I want to conclude this little mini-series on mysticism with some thoughts on how mere mortals can join the ranks of the mystics. As with virtually everything else that I write, I cannot claim any true originality here, only in the sense of putting these ideas together in the manner that I have.
To begin with, it should go without saying, but you must first of all desire to submit to the reign of God. This is so obvious, but then again, I am the master at discovering what everyone else already knows. If you do not want God to reign in your life, or in anyone else’s life, He simply will not force himself upon you. To want God to reign in your life you must be willing to surrender every other king in your life – money, prestige, power, status, country, possessions, even people. To say, “Thy kingdom come” means just that – not a democracy or a meritocracy, but a monarchy. Those who say they want God to reign in their life while continuing to submit to the principalities and powers of this world are deceiving themselves – and God cannot be deceived.
We are to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is an all-or-nothing adventure. To join with Peter walking on the waves of the storm-washed sea we have to be willing to let go of the boat. This is the problem I see with most “Christianity” in America today. We are half-hearted at best. We want God plus America (or America plus God). We want God plus the Constitution. We want God plus the greatest armed forces the world has ever known. We want God plus every technological discovery that we have or ever will create. We do not want God, we want God plus something else. We want God.1. That is NOT seeking the kingdom of God. That is NOT seeking God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is not seeking God’s kingdom first, and allowing him to add “all these things.”
Next, a person seeking the reign of God in their lives will conform their life to the pattern of Jesus. They will study the life and teachings of Christ as their only sure guide to learning the will of the Father. The beatitudes become no longer a list of virtues to emulate, but the reality of everyday life. The parables no longer serve as topics for academic study, but an entrance into the kingdom. Along with the life of Jesus they will absorb as much of the rest of Scripture as they possibly can. They will learn from the great inspired mystics – from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Paul and Peter and John. Every page of the Bible will be to them a treasure of untold value – revealing the heart and will of God in heaven, whose reign they purely and entirely seek. Jesus, however, will be the center around which every other detail of Scripture revolves. Christ is the center, the norm, of a mystic life. It was Christ who inaugurated the ultimate reign of God, and it will be Christ who returns to fully embody that reign.
Third, a person seeking the reign of God will decide, based on what the Scriptures and Jesus teach them about the reign of God, whether they want to accept that reign or refuse it. Just because the reign was fervently desired in the first place does not mean that every person will decide to accept that reign. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, even while he was on the very threshold of accepting the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul wrote of a certain Hymenaeus and Alexander who had made a shipwreck out of their faith, and who had apparently decided to rescind their allegiance to the reign of God. Experience tells me that many fit Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls on the weedy soil – the heart accepts the message with gladness but there is just too much “stuff” that chokes out God’s kingdom. So, following desire and discovery there comes the point of decision. Is God going to reign, or not? There is no other question, there is no other answer.
Finally, the one who places God as the king in their life will actually live as if God is the king of their life. How do you think Abraham had the courage to leave his father’s faith and country? How do you think Joseph was able to risk his life to remain pure? How do you think Moses had the nerve to stand up to Pharaoh? How do you think Daniel and his three friends had the courage to defy the king? How do you think Paul could stand up to Herod? How could John write from Patmos to tell the seven churches to stand up against Caesar? The answer to each and every situation was that these faithful, these disciples, these mystics, all had the kingdom of God securely implanted in their heart. They knew who was the king, and the earthly power that threatened them was simply not worthy of their fear, and certainly not of their devotion.
We are a nation of sanctimonious cowards. We fear the government. We fear losing our Constitution. We fear what will happen to us if, by some horrible circumstance, we are caught without our fully loaded handgun on our person. We fear what will happen if we stop building multi-million dollar airplanes to drop multi-million dollar bombs. We fear losing our freedom, yet we are too ignorant to realize that is striving for every human comfort and safety we have sacrificed our greatest freedom – the freedom to live in and expand the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God knows nothing of Constitutions and guns and airplanes and bombs. The symbols of the kingdom of God are a towel and a cross. The towel is to serve this world, and the cross is to die to it and for it.
As I started this series, I said that the world does not like mystics. The world punishes, persecutes, and even kills mystics. Jesus predicted his followers would be hated. Paul predicted his churches would face tribulation. John saw only martyrdom for those who remained faithful to the word of the cross. To share in the resurrection of Jesus we must first share in his death. When we invite the kingdom into our life, the hatred of the world will soon follow. But if we are to follow Jesus, how can it be any other way?
