Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Divine Rule of Christian Faith and Practice

I hold scripture in high regard. I believe in the inspiration of scripture by God. I do not hold as some of my brethren in Christ that God actually dictated word for word into the hearts of the prophets, Paul and others. I believe He took the opportunity to give an "aha!" moment of inspiration to people as they thought and meditated about the things of God.

Our doctrine states "We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by the inspiration of God, and that they only constitute the divne rule of Christian faith and practice." Can I get an "amen" from the congregation? I believe this to be true. I think where I might differ with some of my sisters and brothers is in the meaning of the word "rule." After all, we have the 10 commandments not the 10 suggestions.

I wonder about that word "rule" often. In our part of the body it seems we have a rule or regulation for just about everything. I know some of you are thinking,"He is never going to grow out of his adolescent rebellion." You may be right, but hear me out.

I think if we see scripture as regulation we may be missing the point. I think we need to see scripture as a narrative. As I have read some of the writings of Brian McLaren and others I see where we may have taken scripture as a "rule" in the regulation sense. This may not be what God intends for His church at this time. Our doctrine correctly states that scripture is "God-breathed" or inspired. We often stop at that point in reading the doctrine and 2Timothy 3:16. Everytime God breathes what happens? Life!!!!

The verse goes on to talk about how scripture works for our lives "teaching, rebuking (Got to love a good rebuke every now and then, especially in some Christian traditions)training etc. But why, so we can be equipped to do good works. (vs.17)

So do we see scripture as a rule book or a road map (or ruled line) to show us our place in God's story? I tend to see the latter.

For too long, we have proof-texted our way through our journey as Christians. We can even, as one gentlemen had the temerity to tell me once, prove that by calling for the death penalty in the Old Testament that God is demanding it today, which means God is pro-life. (Folks, you can't make this stuff up.) You see what I mean?

We have taken to the rule and not the guide rail or ruled line to show us where to go. And if as Paul says it is to equip us for good works, doesn't that have something to tell us about the way we are to treat our neighbors, enemies, believers, earth and even those who may hold a different view of things in life. Isn't it more about how we are to love than condemn. Sure Paul talks about rebuke and correction but taken in their context and in their language of the day it has more to do with the loving warning to rescue from danger than a smack in the head. Who was it to train and keep out of danger? I think he was writing to Christians at that time.

After all if we were to read the Bible as a rule book in its entirety we would still seal deals with our shoes, be able to kill someone who accidently caused the death of our family member, tell women to "shut up" in church and stone adulterers. Is that what Jesus taught?

Am I saying that the scripture should be twisted to say what we want? No. We have seen cults do that. What I am saying is that as the "rule" for our practice as Christians, it is a living, breathing document that we cannot even begin to comprehend as deeply as God wants us to.

Just maybe as we get more mature in faith and as a culture, we will begin to see our place in this grand narrative of God's divine plan as it is unfolding. In so doing, we will follow the "rule" (the guideline), which will help us to treat all His creation with respect, dignity and grace.

So here are the questions I am struggling with these days. Does the truth of scripture change as we go down the line or is it the application? Is our application or reading of scripture too narrow? Should we see scripture less as a instruction manual or more as a road map? Where do we fit as a church in the grand narrative of the Kingdom in light of scripture?

What do you think?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Is it God's blessing?

I had an experience today that I have had in many congregations. Interestingly, it even happens in The Army, where our congregants are often lower middle class and poor.

A well-meaning person who was receiving the offering talked about the necessity of tithing. I agree with that concept. It is scriptural. We need to realize that what we have is given in trust to us by God. It is right for us to return to Him the first fruits of our treasure, talent and time. The King deserves nothing else.

The person receiving the offering then went on to talk about "the blessing of God" being directly tied to our giving and His love for us. In other words if we want material blessing this person would contend that it is directly proportional to the amount we give to God in our tithe.

This is most commonly called "The Prosperity Gospel." Extreme blessing is poured out on those who God loves according to this doctrine. The more we give, the more we get.

