“We must go through many hardships…” Really?

Acts 14: 22 Paul and Barnabas encouraged the believers to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.

I have often heard this verse discussed as if Paul meant that in order to get to heaven, we would have to endure hard many difficulties and trials in life, as if what Jesus did on the cross isn’t enough to provide the way for us to enter heaven when we die. (By the way, that’s outrageous heresy – as far back as the Apostles’ Creed Christians would decry that kind of thought, not to mention Paul’s epistles themselves). Some translations make it out explicitly like that: “We must suffer a lot to enter the kingdom of God” (Names of God translation,) or “We have to suffer a lot before we can get into God’s kingdom” (Contemporary English Version).

There’s an unspoken (but sometimes spoken) theology-of-the-masses in contemporary Christianity that it will be hard to be a Christian and it is set up that way to see if we are worthy, blah blah blah.

I think there’s some very bad, unhealthy theology in there. “We MUST go through MANY hardships” to simply come home to where we were made for? What kind of Father would that make God? Certainly not the one in the story of the Prodigal Son! That Father (whom Jesus clearly means to be seen as a metaphor for God Himself)  is much more loving than that – he doesn’t require the Son to go through all kinds of stuff once he has been accepted and forgiven! When people experience hardship, they may comfort themselves with this verse, but I think that creates a warped view of what kind of god God is. I think there is a much better way to understand this verse.

Take it like this:  to cause God’s kingdom to happen on earth (something Jesus talked continually about), it will take effort and difficulty to push through and cause change. It’s long, slow, sometimes difficult work – just like gardening or farming, both images Jesus used for the Kingdom often. Gardening is sometimes easy and natural processes are rolling; other times, if you are going to succeed, you need to put some real effort into it… not give up if it gets strenuous. Like giving birth, – some of it happens once things get going, and other parts require hard pushing through. To work for the flowering of the Kingdom on earth, the leaven working its way through the whole batch of dough, we will sometimes face resistance and even counter-attack by systems and unjust social constructs, not to mention the people and philosophies entrenched in them, reflective even of the real presence of evil. But the quintessential Christian methods of love, mercy, forgiveness, and prayer (to mention some of the biggies) are the tools we reach for in the patient, sometimes difficult, working for God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And we know that God works through these methods to bring about change and new life. (And, thank God, sometimes it isn’t terribly hard, and people embrace the Kingdom with joy).

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“That’s Just A Feel Good Church”

On the way to a foreign embassy yesterday, I enjoyed six hours in the car with my 77 year old dad. Amidst all the family history and updates, we talked about a second cousin of mine.

It’s a sad story, a young man raised in tragic circumstances, removed from his family for years by Children’s Services, finally to be returned traumatized, a recluse, prone to uncontrollable rage, and possessing zero social skills. Nearby is a big non-denominational church who has reached out to this young man’s extended family.

His young uncle, who attends a traditional Pentecostal church that is big on shouting about sin, fire and brimstone, said disparagingly about the big church, “Oh, that’s just a feel-good church.”

And I said to my dad: that’s exactly what my young second-cousin needs. He needs a place where people will come around him, love him, make him feel worth and valued, draw him into community, a place where he will begin to feel the powerful virtue of goodness  – and a church where there are competent counseling professionals who can help this poor kid sort through all the things that have happened to him in life and experience some healing. I said to dad, he needs that A WHOLE LOT MORE than he needs to hear about his sins, God’s wrath, and hell.

I hope this finds you well.

Sources of Christian Pessimism and How Wesley Saw It

In the last post I wrote about the optimism the Gospel brings to my life.  In fact, as I read back some of these blogs, I don’t like that my sense of irony, playful sarcasm and critique sound pessimistic. I think people who follow Jesus and work for His Kingdom have every reason to be the most upbeat, optimistic, hope-filled people on the planet. I want to caveat about contexts where great persecution or starvation persist, although, incredibly, folks there seem to have a much better handle on joy than we in the comfortable West do!

I do, however, run in many western Christians who are very gloom and doom, even in their theology! For sure, childhood experiences, temperament, or wounds in life cause pessimism. However, I suspect there are also a couple of theology reasons: first, some versions of Reformed theology have a pretty gloomy view of this life on earth, and we just need to hold on until we get to heaven. For the record, I’m not laying that at Calvin’s door.

Secondly, the predominant American view of St. John’s Apocalypse/ the Book of Revelation is so awful, nearsightedly tied to newspaper headlines (even though that approach has utterly failed for twenty centuries!), and pessimistic, that it’s no surprise people assume things will get worse and worse and then the end ( a comment Jesus makes about Jerusalem and the Jewish-Roman War, but taken by Americans and those they influence to mean something at the end of time, which of course must be our time, since it’s all about us!).

