Monday, July 19, 2010

Living with Jebusites

"I don't like church. Church people are a bunch of hypocrites."

"Church would be great if it weren't for all the people."

I could probably list a dozen or so more variations of the same sentiment. All of them are pretty harsh sounding. What is even more harsh is that these words are spoken at times by Christians, including even pastors.

A buddy of mine posted a link to an Alban Institute article up on Facebook that cites a USA Today story stating that a decreasing number of young adults born in the 1980's or 1990's view the church as a place to make a difference or develop leadership skills. I haven't read all the way through the article yet, but that statement seems to very much strike a chord with the sentiments I quoted at the beginning.

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself in a "woe is me" kind of place, able to list all the things that are wrong with church and the ministry, considering that there had to be something better. Then my wife asked the question: "What else would you do?"

Today I was reading in the book of Joshua. It is in a rather boring part of Joshua, where the text is detailing the boundaries of each of the 12 tribes portions of the Promised Land. I found myself skimming over a whole lot of names that just don't really carry a lot of meaning for me. Then I found myself at Joshua 15:63, "But the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day."

Those words struck me. Here the children of Israel find themselves in the land flowing with milk and honey, the Promised Land that God had given to them to be theirs. The book of Joshua tells of numerous victories Israel enjoyed on the battlefield, sometimes facing difficult odds. Life would seem like it couldn't get any better. And then, "But the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah to this day." Even life in the Promised Land was not perfect.

It seems to me that we spend a lot of time lot bemoaning the parts of our life, our jobs, our families, our homes, our chores, and our churches that we would rather live without. We pour a lot of effort, with good and right intentions, on improving things and making things better. However, sometimes, we find ourselves disappointed after all of our struggles and battles that there are still some nuisances that we want out that we haven't been able to uproot. I wonder, in our striving for perfection, do we allow the frustrations of what we have to put up with to keep us from learning how to live with what we would rather live without? As I thought about it, I thought it was pretty impressive that the Israelites, who had gained so many victories by the sword, had to figure out how to live with a people rather than run them out.

Am I saying that we should not seek to change what is wrong in our institutions and in our lives, that we should simply quit whining and put up with it? No. But what I am saying is that the presence of what we would rather live without need not keep us from living in the promise of God. Just because life or family or church or ministry or work is not as perfect as it could be does not mean there is not sweet milk and honey still to enjoy and share. There are some things that we would rather live without that we sometimes need to figure out how to live with.

It's pretty easy to get jaded about church and about ministry, and there are a lot of good reasons to get jaded by either or both, reasons that need to be addressed and changed. Still, there is milk and honey to enjoy, even if we have to enjoy them while living with Jebusites.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Getting Out of Micah's House

Judges 17 tells the story of Micah, a man who steals 1100 pieces of silver from his mother and then returns the silver in fear of the curse that she put on the person who stole the silver. That may sound like the whole story, but that is actually just the beginning. Judges skips past telling us all the juicy details: why did he steal the money, what were the details of the curse, etc. Instead, Judges focuses on the mother's instructions after the son returns the silver: he is to take the silver and create an idol out of it.

Now, for most ancient Israelites (and for us preachers who are preaching through the 10 Commandments right now), this sent off all kinds of alarm bells. The second commandment specifically states that God forbids the creation of idols or "graven images". However, this story is just getting started.

Micah builds the silver idol and places it in his home. The scene then shifts to a nameless Levite in Bethlehem who grows bored of Bethlehem and sets out to find some new place to live. This Levite finds himself at the home of Micah. Micah invites this Levite to become his personal priest. Now remember, the Levites were the tribe charged with leadership in the worship of God. The book of Leviticus is filled with all the regulations the priests had to be sure to follow to insure proper worship of God by Israel. One would suppose a good Levite would refuse Micah's offer, especially upon discovering the silver idol in Micah's house. However, the Levite accepts Micah's offer and settles in to Micah's house. Judges 17 closes with Micah saying, "Now I know that the LORD will prosper me, because the Levite has become my priest."

In preaching this past Sunday, I stated that at the core of the second commandment is a restriction of our desire to control how God will be God in our lives. Micah's story and his closing words are case study #1 in why the second commandment is so important. I read a story on yesterday that talked about the growing number of people in the United States who identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious". As I read this story I realized how much we want to make faith about us. We want faith's purpose, like Micah, to be personally prospering, and that desire impacts how we practice our faith. The problem becomes that such a desire ends up limiting God. God ends up being as big as our house rather than the eternal, universal God of creation.