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NLT)
The kingdom is among us. I pray we want it. I pray we are searching for it. I pray we care enough to learn what it means. I pray we decide to accept it, and live like we accept it.
I pray we all, in whatever measure we can, will accept the call to be mystics – and begin to live as if the kingdom has arrived.
Taking a break from writing to do a little writing...and it's been a long summer of writing!
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Another example of the inability of America to move beyond its racist past has embroiled the country in a racial stare down. The major media outlets are full of articles and stories and editorials about how we can fix this problem or that problem. The biggest problem is, the solutions offered will only serve to make the problem (racism) worse. Every solution involves the distinction of races, making racism the measuring tool for the elimination of racism. It just won’t work.
For example, the overwhelming majority of articles, and editorials I have read over the past several weeks pontificate that “white people are going to have to…” or “white Christians are going to have to…” or more generically, “the white Church is going to have to…” When you identify a group of people by their skin color or some other ethnic identification you have become part of the problem. You are a racist.
I have noticed a glaring absence in all of these articles and editorials and blogs. Nowhere have I read, “the problem with black America is…” or “black Christians must…” or “the black Church must…” According to the overwhelming majority of mainstream media, “Christian” bloggers and preachers, the only people who have a race problem are white people.
That is simply racist, and you probably think I am racist for thinking so.
In this latest example of racial unrest, a young man was killed by a police officer. Oops, I forgot to mention those two adjectives: a young black man was killed by a white police officer. What would have happened if the officer was. . .black, or Latino? What if the officer was female instead of male? Would there have been riots? Where would Al Sharpton be?
You see, there is a huge racial problem in America. There can be no denying that fact. Deniers in this case are not only ignorant, they are stupid.
There may have been a racial component in the shooting of the young man in Missouri. Only an unbiased search for truth will bring that out. If the officer is guilty of a racial bias he needs to be punished appropriately. If there was no racial bias, and if, as has been suggested, the officer was fighting to save his life, then he needs to be exonerated.
But, this also needs to be said… Every day dozens of young black men are killed as the result of gangs, drugs, and other criminal acts. There are no riots, there are no marches, no caravan of satellite TV trucks show up, there is a glaring absence of the politicians crying out for justice and equality. The difference is that in Missouri the black man was killed by a white police officer, and in Chicago and New York and Los Angeles and Atlanta and in virtually every other major metropolitan city, when a black man dies at the hands of another black man no one seems to notice or care.
In God’s kingdom there is no such thing as race. Every human is equal. Every death matters – God does not wish that any should die (Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9). God certainly did not desire the death of the young man in Missouri. And God does not wish the death of any police officer who is killed in the line of his or her duty to protect the lives and property of the citizens he or she is sworn to protect.
The reality is, until we can learn to see past race and view each death as the death of a human being, without any attachments, we will never move beyond the issue of racism. As long as we use race as the measuring stick, we are doomed to be a nation of racists.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once so famously and correctly said, let us move toward the day when all young men and young women will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
I apologize to my out-of-the-U.S. readers, but this is where I live, and if you do not have this problem consider yourself extremely blessed.
Yesterday I wrote what probably has been my most angry post. I am still fuming – and believe me, what I posted was nowhere near as vitriolic as what I deleted. Quite simply I cannot fathom why anyone would consider a personal “right” (whether it truly is or not is debatable) over the life of another human being, but especially the child of grieving parent. Enough of that.
The question I want to pose today is why do American “Christians” have such a morbid attachment to the U.S. Constitution? Why are American Christians so emotionally attached to that piece of paper? Can anyone explain that?
Really, people – its just a piece of paper. A bunch of human beings got together, wrote it down and then voted on what they wrote. It is as simple as that. There was no divine intervention, no words from Mt. Sinai, and there were clearly no words from Golgotha. It was a significant human achievement, I will grant you. But Americans, and Christians in America especially, act as if Moses carried down the mountain before the 10 Commandments. I mean, wasn’t Moses elected president of the NRA? That’s good enough for most Duck Dynasty fans, anyway.
Here is a little exercise for you – think of the most horrific thing that can happen to the U.S. Constitution. Was it destroyed? Did a foreign country overwhelm the U.S. and burn it to ashes? Did the President get it annulled? (Our current one is working on it, by the way). Got it? Now, what would change about your life?
Really, seriously – what would change if the Constitution was to be destroyed? Would you maybe lose your job? Would you become a slave? Would you have to go to an interment camp? Maybe your family would be killed? Maybe you would be killed?
