Saturday, September 27, 2008

Watch The Skies

“Most people think, Great God will come from the skies,

Take away everything, And make everybody feel high.

But if you know what life is worth, You will look for yours on earth:

And now you see the light, You stand up for your rights.”

Bob Marley & Peter Tosh – Get Up Stand Up

Another lunch…another post. This time, while the Wailers’ eschatology is not exactly my cup of Soursop, I am reminded of the lyrics to Get Up Stand Up when confronted by the following quotes from conversations I’ve had:

“The quicker the environment is ruined and WWIII comes, the sooner Jesus will return.”

“The Anti-Christ? We should vote him in! That means the Second Coming won’t be far behind.”

And, “We have to be careful not to make people too comfortable in this life, they’ll miss that they need Christ.”

I find the last paraphrased quote that came up in a recent lunch with another good friend especially ironic considering Jesus’ announced raison d’ĂȘtre in the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel:

“And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.’”

I also thought the quote suggesting that we hasten environmental degradation and war on behalf of the coming Kingdom of God ironic since it was stated by the social services director of a large homeless shelter in our community. I asked him, so why help the homeless? Wouldn’t it follow that the more homeless people we leave on the streets the sooner the Lord’s return? We reached an impasse.

I fully grasp that hardship often opens people up to spiritual realities, and to reach for things beyond our material lives, but at its worst, this approach reminds me too much of the abuses of the Church of England during the Irish Potato Famine. That was when Irish Catholics were only fed once they converted to Protestantism. More recently, I have sat in the back of missions with homeless Rastafarians as they muttered curses under their breath because they had to endure one more, long, ranting “sermon” before they could get a meal.

I wouldn’t be writing this post if these weren’t real conversations I’ve had with real Christians of late, or even if they were isolated ones. But they’re not. I grew up in the Late Great Planet Earth generation where Hal Lindsey’s book predicted the imminent return of Christ...say, oh, by the late 1980s. And that got a huge amount of traction and influenced evangelical thinking to this day. There is a real school of thought out there that if we hasten the collapse of western civilization, we’ll simultaneously hasten the rule of God. What if that’s wrong?

In their book, Adventures in Missing the Point, Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren weigh in on the “Second Coming.” Campolo writes regarding the “end times” that, “It has traditionally been perceived as a time when Christ would return, join the efforts of his people who were trying to bring in a just social order called the kingdom of God, and thereby bring those attempts to a glorious completion (Philippians 1:6).” This a very different approach than letting the world “go to hell in a hand basket” in order to somehow hasten our redemption. While he struggles to integrate them, McLaren writes, “When I read the Bible, I see a mingling of both streams of prophesy. One stream plants in us a dream of a just and peaceful society on earth (as in heaven), a hope within our history. The other stream emphasizes an eternal destiny, a hope beyond history as we know it.” These two streams are not mutually exclusive. They are parts of what make up the whole, and consistent, narrative. Or as Scot McKnight says in A Community Called Atonement, “…the atonement is designed for both an earthly realization and an eternal destination... [it] is not just something done to us and for us, it is something we participate in – in this world, in the here and now. It is not something done, but something that is being done and something we do as we join God in the missio Dei.”

Campolo continues, “Rather than the Dispensational idea of fighting battles in a war that ultimately goes so bad that Christians must be raptured out of it, the Second Coming promises that if we do not grow weary in well doing, in due season we shall reap (Galatians 6:9)…'Jerusalem' [in Revelation] is the kind of society that Jesus promised when he declared the Jubilee, the city in which [getting back to Luke 4] the poor would have good news, the oppressed would be set free, and the broken hearted would be healed. This ‘Jerusalem’ is the social system that the whole of history points toward, that is in fact the very goal of history - a kingdom that will be realized at Christ’s physical return.” In the meantime, to Camplolo, we are part of the mission, “…the history of the world is infused with the presence of God, who is guiding the world toward becoming the kind of world God willed for it when it was created.”

So, rather than waiting for “Great God to come from the skies,” maybe our focus should be on being the type of missional church that Rick Meigs (“The Blind Beggar”) describes at Friend Of Missional One that “…is evangelistic and faithfully proclaims the gospel through word and deed. Words alone are not sufficient; how the gospel is embodied in our community and service is as important as what we say.” So, let's not be afraid of making people "too comfortable." Maybe in comforting them, they will come to recognize the face of Christ. And maybe in doing so, "our redemtion draweth nigh."

What do you see when you look up?

Troddin down Babylon,


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Organic Church

I had another great lunch conversation with a good friend, Rob, last week. We talked for an hour about finding common ground on “emerging Christianity,” and the continuing discussion from our August meeting on “How we do church”.

From my perspective (and I won’t speak for Rob but I believe this was true of his) we found we agree on the centrality of Christ, but have different perspectives…different lenses... through which we see experiences, expressions and framing stories of the Gospel.

Take church authority for instance. First, we agreed on the need for Christians to look to authoritative sources in their life’s journey: Scripture, pastors, church tradition, the Holy Spirit, that “still small voice.” But we clarified the distinction between our sources being “authoritative,” meaning we yield respect because of the inherent qualities we trust and admire in the authority, versus “authoritarian” power which demands and coerces obedience regardless of the quality of leadership or the respect of those yielding.

