Monday, June 28, 2010

Monday's Meditation: That Jesus--such a kidder!

I spent some time this morning looking for the verse that says “Nobody’s perfect.” I couldn’t find it. Now wait, I know you’re expecting the Sunday-school answer (“Jesus is perfect”) but before you click away to the next blog I want you to know I wasn’t thinking about Jesus. I was thinking about you and me.

What about it? Why aren’t you perfect?

The time-tested answer usually comes from verses like Romans 3:23 (“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”) or Paul’s creative use of the Old Testament just a few verses earlier at Romans 3:10 (“There is none righteous, no not one.”)  But I’m not asking about sin, God’s glory, or even righteousness. I’m asking about perfection.

The purpose of the Monday Memo is to provide a meditation for the rest of the week. May I suggest we could meditate on perfection without resorting to Cliches, chapter one, verse 29? Consider these startling verses:
  • Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48)  That Jesus--such a kidder!
  • Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you.” Philippians 3: 15 Apparently Paul was in on the joke.
  • And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1: 4) James--Jesus’ half-brother--also inherited the family sense of humor.
These verses come from the New American Standard Bible. Clearly they got the translation wrong, along with the guys who did the King James Version. The New International Version suggests the word “mature” a couple of times, but even they didn’t feel comfortable changing Jesus’ words in the Matthew five. These verses (and others) are enough to send us running to our favorite commentary, but be careful--truth is that the scripture can shed a lot of light on the commentaries.

So here’s today’s meditation. It’s enough to last at least a week:
What is Jesus’ idea of “perfection?”
Why is his standard higher than that of the Scribes and the Pharisees?
Does God have expectations of those who claim to follow Jesus?
Could God be really be serious?
And me--will I settle for cliches, or meditate on mind-blowing inspiration from the scripture?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About Treasure Discovered

Sometimes you discover a treasure so rich and full that it must be shared. Today's devotional from Dallas Willard's wonderful Hearing God Throughout the Year should be a gift to the whole world. So I'm doing my part by sharing this treasure with the seven readers of this blog. In my opinion everyone should own this devotional classic:

Increasing Understanding
"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty." Revelation 1:8
The New Testament is the story of increasing understanding of who Jesus was. Those among whom he was reared said, "This is Mary and Joseph's boy." His own disciples thought he might be Elijah or one of the old prophets risen from the dead. As Jesus quizzed the disciples on his identity, Peter announced in a flash of divine revelation, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:1 NRSV).

Only in the later parts of the New Testament does the concept emerge of Jesus as a cosmic Messiah: a ruler spanning all geographical and ethnic differences, providing the glue of the universe (Colossians 1:17) and upholding all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). Thus he is, as described in the book of Revelation, the Alpha and Omega, the Faithful and True, the Word of God who leads the armies of heaven, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
REFLECT: Consider how the true identity of Christ is unfolding in your life: logical and insightful teacher; redeemer of the world; powerful member of the community of the Trinity; cocreator and sustainer of the universe.

From Hearing God Through the Year by Dallas Willard. ©2004 by Dallas Willard and Jan Johnson. Published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Three Ways On

John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard movement, had a saying: “The way in is the way on,” by which he meant the very actions and attitudes that empower the miracle of new birth in Jesus are the same actions and attitudes that empower spiritual growth. In much of the North American church, however, the saying could be changed the phrase, “the way in is all there is.”

I once attended a meeting of pastors who were planning a “city-wide revival.” The pastor of a respected and growing church opened the meeting with these words: “God is only going to ask each of us two questions when we get to heaven--’Do you know my Son?’ and, ‘How many others did you bring with you?’” It was a memorable opening because it was short, dramatic, and wrong. The record of the first century church, preserved for us in the book of Acts and the letters written to newly-planted churches, reveals a profound concern for a spiritual transformation that flows from a decision to follow Jesus.

Consider the Apostle Paul’s prayer for the people of the church in Colosse:
Since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1: 9 - 14)
Paul, perhaps the greatest apostle in history, prayed for the spiritual transformation of people who “already knew” Jesus. This Holy Spirit-inspired prayer lays out at least three priorities each follower of Jesus. Perhaps we can discover “the way on” through Paul’s prayer.

