Thursday, February 19, 2009


OK, I'm not a big hockey guy. Never played it, don't really ever watch it, don't understand a lot of the rules and little of the strategy.

That said, the Washington Capitals have a guy who is an unbelievable player who makes me pay attention. Last night he made an unbelievable goal that is reminiscent of an even more unbelievable goal he made back in 2006. You can watch both goals on YouTube here.

(And I don't believe that I have blogged about hockey before blogging anything about the Redskins or the Orioles. This is a sign of the Apocalypse.)

Being the Church

When is the church "the church"? That may sound like a silly, nonsensical question, but work with me here. There are some who like to talk about "The Church" by which they mean the some total of any and all Christians anywhere in the world. I get the concept, and it's a biblical concept, but it can have the unfortunate consequence of allowing some Christians to think that they don't have to be a part of "a church" because they are a part of "The Church." But "The Church" only does something when "a church" does something.

It is typical to think of the church being the church whenever Christians gather, typically for worship, Bible study, and/or prayer. "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20) says that the church gathered has the Lord's blessing and presence, and the writer of Hebrews encourages us to "consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Hebrews 10:24-25, emphasis mine.)

Those verses are pretty interesting, because it appears that there were some Christians who were content to "love and do good deeds" but didn't feel it necessary to "meet together." Now, to be fair, Hebrews was written to a church in persecution where it was dangerous to meet together, much like the Christian church in China today. So meeting together--or not--was an issue of survival. The safe thing to do was to be the church as individuals, doing the mission of the church without meeting together as the church, but the writer of Hebrews makes it clear that meeting together was so important it was worth dying for. He probably knew that individuals don't tend to be provoked to love and good works without the regular encouragement and accountability that comes from gathering together. The church on mission needs to be gathering together.

But I wonder if we have allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way, such that we define being the church primarily as the church gathered? And then the church being on mission as something the church should be doing, but even when it's not, the church gathered is still the church being the church. Or we define the church on mission as being the church trying to bring more people to our gathering.

There is a growing movement of pastors/theologians who are saying that the church is only being the church when it is on mission out in the world, ministering to the poor, the suffering, the hurting of the world. The church gathers in support of that mission, but if it only gathers and does not minister out in the world, it is not being the church. The church, in this view, is not defined as a group of people with a common set of beliefs, a common practice of worship, or a common commitment to care for one another, but as a group of people with a common mission out in the world.

I keep emphasizing "out in the world" because they are not talking in any way about the church's mission being to gather in the church building--or even in our homes; but neither are they talking about the church "scattered" as each individual Christian seeks to fulfill their own unique--and solitary--calling from God. They are talking about the church gathered out in the world ministering together out in the world to hurting people out in the world.

Personally I don't believe that there is a dichotomy between the church being the church gathered in our buildings and homes and it being the church gathered out in the world on mission; I do believe, however, that given one or the other, the Lord would have us be gathered out in the world, ministering among the lost and hurting of our world and bearing witness to the good news that they are not alone in their suffering, that the one who suffered on the cross is for them and not against them, as the world seems to be. In the opening chapter of Isaiah, the Lord tell Israel that he is tired of all of their gathering for worship because it is not coupled with justice:

"...bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation-- I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (Isaiah 1:13-17)

Or, James 1:27 puts it, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained
by the world."

This is the church being the church.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Machismo Jesus?

Let me start off by saying that I try not to bash other pastors. Pastoring is hard enough that we don't need pastors bashing other pastors. I don't agree with a lot of what is being preached by others, but that's not an excuse to bash another person. Part of the problem in our culture is that we are losing the art of civil disagreement. So I hope that what follows does not cross the line, but I want to bring it up because areas of disagreement can be instructive.

A fairly well-known pastor in the Pacific NW made the following statement in a magazine interview:
Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.
Even if he has caricatured that group of Christians called "emergent"--and if you don't know what that means, don't worry about it--I have to chuckle a bit at his description. I have been silently amused at some of my younger colleagues, particularly those who are church planters, who in an attempt to reach their generation feel the need to dress and act "hip" and "cool." (I know a guy who is older than me who left his pastorate to start a new church, and when I next saw him his hair was spiky with bleached tips and mousse, he had new glasses that were really cool, and an untucked shirt. It was kind of like seeing Grandma in a miniskirt.) (That wasn't intended as bashing, it was just kinda funny.) Whatever Jesus was, he wasn't "hip" or "cool" and whatever Christianity is supposed to be, it's also not "hip" or "cool."

So while I can get on board with his dislike of a cool or even an effeminate Jesus, I don't know where this pastor's idea of a machismo Jesus comes from either. "I cannot worship a guy I can beat up"? Really?

