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    Entries in Church (23)

    Tuesday
    Feb142017

    Being the Best [ ______ ] You Can Be

    It is a challenging time to be a Christian. Has it ever been otherwise?

    I am not sure. It is a question I ask often. I do know that my experience of Christianity during adulthood has been engulfed by anxiety about the future. The United States has undergone an undeniable shift in the religious landscape. The old norms no longer apply, and new ways are sought in the face of these changes. Various proposals have been made with regard to the best way forward. There has also been a great deal of lament, and no shortage of hand-wringing.

    There are many traditions within Christianity. How do they help us to respond? Most traditions have developed distinctives that can present themselves as strengths when properly regarded. Yet the majority of the resources Christianity offers for abundant and faithful living are shared across traditions. Taken together, the unique bits and the shared bits, the storehouse is quite full.

    Alan Jacobs did a little riffing yesterday on thoughts from Rod Dreher, who is writing a book about a "genuinely countercultural form of Christianity." Mr. Dreher's proposal has become known as the "Benedict Option." Mr. Dreher is approaching an old challenge in an old way, though in a new time. The call to reject the norms of the present age and wholeheartedly seek the life of the kingdom is an ancient one. The fresh difficulty is found in being faithful to that calling in light of present circumstances. Dreher recently asked whether each tradition had the resources necessary to live a countercultural form of Christianity. Jacobs picked up the ball and ran.

    Professor Jacobs spurred my thinking about my own tradition, or traditions. I am a Baptist. Molly, my wife, is a Methodist. We are now part of a Methodist congregation. As we have each served in our traditions, we have always sought to equip our congregations with the knowledge to live faithfully within those traditions. We believe the traditions possess a kind of strength, and that they are worthwhile. We have wanted our people to be found faithful as Methodists, or Baptists. We have desired that they know their traditions, appreciate their heritage, and can rely on the tradition to help them live faithfully to Jesus.

    However, based on my observation, that has not always been enough to inspire a countercultural, robust expression of Christian faith. Something has been missing.

    This is where I found Jacobs helpful. He argues that you must find a point where you can no longer be content with life as you know it as a Christian. The old word here, I would suggest, is zeal. He writes:

    You have to get to the end of your rope, you have to come to the point where you can’t live any longer as everyone around you is living. If you come to that point, then every serious Christian tradition, from Pentecostalism to Orthodoxy, has what it takes to nourish and support you. But none of those traditions can, in itself, bring you to that point. (I am not yet at that point myself: I am too caught up in the various rewards that this present age has to offer.)

    Depending on where you live, you might look around you and find charismatics who are faithfully seeking to make their own countercultural way, or Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Catholics — heck, even Anglicans. It depends on whether in a given place there is a critical mass of people whom the Holy Spirit has moved to say: Enough. Lord, now give us the living water.

    The traditions of Christianity are of great value. They help to preserve theological and moral knowledge and the wisdom captured in certain forms of praxis. But the tradition is not enough. The traditions are like containers, which we must pray that God not only fill but overflow by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

    It may be a helpful step to be the best Methodist or non-denominational Christian or whatever you can be. But becoming the best disciple of Jesus may be the only place where a countercultural Christianity can begin to take shape, one allowing for the prophetic challenge of one's own tradition, while also stretching outward to those of other traditions, binding and bringing the church together as one, just as Christ intended.

    Monday
    Oct172016

    Can Kingdom People from All 50 States Pitch In and Help a Church in Rural Texas? Let’s Find Out.

    St. Paul United Church of Christ - Marlin, TX

    This past weekend the Waco Tribune-Herald published a feature explaining the current dilemma faced by St. Paul United Church of Christ in Marlin, Texas.

    St. Paul’s building is 97 years old and the foundation of the structure is in jeopardy. The congregation is made up of senior adults, some who have been members their whole life long. On an average Sunday 10 to 15 people gather for worship. Their pastor, Ludy Manthei, drives from Bryan to be with them. He is 70 years old. They need $300,000 to renovate a lower wall that is in danger of failing and bringing the structure down with it.

    St. Paul is located on FM 2307, off Highway 6 and in between the communities of Riesel and Marlin. I have driven by, though that was years ago. The church has been photographed and featured in a couple of books (here and here). The structure is also listed in the register of the Texas Historical Commission.

    I read the article above in the Trib on Sunday morning. By the time I was through I had resolved to send a gift, and I asked my Sunday school class to pray for this congregation. Sure, St. Paul is a rural congregation. It is small. The Trib describes their fundraising task as “daunting.” But is anything impossible for God?

