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When One Issue Drowns Out Others

When One Issue Drowns Out Others

After interviewing Allan R. Bevere a few days ago I discovered another video. First, here’s my interview with Allan. We were talking about the United Methodist Church General Conference in 2019 looking for a way forward as a denomination with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.

The new video is from the Adventist News Network (HT Spectrum Magazine), which is an official project of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Long time readers of this blog will know I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, but am now a member of a United Methodist congregation. Here it is:

The issues in the two denominations are different. While United Methodists discuss homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Seventh-day Adventists are discussing ordination of women. In many discussions, I have heard the arguments against women’s ordination expressed in terms of the danger of a slippery slope toward accepting homosexuality. The claim is that the same arguments might be, and have been, used for both.

In the process of discussing these issues, however, we see a number of things:

  • Money becomes a key. In the United Methodist Church it becomes a question of how much power our brethren in the global south should have over the church seeing as they are financially supported by the American church. In the SDA Church the issue of tithe has now been raised, as the North American Division wants to reduce the percentage of its tithe sent to other divisions.
  • People are accused based simply on their viewpoint. I understand how this happens. Sincerity does not mean one is right. One can be passionately and sincerely wrong, even when rightly motivated. (I should know! I’ve been there and might be now!) But one can be firm on one’s convictions and still be respectful.
  • Each side accuses the other of bringing disunity. This is a choice that comes to all. When a “Martin Luther” moment comes is it an act of disunity or an act of conscience?
  • One’s opponents may be seen as guilty of putting a stop to the gospel message, such as the implication in the Adventist News Network video that those who support women’s ordination are holding back the work of the gospel and preparation for the coming of Jesus.
  • Conformity is seen as unity.
  • Everyone starts looking at the legal ownership of church property (see the first point)!

I have made my opinion on women in ministry clear, so I can’t stand back and play facilitator to a discussion. I believe that those God has gifted in any way should serve in that way, and I do believe women can be and are gifted for ministry. I believe God equips those he calls and the equipping is quite enough evidence. On homosexuality I’ve tried to stand back. A very good friend who passed away recently said to me once: “Henry, it’s very hard to be both a prophet and a facilitator.” He was very right. So I’ve refrained from any pulpit pounding type statements on homosexuality. It doesn’t mean I have no opinions; just that I’m going to let others do the discussion, and there’s no lack of those ready and waiting to engage.

But let me turn to two other issues on which I’ll make something of a statement. I’m a firm believer on the one hand that we should have unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and especially charity in all things. (Note the interesting and difficult history of the saying I paraphrase.) On the other hand I believe in keeping your essentials to a minimum, as reflected in the doctrinal statement I use for my publishing company, Energion Publications. I’ve discussed this before, and will link to my post Not All Doctrines Are Equal, which links to several others.)

For my first issue I’m opposed to just about any form of prosperity theology, or even letting finance drive the train. Financial management is necessary, but it’s generally the first thing to get in the way of good moral decision making. We simply don’t take the time to find a way to do things that is financially responsible and yet morally right.

In the case of the controversies I’m mentioning, this comes up in wanting to diminish the influence of some people over finance. Money is the presenting issue, but behind it is the fact that someone does not like the viewpoint of the other person. Whether I agree with someone or not, I believe as a Christian that I must respect that person. The believer in Africa, South America, or Asia is not diminished before God because I don’t like the way he or she will vote in a conference. Financial status should not change the nature of our relationships in the family of God. In this case, I think it would be better to lose a vote than to in any diminish another person.

Of course, this must include not diminishing the person who is on the other side, or who is being argued about. Whether we are talking about the level of a person’s financial contributions, their sexuality, or simply their gender, it can be (usually is) paternalistic and diminishing when the person with the power discusses whether to share that power with the person who does not. In the kingdoms of the world it may be necessary. I think Jesus calls us to better behavior. (Not that I know how to always do it right.)

