The Unmaking of Trees.

Wherever you go trees are the same.  Words that name trees will differ, but trees remain indifferent.  Neither shifts in history, nor geography, nor the evolution of language cast their shadow over the tree.  Rather, they stand in the shade of the tree.

In whatever century or culture, the words that say “tree” depend upon the tree for their meaning.  Again, words that describe trees are themselves described by trees.  When  the words that say “tree” evolve, the tree’s “ness” does not change.  Does it?  Unless trees can be unmade.  Can you unmake a tree?

Sure, a tree can be chopped down and reduced to timber.  Even so, the tree remains.  It is the tree’s “ness” that makes the timber.  So follow the timber to its source and you will discover a tree.  Won’t you?

Someone might say, “Burn the tree!”  The tree will burn.  However, the tree will burn because trees burn, and not because someone burns the tree.  If you don’t believe this, throw a log in the fireplace and light it.  Then ask yourself, “What prevents the “ness” of this fire from devouring the timber that builds the house?  Be thankful then for the “ness” of the bricks that builds the fireplace.  The point:  The flames consuming the tree merely confirm the tree’s “ness” and also that of the fire,  but neither one unmakes or makes the “ness” of the other.

And aren’t we glad trees cannot be unmade?  After all, we depend upon the “ness” of  trees for so many things.  For example, homes are built on its constancy and cold hands warmed by it.  Imagine the chaos if the words we use to describe trees  unmade them.  The thought of rebuilding fallen homes with frostbit fingers is simply one tree I dare not bark at.

Nonetheless, today some people think that the original meaning of trees is lost to history.  Somehow they believe, as an example, that when a six-thousand year old Ethiopian says, “_ _ _ _,”  we  have no idea she means “tree” in the way we do.  You see,  Ethiopians used a different word for trees six-thousand years ago.  When stricken with an infectious bout of lucidity the people who say such things might vomit-up an acknowledgement that  “tree” and “_ _ _ _”  describe the same thing, but even then Ethiopian trees are merely a conceptual abstraction, which explains why they never climb trees.  Now, they have every right to live in an abstract world, it is a free country,  but I like to climb trees.  When looking at their abstractions from a tree-top perch one does wonder though how the folk below keep their homes from falling down and fingers from falling off?

A wiser man than me addressed the unchanging nature of trees by saying, “Let the word of God be found true, and every person a liar.”

Am I the only one, or can you see the irony in his words?  The words God uses to describe the “ness” of truth are the very same words that some people use to “un-truth” them.  In other words, both parties speak the same language, the human language!

In still other words, let the timber of God be seen for the tree they are, and every person who uses the same timber to say otherwise a liar.  Clearly, if you seek the source of the timber, from which God frames truth, you will discover Him.  Won’t you?

Meanwhile, when a home burns how I wish my words could unmake trees, but the home burns.  Because I believe in the absolute, unchanging “ness” of trees, no matter the century or culture, I flee the house.  Unfortunately, those who believe their words have the power to unmake trees will discover themselves unmade in fire.  Of that you can climb on.

Honestly, our position on the nature of trees says more about  who we believe, rather than what we believe.

“Let the Word of God be found true and every person a liar.”

Romans 3:4

Who do you believe?

What is apologetics for 2nd century Christians and how does it differ from the contemporary kind?

I think I might start posting some of the papers I am required to write in pursuit of a masters degree in theology.  Some of them, like this one, may not make sense  (like listening to one side of a phone conversationkeep that in mind) because they are a response to assigned reading material.  However, someone who happens along may discover something of value, or something to add, or something to disagree with.  All are welcome.  In any event, this paper comes from a course called Historical Theology I.  The text book is first in a series by J. Pelikan concerning the history of church tradition.  May I say, he is/was one of the worst communicators of information I have ever had the displeasure of encountering.  Anyway… things to know- “catholic” as used here does not mean the Catholic church, but the universal, or one true church.  I am using Pelikan’s language.

Broadly, apologetics for 2nd century Christians is their defense of  Christian faith and doctrine against both non-believers and heretics (Pelikan, I/121).  In light of the assigned reading, this paper accordingly answers the question in its heretical dimension.  In that regard, 2nd century apologists argue that authentic continuity inhabits the catholic church and no other (Pelikan, I/109).   This paper then defines their apologetics as a reaction to competing claims of continuity, as their distillation of orthodoxy, and as a reflection of themselves.  After expanding my definition I will conclude by comparing 2nd century apologetics to the contemporary kind.

Apologetics as Reaction.  Heresy denotes a divergence from an orthodox doctrine (Pelikan, I/69).  Much divergence takes place in the 2nd century church.  Pelikan identifies three such occurrences.   First, Marcion disrupts the continuity and unity of God, and that between the Testaments, by discovering a multiplicity of Gods (Pelikan, I/73, 75). Secondly, Gnostics, by broadcasting their sole-possession of true knowledge steal from the catholic church their claim that they themselves guard the repository of divine knowledge (Pelikan, I/92,108).  Thirdly, Montanists seize control of apostolic succession by declaring the catholic church dead from worldliness and retrieving the Holy Spirit from its carcass (Pelikan, I/102,109).

Naturally, the catholic church took issue.  It seems safe to say that when we define 2nd century apologetics we are defining to some degree their reaction to these counter claims of continuity.  However, in some ways, the conflict betwixt the combatants strikes me as something more.  Not only did each group seek recognition as the one true church, but their leaders also sought to be recognized as the authoritative spokespersons of God.  In that light, 2nd century apologia can be seen as the apologist’s defense of their unique right to speak for God.  Therefore, it makes perfect sense, for example, that a criterion for apostolic succession was crafted in reaction to competing claims (Pelikan, I/109).  At issue:  Who speaks for God?

Apologetics as Distillation.  In addition to resolving questions of apostolic succession, the impurities of heresy mandated a theological distillation whereby church doctrine was separated, refined, formalized and declaimed (Pelikan, I/121).  Pelikan delineates four areas of doctrine that were so distilled. They are: 1) Eschatology and the return of Christ.  2) The workings of the supernatural order in the human dimension.  3) The meaning of salvation.  4) The vehicle by which that salvation is effected (Pelikan, I/123, 132, 152, 155).

