Category Archives: Ancient Future

How do I evaluate my church services?


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADevotional Thought of the Day:

7  Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 8  Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me— now let me rejoice. 9  Don’t keep looking at my sins. Remove the stain of my guilt. 10  Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. 11  Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. Psalm 51:7-11 (NLT)

19  And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart, 20  so they will obey my decrees and regulations. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God. Ezekiel 11:19-20 (NLT)

But the current popular phrases surrounding the worship experience seem oriented around personal perception. “Did you like the worship?” But this may mean, “Did you like the sound?” “Did you like our performance?” “Did you like the preaching?” These questions have more to do with style and preference than the transformation of thought and action. Some have suggested turning the words toward God and asking, “Did God like our worship? Was God pleased with what we did today?” These questions, however, equally misunderstand the purpose of worship. In worship we proclaim and enact God’s story of the world. Therefore, the more appropriate experiential question is “Did God’s story, which was proclaimed and enacted today, make a transformative impact on your life?” Or, “How has the weekly rehearsal of the meaning of human life that is rooted in God’s story changed the way you treat your family, your neighbors, the people with whom you work?” (1)

As I was reading Webber’s quote, I started to think about the way I evaluate the church “services” I officiate.  The questions Webber describes are the questions I have asked, both my members, my visitors, my elders, and staff.

How did you like it, was the experience worth your while? Those questions another hard question, will you be back, will you invest time talent and treasure in this ministry here.  Do you find our church service of value, enough to become part of out community?

I don’t think Webber is saying those questions are completely wrong, but they are not the primary question we need to ask.

Have you met God in such a way that you know He is changing you?  Do you desire that change more now than before?  Would you cry out to God to purify you, because you are confident that He will, that this is His desire, that He wants you to be part of His people?  That if you are struggling with sin, that He would come alongside, and continue to work through you, with you, in you? Basically, that we are no longer talking about His story from a distance or our story as if He is distant?  A million ways to ask it, but the basic idea comes back to this:

DO you and I know, as God reveals Himself to us, that He desires and will make us His people, for He is our God.

After all, that is our role, as agents of reconciliation (see 2 Cor. 5)

And therefore, our evaluation of our church services, whether worship services, or our classes, the work of caring for children or the elderly, or the poor, or the ministry of our people to their family, neighbors, and community comes down to this simple concept.

Are you ready to challenge what you do?

Heavenly Father, reveal Your desire to us, as You heal our brokenness as we dwell in Jesus, and as we do help us draw others to be healed by you as well!  AMEN!

 

(1)  Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

I love it when a plan comes together! (a plan… not mine)


Altar with communionDevotional Thought of the Day:

O LORD, I will always sing of your constant love; I will proclaim your faithfulness forever. 2 I know that your love will last for all time, that your faithfulness is as permanent as the sky.  Psalm 89:1-2  GNT

 

345         What a great discovery! Something you barely half-understood turned out to be very clear when you had to explain it to others. You had to speak very gently with someone, who was disheartened because he felt useless and did not want to be a burden to anyone… You understood then, better than ever, why I always talk to you about being little donkeys turning the water-wheel: carrying on faithfully, with large blinkers which prevent us personally seeing or tasting the results—the flowers, the fruit, the freshness of the garden—confident about the effectiveness of our fidelity.

The contemplation of God, of his person, creation, incarnation, and re-creation of the world, is a different kind of knowledge. It is a contemplation on the mysteries, namely, the mystery of God creating, the mystery of God incarnate, the mystery of the cross and empty tomb, the mystery of God’s presence in the church, and the mystery of Christ’s return to claim his lordship over creation. The contemplation of these mysteries moves us to live into these mysteries, participating in God’s life for the world.

This week has not gone as I planned, I had a number of things to accomplish to get ready for vacation, also plans to celebrate my 28th anniversary tomorrow.

Let’s just say those things I planned to get done were often interrupted, as hours were spent in crisis moments, and in a meeting, a very necessary meeting, that took out most of a day.  And then, of course, the implementation of a new phone system.  Yeah, my plan?  Long days and nights, and some of the things are off the checklist… but I am leaving for “home” in a little more than 48 hours…

Yet with the esteemed Colonel on the old A-team, I can look back and say, somehow, “I love it when a plan comes together!”  Even if I haven’t seen it come to its fulfillment.

