Saturday, July 31, 2010

Farewell to a Church, Part 6:

Last Sunday was my final day with the church that I have been working at for the past year or so.  The pastor asked me to speak and I am now posting a slightly modified version of the manuscript here in bite sized chunks.

Part 6:  The Gospel and the World

Now we can say these things, and we often do say these things, but I’m afraid, mostly because I have been very convicted of this myself lately, that we too often say these things and stop there. If this really is our faith then it has to be more than just words. And for that to be the case, it has to mean something to us.

When I was in high school I spent a couple of summers doing missions work in Reynosa, Mexico, which is a little border town right across from McAllen, Texas. So when we were in Texas, we were driving through nice suburban type neighborhoods just like what we might see in Hoover or Vestavia Hills around here. And then literally five, maybe ten miles away on the other side of the river, we were walking through neighborhoods where families of 8 or 9 were living in shacks made out of plywood and cardboard. We are so insulated in our society. My dad’s chosen occupation was a graphic design artist. So for any of you who have experience in any artistic field, you probably know how this works- there are a very few elite in the field that do quite well. Then everyone else barely scrapes by.  So when I say my dad was an artist I really mean that he worked every odd job he could find and we still at times were barely making ends meet. But even during the hardest of times then the five of us in my family still had a roof over our heads in a very sturdy suburban house outside Memphis. We still had food to eat. My siblings and I were still going to school. Eventually, my dad got tired of this and he went back to school and got a master’s degree in education and started teaching high school art. And he started off in inner-city schools in Memphis. Now Memphis is a rough little town, and let’s just say that after growing up there absolutely nothing in Birmingham really scares me or makes me uncomfortable. But even in the inner-city neighborhoods where my dad was working those families had some sort of shelter and source of food. They had a chance at going to school at least, though attendance was terrible. The point is even the worst off parts of our society have it good by world standards. The slums of inner city Memphis look like mansions compared to some parts of Mexico. A year ago last February was my British grandfather’s 80th Birthday, and so we got the whole family together and took a cruise in the Caribbean. You get off the ship at different islands and they take you to these very touristy built up areas. Well on one island we got a taxi and told the cab driver to take us to where he goes to hang out. The places he goes to eat, the neighborhood he lives in, etc. We wanted to see the real life of people on this island. And so we start driving and after about three blocks we are out of the tourist district. And about two blocks later, we are looking at shacks made out of plywood and cardboard and occasional pieces of sheet metal. And as we are driving around he is pointing out hotels to us, and apparently the way they measure the quality of the hotels on his island is by how many security checkpoints you have to go through to get to the actual hotel. He pointed out a really nice one where you had to stop for four different checkpoints with armed guards before you even got to the parking lot. I work some with a college ministry in Birmingham called University Christian Fellowship or UCF that is hosted by Mountainbrook Community Church on Highway 280- any of you youth that go to school in Birmingham, you need to check this place out, it’s a fantastic ministry. They partner with a ministry in Haiti that is working to save malnourished children whose families literally have to walk for miles to get to a clinic and have their kids looked at by a doctor to get food because they don’t have any at home. Some very good friends of mine that I just visited in Memphis a couple weeks ago founded a church there that works with crews doing the same thing in Haiti as well as in Africa. Those of you who have seen the movie Taken- the thing we don’t like to think about is that the premise of that movie is real. People all around the world really are being kidnapped and transported around the globe to be used as sex slaves. I just heard a story from a group of students in Birmingham who were doing missions work in Africa and were literally in the restaurant when a suicide bomber blew himself up during the World Cup Final that we were watching comfortably here without even knowing this attack had happened.

The point I’m trying to make throwing out all of these anecdotes is that the world we live in is broken and hurting and full of pain and misery. And we have the answer to that! We have the message that hope does exist. We have the message that God is in control no matter how crazy life seems. We have the message that God knows what our pain and misery feels like- that he has felt what it means to be betrayed or to be alone or to be overwhelmed and confused, that he has felt the agony of pain and death as Jesus died on the cross. And we have the gospel, the good news, that Christ has risen from the dead and that he is ushering in a new age when pain and suffering will be no more, when the hope that is promised to the poor and needy is finally going to come to fruition. We have hope, and we are called to share that hope, and that is what the gospel is about.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Farewell to a Church, Part 5:

Last Sunday was my final day with the church that I have been working at for the past year or so.  The pastor asked me to speak and I am now posting a slightly modified version of the manuscript here in bite sized chunks.

