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uniformity…

ImageI haven’t posted in a long while. But I thought I’d post this. In my seminary class on conflict resolution we have been discussing things that are important to remember when working for peacemaking. Here is my response about the importance of unity over uniformity.

…Uniformity is a far simpler course of action. To achieve uniformity all we need is a powerful leader who can enforce the rules. To achieve uniformity we do not need God. We have seen uniformity in action and belief enforced throughout history. We have seen it in Nazi Germany. We have seen it in the Communist dictatorships around the world. We have seen it in the theocracy of many middle eastern countries. And it should be to our embarassment that we have seen it rear its ugly head througout the history of the church as well. The quest for uniformity of opinion, appearance, style, and socio-economic norms in the church is anti-biblical, and anti-God.

Unity is a balance of interdependent parts. Some of those parts may even seem to be directly opposed to one another. We can see this sort of unity in the apostles that Jesus chose to follow him. When Jesus called Matthew he was sitting in his tax collecting booth selling out his people for the Roman oppressors. And he called Matthew to join this group with a Zealot who was working to oppose this Roman oppression. He didn’t sit these men down and work through a systematic theology for a year to be sure they were on point with their theology before putting them together. Instead he said, “drop what you’re doing and follow me.” You can be sure there was some lively discussion among them about what it meant to follow Jesus.

But that is the point. It is only through diversity that we can have true unity. Uniformity is the enemy of unity. Uniformity causes us to expel what is different. That has nothing at all to do with unity. It is like a garden. I plant flowers among my vegetables. This attracts bees that help pollinate plants. It also attracts “pests” away from the vegetables. I could spray pesticide and get rid of the pests, but some of those pests do other good things for my plants. Some of my “weeds” in the garden help to correct the pH balance of the soil and can add valuable nutrients to the soil.

Even the Bible itself teaches crop rotation and allowing fields to lie fallow every seven years. And there is a lesson for us in peacemaking there. Monocropping is bad for the earth, and it is equally bad for the church and for our peacemaking. Sometimes there are things that come into the garden that seem to be working against the garden. But God teaches us to find unity. If we simply kick out everything that might work against our vegetables growing – if we spray them down with pesticides, rip out anything that is different, and make everything uniform – then we will have a garden full of pretty, uniform, and utterly lifeless vegetables. The same is true of our churches and of our lives.

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God is NoWHere…

There is an old story that is often used in sermons. It’s one of those “brilliant Christian student embarrasses the evil snooty professor” type stories. In the story the professor writes “God is Nowhere” on the chalk board. Somewhere by the end of it the clever student rearranges the letters so that it says, “God is Now Here.”

But often it seems to me that both of them miss the boat. Somehow it seems to me that there is a tension between the two notions. Because there are times when I cannot deny the presence of God. There are times when God is so real and vibrant and true that I cannot imagine how anyone could ever deny that God is right here among us. But on the other hand, there are times when I wonder how I could have been so blindly optimistic. I look around at the pain and suffering in the world and I just don’t see how God could be so close. And to be honest I can sometimes get a bit resentful that God seems to be hiding.

But I read something online. It was another of those cheesy sermon illustrations. In this story there is a couple and the husband is dying. And the wife says, “I love you so much, what will I ever do without you.” And the husband replies, “Take that love you feel for me and give it out to the world.”

And suddenly it makes a bit of sense. If God, the Ultimate, the object of ultimate Love, were physically right here with us in the same sense as you and I are sitting in this room, then we would miss out on the very thing that God seems most interested in. God is all about our relationship with God, yes, but also with others.

So, perhaps this absence we often feel from God is God’s way of saying, “Take that love, that hope, and that devotion that you would pour out on me and spread it to everyone you meet.” Because somehow, in some strange way, that is the way that we can best experience the presence of God.


The Present of the Present…

So, it’s another new year, and I’m looking for something new to say.

It’s my favorite holiday. It truly is. But it’s still completely covered with cliches. I mean, really. How are things going with last year’s resolutions? Did you lose that weight? Did you quit smoking?

Maybe you did. But if you did then you are the exception to the rule.

But still we keep trying. So why do we do that?

Why is it that in the face of almost certain failure, we keep resolving to do better? Why do we keep resolving to change?

Because somewhere, deep down, every one of us is starving for a new start.