More and more I realize that Escriva’s idea that those who serve as the church are like blinded donkeys, walking around, supplying the work that God uses to bless others is true.  We love it when a plan comes together, but we are equally sure that it cannot be our plan. At least if we want it to come together!  There must be a greater planner who is able to not just plan well, but execute and carry us to where the plan “comes together”

One in whom we can trust, one who we can depend on, not just for the plan, but for the result. And then we can go back to our trodding through life, content to let the Spirit lead, flexible enough to simply follow that Spirit when the need occurs, even when we think we are a round peg being placed into a square hole.

That is where Webber’s words this morning make so much sense to me.  That as we contemplate the very mysteries of God, as we try, not to understand as much as observe in awe, and accept we cannot have all the answers, but we can have Him, the need for all the answers, the need to see all of our agendas come to pass fades.  Simply put, knowing Him, living in His glorious peace is….. more than sufficient.

We learn to sing with the psalmist about God’s love, about His faithfulness.  Which feeds on itself.  For the more aware of this, the more we explore the breadth, width, depth, and height of God’s love for us, revealed in Christ, revealed at the cross, and at the table, the more we desire to simply know that….

And we are assured of the living water that our lives help distribute to fields will see them ready to harvest, as the world comes to know the love of Jesus.

AMEN!

 

Escriva, Josemaria. Furrow (Kindle Locations 1604-1609). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

Have I Become What I Struggle Against?


Devotional Thought of the Day:
9  He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: 10  “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. 11  The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. 12  I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ 13  “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’ ” 14  Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” Luke 18:9-14 (MSG)

For a legalist, spirituality is tantamount to saying, “I think the right way, live the right way, associate with the right people, read my Bible, pray, go to church, and avoid worldly ways; therefore I am spiritual.” This person might be a “good” person, live a straight and disciplined life, be a good friend and neighbor, and support the church and its ministries. But legalism is not true Christian spirituality, for in the end it looks to self to achieve a condition of spirituality by adhering to a predetermined set of rules and fixed doctrinal interpretations. It goes beyond what the Bible teaches and what the common tradition embraces.
Legalistic spirituality is not directly situated in God’s story of creation, incarnation, and re-creation. Legalistic spirituality is situated in derivative rules and doctrines determined by a particular cultural expression of the faith. This sort of spirituality, instead of contemplating the mystery of God’s vision and participating in the life purposed by God, measures a person’s spiritual state by the secondary rules and doctrines that ask: “Are you keeping the rules?” “Are you adhering to the doctrinal particulars espoused by this particular church?” Legalism focuses on the self and how well the self adheres to the group expectations.

As I read the Webber’s words, into my mind popped a number of legalists that I deal with, or have to deal with the consequences of their actions.  They frustrate the heck out of me, and to be honest, the consequences of their actions and their decisions scare me.  I’ve seen too many people give up on the church, and some even give up on God because of the legalism.

But as I re-read the words, I have to wonder, how often do I (and you can and perhaps should) turn into the very thing I struggle against, the same thing that frustrates me, the same thing that pisses me off.

Is it possible that I could become what Webber calls a legalist?   Have I become so antagonized by their actions that I justify myself in order to feel more righteous than those I can’t understand, or for that matter stand?

It is all too easy to become the Pharisee, to find the attitude inside myself that finds others less holy (usually those I catch doing that to others – but that doesn’t excuse or justify my sin)

As Webber says, I can be good, I can know all the right doctrines, I can express them fluently, but the moment I count out that to justify me, at least compared to them.

And that is the point, I stop comparing myself to Jesus, I stopped seeing my own faults, and therefore the need to cling to Jesus, who justify me and would justify them.  That’s what spirituality is to Webber, the reason he called the book the Divine Embrace.

It is there on the cross that I can find the peace I need, and the ability to love those that frustrate me, to realize that those who I find as legalistic I can find compassion for, and I can find the hope to not be legalistic.

For God is with us….. and therefore, there is hope!

Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

Please tell us, “What Does this Mean (for me)?”


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The Good Shepherd, carrying His own.

