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A God Without Wrath

A God Without Wrath

… a God without wrath does not plan to do much liberating. Indeed, that God’s anger is kindled when harm is done to the least among us not only gives us hope that earthly injustices don’t have the last word but also insight into God’s compassionate nature.

Deanna Thompson, Deuteronomy (Belief: a Theological Cimmentary on the Bible), 31

This is an excellent point. We need to think about what is necessary when evil asserts itself.

The Healing Hands of Jesus

The Healing Hands of Jesus

My brother, Dr. Robert Neufeld, preserved a recording of our father preaching, something he did not do all that often. Dr. Raymond D. Neufeld spent his life in service as a doctor. He didn’t talk about it a great deal. He just kept doing what he believed was right.

In this recording, the final 2 minutes and a bit were lost, and my father re-recorded it at my brother’s request.

I hope you enjoy and are blessed. The presentation is titled “The Healing Hands of Jesus.”

My mother was an RN and served with my father in various places. You can learn more about their experiences in the book Directed Paths.

Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Albert Einstein is frequently credited, incorrectly, with saying that insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting different results. Repeatedly point out that the attribution is incorrect is likely a form of insanity, as it will doubtless still be attributed to Albert Einstein. (You can read the details on the Quote Investigator.)

I like the form given by George A. Kelly in 1955 (as quoted in op. cit.):

“… we may define a disorder as any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation.”

The Quote Investigator

The phrase “… in spite of consistent invalidation” is my sort of language! I must note that I use that sort of language on people frequently, with the most common result being blank looks. Not what I was looking for. Yet I repeat.

By this definition, however, many, many churches can be diagnosed with some sort of disorder. We have churches and whole denominations diminishing in numbers, worrying about those diminishing numbers, holding meetings and conferences about them, without ever actually making substantive changes.

I’m reminded of a pastor who once told me how his church had asked him for a plan to grow their congregation and to reach their community for Christ. He labored over the plan for months, and it was presented to the church with some fanfare, ceremony, and excitement. The members agreed that this plan would bring in new people, and they thought it would reach people in their community for Christ. But they decided not to do it because their church would no longer be the church of their childhoods. They wouldn’t really like it anymore.

One disorder in the church is that we can determine the quality of some church by numbers. Mainline denominations are criticized because their numbers are dropping. It’s often considered the end of the argument: “Our church is growing, so we’re better. Yours is shrinking, so you’re worse.”

But there are large, growing churches with quite different and contradictory theologies. We’ve discussed and tried to cure our numbers problems for years. Is it possible that our obsession with numbers is one sign of church insanity? Is the number of backsides contacting the pews of our church buildings each Sunday a good indicator of spiritual health, or even of church health? More importantly, is finding what appears to be a good strategy for church growth the right way to be the Body of Christ in the world?

Why am I writing this at Christmas?

Well, I’m really writing it in Advent, and this advent season, I’d like to consider the possibility that the best strategy we can devise is not God’s strategy, the best measurements we can devise do not measure what God wants measured, and finally that God’s strategy might look totally hopeless and useless to us.

Think of yourself in the Roman world in the late 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE. What do you see as your problem? How do you measure it?

Lots of modern Christians criticize the Jewish people for “expecting the wrong thing.” I’d like to take note of two things. I suspect if you think that, you haven’t been reading the texts in the Hebrew Scriptures with care and attention and looking at them in context. There were plenty of indications that God’s plan was to free his people politically and make them the center of the nations and to do it now! Second, Christians criticizing the Jews seem to be looking for the same things as the Jews were. We’re chucking stones through openings in our glass houses. One of the great Christian pretensions, quite insane, is that somehow we would do better than Israel did, that we are somehow better people.

And it was not only the Jews who wanted freedom from the Romans. History looks back on the Pax Romana with a certain amount of approval. As brutal as Roman government was, it did provide an unprecedented degree of law and order. Many still wanted to rebel, and the Romans provided them with many reasons to do so. One reason for their failure, however, was that people appreciate law and order, as long as they are not the ones suffering the penalties. Line the roads with people dying on crosses, and as long as one can convince oneself that one is not headed to the cross next, one will often support the oppressor.

One thing we often forget about the rise of tyrants is that it is not just the tyrants who are involved. Often a weak, divided, corrupt, and ineffective opposition is the would-be tyrant’s best friend.

So clearly I must be advocating for a good grand strategy, mobilizing the right people, making the opposition effective, getting the right weapons, and acting in a unified way.

As a member of a United Methodist congregation, the strategy should be greater grounding in Wesleyan doctrine, more advertising of Methodist churches, more money spent on hospitality and relationships with our visitors, and more people inviting others to church. Right?