You can hear it in the modern myths we tell. It’s often repeated as a fact that every 7 or 10 years every cell in our bodies dies and is remade. So every 7 or 10 years we are a completely new person. That isn’t really true, but our desire to make it true speaks to something deep inside of us.

We want a fresh start. We want to wipe the slate clean, set fire to everything, and start again.

All we are looking for is an excuse.

Because somewhere deep down we realize that we are caught in a trap. We are stuck in a loop of clinging to the past, and worry about the future. We are stuck feeling guilty or nostalgic for things that are long gone. And we are stuck feeling hopeful or apprehensive about the future. And we miss out on being where we are.

Alan Watts says it like this, “If my happiness at this moment consists largely in reviewing happy memories and expectations, I am but dimly aware of this present. I shall still be dimly aware of the present when the good things that I have been expecting come to pass. For I shall have formed a habit of looking behind and ahead, making it difficult for me to attend to the here and now. If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world.”

And maybe that is what Jesus keeps trying to get at. If you look at his teachings you will notice a pattern. He says, “Let go of the past…your sins are forgiven.” And he says, “Stop worrying about the future. Today has enough worries of its own.”

In other words, “Be where you are!”

Every breath is New Years Eve! In the moment that you read these words, you are a unique expression of what God is doing with you. May we not miss God’s fingerprints because we are too busy trying to wipe away the smudge. The Kingdom of God is eternal life. And eternity is right here, right now, in this moment. Your past is reconciled. Your sins are forgiven. Your future will worry about itself. God is breathing life into you right now. In this moment. In this instant. If you need a resolution…resolve to be present in the present.

Love is the Word,

-a


reboot your brain…

So, the other day I got an ad that popped up on my cell phone. It was the first time I’d seen anything like this. And now it does it all the time. It used to be that in the top I’d get a little bug of a notification. But now I get ads that hijack my phone and throw full screen pictures up of games and junk that it wants me to buy. It gets all glitchy, and there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it because I don’t know which app I installed that is causing the problem.

It looks like I have nothing left to do but to reformat the thing.

Now this is a pain. It means that I will have to rethink everything that I have done with my phone up to this point. I will have to decide which things I used and which I didn’t. I will have to decide which things wasted my time, and which things got in the way of my doing things that were more important. I will have to decide which things were useful and necessary, and which things were just like a lead weight slowing down the proper working order of the phone.

It’s a pain, but really, it’s kind of exciting too. I get to start over. It’s like new year’s eve for my phone.

And it’s got me to thinking, how often might it be useful to do something really similar with our ideas about God?

Because let’s look at the way things have gone from the start. Let’s look at the Christian creation narrative. God creates Adam and then Eve. They walk together with God in the cool of the evening. They have a deep and loving relationship. There is one basic rule. God says, “Don’t eat the fruit from that tree over there.”

Now, I don’t know why. It never made much sense to me why God would bother putting the tree there. I mean, I get the discussions about free will, and that sort of thing. But to me the tree seems like entrapment. But I guess that’s why I’m not God.

Anyway. Like I say, there’s this one rule. Don’t eat that fruit. And then comes this snake. And this snake says, “Aww, come on. One bite won’t hurt.” And Eve says, “Nope. God said don’t eat from the tree. DON’T EVEN TOUCH IT.”

Did you catch that? God never said not to touch the tree. Eve has added a rule to the rule.

But before we string her up for being such an idiot. I have to say, I think that there wasn’t much wrong with her extra rule. Given that she didn’t eat the fruit until this snake talked her into it, it would seem that her rule was helping her to stay away from the tree. You know, it had fruit that was pleasing to the eye and everything. Probably not a bad idea to just draw that line a little farther back and to decide, “yep…better not even touch that tree.” I mean if you’re an alcoholic, you don’t hang out in the bar.

So we don’t really have a huge problem yet, but then as we continue to read on we see people constantly adding one more rule to the rule. Installing one more app on the phone, so-to-speak, until we find something like 614 rules about the rules. And things start to get a bit glitchy.

So, God comes along in the form of Jesus. And Jesus tells us, “Look, you’re getting off base. Let’s reformat this thing. And here is what you need to reinstall. Love. That’s your starting point, and if you have to start over again, it always comes back to Love.”

So my challenge for you and for me and for all of us is to face the anxiety of a reformat. Take your images, take your ideas, take the things that you have been wasting time with and that have been getting in your way and delete them. It is terrifying. It will cause a great deal of anxiety. But ultimately it is freedom. It will set you free from the things that keep your faith from functioning the way it was designed to function. Hit the reset. You’ll be glad you did.