Well, guess what, good Christian American – each and every one of those things has occurred to people as a direct result of the U.S. Constitution! If you doubt be ask the descendent of a slave. Ask a Native American Indian whose ancestors were beaten, raped, forced to live in “Reservations” (which is a really polite word for “Concentration Camp”) and, if they resisted, were murdered by the thousands. Ask the Chinese who were forced to work as virtual slaves as the country moved west. Ask the Japanese and German immigrants who were forced to live in interment camps during WWII simply because of their last names. Yeah, boy, we have a long list of Christian accomplishments – all at the power of the U.S. Constitution.
If the U.S. Constitution were destroyed tomorrow I will tell you what would still be true – God would still be God, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross would still be effective for all who believe in him, disciples of Christ would still be able to live in the greatest free country in the world – the country of the Kingdom of God.
No human can ever be really free just because of the accident of his or her birth. No human can ever be a slave to anyone if that person has been set free by the blood of Christ. We are all, each and every human who has ever lived, ultimately the slave of whichever god we choose to be the ruler of our life. And that subjection is proclaimed most clearly by the things we protect the most fiercely and those things we absolutely refuse to give up.
So, I ask again, why are American Christians so devoted to the Constitution? Oh, I think I just answered my own question.
1. Would what I preach get me killed?
2. Would what I preach get me arrested?
3. Would what I preach even get someone angry at me?
4. Would what I preach even upset someone?
5. Would what I preach even get someone to take notice?
Jesus, Peter, John, Paul – they all stressed to their readers that the proclamation of the gospel would result in rejection, tribulation, persecution.
Today we sugar-coat everything. The gospel will make you richer, more peaceful, help you with your marriage, your career, maybe even your health.
All of which makes me wonder if we are preaching the gospel at all. It just seems to me that if we bend over backwards not to have happen what Jesus, Peter, John and Paul all said would happen places us in a very precarious position.
I do not want anyone to hate Jesus. I do not want anyone to hate the church. I do not want to drive anyone away from the truth. So, I try to make the gospel palatable. I try to “accentuate the positive.” I try to shine the spotlight on the empty tomb and try to keep the bloody cross carefully out-of-sight. And, the question still nags at me: does what I preach and teach even matter at all?
The apostles practiced some pretty severe “boundary protection.” They made sure everyone that entered the church did so under the shadow of the cross, and they were not afraid to hand certain malefactors “over to Satan” so that their soul might be redeemed.
Us? Do we tell people – “Hey, get baptized today and tomorrow you may be fired from your job”? Are we willing to tell people that as far as we are concerned they are Satan’s play toy until they learn what being in Hell is really like? Paul had some pretty sharp language, you know (1 Tim. 1:20, 2 Tim. 2:16).
All of which leads me to ask #6 –
6. Are we preaching “peace, peace” when there truly is no peace? (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11. Notice the context!)
[Opinion disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this piece are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect the views of anyone that I am associated with – and that includes my wife, child, employers, my four cats, my rambunctious puppy or my very limited number of friends – or at least the friends who considered themselves my friends before they read this blog. My language is hyperbolic and some might consider it extreme. I intentionally did so for a purpose. I just want to make that point perfectly clear. In my next post I will return to a “quieter” and more analytical response. Today the right brain, tomorrow the left.]
There have been a flurry of “Christian” or biblical-themed movies hit the big screen in recent years, and especially in recent months. Just a few that come to mind are “The Passion of the Christ,” “Fireproof,” a somewhat lesser release called “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry,” the most recent additions “God’s Not Dead,” and “Noah” and the soon to be released “Son of God” and “Heaven Is For Real.” I know I am missing many, but these are the ones that jump to my mind.
“The Passion of the Christ” and the recent release of “Noah” have generated the most discussion, mostly because they were big budget, big name releases that were heavily advertised and were, in different ways, very controversial. “The Passion of the Christ” was controversial because of the persona of Mel Gibson, hardly a choir boy, who pushed the movie from conception to completion. It was also brutally graphic – some reviewers felt it was almost obscenely so. “Noah” is controversial because (a) the only relation it has to the biblical story is the namesake and a lot of water and (b) I believe the producers and marketers of the movie wanted it to be controversial so they could sell more tickets.
In my opinion, many, though not all, “Christian” themed movies are just bad – some wretchedly so. I believe this first because of the (un)theology involved. Others suffer from low budgets and poor acting, directing and other technical aspects. Some are just so blatantly transparent that they reek of condescension and hyper-morality. Once again, in my opinion these movies are not just bad – they are bad in epic proportions – dreadfully, wretchedly, horrifically, insultingly bad.
