Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Obedience of Faith

Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (ESV)
This morning I read Romans 1 as part of my devotional reading. One phrase from the above paragraph kept coming back to mind throughout the day - "the obedience of faith".  The NIV renders it as "the obedience that comes from faith". 

My first thought was personal. My faith, the beliefs in the truths of Scripture, my trust in Christ my King...all of this ought to lead to obedience. There is a malfunction in my faith if it isn't leading to obedience.

My second thought was church related. This was Paul's goal; it ought to be ours too. Not just acceptance of doctrines, not just faith by itself, but faith accompanied by works, trust and obedience. Not cheap grace and flimsy faith, but vital faith that produces the fruit of obedience.

Paul holds together two great doctrines we have driven a wedge between - justification and sanctification. They are different, but go together. Justification is by faith. So is sanctification. Justification precedes sanctification, but is never found all by itself.

These two doctrines go hand in hand because both are found in, and only in, union with Christ. It is by being united to Christ that we receive his righteousness and are declared 'saints' before God's bar. But, being united to Christ means his life flows through us and pushes itself out in good works, in love and in holiness. We can't be united to Christ for one, justification, and not the other.

Paul's ambition should be ours - obedience from faith for the sake of his name!

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Shakespeare and Cats

Imagine with me two actors stepping onto stage to do a scene. One of these actors is dressed in a traditional Elizabethan costume - fine, clean, almost regal. The other actor, is in a Cat costume. They begin delivering their lines, and they are very clearly reading from a different script, with a different setting, different use of language, etc.

That was me. And, it is indicative of many churches and the fundamentalist church culture. We were cats on stage in a Shakespearean play. We were out of place, looked odd, talked funny. I wore shirts that said "His Pain, Your Gain." I listened to different music (Petra, Degarmo and Key, Stryper if I was in a spandex mood), read different books, spent my time in different ways (though we had a weakness for movies, so on that point there was commonality between me and my non church friends).

Looking back, there was benefit to this kind of church culture. It was clear we were to be different; we were living a different story. But it is possible that these kinds of superficial differences between the church and the wider surrounding culture can, I'm afraid, mask points of alikeness - even sinful alikeness. We may listen to different music and wear weird tshirts, but do we still love money, worship power, etc.?

Imagine a different, but similar scenario. Two actors walk onto stage, both wearing the same Elizabethan type costume. Both deliver their lines with the same accent, cadence. It takes a little while because of the similarities, but eventually you realize that they too are reading from different scripts. One is reading from Othello, the other Hamlet. Different stories, but similar in more ways than Shakepeare and Cats.

That, I feel is an appropriate illustration for much of modern evangelicalism. We're similar to the wider culture in many ways - and that is not always inappropriate. One can listen to U2, or even Megadeth on occasion and enjoy the talent of these musicians, even be edified by truths the speak of in their lyrics. I can buy some shirts from Old Navy and not all from Christian bookstores. I can read non Christian novels. I watch many of the same shows and movies (though not all) that my non-church going friends do.  Many similarities. But many very important differences.

The challenge is that these differences are not always easy to notice.  They differences are less superficial and more nuanced, not at the level of fashion or musical preferences, but of loves and priorities. For this reason, it is easy for watchers to think we're reading from the same script, at least for a while.

I think this is true for our kids too; after all, our kids are our biggest watchers. Growing up in a fundamentalist background, we knew we were 'aliens and strangers'. It's not as clear to my kids, I would suspect. The differences aren't as blaring, not as noticeable to the naked eye.

So I, and all parents of kids in evangelical or mainline churches need to be more vigilant, pointing out where the scripts for the Christian and the nonChristian diverge. Our kids need to know that they're living in a different story and a different plot line. It won't be as obvious as when you see a Cat on stage with Romeo, but it's incredibly important. So, we need to be vocal about our loves, motivations, priorities, etc. And, we need to make sure out kids have a firm grip on the central story of God and his people!

