Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How should we then live?

Reading back over the last several months of blogs I realize it would be wise for me to restate the purpose for this discussion forum. The Gospel or good news that Jesus taught has captured my heart like nothing ever has. It is such a phenomenal way to live that I want to sell everything I have if only I can have all that Jesus promised. And not only do I want to possess this priceless pearl I want my friends and neighbors to own this as well.

You will have to forgive me, if in my excitement I speak of the Gospel in a way that sounds impossible to live. That's OK. If the kingdom were something we could live toward in our own strength it would be no different that any other world system. The very nature of this other-worldly value system is that it looks to us like Mount Everest. It looks like an ocean we could never swim across. Here is a truth that every Christian should think long and hard about. If our encounters with Jesus don't leave us with more questions than answers we are having an inferior experience. Encountering the kingdom of heaven at each turn will call deeper levels of faith out of those who are serious about following Jesus.

We are learning something that is totally contrary to the habits of our flesh and the thought processes of our mind. I think it would be wise to resign ourselves to a lifestyle of unresolved conflicts and unanswered questions.

So what is the good of encountering Jesus you ask? I didn't say we don't resolve conflicts and we don't get answers. On the contrary, the follower of Christ will have more stories of God's miraculous intervention and more answers to life's questions. It's just that these events will lead us deeper into God where the conflicts are bigger and the questions go deeper.

Jesus invites us into a relationship with him where we join his heart to love, serve, forgive, sacrifice, and even suffer on behalf of those who are lost, lonely and trapped. Attacking and undoing the things Satan has done to people in this world is the most exciting and fulfilling activity I can think of.

Let's love deeply, serve passionately and give generously; forgiving always, sacrificing joyfully and pursuing always.

In short, let's build a community of followers of Jesus who live in such a way that others would happen upon us and think it foolish not to join us.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What is the Good News?

Have you ever played whisper down the lane? Isn't it fascinating that someone can whisper a coherent sentence to a friend and then watch as that sentence changes slightly as it passes from person to person. Get enough people involved and by the time the sentence has been whispered all the way down the lane it sounds nothing like the original message.

I am concerned that we have experienced something like this down through the ages of church history. The Gospel or good news that we preach today is an interesting variant of the Gospel we have recorded in the Bible. Am I suggesting that I know some secret that is unavailable to the rest of the church? Of course not. I simply believe that there is an honest way to read the Bible and there is a dishonest way to read the Bible.

First, we must recognize that the writers of Scripture had an agenda as they wrote. Each writer chose the words, and chose the stories he or she (after all we are not really sure who wrote Hebrews) wished to include for the purpose of making their point. So in reality we have five major Gospel stories. We have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul. Paul, you say? Yes, Paul. After all, it is the message of Paul as he preached the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles that has largely become our Gospel today.

It is Paul who teaches that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
It is Paul who teaches that the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.
It is Paul who teaches that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead you will be saved.

Matthew wrote a story that was largely concerned with how Jews heard the Gospel.
Mark wrote a very condensed story that hit the high points and didn't include as much material as the others.
Luke put together a story as accurately as he could so that his friend Theo would have an accurate account of Jesus.
John had an agenda vastly different than the others as he spoke of the "Word of God" and how this was revealed as Jesus.
Paul was specifically packaging his message to reach Gentiles. Remember, the people who heard Paul's Gospel did not have the advantage of having a New Testament. Paul was all they knew about Jesus.

In short, trying to synthesize these Gospel stories is to ignore the intent of the Scripture writers. I believe it is dishonest to look at these five "witnesses" as though we are looking at a crime scene and are trying to recreate the "whole" story. It is much more honest to ask ourselves why each of these writers told the story the way they did.

Second, let's not refer to the Gospel of Jesus unless we are referencing the stuff Jesus taught. Too many ideas get ascribed to Jesus that simply weren't his. For instance, most of us think that sin and salvation is a largely personal or individual event; that the kingdom message is one of repentance from things like stealing, sexual promiscuity, and rude behaviors. If you read the Gospel according to Luke you will find that repentance and righteousness are ideas and activities contained in the messge and ministry of John the Baptist. These are preparatory for the coming of Jesus. John's ministry was to prepare people for Jesus. Somehow, John's ministry has become the message of the kingdom, instead of the stuff Jesus taught.

Jesus' message was one that addressed societal sin, value systems, powers and authorities. Jesus confronted what the world values and offered another way. Yes, personal salvation is part of the good news. But it is portrayed (at least in Luke) as the doorway into the kingdom. It is not the kingdom message.

What is the good news? It's right there in our Bibles. Let's stop playing whisper down the lane and dig for ourselves until WE hear the good news that Jesus brought from heaven.

