We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Drifting with God

The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
In yesterday's post (here), I returned to a point that I've made before, namely that by the grace of God and under the guidance of the Spirit we are generally, if slowly and painfully, headed in the direction of the Kingdom of God, that future time of peace, compassion, and love.  One problem with this point of view is the role of God in our "drift toward the Kingdom."  There is a very fine line to walk here, and it is all too easy to stray into the territory that lies on either side of the line.  On the one side, there is the traditional view of God reinforced by Newtonian physics that God is control of everything.  On the other, lies the also long-cherished viewpoint that God set things in motion and has left it to us to sort things out.  God as the all-powerful manager is one choice, and God as the absentee landlord is the other.

Each of these choices is a flawed one.  God as manager necessarily is the root cause of evil.  The absentee God doesn't really even fit the bill of divinity, and one can argue is equally as responsible for evil, if through negligence.  The struggle is, of course, to discover a third way of seeing God's place in the scheme of things in light of our Judeo-Christian trust in a loving creator God.  For Christians, the "Christ-event" strongly reinforces our sense that God is "in essence" loving and just.  God is the forgiving, embracing father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).  It is repugnant to Christian sensibilities to associate the God we see in Christ with the origins and potency of evil.  It is also all but impossible for faithful Christians, as well as Jews, to believe that God leaves us to our own devices.  The whole point of the Bible is that God is involved in human affairs, intimately so.

There is a tension, then, inherent in our understanding of God in light of the scriptures.  God's love is in tension with God's power.

But that isn't quite right.  What is in tension is our human perceptions of God's love and God's power.  For the most part, our doctrines concerning the deity are but mirrors reflecting our own struggles, joys, fears, and understanding.  God as constructed by our theologians is a human construction however close to the biblical texts.  The substance that lies beneath these human constructions is a double intuition.  We look at the universe and we experience an awe that intuitively tells us that there is "something" that is the source of this amazingly constructed reality we inhabit.  There is a Creator—could be a force, could be a divine being, could be a "something" beyond our ken.  But there is "something" that is the source of all of this.  That's the first intuition.  It is intellectual at heart.

The second intuition is "spiritual".  It has to do with our human spirit.  We sense, we intuit a "something" that is profoundly present in our lives.  It inspires us to pray, to worship, to doubt, and to discover trust.  This Presence works in, through, and with us in a way that neither violates our freedom or leaves us to our own devices.  Indeed, it remains obscure apparently so that we are free to do all of the good and the evil things we do while remaining an intuited presence that grounds us in the good, sets us in the direction of the Kingdom, and gives us a push now and again along the way.

In the end, there is no one satisfactory answer to any of this, which is why we are people of faith.  We can't put matters of the spirit or the Spirit under a microscope and resolve these questions by the application of the scientific method.  But we can and must remain self-critical of our struggle to make sense of That which is not commonsensical.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Slowly Drifting Toward the Kingdom

It is, admittedly, a painfully slow drift toward a more peaceful world, but there is evidence (as I've written before here) that the human race is evolving in that direction.  It is not clear if it is actually another piece of that evidence or not, but a recent opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune entitled, "American football industry is on its deathbed," by John Kass has certainly gotten its share of attention. Kass argues that a combination of factors related to the inherent violence of the sport will lead to its extinction.  One factor is the many lawsuits against schools, colleges, and professional teams.  Former players and their families are suing for the physical pain and hurt caused by the game.  The other main factor is parents.  Kass argues that more and more parents are keeping their kids out of football because they know how dangerous it is for them.  He writes, "In cultural terms, parents who send their 10-year-olds to play football might as well hold up signs saying they'd like to give their children cigarettes and whiskey."  Lawsuits will "overwhelm" the game even as there are fewer and fewer young athletes taking part in it.

OK, maybe Kass is overstating the case.  In the absence of a good deal of research, who is to say?  But, if you do a Google search on the question, "Is football in decline?", you come up with a good deal of opinions out there supporting the idea that it is either in decline or about to change radically because of the findings of medical science about the physical consequences involved in playing football. One of the first hits on my search list was, "The Coming Decline of American Football," which makes some of the same points Kass makes.

The Kingdom is not going to come in some great cataclysmic event, whatever the rapture crowd believes.  It is coming, in fact, through the quiet work of the Spirit working through many ways and means in concert with humanity itself.  As this debate over American rules football suggests, we no longer value violence in the way our race once did, or at least we no longer value it to the degree we once did.  And in spite of the headlines, nations and individuals are less given to resorting to violence to get what we want.  We have a long, long, very long way to go, but slowly we are drifting toward the Kingdom.  Amen.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The New Same Old Wild & Woolly Western Frontier

When I was a small boy, sitting on the leading edge of the baby boom, television helped to shape my imagination, which 60 years ago meant especially the heroes of TV westerns.  There was Gene AutryRoy Rogers, the "Lone Ranger,"  and then a little later the iconic TV series, "Gunsmoke."  In these an countless other TV and movie westerns, young boys saw exemplified what it meant to be a real American man—tough and fair, caring and quick on the draw, law-abiding and above the law when the law wasn't fair, sociable and a rugged individualist—good with a gun but a reluctant warrior at best.  These cowboy heroes "did their own thing," but they did it for the good of frontier society and for true justice, which was something usually distinguished from "the law."