I'll be the first to admit that I understand why people reject religion for spirituality. The organized structure of Christian faith has done much to overshadow the good news of salvation with the burden of guilt, power, greed, and hatred. There have been plenty of times when I have wanted to flee the Church and embrace personal spirituality, just me and God. However, what we often don't see is that often our pursuit of a relationship that is just me and God really ends up being just me. We tend to soften the prophetic aspect of faith that calls us outside of ourselves and reminds us of God's holiness and the brokeness of the world, all because we believe that our faith should be that which keeps us comfortable. We create our own images of God and, at times, even hire our own personal priests who will tell us only what we want to hear. If anything, the 10 Commandments remind us that faith is a covenant between God and His people, and that covenant is intended to be beneficial for both parties. God's people are set free and allowed to enjoy that freedom so that God's name might be honored by all people. That sounds very different from a faith that one person in the story on CNN described as "Burger King faith - you can have it your way."

Being the body of Christ, practicing faith as part of a larger community, is a struggle for sure. It is a struggle because we are imperfect people. However, it is also a struggle because it forces us to hear other voices that differ from ours. It forces us to consider that our way of looking at things is not the only way and may not be the right way. It forces us to consider that our faith is ultimately in God who is bigger than our individual worlds and individual lives. I guess you could say that what makes it so hard to be the community of Christ is what reminds us of how great our God is.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Do We Feel Better?

I thought I would reprint the text of the sermon here. Feel free to comment as you feel led.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to consider this question: “Is faith a placebo?” This morning, I would like to share my answer to that question.

Within the question we find two terms that perhaps require further clarification: faith and placebo. What do these two terms mean?

For a definition of faith, we turn to Hebrews 11:1, where we are told, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

For a definition of placebo, we turn to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, where we are told that a placebo is “a medication prescribed more for the mental relief of the patient than for its actual effect on his disorder; something tending to soothe.”

So, based on these definitions, it seems to me that this issue which I was asked to take up is really two separate but related questions: Is the assurance of what we hope for and the belief in what we cannot see soothing? Is this really the purpose of faith: to make us feel better?

In answering the first question, personal experience and the testimony of other believers would seem to indicate that the answer is “yes”. Within this very space this morning are the testimonies of those who have shared with me how their faith was a comfort to them in the face of extremely trying times. Believing that God forgives soothes the guilt of the repentant heart. Believing that God is everlasting soothes the grief of the one who has lost a loved one in death. Even in our worship, whether we are singing that it is well with our soul when sorrows like sea billows roll or that we are trading our sorrows for the joy of the Lord, we affirm that our faith comforts us.

Our use of Scripture even reflects the comfort that our faith provides. Consider what are probably the two most well-known passages of Scripture: The 23rd Psalm - “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me besid the still waters. He restoreth my soul” and John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Why do these passages resonate so strongly with us that many can recite these words from memory even if they are not familiar with any other Scripture? Is it because these 2 passages resonate so powerfully with a message of comfort – in the 23rd Psalm, a promise for today that God will restore our souls, and in John 3:16, a promise for tomorrow that in Christ we have the assurance of everlasting life? Are there any two promises that do more to put our mind at ease than these 2?

Jesus himself teaches us that it is His desire that faith would result in our being soothed. In Matthew 11, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus here makes the bold pronouncement that coming to Him in faith can lead to our souls finding that restoration that Psalm 23 speaks of. Almost every funeral I officiate, I start by reading these words because I think we should be reminded that our Lord and our God does desire to give us rest.

So then, as I consider the first question - Is the assurance of what we hope for and the belief in what we cannot see soothing? – I feel that the answer to this question, both Biblically and experientially, is “Yes”. So then, what of the 2nd question: is this the purpose of faith – to make us feel better? When I look back at the original question and the definitions that I put forth at the beginning, I am struck that a placebo, from a medical perspective, is not intended to deal with the health problem itself. It is instead designed to make the person mentally and emotionally feel better while not actually dealing with the actual health problem that is causing the mental and emotional strain in the first place. Is this what faith is? Is faith that which allows us to maintain sanity in a broken world, without ever addressing the brokeness itself?