Money comes up in terms of church property as well. Allan Bevere noted that the one thing that may connect us soon is our pensions (speaking as a pastor). One of the things that will likely cause controversy is those congregations who, no matter what happens, may want to withdraw from the United Methodist Church. Then we face the specter of people claiming the name of Jesus fighting it out in secular court due to church property. Quoth Paul, “Why would it not be better to be wronged? Why would it not be better to be defrauded?”

Second, however, is the issue of hierarchy. All of these issues become issues of power. Who gets to tell who else what they should and shouldn’t do, and who gets to enforce the result. Again, after noting how the rulers of the nations behaved, Jesus told his disciples it was not to be that way with them. The greatest should be a servant. (Mark 10:41-45) I wonder how the debate would change if we saw it as a question of serving rather than having power over. (In fact, I have a problem with the whole idea of a separated class of ordained clergy, but that is a different debate.)

I hope and pray that both my former and my present denominations will find a Christ-like way through their divisions. I don’t actually feel very hopeful. Perhaps it’s “Oh me of little faith!” Still it doesn’t look that good, no matter which direction the wind blows on the various doctrines. There is likely a right and wrong answer.  I tend to believe in moral absolutes while doubting our ability to come very close to them. But we must not violate much clearer moral values, such as the way we treat one another, in the pursuit of those truths.

When we pursue absolutes at the expense of other absolutes, the resulting mess is absolute.

Why I Don’t Control My Wife

Why I Don’t Control My Wife

Shortly after Jody and I married, I was approached by a member of our church. He had a demand. “You need to control your wife,” he said. “She says [fill in theological thing here] which is wrong! You need to straighten her out.”

I was astonished for a moment, but went with my gut. “I’d suggest you ask her about that idea,” I said. “She’s capable of answering for herself.”

I noted that my response was from the gut, but then I started to second-guess myself. On the one hand I certainly was confident Jody could take care of herself and answer whatever questions might be asked. On the other, I didn’t want it to appear that I was unwilling to defend her. So we had a discussion and concluded that we would both use that same answer when someone asked us to explain or justify the other. “Henry/Jody is capable of answering for him/herself.” It’s worked fine for us. We’d rather have it appear that we are refusing to defend one another than that one of us considers the other incompetent.

The first thing one might imagine was that this person was a male chauvinist who thought men should keep their wives in line. There was likely some of that involved. I doubt that he would have gone to Jody if he had agreed with her and asked her to keep me in line. But that wasn’t the only thing in play. There was, of course, the matter of theology, and also the matter of credentials. People disagree about theology all the time. I’m not concerned with the disagreement. I am concerned with the credentials.

The particular chauvinism involved was the assumption that I would automatically know more about any particular theological issue that Jody would. Some of that, as I said, was likely simply because she’s a woman and I’m a man. This sort of thing can vary from very subtle to quite blatant, as in this case. In regard to that I’ll simply repeat what I’ve said before. I believe that everyone should act and serve according to their gifts. Who should do something or take some office is not determined by anything other than what gifts they have for that activity and how they’ve developed those gifts.

For me this is a simple matter of recognizing each person as a person, and not as a category or a set of categories. I despise the term stupid, but I also despise the term smart as applied to a person. I think those words can be quite valid as applied to a specific idea. “Differently gifted” is often regarded as politically correct speech. I regard it as an accurate way of looking at people.

If I regard someone as stupid, I am absolved of further concern with that person in other ways. I have now dismissed the person. They might have many things they can do, yet because I have applied this general label, I am done with that person. On the other hand, if I label someone as smart, I will then regard them as more valuable in many and various positions, and again I absolve myself of looking at specific gifts. It’s quite easy, however, to assign a smart person to a position for which they are not smart.

I know that in reality it is rarely that extreme. People use a mix of seeing the specific gifts a person has and their overall label. Nonetheless I consider this type of thinking dangerous. It is counterproductive from a strictly business point of view. As a Christian I object to categorizing people in these ways, because I believe it violates the golden rule.

I can illustrate how this works with me and my wife. Let’s start with a question: Who is more important to our business, Energion Publications. I’m the person with training in theology and biblical studies. I do cover design and book layout. I’m the one who figures out which of the various standards and punctuation rules we’ll follow. I’ve written more words than she has. I keep the accounts. Without me, Energion Publications would not exist.