Devotional Thought of the Day:

9 I will thank you, O Lord, among the nations. I will praise you among the peoples. 10 Your constant love reaches the heavens; your faithfulness touches the skies!  Psalm 57:9-10  GNT

52 “How terrible for you, you experts on the law. You have taken away the key to learning about God. You yourselves would not learn, and you stopped others from learning, too.”  Luke 11:52  NCV

Baptism has also shifted away from identity with Jesus in his death and resurrection and turned into “my personal testimony to others that I have given my life over to Jesus.” The spiritual life in this case is not a passionate embrace of God signified by a baptism into his death and resurrection but a passionate embrace of my personal decision to follow Jesus signified by my conversion. In the outworking of this experiential spirituality, baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus is replaced by confidence in my personal decision. And baptism no longer has any meaning. (1)

In Martin Luther’s small catechism, there is one phrase that constantly appears.

What does this mean?

It appears so often, that it has become part of Lutheran’s vocabulary, a phrase that is reduced to a thought.

Even so, as we excel at defining the concept, it seems we’ve lost our ability to make the connection. We have become the experts in the law Jesus is talking about in Luke’s gospel, able to become experts on the Greek and Hebrew, experts on the nuances of the history/ grammar, but we’ve lost the key to it all, and in our pride, refused to learn.   The impact on our churches is enormous, and though the details can hold some people’s attention and fascination, it does only that, and it neglects their heart, their soul.

This is demonstrated in the quote from Dr. Webber, where he summarizes a shift that took centuries, showing our teaching on baptism moving from something that had great personal meaning to a teaching that highly defines baptism, yet robs it of its connection to the person we are instructing.

But it is not just those who have lost sacramental insight that rob scripture and religious teaching of what Webber caused the Divine Embrace ( I often use “intimate relationship” while others use sacramental or incarnational).  I have seen this occur in my own denomination, as teaching on ministry becomes more and more about proper order and understanding regarding the ordained clergy than what the role of the ordained is. We are nothing more than conduits, the pipe of the pipeline that carries grace.  We are necessary only when our role is that of dispensing grace through Word and Sacrament. But our teaching has elevated the understanding of the ordained to a higher priority than preparing and placing them where people need them.

That’s where “what does it mean (to me)” is such a necessary question.  Or where we ask “so what” when someone explains the “what” of theology. We give them what the caused the psalmist to rejoice, the revelation of God’s love, of God’s faithfulness, of a God comes to us, and shares with us His glory, His love, HIs peace. A God who nurtures and cares for you and I – not just some group which we may be on the fringe of, but He desires and cares for us specifically.

He embraces us.

This is what evangelism is about, what sharing the hope we have in these dark times means.  It is the gospel we preach,  it is why we should teach scripture. To answer the question that they should have – “what does this mean…. to me?”

May God bless us, as we reach out with His love… and may they hear it.  AMEN!

 

(1)  Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

 

Where We Can Screwup the Doctrine of Justification


Altar with communionDevotional Thought of the Day:

41 Jesus said, “Two people owed money to the same banker. One owed five hundred coins n and the other owed fifty. 42 They had no money to pay what they owed, but the banker told both of them they did not have to pay him. Which person will love the banker more?”
43 Simon, the Pharisee, answered, “I think it would be the one who owed him the most money.”
Jesus said to Simon, “You are right.” 44 Then Jesus turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I came into your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss of greeting, but she has been kissing my feet since I came in. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she poured perfume on my feet. 47 I tell you that her many sins are forgiven, so she showed great love. But the person who is forgiven only a little will love only a little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The people sitting at the table began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Because you believed, you are saved from your sins. Go in peace.”  Luke 7:41-50  NCV

42 As a deer longs for a stream of cool water, so I long for you, O God. 2 I thirst for you, the living God; when can I go and worship in your presence?  Psalm 42:1-2  GNT

Let me illustrate this shift toward a spirituality disconnected from God’s story by comparing historic spirituality to this new intellectual embrace of forensic justification.
Historic spirituality looks like this: God became one of us in the incarnation. When the Word became incarnate in Jesus by the Spirit, God lifted all humanity into himself and, by his death and resurrection, reconciled all to himself (Rom. 5:12–21). Spirituality is therefore a gift of God’s grace. God has taken the initiative to unite with us so that we may be united with him. Baptism is the spiritual rite of conscious and intentional union with Jesus (Rom. 6:1–14) and reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). The spiritual life is the freedom to live in the baptismal pattern of his death and resurrection, dying to sin and rising to the new life in the Spirit. In this ancient model of spirituality, Jesus is our spirituality because we are in union with God through our union with Jesus by the Spirit. His entire life from conception to resurrection is on behalf of humanity. He reverses our belonging to Adam (Rom. 5:12–21). He overcame sin for us (Col. 2:13–15). He destroyed the power of death (1 Cor. 15:35–58). He begins the new order of creation (2 Cor. 5:17). He does all this in the power of the Spirit. Christ now dwells in us by the Spirit and we in him.
Spirituality rooted in justification without the connection to the incarnation and Christology looks like this: We are justified by Christ who has done everything necessary to reconcile us to God. Christ is our righteousness. God looks at us through the righteousness of Christ and imputes or declares us righteous in Christ. (This is called the forensic or judicial view of establishing our relation to God.) Now that God has made us spiritual through Jesus Christ, we are called to respond to God in thanksgiving by living the sanctified life. The new emphasis in spirituality within Protestantism, in general, is this justification/ sanctification model.