In my experience, it is at this question that many find themselves polarized. At one pole, we find Karl Marx. Marx is the famous author of The Communist Manifesto, yet perhaps his most wellknown quote is not found in his most well-known work. In an essay entitled Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx wrote: Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.” Marx argued that religion was a crutch that encouraged the poor to be satisfied with surviving in poverty. Marx called on the people to toss aside religion and a fake sense of security in order to work to change their circumstances and know true happiness. While Marx’s thoughts on religion have come to be wrapped up in the economic and politcal realities of communism, in truth Marx states what many think and say who have nothing to do with communism. At this pole, faith is spiritual Valuum, numbing our senses to the causes of suffering so that we can bear to face each day. Faith is a mode of survival, of grinning and bearing it. While it would be easy to assume that this pole is surrounded by enemies of religion, let us realize that there are a good number of Christians who live at this pole as well. Faith is the escape from their problems, it is the buzz of the mountaintop experience, and they desire nothing else than to keep the spiritual high going.

At the other pole, opposite Karl Marx and those who see faith as a drug or an escape, is Benny Hinn. Hinn is the well-known TV evangelist who performs “faith healings”. Hinn and others like him have long been dogged by questions about how many healings they have actually performed and whether or not people stay healed. Hinn, and other faith healers, are quick to argue that if someone is not healed, it is because of a lack of faith on their part. Others have built on this idea, teaching a prosperity gospel that says, “If you have enough faith, God will make you wealthy.” At this pole, you find those who argue that the amount of faith we have is directly related to the amount our circumstances can change. Whether we are sick or healthy, rich or poor is dependent on our faith, seemingly spoken of more in quantitative than qualitative terms. Faith is not just about feeling good; faith can change our circumstances for the better or for the worse. And while it would be easy to assume that mostly religious people gather around this pole, the truth is that we would find a good number of people gathered at this pole that we would not call religious at first glance. Inevitably there are those who make the argument against faith that the suffering of believers is evidence that God is not real. This argument is based on the idea that faith should keep us from needing to be soothed.

At one pole, all faith does is make us feel better because it is powerless to change our difficult circumstances. At the other pole, faith doesn’t need to provide comfort because true faith should remove all that causes us to suffer. Are we left to choose between these two, or to define our position somewhere in the vast spectrum in between?

I don’t believe so. I believe there is another way, another perspective. This morning, I want to conclude by laying out a third answer for your consideration. This third answer begins, I believe, with understanding a basic principle about God

In Habakkkuk 2, the prophet commends the righteous for living by faith and condemns the rich and the proud for seeking to live solely by what is tangible. In verses 18-19, the prophet describes the idols that this second group ends up creating. What use is an idol once its maker has shaped it— a cast image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in what has been made, though the product is only an idol that cannot speak! Alas for you who say to the wood, “Wake up!” to silent stone, “Rouse yourself!” Can it teach? See, it is gold and silver plated, and there is no breath in it at all. The problem with living without faith is that we end up chasing after fallible creations that are not alive, that cannot speak and teach. They cannot challenge or create. All the while, Habakkuk says in verse 20, “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” While the idols of man lie silent before their creators, the Creator of the Universe lives, and all are invited to stop and listen to Him who is wholly other than us yet is alone able to relate to us.

The reality that Habakkuk was reminding Israel of in the face of the Babylonian threat is the same idea that the 19th century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard would remind the Protestant church: God is different from humanity. God is personal, holy, and transcendent, whereas humans are finite, dependent , and sinful. This vast difference between humanity and God makes it nearly impossible to know and understand God in the same way we know and understand what the weather is outside. The only way to know God, Kierkegaard argued, was to leave the objective position of observer and take the risk of becoming a participant in a relationship with God. This risk is what Kierkegaard identified as faith. When we read Hebrews 11:1 and the definition of faith, what we find is comfort held in tension with risk. Yes, we hear of assurance and conviction, but Hebrews 11 also reminds us that we are talking of what we hope for and what we cannot see. Faith cannot escape the call to take a risk, and taking a risk is never comfortable. In fact, when we try to make it more comfortable, we end up building idols that we can touch and see but that can’t speak and have no life in them to do anything. When we try to remove the risk, we ultimately remove the relationship.