Part 5:  The Faith of Job and the Gospel

The conclusion of the book of Job, I think, is also probably the earliest written form of the foundational belief of our faith. In fact, I think this is the very meaning of faith in Christianity. Faith is not just about believing some statement to be true. Faith is about our trust in God to be in control, to be working all things for good, even when our lives seem violently out of control and headed for disaster. We see this faith played out all across scripture. We see it in the stories of Genesis- God calling Abraham to abandon everything he knows to follow God’s leading, Joseph being betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery and yet still he trusts in God. We see this in the Exodus account as a nervous, shaking Moses is sent by God back to Egypt to challenge the most powerful monarch alive in his day. We see this faith in Joshua and Judges and the stories of David and Elijah as battles are won that can only be attributed to God working. And we find this faith in God to ultimately be in control all throughout the prophets of the Old Testament. I want to read just briefly from one of my absolute favorite passages in Isaiah 61:
The spirit o the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness- the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

Here in Isaiah is a proclamation of the gospel, I think. That the misery and the suffering that we so often face in this life is coming to an end. That God is in control of all things and that we can trust him to bring about justice and to turn our mourning into gladness. I don’t think it is an accident that Jesus begins his ministry in the New Testament with almost the exact same words. Luke records Jesus reading directly from Isaiah 61 at the very beginning of his ministry, and in Matthew chapter 5 Jesus will open his ministry with these famous words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”- echoes of Isaiah.  The book of Revelation closes out the Bible by describing a future time when there will be no more pain and suffering, no more tears, no more death, no more sin. God is in control, he is bringing about the redemption and restoration of his creation, he is undoing the effects of sin and death. We can trust him, even when life seems to make no sense whatsoever.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Farewell to a Church, Part 4:

Last Sunday was my final day with the church that I have been working at for the past year or so.  The pastor asked me to speak and I am now posting a slightly modified version of the manuscript here in bite sized chunks.

Part 4:  The Faith of Job

So it seems like God is saying to Job in essence- “You don’t get an answer to your confusion. You don’t have the right to question or challenge me.” And maybe it’s just our American love of freedom, but I feel like I’m not alone in saying that just doesn’t sit well. But before we throw Job out of our Bibles, we need to look at the next part of the conversation. God starts throwing another barrage of questions at Job, this time questions that probably should alarm us- God begins talking about some frightening monsters that he apparently keeps around.  I’ll leave that for you guys to read about on your own- but after this barrage Job answers in chapter 42:
Then Job answered the Lord: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

This, I think, contains the entire point of this lengthy book. Job says to God- “You are in control, I know that now, and so whatever comes to pass, I trust you to be doing what is ultimately best, even if I don’t understand how.” The conclusion of the book of Job is that in good and bad we can trust God whether or not he explains to us what he is doing because he is in control, there is none who can match his power. The God who made the world, the God to whom none can compare in power or splendor, that is the God to whom we pray when sorrows come, the God we can trust in any and every circumstance.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Farewell to a Church, Part 3:

Last Sunday was my final day with the church that I have been working at for the past year or so.  The pastor asked me to speak and I am now posting a slightly modified version of the manuscript here in bite sized chunks.

Part 3:  Introducing Job

The gospel that we believe as Christians is a gospel that calls us to faith in God, to trust in God, despite whatever may come, whether or not we would have chosen the path he takes us down ourselves. To illustrate that this morning, we are going to look at what is probably the oldest book in our scriptures, the book of Job. Now, there may be some disagreement about this, but my opinion is that Job was written as a drama or a play. I don’t think that this book is meant to tell us about actual events that occurred historically, I think it is meant to illustrate an aspect of life in a dramatic fashion. So where Job lived, what he did, those are all somewhat irrelevant questions. The opening scenes of the book in the throne room of God that record a conversation between God and Satan are not meant to tell us what actually happens in heaven, I don’t think, so much as to act as a back-story setting up a situation that we can all identify with. And that situation is that life does not always go the way we want it to go. Try as we might to avoid it, pain and misery do find us, and disasters do fall on us. If we have not suffered that in life, we will. Perhaps they will not be quite as dramatic as what Job faced in this story, though often times they are. I first really began thinking about this in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti a few months ago. For quite a few families in Haiti after that quake I am sure that Job’s misery was very similar to their own. But to whatever degree that we sympathize with Job, the truth is that we all can sympathize with him. And I think that is the point of the story- to draw us in so that we feel what Job is feeling. We know what completely unexpected disaster feels like. We know what it means to be broadsided with bad news. And probably, we know what it means to have friends trying to comfort us when that bad news arrives.