Sixteen years ago, I left the non-denominational brotherhood of churches I was trained and ordained by and became a Lutheran pastor. The Brotherhood had a broad diversity of theology, not just among church members, but in its Bible College and seminaries.  There was nothing that tied the group’s theology together, which made for some interesting conversations over the years!  but this isn’t about them, it is about Lutheran theology, and how it ((and most conservative theology today) screws up Justification.

One of the tenets of Lutheran Theology is that the Doctrine of Justification is the central doctrine of theology.  The first couple of times I heard that I hesitated, and still do on occasion.  Then a wise professor explained it to me this way.  Picture a bike wheel, you have the hub, the spokes, and the actual tire.  The hub is Justification, but it isn’t the only, nor the most important of doctrines, and if you remove any of them, the wheel will fail, sometimes faster, sometimes slower.

That makes sense, but I think today, as Webber points out, we have got the hub but forgotten the tire. We’ve forgotten the reason we are justified int he first place, to be in a relationship with God, to walk with Him, to know His love, to stop the fighting, internally and externally, and simply take refuge in God our Fortress, in God our peace.

This is the error of Simon the Simon, a leader in the Jewish religion.  He had his hub set, the spokes tightened, the rim in place, but he forgot the tire.  He didn’t recognize that God was there, not just to pronounce forgiveness, which is amazing.  He was there to eat and drink with Simon, to share bread, to laugh, to cry, to be with him.

This is our God, whose come to us.  God who wants to share our lives, even as we share in His, and dwell in His glory and peace.   Christ’s death on the cross, enables God to declare us clean, righteous, holy, and that enables us to walk with Him (Or maybe to ride?)  We need to keep this in mind, we need the entire wheel, hub, spokes, rim, and tire.  Missing a part, or getting it out of line, is serious, but the goal is and always will be, to sit down, and eat and drink, to fellowship with Him.

May you enjoy that feast this weekend and always!  AMEN!

Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

 

The Key to Patience, to Avoiding Worry and Anger


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The Good Shepherd, carrying His own.

Devotional Thought of the day:
3  Trust in the LORD and do good; live in the land and be safe. 4  Seek your happiness in the LORD, and he will give you your heart’s desire. 5  Give yourself to the LORD; trust in him, and he will help you; 6  he will make your righteousness shine like the noonday sun. 7  Be patient and wait for the LORD to act; don’t be worried about those who prosper or those who succeed in their evil plans. 8  Don’t give in to worry or anger; it only leads to trouble. Psalm 37:3-8 (TEV)

The view of Scripture developed by modern conservatives differs from the view held by the Reformers. The Reformers did not seek to prove Scripture. They simply spoke out of a scriptural worldview. For them, the story of God did not need to be proven; it simply needed to be proclaimed. People were to live in the story that Scripture authoritatively delivered by the hand of God, even though the story was seen somewhat statically, as opposed to the ancient dynamic view.

Webber’s point about modern Biblical conservatives needs to be considered, to be thought through.  As a fairly conservative pastor, I’ve been trained to see the Logos as logical, reasonable, and therefore it made sense that we would present that logic for others to see.

Do this, and this happens, dot that and deal with the consequences.  Viewing the covenantal relationship as a contract, a give and take, a scratch my back and I will scratch yours type agreement with God.  So line up the benefits and promises, and consider the cost, and accept it, because it is logical.

If we take scripture from that position, we make it subservient to our mind, our ability to reason.  If we do the same thing with Jesus, (we tend to get the logos and the Logos confused) we will make God our servant, not our Master who cares for us.  The relationship moves from a true partnership (koinonia) and participation to something that is far less, and Christianity becomes a simple bartering transaction.

