have been long-standing.  And again, on issues that at least to some degree or spoken to be Scripture, and therefore need to be addressed in that light if you’re going to claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ, the ostensible Lord of your life.  And how do you get to enlarge your idea of God beyond what God himself has told you?  How can you do so reliably?  On what basis?  I’d argue that the Church is indeed necessary, but in a culture of plenty where you find others willing to agree with you it’s easy to forego worship and the Church – along with (God-willing) the teaching and training and study that helps to inform your understanding of God’s Word and ultimately your lived out life of faith.  But then if you don’t really want to listen to what the Bible says, then I can see how going to Church would get a bit frustrating.

I find the third paragraph from the end to be very interesting.  First off, she quotes Emily Dickinson as a way of defending her idea about not going to Church (interestingly, she doesn’t quote Hebrews 10:24-25 on the topic).  While I’m not an expert on Dickinson, I’d argue that despite human tradition (which may or may not be on target), observing the Sabbath and gathering for corporate Christian worship are two different (though historically related) things.  Frankly, I’m  all for worshiping the Sabbath at home or in the woods.  But that means going to church on a different day, since God’s original statements about the Sabbath don’t mention anything about mandatory church attendance.  I can agree with Dickinson and still say the author is misguided in avoiding worship.

Secondly, is Church primarily intended to summon awe and gratitude?  Is that the function of Church?  Since when?  Is that what Acts 4:32-37 is describing?  I don’t think so.  Certainly I personally find the Tetons a better source of awe, and time spent with my family a better source of gratitude.  I don’t assume the Church is trying to compete with those.  It isn’t.  Rather, Church and worship is an opportunity to inform me about how to receive these gifts of God and interact with them responsibly and appreciate them faithfully.  It’s there to teach and act as a resource to my life of faith, a place where I am mentored in the faith as I mentor others.  A place that challenges the ideas I’ve come up with at work or in college or in grad school and demands that I place those up against the Word of God to ensure that I’m not being led astray with allegedly good intentions.  Church is necessary to teach me that the proper response to God’s creation is not only awe, but awe to  the God who created them and who has placed his Word and his Spirit and, very specifically, his Son into creation in order that I might learn and live both now and forever.

No mention in the article is made of what Easter is.  The idea that Jesus was willing to die for a bunch of people who vehemently disagreed with him and were willing to utilize hate and violence to try and silence him.  That He was willing to die so that they might be forgiven.  That He could even say as they raised his cross into place, Father forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).  No mention is made of what God has done for the author, or that the author is in very real need of the same forgiveness from God that all those people at Church she disagrees with are.  No mention is made of the possibility that repentance, not arrogance, is the center of the Christian life, and that as we realize our own sins and shortcomings (instead of obsessing over the sins and shortcomings of other people) that we are changed in the process into people who are certainly willing to stand for what is right, but who are (ideally) also full of humility and grace and the willingness to admit that they might be wrong, but that the one place where that can best be sorted out is in Christian community gathered first and foremost in and around and obedient to the Word of God.

Authority matters.  And what (or who) our authority is ultimately is lived out and demonstrated in our lives and our decisions and the way we are with those around us. I’m glad the author was going to be at Mass on Easter morning.  And I pray that what she heard there reminded her of her own need for forgiveness and humility, as well as her duty to engage her voice in wrestling with Scripture as well as the ideas of the world to see how they work together or not.  I pray that she’ll be back again this week as well.  And the week after.  Forever and ever Amen.

Important Words

February 26, 2018

This is an excellent essay reminding us of the important function of community, both towards families as well as the state.  In the ultimate discussions of solutions to the hopelessness engulfing our youth, we need to remember that it isn’t laws or tools that should be the focus, but neighbors and community.