We need to be filled. Paul asked God to pour “the knowledge of his will” into the believers in Colosse. Apparently the next step after coming to Jesus as Lord is to be filled with the knowledge of his will. It requires something more than mere human intellect--it requires spiritual wisdom and understanding. I believe Paul prayed these words because he understood our tendency to apply the old way of living life to our new life in Christ. The problem is, we were “born again” into a new kingdom. How many babies know how to find their way around their new environment? If we take the image of the new birth seriously we should realize there’s a whole new life ahead. The new life ahead requires something beyond our old resources. It requires seeing things--and understanding them--from God’s perspective.

We can live a life “worthy of God.” Each of us has heard the message of forgiveness so often we are tempted to think forgiveness is all there is to the gospel. Some live in a continuing cycle of sin-forgiveness-sin, and consider it normative for God’s children. Paul knew better. He understood there is a proper response to God’s initial grace. That response is a changed life--a life “worthy of the Lord.” A life in which it is possible to please God, bear fruit, and grow in new life. These first two aspects of Paul’s inspired prayer are beyond the grasp of many believers. Too many of God’s people despair of ever knowing God’s will for their lives and consider “pleasing God in every way” an impossibility. Paul’s expectation was completely the opposite:  forgiveness is a continuing reality for followers of Jesus, but the core of our life in Christ is a transformation that draws us ever closer to the likeness of our Lord.

The kingdom of God is at hand: Paul prays that we would each receive our inheritance--”the kingdom of light.” Jesus died to pay the price for our sin, and like everyone who dies he left an inheritance to his family: a new kind of life. This new life looks dramatically different from the old kind of life. He described this life as “righteousness, peace, and joy in he Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17). Here’s a bell-weather question for each follower of Jesus--does my life differ dramatically from my old kind of life? The in-breaking of God’s kingdom floods our lives with light, and light is necessary if we are going to move through this new kind of Kingdom-life. Yet how many believers stumble about in everyday life, unable to navigate the ordinary troubles of life? Paul envisioned a church filled with individuals able to receive the Kingdom-life God offers to everyone born from above. Paul had this confidence because he had heard the good news that “it’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

Paul prayed these words over a church filled with people he did not know. That's important because it gives us a picture of what Paul prayed (and hoped!) for each follower of Jesus. Can you hear him praying over you now?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Thinking God's Thoughts

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” ~ Romans 12:1
Scripture presents a progressive revelation. God’s greatest expression is the revelation of Jesus Christ, the true Word of God. The revelation of the Old Testament--which is still God’s words of life to us today--is made complete by the revelation of the New Testament. Consider the Old Testament word “repent” (teshuvah). It means to away turn from sin and its consequences. It is an action word: turn around, restore, repair. The New Testament word, metanoia, refers to the mind: rethink your thoughts, or, transform your mind. One kind of repentance comes only after the fact, the other can prevent us from the wrong choice beforehand. Of course, both kinds of repentance are good: the Old Testament reveals an outer repentance--one of action, while the New Testament reveals an inner repentance--one of transformation. Old Testament repentance tells us to retrace our steps, the New leads us to rethink our thoughts. The old repentance can pick up the pieces, the new can hold us together.

When Jesus said, for example, that one who looks after a another with heart-lust has already committed adultery, he was not trying to widen the net of condemnation. He was trying to reveal the possibilities of a transformed mind. He was teaching us that when we think God’s thoughts, we will realize adultery is harmful to us, the other person involved, and indeed all those we love. The New Testament “repent” cries out within our thoughts, “If you’ll think God’s way you’ll see fidelity is really the best thing for you.” And so with every aspect of our lives: unforgiveness, bitterness, greed and all the rest. Jesus introduced the gospel of the Kingdom with the word repent because the Kingdom of God must take root within us. Worldly kings impose their rule from the outside, Jesus plants his rule and reign on the inside and causes it to grow.

The truest repentance is to think God’s thoughts with him. True repentance causes us to walk in holiness instead of living in a cycle of sin and cleansing. True repentance demonstrates the grace of God by keeping us clean.

