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So, What’s the Status Quo, Anyway?

Chaplain Mike takes aim at this article:

So, Thom Schultz suggests that the church learn from Kodak’s failures. This is our “Kodak moment,” he warns. Unless we (1) accept the reality that things are changing and churches are declining, (2) give up trying to simply “tweak” what we do and instead focus on “revolutionizing,” and (3) take risks by acting now and experimenting with bold new ideas, we face a future like Kodak experienced.

Therefore, Schultz exhorts us to re-examine everything we’re doing. To ask big questions. To step out and try something. To boldly step into the future because that’s where God is moving.

Etc. etc. etc.

To which I say, with all due respect, “Yawn.”

This is not challenging the status quo. This is the very definition of the status quo when it comes to evangelicalism, and it has been at least since Thom Schultz started writing youth curriculum back in the 1970′s. It’s the same old church growth mantra: “Change or die!” It’s the same old focus on “catching the next wave” and riding it into the future. It’s the same old emphasis on “relevance” and “effectiveness” and “success.”

Thom Schultz’s article represents the same tired evangelical thinking about the church’s mission and methodology: imagining that what we’re about requires relying on “spiritual technology” to “connect people to God” and build “effective” churches. It’s just plain bad theology, folks.

In fact, it is nothing less than an ongoing denial of Jesus’ words about the organic nature of the Kingdom, which involves seeds falling into the ground and dying so that they may bear fruit and bring forth life.

Though all the world go digital and beyond, building gleaming towers that reach to the heavens, the mission of Jesus proceeds with a quiet, unstoppable tenacity at ground level.

Get the picture?

Which Jesus?

I really should link to Jim Somerville more often. His post today, “Which Jesus Will We Give Them?” is a refreshing back-to-basics sermon for all of us:

I was reminded of that when I was at the BGAV meeting in Fredericksburg recently. There we were—a thousand Baptists from Virginia all gathered together in a single room. You would think that we all held the same views, wouldn’t you? But as one speaker after another talked about Jesus I could tell that we thought about him in different ways, and maybe that shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. After all, there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which means that we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. And then there are Paul’s letters, which are more about the risen Christ than the earthly Jesus, and about what his death and resurrection mean for us. And then there are the other writers, like Peter, James, and the author of Hebrews, who each have their own perspective. And finally the Book of Revelation, in which the risen Christ appears with “hair as white as wool and eyes like flames of fire” (1:14). So if I’m going to “give them Jesus” I have to ask: which Jesus am I going to give them?

Because I think we tend to “cut and paste” when it comes to Jesus. We take what we like about him from the Bible, and from the hymn book, and from the pictures that hang in our Sunday school classrooms, and the songs we learned as children, and we put them all together to make this composite picture we carry around in our heads, and that’s “our” Jesus. Sometimes the confused looks I see on your faces when I’m preaching are not because you don’t understand what I’m saying, but because “my” Jesus doesn’t look like “your” Jesus. My Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom, and urging people to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. Your Jesus may be saying, “Go, make disciples of every nation,” or, “Come to me, all you who are weary,” or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I was thinking about that on the way home from Fredericksburg when it occurred to me that if even if you put all these cut-and-paste images together you still get the picture that God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us. I said it out loud: “God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us.” And something about that rang so true I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Do read it all.

The Church: Mother or Babysitter?

Thoughtful piece by Chaplain Mike on why so many young evangelicals are turning toward more historically grounded expressions of Christian faith. The final paragraphs speak for me as well:

I don’t have statistical evidence to prove that, as Rebecca VanDoodewaard says, young people are returning to historic traditions in droves. If our roster of authors and families here at Internet Monk is any indication, many of us who are Baby Boomers may be. I think that most of us here would say that the older we get, the less stomach we have for the shallow pandering to culture that characterizes so much of contemporary American evangelicalism. Our journey has been a long and winding road through decades of experimenting and fads.