So why are these movies so popular? Why do otherwise sane and believable ministers and bloggers scream “You HAVE to go see this movie” in bold letters and with three exclamation marks at the end? The obvious answer is that perhaps they have seen the movie and they genuinely like it. Movies are like anything else – my tastes are not everyone else’s tastes. What is garbage to me is a diamond to someone else. So, while you may think a particular movie is the greatest thing since “Gone With the Wind” I will politely say that hitting my thumb with a hammer is a far more enjoyable experience than watching it.
But I would like to suggest that there is another reason why any movie that has a vague “Christian” message is hyped so relentlessly, regardless of whether there are any artistic or theological reasons for doing so (or for avoiding it, for that matter.) I believe that most “Christian” movies are hyped and are popular with “Christian” audiences because that demographic is so starving for anything that even resembles “secular” themed movies that the Christian audience will simply neutralize any intellectual or critical component of their thinking because they want to go watch a movie that is one of “ours.” We have bought into the concept of “group-think” to the point that we cannot criticize or reject any product that has a “Christian” message because we would be guilty of shooting ourselves in the foot. I have been more than mildly amused with the fact that the greatest amount of negativity regarding the release of “Noah” is NOT directed at the movie (contrary to what some may think), but the real vitriol has been reserved for those reviewers (Christian or secular) who happen to criticize the movie on any of its major faults. It is “biblical,” it is at least tangentially related to God and faith (how much is dependent upon the viewer) and so the movie and the ones who produced it are viewed as being simply beyond criticism. “Hey Christians, we made a movie for you so shell out your money and keep your mouth shut.”
I guess I am more disappointed in the ones who should really know better – the ministers and church leaders who should (one would hope) have a greater grasp of theology and apologetics. I have to say in all honesty that the entire premise of “God’s Not Dead” is so incredibly laughable that I honestly wonder what anyone related to the film was thinking when they put the storyline together. A professor wasting an already limited amount of class time to having a debate with a student? A student getting away with yelling at a professor in front of a class? And really, how many professors would waste their time forcing their students to sign an atheist manifesto like “God is dead”? Now – I am well aware that atheistic professors will openly belittle and ridicule Christianity. But, come on people! Sometimes our spiritual xenophobia is so extreme that it borders on psychotic illness. I have agnostic/atheistic students in my classes who (a) would never set foot in a movie theatre with such a blatantly condescending title as that movie and (b) even if they did they would laugh out loud at the ridiculous setting of the movie. And they would definitely not appreciate the characterization of the professor in the movie.
Brothers and sisters, if we want to attract an agnostic or atheistic audience and honestly engage them in a meaningful discussion, insulting their intelligence is NOT the way to go about it. If we want to show that the message of Christianity is superior to that of the atheist, we should portray the atheist as the atheists or agnostics that I know – honest, kind, logical thinking people who are open to the person of Jesus but who have been led astray or even brutalized by a false manifestation of Christianity. (Incidentally – the movie itself violates a major rule of logic. In a proper philosophy class you would never be allowed to create a “straw man” type of opponent, which is exactly what the professor in the movie becomes. We think that because the “straw man” was defeated all similar arguments are thereby defeated. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the depiction is inherently misleading and therefore unethical.)
But these movies are NOT made for atheists or agnostics, they are made for “Christians,” because “God” or some biblical character’s name is in the title and they are supposed to “prove” that God is not dead or that he did thus and such thousands of years ago. They are designed to reinforce our already solid convictions. So “Christians” are shelling out dollars by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, and no one is asking the 8 most basic, fundamental questions a Christian should ask about movies such as these – is this movie true? Is it honorable? Is it just? Is it pure? Is it lovely? Is it gracious? Is it excellent? Is it worthy of praise? (Philippians 4:8). If it fails on a majority of these questions then we should not support it. (I would also argue that these questions should be asked of ANY movie we think about seeing!)
C.S. Lewis is reported to have said that the world does not need more Christian literature. What the world needs, he said, was more literature produced by Christians that was excellent literature – good, solid, captivating stories that were told in a brilliant manner. I agree wholeheartedly with Lewis. What we need are wonderful movies, well written, beautifully acted and produced, and marketed not as “Christian” apologetics, but simply as captivating, worthwhile movies the whole family can view and enjoy.
And, maybe, if we did that, we might actually be able to engage our agnostic or atheistic friends in some honest and open discussion.
