Friday, July 23, 2004

Longing for There...Fully Present Here

The past two weeks have been especially difficult for me. The difficulty arises, not from the stresses of ministry, but from an increasing longing to depart. Over a month ago, Carol, my wife, and I made reservations for a 7 nights stay on Florida's emerald coast. We've never been away for such an extended period strictly for recreational purposes, and in such a beautiful area. As the time for the trip has neared, I've struggled to remain "engaged" in my work.

When we first made these reservations, I created a calendar, complete with pictures of our destination, so we could "mark off the days" as our trip neared. As the large "x's" through each day increased on this homemade calander, our whole family's excitement increased proportionately. Food for the trip covers our dining room table. Floats, beach chairs, and a variety of swimming accoutrements are neatly placed in our garage, just waiting to be loaded in our van. With all of this stuff "sanctified" for a particular purpose in our home, I found myself "already there" while I have "not yet" fully experienced the beach. I've even picked up some of this stuff, pretending to be relaxing on the sugar white sands of my home state--sounds weird, I know, but I just couldn't help myself.

This tension of living between the times, however, speaks to our Christian reality--at least I think it should. New Testament writers spoke of the eschaton, the consumation of the ages, in expectant terms (cf. Romans 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; 1Peter1:3-9). For them, they were "already there" but had "not yet" fully experienced this ultimate reality. They were "marking the days" when they could be fully present with the Lord.

Two particular points come to mind as I'm reflecting on such eschatological concerns. First, Christians need to recapture a sense of "longing to be there." I wonder to what extent I've become too attached to this fallen world--the world that is in the process of "passing away." I admit, my microcosm is not that bad of a place to live. Nice family. Nice house. Really nice Church. Perhaps this might be one reason why Christians in the United States in particular have become so complacent over the years--why I've become so complacent. Do I, like the early Christians, begin my day with the sincere desire: "Maranatha," (O Lord, Come)?

Second, the longing for the consumation of the ages does not mean that we disengage from our current world--at least it shouldn't mean that. In some way, it--the entire physical creation--is the object of God's redemptive work (Romans 8:18-25). While we might debate the specific details of this eschatological dimension, God is working to reverse the curse from every aspect of His creation. And, His people are to join him in that struggle. "Maranatha" on our lips, then, is not so much a wistful longing to leave this world, but a battle cry for God's kingdom to fully dawn. Didn't Jesus teach us to pray, "Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?"

Well, that's enough reflection for today. After all, I'm leaving for the beach tomorrow!

Monday, July 19, 2004

Honduras Bound
This evening, 16 of our folks from CrossBridge will begin the trek to Tegucagalpa, Honduras for a week-long mission effort. Though I won't be making the trip to Central America, I am driving a portion of the group to Nashville. There, they will join another church group and fly to Tegucagalpa via Miami.
My heart will be in Honduras with them. The people in this region are desperately in need of the basics. This group, as many others do throughout the summer months, will build houses (really basic, one room structures), treat the sick (a number are medical personnel), work among the orphans (taking them clothes, shoes and toys), and basically love the children in that region.
This trip, and the images that remain forever etched in my heart, remind me of Jesus' statement: "inasmuch as you've done it unto one of the least of these, my brothers, you have done it unto me." Jurgen Moltmann, a German theologian, has written prolifically in the area of ecclesiology. In one of his monumental books, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, Moltmann elaborates on the concept he calls ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia. The basic meaning of this phrase is "Where Christ is, there is the church." Reflecting on the Matthew 25 text, Moltmann highlights the fact that Jesus uses familial language regarding the "least of these" when speaking to those who ministered to the disenfranchised. He called them "brothers." Contrarily, Jesus does not again use the familial modifier when speaking to those who refused help.
From this omission, Moltmann argues that Jesus was reminding the Matthean community--and all subsequent Christian communities--that in embracing the "least of these" they were unwittingly embracing Him. And, where he is, there is the church--the people of God. Moltmann, in the liberationist theological tradition, seems to be arguing that the real church, then, is found among the disenfranchised, not among good religious folk.
While Moltmann likely pushes the point too far, he does make an important statement. While we talk about "bringing Christ" to the poor in our mission efforts, this text reminds us that, in so doing, we paradoxically find him there. May we see in the aching eyes of everyone in need a reflection of Jesus...and may we embrace Him there.
Pray for all Christians everywhere who take mission trips this summer that they might experience Christ among the "least of these."