Although the preceding enumeration touches the bare edges of these matters, in light of the question, it suffices to say that apologetics for 2nd century Christians presents them with an opportunity to formalize their theology.  Ultimately, the distillations of doctrine conceived by their reactions mature into long-term implications for Christendom.  At issue:  What did God say?

Apologetics as Reflection.  While it is fair to ask what apologetics meant to 2nd century Christians in a general sense, the written record suggests a narrower demographic within the church.  For example, the men (thus far, no women in either text book) who undertake the task of apologetics evince a high degree of skill in reading comprehension, writing and rhetoric.  Their biographies are peppered with phrases like, “attached himself to various philosophical schools,”  “sought the true philosophy,”  “in rhetorical ability he far exceeds…,” and “his expert knowledge in the field of law” (Jurgens, I/50, 65, 69, 111).  Additionally, many of them hold official positions or titles.  In fact, one cannot help but notice that much of the apologia-of- record directs itself towards the personal refutation or defense of other leaders (Jurgens, I/69, 73, 77, 81, 84).  This information indicates to me that 2nd century apologetics is a discussion among highly intelligent and formally educated men of means and position.   Do these men represent the general demography of the 2nd century church?  Does their discussion reflect that of the entire church?  I do believe their apologia reflects their convictions, but not necessarily those of the church, or more importantly, God.

Even today we are aware that the leadership of a particular church may be completely out-of-sync with those in their pews. Their new doctrine so differs from the old that they soon discover their own pews have been reoriented to face Africa, as an example. *   Was not the same possible in the 2nd century?  That is:  In addition to heretics and apologists, is it not possible that a third group exists, who sustain another tradition?  Although we may not have a written record stating so, I think the unrecorded events of history are no less visible (or valid) in the reality of  now. For example, the historical record that documents the birth of Jesus Christ can also shed light on the undocumented activity of God during the intertestamental period.  According to the extant record, we may rightly characterize this period of time as one of theological, political and social upheaval.  Nonetheless, though God’s silence veiled His activity in the “then” of that era, the birth of Christ “now” unveils His steady hand.  Thus, when the baby Jesus cries, men and women of faith hear an audible and valid exception to the generalities we affix to the historical gap between the testaments. Jesus was born.  What does that say about God in the intertestamental period?

My point is: We can account for the heretics of the 2nd century and trace the implications of their heresy throughout history. We can account for the apologists of the 2nd century and then see their reflection in the traditional dogmas and politicalization of church leadership that follows.  Yet, how do we account for current churches of different denominations whose theology and character have more in common with the 1st century church than they do with either the heretics or apologists of the 2nd?  Did the apologia that nurtures these churches suddenly pop out of thin air into their heads?  Did they invent it?  If we are to say these churches exist in reaction to the traditions Pelikan so values, then, in my estimation, we also say it is entirely possible to bypass those traditions in favor of the New Testament tradition. If not, then on whose traditions do these churches model themselves?  They simply could not exist.  Is it possible that they reflect an apologia that has never ceased to shine?  At issue: Who speaks for me?

Apologetics: Then and Now.  I offer the following observations in contrasting the apologetics of the 2nd century with that of today.  Their apologia was expressed in the language of the rhetorician and philosopher, whereas ours finds expression in science and technology.  Our baselines differ in that they did not doubt the historicity of Jesus, nor did they have the Bible in its present form.  We have the Bible, but with the result that much of our apologia is devoted to defending its authenticity and arguing for the historicity of Jesus.

Their apologia is also personal. They name names and use all of the rhetorical weapons at their disposal to either endorse or assail the other man’s position.   By comparison, the historical/technical form of apologetics that I am familiar with seems less personal and more clinical, less intellectual and more accessible.

Finally, and candidly, to me their theological efforts to ensure continuity ultimately mask an anthropological contest to fill the void of authoritative leadership they believe the death of the apostles opens.  That was the real issue. Obviously, there are exceptions; my impression in this regard is merely general, like those who believe the musings of some 2nd century apologists reflect the general reality and orthodoxy of the entire 2nd century “church” and God Himself.

What do you think?

 

 

* There are some congregations of a particular denomination that have dissolved their ties with their American bishops  because they no longer believe the doctrines those bishops espouse. Their loyalties (and money) now belong to African bishops of the same denomination, but whose doctrine mirrors their own.)

 

 

Church is Boring. Ministers and Elders. It’s their fault. Part II

Please know as you read this I am very aware that exceptions exist in every generality.  In our case each congregation of the churches of Christ and her leaders exist as they’re own exception.  What’s true for one has no bearing on another.  At the same time I believe that generalities arise from our mutual fellowship, from our shared-events,  from our common universities and  schools of preaching, from the same speakers we listen to,  from our newspapers, books, blogs and so forth.  All of these things mingle together to form a collective ministry of sorts.  It is to this collective and general ministry  I speak here.

You should also know the tone I meant to convey here is one of pleading.  Not anger.  I’m not mad, just concerned.  If  the tone strikes you otherwise it is the result of poor writing skills.

Finally, I dedicate this post to my father-in-law.  A shepherd who looks to the Chief-Shepherd.  He is everything our congregations deserve there shepherds to be.  His flock is large.  But his sheep know his voice.  They know it in their hospital rooms. They know it on the phone.  They know it in their homes.  And in his own home as well for my parents-in-law have fed scores of sheep, of all ages, at their table.  And continue to do so despite great adversity in their lives.  Cards, letters, flowers and financial help flow like a mighty river from the heart of my father-in-law into the hurts of his bleating sheep.  These things are done in such a way he would be embarrassed to read these words.  I just found out, from other sources,  that several weeks ago he baptized an eighty-year-old unbeliever.  A man he taught himself.  A man he met at the hospital.  A man whose wife died there.  A man whose wife had a shepherd who speaks with the voice of the Chief Shepherd.  May we all be so blessed.