So, recently, I became aware of a new TV series on Syfy, the supposedly science fiction network that shows more silliness than science fiction but occasionally does justice to its name.  The series is "Defiance," which is set in a time in the near future when the Earth has been invaded by a host of alien species and accidentally terraformed in ways that have transformed it into a new,  largely dangerous world.  The hero is Joshua Nolan, the "Chief Lawkeeper" of the multi-racial enclave of Defiance, which stands on what used to be St. Louis.  The Gateway Arch, battered but still standing, is the visual icon of the new civilization Defiance is seeking to build out of the chaos of the post Pale Wars wreck of a world Earth has become.  Josh Nolan is the new Matt Dillion, tougher and more cynical, but still dedicated to justice.  Strip away the high tech, space and aliens veneer, and what we have is a trendy remake of the same old cowboy and western genre.  Indeed, both the new-fangled scifi drama and the old-fashioned cowboy shoot-'em-up dramas seem to draw on far older visions of chivalry, which takes us back to the frontiers of post-Roman, Dark Ages Europe.

One thing that stands out in all of this is how secular, how un-religious, these modern traditions in myth-making are.  Religion sometimes appears but mostly as a sideshow.  The heroes never pray.  They don't lead singing in church. The role of the church as one of the chief civilizing agencies of the real frontier is seldom portrayed, and in more recent TV series religion is more often represented negatively than positively.  Certain social values are portrayed, including the importance of weaponry as the only thing that keeps the bad guys at bay, but spiritual values are seldom to be seen. (One notable exception is the Hallmark Channel TV movie series, "Love Comes Softly," which is a Christian counter-cultural reworking of the cowboy genre).

Our race has a long way to go yet, and one can only pray that the Earth survives the trip we are on.  And we can only pray that eventually the values that define the Kingdom will find their way into the center of our thinking and acting because if they don't it is not likely that the Earth will survive us or us the progressive destruction of the Earth.  Matt Dillion and Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise are fine as far as they go, but it is not far enough. Their way is not the way of wisdom nor of the future we are created to discover.  It is not the way of the Kingdom.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pray for Your Enemies - How Come?

"But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..." (Matthew 5:44, NRSV)

In the larger passage in which this injunction is contained, Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus taught his disciples that they must pray for their enemies in order to gain the reward of becoming something like God.  He did not explain exactly what that means, which leaves us with some "running room" in our understanding and application of the command itself.

So, why love and pray for our enemies?  Basically, as long as our enemies remain our enemies they own us.  They have our attention and dominate our emotional state.  They infect us with feelings of disgust, anger, hatred, and fear.  They have an internal power over us that can easily turn us into what we think they are.  To allow someone to be our enemy is to give them great power over us.  The same is true even for those that we merely don't like or irritate us—to the extent that we let them get to us, to that extent they own us.

Praying for our enemies, if done with integrity, takes the poison out of us and allows us to be at peace with ourselves.  It also opens the door to the possibility of being at peace with them as well—depending on factors that we don't have control over.  The scales fall from our eyes.  Our hearts are less encased in ugly feelings.  As God is love, so we drift in the direction of love.  As God lies at the heart of peace, so we sink slowly into the realm of peace.  We enable the prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done." Yes, this is easier said than done, but it remains doable, and our own peace of mind depends on our being able to love and pray for our enemies.  And, no, we don't have to become naive or overlook seriously bad behaviors, it is just that we no longer let all of that own us and destroy our own sense of inner peace.

And "enemies" here need not mean individuals.  It can also mean an addiction, for example, which for millions and millions of people is their greatest enemy.  It can mean the poisons implanted in us by an abusive relationship, which itself is over.  It can mean our prejudices against another race or class of people.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Learning to See

Acts 3:1-10 tells the story of Peter, John, and a crippled beggar.  The two apostles were going into the Temple in Jerusalem to pray when they came across the beggar sitting at one of the temple gates.  He saw them and hoped for some spare change.  They saw him and saw the possibility of a miracle.  The axial moment in the story is in verses 4 and 5 (NRSV): "Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, 'Look at us.' And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them."

Peter and John looked at the beggar closely.  Before Jesus and before the resurrection, what they likely would have been was a pitiful excuse for a human being that God was punishing for his sins.  They would not have seen the person but instead a category, "sinner".  After Jesus and after the resurrection, they saw the person.  It did not matter that this person saw in them a potential source of gain, a "mark" as it were.  In fact, that is a key point of the story.  Peter and John could see things that the beggar did not see, and when they healed him they gave him back more than a new set of feet and legs to walk on. They also gave him a new set of eyes to see with.