    While exercising this morning I had this thought: if I shared this story with my friends, how many states would be represented if those I had encountered through the years decided to join me in sending a gift of any amount to this small congregation in rural Texas? I have an acquaintance in Alaska, friends in Kansas, a pastor friend in Alabama, an artist in Tennessee, some buddies living in Missouri. An old neighbor of mine lives in Denver. I have relatives in Georgia. A guy who lived on my hall in seminary works in D. C. Beyond my direct connections, I am sure that those people know people, or have friends, in other states.

    Sure, this idea is whimsical, maybe even a little goofy. But that’s me.

    Who knows? Maybe if we partnered together, did something a little out of the ordinary, a tad generous, the result might be surprising and wonderful and joyous. Plain fun.

    So here is the deal. If you want to join me in blessing this congregation, with no strings attached, write a note, enclose a gift, stick it in your mailbox, raise the flag and smile. Say a prayer, too. I don’t care if you stick a George Washington in an envelope with a sticky note on it that says, “building” and “the kingdom of God is big.” Maybe you are someone of extraordinary means and you want to reach out to the church to fund a piece of history. Either way, do good and grin big.

    My letter goes in the mail today and is addressed to St. Paul United Church of Christ, FM 2307, Marlin, Texas 76661.

    If you plan to join in on the fun leave a comment and let me know what state you live in. I will keep track.

    And feel free to share the idea with friends and family.

    This little congregation has been bearing the light of Christ in rural America. They need help in preserving their gathering place. Who knows what God might do with them yet?

    Finding out could be fun.

    Thursday
    Sep222016

    The Church and the Collective Yes

    Is Jesus Lord, or are the forces of advanced modernity lord? The church that cannot say no to all that contradicts its Lord is a church that is well down the road to cultural defeat and captivity. But the courage to say no has to be followed by an equally clear, courageous and constructive yes--to the Lord himself, to his gospel and his vision of life, humanity and the future, so that Christians can be seen to live differently and to live better in the world of today.

    - Os Guinness, Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization

    The claim that Christianity in Western civilization faces numerous challenges is uncontroversial, though the ways in which people respond to those challenges are broadly diverse. One option is retreat, the preference of some fundamentalists, who are too often content to create isolated subcommunities of doctrinal and moral purity that fervently condemn those on the outside. Another option is syncretism and assimilation, outcomes which are never embraced or intended outright, but reach fruition over time as Christian communities slowly accommodate themselves to the dominant cultural narratives, a reality that is all too often seen among milquetoast “mainline” Christian denominations. A third response is quietism, a way forward typified by withdrawal from public discourse that may be accompanied by dedication to private piety, but leaves the concerns of the present age largely untouched.

    I have immense respect for the work of Os Guinness. I have read his books and once heard him deliver a lecture while I was a student at The University of Kansas. Guinness works diligently to present orthodox Christian convictions in light of the foremost challenges (some will say threats) of our times, and to do so with a charity and winsomeness that is seldom found within evangelicalism. He also does his best to explain the causes of these challenges, whether they be political, philosophical, social, or theological, and to urge the church toward a steadfast faithfulness to the gospel.

    But the question that remains is that of how. It is one thing to tell people to be faithful, grow in knowledge of the Scriptures, and to pray fervently. Reminding Christian people of their calling to conduct their work to God’s glory or to engage in public discourse is a noble admonition. But what to say, and how to say it, and who to partner with are the practical considerations that most often go unanswered. That is not always their responsibility. The church must heed the voices of her prophets, and turn to the Lord for answers.

    Answers begin to emerge, in part, through local associations. For Christians, this is the church. Or, in any given community, the ecumenical efforts of the body of Christ who are connected within the business or professional communities. Intellectual theorists and academics serve the church well when they help Christians assess their moment, lend understanding, and offer prescriptions. But it is all talk until those prescriptions are field tested, either through action or in prayerful conversation.

    Individuals are not powerless. All of us can live according to Christian convictions. Private prayer is a powerful act. But our best "courageous and constructive yes" to our Lord Jesus Christ is a yes alongside others within Christian fellowship. Together we are better equipped to live according to the commands given by Jesus himself, and to embody his vision in this age and in preparation for the age to come. The church, to the degree we are faithful, also provides a more powerful and compelling no to the ways of the world. It is one thing for the world to be faced with a faithful individual, it is yet another to be confronted by a faithful community. To paraphrase Stanley Hauerwas, the church’s first task is to be the church, thereby making clear that the world is, in fact, the world.