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Figs and Faith
Today I attempted to preach on Mark's account of Jesus' cursing the fig tree (Mark 11:12-25). I'm not sure where I heard or read the phrase "Optic Parable," but Mark appears to use them generously. An "optic parable" as I use it, is where Mark presents a historical miracle, which utlimately refers to some spiritual reality. The blind man, for instance, who was incrementally healed by Jesus, stood as a fitting representative of the disciples' distorted vision regarding Jesus' Messiahship (Mark 8:22-26). Like the blind man, they needed a "second touch" to see clearly who Jesus was. Until they understood the true nature of Jesus' Messiahship, they simply could not understand--or see--clearly what discipleship was all about. Between chapters 8 and 10, Jesus juxtaposes teaching about his messiahship, which involved a cross, and discipleship, which equally involved a cross (cf. Mark 8:31-38; 9:39-37; 10:32-45). Until they understood the basic self-sacrificial orientation of Jesus' Messiahship, they would alway struggled with a power-oriented discipleship that would forever have them lusting for positions of privilege in the kingdom.
Another literary technique judiciously used by Mark is the "chiasmus" structure. Deriving its name from the Greek letter "chi" (which looks somewhat like the English letter x), this literary device occurs when a particular story is interrupted by another event, after which the initial story is completed. Rather than indicating the Gospel writer's "scattered mind" in telling stories, this technique appears to be an intentional design to bring emphasis to the overall point. In the case of Jesus' cursing the fig tree, for example, Mark tells the initial portion of Jesus' cursing the fig tree for its lack of fruit (11:12-14). The narrative then moves to Jesus' reaction to the moneychangers in the temple complex, prophetically indicting them of transforming God's house of prayer into a den of robbers (11:13-19). After this story, Mark provides the conclusion to the fig tree episode (11:20-21). According to the chiasmus literary structure, the story within the story, rather than a wreckless interruption becomes the focus of the writer's point. If the chiasmus structure obtains in the case regarding the cursing of the fig tree (and I think it does), the barren fig tree and God's people in the time of Jesus had something in common. Just as the fig tree boasted of figs (its foliage implied fruit) but had none, so the religious leaders of Jesus' day presented a display of righteousness, but in actuality, their faith was vacuous. The very people that God intended to "bless the nations," had become a sad display of consumerism, becoming an obstacle to those who sought to draw near to God. Just as Jesus cursed the fig tree, which subsequently withered, so the Jewish nation, due to its "barrenness of faith," similarly would meet its demise.
In my sermon today, I wondered about the state of God's people. We have been called to be the body of Christ, salt and light in our broken world. Have we lost our "saltiness?" Have our lamps grown dim? In a postmodern world that is confused, do we boldly point to Jesus Christ, the only one who can save, or do we insist on fiddling with externals? Because we spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about how to correctly "do church," our world does not receive the blessing of Christ's body. I'm afraid that too often hungry people eventually stumble into our presence, but find nothing but leaves.
This is true regardless of one's worship style. It can be true of traditional churches as well as more contemporary churches. If we remain focused on such externals, our tree might look inviting, but there is no substance there.
The church is to offer the redemptive love of Christ to our world. A love that says "Neither do I condemn you...leave your life of sin." When church becomes a place for sinners authentically to experience such love, then, and only then, are we a fruitful tree. God grant your people the grace to be your body...and start with me!