Just some stuff that we should talk about!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

the argument culture

Something has been growing in me for the last year, like a mold that I cannot get rid of. It appears to me that I have been invited into a discussion time and time again that is designed to frustrate me. Like every human who has lived before me I inherit the ideas, philosophies and doctrines of those who have gone before me. As I consider this discussion I am beginning to realize that the deck is stacked against me.

Over the years I have been passionate about many things - and my passion has led me to read, research, discuss, listen and then express my feelings on a matter. It has not been until recently that I have realized I have joined a game that has no winner. I have joined a culture that is satisfied with choosing sides. It's as if what you believe is more important than the world those beliefs create.

Let me give you a few examples.

Who is right, the conservatives or the liberals? Most of us are not so closed minded as to be totally in the conservative camp or totally in the liberal camp (although some are and I apologize for the "close minded" comment). We recognize a predisposition in our souls to agree with the majority of ideas coming out of a particular worldview. We agree with principles and ideas originating in a place inhabited by thinkers who wish to either preserve traditional, tried and true strategies, or who wish to challenge the status quo and try out new, "cutting edge" strategies. And discussion (better known as arguments) are a series of polarizing ideas in which we draw the battle lines on either side of an issue and then point out the weaknesses on the otherside.

Who is right, the capitalists or the socialists? We all know that freedom and competition are the ingredients that go into invention and excellence. After all that is what makes this country so prosperous. Or is it? Why do more and more people seem to be falling behind and why are specific people groups not thriving in this environment? Maybe the wealth should be shared; with those having so much sharing with those who have so little.

If I throw this meaty bone out into a group of interested parties you can imagine the healthy exchange of ideas that would ensue. We would quickly be forced into one of the two camps by the questions and accusations of the other and before long there would be an argument between two polarized groups.

Who is right the Christians or the non-Christians? We as Christians realize that ours is the revelation of Scripture, ours is the truth of God, ours is the moral authority. So much of what we say and how we package the "Gospel" is a drawing up of battle lines. WE know the correct position on issues like marriage, raising children, sexuality, basic morality, etc. It's our job to get this information out to the world that is so mistaken and so ignorant of what God intended.

Before long we have a polarized discussion between the holy and the un-holy. Is it any wonder that we are known more for our moral and doctrinal positions than for the nature of our character?

We have unknowingly chosen to participate in this argument culture, seeing the world as a serious of choices to agree with one side or the other. I want to suggest to you that Jesus gives us another option.

All human arguments are predicated on the assumption that power is exerted from above. In other words, winning an argument is virtuous and establishes a superior power in our belief while losing an argument is a failure and requires that we discard our inferior belief.

But what if power can be exerted from below, from a place of weakness, without fear of "losing"? Jesus regularly took polarized arguments and inserted a different perspective. It was if he surveyed the battle field and was constantly able to lift the conversation out of us vs. them into a higher realm. Insiders or outsiders, haves and have nots, religious or pagan, Jew or Samaritan, free or slave; Jesus' teaching always trancended these polarized groups and suggested a different way. A way of serving, forgiving, loving and submitting.

What would it look like if we elevated the one we disagree with above our need to be right? What would a community look like that valued connection based on serving from below instead of being right from above.

Here in the Flathead we are coming to the end of a prayer vigil by well-meaning Christians who are praying to end abortion. We see these prayer warriors night and day picketting the abortion clinic, peacefully and with great faithfulness. I personally admire these brothers and sisters in faith. But I wonder, what would happen with those who seek an abortion if there was an unexhaustible supply of Jesus followers who regularly opened their homes to pregnant teenagers and single mothers. If our energies were directed at the people who feel the need to seek an abortion from below - from a place of serving love instead of from above - moral superiority?

Just some stuff we should talk about.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Mud Room

I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - a world away from rural America and the culture I now live in - Montana. There are many differences between eastern, city culture and western, rural culture. One of the main differences is pavement.

Our love affair with pavement on the east coast had left me totally ignorant of the concept of the mud room. After sixteen years (more accurately - sixteen spring seasons) I have learned plenty about this rural American phenomena.

And as I think about all of the nice houses I have been in I have come to a conclusion. The mud room is the least hospitable room in the house. There are shoes, boots, carharts, jackets, and yes mud all over the place. I pull my shoes off and get on out of that room as quickly as I can. Invariably, other people are also standing around trying to get their muddy shoes off and we are all bumping into each other and getting mud on each other - basically annoying the hell out of each other.

If you hang out for very long in the mud room you will notice that different people have different strategies for getting their muddy shoes or boots off. Some try to find a clean place to sit down, cleaning up a two foot square oasis of floor in which to deal with their muddy shoes without getting the rest of their clothes muddy. Some scrape as much mud off their shoes as they can onto the welcome mat and then continue into the house until the host politely asks them to remove their shoes.

