How We Talk to Ourselves about the Church

There’s a narrative about the history and even the present day circumstance of the Church.  The history narrative goes something like this; in the beginning the Church was birthed in power at Pentecost, the disciples all lived together in love and unity, miracles abounded, the gifts of the Holy Spirit were common everyday occurrences and despite persecution, the Church grew, flourished and spread like wildfire.  But somewhere along the way, (oftentimes this part of the story centers around when Constantine made Christianity a tolerated religion within the Roman Empire and later gave it favored status), the Church became compromised with earthly power, grew corrupt, formalized, hierarchical and lacked the power of the Holy Spirit.  It replaced the work of the Spirit with rules, liturgical rites and official positions.  Depending on who’s telling the story, things remained bad (with occasional flickers of hope) until either Martin Luther popped up with the real gospel of grace through faith, the Wesleyan revival reintroduced social justice back into the church or the Holy Spirit dramatically reappeared at Asuza Street.  There are other ways the story is told, but the same basic arc is there every time.  The original glory of the Church, the “fall” into sin, darkness and corruption and the recovery of the true gospel leading us into our present state.  The bad guys in the narrative are sometimes particular people or institutions (Constantine, the Roman Catholic Church, or particular Popes or denominational leaders, depending on when and where the story is being told), sometimes it’s ideas or social realities that are the villains (patriarchy, colonialism, empire, racism, capitalism, anti-Semitism) that to use a phrase popularized by Martin Luther, led to the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church”.  But always there’s the thought that if we can just recover the original state of the Church, before it was tamed, institutionalized, corrupted and co-opted, we will see revival and restoration.  This same language is often used when describing the current landscape of the Church.  There’s always a “them” and “us”.  It’s either those darn liberals who’ve compromised the gospel with the world and stripped the gospel of it’s power or those pharisaical conservatives who value doctrine above people and turn non-believers off with their meanness.  The way we talk about the Church, either in history or in the present, always divides the world into the good guys and the bad guys, those who get it and those who don’t.  What if this is fundamentally wrong?

Let us start by taking a different look at history.  The story of the early Church is truly amazing.  Within a generation of the birth of the Church at Pentecost, the gospel had truly spread throughout much of the world.  From Jerusalem, by the end of the first century there is credible evidence of the Christian faith throughout the Roman Empire, reaching even to present day Spain and Great Britain.  Churches existed in North Africa, the Persian Empire (including present day Iran/Iraq and parts of Afghanistan) and even South India.  Within a few centuries, the Church was in Russia, Eastern and Western Europe, Mongolia and the western parts of present day China.  But it’s evident in even reading the New Testament that things weren’t always perfect.  Within a few chapters in Acts, we find a married couple dropping dead in the presence of the apostles after trying to lie about money.  Soon afterwards there is great controversy over the distribution of food to widows and how to deal with Gentiles and Jews in the same body.  If you read the letters of Paul, it’s obvious that he was dealing with problems of immorality, division, false leadership, money and gender issues within decades of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  In the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation, there are harsh messages given to churches in particular locations for unfaithfulness, complacency and false teaching.  It seems that from the very beginning, the Church struggled with very human problems.  On the other hand, during times where the Church was supposedly corrupt, powerless and compromised, there are always stories of God’s amazing work.  In “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” by the Venerable Bede, a work that covers much of the fifth, sixth, seventh centuries of the Church in England, miracle stories abound as various tribes and groups are evangelized by a variety of leaders.  Historical literature of the Church in Western and Eastern Europe during this and later time periods also contain many of the same types of stories.  Later stories of revivals under figures like Martin Luther, John Wesley and the leaders at Asuza Street also contain stories of great victories and agonizingly human failures.  Perhaps the reality of the history of the Church is much more complicated than a simple broad narrative can contain.  When we talk about the Church, maybe we should understand that the Church has always been amazing and human, victorious and corrupt, compromised and overcoming.  The Church has always been diverse, multi-ethnic, global, structured and free.  It’s always been amazing and it’s always been a mess.