I looked around at several homeless, street people this morning and others who were struggling to make ends meet and felt very sorry for them. According to what was being said, it would mean that God did not really love them because they had no money to give Him back. They were not blessed because they could not give. Fortunately, this is a congregation where people are loved no matter what their station in life. They are served well. I am glad they feel loved by the people at the corps, even if there is a subtle message sometimes given that somehow God can't bless them because they don't give money.

I also thought about those who live in third world countries and in places where the church is persecuted. These people rely on us who have more for the support they need to eat, have medicines and shelter. Many of these people love God with all of their hearts. They just happen to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time and do not experience the comfortable life I do. It does not mean that God loves them any less than He does me. In fact, I often think God may have more respect for them, because often their faith costs them dearly, while mine costs me little.

It could be argued that I should be called a "professional Christian," because I get paid for "doing the most good." I also live in the United States where the standard of living is higher than almost any place in the world. I love my country. I love living here. I believe it is a wonderful place to live, warts and all. I often wonder if we misplace our patriotism with a sense that we are God's favored. God must love the USA more, right? After all the kind of thinking prosperity Gospel brings would say that.

Why has this thinking crept into the theology of the Western Church? I do not believe it is scriptural. In fact, I believe scripture actually calls us to live simply and not store up possessions.

So the questions for today are pretty simple. Do you think that modern, Western Evangelicalism has fallen into a culture of consumerism that has helped spark this thinking? Is the West, especially America fooling itself by thinking we are more favored by God? Is the extreme patriotism often exhibited in the US a misguided way for us to think that we are more favored by God? What is real prosperity? What is Jeremiah 29:11 really talking about? For that matter, what was Malachi talking about when he indicates that God will pour out a great blessing when the tithes are brought into the storehouse? Is The Salvation Army in the United States more or less blessed than our counterparts around the world?

What do you think?

Monday, January 16, 2006

What is a young adult?

In the past 20 years or so we have been quick in the church to develop a new group of people, called young adults. In the church, particularly in the the Army, we have decided this group is between the ages of 18-35. Huh?

At 35 I was the corps officer of one of the largest corps in the territory and had a kid in middle school. Young?

The needs of this age group are so diverse that how one can think that we can lump them all together is mind-boggling. Even those who are 25 have far different needs than their 18 - 20 counterparts. What are we thinking?

Maybe we can define college-aged adults as those roughly 18-23. Even then, we can have some discussion on the wide spectrum of needs of those students.

The fact is that at 18 people are ADULTS. They can vote, buy cigarettes in most states, be tried as adults in court for crimes they commit and get shot at in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why don't we acknowledge that? Why do we think that those under 30 have a way different set of expectations? Isn't that a cop out?

Someone said to me last week that a young adult is someone in transition. I am in my 40's and have found this to be one of the most dramatic years of transition in my life. Weak argument that one.

Some would also suggest that developmental stages and a view of church as the definition of those who would be young adults. I will concede that the developmental needs of a person at 18, 20, 25 or 30 are much different than mine. Yet, the fact is that the view of the church needing reform holds traction cross-generationally.

Let me say I have a great deal of respect for emerging generations. I do believe this is where revolution in the church and revival will take place. I also believe we do a disservice to those younger than me by letting them think they are second-class, by giving them a pass, by telling them they don't really know anything because of their youth.

I think that what we have tried to do is put a package deal together. I think we are looking for a program to fix a fundamental need for the church to be overhauled. I am concerned that we are trying to address a fundamental issue, by big events and thinking that a new "contemporary service" with a rocking worship band with a projector will meet the needs of the 20 something and those who are a bit older and feel a kinship with them. Many in their 40's, 50's and 60's feel the same passion for a new kind of church

So where am I going with this? I believe the answer is not to create a generational package. For what it is worth, here is what I think.