Love,

-Andrew


The Grammar of the Reformation…

On October 31, 1517, a young man named Martin Luther wrote a letter. The purpose of this letter was to speak against the selling of indulgences. In other words, Luther felt that it was wrong for the church to ask people to give them money for a certificate to show that they bought their deceased loved ones way out of purgatory. Obviously this was a very unbiblical practice, and Luther courageously asked the hierarchy of his church whether they might stop doing this.

Enclosed in this letter Luther added a copy of a writing called, “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Luther’s purpose in writing this was to offer scholarly reasons why this practice ought to end. However, those who held those positions of power were not impressed. They did not feel that it was Luther’s place to challenge the practices of the church. And as Robert Wilson said, “Most people live in a myth and grow violently angry if anyone dares tell them the truth about themselves.” When Luther held up his mirror to the corrupt leaders of the church, they grew violently angry with him.

Copies of Luther’s Disputation were translated and circulated widely. This Disputation came to be known as Luther’s “95 Theses.” A legend formed around the writing that Luther had nailed it to the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. The writing sparked what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. In 1520 Luther was brought before Pope Leo X and in 1521 he came before the Roman Emperor Charles V. In both accounts Luther refused to recant. He stood in the face of these men who were entrenched in their clout and power and refused to submit to anything other than his conscience and understanding of God. He was excommunicated from the church and declared an outlaw of the state.

Now, as you go out into some circles of church life today you may hear people every Halloween saying, “Happy Reformation Day!” This is the history of why you may hear that. It is not exactly a happy day, but many Christians do choose to commemorate Luther’s brave challenge of the established order of the church on October 31st.

The reformation is a period in church history in which the church had to correct itself to get back into line with the teachings of Jesus. It is something that we ought to appreciate. But there is one danger. Often we look back at this time and we say that after the Reformation, we became “Reformed.” And we can draw new lines and build new walls that establish a wholly new hierarchy. I consider the reformation to be for the corporate church something like our own individual sanctification. It is not something that should ever end with “-ed.” It ought never be put into past tense. Instead it ought to always end with “-ing.” We ought to always be becoming, but never arriving.

When we put the reformation of the church in the past tense and say that we are now “reformed” then we allow ourselves to stagnate. We establish a new hierarchy that centers around arguments that are on the cutting edge of the 1500’s. This is true of both sides of the coin when it comes to “reformed” or non-“reformed” theology. May we always be reforming. May our reformation never be complete. And may we celebrate the corrections that the church has made while knowing that we will always have more ways in which we need to change.

If each individual making up the church is constantly growing into a more Christ-like person, then it stands to reason that the church will have to constantly grow into a more Christ-like group. Sometimes that means embracing the past. Sometimes that means jettisoning things that we have made more important that the one thing we are told to cling to. Love God, Love each other.

Love is the Word.  Believe. Amen.


Some Thoughts on Church Discipline…

Okay, I know I’m a bit late.  The Driscoll hysteria has passed.  But I was asked in a final exam for one of my seminary classes about the concept of Church Discipline.  And having been on the pointy end of that stick myself in the last year or so, I thought I might share my two cents here as well.

There are many varying views of the subject, and, in my opinion, there are many abuses of the idea going around in the contemporary church.  Let us begin with the words most commonly used to describe how we ought to carry out discipline in the church.  Those words are the words of Jesus in Matthew 18.  Jesus says,

“If your brother or sister sins,go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

So, what we see here is that Jesus tells us a sort of hierarchy for how to carry out Church Discipline.  We first go individually.  Then we take one or two others.  Then we tell it to the church.  Then we treat them as the pagan or the tax collector.  In contemporary church circles – specifically that of the neo-reformed movement exemplified by Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle – this has come to mean that we ought to call people out harshly.  If that doesn’t work, we send in the church’s elders in to beat them up a bit tag-team style.  If that doesn’t work we kick them out of the church and tell anyone who is a member that they ought not talk to them anymore.

Instead of this scenario, I think we ought to approach this subject by taking these verses in their context.  Prior to Jesus speaking these words he had been talking about who will be first in the Kingdom.  He says that children will be first.  He says that whoever wants to be first in the Kingdom ought to become like a child.  And he then continues to say that anyone who causes one of these children to stumble, it would be better for that one if they had never been born.  Then he further gives a parable that illustrates God’s love for those children.  He shows God pursuing the lost child like a shepherd pursues the one lost sheep while leaving behind the 99 to do so.

