Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Danger of Sentimentality

This Sunday is Baby Day in the Church of the Nazarene. As a result, I have chosen to deviate from the lectionary readings and use scripture readings that speak more directly to or about children and youth (Psalm 78:1-7, Joshua 4:1-8, 1 Timothy 4:11-16, and Matthew 18:1-6). I will be giving the children's message this Sunday (my first time doing that) from the 1 Timothy passage. My sermon is probably going to make use of the Joshua and Matthew passages but will be about half as long as usual in order to make time for the Baby Day introductions.

As I reflect on these passage of scripture and think about what this Baby Day service is all about, I am repeatedly reminded of how we are in danger of reducing the gospel to nothing more than warm, fuzzy sentiments. It is all too easy to confuse the gospel with all things cute and cuddly or to confuse it with anything that is emotional or makes us feel good inside and forget that the gospel is a radical, challenging, and world-changing message. It is easy to reduce the gospel to nothing more than family values and forget that Jesus said that he came to turn children against their parents and brothers against sisters.

Now, of course, this does not make a celebration like Baby Day contradictory to the gospel; far from it. This celebration is intimately tied to the gospel in many ways. It reminds us that God is continually creating new life among us. These new, little lives that we celebrate on this day give us hope because they remind us that God is not finished with his loving and creative work on this earth which means he is also not done creating new life in us as well. Baby Day also reminds us that God has entrusted us with a significant role in this life-giving work. This is true not only in the biological sense but also because God has entrusted these children to us so that we might raise them to be faithful disciples. That represents a remarkable risk on God's part; allowing broken, sin-scarred human beings to shape and mold these most recent additions to God's creation. The family is an important part of the gospel because for most people it is the first and most complete means of discipleship.

However, as we celebrate these new lives, God's creative work, and our part in it, we must not forget why we are celebrating. We must not lose the gospel in the adorable faces of our children because if we do, we will have failed them. I know that when my 3 month old daughter smiles at me I would give almost anything to keep that smile on her face. It is precisely for that reason that her smile and her happiness can so easily become an idol for me. We are all in danger of allowing our families to become idols for us because we are naturally inclined to give the kind of total allegiance to them that we are called to give only to Jesus. As we celebrate our babies this Sunday, we must not confuse the sweet and sentimental with the true life and hope of the gospel message.

Friday, April 25, 2008

My 10 Favorite Things about the San Antonio Spurs

Ok, so most of the stuff I have posted so far has been pretty serious. I thought I would lighten things up a bit with some reflections on my favorite basketball team as I sit here and watch them beat the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

10. 4 Rings, soon to be 5?

9. Tony Parker's ridiculous quickness.

8. Popovich's genius and discipline

7. Manu Ginobli's awkward but amazing athleticism.

6. Being in the hunt every year.

5. Relentless team defense

4. Frenchmen, Argentinians, and a Virgin Islander - the true Globe Trotters

3. David Robinson - the reason I first became a fan

2. Big Fundamentals

1. Team work, Commitment, and Trust.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nazarene Acres and Theology as Conversation

Last night, I attended a stop on our District Superintendent's Listening Tour. This is very similar to the Listening Tour that I conducted here for our local church last summer. Dr. Spruce is having several meetings around the district to give the pastors on the district a chance to talk to him about what we think is important for our district. Of course, it will not be surprising to any of you on this district that our campgrounds, Nazarene Acres, was the dominant topic of discussion. It has become a well documented fact that Nazarene Acres is unable to operate in the black, financially speaking. Every year a substantial amount of money is being taken out of the district's savings in order to subsidize the campground. This has worked for several years but obviously is not a fiscally responsible practice. If the campground can not be consistently budgeted for then eventually it will deplete the district's savings entirely and will put us in debt. In fact, if it were not for the sale of certain properties elsewhere on the district, we would be pretty close to that point already. Of course, the campground has also been a vitally important point in the spiritual journey of many people on this district. For many, it is where the journey started. As a result, it is difficult to think of selling the campground because of the great impact it has had on them and the potential for impact it could continue to have on others.