If some of those in younger generations are feeling that way now and doing something about it, perhaps they won’t have to endure some of wilderness experiences many of us had.

My Favorite Baptist Bishop

William E. Yoder has an article in Christianity Today about my favorite Baptist bishop, +Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (not the state, the former Soviet Republic). Here’s a sample:

Many Orthodox view Baptists as a Western-inspired and -funded fringe or underground movement, decrying them as sectarian heretics. Baptists, in turn, have regarded Orthodox as unconverted. Yet Songulashvili has “uncovered the treasures” of the Orthodox tradition, he says, and incorporates them into faith and practice. He intends to lead a denomination that’s Baptist in theology while both Georgian and Orthodox in culture—and to break the longstanding impasse between evangelical Protestants and Orthodox throughout Eastern Europe.

Structurally, the EBCG calls itself an Episcopal Baptist church. It is headed by an archbishop and three bishops—one of whom is female. Female ordination and liturgical dance both mark EBCG’s departure from Orthodoxy.

But the tradition of worshiping God with all five senses is one Orthodox gift that the EBCG receives “with gratitude,” says Songulashvili. Consequently, the EBCG has founded a school for icon painting and uses incense in services. It has a monastic order and holds processions and pilgrimages.

(H/T: Michael Bird)

Reclaiming Mystery

Bosco Peters links to a story about a fascinating character, the Wizard of New Zealand. Since New Zealand is the stunt double for Middle Earth, it really shouldn’t surprise me that they have their very own “non-fictional, non-commercial, wizard” whose mission in life is to conduct “a largely solo attempt to re-enchant the world, making use of [his] training as an academic sociologist and psychologist.”

Peters elaborates a bit on the importance of mystery for and in the church. His comments are worth a thorough reading, but I’ll simply share a few paragraphs to give you the gist:

Fundamentalists, antitheists, and the insipid are three natural results of the disenchantment.

Fundamentalists reject the enchantment of our spiritual world, accepting instead a flat rationalistic literalism. Antitheists are the shadow side of fundamentalists. Like fundamentalists, they also do not go beyond a flat rationalistic literalism. Rather than accepting the flat literalism as the fundamentalists do, antitheists reject it. For fundamentalists God is scary. For antitheists God is silly.

The third category, that I here call the insipid, is that category that one meets so often in churches: led by clergy who, if they have training at all – it consists in a university degree in the dismembering of the scriptures. These clergy have little to no liturgical study and training. Sacraments have been desiccated to things that occur solely in one’s head. Bells, smells, and symbols are reduced to a couple of candles on a table (if you are lucky). Vesture is degraded to what the majority of Christian history would regard essentially as underwear. They hold to the last vestiges of the outward form of godliness but deny its power.

Indeed.

This is What a Teacher Looks Like

I love this gem from Scot McKnight:

A teacher is knowledgeable about Bible and theology, life and spiritual formation, self and local context.

A teacher is skilled in the tools needed for Bible and theology, including the languages and the literature.

A teacher is more concerned about having something to say than the prestige of being on the platform.

A teacher is not on the stage to impress people with what he or she knows but to educate the church in gospel ways.

A teacher is a good communicator.

A teacher mixes information and edification, neither resorting to the lecture hall or mere story telling.

A teacher loves to study, and that means time alone to ponder and pray.

A teacher has the capacity for clarity: taking big ideas, complex thoughts, and clarifying their significance for the church.

A teacher is patient enough to listen to new ideas in order to evaluate them with insight.

A teacher is open-minded enough to shift when the evidence suggests so.

A teacher has the courage to teach what is there and not what folks want to hear.

A teacher lets texts and evidence determine what is true instead of letting someone’s authority or a sacred tradition determine what is true.