This week, why not consider the challenge of true repentance? It starts with facing the possibility that we really can learn to think God’s thoughts after Him.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About Hearing God's Word

You make your way down the dusty street. It’s late afternoon and the heat of the day is at its height--it will be good to finally sit down and rest. Your soul is tired, worn out, and thirsty as well. The home you enter smells of fresh bread, perspiration and dye--this last smell because the woman who lives there deals in cloth and fabric. She greets you at the door. Some of your family has already arrived so you take your place quickly. You don’t have to wait long. The leader of the small group carefully unwraps a papyrus sheet and begins to read out loud.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse: grace and peace to you from God our Father . . .
The sound of the pastor’s voice gently works it’s way through the room and the words find deep passage into your ears. The sound of the words engage your mind, they vibrate into your spirit as well: you are hearing the word of God.

Since the very beginnings of the church most believers have received the scriptures by listening. How many of us listen to the word of God today?

Our common experience of sitting down and reading a Bible we hold in our hands is something relatively new. For centuries church services included reading from both the Old and New testaments because books were expensive and consequently rare. Believers trained themselves to attend to the word of God as it was spoken, to capture the words with their minds and digest them with their heart. And they did so together, in community.

I’d like to suggest that God designed us in such a way that we benefit by hearing the words of life. Does that seem strange to you? Imagine husbands and wives reading out loud together; friends gathered in a room with but one copy of the Bible--all of them receiving the spoken word. Imagine an assembly of people hungry to hear the voice of God.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with reading the Bible: I recommend it! But in my opinion we should find a way to let the word of God enter through our ears as well.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Review: Evolving in Monkey Town

It’s a sure sign of God’s grace that he would put a journalist with the heart of a poet in a town like Dayton, Tennessee. Rachel Held Evan’s Evolving in Monkey Town is a piece of narrative theology, a spiritual coming of age memoir of how a young woman schooled in a bastion of Christian conservatism found her way to freedom of thought and conscience in Jesus Christ.

Dayton took the nickname Monkey Town after hosting the “trial of the century” in 1925 when a high school science teacher named John Scopes was charged with the crime of teaching the theory of evolution. Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan, and a horde of onlookers descended upon the town during that hot summer to debate the big question of the day--a literal view of Biblical creation or the theory of evolution? When the smoke had cleared, Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but Darrow captured the nation’s attention, news coverage, and fundamentalism began its long slide into caricature in the national consciousness.

Rachel Evans missed the trial, arriving in Dayton some seventy years later, in the late 90’s when her father, a Dallas Theological Seminary product, moved the family to Dayton in order to teach at Bryan College (established in William Jennings Bryan’s name just after the trial). Evans spent her teenage and college years growing up in Monkey Town, a precocious and insightful girl from a loving household, determined become the best Christian she could in the world she knew. She found herself the commencement speaker at Bryan college, hailed as the girl with all the answers, delivering an orthodox Christian conservative speech while secretly beginning to question her foundations.

The book is divided into three sections, Habitat, Challenge, and Change, the names of these sections echoing the central metaphor of the book: namely, her faith required adaptation, change--in short, her faith needed to evolve in order to survive. Evans drives home the irony that her faith had to go through the process of evolution, the very process considered anathema within her Christian circle. Woven into these three narrative sections are refreshing vignettes of the people from Dayton, Tennessee, and elsewhere. We are introduced to “June the Ten Commandments Lady,” “Laxmi the Widow,” “Adele the Oxymoron,” and “Dan the Fixer” among others. Each person influenced her faith (for good or for ill) in profound ways. Evans’ skill as a journalist shows through in these vivid pictures of the people in her life. Each portrait crackles with descriptive power.

The strength of the book is her choice of personal narrative. Since Evans herself was trained in the high art of apologetic combat it would have been easy for her to deconstruct the tenets of her upbringing and conservative Christian education. “I’d gotten so good at critiquing all the fallacies of opposing world views,” she writes, “that it was only a matter of time before I turned the same skeptical eye upon my own faith.” Instead her story unfolds from childhood through adolescence, adolescence through college, and into her new-found conclusions as an adult. Her personal story is compelling and resistant to argument precisely because it is her story.