As this discussion continued, we were reminded that the campground is not an isolated issue. It is, in fact, only an issue at all because of the way it is bound up with the mission of district as a whole. In other words, we could decide as a district that the campground is so important that we would simply budget for all of its expenses. Of course, anyone who has worked with a budget before knows that budgeting more money for one thing automatically means budgeting less for something else. So the question of the campground is not so much a question of whether the campground is good or bad, obviously it is good. It is a question of stewardship and how we can best spend the money we have in accomplishing the mission of the district; "developing growing, multiplying, holiness churches and pastors". Does owning the campgrounds as oppossed to renting it or some other form of running a campground ministry help us accomplish our mission as a district?

I think it is questions like this one where theology really happens. Often theology is thought of as something found in dense textbooks, technical terms, and abstract ideas that have nothing to do with real life. Or perhaps we think of theology as dogma and doctrine; a list of unquestionable propositions. In fact, we probably do not think of theology as something that "happens" at all; it is more idea than event. However, I think any time the Church sits down and begins to discuss a proper course of action based on who God is and who we are as the Church, then theology is happening, even if it is about things as worldly as money and property. Of course, such discussion, in order to be truly theological, will have to go much deeper than the money and the property. Such a discussion will have to be rooted in who we believe God to be and what we believe he has called us to be, which are not easy questions themselves. It is for that reason that the textbooks and abstract ideas, the dogma and doctrine are important. They allow us to consider how the Church has sought to answer these questions of who God is and who we are throughout the ages of our existence. By studying what those before us have said, by discussing the same questions ourselves, and then facing the concrete problems that lay before us as a church or a district or a denomination, we are joining a conversation that has been going on for centuries.

As a leader, it is always tempting to assume that your ideas are the right ones and that they should be implemented with little or no discussion. I do not believe that most ministers and church leaders develop this kind of attitude because they are arrogant or close-minded (though there is no question that those things come into play occassionally). Instead, I believe it is often born out of passion for the Church and wanting to see it move forward so that we can reach out to our world in meaningful ways. However, if the leaders of the Church take this approach, if we ram our agendas and plans through to fruition, avoiding the conversations that need to take place along the way, then I believe we have failed to be the Church in some way. We will have failed because I believe that process of dialogue, those theological conversations, are often as important (sometimes more important) as the end result of a certain agenda. Of course, engaging in dialogue might mean that our plans will be rejected but I believe that it is a risk we must take if our plans are to be worth anything. We must trust that those with whom we dialogue also have the Church's best interest at heart. We must also trust that God's Holy Spirit is at work in these conversations, leading the Church just as the Spirit did at Nicea, Chalcedon, and throughout history.

We are truly fortunate on this district to have a District Superintendent who believes in the importance of dialogue and conversation. Dr. Spruce has studied the financial reality of the campground carefully and he has proposed some possible courses of action. However, he refuses to simply impose a certain course of action. Instead, he continually listens to the voices around him through things like the Listening Tour. There will also be specifically a Nazarene Acres Tour, in which pastors and lay people can join in the conversation concerning the campground. (The tour stop closest to us will be at Decatur First on May 17th at 1 p.m. for anyone who is interested.) Let it be our prayer that this will be a truly theological dialogue as we wrestle with the role of the campground within the larger mission of the district.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sanctify Christ as Lord in Your Hearts

In 1 Peter 3:13-22, Peter continues to address the suffering that his congregations are facing. In fact, this passage of Scripture is remarkably similar to last week's reading from 1 Peter (2:19-25). In that passage, Peter tells his congregations that Christ is their example to live by. Therefore, because Christ quietly endured unjust suffering, they should as well. In the passage for this week, Peter seeks once again to show that suffering does not equal God-forsakenness. In fact, contrary to what common sense might lead us to believe, these congregations are blessed if they suffer for the sake of righteousness. Therefore, instead of fearing whatever harm might come to them, they are to sanctify Christ as Lord in their hearts.