That is one of the things that the gracious gift of faith in our Christian tradition gives to the the faithful.  It instills in them a new way of seeing.  In the U.S., then, the person of faith sees a person of color and sees the person.  She sees a Muslim and sees the person.  He sees a woman and sees the person.  We see individuals who practice "alternative life styles" and see the individual.  In the eyes of his society, the beggar was not worthy of healing, forgiveness, or anything more than the passing glance needed to put a coin in his hand.  Peter and John, however, saw him in the light of Jesus and the resurrection.  They saw him.  Amen.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Bible: What it Says & What it Teaches

It is part of our human nature that we tend to see what we are trained to see and want to see.  Just as our eyes tend not to see things that don't move, so our minds tend to overlook what is not obvious to our training and inclinations.  Thus, the Bible is filled with passages that support the role of good works in faith, but Protestant eyes have long been trained to read past them and, instead, notce those passages that support the idea of grace alone.  The works-righteousness passages lie hidden in the weeds while the grace alone ones stand out like lone trees on the prairie.

Failing to see the implications of a passage or a verse in the Bible because it is obscured by the reader's values, attitudes, training, and beliefs is nothing new.  Titus 2 provides an example.  Reading from N. T. Wright's translation of the New Testament, The Kingdom New Testament, Titus 2:5 instructs young wives to be submissive to their husbands, and 2:9 enjoins slaves to be submissive to their masters.  Since ancient times down to the near-present Christians lived in hierarchical and patriarchal societies, and they took note of the obvious message found in these two verses.  They undergirded hierarchical and patriarchal values and attitudes. In antebellum America, slave owners used this and other biblical passages to justify chattel slavery and all of the actions they took to suppress resistance to it.  Even today, some Christian groups intentionally treat women as second-class members because of what "the Bible says."

Meanwhile hidden away in the weeds is Titus 2:11, which Wright translates as stating, "God's saving grace, you see, appeared for all people."  For women as well as men.  For slaves as well as masters.  God's saving grace was already egalitarian in the age of the early church, and it has remained so in the face of the values, attitudes, and behaviors of societies that reject the very idea of social equality.  The Bible "says" women should submit to men and (black) slaves to their (white) masters, but it also says that Christ's sacrifice and God's love is equally for women and slaves.  The disturbing questions raised by verse 11 lays there in the weeds waiting patiently to be noticed—namely, if God in Christ sees no essential difference between slaves and masters, women and men, then how can we as humans claim that one is greater than the other?  How can we in all good conscience place them in marital or economic bondage?  If we then look to the example of Jesus of Nazareth, the one who persistently defied social conventions for the sake of the folks at the margins of society—if we look to his example, we find ourselves rejecting the "commonsense" attitudes, values, and behaviors of societies that turns people into second-class categories—woman, slave, colored, gay, not us.

Suddenly, we notice that there is more to the prairie than that lone tree that seems so obvious.  In the grass, there is another kind of life.  We discover, amazingly, that the Bible "says" women and slaves are second-class types of people, but it teaches that they are not—not in the eyes of God.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Biology of the Golden Rule

Back in February, Prof. Paul J. Zak, Claremont Graduate University, posted an article entitled, "Why it pays to be nice," in which he discusses research he has done into the neurochemical oxytocin (ox-ee-TOE-sin).  He has found that when we do something nice for another person oxytocin is released in the brain of that person, which causes her or him to have a pleasant experience and want to return the kind deed. He calls this process, "a mechanism for reciprocating nice with nice" and observes that it, "is exactly what highly social creatures like us need to remain part of our social groups." He claims to have verified these findings repeatedly and argues that best business practices rely on it; he concludes that, "Even more than simply money, my experiments show that those who release the most oxytocin are more satisfied with their lives. Why? They have better relationships of all types: romantic, friendships, families, and they even share more money with strangers in our laboratory tasks. We simply like being around people who treat us well (and don't brag about it). A little dose of nice goes a long way."

Zak also writes, "Think about how revolutionary this finding is: we have a chemical in our brains that is released when someone – even a stranger – treats us well, and this chemical motivates us to treat them well in return. This is the biological basis for the Golden Rule: do to others what you would like done in return. The Golden Rule exists in every culture on the planet, so it must have deep biological roots."

Oxytocin is not proof that there is no God because those of us who believe that evolution itself is divinely driven can easily argue that the presence and role of this chemical reflects God's creative will for us as a race.  Oxytocin also does not prove there is a God for the skeptic can just as easily point out that it is produced as part of an entirely natural process and is what one would expect to find in a social animal.  My point is a different one and a recurring theme of this blog: the findings of science frequently "make sense" to those who believe in a Creator God who initiated and remains present in cosmic and Terran ("earthly") evolutionary processes.  We don't look to science to provide "evidences" of God, but at the same time in the findings of science we find described a universe and a natural world compatible with the One that is at once Beyond and Present.  Amen.