If you are a child of the American Restoration Movement you are the product of debate. Not many of us realize that, but it is as certain as the brightness of the sun or the scent of a rose. We may describe it differently, but the reality exists. The overwhelming majority of our theological beliefs have been hammered out and refined through the process of written or oral debate.
While some criticize this, or bemoan it, in reality this is a healthy process. In fact, we can see the very first “ancestor” of the debate process in Acts 15. Two groups of people, each with differing opinions and with differing evidence to defend those opinions, meet together for an open airing of the differences and the resolution of the problem. In several of his letters the apostle Paul carries on “debates” of sorts with his readers. He offers what is, or what he believes might be, an argument against his position, and then demonstrates why that particular argument or statement is false.
Debate is NOT an evil thing.
However, I am growing more convinced by the day that civil debate in a modern setting is virtually impossible. There are many reasons why I think this is true, so let me list a few:
1. Theological positions become emotional positions, and the resulting language makes it impossible for the opposing side to articulate any kind of positive position. They are always on the defensive, and are in a no-win situation to begin with. Case in point: I just read a tweet (message on the social media Twitter) in which those who disagree with the full inclusion of women in every aspect of a Christian worship service are guilty of “gender injustice.” Now, because I disagree with the position that women can participate in every aspect of leadership within a congregation, including leadership within a worship service, automatically I am guilty of injustice. Let’s parse that for a minute – what does injustice mean to you? Cruelty? Viciousness? Overweening power and brutality? The denial of basic human dignity? How, might I gently respond, does a complementarian position in which women are viewed as equal in every sense of the word, but have differing roles to fulfill in the Christian economy, equate to injustice? Yet, the inclusion of that word precludes any rational debate.
2. Those who hold a particular opinion refuse to consider the weakness of their position, or any possible exceptions to their opinion. Case in point: growing up within the Churches of Christ I was taught from a very early age that the Greek preposition eis means “for the purpose of.” Thus it was crystal clear that when Peter said “Repent and be baptized eis the forgiveness of sins” he meant “for the purpose of receiving the forgiveness of sins.” Nothing could be clearer. I was told that those who translated the word eis as “because of” were completely wrong, both in Greek and in theology. Imagine my surprise, then, when in doing maybe the most exhaustive research that I have ever done for a series of sermons, that I discovered that there is, indeed, a use of the Greek preposition eis that has to mean “because of.” The passage is Matthew 12:41, where Jesus very clearly states that the men of Nineveh repented eis the preaching of Jonah. Now, eis cannot mean “for the purpose of” in this passage! It has to mean “because of” or “as a result of.” Now, do not get me wrong. I still believe eis in Acts 2:38 means “for the purpose of.” But I learned an important lesson. We cannot summarily dismiss every challenge to our conclusions without carefully considering the basis of that challenge. Yet, today, objections and challenges are routinely dismissed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is mentioned in point #1 above, if you disagree with me all you are is a mean, nasty, inhuman person, and probably ignorant as well.
3. The differing sides cannot even agree on the measure that would be used to decide the truthfulness or falsity of any position. In Acts 15 the disciples relied upon Scripture and the leading of the Spirit to come to a unified position. Today that appears to be all but impossible. Returning to the issue of women and leadership roles in the church, I have repeatedly asked how it could be that Paul would so clearly and unambiguously state in Galatians 3:27-28 that women are to be full and equal partners in every possible scenario in the Lords kingdom, and yet in writings which were either possibly or even certainly produced much later than the Galatian letter reverse himself and teach that only men are to lead in certain aspects of the church. We are not simply arguing two different interpretations of Galatians 3:27-28. We are approaching the question from two entirely different philosophical and epistemological foundations. If we cannot even decide on a mutually agreeable measuring stick, how can we even begin to engage in profitable debate?
In pointing these issues out I have to admit my own weakness and shortcomings in the process. I am emotionally invested in my conclusions. After all, if a position is not worth defending it is not worth holding. And, as I pointed out in point #2, I have been guilty on more than one occasion of assigning false motives and conclusions to my opponents. I hope I am better now, and I hope I get even better with time, but human flesh is human flesh and I still catch myself violating my own standards from time to time.
I hope I am wrong, I hope that as disciples we could gather and join in a decent “conference” or debate and constructively address some of these issues. I just do not see that happening any time soon – and that saddens me.
For a people immersed and raised in the cauldron of discussion and debate we owe it to our forebears to be able to acquit ourselves better.
Stream of consciousness alert here – this post may not flow too logically. If you get confused, that’s okay. I am confused too.