Do you like math?  I don’t.  Especially when I don’t like the final equation.  Like when Amy tells me how little money is left in the  account where she deposits my “allowance.”    Like when the statisticians tell me my church is trending downward.   Neither case angers me.  I don’t take it personally.  Numbers are like that.  They’re not personal, but clinical.  Coldly so.  The final equation simply is.  But the “is” can be helpful.  The “is” warns me I better watch my spending. And the “is” warns my church that unless corrective action is taken the downward trend will continue.  If I ignore the “is” of my bank account the damage will be limited to my family.  If we ignore the “is” of our church the damage will incalculable.  For thousands and thousands and thousands of families.

I would hate to see my church dwindle away to nothing.  I love my church.  As many do.  She’s given me everything that is good and right about my life.  So it offends me when one of our own says of the downturn… Well, maybe that’s what needs to happen. I’m doubly offended  when leaders say such things.  And I’ve heard a few say it.  They might as well tell me they wish my mother would die.  Who might be ill, but is curable.  What a stupid, selfish, short-sighted, arrogant, disloyal and damnable thing to say.  Or not say, but believe.

Some of our leaders even see the downward trend as the will of God.  Like He wants us to go out of business.  It’s judgment for our prideful ways.  “The only ones going to heaven,” etc.  Unless a prophet with the necessary credentials can produce the writing on the wall can anyone believe this is true?  Are we so evil God has doomed us?  Is He waiting for our “priests” to rape little boys before He makes us a church of world-wide influence?   This “prophecy”  sounds more like it’s Satan-breathed and  is profitable for nothing except avoiding responsibility and excuse making.

If an employee advocated mutiny of this nature they would be “separated” from their employment at the McDonalds I co-managed.  On-the-spot if it was another manager.  Why would a business retain the employment of a person who thought it best for the business to shrivel up and die?  In our case I hope no one is separated from their employment.  But if a leader truly feels this way about our church I wish they would leave on their own.  They should find a church they can believe in.  For everyone’s sake.

Meanwhile, for several reasons, our leaders should be very concerned about our current “is.”  For one thing they will be held accountable for it.  No matter what anyone says the vanishing church is the result of their stewardship and management.  At least that’s how it’s viewed in the real world.  For example, our supervisor at McDonalds cast his eye in one direction when our final “is” wasn’t big enough at the end of the month.  And believe you me,  once that eye spied the store manager and her assistant all eye-casting ceased.  Can’t tell you how many come to-Jesus-meetings I attended.  Why the focus on management?  Because every issue in a business is an issue of management.  Poor management.  Poor employee.  Poor service.  Poor business.  Equals poor craig!

I say that because blaming crew, customer, competition, culture or THE Clown got us nowhere when the boss demanded answers. This is no surprise to anyone who manages. That’s how it works in the real world.  And in the real world- in the event of a downturn- management is “encouraged” to make corrective adjustments.  Then they are given a specific amount of time to make the “suggested” adjustments.  And finally they are rewarded for successfully implementing those adjustments.  On the other hand, Under New Management will be posted in the lobby if the manager fails to be “encouraged” and the “is” doesn’t improve.

So, in what direction will Jesus Christ cast His eye?  Who will He hold responsible for our “is?”  I’ll say this is one come-to-Jesus-meeting I would rather not attend.  But I will be there. I’m included in the ‘their” in the title of this post.  And I will give an account for my ministry. A ministry that figures somewhere into the “is” of of where we are today. I will not shield my heart from that hurt.  Nor will I evade responsibility for my part.  I do know my every dream was noble and my every intention was sincere.  But the “is” remains. Neither have I’ve known a single minister or single shepherd without noble dreams and sincere intentions.  I’ve never even heard of one without those things.  But the “is” remains.

Despite our noble dreams and sincere intentions the vine is withering.  The sum total of our ministry is flowing into a stagnant pond   for the desperate sheep who die of thirst alone in the wilderness.  For their lives let us please meet with our Supervisor with the maturity of men who accept responsibility for their stewardship. Let the weapons of self-defense remain dormant in the dark parts of our hearts .  This will require great humility and skill of character.  We also must not blame crew, customer, competition, culture or THE King.  The church deserves new management if we cannot refrain from doing so.

How did we manage the church into it’s current “is?”  Part of the reason may be due to the fact that many resources and much effort have been expended on the 99 who remain in the pen.  They were given a priesthood to work with their lambs.  They were given a priesthood to direct their worship.  They were given shepherds who leave them free to eat whatever they please. They were given new buildings and gyms to make their pens more comfortable.  They we were given small groups in which to fellowship the sheep they already like without effort.  And their sermons tell them how great they are and how wonderful it is to be one of them. Somehow we earnestly believed these efforts would be enough to woo lost sheep. The very sheep Jesus Himself leaves the pen to rescue.  We also thought such a friendly environment might cause new sheep to seek us out.  However,  in both columns increasing losses far outpace diminishing gains. We’re dying.

The thing we really need to know is what our efforts amount to for the one sheep who has taken her family’s business to Burger King.  Or the one sheep who used to sit among us, but now makes his business his business at home.  Often we don’t know because we don’t ask.  We’re not very good at leaving the comfort of the pen to pursue the lamb who has left.  Recently, however, I found one to ask.  So I did.  He told me our progressive efforts to engage him in the production our assembles have become are to him “revolving piles of shit.”  He says he still loves the Lord.  But the pen bores him.  He’s not bitter.  Nor did he sound in the least bit angry when he said it.  And I wasn’t angry with him for saying so.  Or offended.  It simply “is.”  I must confess though this especially grieves me because I was his youth minister.  I revolved some of those piles.  Today I can only hope his “is”  helps me in the same way Amy’s does when she tells me how much money is left in the account where she deposits my “allowance.”  Meanwhile, no one else knows about my friends “is”  because this lamb of God’s is no longer sought.  Which brings something up.