Friday, April 19, 2013

More Than a Metaphor

For Paul, the Resurrection was no metaphor; it was the power of God.  And when he spoke of Jesus as raised from the dead, he meant Jesus alive and at large in the world not as some shimmering ideal of human goodness or the achieving power of hopeful thought but as the very power of life itself.

Frederick Buechner,
Listening to Your Life, p.  100

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sweet Caroline - Remembering

On April 16th, stadiums around major league baseball played the theme song of Fenway Park, Boston, "Sweet Caroline," in memory of those who died, were injured, and are impacted by the bombing of the Boston Marathon.  They played it to stand with the people of Boston and to make the point that when one part of our nation hurts, we all hurt.  In that spirit, below, is Neil Diamonds classic rendition of Sweet Caroline.  Amen.

A Measure of Church Health - Seven

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy. Sixth on his list of questions is:
"Does the church have a strategic plan for future growth? One reason the Enemy so readily succeeds in attacking churches is because he is often a better planner (Eph. 6:11) than most church leaders are. He methodically and strategically attacks the church while most churches operate from Sunday to Sunday. We are not prepared for his attacks. In the same way, most churches would not be prepared for significant growth if God were to grant it. What would the church do if God sent a genuine awakening? Does the church have a vision around which their plans-including facility, staffing, and programming-are developed?"
Once again, I don't want to get lost in a contrarian critique of Lawless' dualistic spiritual warfare perspective.  There is a more important point here, and we should read "through" the devil stuff to it.  The question for mainline churches is whether or not they pursue an agenda that will lead to the "genuine awakening" envisioned by Lawless.  I've already made the point in previous postings in this series that mainline churches need to work on such things as faith-development and faith-sharing.  We need to balance our enviable record in social outreach with an increased emphasis on teaching, practicing, and sharing spiritually—the life of faith.  We need to promote a healthy, vital small group life in our churches, one that will encourage members to share in deeper relationships built on their shared faith in Christ.  Thus, the pressing questions for us are these: are working on developing a deeper faith in our congregation?  Are we prepared for the possibility that the Spirit might superintend efforts in that direction?  Do we have a vision for growing in faith?  Are we pursuing it?  Are we ready for it to make a difference in the life of the church?  These are the questions for us today.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


In his book, The Battle of Britain, historian James Holland describes a conversation British writer and homemaker Daidie Penna had with a man in a pub over the dire situation Britain faced in mid-1940 after Germany defeated France.  Speaking of the Nazis, this man is quoted as saying, "they've got to be stopped.  And I believe they will be stopped by something which is in the nature and genius of our species."  Holland quotes Penna as responding, "Spirit," to which the man replied, "Yes, spirit.  That will do it." (p. 311).

Not armaments.  Not manpower.  Not strategy.  Not diplomacy.  But spirit.

So what is it?  The first definition at dictionary.com is, "the principle of conscious life; the vital principle in humans, animating the body or mediating between body and soul."  But what do these words mean?  Not to belabor the point, the word, "spirit," is one of those words that name a "thing" that is very real to us as human beings but which is subjective rather than objective, non-physical rather than physical, and cannot be quantified with anything even remotely approaching precision.  Penna's use of the term was not at all religious and doesn't reflect what some would consider to be religious "mumbo jumbo."  And while there maybe measurable physiological symptoms associated with our experience of spirit (as when one meditates or prays), the human spirit itself is no more those symptoms than Handel's "Messiah" is the collective set of sound waves produced by an orchestra.  It isn't sound waves that drives an audience to its feet but rather the beauty, the harmony, and the depth of feeling that surfs those waves and is something majestically more than them.

In athletics, there is something more to winning than training, coordination, experience, and skill.  It is spirit.  An army equipped to the gills with all it needs to do battle still requires morale, courage, and a will to win, none of which are physical realities.  It is just such qualities as these, as spirit, that make us human—along with other meta-physical properties such as hate and lust.  Love.  Loyalty.

And, again, it is almost certainly true that these extra-physical qualities or properties are tied to human evolution and have aided us in our development of a species.  They are not "unnatural."  They are extra-physical, meta-physical, and non-physical evolutionary realities.  Like a great painting, they are much more than pigments, brush, and canvas.  What makes a painting in-spiring is something in that combination that truly is greater than the sum of painting supplies and the skill of the artist.

Morning comes quietly to the lake as the mist lifts gently and full light touches water, woods, and sky.  Riding the shifting breeze comes the first lilting call of a loon.  We hear the sounds waves with our ears, the sounds are electrically transmitted to our brain, but it is our spirit that is stirred and comforted by these sounds riding on the silence of the morning.  Amen.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Measure of Church Health - Six

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy. Sixth on his list of questions is:
"Is the church both locally and globally minded? At the risk of understatement, the world is always bigger than any local church. As many as 1.7 billion people in the world have little access to the gospel. The people groups of the world are now coming to the United States. The Hispanic population in the U.S. continues to grow. Burgeoning populations in the cities cry out for the gospel. Who will reach the unreached if the local church is focused only on itself?"
Of the eight measures of church health, this is the one that has the least to do with local churches.  While it seems logical and obvious that a healthy local church will be "locally minded" by the very fact of its locale, it is not obvious that it must be "globally minded" in the sense that Dr. Lawless means, namely concerned with global evangelism.  A healthy progressive congregation will "naturally"be concerned with global issues having to do with peace, justice, and the environment.  I'm not sure it has to be so concerned, but it is hard to imagine that it wouldn't be.  That concern is not, however, likely to be a missionary concern, which is what Lawless is really pointing to here.

