Monday, October 21, 2013

The Church's Glorious Goal

Imagine football with no end-zones. Imagine baseball with no home-plate. Imagine basketball with no goals or golf with no holes. You’re left with people just moving around, individually or in groups, passing or hitting or dribbling a ball with no aim or purpose. They might have some fun. They might even put on a good enough show to draw a crowd. But what they don’t have is a clearly-defined goal. And, as a result, the fun and the show and the crowd become the goal.

Such absurd scenes painfully resemble the life of many churches. We move around, individually or in groups, carrying one program or another up and down the field, without any real idea of our God-given goal. Tragically, in this void, we have turned to putting on a show and drawing a crowd as our purpose. It’s easy just to blame the egos and worldliness of leaders and the consumerism of parishioners. And I believe these have much to do with it.

But I also think a major reason for the church’s aimless wandering is a lack of pastoral theology and ecclesiology. We don’t really get what pastors and churches are supposed to be about. What is this Body of which nothing less than the Son of God is the Head? The answers are astounding and daunting and the quest is mysterious and difficult, so much so that we shrink and turn away. Instead, for a couple of generations we have turned to the business and entertainment worlds to try to find some answers. Bad idea. Utterly irrelevant, actually. I propose we set out on that daunting quest again, that we begin seeking God more earnestly regarding our purpose. What does God say is our end-zone, our home-plate, our goal?

Living the Hidden Life
“Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up” (Heb. 8:1-2).

As the earthly tabernacle was thought of as a model of the cosmos, with the Holy Place modeling heaven, Jesus has now ascended to the true Holy Place, occupying the true temple and not an inferior earthly copy. He is in the place of power and authority…now.

Indeed, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…,” immersing those disciples in the reality of the Triune God, teaching them to obey all that Jesus has commanded—to be fully-devoted apprentices learning the way of the always-present Master (Mt. 28:18-20). It truly makes the mind boggle, but, "At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ's body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence" (Eph. 1:20-23, MSG). Now we're getting somewhere!

For it is not Christ alone who dwells in the Holy Place but, “Since, then, y’all have been raised with Christ, set your hearts [wills] on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For y’all died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3).

Our lives are also in that inner sanctuary--hidden with Christ in God--yet we live here and now. We aren’t phantoms or figments. We live real, corporeal lives. But we live them from the place of Christ’s authority, from the place of sacrifice and worship, from the Trinity’s reality…bringing all of that to bear not only on our lives, but on the church; and not only on the church, but in the larger world. This is the kingdom of heaven coming to earth.

But it starts in my heart and mind being set in that Holy Place—not day-dreaming about some other place, but actually setting the will and the thoughts and, thus, the life and actions of the body, in and from that reality. For it isn’t some other place. It is as close as the Holy Spirit is—the Breath of the new creation, the Agent of our living that life, the life that is “in Christ.” It truly is, not just our getting into heaven, but God’s getting heaven into us, that we are about.

Being the Temple
And the church, far more powerful than the individual’s experience, is all of this happening corporately. As we come together, sharing in the divine life, submitting to one another under Christ’s loving, very-present authority, we bring that life “in Christ” to bear ever more strongly in our willing and thinking and acting—not just individually but en masse. And as this happens, our worship in the shadow temple becomes our worship in the inner Holy Place, God’s heavenly temple. For, indeed, the church is the temple of God. Our lives hidden in Christ are revealed to each other, and then to the groaning world, to the glory of God alone!

What does this look like? In a word: Jesus. We start by putting down that latest "leadership" book, tearing down the tyranny of metrics, and immersing ourselves in the Gospels. Pastors should do this individually, of course. But it should also be done with boards/committees/teams. Take a year, meet monthly, and spend a good chunk of the meeting time praying and studying the Gospel of Mark together. Don’t get caught up in drama and letting ten minutes worth of business take an hour. Learn the way of the Master…together! That's what we are about and what the world needs to see in us.