However, when we can embrace the uncomfortability of the risk, we open the door for the reception of assurance and conviction. The author of Hebrews goes on after verse 1 to lay out the “Faith Hall of Fame”. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses – these and so many more are praised for what they accomplished “by faith”. However, as I read through this Hall of Fame, an interesting observation arises. In verse 7, we are told that “By faith, Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household.” Verse 11 says, “By faith [Abraham] received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised”. In these instances we see that faith either inspired a man to make a change, in the case of Noah, or inspired a man to receive a change, in the case of Abraham. However, in verse 9, we are told, “By faith [Abraham] stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents”. The other 2 verses show Noah and Abraham’s circumstances being changed for the better. However, in verse 9, Abraham’s faith is praised because he was willing to live as a guest in his own home. It was his land, but he was forced to live in it as a stranger. In some cases faith is connected with change, while in other cases, faith is connected with living amid unchanging difficult circumstances.

This then, it seems to me, is the third way: faith is taking an uncomfortable risk that an Almighty God will prepare us to live with whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. Faith is risking to believe that God can overcome evil with good, while also risking to believe that God can endow the good with endurance to withstand the persecution of evil. Faith means we are not satisfied with a broken creation and seek to change it as God equips us to do so, while at the same time believing that there is comfort for the broken until the day when God’s kingdom comes and all is made new. The poles of Karl Marx and Benny Hinn put the impetus of faith on humanity: at one pole, humanity must toss aside faith in order to truly change the world. At the other pole, the only way God can work is if humanity acquires enough faith. In both cases, faith centers on us. Hebrews 11 calls us to take the risk to center faith on God, the mysterious and hidden Lord. Yet, in taking that risk, a whole new world is opened to us, and we are able to find the assurance and the conviction that is beyond our grasp when we settle for our own efforts.

Is faith a placebo? Certainly faith provides to us a message of comfort in anxious and troubled times. It soothes the heart and the soul when the storm clouds are gathering. However, faith is not just a happy pill. Faith dares to invite God into the trouble, into the storm with us. There was a time when Christ spoke to the storm and it ceased. There was another time when Christ walked on the water in the midst of the storm and invited Peter to walk with him. Did either one prove him more or less God? This is faith: risking to believe God is with us in the storm, whether he causes it to cease or invites us to walk with him through it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


During my first week of seminary, we were divided into small groups and we were asked to share our answers to the following question: "If you were going to be traveling cross country in a car with no radio, who are the other 3 people you want riding in the car with you?" I have been trying to remember the three people I picked, but I can only remember 2: Mark Twain and Robin Williams. I do remember the thought process behind my answer. I decided I wanted people who would tell good stories and keep my laughing.

When I think back on it, what we seminary students were really being asked was this: what conversations would you really like to be a part of? This question has come to roost in my soul again in recent weeks. It started when I was traveling with the Baptist Student Union on their Spring Break mission trip to Charleston, SC. We were traveling by van and everybody had brought their own books, iPods, and pillows to pass the time with. However, both in the journey to Charleston and the journey home, several of us ended up engaging in conversations that touched on such topics as the meaning and purpose of education, the best (and worst) books and novels we had ever read, and the theology and practice of sabbath. I think all of us who took part in the conversation found ourselves better off for having been a part of it. I know I have already pulled "A Tale of Two Cities" off my book shelf to start reading based on the comments of several folks from that conversation.

I wonder if we ever stop to consider the true power and impact of our communal conversation that digs below "small talk" and tackles real wrestlings and dialogue. While attending Elon University's convocation service, I learned that Phi Beta Kappa was started by 5 students at the College of William and Mary who met at a pub off campus to discuss the higher issues of learning. In his book C.S. Lewis: Life at the Center, Perry Bramlett tells the story of the Inklings. This was a group of authors and thinkers who met twice a week at an Oxford pub and in Lewis' college office to discuss politics, books and religion. The unofficial membership of the Inklings included C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and J.R.R. Tolkien as well as other notable authors and theologians. The discussions of the Inklings would often work their way into the writings of these men, thus carrying their influence beyond the pub and the university to millions of others.

Throughout the history of mankind and Christianity, revelation and inspiration have come when people have joined together to talk and listen to one another, to think through and discuss and debate the deeper issues of life and faith. In these days of Twitter and tea parties, of talk shows and time-cramped schedules, I wonder if we are ignoring the possibilities of talking to one another to focus on talking at one another.