One, in fact, can make a good case that it is time for Western churches to stop sending missionaries overseas and to pursue other ways to "partner" with overseas churches and agencies.  It is time to stop pushing 19th century global evangelistic agendas, partly because they are not particularly Christ-like in their attitudes towards other peoples and partly because churches in Africa, Asia, and South America are entirely able to take responsibility for outreach ministries in their own contexts.  We would do well to dispense with the evangelical agenda overseas.

On the other hand, mainline churches would also do well to embrace something of the evangelical agenda locally.  We have not enough devoted nearly enough of our time and energy to faith development.  Ask "typical" mainline church to name the "spiritual disciplines," and they are often hard-pressed to name anything other than "helping other people."  Churches do have a social responsibility to their community and especially to the poor and marginalized, but it is not the responsibility of a social service organization.  It is responsible, rather, for teaching, fomenting, and spreading the practice of Christian faith disciplines, which after all are about peace and justice through deeper relationships with God.  Our responsibility is to do this both within the church and with others be they of another faith or no faith.  We need soup kitchens, but we also need prayer groups.  And the prayer groups, study groups, and fellowship groups are actually more central to the work of the church than the soup kitchens.

In sum, while global concerns will usually "come naturally" to a healthy progressive church, in our time the need is for a local focus that shares Christ in action and, as opportunity allows, in word.  It is a local focus that promotes the development of the larger range of spiritual disciplines including prayer & meditation, the study of scripture, faith sharing, as well as the doing of good deeds.  Amen.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

President Obama's Weekly Address

A Measure of Church Health - Five

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy. Fifth on his list of questions is:
"Is the church keeping and discipling new believers who join? Suppose a church reached twenty non-believers for Christ in the last year. Did the church see a corresponding increase in attendance? If not, why not? Is the congregation an aging one, and several died within the year? Are longer term members leaving the church as the church changes? Does the church have a poor strategy for discipling new members? Or, more positively, did the church send out a team to begin a church plant? Whatever the cause for the discrepancy between additions and attendance, the church must respond appropriately."
The real question here is more basic: is the church growing numerically at all?  And still more basic: what is the relationship of a church's statistical growth to its health?  Can a church not grow and be healthy?  It does seem possible that a church can have a vibrant, faithful life engaging in effective ministries and yet not grow in numbers, but it is more likely that a healthy church will grow in size.  The quality of its life will attract others to it.  Those "looking for something" will find that something in a healthy church more frequently and fully than not.  So, yes, a healthy church will grow in numbers and display a general balance in age groups.  Theological orientation, it must also be said, is not the issue.  Healthy liberal churches are as apt to grow in numbers as healthy conservative ones.

Let me once not engage in the terminology quibbles that we progressives often quibble about.  We, for example, like to insist that church "growth" is about more than increasing the number of members in a church.  The most important aspects of a growing church, we insist, are more about spirituality, vitality of worship, and other such things than about numbers.   This quibble, however, can obscure the fact that under normal circumstances a church that is growing in faith is likely to be one growing in numbers as well.  In our quibbling state of mind, we might also feel that Lawless seems overly concerned about numbers.  Church growth folks on his end of the theological scale usually are.  Even so and in spite of our quibbles, he and they have a point, which is that healthy churches under normal circumstances should be growing in numbers of people attending worship, participating in church life, and adding their names to the membership rolls.

We have to be careful about our quibbles!  We can quibble ourselves out of facing up to the stern reality of statistical growth.  Numbers are one indicator (in the majority of cases) of health.  This does not mean, of course, that big churches or rapidly growing churches are healthier.  They can and often do build their growth on the shifting sands of a personality cult or social prestige—all of which does not change the relationship of church health to statistical growth.  In the end, not all churches that grow numerically are healthy nor are all churches that do not grow unhealthy, but there remains a general correlation between health and numbers.  Healthy churches are more likely to grow in numbers than not.  Unhealthy churches are less likely to grow in numbers.

Friday, April 12, 2013

No Room for Me

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be.  Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God  reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?  If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.