We need to do this work of reminding ourselves, and our kids we're in God's story.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Complete Reading List 2016

BOOKS 2016 (Rated out of five thumbs up)

The Theology of Augustine, Matthew Levering 👍👍👍👍
Augustine on the Christian Life, Gerald Bray 👍👍👍👍
Confessions, St. Augustine 👍👍👍👍👍
What is the Mission of the Church, Kevin DeYoung 👍👍👍👍
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande 👍👍👍👍
The Man Of Sin, Kim Riddlebarger 👍👍👍
1&2 Thessalonians, John Stott 👍👍👍
Religions Next Door, Marvin Olasky 👍👍
Christianity and Religious Pluralism, Harold Netland 👍👍👍👍
The Baptized Body, Peter Leithart 👍👍👍
Public Faith, Miroslav Volf 👍👍👍
Silence, Endo 👍👍👍👍👍
Ordinary, Michael Horton 👍👍👍👍
Silence and Beauty, Fujimura 👍👍👍
Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic Age 👍👍👍
Janson Equation, Robert Ludlum 👍👍
Blood in the Water (Destroyermen Series), Taylor Anderson 👍👍👍👍
Only One Way, DCosta, Knitter and Strange 👍👍👍
A Theology of Inclusivism, Neal Punt 👍👍👍
Who Can Be Saved, Terrance Thiessen 👍👍👍👍
Top Secret, WEB Griffin 👍👍👍👍
Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance 👍👍👍👍
Assassination Option, WEB Griffin 👍👍
The Samauri, Endo 👍👍👍👍👍
To Change the World, James Davidson Hunter 👍👍👍👍
Introduction to the Blues, Elijah Wald 👍👍👍
How not to be Secular, James Smith 👍👍👍

Friday, December 16, 2016

My Best Reads of 2016 (Fiction)

So my 'Best of 2016' list is not the best books published in 2016, it's the best one's I read during the year. My pics this year range from fiction, to theology, to biography. I really enjoyed some good books this year.

Fiction

1. Silence and The Samurai by Endo. These two books are heartbreaking, but important. Fewer than one percent of Japan is Christian, but that was not always the case. In the fifteen and sixteen hundreds, Japan was the focus of a massive mission effort by the Catholic Church of which Francis Xavier was the pioneer. Thousands of Japansese became Christians during this time. But, it wasn't long before the church in Japan fell under relentless persecution and many fell away from the faith (though not all - there is also the history of the hidden church in Japan that continued, cut off from the larger church, and morphed in inexplicable ways).  These two novels explore the mixed motives of the missionaries, the converts, and the faithful. They wrestle with questions related to persecution and apostasy, raising questions we, in the West, out to be thinking about. The novel Silence is considered one of the great novels of the twentieth century, has inspired musicians (Symphony #3 "Silence," by MacMillan), and is a soon to be released motion picture by Martin Scorsese.

Soon I will be posting favorite Biographies, books on culture, Christian living, and theology of 2016.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

I call Bulls--t!


This week I read an article that a friend posted on Facebook. I shouldn’t have, it rarely turns out well. Normally though, it doesn’t produce such rage and almost never the kind of tirade you’ll be reading if you continue.The article was so bad, it has brought me out of blogging retirement.

Sam Eaton begins his article, “12 Reasons Millennials are Over the Church,” by stating he wants to love and be excited by the church, but just can’t. Cool. I guess Jesus would be okay with that right? The church has blemishes and sin. It’s not perfect. What is there to love? At least you want to love it Sam. 

But wait, didn’t Jesus love us when we had blemishes, sin and were generally unlovable! Didn’t Christ command us to love others, though they’re flawed and sinful, just as he loved us in our wretchedness. And, doesn’t Christ love his church – yes HIS CHURCH, his Bride, warts and pimples and all. It seems to be an inescapable conclusion: if we’re Christ followers who love him, we MUST love his church, not just want to love it. And here is my real, big picture problem with Sam and his article – he is justifying a lack of love for the church, giving space for millennials (or anyone really) to feel as if their lack of love for the church is acceptable. IT IS NOT.

I know Sam doesn’t speak for all millennials. I know plenty of them who are engaged with the church, love the church, and serve her not because they’re blind to its faults, but because they know their own, and they know how they contribute to the church’s beauty and mess.
What reasons does Eaton give for not loving the church? Here they are, point by [ridiculous] point (with my thoughts interspersed).