Believe it or not McDonalds will go to great lengths to recover a single customer.  They even call it Customer Recovery.  So if a dissatisfied customer calls the 1-800 number there will be a response.  First, the operator will validate the complaint by simply letting them vent.  This is followed by an apology and a promise to follow-up.  Then an email is immediately dispatched to the supervisor, the store manager AND the owner/operator of the offending franchise. Before long the shift-manager- who was running the store at the time of the complaint- will hear his phone ringing.  I know.  Mine’s rung.  I would then be “asked” to “make it right.”  Which means call the customer NOW!  Which means I’m going to get an ear-full.  However, by the end of the “conversation” our apologies were almost always accepted and the customer recovered.  Sometimes this process would happen so quickly that I was on the phone recovering the customer BEFORE they got home. That’s one of the reasons McDonalds is number one.  And continues to expand.

Customer recovery in the church of Christ is awful by comparison.  Often we’re not even aware a lamb has slipped away.  That alone is a clear indication that the boring, non-engaging and non-relational nature of our corporate assemblies isn’t working.  At least for the one’s who are the Chief Shepherd’s greatest concern.   We cannot continue to operate like this.  And the Chief Shepherd made provisions that such an operation would not happen.  Isn’t that why we wanted elders who would shepherd the flock?  Not the business men who lorded over our grandfather’s church?  And in many places we got the elders we wanted.  Yet many lambs from those places are lost among wolves week by week. Their shepherds would not only make poor business-men when it comes to customer recovery, but they also fail to honor one of the most basic requirements of all Christ’s shepherds-  you leave the 99 to seek the one.

The progressive version of seeking the wandering lamb seems to rely on hearsay explanations and Someone told me they… Or the shepherds dispatch one of the ministers in their place.  Which is no different than the tradition everyone keeps moaning about.  Consequently, the relationship of progressive shepherd-ships to the sheep differs very little in practice from the tradition of the elderships they seek to escape.  The business meetings have not been adjourned to meet with their sheep.  One-by-one.  In their homes.  Or wherever else a lost lamb may be.  They have not used their freedom from executive responsibility to become intimate with their flocks.  Even as a plurality the sum total of their meaningful interactions appears limited to a few sheep.  Thus they make no real effort to seek the wandering lamb they barely know.  Their comfort zones are limited to the 99.

Oftentimes, it has been my experience, that our shepherds excuse themselves from the example of the Chief Shepherd by foisting responsibility upon that poor lamb to feed himself.   This a world-view that is American in practice and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Mind-of-Christ.  A Mind He made plainly known in Word and deed. He seeks the one.  Relentlessly.  No matter what.  And He fully expects his shepherds to do the same.  As a result every shepherd in every congregation will have their own come-to-Jesus-meeting.  And on the table between them will be their church directory.  And they will give an account for every single lamb whose name is recorded therein.  Even those they blithely dismiss for staying home because they feel like the sheep pen is full of “revolving piles of shit.”

The point is the way we do church as ministers (including me) and elders is boring and ineffective because it is a model that no longer works.  Strangely enough it’s also impeding the ministering of ministers and the shepherding of shepherds.  Our own model works against us.  When will we, including the 99,  get it into our heads that the Sunday morning assembly is no longer appealing to the teenagers sitting among us?  Or young adults.  Or young families.  Or unbelievers.   They are so far ahead of whatever our latest progression may be that they are in a wholly different universe. They do not care what we add to, or subtract from, the assembly.  Or how it’s arranged from week to week.  They would be UNFAZED this Sunday if worship was led by a rocking band, the sermon preached by a woman of a different faith and dancing elephants served the Lord’s Supper.  They might be impressed with the dancing elephants, but that’s all.  And the appeal of dancing elephants would last about a week.  Which begs the question- What will we do next week?  The most radical elements of change my generation can imagine- or dare to dream for their assembly-  are ALREADY dead on arrival.  D.O.A.  That’s how fast the ground is shifting beneath us.

In any event what turned out to not be your grandfather’s church is also not your children’s church.  Or their friends.  Or our lost sheep.  Or for millions under the age of forty.  So they are either leaving or staying away.  Or they presently sit on pews completely disengaged because the content of our message is irrelevant to their real lives.  They are also too smart for our rhetoric.  They hear us talk about being Spirit-filled, in ways our grandparents denied, but they wonder aloud (if we’ll listen) how Spirit-filled preachers and Spirit-filled shepherds have lead their Spirit-filled churches to a place where divorce among Spirit-filled people is no longer surprising.  Is that the best the Holy Spirit can do?

To make matter worse, for all our efforts, our time of worship is barely tolerated by their Youtube sized attention spans.  They can’t wait to hear the preacher say “finally” and they secretly hope no one responds.  Towering over all of this is the fact that something very fundamental to them is missing in the precious time they’ve granted us. But that’s for the next post.  For now it’s enough to know that if we are to reach our young adults and young families and lost lambs we cannot afford to squander their time by offering them a theology and practice which exists as a reaction to past traditions.  They have no idea what we are talking about.  Nor do they care.  For all the change bell-ringers clanged for, as far as the ones we need to reach are concerned, the result is merely a rearrangement of furniture.  The same familiar, boring furniture.  We simply remodeled the model we inherited.  We need an entirely new model.

If the 99 left in the pen (including me) and their leaders (including me) react to the “is” of our sum by becoming self-defensive then I fear the church as we have known her will cease to exist sooner rather than later.  Not because it’s what needs to happen or because our gracious God is judging us for the prideful ways of our grandparents.  It will be because current management (including me) failed in their own right.  Failed to heed the Supervisor.  Failed to train their employees in the fundamentals.  Failed to offer excellent customer-service.  Failed to understand the market.  Failed to retain the loyal customer-base.  Failed to bring in new business.  Failed to listen to crew and customer alike. Failed to practice customer recovery.  Failed to accept responsibility.  Failed to adjust accordingly.  Failed the Owner/Operator.