Something Rush Limbaugh said the other day resonated with me. The only time I listen to Limbaugh is when I am in my car driving to my exercise or to lunch. I cannot give you the set up for the comment beyond he was discussing global warming (a massive hoax according to RL). The thing he said that made me start thinking was the overweening pride and arrogance that we who are alive today have when we think that we have everything all figured out, that we are the paragon of all human existence. In regard to global warming his point is that we think we have a real crisis here because the average temperature of the atmosphere has gone up a degree or so in the past 100 years or whatever. Of course, if we think that we are the be-all and end-all of civilization, we might have reason to be concerned. But if you look at the thousands of years of human civilization, who is to say that OUR atmosphere is the norm by which we should gauge all atmospheres? Maybe we have been living for the past 1,000 years in a atmospheric freak, and our world is just beginning to settle the score and get back to the way things were 1,000 years or more ago.
Whatever. You can have your own opinion about global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it. But what does his theory have to do with spiritual issues? Have we decided that we, in the 20th/21st century have discovered what the sum total of godly living is? Are we going to measure all civilizations, past and future, against our vast and unchallenged spiritual maturity?
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As I was explaining to one of my classes this past week, if we viewed all of humankinds’ knowledge as one of our oceans, what we know right now at this moment in history amounts to about a sewing thimble full of water. Our arrogance, however, exceeds that of the distance between the earth and the sun.
Where this slaps me upside the head right now is in trying to figure out why so many young people who are raised in the church are leaving the church, and what we can do, if anything, to reverse the trend. In a moment that may be born more of fatigue and frustration I’ve come to think that what we have been doing for the past 40 years is exactly the wrong thing to be doing!
You see, I was lucky to be raised at a time in which youth ministry was just getting started. I was blessed to have some of the finest youth ministers in the Churches of Christ influence me – perhaps one of the finest ever in the person of Bobby Hise. But, looking back on the situation through the eyes of a (mumble, mumble) year old, I wonder if we are not doing more harm than good by trying to “meet the needs” of teenagers and trying to “make the Bible relevant” to teenagers. I see more time, money and energy going into youth ministries today than ever before with decreasing results – when the graduates of these programs enter college or young adulthood they leave the churches in droves. Why? What are we doing that is producing such negative effects?
I think part of the answer goes back to Limbaugh’s observation. We have convinced ourselves that the next generation is the only generation that matters, and we will do anything and everything to make sure they have it better than we did. We have flashier worship services, the latest and greatest (and hippest) songs, we have multiple screens for our video sermons and the teens can interact with the speaker on their smart phones. Yet, I can tell you emphatically that our college students know far less Bible now than my high school classmates did “x” number of years ago.
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My friends, in the local vernacular, we are all hat and no cattle.
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Okay, I’ll admit it – I grew up spoiled. I had the world handed to me on a silver platter and served to me with a silver spoon. We had youth rallies and special classes and impressive camps designed just for us. We got to sing our special songs and we even taught some of them to the adults. And, as good American parents we have even upped the ante with our children and grandchildren. We will move heaven and earth to make sure our children and grandchildren are pacified and satisfied in a church that they will believe is “relevant,” whatever in the world that means.
And, boy – just look at the results. Look around at the average congregation. How many college students do you see? How many 20-30 somethings do you see? Some congregations may be doing very well, thank you. I suspect most are not.
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I find it more than simply fascinating that at the exact moment in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the gospel writers emphasize that Jesus began to teach the disciples that being the Christ meant death on a cross. Not only that, but being a disciple meant following that death on the cross and perhaps even sharing in that death on a cross.
So, while we are teaching that the Christian life is cool and hip and everybody should be a Christian and churches should try to do everything in their power to make sure we are comfortable and satisfied and have all our narcissistic needs met (especially if we are young and beautiful), Jesus was saying, “Hold on here – you got the theology right, I am the Son of God. But do you really know what that means and what following me means?”
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The point is, when increased budgets and activity result in decreased results, maybe we have something backwards. Maybe we have had something backwards for over a generation now. Maybe we need to re-think the whole discipleship issue, from the ground up.
Maybe we should be teaching more about the cross and doing less spiritual spoiling of our children, grandchildren, and converts.
Meant to tackle this topic last week, and the wheels came off of my planning cart.
A few months ago I wrote a response to the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a photographer could not legally refuse to participate in a homosexual wedding regardless of that photographer’s religious belief. In the weeks/months that have passed since that ruling the accounts of courts and judges forcing people to accept and even participate in what they view as aberrant behavior have just mushroomed. In my last post I mentioned I would suggest a way forward for the church, but in reality what I have to say is not new – either to me or to others. So, I am not claiming originality here, but I would like to share once again what I believe the church must do, or must continue to do if it is already doing so.