As I write these words, my thoughts are beginning to turn to a panel discussion I have been invited to participate in this coming Sunday night. Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church has invited me and several other ministers to come and be a part of an ecumenical discussion among senior high youth in our area about the different Christian denominations. The youth will ask the questions, and we ministers will respond and dialogue with the youth about the various issues that arise. I am excited and grateful to have been invited to this conversation. Perhaps, in our dialogue, a better picture of the "body of Christ" will emerge for all of us to consider.

What conversations do you want to be a part of?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Why Pay the Preacher?

John Chandler reprinted this article in his "3 Good Minutes" weekly email. I thought I would share it here as a follow up to some earlier postings. The article, written by Dan Hotchkiss, originally appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Clergy Journal.

"Pastor, I've always wondered: how long does it take you to prepare a sermon? As a board member, people ask me, and I'd like to be able to explain why we pay you so much. Could you keep track of how you spend your time and put a summary in your monthly board report?"
Such a request, coming from a member of the session, vestry, deacons, or trustees, can raise the blood pressure even of experienced clergy. It is a natural request in a society that considers "the days of a man's life" as a type of property to be exchanged for salaries and wages.
Most of us know that the smart response is a non-anxious one. Possible non-anxious answers range from accurate ("I find it varies from eight to twenty hours") to honest ("I'm not sure; it depends how much looking out the window and how many false starts you count") to whimsical ("Last week's sermon about aging took me sixty years").
But non-anxious is no easy thing to be, especially when lay leaders ask us about money, time, and preaching. As a denominational executive, I used to monitor church newsletters for signs of trouble, including clues that ministers had overreacted to such questions. Some clergy counterattacked, lecturing their congregants about how mysterious, intangible, and immeasurable our work is, and how wrong it is for lay leaders to oversee us as if our work were somehow comparable to that of common...well, to their work. Few congregations respond well to condescension or to scolding nowadays.
The other troublesome response I often saw was to over-comply by keeping the requested time log and publishing it not only to the board but to the congregation in the newsletter. Such a response buys into the time-clock way of thinking. It also telegraphs anxiety, making it more likely that a harmless-perhaps even innocent-question may lead to real difficulty.
An embarrassing truth about the work of clergy is that a lot of it looks like loafing. Who else gets paid to drink iced tea with a wise great-grandmother or toast the giddy joy of newlyweds? And little that we do looks more like goofing off than preaching. I don't mean, of course, the feverish final preparatory rush or the climactic 20 minutes on the podium, but the hours of hunt and peck, preceded, in my experience, by as many hours of what might appear, to the naïve observer, to be procrastination.
And yet, that lazy-looking process-which seems to take the best preachers a full day or two to carry through-is one of the main things as clergy we're paid for. Everybody seems to know this except clergy, who tend to undervalue this one aspect of our work.
Some years ago, a university divinity school appointed a faculty committee to review the school's success in "homiletic pedagogy," that is, teaching students how to preach. The committee, looking in the rear-view mirror, saw it was not the first to plow this ground. In fact, every eight or ten years since World War II the school had asked a committee to rethink how and whether to teach preaching. Most of the committees, after studying contemporary trends, declared that preaching was passé, or almost so, and so the school should focus its attention on the Next Big Thing-lay participation, worship arts, liturgical revival, radio, TV, small groups, the Internet.
Meanwhile, in the parishes, search committees kept on listing preaching at or near the top of what they wanted in a clergy leader. Governing boards kept putting preaching high among the qualities they praised in clergy or complained about. Despite the faculty committees' confident pronouncements of a post-sermonic age and the school's best efforts to prepare for it, preaching didn't die. If anything, it grew in importance as parishioners acted more like fickle restaurant customers. Preaching, it appears, is a big part of what the people in the pews pay for.
In theory, of course, this should be true only in traditions where the pulpit stands at the center-front, as in Reformed churches. In practice, Calvinism flows wide and strong through North America, affecting Lutherans, Jews, Episcopalians, Buddhists, even-partly through the influence of charismatic movements-Orthodox and Catholic Christians. In Pentecostal churches, perhaps the most distinctive and successful kind of Christianity yet to spring from New World soil, preaching lights the fuse for the explosions of the Spirit that quieter denominations envy.
In lean economic times, boards often fail to recognize that their desire for "good preaching" means they need to pay their clergy leader, not to put in certain hours, but to play a certain role in the community of faith. The best response to questions about how long it takes to write a sermon may be the honest one: it takes a lot of time, including time that looks like work and time that looks like goofing off.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Giving Up