And then there’s the other side. Jody is the one who sets up the production schedule for a book. She’s the one who can organize our presence at a conference and create a display table. She’s the one who sees details in the appearance of a manuscript. She is best suited to recruit and work with certain authors, especially those who write devotionally. She’s the best salesman for a substantial selection of our products. She’s the one who gets me talking to the ones that I need to talk to.

I could list many more items for each of us. Can I say the same thing about Jody—without her Energion Publications would not exist? Absolutely. Even the more academic books which she would not consider herself qualified to edit would not be completed without her efforts.

It would be easy to consider my efforts as more important, just because I’m me, and I like to be important! I could obviously hire someone else to do all these other things. But if I’m honest, I know that there are people with the skills and gifts that I use as well. We are both essential!

So here’s the stupid-smart scale: Which of us is smarter?

That’s a question that just doesn’t work well. The fact is that we each have important, even critical gifts. There is no value in trying to make one better than the other. They are different. They are needed.

Now let’s think about the church. Is a person with gifts of administration less critical than one with pastoral gifts? (Note that I regard almost every modern job description for a pastor as not only unscriptural, as in not even conceived of in scripture, but also unholy.) What about gifts of encouragement or helping others versus gifts of teaching? What are more important? Yet the person who helps, organizes, keeps the books, and so forth is considered less of a leader than the person who preaches or teaches. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you this: Can you find a single church sign that identifies the janitor or even the church administrator? No! It identifies the pastor.

As an aside, I think there is a much better case for hiring a professional church administrator than there is for hiring someone to preach or teach in the local church, and certainly then there is to hire someone professionally to visit people in the hospital. Those duties can easily be divided among members of the congregation according to their gifts.

And thus I come back to my wife and I and theological questions. Why would someone assume that I would straighten out my wife, though she wouldn’t straighten me out? Ignoring basic sexism, which I think does apply, we need to look at training, experience, and credentials.

Many people (perhaps most) that we encounter would present theological questions to me and not to Jody. I have trained to be a teacher. I have a BA degree majoring in Biblical Languages and an MA in Religion, concentrating in Biblical and Cognate Languages. I have taught for years. I have written 13 books, which is considered an accomplishment, though none of them is particularly popular. I have been invited to preach many times and in many places. I am expected to be the theologian and to have an answer. Of course, there are many areas in which I have expertise and the ability to answer those questions.

Jody, on the other hand, does not have a degree. What she does have is one of those old-fashioned three year nursing programs, years of experience in a variety of fields as a registered nurse, experience as a hospice nurse and then director of education for a hospice organization. Further, she has carried on a regular devotional live for decades. She has been invited to teach and to preach, and I can testify she is very good at it. She has written several books as well, at least one of which is more popular than any of mine!

There are some questions you should ask me, but there are many other questions you should ask her. If you ask me, I’m likely going to give you an answer I got from her. If you want someone to visit you in the hospital, she’s the one. My degree, earned via seminary courses (though granted by the graduate school) didn’t teach me how to do that. I have never encountered someone who was sick or facing death who wanted my help translating a verse from Greek or Hebrew, or expounding on ancient manuscripts.

Now how do you rate this sort of thing on a scale. Is Jody smarter than I am or am I smarter than she is? I have no idea, nor do I care. In fact, I don’t think there’s any good way to make that determination. We are each gifted in our own way. We each have a call from God to serve one another and those God places before us. We’re very different, but that makes our teamwork more valuable.

In order to know what we can each do, you have to learn to know us as individuals. An intelligence test won’t do it. I have never been formally tested, but I know that I usually rate pretty well on the type of questions involved, yet I can forget where my local Walmart is located. Am I stupid or smart? Our degrees or lack of them will not do it. I have an MA degree, but I have trouble planning a route around town that doesn’t involve wasted miles. Am I stupid or smart? Jody can’t translate a Greek text for you, but she can help you through the inevitable questions you’ll have dealing with end of life issues. Is she stupid or smart?