By way of reminder, I do not see the United States as a Christian nation. Perhaps we once were: that point can be debated. But we should no longer use the phrase if we are to have any respectability. At one time those who lived in the United States but were not Christians managed to smile when Christians invoked the phrase. Now, the American world is no longer smiling. The quaint little expression “Freedom of Religion” now is interpreted to mean, “Freedom to keep your religion to yourself.” When Americans no longer have the right to LIVE their religious beliefs, we in effect no longer have that freedom.
We must accept this fact or nothing else we do will ever matter.
So, how is the church to move forward in a post-Christian world? Once again – I make no claim to originality, but here are some preliminary thoughts:
1. We are going to have to get over the fact that people will hate us. For too long we have been thinking and acting as if we can change people’s hearts by changing our beliefs and practices. If I have heard once I have heard a thousand times, “if we do not change [x] (where “x” can be just about anything) then our young people will leave us and no one in the community will want to join us.” So, churches change names, worship styles, language styles and incorporate the newest, flashiest equipment on the market. And what happens? Their young people leave for an even edgier church and the people in the community do not want to join them because they are simply the latest in a long line of churches who have changed names and core values.
Is my Bible the only one that has John 15:18-25 in it? Or is this the first generation in which speaking up for one’s beliefs has caused a negative reaction? Why do we believe that changing OUR beliefs will cause others to change THEIR hearts? I am not suggesting that we should be hateful, or that we should never ask questions about what we believe. But legitimate self-examination is a far cry from running in absolute panic away from any criticism or unwarranted attack.
No – we are going to have to overcome this irrational fear of being disliked and we are going to have to realize that the new “normal” is for God’s people to stand out in stark contrast to a bent and broken world.
2. We are going to have to ACT like we believe what we say we believe. We say we believe in a lifetime of marriage between one man and one woman, but we practice the acceptance serial marriages like we owned a wedding chapel and our livelihood depended upon as many “re-marriages” as we can possibly create. We say we do not believe in pre-marital co-habitation, yet we allow our children and grandchildren to “try out” marriage partners as if they were test-driving a new vehicle. We say we oppose graphic violence, sexuality and adult themes, and we buy millions of dollars of movie tickets every month, and allow our teens and pre-teens to do likewise. We fill our minds with the same base lyrics that non-Christians fill their minds with, and salve our consciences by attending a worship hour a week and re-proclaiming how much we hate words and actions that blaspheme our God.
But, if we ditch the cable and turn off the satellite, our neighbors might think we are weird or un-American or something. See point #1.
3. We are going to have to re-evaluate this entire “The Constitution as the 67th Book of the Bible” mantra that “conservatives” have been repeating for so long. Oh, no – no one actually ever says that, but that is exactly what is meant in many of our good conservative (read “Tea Party”) speeches.
Brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, the Constitution is a wonderful document. Maybe the best human government document that has ever been written. But, strictly speaking, following the Constitution is exactly what has brought us to this point in history. The words “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Bible,” or “Christian” simply do not appear in the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. The framers of the Constitution did not want a theocracy, and certainly not a Christocracy, and they made sure we did not get one. But human seeds grow up into human trees, and the fruit of a Christ-neutral document is now becoming ripe. Yell and kick and scream all you want to, but how else are you going to interpret the protections ingrained in the Constitution that prevent one religion from becoming physically forced upon all citizens? If we have the freedom to exercise religion, we also have the freedom not to exercise religion, and when you allow (or actually mandate) broken, sinful, human judges to decide what is or is not constitutional, then bingo – welcome to the U. S. of A. in the year 2014. So, what was brilliant in terms of human government has proven to be utterly disastrous in terms of discipleship to Christ.
But, to quote that out-dated and horribly non-American apostle Paul, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)
4. The church is going to have to start practicing some old-fashioned discipline. The church has boundaries. We are not everyone and everything. Not everything is holy. Not everything is “set apart.” There is clean and un-clean, holy and un-holy, Christian and un-christian, saved and lost. It is ridiculous to suggest that a congregational leadership cannot exercise any kind of discipline because “if they do then people will get their feelings hurt and they will leave.” This is not to suggest that the eldership “withdraws fellowship” from someone just to rattle their swords. I have witnessed that and it was a stain against some good men and a good congregation. But for a biblical leadership to allow, or to even sanction, blatant immorality within the congregation is just unconscionable. The same is true of doctrinal beliefs. A congregation cannot condone or sanction contradictory beliefs. You cannot have a separate worship service for every competing feeling or doctrine. If everything is acceptable then nothing is sinful. And we wonder why people look at us with our three different services with three different worship formats and laugh? We are not demanding discipleship – we are offering a circus.