It’s no different today.  One doesn’t have to look to hard to find stories of amazing victory and miraculous love in the Church.  Unfortunately, one doesn’t have to look any harder to find stories of abuse, unfaithfulness, power-grabbing and deception.  But the way we tell these stories to ourselves and each other, just like the way we talk about history, is incredibly important.  When we oversimplify these narratives and easily divide the story into good guys and bad guys, we do ourselves a disservice.  There genuinely are heroes and villains in Church history and even today.  But more often than not, the line between the heroes and villains, like Solzhenitsyen reminds us, runs within us, not out there somewhere.  Those who prefer to tell the narrative in simple ways more often than not do so for self-serving reasons.  They do so to point the finger and identify the villains “out there” or to identify themselves as the true heroes and reformers in the story (or both).  But why do we talk about history in the first place?  Is it not to learn?  Is it not to allow the voices of the past to inform us so that we can learn from their examples (both the good an the bad)?  When we celebrate the victories of the Church or agonize over it’s failures, is it not to allow God to change us to be more like Jesus?

How we talk to ourselves about the Church matters.  The Church is a lot like each of us.  A glorious, flawed mess that has within it the capacity to reflect the glory of God like no other.  Let’s be honest with ourselves and each other when we talk about the Church.  Let’s walk away from the simplistic narratives and take a hard look within.  Let’s not use the past as a cudgel to bludgeon those who differ from us.  But let’s spend time thinking about what God might want to say to us.  God’s task for the Church isn’t to recover some imagined past when everything was perfect, but to allow Him to fill us today and serve our generation faithfully.  Anything else beyond that is merely self-serving and virtue signaling.

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Resources for Praying the Psalms

This is going to be a fairly short post.  It’s mainly a set of links for ways to get started in praying the Psalms.  It’s a mishmash of books, websites and studies.  Here you go.

The Daily Prayer site (Morning, Evening and Night Prayer) at the Church of England’s website – I use this regularly.

https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/join-us-in-daily-prayer

The Psalter at the Book of Common Prayer online

https://www.bcponline.org/Psalter/the_psalter.html

The Daily Office from The Mission of St Clare

http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html

“Praying with the Church” by Scot McKnight

“The Divine Hours” by Phyllis Tickle

“Reflections on the Psalms” by C.S. Lewis

“In Constant Prayer” by Robert Benson

“Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The best way to get started in my opinion is to pick a resource and go with it.  Over time this you will discover what works best for you.  The key to praying the Psalms is simply consistency.  Let the language seep deep into you being and the words themselves will began to change the way you pray and think.   Enjoy the adventure of Praying the Psalms.

 

 

 

 

Walking a Mile in Different Shoes

I have been thinking about an interesting phenomenon that I have experienced over the past few years.  Some of the my friends that I have known for awhile and quite a few that are newer friends were raised or came of age in environments that were very conservative politically and theologically. These environments actively discouraged any sort of questioning of what were considered the “correct” views.  As time went by, many of them had questioned and modified some of their theological and political views and had experienced both a sense of relief and freedom and also a degree of pushback and even ostracism from previous relationships as they went through this journey.  I frankly felt a sense of disconnect with their experiences as I heard of them.  Over time I came to understand that the disconnect I felt was that my own experience had been quite different.  I wasn’t raised in a theologically or politically conservative environment.  I was raised in a mainline protestant church until I was 16 that didn’t really leave much of a mark on my thinking one way or another and in a household that fairly apolitical – we didn’t really talk about politics at all.  In fact, my ruling philosophical outlook (such as it was) that had begun to emerge in my early adolescence was a strange mixture of hedonism (of the sex, drugs and rock & roll variety), generic Reaganism (for some reason I really liked Ronald Reagan and felt a vague, but strong sense of patriotism) and love of fantasy and science fiction.  Then I experienced a radical conversion to Christ at the age of 16 in, of all places, a charismatic United Methodist Church that carried with it very strong social and political conservatism.  From late adolescence to my mid-20s I pretty much accepted the entire thinking framework I received, theologically and politically but didn’t really live in any sort of culture warrior mode.  I went to school at Christ for the Nations, Tarrant County College and Howard Payne University (a Texas Baptist school that was quite orthodox theologically, but not necessarily conservative politically – actually pretty centrist).  I learned and thought through many things a bit at a time, but never in a comprehensive way and always in a very nurturing environment.  Questioning wasn’t discouraged by my parents or teachers or pastors – but honestly my questioning was fairly limited.