The bells for change are indeed ringing.  They ring from the phones of every leader in the churches of Christ.  It’s the Owner calling.  Maybe we can’t hear the phone ringing  because we’re too focused on ringing the bells that please our own ears.  Or perhaps the sound of bleating sheep fills the air.  If we ever get around to taking that call I hope we have the courage to act like men- I hope we absorb the blows to ego with humility-of -spirit.   And I hope we have the strength-of-will to change however we must.  Failing that I pray God will remove us from leadership and empower a generation of men and woman who will nurse my mother back to health.  A generation who will do and lead and live church in such a way that the “is” of their sum is beyond the ability of mankind to count.

I’m talking to Chase and Caleb and Brad and Tori and Logan and Suzel and Daniel…  And hundreds and thousands of others like you.  I have great hope for our future because of you.  Our current “is” results from what was.  For my generation- and those immediately above mine- our unhealthy obsession with the past clouded our present, filled our pulpits, spilled on our literature, defined our theology, confined our thinking, limited our options and virtually paralyzed all forward movement.  I’m glad you are free of the baggage that unnecessarily weighed so heavily on our hearts.   This means you are free to do what my generation failed to do.  To be a church like Christ.  I beg you not to leave us.  Lead us.

How many times can you be forgiven for the same sin?

I don’t know.  If you tell me how many times you’ve sinned that sin yet again then I could.

This is for my Christian friends who struggle with habitual sin.  They do the same wrong thing over and over.  Late in the night, fresh from sin, they lay awake on their beds to wonder… What’s wrong with me?  Why can’t I stop?  Why won’t I stop?  They doubt their own sincerity.  They doubt God will forgive them… for the same sin sinned yet again. Such doubts cool the heart and silence the prayer.  Here is a broken-spirit, whether they remain in a pew or not, that has begun a slow, but sure descent into inky darkness.  They descend NOT because of the sin, BUT because, in their heart of hearts, they believe they’ve used up all the grace there was for that one sin sinned yet again.  Broken-spirit, find healing here.

We ask…

Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?  Up to seven times?

Which equals 7.  Which equals a record of wrongs.

He replies…

Seventy times seven.

Which equals 490. Which equals no record of wrongs.

In every lesson, book and sermon I’ve digested – the traditional and progressive agree- 490 equals infinity.  Even those who wage war over whether Revelation is literal or figurative are at peace with the sum derived from our Lord’s use of multiplication.  70×7 = 490 = forgive your brother (or sister) as many times as he (or she) sins against you.

Granted- the sin is not specified.  The question isn’t, how often shall my brother sin the same sin against me and I forgive him?  The sin is general.  Tis true, there are many unique ways to sin-in-general against one another.  But consider ONE person.  The SAME person who sins against you repeatedly in the way of 70×7.  Over and over and over and over and over and over and over, and one more over on the very day you die.  Don’t you think in all of those sins sinned against you that there will be at least one or two you recognize?  That nonetheless require your forgiveness…yet again… for the same sin sinned against you yet again?  Myself?  I believe so.

My friend, as many sins as exist to be sinned it only seems reasonable that in the scope of one human relationship-  brother to brother- sister to sister- or brother to sister for that matter- that sooner or later one or the other is going to run out of original sins with which to sin against one or the other.  At some point there will be re-runs and repeats while new, original sins are on hiatus.

If you’ve been alive long enough to have any kind of long-term relationship with another human (pets and prized possessions don’t count) you know this is true.  The sin for which we seek redemption today, from the one we’ve hurt,  is often the same one for which we sought redemption yesterday.  And they’re to forgive us.  For the same sin. 70×7.  Which equals infinity.  Everyone agrees.

This is THE Word of God.  So, think about it.  If Jesus expects- commands- demands you to forgive someone until infinity- no matter the sin- no matter how many times that sin is sinned- then HOW MUCH MORE IS HE WILLING TO DO THE SAME THING FOR YOU?    Answer the question.  Is this the one example He will not set?  Answer the question.  Is Jesus – who turned those black words into red letters with blood- such the hypocrite He holds you to a standard He Himself refuses to practice?  Answer the question.  I’m serious.  Answer the question.  Right now!

Your heart for God won’t die for lack of grace.  It will die for lack of grace.  The first is a gift offered by Jesus.  The second is a gift you won’t accept.  Please accept it.  As you know, your guilt and disbelief always lead nowhere good.  So, please know, His Mercy always leads somewhere good.  Who knows?  When you arrive at that good place  perhaps you’ll realize you don’t know the last time you sinned that sin yet again. I hope that’s true.  But if it’s not…70×7.   Do the math.

How many times can you be forgiven for the same sin?  I don’t know.  That’s between you and Jesus. Unless you want to talk about it.  Which is always a good idea.  Especially if you can’t do the math for yourself.  Let me know if I can help.  My calculator is ready.

The Holy Spirit, Superman and Popeye.

What do Superman and the Holy Spirit have in common?  Their superpowers are taken FROM them by an outside force.  For Superman it’s Kryptonite.  For the Holy Spirit it’s human beings.  As some believed.

What do Popeye and the Holy Spirit have in common?  Their superpowers are given TO them from an outside force.  For Popeye it’s spinach (Ugh).  For the Holy Spirit it’s human beings.  As some believe.

Kryptonite.  A long time ago the ancient ones arrested the Holy Spirit and threw Him in prison.  As a result,  if a human being wanted to have a relationship with the Holy Spirit they had to visit Him in His prison-cell.   You’re probably wondering where that was?  It turns out the Holy Spirit had been jailed within the pages of the New Testament.  Like the way Jor-El  put the two bad guys and really bad chick into that freaky, floating, transparent, one-dimensional thingy-thing in the original Superman movie.  Which was far superior to the new Superman movie.  If you ask me.  Poor Christopher Reeve!  Anyway…the Holy Spirit was in His cell for so long that in the minds of the ancient ones the New Testament and the Holy Spirit became the same thing.  The Holy Spirit is the New Testament sort of deal.  So if a human being wanted to know the Holy Spirit they did so by reading the New Testament.  And the more they read it the greater His powers to influence them became.  Which makes you wonder why He didn’t read it Himself to power-up Popeye style and break out?  …  We’ll never know.  What’s important to know here is the Holy Spirit had no superpowers beyond a human being’s willingness to read the New Testament and live out it’s meaning in the world.  He had no choice.  The Ancient Ones bound this limitation on Him simply by thinking it was true.