At that time the LORD said to Joshua, "Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites a second time." ... For the Israelites traveled forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the warriors who came out of Egypt, perished, not having listened to the voice of the LORD. To them the LORD swore that he would not let them see the land that he had sworn to their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So it was their children, who he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way. - Joshua 5:2, 6-7

The generation of Israelites that came out of Egypt were familiar with circumcision, because they themselves were circumcised upon leaving Egypt. So if they were familiar with the expectation, why did they not perform circumcision on their own children? Could it be that, once they knew the Promised Land would not be within their reach, they saw no reason to fulfill this covenantal expectation?

I think about the children of Israel, and I think about that person who thinks that they have sinned so badly that they are beyond repair. They give up once any hope of restoration seems beyond their reach. I just finished reading Josh Hamilton's biography, and he talks about how easy it was in 4 years of drug use to just continue to spiral downward. Once he had hit what seemed like bottom, recovery seemed like such an impossible task that he saw no reason to do anything else but just dig deeper into drugs. He talked about disappearing for days, not returning the phone calls of his wife who was at home with their newborn child. When there seems to be no hope, why bother keeping a promise?

This story in Joshua points out one of the problems with giving up: their children were delayed in receiving the promise. They had wait in their camp for several days while the men healed from their circumcision, they delaying their entry into this land flowing with milk and honey. I know we are only talking about a few days. Still, if you are standing at the gate of Disney World and it is 8:55 and the park opens at 9:00, how hard is it to wait that last five minutes?

There was another issue that arose from that first generation's giving up, a much bigger problem: their surrender kept disgrace alive. God tells Joshua after all the the men have been circumcised, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." 40 years after leaving Egypt! And no one that had actually been in Egypt was still alive! Yet their lack of circumcision made it seem that nothing had changed: the Israelites were still just escaped slaves, not God's people. Even though none of this generation had ever known the Pharoah's whip, they still carried with them the disgrace.

I can't imagine how hard it must have been to know that you would never enter the Promised Land, especially to know that you would not enter because of your own moral failure. It would seem so easy to just thrown in the towel, to give up on God because there was no hope. Would Christians today be as concerned about righteousness and morality if God said that he was taking Heaven away? Of course, if our faith is only about getting to Heaven, are we missing something important in our faith?

It seems to me that the promise of Heaven is only part of a much more important promise: the promise of presence. God desires an ongoing relationship with His people. Heaven is the part of the promise that lets us know that the relationship God desires is an eternal relationship. Heaven is not the ultimate goal, the relationship is the ultimate goal. Even when the Promised Land was moved beyond their grasp, God still offered the opportunity of relationship in the form of the tent of meeting and daily manna. These people who were once slaves were still free. They were still God's people, and He still wanted to be their God. Even without the Promised Land, none of this had changed.

I know what it is like to sense that God's promise, God's reward is out of reach. I know what it is like to feel like I will never attain what I hoped to attain. And I know very well the temptation in those moments to just give up. What's the point, if I am not going to get the ultimate payoff? Perhaps the first step to overcoming this temptation is to ask the question: even if the Promised Land is gone, is the relationship still possible? Even if I can't have everything I hoped, can I still have everything I need?

Jim Valvano was a successful basketball coach, but his lasting legacy has become the words, "Don't give up, don't ever give up." To those who feel that the promises of God have been pushed beyond reach, I would say, "Don't give up, don't ever give up." The presence and the love of God are still yours to have.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Social Justice Is Not a Bad Word

Through Twitter, I came across a story yesterday reporting that Glenn Beck called upon religious people to leave their church if their church claimed to be concerned about and/or involved with issues of social justice or economic justice. According to Beck, these ideas are "code words" to hide socialist and communist philosophies.

To start with, if you are going to leave your church because Glenn Beck tells you to, then I dare say you weren't all that interested in being in that church is the first place.

Now, let's talk about social justice. What exactly does this term mean? I don't know if "social justice" means the same thing to all people in all circumstances. Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. The development of liberation theology in the developing world. Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farms. All of these individuals and movements, as well as many more, could be classified as representative of "social justice" movements. While there are some similarities that would connect these movements, to say that they are exactly alike would be, I believe, inaccurate.