The poet’s heart meets the apologist’s training early in her life. Evans tells her story with transparency and honesty. Even when the reader may disagree with her conclusions, her intentions are laid bare as someone with a strong sense of justice and a compassionate heart. Her journey begins with the conviction: “Salvation wasn’t just about being a Christian: it was about being the right kind of Christian, the kind who did things by the book.” By the time she evolves into a woman in her own right she posits: “Perhaps being a Christian isn’t about experiencing the kingdom of heaven someday but about experiencing the kingdom of heaven every day.”

It’s a pleasure to read well-crafted sentences that sum up her experiences. A few examples:
  • “Doubt is a difficult animal to master because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God.”
  • “When the gospel gets all entangled with extras, dangerous ultimatums threaten to take it down with them. The yoke gets too heavy and we stumble beneath it.”
  • (And my personal favorite) “The longer our lists of rules and regulations, the more likely it is that God himself will break one."
There are few quibbles along the way: her conversations with friends seem a bit contrived--the voices of her friends all begin to sound the same. She does not explain how the very fellowship and educational institution she criticizes could produce such a free thinker as herself. And she leaves this reader wondering about the current dynamic of her family relationships--although this might be the curiosity of a nosy reviewer.  But these are minor flaws--this is a good book. It will speak to anyone who has ever felt the stifling heat of orthodoxy, to those who want to be free to worship God without a spiritual Big Brother looking over their shoulders.

I recommend this book to anyone who is considering whether there is room in the church to ask troubling questions without being ostracized. I may even assign the book to the college freshman I teach this fall, if the campus bookstore will allow me to switch at such a late date!

Evolving in Monkey Town is available from Zondervan Publishing at Rachel Evans website or at

Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Jesus is Pretty Smart

Have you ever been instructed by the things Jesus didn’t say? Jesus, the Master Teacher, wants to do more than simply convey information. He wants to draw us into his way of thinking. He wants us to participate with him in discovering the Kingdom of God.

Take just one example, say, when Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” This is the seed of an idea: life with God begins like childbirth. I’ve always been astonished that those who treasure the phrase “born again” rarely develop the idea beyond the moment of conversion.

Birth doesn’t happen instantly. Before the moment of birth there is the travail of labor. Prior to labor there are months of gestation. After the moment of birth, the infant is in desperate need of attention: a clean environment, warmth, love and food. Beyond the first few moments a new-born child requires the community of family and the commitment of a mother and father. In “real life” each of these elements are critical. Remove any one of them and the child’s development is in peril. Each of these ideas could impact how we share the gospel or disciple new believers.

Could Jesus mean all that in the simple phrase, “You must be born again?” Well, he is pretty smart. When he uses metaphor or parable, I believe it’s an invitation for us to meditate upon his words and ask the Holy Spirit for illumination.

Even the few suggestions above do not exhaust the possibilities that flow from meditating on this single image.  Decades later His disciple Peter encouraged us
You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” ~ I Peter 1:23
Peter moved from the image of new birth to a seed. The seed capable of generating eternal life is itself imperishable (you can read more reflections on the seed here).

If you’re looking for a meditation path this week, why not take one image from the words of Jesus and explore the possibilities over and over again. Take the whole week! You may find that God’s word is living and active, revealing practical wisdom for your life. Don’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit becomes your guide!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion: About "The Messenger"

I’d like to recommend a movie Roger Ebert called, “shallow, dumb, boring, and endless:” Luc Besson’s 1999 film based on Joan of Arc, The Messenger. It grossed a mere 14 million dollars that year, finishing in the top 100 films of the year by an eyelash--it was 100th.

It’s the story of the French teenager who led France to victory over England at Orleans in the 15th century. Joan (Milla Jovovich) was hailed as a visionary, followed by thousands, posed a political problem, and was finally handled over to ecclesial authorities who found her guilty of heresy and burned her at the stake. She died at 19.