But in Job’s story the comfort that his friends offer him turns out to not be very comforting. And that is because his friends want to fit everything into nice and neat categories. Only the evil suffer, they want to say, so if Job is suffering like this he must be guilty of some terrible, atrocious sin. That’s the only explanation, and the only response, they say, is that Job must repent and beg God for forgiveness. Unfortunately, as our own experience probably tells us and as the back-story makes clear, these nice-neat categories are not really sufficient. Job has two responses to their explanation for his suffering. One is a question- to ask how they explain all the wicked people who are doing quite well while righteous people barely make do, all the mob bosses who go untouched while innocents die in concentration camps? His second response is to acknowledge that is very possible that he has sinned and deserves this punishment from God, but to say he doesn’t know what his sin is and just wants God to explain why this is happening to him. And so Job is expressing a sentiment I think we have probably all felt, if we are honest. That is the sentiment of just absolute confusion and uncertainty, of not knowing what God is doing or what we should do. So this back-and-forth dialogue goes on for the whole book of Job that leaves us with no conclusion, we still feel the confusion and agony of Job at the end when God finally speaks. Here, we think, we are finally going to find comfort. But what God says, I think, probably strikes us as a little bit unsettling if we are honest. I’m going to read just a little bit of God’s answer in Job 38:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements- surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

Skipping down a little to verse 16:
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.”

And this barrage of question continues until we get to Chapter 40:
And the Lord said to Job: “Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond."

Monday, July 26, 2010

Farewell to a Church, Part 2:

Last Sunday was my final day with the church that I have been working at for the past year or so. The pastor asked me to speak and I am now posting a slightly modified version of the manuscript here in bite sized chunks.

Part II: Two Dangers to the Gospel

The second thing I want to do is share a little bit of what I have been really thinking on a lot lately, what has really been on my heart for the last few weeks at least, really more the last few months. And as a way of warning, some of this may be a bit controversial. But that’s ok, cause I’m leaving, so what you think of me now is really kinda irrelevant… Sort of. We’ll see how this goes…

I want to start by pointing out two dangers to the gospel that we believe as Christians, two dangers that I think have crept into many churches and are in fact prevalent in the society we live in and that if allowed to influence our thinking will completely alter and destroy the heart of our faith.

The first of these dangers is that of over-spiritualizing the gospel. This can take a variety of forms, but basically, it is the mindset that the focus of the gospel is something “other-worldly.” That the sum total of our faith amounts to something spiritual- whether that means the spiritual status of our souls after our physical bodies die or whether that means that our faith necessitates the kind of spiritual experience that indicates we really and truly belong to “another realm.” The problem with this kind of thinking is that we don’t truly belong to “another realm” or “world” but to this one. Now I don’t think this means these are bad things to think about altogether- the reality of life is that it ends in death for every single one of us. And when that happens, I do believe that something happens to our souls, certainly. But I will say that it is interesting to me that you would have to work very, very hard to come up with any sort of “Biblical teaching” about what exactly happens to our souls when we die. If we polled everyone here about what heaven will be like, we would probably have a different answer from every person. If this was really what our faith was all about, you would think the book our faith was built on would be bring a little more clarity to the subject. Instead, the Bible spends much more time focused on the world we live in right now and how we should engage and live in it. That, I think, is because this is our home, not some spiritual place. We are people meant to be God’s people, his image-bearers, here. And so theology that over-spiritualizes our faith, that makes it too much about some place that isn’t here, is I think very dangerous theology.

The second danger is over-materializing the gospel. I hear many, many very popular preachers in our society today for whom the sum total of their message is that God is going to give you exactly what you want and make all your dreams come true. But I don’t think that this is what the gospel amounts to, either. Our faith is about the world that we live in right now, but it also about God’s plan for this world and not ours. It is about us learning to submit to that plan, learning to trust God in all the circumstances of our life and not treating God as a genie in a bottle that we can call upon to do whatever we like, not using God to “baptize” our dreams or our vision of how the world should be and make that into “gospel truth.” No, that kind of selfish materialism is not the gospel.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Farewell to a Church, Part 1

This morning was my last Sunday with the church that I have been working at for the past year or so.  The pastor asked me to speak this morning and my plan is to post a slightly modified version of my manuscript on this blog in a few bite-sized chunks over the next week or so…

Part 1:  Huge Thanks to the Church:

There are basically three things I want to do this morning. The first is to say thank you all for allowing me to be a part of your church family here, I have appreciated my time here more than I could ever say. I grew up a church in Memphis that really was like a family to me, and since I moved to Birmingham, I have worked or been involved in probably a dozen churches and this is the first one where I would really say that I have actually felt at home here and with all of you, so thank you for that! I hope that I have served you all even half as much as I feel like you have all blessed me in the last year or so. I’m gonna miss you guys, I’m gonna miss this place, but I’m hoping and looking forward to a time in the future when we can all reunite, if not in this life than in the next, and hear about the things that have happened in our lives in that intervening period.  I think that God has great things in store for all of us, an I'm excited about the future, even if it is hard to leave behind a place as great as this one.  So I guess I just want to say thank you for making it so hard to leave!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Justice and the Redemption of God

Southeastern Bible College asked me to speak for their chapel last semester.  Above is a recording.  Three things to note:

1.  This was given at a college so it was written for an academic setting.  So its not technically a sermon and possibly is a bit more "technical" than a message that I might give in a church or to a youth group.