This idea of sanctifying Christ as Lord in one's heart is somewhat of an odd expression. This is the case because to sanctify means to make holy or to set apart for a specific, usually divine, purpose. Usually, it is God who performs this action, setting apart certain people or objects for his own holy purposes. However, in this verse, Peter calls upon his congregations to do the sanctifying of their Lord. In this way, the command that Peter gives is similar to the second line of the Lord's prayer; "hallowed be your name". The word translated "hallowed" in the Lord's prayer is actually the same root word in Greek that is used in this verse in 1 Peter. When we pray that line of the Lord's prayer, we are praying that God's name be sanctified. Interestingly, the Lord's prayer then ties the santifying of God's name to things like God's kingdom coming and God's will being done on earth, people having enough to eat, forgiveness being lived out, and temptation being avoided. In other words, God's name is hallowed, Christ is sanctified as Lord in our hearts, when all of these things take place, when human beings live as God intended. Peter is encouraging his congregations to bring glory to God by witnessing to the hope that they have in Jesus Christ even as they endure pain and suffering.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Complexity of Biblical Ethics

I am preaching from 1 Peter 2:19-25 this Sunday. The main idea of this passage of scripture is pretty straightforward. Peter began his letter to these congregations by reminding them of who they are and then in 2:11 he begins the ethical exhortation to his audience based on what he has said up to that point. This is a pretty typical move in the New Testament Epistles and is often referred to as the move from the indicative (you are this) to the imperative (so do this). So having reminded his audience that they are the chosen people of God, Peter goes on to address what that means in their present situation. Peter is addressing a group of congregations that seem to be experiencing some forms of injustice and mistreatment. In addressing this injustice, Peter holds up Christ as an example for his congregations to follow because Christ also endured injustice and suffering and did not retaliate. Therefore, Peter urges his audience to also endure the injustice they face and trust that God is the ultimate judge who will vindicate them in the end.

This idea of holding up Christ as a moral example to live by is one of the most basic ideas in Christianity. One of the very first things you learn if you grow up in Sunday School as a child is that we should be like Jesus. The whole idea was made even more popular for a while by the WWJD bracelet craze. So in some ways this passage is Biblical Ethics 101. However, it also points to the complexity and contextual nature of an ethic that is based on Scripture. This is the case because 1 Peter 2:18 says "Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable."

Now most Christians today, at least the ones that I know, are not in much danger of owning any slaves. In fact, every Christian I have ever met (as far as I know) finds slavery to be a dispicable, un-Christ like practice. Furthermore, if we were to encounter any form of slavery today and recognized it as such we would quickly condemn it and call for its annihilation as an inhumane, unjust, and therefore, un-Christlike practice. Most importantly for the discussion of biblical ethics, the Christians who have called for the end of slavery in the past and the ones who continue to oppose more subtle forms of enslavement today do not do so because they believe the Bible is an old, outdated book, itself enslaved by cultural norms. In fact, Christians call for the end of all slavery because we believe that the Bible demands that we do so. Yet Peter does not advise the slaves that he knows to rebel and bring an end to their slavery and he does not call upon the rest of the congregation to help the slave escape slavery. He does just the opposite. He tells them they must endure their unjust suffering and trust that God is in control. How can Christian call for action that is the opposite of what the Bible commands and still call their stance biblical?