    Challenges will not dissipate entirely and suffering may come. Jesus was plain on that point. But Jesus remains Lord. Take courage. Fear not.

    Tuesday
    Apr052016

    Community Begins with Christ

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ." He further states, "It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God's Word and sacrament." If that isn't enough, Bonhoeffer reminds us, "The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer."

    One of the greatest longings of our time, it seems to me, is for community. And one of our greatest fears, both expressed and unexpressed, is that of being alone. For many, our longing remains unfulfilled, even among those who claim to take part in Christian community, try as we might to connect with others either publicly or online.

    Which leads me back to Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer identifies two ways community is realized for the Christian: in and through Jesus Christ.

    While commentators quibble over the exact meaning of the phrase in Christ, all seem to agree that it is a reality entered into mystically by faith. I think of the words of Paul in Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." There has been a crossing over, a transformation, a change of status. Those trusting Jesus are no longer apart from him, but now stand in him.

    What does this mean for community? It means, first, that Christian community is not first achieved by some action on one's own part, but rather is enacted by the person and work of Jesus Christ. We have been incorporated into the Christian fellowship. We do not create it.

    But to enter into the community, we must come through Jesus Christ. And it is through him that we encounter our brothers and sisters. Jesus has made such a community possible through his body and blood. He is our mediator, and the one in whom we receive peace, not only between God and human beings, but between brother and sister. Bonhoeffer says it simply: "Christ opened up the way to God and to our brother."

    Lastly, Bonhoeffer claims that the goal of all Christian community is this: "they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation." It is within the fellowship that we are reminded of what Jesus has done not only for you and me, but for all of creation.

    Bonhoeffer incisively reminds his readers that not every Christian experiences the visible fellowship of other believers. The sick, infirm, the scattered, the solitary missionary worker, they remain part of the fellowship in and through Christ, but lack the daily experience of a common fellowship. For most of my readers, face to face interaction with other Christians is not only possible, it is routine. And, dare I say for some, it is taken for granted.

    So, the next time you interact with others in Christian community, remember how the fellowship has been made possible: in and through Christ. Remember that the presence of other Christians is a gift, graciously given because of God's recognition that it is not good for human beings to be alone (Gen. 2:18).

    Recall that your interactions with other Christians are made possible through Christ, who has removed the barrier of our own egos and united us to one another (it is difficult to feel superior to anyone when one begins to realize the depth of one's own sin). It is difficult not to feel love for others whom Christ has redeemed.

    Then, lastly, remember that you are present with your brothers and sisters as a herald, a bringer of the message of salvation. Spread the Word. Perhaps in doing so, Christians who experience aloneness and lack of community will begin to realize the richness of Christian fellowship, and the true joy of being united to one another, and to God, together.

    Saturday
    Apr022016

    The Church is a Diversity By Design

    On more than one occasion, I have marveled at the differences existing within the fellowship of the church, whether it be racial, socio-economic, political, theological, liturgical, or otherwise. At times, I have been in awe. But not always.

    I confess to being snobbish, from time to time, regarding just who God has called to be part of the church, or in what way those in the church express their devotion to God. This is not easy to admit. I may conceal it well. But in my heart of hearts, I know. There are people I am quite surprised to find myself in fellowship with, not by my own appointment, but by the calling of Christ.

    And when I reflect upon this reality, I quietly confess my sin, remember that I am redeemed by sheer grace, and humbly ask that God reform this deficiency. Perhaps, over the course of time, the Great Physician will rid me of all impurity, and I will experience the sweetness of welcoming all people in to God's great fellowship, as they actually are, not as I wish them to be. It is God's great feast, not mine, and I trust that he possesses greater wisdom when compiling a banquet list. My parties can be a bit dull. If our picture of Jesus given in the gospels is any indication, with God, it is not so.

    C. S. Lewis is instructive. In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis writes:

    It takes all sorts to make a world; or a church. This may be even truer of a church. If grace perfects nature it must expand all our natures into the full richness of the diversity which God intended when He made them, and Heaven will display far more variety than Hell. "One fold" doesn't mean "one pool." Cultivated roses and daffodils are no more alike than wild roses and daffodils.

    There is beauty in diversity, and God calls us together not according to our race or social status, our talents or our abilities, but instead by grace. Diversity is God's design. And unity is given in Christ.