Then I went to seminary at Brite Divinity School at TCU and was beginning the process of candidacy for ordination in the United Methodist Church and for the first time felt a significant challenge to my theological (and by extension my political) viewpoints.  This was disorienting for me and in many ways quite scary.  I saw viewpoints that I held characterized as either out of touch or inadequate in some settings and downright dangerous and bigoted in others.  Viewpoints that I held as pretty uncontroversial were portrayed as controversial and those that I knew were controversial (such as being unequivocally pro-life in regards to abortion) were portrayed as ugly and hateful.  These challenges were generally done not a confrontational or threatening way – but in a philosophical and academic way.  I didn’t consider myself to be persecuted and didn’t suffer academic or professional harm (my grades were quite good and I sailed through the ordination process).  But I was viewed with suspicion or disregard by a not insignificant portion of my professors and denominational supervision and this was a new experience for me.  I think I stewarded the experience fairly well.  I didn’t become angry or reactionary but I do think I became wiser in the process.  I did change the way I thought about certain issues but as a whole I came through the experience relatively unchanged in the sense that I remained (and remain) theologically conservative (by that I mean holding to historic Christian orthodoxy) and politically conservative (although much more critical of the Republican Party and American politics in general and much more aware of where ideas come from and what they mean).  I did shed a good deal of legalistic baggage and have a much deeper understanding of the grace of God – but that was less because of a philosophical change and much more because of life experience and experiencing God’s love more deeply.

So back to the original thought.  When I sense a disconnect in what other people have experienced, the best response is not to discount their experience or compare it to my own.  It’s to let their journey be their journey and let my own be my own.  I can benefit from what they have experienced and learned along the way and hopefully they can benefit from mine as well.  But the bottom line on any of our journeys is this.  Is this bringing me closer to Christ?  Am I better positioned now to receive God’s love and grace for myself and to share that with others?  A corollary to this (and a good indicator of whether or not I am better positioned to be a good receiver and sharer) would be am I now more charitable in my dealings with others who think differently than I do.  Have I made peace with the baggage of my past without giving into bitterness?  Am I free to walk away from any relationships that were a part of that past that are toxic without guilt and hate?  And am I comfortable in my own skin – regardless of where I am now in the journey?

I have loved hearing the journeys of my friends as they wrestle with the good, the bad and the ugly of where they come from and I hope that I can be an encouragement to each of you along the way.

Learning to Love

I married late.  I was 34 years old (soon to be 35) when I married nearly 12 years ago.  This wasn’t entirely my choice as I certainly desired to get married before that age.  But I am truly glad things turned out the way that they did.  I get to share my life with Bonnie and that was worth the wait.  So although I have no regrets about how my path to matrimony unfolded, there are certainly lessons that I have began to learn in married life that I wish I would have learned earlier.

Last year The National Marriage Project released a report entitled “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America” , looking at (among other things) the fact that the average age of marriage has trended up significantly over the last few decades.  In general, people are waiting longer to get married.  There are certainly many factors involved in this trend and this blog post isn’t an attempt to analyze all of these factors or even to endorse the report or any of it’s conclusions.  But one observation did stand out to me in the report.  It is the tendency within American society to increasingly view marriage, not as a “cornerstone” event in one’s life, but as a “capstone” event.  What does that mean?  Simply put, it means that for many people in our society, marriage is not looked at as something that is done as a part of launching one into adulthood with parenting, building a house and other aspects of one’s adult life to follow, but as something one does once all other ducks are in a row (finishing one’s education, getting one’s career established, a degree of financial stability and independence, etc.).  This observation could drive all sorts of other discussion but one thing occurs to me most prominently when thinking through this.  What an odd way to look at marriage.