Besson, as far as I am aware, is not a believer. His storytelling includes horrific violence in the battle scenes, and a rape sequence early in the film that is nothing short of disgusting. It earned its R rating. At two and a half hours it represents a serious investment of time.

Why would anyone recommend this movie?

This film is about the dangerous balance between passion for God and human zeal. The viewer is drawn into her passion in the opening hour of the story, only to wonder whether Joan has indeed heard the voice of God or not. In the final thirty minutes of the film she is alone in her cell. She will speak to no one. She is visited by a spectral figure (Dustin Hoffman). Is he an angel? The Holy Spirit? Her conscience? Her imagination?

Deserted by those who hailed her, Joan is left to consider whether she has ever heard God at all. At the edge of madness she is forced to re-consider her motives and actions, and eventually goes to the stake in peace.

For any follower of Jesus who believes he or she is willing to follow God at any price, this movie is a sobering faith-check. In my opinion you should watch this movie at your peril.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Forever Unable to Change?

We have all met some really mean people in our lives. Take a moment and try to recall the meanest person you know. Perhaps it was your sixth-grade teacher. Or a neighbor who went beyond unfriendly all the way to downright mean. The kind of mean person who still has the ability to raise your blood pressure even if you haven’t seen him or her in years.

Have you selected someone? Someone real? Good. Now imagine that person in Heaven. There they are, among the people of every tribe, tongue and nation, surrounded by the worshipping assembly drawn from all generations. Don’t try to clean them up, leave ‘em mean: critical, hard-hearted, stingy and greedy--the same person in heaven as they are on earth. It doesn’t seem right, does it? How could an unhappy, miserable, mean person join the throng?

This exercise is not about God’s forgiveness. It’s about who we are after we turn to God. God forgives the deepest evil in the lives of men and women. As Corrie TenBoom used to say, “there is no pit that God’s love is not deeper still.” And I’m glad--aren’t you? But forgiveness is not the same thing as spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is about what happens to us after we receive the gracious gift of Jesus and his sacrifice. Spiritual formation is learning to live in heaven right now.

This exercise invites us to consider whether forgiveness is the only good news. What if we were forgiven by God but remained forever unable to change? What if our decision to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross meant we were forever trapped in a cycle of sin and forgiveness, over and over again, unable to escape the kind of person we had become. How many of us want to come to God asking forgiveness for the same things year after year, decade after decade--always forgiven, never able to change?

The earliest followers of Jesus expected spiritual formation to follow hard after forgiveness. They took seriously the metaphor of the new birth. They expected that babies grow into children, and children grow into adults. They considered conversion the beginning, not the end.

Paul shared the gospel with people in Galatia, and later wrote to them because they began to embrace a deadly spirituality:
“Now that you know God, how is it you are turning back to weak and miserable principles? . . . What has happened to all your joy? . . . I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” (Galatians 4: 9,15,19)
His concern was not only for correct doctrine but also for growth and health. He expected that Jesus could actually be formed in them. How many of us have the same expectation today?

He urged the believers in Rome to break free of the habits of the past and find not just eternal life, but the kind of life that could transform them into different people:
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” -And- “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 8:29 & 12:2)
Whatever else predestination may mean, Paul clearly intended that followers of Jesus have a destiny become like Jesus. Did he think we would magically become different people when we got heaven? Or did he expect spiritual transformation to begin here and now?

How many of us turned to Jesus for something more than forgiveness? How many of us heard all of the good news--that right relationships, peace, and joy are possible in this life as we learn to drink deep of God’s presence here and now? (Romans 14:17) What if we can transformed from the mean guy into the Christlike guy day by day? Did anyone tell us that the joys of heaven need not wait until the end of the age?

When we are born from above the beginning has just begun. The joys of heaven are available to us as we learn how to walk in the Spirit. The prison of our own anger, resentment, and yes--our own meanness--can drop away as we position ourselves to receive more and more of the grace of God. The Biblical ideal of spiritual transformation holds the promise of heaven on earth because we can join the heavenly host now. Wouldn’t it be a shame to get to heaven and be unable to enjoy the party?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Monday's Meditation: An Invitation to Joy

My friend Adam Russell reminds me from time to time that “serious” is not a fruit of the Spirit. I don’t think he has anything against "serious," it's just not evidence that God is at work. But joy is.