To me, "social justice" refers to the recognition of inequalities that exist in society, the suffering that results from those inequalities, and working to change the results and/or causes of those inequalities in order to bring relief to the suffering. Notice how that sentence started - "to me". I believe that "social justice" has become a term like "Coke". There are places where people ask for a "Coke" and they are not asking for a Coca-Cola drink. They are asking for some other soft drink, probably brown in color, that has some qualities in common with Coca-Cola but is not a Coca-Cola. I think "social justice" has become, in use, an umbrella term for a wide range of ideas and actions designed to impact larger communities. My concern when I read some of Beck's comments is that he is basing his argument on an extremely narrow (and questionably accurate?) understanding of what "social justice" means and then tossing aside anything that bears the label of "social justice" without stopping to truly consider and investigate whether or not what is being tossed aside actually matches his own definition.

But even more than that, the reality is that the church has been concerned with social justice long before social justice became the popular term it is today. Go all the way back to the Torah, and you will see Moses commanding the Israelites to insure that all people, regardless of wealth or social status, get a fair hearing in the meetings in the city gates. Prophets like Micah chastised Israel for neglecting justice and kindness: while Israel was more concerned with sacrificial ritual, Micah said in Micah 6:8 that what the LORD required was not rams or oil or firstborn children, but that God's people "... do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?" When we move into the New Testament, we see Christ identifying himself with the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned and identifying His people as those who met the needs of the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned. In Acts, we are told on a couple of occasions that the believers held nothing of their own but shared all their belongings in common so that no one among them would have need.

I believe these are Biblical examples of "social justice". Should believers really walk out of churches that take these ideas and put them into practice?

I will not deny that there are times and occasions when churches and believers can become so concerned with issues and doing works and taking up causes that they neglect their identity as the body of Christ and forsake the proclamation of the good news of salvation. There is a danger at times of the church trying to be the savior of the world rather than allowing Christ to be the Savior of the world. However, I do not think that a concern for social justice contradicts a church's message and identity. As I look at the Scriptures I mentioned above as well as the fuller witness of the Bible, I believe that to be who God calls us to be requires a concern for justice. I think it would be a tragic mistake to let "social justice" become a bad word within the church.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dangerous or Messy?

My wife called to tell me the parking lot at Wal-Mart is packed this afternoon. Big sale? No, just the weather forecast.

Right now, I think they are calling for just about everything to blow into town between tonight and Saturday morning: snow, freezing rain, rain. After last weekend, most people around here have had enough of winter weather I believe. Still, the rush for bread and milk has begun. And then there are the inevitable decisions to be made: will the kids go to school? I have already had to inform one group that I was supposed to meet with tomorrow that I may not be able to get to the meeting 45 minutes away from where I am.

Still, as I read the forecast, I wondered how much of this preparation and worry is really appropriate. They really still don't know exactly what it will be like. Yes, there could be some dangerous conditions, but it is just as likely that things could just be a slushy mess. Of course, either way, does that change whether or not people want to get out in it? Even if things are not as treacherous tomorrow as they were last weekend, I still read the forecast and think to myself, "Man, it is going to be nasty. I really don't want to get out in that."

Makes me wonder ... what's the difference between dangerous and messy? I think that is sometimes a difficult line to identify. There are obvious dangerous situations that we should avoid, but I wonder if there are also messy situations that we would just rather not deal with, so we don't.

This afternoon, I delivered some food to a man who had called the church asking for help. I went to his house and he was waiting outside for me. There were several bags of food, and I offered to help him carry the food in a couple of times, but he politely refused. Instead, we stood outside talking for awhile. His clothes were dirty and it was obvious that he hadn't bathed in quite awhile. Yet his first words were to warn me to be careful tonight because of the ice. He talked about losing his job at the grocery store and not being able to find a new job. He asked how things were going at my church. He told a little bit of his own story and his struggles.

As I stood there, I found myself fighting a battle between the body and the spirit. The body wanted to run away from the smell and the dirt. The spirit wanted to stay right there as long as I could, spend time with this man, hear his story, offer at least some sense of community if I could not offer any more lasting comfort. Finally, I got back into the car and drove away, yet the battle waged on. Part of me was glad our visit was over, yet part of me was thinking about other ways to offer this man some help in the future.

