Category Archives: Ancient Future

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


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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.

Tell Me The Story….Write on My Heart Every Word


Devotional Thought of the Day
34  Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. 35  This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet: “I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.”   Matthew 13:34-35 (NLT)

After a brief pause, Jack said, “Explain yourself. I’m willing to hear you out.”
“Okay,” I said, “but to explain myself I have to tell you a story.” I sensed a puzzlement on his part, so I quickly added, “All spiritualities are based on a story. You have to know the story of a particular religion to understand its spirituality.”
This statement aroused the curiosity of everyone. “Tell the story,” said Jack. “Maybe I don’t know the story; as a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Christianity told as a story.”
“Okay,” I responded, “but I have to tell you I can’t prove the story.”1
“I like that! I don’t like it when religious people try to prove their faith. Just the fact that you say that we shouldn’t try to prove the story with history and science makes me want to listen.”

899      The children of God are present and give witness in the world to draw others, not to be drawn by them. They should spread their own atmosphere, the atmosphere of Christ, not let themselves be won over by a different atmosphere.

One of the hardest lessons to learn in preaching is that it is very different from teaching, very different from teaching, very different from giving a lecture.  

The goal isn’t merely to impart knowledge and information, but to draw someone into a relationship, to draw someone into the story, to reveal to them that they have a part, a role, and are wanted.  (This is true not only about the sermon but about any time we bear witness to Jesus, that we share His love with others) 

This is profoundly different than the way I was taught in the early days, in classes like Expository Preaching and Homiletics.  I have written similarly before on apologetics, that the idea is not to win a case, to convince someone to judge Christianity right based on the proof I present.  

We simply need to tell the story, to tell it so well the people are drawn into their place in the story, 

This is why the post-modern sermon needs to be transparent, that the messenger be willing to tell his portion of the story transparently, the brokenness, the sin and shame (though not in great detail) the hopelessness that exists when we take our eyes off of Jesus, and His continual drawing us back, and the peace that comes when we see Him again.  For if they know God can help us, then we are writing on their hearts the word of the story, the “God so loved (me)”, the “body broken/blood shed for (me).  

I would assert that teaching the Bible without making the connection to the listener is not preaching, it is not bearing witness to Jesus.  It is simply giving people, overloaded with facts, more facts to deal with intellectually.  It appeals to their baser instinct, that they are the judge of reality.  But they aren’t the judges, they are not just interested observers.  So why preach to them if they were.  Telling them the story involves them, it helps reveal to them that they aren’t observers and judges, but part of the story. 

This takes the objective truth of salvation and helps it become subjective as well.  It takes the historical information stored in our minds and makes it meaningful to our heart and soul.

This is the mystery that has been revealed, that which has been hidden from the beginning of the world.  The mystery of God and His people, the people He makes His own, the mystery of how you and I, broken by our sin and the sin of the world, are picked up, healed, brought home.

That is preaching, that is bearing witness to God’s love, that is giving people what God wants them to comprehend.

Tell me the story, write on my heart every word, tell me the story of Jesus (and us), greatest that every was heard.

AMEN!

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

Escriva, Josemaria. The Forge (Kindle Locations 3181-3182). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Your Church Doesn’t Need to Be New to Grow.


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The Pantheon, a place once dedicated to worship of idols but reborn to host the worship of God. May our lives tell a similar story as we realize what God does to us in baptism!

Discussion Thought of the Day:
35 Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the Good News about the kingdom, and healing all kinds of diseases and sicknesses. 36 When he saw the crowds, he felt sorry for them because they were hurting and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Jesus said to his followers, “There are many people to harvest but only a few workers to help harvest them. 38 Pray to the Lord, who owns the harvest, that he will send more workers to gather his harvest.”  Matt 9:35-48  NCV.

Finally, I use these biblical, ancient roots together with insights and practices from Christian history to constitute the foundation for addressing the third issue faced by today’s church: how do you deliver the authentic faith and great wisdom of the past into the new cultural situation of the twenty-first century? The way into the future, I argue, is not an innovative new start for the church; rather, the road to the future runs through the past.
These three matters—roots, connection, and authenticity in a changing world—will help us to maintain continuity with historic Christianity as the church moves forward. I hope what I cull from the past and then translate and adapt into the present will be beneficial to your ministry in the new cultural situation of our time.

858      The first step towards bringing others to the ways of Christ is for them to see you happy and serene, sure in your advance towards God.

In my “different” (some would say twisted) experience in the church, more than once I have come across those who are focused on Church Growth.  Originally, church growth theory came from those who saw abundant numbers of conversions on the mission field, and sought to replicate it now that they were “back home”.  Now church growth is more affected by statisticians and pollsters, men who observe and make judgments based on what they see, trying to replicate what worked in Texas in Missouri, or what worked in Atlanta in San Diego and Boston.

And the cry today is not to grow the church because that doesn’t work!  The idea today is that new starts, new missions, new ideas make the greatest difference, and therefore deserve the greatest talent and the greatest money.

Churches that are forty years old or older and are in decline?  Give up on them, let them die the experts say. We’ve consulted with them, we’ve given them surveys and tests, we’ve tried to transform them, and they continue to dwindle.  Just give up on them, merge them into bigger churches, sell their properties and use it to start new churches. 

There is a greek technical term that describes such advice, taurus skubala!  Translated into English, it is easily seen as bullcrap.  ( I would type bullshit, but some people might be offended!)  

The reason the experts, the consultants fail to transform churches is simple.  They aren’t part of the community. They come in on a wing and a prayer, they don’t understand the dynamic of why God put a congregation in that place, ( see the dedication of the Solomon’s Temple for the reason) they try to create a vision where there already was a vision, where there has always been a vision.

And the community struggles to adopt its new identity. It isn’t them, it isn’t authentic, it’s an act.  And sooner or later they give it up, and give up the hope that was given to it!  They wander around like sheep without a shepherd, simply following what is in front of them, and the shepherds, tired and weary, plod on after them. 

But what if the church went back to what it treasured, and from their roots, used what they treasured in Christ and allowed Him to transform them and the world.  That was Webber’s plea, with his Ancient-Future Church series.  That is what Escriva considered the Opus Dei – the very work of God.  

We can shepherd people toward the God we know, that is our call in a new church plant or in a church that is 1700 years old.   It is the work of the 80-year-old retired pastor caring for the inner city church that can’t afford a full-time guy; it’s the work of the 26-year-old, fresh from seminary.  It is the work of the lay people, who are shepherded by their pastors and priests.  For as we do our job, the people know the happiness and serenity that is found in the presence of God.  There, in His glorious presence, they find all they need, and it is contagious. 

Bring people to Jesus, show them His way, reveal to them His love through word and sacrament.   That is how you apply the Bible to their lives.  That is how you give them hope, bring them healing, teach them to love as they are loved. 

This is what we’ve always done, though somehow we lost that in doing that.  It is the reason for the liturgy, for the praises we sing, for our homilies and sermons, for the sacraments we invite people too, knowing that they can and do experience God as they are washed and absolved and fed.  As they have always been.  Whether they realised it or not, whether we realized it or not.

As we gather tomorrow, may we shepherd the people to Jesus… may they respond as they find healing, peace and joy, and may others come to see Him as well.  AMEN!

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

Escriva, Josemaria. The Forge (Kindle Locations 3040-3041). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

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