Joy is a curious thing: fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22), one of the three building-blocks of God’s Kingdom (Romans 14:17), a personal gift from Jesus himself (John 15, 16, & 17) and a discipline commanded of every follower of Jesus (I Thessalonians 5:16). Joy is the overflow of the Life of God, a wellspring of the presence of the Holy Spirit. David, the shepherd King of Israel, caught a glimpse of divine joy the day God’s presence entered Jersusalem:
“Splendor and majesty are before Him, strength and joy in his dwelling place.” (I Chronicles 16: 27)
I imagine that among all the manifestations of the throne room of God Almighty, along with burning holiness, peals of thunder and the voice of many waters--there is joy. Joy eternal. Joy unworldly. Joy forever.

Joy springs up in the most unusual places: in the life of a homeless dumpster-diver who regularly attended my church; in the tears of a woman holding her baby in the first moments of life; in the thrill of watching loved ones receive their just reward; and in the heart of Jesus even as he hung in naked agony on a Roman instrument of torture:
“Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2) 
Happiness is a reflex of circumstances, Joy flows never-ending from the wellspring of faith. If you’re looking for a meditation this week (and you are, aren’t you?), may I suggest you ask the Father about joy? It’s worth pondering all week long: God himself dwells in joy. God himself dispenses joy. God himself commands joy. What Student of Jesus could be without it? Seriously--is there such a thing as a disciple without joy?

He dwells in joy, he dispenses joy, and he invites the faithful to enter into his joy. Today. This week: he has measured out joy just for you.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Everyone's Entitled to My Opinion . . . About My Best Friends

In my opinion there are three people you absolutely must meet--and only one of them is dead. Every Student of Jesus needs to drink from the well of older brothers and sisters. Here are three sources of fresh water:

C.S. Lewis: I had been a high-school evangelical for three years when someone handed me this collection of essays, God in the Dock. They changed my life, and Lewis became my first teacher. He's more than the Narnia movie guy: if you have never read C.S. Lewis, you have missed one of God’s great gifts to the church in the last hundred years. God in the Dock was the most formative work of Lewis for me because it captured my heart and my attention. Thirty-plus years later, Lewis is my constant companion. There’s an excellent introductory website as well.

Dallas Willard:  An ordained Southern Baptist minister, with a PhD in Philosophy, who teaches at USC: that ought to catch your attention! His book, The Divine Conspiracy, put into words things which I knew, but didn’t know that I knew! Willard cracks open our narrow ideas of “the gospel” and re-introduces evangelicals to “the gospel of the Kingdom of God.” It was the message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul. That ought to be good enough for any disciple. There’s a killer-good iPhone app (you know Jesus used an iPhone, right?) entitled “Hearing God Devotional.” It’ll be the best $2.99 you’ve ever spent.

Bill Johnson: Oddly enough, I recommend his audio above his books. Bethel Church (Redding, CA) has a Sermon of the week (it’s also available as a podcast). Bill Johnson is the kind of guy who drives theological types crazy. “Everything you read in the scripture is an invitation to experience,” and "It’s unethical to take the promises of God and consign them to the millennium.” He is a practitioner. Take it from me--I’ve been to his church and seen the fruit--he’s the real deal. He and his staff will challenge you, but that's OK, right?

There you go: in my opinion these guys ought to be your new best friends.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Leaving the Church

“I have more grace for people who have dropped out of church than ever before. Most of what we do on a Sunday morning involves 3-10 people talking, playing instruments, doing something; while everyone else (100-5,000 or so) literally sit and spectate. That's a mess.” ~ Samuel Yoder
“My wife and I have been on a journey to figure out what it means to be the church instead of just going to one.” ~ Chad Estes
“I am also concerned about the drawbacks of not joining with a group of believers on a regular basis.” ~ Ed Cyzewski

These are just a few of the comments from excellent conversation started when Jon Reid posted a thought-provoking piece about learning to love the very church leaders with whom he disagreed. If you are so inclined, you can follow this life-giving discussion by starting with Beautiful People?, Forget it: I’m Going to the Pub, and A Big Question that Matters Every Day.