Fortunately, a look at history refreshingly shows that the world is not getting worse and worse. The leaven of the Kingdom of God has indeed been working its way through the batch of dough. The influence of the Way of Jesus has had marvelous results in the last 2,000 years.  Our mis-use of the Apocalypse brings pessimistic, and often very fear-driven, worldviews that shadow peoples’ lives and folks miss out on a lot of joy. The Gospel gives us every reason to be optimistic, upbeat, and hope-filled.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists understood this. In his sermon The General Spread of the Gospel, after leaving no stone unturned describing the ills of the world and fallen-short Christianity, Wesley then goes on to argue, using profuse Scripture, that God is wonderfully at work in the world and that surely the power of the Gospel is such that we can have great hope that the whole world will come to faith in Christ:

in general, it seems, the kingdom of God will not “come with observation;” but will silently increase, wherever it is set up, and spread from heart to heart, from house to house, from town to town, from one kingdom to another. 

…. And in every nation under heaven, we may reasonably believe, God will observe the same order which he hath done from the beginning of Christianity. “They shall all know me, saith the Lord;” not from the greatest to the least (this is that wisdom of the world which is foolishness with God;) but “from the least to the greatest;” that the praise may not be of men, but of God. Before the end, even the rich shall enter into the kingdom of God. Together with them will enter in the great, the noble, the honourable; yea, the rulers, the princes, the kings of the earth. Last of all, the wise and learned, the men of genius, the philosophers, will be convinced that they are fools; will be “converted, and become as little children,” and “enter into the kingdom of God.

…. All unprejudiced persons may see with their eyes, that He is already renewing the face of the earth: And we have strong reason to hope that the work he hath begun, he will carry on unto the day of the Lord Jesus; that he will never intermit this blessed work of his Spirit, until he has fulfilled all his promises, until he hath put a period to sin, and misery, and infirmity, and death; and re-established universal holiness and happiness, and caused all the inhabitants of the earth to sing together, “Hallelujah, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!” “Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever!”

In this sermon, he even goes as far as to attempt to predict the order, the geographical sequence of nations in which the Gospel would succeed, first to last! Humorous as that seems, one thing for sure, the power and grace of the Gospel made Wesley an optimist.

Working our way backwards to, not forward from, the Virgin Birth

When I’m drinking coffee with someone poking around on the edges of Christian faith, one of the things that sometimes comes up (especially this time of year), is serious doubt about the Virgin Birth. I’ve come to the spot where I no longer try to convince people of the Virgin Birth, rather I think it’s a doctrine we work our way backwards to; after discovering more and more what God is like in our own lives, it becomes easier to believe this God could and would do something like a Virgin Birth. Trying to get someone over the intellectual hurdle of the Virgin Birth before they can exert some faith in Christ seems to me, after 20+ years of full time pastoral experience, to be going about this from the wrong direction. I don’t know anyone under the age 50 who ever came to faith by saying “Well, since the Bible says Jesus was born of a virgin, he must be God!” That would be to suppose that people already assume the Bible is true, something by no means the case today.

So the conversation for me often looks something like this: First, I don’t follow Jesus or believe in the Creator God because of the truth or untruth of a doctrine like the Virgin Birth. Even if it turned out that the Virgin Birth was just a way Matthew and Luke were saying  Jesus was from God but not to be taken literally (though I think there are strong historical reasons why neither of them would want to write anything like the Virgin Birth narrative unless they believed it to be utterly and literally true – far too risky considering the easy comparison to Greco-Roman mythology – both of these men were demonstrably very smart thinkers; and no one, as far as we can tell, in the 400 years from Isaiah to Matthew, ever put together the idea of Immanuel and the Messiah until Matthew himself does – so it isn’t a case of text-proofing), I would still follow Jesus for all the reasons I believe doing so is the smart human option. I don’t do it due to his birth circumstances.

Second, after we “taste and see that the Lord is good,” after we get an experience little by little of what living the way of Jesus is like, and experiencing the strange and new experience of having His Spirit at work in our hearts and minds, we start to find ourselves trusting His way (and Himself!) more and more. As our based-on-experience time accumulates and we watch things happen in life that we have a hard time explaining outside of God, we become more and more aware that there are things God is doing in our lives supernaturally. We see situations change, prayer affect peoples’ hearts, hard-to-explain healings, and other things occur to the extent that we begin to find it easier and easier to believe that the God working in Jesus really did heal people (no one in that generation ever claimed he didn’t – they just accused him of black magic), and from there it becomes easier to believe that this God would do something extraordinary like a Virgin Birth, as well. When you’ve experienced the presence of God working in your own life more and more, and found yourself changing as a result in ways that delight you, when you’ve seen miracles occur, it becomes easier and easier to reason your way backwards then, to something like the Virgin Birth.