That isn’t what it is about, we don’t become patient, we can’t surrender our anger or anxiety in that kind of system.  Those things run to deep within out heart and our soul.  It isn’t like going to the dentist every six months for a cleanup, (even if we go every week)  The ability to turn over to God that which we are impatient about, that which causes us to respond in anger, those worries that keep us awake at night only comes as we trust Him, as we depend upon Him, as we have faith that He is here, as He reveals Himself to us.

This is a life together with God, it is our story and his intertwined in a way that we can’t figure out where one begins and the other ends.  And the impact on our lives, as significant as it is, is nothing compared to the glory of the moments we are aware of His presence.

Don’t defend scripture, it doesn’t need you to, it stands on its own pretty well over the centuries.  Don’t defend Jesus either, he didn’t want any defense when he went to the cross.  Live with Him, remind and invite others to do so as well.

Nothing compares…

Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.


What Are We Giving to People? Some Thoughts about the Purpose of Preaching and Leading Worship


DiscussionAltar with communion Thought of the Day:
14  My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, 15  this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. 16  I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength— 17  that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, 18  you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! 19  Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19 (MSG) 

I have already referred to contemplation as one of the two realities of the spiritual life, the other being participation. I have identified Christian contemplation with Mary who “pondered … in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Christian contemplation ponders, reflects, gazes, and delights in the wonders and the mysteries of God active in this world “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). In Christian contemplation God is the subject who acts in history; contemplation enters God’s vision of the world and is stunned, filled with wonder, amazed, full of inner delight and joy. This contemplation is, in sum, an experience of God’s presence. The realization of his presence in the world, creation, incarnation, death, and resurrection and the ultimate presence of God in the fulfillment of history in the new heavens and the new earth is the subject of our contemplation.

But the theme of the suffering God can thrive only when it is anchored in love for God and in a prayerful recourse to his love. According to the encyclical Haurietis aquas, the passions of Jesus, which are depicted as united and uniting in the Heart, are a justification and a reason for the fact that even in the relationship between God and man the heart—that is, the capacity for feeling, the emotional aspect of love—must be included. Incarnational spirituality must be a spirituality of the passions, a heart-to-heart spirituality. Precisely in that way is it an Easter spirituality, for the mystery of Easter is, by its very nature, a mystery of suffering, a mystery of the heart.

3 After all, the chief purpose of all ceremonies is to teach the people what they need to know about Christ.

The last quote above, the short one, is my favorite from the Lutheran Confessions. It forms the basis for most of my ministry, and how I teach others to serve the people of God and their communities.

Yet over the sixteen years since I realized the truth of this, my understanding of it has shifted, it has changed.

All because I have asked, what do people really need to know about Jesus. What does it mean to give them what they need to know about Jesus?  What do they need to know?  How will the way I minister give to them what they need to know?

Let me explain, using the examples of Preaching and Liturgy.

When I was trained in Homiletics, the emphasis was on what is called expository preaching.  That is, you take the passage apart, using Greek/Hebrew, studying the individual words, the grammar, the style of literature, and what it meant to those who heard it first. Pretty in-depth stuff, pretty powerful as the ancient languages were full of marvelous word pictures.

So I preached exegetically, revealing to people the wonder of this treasure we had in scripture.  Like many of my peers, we could take apart the passage with great skill and find application, without ever bringing Jesus into the picture.

With hymnody, many have taken words like those from the Augsburg Confession and concluded that our hymns must primarily teach.  They love the old hymns that are rich in doctrine, that are more like a lecture put to music, that communicate on a horizontal plane, as we share in the wonderful teachings of the faith.

In both cases we talk about Jesus from the position of an observer, somewhat distant, somewhat disconnected.  We think about God’s work and urge people to accept it based on our logic and reason, and the wonder of the system that we have been able to describe.  And we teach them all about the system, and the church service becomes the primary place of such teaching.

It is all good stuff and beneficial.  However, it is not what they need to know about Jesus Christ.

It can accentuate that, but it is not the main thing our church services, our sermons, our worship is to communicate, to teach, to reveal.

I think the other three readings that head this discussion talk about it in depth.  First, from Dr. Robert Webber, the words in blue about contemplation, a lost art among us.  He gets to the heart of the matter when talking about pondering “the wonders and mysteries of God active in this world “reconciling the world to Himself.”  It fills us with wonder, amazement and inner delight and joy because we are experiencing the presence of God.  To contemplate this means we realize we are part of the story, we are the ones reconciled, we are the ones who God loves,

This is what Pope Benedict XVI was writing about (back when he was Joseph Ratzineger) as to our including the capacity for feeling, the emotional aspect of love, it must be a “heart to heart spirituality” This is what we so need to know.  That we are not alone, that God is here, present, sharing in our lives.

