I think that part of my life may be over, and it leaves a hole. One that whistles in the middle of the night, as if there was a wind way down inside. A wind trying to fill up what’s no longer there.
Monthly Archives: May 2011
Churches, like college freshman, often struggle with declaring their major. The consequence of their indecision causes a major dilemma…With no clear sense of purpose, they never set a clear strategy. What they do to fulfill what they think God wants constantly changes. They languish in seeming shadow-lands where forward momentum always seems one step out of reach.
Transformational Churches have leaders who understand their vision and purpose. A clear desire for changed lives is part of the new scorecard. They are not always looking for another “thing” to try for faster results. TC [Transformational Church] leaders instead watch and learn from the best practices of others to inform an already clear understanding of their context.
A telephone call came into the rectory. It was the father of a twenty-year-old man named Doug. Doug had contracted this strange disease [AIDS]and was asking for a visit by a priest. Monsignor Henry, the pastor in his seventies, asked all three full-time priests to go; each refused, using the severity and unknown cause of the disease as an excuse. Monsignor Henry then approached me. I was hesitant and was going to use my studies as an excuse. However, when he agreed to accompany me, I decided to go.
Once we arrived at the hospital, we were told to put on protective “moon suits” before going in to Doug’s room. He looked much older and sicker than I had expected. We talked softly for about fifteen minutes; then Doug began to cry.
“What’s wrong, Doug?” I asked.
He looked at me and with incredible sadness replied, “It dawns on me that no one has even touched me in over three months.”
I let those words sink in and wondered how I would have handled life without a handshake or hug for three months. As I thought about that, I suddenly became aware of Monsignor Henry slowly removing the helmet and garb of the protective “moon suit.” And then I witnessed the parable of the judgement of the nations played out as elderly Monsignor Henry bent over and hugged dying Doug.
A holy silence descended upon the room. I wondered how Monsignor Henry could be willing to rick his own life by responding to Doug that way.
We drove home in virtual silence. As we approached the church in the Bronx, I turned to Monsignor Henry, but before I could say a word he simply said with tears in his eyes, “Years ago, I told Jesus that I would give him everything – and I mean everything. Today, I was able to give to Jesus what he has given to me.” Monsignor Henry subconsciously knew that selfless openness could lead to an encounter with the God who empties himself in the ordinary yet sacred moment before him.
I finished reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins last night. I enjoy reading Bell. He writes in what can best be called a “blog” style which for some reason I seem to connect with easily. I am not going to write a chapter by chapter review (Darrell Bock does a great job of that here) but I do want to share my positive and negative responses to Bell’s book.
The strongest positive impression I am left with from Love Wins is that heaven should not just be some ethereal idea but a concrete reality that those who know Christ are laying the foundation in our world today. Bell challenges the “heaven as an everlasting church service” image that many churched and un-churched people carry with them today. He does a good job of raising the need for Christians to be about alleviating the “hell” on earth by living out heaven (or kingdom) principles today. I am, as is Bell, also repulsed by the pride of those who claim to have a relationship with Christ and then clearly choose to not participate in helping to impact the world but instead continue to exploit and take advantage of others for their own comfort or gain.
I also appreciate how Bell pushes back on the “pray the prayer” approach to heaven. A prayer is a great way to demonstrate that you are placing your trust in Christ. But if your trust in Christ never results in tangible change in the way you live, the prayer and belief is pointless. The book of James makes the same point. Jesus often did challenge the heart issues of those He encountered to help highlight what trusting in Him would cost. The rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-30 being one such case.
Bell seems to fluctuate between wanting judgment with consequences and then wanting judgment without consequences. He speaks clearly, and rightfully so, against the sin of this world and how that distorts many people’s understanding of God and the Gospel. But he also communicates that those who do not respond to God before death will be able to still be in process after death. I understand the concept but just don’t find Bell’s arguments successful. I see that he reads as much of his own view into the text of the Bible as he claims others have done.
I also struggled with the concept of God’s will that Bell talks about in Chapter 4 entitled, “Does God get what God wants?” I don’t see the concept of God’s love as a hindrance to consequences of the choices we make in our lives. Not to over simplify the concept, but I am a parent and my love for my children allows room for their disobedience and the resulting consequences of their actions. I don’t see God’s power or rule being comprised by man’s rebellion. I do believe that love will win in the end but that does not mean that all will experience it because they have chosen to not respond.
Because Bell is not writing a systemic approach to the issues of heaven and hell, there are many issues that are left either unsupported or unanswered. I appreciate the style for creating dialog and inviting others to investigate the issues. I would love for Bell to have written a more disciplined book that frames his understanding of the issues and how it would impact the way we should live. I feel like Love Wins is a good read even though it leaves one with more questions than answers.
I have been in several discussions recently centered on the question, “Is the way we do church today working?” Through these discussions, there is often a reference to the description of the early faith community in Acts 2:43-47. There is a passion for us to return to the simplicity of that experience and the home church model that many of those early believers gathered in. A Home Church Model is lifted up as the best model for us to experience growth in our love affair with Christ. That led me to ask, was their community model that culturally different? Was that difference because of Christ? And then finally, did the community work at producing Christ followers?
The focused reference when supporting a Home Church model is to point to Acts 2:37-42 and follows Peter’s sermon. Even before that moment, those that had followed Christ had been gathering before the sermon as referenced in Acts 1:15. These gatherings did not frame the totality of their spiritual development because we also see that they continued to worship at the Temple for prayer (Acts 3:1). In Acts 4:32-34, we have reference to how the community of believers shared with one another which provided the catalyst for Ananias and Sapphira’s sin and resulting judgment.