A Case for Sunday Worship

Skye Jethani:

The move away from Sunday worship can have many motivations, and some of them are honorable and even Spirit-guided. But I sense some congregations opt for non-Sunday worship without considering these deeper realities. In other words, the merely utilitarian reasons on which which we abandon Sunday may be another sign of how theologically, historically, and biblically ignorant we have become. We view our gatherings as a time of self-improvement, therapeutic enrichment, social connection, or artistic expression–and it can be these things. So we make human-centered, self-centered decisions about when these functions can happen most conveniently during the week.

But we often fail to see our gatherings as a spiritual and embodied display of our participation in a new cosmic reality. We fail to see how Sunday morning is when and where the church displays the wisdom of God before the powers and authorities in the heavenly realms by aligning ourselves with Christ’s resurrection and the work of God’s new creation.

If you are considering abandoning Sunday morning worship for another time, I’m not saying you shouldn’t. Leaders ought to prayerfully seek God’s guidance on the matter, and do what is right for your flock and mission. Obey the Lord. But as part of the discernment process, at least study the richer reason behind the church’s historical commitment to Sunday morning worship, and teach this facet of worship to your congregation. I think many would be surprised by the real value of Sunday.

Resisting the Gospels

Good stuff from Tim Gombis. Well, not good, but worth reading:

It goes beyond unintentionally cultivated habits.  I think that reading the Gospels for what they’re really saying threatens to upset and destabilize our church community dynamics that have become predictable and comfortable.  Contemporary Christians—evangelicals included—are too threatened by the Gospels to read them for what they’re actually saying.

Chaplain Mike, Douglas Wilson, and a Wood Shed

Esau Christianity” is a neologism we have needed for quite some time:

I’m thinking that what Douglas Wilson needs is a Bible study.

And won’t he be hacked off to discover that when God wanted to found a nation, he chose Jacob, the effeminate, namby-pamby mama’s boy over Esau, his manly, rugged, outdoorsy brother? It goes against everything he apparently believes about the masculine flavor of the faith.

Think of it, at the time God had two possible choices for who would become “Israel,” the founder of his First Testament people: Esau, or Jacob. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Gen. 25:27-28). In Wilson’s categories, Esau was “masculine,” Jacob “effeminate.”

  • Jacob stayed inside and cooked, while Esau went out to the field and hunted.
  • Jacob was a mama’s boy who participated in his mother’s schemes, while Esau was doing manly things on behalf of his father.
  • Jacob had to be protected from Esau by his mother and he ran away from home in fear when his older brother got mad at him.
  • Jacob went to his uncle’s house and worked for him. He was so weak and clueless that his uncle Laban took constant advantage of him and made him into his virtual slave for years.
  • Jacob was so much of a wimp that he didn’t even recognize Laban had switched women on him on his wedding night!
  • Jacob was hen-pecked by his wives Rachel and Leah and did whatever they said when they wanted children.
  • Jacob tricked his uncle to get back at him and then had to run away in fear again. Laban chased him and would have whupped up on him, but God warned him against that.
  • When Jacob returned to the land, he was shaking in his boots in fear that Esau was going to get his revenge and kill him.
  • Jacob became “Israel” when he lost a wrestling match with a stranger. Clinging and crippled, he prevailed!
  • Jacob was a weak father. He showed favoritism to one of his sons, Joseph, made him his own special robe (that really sounds effeminate, doesn’t it?), and protected him at home while his brothers were out doing the men’s work of tending flocks.
  • Jacob’s own sons knew their father was weak, and so they tricked him into thinking Joseph had been killed, driving Jacob into grief and depression.
  • In place of Joseph, Jacob then became overly protective of his youngest son, Benjamin, clinging to the boy lest he lose him too.
  • At the end of his life, Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons, crossing his hands and pronouncing the blessing on the younger son, to signify that God does not favor the firstborn or the strong, but chooses the unlikely.