Frederick Buechner
Listening to Your Life, p.  91

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Measure of Church Health - Four

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy. Fourth on his list of questions is:
"Is the church reaching non-believers? Here, the possibility of overemphasizing numbers is apparent, but the question must be asked: are non-believers coming to know the Lord through the church's ministry? If the church is growing, is the growth conversion growth (nonbelievers meeting Christ) or transfer growth ("swapping sheep")? Transfer growth is sometimes necessary, but it seldom results in Great Commission growth."
As a mainline progressive, I would usually insist on a "terminology adjustment," but in this case worrying over Lawless' terms (esp. "non-believer" and "conversion growth") could well be a way to avoid an important issue rather than address it.  He believes that bringing people who do not have a faith in Christ to such a faith is one mark of a healthy church, and he is correct in that belief.  While, there are cases and situations where particular churches can be healthy without reaching out with faith to others, by-and-large healthy churches share their faith with people of other faiths and no faith.  They make the gospel available to people who don't know about it.  There is, to be sure, less anxiety to turn someone who is not a Christian into one and less anxiety to get people baptized and into the church.  But, yes, a healthy church shares its good news with others in a way that makes its fellowship available to those in need of a community of faith.

It makes its fellowship available in two ways: by sharing faith and by otherwise being a healthy church that is in and of itself attractive to people in need of a faith community.  Members reach out to visitors, for example, who are "looking for something," and the church embodies the "something" they are looking for.  A healthy church's activities may include people who will not darken the door of a church on a Sunday morning but still find fellowship and a place to think meaningful thoughts in the church.  And, members of a healthy church will be sensitive to times and places when it is appropriate to share their faith with those in genuine need of hearing a kindly, faith-filled word.

A healthy mainline church is much more likely to be concerned about "Great Commandment growth" (Matthew 22:36-40) than "Great Commission growth" (Matthew 28:16-20), not that the two are in conflict.  So, yes, a healthy church is one that effectively shares it faith with others and is able (as a channel of the work of the Spirit) to bring some to faith who previously were not living a life of faith.  In sum, a healthy church is a loving community (always imperfectly so, of course), which extends that love to others in ways that feel loving.  People "naturally" are attracted to such a church and become part of it.  Amen.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Measure of Church Health - Three

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy. Third on his list of questions is:
"Is the church driven by a Great Commission focus? Five times in the New Testament, Jesus expressed some form of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:45-47, John 20:21, Acts 1:8). Apparently, preaching the gospel and making disciples mattered to Jesus-and so these tasks must concern churches today. Many churches have become so inwardly focused that church is more about protecting the status quo than about reaching out beyond themselves."
Mainline folks need to take to heart Lawless' third test of a healthy church, but in doing so we also do well to adjust his language a bit.  These are not just quibbles about words, because the words convey attitudes and orientations that are foundational.  Being "driven" by a "Great Commission focus" sounds not quite correct.  What drives a church, I should think, is a focus on faith and on the Spirit.  Such a driving focus has important implications, one of which is a concern for faith-sharing.  Mainline churches have been less than inept about sharing faith with others, be it within or without the church.  They have long spent vast amounts of time talking about plans, programs, and projects but much less time talking about and sharing faith with each other and learning how to talk about and share it with others.  Lawless' observation that many churches focus mostly on themselves is entirely correct and is one of the great failings of mainline Protestantism in the United States.

At the same time, a healthy church is one that balances a number of concerns and ministries, a point I made in the introductory posting of this series (here).  The idea of being "driven by a Great Commission focus" threatens to overthrow that balance by making evangelism the core ministry around which all others revolve.  Churches that have such a dominant view of evangelism may well grow numerically, if the demographics of their locale allow such growth, but they will often find that once they bring converts into the church there is little real faith-development.  When driven by an evangelistic agenda, worship, Christian education, and all of the other ministries and components lose their own integrity.  They become tools for something else and, as these things work out, thereby lose their vital connection to the Spirit.  Bible study, for example, does not explore the depths of scripture, which can be a scary journey, but rather uses scripture to win converts by suppressing the hard questions the study of scripture poses.  The hard questions are avoided because they might "upset someone" and cause them to "lose their faith."

That being said, faith sharing is important.  How much of it a church does is a measure of that church's health.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Measure of Church Health - Two

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy. Second on his list of questions is:

"Is the church a praying church? Legitimate church growth is a gift of God, who empowers His followers and draws others unto Himself. Another danger in church consulting is that we will offer solutions that are based on our ingenuity rather than God's power. For that reason, I want to know that the church is focusing on prayer before, during, and after a consultation. In fact, I expect the church to enlist a prayer team that prays together during the length on the consult. Is your church a praying church?"

A couple of quibbles are in order.  One is the way that Dr. Lawless so easily transposes "church growth" with "church health."  Throughout the eight questions, he tries to be careful about not doing so, but he still does it—starting here, for example, with "legitimate church growth" as a gift of God when his subject is church health, not growth.  Church growth may be a measure of church health in most instances, but it is not always so.  Second, he is very focused here on his own role as a church consultant and apparently is discussing the measures of church health in that capacity.  One wonders how well these measures of church health apply outside of that context.