From his quote it's obvious that much of his image of Jesus comes from the book of Revelation, and that is problematic in that Revelation is of that class of literature called apocalyptic which uses extensive use of symbolic language that is dangerous to take at straight value. In apocalyptic literature a sword is never just a sword; it's not even primarily a sword. It points to something more profound, and it's dangerous to use that imagery as a foundation for a violent theology. In fact, one of the main points of the book of Revelation is that faith is stronger than the sword. That caesars and kings who claim to foster justice and peace by the power of the sword are not as strong as they think that they are; rather, that people who bear crosses tap into a different kind of power that cannot be defeated by death, that in fact is made stronger and more glorious in death. That is why there is so much singing in Revelation about the glory of the resurrected Lamb who was slain.

The power of the cross is different than the power of the world, and when Jesus conquers the world it won't be by the world's methods. It will be through love, compassion, faith, and reconciliation. And if that sounds weak, well, I submit to you that it's a lot harder to love your enemies than to kill them. The cross isn't for wimps.

But neither is it for machisimo types who think that strength lies in being, well, strong. When John wrote in the opening chapter of his gospel that "The Word became flesh," he wasn't just talking about the fact that God became human. His point was that God became weak, undignified, and vulnerable. (And uncool, I might add.) The Creator of all things, the all-powerful One, became such that we could hurt him. And hurt him we did. Jesus submitted himself to the forces of sin and death and violence that we have unleashed upon the world.

And he won. That's the point of the Gospel. That's how this whole thing will be won, when we take up our crosses.

I have no choice but to worship a guy I could beat up. That's who Jesus is. He's the guy we beat up, and he calls his followers to go to the places where the weak and powerless are being beat up and stand up for and with them.

And that's not a job for wimps.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Christian Organization

What makes an organization a Christian organization? It's a question that needs to be explored, because there are a lot of organizations out there claiming the Christian title, and it's natural for Christians to want to support such organizations. But is the support always warranted? And are there other organizations that don't carry the Christian label that are worthy of the support of Christians?

What makes anything "Christian"? Somebody once said, "There are no such things as Christian books, only Christian authors." There's some truth to that. Only people can be Christians. Originally the word was a noun only, signifying a person. It was not an adjective to be used for things that were not people. Someone else said that "Christian" makes a great noun but a lousy adjective. As a noun, "Christian" can only be a person, but as an adjective, it covers a lot of ground. There are Christian books, Christian songs, Christian bands, Christian stores, Christian businesses, Christian plays, Christian t-shirts, Christian greeting cards, Christian websites, Christian paintings, Christian movies, Christian television shows, Christian cookbooks, ad infinitum, all competing in a Christian market segment for Christian dollars.

Who gets to decide whether something deserves the Christian label? Is there a Christian clearinghouse where things have to meet certain criteria before being allowed to use the Christian label, like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval? No, there isn't, so anyone can call their thing "Christian" and so it is.

Does slapping the label on something make it so? Obviously not, but how does one decide whether it really is or not? Clearly if an organization is composed exclusively of Christians engaged in acknowledged Christian activities...well, that's not so clear, is it? What's an acknowledged Christian activity? Evangelism, ok. Humanitarian aid, yes.

But wait. Humanitarian aid isn't an exclusively Christian activity. Is Jesus pleased only when Christians render aid to others, or is he cool with any aid offered by anyone? If an organization without any religious affiliation engages in humanitarian aid, is that good in Jesus' eyes but not quite as good as if it were a Christian organization? If it's a Muslim organization, does Jesus look askance at it? If it's a Muslim organization that not only feeds the hungry but also seeks to convert people to Islam, is that bad in Jesus' eyes?

If an organization is composed of Christians and operates in a moral, responsible manner but is not engaged in an explicitly Christian enterprise, is it a Christian business? If an organization is composed of Christians and is engaged in a Christian enterprise, but it's ethics are questionable, is it Christian?

It's getting pretty mucky, isn't it? Yeah, good noun, lousy adjective.

Here's what I know: a starving child doesn't care if the hand giving him bread is Christian, Muslim, atheist, or none of the above. And it seems to me that giving a starving child bread is always a good thing, regardless of who baked the bread.

I write this because someone asked me, legitimately, why we didn't go with a Christian organization for Water4Christmas.

Charity:Water does not claim to be a Christian organization. The founder, Scott Harrison, in telling his story on the Charity:Water website, quotes the New Testament a number of times, leading one to think that he probably is a Christian. And in fact he is. You can hear his testimony here. He is leading an organization that is doing work that pleases Jesus. That his organization is not explicitly Christian allows it to work in areas of the world that are closed off to Christians, and allows him to go to places and talk about Charity:Water that would be closed off to him if his was an exclusively Christian organization.

My daughter Angela works in a child development center. She was allowed to send home with each child a Water For Christmas flyer and set up a WFC jar to receive donations. She undoubtedly wouldn't have been to do so if she were soliciting donations to a Christian organization.