This is what Paul urges for the people in Ephesus as well. Not just to know the theology, but to experience the extravagant dimensions of God’s love. The vivid picture Petersen’s “The Message” uses gives us an idea of the power of this, to realize the depth of God’s love, His great passion for us, the passion that causes God not only to be patient, but to endure the suffering it takes.  With one goal in mind, that we would be His people, that He would be our God.

Our preaching must reveal this love, it must help us explore its dimensions, even as our sacramental ministry must help our people participate in it.  Our prayers, our liturgy, our hymnody and praise music must help us contemplate it, experience it, respond to it.

We need to give them what they need to know about Jesus Christ, true God, true man.  That in realizing His love for us, we begin to see the Father’s love for us, and God draws us to Himself.

This is what we need to teach, this is the gospel, and without it, our meetings our empty and vain.

Lord have mercy on us, and help us to draw people into communion with you, revealing the love you have for them, even as we celebrate that love together!  AMEN!

The Church in Decline. Will we treat the problem, instead of the symptoms?


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The church, is always in the midst of a storm… but safe in Him

Discussion Thought of the Day:
26 Then Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like someone who plants seed in the ground. 27 Night and day, whether the person is asleep or awake, the seed still grows, but the person does not know how it grows. 28 By itself the earth produces grain. First the plant grows, then the head, and then all the grain in the head. 29 When the grain is ready, the farmer cuts it, because this is the harvest time.”  Mark 4:26-29 NCV

182         What compassion you feel for them!… You would like to cry out to them that they are wasting their time… Why are they so blind, and why can’t they perceive what you—a miserable creature—have seen? Why don’t they go for the best? Pray and mortify yourself. Then you have the duty to wake them up, one by one, explaining to them—also one by one—that they, like you, can find a divine way, without leaving the place they occupy in society.

Perhaps a better way for us to grasp the meaning of theosis and deification is to use the word relationship. However, the word relationship may not be strong enough to express the Eastern grasp of participation in Jesus and through him a participation in the very communal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that theosis and deification imply. In Eastern thought, the goal of the Christian is to so commune with God that he or she is made more and more in the image of Christlikeness, fulfilling God’s purposes for humanity in God’s creation.

Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, former missionaries noticed trends in the church and wondered why the church in America was static and beginning to decline, while on the mission field it began to grow.

Such studies developed into the field of church growth, which my alma mater required all ministry students to major in, as well as their field (preaching, youth ministry, worship ministry, Christian Ed)  An entire industry has been created, with experts and consultants that will come and analyze your church and provide nice neat programmed solutions that may result in growth in numbers, in budget, etc.

Another industry has grown up that counters the church growth movement.  Usually, it calls for more precision in doctrine, a more historic approach, looking back to the glory days of the church when everyone came and the pews and coffers were filled.

The battles between these groups have led to denominations being devoured in conflict, which drives more people away, burns out more pastors.

But what if the answer is found, not in treating the symptom of decline, but what causes the decline?  What if our studies and the raging wars around what to do with the data, are part of the problem.

What if the issue isn’t “church growth” but simply being aware of the presence of God in our lives?  Whether it was Roland Allen or Donald McGavran,  or C Peter Wagner or John Wimber , whether it is Paul Boland’s theories on revitalizing the church, Webber’s Ancient-Future thoughts, there is a focus on prayer, on communion with God.  The call to prayer, the call to awareness of the relationship, the theosis, the intimate contact between a God who comes to us.  It’s there, in all of their works, the essential component, yet so forgotten in most implementations.  Overlooked because there is no way to measure the results, no way to quantify in a timely matter the success of such things.  Overlooked because it cannot be measured against a creedal or confessional statement.  Maybe it is overlooked because we ourselves aren’t actively living a life walking with God?

Let’s admit that Jesus is right – we don’t know how the kingdom of God grows, so why are we focusing our energy on that?  What would happen instead if we spent the time and effort walking with God, exploring the height and depth, the breadth and width of His love?  What effect would that have on our worship?  Our preaching?  Our teaching?  Our lives lived, with the Holy Spirit, in our communities?