Quibbles aside, Dr. Lawless is correct.  Prayer is a key aspect of church health, and the spiritual discipline of prayer is generally one of the weaknesses of mainline churches.  The point here is that prayer is not about getting what one prays for and it isn't a test one has to pass to prove that they have "real" faith because they "got what they prayed for."  Prayer is about focus and orientation.  It is an aide to a life focused on God and oriented to the life of faith.  It grounds one in the Spirit—or, better, it helps one better understand and, perhaps, experience how all of life is grounded in the Spirit.  It is also not about warm fuzzy feelings of piety.  Like all spiritual disciplines, it involves patience, persistence, and repetition in the face of "nothing is happening."  "Something" is happening in much the same way that "something happens" when we eat healthfully even though on a daily basis we don't experience any particular change.

Of course, there is prayer and then there is prayer.  Like all spiritual disciplines, it can be abused by the spiritually arrogant.  There are those who boast about how much they pray and self-proclaim how God "answers" their prayers (see Matthew 6:5-6).  It can also be a thoughtless, rote thing—a habit in search of a purpose.  None of this changes the importance of prayer for our personal life of faith or for our church.  Amen.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Measure of Church Health - One

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy. First on his list of questions is:

"Is the church's teaching based on the Bible? Ultimately, a local church is a group of believers who proclaim, teach, and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. Where that gospel is not taught, something less than the New Testament church exists. An inherent danger in church consulting is that the consultant will give ideas and suggestions that will, in fact, lead to "church growth"—but the final product will focus more on growing than on being [a] church. We must guard against that possibility by reminding churches of the importance of a biblical foundation, even while we also emphasize evangelism."

It is always easy to quibble about the use of words and phrases, but it seems better to me to consider a church to be a "community of faith" rather than a "group of believers."  Churches are not simply groups, and in my lexicon of faith the word "faith" always trumps "belief."  I believe in a lot of things but what matters is those things in which I put my faith (trust).

That being said, Lawless' first measure of church health puts the Bible at the heart of church health.  He equates it with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He also ties it to the New Testament church, presumably meaning that modern-day churches are called on to be 21st century embodiments of the earliest church as described in the New Testament.  Other ways of asking this first question might be: does the church's teachings reflect the person of Christ as described in the gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament?  Or again, does the congregation reflect the key characteristics of the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament church as described in the Bible?  The point here is that the Bible is important only as a source of information concerning Christ and the foundational history of the church.  It's authority is in what it describes not what it is, and we need to treat those descriptions critically in order to be as sure as we can that the Bible does faithfully reflect the person of Christ.  And we need to be critical of what we read about the early church.  For example, Christ allowed a much larger place for women in his community of disciples than is reflected in certain New Testament passages (e.g. I Corinthians 14:34-35).  We are not constrained by the culturally driven prejudices of Roman times when those prejudices creep into scripture.  We are constrained by the love of Christ for those who are marginalized and oppressed.

If we understand that understanding the contents of the Bible is not a simple thing and amounts to more of a critical, thoughtful dialogue with the documents of scripture, then it is true that local churches as communities of faith must seek to reflect the person of Christ and the core characteristics of the people of God described for us in the Bible.  And Lawless is correct in arguing that a church's first concern must always be to be faithful to Christ as reflected in the Bible and not numerical growth or income.  It's just that we must also be careful and honest in our recognition that the Bible itself is a human document and does not perfectly reflect Christ.  It is our lot in life that we must always work at understanding and be humble and self-critical in what we think we know.  Amen.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Measure of Church Health

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy.  A healthy church thus: bases its teachings on the Bible; prays; is driven by the Great Commission; reaches non-believers; retains and disciplines new believers; is both locally and globally minded; has a strategic plan for future growth; and has a leadership committed to the church's ministry.  It has been awhile since I've done a series, and Lawless' eight diagnostic questions provide a good opportunity for one.

Before looking at each of his questions, it would be wise to consider them as a body.  No one set of standards for church health can be complete and relevant to every church to the same degree.  Nowhere in his eight measures of church health, for example, does Lawless mention the Holy Spirit.  He does not use the word, "spiritual" or mention the importance of personal spiritual development. Other than prayer and evangelism, he does not mention other central elements of local church life, notably worship and Christian education.  It is hard to imagine a health church that does not have a lively worship life or an effective CE program.  On the other hand, five of his eight measures of church health are related to evangelism.  Typical of the larger literature on church health, Lawless emphasizes the roles of church leaders but not church followers.

It is fair to say that these standards are not balanced by a complementary set of measures looking at such things as worship, CE, fellowship, social action ministries, the degree to which members (the followers) are involved in the life of the church, and any other number of other important considerations.  It is also fair to say that Lawless' eight measures of church health are worthy of consideration in their own right, and that is what I would like to do in several postings to follow.  It is simply that we have to keep in mind that even if a church meets the standards he sets it may still not be a healthy church, and if a church fails to pass his test that does not meant that it is necessarily unhealthy.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Pope Francis and Protestant "Ecclesial Communities"

Francis I kissing feet of male & female prisoners
Source: CBC News
A recent AP article carries the headline, "Pope's Foot-Washing a Final Straw for Traditionalists" and provides a laundry list of the various things Pope Francis I has done that conservative and high church liturgical Catholics find "disturbing."  Benedict XVI restored some of the pomp of the papacy including the use of rich vestments and Latin in the mass, which gave the traditionalists hope of a 21st century counter-reformation of the reforms carried out in previous papacies.  The traditionalists attribute the decline of the Catholic Church in various regions of the world to the loss of traditional practices.  Francis evidently is bringing the traditionalist counter-reformation to an end.