Pam's hair dresser allowed her to set up a Water For Christmas jar in her salon. Her hairdresser is a Christian, but as a business woman who has customers of all faiths she might have been leery of asking for donations for an explicitly Christian organization.

But just because Charity:Water does not have an explicitly evangelistic component--defined as Christians sharing their faith to win converts--does not mean that it is not evangelistic i.e. that it doesn't have an influence that would lead people toward Jesus.

This was made clear to me in the article, "As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs missionaries," by Matthew Parris. Parris noted that just the presence of Christians serving Africans in humanitarian but not missionary (or religious) organizations is making a needed difference in the lives of African villagers.

The presence of Christians doing God's work, even if it's not in an organization that we would recognize as Christian, even if it's not work we would necessarily call Christian--the presence of Christians doing God's work makes a difference--a spiritual difference--in people's lives.

The Bible calls all people--Christian and otherwise--to care for the widow, the orphan, the infirm, the lonely, the stranger. It wasn't called being a Christian; it was called being human. And anyone can and should do that. And when they do, it is good. Christians don't have a monopoly on doing work that pleases God.

There's an old joke about a guy who dies and goes to heaven, and Peter is showing him around. They pass by one room and there's a bunch of people in there whooping it up and having a good time. "Pentecostals," Peter says. In other room there people standing around eating cheese and drinking wine. "Episcopalians," says Peter. They come to another room and the guy says, "Who's in there?" "Shhhh," says Peter. "Those are the Baptists. They think they're the only ones up here."

God's work is occurring all around the world, some of it by Christian organizations, some of it in secular organizations with Christians in it. And probably some of it done by people and organizations that are not Christian.

A kind deed is a godly deed and pleases God, always. No matter who does it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Legitimate Yet Insufficient

The story is a couple of thousand years old, and, unfortunately, the lesson still hasn't been learned.

Jesus told a story about a guy who gets mugged, robbed, and left to die by the side of the road. A priest sees him, moves the other side of the road, and keeps going. Similarly a Levite, a religious official, sees the guy lying in the ditch and also crosses the double yellow line to pass by.

It's the Jerusalem/Jericho road, so the men were probably either on their way to serve in the Temple or on their way home after a lengthy stay away from family. They were either in a hurry to get to work, or tired and worn out and ready to get home to some peace and quiet.

Stopping to help would have been a hassle. It would have taken a lot of time, time they didn't have. If on their way to the Temple, touching a dead person would have rendered them unclean and caused all kinds of problems, and this guy sure looked dead.

If you had asked them why they didn't stop, they undoubtedly would have given you legitimate reasons.

Legitimate yet insufficient. A guy is lying in a ditch, naked and dying, you stop to help. Period.

It might mess up your plans and ruin your day. You stop and help.
It might get you in trouble with your boss. You stop and help.
It might cost you some money. You stop and help.
It was probably the guy's own fault. You stop and help.

We hear this story over and over and we undoubtedly think, "If it were me, I would stop and help. No way would I pass by. No way would I look the other way."

Everyone knows the story. There's is probably no one in America who hasn't heard of the Good Samaritan. We even have a law named after it, "The Good Samaritan Law," which says that you are protected from lawsuits if you stop to render aid to an injured person and unwittingly cause further injury to them (crack a rib doing CPR, for instance.) So we all know the story, and probably all think to ourselves, "I wouldn't have passed by." But the story needs to be told over and over again, because we just don't seem to be able to get it right.

Last week a guy got into an argument on 16th street in D.C., gets punched, hits the pavement, and lays motionless. Nobody who saw the fight did anything. They moved on. Other people, who didn't see the fight, just see some homeless guy, probably a drunk, sleeping off his beer binge. It's probably a sight they've seen far too many times in that area of D.C.

So they move on. A security camera catches it all. Over a twenty-minute period, 166 people pass by. It's not like they had to pick the guy up, put him on their donkey, and pay for him to stay at an inn until he recovers.

Take out your cell phone, dial 911, move on.

166 people couldn't do that. Finally, someone from a local business does and within minutes EMT's are at the scene and take the guy to the hospital.

Where he dies three days later.

I'm not saying I would have done anything better. I probably would have assumed, like most people probably did, that he was a homeless guy sleeping on the sidewalk. Maybe would have whispered a prayer, then moved on.

I would have been one of the 166. And that's what bugs me.

I would have had my reasons, just like those 166 people had theirs. Good, legitimate reasons.

Legitmate, yet insufficient.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Surrender Tree

This painting was in the Prayer Room of the Black Rock Retreat Center where I went for a pastor's retreat last Thursday and Friday. It's on a large piece of canvas material, and uses leaves and twigs for a very tactile look. I thought it was pretty cool.