The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth and wisdom. Jesus is the Light, the bright revelation of our Father-God in whom we are constantly born anew. This is the goal of our formation, the goal of the church, the goal of communities and humanity, and ultimately the goal of all creation: to be so immersed in the life and reality of the Trinity that all that’s left is face-to-face. Oh glorious Day! But until then, Oh glorious goal!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Church: Blockbuster or Indie?

Masterpiece (1962) by Roy Lichtenstein
Hollywood serves up one blockbuster after another—usually a sequel to a previous blockbuster. A common element of these blockbusters is that you leave it in the theater. What I mean is, such movies might be a fun ride, but when it’s over, you get off and move on. This, for me, is a characteristic of bad art.

I might do better to say this is a characteristic of much pop art, which is not by definition bad, but is typically mass-producible and disposable. But the best art—the film or painting or story or music that really takes hold of you—is not so easily consumed and tossed aside. You finish the viewing/reading/listening experience but are still thinking about it, maybe days or weeks (or years) later.

A chief reason for this is that the artist/s didn’t do all the work for you. The art requires something of you. And so, as you keep working out what it all might mean, it becomes part of you. Subjective as it is, that—for me—is a sign of good art.

Blockbuster Church?
For a while now we have treated the church like a blockbuster. We have dumbed things down, blown things up, conformed things to proven templates, and marketed for mass consumption, all in a desperate attempt to produce a blockbuster. Tragically, many have succeeded.

But we have been given the makings of good art! We have been entrusted with “the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:9ff). Whoa! Maybe read that again. THAT will stick with a person.

This “wisdom of God” and “plan of the mystery” are the cross-shaped reconciliation of all to God and to each other. The “eternal purpose” of the darkness of the Father’s depths has come to light in Christ, who now gives us access to the Father—gives all of us access. His is the name given to every family in heaven and on earth (v. 14). This is the DNA of the church: the Father’s love.

This is a dramatic invitation into the Trinity-life (vv. 14-21): As we bow our knees to our Father, we are strengthened in our depths with power (a word rooted in “dynamite, dynamism”) through his Spirit. And we are indwelt by Christ, who roots and grounds us in love.

We join all the saints—the Father’s family—in living in awe of his incomprehensible love, surpassing all knowledge, as we are filled with nothing less than “all the fullness of God” (v. 19). About this fullness, John Wesley noted in his Notes on the New Testament that we are filled “…with all [God’s] light, love, wisdom, holiness, power, and glory. A perfection far beyond bare freedom from sin.”

This is the life of the church…or it should be. This is the power—the explosive, dynamic presence of God—“at work within us, able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” His glory comes “from the church and from Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” What a picture: The church connected to Christ Jesus, glorifying God to all generations, forever and ever. The possibilities are limited only by our desire just to churn out another blockbuster sequel, rather than do the real work of living into the grand expanse of God’s mystery.

Indie Church
I propose that, from this passage (Eph. 3), church leaders can draw something of a broader and deeper checklist, a checklist for “doing church” that really requires something of leaders and of the church--moving from blockbuster church to more of an art-house or indie way of thinking about church. So, here are some things to consider:

  • Is the church characterized as making known the wisdom of God in its rich variety?

  • Is the church carrying out God’s mysterious plan, revealed in Christ, to reconcile the world to God and to each other?

  • Does the church bear the Father’s DNA of love and unity?

  • Is the church experiencing the explosive, dynamic power of the Spirit?

  • Is the church rooted and grounded in Christ’s love?

  • Is the church filled with all the fullness of God (“…with all God’s light, love, wisdom, holiness, power, and glory. A perfection far beyond bare freedom from sin”)?

  • In short and in summary: Does the church glorify God as part of the glory that characterizes Christ Jesus?

What does each of these look like? Indeed, what do God’s wisdom, mystery, glory, power, love, etc., look like when active in the daily life of the church? This checklist is challenging, one might say abstract. In fact, we might disregard such concepts as too abstract. We disregard these concepts to our peril as leaders and to the gashing detriment of the church.