Saturday, July 17, 2004

An Epiphany at the Feet of Jesus

On Tuesday of next week, a team from CrossBridge will travel to Tegucagalpa, Honduras for its annual mission trip to that region. Unlike the past several years, and due to a conflicting schedule, I will not be able to make the trip this year. As I've been reflecting on this trip, though, I remember an epipahny I had last year while working among the poor in this region.
We stayed at a hotel on the foot of a beautiful mountain on whose summit stood a 60 meter high statue of Jesus. With arms outstretched, it appeared as if Jesus were blessing and protecting the large city--exactly the intent of its Catholic architects. In past years, I always saw this statue, but the frenetic nature of the trip never allowed for an excursion up to this moving sight.
Last year was different. Our group, on Sunday evening, made our way to the sight of the "Big Jesus" as I affectionately referred to it. As we made the drive up the precariously, twisting roads to this sight, I became increasingly excited, almost nervous. I realize that I wasn't going to encounter the "real thing," but the place seemed to be holy nonetheless.
When we arrived at the entrance to the sight, I hurried off the bus and headed down the trail. The group that followed thought I knew where I was going--I really didn't. Just like in the states, a "real man" doesn't ask for directions! We came to a fork in the road. No signs. I couldn't see Jesus. Since the trail to the left continued uphill, I assumed that was the way to go, and off I went. I made it only a few yards down the trail when Steve Wilson, a great friend and member at CrossBridge, spotted Jesus in the direction of the opposite trail. Much to the delight of the crowd, Steve remarked: "Now isn't that just like a preacher, leading us away from Jesus." Yeah, a lot of truth to that light-hearted remark.
While that remark itself truly was a convicting truth that pricked my heart, what happened next embedded that nail deeply into my soul. Once we arrived at the foot of Jesus, the entire area was surrounded by a large stone wall that stood about 8 feet high. Embedded in the wall were iron gates. All of them were locked. I then remarked out loud, "Now that's a stunning metaphor of religion. Jesus calls with outstretched arms, 'Come to me,' but us good religious folk build walls around him--and serve as gate keepers to those who wearily come to him."
That's when I had the epiphany, and I nearly wept. I began to realize that Christians often do place barriers around Jesus. How we "do church" becomes more important than an encounter with the living Christ. I wondered that day how many of those stones have I placed alongside all my other, well-intentioned Christians from various traditions. I resolved at that moment to turn from worshipping at the shrines Church externals, and fall at the feet of Jesus. I further resolved to redefine my ministry. Rather than serving as the one to allow passage into Jesus presence through my theologically-constructed gates, I want to usher them authentically into the presence of the only One Who can save. Since last year I've learned that the transformation of people's lives occurs, not at the gate, but at his feet. Once there, the very goal of relgion--transformed lives--becomes a reality. "Oh Lord Jesus, give us all the grace to stay out of your way in people's lives, and grant us eyes to see your holy work in hearts...even when it doesn't conform to our religious protocol. And begin with me!"
By the way, we did make it to Jesus' feet that night. A well-worn path around the wall led to an opening through which many found access to Jesus. (I'm still not sure it was sanctioned, but we went through anyway). Another epiphany, people who want to get to the Lord will find a path, circumventing our well-thought out, protocols of religious traditions. Reminds of the story when the blind man, because he encountered and accepted Jesus, lost his access to the community (John 9). God save us from this spirit religious spirit!

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Volleyball Theology
Once again, I've been playing on a recreational coed volleyball league this season. Our team consists of women and men from CrossBridge. So far, we've won a few and lost just as many. But, we've had a blast--at least I have. Those with a more serious competitive--and capable--edge might not be happy with our season. It's been fun, though, as a minister to get to know my fellow CrossBridgians in this different context.
I've learned a few things from this whole ordeal. One person simply cannot do very well. There's too much ground, er, wood to cover. It's also true that whatever happens to one person, happens to them all. While I might have played a stellar game (only in my dreams), if we are beaten, everyone is beaten. Contrarily, even when I play my typical error-ridden game, I get to experience the thrill of victory when that occurs.
While these are great lessons for the church, I stumbled across a most important theological reality during last week's game. Typically, a game is lost or won based upon how well a team serves. "If anyone wants to be great, let him be the servant of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many." Greatness through one's service is true not only of individuals (or volleyball teams) but of churches as well. It's probably time that we heed this basic call, becoming salt and light to our increasing bland and dark society.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

A Humurous Tale; A Somber Reminder

I received the following email from a friend. I--and likely many of you--have seen a version of this story. I was reminded again of how Christians are all-too willing to shed blood over nuanced differences in church polity.

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I ran over to him and said, "Stop! Don't do it!"

"Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well. . .are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious."

"Me, too!" I said. "Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or protestant" He said, "Protestant."

I said, "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?" He said, "Baptist."

I said, "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist church of God or Baptist church of the Lord?" He said, "Baptist church of God."

I said, "Me, too. Are you original Baptist church of God, or are you reformed Baptist church of God?" He said,"Reformed Baptist church of God."

I said, "Me too! Are you reformed Baptist church of God, reformation of 1879, or reformed Baptist church of God, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist church of God, reformation of 1915!"

I said, "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.

This is not intended to identify only one denominational expression of Christianity as suffering from highly nuanced forms of "doing church." It's a reminder that all Christians tend to move in such directions. My own heritage has historically excelled in the area of such a sectarian spirit. May we be one, Father, as you and your Son, Jesus, are one. And, may we love one another as you have loved the world might know that we are your disciples.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Guess What Happened in Church Today?