First, the church does not need a program, but an overhaul. While not doing away with structure, there does need to be a flattening of authority. We can no longer fall prey to the thought that age and position are the sole qualifiers for leadership. Leadership keys must be released to younger generations and most go across all generational lines, even college aged individuals. This may act as a catalyst for deeper participation in the church.

Secondly, the church needs to develop relationships of intimacy and informality among generations in the church. Respect is earned when it is shared. Maybe we need in the Army to rethink the military metaphor somewhat. It may be that we need to not think of rank as reward, just a designation of training and a different type of vocational calling. This will allow for a better approachability between generations.

Third, membership may need to be rethought. Younger generations will commit to mission and to ministry, but maybe not to our style. They may not attend the worship services at our corps, but will worship. They will attend Bible fellowships, prayer and alternative worship gatherings. They will be challenged to accept our mission and will throw themselves into it.

I am sure there are more issues to be addressed. I could probably think of a million more.

So here are the questions. Is the term young adult used as an excuse by many for not allowing emerging generations take their rightful place in the church? Isn't the term a cop out for many? Do we not require college aged individuals to really fully participate because somehow we don't believe they can? Do we expect them to fit our mold of what we think they ought to do, instead of what God wants them to do? Do we need to flatten authority so that emerging generations can more fully participate in the church? How do we develop relationships of intimacy and informality in our movement?

What do you think?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Does Middle Class Mean Lukewarm?

I have yet another strange title. As a Salvation Army officer in the US I am well-treated. I have what I need. I will not get rich. I do live comfortably. I drive a decent car. My kids have attended good schools. Both have turned a good early academic grounding into scholarships which has permitted them to go to very good private universities. I am eternally grateful to The Salvation Army for the way it has provided a middle class lifestyle for me.

Over the past few years, God has really pushed me in ways as never before to look at the plight of the poor. I am only one generation removed from extreme poverty. The conditions under which my mother was raised, in the coal mining country of West Virginia, were austere at best. Both my mom and dad were born during the Great Depression. In many ways, God working through The Salvation Army saved my mother, in her late teens, from a life which could have been filled with addiction and poverty. This is her family history. With the exception of one sister, her siblings struggled with these demons throughout their lives. I am a product of generational lift.

Yet, the Booths called The Salvation Army to aggresively minister with the poor, with a sense of urgency and compassion. I believe the Booths were correct in their assesment that the issue of poverty must be addressed and alleviated before a message of salvation could be heard. They were in the thick of it and their ministry grew. Where The Army is knee deep in human suffering our ministry is exploding. Africa and parts of the Southern Hemisphere are seeing great revivals coming out of the areas of greatest desparation.

Last year, I was privileged to be part of a ministry among a hard core homeless population. My good friend who was charged with this ministry, visited these men in their homes, which were little more than hovels in entrances to great buildings or grates over a sidewalk. I engaged these men weekly, but safely. I prayed with them. I got to know their names, their birthdays and sometimes even some of the issues they had. I was blessed to see some of the success stories of rescue from addiction and poverty.

Henri Nouwen has written, "Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human." Jeremiah 22:16 equates involvement with the poor as an expression of knowing God. Isaiah 1:17 calls us to do right by defending those who cannot defend themselves. With that being said, I have been wondering if my middle class existence may somehow be something less than what God expects. I know there is nothing wrong with possessions. I know it is the extreme desire to have them that is wrong. As a Christian, am I not called to share in the sufferings of people for the sake of the Gospel? Is my middle class existence a sign of lukewarm Christianity? Too often we are not immersed in the experience of the poor. Does that mean we are not clothed in the compassion of Christ?

So here are my questions today. Does middle class comfort cause us to somehow be less than we ought to be in ministry? Are we able to be middle class and still reach the poor on a level on which they need to be reached? Is the Army fulfilling its mission if we are not first about the poor? Does this mission apply to all the Church? Can we fulfill our mandate in scripture without "full immersion in the condition of being human?" Can we write a check and still do the most good?