Then we also discussed the “relationships” of church authority in our lives (Here I also include some references that another good friend, Robin M., sent me after the lunch). “Institutional churches,” according to author Frank Viola are characterized by a top-down hierarchical organization. For some, there may be a fear that unless this type of top-down control is in place, chaos ensues. For me, having no authority allows us to stray, but relying too much on hierarchical authority dismisses the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, which is here to teach us, and it can dismiss our uniqueness and freedom in Christ, along with many other legitimate ways that God speaks to each one of us. Viola proposes an alternative he calls “organic church.” He says, “By ‘organic church,’ I mean a non-traditional church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grass roots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (opposed to pastor-to-pew services), non-hierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering.” Viola goes on to use different types of plants as an analogy for different types of organic churches.

I compare organic church to a grapevine. Jesus said, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” Grapevines, as we know, are disorganized tangles of trunks and leaves and stems and grapes. They are not straight, tall trees with neat radial branches. My “church authority” might include all of the sources mentioned above, and I might add to that, my friend who the Lord led to start a men’s fellowship in his home. At another time, it might include a different friend who recently graduated from seminary and has demonstrated his pastoral care for me… and then he might yield authority to me in other areas where I have matured more. At other times, my church authority might extend to trusted authors or bloggers who have sewn into my life. I've quoted or gleaned from many of these different sources in this post. So here, church authority is not “linear” but “distributed.” Much like the grapevine.

Speaking of plants, this also makes me wonder about fig trees and the incident in Mark 11:12-14 and other Gospels where Jesus curses the barren fig tree and it withers. Some have said this could symbolize the barrenness of the teachings and authority of the Temple priests due to their lack of true faith, and being cut off from the true vine... Jesus.

Grapevine relationships then become not just vertical (me and God) or even additionally horizontal (me and others in God’s house) but now includes personal wholeness and relationship with the world and all others around me. Or, as Scot McKnight puts it in his book A Community Called Atonement, redemption goes in four directions, “…resolving sin and bringing humans back home in their relationship with God, with self, with others and with the world.”

Rob is faithful to remind me that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) when he hears certain “emerging church” expressions about things like "organic church," "simple church," "house church," etc. (I'm reminded here of David Bowie's line, "...same old thing in brand new drag"). But while God is steadfast in his love, there are again new perceptions, lenses, experiences and framing stories that I believe help us to grow closer to God, and keep reforming, in each generation. There were even “new covenants” and “new commands” throughout the thousands of years of the Bible. And there will be “a new heavens and a new earth…and a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.” Ultimately, if we simply dismiss new conventions, we discount the value of any religious writing, art, thought, or practice after the last words in Revelation (or even the four Gospels).

What then do we do with church tradition, including its modern “institutional” paradigms? The fear of change on the one hand is of, “throwing the baby (Jesus in this case) out with the bath water” vs. pointing to the baby (the church, the “body of Christ” in this case) and saying, “the baby’s sick, we need to change the bath water and take the baby to the hospital for diagnosis and treatment." Baptist author Reggie McNeal says in his book Present Future, “The current church culture in North America is on life support. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalists die-off, or both….The church established by Jesus will survive until he returns…[but] the church culture in North America is a vestige of the original movement, an institutional expression of religion that is in part a civil religion and in part a club where religious people can hang out with other people whose politics, worldview and lifestyle match theirs.” Powerful words these (and this is but a sample from McNeal) but words that are resonating with an increasing number of Christians and that is probably one reason you are reading this post.

But what of the many good church traditions through the past two millennia? Want to drive a Catholic-basher crazy? Tell them there were Christians, real saved going-to-heaven Christians, around a thousand years before the Reformation began. And that they were Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox). The church has always had rich and wonderful spiritual meat for its members. And still does. But which denominational "doctrine" do we follow?

In Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, he extols some of the best of nearly every major Christian movement since the church began. McLaren “celebrates orthodox doctrine-in-practice,” and “while not burying doctrinal distinctives, puts them in their marginal place.” This has been my approach, and it has made it impossible for me to rationally choose to adhere to one denomination over all others. It used to be that “full Gospel” referred to the charismatic movement. Perhaps now this term could apply to a non-denominational, emerging church movement that embraces every expression, perception, lens, experience and framing story of Biblical narrative - focused on the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Balance again is the key. In some ways we can minister to, or with, institutional churches. In some ways we must work around them, as the Lord leads us, to…the “full Gospel," and to the true vine.

Deriving the benefits of church authority in our lives, using a distributed authority model, naturally requires conversation. Such conversation can often be hampered by strict denominational constraints, and when “church” is limited to a lecture format (pastor-to-pew services). Again, what McKnight says about atonement is useful here, “Our grasp of atonement is partial; the God we are grasping for is complete and whole. In God there is absolute truth; in our articulations there is always something lacking, something partial, and something still yearning for yet more. A proper confidence in God who atones reminds us of this and keeps us humble – and in conversation as we work this atonement thing out in each generation.”