In my opinion, this reality points to the fact that a good biblical ethic must be more than a list of the things that the Bible says to do or not to do. In reality, I think all Christians know this at some level. After all, I don't know too many Christians who refuse to wear clothing made of two different materials or who continue animal sacrifice as commanded in the Old Testament. But it is not just a matter of the Old Covenant and New Convenant either, although the revelation of Christ certainly does change the way we see the Old Testament Law. There are ethical exhortations in the New Testament that most of us do not follow as well; such as the command that women not speak and that they have their head covered and, of course, the issue of slavery already mentioned. Despite the fact that most Christians know this when it comes to issues like the ones just mentioned, often we seem to forget the very same principle when it comes to addressing the controversial and important ethical issues in our own day. Too often we take one verse here or there and use it to support the conclusion to which we have already come apart from our reading of scripture and then we point to that verse as irrevocable evidence that the Bible supports our position and we therefore must be right.

This passage in 1 Peter reminds us that a true biblical ethic must always be more complete and more nuanced than that. Instead of a better list of what to do and what not to do, we need a better vision of who Jesus is and therefore, who we are as the Church. This is, in fact, what Peter does in this passage. His ethical exhortation is not a simple recitation of scripture. It is an exhortation that arises out of who Peter knew Jesus to be and what he believed that meant for his congregations in their present situation. We must realize that being a disciple of Jesus might require very different actions in very different situations. We must encounter the difficult ethical issues of our own day (the unjust distribution of wealth around the world, homosexual civil unions, abortion, and clmate change to name a few) less with a list of absolutes that are more defined by political parties than by scripture and more like Paul and Peter did; creatively applying what they knew to be true in Jesus Christ to a situation which Christ or the Old Testament said little or nothing about. We too must be must honest and vulnerable about the fact that we may not have an unassailable word from God on contemporary ethical issues while also unashamedly witnessing to the kingdom through the ethical stances we do take.

Of course, this apprach to ethics is much more difficult and more complex than simply having a list of absolutes in hand. Such an approach to ethics will require that we actually know the Bible and not just a few verses that support our cause. It will require that we actually know Jesus and have some understanding of what his kingdom proclamation was about. It even points to the importance of things like worship and spiritual disciplines because an ethic like this one requires that we not only know what is ethical and what is not, it requires that we be shaped into ethical people who respond out of the character that has been formed in us rather than from an ethical checklist that is external to us.

The word translated as "example" (upogrammon) in 1 Peter 2:21 is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. However, in secular Greek literature of the time period this word was used to refer to a writing template or pattern that served as an instrument in teaching children to write. Of course, it would have been foolish for any child to think that he or she did not have to learn to write if they just carried this pattern around with them. The whole point of the tool was to help the child learn to form the letters himself. Perhaps our approach to biblical ethics should be the same: it would be foolish for us to carry the Bible around with us thinking that it has already solved our ethical problems; the whole point of the Bible is for the Holy Spirit to work through it in such a way that we are shaped into a people who can be Christ-like ourselves. God does not want to give us the letters already written. He wants to teach us to form the letters ourselves.

All Things New?

I feel my first post in this blog should be an explanation of the title of my blog. This title comes from Revelation 21:5 where the one who sits on the throne says "Behold, I am making all things new." It is a promise that the world will not always be as it is; that one day God will transform this world into His kingdom, His new creation. Of course, that is not to say that there is not anything good in this world as it is. Clearly, there are many good things but it is also pretty obvious that death, selfishness, pride, hatred, and violence still corrupt and distort the world in which we live in some serious ways. Any news cast, political debate, or study of history quickly reminds us of this fact.
In the book of Revelation, John paints a picture of a God who is remaking reality, a God who is working to redeem and transform our world through God's own presence among us. In many ways, I believe this idea to be the whole thrust, the broad movement of all of Scripture. The story of the Bible is ultimately the story of a God who refuses to give up on creation but is continually working to heal and restore it, even to the point of taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe this mission of transformation and redemption is also the mission which Jesus has imparted to the Church to continue through the power of the Holy Spirit. God is not simply working to redeem this world in spite of us. I believe God is working to redeem this world through us; transforming the world by transforming each one of us and then using us to tranform others. So this idea of all things being made new captures much of what I believe about God, the Church, the world, and my role in it. I long to see God's kingdom, God's new creation take hold in our world.