Think about it.  One certainly wants to be prepared for marriage in the sense of having a certain amount of maturity, having some prospects for making a living and at least a vague idea of what the desired future might look like.  But the truth is that even though I was in my mid-thirties when I finally tied the knot (to the relief of my parents and my friends), I had no idea what I was getting into.  By that, I mean that my understanding of what a husband’s love was truly all about was woefully incomplete.  In almost 12 years, I think that I just might be starting to gain a clue.  In Ephesians 5, the Bible explicitly compares the love of a husband for his wife to the love of Christ for His Church.  Good luck with that if it’s something that I have to come up with out of my own resources.  It’s humbling to say the least.  But being married to Bonnie has been an incredible journey in learning how to love.  Those lessons have come from all sorts of places (my wife, my parents, my children, friends, books, sermons the list could go on and on) but mostly from the experience of living it out day by day with the constant loving presence of the Holy Spirit living in me and in Bonnie.  Before I got married, I did think of marriage is some sort of destination – a goal to be accomplished (and for all too long in my life, something that seemed out of reach).  And getting married was certainly for me an occasion of great joy – one of the greatest events in my life.  But I do wish that I would have understood back then that the journey is way better than the destination.  I wish that I would have understood that nothing is wasted in God’s economy and that every moment of my life leading up to that event and since that event are part of the same journey.  That journey is a drama where God’s love is the central reality and the love that Bonnie and I share with one another has its truest meaning in its revolution around that reality.  Marriage isn’t an arrival.  It is a vocation.  And by that I don’t mean a job (although work is involved).  I mean that it is a calling, an integral part in the purpose God has for many, many lives.  I was complete in Jesus Christ before I married Bonnie.  But without her, my calling in Him could never be complete.

I am learning to love.  God is my Teacher.  Marriage is one of my primary classrooms.  Bonnie is my lab partner – or should I say dance partner (ironic for a guy who really can’t dance, huh)?  Who ever knew that learning could be so much fun?

Delighting in Honor

This past week my wife and I attended my company’s annual party.  It was a the House of Blues in Dallas and was an all around blast.  But what I enjoyed the most might be surprising.  We haven’t attended the company party in a couple of years and there are several friends that I work with who haven’t seen my wife in quite some time.  The universal reaction to her can be summed up in the words, “you look great!”.  I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.  She does look great and I tell her that often.  But it was great to hear other people compliment my wife.  I loved watching Bonnie’s face when she was repeatedly praised.  There was a look of slight bewilderment mingled with a wide smile.  Bonnie is not a vain person who angles or manipulates to receive compliments or praise but like all of us she does like to be appreciated and noticed.  As her husband, however, there was no bewilderment on my face.  I loved hearing others vocalizing the sentiment that is in my heart.  Bonnie is beautiful, inside and out.  She works hard to stay in shape and eat right and that does show up in her appearance (and in her sculpted arms which were highlighted by her pretty dress).  But that appearance only accentuates the beauty that permeates her entire being.  It is a beauty that more than anything else is the result of a heart that is reflective of the great love of God.  And I am delighted when others notice and give her honor.

I think that may be because I have begun to learn that represents the heart of God toward His own Beloved, which is you and I.  It delights the heart of God to see ones He loves be honored.  When we notice the beauty in others and call attention to it, it doesn’t just please the person receiving the compliment, it delights the heart of God.  When we relate to one another in a way that reflects the heart of God, honoring others and delighting in the honor of others becomes normal.  How would our relationships change if we really grabbed hold of this?  What would the dynamics look like if we looked for ways to give honor to others and delighted in the giving and receiving of honor?  I think it would be wonderful.  It would treat mistakes and disappointments differently, to be sure.  It would soften the hard shell that I find myself walking around with from time to time for self-protection.

More than this, what if we grabbed hold of the idea that this is the heart of God toward us?  Would it change the way we approach God?  Would we hesitate to come to God when we screw up?  Or would we run all the more quickly to God knowing that His presence is the perfect place for our screw ups to be sorted out?  I am so grateful this is the heart of God for His people.  And that as we grab hold of it, it can become more and more of our heart toward ourselves and others as well.

Remembering

A great deal of life in Christ depends upon remembering.  Over and over throughout Scripture, God’s people are commanded to “remember the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8:18 among many).  The central act in Christian Worship, the Eucharist, is commanded to be done “in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19).  One of the vital ministries of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian is to “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26)  There is something vital to living that requires active memory of what God has done for us.  We are required to remember His words, His actions, His sacrifice.  Forgetting is equated in many places to disobedience, to idolatry, to disloyalty and faithlessness.  Why is remembering so important and why do we find it so difficult to keep top of mind the words and actions of our God?