We must move beyond the leadership concepts from the business world and from get-big-fast consultants. We might find helpful instruction on management and marketing here, but nothing of mystery. Take the lessons on structure and organization and move on! And don’t move on to another business book—move on to the “wisdom of God” and “the plan of the mystery.”

It’s scary, I know. It takes creativity. It takes working it out in community. It takes faith…BIG faith. You can’t just watch another seminar online or take your staff to another leadership conference. You actually have to learn to seek God together. Then you have to figure out how to share the God you find…in tangible, meaningful, sometimes messy and meddlesome, ways.

It’s easier to let someone else do the work—a leadership guru, a marketing expert, a church-growth wizard. These folks have their place, but it is only as an early step or an occasional corrective on the way to something deeper. It is certainly not THE means or, God forbid, THE end.

No, it’s time to move past the mediocre-to-bad art we’ve made. It’s time to draw from God’s wisdom and mystery, from God’s fullness. It’s time to create something worthy of the sprawling glory of the Trinity. It’s time to be conformed, not to some generic church template or best-selling model, but to the DNA of God’s love and reconciliation and unity. It’s time for a new definition of church health and success, for a new checklist.

It will not look like a blockbuster. It will not look like a sequel. It will challenge, take hold, and stick with us. And that's what it comes to: Do we want church to become part of us? Or do we just want to fill the theater?

Monday, September 30, 2013

I Own You

There comes that moment when the villain says those chilling words. Characters have either fallen under the spell of a charismatic tyrant or simply been enslaved by a horrific evil-doer. It has taken place gradually through a slow, unwitting letting go of control, or freedom has been violently stolen away. Whatever the case, there comes that moment of shocking revelation when what the characters have suspected is true is actually uttered out loud by the villain: I own you.

Whether in fiction or real life, the realization that one has given away or lost freedom and control is indeed chilling. Tragically, though, this happens to us regularly. We give away slices of freedom and chunks of control with each mindless consumption, with the ebbing away of our time, with relentless indulgences and untreated addictions, with every comparison of our life to that of another. Every day we give away ownership of our lives to ideas and things and actions and people who have no business with such control. And this determines our becoming as we slouch toward monstrosity. But there is only one to whom we truly belong. Yet that belonging is not the source of enslavement but freedom, not “I own you” but “You are mine." There’s a huge, eternal difference.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.
--Isaiah 43:1

“You are mine.” This is God’s assertion many times in Scripture. In fact, it could be considered an overarching theme. A golden thread running through the fabric of God’s revelation is that we are his—his creation, his image, his chosen ones, his people, his children, his redeemed, his dwelling place, his beloved. The back-and-forth of our story, faithfulness pushing and being pushed by unfaithfulness, is largely the result of the unwillingness to commit, or sometimes the inability to see, that we are God’s. Two aspects of this revelation are key to having it take hold of us and free us:

1) We belong to God and, thus, our lives are as secure as the life of God. No one can take your life from you any more than they can take away God’s life, kill God. No professional failure or shortcoming, no personal disappointments or rejections, no worldly circumstances, not even death, can take away your life. You will go on forever.

2) We belong to God and, thus, to no one and nothing else. We preach and speak against divided loyalties, against distractions that lead us away from God, against living for anything other than God and God’s will. But let’s not be na├»ve: living such a fixed and devoted life is fraught with difficulty. The temptation is always present—sometimes overwhelmingly so—to seek the approval of others, to define success and failure externally in accord with others’ values and expectations, to give over control to something material or numbing. This must no longer be. For you will belong to God—no other idea or expectation or agenda or person—forever. And God is Love, characterized by grace and mercy. Even his judgment is for setting things right, for setting you right…because you’re his.