Then he gives the statement of “church discipline” as a way of preventing abuse by religious leaders.  He lays out a way of dealing with those who “offend” by doing it in a loving and kind way.  After laying out the loving way to deal with “one who sins against you” Peter – apparently looking for a loophole – asks, “how many times do I have to forgive one who sins against me?”  And Jesus answers by telling the parable of the unmerciful servant.  In this parable a servant of the King is forgiven an unpayable debt.  The servant then goes out and demands payment by one of his fellow servants for a minor debt.  The unmerciful servant is then punished because he would not forgive little when he had been forgiven much.

So, the idea of Church Discipline, in this light, consists of lovingly and privately calling out the offense.  Then taking a few people as witnesses if that doesn’t work.  If that doesn’t work, we then involve the church community.  If that doesn’t work we treat them as tax collectors and pagans.  However, this doesn’t mean we kick them out and avoid all contact.  Instead we treat them the way Jesus treated tax collectors and pagans.  We leave the 99 and pursue the 1 who is astray.  We love them and love them and love them no matter what.  We have dinner at their house.  We ask them to change their ways.  But we also never stop inviting them into community.  In no way do we shun them until they get on board with our way.  It is not our job to convict of sin.  That is the job of the Spirit.  It is our job to show love and forgiveness.  And if we must call out sin, then we do so in a loving and forgiving and understanding way.

So, instead of kicking people out who disagree or offend, we love them back into the group.  One of the greatest offenses that Christianity has committed against a dying and lost world is that we have systematically removed ourselves from society by segregating ourselves, and by kicking out anyone who doesn’t fit the mold.  If we follow the model of Jesus then we will draw people to us.  Without compromising Truth, we can at the same time not compromise Love.  Our witness to the world consists in our being the type of Christians who the watching world will see and say, “Wow…look at how they love…I need some of that!”  Instead I’m afraid that they know us by who and what we oppose.  When Jesus ascended into heaven he left us one final legacy.  He said that the world would know we are his and that he was sent by God if we love one another.  At one time the Roman historian Tertullian said, “See how these Christians love one another!”  When you ask someone today what they think of when they think of Christians, that is not the first answer you will get!

So, the challenge I issue today to you and to myself is to make an intentional effort to love someone you disagree with.  Find someone who has harmed you and make an effort to forgive them.  Make every effort to reconcile with them.  And even if you can’t, make every effort to let go of the hate.  Make every effort to be the sort of person who others will look at and say, “Wow!  Look how that person loves!”

Love is the Word,

Believe,

-a


A Vampire in a World of Zombies (another Zombie Parable)…

Once there was a vampire.  Obviously he had no mirror to prove it, but he was beautiful.  He could never see his own face, but most people treated him as though he were the most beautiful man on earth.

Some people recoiled in horror from him.  But he was convinced that these people were jealous of his beauty.

All around him he was surrounded by another type of undead.  These undead were terrible, stinking, decaying zombies.  They would stagger around grunting and looking for any sign of living flesh to devour.  The Vampire was repulsed by them.  Instead he tried to surround himself with other vampires.  He wanted to surround himself with things that looked like him.

All the while his thirst for blood was insatiable.

One day he met a stranger.  This stranger was undead as well.  But he was different than the Vampire, or the Zombies.  He had all the signs of life, but he insisted that he had died.  This undead one spoke in strange riddles.  He spoke of dying in order to live.  This was strange to the Vampire.  He was the living dead, but this did not in any way resemble the life he had once known.  Yet this stranger kept speaking of living *after* death, not simply existing as the living dead.

Then the stranger led the Vampire to a mirror.  As expected the Vampire did not see his reflection.  But then the stranger touched him over his cold and lifeless heart.  Gradually the Vampire began to see his reflection.  He was as beautiful as he had always imagined.  But as the stranger lingered with his hand on the Vampire’s heart, he began to see his flesh fall off.  Gaping wounds began to form on his face and his hands.  He became more and more grotesque.  As he looked in horror he began to realize that he had never been able to see his own reflection because he had refused to see it.  The touch of the stranger had allowed him to see himself as he truly was.  Could it be that there was never a Vampire, but only another Zombie who refused to see himself as he was?

The stranger whispered “love can heal  you.” And with that he vanished.