2.  I have decided I hate listening to myself.  Listening to recordings of yourself lends itself to hearing all the times you mispronounced something or stuttered or said "um" or breathed funny or had an annoying squeak in your voice.  Hopefully, none of those things are nearly as distracting for you as they are for me.

3  Please note that I have climbed to the steeple of the roof pictured in this video.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reflections After Traveling: Cautious Hope and Real Need

Spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of last week visiting some friends in my hometown of Memphis, TN and helping with a camp their ministry, Nations Church, was putting on. The camp was a pretty awesome concept- they took a couple of youth groups totaling about 80 kids and sent them each day to different work projects in inner-city Memphis helping with things like restoring houses, working on a neighborhood garden, and teaching refugees English to help them get started in this country. I feel like I contributed very little if any to this camp, but just the experience of observing what was happening there and of being privy to the many discussions of the church leaders surrounding the events of the camp and the vision of the church was a really fantastic experience! I am not kidding when I say that a part of me has seriously considered the last few days dropping everything I am doing to move back to Memphis and join their ministry there...

Also got to talk with Duke, the lead pastor of Nations quite a bit. Duke is a really cool guy. He has a Ph.D. in Old Testament, which is one of the things that I have thought about doing a doctorate in (my problem is I am interested in too much to narrow down the field…). So he is very knowledgeable of the "academic" side of Christianity. But he has also been very involved in ministry, specifically missions, and has a very practical perspective. So in a lot of ways he is, I think, someone who is traveling down a path very similar to the one I am traveling down but who is much farther down that path. So it was really great to talk with him and learn from him. It has been a really beneficial, edifying experience, I think.

Another member of their staff that I talked with a good deal was Paul. I have a feeling Paul and I may be a bit more different in our thinking, but we certainly I think share a disillusionment with many aspects of the Southern "Church Culture" and a heart for seeing the church really engage the serious issues that our world is facing. As we talked about this Paul asked a very interesting question- whether from my perspective I have hope for the church or am moving to the outside of things?

I think my answer is that I am cautiously hopeful. I am hopelessly prone to try and understand causes in terms of ideology/philosophy/modes of thinking, and hence my draw toward academics. But in academic circles I am seeing a shift that I think is cause for optimism. In my view the things that cause my disillusionment with church culture is largely based on very bad understanding of the relationship between the physical and spiritual realities we acknowledge as Christians. There are two ways to understand those things- as largely parallel or as closely connected/intersecting. If we take the spiritual and material realities to be largely parallel and separate, then it becomes very easy to put all our emphasis on the spiritual reality in "religious" circles. This is what I run into very frequently in highly conservative "Baptist" circles in the South- a view of religion that says that the sum total of Christianity is about what happens after we die and that wants to ensure that our soul ends up in the right place when that happens, a thing that can be ensured after a single "moment of salvation." Thus, engaging the challenges of this life, the difficult issues that face our society and our world, is something that maybe is nice to do but certainly not essential or necessary (and thus this kind of religion can be very easily paired with ultra-conservative politics that refuses to engage these issues). This kind of thinking is in my opinion nothing more than Gnostic Heresy reemerging in our contemporary churches. If we view the spiritual and physical as connected and intersecting, however, then we will take a different approach in dealing with our world. Now, our world and the issues that face it matter and dealing with them is part of our duty as Christians who are representatives of a spiritual kingdom that is breaking into the material world to give hope to the poor that one day justice will be restored and what is broken will be set straight again! My studies of history lead me to believe that this view is the view of Orthodox Christianity, the view of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and every other major Christian leader throughout history until very recently when for a variety of reasons the more conservative strains of Christianity in America began systematically disengaging from the world around them.