Could they do that?  Can mere mortals shut the Holy Spirit down with nothing more than their thoughts?  Do thoughts drain Him of His superpowers in the same way kryptonite drains Superman’s?

Spinach.   Before the ancient ones were all dead a crack team of newbies stormed the prison fortress of the New Testament and forcibly released the Holy Spirit from captivity.  Ninja-style.  Karate chops. Knives. Smoke. Guns.  Lots of blood.  Have you ever been shot?  I haven’t.  The Holy Spirit is now free to roam the earth.  Praise God!  However, before you get too excited you need to know His superpowers are still limited.  This time His superpowers depend on the happy thoughts of the human beings who liberated Him.  Like Tinkerbell needs us to believe in fairies.  Or she dies.  Unless you believe.  Then she lives.  Have you ever been to a fairy funeral?  I haven’t.   Is the Holy Spirit going to die?  If He does that’s one funeral I won’t miss.  I hate funerals.  Please don’t die, Holy Spirit.  Everybody needs to think happy thoughts.  But first don’t forget to give the Holy Spirit permission to help you (or He won’t).  Okay, now believe as hard as you can.  Believe He has the desire to help you.    Believe He has the ability to help you.  Believe He lives to ever prompt you so you’ll never have to think for yourself again (a prompting is His way of telling you what to do).   Way to go… Your happy thoughts have recharged the Holy Spirit to full power.  He is now able to to rock your world and sprinkle you with fairy dust.  Unbelievable!  And if you want Him to go on rocking and sprinkling ALL you have to do- from now on- for the rest of  your life is to remain in a perpetual state of  spiritually, spiritual Holy Spirit thoughts.  How hard can that be for a human being?  No problem.  UNLESS you get tired-  grouchy- angry-  doubtful-  forgetful- hateful.  And not to mention coming down with a case of the spiritual blues-   lapsing into momentary humanity-  or being afraid to ask Him for His help because of that thing you just did.  But at least He’s free now.  Praise God!  Or His liberators!

Can human beings do this?  Can mere mortals unleash the power of the Holy Spirit with nothing more than their thoughts?  Do thoughts empower the Holy Spirit in the same way spinach empowers Popeye?

I hope I got the part about the ancient ones right.  Most everything I know about what they believed comes from the newbies.  The newbie may be talking to me, but it’s like they don’t see me.  Instead, it seems like they’re talking to an ancient one.  And they’re fighting old battles.  The newbie is playing both parts and that’s how I know what I know about the ancients one’s “position” on the Holy Spirit.  This is only natural I suppose.  The newbies can’t really tell us how they released the Holy Spirit from captivity unless we know He was a captive in the first place.  But I have a hard time following their story.  I get lost.  And their logic doesn’t add-up.  Here’s what I mean…

It is said of  the ancients that they limited the influence of  The Holy Spirit.  Of course they didn’t say that about themselves.  Who would say such a ridiculous thing about themselves?  Can you imagine…  Just so everybody knows,  our official conviction about the Holy Spirit is one that will limit His influence in the lives of every individual believer on the face of the earth, which will impact the church negatively, which will impact the world negatively.  The ancient ones have spoken!  Believe it!  Forthwith!!!  (closing hymn sung here)

No, they didn’t say anything like that.  Rather, this is what the newbies say about their old enemy. However, not even the newbies would dare accuse the ancient ones of not believing in the Holy Spirit at all.  THAT is an extremely dangerous accusation of a high crime to level against a fellow Christian.  To say such a thing also denies common-sense. After all, if the ancient ones didn’t believe the Holy Spirit was really real,  why did they go to all the trouble of trying to understand Him with that whole “He is the New Testament” thing?  Why say anything?

The point is they did believe in the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, they believed in the Three Distinct Personalities of what we call the God-head.  Of Whom the Holy Spirit is One.  Or was.  The way newbies carry on about Him you’d think He was more important than the Other Two.  And if He likes their attention maybe He’s broken-up with the God-head?   Which would be great for newbies.  Then the Holy Spirit would have all the time in the world to blow leaves in such a way they could discern what brand of toothpaste He’s prompting them to use.  He does owe them.

Anyway, most everybody agrees the ancient ones did believe in the Holy Spirit.  So it seems their only crime was that they believed in the Holy Spirit imperfectly.  But does an imperfect understanding of the Holy Spirit limit His ability to help someone who loves Jesus? Depends on who you ask.  Newbies seem to think so.  Maybe that’s why they love the phrase “quench the spirit.”   Like a hunter loves guns.  So they focus their scopes on tombstones, pull the trigger and Boom!  Boom!  Boom!  That’s their way of telling us the ancient ones, buried in those bullet-riddled tombs, “quenched the Spirit,”  and as a result lived and worshiped and worked and died without experiencing all the blessings of God.  “Quench the Spirit?”  What does that even mean?   God invented the phrase, but I’m not sure it means what He meant when liberators hurl it at the dead.  And living.   Is quenching the same thing as misunderstanding? You’ll have to ask a newbie.

I also wonder if the ancient ones were disinherited because they may have misunderstood the Holy Spirit?  When I read Romans 8 I wonder if their misunderstanding was the one thing that did separate them from the love of Christ?  And was the Holy Spirit unwilling to pray for them with groanings too deep for words when they were silenced by grief and guilt?  Did He refuse to help them IN their weaknesses because they thought He was the New Testament?  But what if that was their weakness?

Does the Holy Spirit do everything right for the newbies because they’re right?  Or because  they “get” Him?  Does God show favoritism?  He said He didn’t.  Is God a liar?

I have a real dilemma.  If the Holy Spirit wasn’t helping the ancient ones who was watering the seeds they planted that sprouted into Christians all over the world?  How in that world did they leave the newbies a church that was growing?  Who was helping them?  And if the Holy Spirit is helping the newbies in new and improved ways why will they leave you a church that is shrinking?  If you haven’t shrank away yourself. And by the way, DO NOT ask a newbie to explain this.  They will answer your question with a question that goes something like, “Well yes… but were they converting people to Christ, or was it to the church?”  Thoughts like that are followed by great falls.