What effect does the glory of God have on us, who should have experienced it? We see it in the eyes of those given the first Bible in their language, the crowds that rejoice in mass baptisms, the barely trained evangelists and pastors in the third world who cry fro training because their churches are growing faster than they can manage.

Without programs, often without full Bibles, sometimes not being even able to read.  Yet full of the awareness of God’s love, something happens.  They make Him known.  People come to know God, and know He loves them, they are so joyous over walking with Him, they share this with those who are blind, but will see, with those lost, but are found.  Without the studies, without the consultants, without the experts in growth, these churches are growing – simply because they know Jesus!

God chooses to commune with us!  God is here, not distant!  He loves us!  We have been found by divinity, and He wants us to enter HIs glory!  Here it is, givet this to your people, help them to see

AMEN!

 

Escriva, Josemaria. Furrow (Kindle Locations 974-978). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

The Question is Not Relationship or Religion. A Plea for Communion with Christ.


Altar with communionDevotional Thought of the Day
21  For God in his wisdom made it impossible for people to know him by means of their own wisdom. Instead, by means of the so-called “foolish” message we preach, God decided to save those who believe. 22  Jews want miracles for proof, and Greeks look for wisdom. 23  As for us, we proclaim the crucified Christ, a message that is offensive to the Jews and nonsense to the Gentiles; 24  but for those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, this message is Christ, who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25  For what seems to be God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and what seems to be God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 1 Corinthians 1:21-25 (TEV)
The same line of thought can be detected in Newman’s own comment on man’s basic relationship to truth. Men are all too inclined—the great philosopher of religion opines—to wait placidly for proofs of the reality of revelation, to seek them out as if they were in the position of judge, not suppliant. “They have decided to put the Almighty to the proof—with controlled passion, a total freedom from bias, and a clear head.” But the individual who thus makes himself lord of the truth deceives himself, for truth shuns the arrogant and reveals itself only to those who approach it in an attitude of reverence, of respectful humility.[i]

The relationship of spirituality to God’s story has a long history in Christian thought. This relationship has been affirmed, challenged, distorted, lost, and regained in various epochs of history. Today spirituality is separated from God’s story. In his crucial work, Spirituality and Theology, Philip Sheldrake points out that “contemporary spiritual writing is open to the accusation that it amounts to little more than uncritical devotion quite detached from the major themes of Christian faith.”2 In order to understand this separation, I will comment briefly in this chapter on (1) how God’s story was affirmed in the ancient Christian church and (2) how the story was lost through Platonic dualism and in late medieval mysticism. In chapter 3 I will address how ancient spirituality was regained with some moderation by the Reformers and how Christian spirituality was lost again in the modern shifts toward intellectual and experiential spiritualities together. We will look at these points in Western history where the stone skims the water and through this history gain a perspective on the crisis of spirituality in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (treated in chapters 4 and 5).[ii]

Gandhi has been credited with saying that he loved Christ and His teachings, and if he found a real Christian he would become one. The modern version is those he say they love Christ but hate the religion his followers created. They want a relationship with God, but like too many theologians, they want it on their own terms.  As if man is equal to God as if man gets to judge God, and force God to modify the covenant he created for our benefit.

The religious respond to this, not with understanding, but often with contempt.   Or with the condescension of thinking that we have to logically work to correct their sinful narcissism.

Both Robert Webber and Pope Benedict this morning warn us about this, noting that far too often we have done the same as those we question.  Our theology and philosophy is used to put God into a box, to prove His existence, and to prove our perception of His plan.  The Pope warns of this with the quote, “They have decided to put the Almighty to the proof—with controlled passion, a total freedom from bias, and a clear head.”   As if man could do this!  Webber mentions the same concept as he promises to track the history of the divorce of spirituality (the divine embrace) from God’s story.

We’ve been so eager to know about God, we chased after that without knowing Him.

And those who are critical of us, they pick up on this ironic tragedy.

What they see is either a scholastic approach to religion devoid of the relationship or an experience of God devoid of living with Him as our Lord, our Master.  In both cases we set aside scripture, or have it subtly twisted in our minds, and we get to judge whether it is binding or not, whether it is “clear and logical” or not.

So what is the solution?  How do we ensure our humility, and stop playing as if we have to “prove” God’s logic, while at the same time submitting to its wisdom?