Jacob the wimp, the mama’s boy, the effeminate one, the scaredy-cat, weak and insecure and ineffective — that’s who God chose to become Israel, the father of his old covenant people. Esau, the man’s man, the outdoorsman, the man of strength and muscle, the warrior who was unafraid of hard work or a fight didn’t make the cut. The very name of God’s chosen community is bound up with the story of an effeminate weakling!

You’ll want to make yourself some popcorn and go read the whole thing.

Transfiguration Sunday Sermon: “Managing Mystery (to within an Inch of Its Life)”

2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9

I think the closest I’ve ever been to a “mountaintop experience” was on a riverboat.

I had just arrived in Louisville, Kentucky to start attending seminary. Crescent Hill Baptist Church always rented the Belle of Louisville for a Wednesday night cruise around the time a fall semester started, and they always gave free tickets to incoming seminarians.

So in the fall of 1986 I hitched a ride with some classmates I barely knew and rode out to the riverboat to see the sights and maybe make new friends before plunging into my classes.

I assure you, my expectations for the evening were every bit as mundane as that. But as that great theologian Forrest Gump has said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re going to get.”

What I got was an impromptu hymn-sing in the middle of the Ohio River. I had already figured out that the guys on the second floor of Sampey Hall weren’t plain, normal Christians like me. We were a pretty diverse crowd of liberals, conservatives, closet Pentecostals, and Episcopal wannabes. To be honest, it had only been a week on campus and I was already beginning to wonder if I had made some kind of massive mistake.

But somehow, sitting around in a circle on the uppermost deck of the Belle of Louisville, as the sun was setting and a cool breeze was blowing, somebody—I don’t remember who—suggested a song, and two or three others joined in.

It didn’t take long before all of us were sharing our favorites: “Amazing Grace,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Those who knew how to harmonize did so. Those who didn’t just tried to keep up. It didn’t take too long for me to feel that everything was going to be alright in this strange new world of seminary education.

There were no bright lights, heavenly voices, whirlwinds, or chariots of fire. To be honest, there wasn’t much of anything but a cool river breeze and a bunch of guys who thought they could sing.

But somehow that gave me a fleeting glimpse of heaven.

I tell you this story because we have before us today two stories about mountaintops and the kinds of experiences people of faith sometimes have there. And I tell you this story because, strange and unlikely as it may seem, the Bible says that our destiny as Christians is to be like Jesus: not just in our ordinary lives, but in glory. “We shall be like him,” the Elder says in 1 John, “for we shall see him as he is.”

The Bible says we are destined for glory—a glory like that of Jesus, a glory that will make us shine with heavenly light.

On the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, the church traditionally reads the story of the Transfiguration. We climb to the top of the mountain each year, and we do it for the same reason Moses climbed Mount Nebo: to catch a glimpse of the promised land.

And that’s foolishness to a lot of people. You know what I mean. We’ve all heard the saying that some Christians are so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good. We all know we need to be engaged in feeding the hungry and working for a better society because the gospel of Jesus isn’t just about getting our ticket to heaven but about doing God’s work in the world. I’ve heard those sermons. I’ve preached those sermons!

Elijah rode to heaven on a whirlwind. The disciples caught a glimpse of Jesus in his heavenly glory. But I’ll forgive you if you think it might be somewhat abstract or irrelevant—and maybe even just a tad selfish—to think much about heaven.

You may have heard how Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, declared in a recent interview with the British newspaper The Guardian that there is no heaven. In fact, he called it a “fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.”

Now, Dr. Hawking is obviously a brilliant scientist, and he has every right to his opinions, but it strikes me as rather strange that someone whose work in theoretical physics opens the door for an infinite number of parallel universes would be so dogmatic about how many levels reality is allowed to have.

But I can’t fault him for wanting certainty. There’s a part of me as well that isn’t always comfortable with ambiguity, with mystery. It’s just human nature to want things tied down.

And, if we’re honest, maybe that desire for certainty has an influence on how we read these stories of heavenly chariots and divine voices. Believe me, I can understand how some people will read the Transfiguration story, arch their eyebrows with Spocklike skepticism.