That would, after all, be the equivalent of uniting the opposition to a tyrant around a clear plan, led by people who are known not to be corrupt, with plenty of financial backing, and perhaps even weapons and people with training willing to put them into action.

Good strategy, yes. God’s strategy, no.

You see, this is a Christmas post (yes, I know, posted in Advent). Faced with probably the most efficient army the world had known up to that time (at least the world as seen from the Mediterranean), with a brutal but effective means of enforcing rule, and a government willing to apply that method with the necessary ruthlessness, God did not summon up an army. Not even an army of angels. The only angels around seem to have been bringing messages or singing songs.

God didn’t find a charismatic political leader to organize a party, nor did God bring a political leader to take effective action in the Roman senate. He didn’t perform a miracle to wipe the oppressors out so that others could fill the vacuum.

Faced with a terrible, intractable situation, God went stupid. I say that with the utmost respect. Awe even. Reverence.

God sent a baby, born of a nobody, barely surviving childhood, raised on the wrong side of the tracks. Donkey tracks, that is!

Not a good plan, Lord! Bad strategy! Losing, even!

This was grace in action. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Let’s expand that. While we were still sinners, Jesus came as a baby, lived as we have to live, encountered dangers and we have to encounter them, lived through reproach, and then died the horrible death that the authorities had prepared for someone like him.

The reality is that if we’re honest, we will confess that this strategy would never occur to us and we wouldn’t really try it. As evidence, I will point out that we never seem to plan church strategies of that kind. Our strategies are not designed to give without waiting for a return.

If they were, then church growth groups couldn’t sell their services to churches by promising more members. Stewardship consultants wouldn’t be able to sell churches their services by promising a certain amount of increase in the weekly take in the offering plate.

We’ve been doing those things for years, and yes, business plans built around such activities can work for a time. That stewardship consultant very likely can increase your weekly offering.

But here’s the problem. That success is not a success of the Body of Christ, but rather of your organization, your people, and your goals. It is advertising one thing but then offering people another when they come in the doors. The greater offering intake, greater influence in the community, and better social programs don’t solve people’s basic needs. These things may make your church successful, provided what you’re selling is Sunday morning entertainment and a platform for social programs.

But if that is what you’re offering, don’t be surprised when people down the street, with any number of motivations and programs, provide a better mechanism for people to influence the social realm and even help people economically than your church does.

Perhaps we need to look at our behavior, recognize our “disorder,” and look to God for a strategy. Perhaps we need to prepare to go out into the world, build relationships, walk alongside people in their need. As recipients of God’s grace, perhaps we can be sharers of God’s grace.

Some will be saying, “But those big buildings, the money in our offering plate, and our big platform are helping us serve the world.” If they are doing that, great! Thanks be to God for that great blessing!

But if you still feel that something’s missing, or if the pews start to empty as people realize they can do as much by sending a check to their favorite charity, then consider that you may need to go out into the world in the way that God sent his son. (But remember also that people may be leaving because they don’t want to take up their cross.)

No, we cannot cure our insanity. Only the grace of God can do that. The starting point is to realize that we are insane, that we can’t cure it, but our gracious God can.

Yes, I’m a publisher. Let me recommend a book.

Featured image credit: Adobe Stock 95049255. Not public domain.

We Have Sinned

We Have Sinned

This week as the story of yet another prominent Christian who had fallen passed through my news feeds, a young man who was pleading guilty to 18 counts related to sex with minors, I was led again to Daniel 9 and Daniel’s prayer of repentance.

We argue about the impact of prayer and what God does with our prayers a great deal. Does prayer change God? But there is a much more important question, in my view: Does prayer change us? Whatever it does, I think it reflects how we are thinking.

The Bible is quite hard on its main characters, never giving them a break. Their faults are put on display for all to see. Even the heroes of the Bible are presented with flaws. Daniel is one of those that is presented at all times in a positive light. There are those who believe he is the one referenced in Ezekiel 14:14, where he’s in a list with Noah and Job, both of whom are described as righteous.

But when Daniel begins to pray, he uses the third person plural: “We”

We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have incurred guilt, and we have rebelled by turning aside from your commands and decisions.

Daniel 9:5 (my translation and emphasis)

I think Daniel had something there about a response to sin.

You see, our tendency is to blame others. Other people in other traditions, using other forms of church governance, believing other doctrines, and just generally being different from me/us (the righteous one/ones) fell into grave sin. They should correct their traditions, fix their church governance, clean up their doctrinal statements, and become more like us!