There’s the saying that there are no stupid questions. I disagree. I’ve just asked a stupid question several times. Is she/am I stupid or smart? It’s a completely useless question that produces nothing of value, and often helps people excuse themselves from actually looking at the person.

This also goes back to the male/female thing. The assumption that because someone is a man or a woman one can safely make (derived) assumptions about their capabilities is based on a similar mental laziness. I can’t be bothered to determine what this woman or that man is capable of, so I’m just going to assign the general category to them. Whether you’re making the assumption based on a category of credentials, on race, on nationality, or on gender, It all goes back to an unwillingness to get to know someone as a person.

Someone’s going to point out to me that men and women are different. It may shock you to know that I was already aware of that. But the difference doesn’t matter if you’re willing to learn to know the individual man or woman. If you know that person’s gifts, the abilities they share with their gender or other category will also be obvious.

I don’t keep my wife in line. She doesn’t keep me in line. We allow each other to answer our own questions for the simple reason that we can, and that we respect one another and our gifts. Neither gender nor credentials matter.

Responding to Church Criticism

Responding to Church Criticism

Steven Cuss took to The Jesus Creed (Scot McKnight’s blog) to respond to Francis Chan about the church. This is all about a very valid and, I think, much needed conversation about the church.

When we criticize the church in America there can be many responses.

  1. Defensive – we are really, truly doing good things
  2. Could be worse – we have our problems, but we’re doing some good stuff
  3. Look at you – you’re making more mistakes than we are (or you have in the past)
  4. You’re too critical – you shouldn’t point out our problems because that’s negative

There are a few more, I suppose, but those will do.

The problem is that as long as we use these various responses, reform or correction will definitely not happen. Once we have responded, we have generally also minimized our need to act. We function a bit like a vehicle stuck in mud or sand. You can stomp the accelerator because you need to get moving, but all you do is rock a bit forward and then a bit back.

I think that often describes our churches. We don’t take the serious steps that are needed to really have an impact on our culture. We want to be a little bit different, mostly in the sense that we attend church, but not be real salt, scattered through and changing everything.

Now not all criticism is useful. Not all criticism is valid. But a great deal is. The person who aims to change cannot pre-moderate his or her comments. If you are making a call for reform, and nobody is getting upset, you probably aren’t doing it right.

My blog header proclaims me a “passionate moderate” amongst other things. I think moderation is a good thing if you’ve found the right range of options and the right position. But sometimes the right thing is what everyone else regards as an extreme. I’d really like to find that “moderate” position at the center of God’s will.

How about you?

Measuring Success

Measuring Success

It seems to me that one of the most serious difficulties we have in the church today is the way we measure success. We are driven by numbers and money. It’s easy, of course, to justify this. After all, if you don’t have money, you generally can’t help people. I am reminded of Chapter 3 of Acts, in which Peter (with John) says, “Silver and gold I have none,” yet look what they did.

Still, the temptation is great to judge the success of a meeting by the attendance, and the success of a church by its budget. I’d add that I don’t suggest we think the other way either. Just because a church is prosperous does not mean its ministry and mission is in trouble. It’s just that I don’t see the numbers and the money as God’s measure.

With that in mind I was struck by two verses in Chapter 8. Stephen has just been killed, and Luke tells us that Saul continues to persecute the church. Everyone except the apostles is scattered across the countryside of Judea and Samaria (v. 1).

By our standards, this is a bad thing. All this talent is leaving the big church, the one with the resources to carry out the mission! Stephen is dead, and Philip is about to head out. “Everyone” doubtless includes many more. The church is being drained.

If this was an American church, the next question would be how we would pay the bills for the facility. I recall one church that had a serious scattering of membership, and that became a serious problem. You have to sell some buildings or some land, and that can be difficult. Members don’t like the feel of selling off the property and there’s always a question of whether you’ll get enough for it. Besides, selling stuff and downsizing is a sign of defeat!