Anyhow, since saving people is God’s most favorite thing to do why aren’t the newbies using their greater awareness of the Holy Spirit to save lots and lots and lots of people.  Why aren’t they using their spinach to save the hugely growing number of marriages dissolving in the pews right before their very eyes?

… See what I mean?  Newbie logic is illogical.  The ancient ones limited the Holy Spirit, but grew.  Newbies removed the limits, but we shrink.  In more ways than numbers.  When I hear a newbie in a sermon or blog or book recall old battles the logic of their content doesn’t flow for me.  In fact, it sounds like the newbies and the ancient ones believe the same exact thing about the Holy Spirit.  The newbies pity the ancient ones for their kryptonite ways while they hand-spoon their spinach to the Holy Spirit.  What they fail to see is that their spinach IS kryptonite by another name.  When a small child is put to bed are they any less safe because they are not aware their parents have locked the doors and armed the alarm?  Would they be more safe if they were aware?  They might feel more safe, or not, but the truth remains true- either way they ARE safe.

So you see, the ancient ones and newbies are bound together by kryptonite and spinach.  The two are united as one by their common belief that the work of the Holy Spirit depends on men.  They are divided as two only because they live out their common belief in different ways.  Kryptonite or spinach?  Same thing.

None of us will ever know everything we want to know about the Holy Spirit.  Speaking personally, I’m okay with that.  I would be utterly bored to live in a world without mystery and intrigue.

Here’s everything we need to know about the Holy Spirit… The wind blows wherever it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going.

Are your thoughts like kryponite to the wind when you wish it would stop blowing your hair every which way?  And if you squeeze your brain real tight are your thoughts like spinach to the wind lifting your kite ever higher?  If you said “yes” you need to stop reading NOW and seek help.  Let me encourage you to keep your weekly appointments.  And  be patient too.  It will be four to eight weeks before the pills kick in.  Depending on your unique body chemistry.  So, take as prescribed.

The Holy Spirit is a holy, bucking wind (thanks Rich) whom no man can ride.  He goes wherever He pleases, whenever He pleases to do whatever He pleases.  His Self-sustaining, Self-Possessing, Self-defining, Self-knowing Power is such He is able to accomplish His God-given assignments in the hearts and minds of believers AND unbelievers alike.   Ask Pharaoh.  Or Saul of Tarsus.   Amazingly, He does this WITHOUT- WITHOUT- WITHOUT ever interfering with,  nor overriding a human being’s God-given right to choose and live however they want.  What?  How in the world can He accomplish the first God-given and simultaneously honor the second?  Because He can.

How so?  It’s not because He has any superpowers. The Holy Spirit IS SUPERPOWER.  That is a SUPER-Intelligence and SUPER-Brilliance and SUPER-Ability of such staggering dimension the human brain can not process it.  But we try.  And when the Holy Spirit wields His SUPERPOWERS, which is to say HIMSELF,  it is done with such SUPER-skill He remains immune to comprehension in the realm of men.  But we try.  Whether or not our conclusion is kryptonite or spinach is irrelevant to Him.

He knows where the wind has been.  And where it is going.

Up, up and away!!!

Church is Boring. Relationships Aren’t. This is NOT Part II

Not Part II, but related.

On Tuesday nights we host a small group of college-age friends.  Nothing formal.  We eat.  We swim.  We talk.  We eat again.  We watch TV…

Tonight (6/29/10) a visitor showed up.  Although he was raised in the church he was new to most of us.  Any how, I met him and we chatted about this and that for a bit.  I asked some questions and even offered unsolicited advice regarding some of his answers.

To my surprise, later in the evening  he asked me for a few minutes of my time.  In private.   So,  a couple of  hours after finishing part one, but before starting part two,  we took a walk.  He confessed.  Specifically.  Dark forces rule his life.  He doesn’t want this to be true, but dark forces rule his life. 

He also told me he no longer goes to church.  He hates going.  He’s not interested in what his bell ringer is saying.  It doesn’t make sense or apply to his real life. It’s not helping him beat back the dark forces warring against his soul.  So,  he stays home.  He watches football instead.  That’s what he said.  He summed it all up by voluntarily telling me church was boring.  (Hmmm?  Me thinks. Wasn’t I posting on this very topic scant hours ago?  What a strange coincidence!)

When confronted with that sort of brutal honesty bell ringers are sometimes quick to reveal the chip perched on their shoulders.  If you’re bored it’s your own fault.  You should know by now that church isn’t about you.  You only get out what you put inThe focus isn’t on you. That’s part of the problem.  The focus HAS been on us.

By drawing our attention to gaze upon every sorry detail of the joke of a church that no longer exists the vision of a generation has been trained to focus downward.  By appealing to our wants in worship the vision of believers has been trained to focus upon their personal opinions and individual desires.  The end result?  A generation of spiritual consumers was created.  And as a spiritual consumer my new friend has every right to tell me he doesn’t like the product.

So, we walked and talked.    He likes to talk.  He likes it when somebody is listening.  He wants somebody to help him.  If he were going to church  it’s likely nobody would know these things.  We don’t fellowship much in church.  We listen to bell ringers.  But he doesn’t go to church.  He used to though.

I interrupted him with a question.    Would you go to church if it was like this?  Like what?  Just talking.  But not just talking.  Talking like we are right now.  He said yes.

There are many yeses left to be asked.

Church is Boring. Relationships Aren’t. Part I

Took a class at Oklahoma Christian this past Spring.  Contemporary Culture.  Dr. Dudley Chancey.  Great class.  Great teacher.  Made me think.   I’m working out those thoughts here.  Brothers and sisters, we are in the midst of an escalating crisis.  From east to west, and north to south our young people are drifting away in alarming numbers.  Why?   In spite of a new understanding of the Holy Spirit, new worship styles, and new wine skins an increasing number of our marriages are dissolving in the pews while we sit helplessly by.  Why?   Many of our congregations are going out of business because they are failing to reach the lost and keep the saved.  Why?  The following are some of the conclusions I think I’ve reached as I seek to answer the whys for myself. Love to the ten or twelve who continue to drop by.  Ha!