There were issues even though God’s power was being displayed. There was an issue of impartiality in the serving of those in need that led to divisiveness and an over dependence on the church leaders for assistance (Acts 6:1-7). The church leaders, to alleviate the situation, empowered others who were of great character and ability to help serve so ministry could handle the capacity of growth. Stephen was one of those selected and was carrying out his role so well he created an issue for those who did not know Christ which caused him to be put to death (Acts 6:8-60).
In Acts, we see that those who trusted Christ gathered often in homes. However it does not seem that is was an intentional decision as much as a practical one. Once a person trusted in Christ they were often ostracized from their previous relationships and cultural networks. This necessitated them quickly finding a new community or else they would turn their back on Christ and return to their previous community out of necessity of survival.
One of the things that did make their gatherings different was that they often bled past racial and ethically accepted grouping. This happened as those outside the Jewish community began trusting in Christ (Acts 10:1-48). Paul’s letters support the idea that this was a difficult issue for many early Christian communities (one passage is Ephesians 2:11-22). This unity in diversity is one of the hallmarks of the Christian community in its early life.
But did these early communities of faith, which often met in homes, work at producing followers of Christ? The answer is “yes” and “no”. The answer is “yes” because we have a history of men and women who practice their faith being passed down from generation to generation. We have an understanding of what it means to know Christ from their practice and commitment to Christ.
The answer is “no” because of the rest of the New Testaments gives us evidence that these communities struggled just as much as any community in living out their faith. Paul is constantly challenging them to manifest their new life in Christ and overcome sin patterns that they had ignored. Often these sin patterns where being fostered in their gatherings (1 Corinthians 11:23-34 is one example). James also has another example of how in their gathering they were showing preferential treatment toward the rich at the belittlement of the poor (James 2:1-13).
In the New Testament, I see the emphasis not on a model of meeting together but an ethos of what it means to follow Christ together that can have a diversity of cultural expressions. To say that the Home Church model works better and accurately fits the way the early followers made disciples is not helpful. They did meet together in homes. They did look different because of Christ. But their practice was far from successful because of their model. I think that the incarnation gives us great freedom in form but raises high demand in character and practice.
There is no doubt that how we do church today has many challenges. We as church leaders are in need to raise the expiation and constantly refine the programs and experiences we create to move people toward maturity in Christ. The model is not the issue. Each social frame work has advantages and disadvantages toward manifesting the Gospel. The responsibility for church leaders is to understand that environment and push on the inherent sin patterns to help people see what following Christ looks like in our day and age.
In judged Jerusalem [during the time of Jeremiah] it was impossible to confuse material prosperity with God’s blessing. It was impossible to confuse social status with God’s favor. It was impossible to confuse national pride with God’s glory. It was impossible to confuse rituals of religion with God’s presence. The clutter of possessions was gone; the trappings of status were gone. And God was present. All the cultural and political and religious and social assumptions and presuppositions that interfere with the clear hearing of God’s word in Jeremiah’s preaching were taken away. Conditions had never been better for developing a mature community of faith.
Religions that we make up for ourselves always reduce reality to what we feel comfortable with, or what makes us comfortable. We love being insiders. We feel secure when we are with cronies who talk our language and sing our songs and don’t rock the boat. It hardly matters that such a life is banal. It is safe…The danger is not to our humanity, but to our sense of running life on our own terms, managing people and things with ourselves at the center. The larger the world, the less of it we can subject to our won control. But that is a miserable ambition and a certain prescription for boredom. It is God’s world and God rules it. Our wholeness comes from participating in what God is doing, not manipulating what we can manage. So the Bible continually protests all forms of isolationism.
I have benefited from books written by pastors. Over time I have found myself becoming cynical of the volume and reliability of what is being published from pastors. Then a friend forwarded a newsletter that echoed what I feared maybe true of some of these books. It was from The Pastor’s Coach and titled 3 Dangers Large Churches Face. Here is the part that stuck out to me:
A staff pastor and trusted friend in a very large church called me to talk about his frustration. The Senior Pastor of this church wrote and published a book about the story of their church and the ministry system it was using. The book was apparently good, and the story captivating, but unfortunately the ministry system wasn’t working. They needed to kill it or change it in a big way. But the pastor insisted that the staff stick with it since the book was out. It was obvious that changing the system would hurt the church’s reputation if word got out that the system didn’t really work and they therefore dropped it.
I know this story is not true for every book, every church, or every pastor. But I also know the temptation to prop ministries up for appearances or accolades. It breaks my heart when I see it so clearly spelled out. We must be careful when we seek to maintain something out of image.
I think we often treat God like we do a vending machine. When you walk up to a vending machine, you expect to insert the appropriate amount of money, press the correct number or code, and out will pop whatever you were hungry for. The whole process takes about forty-five seconds.
We expect the same thing with God. Maybe not consciously. Maybe we’d never say it. But we still assume that if we do all the right things, say all the right things, and have the right attitude, we can simply press a magic spiritual button and get whatever it is we desire in the moment. We are looking for a quick spiritual transaction that doesn’t necessarily lead to a deeper lever of intimacy but gives us what we want. And like children, we want it now!
The people of God must have a visible, tangible, experiential shape. This is not, however, simply a sociological or organizational necessity. It is essential to the mission Dei. The witness to God’s loving and saving work in history is through the people God calls and sets apart for this mission. Every mission community is a historical witness to the work of God being carried out; it is concrete evidence of God’s purposeful action. This is what the Holy Spirit does: it forms mission communities so that the gospel may be incarnated in particular places, to be the witness to Jesus Christ.