We’d doubtless feel the same way about persecution. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of persecution. I really don’t want to be persecuted. But if I can put it bluntly, I doubt God really cares what I want.

In this case, something great happens. “As they were scattered, they went about proclaiming the Word …” (8:4). In the movement of the story of the early church as told in Acts we’re in that transition as we move from Judea to Samaria and from there to the whole world. The failure of the church as the members scatter is the success of God’s plan.

I’m thinking we need to spend our time finding God’s plan and measuring our success by how much we’re on that. As I read scripture, I’m suspecting that plan may be different from ours. Let God speak and move in our generation.

 

Elgin Hushbeck on Apologetics

Elgin Hushbeck on Apologetics

One of the blessings in my life is the number of friends I have found (and I don’t always make friends easily) who are willing to have great discussions. By “great” I mean ones in which we challenge one another’s ideas with vigor but without anger or condemnation. If you seek only friends and associates who agree with you, you’re missing out on a great blessing.

Elgin Hushbeck is such a friend. I think I tend to emphasize the places where we don’t agree over those were we do simply because I find those discussions more useful and enjoyable. Elgin is a Christian apologist, which did not help me to warm up to him or his writing (this was before I was a publisher). Apologists often get a bad reputation for a number of reasons, including obsession that makes them narrow, a vigor in presentation that belies weakness of content, discourtesy, and some carelessness with factual accuracy in a good cause. And this is not to mention mistaking a catalog of facts for the good news of the gospel from time to time.

Elgin doesn’t do this. I want to call attention to his post yesterday on the Energion Discussion Network.  If we could get the “gently and respectfully” part taken care of, the rest would work much better.

I have found that the style is not a characteristic of one or another theological or political position. Whatever it is you’re advocating, gently and respectfully is going to accomplish more in terms of communicating your message, assuming that’s your goal. If you just want to stick it to the people who disagree with you, your strategy will obviously differ.

But with regard to the gospel, if your goal is to stick it to an opponent, don’t imagine that you are actually proclaiming the good news. The good news isn’t that you’re right and the other guy is wrong. Rather, it has something to do with God loving both of you, no matter how wrong you are. It depends on God and the Holy Spirit to fix that wrongness.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Are Sermons of Value?

Are Sermons of Value?

I have very frequently spoken disparagingly of sermons. I prefer more interactive activities in smaller groups as a way of learning and passing on information. It’s commonly said that a pastor is lucky if, on a Sunday, any congregants remember the topic of the previous week’s sermon, much less what was said about it.

On the other hand I remember stunning Dr. James Londis, who was pastor of the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church when I was an 18-year-old college student and a member. His first sermon there had to do with applying the Laodicean message to his new congregants. Accurately, I might add. I mentioned this memory to him about 40 years after he had preached that sermon. For some reason he was surprised!

Nonetheless, I publish one book on how to preach (Overcoming Sermon Block), and a number of sermon collections (So Much Older Then … [Bob LaRochelle], The Character of Our Discontent [Allan R. Bevere], A Positive Word for Christian Lamenting, The Forgotten Beatitude, and Holidays, Holy Days, and Special Days. Most of these books are by Dr. William Powell Tuck, who has a few others as well. One of my criteria for publishing a sermon collection is that it is useful for reading as an essay collection as well.

Bill Tuck, when I interviewed him on the topic, said very simply that a major reason that sermons are looked down on is that so many of them are so bad. They are often poorly prepared, poorly presented, lack evidence of thought and reflection, lack depth, and so forth. I’m going to put the video of my interview with him at the end of this post.

A problem behind the problems is the lack of time spent in preparation. There is, of course, preparation of the sermon. But there is also preparation of the person. Bill Tuck says this in Overcoming Sermon Block:

One of the most important disciplines a minister has to maintain is his spiritual or devotional life. If we are too busy for our own personal devotion, we are simply too busy. We have to keep our priorities right. Our personal spiritual nurture is absolutely essential. To fail here is not a  minor shortcoming but neglect in a critical point of our own relationship to God. How can we guide others to worship and serve Christ if we neglect our own spiritual development? Our spiritual development affects our preaching as well. As we “labor” at our spiritual nurture, the amazing thing is that we are not only fed spiritually, but often sermon ideas arise out of our own devotional study and reflection. That is not our main purpose but it happens nevertheless. (p. 18)

That contains some excellent advice for everyone. I am only rarely called to preach, but I find that when I am called to share, my devotional life is most critical. Sunday School teachers take note.