“You are mine." God doesn't own you. No one owns you (unless you let them). You and God are one--that's very different. No one can pull you from God’s caring, guiding embrace. No one can give you more or less worth. You will accomplish God’s will only by becoming who God is making you to be. Which is to say, by focusing your life on becoming this child of God’s, you will accomplish his plan for you. This is God’s will, the becoming. There is nothing else. Lives touched, missed opportunities, disciples made, stumbles, work produced, failures, dying—all part of the becoming. First things first. And first, “You are mine…and I am the First and the Last.”

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

(Be)Coming Home

Home is born within us. As a son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter, sibling and cousin, as a friend, then as a spouse and parent, we come to know more and more what it is to have a home…not because of where we’ve lived, but because of who we’ve loved.

As time passes, seasons of life come and go, and lessons are learned, we come to know more and more what it is to move out of ourselves, to commit to others, to sacrifice, to trust, to embrace, to risk, to love. Such is the movement of home.

We carry it with us when we’re away, thinking of those who make our home, working for them, sacrificing, longing, and learning to trust that they will always be our home, and we theirs. We anticipate as the time draws near for us to return to them, even at the end of a workday as we drive to the house we share.

We rejoice to enter and find our family. We rejoice to remember all we have shared with our loved ones, those who have shown us and built with us the home that we know. Not physical, for that comes and goes from structure to structure. But love, love is home. All that goes into home is all that goes into love—other, sacrifice, work, longing, trusting, returning with anticipation. Home.

Such is God’s kingdom born within us. We learn of it as a child of God, a sibling of and joint-heir with Christ, a Spirit-filled lover of God, a family member in God’s household--bride, body, beloved...not because of where we've lived, but because of the One who loves us.

It draws nearer as time passes, through seasons of life and lessons learned. The kingdom draws nearer as we draw nearer to the King…as the earth receives the kingdom and anticipates the return of the King. The process of redemption--our redemption and the redemption of all creation--reveals what it is to live in the kingdom.

We carry it with us, this kingdom, and it fills us with purpose while we are away from the King (though, of course, we are not truly away, and that is the mystery and the message). The kingdom is inside us as home is inside us, driving us to work and to sacrifice and to long and to trust. The kingdom seems stronger—more present—as we anticipate and draw near to the King. He is there among two or three gathered, among the least, at the Table, within those who faithfully love. He comes—with the Father in the powerful love of the Spirit—and makes his dwelling, his kingdom, within the lover.

So, as we draw near in a daily life of worship, in service to another, in quiet moments of adoration, and finally in death, we anticipate the warming fires of home, the familiar voice calling us lovingly by name, love itself washing over us and holding us safe and assuring us.

The kingdom is where the King is. Home is where Love is. All are inside us and nothing can take them from us or stop their progress in enveloping us in the embrace of the One who is all—King, Home, Love—and whose likeness we bear more and more clearly and faithfully day after day, season after season, through life and lessons learned. And so, in the end, we find that we have somehow been home all along, and we have become home along the way.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Killing the Fame Monster

Fame, makes a man take things over
Fame, lets him loose, hard to swallow
Fame, puts you there where things are hollow
--from David Bowie’s “Fame”

Lady Gaga said that her album The Fame Monster was based on reflections regarding the downside of fame. Yes, another celebrity complaining about all that money and power and adulation (though Gaga seems smart enough to have a pretty good perspective on it). The album followed, appropriately, her album titled The Fame. It’s tough to have one without the other—fame without the fame monster. But could it be that the fame monster is a creature of our own making? Of course it is! The more we feed the fame, the more monstrous it becomes…the more monstrous we become.

This is my confession as one of the many Christians—lay and clergy—who have been tempted by the call of our culture’s current #1 god: fame. We have allowed ourselves to slide with the cultural gravity toward the desire for the approval and acclaim of lots of people, if not for our own accomplishments then by association with someone famous. Christians resist so many gods, only to find ourselves unquestioningly facedown, worshipping in cults of personality.