“Until then,” I usually say, “I wouldn’t worry overmuch about the Virgin Birth. I don’t mind if you believe it or not. I’m not saying disregard it, I don’t believe in intellectual dishonesty – it always backfires. But maybe it’s a subject you can always come back to, anytime you want. Right now, I’d suggest you set it off to the side for the moment.  At this point in your life, there may be more compelling reasons to consider trying out the way of Jesus. And you may find that the results shed new light on this whole question.”

To me. this approach makes the Virgin Birth a doctrine we work our way backwards to, rather than forwards from.

Emerging Churches believe the modern church’s evangelistic success is declining

Over a decade ago, a new kind of church began appearing that was, in many respects, very different than other churches on the landscape. As a catch-all term, I will use the word ’emerging’ to describe them, since they often identified with that term for several years.

Emerging churches observe that the church in the modern era, while it accomplished many wonderful things, has gradually become less and less effective at drawing people in our changing culture to life-changing experiences with Jesus.

Postmodern Christians realize that the cultural matrix that modern churches developed in – has changed dramatically.They believe that, in order to communicate the gospel effectively to a culture that no longer knows it by heart, we need to apply the insights learned by missionaries in other cultures about contextualization. They also believe that failure to do so is one of the chief reasons behind why the modern church’s evangelistic success has been waning.

Dan Kimball says it like this in his excellent book The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations “While many of us have been preparing sermons and keeping busy with the internal affairs of our churches, something alarming has been happening on the outside. What was once a Christian nation with a Judeo-Christian worldview is quickly becoming a post-Christian, unchurched, unreached nation…. the fifth largest mission field in the world.” (The Emerging Church, 13-14).

A member of a super-modern church said to me “People who visit church already know what we’re about and what we believe.” I contend nothing could be further from accurate.  Emerging churches realize that the people in our culture do not already know the Bible’s characters nor themes. Doubt it? Remember The Tonight Show’s clips on the streets of New York asking basic bible questions like “Who was bigger, David or Goliath” or “Name one of the 12 disciples”. Or, consider the much-told story of the two young women at a jewelry counter. Do you know that story? They are looking at cross necklaces. One girl says to the other “Are you going to get a cross with the little man on it, or one without the little man?” The other girl responds “What’s with the little man? Why would someone want a little man on their cross?” Emerging churches understand that postmodern people may think ‘Trinity’ refers to Neo’s girlfriend in The Matrix. 

Kimball has said “We start in the middle of a story that they don’t know or that they know very little about mainly through negative experiences. We offer them escape from a peril they don’t know they face, and we use words that either aren’t part of their vocabulary or that they don’t correctly understand.” (Kimball, The Emerging Church, 172).

I start with this point, because it informs so much of what has created the raison d’etre    for emerging churches. Members of emerging churches want the message of Jesus effectively getting to our culture. I stand squarely in the middle of historic and evangelical Christianity in affirming them in this desire.

So, modern church, what’s all that mean? It means this: It’s time we apply missionary science 101 in postmodern culture.

What’s good about this? What’s wonderful about knowing the church is not doing so great in evangelism? Simply this: waking up and smelling the reality is essential to dealing with reality. The first step in addressing an issue, is knowing there is one. Remember the men of the tribe of Issachar:  “…who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”   (1 Chronicles 12: 32).

 

The Paradox of Invoking Jesus’ Name on Acts of Kindness

During our recent  snowpocalypse one of our neighbors had just had a knee replacement and the other is pregnant and the storms at times hit when her husband was not home. As a result I had three houses, driveway entrances and curbs to deal with. No big. That’s what good neighbors are for. I was thankful for the hours logged in at PlanetFitness.  And hot coffee. My neighbors were effusive in their expressions of thanks.

It got me thinking about ‘good deeds’ and ‘acts of kindness’. Many evangelicals feel that they should dutifully invoke Jesus’ name over acts of kindness. As in, “I’m doing this in Jesus’ name” or “well, it’s what Jesus would want me to do” or “Well, I’m a Christian” or “it’s what Jesus would do” aka WWJD. All that is well and good, and true to boot. I have enormous respect for what I am told is Samaritan’s Purse’s forthright tag-line: “We are doing this in Jesus’ name.”