My favorite method is the pogo stick. This is where we hop on one foot while trying to remove the shoe on the other foot and then repeat the process while trying to keep our sock out of the mud. I have seen some guests insist that they don't have any mud on their shoes at all. True or not, it's simple courtesy to take your shoes off in the mud room.

It's my contention that most Christian thought has spent all of its time in the mud room. We love to teach and talk about our battle with sin. We write books and hold seminars for the express purpose of dealing with all that is wrong in the world. Our fears revolve around moral failure, sexual deviancy and the polluting of our kids' minds.

If the kingdom of heaven was represented by a delightfully inviting mansion, filled with rooms for our care, our provision, and our intimacy with Jesus, it seems to me that the mud room, while necessary, would be the place I spent the least amount of time in. Why is the average Christian experience the exact opposite?

It's as if we think sin has more power than the cross. Maybe sin sticks better then forgiveness. If in Christ old things have passed away and all things have become new, if in Christ there is no condemnation at all, if God is not counting our sins against us, why do we spend so much time in the mud room?

Salvation, being born again, meeting Christ at the cross and trading him our sin for his righteousness is simply the entry point into the mansion. No one would want to live here, but we absolutely must pass through this room to enter the house. What would it be like if our books, our sermons, our conversations explored the rest of the house? What does the rest of the kingdom contain?

Remember, outside the kingdom when the unclean touches the clean, the clean is despoiled. But in Jesus, when he touches the dead man or the blind man or the man with leprosy they become clean. Why isn't this the experience of the average Christian? Maybe the answer is found in a different part of the house - outside of the mud room.

Just some stuff we should talk about.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Is God in Control?

Christians are funny creatures. In our haste to be "good" Christians we race each other to heap as many superlatives on God as we can. That is to say, we rush to create God in an image that is perfect in our eyes. A famous Christian philospher once noted that given the choice between two attributes of God, whichever is better, that must be God.

Does God know everything? Is he omniscient? Well, knowing everything is better than not knowing everything. Therefore, he must know everything.

Is God all powerful? Is he omnipotent? Well, having all power is better then having most of the power. Therefore, he must be all powerful.

And so on and so forth. God being the best of everything we can think of. There's just one problem with this God. This is not a God of revelation. This is a God of definition.

Do we really think God is a person, an individual being? Does God have a personality? Does he have different moods? Does he make decisions from his heart or is he locked into some kind of cosmic perfection which dictates what is most Godly?

The God of the Bible is revealed as a being interacting with people he loves. Sometimes he feels joy as we are intimate with him and sometimes he feels angry because we lie to him and betray his heart. Why is it so important to us for God to be in control? He doesn't seem to feel like he is.

Control is an interesting thing. When we say that God is sovereign, what do we mean? We live in a mechanistic culture where we have learned to push a button and expect a result. We can cook our meals in 2 minutes in a microwave and we can obtain any kind of food just by heading down to the supermarket. No building a fire, harvesting our food or waiting for the seasons to change. Machines have produced a whole new level of control. Is this how we view God's sovereignty?

How would we think if we lived in a time before machines? What kind of "control" would we expect of a king in the 12th century? Yes, he has ultimate authority over his kingdom. Yes, he has an army with which he protects his people. Yes, a good king would desire to care for and to protect his people. But what would it mean in this culture to say, "The king is in control"?
Can the king produce food out of season? How much time would it take the king to respond to an invasion of his lands by an outside army? Would there be any pain and suffering during the time it took the king to assemble his army and ride to the defense of his people? Even if he quickly defeated the enemy and drove out the invading army would this mean that every citizen had been completey protected?

Control looks different without a mechanistic world view - doesn't it? Maybe, our lives are more like individual adventures in a hostile land. God's love for us and his "control" over our lives is more relational than mechanistic. We will engage the enemy. We will experience loss. Life often brings heart ache and pain. But our loving Father will always ride to our defense. He's just not pushing buttons, moment by moment controlling the comfort or safety of our life experience.

This idea of God requires a great deal more faith. Is God still in control after a loved one has died? Is God still in control as we fight against sickness and disease? Is God in control if He does not arrive on the scene as fast as we think he should?

Just some stuff we should talk about.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

you're not doing enough

Try harder. Do more. Be more.

Who hasn't felt some form of guilt as they consider their "level of maturity" as a follower of Christ. Who hasn't asked themselves why they don't like praying or why it's such a struggle to attend church regularly? Who hasn't been the recipient of a passionate plea from well meaning church leaders to live more like Jesus?

I feel like there is an elephant in the living room every time Christians gather for almost any reason. Performance anxiety. I find it interesting and not a little bit humorous that this euphemism is used most often in the realm of sexual relationships. The basic idea is that one or both partners wonder if their sexual prowess is impressive to their partner. What is ironic about this anxiety is that sex is commonly referred to as "love-making". Last time I checked love always hoped, did not judge and kept no record of wrongs. Why then if two people are engaged in the activity of "making love" would there be any performance anxiety?