Over the last two weeks we’ve been discussing the impact of the church on the lives of individual believers. Everyone has opinions about the church. Among Evangelicals these days, most of these opinions are negative. The focus of the Students of Jesus blog is about how an individual becomes a disciple of the Jesus Christ, so the discussion over the past few weeks has not been about the church in general, it’s been about each of us and our ability to follow Jesus--with or without the church.

What impact should the church have on our life with Jesus? In the book of Acts we read about the vibrant spiritual lives of the first believers. We read about incredible fellowship among Christians, testimonies of powerful works, and world-changing faith. It’s clear that the inspired scriptures push us toward an organized community of faith, possessing it’s own singular identity even as it’s comprised of individual Christians. When we look up from our reading and see the 21st century our experiences fall short of the Biblical model. Breathtakingly short. Heartbreakingly short.  Nearly everyone agrees that the weekly sit-and-listen mentality is not life-giving, nor does it realize the Biblical ideal.

And yet, here’s my concern: After 40 years of walking with God I have met plenty of unhealthy Christians who belong to a church, but I have never met a healthy Christian who does not belong to a church. What are we to do with this? The currently popular solution is to hang out informally with our believing friends and declare, “This is my church. These people know me and love me. I receive nothing from organized religion.”

I get it. The North American church is desperately sick, and in many cases the church hinders the spiritual growth of believers. But before we all decide have wine and cheese with the cool kids and call it church, I’d like to suggest that God has given us a few clues about what He thinks makes up a church. It’s really a book-length discussion--a life-length discussion, actually--but since we’ve invested four blog posts on the idea, here is one man’s list of at least six church disctinctives:
  • The church meets together regularly: Sunday morning isn’t the only possibility. In fact, Acts 2:42-47 suggests they met together far more than North Americans might find comfortable. In a variety of settings, for a multitude of reasons, followers of Jesus meet together regularly and share their lives together.
  • The church has a defined structure: Structure is built into God’s order of creation. Single-celled organisms reveal astonishing complexity of function; in the human body there is individualized function. Without the structure of a skeleton, the body cannot stand. These physical realities point toward spiritual truth. Amazingly, the scripture seems to endorse a variety of church structures, but every New Testament church had a recognizable structure. We can disagree on what that structure may look like, but it’s not possible to read Acts or the Espistles without recognizing  it’s importance.
  • The church provides authority: “Authority.” Just mention the word and people tense up! I feel the need to mention again that this blog site is not about big “ecclesiological” questions. Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, we all must personally come to terms with passages like, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” (Hebrews 13:17) Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus could be considered all about authority! Nearly everyone has a horror-story about abuse of authority in the church. It’s worth noting that authority without compassion and relationship makes a sham of God’s Kingdom, but compassion and relationship without authority misses God’s Kingdom entirely.
  • The church is a proving ground for love and forgiveness. “Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3: 12-14) How can we live these words out apart from our families, or the church--which is the family of God?
  • The church equips God’s people. Christian maturity requires a nurturing family atmosphere. Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the development of Christian character thrive in a healthy community. Entertainment apart from equipping is antithetical to God’s plan for the church. If there's no equipping going on, it's not fully the church. It’s lab, not lecture, and it's not recess, either.
  • The church provides a unique corporate witness: The have been exceptional individuals throughout history. Saints and geniuses larger than life, and because they are are so exceptional, they are easily dismissed as individuals, even freaks. But who could dismiss an entire community of faith? “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” said Jesus in John 13: 34 “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The early church would either get you healed or care for you until you died. WIdows, orphans and outcasts of the first century knew there was a refuge called “the church.”

Object if you will: it’s easy to do. The church has failed in every area. Today’s post is not a defense of the way things are. The church in North America is desperately sick. Something must change--and I believe the change begins with us as individuals. If you must leave your current church, then go. But where? If you can find a group of believers attempting to fulfill these ideals you will land in a safe place. Leaving a sick church may be the best decision. Ignoring God’s plan for your personal growth as a disciple never is.