1.      Nobody’s Listening to Us
Sam writes,Millennials value voice and receptivity above all else.” He bemoans that the church plugs along without listening to the millennials and their concern. I have a stereotype of millennials, and unfortunately Eaton plays right into it. These comments are so self-centered and unaware, as if millennials are the first generation that wanted to be heard. He does know about the 60s, right?!  I want to say to Sam and those whom he speaks for, “Maybe the church heard your concerns and listened to your advice and didn’t take it. Maybe the institutional wisdom borne out of centuries outweighs your feelings and insights, you annoying little brat.” Ok, maybe that truth needs a little more grace seasoned in there, but he sounds like to twelve year old whose parents refuse to let him do whatever he wants and complains that no one understands him and gets him. No, we got you, but you aren’t always going to get what you want.
Eaton offers solutions. I selected a few.
  • “Create regular outlets (forums, surveys, meetings) to discover the needs of young adults both inside AND outside the church.”  Hmmm. Maybe, just maybe, we have a book that tells us what millennials need, and boomers and xers and generation-whatever-comes-nexters too!  Really, we need a focus group? Dumb.
  • “Invite millennials to serve on leadership teams or advisory boards where they can make a difference.” Again, this is so typically millennial it really is the low hanging fruit. I have something to say, I want to be a leader, I am ENTITLED to lead, so give me a role in leadership. Earn it? No. Give it to me!  But, maybe he has a point. No, no he doesn’t. The church I serve in has lots of millennials as deacons, small group leaders, even elders. I like that. But, I also believe these leadership roles should be guarded, ensuring people who occupy them have shown themselves to be qualified, hold sound doctrine, live upright and godly lives, etc. And, part of that would probably mean not bitchin and moaning that the church doesn’t do things my way. Sam, not been asked to serve as an elder? I think I know why!
  • Hire a young adults pastor who has the desire and skill-set to connect with millennials. Ok, so there’s no millennials in the church (he has stats to prove it), but we should hire a pastor to connect with them. What percentage of churches have a budget to hire a full-time pastor to the millennials?  Very few I think. So Sam is likely talking here to about 1% of churches.
2. We’re Sick of Hearing About Values & Mission Statements
Well, on point two, we may agree. I do think the church has overdone it when it comes to adopting business models, including value and mission statements, strategic plans, etc.. Any you know what, that was in response to boomers and their generational paradigm. In a few generations, the youngins will hate hearing about ‘being authentic’ and ‘just serving’.  He writes, “We’re not impressed…with Christianese words on paper. We’re impressed with actions and service.” And there it is…the church exists to impress the millennial. That kind of thinking is often in the background; it makes it easier when it bubbles to the surface.

3. Helping the Poor Isn’t a Priority
Cough, cough, Sam-you’re-an-idiot, cough.  He urges us to “clock the number of hours the average church attender spends in ‘church-type’ activities. Bible studies, meetings, groups, social functions, book clubs, planning meetings, talking about building community, discussing a new mission statement…” and then compare it to the hours spent “serving the least of these.”  His response, “oooo, awkward.”

Jackass. (As you can tell, this point gets me pretty steamed, because it diminished the great work individual Christians and churches have been doing for centuries!) What if a good number of ‘the least of these’ are in our church activities and are being served – physically, socially, emotionally, and, oh yes, what the church is best equipped to do, serve them spiritually! 

Oh, and what about the many Christians who work in vocations where they serve, under the banner of Christ but in secular institutions, the least of these. Can we count their hours?  Like those who, in answer to a call on their lives, teach in impoverished communities, or work with foster families, or are employed by non-profits that feed the hungry. Do they and their hours count?

Oh, and what about all those Rescue Missions that care for the homeless in nearly every city. Who started those? Christians – often fundamentalist Christians!  And the Salvation Army. And Groups like World Vision, IJM…

Oh, the poorest countries. Who goes there? Lots of great organizations – Peace Corps, Red Cross, World Vision…and missionaries, sent by the church. Often the missionaries were the first to go.

Oh, and what about the work of the deacons…in most churches, aren’t they serving the needy?

4. We’re Tired of You Blaming the Culture
Ok, I don’t know what he means by ‘blaming the culture.’  I don’t know how the church blames the culture. We do point out the darkness in the culture, and hopefully celebrate light where we find it. Is this blaming? To point to violence, rampant immorality that is deemed perfectly acceptable, etc., is that blaming culture? If so, how can we “explicitly teach” how to live life differently from the culture, something you explicitly demand of the church, if we don’t point out the sin of our culture.

5.  The “You Can’t Sit With Us” Affect
He complains that there are cliques in church and suggests we seek a kind and more compassionate way to be, different from what people are used to outside.

My response…some people in your church are self-centered jerks if they say or imply that you can’t sit with them. That doesn’t mean my church is clique free. In a sense, we encourage cliques, but call them friendships. We also encourage people to be open and generous with their friendships.

And, please remember, Sam, that churches are made up of sinful people who are striving to get over themselves and their sinful tendencies, including the tendency to exclude others. You have your annoying and sinful traits too. Fixing them doesn’t happen all at one!