A passage in the Narnian novel, “The Silver Chair” by C.S. Lewis gives an interesting perspective to this reality.  Aslan, the Christ-like Lion has given a task to Jill Pole, who along with Eustace Scrubb are tasked with the rescue of the lost Prince Rilian.  Jill has received very specific instructions (“signs”) that are crucial to the fulfilling of the mission.  After she has repeated and learned the signs, Aslan emphasizes their importance to her.

“But first, remember, remember, remember the signs.  Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night.  And whenever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs.  And secondly, I give you a warning.  Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly;  I will not often do so down in Narnia.  Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken.  Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.  And the signs which you have learned will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there.  That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances.  Remember the signs and believe the signs.  Nothing else matters.”

The air certainly is thicker here.  And our minds can certainly become confused.  And most of all, things are very rarely what they appear to be.  A great deal of the reason that remembering is so important is that the confusion of life alters our perception of reality.  We need fixed points to anchor our soul onto to maintain equilibrium.  And the ultimate reality is the reality of God’s words and God’s actions.  Our identity, our destiny and our course in daily life are shaped by this ultimate reality and our response to that reality.  Calling to mind, remembering, saying to ourselves over and over the “signs” of God’s goodness is perhaps the primary task we have in growing in Christ.  We don’t produce that growth on our own, but we certainly cultivate the ground for growth with our remembrance.  There are no shortage of other words, other signs or other appearances to provide us alternative narratives from which to live.  But all of these are skewed and in the final analysis, damaging or incomplete.  Remembering is a choice.  It is a discipline.  It is a way of life.  What will you remember today?  Forget what needs forgetting and remember what is most important to remember.  God’s thoughts, words and actions toward you are what is most worth remembering.

Moral Imagination

Exactly how do we teach right and wrong to children born under the influence of sin?  Is it by behavior modification, the right balance of sticks and carrots to nudge them toward what is good?  Do we teach them ethical values as a series of rules that govern human life?  In today’s society for most parents most of the time, that describes almost the entirety of the teaching of right and wrong.  In light of Scripture and human history, it’s also perhaps the worst way possible.  The Scripture teaches that human beings are not in need of reformation, but transformation.  We don’t need the right information communicated to us in the correct way.  We need a new heart and a new mind.  But how does this happen?  We become what we behold.  One of the greatest Scriptural statements of this reality is found in 2nd Corinthians 3:18 (see below).

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.  And this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” ESV

The Apostle Paul also refers to this in Ephesians 1 as, “having the eyes of your heart enlightened”.  Jesus used the picture of a different sense, “those with ears to hear”.  God gives people a faculty to apprehend spiritual truth that changes us for the better

Another way that we learn right and wrong is by story.  Societies throughout history saw storytelling as a primary means of teaching children virtue.  The word virtue (as opposed to modern term “values”) refers to the character of full humanity, the development of men and women as they were intended to be.  It contains the idea that people have a purpose, a place in the world that is uniquely theirs to fulfill, a station in life that in some sense is assigned to them.  This does not diminish the idea of human freedom, but disabuses of the idea of some autonomous moral agent, responsible only to be “true to oneself”.  Right and wrong is not just about the individual, but about community and one’s relationship to God.  Stories illustrate life in a way that appeal to the faculty for spiritual truth.  They give children a grid that makes moral choices make sense.  The contemporary philosopher Alasdair Maclntyre puts it this way.

“It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance…, that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words” (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd Edition Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p.216)

A final way is in the example we as parents set.  Children learn by watching the way others act.  We give them cues whether we intend to or not.  Is there a place for rules and principles?  Of course, but they are nowhere near sufficient.  We teach our children best by facilitating opportunities for them to behold God’s glory and experience His presence.  We teach them by telling them stories that fire their imagination with struggles of good and evil, heroism and betrayal, redemption and rescue.  We teach them by living out right and wrong in front of their eyes.  This does more good than lectures and rules, rewards and punishments.  Our children are not a mere set of behaviors to modify, but men and women in the making, ready to be drawn into the great adventure of living.