Inherant in every wounded human heart is the question, Do I measure up? We ask it a thousand different ways. Am I smart? Do people like me? Am I a good person? Am I attractive? Am I successful? Am I significant? etc. etc. etc.

The condition of Adam and Eve before they divided their hearts between God and something else was total contentment. They were naked and were not ashamed. Everything about the other was out in the open and their was no performance anxiety. Jesus, the second Adam, walked around Palestine, jobless, homeless, living off the provision of others (many of them women) and declaring his beliefs in such a way as to constantly attract the criticism of those around him. Somehow though he was at peace with this lifestyle.

Godliness with contentment is priceless. The Gospel we preach at the Dwelling Place begins and ends in an ocean of grace. Until a person rests in the unending love and acceptance of the Father we will always wonder if we are doing enough.

Just some stuff we should talk about.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

what is so original about sin?

I had a few interesting conversations this week with friends and the subject of original sin came up. So I thought it might be a good topic to discuss in light of how most Christians read the Bible.

Romans 5:12ff is the classic text for original sin. "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned." And then in verse 18ff, "Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous."

Some observations of this text

1. ". . .death came to all men, BECAUSE ALL SINNED." Paul is pretty clear in associating the consequence of death with the participation in sin. We are held accountable for our choices not Adam's choices.

2. The words "Consequently, just as. . ." point us to the relationship of the two following statements. These two opposite statements are related. They are parallel. They are a comparison.
disobedience - made sinners
obedience - made righteous

You have two choices at this point. Either participation is necessary in both cases or participation is not necessary. Choice #1 if you participate in disobedience you are made a sinner like Adam. If you participate in obedience you are made righteous like Jesus.
Choice #2 Without participation in disobedience we are made sinners by Adam's "original sin". And without participation in obedience we are made righteous by Jesus' perfect life.

I lean toward choice #1. I think Scripture clearly portrays individual responsibility to pursue relationship with God. Our choices, our participation is crucial to our relationship with God. Ezekiel 18 is pretty clear (vs. 17) we do not die for the sins of our father. Check it out.

On a side note, choice #2 is intriguing, because it suggests universalism; the belief that all of humankind is saved from their sins regardless of whether they embrace Christ or not. You can wrestled with this one on your own time.

So why do most Christians accept the idea of original sin? Because we embrace our father's faith without questioning it. There is much hidden in the shadows of human history that most of us don't take the time to investigate. This particular Christian idea has its own history of which I only know part.

Jewish culture, leading up to the time of Christ was centered around community in a way that we simply don't understand. People new that they were connected to each other in a vital way that they could not ignore. The current state in an individual's life was credited to the choices of the generations that had gone before. The virtue of an individuals life was seen in the context of his or her family. The righteous often times suffered along with their unrighteous brothers and sisters, and the unrighteous were blessed along with their righteous brothers and sisters. God related to Israel as a community as much as he related to individuals.

Jewish thought saw the human heart as having a "bent" toward evil without being condemned for this "bent". In other words humans seemed to all choose evil at some point - it was inevitable. But condemned at birth - no.

Toward the end of the Jewish prophetic writings the prophets start to say some radical new things. God will write his laws on people's hearts. He will not judge individuals for the sins of family or community. Each person is free to choose whom he or she will serve.

Enter Jesus. And here I can't help but see the deal breaker for original sin. Was Jesus human? Then why does he not have "original sin". Jesus made possible the promises of the prophets by tearing down the wall separating the individual from the Holy of Holies. Personal intimacy with God was now available to all. And Pentecost saw God pouring out his Holy Spirit on everyone.

At first (for over 200 years) faith in Jesus, which came to be known as the Way was governed by the Holy Spirit as individual communities sought to live out their faith as the Holy Spirit taught them. They had the benefit of writings like the gospels and the letters that were left behind by the apostles, but there was no centralized authority governing and separating correct doctrine from heresy.

It was if God was confident in His ability to guide his church through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Unfortunately, this was not good enough for men. With Emperor Constantine came the joining of the kingdom of heaven with the ideas and authority of human empire. Within a hundred years Tertullian would lay out for us the doctrine of original sin and the centralized church would have the human authority to make this doctrine universal.

Questioning this doctrine excluded many from the opportunity to serve the church as recognized ministers. Questioning this doctrine caused many to be sent into exile or even put to death for their heresy. Centralized authority which ruled over personal belief crushed relationship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

We owe it to ourselves and to a world looking for the truth to question the faith of our fathers and live our lives of faith from our own relationship with Jesus through the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Study the Scriptures, study some church history. Why do you believe what you believe?

Just some stuff we shoud talk about.