In my particular fellowship the bells of change have been ringing for some time.   They ring because our fellowship is not growing.  In fact, those who know say we’re shrinking.  Not only are we failing to attract new business, but old business is walking out the door.   So the bells ring.

We suffer no shortage of bell ringers either.  There are some who frequently travel between the major bell towers of our fellowship where they ring the bells for all they’re worth.  The skill of these particular bell ringers is such the tone of their gongs is pleasing.  Somehow the vibrations tickle our funny bones.  And who doesn’t like to laugh?  However, our laughter is ironic because it comes at our own expense. As it turns out- the joke’s on us.  And sadly, the final cost of all these funnies may be much higher than any of us imagined.  See, the message of those bells tell us how awful we’ve been.  Awful as in… too dense to “get” the Spirit, too judgmental to welcome the sinner, too conservative to properly worship the King… to name a few awfuls.

No man has ever won the heart of his bride by telling her she’s ugly.  Nor do people find the power to change by being told how awful they are.  But these bell ringers seem to think they can make a brighter future for the bride of Christ by telling her how ugly and awful she was, or continues to be.  How sad.  And speaking pragmatically, is it working?  Has it filled the pews with new business, or kept the old from going elsewhere?

Will these bell-ringers ever quit gonging on about stuff that happened in the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties and yesterday?  Apparently not.  And if they’ve been a bell ringer for some years why isn’t it obvious to them that the church of TODAY is the product of THEIR bell ringing?  Unless they figure that out the church seems destined to hear the same old gonging  until these bell ringers retire, are replaced or drop dead.  Meanwhile, in a surprising development,  it appears many of our young people actually heard the din these bell ringers dinned.  Instead of laughing though many of them walked out the door.  Some from Christ.  Some forever.   Doesn’t this seem just as awful as anything from our past that these bell ringers gong on and on about?  Does anyone believe Jesus is laughing?

Other bell ringers have focused their bell ringing on our assemblies.  Apparently re-marketing our brand in a relevant fashion would  attract new customers and dazzle the current ones into staying.  Especially young families.  Especially our teens who are staying away in significant numbers, when the choice is theirs.  If  only we had the freedom to clap, or raise our hands, or sing songs written in this century then we’d be relevant, then we’d grow, then our young would stay.   So this gaggle of bell ringers rang the bell that calls the church to assemble.  A new kind of assembly that is.

To begin with-  being relevant apparently means having longer church services.  The duration of time we sit in pews and face forward- without interacting in a personal way with others-  is what increased.   Somehow this seeker- friendly, extra -long service is supposed to attract seekers who don’t go to church anywhere, AND engage those in the pews who already can’t wait for the service to be over.  Makes perfect sense.  Somewhere.  Not in this universe.  Nonetheless, gong!   And the gongs keep coming!

Two songs then a prayer?  Been mocked out of existence.  Gong!   The order of worship?  It’s now anyone’s guess, except for the professional who was hired to co-ordinate such things.  Gong!   Song books?  Power Point and pretty pictures.  Gong!  Congregational singing?  Sounds better (to God?) when augmented by a team.  Gong!   The  Lord’s Supper?  In the old days we overlooked  it’s significance by merely praying over it.  Today it true significance is obvious because it’s accompanied by a mini-sermon while someone hums in the background and the lights are dimmed Broadway-style.  Gong!  Interestingly,  one sacred cow from our past left to graze unmolested  is that everything about our assemblies still revolves around the local bell ringers bell ringing.  Hmmm?  Maybe that’s a sacred cow that needs to be shot.  Gong!

In many ways the bell ringers who clanged for change in our assembles have had their way.  This isn’t your grandfather’s church.  This church IS a reflection of the ministry and message of these particular bell ringers.  Me? I like some of the changes their bells rang for.  Don’t you?  I like worship leaders and praise teams, for example.   At the same time I also liked it when there was a different song leader every week.  That felt like a priesthood of believers, and not a priesthood.  Anyhow, if you don’t care for any of these changes you won’t get anywhere by ringing your own bell.  Just keep loving.  Be Jesus.  After all, what’s progressive today is tradition tomorrow. When I’m an old man I fully expect the bell ringers of the future to say something like,  the humming and speechifying accompanying the Lord’s Supper puts too much emphasis on the hummer and the speechify-er.  And what’s with this Broadway- like gimmick of dimming the lights?  It does nothing but cheapen the sacrament.  Can’t we just pray? Just swallow your cracker and drink your juice, Craig.

Where’s the new business?  Why are our faithful customers still drifting away?

In part II: Being a church that exists as a reaction to the church of yesteryear will get us nowhere.  In fact, it’s failed.  The mocking, the horror stories, the can you believe how narrow minded we were type of preaching that has rung from our bell towers wasn’t falling on deaf earsOur young heard the peals of laughter loud and clear.  They didn’t like the joke .  So they left.  That  kind of bell ringing is not the work of the Holy Spirit. Or of God.  Or of Jesus. When He is lifted up people are drawn in, not repulsed.  People are now lost because of the other kind of bell ringing.

Being a church with all the bells and whistles doesn’t seem to be working either.  Unless the goal was to remain static, or even shrink.  The freedom to lift our hands in praise (a good one) hasn’t exactly led to the masses knocking down our doors to discover freedom from sin.  And for those who are barely among us in the first place it might be that all we’ve accomplished is to increase the duration of their boredom.

A new generation of bell ringers must rise up to ring the bell  that Jesus forged in His ministry and in His blood.  His bell doesn’t make fun of people, nor does it rely on fads or gimmicks.  I’ve been blessed to have met some in this new generation.  In New Hampshire.  In  West Virginia.  In Arkansas.  In other places.  My young brothers and sisters, please discover this bell for yourself and then ring HIM with all your might.

but, that’s Part II.  Which I’m working on.  After I clean the house.

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