Here’s the interview:

Marketing Jesus

Marketing Jesus

Shortly after I separated from the Air Force I was chatting with a gentleman while waiting in line for something or other. On realizing that I was a veteran, and in fact had been somewhere that would qualify me as a veteran of a foreign war, he started a pitch to get me to join that fine organization (VFW).

His initial pitch was simply that I could. I asked him why I should. At this point he was somewhat at a loss and simply told me that they had a wonderful local VFW post where I could drink and swap war stories with other veterans. On short acquaintance he couldn’t possibly have know what a poor pitch that was for me.

Now please don’t imagine that I’m writing against the VFW, and more than I will be writing against Jesus when I talk about marketing approaches. The VFW does some fine work, which is my point. You can give a poor sales pitch for a good cause and drive people away.

Fast forward about 12 years to a time when I was looking at church congregations. I had not been a member of any church for those years and more, but as regular readers may know, I did have my MA in Religion (with that wonderful concentration in Biblical and Cognate Languages). This made life a bit difficult for pastors who discussed their churches with me.

In the end, I was considering two United Methodist congregations. I had attended church and some excellent studies at both, and I liked both organizations in many ways. At one of the churches I talked to the pastors at each church. At one of them the pastor said: “We don’t care what you believe. If you want to enjoy our fellowship, you’re welcome.” The other discussed my beliefs.

Now I’m very interested in openness and acceptance, and I advocate the maximum freedom of belief, but I do think an organization requires some sort of center to make it functional and useful. And a mission. That too.

Thus I joined the other congregation.

Over the course of my life I have experienced a variety of sales pitches to get me to accept Jesus Christ as my savior, most of them after I already had. Many of these came from people who felt I hadn’t quite gotten it right. Others came from people who presented their pitch so quickly they hadn’t had time to realize I was already a Christian. One came from someone who saw me reading my Greek New Testament while waiting for tires to be installed on my car, and was convinced that my Christianity must just be a thing of the intellect. He was truly concerned that I might mistakenly think that reading Greek was a means of salvation.

I’ll call it a means of grace. I didn’t think of saying that to him. It would doubtlessly have sent him ballistic. (Then I would have needed to repent, so perhaps it’s best I didn’t think of it.)

I would categorize approaches to selling Christianity in a few broad camps:

  1. The desperate. These are the people who are afraid that if you don’t accept Christ while in conversation with them, you will doubtless go to hell. One short prayer, and you’ll at least avoid that. Flames are usually involved in the conversation (pun absolutely intended). Conservative and charismatic Christians are susceptible to the use of this approach. Liberals and other mainliners might be susceptible, but they don’t believe in hell.
  2. The cultural. Christianity is a good society, sort of like Kiwanis or the Lions Clubs. Good people are Christians and attend church every so often. Come join our church and be socially acceptable to the good people. Mainline congregations are most susceptible to this, but conservatives may fall for it in the right cultural context.
  3. The upwardly mobile. This is the home of the prosperity gospel. The pitch goes that you’re in a lower economic and social class than you’d like to be, and Jesus wants you to have abundant life, so just follow Jesus to health, wealth, and satisfaction. (No, not the satisfaction theory of the atonement. Self satisfaction.)
  4. The apologetic approach. By this I don’t mean a person who defends elements of the Christian faith, but rather the person who desires to batter down your defenses with his or her command of data.

In fact, in all of these approaches there’s some truth. Being a part of a caring community can, in fact, improve your standard of living, your sense of joy, your peace, and many other things. Not quite in the way the prosperity preachers tell it, but it can help. Being part of the church can be a good cultural and social move. Considering your eternal state is likely worthwhile, and studying the data behind your religious faith is constructive.