It would be so easy to run away from any further interaction with this man and his family. Yet, honestly, to do so would be because I wouldn't want to get messy and not because I felt there was any threat. I don't believe that is a reason to stay way. Christ again and again walked among the people with "messy" lives. As I left his house to go back to my own church, I passed several other churches. I found myself asking, "How much do we Christians actively seek to avoid the messy? What are we missing in doing so?"

I think we confuse our fear of the dangerous and our fear of the messy, making them the same thing. I met a man today who reminded me that we may miss meeting Christ if we run from the messy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Preaching: What Is It Good For? recently reported the results of a survey carried out for the College of Preachers in England. This story, headlined "Sermons May Be Popular But Rarely Lead to Action", says that a survey of 200 churchgoers revealed that fewer than 17% say that sermons frequently change the way they live or help them develop a fresh look at controversial issues or recent events. The same study showed that 2/3 of people look forward to the sermon and over half say that sermons frequently give them a sense of God's love and help them understand Jesus. One of the conclusions that the College of Preachers has drawn from this research is that sermons are "better at helping people to reflect than challenging them to act" and that "too much preaching is doing too little to motivate people to look at the world differently and therefore live in it differently."

It should be noted that this is a pilot survey of only 200 people from 16 churches in England. It is hard by any means to declare this an extensive study. However, I still find myself confronting strong but mixed reactions to this story.

A lot of discussion and feedback I hear about sermons focus on the question of whether or not people "like" the sermon. To me, if we talk about liking a sermon, then we are not expecting a sermon to challenge us but instead we are expecting the sermon to be in line with our preconceived notions and ideas. This can become an issue when we talk about the ministry as a profession. I once heard another pastor say that he would love to work another job and only preach on Sundays so that his primary means of making a living did not come from the church. Then, he said, he could say what he really wanted to say on Sundays and not worry about the possible repercussions in terms of his means of making a living and supporting his family. I don't know if I share this exact same line of thinking, but there have definitely been occasions when I have found myself questioning whether or not I should say something in a sermon based on whether or not I think people will like it. Can preaching really result in changed lives if the preacher does not feel that he can speak honestly? Is the fear of possible repercussions real or perceived?

And should a sermon's purpose be to motivate action? I think a dangerous line is approached when we allow sermons to focus on motivating action because it becomes easy for the message to become about doing what the preacher thinks we should do rather than acting as we perceive God calling us to act. I think that the reflective role of the preaching ministry is therefore extremely important and should not be made inferior to the "call to action." Does this mean that the sermon should not point out specific actions that the Christian should take? No, but I think that this task must be held in balance with the reflective part of the preaching act. I hear some ministers talk about being less concerned with theology in their sermons and more concerned with "daily, practical" living out of the faith. I am all for that, but it is the theology that helps us have an understanding of why we should try to daily live out our faith in a practical manner. My concern is that a study such a this can cause a push to the opposite extreme rather than an attempt at proper balance.

Finally, I would love to take those same 200 people and interview their pastors, review the sermons that they preached over the course of the year. How many of their sermons included a "call to action"? My point is: a sermon is not just about the word proclaimed, it is also the proclaimed word heard. Is it that this task is being ignored by preachers, or is it that congregations aren't hearing it, or that it is not being presented well?

Just a couple of thoughts. I welcome feedback.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I Have Been Away A Long Time

February 9, 2009.

That is the last time I wrote a blog entry, according to my Blogger dashboard.

There were plenty of times when I thought, "I need to write something for the blog". There were plenty of times when some idea would get stuck in my head and explode in all kinds of various directions and I would think, "I need to turn that into a post."

I never did. I don't know why I didn't. The excuse I most often gave myself was, "I don't have time." And I really didn't, although I wonder if I would have made time if it had meant more to me.

Every Sunday, I stand up in front of a congregation and speak for anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes about something that I believe God has put on my heart. Over the course of the following week, I teach Bible studies and prepare devotions for a number of other events. I think the reality of what has happened is that I have more and more found myself in the midst of all these opportunities with a sense of having nothing else to say. Or is it that I am tired of speaking and just don't want to say anything else?

I came back to the blog today to find out if it was really still here. It is ... and I can even still add to it. This may not be the most enlightening post you will ever read, but you know what? It has kind of been fun writing it.

Maybe this is what will bring me back to writing for this blog: writing to have fun.