For decades, Protestants have spent their time looking down on Roman Catholics because they had pedophiles in the ranks. We Protestants, being wise enough to allow marriage in the ministry, obviously wouldn’t have such a problem.

They have sinned. We’re OK.

But the fact is that we have sinned, and the more news comes out, the more glaringly obvious it is that we are all falling short.

We have sinned:

  • By looking at the sin of others and assuming we ourselves are immune
  • By ignoring what Jesus said about not lording it over one another and making hierarchies
  • By considering some people to be above accountability because they are anointed leaders
  • By failing to be accountable to one another
  • By turning aside less important people, claiming their word should not stand against the word of the holier, the more educated, the richer, the more powerful, or the more respected
  • By shifting the blame from perpetrators to the victims
  • By thinking our witness for Jesus could be made better by covering up than by confessing
  • By seeing the least of these as least, rather than as God’s children, pearls of great price
  • By thinking that we can ever criticize and judge from the outside
  • By believing, contrary to Romans 13, that our behavior is only church business, and refusing to report crimes to the appropriate authorities
  • By feeling all holy inside when someone’s sin is exposed and we realize (or imagine) that their sin is not one that attracts us.

If the church is to be a witness we need to be an honest and genuine witness to who we are. God knows who we really are. In a self-righteous prayer, we do not deceive God. We just deceive ourselves. We help ourselves believe that we are exempt.

It is in feeling that we are exempt, better-than, holier-than, more Spirit-filled, more Christ-like, more like a real church, and less subject to temptation that we prepare for a fall. Our fall, my fall, may not come via sexual temptation. But if I become superior and arrogant, if I fail to realize who I am, my fall will surely come.

May God have mercy on us all.

The Danger of Making Things Tougher

The Danger of Making Things Tougher

I don’t spend a great deal of time talking about it, but following my MA in Biblical and cognate languages, I took one quarter in a MA in Theoretical Linguistics program. I had a full ride fellowship with a stipend, but after one quarter I resigned the fellowship and headed for more interesting places and activities.

In my introduction to linguistics course, the midterm test was made up of a short set of essay questions. I believe we had to answer three of four, though I can’t remember precisely. One of them had to do with comparative linguistics—right up my alley! So I filled it with examples from multiple languages and just plain had fun. More fun, in fact, than I’d had in the class up to then.

I hadn’t realized that the professor would choose to read what he thought were the best answers to the questions to the entire class. He chose mine. I wasn’t embarrassed by my content, but the context was totally wrong. The university had a strong TESOL program, and the vast majority of the students were in that. They were not pursuing theoretical linguistics. As a general rule, they probably had at most a minor in one foreign language.

One student responded immediately afterward with a question: “How are we supposed to write something like that when we don’t know all those languages?”

Her question was absolutely valid. My particular skill set was not that relevant to them. One can be superior at TESOL without knowing, say, Ugaritic. By presenting something not relevant, the professor had actually done something to discourage other students. If they had to do that, well, they couldn’t.

It wasn’t because I was superior to them. It was because my skill set was different.

Now let’s make a completely bogus argument. Why not? People do it all the time. Here it is. Knowing more is better. If those students learned more languages, they would have more sources of examples. Why should they not be required to learn all those languages? They’re probably just too lazy.

A parallel argument might be made about my high school education. Why not require him to take more credits in science and math? Why not require Algebra II, Trigonometry, maybe some Calculus? After all, he will know more!

Well, in response. I’ll go ahead an be lazy. In fact, I’m a high school dropout. It wasn’t for the normal reasons. I was overseas and enjoying running around the country. But the thing is that I was able to succeed without all those credits, including not having the credits normally required in English. In fact, I have just 2.5 high school credits, and one of those is in typing.

Yet we make this kind of argument all the time. For the things I find easy, it’s also easy to suggest that others should have to fulfill those requirements. Why not? It’s good knowledge and they might need it. I recall the surprise of some people trying to develop a two year ministry program when I suggested that requiring Greek was not a good idea. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that in a two year program you can’t learn enough Greek to be that useful unless you steal time from other necessary activities.

But let’s look at the church. We often operate on the same basis. Why not suggest people do it? Why not make the standard higher? We even talk this way in churches that hardly have any standards at all, because as members we want some.

Whether it’s modest dress, giving, mission work, church activities, or other moral issues in our lives, the solution is generally to suggest doing more. And yes, again, I realize that we rarely enforce those standards, but that makes it even worse. We push people to higher performance and assume they won’t make it, but we figure if we just push a bit harder—you’re giving one percent, how about two?—we’ll get a bit more out of people. When they don’t live up to the implied standard, well, we tried!