Depending on one's perspective, this question could be negative or positive. Too often, I've been on the receiving end of such a question, only to hear the querist describe an "uncomfortable situation" he or she experienced. On the other hand, I've also heard this interrogative remark followed by a moving depiction of God at work in an assembly.

CrossBridge is one of those places where the unusual is the usual. Yesterday was an unforgettable first, both for our church and for yours truly. In my 19 years of ministry, I've performed many weddings in a variety of settings, e.g., church buildings, homes, backyards, pool sides, chapels. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to join a loving couple in holy matrimony during our Sunday morning worship.

Admittedly, I wondered about how this was going to work. Was it going to force worshipers to participate in two strangers' marriage ceremony? How would it be received? Would it be a moving moment of experiencing the triune love of God concretely displayed, or would it be perceived as a gimmick, a spectacle of human hubris?

A couple of things coelesced to ease my mind. First, an organization devoted to family values sent out a nation-wide email, urging ministers and pastors to preach on the sanctity of marriage on the Sunday in question. Second, a lunch with the couple revealed their honest desire not to be the centerpiece of the service. They simply wanted to vow their commitment to each other at the end of the sermon.

Though quite different from anything we've ever experienced before, the entire service was a meaningful encounter with God. LifeSong, the worship team at CrossBridge, did an absolutely fabulous job in moving all of us into the presence of God through amazing songs. Jack and Julie exchanged their vows, much to the delight of all. As far as the sermon, someone with a bit more objectivity would need to judge!

Upon reflection, and after hearing many positive responses to the service, I began to better understand why this experience was so generally moving. Paul spoke of the mysterious marriage relationship as a reflection of Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:32). Jack and Julie stood as concrete expressions of the relational mystery between Jesus and each of us--His church. As they said "Yes" to one another, we were experiencing God's "yes" to us in the context of worship. In turn, we all were moved to utter our own unique "yes" to Him as well.

In a day when marriage is under viscious attack, it was a holy moment to see two people, commit to one another in the most appropriate place of all--in the context of a worshipping community. My prayers are with Jack and Julie as they begin their life together as husband and wife. And, I am profoundly appreciative of them both for allowing God to use the rather ordinary recitation of marriage vows to become a catalyst for praise...and transformation.

Guess what happened in church today....

Thursday, July 08, 2004

At Peace In The Storm

Have you ever had one of those days when everything—absolutely everything—went, not only as you planned, but exceeded your wildest imagination of the most perfect day? The kids woke up on their own, dressed themselves, and brought you breakfast in bed before they walked to the bus stop? Your presentation resulted in a promotion, 100% pay raise, and won you company-wide accolades—all before 9:00 a.m.? The Reader’s Digest van actually showed up in your driveway with the $1,000,000 prize?

While such astonishing days theoretically are possible, our days typically flow at a frenzied pace, sometimes causing us to struggle just to survive the emotional, physical, and spiritual strains of living. Deadlines. Company sales quotas. Corporate downsizing. Family tension. How can we find peace in the midst of such surging storms?

The world has set forth its prescriptions. Magazines offer “Ten Ways to Beat Busyness.” Corporate trainers promote “proven techniques for stress-free living.” Travel agents claim peace is available in Hawaii—for only $3,000! (This one sounds most promising...until the credit card bill comes due.)
In our candid moments, however, we realize that techniques alone don’t produce lasting serenity. Our excitement over new programs for stress-free living can quickly cool. And, even an island paradise cannot guarantee sustained contentment for a troubled soul.

God knows that peace cannot be compressed neatly into a program or a place, but in a dynamic relationship with a Person—Jesus (John 14:27). While the peace offered by the world is short-lived and shallow, the peace of Christ is immeasurable and eternal. His peace transcends human understanding and earthly circumstances (Philippians 4:7,12).

By remaining meaningfully connected to Christ, we can be at peace when corporate representatives invade our offices. We can experience serenity in the midst of screaming kids, ringing phones, and unexpected visits from relatives. We even can remain calm when our car breaks down on the way to a job interview or when death makes its unwelcome visit.

The real secret to peace during the irritating storms of life is to abide in Christ. Such peace is not an escape from the irritants--or challenges--of this broken world. On the contrary, its fully embracing those irritants and challenges with the faith that our future is secure in Jesus Christ. And, it further reflects a conviction that God's sovereign will utlimately will prevail...on earth as it is in heaven. May God grant us such peace.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Leading as a Bondservant

I've been leading a men's class on Tuesday nights based on a book by Steve Arterburn and Fred Stoeker titled "Every Woman's Desire." Though I've been the one facilitating our conversations, I've been the benefactor of great insights from the men in this class.