It feels good to be able to sit back and admire how all our ducks line up in a row. If only that were what we were called to do. But in fact, God is not so much interested in whether we’ve got all our questions answered but rather that we follow.

Following doesn’t always seem like a great deal!

Did you notice that Elijah tried to convince Elisha to quit following him three times? But he wouldn’t. Elijah was his teacher and mentor, and Elisha was determined to stay with him until the end.

It wasn’t exactly a good time to be a prophet in Israel. Ahab’s unholy dynasty was still on the throne. Their imperial ambitions were about to be tested by a rebellion brewing in Moab, and Elijah had already been commissioned to go anoint Jehu, the army commander who would soon lead a coup against Ahab’s successors and proclaim himself King of Israel.

It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to hang around with Elijah during those days of turmoil.

And do I really need to spell out the turmoil in the life of Jesus? Six days before the scene in Mark 9, Jesus announced for the first time what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem— “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Three times in three chapters, Jesus predicts his coming death. Each time, he follows this up by teaching about the nature of discipleship: deny self, take up your cross and follow me; whoever wants to be first must (like a little child) be last of all; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and the greatest of all will be the servant of all.

Amazingly, six days after Jesus first called them to deny themselves and take up their crosses, the disciples—like Elisha—were still following.

But I don’t know if they felt good about it. I’m pretty sure they wished someone could explain to them precisely what was going to happen.

But then Jesus takes three of them—Peter, James, and John—on an unannounced mountain-climbing expedition. For a moment, they receive a glimpse of glory. It’s just a glimpse, just a momentary flash, but it gives them an inkling of where they are heading.

In the midst of their human fears and struggles, they see heavenly power. When Jesus arrives at the mountaintop his figure is changed, and the outside of him, which had always been ordinary and like us, shone as if he was not like one of us at all.

Now, the nature of the Transfiguration is not obvious. Was it a “literal” metamorphosis or transformation of Jesus? Was it an ecstatic vision on the part of the three disciples? Was it, as some scholars suspect, a misplaced resurrection story?

Whatever we think of this episode, we must tread carefully. Nothing is easier for Christians who have become over-familiar with the Gospel texts and traditions than to domesticate and diminish them. We have become quite accomplished at taming and trivializing these indescribable moments of grace.

We’ll open the door for a little bit of mystery—but not too much! Best to keep these things manageable, domesticated, under control. The Transfiguration exposes our inclinations toward sucking the life out of the Gospel stories lest they make us uncomfortable. Let’s face it: it’s easier to deal with the Jesus we’ve got figured out—even if he doesn’t look an awful lot like the one who meets us in the pages of Scripture. In her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard asks:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets! Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews! For the sleeping God may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return.

We have become quite adept at managing mystery. Sometimes we manage it to within an inch of its life. One way we attempt to manage mystery is by shoving it to one side when it gets too threatening. But there’s something else we can do. Sometimes we try to turn it into a commodity.

What do you say when heaven breaks out all around? The old hymn says, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand.” I don’t think Peter knew that hymn!

Leave it to Peter to provide us an unfiltered commentary on the events in this passage. First he says the obvious: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

Then he begins to make a plan to prolong the experience. “How about we just stay up here on the mountain, Lord? We can set up tents for you and Elijah and Moses. Does that sound like a good idea?”

Now, Mark tries to cover for Peter by telling us he didn’t know what to say because they all were terrified. He’s probably right. When something scares us, we want to feel we can control it, make it conform to something we understand. A tent or three would provide some structure for what was happening and hopefully keep it going—just at a safe distance. Peter saw mystery as something like a power source that ought to be available whenever needed and directed towards the ends he desired.

In college I visited for a while New Hope Baptist Church in Ypsilanti, Michigan before I finally landed at the church where I spent the remainder of my college years. There was a nice older fellow there (let’s call him John) who sort of befriended me during those few months at New Hope.