There’s an effective temptation to attack every good intention or work. The desperate evangelist is driven by a desire to help. Believing that eternal hell fire is in your future if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior, he feels compelled to make you. This sense led to some theological support for the burning of heretics. What was a few moments of torment in this life compared to what God would do to them in the next? If the torturer could bring this eternal punishment to their minds forcefully enough, perhaps they’d repent and be saved. The temptation here is to take away from God the power of salvation and judgment. Most humans are susceptible to it in some way.

Then there is the Jesus way. I was hit by it this morning as I was reading texts for next Sunday’s lesson.

Jesus was saying to everyone: “If anyone wants to come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Now there’s an “ouch”! No promise of prosperity. No threat of hell. No social acceptability. In fact, if you read on through the end of the chapter, it gets even worse. The facts of the situation were present in the Person.

I wonder how a church growth program would work that called for people to lose their respectability, give up their comfort, become socially unacceptable, experience pain, and ignore ridicule would work. I’ve never seen one of those.

Other than in the gospels.

Let me look at some other texts from this week’s reading list.

9He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because strength is made complete in weakness.” I now gladly boast in my weaknesses because Christ’s strength is all over me. 10So I am pleased in weaknesses, when insulted, when in need, when persecuted, when in hardship, for Christ. For when I am weak, he is strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

I guess Paul wasn’t up on the latest pitches and methods of evangelism either. And just to add to our feeling of injury and annoyance:

If we suffer together with him, we will be glorified with him. (Romans 8:17b)

I was somewhat surprised after reading the scriptures to find that the lesson author managed to write the whole lesson without mentioning suffering. He had some good thoughts, but somehow avoided that one.

So just what is it we’re proclaiming (or selling)? Are we doing it right?


(Note: All translations are my own, and are sometimes intentionally loose. Featured image downloade from Pixabay.com, which doesn’t require attribution, but I’ll give it anyhow.)

 

Not Just Money

Not Just Money

On New Year’s Day this year I was struck by two texts and decided to make them a kind of theme texts for living during the year. I didn’t really make a plan or a resolution. I was just impressed to keep these two texts available and look at them. I’ve found that I actually end up looking at them at random times. They are Philippians 1:27-30 and Ephesians 5:1-2. At some point I’ll talk about the phrase “be imitators of God” in Ephesians 5:1, which I find challenging, or perhaps intimidating would be more the word.

Today, however, I read on after the end of chapter one into the first four verses of chapter 2. Here Paul challenges the Philippians to do nothing from selfish ambition or contentiousness (two  closely related ideas!) or from vanity (we could spend a day meditating on that word), but to count others as greater than oneself with humility. Again, we could talk about the latter. Have you ever experienced someone counting something else greater than himself with no humility at all? “Look how great I am! I count even this lowlife failure as more important than I am!”

But then there’s verse 4: “Don’t look out for your own interests, but for the interests of others.”

Now there’s the one. If the church should have a key verse, this would be it, I think. It contrasts to the world’s value, expressed to me once by someone advising me on my business: Ain’t nobody cares about your business like you do!

Now you see how my thinking turns toward business and the making of money. I have nothing against those things, but it’s actually quite easy to be generous with your money and to be contentious and vain with everything else. Thousands of brass plates on church pews, stained-glass windows, and other objects designated for “spiritual” use testify to the fact that there are people quite generous with their money while satisfying their vanity. If you don’t believe me, try removing one of those labeled pews or swap out the stained glass window. Even worse, leave the pew or the window there but remove the name plate. Vanity will jump up and slap you in the face!

Looking after our own interests crops up everywhere. Why is the color of the church carpet a very contentious thing? We all have colors that we’d like to look at, and colors that we don’t find pleasing. How many times have you heard people argue carpet color on the basis that it would serve someone else better?

What about a misspelled name in the bulletin when someone serves on Sunday morning? Have you ever heard the complaints about that? The church secretary ought to be fired!