We drop names of celebrity Christian musicians and writers, celebrity pastors, even celebrity theologians, with whom we have rubbed shoulders. Does anyone else see how screwed up this is? I’m sure I’ve done it. But now, when I hear a brother or sister offer a humble-brag about how much they’re “blessed” by being in the presence of some well-known Christian, I want to say, “And I am blessed by the 82-year-old woman in my church who has spent 60 years teaching the Bible to children and making quilts for pediatric cancer patients. What an honor to be in her presence!”

But we want fame, just like the world has. What’s worse, we want more approval and acclaim than our peers have. So, not only is there this lust that feeds on others and is totally self-centered and evil, but this lust is insatiable as long as there’s someone else getting “more.” And that “more” has to be qualified with quotation marks because it is utterly abstract and indefinable.

What this all adds up to is unhappiness. If fame is our M.O., then we can never be at peace or joyful because there is no limit, no moment when we’ve arrived. Oh, there’s a day of joy here, a weekend of peace there, when we’ve received some sort of acclaim or taken a step up some non-existent ladder. But then we realize someone else has more—or might soon have more (how sick is that!)—and it’s back to square one, back to the bottom rung on a new non-existent ladder.

I’m taking the liberty of directing our attention to this as a battleground on which we Christians—especially leaders—need to be launching a campaign. In short, I’m inviting you to a fight. The key arena is the mind, keeping our motives in check. Why do you really want those readers, listeners, numerous church attenders? The same way we can’t allow our thoughts to go down the path of anger or gluttony or sexual lust, we also can’t allow our thoughts to go down the path of fame lust.

We must do those things and entertain thoughts that cultivate peace and humility in mind and life. We must do what will edify others, even at the cost of our own recognition or popularity or approval. We must learn to enjoy the simple things that fly away and are remembered no more, noticed by no one, treasured only in secret places. Mostly, we must nurture and feed our life hidden with Christ in God, enjoy what God enjoys and seek God’s fame—glorify, testify, magnify the wonder and beauty and power and matchless worth of God alone.

Will we be known? Possibly. Whether we’re pastors, musicians, writers, teachers, artists, butchers, bakers, or candlestick makers, the intention is typically to share what we do with others. We are the light of the world, a shining city on a hill. It does us no good to hide, for we truly were made to “shine like stars in the world” (Phil. 2:16).

But what kind of “stars”? If we’re seeking fame, and especially if we’re using God to gain fame for ourselves—aka “taking the LORD’s name in vain”—then hiding is certainly a viable option, at least until we can bring that idolatrous fame lust in check. At the end of the day we are either feeding or fighting the fame monster. It’s impossible to “not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt. 6:1-6) and also use both hands to nail together a platform of vainglory.

In the end, may our legacy not be our accomplishments or creations or even good reputations of character and godliness. May our legacy be the lives we’ve helped along the kingdom path, perhaps with no real memory or knowledge of who was that one who journeyed with us?...only the knowledge that somehow God is with us and we’re farther along.

“Even our own feeble hands ache to seize the crown you wear,” sings James Taylor in his “New Hymn.” The world doesn’t need you or me, though in God’s hands we become useful. The crown is not ours, though our loving Lord crowns us with the beauty of holiness. But we strive for the fame that belongs to God alone at our peril—not because God will zap us, but because we just might get what we’re after.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Give Peace More Than a Chance

Give Peace a Chance. It was a song for John Lennon, a rallying cry for tumultuous times, and now a nostalgic throwback to the good ol’ days and heady times, man. Like “All You Need is Love,” “Give Peace a Chance” is either a gross oversimplification or a small step up a huge mountain. I’m opting for the latter. But either way, it’s only a beginning. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Mt. 5:9). I think this covers significantly more ground, because giving peace a chance is a good start. But making peace requires a lot more of us.

It is a vital skill, peacemaking, increasingly lacking in our culture and world. It is such a vital skill that Jesus—the Prince of Peace—commends it as a chief characteristic of God’s children. If this is so, then why aren’t we as the church working harder to be those blessed peacemakers?