John and his wife seemed to be the kind of plain, simple Christians that makes up the majority in every congregation in the world. He was sincere in his faith and very welcoming toward me. But I heard he left New Hope not too long after I did. I don’t know the details, but I remember him complaining later that he had left New Hope for another church because “that’s where the Spirit is.”

Later, I suppose the Spirit came back to New Hope, because John did, too. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” And that ought to warn any of us against getting so wrapped up in mountaintop experiences that we fail to notice the Spirit’s elusive blowing.

Some believers seem to think they should be in a constant state of spiritual stimulation. If the Spirit won’t cooperate, we’ll pull up our tent stakes and move from one experience to another, looking for more and more amazing things, like a drug addict for whom a lesser fix no longer has the kick it used to.

Do you remember what happened in the story six days previously, when Jesus announced he was going to die in Jerusalem? Peter rebuked Jesus for even raising that possibility. And Jesus had to remind him to focus on divine things, not human things.

Peter had problems with figuring out which was which. And in his defense, it isn’t entirely obvious that the most divine thing is not to be a conquering, triumphant messiah but to face a humiliating death.

Getting stuck on Peter’s mountaintop wasn’t part of Jesus’ plan. He was still on a journey, you see. He was on his way to his own mountaintop in Jerusalem. And getting there meant his death.

The voice of God rings out: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And we know what Jesus is saying. Follow me. Follow me all the way down this mountain, and into Jerusalem. Follow me all the way to the cross.

What if, instead of managing mystery, we decided we simply tried to accept and embrace it? We do, after all, need heavenly strength sometimes in the midst of human trials.

But accepting and embracing mystery means that God is at liberty to either show up or not. And so an attitude of openness to mystery requires that we also accept and embrace the ordinary. God doesn’t just show up on mountaintops. God also shows up on riverboats, or picnic tables, or hospital rooms, or even (I’ve heard it rumored) church sanctuaries.

The problem with ecstatic experiences is that they never last. They’re not supposed to. Maybe the problem with us is we think they should. But things like this are meant to be rare. We can’t have Easter every Sunday, either. We’d wear ourselves out if we did.

The most striking thing about the Transfiguration story is how it ends. Actually, both stories end similarly. There is blazing glory. There is fear in the presence of the Holy. There are things to see and hear.

Then, suddenly, everything is back to normal.

Right? Maybe normal, but hopefully different.

Mountaintops don’t last, but they do have staying power. My faith is still strengthened by something that happened to me twenty-five years ago on a riverboat. We can travel far on the unearned and unexpected blessings God provides. By God’s grace, we can even receive a glimpse of Easter that will help us get through Lent.

In the midst of daily struggles, doubts, apprehensions, and frustrations, every now and then, when we least expect it and have done nothing to earn it, we find heavenly strength.

We find it not by managing the mystery but by following the Savior. Like the disciples, and like Elisha, we must accept and embrace not only the mountaintops but also the deserts and the valleys. Because Jesus promised he’d be with us—whether we see his glory or not.

Which brings us to this table. What an ordinary thing it is! It’s kind of silly, if you think about it. How odd to think that God could wrap a mystery in a nibble of bread and a sip of wine. But let’s do ourselves a favor and resist the urge to manage, organize, quantify, and domesticate whatever it is that Jesus intends to do when he breaks the bread and pours the cup.

It’s not our job to manage the mystery. It’s simply our job to follow—and sometimes, through pure grace, to receive a glimpse of glory and be good stewards of it.

Brothers and sisters, Christ is here. The top of Poplar is a stop on his road to Jerusalem. The Beloved Son of God is with us, speaking to us, urging us to follow. Listen to him.

And be careful when you celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s supper. Think twice before you receive that bread. Watch out as you lift that cup to your lips.

The God you serve is full of mystery, and you don’t know what you’re going to get.