I don’t mean to list all the ways we can be contentious, as they are so numerous, and so many of them do not have to do with money.

“Look out for the interests of others,” says Paul.

One of the great problems with our witness in the American church is that we are so much like all the people we’d like to witness to. We want to explain all the theology to them and get them all straightened out. But what we really need to do is look out for the interests of others.

And to be a good witness, we need to extend that action outside the church community as well.

On page 25 of his little book Stewardship: God’s Way of Recreating the World (Topical Line Drives), Steve Kindle quotes 2 Corinthians 8:3-5. I’m just going to highlight one clause: “they gave themselves first to the Lord.” That’s the foundation of stewardship. It’s also the foundation of living in Christian community, and it’s the foundation of being an actual witness (not just a nuisance) to those outside the community. Looking out for God’s interests, perhaps. God is very interested in God’s children, in God’s creation.

Who is welcome in your church? How will they live with you? How will you live with them? Do you give yourself to God first and then look out for the interests of others instead of your own?

If you’ve followed me this far, let me suggest a question to think about. If a man and a woman entered your church this Sunday and the woman was wearing a hijab, while both clearly looked middle eastern, what would your reaction be?


(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)


Teaching How to Experience God

Teaching How to Experience God

At my home church, Chumuckla Community Church, we’re going through the Experiencing God workbook. There will be 10 sermons, and then discussion groups. My wife Jody leads one right after church each Sunday, and I’m part of that. Doubtless someone will suggest that the book is somewhat more conservative than the theology I express on this blog. I’m delighted that this is the case. Later I’ll read something that’s more liberal and I’ll be delighted with that as well. I believe God is just as happy to talk to conservatives as to moderates and liberals.

The thing that bothers me about all teaching materials that deal with the experience of God’s presence, whether through listening to the Holy Spirit, expectation and exercising of spiritual gifts, or following God in any other way, is that it is often uncertain ground. In fact, I would suggest that if there isn’t an element of risk, you’re not really talking about experiencing God.

There are two basic approaches to trying to teach someone else to experience God. First, one can be prescriptive and define parameters. Second, one can be descriptive and open doors. In reality, of course, an individual’s approach will fall somewhere between, but there is usually a tendency one way or the other.

What I have found is that the most important thing any teacher can do regarding prayer, hearing from God, experiencing God, finding God’s will, or simply sensing God’s presence is ground clearing. Most people who want to hear from God or experience God aren’t simply looking for a formulaic approach they can follow. Rather, they’re usually facing barriers to the experience. Often these barriers are really good approaches they learned from someone else, but which do not work for them.

For example, my wife and I pray differently. Yes, we have times of prayer together, but when we’re each in our private time with God, we take a different approach. She likes music. I like music, but not when I’m praying. She’ll turn on the music and enjoy her time talking with (with, including listening) God. I start with scripture. I will select a passage and read without forcing the pace. I read very fast when that’s what I intend. In prayer time I read slowly and allow the words to direct me into communion. I will sometimes be directed to a different passage.

Jody’s prayer time would be really unfruitful if she used my method.  She’s likely to end up looking at scripture, but that will come as she hears from God in her prayer time. I, on the other hand, find music uplifting and energizing, and often use it to get myself charged for work on a day when I’m feeling slow. Right now I’m typing largely in silence. If I had gotten up unmotivated, I would likely have gone up to my office, turned on some music, and would have found myself getting ready to go.

It’s great to share your experiences. Just avoid telling someone, or leaving them with the impression, that your way is the one and only way to experience God. If you read the Bible stories, you’re going to find quite a variety: Abram just hears, as Abraham he later argues, Moses hears but might rather not at first, Gideon required a sign for each move, Balaam heard through a donkey (hard head there, I think), Jesus was in constant communion. There’s a valuable variety in scripture.

Experiencing God is great. Don’t be afraid of present experience. Beware of either letting someone place you in a straight-jacket, or of placing someone else in one. God’s way is past finding out. You and I haven’t gone that far!

(I’ve put some books I publish related to experiencing God into a collection on Aer.io. Check these out!)