And they may have tried and failed, and added to whatever else they may have been dealing with, they now feel that they are not living up to what their pastor, Sunday School teacher, small group leader, deacon, elder, or generally picky person round the church expects of them.

It’s like telling (or rather, implying that) those people who were learning how to teach English to speakers of other languages ought to get down to it and learn a few more languages like the theoretical linguist down the row. (Or rather, the guy who had learned a number of ancient languages. I never did get a degree in linguistics!) It won’t help them do their job, but one can hope it will make them feel smarter.

Actually it won’t. Setting up higher standards doesn’t help one to fulfill those standards, whether or not they’re relevant.

But there’s another problem in church. When we require those “higher” standards, we also imply that the standards are what church is about, and we can suggest that other people, those who don’t accomplish those standards are not good enough.

I think this is a good part of what Paul is talking about in Romans 12-14, especially 14. It’s possible to read Paul’s toleration as an acceptance of just anything. I think Paul’s focus is on the message of the gospel. He’s giving up disagreements and minor points of behavior in favor of the message of the gospel.

I’m not going to do this verse by verse, but try reading those three chapters with this in mind. No, that’s not the only theme, but I think it is uppermost in Paul’s mind. How are we going to witness best to the message of the gospel? So then, “Don’t destroy God’s work over food” (Romans 14:20) the point is to put one’s focus back on the gospel. Forcing one’s detailed rules doesn’t make people better. It detracts from the gospel.

Being stricter, always trying to be better, will not necessarily make you better. It is often, instead, the road to more complete failure.

(Please check out the article FROM DOBE TO BEDO by Pat Badstibner on Energion Direct’s From Our Authors.

Can We Have a Commitment to Biblical Truth?

Can We Have a Commitment to Biblical Truth?

We now come to the third mark of a New Testament church, and that is its commitment to biblical truth. One of the weakest aspects of Western Christianity is our failure to give proper teaching to new converts. As a result, biblical illiteracy plagues the church in America. This is a weakness in some mainline churches, and often in evangelical churches too. (Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, p. 17)

I discussed this to some extent when I worked through this book, but now I want to place the question before my readers for some discussion. With the wide variety of beliefs that we claim are biblical, one wonders just what biblical truth is and how we discern it. Are all those who disagree not listening to the Holy Spirit? Are they ignorant?

Read my previous post, which also quotes from Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel and Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations.


 

When Is a Gift Spiritual?

When Is a Gift Spiritual?

Dave Black writes about spiritual gifts and natural abilities. (Link on jesusparadigm.com, to make a permanent link available.) I like what he said. I want to add a note. You can find more of my comments on 1 Corinthians 12-14 under the 1 Corinthians tag on this site.

The problem that I see commonly with our reading of 1 Corinthians 12 especially is that we assume that Paul is setting out to explain spiritual gifts. I don’t think that’s what he’s up to. Rather, he is using the variety of spiritual gifts as a means to talk about Christian unity, and as a way to teach discernment of all of our activities.

Everything is a gift of God. There are gifts that God places in the body of believers for the purpose of carrying out ministry. Whether these gifts are “spiritual” or not is not a function of whether they are received from God or not. All gifts come from God. The issue is under whose authority we place these gifts. If you take a look especially at 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, and then focus on 11, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit,” you will start to get the picture, I think. This isn’t a list of “approved” spiritual gifts, and it isn’t a question of what gifts come from God and what gifts occur naturally. Nature itself belongs to God. The natural is divine by gift of its creator.

Acting under one Spirit, however, is an excellent test. The gift, whether designated spiritual or not, that is used to tear down rather than to build up is distinctly unspiritual in this sense.

Another error we often make is to extract 1 Corinthians 13 from the passage of 12-14. (Of course, the structure of the entire book is important as well.) I recently read an article, and I now can’t recall the source, that mentioned this wasn’t a wedding passage, and indeed it isn’t. Nontheless I will say it’s fine at weddings, because scripture uses the marital relationship as a metaphor to tell us about the divine relationship and also about the body of Christ. But here it is Paul’s principles for the use of God’s gifts in a spiritual way. He in turn makes those principles explicit in detailed action in 1 Corinthians 14.

We shouldn’t be complacent in reading 1 Corinthians 14. We sometimes read it as a corrective to raucous or disorganized worship services, but the worst problem we have is that we don’t have the problems that the Corinthian church had in worship. We don’t have everyone showing up with each having “a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (14:26, NIV). We each show up only with a backside to plant in a pew.

We need first to put our gifts into God’s hands for service, and then we can start talking about how to best use them in an edifying, i.e. building, worship service.

These three chapters are powerful, and I think incredibly relevant to the church today. We should have problems like the Corinthian church!

 

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.