So we have two very different philosophies/theologies. The first is the source of my disillusionment with the Church on many levels and the reason that Churches like Nations may at times feel frustrated that the call to do the work of God goes unanswered in such a heavily churched culture as the one we live in. However, in my opinion, the second more Orthodox view is making a comeback, especially in Anglican and Methodist and to a certain extent "Reformed" circles. It may take a while for this comeback to be fully realized to the extent that we would like, but seeing this at least makes me cautiously optimistic that things are getting better, that the church is trying to reconnect with the world in a meaningful way, that our vision is coming down out of the "lofty clouds" to deal with real life.

So this sense of cautious hope I think makes me a bit slower than the crew at Nations to strike out on my own, though in a way that is not entirely true. They are coming from the same "Baptist" culture that I came from, a culture that I have largely abandoned for Anglican/Methodist thought. So I am certainly in the same position as they are in saying something in our thinking desperately needs to change. There are challenges and problems that we desperately need to face, both in our own lives and in the larger world, in our neighborhoods and around the world. There is a real need for change. But I think the tide is turning a little and the change is coming. Part of what I want to be about (and this week I have been very convicted that I am not doing nearly enough to contribute to this) is fighting to ensure that the tide continues to move in this direction, change continues to happen and real engagement with our world becomes the norm for the Church.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Already, Not Yet and Legalism

Sat in on a Bible study discussing the first section of Romans chapter 2 tonight.  The discussion was pretty good, and I think they made a very helpful contextualization/contemporizing of the passage by talking about on the one hand the flagrant sinner who wants everything their way and thus rejects God (the very Jewish critique of Gentile paganism that precedes this passage in Romans chapter 1) and on the other, the superficial morality that so dominates particularly Southern culture- the Baptist who always votes Republican and never drinks, for instance, which hides the fact that this person is still every bit as guilty of sin and in need of redemption (the hypocritical judge at the beginning of Romans 2).  Essentially, the point of the discussion was to say that every person has a "god" who has captured their loyalty and as sinful people, this is not the true God regardless of whether we live in flagrant sin and open denial of God or hide behind a mask of legalism.

So in discussing this legalistic individual, it was said that such a person's "god"- their source of joy- was in their moral behavior, their legalism.  The alternative, the worship of the true God, it was said, is to find our joy in God, in Christ alone, and not in what we do.  I discussed this some with the speaker afterwards, but in reflecting on it more it inspired me to write a little.  I started off by wondering if this is not too simplistic of a distinction.  So to use an analogy- it seems like when we find joy in a person, part of that joy is in the person themselves, but likewise a significant part of that joy comes from doing things for that person.  To use the perhaps overused but still helpful analogy of a romantic pursuit- if I am pursuing a girl, that is motivated by my appreciation for who she is (and for some reason describing that appreciation as "joy" seems like an odd fit, though certainly the feeling would be akin to joy), but in large part the joy I receive from that relationship is going to found in doing things for her, if for no other reason than that this secures affection towards me from her.  Likewise, I think, we certainly as Christians are motivated by an appreciation for who God is.  But I think, likewise, that a good portion of our joy in God comes not just from reflecting on his character (if I just sat around day-dreaming about this girl you would just call me silly) but from actually doing things for him, doing morally good deeds, etc.

So what this accomplishes is establishing that legalism is a bit of a sticky issue because in fact doing good/living well are expressions of our appreciation for God, and in fact are a necessary part of expressing that and rightfully should bring us joy.  At what point, then, do they become legalistic and dangerous?  At what point do they become an idol that has replaced the God they were meant to serve?

Well in reflecting more on this since talking about this with the speaker tonight, I have thought that the New Testament motif of "already, not yet" may be of help here.  The idea of this tension is that we are living in between the completion of one age and the full arrival of another, the transition period from the reign of sin and death on this earth to the full reign of Christ.  So already, Christ has come, he has died, he has been raised from the dead.  Already, the death blow has been dealt to the enemy.  But the enemy is not yet dead.  The kingdom is not yet fully here.  Sin is not yet fully removed from this world, death has not yet ceased.  And so we live celebrating what has already occurred and looking forward to the final fulfillment of what will yet come to be.  Now, typically this scheme is used to explain the eschatological tension of the New Testament.  But I think it can also help us understand our own sanctification, our own growth as Christians, and the boundaries of legalism.  Already, we have been purchased by Christ and set apart as his people.  But we are not yet fully there.  All of us still wrestle with sin.  We still live in a world that is crippled by sin.  So we live as those who are growing, but are not yet grown, who are advancing, but have not yet arrived.  My alternative understanding of when our striving to live morally upright lives becomes legalism is when we no longer feel the need to grow.  When we arrive and think that we are "good" and have no need to improve.  When we no longer look for our flaws, we are not willing to subject ourselves to self-criticism or listen to the criticism of others. That is when we have made our own morality our idol because we have declared it the perfect standard.

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