However, there seems a paradoxical, counter-productive downside to me in everyday  life.  If we invoke Jesus’ name over some of these acts, what are we implying? Do people hear us saying “Well, I wouldn’t do this for you, except it’s my religious duty as a Christian” or “I’m doing this because I feel pressure that Jesus wants me to” or “I don’t care about you enough to do this on my own, my religion prescribes it” or “I have ulterior motives in helping you: I’m hoping that by doing this, you will see that Christianity is a good thing and maybe come over to our side”? And how does that make people feel about our help?

While it may be true that some people would not shovel a neighbor out if they weren’t a Christian (some people are certainly kinder than others by temperament), I suspect it’s often counter-productive to talk this way. It would be hard for me to sort out why I am the kind of person happy to help someone out;  I became a Christian when I was 12 and it has certainly been the primary influence on my development. However, the fact is: I didn’t shovel my neighbors out as a sense of religious duty, nor with ulterior motives, nor out of guilt, nor because I thought God was breathing down my neck, nor because I felt bad Jesus died for my sins, nor because I thought it would earn me points in heaven, (now points on an elk tag draw would be another story), nor because I wanted the label ‘Christian’ to look good, nor because I asked myself WWJD. No, I shoveled them out because they needed help and I was there. It needed done. These are people I care about. No big.

The paradoxical, counter-productive part of invoking Jesus’ name is when we do so and people think  something like “wow, they wouldn’t have helped me because they care about me, or out of the goodness of their heart, they did it as a religious obligation.” And what does it say when a person who is NOT a believer in Jesus is willing and happy to shovel someone out? How about when a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or NASCAR fan shovels them out, without any faith in Jesus? If you ask me, it makes it look like they are good enough to do it on their own, and I need Jesus to raise me to a Hindu, Muslim or NASCAR level of goodness.  Invoking Jesus’ name, often done in attempt to communicate something good, may well communicate something else.  I would hate for my neighbors to say to themselves,  “Gosh, I would have shoveled Todd out just out of the goodness of my own heart and because he’s my neighbor, but he only does it because of his religion.” An act of religious zeal or duty, not genuine goodness or authentic compassion.

Ironically, there are times, I think, when the better witness for Jesus, is to not invoke His name. To make it out as if Jesus made you do it may send the message that you are less morally developed as a Christian, rather than more.

This Is What Churches Should Do

Ok, I’ve been out most all week deer hunting in my spare time, so finally here it is:

(names are changed)

Rhoda is a single mom struggling to make ends meet. Her brother and sister in law used to worry about her involvement in New Age spirituality or Wicca. She became a Christian at our church around 5 years ago. Almost immediately she became a Super Inviter, drawing all kinds of people in.

Jimmy and Fire arrived in our town about a year ago with their 3 children, the clothes on their back and five dollars. They put their kids up at Fire’s mom’s place since they had no way to take care of them; they had no home, no jobs, no food. They had smashed their life against the rocks of addiction in Florida. Rhoda had known Fire in school, so this single mom with two kids of her own struggling to make ends meet said to Jimmy and Fire “move in with me until you can get life together.” Rhoda put out word and people at our church started gathering things this family of 5 would need.

Rhoda invited Jimmy and Fire to church. They decided this was a point in life to make a change. Within a very short time they had tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and turned their lives over to Him. Prayer and a new life of faith became the norm for them.  Their repentance (metanoia – about face) was the real deal. They both got jobs, started living responsibly and got their kids back. They got an apartment. Rhoda put out word and the people of our church outfitted the place from top to bottom with what a family of five needs to live. We’re talking furniture, kitchen gear, bedclothes, you name it. Our congregation showed them love. A family in our church gave them a minivan. (Keep in mind the people in my church are not rich! Many, if not most, of them would qualify for government assistance). All this happened without anyone asking me. The pastor was not the one who orchestrated all this.

Jimmy and Fire are at Sunday morning small group, Wednesday nights and Sunday worship.  They are engaged in learning and growing. They’ve made relationships with other couples and brought people to church. They renewed their lease recently for the first time in their married life. “That felt good,” Jimmy told me. They’ve received their one year sobriety coins. They help other people. They ask me for ways to give back to the church. They are both enrolled in college on-line. When I told Jimmy I happened to have a battery for his van, his reply was “Thanks man, but let me be a man and get my family our own battery.”

God is very clearly doing wonderful things in Jimmy and Fire’s lives. Rhoda was a gift of God to them, gave them a base to get their feet under them. As part of that, I can’t help but think that our church reaching into their lives tangibly beyond Sunday worship had something to do with their incredible turn around. I know we hesitate to prescribe things all churches should do, however I believe this is exactly the kind of thing churches should be doing.