Sorry for the wordiness today – I guess I got a little carried away. But the world is not smiling at us anymore – if it ever did. And we, as God’s people, are going to have to learn a new way to act. Or, conversely, we are going to have to start acting like we’ve known how to act all along.
This post has started out in several different forms. Each time I would erase a little, change a little, zig a little here, zag a little there. Every time I started out with the same goal, and each time I found myself traipsing down a path I had not necessarily planned on traipsing. Such is the nature of this post – I know what I want to say but the “getting out” is proving to be quite exhausting.
For those of you who do not keep up with religious bloggers, quite the hoo-haw has been raised over the past few days concerning Donald Miller’s confession that he does not like church very much. (He wrote a book entitled Blue Like Jazz in which he basically said the same thing, but in much more disguised and glowing terminology.) There have been dozens (hundreds?) of blogs written in response – some praising and some condemning. But what I find to be interesting is that so many of Miller’s compatriots in the “Emerging Church” movement have ended up in exactly the same place – they all claim to love Jesus exuberantly but for one reason or another cannot stand to remain in the “institutional” church (whatever that is) so they leave the church to join the ekklesia at large. I see that as a very high-brow way of saying, “I love to eat steak, but I would never condone the slaughtering of a cow. So I get my steaks at the restaurant.”
I might add, for those of you who think I am just reacting to everyone else’s reaction, I have had three classes in a doctoral level program that were either entirely or significantly focused on the writings of post-modern, “Emerging Church” theologians. I was interested in their writings (and I still am), but was then and remain now deeply doubtful of the long-term results of their shallow theology. They often indicate they are in agreement with orthodox Christianity, but when they spell out what they really believe in terms of practice it becomes clear that their doxy is quite anything but ortho.
I should also say up front that I too believe that the modern church is not what it could and should be. I think I am honest about my misgivings. If I am permitted to do so, I intend to direct my dissertation to an area of theology and practice that I believe modern Churches of Christ have completely (or to be more charitable, almost completely) omitted – and much to our spiritual loss. But, the Good Lord willing, I will write out of a position of love and healing, not a position of hate and rejection. Such is my plan, anyway, and my fate is currently in the hands of others, so all of this may be a bunch of blather about nothing.
But, returning to my original, thoroughly revamped post – I just wonder how anyone can proclaim any kind of love for Jesus or God and at the same time argue that the church is dead, or at least is on life support and should be extinguished. What kind of friend walks up to a groom and says, “Man, I love you like you were my own brother, but I have to tell you, that girl you just married is as ugly as the south end of a north bound donkey and has the personality of a witch.”
The book of Revelation ends with God’s redeemed people receiving a stamped, embossed invitation to the marriage feast between the Son and his bride, the Church. Jesus died for the church, his creation. Paul rejoiced that he was able to continue Christ’s afflictions for the church. It’s funny, but with all the warts and dysfunction and flat-out heresies that consumed the early churches, Paul never referred to them as anything other than God’s holy and precious children.
Yes, I love the church. Exactly why would take a whole book to explain – this blog is just too short. But suffice it to say that I love the church exactly because Jesus loved the church – enough to die so that it might have life. And it seems to me that if Jesus loved something enough to die for it then I should make every effort to love it as well.
It may not be popular, it may not be blue like jazz, but in the end God is not going to ask if we were trendy and hip – He will judge whether we have been faithful and devoted. I do not think that God ever expected the church on earth to be perfect – I think that is a dangerous myth that has led to some horrendous mistakes. But we can be faithful, honest and disciplined – all hallmarks of the church that God gave to us through the blood of Christ.
The church of Christ, the church of God, the church of the Firstborn Ones*, the universal ekklesia or the local congregation down the street, – whatever name you find in Scripture, just love the church. Help it get better. Point out where it is weak. Make it stronger. Just do not leave it and claim you are doing so for the love of Jesus.
*The word firstborn in Hebrews 12:23 is plural. This is not typically translated, as firstborns or firstborn ones are clumsy ways of translating the phrase. Think of the word “fish.” We can catch either one fish, or multiple fish, but we only rarely (and only archaically) catch more than one fishes. The context of the passage, however, makes the plural obvious.