Interesting that Jesus’ instructions when sending out the Seventy (Lk. 10:1-12) are to, “…first say, ‘Peace to this house!’” I wonder how much better the church might do in reaching the culture if our initial orientation is one of offering peace. How much more vital might our presence be—might God’s presence through us be—if we were known for peace and hospitality rather than judgment, alienation, and divisiveness.

Jesus’ further instructions seem to be to: 1) Fellowship and build relationships; 2) Demonstrate God’s healing, restorative power; and 3) Proclaim the presence of God’s kingdom. That’s it. Certainly the message of the kingdom will cause conflict as it challenges other powers, including our own self-righteousness and entitlement. And Jesus acknowledges that there will be those who reject the ministry of kingdom peace and, thus, heap judgment upon themselves. But as much as it’s up to the Seventy, they are to be messengers of God’s peace.

There’s an overarching theme in Jesus’ instructions not to waste time with those who aren’t receptive, characterized by those who reject peace. And undergirding the ministry is a full reliance on the presence and faithfulness of God—praying for the Lord to send laborers, living with simple provisions, relying on the hospitality of others, and proclaiming only the message of God’s power and kingdom. Here we see a life of peace with God propelling the mission of peace.

Later we see Peter reaffirming the message of peace intertwined with the message of the kingdom: “You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).

The context of Peter’s words is the good news coming to the Gentiles. Peter precedes that line by affirming that “God shows no partiality…” In this it appears that Jesus is a bridge-builder, God’s agent of peace between God and people, and people and people.

So, again, the gospel we preach—as much as it is the true good news of the kingdom—is primarily a gospel of peace: peace with God and peace among people, “by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.” This is the cross-shaped ministry of reconciliation that Paul commends to us (2Cor. 5:16-21). It all rests in Christ’s lordship. Because Jesus is Lord of all, there is no person outside of his lordship. And, thus, there is no one who should not be approached with his peace. It binds us together and should begin within the church and extend outward. So why doesn’t it?

I’m sure there are a number of reasons for the church’s failure to be those blessed peacemakers, but I’m going to focus on two, beginning in the church and extending outward.

First: rampant individualism. Our consumer culture has resulted in individualism running rampant through the church. From church shopping to church hopping to church a la carte (i.e. “What programs do you have for me?”), church has become all about the individual and has lost one of its chief characteristics, namely people living in community under authority.

Someone upsets us, we leave. Leadership takes us in a direction we don’t like, we leave. Expectations for growth and involvement get too high, we move on to somewhere that will let us just be spectators. And with every move, every shirk of responsibility or abdication of commitment, we lose our ability to make peace.

Thinking in terms of military engagement, I dare say retreating, or especially abandoning a post or going AWOL are not the same as making peace…not the same at all. But that’s exactly what you would expect from someone who puts self over corps and country. Yet we have somehow gotten the idea that self is more important than church, or that church is just a collection of interchangeable selves. While the church certainly ministers to the individual, and we would never encourage someone to stay in a destructive situation, nevertheless the church is more than the sum of its parts. We’ve forgotten this. So when peace needs to be made, we just take our football and go home…leaving the team behind.

Second: culture wars. The phrase says it all. In the name of values that we have been told by secular media are Christian, we have been swept into a war on the culture. What hope can there be to make peace when we are bombarded with the message that we are to make war? If this is the case, Jesus’ instructions might be more like, “When you engage people, first offer them peace…unless they vote for a different political party or watch different TV channels or question that this is a Christian nation or say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ We’re at war with those kinds of people!”

As a result of this culture war message ubiquitously washing over masses of evangelical Christians, any talk of peacemaking has become synonymous with hippie-dippy liberals and abandonment of the truth and downright unpatriotic (which, of course, equals un-Christian). Make war, not love.

Yet Jesus’ instructions to his sent ones—that’s all of us, by the way—are to first, offer peace. Jesus’ description of the blessed children of God is that they are peacemakers. The message of the apostles, after serving a three-year intimate apprenticeship with Jesus, was about the “peace of Christ, the Lord of all.” This being the case, today’s church would do well to Give Peace a Chance.

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