The past couple of classes dealt specifically with biblical leadership, and what that actually looks like. Taking their cue from Exodus 21:2-6, Arterburn and Stoeker argue for a bondservant model of leadership. According to this code, a Hebrew who, due to times of hardship, sells himself into slavery was to be released in the seventh year. If, during his years of servitude, he marries a wife and has children, they actually belong to his master. At the end of sevens years, he then has a choice. The man alone could go free, or decide to remain in slavery with his family. The text reads; "But if the servant declares, 'I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,' then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierve his ear with and awl. Then he will be his servant for life" (v. 5).

While many details of this text raise perplexing questions, heightened by the cultural differences between ancient Israel and contemporary North America, two relevant points stand out. (1) While prevailing circumstances coerced the man initially into slavery, bondservanthood was his choice. (2) The choice of bonservanthood was compelled by his love for his master and his family.

Arterburn and Stoeker, appropriately emphasizing mutual submission in marriage, use this text to underscore the true nature of biblical leadership. They apply the metaphor of "master" to the wife--the one whom the husband has been called to serve (just as Jesus served his bride, the church).

While Arterburn and Stoeker speak relevant truth using this structure, our conversations about this text revealed a subtle, but very important, distinction to their interpretation. The text makes the point that both the man and his family belong to the master. Neither the man nor the wife was "master." They both were owned by the one who purchased them. Therefore, the way he related to his wife and children was dictated by this construct of ownership. The way he treated his family reflected on his relationship to the master. To serve them, then, was an extension of his servitude to his master, whom he loves.

By analogy, we need to keep in mind that we are not our own; we have been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19). Additionally, the special people in our lives are not ours, they equally belong to another. My wife and children (brothers and sisters in Christ), then, are my master's. To honor him, I must honor them. Biblical leadership, then, does not derive from one's position of power, but from one's recognition of belonging to another. From that position of servanthood, then, derives the biblical concept of leadership. As with Jesus, authority is expressed, not in being served, but in serving and giving one's life for others (Matthew 20:20-28; John 13:1-5). Such is the overarching paradigm for all the home and the church. May God grant us true leaders who understand this basic biblical principle!

Monday, July 05, 2004

Oh, Say Can You See?
Reflections on Independence Day

As I pen these words, July 4th already has passed into the mist of human memory. Since July 4 fell on Sunday this year (thanks to LifeSong for such a memorable worship experience), Monday was the official day off for most folk. Such was the case for me, at least.

The day was filled with very little activity really. It seemed to lazily drag along. There were the usual things. Hamburgers. Watermelon. More Fireworks. In fact, neigbhors at this moment are shooting off the remander of their pyrotechnic stash (I hope they'll be finished by bedtime).

Throughout this rather lazy day, I have reflected on the meaning of Idependence Day. As I watched, and assisted in sending whistling fireballs into the air, I kept thinking about our National Anthem. Not only is the song's range one of the most difficult to vocally navigate, it's words equally are challenging. Not so much their pronunciation or even their meaning. Few folks likely fully understand Francis Scott Keys emotions as he described "Old Glory" intermittently illuminated by the "rockets' red glare," and "bombs bursting in air." From his perch on an unnamed British vessel, where he was detained, 8 miles below Fort McHenry during it's bombardment, Key strained throughout the night to determine the direction of the fight. To his utter delight, the flag remained flying proudly, though tattered, over the fort. This sight inspired him to write the "Star Spangled Banner."

Written to the tune of an English tavern song (Anacreon in Heaven), Key's lyrics to this English tune finally became our national anthem in 1931. While we are most familiar with only the first stanza, there actually are a total of four. The last stanza in particular is of great relevance to our current cultural situation. One can nearly feel the emotions of this Episcopalian swell as he scribbled on a piece of paper these final words to a moving song:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

In our post-Christian, pluralistic world, perhaps we should dust off this old stanza and reflect on it's sentiments. Key saw our nation (as reflected in the tenacity of Fort McHenry) "heaven-resuced," preserved by "the Power" who should be praised, and one whose motto should ever be "In God is our trust." In reality, then, our "Idependence" was seen by those who fought for it as ultimately "dependent" on our God. May the church universal remind our culture of the One Who holds our nation in His sovereign hands. And, may he preserve us!