What do you think?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Choosing between bad and worse

This is a strange title I know. I have struggled recently with this statement since I heard a preacher tell the story of how he had advised the big brother of a small child to beat the man who had been molesting the small boy. The preacher said, "We can be all holy, but when the reality of life comes crashing around you, sometimes you need to choose between bad and worse."

I have of course abbreviated the illustration. I have been stretched by this statement, because I see us as Christians faced with this dilemma quite often. I have known good Christians who have not liked the fact that their child has decided to cohabitate with a partner, but have helped them find good shelter, instead of living in substandard housing. Other Christians have criticized this decision as "helping those two set up house." The fact is the couple had already set up house. I suggested that although the parents were opposed to the way the relationship had worked out, you sometimes had to choose between enabling and losing relationship, by being ungraceful. I used the line about "bad and worse." My friends said that is always "good and bad "and went as far as to imply that my other friends may be sinning because of the way they were enabling an "elicit relationship." I thought about the story of the prodigal son and how that might apply.

Are there other situations where it might apply? I am opposed to war. Some would suggest that our invasion of Iraq saved thousands of lives, because of the brutality of the regime of Sadaam Hussein. Is that choosing between bad and worse? I am not against our troops, anti-military or unpatriotic. I am wondering if bad and worse rationale applies.

Where do we fall on these questions and others as Christians? Are there really bad and worse scenarios or is that a cop out? Is it always good and bad? I am struggling with this myself. Did that preacher have a point about this? Was it just rhetoric and an easy way out on his part?

What do you think?

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Dressed Up?

I heard a good message this morning based on Isaiah's writings in Isaiah 61 and 62. Isaiah describes not only the the coming of the Messiah in his writings, but also prophesies about the look of the church in the new dispensation of grace. In particular, the preacher exhorted the congregation to allow Christ to dress us for our daily lives. He illustrated the whole issue by describing how brides make themselves beautiful for their husbands, but also for those gathered for the wedding, so that all would know how much love they have for the husband. The bride wants the world to see how special the relationship is for her. She longs for others to have this joy in their lives.

Although not a perfect illustration the impact remained. The Lord dresses us in grace so that we will be beautiful for Him and for the world to see how special this a grace relationship is with God.

I have seen some beautiful brides. We just had a wedding in our family. We have a picture in our house of the bride and groom. Both were and are beautiful.

I have seen some great weddings where the bride looks beautiful. Then at the reception, I have seen some incidents happen when the bridal gown gets soiled and stained. The bride gets embarrassed and the bloom sort of comes of the rose of the wedding. I have seen some really ugly scenes ensue. After all, the bride does not want the dress ruined. Often she is so hung up on the dress and wanting things to go perfectly that she forgets the joy of the wedding and why she got married.

The point is that grace saves us and cleans us up, but walking in the reception of world often leaves marks on our beautiful clothes God gives. Often those in the church really worry about their appearance and lose sight of not only Who dresses us, but why we dress for the occasion.

I think this illustrates a difference often between God wants from us and what we see as important and what will be attractive to the world. God sees the relationship and the shine that He brings as the thing that will attract people to Him. We often see our priorities and behavior as the important thing.

As we face this New Year my prayer is that the Church would be arrayed in the right clothing. Humility and grace are beautiful to be clothed in. I am concerned that in a holiness tradition, we concentrate too much on our part in this process and not always on God's part. We also tend to want other brides to dress like us.

The beauty of all the weddings I have been to is that every bride is unique and beautiful in her own way. Each has a unique relationship to their groom. So here is the question I have today, do we as Christians and salvationists in the holiness tradition expect too much by asking people to live by our standards? For example, should we be critical of those who are comfortable with behaviors we covenant not to do, such as drinking or using a word or phrase we might consider as coarse? Are we legalists to expect that everyone will agree with our standard of Christianity? Are God's standards of righteous and holiness different in their manifestation in different Christians just as different brides are dressed in different gowns, but still beautiful for their intended? Or are we too proud of our own style of bridal gown?

What do you think?