I would suggest it is communion, what Webber calls “spirituality” or the “divine embrace”.  It is what Pope Benedict calls approaching God with an attitude of reverence, of respectful humility.  It is Moses at the burning bush, hearing God and taking his shoes off, or Peter getting out of the boat.  It is David, realizing he was the man in the parable, and grieving over his own sin, it is the man formerly possession by demons, sent home to tell what God did for Him, or the blind man testifying to the religious leaders.

In that moment, when we realize we are in God’s presence and realizing that He is cleansing us, healing us, declaring we are His holy and just people.  When both experience and knowledge are subject to God, and when our pride is overwhelmed by His love. When we stop trying to be observers and judges, and settle for being with our Father, and hearing Him.

This is the moment we need, the awareness of being in His presence, and of His work in our life.  It is found as water is poured over us, as we are given His Body and Blood, and know His peace, for it is found in His promise, that He is with us, and will never abandon us.

We are welcome in His presence, we are welcome to hear Him testify of His love for us, and count on His faithfulness.  AMEN!
[i] Ratzinger, Joseph. Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year. Ed. Irene Grassl. Trans. Mary Frances McCarthy and Lothar Krauth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992. Print.

2 Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology, vii. Sheldrake is one of a few contemporary authors who understand spirituality as an ancient applied theology. I fully recommend this book and Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and History: Questions of Interpretation and Method, rev. ed. (1991; repr., Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998).

[ii] Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

The Reality of Our Struggle With Evil People


54e14-jesus2bpraying

God, who am I?

Devotional Thought of the Day:
5  This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. 6  So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. 7  But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. 8  If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. 9  But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. 10  If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. 1 John 1:5-10 (NLT)

65         Once again you had gone back to your old follies!… And afterwards, when you returned, you didn’t feel very cheerful, because you lacked humility. It seems as if you obstinately refuse to learn from the second part of the parable of the prodigal son, and you still feel attached to the wretched happiness of the pig-swill. With your pride wounded by your weakness, you have not made up your mind to ask for pardon, and you have not realized that, if you humble yourself, the joyful welcome of your Father God awaits you, with a feast to mark your return and your new beginning.

The divine embrace: The appropriate image for biblical and ancient spirituality.

I once again find myself struggling with those I would term sinful, even, in my more cynical moments, evil.  Some are in bondage to sin and struggle to realize it, even though all around them can see it.  Others seem to revel in their evil, and they will go to great length to defend the sin that so dominates and controls them.

There are days I want to oppose them, to fight the evil.  There are other days I simply want to walk away, leave them to their own consequences, to by my absence curse them to remain locked into their evil.  It is tempting to want to remove myself from their crap, whether that crap is found in what we call a secular arena, or in one that is supposed to be sacred.

To even think that way reminds me that I am no different, for my sin can dominate me as easily, and as St Josemaria points out, my lack of humility conveniently assumes their sin is far worse than mine.   My crap, or the pig slop that St Josemaria identifies, is no better than theirs, my desire to fight or flee is really more about my pride that it is about the distaste for their sin.

It is hard, not at this point to want to condemn myself as much as I would condemn them.  Don’t I know better?  Don’t I hear John’s words regularly about the reality that exists when I deny my own sin?  Those questions run over and crush my heart and soul, for how will I be ever delivered from this life and its struggle with sin? Well, those are my thoughts deep in my heart until I encounter something in someone else that is sinful or evil.  Then I forget all about self-condemnation to condemn the easy target.

The only way out of this is to encounter what Webber calls the “Divine Embrace”, the Prodigal’s Father who runs out to embrace his son, casting aside all dignity, all hurt from his son’s betrayal, to embrace Him.

We are that prodigal, God is that Father who embraces us!  We are that sinner who can’t deny our sin but confesses it, and finds not only that sin forgiven, but our lives cleansed of all unrighteousness.

A cleansing that enables us to do more than finding others sins revolting, but to actually hurt for them, to beg God to deliver them, to help them.  We may even find ourselves led and empowered by the Holy Spirit to reach out and minister to them, to be the agents through whom God reconciles them to Himself, and to His people. Then we will be blessed to witness that which St James about,

19  My friends, if any of you wander away from the truth and another one brings you back again, 20  remember this: whoever turns a sinner back from the wrong way will save that sinner’s soul from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins. James 5:19-20 (TEV)

May we all rejoice at being brought back, together.

AMEN!

 

Escriva, Josemaria. Furrow (Kindle Locations 490-495). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

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