His solutions? They are ridiculous.
  • “Create authentic communities with a shared purpose centered around service.” Ok, we’ll give that a try. Hadn’t thought of it before, but sounds good. Idiot. You do it – tell me when it’s done. We haven’t sought inauthentic communities, but sometimes they happen. They will in your generation too – maybe people will fake authenticity, then they’ll be inauthentically authentic. Awesome. And service again. What about worship…can we have a group centered around that? Or learning? If everything is serving, where do we get to learn about the one who served us!?
  • “Create and train a team of CONNECT people whose purpose is to seek out the outliers on Sunday mornings or during other events.” Ok, don’t add programs. But get a team and train them? Sounds suspiciously like a program to me.
  • “Stop placing blame on individuals who struggle to get connected.” He speaks here of the introverts who are overwhelmed by the risk of putting themselves out there. Ok, I’ll agree in part – it’s hard for churches to figure out how to get some connected who won’t venture out, and we may not always do it well. But at some point, you either risk or you lose out. That’s how relationships work. The church maybe ought to do better and reaching out, but that’ll only be a part of the equation.
6. Distrust & Misallocation of Resources
Part of me agrees with Eaton here – we do need to encourage frugality. And, there should be a level of transparency. But the level of transparency he calls for would be soul-crushingly oppressive to those who worked in the church. He writes, “We want pain-staking transparency. We want to see on the church homepage a document where we can track every dollar.”  Holy Crap! Well, there goes massive amounts of time and energy! For someone who wants his money to go provide “food, clean water and shelter for someone in need” this is remarkably short sighted. Do the kind of reports he wants on every church’s homepage generate themselves? No, they take time and energy from people who could be better used serving the church and those outside the church.

Part of his solution: church workers should be “asked to justify each purchase.”  Again, Holy Crap! That’s stupid. Kids need more crayons in the nursery…call a meeting to justify the purchase. The toilet is running constantly in the men’s room, call a plumber. Oh no, wait to a have a meeting to justify to the suspicious why we need to purchase a new flapper. Books for small group…justify it.

In addition, he wants staff to ask constantly, “Could these dollars be used to better serve the kingdom?” Two things: first, does he ask this of every dollar he spends, say on his pumpkin spice lattes? How many homeless people could I feed with my fufu drink purchases in a week?  Second, every staff member I know works hard to make dollars count, often contributing their own funds to make events successful, ministries run, etc. 

AND, serving the church is serving the kingdom. Doesn’t he get this!? 

7. We Want to Be Mentored, Not Preached At
Sam contends, “Preaching just doesn’t reach our generation like our parents and grandparents.” Instead, “Millennials crave relationship, to have someone walking beside them through the muck.” Ok, the sermon portion of Sunday services is now cancelled. In its place, cuddle time for the millennials. Everyone, find yourself a millennial and cuddle up.

They want mentoring?! I thought they wanted to be heard? I thought the older generation’s ways just weren’t working?  

Hey, I value relationships, advocate for intergenerational discipleship, but this is a totally false dichotomy. You need preaching  AND discipleship; you need proclamation of truth AND relationships.

You don’t value preaching. So what! Should we rewrite Paul to accommodate what you value?  “Preach the word, until it’s not connecting and some youngings don’t think it’s valuable. Then, do whatever they think is valuable. That’ll be good.”

8. We Want to Feel Valued
Oh wait, we’re back to this one again. I thought this was point one. Ok, but this time IT’S WORSE!!! For one, his whining makes no sense.

We want to be valued, he says. Churches tend to rely heavily on young adults to serve, he contends. And also, “Millennials are told by this world from the second we wake up to the second we take a sleeping pill that we aren’t good enough. We desperately need the church to tell us we are enough, exactly the way we are. No conditions or expectations.”  What? 1 + 1 = 287?  I smell on non sequitur.

And theologically, it’s bulls--t! Millennials, you aren’t enough exactly the way you are. You are a stinky, smelly bag of sin and other nastiness. And, so am I. We’ll accept you, but with “no conditions or expectations”?  We won’t do that. We can’t. If we did that, we wouldn’t be very loving and we would cease to be ‘the church’!  Being a part of the church means accepting conditions, and it comes with a lot of expectations. Thank God there’s grace, because we all fall short of meeting them. But we can’t set them aside for you or your namby-pamby friends.

9. We Want You to Talk to Us About Controversial Issues (Because No One Is)
Now here I need to recognize that I serve in a church where our motto is “we may not have all the answers, but we’re not afraid of the questions.”  I feel like all we talk about sometimes is controversial issues. So, maybe there are churches that refuse to do so.