From a liberal, low church Protestant perspective, thus, Pope Francis has made a good start.  He wears simpler garb and deports himself in a humbler manner.  On Maundy Thursday, he kissed the feet of two women, one of whom is Muslim.  He seems interested in reaching out to Islam, which evidently is especially worrisome for the traditionalists who fear that it suggests religious "relativism."  So, this is all to the good.

One can't help but continue to wonder, however, what the new pope's simple and humble approach means in other areas of church life.  In an earlier posting (here), I raised the question of his views on homosexuality, which are evidently less enlightened.  Protestants may well wonder, moreover, if he is going to affirm or change the Catholic Church's demeaning attitude toward Protestant local congregations, which in Catholic nomenclature are "ecclesial communities."  At present the official Catholic position is that Protestant congregations are not churches because Protestants have forfeited Apostolic succession and the sacraments as understood by the Catholic Church.  Pope Benedict reaffirmed this judgment on Protestant churches in 2007 (here).  If Francis does intend to open new avenues of dialogue with Islam, will he also bring a less demeaning attitude toward other Christians as well?  One wonders.

The point is not that we Protestants attain some kind of new status by having the pope recognize our churches as churches.  Our churches are churches in any event.  The point is that by changing the Catholic stance on the status of other sisters and brothers in Christ, he would further signal his intention to use every means at his disposal to reach the world with the good news of Christ.  He would open the door to greater ecumenical cooperation in facing the challenges facing our faith in the 21st century.  He would promote greater peace, understanding, and fellowship in intra-faith relations among Christians, which can only be a good thing.  But will he?  One wonders.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

March Madness by the Numbers

The Associated Press has an interesting article (for sports fans &/or numbers nerds) on the statistics accumulated so far by the 2013 NCAA men's basketball tournament by sports writer Noah Trister, entitled, "Is This Year's NCAA Tournament Most Unpredictable?"  The answer is, "yes," and for the stats on that and other things related to the Big Dance check it out.  It's a fun article.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Empty of Any Reality

In a news posting entitled, "Gay rights opponents' last argument," Paul Waldman notes that the opponents of full civil rights for the LGBT community have seen argument after argument punctured.  All they, except for hard core fringe types,  can really say now is that they are against gay rights because gays make them uncomfortable.  Waldman points out that this argument means LGBT Americans are supposed to be deprived of their full civil rights because of the personal feelings of one certain segment of the population—this in spite of the clear mandate of the Constitution, which protects the civil rights of all citizens in all cases except treason and terrorism.

Opponents of gay rights cannot say what they actually mean.  They cannot say, "We are prejudice, and we demand that the civil rights of others are abrogated so that we can maintain our prejudice.  We don't 'like' them, and so they should not be accorded the rights we enjoy."  Waldman concludes,"At this point, that's about all opponents of gay rights have left. They don't want to sound like bigots, so they've almost stopped talking about gay people entirely. It's not you, they say, it's us. Well, they're right about that. Just maybe not in the way they think."

Waldman also notes that the whole argument sounds ridiculous, which it is because prejudice is what the word says it is, a pre-judgment not based on reality.  Holders of this prejudice hope that if they repeat it often enough, forcefully enough, and act upon it often enough, the prejudice will create the reality.  And they have been successful in the past in turning their prejudice into a reality of sorts.  Their prejudice has branded homosexuals as "immoral," driven them underground, and thrown obstacles into the forming of stable homosexual relationships, which in the fashion of circular thinking "proves" to the prejudiced that gays are immoral.  Americans have used this same kind of circular thinking against people of color, women, people with physical disabilities, people of other ethnicities, and even people living in certain locations ("hicks" comes to mind) or under certain conditions.  The problem is, of course, that real people don't fit the stereotypes of prejudice—well, sometimes they do, but not nearly often enough and not with enough consistency to give substance to the prejudice.

In addition, American holders of prejudice face another obstacle to their prejudices, which is that one sentence in the Declaration of Independence that states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  We have been too often too slow in fulfilling the vision this sentence offers us of a citizenry that is truly equal and equally enjoys the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  But, for all of that, we are working our way out of the land of prejudice and into the land our nation's founders envisioned—slowly, painfully, and inconsistently, but still headed in the right direction.

It takes serious effort, in sum, to maintain the prejudice against LGBT Americans.  It has to be held in the face of reality and in the face of our national ideals.  Prejudice is powerful, to be sure, but it is ultimately built on the shifting sands of its own inconsistency and injustice.  Amen.