Friday, September 12, 2008


“The people worked together
And they lifted many stones.”

Neil Young - Zuma

I’ve had some amazing lunch conversations lately. One of them was with Gordon. Gordon is a retired gentleman who I see whenever I join with other Christians during the one hour a week on Sunday many call “church” (I am also blessed to have “church” frequently, throughout the week, whenever two or more are gathered in His name. And they are wonderful gatherings). I am sharing this with Gordon’s permission.

While we were having lunch after “church,” Gordon was telling me how it is hard for him sometimes to have faith in Jesus as a friend, and to know that Jesus will always be there for him. I compared having this confidence to how a friend is gained, through memories of interactions we have with a person who proves through life experiences to be loyal and faithful to us (and we to them), and whose company we enjoy.

Gordon brought to lunch a purple velvet pouch full of stones. He explained to me that he has been buying polished river stones at the local Dollar Store that remind him of specific instances of God’s intervening in his life. He related this to passages in the Bible such as in Joshua 4 where it says, “…and [Joshua] said to them, …Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them …These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever."

Gordon shared about both physical and emotional pain he has endured for most of the past fifteen years. He said that after a Catholic doctor examined him once, he told him he was “blessed,” because of his pain. Blessed are those in pain, for they shall be healers of others. Gordon showed me a kidney shaped stone. He said it reminded him of when he asked for the gift of healing because of the suffering he has known for so long. He said that the only thing that relieves his pain is when he serves others. He said he prayed once for someone who was sick, and they were healed.

He next showed me a “pretty white rock” which reminded him of Joshua 21:45, “Not one of all the LORD's good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled.”

Gordon then showed me a flat dark rock. He was visibly upset as he shared that it reminded him of a time that he wished someone ill … and ill came to them. Now, he always remembers that there is power in our words, and that we can use them for good or ill.

Gordon showed me a white stone, with an indentation, where some power had worn away a hole. This stone reminded him of the power of God to wear away seemingly solid surfaces.

Then he showed me a small black stone, smaller than all the others. That reminded him of life’s storms.

Finally, Gordon showed me a round stone. A lighter mineral formed an “s” shape right through the middle. It reminded him that he and God are inseparable. One side was light and pure, but the other side had a dark area that reminded him that he is “not there yet,” but the two halves together remind him that in spite of that, Jesus is with him... all the time.

I gave Gordon my Prayer of St. Francis bookmarker, because it reminded me of some of his stone stories.

In his book, Ancient-Future Faith - Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, Robert Webber writes in his chapter titled, “Recovering Symbolic Communication,” “…in these symbolic ways God’s presence and truth are mediated to us.”

What are God’s stones for your life?


Saturday, September 6, 2008

What's Left?

As of this writing, Category 3 Hurricane Ike is trending ever so slightly south and away from where many of us live in South Florida. But still, by early next week, a little jog in course could result in the buildings we see around us being flattened, our stuff getting blown away and drenched, and our finances and how we spend our time all changing for years to come. Injury… and even death… could happen to us, or those close to us, as a result of a natural disaster.

What’s left?

Such uncertainty was also the rule of the day in Judea 2,000 years ago. The Roman oppressors, and their surrogates, could at any time take your money, your freedom, or even your life. How, in such conditions, could Jesus challenge us not to worry and speak about inner peace, and even inexplicable joy?

Well, here are a few thoughts…I was having lunch the other day with a friend and the conversation turned to poverty. We agreed that while there is real injustice that God would have us work to make right, poverty, or wealth, can also have a much broader definitions. I recalled a trip to El Salvador in the 1980s when I saw so many people living in houses made of sticks, thatched roofs and dirt floors. What did they have left? By contrast, at least to my North American eyes, they wore the cleanest, brightest clothes and the happiest countenances. What did they have, but God and each other? What else did they…need?

In his book, A Community Called Atonement, Scot McKnight writes, “…atonement is only understood when it is understood as the restoration of humans – in all directions – so that they form a society (the ecclesia, the church) wherein God’s will is lived out and given freedom to transform all of life.” Or, as Dallas Willard puts it in The Divine Conspiracy, “Jesus came among us to show and teach the life for which we were made. He came very gently…and set afoot a conspiracy of freedom in truth among human beings. Having overcome death he remains among us. By relying on his word and presence we are enabled to reintegrate the little realm that makes up our life into the infinite rule of God. And that is the eternal kind of life.” (Emphasis added)

Again, for McKnight, “Jesus’ kingdom mission …comes to fruition in Christian community described in Acts 2…The same can be said for Acts: 32-35. Here we have a society in which God’s will is understood in terms like equality, social justice, economic availability to and liability for one another, and fellowship. Jesus’ vision was coming into existence in the growing clutch of Jesus’ followers who were experiencing the empowering graces of Pentecost. The church is the alternative society to the structures of power found in the Roman world.”

So, if we find ourselves next week with as much…or as little…as the campesino families in El Salvador, is that really all we…need? Immanuel, God with us, and each other, from which nothing can ever separate us. Is that what’s left? And is that all there really is, for which we can be joyously thankful every day?