My biggest problem with this complaint is how he wants to address it. He acknowledges a sermon series on the nitty-grittys of sex may not be appropriate in a church service with kids, “but we have to create a place where someone older is showing us a better way because these topics are the teaching millennials are starving for.”  This from the guy who said shut down the programs unless they are serving the poor. This is a program…in some churches it might be called a Young Adult Sunday School!  The whining circles back on itself to the point where you think he actually means cut every program in the church except the ones I (and my friends) need.   

10. The Public Perception
Well, here I agree. He writes, “It’s time to focus on changing the public perception of the church within the community. The neighbors, the city and the people around our church buildings should be audibly thankful the congregation is part of their neighborhood. We should be serving the crap out of them.” I would suggest a rewording though…I prefer “serving the spit out of them” – alliteration is cool.

The church does have a public perception problem, especially if you carry the label ‘evangelical’. We should work to overcome this and have a “good reputation with outsiders,” so far as it depends on us. The church has always been maligned, even when serving the bejezers out of the community and rescuing newborns from the streets. But, if we’re honest, we certainly have contributed to our own PR problems of late. 

11. Stop Talking About Us (Unless You’re Actually Going to Do Something)
He writes, “words without follow-up are far worse than ignoring us completely…We are scrutinizing every action that follows what you say (because we’re sick of being ignored and listening to broken promises).”  Here’s my promise – I won’t kowtow to your whining. I won’t jettison preaching because you don’t think it reaches you. I won’t jump on your band wagon of slander directed towards Bride of Christ. I will call you out as a wolf who’s leading sheep to turn their back on the lifeboat of the church. Promises. May God find me faithful to keeping them. 

12. You’re Failing to Adapt
Heard you loud and clear. Here we stand, we can do no other. You want us to cease to be the church, to jettison tradition (that we’re called upon to hand down from one generation to another), to devalue what God values. You are right, this generation is “terrifyingly anti-church” – at least, this generation in the West.  You place the blame ENTIRELY on the church. Admittedly, there is sin in the church – we aren’t all we are called to be. But we’re still beautiful…and still embassy of the kingdom of God. 

Maybe – no, certainly, you are to blame as well, with your "it’s all about us and feeling valued" mentality. Why must the church change…why don’t you change! 

His Conclusion
The condescending attitude of his article reaches a peak in his conclusion. He writes, “You see, church leaders, our generation just isn’t interested in playing church anymore.” So, up to now, or at least for the past generation or two, you Christians are just playing church. Now the millennials are here and we want to show you how to do it right. Sam, you’re an arrogant a--hole (and you need to hear it). 

He continues, “It’s obvious you’re not understanding the gravity of the problem at hand and aren’t nearly as alarmed as you should be about the crossroads we’re at.” Uh, no, we get it. GenXers whined too – doom and gloom (I know, I am a GenXer) and we started new churches and services just for them. And we get it, you don’t like church. More, “You’re complacent, irrelevant and approaching extinction.” Umm. No!  The church, is growing worldwide. Maybe the millennials in the U.S. aren’t around much, but that hardly amounts to a threat to extinction!

You know what, the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, I’m not afraid of a bunch of complacent, wussy whiners like you taking it down. There’s plenty of Biblical millennials who are on board with God’s mission AND the church’s role in it!  You do not speak for your generation you little brat. This is not the end. The church will endure continue its kingdom work until Christ returns.

Want to be a part of it?

Sam, we’re only a couple of years apart. I’m about 5 years too old to be a millennial. But we couldn’t be further from each other. I know I’m an asshole, and can be self-centered. Thing is, I don’t expect the church to change itself to accommodate my every whim. Where do you get this right? Oh, are you entitled to it?

I am so glad I work in the church I do because I know for a fact that Sam doesn't speak for an entire generation. There are plenty of millennials involved, working with, serving, and loving the church!  I get to see it every day. Do they see the flaws? Of course, who doesn't. But they know God's mission and that he has a church for his mission, so they're on board, striving to make it as holy, as effective, and as beautiful as they can...without pissing off everyone who's been a part of it for more than they're the past twenty years or so!

Postlude
Not surprisingly, Eaton has received a lot of backlash from ‘angry Christians’ who just don’t want to listen. Hmmm.  For someone as self-focused (listen to me, accommodate me, do it my way), it’s hard to image someone being so self-unaware at the same time. 

Why may his words have sparked anger?

Because they were an attack on the church.

Because he accused previous generations of ‘playing church’.

Because he insinuates we don’t care about the poor.

Because his words read as a threat – do it our way of we’ll kill you off.

Sam, complaining about the anger you stirred up is like a little kid playing with matches mad he burnt his finger. Sorry. Kinda.